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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 learn to cook in a country many consider the heart of the gastronomic world?
For a Jewish foodie, there is a better way - a kosher cooking-school vacation in Italy.
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; Emilia-Romagna in north central Italy; and La Cuisine Cachère 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 'cooking program' was a 'kosher cooking program.' "
As Slone led his nonkosher trips to Italy, he took side trips to visit synagogues, kosher restaurants, kosher butchers and mashgichim, or kosher 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. Slone 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; I went as a "noncooking spouse."
The trip turned out to be the perfect combination of 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 among the 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 of Bologna. The cooking classes took place in the kitchen of the locanda, 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.
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 World War II 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 locanda's kitchen for a cooking class with instructor Silvia Maccari.
Maccari (who's 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.
The adaptations work because northern Italian cooking is characterized by the use of a few simple, fresh ingredients. Top-quality olive oil and wine are essential.
Here are a few items you can adapt into your Rosh Hashanah menu, incorporating Silvia Maccari's northern Italian kosher recipes from 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.
'Insalata di Agrumi'
10 oz. mesclun or other lettuce
1 small onion or shallot
1 Tbsp. black olives
1 handful roughly chopped walnuts
2 Tbsps. walnut oil
2 Tbsps. extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
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.
(Zucchini as a Side Dish)
3 Tbsps. extra-virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, crushed
8 zucchini, sliced
1 Tbsp. basil, finely chopped (or parsley or mint)
grated zest of 1 lemon
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup chicken or vegetable stock
In a skillet, heat the oil with the garlic. Add the zucchini and all other ingredients, except for the basil.
Stir-fry them for 10 minutes, then add the stock and let them sauté. When soft, add the basil and serve.
'Pasta e Cici'
7 oz. chickpeas, soaked overnight
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
1 clove garlic, whole
2 Tbsps. olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 lb. canned tomatoes
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 quarts chicken or vegetable stock
2 bay leaves
4 oz. small pasta shapes
salt and pepper, to taste
Drain the soaked chickpeas, and place in a large casserole and cover with water.
Add the rosemary sprigs, a whole clove of garlic and kosher salt. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer until chickpeas are tender.
In a saucepan, heat olive oil with chopped onion, celery, carrot and some rosemary. Sauté for 5 minutes.
Add the canned tomatoes and chopped garlic; simmer for 15 minutes.
Add the chickpeas and stock, bay leaf, salt and pepper. Simmer for 30 minutes.
Add the pasta and cook until al dente.
'Brasato al Vino Rosso'
(Braised Beef in a Red-Wine Sauce)
2 lbs. skirt steak roast or French roast
2 cloves garlic, crushed
10 oz. green olives, pitted
10 oz. chopped carrots
3 stalks celery, chopped
3 bay leaves
2 cups kosher red wine
4 Tbsps. olive oil
4 onions, sliced
1 can (14 oz.) tomatoes
salt and pepper
Pour olive oil in a saucepan.
Add the onion, garlic, celery and carrots, and sauté over low heat. Add the wine, parsley, bay leaves and fennel seeds, and simmer for 10 minutes.
Remove from heat and pour over the meat in a bowl. Marinate overnight.
The next morning, remove the meat from the marinade and brown it in olive oil to seal it. When the meat is completely seared, add the reserved marinade and the canned tomatoes.
Let it simmer for at least 2 hours. (Check it after 1 hour to see if more liquid is needed. If so, add some hot chicken, beef or vegetable stock.)
When the meat is tender, add the olives and finish cooking.
Serve hot over polenta.
(Apples With Amaretti Filling)
6 apples, approximately 1/2 lb. each
10 oz. sugar
2 oz. pine nuts
2 oz. pareve margarine
2 oz. pareve amaretti biscuits
1 Tbsp. flour
1 lemon, zested
Amaretto liqueur, optional
1 cup kosher red wine
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 385 degrees.
Cut the top off the apples. Remove the core and some of the meat.
Crush the amaretti 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, and pour the wine over all.
Add 1 clove and lemon zest.
Place in oven for 30 minutes.
Sprinkle with confectioners' sugar and place under the broiler before serving.