Cooking with strangers around a Table Less Traveled

Squinting into the screen of my mini-iPad I see friendly, smiley anonymous faces staring back at me in a culinary Zoom session. We’re gathered with a sense of community, to share our time and isolated spaces and take part in an interactive cooking class.

00 grade flour ready for the gnocchi

I’ve signed up for 90 minutes of expert tuition, connecting with people sharing similar gastronomic interests, a virtual line-up dialling in from kitchens as socially distanced as Seattle on the America’s northwest coast, from the flatlands of mid-USA and Minneapolis and into Europe with our host running the class from Athens, Greece. Our chef tutor is in her kitchen in Florence while I dial in from Bra, Piedmont.

Our edible education is being hosted by the Seattle-based gastro-travel company ‘The Table Less Traveled ’ and is part of a series that the company created from the idea that, “Amidst a fast-spreading pandemic, necessary social distancing, and hurting travel and hospitality industries, we asked ourselves – How can we meet our goals of building community, connecting people with shared experiences, and supporting the small businesses we work with around the world?”

In a pre-Covid-19 world the company escorted guests to countries such as Italy, Peru, Malaysia and Japan. However, responding to our global new normal saw company founder and Chief Eating Officer Annie Cheng pivot and create an online programme of Live Cooking Classes. And I’d signed up to take part.

While I could have chosen one of many, perhaps making  pizza with Marika and Zia from the Amalfi Coast, or even engaging mindfully with Chef Brisa Deneumostier from her home kitchen in Lima, Peru. But I went closer to home, to Florence and Chef Gloria.

Chef Gloria was preparing what might seem like a fairly simple recipe,  Gnocchi with Sausage Ragù sauce, but there was so much to learn and experience from seasoning to the science behind sautéing. In such courses, I often find that it’s the little incidental tips that make learning so rewarding. Oh, and cooking with company is fun, I remember from my solitary isolation.

Our world’s have been turned upside, down, inside out and routines shaken to the core. Today, for many of us, travel involves a circuit between bedroom, bathroom, kitchen lounge and with only the occasional adventure outside our homes and safe spaces to shop or, depending on where you live, refresh your mind and body with some exercise.

I love taking part in cooking classes, revelling  in the camaraderie, mutual support, gentle teasing and belly laughs. Hey, in 2019 I even wrote my Masters’ thesis on cookery schools during my year with the University of Gastronomic Sciences (unisg.it) studying Food Culture and Communications.

Bonding over tomatoes

Waving tins of tomatoes at my screen to show the tutor we shared the same taste in crushed tomatoes, Mutti, bonded us over the airways. Chef Gloria was very engaging and charmingly distracted by our questions, revealing her expert culinary knowledge of regional Italian ingredients and cooking traditions. She guided us through variations of ragù, whether or not to use bay leaves (yes, but mainly used for stews); in Lazio they incorporate eggs (but never in Tuscany or Piedmont, it would be act of gastronomic vandalism); and to ease up on salting the water as the vegetable sweetness of the potato will be balanced by the savouriness of the sauce.

Looking at my fellow students’ plated dishes in fizzing multi-colour on my screen, it was clear that we had very different results, but we’ll all be eating our dishes later that same day. 

Building communities during these days of distressing news and anxious days spent at home is a very important part of a company’s offer to its current and future customers and suppliers. For us, isolating in homes and apartments around the world, we enjoy the company of strangers and focussed for an hour and half on creating delicious foods and learning more about cooking, Italy and ourselves.

Building virtual communities

I really enjoyed the experience and am now choosing which class to sign up for next, Lemon Cake from the island of Capri; Asparagus Risotto with Gaia in Florence, or Lomo Saltado (Peruvian Stir Fried Beef) with Chef Nacho.

It’s suggested we pay a fee anywhere up to $150 (€138) per class which is then split equally between our tutor and organisers.

For more information on courses with The Table Less Traveled and the chef with whom you might spend an enjoyable hour or so, click on the website http://www.thetablelesstraveled.com .

Loose instructions and a list of instructions were sent to use in advance

GNOCCHI with RAGÙ SAUCE

Gloria’s recipe is only available to participants of the class, so here’s my interpretation. Book a class with The Table Less Traveled to get exclusive access to recipes, techniques and much needed moral support in these difficult days of Corona Virus.

Equipment

Certain commonly used kitchen tools are not listed here such as cutlery, dishes, mixing bowls, pots and pans.

1 pot
1 large pan
1 medium size pan
Potato ricer/food mill, cheese grater or fork
2 bowls
Plate
Fork
Strainer or slotted spoon
Knife

Ingredients: Potato Gnocchi

Serves 4

120 gm (1 cup) flour, plus extra for rolling (I recommend ‘00’ grade)
1 whole nutmeg, can be grated into mixture (optional)
Salt to taste

Ingredients: Sausage Ragù

400 gm pork sausages (I used spiced Salsciccia di Bra)
2 medium size red onions
14 oz can crushed tomatoes
3 tbps tomato purée
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Chunk of Parmesan cheese (optional)

METHOD

Note: This preparation is simple but can be very tricky. For best results, please be sure to have the correct potatoes (small-medium floury potatoes with skin on) and pass them through the ricer when they’re still warm. Also do not overcook the potatoes – they should be soft but not too watery.

Potato Gnocchi

Place your potatoes (try and keep them of a similar size so they are ready at the same time). Cover with cold, salted water in a in a large pot, bringing it to the boil. Remove around 20/25 minutes or until tender. Drain well and cool until safe to touch.

While potatoes are still warm, peel and press through a potato ricer into a bowl.

Stir in flour a little at a time. Add a pinch of grated nutmeg (optional) at this stage. Stop adding flour when the mixture is smooth and slightly sticky. Lightly season with salt.

Lightly flour dust your working surface before rolling out the dough into four sausage-like shapes, about the thickness of your thumb before using a sharp knife to cut into chunks about 3cm long.

If you would like to add grooves into pieces, roll each piece with the back of the fork, or leave them smooth although they might hold the sauce so well like this.

In a large pot, bring plenty of salted water to a boil and cook one or two portions at a time. At first they’ll sink to bottom of the pan, by will float to the surface when ready.

Scoop out with a slotted spoon and drain.

Sausage Ragù

Gently heat up a generous dollop of oil in a pan, and add the sausage meat, having removed the casings. Heat until browned, giving a sweet caramalisation. Break up any clumps with a wooden spoon.

Slice or dice the onion. Add the sausage and allow to soften.

Add crushed tomatoes, purée, salt and pepper to taste. Simmer gently, letting the flavours combine for about half an hour. Add water if the dish looks dry and might burn.

Dress your pasta or gnocchi with this simple rag and grate over some Parmesan for a cheesy topping, if desired.

Serve with a light salad and enjoy with family, friends or just on your own!

TIPS

Here are some suggestions that might help you when making this classic Italian dish in your lock-down kitchen.

  • Do try and get floury or starchy potatoes such as Russet, Idaho and Yukon Gold (depending on where in the world you are). These are also good for baked spuds, chips/ French fries and mashing. You can also use Maris Pipers that are dry and floury.
  • Do not peel the potatoes, as naked spuds will soak up too much water. So boil up similar sized ones, otherwise you’ll need to up the flour content and will loose consistency and flavour.
  • Peel the potatoes when warm, they’re easier to skin like this.
  • Potato ricers are useful to shred the potatoes, but the work can be done using a cheese grater, or even fork.
  • Keep a lid of the onions while they are being sautéed. Steam will be recirculated and stop the onions burning.
  • There are many sauces that pair well with gnocchi including fish and tomato, porcini, and game. Pumpkin gnocchi with a sauce including smashed Amaretto cookies is a great flavour combination.
  • This is the simplest type of ragù. You can also add diced garlic, celery and carrot at the onion stage. Other flavours can be included such as adding red wine, bay leaves and fresh thyme.
  • When making gnocchi, adding too much flour will make them fragile. Cautiously add a little extra water.
  • Gnocchi can be frozen, but only after cooking. Freeze individually on a tray first.

Bruce

I am a freelance journalist and published author focusing on food and drink; business startups and enterprise, culture and travel. In 2019 I graduated with a Masters degree in Food Culture, Communication and Marketing from the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy. I have chaired many conferences and meetings, spoken at conferences and events and often appear on radio and TV talking most about food, the business of food and being an entrepreneur.

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