#33 – Take an evening class or attend an adult education workshop

When compiling my 40 before 40 list, I felt that as well as doing fun stuff and getting round to things I’d been meaning to do ‘one day’, I ought to aim to learn something as well, so I chose to challenge myself to attend an adult education class.  It’s so easy to think ‘I don’t have time for that, there’s too much else going on’, but as The List is all about making things happen I knew if I put it on there I’d have to find the time somehow.

As expected, time was a bit of a challenge.  Courses really only run either from September to November or January to March because schools and colleges tend to be busy with exams in the summer term.  Just trying to find a run of 8-10 weeks where I didn’t have too many other commitments (like holidays!) was tough as I didn’t want to have to miss too many classes.  This year I decided I’d just have to bite the bullet and make it work.

It will come as no surprise to regular readers that I chose a cookery class.  Food was always an interest of mine but since starting this blog two and a half years ago it seems to have moved on from interest and is now edging towards obsession.  I shall remember 2015 as The Year of Cake because as well as my 48 recipes challenge (only one new recipe a month, that seems a distant memory now!), this year I’ve done a Great British Bake Off Cookalong challenge, joined Clandestine Cake Club and got involved in Sunday snacktime at the local pub – all of which offer many opportunities to try new recipes, talk to fellow foodies and get even more ideas and recipes to try!  However, I digress…

The course I selected was Hot and Spicy Chinese and Thai Cookery.  I chose this to stretch myself.  It’s a style of cookery I tend to avoid at home firstly because there are too many unfamiliar ingredients, and secondly because I don’t actually like hot food.  So, I was hoping that the course would not only introduce me to new ingredients and new techniques but also that I could learn what makes the food hot in order to be able to tone down the heat but retain the flavour.

Our teacher, Michelle, grew up in the Sichuan region of mainland China, before living in Thailand and finally Hong Kong where she met her English husband and moved to the UK.  As a result she is familiar with different styles of cookery from different regions.  Sichuan cooking in particular is known for being spicy and Thai cookery is known for a careful balance of hot, sour, salty and sweet.  Each week of our eight week course, Michelle demonstrated how to cook a specific dish, then the next week we’d bring the ingredients along and cook it ourselves.  There were 11 of us on the course to start with, and although we were cooking the same dish, it was amazing how it could turn out so completely different.

Week 5 - Thai Red Curry Chicken (3)

Several Chicken Thai red curries. All cooked from the same recipe, all totally different!

During the course we made Prawn Chow Mein, Sweetcorn Fritters, Kung Po Chicken, Ma Po Tofu, Chicken Thai Red Curry, Prawn Thai Yellow Curry and Shredded Beef with Black Beans.  All of these dishes are wok cooked so the techniques were largely similar for each dish.  The first thing I learnt was that the time consuming part of Chinese cookery is the preparation; marinating the meat, chopping the vegetables, preparing the curry pastes.  The actual cooking time is relatively short – everything goes into the wok in the correct order and a few minutes later the dish is ready to serve.

There are my dishes – clockwise from bottom left: Ma Po Tofu, Kung Po Chicken, Sweetcorn Fritters, Prawn Yellow Thai Curry, Shredded Beef with Black Beans, Chicken Thai Red Curry and Prawn Chow Mein

My favourite dishes were the Chow Mein and the Thai curries.  I am glad I was pushed to cook with prawns (which I have only started eating recently) as I really enjoyed those dishes and they’re not difficult to prepare.  I’d be confident doing them again at home.

As for my objectives in taking the course, it has certainly been successful in introducing me to ingredients I’ve never used before.  I’ve cooked with prawns (I’m a bit of a wimp with fish and seafood), fresh ginger, tofu, pak choi, Sichuan pepper, coconut milk, and fish sauce, none of which I’d previously used.  I’d actively avoided fish sauce and dishes containing it as I don’t like fish but actually it doesn’t really taste of fish, it’s more salty so it’s used as a condiment rather than to impart a fish flavour.  The course also encouraged me to venture into my local Chinese supermarket.  I still haven’t got a clue what most of the things in there are, but at least there are some things I now recognise.

I’ve learnt the difference between ginger and galangal and I’ve used more fresh chillies than I’ve ever dared to buy in my lifetime!

Week 5 - Red Thai Curry Paste (2)

Making Thai Red Curry paste

I’ve made both red and yellow Thai curry paste: red was easy, just chuck the ingredients in a blender, yellow was more involved as it required roasting off the garlic, shallot and fresh ginger before blending.  The recipe I used for yellow curry paste produced a batch so I have frozen down the leftover paste in ice cube trays to provide portions for use as and when.  Disappointingly the course didn’t require us to make our own curry pastes but for me this was the whole point of doing it, so I did make both the red and yellow pastes in advance of the class and take them in to use.  My red curry paste in particular was more yellow than red.  One chap put tomato puree in his to make it red!  We came to the conclusion that commercial curry pastes obviously have food colouring in them.  If you fancy giving the yellow curry paste a go, here’s the recipe I used, which was really easy to follow:  http://pinchofyum.com/easy-homemade-yellow-curry-paste

The course forced me to create a store cupboard of these typical Asian ingredients and I fully intend to keep cooking these types of dishes as they are relatively healthy (you can pack them full of vegetables if you like), quick to prepare and flavoursome.  For a tasty dinner easy to put together after work, simple Asian food is ideal.  It’s also made me experiment more with this type of cooking.  I’ve already made a Chinese noodle soup from the leftovers of the ingredients I bought to make the Chow Mein and I’ve found a recipe for Chinese pork with aubergines which I’m looking forward to trying to use up the pork mince which was left over from the Ma Po Tofu which is currently languishing in the freezer.  I’ve learnt that the heat comes from ginger and coriander seed as well as chillies, and that as long as I leave out the seeds of the chillies and buy the milder varieties I can still enjoy the chilli flavour without so much of the heat.

I enjoyed the discipline of attending the class each week as it forced me to go and buy the ingredients and then actually cook the dish.  I probably could have learned these dishes at home from books, but I certainly wouldn’t have cooked a new one every week as it would have been too easy to make excuses and do something else instead.  I enjoyed being back in a formal learning environment.  I was disappointed however with the lack of variety in the course.  I didn’t feel we learnt enough new techniques as everything we did was basically the same methodology.  I would have liked to learn how to cook things like steamed buns, gyoza (dumplings) and spring rolls and I had assumed that the course would cover these kinds of dishes.  The lesson for me there is that if I want to do another evening class, I should find out exactly what a course covers before signing up for it!

As for learning to like spicy food, well, I’m still struggling, but less so than I used to.  I’ve been told you can train yourself to tolerate greater levels of heat and that would seem to be the case.  There’s a useful article here which explains what causes the heat and how to learn to tolerate it: http://www.divinecaroline.com/lifestyle/food-drink/can-you-train-your-tongue-tolerate-spicy-foods   Sichuan pepper has been a revelation – it’s hot, but also aromatic.  Unlikely chilli (where all I can taste is hot and I could be eating cardboard for all the flavour the rest of the ingredients impart), with Sichuan pepper my mouth feels like it’s on fire but I can still taste other flavours.  And I surprised myself by enjoying it!  That said, as the course progressed, I was able to eat hotter food and still enjoy it so it looks like there is something in this after all.  Maybe I’ll continue on with my exploratory journey and eventually be able to enjoy properly hot food without compromising on the flavour.  In the meantime, I’ll keep cooking and see if I can gradually ramp the heat up.  And possibly think about another evening class I can take in the next couple of years…

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