Published on February 1st, 2020 | by The Local Staff0
Homemade Pasta Workshop with Susan Avello!
Motivation is as sparse as the sunlight on this grey, misty Saturday morning. At 9:20, I struggle to get to the west side of town for my pasta class at 10. Susan Avello, the private chef and instructor of Lean Bean Chef, invited me to attend her Parent and Child Handmade Pasta Class. Being childless at an event like this seems like a social faux pas, so I invited my 10 year old niece Savannah, whom I deemed closest to knife holding age (though no knives are used in the class). I don’t know what to expect or wear. The only requirement is closed toe shoes, and I know I can’t wear a white shirt without holding a memorial service for my clothes later. Savannah and I end up matching in our olive green shirts.
Driving across town, Savannah tells me she hasn’t had breakfast, grabbing something quick to prevent hanger from happening. Sonic is right next to The Kitchen, a remodeler venue with a fully functional kitchen for reservation and where the pasta class is held, and we stop for a small snack before the class begins. The irony of stopping by a fast food place before going to a healthy cooking class is palpable. I pull away from Sonic hoping my loud Fiat Abarth isn’t conspicuous and try slipping into The Kitchen parking lot unnoticed.
Walking through the front door, there are two tables set up to seat guests and two kitchen islands made with a cool light grey marble. The smaller island holds the pasta roller attached, and the larger kitchen island is set with balls of fresh pasta dough and tools. Susan welcomes us as we walk through the doors, putting a face to a name after weeks of tag via email. Our small crowd sticks out against the carefully curated interior design. It’s a hodgepodge of outfits: casual shirts and jeans, bright red dresses, hawaiian shirts, or leggings and a galaxy t-shirt. There are parents, grandparents, young children, preteens, teenagers and toddlers. The only solidarity in this group is an interest in pasta and closed toe shoes.
Susan’s passion for flavorful and healthy cooking exudes from her lively presence. Her bright red sundress is paired with a Mickey and Minnie Mouse cherry apron, drawing attention away from the dreary morning, and she moves around the room, chatting with guests as she comes across them. Junior chef Olivia, her grand-niece, wears a matching apron as a badge of her prestige and mainly keeps to herself at the table while everyone else settles in. Susan’s pasta assistant and boyfriend, Terry, hangs around the back of the room but is visible against the grey countertops with his bright blue Mickey Mouse Hawaiian shirt. Susan introduces herself and the other assistants to the class, starting the class exactly at 10.
Six stations across the kitchen island are prepped with instructions, dough, cutters and piping bags. Susan made the dough before class to save time, but students still get to roll out and cut their own ravioli and tortellini. She introduces us to the pasta we’re making, throwing out fun facts about the different types of pasta Italy created and how much pasta Americans eat in a year. Susan acts out each step, treating the imaginary pasta with care. She tells the different ways you can spin such a classic dish. “I made a pumpkin ravioli,” and the chorus of “oooohhhh” drowns out the rest of her sentence.
Passing around at least a gallon of ricotta cheese, we fill our piping bags with the filling. Jaelyn, a teenager in the class, passes on filling the piping bag to her mom, saying, “I don’t trust myself.” Neither do I. While I can independently make at least five dishes, I am not efficient by any means. Most 45 minute meals become an all-day affair with multiple breaks for personal despair and finding the will to continue. I’m glad I have my niece with me, being able to share the responsibility for any disasters, and that she has the chance to make something that is healthy and enjoyable too. Each participant takes turns filling their piping bags or standing in the revolving line for the pasta roller where Terry and Olivia help students coax the pasta through multiple times before returning the long sheets of delicate dough to its person. As we dust our station with flour and fill our pasta, Savannah turns to me and says, “It’s so cool to learn how to make the food instead of just getting it from a can.” That response is why Susan founded the Lean Bean Chef for the Wiregrass area.
While living in Chicago, Susan received a diagnosis that changed her lifestyle. Her body responded negatively to her normal diet, but no one saw that connection until she returned to Dothan. Local chiropractor and kinesiologist Dr. Robert Carnes helped Susan figure out a routine, change her diet and rid her body of toxins. This moment is pivotal in her mission as a personal chef. Given Dothan’s limited (but growing) options for vegan, gluten-free and other dietary restricted eateries, Susan wanted to provide a place where people could have fun, socialize and learn the art of healthy cooking. Just as much as healthy food is important to her, so is supporting local farms. Susan does her best to source her ingredients from local farms with sustainable practices, stressing the importance of being able to say “I’ve been to that farm…I know how animals are being treated.” Through Lean Bean Chef, she offers group cooking classes, private classes, or personal chef services for gatherings, holidays or ill loved ones.
Today’s cooking class lays the foundation for mindful eating for the children and a bonding experience between the kids and parents or guardians. Susan previously showed Olivia how to make the pasta before this class, and she is excited to share her favorite pasta: bowtie. Susan continues to dote on Olivia, calling her a master, while Olivia shows us how to make bowtie pasta, pinching the dough in the middle just right for the perfect piece. After rolling, filling, and folding the pasta, a light lull settles over the room while waiting for the pasta to cook.
We started around 10 and finish close to 12. The flyer says the class takes about 2-3 hours, but the work is worth it. We learned the health properties of making fresh pasta and ways to expand our culinary palette, but the real satisfaction comes from the taste of the final dish. Fresh pasta only takes 3 minutes to cook. It finishes cooking and is served as pasta in brodo–pasta in broth topped with freshly grated parmesan cheese. Four pieces of handcrafted tortellini are served in chicken broth. The pasta is not mushy nor is it undercooked: it’s al dente. Susan says she bought the broth but quickly takes credit once people comment on how flavorful the dish is. The broth has a full-bodied flavor that shows in its golden hue. Despite never liking ricotta cheese, I wish my tortellini had more. Sitting at the table with Jaelyn and her family, her mother Kerri says, “This is surprisingly easy to make.”
Soon after finishing that bowl (and getting seconds), ravioli is served in a sicilian tomato condimento, the Italian phrase used for pasta sauce. Susan’s secret to a tasty tomato sauce is anchovy paste. Maybe I am the only one who doesn’t know that secret, but the anchovy paste elevates my taste buds to another level. Just the right amount of saltiness, the brightness of the tomatoes, and the depth of the anchovy paste melds together in a tomato sauce unlike any other I had before. Tortellini is usually my favorite pasta, yet the ravioli satisfied that yearning for a more cheesy filling and robust flavor of tomatoes. Terry and Susan cook some of the bowtie pasta, but I am full by my second bowl of pasta. Savannah saved room for the bowtie and it becomes her favorite too. The bowtie doubled in size after cooking, taking up most of the bowl.
Soon after enjoying our hard work, members pack up to leave. Each family gets to leave with fresh pasta, ricotta cheese and leftovers if they would like. At the beginning of the day, so much seemed overwhelming. I was worried about making it on time, what to wear, how my novice skills would hold up, but it was all really that easy. We rolled out pasta, filled each piece, and cooked a fresh, healthy meal from scratch in two hours. This might be a longer process than pulling something from a store shelf, but when you are sharing this moment with the right people, it becomes a memorable experience–a moment that could grow people as skilled individuals and grow people closer together too.