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The Spices of North Africa

Recently, I was the lucky recipient of a gift certificate for a cooking class at The London Chef, a new cooking school downtown. Having walked past and peeked through their windows several times, as well as going in for a browse of their pantry of items for sale, I was really looking forward to the experience.

The class I chose was “Spices of North Africa.”  Upon arrival, Chef Dan Hayes offered us all a glass of wine (which was refilled a couple of times during the evening). Then he started to make the highlight dish of the evening, Morroccan Lamb Tagine. While doing so he included a lot of tips, and a demonstration of knife sharpening in which the proximity of the flying blade and his fingers was dangerously impressive. I’ve also never seen someone chop an onion (or anything else) so quickly and perfectly outside of The Food Network… it was a treat to observe such skills in action.

Many of the spices used in the dish were passed around for us to see and smell. Obvious care has been given to choosing the best available ingredients, as even salt and pepper are not “just” salt and pepper, but sea salt from Cowichan Bay and fresh pepper that’s toasted and ground every morning. One of my favourite parts of the evening was when we smelled ground cumin, then watched as cumin seeds were toasted and ground so we could smell the difference…. I’m still thinking about that aroma, it’s my new favourite spice.

In no time at all there was a Lamb Tagine in the oven, and we split into six pairs and headed to our stations to start the hands-on part of the evening.

First we charred an eggplant on the stove, then popped it in the oven.

While it was baking we made hummus, and although it seemed to be made of just typical ingredients, it was possibly the best I’ve ever tasted.

Then toasted flatbread triangles, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt and paprika.  Out came the eggplant, which was scooped, mashed, seasoned and turned into baba ghanoush.  After plating our first creations we all went to sit down and enjoy them.

Back to our stations – time to make chicken kebabs. With careful attention paid to hygeine (in each pair their was a designated chicken-toucher and a non-chicken-toucher) we tossed the meat with mint, thyme, lime juice, chili flakes and paprika. Onto skewers and into the pan they went, and soon we were tucking into heavenly, juicy morsels.

The final dish was couscous, prepared with sultanas, almonds, ginger, chili and cilantro. Oranges were squeezed over it, and it was served with the now-finished tagine. I must have been overcome by the amazing aromas, because I completely forgot to take a picture of the tagine, the highlight of the evening! Back at the dining table, we spooned couscous into bowls and ladelled the tagine over top…. delicious.

The whole experience was informative, professionally-presented, and a lot of fun.  Although the tagine was demonstrated, rather than hands-on, it wasn’t intimidating at all… I realized, I can do that! I’m already planning a North African-themed dinner party. Thanks again to Chef Dan Hayes and everyone at The London Chef! I can’t wait to go back. Hmm…. what will I learn to make next?

Dessert: an oatmeal-raisin cookie, which I enjoyed with tea after I got home