Our Great North Dakota Adventure didn’t take us far from home last weekend; in fact, we stayed within a one-mile radius of our house in Fargo. We had a special business engagement on Monday evening, so travel just wasn’t in the cards for us. But, while we missed the excitement of being out on the road, staying in town proved every bit as entertaining.
Tony and I spent Monday evening teaching a private cooking class to my son’s (now former!) first grade teacher, Jean Eppler, and her tight circle of friends. Together, the four of them are known as the “Suffering Sisters,” and this delightful foursome of women gathers every Monday evening to discuss books, life, and friendship.
For this particular occasion they were inviting their husbands to join them, as a gesture of appreciation since the men are usually left to fend for themselves on Monday evenings. Jean, a.k.a. Mrs. Eppler, has been a wonderful, guiding influence in my son’s life for the past year, so we were only too eager to accept her request to teach the eight of them how to make fresh pasta from scratch. (There isn’t much we wouldn’t do for this woman.)
Giovanni was absolutely tickled that Tony would be teaching something to Mrs. Eppler. “What can YOU teach HER, Dad?” he chuckled. Jean is one of those teachers who was truly born to teach, and her students (and their parents) adore her.
The setting for this event was the grand, turn-of-the-century home of Maurice and Joy McCormick, located in historic Old South Fargo. Built by L.B. Hanna, North Dakota’s eleventh governor, the house is steeped in North Dakota history. It was the perfect place to host the night’s guests: Cray and Jean Eppler, John and Jan Nowatzki, and Tom and Cathy Hanson.
True to form of any good party, all the action this evening was happening in the kitchen. The large center island proved to be the perfect setting for a hands-on cooking class, with plenty of room for each couple to get their hands dirty.
I wasn’t able to join the group until six o’clock, but since my main duties for the evening were to take a lot of pictures and ask a lot of questions, I knew the group would be fine without me for a while. (I enjoy cooking, and I love baking, but I am a home-cook – there’s only one chef in our family, and it’s not me.)
To aid in the food preparation, Tony had a wonderful tasting of Italian wines in store for the group. Using his maps of Italy, he began each recipe with a little history of the dish and its accompanying wine pairing. His passion for Italy was evident, and everyone enjoyed his virtual tour of the country.
The group assembled the Antipasti items on a platter and then moved outside to the spacious front porch to enjoy the beautiful summer weather. On any other night, this would have been enough to make an evening. But, we had five more dishes still to make, so as soon as everyone was done it was back to work.
Next up was the Insalata Caprese, a classic Italian salad created in Campania, so simple in its preparation and yet immensely satisfying to any tomato-lover. Fresh mozzarella cheese, large vine-ripened tomatoes, fresh basil, and extra virgin olive oil: what could be better?
Wearing white aprons provided by Tony, each couple was stationed around the island, with Tony at one end. He began the lesson by demonstrating how to make the pasta entirely from scratch.He created a well with eggs and flour, and showed the group how to mix it to form the dough.
The food processor worked great, and the dough formed very quickly. We noted that it also took about half the time to knead as the dough we’d mixed by hand. Once done, we wrapped the six dough balls in plastic and set them aside to rest.
Pesto Genovese was up next. This sauce originates from Genoa, in the Liguria region of northern Italy. It is easy to make and a great crowd-pleaser. A bunch of fresh basil, pine nuts, parmigiano reggiano cheese, and lots of
crushed garlic come together in a food processor for a burst of pure summer. Tonight was no exception, and the room smelled incredible. We made three batches of pesto, wrapped it with plastic and kept it out on the counter so it would be at room temperature when ready to serve.
It was time now for the Easy Tomato Sauce. I haven’t used sauce from a jar since Tony taught me this recipe eighteen years ago. And I couldn’t even boil water back then, so that’s saying something for how easy this sauce really is. Tomatoes, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. That’s it. Once you have this basic sauce down, you can go anywhere – Arrabbiata, Basilico, Marinara – the sky’s the limit.
We let the sauce simmer away on the stove, which is set into a beautiful tiled alcove behind the island. (I absolutely loved this feature of the kitchen!) By now, the aromas filling the kitchen were amazing, and the party was reaching its crescendo. This was it: It was time to roll out the pasta dough, and this group was ready.
Before we began, Tony pulled out some photos he’d taken in Sicily when we were there in 2003. For inspiration, he showed everyone pictures of his Aunt Pinuccia and his mother Marianna, making fresh pasta for a feast of 20 guests. Once finished, Aunt Pinuccia ladled all the pasta into a large wooden trough for serving. I remember this feast, and that trough, because it was one of the best food moments of my life. These pictures served to authenticate the task at hand, and no one wanted to let these women down.
The air was electric, and the next 30 minutes flew by in a flurry of activity and flour. Again, everyone worked in pairs to make the pasta – first, rolling out the dough, then laying out the pieces on a sheet pan separated by wax paper until all the dough balls were done.
Tony set up two stations with manual pasta makers and one station with a Kitchen Aid mixer that was fitted with a pasta attachment. There was also a wooden clothes rack on which to hang the pasta. Hands were flying up and down as they held the dough on its way through the machines, and then rushed to catch it as it came out as perfect fettucine. The wooden rack was filling quickly with beautiful, fresh pasta.
This group, some having started out the evening as strangers, were now our friends, and it was a delight to watch them master this Italian tradition. With the pasta drying on the rack, these industrious people set to work putting the kitchen back in order as quick as elves. Soon, everyone had a glass of wine in hand and began to relax, soaking in the success of the past few hours as we waited for the water to boil.
The dining room table was set and ready, and looked just lovely. The tomato sauce was done, and before long the water was boiling. Just a few minutes to go and soon the feast could begin.
Tony reminded the group of his favorite cooking mantra: “Bring the pasta to the sauce.” Oftentimes, people place the pasta on a plate, pour the sauce over it, and then sit down to eat, only to find that the pasta has lost its heat. By “bringing the pasta to the sauce,” you toss the pasta in the sauce first, before plating. This ensures that each piece is coated with sauce, and also helps the pasta retain its heat throughout the meal.
The pasta was plated, and everyone sat down in the McCormick’s formal dining room – complete with gorgeous wood paneling and intricate details you just can’t find in new homes.
We feasted on Fettucine with Tomato Sauce and Pesto Genovese, paired with two great Italian red wines: Catena Zacagnini Montepulciano and Valpolicella. It was so nice to be able to sit down and get to know our new friends even better. I sat next to Tom Hanson, who happens to be the CEO of the La Rinascente Pasta company in Hope, ND. Tom was just delightful – so easy to talk to, and he welcomed us to come out to Hope for a tour during our summer adventures. We will definitely add it to our itinerary.
The pasta was delicious. Fresh pasta is different from the kind we buy in grocery stores. It cooks more quickly, and has better flavor and texture than you’ll find in a box. But when you enjoy it in a roomful of friends, it’s even better.
We finished the evening by making Grand Marnier Zabaglione for dessert. This is a heavenly, frothy custard dessert, that is served warm over fresh berries.
Joy had beautiful red dessert goblets to use for serving, and they showcased the Zabaglione beautifully. The only downside to this dessert is that you have to whisk the egg yolks for about ten minutes in order to get the right consistency. There is no short-cut to this, I’m sorry to say, but I can tell you that no one minded the extra effort. The result is so worth it. Tony paired the Zabaglione with a taste of Limoncello, and the night was declared a success.
I left soon after dessert to get home to Giovanni. By now it was almost 11:30 p.m. Our new friends were glowing when I said my good-byes, and so was I – it was quite an evening. I felt blessed to be there, and so happy that my son had Mrs. Eppler as his teacher during such a formative year in his life.
There is so much more that I could write – but I promised Joy that what happens in the McCormick home stays in the McCormick home. And I want to be invited to hang out with these new friends again, so I’m keeping that promise.
Side note: Many thanks to Jean and Cray Eppler for bringing me a disk on Tuesday with all their photos from the party. I have added many of them to the blog, and appreciate their artistic quality. Between the three of us, we had a great amount of pictures, so I’ve created a Photo Gallery where you can go to see more of this fabulous evening.
I will also be posting the featured recipes from the party on the blog sometime soon, but several are already available on our website at www.sarellos.com.