When in Naples – EAT!

In my opinion, there is nothing to do in Naples except eat! Surely, its a historic city with lots of UNESCO world heritage sites and beautiful views, but the sole reason to come here is for the food. Naples is the birthplace of pizza and many other dishes. It is the former capital of Italy and is largely responsible for all things we know of as “Italian cuisine” in most of the world.

On a Tuesday morning, my guide, Alberto from Context Travel and I set out on a food tour of the historic area. We start at Duomo di Napoli (Naples Cathedral) and see the remnants of Saint Januarius inside this spectacular 14th century construction. We walk down the famous Via dei Tribunali, making small detours to see narrow alleys with towering residences on both sides. During the 4-hour long eating spree, we take intermissions between courses to step into a church or a monastery, look at local crafts, and discuss more of – you know what – Italian food!

Here are some highlights of my Food Tour in Naples with Context Travel…

Sfogliatelle is a traditional Neapolitan pastry with thick flaky layers of dough filled with lightly whipped ricotta and a little powdered sugar dusted on top. There is also a brioche version of this. It’s best eaten when warm out of the oven, and locals enjoy it for breakfast or afternoon snack.

Sfogliatelle naplesBaba au Rhum is a fluffy sponge cake made with eggs, milk and butter, and soaked in rum. It is recognizable by its shape, a 2-inch cylinder. You can also find cream filled Baba at pastry shops across Naples. It is said that this pastry originated from France, but has Polish roots as well.

baba naples

Italians are passionate about their coffee. When I ordered a cappuccino at 10am, Alberto looked at me in horror. “If you want to drink coffee during the day, it has to be an espresso” he explained. Though coffee is not grown in Italy, they brew it the Italian way, with lots of ground coffee and little water, for a very short time (40 seconds). As a result, the coffee is dense but has less caffeine. You can add sugar, but there’s no room for milk in that tiny Italian espresso cup.

naples pizza fritta

Next we eat the local street food, Pizza Fritta. This light and fluffy deep fried pizza dough almost reminds me of sopapilla from New Mexico. It is topped with tomato sauce, mozzarella and fresh basil. Just the perfect snack before lunch!

There is also a stuffed version of the Pizza Fritta which basically looks like a Calzone. Ricotta cheese, salami and tomato sauce are the only ingredients that are put inside, sealed and deep fried in hot oil. It never got popular outside Naples but out here it is a favorite street snack.

naples pizza frittaArancini are my favorite Italian appetizers. These fried risotto balls are stuffed with ragù (meat and tomato sauce), mozzarella, and peas, though there are other variations with mushrooms, eggplants, or pistachios as well.  It can be pretty much made with whatever leftover ingredients you may have. Note ragu with pasta is a special Sunday meal. The ladies of the house will start to cook ragu 24 hours in advance, simmering the tomatoes on very low heat till the sauce is thick and flavorful.

Being in southern Italy, cheese, olives, and cured meats are staples. Alberto took me to a speciality grocery store where locals shop for these products. Here I learned that if you can squeeze out milk from Buffalo Mozzarella with the tip of a fork, it means that its fresh. He recommends that Buffalo Mozzarella should be eaten within 24 hours, and should never be used for cooking pizza. We also taste Goat Ricotta, which is used to make pastries, and Smoked and Aged Provolone perfect for snacking with wine.

buffalo mozzarella naplesFritto Misto are also popular street foods in Naples. You can often see display windows full of fried snacks including fried zucchini, eggplant, calamari, shrimp, potato croquettes, or whatever is in season. You would order it by Copa (paper cones) and snack on it with a glass of beer or aperitif.

Next, we head to O Cerriglio – Trattoria Cucina Napoletana to try our hands on making pizza. The chef gives me a brief demo and makes it look so easy, but it isn’t! I have made pizza before, but the extremely thin dough of Neapolitan Pizza Margarita needs some skills to stretch, lift, and twist without burning or forming holes. We stretch the dough with only our fingers (no roller), spread 2 tablespoons of tomato sauce, few slices of fior di latte mozzarella (cow’s milk mozzarella), sprinkle grated parmesan cheese and top with fresh basil leaves. It takes only a minute to make the pizza and another 45 seconds to bake it in this very hot brick oven reaching temperatures of 700-800F. This is why the pizza has a crunchy crust and a soft center.

pizza cooking class naples

Alberto was a wonderful guide and showed me a lot of hidden gems in the historic area that I didn’t even knew excited, even though I had been through those streets few times before. He is available for walking food tours in group sizes 1-6 booked through Context Travel.

Read more about the history of pizza.

If you have another Neapolitan speciality dish to share, leave a comment below.

Persian Cooking Class

Savor the flavors of Persia with an intimate cooking class taught by acclaimed restauranter/ chef, Jalal Khadivi. Jalal was born in Iran and ran Fanoos Persian restaurant in Atlanta for many years. He is passionate about his culture and his food. Co-hosted by award-winning food and travel writer, Sucheta Rawal. 

Menu includes Kashke Bademjon (eggplant dip), Gormet Sabzi (vegetable stew), Fessenjan (cornish hen with pomegrante & walnuts), Zereshik Pulao (barberries & saffron), tea and dessert.

Class is held in the comfort of a home, in an everyday kitchen with a handful of students. This is a no-pressure informal setting design especially for friends. You will get step by step instructions to take home. Class is hands-on and number of students limited. Advance registration is required. 

Address & directions will be send to registered students only. General Admission $50; Premium Members (half off) $25.

Cooking Teriyaki in Tokyo

Before I even recovered from my 12-hour time change, I headed to a Japanese Cooking Class on my first day in Tokyo (because that’s what I do when I first arrive in a new country). After an intense walk through the crowded Tsukiji Fish Market, where “tuna fish” is more of a prized commodity than food, I arrived at a small place than didn’t look like much of a cooking school from outside.

At Tsukiji Cooking School, everyone had to take their shoes off outside the door and put on slippers, as the local tradition dictates. There was a tiny kitchen where the chef and her two assistants were prepping our recipes. In the middle of the room was a dining table and chairs. We were given an apron, hand fan and printed recipes. Our instructor did not speak much English, but she had a translator.Tsukiji cooking class

During the 2-hour class, we learned to make miso soup, chicken teriyaki, spinach salad and Okonomiyaki (Japanese pancakes) – all from scratch! Although I consider myself to be a savvy chef, there were things I had not known about, especially because I never cooked Japanese before.

This Miso soup had very strong flavors. We first made a broth using whole seaweed and dried fish skeletons.

We made a delicious dressing of freshly ground roasted red sesame seeds with soy sauce, dashi, and lots of sugar, to flavor local greens that tasted sort of like spinach but crispier.

spinach salad with sesame

Okonomiyaki was fairly easy to prepare as most of the work involved only chopping. It is a savory dough full of vegetables, topped with sauce, mayo and seaweed. Apparently, there are parties around this dish where everyone sits around and grills their own pancakes.

Okonomiyaki

Here are a few things I learned about Japanese cooking –

  1. Japanese chefs cook with chopsticks. It was actually not that difficult and more practical, since the “spatula chopsticks” are much longer than the eating sort.
  2. There are different kinds of seaweed, each with its own purpose. Depending on the texture and flavor, some are better suited for dashi (broth), others for toppings.
  3. None of the recipes call for salt or pepper. In fact, there are no seasonings, spices or herbs added to the dishes we prepared.
  4. Soy and sugar always find their place in most dishes. Contrasting flavors add enough seasoning to satisfy Japanese palates.
  5. Teriyaki is a sauce added at the end, not a marinade. Common myth we have in the West since we tend to grill our meats.
  6. You taste food with your eyes first. I was fascinated by how much time and effort the chefs put into making each component on the plate look perfect. Presentation is definitely very important.
The smell of seaweed remained on my hands the rest of the day, but I surely learned a lot at the Tsukiji Cooking Class. Once I returned to Atlanta, I tried all of the recipes and a few more.

Chicken Teriyaki Recipe (authentic Japanese style)

Ingredients:
2 large pieces Boneless Skinless Chicken Thighs
1 tablespoon Vegetable or Canola Oil
1 1/2 tablespoon Dark Soy Sauce
1 1/2 tablespoon Mirin (rice cooking wine)
3 tablespoon Sake
1 tablespoon Sugar
2 tablespoon Green Onions, sliced
Directions:
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Place the chicken in the skillet and remove excess grease using a paper towel. Cook for 8-10 minutes until golden brown on both sides.
chicken teriyaki recipe
Combine the soy sauce, Mirin, sake and sugar in a small mixing bowl. Pour the sauce over the chicken, cooking on low heat with a lid on. Flip the chicken few times so that it absorbs the sauce thoroughly.  When the sauce is thick and well coated, remove from heat and travel to a plate. Slice the chicken into bite size pieces. Garnish with green onions and more sauce, if needed.
chicken teriyaki

Zeytinyağlı Biber Dolma Recipe

One of the most popular dishes in Turkish cuisine is Dolma, meaning stuffed. The Turks stuff all sorts of dried and fresh vegetables – eggplants, okra, peppers, zucchini, grape leaves with meat, rice and nuts. More than often, dolma is served as an appetizer, but it can also be eaten as light entree. Here is the recipe for one of my favorite dolmas, roasted and stuffed bell peppers, provided by Selin Rozanes of Turkish Flavors cooking classes and food tours in Istanbul. Slight variations can be found in Macedonian, Indian and American cuisine as well.

Turkish mezzo

Aromatic Rice Stuffed Bell Peppers with Olive Oil Recipe

Zeytinyağlı Biber Dolma

  • 6 large green bell peppers
  • 1 cup rice
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons currants
  • 2 tablepoons pine nuts
  • 1 table spoon dried mint
  • 6 medium onions, finely chopped
  • 1 tomato
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon allspice
  • 2 cups hot water
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup fresh chopped herb – parsley and dill

Turkish stuffed peppersFilling (Same filling can be used for grapevine leaves):

Put the currants in hot water to allow them to swell; drain and put to one side. Soak the rice in hot salted water for 30 minutes. Rinse under cold water and drain.

Heat ¼ cup oil in a deep pan and gently sauté the pine nuts until golden. Add the chopped onion and sauté until soft. Add drained rice, currants and spices, stirring gently to ensure the rice grains are evenly coated. Add the 1 cup hot water, salt, and sugar, stir once and continue cooking for about 10 minutes or until the cooking liquid is absorbed and steaming bubbles appear on the surface of the rice. It is important not to stir the rice during this time. Remove from the heat, cover the top of the pan with a cloth, replace the lid and set aside to cool for 20 minutes. Season with freshly ground black pepper. Add the herbs and combine gently with a wooden spoon. The rice stuffing is now ready in to vegetables of your choice!

Stuffing the vegetables:

Carefully cut a thin slice from the stem end of peppers and take out the seeds. Stuff the peppers with the rice mixture with a spoon or your hand. Cut small pieces from 1 tomato to cover the top part of peppers. Press the tomato slice down a bit so that it won’t come out.

Place the dolmas in an oven safe dish which is at least as tall as dolmas. Pour 1 cup of boiling water on top.

Sauce:

Whisk together ¼ cup olive oil, hot water, sugar and salt and pour over. First let it boil for 5 minutes on stove. Then, bake it in a 350F oven for 35-40 minutes until rice is cooked and tops are browned. Check them regularly if you don’t want to burn the tops. Set aside to cool. Serve at room temperature.

Zeytinyağlı Biber Dolma

~ Recipe courtesy of Selin Rozanes, founder of  Turkish Flavors. The Istanbul based culinary company organizes food tours, cooking classes and team building activities. Check them out on Facebook Turkish Flavours and Turkish Cooking Classes Istanbul and Twitter Turkish Flavours.

Speak and Eat in Spanish

On my last evening in Spain, my friend Gina and I headed to AIL Madrid near Retiro park for a Gazpacho Cooking Class. Little did I know that the class was about to be held in Spanish! Well, that would be quite obvious since it was at a language school. In fact, AIL offers unique classroom Spanish lessons integrated with cultural and social activities that teach you about the customs of Spain. It is a great way to learn the language, as well as experience Madrid. Continue reading “Speak and Eat in Spanish”

Minny’s Caramel Cake

Last night I taught The Help (book and movie) themed cooking class at the Hal’s Kitchen cooking school in Atlanta. If you are familiar with the story, you would remember the character Minnie, who was known to be the best cook amongst the help available in the small town of Mississippi. She was also famous for her 7-layer caramel cake which was a popular item in the fundraiser auction.

Just as Minnie did for her employer in the story, we also cooked up a traditional southern dinner of fried chicken, turnip greens, mashed potatoes with gravy, and caramel cake for our class. The students learned to make southern favorites hands-on and were encouraged to go watch the movie after the class. Hal’s Kitchen has hosted a few The Help dinner and a movie classes and they have been a huge hit!

Author of The Help, Katherine Stockett shared this recipe for Minnie’s famous Caramel Cake which you can also enjoy!

Caramel Cake                            
(serves 12)
 
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted before measuring
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
2 cups granulated sugar
6 eggs
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Butter 2 9-inch layer cake pans; line the bottoms waxed paper. Butter the paper.
Sift the sifted flour and baking powder into a bowl. In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter until light, then gradually add the sugar, beating until creamy. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat well after each addition. Stir in the flour mixture, a little at a time, alternately with the milk, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Stir well after each addition, but do not beat. Stir in the vanilla extract. Turn the batter into prepared cake pans. Bake in a preheated 325° oven until the cakes spring back when lightly touched near the center with a finger, about 35 minutes. Cool layers 10 minutes in the pans, then turn out onto cake racks to cool completely.
 
Never Fail Creamy Caramel Icing

2 1/2 c. sugar
1 slightly beaten egg
1 stick of butter
3/4 c. milk
1 t. vanilla
 
Melt 1/2 cup of sugar in iron skillet slowly, until brown and runny. Mix egg, butter, remaining sugar, and milk in a saucepan and cook over a low flame until butter melts. Turn the heat up to medium and add the browned sugar. Cook until it reaches the soft ball stage or until mixture leaves sides of pan. This takes about 10 minutes. Remove from fire, let cool slightly, and add vanilla. Beat until right consistency to spread. If it gets too thick add a little cream. 
 

Five reasons to enroll in a cooking camp this summer

Summer is around the corner and its camping season. Kids of all ages are enrolled in programs for everything ranging from science, dance, and sports to debates. But have you considered a cooking camp for this summer?

If you have children ages 8-16, here are five reasons you should consider enrolling your kids in a cooking camp:

1. With the ever growing popularity of the Food Network and the Cooking Channel, children and teen are fascinated by the celebrity chefs. They eagerly wait to see what Rachel Ray is whipping up or who the next Iron Chef is going to be. The cooking camp gives the kids an opportunity to experience an upscale kitchen hands on. Many of them offer “record your own TV show” at the end of each camp. They are bound to feel like a Food Network Star!

2. Learning about international cuisine exposes the youth to different cultures. Most camps include education into their curriculum. Whether it’s learning about regional cuisines of the USA, or around the world, the little explorers are going to have a fun time and return to the school year equipped with a better understanding of food, spices, and countries.

3. In addition to cultural awareness, kids are also introduced to cooking vocabulary and techniques, tools and utensils, basics of etiquette, nutrition and safety. They even get to practice their math skills when measuring and mixing. A cooking camp is a great way for kids to learn early on about how to make proper choices while dining out as they would be informed on ingredients and nourishment.

4. A cooking camp is a great way to getting kids an early start on eating healthy and participating in family meals. Imagine your child moving away from his/her favorite fast food restaurant and PB&J sandwiches, into a whole new world of preparing nutritious home cooked meals.

5. Cooking camps inspire and excite the creativity kids have packed in the. It allows them to put their curious minds to good use, in the safety of a professional kitchen and learn from experts. Especially if the child is inclined to a career in the culinary arts, it’s a great way of experimenting and having fun at a young age. Needless to say, they would also learn the benefits of cooperation and working with each other.

Some of you may have already scouted on your kid’s camps and booked months in advance. If you are one of those procrastinators, it’s still not too late. Classes typically range from $250-350/ week depending on the school. They are held for 4-5 hours each day and lunch is provided. If you are in the Atlanta area, check out Hal’s Kitchen (opening in June) or the Cook’s Warehouse for enrollment information.