When it comes to cooking, my greatest accomplishment prior to taking first lady Moore-Pastides’ cooking class was mastering the chicken finger recipe on the back of a Bisquick box.
So when I walked into the professional kitchen in the lower level of the McCutchen House, I was more than a little intimidated. I was almost an hour early, so I wandered around the massive, quiet kitchen feeling very out of place.
My uneasiness melted away as soon as I met Moore-Pastides. She reassured me that my lack of cooking abilities wouldn’t result in any sort of major disaster as she handed me an apron and a Carolina baseball cap to use instead of a hair net.
Students started trickling in. Most of them had heard about the one-credit-hour course from friends or had stumbled upon it on Blackboard. Their reason for taking the class? Learning to cook from the first lady of the university.
Moore-Pastides started off the two-and-a-half-hour class with a short lecture about the health benefits of olive oil and garlic; the latter, for example, acts as a mild anti-inflammatory. She then assigned a different recipe from her book “Greek Revival: Cooking for Life” to each student. She was drawn to how healthy the Greek diet is and has focused the majority of her cooking around it ever since.
The theme of the day was vegetables, and I was assigned a tomato and zucchini recipe. Everyone else knew exactly what to do, but I was completely clueless. I hovered around until a friend pointed me toward my station, which had all the ingredients pre-measured and waiting for me to prepare.
The first step was to peel and dice an onion. The only time I had ever touched a raw onion up until this point was to hand it to my mother. As I fumbled around for a knife, Hannah Cleaveland, the photographer accompanying me, said the most comforting thing I had heard all day: “I work at a Greek restaurant, so if you need any help, just let me know.”
I swear I almost hugged her in that moment. She showed me how to peel the onion and let me figure out how to dice it. If there is a rule for dicing onions, I definitely broke it. I cut it like an apple and diced it from there, trying not to dice my fingers in the process. Next I had to thinly slice three zucchinis. That was simple enough.
Then I had to open the canned tomatoes. Now I admit that I have very little experience in the kitchen, but I do know how to use a can opener. The McCutchen House can opener is not your average can opener, however. It’s mounted to the steel counter and looks like some sort of medieval torture device, but I got help from Moore-Pastides and the head chef, so I walked away successful.
After that, things were pretty simple. I sautéed the onions in olive oil and added the tomatoes, spices and zucchini like the recipe said, with our photographer's help of course.
The last step was to dry roast a half cup of pine nuts. I knew I was bound to mess up something, so I wasn’t surprised when I burned the first batch. In my defense, they burned in all of three minutes, and I got distracted by the constant movement surrounding me.
Everyone was focused, but smiling.
Moore-Pastides was running around patiently answering questions and offering her help to anyone who needed it. There were
about a dozen different dishes being made, so the kitchen smelled incredible.
We got to sample each recipe. I never thought vegetables could taste so good.
I got a chance to talk to Moore-Pastides at the end of class. Although she doesn’t have a culinary degree, she has published two cookbooks focusing on Mediterranean cuisine, which she was first introduced to during a sabbatical in Greece in the '80s.
This was a huge learning experience for me, and I can’t think of anyone else I would have rather learned from. I will never look at vegetables the same way again.