Henri’s got class

Our food writer takes a trip to Ramekins Culinary School in Sonoma

Cooking locally:
Here in Chico,
Leon Bistro (www.leonbistro.com/cooking-classes) offers a wide range of classes including one on March 6 on Tuscan cooking, $60.
Rawbar (www.rawbarchico.com/classes.html) offers a rotating schedule of classes, including one on March 13 titled Fusion Asian Soups & Noodles, $55.
Spice Creek Café (www.spicecreekcafe.com/classes) offers seasonal cooking classes, the spring-summer series to be announced soon.
Monk’s Wine Lounge and Bistro also offers occasional classes—sign up for mailing list at the restaurant at 123 W. Second St.

To Henri’s great relief, this year’s Christmas gift from Colette was far more successful than last year’s—the week at Rancho de las Chakras rehabilitation and health spa in Santa Fe, from which I escaped within hours of my arrival, fleeing for the sanity of an evening of margaritas and a bottomless bowl of chips and guacamole. A nice gesture on her part, no doubt, and endorsed of course by the ever-concerned Dr. Epinards, but a failure by all accounts. I suggested that next time she decides she wants to concern herself with my health that she consider a week at a don’t-hold-the-mayo clinic instead.

So I was more than thrilled this year by a gift certificate for a cooking class at Ramekins Culinary School, in Sonoma. Two weeks ago, we packed Pierre for the weekend and headed down for Braises, Soups, and Stews, Oh My! taught by cookbook author and recipe developer Jill Silverman Hough.

The verdict? A complete success and a truly wonderful experience overall.

We checked in shortly before 6:30 and were led to the large dining room, where we were asked to pick a slip of paper out of a glass pitcher, though we weren’t told why. I picked No. 2, Colette No. 18. Then we sat down at a long, narrow, heavy-pine table, chatting with other students, the last of the 20 trickling in over the next few minutes.

Hough came out, introduced herself and a couple of assistants, and asked us to introduce ourselves. (Henri was the very picture of aplomb, keeping his identity as a food writer discreetly under his châpeau). Next, she went over the evening’s recipes: parsnip Parmigiano-Reggiano soup; scallop and Andouille sausage jambalaya; beef, bacon and barley stew; chicken “cocoa vin” (sic—it’s made with chocolate); and merlot-braised lamb shanks with Gorgonzola polenta. The 20 of us would be divided into teams of four, each preparing one of the entrees—turns out that the numbers were to establish the order in which we would choose what we wanted to cook. I got second choice. Easy: the jambalaya. Colette was 18th, but her first choice, the lamb shanks, was still available.

We then repaired to the spacious kitchen, where our ingredients, along with our recipes and newly honed Solingen knives, had been laid out at our stainless-steel-table stations. I cut the sausages while my teammates minced garlic and sliced carrots, onions, celery and bell peppers. Meanwhile, the other teams were hard at work, some already with pots and pans simmering on the huge gas stove.

Over the course of the next few hours, the 20 of us stirred and sautéed, boiled, browned and braised, Hough and her assistants wandering among the teams answering questions and offering advice. We also chatted among ourselves, getting to know not only our teammates, but also members of the other teams—as we all wandered from station to station.

When everything was ready, we returned to the dining room, where the table had been set and the wine began to flow. The dishes, served one at a time, earned each team a boisterous round of applause, Hough asking for comments. What seemed to work? What didn’t? (Surprisingly, no one mentioned the impeccably cut sausages in the jambalaya.)

All the dishes were delicious, especially Colette’s team’s lamb shanks, the tender meat virtually falling away from the bone and melting into the cheese and polenta—even the parsnips soup, which I had expected to be unobjectionable at best, was superb. We also enjoyed the “bonus” dessert, Hough’s special chocolate chip cookies from her days running the Caledonia Kitchen in Sausalito.

Just before 10, we headed out into the cool night air, already talking about our next class. Maybe the one on Vietnamese cooking, or the one on contemporary Mexican cuisine. Or perhaps clay-pot cooking.

Ramekins offers three or four classes a week, year round, both hands-on and demo (students don’t cook but do get to eat and drink), most costing about $90 per person (includes meal and wine). They also offer luxury accommodations (upstairs from the kitchen and dining room). For more information, visit www.ramekins.com or call (707) 933-0450.