Monday, June 30, 2008

Sowing Sustainable Seeds of Change in Lower Manhattan

Robert LaValva nurtures a vision to establish a permanent indoor public market at the historic Fulton Fish Market in Lower Manhattan. Each season, he cultivates the idea with enthusiasm, care and resolve and watches as it begins to take root.

If the foot traffic on this sunny and warm Sunday morning at the New Amsterdam Market is an indicator, the seeds have been sown, and hordes of New Yorkers support LaValva’s dream. The vendor stalls are just beyond South Street tucked under the FDR Drive in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. People are flooding the corridors between booths for this, the third meeting of the New Amsterdam Market. The seasonal event is – in effect – a dress rehearsal, aimed at building support for a permanent market to showcase artisanal products and regional, sustainable foods sourced within 500 miles of New York City.

Organizers have their eyes on the now-abandoned Fulton Fish Market as the ideal location. The New Market Building was constructed in 1939 by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. The structure belongs to the public, but in recent months some developers have entered the picture and are discussing the possibility of a hotel and retail space in the same vicinity.

The area just in front of the building is lined with rows of booths hosted by enterprises with delectable names – The Bent Spoon, Flying Pigs Farm, Pampered Cow, and the people’s popsicle, to name a few. As soon as I enter the market, I spot an old friend. Chef Karen Bornarth (pictured below in green), my instructor for “Classic European Breads” at the French Culinary Institute is with a colleague selling her crusty, bronze Miche – large, peasant-style whole-grain loaves. She’s enjoying the market day and the entrepreneurial atmosphere. “We don’t usually get to sell our bread at the school,” she laughs.

At the booth manned by Saxelby Cheesemongers, a gentleman hands me a sample sliver of raw cow’s milk cheese from Jasper Hill Dairy in Vermont, called Constant Bliss. It is named after a figure in the Revolutionary War. “Here he is, reincarnated,” the gentleman tells me as he hands me the slice. Constant Bliss is aptly named – smooth and creamy with a distinctive, peppery finish.
The Queens County Farm Museum is selling a variety of produce and I spot a neat row of jars filled with amber honey. I ask the woman at the booth to describe the flavor of the honey, and to my surprise, she confesses that she has never tried it. But, then she clarifies that she has only been working at the museum a short time, and the honey was just extracted from the 11 hives on the property less than a week ago. I purchase a 6-ounce jar. “Let me know how it tastes,” she says.

I wander the aisles sampling pickled asparagus from rick’s picks on Chrystie Street, and tangy sharp cheddar from Farmstead Fresh in Winfield, PA. All around me, elbow-to-elbow, there are old people, young people and babies in strollers sampling cheese, examining fresh cherries and tasting oysters. The community has come out in full-force to meet bakers, producers, cheese makers and butchers, and has brought along its appetite for regional foods. My bag is now bulging with delicacies that will sustain me through the week and beyond, and my wallet is nearly empty.

I manage to spend a few moments with Robert LaValva, director of the not-for-profit, New Amsterdam Public, the organization created to bring the market to fruition. Dress in a green-checked shirt and jeans, he is a tall, slender man with jet-black hair and a soft-spoken manner who is quietly passionate about his vision.

LaValva says he is very happy with how the day is shaping up. “Nearly all the vendors showed up, and we managed to set up on time.” He is pleased at the turnout. “It shows that people really care for the idea. These market programs are part of our heritage.”

He describes the idea of regional food systems as “a real emerging movement” and tells me that recently he even met several young women who want to become butchers and are working hard to develop their upper arm strength so they can lift large cuts of beef. “It’s an amazing time of change.”

It has taken New York some time to come to grips with what LaValva calls “this civic, urban thing called a public market.” Europe has many established markets, as do several cities in the United States. LaValva sees a future that will draw on New York’s agricultural heritage and its rich history, ultimately benefiting the economy of the region.

“New York once had such a market,” he tells me, “but it was less out of philosophy, and more out of necessity,” as purveyors would gather at central locations in the city to sell their wares.

“We are standing on the site of the city’s first market, established in 1642,” LaValva says. The location along South Street was a convenient gathering place for farmers from Brooklyn and the agricultural areas that surrounded the original boundaries of the city.

While numerous Greenmarkets are well-established in New York, LaValva tells me the greenmarket structure doesn’t necessarily work for every farmer’s business model. “It’s clear there’s a need to go beyond,” he says. “If we want regional food systems, we need to find other outlets.”

I ask LaValva how long it will take before his vision is realized. He pauses. “As long as it needs to,” he smiles. “Markets take time to grow.”

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, June 29, 2008

BUZZ!!! - Lemon Beehive Cake

I heard the buzz about that Jerry Seinfeld movie, but I never actually saw it. I was, however, quite captivated by the Honey-Glazed-Beehive Cake that recently graced the cover of a national magazine. Something about it just said summertime.

One of my oldest possessions is a venerable edition of Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne. In the opening pages, Pooh is out walking in the 100 Aker Wood and hears a loud buzzing-noise. Pooh says to himself:

“That buzzing-noise means something. You don’t get a buzzing noise like that, just buzzing and buzzing, without it meaning something. If there’s a buzzing-noise, somebody’s making a buzzing-noise, and the only reason for making a buzzing-noise that I know of is because you’re a bee.”

Winnie-the-Pooh’s craving for honey is a literary legend.

After staring at the magazine cover for some time, I now have a bee in my bonnet. So I track down a special cake pan in the shape of a hive and get busy. The recipe in the magazine seems complicated enough to require a colony of bees to get it done, so I opt instead for a slightly simpler recipe.

While baking, my mind is humming with bee imagery, from the villainous Queen Bee who stung the Justice League of America, to music lyrics, to the comic antics of John Belushi’s King Bee on Saturday Night Live.

I am quite industrious and soon, my beehive is glazed with flowery golden honey from Vermont and swarming with marzipan bees.

There is a serious note to my musings. The worldwide honeybee population is in dramatic decline, perhaps impacting the pollination of one third of our food supply. Various organizations are seeking ways to help the honeybees.

I honestly don’t mean to drone on, and in fact, I really should buzz along. To paraphrase Winne-the-Pooh, “the only reason for making Lemon Beehive Cake with Honey Glaze is so I can eat it.”

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Saturday, June 21, 2008

How Green is My Kitchen – The Organic Community Garden

It’s not easy being green, but I’ve noted a touch of chlorophyll pulsing through my veins as of late. Determined to eat locally – to the best of my abilities – I’ve shunned produce from Chile, worshipped at the compost bin of Barbara Kingsolver and become an apostle of Michael Pollan. I even purchase Martha Stewart’s “Good Things for a Healthy Home.”

Yet practical solutions are far more challenging than embracing rhetoric. The produce demographic of the typical Long Island grocery store resembles a well-traveled TripTik from The American Automobile Association and it’s often wilted or even rotten, as well.

So, as is often the case, I go online for options and quickly find myself at LocalHarvest, a bountiful web resource for everything from farmers markets to organic produce. I type in my zip code and…it is as if the Red Sea has parted.

It must be divine intervention. Who would have imagined that among the strip malls and gridlock of suburban Long Island one could find an organic community garden? It is like manna from heaven, and just to push the celestial analogies to the limit, check this out – it’s run by an order of Dominican nuns.

Welcome to Sophia Garden, a little organic patch of God’s country in Amityville, Long Island and a mission of the Sisters of St. Dominic who have lived on the land and often farmed it since 1875. I rejoice to see that memberships are still available.

The next day I dial up and secure a share. For a very small price and a commitment to work 15 hours during the season in the garden, I will get 10 to 15 pounds of vegetables every two weeks. It sounds so easy, and the community involvement will be fun. I note the first Saturday garden work day on my calendar and plan to attend.

Almost immediately, my failings as a localvore become painfully obvious. I arrive home horribly late from a business trip and sleep through the first work day. For an entire week after, I live in fear of being disciplined by the nuns for cutting class. I am wracked with guilt, which is easy when the clergy is involved.

Then, I read the fine print more carefully and discover that the Saturday work days don’t even count towards my 15 hour quota. That means I’m going to have to take a few days off to meet my work commitment. I commiserate with a working mom colleague who is intrigued by such activities but bemoans the lack of time in her schedule. “Can’t I get my housekeeper to cover my commitment?” she wonders.

As the growing season moves on, I’ve not managed to log a single hour of weeding in the garden and conclude that I am guilty of the sin of organic omission.

Finally, I receive notification that my first pickup of produce is scheduled for mid-June. I plan carefully so I can be there to commune with the farmland…and another business trip comes up. So, I must impose on my parents to make the first pickup and deposit the harvest in my crisper while I am away.

My localvore experiment is already fractured and my parents are cutting into their gasoline budget to pick up my organic vegetables. During high school, they chauffeured me, and now they’re chauffeuring my vegetables.

Several thoughts begin to germinate. First, I offer my parents a cut of the initial harvest (no sense wracking up more guilt). I decide not to go to the grocery store, since my refrigerator will be overflowing with produce. Then, I recall that – according to Barbara Kingsolver – in the cool, early spring and start of summer, it is the season of tender leaves and shoots. On the airplane to the West Coast (not helping my carbon footprint, either) I obsess over whether I’ll be eating lettuce at every meal. How will I creatively prepare, eat and store the yield? I’ve got to make sure I plan my meals carefully so ten pounds of veggies don’t go rotten on me. Where is Clarence Birdseye when you need him?

I arrive home from San Francisco at 2:00 in the morning and head straight to the crisper. As anticipated, the yield is mostly salad greens. Peter Rabbit would have a field day. Do you know what 10 pounds of lettuce looks like? Mom can’t even fit it all in the crisper. But, it is divine! It is the wee hours of the morning, I am examining glorious produce, and my fingers are covered with dirt and grit. I could almost sing the “Ode to Joy!” It's like a little revival meeting right there in my kitchen.

I still have to do my penance – 15 hours of hard labor in the Garden of Eden – and I’ve already got a conflict with the next upcoming workday. I’ll have to let my conscience sort that all out. In the meantime, I must decide how to prepared my share of the first harvest – my bags of “vegetable love.” As always, Mom is detail-oriented and leaves me a thorough written inventory:

Red romaine lettuce
Green romaine lettuce
Butter lettuce
Garlic snaps
Haiku turnips
Mixed radishes
Snap peas
Sugar peas
Mixed field greens
A handful of mesclun greens

The next night, I get to work planning my plant-focused menu for the week. Thank goodness I didn’t let my Professional Declutterer dispose of the salad spinner during Spring Cleaning. Soon, my head will be spinning from excessive use of the salad spinner.

Among the menu items I’ve created are a Chicken Caesar Salad with leafy red and green romaine lettuce and homemade croutons:

A “composed salad” atop peppery, bitter field greens with sweet, tender radishes, raw slices of Haiku turnips, organic hard-cooked eggs and organic chick peas:

A salad of sliced apples, Roquefort cheese and homemade candied walnuts drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar:

Meantime, I’ve been working on getting my terms straight. It took me too long to figure out that CSA wasn’t a public accounting accreditation. I’ve also learned that Alice Waters’ “The Art of Simple Food” is my friend. The Queen of Romaine Hearts knows her lettuce, and I now know the appropriate ratio of vinegar to oil (1:4) for preparation of the perfect vinaigrette. I also spend a lot of time rinsing produce. My kitchen sink has rings of dirt in it, but that’s a very good thing.

Okay, if you want to be a purist, I know I’m not a complete localvore. Who knows where the chicken and anchovies came from for the Caesar salad, right? And, I still have to visit Sophia Garden and get my hands dirty to make it all real in my mind. But, tonight I took my big bowl of salad outside with a glass of Chardonnay from a New York state vineyard and ate dinner at twilight to celebrate the Summer Solstice. The lettuce is piled a mile high in suburban Long Island and I am loving it!

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, June 12, 2008

French Country Cooking on 34th Street

The directions say, “Walk straight ahead through the swimsuit department and take the first left.” I am at Macy’s Herald Square in New York City to experience the best of French country cooking at the De Gustibus Cooking School. But, it is also a sentimental reunion of sorts for me. The legendary author and culinary instructor Anne Willan is the host for the evening. She is the author of the recently published “The Country Cooking of France,” a stunningly beautiful volume that takes one on a tour of the ingredients and classic recipes of the key regions of France. Upon arrival, we are told that the book has just been recognized with a prestigious James Beard Award. Anne was also the instructor of the master classes during my time at La Varenne at Chateau du Fey in Burgundy, France in September 2006. That period was of those perfect moments in life, for the food, the wine, the new friends and the beautiful countryside.

I am excited to once again see Anne at work. Akin to culinary royalty, she is characteristically proper, enormously entertaining and very precise. Above the work area is a long mirror which reflects all the actions taking place on the counter below. It is said that Anne first came up with the mirror concept to allow classroom students to better view the work of the culinary instructor.

She is dressed in a crisp, gold-striped blouse and a neat red bib apron. Behind her is an historic map of France that illustrates the important food regions of the country, immortalized by the food writer Curnonsky. I saw the same map at Chateau du Fey. As she speaks in her correct British accent, her deep respect and love of superior local ingredients that evoke a sense of place is clearly evident.

For an appetizer, we are served a sparkling wine and a green olive tapenade served on a toasted baguette. While we imbibe, Anne begins the preparation of a Gateau Breton aux Herbes du Pays (Butter Cake with Fresh Herbs) from Brittany. Chopped peppermint is incorporated into rich buttery dough that when baked, has the texture of shortbread or pound cake. She notes that most dough needs to be worked carefully, so as not to become tough, but Gateau Breton is very resilient. “I’m going to work the hell out of it,” she proclaims. Someone asks about the unusual addition of herbs to the sweet dough. “That’s new style,” replies Anne, “but it goes back at least 300 years.” She creates a lattice pattern ont the gateau with the tines of a fork. This distinctive pattern “says Gateau Breton.”

As her hands work methodically she talks about her life experiences. She was one of 200 women accepted to Cambridge in her day, and earned her masters degree in economics. She always loved working with her hands and quickly turned to cooking, training at the London Cordon Bleu. Later, in the United States, she became an associate editor of Gourmet Magazine and she founded the prestigious Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris in 1975. In between she penned dozens of books on cooking and food history. She and her family lived for many years at the gracious Chateau du Fey in Burgundy, but recently in a life transition, she and her husband have moved to California. “The Country Cooking of France” is a tribute to their years in France.

Someone asks how she went about researching the book.

“We ate!” is her spontaneous reply.

Anne moves on to prepare plump tomatoes stuffed with goat cheese, a favorite dish at Chateau du Fey. Meaty tomatoes are filled with soft goat cheese combined with fresh snipped herbs. The tomatoes are baked, “just until the skins begin to split.”

She moves to the entrée, a Magret de Carnard, Sauce Aillade (Duck Breast with Garlic and Walnut Sauce) a product of southwestern France. Aillade is a sauce of raw garlic, walnuts and walnut oil. The duck fat sizzles in the pan tempting our senses, and the sauce is nutty and pungent. Anne reminds us that the new garlic at the farmers market should be particularly sweet.

Next, she prepares a lovely gratin of bell peppers with rice. The rice sticks a bit in the casserole. “There’s nothing like a sprinkling of herbs for covering a disaster,” she advises.

La Traffade is a savory Potato cake with Cheese and Bacon. This is an Alpine dish that is sometimes served to skiers. Ironically, New York City is currently in the grip of a vicious heat wave. “After braving the streets in 100 degree temperatures, we deserve this,” says Anne. It is served rustic-style on parchment paper.

Finally, the finished Gateau Breton is served with a pureed sauce of strawberries and raspberries. The dense, golden, buttery tart and the sweet fruit is exquisite.

Anne is asked how long she took to write the book. “It took three years to write, but it’s really a lifetime,” she replies.

She invites the culinary team at De Gustibus to join her for a bow to the appreciative audience. She and I have a moment alone when I share photos of my visit to La Varenne. Anne gives me a warm hug and inscribes my copy of “The Country Cooking of France.”

Leaving the class, I am again more mindful of what Anne Willan calls food “with a sense of place, a sense of terroir.”

Settling in on the train destined for home, I open the book. The inscription reads: A small taste of France, Bon Appetite! Anne

I know that in the future when I cook from this book - no matter where I might be - that sense of place, or terroir, attached to the country cooking of France will also evoke fond memories of Anne Willan.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Monday, June 09, 2008

Tapas Dancing as Fast as I Can - Part Two

“Chef, should we start sautéing the minced onions?” asks a lovely but slightly overwhelmed woman, one of twenty students who have signed on for our two-part Spanish tapas immersion.

“You know the rules,” snaps our instructor, Chef Sixto Alonso. “The rules are, I cook, and then you cook.”

Indeed, Chef is preparing a demonstration as part of our program for session two of Tapas Essentials at the French Culinary Institute in New York City. But first, he announces that he has “a surprise” for us. He takes us to a corner of the kitchen where what appears to be a 50-gallon vat is simmering away. He has prepared enough Stewed Tripe with Ham and Chorizo to feed the citizens of Aragon, Valencia and Catalonia. He makes a point of mentioning - in case we didn't know - that tripe is the stomach of the cow, and we will get to try the dish during lunch. The rest will be served at a buffet dinner hosted by the school later in the week.

Some of the students appear less than enthusiastic. The assistant, Chef Justin, points out that if we try it, we might actually like it. The vapors rising off the 50-gallon vat smell, well…earthy.

This week, things are a little more relaxed, more akin to the tapas tradition. Following Chef’s direction, we prepare our mis en place in an orderly way, and put together a recipe of Pan con Tomate, or Tomato-Rubbed Bread so we’ll have something to nibble on in case we get hungry. Chef Sixto and Chef Justin have already prepared Verdeho de Acetunas (Marinated Olives) and Almedras Fritas (Sautéed Almonds) which are carefully arranged in individual cazuelas at the front of the room. We are invited to partake. The olives are spicy with tangy strips of citrus peel, cumin and fennel, and the almonds are warm, toasted and salty.

Chef Sixto and Chef Justin line up parallel demonstrations. Chef Sixto prepares Mejillones en Escabeche Jaleo (Marinated Mussels, Jaleo Style). He steams mussels in wine and then the soft yellow pillows are removed from the shells and marinated in a hot mixture of garlic, onions, sherry vinegar and sweet paprika. He drops a bay leaf in the sauté pan, and tells us “Spanish people put a bay leaf in everything.” Chef Justin is simmering chunks of potatoes and sausage for a rustic Patatas a la Riojana (Rioja-style Potato and Chorizo Stew). Chorizo is the spicy red sausage that is a specialty of Spain and is sometimes eaten raw at tapas bars.

Having received our instructions, we move to our stations. I steam the mussels, but mistakenly use chicken stock instead of wine (I add the wine after the mussels have opened.) The acid in the sherry vinegar completes the cooking of the mussels, and the sweet paprika and citrus zest add a nice kick. Alas, I have forgotten the bay leaf, so I probably won't win any tapas awards.

My teammate prepareds the potato and chorizo stew, which as it simmers, becomes the bronze color of terra cotta. A combination of sweet paprika and hot paprika adds an extra jolt of smoky, savory flavor.

As both recipes simmer, we are given directions on preparing two tapas dishes made with Bacalao or salt cod, a staple in Spain. Chef Sixto claims he has been up since 3:30 a.m. rinsing the salt cod. Esqueixada Salad is eight ounces of flaked cod fish (“It must be shredded by hand,” Chef insists.) dressed with sliced baby red onions, sliced cherry tomatoes, ¼ green pepper, black olives, sherry vinegar and flavorful olive oil. The fresh, briny taste evokes a kitchen garden by the Mediterranean sea.

Atascaburras is a traditional puree of potatoes, flaked cod, garlic and olive oil, of which there are many variations. We fill marinated red peppers with Atascaburras and create a presentation that resembles the peaks of the Pyrenees Mountains.

As we dine on our creations, I remember that I’ve not yet tried Chef’s tripe. Chef Justin has added garbanzo beans to the finished dish. It is fiery and strong, with the leathery flavor and texture of offal. Not unpleasant, but an acquired taste, nonetheless.

Our final assignment is the preparation of Croquetas, made from a mushroom béchamel sauce, flavored with Serrano ham. The sauce is chilled, but it is still tough to roll in flour and bread crumbs. However, when dropped into hot olive oil, the croquetas quickly become crisp and golden.

We clean up our workstations and it is time to receive our diplomas acknowledging 10 hours of intensive training in Tapas Essentials. During the two sessions, we have transformed about 10 simple ingredients into a feast “in the Spanish style.” The olive oil has flowed, and as reminder, I note there is a faint hint of olive oil fingerprints on my diploma cover. Chef Sixto seems genuinely reluctant to see us leave, which suggests that by working side-by-side for two sessions, we have found the spirit of friendship and hospitality that is at the heart of the Spanish tapas tradition.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Births, Graduations and Hiking Far

We’ve had some big events in our family in the past month or so. My gorgeous new niece was born abroad, with plenty of dark hair and sparkling dark round eyes. From photos and webcam she already appears to be developing quite a sprightly personality!

Here in the States, my oldest nephew (and godson) graduated from college and I created this graduation cake to celebrate the event (because every significant moment in life should be accompanied by a simply amazing cake!). He too, has an easy smile, a great sense of humor and an engaging way, which he will now apply to the business world.

For my littlest niece and my oldest nephew – each setting out on a new journey – some words of wisdom, from Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (1990), and the legendary Dr. Seuss. The advice is something that newborns, graduates and even experienced uncles and adults of all ages should never forget!

“On and on you will hike
and I know you’ll hike far
and face up to your problems
whatever they are.
You’ll get mixed up, of course,
as you already know.
You’ll get mixed up
with many strange birds as you go.
So be sure when you step.
Step with care and great tact
and remember that Life’s
a Great Balancing Act.
Just never forget to be dexterous and deft.
And never mix up your right foot with your left.
And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!”

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Tapas Dancing as Fast as I Can – Part One

Mon Dieu! Can one learn the essentials of Spanish tapas at the French Culinary Institute? Apparently, the answer is a resounding oui!

I can’t speak a word of Spanish.

It’s been nearly two years since I took a hands-on cooking class at the French Culinary Institute. FCI’s gone through an extensive transformation and now offers instruction in French, Italian and Spanish cuisine in what is collectively referred to as the International Culinary Center. Privately, I wonder if I’ve still got my mojo. It’s been a while since the spit and polish drills of the culinary classroom.

At least I’ve still got my uniform and my traveling kit of chef’s knives. Frankly, the decision to enroll in the course was also one of economics. Times being what they are, it was a lot more affordable to sign up for a two-part cooking clinic on Tapas Essentials in New York City, than invest in a trip to Spain. Consider it a little appetizer for a future culinary excursion.

Although I had hoped for a little grounding in the history and traditions of tapas, the class of twenty-one students in white coats and white caps is immediately hurled into boot-camp mode.

“If I ask you a question, you say Yes, Chef, or No, Chef,” orders Chef Sixto Alonso, a native of Barcelona. “The chef isn’t crazy,” he elaborates. “The chef needs to be heard, and you need to listen. You understand?”

The direction has the desired effect. The students all snap-to, and I quickly find myself back in professional kitchen mode, as we scurry for onions and Red Bliss potatoes to prepare Tortilla Espanola. However, I am still clueless about tapas.

Fortunately for you, dear readers, I have since done my homework. As I suspected, tapas is the name for small appetizers served throughout the various regions of Spain – bar food, to be exact. One story, proposed in the 1997 edition of Joy of Cooking, says the practice began in the sherry region of Andalusia in southern Spain in the 19th century. Small slices of bread were placed atop glasses in local taverns to keep the flies out of drinks. The word tapas derives from the verb tapar, which is translated “to cover.” Along the way, some entrepreneurial bartender started to top the bread with slices of ham. Others speculate that bartenders offered small bites of salty snacks atop drinks to make patrons thirstier. Consumption of tapas has become a cherished ritual in Spain, with different regions developing specialties from local ingredients. You eat tapas slowly and it should always accompany a glass of sherry, wine or beer. You savor tapas at a relaxed pace and take pleasure in life.

During class, we are destined to violate this important cultural prerequisite.

The pace moves quickly, and I pull out a notebook to scribble down Chef’s staccato directions. The kitchen is hot, I’ve missed my morning cup of coffee, my cap it on the tight side, and I’m concerned about the circulation to my brain.

Chef assures us that he will try to follow the recipes in our book. “Sometimes I get too excited and do something else,” he confesses. I team up with an engineer from an Internet company in New Jersey and we start to assemble our mis en place.

We set to work preparing Pan Con Tomate, or Tomato-Rubbed Bread. The dish comes from the region of Catalonia and involves grating ripe plum tomatoes into a puree and adding fruity Spanish olive oil. The tomato dressing has a lush, floral bouquet and is spooned over bread and topped with Serrano ham, Manchego cheese or anchovies.

Aside from the irony of our frenetic attempt to prepare food that epitomizes leisure, it becomes clear that the success of tapas is all about the alchemy of simple rustic ingredients, bold flavors and precision technique. We sample Almendras Fritas, or sautéed almonds. Whole blanched Marcona almonds, sautéed in olive oil until bronzed, are considered essential at tapas bars. We puree tomatoes, cucumber, red pepper, garlic and sherry vinegar with extra virgin olive oil for chilled Gazpacho Andaluz. The gorgeous salmon-colored soup is fresh and audacious with pungent garlic, fragrant olive oil and tart sherry vinegar entangled in an exotic flamenco dance.

Chef demonstrates the preparation of a Tortilla Espanola, or Spanish Potato Omelet, but he is not happy with the initial results and prepares it again. He is looking for a light color and creamy texture. The tortilla is cooked slowly on the stovetop, differing from an Italian frittata which is finished in the oven. Spanish women take great pride in the preparation of the tortilla. Chef talks about how the women in his family once competed to make the best tortilla. “Guess what?” he jokes. “Grandma won.”

Following his example, we combine browned potatoes with sautéed onions and eggs in a sauté pan. The process includes a precarious moment when one must invert the tortilla onto a plate, and slide it back into the pan to continue cooking. Some of our classmates get tripped-up by this step, but we manage the flip with dexterity and the result is respectably puffed and yellow, studded with savory onions and tender potatoes.

Gambas al Ajillo is a simple preparation of garlic shrimp sautéed in a hot pan with olive oil, red pepper flakes and brandy. When the brandy is added, little bonfires erupt over each stove. The shrimp is then simmer briefly with a little shrimp stock and served in a traditional terra cotta dish called a cazuela. I fret that I may have overcooked the shrimp, but the dish is wonderfully spicy and aromatic.

Chef tells us it wouldn’t be a proper course on tapas if we didn’t learn how to make aioli, a sauce of garlic and olive oil. He drops garlic by the fist-full into a bath of olive oil in a roaring Vitamix blender. “This is a big bunch of aioli,” he chuckles. “Don’t go out on a date tonight.”

He combines egg yolks and saffron with the olive oil and garlic mixture in a food processor, which becomes luscious golden-amber peaks. Prized saffron grows in several regions of Spain. We lighten the concoction with whipped cream and spoon it onto briny mussels on the half-shell that are placed under the broiler.

We eat our selection of tapas standing at our work stations, with no sherry, wine or beer in sight. School rules prohibit alcohol during class, but we’ve just committed a big no-no when it comes to tapas etiquette and international gastronomic protocol. A nice glass of ruby-red Rioja alongside those saffron aioli mussels would have really hit the spot. With any luck, I’ll avoid an entanglement with the Spanish Culinary Inquisition long enough to make it to our second session.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved