Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Cooking Class at Manducatis Rustica

Menu

Peppers Stuffed with Eggplant, Black Olives, Bread Crumbs, and Fresh Herbs
Arugula Salad and Bocaccini
Lasagna with Homemade Noodles
Swiss Chard and Garlic
Fresh Ricotta Cheesecake

Back in October, I wrote about a series of cooking classes being held at Manducatis Rustica in Long Island City after Chef Faye Hess, the instructor, left a comment on my review of the restaurant. Unfortunately at the time, my budget didn't allow much room for the class fee ($75/class), so I sadly let go of the idea of attending her classes. That is, until Faye called me up a couple of weeks ago to ask me whether I was still interested in coming. While I explained my tremendous interest yet tiny budget, Faye completely surprised me by generously offering me a deal - if I would agree to help clean up afterwards, I could sit in and observe one class. Without hesitation, I agreed and put the cooking class on my calendar.

Faye's classes are held on Monday evenings, when Manducatis Rustica is closed. When I arrived, I was immediately struck by her infectious personality. After the rest of the students arrived, Faye handed out the menu for the evening (given above) and plunged right in. Since the stuffed peppers were going to take longer to prepare, Faye started with those even though we wound up eating the arugula salad first. The eggplant was sauteed on the stove while the peppers roasted in the oven.

Food Tip: The female eggplant, the one most people reach for in the grocery store, is the one you should generally avoid, if at all possible. A female eggplant has "hips" and has more seeds than a male eggplant, which is generally longer and slender. (This makes total sense.) It's the seeds that lend to an eggplant's bitter taste.

Meanwhile, Faye began to prepare the arugula salad so we would have something to snack on while the peppers were finishing in the oven. Toss bocaccini with fresh parsley, olive oil, salt, garlic, and lemon zest, and prepare yourself for a religious experience. Add arugula leaves and enjoy! Such a simple salad, with only a few ingredients, but what flavor! That lemon zest really added something special to the dish.

Food Tip: If you have the time, tearing greens is always preferred over cutting them with a knife. Tearing the leaves prevents bruising.

We finished eating the salad just as the peppers were coming out of the oven. Perfect timing! As we ate the stuffed peppers, Faye moved on to give us lessons in preparing the various components of the lasagna: fresh noodles, white sauce, and meat sauce. At the same time, Faye made the dough and the filling for our dessert, a ricotta cheesecake. Things got a bit chaotic since there was so much happening at once, so the students, myself included, jumped in to help wherever we could -- making the noodles with the pasta machine (exciting for me because I've never actually used one before!), preparing the two sauces, and grating the cheese. The cheesecake came out of the oven, the lasagna went in, and Faye began making the Swiss chard with garlic and caramelizing apples with which to top the cheesecake.

I cannot even begin to describe how amazing the kitchen smelled at this point or how torturous it was to wait to taste the lasagna! But, of course, the wait was worth it, and the fresh noodles we used really made a difference in the texture of the dish... at least for me. I made the decision, then and there, to put "pasta machine" on my Christmas Wish List this year. The lasagna was rich but not heavy (the absence of mozzarella lent to its "lightness"), and it paired perfectly with the wilted Swiss chard and garlic. I'm surprised I had enough room left to eat dessert!

It was so enlightening to listen to Faye describe the food and the methods of preparation. Again and again, she advised us to taste, taste, taste as we cooked (we all know how I feel about that piece of advice!) and to not be afraid of getting in there with our hands. Cooking isn't just about reading and following a recipe. It's about respecting the ingredients and about getting to know them on as many levels as possible - tasting as you go for seasoning, trusting your nose to let you know if something is done, using your hands rather than a spoon to incorporate ingredients. All of the senses are involved, which is why, when done right, the act of cooking can be more satisfying and nourishing than the act of eating the meal you've just prepared!

I want to thank Faye for allowing me to participate in her class. She inspired me to eat what I love and to cook what I love, to get passionate about food and with food. Watching Faye cook reinforced some points of my cooking philosophy and completely changed other points. I know the lessons learned in her class are lessons I'll forever take with me as I continue developing my own culinary skills.

For those of you who are interested in Faye's cooking philosophy and teaching style, here's a video for you to enjoy:


(Video courtesy of Faye Delicious)


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4 comments:

FOODalogue: Meandering Meals and Travels said...

Thanks for passing on that eggplant tip...I always though the female had less seeds.

Michelle said...

FOODalogue - Sure thing! I didn't realize how much those seeds could affect the taste of the eggplant. Faye wound up tossing the chunks that had a lot of seeds in them because she didn't want them to influence the flavor of the dish.

Sue said...

Great description of the class and GREAT VIDEO. She is completely charming!!!

Michelle said...

Sue - Faye's class really opened my eyes and helped me pinpoint my own cooking philosophy. Watching her make the most elegant and delicious dishes with just a handful of simple ingredients was inspiring!

I'm glad you enjoyed the video... Perhaps you can take one of Faye's classes in the future!