By Helen Klein
I’ve picked up most of what I know about cooking from books, learning as I went along sauteing and chopping. They have been a great help and source of inspiration, but there’s only so much of an education you can get by books alone.
So, I headed over to the borough’s newest cooking school, Ger-Nis Culinary & Herb Center in Park Slope, to see what taking a cooking class would add to my skills and repertoire.
The topic? Middle Eastern appetizers (meze), taught by Rafi Hasid, the chef and owner of the nearby Miriam Restaurant. In the space of a three-hour class, about a dozen of us sipped wine and water flavored with mint leaves, and nibbled on olives, and learned the recipes for half a dozen of Rafi’s specialties, including some so mouthwateringly good I couldn’t wait to make them at home.
I also learned how to chop without taking pieces of my fingertips along for the ride (keep your fingers curled inward as you hold the food to be chopped), and how to chop a scallion more rapidly (cut the stalk in ribbons before turning the scallion and slicing it width-wise).
Rafi reinforced my long-held belief that, except for baking, most recipes can be altered to suit the available ingredients and the cook’s preferences.
“What’s nice about cooking, as opposed to desserts and bread, is that you can really play with things,” he told the group. “You can change flavors and ingredients as long as the dish contains the same texture.”
Adjust flavoring as you go along, Rafi advised, starting with just a little salt and pepper and adding more after tasting. “Everyone has a different palate.”
Of all the recipes I learned that evening, the one for stuffed grape leaves, one of my favorite appetizers, stood out the most. Not only was I eager to learn how to make them, I happened to have a jar of grape leaves sitting in my basement just waiting to be opened.
Rafi’s grape leaves are served with a lovely and easily prepared yogurt sauce that uses cucumbers, which are abundant now at farmer’s markets.
2 (1 lb.) jars of grape leaves, or pack of 12
2 cups cooked basmati rice, sautéed with onions and garlic, cooled
5 scallions, roughly chopped
2 carrots, peeled and grated
1/4 cup feta cheese, crumbled
Salt and pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. In a large pot of boiling water, blanch grape leaves for 1-2 minutes to remove vinegar solution. Remove and once cooled, trim stems. In a large bowl, combine cooked rice, carrots, scallions and feta and season with salt and pepper. Place single grape leaf on cutting board and add a small amount of rice mixture to the middle, fold in on both sides and roll away from you to form a small cylinder. Repeat until finished. Place grape leaves on sheet trays with a small amount of water (to prevent sticking) for 2-3 minutes, or until warm. Serve immediately with yogurt sauce.
2 cups plain low fat yogurt
1 teaspoon mashed garlic
1 teaspoon prepared horseradish
2 cups grated English cucumber, seeds removed
1/4 cup celery, grated
2 tablespoons orange juice
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Salt and pepper, to taste
In a small bowl, combine all ingredients and serve.
Ger-Nis Culinary & Herb Center [540 President St. Suite 2E between Third and Fourth avenues in Park Slope, (347) 422-0337]. For info, visit www.ger-nis.com/culinaryherbcenter; Miriam Restaurant [79 Fifth Ave. at the corner of Prospect Place in Park Slope, (718)622-2250)]. For info, visit www.miriamrestaurant.com/live.