Cooking Classes

Cooking 201: Moving beyond the recipe

Susan1 I cook a lot. For a guy who works a day job that has nothing remotely to do with food, I spend a good amount of time focused on food and monkeying around in kitchens.

If I'm not working on something for this Web site, I'm cooking for the missus, feeding friends, or helping other people learn to cook at the D.C. cooking school, CulinAerie.

All this is to say, I'd better know what I'm doing, especially if I'm going to take a two-day cooking class full of people who read this Web site.

A while back, Susan Watterson, who co-owns CulinAerie, mentioned that she was considering running a two-day advanced cooking class similar to the one she taught for years at L'Academie in Bethesda. I liked the idea and knew there were a lot of folks who'd be interested in that level of instruction as well. Although I write recipes and use others' from time to time, it's no replacement for knowing the fundamentals of cooking. Certainly, many people happily rely on recipes and cookbooks -- and there's nothing wrong with that -- but there's no replacing the feeling of accomplishment when you step into the kitchen and prepare a meal without someone else's instruction (feel free to keep using mine).

Being a pain in the ass, I pestered Susan into putting the class on the calendar. In turn, I wrote up a preview for this Web site. Hell, I used my little soap box to encourage people to show up, improve their cooking skills and learn to cook beyond the safe confines of recipes. I would show up, too, to go through the class as a student and chronicle the experience for a future post (this one). 

Class1 So, on a recent weekend, me and 20 other students spent two days listening, questioning and cooking under Susan's direction. We chopped, diced, and julienned. We learned how to make stock and debone a chicken, oyster and all. We filleted whole fish and turned shrimp into mousse. We rolled pork, and cooked lamb korma.

Before setting the lot of us loose with knives and hot pans, Susan talked about the products we were dealing with and the importance of proper technique. The lectures were equal parts anatomy, chemistry and physics, all of which had a philosophical purpose: to transcend the recipe. Recipes should be treated like suggestions, not mandates. If an ingredient doesn't work, you should know how to replace it. If a sauce breaks, you need to be able to fix it.

"This is a class where you unclench your fist and let go of the recipe," she said. "You have to use your brain when you cook."

Being a proper cooking class, there was no escaping French techniques. The brunoise, the mirepoix, the court bouillon were all covered. But so too were stir frying, wontons, fish sauce and curries.

Class3 When the lectures ended, the cooking began. Each day we prepared and cooked four dishes in the morning and four dishes in the afternoon. That made for a lot of practice. It also made for a lot of food. And once we were done cooking, we could eat the results. So we ate ... and ate ... and ate. At one point it crossed my mind that if Bobby Flay ate everything he cooked on Iron Chef, he'd look like Mario Batali.

Not surprisingly, everyone who signed up for the two-day course had cooking experience. Some of it was years in a home kitchen, like Merrill Brown, who was visiting from Lakeland, Fla., and taking the class with her sister Helen Ryan. Other students, like Gene Moses, had a background in the food industry. Gene had catering and front-of-the-house restaurant experience, but wanted to learn more professional cooking techniques.

Class2 In my preview of the class, I wrote that I expected to know a little and learn a lot. That was about right. I can dice an onion and julienne a carrot (though I screwed it up the first time). I know how to debone a chicken (though I didn't know how to take the meat off the legs and thighs without my teeth). I can cook a scallop, and pan fry fish (though the sauces we made to accompany them were revelatory to me). We covered dry heat cooking, which I'm good at (I am the grilling guy), as well as moist heat cooking, which I have less experience with (I don't poach much).

For the most part, everyone seemed follow Susan's instructions pretty well. Sure, some of the deboned chicken meat looked more like paste than poultry, and we might've gone ape shit with the sherry (Susan's term, not mine), and a few sauces did go south somewhere between the pan and plate (I completely screwed up my stir fry, which is particularly pathetic if you consider I've written newspaper columns about how to stir fry). But there were clearly more successes than failures.

And like most everyone else who took the class, 14 hours of instruction wasn't enough for me.

Since CulinAerie opened last November, Susan and fellow co-owner Susan Holt have focused their classes on beginning cooks. With that base established, Chef Watterson is planning more advanced courses. The next two-day class is already scheduled for Sept. 26 and 27, and a 12 week course is in the works for the fall.

"The good thing about cooking is there's no ceiling," she said. "There's always more you can learn."

Want to see more photos from the class? Check them out here.

CulinAerie looking for cooks who want to learn how to cook

Can you cook or can you follow a recipe?

Now, there’s nothing wrong with using a recipe to guide you through a dish. But the difference between knowing how to cook and simply following a recipe is the difference between painting by numbers and free handing a landscape.

Besides, cooking is a creative endeavor and there’s only so much satisfaction you can get out of following other cooks’ recipes (except mine, please keep using them). So if you think you’re ready to close the cookbook and take your culinary skills to the next level, then this may be the class for you.

Susan Watterson, co-owner of the D.C. cooking school CulinAerie, is looking for a few students who are willing to spend two intense days learning how to cook...really cook -- poultry, meat, fish and shellfish, with accompanying sauces and sides. There will be no recipes, there will be no beginners.

There will be lunch.

It won’t be easy, but you won’t be alone. I’ve agreed to take the class to chronicle the experience for D.C. Foodies. I’m also eager to find out what I know (probably not much) and what I don’t know (probably a whole bunch).

So what do you say, are you ready to cook?

What: Beyond Basics cooking class
Where: CulinAerie, 1155 14th Street N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005, (202) 587-5674
When: July 25 and 26, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
How much: $325 per person
Why: Because you want to become a better cook.
(Disclosure: I assist at CulinAerie regularly.)

CulinAerie Knife Skills Class Sharpens Dull Skills

Image004 Do you know how to use a vegetable peeler?

Sure you do. I bet it was the first kitchen tool you learned to use. Simple, oddly shaped blade, plastic handle, no big deal, right? It's as straightforward and simple an instrument as you’ll find in your kitchen.

Turns out, it’s not so simple. There’s actually a right way and a wrong way, just as there’s a right way and a wrong way to hold tongs, grasp a spoon and use a chef’s knife.

Susan Holt knows how to use a vegetable peeler. Holt is a former chef and graduate of L'Academie de Cuisine, where she’s taught for the past decade. Today, she’s teaching at CulinAerie, the District cooking school she opened with fellow L'Academie de Cuisine graduate Susan Watterson.

On an recent Saturday morning, Susan was using all those years of teaching and professional cooking to teach me and a couple dozen other amateur cooks how to use a vegetable peeler. The peeler was the first – and certainly least pointy – lesson of Susan’s Knife Know How class, but it wasn't the last.

“Use the steel every five minutes.”

Yes, chef.

“Dicing is uniform. Chopping is not.”

Yes, chef.

“Don’t scrape the blade of your knife across the cutting board. You’ll ruin the blade.”

Yes, chef.

“Go with the grain, not against the grain.”

Yes, chef.

“Utility knives are useless.”

Yes, chef.

“The worst thing you can do is use little motions. Be fearless.”

Yes, chef.

“Did you hear those bones crack?”

Yes, chef, we did.

Image021 And so it went for the four-hour course that began with a review of kitchen knives and ended with a glass of wine and meal. In between were lessons on holding a knife properly, julienning, trussing, supreming, breaking down a chicken and what do with all of it: make lunch.

Our class started early (well, early for some of us). Fortunately, Susan ran the class at an easy pace and she and her staff were hands-on, offering assistance, such as when Frenching a chicken wing proved to be more difficult than it looked.

The course is ideal for amateur cooks, regardless of how long you've been pursuing your hobby. The knife Image042 is the most basic of kitchen tools and certainly the most important. At the very least, the class will teach you how to work more efficiently. At most, you’ll be less likely to lose a digit.

I’ve cooked for years, so I’m pretty comfortable with my knives. I keep them sharp (Yes, chef, the steel, always the steel) and work at a pretty good clip. Not Hung fast, but not bad.

Turns out, I’ve been doing it wrong. I don’t hold my knife right. I don’t hold the product correctly. I rush when I should slow down. On occasion, I might even use little cutting motions.

In other words, I needed instruction.

Fair enough. I can swallow my pride and learn the right way to use a knife, particularly when I swallow it with sautéed chicken in cream sauce (see recipe below). After going over proper knife techniques, the class paired up and cooked what they cut up (Thank god biology class never ended this way). A cooking lesson thrown in with the knife class, and wine to boot.

And considering that I now have a better chance of keeping my fingers attached, the course was a rousing success.

1131 14th St., N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20005
(202) 236-6111

Image054 Chicken with Grainy Mustard, Cream and Tarragon

4 pieces chicken on the bone (breasts and/or legs and thigh quarters)
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tbs. vegetable or canola oil
1 medium onion, peeled and diced fine
1 cup white wine, such as a Burgundy-style chardonnay
2 cups chicken stock or water
3/4 cup of heavy cream
2 tbs. best-quality grainy Dijon mustard
2 tbs. fresh chopped tarragon leaves

Liberally season the chicken breasts with salt and fresh black pepper. Heat a large shallow sauté pan (not non-stick) over medium-high heat, then add the oil. Add the chicken to the pan, skin-side down, and cook for about 3 to 4 minutes, until deep golden brown. Remove from pan to a plate.

Image044 Add onion and reduce heat to low, sweating the onion, but not allowing it to take any color. Add white wine and cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes, stirring and scraping up all the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the chicken stock or water and cream, and bring to a simmer. Return the chicken breasts to the pan, cover the pan with a lid or piece of aluminum foil, and cook over low heat 30 to 35 minutes, turning the chicken a couple of times during the cooking process.

Return the chicken to a serving dish, cover and keep warm. Bring the sauce to a boil on the stove and simmer until the sauce is reduced by about half, 5 to 10 minutes, so that it coats the back of a wooden spoon. Add the mustard, tarragon, salt to taste and black pepper. Spoon the sauce over the chicken and serve immediately with rice pilaf or egg noodles.