When I was just a little girl, I asked my mother “what will I be?”.
Nah… not really ask, but over some casual conversation. Her immediate response to me was ‘You don’t even know how to cook. How can you be someone’s wife?’ and so she said.
Alright! All I knew was how to cook a pack or two of instant noodles with slices of luncheon meat or hotdog. Back then, I was so nonchalant on this matter.
But now, I’m totally a different person. 3 dishes and 1 soup is not a problem anymore. All thanks to my awesome husband who has taught me during the 2 years of our marriage, mainly for the sake of his survival (because he is a lazy bum) and I need to be creative by tweaking recipes to suit our palate, or at least something new instead of boring old dishes. It is not that hard though. I just need to expand my horizon…I mean my brain.
If you have been following me on Instagram, I guess you know I signed up for a cooking class in March 2016 and finished it a month later. It was an exciting short journey I have embarked on in my life since I never knew I would love cooking. Thanks to that sudden love with food and photography a decade ago! Don’t you find that this life skill is a tiring, yet a therapeutic activity? You cook. You serve. You tweak. You photograph. You Instagram. And you eat with lots of compliments (maybe) from individuals who are as impartial as your husband.
I can’t remember how I came across Palate Sensations but, as they are conveniently located at Buona Vista which is just 2 stops from my workplace, I was more than happy to be able to sign up for evening classes. Palate Sensations is situated at a corner of Chromos building. It makes you feel serene to find tall trees with a playground outside of a humble cooking school.
Beside them are restaurants to fill up our stomachs. But don’t worry. Palate Sensations has an al-fresco dining area right outside the school. It is thus possible to try out your food on the spot after your lesson. Just let the Chef know. My Chef is a Spanish lady, young and pretty but very strict. Her name is Ruth Mesonero. One can only assume that what I am learning will be influenced by Spanish cuisine.
As you enter the cooking school, one is greeted by wall art which admittedly paints the life I aim to lead. On the other side of the partition wall is their spacious and clean kitchen, accommodating up to 60 pax. Fully equipped with what is needed to cook and bake, I discovered my favorite Kitchen aid – a mixer.
I failed to take many photos on the first two lessons, so let me take you through what I have been doing during the 8 lessons at Palate Sensations Cooking School. We are grouped in pairs, so you will find some nicer cuts and of course uglier ones, which are my works. Bear with me if it is too wordy.
1st lesson – Vegetables, Poultry and Cuts
Techniques. We learnt different cuts for vegetables, from dicing and slicing to chopping and so on. We also learnt how to hold the knife and cut with a momentum. I’m now quite impressed with my husband who, despite his great patience, has not yet succeeded in teaching me fully – that is, until I attended the first lesson. Why can’t I be more enthusiastic at home, learning it for free from him than spending thousands to learn? Never mind. I learn and benefit from both sides, which I think is just as amazing.
In under 3 hours, I cut, diced, sliced, and chopped more vegetables than I ever did before in my life. Full preparation before you start cooking. That includes measuring all ingredients needed, cut/dice/slice/chop, wash and put aside, marinate before you are ready to cook. At home, I tried to adopt this habit, but sometimes, I tend to forget and get myself into a mess.
✓ No salt and pepper (for seasoning) when you cook stock. Just let the basic ingredients and chicken to boil and simmer for hours. Let the process bring out the real taste. No marination needed for the chicken either.
✓ If you are going to make fish stock, put it in when water is boiled and leave for not more than 30 mins because after that, the taste of bone will start to immerse into the stock. Not nice.
✓ When you roast (anything), no salt, pepper or any flavoring. I forgot what the Chef said.
✓ Do not stir too much during simmering process. Again, I forgot what was said.
2nd lesson – Sauces, Purees, Eggs and Starchy Food
The main highlight is QUICHE. We made quiche. Oh my god, I love it! This recipe is good because the quiche turns out a savoury one. Although there are some other recipes out there to try, let me try this one at home first before I attempt others. From tart making to mixing of the fillings, we follow every steps as instructed by our Chef.
✓ Boil asparagus in hot water till it can be bent and put them straight in an ice cold bath. You get the crunchiness.
✓ The difference between Hollandaise sauce and Mayonnaise is that the former uses butter and lemon juice combination and the latter uses oil and lemon juice (and some other optional ingredients).
✓ Refrain from using olive oil for Mayonnaise making.
I shall not describe too much the steps in the dough making for quiche because I believe there are many veteran cooks out there. They know better than I do.
3rd lesson – Preparing Meat
For the first time in my 35 years, I ‘butcher’ a whole chicken (headless though) all by myself after Chef has demonstrated it to us. I hereby salute all the wet market stall owners, especially those selling fish and poultry.
This shallow frying plan allows our meat to be half covered with oil. Cook one side properly before flipping over to the other.
The wings are deep fried. Not much seasoning – salt and pepper only. I come to realize that so far, the lessons used simple seasoning such as salt and pepper.
This is some beer braised beef in the making. Yes, you think this is a pot of oil with beef but it’s actually beer. The beef chunks were prepared for us already, so we just prepared what was not. I was told that while the beef is cooking not to stir too much and just let it cook on one side then flip. My mum used to say eating beef keeps the body warm. I’m not sure how true it is, but there’s no harm having beef unless for religious reasons.
✓ Onion powder and paprika is a match made in heaven.
✓ To test if the meat is cooked, use a tester pin and poke into the meat for a while (not like the method we use to test the readiness of a cake). Place it on your wrist or chin to feel if it is hot enough. If it is, it’s done!
✓ Flour thickens when cooked together with braised or stewed ingredients.
4th lesson – Fish and Mussels
Again, I ‘butcher’ a whole fish. A white snapper. I’m so impressed with myself.
Take a look at my cuts on the left in the following photo. Uglier than my classmate right? Sigh… I need more practice.
There you have it. Our Pan-Seared White Snapper (fillets with skin on). Nice, right?
Here are my mussels. I don’t really fancy mussels even when they’re cooked thoroughly. We used white wine to cook. No need to stir. Just let it cook and open up on its own. Have with a French baguette.
✓ A fresh fish has bright eyes, nice gills, bouncy skin and subtle smell.
✓ When fish is cooked, it turns white and that is when you can flip over to cook on the other side.
✓ New Zealand and Australia mussels are better and let smell than local ones (green shells).
5th lesson – Healthy Salads and Dressing
Now I know what I can do with my leftover bread. I can make croutons. Cut them into cubes, drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. That is all and ready to bake in the oven till it hardens.
I learnt how to make poached eggs too. Just slowly put the unbeaten egg into the hot but not boiling water with vinegar so that the whites can gather together instead of spreading apart. When it is done, put in a plate with some oil on it so that it won’t stick. It’s easy, but mine turns out not that pleasing. I will try again. No worries.
Here I present to you a Caesar Salad with Poached Egg and Croutons. We actually made 3 types of salad but I preferred this one. So don’t get me wrong and think that this is what I have learnt in three hours for each lesson. I didn’t have much time to take photos when too occupied with the preparation and cooking. And you know, it’s salad and cutting and slicing of vegetables most of the time.
Nowadays, we are more conscious with our health and always pushing for healthy eating. An easy way to absorb nutrients from the vegetables, eggs, cheese and meat is from salad. It would be even better if you make it yourself because you have your own preference on what to put in your DIY salad. You can choose whether to omit the dressings or not. In my opinion, no dressing is much healthier than having one. Agree?Now I have come to love Caesar Salad and it is too easy not to make at home. So have you caught what I have learnt from this lesson?
✓ In order to make perfect croutons cut bread into cubes, put it on the baking tray, drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper and bake in the oven till it hardens.
✓ For poached eggs, put in the unbeaten egg into the hot but not boiling vinegar (a little) water. Till it is nicely cooked, scoop up the egg and placed on the oiled plate to prevent from sticking.
✓ Purchase the freshest produce available – it’ll be worth the pretty penny you’ll pay.
6th lesson – Italian Pasta and Sauces
Our menu for this lesson is handmade tagliatelle, ravioli and gnocchi. How exciting! All hand-made from mixing, kneading, resting to shaping and also with the aid of noodle maker.
Here’s Potato Gnocchi in tomato based sauce. I was surprised that my husband finished almost everything when I am not very keen with this one. The potatoes are baked in the oven for easy peeling and softness. Mash it and mix with flour to form the dough.
I love ravioli with spinach and ricotta cheese. The cutter makes a nice outline of each ravioli. It is gonna be on my to-do-list for weekend cooking because I’ve got ample time to prepare. It really takes up a lot of time.
Last but not least, tagliatelle with meat ragout. My favourite too. The dough runs under the noodle maker over and over again to achieve the almost perfect texture. When it combines with the meat ragu, it’s a heavenly match because it’s a mixture of minced beef and pork. What’s not to love? As usual, we use the technique ‘al dente’ to cook tagliatelle.
✓ When using noodle machines, avoid overextending your dough when switching a number down for a thinner texture. Do so after you run it through the machine with the newly switch texture number for once. Do about thrice for each number down. Go from the highest to the lowest for thin texture.
✓ Remember to sprinkle some flour over to prevent noodles from sticking on the machine.
7th lesson – Sweet Desserts
My favourite lesson. Who doesn’t like beautifully served pastries? But sometimes they’re either too sweet or too bland when you buy from outside. So having to learn how to make one at home, you are able to adjust it to your palate. And it is cheaper to make than buy, though time consuming. But then again, you can demonstrate your creativity through decoration and sometimes your decoration may be exclusive because it came out of your mind.
I will remember and learn this technique of mixing and kneading a dough, but you must have a spacious kitchen top to do so. Create a hole inside the flour and put in butter and egg and you can get started.
I am still not creative enough so this is so far the best that I have decorated for my fruit tart. What do you think? I brought it home for my husband and he finds it delicious. To think he is someone who does not have sweet tooth! He said that is because the fruits balance out the sweet taste of the custard below. How brilliant!
We made crème brulee and ice cream too. But the ice cream was eaten during our lesson because it’s unable to keep until we finished the lesson. Otherwise it would already melt on our way home. Crème brulee always looks pretty on the outside but is really creamy and sweet from inside. I did a lousy torch on the surface. One is too dark where the other is just nice. Always remember to hold the fire torch steady and firm to achieve a nicer surface. If not the sugar will get burnt instead of caramelized just like mine.
✓ Be flexible by allowing yourself to tweak recipes, especially with regards to quantities.
✓ Show creativity, make your brain work and think outside the box.
Putting it all together
I was supposed to be happily attending my last lesson on 3 May 2016. All participants of Chef in Training Series 1 will prepare and cook a sumptuous 3 course-dinner to conclude what we have learnt over the past 7 weeks and to serve and dine with one invited guest of ours. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get home on time due to flight cancellation. Very sad as I have never missed any lessons. Nevertheless, I shall pull myself up and continue to pursue this interest (or maybe passion for real in near future) in culinary matters.
I have to say that the difference in learning culinary skills from Palate Sensations and community centres is that the former is hands-on, which makes it easier to learn than the latter which is mainly demo. The price is a stark contrast of course. You pay peanuts for the latter. Especially a little cheaper if you are Passioncard holder, so don’t expect too much. You need a basic knowledge of cooking or baking and rely on recipes you brought home from demo lessons. It’s less effective than hands-on lessons.
It is a fun learning hands-on – that’s is my personal opinion. The good thing is you can bring food home from your lessons, both hands-on and demo lessons. No food wastage. That is what I personally promote. I can eat it immediately or for the following day’s breakfast or lunch. So do whatever you can if you are keen. And now with the Government’s Skills Future Credit, you don’t need to worry about the course fee because you can be reimbursed by them after that.
Learning never ends here. It is a lifetime of learning.
One who speaks her mind, with little boundary; Stella Chen, a Food and Lifestyle Blogger, who uses her novice photography skills to let the pictorial snippets form her tiny kingdom that spins around on food adventures, culinary arts, wanderlust and life.