Thursday, November 29, 2007

Cucina del Sole - another celebration of more food...

I was really unimpressed with today's cook, demonstration and recipes. While I'm sure that Nancy Harmon Jenkins is a great writer (I can't make any comments otherwise, I've never read anything she's written), she's an appallingly bad cook with bad recipes.

We cooked a lot of food today, under her supervision, for the evening demo on her new book regaling the joys of southern Italian cuisine, specifically from the Puglia region (the heel of Italy's boot). While I have no doubt that southern Italian food has often been forgotten in the shadow of the more commonly seen northern Italian food, I don't think that Ms Jenkins' demonstration won any new supporters for the cause. The food we made was always a little lacking, needing something to bring it alive. Most of the tastes and textures that evening felt two dimensional and uninspired a claim many Italians would take offense to, I'm sure.

Before I go any further, it's also entirely possible that the food was lacking due to our own inept cooking skills and lack of fresh ingredients. Given that Italian food has such a dependence on fresh ingredients, specifically tomatoes and herbs, it's probable that the tomatoes we used we less than perfect given how far they likely traveled to reach us in New England in November. My question, though, what do the Italians do in winter?

Back to the food, Jenny and I were tasked with making the focaccia for the evening, something that wouldn't ordinarily be possible in a six-hour window, but was helped along greatly by Kevin making a starter dough/yeast-thing the day before. If it hadn't been for the overnight fermentation that the starter had been given, our focaccia wouldn't have had nearly the same kind of rise needed.

After a confusing start to the day, Jenny and I began the somewhat complicated process of making the golden semolina bread that would be used to make the focaccia that would be used to make the focaccia with tomato and ricotta topping. It was a bit like the little Russian dolls that each fit within a larger one, each one begat another recipe from somewhere else.

Using the starter dough that had it's first rise overnight, we had to punch down the dough and then add flour and warm water until the dough began to firm up and come together easily. Once it reached that stage, it was time for us to take it and knead it vigorously until the dough is no longer sticky, but more soft and silken (the book said like 'an earlobe'). Luckily, we were able to use the very large commercial Hobart mixer for the task, if not for that, I don't think Jenny and I would have had the ability to make the bread in time for the evening demo. Not only would the kneading have taken much longer by hand, but it would have been simply exhausting for the two of us to put enough strength and energy into such a large batch of dough.

While Jenny slowly monitored the kneading process in the machine, I began to prepare all the ingredients we would need for the tomato and ricotta topping. For this particular tomato topping, we used canned tomatoes, because as Nancy explained, they are often far better than those that are out of season. It's so strange to me that of all the fruits and vegetables that can well, it would be tomatoes, a rather delicate piece of nature with a distinctively light flavor.

After the kneading, we left the bread to rest again for two more hours before we could move onto the the instructions in the focaccia recipe for shaping and forming into loaves. Jenny joined me and we continued our prep for the topping by thinly slicing julienne strips out of the whole canned tomatoes, a messy, slimy job. Part of me was relieved that we were using canned tomatoes, as it allowed us to skip the step of blanching the tomatoes for peeling, but I think using fresh ones might have been less messy.

I'm inclined to think that canned tomatoes would generally be better on top of focaccia because of it's slightly stronger and more intense flavor, even fresh tomatoes at the height of summer wouldn't hold us as well, I think. But I would like to try making the focaccia (maybe a different recipe) again in summer using fresh tomatoes to see if there is a difference. I'm certain that all the tomato topping I've ever had on store-bought focaccia was from a can (probably for cost reasons).

We also needed to force the ricotta through a food mill to make it slightly lighter and creamier. Nancy was very particular about the type of ricotta we needed to use, nothing too watery or thick, because it would affect the texture of the bread that it rested on. I hadn't thought the food mill would make much of a difference, but the ricotta did come out finer, creamier and just lighter in general. Once the ricotta did go through the mill, I also began to understand why the water-level of the cheese mattered and how it would have made the cheese different had it been wetter.

By time we'd chopped up the olives and grated the cups and cups of parmigiano reggiano, the focaccia was ready to be portion, shaped and rolled out into the baking sheets to be covered and baked. It was almost shocking to see how much dough we had to negotiate with, particularly since it had been allowed to rise twice, it had swelled to amazing proportions. We both pulled the dough out of the mixing bowl and tried our best to cut the unruly mess into five same size portions (I failed and was told by Jenny to focus on putting the topping on the bread).

Although I tried to put the topping on the bread in a slow, methodical way, it really wasn't working very well. Once the dough is rolled out onto the greased sheet pan and dimpled with our fingers, we needed to liberally (the book says lightly, but Nancy in person disagreed) spread olive oil over the dough. Then, I needed to spread a layer of ricotta over the top and stud that with the chopped olives and julienne tomato slices, followed by another drizzle of olive oil and then a little seasoning, some oregano and finally the cheese and an extra splattering of olive oil (for luck, I'm guessing.

It became very obvious after the first focaccia that trying to complete all these steps in an orderly manner would be very time consuming and an exercise in futility, so I rolled up my sleeves and used my hands to slather on the olive oil, layer on the ricotta, olives and tomatoes, seasoning and extra cheese. Unfortunately, we started to run out of tomatoes (I don't think the portions on the recipes are nearly enough for the type of topping that Nancy intends for the completed bread to have) and had to start using the leftover pulp from the canned tomatoes. Thank GOD we had thought to save it because we were running out of tomatoes on bread loaf number 2, we wouldn't have made it without that pulp.

After all five had baked off, we took them out to let them rest for a few minutes before cutting them for service. The bottoms were nicely golden and browned from the oil, giving the bottom of the loaf a nice slightly nutty crunch. Unfortunately, I think we either over worked the dough or didn't let it rise enough because the bread seemed to lack the fluffy springy texture normally found in focaccia. Either way, it was a little disappointing given the effort we'd put into our bread.

It didn't seem like the other dishes of the evening were particularly well recieved either, more than a few of the people that came left entire servings of food on their dishes (particularly the fish course). Maybe the southern Italian aspect of the food was too foreign to the evening participants, or maybe the recipes weren't the greatest, it's hard to say. I feel like it was a very challenging night, cooking with (and I use that term very loosely) someone who wasn't a cook themselves. It seemed like at one point, Nancy would at least demonstrate how she envisioned her dish, but it never happened. I think it was a very disjointed night because it was the first time we truly lacked a more experienced voice in the kitchen.

Let's hope Monday's demo with Mary Ann Esposito works out better, rumor has it she's doing southern Italian food too.