LEARN BY GOING the delights of a culinary vacation
"WE LEARN BY GOING" writes the poet Roethke - going on instinct, going on farm tours, even going on vacation. The converted eighteenth century barn where Deborah Krasner lives and hosts her culinary vacations rises straight up out of its foundation, high above the dirt road and the driveway below. The tall red building sits surrounded by the October hills of southern Vermont. As we climb the stone path to the front door, we can see through the windows into the kitchen where two of Krasner's guests prep for dinner.
Once through the mudroom, the house opens into an airy living room on the left and a dining area on the right, which leads into the light-filled kitchen, replete with counters and plenty of space in which to work. A pitcher of rosewater lemonade sits on the island, Blossom Dearie sings in the background, and the place smells great. One guest has made a quick trip down the road to a neighbouring farm, to return egg crates and pick up fresh raw milk. The other two guests, a married couple from Washington state, chop onions and check on the slow-roasted tomatoes, which will end up on the wood-fired homemade pizza.
These lucky folks are spending six days in Krasner's home, learning everything from knife skills to pie confidence. "Though a lot of learning goes on, I like visitors to think of themselves as guests on vacation," says Krasner. "This isn't cooking school. We're shopping for, preparing and eating wonderful meals together." She offers these events several times a year. Meals are planned around seasonal produce and lessons always include whatever the participants most want to know. When Brian returns with the milk, he tells us that he asked for help with sauces and seasonings, so during the week they've created a Pasta al Limone, a red-wine reduction sauce for hanger steak, a Gorgonzola sauce for homemade gnocchi, and a honey-thyme infusion for the duck breasts. Paula, married to Paul, wants pie confidence, so the first night the group made a pumpkin-chiffon pie, and they have made another one for dessert tonight.
Learning by doing and redoing is very much a part of the process. Over the six days, Paul and Brian have worked on producing a perfect batch of homemade mozzarella. The first time through, they forgot to add the salt. The second time, the cheese turned out grainy. But this time they add the salt and the rennet right on time and Brian stretches the cheese while it's still piping hot, taking a quick break every few seconds to dunk his hands in a nearby bowl of ice water. The result is a creamy mozzarella, which everyone samples and praises while chopping the rest of the pizza toppings. The week has been gluten-free, at the request of one of the guests, so the search has been on to find the right gluten-free flour for each baking recipe - what makes good pie crust, what makes good gnocchi, and, tonight, what makes great pizza dough.
Guests stay in one of five well-appointed bedrooms - goose down comforters, damask sheets - while Krasner moves into a separate apartment on the ground floor. "I want people to feel as if this is their space, to use it as their own," she says. Every day of the vacation includes an informal breakfast and two full meals - with appetizer, entrée, and dessert - all cooked by guests. Each is served at the long table set with place mats and china from Krasner's abundant collections. She jokes about her "china lust," but guests love the chance to choose from such a lush range of colours and patterns. "Even for breakfast the table is set," says Brian. "Each meal feels special - an event."
Since Krasner has long been a locavore, she designs menus for each season, taking advantage of the abundance of farms in the area. Six years ago, while working on her most recent book, the IACP Awardwinning Good Meat, she decided to experiment with raising her own chickens and lambs, and she's been doing that ever since, as well as growing many of the greens and vegetables in her garden. This October vacation is titled "Mediterranean Winter Food." Lessons and menus have included the gnocchi on a bed of greens, winter squash soup, beet salad with chevre, and polenta with winter ratatouille.
Saturday was an excursion day, with a shopping trip to the Brattleboro Farmer's Market, still going strong in October. Afterwards, the group visited Scott Farm for an apple tasting and in-depth discussion with the orchard manager about growing and cooking with heirloom apples. "It's amazing to get to talk with someone like that," says Paul. "When someone knows that much and cares that much about his subject, it's rewarding, and catching."
On their last full day together, before starting the pizza, Krasner showed them how to make a soufflé sponge. After that, they headed across the river into New Hampshire for a life-changing cup of hot chocolate at Burdick's in Walpole.
On this final evening, the mood is collegial and relaxed. Krasner can be heard chiming, "We're not going to worry about ..." and "Let's see what happens," remarks which sum up her attitude toward the profound pleasures of cooking and learning, two terms that seem inextricably linked in her lexicon. According to the guests, she guides them through the hard parts, but also lets them make their own mistakes. To form the pizza dough into balls for rising, Krasner suggests coating the hands with potato starch, to make the wet dough easier to handle. When it's time to roll the freshly whipped cream into the chocolate sponge cake, she laughs and says, "Here's the scary part." She shows guests how to peel the parchment paper off the bottom of the cake, and then hands the project over to Paula, who spreads the whipped cream almost to the edges. Then Paula uses the parchment paper to roll, painstakingly, the cake into a beautiful roulage, a highend jelly roll. Perfect.
As they stand admiring the creation, Krasner laughs and adds, "And if it falls apart, you make it into a trifle."
The kitchen is a wonder of organization. One drawer is equipped with magnet strips, so knives stay put. Another with small dividers for alphabetized spice tins. Krasner is the author of Kitchens for Cooks, an IACP Award Finalist, and she also designs kitchens for other dedicated cooks.
Like all good writers and learners, Krasner is a reader. The walls of the high-ceilinged library on the second floor are lined with cookbooks, and guests often spend lazy hours browsing and reading. Two of her current favourites are The Flavor Thesaurus by Niki Segnit, and Crazy Water Pickled Lemons, a book about Middle Eastern cooking, by Diana Henry. "I'm really interested in Mediterranean food right now," says Krasner. "I love reading other food writers. I try to make what I've learned my own, but I always give them credit."
Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, the ingenious indoor pizza oven is hot. The small rectangular opening is tucked into the chimney above the mantle, and down below, where there would normally be storage for logs, Krasner has created a warm bed for Lola, her standard poodle, who behaves impeccably, greeting visitors and staying well away from the food, no mean feat.
Brian starts off by drizzling olive oil onto the first pizza, and then the group decides on the toppings - caramelized onions, roasted peppers, cooked duck shreds, the acclaimed fresh mozzarella, and homemade ricotta, each of which is dropped from above in a spiral motion to ensure even coverage.
Then Brian slides the completed pizza onto the paddle and Krasner gives him a quick lesson in how to deposit the pizza onto the hot stones. With Krasner coaching, he slides the paddle under a portion of the dough and turns it every few minutes, so it will cook evenly. Paul and Paula look on, complimenting Brian's skills and soaking in the information.
Soon, the group sits down to enjoy their final dinner together.
We ask about the restrictions of a gluten-free week. Did it affect the quality of the food?
Paul and Paula have worked with Deborah before, on a cooking vacation to Italy designed especially for their family of four. "So we ate a lot of wheat," says Paula. "Because of the different setting and time of year, the food this trip was completely different," says Paula. "But every bit as good."
"I think it might even have been better," says Krasner. "The thing that I like about these vacations in Vermont, and this one in particular, is that there's been a lot of mastery." Clearly, she takes tremendous pleasure in her guests' achievements.
It's soon time for the second pizza, this one topped with mozzarella, pork sausage, slow-roasted tomatoes and sweet green peppers from the garden.
"The great thing is that all the lessons fit together," says Paul, once everyone is settled again. "You do your first reduction and gain confidence, and then the second reduction is better, and more fun. After the Italy trip, I found everything I learned really carried over into my cooking at home. I was much more willing to try harder things."
"I have so much new stuff to try now," says Paula, "So when the kids are home for the holidays, it will be a phenomenal celebration of all kinds of food, things we've never cooked before. It definitely gets me out of the rut of cooking what's familiar."
Next come the pumpkin chiffon pie and the chocolate roulage. Once dessert is served, there's a brief period of appreciative silence, but it doesn't last long.
"Cooking together is great," says Brian. "We learn so much from each other, and if something goes wrong, you just keep going. You learn by doing."
"It turns out that food is pretty forgiving," says Paula.
"Even baking is forgiving," adds Brian. "Even cheese." And everyone laughs at the memory of the serial mozzarella attempts.
The pizza oven keeps the room warm and cozy, Lola lounges in her bed, and the conversation rolls on. It's clear that the members of the group have grown fond of one another, and that these six days in southern Vermont have been filled with discoveries not only about food and cooking but also about people, places, and life.