Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Ciao, Italia!

Ok, so I am quite far behind in my blog posts and, being the OCD anal person I am, it frustrates me to no end that I'm writing out of order. I suppose that's just something I have to get over. Hopefully, the laid back Italian culture will surely help me do so, eh? 

Let me start by saying I cannot believe the American portion of school is finished. We had our final practical last Tuesday (which just about killed me), followed by a champagne toast with Chef Guido and boom, we're done. The entire day was very surreal and I must say, I felt a bit sad at the end. We've worked so hard these past two months and it seems totally crazy that we're on to the next step. On top of all this, I also had to get cracking on starting to pack up my apartment and move which brought on an entire set of emotions that I actually wasn't really prepared for. Thankfully, as I neared the end of school, I had Bryan's visit and my farewell party to look forward to which was absolutely wonderful and such a welcomed reprieve in the midst of chaos. I'll actually get into that in another post, definitely. For now, let's get to the exciting stuff…I made it to Italy, safe and sound! 

I flew out of JFK at 6:15pm this past Sunday night and arrived in Milan at 8:30am. The flight itself was smooth but I had the worst seat, ever. I didn't sleep and, coming off of three other nights in a row without sleep, I was really exhausted. As a quick aside, I probably don't need to explain that my final weekend in New York was an emotional rollercoaster. I was so up and down that it was making me actually feel a little crazy. I think I had my first legitimate panic attack as well which was really scary to me. I'm so grateful that Allison has lived right down the street and I was able to go over there immediately. I had some amazing quality time with dear friends over the weekend and I think that really helped take my mind off things. Come Sunday, I had one last margarita session with Allison at Cilantro and then it was off to the airport for what would turn into me basically running to the gate to catch my flight. Stress. Ful. All that matters is that I got on the plane and into Milan in one piece!

I met my classmate, David, at the airport and the two of us beelined for a cafe to get a delicious cappuccino. Oh, how I've waited to get back to Italy for REAL coffee. We had quite a lot of time to kill before meeting our other classmate, Dalila, and eventually finding where the school shuttle bus was picking us all up. After several hours (yes, hours!), we found Mo, Gavin and Ali and it was finally off to school! The drive took a little over two hours so, naturally, I passed out as soon as we started moving. I really needed that nap though, desperately. You can tell how much more sleep I still need by when I woke up:
When we arrived at our apartments, all of us were so excited to get rid of all our bags and relax. Unfortunately, that didn't really get to happen as we had to go over all kinds of housing rules and regulations. After that, we were told that we had a big gala dinner at 8pm for all the international students and that was quite a big surprise to each of us. We were all so tired and the thought of doing a dinner, schmoozing and mingling was just about the last thing on earth any of us wanted to do. 

Before dinner, we all went to a cute little bar right near the school for a beer to toast to our first night together in Italy! Meet my family for the next few months: 
Gavin and John
Mo, Ali and David
Dalila, me and Trisha

We're all genuinely so happy. :)

The dinner was actually wonderful. We walked in and there were flags hanging to represent each country at the school which was such a nice touch. It's amazing to be sharing a school with so many different people and cultures. I think we're all going to benefit greatly from this experience in so many different ways! The food itself was lovely and I so enjoyed celebrating the start of our new Italian journey together. I love how they printed the menu as a cute little "passport":
I really enjoyed the dinner overall. I mean, honestly, there are no bad meals in Italy. Even the worst meal you could have would be better than gourmet stuff in the states. My favorite part was the seafood salad that we started with:
It was totally delicious. I've realized in a short time that this kind of "salad" is super common in this area. Places seem to have a version of it everywhere! I tell you what, I could eat stuff like that everyday, no kidding. 

The other unique thing served was the fruit soup dessert. It was so different, kind of like a fancy fruit cocktail in a way, but far classier than an ol' can of Dole. It was much too sweet for my liking but totally fresh and summery:
After dinner, we all took a walk and bought some wine and beer to bring back to one of the guy's rooms. He'd traveled separately because he had been visiting Italy with his family in his dad's hometown. He brought a bunch of cheese, meat, crackers, cookies…a whole bunch of stuff…back from his dad's town and totally shared it all with us which was delicious. We had such a spread (yes, after we'd already eaten dinner) and it was awesome. I think it was the first time I've felt like we're all a real family, even with our major personality differences, and it was nice.

I have to reiterate that I absolutely can't believe I'm in Italy. Not for just a week or two, but for quite some time. I think so many nerves I've battled have had a lot to do with just making the trip here and, now that I'm getting settled in, I feel a gigantic weight being lifted and it feels good. Many of you reading this right now will totally appreciate me saying that, I know that for sure. ;)

One last thing. I must say that I've got the most incredible, gracious, supportive, steadfast, patient friends and family in the world. I am such a strong person because of the advice and encouragement I've gotten from some of these amazing individuals and I couldn't possibly be more grateful. I humbly say that I am so blessed, a million times over, and I can happily share that I am finally excited about moving forward in this journey. Thank you so much to each of the people that have been by my side. Hopefully, I'll do you all proud as I go forward!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Practical #1

My oh my, what a day in the kitchen. I'm proud to say I've survived our first practical exam and by the skin of my teeth, no less. To explain, our exams in the kitchen consist of theory and practical tests. The theory portion is on the food itself - history, mechanics, origin, reactions of ingredients - all the things we study in our textbook and through powerpoints, etc. The practical exam is the actual cooking that we're tested on and holy crapola, it is intense.

In the days leading up to it, we were prepared as much as possible for how things would go. We were told that we'd come in that morning and wait to have the recipes (between 3 and 5 of them) revealed all at the same time. We were allowed to bring our textbook that day and would have 15 minutes to write down recipes, notes, whatever would help us get organized and then we'd have 45 minutes for the knife skills portion. From then on, we'd have time slots to produce our dishes - not a minute early, not a minute late - and that would be that. As a lover of all the food challenge shows like Chopped and Iron Chef, I seriously felt like I'd stepped into that arena and became a contestant for the day.

I was really nervous when I got into the kitchen that morning, I'm not gonna lie. Timed tests or exercises haven't always been my strong suit and it brought me back to being in high school where I just had heavy anxiety each time I had a test. All I could do was think positively and try not to worry so much. Um, that doesn't come easily for me. The three recipes we'd be doing were caponata, ravioli with ricotta and swiss chard in sage butter and risotto parmigiana. I just KNEW caponata would be one of the things we'd do because it has so many ingredients and steps to it. It's "easy" enough, but time consuming, so I knew for sure somehow that we'd be doing that. The thing is, being timed adds a huge element of anxiety because you're having to produce amazing results in a very short time frame which is what's preparing us for life in a professional kitchen. I really do thrive on that adrenaline but it comes with a large amount of stress until you start getting a bit more used to it.

Having to produce homemade ravioli as the second dish just about killed me. I was organized in making my pasta dough first thing once the clock starting ticking but man, putting it all together when the time came was really stressful. I felt myself losing it a little and I had to give myself a pep talk halfway through, no joke. Oh, just a side note...picture the chefs walking around with clipboards taking notes, standing over your shoulder, watching all you, hello nerve-wracking! I now have a giant appreciation for those food shows I mentioned above.

The risotto was sort of a welcomed dish by the time I got to it. It's methodical and a little calming but guess what? I completely undershot the timing and my risotto was ready ten minutes before it was my turn to present it. That means it had to sit in a hot pan getting cooked more than it should while waiting to plate it. Yep, my beautiful risotto became nice and mushy. Arrrrrrgh!

All I know is that the day completely flew by but I made it through. I did get each plate in on time, which is really the most important thing, and I didn't lose my mind. Yay, positivity! We all knew that our first practical would be quite an experience and I know that I'll get better with time. It was just a really intense experience and I haven't felt pressure like that probably ever in my life. I guess that's what happens when you really care deeply about what it is you're doing! I never had that in a school environment before so this really was new for me. I loved the experience though, even feeling the anxiety, nerves and stress. It sharpened and pushed me which is what I need and ultimately want. I learned very quickly what things will be like going forward, that's for sure! What a day, what a day...

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Much Needed School Break

Since starting school on March 12th, we've made a lot of recipes. There is so much information we've absorbed and, I have to say, it's taxing. We've got a big, thick textbook in which we read our lessons each day and write out recipes for the following day plus we have Italian class three times a week which adds even more to our plate. My brain has been on overdrive since beginning the program so, when Bryan's Easter weekend visit finally rolled around, the brief respite couldn't have been more welcomed. Our first kitchen practical would be just a couple of days after Bryan's trip too so I was ecstatic that we had Good Friday off from school totally!

Quick side note. During the week leading up to Easter, we made an additional recipe called colombo pasquale which is a very traditional Italian Easter bread. It takes three days to do so we started it at the beginning of the week and I was excited to have it waiting on Bryan when he got in town. It's a lovely sweet bread studded with candied orange peel and topped with toasted almonds and pearl sugar. It's shaped before baking into a prepared mold that represents a dove:
It has an amazing flavor but, sadly, I'm not a candied fruit person. Neither is Bryan. Soooo, we appreciated the bread from afar for what it is but that's about it, heehee.

Anyway, we had a spectacular weekend. We took full advantage of my being off school on Friday and roamed all over the west village. We stopped into Bleecker Street Records where I think Bryan feels most at home. He didn't make fun of me at all for snapping a photo of him browsing:
He's so cute.

We walked on from there to get Italian treats (hello, pignoli cookies!) from Rocco's and then to Pearl Oyster Bar for lobster rolls. The weather was tremendous so we actually walked halfway back to my apartment after. That evening, we met Brian and Ivey for beers at Tempest before...wait for it...THE BOSS, yeeeeeah! I was so freaking excited for this show. Do these two fit the part or what:
Happy kids we are:
The show was fantastic. Ol' Bruce is one of the most fun entertainers I've seen in quite some time. Such a fun fun night.

The rest of the weekend was spent wandering around in the most perfect weather, ever. We took walks, sat outside, had our usual date at Flex, met friends, went to a great Easter service at church...just relaxed and spent time enjoying each other:
This visit definitely tops all the others so far, in my opinion. I needed this time to breathe and just 'be' so I'm very thankful I had the chance to do that and with Bryan, no less. I was able to clear my head and prepare as much as one can for the unknown that would be our first practical in the kitchen so it was a tremendous weekend. Much too short but aren't they always?

Monday, May 7, 2012

Just When I Thought We Were Outta The Gluten Woods... and focaccia day comes creeping back into our schedule. I'd just gotten used to what it was like to ingest protein again. Yet, somehow, I can't think of anything better than pizza or focaccia.

While not actually proven, it is thought that pizza originated in Naples. It's made all over in Italy, but the styles are quite different as they are with focaccia, as well. I'm a purist at heart and I like things on the simple side. For me, the Florentine version of focaccia made with olive oil, rosemary and sea salt is really the way to go. Though, I will say that one of the most delectable things we had during our trip to Sicily was a tomato and onion focaccia antipasto dish. Our friend, Josephine, is Sicilian and she kept talking about this particular focaccia while we were there and we finally ran into it toward the end of the trip:
Holy delicious. Fluffy, chewy, flavorful and irresistible. Josephine was not exaggerating in her description or love of this amazing bread.

Focaccia dough is basically the same recipe used for pizza dough but there is significantly more olive oil. You also top it with olive oil as well so there's really a lot of good flavor that shines through. I could eat this every single day of my life with a nice glass of red wine and a little prosciutto. It just might be the perfect food as you can see, pre and post baking:
Major drool.

The pizzas we made were also divine in their simplicity and flavor. People, it could not be easier to make good pizza dough. I cringe at the thought of someone buying either a frozen pizza or 'fast food' pizza like Dominos when they could be making fresh, homemade dough in no time at all. All it takes is a little planning for whenever you choose to make it so it has time to rise. The recipe we used was delicious. I've made a few different pizza doughs before but this recipe was just right, crispy and chewy all at once. We made it as a thinner crust because we divided the dough up to be on the smaller side but you could certainly make it one big, thick pie if you wanted, too.

Chef left it up to us how we'd like to make one of our pizzas so I stayed with the traditional pizza margherita. I'd always wondered why it was named 'margherita' and we found out that it's named after Queen Margherita in honor of her visit to Naples. The red tomato sauce, green basil and white cheese represent the Italian flag. Fun fact, eh? It turned out great and was so tasty:
My very favorite of the day was the pizza bianca con rucola or white pizza with arugula. White pizza has got to be one of the greatest things, ever. It's made so many different ways but traditionally, it should be just cheese and dough. In America, we add things like garlic or toppings that just aren't supposed to be there (I love a good plop of spinach on top of white pizza, myself) and, in this case, we actually added lovely, peppery arugula. We tossed the arugula in olive oil and lemon juice with a touch of salt and pepper. On mine, I actually baked my crust first, brushed with olive oil and salt, and then added fresh ricotta and topped it with the arugula. Oh my good lord, was it ever delicious:
This is the most perfect summer dish for a get-together with friends. Nobody likes to eat heavy food when it's hot out and this just fits the bill completely for what you'd crave on a warm summer night. It's light, super easy to make and totally scrumptious. Pair it with a crisp glass of white wine and you're set. I think I'll replace my 'I could eat focaccia every single day of my life' with this instead. I can't wait to make it again soon and to do so for friends. 

One last addition to the day was making calzones. We used the remainder of our pizza dough and filled it with anything of our choosing. I did roasted vegetables of all kinds and added in mozzarella, as well:
I'm not normally the biggest calzone fan - not because I don't love them, only because they're usually 90% dough and 10% filling - but not these. I stuffed mine super full of the veggie mixture so each bite was nice and balanced. All that was missing was a good, spicy tomato sauce for dipping.

I'd say this day in the kitchen made for one happy Valerie. So happy, in fact, that I'm sharing the pizza dough recipe with you in hopes that you'll indulge me and make it one day, soon. I'd even call it fun to do and it's a perfect weekend meal to make be it just for yourself, with friends or especially with kids, if you have them. Sorry about the grams, it's how we're taught in the kitchen. This is about the best conversion, though:

Pasta per la Pizza (Pizza Dough)
2g (a teaspoon or so) active dry yeast
340g (12 oz) warm water (not hot water, that'll kill the yeast)
660g (23 1/4 oz) flour
25g (3/4 oz) extra virgin olive oil
12g (1/2 oz) salt

Dissolve yeast in warm water and combine all ingredients in a bowl. (A good test for the yeast is to let it sit for a while dissolving until it starts getting foamy or frothy which means it's alive and good to go. If it doesn't foam, the yeast is dead and you'll need to start over with a new batch.) Mix by hand until the dough comes together. Dump dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about five minutes until smooth and elastic. (The dough should spring back nicely when you poke it.) Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and top with a little olive oil to prevent a "crust" from forming. Cover with plastic wrap. Let rise until doubled in volume for a minimum of three hours at room temp or overnight in the refrigerator. Punch down dough after it rises, divide if necessary and place on a lightly floured pan, loosely covered. Let rest about one hour. Knead again for a minute or two. 

You should be all set to go from here! You can certainly use a rolling pin to roll out the dough but we just stretched it by hand. I like how that makes it a bit misshapen, it keeps it unique and personal. ;)


Just an additional comment on the dough since you inquired, Rachel:
  • No, you don't need a pizza stone at all. A stone is used to crisp up the crust, nothing more. It's not at all a requirement for pizza making, it's just a suggestion but definitely amazing for those thin crust pizzas that you want to get crisp all over. 
  • As far as cooking time goes, I didn't look at a clock. I just kept an eye on the dough every so often and, as soon as it was brown, I took it out. Mine was stretched out super thin so I don't think it even took 10 minutes. Depending on what texture you like your crust to be will depend on cooking time so just watch it and you can certainly poke at it too from the center out to make sure it's cooked and to your liking. 
I hope this helps! More than that, I hope you make it, soon. Just because you're making an Italian inspired pizza dough doesn't mean you can't cover it with country ham like I know you want to do. ;)

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Eggs To The Rescue

While being in the land of pasta and risotto has been awesome, I'm just thrilled to introduce protein into my life again. I can speak for the whole class in saying we were seconds shy of going into a carb coma so thank goodness we have eggs to the rescue.

Remember that "incredible, edible egg" campaign years ago? Well, it's true. Eggs are incredible. They can be used for so many things and the versatility in how they're cooked is endless. This is where my inner geek comes out when it comes to how amazed I am by food, FYI. Eggs are like this tiny package of goodness all around. One egg contains an amazing amount of nutrients - something like 13% of the average daily requirements - for protein and things like vitamins A, D and E and phosphorous. Every part of an egg contributes to these statistics so it's like a compact, all in one vitamin. Tons of people out there are stuck on just eating egg whites (I've been one of them for years) because there's the whole fat/cholesterol thing in the yolk. The truth is that the yolk contains a higher amount of vitamins than the white. All in all, it's more beneficial, even with the small amount of fat content, to eat a whole egg than to eat just the white. (Ok ok, Erica. You've had a point for years and been right. FINE.) It's honestly counterproductive to give up the vitamins in exchange for leaving out a little fat. Sadly though, we live in an age where fat is the total enemy and people would rather sacrifice things that are truly good for you and pump themselves full of chemicals with fat free everything than to just have a little fat in their diet. What I can tell you with absolutely confidence is that, when you eat something that's rich, yet a true and natural product, you eat much less of it because you're genuinely satisfied. I won't even get into my thoughts on this stuff because we'd be here forever.

Anyway... After working with so many starches lately, these egg dishes were really spectacular. I don't know if that's because I did so well at cooking them or if my body was just crying out for something other than gluten. This post is a bit less interesting because there just isn't much more to talk about unless I go into the fascinating composition itself of the egg. That would take much too long though so I'll just tell you about my favorite dish of the day.

At Salumeria Rosi, Cesare's amazing Tuscan restaurant on the Upper West Side, he does a salad called insalata di uova e carne secca del pontormo that's unlike anything I've ever had before. It's a mixed greens salad served with warm pancetta vinaigrette and soft scrambled eggs. Apparently, this dish was a favorite of the 16th century Florentine painter, Pontormo (hence the salad's name). It's a favorite of Cesare's as well and he makes it delicious. When I saw that it was one of our recipes for the day, I was all kinds of excited. Chef Jessica said pretty frankly that it's the best hangover food, ever. It's also one of those dishes that's pretty awful for you despite the fact that it's a salad. I mean, you make the vinaigrette out of vinegar and the pancetta fat that renders out after cooking it. Um, delicious:
We also practiced poached eggs, which turned out really well for me, and we did a vibrant spring frittata that was so lovely. Though spring ingredients aren't yet at their best, it was still so nice to have a variety of vegetables cooked in after such heavy laden pastas and risotto:
I successfully flipped my frittata in the pan too which was a mighty exciting moment.

I have all sorts of ideas for new egg dishes after learning so much more about them. I just love that I spend my days in the kitchen dealing with things that are equally yummy and educational. It ain't too shabby, that's for sure.   

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Carb Overload Continues

Annnnnd, we're on to risotto! Yet another first in the Chef Valerie portfolio.

Throughout school, I've discovered that I've stayed away from trying to cook certain things in the past due to fear. I know. That sounds absurd, right? I think I feel that way because of the perfectionist in me. Those who know me well know that I'm extremely competitive with myself. From running to cycling to cooking, I could care less what the person next to me is trying to accomplish. I'm in competition with nobody but me and that's how I've always been. It's a good and bad thing, all at once. I think at a young age, I learned to take care of myself in certain ways and that's yielded quite an independent outcome as I've grown up. Though I certainly feel at times that it's a character flaw, I normally think nobody can challenge or push me except for, well, me. I'm working on that. (Insert embarrassed face.) 

Anyway, I've never tried risotto because I didn't think I'd make it well and that it'd be a flop. My evil twin, Perfectionist Valerie, takes over in these moments and puts thoughts in my head much like I had in high school: "it's better to not try at something than it would be to fail at it". I mean, honestly. How dumb is that? I think about how, if I had kids and my daughter was me, I'd either smack her or cry because she felt that way. Allison, I'm sure you're shaking your head as you read this...

Back to the food. Cooking risotto, I've since found, is actually one of the most therapeutic things I've done in a while. I realize that sounds totally weird, but it might be the perfect dish for a perfectionist to cook. It takes time and some TLC, but it's methodical and precise, much like how I can be sometimes. Chef Jessica started the morning by showing us a silly little video of these animated rice kernels who rapped a song - in Italian - about the greatness of rice. Haha, I just giggled out loud to myself thinking about it, actually. Italians use many different kinds of rice to make risotto, but three in particular are the most common: arborio, vialone nano and carnaroli. Specific rices are naturally coated with amylopectin which is a soluble starch that slowly dissolves, creating a thickening agent in liquid. Arborio, for example, has a really high percentage of amylopectin so risotto dishes made with it are usually rich and substantial.

As you cook risotto, the starch gradually releases into the liquid and, slowly, the characteristic creamy texture begins to come together. Whatever you're using for the liquid, be it stock, wine, water - whatever - the rice begins to absorb the flavor and it's actually really cool just how much it does. That's due to the liquid concentrating as it cooks down so risotto is almost like a vehicle for any flavors and ingredients you can think of! You commonly see risotto made with farro these days, as well. Farro is a grain that's basically an ancestor of modern wheat. It's extremely healthful (as much protein as in quinoa, most notably!) and I like it because I feel like I'm eating something kinda bad for me but it's not.

We made the classic risotto alla parmigiana, risotto con fungi (mushrooms) and farrotto alla primavera (spring veggies). All three dishes were dynamite, seriously. After taking a photo of the risotto alla parmigiana, I realized how totally boring it looks. I think you'll agree:
It's sad that I can't share the amazing aroma and taste of this dish with you. It's even sadder that its awesomeness doesn't translate in a photo. I didn't take photos of the other dishes for this reason but holy crap, that farrotto was BOMB. So so good, fresh and delicious.

At any rate, it was really great getting into the diversity of risotto. I enjoyed this day, fully! What's even better is I realized that being afraid to do anything in the kitchen is totally and completely stupid. I'm no longer operating with that mentality, from this day forward.