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Aug
14

Hot on the heels of my Israel trip in March, the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) outpost in Napa Valley offered a one-day class on how to make Middle Eastern street foods. I signed up immediately, and the $75 half-day class was one of the best cooking lessons I’ve ever taken.

What made it great was its intense hands-on experience—no pre-prepared dishes, no watching the chef demonstrate steps, no slacking off while your partner does most of the work. After he taught us where to find the needed ingredients and equipment, along with some basic rules—how to handle knifes (from cutting to cleaning), operate the ovens, and properly maintain and clean your work space—our chef instructor Andy Wild treated us as if we were regular full-time students and knew our way around a professional kitchen.

Burns and cuts were entirely likely.

Eleven of us showed up that April morning and were paired into groups of two, with less than 90 minutes to prepare, cook and display our dishes, after which we would get to enjoy the fruits of our labor. I drew the proverbial short straw and worked alone, which meant if my dish was inedible, there was no one to blame but moi.

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I was charged with making Lamb Kofta With Raita (skewered ground lamb with yogurt-cucumber sauce), which also meant I had to prepare two items, alone, so I needed to haul ass. The sauce needed to chill for at least 30 minutes before it could be served, so I began with grating English cucumbers then mixing them with yogurt, fresh squeezed lemon juice, minced mint leaves, kosher salt and freshly minced garlic made into a paste.

Sounds easy enough, yes? It was, save for the garlic. It takes more strength and repeated mincing to get garlic cloves into a paste than I had anticipated, but I’ve since become a pro at it and regularly include the tasty treat in other dishes.

The raita chilling in the fridge, I moved onto the lamb, which also wasn’t too difficult to prepare since I was able to use packaged ground lamb as opposed to grinding it myself. The time sink is in mincing all the ingredients—Italian parsley, green onions, mint leaves—while the clock keeps ticking. If you’re the type of cook who makes sure all your slices are even, this can take a while—and end up frustrating non-perfectionist (read: less anal) cooks in the kitchen. Chef Wild kept glancing at my slow slicing and at one point offered to speed up my process by cutting the onions for me, but I politely declined. I could do this!

Once kneaded with the salt, cumin, cinnamon, cayenne pepper and freshly ground black pepper, I shaped the lamb paste into little sausages, slid them onto skewers and placed them over a medium-hot fire, turning regularly until all sides were brown, about eight to 10 minutes. I started cooking the koftas with about 12 minutes to go.

Tip: If using wood skewers, make sure to soak them in water first so they don’t catch on fire while over the flames.

As Chef Wild called out how much time remained, we scurried around trying to avoid crashing into each other as we finished our dishes and scrambled to find just the right serving plates to garnish and perfect our presentations. We finished with seconds to spare. Burn-free, fingers intact.

Our feast also included Watercress and Tabbouleh Salad, Falafel, Muhammara (a red pepper dip), Green Harissa (a green pepper dip), Kibbeh Samak (stuffed fish fritters), House Made Pita Chips and Luz Biskwe (almond and cardamom biscuits). CIA provided a red Gamla 2005 wine from the Golan Heights Winery. All was excellent.

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Each of us agreed that the class was well worth the investment and significantly helped improve our cooking skills. It took place at CIA’s beautiful Greystone campus in St. Helena, Calif., located 18 miles north of Napa and 8 miles south of Calistoga on Highway 29 (about two hours from San Francisco). CIA began to offer its culinary continuing education classes this year, as local laws changed recently to allow nonprofessionals to participate.

Greystone was built in 1889 as a cooperative winery, and from 1950 to 1990 it was home to the Christian Brothers, a Catholic teaching order, which produced its own brand of wines. Be sure to walk around the grounds and take in the vineyards and flower and herb gardens. Students also get a 10 percent discount in the CIA store.

CIA offers weekend culinary enthusiast classes at its Hyde Park, N.Y., and San Antonio, Texas locations, too. Upcoming courses: North African Spice Kitchen, Baking at Home—The Desserts, and Sharpening Your Knife Skills. I think that last one has a space reserved just for me.

For schedules and additional information, visit www.ciachef.edu.

(Photos: Donna M. Airoldi)

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