On a whim one Friday a couple of weeks ago, we signed up for a cooking class at Sur La Table called “Date Night: Springtime in Paris.” We had never taken a cooking class together before, but we like Springtime and love Paris, so we figured it would be a fun date. And it was indeed. The chef teaching the class guided us through the preparation of a fancy four-course meal — frisee salad with roquefort and toasted walnuts; green peppercorn steak with a mushroom-cognac pan sauce; roasted potatoes with spring herbs; and a strawberry and rhubarb tart — all of which was delicious. Much of the prep work was done ahead of time and the cooking was done in a group style, so it really didn’t seem like that much work (which is my ideal kind of cooking.) We learned a few things and really enjoyed the experience of doing something different than our usual dinner-and-a-movie date night.
Chef Rebecca Allinson taught our class. She was informative — starting off the class by giving all of us a (rather stern) lesson in how to properly hold a knife. Probably a good idea, considering we were a room full of strangers with varying (and unknown to her) levels of cooking skills. And not much could ruin a date night more than a trip to the emergency room for stitches from a knife wound. Chef Allinson was also very entertaining and encouraging — enthusiastically exclaiming “Brava!” every time we completed a task. Having someone cheer you on for successfully slicing mushrooms makes the cooking experience quite a bit more festive, believe me.
The class was set up with a cooking station for each participant, on tables in groups of four or six (could be a fun outing for several couples to do a class together.) Sur La Table provides all the equipment (including aprons) and food, and class participants can bring their own wine (they provide openers.) We brought a bottle (of course we did), and felt kind of bad for the couple at our table who didn’t, especially when they mistakenly reached for ours, thinking it was for everyone at the table. But we didn’t actually feel bad enough to share ours. Sorry, we couldn’t spare it.
The first course we prepared was the dessert, since it needed to cook the longest. Basically all we had to do was mix together the strawberries, pre-cooked rhubarb (cooking it first prevents the final dish from being too soupy, something we learned from the class, since we’ve never cooked with rhubarb before.) We also learned that Chef Allinson used some of the leftover rhubarb juices in her homemade whipped cream to top the rhubarb strawberry tart. Yup, it was as good as it sounds. For those (like us) not familiar with rhubarb, it has a sour flavor that pairs well with sweet strawberries. The recipe also calls for lemon and orange zest, sugar and brandy — all of which play very well with the rhubarb and strawberry flavors.
Once we prepared the tart fillings, Chef Allinson filled the previously-prepared pie crusts (all the while describing her methods for creating a perfect crust — take-aways from this part of the class were keeping things cold and weighing ingredients for more precise results. Or something like that. I was a little too preoccupied with getting a good photo in the overhead demo mirror to really pay attention.) The tarts baked in the oven preheated to 375 degrees for about 40-45 minutes.
Next, we prepared the salad course, starting with the dressing: a mix of Champagne vinegar, minced shallot, Dijon mustard, olive oil, chopped tarragon and salt & pepper. We all participated by chopping shallots and tarragon, then Dan and our new table stranger/friend whisked and adjusted seasonings together.
Then Dan and I sipped our wine (but didn’t share) while we enjoyed the finished salad of frisee and mixed spring greens, crumbled roquefort cheese and toasted walnuts tossed with the dressing we made. Yummy.
Next up — roasted potatoes. We cut the potatoes into chunks, peeled and chopped the garlic and minced up some chives and parsley. Our biggest take-away from this dish was to preheat the baking sheet in the oven while the oven preheats to 400 degrees. Preheating the baking sheet means less cooking time for the potatoes. (And nasty burns on your fingers and hands if you forget that the cookie sheet is hot when you load it up with potatoes and attempt to put it back in the oven — something that Chef Allinson rightfully
scared us about pointed out during this portion of the class.) The potatoes cook until they are browned — about 18-20 minutes — then sprinkle them with minced garlic and cook them for another 10-12 mintues. Toss the finished potatoes with the chives and parsley as garnish.
As cooking class students, our biggest contribution to the main course steak dish was “trimming” (fancy word for removing the stems) the cremini mushrooms and cutting them into quarters. Nailed it! Check me out — I even properly placed the knife blade-side-out on the cutting board when I was finished. Brava!
Other class participants bore the burden of seasoning the steaks with salt and coarsely ground green peppercorns. Gunners.
Chef Allinson taught us how to sear the steaks and achieve the requisite bad-ass grill marks on multiple steaks by placing each steak on the grill at the same angle, then turning each one to a separate (but same per steak) angle after a couple of minutes. This is not news to Dan and any of the rest of you who grill on a regular basis, but I was previously unaware of this technique. I also suck at geometry and all things math, so it was a bit like magic for me. (I may not be a cheap date, but I’m a simple one for sure.)
While the steaks and potatoes finished in the oven, Chef Allinson gave us a lesson on cuts of meat (using the pig drawing on the blackboard instead of a cow — pork or beef, the cuts are basically the same.) Here she is encouraging us — a room full of adults — to approach the blackboard and teacher more closely for a better lesson. Does anyone ever outgrow the reluctance to sit in the front during a learning situation?
Time to make the mushroom-cognac sauce. Who doesn’t like a little heat during a date night — am I right, Ladies? Chef Allinson made the sauce by cooking the shallots in butter until soft, adding the mushrooms and cooking until browned, then de-glazing the pan with beef stock and stirring in some fresh thyme. Next, remove the skillet from the heat, add some cognac, return the skillet to the heat (hopefully with a nice flame-up) and cook until the liquid reduces by half.
Dinner is served! On my apron-covered lap. Although it was somewhat awkward to eat this decadent meal seated in a plastic chair with the plate balanced on my knees, I felt way more like a “chef” than I do when we cook at home and we eat at the table (in front of the TV, of course.) We enjoyed the meal very much — it was restaurant-quality food that we helped prepare. The beef was tender and juicy (Bravas! all around for steaks cooked medium-rare to rare!), the mushrooms were nice and saucy and the potatoes were perfectly crispy outside with creamy insides and fresh flavors from the garlic and herbs.
Don’t forget dessert! Despite the somewhat sloppy appearance on the plate (Chef Allinson pointed out that the tarts probably should have had a little more time to set before they were cut), the dessert was ridiculously sweet, sour and creamy with a crispy crust — perfect.
Finally, the absolute best part of cooking class date night? Someone else does the dishes. Brava!