When I travel, one of the things I get really excited about is trying new food. Understanding the culture of a place has a lot to do with what and how people eat. Exploring a new destination by taking a food tour, joining a cooking class, and going out to eat are all important parts of the travel experience. So, as you can probably imagine, the pandemic has really put the kibosh on many of these food related activities. If you can’t travel or be in close physical proximity to other people, how can you still get your culinary travel fix?
Thankfully, the world is adapting and new ways of providing these experiences are popping up everywhere. Technology, specifically video conferencing, has really been a savior, not only for people who depend on it to continue working through the pandemic, but also for those of us who are seeking out new ways of entertaining ourselves. Applications like Zoom, Skype and Google Meet have brought forth alternative methods of learning for all types of online classes. It’s offering us ways to feel like we’re going on a journey of sorts, from the comfort of our own homes. When that journey involves food, even better!
Vacation, Minus 5
The plan was perfect. My Italian in-laws and some extended family were going to fly here to Dublin from Milan, then we’d drive to this beautiful, quintessentially Irish cottage I booked for us in the rugged and scenic west coast. It had a sizable and well stocked kitchen where the 7 of us were all going to cook together. As Covid-19 cases in both countries began to rise, the excitement began to deflate, finally extinguishing when we all thought it best to cancel their flights. With the five of them unable to come, it was only my husband, myself, and our cat. We loaded the car and headed to the west for a week of R&R…as in Rest & Ravioli.
The Class (https://localbites.co/menu/102)
Knowing that you can’t go wrong with pasta for a group of Italians, I had booked an online cooking course for making homemade ravioli. Since the family wasn’t there, my husband and I were left to do the dirty work. I soon realized this was perhaps a good thing. Ravioli production is time consuming, and all of that rolling and filling doesn’t come with a very high yield.
The instructor seemed equally pleased that we were only making dinner for two. Sara was live streaming from Rome, and she was going to show us step-by-step how to make homemade ravioli. We gathered the list of ingredients and cooking supplies she sent us ahead of time and logged on to get started. After a few, now all too familiar, technological hiccups that took up the first few minutes, we all repositioned our cameras and got familiar with the set up. Class was about to begin.
The Intricacies of Italian Food
Something I both love and despise about Italian cooking is the draconian methodology that comes with it. I’m more of a creative in the kitchen and I rarely follow a recipe. I view these rigid processes in the same way you might interpret a speed limit in the desert- it’s merely a suggestion. I believe that recipes are a frame inside which you can put anything you want, as long as the original concept bears some resemblance to what you end up with on your plate. For Italians, however, it’s one wrong move and you’ve ruined dinner.
Knowing this, try to imagine the look on Sara’s face when I informed her that I didn’t have any measuring devices in the well stocked cottage kitchen. We did our best to improvise using a plastic cup, which we held up to the screen so that she could eyeball the size. In a look that mingled confidence with confusion, she said “Ok, yes add 3 plastic cups of flour”. Well, we all learned that 3 plastic IKEA cupfulls definitely does not equal 100g of flour. Aware of that Italian compulsion for precision in the kitchen, I was really empathizing with her. Today’s ravioli was going to be more akin to a “suggestion” of ravioli…an ambiguous interpretation of an Italian classic.
Going with the Flow
Thankfully Sara was laid back and flexible about our situation. Good cooks always know how to improvise. After we separated the extra dough a few times, added a couple more eggs, and eventually got the project down to a more workable size, we began to knead the pasta dough. True to her roots, she kept me informed of what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong as I rolled the dough out. My creative instincts kept saying “more flour” as Sara virtually scolded me with declarations of “NO MORE FLOUR!”every time I reached for an extra pinch.
She explained that the texture was important to get right because it ensured that the dough would stay together in boiling water. She taught us to only have the portions of dough out that we were working with in the moment so they wouldn’t dry out, which would make them really tough to work with. Each time we pulled the ration we were about to roll out, we put the remaining ball back into the plastic wrap. Sure enough, each time we opened it back up, the ball reemerged with the perfect moisture balance, making it pliable once again.
Today’s Workout: Ravioli
Making ravioli is a constant process of rolling, rolling, rolling, filling, cutting, pinching, closing, repeating. It’s a meditative activity to pass the day that renders a satisfying reward. Learning how to make this pillowy pasta takes advanced concentration and an instructor with wide reserves of patience. Sara was the perfect marriage of hospitality and a strong arm. She was polite and delicate when I was about to screw something up, and in this way she guided a creative (and stubborn) student towards a perfectionists dinner.
We took our defrosted and drained frozen spinach and combined it with a pinch of salt and the best ricotta we could find in Ireland. Then we blended it to death with a hand mixer until it was transformed into a uniform spring-bright green filling. One by one, we added a teaspoon of spinach and ricotta to the center of our thinned out dough, then covered it with another sheet of dough. Sara showed us how to push the air out of the pillows gently to prevent the filling coming out during the boiling process. Then we took our favorite plastic cup from IKEA and used it to cut out a perfect circle. We took Sara’s suggestion and opted for giant ravioli rather than smaller ones because it was much less work. It also gave you more filling with each bite, an accoutrement which we were quickly devouring in between rounds of pasta making because it was addictive and our appetites were growing.
Once we finally made it through enough ravioli to fill 2 dinner plates, we decided it was time to retire the rolling pin. We were also running low on wine and if we didn’t start cooking soon, we’d be faced with an unfortunate situation. A homemade pasta dinner unaccompanied by wine is probably illegal, right? Legality aside, it would certainly have been improper.
Sara gave us a quick tutorial on her sage and butter sauce, which she prepared as the ravioli were boiling. Obviously, we didn’t come equipped with what was needed for this sauce. Fresh sage was nowhere to be found in the rural country store nearby, so we had to make do with what we had. I was relieved to see that Sara approved of our simple tomato puree and butter sauce. We poured our boiled ravioli into the pan with our tomato sauce, along with a little bit of the pasta water. It needed to cook a few minutes longer because our dough wasn’t quite as thin as it should have been. Finally we were ready to plate. With a giant spoon, we loaded the hefty pillows onto our plates and drizzled the extra sauce over the top. We collectively applauded one other’s steep mountain of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano that slowly melted in the heat of the pasta sauce. It was dinner time.
As much as I love a live, in-person cooking class, I have to admit that online instruction was a pretty great alternative. At a time when socialization has stalled and spontaneous interactions with strangers are mostly absent from our lives, online cooking courses offer something important. Not only did we feel like we got a fun and interactive date night out of it, but we also got to meet a Roman cook who taught us about Italian food and culture. The meal also happened to be spectacular!
We’ve spent the week since our class bragging to everyone about how good we are at making ravioli. Eventually we’ll have to prove it, so we might need to book Sara’s class for a refresh. Until then, we’ve found our new favorite date night, and we’re looking forward to learning how to make new foods from all over the world, conveniently from the comfort of our home kitchen…. where I know where to find the measuring cups.
Author: Erin Skahan
Erin Skahan is a food writer and home cook who loves to get creative in the kitchen. For more of her food inspired musings, visit her blog The Rouxx (www.therouxx.com).