Saturday, August 12, 2006

Evening at Emory: 8 years teaching international cooking

It's been over eight years now. A fleeting idea back then to teach cooking other than just to friends and family has since become my official sideline. That summer I was in Atlanta alone for several weeks with family far flung. The idea hit me as I was listening absentmindedly to NPR and an announcement mentioned Evening at Emory's "Mini-Medical School". It would be undignified to say what precisely I was doing when the light struck me, but our radio was in the bathroom and, unlike St. Paul, it was not a horse I was sitting on. (No kidding, he really was on a horse.) My ears perked up at the announcement because a non-science type student friend had recently told me that he took the Mini-Medical School, which seemed odd since he graduated in economics and Latin American studies. (He has since been to medical school, and is a third-year resident in emergency medicine.) Suddenly I thought maybe I should try to teach cooking at Evening at Emory. I cold-called the E@E director, Steve Stoffl, and told him about my idea, sketching out a sort of curriculum for a vaguely "educational" course in international cooking. To my delight he said, let's give it a try. I had an Emory faculty connection at the time, totally unrelated to food, and Steve said he was trying to get more "Emory people" into teaching at Evening at Emory. If he had other motives, was simply desperate for instructors, or couldn't figure out how to say no, he never let on over the years as we became friends.

E@E offered every sort of course imaginable, from academic subjects and French and Spanish and Italian and Chinese, to finance and investments, to real estate appraisal, to repairing your own computer, to belly dancing, to fencing, to book publishing, to the always optimistic "I Will Be Married in a Year". I named my course "Adventures in International Cuisine", inspired by Karl Haas' NPR war-horse, "Adventures in Good Music". To my pleasant surprise, this lofty course name got me listed first in the culinary section of the catalog, due entirely to alphabetic merit. Only "Abstaining from Calories" or, maybe, "Aardvarks Worthy of the Plate" could now preempt my choice spot for visibility to prospective students.

My first course was in the fall of 1998, the first evening featuring Thai food. (The recipe for my first main dish, Thai Panang curry, is below.) The course drew a crowd, and I was invited back. I typically teach four to five courses a year now, each of two or three classes. You can check out my current offering(s) online by going to www.cll.emory.edu and navigating to Evening at Emory, then to Food and Beverages.

Much has changed over the years, including going from being the new guy teaching cooking to now being the longest-affiliated instructor in the E@E Food and Beverage group, as the older hands have retired, moved away, or gone to prison. (Just kidding, Steve!) When I started, Emory had a demonstration kitchen in one of the School of Public Health buildings, established to teach diabetic and other special needs cooking. That noble idea was scuttled by office space envy, and after several tries by Emory at relocating classes to commercial venues, I wound up teaching, with Emory's encouragement, in my own kitchen. While it means some clean-up, I no longer have to anticipate, bring with me, then carry in from the parking lot each item needed, like a teaspoon of sugar or a good frying pan. Evening at Emory itself had to move, as their old building was wiped out as part of constructing the new country club known as the Emory Clairmont Campus. They inherited new space in the Briarcliff campus in what used to be the Georgia mental hospital. (I won't touch that one.) Steve Stoffl, has moved up to a higher position, and two delightful new people now manage E@E. My recipes, which reproduce as best I can dishes I have enjoyed from around the world using available ingredients, equipment and reasonable cooking time, have gotten more professional in format. With occasional happy exceptions, I focus on three geographic regions, Southeast Asia, Eastern Mediterranean/Middle East, and Western Europe. Several years ago I added regional wine tasting (Australian and New Zealand wines and/or Thai beer for the Asian foods), after noting that the wine left over from cooking French or Italian was gobbled up. Originally I taught solo but gradually added assistants, all volunteers and mostly student friends or work colleagues. The meals seem more ambitious now, and we fix double recipes to have enough food for all the class participants plus assistants. But somehow, looking back, I was doing pretty complex meals alone in the early days. Classes include discussion, cooking demonstration, garnish preparation, and a buffet meal of the dishes and the paired wines.

The classes are always an adventure, but a few highlights stand out like the proverbial dandruff on Superman's cape. When I began, I had no idea if there would be a second course. When that happened, I assumed I could use a small cadre of good recipes and change my audience. But a mother-daughter team, the Quinns, came to my second course then came to all the subsequent courses for three or four years, forcing me not only to call them my girlfriends, but also to keep changing the menu and to develop more and more recipes. Neighbors and family enjoyed guinea pigging the trial dishes, but preparing for a new set of classes took time. However, as a result, I have a repertoire of about 200 developed, kitchen-tested, and classroom-demonstrated recipes. Another highlight occurred when, teaching alone at an off-site location, I cut my finger slicing an onion. Immediately a class participant, a pediatrician and colleague from my day job, pulled a bandaid from her shirt pocket and wrapped it on my finger. Delighted but amazed, I asked do you always carry bandaids? She said, no but I did this time after I saw you cutting last week. One very gracious older man took the class a number of times, bringing various members of his family over the many months. He responded to my question about how much cooking he does saying grandly, oh I don't cook at all, but I like to have you cook for me and the dinner and wine are cheaper than going to a restaurant.

On my first class eight years ago my first student turned up half an hour early, as I was desperately trying to prep. I had little idea what to expect in terms of types of students, but he definitely was a surprise. A ruggedly handsome, muscular guy in his early thirties, Barry was a stud. He looked like he would be more at home racing dirt bikes over a dune than sprinkling herbs into a saute pan. But he was friendly and talkative. I asked him how he got interested in the course. He said "my girlfriend says my cooking sucks, so I decided to take a class", and the Thai panang curry that was the first night's featured dish was something he particularly wanted to learn. He was active in all three class, then turned up three months later for my next course. I asked him how his cooking was doing and how his girlfriend liked it. He said the panang curry was great and he made it frequently, and that he had dumped the girlfriend and now had more time to cook. (Hey, you can't make this stuff up!) Here is the original recipe for the Thai panang curry that I taught in my first class. Maybe I should dedicate it to Barry. But then again, maybe I should think about that a little.

Thai Panang Curry Tim
2 pounds boneless chicken thigh
1 can (4 ounces) Panang curry paste (available at Asian groceries)
1 tablespoon oil
1 can (14 ounces / 400 ml) unsweetened coconut milk (Thai) -- shake well before opening
1 can of water or unseasoned chicken broth
Asian fish sauce to taste (about 1 tablespoon) (available at Asian groceries), or substitute salt
3 teaspoons sugar
1 hot red chili pepper for garnish
Either 4 double kaffir lime leaves (sometimes available at Asian groceries) or 12 sprigs fresh
cilantro (coriander) leaves, for garnish

Trim chicken of any fat or tendons. Place chicken flat on cutting board and cut into pieces 1 1/2 by 1 inch and about 1/4 inch thick. In a large non-stick frying pan with a teaspoon or so of oil lightly fry a portion of the chicken pieces at a time, turning frequently, until the outside of the meat is starting to seal and to become slightly golden in color -- 2-3 minutes. Remove the chicken to a bowl as it is fried. Add a little more oil to the pan, and over low heat fry the curry paste, stirring very frequently, until fragrant and the oil separates out a little (1 1/2 -2 minutes). Add several tablespoons of coconut milk and stir it in well. When combined and bubbling add more coconut milk, a little at a time, letting the sauce return to a bubble after each addition. Gradually increase the heat and add the coconut milk in larger quantities, followed by the water or chicken broth. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add about a teaspoon of fish sauce plus the pre-fried chicken. Stir to combine well and simmer about 5 minutes. Taste, and then add fish sauce until just salty enough. Add the sugar. Simmer 2 more minutes (do not overcook the curry or the chicken will become dry). Remove from heat. Taste the sauce and add a little fish sauce or sugar as needed, making the sauce slightly salty, because the chicken will absorb some salt. The sauce should also have a slight sweetness. Let the curry sit at least 20 minutes (better overnight, in refrigerator).

Before serving, reheat gently (a microwave works well) with occasional stirring, just until it reaches a boil. Remove from heat. Check saltiness and add a little salt if necessary. If using kaffir lime, stack the leaves up and slice crosswise into fine threads. Stir half into the curry. Serve the curry in an attractive shallow bowl garnished with thinly sliced red chili pepper plus either the remainder of the shredded kaffir lime leaves or the coriander leaves picked off their stems. Accompany with white rice and a stir-fried vegetable dish.

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