Sunday, February 7, 2010

Cooking Class, Part I

There are a number of things about which I've been meaning to blog, and my cooking classes are among them.

My mother and sister bought me cooking classes for Christmas. I've spent the better part of my adult life complaining that I don't like to cook and that I don't enjoy it. I've discovered that I do, in fact, enjoy cooking. What I don't enjoy is having to do it at night, after having worked 8+ hours. While I don't have a physically strenuous job like Captain America, I do have one that is mentally taxing. Which means that when I get home from work, I really don't want to think about following a recipe.

Unfortunately, Captain America and I have to eat every day for the rest of our lives. Is that intimidating, or what? I don't get food bored; I get cooking bored. Growing up, I don't remember a huge variety in what we had for dinner from one week to the next. We probably had pasta once a week, pork chops once a week, chicken maybe twice a week, and my mother seemed okay cooking this week after week after week. I probably complained sometimes (in fact, I'm sure I did...I HATE peas, and after all, what kid doesn't complain about their parents?). But I don't remember feeling any monotony in our diet.

Then I grew up, graduated from college, and lived on my own. And I had to actually prepare what I was consuming. As far as I'm concerned, cereal=dinner. Captain America tends to disagree. Add to that the fact that we're fairly frugal people (and don’t eat out all of the time), and my repertoire of about six meals was quickly becoming pretty dull. And I was getting totally bored preparing them. I wasn't bored with eating them, but I was starting to think along lines such as, well, it's a shame I can't buy 700 lbs of broccoli and chop it all now. Poor Captain America tends to tolerate my lack of culinary originality pretty well, but I was beginning to feel like a fairly lousy wife. I was grumpy that I had to feed my husband, you know, food, every day.

(Just to set the record straight, Captain America is not a "you're the wife; you do the cooking" sort of guy...he does his share of cooking, too.)

So my mother and sister found Great News, which is located just down the street from us, in Pacific Beach. I called them up and spoke to a very friendly lady whose name I've forgotten. I told her my concerns, and what I was looking for, and she reassured me that the classes will teach not just what to do, but also why, which is the big question for me. I can follow a recipe; I just don't know why I add both salt and sugar to things. Yes, I get that it's chemistry; I just don't know what the two ingredients are contributing, and why they're important.

I signed up for a series of five classes called Getting Started in the Kitchen. I was a little concerned because they are not hands-on, but so far that hasn't been a problem. I am not necessarily a hands-on learner. If you can show me the correct way to do something and tell me why, as long as I've got it written down, I'll probably be okay. I know this doesn’t work for everyone.

The first class was nearly two weeks ago, on January 26. This was the class in the series that I most considered not taking, as it was subtitled "A Basic Pantry plus Moist Heat Cooking," and we were going to learn how to make spaghetti with basic tomato sauce, steamed fish with basmati rice, and steamed asparagus with shaved parmesan.

The chef, Katherine Emmenegger, showed us how to make all of these things, and then we got to sample them. We also got a packet with all of the recipes. I'm not sure I'm going to keep the tomato sauce recipe, since I already have a really good tomato sauce recipe that was my mother-in-law's mom's, but it was really nice to learn how to make a tasty meal with simple cooking. I really wanted to learn how to make steamed fish because about half the time I try to bake fish it comes out too dry. As it turns out, you just stick it in the steamer basket and put a lid on it. This is exactly what I would have done without the class, except I was too worried I'd be poising us. I mean, one usually bakes fish at what, 350 or so, but boiling water is only 212. Those aren't exactly close in my book. As it turns out, though, it doesn't really matter. I've made the steamed fish with asparagus twice, and everyone has survived both times.

Katherine told us to always cook with Charles Shaw wine. She said never use "cooking wine." That's good for me because we always have some Two-Buck Chuck in the house. Yup, we're classy like that.

The fish is actually served with a roasted tomato, olive, and caper sauce. It's sort of like a tapenade, if you added roasted tomatoes.

So here's how to make the Tomato, Olive, and Caper Sauce. The recipe calls for 1 1/2 lbs of Roma tomatoes, and says it serves 6, but I've found that about 1 tomato per person works out pretty well. You'll also need olive oil, salt and pepper, garlic, green olives, Kalamata olives, and capers.

Core the tomatoes (which basically means just remove that little brown spot where it was attached to the stem. I had originally feared that this would be more along the lines of coring an apple, but it's not at all.), and slice them in half. Coat them in olive oil (1/4 of a cup if you're making the full recipe) and salt and pepper to taste (that is about my least favorite direction ever). Place the tomato halves face down on a baking sheet and place in the oven, at 350, for about 25-30 minutes.

In the mean time, chop up 12 green olives, six Kalamata olives, and one tablespoon of capers, and finely slice four garlic cloves (if you're using the full recipe). Put all of this in a bowl and add the tomatoes when they're done. Mash the tomatoes and mix everything together.

Also while the tomatoes are roasting, you can start the Steamed Fish. Because we're apparently serving six, you'll need a carrot, an onion, two garlic cloves, a cup of white wine (Katherine said to use sauvignon blanc, but all we had was chardonnay. No one seemed to care), a quart of water, and six 6-oz fillets of a cold water fish (I've been using salmon. I'm pretty sure this is a cold water fish, but either way, it seems to work just fine).

Chop up the veggies (okay, as a total aside, why do we spell veggies with double-g when the word vegetable only has one?) and put them in your wok (or any other big pot into which your steamer basket will fit) with the wine and the water. Bring this to a boil, and then reduce the heat and let it simmer for 10 minutes.

Here's what I did. First, I steamed the asparagus until it was a nice shade of green. Then I put it on one of my fabulous ugly brown plates from the 1970's, topped it with another fabulous ugly brown plate, and put it in my now-off oven to keep it warm while I steamed the fish. The tomato stuff is fine at room temperature. The directions say to steam the fish for about eight minutes, citing the rule of thumb: 5-7 minutes per inch of thickness. That's it! It was really easy. The only thing that bothered me was that we used a carrot and an onion, but it was never meant to be eaten. And I didn't think I could save it for vegetable stock because my fish had been sitting in it, and I'm not sure how long fish-flavored water can be kept. Captain America suggested that it's often the case with better cooking that many ingredients are just used to flavor the food and not actually to be eaten.

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