You can tell a meal is almost ready when you begin to catch the full scent wafting from the oven, instructor Carol McManus told 10 chefs-in-the-making as they sat to enjoy a bread and cheese plate in a home economics classroom at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Tuesday night.
This is about the time when people in other areas of the building start to wander in, joked Lynn Ditchfield, beckoned by the smell of peppers, sweet onions and herbs that made up the casserole baking in the oven.
Ms. Ditchfield is the director of the Island’s Adult Continuing Education program, ACE MV, and she has joined in one of the first classes offered, a two-hour French Provencal cooking class featuring a ratatouille vegetable casserole. It is one of several one-offs, or single-night classes offered through ACE MV. Other classes are held weekly for a period of five weeks, and include subjects spanning from civics and government to hula hoop workout and dance.
Ms. McManus is a Provence enthusiast and avid chef — she’s the author of Table Talk cookbook and the owner of Espresso Love café in Edgartown, known for its gourmet foods as much as its coffee selections. She is leading the Tuesday night cooking class, offered to participants of any level of expertise.
And as it turns out, Ms. McManus’s version of French cooking is simple enough that even the most hopeless of would-be chefs can whip up a tasty appetizer or meal for their next potluck, along with a quick and easy dessert fit to impress a room full of culinary experts.
The class began with an introduction to the Provence region of France by Ms. McManus, who travels there often. “The guy that owns this café wants to know if I have a lover over there, because I keep coming back,” she said. “And the lover is, I love Provence.”
Her stories of the region conjure a sun-soaked countryside with the finest wine, the freshest fruits, and a romantic approach to mealtime. Dishes are simple, and dining a leisurely social pleasure. “When I think about eating there, I think about taking time,” said Ms. McManus. “They don’t rush you . . . Food is more than feeding the body. Food is about feeding your soul. If you’re going to eat it, enjoy it.”
And a certain amount of pride and pleasure goes into preparing the meal as well. On Tuesday, Ms. McManus led the group in slicing the colorful peppers, chopping the eggplant, and peeling the ripe tomatoes that would go into the ratatouille. “Have you ever peeled a tomato?” she asked. “It’s not easy.”
The vegetables were sautéed lightly and separately before being layered into the casserole dish. “Everybody has a different way, but the main thing to ratatouille is to keep it separate,” she said. Keeping the vegetables separate prevented them from losing their individual flavors, and from turning into mush. “This is not supposed to be a mushy dish.”
Nothing went to waste. Even the olive oil used to sauté was set aside to be used in a vinaigrette dressing. And the night began to feel truly French when the instructor set out a platter of goat cheeses and a baguette.
Each vegetable was sprinkled with sea salt, pepper and a touch of Ms. McManus’s own herbs from Provence. The herb combination, she said, is not readily available on the Island but you can find a similar mix at Williams-Sonoma. Or perhaps by request, if you get to her before she makes her next voyage to the south of France.
Dessert was light, and deceptively simple considering the result. Ms. McManus recommended making the baked clafouti with cherries, pits and all. But the pastry can be made with any kind of fruit, even pears or apples. On Tuesday, she chose blackberries. The berries were spread around a pie plate and covered with a simple mixture including milk, sugar and flour, and placed in the oven to bake.
The next 30 minutes were reserved for socializing as the group waited to sample their creations. Ms. McManus took the time to share her next project, bringing her Island friends and neighbors to see Provence. “It is a very unique place, and I’m looking forward to bringing people there,” she said. She’s calling the trip Provence Journey and has dedicated a Web site to it: provencejourney.com. The weeklong trips will be held in May, September and October, which are the best times of the year to enjoy the region, she said.
And finally, with rumbling bellies, it was time for the class to taste the creations. Everyone devoured the colorful mixture of peppers, onions, eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini and herbs. The light dessert, served piping hot topped with cold whipped cream, came next. No one hesitated to pull out plastic containers to claim the leftovers.
“I love cooking, and I love Provence,” said Ms. McManus. “And I love sharing them.”