Campania – Day 2 of class

The second day of class was focused on the Campania region in the south, which includes Naples. This is the birthplace of the dry pasta industry (as well as its more famous child: pizza) and the cuisine relies heavily on fresh fish and often combines sweet and salty flavors. Our chef, Ferdinando, is a Naples native who worked in restaurants for 20 years before shifting to teach, and everything looked much easier and more graceful when he was demonstrating than when I tried to replicate it.

We started with a torta rustica napoletana for our antipasto or a rustic torte made from a sweet pie crust and filled with a salty mixture of salami, ricotta, parmesan and pecorino cheeses. This was accompanied by pane al basilicato, a sweet and savory bread made with pesto and raisins. We started by making the dough for the torte from scratch, using copious amounts of lard and kneading it vigorously before molding it into tarts. The filling was simple and quick to make – I suspect it would be a good filling for other dishes as well (as I already begin to think of ways to bastardize the pure recipes I'm learning for quicker use at home). The bread followed a similar process to the pie crust, first kneading the pesto, yeast, water, and raisins into the well of flour before adding salt (which you don't want in direct contact with the yeast before it is incorporated or the chemical reaction will halt the rising process).

Filling the shell with the ricotta mixture

The golden brown sweet and salty torte, ready to eat

Next was our primo piatto: linguine al polpo alla luciana or linguine with tiny octopus in a light sauce of cherry tomatoes, capers, olives, parsley, garlic, chili flakes and of course, olive oil and white wine. We cooked the pasta and the sauce separately and then put the pasta and some of the pasta water into the sauce pan over a low heat to blend the flavors. The chef looked straight at me when he explained that Italians never, ever put the sauce into the pasta – only Americans could be so gauche (ok so he didn't say the last part, but it was clearly implied). The pasta was a perfect al dente and the dish was delicate and light.

Simmering the pasta sauce

Ready to eat: linguine and octopus

After this came our secondo: orata all'acqua pazza or whole fish baked with white wine and tomatoes and served filleted with thinly sliced potatoes. We learned how to tell when the fish is done (if you can pull out the bones connected to the spinal fin out easily) and how to remove the skin and fillet the fish. We then made a simple sauce with the juices from the fish pan and added some parsley and white wine. The flavor was subtle and definitely depends on having a high quality white fish as the base.

Preparing the fish before baking

Almost better than potato chips!

Filleted fish with potatoes and light sauce

Lastly (and most importantly?), the dolce: torta caprese or a cake made from a blend of dark chocolate, almonds, and biscotti (the packaged kind – I think I could use sugar cookies at home maybe) gradually worked into a batter of sugar, butter, eggs and the secret ingredient: orange zest. We also made an impromptu orange sauce of julienned orange peel caramelized in sugar, simmered in fresh juice, and topped off with a splash of Maraschino liquor. The sweetness of the sauce paired well with the cake, which was more nutty than sweet and surprisingly light.

Blending the nuts and chocolate into the batter

What's not to like about a chocolate nut cake with orange sauce?

The interesting thing to me was that the base of raw ingredients was basically the same as yesterday, yet the meal had an entirely different style and flavor palate. It will be fascinating to see how this continues to play out across different regional cuisines over the coming weeks.

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