If you have been following this blog at all, you know I love to cook. And to eat! One of my previous 30 Day projects, the “Locavore” eating local challenge, was all about shopping local, and cooking/eating local foods. I shared a lot of my home-cooked dishes and recipes during that challenge.
I’m also a fan of some of the cooking shows, especially the challenge ones like Chopped and Master Chef. I love the creativity some of these chefs bring, and I really enjoy finding products in the stores or farmers markets and trying out new recipes with them. So I knew that during my 30 Days of Learning, I wanted to take cooking lessons. Although I cook a lot, and feel that I’m pretty good at it, I’ve always thought it would be really cool to attain some more professional skills and tricks.
I’ve taken a couple of cooking classes in the past, whether when traveling (I learned how to make dumplings in China) or learning ethnic styles, such as two awesome classes I’ve taken at Thai Fresh here in Austin. So earlier this month, I contacted Central Market to see if I might attend a few of their cooking classes as part of this project. Meredith Beeman, the Cooking School manager, promptly replied that she would love to have me, and we scheduled some classes.
The first one I took was Sauces. I know that it sounds pretty basic, but that is what I’d like to learn more of – the foundations for good chef skills that can be utilized in so many dishes and different cooking styles. The sauce class was taught by Christina Lee, who proved to be as funny and charming as she was an excellent cooking instructor. As the class handout stated:
A sauce is the crowning glory of any dish. From the basic “five mother” sauces, there are literally hundreds of variations of sauce that are used to dress, compliment, enhance and bring out the flavor of the food it is served with.
The French are credited with refining the sophisticated art of sauce-making. 19th century French chef Antonin Careme evolved an intricate methodology by which hundreds of sauces were classified under these five mother sauces.
When a sauce is used on food, it is the first thing to touch the tongue. A sauce is only as good as the ingredients you put into it, and the care you take preparing it.
Here are the five “mother” sauces that were on the agenda to learn:
Béchamel – a classic white sauce invented by King Louis XIV’s steward. This is the king of all sauces, made with milk and a butter/flour roux. Often cheese is also added.
Velouté – a light stock-based white sauce, made from chicken, veal or fish stock. Enrichments such as cream or egg yolk are sometimes added.
Espagnole – a complex brown sauce made of a rich meat stock, browned vegetables, a nicely browned roux, herbs, and sometimes tomato paste.
Hollandaise – a rich sauce made with an emulsion of egg yolks and fat, usually butter. Lemon juice is added and it is generally served warm, to embellish vegetable, fish or egg dishes. Mayonnaise is basically a variation of hollandaise sauce, which is used as a base for many other sauces and dressings.
Vinaigrette – a sauce made with a simple blend of oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. There are many elaborate variations that include spices, herbs, shallots, mustard etc. Usually used on salads and to dress cold fish, vegetable or meat dishes.
We started with hollandaise sauce, and lucky me – Christina singled me out to start it up. Which was fortunate for the rest of the class, because they got to see what NOT to do. The burner that Christina set me to whisking the egg yolks over in a double boiler was too hot, and suddenly the egg started to cook. Not good. Christina showed us how if that happens, you can add a bit of ice water to thin it out and save it.
Christina moved on to show us how to prepare the espagnole, which I considered the most complicated and time-demanding sauce. Hollandaise, however, is probably the trickiest one to get just right. “There’s a reason they charge so much for Eggs Benedict,” she said. And the reason so many places don’t serve anything with hollandaise. It takes a lot to master it.
As we worked, Christina regaled us with funny tales of her mother’s cooking adventures. Being Chinese, her mother seems to have funny ideas of classic American food. From spam to funny fruit salads mixed with strange ingredients, Christina kept us laughing at her mom’s culinary escapades. I was beginning to see what impelled her to go to culinary school.
Christina has been teaching at Central Market Cooking School for four years; she once worked as sous chef at the Four Seasons and is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute. Her father was her biggest influence in cooking; at his urging, she entered and won the 2010 Chefs Under Fire competition.
I had a great time and learned a lot – even simple kitchen tips and tricks that Christina shared as we cooked were valuable. For example, if your hands smell like garlic or onion, you can simply run them over a stainless steel bowl or pot and the steel will absorb the odor.
For my second class, I took “Basic to Brilliant, Y’all” by Virginia Willis. Virginia is the author of a cookbook by the same name, and the former Kitchen Director for Martha Stewart Living Television. As the daughter and granddaughter of consummate Southern cooks and a classically trained French chef, Virginia has a gift for giving French recipes a down-home Southern feel.
She was also a lot of fun, and I was pleasantly surprised to see Christina Lee again, assisting. The title of her books and the class were apropos—from Georgia, Virginia sprinkled a lot of “y’all” throughout her instruction. My favorite was “Time to eat, y’all.” We started off with a butternut squash and winter greens gratin, which was my favorite dish all night. I love squash, and butternut is my favorite, but I have a hard time finding ways to make greens that taste good to me. This recipe rocked.
It also showed me how the Central Market cooking classes build on one another. Virginia’s recipe calls for heavy cream, but as with many of her dishes, she advised us on substitutions. For this, she said we could use a béchamel sauce in place of the cream. Score! I knew how to do that, since I had learned the béchamel sauce from Christina. “You come to these classes to get all the stuff you can’t get in the cookbooks,” Virginia said of the tips and tricks she shared.
Virginia is a big proponent of sourcing local food, and during her demonstration of the Fried Benne Shrimp dish she stressed buying Gulf shrimp, and buying seafood wisely. “You support the local economy, and it’s healthier without the antibiotics,” she said. “We are eating our way like a Las Vegas buffet through our oceans.”
Like Christina with her father, Virginia also had a family member’s influence on her love of cooking: her grandmother, whom she called Mimi. At the end of class—after we were in a stupor from partaking of the most sinfully amazing chocolate bread pudding with caramel/goat cheese and cream—Virginia closed by reading about her grandmother from the introduction of her cookbook, which we were all taking home as part of the class fee.
Central Market Cooking School classes all come with wine served (except the children’s classes, of course) and many with other take-homes such as a cookbook or food items. All of the helpers in the classes are also community volunteers, who give their time to make the classes happen and deserve a very big thank-you.
The 30 Days of Learning project is winding down – stay tuned for my next couple of learning experiences, and then it’s on to my final challenge of the year!