Thursday, August 16, 2007

Cooking = Fun? No way!


Wow—who knew culinary school could actually be fun? It is if you take one of the “Masters Series Cooking Workshops” at Fine Technical College, with all the excitement of learning without any of the pressure of a grade or cleaning up (most important!). Kind of a tastes great, less filling proposition.

FTC offers a series of workshops each quarter on a variety of topics/techniques. Last night’s class was on seafood cookery, and it was taught by my favorite chef, Chef Regional/Pantry.

There were 8 of us last night—a mixed group of folks—and I was the only geeky one with a knife kit. (Hey—I paid mucho dinero for those knives, and I’m damn well going to use them at every opportunity!) Chef paired us up into teams of two, and gave each team 1 menu item to prepare, plus pieces and parts of other menu items. Our complete menu consisted of the following:

* Red Snapper with julienned vegetables en papillotte

* Shellfish Stew of clams, shrimp, scallops, and grouper

* Steamed Mussels in white wine herb broth

* Sautéed Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes with Lemon Beurre Blanc sauce

* Barbecued Spice Rubbed Salmon (grilled on a cedar plank and just on the grill top)

It was sooooo weird to be in the kitchen in street clothes. I kept thinking I was going to get points off for wearing jeans! We had a couple of the culinary students there with us to help out and whisk away any dirty dishes; they were getting service points for helping out, too.

And, about halfway through the night, while my partner and I were building our red snapper packets, I realized that I was having great fun. That this was what I had really wanted out of culinary school to begin with…yeah, I know, it’s supposed to be preparing someone for an actual j-o-b in the culinary field, but come on—why can’t it be fun as well. After all, it’s cooking and not rocket science. (Although, I’m sure lots of folks think rocket science is fun…you know, those scary smart folks.)

There were a few safety and sanitation violations happening, but probably not anything more serious than you do in your own kitchen. Chef was diligent in stating the housekeeping duties of washing hands, cleaning cutting boards between ingredients, keeping product on ice, etc. I think the most egregious violation was the woman who showed up in sandals and shorts. (The workshop flyer specifically stated wearing long pants and closed toed shoes.) I figured if she lost a toe or got hot somethin’ somethin’ on her foot, she’d remember to wear better shoes next time.

We fired everything off pretty much on time, and for the most part, it all went as planned. The most surprising thing was a recipe of corn and tomato relish. That was kind of a bonus dish and garnish for the salmon, and Chef asked me to make it. I was all wriggly like a little puppy, when he picked little ol’ me, because I knew how to cut the corn off the cob and milk it…’cause I had real actual culinary skoolin’. (Hey, I have to do something to liven this up, because we had no drama like I was used to in the kitchen with Dimmer Switch and Mr. Big Stuff…not that I’m missing that or anything, but sometimes, the blog just wrote itself with their antics.)

The Corn and Tomato Relish is a great example of using the season’s best produce and a very simple method of preparing it. This was one of those on-the-fly kind of recipes, and we all agreed that we could have just eaten the pan of it and been just as happy as we were with the entire seafood feast.

Corn & Tomato Relish

* 3 ears of sweet corn, husks and silk removed
* 1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, rinsed and halved
* Unsalted Butter
* 1-2 Tbs fresh basil chiffonade (thinly sliced)
* 1-2 Tbs fresh Italian parsley, chopped
* Salt and Pepper to taste


1. Using a large, sharp chef’s knife, cut the corn kernels from the cob. (I do this flat on the cutting board and scoop them up into a bowl. If you have more dexterity with the knife, you could do it directly into a shallow bowl and save a step...and not find little kernels of corn everywhere.) After you cut the kernels off, use the edge of the knife to scrape up and down the cob, “milking” the rest of the corn liquid into the bowl.

2. Heat a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Melt a generous amount of butter in the pan, and dump in the corn. (You know how I feel about butter, so I really mean generous! Like a stick!) Sauté the corn for 7-8 minutes until it becomes tender, adding more butter if it gets too dry. Add a little salt and pepper to season.

3. After the corn is tender (taste it!), gently fold in the tomato halves. Continue cooking until the tomatoes are warmed through, but not broken down.

4. When the tomatoes are warmed, pull the pan off the heat and fold in the chopped fresh herbs.

5. Taste and season with a little more salt and pepper if necessary. Don’t go overboard on the salt, because you want the sweetness of the corn and the tomatoes to shine through.

6. Serve as a side dish or as an accompaniment to grilled fish.

We were all amazed at how good this simple dish was, and I’m really not bragging because I made it…honest.

The whole menu was fairly simple, because those are the kinds of preparations that seafood lends itself to…the best fresh ingredients you can find often need little “gussying” up. The other dish that I thought was pretty amazing and quick was the Shellfish Stew. It was essentially cioppino without the pasta…and it would have been fine with pasta as well. We had some lovely rustic bread that Chef had snagged at a local bakery, which we brushed with oil and grilled, to accompany it and soak up all the yummy liquid.

Shellfish Stew

* ¼ lb each littleneck clams, shrimp, scallops
* 4 oz white wine
* 2 cloves garlic, chopped
* 1 cup basic tomato sauce (or use an 8-oz can)
* ½ tsp red chili flakes
* 1 Tbsp olive oil
* ¼ c chopped Italian parsley
* Salt & pepper to taste


1. Prep the seafood: rinse, peel, and devein shrimp, leaving the tails on; scrub clams to remove any exterior sand; discard any clams that are open and don’t close when you tap them.

2. Heat olive oil in a deep skillet with a cover. Add clams, chile, garlic, and wine. Cover and steam for 1 minute.

3. Remove lid, add tomato sauce, shrimp, and scallops. Simmer until shrimp and scallops are cooked through; about 3-4 minutes. (We also threw in some grouper pieces leftover
from service earlier in the day, and you could always add any white, firm fish.)

4. Remove from heat, season with salt and pepper, and finish with the chopped parsley.

How easy was that? I’m going to give it a whirl at home pretty soon.

Since this class was so much fun, I’m looking forward to what might be offered next session, which starts in October. There’s a sauce class that would be good to take…maybe I can avoid re-creating my classic “dirt sauce,” and one on a bread baking basics, which I’m also interested in as well.

I'll let you know how the seafood stew turns out.

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