Since we’re all in quarantine, what better time to experiment in the kitchen?
Massimo Bottura has some amazing recipes such as homemade tortellini in parmigiano cream, pasitelli with a broth that requires the slow overnight oven cooking of vegetable scraps, and an amazing complex layered “spin-painted” beet inspired by the artwork of Damien Hirst.
Be free to experiment, and be free to choose your own flavour. — Masssimo Bottura.
I loved watching Bottura’s passion and sheer Italian-ness in his Modern Italian Cooking Masterclass, but the idea of actually spending hours making smoked olive oil and zero-waste vegetable stock gave way to laziness. Besides, if I roasted vegetable peels for the entire night, I would probably oversleep and burn the building down.
So, I decided instead to make two of Bottura’s simplest recipes, which also work well in times of quarantine, since the ingredients are easy to come by. The first is his evolution of pesto, and the second is his Sogliola al Caroccio (Mediterranean-style sole). Fortunately, I had a real live Italian to test them out on — more on the recipes and his verdict below.
The most interesting aspect of this masterclass is that those same key words from other experts— emotion and intuition — were dominant here too. Like Christina Aguilera, who says that in order to sing well you must do it with emotion, and follow your gut, Bottura instists that cooking is an act of love. It’s all about emotion, trusting and developing your own palate — your own voice, if you will. When people ask him what his favourite tool is in the kitchen, he says it’s his palate. Being a master chef is not about technique, it’s about training what our bodies already know.
Massimo Bottura’s Evolution of Pesto
Two things I love about Bottura is that he’s all about experimentation, critically assessing recipes and developing them according to personal taste, and that he’s mindful about sustainability. His version of pesto is a good example of this — he developed it when he had run out of pine nuts and didn’t have enough basil. Working with what he had to hand, he substituted the pine-nuts with old bread, and used other herbs such as mint to make up for the lack of basil.
I happened to have some old bread and mint and basil plants on the balcony, so I blended them all together along with cold water, olive oil, garlic, salt, and parmesan to create a creamy green pesto. Bottura also recommends using thyme, but since I didn’t have any, I made do without. (Don’t use sage or rosemary; they’re overpowering.)
I hate when I see people wasting things. Because it’s like you have it or you don’t have it: Culture, knowledge, consciousness, sense of responsibility. — Massimo Bottura.
According to Bottura, the best thing to do is to add elements (especially salt!), bit by bit, and constantly taste as you go in order to develop your palate and hit the exact taste that you want. Since everyone’s palate is different, the proportions that every one uses will be a bit different.
Once you’ve mixed the pesto with a pasta like fusilli, remembering to incorporate some of the pasta water to lend it more creaminess, Bottura recommends toasting some more leftover breadcrumbs and sprinkling them on top of the plated pasta to give it crunch. Here too I followed his advice to experiment and incorporate local ingredients and used typical German crunchy roasted onions instead.
Why do you need to eat asparagus in winter time? Just buy the winter vegetables, the winter roots. — Massimo Bottura.
The addition of onions was great, although the minty-herby taste of the pesto was somewhat lacking. I think this happened because I neglected to follow one of Bottura’s main rules, which is that you should always use quality ingredients. Obviously, the old herbs were not going to create an amazing taste.
The Italian’s verdict: It was great, and he couldn’t even guess the ingredients.
Sogliola al Caroccio (Mediterranean-style sole)
Officially the easiest recipe in the world. Take a piece of sole, or another firm white fish such as turbot, sea bass, or snapper, cut it in half, salting it, and stacking the two halves one atop the other. Then, pile on five thin slices of lemon, cherry tomatoes, olives and capers. Place the whole lot between two sheets of baking paper, using a beaten egg to seal the sides. Put this paper package into the oven for about 25 minutes, garnish with parsley et voila!
This turned out really well, although it’s a shame that the ingredients we get in Germany are not as fresh and scrumptious as, for example, the lemons from Sorrento, sweet cherry tomatoes from Vesuvia or Gaeta olives that Bottura uses. For a recipe as traditional and simple as this, it really is all about the ingredients.
The Italian’s verdict: It was very good, but needs a better fish than the frozen ones I found in the supermarket.
Of course, as with anything, learning to cook well and transfer emotion through food only comes with practice.
To learn, you just have to taste, and again, and again, and at one point your palate is growing, is growing, is growing. — Massimo Bottura
Well, I’m okay with that :)