That time the Refinery's Greg Baker gave me a cooking lesson in my tiny kitchen

The Tampa Bay Times' annual holiday pot luck is today. For years, I brought a creamy orzo dish that was really a fancy mac 'n cheese. It always seemed to be a hit.

I adapted it from a cooking lesson I got in my own tiny kitchen from acclaimed chef Greg Baker of Tampa's The Refinery restaurant.

Baker was a caterer and hadn't started the restaurant when I hired him to give me a private cooking lesson. I was in a serious cooking lesson phase at the time, but often the area places that offered lessons either didn't have times that worked well with my schedule or didn't cover the topics I was interested in. So on a few occasions I hired a caterer or someone who gave lessons to come to the house. Gui Alinat and I made chicken fricassee and duck among other things. Scot Hill and I made sausage. Another who I only remember as something like Chef K helped me make some fish dishes.

But with Baker, we went big. The mission was to learn lobster bisque. In addition, he taught me a technique for poaching lobster in butter and we made mascarpone orzo as a side dish.

It's the orzo that I've made most often from that lesson. Orzo is a small, football-shaped pasta that resembles risotto. With Baker, we cooked it in lobster stock, but when I made it for the pot luck, I used chicken stock. Because I needed to make it before I went to work, I always took along some extra stock to loosen it up as I heated it in the microwave.

In the adapted recipe, I par cooked the orzo for about 5-6 minutes in boiling water. Meanwhile, I heated some oil and garlic in a skillet. After draining the orzo, I added it to the skillet and continued with a risotto method. Sometimes I'd hit it with a glug or two of vermouth, cooking the alcohol out. Other times, I'd just add enough chicken stock to cover most of the orzo and keep stirring. It only takes a few minutes and you should add some salt and maybe pepper, but you may need to keep adding stock and reducing to let the pasta cook through. With about two minutes left, add a few scoops of mascarpone or cream cheese. (Amounts here are to taste and depend on how much you're making. There's no exact science. Just taste as you go. It's pasta and cheese. You won't mess it up.)

If you're serving at this point, stir in some Parmesan cheese and some finely chopped chives. If you're taking it to a pot luck, you can cool it down and then refrigerate. I would wait on the Parmesan and chives until you reheat. The pasta will suck up the liquid so take some more stock to stir in as you microwave to loosen it up. Stir in the Parmesan and chives at the end.