Optimistically Cautious

Sunday, September 09, 2007

My Own Surreal Gourmet: Cooking with Judy Schultz

On a whim, I entered a contest last week sponsored by the Bistro section in the Edmonton Journal. The prize was a market fresh cooking class with Bistro editor Judy Schultz and Gail Hall, owner of Seasoned Solutions. For my submission, I wrote about my developing interest in the culinary workings of Edmonton alongside my own experiments in the kitchen, with documentation available on my blog. Much to my surprise (and excitement!), Judy called on Tuesday, opening with the line, "I couldn't resist your Cooking Chronicles!" We were to meet on Saturday at 10am, in front of the Sunshine Organics kiosk at the City Centre Market.

Kuhlman's kiosk (where I picked up some fresh dill)

I reached the kiosk at five minutes to ten, and began to wait. It was actually a bit unnerving, as all I had to go from was Judy's column photo in the Journal, so I can best liken the feeling to the jitters of a blind date. By 10:15, I was really nervous, and thought back to the nightmare I had of having missed the group somehow. Luckily, I overheard a woman say something about needing to direct a "girl who will look lost," and from there, I was off with the woman who turned out to be Judy.

The food columnist extraordinaire actually doesn't look much like her stock picture at all. Lively, with a quick smile and warm manner, she informed me after introducing herself that they had started a little early. We crossed the street, and walking towards Jasper Avenue, met up with two men. The first was Tim, one of the other Shop, Cook, and Eat! winners, and the other was...Rick, a Journal photographer. Of course this excursion couldn't go unrecorded - exposing local food to the masses is informative (and makes for good PR).

The four of us walked to the Greens, Eggs and Ham booth (the name is too cute) and I was introduced to Joan and Jeanine, my fellow winners, and Gail, who would be directing our cooking adventures that morning.

The entire experience - but in particular shopping at the market - was so surreal. It was as whirlwind as my recent tear through London with my cousins. While Gail knew exactly what ingredients she needed for the recipes we would be preparing, to my untrained eye, it was a tad maddening, running about the vendors picking up seemingly random things. And without cell phones or GPS trackers to fall back on, we weren't able to wander away from the pack for fear of being left behind.

After a few shots with bell peppers from Doef's Greenhouses, Gail led us back to her apartment in the Cobogo Lofts (10249 104 Street). It is a simply gorgeous space, full of character not only from the history apparent in the hardwood and brick, but in how clearly it reflects its two inhabitants. Photographs of Gail's culinary excursions adorn the walls, and her ever-growing collection of bears are displayed on the shelves and cabinets. To me, it is a place that speaks to the idea of home.

The site of the Loft Cooking Class (don't worry, I asked if it was all right for me to take pictures)

Though it was only eleven in the morning, I would quickly find out that no one else in the group would mind imbibing so early in the day. Judy made us each a cocktail, we stood for pictures (after which Rick had to leave for another assignment), and we got down to business.

On the menu:

Judy's Mom's Quick Bread topped with Caramelized Onions and Sour Cream
Market Salad with Honey Dressing
Frittata with Fresh Herbs and Sylvan Star Gouda served with Roasted Baby Potatoes and Vegetables
Plum Clafouti

And did I mention the wine? Lots of wine? I'm a known lightweight when it comes to drinking, so when the group polished off two bottles before 11:30, I knew I was in trouble.

The kitchen wasn't particularly large, but the generous island in the middle allowed for fairly seamless group activity and interaction. Gail gently assigned various tasks, from mixing dry ingredients to frying onions to chopping herbs, and everyone felt like they were contributing to the meal. She mentioned that a growing part of Seasoned Solutions is catering to the business community - specifically, conducting cooking classes as a means of building team rapport. I think cooking as a group is an excellent way of fostering team skills; food has a magical ability of disarming people. The best part, however, is being able to reach a near-immediate result - the instant gratification of having something to eat.

As we put together the dishes, I did my best to make like a sponge and absorb. Kitchen tricks, equipment recommendations, names of Italian regions and obscure New Zealand vineyards were assaulting me every which way, and it was all I could do to try and keep up. If Saturday taught me anything, it was that I have a lot to learn. A few things that I did pick up: use aluminum trays and parchment for baking (and never Teflon); test the magnetism of a knife sharpener by seeing if a dress pin sticks; wrap fresh cheese in wax paper or cheesecloth soaked in vinegar (vs. saran) to keep the moisture out; and visit restaurant equipment suppliers (like Condon Barr) for discounted kitchen toys.

By 1:30, the dishes were ready to be plated to eat. Gail had set up the table with beautiful fall linens, and her husband John helped out by pouring (you guessed it) more wine. All of the dishes were great (and ones I will incorporate into my personal repertoire), but my favorite had to be the salad. The edible spicy flowers elevated what could have been a very bland plate of wild greens, and the honey dressing made with New Zealand white wine vinegar was deliciously sweet.

Washed greens and flowers (from Inspired Market Gardens)

Gail plates the salad while her husband John gives us a history lesson about the Cobogo Lofts

Table setting

Frittata with a side of roasted potatoes and vegetables (sweetened with birch syrup)

Had I been more prepared for what was to transpire, I would have given some thought to cooking questions I wanted answered. Still, it was great to be exposed to the idea of cooking with local ingredients, and to be introduced to some of Edmonton's key players in the city's culinary scene. I had no idea Judy spent three months of the year in New Zealand (she's currently building a house there, and because her son is a pilot with NZ Airlines, she has an unlimited flight pass), or that a farm near Sylvan Lake produces award-winning cheese (Sylvan Star Cheese). In our folders to take home, Gail included a reference list she put together with essential suppliers and services in the city, a great resource for someone who is learning.

We didn't finish until after 3, so it was quite a full morning of food, wine, and conversation. In all, it was a wonderful experience to be in the company of those who love food as much as I do.

Group photo (from left Joan, Judy, Tim, Gail, Jeanine, and me)

EDIT: Judy's article about our experience was published in today's Journal, complete with all of the recipes we tested!

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