T hey say Shakyamuni Buddha found enlightenment under a fig tree. Heide Lang’s goals at Fig Cooking School are only slightly less lofty. The school’s motto is “Find your inner gourmet,” and that is Heide’s mission in each class she teaches at her home kitchen in Hamden.
She launched Fig in September 2009. Following the birth of her third child she was looking for a new career path after many years as an investigative reporter and radio producer. The name of the school has a triple meaning: in honor of her three daughters, Francesca, Isabella and Gabrielle; an acronym for her tagline; and because she feels figs symbolize her classes. She takes a sophisticated ingredient and transforms it from intimidating to accessible by showing how easy it can be to incorporate into everyday recipes.
Classes come with a disclaimer: professional kitchens get hectic, this one will too, so roll with the punches. Everyone gets a folder with recipes, which are referred to often. Heide loves variety and trying new recipes, so she doesn’t have details memorized. Each member of the class chimes in with answers as Heide calls from a cabinet: “How much pepper? How many teaspoons of lemon zest?” and this quickly builds a feeling of teamwork among class members.
On a balmy June evening, Picnic Party is the class theme, perfect for the weather. We review recipes, and each page elicits oohs and aahs from the class. We start prep work with dessert, a Cherry Clafoutis (rhymes with “fruity”), that’s like a cherry quiche when we pull it out of the oven an hour later. Heide extols the virtues of cast iron cooking pans, and the immersion blender. Class is peppered with tips on kitchen utensils, when to splurge, when to save, and where to find the best bargains. We toast almonds and pistachios “to release the oils, because let me tell you something, nuts are stale the moment you buy them,” Heide explains. She offers alternatives to each recipe, such as using blueberries, peaches, nectarines, plums or pears in the clafoutis, anything firm with a skin. We take chopsticks and stab cherries, a secret tip Heide shares for easy pit removal that works like a (still slightly messy) charm.
Next is lemon chicken. She buys organic Smart chicken brand, giving us details on where and why to buy the brand; she’s passionate about everything in her kitchen. We take turns dunking chicken thighs (Heide prefers the dark meat, as it’s more moist) in flour, salt, and paprika, then fry in a cast iron pan, then place in baking pans. Sprinkle with brown sugar and lemon zest, top each piece of chicken with a slice of lemon, then slide in the oven to bake until tender.
Cucumbers take center stage at this point for the sweet cucumber salad. Heide pulls out a mandolin, a grater for grownups with an extremely sharp blade. After telling several gory stories of accidents with this instrument, she demonstrates, then invites us to try it, now that we have a healthy sense of respect. Class members take turns, cautiously and quickly grazing the cucumber across the blade, one quick up and down motion, like a bow across a violin. The paper thin slices we produce take a mere minute and look professional. After the excitement of the mandolin, we realize the potatoes for the potato salad have been forgotten, and we boil them late, mixing the dressing as we wait, trying not to watch the pot.
In the meantime, we cut and bake French bread, then combine goat cheese, toasted pistachios, cognac, and brown sugar to create a spread for the crostini. The whole thing takes 10 minutes. We dig in, impressed by the flavor and simplicity of the preparation. “That was so easy, I could do that at home!” remarks one student, and that’s the point.
“I don’t use fancy means to do what can be done in a simple way,” she says. Though she aims to demystify gourmet cooking, she first took classes at the French Culinary Institute in New York to learn traditional techniques, a foundation for improvising shortcuts in everyday food preparation.
Dinner is ready to serve at 9:30 p.m. Heide invites guests to BYOB and enjoy once the meal is served, and wine and beer are uncorked and opened. We sit at the counter together, talking about our favorite recipe of the evening, and what we might try making ourselves for summer parties. On the way out, I chat with classmates Joe and Barbara. It’s their third visit to Fig; they’ve treated each other to the classes as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day gifts. “I think every class we’ve had, we’ve made the menu at home later,” Joe says, Barbara nodding in agreement. “So we keep coming back!”
Fig Cooking School
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Written and photographed by Jane Rushmore.