Thursday, March 3, 2011

Authentic Tuscan recipes

Mumbai has become a hub for Italian dining. Every corner restaurant now dishes out penne arrabiatas and pizzas. So, when a food retail chain like Pizza Hut invites you to experience authentic Italian cuisine at a live cooking event, you start doubting if the guys who make tandoori chicken pizza will indeed serve you a slice that can pique your interest.

We arrived in time for some ginger lemonade as chef Arjyo, head chef of the pizza retail chain, talked about his inspirations and his quest to serve Italian food with slightly modified recipes for the Indian consumer and introduced chef Luca Ciano, executive chef from Barilla, who was here to bust some myths and talk about the cuisines of Italy.

The two got on with making of assorted bruschettas while discussing the history of the dish. The popular Italian starter was originally made to use stale bread and leftover sauces. The crusty bread, the soft, warm bocconcini, the ripe and juice cherry tomatoes, and a strong flavour of the extra virgin olive oil was enough to create a merry little party in our mouths. To wash it down, we were served a four-season blush wine. While there was a thyme chicken and tapenade and tomato pesto with prawn and basil bruschetta, the bocconcini and cherry tomato bruschetta was a clear winner.

As soon as the bruschettas were cleared off, the chefs rustled up a summer vegetable salad. This was probably the easiest dish to make. Assorted salad greens, diced fresh figs, buffalo mozzarella, garlic croutons and a generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. It was ready in less than five minutes! And while this salad can’t exactly be healthy, it nourishes your soul as you take in the crunchy, crispy and luscious textures of its ingredients. Of course, the chefs aren’t shy to suggest that we use alternative cheeses or oranges in case we can’t find fresh figs.

Just as we wondered when the interactive cooking would happen, we were pulled in to knead the dough for a pizza base. After kneading, knocking and stretching the dough, it truly felt like we had earned ourselves a slice of the pizza verde, topped with mushrooms, zucchini, baby corn and bell-peppers.

“We definitely modify recipes to suit the Indian palate, but the base of the recipe remains the same,” said chef Arjyo. Chef Luca, who finds India to be quite similar to Italy, agreed that while it was important to serve an authentic cuisine, there was no harm in modifying things marginally to make sure that the dish suits the taste of the market. “It is a business and if modification is essential to its success, why not!” he said.

The classic example of ‘Indianising’ a dish soon appeared on our table. Fettuccine with creamy pesto, prawns and pine nuts was served, but chef Luca was of the opinion that any pesto sauce should not be served with cream, as it subdues the flavour. “But if the flavour is too strong to suit the Indian palate, it’s a small modification that can go a long way in pleasing the customer,” he said.

While cooking the pasta, the Academia Barilla chef busted some myths about preparing Italian food. The biggest was the one about cooking the pasta. Adding drops of olive oil while cooking pasta so that the pasta doesn’t stick together is a redundant process, Luca said. He explained that while the oil does nothing to ensure that the pasta doesn’t stick, it in fact coats the surface of the pasta and hampers its ability to absorb flavours from the sauce.

So, how do you avoid the pasta becoming one huge messy tangled affair? Well, use good quality pasta and cook it in plenty of water.

By the time the cannelloni with tomato and aubergine stuffing in b├ęchamel sauce arrived, our tummies were rather full. The chefs finished off the presentation of their Tuscan special menu with a rather un-Tuscan dessert — an assorted cheesecake platter. The blueberry reduction was a bit too stringy to complement the lovely texture of the baked cheesecake.

Over the next few months, Pizza Hut plans to introduce these dishes on its menu. Whether they will taste as good as chefs Arjyo and Luca’s creations, only time can tell. “Obviously, they will not be using the premium olive oil that we used today but that is mainly because of the cost factor," Luca said. But in case you want to prepare these dishes at home, we've got the recipes right here for you.

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