Classes offer cooking tips and techniques for anybody's taste buds

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Chef Damon Menapace leads a class at Kensington Quarters with (from left) Dan Hershberg, Christine Blechman, Adam Falkowitz, Greg Steigerwalt, Charles Cycom. ( Photo by Matthew J Rhein )

In the upstairs demonstration kitchen and dining room at Kensington Quarters, the restaurant-butcher shop in Fishtown, chef Damon Menapace passed plates of house-made charcuterie and baskets of bread, and then outlined the curriculum for his monthly pasta class: There would be roasted eggplant tortellini, polenta-and-black-garlic ravioli, fazzoletti and tagliolini tossed with a late-summer vegetable ragout.

"By the end," he told students, "you'll be full, covered in flour - and hopefully know a little more."

The class, which begins with a glass of wine and ends when Menapace sets out his creations for participants to devour at a communal table, is not exactly a rigorous semester at Le Cordon Bleu.

But for home cooks looking to pick up a few new skills - or just seeking a fun night out - such classes represent the chance to study alongside one of the city's top chefs and go home with a full stomach.

Along the way, students may learn a few things they'd rather not know (for example, just how much butter restaurant chefs casually toss into their sauces) - but they'll also pick up the kind of techniques and tips you can't get from a cookbook.

Elsewhere in the city, aspiring cooks can watch local and visiting chefs work their magic at Cook, the permanent demonstration kitchen from the owner of Audrey Claire and Twenty Manning Grill; make pizza al taglio with chef Brad Spence at Vetri Cucina; or roll out dough at Magpie (each student gets a pie to take home at the end of the night).

There are also less aspirational, more practical offerings: Cooking on a $4-a-day budget at the Free Library's Culinary Literacy Center, or learning the business of food trucks at Community College of Philadelphia.


LIST OF FOOD AND WINE CLASSES


At Kensington Quarters, it was all about the allure of pasta.

Ken Beasley of Bella Vista was on a mission: His sister had given him a pasta machine a year earlier, and he still hadn't summoned the energy to figure it out. His wife encouraged him to take the class.

"It's also borderline strategic that my wife didn't come. Now, she doesn't know how to make pasta, so I'll be expected to do it," he said.

He had an able instructor in Menapace, whose resumé includes years of pasta-making at Osteria and Alla Spina.

For the chef, it's a chance to connect with customers and step away from the grind of nightly dinner service.

"It's nice to get out of the kitchen and share my passion," he said.

He discussed his pasta recipe, and explained why it calls for both whole eggs and extra yolks: the whites add moisture to the dough, the yolks richness and pliability. Then he passed around a hunk of dough so everyone could feel the consistency, and he offered an introduction to his tools: a pasta press and cutters, a good rolling pin, a bench knife, and a spray bottle.

Soon, students were draped in aprons and gathered around the counter as Menapace rolled out pieces of dough and passed them through a pasta machine until they were transformed into long, translucent sheets. He demonstrated when to add flour, how to stretch the dough, and how to handle it, using the flat of his hand instead of his fingertips. Then he invited students to try cutting the pasta into ribbons and shaping it into tortellini, ravioli, and agnolotti.

Charles Cycone, who lives in Center City, had tried making pasta before. Now, he said, the process seemed more accessible.

"There's tricks to everything with cooking," he said. "When you see it, it's like, 'Oh yeah, that makes sense.' "

Soon, Menapace moved to a stove top and walked students through a series of quick sauces - a sauté of peppers, onion, corn, and broccoli rabe to toss with the tagliolini, a butter sauce with basil and pasta water for the eggplant tortellini and a meat sauce for the fazzoletti.

"I like to do seasonal and simple and not really follow any rules after that," he said. "The thing I like the most about pasta is you can buy a bunch of fancy ingredients - mushrooms or meat - and make it really decadent, or you can just grab some leftovers from your fridge."

He made it look easy.

Still, Christine Blechman of Northern Liberties said that, even after taking the class, she wasn't sure whether she'd be making pasta at home.

"I'd like to say yes," she said. "I probably need a little more equipment first."

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Kensington Quarters Eggplant Tortellini

Serves 4.

2 whole eggs

4 egg yolks

13/4 cups all-purpose flour (or, preferably, measure by weight, adding an amount of flour equal to 1.65 times the weight of the eggs)

2 medium eggplants

1 medium onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 cup brandy

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Salt to taste

1 small bunch basil leaves, chopped

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup cheese, such as feta

 

1. Mix eggs, yolks, and flour together in a bowl, kneading until dough is smooth.

2. Wrap in plastic, then allow to rest in refrigerator for at least a half-hour.

3. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Halve eggplants and roast, cut-side down, on a lightly oiled cookie sheet until soft, about 20 minutes.

4. Sauté onion and garlic in a large pan over medium heat until onion is soft. Scoop out flesh of the eggplant, discard the skin, chop the flesh, and add it to the pan, cooking about 20 minutes over medium heat. Deglaze the pan with brandy and cook until liquid is absorbed.

5. Puree eggplant in a blender with chili flakes and black pepper. Allow to cool. Then put it in a plastic zip bag for filling the tortellini.

6. Cut off a small piece of dough - about one cup's worth - and roll flat with a rolling pin on a lightly floured surface until it is a slab just narrower than the width of the opening in your pasta machine.

7. Dust it with flour and feed it into a pasta machine on the widest/highest setting, stretching pasta in each direction as it passes through the machine. Continue dusting pasta with flour and feeding it through the machine, gradually reducing the setting to make the pasta thinner. Once it is translucent, spread it flat on a lightly floured counter and cut the pasta into even rows about two inches wide. Cut it in the other direction to make squares.

8. Snip a hole in the corner of your plastic bag and squirt teaspoon-size dollops of filling at the center of each square.

9. Mist the pasta lightly with water from a spray bottle, then fold each square into a triangle. Press to seal the edges. Then stretch and fold the opposite corners of the triangle toward the center, and press them together to create rounded tortellini.

10. Repeat steps 6 through 9 with remaining pasta dough. Place tortellini on a tray and store in the refrigerator. Reserve extra filling for future use.

11. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

12. In a large pan, combine a cup of pasta water, the butter and the basil over medium heat, until just bubbling. Remove from heat.

13. When water boils, carefully add tortellini and cook about 2 minutes. Drain.

14. Return pan with sauce to heat, add tortellini, and cook a minute more.

15. Serve immediately with crumbled cheese, such as feta, on top.

- From Damon Menapace

Per serving: 490 calories, 18 grams protein, 62 grams carbohydrates, 18 grams fat, 322 milligrams cholesterol, 757 milligrams sodium, 12 grams dietary fiber.


Brown Butter Pudding Chomeurs

Makes 8 servings

Sauce:

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup dark pure maple syrup

2 tablespoons strong coffee

Cake:

1/2 cup all purpose flour

1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 eggs

1/3 cup nonfat or low-fat buttermilk

1/3 cup maple syrup

2 tablespoons avocado or canola oil

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

 

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place 8 4-ounce ovenproof ramekins on a baking sheet and lightly coat the insides with nonstick cooking spray.

2. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt butter, swirling pan occasionally, 7 to 8 minutes, until melted and the milk solids are starting to brown. Remove from heat and carefully add syrup and coffee. Transfer sauce to a glass measuring cup or pitcher for pouring.

3. In a medium bowl, whisk flours, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

4. In a medium bowl, whisk eggs, buttermilk, syrup, oil, and vanilla. Add flour mixture and stir. Transfer batter to a glass measuring cup or pitcher for pouring. Divide batter evenly among the prepared ramekins. Gently pour hot sauce over batter, dividing evenly.

5. Place the baking sheet of ramekins in the oven and bake for 18 to 22 minutes, until cakes are puffed and sauce is bubbling. Let cool for 30 minutes before serving.

- From Maple, 100 Sweet or Savory Recipes Featuring Pure Maple Syrup by Katie Webster (Quirk, 2015)

Per serving: 246 calories; 4 grams protein; 35 grams carbohydrates; 20 grams sugar; 11 grams fat; 56 milligrams cholesterol; 216 milligrams sodium; 1 grams dietary fiber.