League of Kitchens brings Americans to the immigrant table

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Nawida Saidhosin teaches Afghani home cooking through The League of Kitchens. / Photo courtesy of The League of Kitchens

Nawida Saidhosin promised we’d get to hear her love story. But first, we’d need to prepare the three dishes on our cooking class menu.

“We are here to cook, not to talk of love,” said the 34-year old Afghan native and our cooking instructor for the afternoon. She was smiling broadly as she dropped chunks of eggplant into a pan.

LK_Logo_color_CROPWe were all crammed into her tiny kitchen in the Rego Park neighborhood of Queens to watch, cook and learn. Earlier on that sunny spring day, our class of five had assembled in Nawida’s apartment for several hours of instruction in Afghan cooking based on Nawida’s own family recipes. After munching on an array of snacks that included roasted chickpeas and dried mulberries, we’d gathered around her dining room table to chop the eggplant, onions, garlic and tomatoes that would be combined to create burani bonjon, a traditional Afghan dish. Breathing in its intoxicating aromas, I could hardly wait to taste this sumptuous mélange of gently fried eggplant slices, laced with a coriander-infused tomato sauce, then topped with a garlicky yogurt dressing.

“I am so glad to be in New York and to share my experiences with everybody,” the bubbly mother of a 9-year old son told us. In 2010, she and her son moved to New York from Russia where she had gone with her first husband.

Lisa Gross / Photo courtesy The League of Kitchens

The League of Kitchens is the brainchild of Lisa Gross. / Photo courtesy of The League of Kitchens

So how was it that the five of us found ourselves welcomed into the apartment of a recent immigrant —an accomplished home cook who had agreed to teach a bunch of strangers recipes from her native land? This unusual culinary experience is a new venture, The League of Kitchens, which launched in February and is now offering instruction in six different cuisines. In addition to Afghani, classes are offered in Bengali, Korean, Lebanese, Indian and Greek cooking.

The league is the brainchild of Lisa Gross, a 31-year old Brooklynite with a history of marrying food to community organizing. After founding a campaign to plant heirloom apple trees in public spaces in Boston, Gross decided to again deploy food as a way to forge civic bonds—this time in an effort to connect recent immigrants with other Americans. “There are very few opportunities for exchanges between native-born Americans and immigrant communities,” explained Gross, the daughter of a Korean mother and of a Jewish father of Hungarian lineage.

Making the actual connections and setting up the program of instruction were the next steps. With the help of an array of community and immigrant organizations, Gross sought out highly skilled immigrant home cooks and league staff trained them in culinary instruction.

The league offers 18 different workshops held weekly on Saturdays and Sundays. Each home cook teaches two types of classes. There’s a 5 ½-hour “immersion” course ($195), which includes a light lunch and instruction in preparing four to six dishes. For those seeking a shorter class, the league also offers a 2 ½-hour “taste of” session ($100), in which students are served a snack before learning to cook two to three dishes. Each type of class—there are vegetarian and non-vegetarian offerings—is open to all skill levels, from beginners to professional chefs. Also included is a packet of information with recipes from the class as well as background information on the instructor and the cuisine. Immersion class students also receive a starter kit of specialty ingredients and spices.

Nawida / Photo courtesy The League of Kitchens

Nawida Saidhosin demonstrates Afghani cooking in her Queens, N.Y., home.  / Photo courtesy of The League of Kitchens

League instructors must pass through a rigorous selection process. For the company’s initial cadre of teachers, Gross and her staff interviewed 130 candidates before selecting 30 for in-home auditions. That group was further whittled down to a group of six. The teachers who work for the league are “amazing cooks, teachers and hosts,” Gross said. “They have to have an exceptionally deep knowledge of their cuisines, be warm and personable and comfortable talking about themselves and about their stories.”

Now that the league is up and running, Gross is looking to the future. In the works for later this year are classes with Argentinean and Trinidadian instructors. On Gross’ wish list is a cookbook, a TV show, a video series, and possible expansion to other cities.

As for Nawida, we finally did hear her love story. New to the U.S., she met and married her current husband. And like all good love stories, this one has a happy ending. A baby’s on the way in November.

What’s more, Nawida now sees the possibility of a broader future in food. “I want to open my own restaurant one day and do cooking, catering, everything,” she wrote in an email. “That is my dream.”

American Food Roots will feature a profile of a League of Kitchens’ instructor every month beginning in July.

Students sit down to a full Afghani vegetarian meal. / Photo courtesy The League of Kitchens

After hours of cooking and conversation, students sit down to an Afghani vegetarian meal. / Photo courtesy of The League of Kitchens

Makes 4 to 6 servings

Burani Bonjon (Eggplant with Yogurt Sauce)

In this classic Afghan vegetarian dish, eggplants are shallow-fried to a creamy tenderness and stewed in a coriander broth with tomatoes and chile peppers, then topped with a cool yogurt sauce and sprinkled with dried mint. Nawida Saidhosin, whose recipe this is, likes to leave the stems on the eggplants and peel away the outer layer.

Ingredients

  • Tomato Sauce
  • 2 heaping teaspoons tomato paste
  • 3 cloves garlic, pressed
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon fine salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup water

  • Yogurt Sauce
  • 1/2 cup whole milk yogurt (not Greek)
  • 1 to 2 cloves garlic, pressed
  • 1/8 teaspoon fine salt
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons water, plus more as needed

  • Fried Eggplant
  • 1 3/4 pounds Japanese or Italian eggplants (3 to 5 eggplants)
  • 1 3/4 cups corn oil
  • 2 large plum tomatoes, sliced into 1/3-inch rounds
  • 2 large jalapeño chiles, halved, quartered, seeded or partially seeded if desired
  • Dried mint, for garnish

Instructions

In a small bowl, mix all the ingredients for the tomato sauce.

In another bowl, mix all yogurt sauce ingredients to make a pourable but not runny consistency.

For the fried eggplant, peel the eggplants, including the hard green part around the stem. Cut into 1/4-inch-thick planks.

Pour a little of the oil into a high-sided medium skillet. Pour the rest of the oil into another medium skillet and turn to medium-high heat. (If you are using a larger skillet, add enough oil to come about 2/3 inch up the sides.) When the oil is hot, after about 5 minutes (the eggplant will sizzle when dipped), add 4 or 5 planks (the oil should nearly cover them). Fry in about 4 batches, flipping them and adjusting the heat as needed to keep the oil bubbling, until soft and brown on both sides, for 4 to 6 minutes.

Lay 4 tomato slices in the high-sided skillet and then, as the eggplant is fried, put a layer on top of the tomatoes. Put another layer of the tomato slices and half of the pepper slices over top. Add a few tablespoons of the tomato sauce, and continue layering the eggplant as it cooks with the rest of the tomatoes and peppers. Ladle out 3 tablespoons of the frying oil over the vegetables, and then pour the rest of the tomato sauce over the top.

Put the skillet over high heat, cover and bring to a boil, about 5 minutes. Turn the heat to low and cook until all the vegetables are soft, about 15 more minutes.

Spread some of the yogurt sauce on a serving platter. Spoon the eggplant, tomatoes and peppers over the top. Spoon more yogurt sauce on top. Sprinkle with dried mint and serve.

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