The very first time I ever tried to whip egg whites, the bowl was much too small. My sadistic home-ec teacher hadn't bothered to mention how much egg whites increase in volume when whipped, and got a hearty laugh as we dirtied (and later washed) four bowls before we got one big enough. Better education through humiliation. I don't know if I learned more about baking or bitchiness that day.
These days when I go to a cooking class, I'm in a considerably better mood. First of all, I'm not a confused, hormonal, angst-ridden teen-ager obsessed with the prom. Second of all, I go to the Warehouse, where chef James Africano makes a Sunday afternoon in the kitchen seem like some kind of culinary carnival.
When I went with a group about a month ago, we had a blast. James gave us a quick tour of the kitchen, showed us where to wash our hands, then jumped right into the cooking. He told us if we had questions, we only needed to shout his name and he'd come running. One guy got fish ready for the smoker while another started sauting rice for risotto. (Quick tip: risotto means standing in one place and stirring for a long time.) A couple of women started cleaning herbs, others peeled and chopped vegetables, and a wedge of brie and apples were chopped for a salad. Portabello mushrooms were tossed into the risotto pot, followed by white asparagus, which, we learned, needs to be peeled.
While trying to be inconspicuous, I wound up standing by a nice wide counter. I knew I was in trouble when James slapped down a rack of ribs and said, "This is how you trim them and slice them," wielding a gigantic knife with ease and grace. "Toss 'em in this pan when you're done," he said, and handed me the knife. To my credit, I didn't slice off any fingers or drop the knife on my foot. After the chops were trimmed, I added olive oil, chopped garlic, cracked black pepper and rosemary to the pan, mixed it all together with my hands, and left it to marinate.
Meanwhile, roux was being stirred for the tomato bisque. James instructed the ladies to stir the flour and butter together until it smelled like popcorn. We were incredulous, but laughed when he described the big mess he made out of the first roux he ever attempted. On a back counter, cream was being whipped, and we learned that to make Chantilly cream, you gently fold vanilla into the whipped cream. It won't whip so well if you add the vanilla at the beginning. Who knew? The risotto guy was still stirring, kept company by the guy grilling the lamb chops that were filling the kitchen with a glorious aroma. (You can tell how done grilled meat is by poking it with your finger, not a fork, which means the juices stay inside the meat where they belong.)
Eventually we sat down to an enormous, fabulous feast. The smoked fish was divine, and it was followed by a salad of apples, walnuts and brie. The tomato bisque was smooth and soothing. The lamb chops were succulent, even if I do need to practice my trimming, and the risotto was a lovely accompaniment. The meal ended with fresh strawberries and blackberries with Chantilly cream.
We all took home copies of the recipes (scaled down), plus the leftovers. We got a few new tricks to try in our own kitchens, plus full bellies and a sense of accomplishment.
Worried about the cost? The price is a mere $30 per person, which includes beer, wine or soda. If you aren't inclined to cook in a group, rest assured that your level of participation is whatever you want it to be. I wrestled the lamb into chops, my husband toted and fetched, and others stood and watched.
What on earth possesses James to open his kitchen to rank amateurs? "Initially, we wanted to do a demonstration for the restaurant's anniversary, and it kind of evolved from there into the classes," he said. With at least a dozen under his belt, James said he enjoys doing the classes because "I like that I get to bring my wife, and it's a real one-on-one thing with the restaurant's customers. It really gives people the opportunity to get to know me, and it sort of feels like entertaining at home." Some of the more memorable classes were an aphrodisiacs class last February featuring oysters, asparagus, grapeseed oil, honey and pine nuts, and a class in May for the Palmer IB program, featuring grilled mahi-mahi with garlic/ginger glaze and pineapple salsa, green curry coconut lamb with curry rice and an Israeli cucumber/tomato salad. There's usually a class open to the public every three months or so. If you have a group of 10 people, you can schedule a private class and set your own menu. I've already got my husband and eight friends talked into a class in February. I can't wait to get my hands on that cleaver again. ... I think a cold beer and a big knife will banish any lingering kitchen qualms forged by that sadistic home-ec teacher.
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