Suppose for a minute that there was a "Best Of" issue for your life. What if your family and friends voted for the most memorable experiences originating in your kitchen? Want to make sure your cooking comes out on top, and that family stories for years to come won't include the time you forgot to turn the oven on, or stuffed the wrong end of the turkey, or (fill in the blank here; most of us have culinary horror stories)? Award-winning cooking really depends upon confidence, and a cooking class can boost yours.
The Culinary Arts Program at Pikes Peak Community College offers classes on the first Saturday of each month in a series punningly called "Toque of the Town." The instructors are area chefs volunteering their time and expertise. The tax-deductible $60 fee per class goes directly into a scholarship fund for students in the Culinary Arts Program. And with 120 students in the Culinary Arts Program, both college students and part-time high school students earning high school and college credits, taking a Saturday course or two is a terrific way to support a local school and improve your cooking skills.
And you get to eat what you make.
I sat in on a recent class led by Greg Jackson, executive chef for Pro Concessions at Pikes Peak International Raceway. An enthusiastic and exuberant cook and teacher, Greg was assisted by Linda Shuster, a part-time student at PPCC, and a part-time chef with Greg at the Raceway. The day's topic was "Fall Holiday Cooking," and judging from the reaction of my fellow classmates, there are several households that will be enjoying a "Best Of" menu in the coming holiday season.
That menu will include Coconut Shrimp with Orange Horseradish Sauce, Mulligatawny Soup, Glazed Roast Pork Loin with Cranberry Stuffing, homemade dinner rolls, and Gingerbread with Pear Brandy Sauce, all of which we cooked and gobbled. Along the way, Chef Greg peppered his instruction with useful pointers, emphasizing his essential assumption: that principles of a professional kitchen can be applied to the home. Principles like:
"Work Neat; Clean as You Go." There's nothing professional or appetizing about a debris-strewn kitchen. Keep the chaos under control.
"Think Ahead; Plan Your Preparation." Get the necessary ingredients -- bowls, utensils, measuring cups and spoons lined up like good little soldiers awaiting their commands. Midway through a recipe is not the time to discover what you might be missing. Professional chefs call this "mise en place," essentially the arrangement of integral parts in the most efficient manner.
The class was quite interactive and hands-on. We cleaned and breaded the shrimp, we pounded and stuffed the pork. Along the way we picked up lots of fundamentals (proper breading techniques, making a roux, tying up a stuffed roast, for example) and a few esoteric bits of information (like how to dice an onion without the slices sliding all over the cutting board). No question was too simple or too arcane.
We learned a lot about the alchemy of cooking -- that a recipe is more of a suggestion than a command, that experimentation is the mark of successful chefs and satisfied diners. The dishes we prepared balanced opposites, sweet and sour, soft and crunchy, in ways many of the class participants hadn't thought of previously. The sanctity of accurate measurement, critical in baking but not in cooking, flew out the window as Chef Greg scooped a handful of chopped carrots and called it a cup. The flair and glee he brought to cooking was contagious.
The Toque of the Town series continues through February. Coming up on the menu:
November 4: Chef Gene Torville, Game Birds and Venison;
December 2: Chef Heidi Block, Caribbean Cuisine;
January 6: Chefs Jackie Hamilton and Mark Painter, New Orleans Cooking;
February 3: Chef Ken Trumbley, A Taste of Spain.
All classes are held in the cafeteria kitchens on the Centennial Campus on South Academy. Because many doors on campus are locked on Saturdays, your best bet for entry is to look for a loading dock door on the south side, east end of the cafeteria building. Come hungry.
For further information about the cooking classes, call 540-7579. For more information about the Pikes Peak Community College Culinary Arts Program, call Rob Hudson, program coordinator, at 540-7371.