Jill Strauss, who operates Jillyanna’s Woodfired Cooking School in Kennebunkport, displays a fully-dressed eggplant parmesan pan pizza ready to be put in the oven while teaching a class via Zoom from her kitchen. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Need to expand your repertoire in the kitchen? Cooking classes of all sorts are still out there, they’ve just gone online since the coronavirus pandemic started. Here’s a look a few based here in Maine that will not only teach you new things, but also provide you with some virtual, socially distanced company at home:

JILLYANNA’S WOODFIRED COOKING SCHOOL
141 Wildes District Road, Kennebunkport, (207) 967-4960; jillyannas.com

The online cooking session begins with a few questions.

“Did you manage to get the right fish? Or any fish?” Jill Strauss asked her lone student taking a private class.

“I actually got a piece of wild caught black cod, which should be very nice,” he replied, then quickly added that he could only get enough fish for one-quarter of the recipe she had emailed him.

Strauss reassured him that they can adjust: “I’m here to help,” she said.

Strauss, owner of Jillyanna’s Woodfired Cooking School in Kennebunkport, is used to welcoming her students into her home kitchen, but when the coronavirus pandemic hit, that was no longer safe or practical. So she started offering Zoom cooking classes online. Standard online classes – which cost $75 for 75 minutes of instruction, less than half the cost of her in-person classes – are limited to six people, maintaining an intimate atmosphere where each student gets plenty of attention. She also regularly offers free classes – most recently, one on making asparagus risotto and another featuring brownies with hot fudge sauce – that are part of a partnership with the local chamber of commerce. The classes are free, but donations are encouraged, and the money benefits local organizations that are struggling during the pandemic.

Strauss talks to students while teaching a class via Zoom from her kitchen on making pan pizza. She was teaching a couple from Portland and a woman in New Mexico how to make their own dough and then an eggplant parmesan pizza. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

If you can afford it and want Strauss’ undivided attention, private classes are $100 an hour. The fish class was a private class. Strauss rose at 7:30 a.m. to teach a student in Hong Kong, who was cooking at 7:30 p.m. in his simple apartment kitchen, towel thrown over his shoulder. The black cod was to be that evening’s dinner.

Strauss started by showing him how to make a garnish of celery ribbons dressed in lemon and olive oil. “These things seem limp, but the moment you put them in ice water, they crisp right up,” she explained. “It actually becomes like a little salad without having to make a traditional lettuce salad.”

She coached him through his first time roasting pine nuts, and showed him how to tell when it’s time to flip the fish cooking in the pan.

In the end, the student happily displayed his plated results over Zoom, and instantly emailed Strauss a close-up photo. “It’s gorgeous,” Strauss said. “Aren’t you proud?”

Strauss says she is focusing on comfort foods as much as possible to try to help alleviate some of the stress her students are feeling from the pandemic. July classes include lessons on making lobster stew, savory ham and mushroom crepes, and a French blueberry tart.

Strauss says she’s found this new way of teaching to be “surprisingly interactive.” She also likes the fact that the students are more focused and interested in learning. During classes held in her home, Strauss said, students tend to get distracted by each other and the beauty of her yard and patio, where her woodfired oven is located, or her upscale kitchen with its shiny copper pans hanging on the brick wall. Online students, on the other hand, read instructions days in advance, have time to think about the dish, and often prep a few items before joining the class online.

“I have to say it was an epiphany for me,” Strauss said, “but it turned out in so many ways to be better from a learning point of view.”

Chef Paolo Laboa of Solo Italiano in Portland makes gnocchi with his daughter Evelina and Asa, son of general manager Jesse Bania. Photo by Jesse Bania

SOLO ITALIANO IGTV/INSTAGRAM VIDEOS
100 Commercial Street, Portland, (207) 780-0227, @soloitaliano.maine on Instagram

These shortish (15 minutes or so) videos from chef Paola Laboa are posted irregularly, but worth watching out for, and are sure to make your mouth water. The chef has only recorded four or five so far, in his restaurant’s kitchen, as he tends to film them when inspiration strikes. General manager Jesse Bania is the man behind the camera, and he asks the chef questions while whatever delicious dish they’re working on comes together. Sometimes, as in the video where he makes gnocchi with a couple of cute bambinos, he includes a list of ingredients or simple, written instructions, but if you’re a strict by-the-recipe person, this might not be for you.

In a June video, the chef talks about the origins of la pizza Napoletana, or Neopolitan pizza, and offers tips for making pizza at home. To demonstrate, he makes a neopolitan pizza with his housemade dough, tomato sauce, mozzarella and rainbow chard from Stonecipher Farm, sautéed with extra virgin olive oil, garlic and Calabrian chilis. The chef is wearing a mask, but don’t worry – you can still understand him, even with his lovely Italian accent.

FOOD PRESERVATION ZOOM WEBINAR SERIES
University of Maine Cooperative Extension (Cumberland County), (207) 781-6099, [email protected], extension.umaine.edu/food-health/food-preservation

The cooperative extension staff has offered hands-on food preservation workshops for years, but that kind of close contact “is just not happening this year,” said extension educator Kathy Savoie.

Yet there’s never been a time in recent years when this information was so desirable. The first Zoom webinar recorded in late May was later posted on YouTube, and it “went viral within three hours, which is not the norm,” Savoie said. More than 100 people from all over the country have been signing up for each class to learn how to can, freeze, dehydrate and ferment foods.

“The topic of food preservation is more popular now than ever, given some of the issues that people have found as a result of the pandemic and food supply – growing their own food, preserving their own food,” Savoie said. “It’s gone beyond just personal satisfaction. The pandemic has changed the thinking a little bit around why people want to be preserving, and that is to ensure their own food supply.”

The 45-minute, classroom-style webinar takes place at 2 p.m. every Tuesday and is running through Oct. 27. The only cost is an optional donation of $5. July webinars will include Quick-Pack Cucumber Pickles, All Things Green Beans and Freezing Maine Seafood. The Drinks from the Garden webinar held June 30 covered making shrubs, simple syrups, flavored salts and sugars, and kombucha. The webinar on strawberries demonstrated the proper way to freeze them, as well as how to make freezer jam and other strawberry goodies that capture the flavor of summer.

In these webinars, you can see the instructors, but they can’t see you. But you can ask questions through the Q&A function, and if a question doesn’t get answered, a staff member will get in touch later with the answer. A bonus: Savoie said they are matching up webinar viewers with master food preservers, who are having trouble finding volunteer opportunities during the pandemic. The master food preservers, should you choose to pair up with one, will act as a mentor, emailing and talking on the phone whenever you need help.

Annemarie Ahearn, owner of Saltwater Farm in Lincolnville, teaches an online class. Photo by Liv Rockefeller

SALTWATER FARM COOKING SCHOOL ZOOM COOKING CLASSES
Saltwater Farm Road, Lincolnville, [email protected] (the school does not have a phone number), saltwaterfarm.com

Annemarie Ahearn, founder of Saltwater Farm Cooking School, prefers interacting with her students in person, in the rustic farmhouse kitchen overlooking Penobscot Bay. But when the pandemic hit, she knew things had to change.

So she taught her first online class at the end of April, in her home kitchen, and has now canceled all in-person, on-site classes through August. And she has changed her mind about virtual cooking.

“I have to say I’m surprised at how fulfilling this is,” she said. “I’m generally resistant to technology. Given that we are all stuck at home and our businesses are closed, it’s a pretty incredible platform, and it feels intimate. We see each other and we’re cooking together, and we’re laughing together.”

One of the advantages of group Zoom cooking classes is that it does, indeed, echo the social aspect of having a group of friends over for an afternoon of cooking and chitchat – complete with Ahearn’s dogs, Moose and Moxie, barking in the background before they are exiled from the kitchen. Add to that the vicarious thrill of getting a peek at other peoples’ kitchens in the background, and you have a good time.

The online classes are held on Wednesdays from 10:30 a.m. to noon. (Look for lobster stew and Mexican cuisine in July.) The classes are $75 each, a hefty discount from the usual $185 fee, and are limited to 8-12 people. Buy a $100 membership with the farm and you get a class for free; subsequent classes cost $50.

Ahearn also sells recordings of her classes at a discount. For $40, she’ll email a link and a password. And there’s still a personal touch: email questions, and she’ll respond within 24 hours.

Ahearn begins her classes with introductions. The bouillabaisse class – inspired by memories of Ahearn’s first taste of the classic seafood stew in Marseilles when she was just 18 – included students from Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and New York. Once the class is under way, Ahearn is all business, describing every little step she’s taking and why. It’s a bouillabaisse master class.

“Rather than cram in an appetizer and dessert,” Ahearn tells her students, “I thought we would just sort of take our time and make this dish correctly.”

She shows the class how to sex a lobster, how to prep squid, and how to know when a mussel is super fresh: When you pull on the beard, she says, “it literally pulls back.”

Students can ask questions anytime, either interrupting Ahearn as she’s talking (she’s fine with that) or submitting a question via Zoom chat.

The online classes have given Ahearn, who usually shuts down her school for winter, a new business model. She said she’s likely to continue them after the public health emergency is over and visitors can once again return to the farm, and keep them going as the snow begins to fall.

If you can make it to the farm after the pandemic is over, that’s the best way to experience this beautiful place and Ahearn’s rustic but large, well-equipped farm kitchen. But many of her online students are people who have always wanted to visit, but haven’t been able to make it. Others are regular students of hers who are older and not comfortable with being around other people right now.

“A lot of them can’t see their grandkids and they feel really isolated,” Ahearn said, “so this is a way for them to socialize.”

Some people take a class with friend or spouse, at no additional charge. “I actually recommend it so there’s someone who can do the dishes,” Ahearn said, laughing.

COOKING WITH ANNIE
Windjammer chef Annie Mahle’s YouTube channel, “Chef Annie,” or athomeatsea.com

When the coronavirus left Rockland chef Annie Mahle landlocked, she turned to YouTube to reconnect with the folks who have sailed with her aboard the Maine windjammer J&E Riggin. She posted her first episode of “Cooking with Annie” in April.

“We weren’t hearing from our guests in the same way, even though we weren’t sailing yet,” she said. “So I started it as a way of connecting with them in a way that was really comforting and basic, which is through our food.”

Episodes have so far included making chicken broth, roasting chicken and baking traditional Boston brown bread. A big plus, other than the fact that they are free, is that they’re short – just four to seven minutes.

And they’re practical. In one show about leftovers, Mahle recommends picking three things from your fridge you need to use up. To demonstrate, she gathered leftover roasted red wine potatoes, mashed rutabaga and pan-seared potatoes from her own home refrigerator to make a soup. She sautéed onions in olive oil, then added the veggies and broth. She said, for added flavor, she might also use some bacon to make some bacon croutons with bread that was about to go stale, or add a dollop of sour cream and some chopped herbs. She’s always thinking about her fellow seafarers when she’s shooting the videos.

“Every time I do one, I think, ‘Right now, I would be sailing with you, and we’d be having this conversation at the woodstove, and you’re chopping vegetables on the other side of that half bulkhead,’ ” she said. “This is the way I can connect with you all.”

The episodes, filmed in her home kitchen, can be found either on Mahle’s website or directly through her YouTube channel. When we spoke with her, Mahle was preparing for sailing season, but said she planned to film several more episodes before getting back on the water. This summer’s lessons will feature what’s coming out of the garden. She’s also considering filming some episodes aboard the J&E Riggin.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: