I like to think of myself as a curious cook. Working at Westchester Magazine, I get lots of opportunities to satiate my curiosity (and my appetite) behind the scenes at some of the area’s finest food shops. Fortunately, you don’t have to be an editor to get an inside look. Below, four local spots delve deep into their areas of expertise to offer culinary classes for curious foodies countywide.
Blind Wine Tasting
“Congratulations on picking our most difficult class,” say Derek and Carol Todd, who are hosting a tasting at Wine Geeks, their gas-station-turned-boutique-wine-store with a focus on small-production, organic and biodynamic wines. During the class, we taste eight wines, examining the appearance, aromas, and palate of each before making our best, newly educated guess at the grape.
The first glass tastes of bright citrus and peach. We’re encouraged to yell out what we’re smelling and tasting, while Derek and Carol give their own leading opinions. There’s a lot of back and forth over whether this glass could be Pinot Grigio or Muscadet (a handy sheet lists flavor profiles for each grape). Turns out it’s a Spanish Albariño — just a hint of salinity gives it away.
Halfway through the reds, I think I smell… mushrooms? Derek doesn’t indicate if I’m right or just crazy. Turns out I’m sane: It’s a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, and earthiness, like mushrooms, is a telltale sign.
The affordable ($35) class, next offered on May 13, attracts wine nerds with different levels of expertise, so there’s no Sideways-esque pretense. I’m no closer to becoming a master sommelier after one class, but I do have an improved understanding of what I like (minerality in whites, bold spices in reds), which will make shopping for bottles of wine much easier.
Basic Knife Skills
No wine on Saturday morning at ZWILLING Cooking Studio in Pleasantville, where instructor Bernard Janssen is teaching the kitchen’s most fundamental technique: basic knife skills.
Janssen starts by taking us through a roster of knives and what each is for (paring knives are not for chopping!). Then it’s on to practicing different chopping motions as Janssen moves through the class, adjusting grips and giving notes.
I’m already fairly good with a knife, but I quickly notice I’m correcting some of my bad habits. Rest the blade directly against your knuckles and it’s much easier to slice nearly translucent, super-thin slices. A sharp, flexible knife turns sectioning an orange into a task I wouldn’t dread doing at home. Leaning forward, to look past the blade as we cut planks of potato, corrects my lopsided slices.
The $50 lesson, next offered on April 8, ends with a quick and much-needed lecture on maintaining and sharpening your knives (Spoiler: That steel you use to “sharpen” knives doesn’t actually sharpen them) — and a sizeable discount on ZWILLING’s wares.
I’m a kid in a candy store — literally — at Blue Tulip’s $45 chocolate-making class (next offered on April 1). After a brief history of chocolate, we delve into the best part: tasting eight types with increasing levels of cacao. Owner Diane Holland describes how chocolate, like wine, is affected by terroir and technique. Swiss chocolate is ethereally smooth and milky, while a dark chocolate from Venezuela boasts a rich intensity, much like the country’s coffee.
From there, we learn to decorate bars and molds. We used those familiar kindergarten paint brushes to artistically splatter colored chocolate into heart-shaped molds that are filled with Blue Tulip’s blend of French and Belgian dark chocolate. She teaches us how to pipe neat swirls of ganache (it’s all in the way you grip the pastry bag) and how to robe cookies in warm milk chocolate.
It’s an education in the importance of quality ingredients and proper technique. Blue Tulip’s upscale version of Nestlé Crunch snaps crisply into pieces because it’s been properly tempered, and a batch of caramel is flecked with vanilla, not extract. We each go home with a bag of our creations. They’re preservative-free, so the filled ones won’t last forever. Somehow, it’s not a problem.
There’s half a hog splayed across the table at Fleishers Craft Butchery in Greenwich. Any clichés about butchering (the white, blood-stained coat, the thwack of a cleaver) are quickly set aside. Our evening’s butcher wears chain mail under a simple, dark apron, and most of his work is done with a short, boning knife that has the dexterity to slip between bones and around joints.
You won’t suddenly be a butcher after this $125 session, but this Pork 101 class, next offered on April 23, is still a lesson in porcine awareness. The heritage breed we’re working with is immaculately healthy, and it’s maybe the first time I’ve seen what cuts should look like on a hog that hasn’t been bred to a gargantuan size for industrialized consumption. Fleishers’ butchers emphasize ways to use non-commercialized cuts (pork hanger steak, anyone?), many of which are less expensive and more flavorful than that Tuesday-night tenderloin most of us cook at home.
Before leaving, it’s time to taste seared slices of some of those cuts, and they’re amazingly rich and porky. We’re sent home with hunks of pork, and a new enthusiasm for ethically raised, butcher-bought pork.