It’s a bit unfair, I know, to start off a post with a photo depicting a place as lovely and serene as the Amalfi Coast in Italy just as another winter storm is set to hit our area. It really is one of the most beautiful places that I’ve ever been to in my travels. This isn’t just because of the gorgeous, colorful scenery. The food of this area is also incredibly delicious. While the dishes might seem to be simple to make, the key is the amazing quality of the ingredients and the artistry with which they are put together. This was all brought back to me during the weekend before Thanksgiving, when I was able to assist Chiara and Gennaro Lima of Mamma Agata’s Cooking School “The Hidden Treasure” during their culinary demonstrations at the International Culinary Center.
As a culinary student, I sometimes volunteer to help out when there are guest chefs cooking at the school. Depending upon the program, we prepare the food in one of the kitchens that isn’t being used for a class or in the one to the side of the auditorium. When I arrived to start my shift, another student was also there prepping for the evening’s demonstration. I introduced myself to Chiara and Gennaro in Italian and asked how I could help out. Chiara was so excited that I spoke their language (Her English is fluent, but it is easier for Gennaro to communicate culinary instructions in Italian.), that she set me to work right away working with her husband to get everything ready for the evening’s event.
From the minute I first stepped into the kitchen, it was evident how much passion this couple has for the food of Italy and of the flavors of Amalfi Coast. The aromas coming from the pots simmering away on the stovetop were rich and intoxicating. The tart-tangy fragrance of the tomato sauce layered with the briny-meaty smell of the olives and capers combined with the earthy perfume of oregano enveloped the kitchen and the surrounding hallways in a warm, sunny Mediterranean hug. More than a few staff members and chef instructors passed by our door, peeking in to see what was going on, drawn in by the enticing odors.
During the demonstration, Chiara and Gennaro talked about their cooking school, named after her mother, who was a well-known chef cooking for many celebrities and film personalities who vacationed along the Amalfi Coast. They also gave out to the audience plates of this deep, intensely-flavored sauce wrapped around ribbons of artisan-made spaghetti from Italy, topped with a little fresh arugula for a peppery snap, and dressed with some of the olive oil that is made from the harvest of their own groves.
Another of the dishes that the attendees of the demonstrations sampled was the Eggplant Parmesan that we put together in advance of the presentation. The eggplants they prefer to use are the thin, Japanese-style ones, but really the key is to make this recipe when the vegetable is in season, otherwise they are more bitter and take extra care to prepare them. As Chiara cautioned me, “Mai usare queste fuori stagione,” (“Don’t use them out of season.”). This conversation was held as we were standing over a sink, squeezing out the brown-tinged bitter liquid from the thinly-sliced eggplants, which had been heavily salted to exude their water, so I could definitely see her point.
The eggplants were then tossed in a light coating of double zero flour and then fried in grapeseed oil. As both Chiara and Gennaro explained, it is less heavy than olive oil and makes a lighter coating on the eggplant than other oils. My task was as “fry girl,” and I worked in tandem with Gennaro preparing the vegetables for the dish. While frying up the eggplant at the stove, he and I also talked about Italian cooking in general and about the approach that the Italians use in working with ingredients, especially about how much more intuitive and instinct-led their recipes seem to be compared to the more closely structured French culinary methodology.
Once the eggplant was fried, Gennaro layered it with the tomato sauce that they’d made earlier that day. He then added fresh basil leaves, mozzarella, grated Parmesan cheese, and, what was a surprise to me, a smoked scamorza, which gives the dish an extra depth of flavor. The whole pan went into the oven, dressed with a few cherry tomatoes, to bake until the top layer was melted and bubbly.
We served up portions of this creamy, hearty creation for the demonstration attendees to sample while they watched Chiara and Gennaro explain how they put it together and how each component works in harmony to create the tastes of this classic dish. Frying the eggplant allows it to retain its shape and to keep it from getting soggy while soaking up the tomato sauce. The cheese gives the dish its richness and makes it a substantial offering for the table, where in Italy it is served as a second (meat) course.
Plates of pork meatballs, cooked in a tangy tomato sauce were also served during the demonstration. Gennaro explained to me that their usual recipe calls for using only ground pork as the fat to make the meatballs tender and delicate. I could see what he meant after sampling a few unsauced meatballs that he had me try to check the seasoning. They just melted in my mouth the fatty richness coating my tongue. For those who don’t eat pork, they also have a recipe that uses beef and veal, however, to those they add some milk so that the meatballs stay moist in order to replicate some of the texture and mouthfeel that the pork fat gives them.
For this dish, I was also on the frying station. The meatballs were dusted with a little bit of double zero flour before being flash fried (again using grapeseed oil) to give the outside a bit of crust and color. Then, the meatballs were nestled into a baking dish and covered in the tomato sauce to cook, soaking in its sweet-tangy flavor. They came out of the oven, juicy and mouth-wateringly delicious. I could have eaten several platefuls of them.
To end the day’s presentation, Chiara and Gennaro whipped up a batch of their special lemon-scented, sweet coccoli (fritters). The fritters were consumed faster than I could get a photo of them, coming out of the frying oil and then being rolled in sugar. They served them along with a small glass of limoncello (lemon liqueur) that is also a specialty of the region where their cooking school is located. After inhaling its sweet, citrusy bouquet, I realized that I’m long overdue for a trip to Italy and soaking in its sunshine and amazing cuisine. On my next visit, I hope to stop by the Amalfi Coast to see Chiara and Gennaro to experience some more of their hospitality and maybe even pick up a few more Italian cooking tips.
Some of the recipes that were showcased in the demonstrations can be found in the Mamma Agata cookbook.