Recently I had the opportunity to take a class at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park New York. When we first got into town we drove by the campus. The main building of the institute was a seminary which is apparent in the beautiful stained glass windows that are still in the dining room which used to be the chapel.
Once I got onto the campus, I saw the other participants start file in, getting coffee and finding a place to sit. We were told that we to wait inside the dining room for our names to be called for our appropriate class. Sitting in the dining room, taking in the reality that I am here… I’m actually at the CIA, about to take my first cooking class ever. With a real live chef! But I wasn’t nervous at all. As a matter of fact I felt right at home.
Before the class actually began we met with the chef in a small group in the corner of the dining room. Chef Eric told us a little bit about himself, then a little bit about what we would be doing. I could tell right away that he was nothing like Gordon Ramsay (he wasn’t one to raise his voice or belittle you) and he wasn’t like the judges on Chopped or Iron Chef (he didn’t judge at all, he was very kind and helpful) but friendly, funny and made us all relax.
Then it was time to go to the kitchen. Walking through the halls was a humbling experience and to work in the kitchens that produced some of the best chefs in the country was amazing. Like I said this was my first ever cooking class—nothing like starting at the top!
I’m not a novice cook but I’m not a pro by any means so I knew there were lots of tips and tricks I could pick up. The class was called CIA Favorites, so I was expecting to get some insight into a lot of different recipes that have been perfected at the CIA over the years. Once in the kitchen we were introduced to the two students, MT and Tyler, who would be assisting Chef Eric and us during the class. They were to help us with additional equipment we might need or help with anything like grinding spices etc, and they would also do all the cleaning up, now that was a nice surprise! Then it was time to start. Chef Eric familiarized us with some of the ingredients we would be using with the recipes he selected…
Tamarind -- a pod that comes peeled and compressed. It’s sticky with a sweet/sour flavor. It’s used in curry.
Galangal --looks like ginger and is used in Thai cooking and can also be used in curry dishes. A rather exotic ingredient.
Fennel -- a bulb with a very distinctive licorice taste. I’ve heard of fennel but never tried it before.
After we experienced the tasting of ingredients then it was time to be broken up into groups and given the recipes that we would use. Being put in a group with complete strangers was a unique way to learn these recipes. We had to work as a team, we had to talk to each other and work out our problems as they arose. I guess the same way that you would if you were hired in a restaurant kitchen. I partnered up with Becky. We were able to chit-chat while we were prepping things for our recipes which was nice.
I found out that Becky lives outside of Boston with her husband and two little girls. She and her husband are both in the ministry. It was nice to be in a relaxed atmosphere, learning about each other, and from each other. Our recipe was called Lamb Meatballs Stewed with Hot Tomatoes.
The meatballs were formed then browned in a skillet and then simmered in a tomato sauce of plum tomatoes and tomato puree that was seasoned with onions, cumin, cinnamon, saffron and harissa. Harissa is an interesting ingredient made from peppers that can be very hot. So add a little, then taste. Remember you can always add but you can’t take it away once it’s in the dish. We were suppose to grate the onion for the meatballs which made the meat a little moister than it should have been, making them fall apart in the sauce. So we really had lamb ragu. If I make this at home, I’ll add more bread crumbs.
Taste and season as you go.
Try unfamiliar ingredients before you use them.
When sautéing, tip the pan so the oil flows away from you so that you don’t get splattered when you put food in the pan.
Hold the Chef’s knife close to the blade for more control.
Cook with love and it will all be good.
To go with our meatballs, our other team members were to make zucchini pancakes with tzatziki sauce to serve as our side dish. The zucchini pancakes, although delicious were a little more complicated so Becky and I pitched in to make the tzatziki sauce. There were refrigerators under the counters where our stations were set up for us, so we just reached in, grabbed our ingredients and got to work. Then when something needed to chill we just put it right back in.
Some of the other recipes that were cooked for our buffet: Swordfish with Olives, Orzo Salad, Panzanella Salad, Beef in Curry Sauce, Fresh Corn Chowder, Bulgogi-Style Grilled Chicken which is Korean-style. Some of the dishes were challenging (the beef in curry sauce never made it to the buffet, it burned) and some were simple dishes that were made more sophisticated.
The kitchen was a huge commercial kitchen with stations for prep work along the walls and the stoves in the center. Using the well-loved cookware made me smile. Knowing that generations of chefs had the privilege of using it before we even got there. The kitchen was buzzing with activity, chopping, grating, slicing and grilling.
I really felt in my element. When the tzatziki sauce was done, I tasted it. Pretty darn good I thought. Meatballs in sauce, done and simmering and the zucchini pancakes looking good too. Time was ticking down (the class ran for 5 hours) and we needed to get finished up so that we could set up the buffet for our feast. Chef cleared up the stations and started to set up the dishes. Everything looked amazing, cooked with love.
We filled our plates and headed to the dining room. Now the real conversation could start. We found out more about each other. Met a man who has never had a cup of coffee in his life. Met another couple who drove all the way from Philadelphia, just for the day. There were Grandmothers, mothers (young and not so young) there were men of different ages. Just proves everyone eats, so it’s good if you know how to cook!
After the meal we were promised some Tiramisu that Chef Eric had made the day before. I have to admit this is what I’ve been waiting for! It was the most delicious, creamy and perfect dessert I think I’ve ever had.
The CIA has a range of classes that are held on Saturdays for those of us who aren’t looking for a culinary career but would rather take the occasional course, maybe pick up some pointers and techniques. Of course if you’re interested in a culinary career there is no better institution at which to study. And you’d be in stellar company. The CIA has campuses in California, Texas as well as Hyde Park. The courses available are varied so it would be best to visit their website for more information. http://www.ciachef.edu
After the class we were free to roam the grounds, which are beautiful and to walk the halls and shop in the gift shop. We went back to the kitchen where we got our cookbook to take home with us along with our hat and apron. Then we were free to go home, take a look at the cookbook and cook our way through it.
For anyone who likes to cook, fancies them self a chef or would like to delve deeper into the culinary world, the CIA is the perfect place to do that. Dip your toe into the world of food with a boot camp day or class or one that runs three or four days. So don’t be afraid, boot camps aren’t intimidating. You won’t be yelled at. Even if you do burn the beef.