A few months ago, my pal Robin was musing about taking a cooking class. The catch was, she wanted someone to go on this journey with her. Seeing as how I like to think I make a pretty good partner in crime, I decided to sign up with her. A few weeks and – ahem – $600 later – I find myself increasing my culinary knowledge.
The course is six weeks long and, as I type today, I’ve completed three. I’ve been remiss in sharing the details sooner (sorry Clayton), but I generally live by the motto “better late than never.” I think that comes from operating on JST – Jewish Standard Time – but I digress.
Week one of class was focused on knife skills. Now, clumsy is a gross understatement when it comes to me and sharp objects. In fact, about three years ago, my husband all but forbade me from doing any chopping in the kitchen unless I was using a butter knife or kindergarten safety scissors.
Turns out, I’m actually not half bad (thus far) with a santoku knife. During the first class, we learned the differences between and techniques for a dice, brunoise, mince, julienne and chiffonade. The end result was a really tasty salsa fresca that I’ve made twice at home since. Warning – the chopping takes a while, but the end result is totally worth it paired with some warm tortilla chips.
2 medium ripe red tomatoes (cored, seeded and diced)
1/4 cup diced yellow onion
1/4 cup diced green bell pepper
1/4 cup diced yellow or red bell pepper
1 medium jalapeno (stemmed, seeded and minced)
1 tbsp fresh cilantro – chopped
1-2 tbsp freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
Combine the tomatoes, onion, peppers, jalapeno, cilantro, lime juice and olive oil. Stir to mix thoroughly then season to taste with salt and pepper. Allow to sit for 15 minutes or more to let the flavors meld. Serve immediately.
Hint: what we learned in class is that you need to do a tomato concasse to get the right texture on those delicious babies. To do that, cut a shallow X in the skin at the bottom of each tomato then put into boiling water for <30 seconds or until you see the skin start to peel back at the center of the X. Then put into an ice bath to stop the cooking. After that, you’ll be able to remove the skin and then prepare from there. Completely changes the texture of the salsa for the better.
The rest of class included components for chicken and veggie fajitas along with a fresh salad with vinaigrette. If I can toot my own horn for half a second, I’d say I made a pretty good vinaigrette before taking this class, but I totally plan to add this one to my repertoire. Typically I’ve made balsamic vinaigrettes, but this one – featuring champagne vinegar, extra virgin olive oil and salt and pepper only was pretty fantastic. Add a little dijon and it takes it over the top.
Week two was all about soups, stocks and sauces. The menu was to feature: chicken noodle soup, roasted buttnernut squash soup with pancetta and fried sage, Italian mac and cheese, and roasted pork tenderloin with shallot mushroom pan sauce. Did I mention we get to eat everything we make???
Robin and I ended up working on the butternut squash soup together and then being part of a larger group for the other dishes. Aside from a run-in with a VitaMix (and resulting burns on my hands and wrist) I’d say our soup was pretty awesome.
I think the best thing we learned was how to make bechamel sauce. Bechamel is a milk-based sauce that makes everything from real macaroni and cheese to a croque monsieur (btw – the only version of ham and cheese I’ll ever consider eating) induce a tiny o. The bechamel was added to some penne that had been cooked al dente then topped with a combo of cheeses that included mozzarella, gruyere, gorgonzola and parmesan. Add a little breadcrumb topping and into the oven. Nom nom nom nom nom.
If you don’t mind, I’d prefer to skip the details around prepping the pork tendrloin. As a rule – the only pork product I make it a point to eat is bacon. Yes, I realize that this is weird, given my Jewy-ness. However, it isn’t because of religious ideology. Rather, I just didn’t grow up eating pork. I don’t hate it, but I really don’t have a taste for it. So, it was hardly worth it to watch as one of my group-mates prepped the raw pork, trimming off the silver skin. Since that piece of meat wasn’t going to end up crispy and next to some scrambled eggs, I wanted little to do with it.
Now the pan gravy is another matter entirely. I mean, it included more than a cup of red wine. How bad could that be?
SHALLOT PAN GRAVY
2 tbsp unsalted butter at room temperature
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 large shallot, peeled and minced
3 cups thinly sliced mushrooms (I like cremini)
2 large cloves of garlic, minced
1 tsp fresh thyme, minced
3/4 cup dry red wine (make sure it is one you’d be willing to drink)
2 cups veal stock
freshly squeezed lemon juice, salt and pepper, to taste
Combine the butter and flour in a small bowl to form a smooth paste called a beurre manie. This will be used as a thickening agent. Add oil to a hot saute pan and heat through. Add the shallots and saute until soft. Add the mushrooms, garlic and thyme, salting as you go. Saute until the mushrooms release their liquid and begin to brown. Now..here is where it gets tricky. Add the wine and stir to deglaze the pan (read: get all those yummy brown bits off the bottom) and cook until the wine is nearly evaporated (insane, I know). Add the stock and simmer until reduced slightly. Whisk in your beurre manie a little at a time and continue simmering until you’ve reached the saucy consistency you want. Adjust seasoning to taste with salt, pepper, lemon juice and then add a bit of parsley at the end.
Author’s note – I could have slurped that pan sauce like a soup. Better yet, I’d have liked to take a swim in a vat of the stuff. Maybe next time.
Tomorrow’s installment will include a recap of week three. Would do it now, but there’s a Hoegaarden, two greyhounds and a hubster calling my name. Buen provecho!