I had the very special privilege of spending many hours of my first ever trip to Italy cooking in a kitchen in Tuscany, alongside the owners of a restaurant. It’s not what you’re thinking – it wasn’t one of those learn-to-cook-in-a-Tuscan-kitchen for tourists packages. Rather, I was in Italy as the manager of the under-12 Israeli national baseball team that traveled to Tuscany this past July to compete in a series of tournaments and this, oddly, is how I found myself cooking in a Tuscan kitchen.
Because an Israeli national sports team needs to eat kosher food, we were faced with a challenge. We did bring over 100 kg of cooked, frozen kosher meat with us from Israel, but we had to supplement this with side dishes. That mainly meant that lunches were a massive pot of pasta with tomato sauce and cut up vegetables for the hungry players who needed their carbo-loading after and before games.
Most kindly, and to my joy, Andrea and Cristina Pivirotto, the brother and sister who own the Ironic Room restaurant that abuts one of the baseball fields in the town of Grosseto, allowed me into their kitchen to prepare the food. They were very amused by the set-up: I would finish coaching first base in the baseball games, then sprint from the field straight into the kitchen, throw an apron on over my baseball uniform and cook lunch in their hot kitchen that soaked up the Italian humidity and added some of its own.
With the initial chaos of arriving in Italy with the responsibility of 14 young boys and some of their accompanying family members, only once I was standing in front of Andrea’s industrial stove with garlic frying and pasta boiling did the enormity of my situation hit me. I was cooking in a Tuscan kitchen, with a REAL Tuscan cook looking over my shoulder. Nervous much?!
The exchanges that ensued were priceless. Between the five words of Italian I had managed to pick up, the ten words of English that Andrea had, and, thank God, the very useful English that Cristina was able to bring to the kitchen table, we managed to communicate. As I would cook the pasta, Andrea would watch the pot and tap his watch when it was “al dente time”. I would argue that, oh sacrilege, us Israelis like our pasta cooked a little beyond al dente. I still can’t believe I was able to stand my ground, but Andrea vs 14 very hungry 11-year-old baseball players wasn’t a fair fight for him.
Then there was my joy of joys – the wonderful fresh herb garden behind the kitchen to which Andrea gave me carte blanche. He would even run out and bring me supplies when I mustered three of my five Italian words possibly not in the right order: “Basilico fresco prego”.
The highlights of my days in Andrea’s kitchen was when he would take a sniff at my sauce, and smile and nod. Having scolded me for several other mistakes, I know he wasn’t humoring me; Italians and Israelis share a trait of being straight forward, which I love. So while the pasta may not have been cooked to Tuscan perfection, the sauce worked and the kids loved it too (and I promise to post my recipe in another post). And to have Andrea and Cristina’s seal of approval was the ultimate accolade. Cooking with the two of them around was beyond fun and I also learned a few things along the way. I wish I had been able to stay for longer to focus on cooking alone. But I will find my way back to their cosy kitchen in Grosseto to learn some more one day.
I thought of Andrea and his tut-tutting last night when I made my favorite very quick pasta dish, and prepared the penne noodles, which I always try not to overcook, but also to make sure they aren’t too hard. I like a little bite in them, but they shouldn’t be too chewy. My rule of thumb for cooking pasta (Andrea, don’t read this) is that once the pasta starts boiling in the water, I start the timer, adding 1-2 minutes to the cooking time stated on the box.
My “recipe” for my hanging around at home pasta is so quick that the sauce I make is usually ready before the pasta is finished. It’s not a saucy pasta, rather the vegetables are sauteed together and break down and soften to create a wonderful accompaniment to the noodles. The ingredients can alse vary depending on what’s hanging around in your fridge, so have fun.
PASTA WITH SAUTEED VEGETABLES AND CHERRY TOMATOES
250 g penne, fusilli or elbow noodles (or any other hard noodle you like)
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1-2 red or yellow peppers sliced thinly into 2-3cm (1 inch) pieces
1 red or white onion quartered and thinly sliced
About 100 g (4 oz) ripe quartered cherry tomatoes (that’s about 12, but use more if you feel like it – the more tomatoes, the saucier the vegetables will become)
1 medium zucchini halved and sliced thinly (optional)
2 large cloves of garlic thinly sliced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
How to do it
1. Cook the pasta according to instructions
2. While the pasta is cooking, slice the vegetables
3. Heat the oil in a non-stick pan and add the onions, peppers and zucchini, and saute until they start softening and getting some color.
4. Add the garlic slices and saute for another minute (or until you start smelling the garlic)
5. Add the tomatoes and saute for another few minutes, until the tomatoes start softening and getting some color.
6. Add salt and pepper to taste
7. Serve over the pasta and add finely grated Parmesan cheese to taste