At the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen over the weekend I was lucky enough to attend a demonstration lead by Nancy Silverton and Mario Batali. The duo are the masterminds behind a popular Los Angeles restaurant, Osteria Mozza. Silverton works most nights at the eatery behind the mozzarella bar. Batali, of course, is busy with lots of projects like a new line of tomato sauce and a pizza oven. When he hit the stage he dipped his hand in a pot of boiling pasta water and used it to slick back his hair! The two cooked, joked, and talked Italian cuisine. To find out what they had to say,
- To cook like an Italian, Mario insists on spending quality time shopping. "If you get good ingredients and don't really mess around with them, then you're cooking like an Italian."
- When looking for ingredients, both Silverton and Batali seek out harder to find Italian specialty items like straticella (a type of fresh cheese), speck (smoked prosciutto), and guanicale (similar to bacon, but made from pork cheeks). Mario shamelessly pointed out that this kind of charcuterie can be purchased from his father's salumeria.
- When making pasta, Batali undercooks it by two minutes. "When the box says it cooks in 10-12 minutes, I take it out after 8 minutes of cooking, then cook it for one more minute in the pan."
- Like many Italian chefs, Batali said the "most crucial ingredient when making pasta is the starchy pasta water."
- Instead of liquid honey, when she can find it, Silverton likes to use whole edible honey comb on cheese plates.
- Let the pan do the work. Place meat and fish in a hot pan and leave it there. Don't mess with it, especially if it's fish.
- Try making pesto in a mortar and pestle. Silverton, whose a huge fan of pestos, makes a variety including the classic basil, and other more interesting renditions like celery leaf, tomato, and caper pestos. While the elements may change, she makes pesto by hand in a mortar and pestle instead of a food processor. "The difference between male and female cooking is that men like machines and women like to be hands-on."
- In Italy, they cook with everything from the head to the tail and from the leaf to the root, so make the most of your ingredients.
- Unlike in French cooking, Italians (and Batali) don't worry about emulsifying sauces. Batali likes it when each bite is different and textured.
- Lightly dress salads.
- Spend the extra dollar on more expensive pasta. It will affect the overall flavor of the dish and is worth it.
The most important thing that Batali and Silverton stressed was that Italians are regionally focused. Each town has its own specific type of local cuisine. To truly cook like an Italian, look to your hometown for ingredients that are local and special to that region.