The Great Plotnik

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Serious Eating, Part 2

Italy: The Serious Eating, Part Two

Cooking with Giovanna

By Lynn Gweenie, GP World Food Correspondent

We've made it to Gangivecchio. Cooking class has begun.

Giovanna is stylish and imposing but not unapproachable, standing in front of her stove, using a wooden spoon to saute a chopped onion in a hot skillet. She wears dark glasses and a white double-breasted chef's jacket with the name "Paolo" sewed on it.

"This is my brother's," she said. "Mine is dirty."

I am guessing late fifties. This is based on the cover of her first cookbook, which she co-authored with her mother Wanda Tornabene. In that photo, her mother looks to be around sixty and the pretty, thin young woman standing beside her can't be more than thirty-five. The book was published in 1996.

But Wanda Tornabene has passed away. Giovanna has her sleeves rolled up and a very hot flame under the saute pan. She stirs like she means it, talking all the time.

"Don't smoke," she says. "I started smoking when my mother died. It was hell to stop. I've gained 20 kilos. The onions are almost ready."

Four of us are standing in back of the stove facing Giovanna: my partner, Ducknik, and our friends Patter and Peetsy Shmick. I've got a note pad and a pencil. So far, I've written down "Hot stove" and "Don't smoke."

It took us most of yesterday to wind our rented Opel through the interior mountains of central Sicily, passing through medieval villages above valleys terraced with olive trees, just to get to Gangivecchio and take this class with Giovanna. Peetsy had discovered her cookbook in D.C. and it mentioned the 14th Century Benedictine abbey where Giovanna lives with her brother Paolo and gives cooking classes. The recipes were fantastic. I e-mailed her, one thing led to another and here we are.

"Today we are making Caponata," Giovanna says. "I cut up and precooked this eggplant this morning." She nods towards a large bowl holding perhaps three quarts of cooked, chopped eggplant.

"Did you soak it first?" Peetsy asks.

"Sicilian eggplant is not bitter," Giovanna answers. "We just cut it up and cook it in olive oil. You don't have to soak eggplant if it's good eggplant,"

I write down: "Good eggplant."

"Now, the celery." She takes two stalks of celery and dices them quickly and coarsely on her wooden countertop, then tosses them from the blade of her knife into the pan with the onions. "Boil the celery for five minutes first," she says.

"Boil celery," I write.

A handful of chopped carrots go in too, then one or two stirs and she calls curtly in Italian to her assistant Peppe, an old man wearing a checkered long-sleeved shirt, gray three-button vest and rather rumpled pants. I hear the words "olivo" and "tagliare."

We met Peppe last night. Walking with a pronounced limp, he served us our dinner in the dining room, where we were the only guests. In fact, with the exception of Giovanna, Paolo, Peppe, an old woman who had been a friend of Giovanna's mother and a dog named Pedro, we seem to be the only ones here.

"Peppe is eighty three," Giovanna whispered to us last night. "He has been with our family for forty five years."

Last night's dinner was prepared by Giovanna and Paolo and was absolutely magnificent -- antipasti of a mild cheese with Giovanna's red pepper jelly, hot Sicilian flatbread covered with coppa ham, a primi of a Sicilian version of northern tagliatelle with meat ragu, a secundi of pork involtini with rosemary potatoes and a creamy pudding of fruit and cookies for dessert.

"Bread, pasta, potatoes and cookies," I said to Giovanna. "Can it get any better?"

Peppe takes a large bowl of green olives from the refrigerator and begins removing the stones by first smashing each olive with the flat of his knife and then sliding out the pit. He wears a look on his face that says:

"She didn't have to tell me about the olives. I was just going to get them out of the fridge."

Giovanna continues sauteeing, then when Peppe brings the de-stoned olives she throws them into the pan with the onions and celery. After a few minutes she tosses in wine vinegar, a handful of capers and the chopped eggplant.

"Remember to wash a little salt off the capers and olives," she says.

The inn's kitchen looks nothing like the modern kitchens you see on TV cooking shows. People actually cook here. There are no cabinets, only open shelves, no off-camera crew doing all the work, only Peppe. Spices are in old greasy containers. Fresh herbs dangle from wooden planks. A collection of at least twenty five different-size boxes of dried pasta are precariously balanced against one wall, looking like a modernist sculpture that could crumble any second. The six-burner stove is on an island in the middle of the kitchen and there is an old-fashioned sink behind.

It is starting to smell really good in here. Giovanna continues stirring and talking. She does a sweet Julia Child imitation. We mention going to Chez Panisse in Berkeley. She says Alice Waters is a good friend of hers.

"When I come to the Bay Area I stay with Alice in Berkeley. We sit in her kitchen and eat pizza and drink wine."

I write down: "Alice Waters."

She jerks her head. "Pepe! La zucca!"

Peppe hurries to one of the counters where a large oval pumpkin sits with one slice cut out of it.  He begins to cut the rest into serving pieces. Giovanna speaks quickly to him. I hear "olio de olivo" and "menta, tutti piccolo."

"Si, si, menta. Io so. Menta." Mint. He knows. And everything in small pieces.

"And now, the tomatoes," she says, but instead of grabbing fresh tomatoes she takes a quart-sized bottle out of the refrigerator and pours half of it into the pan. It seems to be tomato sauce.

Peppe looks over and smiles.

"This tomato sauce is Peppe's pride," she says. "Every August he makes hundreds of pounds of it. The kitchen can't be used until he's done. Tomatoes everywhere. We grow them here. He cleans them, chops them, cooks them, then puts everything through a food mill until it is smooth. We put them into jars and cook them just a few minutes until they are hot. Then they are sterilized and we'll use this sauce all year. Here, taste."

I put out my hand and she pours a little bit from the bottle into my palm. I dip my finger and taste it.

"Mmm," I say. It's a good tomato sauce, but very mild. My Mexican-tinged tomato sauce would never pass muster with Giovanna Tornabene.

"Did you know that 'caponata' is a joke name?" she says. "Like 'Welsh Rabbit' that doesn't have any rabbit in it? A capone is a special chicken that only the rich could afford. Poor Sicilians had to use eggplant instead, but called it 'caponata' anyway. OK, we'll let it sit now. We are making Pasta Al Forno -- baked pasta. Let's start the ragu."

She grabs another saute pan, cuts up another onion and more celery, adds a few shakes of olive oil and begins sauteeing. Then she opens a package of meat that looks like it came from Safeway. She tosses it into the pan with the onion and celery and sautees it over a very high heat, breaking up the meat with her spoon.

"This is ground veal," she says. "I buy it at the store, it's just as good as anybody else's."

Perhaps our faces register surprise. "You have to understand," she says. "In the old days, women had cooks. And maybe we couldn't get good ingredients in the store. But today -- women are too busy, working out of the house, raising their families. They have no time. They can't spend the day shopping and preparing everything from scratch.  Like puff pastry -- why take hours to make what you can buy in the store? It's very good quality and nobody will know the difference."

"But you still make your own pasta," I say.

"Oh, pasta, that's different. We are Sicilian."

She waves with her free hand to the boxes of dry pasta on the other wall. "We use many dry pastas, and they are all good, but fresh pasta makes all the difference in a dish where the sauce is featured. Like last night's ragu -- Paolo made the taglietelle here in the kitchen."

Paolo Tornabene walks in. He is stocky and wears a red vest the color of a deer hunter's. He speaks no English at all, but when he does say something he is gentle and soft-spoken, almost like a country priest.

Paolo is not only a chef, he is the architect who rebuilt the ancient stables on the property into the inn and kitchen we are staying and cooking in right now.

"We loved your flatbread last night," Patter says. 

Paolo smiles a shy smile, nods his head a little, says nothing. Giovanna repeats in Italian what Patter said in English. Paolo's reaction is the same: small smile, smaller nod.

Now she adds the rest of the tomato sauce bottle into the onion-celery-veal mix, and after a few seconds opens a box of milk and pours in maybe a cup and a half. The heat is very high under the pan and before long the whole thing is boiling and bubbling.

"This is the proper heat," she says, before we can ask. "You want to cook it hot and fast, to concentrate the milk into the meat.

Paolo says something to her in Italian.

"Yes," she says. "Paolo doesn't use milk. His ragu is more Sicilian. Our great-grandmother came from Emiglia, in the north, near Bologna. So I make mine more like she did."

She tastes, smiles and says: "OK. Now, we make the besciamella."

In a mixing bowl, she mixes together four pats of butter and a cup of flour, transfers them to a pan, then turns off the heat, opens another box of milk and pours some in. She continues to stir until she has the consistency she wants, then she sets it aside while she pours the rest of the milk box into the ragu. A few minutes later, she tastes the ragu with a soup spoon and adds more milk.

"Taste, always by taste," she says. "No recipe is exact. Learn to trust your own taste."

She does this several more times, tasting, boiling it all rapidly until the meat sauce has thickened, and then she adds a considerable amount of nutmeg.

"Nutmeg is from Indonesia. The Spanish controlled Sicily for several hundred years. It wasn't all bad. They brought nutmeg to the Caribbean and then from there, we got it. You can't make ragu without nutmeg." One last taste, a little more salt and then she takes it off the fire.

"We'll use dry anneli for the pasta," she says. Peppe is already waiting with a box of dried cheerio-shaped pasta circles. He has boiled a huge pot of water and he takes back the box of anneli and adds the pasta to the pot, stirring all the time. When it is ready he removes it with a skimmer and turns off the kettle. He stands at his version of attention with a slouch. They are ready to assemble the dish.

First the ragu, spread out in a 9x13 baking dish. Then the pasta on top of that and the besciamella on top of that. Pecorino cheese gets grated liberally over the top and the whole thing goes in the oven, looking a little like a pound cake.

"Ai, Peppe!" Giovanni cries. Peppe stands up straight. Giovanna points to the chopped pumpkin -- the pieces are too big. Peppe squinches up his eyes but every piece of pumpkin now has to be cut into three smaller pieces. It takes awhile, but he does his work then adds the pumpkin pieces to a saute pan with a lot of olive oil. Perhaps this stove only has one heat-- high -- Peppe cooks the pumpkin quickly in oil, then removes it. Off the stove, he adds the chopped mint, Giovanna tosses in sugar and salt, and it goes into the oven with the pasta al forno.

While she has been making the caponata, pumpkin and Pasta al Forno, she has also been walking back and forth to the marble pastry counter to put together the Cassiatella for dessert -- poached and peeled pears blended with ricotta cheese and layered into a crust of flour, chocolate, melted butter, eggs, yeast and vanilla. That has also gone into the oven. For the moment, we have finished.

"Time to go into the dining room," Giovanna says, wiping her hands on a dish towel. We see they have set two tables, the same one where we sat last night, by the window overlooking the garden, and a smaller one behind a pillar next to the kitchen for the four of them plus Pedro the dog. Class took around two hours but passed in an instant.

The others sit but I walk around the room, smiling at the old photos on the wall of Giovanna's family, of her mother Wanda and her father Enzo hunting in Sicily in 1949, of her maternal grandfather and great-grandfather, a distinguished looking big-moustached army man in full uniform. I see that most of the inn's tables, chairs and flatwear have already been packed away for the season as it is late October and cold weather is coming. There is a cloth draped over the espresso machine and the power cord has been wound around it and tied in a knot. This must be why we weren't offered coffee last night.

I stare out the window at the abbey next door, the ivy draped over brick and stone walls, the fountains and fields beyond, the cypress and Lombardy poplars and the hills beyond that we drove over to get here yesterday and will have to drive over again to leave in just a few hours.

Peppe serves us caponata, pasta al forno with besciamella, pumpkin with mint and then the magnificent cassiatella.  He smiles when we swoon at the amazing dessert.

"Sono buoni, eh?"

When we are done, he picks up the last dish and limps into the kitchen.

I hear dogs barking, birds calling. I feel the rest of our vacation banging against the calendar. I want it all to go away and let me stay right here. I want coffee. But there isn't any.


At 3:50 PM, Blogger The Fevered Brain said...

This is a fabulous post!


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