For most of my adult life, I've been stuck in a recipe rut. Lamb chili. Squash soup. Fettucini Alfredo. Oh, I've got plenty of dusty cookbooks; the kitchen is lined with them. But for some reason -- edible Alzheimer's? -- I can't dream up a dinner-party menu that involves more than one dish. Too many potlucks stir-fried my brain.
So I hired Liz Lowe, the culinary equivalent of a personal trainer, to light a fire under me. Formerly the Queen of Tarts, the French-trained chef sold her Burlington bakery when she developed carpal tunnel syndrome, in 1998. She now bills herself as a hands-on "cooking coach," giving kids chocoholic moms and team-building corporate types an entree into the joys of food production. In hopes of expanding my recipe repertoire, I signed up with two buddies for one of her sessions, fully prepared to put that whisk to work.
Lowe encourages students to use their own equipment in her new endeavor, "Quizine," which has been an official business since December. "The main reason I'm doing this is I want people to feel comfortable in their own kitchen," she explains. But just in case, she brings her own zesters, peelers and mixers to every class. Describing her role as "kind of a cheerleader," she warns, "I don't hold people's hands, but I make sure they get through the recipes."
The first step was coming up with a menu that would touch on as many different cooking techniques as possible -- and wow the guests at a dinner party for six. Lowe offered half a dozen entree options, from Orange Chicken with Carmelized Onions to storied Beef Wellington. The Filet of Sole with Spinach-Salmon Mousse and Beurre Blanc was adequately complicated, but seemed too summery. So we opted for Stuffed Pork Tenderloin with Dried Fruits, Mango Chutney and Honey Mustard.
There were logistical considerations, too. My kitchen is open, with a butcher-block counter, but a quartet of cooks is definitely a crowd. The tiny stove looks like a step up from E-Z Bake -- except it requires a match to light. A small turkey fits in there, but not much else. You couldn't possibly prepare a souffle and a meat dish at the same time.
So we settled on a dramatic herb risotto, which is cooked on top of the stove. I'd always wanted to try one at home, but was put off by the dish's improvisational elements. There's the matter of standing over the pot for as long as 35 minutes, stirring in between five and six cups of chicken stock, "until the rice is creamy and soft but you can still taste individual grains of rice." Huh?
To add to the anxiety, risotto has to be served immediately. Like gravy, you can't start it until after the guests arrive. And who can concentrate on cooking when your best friends are hanging around the kitchen, drinking? In this case, I made things worse by failing to chop the parsley, zest the lemon or grate the Parmesan before starting to stir. Lifesaver Lowe swooped in to spell me at the stove, and later pronounced the delicate dish "done." She earned her $250 fee right there. Baking sessions run around $150.
"Always read the recipe all the way through before you start cooking," Lowe scolded. Lesson learned.
Reading ahead might have deterred us from ever attempting the tenderloin. Initially, there was the challenge of opening the long slab of meat like a book -- the lateral "butterfly" cut. Then, after rolling it back up with a mixture of mango chutney, currants and apricots inside, it had to be, well, hog-tied. Lowe showed us how to work the string so a minimal amount of fruit goop would fall out later during the broiling process. My friend Sarah, who knits, compared the technique to "casting on."
We'd each gotten a folder of recipes at the beginning of the class. But since Lowe was hot to divvy up the dishes, Sarah signed up for the virtuoso pear-almond tart, a.k.a. the Tarte aux Poires Normande. She spent the better part of the next three hours rolling out the crust, mixing up the almond-cream filling, and preparing the thinly sliced pears to be arranged, domino-style, on top -- all under Lowe's watchful, pastry-chef eye. The whole dessert could have been prepared the day before, but it felt very professional to pop it in the oven as we sat down to eat.
Of course, that was after we'd prepped the asparagus spears, washed the greens, steamed the carrots and suffered through the sticky, messy, painstaking process of "carmelizing pecans" for the salad. This involves dunking toasted nuts in melted sugar and then fishing them out one by one to harden. "They're a pain to make," Lowe acknowledged, then added cheerfully, "but it's worth it." The salad contrasted a sweet-pecan crunch with peppery pears in tangy balsamic vinaigrette dressing.
Unfortunately, I tossed -- and served -- the salad too soon. Not that it really mattered. By the time we sat down to eat, we'd gone through three bottles of wine, and it was two hours later than we'd planned. In all the excitement, I'd forgotten about hors d'oeuvres. The two guests who actually came to dinner -- without being involved in making it -- were pretty well starved, and possibly drunk, by the time the plates came out.
Lowe had estimated cooking times based on her convection oven, not my prehistoric model. The pork took a long time to cook under the ring-of-fire broiler. Only then could we put the asparagus in to bake. There were other mishaps, too. Sarah ripped the last remaining handle off the fridge. Lowe checked on the tart mid-meal and discovered the gas was on but the flame wasn't. You won't see that on "Emeril" or the "Barefoot Contessa."
Despite everything, the meal came off beautifully: Thick coins of juicy, sauce-drizzled pork were perfectly balanced by resilient risotto, slightly sweet glazed carrots and oven-roasted asparagus. Everybody had a different favorite dish, and all but one went back for seconds. At the end, the only thing left over was an elf-sized sliver of Sarah's spectacular tart. And, of course, all those dirty dishes.
Lowe did some of those before she left, and the next day sent along a few more recipes. But the kitchen felt empty. Can I really truss my next tenderloin alone? Single-handedly stuff chicken breasts with goat cheese and chipotle sauce? That's when it hit me: Lowe's group cooking-class has the potential to change traditional dinner-party dynamics. Now, provided I invite the right people, I've got a kitchen crew.