Monday, March 30, 2009

Food Network Cooking Classes: French Bistro

As I've mentioned here before, the Food Network has partnered with The International Culinary School at The Art Institute of Atlanta to offer a series of cooking classes. On Saturday, I had the chance to check out the Food and Wines of France course, taught by Chef Scott Millspaugh who oddly enough works as a fireman when he's not teaching cooking courses. I always heard that firemen were great cooks, but I didn't expect their repertoire to expand much beyond chili and other man-centric dishes. Clearly I've been proven wrong!

On tap for the 4-hour class:
*Note: the actual recipes we used aren't online, so these are close approximations!

Kind of ambitious, right? I was a bit wary of how many dishes we had on our list, and it turns out my concerns were well-founded. It's simply impossible to do all of these dishes justice with a crowd of mixed-skill cooks.

I would have preferred a chance to take part in the making of each dish, but with so much to do in so little time, we split up by tables. This is typical of cooking classes, though, so no surprise there. If you want to make something specific, you have to be proactive about it. Ultimately my table of three focused primarily on the leeks with Dijon vinaigrette, coq au vin and chocolate mousse. Not a bad 3-course meal!

I wish I could have seen more of the other dishes being prepared, but that's the nature of a class with 10 or more people. Fortunately when something really interesting was being done, I was able to drop what I was doing to go watch, so I got a chance to learn how to trim a tenderloin and more efficiently slice an onion even though those skills weren't needed for my dishes.

Chef Millspaugh was affable and happy to answer any questions. Thanks to him, now I know why I should choose white vs. yellow onions when the recipe just calls for onion, and I realized that I have in fact been whisking improperly all these years. Side to side whisking not circular...who knew?

I've never cooked with leeks before, and when I read French Women Don't Get Fat, I was dubious of her claim that leeks are one of the best things to eat. But let me say with absolute authority, leeks in Dijon vinaigrette are unbelievably easy to prepare and rock-my-world delish. Once blanched, they add such a lovely springy green to the plate. They're incredibly tender and combine perfectly with the French style vinaigrette. Mon Dieu, I'm a leek-convert!

Coq au Vin has always struck me as a pain to make, but in fact it was time consuming but not overly challenging. The part that takes ages is the browning of the meat, but it was worth it to get the skin crackly crisp, or "sexy chicken" as Chef liked to say. Frozen pearl onions were a time saver, and the thick sliced veggies required minimal effort. Ultimately this dish was the star of our meal - so flavorful with that wonderful aroma that comes from slow cooking with wine. Yum, I'll definitely be making this again!

Last up was chocolate mousse. After several minutes of whisking the cream, my arm was exhausted, and I was horrified to see something fall into the bowl. An errant piece of leek perhaps? Who knows, but suffice it to say all of that whisking effort was wasted, and I had to start from scratch. Cooking can give you a heckuva bicep work out! Thankfully a more-buff-than-me cooking assistant helped get me to the finish line, and our mousse turned out rich, creamy and blessedly leek-free!

The beginning of the session started with a cheese and fruit tray, which I assumed was just a nicety. I realized later that it was intended to be a cheese tasting. As we ate, the chef poured wines, which apparently was also intended to be more of a formal tasting, but there simply wasn't time to go into depth about wine and cheese - a course unto itself. However, I'm all for drinking great wines with my hard earned meal, so I wasn't complaining.

After so much effort, our meal was a relaxed affair. We were all thoroughly exhausted from 3.5 hours of non-stop cooking and hungry to try all the amazing things we'd managed to whip up. Chef poured us a variety of wines, ranging from a spicy Zinfandel to a super sweet dessert Eiswein. Ah sweet nectar of the gods...what a way to reward us!

Alas, time got away from us, so dishes like the mussels and the quiche were actually prepared by the cooking assistants. The quiche especially was wasted on us because it was actually served after the mousse, and no one had room for it. Regardless, there was more than enough great food to eat, but next time I hope they scale back a bit so people don't feel like they're missing out on something.

The leftover coq au vin and chocolate mousse were quickly gobbled up by the Boyfriend (and truth be told me, too!) that night. This was the first cooking course I ever took that helped us pack to-go boxes at the end. What a wonderful treat, and a great way not to waste food.

All in all, this was a great cooking class. Food Network is testing these classes in Atlanta and hopes to roll them out nationwide later this year. At $119, they aren't cheap, but if this class is any indication, they don't skimp on the menu or leftovers. I used to love taking classes in NY at the major culinary schools, and I hadn't done much of it in Atlanta. Fortunately these courses are a great addition to the Atlanta culinary scene!



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