Whisked away

By Nina A. Koziol, Special to the Chicago Tribune

Dog days have arrived. But there’s still time to flee from the grind. Perhaps you’ve been pondering how to celebrate an impending Big Birthday or a special anniversary or you just need a revitalizing getaway. Should you go somewhere exciting? Exotic? Entertaining or educational? If you’re like many foodies, you’ll head to the kitchen for all these things and more. But not just any kitchen.

You could enlist in the C.I.A.’s. boot camp: five days of basic training at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, where veteran chefs whip your kitchen skills into shape.

Or you could spend a week in Tuscany, touring local farmers markets, vineyards and olive groves before heading back to your villa, where the meal you prepared earlier in the day — under the tutelage of a seasoned local chef — is served with a selection of locally produced wines.

These are just two possibilities. With cooking schools and culinary tours popping up across the country and around the world, there are plenty of options geared to a range of budgets and cooking interests.

If you’re pressed for time between golfing, sailing or shopping, there are one-hour lunch-and-learn classes (a demonstration and meal) at The Savory Spoon in Door County for just 50 bucks. There’s a two-day weekend workshop in San Francisco at the renowned Tante Marie’s Cooking School for $375. Or you can really splurge and spend four to six nights in Europe taking a few cooking lessons based on local cuisine and food-related excursions with tours that start at $2,400 plus airfare.

It could be all those celebrity chefs on television, or the burgeoning assortment of cookbooks and trendsetting restaurants, but whatever the reasons, culinary-based vacations today are hot, said Chicagoan Karen Herbst, founder of The International Kitchen, a culinary tour company. More than 10,000 clients have enrolled in her tours since the company was launched in 1994 and, except for a short period after 9/11, her business has increased each year.

The International Kitchen offers more than 90 trips to Spain, Italy and France, including one-day classes and weeklong programs. “Specialty tours are big,” Herbst said. “It’s through the local food and wine, going to the markets and meeting food artisans that you’ll get the quickest entree into the pulse of the culture of another country.”

You need not own a spatula or a cookbook to enjoy a cooking school vacation, either. Chicagoan Nicole Hollander, creator of the cartoon strip “Sylvia,” was one of eight women who enrolled in The International Kitchen’s weeklong trip to Italy’s Amalfi Coast last year.

“This trip was a violation of everything I believe in — [it included] flying, being in a group and cooking,” Hollander said with a chuckle. “I’m a non-cook, but it turned out to be marvelous. I was looking for a structured situation and since I loved to eat, this was the perfect trip.”

A booming part of culinary tourism in recent years has centered on trips that celebrate a retirement, a special anniversary or birthday, or the desire to create a memorable reunion for family or friends, said Beth Kershner, owner of Italian Horizons, a culinary-tour firm based in Bellaire, Mich., near Traverse City.

“Nine times out of 10 these trips ignite a whole new passion for cooking,” Kershner said. “And you can learn a lot more about a culture by what [residents] put in their mouth than by looking at a piece of art.”

Many of the side trips Kershner and Herbst offer relate to a region’s cuisine. Participants may watch Parmesan or mozzarella cheese being made by a local artisan or they may visit a vineyard for a wine tasting.

“We might see artisans making copper pots the way they did centuries ago,” Kershner said. “Part of my mission is [participants] discovering Italy off the beaten path.”

When time or budget is limited, you can take a little culinary holiday closer to home. And a cooking class shouldn’t feel like work, especially while you’re on vacation.

“It’s really about having fun while you’re preparing food,” said Janice Thomas, owner of Savory Spoon cooking school in Ellison Bay, Wis. “Our mission is to get people excited about food and cooking again at whatever that level is for them.”

Savory Spoon’s students tend to range in age from 30 to 50, but Thomas also offers children’s cooking classes. “And it’s not uncommon for a grandmother to bring a grandchild to a class so they can experience cooking together,” she said.

Thomas brings in local cheesemakers, heirloom vegetable growers and others to discuss the flavors of local cuisine.

With its many farmers markets and rolling vineyards, Northern California is another culinary vacation hot spot.

The school caters to would-be pros who take lengthy courses, but it also offers full-day, evening and weekend programs for cooks of any skill level.

When her job as a database manager was eliminated after 28 years, Chicagoan Mary Anne Cassidy toyed with the idea of a brief cooking school vacation while she figured out her next career move.

“I needed something to do and I’ve always had a passion for cooking,” she said. It turned into a six-month cooking program at Tante Marie’s.

“I wanted to experience the food and wine of Northern California and it was great,” added Cassidy, who now is considering a career as a personal chef.

Door County cherry and white chocolate scones

Preparation time: 25 minutes

Cooking time: 12 minutes

Yield: 10 scones

Adapted from a recipe from Janice W. Thomas, owner of The Savory Spoon Cooking School in Door County, Wis.

2 cups flour

1/4 cup sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/2 stick ( 1/4 cup) plus 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon unsalted butter, chilled, cut into pea-sized pieces

1/2 cup dried cherries, coarsely chopped

1/2 cup white chocolate chunks or white chocolate chips

2 eggs

1/2 cup whipping cream

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

1 teaspoon water

3 tablespoons raw or granulated sugar

1. Heat oven to 425 degrees. Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a food processor; pulse until mixture resembles course meal. Add the butter; pulse several times. Stir in the cherries and white chocolate.

2. Whisk together the 1 of the eggs, cream and vanilla in a small bowl; add to the flour mixture, stirring just until blended. Do not overmix.

3. Place the dough on a lightly floured surface; pat until 1/2-inch thick. Cut out scones with a 2 1/2-inch biscuit or cookie cutter. Place rounds on a baking sheet topped with buttered parchment paper. Whisk together remaining egg with the water; brush tops of scones with egg wash. Sprinkle with raw sugar. Bake until lightly golden, 12-15 minutes.

Nutrition information per serving:

303 calories, 43% of calories from fat, 14 g fat, 8.6 g saturated fat, 76 mg cholesterol, 39 g carbohydrates, 4.8 g protein, 129 mg sodium, 2.3 g fiber

Grilled salmon with Thai salsa

Preparation time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 8 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Adapted from a recipe by Mary Risley of Tante Marie’s Cooking School in San Francisco.

1 salmon fillet (about 3 pounds) cut into 8 pieces 1/2 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper

1 cup peanut oil

1/3 cup rice wine vinegar

1/4 cup each: light soy sauce, light corn syrup

1/2 cup fresh lime or lemon juice

10 cloves garlic, minced

8 green onions, chopped

2 hot red peppers, minced

1 piece (2 inches long) fresh ginger, grated

1 cup unsalted dry-roasted peanuts, chopped

3/4 cup chopped cilantro

1/2 cup chopped mint

1. Prepare a grill for high heat. Season the salmon with salt and pepper to taste; rub with 1 teaspoon of the peanut oil. Set aside.

2. Combine the vinegar, soy sauce, corn syrup, lime juice and remaining peanut oil in a medium bowl; set aside. Combine the garlic, green onions, red peppers, ginger, peanuts, cilantro and mint in another bowl.

3. Grill the salmon until lightly colored on one side, about 2 minutes; turn. Grill until almost cooked through, about 8 minutes. Transfer to a platter; set aside. Combine the vinegar mixture with the vegetable-herb mixture; serve over the salmon.

Nutrition information per serving:

671 calories, 65% of calories from fat, 50 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 107 mg cholesterol, 16.8 g carbohydrates, 44 g protein, 694 mg sodium, 2.3 g fiber

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Sources for courses

Here are the schools and tour companies mentioned in the story:

* Italian Horizons, 231-533-5033 or italianhorizons.com

* The Culinary Institute of America, 800-285-4627 or ciachef.edu/enthusiasts/programs/bootcamps.asp

* The International Kitchen, 800-945-8606 or theinternationalkitchen.com

* Rhode School of Cuisine, 888-254-1070 or rhodeschoolofcuisine.com

* Savory Spoon Cooking School, 920.421.0936 or savoryspoon.com

* Tante Marie’s Cooking School, 415-788-6699 or tantemarie.com

For a list of other schools, go to Shaw’s Guide to Cooking Schools, shawsguides.com

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Tips for planning a cooking vacation

Three experts shared their ingredients for a fun-filled, stress-free culinary trip:

* Know thyself. The ideal culinary vacation is split between excursions and hands-on cooking classes, said Beth Kershner of Italian Horizons. “I’ve found that for the average person, one or two cooking classes are plenty.”

* Do your homework. Talk to the tourism offices in France and Italy. “They won’t tell you the bad companies, but they will tell you the good ones,” said Karen Herbst of The International Kitchen. Although last-minute reservations are always a possibility if your passport is up-to-date, Herbst recommended planning at least six months in advance for an overseas trip.

“The demand has changed and every class is always full,” said Mary Risley, who opened Tante Marie’s Cooking School in San Francisco in 1979. “The people who attend our classes are relatively sophisticated from a food point of view.”

* Tread lightly on the Web. An attractive Web site is not a guarantee that it’s a good company. “There are hundreds of cooking classes abroad,” said Mary Risley of Tante Marie’s Cooking School. Check with professional organizations, such as the National Tour Association (ntaonline.com) or the U.S. Tour Operators Association (ustoa.com).

* Confirm everything that is included in the price. For example, Herbst said, “If the tour says that wine is included with all meals, ask if that means meals at the property you are staying at or only while you are on excursions.”

* Wheels to meals. Ask if transportation is included on the excursions or whether you will be responsible for renting a car or hiring a taxi. “I don’t like to see people spending more than an hour traveling to their destination,” Herbst said. She recommended choosing a tour company that provides the excursion transportation when possible.

* Read the fine print. Know the company’s cancellation and refund policies before you sign a contract or send a deposit.

— Nina Koziol

Dining Around the Door