When Melissa Clendenin bought her first house five years ago, she decided to find a part-time job she would enjoy to help with the extra expenses home ownership entailed.
“Reading and cooking — that’s what I like to do,” she said. “Left Bank Books wasn’t hiring at the time, but I read on Anne Cori’s blog that Kitchen Conservatory needed part-time help during cooking classes, so I applied. Anne asked, ‘Do you mind mopping floors and washing dishes and pots by hand?’”
Clendenin didn’t. Growing up, she and her sister washed dishes as part of their chores.
“My parents didn’t get a dishwasher until I was out of college,” she said. “They both laughed when I told them about my part-time job because I never really liked doing dishes.
“Today, when I wash dishes, the chefs are glad I’m cleaning up, I learn cooking techniques, I get to eat great food and I meet new people. Helping things run smoothly during classes is part of good customer service — something I’ve learned in my job at Enterprise Holdings.”
Clendenin’s work as an administrative assistant in the government and public affairs office at Enterprise requires attention to detail, another link to good cooking. She enjoys the contrasts of office work to kitchen duties. “The cooking part provides a creative outlet for me as well,” she said.
Clendenin didn’t gravitate toward cooking until she graduated from college. Because years of eating dorm food had added extra pounds to her small frame, she joined Weight Watchers. She planned menus, cooked at home and lost the excess weight. She has maintained her weight loss for 12 years.
“I cook from scratch, using fresh foods,” she said. “We joined Fair Shares, a CSA (community supported agriculture) that provides fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, meats and specialty foods. For dinner last night, we made del Carmen black beans, (from) one of the Fair Shares contributors. We topped them with an egg and cheese. Fresh food tastes so much better, my husband and I are satisfied with less,” she said.
Working around great chefs and cooks helps Clendenin improve her cooking and her knowledge of food. Cori taught her to brown foods well, from meats to pizza crusts to croissants. When she cooks a mirepoix of celery, onions and aromatics, she refrains from stirring it to allow the flavors to develop, a tip she picked up from Chef Bernard Pilon. She met Kirk Warner, the chef who catered her wedding, at work.
“We had a cool discussion about kale one day. Anne (Cori) made a colcannon with kale instead of cabbage that was great. We made Tuscan kale chips in one class. We get a lot of kale, greens and chard in our CSA, so I look for good ways to use the greens,” she said.
Clendenin sees the latest gadgets, cooking equipment and food products, too. She and her husband recently bought a stand mixer. “I want to learn more about baking next year, since we’ve got this great mixer,” she said. “I bought the tagine we used to make the lamb dish at work.”
The high cap cover of a tagine traps and returns condensation to slow-simmered stews, resulting in tender meats and great sauces.
Much as Clendenin enjoys fine foods and fancy techniques, some of her favorite foods are simple: “My dad makes the best breakfast potatoes and great French fries. Every Sunday, Dad cooked a big breakfast. My husband and I often cook breakfasts together on weekends. He’ll make the bacon and the toast. I’ll make the eggs. We’ll sit at the table by the window. It’s nice, cooking together.”
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 1/2 pounds lamb shoulder, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1 onion, peeled and chopped in half-inch dice
- 1 fennel bulb, cored and chopped in half-inch dice
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- 2 tablespoons peeled and minced fresh ginger
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne (red) pepper
- Salt and Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 1 cup dried apricots, diced
- 3 cups cooked couscous
- 1 to 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro leaves, for garnish
- 5 to 8 olives, brined and pitted, chopped
1. Heat olive oil in a tagine, a Dutch oven or an enameled cast-iron covered pot over medium high heat until the oil begins to shimmer. Brown the meat in a single layer, working in batches if needed, until all sides are thoroughly browned. Remove and set aside.
2. Add chopped onion and fennel to the pot and sauté until clear, about 5 minutes. Stir as needed.
3. Add minced garlic, ginger root, cumin, and cayenne, plus salt and pepper to taste, and stir to coat. Add the browned meat and the chicken stock. Stir in the dried fruit. Loosen any browned bits in the pan.
4. Bring the mixture to a boil, cover the tagine or the pot, and lower the heat to simmer. Cook covered for two hours, or until the meat is fork-tender.
5. Serve the lamb over couscous. Garnish with chopped cilantro or chopped olives, as desired.