The Post Without Snark (Excepting the Title)

20130912-000759.jpgThe times are innumerable and the conversations beyond memory, when I have said to people, “the food markets in Bologna are incredible! I would love to cook there, perhaps even take a cooking class.” And today those hopes came finally to fruition.

I took a class that I found online – there were a few options but I went with il Salotto di Penelope. I found this class through TripAdvisor. It was difficult to differentiate the various organizations who offer such courses, and this was an almost arbitrary choice, but all were highly rated, so I really didn’t think I could go wrong.

The course at il Salotto is taught by two wonderful women, Barbara and Valeria. They are a hoot. For a while we spoke mostly in Italian, as I think they thought I must speak very well. Eventually I conceded that they might just as well have been speaking Swahili, for all my understanding, so from thereon out we largely moved to English, in which they are fluent.

They are also patient women, teaching from the beginning. After some time I became more comfortable and forceful about doing things in the kitchen, but will admit to having been rather introverted at the beginning. I think they realized eventually that I am probably not a hack in the kitchen. By the end of the evening I gave Valeria a recipe for roast chicken that I hope she tries and enjoys.

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I arrived at the kitchen precisely at 10 am. The email said it was at the back of a courtyard, and indeed it was. The courtyard itself was a bit out of the way and haphazard, but the kitchen was impeccable and I was greeted with open arms, as well as instructions to wash my hands.

Two other students were to take the class today, but they didn’t arrive so I was on my own.

We started by making a basic beef stock. This was a light stock … perhaps more of a broth, to be honest, as it only cooked for an hour and a half. I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but it had quite well-developed flavor.

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Why did we need stock? Well, we also made tortellini. Tortellini are meat filled, and typically served with broth (tortellini in brodo). Although my tortellini weren’t perfect, I am no longer intimidated by this pasta and will make more.

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What else did we make? Well the no-shows had requested ravioli. When they didn’t arrive, we used the ricotta filling to make tortelloni. The tortelloni were perhaps even more problematic for me than the tortellini, but I now know where I am starting. We had made a tomato sauce for this, but since we weren’t having ravioli we never tasted the sauce and instead had the tortelloni with sage butter.

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Finally I made tagliatelle. Notice that these are all pasta dishes? Yup before any could be made, I made pasta. I truly appreciate their guidance. I understand now some things I was doing wrong. We made the dough and rolled it out by hand. And then we cut it by hand. It was downright humbling to be able to make pasta the way it has been made for centuries. To go with this we made the local ragu.

I make a “Bolognese” sauce, but now realize what I’m doing wrong. I’m trying too hard. I’m doing too much. It is far too difficult. Ragu is a simple dish, and incredibly balanced. The ragu I make is good, but it is not Bolognese.

These women are amazing cooks, and it was a privilege to cook with them. These were my meals for lunch and they were all outstanding. I’m amazed and inspired.

We had a break after lunch. I went shopping and had a gelato. Of course if I don’t stop eating i will never be able to wear my new clothes

In the evening I returned for the second half of class.

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First we prepared a Bolognese rice cake. This was traditionally made for weddings. It contains lots of almonds in the forms of almonds, amaretti, and amaretto liqueur. It is delicious, but heavy. I will make this, perhaps on special occasions in the future. I think that I would serve it with a brown sugar whipped cream.

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The cake was made first, but eaten last. Next we made risotto. I have tried to make risotto, but it just comes out wrong. I am cooking it too long and too wet. This risotto was made with baby zucchini and zucchini blossoms. It is very well balanced. It is wonderful. I need to make more risotto. I need to get this dish right. Perhaps I should finally make this a priority – I will make at least one risotto a week every week until I get it right. Because a risotto done right is a special food.

I have avoided risotto because I do it poorly. No more. Risotto will be my friend.

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The third thing we made was piadina – a local flatbread. It was fantastic, falling somewhere between a paratha and a pita. We had it with some local salumi, including something called coppa di testa, a scrumptious meat made with pork neck. The piadina was so much better than any crackers you could imagine, and it was inconceivably easy. I will add this to my repertoire.

Following dinner I met L and B for a drink at the enoteca. They had gone to Ravenna, and seem to have had a great time.

But not as great as I did. Thank you, Barbara and Valeria, ladies of beauty, wisdom, grace, and delicious food. I have learned and hope to honor you by cooking these foods as well as you do someday. You are marvelous! When I come back to Bologna I hope to visit with you again. I know you have much more to teach me!

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