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Welcome to my blog where I share some of my favorite things from the Midwest cities along Lake Michigan.

Girls Night Out:  The Chopping Block Recreational Cooking School

Girls Night Out: The Chopping Block Recreational Cooking School

My friend Carol and I recently decided to treat ourselves to a night out at The Chopping Block recreational cooking school in Chicago (although it was a girls night out, guys would certainly love this place as well).  It was an experience we won't soon forget.  We had a ball!

Me and my partner in crime, Carol

Me and my partner in crime, Carol

I still laugh at some of the shenanigans that took place; In spite of our silliness, our meal turned out great; so it was money well spent.

I even learned some things!

A Little History
The Chopping Block opened it's original location in a small cottage in Lincoln Park in 1997.  It has now grown to be Chicago’s largest recreational cooking school with 2 locations:  the larger of the two (the relocated and expanded, original Lincoln Park location) is inside the Merchandise Mart.  It has 8,000 square feet and features three kitchens.  The smaller location in Lincoln Square, has 4,000 square feet.

Making Empanada Dough

Making Empanada Dough

With hundreds of classes and events each month, The Chopping Block is one of the busiest recreational cooking schools in the country.

The Merchandise Mart’s three kitchens can be used individually or collectively to accommodate groups as small as six people to as large as 300 people. Groups larger than 300 can utilize event space available in The Merchandise Mart. The Chopping Block Lincoln Square also has three kitchens, including an outdoor grilling patio that can accommodate small groups or gatherings as large as 100 people. 

This year the school will be celebrating its 20th year in business.  

With so many classes to choose from, it was a tough decision.  After much back and forth and elimination, we decided on the Tapas Party!  The main reason for me was because PARTY was in the title!  Plus, I was going to learn how to make PAELLA, and I LOVE PAELLA!!!

Our chef instructor for the evening giving us direction

Our chef instructor for the evening giving us direction

Some of the skills we’d learn included: determining shellfish doneness, preparing empanada dough, making tomato sauce, making bean fillings, working with Arborio rice and saffron, and getting familiar with Spanish ingredients.

We immediately booked after deciding on a date. There are only 13 slots in the class, and they fill up fast.

After our arrival and check-in, we were treated to complimentary truffle popcorn. That stuff is highly addictive!  I had to refrain myself so that I wouldn’t ruin my appetite. On a side note, they sell the truffle salt in the school's retail shop so you can make the truffle popcorn at home!  You also get 15% off on the day you attend a class.

We were separated into groups of four and five once inside the kitchen.  Since it was only two of us, we were merged in with another group of three.  Although we didn’t know any of the other women in our group, we quickly became friends and worked beautifully together.  We were a little loud and crazy too; just having a good time. Our chefs were very patient with us.

The menu consisted of:

  • Bacon wrapped chorizo-stuffed dates
  • Black bean and cilantro empanadas
  • Baked goat cheese in tomato sauce
  • Shrimp & Mussels Paella
     

The menu seemed challenging enough. Mastering it while enjoying wine slightly increased the challenge, LOL.

The chefs had all of the ingredients gathered and ready.  If this were the case at home, maybe I’d be motivated to cook more.  

First up, our group conquered the empanadas.  I appreciate how our chef talked us through each step and would repeat as necessary.  The recipe was simple and easy to follow.  Each of us took a task; I was in charge of the filling.  Everything came together nicely.

Master Cheese Shredder

Master Cheese Shredder

Empanadas in the making

Empanadas in the making

Preparing the Paella

Preparing the Paella

Next up: Paella
The chef gave us instructions on how to select mussels properly.  Some important things to remember are:  purchase them alive, never select chipped or damaged mussels and never choose one with an open shell; the shells should be tightly closed, if there is a slight opening give the mussel a tap, it should quickly close; If it does, it’s still alive.  If it does not close DO NOT USE it, it’s no good.  Pretty easy to remember.  
 

Carol's distracting me!

Carol's distracting me!

I also learned the proper way to chop an onion after all these years: Cut off the stem and leave the hairy end.  Cut in half through the root end, peel off layers, slice following the natural vertical lines without cutting through the root, place the onion flat side down, and slice horizontally.  EASY! I’m embarrassed to mention the way I’ve been chopping onions all these years…let’s just say it’s involved me needing band-aids on many occasions.  I was in charge of all of the Paella steps involving the pan.  Again, the recipe was easy to follow, and if I had a question, the chef was always willing to help. I believe that I can successfully prepare this for my family. I’ll have to update this post when I do.

The final two dishes we prepared were Chorizo stuffed bacon wrapped dates (I couldn’t wait to try those) and the Baked Goat Cheese in Tomato Sauce.

Working on the chorizo stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates

Working on the chorizo stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates

Goat Cheese in Tomato Sauce

Goat Cheese in Tomato Sauce

Preparing the baked goat cheese in tomato sauce

Preparing the baked goat cheese in tomato sauce

Now it’s time to eat! My team (lol, we made it a Top Chef competition in our minds) cooked up some amazing dishes! Everything turned out delicious despite our mischief! I couldn’t stop eating and had to force myself away from the table.

Black Bean & Cilantro Empanadas                            Mussel & Shrimp Paella

Black Bean & Cilantro Empanadas                            Mussel & Shrimp Paella

Baked Goat Cheese in Tomato Sauce

Baked Goat Cheese in Tomato Sauce

Paella

Paella

All in all, a successful, fun night, and a wonderful memory!

I’d recommend the Chopping Block if you’re looking for an entertaining and enjoyable new experience.

Hopefully, you’ll check them out; feel free to leave a comment on your experience.

In the meantime, here’s the recipe for Black Bean and Cilantro Empanadas.  

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Black Bean and Cilantro Empanadas

Yield: 1 to 2 dozen small empanadas
Active time: 35 minutes
Start to finish: 55 minutes
For the dough: 
6 tablespoons butter, softened
4 ounces cream cheese, softened  
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons cornmeal
1/4 teaspoon cayenne or espellette pepper
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
For the filling: 
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 cup canned black beans, drained and rinsed
3/4 cup sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1/2 roasted red pepper, small dice (see note, below) 
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, rough chopped
1 scallion, thinly sliced on the bias
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
Salt and pepper to taste
1 egg, lightly beaten
Egg wash: 1 egg, lightly beaten with a fork with 1 teaspoon of water

  1. To make the dough, mix the butter and cream cheese in a food processor fitted with a metal blade until smooth. Add the flour, cornmeal, cayenne or espellette pepper and salt, and process until the dough forms a ball.
  2. Remove the dough from the food processor and form into a disc. Wrap in plastic and chill for about 1 hour. (May refrigerate for up to 2 days.)
  3. Preheat the oven to 400º.
  4. To prepare the filling, chop the garlic in a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Add the black beans and pulse until slightly broken up. You can also use a potato masher.
  5. Transfer bean mixture to a bowl. Fold in cheese, roasted pepper, cilantro, scallions, lime juice, and salt and pepper. Stir in the egg.
  6. Now for the assembly: Roll the dough on a lightly floured work surface until it is 1/8 inch thick. Cut approximately 3-inch circles with a biscuit cutter.
  7. Lightly brush the edge of one circle with egg yolk. Place about 1 tablespoon of filling in the center. Fold circle in half, pinching the edges together. 
  8. ENJOY!!!

Recipe courtesy of The Chopping Block www.TheChoppingBlock.com

Noteworthy Mentions

  • The Chopping Block hosts private events such as corporate team building and bridal showers
  • The retail store offers a wide array of kitchen necessities such as cookbooks, kitchen tools, and spices. You get a discount on the day of your class
  • There's a variety of activites and classes including, Iron Chef cooking competitions, wine parties, and even kids/teen cooking camps
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