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The sweet smell of organic strawberries tickled my nose as they were pulled from the refrigerator and placed on the kitchen island in preparation for a cooking class at the Anteater Recreational Center (ARC) on a Wednesday afternoon. Along with these plump strawberries picked from the South Coast Farms in San Juan, the counter was occupied by tapioca powder, blueberry juice, lemon juice and … arugula? How did this batch of arugula get on the kitchen counter and more importantly, how will it mesh with strawberries? Although a little skeptical in the beginning, by the end of the hour the combination of arugula and strawberries in a dish would not be a question.

As the first year of cooking classes at the ARC comes to a close, the response of enjoyment and support for these classes has been heard and is well deserved. Each week the ARC holds cooking classes put on by chefs in the Orange County area in the 1,500 square foot state-of-the-art test kitchen in the ARC’s annex. This past week’s class was on organic strawberries, in which Chef Tanya Fuqua from Avanti Café showed the class how to make strawberry tapioca, strawberry compote, strawberry coulis and a crispy shallot and strawberry salad.

Fuqua is one of five chefs from Avanti Café, a vegetarian/vegan restaurant in Costa Mesa, who worked with Michael Puritz, programs associate director at the ARC, to provide unique cooking classes for students, faculty and staff. Some of the most popular classes have been chili con carne and sushi rolling, Puritz recalls, while adding that Fuqua’s pies and tarts class has been the best one so far.

Since this noon class was relatively smaller than others, Fuqua let the class observe her right at the kitchen island; but even with a larger class, the two 42-inch flat screen projectors connected to cameras overlooking the six Wolf burners and prep area would not have been a problem for people to follow along. Along with this, the ARC chefs encourage class members to participate in preparing the food alongside them, which gives the classes more of an extra pizzazz than any other cooking show seen on the Food Network.

With 10 eager faces ready to make some exciting food with the strawberries, Fuqua got things started with the crispy shallot and strawberry salad. As she had class members slice shallots to fry in a skillet of olive oil, she explained the benefits of using shallots over less sweet white onions and how they can be incorporated into every meal because they are long lasting.

While the amazing aroma of the shallots filled the test kitchen, Fuqua moved on to the strawberry tapioca. Tapioca, a starch commonly seen in Orange County as boba, was in a granulated form for the class simply because “it cooks quicker.” Being a vegetarian chef, Fuqua explained to the class that along with using organic strawberries, she also uses organic cane sugar in her dishes because it isn’t bleached like white sugar and comes from an actual sugar cane, whereas white sugar is made from beets – a fact that may alter some people’s view of simply buying the cheapest sugar available.

Lastly, Fuqua taught the class how to make strawberry compote and strawberry coulis, two similar desserts where strawberries are blended with lemon juice, agave syrup (a major ingredient in tequila) and an optional tablespoon of liqueur, in this case brandy, which fortunately did not leave anyone too buzzed in the middle of the day. While the strawberry coulis was more liquid in nature and “can be used to top ice cream or strawberry shortcake,” as Fuqua explained, the compote was thicker by putting the ingredients in the refrigerator for two hours. Fortunately, Fuqua had premade some for the class to try in cute martini classes topped with fresh-cut strawberries as well.

Within just one hour, organic strawberries had transformed into four amazing dishes, and those in the class not only left with full stomachs, but also the knowledge of how to make the dishes on their own.

More information can be found at http://www.campusrec.uci.edu/cooking/index.asp.

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