Nicole Finkbiner can't cook. So she's asking Philly’s chefs to teach her.
I don’t know what you call someone who’s the complete opposite of a foodie, but whatever it is, that’s me. My skills in the kitchen haven’t evolved much since college. In fact, I have about five go-to dishes*, none of which include fresh ingredients or take more than 20 minutes to cook. To make matters worse, I grew up in a meat-and-potatoes kinda family, only ever getting to eat adventurously at friends’ houses, and have been plagued by a life-long distaste for veggies.
But as with many 20-somethings, perhaps my biggest barrier to a well-rounded diet is money—or lack thereof. Never wanting to waste a hard-earned dime, I stick to generic brand foods, don’t experiment with ingredients and always choose the least risky item on the menu at restaurants. (I refuse to be one of those assholes who sends their food back.)
However, having just celebrated my 25th birthday, I fear the time has come for me to expand my culinary horizons and start eating like an actual adult. Hence this new recurring feature: Each month I’ll be exploring the art of cooking with one of the city’s great professional chefs, who’ll teach me simple, healthy and inexpensive meals I can make at home. And because I know I’m not the only one out there who has ever settled for a late-night bowl of ramen, replaced a meal with a granola bar or nearly set their kitchen ablaze, I shall be sharing all my newfound tips and tricks with you. (As for you foodies—well, surely you wouldn’t mind picking up a few new recipes, too.)
For my first cooking lesson, I figured I might as well throw myself right into the deep end. Seeing as how I can’t understand a single thing on their menu even with the English translations, South Philly’s Italian restaurant Le Virtu seemed perfect. So I met executive chef Joe Cicala— who has trained in Salerno, Italy and worked in some of the finest kitchens on the East Coast—in the restaurant’s basement, where my official introduction to Abruzzese cuisine came via a row of gutted pig heads. Apparently, Joe is personally in charge of all the butchering; later, he showed me the back room where they cure their meat. All I can say is thank God he waited till after dinner.
In the process of figuring out what to prepare together, Joe had a lot of questions for me.
JOE: So what do you like to eat?
JOE: What kind of pasta do you make at home?
ME: Is that a trick question? The kind that comes in a box.
JOE: Do you want dried pasta or fresh pasta?
ME: Wait, you mean there’s pasta that doesn’t come in a box?
JOE: Do you like zucchini?
ME: Never had it. Is that what that weird green thing in your hand is?
JOE (horrified): Didn’t your mom ever cook?
ME: Yes, but we ate hot dogs for dinner at least once a week.
JOE: How are you ever gonna get a man if you can’t cook?
ME: I don’t know, Joe, I guess I’ll just have to be really good in bed. >>>
Joe decided on pasta con le zucche (translation: pasta with zucchini). Fresh pasta, that is, so he started by showing me how to make the actual noodles, you know, just in case I should ever suddenly decide to hone my inner Julia Child. But I did enjoy watching him dump two cups of flour on the table, form a “well,” then crack three eggs in the center—what a mess!—and help him run the dough through the pasta machine. Should you be the ambitious type, Joe notes that you can get a decent pasta machine for less than $100. Me, I’m just going to look for fresh pasta at the store.
We then got to choppin’. Apparently I’ve never handled a knife correctly before: You tuck your fingers under and guide the blade with your knuckles. Turns out, I can dice, but I have trouble slicing. I did do one thing properly, though: remove the pistils from the zucchini flowers. (You guys: Zucchinis have flowers! Pretty ones, too.)
Wine with Mexican Food? Sí!