Is there any better season than summer to learn new cooking skills, when both produce and free time are more plentiful?
The folks at the Memphis Botanic Garden certainly agree, which is why a cooking series called "Taste of the Garden" offers affordable Saturday-morning classes on summertime foods.
"The classes are casual and family-friendly, using recipes that are simple and easy to prepare," says Jana Gilbertson, director of marketing and public relations for the Botanic Garden.
Summer squash is the theme for the next class on July 12th, followed by grains on August 16th, and fall squash on September 13th.
"That's a lot of squash," admits Gilbertson, laughing, "but we tie our class themes into foods that are readily available at our weekly farmers market on Wednesdays."
Local chefs conduct the classes, offering demonstrations, tastings, and recipes. Gardening experts can participate, as well. "If we have a nice example in our garden of the food we are highlighting, we might walk out and take a look or discuss how to grow it," Gilbertson says.
Class size is limited, so participants should register in advance. Classes cost $4 for members of the Botanic Garden and $6 for nonmembers.
"Taste of the Garden," Memphis Botanic Garden (636-4128)
Seasonal produce also is influencing Mantia's restaurant and market in East Memphis, where "The Sicilian Table," "Summertime Salads," and "An Antipasto Party" are three of six upcoming classes scheduled for summer.
"I think produce from the farmers markets will be even more popular this summer since the great tomato scare," says store owner Alyce Mantia. "At least we know where local tomatoes have come from."
One of Mantia's classes, called "Too Many Tomatoes," will teach new uses for summer's most prolific food, and another class, called "Where's the Beef?," will offer unusual burger recipes using seafood, lamb, and turkey.
All classes are a "make-and-taste" demonstration format, meet at 6 p.m. on weekdays, cost $35 per person, and require advance registration. Go to mantias.com for class dates, which were not available at press time.
Mantia's, 4856 Poplar (762-8560)
Here's more good news for summertime leisure: Continuing education at the University of Memphis is back with cooking and tasting classes offered in three-hour evening sessions.
Course selections are an eclectic mix for cooks who aren't serious foodies, explains Vicki Murrell, director of professional and continuing education. "We're not interested in fancy cooking," Murrell says. "We want classes that teach basic skills, like how to chop up food without leaving a fingertip in the sauce."
Upcoming classes include "Dinner in the Pantry," taught by Melissa Petersen on July 21st, and "Great Brews," a two-session tasting conducted by Steve Barzizza on July 15th and 17th. Each class costs $59.
Later in the month on July 29th, Phyllis Cline will conduct a class called "Desperation Dinners," offering shortcuts and organizational advice for preparing 30-minute meals.
"I start with all the ingredients on the counter and don't do any chopping or preparation in advance," says Cline, the owner of Forty Carrots in East Memphis. "I want people to really see how to make a quick and delicious meal."
Cline also will provide plenty of advice on topics such as how to freeze food efficiently. "It doesn't do any good to get home and have a three-pound lump of frozen hamburger," she says. "Instead, make an extra meat loaf, slice it up, and freeze it in individual servings."
If summer offerings don't work, fall classes on vegetarian cooking, stretching food dollars, and healthy eating will begin soon after Labor Day. A complete listing will be published in continuing-education catalogs, available in mid-August at libraries, local bookstores, and online (http://umce.memphis.edu).
Professional and Continuing Education, University of Memphis (682-6000)