I know enough about cooking to get by. My mother wanted to share her cooking wisdom with me when I was younger, but I couldn’t see the point in learning to cook if she was already so good at it. My blissfully ignorant and spoiled self didn’t factor in growing up and moving out of the house one day and having to prepare my own meals.
And naturally, now that I want to learn to cook, my mother is now miles away in Nevada.
Thankfully, Napa Valley Cooking School, which operates out of the Napa Valley College Upper Valley campus in St. Helena, offers community education courses so that cooking novices can pick up some kitchen skills in the span of one class without having to enroll in the 14-month culinary program.
I signed up for “The Magnificent 7: Weekday Wonders” class with Chef Barbara Alexander. The class was designed to teach students how to prepare easy, flavorful meals that you can quickly throw together with little preparation. As someone who is tired of throwing frozen meals into the microwave when I get home and waiting for them to “cook”, I was ready to soak up everything Chef Barbara was willing to share.
I walked onto the Napa Valley Cooking School campus feeling nervous. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Being greeted by the busts of cooking legends Julia Child Jacques Pepin and Wolfgang Puck outside the main building wasn’t helping either. I stopped in front of each stone face and paid my respects, hoping to borrow any pro cooking juju potentially emanating from the statues.
When I walked into the classroom, I was given a packet of recipes and taken to a menu board and asked what recipe I’d be interested in preparing. In this class, students worked in teams to cook recipes created by Chef Barbara. I looked over the Mediterranean-inspired menu and pondered selections such as poke bowl with coconut rice and grilled eggplant with herby couscous, but I ultimately decided to sign up for the chicken and “rice” meal.
The fact that rice was in quotes didn’t register with me. I’ve made chicken and rice plenty of times and felt confident I wouldn’t screw it up.
After selecting my recipe, I was whisked off to my station. I was beyond delighted to see there was a Napa Valley Cooking School apron waiting for me and I gladly tied in on. I was feeling quite official. My station also had all the utensils I’d need and my recipe ingredients were already sitting on a tray. This is my kind of kitchen.
The mystery rice I’d be preparing was actually riced cauliflower, which is something I’d always been curious about making, so I was glad my “safe” recipe choice actually had a twist.
Before we got started, Chef Barbara introduced herself and her assistants and began to walk us through the menu.
As we paged through each recipe, Chef Barbara explained the inspiration behind each recipe and discussed what to look for when shopping for the necessary ingredients. Her relaxed conversational instructions put me at ease. Occasionally she’d drift off on a tangent during her menu walkthrough, but her side notes were lighthearted and downright funny, so I didn’t mind the detours.
I enjoyed getting a look into the mind of a chef and was feeling wiser and more comfortable. After about an hour of menu talk and cooking tips, it was time to dive in.
My cooking partner Dal and I looked over our recipe. Chef Barbara had just talked us through it, but we took a moment to read through it one more time before getting started. We double checked our mountain of ingredients to make sure we had everything the recipe required. Satisfied with our inventory, I began working on the first part of the recipe: a mint yogurt sauce for the chicken.
As I began chopping mint, Dal decided he’d peel the garlic. He cut the tip off a clove and began picking at the delicate garlic skin. I’m no cooking expert, but I knew at this rate, my partner would be spending most of his time peeling garlic.
“Mind if I show you a trick?” I said as I placed a garlic clove on my cutting board. I took a Chef’s knife and placed the flat edge over the garlic clove and pressed on the blade with my palm. As I pulled my knife away, I revealed a slightly smashed garlic clove with the skin cracked around it. I peeled the skin away and tossed it into our compost bowl.
“You know, I never learned that until I was a student here,” said one of the chef’s assistants.
“Food Network,” I said with a shrug. “Trust me. That is the end of my parlor tricks.”
I had just finished the yogurt sauce when Chef Barbara made it to my station. She instructed me to being work on the cauliflower rice while Dal was prepping a smashed cucumber salad. Dal was smashing the cucumbers with the Chef’s knife using the same method to peel the garlic, but Chef Barbara said he didn’t need to be so delicate. She placed a Persian cucumber on my cutting board and whacked it with the Chef’s knife. The cucumber was indeed smashed. Cucumber skins and guts had gone airborne in the process, but Chef Barbara didn’t flinch like I did as cucumber flew over her shoulder.
She handed the knife back to Dal. “Have fun with it!” she instructed.
I wasn’t sure how I was going to inject fun into grating cauliflower into “rice”, but I was going to enjoy myself anyway.
Making riced cauliflower isn’t as complicated as I thought it would be. I grated two heads of cauliflower into a large bowl using a standard box grater. I ran my fingers though the shaving to pull out any larger chunks that broke off in the process and didn’t match the rice consistency I was going for.
The next step in the recipe called for me to chop a small onion. No problem, I thought. However, as I was happily dicing up my onion, I felt the sting of tears in my eyes.
I immediately felt like I was knee deep in a cheesy Nicholas Sparks romance. My eyes were swimming with tears, but I fought them back and continued chopping.
“Are my onions making you cry, Samie” Chef Barbara asked as she passed by. I wasn’t going to let tears distract me. I kept blinking them away furiously as I finished up with the onion and then hurried off to wash my hands.
As I cleaned myself up, I took a look around the room to see all the other students busily working away at their recipes. People were chopping, mixing, pouring and tossing as they toiled at their stations.We were going to end up with quite the feast.
After I’d collected myself, I gathered my cauliflower, my chopped onion, and some of that freshly peeled garlic and headed for the stove where I joined Dal who was working on the chicken component of our meal. While our pre-marinated chicken sizzled in a cast-iron pan, I heated some olive oil in a pan and tossed in the onion and garlic. I let them sweat in the pan for a few minutes before adding the cauliflower. I checked my recipe: “Stir fry for about 5 minutes until just tender.”
But I don’t know how to stir fry, I thought. Apparently I said it out loud because a woman next to me offered me advice.
“Stir fry? That means just keep stirring.” Seems easy enough. So stir, I did.
After the rice was cooked, I took my pan back to my station where I added a few more ingredients for taste and texture. I placed the rice in a bowl and delivered it to the main table. I managed to get through this without burning the place down and no one got hurt. Mission accomplished.
After all the teams finished preparing their meals, we were invited to grab a glass of wine and start filling out plates with the creations we made together. I decided to grab a helping of the grilled eggplant with the creamed feta, a Thai chicken lettuce wrap, a Bulkogi beef tostada with Zippy slaw, and a Dutch Baby with sausage, kale and spicy tomato jam.
I was enchanted by the entire experience. Each meal was delicious. Not too shabby for a bunch of cooking rookies. I decided to be bold and try the poke bowl. I’m not a fan of fish, but I wanted to try something new. Turns out I like ahi tuna. This class was becoming a tour of self-discovery.
I returned to the buffet to try my own dish, but the chicken was gone. No worries. I scooped smashed cucumber salad onto my plate along with the cauliflower rice. And that, too, was quite tasty.
After one class, I’m hooked. Thankfully, Napa Valley Cooking School hosts a variety of community education classes throughout the year. There are several classes planned for June, and there are a few Chef’s Table Pop Ups where Chef Barbara and other chefs at the school cook for you while you watch. What’s not to love? It’s dinner and show.
And if you have aspiring cooks in the family, Napa Valley Cooking School also has classes for kids and teens.
For a list of upcoming community education classes at Napa Valley Cooking School, visit napavalleycookingschool.org or call 707-967-2901.