Among the western cuisines, if there’s any that has won the hearts and tummies of the Indians it’d be Italian. Although Pizzas and Pastas acted as a gateway to this foreign cuisine, over the years we’ve grown to love other aspects of Italian food. Lasagne and Risotto are now a common sight at Cafes and Restaurants across the city. However, most of us view Italian as a single, homogenous cuisine. In reality, just as any other place with a diverse geography, Italian food also varies from region to region. Every few months, Prego at Westin Hyderabad hosts Chefs from different parts of Italy to shine a spotlight on these regional nuances. Last week, Chef Antonello Cancedda who hails from Genoa region of Italy was here and I was invited to a cooking masterclass and lunch.
One of the most famous contributions of Genoa to the Italian cuisine is the Pesto sauce. Pesto is prepared by grinding basil leaves, sea salt, and garlic and incorporating pine nuts, grated parmesan and extra virgin olive oil. It’s a simple recipe, and the brilliance of the sauce depends entirely on the freshness and the quality of the ingredients. Traditional recipes call for the use of Genovese Basil, but Chef Antonello suggested that the wide-leafed basil available at local supermarkets would also work. However, using fresh basil along with good quality extra virgin olive oil and sea salt is essential. Genoa is a port town and the Pesto sauce was often carried by fishermen and stored in boats for two to three weeks. Chef explained that once you add cheese the sauce spoils quickly; hence, everyone in Genoa prepares and stores pesto without cheese and incorporates the cheese immediately before using the sauce. The other recipe demonstrated by Chef Antonello was Tiramisu with Nuttela and Pistachios. A well-made Tiramisu tastes out of the world, yet the recipe is rather simple. The challenge lies in simply getting every step perfect. The two crucial components are the Egg Nogg and the biscuits. The egg yolk, milk, and sugar mixture needs to be constantly whisked over a heated water bath. The colour of the mixture should pale and the temperature shouldn’t be below 65 C. This allows the egg yoke to get cooked and also ensures that it is safe for consumption. Savoiardi (ladyfinger) is the other important element of a Tiramisu. Making the perfect Savoiardi can be challenging but the Vincenzovo Savoiardi available in supermarkets is a great alternative.
Chef Antonello is not only a pro in the kitchen but also a talented musician and quite an entertainer. He kept us engrossed during the cooking demonstration, effortlessly mixing in cooking tips with humorous jokes and anecdotes. He surprised everyone by suddenly picking up the guitar and launching into a surprisingly accurate rendition of ‘Pani Da Rang De’. It turns out Chef spent three years at JW Marriott Chandigarh and picked up some Punjabi over there. Later in the afternoon, he’d treat us to a performance of ‘Chura Liya Hai’.
The cooking session was followed by a three-course menu crafted by Chef Antonello. Being a port town, the cuisine of Genoa prominently features seafood. The Cod Fish Fritters (Frittae di Baccala della Rina), a popular street food, was phenomenal. The oily Cod fish flavour was well complemented by the freshness of the arugula pesto. Later in the meal, I fell in love with the Fish Ravioli served with a Sampi Ragu owing to the lovely intensity of the sea-food flavour. I’m quite picky about my Risotto and not a huge fan of the cream-laden Risotto commonly found in cafes. But Chef Antonello’s Red Wine Risotto (Risotto al Vono rosso) with Blue Cheese was comfort food at its best. Delicious, hearty, and satisfying. The fresh Pesto, which was prepared earlier in the day, was used with Spaghetti. This is another simple, classic preparation that let its flavours to the talking. For dessert, Chef Antonello had prepared a Sicilian Parfait with cherries, rum, and macadamia. The Tiramisu from the cooking demonstration was allowed to set in the refrigerator for an hour and brought out to provide the closing notes of a fabulous afternoon. I’ve attended many a cookoff sessions, but the afternoon at Prego stands out for being informative, engaging, and a whole lot of fun. Chef Antonello has the rare gift of being able to bring a smile on anyone’s face. The food was simple yet absolutely heartwarming. It’s the kind of food that would make you want to keep coming back for more.