Classes bring couples together to prepare a gourmet dinner

| Tuesday, May 15, 2012, 6:02 p.m.

Going out for dinner usually means taking a break from the kitchen for the family cook.

That wasn't the case for the couples who set aside last Saturday evening for a gourmet dinner on the South Side. Before they could sit down to enjoy the meal, they had to prepare it and cook it together.

That's part of the fun of hands-on cooking classes at places such as Gaynor's School of Cooking along East Carson Street, where special sessions for couples are offered as part of the class schedule.

Gaynor's May Couples Night menu featured Lemony Artichoke and Potato Soup, Poached Salmon with Red Pepper Mayonnaise, Roast Carrot & Beet Salad, Baby Dilled Potatoes and Chocolate Tart with Almond Crust.

The group of 10 was divided into two teams by cooking instructor Andrew Alvarez, who also works as a chef at the Omni William Penn Hotel, Downtown. The classes are designed for students to learn cooking techniques while having fun with their significant other or friends.

"The emphasis is on fun," said Gaynor Grant, instructor and director of the cooking school. "Unlike our other programs that are primarily instructional, this is a fun night out with your relevant other under the guidance of trained instructors whose main objective is that the food is cooked properly."

Andrea Crall of Peters, who participated in Gaynor's Couples Cooking Class with her husband, Mike, signed up for the class because, she said, "I thought it would be a fun date night." She typically does all the cooking at home, except for the Thanksgiving turkey and grilling chores, which are delegated to Mike.

As he stirred a pot of baby carrots in boiling, salted water for the salad course, Mike -- whose "day job" is as a civil engineer, vice president and department manager for HDR Engineering -- said his culinary skills were being put to the test.

"If it's building bridges or working on the North Shore Connector project, it's no problem," he said, smiling. "But if it's cooking carrots, it's a serious challenge."

Laura and Kyle Greenman of Mt. Lebanon stirred together ingredients for the Red Pepper Mayonnaise.

"It's our daily release," said Laura, who shares kitchen duties with her husband. "Actually, he does most of the cooking. I'm more of a baker. We have a 1-year-old, and I'm busy with him."

Kelly Szesterniak of Plum said the cooking class was a birthday present from her husband, Mike.

"We like cooking together a lot," Mike said. "This is right up our alley."

Their friends Jack Gillespie and Kara Berman of Robinson looked on as Chef Andrew showed them the proper way to slice a head of garlic for the soup.

The cost of the three-hour class is $145 per couple, which includes wine served with dinner. The menu changes each month. Participants range in age from 20s to early 70s, Grant says.

Crate Kitchenware Store and Cooking School in Scott offers its three-hour Cooking with a Partner class about once a month. The May class, taught by Marlene DeGeorge, featured Avocado Gazpacho with Fresh Tomato Salsa and tortilla chips, Lump Blue Crab Cakes with Roasted Red Pepper Sauce and Napa Cabbage Slaw, Sweet Potato Fries and Rustic Plum Galette with Almond Cream.

Participants included couples with various levels of cooking expertise.

"It's a nice mix," said Crate owner Linda Wernacoff. "We get a range of young and old, and not necessarily husbands and wives, but, sometimes, friends. They're interested in learning, and they really want to be here. It's fun."

Tony and Rachel Zimmerman of Plum said the gift certificate that brought them here was a wedding gift last June. This was their first cooking class adventure together.

"We watch Food Network together a lot," Rachel said. "We get hungry watching TV."

Bonnie Jeanne Tibbetts and Greg Pacek of Economy, Beaver County, chose the Gazpacho station, which involved chopping avocados, onion, garlic, jalapeno and cilantro and pureeing them in a blender.

"With all the chopping, it was a little tedious," said Pacek, after blending the ingredients into a bright-green liquid. "It doesn't look pretty, but it tastes good."

Tibbetts said she couldn't wait to share her new dish with friends.

"I'm going to Cape Cod for Memorial Day weekend. This will be a great recipe to take there," she said.

Cooking classes

Places in Pittsburgh to sign up for a cooking demonstration or hands-on class:

• Chop, Wok & Talk, Garfield, 412-362-0679, offers cooking instruction for private parties, team building and hands-on classes.

• Crate Kitchenware Store and Cooking School, Scott, 412-341-5700, offers monthly Cooking with a Partner classes, Lunch & Learn classes and classes that feature area chefs and restaurants.

• Food Glorious Food, Highland Park, 412-363-5330, offers occasional Cooking with a Partner, group and corporate cooking classes at its specialty bakery, spokesman Tom Hambor said.

• Gaynor's School of Cooking, South Side, 412-325-2703, fetures a monthly Couple's Night, plus baking and pastry series, the Art of Fine Cooking series, wine events and children's classes.

• Giant Eagle Market District: Offers occasional couples classes and Girls Night Out classes. Four locations.

• Habitat, Fairmont Hotel, Downtown, offers monthly cooking classes.

• McGinnis Sisters, three locations, offers cooking classes, demos and special events.

• Rania's Catering, 100 Central Square, Pittsburgh, 412-531-2222, offers cooking classes.

Avocado Gazpacho

This recipe is from Crate.

For the gazpacho:

• 3 large avocados, chopped

• 1 large cucumber, peeled, seeded and cubed

14 cup red onion, chopped

• 2 cloves fresh garlic, chopped

• 1 small jalapeno, stemmed, seeded and chopped (about 1 tablespoon)

• 1 cup fresh cilantro leaves, loosely packed

13 cup fresh lime juice (about 2 juicy limes), more if needed

34 cup cold water, more if needed

• 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

• 1 teaspoon salt, more if needed

For the garnish:

• 1 medium-size tomato, diced

• 2 medium-size green onions, chopped

14 cup freshly chopped cilantro

For serving:

• Tortilla chips

To prepare the gazpacho: Place all of the ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth. Flavor to taste with more salt and lime juice, if needed; thin with more water if too thick; cover and chill for about 2 hours before serving.

To serve: Serve in bowls, or martini glasses garnished with all of the toppings and corn tortilla chips on the side.

Makes 4 cups.

Lump Blue Crab Cakes With Roasted Red Pepper Sauce

This recipe is from Crate.

For the crab cakes:

• 1 cup small-dice white bread

• 1 cup mayonnaise

• 2 large egg yolks

• 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley leaves

• 1 tablespoon minced chives

• 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

• Dash hot pepper sauce

• 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

12 teaspoon salt

14 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

• 1 pound lump blue crab meat, drained

For the Roasted Red Pepper Sauce:

• 3 medium-size sweet red bell peppers, roasted

13 cup canola or olive oil, plus more for sauteeing garlic

14 cup red onion, chopped

• 3 medium-size garlic cloves, peeled

• 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

12 tablespoon honey

12 tablespoon chipotle puree

• Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For the topping:

• 1 tablespoon unsalted butter

12 cup panko bread crumbs

14 teaspoon dried thyme

To prepare the crab cakes: In a large mixing bowl combine the bread, mayonnaise, egg yolks, parsley, chives, mustard, hot pepper sauce, lemon juice, salt and pepper. With a spatula, gently fold in the crab meat.

Using your hands or a large scoop, form the mixture into balls and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Cover with another piece of parchment and refrigerate for 30 minutes or more.

To prepare the Roasted Red Pepper Sauce: Roast the peppers under the broiler or over a gas flame, turning several times, until the skin is charred all over. Place in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap for about 10 minutes. Rub away the charred skin. Cut the peppers in half, seed, devein and coarsely chop.

Saute the garlic cloves in a small skillet with a little oil until lightly browned. Remove the garlic and coarsely chop.

Combine the roasted peppers, onion, garlic, vinegar, honey, chipotle and salt and pepper in a blender and blend until smooth. With the motor running, slowly add the 13 cup of oil, and blend until emulsified. Stain the sauce into a bowl.

Makes 2 cups.

To prepare the topping: Melt the butter in a nonstick skillet over medium heat, then add the panko and dried thyme and cook, stirring until golden brown, for about 4 minutes. Transfer the crumbs to a plate to cool.

Heat the oven to 425 degrees.

When ready to bake: Remove the crab cakes from the refrigerator and pat the panko crumb mixture on top of each crab cake. Bake until heated through, for about 15 minutes. Serve the crab cakes with Roasted Red Pepper Sauce on the side.

Makes 8-12 small crab cakes.

Napa Cabbage Slaw

This recipe is from Crate.

• 6 tablespoons canola oil

• 2 tablespoons apple-cider vinegar

• 2 teaspoons honey

12 teaspoon Dijon mustard

14 teaspoon salt

• 1 medium-size head Napa cabbage, shredded

• 2 medium-size carrots, grated

In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, vinegar, honey, mustard and salt. Put the cabbage and carrots in a large bowl, toss with enough dressing to lightly coat slaw.

Makes 4-6 servings.

Oven-Roasted Sweet Potato Fries

This recipe is from Crate.

• 1 12 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 12-inch-wide strips

14 cup olive oil

12 teaspoon kosher salt

14 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oven to 425 degrees.

Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Toss the potatoes with the olive oil, salt and pepper. Spread onto the baking sheet in a single layer.

Roast in the oven for 30 minutes, turning them halfway through the baking time. Serve warm.

Makes 4 servings.

Rustic Plum Tart With Almond Cream

This recipe is from Crate.

For the Pastry:

• 1 12 cups flour

• 2 tablespoons sugar

• 1 tablespoon cornmeal

12 teaspoon salt

• 1 12 sticks (12 tablespoons) butter, cut into 12-inch pieces and kept cold

• 5-6 tablespoons ice water

For the filling:

• 2 tablespoons melted butter

• 7 large red plums

• 4 tablespoons sugar, divided

12 teaspoon ground cinnamon

For the Almond Cream:

• 1 cup of heavy cream

• 1 teaspoon pure almond extract

To prepare the pastry: Combine the flour, sugar, cornmeal and salt in a food processor. Add butter and cut in using on-off turns until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the water by tablespoonfuls, and process just until moist clumps form. Gather the dough into a ball; flatten into a disk. Wrap the dough in plastic, and refrigerate for 1 hour or overnight. Let the dough soften slightly at room temperature before rolling.

To prepare the filling: Line a baking sheet with foil, then, butter the foil. Cut the plums into 8 wedges, removing the pit, and place on the prepared sheet, spacing evenly. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons sugar. Bake until the plums are tender but still hold their shape, for about 20 minutes. Cool the plums on the sheet.

To prepare the Almond Cream: Whip 1 cup of heavy cream in a mixer until soft peaks form. Add 1 teaspoon of pure almond extract and whip another 30 seconds.

Heat the oven to 400 degrees.

To prepare the tart: Roll out the dough on a lightly floured sheet of parchment into a 14-inch circle. Overlap the plums in concentric circles on the pastry, forming a 9-inch-diameter circle in the center. Combine the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar and the cinnamon in a small bowl. Sprinkle the sugar mixture over the plums. Lift the pastry edge and fold it over the filling to make a pleated border.

Bake the tart until the crust is golden, for about 30 to 35 minutes. Remove the tart from the oven and allow to cool for 30 minutes.

Top with the Almond Cream.

Makes 8 servings.

Poached Salmon With Red Pepper Mayonnaise

This recipe is from Gaynor's School of Cooking.

For the Aromatic Poaching Broth:

• 3 cups water

• 1 cup white wine

• 1 medium-size carrot

• Bouquet Garni

For the Red Pepper Mayonnaise:

• 1 egg yolk

• 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar, divided

12 teaspoon salt

• 1 teaspoon prepared mustard

12 cup canola oil, divided

• 1-2 tablespoons tomato paste

• 2 tablespoons pureed sweet red bell pepper, charred and peeled

• 1 teaspoon minced chives

• Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For the salmon:

• 1 quart Aromatic Poaching Broth

• 1 34 pounds salmon fillets, cut into 6 equal-size pieces

• Red Pepper Mayonnaise

To prepare the Aromatic Poaching Broth: Place all of the ingredients into a pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, and allow the broth to cook for 15 minutes. Remove the broth from the heat until ready to use.

To prepare the Red Pepper Mayonnaise: In a bowl, whisk the yolk, half of the white wine vinegar, salt and mustard over hot water until the mixture is thickened slightly.

Off the heat, and whisk in the oil drop-by-drop until an emulsion begins, then continue adding the oil by the teaspoonful.

Halfway through, add the rest of the white wine vinegar, then whisk in the rest of the oil, blending by the spoonful.

Stir in the remaining ingredients, and season with salt and pepper.

To prepare the salmon: Bring the poaching broth to a simmer. Reduce the heat to just below a simmer and add the salmon.

Cook for about 10 minutes, depending on the thickness (recommended cooking time is 10 minutes to an inch of thickness), but the salmon should remain moist, not flake.

Arrange the fish on plates, and drizzle with the Red Pepper Mayonnaise.

Makes 6 servings.

Baby Dilled Potatoes

This recipe is from Gaynor's School of Cooking.

• Water

• 1 12 pounds small red or white potatoes, cut into equal-size pieces

• 1 12 teaspoon salt

• 3 tablespoons minced dill

• 3 tablespoons butter

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the salt and the potatoes. Cook until the potatoes are tender.

Drain and toss with the minced dill and butter. Serve immediately

Makes 6 servings.

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