Last month I attended my first ever cooking class, a Tuscan Cookery workshop for food bloggers organised by Tuscany Now and hosted at the Open Kitchen in Hoxton.
Chef Anna Bini was our teacher for the evening.
Anna has got 60 years of experience in Tuscan cuisine, she manages three restaurants in Paris (Casa Bini) and runs cooking classes in both France and Italy. She is charismatic, strong, smart, funny and it was an absolute pleasure to meet her. She reminded me so much of my grandmother: the way she talks to anyone despite not speaking English, sharing her knowledge and experience. I also have a soft spot for Tuscan accent, so it was lovely to hear her speak! :)
We started the evening with a Tuscan aperitivo of red and white wine, cured ham and salami, pecorino cheese and taralli crackers.
After the aperitivo, we moved upstairs to the kitchen. I loved the space, as we were each assigned to an individual space with all the ingredients and tools ready to start cooking.
Here we met Anna, who demonstrated us how to prepare a traditional and rustic Tuscan dish: Courgette Flan with Chicken Liver Pâté.
There were a few "oohs" from the audience of bloggers during the demo: at the sight of precious (and impossible to find in UK) courgette flowers being diced, we all let out a small cry! I was also surprised by the quantities of butter used in both the courgette flan and the chicken livers. Finally, I was dubious about using stock instead of salt, as I find it hard to judge the right amount to use and would risk over-seasoning. I guess that is not an issue when you have 60 years of cooking experience! ;)
This courgette flan is a great recipe idea for a dinner party: perfect as a side dish to both meat and fish. I also enjoyed the chicken livers: I wouldn't have ordered this in a restaurant, but I was surprised by how tender and tasty they were.
For the flan
* 8 courgettes with their flower * 300g béchamel sauce * 50g unsalted butter * 50g grated parmesan cheese * 2 eggs * Nutmeg * Breadcrumbs * 2 spoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil * 2 cloves garlic * 1 bunch of fresh parsley or mint * 1 stock cube
For the pâté
* 500g chicken livers * 20g unsalted butter * 2 spoons olive oil * 1 beef stock cube * 1 finely chopped onion * 1/2 glass white wine * 2 anchovy fillets * Juice of 1/2 squeezed lemon
Wash the courgettes and dice them, cut the pistils off the flowers and shred them into small pieces. In a pan put 1/2 glass of water, the butter, stock cube, diced courgettes and flowers, garlic and shredded parsley/mint.
Cover the pan and cook on a high flame for 5 minutes. Take the lid off and keep stirring so that the liquid evaporates.
Once the courgettes are cooked, chop the mixture finely and mix with the béchamel, add a pinch of nutmeg, 2 eggs and mix carefully.
Add the grated parmesan at the end. Grease an oven mould (preferably use one with a hole in the middle) and dust with breadcrumbs, pour the courgette mix in and bake in the oven at 220 °C for approximately 30 minutes until it is golden.
Wash the chicken livers thoroughly and cut them into small pieces. Put them in a pan with the butter, olive oil, stock cube and onion. Sautée on medium flame for approximately 15 minutes with the lid on. Take off the lid and turn the gas to maximum and keep turning and sautéing them.
When they are nicely done add a tiny amount of wine and keep turning them; add more wine this way 2 or 3 times until it is finished. Add the anchovies and the lemon juice at the end.
Tip: Don't add the lemon during the cooking and don't stir the livers too hard, as this will make them mash. I might have been "told off" by Anna at this point, as I eventually burnt the meat! :P
When the flan is ready and has cooled down a little, flip it over on a plate and serve it with the pâté in the centre.
As part of the Tuscan Cookery Challenge, we were asked to recreate this dish at home, adding our own twist to the recipe. My re-interpretation of the Tuscan dish was: Courgette Baskets with Fried Mozzarella Balls.
I liked Anna's flan, but I felt that the courgette taste was too strong (troppo saporito!) and there was something missing to balance it. I decided to add pastry to create a crunchy texture and transform the vegetable flan into a mini-cake.
Using the same recipe, I made a courgette mixture to fill little baskets of filo pastry. I used filo, instead of puff or shortcrust pastry, as I wanted a soft shell case that held the courgettes together, without covering their flavour. I also replaced the béchamel sauce with single cream, to keep the mixture light.
As my fiancé is vegetarian, I replaced the chicken liver pâté with Fried Mozzarella Balls (this vegetarian idea was proposed by Anna during the cookery class, though I missed her demo so I used my own recipe here).
Courgette Filo Baskets
I followed Anna's recipe, reducing the dose to one big courgette (unfortunately I couldn't find the flowers) and adjusted the other ingredients accordingly. I used very little butter and olive oil, and stewed the courgette in little water with 1/4 stock cube.
I cut six squares of filo pastry and laid them onto the cases of a muffin baking tray. I brushed the pastry baskets with milk and poured the courgette mixture inside them. Cooking time in the oven at 180 °C was about 20-25 minutes.
Fried Mozzarella Balls
For two people, I used one mozzarella (150gr) cut into eight pieces. In three bowls, prepare: salted flour, 1 beaten egg, breadcrumbs with chopped parsley. Coat the mozzarella in the flour, then dip in the egg and finally coat it with breadcrumbs. Fry it hot olive oil for 3 minutes and leave to dry on a plate covered with kitchen paper.
I prepared and cooked the mozzarella balls while the courgette baskets were in the oven, so overall it took me less than one hour to prepare this meal. Reducing the quantities of butter/oil and removing the béchamel made the dish lighter and healthier, while replacing the chicken with mozzarella made it suitable to vegetarians.
The event was sponsored by Tuscany Now, a company specialised in the rental of luxury holiday villas in Tuscany. They also organise personal cookery classes at the villas, with chefs such as Anna Bini, to create a true Tuscan experience.
Special thanks to Propellernet for inviting me to this event.