Cooking with class at Washington Hotel

Honey. Salt. Lemon. Bread.

We are sipping cinnamon-orange iced tea and learning the Four Band-Aids for Cooking, as declared by Suzanne Breckenridge. When you mess up in the kitchen, there’s a good chance that one of these items can help save your meal and reputation.

The tidbits to be gleaned during this summer afternoon gathering in 2004 will even be more plentiful than the range of colors and ingredients that cloak the Asian Nicoise Salad being prepared by Breckenridge and Marge Snyder, co-authors of the “Wisconsin Herb Cookbook.”

Welcome to The Washington Hotel Culinary School, on Door County’s Washington Island. These Madison women are the guest instructors today, and their “Cooking with Herbs” demonstration will produce a four-course meal that the intimate group – from England, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Escanaba, Madison – consumes as we are alternately entertained and educated.

There is an easy banter between the students and teachers. There are samples of fresh herbs, jokes about basil being an aphrodisiac, lessons about how to make our own spice combos, warnings that oregano leaves turn bitter when the plant is three or more years old.

We head outdoors, to the lush and decorative herb garden in the hotel’s front yard. A bit later, hotel proprietor and chef Leah Caplan will be back to snip lemon balm, as an impromptu addition to our Curried Cream of Red Pepper Soup.

She arranges private and customized cooking classes as well as these public demonstrations. “We’ll get gourmet cooking groups,” the Culinary Institute of America grad says, “or three or four couples – friends who want to get away for a weekend. We have a good wine list, and a good fireplace” for winter retreats.

What makes the cooking class experience different here?

A part of it is the setting: The island, 6 miles by 5 miles, has only 700 year-round residents and is only accessible by ferry. The hotel, a former home for captains of Great Lakes ships, has been around more than a century.

Awaken in one of the eight bedrooms here, and it is more than quiet. It can be silent: No people, no traffic, not even birds chirping. That’s what I found.

A part of it is about priorities and standards: The chef believes in using local ingredients in creative ways, and her restaurant menu changes with the seasons. “Local means it can get from farm to table in the same day,” she explains.

Signature dishes include whitefish, a commonplace fish that shows up at least three ways. There is Smoked Whitefish Dip, Smoked Whitefish Pizza (with spinach, sour cream and bits of boiled egg) and Whitefish Escabeche (a South American dish and Aug. 15 class topic).

The hotel has one of the only brick ovens in the state, and that also plays a defining role in the hotel’s menu, mission and vision.

“The whole menu revolves around the brick oven,” Caplan says. “It retains heat in a way that a conventional oven doesn’t.” It also makes for a glorious crust, be it bread or for a pizza.

In 2004, the hotel contracted with local farmers to grow wheat, and the first fall harvest was 6,000 pounds. That goes through the hotel’s small stone mill, producing flour for restaurant use and retail sale, bread mixes (there are three varieties) and fresh loaves that are sold in the hotel gift shop and delivered every other week in Madison.

Having all that chemically free flour also opens the door for a culinary class about handmade pasta (July 27).

Class costs depend upon the subject matter, duration and whether accommodations are included. It’s $15 to attend the Cherry Napoleon demo on July 15 (it’s a puff pastry with vanilla bean custard and tart cherries). This weekend’s Asparagus Celebration was $350-$500, including two nights of lodging, classes and some meals.

To drive home Caplan’s desire to make the food world more environmentally friendly and sensitive, seminars about local/sustainable food purchasing are conducted year-round. They are particularly for chefs, restaurateurs and institutions that want to adjust their menus.

Wisconsin’s herbal mavens will return this year, too, to conduct classes about fresh herbs (June 25) and dried herbs/spices (Sept. 24), but the instruction won’t likely be limited to those topics.

Breckenridge and Snyder are like a well-timed comedy team, smoothly maneuvering their audience from to Worcestershire sauce to anchovies.

Anchovies? Snyder soaks six in milk – to lessen the saltiness – before whirling them with olives, capers and more in a food processor.

Far better than using honey, I guess, especially in a crostini tapenade.

For more, go to www.thewashingtonhotel.com or call (920) 847-2169.