You have to wonder what that teacher thought, the one who was heading out to his car, cell phone pressed to his ear, when he encountered our little group crouched around a dead deer in the Washburn High School staff parking lot.
A floodlight cast its yellow glare on the animal's carcass, which our instructor had slit down the belly and split wide. After scooping out a pile of wet, crimson-glossed entrails, he slid a hacksaw across the beast's neck and, with a few quick strokes, removed its head.
The teacher must have looked at the gray-haired and blaze-orange jacketed among us and decided that we were too old and too fluorescently dressed to be students engaged in the sort of sacrificial ritual that precedes firing off a round of ammo in math class. There was no need to report us to the principal's office, so the teacher shuffled on past.
Of all the ways to learn where food comes from and how to prepare it—at the French Culinary Institute, on an organic farm, or attached to grandmother's apron strings—Community Education is not the first that springs to mind. But Minneapolis's adult enrichment classes offer learning opportunities on an endless variety of topics, food-related or otherwise, from understanding the Middle East conflict to speaking Polish, and from preparing your own will to playing the didgeridoo.
Though I was most intrigued by the class titles listed under Personal Growth—including "Wake Up Excited About Work," "Look at the Funnier Side of Life," and "Living Under One Roof While Contemplating Divorce"—I felt blessed not to need their guidance. Instead, I focused on the catalog page devoted to all things culinary, from "Vegetarian Barbecue" to "Sourdough Sorcery."
Sure, similar courses might be offered at local cooking schools, which tend to be as time-honored as a Le Crueset pot, with their gleaming facilities and restaurant-owning, cookbook-authoring instructors. But the typical three-hour class at Kitchen Window or Cooks of Crocus Hill costs $65 to $75, whereas an equivalent Community Education course might be had for half as much. So I signed up for "Deer Processing" and a few other classes to see if they were a reasonable, low-cost alternative.
I SELECTED "THAI COOKING with Pat Sukhtipyaroge" by virtue of the instructor's Thai surname and the fact that he is the chef-owner of the Royal Orchid restaurant in downtown Minneapolis. And I hoped that my $24 investment would mean an end to home-cooked curries that tasted like they came from a white person's kitchen.
The perpetually smiling Sukhtipyaroge arrived at Anwatin Middle School wearing a black back brace and a puffy white cap shaped like a fried wonton, which made him look rather like an older, Asian version of the Happy Chef. Sukhtipyaroge kicked off his lesson with a discussion of fish sauce. Though he buys the Southeast Asian staple by the 50-ounce bottle, he insists it's better if you make it yourself. But as soon as he named some of the product's key ingredients—something about fermented anchovies and maggots—everyone seemed relieved that producing a batch of fish sauce was not on the evening's agenda.
Sukhtipyaroge slammed his cleaver into a cutting board with a whack so loud that several of us jumped. He then started to separate chicken flesh from bone, which he crushed with a few cleaver whacks and tossed into a boiling stockpot. "I forgot to prepare the bubbles for the bath," he deadpanned, but the joke fell flat on the solemn crowd. Sukhtipyaroge's earnest students—most of whom looked younger than the typical Community Ed pupil, with a few sporting the hipster's close-cropped beard or 89.3 the Current T-shirt—didn't seem to know how seriously they should take him.
Whack! The cleaver hit the board again. "It's good therapy," Sukhtipyaroge said, "especially if you're mad at your boss." He handed another machete-like knife to a student, who went on to nick his hand and subsequently be relieved of his duty. As he cooked, Sukhtipyaroge touted the virtues of the chicken's homeliest parts, including the butt and the tip of the drumstick, or knuckle. "Can't you just buy cut-up chicken?" a student asked. Sukhtipyaroge shook his head: too easy.
Without looking down at his hands, Sukhtipyaroge sliced cucumbers into paper-thin discs, his knife tapping with the quick strokes of an expert typist. (By contrast, a student volunteer's slow, laborious chop sounded more like a keyboardist hunting and pecking.) Sukhtipyaroge demonstrated techniques for dicing onions, slicing ginger, and cooking rice—add the grain to a pot and cover it with enough water to reach your finger's first knuckle. "Are you going to show us how to cut a flower out of a vegetable?" one student inquired, in reference to the Royal Orchid's famous garnishes. This from the man who had cut himself, so Sukhtipyaroge wisely demurred.
By the end of the class, we all lined up at the counter and prepared to tuck into a feast of fried wontons, cucumber salad, and a chicken curry that we'd carefully seasoned to possess the dish's characteristic sweet-hot punch and funky jungle sweat. A student expressed interest in a class on making pad Thai, but Sukhtipyaroge said Royal Orchid's business relies on his secret recipe. "No class on that until I retire," he remarked before grabbing a plate and sneaking to the front of the queue. "I'm just trying to get ahead so I can pick out the knuckle," he said with a mischievous grin.
WITH A FEW Community Ed courses under my belt, I'd pass along this counsel: Always allow extra time for finding your classroom. If you haven't visited a particular school before, its various entrances and mazes of hallways can be a little confusing. (I learned this the hard way when I walked the wrong way around Roosevelt High School, found myself at a dead end on a football practice field, and decided the shortest way to my destination was to scale an eight-foot chain-link fence.)
Instructors, too, might be better served by a little more advance planning. Tack up a few signs on the building and you'll avoid leaving lost students to huddle outside a locked door. Double check your ingredient stash so you don't have to ransack the school kitchen's barely stocked pantry or make a frantic call to your spouse. If your class has a material fee, bring change. If there's a recipe handout, ensure that the information is correct. And if your class involves cutting up raw meat, there'd better be soap at the ready.
That last scenario cropped up in my duck confit class, in which each student was proffered a whole duck—feet and face still intact, much to the dismay of a few squeamish types—to disassemble and prepare for cooking at home. When it was time to sanitize the cutting boards, we made do with what was available: a few weak pumps of foaming cleanser from a hand-washing dispenser. (I later learned that the classroom we occupied is no longer in use, so hopefully we didn't pass on any salmonella.)
Our instructor reminded me a bit of a friendly, eccentric aunt as she fed us samples of her own duck confit, then handed us each a knife and a five-pound bird she'd picked up at the Asian market. She passed out spices and explained how we would blend them with salt, rub the mixture into the duck, and let it cure in the refrigerator for 24 to 48 hours.
The final step involved cooking the meat in a 180-degree oven for anywhere from 6 to 10 hours. True confit calls for enough additional duck fat that the meat cooks completely submerged, but a simplified method, in which the duck pieces end up simmering in about a half-inch of their own melted fat, seemed to work just fine. The meat turned out lusciously rich, salty, and fragrantly spiced.
While I might just as easily have made my own duck confit with the aid of an online recipe or video, the class motivated me to tackle a project that I might not have attempted on my own. After I cooked my bird, I picked the meat off the carcass, for convenience's sake, and packed it into a 16-ounce jar. While the French typically leave the meat, sealed in solidified fat, out on the counter, I stashed mine in the refrigerator. In either case, the confit can keep for several weeks, or even months, but mine was delicious enough that the jar was empty within a few days.
I HAD BETTER LUCK with the duck than with French pastry, as the Buche de Noel class I signed up for had a rather misleading description: "Bring $10 for food fee and a container to carry your Yule log home." So students arrived toting large plastic cake boxes, Tupperware rounds, and oversized platters, only to discern, from the size of the cramped kitchen and small assemblage of ingredients, that this was a demonstration class. The instructor would bake one cake, and we would each depart with a slice.
That glitch aside, the instructor's French accent seemed to smooth things over with the mostly older, all-female set, even if he wasn't a pastry professional. "I'm an engineer," he explained. "That's why I do this—otherwise I wouldn't talk to anyone," he joked.
After parsing the differences between flour types and recommending that we use spent vanilla bean pods to flavor rum or sugar, our instructor got to work on the génoise cake batter. Don't overmix it, he advised, but don't undermix it either. "You don't want to end up with a gnocchi inside your cake," he warned.
The Yule log—cake rolled with chocolate pastry cream and covered in chocolate ganache—was a decadent affair, but $25 later, we students left log-less, some of us wishing we had just spent an extra $17 and had the Salty Tart Bakery make one for us.
MOST HUNTERS PAY butchers to slice up their kill, but Kerry Swendsen's deer-processing class begins where the buck (or doe) stops: Once you pull the trigger, now what?
Swendsen is a professional butcher by trade, who offers deer-cutting seminars through his website, DeerDummy.com. The deer Swendsen brought to class had been road-killed several days before, and when he punctured its chest and released a nasty, gassy stench, it was clear why hunters remove a dead animal's organs immediately. (After our lesson, the meat was tossed.)
Out in the Washburn parking lot, Swendsen demonstrated how to slip a knife between the animal's fur and the flesh, cutting outward and away so as not to contaminate the meat with hair. He peeled the hide off, cut through the deer's spine, and carried half the carcass into the school and left the rest of the animal—the hind, the bloody organs, the sawed-off head—outside.
Inside a shop classroom, Swendsen carved the primal cuts on a plastic-topped table. The tenderloins, he explained, are best removed from the interior of the rib cage as the animal is field-dressed, so they retain moisture. He cut out two small lumps of meat shaped almost like railroad spikes. "These pieces eat like candy," he said of venison's most prized bits, as he offered a few cooking suggestions.
The backstraps are long tubes of meat that run along the length of the deer's spine. Though they look like a beef or pork tenderloin, the backstraps are the venison equivalent of a rib eye or New York strip. To remove the backstraps, Swendsen ran his knife along the bumpy bones, as if he were rasping a güiro. "Find the bone, follow the bone," Swendsen repeated at least a dozen times. He showed us how removing the silverskin from a muscle is similar to filleting a fish: Set the piece skin-side down, put your knife blade parallel to the table, and slice away from yourself. A few times, Swendsen absentmindedly wiped a blood-smeared hand on the side of his jeans the same way a professor might clean off a chalk-dusted palm.
Swendsen's demonstration deer weighed about 100 pounds live, and from it Swendsen removed about 40 pounds of meat, all of which was very lean, with really no marbling. After he brought the second half of the carcass inside, Swendsen cut out the sirloin tip—the animal's third most desirable cut, which is shaped like a squat, plump football—and explained how to turn it into solid-muscle jerky. "Bring this to your buddies and you'll be a rock star," he said. "It's a sweet piece of meat."
Admittedly, I didn't pay the closest attention to Swendsen's lecture: I figured I was about as likely to be removing a deer's sirloin tip "football" as tossing a pigskin to a NFL receiver. But sure enough, a few weeks later, I found my newfound skills put to the test as I stood in a friend's garage and called out instructions from my Deer Dummy booklet as he hung his kill from the rafters.
After peeling off the hide, we brought the carcass into the house in sections and each set to work on a piece. I held the rib cage and slipped my knife along each side of the spine, repeating Swendsen's mantra about running the blade across the bone. With one final slice, I removed my first backstrap, a thick ropey muscle as big as my forearm. This would be dinner, thanks, in part, to Community Ed.