Get Cooking

Get Cooking

Cooking classes focus on healthy, seasonal cuisine

By Victoria Shanta Retelny, RDN, LDN

Above photo: The Wooden Spoon

Our food-loving town is filled with a myriad of eating opportunities with a host of restaurants, bistros and gourmet food markets, and an increasing interest in sustainable, farm-to-table cuisine. However, the desire to seek out eco-friendly, locally grown eats doesn’t stop at restaurants. Chicagoans are turning to local cooking schools to learn how to cook healthy, seasonal meals at home.

Many local cooking schools are cultivating a taste for health among their students. Kitchens around Chicago are transforming—thanks to the influence of health-conscious cooking schools that focus on nutrition, sustainability and overall wellness.

The commitment to healthy cooking starts with fresh ingredients at The Chopping Block at the Merchandise Mart and in Lincoln Square.

Many of The Chopping Block’s classes use produce from Hazzard Free Farm, a Certified Naturally Grown local farm. In farm-to-table programs from late spring through the fall, students learn where their food comes from, how to seek out and savor local produce and how to cook fresh, seasonal cuisine.

Plus, a summer class brings students to the Lincoln Square farmer’s market to purchase the season’s best produce and bring it back to the kitchen for an improvisational cooking class, says Andrea Miller, public relations manager at The Chopping Block.

“Skills covered in the farmer’s market class include understanding seasonality, selecting ripe produce and cooking tech- niques for fresh vegetables, herbs and fruits,” Miller says.

Healthy eating also means supporting special diets. “We offer specialized cooking classes such as gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan to accommodate the growing amount of dietary restrictions we’re seeing in our students,” Miller says.

At The Kids’ Table the focus is on creating healthy habits and introducing kids to a variety of foods and flavors.

“We don’t believe in ‘kid food,’” explains Elena Marre, owner of The Kids’ Table. “Our recipes are appropriate for 2-year-olds and 45-year-olds alike.”

With a repertoire of more than 500 recipes, this school, nestled in Wicker Park, thrives on creating new recipes and teaching children to try different foods and get creative in the kitchen. Because of the risk of potential allergens and cross-contamination, the facility is nut free and vegetarian.

During the growing season, the school brings kids outside to its backyard garden to harvest produce from the soil, which is nurtured by red wriggler worms that live in a worm-composting bin, eat food waste and supply nutrient-rich soil. “The kids love feeding the worms,” Marre says.

As part of its Summer Cooking Camps, The Kids’ Table offers two weeks of Farmer’s Market Feast, which teaches children about savoring the flavors of local summer produce with seasonal fare like berries, herbs, rhubarb and fava beans.

The commitment to the environment extends throughout the space. “We use only natural, minimally processed ingredients, local and organic foods—as well as nondisposable plates, cloth aprons, [cloth] napkins, silverware and glassware, whenever feasible,” Marre says.

From the Mediterranean Marvels class to Whole Flavors, Whole Grains, The Wooden Spoon serves up an opportunity to learn how to make healthful meals. Teaching the art of combining flavors, appreciating ethnic cuisines and using fresh foods is a priority at this family-owned shop in Andersonville.

“Our cooking classes are a hands-on experience. Class participants work together to create the menu,” says Trina Sheridan, owner of The Wooden Spoon. “I think seasonal and healthy oftentimes go hand in hand. If you are using seasonal ingredients, they are fresh versus [being] processed, so there is less salt and [bad] fat.”

From large parties to intimate events, many of their class offerings focus on adding wholesome, nutritious pep to everyday meals. “We often use items we grow in our classes,” Sheridan says. With an outdoor garden in the back of the store, as well as an herb garden and a rooftop vegetable garden on their garage, fresh produce is right out their back door.

“We try to have a balanced menu that includes a wide variety of starches, proteins, vegetables, spices and seasonal ingredients,” she says, adding, “I hope people get cooking after taking a class.”

Originally published in the Summer/Fall 2014 print edition