This weekend I left my provincial life in the country for champagne, yachts, stilettos and… um… drag queens.
It was my “Little Sister” from the sorority, Lauren’s, bachelorette party in Chicago. It was a fabulous time. A few of us took Friday off and spent the day on a boat on Lake Michigan. It was so relaxing and the view of the city from the water was outstanding. We spent Saturday shopping, catching up and then hit the town in the evening. Dinner was at a delicious Tequila Bar and followed by a very entertaining drag show.
It’s always fun to spend a couple days laughing with the girls. (Cocktails at breakfast doesn’t hurt either…)
I started my weekend even earlier and came into the city on Thursday evening to take a cooking class at The Chopping Block, a recreational cooking school that I had been dying to try for a while. I found it while researching culinary school last winter.
For a hot minute I thought culinary school might be my next step. Based on the course catalogs listed for different schools and programs I looked into I decided to pass because it was so similar to the curriculum I had in college. Not to mention I would be a in a WORLD of debt.
I then started looking up cooking workshops and classes to just fine tune my skills and learn more. This is how I came across The Chopping Block’s class calendar. They offer classes every day of the week and each has a specific theme or skill, such as pasta or dessert classes to grilling or knife skills. Throughout the summer a Farmer’s Market Tour was listed for every Thursday.
The description said the class would tour the Lincoln Square Farmer’s Market and purchase items to make an improvisational meal back at the classroom.
It sounded right up my alley. My friend, Stephanie, even eagerly agreed to join me so we made plans to meet at the class. The class was a demonstration class versus a hands on course. (They offer both.) Despite this, I still learned A LOT. You will see this with my “take-away” notes.
On Thursday, the traffic getting into Chicago was horrendous. Like, worse than it has ever been any time I have ever tried to get into the city. So, I arrived thirty minutes after the start of the class (even after giving myself an hour extra).
As I was basically running to the class I was able to notice that Lincoln Square is awesome. It is a neighborhood that further north of the city than I had ever been in my visits to the city. There were plenty of cute coffee shops, restaurants and boutique-y shops. People, with their children and dogs, were out enjoying the night at the farmers market or listening to a couple bands playing on side streets. I really wished I had that hour I had planned for. This place looked like my kind of heaven. I need to go back.
I got to The Chopping Block just as the class was getting back from the market. I was a tad disappointed, but looking at the produce the chef was pulling from their shopping bags I knew it would still be great.
They found little golden plums, black raspberries, sweet corn, beets, gypsy peppers, knob onions, oyster mushrooms and carrots. The chef reached out to us for ideas for our meal based on the produce from the market and the pork tenderloin that would serve as our protein.
The meal was started with a little “amuse-bouche” of baked polenta with caprese salsa.
Take Away: Amuse-bouche translates to “Mouth Pleaser” and is a small plate before a meal, even an appetizer. You might see them in French restaurants. They are not ordered, but are offered by the chef without a charge to prepare the guest for the meal.
The class decided on ceviche for an appetizer using the mushrooms from the market. We topped the ceviche with fried tortilla strips for a little crunch.
Take Away: Ceviche means to cook, or make soft, with acid. You can actually “cook” things, like shrimp, with citrus, to make a ceviche.
The mushrooms were perfect. They had just the right amount of tang and the crunch of the tortillas worked great.
Next it was onto the salad. We roasted the whole beets in the oven without any seasoning or marinade.
Take Away: This helps to concentrate the flavor of the beet. They were seasoned once they had cooked.
The cooked beets were topped with thinly julienned carrots as well as the greens from the carrots and beets. These greens are slightly bitter and full of nutrients. The colors in this salad were spectacular and all the flavors went well together. I need to try cooking beets at home sometime soon.
The main dish was made up of the pork tenderloin and a succotash made of the corn and onions. The pork was marinated in achiote paste, giving it a bit of a Mexican flare. Achiote paste can be found in Latin grocery stores and has an earthy, spice flavor. The succotash was made by caramelizing the onions and corn in a skillet on the stove top.
Take away: Whenever I cook something in a skillet, I move the food items around with a spatula a lot. To get the veggies, like the corn and the onions for the succotash, to caramelize and to maximize their sweet flavors you should push the vegetables out in the skillet and leave them. Make sure the skillet is warm but won’t burn the vegetables.
Another take away from this step: Extra Virgin Olive Oil has a low smoke point, meaning it should not be used with cooking something. It should just be used for finishing or vinaigrettes. Your mind blown yet? Just wait… When the EVOO gets above 350 degrees, or its smoke point, it loses all the nutrients and creates a carcinogen. Grape seed oil is a better alternative when cooking, grilling or baking over 350 degrees. (Grape seed oil is fortunately not that much more expensive.)
Finally, for dessert we had slightly sweet biscuits with whipped cream and macerated plums and berries. This was phenomenal. I am (weirdly…) not a huge fan of fruit, especially berries, but I finished and loved every bite.
After everything was done, we were given the opportunity to shop around a bit. I picked up a bottle of grape seed oil after I learned that I might be giving Adam and me cancer… every day. Stephanie got some fun beer and cocktail items. As the other class participants were leaving, Steph and I got an opportunity to chat with the Chef and the Sous Chef a bit. I asked about the farmers market since I missed that part of the trip. He said that most of the produce in the market is from Illinois, but there are some vendors from Indiana. I also asked about their culinary education because it, in a way, inspired my trip. Both chefs never went to culinary school, but rather, worked in restaurants since they were young and picked up skills along the way.
I had a blast the whole evening. I learned so much, had a fantastic meal and got to catch up over a bottle of wine with a great friend.
The Chopping Block Quick Facts:
There are two locations:
Lincoln Square: 4747 N. Lincoln Ave, Chicago
Merchandise Mart: The Merchandise Mart Plaza, Suite 107, Chicago
You can register for classes online. It’s a simple process and they charge you then. You cannot cancel once your class is less than a week out, but you can send a friend in your place.
You can purchase wine or beer at the classes or you can bring your own bottles. They are subject to a corking fee.
There are numerous “Boot Camps” that last up to five days. The topics for this cooking boot camps range from cooking basics to cupcakes or even sushi. Other classes last a few hours.
If you are in Chicago but cannot make a class, you can shop in the retail stores at each location. They are great and full of fun cooking tools. It’s really worth checking out.