Kitchen Tech Saturday: Online Cooking Classes

Happy Weekend, my lovelies!

The big grocery store chain in the Chicago area, Jewel-Osco, is running a Monopoly game promotion right now. The cashier hands out game pieces according to how much you spend at check-out, with some items in the store being worth bonus pieces. Of course, we’ve probably all played a Monopoly game like this before. I know that the big prize, in this case, $1 million dollars, is likely not going to happen for me. Buuuut, since they’re handing me those game pieces anyway, I always pop them open to see if any of them are instant winners or have any good coupons. So far, I’ve won a free tub of potato salad, a free Shutterfly photo book, and two online cooking courses from Rouxbe Cooking School.

Kinda crazy, right? I’d never heard of Rouxbe, so of course I went poking around the interwebs for some reviews (here, here, and here, to name just a few). Turns out, Rouxbe has a pretty good reputation for offering great classes that cover a broad range of topics, from a beginner level plant-based cooking course, to basic knife skills, to food safety. A lot of the courses for home cooks are definitely things we covered in culinary school, but for home cooks who are looking to step up their game in the kitchen, I can definitely see the benefit in investing the time and money to really dig in. If you’re interested in checking out Rouxbe, they do offer a free trial, so you can see what you’re getting into before you drop the cash for the membership fee.

Obviously, this became a big ole rabbit hole for me, and I started looking around at other online cooking schools. A lot of the big names you’d expect to see came up in my search… Allrecipes.com, Sur la Table, America’s Test Kitchen, and one of the newest, Gordon Ramsay’s Master Class. Of the first three, Allrecipes.com and America’s Test Kitchen both offer some sort of free trial period, and Sur la Table provides a short preview of each class. The Rouxbe classes, as well as the other three mentioned have discussion boards available to bounce ideas and questions off of fellow students, and the Rouxbe classes offer instructor feedback, quizzes, and an actual grade at the end, which is nice if you really need the accountability to stay on track. All of them are self-paced, which means you can fit the classes into your week at your convenience. The Gordon Ramsay version is a set of 20 lessons for one set price, but the likelihood of getting direct feedback from Ramsay himself seems pretty slim.

If you’re ready for a little more of a challenge, want to dive deeper into a particular style of cuisine, or you’re looking to fine tune your basic kitchen skills, online cooking classes might be the next step for you. I guess my advice, as someone who’s shelled out a LOT of money for culinary school, would be to really do your research to find the online classes that best fit your budget, your learning style, and the amount of time you’re willing to commit. Some programs offer full access to all their classes for a membership fee up front that let you see the full course catalog, and then an additional cost associated with each class. Others will let you pay for classes as you take them. Some will provide a good amount of instructor feedback, and for others, the feedback comes primarily through discussions with other students. This can be a great way to really hone your skills, as long as you choose the program that’s right for you.

If you’ve taken any online cooking classes in the past, I’d love to hear your feedback. What site did you use? What class(es) did you take? What the experience beneficial? Do you still use what you learned?

I’d also like to offer one of my readers the chance to take a Rouxbe class, using one of my Monopoly prize codes. You’ll have to use the code by May 30th, and then you have 60 days from redemption to complete the course. To enter the giveaway, all you need to do is leave a comment here on this blog post telling me which one of the three available courses interests you most:

The Cook’s Roadmap

Wake up! Becoming a better cook doesn’t have to be a nightmare of sifting through endless online and offline content. Let Rouxbe’s guided instruction open your eyes to understanding the “world of cooking” — a set of puzzle pieces that can be rearranged to unlock the code to tastier, healthier and more nutritious food.

Plant-Based Cooking: Level 1

As kids, we’re told to eat our veggies as an important part of a healthy lifestyle. But what about quality and taste? Don’t panic. Take a step back and look at the big picture of cooking and health. This course will guide you through essential techniques and ingredients to help you incorporate more high-quality and surprisingly delicious plant-based dishes into your life.

Knife Skills

Start chopping! Learning to use a knife will radically change your kitchen experience and your health. The more comfortable you are cutting food, the more you will cut. The more you cut, the more you cook. The more you cook, the better you feel, so get chopping and change your life.

I’ll draw the winner on Friday, March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day, and announce it both here and on Facebook (So make sure you follow me there, too!) on Saturday, March 18th by Noon, Central Standard Time. The winner will have 48 hours to contact me, or the prize is forfeit.

I’ve just signed up for the Plant-Based Cooking class. We’re headed into Spring, and that means all those delicious seasonal vegetables are about to start showing up in grocery stores and farmer’s market. What better way to get in that veggie state of mind?

Good luck to everyone who enters!

Put that in your pot and crock it.

Whoever invented the slow cooker deserves a Nobel Prize. I’m not kidding. Economics, Peace, Medicine… any one of them would fit. You put almost any combination of things into it, and four to ten hours later (depending on your patience level) you have a delicious thing to eat that doesn’t bust the budget, and makes everyone feel good. Usually, there are even leftovers.

I’m probably preaching to the choir, right? YOU know.

So, consider today’s recipe for Pot Roast with Mushrooms as an ode to the slow cooker. It’s not necessarily an original, but it’s a go-to for me. It’s gotten a little bit of tweaking over time, so I feel pretty confident in guaranteeing a scrumptious end result, and if you’re lucky, enough leftovers for pot roast sliders later in the week.

Equipment:
1 Slow cooker
1 large saute pan
tongs or something to flip a large piece of meat
1 cup measuring cup
Knife (for slicing mushrooms, if you don’t buy the pre-sliced ones)
Possibly a can opener, if you get canned broth/stock
Mixing spoon or whisk
Large pot, if you intend to further reduce the mushroom gravy at the end.

Ingredients:
1 4lb chuck roast
Salt and Pepper
1 T olive oil (or canola, or any vegetable oil, really)
3 cups beef stock
2 1/2 cups mushrooms
1 packet onion soup mix
2-3 sprigs of fresh thyme

Directions:
1. Season the chuck roast well on all sides with salt and pepper. Add the oil to the saute pan and heat until the oil is shimmery. Add the chuck roast to the pan and sear it well on all sides. You’re not trying to cook it through, just give it flavor and color. Remove from the pan and set aside.

2. Don’t forget about all those lovely brown bits on the bottom of the pan! That’s flavor, too, and we don’t want it to go to waste. Add about half a cup of your stock to the pan to deglaze, scraping up all the brown bits. Pour the deglazing liquid into the crockpot, along with the rest of the stock. Add the onion soup mix and stir or whisk to dissolve into the stock.

3. Stir the sliced mushrooms into the liquid, and add the fresh thyme. Then, nestle your roast into the crockpot, so that it’s covered by the liquid.

4. This roast can cook for pretty much whatever time is convenient for you, from 4 hours on high to 10 hours on low. I like to let it go as long as possible on low, if I have the time, because the longer it braises, the more tender and fall-apart-y it gets.

5. Once the roast is cooked through, remove it from the liquid, allow it to cool a bit, then shred it and put it back into the liquid. Alternatively, if you like a thicker, more gravy-like consistency for the sauce, pour it into a large pot, crank the heat to medium-high and allow it to reduce by as much as needed to reach the consistency you want. You can do this while you shred the pot roast, and then add the shredded meat to the gravy.

NOTE: If you decide to reduce the sauce, as described above, don’t add any additional salt until AFTER it’s reduced. If you add salt too early, your sauce flavor with concentrate and may end up too salty.

I served this with a super easy mashed sweet potato side.

Equipment:
Large pot
Potato masher, fork, or whatever you like to use to mash things up
Fork
Colander
Mixing spoon

Ingredients:
5 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into equal sized chunks
6 cups water
1/2 cup evaporated milk
3 T unsalted butter
2 T fresh ginger (the stuff that comes in the tube is fine if you don’t want to deal with fresh)
3 T maple syrup
2 tsp Salt plus more, plus Pepper to taste

Directions:
1. Add the water, potatoes, and 2 tsp salt to a large pot. Bring to a boil, and continue cooking until a fork pierces the sweet potato chunks easily.

2. Strain the water from the sweet potatoes, then add them back to the pot over low heat to help dry them out a little further.

3. Turn off the heat. Add the butter and begin mashing. Add the evaporated milk a little at a time as you mash until all large lumps are removed.

4. Add the ginger and maple syrup. Stir well to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Dig in!

Kitchen Tech Saturday: New York Public Library Digital Collections

Normally, when we’re talking technology, we think of the future, as in, new technology. The latest digital, computerized whatchamacallit that will change the way we cook, or shop, or go out to eat.

But today’s Kitchen Tech Saturday is actually kind of a time machine… one that only goes backwards.

A few years ago, the New York Public Library put all of it’s digital collections online, for free, and available to the public. The collections grow all the time, and you can look up everything from old political campaign pins to pin-ups, but today, we’re talking about a couple of search terms I’ve been using lately: recipe and cookbook. I’ll warn you up front– this website can become quite the rabbit hole.

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Right off the bat, the word “recipe” will get you not only cool, old images from, oddly enough, a tobacco company, but also their corresponding recipes. Decades ago, tobacco companies were the source of a lot of collectibles… things like baseball cards, and obviously, recipes.

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But as you dive deeper into the search results, you’ll see everything from old advertisements for a variety of products, handwritten recipes, snippets from old cookbooks, recipe collection brochures and their covers.

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For a real treat, also add “menu” to your list of search terms. You’ll see some really great menus from restaurants, events, and even hotel room service menus!

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If you’re a big culinary history nerd like me, you’ll find that this time machine also has the odd effect of also speeding up time. You sat down for a quick little poke around in the archives, and before you know it, it’s 2am, your tea’s gone cold, and some random infomercial for people who have a hard time with pancakes is playing in the background. Seriously. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Online digital archives are a real treasure trove of information, and the NYPL collection is definitely my favorite. There’s material in there on a huge array of subjects, although, obviously, this is the one I come back to time and time again for not only a NerdyFunGoodTime, but also some serious culinary inspiration.

Kitchen Tech Saturday – Reduce food waste with the foodkeepr app!

I’m going to try this cool (?) thing for Saturdays, and I’d love some feedback. Every Saturday, I’m going to introduce you to a piece of tech designed to help you out in the kitchen, doing your shopping, keeping track of recipes, etc.

I’m not so clever with the names. If you can think of a better name for all this *waves hand around the post*, please speak up! I haven’t designed a graphic to go with the series because I’m sincerely hoping someone far more clever than me can help.

Anyhoots, this week’s technological wonder is the foodkeepr app. It’s a simple little app that helps you create a shopping list, then, once you’ve made your purchases, keeps track of the expiration dates of all perishables and will remind you to use them up before they go bad. It’ll even connect you to Food Network to help you find recipes to use up those last little bits of things before they’re past their prime.

foodkeepr
$200 BILLION (!) dollars worth of food, or about $1100 per household, is wasted in this country… Thrown away because we didn’t get around to using it before it went bad. That’s both horrifying, and preventable. Little things, like shopping lists based on what you really need, meal planning, and getting over that weird fear you have of leftovers (ok, maybe those of you who have been subjected to 4 day old tuna noodle surprise might not find that so easy) can help.

Join me in the fight against food waste by using foodkeepr grocery list!

Android: http://goo.gl/t0QBZJ

iOS: http://goo.gl/zMIWLq

Inspiration Kitchens

It’s a busy morning in the Inspiration Kitchens classroom kitchen. As chef instructor Jay Bliznick walks the class through its first assignment, a basic French bread, his students begin reading through and writing down the recipe. This morning they’ll not only make bread, but also learn the process for making pate choux dough, bake several dozen chocolate chip cookies, roast chickens for chicken salad, learn how to break down a whole fish, then turn THAT into a lesson on en papillote cooking.

He encourages them all to read every recipe at least three times before they even start gathering their mise en place, to make sure they’re clear on each step. That’s a good kitchen tip for every cook, but for these chefs-in-training, it’s just one of the building blocks in a foundation of professional kitchen habits—sanitation, communication, kitchen safety—the Inspiration Kitchens program aims to instill in its students.

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Inspiration Kitchens was founded as Inspiration Corporation by a former Chicago police officer, Lisa Nigro. It started in 1989 as your basic food distribution project—handing out sandwiches and coffee to Chicago’s homeless men and women. From there, it blossomed into a program that not only gives students who have experienced homelessness, addiction, and poverty a set of professional skills intended to help them improve their circumstances, but also the social services required to set them up for success in the program, and beyond.

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The 13-week course, which includes both classroom and on-the-job training through Inspiration Kitchens’ restaurant and catering service, is free to students, but this is not a hand out. There’s a big commitment required from both sides for the process to work. Inspiration Kitchens provides the training, tools and equipment, help with transportation costs, and job placement assistance; students have to show up to class on time every time, which means they need to make sure obstacles at home, such as childcare or other family comittments, are buttoned up before they start the program. As a result, some students have had to leave the program and come back a time or two before achieving completion. The payoff for all their focus and determination can be big, though. Many students leave the program with jobs in some of Chicago’s best kitchens waiting for them.

Student Erica Payne, who grew up on Chicago’s West Side, started the program in December and is close to graduation. She eventually wants to own her own bakery, making sales through a website vs. a traditional brick and mortar operation. But, she knows for that dream to become a reality she has to stick to the plan she, Chef Jay, and her counselor have worked out. So what’s next for her? More training.

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“Inspiration Kitchens is a great jumping off point. We learn the basics… They’ve suggested I go to the French Pastry Institute. They think I would do well there. Then, I want to buy some property…maybe travel before I settle down and start my business.”

Chef Jay acknowledges that for students like Erica, who came into the program with their passion already well developed, Inspiration Kitchens isn’t so much lighting a fire as it is helping to keep the flame burning through all the hard work, “They have a passion for food… they’ve led themselves to the opportunity.”

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However, it’s the students who have come into the program without a clear idea of an end result that Chef Jay sees as the most exciting challenge, “Those are the ones who I want to thrive. I want them to be able to taste something they’ve never tasted for the first time…My challenge is to try to bring out the passion that maybe has lie dormant, or maybe they didn’t even know they had.”

Inspiration Kitchens is located at 3504 West Lake Street in Chicago, near the Garfield Park Green Line stop. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday; Brunch and Dinner on Saturday; and for Sunday Brunch. Reservations can be made through the website. Full service catering is available for corporate events, private parties, and weddings, with event space available on site.