A Cooking Class with Lynne Rossetto Kasper
Lynne Rossetto Kasper, host of NPR's "The Splendid Table" and author of the award-winning cookbook of the same name, says that in Italy, food is more than cooking: "You can't separate it from its context, from the people, the land, the mentalities, and the stories it is entwined with," she says. So in her new book, The Italian Country Table, she brings the reader not just the recipes of the many regions of rural Italy but also the sights and sounds and stories of the places and people who create them. A renowned cooking teacher, Kasper came to the New York cooking school De Gustibus at Macy's to share not just her expertise in Italian cooking but also her experiences traveling through her beloved Italy, staying in people's homes and cooking with them, visiting farms, cheese makers, and goatherds, and eating in rustic establishments all over the countryside.
About Lynne Rossetto Kasper and The Italian Country Table
In a world where most home cooks barely have time to stop by the supermarket and pick up a frozen chicken breast for dinner, life in rural Italy holds a special appeal: Food is not just sustenance but a way of nurturing connections with family and friends and with the seasons and the land itself. Lynne Rossetto Kasper brings that enviable way of being vividly to life in The Italian Country Table, with glimpses of the world of the people who produce Italy's incomparable foodstuffs, of the traditions and rituals of the table, and of the techniques and philosophies of home cooks from many regions. She also brings us recipes for food that is always simple, flavorful, naturally healthful, and immensely appealing. For anyone familiar with Kasper's previous book, The Splendid Table, which won both the James Beard and the Julia Child/IACP cookbook-of-the-year awards, Kasper's ability to convey the essential techniques that will allow the home cook to recreate authentic dishes and the sheer exuberance with which she describes her journeys through her spiritual home will come as no surprise.
About the Menu
Kasper started the class with a perfectly simple dish of Tuscan white beans with salami, sliced red onions, and fried sage leaves from the antipasto table of a pizzeria in Chianti, made especially delicious by tossing the just-cooked hot beans with vinegar and garlic and allowing them to soak up the flavors. An interesting Chianti white wine, Nozzole Vigneto Le Bruniche, accompanied the beans: Made entirely from Chardonnay, the wine was full-bodied, ripe, and complex while maintaining a clean crispness. Next, we traveled to Sicily"It's so different from Tuscany it could be another planet, much less another country," Kasper saidwhere she introduced us to two shepherds who make ricotta cheese every morning at dawn over a wood fire from still-warm sheep's milk and then eat it over chewy pasta with spicy tomato sauce as a second breakfast. The re-created dish was one of the most luscious pastas I've ever tasted.
Next came The Baron's Lemon Lamb, learned from the wonderful cook who served the guests in the country-home-turned-guesthouse of an incredibly rude and arrogant baron. An easy dish that can be grilled outside or roasted in the oven, it's made by rubbing butterflied leg of lamb with a paste of garlic, oregano, sage, white wine, lemon juice, and olive oil. Sweet red peppers roasted with mesclun greens and spiked with olives and hot pepper accompanied the lamb, along with delicious soft polenta enriched with Sicilian sheep's cheese (see below for Kasper's foolproof polenta cooking method). A Chianti Classico Riserva from Nozzole with classic leathery, leafy, rustic flavors was a wonderful partner to the shepherd's pasta and the lamb. Dessert was the most complicated dish of the bunch: a fabulous and festive almond-flavored semifreddo studded with candied fruits and drizzled with chocolate sauce, made from sometimes-tricky Italian meringue (a candy thermometer is recommended to make sure the sugar syrup is at the right stage when it's added to beaten egg whites). Michele Chiarlo Asti Spumanti, lightly sparkling and ethereally sweet, was a great finale.
Tips from Lynne Rossetto Kasper
- Don't bother buying anything but top-quality salami. How can you be sure? First of all, no Hormel, no Boar's Head, but more importantly, "Taste!" says Kasper. Here's her method: Chew, and if it tastes good, swallow and count to ten. If there's an unpleasant aftertaste, don't buy itit's not top quality and may have been treated or stored badly. The same technique works for cheese.
- Kasper would normally use a Tuscan oil for cooking Tuscan dishes, but for our class, she used a Sicilian oil for everything. Why? Because every other oil in the store was two years old. Olive oil has one year, she explained, and after that, it's not that it goes bad, but it fades. "At the prices you pay for premium olive oil and at 100 calories a tablespoon, you do not want old olive oil!" she says. Look for a harvest date or year (most olives are harvested between October and March) and buy the newest you can find.
- An essential tip for cooking great pastaundercook it slightly and then add it to the pan where the sauce is cooking. It allows the pasta to bond with the sauce for authentic texture and flavor. For more on pasta, see the wonderful chapter on cooking various versions of pasta with tomato sauce in The Italian Country Table.
- Polenta is a misunderstood dish, Kasper says: "Many recipes tell you to cook it, stirring, for 15 minutesit's practically still raw at that stage and tastes harsh." In true northern Italian polenta country, it's never cooked for less than 45 minutes, but it's tedious. So she has devised a foolproof double-boiler method for perfect polenta: Combine one part polenta to three parts boiling water (for relatively stiff polenta; one to four works for softer texture) in a metal bowl and whisk to get rid of lumps. Add salt to taste, then cover the bowl with foil. Set over a pot of boiling water and scrape and stir with a spatula every 20 minutes to half hour. Cook this way for an hour and a half, and it will be perfect. It's also easy to hold and keep piping hot until the rest of the meal is ready. One more tipbuy your polenta in small quantities from a store with good turnoverit goes stale very quickly.
Kate Murphy Zeman