Being a member of Eileen Hiss’s ninth grade biology class at Santa Monica High School has definitely got its perks. Take last week’s taste odyssey, hosted by Third Street Promenade’s Locanda del Lago restaurant, that offered a cooking lesson, sauce competition and fine dining experience to seventeen students in an after-school class excursion.
Locanda del Lago and Ms. Hiss have previously partnered to bring Samohi students in contact with the culinary world. As a member of Slow Food International, Locanda del Lago subscribes to the philosophy of preparing and savoring food made the old-fashioned way — from scratch and using fresh, locally grown ingredients. Hiss has pioneered a curriculum at the high school, where she is a biology teacher and an interleague volleyball coach, that encompasses the science of food from seed to table. Students in her class plant vegetable and lettuce seeds that grow in the campus greenhouse and are eventually harvested for use in school lunches. Cooking and sitting down to eat are experiences that too few high school students get to share with either families or friends, so part of Hiss’s class involves preparing a meal and enjoying it in a dining room setting. This was the genesis for field trips to Locanda del Lago.
This year, Lago’s teaching menu consisted of house-made ravioli filled with herbs and cheese topped with a creamy walnut sauce. The dish, an Italian regional specialty called Pansooti in Salsa di Noci, was prepared at the restaurant by students working in three groups. One group made thin ravioli pasta, the second chopped and mixed cheeses and four herbs – oregano, tarragon, marjoram and thyme to make a filling called “preboggian,” and a third group prepared creamy walnut sauce in a blender. Each group switched from station to station, and each group was judged on its walnut sauce.
Competitiveness ran high as Chef Davide sampled the sauces once, then twice, before declaring a winner. One sauce was too garlicky, one was too nutty, and the winner was – just right. All three sauces were combined to pour over the handmade raviolis.
At the herb cheese filling station, students first tasted the individual herbs to identify the flavors of each before mixing them together. Tarragon had a slightly licorice flavor, the marjoram was very pungent and the oregano was intense. Eggs, two kinds of cheese and mild cooked spinach tempered the herbs into a complex, mellow essence.
The pasta making station provided the most drama. Chef Davide showed students how to take a hunk of dough and pass it through a pasta sheeting machine, first making flattened squares then longer and thinner sheets until a paperback-book sized dough ball stretched into a yard-long ribbon of pasta. Students used a rolling cutter to make straight edges on the ribbon then cut it cross ways into squares. Cheese-herb filling was spooned into a pastry bag and squeezed into the center of each pasta square, which had been brushed with an egg and water mixture to help seal the edges. The squares were folded into triangles, pressed, sealed and placed onto cookie sheets while students in the pasta line finished filling their pasta squares. They readily discovered that rectangles were to be rejected since the edges did not meet to make tidy triangles, and improperly sealed raviolis would not be able to contain their contents during the cooking process. Students who had been attempting to fold rectangles into perfect triangles quickly grasped this concept and cut their squares with much more care. The mathematical formula for rectangles and squares augmented the cooking lesson for the day, where careful measuring and planning always resulted in a better final product.
Finally, the preparation and assembly were done and students took their seats at a large dining room table. Davide’s kitchen crew quickly cooked the fresh raviolis and doused them generously with the rich walnut-cream sauce. Students drank iced tea and lemonade from goblets and were wide eyed as Chef Davide and his staff served each one a plate of creamy ravioli. The cheese-herb raviolis, cooked al dente, were a wonderful taste and texture compliment to the mild, nutty cream sauce. Students were delighted with the results of their preparations, and expertly cleared all the sauce from their plates with forks and spoons full of tasty pasta.
With high school schedules being what they are these days, some of the students were due back on campus for swim team practice, but a dozen or so lingered at the table to visit. Ms. Hiss sat with them, and everyone had a chance to savor the food and the restaurant ambiance. As the dinner crowd began to arrive, the biology class packed up, recipes in hand, for the walk back to school. It was almost five o’clock. Wouldn’t it be nice if more afternoons could be spent learning about food, geometry, group cooperation and social skills? Eileen Hiss has a culinary course in mind that could do just that.
Pansooti in Salsa di Noci ( six servings) – From Locanda del Lago
2 lb flour
1?4 c rock salt
1 1?4 lb spinach, cooked & finely chopped
1 cup Ricotta cheese
1?2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1?2 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 cup Preboggion – (finely chopped Marjoram, Oregano, Tarragon, Thyme)
** salt and pepper to taste
1 lb walnuts
1?2 clove garlic
2 slices plain white bread
1 1?2 cup whipping cream
1?2 cup pine nuts
** salt to taste
For the filling:
Cook spinach until wilted, cool, drain, and chop fine
Chop and combine herbs to make Preboggion
Combine herbs, spinach, cheeses, eggs and salt in a mixing bowl
For the pasta dough and ravioli: (a pasta machine is a must for this step).
Pour the flour on the table or in a large bowl and make a hole in the center of the flour.
Put eggs and salt in the hole and knead together.
Once the mixture is combined, knead together into dough and let rest for ten minutes.
Make sheets of pasta dough using pasta machine and following user’s manual.
Beat two eggs with some water and lightly brush the pasta sheets.
Cut sheets into squares, place filling in center, fold and press edges to seal.
For the sauce:
Place walnuts in warm water to soak for five minutes.
Cut bread into cubes, discard crust.
Drain walnuts and place in a blender with garlic, pine nuts, olive oil and salt.
Add half the cream to the mixture and blend. Slowly add more cream until desired consistency is reached.
Add bread cubes and continue to blend.
Steam ravioli till it is al dente. Drain and place on plates, top with sauce and serve.