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Jen's World: Home ec has nothing on Participation Kitchen

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I've been married for 19 years and have been a mother for 16 of those years. There is a whole lot of information you can glean from that bit of trivia — but here's where I'm going with it today: (1) I'm pretty much out of original family dinner ideas; and (2) I'll use nearly any excuse to get a girls' night out.

So when I found out that Mayo Clinic's Healthy Living Program offers evening cooking classes — for groups — I signed right up. And then I signed up nine of my friends.

We gathered on a Wednesday evening at the Healthy Living Program's Participation Kitchen, located on the sixth floor of Mayo's Dan Abraham building. The Participation Kitchen, by the way, looks like my high-school home-ec classroom in that it has several stations for preparing food. Also, it looks nothing like my high-school home-ec classroom in that it's gorgeous and top-of-the-line and isn't run by a cranky woman who doesn't like kids.

The class is, instead, run by dietitian Lisa Dierks and executive wellness chef Jen Welper. They're a friendly duo who greet us, offer an introduction about what our class will entail (making chicken saltimbocca, risotto, and roasted vegetables), and then get to work teaching us to properly slice vegetables and mince garlic. The garlic thing is a shocker. Turns out the correct method of mincing garlic is to "take your aggression out on it." Or, more specifically, put your knife blade down flat on the garlic (blade facing away), and slap it so hard that a kitchen full of women says, "Ooooh!"

The result? A clove of utterly smashed garlic that you can mince like nobody's business.

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Having been properly instructed, we break into three groups and head to our stations— each stocked with sinks, stovetops, pots, pans and anything else we could ever need to start cooking.

Jamie, Mia, Jenny and I take the far station, and after putting on our aprons and washing our hands, it's time to "shop" at the front of the kitchen. We gather peppers and asparagus. Zucchini and fresh garlic and mushrooms. Thyme and chicken broth and white wine … for cooking, unfortunately.

We immediately get busy chopping our veggies. I slice the red peppers. Mia takes on the zucchini. Jamie attacks the mushrooms — slicing them big enough for Jenny and I to pick out later. Because … mushrooms.

We're almost done when it's our turn at the chicken station. Chicken saltimbocca, it turns out, is a fancy stuffed chicken breast. Which means that I've never made it at home.

After flattening our chicken with a mallet (something else I've never done at home), we put provolone cheese, fresh sage, and sautéed spinach in the center of each, then wrap it in prosciutto. (You know there's a God when you get to put prosciutto in your Healthy Living Program recipe.)

We brown our chicken in a bit of wine, pop it in the oven, and then head back to our station to finish the rest of our meal. Jamie grates Asiago for the risotto and, because cheese makes the world go 'round, packs it into the ½-cup measure like she's making a sandcastle. About a minute later, Chef Jen drops by and mentions that adding a bit more cheese would increase the flavor.

She doesn't need to tell us twice.

I'm grating part II of the Asiago when dietitian Lisa comes by. "More cheese?" she says in a way that I interpret as, "Did you know that cheese adds fat, increases cholesterol, and contributes to the delinquency of minors?"

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I take the opportunity to check the progress of the other stations. Lisa/Christy/Brook have their chicken under control, though Brook seems concerned that the meal might not be Norwegian enough for her. (Brook and I share a love for bland starches. It's one of the things that bonds us.)

Theresa/Missie/Connie are almost done with their risotto. "Hey," I say, in a whisper. "Did you know that you can add more cheese?"

"Seriously?" says Theresa. "Where is it?"

I point to our station. "Keep it on the down low."

The sauce thickens. The chicken bakes. The veggies roast. The room smells like culinary heaven. And then it's time.

We plate our beautiful meals and sit together to eat. After answering a few questions, Jen and Lisa let us chat while they head off to clean up our messes. We don't have to wash a single dish, wipe an inch of counter, take out a solitary garbage.

Which, as delicious as our dinner is, might be the very best part.

Mayo Clinic's Healthy Living Program offers group cooking classes twice a month. They are open to the public. Visit healthyliving.mayoclinic.org for a schedule of upcoming offerings.

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