Saturday, May 28, 2011

l'avventura in Italia: cooking class

I recall my Italian cooking class in Venice almost like part of a dream. It wasn't so long ago, yet already seems quite distant with weeks of work and normal life separating me from the adventure that was Italy. I took some notes only to later misplace them (I know they are in my apartment somewhere, and yet no amount of looking in likely places has revealed them; certainly I'll come upon the folded piece of paper shortly after I publish this post). Which means I must put my faith in my memory (a scary thing) and photographs to attempt to recreate the magical evening in words for you now.

After walking through the narrow streets and across the many canals of Venice, I arrived in the evening to a modern loft and an amazing spread: italian meats and cheeses, a wonderfully salty roe spread and crisp pane to enjoy it on, freshly baked frittata. This was enjoyed while beginning to learn about the art of wine pairing. The "class" was one other person (a friendly fellow foodie originally from the midwestern US) plus myself, the sommelier, and Enrica, our lively instructor.

The evening was less filled with the labor of cooking than I had anticipated, with much more emphasis on the enjoyment of eating and drinking than on the preparation of food itself. Still, I learned some valuable food lessons along the way.

There were two dishes we were to make to accompany the food that Enrica had already prepared: risi e bisi (literally rice and peas; our version was a fresh spring pea risotto) and chicken cacciatore. The latter involved cutting up a whole chicken, which sounded overly ambitious for someone who spent a decade as a vegetarian and rarely cooks meat, so I settled on the tamer adventure of risotto. Yes, I've made risotto before. But there had to be some tricks to learn from an Italian, right? There were.

First lesson: NEVER (ever, ever, ever!) use arborio rice. Never! This is what I was told by Enrica. I found this odd, as every recipe I've ever seen for risotto specifies arborio rice. When I asked why, she reiterated that NEVER should you use arborio for risotto, you should use carnaroli. I still need to seek this out in the states. I'm not sure I could have identified the difference in the resulting risotto. Which makes me think that a side by side taste test may be in order...

The second lesson, I learned from the sommelier, as I was absentmindedly stirring the risotto while watching my cooking mate hack up the chicken. ONLY STIR CLOCKWISE! Again, questions as to why were met with only reiteration of the point. So I'm not sure why, but it was said with such vigor that I will certainly never stir risotto in a counterclockwise direction again.

Here is the pictorial progression from fresh spring peas to risi e bisi:



The actual preparation of the risi e bisi was similar to risottos I've made before (with exception of the lessons learned above). It started with thinly sliced onion in a dutch oven in equal amounts olive oil and butter. Once they've softened, add a cup of rice and stir until it has a nice sheen. Add about a half cup white wine, followed by hot chicken stock (we used freshly made, which really does bring a whole new dimension to the dish vs. purchased stock), 1 ladle at a time, stirring constantly (only clockwise!), adding more stock each time it has been fully absorbed in the rice (for a total of about 4 cups of stock). We added our peas at the beginning of the cooking process; I'd recommend adding them later so they aren't mushy by the end (I tested this out with fresh peas in my favorite risotto a couple weeks ago - adding them with the penultimate broth ladle yielded peas that were cooked but still had some resistance when bitten into, which I prefer). Finish the risotto with about a quarter cup grated parmesan and a slab of butter. Toothsome heaven in a bowl.

My partner did an incredible job on the chicken cacciatore. I'm not generally a big poultry fan, but the bright flavors in this dish seemed to be made to go together: salty, sweet, tangy tomato-chicken loveliness. From memory, it included onions, red (and possibly orange or yellow?) bell pepper, olives, tomatoes, and of course chicken. It all simmered together for a long time. We enjoyed it with cous cous. 

We also had an asian-inspired orange-soy duck dish that Enrica prepared. Desert was comprised of Italian esse cookies (stay tuned for more on these: I've since recreated something similar in my California kitch) dipped in Prosecco (can it get any more italian than that?).

Enrica was highly entertaining. Italian born and raised, she has worked in and owned restaurants around the world and currently travels between London and Venice conducting private cooking lessons (learn more at Her loft, where the Venice cooking classes are held, is an amazing and modern entertaining space. The focus is definitely on the kitchen, where the abundant appliances (two dishwashers!) are all clean lines and stainless steel. The center of the kitchen is a giant island with embedded range and the deepest sink and largest faucet I've ever seen. Barstools along one side provided front row seats to watch the kitchen action in between the direct participation. Enrica has an obvious passion for food and life, which she brings to her every motion. If you ever have the opportunity, I'd highly recommend cooking with her. I hope to get to again at some point.

A word on wine before I close... Our sommelier was the owner of a local wine shop who taught us about the uniqueness of each beautiful Italian wine and what made it pair perfectly with the various courses of our meal. We learned about balancing the acidity, spiciness, and fattiness of the food in equal measure with these tastes in the wine. We taste-tested to detect when the wine was too much for the food in any of these dimensions and vice versa. If I could locate my notes, I'd have a list of the actual wines, but alas, it is lost. The wines and the evening will just have to be a distant, magical memory. It's one I will revel in for much time to come... until my next Italian adventure, at least.

Enrica extended an invitation for the following morning to join her and another class at the Rialto Market, an open air market in Venice that is particularly known for its seafood. This was an opportunity not to miss. Words can't do it justice, but I've included some pics below. The market operates Tuesday through Saturday mornings and is an absolute must-see if you ever find yourself on the wonderful island of Venetia. Bellissimo!

Friday, May 6, 2011

l'avventura in Italia: gourmet dining

After traveling with family for 3 weeks in Italy, week #4 was reserved just for me. It was a blissful week in and around Venice with the perfect balance of exploring and relaxing, both mixed with a good amount of one thing I enjoy very much: food.

Two particular restaurants are the subject of this post: Met Restaurant, a two Michelin star restaurant in the Hotel Metropole in Venice, and Venissa Ristorante on the island of Mazzorbo in the Venice lagoon. Both restaurants are gourmet, with innovative chefs creating interesting dishes, but their similarities for the most part from my perspective end there.

The ambiance of Met Restaurant reminded me of French Laundry (this is not a good thing), with long, white table clothes and a general stiff, uncomfortable fanciness that in my opinion can only take away from the food rather than add to it. There were two menus to choose from: "Since 1992", a compilation of their most famous dishes since they earned their stars, or the "surprise" menu, which changes daily and they don't reveal any details about until the courses arrive at your table. I opted for the former. The food was good, no doubt. But overdone, in my opinion. I'm not sure who originally said this, but to keep from over-accessorizing, the advice is to take off the last bit of jewelry you put on. The dishes made me think of this: when composing a dish, perhaps one should omit the last ingredient planned to avoid having too much going on. There were also some more exotic meat dishes (e.g. pigeon), that were perhaps too adventurous for someone who spent nearly a decade as a vegetarian, which I'm sure also attributed to my less than stellar impression of the experience.

So, while my overall experience was less than I had anticipated (particularly given the price point), there were definitely some good points. The use of espresso grounds as garnish was interesting and seemed to increase the depth of flavors. This was my first experience with cuttlefish (also enjoyed at Venissa), in the form of faux fettucini, which was my favorite Met dish from both a texture and flavor standpoint. Here's a recount of the menu (which they sent home with me in an embossed folder, ala fancy restaurant):
  • Red Mullets with a tomato, mint, lemon-grass and "Spritz" coconut. (2002)
  • Adriatic scallops injected with their own coral, tapinamburgs puree, Sevruga caviar and violets crunch nougat. (2007)
  • Mille-feuille of goose << foie gras >> smoked and grilled with basil, pear, and "Corallo" coffee sprinkling. (2006)
  • Soup with squid dumplings and ginger, with veal seetbreads and tuna botargo. (2009)
  • The unique experience of cuttlefish "fettucini" ...but don't expect any pasta... (1996)
  • Loin of venison cooked on the ... contrary, wood flavouring in a fake grill. (2000)
  • Grilled boned pigeon with smoked eel, lychees and chocolate shavings. (2009)
  • It's a matter of pleasant sensations: rhum and tobacco. (1998)
If Met Restaurant was overdone, both in terms of atmosphere and food, Vanissa Ristorante was anything but. The vibe was relaxed and immediately comfortable, with a view on one side straight into the stunningly beautiful kitchen and floor to ceiling windows on the opposite side looking out to the vineyard on which the restaurant sits. The food was perhaps the best of my life, the dishes composed of simple, fresh ingredients done extremely well. The combinations were interesting without crossing into the strange category. The food was simply... beautiful.

There was an approach that was taken in a couple of the dishes that I appreciated tremendously: the same ingredient prepared in different ways within the same dish. This added a variance in texture and flavor without running the risk of too many disparate ingredients going on. To illustrate, one of my favorite dishes of the evening (and the second appearance of cuttlefish) placed cuttlefish on fennel puree, topped with a fennel and blood orange salad, and garnished with a single fennel sprig. The flavors of this dish were so fresh and the combination of textures was just perfect. Upon asking about the preparation of the fennel puree, I learned it was boiled (then pureed with a bit of olive oil and milk); a roasted pureed variation could be very interesting as well...I think I must try this in my own kitchen at some point soon.

The other contender for my favorite dish of the evening (the best of the best, if you will) was a "bread" gnocchi. It had the most perfectly balanced delicious broth that I've ever enjoyed - full of flavor without being salty (a "simple fish broth", according to the server). The gnocchi was combined with mussels, clams, and big, bright green fresh spring peas and their greens. Words cannot describe the loveliness of this dish.

I didn't take home a fancy printout from this restaurant, but do have the notes I wrote down the following day on what I enjoyed:
  • An appetizer thinly sliced veal served on tuna and caper puree with a sprinkling of espresso powder
  • Cuttlefish served over fennel puree with blood orange and fennel salad
  • Breaded calamari served over a polenta and anchovy paste with garnish of polenta chips
  • Spaghetti al dente with sardine, spring onions, the tiniest garlic bulbs I've ever seen, and a beautiful, buttery broth
  • "Bread" gnocchi in a "simple fish broth" with mussels, clams, peas, and violets
  • Langosteen on a bed of cabbage, served together with bruschetta topped with green tomatoes and sprinkled with the powder of dehydrated mussels (served with the most interesting amber-colored wine with a taste that reminded me of acetone, yet strangely paired perfectly with the dish: both the dish and the wine were better together than either on their own)
  • Dessert of a flavor-dense strawberry puree, topped with layers of pastry filled with cream and topped with fresh mint
The meal was so amazing that I actually went back my second night on Mazzorbo as well. I won't recount the entire experience, but rather a single highlight. The dish was baked crab served with a bean puree with pasta and salty pork. The clear star of the dish was the crab: this type of crab is apparently only available three times per year when their shell softens. They are baked, but you would be fooled into thinking they were deep fried based on the crispy, crunchy texture. I was so excited about this particular ingredient that they brought out a tray of the fresh (alive!) crabs from the fridge so I could meet their acquaintance. They then popped them in the oven and served them up a short 5 minutes later. While this sort of thing would generally disturb me (meeting my meal and then consuming it), I instead found this fascinating. It helped me understand the intimate relationship that everyone in the Vanissa kitchen has with the food they prepare; this respect for ingredients comes through in the dishes in the form of perfect flavor combinations and preparation.

My overarching learning from dining in and around Venice: simple ingredients done well supersede Michelin stars. That, and another trip to the remote island of Mazzorbo to Vanissa Ristorante Ostello is squarely on my must-do-again list for some point in the future.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

l'avventura in Italia: gelato

The first and last photos I took on my Italy vacation were of the same thing: gelato. This wasn't intentional, but is clear evidence of the important role that the frozen dessert played in my avventura. But before we get to that, let's discuss a little gelato history and what exactly it is that sets gelato apart from its American grandchild, ice cream.

Gelato is ancient. Literally. In ancient Rome, they used to make it from ice and snow brought from the mountaintops and preserved below ground. The ingredients are pretty much the same as the American adaptation, ice cream: milk, cream, and sugar, with flavor often from fruit or nut purees. In terms of differences, gelato typically has a lower butterfat content (4-8%, vs. 14% for US ice cream) and higher sugar content (16-24% vs. 12-16%). Also, unlike commercial ice cream in the US, which is made with a continuous assembly line freezer, gelato is frozen quickly and in small batches. It is meant to be consumed within a few days of preparation for peak flavor and texture.

In regards to my personal experience with gelato: I had it first in Bologna and then in every city that followed. While I'd put ice cream on my 'like' list, gelato is squarely on my 'love' list due to its incredibly smooth texture and rich flavor. I also enjoyed the way the multisyllabic, vowel-packed names of the flavors rolled over my tongue: fragola, limone, ciliegia, frutti di bosco, cioccolato (strawberry, lemon, cherry, mixed berry, chocolate). My favorite was pistacchio, followed closely by vaniglia from a particular gelateria in Rome that was made with eggs and reminded me of frozen custard.

I quickly learned that the cone was superfluous - better to be replaced by an additional flavor of gelato. When it came to establishing some favorites, I ran two tests: first, trying as many flavors as I could to establish a favorite; second, when pistachio became an early front runner in the first category, trying the pale green gelato at every place I could to identify the best gelateria (the math nerd in me knew that I needed an apples to apples comparison, or in this case, a pistachio to pistachio comparison! BTW, the winners were pistachio and a gelateria near our hotel in Rome). There was definite variance in quality of the gelaterias. My brother's assessment (having been in Italy for several months already and done good damage at the gelaterias of Bologna) is that there is a direct correlation between the quality of the signage and the quality of the gelato. My empirical evidence supports this claim.

By my fourth week in Italy, it was clear that all of my enjoyment was starting to show - in a form that I began to fondly refer to as my 'gelato belly'. For perhaps the first time in my life, I didn't care in the least. I considered it a souvenir of the pleasure I consumed in the form of Italian food: pizza, pasta, and - of course - gelato.

My next test will be to see if I can find any that rival what I enjoyed in Italy more locally. If you happen to know of a good gelateria in the Bay Area, please send the details my way!

Blog Widget by LinkWithin

Popular Posts