I enjoyed the last cooking class I attended so much that I persuaded a friend to go with me for another one. The place was the same (upstairs at Cotton Row Restaurant on the square in Huntsville, AL), the chef was the same (James Beard nominee James Boyce), but the menu was completely different. And, this time there were 14 eager learners sitting in a dining room type of arrangement set with white tablecloths, china, crystal and LOTS of utensils.
Chef Boyce treated us as if we were guests at a dinner party with the added twist of also teaching us as the 3-hour class progressed. Now, I will just go ahead and confess that I am WAY too cookbook/recipe-driven to ever invite 14 people over to sit down and watch me prepare their meal . . . from scratch . . . even making up the dishes as I go along. Nope. Not going to happen. And, of course, I am a “home cook” and not a trained chef. BUT, I did learn so many things I didn’t know and now have quite a few new tidbits that I’d like to share with all of you.
- First, a few biographical facts about Chef James Boyce: One of his first jobs was as a dishwasher in a bagel shop. He actually got a college degree in chemistry but never used it except for a brief stint in a job testing ground water. He was drawn to food and cooking and was finally able to pursue that passion. He is from Poughkeepsie, NY, only a few miles from the Culinary Institute of America. He applied for and got a job working under Daniel Boulad of Le Cirque on a very part-time basis then worked his way up through various restaurants before earning the Executive Chef position for Loews Hotel at the age of 26. Along the way, he had the opportunity to cook in the homes of famous people in the Hamptons, such as the Rolling Stones and Tony Bennett. Wow! Chef James and his wife Suzan opened Cotton Row 9 years ago, Pane e Vino 8 years ago, Commerce Kitchen 6 years ago, and most recently they opened Galley and Garden in Birmingham. James and Suzan have 2 children. Their daughter has to stay on a gluten-free diet, so Chef James is very familiar with the limitations and possibilities for her. When he learned that one of our evening’s fellow diners had to eat gluten-free, he prepared the whole meal with that condition in mind. Chef James describes his style as “Southern cooking with French and California influences” and says that “cooking is mistakes” and “the best recipes are mistakes.”
- After a few minutes for appetizers while we were introduced to Chef’s plan for the evening, we were seated at the table and served a succulent crab cake over a smear of pureed tartar sauce and topped with fresh chives. The breading in the crab cake was a gluten-free baguette from Publix. He promised to post his instructions for the crab cake on Cotton Row’s website or Facebook page soon, so be sure to watch for it. I’m quite sure it was the best I’ve ever tasted with the quality of the crabmeat being a key component.
- Next he brought out a beautiful, large filet of silver salmon and cut it into 2 slivers per person. Then, he made a topping of minced shallots, fennel, olive oil, the juice of a whole lime, radishes and jalapenos. He showed us how to cut an onion/shallot by starting at the blossom end, keeping the root end intact. It looked so easy. Success appeared to hinge in small part to cutting know-how with most emphasis on the quality of the knife. He recommended A & V Seafood at 2000 Cecil Ashburn Drive in Huntsville as a great place to buy fresh seafood. (I suspect Steve and I will be making a field trip there soon). The salmon dish was served raw at room temperature. Chef Boyce also gave a short explanation about the 2 kinds of herbs — hard herbs and finishing herbs. Since then, I’ve been Googling and studying more about the differences and how they should be used.
- The next course was a saffron risotto with shrimp topped with shaved parmesan and toasted pumpkin seeds. The 2-oz. bag of saffron he used came in a tin container and cost $190 for those 2 ounces — high cost for high quality, no doubt. He did a wonderful job of demonstrating the process involved with the risotto. One important tip was to start with “cold rice and hot stock.” We heard about a website called www.Gilt.com where it is possible to buy very high-end kitchen equipment at reduced prices, and we learned that parmesan cheese contains more fat than brie. A surprise to all of us! Radicchio was new to me, too. It’s known as Italian chicory and appeared to be a cross between cabbage and lettuce. He sliced a portion of the head, shredded it and added it to the risotto.
- Our main course for the evening was a chicken breast with a butter sauce, called a Beurre Blanc (he recommends Banner Butter which is available at Whole Foods). The sauce began with minced shallots and a reduction of beer. In the meantime, he prepared a salad dressing with muscadine juice, ginger and some rice wine vinegar. That was served over a salad of Bibb lettuce with some medjool dates and bacon. The Bibb lettuce was hydroponically grown by Father Kent, a Russion Orthodox priest who owns Gratitude Farm in Hanceville, AL. A very new ingredient to me was amaranth greens. Some have called it “the next kale,” and it can be sauteed with garlic somewhat like spinach. It is said to be rich in iron, protein and calcium, and I found the taste to be very pleasant. Garlic can transform any dish, don’t you think?
- The dinner ended with a Gluten Free Bread Pudding drizzled with Cherry Sauce. That dish was prepared earlier and brought up from the restaurant kitchen. As with the crab cakes, it was made with stale, gluten-free baguettes.
I hope this post has made you want to check out several new businesses, websites or ingredients even further. Food is such a fascinating subject with so many astute farmers and chefs constantly coming up with dishes that are creative and delectable. Let’s get educated.
A & V Seafood Market Banner Butter
amaranth greens Father Kent at Gratitude Farm in Hanceville
hard herbs soft/finishing herbs
Oh, and P.S. — Monthly cooking classes are planned at Cotton Row in 2018. Check the website for announcements. And, if you need just a little more persuasion read here about the first class I attended taught by Chef Boyce.