Joe W. Conner believes in putting a little zest in his teaching and some teaching in his zest.
Conner, who holds a Ph.D. in biology from UC San Diego, is an instructor at National University in Irvine but also directs something he calls "Biologist Cookbook" classes at the Youth Facility in Dana Point.
The idea behind the youth classes is to "learn all about something--and then eat it," he says. "We only study the sea creatures we can dine on afterward."
The classes also allow him to indulge his twin passions of biology and cooking.
And while Conner often wears costumes to promote the class, there are serious goals to the instruction. "I want to help students of all ages discover and better understand the importance of biological resources," he says, "to build their scientific vocabularies and increase their abilities to prepare diverse foods.
"I discovered a long time ago that people, and especially kids, learn best when they are directly involved with the subject--when they can see it and touch it. So, we will take crabs, for example, and talk about the legs, study how they flex, how they work in his environment.
"Then we'll talk about the crab as food, the nutrient makeup and so on.
"Then we'll cook him."
The next four-day youth session is scheduled to begin July 25 (to register, call (714) 661-7122) and will focus on vertebrates and invertebrates (chowder ingredients), mollusks (oyster stew), squids and just plain fish for the barbecue.
He promises that at the end of the four days, the students will be able to identify key anatomical features of all the species used in their biological research, understand the biological functions of the species--and know three to five ways of preparing them for the table.
Conner was raised in Los Angeles and graduated from Jefferson High School and then USC. "It was while I was doing my undergraduate work at SC that I first came up with the idea--for mostly financial reasons--of only researching things I could later use for dinner," he says.
His interest in cooking, however, goes back even further. "My family is made up of people who love food and who all love to cook," he says. "Family gatherings are always potlucks, with people all bringing some particular specialty. My father, for instance, makes a truly great barbecue sauce, and the recipe is his secret. He won't tell anyone the recipe but does promise to pass it on when he dies."
One of his own specialties is the quick bouillabaisse ("it doesn't take more than an hour from start to finish") he shared with Guys & Galleys. It calls for the use of frozen seafood, but Conner says fresh is a lot better.
His culinary repertory also includes some exotic recipes he picked up while lecturing at oceanographic institutes in West Africa, where in his spare time he researched local species and dishes.
He lives in Costa Mesa with his wife, Leola, the chief librarian at the Newport Center branch library, and three daughters.
JOE CONNER'S QUICK AND EASY BOUILLABAISSE Ingredients
1 cup vegetable oil
2 medium onions, chopped
1 leek, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 cans (14 1/2 ounce) Mexican-style stewed tomatoes
2 cans (14 1/2 ounce) Italian-style stewed tomatoes
1/2 cup sherry
3 bay leaves
1 teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon rosemary
4-6 cups water
3 pounds frozen halibut chunks
1 2-pound bag frozen mixed seafood
1/2 pound shrimp, shelled
1 tablespoon sesame seed oil
1 teaspoon dill weed
1/2 teaspoon vinegar
Heat 1/2 cup oil in pan and saute onion, garlic and leek until tender. Add tomatoes, wine, bay leaves, thyme and rosemary. Bring to boil, then reduce heat. Add water for consistency and simmer about 30 minutes. Add halibut and seafood mixture, making sure they are completely thawed. Cover and simmer 20 minutes. While mixture is cooking, mix remaining oil with sesame seed oil, dill weed and vinegar. Heat and saute shrimp until cooked and use for garnish. Serves 14.