YORK, Maine — Let’s have no more apologies for vegetables, says Joe Yonan, recent guest chef at the Stonewall Kitchen Cooking School here in this coastal town. “I’m about celebrating vegetables, not celebrating the absence of meat.”
He holds up a bunch of dark kale. Does anyone know this variety? Two students get it right (it’s lacinato, also known as Tuscan or dinosaur kale) and — surprise! — a jar of mustard lands at their places as a prize.
The chef then lifts and squeezes chopped greens with his hands in a wide stainless steel bowl. “I like a deep tissue massage, and I think kale does too,” he quips.
Yonan, food and travel editor at The Washington Post and cookbook author (and a former Boston Globe editor), is one of several celebrity chefs the school intersperses with its regular presenters. Stonewall Kitchen offers a variety of classes year-round, day and evening, at its campus. Students learn from the pros and eat a fabulous meal without so much as donning an apron.
Yonan brings a casual, buoyant style to his class and engages effortlessly with his students. The Stonewall classroom accommodates 36, but the dozen or so attendees at this session take up the two front rows, making it easy for all to interact with the chef.
After he finishes his “forearm workout” with the greens, an egg gets a piercing. To make a perfect hard-boiled egg, Yonan likes to use a device that pricks a hole in one end to create an air pocket, making it easier to peel later. Don’t forget the egg’s ice-water bath immediately after boiling.
“Kale calls out for a potent dressing,” he continues. His salad, a twist on Nicoise, is dressed with a lime and ginger vinaigrette. Cubed potatoes and mangoes complete the dish, which servers deliver to each place as the chef wraps up the salad segment. This is just one of four delicious courses plus dessert that the students — it’s probably more accurate to say “audience members’’ — enjoy at this midday class.
Stonewall Kitchen headquarters is housed in an attractive cluster of connected clapboard buildings that resemble well-kept barns with a parking lot. Plantings and pathways give the campus, which includes retail outlet, café, administrative offices, and production facilities, a country feel. Easily accessible from the Maine Turnpike, the spot draws tourists.
Most visitors veer left into the café and retail store, where plentiful samples of the company’s jams and sauces stretch across the counters. Preregistered cooking school students follow a path at the right to a separate wing — and world.
Savory aromas drift across the spacious classroom. Chef and sous chefs, four on this occasion, prepare food at different stations along the 30-foot marble counter at the front. The immense kitchen is light-filled and uncluttered as if staged for a photo shoot. Places are set at rows of blonde wood counters with high-top chairs facing forward, like in a theater. There is a low table for those needing accommodation.
After the students settle in, a plate of crisp, homemade pita triangles with a cup of Ottoman eggplant dip appears at each place for nibbling. Walnuts and Medjool dates give the appetizer the Turkish flair. Celery soup with blue cheese and apple is a sharp and savory follow-up, but not before Yonan works in a joke about a Viagra-like fix for limp celery (dunk the crown in water). Next, he cooks up a few steak-like slabs of his chicken-fried cauliflower. “Because sometimes even vegetarians just want to use a knife and fork,” he says.
A presentation precedes each dish before it’s served, but you don’t get information overload. Sit back, listen, sip, and jot down some of the instructor’s choice kitchen tips: Apply oil to the eggplant with a brush as opposed to a spoon to cut down on fat. The best temperature for roasting vegetables is 500. Use look and feel rather than time to determine doneness. Accumulate vegetable scraps in the freezer for making stock later. Fear of frying? Keep oil hot, and hold items low when placing them in the skillet.
All classes at Stonewall are like this: a blend of demonstration, discussion, and dining. Choices range from the cuisine of a region to seafood preparation to easy dinner-party dishes. Students do none of the heavy, or even light, lifting. You won’t be able to demonstrate your nifty knife skills. Nor will you nick your knuckles on a zester.
All the action happens on the vast island in front of you. Elevated television screens give you the bird’s-eye view of what’s going on in the pan. Servers move efficiently among the students, delivering dishes and taking wine and beer orders.
Patricia O’Reilly of Billerica, here for the day and a veteran of cooking classes elsewhere, appreciates this approach. “I like how you are able to see everything up close. Sometimes hands-on classes are big and you don’t get to see what’s happening at the other end of the kitchen,” she says.
Aside from the fun of just eating out, the spinoff of a vegetable extravaganza like this might be the change in eating habits it inspires. After class, Yonan signs several copies of his cookbook “Eat Your Vegetables.” Moms everywhere would approve.
O’Reilly and friend Penny Weaver planned to shop the retail outlets in nearby Kittery before heading home. Because even veggies have calories, I decided to take a walk along York’s coastline after class.
It’s just a few miles to York’s Cliff Path, a rugged, semi-paved trail along the rocks with views of homes hugging the shoreline. It took about a half-hour to hike its length and back. The path resembles Ogunquit’s Marginal Way and Newport’s Cliff Walk, but is shorter and a bit rougher. Like the others, you get broad Atlantic views. Access is from the parking circle at York Harbor Beach.
For a gentler stroll, try the Fisherman’s Walk, also in York Harbor, or head to two-mile Long Sands Beach, where expanses of sand, especially at low tide, invite beachcombing and kite flying in the late spring. Nubble Light is visible at the distant end of the peninsula. Short Sands Beach, another inviting stretch, is bordered by grassy Ellis Park, with sidewalk, playground, and pavilion.Nancy Heiser can be reached at www.nancyheiser.com.