It’s arguably long overdo. About three years now I’ve been tinkering around in kitchens doing my best to follow a recipe or practice a technique, but like any independent study, without a syllabus to help guide my direction, it’s safe to say that I’ve been all over the place with my culinary exploits.
I can’t help but smile when I think back to the absurdly ambitious dinners I’ve tried to put together, using recipes from Top Chef, thinking it was perfectly normal to have 12-15 different ingredients in an appetizer. Risotto? How hard could that be? Hollandaise sauce? Just whisking egg yolks right? Completely overconfident and blind to what I was getting myself into. But over the years, I’ve learned enough to know that despite my familiarity in a kitchen these days, I am very, very far away from having a handle on this cooking hobby of mine. So when Drew Long over at DC Foodies posted about how the local DC recreational cooking school, CulinAerie, was doing a Beyond Basics class, I spit my coffee out all over my deskmate, signed up for the class and then offered a belated apology for the mess.
The thing about cooking classes that has always put me off was simply the reliance on recipes and the limited involvement in a real kitchen. Sure I could sign up for a sauce class, a knife skills class, a taco class, a butter class. No doubt all offering insight and knowledge I didn’t have before, but then again.. couldn’t I just dig up any number of cookbooks I own to figure out the same thing? Wasn’t there something out there that embraced fundamentals and focused on theory?
The beauty of Susan Watterson’s Beyond Basics class is that it has wiggle room. There was a set schedule and someone somewhere was watching a clock, but when Susan got on “stage” it was just her uncorking her brain and unloading 16 years of experience on the rest of us. The recipes were fine. Some dishes I’ll probably never cook again, others were definite keepers. But the real reward of making your way into Watterson’s professionally equipped kitchen were the tidbits about her personal cooking philosophy or the demonstrations on technique, complete with dry erase board tutorial, personal anecdotes, and the occasional expletive. To me, that is some money well spent.
The recipes and techniques from our first day of class are far to detailed to try to squeeze into one post, not to mention I wouldn’t want to be poach all of the instruction from my class. But I did pick up quite a few little nuggets of information that you’d be hard pressed to find in most cookbooks these days while we were going over our two major topics on day one: Poultry and Shellfish.
- Collagen (from chicken boens) + water = gelatin. Good stock needs gelatin to coat your mouth
- A stock should use cold water because it helps leach flavor out, but starting with hot water will push flavor back in
- When breaking down a chicken, try to use long, fluid cuts and try to get your hands on a flexible, boning knife
- Tumeric is heavily used in most cheap curry powders which is why the cheap versions are more bitter than the higher quality stuff
- Never add wine after the last 1/3 of cooking time. Not enough time for the wine to cook off
- Shrimp heads have an enzyme that decomposes the body faster. Removing head preserves body longer
- The best months to buy bivalves (scallops, clams, oysters, mussels) end in “R“
- Vinaigrette = acid + emulsifier + aromatics + oil
Each session consisted of a short lecture followed by Susan actually showing the rest of us how to put the dish together, which included a sample taste of each sauce she assembled, and then we were on our own. We had the option to do one or all of the dishes she had demonstrated. We could ask for extra ingredients if we wanted to experiment. Volunteer chefs were constantly at hand to answer questions, clear scraps or relight our little table burners.
For lunch we made Chicken with Peas and Prosciutto in a cream sauce as well as a Curried Chicken Salad with homemade Vinaigrette and rice pilaf. The curry used the dark meat while the peas dish used the white meat from the whole chicken we had broken down earlier that morning.
A little wine and a bit of hard work, we all ate well, and I enjoyed the conversations I was able to have with my fellow amateur homecooks. Apologies to anyone that became bored when Drew and I started geeking out about photography and camera equipment.
The afternoon session was a bit lighter and my partner and I found that we were both happy to just eat our dishes as they became finished instead of having to wait until all the dishes had been assembled. Seared Sea Scallops and Saffron cream sauce, a basic Crabcake with an Orange Remoulade, Mussels in White Wine, and Shrimp Dumplings. We were busy to say the least.
It was a long day, but just to get a small taste of what it was like to be in a busy kitchen again, running around and tweeking a dish reminded me of how much I miss the adrenaline rush of my resturant days. I had a lot of fun and met some good people. And we still had Fish and Meat to look forward to the next day.