BEAVER CREEK, Colorado - It's a treat to sit down and eat a fabulous lunch with wine pairings cooked by two heavy-hitters in both the local and national culinary world, but it's an added bonus to learn useful, everyday skills from those cooks as you do it.Gail Simmons, Food & Wine Magazine's director of special projects and a judge on Bravo TV's Emmy-winning show Top Chef, cooked alongside Christian Apetz, the executive chef at the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek, on Saturday for a surprisingly intimate and educational lunch. About 50 people sat at three rows of white tablecloth-topped tables on the stage at the Vilar Performing Arts Center for a close-up view of Simmons and Apetz in a demonstration kitchen.And a demonstration it was - the first lesson came with Apetz's handling of the raw bison meat he was forming into meatballs. He threw it around, tossing it briskly from one hand into the other, explaining how that technique packs the meat and allows it to stay in place once stuffed and cooked.The guests watched every move. Simmons and Apetz demonstrated simple home-cooking techniques, such as "sweating" vegetables in a pan versus caramelizing them or making a fresh stock using the shells of just-peeled shrimp. While the finished dishes tasted complex, the processes used to make these dishes were presented in a way that made everyone in the room feel as if they could go home and cook the dishes themselves.Did you know that you shouldn't keep dried spices in the spice rack for longer than 6 months? Did you know that pouring some good wine into the cooking pot - the wine that you'll also be drinking - is always preferable to using the inexpensive cooking wine you can buy at the grocery store?"It's all about the ingredients," Simmons told the group. "If you're not using good ingredients, your food's probably not going to taste good."That's why Apetz chooses San Marzano tomatoes to make his traditional Sicilian-style tomato sauce, a family recipe, every time. That's why he uses authentic virgin olive oil for that dish, too - because it makes a difference in the flavor.He uses the finest prosciutto and mozzarella to stuff high-quality bison meat. And even down to the smaller details, such as herbs and even salt and pepper - it's all nothing but the freshest and the best in the kitchens of those who know what they're doing.Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper are used for seasoning. And another valuable tip for home cooks: You can always add more seasoning but you can't take seasoning away, Apetz said. Everything about the cooking demonstration showed the purpose in cooking. Ingredients are added in a specific order because you want to create a beautifully balanced layering of flavors, Simmons said. In her Venetian fish soup, for example (the recipe is available at foodandwine.com), there's a reason she puts the mirepoix (onions, celery and carrots) into the pot before she adds the clam juice later in the process. There's a reason for everything in cooking, she said.Some of the lessons were part of the demonstration, but in the informal setting on the Vilar stage, many lessons came up naturally throughout the course of the cooking and through the questions asked by those in the audience. "How do you create a recipe?" one woman asked."I'm literally tasting the food as I'm writing (the recipe)," Apetz said. Simmons suggested that cooks at home who follow recipes "robotically" pay more attention to the recipes they're following so they can break out of their shells a little bit and try cooking more casually."Once you start to think about the method behind a recipe, you'll start to see patterns," Simmons said. Apetz's Sicilian tomato sauce, for example, and Simmons' Venetian fish soup followed essentially the same formula, she pointed out. With a little practice, home cooks can also make delicious recipes without following every measurement and ingredient in a recipe, she said."We finished with totally different recipes, but we started with that same foundation of cooking," she said. "If you follow a recipe and you learn how to make a really great soup, you could make 10 variations. You take out the fennel, you add butternut squash. You take out the cod, you put in halibut. You add clams instead of shrimp. And there you are - all of a sudden, you're improvising."
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