On Friday I was treated to a rather fabulous day out as part of a girly weekend with my pal Rosemary. We were to learn some classic Italian cooking at the famous Nick Nairn Cook School set in the beautiful Stirlingshire countryside on the banks of the Lake Of Menteith.
Opened in April 2000 this cook school has won numerous awards for its high standards and culinary prowess. Started by it’s namesake Nick Nairn who, as a self taught chef proves that talent and determination will always win out – his career as a top chef/restaurateur, two excellent BBC television series and of course mouth watering cook books is testament to that.
This is a school that stands firmly on a basis of using simple top quality ingredients and learning how to make the most of them. There are no pretentious practices, no pushing of expensive unseasonal ingredients. This is all about real cooking using what is available in the real world and that means in your own area, not what happens to be on hand somewhere 3000 miles away, picked in an unripened state, chilled and shipped over at vast expense to both the pocket and the planet’s resources.
Teaching is an art form in it’s own right. Being able to impart knowledge in a way that both educates and entertains, thus holding the recipients attention long enough to digest and actually learn something, is a real skill.
Remember how the subjects you excelled at in school just happened to be the ones where the teacher was passionate and really involved you in the subject. Teaching children is hard enough, but at least they tend to be a captive audience. Paying adults can walk away at any time, so attention must be harnessed and the passion principal brought into play in full force.
Our teacher for the day was Tristan Campbell who ticked all the boxes for knowledge, skill, humour and entertainment. He took us through the basics of each and every step of the cooking process, explaining the whys and wherefores and throwing in snippets of information that had us scribbling madly on our recipe packs, desperate to remember all these extra treasures that could so easily slip the mind when so much was happening to assault the senses on all levels.
The school is beautifully set out with a large demo area at the front with angled mirrors above to allow viewing of every process. The work stations ring the peramiter of the vast room and there is another row down the centre. Each equiped with gas and electric cookers, drawers crammed with the perfect assortment of tools, pots and pans and the surface laid out with knives, chopping boards and a beautifully laid out “mise en place” tray containing our ingredients all measured out and ready for action.
Using the finest quality ingredients means you will get the best results. Using full fat cream and mascarpone means you will get the best flavour. It’s always better to use full fat and eat to create the best possible dish and then just eat less of it. Making something with low fat ingredients just throws in more sugar and weird synthetic ingredients that are there to replace the fat.
We went on to make our tomato sauce for the main dish of the day which was meatballs made with three different types of meat, pork, beef and gammon. This really brought some interesting flavours and textures into the mix and will definitely be something I shall add to my cooking repertoire.
Once out sauce and meatballs were bubbling away we had a break for a light snack of bruschetta with tomato, basil and parma ham provided by the hard working chefs in the kitchen.
Then it was on to making our own starters of Gnocchi Piedmontaise with rocket and walnut pesto. I have never been a fan of gnocchi having never sampled the good stuff, just those nasty rubbery pellets that come from the super market and had never even thought of making it myself.
This gnocchi was a revelation and right here and now I shall share this recipe courtesy of the Nick Nairn Cookery School.
- 150g/5 oz warm potato mash
- 1 egg yolk
- 15g/1/2 oz unsalted butter
- 55g/2¼ oz plain (all purpose) flour
- malden salt and freshly ground black pepper
- fresh nutmeg grated
- 50g/2oz fresh rocket
- 1 clove garlic
- 30g/1¼ oz crushed walnuts
- zest of lemon
- 30g/1¼ oz grated parmesan
- 120ml/4 fl oz olive oil
- If the mash has been made in advance you will need to warm it up a bit in a saucepan, do not overheat. Add the butter and stir till melted in, add seasoning and nutmeg and egg yolk and mix again.
- Finally fold in the flour, do nott overwork as that is what causes those horrid bullet type gnocchi!
- Split the dough into 3 parts and roll into long sausage shapes on a lightly floured surface.
- Cut into 1" pieces, roll into balls and then squish slightly on the pronged end of a fork to give nice ridges for the pesto to cling to.
- Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and drop in the gnocchi. When they float to the top leave for just 1.5 mins before removing with a slotted spoon and allowing to dry on kitchen paper.
- Heat a frying pan with a dash of olive oil and butter and gently fry the gnocchi till golden brown both sides.
- Drain on kitchen paper.
- Blitz all ingredients in food processor and be thrilled by the gorgeous vibrant green colour and zingy taste!
- Serve the gnocchi on a pool of pesto and garnish with some extra rocket leaves that have been lightly tossed in lemon juice and olive oil.
- Add some shavings of fresh parmasan and enjoy!
In the afternoon we enjoyed our Gnocchi with some beautiful homemade bread and a few glasses of wine before finishing off our main dish of pasta and meatballs.
It was pasta time and Tristan did sterling work with just two simple ingredients 200g/7 oz plain flour and 2 eggs. I soon realised where I had slipped up on my own pasta making at home where I haven’t kneaded the dough enough by passing it through the pasta machine again and again at the widest setting. This really is a case of taking your time, slowing down and giving everything the care and attention it truly deserves.
Our wonderful day ends at about 5pm after eating our way through all the fabulous food that we have cooked ourselves. We have all learned something, not just about these recipes but so many other valuable kitchen skills too, we have mixed with other foodie enthusiasts from all over the country and enjoyed good wine, food, chat and entertainment.
Definitely a great day out and one for the diary. Huge thanks to Rosemary for taking me along for the treat and big thanks to the Nick Nairn Cookery School for giving such great courses. If you can’t get over here to sunny Scotland to be part of all this then take a look at Nick’s book ‘Nick Nairn Cook School’ and you will be enthralled.