Boston Globe: Tales from Cooking Class


by Jack Thomas, Globe Staff

This is a class in Northern Italian cooking, so it’s normal, I guess, to feel hungry.

But I’m nauseated.

It’s not the bagna caoda (garlic dip) we’re making, nor the polenta (corn meal) nor the zabaione (Marsala and egg yolks). What makes me queasy is the entree I’m stirring, coniglio in peperonata, and if you don’t speak Italian, well, that translates into rabbit and peppers, and where I grew up THAT translates into the Easter Bunny.

I know. Sophisticated folks dine on everything from snakes to snails to oxen tails, and I’ve read in Gourmet magazine that rabbit is the rage in Europe. On the other hand, I’m not the only one in this month-long course at the Boston Center for Adult Education who’s queasy about coniglio in peperonata, and by the time we sit down to dinner, half the class feels guilty that we’ve drawn and quartered and boiled in oil that cuddly creature that — a scant three weeks earlier — had been hippity-hopping down the bunny trail.

A classmate, Elizabeth Corcoran of Brookline, can’t eat her coniglio in peperonata either, and no wonder. She couldn’t bring herself to eat turkey until her 20s because, on the plate, it looks so much like a bird. She won’t eat lobster unless it’s turned upside down so that she can’t see the eyes.

Another student can’t eat venison without thinking of Bambi, and hates to visit her brother in the Poconos because he serves squirrel. To torment us, a guy from Channel 2 is eating his rabbit and singing “Here Comes Peter Cottontail,” and the teacher, Michele Topor, is asking, “Did you all at least try the rabbit? It’s the hind legs that are most succulent.”

Well, it occurs to Elizabeth and me that those are the same legs the Easter Bunny uses to bring those baskets full of Easter joy to every girl and boy, and so we conspire to get up from the table and, holding our plates high so no one will see that we have not eaten, we make our way to the garbage pail, and it’s bye-bye to the Easter Bunny.

Why, then, are we involved in these four Thursday night classes in Northern Italian cooking? Well, despite the unhappy experience with coniglio in peperonata, Michele Topor’s course is a delight, well worth the time and the $91 tuition. We ate well, had fun and learned a lot, and every student had praise for Topor, a nurse-manager at the kidney center at Children’s Hospital, for her energy, enthusiasm, knowledge and passion for Italian food.

Nearly 500 people attend one of about 45 classes in food and wine at the Boston Center for Adult Education at 5 Commonwealth Avenue. Beginning June 15, Topor teaches a four-week course in summertime Italian fare, and expects to teach Northern Italian cooking again next fall.

Each week was devoted to one or two regions, like Piedmont, Lombardy, Tuscany, Veneto and Emilia-Romagna, and she provided information not only about food and wine, but also about their history, geography and culture. Because Piedmont is mountainous, for example, sweets are popular to ward off the cold. Wines develop a distinct taste because Piedmont grapes grow in fog. After spring thaw, when rivers run shallow, the beds are exposed and the frogs that abound have been incorporated into the diet.

Dressed in blue overalls, Topor arrived each night in a battered Volkswagon laden with meats and fishes and fruits and vegetables. In each class we cooked a meal of up to five courses. She described each recipe, then teams of students were assigned to each dish. Occasionally, she wanted everyone to watch — for example, when she demonstrated the technique in folding egg whites into chopped hazlenut.

One night, we prepared a garlic sauce called bagna caoda, and the odor of garlic was so heavy I imagined that drivers in Kenmore Square had to close their car windows. We made mistakes familiar to every cook. We broke glasses and dropped spoons in sauces, and once, having forgotten to chill the Valdadige Bianco, we put it in the freezer, then forgot about it, and by the time it was retrieved, it had frozen.

We learned how to peel asparagus, and not to use a knife to stir meat, lest the flesh be punctured and lose moisture. We learned that anchovies are better in kosher salt, and learned the differences between Mediterranean and Chinese pine nuts.

In the preparation of pasta, she taught us to avoid the metallic taste by not adding salt until the water boils. She taught us that rinsing pasta in cold water washes away starch and flavor. If pasta is overcooking, she said, cold water will break the boil and stop the cooking. “And remember, the heavier the pasta, the heavier the sauce.”

Some of us were frustrated because her recipes made no recommendation as to amount. “How much garlic should I put in the carrot salad?” a student asked. “It depends on how you want it to taste,” she said. “The recipe is only a guide. You’ve got to keep tasting food to know when it’s right. Italian cooking is not like French. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Italian dishes come from the soul, and they should taste good.”

She told us where to buy Italian candy, mustard pasta and pizza, which dry pasta to select and what pots to buy. We learned that top of the round is better than eye of the round, which has no fat and no flavor. She showed us how to make mayonnaise, and explained differences among olive oils and Parmesan cheeses. We learned not to grate cheese in advance and how to rebrine shrimp for ocean flavor. She taught us that deveining shrimp is a waste of time, and she even persuaded us to eat the tails, which are crunchy and nutty.

We learned about capers and endive and dandelions. We learned to tear lettuce, never to twist it or cut it. We learned to buy chocolate by the chunk, not by the chip, and to cut away the green sprout in fresh garlic because it’s bitter.

We learned some things I wish I didn’t know.

For example, do you know what headcheese is?

Foolishly, I guess, I thought it was cheese that came from, I don’t know, headlands or something, but it’s (shudder) jellied seasoned meat from the feet and head of a pig, which means the snout and lips, and if that sounds disgusting, well it tastes worse.

I liked Topor’s respect for tradition in cuisine, but was disappointed by her neglect of nutrition. One night, we put dabs of butter on cheese on prosciutto on veal and cooked it in oil — fat on fat on fat on fat, and an easy way, I suspect, to lower your life expectancy to about 45.

At times, the kitchen was utter chaos, a dozen students chopping, slicing, beating, whipping and boiling food. Six burners might be going at once, and the guy mixing cookies would worry aloud that the batter was beginning to resemble cement. But Topor was always cool and in control, with the timing and technique of a major general, so that every dish came out, more or less, on time, and always tasting better than we expected. Problems beyond our control were blamed on a mythical Italian figure, La Bifani, the kitchen witch.

One night, a student accidentally tasted a salad with fennel, then mentioned she was allergic to it. “I’m off duty,” said a nurse, quickly.

Topor knows what she’s talking about. On the final night, we made caffe alla valdostana, a mixture of espresso, red wine, grappa, sugar and citrus peel, and she warned that the first taste would be offensive, and she was right for it smelled like old socks. “Keep drinking,” she said. “You’ll like it.” And she was right again. One night, I forgot my apron and spilled bechamel on my tie, but — luck of the Irish — it was a paisley tie and the stain blended with the design in such a way that when I wore it a few days later, none of my editors noticed the bechamel.