Friday, November 11, 2011

Giving Thanks - a little early

When I turned 21 again this year, K & P were kind enough to gift me with four cooking classes at Home Cooking New York. I took a look at the online class calendar (which changes each season) and there are so many tasty classes to choose from! Fortunately the teacher agreed to let me book my lessons individually, so I can take my time and choose carefully.

Home Cooking New York’s Manhattan location is a gorgeous loft property in Chelsea, all polished concrete floors, exposed beams and industrial d├ęcor. And somebody actually lives there, can you believe it? While we took over the owner's apartment for our class, she and her wire-haired Jack Russell terrier hid out in the bedroom and watched TV. It probably would have been awkward were it not so awesome.

For my first class, I signed up to a Thanksgiving Tutorial. Despite not liking turkey all that much, Thanksgiving is one of my favourite US holidays. I love the tradition of it – the smells, the flavours, and all the pomp and pageantry that goes along with it. Due to my no-touch policy, I tend to draw the line at the hand-holding part (where you go around the dining table and say what you’re thankful for), but from a strictly culinary perspective, I do love it. So my motivation for joining the class was just to learn a bit more about how to take the stress out of Thanksgiving and confidently prepare some of the main traditional side-dishes typical of the holiday.
Behold the menu for last night’s class:

  • Roast chicken with pan juice gravy (an appropriate turkey substitute)

  • Cornbread stuffing with wild mushrooms & pecans

  • Fresh cranberry-orange relish

  • Maple sweet potato puree

  • Pear tarte tatin

Our merry band of wannabe chefs included one instructor and eight students. I didn’t know anyone of course, and nobody made any effort to introduce themselves, which I thought was a bit weird. But we donned our aprons and gathered around the long tables in the kitchen, our knives and cutting boards in front of us, settling into casual small talk.

From what I could glean from the conversation around me, I was the only first-timer there last night. The other students talked about the classes they’d been to and I got the impression that the Indian (vegetarian) class was the most popular one by far. I made a mental note to look that up later on.

The class website encourages you to bring a bottle of wine (or equivalent) with you, because the idea is that you cook together and then you sit down to enjoy the meal afterwards. I had come prepared but because I couldn’t see any bottles of wine on the dining table or anything, I kept mine hidden in my handbag (as I so often do).

While the chef began his introduction and overview of the class, the two boys next to me went to the fridge and brought out their home-made infused vodka. It had some sort of wrinkly fruit swimming around inside it. They did not offer the rest of us any, but instead proceeded to pour themselves multiple glasses and talk amongst themselves – and to us – about how delicious it was. Well, we had to take their word for it, didn’t we? Another couple had bought a bottle of wine with them and again, they poured themselves glasses and put the rest of the bottle back in the fridge. I had bought a bottle of wine too but I was hardly going to pour myself one glass and screw the lid back on. So I offered glasses to the other students (and the chef) and felt better once we all had a drink in front of us. When the boys’ vodka ran out, they too cracked open a bottle of wine (again, without sharing any). For such a small class, I guess I was expecting something a little more collegiate, you know? A little more caring, a little more sharing...nope.

Anywho, once we were all boozed up, the class began and the chef took us through the menu, a shopping list, and the best ‘plan of attack’ for a stress-free Thanksgiving. He talked about the things we should do (up to 4 days before) and it was quite comforting to know that for such a seemingly-complex menu, so much could be done ahead of time.

In terms of confidence and ability, our class varied dramatically. One woman next to me was obviously afraid to even boil water. She wrote down everything the chef said and as he chopped, she picked up her knife and mirrored what he did (even though she was chopping invisible food). It was all a bit unusual.

We helped the chef prepare our meal, doing our share to dice fruits & vegetables, zest oranges, and season and stuff the chickens. Unfortunately the preparation part took so long, it was almost 9pm before we got to eat anything. Our stomachs were rumbling, all the wine had been drunk, and we were desperately ready to eat something…anything. Fortunately it’s the chef’s prerogative to eat while they cook, and while we got busy preparing the cranberry-orange relish, I got to taste my first fresh cranberry ever. It was very tart but actually quite refreshing. I much prefer them in their dried, sweeter form though.

Finally the time came to enjoy our dinner. The chicken was moist and tender, the two potato dishes we made were amazing and even though I’m not normally a fan of stuffing, it was delicious. My eyes were bigger than my stomach though and I struggled to get through all the meal. I couldn’t even face dessert – though the tart was a beautiful sight to behold.

I learned two really great things at the class last night. Firstly, I learned that all this time, I have been holding my kitchen knives incorrectly. I have been holding them by the handle (duh), but apparently that is quite bad because it puts strain on your wrist muscles and doesn’t give you the maximum control over your chopping and slicing. The trick is to hold the handle further down by the blade, so that your fingers are actually gripping the base of the blade itself. True enough, when I shifted my hand position it felt weird at first but then I realised I had much better grip and so much more control – it was great.

The second really useful thing I learned was how to chop an onion properly. I see how they do it on TV (cutting the onion cross-ways a couple of times to create a really fine dice), but I don’t even try that because I’m so afraid of slicing myself. When I chop onions, I usually send a lot of it skidding across the cutting board, or onto the floor (or both). This time the chef showed us how to cut the onion easily. Rather than slicing it across, you cut it in half and remove the skins. Taking half the onion, you first cut crescent-moon shapes, and then rotate the onion so you’re ready to dice it. But instead of cutting straight down (as I always do), you cut in a sawing motion following the contour of the onion. So your first cut is almost a diagonal one, and you keep following the shape of the onion around until you’ve sliced the lot. It is easy, and fast, and the onion stays put.

Oh and there was a third thing I learned. Even though I’m not a baker, I could TOTALLY make the pear tarte tatin that we had last night. Pears, vanilla sugar, a bit of cinnamon and some puff pastry? Dead easy, man. I just need a flat-bottomed cast iron skillet and I’m good to go. I wonder if Mr Le Crueset is feeling generous this Christmas?

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