Flavor is the name of the game in any type of cooking, but in vegetarian cooking it takes a little more finesse to achieve. After caramelizing chopped onions sautéed in butter, Chef Shelley points to the dark cooked-on remnants coating the bottom of the skillet. “This is called ‘fond,’ ” she says, “and it’s actually an ingredient that chefs strive for.” She explains that wine added to the pan will evaporate as it cooks, loosening the cooked-on pieces and absorbing them into a savory sauce. “In vegetarian cooking, fond is particularly important for getting a concentrated, rich flavor without using meat,” she instructs.
Creating what Chef Shelley calls “levels of interest” enhances any kind of cuisine, giving it complexity and a bigger taste. In making soup, for example, she illustrates: “You can chop onions, carrots, and potatoes, and then add seasonings to your pot and boil it, but it won’t be as complex as if you sauté the onions, carrots, and some garlic, and then put it all in the pot. Now I’m layering the flavor. It doesn’t make cooking the soup any harder, but it makes it a lot tastier.”
For another flavor tip, Chef Shelley urges cooks to consider these elements—salt, sour, bitter, and sweet—when preparing a dish. “If you include these four flavors in most of the things you cook, or at least two or three of them, the dishes will be more flavorful, more complex.” In her Spaghetti Squash with Spiced Pecans and Gorgonzola (pictured above; see Recipes for method), the squash is sweet, the lemon juice sour, the cheese salty, and the pecans add a spicy kick. “Now that’s flavor-packed,” Chef Shelley pronounces.
Not only comforting, squash is also the ultimate survival food, claims Chef Shelley. “With no blemishes, one can keep six to eight months,” she says. “I could survive any natural disaster if I had squash in my house.” For her spaghetti-squash dish, the chef advises mixing the stringy strands very gently with the other ingredients, “so the garlic and spices are dispersed but you don’t turn the mixture into mush.”
Chef Shelley’s Spiced Pecans give her spaghetti-squash dish a real kick, but these little nuggets are also great as a tasty snack. To make, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread 1 cup pecan halves on a baking tray lined with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper. Bake 8 to 10 minutes or until golden brown. Place nuts in a medium-size bowl.
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Toss with 1 to 2 tablespoons of sambal oelek (a spicy-hot chile-pepper condiment often used in Indonesian and Malaysian cuisine and available in Asian markets) and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Again, spread the nuts onto a baking-mat-lined tray and bake until a deep golden brown and dried, about 10 minutes. Turn the nuts over twice during baking. Spread on foil to cool. Then eat and enjoy!
A silicone baking mat is a real kitchen helper, and one that Chef Shelley highly recommends. Besides saving wear and tear on sheet pans, it works as a heat diffuser to allow more even browning. With its non-stick finish, the mat is also easy to clean up. At kitchen shops, starting at about $15.
Besides demonstration classes, The Chopping Block offers a variety of hands-on classes, including Culinary Boot Camp—a weeklong series that Chef Shelley says no other cooking school in the country offers to nonprofessionals. With three skill levels—basic, advanced, and masters—the classes, held 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, are conducted by five of the school’s 25 trained chefs. A distinct subject, such as knife skills, flavor dynamics, or meal composition, is taught daily by a different chef. Class size is limited to 10 to 12 students, so every cook gets to work one-on-one with the chefs. Cost for the basic class is $1,750; advanced and masters classes are $2,150. An eight-week, Sundays-only series is also available.
The Chopping Block is located inside the Wells & Kinzie streets entrance of The Merchandise Mart in downtown Chicago (222 Merchandise Mart, Suite 107; 312/644-6360). A second location is at Lincoln Square (4747 N. Lincoln Avenue; 773/472-6700). Day and evening classes run 2 to 2-1/2 hours and cost $40 to $85 (thechoppingblock.net).
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Chef Shelley Young redefines vegetarian cuisine
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With healthy living top of mind for so many Americans today, it’s no surprise that vegetarian cooking is also topping the list as a cuisine of choice for many cooks. At The Chopping Block—a cooking school tucked inside Chicago’s famed Merchandise Mart—founder and chef instructor Shelley Young offers a class intriguingly titled “So You are Dating a Vegetarian . . .”
“We gave this class a fun name,” says Chef Shelley, “but it’s geared not only to the cook looking to learn more about vegetarian cooking but to anyone who wants to include more health-conscious alternatives in meal planning.”
Photography: Grant Kessler