7/10/10 a lesson in pasta flours and a couple of lessons for me

Post date: 13-Jan-2011 19:08:46

Well I'd made it through my first night, with only 3 dishwasher loads of dishes to cope with in the aftermath. I even got 2 thank you mails. Actually one of them arrived immediately the next morning, but then I spent the rest of the time wondering if I'd poisoned everyone, until the second one arrived the next day. It's pretty nailbiting stuff actually. I guess I just have to realise, well if I am a kind of restaurant, after all people are paying, even if it's not me (it's charity), who writes to a restaurant to say thank you?!!

Once it's over it's over, and it's on to the next. I was asked to do a European one (by someone who actually didn't come in the end!) so I chose Northern Italian. I had an Milanese boyfriend for a couple of years and also travelled to Milan on business, so I was there almost every 2 weeks for quite some time. Thus I have quite a lot of experience with Italian food. What continuously mystifies me is how the tiniest, most humble trattoria can do better food in Italy than you get in 99% of Italian restaurants in the UK. And I now know, since I learnt a lot of this stuff, that it's not difficult. It just takes a love of food.

Well, one of the things that's typically Northern Italian is fresh pasta. This is because they don't grow durum wheat, which is what's used for dried pasta in the south. Durum wheat is high protein and that's what makes it chewy - when you knead it the gluten develops, and makes it elastic. Low protein flours are more "cakey" - think of the difference between a cake and a good elastic ciabatta. I've spent ages working all this out because there's a lot of codswallop and rubbish ideas out there about what flour goes into fresh pasta. It's CAKE flour, more or less. It's NOT durum wheat flour. That's the whole point. (I note that Doves Farm pasta flour says "with durum wheat", I rest my case on codswallop). Fresh pasta should be silky and historically they made it with egg to increase the protein content (since this was a staple food, I presume they didn't want the populace to waste away). You don't need egg in dried Durum wheat pasta for precisely that reason. The whole "00" thing just means the wheat has been milled superfine. It doesn't tell you anything about the protein level of the flour, but like how the French just "know" what wine goes with what (maybe I'll tell that story sometime), the Italians know what 00 flour to use for pasta.

Fresh pasta is one thing but often when you pass small Italian trattorias you see trays and trays of ravioli and other stuffed pastas (yes they all have a name so better not get it wrong, or they look at you in an indulgent foreign-idiot kind of way). I love them (the raviolis, not the people looking at me like I'm an idiot). But boy are they time consuming to make. Still, for a special Italian night I thought I'd make the effort (but just for a starter! don't want to make 20 per person! ;-)) so I chose broccoli and leek ravioli with a truffled cheese sauce. For mains I decided on belly pork stewed with white beans, sage and lemon - I really can't remember where that recipe came from but I had a binge on dried beans for about a year so it was unearthed then, along with a couple of pressure cookers. For the fishies amongst us I picked a baked fish dish (easy to prepare in advance and bake last minute), and prayed that no-one would be put off by the whole fish (eek... fish head?) on their plate, a squeamishness amongst the English that has totally mystified me. Does it mean the fish is a vegetable if you can't see the head?

Good thing about trying to cook yourself to oblivion as I have been doing is that you get to try new things. I invented a ricotta and lemon tart for dessert (was good but could have been more lemony was the judgement, ah well next time), and I made panna cotta for the first time, which I served with a blackberry coulis as I went picking with friends and came back with 9kgs of the stuff which is now in jam jars along with the other random fruits (the rest of the garden rhubarb, donated apples and foraged damsons), and the remainder cluttering up my freezer.

Well, that was the menu sorted. More intensive marketing as I wondered if I had already exhausted my audience. Maybe the only people in the whole world that I knew that were likely to come to a supper club had already done it the last time? I got a few bookings from people who couldn't make the first one then ground to a halt. Frantic checking of the e-mail every 2 hours revealed the same state of my inbox. Oh dear.

Self-doubt set in. What was I doing with this whole supper club lark? Was I just setting myself up to fail? - very publically, since I'd sent out website and justgiving site to all and sundry? (www.justgiving.com/parkholmesupperclub if you want to see how much I've raised so far). If I never got another booking again, should I just give up? Slink off, tail between legs, and go do that climb of Mount Kilamanjaro or whatever, pretending that's really what I wanted to do with my gardening leave all along? Finally I learnt another lesson - I found that a blanket e-mail will work on some people but if you send a mail or even better, text, to someone who got the blanket but never replied saying "Jo- do you want to come to Supper Club this Weds?" it makes a massive difference!. Bookings again. I could breathe a sigh of relief. It wasn't going to be me staring at a random couple of neighbours I barely know. It was a random group of neighbours who barely knew each other staring at each other. They could do the hard work of talking. I had cooking to do.

What I did next was a bit silly. I was out with a vegetarian friend who begged me to show her how I made the ravioli. Could she come and make it with me? She'd be at mine by 2.30 on the day. I agreed. Silly me. I should have made the filling the day before but I thought I could hardly show her how to make ravioli without showing her the filling, could I? And it does take quite some time to cook as those leeks take a while to sweeten up and cook down. It then needs to cool or your pasta will be cooked before you even boil it. She got a bit lost coming to mine, and arrived after 3. And 2 friends in a kitchen need plenty of time to gossip. She's Indian so she'd never made a white sauce before either. Or made bruschetta (which is not strictly northern Italian but I have a load of basil to use up from the garden ;-) In the event we started to roll and make the raviolis around 6pm which was pretty tight for time. None of my one-hour luxuriating I had before the last one, although I had learnt my lesson and made the desserts the day before. We whacked out the ravioli within the hour (I made her pay in slave labour - she did a lot of the hard rolling work!), and then, sensing my rising panic, made herself scarce like a kind of frightened rabbit in the direction of the next bus. I just about made it - the only thing was I was peeling the potatoes after the guests arrived but I think it went pretty smoothly!

So- lesson number 2 in today's installment - don't try and combine your supper club with a cooking lesson. Not if you still want your sanity by the end of it. Oh... and no-one seemed to mind the fish heads.