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Cooking for the Clueless

Monica Negri
Robert Scheer

The Bruschetta Starts Here: Monica Negri makes Italian cooking look easy during her HomeChef classes.

HomeChef offers help to the culinarily challenged

By Christina Waters

THAT'S ME, one of the culinarily challenged--the sort of chef who believes cooking from scratch means picking up a crab (already cleaned and cracked, of course) and a loaf of sourdough. And I even slice the bread by hand, too. So for people like me, as well as for sophisticated and passionate home chefs, there is the aptly named HomeChef, a combination cooking school and kitchen store cooked up by gastronomic guru Judith Ets-Hokin in San Francisco, and now with outlets all over the Bay Area.

OK, it wouldn't hurt me to tune up my skills, I thought, as I signed up for a two-hour class in "Quick & Easy Italian" a few weeks ago.

There are all kinds of classes and series of classes available at the gleaming new Palo Alto HomeChef--from a trio of chocolate seminars to one-shot forays into special holiday menus. There are hands-on workshops in things like knife skills, sushi and breads. And for those who want a solid foundation in cookery, HomeChef has a 10-lesson series in the essentials, from sauces and braising to pastries, souffleés, broiling and breads.

So anyway, I paid my $39 and took a seat in the front row of the demonstration kitchen equipped with ovens, a six-burner stove, huge counters, an overhead mirror so you can watch the flying fingers, and two video monitors so you don't miss one little trick.

Our culinary tour guide for the evening was the personable Monica Negri. Assistants helped as Negri chopped tomatoes that would form the delicious warm topping for crostini. She explained the obvious without making it sound infantile--the difference between crostini and bruschetta is that crostini is slathered with olive oil and then toasted. Bruschetta is toasted, garlic is rubbed on and a topping applied.

A jar of high-quality anchovies was passed down the row, along with my sample of the crostini topped with sun-dried tomatoes. It was easy to see everything being done in this dazzling kitchen, the kind you'd kill for. Italian parsley and basil were sliced into a chiffonade.

Negri talks about chopping garlic versus using a garlic press--one is more time-consuming, but keeps the garlic intact for browning. The other is easy as pie, but makes a paste that will burn when tossed into heated oil.

While tiny artichokes are being prepared for the next course--a risotto--Negri reminds us to taste constantly as we cook. Arborio rice is passed around for us to check out--the "quick & easy" class doesn't assume any participant expertise. The audience is a mixed group, ages 25 to maybe 60, seven men and about 20 women. They're very interested in making stock from scratch, and while the risotto is being stirred by a volunteer from the class, Negri explains about simmering stock for at least six hours. A collective gasp!

Negri really likes to use salt, I notice. Probably more than I would, but hey, I can adjust when I make my own artichoke risotto at home. We waltz through a really quick and easy filet of chicken that's sautéed simply in olive oil and doused with pan juices reduced with lemon, white wine and capers. We each get our own chicken breast to eat--yes we're definitely working up an appetite watching the foods simmering--and at about the hour-and-a-half mark, the dessert begins.

Tiramisu, the very thing you thought shouldn't be tried at home, is demystified by Negri, who passes around the ungodly rich mascarpone cheese that is the Italian specialty's secret weapon. "It's a spoon dessert, it's rustic," she smiles, in her sprightly conversational tone. As she assembles the final gorgeous product, she jokes about travel in Italy, applies a garnish of fresh mint and a few nasturtium blossoms, and voila!

The class grew quiet with tiramisu lust as we passed our plates. It was outstanding--and I had just watched it being made. Very empowering, this cooking class. I leave full, happy and ready to cook.

Hours: Mon.-Thu. 9:30am-9pm; Fri.-Sat. 9:30am-8pm; Sun. 11am-6pm. Plus extended holiday hours.
Address: 451 University Ave., Palo Alto
Phone: 650/326-3191
Address: 1600 Saratoga Ave., San Jose
Phone: 408/374-3191

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From the Nov. 6-12, 1997 issue of Metro.

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