Jan./Feb. 2016 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Barbara Arciero
Photos by Matt Salvo
Cooking instructor instills confidence in the kitchen
More online: Recipes and Cooking tips and more from Paulette Bruce
Paulette Bruce frequently cooks for guests at her Sacramento home and also teaches hands-on cooking classes at a nearby culinary center.
Paulette Bruce isn't afraid of mistakes. She embraces them.
"One year, I made a huge pan of lasagna—about 25 pounds of ingredients. I put the pan in the oven, but forgot to turn the oven on," the longtime cooking instructor said, recalling one of dozens of gatherings she hosts at her Sacramento home each year.
Despite the entrée's delayed debut, Bruce and her guests remained unfazed.
"I just poured more wine for my guests, turned the oven temperature a little higher than normal and put foil over the pan to help it cook faster," she said with a laugh. "What else can you do?"
Bruce's anecdote illustrates the good-natured unflappability she models at Good Eats cooking school. Held at a culinary center a few miles northeast of the state Capitol, the classes are lively, hands-on affairs where students of all abilities cook in a professional kitchen with seasonal ingredients.
"But there's no grocery store nearby, so if something goes upside down, I tell everyone we can rename it or just change the whole thing," she said. "It's good to make mistakes. We learn together how to fix them."
Raised in an Italian-Basque household in Bakersfield, Bruce learned to cook at her grandmother's side and brings a similar sense of intimacy to classes with topics ranging from "Farm to Fork" to "The Big Meltdown of Baked Pastas."
"Cooking is the one connector that brings people together, and I love sharing that," said Bruce, also an avid gardener and full-time public relations consultant. "For me, the best you can give to life is to share your love and your talents. No matter what your talents are, share them."
Pancetta and fennel tart
Roasted pork loin with a garlic, rosemary and walnut crust
Spinach omelet with Kalamata olives
Roasted carrots with thyme and garlic
Good Eats' root vegetable gratin
Orange and olive oil cake
Nibbles and notes with Paulette Bruce
Connections: "I don't think anything connects people as much as food does. I always say this: Sitting at the table is so important. It's where people really come together and kids learn who they are and where they come from. I still remember sitting around Nonna's table, drinking wine in a really small glass, shucking chestnuts she'd roasted and listening to everyone talk. The joy that everyone had—I was always so happy doing that."
The cooking instructor's go-to meal? "I make a lot of soup. If you have packages of homemade stock in your freezer, you're halfway to a really good dinner. Start with four cups of stock, fresh vegetables and a hunk of Parmesan—that's just the best meal on a cold day."
Cookbooks galore: Some people collect art books or travel books. Bruce collects cookbooks. But just how many? "I should go count them. I always get asked that," Bruce said, in response to California Bountiful's question. The answer came by email a few days later: "I'm so glad to have had this project of counting all my cookbooks. I need to either stop, slow down on my purchases of cookbooks or move to a bigger house. I counted 2,101 books!"
Basil basics: Sometimes fresh basil will turn black in the refrigerator before you have a chance to use it all. Bruce has a solution: Place it in a jar or glass of water (like cut flowers) and cover loosely with a plastic bag. Store at room temperature, changing the water frequently. The basil will remain fresh and flavorful for about 10 days.
Salted or unsalted? When it comes to butter, "always use unsalted because you get the natural butter flavor. Salt is there as a flavor base and to give it shelf life. What you're looking for when you're cooking is the flavor of the butter." Also, when you use unsalted butter, you can control the amount of salt in your recipe. Bruce prefers kosher salt, saying, "For my palate, it's the best."
Knife no-no: And for goodness' sake, keep your knives out of the dishwasher. "The heat of the dishwasher over time will weaken the blade and you'll never be able to get it sharp again," Bruce said. "I'm a big proponent of honing the knife blade before I cook. A dull knife will hurt you faster than a sharp knife will. It drags on the food."