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Registration opens today for all Urbana Park District programs

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Reminder: registration for all Urbana Park District spring 2024 programs starts today. This includes the next edition of the "Flavor Principles of Ethnic Cooking" series. From past experience, we know that this series sells out fast. Full menus and registration links are on my website . Tuition starts at $40 per class for in-district residents of Champaign County. In the seventh season of this long-running "dinner party-style" cooking classes, you'll be able to learn how to make almost anything taste Chinese, Mexican, or Ethiopian. In each of these classes, we'll be deconstructing the recipes of each cuisine and breaking down the flavor principles of these culinary traditions. By following a few master recipes and utilizing simple flavor profiles, you will be able to customize and adjust your own favorite recipes and make tasty ethnic dishes every night for dinner. Do come hungry and thirsty because the tuition includes a two-course dinner complete with

Register now open for the next Common Ground "Deep Dive" series

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In February 2024, we're going on another "deep dive" into another tasty ethnic cuisine. This time, we'll be visiting Russia! Now might be the best time to celebrate Russian culture just to remind us that the people and its government are not one and the same. Just as not all Americans are fans of Trump, not all Russians follow Putin.  In this deep dive "double feature," we'll do as the Russians do – make some great food, indulge in a celebration of good company, and make a feast of traditional Russian favorites. Of course, we'll start the evening with caviar and vodka shots, but we'll also indulge in another Russian favorite – French champagne.  You can book one or both of the classes in this series:  Summer Picnic at the Dasha (February 27) : Dashas are summer homes for city dwellers in Moscow or St. Petersburg. Because Russian summers are relatively short, many people spend most of the warmer months in the country growing their own vegetabl

What's cooking at Common Ground?

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I started the "deep-dive" cooking classes at the Common Ground Food Co-op last fall with a series called "A Taste of China." This series of three classes was designed for serious foodies who want to explore ethnic cuisines in depth, so traveled through China region by region and cooked up a variety of Cantonese, Sichuan, and Shanghai dishes. This series sold out quickly, so we scheduled another one right away. In spring 2023, we offered a series called "A Taste of Japan." This time, we explored three different categories of Japanese cuisine -- one at a time. First, we did a deep dive into noodles and cooked up my favorite ramen, udon, and soba dishes. Next, we explored Japanese-style barbecue and made yakitori, kushiyaki, and shioyaki. Finally, we hosted a make-your-own omakase feast with sushi, sashimi, chirashi, and makizushi. French food is hard to find in our town, so we had to offer "A Taste of France" next. Like the Chinese "deep

Urbana Park District: a recap and a preview for spring 2024

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Back in fall 2021, I approached Janet Soesbe at Phillips Recreation Center with a cooking class proposal. Janet is the community program manager for all of Urbana Park District, and at the end of our 15 minute meeting, she signed off on a new cooking class series that we called "Flavor Principles of Ethnic Cooking." The series was a big hit and almost every class sold out. After teaching more than 18 of these classes in their beautiful James Room Demonstration Kitchen, it's almost time to  celebrate our two-year anniversary. And how are we going to do that? By not changing a thing and repeating what we've been doing for the last two years. I mean, why fix something that's not broken? So starting in spring 2024, we're going to offer the same cooking classes that we offered in spring 2022. This means if you tried to register for a class in the past but couldn't get in, this is your chance to try again. Be warned, some of these classes do sell out fast

Sunday pop-up dinners: here's what you've missed so far

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We started in July with "Bullet Train to Osaka," a 10-course Japanese fantasy foodie safari of small plates that also included sake, highball, beer, and sochu pairings. Then in August we hosted "An Evening in the Cinque Terre," a four-course Italian pesto feast. Next, we traveled to Greece for a six-course meze dinner that we called "Greek Sunset in Santorini." Last month, we hosted a Spanish small plates feast called "Tapas Crawl in Barcelona." The final pop-up dinner event this fall will be a "Formal French Dinner in Paris" where a classic seven-course gastronomic meal will be served on Sunday, November 12 (sorry, this event is already sold out).  We're going to be taking a break from hosting these monthly dinners, but we will be back on February 11, 2024 with a "Valentine's Dinner in Napa" special event. This romantic fantasy destination dinner will start with oysters on the half shell and end with crème brûlée.

Chambana Proud Podcast Episode #27

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On October 19, 2023, Terri & Carly from Explore Champaign-Urbana invited me to chat about food, cooking, international travel and more on their weekly podcast. To listen to this episode, head over to Podbean or listen on Spotify, Apple, Amazon, or wherever you get your podcasts (search for "Chambana Proud").  The Chambana Proud podcast is a weekly show about all things Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, otherwise known as Chambana. These self-proclaimed Chambana gurus highlight everything from local businesses and events to people and must-know stories. Brought to you by Experience Champaign-Urbana and the Champaign County Economic Development Corporation, these are the same people who run the Chambana Welcome Crew ambassador program for newcomers to our little community. More information about upcoming pop-up events and cooking classes can always be found at www.cooking-with-paul.com . For the latest news, feel free to subscribe to my monthly email newsletter .  

New Pop-up Event: Formal French Dinner in Paris

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What is the ultimate dinner experience? Some say it's the classic French gastronomic meal which starts with an apéritif (drinks before the meal), ends with a digestif (after dinner drink), and contains multiple successive courses in between all paired with specially selected wines. It is a festive meal bringing people together for an occasion to enjoy the art of good eating and drinking, emphasizing togetherness, the pleasure of taste, and the setting of a beautiful environment. Since 2010, this traditional French ritual has been inscribed as one of UNESCO's "intangible cultural heritage of humanity." We're going to recreate this "formal" French dinner experience with seven courses right here in downtown Urbana for ten special guests. Instead of flying to Paris and paying $360 per person (without wine) at a fancy Parisian restaurant like Le Cinq , you can have the same experience for $90 per person (with wine pairings for every course). Best of all, y

How to make grilled octopus the Greek way

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I have to admit that I have a soft spot in my tummy for octopus. Of all the different ways to prepare octopus, the grilled Greek version is my absolutely favorite way to eat this delightful sea creature. Every reputable Greek eatery worth eating at has this dish on their menu, and ever since discovering this dish in Chicago's Greektown restaurants decades ago, I have been religiously ordering it as a starter for every Greek meal. Deceptively simple to prepare, this dish delights all the senses -- from its smokey aroma to its garlicky tongue tickling zing, to the refreshing lemony acid infused dressing to the crispy charred crunch to the irresistible chewy texture -- I could go on. All I can say is that if you've never tasted this dish, you haven't really lived.  In the coming weeks, I'll be making this dish twice: once at our upcoming " Greek Sunset in Santorini " pop-up experience on September 17, and then again at Common Ground's Greek Meze Dinner co

What are Pinchos?

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Pinchos are small finger foods served at bars and taverns throughout the Basque Country straggling the border between Spain and France. In the center of Basque country is San Sebastian, a world-renowned culinary destination with the second most Michelin stars per capita in the world (after Kyoto, Japan). The city is also known for pinchos (or "pintxos" in Spanish) which are found in the bars of the Old Quarter and elsewhere in the city. Similar to tapas, pinchos have a strong socializing component and are are usually eaten in bars as a snack with wine, sangria or sherry. So what is the difference between pinchos and tapas? Pinchos (literally "spike" in Spanish) uses a toothpick to skewer the goodies to a slice of bread. No spike? Not a pincho, just a tapa.  We'll be making a lot of pinchos and tapas at both our upcoming Spanish Tapas Feast cooking class and our Barcelona pop-up dinner event. Unfortunately, the cooking class is already sold out, but seats are st

Registration now open for all fall cooking classes

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It's going to be a busy fall season at both Common Ground Food Co-op and Urbana Park District's Phillips Recreation Center as we've scheduled a full season of six cooking classes starting in September.  The first class will be "A Taste of Palestine" on September 21 at the Phillips Recreation Center's James Room Kitchen . For the first time, I will step back and assist Fairouz AbuGhazaleh who be the chef du jour and cook up several of her family recipes. According to Fairouz, "Palestinian food begins at home with recipes that evoke feelings of homesickness, happiness and nostalgia that have been passed down by generations." This class is part of my continuing series called "Flavor Principles of Ethnic Cooking" where we travel around and sample the best tasting ethnic cuisines available ( see full menus and details ). If you want to attend this class or the other classes in this series, please register today . From past experience, we know

What is a pop-up dinner event?

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Well, it depends on who is doing it. This is how we do it: We dream of international destinations where there are lots of good eats (the more exotic the better). We fantasize what the ultimate menu might be at this destination. We research what wines and beverages might pair well with these dishes. We set a table for 10 people and have one hell of a dinner a party!  This is what makes us different: All of our pop-up events are all-inclusive prix fixe dinners. This means you get a multi-course dinner complete with wine and other beverage pairings all evening long for one fixed price. Unlike at restaurants, all taxes and tip are included as well. Since we're only inviting 10 people, these are small intimate affairs where you can easily meet other like-minded foodies and make new friends. Yes, it's a lot of work, but it's also a lot of fun. We just pulled off a 10-course Japanese tasting menu around the theme BULLET TRAIN TO OSAKA. We're looking forward to exploring France

New recipe: Okonomiyaki

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Okonomiyaki is a savory pancake similar to the Korean pajun. Made with eggs and flour, this giant omelet is similar to a French quiche or an Italian frittata, but it's all made in a pan. In fact, flipping this pancake is the most challenging part of making this dish because of its sheer size.  Like an omelet, you can pretty much put anything you want in an okonomiyaki pancake. Although traditional ingredients might include seafood, ginger, and scallion, the most common choice of vegetable to add to this pancake is shredded cabbage. Surprisingly, Worcestershire sauce is favored as a seasoning instead of the traditional soy. But everyone's favorite condiment for this dish is Japanese Kewpie mayo which is generously squirted on top. Kewpie mayo is the top-selling brand of mayo in Japan and it's a little sweeter than the American version -- and a little thicker because it is made with egg yolks (instead of whole eggs).   Often served as a street food snack in Japan, the pros

New Pop-up Event: Greek Sunset in Santorini

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A new pop-up dinner experience has been scheduled for Sunday, September 17, 2023. This time, we will be visiting the Greek Island of Santorini for a six-course meze dinner complete with imported wine pairings all evening long. This pop-up dinner is part of our on-going series of international prix fixe experiences complete with wine pairings all evening long. Since the recent closing of Chicago's legendary Santorini in Greektown, it's becoming even more challenging to experience authentic Greek food the way it's meant to enjoyed — random morsels of tasty bites served in no particular order along with some great Greek wines and a shot of Ouzo. In Greece, this is called a meze dinner -- a complete meal of small bites or appetizers without any main dishes.  Tonight's fantasy Greek meze dinner takes place on an imaginary terraced restaurant overlooking the village of Oia on Santorini, the most picturesque and most visited of all the Greek islands. Imagine a table full of

Reminder: Urbana Park District Fall Registration Starts on August 2, 2023

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As we wrap up the summer season of my "Flavor Principles of Ethnic Cooking" series, I'm starting to test recipes for the fall season which starts on September 21, 2023. But here's a more important date: August 2, 2023 . Mark your calendar as this is the first day registration opens for all fall events at Urbana Park District. From past experience, we know that this series sells out fast. Even though we've increased the seating to 12 people per class, we anticipate this series selling out within days.  The "Flavor Principles of Ethnic Cooking" is a very popular long-running series of classes at Urbana Park District's Phillips Recreation Center. The class meets on Thursdays from 6–8pm and the tuition is $40–$75 per person which includes a full two-course dinner along with wine and beer tastings.  The sixth season of these long-running "dinner party-style" cooking classes will continue in the fall when we visit Palestine, the Czech Republic

New Recipe: Maguro Zuke Don (marinated tuna sushi bowl)

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Poke bowls are all the rage these days. Based on the Hawaiian dish called Ahi Poke, this marinated raw tuna treat was inspired by the authentic Japanese version called Maguro Zuke Don ( see recipe ). This one of the many Japanese "small plates" that we will serving on July 16, 2023 at the "Bullet Train to Osaka" pop-up dinner.  This easy-to-make dish looks beautiful and tastes wonderful. The marinade is pretty typical Asian soy-ginger-garlic based. Add some lemon juice and a little spiciness and you've got a perfect complement to raw tuna. Throw in some red and green onions for some zing. Garnish with avocado for a Californian twist and you've got a great summertime treat. Where do you get fresh raw tuna in the Midwest? Trust me, you don't want to eat "fresh" raw tuna that's been traveling many days and thousands of miles on boats, planes, and trucks. What you really want is tuna that has been processed and cryogenically frozen on

New Italian Pop-up Event: An Evening in the Cinque Terre

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A new pop-up dinner experience has been scheduled for Sunday, August 20, 2023. This time, we'll be going to Italy for a four-course Italian pesto feast with imported wine pairings all evening long. The Cinque Terre is in the Liguria region of northwestern Italy where pesto was invented.  Harkening back to ancient Roman times, garlic, cheese, and herbs have been pounded into a paste which eventually evolved into the modern version of pesto — a raw sauce that demands the freshest of ingredients. Tonight, we'll be making a large batch of pesto from scratch using fresh local basil from our farmer's market, fresh garlic, and Italian extra virgin olive oil. We'll use our raw pesto sauce in every dish on tonight's special Mediterranean feast which will include Minestrone Soup, Caprese Salad, Eggplant Parmigiana, and Frutti di Mare (seafood pasta), plus a shot of limoncello for dessert ( see the entire menu ). Seating is extremely limited. For more information about how

New Recipe: Kalua Pork with Cabbage

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Although modern Hawaiian "luaus" are held every day for the entertainment of tourists, these ancient traditional celebrations have existed for thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans. In fact, these Polynesian feasts were held to celebrate anything from the launch of a new canoe to a battle victory or a ceremony to honor Hawaiian Gods. The traditional center piece of these feasts was usually Kalua Pork , a whole pig that's wrapped in banana leaves and slow cooked with hot stones in an imu (underground oven). These days, the same dish can be recreated in a smoker, slow baked for hours in an oven, or cooked in a pressure cooker. The key ingredient is banana leaves which is available frozen at your local Asian grocer. Steaming meat with banana leaves imparts a unique subtle sweet flavor and aroma to the dish.  Learn how to make this unique pulled pork dish, plus Hawaii's famous Huli Huli chicken , an authentic tuna poke bowl, and a very tropical coconut

How to make the ultimate charcuterie board

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If you're going to have a dinner party, the ultimate starter course could be a well-designed charcuterie board which requires no cooking -- just assembly. These days charcuterie boards are all the rage and there are no more rules as to what you can or can't add to your own special creations. But if you're going to respect tradition and give credit where credit is due, perhaps the most authentic charcuterie spread should be of French origin.  Not surprisingly, it was the French who coined the word  charcuterie  in the 1400s to describe a butcher shop specializing in dressed and cured meats (the original French term chair cuite simply means "cooked flesh"). So it makes sense that the first course in each of my upcoming "A Taste of France" cooking classes will feature a different regional charcuterie board. If you're attending all three of these classes, you'll get to taste a wide variety of delicacies from the Basque country (June 27), the Medi

Reminder: Urbana Park District summer cooking classes start next week

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The first session of my summer cooking class series called " Flavor Principles of Ethnic Cooking " starts on June 8, 2023. The "Moroccan Classics" class is sold out, but there is still one seat left for the June 29 "Taste of Hawaii" class. Unfortunately, the July 20 "Vietnamese Cooking" class is also sold out, but if you wish to be added to the wait list, please call 217-367-1544. This Urbana Park District cooking class series will meet at Phillips Recreation Center on Thursdays from 6–8pm. The tuition is $40–$75 per person and includes a full two-course dinner along with wine and beer tastings. Because we'll be visiting Hawaii this summer, you can also expect some experimental retro tiki cocktails on June 29, 2023.  The sixth season of these long-running "dinner party-style" cooking classes will continue in the fall when we visit Palestine, the Czech republic, and Indonesia. A preview of the fall season is already online and

What is Sakana?

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In Japan, sakana are traditionally small snacks served in drinking establishments known as izakaya. Sakana dishes were originally designed to be paired with shochu or sake, but these days modern sakana can also be considered beer snacks. Often quite salty, sakana is similar to Spanish tapas and can be anything from fish to seafood to fried foods to pizza. At our upcoming "Bullet Train to Oasaka" pop-up dinner event on July 16, we'll be serving a selection of sakana as a first course paired carefully with specific sake tastings. Pan seared scallops (shown above) will be one of the featured small plates we'll be serving. Our version is derived from a classic French recipe, but translated to Japanese with the addition of spicy mayo, rice wine, and a touch of soy ( see recipe ). Our two-hour six-course tasting itinerary will also include a wide range of other Japanese delights all served with sake, highball, beer, and sochu pairings ( see the entire menu ). Seating is ext

New Recipe: Crème Brûlée (baked custard)

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French deserts are world-renown for their decadence, elegance, and creativity. Therefore, it goes without saying that a dessert course is required for each of the three classes. If you attend all three sessions, you'll learn how make a lemon tart, a flambéed Crêpe Suzette, and a baked custard called Crème Brûlée (shown above). Yes, making Crème Brûlée involves using a blow torch, but kitchen-size butane torches are only about $10 these days on Amazon and the investment is well worth it. My recipe is the easiest, most efficient, and fastest way to make this dish.  Learn how to make this dessert at the "A Taste of Basque Country" class on June 27 at the Common Ground Food Co-op. This class is the first of a series of three classes called "A Taste of France" which is part of my ongoing "deep dive" cooking series. Later this summer, we'll be tasting the Mediterranean flavors of Provençal cooking (July 25) and cooking up classic dishes from the Burg

New pop-up dinner event: Bullet Train to Osaka

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Osaka is considered by many as the food capital of the world. At this private invitation-only pop-up dinner experience, we'll take a fantasy foodie safari from Tokyo to Osaka on the Tokaido Shinkansen bullet train line while tasting everything Japan has to offer en route. Our six-course itinerary will include a a wide range of Japanese delights including Oshizushi (Pressed Sushi), Tsukemono (Sunomono and other pickled things), Maguro Zuke Don (a marinated tuna sashimi bowl), hand-made Gyoza (pot stickers), Okonomiyaki (a grilled savory pancake), and more. Along the way, we'll also enjoy sake, highball, beer, and sochu pairings ( see the entire menu ). Seating is extremely limited. For more information about how to score a seat at this event, please join the popup_dinners_cu Facebook group, follow @popup_dinners_cu on Instagram, or subscribe to my email newsletter . More information about upcoming pop-up events and cooking classes can always be found at www.cooking-with-p

New dates for summer French "Deep Dive" cooking classes

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Due to a recent knee injury, there's a date change for one of the French "Deep Dive" cooking classes. The new schedule for this summer series is as follows: June 27: A Taste of Basque Country July 25: The Mediterranean Flavors of Provençal Cooking Aug 15: Classic Burgundy Wine Country Cuisine (note new date) All classes are on Tuesday evenings from 6 to 8:30pm and will take place at the Common Ground Food Co-op in Urbana. These unique dinner party-style cooking classes are part demonstration and part hands-on participation. Like a Food Network cooking show, you get to see how each dish is made but with one major difference -- you also get to eat it when it's done! In each class, you get to make at least one dish yourself as well. So come hungry and be prepared to feast on a three-course dinner before class is over. Since we'll be immersing ourselves in French culture this summer, each dinner party will start with a regional charcuterie board and a champagne toas

New Recipe: Hawaiian Huli-Huli Chicken

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"Hawaiian regional cuisine" can be a foodie wonderland of delightful Polynesian-influenced dishes like Huli Huli Chicken , a distinctively flavored sweet-and-sour grilled chicken dish. Start with an Asian-influenced soy-ginger-garlic marinade, add some sweet pineapple juice, a squeeze or two of citrusy lime juice, and you've got a perfectly balanced basting sauce for truly tasty grilled chicken.  Learn how to make this great summertime backyard barbecue dish, plus a very traditional roast pork dish, an authentic tuna poke bowl, and a very tropical coconut custard dessert at my "Taste of Hawaii" cooking class on June 29, 2023. This class is part of the fifth season of my "Flavor Principles of Ethnic Cooking" series at Urbana Park District's Phillips Recreation Center. This series is almost sold out, but there are just a few seats left for this luau-style dinner party which also includes an open bar with retro tropical tiki cocktails. Registration

New Recipe: Salade Lyonnaise

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We'll be serving this classic wilted salad on two upcoming occasions: the upcoming French pop-up dinner experience on April 16 and the first French cooking class on May 30 at the Common Ground Food Co-op.  This simple "brunch salad" was invented in the city Lyon (a.k.a. "the gastronomic capital of the world") and our version is based on Paul Bocuse's recipe, but updated and streamlined with a "secret" method for poaching egg found on Youtube.  Here's the recipe . The April 16 pop-up dinner event is called "Dinner + A Movie: France" and will feature a four-course classic French dinner with Boeuf Bourguignon as the main course, followed by Salade Lyonnaise as the salad course (yes, the French like to eat their salads after the main course), and Crêpes Suzette for dessert. The dinner experience will also include champagne toast, wine pairings, aperitifs, and digestifs. Only eight people will be invited to join us. Details are here:  c