Keith's Treats and Eats cooking class taught tasting and exercise

I signed up for a free cooking class at Keith's Treats and Eats in the Laurel Commerce Center earlier this month for a couple of reasons.

I love the health-conscious, tasty food there, especially the sweet-potato bread; and I'm not the best cook, but I do have a few dishes in my repertoire that I do well and wanted to possibly add to them.

I thought we'd spend an hour or so standing around watching owner Keith Johnson whip up a dish or two, taste them and leave. Not!

This was Johnson's first free cooking class at his restaurant, and it was the bomb — filled with music; lots of laughing; creative demonstrations; generous food tasting portions; and yes, even exercises.

About a dozen of us were seated in chairs lined up in Johnson's open-air, colorful kitchen, in front of a cooking station. Johnson's assistants quickly began bringing out trays filled with various samples of items listed on the daily menu. Among them were a delectable sweet-potato soup, pound cake, sweet-potato bread and a chicken salad that prompted one participant to instantly order a chicken salad sandwich.

Next entered the highly energetic and personable Johnson, wearing an apron and a white tall chef's hat while doing an exercise dance to music that was playing in the background.

Johnson, a former amateur boxer and trainer who owned a fitness center, immediately let us know that we were not going to sit on our laurels as he worked his magic. As he started to slice and dice vegetables, our assignment was to do 20 arm raises and a few leg lifts.

"Fun never left the kitchen, and I have a lot of exercises we can do to keep you moving while you're sitting," Johnson said as he encouraged us to pick up the tempo.

The first dish he prepared was nachos, filled with herb-seasoned tilapia, a mixture of blended cheese and a homemade salsa-veggie mix of sweet plum tomatoes, red onions, lime, his own Keith's Treats and Eats spices, Tuscan oil, and other fresh ingredients.

"You don't need salt for this (salsa-veggie) dish, just fresh herbs, because the tomatoes and onions have natural flavor. I put a bit of agave in it, which doesn't spike your blood sugar. I didn't put any seasoning on the tilapia," he said.

But once the tilapia was in the large, covered pan, he simmered it in a margarine substitute, with a pinch of dill ("You can't have fish without dill: They're related," Johnson said), his own sun-dried tomato oil and a few of his other original herbal spices. But before he put the tilapia in the pan, he told us, "You have to put it in on the fat end of the fish and lay it on the wall of the pan. Let it simmer, and show it some Keith's Treats and Eats love."

Did I mention Johnson talks to his food?

"Oh, yes, you gotta talk to the food, and it talks back to you. It has a personality," he said as he peeped in on the tilapia and chatted with it jokingly, while giving us a stomach crunch exercise to do.

Once the flaky tilapia, salsa and a mixed blend of cheeses were laid out on lime chips, Johnson placed them in his oven, which he calls Sponge Bob, for a few minutes and then it was tasting time.

The nachos were incredible, and we were glad the class was small because we got to have seconds ... and thirds ... and fourths.

"This is a great, simple dish to prepare for movie night, game night or as a make-up meal," Johnson said with a laugh.

So, we're all pretty full at this point, but while we were devouring the nachos, Johnson quickly prepared our next meal of red potatoes, seasoned with Tuscan oil, garlic, basil dill and other spices; a mixture of cabbage and spinach, flavored with his spices and oils, bell peppers and tomatoes; with the top billing going to sauteed tilapia.

"It's talking, too," he said of the fish. "It says 'I'm going to be good.' "

And it was.

Three seemingly short hours after we had arrived, we all left with quenched appetites — but not feeling guilty, since we had a good workout during the demonstration.

It was a great way to spend the day in a gem of a restaurant, run by the talented and entertaining Keith Johnson. We're all looking forward to the next class on Sept. 22.

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