In February I started working with a new Italian cooking magazine that was about to be launched, Ci piace cucinare. Monica is my contact since the beginning, we have endless conversations on WhatsApp on food styling and ingredients, every week we decide together themes and recipes to work on, according to seasonality, occasions and editorial needs.
I cooked, styled and photographed the first assignment with juvenile baldness and the feedback I received was quite different from what I expected. I like it, but I fear you’ll have to shoot it again…
It came as a hard blow to my pride and self-esteem. Yet it was the first step in a journey of personal growth. Over the course of these eight months I improved as food stylist, food photographer and recipe developer. I have a greater awareness of what I want and which are the steps that are required to get it.
Above all, however, I learned two lessons.
No recipe is trivial
Sometimes bloggers live in a golden world, distant from the real life. Curiosity and passion prompt us to cook recipes that can take hours of work, many pots, kitchen thermometers and a stand mixer. God bless this burning flame of curiosity, God bless the desire to research and experiment. Cooking is art and creativity. However, we can not expect everyone to have so much time, all this energy and yearning to constantly cook new and challenging meals.
It is rewarding to develop recipes for those who come home late from work, those who do not have hours to prepare a meal, but still want to enjoy something good, warm, home made.
On the blogs we tend to start conversations with other bloggers, forgetting those who do not have a blog but still have to cook, to feed hungry mouths, to set crowded tables or prepare a TV dinner for one. What a mistake is to consider a recipe trivial, too simple.
Cooking daily, for many hours a day, during classes and workshops, for clients and magazines, is giving me the chance to work on classical recipes of the Tuscan tradition and on ideas for quick dinners, on roasts and fresh pasta, on savoury cheesecakes and fruit tarts, but also on chicken breasts, cutlets, skewers, puddings and burgers. The limits of time, difficulty and ingredients have awakened me as a breath of fresh air.
I’ve put myself in the shoes of those who have just ten minutes to cook a chicken breast: how can I make it? what could I already have in the fridge or in the pantry? Could it be my lunch box tomorrow or can I make it in advance and just warm it up when I come back home?
Willing or not, this also affected the recipes that land here on the blog, as I fell head over heels for that simple everyday recipes, those I hoped to find on the table when I would come back from school, those that Tommaso appreciate after a long working day.
Practice makes you better
The second lesson was an epiphany and an acknowledgment for everything I made growing up, ever since the early years of the elementary school. Both my parents and my first teacher, Paola, have always taught me that you learn making mistakes and, above all, that the practice makes you better. I’ve never been able to turn a somersault, true, but I’ve always been committed to everything else. Try it, then try it a second time, then try it again.
This is how you can improve, in calligraphy, in writing, in cooking and in photography. Or rather, as my mum has always said, nobody is born learned.
Working at a steady rhythm for months for Ci piace cucinare allowed me to improve the way I cook and, above all, helped me to figure out how to have consistent results.
Once again I realized the importance of measuring pots and pans, of giving visual references and not just time references, of a sprinkling of nutmeg in a filling or of salting meat in advance. These tiny attentions and imperceptible actions change the success of a dish as well as its replicability in kitchens other than mine.
Now I can prepare roasts, meatballs, fresh pasta and cakes with a strange confidence, which is not due to supernatural skills but exclusively to practice, to having tied the pork loin a thousand times to understand how it should to be done, to having seasoned it not enough, too much or too little, to having burnt it, left it too raw, cooked it too much.
Then comes the time when everything falls into place, when you take a mental note and you’re almost there. You can claim your success when you can replicate the positive results consistently, time after time. The happiness comes from sharing this recipe to give the chance to another person to cook it, avoiding some of the mistakes that you have mended over the time. This home cook, a young student, a working mum, a stay at home parent, a middle aged retired teacher, a single person or a newly wed, he will make it his own recipe, change it and give it life in another kitchen. This is why I love my job.
The same happens for photography. Coming back to that feedback on my first assignment for Ci Piace Cucinare, now I comprehend it perfectly. I also agree with it. First of all, it takes time to understand what a new customer expects from you, and the presumption of having everything clear from the first shot can create a misunderstanding.
Then, time, practice, patience and constant exercise… they work magic. If I look at my photos now, after 8 months of work with Ci Piace Cucinare, I recognise I made substantial improvements, and I’m telling this myself, even though I am usually self critic when it comes to my work. I can better control the light, the composition, the styling of the dish. Those that may seem more discouraging and challenging, such as roasts or burgers, are the assignments that I enjoy the most.
What really excited me was to understand that I can apply this paradigm to all that I’m interested in: cooking, photography, food styling, writing, baking, bread making… who knows, maybe one day with some commitment and exercise I’ll be able to perform a somersault, too.
Pasta alla boscaiola with mushrooms
Today I felt like writing to tell you all that occupied my mind in these days. I’ve not exhausted all my reflections, worries and doubts, so in the next posts I will continue to address these issues as I need to clear my mind and share these thoughts with you, to understand which are your opinions about food, about writing about food, talking about food, cooking food and sharing it.
But since we like to dirty our hands with food, and not just fill our heads of words and our eyes with images, let’s talk about a seasonal recipe par excellence, pasta alla boscaiola, a mushroom based sauce for pasta, made in the woodland style. It is a recipe with a delightful ’80s allure, like all the dishes featuring cream. It is impossibile to trace back to the original recipe, as there are endless variations.
One thing is certain, though: it calls for mushrooms. Then you can find recipes with tomato sauce, cream, sausage, peas, olives…
I prepared this pasta alla boscaiola for a dinner with friends when I found myself with a basket of local porcini purchased for a photo shoot and even some beautiful chanterelles, which I had bought just because I was in love with their bright colour and their shapes. I would love to wear a skirt the colour of a chanterelle, with the same elegant flared shape.
In this version of pasta alla boscaiola there are porcini and chanterelles mushrooms, onion – which I’ve been matching with mushrooms lately, as in this risotto, tomato paste to add some colour, guanciale, the cured cheek of the pork, instead of sausage and a splash of whole milk to add softness.
- 1 white onion
- 1 shallot
- 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
- 150 g of guanciale or pancetta
- 350 g of fresh porcini
- 150 g of chanterelles
- 1 tablespoon of tomato paste
- 150 ml of whole milk
- Black pepper
- 350 g dried penne
Slice finely the onion and the shallot and scrape them in a large frying pan with the olive oil and the cubed guanciale. Cook on medium heat for about 5 minutes or until the onion and the shallot are soft and translucent.
Brush the mushrooms, cut them into cubes and add the mushrooms into the pan, then season with salt and ground black pepper. Lower the heat to the minimum and cook for about ten minutes, stirring often.
Add a spoonful of tomato paste, then pour in the milk and stir to melt the tomato. Cook for 10 more minutes until the mushrooms are soft and to milk has created a thick creamy sauce. Adjust with salt and pepper. Turn off the heat and set aside.
Meanwhile, bring the water for the pasta to the boil, then add the salt and cook the pasta.
Cook the pasta al dente, drain it and set aside a cup of cooking water. Toss the pasta with the mushroom sauce and, if needed, add some cooking water to make it more creamy. Serve immediately.
- Another recipe for pasta alla boscaiola, on Serious Eats, with porcini, bacon e tomato sauce.
- Addressing today’s theme, read this article by Dianne Jacob, Don’t Give Up on Your Writing. It took 40 years to become a better writer. That’s okay. What helped me was writing more, versus becoming fed up with myself and writing less. I’ve tried writing less and even stopping, but doing so made me unhappy.
- On her post I found also this video by Ira Glass on his creative process. Enjoy it!
- Still on the same subject, Why I’ve Never Learned How to Cook on Bon Appétit. She answered all of my questions gamely, but in the end, she said this: “Yes, but you know how it goes with practice. The practice is necessary.” She was being gentle. “You should feel comfortable making mistakes because that’s how you learn.” She was saying that I shouldn’t be afraid to start without knowing everything. There was no way to do this without screwing it up first.