I love taking cooking classes. It’s so much fun to be with other folks who — as hard as this is to believe — are as culinarily-challenged as I am. Yes, it’s true — there are a few of them out there. However, it’s also true that most cooking-class students are talented and innovative food fans who want to improve their skills and increase their repertoire. I mainly just like to eat. Every once in a while, though, I am able to impress. Such as during a recent class I took at the Shoals Commercial Culinary Complex. “Ah, you’ve done this before,” the instructor/chef said as he observed my onion-chopping technique: While keeping the ends intact, slice the onion in half and then half again to give yourself a flat base to work from, remove skin but don’t slice off ends, then make horizontal cuts and then vertical cuts and then cross-cuts, resulting in quick and easy diced onion. Of course, I learned that from my friend Sherry, who is a Shoals-famous cook and cooking instructor now working far away from home. Temporarily, we all hope. I mean, the chef teaching in her absence at the Culinary Complex is a nice guy. He knows what he’s talking about and is helpful and patient and everybody enjoys his classes. But is he Southern sassy? Does he know the difference between oatmeal and grits? Is he willing to stop at every Starbucks he sees on a road trip? Come home, Sherry! We miss you! I’ll even chop up some vegetables in your honor.
You know how you open up the newspaper every morning (you do open up a newspaper every morning, don’t you???) and read it and then shake your head and complain, “There’s never any good news. Why don’t they print any good news?” You know news people say that this happens because “good” news isn’t news since good things happen all the time and we’re only startled by “bad” news that’s outside of the norm. But we all know that “good” news can be as rare as … well, say, a coffee shop owner remembering that he overcharged a customer on her previous business and so without asking gives her her favorite drink for free on her next visit. That just happened! To me. And I wrote about it in my weekly newspaper column. Just, you know, to sneak a little good news in.
Spring’s arrival means several things: 1) Horror as we peel off our wool socks and take a look at our feet for the first time in months — emergency pedicure! 2) All basketball all the time as March Madness takes over — although my bracket is sinking so low that it’s fallen off the listing at the online bracket-game I play. And 3) we start inexplicably hungering for such treats as fresh tender asparagus and juicy sweet strawberries. In my weekly newspaper food story, I found out when spring arrives at local farmers’ markets and previewed what to look for — and when — although we’re lucky here in northwest Alabama since we’ve got Jack O’Lantern Farms, a hydroponic farm which grows lovely fresh veggies year-round. I’ll bet there’s someplace close to you where you can get a taste of spring soon.
We think we in the 21st century invented green living? Huh. We’ve got nothing on our parents’ generation. My folks, both born in 1934, each grew up with the Depression-era philosophy of “why buy when you can make do?” And they’re still following that directive. My mom saves plastic butter tubs and bread bags for leftovers, my dad turns paper over to print on the other side and they would never think of going out and buying tomato stakes. This is their backyard garden in Tennessee, and you can see that they definitely reuse and recycle — from the rusted metal fence posts to the strips torn from old cotton sheets to the outdoor artwork of flags decorating the iron headboard from a vintage bed. And they water the flourishing tomato and pepper plants with leftover ice. When the ‘maters are ready to eat, my dad probably will put a salt shaker out there for the freshest possible eating. I just hope they share.
There’s a commercial on TV about some sort of food where the voiceover says something along the lines of “Nobody comes home and says, ‘I can’t wait to eat a big bowl of lettuce.'” But that’s exactly what happens in our house on the days our local hydroponic farmers, Steve and Connie Carpenter, open their farmer’s market. I promise you that once you eat fresh hydroponic lettuce, you will never let plastic-packaged iceberg pass your lips again. Steve’s explained why lettuce develops more flavor when it’s grown hydroponically, but all I know is that a sandwich made with good toasted homemade bread and some of this tender-yet-crunchy lettuce is beyond delicious. Literally, it’s one of the things we just stand there and eat out of our fridge. But if you want actual recipes, go to http://www.timesdaily.com/article/20100428/ARTICLES/4285000 to find some recipes from a “Meatless Meals” cooking class I covered recently. Sherry Campbell, my friend and the director of the Shoals Culinary Center in Florence, Alabama, is a confirmed meat lover, but fresh and homegrown vegetables rank right up there with her, too, and she gave us some wonderful veggie recipes — although of course she admitted that at home she’d add a nice grilled steak to the menu. Go to http://www.jackolanternfarm.com/ to find out more about Jack O’Lantern Farms. Farmers’ markets are gearing up here in northwest Alabama/northeast Mississippi/southern middle Tennessee, and we can’t wait.
My friend Polly has one of the most beautiful home gardens I’ve ever seen. She’s a retired teacher, and most of the work she’s done in these photos has been in the past three years. Can we say “incredible energy?” She and her husband travel around the world, but I think I would just park myself in the backyard if mine looked like this. I especially love her zen approach to gardening: It’s organized, but not formal or structured — the plants, flowers, herbs and vegetables just sort of spill out in exuberant joy. And she’s got such whimsical touches everywhere: Birdhouses, sculptures, yard art, chairs, gates, fences, stepping stones, arches. It’s a treasure everywhere you look. Polly and her husband live within the city limits of Florence, Alabama, but with the deer grazing in the front yard and the creek dancing over on the side and the abundant shade trees cooling everything off, you feel as if you’re at a wonderfully isolated woman-made Eden — yet bustling civilization is just at the end of the driveway. To my mother’s eternal frustration, I remain ignorant of all things gardening. I mean, I can tell a rose from a daisy (that’s the yellow and white one, right?) but that’s about it. Yet even a non-garden person like me can recognize and appreciate a green paradise such as Polly’s garden. I’m just glad there are folks like her in the world who know what they’re doing with seeds and dirt so folks like me can enjoy.
Even though I love oven-roasted asparagus year-round, something about spring makes me want asparagus even more. And I don’t think I’m alone in that. At a recent cooking class at the Shoals Culinary Complex in Florence, Alabama ( http://www.shoalsec.com), director Sherry Campbell taught us how to make this gorgeously easy and delicious Asparagus Terrine. One of those impressive dishes that always gets you compliments, it’s perfect for spring luncheons celebrating weddings, graduations, Easter and Mother’s Day. And, surprisingly, it’s great to make ahead and also is conveniently totable for covered-dish get-togethers. Sherry says to look for asparagus with plump, closed tips for freshness. She uses most of the whole stalks, too, but I don’t like that slightly woody flavor and trim mine pretty closely. But then I don’t like broccoli stems, either, so what do I know?
Asparagus Frittata Terrine
Peel and finely dice 1 medium onion and saute over medium-low in 1 T. olive oil until translucent. Add 1 T. sugar, increase heat to medium-high and stir until lightly colored. Add 3 peeled and minced garlic cloves and 1 T. white-wine vinegar and boil until vinegar is evaporated, stirring occasionally. Season with salt and pepper and cool to room temperature.
Trim white ends off 2 pounds asparagus spears and microwave until slightly cooked.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line small loaf pan with plastic wrap, letting excess hang over sides. Trim asparagus if longer than pan and save ends. Place single layer in bottom of pan, alternating tips and ends and filling in with trimmings. Spoon over half cooked onions and add layer of cooked bacon or 40-42-count shrimp. Season with salt and pepper and add freshly minced tarragon, dill or mint. Continue layering, sprinkling herbs on top.
Whisk 6 eggs in a bowl with salt and pepper until well-blended. Pour into loaf pan, moving a knife between asparagus spears and lightly tapping pan on work surface to evenly distribute. Fold excess plastic over, cover with tin foil and place in hot-water bath. Bake until eggs are set, 50-60 minutes. Remove from bath.
To serve warm, let settle 15 minutes then run knift around rim and unmold and slice 1/4-inch thick. To serve at room temperature, let cool and then unmold and slice or prepare ahead, refrigerate and then bring to room temperature before serving. Serve with Tarragon Sauce: Whisk 1 T. each mayonnaise and Dijon mustard and add 1 T. white-wine vinegar. Pour in 3/4 cup olive oil in slow, thin stream while whisking. Mix in 1 T. freshly minced tarragon and salt and pepper to taste. Can make ahead and refrigerate before using.
Who doesn’t know by now that we’re supposed to eat more vegetables? But you can fix steamed broccoli only so many times before your family stages a revolt. At a recent cooking class at the Shoals Commercial Culinary Center in Florence, Alabama — a kitchen incubator for small food businesses that’s part of the Shoals Entrepreneurial Center — we learned some delicious new ways to serve vegetables. My friend Sherry Campbell is the culinary center director and she’s a great cook and teacher. Here are her recipes for Creamy Red Pepper-Basil sauce that’s wonderful as a dip for fresh veggies and easy make-ahead Broccoli with Lemon-Herb Sauce that’s a perfect portable dish. Learn more about the center at http://www.shoalsec.com/facilities/SCC_index.html
Creamy Red Pepper-Basil Sauce
With the processor running, drop 3 garlic cloves through the food chute and process unti minced. Add 1 cup loosely packed fresh basil and process 5 seconds until chopped. Add 1 12-ounce drained jar roasted red peppers, 1 8-ounce package cream cheese, 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice and 1/2 teaspoon each salt and freshly ground pepper. Process until smooth. Serve at room temperature. Makes 2 1/2 cups.
Broccoli with Lemon-Herb Sauce
Cook 1 1/2 pounds broccoli in 3 cups vegetable broth until crisp-tender, about 4 minutes. Remove broccoli with tongs and chill in ice water. Reserve 1 cup broth and chill. Dry broccoli and chill. Heat 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil in medium skillet over medium heat. Add 1 cup chopped green onions, 1/3 cup minced shallots and 1 teaspoon sugar. Saute until tender, about 5 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon minced garlic, saute 2 minutes. Stir in reserved broth, 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, 1 1/2 tablespoon Dijon mustard, 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, 1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme and 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest. Simmer until slightly thickened and liquid is reduced to about 1 1/4 cups. Season with salt and pepper. Cool to room temperature. Put broccoli in serving bowl and spoon sauce over. Spring with 1/4 cup chopped green onion and 1/2 cup diced seeded red bell pepper. Serves 8.
This is a flower arrangement to decorate the table at a typical meeting, right? Nope. Look closer. It’s not made of flowers. It’s made of … vegetables! Yes, these are vegetables and not flowers. The “mums” and greenery are leeks, the “paintbrushes” are green onions, the “roses” are rutabagas and turnips and the splash of organge is from carrots. Emily Kelley, a chef and caterer and educator in Florence, Alabama, has been creating vegetable bouquets like this for years and recently showed fellow American Association of University Women members how to do it. She made it look easy, and really it is simple — with patience and the right equipment. For instance, the roses are slices of rutabagas and turnips shaped and toothpicked together — the slices’ natural curves create the flower, but you need a commercial slicer to get the pieces thin and consistent enough. (Emily recommended making friends with someone who has one.) The mums and paintbrushes are the bottoms of leeks and green onions cut along their natural lines. The carrots were the hardest part — she sliced them horizontally and then cut the slices in a way that each one was still intact but had individual slices in it that curved out when she toothpicked the ends together. (I know that doesn’t make sense — sorry!) Emily does all the blossoms first, then puts them into ice water to stiffen. Then, when she puts the arrangement together, she threads a bamboo skewer through the blossoms (hiding the skewers in green-onion greenery) and arranges them with florist tools such as vases, tape and foam to perpetuate the flower illusion. We were all amazed and astounded, and one young woman declared she now wanted these instead of floral decorations for her wedding!