Both! A foodie groupie gets tips -- and dinner -- at the JCC.
Dear reader. You will be forgiven for assuming that, as the creator of the Jewish Week’s Food & Wine section, I am a foodie. What I really am is a foodie groupie: I don’t have the time/money/discipline/passion to become a really great home cook, say, or an intrepid explorer of extreme ethnic foods in the darkness of the outer boroughs.
But I like to cook and I like to learn about cooking and I like to read about anything, so I love to read about cooking and cooks. When I meet any of them in socially I get kind of breathless and giggly – that’s the groupie part – and have to restrain myself from asking them all kinds of technical questions which, I imagine, would be a bit of a busman’s holiday for them. Kind of like cornering a heart surgeon at a party and droning on about your palpitations.
So you can probably get a sense of how excited I was to be invited to our dear friend’s 40th birthday party at the JCC in Manhattan’s Patti Gelman Culinary Arts Center. The soiree consisted of a Thai cooking class!
Instructor Jackie Torren, who graduated from La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in France (ooh la la!) and has developed recipes for Martha Stewart, assigned our motley crew of Brits and Yanks (our friend is from London) to a slew of different dishes for a three-hour immersion in kosher Thai cooking. This meant mainly that we used substitutions for some ingredients that are hard to find with a hekscher, like fish sauce.
The birthday boy chose to make one of the more complicated dishes, a “Masaman,” or Muslim, curry; Daniel and I jumped on an equally involved Beef Salad that required the creation of a marinade, a salad, a dressing and a bizarre-but-delicious ground rice garnish. We sliced lemon grass! We plucked mint! (Actually, Daniel did.) We nibbled at a tamarind pod. Daniel said it tasted like carob. It did kind of bring to mind that weird carob candy forced as a product of Israel on Hebrew School children of the 1980s. As if we weren’t suffering enough already! It looked like chocolate and was therefore all the more disappointing. Thank God Israel has moved on to bigger and better things, am I right, Start-Up Nation?
Anyway, especially exciting for a groupie like me was access to Jackie and her assistants, Tricia and Lauren. I tried not to monopolize them, but I didn’t really have to restrain myself because they were there precisely for me to ask them questions! Ask I did, about how to slice beef (against the grain, not with it) and how we’re supposed to curl our fingers as we chop (still working on this one) and how thick a cilantro stem must be to justify discarding instead of chopping it (very).
But the most world-changing moment came not as a result of a question of mine, but when Tricia handed me one of those handled gizmos that squeeze lemons or limes, observed me for a moment and informed me that instead of putting the halved lime into it with the flesh side up, I should flip it and then squeeze. Now, the fruit fits the thingamajig much better the former way, but it works much better the latter. OMG! I have two of those things, and have always had seed issues that I expect will now be resolved. Jackie told me that she had made the same mistake, for two years, and another guest looked on and observed that this moment was going to change my life. She’d clearly been there. So nice to find a fellow foodie groupie. Although right now I'm feeling so inspired that I'm contemplating gifting myself a Knife Skills class at the Institute for Culinary Education for my own 40th birthday in late June. Jackie -- you've heard of Jackie Torren, of La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine -- says it's a good thing.