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Category Archives: Cooking Class

What is Slovenian Cuisine?

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Slovenian cuisine. Slovenian cuisine. What on earth is it? It was a question I was asking those I encountered in Ljubljana, and it was met with the same inquiry…”Hmm, what is Slovenian cuisine?” 

Control of this country has changed hands so many times over the years that, from a culinary standpoint, they are influenced by quite a few of their neighbors. And when you factor together the cuisines of Hungary, Italy, and Austria (just to name a few), you get a rather interesting answer when it comes to the initial question. There’s pizza on every corner, goulashes galore, soups for those bone-chilling days, giant gnocchi, and quite a lot of meat. After overdoing it for the last two weeks or so on pasta in Italy, I was pretty happy to up the iron intake, I have to say.

Today, I met with a woman who has authored a cookbook in Slovenia, and has a second one about to go to print. Her mission is to get kids into the kitchen, and also to improve the quality of food in schools. Evidently, their system leaves a lot to be desired, not unlike the school lunch program in America, and so she has made it her mission to visit schools and teach kids how to make better food choices. Emilijia is such a fantastic woman, and I felt really lucky that she took a few hours from her busy schedule to visit a market with me and talk to me a bit more about “Slovenian cuisine” (whatever that is).

I met her at the train station, and from there, we went to a pretty swanky market in central Ljubljana. It was actually quite interesting because housed in the basement of a would-be department store was a Whole Foods-eque market. And it was packed with people. We stopped first to check out her cookbook on the shelf next to Jaime Oliver’s, and then moved over to the “bio” foods section. They are very popular, and through somewhat broken translation, I gather “bio” equals organic. 

It was a rather large cross section of aisles with everything from jams and dried fruits, to chickpeas, lentils, pastas, breads, tofus, teas, and herbs. Emilija is from Koper, Slovenia, which is a coastal town to the south, so we talked a bit more about what their diet looks like. Not surprisingly, it includes fish, and she told me she eats many small meals throughout the day. Most everything comes from their garden, the fish her husband catches, the bread that she bakes, et al. In fact, she showed up to meet me with a bunch of fresh herbs, homemade pasta with calimari her husband had caught, fresh-baked bread, an apple from her garden…all for me. And in the market, she insisted on buying me salt from Piran (another amazing gorgeous Slovenian seaside town) and dried figs that are good for your blood. 

Incidentally, when I jumped on the train after meeting her, I had a smorgasbord of treats to sample. And as we glided along the rails and I sampled her delicious gifts, I thought to myself, “So, Kyle…what the heck is Slovenian cuisine?” As you’ll see from the picture, I’m still looking and trying to figure it out.

EMILIJA PAVLIČ


Next Stop: Zagreb



Second Impressions…

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I visited Venice for the first time in January 2008. It was misty, cold, and quite dreary, but you could imagine what the city would look like bathed in a sunny glow. That vision became a reality today as my train crossed over the bridge. As the sun filtered through the many canals and Murano glass shops, I hurried to my hotel to get ready for my cooking lesson: a second visit to Ristorante Avogaria.

Venice is an intricate maze of narrow streets and bridges, and I’m convinced that even the locals tote around a map to confirm their way back home at night. I inquired with my hotel about how to get to Dorsoduro (where the restaurant is), but in true Kyle fashion, I bucked their advice and decided to blaze my own trail. I know what you’re all thinking…I walked so far in the wrong direction that I ended up in Mestre. Wrong! I actually arrived at the restaurant an hour early, took stock of the gorgeous place where I had dinner over two years ago now, and was whisked back to the kitchen to begin cooking.

On the menu today was Ravioloni di Pasta Fresca Caripieni di Burratta e Branzino con Sughetto di Crostacei and Pennette Limon con Pecorino Romano e Lievito Biologico. In case you don’t have your Italian dictionary handy, those dishes are large raviolis stuffed with sea bass and burratta cheese with langoustines in a cream sauce, and baby penne with a pecorino romano lemon sauce with yeast. For a blip in time, I had a flashback of yesterday when Francesco said we would be making homemade pasta for the ravioloni. My arms began to throb, and my back began to ache, but in the end, it was fine because this pasta recipe was a fast-forward version of yesterday’s activities, and he handled all of it. The recipe differed slightly in that we used both semolina and 00 flour, and mainly the yolks of the eggs to make the pasta a sunny yellow color. It was quick, easy, and while it chilled in the fridge before we slid it through the pasta machine, we got to work on the rest of our lunch.

We beheaded and filleted the sea bass (okay, he did), and sautéed it in some olive oil before shredding it up delicately (and checking for eye bones) to add to the burratta for the stuffing. We also cleaned the langoustines, zested and juiced a lemon, sampled some amazing pecorino romano cheese, and discussed our Salice Salentino Rosso wine. It’s a blend of Negroamaro and Malvasia grapes, and has notes of plum and blackberry with a bit of spiciness. It was great with the cheese.

Francesco moved about the smallish kitchen while I feverishly scribbled down notes, and took pictures. The lemon pasta tasted like a savory version of Lemonheads (sidebar: I love Lemonheads) and elicited a silent reaction from me…because I was so busy shoving my face full of the lemony masterpiece. And the ravioloni were a close second. The sea bass flavor was subtle, the burratta silky, and after we plucked them off their ravioloni rafts, the langoustines tasted like lobster.

Perhaps you’re wondering how I scored the opportunity for a backstage pass at Avogaria. I wish I had some dramatic answer, like I purchased a scratch card on Ryanair and won the afternoon with the chef, but the truth of the matter is quite simple: I just asked. Francesco remembered me from two years ago when I dined in their restaurant, so when I told him about Culinary Hopscotch and told him I would love for the Venice edition to include Avogaria, he graciously offered to have me as their guest. My second impression of the restaurant was better than the first. It’s off the well-worn tourist path, and the food that comes out of Francesco’s kitchen paints the perfect picture of Venice. It’s light, it’s tempting, and like the jagged streets of this picture-perfect city, there is a surprise at every turn.

Ristorante Avogaria
www.avogaria.com 

Next Stop: Ljubljana

Basta Pasta!

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Sorry for the blog delay. This past week provided for a minor commercial break between classes, but have no fear…the upcoming week will be brimming with bloggable material. 

 
Today, I made pasta in Bologna. From scratch. With just 00 flour and eggs, a wooden board, a matterello, and my own (wo)man power. And I am exhausted. I don’t think I’ll ever look at homemade pasta in the same way again. Something that is seemingly so easy, and rightfully so based on the two ingredients, is truly an art form when you get down to rolling it out.

It’s not that making fresh pasta is terribly difficult; it just takes skill and patience. There are a series of movements you go through when rolling out your pasta dough, and at one point, I was getting particularly frustrated when I couldn’t achieve the right rolling rhythm. Uncle Alessandro thought it was hilarious though, and despite wanting to club myself with the matterello on a few occasions, he stood there patiently until I got the technique right and was able to roll out my perfectly aerated dough into a sheet so thin you could see Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca through it.

Up until today, pasta came from boxes, and was drier than the Gobi Desert, and Parmesan cheese generally showed up in a money-colored canister, and ironically, tasted like a crisp George Washington. That is all about to change. I know how to do it now, so going forward, I will make an effort to crown the table with freshly made shapes of dried dough when the menu calls for Italian. Why? Because I’m that cool.

 
The difference in taste between a dry, store-bought pasta and what we made today was incredibly obvious. Incidentally, slaving away over a wooden board, and covering my dark blue jeans in flour, didn’t seem so torturous as I lifted each bite of fluffy tortelloni with butter and Parmigiano Reggiano, tortellini soup, and pappardelle Bolognese to my mouth.

After this carb-o-verload, I marched myself straight to the city center through all of the beautiful arcade-lined streets. I needed the walk. Then, I located an inconspicuous food market where I photographed some gorgeous produce, and then I plunked myself down at a café for a well-deserved glass of wine and the chance to read up on beautiful Bologna. Only my gastronomic adventure wouldn’t end with pasta today…

My amazing hosts, Matteo & Julie, took me out for Mexican food tonight. Yes, you heard me correctly. I almost collapsed with excitement when I saw the words “taco” and “nachos” on a menu, and my exuberance probably was a little bit exaggerated. But as I learned today in my pasta making course, it’s the piccolissimo things in life. Like how two basic ingredients that you always have on-hand in your kitchen can create a golden feast for the eyes and mouth.

La Vecchia Scuola Bolognese
www.lavecchiascuola.com

Next Stop: Venice

Deep-Fried Pizza. Gnocchi. Saltimbocca. Tiramisu.

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We woke up on Monday with God crying all over Rome. Was he trying to rain on our parade, or force us inside for one helluva day? Well, I don’t know. But the fact is, when in Rome, a cooking class at Le Fate is a must on your agenda.

Chef Andrea Consoli led our class of eight people in one of the tiniest restaurant kitchens I have ever seen. To him, it was heaven, and it was obvious how much he loves his job as a chef and teacher as he whisked around the itty bitty space teaching us the recipes for the aforementioned dishes. We would be his pupils and guests in the restaurant for a solid five hours.

One of the most amazing things I learned had nothing to do with the recipes, per se. It was how to choke-down a four-course meal. As we sat down for course #1, Chef came out with a bottle of Frescadi Spumanti, and filled our glasses before we woofed down our pizzas. The reason for this bubbly choice is to open up your stomach at the beginning of a big meal. He hit the nail right on the head when he said, “Sometimes, as a chef, you go through the process of cooking a huge meal, and after, you’re not even hungry. It‘s definitely from tasting as you go, but even the smells can trick your brain into thinking you‘re full.” That happens to me ALL THE TIME. I couldn’t believe I finally had an answer to a question that’s been bothering me for years.

The Spumanti trick worked. Sitting down a relatively full individual, after bottoms-upping my bubbly, I was primed and ready for the impending courses, which were fab-u-lous. We learned to make two kinds of tomato sauces– one canned and the other from fresh tomatoes. And I hearby declare the following: I will never put garlic into my fresh sauces again, and will always use a mirepoix in my canned ones instead of a pinch of sugar. I will only cook with the best tomatoes that I can find, and if I have to, I will import them from Italy for the Selenium content that is rumored to help you live a long life. I will also never purchase gnocchi again, but will make it by hand on Tuesdays and serve it on Thursdays. Lastly, I will suck up my distaste for coffee and make The Senator Tiramisu whenever he wants it because even I can admit when I’m wrong…this was good. 

Le Fate Restaurant (it means “the fairies”) was certainly off the beaten path in Trastevere, but everyone in the class agreed that it was worth the hike. Even the two most junior members of our class…an eight- and twelve-year-old. They were engaged the whole way through like the rest of us. Chef Andreas was passionate about his craft in a way that was refreshing, and in this “Zero Kilometer” restaurant (that means that everything in the restaurant…wine, produce, meat…comes from the Lazio region of Italy), you could tell that when you’re there for dinner or a cooking class, you’re family.

Le Fate Restaurant
www.cookingclassesinrome.com

Tasting the Riches of Firenze

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I decided instead of taking a cooking course in Firenze, I would do something a little bit different. The result: a one-on-one Pecorino, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar tasting. In an area where the olive and grape reign supreme, this would prove to be a magnificent idea for an afternoon out of the rain. Does anyone actually know how balsamic vinegar is made? I do now. But more on that in a bit.

I started by tasting my way through four different Pecorino cheeses. Pecorinos are hard, sheep’s milk cheeses, and the ones I tasted were both new and aged. From a plain new cheese to the pepperoncino, and then aged plain and walnut-flavored, these cheeses were to die for. And it was so interesting how their composition was the same, but the resulting tastes were so different. I sampled these with both honey and cherry jam. Fantastico!

From there, we moved onto the olive oils. I tried three from the Val D’Orcia, Chianti Classico and Montalcino areas of Italy. The olive oil from Val D’Orcia was light and aromatic, and made from Olivastra olives. It tasted fruity, and was more yellow than the next two. It was excellent, and would be perfect on a salad. The second oil, from Chianti Classico, smelled like artichokes, and coincidentally was greener than the previous. It was also more bitter, but in a way that nudged your taste buds at the end in a friendly way. It was made from Correggiolo, Moraiolo, and Lecchino olives. The last one from Montalcino was the strongest and most bitter of them all. Made with Moraiolo, Frantoio, and Pendolino olives, this would be great with a strong fish like salmon to contest it’s more pronounced flavor.

We finished up with the balsamic vinegars, and this was a real treat. All three were the same brand, “Leonardo,” but they each had different flavor profiles. I’ll start by mentioning that any good balsamic vinegar should be made with Trebbiano Modenese or Lambrusco grapes. The first one (#10) was a Balsamico di Modena, and it tasted like brown sugar. It was beyond good. By the way, did you figure out how balsamic is made yet? If so, the “#10” designation will mean something to you.

The second one was a Tradizionale, and the shape of the bottle was different than the first. This is deliberate, and like the A.O.C. designation in France, a balsamic vinegar cannot be coined as “Tradizionale” unless it’s sold in this particular bottle. This vinegar was even sweeter than the one before, and as I told the woman, “It tasted like the darker part of the sugar on a crème brulée.” It was beyond good. Lastly, I tried a #20 Balsamico al Ciliegio, a cherry-flavored vinegar. It was a bit tart, but not in an overwhelming way. At the end, we mixed the olive oils and vinegars in a variety of orders, and I tried some of the vinegars with the cheeses. What an afternoon…

As we finished up, my teacher showed me around the store and we looked at a balsamic that was €240 for a 100ml bottle. It was #100. Allow me to interject at this point and describe what the numerical designations mean. They’re not years as you might assume, but instead, it’s the number of “travasi,” or the times the vinegar moves to successively smaller barrels. The barrels are uncorked, which allows the bacteria to activate, and also allows the water to evaporate from the vinegar. Moving it to the smaller barrels is what concentrates it, and the result is the amazing flavor. Thus, the more barrel action a vinegar gets, the richer it’s going to taste (and the more it’s going to cost).

If you’re looking for an alternative to the living museum that is Florence, do yourself a favor and taste some of their epicurean treasures. For €29, this was an hour well-spent.

1Obsequium
Borgo San Jacopo 17/39
*Booked through Italy Segway Tours

Next Stop: Rome

Paris Cooking Classes…Take Two

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Traveling back to Paris meant I’d have time for two more cooking classes…on the same day.

Ally and I participated in what I consider to be one of the best values in Paris today at Ateliers Des Chefs. There are six locations scattered about the city, and for €15, we cooked our way through a quick (30-minute) lunch menu in a rather chic demonstration kitchen at the BHV on Rivoli near Hotel de Ville. There were only seven us in the class, which meant it was pretty hands-on, and easy to take notes and follow along, especially since the classes are conducted in French.

Menu: Codfish with a Honey-Soy Glaze and Polenta with Mushrooms

This menu was as easy as it sounds, and if you can understand French, these classes are a huge bargain. The menu was simple and truly done in 30 minutes (where were you on this one, Rachel Ray?), and the food wonderful when we sat down to lunch with the rest of our class.

Ateliers des Chefs
www.ateliersdeschefs.fr

In the evening, Ally, Leila and I moved from one side of Paris to the 15th, home to the colorfully named culinary school, Le Cordon Bleu. It’s on a pretty residential side street, and if you weren’t looking for it, you’ll probably walk right past. In our second class of the day, however, we would get very familiar with butter, heavy cream, and milk on repeat in some version of that order. This was An evening In Honor of Julia Child.

Entirely demonstration-based, the class at Le Cordon Bleu was three hours long. Chef Stril spoke only in French, but a translator was on-hand to assist the mainly English-speaking audience.

Menu: Coquilles St.-Jacques a La Parisienne, Fricassée de Poulet a L’Estragon, and Soufflé au Chocolate a L’Ancienne

We started out by making the pastry cream for the soufflé, and I have to say, I don’t consider the art of the soufflé nearly the death-defying feat I did in the past. Would I call this dish easy or fit for a beginner? Not a chance. But Chef did make it look easy. And all soufflés are bound to fall, so if that’s your hang-up, break out the ramekins and let it go. Chef Stril couldn’t be bothered as the air went out of his chocolate towers; he just opened another bottle of wine. C’est la vie, I suppose…

From there, we learned the proper way to segment a chicken into eight pieces for our chicken with tarragon sauce. Chef made quick work of removing the spine, and at dinner after (I should mention this class only resulted in Barbie-sized tasting plates..and wine…there was wine…), we all agreed that this was a skill definitely developed over time. And this dish took time. 

He browned the chicken, then removed it, then used the chicken fat that had rendered off as the base for the sauce. We learned the right (and easy) method to peel a tomato, and then watched as two assistants diced them into uniform pieces for the Chef. He told us how there is always veal stock bubbling away in the Le Cordon Bleu kitchen downstairs because it’s involved in so many of their preparations; that went into the dish too. And we learned how to make a pot lid from parchment paper, which put our dish out of sight and mind while he worked on the scallops and potato cakes.

Our next dish was quite “Republican,” as someone I know likes to say: scallops and mushrooms in a white wine béchamel-style sauce served on the half-shell. This was the star of Chef Stril’s show; we all agreed on that. He opened up the scallop shells to access the meat, and kept the coral egg sack as part of this dish. It’s a gorgeous hue, but I didn’t have any on my plate and probably would have skipped it. After sautéing the scallops until they were only cooked part of the way through, he sliced them into 3mm disks and set them aside. He added shallots and sliced mushrooms to their pan, and then deglazed with white wine and added cream. At this point, he got started on the sauce. Butter, heavy cream, milk, and more, more, more of it all went into the sauce, and at the end, he tempered in egg yolks to help the dish brown under the salamander.

The result, a feast for the eyes and mouth. A buttered shell, a scoop of the creamy mushroom mixture, sliced scallops atop, and a slather of the béchamel to cover the shell. Under the salamander (a broiler would work too) for about five minutes, and Chef Stril had made somewhat quick work of the Coquilles St.-Jacques. I almost dove onto the table for the example one. It was that good.

I can see why they don’t let the audience participate in a menu like this one. It took our Chef about two-and-a-half hours to get this together and he’s been doing it for 40 years. It was a great learning experience though, and since it is hands-off, anyone could participate and have fun…young, old, or food-fearing.

Le Cordon Bleu
www.cordonbleu.edu

Next Stop: Italy

Lord Byron Says…

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“Lobster salad and champagne are the only things a woman should ever been seen eating.” I agree to disagree, Lord. 

Women should also be seen eating Maille mustard , macarons from Laduree, falafels on Rue de Rosiers, and drinking wine from baby bottles at Refuges des Fondues. Why? Because all of those things happened yesterday in Paris as Ally and I criss-crossed the city in search of vintage fur coats. We found them. 

Next Stop: 
Two Cooking Classes on Tuesday…
Ateliers des Chefs & 
Le Cordon Bleu