Once a friend and I signed up for a Food Arts class at the Dunedin Fine Art Center, I scanned the menu. Could we really make a four-course Italian steakhouse meal — and eat it — in two hours? If chef Renae Seiler is running the kitchen, the answer is yes. A longtime Tampa resident who has taught cooking classes at Sur La Table, Seiler is focused and engaging. During our class, she deftly oversaw nine students divided into four groups, always offering clear instructions at just the right moment.
The arts center’s second-floor cooking classroom is spacious and well-equipped, with large stainless steel islands that combine a cooktop, a large countertop and shelves. There was plenty of room for groups of two or three to work at the same time.
The menu for the evening: arugula salad with lemon-Parmesan dressing, gnocchi with basil pesto, strip steak with Chianti sauce and, for dessert, affogato.
Most of the mise en place was waiting for us when we arrived, which certainly smoothed the way. Premeasured ingredients for each dish were placed on separate trays, and an array of tools was at the ready.
The gnocchi, we discovered, was not going to pop out of a package. We were going to make it from scratch, from a couple of prebaked potatoes, flour and egg. The only sticking point — and I do mean sticking — was my wrestling match with the ricer. It looked like a giant garlic press, and somehow the more I squeezed it to rice the potato flesh, the more it stuck together in a gummy mess.
Seiler saw me struggling (I was grateful my friend resisted the urge to make a video) and suggested tossing some flour into the ricer. It worked, of course. Soon we were rolling the gnocchi dough out “like a snake,” the chef said, and shaping the tiny dumplings.
Chop chocolate and hazelnuts for the affogato, check. Toss fresh basil, garlic and pine nuts in the food processor and drizzle in olive oil for pesto, check. Make the lemony dressing for the arugula salad, check. Dry, season and sear the thick-cut strip steaks, then pop in the oven to finish, check.
While the gnocchi boiled, the sauce ingredients for the steak went into the saute pan: butter, thinly sliced shallots, red wine, beef broth, balsamic vinegar and fresh thyme.
And then it all came together. The gnocchi showed no sign of their difficult birth, the steak and its sauce were heavenly. The affogato was, thankfully, totally easy: Pour cold espresso over ice cream, add chopped nuts and chocolate.
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I’ve been cooking for more decades than I care to count, but I learned a couple of great tips. And making the dinner was as much fun as eating it.
Classes cost $65. tinyurl.com/dr4z5faw.
Strip Steak With Chianti Sauce
2 (10-ounce) New York strip steaks, about 1 ¼ inch thick
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons minced fresh thyme
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided use
2 large shallots, sliced
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 cup Chianti wine
½ cup low-sodium beef or chicken broth
3 sprigs fresh thyme
Remove steaks from refrigerator and pat dry with paper towel. Rub both sides of steak with oil, sprinkle with minced thyme and season with salt and pepper. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. When pan is hot, carefully add steaks and sear about 2 minutes on each side. Transfer pan to oven and cook to desired doneness, 6 to 8 minutes for medium rare. Transfer steaks to a plate and tent loosely with foil.
Return skillet to stove over medium heat and add 2 tablespoons of butter. When butter melts and foaming subsides, add shallots and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 3 minutes. Stir in vinegar, wine and broth, using wooden spoon to scrape any browned bits from bottom of pan. Add thyme sprigs and increase heat to medium high. Once sauce boils, reduce heat to medium and simmer until sauce is reduced to about ½ cup, about 8 minutes. Remove pan from heat, remove thyme sprigs and whisk in remaining tablespoon butter. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.
To serve, place steak on cutting board and slice against the grain into ⅓-inch-thick slices. Divide steak among four warmed dinner plates, ladle sauce over steak and serve immediately.