Any other day, this would be another nondescript Wednesday in Doha: plenty of sunshine, zero percent humidity. But set up a makeshift kitchen on a terrace, decorate the counter with vibrant tomatoes and a wheat bouquet, and you have a peerless setting for an al fresco cooking class.
It’s 11 a.m. at the W Doha. La Spiga, the hotel’s adolescent restaurant by Paper Moon in Milan, is promoting its spanking new outdoor seating with a cooking demonstration.
Within minutes, the Spanish-born, French-trained and Italian-seasoned chef de cuisine steals our hearts. There’s no dithering as Chef Monica dives straight into business, preparing a menu of insalata di spinachi novellie caprino, papardelle and panna cotta. Her main message is the simplicity of Italian cuisine and the ease of preparing healthy, delicious dishes day after day at home.
And I like her practicality. When explaining how to make a balsamic reduction (boil the vinegar down with sugar for 15 minutes) she advises: just use the whole bottle and keep it for future meals — there’s no point making a small portion because it’ll take the same effort. Here, here!
Full of vigour, she begins with a spinach salad with goat cheese and balsamic dressing. It sounds straight-forward enough. Blend goat cheese with balsamic vinegar and balsamic reduction. Pour over spinach and scrunch the leaves lightly with fingers to fully coat them. Slice some sun-dried tomatoes and mushrooms; toss in honey-coated walnuts. Voila. Done and dusted in 10 minuets.
Top tip 1: make sure the leaves are completely dry after washing, so the salad isn’t watery and heavy.
Next, we’re on to the pasta. La Spiga makes its own daily (what respectable Italian restaurant wouldn’t), using semolina. It’s a nice touch, I find, because the course grains of durum wheat add more flavour than the typical bleached, all-purpose flour. Papardelle is basically fatter fettuccine — I can easily live with that. Although some pasta machines have an application that cuts it to size, Chef Monica does this by hand. To get even, one-inch widths, she up rolls the flat sheet so makes one precise cut per strand.
Top tip 2: don’t bother adding olive oil to the water when cooking pasta. All that’s needed is salt. I couldn’t agree myself. I’d learned this in Italy a few years back and now add oil to cooked pasta only after draining to keep them say tangle-free.
For a little sauce, Chef Monica sautés bacon, adds tomato sauce and cream, then tosses in the pasta with butter and parmesan cheese. It’s again done a little under ten minutes ready for devouring. Remember the whole point about practicality? While some chefs shudder at the thought of store-bought sauce, the chef admits that modern cooks don’t always have time. She explains variations of how we can easily make our own but also says the stuff out of the jar is fine. I love this woman.
Finally we come to dessert: panna cotta. Chef Monica proclaims this ethereal pudding to be the easiest dessert one could possible prepare. So simple in fact that all we need is a verbal explanation: boil cream, milk and sugar together. Add gelatin and vanilla, then chill in moulds. Invert, and serve. Dessert is clearly about variations, so we’re told to experiment with adding espresso or steeping milk with spices.
When it comes to the taste test, I’m shameless. While my fellow classmates take a dainty spoonful of the custard, I gobble big hunks down and use my spoon to polish off the chocolate ganache and berry coulis on the dish. Something about panna cotta speaks to the inner child: it’s comforting and refreshing. And one dainty spoonful ain’t enough.