My recent Italian travel companion, Lisa from Canada, introduced me to a whole new Italy — one that starts and ends with cooking. Don’t misunderstand, I heart Italian food, but I always thought it was too difficult for little old me to make it with any semblance of decency. Then, I sat down in Sorrento in front of a plate of pasta mixed with mussels – made by Lisa and I under the direction of Valerio and Andrea at the Villa Adriano Guest House – and I was hooked.
Italian cooking – in Italy – is something else. Upon return from September’s jaunt I promised myself I’d continue my Italian wine and food adventures. It meant getting creative with limited vacation time (stupid Americanos!) and funds; I knew I’d have to play Italy domestically. Luckily I knew exactly where to start!
In January I happened upon a gem of a restaurant in Denver’s Uptown neighborhood, Il Posto. It has since become one of my favorite eateries. I’ve enjoyed many an evening or afternoon trying the three-course tasting menu, enjoying regional-focused wine pairing dinners as well as happy hours and dinners. Sigh. What can I say? I’m obsessed with Italy!
Chef (and owner) Andrea Frizzi is a native of Milano, so he has created an Italian haven in little Denver. His menu changes nightly to reflect the freshest food he’s able to procure. Seems like even the wine list changes nearly weekly and it’s all italian wines, natch (a place after my own heart)! Think about it: it’s some hard work to not only cook each night, but to place that many varied food orders and create endless menus. I, for one, am committed to patronizing his establishment to show my gratitude!
Chef Frizzi hosts a Denver cooking class the second Saturday of each month featuring a different main dish. (It’s a great Italian cooking class in Denver!) You can also get a private cooking class. As an avid risotto lover I was pleased to have opted-in for that class. He maxes the classes out at 10 people. That morning nine showed up. Bundled in our North Face and Patagonia best, huddle around a table we were served espresso or tea. It was a cold, soggy day in Denver, Colo. I know, because I squish-squashed through 10 miles in advance of the class.
We were explained how the class would work: we would get cooking demos and tastings of six different types of risotto, then we’d pile into the tiny kitchen, four at a time, to make our own risotto. Oh, and there was to be a contest. The reward was not money or fabulous prizes, but bragging rights for the class’s best risotto. Being a hair competitive my excitement started to build. Time to focus.
The first risotto on the menu was traditional Risotto Milanese. It’s a simple, luscious dish of saffron and parmigiano.
The basics: olive oil, rice, minced shallots, a teeny tiny splash of dry white wine, veggie stock, parmigiano, salt, more olive oil, whip with two heaping spoonfuls of parmigiano, three grinds of white pepper, a pinch of saffron and count one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand as you pour and stir in the olive oil.
- Risotto cooks on the stove for 18 minutes.
- Most recipes call for minced onions, but Chef Frizzi will not hear of that. All shallots, all the time.
- Most recipes call for chicken stock, but he says for the right flavor profile you need veggie stock, keep it warm on the stove, and he recommends making it yourself (ha, yeah, I can really see myself making veggie stock when I can buy it just as easily; maybe one day!).
- When the rice has been cooked for its 18 minutes, remove from the stove to finish.
- Never use black pepper with saffron as the they fight with each other
Next we (when I say “we”, I mean Chef Frizzi cooked and we ate) did a simple fruit risotto with pears and walnuts; the only difference was black pepper in lieu of white (since it didn’t include the saffron) and it was topped with pecorino cheese. Another amazing one was the risotto with squid ink and prawns. Because it’s a seafood dish it does not get cheese.
We continued with Chef Frizzi demoing and the class sampling – it was a mutually beneficial relationship, in my humble opinion. We did this six times. I love his teaching style. Going through so many different versions gave us the opportunity to see what could be done with risotto, but most importantly gave us a firm grasp of the fundamentals of cooking risotto before we took to the stove.
Being in the kitchen was stressful. Watch the food, stir, move for people walking by, add more veggie stock when you can start to see the rice again – so much going on! As I was finishing my risotto I tossed in a pinch extra salt and was generous on my olive oil pours. I learned a few things in my cooking classes in the land of dolce vita: put in more salt than you think is necessary and it’s hard to overuse olive oil. It amazes me how terrified western women seem of olive oil. I noticed it both in Italy and during the Il Posto class. Ladies, it’s okay! It’s good for you!
When the time came for some taste testing I tried to pretend I didn’t care. You know, I had to be graceful loser if I didn’t win (I’ve long said I’m a much worse winner than I am loser). But, I was pretty amped when Chef Frizzi pointed to my dish as #1! One of my cooking mates asked what made mine different. “She has enough salt,” he said. Nice! Thank you, Katia from Il Vicario in San Gimignano for the amazing Tuscany cooking lesson that taught me this!
Upcoming Il Posto Cooking Classes
- December 2011: Risotto
- January 2012: Gnocchi
Click here to sign up.I’ve since made risotto at home, the pear and walnut. I’m pleased to say it was a success!
- Rice: aged 1 year – available at Marczyck’s Fine Foods; we were recommended the brand Carnaroli.
- Pans: use aluminum, stainless steel, copper – not ceramic! And, make sure it’s deep!
- Use a wooden spoon.
- Do not mix black pepper and saffron unless you want a war.
- Do not use cheese with seafood risotto (I swear, it’s still good!).
- Ignore the recipe when it says onions, use shallots.
- Use veggie stock because chicken stock overpowers the dish — out of respect for Chef Frizzi, I will tell you to also make your own veggie stock. But, full disclaimer: it will likely happen very rarely for me.
- Never finish risotto on the stove. Always remove to stir in the finishing touches (cheese, olive oil and salt).
- Make the risotto flat on the plate by hitting (“spanking” as Chef Frizzi calls it!) it from the bottom.
- Eat risotto from the outside in (I can’t remember why!).
Got good cooking class suggestions for me? Leave a comment or talk to me on Twitter @valeriekq!
Fun explanation of these cooking classes.. I just tried Jamie Oliver’s basic risotto recipe http://www.jamieoliver.com/recipes/risotto/basic-risotto-recipe and had fantastic results. But obviously pales in comparison to a full fledged hands on class.
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