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Aunt Toby Takes A Cooking Class

Anyone who knows me knows that Aunt Toby reads and participates in probably more blogs than she probably has time for, but what the heck. One of them, Fab Over Fifty has a site associated with it (interestingly enough, also called faboverfifty.com), which always has lots of terrific contests and giveaways (plus great articles about what women over fifty years of age are doing, creating, running, operating, challenging, combating, changing, winning and so on). I usually don’t enter contests but I did enter the one to win a free cooking class with Jyl Ferris, she of http://www.cookingforbachelors.tv/ .

I was not the only winner. The lovely Jennifer (I’m not sure of her permission on names, so for the moment, she’s just Jenn) of New York City also won and to be truthful, this class was really for someone like her (kitchen filled with equipment she didn’t know how to use; fridge filled with take out containers) rather than me (though one of these days I will get a class on soups and pie crusts, two things that Aunt Toby avoids like the Plague because I am truly not very good with either one), but I’ll take any day trip down to New York that involves good food.

Jennifer and I converged on Jyl’s new digs (she just moved from her large loft apartment to a much smaller place). The kitchen area was pretty typical ‘New York City Apartment’ sized, which means that it was, in total, about 8 feet wide by about 4 feet deep, just enough room for an L of kitchen counter with cabinets, a fridge, sink and a four-burner stove. More than once during the afternoon, we had to do the ‘kitchen cha-cha’ with Jenn and I rhumba-ing between the stove and the sink, with Jyl giving running instructions and commentary from just outside in the open livingroom/dining area. But all in all, we left with our heads full of ideas, new-found confidence on Jennifer’s part in terms of working with knives, ground meat, and entertaining (both of us – for all Aunt Toby loves to cook – I am also the person who immediately embraced taking my kids and their friends to bowling for birthday parties. Having people in my house gives me ‘entertainment performance anxiety’).

I will get into more details in future posts, but here is what we learned and came away with:
Flavored Simple Syrups – which we used in what I’d call ‘personal soft drinks’ – we used already made coffee and a raspberry tea concentrate as the ‘water’ in the simple syrup. But, you can also use the flavored syrups as part of personal cocktails with vodka as well. I have to tell you that the coffee one, even with just seltzer, was absolutely fabulous – sophisticated, refreshing.

Hummus – which we have discussed before here. Jyl reminded us (and it’s a fabulous idea to remember), that hummus can be made out of any processed dried bean, so if you want to use black, navy, pinto, kidney, etc. instead of chick peas, then go for it!)

Pesto – which we substituted hulled sunflower seeds for the pine nuts since Jyl’s neighborhood store did not have them that day.

Bruschetta – Given what time of the year this is, I think this is something – because it is so easy – that anyone can whip up as a ‘before dinner appetizer’.

In the oven toasts – using day old Italian or French bread, sprinkles of extra virgin olive oil and freshly grated Romano cheese. These can be eaten by themselves, or used for the pesto or the Brusschetta or the hummus. Certainly a better tasting and healthier choice than a ‘bag-o-chips’.

From Scratch Meatballs and Spaghetti with Sauce. This is heaven on a plate and Jyl showed us a very nifty trick in terms of serving it so that you do not get that icky ‘ooo, look, the sauce is getting all watery and separating’ thing on the plate.

Strawberry ‘shortcakes’ with sweetened whipped cream. This is a definite ‘fast and easy/support your local bakery’ sort of dessert where all you do is wash and slice up the strawberries and ‘marinate’ them a little bit in lemon juice and a little sugar, whip up some heavy cream with a little bit of vanilla and sugar and serve over slices of the best pound cake you can find.

In addition, and this was definitely great for the anxious (ahem, ME) entertainer, we also did a very fast run through on table settings (yes, I WILL treat myself to some ‘charger plates’ – they really did seem to upgrade everything terrifically), more colorful napkins (or perhaps I’ll get some fabric and make my own – this has to be the easiest sewing project..but sewing up hems on 8, 10 or 12 squares might get into the ‘mindless’ at some point. Probably better to have this as a ‘want to sew but don’t want to do anything hard’ project). And we did some ‘deconstruction/recycling/re-imagining’ of a flower arrangement that had, as we say here at Chez Siberia, gotten a little ‘tired’.

Lessons learned:
Planning is everything. It really is worth taking the time a couple of days ahead if you are entertaining, to think through what you want to make, the order you need to have things (the simple syrups actually needed to be made first since it starts with boiling liquid and sugar and needs to be thoroughly chilled when you want to make the drinks just before dinner). Even planning down to the what plates or utensils you will need and digging them out (always one of my anxiety points since I tend to keep things that we don’t use often in boxes in the basement).

Simpler is better. I haven’t thought of serving spaghetti and meatballs as an entertainment option ever. But Jyl is right – it’s one of those dishes that a) everyone likes, no matter what their age and b) even if you can get it in a restaurant, everything has been made way in advance and has to be reheated. It usually never even hits the tick on ‘good’ range. Making the sauce and meatballs from scratch and getting fresh pasta raises this combo to the almost ambrosia stage. Better a dish people already come to the table liking and present them a version that they will close their eyes while chewing than a fancy dish you’ve never made before that they will poke around on the plate.

Put your time and best efforts with stuff you can and like to do. If you are not a baker, find a bakery that does a really really good job.

We made everything that day with the following tools. No other gadgets or little fiddly stuff necessary:
Cutting board and good sharp knives
One stock pot for the sauce
One large frying pan to brown the meatballs
Smaller pot for the simple syrup
Small electric hand mixer for the whipped cream
Food processor
Cookie sheet to make the toast
Bowls

That is it – all you need.

Take it away, Jyl Ferris!!

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