“I am not a glutton – I am an explorer of food”
― Erma Bombeck
Last week I booked myself onto the full day pasta course at La Cucina Caldesi cooking school, which is attached to the Italian restaurant, with the same name, on Marylebone Lane in central London. I was keen to learn from an Italian pro on the various skills and techniques required to make different types of pasta and gnocchi and the sauces that accompany them.
Cooking courses are always very good fun, not least because you are thrown together with a diverse bunch of kindred fellow foodies who are all eager and receptive to learn. As well as getting to cook a number of dishes together you also get to feast on them over a long lunch with a glass or two of wine. The ringmaster for the day was the formidable Stefano who tells things straight and does not suffer fools….just don’t mention the ‘pepper lady’ to him, but clearly is a warm hearted Italian from Parma – well via Lewisham, with a good sense of humour.
The workshop included a lengthy list of recipes ranging from green fettuccine with rabbit ragu to potato gnocchi with tomato, sausage and fennel seed ragu, scialatielli – fresh pasta ribbons with herbs and parmesan, cannelloni, ravioli, gluten free pasta, spinach pasta, clams with chilli, garlic, white wine and ribbons pasta and that glorious spaghetti alla Puttanesca, which is a tomato sauce filled with olives, capers, anchovies, garlic and herbs.
From the word go Stefano set a good pace as we had a lot of ground to cover. First we discussed sauces and he showed us how to make a range of good old honest tomato sauces. The class discovered that we all use too little salt and not enough extra virgin olive oil (has to be extra virgin folks there is no going back now) but once we’d ironed out these failings we all stepped up to the plate and were more liberal with both ingredients.
Making gnocchi was surprisingly very straightforward or perhaps it was the case that Eric, our chosen classmate, made it look easy, to bind the potato, ’00’ flour, egg, salt and pepper. After a large dough ball was created it was separated for the group so that we could all have some dough to work with and create the gnocchi itself. Once the dough is made, it takes a very short time to prepare and then cook them as they only require a couple of minutes in boiling water. Thankfully we had a tasty sausage, tomato and fennel seed ragu ready to incorporate with the gnocchi so that we could sit down and enjoy our hard labour.
Something that I for one am guilty of is that quite often I serve a pasta dish at home and then I place the sauce on top. This one act alone gives the game away that I am not a genuine Italian mamma, although the fact that I don’t look the slightest bit Italian I guess doesn’t help! Italian pasta dishes are mixed together with the sauce before they hit the plate, so that when the dish comes to the table the pasta and the sauce are already the best of friends.
We all got very stuck into making the pasta ribbons. Stefano taught us a nifty little trick to prepare them, which I have been practicing at home ever since. In a nutshell: roll out some pasta and then feeder through all the settings on your pasta machine. Make sure you scatter a good helping of flour underneath as well as on top of the pasta and cut into 40cm pieces. Leave to dry out for a couple of minutes before placing your pasta rectangle horizontally in front of you and folding in each end, making sure to do two, three or four folds each end before they almost reach each other in the centre. Then cut through the pasta vertically leaving a finger size between the next cut. Then slip the knife under the middle of the pasta running horizontally and then lift and voila your pasta should look like the one above and below. It was a very satisfying action to achieve.
The ravioli was also very enjoyable to make. So much so I made more when I got home for my dinner guest and then the following day to feed the girls. The ones I made at home I filled with ricotta, parmesan, chives and pink peppercorns. You can get so creative with the fillings that I am looking forward to experimenting over the coming months.
After almost 6 hours on our feet – bar some time to sit down and enjoy the food – exhausted and very full indeed we all bid our farewells and dispersed into the metropolis clutching our goodie bags of leftover fresh pasta for us to use at home. The day flew by ever so quickly and I feel I took away some new skills. If you are thinking of going on a course at La Cucina Caldesi one recommendation would be eat a very light breakfast….you have been warned!
Potato gnocchi with a sausage, tomato and fennel seed ragu
A recipe I learned during the course at La Cucina Caldesi
1kg floury potatoes (King Edward, Maris Piper or Desiree)
1 heaped tsp salt
sprinkling of black pepper
300g ’00’ flour
6 Italian pork sausages (if you live in the UK you can order on line from here or here)
6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, lightly crushed
1 onion (red or white), finely chopped
1 tbsp fennel seeds
2 bay leaves
125ml red wine
3 tbsp tomato puree
400g tin of whole Italian plum tomatoes
To make the ragu:
1. Remove the sausages from their casings and chop up the meat using your hands.
2.Heat up the olive oil in a frying pan over a medium heat and the garlic. After 2 minutes add the onion and seasoning and allow the onion to become translucent – this will take 5 minutes on a low/medium heat.
3. Throw in the fennel seeds and bay leaf and stir into the onions and garlic.
4. Add the sausage meat and fry for around 7 minutes or until cooked through. You will need to stir the meat regularly to stop it sticking.
5. Add the red wine and allow to reduce for a couple of minutes. Then add the tomato puree and tinned tomatoes and stir well.
6. Leave the ragu to gently simmer for 10-15 minutes allowing the flavour to work together.
To make the gnocchi:
1. Boil the potatoes in their skins in salted water until tender, which can take up to an hour.
2. Peel the potatoes whilst hot using a fork and sharp knife and then pass the potatoes through a food mill (see photo of the potato and gnocchi shots).
3. On a clean flat surface empty out the ground potatoes and add the flour, egg and seasoning and knead together into a dough.
4. On a lightly floured work surface roll the dough into a 2cm thick sausage shape and then cut into 2cm long pieces. Place in a tray which has been lightly scattered with semolina or flour.
5. As gnocchi freezes very well it is advisable to make double portions and freeze half. When you want to use again, cook from frozen and allow an extra minute or two cooking time.
6. Place the fresh gnocchi in a pan of boiled salted water. When they rise to the surface strain and place in a large bowl/plate ready for the sauce.
Place the cooked gnocchi in a large bowl and pour in the sauce and mix together gently with a spoon. Ladle into bowls/plates or into a large serving platter.