With tough economic times pinching our budgets, more folks eat at home and realize they need more skills and ideas to keep putting meals on the table. So they call on caterers, private chefs and even talented friends with the same request: Please, please teach me.
As a result, classes for home cooking are growing in the central San Joaquin Valley.
The trend is well established in the Fresno area, where caterer and cooking teacher Shirley Sprinkle shows students how to use supermarket rotisserie chicken in quick versions of pot pie, enchiladas and other dishes. Private chef and caterer Wendy Carroll helps students organize their pantries. Southern-food maven Jeanne Logan shows novice cooks the essential kitchen tools, so they know what to buy.
There's also demand for such lessons in the South Valley. "I get a lot of e-mails about cooking classes," says Elaine Dakessian, a private chef turned caterer and restaurateur in Visalia. "People are asking for basic cooking skills."
Dakessian started teaching this week. Her first assignment: a private session for a family interested in healthy, everyday meals.
It's a shift from about five years ago, when many cooking classes in the Valley had a decidedly gourmet bent. Students were groupies, following their favorite chefs from class to class and treating the lessons more like dinner and a show.
Elena Corsini Mastro of Parma Ristorante wowed a crowd at the Clovis Adult School with pork loin stuffed with prosciutto, artichoke hearts, Jarlsberg cheese, frittata and mortadella bologna. In a cooking class at Whole Foods Market, Kent Specht, then the chef at Max's Bistro, used European-style butter in crab-and-ginger strudel.
Contrast these dishes with those of Sprinkle, who taught a class last week in Ferguson Bath & Kitchen Gallery on Laverne Avenue near Fowler and Belmont avenues. She simmered the bones and skin of rotisserie chicken to make a broth. She used Pillsbury biscuits to top a pot pie. She substituted green onions for leeks because leeks are harder to clean. And as she turned four rotisserie chickens into enough freezer-friendly food for a party, students took note of her thrift and easy recipes.
"We're trying to think of different ways to save money," says Tarneim Sakoury, who attended Sprinkle's class with a group of friends who cook a meal together before watching the television show "Grey's Anatomy." By cooking, the group avoids eating out, Sakoury says. They also make enough food so each person can take home leftovers.
Another student, Ashley Rooney, liked the idea of making a big batch of Sprinkle's enchiladas, then freezing some and cooking the rest. "I never know what to do with leftovers," she says. "I need to learn how to plan."
Indeed, classes such as Sprinkle's attract a variety of cooks. Some are novices learning their way around a kitchen because they can't go out to eat as often. Others, such as Sakoury, are accomplished cooks looking for simple recipes fit for entertaining. No matter their skill level, they are happy to add more quick and tasty dishes to their recipe collections.
As the recession continues, more people may have the same challenges simply because more of them are eating at home. Grocery store sales jumped 6.75% in 2008, according to a nationwide survey by financial research firm Sageworks in Raleigh, N.C. By contrast, the growth in sales is slowing at fancy restaurants, quick-service eateries and bars.
Logan sensed the trend when friends pestered her for cooking lessons.
"I started the classes because my friends couldn't cook," says Logan, who learned Southern cooking from her mother while growing up in Atwater's countryside.
Friends wanted to learn some simple dishes, so Logan created as class around 45-minute meals. But she soon discovered that "you can't be quick if you don't know what you're doing."
That realization helped Logan shape her other classes. The "Back to Basics 101" class covers menu planning, shopping techniques and necessary cooking tools in addition to recipes. And her next class, "A Southern Style Sunday Brunch," features dishes such as Texas roasted chicken salad and Arkansas scrambled eggs that can feed a group quickly.
"I picked easy dishes on purpose because things are coming up," Logan says. "Mother's Day is coming up and graduations."
For her part, Carroll finds she helps a lot of brides. "Since home economics isn't taught anymore in our schools, new brides don't know how to cook," she says.
Carroll has taught basic cooking techniques in private classes and "Cooking 101" classes. She has showed clients how to make vinaigrette, creamy soups and pork tenderloin.
"We do a great carrot-and-ginger soup to show people how to take whatever vegetables you have and make a creamy soup," she says. As for the pork tenderloin, "we trim it and remove the silver skin, then make a pan sauce with the drippings."
An upcoming class, "Top Techniques Every Cook Should Know," will take those skills a step further. Students will learn how to fold, make a roux and temper eggs.
One client, Melanie Chacon, hired Carroll to teach a class in cooking meat. "I'm calling it A Carnivore's Dream,' " Carroll says.
Chacon says she hired Carroll because she and her boyfriend want to learn "how to cook the same thing several different ways."
The couple recently stocked up on ribeye steaks and filet mignon. Though they know how to grill steaks, they're unsure about some other cooking techniques, such as pan searing and making sauces.
"There's always this undertone of, Am I doing it right?' " says Chacon, who describes herself as a novice cook.
Before, when the couple dined out two-to-three times a week, such questions were less pressing. Now, they head out for a sit-down meal every other week or even every third week.
"If we knew how to cook, we would probably go out less," Chacon says. "Because of the economy, it gets a little harder to go out."
Shirley Sprinkle, Bistro Cooking: Caters and teaches cooking classes. (559) 436-0747 or bistrocookingclasses.com.
Elaine Dakessian, Tre Bien: Caters, cooks freezer-friendly takeout meals, runs a restaurant and gourmet shop in Visalia, and teaches cooking classes. (559) 734-2436 or trebienvisalia.com.
Jeanne Logan, Ellen's Daughter's Cooking Classes: Teaches cooking classes. Her next class is "A Southern Style Sunday Brunch," 11 a.m.-1 p.m., Saturday at Central Distributing, 4250 W. Shaw Ave. The cost is $25. (559) 392-6779 or ellensdaughters.com.
Wendy Carroll, Seasoned to Taste: Caters, works as a personal chef, and teaches cooking classes. Her next class is "Top Techniques Every Cook Should Know," 6-8:30 p.m. May 19 in Kitchen & Bath Plus on West El Paso. The cost is $60. (559) 266-6254 or seasonedtotaste.com.
Chicken with mushrooms and green onions
Makes 4-6 servings
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound white mushrooms, wiped clean and cut into chunks
1 bunch green onions (green and white parts), chopped
1/3 cup dry vermouth (see notes)
3/4 cup low-sodium chicken broth (see notes)
1-2 teaspoons dried tarragon
21/2 pounds chopped, cooked chicken (see notes)
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
In a skillet over high heat, add oil and swirl the pan. Add mushrooms and green onions, then cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid released by the mushrooms evaporates, about 10 minutes.
Add dry vermouth and cook until almost evaporated, about 1 minute. Add broth. Crumble tarragon between fingertips, then stir it into the sauce. Simmer the sauce until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes.
Add chicken. Whisk in feta cheese and cook for another minute. Season with salt and pepper, if necessary. Serve immediately over rice or noodles.
If you'd prefer not to use alcohol in this dish, substitute additional chicken stock.
This dish uses cooked rotisserie chicken from the supermarket. You can make your own broth with a rotisserie chicken, but it won't be the low-sodium variety. (Rotisserie chicken is salty.) Place the chicken bones and skin in a pot with carrots, celery and onions cut into large pieces. Add water just to cover, then simmer over low heat for four hours.
As the broth simmers, occasionally skim off the foam. Add more water, if necessary, to keep the solids covered.
After the broth has simmered, strain out all the solids. Add pepper to taste. Remove the fat from the broth with a fat separator. Or refrigerate the broth in an airtight container, then pull off the fat after it congeals.
For the most flavor, choose dark meat for this recipe. A mixture of white and dark meat also will work.
Shirley Sprinkle, Bistro Cooking
Pork chops with mango chutney
Makes 4 servings
Black pepper, to taste
Garlic powder, to taste
Garlic salt, to taste
Paprika, to taste
Chili powder, to taste
Lawry's Seasoned Salt, to taste
Ground coriander, to taste
4 bone-in pork chops (about 1/2-3/4-inch thick)
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 medium red bell pepper, cut into strips
1/2 medium green bell pepper, cut into strips
1 (12.5-ounce) jar mango chutney, such as Sharwood's Major Grey Mango Chutney
1/4-1/2 cup canola oil, for frying
In a small bowl, combine the first seven ingredients to taste. (Go easy on the Lawry's and garlic salt so the spice mixture won't be too salty.) You'll want about a quarter of a cup of spice mixture.
Dry pork chops with paper towels, then season them well on all sides with the spice mix.
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat 1/4 cup canola oil until it shimmers. Place pork chops in the pan in a single layer. (If your skillet isn't large enough, you may need to fry the pork in two batches. If the oil looks dark after the first batch, drain it out of the pan, wipe the pan with a paper towel, then heat another 1/4 cup oil for the second batch.) Fry the chops until nicely browned and done to your liking, about 5-8 minutes on each side depending on the thickness of the pork chops. (I prefer them well done.) Transfer the pork chops to a plate and set aside.
Drain any remaining oil out of the skillet. Add the onion and bell pepper strips to the skillet. Saute over medium-high heat until the onion is softened. Stir in the mango chutney.
Add the pork chops back to the pan and spoon some of the chutney mixture over them. Cover the pan and reduce heat to low. Simmer until the pork chops are tender and heated through, about 10 minutes. Serve hot, over rice.
Jeanne Logan, Ellen's Daughter's Cooking Classes
Greens with blue cheese-basil dressing and herbed croutons
Makes 6 servings
For the herbed croutons:
1 (18-inch) baguette, crusts removed and interior cut into 3/4-inch dice
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
11/2 teaspoons herbes de Provence
1 teaspoon kosher salt
For the dressing:
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
8 basil leaves
2 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, or to taste
3 ounces crumbled blue cheese, divided
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
For the salad:
10 ounces mixed lettuces
25-30 halved cherry tomatoes
Make the croutons ahead of time: Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
In a large bowl, combine the bread and extra-virgin olive oil. Stir in the herbes de Provence and kosher salt.
Spread the bread in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and toss. Bake for 5 more minutes or until browned and crusty.
Cool thoroughly and store in an airtight container or freeze.
Make the dressing: In the bowl of a food processor, combine vinegar, basil, garlic, sugar, kosher salt, freshly ground pepper and half of the blue cheese. Process until smooth. With motor running, drizzle in the extra-virgin olive oil.
Transfer to a bowl and add remaining blue cheese crumbles. Adjust seasoning.
Assemble the salad: Combine lettuces and cherry tomatoes in a bowl. Lightly dress the salad, then top with croutons.
Wendy Carroll, Seasoned to Taste