The room already smelled of a freshly home-cooked meal when Cherie Mercer Twohy’s students arrived to learn how to prepare a six-course meal.
This particular class would use only Trader Joe’s products to make “Meatball Minestra,” “Gorgeous-and-Good-For-Ya-Salad,” “Fab, Fast Frittata,” “Chicken with Leeks and Mushrooms,” “Roasted Butternut Squash with Chiles” and “Puff Pastry Pillows.”
Twenty students, mostly couples and cliques of girlfriends, faced Twohy’s kitchen, which is equipped with a mirror and television monitor for a bird’s-eye countertop view.
“If two of them make it onto your regular rotation for a while, that’s a success for everybody,” Twohy said of the recipes.
A La Cañada resident, Twohy had three kids, worked at a hospital and two police stations before attending culinary school at age 40. She founded her La Cañada cooking school, Chez Cherie, in 2000.
She recently signed a third book contract to add to her “I Love Trader Joe’s” cookbook series. Before the economy dipped, her Trader Joe’s-themed class sold out six months in advance. Each class features a Trader Joe’s representative who can speak on the store’s new products. These days, seats fill at the last minute.
Students get served Twohy’s sense of humor, along with the helpful facts she rattles off all night. When the topic of eggs came up as she was cooking the frittata, she said the dish was “brilliant for hiding leftovers.”
“How can you tell a gross egg?” one student asked.
Twohy said a gross egg could mean it’s aged or fertilized, and “smells like death.”
Her assistant, Whitnee Haston, said she cracked an egg open to find the yolk was black.
Twohy suggested verifying a questionable egg by placing it in a pot or bowl of water: A fresh one will lay on the bottom; a bad one will float upwards. She said older eggs make better hard-boiled eggs than fresh ones.
On the topic of olive oil and butter, Twohy explained that olive oil, with a smoke-point of 137 degrees, has a higher smoke-point than butter. When you combine the two for sautéing, she said, “Everything good happens.”
Twohy also suggested slicing onions from pole to pole. As a clue to the riddle of how to combat bacteria, she stopped to sing “Happy Birthday” twice as she washed her hands to kill the germs before discussing safe sponge practices when cleaning a counter touched by raw meat. (Her advice: ditch the sponge entirely and grab a paper towel instead).
By the time the meal came together by 8:30 p.m., the hungry crowd moved to the front candle-lit room, plates in hand, where music was playing and round tables in green tablecloths awaited.