Friday, July 18, 2008

Spotlight: Amy Riolo

During my production classes, I met some wonderful people. Sheila Savar is one of the people that I've been in touch with since class and she was nice enough to introduce me to Amy Riolo. Amy and I are going to do a show together this fall featuring Egyptian or Arabian Cuisine. Amy was nice enough to share a little bit about her background and passion for cooking.
Tell us about your cooking background.
To be honest, I can't remember a time when I wasn't cooking. I am blessed to have had parents and grandparents in my life who contributed to my culinary capabilities. As a child, I can remember my mother setting me up on the counter and having me "help" with everything from making tomato sauce to rolling meatballs and cookies. My mother likes to cook in large quantities because she comes from a large family. From her I learned to "think big" and not let feeding large crowds intimidate me.

Although my father doesn't cook, he is what we call in Italian a "buon gustaio" or a "foodie". We would watch National Geographic documentaries on far away lands and cultures and my father would always turn to me and say "I wonder what they eat." This must be where I got my fascination and obsession of linking food, cultures, and history together.

My paternal grandfather lived next door to us. In between our two homes were gardens complete with grape vines and a wide variety of produce. Blackberry bushes lined our driveways and a farmer owned land across the street. My grandfather taught me how to grow, pick, and use fresh produce. He was also a cook in the army and was used to having to stretch and substitute ingredients. While we were cooking together, he would always make me substitute ingredients. Even if we had milk and eggs, for example, he would say "What would you do if you didn't have them?" He would force me to use other ingredients which caused me to be versatile and creative in developing new recipes today.

My maternal grandmother learned all of the traditional Calabrian (Southern Italian) celebratory savory and sweet dishes. The weeks leading up to all major holidays included ritual baking with delicious recipes that she inherited from her mother. Those recipes represent tradition, stability, and happy memories. Cooking with my grandmother made me understand the important role that cuisine plays in society.

When I was a teenager my mother went to work and told me that I would be responsible for getting a delicious and nutritious dinner on the table every night after school. At first I was really stressed out by my new duty, but as time went on I realized that since cooking was an activity that I would need to perform on a regular basis, I may as well enjoy it. I found a lot of creativity and challenge in developing menus and making a delicious meal out of the few set ingredients that I had in front of me. I began experimenting with new recipes in cookbooks which led to my cookbook collection and my career as a cookbook writer. My grandmother says I wrote a cookbook with crayons at age 3, but I don't remember it!

After college I lived in Rome with my husband and got a great taste for the Italian way of approaching food. I fell in love with regional Italian cooking and made a vow to treat all culinary cultures with dignity, respect, and admiration the way that the Italians think of their own. I was also able to spend time in my ancestral homeland of Southern Italy where I increased my repertoire.

Next I traveled to Egypt where my husband is from. At first I was scared by the cuisine, because many tour books labeled it as bad. Little by little, however, I began to discover foods that are not only delicious and healthy, but have intriguing histories and rich cultural significance as well. Over the past 12 years I have spent a great deal of time living, working, and traveling in Egypt. My memories, research and recipes led me to write my second cookbook Nile Style: Egyptian Cuisine and Culture which will be out in Spring 2009. In the winter of 2008, I had the opportunity to travel to Saudi Arabia with the Royal Protocol. While there, I got to sample some of the most lavish and extravagant dishes ever in homes, restaurants and palaces. The hospitality which was bestowed on me really impressed me and led me to my first cookbook, Arabian Delights which was released in the fall of 2007.
T op 5 Ways to get a cook book published
1. Know your Audience
2. Have a great marketing platform
3. Write a proper proposal
4. Contact and follow up with publishers
5. Don't give up!!!
Top 5 Places to find you Teaching or Lecturing
1. Sur la Table in Arlington, VA
2. Private groups/Organizations/Universities
3. With mentor Sheilah Kaufman
4. In restaurants
5. Museums and Embassies

Have you ever thought of opening a restaurant?
I think of it every time someone says "You should open a restaurant." Our culture associates food with restaurants, but the day to day business challenges of running a business are not my cup of tea. I would rather work as a Restaurant Consultant, help to solve problems, train chefs, and increase business, take the credit, and leave. It's like being a grandparent. You get to enjoy the fun stuff, but you leave all the hard work to the parents. In this case, the parents are the restaurant owners, managers, and chefs.

Do you have a recipe that you would like to feature?
Yes, I would like to feature my recipe for Sesame Chapati Bread. It's from my Arabian Delights cookbook. You can watch me prepare it, and many other recipes online by clicking:

Sesame Chapati Bread
(Khubz Chabati bi SimSim)
Chapati is the delicious, tender, unleavened bread of Pakistan. A similar bread is prepared in ndia, where it is called naan. Chapati was introduced to the Arabian Peninsula by Pakistani immigrants who moved to the region after the economic boom in the late twentieth century. Now it is an integral part of Arabian cuisine, just as it is in its native homeland. I first experienced sesame chapati at the Jeddah Conference Palace in Saudi Arabia, where it was made in a hot clay oven, called a tandoor. One of the bakers at the palace would prepare chapati daily for the kitchen staff and servers, who were predominately from Pakistan and Bangladesh. Waiters brought baskets of the hot, tender bread studded with sesame seeds to each table. The bread became the highlight of our meals while we were in Jeddah. One day at lunch, we were served regular pita bread and European-style breads that were commercially prepared. We asked for “the special bread” and were told it was available only at dinner. Dinnertime came and the bread was nowhere to be found. We once again inquired about it and were told it was the baker’s day off. We wondered if the baker knew how much we were anticipating his return and that his bread had made such an enormous impression on us. If you’ve never made bread before, don’t hesitate to try this recipe. The soft and buttery dough is a real treat to work with!

2 cups unbleached white bread flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 (0.6-ounce) package fresh yeast*
* Fresh yeast can usually be found near the butter in the dairy case at supermarkets.
5 tablespoons clarified butter (ghee), divided
1 large egg
1/2 cup sesame seeds
Sift flour and salt together in a large bowl. In a small bowl, cream the yeast with 4 tablespoons lukewarm water and let rest for 15 minutes. Add yeast mixture, 1/2 cup lukewarm water, 3 tablespoons clarified butter, and egg to the flour and mix well to combine. Continue mixing until a soft dough forms. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 10 minutes until smooth and elastic. Place in a large bowl that has been lightly greased with clarified butter. Turn dough to coat, and cover with lightly greased plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm, draft-free place for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until doubled in bulk. Preheat the broiler. Lightly grease a sheet of aluminum foil large enough to cover the bottom of the broiler. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and punch down. Divide into four equal pieces and shape into balls. (Dough may be frozen at this point.) Roll the dough out into oval shapes approximately 7 inches long and 4 inches wide. Place two pieces of dough onto aluminum foil. Brush more clarified butter on top of each oval and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Broil for 2 to 3 minutes, or until lightly golden and puffed up. Turn over, brush with butter, and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Continue to broil for another 1 to 2 minutes, or until golden. Repeat with remaining two pieces of dough. Serve warm or cool. Wrap in plastic and then aluminum foil to freeze.
Serves 4.

Tip: Although chapati is traditionally served fresh out of the oven, it also freezes well. Try doubling this recipe and freezing the extra half. Defrost the bread when needed, and reheat under the broiler for 1 minute. You can also freeze the dough, defrost it, and proceed with the rest of the recipe another time.

What are your most exciting challenges right now?
I have many exciting challenges in my work each day. My number one priority is revealing world cultures through cuisine. Currently, I'm working on projects with The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, The Textile Museum in Washington DC, and The Kennedy Center in Washington DC where I am doing just that. I am challenged and inspired by linking the cuisine of the Mediterranean and Middle East with artwork, textiles, and the performing arts.
In my work as a restaurant consultant, I'm assisting restaurant owners and chefs develop story lines and themes for their restaurant menus. I actually wake up at 3:00 in the morning and run to the computer with ideas. I love it!
Anything else that you would like to convey to the readers?
I believe that each one of us has special talents and characteristics which we can contribute to our fields. If you know that something is important and are passionate about it, go for it - even if no one else is doing it. Eventually other people will do it because you are!

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