The other night I got a wonderful opportunity to participate in a class taught at Cook It School. Their guest instructor was a woman I had long wanted to meet, Judy Witts Francini, the proprietress of Divina Cucina, a cooking school in Florence. Known as Diva on the Slow Travel Message Board, Judy is a wealth of knowledge about food and Florence (her home since 1984). Judy’s cooking emphasizes the importance of marketing — finding all the wonderful local, seasonal products that are the hallmark of her classic, Tuscan cooking. Nothing could be more compatible with my own style of cooking, so I was sure that this class would be just the thing to inspire me.
The evening’s menu featured a delicious summer dinner of Grilled, Marinated Eggplant, Almond, Artichoke and Olive Pesto on bread, Panzanella Salad, Fregola* with Clam and Zucchini Sauce, Pollo al Mattone, and for dessert we had a lovely Panna Cotta.
The class was held in a commercial kitchen with plenty of space to set up stations for people to participate in the cooking. But most of the time all eyes were on Judy. She has the kind of personality and style that would translate well to her own television show. Her warm, outgoing and enthusiastic nature is combined with a comfortable and capable expertise in the kitchen. She gave us some really interesting and simple tips.
For instance, it never before occurred to me to harvest the pollen of the wild fennel that grows here as a common roadside weed. But Judy did just that to add an extra note of flavor to the chicken. She said to pick the floweres when they're nice and yellow, then dry them (hang in a dry place or use the microwave). The little yellow grains of pollen have nice spicy anise smell to them. They both look and smell like summer.**
Judy also immersed herself in the Santa Barbara marketing scene - picking up fresh produce at the Farmer’s Market, cheese from C’est Cheese and fish from the Harbor. Before she even began cooking she discussed all the ingredients and the importance of finding quality ingredients for your cooking.
Then Judy got everyone involved. She moved through the various stations demonstrating the different tasks — from slicing up the eggplants...
...to chopping up a mixture of rosemary, sage, garlic and salt with a mezzaluna to soaking day old bread and then squeezing and crumbling it until it resembled couscous. And as she moved through each recipe, the techniques and tips that she covered were too numerous to write down, I had to hope that my braining was just soaking it all in. But her recipes were never overwhelming. It is a very approachable style of cooking, and I left with the feeling that I really would be making every one of the recipes that she made that night. They were that good.
We cooked, we ate, we had some wine, and most of all we had a great time. There is nothing like a cooking class to give you a little bit of inspiration and the motivation to try some new things in the kitchen.
A couple of tasty food photos... the Panzanella:
Fregola — Salsa di Vongole con Zucchini:
Pollo al Mattone:
*Fregola is a Sardinian specialty similar to couscous, made from a hard wheat flour and toasted dry in the oven. It is cooked like pasta.
**For more about wild fennel pollen and how to harvest your own, read this SFGate.com article Fennel Pollen Spices A Cook's Imagination