Monday, December 03, 2007

Italian food, day three: Mary Ann and Guy Esposito

Maybe there's something in the air, or maybe it's a combination of the snow and cabin fever, but everyone was in a very strange mood today. Some were short-tempered, some were a little wacky, but I think everyone felt that things were a little off today. Luckily, Mary Ann and Guy were late from the snowy roads and didn't have to watch us learn to tie our shoes again.

There weren't too many recipes to do for the evening's demo, so we split into just three groups today. We all assumed it wouldn't take very long to do everything, after all the name of the book is slow and easy cooking! In the end, though, I think the lasagna was more stressful than any lasagna I'd ever made before. There was a frantic energy making the tomato sauce and pulling together all the ingredients, it was like we all forgot how to work efficiently and cleanly, or just think at all.

I started on the tomato sauce, which we had to double for the evening, and it felt like getting it through the food mill and the sieve took forever. The food mill helped us get a finer puree on the tomatoes, while the sieve removed any left over skins or seeds that would have made the sauce bitter. The following steps were easy as well, but again, it just seemed to take much longer than usual.

After chopping all the onions, I started to sweat them in two large pans because I was afraid all the tomato sauce wouldn't fit in one pot. As they slowly softened, I minced the garlic and gathered the rest of the ingredients, red wine, whole basil stems and sugar. I couldn't believe how much sugar needed to go into the sauce. I occasionally put some sugar in with sauce if the tomatoes are out of season or too tart, but a half cup of sugar for both sauces felt like an awful lot. We let it simmer for 15 minutes and the sauce was done (and still really sweet). Mike, Potter and I were all a little thrown by the sweetness of the sauce, we were all worried I had done the recipe wrong, but it turns out that it was fine. Mary Ann came by and did a few taste tests and thought we did a great job, but that the sauce was a little thin because of the type of canned tomatoes we'd used.

Potter was working on the ricotta filling, while Mike cleaned up the cooked, fresh artichokes to be included in the ricotta. I really enjoyed working with the artichoke with Mike because it was my first time using and cleaning fresh artichokes. I never grew up making artichokes at home because it's not a very prominent ingredient in Chinese food. I certainly enjoy it, but whenever I see them in the store, I feel like it'd be so impractical for me to buy them and make them because I wouldn't know how to clean them and would feel like I'm wasting a lot of it. I dislike nothing more than feeling like I'm wasting good food and money.

Mike walked me through the cleaning process of the artichoke, I have to say, it really is a measly amount of food for the size of the sucker. I guess people view it like I view eating crabs, eating it and finding the meat is part of the fun.

Once everything was in place, we moved our mise up front and began the assembly process. It's always at these moments when you start feeling calmer because you're in the final stretch. It's a false sense of security that lulls you in, but then you realize that you're short on tomato sauce, ricotta and mozzarella, the frantic feeling comes back and the three of us were back to scrambling for things.

And poor Kevin! We had to send him out into the cold, miserable snow storm to get us fresh mozzarella balls for the lasagna. For some reason, the mozzarella wasn't on our copy's recipe but it was on Mary Ann's and it created a great deal of confusion, especially later on when I was trying assemble everything for her lasagna demo. (I later figured out the discrepancy in the recipes: Mary Ann was using the lasagna recipe for skillet lasagna while we were using the one for baked in a dish lasagna. Poor Mary Ann! She thought the books were all printed wrong!)

Luckily, the time it took for Kevin to get the cheese for us was just enough for us to make an additional batch of tomato sauce and ricotta cheese. We slipped all four lasagnas into the oven just before five, giving us just enough time to get them baked, cut into the right portions and placed back in a low oven for holding.

In the meantime, Guy Esposito (Mary Ann's betrothed) gave us a quick and dirty overview of wine tasting and regional Italian wines. He knew so much about the different regions' soil composition and why it's so good for each of the varietals. The most interesting part of his talk with us, though, was his techniques for tasting wine.

First you had to know the five Ss:
1 - See
2 - Swirl
3 - Sniff
4 - Sip
5 - Savor

Then, his added tip (and I liked this one) was to take the wine into the back of your mouth and literally chew on it. It helps aerate and move the wine around your mouth, hitting up all the different taste areas on the tongue. Guy also made a great point about 'tasting' wine, we don't actually taste things with our tongues, we can sense the basic tastes, sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami/savory, but the actual tastes of fruit and whatever else, comes from the olfactory as a whole. I'm so glad that Guy pointed that out, it's a quirky and random point of clarification, but it's a good one.

We moved back into the kitchen to finish up final prep for Mary Ann's demo and for plating. Our lasagna was up first and each piece of lasagna needed to be finished with a little more sauce and a little fresh basil chiffonade. I was so glad to be able to do the chiffonade, actually, because I'd only learnt this great slicing technique from Jeff Fournier (actually Carlos Roderigues had tried to teach it to me earlier, but it didn't click for me then) it two weeks before and I really wanted to have a bit more practice at it. I've gotten pretty fast at it too! If nothing else, my knife skills are rockin' after this course.

I've started to really enjoy plating part the evenings now. There's a really simple satisfaction to knowing that there's standard look that we're working to achieve as quickly as possible. I love the factory line feeling, it really reminds you your apart of a team and it makes you feel almost like you're doing real work.

I didn't love the lasagna, but I did enjoy the change up in the flavor with the addition of the lemon zest. At first I couldn't place the flavor that was so unusual, but it gave the whole thing a light clean crisp feeling, a great change from the normal density of a traditional lasagna. Although it was a good flavor and provided a great lightness to the food, I don't think I'll be using it very soon. I like the idea, but the flavor was just too weird for me to handle. Somethings are better left familiar and comfortable.

The braised beef with carrots and cauliflower was nice, especially the end consistency of the meat, but I think it needed just a bit more salt in the dish. I think we were all expecting the carrots and cauliflower to be mushy but they ended up being perfectly stewed. It was a nicely cooked dish overall, I feel like it just needed a bigger flavor, or at least a little punch of flavor and/or pop.

Mary Ann and Guy were a great couple, I think Guy was more 'teacher' today and Mary Ann was a group leader, but we still got a lot done and were still able to learn about Italian wines. We were all pretty happy to have the opportunity to have some good Italian (especially after last week's debacle).


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