by Nick Montesano
It goes like this. I am blessed to visit Italy nearly every spring. I am not sure if this will make sense, but it sometimes is a physical pain yearning to return. If you have stood near the top of Mount Etna in Sicily and smelled the sulfur, if you have eaten a plate of 12 grilled and salted fishes you couldn’t identify over the water of the Marina Piccolo in Sorrento, if you have strolled between the multi-colored houses on the tiny island of Burano in Venice, if you have eaten cappuccino gelato sitting on the steps of the fountain facing the Pantheon in Rome, if you have looked over the spires of the cathedral in Milan from its rooftop, then you have some idea of that yearning.
Every return to Italy is a new discovery. Knowing this past spring would bring us to Florence again, I couldn’t help but think … who doesn’t want to eat all of that Tuscan goodness … no, wait, what I thought was … who doesn’t want to cook all of that Tuscan goodness?
With Google as my guide, I had a remarkably easy time finding the Good Tastes of Tuscany Cooking School, located in the Villa Pandolfini in a small town called Signa, just outside of Florence. Let’s see … pay the fee … they send a bus to a central meeting place in the city and whisk you away … to five hours of cooking, followed by lunch made by your class with your chef-instructor and a tour of the villa.
Arriving at the villa kitchen, we were greeted by Chef Simone Biancalani, ready with espresso and almond cookies to begin the day. On tap for us to learn to cook: homemade tagliatelle with pesto, tiramisu, chicken with olives, focaccia with walnuts, and roasted herbed potatoes. Hmmmm … I didn’t immediately think that was an exciting menu. I mean, I cook. Often and well. So what was to learn?
To learn was …
how to cook the simplest of recipes in the simplest of ways.
The cooking started with the picking of the basil leaves to bathe them for the pesto.
The tiramisu was next on the task list. It needed time to set. Simone demonstrated all aspects of the creation of the mascarpone-and-egg filling, then sent us each off to layer the cookies dipped in espresso-with-Vin-Santo with the filling. His two secrets … use only a little bit of Vin Santo and don’t use lady fingers; instead, find the dried cookies known as ‘pavesini’ or ‘cats’ tongues’. Find one and you will understand why they are called so.
Next up, we made the foccacia dough … that, for me, was somewhat a new experience. Yeast and flour and kneading are not normally in my cooking vocabulary, but it was great to try. Having the oiled dough in your hands, kneading it throughout the morning, setting it aside for the appropriate risings, and finally baking it was remarkably easy and very simply tasty.
Not done with the kneading yet, we set out to make the homemade pasta. Flour was mounded with a well filled with eggs to create the pasta dough, and Simone guided us through finding the correct dryness and color for the dough. It is truly an art to be able to feel when it is ready to set a bit before using the cutting machine. We even added some tomato paste to some of the dough to flavor it.
Next, we took a break from the pasta making to have the pesto demonstrated. Not much different here from your basic pesto, but I learned two important points: 1) when processing the ingredients for the pesto, the basil should be added last to insure less bruising of the herb; and 2) never toast the pignoli nuts because they will make the pesto bitter. Also, the addition of lemon keeps the herb green.
We then peeled and chopped potatoes, and onions and fresh herbs to be roasted with the potatoes — the best potatoes I have eaten this or that side of Ireland. (No potatoes compare to those I ate in Ireland … another culinary story.) The secrets here? The potatoes are roasted in a very hot oven with garlic still in its paper. Once the potatoes are done roasting, squeeze the garlic out of the paper and toss it with the potatoes for a sweetness you don’t expect.
Pasta rolling and cutting … guess what, my dough was still too wet and got caught in the cutting blades and needed to be kneaded again with more flour before I could successfully cut it.
Chicken with olives (Etruscan Chicken) seemed simple enough with sautéed onions and wine, olives, and fresh herbs. But, the secret: Use chicken thighs with the skin taken off of half of them. This maintains the amount of chicken taste that comes with the caramelized skin while cutting down on the fat content a bit. I actually make this dish quite often.
We boiled the pasta (Simone says the pasta water needs to have enough salt to make it “like the sea”) and added the cold pesto to the warm pasta. We sat together as a class to celebrate and break bread (well, focaccia) together, eating the pasta, the chicken with olives, and the roasted potatoes, and finally the tiramisu … all accompanied by wine made on the grounds of the villa.
Might I mention for a moment that before arriving at the class, I was a little skeptical about sharing the class with people I didn’t know. What I discovered was a group of like-minded, experience-seeking people who made the day as interesting as the cooking. If I had trusted the universe, why would I expect other than to love people who would take cooking classes in Tuscany?
It looks like our spring trip next year will once again take us to Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast. So, help me … I have found a “learn to make fresh mozzarella” class and a class “to make traditional Neapolitan Pizza.” Any suggestions?
I hope to return to this blog soon.
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1 tablespoon vinegar
8 chicken thighs
4 ounces black olives
1 red onion
fresh rosemary and sage
1 cup of white wine
¼ cup pignoli nuts
¼ cup raisins
salt and pepper
Place the chicken thighs in a bowl of water with the vinegar. Put 6 tablespoons of olive oil and finely chopped onion in a large, unheated frying pan. Place over medium heat and allow the onions to sauté for about 10 minutes.
Drain the chicken and add it to the pan. When the chicken is browned on both sides, add salt and pepper to taste and the white wine. Cook slowly for about 20 minutes, covered.
Add the pignoli nuts and the raisins and stir.
Cover again and allow to simmer together for 10 minutes more.
Before removing from the heat, add the olives, sage, and rosemary, all finely chopped.
Let the dish sit for 20 minutes and serve!