Until recently, the closest thing I'd come to a cooking class was watching the demo station at Trader Joe's. After seeing "Julie & Julia," I felt inspired to get in touch with my inner Julia Child. But who has the time and money to fly to Paris and study at Le Cordon Bleu?
It was on my weekly trip to the farmers market that I learned about the Philo Apple Farm Cooking School, 120 miles northwest of San Francisco in the bucolic Anderson Valley wine country. Karen Bates, whose parents founded the French Laundry in Napa Valley in the late 1970s, offers, on the family-run farm, weekend cooking classes that focus on organic, seasonal ingredients. It wasn't going to be all hard work though. The weekend promised plenty of relaxing, eating and drinking.
If you go
THE APPLE FARM 18501 Greenwood Road, Philo, Calif.; (707) 895-2333, www.philoapplefarm.com
Farm weekend classes are $625 per person, including four hands-on meals, recipes, instruction and wines. A two-night stay in a guest cottage for one or two people is $500 plus tax. Other weekend sessions are $325. Classes offered February through November.
Driving on California Highway 128 alongside pastures of grazing cows in the Anderson Valley felt more like driving through rural Iowa than Northern California.
The serpentine highway wound along the valley's edge, overlooking rows of grapevines adorned with metallic streamers to scare away predators. Or, in some cases, distract visiting city dwellers like me so that I nearly drove off the road.
A tree-canopied country road with towering oaks, ancient redwoods and leafy maples led to a rustic cottage and fruit stand with crates of apples, jams, chutneys, syrups and juices for sale. There was no one around -- just a money box and a sign asking to please pay on the honor system.
I picked up a bag of dried apples, glanced at my watch and realized that I was 10 minutes late for class. I threw a handful of money into the box and sprinted across the gravel lot into the farmhouse. Inside, five students stood in aprons, drinking red wine and listening attentively.
I attempted to sneak in the back of the room without being seen. I placed my foot on the hardwood floor and slowly put my weight down. On the third step, the floor let out a rumbling creak.
My cover was blown.
"I'm glad you made it," Karen called toward the back of the room. "We have a lot to do, since dinner will be served at 8:30 tonight."
It was only 5 p.m. I couldn't imagine what we'd be doing for the next 3 1/2 hours. After all, boiling dried spaghetti was about as elaborate as I'd ever gotten in the kitchen
Joining me for the weekend was an eclectic group of foodies -- a young lawyer; her husband, a doctor; a retired couple; and a young guy who was a trained chef. We were expected to work as a team and prepare meals together.
"It's like working in an actual restaurant's kitchen," Karen said. "So you need to work off each other's strengths and weaknesses."
The trained chef smirked in my direction. Was it obvious I didn't know how to cook? I'm guessing he figured it out when I revealed that I didn't know how to blanch. For all I knew, blanch was the promiscuous Southern belle on "The Golden Girls." By the way, to blanch something means plunging food into boiling water. I like my definition better.
For the first course, we made smashed beets with fresh goat cheese, arugula and garlic. We followed Karen outside to her garden to pick the ingredients.
I crawled on my hands and knees, snapping off arugula leaves with increasing eagerness. It wasn't every day that I got to pick fresh vegetables. I don't have a backyard, yet alone a garden.
"OK, you can stop now," Karen politely uttered in my direction. "We're having more than just salad tonight."
Inside, we prepped the first course. While my classmates boiled the red beets, I did the least culinary of tasks and lined up pieces of parchment paper on the countertop on which the beets would cool.
"Use your hands and press lightly." Karen pressed on a beet, producing a perfectly flat oval.
I reached down and pressed firmly on the beet. Like a scene from a B-movie horror flick, red, pulpy liquid splattered my apron. It felt revolting, though, at the same time, somewhat gratifying.
As I changed my apron, the class moved on to the main course -- garlic chile shrimp on lemon risotto. It's a family recipe and called for 2 pounds of fresh shrimp. Karen lifted a bucket overflowing with gray crustaceans and placed it in front of me so I could remove their shells.
I've never really liked shrimp. Maybe it's the smell. Or the fact that they remind me of overgrown sea monkeys. In any case, I passed on the task and helped to prepare the risotto instead. Forty-five minutes later, slumped over the stove, I held the wooden spoon with both hands, hoping I could maintain my endurance.
"Everyone, help with plating -- dinner is about to be served," announced Karen as her husband, Tim, opened bottles of wine from Standish Winery, a few miles away.
I could use a glass of Pinot Noir. Or three.
More than four hours had passed since we began preparing the meal. I was exhausted and not very hungry because I had been snacking the entire time when nobody was looking. We gathered around the candle-lighted table for a toast and talked until midnight, revealing more and more as the wine flowed.
"I should tell you about the time when Tim and I wore clown noses around San Francisco just for fun," Karen said, erupting with laughter as she looked at her husband. "I'm not sure why we did it, but those were our hippie days."
I decided to call it a night, sensing there was about to be a very long story.
"Hope you'll be hungry. Breakfast will be ready first thing tomorrow morning. Then we're having a big lunch a few hours later," Karen said jovially.
Food was the last thing on my mind. I walked sluggishly up the staircase to my bedroom, feeling several pounds heavier than when I first arrived.
Before going to sleep, I reviewed the itinerary for the next two days. It seemed even more rigorous. We would prepare 16 dishes from scratch, including a six-hour braised pork shoulder, a Moroccan chicken with five homemade dips, sweet biscuits with heavy cream and clafouti -- a French dessert with the consistency of runny custard.
I imagined the impressive dinner parties I'd throw once I returned home. I channeled my inner Julia Child and wrote down the first thing that came to my mind: boeuf bourguignonne.
I then realized a major problem: I live in San Francisco, and most of my friends don't eat meat.