JUST THINKING: Cooking school

Just Thinking | Julie Stafford

I used to spend quite a bit of time in the kitchen looking through cookbooks, trying new recipes, new ingredients. I enjoyed everything involved with going to the store, buying vegetables, spices, meats and then chopping, boiling, measuring, mixing, baking — whatever the recipe called for to create something delicious. Sometimes I hit a winner, sometimes not. But it didn’t really matter because I liked the whole creative process. And I like food.

I’m not exactly sure when I fell into such a boring rut of recipes I knew were a synch or one minute meals, but recently I decided to spice things up a little: I went back to school.

OK. OK. So it was just a one night, three-hour cooking class at the Grand Rapids Cooking School. But it inspired me more than a lot of my semester long classes ever did way back when. The focus was street foods from around the world. Our chef for the night started with an informal lesson about spices — letting us smell, touch and taste everything from different kinds of curry to cardamom to black mustard seeds and anise. Many I’ve never used before.

She showed us how you can take an ordinary thing like Rice Crispy Treats and turn them into something that tastes like it came from the other side of the world. Instead of using our good ol’ snap, crackle and pop, she mixed together puffed millet cereal, melted marshmallows, cumin, black mustard seed, turmeric, chili powder and curry leaf. Sounds like a strange combination, I know. But oddly enough it worked and was yummy.

Next we divided into teams. Some made chicken with dipping sauce, some sweet potato pancakes, others lamb meatballs. My assignment was salads — one with carrots, one with couscous. Didn’t sound so out of the box until we started combining the carrots with feta, lemon juice, cilantro, olive oil, raisins. Things that really made your taste buds pop. We toasted pine nuts, soaked couscous, chopped mint and onion and zested more lemon.

The evening ended with us gathering around a big table and enjoying our creations. Lots of “mmm’s” and “wows” and even a “not my favorite” or two. The point wasn’t to make something that everyone would like, though. It was to get us out of our proverbial box and looking at food in a new light.

When you talk about school, you tend to think about “rules” and “following directions.” But our chef’s whole point for the night wasn’t to teach us how to follow a recipe verbatim. It was how to cook outside the lines — measure to taste not to teaspoon, don’t be afraid to throw in a little sea salt or be heavy handed with your curry.

Some might have walked away from that night thinking they’d learned a few really cool new ways to think about cooking in their own kitchens. But for me, it was more of a reminder of sorts. There’s a time and a place for living inside the lines, following the recipes. But there’s a heck of lot more to be seen and tasted and felt living outside the lines. I’m inspired to see how that philosophy works both in my own kitchen and in my life.


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