Cooking Not for Survival Purposes

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:53

A Reporter's Notebook by Stacy Mason Some people get a thrill out of cooking. They actually call it a hobby. Some of my closest friends are gourmet goddesses and I overhear them kibitzing about where they found that special ingredient to top off their latest masterpiece, and where to find some great new recipes. They chatter about the simple pleasures of cooking. They speak of things like the aroma of freshly cut spices, mixing with the finest imported olive oils and preparing new and exciting recipes with special cuts of meat. Although these women are truly my friends, this is one area we don't have in common. I wish I could develop an appreciation for these flavors and find some kind of joy in the kitchen. I simply don't find this topic exciting. Daily I perform the dreaded chore and cook only so my family will not starve. It is a survival technique used in my home. With a desire to discover the pleasure, or at least contentment, in cooking, I decided to take a cooking course at the ShopRite in Wharton. Like the other ShopRites in Sussex County, the store offers classes for the gourmet eating- and cooking-impaired. My class was on how to prepare Asian slaw, citrus soy cedar plank salmon, grilled ginger-walnut peaches with sweet cream and cinnamon, and mango chili-glazed mini lobster and shrimp kabobs. It sounded over my head, but I figured I'd give it a try. After all, I like seafood and that was at least one point in my favor. I was slightly concerned about the possibility of the spices in these dishes being too overpowering for my sensitive stomach, but, armed with my antacids and accompanied by a good friend, I ventured out on a Monday night to learn. I was taking the same approach to cooking as I did when I first began to play tennis. I had a bit of interest, and figured with some lessons that taught me the skills to play the game, I could learn to love this new sport. So, I figured if I learned how to cook better, or in this situation, prepare at least one edible meal, it would come easier and I would eventually learn to enjoy it. Hey, the approached worked with the sport I now love, why not this? So I climb onto the barstool that surrounds the portable kitchen in the middle of the ShopRite while mentally preparing myself to have an open mind. The set-up reminded me a lot of the "Emeril" show. My place setting includes a knife, fork, a bottle of water, a cutting board and a very intimidating eight-inch butcher's knife. I do own one of these at home, but I have to admit it's probably the sharpest knife in my meager collection because I've never used it. Mark Vogel, our master chef, introduces himself and describes the four dishes we are about to prepare. I am eyeing the clock behind him, already wondering whether the two-hour course is going to feel like an eternity. His enthusiasm and cheerful manner make me feel relaxed. He even offers to provide his expertise over the phone, should we ever need him in the future. He may live to regret that line. We begin with the mango chili-glaze for the kabobs. The chili may be a problem. Our friends refer to my husband and me fondly, as "Mr. and Mrs. Maalox." Prior to tasting it, I tried to dab the shrimp all over my plate to get rid of some of the spice. Even with my feeble attempt to de-spice it, it was as hot as it gets. As my mouth burned and my eyes started to tear, I wondered why cooking has to include spices. The next dish called for ginger and garlic. Now those I know. Finally, something I'm familiar with shaking from a miniature McCormack bottle. But not here. This was the real deal. Both needed to be peeled and julienned. Now, there's a new word for me, "julienne." It means to chop into small pieces. Fortunately there were several volunteers to help ‘julienne' with their butcher knives. I, too, obliged when asked. With the idea of not setting too high expectations when I turned over my chopped garlic, I ever so meekly admitted to only using the powder version and never actually having peeled nor julienned garlic before. The chef just nodded and asked, "Never real garlic?" Good thing I wasn't going to be receiving a grade for the course. I could tell I was making a good impression on the kitchen maestro. The Asian slaw was of deep concern to me because Chef Vogel began this recipe saying, "Sorry, Mrs. Maalox, there's jalapeno peppers in this one." I had to pass on this dish. I knew my own limits. The salmon cooked on a cedar board was my favorite, hands down. Our chef cooked it to perfection, with timing of all three dishes so fine tuned, I was totally impressed. Chef Vogel's class was entertaining. We, the students, enjoyed a lot of laughs. He taught me quite a few things during the two-hour class that I now admit, flew by. Yes, I learned more than just the word "julienne." I learned that "nappes" means "to cling to," and the value of a salad spinner, what a probe thermometer is, the incredible flavor a cedar board affords, and that a duller knife is more dangerous than a sharp one because a dull one has a greater tendency to slip. Although it is said that learning increases confidence, I'm still hesitant to explore some of the areas of my kitchen, and I am still decidedly not a fan of cooking. I think I'll stick to the tennis courts, where I'm working off calories instead of adding them!