Escaping Hurricane Irene at Culinaria Cooking School in Vienna, VA

This past weekend, in the midst of Hurricane Irene I participated in a cooking class at Culinaria Cooking School in the lovely suburb of Vienna (outside Tyson’s). The school was founded by Stephen Sands (graduate and former instructor of L’Academie de Cuisine, as well as a former nuclear engineer) and Pete Saith (also trained at L’Academie de Cuisine and the Culinary Institute of Florence and the James Beard House- he helped open 2941 and also taught cooking classes at Sur la Table).

I chose for my first-ever cooking class, the Market Basket. The class began at 9am with a trip to the Vienna Farmer’s Market where we picked out fresh ingredients for the recipes the chefs had selected for us. The class was taught by Co-Founder Stephen and Chef Marilena Leavitt- an expert in Greek and Italian cooking. The market lacked some of the ingredients we needed so we were told we would improvise in class. We brought back miniature zucchinis, bright orange peppers, peaches, plums, fresh corn, tomatoes, chives, and onions.

Back in class we viewed the recipes we would be preparing:

Menu for The Market Basket class at Culinaria Cooking School

Zucchini fritters, heirloom tomato and caprese salad with pesto, confetti summer corn, and fresh peach and plum torta with toasted hazelnuts. Stephen also informed us that he would be teaching us how to cook halibut. An ambitious menu for a class that was supposed to be over by noon!

The kitchen space at Culinaria is gorgeous- long granite counters, professional cooking tools and gadgets (amazing ovens and food processors and knives) and a friendly support staff that lays out all your ingredients and whisks away dirty dishes when you no longer need them. I could get used to cooking like this.

The class we selected was a participation class so we were going to be making everything ourselves. They divided our class of eight into two teams of four and we began preparing our menu with instruction from Stephen and Marilena. First, we tackled the dough and crust for our peach and plum torta. Combining flour, salt, lemon zest and egg and water at different stages in the processor, we crafted a simple dough that broke apart easily, but was also easily repaired. Lemon zest gave the dough a wonderful flavor. We chilled it for 20 minutes and also prepared a pastry creme filling (mostly half and half and vanilla bean). Stephen strongly encourages using real vanilla beans rather than extract. The flavor is unbeatable and it also leaves tiny black specks in your filling.

We then moved on to other parts of our meal with Marilena. This woman was amazing- she told us she lived in Greece and Italy for most of her life so we weren’t surprised when she encouraged adding salt and olive oil at pretty much every stage of cooking. We made a fresh pesto (so easy to make!) using toasted pine nuts, parmesan, olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper and of course a ton of basil for that green color. The pesto was used to drizzle over our caprese salad later on.

Heirloom Tomato Caprese Salad

Next we went to work on the zucchini fritters. These were pretty complicated and I’m not sure I can really replicate them. We sliced the miniature zucchini through the food processor, then let them drain in a colander, and then sandwiched them in between paper towels to rid them of the excess water. Like cucumber, zucchini retain a ton of water so it was very important to try and extract as much water as possible. We then mixed the zucchini with egg, flour, Parmesan, salt and pepper before frying them in a pan and then settling them in the oven. They were served with a delicious tzatziki sauce Marilena had made (greek yogurt, dill, garlic, olive oil, vinegar, cucumbers) and more scallions.

We then began work on our summer confetti corn. In oil we heated the chopped onion and orange pepper until softened. We then added butter and the corn (cut from the cob) and cooked for another seven or so minutes. When we were ready to serve, we would re-heat this dish and add in the chives, dill, scallions, and other seasoning.

Summer Confetti Corn

Back to our tart- Stephen baked our crusts that had been laid out in the tart tins (correct name?) until golden (you definitely have to keep an eye on them- one got a little darker than it should have). We then filled with the pastry creme and peeled and slice the peaches and plums. Then covered with toasted hazelnuts and an apricot glaze.

Peach and Plum Tart

Final steps included preparing the halibut with a dusting of flour and olive oil, searing the fish in a pan before baking it for about ten or so minutes (probably even less) and squeezing lemon.

Then we plated our meals…

And bon appetit!

I really really enjoyed this cooking class and cannot recommend it enough. Even though the class did go a bit over the time limit, the staff was so friendly and the instructors so knowledgeable and helpful, I didn’t mind at all. I would recommend these classes to anyone- a group of girls, friends, a couple, or even just an adventurous day or night out by yourself. I learned a lot and had a great time doing so! Thank you Culinaria for a great experience! You can look up all of their classes here.