DIY Dinner Party
Looking for a new idea? Hire a pesonal chef—not to cook but to teach you and your guests
A little before seven o'clock, Chef Marcella Ansaldo reminds everyone that this is supposed to be a cooking lesson. "When you're ready, I'm ready," she says in a lilting Italian accent. "Just please remind me that there is another focaccia in the oven."
In what seems like no time at all, a heady aromatic blend of roasting apples, melting chocolate, frying potatoes, and freshly baked focaccia has filled the kitchen. I barely notice because I'm concentrating so hard on making pasta. I'm not very good at it -- this much is gently confirmed by Marcella -- but I am determined to at least roll out thinner sheets than the other two guys with flour on their hands.
Meanwhile, our spouses are sipping Italian red, enjoying the turnabout. And I'm thinking, What kind of dinner party is this?
It's a make-your-own-dinner dinner party. Sort of. Let's back up a bit. A year earlier, Charlotteans Holly and Matt Stubbing took Holly's parents to Tuscany to celebrate their fortieth wedding anniversary. On one of the last nights of the trip, Holly arranged for a cooking class. They were the only four in the class, and Ansaldo was the instructor. They got to talking, and it turned out that Ansaldo, who hails from the small island of Giglio, would be in Charlotte soon to visit a friend. And Holly hatched an idea.
"Everyone always ends up in the kitchen anyway," Holly says, "so why not theme the party that way?" We all chipped in for groceries, Holly and husband Matt provided the wine, and a dinner party idea was born.
And that's how ten friends found themselves making their own gourmet Italian dinner. The menu for the evening was irresistible: beet-and-ricotta ravioli, linguine in lemon-and-Parmesan butter sauce, pork tenderloin with roasted apples, and chocolate orange cake. All made from scratch.
Most of it by us.
It was one of the most memorable dinner parties I've ever attended. For one thing, there were no awkward moments -- those lulls in conversation during which no one seems to know what to do with their hands. Because Marcella made sure our hands kept busy. As we attempted to make the dough for the pasta, Marcella passed along bits of wisdom. "Add the flour gradually; otherwise you'll make muscles." Besides egg and flour, the other two main ingredients "are the weather and you. Because food is alive."
We all collaborated on rolling out the pasta into microthin, two-yard-long sheets. And I found a rhythm to making the raviolis: cut, pinch, fold, press. We all took turns, resulting in a variety of shapes that could have come from an infant's mobile: squares, circles, ovals, crescents. None of us had heard of putting beets into pasta before, but Marcella assured us it was a very old Italian recipe. And it made beautiful (and delicious) little raviolis -- the bright pink of the beet and the ricotta filling shining through the almost translucent pasta. We all oohed and aahed over it later at the table. It looked like little red eggs and ham.
In a subtle bit of gender twisting, Chef Marcella called upon the women to tie the bacon around the pork, demonstrating a true chef's technique that I forgot immediately. Meanwhile, Marcella held forth on ancient Italian cooking traditions, telling us that the chocolate orange cake recipe -- which, amazingly to us, uses whole oranges, rind and all -- was hundreds of years old and originally made with lemons. I almost looked around for the Food Network cameras -- surely this was the pilot for the next hot home-kitchen reality show?
There was more to come. A lecture on Italian cheeses and a discourse on vin santo, a late-harvest Italian dessert wine. But in what seemed like no time at all, we were all seated, and our chef, instructor, and new friend was carting out plates of food -- only family style would do at this newly intimate gathering—that we had a hand in preparing. We toasted the chef, she toasted us (then went back into the kitchen to finish making dessert), and we dug in. In this case, the old cliché -- that food tastes better when someone else makes it -- was wrong.
(Beet and Ricotta Ravioli)
- 2 1/4 cups semolina flour
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 cup warm milk
- Dash salt
- 3 medium beets, peeled and boiled until soft
- 3 tablespoons breadcrumbs
- 10 1/2 ounces whole-milk ricotta
- 2 eggs
- 3 1/2 tablespoons butter
- 1/2 cup (or to taste) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
- 7 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Poppy seeds
Make a mound with the flour, then press a well into the middle of the mound. Sprinkle the salt into the well, and add the two eggs. Using a fork, gradually work the flour into the eggs. Start to knead with your fingers, gradually adding the warm milk to keep a compact and elastic consistency (this takes practice, but it's fun). Wrap the dough in a plastic film and let it set for a half hour. Once it's set, stretch and flatten the dough with a pasta machine or rolling pin. Make it as thin as you can. With the pasta machine, this will require several rounds of flattening, and the dough will get quite long, so make sure you have plenty of counter space. It also helps to have two people -- one person to work the machine and one to hold the dough.
Slice the beets and mash them with a fork (or use a food processor). Melt 3 1/2 tablespoons of butter in a pan over medium heat and add the beets gradually. Remove from heat and let cool. Mix in the ricotta, eggs, breadcrumbs, and salt to taste.
Cut round disks from the layers of pasta (a cup or glass with a thin rim will work). Put a small dollop of filling in the middle and fold to shape them as half moons, pressing down on the crescent edge. Cook in boiling salted water for three minutes and drain (do not rinse).
Combine melted butter, poppy seeds, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Pour over ravioli and serve.
LINGUINE AL LIMONE
(Flat Spaghetti with Lemon Sauce)
- 13 ounces flat spaghetti
- 2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley
- 3 tablespoons butter
- Zest of 2 lemons
- 3 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted in oven on top shelf at 400 until golden brown
- 1 1/2 ounces grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- Salt and pepper
- To serve: lemon wedges
Soften the butter by hand. Mix together the soft butter, parsley, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and lemon zest. Season with salt and pepper. Add the lightly toasted pine nuts, stir well, and allow to set for a couple hours so the flavors meld.
Cook the pasta in salted boiling water until al dente. Just before draining, remove a small cup of pasta water. Drain the pasta and return it to the pot with the lemon butter over high heat. Add a little pasta water to prevent it from drying out.
As soon as it is piping hot, remove from the heat and serve.
FILETTINI DI MAIALE CON VIN SANTO E MELE
(Pork Tenderloin with vin santo and apples)
- 1 medium pork tenderloin
- 2 golden delicious apples, diced
- 8 slices bacon, preferably smoked
- Sprig of rosemary
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup vin santo (an Italian dessert wine)
Preheat oven to 320 degrees. Wrap the slices of bacon around the pork, securing it with a toothpick. Brown in a skillet with 1 tablespoon olive oil.
Remove the pork from the skillet and place in a baking dish. Set skillet aside. Bake pork for twenty to twenty-five minutes (cooking times depend on thickness of the pork; cook to 155 degrees).
In the same skillet used to cook the pork, add the vin santo and reduce over medium-low heat to the consistency of syrup.
Sauté diced apples in a pan with remaining olive oil and a rosemary sprig. Allow the apples to soften a bit. Slice the pork. Place the apples on a serving plate, and place the pork on a side dish. Cover pork and apples with the vin santo sauce.
TORTA SOFFICE DI ARANCE E CIOCCOLATO
(Soft orange and chocolate cake)
- 3 oranges
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 6 tablespoons flour, sifted
- 5 eggs, separated
- 6 tablespoons butter, melted
- 8 ounces dark chocolate
- 2 tablespoons Grand Marnier
Preheat oven to 180 degrees. Boil the whole oranges for about fifteen minutes, then drain, cut them in big chunks, and de-seed. Purée the boiled oranges, both pulp and rind, in a food processor.
In a bowl, whip the egg yolks with the sugar until fluffy. Add the puréed oranges, Grand Marnier, melted butter, and sifted flour. Whip egg whites and fold them carefully in the batter.
Butter and flour eight ramekins (or equivalent baking pan). Pour in the mixture and bake for about fifty minutes. Take the cake out of the oven; cool and remove from the molds. Melt the chocolate in a double boiler and coat the cake surfaces.