Location: Southern Europe
Population: 60.5 million
Geography: A largely mountainous country extending into the Mediterranean Sea
Signature flavours: Bread and pasta, tomato, garlic, dairy products, coffee, basil, oregano, beef, olives and olive oil
At the outset of the Wooden Spoon Wanderer project, Eric and I agreed that we should each be able to pick one country that we wanted to do, no matter what the Gods of Randomness had to say about it. For me, that country was Ethiopia. For Eric, it was Italy. The Gods of Randomness smiled upon Eric this week when in the selection for a new assignment, they sent him straight to Italy.
Eric and I went to Italy for our honeymoon, spending a few days in Rome, and the rest of the time in Tuscany. While we had a couple of very nice meals, we weren’t as blown away by Italian food as we expected, but Eric remembered one pasta dish in particular that stood out in our trip: cacio e pepe. With that creamy dish as his starting point, he built a menu from the enormous Italian culinary repertoire. He found the process rather daunting because often, WSW offers us our first foray into a cuisine. Was my Cabo Verdean conch salad an authentic and delicious example of what the dish should be? Maybe. We don’t have enough experience to know for sure. Having eaten good Italian food at home and abroad, though, he was cooking against a backdrop of significant tasting experience.
Eric wanted to serve a variety of dishes to illustrate the regional variety in Italian cooking, and chose dishes from five different areas of Italy (plus he served a white wine from the Puglia region — the heel of “the boot”). He did his research in Italian to further ensure his menu’s authenticity.
Cacio e Pepe (Lazio): Chitarrine noodles tossed with pepper and pecorino Romano cheese. Toronto has a large Italian population, but most migrated from the south of Italy, bringing with them the tomato-forward dishes we know and love. Cacio e pepe, by contrast, is a Roman dish, with the creamy, cheesy profile inherent in Roman cooking.
Prep and cooking time: 60 min
Fritto Misto (Coastal Tuscany): A fry-up of seafood (including shrimp, octopus, squid, mussels, sardines, and sole) and vegetables (carrot and zucchini) dressed with salt and lemon.
Prep and cooking time: 40 min
Caponata (Sicily): An antipasto made from tomatoes, fried eggplant, onion, olives, capers, pine nuts, celery, and basil.
Prep and cooking time: 45 min
Focaccia (Liguria): Thin, dimpled, crusty white bread. We ate ours topped with scoops of caponata.
Prep and cooking time: 3 hours (including rising time)
Tiramisu (Veneto): A layered dessert made with lady fingers soaked in coffee, creamy mascarpone cheese, and whipped egg, dusted with a topping of cocoa powder.
Prep and cooking time: 6 hours (including chilling time)
The Shopping List
Eric had to buy a few different kids of flour for this assignment, and it proved difficult until he came across Masellis Supermarket on Danforth, which provided all his Italian cooking needs (including flours, pecorino, mascarpone, lady fingers, and semisweet cocoa powder). He stocked up on seafood for the misto at St Lawrence Market, and found everything else at our local No Frills.
Eric bought a pasta maker (from our favourite kitchen supply, Nella) so he could make noodles from scratch, and we broke our secrecy rule (the non-cook is not to have any knowledge of the goings-on of an assignment until dinner is served) so that we could work out how to use it together. Feeding the dough through the rollers did end up feeling like a two person job, with Eric doing the cranking and me gently directing the dough. The noodles looked beautiful and yellow as they came out the other side.
Eric’s menu was by his own admittance quite ambitious, and I stepped in to help a little when four hands were better than two. Mostly, though, I had no idea what I was helping to create — which was a feast of Italian proportions.
We began our meal with a bite of antipasto — salty caponata on crunchy focaccia. The flavour was incredible, and Eric, who likes neither celery nor capers, loved how the flavours in the caponata came together. The focaccia was the most time-consuming item he made, rising four separate times before baking. It turned out perfectly, with a nice crunch and a bit of softness in the centre of the slice.
We moved on to cacio e pepe next, arguably the star of the assignment — HOMEMADE PASTA! With a simple cheese and pepper sauce, the pasta itself really had a chance to shine, and did it ever. Despite the work that went into it, this dish was well worth the effort.
We ate our way through the fritto misto next, a tray stacked with fried vegetables and seafood. It was similar to the paranza we ate on the banks of the Tiber River our first night in Italy, and it was impossible not to reminisce as we ate Eric’s Toronto version. Fritto misto has a very light batter, made from twice-milled semola, a durum wheat derivate. The understated breading and simple seasoning allowed the flavours of the veggies and seafood to be the focus of the dish.
Our dessert was tiramisu, a synonymous Italian sweet if there ever was one. Eric had to make the tiramisu twice — the first batch, made at 3am the day before the assignment, was not as whipped as it should have been and the layers were in the wrong order. The second time was the charm in this case.
The tirumisu was sweet and rich. The coffee-soaked lady fingers had softened and the egg and mascarpone had soaked into the layers. The flavours of coffee, sweet cheese, sugared whipped egg, and semisweet cocoa powder came together in a magical conclusion to an exquisite WSW experience.
Disclaimer: I’m not a professional chef. I’m just a passionate cook with a curiosity for flavours I’ve never tried. For great recipes from gifted local cooks, follow the links above.