2016-08-01 / ReBooted

Cooking with Gasoline

Jill Gleeson

I consider myself an OK cook. I’m not giving the ghost of Julia Child a run for her money or anything — except possibly in the drinking while dicing category — but I have a few dishes I can serve without poisoning anyone. Except for a decent shepherd’s pie and an admittedly unreliable pot roast, my go-to staples are almost all Italian. Baked penne, chicken Parmesan, straight-up Bolognese sauce; I make them in the cheese-laden, heavy red sauce tradition of North Jersey, which is how my dad cooks and how he taught me. When I do Italian, it looks like an episode of The Sopranos in my kitchen. I even start calling red sauce “gravy” and pronouncing capicola “gabagool.”

Of course I knew going in that my cooking class at Da Mimmo in Baltimore’s Little Italy would take me far above my rudimentary skill level. Da Mimmo is pretty much universally acknowledged to be the city’s best Italian restaurant, and I’d been promised a chance to not just observe lauded chef Masood Masoodi but actually work alongside him. Since the last time I cooked with anyone watching I dropped a frying pan on my foot, I was nervous. Luckily, the Iranian-born Masoodi, who trained in Positano and Siena, is ridiculously charming. Picture a less gruff, more funny Middle Eastern Al Pacino circa Scent of a Woman, and you’ve got Chef Masood.

After we’d shaken hands and I told him I was looking forward to learning some moves, he asked, “How is your skill of knives?”

“Not good,” I acknowledged. “There’s been blood spilled.”

Despite obvious trepidation Chef Masood handed me a knife the size of a Buick and asked me to slice some garlic. I’d barely made a nick in the vegetable when he flew over to the counter where I stood, deftly plucking the utensil from my hand. Apparently, it’s not the best idea to drape your fingertips casually alongside the area you’re chopping. He showed me the proper way to cut ingredients, with fingers bent and curled slightly inward, protecting them from unhappy incidents, like accidental removal. I liked the pointer he gave me about crushing the garlic rather than mincing it, so it actually melts when heated, too.

I wish I could say I whipped through the next few challenges like a less irritating version of Rachael Ray. But I failed next at grating lemon skins, my heavy touch creating chunks rather than zest for the tagliatelle al limone. And halving chicken breasts? I blew that as well, producing one woefully tiny mass and one gigantic portion. When Chef Masood took a gander at my work, he noted mildly, staring down at the cutting board, “The one you cut is uneven, big piece, small, little piece…is like mama chicken and baby chick.” But the sorrentino he made with it was still amazing.

Chef Masood had a million bits of great advice, from salting the pasta water for extra flavor to adding the pasta to the sauce a couple minutes before it’s done so the sauce thickens. Everything, like garlic and oil, should be heated together in a cold pan; otherwise, he said, you’re roasting the ingredients. He told me that lemon juice to Italians is what Windex was to the Greeks in My Big Fat Greek Wedding — squeeze it on steaks, he advised, “or use it on a cut to seal it. Lemon juice goes on everything!”

And according to Chef Masood, if cooking were a movie, rosemary would be the lead, garlic the best supporting actor and sage the villain. “Sage is very naughty,” he emphasized, “if you don’t treat it right it’s going to burn you!”

Speaking of burning, although I got to sauté the chicken a bit, Chef Masood drew the line at letting me light the pan on fire for the bananas foster. It was probably a wise choice, though I’d like to give it a shot at home. With a fire extinguisher handy, of course. Even in the kitchen, safety counts. •SCM

For more information about Da Mimmo, visit

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