Cooking Lessons Abroad: A taste of the world, à la maison
Gallery: Cooking Lessons. [18 Images] Click any image to expand.
By Courtney Phillips
Have you ever come home from a vacation destination yearning for more? Ever wished you could have brought home a piece of the actual culture instead of novelty coffee cups or refrigerator magnets?
If so, you aren’t alone. What better way to explore a culture than through its local foods and flavors? Cooking lessons are quickly becoming a stop on the itinerary of the adventuresome – and those who simply love to cook. Modern travelers are not only enjoying local food, but immersing themselves in local culture by taking part in its preparation.
Long before the gastro tourism movement of the 20th century, France was known for food. More than 9,000 restaurants exist in Paris alone, and while nearly any type of food is available, each region of the country specializes in its own niche, influenced by topography and geography.
North Carolinians who fancy a hop “across the pond” rejoiced in May when Raleigh-Durham International airport began offering a non-stop flight to Paris. Now, the Louvre, the Seine and authentic French cuisine are an uncomplicated eight hours away.
Champagne, a northern French province, is famous for its sparkly drink and dishes of ham and game. Thanks to a wide variety of local fruits like raspberries, cherries, pears and grapes, the northern region produces unrivaled fruit preserves.
The coast supplies seafood dishes and quintessentially “French” food: Scallops, sole and Camembert cheese come from Normandy. Lobster, crayfish, crepes and cider hail from Brittany.
Foie gras and truffles are specialties of the Perigord region, due to its unspoiled geography and ease of raising livestock.
Mis en place
La Cuisine Paris is a popular hands-on foodie destination, overlooking the Seine and within view of Notre Dame. Apt pupils – as young as age 13 with adult supervision - may choose from a range of course work to include pastry, soufflé and macaron making. Class menus vary by season and are set a month in advance for travelers.
Cost varies by subject matter and length, with three-hour classes averaging $115 per student. Six-hour classes, most of which include a trip to a French market and a more comprehensive cooking lesson, are offered for less than $200.
In addition to prep classes, La Cuisine offers food tasting tours of Versailles and Paris at similar pricing. The tours include a gastronomic history lesson and three hours of tasting in historic food neighborhoods, like Les Halles and Rue Montorgueil, nicknamed the “Belly of Paris.”
Like France, regions of the country are known for signature dishes. Rich in flavor and history, Italians incorporate many old world ingredients dined on by ancient Romans. Olives, pears, figs and garlic were staples of the Roman diet. While the first Italian food writer, Archestratus, preached simplicity in 4th century BC, the use of spice and flavor rose with the Roman Empire to create the tastes we know today.
The north of Italy specializes in risotto, a rice dish cooked to a creamy consistency. In Italy, risotto is generally a first course with regional variations. For example, risotto alla milanese is a specialty of Milan, made with beef stock, beef bone marrow, lard, cheese and saffron.
Central Italy is known for its tortellini filled with meat or cheese, both of which were abundant in the fertile region of the Po Valley. Roman mythology indicates that the shape of tortellini is derived from the shape of the navel of Venus, the Roman goddess of love.
Specialties of southern Italy are popular Italian fare and wine. Heavily influenced by historical occupations of Greek, French and Spanish forces, it is famous for pizza, originally a dish of the poor. Spaghetti hails from the region, though generally served more al dente (“to the tooth” in Italian), or firm, than in the United States. For dessert, southern Italians prefer gelato. A dense frozen treat similar to ice cream, gelato has a lower fat content, higher sugar content and is fruit or nut-flavored.
Do as the Romans
Cooking schools in Italy are more of a destination than a stop on the itinerary, one of the most popular being Tuscookany. Offering three-day courses and five-day courses, at this cooking school, students learn to prepare Italian or Mediterranean dishes while living in a picturesque villa in the countryside of Tuscany.
All-inclusive packages are priced per person, and travelers who do not wish to participate in classes pay a reduced rate to relax by the villa pool, have a massage, hike or golf the days away.
Cooking season runs from April to November and packages start at about $2,000 per participant.
Like Italy, traditional Spanish food is influenced by geography and territorial conquests. In 711 AD, Arabs and Berbers crossed the Strait of Gibraltar, introducing rice, sugar cane and non-indigenous fruits like watermelon and orange.
After the discovery of America in 1492, Spanish cuisine was enhanced by peppers, paprika, vanilla and chocolate, the latter of which became intensely popular in Spain, where it was first mixed with sugar to produce the treat we know and love today.
Specialties differ based on geography of the interior, mountain region and coast. Valencia, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, is famous for paella, a rice dish which usually incorporates an array of shellfish. Valencian paella is thought to be the original paella recipe, comprised of white rice as a base, shellfish, snails, chicken or rabbit and green beans.
In Andalusia, located in the southern interior of Spain, local fare includes gazpacho – a food that dates back to Roman occupation. A soup comprised of raw vegetables and served cold, gazpacho is representative of the fertile land with typical ingredients being tomato, bell pepper, cucumber, onion, garlic, olive oil, vinegar, water and salt. Finely chopped vegetables, spices, almonds, chopped ham or hard-boiled eggs accompany the soup as a garnish.
Not to be confused with chilled gazpacho of Andalusia, gazpacho manchego, a hot, hearty meat stew poured on flat bread, is a notable dish from the central La Mancha region of Spain.
Take the Bull by the Horns
If culinary-minded vacationers wish to attempt authentic Spanish cuisine, they need look no further than Annie B’s Spanish Kitchen in the town of Vejer in Andalusia. Day classes include a trip to the local market, a walking tour of Vejer and instruction in the preparation of quintessential Spanish dishes like paella. Prices start at less than $200 per person.
In Barcelona, travelers will find Barcelona Cooking, Spain’s most highly-rated cooking school according to TripAdvisor. While the most popular class includes a trip to the market and preparation of a traditional four course meal, they offer a class entirely devoted to the preparation of tapas, or appetizers.
Since dinner in Spain is typically served between 9 and 11 p.m., much attention is paid to the food consumed between lunch and dinner. The concept of tapas has transcended Spanish culture and is finding favor all over the world in restaurants serving an array of innovative small plates in place of one large meal.
A jaunt to Europe is ideal, but if it isn’t on the vacation docket this year, consider local options like classes at Sherefé, a health-conscious Mediterranean eatery located on Gillespie Street in downtown Fayetteville. Mustafa Somar, owner and chef, holds classes which focus on Mediterranean fare prepared healthfully. Check Facebook and Instagram for scheduled classes. Mustafa also teaches private classes for eight or more people at a cost of around $50 per person.
If you’re interested in a day trip, Sur La Table, a premium cookware store with locations in Raleigh, Durham, Hendersonville and Charlotte, holds a variety of workshops, with everything from a “family fun” class featuring ice cream and pie to a “date night” course preparing a surf and turf dinner. Prices start at $65 per person.
Recipe for Success
Where there is a will, there is a way—even without dreamy hands-on lessons overlooking the Seine or Tuscan countryside. After all, Julia Child, one of the most notable French chefs in history, learned to cook at age 32, which should inspire confidence in the burgeoning home chef.
Begin by building a stock of uncomplicated, classically-prepared recipes to try this fall and on cold, dark nights this winter. Who says paella isn’t appropriate for a Thanksgiving feast?
If your grandmother’s well-worn checkered copy of The New Cookbook by Better Homes and Gardens is too intimidating, choose highly-rated recipes on websites like Epicurious and All Recipes. Never skip the comments or reviews of a recipe, where seasoned home cooks include helpful hints for the dish.
Visual learners will find short demonstrations on YouTube and streaming services. Home cooks delight in classic shows, like Child’s “The French Chef,” which was well-known for not editing bloopers, or as Child called them, “teachable moments.”
Finally, surround yourself with fun friends who enjoy sampling a new creation. As Child said, “The people who love to eat are always the best people.”
Sweet Potato Soufflé (Via Nytimes.com)
2 pounds sweet potatoes
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 tablespoons sugar
¼ cup mild honey, such as clover
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
⅛ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ cup plain low-fat yogurt
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lime juice
8 egg whites, at room temperature
⅛ teaspoon cream of tartar
1. Preheat oven to 425ºF. Scrub the sweet potatoes and pierce in several places with a sharp knife. Line a baking sheet with foil and place the potatoes on top. Bake for 45 minutes to an hour, depending on the size of the potatoes, until thoroughly soft and beginning to ooze. Remove from heat and let cool.
2. Adjust the rack to the lower third of the oven and turn the oven down to 400ºF. Rub the inside of a 2-quart soufflé dish or six 1- or 1 1/2-cup soufflé dishes with butter and dust with 2 tablespoons of the sugar, tilting the dish to coat evenly.
3. Peel the potatoes and puree in a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Add the honey, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, ginger, yogurt and lime juice and mix together well.
4. Begin beating the egg whites at medium speed in a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or with an electric beater. When they begin to foam, add the cream of tartar. When soft peaks begin to form, slowly add the remaining tablespoon of sugar while beating and continue to beat until the egg whites form stiff but not dry peaks. Stir one fourth into the sweet potatoes, and gently fold in the remainder. Scrape into the soufflé dish (or dishes). Place on a baking sheet and bake a large soufflé for 20 to 25 minutes, small soufflés for 15 minutes, or until puffed and just beginning to brown. Serve at once. The soufflé should be runny on the inside.
Pumpkin Risotto (Rated 5/5 on foodandwine.com with more than 6,000 reviews)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 pound fresh pumpkin or butternut squash, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch dice (1 1/3 cups)
2 medium white onions, finely diced
3/4 cup dry Riesling
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg
About 1 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1 teaspoon salt
7 cups vegetable stock for risotto or canned low-sodium chicken broth
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice (about 11 ounces)
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley (optional)
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
1. Heat the oil in a nonreactive medium saucepan. Add the pumpkin and half of the onions and cook over moderately high heat, stirring frequently, until the pumpkin is just tender, about 7 minutes. Stir in the wine, nutmeg, white pepper and salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 12 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly.
2. In a food processor, puree the pumpkin mixture until smooth. Transfer to a small bowl.
3. In a medium saucepan, bring the vegetable stock for risotto to a boil over moderate heat. Reduce the heat to low and keep the stock hot.
4. In a nonreactive medium saucepan, heat 2 1/2 tablespoons of the butter until it begins to sizzle. Add the rice and the remaining onions and cook over moderately high heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the onions are translucent, about 7 minutes. Immediately stir in 1 cup of the hot stock and cook, stirring constantly, until all of the liquid has been absorbed, about 2 minutes.
5. Reduce the heat to moderate and gradually add 3 more cups of the hot stock, 1 cup at a time, stirring and cooking until each cup is almost absorbed before adding the next, about 15 minutes. Stir in the pumpkin puree. Continue adding the remaining 3 cups stock, 1 cup at a time, stirring and cooking as above, until the rice is tender, about 10 minutes longer. The risotto will be quite loose. Stir in the parsley and the remaining 2 1/2 tablespoons butter.
6. Spoon the risotto into 6 warmed soup plates and sprinkle the Parmesan on top. Serve immediately.
Easy Paella (Rated 4.6 out of 5 on allrecipes.com)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon paprika
2 teaspoons dried oregano
Salt and black pepper to taste
2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breasts, cut into 2 inch pieces
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 cups uncooked short-grain white rice
1 pinch saffron threads
1 bay leaf
1/2 bunch Italian flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 quart chicken stock
2 lemons, zested
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 Spanish onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, coarsely chopped
1 pound chorizo sausage, casings removed and crumbled
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
1. In a medium bowl, mix together 2 tablespoons olive oil, paprika, oregano, salt and pepper. Stir in chicken pieces to coat. Cover and refrigerate.
2. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet or paella pan over medium heat. Stir in garlic, red pepper flakes and rice. Cook, stirring to coat rice with oil, about 3 minutes. Stir in saffron threads, bay leaf, parsley, chicken stock and lemon zest. Bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat to medium low. Simmer 20 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a separate skillet over medium heat. Stir in marinated chicken and onion; cook 5 minutes. Stir in bell pepper and sausage; cook 5 minutes. Stir in shrimp; cook, turning the shrimp, until both sides are pink.
4. Spread rice mixture onto a serving tray. Top with meat and seafood mixture.