Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Pasta and Gnocchi alla Fabio Viviani

Somehow, I missed out on the first two seasons of Top Chef, but then I became a convert.  I'm a fan of the Richard Blais, the Voltaggio brothers, Carla Hall, and some of the others, but I was greatly entertained by Fabio Viviani.

Now it happens, that the first time I heard of Fabio and his restaurant out in Moorpark was when William Shatner sang Fabio's praises at one of his charity horse shows and Cafe Firenze provided catering for the event (we didn't have tickets to dinner, sadly.)  Then my hairdresser, who lives out in Moorpark, also gave the place a rave.  That was about the time Fabio showed up on Top Chef.

After he was on Top Chef, I heard he wasn't at the Moorpark restaurant any longer (that's changed and he is back there) and then I heard he had opened a place in North Hollywood.  Lately, he's been hosting Top Chef viewing parties at both restaurants (doing the east coast feed in Moorpark and the west coast feed in North Hollywood.)  He's also teaching cooking classes at both places, though, sadly, not hands-on classes.  At least, not yet, but he promises they are forthcoming.

Fabio is also an avid tweeter, and I happen to follow him (and a lot of other chefs) on Twitter and Facebook.  So I caught the announcement that he would be teaching a pasta and gnocchi class at Firenze Osteria in North Hollywood on February 13.  The class was $40/per person or $70 per couple, so I signed up for two, figuring that if Len couldn't go with me, my son Michael or someone else would.  Michael lucked out because Len started a class on Sunday.

We got to the restaurant about half an hour ahead of start time, which was good, because there were only two people ahead of us in line and it turned out that seating was first-come, first served, and it was a fairly large group.  Women outnumbered men by a factor of about 10 to 1, and there was a huge group of women who all came together, leading me to the obvious conclusion that this celebrity chef has groupies.

We came to watch pasta and gnocchi being made and we got an afternoon at Comedy Central as well.  Fabio is hysterical.  From his good-natured difficulties with English ("the thumb rule" "rule of thumb-a") to his retro male-chauvanist-pig remarks (reminding me why I would never marry an Italian-American male), I laughed until I wanted to cry.

Fabio wanted everyone to understand that making pasta is EASY.  A egg, some salt, some oil, and some flour in a food processor--that's pasta.  Some baked potatoes, an egg, some salt, some nutmeg, some pepper, some flour in a mixer--that's gnocchi.  There was also a big emphasis on common sense--I pinch or a hand of some measurement isn't a child's hand or that of Andre the Giant, use a folded towel to take a hot potato out of the oven and the n let it cool off.  And so on.

Like most of the Italian and Italian-American cooks I have known, there's less about measuring and much more about taste and feel in his methods.  To make pasta, Fabio uses one egg per person and he advises working in batches of no more than four eggs.  ("Don't have more than 4 people to dinner!")  So for four eggs, add a pinch of salt, a little olive oil, and about 2/3-3/4 cups of all purpose flour in the food processor until a ball is formed.  Then knead the dough a little and cut it into several pieces to run through the rollers of a pasta machine.  The kneaded dough feels a bit like your earlobe when it is ready to rest.  Depending on the type of pasta, either cut it by hand (after rolling up the sheets of dough) or use a pasta machine to cut the noodles.

He advocates the use of the food processor over the hand-mixing method because it is quick and easy.  He does recommend giving the dough an opportunity to rest between mixing and rolling.

I remember watching my grandmother rolling out her pasta dough by hand.  She made it look so easy, but it is so much faster and easier to use a pasta machine.  I love mine.

After Fabio finished making the pasta, we were all served some with a meat sauce.  Then it was on to gnocchi.

The rough recipe for gnocchi, which won rave reviews every time he made them on Top Chef, involves baking potatoes, letting them cool, and running them through a meat grinder or a ricer after peeling them.  Do not mash them--it give the wrong consistency.  It looked like he used about 4 cups of ground, cooked potatoes to 1 egg, two pinches of salt, one pinch of pepper, about a half-teaspoon of nutmeg, and a handful and a half of grated Parmesan.  This was mixed with a paddle in a Kitchen-aid mixer.

(There were lots of ooohs and aaahs over the mixer and a number of people were whispering about how expensive they are.  I will say that my Kitchen-aid is one of the best investments in the kitchen I ever made, and the one I had before that was one my mother owned for 30 years.  I've had my K5A for twenty years now and I expect to leave it to my son.  My sister may still own the one our grandmother had.)

After mixing those ingredients together, Fabio added flour to reach the consistency he wanted.  It is a softer consistency than the pasta dough.  I would guess that he added around 1-1/2 to 2 cups of all purpose flour to get the consistency he wanted.  After that, he took lemon or tennis ball lumps of the dough, shaped it into cylinders of about 3/4" thick and 10" long and cut them into approximately 3/4" pieces.  He used very little flour on the counter and on his hands to keep things from sticking because adding too much flour to the gnocchi makes them heavy.

When cooking the gnocchi (and the pasta) he advises adding olive oil to the pot.  With the gnocchi, don't stir them in the pot and, no matter how many are in the pot, scoop them out and drain them all when two or three of them have risen in the water to float.  To do otherwise will water-log the gnocchi and make them fall apart.

We got to sample the gnocchi in a marinara sauce.  Heavenly.

Fabio spent quite a bit of time answering questions from the room.  And then we got an added surprise--door prizes for four of the attendees.  We were told to check under our seats and this note is what I found under mine:

And this is what it redeemed:
It is a Bialetti ceramic-lined, nonstick saute pan.  Fabio will be selling it on QVC or some such channel in the not too distant future.

I planned to upload some video of the class, but I'm having big problem with it.  So I am sorry.  If I figure out what to do, it may just be another entry.  Fabio will be teaching a risotto class at Firenze Osteria on Sunday, and I think there are still spaces available.  It is a fine bit of entertainment on a Sunday afternoon.

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