Saturday, April 24, 2010

Be Tuscan Once a Day – A Friend Returns to Cavallo Point

Last year Alex, Cass and I had a great time at a cooking class at Cavallo Point taught by Judy Witts Francini who was visiting from Toscana. A few weeks ago when I saw on Judy’s “Over a Tuscan Stove” blog that she would be returning to Cavallo Point, I immediately signed up for the class. Alex and Cass were not able to join me this time, but my friend Kaz, who also loves to cook, agreed to come along to keep me company.

Kaz and I arrived at Cavallo Point a bit early, so we decided to kick the event off with an Anchor Steam Liberty Ale at Cavallo Point's Farley Bar, one of the nicest places in Northern California to pass some time while watching the Golden Gate.

Just before the class’ 4:30PM start time, Kaz and I headed upstairs, past the Gregory Colbert display of elephants, to the cooking school’s facility on the second floor. Judy greeted us at the door together with Jayne Reichert, the cooking school’s director, and Jayne’s colleagues, Rosalyn England and Jennifer Rudd. Happily, we discovered that a couple of friends, Reidun and Angela, were also taking the class.

One of the enjoyable parts of any cooking class is to see the ingredients laid out in preparation at the start. Cooking is like many things in life – sometimes the anticipation is almost as good as – or even better than - the ultimate consummation.

After everyone got settled in the room with glasses of Col Vetoraz Prosecco, Jayne introduced Judy who made a few comments (including how she had just escaped Europe on one of the last flights out before the Eyjafjallajokull volcanic ash cloud closed things down), and away we went.

Our menu for the day was:

~ Antipasto: Tuna with White Beans
~ Primo: Ragu with Pici
~ Secondo: Sicilian Grilled Braciole (stuffed beef rolls)
~ Cortorno: Garmugia (a Spring vegetable stew from Lucca)
~ Dolce: Chocolate Salame

Antipasto: Tonno con Fagioli

While she was making her introductory comments, Judy prepared and served the antipasto course - a Tuscan favorite of tuna with white beans and red onions. Very simple and a great combination. The beans, cooked with sage and garlic, were a dish we had prepared at our earlier class with Judy, and are excellent on their own. The tuna was from the Pacific and packed in olive oil.

After that appetizer, Judy divided us up into groups to tackle the remainder of the dishes.

Primo: Pici con Ragu

Kaz and I were assigned to il primo, with Kaz on pasta and me with the ragu team.

Pici is a Tuscan pasta - about the thickness of a pencil - which had its origins in the area around Siena. Nancy and I first tried it in 2006 when it was served at a wonderful dinner at a small restaurant named Osteria La Porta in the small town of Monticchiello
in central Toscana between Montepulciano and Montalcino. We were told by the proprietor that an older woman from the village came in each morning to make it. Most recently we had it at Sociale in Presidio Heights in San Francisco. One thing which distinguishes it from many other types of Italian fresh pasta is that it uses no eggs in the dough – simply flour and warm water.

Here is a collection of pictures illustrating the steps in the preparation (at least a couple of those hands belong to Kaz!). Notwithstanding the good work of the solitary matron of Monticchiello, it is the sort of dish where it certainly helps to have a team effort.

Jayne took the prize for the longest pici of the day – such a showoff. Accordingly to Judy the ability to make long pici is a highly-prized trait among young women (and hopefully today young men too) in the Siena area.

While Kaz was working on the pici, I was over with the group preparing the ragu. If we were in Toscana, the only proper meat sauce for pici would be one with cinghiale – the Italian wild boar which is found throughout Toscana.

However, for our dish, we used ground sirloin with a bit of prosciutto and porcini mushrooms. Not bad, but I always prefer a pork-based sauce. One tip Judy gave us when preparing the soffritto (the minced carrot, onion, celery mixture that forms the base of the ragu) was to let it almost burn in order to caramelize it fully and thereby enhance the flavor.

Secondo: Braciole Siciliane alla Griglia

The braciole were thin slices of beef rolled around a filling of breadcrumbs, garlic, chili flakes, parsley and lemon zest. Another Italian name for braciole is involtini, which is the name for this dish that I had heard before. Once the individuals pieces had been rolled up, we then took three rolls, put three skewers through them, and then cut between the skewers to form individual pieces - a nice trick.

Patrick and I learned to make a similar dish a couple of years back at one of our Sicilian cooking classes at Mezzo Mezzo in San Rafael (in that case named Involtini alla Palermitana) although that version used veal and a much richer filling (including ham, mortadella, cacciocavallo cheese, and pine nuts) and was sauteed in butter and white wine.

I also came across a wonderful post (with excellent photos) on the Lucy’s Kitchen Notebook blog about a class that Judy had taught at the Becchina Estate in western Sicily at which they had prepared an Involtini di Manzo (Stuffed Beef Rolls) dish that was similar to our Mezzo Mezzo dish, although it incorporated a tomato sauce. As Judy pointed out with virtually every dish, once you have the basic concept down there are many directions in which you can take it.

Contorno: Garmugia

Judy explained that this Spring vegetable dish – or at least its name - originated from the beautiful walled city of Lucca a bit west of Firenze in Toscana.

The group working on it was at the far end of the room so I did not see much of the preparation. However, the ingredients included sliced baby artichokes, fava beans, asparagus, peas, young garlic and pancetta.

Dolce: Salame Dolce

This was an interesting dish – one I had never heard of before but which is apparently well-known to every Italian child. Despite its name it is meat-less. Its ingredients included pieces of cookies to imitate chunks of fat (Petit Beurre cookies), sugar, butter, egg yolks, cocoa and grappa.

After forming a salame shaped log, the dish was wrapped in foil and put in the freezer to firm up.
Once all the prep work was done the cooking proceed pretty quickly.

The pici were boiled in salted water (per Judy, add the salt AFTER the water is boiling to avoid staining your pot) in batches, then added with ladles of the ragu to a separate pot until all were done.

Once everything was ready, the dishes were turned out, the salame dolce was sliced, we took our seats and were served.

In addition to the Prosecco we were served at the beginning of the class, during our meal we enjoyed a white 2008 Falanghina dei Feudi di San Gregorio and a red 2007 Langhe Nebbiolo from Parusso. Both excellent pairs.

Judy also had with her some copies of her new cookbook – “Secrets From My Tuscan Kitchen” – which includes recipes for the dishes we prepared, and which I was happy to see carries the "Tuscan Husband Seal of Approval" - è buono! = it is good! I picked up a copy.

It was another fun day at Cavallo Point thanks to Judy and the hard working Cavallo Point staff (from the left in the below photo: Judy with Jayne, Rosalyn, and Jen), and Kaz and I certainly had a good time.

Plus, where else can you walk out of class and be able to see night falling over one of the world’s most beautiful bridges?

I am looking forward to our next visit to Cavallo Point, not to mention Toscana!


Vanessa said...

Ciao Michael,

You got introduced to salame di cioccolato!! I laughed when I saw it on the menu, and then I read your description- really funny!! I never had the grappa version before, and considering how much of a grappa fan I am I should have thought of it!!! Didn't you love it??

gastronomichael said...

Thanks Vanessa. It was certainly interesting!

connie said...

Which one was your favorite dish? The pici with ragu seems pretty easy to make ... Worth replicating at home?

gastronomichael said...

Thanks Connie. Yes, the pici with the ragu was my favorite. The braciole were also good, although if I was going to make that dish I would go farther and make the more elaborate version described in my blog - e.g. check out the photos and recipe on the Lucy's Kitchen Notebook blog.

Charla said...

This is gorgeous!