Every fall, we publish a list of cooking classes as voluminous as a bumper zucchini crop. In the interest of space, we can only give you basic information about each class. We can't evaluate each teacher, describe every dish you'll cook, or tell you which course may change your culinary life. What we can do, however, is be your ad hoc guidance counselor -- help you read between the lines.
The first question to ask yourself is why you want to take a cooking class. Then you'll want to peruse the categories of classes available and identify those that fit your needs.
Several area cooking teachers agree that many students flounder, seem misdirected and often choose the wrong class. People frequently don't know what they want, said Mimmeta Lo Monte, who has been teaching Italian cooking in the area for nine years. Basically, she said, "they know they like food."
Aside from liking food, in determining why you want to take a cooking class, you will have to ask yourself the following questions:
Do I want to learn to cook a specific food or perfect a specific technique?
Do I want to pick up the basics of a type of cuisine or further my skills?
Do I just want to increase my recipe repertoire or am I seriously thinking about pursuing cooking as a career?
Do I want to get my hands into bread dough or do I simply want to sit back and relax?
The answers to these questions essentially identify the types of classes in the list that would interest you. For those who have a passion for preparing apples, tofu or nigiri tidbits, there are classes in each. Technique classes range from learning to make pie crusts or pasta to deboning meats, stir-frying or steaming. There are cuisine-specific classes in Vietnamese vegetarian cookery, Hungarian and Caribbean. For those who want to further their skills, there are intermediate and advanced French courses. There are menu classes in everything from a four course salmon dinner to a seven-course French dinner. And for those who are thinking of turning their interests into a career, there are courses such as L'Academie de Cuisine's two-year professional training program. If you want to get your hands dirty, opt for a full-participation class; if you want to watch someone else get their hands dirty, choose a demonstration format.
Once you've established the basic category of class that matches your needs, call the teacher and get the details. Several area teachers report that students may have unfulfilled expectations upon completing a course because they either don't ask any questions or the right questions during the sign-up period.
Here is a checklist of questions to ask a prospective teacher:
Where is the class located? What kind of facilities does it have?
There are essentially four different types of organizations that hold cooking classes: 1) public facilities such as community colleges and high schools, 2) cookware or department stores, 3) private individuals who teach from their homes, 4) established cooking schools.
There are advantages and disadvantages of each location, according to Judy Harris, a local teacher who has taught cooking classes in each type of facility.
Adult education courses, which are frequently considerably less expensive than other classes, are good for dabblers or the cost conscious. They are often basic in nature and are generally participatory because they will probably be held in home economics class kitchens. The quality of these facilities will vary.
Cookware or department stores almost exclusively hold demonstrations, led by either well-known chefs or touring cookbook authors. The advantage of these classes is that they are often entertaining and give you the opportunity to see a famous chef in person. Many of these shops also have facilities well suited to demonstrations, such as overhead mirrors.
Although the classes are generally free or inexpensive, they are often held to lure you into the store either to buy equipment or the touring cookbook author's book. You can expect to pick up some tips from these demonstrations, but don't expect a comprehensive cooking lesson, Harris said.
Taking a class in an individual's home, Harris said, may be helpful because it most closely mirrors the type of environment you'll be cooking in and the equipment you'll be using once you leave the class. The atmosphere is also likely to be quite informal. Work space may be small, however, limiting full participation.
A professional cooking school, such as L'Academie de Cuisine, offers a wide range of courses and has facilities geared to either a demonstration or participation format. Prices are likely to be more expensive than at adult education courses or at cookware shops.
Is the class demonstration or participation?
While location itself may suggest whether the class is hands-on or off, it's best to ask.
Demonstration classes are almost like eating at a restaurant -- except the chef is the teacher and the diners are the class. This type of class is best for those who are tired after a long day and would rather watch someone else do all the work. A demonstration class will, however, give you a balanced view of an entire cooking procedure, which you can then try at home.
If you decide to take a participatory class, ask the teacher what the students actually get to do: there are limited and full-participation classes. Does each student complete a dish from start to finish? Does participation mean prep work and cleaning, too? Does each student have his own work space?
Remember that if you are taking a technique class, such as bread baking or deboning, it had better be participatory; hands-on experience is crucial if you want to be able to replicate the procedure at home.
Sharon Farrington, who teaches at L'Academie de Cuisine, also suggests that students find out exactly how much of the technique the participation class will include, so that it won't duplicate something you already know or omit something you don't know.
Is the class big or small? Is the class one session or a series?
If you want more individualized attention or want to develop a rapport with the teacher or the class, obviously a smaller class is for you. Elizabeth Esterling, who teaches intermediate and advanced French classes of four, said that a smaller class makes it easier for students to ask "anything they want." They "don't have to be embarrassed in front of 25 people to ask a stupid question," she said.
For a demonstration, the size of the class doesn't necessarily matter so long as you can see what the teacher is doing. If you're the type who slept during first period algebra, you might prefer sinking into the background in a larger class.
A single-session class will help you get your feet wet for a particular technique or cuisine; a series class will obviously be more in-depth. Ask the teacher what will be covered in each class in the series, making sure the curriculum takes a logical progression.
Does the teacher follow recipes? What dishes will be cooked? Are they for entertaining or for everyday use?
Farrington believes that teachers should not concentrate on strictly following recipes, but should teach students the "whys and wherefores" of food, including food chemistry, troubleshooting and ways to apply the information to other dishes and different circumstances.
If you are interested in new recipes, however, you might want to ask the teacher whether the recipes will be duplicated and distributed, and whether they are originals, adaptations or straight from a cookbook or magazine.
What will the cost of the class cover?
Some classes include a full dinner; others, such as demonstrations, may either include samples or serve no food at all. Nevertheless, how much food you get to eat is not the true measure of a class, said Ann Yonkers, who teaches American cooking classes.
You may also want to know whether you will need to purchase any equipment or books in order to cook the dishes at home.
What are the teacher's qualifications?
Aside from word of mouth, it's tough to make a conclusive judgment about a teacher from a phone conversation. "It's like calling a chef and asking, 'Is your food good?' " said Francois Dionot, director of L'Academie de Cuisine. Nevertheless, don't be afraid to ask a teacher where he or she has trained and taught, Dionot stressed. Remember, too, that great cooks don't necessarily make great teachers and vice versa, Dionot added.
A good teacher will not assume what the class already knows. Even among students who are not beginners, Yonkers said, she is always finding that people don't know necessary or basic steps.
The International Association of Cooking Professionals, an organization of cooking teachers, caterers and other food professionals, has just begun a teachers' certification program. Lack of certification does not indicate that a teacher is not qualified, but you can call the organization to find out if a particular teacher has already been certified. The association, located here in Washington, can be reached at 293-7716.
Here are a few recipes to get you ready for school:
MIMETTA LO MONTE'S SALSA DI POMODORO INFORNATA CON PASTA (Baked tomato sauce with pasta) (4 servings)
1 1/2 pounds medium-ripe pear-shaped tomatoes, sliced lengthwise
1/4 cup grated romano cheese
1/4 cup unflavored bread crumbs
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon each salt and black pepper
1/2 pound penne pasta, cooked
Cover the bottom of a baking dish with a very generous layer of olive oil. (Choose a baking dish in which the tomato halves will be able to fit in one layer close together.) Place tomato halves cut side down, dabbing each surface with oil. Turn tomatoes cut side up in pan.
Mix cheese, bread crumbs, garlic, oregano, salt and pepper and top tomatoes with the mix. Bake for 40 minutes at 425 degrees. Check while baking, decreasing heat to 375 degrees if drippings start to burn. Add cooked, drained pasta to baked tomatoes. Toss and serve immediately.
ANN YONKERS' SOUTHWEST SALAD (4 to 6 servings)
2 cups cooked corn kernels, frozen or fresh
1 each green, red and yellow (or orange) bell peppers, cut into matchsticks
1 small jicama, peeled and cut into matchsticks
1 zucchini, scrubbed, ends trimmed, and cut into matchsticks
1 yellow squash, scrubbed, ends trimmed, and cut into matchsticks
1 to 2 anaheim chiles
FOR THE DRESSING:
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 clove garlic, minced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Pinch sugar (optional)
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon chile powder or cayenne or to taste
6 to 8 tablespoons corn or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, minced, plus several sprigs for garnish
Prepare salad vegetables. To prevent burning sensation when handling the hot chiles, oil your hands with 1 tablespoon corn or vegetable oil. Wash the anaheim chiles, being careful not to wash the oil off your hands. Cut chiles into matchsticks.
In a medium-size bowl, prepare the vinaigrette: Squeeze the lime, add wine vinegar, garlic, salt, pepper, optional sugar and chile powder or cayenne. Beat in the oil until smooth. Add cilantro.
Put all vegetables into a salad bowl. Pour in the vinaigrette and toss thoroughly. Taste and adjust seasoning. Garnish with sprigs of cilantro. Serve chilled.
ELIZABETH ESTERLING'S GATEAU SEVILLANE (Orange Cake) (6 to 8 servings)
Grated zest from 1 navel orange
1 cup sugar
10 tablespoons butter, softened
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Juice of 3 navel oranges
FOR THE GARNISH:
Julienned zest from 2 oranges
2 1/2 tablespoons grenadine
1/2 cup water
Placed grated zest of 1 orange with 1/2 cup sugar in food processor fitted with a steel blade. Add butter to processor and process until fluffy. Add eggs and mix in well. Add flour and baking powder and process with several on-off turns just to blend. Pour in juice of 1 orange. Mix quickly and transfer to well buttered 8-inch layer cake pan. Place in a 375-degree oven for 5 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 and bake for 25 to 30 minutes longer. As soon as cake is cooked, turn it out on a serving plate.
Dissolve remaining 1/2 cup sugar in the juice of the other 2 oranges. Pour over cake slowly while still warm. Let rest, lightly covered, at room temperature overnight.
To make garnish, place julienned orange zest in a small saucepan with grenadine and water. Bring to a boil and simmer for about 15 minutes, or until zest turns pink. Place zest around edge of top of cake.