Cooking with Carmelita in Bologna
We started our food focused trip to Italy in Bologna where we were met by our local Italian chef, Carmelita. Everyone wants to take a cooking class in Italy, but I was hoping to have an experience that we could not get any place else. Carmelita was a great culinary guide. Her English was excellent which made things much easier. From our hotel, we walked to the local markets where we decided what we would fix based on what was fresh. Carmelita had a menu idea but we adjusted to tackle some things that I wanted to learn. We discovered green cauliflower and found fresh artichokes, the first of the season. We learned that there is a consortium for parmigiana and it must be sold with part of the rind showing so that you can immediately recognize the quality. Of course we had lots of samples in the cheese and meat stands.
You can’t go to Italy without learning about balsamic vinegar which is actually not vinegar but aged wine. We not only found some balsamic to bring home but some cheese that had been vacuum sealed which we could bring back.
I learned that you don’t get to touch the fruits or vegetables, and that the chickens come with their heads and feet attached. However, the butcher will remove them for you and burn off any remaining feathers with a torch if you ask. We decided to try a guinea hen as they think chickens are over produced so not as tasty as the guinea hen.
After chatting with all the locals we went to her centrally located flat to begin our day of cooking. We started with a savory panna cotta for the first course, which is where we used the green cauliflower or what she called Romanesco broccoli. We put it in silicone molds to refrigerate and then went to the wine store. She told the owner what we were preparing and he recommended a wine which was perfect of course.
Wine in hand we went back to learn how to make pasta from this region. Unlike what you find in southern Italy, pasta from this area contains eggs which give it the beautiful yellow color. Carmelita was very patient with me as I used a fork to gently incorporate the flour into the egg after mixing the egg by chopping it with a knife to prevent bubbles. I thought the hardest part was kneading it once it got to dough form. I wanted to knead it like bread dough, but you have to be much more careful with it and gently roll it with your fingers, pinching the ends together after each roll. I’m not sure I mastered it but I think I got the hang of it. We fed it through the pasta machine in small strips and then let it dry a little, but not too much, before running it through to make our noodles.
I’ld never cooked with fresh artichokes and wanted to get some helpful tips. I have now conquered the artichoke and feel very comfortable preparing it in the future, although I doubt I will find it with the long stem attached. We started with a bowl of water and lemon juice. After each cut we immediately rubbed it with lemon to prevent browning. We topped our pasta with the artichokes and pancetta and a little parmigiana, of course.
For the main course, we ground juniper berries and pepper and put it on the chicken pieces and then let it marinate in lemon juice to tenderize. Then I learned an easy way to remove pomegranate seeds. Over a bowl of water, we held a cut pomegranate and tapped the outside of the fruit firmly with a spoon, causing the seeds to go into the water avoiding stained fingers. After sautéing the chicken we added grapes and pomegranates. Now we were ready to unmold our panna cotta and top it with a wonderful gorgonzola sauce.
I learned a lot of local customs and some helpful cooking tips. Plus we got to enjoy the fruits of our labor. I could tell that Carmelita was a bit of a perfectionist and wanted to make sure the end product was perfect. She clearly knows what she is doing and we tackled a lot in a few hours. My goal was to learn things that I might not learn in the States, and I succeeded along with having a fabulous time. Mike was a good sport and jumped right in tackeling anything Carmelita threw at him along with taking photos.
Bologna is a quick and easy train trip from Florence. It took us about 30 minutes. Since we had not been to Bologna before, we started our trip there, but you could easily take the train from Florence for this class.