Chef Custer's Army

Cooking classes teach the benefits of knowing your source.

If you've ever taken a hands-on class at one of Seattle's first-rate cooking schools, or even a one-off course with a local chef or visiting cookbook author, you know the benefits are many. First of all, who doesn't love to cook when the ingredients are prebought, premeasured, and laid out on a gleaming stainless steel table that you will not be asked to scrub after the mixing's done? Then there's the meal, which will probably rival most of the ones you've ordered off a menu and practically all the ones you've cooked at home without a seasoned pro looking over your shoulder. Finally, there's the knowledge you take away: The pointers on knife handling; the trick of adding the very cold butter at just the right moment; a no-fail method for slicing delicate, just-seared fish. With her Seattle Culinary Academy "Meet the Producers" series, local chef Danielle Custer (formerly of 727 Pine, currently GM of SAM's Bon Appetit cafe) adds yet another layer. You'll eat one hell of meal and take away a useful technique or two as well as some information about sustainable food and eco-conscious cooking—but at the heart of Custer's classes is the benefit of a source-sensualist connection. ON WEDNESDAY, Feb. 15, in the demonstration kitchen at Seattle Central Community College, the source was Joe Malley of the locally based fishing vessel, St. Jude. I and about 15 other home cooks paid $45 to meet and talk with him, and to prepare three dishes and a handful of shorter recipes using his line-caught tuna. As the class filtered in, Custer passed out little baggies of St. Jude's albacore jerky (available at stores like Whole Foods, Madison Market, and Magnolia Thriftway), a bowl of smoked albacore dip she had just whipped up, and some fresh bread. Munching a little of both while leafing through the recipes for that evening's entrées—albacore tartare with miso ponzu, glass potatoes, and quail eggs; lavender grilled albacore with lentils and spinach cilantro yogurt pesto; togarashi seared local tuna with ginger-lime arugula salad and cranberry-beet reduction; and an assortment of "quick and easy" snacks using St. Jude's canned tuna—I was glad I'd skipped lunch. Custer spoke briefly about how she'd come to see Seattle as her "culinary birthplace" (hint: It has something to do with all the good stuff that grows, thrives, and is harvested here), and then divvied us up into teams of four. My team—yes!—was assigned the dish that featured the cranberry-beet reduction, and I got to work slicing the not-quite-thawed sashimi-grade albacore loins. SCCC student Kristen Schumacher kept our team on track, and Custer wandered the room offering help and ideas. Again, if you've taken a hands-on class, you know the drill. If you haven't, imagine your high-school home-ec class bumped up several notches and populated by Food Network addicts. A slightly chaotic but thoroughly enjoyable hour later, Malley arrived just as Custer finished demonstrating how we should plate each dish. Each team then arranged a smaller portion of their entrée onto one-fourth of each student's plate. Custer called us to the dinner table, our plates heaping with three mini-entrées and more than a few extras, and introduced the man responsible for the evening's feast while pouring us all a glass of Chinook's 2004 Yakima Valley Semillon. As we tucked into fragrant fish, smoky lentils, rich remoulade, and crisply flavored, citrusy sweet reduction, Malley told us how his crew catches, handles, and flash-freezes the incredibly tender, buttery-smooth tuna. Most of us don't regularly think about trolling versus line-catching, stacking fish versus hanging them, or the crucial moment and method for stopping the blood flow. We don't think about how gas prices affect seafood prices, or how global warming affects the sustainability of the seafood our region is so well-known for. But Malley does, and he spoke about all these things both instructively and sensitively, which is precisely why Custer wanted us to all have dinner together. It's also why the guests at her next class will be Eiko and George Vojkovich of Skagit River Ranch in Sedro Woolley, producers of certified organic beef, pork, chicken, and eggs. THE IDEA OF shaking hands with the guy who grew the green beans on my plate really appeals to me. It's probably the main reason I don't have a CSA subscription; I prefer farmer's markets. As important as it is to support local farms, however, it sometimes feels even more necessary to support local fishermen and ranchers. Can you taste the difference in a piece of meat that was naturally raised and mindfully slaughtered? I think so, and I know for certain that you feel the difference.

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