When I first moved to Italy, I spent a lot of time alone. I really only had one friend from when I studied here in 1999 and she was in Tuscany, and my timing wasn’t great because during the summer Milan empties out for vacation. The few friends of friends I had met at the end of July completely disappeared. I was completely alone, but it was an excellent time for reflection, which I did often in a few notebooks I carried around for “ideas” and “notes” on my various solo jaunts.
These notebooks were filled with numerous ideas, lists and (bad) sketches (remember my drawing skills from when I went to the gynecologist?). One of these ideas was about opening a restaurant since I had wanted to get closer to the restaurant scene for some time, other than just as a consumer. Since then, I have come to realize a restaurant is one of the most difficult businesses to actually leave for a few days, and the concept of a weekend or days off disappears.
Soon, my dream to open a restaurant became a dream just to take more cooking classes. I knew that my trip to the States would finally be a good opportunity to do so with my mother. I checked out the California Culinary Academy and was pleased to find they have classes every Saturday in the middle of the city! I was planning on being there that day anyway, so it was perfect. And so was that day – a perfect blue sky and crisp morning air as we walked around the city that was still sleeping at 9am.
The CCA’s Weekend Gourmet at the Academy classes are actually not currently listed on the website, but you can email them and ask for a catalog. There was even an Italian cuisine class, but I couldn’t ignore the irony in coming back to San Francisco to learn how to cook Italian food and decided to skip that one.
We chose an “Indian Comfort Foods” class – I love Indian food and I thought it might be something I could re-create in Italy since many Indian spices are available in international food stores. Our chef spent the first part of the class speaking about Pakistani-Indian cuisine and familiarizing us with the ingredients (and spices) we were going to get our hands into. Then she walked us through a few of the recipes she had prepared, and set us loose!
Several small groups formed based on the recipes they wanted to prepare that day – the Chef circulated amongst us, answering questions as we needed or giving tips.
The beef Ghost Suleman was one of the dishes we prepared. There was also a lamb version that was so tender and spicy that it actually didn’t make it out to the buffet as people (and other classes’ chefs) were tasting it quite a bit! But our beef version was pretty good, too. The meat provided was quite a bit more than the recipe called for, so we should have compensated more.
A dish the Chef really wanted to change our minds about was the Bhindi Bhaji, Spicy Fried Okra – while they were more crunchy than slimy (a common okra complaint), they didn’t make our minds spin like some of the other dishes. I blame myself as I think we were a little light on the spices.
Churros y Chocolate – one of the dishes from the Tapas class at the buffet that looked so cute.
The Chef took plain Dhal (lentils) and really made it pop with fried onions and spices, or Tharka, on top, which is something I plan on never forgetting in the future. It looked and tasted so good!
My biggest fear with cooking Indian was all those darn spices! Each of the recipes we made in class called for an average of 7 spices which can be intimidating. There was a lack of measuring equipment for every person which in hindsight was a blessing because it made us eyeball spice measurements and it reminded us that cooking is not about practicing an exact science, but tasting and adjusting when necessary. Also, getting my hands “dirty” and in the spices was definitely a way to familiarize myself with them. I had bright yellow turmeric under my nails for a few days.
Recipes! We got to take a packet home prepared for us by the Chef so we could re-create some of the things we made. Unfortunately I don’t feel I can post any of them as these are her personal recipes, but I’m planning to adapt a few of them and I’ll post the results of my experiments.
One of the big “pro’s” was the excellent buffet at the end of the course. All 5 courses from that day brought out their wares and shared with everyone else for a big, multi-ethnic buffet. It also gave us a chance to talk with other students about their class and see what they had produced. The Tapas class had produced quite a few dishes, the Vietnamese class had things I’ve never even heard of (and my favorite Summer rolls), and the two pastry classes (Cake decorating and Laminated Dough) produced huge plates of croissants, cakes and pastry wheels. Our 5 Indian dishes added to the feast even if most of the chapatis didn’t survive until the buffet (we had to have some perks!)
I can’t really say there were any “cons” but I had to immediately adjust my expectations which I think were probably way too high for the time we had available. I had expected more “teaching” and everyone making every dish planned for that day, but there just wasn’t enough time to do it all. And our class was a specialty class that focused on that cuisine, though the Chef was very available for tips and tricks when we asked.
Next time, I’d love to take a basic skills course (they have several), especially with knife techniques as I think that would be a lot of fun and I think I need some basic instructions. All of the croissants from the laminated dough course came out looking so beautifully I bet they learned some great techniques! One thing several people said about their previous courses (there were several serial course-takers) is “…you find out ways to save any dish…” in that the chefs would help you adjust a recipe to improve it or “save” it. The “sauces” course was mentioned several times.
The “ideal” course for me would be one that spent a few hours in the morning concentrating on basic skills and then the afternoon for going into specific cuisine and/or recipes, but I know you have only so much time. I plan on taking another course the next time I’m in the States.
Anyone else taken a course with the CCA or another culinary school they wish to recommend? Leave your thoughts in the comments!
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