Thursday, June 29, 2006
Our First Cooking Class
For a while, Margy and I had been sitting on an awesome gift from our friends Macca and Looch, a gift certificate for a one-day class at the Institute of Culinary Education. Choosing the class from a giant list was agony. Agony. We stalled many times. Japanese? Indian? French? Knife skills? WINE??
In the end, we chose Classic Thai. My reason was that I wanted to make a curry paste from scratch. I really like some of the pastes that come in a jar, but that's too easy -- it's almost cheating. I wanted the real deal, and I wanted to better understand how the flavors work.
So Margy and I met up at the school and gathered with our class of sixteen in a kitchen classroom to discuss the list of recipes with the instructor, over a little not-very-Thai spread of cheese and crackers. "When do we get to drink wine?" one woman asked. I looked around and saw knives. I figured the wine wouldn't come out until the knives went away.
We were then split up into three groups, each group having a menu of dishes to divide up amongst the members. All three groups were to make a curry -- ours was a green curry with pork -- with the option of preparing the paste by hand or simply measuring it out from a jar. As Margy and I shook hands with our three comrades, I said, "I want to make the curry paste." They looked at me as if I was insane. Yet by my calculations we had most of two hours to finish four or five dishes. The others humored me. "Okaaaay," one guy said, shrugging and turning his palms up toward the ceiling.
One of the fun things about this class was that it offered exotic ingredients that I have trouble finding. My Asian market stocks lemongrass, but it has no galangal, or kaffir lime leaves. At ICE, they had it all -- plus plenty of fish sauce and shrimp paste, both of which are so very Thai, while also being funkier than James Brown. It was great to see the instructor pass around an open jar of shrimp paste and watch one person after another recoil suddenly. Smells bad, tastes great.
The problem was that the knives were so dull I nearly killed myself trying to slice galangal. It's a knobby root that looks a lot like ginger (the teacher called it "ginger's sexy Thai cousin," but after checking it out I'd say ginger is actually sexier, if less exotic), but the piece I had in front of me was hard as a rock. I had to kind of saw at it to make sure my blade had at least penetrated the skin and had a chance at working through the whole root before sending the galangal flying and getting my blood flowing. Fortunately, I didn't rush, and I got the job done.
Sure, I almost dumped all of my paste on the floor when I tried to remove the foreign blender from its base and the paste oozed quickly out the bottom, but I stopped it with my apron and eventually corralled it. Boy, did it smell good. Fresh chilies, galangal, lemongrass, lime zest, garlic, shallots, cilantro, spices, and, yes, shrimp paste (only a little) will do that. I had a rush of excitement over my homemade paste. Granted, I used a blender -- I didn't squat over a mortar and pestle and pound, pound, pound, as is the Thai tradition -- but this was still the closest I'd come to the geniune article.
Meanwhile, Margy was prepping the rest of the ingredients for the curry -- Japanese eggplant, yellow pepper, Thai basil, impossibly fragrant kaffir lime leaves -- and we then went to the stove and cooked the curry together. Our classmates buzzed around us, grilling satays, simmering soups, stir-frying pad thais, checking a bamboo steamer full of sticky rice. From time to time I heard that woman ask, "Wine?"
Sooner or later -- later for her, clearly -- the beer and wine came out. I looked around. Yup, the knives were gone. Two assistants pushed together our workstations and turned them into one large dinner table, set with bowls and plates and wine glasses. All of the teams put our finished dishes on another table, and the feasting began. The food was really good; I've had worse at actual Thai restaurants. See that ceramic dish in front, the one whose contents are sort of white, green, and red? That's our curry. Dee-lish.