Photos and story by Emily Reynolds
The long strands of pasta hung like fresh white sheets of linen drying in the spring wind. There was a waft of sweetness in the air, the kind that only a fine Italian pasta sauce could create. Who knew traveling to Italy would be so easy?
Now through Thursday, Central Market has become “Centro Italia,” offering a wide variety of imported foods and cooking classes that focused on the art and soul of Italian cooking. The classes have ranged from making seafood to making pizza and everything in-between. Yes, there is something for everyone, from the experienced cook to the curious newbie.
Last week, the well-known cookbook author and food journalist Domenica Marchetti visited from the Washington, D.C., area to demonstrate how cooking appears, as seen through a lens from the Italian region of Abruzzo.
Marchetti has written five acclaimed cookbooks on traditional and contemporary Italian home-cooking. Although she claims her greatest teacher is her mother, who was born and raised in Chieti, Italy, she pulled out all the steps and stops in making an Italian inspired home-cooked meal.
She brought her passion for hand-stretched pasta dough and a wide array of knowledge of classically Italian cooked vegetables and stews to San Antonio’s Central Market kitchen. Although cooking and wine tasting were the main part of the class, Marchetti told lovely tales of Abruzzo between the courses.
Abruzzo is a region in central Italy with three national parks, a plethora of mountains and beaches on the Adriatic sea. It’s known for having “mountainous cuisine” with a heavy influence of lamb and a large amount of seafood dishes from tiny beach villages. Thus, it’s gained the reputation of being the “land that has everything,” according to Marchetti.
Marchetti started the evening by layering a sizzling pot of sunflower oil with batter-coated zucchini sticks and sage leaves. The sizzle of the pan and the smell of crisp vegetables were inspired by Marchetti’s book, “The Glorious Vegetables of Italy.” This being a typical dish of the Adriatic area, it is something one might make after a trip to the farmers market, as a light appetizer or snack before a larger meal. Marchetti recommended using sparkling water instead of still in the batter to add softness. She also recommended not crowding the pan. You can substitute zucchini with baby artichokes, if you please.
The next part of the class was about making homemade pasta and classic sauces. Marchetti demonstrated the use of the chitarra (guitar) — a unique instrument meant for making pasta not music. The outcome is a thicker noodle, and the fun is rolling the dough over the strings. This old-fashioned style is unique to the Abruzzo region. She also mentioned that a time-saving tip to the often-grueling task of homemade pasta making is using a food processor.
What is a good pasta without a wonderful sauce to complement? The gorgeous sheets of pasta were complemented with a rich and textured “ragu,” which led to the naming of the dish: Maccheroni alla Chitarra with Ragu’ Abruzzese. The sauce was rich with flavor, as the tenderness of the meats within the sauce were cooked for three hours. Although there was beef chuck, pork shoulder and lamb shoulder all used within the sauce, there can be variations.
“I always think recipes are just guidelines, and should be tailored to your particular tastes,” Marchetti says.
Our third course was a hearty lamb and potato stew adopted by Marchetti’s book, “The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy.”
“The culture of Abruzzo is strongly linked to pastoral farming traditions. In the mountaintop villages and into he countryside, sheep’s milk cheese and dishes made with lamb (and mutton) abound. This stew is just one example, perfect for a chilly evening in the spring,” she said.
Although a “chilly evening in the spring” is rare in Texas, there is always a good reason to have a stew on the stove. A timeless comfort food, this recipe captures the soul of the mountains by using lamb as the meat of choice. Served with some of Marchetti’s sweet and sour peppers with oil-cured olives, which use a bit of white wine vinegar plus a pinch of sugar to sweeten the bite, the savory sensations of the stew are complemented with a divine pop of sweetness.
The evening closed with a beautifully airy and light Lemon-Ricotta Costata. “A lovely dessert to welcome spring, this rustic crostata would be made with sheep’s milk in Abruzzo, the region where my family is from,” Marchetti explains in her book. The not overly sweet crostata was complemented by mascarpone cheese to add a silky cream-like texture layered between the airy crust. Marchetti warned the class to be sure to have all your ingredients at the same temperature or the filling may curdle. Another trick is to pass the ricotta through a sieve to add additional light and creaminess to the center of this dish.
Traveling to Italy came to an end on a high note played by a chitarra and accompanied by a well-versed composer. Marchetti pulled out all the stops for her students, and we can only hope that she will come back to San Antonio soon to take us to Italy for another evening. In the meantime, you can find one of her five cookbooks on Amazon or read her blog at www.domenicacooks.com. She is also taking a few lucky travelers with her to Abruzzo this summer and fall; check out her website for more details.