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Take a cooking class

Several months ago, my neighbor and good friend, Anne, won a cooking class for six in an online benefit auction for a public TV station. The class was sponsored by Gracie’s 21st Century Cafe, in Pine Forge, PA. The tricky part was rounding up six people and finding a date that worked for all of us. Miraculously, it happened. On Wednesday, we all met up at the charming, off-the-beaten path restaurant that is Gracie’s. Along with two other groups, we were invited back into Gracie’s kitchen and shown how some of the most delicious food I have ever tasted was made. It was an amazing experience.

To begin with, we sat: It is always nice, especially on a weeknight, to have a moment to sit and relax before you start on a new experience. When we arrived, our group was seated at a table. The only other people in the restaurant were the other groups. So we had some time to chat with one another. Some of the women I had met only once before, during the Yoga on the Steps event in March, so I enjoyed seeing them again and having a bit of time to catch up.

Getting to Gracies: Gracie’s is located in what can reasonably be called an out-of-the way spot in Berks County (which, if you think about it, has many out-of-the way spots).  Driving there on a dark night, I felt pretty much like I was in the middle of nowhere, when suddenly the bright red neon sign that spelled out “Gracie’s” made it clear that I had arrived. Also, my friends Barbara and Anne pointed it out to me.

The decor: On the exterior,  Gracie’s juxtaposes neon signs, funky asymmetrical sheds and cute, colorful, decorative lights against a very traditional stone terrace. The restaurant itself is in a historic 1700’s home. Inside, there were large 18th Century fireplaces and the cozy smell of recently burned wood, but, again, some very modern touches, including neon lights over the bar and fun,  colorful, yoga-posing figurines on the mantle. Overall, there was a unique mix of funky and traditional decor that seemed less gimmicky, and a lot more interesting than most restaurants. If felt serious and fun at the same time.

Gracie: Gracie’s, I learned, is owned by chef Gracie Skiadas. She welcomed us at the door, and then came into the dining room to talk about what would be prepared that evening. According to her website, she started the restaurant in 1988 and included this message on her menu: “Gracie’s was designed & created out of respect for life and well-being.” In a way, I was surprised to learn that she’d been in business 22 years. She seemed knowledgable, of course, but also incredibly enthusiastic and passionate about her business. Here’s another quote from her website: “My intention and  the shared intent of those who work with me has not altered. My role is as it has always been, one of supreme passion with regard to my “COOKING” and my ART.” You can read more about the restaurant in this County Lines Magazine article.

In the kitchen: It seemed a privilege to be invited back into the kitchen of a serious chef. It wasn’t real large. But I’d estimated there were a dozen of us attending the class, and we fit in fine. I was somewhat relieved to learn that this wasn’t a hands-on cooking class. Instead, Gracie led us step-by-step through the process of making a three-course vegetarian meal. Like a cooking show? Not really, a lot more personal and less scripted than that.

Here’s the menu:

  • Autumn broccoli and stilton bisque with mushroom/apple/walnut garni (This was a terrific blend of flavors)
  • Autumn Acorn squash: This was stuffed with a mixture of different veggies including yams, parsnips, leeks and oyster mushrooms. It was amazingly good.
  • Warm eggplant caprese: I can’t wait to try making this dish of layered eggplant, mozzarella and marinara sauce.
  • Braised cabbage and fennel: My favorite dish of the evening, it was drizzled with a Dijon truffle cream.

Wines: Gracie included wines that best accompanied each recipe. So, it was a great evening. We got a cooking lesson, then got to sit down and eat this amazing food and taste some really interesting wines.

My favorite quote of the evening: “I love parsnips.” Gracie said that. Honestly? Parsnips!? I’ve never cooked with a parsnip. I can’t wait to buy some.

Chaos and Creativity.  Gracie gave us a paper she’d written up in advance that included this statement: “Creativity comes from chaos, and the passion of chaotic vegetarian recipes comes from the contrasts in flavors that we will experiment with tonight.” She went on to say that “My philosophy of vegetarian cooking is that you should Never Miss the Meat.” I didn’t miss the meat. And I’ve been thinking about parsnips ever since.

The photos: We were all so deeply entranced by this experience that none of us took photos. Therefore, all the images on this post are from Gracie’s website.

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