A couple of weeks ago I packed up my pregnant self and headed west for a week of cooking and tasting in Napa. Tough job, I know.

I was there for a Sophisticated Palate class at the Culinary Institute of America's Greystone campus in the idyllic town of St. Helena, Calif. More specifically, I was taking a class that was unfortunately titled "Cooking for the Next Half of Your Life." While the name may have been less than inspiring, the content didn't disappoint.

The avuncular and quirky Chef John Ash, an innovator in fresh wine-country cuisine, led our intimate class of seven. If you came to the class blasé about food (which a few participants did), his thorough and enthusiastic presentations on spices, legumes, and juicing were enough to get you fired up.

Here's a sample of what I'll be incorporating into my own home-cooking. These little tricks are all simple enough to do at home—no matter your skill level.

1. Grind it: Got a coffee grinder? Then you have all the tools you need to grind your own spices. Why bother? Because the flavor you get from whole spices far exceeds the ground variety. Plus, there's a completely practical factor: Ground spices only keep their true flavor for about six months (less if you expose them to heat), while whole spices will last for up to a year. You can use a clean (wipe it out thoroughly) coffee grinder or an old-school mortar and pestle.

2. Toast it: Once you've ground the spices, punch up their flavor by toasting them. Use a dry frying pan, place your spices in it (you can mix all the spices you'll be using in a dish), and heat the pan over medium-high heat until fragrant. Keep an eye out and be careful not to burn them!

3. Juice it: When I worked in a health-food store, I loved using my juicer, but it was such a pain to clean that I got rid of it. Plus, I would use a ton of fruits and veggies to get a measly glass of juice. But Chef Ash gave me another reason to use a juicer—fresh, super low-cal, nearly instant sauces. He made one from beets, ginger, and carrots that was sweet and flavorful, with just a hint of that gingerly burn. You could use it under a plate of sautéed scallops or salmon. Or whisk some extra-virgin olive oil into it for a gorgeous vinaigrette.

4. Blend it: Once margarita season is over, your blender probably collects dust bunnies. It's a natural for drinks and smoothies, but it's also ideal for making creamy dressings, soups, and sauces. On the first day of class, my cooking partner Erin and I were tasked with making a Waldorf salad. I had never made one before because the classic dressing for this salad is based on mayonnaise, with a touch of lemon juice and sometimes sugar. The heavy dressing made the dish lose its fresh appeal, even with the other traditional ingredients of grapes, celery, and apples. In class we made a version that was much fresher and pretty darn brilliant.

We used a base of roasted walnut oil, which has a wonderful nutty flavor and is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. Next, we added blanched garlic, fresh lemon juice and zest, sherry vinegar, and a bit of sugar to the oil. I didn't know why we had to fuss with blanching (basically boiling for about 2 minutes and then plunging into cold water), but Chef explained that it removed garlic's pungency, while still keeping its robust flavor intact. Makes sense to me—this was a salad you could enjoy and still chat with your neighbor.

5. Sniff it: When you're cooking, do you usually get your schnoz right in there over the pot to give it a nice deep inhalation? You should, because nearly all of our sense of taste is located in our olfactory bulb, not in our taste buds. Chef Ash told us that when he used to interview chefs for his restaurant, he'd always cook with them. If they kept sticking their noses into the pots and pans, he knew he'd found someone with an excellent palate. So take a big whiff, and if the cumin isn't quite coming through in your roasted squash recipe, taste it, re-season, and give it another sniff in 20 minutes.

California Waldorf salad recipe

This is a sort of "new age" version or revisit to the classic American salad created by Chef Oscar Tschirky at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York in the late 1890s. Originally it contained just apples, celery, and mayonnaise.  This version has a little more going for it.  The celery, apples and cheese should all be cut in the same size and then arranged in "hay stack" shapes on the plate.  I call for aged Gouda here. Try the Winchester Gouda from San Diego, California, smoked Gouda, smoked mozzarella, or your favorite cheddar.

Serves 4 to 6

1 cup celery, cut in thick matchsticks
1-1/2 cups peeled (if desired) firm, tart, sweet apples such as Fuji or Gala, cut in thick
matchsticks
3/4 cup walnut halves or large pieces, lightly toasted and slivered
1/2 cup seedless grapes, halved
1/2 cup aged Gouda cheese cut in thick matchsticks
Walnut oil dressing (recipe follows)
Fresh lemon juice
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Lettuce or radicchio cups

Toss the celery, apples, walnuts, grapes, and cheese with the walnut oil dressing to taste.  Season with drops of lemon juice, salt and pepper.  Serve immediately in crisp lettuce or radicchio cups.

Walnut oil dressing

Makes approximately 3/4 cup

Use a walnut oil that has a rich, nutty flavor.  The best seems to come from France.  The use of stock here helps reduce the fat content and also results in a "creamy" vinaigrette.  Reduced stocks are a great way to lower the fat in salad dressings.  Try to use a homemade, unsalted stock if you can.

2 tablespoons chopped shallots or green onions (white portion only)
2 teaspoons blanched, chopped garlic
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1/4 cup rich chicken or vegetable stock 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/4 cup or so fragrant walnut oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs such as dill, tarragon, parsley, chives, or a combination

Add the shallots, garlic, lemon zest, stock, vinegar and mustard to a blender and purée till smooth. With motor running, gradually add walnut oil to form a smooth, creamy vinaigrette.  Add more oil if a thicker vinaigrette is desired.  Season to taste with salt and pepper and stir in herbs.  Store covered in refrigerator up to three days.

John Ash © 2000

Next week: How to make perfect wine and food pairings.

(PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO)

By: Frances Largeman-Roth