Well aware of my novice cooking capabilities, my host mom Anna began my very first cooking lesson with the absolute basics: chopping veggies. She told me that chopping is indispensable when it comes to cooking. I still think she wanted to keep me as far away from the stove (or anything potentially explosive) as possible.
At the risk of some judgment from both known and unknown readers of this blog, I have never actually cooked a legitimate meal for myself. Have I prepared a sandwich? Yes. Microwaved leftovers? Check. Made eggs in the morning? That’s actually my specialty. But I can honestly say that I have never successfully chopped a tomato, boiled a pot of pasta or peeled a carrot. Luckily, all you really need to change that fact is a good attitude and an even better teacher.
Anna had mentioned previously that she first learned to cook as a little girl helping out her mom by feeding her siblings and it’s been one of her favorite hobbies ever since. She cooks dinner for the two of us three nights a week and, honestly, it’s the best I eat all week. Perhaps the best thing about Anna’s cooking, and Italian cooking in general, is that a lot of it is so easy to prepare, requiring only a few key ingredients, which also makes it healthy. I figured that at twenty-one years old it was about time to learn how to keep myself alive without the help of any tv dinners or fast food chains. Luckily, Anna graciously agreed to teach me whenever we both had a chance to be together in the kitchen.
Our first lesson was on a Thursday morning. I had just barely wiped the dazed and sleepy look off my face when Anna handed me the small table knife and a stalk of celery and said “first, you’re going to learn how to cut vegetables properly.” I immediately told her how much I appreciated that she assumed I didn’t even know how to hold a knife, because I didn’t.
She started chopping, her movements quick and precise, and after finishing the stalk within a few seconds handed me the knife. I was much less dexterous. I fumbled with the knife in both hands, wondering if I was right handed or left handed when it came to cooking, struggling to cut equal chunks of celery, onion and carrot. After some tough love from the head chef and constant hand adjustments to get just the right slicing angle, the veggies were ready to fry.
Before I tell you what happens next I’d like to reiterate that this is in fact the first time I’ve had to actually cook something over a hot stove. I burnt our freshly chopped vegetables.
“Well it’s alright, I can just chop some more up really quickly.”
“NO LET ME CHOP THEM AGAIN!”
Out of pride and need of practice, I refused to let Anna work more for a mistake I made. Needless to say, I was much quicker the second time. Feeling much more confident in my handiness with cutting utensils, I made extra sure that nothing happened to our second batch of finely cut bits of vegetables. She added the tomato sauce to the pot and our sauce was finally ready to cook.
While that was warming up, Anna then pulled out a batch of very thinly sliced pieces of chicken breast and asked me to start separating them into small pieces. I pondered for a second whether or not we were making milanese, but actually we were making involtini, another delicious and simple dish. This time, Anna told me what to do, showed me once, and then I was on my own. While she tended to the tomato sauce, I began the process: one sun-dried tomato, a couple of pine nuts, and some thyme all wrapped up in a little chicken blanket and secured by two toothpicks. I think I enjoyed making these so much because it felt more like an assembly line and less like something I could easily ruin. If you’ve never made involtini before, believe it! It’s that simple! All that was left to do was to pan-fry the mini chicken wraps with some olive oil in the pan and voila! Dinner is served!
That night, I invited one of my best friends here in Rome to be my guinea pig and taste test my first home-cooked Italian dinner. Honestly though, no one was more surprised than me when I first tasted the small but savory involtini. I immediately exclaimed, “I actually made something delicious!” So to all the klutzes in the kitchen, there is hope.