Monday, December 5, 2011

Middle Eastern Vegetarian Cooking with Chris Maher

I took my first ever cooking class yesterday, through Cooking Studio Taos, with local celebrity chef,  Chris Maher. It was Middle Eastern Vegetarian cooking, and it was an amazing experience. There were only 5 of us in the class - two couples, and me. I was actually sort of surprised by the couples things, but of course there must be lots of pairs who enjoy cooking together. Rick and I do too, sort of... but our kitchen is really a one-person place, and I often joke when friends offer to help, No thanks! I cook alone! Maybe I should have that printed on an apron or something. In Chris Maher's kitchen, I definitely did not cook alone, and I loved every minute of it.

Chris is a great guy - relaxed, friendly, welcoming, and super knowledgeable about all things food. I think he said he's been cooking professionally for 30 years. He had one of the best restaurants in Taos, Momentitos de la Vida, which he closed a few years back. He teaches cooking here in Taos, travels to teach cooking and team building, and creates the Caleb & Milo line of Distinctive Artisan Foods. He also does a fair amount of acting, in movies and TV. His wife Valerie works with him, keeping track of students and details, and was there to welcome us yesterday when we arrived for class.

Chris and Valerie are a great team, and the kitchen itself is huge, but also warm and welcoming. It's located on the Blackstone Ranch Institute property, where it's a nice drive past beautiful meeting facilities, guest houses, barns, and happy looking cows, to the kitchen and adjacent greenhouse. (I did find it sort of "interesting" to be learning vegetarian cooking on a working cattle ranch.) Because it's a commercial kitchen as well as a teaching kitchen, there are stoves, sinks, and prep tables all around the room. And the enormous dining table near the windows that look out to a huge greenhouse give it a real feeling of family. There's room for everyone, and room for lots of food, which we certainly needed.

So what did I learn? Aside from several terrific recipes, plenty! I learned how to hold my knife properly, for starters. I never considered that when held correctly, the knife is an extension of my arm, and I have much more control and stability. How did I not know this before?

I also learned that fava beans often have skins on them when you buy them, and those can be tough... I wondered why that batch of favas I made a while back had the texture of shoe leather. Now I know. And... lentils don't need to be soaked before cooking, garbanzo beans and fava beans need a long soak but no cooking before becoming falafel, caramelized onions need to swim in olive oil, never put oil on your salad before the vinegar because it closes the vegetables pores, Black Box makes a very palatable cabernet, and my favorite, Don't cook your spoon. Mixed in with all of that, and more, was some of the best food I've ever had.

The menu was:
Megadara Koshari (a lentil dish with rice and caramelized onions)
Arab Salad
Baba Gannouj

It's all vegan really, except for a tiny bit of butter used in a dish or two. At home I'll change that, but otherwise, this class was perfect for me. I was in charge of the Tahina, Hoummos, and Baba Gannouj. Chris grew up in Egypt, so the recipes were all the Egyptian versions of these dishes. The spellings might be somewhat different than what you're used to seeing in restaurants, but the flavors are familiar and comforting. I am now officially hooked on the beautiful Tahina, which is a rich, thick sauce made from sesame tahini paste. A big batch of Tahina doubles as the base for the Hoummos and Baba Gannouj. I'll never go back to my old way of making my humble little hummus. My world just got a little bit bigger, and a whole lot tastier.

I would love to share all these recipes with you, but I think that would be wrong. Maybe once I play with them a while and make them my own, I can share some of them. They're traditional recipes, sure, but they aren't my recipes, and Chris makes his living teaching people how to make them. So come to Taos and take a class, any class, at Cooking Studio Taos. It's affordable and fun, and would be a great part of any vacation to the area. Come now. Today if possible. New owners are taking over the Institute soon, and the lease on the kitchen might not be renewed. I'm sure Chris and Valerie will find another beautiful space to hold classes in, but it was a real added treat to be able to see the ranch, which I didn't even know was here until yesterday, and it's only about 10 minutes away from my house. I'll be watching for Thai Vegetarian and Indian Vegetarian in the coming months, so if you come for one of those, you'll be likely to share some kitchen space with me. I hope you do. I know we'd have fun.

I think I know what our Christmas dinner will be know... A Mid-East Feast seems appropriate, given the geographic location of the first Christmas. Not traditional? Well, says who, and furthermore, who cares? I can't wait to make these dishes at home, and share them with people I love. This morning I still smell like garlic, but right now, to me at least, it smells like perfume.


Ellen OB said...

What a brilliant idea for Christmas dinner: what could be more authentic? Middle eastern food is comfort food for me. Can't wait for your rendition of the dishes!

Blue Campanula Crafts said...

MMMM I love love love Middle Eastern food! Oh and I would also like to add 'BEADS'!!!!!!

Carlene said...

Sounds like you had a great time. I'm going home now to practice holding my knife properly. Who knew? Oh, by the way,"Beads"!!