Thursday, October 8, 2009

Mostly Class Factotum

posted Tue, 21 Sep 2004

There are two pivotal scenes in ‘Mostly Martha’ – the scenes that Harpo and I decided defined the essential differences between the Germans and the Italians and between me and him. We decided after seeing the movie that I was German and he was Italian.

In the first scene, Giovanni (I can’t remember his name but Giovanni will do) shows up an hour late for his first day as Martha’s temporary sous chef. She already dislikes him because the restaurant owner did not ask Martha before hiring Giovanni. When he strolls through the door, she snaps, ‘You were supposed to be here an hour ago!’ He looks startled, then answers in disappointment, ‘Oh! Did I miss something?’

We made an apple crostada last night.

The second scene is when Giovanni and Martha’s niece make dinner for Martha in Martha’s kitchen. Martha does not see the kitchen, which is a complete mess, until after they have eaten. When she sees the chaos, she begins to hyperventilate. Giovanni opens a paper bag and hands it to her to breathe into, patting her back comfortingly.

So here am I, the German, at an Italian cooking school. The last cooking school I went to, Les Tuillieres, was run by a Swiss and an American. There was a schedule and if something was supposed to happen at 4:00, it happened at 4:00.

Here, there is not as much structure.

OK, here there is no structure. The first class was last night. I didn’t know what time it was supposed to start, but at 4:00, I started looking around, hoping to find someone in the kitchen. No luck. The only other person I found was Tatina, a South African of Italian descent who is here to take the cooking classes with her daughter Margaux. Tatina said the class was supposed to start at 4:00, but our chef teacher didn’t wander into the kitchen until 4:30. He made coffee for everyone, then finally said we needed to start.

We made the dough for the apple tart first. Then we made tagliatelli. It’s almost heaven working in the kitchen because there is a marble countertop about 5’ x 5’. It’s perfect for making pastry dough and you can even cut on it.

Detracting from or adding to the ambiance, depending on your perspective, is the cigarette that the chef is constantly smoking, and the flies. Perhaps the smoke reduces the number of flies. Who knows? In distress, Margaux and Tatina kept looking at the flies. ‘What if people leave thinking all Italians cook like this?’ Tatina wailed. ‘My mother doesn’t cook like this! She would have a fit to see these flies.’ I told her not to worry – that we were just building our immune systems.

Our chef has a relaxed attitude toward sampling that makes me forgive him anything. When he tells us to try the buffalo milk mozzarella, he hands me a piece the size of a lemon. Half that, I tell him – so he tears off a small piece and hands me the rest.

Then we made the eggplant parmagiana. I have never done it this way, but it was delicious and much easier than anything I have ever done.

Take a bunch of eggplant. Peel it and slice it longways about 1/8” thick. Salt it and let it sit about half an hour. Rinse and pat dry. Fry it until golden. (The chef says you have to fry – can’t grill it – but I bet if you grilled it and brushed it with a little oil, it would be fine.)

Then chop a few cloves of garlic. Fry them in olive oil until golden, then add some canned whole tomatoes with the juice. Mash the tomatoes into pieces. Simmer the sauce for about half an hour. (Maybe it could be less – we were doing other things while it simmered.)

Put a small amount of sauce in the bottom of a baking dish. Then put a layer of the fried eggplant, overlapping the pieces just slightly. Sprinkle with cubes of mozzarella, torn fresh basil leaves, and grated parmesan. Put more tomato sauce on top and repeat. End with tomato sauce. Bake for a while.

You might be thinking these instructions are imprecise at best. Well, this is the way great chefs cook. My grandmother is like that. She knows how much flour and how much sugar and how much lard she needs. She needs the right amount, no more, no less.

Our chef did use a scale to measure the pastry ingredients, but when he brushed a layer of marmalade on the bottom of the crust and then sprinkled it with crushed ladyfingers, Tatina said, ‘That’s not in the recipe!’

That’s because EVERYONE knows that’s what you do with pastry crust, chef answered impatiently.

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