Chicago: The Chopping Block

On Friday after work, I braved the pre-weekend mad dash toward the lakeshore and drove to Chicago to meet Juliet for a Goose Island Honker's Ale at Kinzie Chop House. We had been invited to the Windy City by K. (a generous friend who also let us crash at her well-appointed home in Irving Park) to attend a series of cooking classes at The Chopping Block. Our schedule included Wine 101 on Friday, followed by three grilling classes the rest of the weekend. Not sure what to expect, and a little looped from the wine (plus even more wine at Sabatino's with dinner), we showed up bright and early to Saturday's first class...

    Vegetarian Grilling
  • Grilled Eggplant and Zucchini Roulades with Herbed Ricotta Cheese and Pesto
  • Quinoa and Black Bean Burgers with Chipotle Mayo
  • Achiote-Rubbed Grilled Sweet Potatoes with Grilled Corn-Poblano Salsa and Queso Fresco
  • Grilled Romaine Greek Salad with Wilted Tomatoes, Feta Cheese and Olives
He Fed:
When we arrive for class, we arrive early in order to get the "lay of the land" and snag a table. It is incredibly hot and muggy out on the back patio behind the store. There is a tent above the outdoor kitchen, which consists of a long granite countertop, behind which are a couple Kalamazoo Grills already fired up. It's hot and getting hotter!

George, the assistant to the chef, is also acting as bartender. Several people are already sipping glasses of wine so I order a Goose Island 312 Urban Wheat to quench my thirst; it becomes my drink of choice throughout the weekend. Michelle, our chef, is also the one constant all weekend; she teaches all three grilling classes. She is personable, friendly, and very efficient with a good sense of humor. I like her right away.

Contrary to my expectations, and much to my relief, we are not expected to actually participate in the food preparation. We are, however, encouraged to wander around, taking notes, asking questions, and participating if we like. Otherwise the chefs plow ahead with the preparation, showing off technique and giving advice on cooking at home.

Our first dish is the grilled eggplant, which is rolled up and drizzled with tomato pesto sauce. It screams Italian with fresh, earthy notes. I'm not crazy about eggplant, but this is pretty good. I might have grilled the veggies a bit more crisp.

The grilled romaine is much like we make at home, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt and pepper. The feta and olives, however, make it into a much more complex meal. I'm digging the Greek tastes.

Next comes sweet potatoes, which have become caramelized on the grill. The achiote gives it a nice Mediterranean spice to accompany the slow-burn of the poblano salsa.

Finally, Chef puts the black bean burgers on the grill. I get up to take a closer look and ask her some questions about technique. I am dying to try homemade veggie burgers on my own grill. She dishes them up; I quickly grab a plate and smother mine in the chipotle mayo. One bite...heaven. The quinoa has firmed up nicely and there are char marks on the bottom of the burger.

I am full. Who knew vegetarian dishes could be so filling? The best tip I took away from the class was the use of grapeseed oil to prep the grill: turn the grill on high; scrape the goobers off; soak a towel in a bowl of grapeseed oil, then use that to rub down the hot grill. It prevents the food from sticking as much and has a much higher smoking point than olive oil. I would recommend this class to anyone who wants to expand their horizons when it comes to vegetarianism.

She Fed:
I like the idea of vegetarianism. I enjoy a variety of veggies and I know decreasing my dependence on meat will lead to better overall health, a smaller grocery bill and a lighter carbon footprint. I like all of that, really I do. It's all great in concept.

The problem is, I really like meat. A medium rare burger hot off the grill; a piece of perfectly roasted chicken drizzled with pan juices; a beautiful Copper River salmon filet over mixed greens; a luscious lobe of seared foie gras plated with gingerbread crumbs, tiny cubes of riesling gelee, and slices of toasted brioche...just to name a few.

We've flirted with vegetarianism more than a few times and I know taking a "Vegetarian Grilling" course probably won't rid me of my meat addiction entirely, but I hope it will give me new ideas.

The first dish Chef Michelle demonstrates is the roulades, which I immediately assume will be super slimy and swimming in pools of greasy cheese. Cheese filling is spread on a grilled zucchini and eggplants slices, then all three layers are rolled up, nestled in a 13 x 9 with tomato sauce, sprinkled lightly with cheese and baked on the grill until bubbly. I am surprised to find the veggies still have a fair amount of tooth to them and there's not an obscene amount of cheese. The recipe calls for "a jar of your favorite tomato sauce" and I am sure a homemade sauce would elevate this even further.

Next we're on to the veggie burgers with a chipotle mayo. Canned beans and cooked quinoa are pulverized in a food processor along with herbs, panko, onion and eggs. The mixture is chilled, then grilled and served with the spicy mayo on a bed of arugula. No...these do not taste "just like a burger off the grill." Not even close. But they are meaty, filling and very delicious. I would probably eat the chipotle mayo off the floor, so imagine what it does for the burger.

The third dish is achiote-rubbed grilled sweet potatoes and salsa. The potatoes are grilled low and slow, then carmelized and served over an amazingly fresh and spicy relish of grilled veggies: corn, tomatoes, onions, peppers. I'm not a big fan of sweet potatoes, but I'd make this at home in a heartbeat.

Jeremy has grilled romaine before, but the dressing recipe demo'd in class is really lovely. Who would have thought that tahini, lemon juice, garlic and herbs would make such a rich, tasty dressing?

I'll still crave that steakhouse filet from time to time, but once again The Chopping Block has inspired me to try new things in my kitchen. (Special thanks to K. for making all of these classes possible. Who else could bring leftover grilled pork tenderloin to the vegetarian grilling class with such finesse?)

    Beer Garden Grill
  • Deviled Chicken Wings with Herbed Potato Salad
  • Beer-Marinated Brats with Bacony Beans
  • Glazed Smoked Pork Chops with Oil-and-Vinegar Slaw
He Fed:
After the first class ran long, we decided to drive to a nearby garden center and art depot. I hoped for a cool oasis filled with plants and possibly ice water. No such luck. The air was barely working indoors and a brisk walk outside in the stifling heat brought immediate perspiration. I resorted to waiting in the car with the air running on high.

Our second class began toward dinnertime, but the thought of dinner in that heat and after a cavalcade of veggies earlier made me a bit queasy. Still, I soldiered on. We showed up to find we were the only ones who showed up! Instead of sitting at a high-top table far from the action, Chef brought some stools right up to the granite countertop. We enjoyed chatting with them and watching their expert culinary skills. I soon forgot all about the heat and my appetite renewed.

First up, they make large chicken wings coated in a kind of mustardy deviled-egg sauce. The sauce itself is delicious but I'm put off by the chicken. It is cooked throughout but just barely, it seems. There needs to be more crisp and I have a tough time pulling the meat away from the bone. I give up and enjoy the creamy potato salad instead.

Next are beer brats, from across the street at Gene's Sausage Shop. They've also been soaking in Goose Island 312 and slices of onion for hours. Served up with four different kinds of mustard, the meat is high-quality and so sweet from the is all I can do to refrain from eating the whole plate! The beans are very rich, swimming in barbecue.

Finally, we are presented with the pork chop and slaw. The cabbage is crisp and tangy but otherwise unremarkable. The chop is delicious but a little overdone (they are small boneless cuts which can overcook easily).

Again, we waddle away into the night, completely stuffed. I have dreams about the brats. We threaten to steal a cooler and stock up from Gene's, smuggling all that meat back to Michigan. Although we had a great time at this class, I didn't learn quite as much. The food was great, overall, but my satiation and the heat didn't help very much.

She Fed:
We are lucky to have Chef Michelle with us for our second class of the day. Our luck improves as we discover it's just K., B., Jeremy and I...basically a private demonstration cooking class for four. This is going to be fun!

Chef Michelle is one of my favorite instructors at The Chopping Block. I've been privileged enough to take several classes at the "CB" and thanks to K., my culinary know-how and kitchen confidence has grown dramatically. I know the difference between a genoise, a chinoise (or a chinois) and a brunoise. (Answers: an Italian sponge cake, a conical fine mesh strainer and a fancy-pants way to cut veggies.)

But back to Chef Michelle. She led my Third Day of Culinary Boot Camp, in which I made homemade Hollandaise by hand, lost it to the heat, nearly brought it back, lost it for good and started over. Think of any bloody war movie with the squad leader pulling his troops up and out of the heat and despair of battle. That was Chef Michelle and my first attempt at Hollandaise. It wasn't pretty.

So I know we are in for a treat with the good-humored and easy-going Michelle at the helm. She marinates chicken wings detailing how the proteins in meat react to heat and how you can tell when meat is done mostly by touching it. She makes an herbed potato salad with doctored up Kewpie mayo, the thickest and best tasting mayo you can buy, also loaded with MSG she confides. (I was surpised to see my "sauce leader" grab a bottle of Kewpie!)

She explains when you marinate brats, you want to poach them, not boil them; and she adds onion wedges to the beer poaching liquid. She makes a homemade barbeque sauce giving us a quick tastebud tutorial on how salt, sweet and tart complement each other. She makes the slaw and lets the cabbage sit in the dressing for about a half an hour so the cabbage has time to tenderize ever so slightly.

Our dinner is amazing and in the end, Chef Michelle indulges our many requests and sits down to enjoy a plate of great food with us. Lovely!

    Burger Time!
  • Sirloin Burgers with Bacon, Smoked Cheddar Cheese and a Fried Egg
  • Salmon Burgers with Arugula, Oven-Dried Tomatoes and Lemon Aioli
  • Greek Lamb Burgers with Cucumber Yogurt Sauce and Feta Cheese
He Fed:
Sunday dawns prospectively less humid and least that's the way it looks out the window. Reality is a bit more unkind. It is hammer-hot outside, though the humidity has dropped a bit. We pile into the car for our final class.

Nothing says summer like grilling burgers and today we have some standard picks: lamb, beef and fish. The class has a few more students this time and we let them do the heavy lifting with questions while we hydrate with some beer, wine and water.

I am not the biggest fan of lamb, though my recent experiences are starting to change that (much to Juliet's delight). The lamb burgers Michelle assembles are packed with herbs, including mint, and topped with a tangy cucumber yogurt sauce that is nearly as good as Marie Catrib's. Nestled in a grilled pita bread and topped with feta cheese, it is the perfect start to our day.

Next up is the salmon burger and though they look pretty good, I decide to skip it. Not that I'm avoiding the challenge of a fishburger but the sirloin one is next and I don't want to be too full for it.

To top off our experience, Chef assembles a juicy "slider" with melted smoked gouda and a fried egg on top. And she puts it on a grilled homemade pretzel bun. I slather some barbecue sauce on it too and wolf it down with knife and fork. The yolk is just firm enough not to run but not overcooked. What a perfect end to the class.

We head back to Michigan, armed with an arsenal of newfound cooking techniques. Fire up that grill!
She Fed:
Luck is with us again on Sunday with clear skies, hot temps with slightly less humidity and Chef Michelle in the lead for our final class of the weekend. We start with a demonstration of lamb burgers, which are seasoned with lots of spices and herbs and then grilled to medium rare on the Big Green Egg. I have become a bit of a burger snob and tend to turn my nose up at what Bobby Flay calls "meatloaf burgers" or burgers with a boatload of ingredients mixed in. I am forced to eat my words so to speak as the lamb burgers win me over, even with bits of mint, garlic, cilantro and jalepeno flecked throughout. The yogurt sauce and feta cheese play with the spiciness of the burger and the toasted pita gives it some crunch.

The second burger is a salmon burger. I've never taken to salmon in any form but a filet. I can barely watch as Chef plops the salmon in the food processor. I am pleasantly surprised, however. Light and flaky, topped with homemade lemon aioli and served on grilled brioche, these burgers are definitely not fish meatloaf. I try to figure out how I can go back for seconds on aioli without being seen. This is one of the things I appreciate most about The Chopping Block. I leave with an armload of new ideas, skills, recipes or tools and more importantly, a broader knowledge base.

Our final burger is sirloin with fried egg, bacon and smoked cheddar. I adore a sirloin burger on the grill, but after two burgers already (even though they're smaller), I'm feeling saturated. The eggs are fried on the grill burner, the pretzel buns are toasted on the Big Green Egg and the burgers are grilled on the gas grill. I can only eat about half my burger before the meat sweats start. Clearly it's time to start planning some of those vegetarian recipes from yesterday.

Popular Posts