According to the National Restaurant Association, this year, on a typical day, more than 130 million Americans will be food-service patrons. But I won’t be joining their numbers as often as I did. In the face of new economic realities, I realized I was spending too large a “slice” of my income on frequent dining out.
I decided to investigate local cooking classes as one way to economize. My first instinct was to try the non-credit classes offered by top schools, such as the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park or the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan, but an online check showed their priority goes to current students and alums—their most appealing classes fill up almost as soon as they’re offered. And, since I didn’t want to waste a lot of time in transit, I decided to stay local.
I tailored single classes at different Westchester venues to fit my schedule. Classes, of course, had to be reasonably priced—about the cost of a good restaurant meal for one. I sought chefs who I figured, based on word-of-mouth as well as my own perceptions, might be patient teachers and would adapt recipes for non-professionals. I wanted to try a variety of cuisines and experience different methods of cooking. Because there are no prerequisites for enrolling, local classes must be designed for a broad spectrum of cooks. The result should be clear, step-by-step instructions that neither condescend to the novice nor bore the advanced home cook.
To attract new clientele and offer excitement to their regulars, some local restaurants offer cooking classes on a sporadic basis. I learned from friends that the French restaurant La Panetière in Rye has hit upon its own formula. Every month, it offers classes on how to prepare one dish—be it an appetizer, main course, or dessert—daily at 11 am for an entire week. You can select the day that fits your schedule. There are new offerings each month, which may be taught by a distinguished guest chef or by La Panetière’s Executive Chef, Jean-Marc Cabirol, or Pastry Chef Didier Berlioz. After each class, students dine on the preparation of the day, as part of a three-course lunch in the restaurant’s charming, Provençal-accented, downstairs dining room.
La Panetière’s classes take place not in its kitchen but in a large upstairs room. Its floor-to-ceiling windows overlook lovely gardens. Classes easily can comprise 20 or more students who sit around a long table on which the chef does his cooking. And, lest you be daunted because you don’t have the professional accoutrements of a huge restaurant kitchen, instructional recipes are prepared on a small, portable, propane-powered burner. I realized if the chef could whip up a classic seafood risotto on that small device, surely I could do as well on my home stove.
My confidence level dipped, however, when I learned our guest instructor was Tony Esnault, recently named consultant to La Panetière and former executive chef at three-star Michelin-rated Alain Ducasse at the Essex House. I doubted I’d be able to replicate any dish this culinary star could execute. Chef Esnault, however, worked hard to demystify the making of risotto.
To eliminate a dinner host’s anxiety, he advised cooking the Arborio rice to three-quarter’s doneness (leaving plenty of liquid) and then refrigerating it the morning before guests arrive. He advised us to enjoy drinking dry white wines and to save the two- to three-day-old remainders for our risotto. He emphasized the importance of covering our pan as soon as we added the highly flammable wine and praised Espelette pepper from southwestern France for its intense but not overpowering flavor. His best tip was how to remove sand from mollusks: you whisk salt and cool water inside a metal container; place shellfish in it; cover them with water, and put on a lid. Sensing it is night, they’ll open and their sand will drop to the bottom.
Chef Esnault’s sous chef, La Panetière’s Dean Loupiac, carried all the ingredients, at each step of preparation, to each class member so we could see for ourselves how everything should look. For example, when the Arborio rice is sautéed, individual grains must become translucent before wine can be added. The quickly cooked shrimp, scallops, and calamari should have a pale, delicate tint. Chef Esnault’s stylish presentation, befitting an excellent restaurant, featured a perfect circle of rice, flanked by alternating pieces of seafood, topped by fresh-snipped green chives.
The students, predominantly female, were mostly dressed for a fine dining experience. They took copious notes and asked a lot of questions. During our three-course luncheon, most students revealed they were serious amateur chefs and/or ladies who loved to lunch with friends. Since classes begin at 11 am, many working people or mothers of young children can’t attend; however, there were several present with flexible hours and others taking “mental-health days.” Most students were from areas surrounding Rye but some, like Denise di Biasi, a retailer from Darien, Connecticut, traveled farther. “At previous classes, I learned to make terrific mint-infused pea soup and great crab cakes so I’d come for anything La Panetière offers,” she said.
The students enjoyed salad or soup, the heavenly risotto, and a vanilla-crème Napoleon with fresh raspberries. I replicated the risotto at home for my family; it was almost as good as Chef Esnault’s and, because of its richness, small portions satisfied everyone.
Cost is $30/person for one instructional class and the three-course lunch that follows it. Go to lapanetiere.com or call (914) 967-8140 for details.
(Serves 6 to 8)
1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup onions, chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper (cayenne
or Espelette preferred)
2 cups Arborio rice
1 cup dry white wine
6 cups seafood stock
Heat oil in large sauté pan. Add onion, season with salt and pepper, stirring until the onions are slightly soft (about three minutes). Add rice, stir slowly (in order to not break the rice) with wooden spatula until rice is translucent; then cover with white wine and cook for two minutes. Add seafood stock and cook again for nine minutes. (The risotto can be refrigerated at this point if you want to prepare it ahead of time for guests. Make sure there’s liquid left.)
2 lbs fresh seafood (mussels, clams, shrimp,
bay scallops, calamari)
1 Tbsp butter
In another sauté pan over medium heat, cook mussels and clams in a small amount of olive oil and white wine until open. Remove mussels first and then clams. Remove meat from shells and save their liquid.
In the same sauté pan, cook shrimp over medium heat for one minute, then remove; add butter and cook scallops for one minute, remove; turn off flame and stir thinly sliced calamari in pan for one minute and remove.
¼ cup mascarpone
½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Chives or parsley to garnish
Add seafood with clam-mussel liquid to risotto and cook for an additional four minutes. Stir in mascarpone and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Top with chives or parsley and serve.
Cara Tannenbaum advertises neither her cooking classes nor her catering services. All her business comes from word of mouth. I found her via a tip from a friend who’d been to a cooking party, who advised getting 10 to 12 friends together to chip in for a party, in order to get the most bang for the buck. Tannenbaum charges $300 to come to your home—day or evening—and teach you and your guests how to prepare a delicious three-course meal, which she’ll then serve. That comes to $30 per person for a group of 10, plus the cost of ingredients.
An excellent teacher with loads of experience, Tannenbaum has worked in many areas of the food-preparation industry. She ran her own restaurant, Quarropas, in White Plains for many years. Currently, she’s a chef/instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan and also has a catering business with steady clients, including the New York Philharmonic. Having just co-authored a cookbook (as yet untitled) of original recipes using nuts and seeds, which Norton will publish in 2010, she teaches “recipes that are easy, delicious, and can be made for company ahead of time.” Her confit of tuna with white-bean salad attracted me. The fish, preserved in olive oil, can be made up to a week in advance, making it a hassle-free dish.
Although Tannenbaum prefers working in cooking-party hosts’ kitchens so she can give them tips on how to best use their own equipment and space, she opened her Mamaroneck kitchen to a small class of former students who’d agreed to show up on short notice for this article. Tannenbaum made me understand how important it is to have the right tools. Cooking food at exactly the right temperature can be crucial to a dish’s success. Placing the tuna in flavored oil, she used an electronic thermometer to make sure the oil’s temperature remained at 145ºF, so that the tuna remained moist, tender, and flavorful. I bought an electronic thermometer the next week.
She prepared the white-bean salad, using canned canellini beans for the time-pressed women in our class. However, she took the time to bake pine nuts for 10 minutes because “few people realize how much flavor is released when you toast nuts and seeds.” She made a “chiffonade” of basil, stacking eight fresh leaves, rolling them into a “cigar” shape, thinly slicing it horizontally, and—voila!—chiffonade. This was done at the last minute to keep the basil leaves from turning black.
The afternoon class was made up of five casually dressed women, including moms with school-aged children and women with flexible schedules, like busy Mamaroneck attorney Martha McCarty. “I wanted a special dish that I could make for family and friends,” she said. “This confit is so fresh, vibrant, and deliciously easy, I can’t wait to serve it to others.”
Classes cost $300 plus the cost of the food. Since the fee is per class, not per person, it pays to gather a large group for a class. The prepared three-course meal is served to class members. Day or evening classes can be arranged, if planned in advance. Call (914) 698-1382 or (914) 960-9258 for availability.
(Serves 4 to 6)
3 cups extra-virgin olive oil
2 sprigs rosemary
2 sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
6 cracked black peppercorns
2 Tbsp kosher salt
1 lemon, zested and the zest julienned
1 large onion, halved and sliced
1½ lbs fresh tuna, cut at least 1 inch thick
Place all ingredients except the tuna into a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven. Slowly heat the ingredients, until olive oil reaches 145ºF. Cook at this temperature for 15 minutes. Turn the heat off and allow to cool for a half-hour. Return pot to the heat, and add the tuna to the pan. Make sure fish is entirely covered with the oil; if not, add more oil. On low heat, bring the oil temperature back up to 145ºF. Check the tuna for doneness: it should be pink but not raw on the inside. Remove the tuna from the pot, wrap, and refrigerate. Allow the oil to cool separately. When the oil is cool, place tuna in a glass container that is large enough to hold it, and strain the aromatic oil over it to cover. Discard the solids. Wrap the immersed tuna and refrigerate; it’s good for up to a week.
FOR THE WHITE BEANS:
2 cups dried canellini or navy beans
2 sprigs rosemary
2 sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
1 Tbsp kosher salt
Place beans in a colander and rinse in cold water. Make sure no foreign objects are mixed in. Place beans in a bowl and cover with cold water (at least two inches above the top of the beans). Soak for eight hours. When ready to cook, strain and rinse beans again. Place the beans in a heavy-bottomed pot, like a Dutch oven, and cover with cold water (add a few additional inches of water). Add the herbs and salt, and over medium-high heat, bring to a boil. Skim and discard any whitish foam that rises to the top (this doesn’t have to be done repeatedly). Reduce heat to a simmer and allow the beans to cook slowly, for as long as it takes for them to soften all the way through (anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours depending on soaking time and type of bean). Make sure they’re covered with water throughout the cooking process. Drain when done, remove the herbs, and refrigerate; they’re good for up to three days.
3 cups cooked beans (see above)
4 plum tomatoes, halved, seeded, and diced into
6 scallions, both green and white parts,
¼ cup pitted and chopped niçoise olives
¼ cup chiffonade of basil leaves
½ cup toasted pine nuts
2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
1⁄3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp kosher salt
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
Place the beans, tomatoes, scallions, olives, basil, and pine nuts in a medium bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk olive oil into vinegar and pour over bean mixture. Season with salt and pepper. Place beans in a shallow serving bowl or sided platter, and slice tuna against the grain, into 1/3-inch slices and place on top. Serve at room temperature.
The Larchmont/ Mamaroneck Center for Continuing Education is able to offer hands-on evening, adult cooking classes because it uses Mamaroneck High School’s well-equipped, spacious kitchen. Since Cornelia Zell’s appetizer class had too many interested students for one class, LMCCE offered a second class a few weeks after the initial class for those on the waiting list. I overheard students talking about the first class in a local supermarket.
The repeat class’s 14 students were divided into four groups. Zell, a lively, informative instructor with a Southern accent, gave each group four recipes from which they could select two to prepare. She designed the recipes for a four-hour cocktail party, with two to four servings of each item per person.
As she visited each group, Zell, a trained home economist, called the scene “organized chaos.” She provided ingredients and tools for each recipe. Honest about her role as a consultant for The Pampered Chef cooking products, she exerted no sales pressure but did point out the benefits of the tools she’d brought.
I was partnered with another student, Jennifer Carlson. We chose to make a baked tomato/feta-cheese dish and sun-dried tomato swirls. My partner and I held our breath as we worked under time pressure and exhaled completely only when our two dishes were completed on time. Carlson declared the class to be “a lot of fun and a great way to meet new people.”
Most canapés were by no means high-end, but they were flavorful, quick, and easy to make using inexpensive and prepared ingredients such as wonton wrappers and refrigerated dough.
Since the kitchen always needs to be spotless for the next day’s high school classes, participants were encouraged to help with the cleanup. There were four ovens, much counter space, and many tables that needed cleaning. After their chores, students were rewarded with doggy bags of leftovers and many new recipes to try.
The Larchmont/Mamaroneck Center for Continuing Education offers various evening cooking classes for adults each fall and spring term. All are hands-on classes. Zell is planning classes on apple recipes and phyllo dough and puff pastry for the fall term. The cost is usually $50 per person, per session, including food. Fall schedules are posted on lmcce.org or call (914) 698-9126.
Contact Cornelia Zell at (914) 777-1466 or e-mail her at email@example.com for free monthly recipes along with The Pampered Chef news.
(can be made in advance, then frozen, and reheated)
(Serves 8 to 10)
Approx. ¾ cup puréed/minced sun-dried tomatoes, drained but moist
1 package refrigerated crescent rolls
Preheat oven 375ºF. Unroll crescent rolls. Close perforated edges by pinching together so the mixture cannot seep out. Spread mixture alongside rectangle and roll to form one long roll. Place on tray or plate in freezer for 10 minutes to firm but not freeze. Cut roll every quarter inch or so to form rounds with swirls. Place on stone or baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes if you plan to freeze and reheat, 15 minutes or until golden if serving immediately. Remove to a cooling rack for five minutes before serving.
I’d seen ads for Hartsdale’s Chef Central’s free product demonstrations. I wondered if they offered any cooking classes and discovered that, indeed, they have several evening cooking classes every month. In addition to single classes on different ethnic cuisines, each month there is a class featuring a four-course dinner from a different region of Italy. I opted for a session on the dishes of Apulia, which is located on the “heel” of the Italian “boot.”
Almost all of the classes are taught by cooking instructor Amalia Greco, a highly knowledgeable chef. The menu featured anchovy-flavored, sautéed cauliflower over freshly made pasta; salt-covered baked sea bass; lamb-and-chicory stew; and pettole, fried-dough balls with honey and syrup—all a far cry from traditional Italian restaurant fare. We learned that Apulians revere the simple, clean tastes of their food and don’t disguise them with fancy sauces.
Greco pays careful attention to each detail of preparation, as you’d expect from a former attorney who became a CIA-trained chef. “Life is too short to do something that doesn’t make you happy,” she said. Her infectious enthusiasm spilled over onto the eight participants who sat around a curved counter at which she worked. They were a mature group of casually dressed women (except for a young man who accompanied his mother to class as her birthday present).
Throughout, the chef provided us with tips to help us successfully replicate the dishes at home. When you make fresh pasta at home, curl the finished product in coils before you cook it to keep the ends from drying out. When you bake your fish in a salt coating, leave its skin on—with the scales—for easy removal after it’s done. If your fingers become sticky as you work the dessert dough, dip them in wine and all will go smoothly.
Cathy Mattison, the birthday “girl,” said she found the class very enjoyable and her son perked up as he was served each delicious course.
Chef Central offers evening courses featuring several different ethnic cuisines each month. In addition, all 20 regions of Italy will be covered, with one region per month. French cooking from six regions also is offered, with one class per month from each region. The cost is $50 per person or $65 for hands-on demonstrations and prices include dining on all food prepared. Sushi preparations and a new series of budget meals, “Dinner on a Dime,” also are being offered. There are daytime classes for children—from tots to teens. Visit chefcentral.com or call (914) 328-1376.
(Lamb-and-Chicory Stew in Earthenware)
(Serves 4 to 6)
The amount of chicory called for in the recipe seems excessive, but it’s not. The finished dish is very tender: flavorful lamb surrounded by chicory, which loses a lot of its bitterness in the cooking. If you can’t find chicory, substitute escarole.
2 lbs boneless lamb shoulder or leg, trimmed
of any large pieces of fat and cut into
1 large onion, sliced
¾ cup fresh parsley, coarsely chopped
1 medium ripe tomato, peeled, seeded, and
½ cup dry white wine
pinch saffron, crumbled
¼ cup plus 1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup water
3 ½ lbs chicory, roughly chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Put the lamb, onion, parsley, tomato, wine, saffron, and olive oil in an earthenware casserole (or calderotto) with a cover (an enameled cast-iron casserole also can be used). Turn the heat to medium-low and cook until the liquid has evaporated, about one and a half hours. Stir occasionally and check to see that the liquid is not evaporating too fast. If it is, add a few tablespoons water each time you stir. Add the cup of water and chicory, a handful at a time, stirring continuously. Let the chicory wilt so more handfuls can be added. Reduce the heat to low and season with salt and pepper. Cover and cook until the stew is fork-tender, about one hour more, uncovering the last half hour if the stew is very liquid. Serve immediately.
Andrea Kurtz, writer, photographer, and former cable TV personality, is currently completing her novel, set in Westchester, about love, betrayal, fame, and food. An exhibit of her travel photos will open in Tarrytown in the fall.