Pasta master-class with Gennaro ContaldoBy Mike Pyle
June 08, 2012
Reporter Mike Pyle enjoys a pasta masterclass from Gennaro Contaldo who masterminded Jamie’s Italian chain of restuarants.
The chef was also one of the star demonstrators at this weekend’s Eat Reading Live – and he has a lot to say about our town
‘Greedy Italian’ Gennaro Contaldo is famous for many culinary exploits – being Jamie Oliver’s mentor, appearing on numerous TV shows to cook, touring Italy with compatriot Antonio Carluccio – but most of all he has made his name from his love of classic Italian food.
So, when I meet Gennaro at Jamie’s Italian – the global restaurant chain he helped Jamie Oliver to launch – on The Oracle’s Riverside, I’m keen to know what his very favourite food is. Would it be veal Milanese, spaghetti vongolle or a simple platter of Italian cured meats and cheeses?
“It’s all about Lancashire hotpot,” he says excitedly. “My wife makes Lancashire hotpot – wow, we love it!”
Just how did a man from the sunny Amalfi coast, where he says the sea was his swimming pool and the mountain was his back garden, fall in love with Lancashire hotpot?
“I left [Italy] because I wanted to be free, to explore. You think you’re better than everyone else when you are young, I couldn’t wait to leave home and be free,” he explains.
“Then when you do, you realise you want to go back – but I came to England and I fell in love.”
He speaks passionately about the wealth of native ingredients on these shores – the meat, particularly the lamb which he says is the best in the world and the vegetables, especially the mushrooms. He then shows me pictures of him out mushroom picking with his daughters.
It doesn’t take long in Gennaro’s company to realise that he loves cooking. He takes pleasure from sharing his passion for good food with others and that’s just what has been doing from his stand at Eat Reading Live.
“I love Eat Reading,” he says. “Reading has such nice people.
“I travel around in England and I get to see so much of the country. Reading is a lovely place – it has this industrial side, the modern buildings, the university but then there is all this beauty too.
“I love being able to do things like Eat Reading. You have to pass on the love, the passion for cooking, the joy. There are so many people at Eat Reading and without the people it is impossible to share the passion!
“What good food needs is to be shared, to be passed on and to be mixed with other people’s love and passion.
“That is what I am there to do.”
Chefs from Jamie’s Italian also featured at Eat Reading, something Gennaro says he is immensely proud of, having helped Jamie Oliver found the chain several years ago.
The pair first met when Jamie knocked on the door at the Neal Street Restaurant where he was working in the 90s. He said it went against his nature but he went and gave him a job and never looked back.
“When Jamie was young,” Gennaro remembers, “he came to me and said: ‘You know what big boy? One day, I’m going to make a bit of money and maybe I’ll become famous and, if I do, I’ll open a restaurant, then I’ll open two restaurants, three restaurants, four restaurants, five, six, seven – all over the country then all over the world.’
“I said: ‘Jamie, that’s fantastic, now hurry up, let’s go’. But then he turned to me and said: ‘I want you to be in every one of them.’
“Years later, he’d done The Naked Chef [Jamie’s first TV show] and opened Fifteen [his restaurant], and he came down to me and said: ‘Big boy, do you remember when I said I want to open all these restaurants?’
“I couldn’t remember but I said ‘yes’ and he said: ‘Well, shall we do it?’
“But we work so hard. When you work so hard you don’t want to open more restaurants. I did my little TV bits, I write my books – I said: ‘Why would I do that?’
“He said: ‘Think about how many young boys and young girls you can give jobs to, give them the chance to learn, give something back.’
“I didn’t think I wanted to do it but I said: ‘Let’s do it.’”
Now Jamie’s Italian has branches all over the country as well as in Dubai, Russia, China and Germany. The chain has trained more than 1,000 chefs and Gennaro is clearly very proud as he cooks in the kitchen of the Reading branch and sees how the chefs employed there work.
As he cooks a dish the ingredients and kit he needs appear by his side without him even asking. “You see,” he says, “they are chefs, they think like chefs.
“Each restaurant belongs to a chef and has chefs cooking in it – this is their passion, this is what they do.
“This is what Jamie’s Italian is all about – pure passion.
“We put together the menus and it’s all about simple fresh food with the best ingredients and it’s affordable. If the ingredients are good the food will be good, if the food is good it can be simple, if it is simple it can be affordable.”
Gennaro said one of the many things he is looks forward to about Eat Reading Live is sampling some of the locally sourced food which will be available there.
During our afternoon together he regularly points out that in his meals, good ingredients do a lot of the work when cooked properly.
We cooked two dishes together, both of them made with fresh, home-made pasta.
The idea of making your own pasta can be quite off-putting but actually it was really easy and the results are fantastic. Nonetheless, I asked him if dried pasta could be used – yes – or the vacuum-packed ‘fresh’ pasta available from supermarkets – “not unless you like to eat plastic” is his reply.
The beauty of both these recipes is that, once the pasta is made, neither one takes more than about 15 minutes to make.
150g ‘00’ flour
50g fine semolina
Combine the ‘00’ flour – available from all supermarkets in the same section as the normal flours – and the semolina (also available from most supermarkets although you may have to look in the world foods section) in a bowl leaving a well to crack the eggs into.
Crack the eggs into the well then work the mixture with your hands or a fork until it’s all combined. Transfer to a floured surface and continue working the mixture for five minutes or so until you get a soft, smooth dough.
Work into a ball, wrap in clingfilm and leave for 30 minutes.
Split the dough into four pieces and put each through a pasta machine starting at the highest (thickest) setting and working down to the lowest (thinnest). In the end you should have wafer-thin pasta that is ready to use for whatever you want to do with it. Gennaro says the pasta machine is not essential and that “Italian mammas” will often do it with a rolling pin although this is a lot more effort.
The resulting pasta can be used however you like. If you wish to make spaghetti or tagliatelli you must cut your strips and leave them to hang and dry for half an hour or more before cooking. It will only take a quick dunk in salted, boiling water to make it ready.
Ricotta, Lemon, Nutmeg and Parmesan Tortelloni in Herb Butter
In the first dish we made together we used the pasta in sheets for the stuffed tortelloni but really the shape is up to you to choose.
Gennaro said that as long as it holds the filling you are free to be as creative as you like with the parcels you make.
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 whole nutmeg
Pasta dough (see above) rolled into four thin sheets
250ml vegetable stock
Fresh sage leaves
Put the ricotta into a bowl, add the lemon zest, a liberal amount of Parmesan, grate a whole nutmeg into it and add salt and pepper to taste then mix well.
Cut the pasta sheets into inch-and-a-half squares – the size doesn’t matter particularly – using a pasta cutter or pinking shears if you want nice zig-zag edges or a pizza cutter or knife if you don’t and then place a blob of the ricotta mixture in the centre of each.
To make the pasta into the right shapes, fold the opposite corners together to form triangles, squeeze the edges tightly so they bind shut then and – this is the fiddly bit – position the triangles to the longest edge along the bottom and the bulge of the filling is facing up.
Place your forefinger on top of the bulge facing upwards then pull the left and right points of the triangle together over the top of your finger. Squeeze the corners together so the pasta binds and remove your finger – done!
Really, you can make any shape you want. Gennaro showed off and made some plaited shapes but he also showed me how to make ravioli – you only have to take two squares of pasta and put a blob of filling between them and squeeze them together.
Leave the pasta to one side while you make the butter. Simply combine the softened butter with the sage, use as liberally as you like but remember sage can be strong, and a bit of salt – not too much, if any, if your butter is salted.
Pop it in a hot pan with a little olive oil and add the vegetable stock. Boil rapidly to reduce the mixture.
While the sauce is reducing, dunk the pasta in salted, boiling water for a minute or so then add to the sauce. Make sure the parcels are covered with the butter then serve topped with a liberal helping of Parmesan.
Gennaro says you could serve the pasta with more or less any sauce you like but this simple, buttery accompaniment works beautifully with the light, zesty pasta filling.
Tagliatelli with Garlic, Chilli, Courgette and Tomato
In making our second recipe Gennaro wanted to show me the essence of simple Italian cooking.
The kitchen of Jamie’s Italian is full of a wonderful array of fresh produce and he asked me to choose a handful of ingredients he would make into a pasta dish. I picked out garlic, tomatoes, chilli and courgette.
Pasta dough (as before) rolled into four thin sheets
3 cloves of garlic
Handful of cherry tomatoes
1 or 2 red chilies depending on how spicy you like it
175ml vegetable stock
Cut the pasta into ½cm-wide ribbons. Most pasta makers have a roller attachment which will do this for you but it makes little difference if you just use a pizza cutter or knife to cut your ribbons.
Hang the strips of pasta on a washing frame or coat hangers for 30 minutes.
Cut your tomatoes in half and finely chop the rest of the veg. Gennaro says there’s no need to press or crush the garlic, slices are fine.
Heat a generous amount of olive oil in a frying pan.
Gennaro says it’s important to use decent, Italian extra-virgin olive oil but that high street brands like Bertoli are fine and that you don’t have to spend a fortune although any olive oil that costs less than £3 for a bottle “isn’t olive oil”.
Add the garlic and the rest of the veg and turn the pan down to a low or medium heat. Sweat the courgettes, garlic, chilli and tomatoes for five to eight minutes until everything has softened before adding torn-up basil to taste and the vegetable stock.
Submerge the taglitelli in salted, boiling water for a minute or two then add to the frying pan.
Toss everything together and serve with plenty of Parmesan.
Neither recipe was difficult to cook and, without Gennaro by my side, I have since cooked both without problem – and without the aid of a pasta maker.
The recipes could be served as part of an Italian buffet or a smaller portion of the tortelloni could act as a starter before the main tagliatelli dish or vice versa. Both highlight the simplicity of Italian cooking and allow the ingredients to be the stars of the show.