The Ojai Cooking School
Lavender Inn
210 East Matilija St., Ojai
$75 per person

Sometimes, when dining out, it’s nice to mix things up a bit. My father thrived on all-you-can-eat buffets. Some people enjoy restaurants where they can grill their own steaks or hit a salad bar. Others like takeout or counter ordering. I prefer to sit down, order from a menu and be served. But I am always looking for interesting new dishes.

The idea of a cooking class, where we’d literally dine on the fruits of our labors and take home new recipes, instead of a doggie bag, appealed. And that’s how my friend Beda (who loves to cook) and I ended up spending one lovely Sunday afternoon in the bright and cheerful kitchen of the Lavender Inn in Ojai, home to the Ojai Culinary School for the past decade.

We arrived a couple of hours early to knock around town a bit and roam the Sunday Ojai Farmers Market, located conveniently adjacent to the Inn. Then we relaxed in the peaceful, lovely garden with a pond and water feature at the Inn before our 1 p.m. class. 

Greek tomato rissoles and crostini di prosciutto mini cups.

Greek tomato rissoles and crostini di prosciutto mini cups.

Ten “students” were welcomed and offered aprons. Our group included two longtime friends from the East Coast, a couple from Solvang, three girlfriends from Ojai who’d taken a previous Asian-style cooking class, and an artist from San Diego. Our teacher was Robin Goldstein, a private chef who is the author of two cookbooks, A Taste of Ojai (our tomato themed recipes all came from this book) and the recently released A Taste of Santa Barbara. Goldstein’s teaching style was easy breezy, informative and relaxed. She tends to improvise — since that’s how I cook, I related to her ease in the kitchen. The class was more demonstration than participation, although my friend Beda was the “recipe reader” and I sliced prosciutto that we pressed into muffin tins that were baked and filled, making for a tasty appetizer that was like a BLT without the bread.

We learned five different recipes featuring the shiny red nightshades, and gobbled them up, too.

First, Goldstein demonstrated how to make a smooth, delicious Spanish-style Gazpacho that incorporated bread, garlic, cucumber, bell pepper, garlic, smoked paprika, sherry and, you guessed it, tomatoes. The main reason I chose this class was that my goddaughter in Barcelona, who makes a killer version, had failed to share her recipe with me. Goldstein’s version was spot-on. No surprise, as the chef lived in Spain for a few years.

While the gazpacho chilled in the fridge, Goldstein showed us how to make a phenomenal spicy tomato jam that rocked the charred tomato panini (a fancy name for grilled cheese and tomato jam sandwich). She made two versions: one with smoked mozzarella that was the perfect complement to the jam; the other with goat cheese, less appealing.

 “Should we open a bottle of wine?” Goldstein asked conspiratorially, adding, “You guys want a little sneggle of wine?” We all agreed and Goldstein’s assistant poured us each about a third of a plastic cup of Central Coast Raywood Vineyards cabernet. (I guess that’s what a sneggle is).

Next, a recipe inspired by the Greek mother of a friend: little cheese-tomato fritters called rissoles, and Goldstein got to “mush” the tomatoes with her hands. Did I mention we started with another Greek-inspired recipe? A tasty sun-dried tomato tapenade made in a food processor.

I could share all the tricks of the trade we learned — like how to keep your chopping board from slipping on the counter or how to remove the frisky charred skin off roasted peppers, but maybe you should sign up for a class yourself?

My class cost $75 — and while you could get a pretty awesome dinner out for 75 smackeroos, you wouldn’t have the take away of learning a few new culinary tricks or expanding your repertoire in the kitchen. It’s a great social outing with a pal or relative and a fun way to meet others, too.

A cooking class is another way to expand your dining options that’s also a bit of a mini vacation. The best part? The two-hour class was congenial, relaxed and best of all; we didn’t have to do the dishes.

Coming up: TAMALES! Sunday, Dec. 4 at 2 p.m., with Chef April Tucker ($85) Ojai Chef Robin Goldstein teaches about four times a year. In addition to the tomato cooking class, she demonstrates cooking with lavender as well as Pixie tangerine-themed classes.