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All the world's a kitchen for the curious cook

Thursday, June 27, 2002

By Woodene Merriman, Senior Editor, Post-Gazette

"Harder! Harder! Harder! The calf is dead." The class laughs, but cooking teacher Marcella Hazan is persistent. The little slice of veal must be pounded perfectly -- not too hard, not too lightly, with the heavy metal pounder always hitting the meat so it stretches the fibers but never breaks them.

"Listen," Hazan commands, insisting that I take a couple of practice whacks at the wooden table and pay attention to the sound. Two more tries and I finally get it right.

"Dismissed," Hazan says, then picks up the tattered piece of veal I've left on the table and strokes it. "Poor little thing," she murmurs.

That was 22 years ago in Bologna, Italy. It was one of the first of many cooking classes I've taken while traveling. Some travelers climb mountains, some snorkel, others shop. I take cooking classes.

Sometimes these classes are just demonstrations. Students sit on folding chairs, peer into an overhead mirror, watch and take notes as the instructor does the actual cooking.

Other times, as in Bologna and Ho Chi Minh City, the classes are "hands on." If you don't shape the spring roll or beat the eggs correctly, the teacher -- and everybody else in the class -- knows.

It was Giuliano Bugialli in Florence, Italy, who scolded me for beating eggs incorrectly.

"More! More!" chided the cooking teacher and cookbook author as my arm grew tired. "Keep going. Don't change directions. Stir in the same direction always or you incorporate bubbles into the eggs."

It's a lesson I always remember. After all, who wants bubbles in their eggs?

Mostly, I've gone to cooking classes abroad and throughout the United States with other food writers. Usually they were classes open to any cooking enthusiasts, sometimes called foodies, willing to pay the price. My purpose was to describe the classes for readers, and pass along any cooking tips I picked up (like how to pound veal or beat eggs).

In St. Louis one summer, I went with other writers to the basement of an old Catholic church in the city's well-known Italian section. A group of elderly women, many of them born in the old country, had agreed to show us how to make authentic Italian gnocchi.

Pencils poised over notebooks, we waited. First ingredient in the recipe: Instant potatoes, right out of the box.

Another year, in Portland, Ore., we gathered to learn how Native Americans grilled salmon over an open fire. When the fires were blazing, the descendants of those early residents arrived and carefully placed the salmon -- wrapped in aluminum foil -- on the flames. Foiled again.

Whether their classes are participation or demonstration, good teachers make classes fun and find something nice to say about each student. I stirred the mushrooms for the risotto nicely, Hazan said in presenting me with a diploma that summer. Now retired to Florida, she was always known for a zany sense of humor.

Good cooking teachers pass along tips and techniques, as well as a look at the life, culture and lore of their country. From three teachers, here are some tips and comments as good today as when I heard them 20 or so years ago:

From Marcella Hazan:

When you parboil whole zucchini, don't cut the ends off first or the vegetable gets waterlogged.

When browning chopped onions, if you haven't chopped quite enough, brown them more. If you chop too many, brown them less. It's the browning that brings out the flavor.

In cooking, what you leave out is as important as what you put in.

Italian cooking is simple, but not easy. If there are only two things in a dish, if you do one wrong, it's half wrong.

From Giuliano Bugialli:

Spaghetti is not Chinese. "It's a lie that Marco Polo brought spaghetti back from China. It was already here before he went to China."

If you freeze pasta, you eat what you deserve.

Fresh pasta alla carbonara is horrible. You can't taste the pasta or the carbonara. He recommends commercial pasta for this dish.

From Richard Nelson, the late Portland, Ore., cooking teacher and acknowledged authority on American cooking, although he later was accused of snitching recipes from other authors:

To cut fresh spinach, wrap one leaf tightly around a mass of leaves, place on cutting board and slice finely.

To get souffles to rise to greater heights, bake them in a smaller dish.

When serving a dish to guests, no matter how it turns out, present it to the table proudly, saying, "Perfect. It's just the way I wanted it."

I've used that line many times. It helps when the chocolate cake turns out to be a chocolate pudding.

Bugialli still has classes in Florence, as well as New York City, and gives classes when he tours. He's been to Pittsburgh many times. Giuliano Hazan has succeeded his mother as a popular cooking teacher and cookbook author and gives some classes in Italy.

The addict soon discovers that cooking classes are available throughout the world. Wherever you plan to travel, there's surely a cooking class where you can spend a few hours or a few days or more if you're a serious student of the stove. The back pages of cooking magazines have many suggestions. Or search for "cooking classes" on the Internet.

Go with a friend or friends. Sign up before you leave home. If possible, check with someone who has taken the course before you.

Don't expect to be an accomplished cook as a result of one class or even a brief course. Go to enjoy. A trip to a local market, a lunch of what you've learned to cook and maybe a glass of wine are often bonuses.

Don't sign up for a class in the evening after a day of museum-hopping or sightseeing. Daytime classes are better.

As Nelson, the Portland teacher, said, "Evening classes are tough. At 6 o'clock the students are tired. They're into the wine early, and by 9 o'clock, nobody cares."

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