Yes, I am back in cooking school. It was a bit of a toss-up as to whether or not I wanted to take the Level Two classes at The New School of Cooking here in Los Angeles. After stressing so heavily over the testing weeks of the Level One classes, I was hesitant. However, after I found out that there is no testing on this level, I decided to go for it. Plus, I convinced my friend Cathy, who went through level one with me, to take it too.

This time around, the classes will last for only three months, as opposed to six. Plus, our new teacher, Carol, has a totally different vibe than May. Don’t get me wrong, I loved May, but Carol is all about being an intuitive cook. This is just my style. She’s going to let us have our heads - to a certain extent. We’ll still get recipes, but we can get creative. Isn’t that what great cooking is all about?The concept for this round of classes is world cuisine. Each week, we’ll concentrate on a different country. We’ll learn about the culture, regions and specialties and then get to cook various examples of them. This week’s country: ITALY!

Who doesn’t love Italian food? Carol began with a map of the country separated into regions. She started with Piedmont and Lombardy and worked her way down to Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany and Umbria, ending at Calabria and Sicily. Each of these areas is known for various produce because of the varying climates and soils.

Piedmont and Lombardy (Milan’s region) and the northern regions are known for their cheeses. This area has fertile soil because of the Alps and the deep lakes made from the run-off. It’s perfect grazing for cows, so the cheeses are creamy and delicious. Carol gave us a tasting of six different kinds of cheeses from the area: cheese with juniper berries and Gorgonzola from Piedmont, Fontina and Tallegio from Lombardy and a Pecorino Tuscano and Ragusano.  

Arborio rice is grown in the Po Valley, so it would make sense that this area is known for its risotto dishes, Osso Buco and crème dishes.  

Liguria, just below Piedmont, is considered the Italian Riviera. Genoa is in this region. The soil is rocky and not as fertile. It’s perfect for herbs, garlic and olive oil. Gee-what can these make?! You got it, pesto! Of course, since Genoa is a port city, they’re also known for their fish. In this area, they use anchovies instead of salt.  

Trentino, next to Lombardy, has more Germanic influences in its food. There are more smoked pork products and dumpling noodles. Fun fact: Jagermeister is made in Trentino. Who knew?

Venice, on the other coast, in Veneto, was where all the spice trade was done, so that area is known for its Middle Eastern influences. They use a lot of turmeric and cumin in their dishes. There are more sweet/spicy combos here (and flooded streets!).

Emilia-Romagna, where Modena, Parma and Bologna are, has more cooking schools than anywhere else in the country. Modena, as I’m sure you know, is where balsamic vinegar is made. Parma is not only famous for ham, but it’s where Parmesan cheese is made. Since Reggio is next to Parma, both areas are allowed to make this cheese. Hence the name “Parmesan-Reggiano.” Makes sense now, doesn’t it? The area is known for rich sauces like Bolognese. They also like their egg pasta, which uses a softer flour.

When one hits Tuscany, things change. This area is the beginning of the “poverty line.” They don’t get a lot of water in the southern area of the country. Tuscany has tons of olive trees, so they make olive oil. And more olive oil.  

Go south to Lazio, where Rome is, and you’ll find sheep’s milk cheeses like Pecorino and Ricotta. They tend to keep to the typical Mediterranean diet of eggplant, peppers, citrus, almonds, garlic and, of course, tomatoes.

Naples, in the region of Campania, is another port city. Their food is the food of most of the “Italian” restaurants in this country. Meatballs are from Naples! There’s great fresh mozzarella from here, as well.

Apulia is the heel of the boot. It’s known for its canned San Marzano tomatoes. These are used for pizza and sauces. If you haven’t tried them, you must. You’ll be amazed at the taste difference! This region also has a Middle Eastern influence. They eat bulgur wheat, garbanzo beans and Orecchiette (ear shaped) pasta.

Last but not least, we come to Sicily. This large island has been invaded by most of the known universe (according to my Sicilian boyfriend, Bobby), and has some amazing food influences. Along with the Middle Eastern influence, they love pine nuts, raisins and making sweet and sour combinations. The waters around the island provide heavier, meaty fish that provide much of the area’s protein.

Carol gave each of us a recipe from a different region. I made Costolette Di Porco con Porcini (Porcini Pork Chops) from the Emilia Romagna region. One interesting point, Carol had me brine the porkchops beforehand for about 20 minutes. Evidently, American pork is much leaner than European pork, so brining it helps to keep it moist. It worked. They were fabulous! Make them and see for yourself.

Costolette Di Porco con Porcini

Serves 4

½ oz dried Porcini mushrooms
2/3 C hot water
3 T Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Four 1” thick pork loin chops
Salt and fresh pepper
¼ onion, minced
1 clove of garlic, thinly sliced lengthwise
¼ C dry white wine
1/3 C chicken stock
½ t fresh lemon juice
1 T unsalted butter, at room temperature


Reconstitute the mushrooms in hot water for 20-30 minutes until softened. Remove them from the soaking liquid and set aside. Strain the liquid through a fine sieve, lined with a paper towel, and reserve 3 T for the pan sauce.

Heat the olive oil in a 12” sauté pan over medium high heat. Take 3-4 minutes to quickly brown the pork chops on both sides, sprinkling them with salt and pepper as you turn.

When the chops are golden brown, lower heat to medium low and cook 8-12 minutes, turn once. Check for doneness at 8 minutes. Be careful not to overcook them or they will dry out. Once they are done, remove to a serving platter.

Spoon off all but about 2 T fat from the pan. Turn the heat to medium high and add the onions and sauté 2 minutes. Add mushrooms and garlic. Stir and sauté one minute. Add the reserved mushroom liquid and boil it down to nothing in about 2 minutes. Then, turn the heat to high, stir in the wine and deglaze the pan. When it has cooked off, stir in the stock and simmer 1 minute. Stir in the lemon juice and cook a few seconds. Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the butter and spoon the sauce over the chops. Serve.