by Melinda Gallo

My first Italian cooking class

I love to cook, or more precisely, I love to eat and therefore I was obliged to learn how to cook to satisfy my love of food. I had never taken a cooking class before because my mother and grandmother taught me everything I know. My grandmother would make my favorite dishes, like Chinese tomato beef curry and chow fun noodles with beef in black bean sauce without using a recipe. My mother, on the other hand, taught me all about baking and making pastries, which is much more precise: everything has to be measured carefully and done exactly as it's written.

Living in Florence :: My first Italian cooking class

At 11 this morning, I went to my first Italian cooking class given by Judy Witts Francini from Divina Cucina in a studio right next to the Mercato Centrale as you can see in the picture. I met four other women who were visiting Florence for the week, and we toured the Mercato Centrale together with Judy. We tasted many different balsamic vinegars, olive oils, and a variety of local cheeses. I learned today that the Italians use the term droghe (drugs) for spezie (spices), which I had never heard before.

I'm not a big fan of the Mercato Centrale because I feel that it has become a little touristy with signs in Japanese and English, and products like rainbow colored pasta and packaged porcini (porcini mushrooms) ready to be shipped anywhere in the world. Of course, there are still incredible products there, like fresh meats and fish, many varieties of cheeses, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and dried fruits, but I find the ambience to be a bit less normal than what I'm used to. I saw more people walking around with cameras and students on scavenger hungs, and found that the only Italians were either eating lunch at Nerbone or working at the mercato.

After the tour, we huddled together and decided on what to make for lunch. We went back to the ortolano (greengrocer) and bought aglio nuovo (new garlic, which is the garlic before it grows the large bulb and looks more like green onions), piselli freschi (fresh green peas), menta (mint), limoni (lemons), pere (pears) and prezzemolo (parsley). Then, we went to the cheese vendor across the way to buy some ricotta and taleggio. And, lastly to the pescheria (fish shop) to buy some fresh fish, called pavone.

We stopped off at the forno (bakery) outside of the mercato to purchase some different breads, and then a wine shop to buy wine. Judy told the man what we were having for lunch, and he thought about it for a few seconds by looking up at the ceiling, and then pulled out one bottle for the primo (first course) and another bottle for the secondo.

We then went to a bar to get a caffè before we went home to cook. I had a marocchino, which is an espresso with chocolate and schiuma (milk foam). Depending on the barista (barman), it seems to be made differently each time I order one.

When we returned to the studio with all of our purchases, we began by making the salame dolce. And once we put it in the freezer to set, we began making the dough for the fresh pasta. We each took turns making the dough and were allowed to touch it to get a feel for the correct texture.

While the pasta dough was resting, we began preparing the gremolata, which is made with parsley, lemon peel, and garlic that we chopped up finely with a mezzaluna (chopping knife). We prepped the fish by lightly dusting it with flour and placed it in a pan with olive oil over the stove.

The piselli freschi were prepared by slicing the aglio nuovo and placing it in a padella (frying pan) with olive oil to cook. The secret we learned was to not heat up the olive oil first before putting the aglio nuovo, but rather to place the aglio nuovo and the oil on the stove at the same time. Once the garlic was golden in color, the piselli freschi were added. She added a little bit of water and left it to simmer while we continued cooking.

We made the mixture to put in the tortelli by mixing the ricotta and taleggio cheeses together, and then adding the sliced pere. After we put the pasta dough through the macchina manuale per fare la pasta (manual pasta machine), it was cut, and then filled with our pear and cheese filling. Once the water boiled, she put them in and we sat down at the table. By the time, we were seated, she had taken the tortelli out of the water, and placed them in a dish to which she added the other mixture we made earlier with the menta, burro (butter), and limone (lemon) that she let just melt instead of cook in a pan, and poured it on top.

We were in heaven eating our tortelli and sipping our Pinot Grigio. Afterwards, we ate the pavone with the gremolata on top, and the flavorful piselli freschi, which taste so much better than frozen peas.

And then for dessert, we had our salame dolce, which was incredibly tasty. I had never had it before and was pleased with how easy it was to make and how delicious it tasted. I ended up eating two slices even though I was already full from the rest of the meal.

I'm very content with my first cooking school experience and would love to take more classes as I just love to learn from other people and pick up their techniques and recipes. I can't wait to go to my mercato and buy the ingredients to make some of the things we learned today. I need to buy a macchina per fare la pasta as it was even better than the pasta I've bought at the pastificio (fresh pasta shop).

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