Our writer learns to overcome fear of phyllo,
and picks up other tips and tricks in one of the
Culinary Institute’s special classes
by Constance Carlson
After decades of reading (and re-reading) cookbooks, clipping recipes, inventing recipes, cooking up countless dishes, and watching chef superstars and wannabes on TV, I decided it was time to take on some serious work in the kitchen. A chance to attend a cooking class at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park seemed like a perfect opportunity. What better way to learn than from real experts?
I signed up for a session on “Mediterranean Cuisine” with CIA chef Mark Ainsworth, a mini boot-camp class that met on two Saturdays in the spring. I’d be learning about the foods of the various cultures in the region, and preparing them as well. I hoped it would jump-start my cooking repertoire, which had become a bit ho-hum. I was interested in the course because the Mediterranean diet is supposedly one of the healthiest. My husband and I had recently adopted a more healthful eating regimen, one that places an emphasis on vegetables and nonsaturated fats, with a minimum of lean proteins and a lot of soy (or, as my husband likes to joke, “One that’s eliminated all the pleasurable food from our diet”).
The night before my first class, I experienced a flashback from restaurant reality TV — an episode where the arrogant Super Chef expressed his disgust over the dishes churned out by a dozen or so harried chefs-to-be. What if I can’t keep up with the class? What if the instructor has the personality of the classic Seinfeld Soup Nazi? Lastly — and most
importantly — what would I wear?
I knew from the instructions I’d received with my class confirmation that open-toed shoes were a no-no. I also suspected that any unnecessary bare skin might be a bad idea in a working kitchen with open flames and fry tanks. I decided to dress comfortably and covered up — mostly in cotton (which doesn’t melt) —with rubber-soled shoes in case the floors got slippery. And I left dangly earrings and rings at home, reasoning that it’s easy enough to slice a finger or cut off a nail without worrying about losing a piece of jewelry in a vat of something.
I arrived that first morning in relative calm, though it was pouring rain. There’s plenty of parking around the campus (as well as in a new multistory covered garage, which I discovered on my way out that evening). There were friendly CIA reps on hand to guide students like me to our lecture rooms.
Once situated, I met my classmates, who proved a delight. Among them were a lawyer for a food cable network; an anesthesiologist from Montana; two advertising executives who worked for a “Top Three” U.S. automaker; and a father and son-in-law team who had brought their own sets of knives and tools. More than half had taken CIA cooking courses before, so the atmosphere was animated but relaxed.
Kelly and Robin — the ad execs —took me under their wing. “Don’t worry,” Robin whispered. “The chefs and their assistants are very helpful and kind — they come help you in a pinch.” “Even towards us — we were the Lucy and Ethel of our last class,” Kelly added. She said that we would be forming groups when it came time to cook, and I asked if I could join their team. “Absolutely,” Robin replied; Kelly winked.
Here Comes the Chef
I was relieved to discover that Chef Ainsworth (Chef Mark to us) wasn’t at all stiff, haughty, or arrogant. Rather, he was warm, bright, even funny at times. And of course, from a culinary perspective, he was extremely knowledgeable.
The class began with a short lecture about the foods we were to prepare. The Mediterranean region, Chef Mark explained, is where Europe, Asia, and Africa meet. Despite the often lush or exotic images painted by the travel magazines, the area is geographically extreme — with craggy mountains, sandy beaches, and desert — and has very little terrain suited to raising crops or cattle. Sheep and goats fare better on mountain slopes with sparse vegetation, so those animals contribute to the local cuisines. And fish play an important part in the Mediterranean diet.
Representing a dozen or more cultures, the people who live in the region have learned to make the most of what they have. “We’re talking about a diet that places minimal emphasis on proteins and saturated fats, with a major emphasis on seasonal vegetables,” explained Chef Mark. (He asked us to guess what percentage of protein should be in the ideal diet; classmates ventured 45 percent, 30 percent. Having already had my dietary awakening, I knew the right answer: 15 percent.)
In his lectures, Chef Mark took us on a culinary adventure based on his own travels. On the first day, he focused on the north side of the Mediterranean, with countries including Spain, Italy, and Turkey. In the second class, we concentrated on the south (Tunisia, Sicily, Morocco, and so on). What became evident was that these very different cultures use many of the same ingredients; each cuisine is distinguished by the nuances achieved through preparation, spices, and flavorings. We also learned how most cultures use whole and ground nuts — walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds — to extend a meal, enhance flavors, or simply thicken sauces.
At the end of the first lecture, Chef Mark breezed through the recipes we’d be preparing that day. Each team — we had four in our class — would prepare three to five dishes in approximately two hours. That’s a lot of menus to walk through, let alone prepare and sample. Feeling a bit like a deer in a car’s headlights, I followed my classmates to the kitchen, where it was show time.
I donned the requisite apron and chef’s toque handed out by one of the chef’s assistants, and wished there was a mirror handy. But after a fleeting moment of self-consciousness, the feeling subsided — all of my classmates were in the same getup. Actually, we looked pretty cool and professional. We were ready to cook.
Kelly, Robin, and I first scanned our assigned recipes to see if there was anything that looked familiar. There wasn’t. But Chef Mark’s instructions were to prep, produce, and plate our dishes by an appointed hour, so we each settled into a groove, going headlong into what had to be done. Kelly and Robin started making fresh mozzarella from cheese curd, which actually is pretty easy to do. (If you’d like to try it, the trick is to temper the curd — which you can get from specialty shops — in a bath of 160-170 degree water.
You gently knead the curds in the bath until they become a smooth, elastic orb which you can chill whole or form into smaller balls or other shapes. You can even flatten the cheese out while it’s still warm and cover it with sun-dried tomatoes and garlic, chopped olives, or slices of pepperoni; then roll it up, jelly-roll style, before chilling and slicing into impressive-looking pinwheels.)
Meanwhile, I dove into preparing the Macedonian leek and walnut rolls, a Greek appetizer featuring phyllo pastry. I whipped up the filling with only a minor snafu: I spilled the whey I’d collected from the drained cottage cheese all over the kitchen floor — and me. The assistant chefs on hand came to help me, so things were orderly in no time, although I smelled cheesy for the rest of the day.
When I was ready to make the strudel-shaped logs, I called on Chef Mark and confessed my fear of phyllo. Whenever I’ve tried to make those bite-sized appetizers or baklava or spanikopita, the extra-thin dough has either crumpled or torn. Chef showed me how to properly “keep” phyllo. Most cookbooks advise placing the sheets under a damp towel, but still they either dry out or get mushy. Instead, simply lay a stack of sheets on top of a dry towel and cover them with plastic wrap. Prepare your strudel or other dough shapes on ungreased parchment paper, then liberally brush olive oil between the pastry and filling layers, and brush it again when you’ve formed your final product. And, said Chef Mark, if a sheet tears, just press it back into shape. One more tip: after you’ve made your log, score the top in measured sections before baking to make it both prettier and easier to cut.
Chef also encouraged us to experiment and sample the ingredients on hand. I tried two that I was unfamiliar with: white anchovies and salt cod. Without question, both are an acquired taste. The former (plump, iridescent-blue fillets packed in oil) lacked the punch and firm texture of their more common, salty cousins. The latter smelled a lot like gym socks, although the team that made salt cod fritters did a remarkable job in getting around that.
At the end of that day, I was exhausted. Arriving home in time to cook dinner, I decided to keep it simple. But I added a little extra zing to our broiled lamb chops with a rub of chopped shallots, garlic, kosher salt and pepper, and habanera pepper. I sprinkled toasted walnut pieces, shredded fresh basil, and a few crumbles of goat cheese into our salad, which was dressed with a balsamic vinaigrette prepared with a hint of smoky paprika. Perhaps it was the presence of meat on his plate that did it, but my husband congratulated me on what he perceived as my newfound skills.
The following Saturday, Chef Mark continued our gastronomic tour. We learned that Mediterranean households often have homemade distilleries to take advantage of their harvests. In Muslim communities, for example, harvested rose and lavender flowers produce pungent “waters” used to enhance dishes. Then, taking us through our roster of recipes for the day, Chef encouraged us to take more risks. I was ready.
Kelly was unable to join us for the second class, but Robin and I pressed on, flexing our new culinary muscles. Instead of following recipes verbatim, we took creative license to make the dishes our own. One dish was “Chicken Smothered in Green Olives.” The wandering Berbers of Tunisia might keep the flavors more subtle than we did, and might cook the whole dish atop a fire. But by modifying the ingredients to taste, and streamlining the prep and cooking method, we developed a dish that we can’t wait to unveil at our next dinner parties.
That second kitchen session was less stressful, probably because we had more confidence. Whatever it was, after our class sat down to our final sampling and critique of the day’s dishes, the mood grew a little melancholy. Our culinary adventure with Chef Mark had come to an end.
I can’t wait to go back again.