Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Pasta, Risotto and Gnocchi Masterclass with Joel Valvasori of Lallarookh in Balingup

A Pasta, Risotto and Gnocchi Masterclass with Joel Valvasori, head chef of Lallarookh and one of Perth’s best chefs sounds pretty cool, right? But the class was not going to be held in Perth. Instead, it was going to be far away from the city, down south in the serene small country town of Balingup. It was also going to be an intimate class of just 20 in the quaint Balingup Town Hall which has been around since the late 19th century. Now that sounds pretty special! It almost sounds too good to be true, but Katrina Lane of Taste of Balingup organised such a class a few weeks ago on the 27th of September. 

I’m a big fan of Lallarookh, it’s the place I recommend to people if they want to eat some real Italian food in Perth. So the opportunity to learn the secrets to the dishes and try cooking them at home didn’t require too much further convincing and I booked myself in.

 Katrina Lane checking off cooking class participants


A great way to start a Masterclass, right? The startled look on some people’s faces when Joel told us this, I even heard a few jokingly but maybe semi-seriously demand a refund… 

You expect to take away recipes from a cooking class so you can try cooking the dishes you learnt at home. I've never come away from a class without recipes.

But do we really learn “how” to cook from recipes? 

Instead of recipes, Joel provided us with ideas and processes throughout the class so that we understood “how” a dish was done, and then we could experiment at home with trial and error. This is what cooking is about, right?

 “I can teach you how to cook. The rest you learn yourself. That’s how I learnt from my Nonna.”

And I realised that’s how I learnt to cook too.

I’ve learnt to cook from my parents and I know that any attempt to squeeze a recipe out of them is futile. All I’m ever really told is, a little bit of this and a little bit of that goes into a dish, never any quantities as I should just keep adding and tasting until it’s right. I would learn the steps by watching over my mum or dad’s shoulder in the kitchen and scribbling down what they do in my notebook, and then try to replicate it. 

 “Cooking is a manual act.”

Watching someone cook is going to give you a better feel for making a dish than just reading a recipe, and it's not a matter of if you have the quantity of ingredients down to the exact gram and every step timed to the second, but using all your senses – sight, touch, smell, taste to guide you along the way to bring a dish to fruition. Cooking is something that should be intuitive.

Joel told us all his dishes stem from the same ideas and processes, there is a common theme throughout, so everything in the meal goes together. This became evident throughout the class as he showed us how to cook sugo di carne, risotto, pasta and gnocchi, where all the dishes had the same basis and understanding how one dish came together meant that you could easily cook another dish.

Joel’s food is based on his family’s Friuli heritage in Italy’s northeast. He’s big on regional cooking because Italy is too big of a country to just have one style of food and if you eat regional, it’s more likely to have an authentic touch to it. 

The class began with the cooking of sugo di carne so it could slowly simmer away for the rest of the class. The sugo di carne was the dish I wanted to learn how to cook the most, as the pappadelle with sugo di carne at Lallarookh is one of my favourite dishes to order.  One thing I have noticed about the pasta dishes at Lallarookh is that there is a small amount of sauce provided, just enough to cover and wrap around the pasta. My usual experience at an Italian restaurant is to have pasta that is drowning in sauce, but more sauce does not mean better, although this is probably the general expectation. I’ve come to appreciate the delicate balance of sauce on Lallarookh’s pasta dishes which allows the pasta itself to shine but flavour is never compromised, and I've always wondered how they get so much flavour in their sauce when sometimes it feels like it’s barely there.

So what’s the secret? I think the answer is fat. About half a litre of oil (blend of canola with dash of olive oil) was used in cooking the sugo and a chunk of butter was also added in towards the end! The maximum amount of oil/butter I have ever used in my home cooked pasta sauces is about 4 tablespoons. Joel likes to cook with a decent amount of oil and his rule is that you should always add more and then take it off at the end if it’s too much, but I don’t think there is such a thing as too much… fat is favour after all. So the ingredients in the sauce are basically confitting and when it’s added to pasta, it kind of forms an emulsion that lubricates the pasta which is really nice on the palate. 

All the ingredients are gradually added in the pot. Starting with a mirepoix of garlic, onion and herbs (sage/rosemary), then celery and carrot was added in.  Some red wine was cooked off before a mixture of pork and beef mince went in. I’ve always browned and sealed the mince in my pasta sauces as I though it would taste better because of the Maillard reaction. But Joel told us that you shouldn’t brown and seal the meat as you want to encourage the juice in the meat to come out and flavour the sauce as it cooks. The sugo was cooked for a long time so all the ingredients become a unified rich flavour and you can’t really discern the individual elements.

The sugo contained the defining flavours of Joel’s Friulian-style of cooking – cinnamon and rosemary. Plus a little bit of chilli powder for a touch of flavour and heat. Another characteristic of Northern Italian cooking is that not much pepper is used. But salt is important and was added throughout, at different stages of the cooking process. Joel advised us to use the best salt you can get and his own pursuit led to Olsson’s sea salt.

I asked about the use of tomato paste in cooking sauces as it’s a feature of practically every pasta sauce recipe I have come across. Joel told us he never uses tomato paste, a good passata is all you need and he recommended the Passata Di Pomodoro imported by Roberto Imports in South Perth which you can find on the shelves of Scutti in South Perth or the North Perth Growers Market. The use of tomato paste means some liquid (water/stock) needs to be added to lengthen the sauce.

The class also changed my understanding of how to cook certain dishes, especially risotto, which we learnt to cook in a way that was the opposite to how I have cooked it in the past. Cooking risotto is a timed process where Joel cooks his risotto for exactly 17 minutes, plus 2 minutes of toasting the rice. It’s his go to dish when he wants to cook something quick and easy for dinner.  A two pot process was used with one ‘flavour’ pot for the aromatics and vegetables, and the ‘risotto’ pot for the rice. In the flavour pot, Joel cooked some garlic, onions, bay leaves and asparagus, leaving it to stew for a bit. In the risotto pot he toasted the rice and then added in the stock and flavour base of vegetables. The stock was added in all at the beginning and left alone to simmer, there are no ladles of stock gradually added and constant stirring. The rice was occasionally checked and moved around with a spoon but not stirred. Reason being that when you toast the rice it develops a protective layer and if you are constantly stirring the rice it looses this protective shell, and a characteristic of perfect risotto is the rice grains are still separate and it hasn’t turned into mush. Another key element was keeping the temperature constant so only hot liquid was used and there was no wine involved. My risottos are generally a labour of love, where I can spend up to 45 minutes cooking it and standing in front of the stove the whole time to keep adding in stock and stirring. This was a risotto that I didn’t need to attend to much, so I could be cooking many things at once. The result was a beautiful creamy consistency with the rice grains still intact and it tasted damn good! 

We were also shown how to make the pasta Joel uses at Lallarookh. A pasta that should not be attempted at home because it’s so tough it would break your pasta machine. A lot of elbow grease was required to knead the dough and multiple participants took on the challenge as it was tiring work! At the final stages of rolling out it was amazing to see how leathery the pasta sheets were and I understood why the pasta at Lallarookh has such a nice bite to it. 

Kneading pasta = hard work....(well for some people) 

Joel didn’t give away too much information about his pasta, after all it’s his bread and butter, but he showed us the process and told us that to make pasta at home - start with some egg yolks (yolks are mainly used as the white produces a softer dough) and then gradually add in flour until it can't take it anymore and a smooth dough is formed.

Joel stressed the importance of taking the time to make the pasta dough using your hands so that you develop an appreciation for it and will look after it leading to a better end result. The more work you put into the dough at the beginning, the less work you will have to put into it later. This care and attention to cooking is an ideal that Joel instils in his chefs because (paraphrased quote) “chefs come from low stock, falling into the job out of necessity”. It’s something that I hear a lot about chefs. Considering the long work hours and unsociable nature of being a chef, it wouldn’t exactly be the first choice of career for most!

Lastly, we all got hands on and made our own batch of ricotta gnocchi which was much easier and quicker than making potato gnocchi. With 400g of ricotta, a little parmesan, salt and a pile of flour, we each mixed and kneaded flour into a dough until we got the right texture, and then rolled it out into thick sausages and sliced to form little pillows of gnocchi.

The photos above of me rolling my gnocchi dough are taken

 My ricotta gnocchi - not bad for a first timer?

During the class we were treated to some Barton Jones Red Rhapsody. It's a light red shiraz style wine that is perfect for summer drinking when you want to drink red but don’t want something too heavy. It was a lovely drink and easy to drink a lot of. I definitely had a few glasses of it throughout the night….and while I drunk as the class came to an end, many people went up to Joel with questions, probably asking for recipes (!)…. nah probably just trying to understand how to be a better cook. 

I can’t remember what prompted the response but I remember Joel saying while he was answering a question - “Difference is I’ve committed my life to it.”  

Cooking is a commitment!

It’s not something that you learn right off the bat. 

And I’m committing myself to using the notes that I took in the class to try to recreate some of the dishes Joel showed us how to cook. This might take some time, trial and error, as I try to work things out without a recipe. But after taking the class, I wouldn’t want it any other way. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Japan Food Experiences - Bagel Breakfast of Champions and Yakiton

The walk back to my Inn at night....

When I travelled to Japan in 2010, I found that very little of the population spoke English which surprised me as I thought it would be more commonly spoken. Friends in Japan have told me the school system is ineffective at English education, where it is geared towards passing the written university entrance exam rather than communication. Taking this into account, many Japanese probably do understand English to some degree but are not confident enough to speak and engage in a conversation. So I would be careful about talking in public, assuming the Japanese don’t understand any English, as some of them may be listening...

Last year when I booked flights to Japan for May/June, I made a promise to myself at the beginning of this year that I would spend the months in the lead up to my trip learning the language – I bought the Lonely Planet Japanese phrasebook and CD, I downloaded various Japanese dictionaries and learning apps on my phone. I did all the things to commit myself to learning Japanese, but it was a promise that I broke. My excuse was I became too busy with organising a food truck festival!

As I travelled around Japan, communications at times were difficult but my ignorance of the language also led to some memorable dining experiences. 

Bagel Breakfast of Champions (Tokyo)

I was after more traditional style Japanese accommodation during my travels so in Tokyo I stayed in Ikebukuro at Family Inn Saiko, which I found through searching on booking.com. It was a ryokan that had lots of great reviews and I could not fault my experience of staying at Family Inn Saiko. It was my favourite accommodation throughout my trip where I travelled all over Japan and stayed at six other places. What made Family Inn Saiko particularly good was its location in a more residential area which was a 10-15 minute walk to the nearest train station and it gave me a real feel for how the Japanese lived while I walked through the neighbourhood. 

The people who run Family Inn Saiko are also really friendly and thoughtful, providing an abundance of information, maps and guides for travellers. They even told you the weather for the day and would remind you to carry a jumper if it was going to be cold. Aptly named Family Inn, they made you feel like family.

In the mornings I usually grabbed an onigiri from the 7-11 convenience store on my way to the train station, but one day I stopped at a little café which was along the way. It caught my attention as I saw a newspaper article stuck on the front window with a photo of the owner and bagels. I couldn’t read it as it was in Japanese, but I assumed the article was about how amazing the bagels were at this place so I knew I had to try one. The café was small, seating only 8-10 people and was run by a sweet middle aged woman who looked like she probably lived upstairs. I pointed to a bagel in the glass cabinet and said “one please”, then I tried to communicate in broken English “filling? what can I have in the bagel?”. She rattled off in Japanese with various hand gestures and I couldn't understand her at all, so I just said yes to everything – “yes, yes, yes, I’ll have it”. 

I sat down at a table while she prepared my bagel and about 15 minutes later she presented me with this dish!

Holy *?#%&@! I thought I just ordered a bagel but what I actually got was – toasted plain bagel sliced in half and buttered, a dollop of egg mixed with mayonnaise with a sprinkling of curry powder, some cream cheese, some tuna, two small pieces of bacon, salad with dressing, small slice of frittata and a small bowl of pasta topped with Japanese curry sauce and cheese (!!!). So I got the Bagel Breakfast of Champions. It beats any breakfast with the lot that I’ve ever had!

BUT that wasn’t it, after I finished my plate, it was taken away and I was presented with this!

Dessert! What?! I did not expect this. Did I say “yes” to this too? An almond flavoured crème brulee which cracked as my spoon hit it. Yes! What a way to finish the Bagel Breakfast of Champions!

It cost me 1080 yen for the Bagel Breakfast of Champions, dessert and a glass of grapefruit juice which is about $12-13 in Australian dollars. As I paid, I said “good” and gave the lady the thumbs up as it was the only sign language I knew to show her how great her food was and she understood that I loved her food. She looked really happy that someone (a foreigner) enjoyed her food but I hoped she realised she made me even happier that day. 

What a find and what an experience not speaking/understanding any Japanese got me for breakfast! 

This is the Bagel Cafe! 

The cafe is somewhere along the route to the Kanamecho Station from Family Inn Saiko as I have indicated with a star on the map below.
 Yatais on the streets of Fukuoka

Yakiton Place (Fukuoka)

Fukuoka is known for yakitori (grilled chicken) and my first experience of it was at a yatai, a mobile ‘shop stand’ that is set up on the roadside in the early evening and then removed late at night or in the early morning hours. I loved the experience of eating in this unique open air intimate environment as yatai’s seat about 8-10 people and watching the chef work in his tiny kitchen.
My first yatai
On my second last night in Fukuoka, I went looking for Yakitori Hachibei in Shoninbashi. Yakitori Hachibei is famous for its yakitori, so much so, that it has opened up branches in Tokyo and you’ll find it topping lists for best yakitori. But I had no luck finding Hachibei, even after asking for directions from two convenience stores where I was given directions in Japanese and drawn a map which I tried to decipher. So I gave up and settled on a joint that was busy, it had all the right smells and I liked the vibe of the place, sometimes you just have to go with your gut feeling. As I sat down I realised it was actually a yakiton place (aka grilled pork) rather than yakitori.

Japanese only menu, there were about 15 different parts of the pork you could order to grill, so I randomly pointed to some numbers on the menu for the waiter to take down. There were pictures of raw sliced pork on the menu - a helpful guide I suppose if you could also read the menu, but it was just all different shades of red and pink to me. I ordered 4 different kinds of pork (fingers crossed I had ordered right and got normal cuts?!), plus some fatty well marbled beef and soup.

The chef came out of the kitchen with my order and tried to communicate something to me….the waiter takes out his phone and using a Japanese-English translator, the words “very large” appear on his screen. So I assumed they were telling me I had ordered too much food, but I told them it was “ok”. Maybe they weren’t too convinced but the customer is always right, right? It was also quite late, about 9ish as I had spent a significant proportion of the evening earlier trying to find the other place (Hachibei) so I was quite ravenous!

My plates of marinated pork came out, and for each plate the chef pointed to a part of his body to indicate what part of the pig it was. I’m not sure if this was normal practice but maybe they wanted to be sure I knew what I had ordered? I sensed a bit of hesitation…uncertainty… and I understood why when I found out I ordered, cheek, neck, heart and liver …. wtf did I order…hmm they weren’t exactly my choice cuts of pork but I had my game face on and acted like I was totally down with it. 

The meat did not come out skewered but as individual bite sized pieces marinated in a shallow plate and you had your own charcoal grill at your table to cook the meat. I had another wtf moment as I wasn’t sure how I would cook my meat. I didn’t want to ruin it by overcooking or undercooking, especially the heart and liver, I had no idea what to do with those (!). As if they sensed this, a waiter would stop by my table every now and then, and watch over my charcoal grill, checking how the meat was cooking, turning it over and indicating to me when it was ready to eat. It was a very thoughtful gesture and I was grateful for it. So I ate my pork cheek, neck, heart and liver. The cheek and neck were great, well they were the most normal cuts of pork chosen. The heart was surprisingly better than what I’d imagined it would be and I had no problems consuming it, but after a few pieces of liver it was a bit of a struggle. Liver, it just can’t hide the fact that it’s liver! The only way I like eating liver in as velvety smooth pate where the flavour is masked by a lot of fat and flavoured by herbs and booze. Yakiton style, the liver was not dressed up and had that metallic gamey taste and soft, spongy texture I could not shake off. So to deal with this liver, I asked for more pickles. The Japanese have pickles with every meal and not only are they delicious, but they help to cleanse the palate and enliven it, especially when one is chowing down on liver. I also downed a lot of beer to help the liver journey down to my belly.

Trying all these parts of the pig, made me really appreciate the simplicity and beauty of yakiton. To the credit of the chef, everything was wonderfully marinated and seasoned. It was an open kitchen so I could see that the meat was freshly marinated as each order came through, each part of the pig was marinated differently to bring out its best. So I enjoyed the heart and liver (well the liver to a certain degree) because it had been marinated and cooked so well.  

At other tables I saw people getting served a large plate in the shape of a pig, divided into the different parts of the pig with each section containing a few pieces of pork. These appeared to be the special order that the restaurant was probably best known for. You could grill and eat every single part of the pig!

This photo is of my last two pieces of meat. I’m pretty sure they didn’t think I would make it through and eat all the meat I had ordered, and to be honest I was struggling a bit towards the end. I probably ordered enough food for two or more people which is why they questioned me about the amount I had ordered at the beginning. I could sense that they were impressed that I finished everything, and I was impressed with myself!

If I wasn’t so ignorant (ie: knew how to speak Japanese), I would have probably just ordered the pork belly (I’m a sucker for it) and less meat, but then my experience would not be as enriching, and I wouldn’t have learnt about what makes yakiton good and gain an appreciation for parts of the pig I wouldn’t generally eat. Yakiton is grilled meat but it’s the porcine unmentionables where it shines and shows what a simple marinade and grill can do to some awful (offal!) meat. 

At the end of my meal I think the chef was trying to ask me how I was, I got out my phone and using an English-Japanese translator I type “full”. He laughs and tries to type something back on his phone to me but before he finished, I had shared another message on my phone to him. I typed “very good”. It was as if I had read his mind, as he turned his phone to me and was going to ask “how did it taste?”. He said “me happy”. I made him happy as I enjoyed his food. And I really did enjoy it  - pork parts roulette is fun!  

I walked past the yakiton place the day after and here's a photo of the front. I don't know what it's called or where it is but somewhere near this intersection - Yakuin Mutsukado Street.