Cook Street School of Fine Cooking hosted a holiday feast class last night that had almost all the qualities of a good action movie: cut-the-crap dialogue, a flesh wound, fire, and an ending where everyone ate juicy slabs of prime rib. Almost all the qualities, since there was no nudity -- but it was still worth every penny of the $80 tuition.
Instructor/chef Erin Boyle had every student sign a legal waiver before the festivities began. "Sign it: We're drinking and playing with knives and fire," she said. The document basically released the school from responsibility in case anyone got shanked, scalded with a tureen of soup or mowed down by a city bus on their way to or from the class. As it turned out, the waiver was probably a good call.
The menu was predictable but solid American celebratory cuisine: seasonal squash soup for a starter, beef rib roast with mushroom jus for the main dish, and dual sides of potato and horseradish gratin and sautéed Brussels sprouts with house-cured bacon, finished off with an almond-pear tart.
The authoritative chef Erin ("I prefer balls-out bitchy," she intimated) and amiable sidekick chef Brian Hardy ("My nickname is princess," he said) took turns presenting ingredients, explaining preparation techniques and then supervising their charges.
A few minutes into rubbing a potato over a stainless-steel mandoline, student Jamie Jimenez shaved into her finger, taking out a couple of modest slices of skin and fingernail. She fled into the back kitchen area, where chef Brian got her swabbed up and affixed a bright-blue Band-Aid over the wound. "I just got a manicure yesterday," sighed Jimenez.
Meanwhile, chef Erin kept the rest of the crowd busy layering potato slices into buttered casserole dishes with fresh horseradish-infused cream and grated nutmeg, quartering mushrooms and halving fresh Brussels sprouts while imparting nuggets of wisdom to the class. For example, do not eat shiitake mushroom stems, because "they are too tough - use them to make stock." Also, make sure to wash the daylights out of leeks because they are notoriously sandy, and don't ever, ever use a garlic press.
"Use the back of your knife," she told the group. "The great thing about being a chef is you realize how few tools you really need -- pressing garlic in one of those gadgets is pointless because all the good flavorful juice just runs down the sides and gets lost." She also revealed that the "slap-chop" is another useless kitchen device. "The blade gets dull fast and it doesn't cut anything -- it crushes the stuff," she scowled.
Chef Erin then whacked through the frying-everything-in-extra-virgin-olive-oil trend: "All these shows on the Food Network tell you to use it," she said, "but save it for things that you can taste it in, like salad dressings."
Chef Brian took his turn feeding the group his take on how to produce a feast-worthy standing rib roast. Due to obvious time constraints, there was a fully cooked one waiting under a tin-foil tent, but he used a raw one to show how the fat cap is removed, the tender "knuckle meat" (as he calls it) is carefully extracted and then saved for sauce stock, the visible bones are stripped -- Frenching -- and the whole thing caressed with an oil-rosemary rub.
He extolled the benefits of scoring the layer of fat on the roast. "It makes it pretty and releases more of the fat," he told students. And he firmly asserted that there was no existing temperature past medium-well for this meat. When asked how he felt about the wretched, misguided folks who order steaks well-done, he replied, "This is a people-pleasing business and I will do it, but it hurts me a little."
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SHOW ME HOW
"Anybody wanna see fire?" asked a grinning chef Erin, who then strode over to the gas range with a bottle of Madeira, doused a sauté pan filled with mushrooms, and sent a swoop of flame curling up toward the ceiling. As it turned out, everybody wanted to see fire, so she did it again.
Dinner was finally served, and the beef was succulent and teeming with juicy blood seeping from under a perfectly charred crust. Offering prime rib for a holiday dinner may lack originality and pulse-throbbing excitement, but it does show loved ones that you cared enough to shell out for a slab of steak and spent an enjoyable four hours learning to cook it properly.
Upcoming classes are on the website at www.cookstreet.com.