It was the gnocchi dust-up that made me realize how lucky I was to be here.
"Don't listen to Simonetta," said Lele Vitali, using her forefinger to roll a one-inch cylinder of dough down the gnocchi paddle.
"No, no, no," said Simonetta Palazio, curling another piece of dough with her thumb up the paddle. "Do it this way."
And I did. And it worked. There were the gnocchi (and from my fingers!): practically perfect little dumplings of mashed potato and flour, marked with the familiar knucklelike striations.
I'd often wondered what it would be like to learn how to cook from an (admittedly ideal) Italian mother. And here I was in Tuscany with four of them.
Tutti a Tavola is a cooking program that was started three years ago by Simonetta Palazio, Lele Vitali, Mimma Ferrando and Marisa Forcheri at their homes in the Chianti section of Tuscany. Tutti a Tavola (in English, that would be "Dinner's ready--Everybody come to the table") focuses on the preparation of a complete Italian meal, from antipasto to dessert.
Some of the more expensive week-long cooking courses in Italy include walking tours, lectures on Italian art, guest chef appearances, guided visits to restaurants, and wine and olive oil tastings. But at Tutti a Tavola the three-day series of classes takes place in the women's own kitchens and emphasizes preparing the kind of meals they regularly feed their family and friends--and the pleasures of sharing them.
Though they now call Chianti home, the four friends were born in different parts of Italy. And, like cooks all over the world, they bring regional preferences and family traditions to the table. As a result, in mid-recipe, there's sometimes friendly but fierce disagreement.
Which rice, for example, should be used for a successful risotto? How much should the onions be chopped? Should they be sauteed in butter or olive oil? Should you sharpen a zucchini pie with oregano or smooth the flavors with ricotta cheese? How long should vegetables be cooked? There is no unanimous answer. "Each of us has her own way to prepare the same dish," Vitali explains.
It's really not surprising. The differences in their cooking reflect the women's personal attitudes as well as their culinary ones. "When we cook we reveal our inner selves with our faults and good qualities," says Ferrando. But they're united, she explains, in something absolutely basic--and that's why their classes are completely booked this summer. "Each of us cares very much that our food can bring moments of joy."
Always start with the sweet.
At Tutti a Tavola, there are certain givens, and they tend to be philosophical as well as practical. Number one--Always make the dessert first--establishes a useful organizational principle. But it sets a tone that encourages our class to relax, enjoy itself and bask in the notion that sharing a meal is one of life's great pleasures.
In any case, there are good reasons why desserts should be made first. Today's menu is pizza with tomatoes, basil and cheese; baked stuffed zucchini blossoms; asparagus and artichoke risottos; roast pork loin; sweet peas; savory carrots; and tiramisu. That's a lot to accomplish between the 4 p.m. start of class and dinner at 7.
Would we really want the creamy dessert to absorb the pungent smells of the risottos as they cook, or the garlic- and rosemary-laden scent of the meat? Of course not. With the tiramisu safely in the refrigerator, that won't happen, they explain. ("Preparing the dessert first also gives you time to make it over if you need to," Vitali confides.)
As our group of 12 Americans and Australians sits at a large table in Forcheri's kitchen (she and Vitali are today's teachers) and takes notes, helps chop vegetables or enjoys an early evening glass of wine, there are additional maxims to learn this first day:
Always add a pinch of salt to the dessert--the contrast emphasizes the sweetness.
Don't combine too many ingredients in the same dish, and don't use ingredients that are too strange. The flavors won't work together. (Not a bad way to organize your life either.)
The time it takes to cook the pork roast depends on the size of the piece of meat. Self-evident, but even people who take cooking classes sometimes need to be reminded. The discussion also introduces a basic Tutti a Tavola concept: the "q.b. principle," as in quanto basta--as much as you need. After all, the preparation of a dish works best if you pay attention to the relevant details--How many people are coming? Are they big eaters?--and adjust. This approach to measuring may seem freewheeling, but not if you maintain the appropriate proportions, they assure us.
We are definitely beginning to relax.
Never mix hot with cold. This admonition is prompted by today's risottos--and a reminder to heat the stock that the recipes call for. Forcheri starts each risotto by sauteing the rice--two handfuls per person--in a little olive oil. (Vitali and Ferrando saute it in butter and olive oil when they make it in their own kitchens, but this is Forcheri's house.) None of our teachers agrees on exactly how to make risotto--and this preparation introduces an approach few of us have encountered: literally drowning the rice in hot stock, and very little stirring.
The final touch: Taking the almost completed risottos off the flame and finishing them with a little butter and freshly grated Parmesan cheese so that they get a glossy appearance and that special consistency called all'onda, or wavelike.
"Risotto is an important thing, but it's not as difficult to make as people say," says Vitali.
With such artistry devoted to the meal's main dishes, you wouldn't think that the pea and carrot preparations could compete for star billing, but they do. Forcheri cooks them slowly over a low flame, checks frequently to see if the vegetables are becoming too dry or too watery, and finishes them with a pinch of sugar and a few drops of balsamic vinegar. "Marisa is the best one with vegetables," says Ferrando later.
Never be afraid of making too much because leftovers are a joy.
Although presenting an abundant table is a verity throughout the three days, it's the peperonata--today's vegetable dish--that prompts Vitali's remark.
As long as the original product is delicious, she and Ferrando (today's instructors) assure us, the leftovers can be put to good use. This is repeated throughout the classes. With a little cream added to any remaining peperonata, it's delicious over linguine, they tell us. And, the fresh chopped tomatoes and basil mixture that tops the bruschetta (today's antipasto) is recommended as a summertime sauce for penne or farfalle.
Again, it's the ratio of the ingredients to one another that's important: the weight of the peppers should be twice that of the onions and the tomatoes.
The olives, raisins, almonds and capers called for in the pasta sauce are assembled along those lines. Ferrando works it out in her head as she peels and slices almonds: "About four times the amount of olives as raisins," she says. "Then, fewer almonds than raisins, and fewer capers than almonds." (When I repeat this formula later in my own kitchen, that reasoning turns out to be more helpful than specific measurements would be.)
Indeed, many things may be flexible. But throughout our classes, there is one sacrosanct precept: use only high-quality ingredients (in season, of course). The tomatoes we include (today they will be lightly stuffed and baked as an antipasto) are simply perfect. So are the yellow and red peppers for the peperonata. But forget the green ones. "[They're] never thick enough--they never have the meaty consistency of the other ones," says Ferrando. "And they tend to be acidic."
To go along with the peppers, delicately sliced strips of chicken breasts (they've been dipped in olive oil and then a mixture of chopped onion, bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese and salt) are folded and threaded on skewers. And in between each chicken strip is a fresh bay leaf that has just been picked and cleaned.
For dessert: Zuccotto Fiorentino, a molded, sort-of Platonic ideal of ice cream and cake. Would they serve it with such a rich pasta ordinarily? Well, maybe not.
But they're very small slices. It's all a matter of balance.
We dig in.
Not every potato behaves like each other.
Another self-evident principle. When you're cooking--or in life, for that matter--you've got to know your materials, and how they respond to one another.
Since it's spring, we are taking advantage of new potatoes in a mixed vegetable stew with artichokes, onions, carrots and peas (cooked in that order). Why young potatoes? They'll keep their shape better, and for this dish, you don't want the extra starch of old potatoes.
But in the case of the gnocchi, you need old potatoes--you want the starch.
The difference that fine ingredients make in cooking is particularly evident today too. And not only in the vegetable dish that features the last of the spring produce, but also in the pesto sauce for the gnocchi, which uses a great deal of fresh basil, the local extra-virgin olive oil, pine nuts, just a little garlic and a lot of freshly grated Parmesan. "Always be generous with Parmigiano and you can never go wrong," says Vitali.
We are urged to try the recipe at home, but reminded that pesto should be made only when basil is in season, and that gnocchi is usually served with tomato sauce or cheese sauce.
As the vegetables simmer, a little theater is introduced in the main course. It sure doesn't look or taste like meatloaf, but that's what it is, made, however, with ricotta and eggs in equal weight to the ground meat and some Parmesan--the whole loaf wrapped in prosciutto.
And lest we romanticize Italian cooking and think that only traditional techniques are appropriate, Palazio uses a nonstick pan and even an electric knife for this dish. It's likely to fall apart if cut with anything else.
By the time we reach dessert--another ice cream (technically a semifreddo, as was last night's), followed by homemade liqueurs, we realize we have shared much more than cooking and eating.
For our teachers, it has been another gratifying example of how food can put people together. For us too. "Food is a lot more than sustenance in Italy," says Vitali. "It's very social, a privileged moment, an enormous glue, a way to get together and talk--not only with family, but friends.
"It's a very important part of our lives."
Tutti a Tavola can reached by e-mail at ferrando@chiantionline. com or by fax at 39-0577-742807. Bookings can be made for one, two or three days. No classes are held November through March.
What did I learn at Tutti a Tavola? Probably even more than I realized. But there were also some little things that caught my attention, to either reinforce what I already knew or put something into words I hadn't thought about. Among them:
Use more olive oil than you might have dared--but only really good olive oil.
When you're cooking something over a low flame for a long time, watch it for too much or too little liquid, control the heat carefully, and expect it to take even longer than you think.
You don't need a lot of an ingredient to make a point. In an asparagus risotto, for example, throw in a few peas and a few spring onions.
If you head and tail zucchini before steaming or boiling, they'll absorb too much water.
Handle basil leaves delicately, letting them dry in the air after washing; if they break or tear, they'll turn black.
CAPTION: Tutti a Tavola, from left: Simonetta Palazio, Marisa Forcheri, Mimma Ferrando and Lele Vitali.
CAPTION: Marisa Forcheri, left, and Lele Vitali conduct their class on the first day of the program in Forcheri's kitchen.