Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Italian with Mario

I started today's lesson with a personal story, which seems to be an effective way to start a class -- seems simple, why didn't I figure this out sooner? A few years ago I was visiting an old friend outside of London, England, where she took me to her best friend's house for dinner. The friend made a lasagna "from scratch". It certainly looked like a normal lasagna. When I cut a piece off with a fork (felt right), I placed the bite in my mouth and tasted...nothing. At all. I was not sick or stuffed up, but I took a paper napkin and quickly blew my nose to make sure it was clear -- the only time I ever had an experience like this was when my nose is stuffed, preventing nerve ending in the nasal cavity from detecting taste. Nope, the lasagna tasted like nothing.

I politely said it was great, and helped clean up. At this point I was able to do some detective work. Premade sauce from a jar. No-fat diet ricotta cheese. Pre-cooked lasagna pasta sheets from the refrigerator section. No-fat diet mozzarella cheese. Dried herbs, probably been sitting in a jar for years in her spice rack. No sign of salt or olive oil. Wow. That pretty much explains it.

Today, we would make an Italian baked pasta dish, truly from scratch. But to make something like a Baked Ziti, you don't just go and buy the components, some of them you should make... particularly the bescamela sauce, the bread crumbs and, of course the tomato sauce....


Yield: about 5 cups
Butter ½ cup
AP flour ½ cup
Whole milk 1 quart + ½ cup
Salt 1 tbsp
Nutmeg, freshly grated 1 tsp
  1. In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the flour and stir until smooth. Cook, stirring until light golden brown 6 to 7 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, in another saucepan, heat the milk to just under a boil. Add the milk to the butter mixture about 1 cup at time, whisking constantly until very smooth, and bring to a boil, whisking. Cook, whisking, until thickened, about 10 minutes; remove from the heat.
  3. Season with the salt and nutmeg. Transfer to a bowl and let cool, then cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

Yield: 8 cups
EVOO ½ cup
Onion, small dice 2 large onion
Garlic, minced 8 cloves
Thyme, chopped ¼ cup
Oregano, chopped ¼ cup
Carrot, grated 2 each
Basil, chiffonade ¼ cup
Whole peeled tomatoes, milled Four 28oz cans
Salt to taste
  1. Heat olive oil in saucepan. Soften onion, then add garlic for 1 additional minute.
  2. Add thyme, oregano and carrot and cook until carrot is soft, about five minutes
  3. Add tomatoes and basil. Simmer until thickened, about 30 minutes.

Yield: about 4 cups
Italian bread, thickly sliced 1 loaf, fresh
  1. Place bread slices on a sheet into a cold oven. Heat to 200˚
  2. Remove when bread is dry but not too browned. Place in a food processor and pulse until only crumbs remain – not too chunky, but not a fine powder, either.

I had three teams of two bang out these three, and as they finished, I had them work on the other components of the ziti -- pasta that is undercooked then chilled fast, grate the cheese (NOT pregrated, of course) and good imported buffala moz chopped into cubes.


Yield: 8 servings
Ziti 2 lb
Tomato Sauce 4 cups
Besciamella 4 cups
Buffalo mozzarella 2 lbs
Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated 1 cup
Bread crumbs, fresh 1 cup
  1. Preheat oven to 425˚.
  2. Bring 3 gallons of water to a oil in a large pot, and add 2 tablespoons of salt. Cook the ziti for 2 minutes short of the package instructions; it should be too al dente to eat. Drain and rinse under cold water until cool. Drain a second time and place in a large bowl.
  3. Add the tomato sauce, besciamella, mozzarella and Parmigiano to the ziti and stir to mix well. Sprinkle with the bread crumbs.
  4. Bake for 20 minutes, until bubbling and crusty on top. Serve immediately.
When all six components were laid out in front of us in mise bowls, I called the students over and gave a short lecture about Italian cooking. These six ingredients -- pasta, tomato sauce, cheeses, white sauce and bread crumbs -- are all not only simple common things, but used in thousands of configurations to make hundreds of different regional styles. Italy has literally had thousands of years to develop their cuisine, while being limited to a relatively small group of ingredients. Pasta alone, there are hundreds of shapes that grab sauce in particular ways, changing the taste, texture and experience of a dish. Angel hair pasta in tomato sauce can have the same exact ingredients as spirals in tomato sauce, but will be quite a different dish.

And then we got all Grandma with it and mixed everything together, topped with crumbs and slammed in the oven.

Last weeks, one of the kids requested fried shrimp, and pretty much every cuisine will have a version, and here is an Italian one...


Yield: 6 servings
EVOO Enough for deep frying
Large shrimp, cleaned 3 lbs
Lemons, 1/8” slices 2 each
Cornstarch 2 cups
Wondra flour 2 cups
Salt to taste
Black pepper to taste
Lemons, wedges 2 each
  1. Set up deep saucepan with fryer basket. Heat oil over medium heat to 375˚.
  2. Place shrimp in a bowl. In another bowl, combine flour and cornstarch.
  3. Combine half the shrimp, half the lemon slices and half the flour mixture in a 3rd bowl. Toss quickly with hands to coat, then toss in a colander and bat against your hand to remove excess flour mixture.
  4. Place coated shrimp and lemons in fryer basket and gently lower into hot oil. Cook until golden brown and crisp, 1 ½ to 2 minutes. Transfer to a drying rack to drain.
  5. Once oil returns to 375˚,immediately repeat with remaining shrimp and lemon slices.
  6. Season with salt and pepper, serve with lemon wedges and tomato sauce for dipping.
The kids were a bit freaked out by the deep fried lemon slices, they didn't like the pale color of the final product or the lack of crunch, BUT they liked it anyway. They're used to the fried shrimp out of the Chinese takeaways, but appreciated this different spin.


Yield: 6 servings
EVOO 3 oz
Garlic, sliced 4 cloves
Broccoli, cut into spears 3 lb
Frascati or other dry white wine 1 cup
Hot red pepper flakes 1 tbsp
Lemon zest 1 each
Orange zest 1 each
  1. In a large sauté pan, heat olive oil with garlic over medium heat until just sizzling.
  2. Add broccoli and cook, tossing frequently and gradually add the wine to keep the garlic from browning, until stalks are tender, 8 to 10 minutes.
  3. Add red pepper flakes and zests, tossing well.
I was impressed by this recipe, but I had never made it before, and unsurprisingly the kids didn't dig it. Redolent of wine and fruit without being sweet, the broccoli was tender but crisp, and nice spicy kick that made the wine and fruit flavors pop.

As I was doing the final cleanup after the students ate and left, I found this copy of the recipes, from a student who I assumed was not paying attention, because she stared at her sheet and doodled through my entire lecture. As it turns out, she was taking notes AND drawing little hearts!