Kosher Italian cooking school makes for New Year delights

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denver | Cooking school vacations in Italy are all the rage. For a “foodie” — one who loves to eat, cook and talk about food — could there be any better way to spend a week or two than to learn cooking in the country many consider the center of the gastronomic world?

For a Jewish foodie, there is a better way — a kosher cooking school vacation in Italy — a terrific way to acquire recipes and cooking techniques for New Year feasts.

Ten years ago, New York businessman Ralph P. Slone established La Cucina Kasher in Italia, a kosher version of his weeklong cooking holidays in Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna in north central Italy, and La Cuisine Cachere de Provence in France.

Since 1993, Slone had been operating CookEuro, a cooking school program that offered a mix of cooking, touring and relaxation in the Italian countryside. For Slone, who grew up in an observant Jewish household in Connecticut, “the logical conclusion after a cooking program was a kosher cooking program.”

As Slone led his non-kosher trips to Italy, he took side trips to seek synagogues, kosher restaurants, kosher butchers and mashgichim (kashrut supervisors). He had already assembled a faculty of cooking instructors, all of whom were eager to adapt their classes to kosher.

The idea was not to teach blatantly Jewish ethnic food — even though Jewish cooking has had a huge impact on Italian cuisine for two millennia — but to teach regional Italian cuisine while strictly adhering to the Jewish dietary laws.

The idea caught on. Since 1995, Jewish foodies have clamored to join the classes, which are limited to 10 participants at a time. He started with a program in Tuscany – the most popular destination for gastronomic tourists, and added programs in Emilia Romagna and in Provence.

My wife, Gail, and I participated in La Cucina Kasher’s Emilia Romagna program. Gail is a caterer and cookbook author, and I went as a “non-cooking spouse.”

The trip turned out to be the perfect combination of cooking classes, eating and touring, which included a Jewish itinerary, as well as off-the-beaten path places of general interest. An added bonus was the camaraderie with the other participants.

The group stayed at a bed and breakfast, Locanda dei Cinque Cerri, a restored 19th-century farmhouse in Sasso Marconi, a rural suburb of Emilia Romagna’s capital city, Bologna. The cooking classes took place in the kitchen of the bed and breakfast, which was kashered for the week.

Each day consisted of a cooking class with either lunch or dinner, after which the meal — make that the feast — was eaten together.

The other half of each day was spent touring sites of Jewish, culinary and cultural interest. These included Faenza, one of the ceramic capitals of the world; Carpi, the site of a WWII deportation camp and of an effective Holocaust museum; Brisighella, a medieval city now known for its olive oil and wine production; and Ferrara, the medieval and subsequently Renaissance city known for its once thriving Jewish community and ghetto.

Most days, after touring the Italian countryside, the group gathered around the kitchen for a cooking class with instructor Silvia Maccari.

Maccari (not Jewish) has a keen interest and extensive knowledge of Jewish food history — she’s made it one her life’s passions.

She’s a cooking instructor, television personality and cookbook author who came by her fascination with Jewish food as a child. Her parents had many Jewish friends, who were frequent guests in her childhood home.

Her love of cooking, inherited from her grandmother, combined with her love of things Jewish, led to her expertise in Jewish food history and preparation. Maccari has created a niche by adapting regional recipes to kashrut.

Through Maccari’s culinary creativity and under the supervision of mashgiach Roberto di Veroli of Rome, non-kosher northern Italian staples such as pancetta (bacon) and prosciutto (ham) were replaced with paper-thin smoked kosher beef strips in such dishes as Tagliatelli with Sugo Con Prosciutto e Piselli (handmade pasta with green pea sauce) and Cibollata (onion soup).

Shabbat is always observed in La Cucina Kasher. Friday’s cooking class was for Shabbat dinner, consisting of Brasato Al Vino Rosso (braised beef in a red wine sauce), Zucchine Trifolate (zucchini as a side dish) and Salame di Cioccolata Con Lo Zabaione (cold chocolate pudding with marsala egg sauce).

Maccari prepared Shabbat lunch and se’udah shlisheet ahead of time and we enjoyed these meals during our leisurely day at the bed and breakfast.

Shabbat lunch included Pasta Estiva con Peperoni E Pomodori Freschi (semolina pasta salad with summer vegetables), Rotolo di Tacchino Farcito (stuffed turkey roll Italian style), and Crema al Limone Senza Latte (lemon custard without milk).

For se’udah shlisheet, Maccari served Insalata di Salmone e Cicoria, a refreshingly simple fresh salmon salad.

Each participant in La Cucina Kasher received a certificate at the conclusion of the week-long course as well a booklet with all the recipes that Maccari taught or prepared for the group.

Here are selections from a Rosh Hashanah menu incorporating Silvia Maccari’s northern Italian kosher recipes from her La Cucina Kasher in Emilia Romagna classes.

While these are not necessarily traditional Jewish recipes, they include some ingredients that are symbolic of the New Year, and many of the hopes and prayers thereof.

La Cucina Kasher for 2006 will take place in Provence in March, Emilia Romagna in May and Tuscany in July. For more information, call Ralph Slone at (212) 687-9898.

Rosh Hashanah Dinner, Emilia Romagna Style
Antipasti (Appetizer): Insalata di Agrumi
Primi (First Course): Pasta e Ceci
Segundi (Main Course): Brasato al Vino Rosso with Polenta, Zucchine Trifolate
Dolce (Dessert): Mele Ripiene

Insalata di Agrumi (Citrus Salad) | Serves 4

1 orange
1 grapefruit
10 oz. mesclun or other lettuce
1 small onion or shallot
1 Tbs. black olives
1 handful roughly chopped walnuts
2 Tbs. walnut oil
2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbs. balsamic vinegar
Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. hot sauce

Peel the orange and grapefruit and slice them, removing the seeds. Clean the mesclun.

In a salad bowl, layer the following in order: mesclun, orange and grapefruit slices, black olives and walnuts.
For the dressing, pour the two oils, balsamic vinegar, Worcestershire sauce and hot sauce in a jar. Close the jar and shake until you get a smooth emulsion.
Dress the salad and serve.

Mele Ripiene (Apples with Amaretti Filling) | Serves 6

6 apples, approx. 1/2 lb. each
10 oz. sugar
2 oz. pine nuts
2 oz. margarine
2 oz. amaretti biscuits
1 tbsp. flour
1 lemon, zested
amaretto liqueur, optional
1 cup red wine
cloves
vanilla extract
confectionary sugar

Preheat oven to 385. Cut the top off the apples and remove the core and some of the meat.
Crush the amarettti biscuits and pine nuts together. Add the sugar, melted margarine, flour, vanilla extract and half the grated lemon zest. If too dry, add some amaretto liqueur.
Fill the apple centers with the mixture. Place in a baking pan, pour the wine over all. Add 1 clove and lemon zest. Place in oven for 30 minutes. Sprinkle with sugar and place under the broiler before serving.