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Sharpen Your Skills

Eat - and cook - like a pro

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The fact that we are blessed with an incredible culinary scene in Providence is old news. JWU turns out chefs who open great restaurants; generations of families pass down their recipes and cook for the masses; innovative future culinary stars hone their skills here and then make big national names for themselves. We get to eat a lot of delicious food in this city – but in the past, if you wanted to learn how to cook it, you’d better sign on for four years of higher education. Not anymore. Cooking classes are popping up all over town, in some of the newest, most forward-thinking kitchens and in some of the city’s most vener- able food institutions. Here’s a taste of a few.

Back to school
Gourmet made easy with Professor Chef
I have to admit that I was apprehensive about taking a crepes class from Professor Chef, the cooking classes that husband-and-wife team Phil Griffin (pictured right) and Malinda Coletta teach out of their North Providence home. Crepes are delicious, but they’re so fussy, I thought. I just didn’t see myself applying that skill to my daily life. “We’re going to be making a whole meal of crepes tonight,” Phil explained. “A vegetable appetizer crepe, manicotti, chicken marsala crepes with mushroom cream and dessert crepes. We’ll start with the manicotti – but, do you see any ricotta around?” He poured a tablespoon of vinegar into the simmering milk in front of him, and held it out for us to see. “There. It’s done.”

In about three seconds, Phil had just taught four students how to make our own cheese. After that, crepes seemed like nothing. He and Malinda, a comedy duo if there ever was one, brought us through four different preparations, both sweet and savory. They would demonstrate a technique – it turns out prepping crepe batter takes about two minutes, and cooking a crepe itself takes about one, so that whole fussiness factor I was worried about was a non-issue – while we sipped their homemade wine and watched. (It’s also a class they offer, in addition to beer brewing, regional Italian cuisines, pie and dessert classes, lessons in homemade charcuterie – even Downton Abbey and Julia Child-themed nights.)

The four courses they taught us to make were incredibly delicious, and fast enough to make on a weeknight, though they would pass muster for any dinner party. What I loved more, though, was their tips on making cooking as easy and affordable as possible: which grocery stores have the best prices, the under the radar ethnic shops where they get their ingredients, how once in a while it’s okay to cheat with a prepared food, how you don’t have to be Martha Stewart all the time. “Forgive yourself,” Malinda said. “If it makes you cook for your family and you use fresh ingredients, there’s nothing wrong with taking a short cut.” Attainable, real life gourmet with minimal cleanup afterwards? Yes, please. 41 Lookout Avenue, North Providence. 749-3312 - JT



Rolling in the Dough

A lesson in pasta at Williams-Sonoma
Walking into the culinary haven that is Williams-Sonoma is a little bit like entering a foodie dreamscape. I had been to the store in Providence Place often, but hadn’t visited since Williams-Sonoma decamped to Garden City. It turns out that the store’s new location includes a new, surprisingly delicious addition: cooking classes.

The store never fails to be beautiful, but it’s also expensive - sometimes very expensive – and part of me expected this class to be a lesson in how to use a lot of pricey gadgets that I wasn’t going to be taking home if I wanted to afford food to cook with them for the rest of the month. To my pleasant surprise, as soon as I sat down, instructor Kyle Alves explained that this would be a class, not a product demo. The fresh ingredients – bowls of eggs and flour, colanders of mushrooms and shallots, a promising amount of bacon and parmesan cheese – indicated more of the same.

Three students gathered around the marble island where Kyle would be working, which looked like the set of a cooking show, as he explained the pastas that we would be making: spaghettini with olive pesto, pappardelle with mushrooms, pasta alla carbonara and creamy penne with walnuts – some with fresh pasta, some dry, and all using recipes from a WS cookbook. In another pleasantly local touch, he told us that he honed his culinary chops working in the kitchen at his family’s restaurant, Portofino, for two decades. (If you want a good story, ask him about the time Anthony Hopkins sat in the restaurant and watched Silence of the Lambs with the staff.)

While Kyle cooked, we peppered him with questions – see what I did there? – about culinary techniques, what his quick go-to meals are, how chefs eat when they’re in and out of the kitchen. He delivered plates of simple preparations that tasted like they took hours to make. “Everyone thinks restaurant food is so complicated,” he said to us, “but it’s just organization.” I wished I could have gotten my hands dirty with the cooking, but there was a mirror installed over the stove so we could see what he was doing – and honestly there was so much food to eat that I wouldn’t have had time to so much as boil water. And his using the store’s new high-tech pasta maker, which mixes the ingredients for you and turns out fresh pasta in about five minutes, felt like such an organic part of the process that it didn’t come off as a sales pitch at all, even when he offered us the customary 10% off purchases that night. “Eating should just be a really fun, enjoyable time,” Kyle said. My evening at Williams-Sonoma was definitely that. 41 Hillside Road, Cranston. 943-0681. - JT



The sweet stuff
Festive confections at Amy’s Apples

It isn’t often that you try to make your food look as gross as possible. But, in the spirit of Halloween, Amy Heaton was about to teach me how to make the most ghoulish, gruesome treats: severed fingers; mini cauldrons; disembodied heads of Frankenstein’s monster; tiny, terrifying jack o’lanterns. This being Amy’s Apples, though, I knew that no matter how devilish they looked on the outside, they would be sinfully good on the inside.

We started our Halloween treats decorating course with a glass of wine and a demo in chocolate dipping. Because the Frankenstein caramel apples
would take the most work, we started on them first, dredging a caramel-dipped apple in green chocolate, followed by white and orange-dipped Oreos that would eventually be mummies and pumpkins. Amy’s assistants Brittni and Rebekah gave us decorating demos as the night progressed – one showing us how to turn a white-dipped Oreo into a mummy (“It’s Halloween,” she said. “You want things to look crazy and fun.”) and the other going through the process of turning a cookie dough bon bon into a bloody eyeball. Sound gross? Maybe. But it sure didn’t taste that way.

As we worked on our own confections, Amy came around with a tray of her newest confection for us to try: Nutella brownie bon bons. They were as good as they sounded. Amy’s Apples, which carved a niche for itself locally with outrageous, beautifully decorated caramel apples and now makes an array of artful chocolate treats, offers seasonal decorating classes for different holidays. As I painted red chocolate onto a caramel-dipped pretzel, turning it into a severed finger, the women around me chattered about how much they loved the Valentine’s Day class they had attended together, and how they’d be getting together the following weekend to recreate these spooky treats for a son’s Halloween birthday party. We all left with bags filled with festive frights. As I walked out the door, I had every intention of sharing when I got home. Somehow, though, it didn’t work out that way. Boo? 128 Pleasant View Avenue, Smithfield. 233-2000. - JT



Beefing up
A lesson in healthy consumption at Blackbird Farm

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good steak. I just don’t want to know the intricacies of the butchering process. Or, really, that my steak was anywhere before it ended up on my plate, cooked to a perfect medium rare and topped with a mushroom demi. But, I had tried Blackbird Farms beef before at some of the more farm-to-fork-devoted restaurants in Providence, and I was impressed. The Smithfield farm is one of the few in Rhode Island where you can source local beef and pork. In the spirit of good journalism and the pursuit of becoming someone who isn’t afraid of cooking meat, I headed to David Dadekian’s Eat Drink RI cooking class at Blackbird.

It was a beautiful fall afternoon – so beautiful, in fact, that there was a rare pair of open spots in the class. “This is the first time in maybe six years we haven’t sold out,” David commented. We were a cozy eight people, starting out with a tour of the farm by Ann Marie Bouthillette, who started Blackbird as a passion project with her husband, and whose son runs the day to day. Ann Marie explained to us exactly what they do there: raise all-natural, hormone-free, pasture-fed, 100% Black Angus cattle and American Heritage Berkshire pigs (and organic, free-range Rhode Island Red eggs, too). It was clear from listening to Ann Marie detail how they feed their animals, how they humanely butcher them, how they have to limit their sales to ensure the highest quality product, that this isn’t exactly what you’re going to find at Stop & Shop.

We went inside for David’s cooking demo, using all Blackbird meats (pictured below). He would be cooking us meatballs using half pork and half beef, pork chops in a RI coffee syrup sauce, kielbasa with summer squash and salt-boiled potatoes. As he cooked, we sipped Jonathan Edwards wine from just over the line in Connecticut, and talked about our favorite places to shop local. It turns out, the cows do, too. Local breweries Ravenous and Brutopia donate their spent grains to the farm as feed. David’s foods were simple to prepare and approachable, but incredibly delicious. As Ann Marie explained, “It’s hard to get our pork. Once one person has it, it just goes. Almost everything is pre-ordered. It’s out the door as soon as it’s in.” One taste of those meatballs, which we ate without any distracting toppings, and I understood why.

As for the steak I wanted to cover – “salt, pepper, grill, done” David explained – I could just figure that one out on my own when I got home. After I stopped at the Blackbird farm stand, that is. 122 Limerock Road. 578-3959. - JT



Bowling over
Warming up with seasonal soups at Easy Entertaining
I don’t know about you, but as soon as the weather turns even just a little chilly, my stock pot comes out of the cabinet and pretty much stays on my stove until bathing suit season comes back. Soup is hands-down my favorite food: Most Sundays, you’ll find me prepping and chopping and simmering something heartwarming for that week’s lunches. The problem is, though, that I’m tired of my soup recipes. That’s why I jumped at the chance to get a lesson in Crock Pot and Stovetop Soups at Easy Entertaning.

Nestled in a historic carriage house that’s part of the Rising Sun Mills complex on Valley Street, Easy Entertaining built a strong following as a farm-to-table catering business, and opened the Cafe at Easy Entertaining two years ago. It’s known for its seasonally-changing menus, which also come across in their weekly cooking classes: this month’s instructional offerings focus on simplifying Thanksgiving dinner.

My class, though, was all about heaven in a bowl. Executive Sous Chef Ashley Vanasse and Cafe Chef Andrea Schmitt prepped us at the beginning of the demo: the ladies would be showing us how to make five soups, and then showing us how delicious they are by letting us taste all of them. We started with a simple stovetop to crock pot soup: Creamy Tomato. While she cooked, Chef Ashley went through her recipes and showed us ways to simplify them even further. While she started the tomato soup by sautéeing the vegetables on the stove, Chef Ashley explained, just adding them to the crock pot would save us a step (on, say, a busy Tuesday morning before work) and would only slightly alter the depth of flavor. The beauty of the recipes she showed us - the tomato soup was followed by a smooth Tuscan White Bean and Roasted Garlic, an incredibly rich loaded Baked Potato, a texturally intriguing Beans and Greens and a delicious Beef Stew – was that they all cook in crock pots for about the length of a work day. No more spending Sundays over my stove. That’s a delicious change. 166 Valley Street. 437-6090. - JT



The Art of French pastry
Finding the sweet spot at Ellie’s Bakery

Learning how to make pastries from a pastry chef has always been a dream of mine. This dream came true one sunny afternoon at Ellie’s Bakery when I signed up for a macaron making class. Do you actually know the difference between a macaroon and a macaron? I’m sure when you hear macaroon you think of coconut macaroons – the delectable piles of coconut held together with sweetened condensed milk and egg whites. However, I’m talking about macarons – the chewy and airy French pastries that look like the most delicious little sandwich you could ever eat. And they are. It’s like biting into a tiny cloud of sugary awesome.

And with the help of some very talented, patient and good-direction-giving bakers, Melissa Denmark and Allison Hertz, it was easier than I imagined. They are the dream team at Ellie’s Bakery who bring imaginative and traditional culinary creations to life. Ellie’s Bakery is the confectionary offshoot of Gracie’s located in the Biltmore Garage.

To be honest, I was a bit intimidated by the thought of making traditional French pastries. I’m more of a throw-everything-into-a-pan-and-make-dinner-in-20-minutes kind of gal (take that Rachael Ray). But as I walked into Ellie’s, I was greeted with freshly brewed coffee and zucchini and banana nut muffins. I felt welcomed, at ease and excited to start this culinary adventure. As I walked into the kitchen, I was handed an apron and immediately noticed that all the ingredients are measured out and ready for me to mix together. I can totally do this, I thought.

Handwritten note cards spelled out the series of steps we would take throughout the few hour lesson. We began the class by first watching Allison mix up a large batch of macarons. We created the chocolate ganache filling, then proceeded to make the batter for the tiny cakes.

My biggest lesson for the day was patience. I put my quick cooking habits aside to absorb the lessons of letting the ingredients do their magic by leaving them the heck alone. You can’t rush perfection. What started as a little almond flour, egg whites, sugar and hope had turned into a culinary masterpiece.

You’ll want to savor this experience and go on to the next one. Whether it’s an advanced macaron class, an autumnal baking or holiday cookie making class, the directions will be clear, easy and just gosh darn fun. 61 Washington Street. 228-8118. - GL

Vegetables are Cool Too, Promise
Cooking the season’s bounty at the Friendship Cafe

After a long day of work I usually reach for a nice tall glass of wine, which helps me to procrastinate making dinner. Not that I don’t enjoy cooking – I do immensely – but sometimes I’m just too tired (read: lazy) to cook. Lucky for me the folks at the Friendship Cafe offered a Fall Harvest Menu Demonstration where I would learn how to prepare a meal using seasonal ingredients.

As soon as I walked into the Friendship Cafe, Chef Michelle Pugh asked if I would like red or white wine. Score! I then learned that the five-course meal she would be preparing would be entirely vegetarian and that we wouldn’t miss the meat. It sounded like a tall order, but I was game.

We started with a seasonal salad with a from-scratch Greek yogurt dressing, moved onto a warm and cozy roasted red pepper and eggplant crostini, followed that up with veggie chili, then sweet potato and black bean quesadillas and finished with a ridiculously simple pumpkin mousse with ginger snaps crumbled on top.

Needless to say, I was well fed and satiated at the end of this class. It may have been three hours, but it flew by between the wine, the fun-and-easy directions by Chef Michelle and the interaction with other folks who had the shared interest of making delicious food. Chef Michelle not only showed us how easy great food can be, but we were part of the slicing, dicing and chopping process, which gave us the opportunity to hone our skills.

The biggest lesson I learned from this class was to let the ingredients speak for themselves. So often the natural flavors of a product are masked and what’s left is something unrecognizable from its original state. I also learned that unloved vegetables from farms deserve a spot on your table. Although these vegetables may not look the prettiest, they are edible, delicious and perfectly fine. Just because a piece of produce isn’t perfect, it’s perfectly fine to eat. Friendship Cafe, 500 Broad Street. 272-0220.- GL



Rustic Creations at Al Forno
City dining teams up with rural farms for culinary harmony

I had been hearing about Al Forno for years. The pasta. The atmosphere. The feel good food. I finally had an opportunity to not just eat there, but to learn from the executive chef himself, Chef David Reynoso, and his stellar team for one of their Meet the Farmer fall cooking classes. For this class we would be working with Debbie Barrett from Allen Farms in Westport, MA who’s been growing organic veggies and herbs since 1987. Allen Farms and Al Forno clearly have a great relationship, as would be seen and tasted in the culinary harmony of the day’s dishes.

As I entered the restaurant one typically overcast fall afternoon, I saw my fellow class-takers. They ranged from young couples learning to hone their skills to old gal pals getting their kicks by having a young star chef cook for them. After a few minutes of chatting and getting to know
these folks, we were shuffled into the kitchen where we watched Pastry Chef Neil Tempkin prepare the dough for our dessert. Like all the courses prepared for us that day, the pastry shell was unfussy, easy to make and turned out to be flaky, yummy and very memorable.

Throughout the next few hours, we rolled out gnocchi – which turned out to be more fun than difficult to make – washed arugula and husk cherry tomatoes and chopped cherry tomatoes. More than anything else I learned that day, Chef David stressed the importance of using the best ingredients available. I also really appreciated how he let the ingredients shine. What we learned in class was directly reflected in his menu: unfussy dishes that had a rustic quality to them and were also gorgeous to look at.

After a few hours of class, we were ushered upstairs and met with views of the Providence harbor, cheery autumnal decorations and a long decorated table with a small packet containing the recipes to everything we made that day. As we ate our creations, I had the chance to learn that my new friends came from all over Rhode Island and some were even from Boston. In a state that doesn’t drive 20 minutes without packing a lunch, we must be doing something right if there are foodies willing to drive from another state to get tips and tricks from our chefs. 577 South Main Street. 273-9760. - GL

You've Learned to Cook, now learn to Drink!
Sip your way through the city’s booze and coffee tastings

  • Bin 312
    Head over every Thursday from 5-8pm for a wine tasting. 312 South Main Street. 714-0040.
  • Bottles
    Stop by Thursdays from 5-7pm for spirit tastings, Fridays from 4-7pm for beer tastings and Saturdays from 4-7pm for wine tastings. 141 Pitman Street. 372-2030.
  • Campus Fine Wines
    Stroll in every Friday for wine tastings from 5-8pm, and Saturdays from 4-7pm for beer tastings. 127 Brook Street. 621-9650.
  • ENO
    Mosey on by on Fridays from 4:30-6:30pm, Saturdays from 3-5pm and occasionally Thursdays from 5-7pm for wine or beer tastings. 225 Westminster Street. 521-2000.
  • Gasbarro’s Wines
    Sip like a sommelier on November 1 during the Domenico Clerico wine tasting from 3-5pm or on November 20 for the Ornellaia Collection wine tasting from 6-8pm. 361 Atwells Avenue. 421-4170.
  • Nikki’s Liquors
    Imbibe with the best during weekly wine tastings Thursdays from 2-5pm, followed by spirit tastings from 5-7pm. Beer tastings are on Fridays from 4-7pm. 32 Branch Avenue. 861-9006.
  • New Harvest Coffee Roasters
    Get your butt on over for free coffee cuppings every Friday from 3-4:30pm. 1005 Main Street, Pawtucket. 438-1999.