Mixing with the masters

Simon Webster has a stab at cooking lessons, without so much as drawing blood.

'Is that enough oil?” I ask author and teacher Stephanie Willaton as I show her my tray of cut, parboiled potatoes glistening like German sunbathers basting themselves on a Spanish beach.

“You wouldn't want any more,” she says diplomatically, before taking the roasting pan, gathering the potatoes together at one end of the tray like a protective mother duck and pouring the excess into a bowl.

This is kind of her on two counts: not only has she resisted the temptation to compare my efforts unfavourably with those of Exxon Valdez, she has saved me the shame of plating up a disaster. There's no Matt Preston here to curl his lip over a crisp cravat; no threat of being sent home in shame, dreams of becoming Australia's first MasterChef in tatters.

But there is still some pressure. We have to make one dish and one dish only, we have a time limit (admittedly, none has been specified but Bangalow's A&I Hall has to close at some point) and we have to work under the unforgiving glare of lights and cameras (cooking school principal Leah Roland is taking a few pics). Honestly, if I weren't such a steely character with a resolute determination to prove to Australia that I'm really much more than a simple homestyle cook, I think I'd fall to pieces.

Thankfully, my challenge is not a chocolate assiette, rated the hardest thing in the world to cook ... ever. Or a sage and garlic chicken dish with celeriac puree and a spinach ball (greater men than I have gone mad in search of that perfect sphere).

Instead, I'm making something far more in keeping with my culinary expertise: a salad. Today's theme at Bangalow Cooking School is Step Into Spring: four hours exploring the beauty and vitality of wholefood spring salads.

I am one of five students creating five dishes. We have been assigned a carrot, lime and coconut salad; a Vietnamese rice noodle salad with barramundi; classic greens with two dressings; and a Moroccan millet, pumpkin and lentil pilaf. My task: a spring vegetable medley featuring asparagus roasted with garlic.

But before we start, some housekeeping. Roland (food writer and former corporate caterer) and Willaton (author of Nourish: Creating Delicious Food From Wholesome Ingredients) run through a few rules.

First, when walking in the kitchen with a sharp knife, keep it pointed towards the ground. Pointing it outwards may be a good way to see off rivals who look like they might be about to beat you to the last of the sesame seeds, but it will cost you time, too, because second, any spillages (including blood) in the kitchen must be cleaned up immediately.

Third, try to wash up as you go (though don't leave sharp knives lurking in soapy water) and fourth, when walking behind someone, it's important to tap them on the shoulder or say “behind” to prevent them turning around in a hurry and throwing tahini dressing all down your shirt.

It occurs to me that if anything is going to make you turn around in a hurry, it's being tapped on the shoulder or having someone shout “behind” in your ear. But as a novice, who am I to question the age-old practices of the commercial kitchen? We talk knives (“It should feel like an extension of your arm,” Willaton says before drifting into a reverie when describing the joy of using a fluted knife for slicing tofu and fish).

We discuss introducing exotic food to children (“One spice at a time,” Willaton says, though ideally not starting with a tablespoon of chilli) and, for the benefit of Tony from Brisbane, how to integrate raw onion into a salad (salt, rest and rinse it to take away the edge). Willaton describes how different techniques can really crank up food flavours: how blanching, marinating, roasting and toasting make all the difference.

Having an expert in the kitchen makes the session rewarding. After all, you can't ask cookbooks questions.

When chopping garlic, it strikes me that whenever I put garlic into dishes, it's always in great big chunks as I have an illogical, Luddite-like aversion to garlic presses. But in my spring vegetable medley, I am required to get the garlic much smaller so it will infuse a dressing.

How do you get garlic small without a garlic press? Willaton shows me: chop roughly, add salt and wait a few minutes while the salt draws out the moisture and breaks down the garlic cell walls. Then slide your knife across the garlic and, hey presto, it's as crushed as crushed can be.

Of course, a garlic press would achieve the same result in less time, but Willaton is with me in preferring the hands-on approach. "This is where the love gets infused,” she says.

With two coeliacs in our group, Willaton's recipes are perfect: all are gluten-free. While she uses organic produce at home, she doesn't push it on her students: getting people to eat healthy, whole foods is the first challenge, she says.

Her philosophy is perfectly at home in this corner of the Northern Rivers, heartland of the wellness industry and home to plenty of fine produce. Bangalow Cooking School also offers Thai, Middle Eastern, southern Italian and cheese-making classes, as well as workshops for corporate groups.

As we plate up and sit down to our salad feast, I can almost hear the “good job”– as opposed to the “you've stuffed up” – MasterChef music.

The writer was a guest of Bangalow Cooking School.

TRIP NOTES

GET COOKING

Classes cost from $110 a person.

Phone (02) 6687 2799,

see bangalowcookingschool.com.

GETTING THERE

Bangalow is a half-hour drive from Ballina Airport or a nine-hour drive from Sydney.

WHERE TO STAY

Bangalow and surrounds has many B&Bs, health retreats and eco accommodation options. Phone (02) 6680 8558, see visitbyronbay.com.

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