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What’s Cooking, Good Looking? Newbie Chef Curries Favor

On September 1, 2002, the Hapless Jewish Writer was asked to remove himself from his place of residence. That request came from his parents.

And although the HJW was known to complain loudly and frequently about living with mom and dad, there was a part of him that was terrified at being cast out of his Brooklyn Heights Eden. Could he find an apartment on his own? Pay bills? Clean a bathroom? Cook?

The HJW was a creature of privilege; growing up, his parents indulged him with extravagant dinners and fancy restaurants, and when he first moved to his new apartment in the wilds of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, he began taking his breakfast, lunch and dinner in restaurants. This could not last. With editors whose parsimony resembled that of certain Charles Dickens characters, the HJW knew that he had to learn how to cook. He found the solution at the Synagogue for the Arts, in fancy Tribeca.

The Synagogue for the Arts offers a gourmet, kosher, vegetarian, low-fat cooking course. The series of three classes — each two hours long — meets every other Thursday night. Cost: $105. (The next round of classes begins January 14. For information please call 212-966-7141.)

“Gourmet kosher?” the HJW’s father said with a laugh. “There’s no such thing.”

Tell that to Shawna Goodman.

Goodman — a cooking instructor at the Makor/Steinhardt Center of the 92nd Street Y and the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan — runs the course. Instead of traditional Eastern European kosher fare she teaches her students modern, high-end dishes: cream of asparagus soup, artichoke bruschetta with whipped ricotta cheese, Japanese cabbage salad. The HJW immediately saw the advantages of this kind of kosher cooking: He would be much better off trying to impress a girl with his knowledge of how to make cold lentil salad than chopped liver and gefilte fish. The food he was about to learn would be ideal for entertaining. He resolved to invite colleagues from work to his house when the course was over and make them a feast.

On the first evening of class Goodman took out a food processor and laid it out on the table in front of her students. “Hummus is very easy,” she began. “You simply roast a clove of garlic in your oven, open a can of chickpeas, sprinkle in some peanut oil, cumin, salt and pepper and mix it in the food processor.”

“What if you don’t have a food processor?” said the HJW, raising his hand.

The class members stared at him. The HJW was one of only two 20-something men in attendance — everyone else was a married woman in either her mid-30s or older.

“It’s worth your while to get a food processor,” Goodman said.

A few days later, the HJW went down to 86th Street in Brooklyn and came home with a Cuisinart — the second least-expensive model in the store.

Before the class had dispersed, Goodman offered a word of advice: Cook at least one thing before the next class. In addition to the hummus, the class had been taught wild mushroom risotto, roasted butternut squash soup with ginger, herbed pita chips and poached pears in a cinnamon and apple cider sauce. Hummus struck the HJW as the least intimidating. He invited a few friends over for dinner. Homemade hummus would be the appetizer.

He readied himself to mix the ingredients together and plugged the food processor into the wall. Nothing happened. He fiddled with knobs. Nothing happened. He searched the box for an instruction book — and after studying the instructions for two or three interminable, frustrating minutes, the HJW decided to mash his chickpeas by hand.

Later, when his friends came over, one of them complained that the hummus was lumpy.

After two more classes and a few setbacks — the HJW was forced to reveal to the class that he did not own, gasp, a microwave — he nonetheless felt ready to throw his feast for his fellow journalists. The HJW sent out an invitation around his office and to his godfather —a former critic for the New York Daily News and host of “Food Talk” on WOR 710 AM, Arthur Schwartz.

The day of the dinner was a bit difficult for the hung-over HJW, who had not come home until 5 o’clock that morning. The floor needed to be swept of excess papers and half-open books. Dishes needed to be washed, and shopping needed to be done. Bay Ridge, despite its many admirable qualities, lacked some of the basic ingredients — such as the short-grained rice for risotto — necessary for assembling a pretentious feast. The HJW decided to go to Brooklyn Heights to collect what he needed.

The HJW decided on four dishes:

• Wild mushroom risotto: It struck him as relatively easy — spices, rice, cheese, mushrooms and cooking wine, stirred around in a pot.

• Vegetable frittata with asiago cheese: Although he had never attempted a frittata with Goodman (students divided up the dishes in class), he had fried eggs before — he had even made omelets.

• Hot apple and cranberry cake: Making it with Goodman was the first time the HJW had ever attempted a cake, and he wanted to try again.

• And — since he had figured out how to work the Cuisinart — hummus! (He initially planned on making cream of asparagus soup, too, but chickened out as the hour of the dinner approached.)

Arthur and his roommate, Bob, were the first to arrive. They came bearing an enormous tin of Middle East pastries. The HJW was ecstatic — he wouldn’t have to make the apple cake.

HJW’s colleagues adored Arthur, who regaled them with stories of the HJW’s childhood (Arthur told them that he had held the HJW at his bris. “I held him down while they cut it off!” Arthur said with a raffish laugh.)

And Arthur was a help in the kitchen. “May I offer a word of advice?” he said as the HJW worried the risotto. “You’re adding the stock too quickly.”

The HJW stopped pouring the stock and began stirring.

He served the vegetable frittata first.

Arthur chewed over his frittata. “It could have used another two minutes in the stove,” Arthur said. “But it tastes very good. How many eggs did you use?”

Three — plus six egg whites.

“Egg whites?!” Arthur exclaimed with disgust; Arthur is not a believer in healthy alternatives.

And although the HJW was slightly disappointed that Arthur’s reaction wasn’t ecstatic, he knew that Arthur was a man who pulled no punches. Over the years, the HJW had seen Arthur criticize many devastated chefs to their faces. If Arthur said the frittata was tasty — it was tasty. If it needed two more minutes, so be it.

The HJW invited Arthur to sample the risotto before serving. Arthur dipped a spoon into the pot and tasted.

“Delicious!” he exclaimed.

The HJW’s friends and colleagues ate their risotto with gusto. They licked their plates, and everyone took seconds. The only thing that was left over by the end was the hummus. The hummus could have been better. It wasn’t lumpy enough.

Wild Mushroom Risotto

1 1/2 tsp. olive oil

4 cups mushrooms — trimmed and thinly sliced

1/2 cup diced shallots

2 cups arborio rice, raw

5 cups chicken or vegetable stock, room temperature

1/2 cup dry white wine or mirin (low-alcohol sweet rice cooking wine)

1 tsp. thyme, fresh

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. pepper

2 tbsp. parmesan cheese

1. In a medium-sized soup pot heat up 1 tsp. olive oil, add mushrooms, sauté for 4 minutes until soft — but not limp. Remove heat and put off to the side.
2. In a heavy pot heat 1/2 tsp. olive oil, add chopped shallots, sauté for 4 minutes until soft.
3. Stir in rice and 3 cups of broth, stirring occasionally. Once the stock comes to a boil, lower the temperature to a simmer and continue to stir.
4. Once the pot bottom is dry when rice is pulled back with a spoon, around 8 to 10 minutes, add wine, stirring continuously until absorbed
5. Add 1/2 a cup of stock at a time, stirring continuously, until each additional 1/2 cup is absorbed
6. Cook until rice is creamy but still somewhat firm in the center (add water in 1/2-cup increments if broth runs out), 10 to 12 minutes longer. Stir in mushroom mixture and Parmesan cheese.
7. Season with salt and pepper
8. Serve immediately! Risotto will wait for no one!

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