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A VACATION FOR YOUR TASTE BUDS | Chefs Picks

by Staff

Yearning for a tropical getaway but it’s not in the cards right now? You can bring that tropical feeling to your own home by making a Hawaiian meal that is sure to wow friends and family.

It’s easier than you might imagine thanks to Paul Young, a self-taught cook who leads cooking classes at venues all around Champaign-Urbana.

Earlier this summer, he taught a class at the Urbana Park District’s Phillips Recreation Center on how to make a Hawaiian meal without spending your whole day in the kitchen, and he is going to share his knowledge with us here.

Paul, a retired graphic-design professor at Parkland College, has always had an interest in cooking.

It began with his first full-time job as a line cook at Mahomet’s Tree Top restaurant many years ago.

“I actually helped open that restaurant,” he says, and the French-trained chef who oversaw it taught him “the nuts and bolts of how to run a kitchen. … I manage my own home kitchen the same way.” He eventually earned his graphic-design degree at the University of Illinois, later moving to New York City and working at an advertising agency during the day and as a waiter in the dining room of the French Culinary Institute in the evenings.

While he was there, he took advantage of the opportunity to sample cuisines from around the world.

“It’s one of the greatest food cities in the world,” he says, but not just because of its many award-winning restaurants.

Rather, he fell in love with all the small, family-owned ethnic eateries in the Brooklyn and Queens boroughs. It not only contributed to his interest in cooking, but also how he thought about travel.

“That tasting of international cuisine for very cheap and extremely tasty made me eventually evolve a personal philosophy: When I do travel, the destinations I choose to go to, the number-one priority is it has to have good food,” he says.

He has since traveled to 25 countries, always making a point to be adventurous and try food he can’t get in the U.S. This sense of adventure infuses his cooking, both at home and in class.

When he teaches, he tries to offer authentic dishes from parts of the world that aren’t represented by the ChampaignUrbana restaurant scene. Over the years, he has learned how to cook the dishes he likes to eat and figured out shortcuts that allow him to spend less time cooking without compromising flavor. And if it’s so complicated that it can’t be simplified, he says with a laugh, he’d rather go to a restaurant and let someone else cook for him.

When concocting recipes, Paul says he’s not trying to create a new dish that no one has ever eaten. Rather, he’s trying to create a simpler version of more complicated recipes that are part of a particular ethnic tradition.

“Every one of these recipes on my website are original, even though they’re mash-ups,” he says. “I used up to 10 different recipes from 10 different people who have different approaches. I try to glean the wisdom of the best ones.”

His visit to Hawaii helped him parse out the flavor profile that eventually made it into the recipes he used in his cooking class.

Two flavor principles for Hawaiian food, which is heavily influenced by the Japanese, are sweet and sour, he says. Flavors often used in Hawaiian cooking include soy sauce, garlic, honey and citrus fruits, like lemon or lime.

To cut cooking time for Hawaiian recipes in particular, Paul suggests using ginger paste — “one of the greatest recent discoveries” — instead of the time-consuming chore of buying fresh ginger and peeling and grating it.

Another secret to cutting the time without cutting the flavor is to use garlic powder instead of fresh crushed garlic.

“I swear by fresh garlic,” he says, but it doesn’t dissolve like the powder, so he uses powder when he doesn’t want the fibrousness of fresh garlic.

Another secret he offers is to use liquid smoke when a recipe calls for something to be grilled, but that’s not an option. Liquid smoke will give it that grilled flavor.

Even if a Hawaiian adventure isn’t in your future, you can still enjoy a taste of the islands without the flight or copious amounts of time in the kitchen if you follow Paul’s recipes.

For even more recipes from Hawaii and other far-flung locales, as well as information on upcoming cooking classes, head to cooking-with-paul.com.

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