Food: Italian cooking only vacation away for couple

Last Christmas, Fern and Birnie Harper’s four adult children asked the couple to sit down on the couch in their Naperville home. Their offspring then proceeded to read a poem describing a gift of a lifetime — a trip to Italy.

The trip would be a combination Christmas, 45th-wedding anniversary and Birnie’s 70th birthday gift. Their daughter Eliza and her husband, Kevin Cole, of Naperville, would accompany them on the journey and celebrate their own 20th anniversary.

Siblings Sam, Dodson and Sara agreed to watch Eliza and Kevin’s children for them.

“Our kids said they were scared for us to go by ourselves,” Fern says. “I think we could have done it, but I am so glad Kevin and Eliza went with us because it was so much fun.”

The trip began May 15 in Rome, which Fern says is “a religious experience.” The first thing they did was find a gelato shop. They left there enjoying the Italian treat when another shop owner rushed up to them and invited them to try his gelato to see if it was better.

“It was better,” Birnie says. “A lot better, so we threw out the other gelato and bought his.”

Thus began a trip through Rome, Florence and into Tuscany. A highlight of the trip was a cooking lesson from Alessandra Federici.

“It was in the town of Cortona, a little village on top of a hill — everything in Italy is on top of a hill,” says Birnie, recalling the beautiful landscape. “We went to the village and sat down in the square to have coffee. Then Alessandra pulls up on her scooter. She gave us recipes to look over and then we went to the market.

“She was there, talking Italian to everyone and buying everything we needed for dinner.”

Federici jokingly showed her guests a rabbit and called it a four-legged chicken and kept everyone in a jovial mood.

When the shopping was done, the group of six gathered in her home kitchen to begin cooking.

“Everyone had a job,” Fern says. “Nothing was really measured much. It was some of this and some of that.”

The menu had to change when the power to the oven went off.

“But that is how Italians cook,” Fern says. “They use what they have and keep it simple.”

As each dish was completed, the group took a break to eat sitting at an outdoor table overlooking a valley. There was plenty to eat and plenty of wine to drink throughout the 10-hour experience.

Federici shared tidbits about cooking through the day.

“She said that one difference between Americans and Italians is that Americans put a lot more sauce on their pasta than Italians,” Birnie says. “And Italians don’t eat spaghetti and meatballs. Meatballs are a separate dish. Since the sauce has meat in it, spaghetti with sauce does not need meatballs.”

The group also mixed pasta from scratch and fed it through a hand-cranked pasta roller to make the thin sheets. Federici’s dishes were all carefully prepared and very flavorful, according to Fern and Birnie.

The produce in Italy received high praise from the couple.

“You can’t believe the tomatoes,” Birnie says. “They were just so wonderful and delicious. And the prosciutto was so good, too.”

The couple were thrilled with all they saw.

“We went to the Mozart Winery where there are speakers continuously playing Mozart’s music,” Birnie says. “The owner believes that the music makes the grapes grow better.”

The museums, churches, leather stores and even the trains were all sights to behold.

The couple became fast friends with Federici and have emailed her for additional recipes.

“We both love to cook and try new things,” says Birnie, who loved his 70th birthday gift.

Birnie’s love of cooking comes mainly from teaching himself how to cook, he says. But he did have a memorable evening cooking with Charlie Trotter.

“That was my present on my 60th birthday,” Birnie says.

The couple have enjoyed making all of Federici’s recipes since they got home.

“They have all been delicious,” says Fern, 67.

They share a few of their favorites so that others can experience a true taste of Italy.

Culinary Cue
To evenly cut fettuccine from a sheet of pasta, roll opposite ends to the center until they meet. Cleanly cut through the rolls and unroll straight, uniform noodles. Lasagna alla Bolognese
3-1/2 ounces unsalted butter
3-1/2 ounces white flour
3-1/2 ounces grated parmigiana reggiano
4-¼ cups milk
Nutmeg
Salt
10 ounces ground beef
10 ounces sausage without fennel
1 onion, minced
1 stalk celery, minced
1 carrot, minced
1 handful parsley, minced
1 cup red wine
Extra virgin olive oil
2 14-ounce cans peeled tomatoes
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
1 cup Parmesan cheese
1 pound lasagna noodles

Bring milk to a boil and add a pinch of salt and a grating of nutmeg. Turn off milk.

Melt butter in a pan. When it starts to foam, sift in flour and stir for three to four minutes. Slowly add milk, stirring to keep smooth. Add cheese and mix until melted. Set aside this bechamel sauce.
In a pan, heat olive oil and then add minced vegetables. Sweat the vegetables while stirring over medium low heat until carrots are tender, about 10 minutes. Add meat and sausage and continue cooking and stirring over low heat until all liquid is absorbed. Add wine and continue to cook until liquid is absorbed.

Chop or puree the tomatoes and add to the mixture. Simmer gently for 90 minutes. Taste and add salt if needed. This completes the ragu Toscano.

Cook noodles according to package directions. Allow to drain. Ladle about a sixth of the bechamel sauce in the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch lasagna pan. Lay down a layer of lasagna noodles. Spread about a fifth of the ragu over the noodles. Add a sixth of the bechamel. Sprinkle about a fifth of the mozzarella and a fifth of the Parmesan cheese over the sauces. Repeat layers of noodles, ragu, bechamel sauce, mozzarella and Parmesan three more times. Top with ragu, bechamel, mozzarella and Parmesan cheese.

Bake at 350 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes. Let stand 15 to 20 minutes before serving.

Insalata di farro Toscana
1-½ cups farro
15 cherry tomatoes
½ medium onion
1 cup pitted Kalamata olives
1 tablespoon salted capers
¼ cup cucumber
¼ cup celery
1 teaspoon chopped mint leaves
1 tablespoon olive oil
¼ cup basil leaves
Salt to taste

Add farro to a pan of boiling salted water. Boil about 20 minutes and drain. Cool by running farro under cold water and then drain.

Chop tomatoes, onions, olives, cucumber, celery and mint. Mix with drained farro. Stir in capers.Toss well.

Crush basil in a mortar and add olive oil and salt to taste. Pour over farro mixture and toss to mix.

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