In January I turned 30 and my family and friends spoiled me like you wouldn’t believe. My amazing brother and his girlfriend bought me a gift voucher for Sydney Seafood School. I was absolutely blown away by their generosity and as you can imagine I was completely stoked to be heading back to SSS after our previous class with David Thompson. This time around I chose a class with an expert on Sardinian food, Giovanni Pilu.
When I travelled through Italy I visited Florence, Rome, Naples and Venice. I even made it all the way down to Gioia Tauro at the southern end of Italy. I didn’t quite make it to Sicily and didn’t come close to Sardinia. Though no matter where I travelled I adore every region of Italy – the people, the culture, the food. The north is so very different from the south. Each province has its own culture, dialect and cuisine. But what they all have in common is their love of great produce that’s not messed with too much.
Sardinia is the second largest island in the Mediterranean Sea where much of their traditional diet is made up of bread, meat, seafood, cheese, fruit, vegetables and wine. And let’s not forget suckling pig. Meal time is family time where food is shared amongst stories and laughter.
Giovanni was born in Sardinia and moved to Australia in 1992. Following the success of his first Australian restaurant, Cala Luna, Giovanni opened Pilu at Freshwater in 2005. The restaurant is housed within a heritage-listed weatherboard beach house overlooking Freshwater Beach on the northern beaches of Sydney. It has been awarded two chef’s hats every year since opening when it also took out ‘Best New Restaurant’ in the SMH Good Food Guide 2006.
Today Giovanni will be demonstrating three dishes which we will then cook: barbecue octopus salad, pasta with eel & squid and seafood soup. Giovanni works quickly and methodically, getting the pasta for the eel dish underway first as it has to rest before being rolled. Next he cleans the octopus and gets the marinade happening, tomatoes are popped in to the oven, the squid, eel and beans are prepared for the pasta and then before we know it Giovanni is ready to roll the pasta.
Spoken like a true Italian Giovanni believes “Sardinian cooking should involve simple ingredients, prepared with minimum fuss, allowing the full flavour of the ingredients to speak for themselves.” He chats away while cooking, rolling the pasta to the fourth setting, cutting it and setting it aside.
Still moving at an incredible pace he’s on to the fish soup, pasta sauce, then the pasta is on, octopus hits the bbq, the pasta dish is mixed through and a final dressing is made for the salad. In an hour and three quarters Giovanni has whipped up three delicious smelling dishes, all the while chatting to the class and not seeming to have to think about what he was doing.
By this stage it’s 12:45pm and the demonstration is over. We have 2 hours and 15 minutes to replicate the dishes we’ve just seen Giovanni make and then of course sit down, relax and enjoy the meal we’ve prepared. We quickly form groups of 6 and find a bench to work at. The SSS staff run through a few safety instructions and general information about the kitchen before we get started. Our group consists of three couples so it’s easy to divide and conquer with each couple preparing one dish.
BBQ octopus with oven roasted tomatoes, olives and rocket.
Giovanni’s tip for octopus (or any seafood) is not to overcook it. Overcooking octopus will make it tough and rubbery. It needs to be cooked at a high heat very quickly or at a low heat very slowly. Dylan isn’t a huge fan of octopus but I am and this salad was the perfect thing for it.
Baby octopus are marinaded for a few hours (or overnight if possible). Tomatoes are roasted in the oven with a little olive oil, garlic, black pepper and sugar. Beans are blanched, octopus barbecued and a dressing made. The dish is essentially done – just toss rocket, beans, olives, tomatoes, octopus and salad dressing. Voila.
Roasted tomatoes are simple yet rich and delicious. We often add roasted tomatoes to salads with peppery rocket and a squeeze of lemon. But it was the blanched green beans and tender baby octopus that made this dish and I’ve got to say our team’s rendition wasn’t far off Giovanni’s.
Tonnarelli with smoked eel and squid.
Giovanni’s key advice with pasta is not to use 50 million ingredients. He warns against covering the flavour of the pasta – which is 50% of the dish. Tonnarelli pasta is square-cut spaghetti; thicker than many other types of pasta which makes it perfect for the boldness of smoked eel.
How do you prepare eel? Giovanni recommends buying it smoked then you simply cut its head off and peel the skin off – a job he suggests is great for friends 😉 Once the skin has been removed it’s just a matter of making an incision in the back and running the knife along the spine to remove the bones from the eel. A final check for any bones and it’s ready to go. I’m not convinced it would be as easy as Giovanni made it look but the couple in our group who prepared this dish didn’t have too much trouble.
Once the eel is prepared, squid is sliced into thin strips and pan fried for a few minutes. Garlic and chilli are added and cooked for a minute before the eel and stock are added to the pan, brought to the boil and reduced to a simmer for five minutes. Fresh pasta is cooked in a matter of moments and added to the fry pan along with some of the pasta cooking water until the right consistency is reached. Butter is tossed through until the dish reaches a creamy smoothness. A sprinkling of chives finishes it all off.
Sardinian fish soup.
I don’t cook much seafood at home (let’s face it, I don’t cook much at all) and so Dylan and I put our hands up to prepare the fish soup. Fish stock and Sardinian flat bread were already prepared for us, so our main task was to clean and prepare the seafood components of the soup. We set to work cleaning and halving baby octopus, cleaning and slicing calamari, peeling and deveining green prawns, and debearding blue mussels. I’m also entrusted with the scorpionfish.
I’d never even heard of scorpianfish before the class so I had no idea what to do with it. But that’s the beauty of cooking classes, we have Giovanni and the rest of the SSS team on hand to help. The fish was already gutted and scaled so to be honest there wasn’t a huge amount of work to do. I was instructed to cut the gills off using kitchen scissors and clean the inside of the fish using paper towel.
Once our seafood is prepared the fish soup is really easy to make – we cook the onion, garlic, chilli and oregano. Add the fish, add octopus, calamari and prawns, add vongole, mussels, scallops, saffron and wine. Add tomato passata and fish stock. Once the mussels and vongole open our fish soup is ready. A handful of fresh basil on top and we were good to go.
The tomato base and piles of seafood make this both hearty and light at the same time. It’s rich, it’s vibrant, it’s full of goodness. We all love the Sardinian flat bread which adds some crunch and the touch of saffron is just right.
Once our three dishes are made we make our way to the SSS dining room. I can’t help but smile as I see the fishnet-light bulb features once again. The room is warm and welcoming. We take our seats and ‘Cheers’ our group effort. Then we tuck in to the beautiful food and fill our bellies while we chat about where we’re from, what we do and how we ended up at SSS (it turns out we were all here to celebrate birthdays).
The class with Giovanni was quite different from the David Thompson one but both were great classes in their own ways. The class with David was more in-depth and technical, the demonstration portion of the class went for a much longer time. Giovanni’s class on the other hand was much more laid back and very much about stripping away the complexity of home cooking. I learnt tips and tricks in both classes and can’t wait to get back to SSS for more. The question is, what’s next?
Sydney Seafood School
Sydney Fish Market
Pyrmont NSW 2009
(02) 9004 1111
Sydney Seafood School Website