About 9 months ago I had a conversation with my husband that went like this:
Me: “So, I decided what I want to do with the rest of my sabbatical this year. I want to go to Italy and take a cooking class.”
Him: “By yourself?”
Me: “Yea. By myself. I put together a spreadsheet of all the different weeklong cooking classes in Italy that I found online.”
Him: ” … “
Me: ” 🙂 “
Him: “Can I eat all the pasta you make when you get back?”
And that is how I ended up in this small town in southern Italy with 20 other students for a whole week learning about the region of Puglia and all its wonderful cooking treasures.
I wasn’t joking about the spreadsheet. I took a weekend, and I researched every extended cooking school I could find online in Italy, Spain, France, or Greece. And I ultimately settled on The Awaiting Table in the heel of the boot of Italy, an area called the Salento that I had never heard of before.
I chose the Awaiting Table over the other dozens of schools I had found for a couple of different reasons. First, I wanted a school that focused on cooking first and foremost. There were many others that had a few lessons but that mostly focused on excursions and tours, and that’s not what I wanted this experience to be.
Second, I wanted to connect with a real Italian way of life in a fun, but educational way.
Third, the essence of the school and what it stood for jumped out of my computer screen when I was researching. There was a tone to the website that just felt right to me.
Cooking classes and food tours are some of my favorite things to do while traveling (I just tried to count how many I’ve done and couldn’t do it – it’s my traveling go to). But never have I done anything as involved as an entire cooking week, and I really didn’t know what to expect.
The school offers two different class formats; one in beautiful, baroque Lecce and one in a castle in a small town 40 minutes outside of Lecce.
The week at the castle in Spongano seemed like a really easy decision at the time, but after spending time in Lecce before and after the school I’m convinced that either setting would be spectacular and each for different reasons. Lecce is a stunning and vibrant city that would be great fun to explore with a group. Spongano on the other hand is small and quiet, and the castle is peaceful. You make friends with the people you’re cooking with, and you’re all there doing the whole week together.
Silvestro, the founder, director and teacher at the Awaiting Table says the difference between the two locations is seen best in their respective tables. The table at the school in Lecce is square and intimate enough for one conversation with the whole group. The tables at the castle are long and jovial with the chatter of many conversations going on into the night.
Each day we would cook both lunch and dinner, learning about the ingredients and the techniques together at a chalkboard prior to going into the kitchen. In other cooking classes I’ve been to, every person has their own station where they make every dish. But here, everything was done family style. People moved throughout the kitchen trying different tasks and all participating in making the meal.
The only thing we did individually (and we did it for every meal) was make fresh pasta. Every meal was a different shape, and we always kicked off the cooking session with it.
The pasta in Puglia is different than the typical egg pasta that we always associate with Italy. The pasta here isn’t made with any eggs – just water and flour. And the flour is a mix of regular hard durum wheat flour and barley flour. It means you can work with the pasta dough almost immediately after kneading it with no need for resting time to let the gluten relax. It makes fresh pasta at home feel even more within reach.
Not once throughout the entire week did I ever pick up a measuring cup, even when making pasta and especially when making everything else. We cooked by feeling, and that’s what I loved most about the Awaiting Table cooking school – it taught you to develop an intuition in the kitchen as opposed to giving strict guidelines to follow and replicate.
The other great thing about cooking at the Awaiting Table? It was so surprisingly varied in terms of what we cooked, where we ate, and what we learned. There was a day where we cooked nothing but the seafood that the fishmonger in town happened to catch that morning. One day we made little mini feasts of eggplant parmesan to give to people who lived in the town. One day we walked to a city on the sea and ate lunch together there.
You could be as hands on or as hands off as you wanted to be for the whole week. It felt easy and communal. And the best, best part? Being surrounded by 20 other people who LOVE food as much as you do.
The food of Puglia and the food we cooked at the school is more about the ingredients and less about the actual cooking techniques. Few things required more than 4 or 5 elements, and if something did it was the star of the dinner – like the time we simmered ragout all day, made fresh sheets of egg pasta, and whipped up homemade bechamel to create the most delicious lasagna.
But still my favorite dishes were the simplest ones: the broth from white wine, mussels, and olive oil – the chicken braised with capers – pasta with pancetta and cabbage – tender spring onions seasoned with olive oil. Oh, the olive oil.
That concept of actually seasoning food with olive oil is one of the most critical things I brought back with me. You can cook any vegetable dish the Pugliese way by selecting the best vegetables from the market, cooking them simply, and seasoning at the end with lots of fresh, herbaceous olive oil and salt.
So here’s a recipe (although you don’t need one) of exactly that. This is what I’m bringing back with me from Italy.
Roasted Root Vegetables Seasoned with Olive Oil
Here’s what you’ll need:
- 1 large bunch radishes, trimmed and quartered
- 1 large bunch turnips, trimmed and quartered
- 2 tbsp olive oil, divided
- ½ tsp kosher salt
- ⅛ tsp fresh cracked black pepper
- ¼ – ½ tsp crunchy sea salt
- 2 tbsp fresh chopped parsley
Step 1: Go to a farmer’s market and buy whatever produce looks the best to you. I found some gorgeous turnips and radishes at the farmer’s market here in Nashville yesterday, so that’s what I went with.
Step 2: Cook the vegetables! Roast them, saute them, steam them – whatever you feel like doing that day. Just cook them a little longer than you normally would, so they’re extra tender and flavorful.
I cut off the green tops and the long root end of the turnips and radishes and then quartered them. I combined them with 1/2 tbsp olive oil, the kosher salt, and the pepper and roasted them at 425 for 15 minutes.
Step 3: Let them cool. Vegetables in Italy were served room temperature or maybe slightly warm, but not piping hot.
Step 4: Season them with olive oil, but make sure it’s good quality olive oil. Go to a local Italian grocer or a specialty food store and you’ll likely find some. You can actually also order some directly from the Awaiting Table (and read about exactly how it should taste) using this link. I brought back 4 bottles with me 🙂
I added a squeeze of lemon juice for brightness, plus the remaining 1 1/2 tbsp olive oil to the vegetables and stirred them together to incorporate. Then I finished the vegetables with a sprinkling of sea salt and some fresh chopped parsley.
And you’re done! Anything else you want to hear about at the cooking school? Or anything else you want to hear about in Puglia in general? I’ll be writing a few more posts shortly, so let me know!