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I love to take cooking classes while I travel and have taken over a dozen in China, India, Thailand, France, Peru etc, so it should be no surprise that I sought one out in Portugal as well, and booked a cooking class with Cooking Lisbon.
This cooking school offers different cooking classes, market tours, etc and the way the date worked out I would be taking the Gourmet Portuguese class. When I arrived I was greeted by Luis, the owner, and the other participants; a young German, Norwegian couple. After a quick intro into the facility and the cooking school we were ready to start.
First part of the cooking class – some snacks. A glass of red wine, olives, lumpini beans and bread with three different types of olive oil.
Lumpini beans are very popular in Portugal and taste like a mixture of chickpeas with fava beans. They are sold in jars and are ever so slightly salty and briny. Simply perfect for a salt lover like me. I have grown to love them and they are the perfect snack to go with a glass of wine (with olives of course). We got to try three different types of Gallo olive oil: all rich and smooth.
Once we met our cooking instructor Ricardo, we were ready to start. Ricardo has been working in the restaurant industry for almost a decade, working in an international hotel as a chef for a few years after graduating from culinary school and then going on to open his own restaurants. He has a ton of experience in the professional restaurant industry and it was fascinating to hear some of his stories of being a proper restaurant chef and the craziness and long hours that ensue. You can tell just by observing him in the kitchen that he is a professional kitchen chef. Now he is gives cooking classes at the school and works as a private home chef for various events and families. An interesting switch of pace.
He introduced our menu for the evening: pan seared mackerel over risotto, wine glazed pork cheeks over mashed potatoes, and chocolate cake for dessert.
We were ready to get cooking. In this cooking class the whole group cooks together. There are not individual stations with each person preparing every part of the meal. Instead the tasks are divided among the group so everyone can play a role.
We started with the pork cheeks as that would require the most time. This is a relatively lean but very moist meat that is not too popular in the US, and seems to be highly underrated as this is an incredible cut of meat. The pork cooks for two hours so we had to get this going first.
We seared the pork on high heat until lightly browned on all sides, so that this would stay crispy in the final dish, and then we add almost two full bottles of red wine to the pot, until the pork was completely submerged, and let this cook for two hours.
Then we got started on the dessert. For the dessert, butter and chocolate are melted and mixed together in a double boiler and set aside. Meanwhile we beat the egg yolks with sugar, mixing the yolks then with the melted chocolate and butter. The egg whites are whipped until medium-firm peaks form. The flour and baking powder is added over a strainer to add more oxygen to the dough into the chocolate mixture before the egg whites are gently folded into the mix. The cake was now ready for baking so we pop that into the oven.
In order to make the risotto we needed fresh vegetable stock so got that going with just a few kitchen scraps – unpeeled roughly chopped carrots, parsley, smashed garlic with skin still on, halved onion with skin, all of this was added to a pot of water and set to boil and simmer for 30 minutes. Ricardo explained that no salt or pepper is added as this is the base of a sauce or dish, so the seasoning is always added later.
From there we were ready for the most difficult part of the class – filleting the fish. This required a careful technique in order to not butcher the fish and Ricardo took us through a very thorough lesson in how to do this. He instructed us to grab the fish with a paper towel (to prevent it from slipping) and to start from the tail, using the knife to always touch the fish bone on the other side, and holding the knife flat, cutting directly across, always feeling the fish bone on the other side. This was a swift move. Then the fish needs to be flipped over and cut the same way, but this time it was easier to start from the head, with the knife at a diagonal angle until you hit the bone and then cutting all the way across.
This was just the first part, then with the knife at a diagonal angle near the stomach, from each fillet you have to remove the bones and guts. Then with the fish tongue (more like tweezers) you remove the other fish bones, using your fingers to gently guide your hand along the fillet looking for the bones sticking out.
All this to fillet a fish. I loved learning how to properly fillet a fish as I find this to be an incredibly vital part of cooking fish and a skill that every home cook should master. Ricardo did a great job guiding us through this and helping us out.
As we set the fish aside we were ready to get started on the risotto. First step was to chop the onions for which Ricardo quickly introduced two kitchen tricks to prevent you from crying. The first trick is to place the onion in water and keep your hands wet when cutting it. The second trick is to place a piece of bread in your mouth when cutting the onions, with half the bread sticking out from your mouth; this way the bread absorbs the acidity coming off the onion which is what causes the tears. I’ll definitely be trying the bread trick at home, since I always have tearing stinging my eyes when I’m cutting onions.
In a pot with oil we cooked the onions before adding the risotto rice and a bit of white wine. When that had evaporated we started adding the freshly made vegetable stock one ladle at a time and took turns stirring the risotto as it cooked. Once it was cooked we added butter, cheese, lemon juice and parsley and Ricardo shared a special technique to incorporate the butter into a risotto. Instead of simply stirring it, you should grab the pot and flick it with your wrist back and forth so that the butter is incorporated and melted slowly into the risotto. You can use a cork in a pan to practice at home!
We also went back to the dessert to prepare the chocolate ganache, made with not only dark chocolate but also with Ginjinha the classic Portuguese cherry liquor.
Then we were ready to pan fry the fish, which we just seared in a bit of olive oil skin side down, first. To plate we served the fish on top of the risotto, with a drizzle of a basil and parsley olive oil mix, and garnished with slivers of fresh lemon juice.
The four of us sat down to enjoy our risotto and mackerel with a glass of white wine. Everything was delicious. The risotto was rich and cooked perfectly with the fish nicely crisped up on the skin side and soft and tender inside. The sliver of fresh lemon as a garnish gave the dish the necessary freshness.
Then it was back to the kitchen to finish up with the pork. We made a standard mashed potato dish, and to finish off the pork cheeks we removed them from the pot and added a bit of sugar to the remaining wine, allowing that to caramelize and reduce. As Ricardo explained, surprisingly the sugar addition to the wine does not actually sweeten the sauce, it just reduces the acidity.
To plate this dish we served the sliced pork cheeks (always cut into an odd number of slices by Ricardo) over the mashed potatoes with the wine reduction as the sauce, and sprinkled with fresh parsley as a garnish.
We all sat down together to enjoy this dish, now with a glass of red wine. I absolutely loved the super tender pork cheeks which are still slightly crispy on the outside. The red wine reduction was simply exquisite, and as Ricardo had told us before, not sweet at all. I will definitely be cooking more with pork cheeks from now on!
For our dessert course, we plated the cake, topped it with ice cream and a berry compote, just made with stewed frozen berries. The rich dark chocolate cherry liquor ganache was perfect with the fluffy cake and when topped with cold ice cream and hot berry compote simply magical.
Overall I fully enjoyed my cooking class with Ricardo and Cooking Lisbon and highly recommend it to anyone who wants to get a hands on experience with Portuguese cooking. I loved that the cooking class provided unlimited snacks to munch on during the class and unlimited wine to sip through the class and meal as well. This makes for a great group activity and a delicious freshly cooked from scratch meal.
If you get Ricardo as your cooking instructor be sure to ask him all about his experience working in restaurants – he’s got some great stories to share!
For more information and to book your cooking class check out the Cooking Lisbon website.
**Thanks to Cooking Lisbon for hosting me during the cooking class. As always all opinions expressed here are my own**