The Culinary Institute of America, the prestigious non-profit culinary academy that opened in Hyde Park, New York in 1946, is renowned for turning out such superstar chefs as Todd English, Charlie Palmer, Grant Achatz, Rocco DiSpirito and Anthony Bourdain.
So it was with a sense of wonder and “what-the-heck-are-we-doing-here?” bemusement that my mother, my sister and I arrived at the Napa Valley branch on a recent sunny Saturday for a hands-on “Tastes of the Napa Valley” cooking class. (The school now has campuses in St. Helena, CA, San Antonio, TX and Singapore in addition to the Hyde Park property.)
We arrived mid-morning and joined seven other adventurers in one of the CIA’s massive professional kitchens. After listening to chef Sandy Dominguez explain the drill–- everyone works with a partner, wears a toque, grabs hot pan handles with a dishtowel, and cleans up as he goes -- we set to work.
The personable Chef Sandy circulated among all the students, offering encouragement and sharing tips. (She showed how to easily remove the seeds from a messy pomegranate by submergin them in water and scooping seeds out with fingertips; and demonstrated a cool way of cleaning a hot grill with an old facecloth rolled and tied with string and dipped in vegetable oil.) But, for the most part (and much to my amazement) she turned us loose with a stack of ambitious recipes, including Quinoa Croquettes; Mussels Steamed in White Wine with Romesco Sauce and Grilled Bread; Curried Sweet Potato Skewers with Curried Onion Dipping Sauce; and Lavender Shortbread. And she reiterated our goal: All dishes on the buffet table in 1 ½ hours.
And again to my amazement, the “students” performed impressively. No one in the group --- a mother-son combo, a mother-daughter combo, a newly married couple, a mother of a CIA professional student, and my mother, sister and me --- had any training to speak of. I was probably the most proficient cook in the bunch, having covered cooking classes and restaurants for the San Diego Union-Tribune for 25 years. But even I felt challenged by the thought of whipping up Grilled Lamp Loin with Pomegranate Syrah Sauce (with toasted and ground coriander seeds, and bruised mint!) and Jeweled Couscous in a strange kitchen in under 2 hours. And my poor sister, Marcia, pictured right with chef Sandy Dominquez, had to create Olive Oil Crackers from scratch, and had her first run-in with a massive, man-eating Robot-Coupe in the process.
But, sure enough, the buffet table (pictured below) was laden and lovely at the appointed hour; the food was fabulous; and the cooks-for-a-day were giddy with the excitement of their accomplishments.
Though cooking and learning at the C.I.A is a very serious business, the school does offer occasional classes for what they call “enthusiasts,” that being, euphemistically, someone with more enthusiasm than talent or commitment.
There are all-day classes, five-day “Boot Camp” adventures, two-day specialties such as BBQ Boot Camp, two-hour demonstration classes, and two-hour hands-on “food explorations” that end with a buffet of all the dishes cooked. I think it’s an ideal way to round-out a visit to California’s wine country; it’s also a great holiday gift idea.
Here are a couple recipes from our “Tastes of the Napa Valley” class to whet your appetite for a hand-on adventure of your own.
1 cup dried couscous
1 ½ cups water
½ cup fresh orange juice
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon orange zest
2 teaspoons kosher salt
¼ cup black currants
1 red pepper, seeded and diced
3 scallions, thinly sliced on the bias
¼ cup golden raisins
2 tablespoons fresh Italian parsley, minced
Place the couscous in a large bowl. In a small sauce pan bring the water, salt and butter to a boil, then pour the mixture over the couscous and cover with plastic wrap. Let sit for 10 minutes.
In another bowl, add the orange juice, orange zest, currants, red pepper, and golden raisins, and let them soak until plump.
Uncover the couscous and add the raisin mixture and fluff it with a fork, making sure to blend out the lumps.
To serve, place on a large platter and garnish with the scallions and minced parsley.
Makes enough to fill a 3-cup mold or dish
5 tablespoons butter
½ cup chopped shallots or green onions (white part only)
1 ¼ pounds thickly sliced fresh wild or cultivated mushrooms
2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
2 teaspoons curry powder, or to taste
½ teaspoon ground cumin
1 cup toasted cashews, preferably unsalted
2 tablespoons toasted nut oil, such as walnut oil, or olive oil
2 tablespoons finely chopped mixed herbs such as parsley, chives and/or basil
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Heat the butter in a large saute pan over moderately high heat. Add the shallots, mushrooms, garlic, curry and cumin, and saute until mixture is just beginning to brown and all liquid has evaporated.
While mushrooms are cooking, add the cashews to a food processor and process until finely chopped. Add oil and continue to process to make a paste or butter. Add the mushroom mixture and process until smooth. Stir in the herbs and zest and season with salt and pepper. Place in a 3-cup mold or other ceramic dish. Can be stored, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Allow to return to room temperature before serving.