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.
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.
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
from the Taste of Balingup Facebook album.
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.