On a cold recent January morning, a group of ambitious cooks gathered at 125 Live, the fitness and community center, to learn, prepare — and eat — the Italian specialty osso bucco.
This was just one in a series of cooking experiences led by Ken Baerg, operations director at the facility. Called "Cooking with Ken," this grew out of what was originally a once-a-week gathering to explore cookbooks.
Looking for a different direction, Baerg decided their interest in recipes and food would be more beneficial with a hands-on experience like cooking classes.
It might also be described as "travels with food," since one of the goals he had in mind was to try different and unusual dishes from around the world. Another was to choose healthy dishes, from the main course to the sides. Past dishes have included recipes from Bosnia, Croatia, Turkey, Greece and North Africa.
The group usually breaks into teams, then prepares the dish together. If there are a lot of ingredients, Baerg will help things along by prepping some beforehand, like chopping vegetables.
"The class is only one hour, so there is a time factor," he said.
The day they made osso bucco, he had done just that. The dish traditionally calls for veal shanks, but he had substituted pork shanks for several reasons, cost being one. The sides were impressive as well, including orzo, Lebanese rice with roasted vegetables, and Brussels sprouts with bacon and blue cheese.
This once-a-month activity has proven to be especially popular, with anywhere from seven to 15 attendees. Never mind the saying "too many cooks spoil the broth." Under Baerg’s leadership, they do just fine.
Coming up next week on Jan. 15, the plan is to bake an apple galette, a French tart.
Interestingly, desserts have not been a high priority since Baerg says "people are more interested in the main course."
The plan Feb. 19 is to make braised beef short ribs, and for March 18, it’s French pork chops.
Those of us who cook know that things don’t always work out, and that was true in the November class. The dish was "turducken," where turkey, duck and chicken, all boned, are layered together.
"I was so excited to do this and had planned and prepped delicious sides to go along with it," Baerg said. "Except I got so involved with the turducken preparation, the sides all burned, beyond being edible."
The classes are monthly and run for an hour, though Baerg added that folks can stay as long as they want, which happens often.
"They’ve worked together and shared a meal. Even in that short period of time, there is camaraderie," he said.
All of this takes place in the commercial kitchen at the 125 facility.
"It’s such an impressive space, and having the classes allows us to make good use of it," he said.
It has also turned into a multi-purpose area, with chefs teaching other classes from time to time. Licensed professionals can rent the space, and it is also available to those who need an inspected kitchen.
During the course of his career, Baerg has been an exercise physiologist, meat marketer, food-safety expert, a butcher and worked at Ye Old Butcher Shoppe, where he still does seasonal work. Those who have taken his classes agree that he really knows his way around the kitchen, one of those who has a special touch.
To be part of the classes, you have to preregister. Classes are $15 for members of 125 Live, $25 for nonmembers. Call 507-287-1404 to sign up.