The Big Easy...

Not to toot my own horn too much, but I think I'm a pretty awesome girlfriend. I cook, I bake, I plan most of our dates (taking Justin's interests into account), I try to be relatively easy-going, and tonight I engineered a surprise for my beloved. Ever since we have been serious enough to entertain the idea of vacationing together, Justin and I have been planning a hypothetical trip to New Orleans. We've both been before, but I was so young that I barely remember it and couldn't really appreciate any of the city's culinary charms, and Justin was so enamored with the city that he can't wait to go back. Given the ever-ailing economy and its effect on our personal finances, however, that trip to the Crescent City remains a shared dream for the moment, though we both enjoy talking about it on a regular basis.

Since we can't afford it right now, I decided to bring a bit of New Orleans to our lives in Chicago by signing us both up for a cooking class at The Chopping Block (where we went to learn about knife skills for Justin's Christmas present) where we would learn how to cook some New Orleans-themed dishes. Though classics such as jambalaya, gumbo and beignets were not on the menu for the evening, we would tackle blackened chicken, red beans and rice, and a bread pudding spin on bananas foster. Not bad for one evening, but it was the experience I was more interested in anyway.

You see, I decided to make the evening a surprise for Justin. I had to tell him weeks in advance that we would be doing something this evening, so he could put it in his schedule and plan accordingly, which meant that he was trying to guess what we were doing for weeks. In the past, all of my attempts to surprise him have been thwarted because we have a policy between us that any question gets an honest answer from either of us. Because Justin is exceptionally gifted at playing 20 Questions (seriously, he guessed that we were going to the Newberry Library Used Book Sale back in July when I tried to surprise him with that), he's managed to guess every surprise I've tried to plan for him in the past. After the last time, he suggested that I just respond to any of his guesses with, "It's a surprise," since it's technically true, and doesn't give anything away.

Justin and I, waiting for class to start.

This strategy worked like a charm, and by the time tonight rolled around, he was still in the dark about what was in store for him for the evening. I did drop a few hints while we were on the way there: when we were waiting on a Green Line train to transfer to the Brown Line to get to the Merchandise Mart (I'd selected that location over the one in Lincoln Square because we went to that one last time, and I thought going somewhere we'd never been before would throw him off the trail), he asked if we were going west, and I informed him that, "Actually, in a way, we're going south." Then, when we were waiting on the Brown Line, I let slip that, "In a way, you could say we've been talking about doing this for a long time." Both hints had him intrigued, but no closer to guessing.

Justin was thoroughly confused when I had him exit the train at the Merchandise Mart, and when we entered, I let him in on the gist of the surprise by telling him that since we couldn't go to New Orleans, I'd created a little bit of that city here in Chicago. When we rounded the corner that left the Chopping Block in sight, he asked if that was where we were going, and if we were having New Orleans food. When I answered in the affirmative, he was ecstatic, and couldn't believe I'd managed to keep a secret for so long. Mission accomplished.

The ingredients for our dirty rice and beans, ready to go.

The class itself turned out to be really great; better, I think, than the knife skills class that endeared me to the Chopping Block in the first place. The Merchandise Mart facility is more spacious and a little nicer than the one in Lincoln Square, and I was quite pleased with the space. Since our last class hadn't involved any actual cooking, I was pleased to see that the instructor and his assistant lay out the mise en place before the students arrive, assembling and measuring out the necessary ingredients in advance so that all the attendees must do is chop, mince, stir, combine, and actually cook the dishes. I wish I had that kind of service in my own home!

Our completed plates, with crab cakes, homemade tartar sauce, blackened chicken, and dirty rice and beans.

The class was structured as a date night, so everyone in attendance was part of a couple, and we worked in groups of four with a married duo from Hyde Park. They turned out to be very friendly and good conversationalists, so I think that improved the quality of our evening exponentially. Plus, they were a very impressive couple -- the husband was the head of the Milwaukee Zoological Society, and the wife was the Senior Vice President in charge of Human Resources at a local hospital. They were very down to earth though, and a lot of fun to work with.

The finished bananas foster bread pudding.

Though I'd probably never have selected to make crab cakes or bread pudding on my own (I don't really care for either dish, even if I make them myself), the recipes still provided a nice challenge to my culinary skills. The blackened chicken and dirty rice and beans were surprisingly delicious, and I'll definitely be adding those to my culinary repertoire. Besides being tasty, now when I recreate them at home using the recipes we were given at the class, I can call back memories of the night when I arranged a special surprise for Justin, and that alone makes the class worthwhile.

I will say that the class wasn't as informative as the knife skills lesson, but that could be the instructor's fault. I think he could sense that our group had a solid culinary grounding, so he seemed to direct most of his educational efforts elsewhere. I ended up giving our group a lesson on breading: using one hand for the flour and breadcrumbs, and one hand for the egg wash keeps both hands from getting totally crusted in breading. Thank goodness for the Food Network!

Even if I didn't learn as much this time, I still had an awesome time with cooking with Justin, meeting new people, and having a great meal. I probably won't be able to make it a surprise, but I'd sign up for another class at the Chopping Block in a heartbeat. The fact that I managed to make the evening extra-special for my man was just icing on the cake, and I'm sure it will be a fond memory for the both of us going forward.

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