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Size Doesn’t Matter–It’s What You Do With It

January 4, 2010

At least when it comes to kitchens, anyway. :)  Or so I’ve learned from spending the afternoon in La Cucina di Terresa.

Terresa's Kitchen

After hinting to Andrew, and then finally just telling him outright, I was “surprised” on the morning of Winter Celebration (aka Christmas Day) to receive a gift certificate for a cooking course with Terresa.

I immediately wanted to cook with her as soon as I saw her website.  A fellow US expat, Terresa got her start by cooking for her family in California, then worked her way through kitchens in San Francisco, Italy, and France, settling in Paris to pursue her photography, while still picking up pointers from local chefs.  

Though she will probably never stop eating fromage or organic eggs every now and then, her passion for organic vegetables and insistence upon letting the seasons guide what goes onto her plate would inspire many vegans, including myself.  

When the subject of meat substitutes such as tofu hotdogs arose as we sauteed radicchio (a leaf I don’t think I’d ever cooked with), she looked as if she might hit me with the pan.  Either eat it or don’t, she says.  And there is indeed nothing fake about the way she cooks.  

From the outside at least, her life is my Parisian fantasy: she speaks fluent French (self-taught!), lives in a petite artsy apartment with two cuddly cats, goes to open-air markets bright and early every weekend, cooks superbly, takes pictures of food, gives cooking classes both in Paris and the Loire Valley, has great skin…

Anyway.  Our day began at at 8:45 am (uggghhh I had been waking up at 9 am at the earliest for months!  Yeah I’m spoiled) at the Batignolles Market, which specializes in organic produce.  I unintentionally arrived 15 minutes early and was quickly reminded why wearing skirts every day, even with leggings, is not the best idea (brrrrrr).  But I was able to greet Terresa–who wore a bright red baseball cap, as promised in her emails–with a cup of coffee I’d gotten up the street.  Can one be a teacher’s pet if one is the only student there?

Terresa, after removing the cap, led me to a stand filled with plump, seductive fruits and vegetables.  She chatted and bargained with the vendors entirely in French while beginning our lesson in English, even though I was somewhat preoccupied with getting photographs of everything.  

Getting veggies at Batignolles Market  

She showed me everything that was in season, explained all the dishes we’d be preparing for our meal, and what we needed to purchase.  Arugula, lemons, chard, tangerines–oh, wait, Alecia doesn’t like tangerines?  What about litchis?  Never tried those?–and soon her cloth tote and re-used paper bags were bursting with alimentation.

A quick trip to the boulangerie to get pain for petit déjeuner…  (Bakery…bread…breakfast–just tryin’ to learn you some French.)

And then down to the Metro back to her place.  Surprisingly, she lives just a few blocks away from where I’m staying, so I was able to walk back “home.”  (Or stumble, more likely… I’ll explain later.)

On the Metro, we talked about my cooking experience.  I shared my fear of trying new recipes, and my notion that the abilities of a cook are proportionate to the length of her kitchen counters and the number of gadgets she has.  My mother and I, I confessed, used to dream aloud about having a mansion with a grand, gleaming, restaurant-style kitchen.  With an island!  

Nodding knowingly, Terresa assured me (or perhaps warned me) that her own kitchen is small, and the only tools any cook needs are a couple of good knives and a few pots and pans.

I would also add organizational skills and the ability to clean as you go–two areas in which I am sorely lacking.  :)

After she prepared a small breakfast for me–toast with almond butter, and more coffee–we got to work on lunch.

First we had Bruschetta with Seaweed Tofu Pesto, topped with candied kumquat.  Savory, salty, crunchy, rich mouthfeel, mmmm.  I enjoyed everything except for the kumquat–which left a very bitter ending, for my taste–but Terresa didn’t make a fuss when I picked them off.  More for her!

And to drink?  How appropriate… LA DILETTANTE Chenin Blanc.

Meanwhile, we got to work on the Erbazzone Tart, which was filled with pureed chard, dill (if I remember correctly), garlic and lemon juice. 

We mixed and kneaded dough!

We split it in half and rolled each half out!

We put one half into a greased casserole dish and filled it with pureed greens!  Placed the second half of the crust gently on top, folded the edges over and pinched them together, poked the top a few thousand times with a fork and voila, a tart!  We then baked the tart, cut it, topped it with walnuts and apricot sauce and…oooooohhhhhhh…savory, sweet, comforting…

Chatting and and eating with Terresa was a treat.  She was quick to offer advice about Paris, cookbook recommendations, and her opinions on food (is it art?), celebrity chefs, etc.  The day went at a leisurely pace: cook, take pictures, eat, drink more wine or coffee, talk, cook some more.  Structure and timing were in there somewhere, but there were no clipboards, no glancing at clocks.  Very chill.

Next, my favorite!  Pureed Fava Beans topped with Sauteed Radicchio.  Textural wonderland in my mouth!  I wolfed the whole thing down in five seconds, sheepishly scraping the bowl with my spoon. (If I were alone that bowl would have been licked clean.)  A green salad topped with sunflower seed sprouts (love ’em) and sun-dried tomatoes provided more leafy goodness.   

Being a photographer, my gracious instructor understood my need to take a billion pictures and encouraged me to do just that.  In fact, she snapped quite a few herself and we had to force ourselves to stop and eat our sexy supermodel food before it got cold.

Our meal concluded with a Blancmange made with homemade almond milk and agar-agar and topped with fabulous (and ridiculously easy-to-make) lavender syrup, walnuts, and apricots.  So many different flavors–almond, vanilla, citrus, walnut, lavender, apricot–blended flawlessly in one neat little package.  The texture…?  Silky-smooth, but firmer than custard.

Before I knew it, it was four in the afternoon.  The bottle of wine was empty, and there was a pile of dishes in the kitchen sink.  Time to go.

We packed up some of the leftovers for Andrew and kissed good-bye on both cheeks, the way the French do.  And I strolled back to our apartment, a little buzzed from the wine, a little jittery from the coffee, and happy.

What did I learn?

Clean as you go.  Remove the green sprouts from garlic cloves before you chop them.  Get a food scale.  Soak beans with kombu seaweed and they won’t be so “musical” anymore.  Take pride in the food you prepare and put into your body.

My inner chef is ready for the world.  :)

Since Terresa is working on a cookbook (that I’m dying to test recipes for–pretty please??) and since I never asked for permission to do so, I will not post any of her recipes here.  But I’m sure my own tweaked versions will appear later…I’m feeling very inspired!
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