I am hooked on cooking classes and take a one whenever the opportunity presents itself. Like when I learned Stonewall Kitchen, the creator of those delicious gourmet jams, sauces and salsas, operates a cooking school in York, Maine, I knew a visit would be part of my vacation itinerary.
I have kept tabs on Stonewall Kitchen since I read a small article about its jam in Bon Appetite back in the mid 1990s and I'm amazed how it has grown. It captured my interest, in part, because the owners took their passion -- making jam -- and turned it into a successful business. Years later the company is hugely successful and has more products than you can imagine.
Stonewall Kitchen's flagship store in York (on the Eastern Seaboard about half way between Boston and Portland, Maine) is a gourmet extravaganza where you can sample all of its yummy products, grab a meal in the cafe and take factory tours and cooking classes.
The class I took focused on fall/winter entertaining and featured recipes like Southern Style Corn Bread and Beef and Three Bean Chili, recipes I've since made at home with my own personal twists to make them family favorites. The cooking school seats roughly 30 people in a gleaming white and stainless kitchen. Arranged theater style, there's not a bad seat as students sit on stools at tall tables and have the option of also viewing the action via television monitors while taking notes on preprinted menus with recipes.
While the trappings are beautiful, it is the warm and casual atmosphere I found most pleasing. The chef, in my case Michael Specker, a classically trained chef and current café and catering company owner, encouraged conversation and even quizzed students with a few trivia questions complete with prizes. He shared his journey to becoming a chef and living in Maine along with too many tips to list all while demonstrating five recipes and answering questions through it all. As soon as a dish is complete cooking school staff distribute full-sized portions to all, so in addition to receiving a culinary education you also have a yummy lunch. Life is good.
My education continued as I made the recipes at home. My go-to chili recipe is built on a foundation of ground beef and chili beans. I had never made chili with stew meat or dried beans, so these were both new endeavors for me.
During my first run the soaked kidney beans had a perfect texture but the black beans never completely softened. After reading several expert opinions on the subject either my beans were old (despite no date on the bag) or my water was too hard. More than one Web site suggested dumping the soaking process in favor of canned black beans; certainly an option I will consider next time.
I also found a shortcut the Southern Style Corn Bread. Frankly, I thought the taste of the baking powder was overwhelming. Chef Specker suggested using half baking soda and half baking powder, but I turned to my favorite corn bread mix and added corn, diced green chiles or jalapenos and a little sour cream. The result was excellent. In the future I may also try some crumbled bacon or grated cheddar as chef Specker suggested.
You do not have to travel all the way to Maine to find interesting classes. So many suburban grocery stores, cookware shops, park districts and continuing education programs offer courses in everything from cheese making to Mardi Gras gumbo. I'm keeping my eyes open for my next learning adventure. Maybe I'll see you there.
• Penny Kazmier, a wife and mother of four from South Barrington, won the Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge in 2011.