This past March I traveled to the Islands. Without hopping on a plane. It was by way of Uber, straight to the kitchen of The Chopping Block at The Merchandise Mart. After being teleported to “A Night In Spain” at my last cooking class, it was a no brainer to come back for a second round of testing my cooking skills all while being immersed in another culture. I’ve come to learn that cooking has its own language. It speaks the language of its origins and believe me, it’s a beautiful experience to be apart of. I’ve traveled to the Caribbean Islands of Negril, Jamaica, The Virgin Islands, and Aruba. While I’m not planning a trip back to the Caribbean this year, The Chopping Block’s ‘Spring Break: A Trip to the Islands’ cooking class gave me a slight nostalgia of why I fell in love with the Caribbean all over again.
Hearts of Palm and Avocado Salad with Cilantro-Lime Vinaigrette
Conch Fritters with Key Lime Aioli
Grilled Mahi Mahi with Black Bean, Mango and Corn Salsa
Pina Colada Cupcakes with Pineapple Frosting
First things first, my boyfriend and I walk over to our cooking station. I look down at the menu to see the dishes I’m anxious to prepare for the night.
I automatically envisioned a woman whose skin is the color of whiskey, thick Caribbean accent, and a boisterous voice instructing our class on how we we’re going to prepare her island favorites for the night. To my surprise, I looked up to see a red bearded, brunette haired man, better known as chef Sam Goldbroch standing in front of the class. A little confused, but intrigued by how he would help us bring some Caribbean favorites to life.
We worked backwards, starting off with dessert. In a medium-sized bowl, chef Sam instructed us to whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. In a large bowl we whisked together eggs, sugar, brown sugar, coconut milk, grape seed oil and vanilla bean paste. A rainbow of delicious concoctions birthed Pina Colada Cupcakes with Pineapple Frosting. While those perfected in the oven, I took a swipe with my index finger of the pineapple frosting which tasted like a frozen Pina Colada cocktail I envisioned sipping on a white sand beach feeling the breeze through my hair. This tasted like heaven.
While our cupcakes baked in the oven, we switched over to making Hearts of Palm and Avocado Salad with Cilantro-Lime Vinaigrette. Did you know that the inner core and growing buds of certain palm trees are edible? Truth. I’ve seen palm trees swaying back and forth on gorgeous beaches of Caribbean Islands, but had no clue they were supreme enough for our palettes.
In a medium-sized bowl, each of us mixed together the hearts of palm, cucumber, scallions, oranges, and jalapeño. Chef Sam emphasized the importance of cutting our ingredients “the right way”. In a joking manner, he mentioned if not, a couple limbs could be lost. Although funny, perfecting my cutting skills had nervous sweat running down my forehead. To prepare the vinaigrette, we whisked together lime zest, lime juice and agave nectar in a small bowl all while slowly drizzling in olive olive while whisking. Finally stirring in cilantro and seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.
After whisking together yolk, mustard, garlic, key lime juice, and a few other ingredients thrown into a food processor, we ended up with a smooth, delicious Key Lime Aioli. Then Chef Sam announced Conch Fritters as the next course on our menu for us to prepare.
Automatically my mind teleported me back to my trip to The Virgin Islands with my mother in 2016. We ate at a local restaurant and ordered conch fritters as the final course. I remember the golden brown crunch of the crust and the buttery, seasoned, moistness of the inside of the the conch. This class brought an influx of nostalgic moments of my own memories from the Caribbean Islands I hold dear to my heart. From start to finish was a 40 minute process and easy to make. Using a deep skimmer, we removed the fritters from the oil and drained on a rack set over a sheet tray. To conclude, we transferred the hot golden brown fritters to a platter, garnished them with chives, and served ourselves with a side of Key Lime Aioli. My favorite part of this entire process? Taste testing these babies of course. The marriage between the crunch of the fritters, moistness of the conch, dipped in the zesty key lime aioli was a perfect marriage to my taste buds.
In 20 minutes, we were able to make a Black Bean, Mango, and Corn Salsa to go with the rest of our course. My boyfriend prepared the corn on a grill pan over medium heat as I cut pieces of mango on the chopping board.
As I looked around, the class was filled with couples, families, and friends laughing, cooking, and swirling deep red blends in wine glasses poured from wine bottles. I looked to the back of the kitchen to see two huge wooden fork and spoon utencils hanging on a white brick wall. The first two words that came to mind at first glance of the decor was, “Bon Appétit”. After mixing the grilled kernels of the corn with black beans, mango, jalapeño, cilantro, cumin, lime juice and olive oil, we seasoned it with salt and pepper to taste and set aside at room temperature in preparation for the final course.
Anytime you mention grill, men flock over with their aprons. Before enjoying all of the Caribbean delights we prepared for the evening, we had our last piece of protein to cook - Grilled Mahi Mahi. My boyfriend, along with just about every male in class couldn’t contain their excitement to own the grill. Chef Sam instructed everyone to mix together our achiote paste, orange juice, olive oil, cumin, salt and pepper. The men at our table were not afraid to get their hands dirty when it came to seasoning the Mahi Mahi. That’s when I knew it was destined to be delicious.
Someone from each of the cooking stations brushed the individual grills with oil to prevent the fish from sticking. The fish was grilled until caramelized, 3 to 4 minutes and flipped over to ensure the inside of the fish was white and flakey. Finally, each of the Mahi Mahi fillets were transferred to a platter and topped with our Black Bean, Mango and Corn Salsa.
Chef Sam instructed us to take off our aprons and approach our dinner tables to taste all of the food we prepared for the night. A group of 5 sat at each of the wooden, chestnut colored dinner tables. Chef Sam and his assistants passed out plates and bowls of the food the class worked so hard to prepare. The final product was superb. Not only did we all learn new cooking skills, we brought a piece of the Islands to our hometown without physically traveling there. I was proud to say that the food I enjoyed so much that night, I had a role in preparing.
Remember those Pina Colada Cupcakes with Pineapple Frosting baking in the oven? That was our dessert for the night. The richness of the frosting, moistness of the cupcake, and garnish of the cherry was the perfect end to a night in what seemed like paradise.
I highly recommend booking a cooking experience at The Chopping Block. Not only are you immersed in cooking cuisine you may have never cooked before, you learn the origins of the food your palette loves so much. You’re teleported to different parts of the world where you have the pleasure of cooking in the comfort of your home.
WHAT WE LEARNED IN CLASS:
Getting Familiar with Caribbean Ingredients
Selecting Avocados and Mangos
Selecting Fish and Shellfish
Breading and Frying
Making Cold Emulsions
Determining Fish Doneness
Mixing and Baking Cake Batter
For more information about The Chopping Block and their upcoming classes, check them out here. Their May calendar is now open.
*THE CHOPPING BLOCK PROVIDED ALL SERVICES COMPLIMENTARY. ALL OPINIONS ARE MY OWN.