Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Cooking with A Tavola

I love food. I love wine. And somehow I had the good fortune to land a job that pays me to consume both on a regular basis. The Fates were truly smiling down on me when I began working for Carina Cellars three years ago, and since then I have enjoyed learning as much as I can about the wonderful world of wine and the culinary creations with which each wine pairs best. My passion for these two consumable arts has led me to organize wine tastings and winemaker dinners with some of Santa Barbara County’s greatest chefs, yet only recently did I have the pleasure to put on a cooking class with the talented chef John Fernandez of Santa Barbara’s A Tavola!

I met John at an industry tasting at the Bacara hotel a couple years ago. An incredibly gregarious and enthusiastic individual, John’s passion for cooking took him all the way to Italy where he attended culinary school and worked as a chef in a restaurant near Parma.

Chef John demonstrating how easy it is to use a rolling pin: if an old Italian grandma can do it, so can you!

“My greatest lessons from my experience in Italy included not only those involving food and cooking,” said John, “but also that family, friends, and community drew their greatest strengths from dining together, every meal, everyday.” So when John returned home from his time in Italy, he knew he wanted to share this experience with others, which is why he created A Tavola!, a company that focuses on teaching how to create those traditional Italian dishes in your own home.

“I cook because I love food,” said John. “I also cook because food can bring people together with family and friends. Family and friends come together to become a community. I want to enable people to enjoy good food and to enjoy good food with the people they love.”
And so John and I, with our passions combined, created an Italian cooking class where each dish would be paired with one of Carina Cellars’ wines. Hayward Design Center in Santa Barbara was generous enough to allow us to use their beautiful demo kitchen to conduct our cooking classes, and so we gathered about 30 people and put on three nights of cooking classes! Each class followed the same structure: John talked about traditional Italian cooking techniques, then demonstrated how to create the dish, and I followed by talking about the wine with which it was paired, and then everyone ate and drank and enjoyed!

The first dish created was a Tagliatelle with asparagus and white wine sauce, full of mixed summer vegetables. This is a traditional dish from Bologna, but as John put it, it could easily be from anywhere in Italy. We paired this dish with the 2007 Viognier and the balanced acidity and citrus notes were the perfect pair to this summer veggie pasta.

Next John showed how to create Tortelli d’Erbetta, an emblematic pasta from Parma, filled with a mixture of homemade ricotta and spinach with a bit of melted butter and parmesan sprinkled over it. These absolutely melt in your mouth! And when paired with the 2007 Grenache, the bright fruit flavors were complimented perfectly by the sweeter notes of the parmesan cheese.

The Agnolotti con pollo came next, and is another example of a traditional neighborhood Parma dish filled with chicken and served in a savory grape sauce. Agnolotti literally translates to mean “nun’s hat”, and these little filled pastas looked just like that! We paired this dish with the 2007 Clairvoyant, which is a southern Rhone-style blend of 55% syrah, 33% Grenache and 12% mourvedre, and exhibits an array of berry flavors that paired perfectly with the grape-flavored sauce.

At this point in the evening the teacher-student tension had well since worn off, and John was interacting quite candidly with the “students”, allowing them to try their hand at creating “nun’s hats” and learning how to make the dough from scratch. We continued to learn how to make Tagliatelle Bolognese, which as John calls it, is the “ultimate in Italian comfort food”! This traditional dish from Bologna is made with a wide-cut pasta simmered in a ragu bolgnese sauce, and we paired it with the 2006 Syrah from Tierra Alta Vineyard. This syrah exhibits rich, dark fruits with a delightfully peppery finish, and when brought together with the beefy Bolognese dish, it was decadent.

We continued with another “nun’s hat” pasta: the Agnolotti al plin, which means “pinched nun’s hat” and is a pasta characteristic of the Piemonte region. John showed us how to make the lamb filling, and the lamb and tomato sauce, then we paired it with the 2006 Syrah “7 Percent”. This blend of 7% Viognier and 93% Syrah has a smoky, meatiness with a nice peppery finish, which helped bring out the lamb flavor in both the filling and the sauce.

You might think we would have been too stuffed to go on at this point, but there’s always room for pear raviolis with a pancetta gorgonzola sauce and walnuts sprinkled on top. These little pasta pouches were filled with pears in a light cream sauce, and when paired with the 2006 Late Harvest Viognier, the slightly salty flavor of the gorgonzola cream sauce countered the sugar in the wine, and satiated our palates with nothing but delicious pears!

For more information about chef John’s cooking classes with A Tavola! check out http://www.chefjf.com/. The pictures are provided by the lovely Rosminah Brown, and you can check out more of her beautiful food photography here!

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