Sunday, April 17, 2011

Cooking for Beginners

Last Monday I kicked off my Cooking for Beginners class through the Bloomington Free School. I made it very clear to my students from the beginning that I am no expert in this field and have had no formal training. I'm just a gal who likes food and talking about food a whole lot more than normal people. No fancy titles for me. Just Emily Meade, source of endless food gab.

This is the first time I've ever done any formal teaching on food and cooking. And again, I made this clear to my students and apologized for the guinea-pig nature of what was about to be brought upon them.

Then I informed the room that in an effort to keep from lecturing at them, I wanted to make our time together very interactive and discussion oriented. Which meant I'd be asking a lot of questions and making them taste all sorts of weird things. And again, these troopers were game.

The structure and content for this class was developed in a true "stab in the dark" fashion. I'm trying to keep track of everything as I go along so if when I teach another session, it'll keep getting better.

The class is set up in three 90-minute sessions. The first covered kitchen basics, mostly equipment, tools and ingredients. I sat out on my back porch a few weeks ago in the beautiful springtime sun and devoted hours of going through a list of basic pieces of kitchen equipment and tools and discussing how to use them, care for them, shop for them, etc. And then I realized something. Even frat boys making ramen noodles have some cooking tools. They may not know how to use them most effectively, but they have them. Anyone with a kitchen most likely has something in it.

Feeling like a dummy (curse you, distracting springtime sun!) I quickly wrapped up my information on tools and moved on to the second portion of the class: Ingredients. After my kitchen equipment epiphany, I realized this is where I'd really be putting the meat on the bone. But unlike kitchen equipment, talking about ingredients needed to be much more hands on. There's a lot you can say about an ingredient, but because its ultimate utilization is going to be perceived through taste it made sense to me to spend time actually tasting the stuff.

During the class, I opened with introductions around the room that included what was the last thing you cooked and what would be your dream dish to learn how to make. I was relieved to hear all of the dream dishes were things I am confident I can teach how to make (yay!). After intros we went through the basics of kitchen equipment (I did spend all that time working on it, after al) and then moved on to ingredients.

For the ingredient portion I brought along the contents of my cooking liquid and spice cabinets. The first thing I did was a demo on making homemade popcorn. This was for two reasons: One, I wanted them to taste spices and bread didn't seem like the best vehicle for that and two: I felt like it would be a total cop out to teach a cooking class and do no cooking. Once we had popcorn, we went to town on using bread and popcorn pieces to taste various cooking liquids, spices and herbs. I asked them to sample something and then tell me what it tasted like. Was it sweet or salty? What flavors can you pick up? Do you like the taste? What does it remind you of? I wanted to get them out of the act of putting food in their mouths and into the act of paying attention to what that food said to them.

I shared with the ladies in my class my thought process for teaching ingredients in this way. I explained my rationale of ingredients being the biggest thing about cooking that people who aren't currently cooking don't understand. It's easy enough to figure out how to cook store bought pasta, but what is in pasta? They agreed that the ingredients were in need of the most demystifying.

For the next time around I plan to introduce more ingredients on the first day, but also provide a list of what they're tasting with space to write in their reactions to it so the students leave class with a list of ingredients they are now familiar with.

Next week we'll focus on cooking techniques. I'll be pulling from actual recipes to teach basics like boiling, baking, braising, sautéing, stir-frying, etc. 

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