Eataly, an Italian food paradise, lies just a short train ride away in downtown Chicago. Rows pasta in never-before-seen shapes line the shelves, bottles of olive oil surround a real olive tree, and everything else you need to create an excellent meal await your exploration.
And, in case you need inspiration, you can take a class at La Scoula, Eataly's cooking school taught by its chefs and other experts. Topics for home cooks include making fresh mozzarella cheese and Italian Sunday supper classics.
I was lucky enough to take a class taught by the dean of La Scoula, Lidia Bastianich. Lidia is one of Eataly's founders as well as an Emmy award-winning television host, best-selling cookbook author and restaurateur. Sure there may have been 30 people in the class, but it felt like it was just the two of us sitting in her kitchen chatting and having lunch.
Lidia (she asked us to call her by her first name) worked her way through the multicourse menu -- Cooked and Raw Salad, Risotto with Pear, Black Pepper and Grana Padano, Steamed Swordfish Bagnara-Style, Zucchini with Anchovies and Capers, and Zabaglione and Italian cookies -- demonstrating each dish before serving it to the class and pairing each with a different wine. The food was tasty, but the best part of our time together was listening to her stories and tips.
Besides being an internationally recognized expert in Italian cooking, she is also a mother and grandmother, and her favorite people to cook for are her family. She shared memories of cooking and gardening with her grandmother and how she continues those traditions with her own grandchildren.
She believes children will eat, or at least be tempted to try, food they grow and help to prepare, so she encourages them to join her in the kitchen at a young age to wash vegetables and stir risotto. Lidia laughed as she shared her grandchildren's most frequently requested meal is simple pasta with tomato and basil, in spite of her vast repertoire of recipes.
"Use your hands" and "taste as you cook" were tips frequently emphasized as she prepared our lunch, using her hands to combine delicate greens with other salad ingredients in order to not bruise the leaves.
She also believes during the course of our lives we each develop a reference library of flavors, scents and textures based on our experiences. I hadn't really looked at it that way before, but I too have a library: the smell of bread baking in my grandmother's kitchen ... the chewy texture of my mother's homemade noodles ... the flavor of asparagus roasted over an open fire ...
Without realizing, we reach into our "library" every time we look at a recipe and decide if we think we will like the finished product. Lidia believes this is why it is important to have as many "volumes" in our library as possible, so she encourages us to try new foods as often as possible.
Prior to my afternoon with Lidia I had never thought about including pears in risotto, or adding celery during the last part of cooking in order to add a little crunch to the otherwise creamy dish, but I will employ these techniques when I make risotto in the future. She even went as far as saying you can make risotto with water if you don't have stock, but to then be sure to add extra herbs and other sources of flavor -- or -- throw a couple carrots, an onion, and whatever other vegetables you have in your veggie drawer into a pot with some water for an hour or so, to make your own quick stock.
My class at Eataly was enriching in many ways, as I feel like I have a new friend in Lidia, even though it's likely she won't remember me. Still, I will never forget her stories and insights into her life as a self-taught cook.
Before leaving, I shared with her the "Culinary Adventures" theme of my column and asked if she had any advice and she quickly responded "Try new food every time you travel and don't be bound to a recipe!"
That's advice I will happily follow and I encourage you to as well.
• Penny Kazmier, a wife and mother of four from South Barrington, won the Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge in 2011. Write to her at email@example.com.