Ex-pat Brings Euro Sensibility to Veggie Cooking Classes

by Sarah Henry on March 22, 2011 · 14 comments

in bay area bites,food events

In the kitchen with cooking instructor Theresa Murphy.

So you know how those of us in the Bay Area who are food focused can think where we live is a bit all that? Smug, as we can be, with our local, organic, sustainable this and our foraged, hand-crafted that.

Sometimes it takes an ex-pat to make you wake up and smell the fair trade, third-wave coffee.

That’s how I felt last week when I met vegetarian cooking instructor Theresa Murphy, who has called Paris home for some 15 years. Murphy has firm opinions about food and she’s not afraid to share them. She brings her own salt, cheese, and wine when traveling Stateside and scoffs at the bread on offer in the Bay Area.

It’s almost impossible to buy decent baguette here, she says. Acme baguette, beloved by locals, is all wrong in terms of taste, texture, and air as far as Murphy is concerned. She maintains that Cheeseboard‘s long loaf comes closest to a true Parisian baguette and she likes the brick-oven loaves baked at Oakland’s Firebrand.

While good cheeses can be found in the Bay Area they’re outrageously expensive, says Murphy, ditto natural wines, though at a pinch she picks up bottles at Terroir when she’s in town. She disdains California wines which she believes don’t pair well with food, especially vegetables.

None of these pronouncements makes Murphy, 58, a self-taught chef, any less likable. It seems all so refreshingly, well, French or something, even if Murphy hales from Southern California and calls rustic Italian fare her cuisine of choice. The culinary guide behind La Cucina Di Terresa, Murphy runs plant-based cooking classes out of her tiny apartment kitchen in the 11th arrondissement in Paris.

For the second year in a row, Murphy offered a series of “cooking food from the soil” classes in the homes of friends in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco, which I first heard about, as you do, from a mom of a boy on my son’s baseball team. Vicky raved about the class she took with Theresa in Paris, urged me to sign up quickly for her first Bay Area tour last year, but I was too late to land a seat at the table. (You’ll find endorsements for her Parisian culinary classes here.)

This year I was determined to check out Murphy’s classes, which promised a celebration of seasonal, sustainable, organic vegetables cooked simply. Sounds just my sort of savory fare.

Red Quinoa Salad with Watermelon Radish and Wilted Spring Greens with Potato Gnocchi.

Murphy has an eclectic background. In the U.S. she worked in the front-of-the-house restaurant dining scene in San Francisco, including stints at La Mediterranee, Carta, Flying Saucer, South Park Cafe, and Bistro Clovis. In France she started out busking in Parisian eateries, served as a translator on films and books, and pursued photography.

Food has always been a focus in her life, though not always a healthy one. She struggled with both anorexia and bulimia as a young woman and says she broke herself of the compulsive behavior by filling the house with food one day, smearing it all over the walls, and screaming like a banshee. When she made the move to France, her love affair with food began in earnest.

As my luck would have it, I am unable to report back on Murphy’s abilities as an instructor, since the class started at 5 and I didn’t arrive until 9:30, thinking all that would be left to do was apologize for my tardiness and offer to wash dishes. (I was delayed by a deadline, a meeting, a front porch light that caught on fire–don’t ask–and heavy traffic on Geary Boulevard, filled with St. Patrick’s Day revelers.) But the Richmond District house was abuzz with activity when I arrived and guests were leisurely getting ready to cook the main dish.

It’s a well-known hazard of working in food (whether in the kitchen making it or at the desk writing about it) that you’re often starving for something to eat, too busy on your craft to take the time to actually feed yourself. That’s how I felt, ringing the door bell Thursday night. I was parched, hungry, and hankering for a home-cooked meal.

And that’s exactly what I got. Can I tell you just how wonderful it is to be warmly greeted into a stranger’s home and offered, wine, water, and appetizers after you’ve worked a 12-hour day with little sustenance? The other guests, which included two Robs — filmmaker Epstein and chef Zaborny of Hayes Street Grill — were calm, kind, and caring and I found myself happily sitting down to a meal that I’d had absolutely nothing to do with preparing.

So, readers, it would be wrong of me to recommend Murphy’s cooking class, since I essentially missed all the instruction involved. But what I can tell you: That meal was a satisfying end to an otherwise frenzied day.

I sampled French goat cheese on a rustic loaf and farinata, a chickpea flour-based flat bread studded with coins of purple carrots. Red quinoa salad with mandolin-thin watermelon radish slices, wild fennel, and a tangy dressing followed. Then it was on to wilted spring greens (lots of dandelion and some chard in the mix too) with impressively turned out potato gnocchi, which were pleasingly soft. Not as melt-in-your-mouth as the ricotta gnocchi from Zuni Cafe that I’ve never been able to replicate, but we’re talking darn good, fluffy gnocchi, bathed in olive oil and butter, sprinkled with hazelnuts and parmesan, the slightly bitter greens proving the perfect counterpoint to the creamy potato pillows.

Dessert followed, an almond-meal crumble (crunch the cooking crew called it) that worked when generously doused in an almond and pistachio milk cream with lemon zest. It was not the billed Meyer lemon tart with roasted pumpkin seeds and meringue, but honestly, I wasn’t about to quibble when I was being so well fed and I hadn’t lifted a finger to help get dinner ready.

Supper was served at a handsomely set table for ten at host Lisa Baker’s house, where the wine and conversation did indeed flow and the accents (French, Italian, American, and Australian) just added to the ambiance. What could be better than sharing a simple meal made of top-notch ingredients with a group of people united around the pleasures of home cooking?

This post originally appeared on KQED’s Bay Area Bites.

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The Pleasures of a Country Dinner
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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Jorba March 25, 2011 at 2:52 pm

Murphy’s opinions on California’s wines, breads, and cheeses are laughable. Consider, why would any sane person expect that a baguette from here would be identical to one in Paris – hellooo? And our wines “don’t pair well” with food? Wow, that’s a howler. And our expensive cheeses? What in god’s name does that have to do with the subject of food? It’s an economic issue pure and simple: France provides heavy government support of its small farmers.

She’s a self taught chef, which might explain a lot – she clings to her eccentric views out of fear and ignorance. I would love to hear her debate Jacques Pepin on these issues. He would laugh her out the door.

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Sarah Henry March 26, 2011 at 12:19 pm

Well, Jorba, good to know what you really think of Murphy’s comments, which I expected would rub some folks the wrong way.

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Jorba March 26, 2011 at 1:00 pm

Yeah, I admit that was pretty heavy handed. Sorry. I was having a Queen Elizabeth “moment”.

J

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Sarah Henry March 26, 2011 at 4:49 pm

No worries, we all have “moments” from time to time.

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Jane Boursaw March 27, 2011 at 10:21 am

Even though I’m half a country away, your description of this meal and cuisine makes me feel like I experienced it myself, Sarah. I bet Theresa gets some flack about her thoughts on Cali bread, wine and cheese, though! My thought is that it’s not the locale, but the crafters who make or break these things. We have our own lovely wines, baguettes and cheese made right here in Traverse City, Michigan.
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..Daily Hot Shot- Warren Beatty as Dick Tracy

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Sarah Henry March 27, 2011 at 3:06 pm

Good point, Jane. If/when I’m in your neck of the woods I’d love to sample some of the food and wine from the artisan crafters you frequent.

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Sheryl March 28, 2011 at 1:59 pm

You are so right. Nothing tastes as good as having someone else cook for you and do it in the warmth of their home. Sounds like a fabulous, warm and lovely evening. Wish I could have been there!

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Sarah Henry March 29, 2011 at 9:47 pm

I like to cook for others too, but there’s something about someone else cooking the meal that’s really special — the flavors are fresh and new and there’s not the judgment that you bring to critiquing your own culinary creations.

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Alisa Bowman March 29, 2011 at 11:28 am

I am in deep lust of these classes. Wish I lived closer.
Alisa Bowman´s last [type] ..11 Marriage Tips for the Royal Couple

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Sarah Henry March 29, 2011 at 9:47 pm

Bet you can find something similar closer to home, Alisa, if you do some digging around.

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MyKidsEatSquid April 4, 2011 at 6:11 am

The classes–and food–sound fabulous. Any way you could sneak out the gnocchi recipe?

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Sarah Henry April 10, 2011 at 1:17 pm

Hmmm…let me see what I can do, MKES.

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Anna, The Lemon Lady April 9, 2011 at 10:31 pm

Still love your blog Sarah. Enjoyed the story about the mushroom guys. I’ve often collected coffee grounds for use as compost and have attempted to convince others to embark on coffee ground salvage for use in community gardens. (Not too popular around here.) Seems so simple that not many people even bother. I can’t believe the vast differences in culture towards food and gardening here in Concord compared to that of Berkeley. You’re definitely ahead of us by leaps and bounds. Children are learning so much and doing so many things that we could be doing here too. Sigh. And, were less than 20 miles away. Second super sigh.

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Sarah Henry April 10, 2011 at 1:19 pm

Hi Anna, Thanks for chiming in. Don’t despair, I suspect coffee ground collecting will become commonplace in Concord — in the way recycling now is — in time. Sometimes things have to get started somewhere and then take a while to catch on, but they usually do.

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