Last month, I took my first cooking class - "Cooking Without Recipes" at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE, for short.) Since I book this class wayyyy back in January, I could not wait to the day to finally come. I felt like a little kid on the first day of school.
When I arrived to ICE, one of the first things I saw was a classroom with 3 kitchen stations and a chef prepping for class. It seemed so official. What I didn't know, was that was where I was going to be. Since my class was on a Saturday, quite a few people were already waiting for other classes besides mine, and as they called each class, I kept thinking how much fun it would be to take that one as well... Maybe one day.
My teacher for the class was Richard Ruben, founder of United Taste, author of The Farmer's Market Cookbook, graduate of the California Culinary Academy and ICE's chef of the year.
He teaches several classes at ICE, including a Green Market Class, which are chronicled in his cook book. In class, he gave us a little insight as to what he teaches during his Green Market Class and it sounds very cool. He meets his students at the Union Square Farmer's Market to do an in depth tour of the fresh and local produce, then the class heads back to cook. But enough about that...on to my class. (And this photo of his book cover....the tomatoes look delicious!)
For the first hour of my class, we sat in a group discussing must-have staples for your pantry as well and the best ways to store them. I had no idea that it was best to buy fresh spices and store them in the freezer. For my entire life, my mother has bought spices off the rack in grocery stores, so I did the same. And I almost lost it when I found out spices go bad in 9 to 12 months. I've had a few spices for years! oops.
Another great tip I picked up was ways to infuse sugar and oil. You can grind up just about any spice or flower and make it into a flavored sugar. Have you ever had lilac sugar? I haven't, but it sounds pretty good! AND I am dying to make my own pesto out of left over herbs and oil. How thrifty!
Once our discussion period ended, we were presented with our cooking challenge: CHOPPED! Well, sort of... There was a bin full of food near each station, we were told to pair up into groups of four and stand by a station. Ruben then switched all the bins so we had no choice in ingredients... tricky, tricky! The mission was to create at least 3 courses incorporating all of the ingredients in the bins. Each team had different items, but we all had one protein and were able to use a pantry of items extra.
I was interested yet nervous by the items in my teams bin. Here is what we had: unpeeled shrimp, arugula, spaghetti, beets, dried apricots, cannellini beans, red pepper, yellow pepper, cucumber, oranges, yellow plum tomatoes and manchego cheese. That's a lot of stuff!!!
Oddly enough, my team immediately thought up the perfect way to use all the ingredients. We created a white bean bruschetta with roasted red and yellow peppers; an arugula salad topped with yellow plum tomatoes, kalamata olives, roasted pine nuts and thinly sliced manchego and apricot vinaigrette dressing; beet soup; and shrimp scampi. Doesn't it all sound delicious?
I learned a lot through this exercise. First, I learned to take a step back (funny, right? If you know me, you know it wasn't easy.) My group immediately knew what to create out of all these items before I even had a chance to think. Second, I learned how to devein and clean shrimp, which was pretty fun, despite the time it took. Third, I learned what beet soup was and how to prepare it! We even added in some cucumber and orange zest to lighten up the flavor. And lastly, I learned how to cook a few new things!
I was amazed how we created the apricot dressing (Yes! We made it.) We boiled the dried apricots, drained them, let them cool then put them in a food processor with red wine vinegar and olive oil. We had to estimate everything we did, hence 'cooking without recipes' so of course we made some errors. We used far too many apricots to create the vinaigrette so we ended up pulling 75% of them out of the processor. Once we discovered this mistake and added more olive oil, we had the perfect dressing. I am really looking forward to trying this with other fruit.
As sad as it is, I've never made bruschetta before. This was very simple to make. We roasted the peppers directly on the burner, skinning off the charred pieces when finished. We threw them in a food processor with the cleaned cannellini beans, salt, pepper, garlic and oil until well blended and to the consistency we wanted. It was great!
Once cooking was complete, we gathered everyone's dishes at one station and explained how we created everything to the group. Some of the other dished made included, stuffed eggplant, lamb loin on a bed of pureed artichoke, rice pudding with raisins and edible flowers, banana and walnut baklava (which was AMAZING!), braised chicken, sweet potato and yam potato chips and a few other dishes that I can't seem to remember.
It was very impressing to see what we all came up with and to hear the stories behind the dishes. It seemed like almost everyone went into cooking these meals completely blind, but we turned out some great meals!
I really enjoyed this class and it has definitely opened me up to trying new things together. I went into the class expecting to find out a combination of foods that work well together, and when I did not find this out, I was disappointed at first. As time has passed, I have caught myself thinking back to the class and taking risks on my meals. It's a great feeling.
I can't wait until my next class. I'll be taking a steakhouse course with a co-worker on July 23rd. Can't wait to post about it! (And I'll be sure to bring my camera to class so I can actually post pictures afterward.)
Picture courtesy of iceculinary.com and amazon.com.