PUTNEY, Vt. -- ``This is the most valuable thing I'm going to tell you," says Deborah Krasner to the group cooking with her. Five pairs of hands stop prepping toppings for the pizzas they'll cook in Krasner's pizza oven for lunch. ``Heat your pan before you do anything. When you heat it, the pores in the steel contract, allowing the oil to stay on the surface of the pan rather than soaking into it, and thus preventing anything from sticking to it." There are serious, contemplative nods all around.
These students aren't at a formal culinary school; they're home cooks, and this is their first day of an unusual vacation.
Krasner, an award-winning cookbook author (``The Flavor of Oil" and ``Kitchens for Cooks") and kitchen designer, has just transformed her 18th-century Vermont barn into a luxury vacation spot. For a few weeks each spring and fall, she offers classes for people who want nothing more than to spend the better part of a week chopping, tasting, eating, and talking about food. Groups visit artisanal cheese and chocolate producers, farmers' markets, and meat purveyors, and they cook -- a lot. Classes last five days and cost $2,650, which covers accommodations, meals, field trips, and local transportation.
Krasner's food isn't fancy. She doesn't particularly like recipes with a million steps. ``I don't fool around," she says. Each week's menus are based on simple, Mediterranean-inspired meals prepared with local, (mostly) organic ingredients. ``Cooking is all about having the best ingredients and then getting out of their way. This is easy, homey food."
As such, everything Krasner takes out of the refrigerator has a story, and as a rule she knows most of the people in the stories. Here, food is the currency of daily life, linking neighbors and friends the old-fashioned way.
After lunch, Krasner announces that the class is going to make a molten chocolate cake in the microwave. Some protest the equipment, but in the few minutes it takes to make the cake batter, she gives enough advice to make everyone forget the objections. ``To avoid the little chunks of baking powder paste that you sometimes find in cakes," she tells them, ``pour the measured powder into your hand and schmooch it into the palm of your hand." Her culinary advice is often spiced with words that sound like Yiddish. She shows someone else how to measure flour properly. The cake is deeply chocolaty, dense, and incredibly moist.
That afternoon, Krasner piles everyone into her car and takes them to Vermont Shepherd, a farm and artisanal cheesemaking operation a few miles away, where they learn about the milking process and taste European-style sheep's milk cheese aged in a cheese cave .
Before dinner there's time for a break, and the students sprawl across couches in Krasner's cookbook library upstairs and in the living room below. For this crowd, reading about food is the ultimate indulgence. ``Check out this tart," says one woman. She launches into a description of a unique way of making a cornmeal crust for a fruit tart; the crust is first baked flat like a pizza crust, then crumbled in a food processor, then pressed into the sides of a tart pan.
Another pipes up with tips on how to spot non-organic radishes being passed off as organic. It quickly becomes obvious that the participants are obsessed with food -- they continue shouting food-related tidbits from room to room.
As the sun goes down, Krasner's newly remodeled kitchen warms up. Tonight 's is the simplest menu. The group will start with spiced candied walnuts and an hors d'oeuvre of Medjool dates and Parmesan cheese. The main course is Marcella Hazan's lemon chicken served with sauteed broccoli raab, followed by an arugula and pear salad with mascarpone cheese.
The dessert has been modified. Students will use rhubarb from Krasner's garden to make their own version of the fruit tart they read about that afternoon.
Krasner begins preparing the chicken. She opens the cavity and slips in the lemons, explaining, ``Here's how you schtuck the chicken," and then shows how to close up the opening with toothpicks so that the chicken is airtight. The bird will puff up like a balloon in the oven. ``This is such a good example of how to make something fabulous out of nothing," she says, pointing out that the roast chicken recipe only requires a bird, lemons, salt, and pepper.
After dinner, a local farmer arrives to help with the dishes, and conversations begin -- about everything from local agricultural issues and farmers' market trends to how to fry cheese curds. An hour or so later, students begin wandering off to bed to collapse (sheets are ironed with lavender water) before another day begins.
In this setting, where lunch takes hours to make and eat, students need their rest.
Deborah Krasner offers culinary vacations at 192 Taylor Road, Putney, Vt. Call 888-917-8224 or go to www.culinaryvermont.com. She is holdingclasses Friday to Sept. 20 and Oct. 13 to 18.