This past summer I was fortunate to be one of 29 students taken by the SRU English Department to study abroad in Italy where we walked through the ancient Roman ruins, read the literature of Dante Alighieri and, of course, ate some of the freshest, most delicious food one can ever dream of.
On a particular day in Florence, we had a cooking demo and lecture in our apartment from Chef Marcello of Bologna and one of his good friends. Bologna is the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region, also known as the heart of Northern Italian food. The Emilia-Romagna region is known for its parmigiano-reggiano, prosciutto, balsamic vinegar, and, of course, Chef Marcello’s restaurants.
Chef Marcello was exactly what I had pictured in my mind as an Italian chef – white hat and apron, checkered pants like a chess-board, steady hands, eyes in the back of his head and a guiding voice. He described the pace of cooking like a steady drum rhythm and the serving period like a drum and a bass. “Boom-ba-da-boom-boom, Boom-ba-da-boom-boom,” he sang.
“The most useful tool in the kitchen is your hands,” he said, “just remember to wash them.” And that we did, helping Chef Marcello to pinch the edges of homemade ravioli and tortelloni, and bake rosemary focaccia bread.
Chef Marcello taught us about standard sauces in cuisine, including the French béchamel sauce, or besciamella in Italian, which I have included a recipe for below. The sauce is a classic because it is based off of three simple ingredients: butter, flour and milk. But the real signature is in the seasoning. I don’t think I’ve ever had nutmeg in anything other than a pie before. In a pasta sauce? I was skeptical. But this spice entirely changes the sauce. Nutmeg is not one of those ingredients that can stand on its own. Take eggs, for example. I can eat eggs without anything added to them and they taste delicious. Nutmeg does not taste nor smell good by itself, but mixes well with other flavors.
While besciamella sauce may *slightly* resemble alfredo sauce, it’s not. This is one of those instances where you can’t mix up your pocket-dictionary translations or pop culture references like Ratatouille (French not Italian) and Pizza Rat (undoubtedly American. In Italy, pepperocini will get you red chilis, peperoni will get you bell peppers, and salame picante will get you spicy cured sausage – the closest to American pepperoni slices. Or, after practicing the pronunciations in your head for five minutes, cave and say “I’ll have the margherita pizza, per favore.”
Béchamel (Besciamella) Sauce
5 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons flour
4 cups milk
2 teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1. In a sauce pan, heat butter over medium-low heat until melted.
2. Stir in flour until smooth and golden in color, about 6-7 seven minutes.
3. Meanwhile, heat milk in a separate pan until it is just about to boil.
4. Add the milk to the flour mixture 1 cup at a time, whisking vigorously until smooth and all of the milk is added. Cook for about 10 minutes.
5. Remove from heat and season with salt and nutmeg.
6. Serve over pasta of choice or use as the sauce in your lasagna.