By guest blogger DEANNA THOMAS
I’m always looking for interesting opportunities to cook with and for people. I am a professionally trained chef but now I’ve got two small children, long and split restaurant shifts are no good for me. I need to find a way of spreading the word about how wonderful cooking from scratch can be, without compromising my family life. So it is with great pride and joy that I’ve been welcomed into the stable of talented chefs who work for Cracking Good Food.
To become one of their cooking leaders, or Cracking Cooks, everybody must attend one four-hour training session and volunteer to help out at a class. I was lucky enough to attend De-mystifying Risottos, held by experienced vegetarian chef Kim Irwin from Islington Mill Cafe.
Like many of the sessions, it was held in one of the bright, well-laid out cookery classrooms at Chorlton High School. After brief introductions and hand-washing, everyone’s offered a cup of tea and a sitdown. Kim explained how the class was going to work and what we were going to be making. This class was made up of people from all different backgrounds and cooking skills. One fabulous woman even worked as a private chef but loved coming along to classes to watch people learn and get excited about cooking.
Kim got us to make two risottos. The first was butternut squash and lemon with two grains. Risotto has to be made with a particular type of rice, medium or short grain and high in starch to help it absorb liquid and become sticky. Kim’s recipe used 150g Arborio rice but also 50g of barley (to serve four). Barley is a wonderful underused grain that adds an interesting, almost chewy texture to the finished dish, plus a wide variety of vitamins and minerals.
We sat round a large central table helping to peel and chop the vegetables and garlic. It’s a perfect way for people keen to improve their cooking knowledge to chat to professionals in a relaxed atmosphere. Kim was also eager to show everyone how easy it is to make your own vegetable stock from scratch rather than using a stock cube. We got this on first as it needed at least an hour to simmer. She also gave us a tip on how to make it even better at home when we’ve got more time - by roasting the vegetables first.
We then split into three groups and took turns adding the ingredients to the pan and stirring them over the heat. Risottos usually take about 25 minutes to cook and need to be stirred constantly, adding stock one ladleful at a time, so the rice absorbs the liquid slowly and becomes creamy. Being tied to the stove for all that time may put some people off, but the stirring motion is quite therapeutic and if you’ve got a glass of wine and some good company, what’s the problem?
After adding some lemon, Parmesan cheese, Greek yoghurt, chopped parsley and seasoning, we served it out and sat down to eat, giving everyone the chance to ask questions and share tips.
Next, Kim wanted to show us how to make a risotto using wild mushrooms. She set us to work by covering a few handfuls of aromatic, mixed dried mushrooms with boiling water to soften them for half an hour or so. Meanwhile, after chopping up and frying more onions, garlic and fennel, we poured in the rice, some white wine and repeated the stock-adding and stirring process. At this point, we’d all got to know each other and the atmosphere was really buzzy and chatty.
Some of us sliced up chestnut mushrooms and sautéed them in a frying pan with a little olive oil and garlic before adding the rehydrated mushrooms we’d soaked earlier. This risotto was quite different to the first one. Once we’d finished the dish by adding some double cream and Parmesan, it became really rich and comforting. A perfect meal even the staunchest carnivore wouldn’t find lacking.
We all sat down together to eat again before helping to wash up and clear away – many hands make light work, and it was done in no time. Adele the co-ordinator was there to make sure everything got packed away and she then handed out some feedback forms so Cracking Good Food can continue to improve, reach more people and get even better.
Most classes last for three hrs, cost £20 per person (concessions available) and the class size is never more than 12. This is a pretty good deal for a fun evening out where you gain a skill (and some cool tips) plus a meal at the end of it. There are a wide variety of classes on offer all year round and the most popular classes often get repeated at a later date.
I’m completely inspired, full of ideas and can’t wait to get cracking and teach my own classes. My first class is on 19 March and is going to be about making and decorating cupcakes. Cracking Cooks all have to emphasise healthy eating, so I shall be baking sweet cupcakes using vegetables and nuts, such as the classic carrot cake and the more unusual beetroot and chocolate. Hope to see you there. To see what courses are coming up, visit the revamped www.crackinggoodfood.org.
You can read more from Deanna on her blog www.foodographic.co.uk