Delving into Italian cooking
The inspiration for this week’s column started with a pedicure - I was in the salon when Ellie Menser walked in with a container of Italian wedding soup. During our conversation, I learned she had made it that morning in a class she was teaching for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Lewes. She invited me to her home to attend a session of Italian Cooking 101.
I arrived at the same time as several other class members, who were chatting and laughing like a large extended family. This was the last session in the semester before the final exam when the students would prepare the food. Ellie and her co-instructor Shellie DiLauro seated us around the table in Ellie’s kitchen. They began the lesson by pulling freshly baked bruschetta from the oven.
As in each of the classes, quality ingredients were the focus. That day, we compared and contrasted different breads - texture, flavor, aroma and compatibility with the toppings. In earlier lessons, the students had done a similar analysis of canned tomatoes, olive oils, pastas and cheeses.
Before outlining the recipes for this session, Ellie distributed handouts updating her recipe for panettone bread pudding. The moans of delight from around the table had me wishing I’d been there for that demonstration. It must have been inspiring, as several students mentioned they’d already tried making it at home, obviously studying for the final.
Ellie and Shellie had thoughtfully prepared for class. Ingredients were measured into prep bowls; utensils and baking dishes were stacked nearby, and the red wine was opened to breathe. Within the first half hour, it was clear why this class had such a long waiting list. We were in the hands of two very talented cooks with a thorough knowledge of Italian cuisine. They were also an excellent stand-up comedy team.
While Shellie assisted, Ellie began assembling the cheese and spinach stuffing for pasta shells. She explained how the surprise ingredient in her dish – lemon juice and zest – would add brightness to its flavor profile. After draining the perfectly al dente pasta, she deftly filled a few shells with the spinach and cheese mixture, demonstrating how to use the edge of the pasta to scrape out the bowl of the spoon.
Before turning the stove over to Shellie, Ellie had us sample two white wines for which she’d prepared descriptions and tasting notes. She also mentioned the local stores she’d shopped for ingredients and the merchants who supported the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute with price discounts for students.
Shellie had gone a bit farther afield for her ingredients, traveling to Philadelphia for her preferred brand of sausage. She peeled off the casing and crumbled it into a skillet, sautéing the fragrant sausage while slicing onion and mincing garlic. Ellie returned with a large baking dish of neatly arranged stuffed shells that were drizzled with tomato sauce (gravy) and placed in the oven.
To keep us engaged while the pasta baked and the sausage simmered, Ellie had us sample two varieties of marinated artichokes, asking why we preferred one over another. As in each of the previous tastings, opinion was divided roughly in half, with no clear winner. She also took the opportunity to point out these are not the best ingredients for the roasted artichoke and fennel in the photo; the marinade may not have the highest quality olive oil and could add unwanted flavors to the dish.
When Shellie began boiling the oricchietti to go with her sausage sauce, we sampled Ellie’s elegant stuffed shells along with sips of the first red wine. In the final minutes of the class, Shellie served her dish with generous sprinkles of grated Locatelli cheese, a perfect pairing with the last wine, a fruity Chianti. Although we’d been there for two hours, no one seemed in any hurry to leave, except one of the students - she had an appointment for a pedicure.
Ellie’s Stuffed Shells
1 lb jumbo pasta shells
10-oz box frozen chopped spinach
1 large egg
16 oz ricotta cheese
1/2 C shredded mozzarella cheese
2 C grated Parmesan cheese, divided
2 1/2 T extra virgin olive oil, divided
zest and juice of 1 lemon
1/2 t grated nutmeg
salt & pepper, to taste
2 C tomato gravy
Preheat oven to 375 F. Cook the pasta according to the package directions until al dente. Drain, rinse in cool water and set aside. Thaw the spinach in the microwave and drain thoroughly; set aside. In a large mixing bowl, lightly beat the egg. Add the ricotta and mozzarella and 1 C Parmesan cheese; stir to combine. Mix in spinach, 1 T olive oil, nutmeg and salt & pepper. Cover the bottom of a 9-by-13 baking dish with 1 C of tomato sauce; make sure the dish is completely covered with the sauce. Stuff the shells with about 1 T of the cheese mixture and place open side up in the baking dish in a single layer. When all the shells are filled, spoon the remaining tomato sauce over the top, leaving several areas uncovered. Drizzle the remaining 1 1/2 T olive oil over the shells. Sprinkle with remaining 1 C Parmesan cheese. Bake until bubbly and just starting to brown, about 25 minutes. Yield: 6 servings.
Italian Tomato Gravy
2 lbs canned plum tomatoes
1/4 C olive oil
1 small diced onion
4 crushed garlic cloves
red pepper flakes (optional)
2 T chopped parsley
salt & pepper, to taste
2 T chopped basil
Crush tomatoes with a potato masher or pass through a food mill. Heat olive oil in a saucepan; sauté onion and garlic until golden. Add red pepper, parsley and crushed tomatoes; simmer for 45 minutes. Remove garlic and discard; season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir in basil and serve.
Roasted Fennel & Artichokes
1 fennel bulb
1-lb can artichoke hearts
3 T extra virgin olive oil, divided
Kosher salt & pepper, to taste
1 t lemon juice
2 T chopped parsley
red pepper flakes
lemon wedges for garnish
fennel fronds, for garnish
Preheat oven to 425 F. Trim the fennel bulb and slice into wedges 3/4-inch thick; reserve fronds for garnish. Drain artichokes and halve lengthwise. Arrange fennel and artichokes on a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with 2 T olive oil, and toss to coat vegetables. Roast vegetables for 15 minutes, turn and roast another 15 minutes or until caramelized. Remove to a serving dish and add remaining ingredients. Stir to combine; garnish with lemon wedges and fennel fronds.
Membership in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Delaware is open to men and women aged 50 years or older and their partners of any age. Courses are offered in 10-week semesters starting in September and January, and a four-week summer session in June. Instructors are members who have volunteered to teach in their areas of expertise. Topics in the humanities include art, literature, language, drama, music and history. Life skills classes range from basket weaving, pottery, photography and film to the perennial favorites like cooking. The institute regularly sponsors trips to museums, gardens, historical sites and theaters as well as social events for members. For more information about membership and the wide selection of learning opportunities, go to www.lifelonglearning.udel.edu/lewes.