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Kirk's Traveling Kitchen News and Blog


Weir Grooving

As my summer in Michigan comes to a close, one of the last weekends brought with it the highlight of the season for me: a cooking class taught with the amazing chef, food writer and culinary world traveler Joanne Weir (www.joanneweir.com). The last night of the now legendary Jill Winston Girl's Weekend (this year dubbed the "Bohemian Groove" in the spirit of the seminal Northern Californian male power get-together the Bohemian Grove) consisted of a hands-on class co-taught with Joanne. With her cooking pedigree (stint at Chez Panisse, studying with Madeleine Kamman) it was clear Joanne knew her way around a kitchen, what surprised me was how good a teacher she is (it shouldn't have, she won the first Julia Child Cooking Teacher Award for Excellence).

As a veteran of many cooking classes, I've come to believe the key to a successful class is not to simply show the students how a particular dish or recipe should be prepared but why it needs to be prepared that way. To get the novice cook to look at cooking not just as executing recipes and following measurements, but to understand that a good cook feels their way through the cooking experience. That preparing a recipe at one time of year with an ingredient can produce something entirely different with the same ingredient at another time of the year. In essence, to be a kitchen thinker not a kitchen droid.

As good a cook as she is, Joanne Weir's cooking is matched by her abilities as a teacher. She explains her recipes and cooking in a way that is entertaining but also manages to be incredibly informative yet succinct. She had this group of type-A personality woman focused on the task at hand in no time. Their direct attention came in part because they were all excited to participate in one of her classes but also as a result of her teaching style: excited. She genuinely loves good food and you can sense that when she talks about it. Listening to her talk about pizza dough and what makes a great crust had me wanting to stoke a wood-burning pizza oven and knead some fresh dough. Her teaching methods, going over each recipe in detail before you set foot in the kitchen, caused you to appreciate and enjoy your time in the kitchen even more.

The class itself was a little chaotic initially, partly because I had put together a too ambitious menu. This is a mistake I often make when conducting cooking classes (an honest mistake in that I enjoy the teaching process and want people to experience as many different foods as possible), for I know it is better for students to focus in detail on a few recipes and what makes them great rather than to be bombarded with so many that you don't get to know any thoroughly. Despite a lengthy menu and workload (the menu included: Pan Fried Fresh Artichokes with Rock Shrimp & Zucchini "Pappardelle", Grilled Corn and Arugula Salad with Shaved Parmigiano, Pork Loin Chop with Dried Fruit and Madeira, Summer Blueberry Galette with Chestnut Honey Ice Cream, among others), it eventually calmed down when the participants were able to sit and enjoy all of their hard work. The group was deservedly happy with their fabulous spread and experiencing a symptom that most cooks and chefs have right after preparing a great meal: they were full. They had employed one of the cardinal rules of cooking: taste as you go. And while this rule always results in better food, a side effect is you're not really hungry when you sit down to eat. (I'll go into my book idea for "The Cook's Diet: A True Tasting Menu" in another blog).

As we finished cleaning the kitchen and were saying our good-byes, I thanked Joanne for the opportunity to cook with her to which she responded "We made some great food." For some reason it was the most satisfying of responses, as if our cooking mission were accomplished and we could look forward to cooking another day. A thoroughly enjoyable conclusion to a wonderful summer.

Here's Joanne Weir's great pizza dough and flatbread recipe.

Crispy Flatbread with Tomatoes, Basil and Smoked Mozzarella

1 recipe Pizza Dough
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons Balsamic vinegar
1 clove garlic minced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
6oz. yellow cherry tomatoes, cut in half
6oz. red cherry tomatoes, cut in half
1 1/2 cups coarsely grated, smoked mozzarella, about 6oz.
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, loosely packed, cut into thin strips

Make the pizza dough and let rise.

Thirty minutes before baking, place a pizza stone or unglazed quarry tiles on the bottom shelf of the oven and set the oven temperature to 500F.

On a floured surface, divide the dough into two pieces and form into round balls. Roll one piece into a 9-inch circle, 1/4" thick. Transfer to a well-floured pizza peel or paddle. Transfer the dough from the peel directly onto the heated brick in the oven. Top with half of the cheese, distributing evenly. Bake until golden and crisp, 8 to 10 minutes.

In the meantime, in a bowl, whisk together the oil, vinegar and garlic. Season with salt and pepper. Add the cherry tomatoes and toss together.

When the pizza is done, place on a platter. Top with half of the tomatoes, vinaigrette and basil. Serve immediately. Continue with the remaining ingredients to make a second pizza.

Makes 2 pizzas, 9-inches diameter

Adapted from "Weir Cooking, Recipes from the Wine Country" by Joanne Weir

The Best Pizza Dough

2 teaspoons dry yeast
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons lukewarm water, 110F.
2 cups unbleached bread flour
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt

In a bowl, combine yeast, 1/4 cup warm water and 1/4 cup flour. Let it stand for 30 minutes. Add the remaining 1 3/4cup flour, 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons warm water, olive oil, and salt. Mix the dough thoroughly. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth, elastic and a bit tacky to the touch, 7 to 8 minutes. Place in an oiled bowl and turn to cover with oil. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place (75F) until double in volume, 1 to 1 1/2hours.

Alternately you can let this dough rise in the refrigerator overnight. The next day, bring the dough to room temperature and proceed.

Adapted from "Weir Cooking, Recipes from the Wine Country" by Joanne Weir

Kirk also recommends "From Tapas to Meze: Small Plates from the Mediterranean" by Joanne Weir, a literary precursor to the current "small plates" craze. Accessible and broad.