Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Novice cooks learn basics

Newlyweds have the equipment and the desire, so we offer to serve them some skills

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Chef Meg Galvin shows Sarah Polley and Rob Schroeder how to slice vegetables
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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This is the first in a series of stories about learning to cook something truly inviting for dinner guests.

Love and marriage can melt the hearts of the most cynical - apparently even us.

A few months ago, we came up with an idea for a long-term project: Find a young newlywed couple and teach them to cook. With our help, their goal would be to host their first dinner party by November.

So we asked readers to nominate couples for our project who were married in June. But we weren't just looking for nice, cute newlyweds - we were looking for people who were truly bad cooks. In fact, the more kitchen mishaps they were involved in, the better.

One of the most convincing letters came from Diane Hauser of Mason, who nominated friends Sarah Polley and Rob Schroeder, who tied the knot June 7 in Clifton:

"Rob's cooking talents ... consist of his nearly nightly meal of instant mashed potatoes, canned green beans and a plain turkey sandwich," Hauser wrote. "Sarah ... has been known to burn the spatula to the bottom of the frying pan on more than one occasion!"


Rob and Sarah certainly sounded like they qualified for our project, so we called them when they returned home to Cheviot from their honeymoon. Sarah admitted she and her new husband are struggling cooks and provided more vivid stories of kitchen disasters.

"It's not that we don't like to cook," she said. "We just don't know how."

So for us, the choice was easy: The Schroeders impressed us as newlyweds who really wanted to learn to cook, and to cook together. We asked Rob and Sarah if they would let us teach them how to pull off their first dinner party. They talked about it and agreed, and we were ready to begin our first cooking lesson.

The chef

Long before we found Rob and Sarah, we asked Meg Galvin to serve as teaching chef for the series. Galvin, a graduate of the Cordon Bleu cooking school and an adjunct culinary instructor at Cincinnati State and the University of Cincinnati, is knowledgeable and personable, with a nonintimidating teaching style. She would be ideal for mentoring our two novice cooks, we thought.

The day of our first lesson at the Schroeder's home in Cheviot, Galvin hit it off immediately with the couple and their beagle-mix, Princess. Sarah taught media and culture part-time at Cincinnati State, yet she had never met the chef. Galvin's husband, Mark, grew up in Delhi Township and went to Rob's alma mater, Elder High School. Small world.

First, Rob and Sarah wanted to talk to the chef about their November dinner party. They had already decided who to invite - Sarah's parents, Hauser (the nice woman who nominated them for our series), Rob's mom and a friend and Rob's grandparents.

The couple was already a little concerned about the dinner party menu. Rob and Sarah eat a low-fat diet and little red meat. They love fish and seafood, but their families don't eat fish. Chicken might be the logical choice for an entree, but Sarah doesn't especially like chicken. What to do?

"But you know, I've decided I really want to learn to cook chicken right," Sarah said, ready to make the sacrifice. "Maybe that's the problem. We only cook it on the George Foreman Grill and it's kind of dry."

Galvin was sure she could show them how to cook chicken properly, but now it was time to head to the kitchen. The chef first wanted to assess the couple's basic equipment.

"Your knives look good," Galvin said, admiring the Schroeder's set of Henckels knives, a wedding gift. "All you need really is a chef's knife, a slicer and a paring knife, and you've got them."

She gave their gas range a thumbs up.

"If you've got a gas range, you're ahead of the game," Galvin said.

Newlyweds Rob and Sarah Schroeder of Cheviot admit they're not the best cooks. Most weeknights, they eat turkey and Swiss on toasted poppy seed bagels accompanied by instant mashed potatoes and canned green beans. Other nights, it's Rob's favorite Lean Cuisine frozen pizza or LaRosa's takeout.

They've also had their share of cooking disasters. When her soon-to-be in-laws came over, Sarah scorched a batch of pita chips in the oven. Rob topped that by setting his porch on fire while grilling pork chops. The flames were so fierce he had to call the fire department for help. Fortunately, this happened when Rob was cooking for another woman - before he met Sarah.

And she loved the Schroeders' new set of stainless All-Clad cookware, pointing out the shallow, heavy pan would be perfect for braising.

"Braising sounds good," Sarah said. "Even though I don't know what braising is."

The chef also tumbled through a drawer of cooking spoons and other utensils, and a few baking pans with price tags still attached.

"I didn't even know we had all this stuff," Rob said.

Galvin agreed the couple had plenty of cooking equipment. They just needed to learn how to use it.

Wielding the blade

Teaching the "students" to use a knife properly was her first lesson. The chef showed the couple how to grip a knife and then chop, using the knife point as a pivot on the cutting board and bringing the blade down into the vegetable. Lying on the kitchen floor, Princess watched intently, as if she had never seen her masters spend so much time in the kitchen.

"This is so much easier than the way I used to do it," Sarah said.

She and Rob learned to chop and dice an onion, then bell peppers, zucchini and yellow squash. While they practiced, Galvin put a pot of water on the stove to cook pasta. Then she showed Sarah how to heat a pan for sauteing.

"Always heat the pan first," she said. "Don't put food into a cold pan."

When the pan was hot, Galvin added olive oil and a handful of diced onions, which spit and crackled.

"Hear that?" Galvin asked. "That's what you want to hear."

Sarah took over at the stove, stirring the onions until they softened, then adding the chopped peppers and squash. Meanwhile, her husband learned to julienne a tomato, cutting it into long matchstick-sized strips.

"It doesn't really matter that much how they look," Galvin said. "But the vegetables do need to be cut the same size so they cook evenly."

The kitchen began to smell sweetly of sauteed vegetables. Rob's sliced tomatoes went into the pan, along with chopped basil, thyme and other herbs Galvin brought from her garden. Sarah drained the rigatoni in the sink, sending up a cloud of steam.

Then, under the chef's direction, Rob added the cooked pasta back to the pot with the sauteed vegetables. Sarah stirred the pot for a few minutes over low heat, then turned the colorful medley of summer vegetables and pasta out onto a white platter. A sprinkle of grated parmesan and the Schroeder's had dinner - prepared from scratch in less than 30 minutes. With a little help, of course.

"We do like to cook together," Rob said.

"It's just that we always seem to cook the same thing," his wife added.

The chef promised that would change - as their knife skills improved. She suggested the couple practice chopping and slicing, and to shop at different markets.

"Buy something you've never seen before, look it up on the Internet, and cook it," Galvin said.

Everyone agreed to ponder the dinner party menu, so that by their next cooking lesson, the couple could begin focusing on skills and techniques they'd need for the big event. November is only three months away.

Recipe This recipe shows you can create a meal quickly out of what's available - the fresher the ingredients, the better. Feel free to change it to suit your tastes - saute garlic along with the onion and add a pinch of red pepper flakes for spice, for instance. Cut in half or double if desired.


Pasta with Medley of Summer Vegetables

1 onion, diced

Pasta with vegetables
1 tablespoon olive oil, divided

2 bell peppers, seeded, membranes removed and julienned (about 1/8-inch wide and thick)

2 small zucchini, julienned

2 small yellow squash, julienned

2 small tomatoes, julienned*

1 pound rigatoni or other dried pasta

About 1/2 cup roughly chopped fresh herbs, such as oregano, thyme, basil and tarragon, or combination

Grated Parmesan

Salt and pepper, to taste

Saute diced onion in 1/2 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat until soft, 5 to 7 minutes. Add julienned peppers, zucchini and squash. Saute until crisp tender, stirring often. During last few minutes, add julienned tomatoes, stir for a few minutes and remove from heat.

Meanwhile, bring large pot of generously salted water to boil and cook pasta according to directions. Drain pasta. Return pot to low heat (don't rinse) and add remaining 1/2 tablespoon olive oil. Add drained pasta and stir well. When pasta begins to sizzle, add vegetables and stir well. Add chopped herbs and grated Parmesan. Add salt and pepper, to taste. Makes 4 generous servings.

Chef's tip: If you prefer to peel the tomatoes, make a shallow "x" on the blossom end (opposite from stem) with tip of paring knife. Dunk tomatoes in boiling water for about 15 seconds, then submerge in very cold water. Using knife, remove peel beginning at "x" mark.

About the chef

A Lexington native, Meg Galvin graduated from Eastern Kentucky University and Le Cordon Bleu Cookery School in London.

She has worked as general manager and executive chef of a country club and as Food Service Manager of Children's Burn Hospital in Cincinnati.

She is adjunct culinary instructor at Cincinnati State and the University of Cincinnati. She also teaches at other cooking schools in Greater Cincinnati and is writing a children's cookbook.

Her honors include being named "Chef of the Year" by the American Culinary Foundation in 2002.

Galvin lives in Fort Wright with her husband, Mark, and their three young sons.

Lessons learned

Here are some notes taken from Lesson I:

• You need three basic knives: A chef's, slicer and paring knife.

• Wash and dry knives by hand. Don't put them in the dishwasher.

• Use a sharpening steel to maintain the edge of knives. Have them professionally sharpened once or twice a year.

• Heat and sunlight diminish the potency of oil and herbs. Don't store above stove or near windows.

• The heavier the pot, the better the conductor of heat (and the better the pot).

• Cut bell peppers flesh side up (peel side down) to prevent the vegetables from moving around on cutting board.

• Cut vegetables the same size to ensure even cooking.

• Don't add oil to pasta cooking water, but add plenty of salt. Pasta can't absorb salt once it's cooked.

• Don't add food to cold pan. Heat pan first.

• Add dried herbs at the beginning of cooking. Add fresh herbs near the end of cooking.

Hit the books

These books teach the basics:

The Fannie Farmer Cookbook (Knopf; $24.95)

Joy of Cooking (Plume; $16.95)

Now You're Cooking for Company: Everything a Beginner Needs to Know to Have People Over (Harlow & Ratner; $24.95)

Go to school

These cooking schools offer classes different times of the year. Some offer hands-on sessions on knife skills and other basics. Call for schedules and prices.

• Cook's Wares; Shops at Harper's Point, Symmes Township, 489-6400; The Marketplace at Settler's Walk, (937) 748-4540.

• Cooking School at Jungle Jim's Market, Fairfield. 829-1919, Ext. 3.

• Dorothy Lane Market School of Cooking, Dayton. (937) 434-1294.

• The Great Indoors, Springdale, 346-1506.

• Kremer's Market Cooking Classes, Crescent Springs. 341-1067.

• Wild Oats, Rookwood Commons, Norwood. 531-8015.

• Williams-Sonoma Grand Cuisine, Kenwood Towne Centre, 793-3445.

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