Grovestone not only provides the best selection of imported Greek olive oil to our community, they also offer a chance for local chefs to share their knowledge with us through cooking classes. These classes often include a special cocktail and exciting wine pairings to compliment each course. Luckily for me that was the case in my cooking class, A Taste of Italy, taught by local powerhouse chef and caterer Shawnae Bleichner-Cook of Pan & Cake Catering Company.


I got to Grovestone about 20 minutes before my cooking class began. My absolute favorite cuisine is Italian, so I was very enthusiastic to get started with the night. As you walk in you’ll see merchandise lining the walls, two gorgeous olive oil bottle chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, and a register in the back. When you check in for a class head to the back register to collect your menu packet, which includes the night’s recipes and wine pairings, along with a beverage or glass of wine to sip while you wait for the class to begin. The owner Louis Liagridonis will greet you with a big bright smile and take care of you throughout the evening. Once checked in I took my seat at the end of table and got started as I always do, with my glass of white wine and a piece of crusty french bread dipped in a self-made concoction of fragrant Grovestone extra virgin oil and specialty spices. I‘ve been to a few classes now and I normally go straight for Nick’s Italian seasoning, so this time I tried a sampling of the tasty Mediterranean bread dipping seasoning along with the oil. The spice mix had little salty bits that bursted with savory flavor as I bit into the olive oil soaked french bread. While I savored my bread and wine I saw the seats around me start to fill, meaning it was time for Liagridonis to announce the beginning of class.

Image: A plastic jar of Grovestone brand Mediteranean bread dipping seasoning and a decanted bottle of olive oil sit on a black tablecloth-covered table. In front of the two bottles is a small, clear, square bowl filled with seasoning and olive oil. Photo by Rebecca Wells. Image: A plastic jar of Grovestone brand Mediteranean bread dipping seasoning and a decanted bottle of olive oil sit on a black tablecloth-covered table. In front of the two bottles is a small, clear, square bowl filled with seasoning and olive oil. Photo by Rebecca Wells.

Liagridonis always begins classes by teaching us about olive oil and some of the history behind it. Grovestone’s extra virgin olive oil is imported in bulk from his family farm in Greece and bottled locally. After a short introduction to the world of olive oil it was time for Chef Shawnae Bleichner-Cook to start the demonstration. She started by mixing us all up a batch of chocolate balsamic martinis, which amazingly tasted like a grown-up version of creamy coconut chocolate milk.

Image: Proscuitto-wrapped asparagus drizzled with balsamic vinegar and garnished with sesame seeds are served on white plate. The asparagus are a light green, and the vinegar is a thick, dark brown. Photo by Rebecca Wells. Image: Proscuitto-wrapped asparagus drizzled with balsamic vinegar and garnished with sesame seeds are served on white plate. The asparagus are a light green, and the vinegar is a thick, dark brown. Photo by Rebecca Wells.

While we enjoyed our chocolatey cocktail we watched as Chef Bleichner-Cook showed us how to wrap prosciutto around spears of asparagus. Once the appetizer made it to me the asparagus itself was a touch over-cooked, but the prosciutto wrapped around the outside was lovely and crisp, while the Grovestone fig balsamic vinegar lent a lovely sweet tang. It was served with a light and fruity white wine called Impetus. (Wine tasting is included in the price of your ticket; you can also purchase wine by the bottle.)

Image: A salad sits in a white bowl. In the bowl are large pieces of chopped celery, red onion, kalamata olives, red peppers, and cucumbers. Photo by Rebecca Wells. Image: A salad sits in a white bowl. In the bowl are large pieces of chopped celery, red onion, kalamata olives, red peppers, and cucumbers. Photo by Rebecca Wells.

The next course was Tuscan salad made using Grovestone olive oil and Nick’s Italian seasoning. The salad was a bright and colorful display of crisp fresh veggies, sweet roasted red peppers, salty olives & anchovies, and it was well dressed with a tangy balsamic vinegar dressing. The pairing was a lovely Sicilian Chardonnay.

Image: A large, round, white bowl of pasta puttanesca with a silver serving spoon. The penne pasta is plain, and the red sauce sits on top. On top of the sauce are silvers of grated parmesan cheese. Photo by Rebecca Wells. Image: A large, round, white bowl of pasta puttanesca with a silver serving spoon. The penne pasta is plain, and the red sauce sits on top. On top of the sauce are silvers of grated parmesan cheese. Photo by Rebecca Wells.

The following course was pasta puttanesca (made with anchovies, olives, capers, and tomatoes). Throughout the demo Chef Bleichner-Cook continuously gave us useful tips and tricks to use while making each dish. (I especially like how she taught us to slice a tomato without getting the seeds and juice everywhere.) As the pasta sauce simmered, the room filled with the sweet smells of garlic and tomatoes. The pasta was served family style and I took an extra large scoop when the platter was passed my way. I wafted the luscious smells of the fresh Puttanesca sauce to my nose and my mouth watered. It was served over a bed of perfectly cooked penne pasta and topped with a sprinkling of grated parmesan cheese. This course was pared with a mild sweet Italian red wine called Vigneti Del Sole.

Image: A small slice of tiramisu sits on a round, clear plate on a black tablecloth-covered table. The tiramisu is layers of coffee-soaked lady fingers, and cream-colored mascarpone cheese. The top of the tiramisu is dusted with cocoa powder. Photo by Rebecca Wells. Image: A small slice of tiramisu sits on a round, clear plate on a black tablecloth-covered table. The tiramisu is layers of coffee-soaked lady fingers, and cream-colored mascarpone cheese. The top of the tiramisu is dusted with cocoa powder. Photo by Rebecca Wells.

The final course was a tiramisu made with freshly whipped cream and sprinkled generously with coco powder. I have to admit that while I don't care for the taste of coffee, I adore the smell of freshly brewed coffee. This dessert may not have encouraged me to start slamming cups of coffee in the morning, but it did have me appreciating the taste much more than I did. The bitter notes from the coffee-drenched lady finger cookies and espresso powder blended so beautifully with the creamy mascarpone cheese and sweet whipped cream. I actually collected all of the uneaten portions of tiramisu, which there weren’t many of, so that I could take some home to share with my husband.

Image: In Grovestone, a blond woman with a head set microphone is cooking in front of two long tables with diners seated at each table. Behind the woman is the checkout counter of the store, and two people are behind the counter. The back wall is painted black. Photo by Rebecca Wells.  Image: In Grovestone, a blond woman with a head set microphone is cooking in front of two long tables with diners seated at each table. Behind the woman is the checkout counter of the store, and two people are behind the counter. The back wall is painted black. Photo by Rebecca Wells. 

At the conclusion of class Chef Bleichner-Cook took questions and mingled a bit with the diners. I found her to be incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about her food and the ingredients she cooks uses in her dishes. If you want to get into the kitchen but don't know how to start, I urge you to take one of her classes to start off. You’ll be entertained, learn about cooking and food, all while enjoying scrumptious food and meeting new friends. Visit the Grovestone  or Facebook page to check ticket prices and book a class.

Grovestone
1707 Kirby Ave
Champaign
M-F 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Sa 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Top image: In Grovestone, a blond woman with a head set microphone is cooking in front of two long tables with diners seated at each table. Behind the woman is the checkout counter of the store, and two people are behind the counter. The back wall is painted black. Photo by Rebecca Wells.