By Emily Paster
Do you love Williams-Sonoma as much as I do? I walk into that store and instantly start adding things to my mental wish list. A new stand mixer, a shiny saute pan, maybe some serving dishes, a cookbook or two — I want it all! One of the best things about Williams-Sonoma is that it takes the home cook seriously. Whether you are just starting out in your first real kitchen, or an experienced home cook who wants the latest and best of everything, you will find what you need at Williams-Sonoma, and the staff will be able to guide you. The men and women who work at Williams-Sonoma stores are extremely knowledgeable and always willing to give a candid opinion. Many Williams-Sonoma stores offer cooking classes, both hour-long technique classes, which are free, and longer, fee-based classes that include a complete meal. I recently had the opportunity to attend an evening class at the Williams-Sonoma store closest to me, Oakbrook Center. My class was led by a professional chef, Vanessa Reinhart, and culminated in a delicious meal of Grilled Apricots with Prosciutto, Seafood Linguine with Leeks and Fennel, and, for dessert, Strawberry Napoleons. (For those regular readers who know that we don't have pork or shellfish in our home, this menu was both delicious and transgressive for me — a double thrill!) Although I was there for work, the other participants came in groups — enjoying a special night out with friends that included both excellent food and some great cooking tips. What a fun idea for a date or a girls' night!
While the nine of us sampled appetizers, such as cheese and marinated olives, and sipped a refreshing cherryade, Chef Vanessa demonstrated how to prepare the chosen recipes, all of which came from the cookbook Cooking for Friends. Along the way, Vanessa offered some of the favorite cooking tips that she learned from her time in culinary school and working in restaurants. Although I think of myself as an experienced cook, I learned several great tips from Vanessa and even some from the other participants in the class. That's the great thing about spending an evening with people who love to cook: there is always plenty to talk about!
Here, in no special order are the best tips and tricks I picked up from my Williams-Sonoma cooking class:
- When grilling food, always put the presentation side on the heat first. So, for our grilled apricots, Chef Vanessa put the cut-side down on the grill pan first to get those beautiful grill marks. By the way, Chef Vanessa used a Le Creuset grill pan to get that grilled flavor while cooking on the stove. It's a heavy piece of equipment, but very high-quality.
- When making a dish with a few ingredients, such as the grilled apricots with prosciutto, splurge on the best ingredients you can afford. In this case, Chef Vanessa used a domestic prosciutto made from Iowa Berkshire pigs, and it was a slice of buttery heaven.
- Chef Vanessa's go-to extra virgin olive oil? Olio Santo from California. It is also a favorite with Ina Garten of the Barefoot Contessa.
- What's finishing salt? A finishing salt — intended to be sprinkled on your dish right before serving — dissolves quicker than a kosher salt or table salt. Because of that, you will be able to tell right away after using finishing salt how well-seasoned your dish is.
- Speaking of salt, when do you salt the water for your pasta? I always salt it as soon as I fill the pot with water, but apparently this is not the best approach. Vanessa recommends waiting until the water has come to a boil to add salt. Adding the salt before this point causes the salt to react with the pot and can leave marks. Whenever you add the salt, however, make sure to add enough — the water should taste salty.
- Do you use leeks in your cooking? Chef Vanessa used them in our seafood linguine because their mild flavor would not overpower the delicate taste of the mussels and clams that are the highlight of this dish. When using leeks, cut them in half lengthwise and clean between the layers because they can be quite sandy. Also, discard the dark green tops (or save them for the stockpot). Use only the white and light green parts of the leek.
- Basic knife skills: pinch the blade of your knife between your thumb and forefinger. Choke up on the knife for better control. On the hand holding the food to be chopped, curl the bottoms of your fingers under and use your knuckles to guide the knife.
- Sauté 101: first heat your pan, then heat your fat (butter, oil, etc.) Once you can see the fat shimmer, add your food. And listen for that sizzle! If you add food to a cold pan, the food will absorb the oil and become greasy.
- To elevate your cooking to a more professional level, consider the presentation. Add a garnish for color. (I like to use an ingredient that is in the dish as garnish, be it a slice of lemon or a sprig of parsley.)
- To learn how to cook without having to stop and measure all the time — something I hardly ever do, which makes writing a recipe a challenge — measure out a teaspoon of salt and pour it into your hand. Memorize what that looks like. Similarly, measure out one or two tablespoons of olive oil then pour that into a pan. Memorize what that looks like. Once you have a sense of how these common amounts look and feel, you don't have to stop constantly to measure them out.
If you are looking for more great tips such as these, and want to spend a fun evening out with friends, I definitely recommend a cooking class at your local Williams-Sonoma. As an added benefit, following your class, you can 10% off on anything you buy. So if you leave your class dying for a Le Creuset grill pan, at least you can get a discount!
Full disclosure time: I was invited to join the cooking class at the OakBrook Williams-Sonoma on August 20 at no charge. I was not asked to write about my experience, nor did I receive any compensation. All opinions expressed herein are entirely my own.