On the first Sunday in July, asphalt burning the bottoms of my shoes, I headed into the windowless, stainless steel, professional kitchen of the Paragon Culinary School for three hours of cooking class. Chef Jason Miller, assistant dean of the school, popped open a chilled bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne and passed glasses around as he described the menu for "Foods of Summer."
Beyond its curriculum for full-time culinary students, Paragon holds dozens of regular classes every year for the general public. Had I chosen to go to a class later in the month, I could have seen Ritz Grill mad scientist/chef Jay Gust talk about his culinary adventures, or learned about "Foods that Bite Back" spicy foods from around the world.
But this class being summer-oriented, mounds of fresh corn, red onions with limp green tops, peaches from Georgia, strawberries, raspberries and blueberries demanded attention from their place on the counter. Miller, who had just returned from his mother's home in north Georgia, reminisced a bit about the value of farmers' markets and cooking locally grown foods at peak season, then dove into preparations for what turned out to be a summertime fantasy of a meal.
One student pitted and de-stemmed a pile of deep red Colorado cherries as another removed the tips and strings from a bright bowl of sugar snap peas.
First course: A simple peach and red onion salad with honey-lemon vinaigrette. Miller jazzed it up with a topping of tobacco onions, so-called for the color that comes from a soak in bright orange hot sauce before breading and dipping in the deep fryer. A crisp Colorado Two Rivers Riesling perfectly complemented the sweetness of the peaches.
As he progressed through the stages of an elaborate and intriguing barbecue sauce (see recipe below), Miller had students prepare the ingredients for his variation on the classic Caprese salad. Alternating slices of fresh tomato, avocado and chewy mozzarella circled a serving platter, then were drizzled with a bright green basil pesto and finished with a simple balsamic reduction (balsamic vinegar simmered for hours until condensed into a thick syrup).
Plates were passed around and glasses refilled as the grilling began.
Two pork tenderloins, carefully shorn of their tough silver membrane, were seasoned with salt, pepper, olive oil and herbs de Provence, then quickly thrown onto a hot grill and seared on all sides. From there, they progressed to a 500-degree oven, where they cooked while Miller grilled long, thin slices of two varieties of summer squash and just-shucked sweet corn. (A tip: If the corn isn't sweet enough, soak it overnight in milk to get the lactins flowing.)
Miller pulverized a slab of flank steak with the sharp tip of a paring knife, then massaged in a quick marinade of chopped green onion tops, leftover balsamic reduction, finely minced garlic, Worcestershire, salt and pepper. Two quick turns on the grill, about three minutes on each side, perfectly charred the outside of the meat, leaving it pink inside.
Sugar snap peas were parboiled and plunged into an ice bath before a quick saut in butter. Berries were washed and trimmed for a divine Savoyan dessert that involved a vigorous beating of a dozen egg yolks, lemon juice, sugar and champagne over direct heat, until the mixture turned pale yellow and thickened into an airy custard. Chilled, it was later turned out into tall glasses over alternating layers of berries.
Were we happy yet? We definitely crossed over into euphoria when the pork tenderloins, rested and juicy, were slathered with the deep mahogany-colored ancho chile sauce, finished briefly in the hot oven, then served. A bright Italian white blend, Maculan 2004 Pino & Toi, was almost as refreshing as the cool rain that had fallen since we entered the building. I'd wager all 10 of us went to bed that night with sweet dreams of summer foods.
Chef Jason's Ancho Chile and Colorado Cherry Barbecue Sauce
2 pkg. ancho chiles (dried, smoked poblanos)
2-3 cups Colorado cherries
1 cups ketchup (Heinz Organic is good)
red onion, finely diced
Fresh ginger, finely diced
Garlic, finely diced
cup prepared yellow mustard
Red chile flakes
Salt and pepper
Ground cloves (optional)
Lightly toast dried chiles over open flame, using tongs. When chiles puff up slightly, remove from heat, cut open and scrape out seeds. Wipe char off skin, place in a bowl and pour enough hot coffee over to cover. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and place in refrigerator to cool. Pit and de-stem two to three cups cherries. (Reconstituted dried cherries can be used.)
When cooled, drain and finely mince anchos to a paste, reserving soaking liquid. Heat a few tablespoons of vegetable oil in a saucepan, saut onions, then add honey to coat and glaze. Throw in two large pinches brown sugar. When the saut takes on a mahogany tinge, add garlic and ancho puree, cherries, ginger and a pinch of salt and pepper to taste. Stir in ketchup and cloves. Add a little of the reserved coffee, bring mixture to a near boil, stirring regularly. Reduce to simmer.
When the sauce has thickened, after about 30 minutes, add dried chile flakes and mustard. Continue to simmer for 15 to 30 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings.
Paragon Culinary School
3125 Sinton Road (just east of I-25 off Fillmore)
See Class Schedule for a summer schedule, and call 578-3740 to make a reservation.