Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Alisa Barry: Nourish and Nurture

One of my favorite food writing jobs is contributing to Rancho La Puerta's blog and app. Every month, I go down to their cooking school, La Cocina Que Canta, and participate in a hands-on class taught by a renowned cooking teacher, restaurateur, or cookbook author.

They've given me permission to put these posts on San Diego Foodstuff, so in the coming months you'll periodically see them. This week focuses on the charming and talented Alisa Barry.

Alisa Barry isn’t your typical Rancho La Puerta cooking instructor. She’ll tell you herself, “My food is not ‘spa food.’ I come from the Julia Child school of cooking, which preaches everything in moderation.”

For Barry, who owns the Atlanta-based specialty-food business Bella Cucina Artful Food, the celebration of food is all important. And, throughout her class at La Cocina Que Canta she urged the 16 participants to savor the process of making their dishes and to taste everything along the way—from the naked ingredients still in the ground to the various components of the dishes as they were being made, to the finished masterpiece.

“It’s important to use all your senses while cooking,” she says. “We’re so lucky to have such beautiful produce grown right here. Enjoy the colors. Smell it. Taste it.”

Indeed, for Barry, the connection she feels to La Cocina Que Canta is similar to her love of Mediterranean cooking. She discovered the possibilities of food during her junior year abroad in Madrid and it was reinforced when she went to Italy. What she has taken away from those experiences is the importance of fresh, local produce, and how “food is as much how we eat as what we eat.”

It’s that philosophy around which Barry created her business in the early 90s—after interning at Chez Panisse, working as head cook at Café Fanny, attending San Francisco’s Tante Marie cooking school, and working at Viansa Winery with the Sebastianis in Sonoma.

“My business is a vehicle for self-expression,” she says. “Everything starts at the table but expands from there.”

Anyone who has taken one of Barry’s hands-on classes appreciates that approach. From the start, she encourages her students to use the recipes as a guide and to feel free to improvise based on their own taste and imagination. I've already done that with a recipe of hers from that day that's now a staple in my repertoire: Wilted Winter Greens Phyllo Rolls. In fact, some of her recipes call for condiments produced by Bella Cucina—a Cranberry Conserve for her Grape + Gorgonzola Schiaciatta, a jar of Pumpkin Pesto for her Roasted Pumpkin + Sage Risotto—but she’s eager to suggest substitutions.

Lunch is on!
Of course, some recipes aren’t appropriate for much tweaking. In a recent class, Barry provided a bonus recipe for how to make fresh ricotta at home—mostly out of enthusiasm for this new discovery she made. As she explained, we could take just three ingredients—milk, cream and lemon juice—and, with care, easily have a cheese that tasted so much better than anything we could find in the market.

That three ingredients could combine to create dramatic flavor and texture is in line with Barry’s approach to creating recipes. Those in her book, La Bella Vita, feature the fruit of the land, prepared simply and designed to highlight the freshness of  ingredients. The 55 food products in the Bella Cucina line are hand made, based on Barry’s recipes and inspired by her travel abroad and by farms around the Atlanta area. “It’s all about the ingredients,” she insists. “When they have that much flavor, I like to keep it as simple as possible.”

Barry is at work on her next cookbook. The working title says it all: Nourish and Nurture. “Food is about feeding the soul as much as the body,” she says. “It’s a way we can slow down and enjoy one another.

How to Make Fresh Ricotta at Home
By Alisa Barry

1 half gallon whole milk (use the best quality milk you can buy)
1 ½ cups cream (see above)
¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

In a large saucepan, heat the milk and cream over medium heat until the temperature reaches 180 degrees. Turn off the heat, add the lemon juice and let sit covered for 15 minutes.

Remove the curds from the liquid with a sieve or small slotted spoon into a bowl layers with cheese cloth. Tie up the ends of the cheese cloth and hang it over the bowl so it can drain any remaining liquid from the curd. Let sit for about 2 hours.

Makes about 4 cups.

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