Imagine a cooking class that is like piling into the kitchen with 8 or 10 of your close friends, each choosing a part of the meal to prepare guided by a professional chef. Wine is liberally shared, dishes are seasoned to taste, people are bumping into each other and the jokes are flying. That begins to describe the atmosphere of the cooking classes at Culinary Communion, a cooking group more than school, in a West Seattle house that offers hands-on seminars on a wide variety of culinary topics. I’m the newbie in the group, and as we sit down and meet our chef, Hope Sandler, who will be teaching us a thing or two about how to make garnishes, tablescapes and other tricks of food presentation, I learn a little bit about the rest of the team. A few of the students are also apprentices, and some have taken upwards of 60 different classes with Culinary Communion. For the next 4 Monday nights, from 6pm to 9pm (or later, depending on how the conversation over dinner goes) we’ll cook and then plate and replate food, critiquing our own work and the work of our fellow participants. Dinner may be cold by the time we sit down, but if the first class is any indication, it will still be delicious.
The first class was primarily about plating, and we prepared a pan-roasted chicken with mushrooms, steamed asparagus, goat-cheese and thyme mashers and Apple/Cognac tarts for dessert. But, before we dive into the meal preparation, we learn about working with phyllo dough.. how to add fat (or not), layer or scrunch, and generally shape into quick and easy appetizers and desserts.
Phyllo is one of those beautiful foods that looks hard to work with, but is actually insanely easy. Add butter and bread crumbs (for savory) or nuts/cake crumbs (for sweet) and you’ll get a fantastically light and crisp result with almost no work. That is, assuming you start with someone else’s phyllo dough… making it yourself, not something we tackled in this class, is an all day chore of tirelessly stretching and pulling to get the tissue paper thin leaves. For our actual meal, we used phyllo for the crust of the Apple tarts. But Hope also made some amazing sides to demonstrate other uses, like this savory Napoleon.
Then, it was onto the meal. The primary focus for presentation is the protein… if it doesn’t look good, the rest of your dish doesn’t have much hope. Pan-roasting the chicken, we learned to pay careful attention to the skin, starting the cooking presentation side down and resisting the urge to futz while it cooks. This was a big rule for just about all of the dishes… cooking does not mean constantly moving the food, and for beautiful food it often means simply standing by and waiting until it reaches the perfect shade of gold. More movement just makes the food break down. Once the chicken had begun to cook on the presentation side, it’s carefully (so as not to puncture the skin and release the juices) flipped and cooked a while longer stovetop before the whole cast iron pan is moved to the oven to roast. When they emerge from the oven they are some of the most gorgeous chicken breasts I’ve ever seen… as well as being some of the biggest (We decided that these chickens had aspirations of being turkeys when they grew up).
And with that, the sides were ready and we began our plating, focusing on a basic rule of thirds technique in which the eye goes from bottom left to upper right by the placement of the food. We were to focus on portion, proportions as well as a pleasing style. Despite us all using the same ingredients, we ended up with very different looking results… from my simple pyramid to the plate that was affectionately dubbed “the octopus king.” (You can see the full slideshow here.)
The biggest comment: we all had an issue with proportion of ingredients. All of our plates were piled with food the size of Texas. Because the chicken breasts were so big, we needed lots of potatoes and asparagus to balance it out… too much in fact… more than anyone should eat outside of a food eating contest. Once done, Hope asked us why we didn’t simply cut them down, and we all had a simultaneous “d’oh” moment. She deftly grabbed a chicken breast, and with a few flicks of a knife had a beautifully fanned chicken breast that was a much more sensible meal size as well as being even more beautiful.
Of course, we were learning other little things throughout the whole process:
- Garnishes, if there are any, really should relate to the dish. For example, if you use an herb sprig, does it echo or reinforce a flavor already in the dish?
- White plates, white plates, white plates. For food to look its best, Hope HIGHLY recommended using white plates. If you want to add color, then set the white plate on a charger (a plate or linen of another color).
- Odd numbers tend to be more pleasing (at least in our culture) than even… for example, when adding a side of asparagus spears it’s best to use 3 or 5 rather than 4.
And with that, we sat down to our feast, with plenty of time to talk about what we wanted to cover in the next three sessions. Look for another write up next Friday!