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Entertaining: Cooking Simplified

Three new ways to trim time in the kitchen without losing taste.

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Then she found out about a Utah-based business, My Girlfriend's Kitchen, and her transformation into a cooking enthusiast began. She and co-owner Lynne Laube opened their local franchise in April.

It's a business that revolves around social time and meal preparation. Clients gather in the firm's Midlothian kitchen and assemble 12 meals at a time, six portions each, to freeze and serve later. These aren't TV dinners. Menus include Indian curry, chili verde, seafood St. Jacques tartlets with piped potatoes, and other dishes. And they're not just for families with children either. Knaupp says some clients package meals into smaller portions for elderly parents or for last-minute food emergencies.

Knaupp says a restaurant supplier provides the groceries for each session, allowing clients to save money and shopping time. Meals cost $2.83 a serving and can be customized to suit a family's preferences. Nutritional facts are published on the company's Web site, and the preparation sessions last about two hours.

"We have an absolutely great time here," Knaupp says. "This should feel exactly the same way it does when you walk into a girlfriend's kitchen and she hands you a cup of coffee and you sit on the couch and gab. We sample all of our menu items, and a lot of girls meet their girlfriends here instead of socially somewhere else. It's a way to connect with someone you might not see often enough — sometimes life gets away from you."

Because the ingredients are already chopped, arranged and ready to assemble, cooks can work more efficiently than at home, and there's no cleanup. "I know this sounds dramatic," says Gail Cavallaro, a stay-at-home mother of three who has used the business twice. "But it has changed my life. Not having the stress of coming up with what to cook every night, going to the store, cooking with kids hanging on my legs — we're not eating pizza and subs as much, my family's eating better, and this has added to my quality of life. Dinner is on the table at six o'clock every night and the whole family loves it."

My Girlfriend's Kitchen is located at 13152 Midlothian Turnpike. (804) 794-5732. www.mygirlfriendskitchen.com.



2. Cook like a pro.

Christine Wansleben also made a career change, from technical designer at Ann Taylor Fashions to culinary school graduate and chef. Now she teaches others to cook at her business, Mise En Place, in Shockoe Slip. Many of her students have food knowledge but are kitchen novices, and her classes help them learn the fundamentals to improve their skills.

"Mise En Place means 'all things in place' or 'at your hand,'" Wansleben says, "and we teach students to have everything chopped and grated, cleaned and prepped before they start to make the dish. That's what makes the cooking process so fluid in a restaurant.

"Read the recipe and know the steps involved. Get everything ready ahead. That's something we instill in all our classes."

Wansleben also recommends that students buy the Food Lovers Encyclopedia to explain culinary terms.

Classes at her cooking school this summer include nutritional boot camp, tapas-making, a garden basket dinner, and various wine and beer tastings, along with private cooking parties.

A dining area allows clients to sit down and eat the meals they've prepared, share food stories and wine, and celebrate special occasions. Mise En Place is located at 104 Shockoe Slip. (804) 249-1332.

www.miseenplaceshockoe.com.





3. Stock the pantry like a restaurant.

Chef Ed Matthews, who writes for national food magazines and operates a fine-dining establishment called One Block West in Winchester, says there are 10 basics that every good cook should keep in the pantry to give restaurant-quality results. They include:

Good extra virgin olive oil to drizzle on white beans or fresh sliced tomatoes. Gloss up a finished dish with the good oils. Cook with less expensive oils.

Demi-glace — stock that is reduced from bones and vegetables — can be made every few months and stored in an ice cube tray. It can also be purchased at gourmet stores. A tiny bit finishes a pan sauce or adds body and flavor to soups.

Balsamic or sherry vinegar is expensive, but a single drop finishes a sliced tomato or a steak like nothing else.

Dried porcini mushrooms go a long way in giving soups, stews and risottos a rich and woodsy flavor. Add a handful to your next pot of white bean soup.

Shallots and leeks instead of regular onions add subtle nuances of flavor that distinguish restaurant cooking from home cooking.

Gray fleur de sel, French salt, has been harvested from salt marshes for centuries and adds outstanding texture and flavor that ordinary table salt can't touch.

Fresh herbs, used liberally in sauces, marinades, salads and dressings, scattered on a finished dish for garnish, add restaurant quality to taste and presentation.

Sriracha sauce from Huy Fong Foods gives pure flavor when you want to spice things up. Chipotles en adobo (dried, smoked ripe jalapenos in a spicy red sauce) have extra smokiness.

Sheep's milk pecorino is an affordable hard cheese for grating over a dish to finish it. Pricier Parmigiano is great for eating out of hand.

Go East, with sauces such as oyster, hoisin, black bean, soy and white soy. Each adds different flavors, and the thicker ones such as oyster and hoisin are great for decorating plates.

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