Monday, 12 October 2015

Guy Grossi: The Don of Italian Cooking

What happens when you take a foodie and send them to the shops for some ingredients for some simple home Italian cooking? They walk out with a $270 motorised pasta machine, a $60 potato ricer, new measuring cups and spoons and a box full of produce of course (plus a chest of drawers and a mirror but that is another story). This is what happened to me this weekend anyway and as I sit here looking at my goodies next to my flacid empty wallet and contemplate the amazing cooking that is about to happen I know that I did not waste a penny.

Italian cuisine as we know it today feels ancient, it feels like it has deep roots in the past but like so many things we hold dear in our imaginations, it is not. Italy as it exists today did not unite till the 19th century and new world ingredients that are so iconic to Italian cooking like tomatoes and potatoes did not enter the Italian repertoire till the late 18th century. It is hard to imagine Italian cooking without the use of the beloved tomato but you can take comfort in knowing that evidence of pasta making goes back as far as 400BC and the much told story of Marco Polo discovering pasta in China and bringing back to Europe is just a myth, phew.

Just as tastes and trends change today Italian food has been through many incarnations. The 4th century BC food writer Archestratus spoke of seasonal and fresh ingredients unadulterated by the heavy use of herbs and spice but the Romans were known for their decadent use of flavourings. Like many things it has come full circle and Italian food as we know if today is once again all about seasonal, fresh, simple food where the produce speaks louder than processes it is put through to turn it into a meal. And as the world grows ever smaller who knows where Italian cooking will go in the future.

To delve into a great cuisine you need a great master to take you there and for this journey the Australian chef Guy Grossi will be my don. Awarded the prestigious "L’insegna Del Ristorante Italiano" by the Italian President and brave enough to be photographed in his bathtub I knew I had the right man for the job. His book "Love Italy" has been meticulously compiled to cover the diversity found across many of the regions of Italy. Above all it is a love letter to a country that Guy clearly feels deeply connected to. Its stunning photography of both the food as well as Italy itself will give you a greater understanding of Italy, it's people and of course it's food. As a home cook this book need be the only book on Italian cooking you will need.

Despite my love of Italian food I have not personally cooked a lot of it. It is a meal I often reserve for a good restaurant as despite being a simple cuisine it also means there is no where to hide. It is time though to broaden my horizons. Working with two first generation Italians means my cooking cred is starting to slip, I need to up my game to be able to compete on their level, add some more skills to my kitty and eat some good food. Isn't that what this cooking this boils down to in the end, eating good food?

To get started I sat down with Guy's immense cookbook and trawled through it looking for a couple of classics to get started with on the weekend. Nothing too fancy just a few good dishes to learn the basics and how could I look any further than Gnocchi and Tortellini.

The first time I ate Gnocchi I was pretty sure the chef had taken balls of clag glue, bound it together with saw dust and served it up. Such an experience leaves you with a bit of a scar and I have never really gone back for more. This time was to be different though. Guy's recipe "Gnocchi Alla Fontina" was the key to light fluffy potato gnocchi and with a sauce as simple as cream, Fontina cheese and parsley the gnocchi is really the hero of the dish. Prior to cooking this dish I had never heard of Fontina and as it turns out this cheese that smells slightly like feet is a wonderful cheese for cooking. The cheese is produced in the Aosta Valley in the far north west region of Italy right up near the Swiss and French borders.  It's funky smell translates to a fantastically subtle sweet nutty flavour, the perfect accompaniment to potato gnocchi. You will see in my below photo that we served the Gnocchi with fresh baked bread, the recipe to which you will find in Dan Lepard's book Short and Sweet. A story for another time but if you need a beginners baking book or want to master bread check out Dan's books, they are written with normal humans, not chefs in mind.

Moving on to pasta 101 I decided Tortellini was a solid place to start. I have been an avid pasta eater for as long as my memory spans but have only attempted to make it myself once. That first time, after all the effort, without racks to dry it on it all stuck together and I had a mess on my hands. Time to redeem myself and I can tell you redemption was had.

"Tortellini di zucca con burro fuso e balsamico" turned out to be as epic as its name appears to be in Italian. Myself and Martin started cooking at 2pm and when all was done it was 7pm. It is not unusual for us to fall down the rabbit hole like that on a Sunday I just didn't expect it to to be with a pasta dish.

This recipe is a must cook and I can't stress enough that if you love to cook you must own this book. The pasta for the Tortellini turned out so much better than I could have hoped. We went with a 50/50 mix of durum wheat flour and "OO" flour (the recipe says to use one or the other so of course we used both) and it worked a treat. Once filled with the roasted pumpkin mashed with sautéed garlic, chilli, leek, sage, Parmesan and Gruyere the pasta was soft and pliable and was easily shaped into little pillows that reminded me of the Oysters in bonnets from Alice in Wonderland. Can you see the resemblance or have I lost it?

Once cooked and tossed in browned butter, a smidgen of parmesan and some sage this would have to be at the top of my all time favourite pasta dishes, and I made it myself which is even better.

And the icing on the cake was that with 12 eggs yolks required to make it we had copious amounts of egg whites left over to whip up a batch of meringues.  We did these with 50/50 light muscovado sugar and caster sugar which gave them a nutty, malty flavour. Yum.

I'll leave you with some of my photos of Italy to really get you in the mood to get in the kitchen and get elbows deep in one of the world's best cuisines.

Originally posted on Monday, 12 October 2015 by


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