Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Come on in, the water’s fine…

When some people are nervous, they get a frog in their throat, or a cat gets their tongue, or they get butterflies in their stomach.

Me, I get sea bass.

Yes, that’s right, a whole entire sea bass flopping around in my gut like a fish out of water! It’s very disconcerting, feeling its tail all the way up in my larynx as it flips and squirms. My heart flutters, my stomach twists in a knot. My palms get sweaty, I chew my bottom lip… Nary a dish have I served without a maelstrom of inner-chaos. And put me in front of a crowd, you know, for the ubiquitous thanking of the chef after a dinner party – and I just about want to curl up in a ball and die! So, when I’m asked to teach the first of a 10-class series at Alysson’s Kitchen in Bend, Oregon for 18 people on the foundations of cooking – well, I jump at the chance! Because what fun is life if it’s not just a little bit terrifying?

That sea bass is tossing and turning in my belly as I make the snowy, 3-hour drive to what is sure to be my untimely and utterly humiliating death. I arrive 20-minutes before the class begins - excellent, plenty of time to prepare. Mary and Krista, my assistants and life-savers this evening, have prepped all of the ingredients for the recipes and have the kitchen ready to go – fortunately, they know I’m running on a tight schedule. Mary, a real-estate agent who loves to cook, assists with the classes so that she can glean cooking knowledge and get paid at the same time. Wise, wise woman. Krista, a cute, sandy-blonde with pixy-like features runs the wine department at Alysson’s and also loves to cook, but with her waif-ish figure, I’m suspect to how much she likes to eat – that is, until I catch her smearing slices of baguette with thick swaths of triple crème brea! I quickly read through the course outline – brown stock, white stock, crème olga and French onion soup – easy enough.

I’m not here 10 minutes when the students begin to trickle in and as I look around, I wonder how I’m going to start the class. The room begins to fill, and, as is the story of my life, I feel as though I’m standing on a precipice, looking into the abyss, wondering what the hell I’m going to do. But I do what I usually do – and what I do best, that is, take a deep breath and dive in! Winding my way through the tables where the students have begun to gather and sit, I greet them each, one by one. I expected and older crowd and mostly women, but the group really runs the gamut - old and young, men and women. There are two mother/son pairs, a mother/daughter pair, 2 young women about to be betrothed that think cooking might be a handy skill to learn before they enter the world of domesticated bliss. A 14-year-old boy that just loves to cook. I crave a glass of wine to pacify the polyprionidae swimming in my gut – but that will have to wait.

As I learn more about my new students, my fear slowly begins to morph into excitement. I talk to everyone and learn why they’ve chosen to take the program. I ask them to rate themselves as cooks, 1 through 10. There are a few who sheepishly admit that they are –3, a couple of 7’s and 8’s, but most people rate themselves about mid-way at 5. Their scores will be re-evaluated at the end of 10 weeks. I quickly develop an affinity for these strangers as I learn more about them. I want to be able to answer their questions and help them become better cooks!

I talk them through brown stocks – roasting bones and vegetables to get a deeper, richer flavor, as we make a roasted beef stock and a roasted vegetable stock. Then we move onto the white stock – un-roasted chicken stock and vegetable stock. Krista and Mary have samples out of various dried bouillons, canned broths and pre-made demi-glaze. We pass the samples in little cups around the room for the class to taste and compare to the home-made version.

It’s funny to be thinking and dissecting something that has become such a motor skill to me. Stock, I make them all the time, without giving it any thought. I like to keep my cleaned mushroom trimmings in a bag in the freezer and when the bag is full, I dump them in a pot with some wine and water and make a mushroom stock. I keep shrimp, crab and lobster shells too, for the same purpose. Roasted chicken carcass, into a pot – duck and turkey too. “These recipes are a jumping off point”, I tell the class. “You don’t have to follow them exactly. Keep it simple, it doesn’t have to be a production – because whatever you make from scratch, even if it’s not perfect – is 100 times better than if it came from a can!”.

We breeze through the French Onion Soup and the Crème Olga – though I find the Crème Olga to be a bit bland and I discretely salt the hell out of it and try to jazz it up with more black pepper before it’s served. We talk about salt and the importance of seasoning and tasting as you go. I mention the cardinal rule of the kitchen, she who cooks, doesn’t have to clean! And I mention that there’ll be a pot-scrubbing class next week for all of the spouses that are absent tonight. I share a few stories of being browbeaten by French chefs and cooking on the high seas. By the end of the class, I’ve forgotten about the big fish that was doing laps in my belly only a few hours prior. I’m having fun! I get to tell stories and talk about food and cooking, unrestrained, for hours on end! Who knew?!

As it turns out, there’ll be another chef taking over the Bend classes, but as of Tuesday, I’ll be teaching the same 10-week course at Alysson’s Kitchen in Ashland, from now through March! Next week, I’ll be teaching a hands-on Italian cooking class, including pasta making – my favorite! And, well, there are a few other fun things in the works – but you’ll just have to keep reading to find out what they are!


TonyC said...

Hi Cookie,
Do your class a favor and introduce them to your Vera Cruz Sauce recipe. It was a big hit last weekend and two of my dinner guest emailed today requesting the recipe! It's a winner Baby! Thnaks again.

Victoria Allman said...

Christina: This is fabulous! We should talk writing..and cooking...and yachts. I'll keep reading whatever you post.
victoria allman

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