I recently took a Tuscan cooking class with Chef Gina Stipo at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, and immediately fell in love with her rustic Tuscan recipes, her passionate, hands-on teaching approach and cooking philosophy; centered around fresh, seasonal produce and local ingredients from Tuscany. We learned the basics of Tuscan cooking, local ingredients, cheeses and wines, and a little bit about Gina’s culinary training. She explained Italian culture and ways of cooking, and we made some really delicious food which we thoroughly enjoyed at the end of the evening.
For starters, we made a savory Pecorino Flan, served with roasted pears and arugula and paired with a crisp, white Tuscan wine to complement the tangy cheese. We made fresh homemade potato gnocchi from scratch, along with two savory, simple cream sauces – one with fresh crumbled gorgonzola, onion and sage, another with walnuts, butter and parmesan.
For the Roasted Chicken dish, Gina demonstrated the ‘Tuscan’ way of cutting up a whole chicken (with a large pair of kitchen shears), then she threw it gently into a roasting pan along with our fresh trimmed artichokes, lemons, garlic, rosemary and sage and put it in the oven for awhile until it was crispy and browned. For dessert, we savored a light and fruity Strawberry Semifreddo drizzled with melted dark chocolate – straight from the heavens above!
In my interview with Gina, she discusses her culinary training and background and cookbook Ecco La Cucina, (“Here’s the Kitchen”). Having lived and trained in Italy, Gina specializes in Italian cuisine primarily from the Tuscany region. She also does personalized food and wine tours in Tuscany and around Italy, and offers hands-on cooking classes held on the rural estate of Spannocchia, south of Siena, focusing on Tuscan cuisine and wines. Gina is truly passionate about her work and has found her place in the culinary world. She’s truly an inspiration, and a talented Chef and cooking instructor… Read my personal interview with Gina below to find out more about her culinary training and career, cooking philosophy, her cookbook and a few of the recipes from our class.
Can you tell me a little bit about your culinary and professional career background?
I feel as if my life has always been food focused, I have so many early memories of different foods I loved. Growing up in an Italian family, meals were very important. We celebrated with food, we made special trips to buy the right ingredients, and we ate together as a family. When I was six years old we moved to Italy for four years and the beauty of the country, the food that is such an integral part of their lives, made an indelible mark on me that formed a basis for the way I relate to both the beauty of my surroundings and food. I have been studying food all my life but made a career change when I was in my late 30’s to focus on food professionally. I came into a little money and I used it all to go travel in Italy and study their cuisine.
When did you realize you wanted to be a professional chef and cooking instructor? Who inspired you most as a young cook? What did you learn from them?
For a long time as a young adult my dream was to live in New York City and go to culinary school but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it. I lived that dream when I was in my late 30’s and then worked in restaurants for several years to gain experience, but I still hadn’t found my niche. In 2000, some friends who own an estate in Tuscany asked me if I would come and do some classes for their guests. I set up cooking classes and found that I’m really good at it, that my innate curiosity and constant study of the subject before I went to culinary school had given me a lot of information that people are interested in.
My mother inspired me as a young cook, she has a curious nature and was always buying strange things in the market and figuring out how to cook them or eat them. The Italian food of my father’s family inspired me. From my mother I learned curiosity and openness, from my grandmother and aunts I learned the importance of freshness and respecting your ingredients.
Can you tell us about your training at the Institute of Culinary Education as well as abroad in Italy? How were you trained and what was that like? What was your first job as a professional cook and what was that like?
I loved going to ICE, spending every day surrounded by food and talking about it; I got extra bonus points on tests, joyously studied and constantly felt thrilled to be learning and surrounded by people interested in food. I learned that I love the technique and precision of beautiful desserts and enjoy making them perfectly.
I also trained in Italy, at a school in Bologna as well as by talking to little old people and home cooks about their food and cooking with them in the kitchen. It’s important to have an open mind and realize that, no matter what you’ve studied or for how long, you don’t know it all, there’s always something new to learn.
How did you get started doing food and wine tours in Italy and can you tell us a little bit more about that?
After I started doing classes for the estate in Tuscany I hit upon the idea of doing a tour for their guests and taking them around the area to great restaurants and wineries, sharing with them the intricacies of the regional foods. That grew a little every year. Meanwhile I did single day classes for people who come to Tuscany. In 2005 my sister came to work with me and is my partner in the States, coordinating the weeklong tours and coming to Italy when we have a group.
Can you tell us a little bit about your cooking style and what makes your cookbook and cooking classes unique?
I would say what sets my cooking apart is knowledge and respect for the ingredients, for the way the dishes developed and evolved. My cooking style is simple, I don’t believe in making it complicated or scaring people away from food; I want them to have the same acceptance and understanding of the importance of it as an integral part of their lives. While I enjoy entertaining with stories, my focus is on education, not on reinventing the wheel or making a dish so complicated it takes the joy out of cooking.
Tell us about your cookbook Ecco La Cucina, and what inspired you to write this?
My cookbook is a simple compilation of the recipes we use in my area of Tuscany and was put together by the requests of many of my students. I put a spiral binder on the first several printings because i want people to be able to use it in the kitchen, not fight with it to get it to stay on the page. It’s all about making it friendly and comfortable, like Italian cooking should be.
In your opinion, what are the most important elements when creating a recipe from scratch?
There are two questions there: a recipe from scratch or a dish from scratch. I do both.
When I went to Italy I worked with an Italian woman who was the cook on the estate. The owners wanted someone to write down her recipes in English because they had so many requests from their guests. It hadn’t been done before because she didn’t use recipes, she just cooked. I worked with her for two months and watched her and learned a lot and wrote the recipes down into a saleable cookbook for the estate. That exercise helped tremendously when I moved to Italy and traveled around learning about the cuisine and how the dishes were made and allowed me to write my own cookbook years later.
When making a dish from scratch it’s most important to understand the science of cooking; the why and how to make a dish taste good. There are certain basics in cooking and if you understand those you can create authentic dishes. But those basics can be different depending on the cuisine. Indian food is put together differently than Chinese, which is different than French. The fun thing is learning all of that and making great authentic food!
What is your signature dish or your favorite recipe?
There is my grandmother’s special baked lobster that’s a family favorite and has become my signature dish among friends. You have to have the courage to kill the lobster and it’s stuffed with bread crumbs, herbs, garlic and drizzled with olive oil, baked and then served on top of thin spaghetti. It’s fabulous!
What is your favorite spice to cook with and why?
I just did a series of classes on spices used in Italian cooking . I am crazy about salt and talk a lot about the importance of using unprocessed sea salt, but I don’t think I have one particular spice I like to cook with. I’m against the constant use of black pepper in absolutely everything without thinking of whether it adds anything good to the dish or whether you even like it. I love making Indian food for all the wonderful spices there are and adore the smell of cloves, but really in Tuscan cooking we use more herbs than anything because they were free for the peasants, whereas spices cost a lot of money.
What is the most underrated ingredient in your opinion?
Freshness and the seasonality of food. When you get a vegetable or fruit that is grown in season and is allowed to ripen before picking, there really isn’t much else you have to do to it but eat it. And by using seasonal ingredients that are local and fresh your dish is elevated before you even begin.
As a professional chef, what was your funniest kitchen incident?
My first job as a professional was in a very hot, very small kitchen at an excellent French bistro in Atlanta. I was garde manger until I got promoted to the grill. The first day I was there it was 95 degrees outside and too hot in the kitchen for chef coats so we all wore our favorite t-shirts and ball caps. After 10 minutes sweat was already trickling down my back and stomach so when the owner asked me if I thought they should turn on the air conditioning in the kitchen, I answered YES! Everyone laughed because it was a joke they always played on new crew: there wasn’t any air conditioning in the kitchen and, to make it worse, if you kept the kitchen doors open it pulled the air conditioning from the dining room and the guests would be too hot. I loved how tough you had to be to make it through your shift and the camaraderie you have with the other cooks, like surviving under fire.
When cooking at home, what do you like to prepare for yourself?
Sometimes I like to make complicated braised dishes that take all day, but when I’m hungry I’ll make myself a big fresh chopped salad with walnuts, dried cranberries, blue cheese and grapes. Or cook up a batch of fried chicken or rabbit. But I’ve been known to make dinner a bottle of red wine and a bowl of buttered popcorn!
What is your favorite cooking gadget or kitchen item you can’t live without and why?
I really love a decent rubber spatula and a microplane, but I tend to travel with my own special paring knives.
What 5 cookbooks would you recommend every home cook own?
That’s hard because I’m not a big fan of cookbooks, I prefer to read food history or food science. But the Joy of Cooking is a go-to book in my kitchen for all those traditional recipes that no one knows by heart, plus the original Betty Crocker book from my childhood is great for straightforward American desserts and a bit of nostalgia. The Greens cookbook from The Greens Restaurant in San Francisco is my all-time favorite book, it’s all vegetarian cooking and every recipe in there is amazing, yet simple. The Essentials of Italian Cuisine by Marcella Hazan is also an excellent reference book. My new favorite is by an Italian, Giorgio Locatelli who owns a restaurant in London; his book “Made in Italy” is a wonderful read and a great learning tool
Do you have any advice for aspiring chefs and home cooks?
For aspiring chefs: respect your ingredients and spend time learning in depth a cuisine rather than trying to reinvent something you don’t understand.
For home cooks: Don’t be afraid and don’t let them confuse you with complications.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself?
I’ve really enjoyed living in Italy, studying the foods of the regions and getting to know the people who make the food and preserve the roots of their cuisine. I love being able to share that with visitors and help them to better understand Italy, to build memories and enjoy their vacation.
Homemade Potato Gnocchi
2 lbs red skinned potatoes
2 large eggs
2 cups flour
Bring potatoes to a boil in salted water until cooked through, being careful not to cook too much or they become water logged. A fork should enter easily with no hard center. Peel and then put through a ricer onto your work surface. Make a well and add the egg and half of the flour and work until incorporated and evenly mixed, adding the rest of the flour as you go. Knead the dough until its just pulled together and you don’t see tiny potato pieces. Try not to overwork the dough. Form into logs, cut off half-inch sized pieces and roll them on a gnocchi board or fork.
4 tbsp (1/2 stick) butter
1 medium onion, chopped
6-8 fresh sage leaves
8 oz gorgonzola cheese
½ cup cream
Fresh ground pepper
Salt to taste
Saute the onion in butter until soft, add sage leaves and continue to cook gently without browning. Add gorgonzola and cook over low heat until melted, stirring occasionally. Add cream and heat through, being careful not to boil. Season with ground pepper and check for salt; some cheese is saltier than others. Serve over homemade potato gnocchi and top with some fresh ground Parmigiana cheese as garnish.
Sugo di Noci (Walnut Cream Sauce)
1 cup walnuts, chopped fine
1 ½ cups heavy cream
1 cup grated Parmigiano cheese
4 tbsp (1/2 stick) butter
White pepper, ground
Put the cream, walnuts, Parmigiano, and butter in a saucepan and heat. Salt and pepper to taste; bring to a simmer and then turn off heat. Allow to remain hot until pasta is cooked, then toss and serve with a sprinkling of more Parmigiano and finely chopped parsley. Because gnocchi or pasta continues to absorb liquid, you will need to save some of the pasta water to add when you toss the pasta, as it may seem dry. Serve over homemade potato gnocchi and top with some fresh grated Parmigiana Reggiano cheese as garnish.
1 cup sugar
3 cups fresh strawberries, chopped
1 teaspoon lemon juice
6 egg whites
½ cup sugar
1 pint whipping cream
Dark chocolate, melted
Strawberries for garnish, whole
Combine the first cup of sugar together with chopped strawberries and lemon juice and bring to a boil, allowing to cook until thickened, about 10 minutes. Take it off the heat and cool completely.
Whip the egg whites with ½ cup sugar until stiff, then whip the cream. Fold together with the cooled syrup.
Spread the semifreddo in a pan, or into individual cups, and freeze until set. To serve, allow it to sit at room temperature 10 minutes then either slice or invert onto plates. Serve with fresh strawberries and chocolate drizzled on top.
To find out more about Gina, her cookbook and Italian culinary tours, visit www.EccoLaCucina.com