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Teachers' Pet Tricks

The secret to beautifully cooked pasta and other insider tips from renowned Italian culinary instructors.

I had my first Italian cooking lessons when I was 17 and studying Italian in Florence. Signora Cambi, who ran the pensione where I was spending the summer, took it upon herself to educate her young ladies in the first principles of Italian cuisine. We learned to roll out pasta and cook it al dente, and we also picked up a few of her tricks: To serve the pasta piping hot, for instance, she used some of the water that had been drained from the pot to heat the serving bowl.

Learning secrets and shortcuts is part of the fun of a cooking course. Here, six teachers from Italy, the most popular destination for cooking-school vacations, share some of their tips--a number of which, like Signora Cambi's, involve pasta, that perfect yet infinitely perfectible Italian dish. But read on, too, for the key to flawless octopus.


THE VILLA TABLE AT BADIA A COLTIBUONO

The School
Badia a Coltibuono, a frescoed Tuscan villa in an 11th-century former abbey, is the magnificent setting for Lorenza de' Medici Stucchi's cooking school. Students prepare lunch in Badia's kitchens, then have most of their dinners in private villas nearby. The course covers Italian recipes from north to south, with an emphasis on rustic Tuscan dishes and Neapolitan noblemen's cuisine (214-373-1161; www.cuisineinternational.com).

The Tips
Never let the rice dry out when making risotto. For a creamy texture, the rice should always--from start to finish--be kept under a "veil" of broth.

Always cook pasta in less boiling water than cookbooks recommend--too much water dilutes the flavor.

Never add oil to pasta cooking water. It spoils the pasta's texture, inhibits the pasta's ability to absorb sauce and doesn't prevent clumping.

To lighten pesto, add an equal amount of hot pasta cooking water to the sauce just before tossing it with the pasta (e.g., one cup of water to one cup of pesto sauce). The pasta cooking water warms the sauce and loosens it up while adding some wheaty flavor.


GIULIANO BUGIALLI'S COOKING IN FLORENCE

The School
Giuliano Bugialli opened Italy's first Italian cooking school for English speakers in 1972 and soon after began writing award-winning cookbooks. His full-participation course is held in a country villa in Chianti, where classes feature recipes from all over Italy. In five lessons, students cook on charcoal and wood fires and in a brick oven, preparing about 40 dishes and tasting 20 wines. There are also tastings of olive oil, prosciutto and Italian cheeses, plus outings to local restaurants (212-813-9552; www.bugialli.com).

The Tips
When zesting oranges or lemons, place a sheet of parchment paper directly on the grating surface. The zest remains on the paper and the fruit's bitter white pith goes inside the grater and is easily discarded.

To retain the full flavor of carrots, boil them unpeeled. The skin can easily be rubbed off under cold running water after the carrots are cooked.

To make your own natural wine vinegar, place a slice of bread in some wine for about 25 days.


THE WORLD OF REGALEALI

The School
Anna Tasca Lanza's classes take place at Regaleali, her family's historic winemaking estate in Sicily. In her classes, Lanza, an aristocrat who learned traditional Sicilian recipes from her family's cooks, celebrates the island's sun-ripened produce. She also teaches a class on doughs: bread and pizza, sfincione and focaccia, as well as her delectable sweet doughnuts (214-373-1161; www.cuisineinternational.com).

The Tips
Put your rising bread dough "to bed" in a large bowl: Cover it loosely with a kitchen cloth and then with a thick blanket to keep it warm.

To make an unusual sauce for vanilla ice cream, simmer grape juice over low heat in an uncovered pan until it's thick enough to coat a spoon.

When sautéing onions, start with cold chopped onions, cold oil and a cold pan, as Sicilians do. Then cook the onions over low heat so they release their juices gradually and become softened and almost caramelized.


DIANE SEED'S ROMAN KITCHEN

The School
Diane Seed was born in England, but she has lived in Italy for 30 years. She began teaching eight years ago from her home in the Doria Pamphili Palace in Rome, which houses one of the city's best art museums. In a room overlooking the Piazza Venezia and the Coliseum, Seed highlights Roman recipes while also teaching about other parts of Italy (214-373-1161; www.italiangourmet.com).

The Tips
Use a wok to heat together pasta sauce and drained boiled pasta--it's the perfect shape.

Chill fresh mozzarella only if you're going to cook with it--for instance, in pizzas or pasta sauces. Cooling the cheese will stop it from leaking.

Keep fresh mozzarella at room temperature if you're serving it in salads or by itself. Transfer it from the whey that it's often packed in to a bowl of cool water until you're ready to eat it.


ITALIAN COOKERY WEEKS

The School
Milan-born Susanna Gelmetti offers courses in a 16th-century castle in the southeastern region of Apulia, at an inn on the Amalfi Coast and in an Umbrian farmhouse in central Italy. Her classes focus on both traditional regional recipes and their lighter, more modern interpretations. She also leads students on market visits and sightseeing trips (011-44-20-8208-0112; www.italian-cookery-weeks.co.uk).

The Tips
Use rinsed salted capers in rustic pasta sauces instead of salt for a more authentic southern Italian flavor.

Substitute al dente boiled pearl barley for rice to make crunchier, nuttier-tasting grain salads.

To cook baby octopus, boil it in unsalted water for half an hour along with a wine cork. Turn off the heat and let stand for another 30 minutes. Drain and chop. Why adding a cork helps make octopus tender is one of the mysteries of Italian cooking, but it works.


THE INTERNATIONAL COOKING SCHOOL OF ITALIAN FOOD AND WINE

The School
Mary Beth Clark teaches in Bologna, the heart of the Emilia-Romagna region, in the modern kitchen of a 16th-century palazzo. She takes her students to the city's market, visits local producers of cheese and vinegar and pairs wines with the 40 dishes that her students learn to cook. Recipes range from simple to advanced and include handmade pasta, thin-crust pizza, risotto and a real ragu Bolognese. She also organizes a special truffle class in Piedmont every fall (212-779-1921; www.marybethclark.com).

The Tips
Choose the right rice for your dish. Carnaroli is best for silky, creamy risotto. It has a long grain, and it holds up well in cooking. Use Vialone Nano, whose short grains cook especially evenly, for drier risottos, molded rice dishes, salads and soups. Keep Arborio on hand as a good all-purpose rice; its medium grains are versatile, and it's less expensive.

To make fresh basil last longer, don't refrigerate it. Treat it as you would a bouquet of flowers, standing it in a vase filled with water.

To freeze basil, pluck individual leaves from the stalks and place them in a plastic bag. Blow a little air into the bag before closing it.

For a flavorful, well-textured meat ragu, have your butcher coarsely grind the meat just once. Don't overbrown the meat when searing it; simmer it for two to three hours in a deep pot.

Use three-to five-year-old balsamic vinegar for marinades, 8-to 10-year-olds to finish a sauce. Well-aged (25-year-old) balsamic is a great accent for grilled meats and vegetables.

Carla Capalbo is a cooking teacher in Milan. She is the author of The Food Lover's Companion to Tuscany (Chronicle Books).

Published October 2000
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