Take a cooking class to add elegance to home meals and save money

How to eat well without leaving homeWhile visiting a friend in Los Angeles last month, I got roped into taking a cooking class. "C'mon, it'll be a nice change from going to a restaurant," my friend Laurie told me. Afterward, I agreed she was right. And I have to add that not only is attending a cooking class a fun alternative to eating at a pricey restaurant, it's a good way to save money on meals in the long run.

The cooking class we took was at Hipcooks in West L.A., which recently was written up by Cyndia Zwahlen in a Los Angeles Times story about the rising trend of foodies learning how to eat well without paying restaurant prices. More cooking schools are gearing courses toward budget-conscious gourmands, offering classes like "Brown-Bagging It" and "Budget-Conscious Comfort Food."

But the standard classes are still selling out, too, although much can depend on geography. Owners from CulinAerie in Washington D.C. told the Washington Post last year that courses in knife skills and fish prep were doing well, but while cake decorating was a sellout in suburbs, it paled in comparison to Indian cooking in the city.

I guess I can consider myself a semi-foodie; I enjoy fine dining in good restaurants, but I don't know how to make those meals at home. While I'm watching my budget by eating out less, it would still be nice to make a meal that is somewhat comparable to what I can get at a restaurant. Pot roast and pasta can only excite me for so many days.

So my friend and I took Hipcooks' "Healthy, Fresh and Zingy" course that emphasized yummy meals that don't make you think they're health conscious (this is L.A., after all). Fourteen of us (mostly women, but a couple of guys) sat in the open, airy kitchen and made pepper soup, sesame-seed-crusted and seared Ahi tuna, followed by mango-ginger salsa and sorbet sandwiches.

We all chatted, joked and laughed while cooking and did more of the same while eating our meal and washing it down with Sauvignon Blanc. It was the most fun eating-out meal I have had in a while, and while it cost me $65, I had a great meal and I learned some good cooking skills (like how to make pesto, sear fish and season properly) that I can use over and over. Next time I visit my friend, we're going to take the "Brown Baggin' It" class to learn how we can replace our typical lunch sandwiches with shallot and goat-cheese tarts, and replace tuna salad with the ultimate nicoise salad.

Cooking schools abound across the country. Google one near your home, then call it up and ask if it's offering any course geared toward budget-conscious foodies. Chances are, they've got one that fits your food bill.
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