Donna Nordin talks to her food.
“Move over and make room for a friend,” she says as she nudges a corn fritter she is frying during one of her recent “Donna Nordin Cooks” classes.
“Not brown enough,” she mutters to a pork loin in another pan.
They are not detailed conversations. Those she reserves for the attendees of her intimate classes — 10 is the maximum. Nordin, who used to do these out of her home until her homeowners association objected, is a sort of traveling show, conducting her classes at friends’ kitchens.
On this Wednesday mid-morning, 10 people have signed up for her class and they meet at the Foothills-area home of Pat Thomas.
“If I were to build a kitchen, this is the one I would build,” says Nordin.
It has four ovens, an island with a six-burner gas range, a deep sink, plenty of counter space, and huge windows providing a perfect view of the mountains and plenty of natural light.
Best of all, it is large enough to allow Nordin to set up the high Ikea chairs she hauls from one class to the next. They are lined up in a row behind the three seats at the island, where she does all the cooking. Everyone has a clear view as Nordin begins the class.
She starts with a bit of her background.
In 1973, after graduating from Cordon Bleu in Paris, she set up a small school, cooking out of her San Francisco studio apartment. Eventually, Bon Appetit magazine got wind of her and wrote an article. Julia Child was in the same issue, and Nordin assumed the famous chef would be on the cover. When the December 1980 story came out, she was shocked to find one of her chocolate creations holding that coveted space.
That’s when she began to take her classes on the road, traveling around the country. Eventually she came to Tucson to teach and met Don Luria, who had a catering company at the time.
Love ended her cooking-around-the-country days. She and Luria married and opened a number of restaurants here, including the popular Café Terra Cotta, where Nordin was the executive chef. Café Terra Cotta closed in 2009 after 22 years in business.
The restaurant’s reputation brings in lots of students who had been customers, and she often includes classic Terra Cotta dishes in her lesson plans. But she won’t cook in a box — she also teaches cuisines from such places as France, Italy and China.
The classes are not hands-on; she cooks, the students, armed with copies of the recipes, watch, and then indulge in the food she’s prepared. To ensure things are timely, she does most of her chopping and some cooking the day before.
On this day, she’s making Southwest-accented fare: corn fritters with a mint-chile sauce, stuffed pork roulades and chocolatissimo, a flourless chocolate cake — though she makes this in class, she will serve one she made the day before because cooking it takes so long.
The students, a mixture of men and women, a few winter visitors and a few veterans of the class, are armed with recipes of dishes on the menu, attached to a clipboard to make taking notes easy. They look eager to learn. And eat.
After she has attendees introduce themselves, and presents Luria as “my kitchen slave,” she gets to work.
The first lesson Nordin always teaches: Mise en place. That’s a fancy French term that means measure all your ingredients out in advance and have them at arm’s reach.
“It’s absolutely required,” says Nordin. “I don’t have to stop and measure as I go.”
That said, Nordin gets to work. She quickly chops fresh ginger and throws it into a frying pan. Though the recipe calls for sauteing in two tablespoons of vegetable oil, she isn’t a stickler. “Don’t be too concerned about quantity,” she says as she pours in extra oil.
She shaves the corn, pulls cilantro leaves off a stem, and finally adds an egg. She always uses extra large. “Eggs have gotten so much smaller over the years,” she explains.
She’s working fast now, her rhythm and patter rolling along smoothly.
Suddenly, a student speaks up.
“Are you going to put the garlic in,” she asks.
“Oh yeah, I guess I’d better,” Nordin says with a smile.
And then she offers this tidbit:
“God didn’t write these recipes. And if she did she would tell you to do it any way you like.”
The dough is done and ready to be shaped into patties.
“This is where it gets messy because the dough is so loose,” she says as she spoons out some batter to be shaped. The sizes vary and she shrugs. “You can’t always be too precise.”
Nordin quickly moves to the mint-chile sauce. The class has barely said a word. Most are writing furiously as Nordin hands out little tips — fresh ginger can be frozen and peeled with a chopstick; save the shaved cobs for a soup; a tomato corer makes scraping the seeds out of a chile pepper easier.
As she moves through the lessons, Luria hovers to her side, whisking away dirty dishes, roasting a bell pepper over the stove and doing other chores he is assigned by Nordin.
“This goes,” she says to him as she hands him a dirty dish. He takes it silently and heads to the sink. “I bring my own dishwasher,” she says.
She moves through the sauces, cuts the tenderloin into medallions, puts each between two pieces of plastic wrap, and flattens them with a meat tenderizer. She mixes the ricotta stuffing for the pork, smooths it on the meat and rolls up each into a roulade. She talks through each step as her students scribble on the recipe sheets.
As Luria begins to sauté the pork, Nordin moves on to dessert.
This is where she slows down. It is, after all, chocolate. That’s almost a religion to her.
She passes around her large cocoa seed so the class can see the origins of the chocolate. She explains the difference between bittersweet — at least 35 percent chocolate with just a touch of sugar added; unsweetened — no sugar added, just pure chocolate, and milk chocolate, just 10 percent chocolate with cocoa butter and sugar added. Her preference, clearly, is for the bittersweet.
“Chocolate has lots of antioxidants,” she says. It’s obvious that she relishes the idea that there are health benefits to chocolate.
Nordin melts her chocolate (yes, she did it in a microwave, but stressed it needs to be checked every 30 seconds so that it doesn’t burn), adds butter and egg yolks, whips eggs whites until they are frothy, and then folds them into the chocolate mixture.
“To fold, go down into the middle and turn the bowl.” The process doesn’t beat the air out of the whites. You want that air.
As she puts the cake into the oven, Luria begins arranging the food on the plates, attendees eagerly line up for a dish filled with the food they’ve watched being prepared for about two hours. They are hungry. Once served, they head out to the dining room where a table with shining crystal and bottles of wine wait for them.
This is a happy lunch party. Plates are cleaned. There are even second helpings. And then the cake comes out, hefty slices drizzled with a raspberry coulis (“The trick is I mix the pureed raspberries with raspberry jam and press it all through a sieve,” says Nordin).
Conversation slows down as the dessert is devoured.
Not long after, the students, recipes clutched in their hands, head out the door. Luria is still in the kitchen washing dishes.
Nordin takes the cake out of the oven.
She doesn’t talk to it; she just smiles.
Donna Nordin Cooks’ next class is March 18. On the menu: Mushroom cakes, red pepper coulis and avocado pesto, duck breasts and blanc et noir cake. It’s $65. donnanordincooks.com or 247-6338.