“Recipes are meant to be changed.” -Chef Nick
I can’t think of a more perfect gift for a newlywed couple than a cooking class.
Michelle’s Aunt Judy was wise enough to give us just that for Christmas. Sur La Table, a kitchenware retailer launched in Seattle’s Pike Place Market in the 1970s, opened a location at Bayshore Town Center in May of 2011. In addition to every odd and end you could imagine for your kitchen, Sur La Table offers a diverse classes from various cuisines and styles.
Though I try to keep abreast of things going on in Milwaukee, I have to admit I’d never heard of Sur La Table before. We chose “Asian Noodle Favorites.” We are both fans of asian cuisine, and, I don’t know if people know this but I don’t like cheese, and we were sure there wouldn’t be any in this class.
We had no idea what to expect. Would we cook or watch? Would we get to try everything?
Michelle was cautiously optimistic while I was irrepressibly enthusiastic. Bayshore, a mostly open air mall, was packed on a chilly Thursday night, so we had to park some distance from the location. I was unaware that Sur La Table was also a store, so when we walked in and saw all the cookware, it was unclear that we were in the right place. Luckily, a large sign midway into the store pointed our way.
We were two of the first to arrive, and it looked like the class could accommodate around 16 people, four at each table and four at the front with the chef. As we waited and other class members arrived, we were offered coffee, water or soda. The coffee machine, a Starbucks Verismo was not working, but the chef’s assistants were helpful, making sure I had a warm cup.
The classroom filled quickly. At around 7 p.m., our teacher, Chef Nick, got the group’s attention. It was a full class–the majority being older, including a few men whose wives had sent them.
Chef Nick informed us that we would be making four dishes, and without much ado, he had us head to our chosen stations. This was refreshing, there was no reason to sit around and talk about cooking–we were hungry and ready to cook! Michelle and I were joined at our table by two very kind, fun women.
There were four cooking settings prepared at each table, but we would be combining our efforts with the people we shared our table with.
Dish 1: Malaysian Coconut-Curry Noodle Soup
Chef Nick referred to preparing food, things like dicing, as “processing” the food. Together, we processed the ingredients for the soup.
A few notable aspects of this dish: We used A LOT of red chili curry paste, we used fish sauce and, for the first time, I cooked with fresh ginger. I enjoy ginger a lot, so I was excited about this. Chef Nick showed us how to peel the ginger root with a spoon. Very simple. He also told us that when using cilantro, the whole plant, not just the leaves are edible. Actually, the stalk is where a lot of the flavor is, I always kind of suspected this, but tossed the stems nevertheless. It was good to learn something so useful.
Most asian dishes are cooked at very high temperatures and this dish was no exception. Chef Nick complimented us on how well cooked our veggies were before we poured in our liquid mixture. We actually boiled the noodles in the broth, which took a bit longer than I thought.
The dish was so warm and savory. Each element could be tasted, but none overpowered the others. Because of the red curry paste, the final note of each bite was very spicy, but not too hot. There was plenty to go around, we all got a giant bowlful of soup. Michelle really loved this dish and it ended up being her favorite of the event.
Dish 2: Chicken Chow Mein
Some of the more time consuming aspects of each dish were already done, as in the case of the second dish. The noodles had already been cooked, saving us time to focus on the more difficult aspects of processing and preparing the dish.
This dish called for ginger, and I processed it, and oyster sauce, which I’d never used before. Additionally, Chef Nick provided some knife tips, which were helpful, though I don’t think I am ready to chop like a real chef.
We used a large wok and constantly stirred the food, after all, where do you think the name “stir-fry” comes from? We cooked the noodles until they were a bit burned, which I loved. One of the best things about each dish was you didn’t dirty a bunch of pots and pans, it was typically just one. Chef Nick told us to make sure we scraped the stuff off the bottom of the pan, as it would all add to the overall flavor of the dish.
The chow mein was hearty and excellent. The only thing missing, I thought, was a bit of sriracha sauce to give it a little more spice.
After finishing the chow mein, class broke for a couple minutes. After two dishes I was already getting full!
Dish 3: Shrimp Phad Thai
Unfortunately, the next two dishes would be prepared family style at the front of the room due to the cooking methods used. Our class gathered around the big table and Chef Nick asked for volunteers to stir the wok.
He first prepared the shrimp and eggs. In another wok, he had someone stirring the veggies. Eventually, once everything was done, he brought them together.
I was a little disappointed that he had prepared the phad thai sauce beforehand, because it is comprised of a lot of ingredients and it might have been helpful to experience making it. The sauce was used generously throughout the cooking.
Prior to coming, this was the dish that I was most excited for, as I know phad thai is my Aunt Lori’s favorite asian dish. He finished the dish off with some peanuts and limes, surrounding the dish on a large family style platter.
Chef Nick told us we were going to cook the final dish before we could taste either …
Dish 4: Vietnamese Beef and Rice Noodle Salad
Chef Nick put down and bed of lettuce on a tray, followed by a potful of noodles. The beef was cooked at the front of the room with onions, mint, lemongrass and a plethora of other ingredients. Once the beef was done, it was laid over the lettuce and noodle bed.
Many asian dishes are heavily reliant on sauces and this one was no exception, however, Chef Nick also mentioned how the juices and heat from the beef was going to permeate the rest of the dish if it just rested for a bit before we tried it. I was fascinated that we were combining hot and cool ingredients and even that we were making a “salad.”
As the incredible smells wafted through the room, we lined up to try the final two dishes.
The phad thai was excellent. The strong, savory taste of the phad thai sauce drenched shrimp, noodles and veggies alike. I was worried it would be overpowering, but it was very good.
The beef salad was surprisingly refreshing, likely due to the lime and mint. This dish didn’t strike me as something you would have for dinner, rather, it seems more like an appetizer. Nevertheless, it was great.
Overall, my favorite dish was probably the chow mein, but I liked all of them.
Once we finished, after doing a little shopping the store, it was time to go. We really enjoyed cooking class at Sur La Table. The only negatives were that we weren’t really able to experience cooking every dish and that we want to go back, but it is rather costly (about $70 per class). The positives of the two-hour class were an atmosphere that was light and fun–not serious–and great food and I would imagine we will try cooking in time.
Demonstrating What We Learned
Three days after our class, on a lazy Sunday night, we decided to try cooking the Chow Mein, based on the helpful recipe provided by Sur La Table and the memories of class fresh in our head. We laughed as we “processed” the different veggies and we followed the recipe to a ‘t.’
You know a class is good when students can take what they learned and apply it. In that regard, I would highly recommend Sur La Table to everyone, but especially newlyweds like Michelle and myself
The chow mein tasted excellent, just like it did at the class. Once we dished up, I put a little sriracha sauce on mine. Michelle said I shouldn’t, but I reminded her of the wise words of Chef Nick that open this entry … “recipes are meant to be changed.”