For part of our trip in Italy, we traveled to Orvieto, in the Umbria region. This might be one of my favorite towns in Italy. Not that I have seen them all, because I haven’t, but I really like this one. It’s like stepping back in time to the year 1400 – a magical combination of Medieval architecture, winding cobblestone streets, eerie streetlamps, and a delicate morning mist that hangs over the outskirts of town and gives everything a slightly fairy-bookish feel. And since its modern times, it’s plague-free! Cool, right? I thought so.
While we were there, we took a cooking class with Velia de Angelis. Velia has worldwide cooking experience, working as both a chef and a cooking instructor. In Orvieto, she teaches cooking classes and owns, runs, and cooks for her champagne bar, La Champagneria. Incidentally, I became the “mayor” of La Champagneria on Foursquare. I’m not sure it counts, though, as I was the one that put it on Foursquare’s radar, and got the mayorship by visiting twice in two days.
Anyhoo! Back to cooking class. We made some amazing things. Velia, as you can imagine from her experience, has a lot to share in the kitchen. We began with some little bread rolls (freshly made bread, by the way), stuffed with sausage and topped with sesame or poppy seeds. For the vegetarians in the audience, these rolls can be stuffed with anything – or nothing – they are very versatile.
Then, we were on to eggplant rolls. These were fabulous and involved minimal cooking. The result is like a vegetable sushi roll, and is very easy (and healthy) to make. It would be excellent for parties, especially of the holiday variety. I am including the recipe for these at the end of this post.
We used some special top-secret ingredients. Like BUTTER! Lots of it. Velia says that it’s very important to use good butter. She had a fresh cream butter variety, but she mentioned that she has cooked with Land o’ Lakes. However, I am planning on researching butters for you. It’s just good to know, you know? So stand by for that. We also used a specific kind of baking powder that has a hint of vanilla in it. I’ve seen this stuff in the States (in fact, you can get it at Tony’s Deli in Hoboken), and it’s definitely worth trying as it adds a teeny-tiny touch of sweetness to breads and baked goods. As for the canned tomatoes that were used for the pasta, Velia prefers the Graziella brand. She says that you don’t have to add any seasoning to them. I’m going to try and locate these for you in the States. If anyone has seem ’em, let me know!
Onward to handmade pasta! Oh yes. Velia made this look so easy. She didn’t even use a pasta-maker, just her hands and a large rolling pin. The pasta was topped with a tomato sauce, fresh cherry tomatoes, and an arugula pesto (genius!), also freshly-made.
As if the butter was not enough (it was not!), we then broke out the peanut oil! For frying! Peanut oil really is the best for frying, in my opinion. What did we fry? Perhaps you should ask what DIDN’T we fry. No, I’m just messing with you all. We fried squash flowers.
This is quite a popular thing to do in Italy, and let me tell you, they are on to something. It’s very easy. You take a squash flower, coat it in some batter (flour and water with salt) and fry it up in peanut oil until they are golden. Sometimes the flowers are stuffed with a little ricotta cheese (most often the ricotta is the hard, salted variety), and occasionally, you will see them stuffed with an anchovy. I’m telling you, it’s magical.
Onto dessert! We made good use of that butter in cookies and cakes. Velia constructed an amazing fruit tart (crust: 8 parts butter, 1 part other stuff) filled with fruit preserves and dusted with confectioner’s sugar. This tart made an excellent dessert, and also breakfast. I should know, I ate the leftovers the next morning that Velia so nicely packaged up for me at the end of class.
All the dishes that Velia prepared were not only delicious, but also very approachable. By this, I mean that it’s quite possible to prepare them yourself. Maybe not as expertly as Velia does, but there is no trickery, or slight of hand. The preparation is very straight-forward, which is something about these dishes and Italian cooking in general that appeals to me. I really felt that I learned something (quite a few things, actually), and I am definitely going to give these recipes a try in the not-too-distant future. Probably making them as I type this, you’ll find out soon enough.
In the meantime, I give you the recipe for the Eggplant Rolls:
What You Need:
3 large eggplants
1 bag arugula
Large handful cherry tomatoes
Dried Ricotta cheese
Salt and Pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
What To Do:
Start by cutting off some of the eggplant skin. You can leave some for color, but removing the skin will reduce a bit of eggplanty-related bitterness. Thinly slice the eggplant lengthwise so you have long pieces. Place the eggplant in a bowl and sprinkle with salt (which removes the water, and makes it easier to bake). Let the salt chill on the eggplant for about 20-30 minutes. There should be water draining from the eggplant, so pat it dry with a paper towel.
Cover a baking pan with parchment paper. Drizzle the paper with olive oil. Line the eggplant on the parchment-lined pan overlapping the edges. You may need two baking pans. Drizzle more olive oil on top of the eggplant.
Bake in the oven at 375 degrees until the eggplant turn a light shade of brown. Don’t overcook – at the risk of them turning too brown and chewey (gross).
Remove the pan from the oven and let it cool for about 3o minutes. While you’re waiting, prepare the tomatoes byt cutting them in half and removing the seeds and juices from the center.
Grate the ricotta into a bowl – you will need about a cup of grated cheese.
Remove the eggplant from the baking dish, and place on a sheet of parchment paper that you have placed on a work surface (your table, countertop, whatevs). Keep the eggplant overlapping each other – just like you baked them.
Spread the arugula on top of the eggplant, the grated cheese on top of that, and then finally the cherry tomato halves. Add some salt and pepper for good luck. I mean taste.
Using the parchment paper, roll the eggplant into a tight roll (like sushi). Make sure you keep it rolled tightly.
At this point, you can either put the roll in the fridge and let it chill for a few hours, OR you can get a very sharp knife, cut it up, and put it on a dish to serve!
Have I used the word “magical” yet on this post? Yeah, I thought so.