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Viking school excursion inspires

February 21, 2012

Last week Wife and I reached our 15th wedding anniversary. Since it was a number divisible by five, and that seems to be the American standard for amplified celebrations (who determined that, by the way?), we thought it was time for a weekend excursion. Since I had a Father’s Day gift promise of a Viking Cooking School class waiting in the proverbial wings, we decided–or rather, Wife agreed — that we could spend our anniversary in the Mississippi Delta.
The Viking School is an offshoot of the Viking Range company based in Greenwood, and they offer a wide variety of classes in about seventeen locations around the country. If you just want to watch someone else cook, you can do that–or you can cook most all of it yourself. The only advantage that demos have over watching Food Network is that you get to eat the demo meal afterwards. I wanted to cook and eat, so I set out to find a class that would appeal to both of us. Ultimately, I signed up for a class called “Date Night Decadent Dinner” — appropriate for an anniversary, I thought–and off we went. 
The evening began with a basic overview of the menu, then we pretty quickly got down to cooking. One of the primary kitchen skills that I lack is timing. I really do try to think ahead, but it is rare that each dish is ready to eat at the appointed hour. It’s just not my spiritual gift.  This class was good for me in that respect. We chopped parsley, roasted shallots, and sautéed pancetta for a vinaigrette to be named later. Lobster cakes were made in three different stages. A soufflé rose and fell before our eyes. It all came together in the end like it was supposed to, and that was a new feeling–and it was good. And at the end of the evening we sat down and ate what we had cooked — and it was very good.
The lobster cakes were first on the agenda. The lobster had been pre-cooked for us, so all we had to do was mix it with the other ingredients and make our patties. Nothing too fancy here, just a basic crab cake made with lobster. What added the extra degree of deliciousness was the champagne butter sauce that was drizzled on top. Wife thought the flavor was a bit strong — it did have a lemony kick you couldn’t miss — but I thought it added a nice contrast to the sweet taste of the lobster. Of course, by the time the champagne, vinegar and lemon juice were boiled down to practically nothing, it was mostly butter. Lots and lots of butter. No complaining here. 
The token green vegetable was asparagus with roasted shallot vinaigrette and diced pancetta.  I’ve noticed lately that lots of vinaigrette recipes call for shallots, and before a year or two ago I doubt I had ever shopped for shallots. I wouldn’t have known what to look for in the grocery store if it hadn’t said shallot on the label. My poor taste buds have been deprived, apparently, because three out of the four sauces we made that night called for them. As we were finishing up the vinaigrette, one of the instructors came by to check on us and said that every minute we had spent on this was worth it — even she thought it was that good. Truth be told, fresh asparagus is a recently self-approved entry into my diet as well. I only knew it from the can as a lad, and in that form it wasn’t my cup of tea at all. I learned from a fellow classmate that the woody ends break off pretty easily right about the point one would want to cut them anyway.  I’ll take a good tip just about anywhere I can get it.
I was a little nervous about the blue cheese soufflé. I had never made a soufflé before, and what I had heard about the difficulty of making them was not encouraging. But on this dish Wife and I ended up being the primary cooks, and together we made a pretty respectable soufflé. Happy anniversary to us. Now we have a good excuse to pull out those little ramekins she gave me for Christmas. 
The main dish was herb-crusted beef tenderloin stuffed with wild mushrooms. The instructor showed us how to cut an “x” in the end of the meat, then bore out a hole with the end of a wooden spoon. I stuffed the tenderloin with the pre-cooked mushroom mix, rolled it in herbs, salt and pepper, seared each side, then roasted it in the oven until it was done.  We made a little sauce from the pan drippings, and with all the elements in one bite, the umami scale was through the roof. 
The meal itself began and ended with dishes that the instructors had prepared beforehand. I suppose they figured it was hard to mess up the salad. There was some skill involved in making the dressing, but we had learned similar skills with other vinaigrettes and sauces on the night’s menu. The dessert — key lime cranberry cheesecake with chocolate crumb crust — required a separate set of skills I would have loved to hone, but the total preparation time took considerably more hours than we were allotted in the teaching kitchen. At the end of the night, I ended up with a piece of cheesecake and the recipe, so I’m still not complaining.  
Now is the true test: can we make this at home without instructors standing at our side? And with three things that need to go in the stove at different temperatures, can we get all these dishes on the table at the same designated hour? Only time will tell. And since I am still full from eating well throughout the weekend, time is definitely what I’ve got. 

Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist.  The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of the Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff.  He welcomes your comments at eatsoneate@gmail.com.

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