‘An Italian Evening’ during the day
At Williams-Sonoma, students learn while they eat bruschetta
Nor did the participants who’d shown up for her cooking class Friday at Williams-Sonoma in Danbury Fair mall. All paid rapt attention as Swanson, who is well-seasoned in cooking before audiences, demonstrated how to prepare an enticing Italian dinner.
The class, called “An Italian Evening,” was presented not in the evening, but from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
“This is the first time we’ve attempted a class during the day,” Ed Haddad, manager of the Danbury store said, speaking over the phone a few days before the class. “Our evening classes are very popular, but we didn’t know if people would interrupt their schedules during the day.” Sonoma has scheduled evening cooking classes now through November.
All are completely filled.
And, as it turned out, the Friday daytime class filled up almost immediately after it was announced.
Joy Hinton of Brewster, N.Y., said she came, “Just because I always wanted to take a cooking class but I never had the time. I make pasta perhaps three times a week, always with vegetables, so I wanted to get some ideas.”
John Kossman, who has a weekend house in Sherman, and was the lone man taking the class, said he attended because “I’m going to a football game at Giant’s Stadium with about six guys and I do the cooking — in the stadium parking lot, tailgate style. I thought maybe I could learn to do something with pasta, something a little different. Usually, we just barbecue.”
If you haven’t been in the Sonoma store lately, you’ll find it’s been moved to a different part of the mall and expanded to include a large demonstration counter that surrounds a six-burner Viking range. This cooking island is near the store’s front entrance, so it’s subjected to noise from the mall’s promenade, but students (class size is limited to 10 people) face away from the door and the U-shape of the counter makes for a sort of intimacy with a chef giving a class.
And so it was on this particular day, as Swanson, who has a warm, outgoing manner, established immediate rapport with her students by asking each to name a favorite type of food.
One reply was “Anything chocolate,” but most professed to love Italian food.
Good thing. Swanson had chosen a menu celebrating some of Italy’s most authentic flavors: bruschetta with eggplant caviar, a salad of fennel, Parmesan cheese and button mushrooms, and a main course of penne with sage, butternut squash and prosciutto. For dessert there was a lovely apple torte with pignoli nuts and raisins. Happily, participants got to sample all foods.
Swanson began by preparing the torte because it had to bake 45 minutes. As she mixed the dough for it, she said, “Better to have a few lumps, than to beat too much and have a tough dough.”
The raisins for the torte, she said, should be soaked in water so they’d soften. “Or if you wish, you can use rum.”
Pignoli nuts are expensive, she said, so you’re better off buying a large container for less money and placing it in the freezer. Nuts contain oil and can get rancid if left at room temperature, so keep them in the freezer.
Rosanne Lewis, who was celebrating her birthday by attending the class with her daughter, Jennifer Blackwell, said, “It’s funny. I was raised in an Italian home and we almost never had desserts with the meal. At the end of the meal, we’d have fruit. Sometimes my grandfather would soak it in liqueur. Also we’d have cheese or nuts.”
Swanson, whose culinary education has included studies under chefs in Italy, agreed. “Often people who visit Italy are disappointed because the desserts there are not as sweet as what we eat here. Or, the dessert is simply fruit, or fruit and cheese and nuts. Or they’ll have biscotti and dip them in wine.”
As she cooked, she shared some of her personal, quick and easy recipes.
“One great dessert I love is fresh strawberries. Just slice then up, sprinkle them with a little granulated sugar and then drizzle a little balsamic vinegar over them. Let them sit for a few moments to absorb the flavors and they’re wonderful.”
Bruschetta was next on the bill. Swanson reminded the class to remove pits from the kalamata olives before putting them in a food processor.
“Otherwise, you’ll hear that awful ‘ping…ping…ping’ as the blades hit them.”
After making a puree of olives, eggplant, tomatoes, onions, garlic and cilantro, she spread the mixture on toasted baguettes, placed them on plates and garnished each serving with a whole fresh fig.
“Bruschetta doesn’t have to be hot, “ she said. “It tastes great served at room temperature.”
The topping for this Bruschetta is called “caviar,” she explained, because in the Italian countryside, eggplant is sometimes known as the poor man’s caviar.
Finally, it was time for the main entrée.
“I love this pasta dish because it contains three of my favorite ingredients — butternut squash, fresh sage and butter,” Swanson told the class, then passed out a sage leaf to each student.
“Smell it, squeeze it up, you’ll see it has a wonderful aroma and texture.”
She also passed around shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
“Some stores will say they are selling Parmigiano Reggiano, when it really isn’t. To tell a real Reggiano, read the rind. The name will be imprinted on it. Also look for salt crystals on the cheese. They are used in the aging process.”
Again, she shared one of her quick recipes:
“This one is really easy. I like to make it during the summer when fresh tomatoes are plentiful. I cook penne, drain it, then add cut-up fresh tomatoes — don’t cook them. Add a little olive oil, arugula leaves, some shaved Parmigiano Reggiano and salt and pepper. It’s great.”
She also reminded the class not to discard the rind of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. “Put it in the freezer. It’s great for flavoring soups.”
As she brought out sliced button mushrooms for the fennel salad, she cautioned, “Remember never to wash mushrooms in water. Just clean them by wiping them with a towel.”
Mushrooms are porous and will absorb water and taste soggy. If there is stubborn dirt, cut it off, she advised.
She used lemon juice, rather than vinegar for the salad. “Vinegar will overwhelm the delicate taste of the fennel.”
Swanson’s delivery was professional and, refreshingly, lacked any of the gimmicks we often see with chefs performing on television. She also didn’t shy away from sharing her own foibles.
“I did a garden party yesterday,” she told the class. “I took pitted olives to it, but forgot to check them for pits. I spent an hour checking the olives after I got there!”
Swanson, who is married and has a 2-year-old son, lives in Southbury and heads her own business, “A Culinary Experience.”
In addition to teaching cooking classes, she offers private cooking lessons in people’s home kitchens. She often acts as a personal chef and also stages cooking parties, which, she says, are a great way to celebrate birthdays, bridal showers and other special occasions
She uses her culinary experience to lead corporate team-building events.
“I usually conduct these in the company’s kitchen, or I’ll rent a commercial kitchen,” she said, speaking by telephone after the class.
“When groups put on an apron and step into a kitchen, something special happens,” she said. “People cast off their typical roles and learn new ways of relating to each other.”
Raised in Daytona Beach, Fla., she graduated from the University of Central Florida with degrees in psychology and graphic design, then became part of the corporate world for 15 years. Her work brought her to Connecticut and while with a Norwalk firm, she decided to make a career change.
“I was always talking about food, always giving dinner parties, always bringing food to the office.” So she decided to become a chef. She enrolled in the Cook Street School of Fine Cooking in Denver, Colo. The school was geared to those making a career change and included studies in France and Italy.
“I didn’t study to be a chef with the idea of working in a restaurant,” Swanson said. “I wanted to teach. I love teaching.”
And evidently she’s good at it.
Corinne Von Dorp, who lives in Redding and attended the class, said, “As a teacher, she was very down to earth, so you didn’t feel uncomfortable saying, ‘I’ve never tried fennel.’
I was watching faces around the counter. They were relaxed. Everybody really had fun.”
Von Dorp also had a compliment for the Willaims-Sonoma.
“I was as expecting the store to try and sell you a lot of their wares, but there was none of that.”
Note: While fall classes are filled at Williams-Sonoma, the store will start another session of classes in January. Cost per class is $50. For more information call 203-797-0182.
For more information about Swanson’s A Culinary Experience, call 203-521-8219 or log onto aculinaryexperience.com.
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