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This post is written by Jo Ingleby, former head chef of Demuths Restaurant and current tutor at the Vegetarian Cookery School. Jo recently won the Best Mushroom Dish of 2011 in a contest hosted by Carluccio's Restaurant. The prize included a fabulous day cooking Italian delights with Antonio Carluccio himself. Jo generously wrote about her day for the blog and shared some very hunger-inducing pictures of the occasion.

Back in November I was lucky to win the title of “Best Mushroom Dish 2011” for Carluccio’s Restaurant. My dish was Fresh Herb Ravioli filled with Wild Mushrooms and Chestnuts tossed in a Truffle and Tarragon Butter with Truffle Shavings. The prize was to have the dish on the Carluccio’s Restaurant menu and to spend a day cooking with Antonio Carluccio himself. Antonio has always been big hero of mine and top of my list of chefs to meet-his love of vegetables and mushrooms in particular has always meant that his are the recipe books I go to when in need of inspiration. The idea of cooking with the man himself, in his own home kitchen really is the dream prize for me.

The day began with a warm welcome from Antonio and his team. We talked mushrooms and Antonio showed me his huge collection of mushrooms made from everything from felt to wood, even the stools were mushroom shaped! Then the cooking began.

Warm Batavia Salad

First we made a warm salad of batavia, or escarole, which is a bitter leaf similar in taste to chicory but more close to lettuce in appearance. Antonio explained that this dish could be made just as well with chicory, kale or (my favourite) Cavolo Nero. Antonio fried garlic and dried chilli seeds in olive oil (not Extra Virgin which he reserves to use raw). Then he added chopped Batavia nearly filling a big saucepan, along with salted capers which were brought back from Italy and tasted amazing, really crunchy and sharp.

All of this was cooked, with the lid on, with a big splash of Carluccio’s tomato Passata until the Batavia had wilted down.

Quick Polenta

While the Batavia cooked Antonio showed me his own way of making quick Polenta which surprised me. I'm used to mixing it with boiling water, stirring well and relying on cheeses and butter for flavour. Antonio simply mixed the quick cook Polenta with salt, olive oil and hot water and set it to one side for a few minutes. He then heated the tiniest pan imaginable and added a little olive oil. He pressed the polenta into the pan to make a thick cake and cooked it until charred on one side, flipped it over on a plate and cooked the other side. He explained that this would taste like barbecued corn on the cob-and it did! The perfect accompaniment to the delicious flavour of the warm, tomatoey Batavia.

During the day Antonio shared his passion for Italian cookery, his love of all things mushroom and vegetable and his brilliant sense of humour! As well as the Vegetarian Cookery School, I also work at Redcliffe Children’s Centre in central Bristol. I work with the 120 children there, who are all under three, bringing in seasonal vegetables and other ingredients for them to explore. I encourage creativity as well as a love of vegetables, flavours and textures of food. We grow in the allotment, cook by the side of the plot and eat as soon as we pick. Antonio and his team were really interested in this as it's close to how Italian children see food as a crucial part of life and culture. We looked at my photographs of the children at the centre cooking mushrooms on the child height induction hobs, listening to the noises of the mushrooms and tasting raw and cooked vegetables.

Pasta and Porcini

As the competition had been to invent a mushroom dish, we couldn’t let the opportunity to cook mushrooms escape. Antonio showed me his way of having wild mushrooms such as porcini available all year round: he cooks them in lots of butter and garlic and freezes them for use all year round; something I’ll be doing from now on!

The mushrooms were defrosted (in hot water and then the pan) in minutes and cooked along with onions, garlic, olive oil and the secret ingredient of an Italian Porcini stock cube which smelt amazing. In another pan he cooked Bucatini, a thick spaghetti with a hole in the centre, then spooned the pasta into the cooking mushrooms.

The dish was finished with a generous grate of Parmesan-ready in just a few minutes but with the incredible flavour of porcini mushrooms and garlic.

Pizza

Before I knew it my day was nearly over…but there was still time for pizza! We made a really simple sauce of fried garlic, fresh basil, passata and olive oil and spooned this onto proved dough made with “00” grade flour topped with fresh mozzarella and lots of olive oil and salt.

In minutes the pizza was ready, unfortunately so was the taxi back to Paddington and the real world! I left full of ideas, inspiration and food after one of the most enjoyable days of my life; a pleasure to meet a food hero who lived up to and exceeded my expectations. I look forward to Autumn when the dish will go on the Carluccio’s menu and I can eat it with friends and family and a big smile!

Click here to see Jo's winning recipe for Fresh Herb Ravioli filled with Wild Mushrooms and Chestnuts tossed in a Truffle and Tarragon Butter with Truffle Shavings

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