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In her 30-year food career Amanda Cushman has done it all - from soup to nuts.
She's cooked for Manhattan's top caterers, tested and developed recipes for major publications, worked as a private chef for the CEO of American Express and the editor of GQ magazine, developed hundreds of recipes for cookbooks, food magazines, and websites and published her own cookbook in 2008 - "Simple, Real Food" - now in its second printing.
She's taught cooking classes at professional New York City cooking schools - and while living in Venice, Calif., from 2003 to 2012 - she taught a successful cooking technique series and gave private classes to students including celebs such as Randy Newman, Anne Archer, Milly Sims and Neil Patrick Harris.
Originally from New Canaan, Cushman returned to Connecticut last fall and lives in Old Lyme with her husband and two cats.
"We were looking to change to a more rural lifestyle and not live in a city anymore," she says, "After looking all over the West Coast, we decided we liked the East Coast better, and being from Connecticut, I always thought it was a beautiful state."
Teaching the art and craft of cooking and getting people back in their home kitchens is where she says her heart is today.
Cushman teaches as many as four cooking classes a week locally and around the state, as well as in New York City. She also teaches privately in her home and says she finds it rewarding to help people learn more about making their own food.
"I have this big thing about if you want to eat really well - and healthfully - you should eat your own food," she insists. "It's harder to control your weight and health if you're always going out to a restaurant. I like to see people going out to eat on special occasions but to do more (meals) and social eating at home - it brings people together in a nicer way."
According to Cushman, the reason people don't cook at home as much these days is that they think it's too hard or takes up too much time.
"My recipes are very simple," she says. "I don't have long lists of ingredients. They're very straightforward because I want people to cook. I think my forte is making cooking really accessible but creative and delicious."
Cushman likes to take traditional, ethnic recipes that she gathers on trips abroad and simplify them while substituting more exotic ingredients with ones more readily available at local supermarkets.
Her classes include lessons in preparing dishes from all over the globe, with cuisine from Italy, France, Greece, Spain, India, Morocco, Jamaica and beyond.
They also feature eclectic themes such as "American Thanksgiving," "cooking with seasonal foods," "great grilling," "fabulous pork dishes" - and techniques such as knife skills.
"I don't want people to feel intimidated by the knife. Most people are afraid of knives - it's about making it easy," she says.
COOKING UP LOCAL CLASSES
Cushman explains the difference between the cooking classes she teaches at White Gate Farm in Old Lyme and at Homeworks in Old Saybrook.
"The classes at White Gate Farm are very hands-on," she says. "Everybody gets their own cutting board, knife and apron, and we prepare all the food together as a group. Sometimes we use the produce from the farm if it's in season and on the menu. "
In a stroke of serendipity, she says, "Pauline, the owner of White Gate Farm, built a beautiful commercial kitchen last year with the hopes of having a class, right before I moved here."
On the other hand, Homeworks classes are done as a demonstration, more like a televised cooking show.
"Everyone watches as I teach the class and make the meal, and then everyone gets to eat a lovely dinner that's served," she notes.
Cushman's private cooking classes (for up to 20) allow people to put their own group together and create their own menu - or use a set menu on her website.
"They may want to learn all appetizers or all desserts or something completely different than what is on the website," she says.
"Someone (I taught) went to Italy and had this great dish and wanted to learn how to make it.
"A man I teach regularly just got divorced. He's in his 50s and never cooked and doesn't want to eat out all the time," she adds. "I'm teaching him basic cooking."
Another common demographic is recently married couples that want to expand their culinary skills or learn how to use the kitchen equipment they received as wedding gifts.
Now that she's in Connecticut, Cushman says, "I'm just trying to be the one who brings awareness to how classes can transform your cooking experience. I've seen it really happen. I've had a number of people I met over the years who were very afraid of the kitchen. They didn't want to go in there. After taking a bunch of classes, they've become really good cooks who make great food."
Warm Beet Salad with Endive and Chevre
2 pounds beets, washed and quartered
7 tablespoons olive oil, divided
Salt, pepper, to taste
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
6 tablespoons minced mint
1 teaspoon lemon zest
2 heads endive, sliced into thin julienne strips (or 1 head frisee)
1 bunch watercress, tough stems removed
5 oz. chevre, feta, or shaved Parmesan
Heat oven to 400. Place beets on a baking sheet and toss with two tablespoons of the olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast until tender, about 25 minutes. Remove from oven and cool.
Meanwhile, combine the lemon juice, remaining olive oil, salt, pepper, mint and lemon zest in a large serving bowl and whisk. Taste and adjust seasoning. Reserve three tablespoons of the dressing in a medium bowl.
Peel the beets and dice and add to the reserved dressing; toss well.
Add endive and watercress to larger bowl of dressing and toss. Divide salad between four serving plates. Top with beets and crumble cheese over the top.
Serve warm or at room temperature. Serves 4.
Classes are $85, unless otherwise indicated. Sign up for classes at White Gate Farm, 83 Upper Pattagansett Lane, East Lyme, on Cushman's website, www.amandacooks.com/connecticut-cooking-classes/healthy-cooking-classes.htm; sign up for classes at Homeworks, 711 Boston Post Road, Old Saybrook, by calling the store directly at (860) 388-3331.
Sept. 26; 6 to 9 p.m. at White Gate Farm - Northern Italian Cooking. Featured recipes are Bacon Wrapped Artichokes, White Beans with Pancetta and Escarole, Chicken Piccata, Risotto Milanese, Tiramisu Moderno.
Sept. 28; noon to 2:30 p.m. at Homeworks - Tuscan Entertaining. Featured recipes are Beef Rollatini with Pine Nuts and Pecorino, Ricotta Gnocchi with Pesto, Roasted Carrots with Currants, Spicy Broccoli Rabe with Lemon and Garlic, Chocolate Amaretto Cake.
Oct. 2; 6 to 9 p.m. - White Gate Farm - Autumn Harvest. Featured recipes are Creamy New England Clam Chowder, Braised Italian Chicken with White Beans and Artichoke Hearts, Roasted Yams with Shallots and Rosemary, Pear Almond Tart with Warm Salted Caramel Sauce.
Oct. 3; 6:30 to 9 p.m. at Homeworks - Rockin' Moroccan. Featured recipes are Chicken Tagine with Preserved Lemons, Couscous with Feta and French Lentils, Stuffed Flatbread with Mint and Lamb, Moroccan Carrots with Baby Spinach, Orange and Radish Salad, Phyllo Bundles with Apple Almond Filling and Chantilly Cream.
Oct. 9; 6 to 9 p.m. at White Gate Farm - Greek Island Cooking. Featured recipes are Phyllo Triangles with Feta Thyme Filling, Zucchini and Olive Salad with Lemon Dill Sauce, Lamb Meatballs with Tomato Sauce, Pastitisio (Greek Lasagna), Semolina Cake with Thyme Honey.
Oct. 16; 6 to 9 p.m. at White Gate Farm - Light, Fresh, Asian. Featured recipes are Summer Rolls with Shrimp and Avocado, Stir-Fry Vegetables with Spicy Tofu, Chicken Skewers with Peanut Dipping Sauce, Thai Beef Salad with Cucumbers and Cilantro, Almond Macaroons
Oct. 28; 6 to 9 p.m., White Gate Farm - Fast and Fabulous Pasta Sauces. Featured recipes are Classic Bolognese Sauce, Penne with Ricotta Salata and Oil-cured Olives, Turkey Sausage, Swiss Chard and Pine Nuts, Shells with Chicken, Mushrooms and Capers, Pasta with Chevre, Roasted Zucchini and Grape Tomatoes, Chocolate Hazelnut Biscotti
Nov. 13; 6 to 9 p.m., White Gate Farm - Holiday Appetizers. Featured recipes are Crostini with Burrata and Applewood Smoked Bacon, Deep Fried Brie with Lingonberry Sauce, Seared Tuna on Wonton Crisps with Wasabi Creme Fraiche, Portobello Bruschetta with Caramelized Onions, Roasted Peppers and Arugula, Chicken Satay with Peanut Sauce. Fee is $90.