Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Cooking Italian with Vera

My daughter has a knack for scheduling interesting things for us to do whenever and wherever we have visited her.  We've been able to see places like Deception Pass on Whidbey Island in Washington State, the Arlington House (former home of Robert E. Lee) of Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C., the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and Manassas Battlefield State Park in Virginia.  Each location has been interesting and informative, so I trust my daughter Erin when she says we should go and see this place or try this event.

With that in mind, today we drove to Lago Patria, Italy (about 21 miles north and west of Naples, located on the shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea).  We were traveling to the home of Italian cooking expert Vera Lynn Pierro, who teaches 3 classes per week (ten people per class) the fine art of Italian cooking.  Here's how it works: each "student" pays 30 euros to participate in the class.  Vera selects about five or six dishes, breads, desserts that the students learn how to put together.  Then everyone sits down and eats everything that was made.  As I mentioned earlier, I trust Erin's judgment when she schedules something for us to participate in.  [By the way, traveling 21 harrowing miles on Italian highways was just as crazy as ever - peril on the highways is a constant common denominator in Italy.]  

If you read yesterday's blog, you know what a leap of faith I was about to take - we are talking about eating real Italian cooking here.

Just a bit of background we learned about Vera and her classes: Vera has about four persons who organize her classes - in other words, those persons recruit a total of ten persons to come and learn how to cook Italian style.  All of the persons in Erin's group have spouses who are in active duty in the military.  It appears that they all love to cook and eat Italian (or is it just eat Italian cooking?).  

We also learned that Vera isn't actually Italian.  She was born in Washington D.C. and moved to Michigan as a child.  She is actually traveling back to Michigan for her 50 year class reunion later this year.  In her young adult years, she came to Italy and met a young Italian, fell in love and married him, and has been living in Italy for the past forty plus years.  Now in her 60's, Vera shares her expertise and passion in Italian cooking and speaks Italian very fluently.  I found her to be interesting as we began our class together.

To the best of my recollection, here is the menu Vera put together for us: Easter bread, fava beans, marriage soup, pasta with tomatoes, steamed peas with mushrooms, large stuffed artichokes, turkey with egg and garlic potatoes, and Easter pie for dessert.  She quickly rattled these items off and I was thinking to myself "why am I here?"  She didn't give us any time for remorseful thinking as she had us washing our hands and putting on cooking aprons.  Vera quickly assigned each one of us tasks - for some reason, she chose me first to put together the Easter pie.  

I began with boiling the wheat with milk, butter and eggs (don't ask me why wheat is in there - it just is).  I was reminded how to crack an egg, drain off the white, and just use the yoke - it only took me one redo to make that happen.  After bringing all of it to a boil, I then had to place it in a ricer and grind out the hulls from the wheat that was used.  It left a smooth batter type substance that would be used for the inside of the pie.  While I was doing all of this, everyone else was busy with cutting tomatoes, stuffing artichokes, and preparing items like cheese and other Italian stuff.

Vera evidently thought I was doing well enough to continue with the pie.  She had me put flour, sugar, eggs, and orange shavings and mix it with my hands.  I worked the dough into a ball and wrapped it up and Vera placed it in the fridge to cool.  Then with the wheat mixture, she had me blend in ricotta, sugar, vanilla and orange blossom extract into a bowl and beat all of it together, folding in some chocolate shavings (see, I even know some cooking terms like "folding in").    Finally, Nancy took the cooled dough, rolled it out into a pie shape, where she place it in the pan.  The mixture was added to the crust and lattice strips of dough were cut and added on the top.  When it was done, I thought it was actually quite impressive.

After all of this, it was time to sit down and try everything that we made.  The day of reckoning had come.  It was time to put up or shut up.  Time to step up to the plate (no pun intended).  It was now or never.  I sat down at my place at the table and took a deep breath.  The first food we ate was the fava beans with bread and ricotta cheese and some kind of thinly sliced ham.  I had my glass of water and Coke ready just in case I needed to wash it down without too much difficulty.  I had never had a fava bean before in my life, but it reminded me of the pea pods from my grandmother's garden in Deer River.  Fava beans were larger, but I didn't gag when I ate them, along with the cheese and the ham and the bread.  So far, so good.

Vera served the marriage soup, which was actually a wedding soup made out of beef, chicken and vegetables that I had never heard of before.  I tried a couple of spoonfuls of it and decided it was okay - but I was glad we never served that on our wedding day.  The Easter bread wasn't too bad - it was a bread that was baked with ham and cheeses.  It was a bit too doughy for my tastes.  Then things started to go south in a hurry.

It began with the pasta with tomatoes and spices.  I did actually eat some of the pasta, but just didn't have the intestinal fortitude to try the tomatoes.  When the stuffed artichoke was placed before me, I just sat there and looked at it.  Vera asked me if I knew how to eat it - the more important question was whether I wanted to eat it, which I did not.  I was regressing into a midwestern-northern-Minnesota-give-me-a-hotdish-or-I'm-gonna-die mode.  I was completely checked out by now so I didn't even try the turkey with egg, although I did try a very small helping of the garlic potatoes.  Because I had helped to make the Easter pie, I know I needed to make an effort at that one, so I actually ate one half of my small slice.  Honestly, I was mostly hoping for the chocolate shavings in that one.

This experience has taken quite a bit to recount and I apologize for its length.  It was a big deal for me to expand my horizons and attend this class with Nancy and Erin.  I'm not as set in my ways as they think I am, but then again, I still have my limits.  I drew a line in the sand when the stuffed artichoke was staring at me from my plate.  It was not gonna happen.

Tomorrow, Erin has planned an excursion to doing one's fingernails.  I think I'll take a pass on that one.  My fingernails are just fine the way they are.

Then again, I'm pretty sure I wasn't invited.


  1. Hmm. No Daren's toffee bars? I think they missed out. ;)