We've been watching a lot of Master Chef lately. I haven't quite figured out what I love most about it: the competition, the creativity, the inventiveness, the food inspiration, the ridiculous edits given to each "character" (because, truly, their personas are all so well-composed by a team of expert producers, and as someone with experience working in film and TV, I find it so comical). In any case, despite the rampant use of organ meat and live seafood (which we usually just fast forward through), the show is a great platform for food ideas and a showcase of some very talented cooks. I think getting a little messy with your food is an integral part of being well, so anything that promotes experimenting in the kitchen is a-okay by me.
In the midst of the current season, I found myself standing in a professional teaching kitchen, complete with dozens of burners, huge work stations, overhead demo cameras, and gigantic industrial refrigerators. The best part? The Master Chef-esque "pantry", a 10-foot spread of bowls and buckets holding everything from local tomatoes and onions to sprouted mung beans, dates, sunflower seeds and quinoa, to oils, tamari and spices.
Basically, this was heaven.
I'd been invited to take part in a cooking class at Natural Gourmet Institute, New York's famous health-supportive whole food cooking academy. Their approach to food selection focuses on seven core values [which I love]. These include foods that are seasonal, local, whole, traditional, balanced, fresh + organic, and delicious. Nice, right? Things to strive for in your own food selection for sure!
While NGI offers full-time professional programs, they also offer regular public classes. Last week's class was taught by Myra Kornfeld, an incredible chef and nationally recognized food authority whose work I've loved and followed for the last few years. (Her book, Voluptuous Vegan, is a favorite.)
The class was titled "Casual Entertaining for the Vegan or Vegetarian". Perfect. What I expected was a largely lecture-based class with some hands-on assisting. What I got instead was my own little Master Chef experience... and it was awesome.
While the class was decidedly non-competitive, it was decidedly hands-on. The students, 11 of us in all, were intricately involved in every step of the seven-part menu. Yes, seven.
Casual Entertaining Menu, by Myra Kornfeld
Tuscan Roasted Tomato Soup
High Protein Burger with Sprouted Mung Beans and Red Bhutan Rice
Roasted Vegetable Panini with Herbed White Bean Pate and Parsley Mint Pesto
Black Bean Quinoa Burger Gratin
Cajun Spiced Roasted Sweet Potatoes
Confetti Slaw with Ginger-Caraway Cider Vinaigrette*
Cherry Almond Date Smoothie
*see below for recipe, courtesy of Natural Gourmet Institute
After Myra talked through everything we'd be doing, including some essential tips on soaking nuts (use 1 tbsp of salt for every 1 pound of nuts) and slicing onions (they'll cook differently if you cut along the grow lines), we were assigned to groups and given our first orders of business: jumping straight into cooking!
My partner and I were tasked with preparing the components of a white bean pesto panini, including the white bean purée, basil mint pesto and some thinly sliced zucchini, carrots and onions for roasting. The kitchen at NGI is beautifully well-stocked, and with the awesome assistants who help out with the class, you're never more than 10 seconds away from being handed a vitamix, a whisk, some salt, those onions you can't find... It's a seamless cooking adventure, and being surrounded by all of the happy, food-focused energy in the room is really fun!
Each group worked through the various components of each dish, and at one point, the gentleman next to me looked down at the veggies he was working on and noted, laughing, "I have no idea what this is for. I don't know where's it going once I'm done with it". It's a very team-oriented process, which makes it all the more magical when you see how everyone's efforts come together in the end to make some seriously gorgeous dishes. (I really must apologize for the lack of photos -- I was up to my elbows in basil and onions: I completely forgot to take my camera out! I suppose that's the marker of a great experience in 2014, though: so good, you forget to look at your phone.) ;)
Our pair's second task was making a rustic tomato soup (including roasting the tomatoes and onions), while the other teams finished up veggie burgers, the panini, sweet potatoes and smoothies.
And then... Dinner. Yes, every class ends with a sit-down meal with your classmates (including wine!), where you enjoy the fruits of your labor. Or in this case, the veggies of your labor. We made two different versions of the high protein burger, one with tempeh and one without (I liked the one without a little better, especially with the avocado mustard dressing Myra had us put together). We sampled the other dishes while chatting about food and agriculture and food deserts and misadventures in cooking. It was a great experience to connect with other folks interested in food, some who don't cook at all and others looking to expand their repertoire.
I picked up some valuable skills and some great (simple!) recipes to make at home, along with some cool ideas to try out next time I'm experimenting in our kitchen at home.
NGI is a great opportunity to flex your own Master Chef muscles and dig into something new with your food. Plus, working in a professional kitchen just feels really cool. Check out more from Natural Gourmet at their website.
Want to make your own Confetti Slaw? Here you go!
Recipe by and copyright of Myra Kornfeld
Provided courtesy of Natural Gourmet Institute
4 cups shredded red cabbage (about 1/4 head)
4 cups shredded green cabbage (about 1/4 head)
1 1/4 tsp salt
1 packed cup shredded carrot (2 medium carrots)
3/4 cup thinly sliced radish (4 medium radishes)
1 tbsp minced fresh ginger
2 tsp caraway seeds, toasted and ground
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1 tsp dijon mustard
sprinkle of freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1. Toss cabbage with salt and place in a large bowl with another bowl and a weight on top. (I use cans of beans, etc for weight.) Press for 1 hour until the cabbages have sweated and broken down.
2. Stir in carrots, radishes, ginger and caraway.
3. Whisk the apple cider vinegar with the mustard in a small bowl and stir into the slaw.
4. Sprinkle the slaw with black pepper and stir in the oil. Serve.
Keeps up to 3 days in the fridge.
Photos courtesy of Natural Gourmet Institute.