It feels frivolous to be working on my food blog at a time like this. Many parts of the city I have called home for the past nineteen years are still under water, and the areas that have drained have been left in ruins–mostly people’s homes, but also businesses, parks, grocery stores, and schools. I have felt both relief and guilt about living in a suburban development that came out of the storm unscathed while others are facing the physical, emotional, and financial toll of having been flooded out of their homes. While my routine was interrupted only by a short week, other people will not be able to return to their routines for weeks or months, maybe a year or more. So while I return to a routine here on my blog after an almost two month-long absence, I’ll be doing what I can to help others get back to their own routines so that they too can feel a sense of normalcy again. There is no shortage of ways to help in Houston right now, and since my talents revolve around cooking, I plan on helping to feed people, and getting food to those who need it. If you are looking for a way to help, you can read a post I wrote about relief efforts here. In the meantime, since I’m beyond overdue on writing The Side Dish, I thought I’d do some catching up to tell you what I’ve been up to these past couple of months.
I wish I could say that the reason I haven’t blogged in almost two months is because I went on a relaxing vacation somewhere far away, but it’s nothing as dreamy as that. In fact, it was just the opposite. Peter and I spent most of July sick, and my recovery was long and slow. Needless to say, recipe research and cooking was something I did not even want to think about. Despite most of July being a bust, this summer has been both busy and memorable. My poor blog ended up taking a back seat, but it feels great to be back to cooking and recipe research.
Back in January, Peter and I became members of Houston’s Italian Cultural and Community Center, where I also signed up to be a volunteer. Shortly after joining, I got an email from the Programs and Events Director, Erika, asking me to come in to discuss where I could help out. Erika and I hit it off instantly–she is from the Veneto region and I was thrilled to be able to speak Italian with her since I rarely speak it outside of Italy. When I told Erika that I write a food blog, she asked me if I would be interested in helping her create a new cooking class series for the center and teaching each class. Of course, I immediately said yes! Erika and I quickly discovered that we work incredibly well together and have a lot of fun alongside Kathryn, the center’s talented Marketing and Communications Coordinator. Erika liked my idea of naming the cooking class series “Cucina Conversations” (just like the monthly feature here on my blog) because we wanted the students to enjoy learning new recipes while getting to know each other and sharing their own stories of food, cooking, and Italian culture. To introduce me and advertise the cooking class series, I was interviewed and featured in the May-June edition of the center’s newsletter, La Voce Italiana. From there, my cooking classes were advertised on the center’s website, Facebook page, Instagram, and Twitter accounts. Flyers for my classes were also designed and on hand at the center for visitors to take. Kathryn, the center’s newest employee, managed all the social media for each of my classes. She tweeted, posted on Facebook, and captured fun Instagram Stories and pictures during each class. I sincerely could not have pulled off my cooking classes without Erika and Kathryn’s help and talent, and I’m thrilled to call them my friends.
We decided to design my cooking classes around a central theme, the same way my Cucina Conversations monthly blog posts are structured. This way, students learned about specific recipes and the key ingredients used to make them. The themes of my classes were “Dinner in Rome”, “Italian Street Food”, and “Cicchetti in Venezia”. Every class sold out and was a huge hit with the students. I’m still pinching myself! Before each class began, we welcomed the students into the center’s parlour where we set out trays of traditional antipasti and a signature aperitivo, with my husband Peter as bartender. Peter also helped me with setting up, washed dishes, loaded and unloaded the car, and made sure the students had what they needed at every turn. He wins Husband of the Year!
Every cooking class was hands-on so the students could help prep the meal and learn cooking techniques. I demonstrated at my table first and then walked around the kitchen and helped field any questions from the students. This was a fun aspect of every class because it gave me the chance to talk one-on-one or in small groups with the students. I got so many great questions and it was wonderful to see everyone’s curiosity and enthusiasm for learning new recipes. When it came time for me to man the stove, the students waiting their turn to cook their food socialized, ate more antipasti, drank more aperitivi, and took selfies and pictures of each other cooking. I had fun watching them have fun! At the end of each class, every student went home with a folder of all the recipes they made in class so they can re-create them at home.
A very special highlight of my “Cicchetti in Venezia” class was seeing my friend and fellow food blogger, Bridget and her husband Mark. Bridget has been such a wonderful cheerleader and I was so touched that she and Mark came!
At the end of July, I was back at the center to teach another cooking class for a fun group of women, some of whom attended my classes in June and wanted a private class with their group of friends from their parish church. I was so touched to have been asked back to teach a private class, and I had a blast with these ladies. Erika and I custom-designed the menu and presented it to the group’s coordinator who loved it from the outset. These ladies were a pleasure to teach; they were welcoming, curious, kind, and enthusiastic. They told me about their Italian heritage, travels, and recipes they love to cook. I could have talked to them all evening. At the end of class, the group gave me, Erika, and Kathryn a heartfelt Thank You and passed out limoncello candies to everyone. It was a sweet way to end a fabulous class in more ways than one.
I’ll be returning to the center in October to work there for the remainder of the year to fill in for an administrative assistant who will be on maternity leave. I’m pretty excited about it because it means I’ll be working together with Erika and Kathryn on more new projects as well as the center’s 39th annual Festa Italiana, which runs October 12th through the 15th on the grounds of Saint Thomas University. You can read more about the festa here. In November, the center and I are collaborating with the World Affairs Council of Greater Houston to teach a cooking class to local middle and high school students. I’ll be teaching them how to make some popular Italian street food recipes while also discussing various aspects of Italian food culture. I had to giggle when I read the description written for the class…I would never describe myself as a “world renowned chef”, but I certainly appreciate the compliment and I’m thrilled to be partnering with a wonderful local organization.
It has been such a pleasure volunteering at the Italian Cultural and Community Center. Teaching cooking classes has been my sogno nel cassetto (“dream in a drawer”) for a while, and I’m grateful to Erika for giving me this opportunity as I begin this incredibly exciting and fun journey.
I’ll be back soon with a new recipe. Until then, a presto!