By now, some of you might have divined that I enjoy cooking. The truth is, I just enjoy EATING, and my desire to eat every recipe I read is one reason I like to cook — the other being I love to feed people. I think I’m a decent home chef, but I don’t have much patience for technique or foods that take a long time or multiple steps to prepare. If there’s a faster way to make Hollandaise or risotto, I’ll find it (and there is, btw). Luckily, my taste lends itself to my cooking style — lots of fresh but flavorful, simply prepared fish, chicken, vegetables & fruits, with an occasional pork roast or lasagna when there are mouths to feed.
This new year has seen a rekindling of my desire to host parties and feed masses (see my January 8 and January 31 posts), but I’m largely out of practice and want to raise my game. I’ve threatened for a while now to join my gifted culinarian friend Julia for a cooking class at Sur La Table, Surfas or Mozza, but through the friend-of-a-friend, I recently discovered a small, local school called Hipcooks, which struck the right chord for me. Hipcooks declares that measuring implements are BANNED, focuses on fresh, local, organic ingredients and simple preparations — ding ding ding. And I loved their playful and irreverent menu titles — I’m Turning Japanese, My Big Fat Greek Cooking Class, The Mo’Rockin’ (Moroccan) Spice Trail.
The class that hooked me was “A Romantic Dinner for Two” — not the title, but the main course on its menu: Caldeirada — Portuguese Seafood Stew — described as the “sexiest dish ever.” I knew I’d be venturing north to Oysterman’s territory the end of February, that I’d have access to nonpareil seafood, and that we would be hosting a party. A sexy seafood stew for 30 is still, well, sexy, and yes, I wanted to impress. I signed up for the February 13th class at the Hipcooks West LA classroom.
I had no idea what to expect and was actually a little nervous, but I stepped into the most welcoming environment possible — a big ol’ kitchen. The class space is a large room, one third taken up by a dining table with bench seating and place-settings lit by flickering tea lights. The remaining space is a cooking area with a half-circle counter arrayed with beautiful, high-end equipment — Wusthof knives, tamarind cutting boards, Le Creuset cookware. There were piles of peppers and onions, bunches of parsley, skillets holding mounds of raw cashews, and boards bearing chunky blocks of chocolate. Nothing could have been more inviting.
Jennie prepping the cod.
The “Romantic Dinner for Two” class was on the day before Valentine’s Day, and the group was a mix of couples and girlfriends. Jennie had each of us introduce ourselves, describe our cooking know-how, and tell the group one of our most memorable recent dining experiences. An older, married couple was looking to start cooking together again, three of the women had bought the class for their kitchen-fearing boyfriends and one man had bought the class for his kitchen-loving girlfriend (everyone agreed that he was a keeper). The rest was gal-pals and solo me, which I was sad about for a minute until I realized that meant I got my own knife and cutting board and didn’t need to share.
In addition to Caldeirada, the menu for this Valentine’s-friendly dinner was a first course salad with warm goat cheese-stuffed, prosciutto-wrapped dates and caramelized nuts and a dessert of chocolate soufflé (hungry yet?).
Each course would be consumed as it was completed — but that wouldn’t be for at least an hour and a half. With any cooking class, this is something to be aware of, especially if you’re attending after work. I made sure to have a late afternoon snack, but others didn’t, and the giant bars of chocolate were in deep danger of not making it into the soufflé.
Jennie started off by teaching us some basic knife skills, which we put to use chopping rosemary for the caramelized nuts, parsley, peppers and onions for the Caldeirada, and the chocolate for the soufflé. Jennie gave personal attention to all, encouraging the inexperienced and having each of us demonstrate our technique so she could commend or refine our efforts.
The famed TJ’s Pound Plus!
Next, Jennie lit the burners under the skillets of cashews and dropped a generous dollop of butter and a handful of brown sugar into each one. She taught us the terrifying “skillet flip” — a technique I’ve been trying to master with omelets with limited success (I’ve eaten a lot of fritattas). It’s no less terrifying with a frying pan of molten, caramelized nuts, but really, once you understand the compact “stabbing” motion, it’s easy and the best way to toss, coat and cool a sauté (you can practice at home with a folded dishtowel — much less intimidating). After sprinkling the glazed nuts with some rosemary, we turned them out onto a rimmed baking sheet, doused them with a touch of hot pepper sauce and slid them into the freezer for a quick dry.
We pitted some plump Medjool dates, replacing the pips with a caramelized cashew, stuffed each with a teaspoon or so of fresh goat cheese, wrapped them in prosciutto and popped them under the broiler until they were nice and crispy. As they broiled, we assembled a quick salad of mixed greens — a squeeze of lemon and a glug of good olive oil for dressing, tossed with (scrupulously clean) hands, seasoned with Maldon and fresh ground pepper. The salad was dished out onto plates and topped with a couple of sizzling, creamy, salty, chewy-sweet dates. And now that the knives were safely stowed for the evening, we could finally uncork that lovely bottle of Castle Rock Pinot Noir and sip, sit, and enjoy the pleasures of our “labor.”
These go here….
…before this gets opened.
Once we enjoyed our delicious salads, we set to the Caldeirada — an Argentinean dish that is a celebration of the sea. Like any good stew, it’s really just the suggestion of a recipe — there are infinite ways to prepare it — but we used chopped red and green peppers, coarsely chopped jalapeños, garlic, onions and potatoes. The bounty of seafood included fresh cod, Manilla clams and black mussels, and a bag of Trader Joe’s frozen seafood mix, a combo of shrimp, scallops and calamari which is a great “freezer pantry” staple.
We separated eggs and whipped the whites, we “sacrificed” a dollop of whipped egg into the heady amalgam of melted chocolate, sugar and egg yolk, then practiced the delicate art of folding the mixture into the rest of the whites. The lofty cocoa concoction was ladled into ramekins dusted with cocoa sugar, and the soufflés were gently placed into the hot oven.
By then, the kitchen was perfumed with the earthy scent of garlic, saffron and the sea.
After tasting and adjusting the Caldeirada’s seasonings — brightening the flavor with a few squeezes of fresh lemon juice — we dropped crusty croutons into our bowls, and scooped out beautiful, bountiful ladles full of clams, fish, frutti di mare. More wine was poured; we plucked at morsels of clam, added more bread to our broth, savored the flavors and knew that, yes, we could try this at home.
And while we were pleasantly sated, there’s always room for dessert. Jennie pulled the soufflés out of the oven; we topped each with a whipped cream we’d flavored with powdered sugar, vanilla bean paste and thawed frozen berries and their juice — a heavenly topping for an ambrosial dessert.
The meal was delicious, the company jovial, the instruction evenly paced — neither too rushed or too structured. I was one of the more experienced cooks in the class, but I definitely added to my skills and knowledge. I left confident that I could pull off this whole meal for a party, and in a couple of weeks, I knew I’d have the chance. And I realized that Hipcooks doesn’t mean you’re “cool” — it means you have a really solid weapon in your hip pocket.