Grilling with strangers

At the end of a 3-hour grilling class, here was our payoff. Pesto shrimp with grilled polenta and portobello mushrooms is second from left in foreground.

At the end of a 3-hour grilling class, here was our payoff. A classmate and I prepared Grilled Polenta and Portobello Mushrooms (center foreground) and Pesto Shrimp (two dishes to the right).

When you’re married to a great cook and your kids knock it out of the park at family dinners and brunches, you know you can’t be the slacker.

Maybe that’s what Lori had in mind when she presented me with a gift certificate for a one-night grilling class offered by the local community college.

Turns out it was a great Father’s Day present.

Instructor Robin Brauer was upbeat, encouraging and resourceful.

Instructor Robin Brauer was upbeat, encouraging and resourceful.

I redeemed the certificate last Thursday, joining a dozen other men and women at a Unitarian church in the westside suburbs. An unlikely location, for sure, but a logical one once I glimpsed the size of the kitchen.

As for the outdoor cooking, the instructor brought two Webers (one large, one small) and there was an open pit in the shaded courtyard big enough to lay down three more grills. It all proved to be just right for our group as we took turns bringing protein and vegetables out to cook.

The kitchen at West Hills Unitarian Church in Beaverton was big enough for 13 students and 1 teacher.

The kitchen at West Hills Unitarian Church in Beaverton was big enough for 13 students and one instructor.

The instructor, Robin Brauer, was great. She was informal, encouraging, funny, resourceful and patient. While another teacher might have spent a lot of time lecturing on different techniques, she took a different approach.

She assembled packets of a dozen recipes, had us look them over and then pair up according to which dish we wanted to prepare. No better way of learning than doing, she said.

No shortage of choices, either, with two salmon dishes, two chicken dishes, a pork loin, a ribeye and a skewered shrimp dish. There also were grilled veggies and desserts (peaches, angel food cake).

We used a fire pit and two Weber grills to cook in the shade of the church courtyard.

We used a fire pit and two Weber grills to cook in the shade of the church courtyard.

My partner was a laidback dude, Joaquin, who’s a graduate student in library science and who told me his parents named him after the San Joaquin Valley in California where they were living for a time. Nope, he’s not Latino. Just an average white guy with a cool name.

“Because of Joaquin Phoenix, I don’t have to tell people how to pronounce my name,” he said.

“Bet you’re mistaken for him for all the time,” I responded.

We both grinned.

Joaquin was an excellent partner. Call me biased, but I thought our dish was the best – and possibly the most ambitious to prepare in such a short timeframe: Pesto Shrimp with Grilled Polenta and Portobello Mushrooms.

Who knew you could grill polenta?

Who knew you could grill polenta?

While Joaquin prepared the polenta on the stove top, I put together the marinade for it and the mushrooms. Normally, you’d refrigerate the polenta for hours to let it congeal. We didn’t have that luxury so we threw in the freezer, cut it into eight squares, oiled both sides and grilled it.

Did the same to the portobellos. We teamed up on the shrimp, Joaquin skewering those babies and me basting them with a brush. We served everything onto a platter of mixed greens and it…was…fabulous.

It was a nice group to be with: two married couples, a father and his teenage daughter, four men and three women.

Robin made it easy for us. She brought a dozen plastic bags already stocked with the herbs, spices and oils each dish required, and moved easily from person to person in the kitchen, helping us locate utensils, dispensing advice and answering every question thrown her way.

She’s a personal chef making a career transition to nursing, and I suspect she’ll have no problems with her bedside manner. A genuinely nice person, she is.

More of a good thing: Fresh berries, whipped cream and grilled cake. Salmon served separately.

More of a good thing: Fresh berries, whipped cream and grilled cake. Salmon served separately.

The three-hour class was supposed to end at 9, but that’s when we sat down with our paper plates and plastic utensils to share in the bounty of what we all prepared. What a buffet of goodness, with Pok Pok-style chicken wings, chili-lime shrimp skewers and grilled veggies with feta – just to name a trio of dishes other than our own.

Between bites, we went around the table, sharing our experiences and describing our mini-challenges. Robin offered feedback and answered even more questions.

Don’t know what Lori paid for the class, but the $20 per person fee to pay for the food was entirely reasonable.

We all pitched in on cleanup (a commercial dishwasher helped save gobs of time and labor), helped Robin pack up her car trunk and went our separate ways into the night.

Next time we have a family get-together, I’ll be prepared. Thanks to Robin, I’ve got an assortment of new dishes to spring on people. I only hope our gas grill will deliver the same outcome as the charcoal and wood-fired grills we used in class.

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