I've been big into cooking classes lately. So far this year, I've taken the Winter Vegetarian Casseroles and Vegan Chocolate Desserts classes at the I.C.E. Last night, I took the Chinese Homestyle Cooking Class at Natural Gourmet Institute with the instructor Wai Hon Chu, co-author of The Dumpling: A Seasonal Guide. We had an all-vegan menu to prepare, which included: Shitake & Bok Choy Dumplings with Soy-Rice Vinegar Sauce, Stewed Daikon with Homemade Chinese Five-Spice Blend, Maitake Mushrooms & Silken Tofu in Black Bean Sauce with Baby Bok Choy, Stir-Fried Mung Bean Vermicelli with Bell Peppers, Bean Curd Rolls Stuffed with Shitake Mushrooms & Bamboo Shoots, Steamed Jasmine Rice, and lastly, for dessert, Sweet Potato Rice Balls in Sweetened Coconut Soup. Are you hungry yet?
We made the dumplings first, but sadly my hands were messy so I didn't pull my camera out. I learned how to fold and pleat them so they look all fancy like the ones you get in a restaurant. The dumpling filling was a mixture of shitake mushrooms (which featured prominently on the menu), bok choy (ditto), carrot, garlic chives, ginger, sesame oil, arrowroot, and soysauce. I'd always been a tiny bit intimidated to make my own dumplings, but now I love it! I will definitely make these dumplings again this weekend, so I can show you how we were taught to do them. (Oops, did I just commit myself?)
Next we broke into groups to make the three main dishes. My group made the silken tofu with maitake mushrooms, baby bok choy, and a black bean sauce. The bok choy we simply blanched for a few minutes until tender and arranged around the plate. I normally associate silken tofu with dessert items or smoothies and tend to cook with either firm or extra firm tofu for main courses, however I really liked the texture of the silken tofu in this dish. It was a nice contrast with the very "meaty," rich-tasting broth that was made from fermented soy (or "black") beans, mushroom broth, white miso, and some other spices. This was a very quick stir-fry and would be super easy to recreate at home.
Maitake Mushrooms & Silken Tofu in Black Bean Sauce with Baby Bok Choy
One of the other dishes was a surprise hit. I'm not sure that I ever had stewed daikon before, but I discovered that it tastes a lot like potato, and is great at absorbing all the good spices and seasonings in which it is cooked. Another reason this dish was a surprise was because I don't normally like five-spice powder, because I don't like star anise, or anything that tastes like licorice for that matter. Which includes fennel. The five-spice blend included Sichuan peppercorns, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, and fennel seeds, which pretty much guaranteed that I would hate it, but guess what? When cooked together with the daikon in a mushroom-based broth, it kind of mellowed out and the flavors all sort of harmoniously blended together. It was a very warm, comforting dish - just the kind of thing you would expect from a "homestyle" dish. It kind of reminded me of the the cooked potatoes and veggies (always my favorite part) that surrounded my mom's Sunday pot roast, just with Chinese seasonings, and minus the dead animal part. But you know, comforting.
Stewed Daikon with Homemade Chinese Five-Spice Blend
I realized that I also missed taking photos of the Bean Curd Rolls, but to be honest, they were my least favorite dish, so you're not really missing anything. Just imagine taking a big sheet of tofu skin, which I find somewhat unpleasant and rubbery, and filling it with some veggie stuff, then rolling it up pretty much like a burrito, steaming and then pan-frying it so it gets crispy. That's what it was. Meh. But the other dish was mung bean vermicelli, which is a really long way of saying "glass noodles," because that's what they are. If you've ever had Korean Japchae, then you know what glass noodles are. Surprisingly we used strips of jicama in this dish, which are not really Chinese, but make a good substitute for the more traditional water chestnuts, because of jicama's mild flavor and ability to stay crisp after being cooked. This was a good basic noodle stir-fry, and again, something easy to recreate at home, but it didn't blow my tastebuds away.
Stir-Fried Mung Bean Vermicelli with Bell Peppers
The final dish was our dessert, the Sweet Potato Rice Balls, which made me think of that Saturday Night Live skit "NPR's Delicious Dish: Schweddy Balls." I know, I'm real mature. The balls (haha...it never stops being funny) are made from a cooked sweet potato, mashed and mixed with sweet (glutinous) rice flour. It's quite similar actually to making homemade gnocchi. After you roll all the dough into little balls, they are boiled and then ladled into a barely warmed coconut milk sweetened with agave nectar. This is a nice, not overly-sweet, but very filling dessert.
Sweet Potato Rice Balls in Sweetened Coconut Milk
Overall, the class was really fun and I brought home some new techniques and recipes. If you live in NY, and are interested in taking vegan cooking classes, I have to say that I preferred Natural Gourmet over I.C.E. because it was better organized and the assistants are so helpful they make you feel like they are your own personal sous-chefs. Both schools, however, are great and offer a wide variety of vegetarian and vegan classes. And next week, I will return to Natural Gourmet for "Unique & Elegant Vegan Hors D'Oeuvres." I can't wait to report on that class!