Sunday, May 05, 2002

Italian twins teach as one

Simili sisters charge lessons with high energy, true Bolognese techniques

        Anyone who doubts twins share a special relationship should watch the Simili sisters teach a cooking class.

        As soon as Margherita begins lecturing on making fresh tortellini, her sister, Valeria, begins, reflexively, dusting a board with flour in preparation for mixing the dough. When Margherita struggles for the right word to describe the texture of the rolled dough, Valeria finishes her sentence without missing a beat: “elastica.”

        The teachers are a tandem inextricably linked by genetic code.

        It's Monday night at the Cooking School at Jungle Jim's Market in Fairfield, and the 66-year-old Simili sisters are demonstrating the hearty dishes of their home, Bologna, Italy — tortellini en brodo (stuffed tortellin in chicken broth) baked artichokes stuffed with truffle-flavored ricotta, and roasted veal.

        Cooking school director Carol Tabone discovered the sisters, who have been featured in The New York Times and Saveur magazine, on a trip to Italy in 1996.

        Ms. Tabone was thrilled when the sisters agreed to come from a guest appearance at a Cleveland cooking school to teach at Jungle Jim's, and surprised to learn they would be arriving by bus. Yes, bus. This is the sisters' fourth visit to the United States, and they always travel by bus.

        “We like to see the country,” Valeria explains.

        Daughters of a Bologna baker, the sisters learned to roll pasta and knead bread as young girls. Italian cookbook author Marcella Hazan met the Similis in the 1970s, and helped them open a cooking school in 1989. The sisters closed their school last year in order to “retire.”

        It certainly wasn't due to a lack of energy. The women never stop. On the day of their Jungle Jim's class, they started cooking at 8:30 a.m. — only after Ms. Tabone talked them out of coming in at 7 a.m. Class didn't begin until 6:30 p.m.

        This inexhaustible energy may explain why the women, who subsist on rich Bolognese sauces, meats, cheeses and always, always fresh pasta, are so unbelieveably thin. In spotless white blouses, each with an elegant short strand of pearls around her neck and wearing houndstooth checks — Margherita in slacks, Valeria in a skirt — the Similis sometimes blur together in the kitchen. They teach as one. But not as equals.

        “Margherita is the teacher, I am her assistant,” says Valeria.

        In Bologna, Valeria allows her sister to do most of the cooking at home. Margherita is older by a matter of minutes, and she has always been in charge. Valeria always has accepted her subservient role.

        Sometimes, Margherita is less than subtle in her management style.

        “While Valeria is beating the egg whites, I will show you how to make the roux,” Margherita says loudly during class.

        This is a chastising cue, because Valeria isn't beating the egg whites. Startled, she grabs a bowl and whisk and dives into a back room. While her sister lectures, the class can barely hear the metallic clang of the beating whisk from behind the door.

        At one point, Margherita acknowledges most people have little difficulty deciding which twin is “good” and which is “evil.”

        Valeria smiles and Margherita is intensely tight-lipped.

        Valeria will patiently show students how to twirl a tortellini around a finger. Margherita has been known to smack teaching assistants' hands for not twisting the stuffed pasta “her way.”

        Valeria cracks eggs with a light, rhythmic tap. Margherita pounds veal with such force she accidently cracks eggs sitting on the counter nearby.

        Once or twice they twitter to each other quietly in Italian. Otherwise, there are no apparent sibling spats. And as the three-hour class ends — while enjoying a delicate Grand Marnier-infused torta made with candied chestnuts, ladyfingers and sweet cream laboriously whipped by Valeria in the back room — students realize they've witnessed something rare. They've learned some of the secrets of Northern Italian cuisine from sisters who love the food almost as much as each other.

        Wednesday, the Simili sisters boarded a bus bound for Maine. They've never been to Maine, but they think it looks beautiful from the American movies they've seen. The twins will stroll the rocky shore and eat lobster. Margherita probably will choose the restaurants, and Valeria will be perfectly comfortable with that.

Sisters' ragu recipe: Now that's Italian!

        Ask the Simili sisters what they think of Italian food in America and Margherita nearly screams. Aieeeeee!

        They refuse to eat Italian restaurant food here.

        “Why do they try to put so many things in it?” Valeria asks.

        Italian food is simple, made from the best, freshest ingredients, the sisters agree.

        If you want to become a better Italian cook, learn to make fresh pasta, Margherita suggests. And serve your pasta with their authentic ragu.

        Ragu alla Bolognese

        1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
        1 small onion, minced
        1 rib celery, minced
        1/2 medium carrot, peeled and minced
        2 to 3 slices prosciutto, finely chopped
        2 chicken livers, finely chopped
        1 1/2 pounds ground chuck
        Salt and black pepper, to taste
        1/2 cup dry white wine
        1 cup hot milk
        1 cup beef broth
        1 28-ounce can pureed plum tomatoes

        Heat oil in large, deep, heavy pot over medium-high heat. Add onion and saute until soft and translucent, 4 to 5 minutes. Add celery and carrot and cook 3 minutes more. Add prosciutto and chicken livers and cook, stirring, until meat is just a little pink. Crumble chuck into pot and season to taste with salt and pepper. Break up chuck, stirring constantly, until meat is just cooked, about 5 minutes more.

        Stir in wine and cook until it evaporates completely, about 3 minutes. Reduce heat to medium and add hot milk, stirring constantly, until milk has evaporated.

        Heat broth and tomatoes together in small saucepan over medium-high heat until hot, then add to meat mixture. Reduce heat to low and gently simmer 2 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally. Adjust seasonings. Makes about 5 cups.

        — Saveur Cooks Authentic Italian (Chronicle; $40)


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