Cook your way through the holidays with Central Market’s culinary classes
Dec 14, 2011 | 1:50 pm
Another year, another holiday season. Soon the family and friends will be descending, looking to put on those extra 10 holiday pounds by eating your food. Should you serve the safe, same old standbys? Or are you feeling in the mood to kick a little ass with your cooking this year?
Personally, I think special occasions are the perfect time to try something unexpected that will wow your guests. And there's no easier way to learn how to do that than by enrolling in a cooking class. Thankfully, Central Market has you covered.
I wanted to take some classes to add to my culinary bag of tricks. I’m a fan of some of the cooking shows, like Chopped and MasterChef. I love the creativity that some of these chefs bring, and I really enjoy finding products in the stores or farmers markets and trying out new recipes with them. Although I cook a lot, and feel that I’m pretty good at it, I’ve always thought it would be really cool to attain a few more professional skills and tricks.
The Central Market Cooking School has a varied calendar with a lot of holiday-themed specialty classes. How about holiday meals for brunch, vegetarians, meat and poultry or desserts? They even have some really unexpected offerings, like "Taste of the Holidays" with Bess Bistro and a Czech dinner class, as well as gingerbread house and holiday treats classes for kids.
I started with the basics — a sauce class, led by Christina Lee. Christina has been teaching at Central Market Cooking School for four years; she once worked as sous chef at the Four Seasons, and is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute. Learning to make sauces might sound pretty fundamental, but that's what I wanted — the foundations for good chef skills that can be utilized in many dishes and different cooking styles.
As the class handout stated: "A sauce is the crowning glory of any dish. When a sauce is used on food, it is the first thing to touch the tongue. From the basic five mother sauces, there are literally hundreds of variations of sauce that are used to dress, complement, enhance and bring out the flavor of the food it is served with."
We learned these five mother sauces: Béchamel, Velouté, Espagnole, Hollandaise and Vinaigrette. We started with the hollandaise, and lucky me — Christina singled me out to start it up. Which was fortunate for the other students, because they got to see what not to do. The burner that Christina set me to whisking the egg yolks over in a double boiler was too hot, and suddenly the egg started to cook. Not good. Christina showed us how if that happens, you can add a bit of ice water to thin it out and save it. “There’s a reason they charge so much for Eggs Benedict,” she said. Hollandaise is tricky, and takes a lot of practice to master.
Christina proved to be as funny and charming as she was an excellent cooking instructor. As we worked, she regaled us with humorous tales of her mother’s cooking adventures. Being Chinese, her mother seems to have funny ideas of classic American food. From SPAM to funny fruit salads mixed with mayonnaise and potatoes, Christina kept us laughing at her mom’s culinary escapades. I was beginning to see what impelled her to go to culinary school. She also shared the influence that her dad had on her interest in cooking, and showed us the tattoo on her wrist that she got when he was diagnosed with cancer. It was at his urging that she entered, and won, the Chefs Under Fire competition in 2010 with a Citrus Crusted Texas Gulf Snapper.
My second class was called "Basic to Brilliant, Y'all" and was taught by Virginia Willis. Virginia is the author of a cookbook by the same name, and the former Kitchen Director for Martha Stewart Living Television. As the daughter and granddaughter of consummate Southern cooks and a classically trained French chef, Virginia has a gift for giving French recipes a down-home Southern feel.
"I like writing almost as much as I like cooking," Virginia said about her cookbooks. "But I couldn't have picked two professions that paid less." (Note to self as a writer: Don't take up cooking as a second job).
She was also a lot of fun, and I was pleasantly surprised to see Christina Lee again, assisting. The title of Virginia's books and the class were apropos — a Georgia peach, she sprinkled a lot of "y'all" throughout her instruction. Music to my ears was "Time to eat, y'all." We started off with a butternut squash and winter greens gratin, which was my favorite dish all night. I love squash, and butternut is my favorite, but I have a hard time finding ways to make greens taste good to me. This recipe rocked.
It also showed me how the Central Market cooking classes build on one another. Virginia's recipe calls for heavy cream, but as with many of her dishes, she advised us on substitutions. For this, she said we could use a béchamel sauce in place of the cream. Score! I knew how to do that, since I had learned the béchamel sauce from Christina. "You come to these classes to get all the stuff you can't get in the cookbooks," Virginia said of the tips and tricks she shared.
Virginia is a big proponent of sourcing local food, and during her demonstration of the Fried Benne Shrimp dish she stressed using Gulf shrimp, and buying seafood wisely. "You support the local economy, and it's healthier without the antibiotics," she said. "We are eating our way like a Las Vegas buffet through our oceans."
Like Christina with her father, Virginia also had a family member's influence on her love of cooking: her grandmother, whom she called Mimi. At the end of class — after we were in a stupor from partaking of the most sinfully amazing chocolate bread pudding with caramel, goat cheese and cream — Virginia closed by reading about her grandmother from the introduction of her cookbook, which we were all taking home as part of the class fee.
All of the Central Market Cooking School come with wine served (except the children's classes, of course) and often include take-homes such as a cookbook or packaged food items. All of the helpers in the classes are also community volunteers who give their time to make the classes happen and deserve a very big thank-you.
Check out the Central Market Cooking School calendar to see what's coming up for the rest of the holiday season. Classes are held at the 4001 N. Lamar Boulevard location. You can also contact them at 512-206-1014.