Saturday, December 29, 2007

Ain't No Chinese Food Here...

A Jewish Christmas Eve in Brooklyn

Like all good Jews, each Christmas Eve my family invites over twenty of our closest friends and family to our home and attempts to kill them all with gluttunous amounts of red sauce, pork and shellfish.

Each of my parents makes their signature sauce. My Mom's is a shellfish stew which she has adapted from Dom DeLuise's cookbook. After years of tweaking and fidgeting, Mom's sauce is still the best seafood sauce I've ever had:

My Dad's is a meat sauce, the recipe for which he received from a coworker years ago and has since made all his own. Teeming with meatballs, hot and sweet sausage, pork ribs and braciole, his sauce is always amazing and forms the basis for a great lasagne. This Christmas Eve marked the first in three years where I allowed myself to eat his sauce (I had a no-red meat thing going on for a while there, but that is now kaput). His meatballs made me wonder why I had ever tortured myself like that in the first place.

There were eight trays set up above sternos for everyone to feed themselves to their heart's content, but like most family gatherings, there was an overwhelming amount of leftovers. But with this stuff, as you can imagine, I have had no problem complying with my parents and trying to make a dent in what's left.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Soupy Homage

Then there was the question as to what to do with the rest of the squash. The stew itself had used slightly less than half the squash. I had sated my desire to do something unexpected (at least for me) with the squash – so this time the decision was easier. I found a recipe for butternut squash ravioli in a cider broth.

I have always been a big fan of soup and dumplings in all its incarnations. Wontons, tortellini, throw any of these in a steaming bowl of broth and you’ve got me. In all fairness, I am a bit promiscuous in my love for things in soup in general (I’m talking delicious things here, not bug-like things or inedible things in general) – I have an equal soft spot for noodles, especially udon (so enjoyably squishy) and meatballs and matzoh balls as well.

This was more of a first-course recipe than a main course, and it called for only a bit of broth to flavor the ravioli, but nonetheless, I couldn’t resist. The flavors were pure fall, the perfect treatment for a butternut squash. It was just meant to be in a dish such as this, where all of the flavors seem to pay tribute to the same brisk feel and spicy air. It deserved nothing less than this – a bowl of pure homage, where all the flavors and elements seem to bow down and gladly take supporting roles.

In late-November and early-December, there is absolutely no going wrong with a recipe starring squash, apple cider and maple syrup. Now don’t get me wrong, this is not an incredibly sweet recipe. The broth was a bit sweet, but there was more chicken broth than cider in it, along with a great deal of butter and scallions, so it wasn’t overpoweringly so. A whole bowlful of the broth would have been far too much, though, so the ladle and a half I used was more than enough. The ravioli themselves were delicious, and would have been fantastic plated beneath a brown butter and sage sauce – the combination of squash and brown butter combination as complimentary as bread and butter. There’s really no going wrong there. One of these days I’ll tackle fresh pasta, but not with finals lingering.

The squash was first roasted and then mashed with ricotta cheese, parsley and salt and pepper. It was all shockingly easy – no doubt attributable to the use of wonton wrappers. The recipe suggested pot sticker wrappers, but I didn’t feel like making the trek down to Chinatown, so wonton wrappers from the grocery store were going to have to do. This made my ravioli a bit smaller than I think they were supposed to be. Since the wrappers were square, I used the cap of a cocktail shaker to cut out circles.

A nice dollop spooned into the center of each wrapper was packaged inside after I wet the edges with a damn paper towel and pressed them together between my thumb and forefinger. I made a whole bunch of these, but instead of being tedious and tiring as I had anticipated it would be, the whole process was surprisingly calming, much like getting a knot out of a necklace, which I also find oddly entrancing.

Butternut Squash Ravioli in Cider Broth
From Bon Appetit, December 2000
Recipe can also be found here

1 1/2 lbs. butternut squash, halved lengthwise, seeded
2Ts brown sugar
1/8 t ground cinnamon
1/4 C pure maple syrup
3 T butter
1/2 C water

1 C ricotta cheese
1/4 C grated Parmesan cheese
3 t chopped fresh parsley
1/2 t chopped fresh thyme

Wonton wrappers, cut into circles

1/3 C chopped shallots
1 1/2 C chicken brother
1/2 C apple cider

Shaved Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Place squash, cut side up, in baking pan. Sprinkle with brown sugar and cinnamon; season with salt and pepper. Drizzle with syrup; dot with 1 tablespoon butter. Pour 1/2 cup water into bottom of pan. Bake until squash is tender, about 1 hour. Cool completely.

Scoop out squash from the shell and mash in a bowl. Place 3/4 C squash to medium bowl (reserve remaining squash for another use). Add in ricotta, 1/4 C grated Parmesan, 2 T parsley and thyme to bowl and mix to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste

Lay the wonton wrappers on a flat surface and place a dollop of filling in center of each, trying to judge how much will fill the wrapper without overflowing (I guess I used about 2 teaspoons or so per ravioli – it took me a while to get the measurement right). Wet the edges of the wrapper with water (I didn’t have a pastry brush or anything, so I just used a damp paper towel); fold in half and press the edges to seal them.

Melt the remaining butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add shallots and sauté for a minute, until the shallots begin to turn translucent and soft. Add the chicken stock and cider and simmer 8 minutes. Add a tablespoon of parsley and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Cook ravioli a few at a time in salted boiling water. Remove from water gently with a slotted spoon and place a few in each bowl. Bring the soup to a simmer and spoon a bit of broth over the ravioli.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Starring Squash

I had a butternut squash staring at me from the counter for a couple of weeks. It looked at me longingly, begging for me to take it out of limbo and just do something with it already. Each time I walked into the kitchen, I felt as if I needed to avoid its accusing stare, as if it would rush me into doing something with it without thinking. I didn’t just want another butternut squash soup, and I wasn’t willing to be forced into settling for the usual. I wanted to do something where the squash could be the star, where its presence could be seen and felt – where it was the substance of the dish. I wanted a dish that was unmistakably (and unapologetically) orange.

I did a laborious Epicurious search and after much deliberation I settled on a Moroccan butternut squash stew, rich with spices and color, served atop a gorgeous pile of quinoa, which was something I had also been waiting to try my hand at for a while. I had eaten quinoa before, but I had never ventured to make it. This dish was perfect for a chilly fall evening (since I made it a while ago but I have been unable to document it as yet, because of that whole finals thing). The stew was spicy, but not overwhelmingly so, but just spicy enough so that it warmed my body from the inside out – not unlike a nice glass of whiskey served up neat.

I had to tweak the recipe a bit, since I didn’t have saffron (or coriander, shame on me), so I bumped up the measurements of some of the other spices as I saw fit. Saffron is pretty expensive, and I didn’t really want to purchase a bottle just for this, so I just left it out. I’m sure it added something to the dish, but I did not miss it at all. I even messed it up a bit and didn’t add the spices at the correct time, dumping them carelessly into the pot after the liquids, but it still came out deliciously. The dish was hearty, spicy and wholesome, providing me with a whopping serving of nutrients of which I am probably deficient. Suffice it to say that the recipe is quite forgiving.

The quinoa itself was delicious – I ate it for days later, since the recipe, though cut in half, was still far too much. I had it a couple of days later beneath a couple of fried eggs, and would find myself just eating it straight out of the Tupperware container from time to time. I could only find red quinoa, which came pre-rinsed and everything, and it turned out very nicely. The red added a nice pop of color even beneath the heavy stain of the turmeric. Quinoa is incredibly easy to cook – just make sure you use a 2:1 ratio of liquid to quinoa.

Butternut Squash and Carrot Stew

Adapted from Bon Appetit, January 2006

Squash and Carrot Stew
2 T olive oil
1 C onion, coarsely chopped
3 garlic cloves, chopped
2 t paprika
1 t salt
½ t ground black pepper
½ t ground cumin
½ t turmeric
½ t ground ginger
¾ t cayenne pepper
1 C water
1 can (14.5 oz) diced tomatoes, drained
2 T fresh lemon juice
3 C diced, peeled butternut squash, cut into one-inch dice
2 C diced, peeled carrots, cut into ½ - ¾ inch dice

1 C red quinoa
2 t butter
1 T olive oil
½ C finely chopped onion
¼ C finely chopped peeled carrot
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ t salt
½ t turmeric
¼ t ground black pepper
2 C water

½cup chopped fresh cilantro, divided

To make the stew:

Heat oil in large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion to the oil and sauté until soft, stirring often so it doesn’t burn, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and stir for 1 minute. Mix in paprika, salt and the rest of the spices. Add one cup of water, the tomatoes, and the lemon juice to the pot. Bring to boil and then add the squash and the carrots. Cover the pot and simmer over medium-low heat until the vegetables are fork-tender, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes. Season the stew with salt and pepper to taste. Immediately prior to serving, stir in half of the chopped cilantro.

For the quinoa:

If your quinoa has not been pre-rinsed (this will be indicated on the package), rinse the quinoa and drain. If it has, obviously skip the rinsing.

Melt butter with oil in large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and carrot. Cover; cook for about ten minutes until vegetables begin to brown, stirring frequently so that they do not burn. Add garlic, salt, and turmeric and sauté for one minute. Add the quinoa; stir one minute to coat the quinoa with the oil. Add 2 cups water. Bring to boil and reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and simmer until liquid is absorbed and quinoa is tender, which should be about 15 minutes.

Serve warm stew over quinoa and sprinkle with the chopped cilantro.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Oh My Darling

December is never really fully embraced by me. It comes about unwanted, forcing upon me sleet, cold, and the worst of the worst, finals. Especially in Chicago, where the weather just turns to grey. The sun, which not long ago played a lead role in the adventure of each day, returns now only once in a while for an always long-awaited cameo. Yes, that picture above is beautiful and yes, my street is gorgeous when blanketed by a fresh coat of powder. Though it does bring about the first snow, the holidays and general good cheer, I get caught up in the winter-ness of the December. Autumn is great, the leaves turn colors, the air smells of spice. Winter brings to mind pictures of slush, especially in this early part, when the temperature has not quite steadied itself, and snow turns to sleet, rain into ice. The roads go from looking serene and gorgeous to being slick and dangerous. But among all of this, is one of my favorite things about the winter.

Clementines are a little bright spot in the greyness of the coming season. They're sweet and summerish, and though I've never been a true fan of oranges, these things can do me no wrong. It's just hard to get a good orange, one that's perfectly juicy and whose sweetness is unobstructed by the bitter pith. Orange juice also has never been a favorite of mine. But these clementines, they know how to get me. It is just a bit harder to get a bad clementine than it is to get a good one. And in spite of everything else that December brings, they are one of the bright spots, one of the cures to the winter gloom. They're Mother Nature's little apology for the elements she has thrust my way. And I accept graciously, put on my gloves, and gleefully go about my winter.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

A Little Distraction

I apologize for the lack of posting. It's finals season so I'm hunkered down. However, I figure we could all use a little distraction now and then, and this one helps fight hunger.

Free Rice

For every word answered correctly, 20 grains of rice are donated through the United Nations to help fight world hunger. So when you need to take a break from whatever you're doing, make that break a worthwhile one.

Monday, November 26, 2007


There’s something really exciting to me about eating at an out-of-the-way restaurant. It makes me feel like I’m in on a delicious secret. I feel as if others dining with me are sharing this sentiment, and I love the sense of community that exists among diners in such a restaurant. Though none of us know each other, we all silently acknowledge that we’re in this secret club together. After eating at a little-known place that I really enjoy, I always face the ultimate dilemma – do I tell rave reviews to everyone I know about it, or do I keep the information to myself to ensure that little community stays that little community? Since starting this blog, I now feel as if I have an affirmative duty to share these little secrets with you. This one, though, is one for which I cannot take full credit. If any of you should try Bonsoiree, please direct all thanks to my friend Allison.

Bonsoiree is in an unassuming spot in Logan Square, a rare storefront on a street of old factories. The casual space stands in spectacular juxtaposition to the culinary art that pours out from its kitchen. All the better though, since there is less hoopla to interfere with the food. Since it is BYOB we entered with three bottles of wine, an Alsatian Pinot Noir, a Pinot Gris from Oregon and a third of which I characteristically neglected to take a picture. It was red, of that much I am sure. Allison and I were the first ones there from our party, and our waiter made conversation with us while we waited. He was fully interested in everything we had to say, and was not just killing time in between serving people. He could tell that we were a couple of ladies that really enjoy our food, and seeing our three bottles of wine, he suggested we try a tasting menu that the chef would tailor to pair with our wines. Characteristically, again, we accepted.

We began with an amuse bouche, an olive tapenade on crackers. It tasted precisely how you would imagine it would. Nothing too special here, but what do you expect from olive tapenade?

Next we were given Prince Edward Island mussels with sweet Thai red curry, crispy rice noodles and a doughy thing. These were nothing short of delicious. My gripe with Thai curry usually is that the coconut milk makes it far too creamy. This, however, was a great consistency. The coconut milk did not overwhelm the taste of the mussels, but served to mute the spiciness of the sauce to an ideal level. The doughy thing was good, but unnecessary. I would have been more than satisfied with just the mussels, but the sauce was so good I used the doughy thing to sop up the curry.

We proceeded on with braised rabbit with oven-dried tomato, gnocchi, chives and the essence of butter. I’m still trying to figure out what the ‘essence of butter’ is, but whatever it is, it’s fantastic. The rabbit cooked nicely, but though it had great flavor, it lacked a bit of depth. The tomato was probably the most delicious thing on the plate though. The oven drying brought out all the flavors of the tomato and allowed the acidity to cry out unapologetically. It made everything else on the plate taste better. The acidity complemented the subtle flavors of the rabbit. The gnocchi appeared to have been pan-fried, which gave them a really good crunch.

Onward, to my favorite dish of the night – a perfectly seared diver scallop with autumn plum medley and organic mâche (from Michigan, as were so many of the things with which we were presented, as was made known to us by our server). The scallop was cooked to perfection, with a visually appealing brown sear and near raw-ness towards the bottom. The autumn plum medley tasted a lot like haroseth, a chunky apple and cinnamon sauce served at the Passover Seder to represent the mortar that the Jews used to build the pyramids. This dish was the epitome of minimalism, when the ingredients are of such high quality, why mess with them? I cut the single scallop into many, many too-small bites just to prolong my experience with it.

We were next presented with sautéed skate with fall mushrooms, corn cake, red pepper –lime coulis and micro greens (from Michigan, in case you were wondering). This skate managed to achieve everything that it possibly could have. There are so many things that can go wrong when cooking skate, but the chef executed this perfectly. The flaked at the touch of the fork, yet had a delicate crunchiness that made it incredibly exciting. The corn cake was not bursting with flavor, but the texture was perfect, and actually had me craving corn muffins a week later. I have not had a corn muffin in maybe nine years, yet this had me yearning for that crunchy, mealy bite. The coulis lent a lovely aesthetic note, but its brightness was not just visual. The sweetness paired nicely with the earthiness of the mushrooms and also served to nicely lighten up the fish. It perked everything on the plate up, without overwhelming any of it. The texture was silken, a great contrast to the crunchiness of the fish and the corn cake.

Then came the lamb. Two chops were plated beside a tortilla-cheese cake with micro greens and what I believe was a port-like sauce, though I would be lying through my teeth if I were to tell you I remember. The lamb was a just-there medium rare. My problem with lamb is that it has the tendency to taste a bit gamey. This was anything but. The simple spices on the chops were just enough to flavor the meat while still allowing the flavor of the lamb itself to come through. The tortilla cake didn’t wow me, but it didn’t need to. The sauce was light, which was necessary five courses in.

On the heels of the lamb was the cheese plate served with dried black mission figs, nuts and chive crackers. We were given two plates for the four of us, which allowed for a more than generous serving for each of us. I don’t quite recall what precisely each of the cheeses was, but I know that at twelve and three were cows milk cheeses, hard at twelve, triple crème at three. Both were great. The rest of the table didn’t like the soft cow’s milk cheese as much as I did, but I’m a sucker for triple crème cheeses. A six was a hard goat’s milk cheese and at nine a triple crème goat cheese. The triple crème goat was my favorite of the bunch, while the rest of the group stuck to their guns and devoured the hard goat. Well, we devoured all of it, but that was the first to go.

I was filled to the brim, but dessert had not yet found its way out onto the table. In the center is a winter vegetable cake crusted in pistachios with yuzu meringue. The deep red surrounding it was a beet frosting. It was accompanied by two pieces of banana bread pudding and what I think were amoretti cookies. Our side of the table was given this plate, which the other side was given an apple pastry thing. I was happy to be where I was. The cake was akin to a carrot cake, but the pistachios really brought it to another level. While the other side of the table thought it was a bit salty, I was gobbling it up. I think it might be a sort of endowment effect, since they liked what they had been given and we liked what we had, but I’m not about to go into individual preference shortcuts right now. What matters is that I don’t usually like cake. While I like the spiciness that usually comes with carrot cake, the cream cheese frosting usually deters me. However, I do like salt, and the spiciness of the cake itself and the saltiness of the pistachios with the muted sweetness of the meringue, it was all there.

Our server kept stopping by throughout the meal to inquire as to how we liked everything. When we left he asked us which dishes we liked the best and whether we had any critiques. He was conversational and inquisitive, but without being abrasive and obnoxious. He was interested in hearing out truthful thoughts, and I feel as if I had let him down with the sparseness of my impressions on my way out the door, especially since we were, by over an hour, the last people there. What could I do though? It was three bottles of wine later than when we got there.

I know it is a usual complaint after a tasting menu that one is still hungry, but I was so far from having that problem. Actually, any chance that problem would arise was obliterated upon consumption of the skate. I don’t know how my male dining companions felt, but Allison and I could barely move. Such delicious, delicious discomfort.

Bonsoiree Café and Delicacies
2728 W Armitage (between Fairfield and Washtenaw Aves)
(773) 486-7511

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Shame on Me

I cannot believe it has taken me this long to write a post about Macaroni and Cheese. I mean, seriously, just take a look at the name of my blog! It should have been the first post – every other post, really – and for this oversight, I apologize.

The truth is, I have had a craving for Macaroni and Cheese for the last month and a half. I try to be healthy, and am usually successful. Mac and Cheese doesn’t really fit too well into that whole nutrition plan. I knew I was going to break down, though - it was just a matter of time. In fact, I bought four different types of cheese in anticipation of such a break down.

There are endless possibilities when it comes to Macaroni and Cheese. Such a simple dish can be taken to gourmet extremes, or kept at the comfort food we all know and love. There are Mac and Cheese shops popping up all over New York, with menus ranging from classic cheddar and American, to gourmet combinations like Gruyere, mushrooms and shrimp.

After discussing my blog a bit at Aria, I mentioned that next on my to-cook list was Macaroni and Cheese. A heated debate ensued. It seems that there are two camps of Mac and Cheesers, the purists and the extremists. The former like their Mac and Cheese made with simply American and cheddar cheeses, while the latter have no issues with finding kale or chard in theirs. I started out arguing for the gourmet camp, since so many of the best foods are those with which we are familiar, but which are revamped or taken to the next level somehow.

However, when my cravings for Macaroni and Cheese, the cravings that I had managed for so long to ignore, resurfaced, I found that I didn’t want any fancy pants ingredients. I didn’t want to mess with it. Despite the fact that I had four types of cheese in my fridge, I went straight for the cheddar. Deep down, I am a Macaroni and Cheese purist.

I think that’s what it is about Macaroni and Cheese. It’s the nostalgia. The dish brings you back to a time when there was no issue whatsoever with eating a giant bowl of buttery noodles covered in a rich, creamy, cheese sauce. That’s why we want Macaroni and Cheese, not because of some newfangled trend, but because it is comfort food in its purest form. And to those with whom I was arguing, particularly my dear friend John, I apologize.

Macaroni and Cheese should be Macaroni and Cheese. Once it is morphed and changed and ‘grown up’ it loses its soul. The bells and whistles detract from the pure, childlike enjoyment of eating such a simple delight. It becomes something totally different, and while I have every intention of making a pasta with kale and with shrimp and with Gruyere and goat cheese, I will not dare to call it Macaroni and Cheese.

Macaroni and Cheese, or more accurately, Rotini and Cheese

2 T butter
2 T flour
4 ounces good cheddar cheese, grated
A couple of slices of American cheese, cut into smaller pieces
1 C milk
1/3 of a pound of pasta*
2 T breadcrumbs
2 T parmigianno cheese, grated

While the pasta is cooking, heat the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. After it melts, sprinkle in the flour and mix it in with the butter with a whisk. Once the flour is combined, let the roux cook for a couple of minutes to allow the flour to cook and get rid of that floury taste, whisking frequently. As the roux is cooking, heat up the milk in a saucepan or in the microwave until it is warm, but do not allow it to boil. Pour the milk into the saucepan and season with whatever you want. I used salt and pepper, some mustard powder and hot sauce.

Remove the saucepan from the heat and add the cheddar and American cheeses to the milk mixture. Whisk until combined into a thick, cheesy consistency. Adjust the seasonings and cheesiness to your liking. Drain the pasta and add it into the saucepan to coat. Transfer the pasta to a casserole dish and sprinkle the top. Combine the parmigianno cheese with the breadcrumbs and sprinkle on top of the pasta. Bake for 20-30 minutes until the top is golden brown and crispy. Remove and enjoy.

I made this again about a week later and used only salt and pepper to season and skipped the breadcrumb topping. I actually preferred it prepared this way. It allowed the pasta itself to get crispy, instead of just the breadcrumbs, which had also kind of overpowered the flavors of the cheddar and American cheeses.

* OK, so a lot of those measurements are totally fabricated. Truth is, I have no idea how much of most of that stuff I used, but I do know that I used 2 T of flour and butter and a cup of milk. The rest of the stuff is ball parked, but probably not that far off. Use as much pasta as you like, depending on how cheesy you want your pasta to be.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


This was my second time at Aria, which is nested in the Fairmont Hotel on Columbus. Once you get through the revolving doors, though, it doesn't really have the feel of a hotel restaurant. The main dining room plays host to the bar and to a sushi bar. We dined in the back of the restaurant, which is a long, narrow wing off of the main dining area. There is no access to the hotel from this part of the restaurant, so there's no overt signs of being in a hotel back there. Because it is separated from the main room, though, it also lacks some of the ambiance and, dare I say, scene. The fun color scheme from the main dining room is not carried over to this wing and the lights are quite a bit brighter. That's not to say that this part of the restaurant was not inviting, though. The wing is cloaked in warm tones, with mahogany walls and reddish-orange tones throughout the decor.

Aria describes itself as "culturally inspired, comfortably American." The menu itself is pretty interesting, since it goes far past the point of fusion and is essentially just a sampling of dishes from a slew of seemingly unconnected cultures. Menu items run from the middle-eastern inspired, such as marinated lamb kabobs, to Chinese, with duck and lobster chow mein, to Indian, with Punjabi curry. Generally, though it seems to work. We ate from a short menu since it was an event for the Firm, but the options were strikingly diverse. The main course options were salmon with Mediterranean influence, shrimp and chicken pad thai, the aforementioned duck and lobster chow mein with coriander noodles, sweet shoyu and cardamom, along with a 10 ounce steak covered with a red wine demi-glace.

Before our meal we were given baskets of warm naan, accompanied by four sauces.

I cannot fully recall what each of those sauces were, but I know that one was lentil- based, which was very good. There was also a yogurt sauce, a spinach paneer type and I cannot for the life of me remember what that little number on the top left-hand side of that photo was, but I am pretty sure it was curry-based. Either way, naan is delicious and this naan was no different.

Mushroom Soup Your Mother Never Made

This soup was quite good, if slightly over-salted. A friend complained that her soup was a bit oily, but I did my best not to mess with that little pool of oil you can see above. I ate around it, since I had a suspicion that it wasn't necessary in the soup, and it wasn't. The soup was a mix of porcini, chanterelles and morels and was served with the goat cheese toast. The mushrooms for the most part were totally blended into the soup, but there were a number of chunks in there too. Those chunks seems like they were all button mushrooms though- a nice chunk of chanterelle would not have been met negatively. Overall, though the soup was pretty nice, and since my mother has never made mushroom soup in her life (we're not a big cream-based soup family), it had no problem living up to its title.

Garbanzo Dusted Filet of Scottish Salmon with Black Olive Tampenade, Preserved Lemon, Tabouleh, Hummus Sauce and Micro Parsley

Onwards,from American cuisine to on to Mediterranean. I was a little bit disappointed with this dish. The fish sat atop a bed of tabouleh, which very heavy on the cracked wheat but was nonetheless good. This tabouleh was surrounded by the hummus sauce, which tasted, shocker- like hummus but was much thinner. The fish was cooked perfectly, but the olives brought just way too much salt to the rest of the plate and pretty much ruined it for me. The tampenade managed to infiltrate every component of the dish and overwhelmed the whole thing. The dish probably would have stood up quite well in the olive's absence , though. It was perfectly alright though, since I was approaching the level of painful fullness before my main course was even brought to the table. What can I say, I just can't resist the naan.

As if the cultural theme of the meal was not confusing enough, the waiters brought along a few plates of potatoes for the table. I guess this is the "comfortably american" part:

From left to right there were mashed yams with a sauce that I cannot quite put my finger on right now, garlic potatoes gratin and roasted fingerlings with horseradish sauce.

I ate just enough of each to fulfill my food-blogger duty. The gratin potatoes were probably my favorite of the bunch. You usually can do no wrong by me with horseradish, but that sauce just tasted like mayonnaise, with which you can usually do no right by me.

Selection of Homemade Sorbets

The four sorbets you see above are apple cider, concord grape, roasted french butter pear and spiced cranberry orange. The apple cider was probably my favorite. The Concord grape really packed on the flavor and was also delicious. The cranberry orange didn't leave any sort of a lasting impression, while the texture of the pear sorbet was not at all what I expected. It was just a bit creamy, but the flavors were still very good. You really cannot go wrong with pear though, can you?

A general sentiment that I heard echoed up and down the table was that the food as a whole was quite salty. I stole a bit of chow mein from my neighbor to the right, and it was far too salty indeed. There were rave reviews about the steak, though and everyone left the restaurant quite pleased. I do apologize for my spotty recap of this meal. It went down on November 1st, so that was quite a while ago, but school has kept me quite busy this past week.

I've been to Aria twice now, both for Firm events, and have been happy with my food both times. The service is always incredibly nice and accommodating; they let us hang around well beyond the time our tables were cleared even though it was obvious they were waiting for us to go home. Despite the fact that the menu is influenced with by such a variety of cuisine, it is executed on a fairly consistent level.

200 N. Columbus Dr.
(312) 444-9494

Sunday, November 4, 2007

In Praise of Salt

I've never really been one for sweets. Savory was always more my bag. I don't know what it is about salt that just calls out to me. It could be because I'm Jewish, but I'm not going to start getting stereotypical here. I'm often singing the praises of sodium, and when I mentioned to my roommate, Emily, that I was thinking of writing an ode to salt for my next entry, she went ahead and wrote the following:

there once was a shaker of salt
i saw it and couldn't find fault
it made things delish
especially fish
i would not put it in a malt

I couldn't have said it better myself.

I first tasted the salty wonder of anchovies over the summer. They just get a really bad rap, much like Brussels sprouts, which I think, sadly is what took me so long to first give them a chance. I never fell for this with Brussels sprouts, but it was probably a combination of their reputation and my history with fish that kept me away. Their mere existence on a pizzeria menu is puzzling to every child; it's just beyond comprehension to a ten year old to put tiny fish fillets on an otherwise perfect piece of pizza. They're a true grown-up taste. I've grown to really, really like anchovies recently - they have a fantastic salty taste without being briny like clams and oysters. The can impart the perfect amount of salt to a dish without overpowering the rest of the ingredients with their fishiness.

I read a tragic tale not that long ago about a culinary jaunt gone horribly awry. A pot of boiling water was dropped on a foot, a painful burn the result. But the pasta Adam made just looked so good, and the ingredients were so simple and straightforward that I could almost taste it. I felt that his enjoyment was slightly (read: probably fully) compromised by the fact that he had been severely injured by the very pasta he was then supposed to enjoy. Adam himself recognized this bias. You wouldn't ask a woman who had been beaten to be on the very jury that was supposed to decide her attacker's guilt, nor would you want a food critic to review a restaurant whose chef he knew was having an affair with his wife. I think you know what I'm getting at here. So I figured I'd give it a go. The bottom line is that the simplicity of the ingredients in this dish seemed that they would impart the perfect amount of saltiness to balance with the heartiness of the pasta and the chickpeas.

Penne with Anchovies and Chickpeas (adapted from the Amateur Gourmet)

The recipe is incredibly easy, and I took Adam's suggestion to add garlic to the sauce. I just took twelve anchovies, mashed them with some salt and two medium-sized cloves of garlic with a fork. Then I added two small stalks of diced celery and the liquid from the can of chickpeas and the sauce was done. It was easy enough. Once the penne was done cooking, I drained it and put it back in the pot with the sauce, the chickpeas, a decent amount of coarsely ground pepper and some parmigianno regianno cheese. The sauce was a bit too liquidy for my taste though, so I turned the heat back on low and let the sauce cook down and thicken up, stirring pretty often. By the time the sauce was to my liking, the anchovies had disintegrated, as anchovies are wont to do, so I finely chopped another one and sprinkled it with some more grated parmigianno on top of the pasta once it was in my bowl.

When all was said and done, I really enjoyed the dish. Cooking the sauce with the pasta was definitely necessary, since it allowed the sauce to adhere to the pasta. If I hadn't done that, the sauce would have all sat idly at the bottom of the bowl - this way it gave flavor to the pasta. I'm not really sure the celery was necessary, but it didn't offend my palate in any way. The anchovies made their presence known with their salty pop, even though they were no longer visible in the sauce. The chickpeas gave the meal substance and are what ultimately made the small bowl I made for myself incredibly filling. The pasta was hearty without being complex. I would make this again in a heartbeat; it's healthy, fast and incredibly cheap to make. It's also delicious, which doesn't really hurt its case. The ingredients are so straightforward and the dish is seasoned with only salt and pepper, so you know exactly what you're getting. And if you're in the mood for something salty, this should hit the spot.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Bistrot Zinc

I have been to France only once in my life, when I was 14 years old. I wasn't really old enough to appreciate it for what it is and to really immerse myself in the French experience. The open space of Bistrot Zinc allows me to feel as if I was there again every once in a while. The space is just so, well, French, at least what I remember French to be. The owner said that the bar is his pride and joy, that his design was inspired by the bars of traditional Parisian bistros, and it's beautiful. Wood molding around the length of the bar and a brushed steel top make it seem quite authentic. There are long, sprawling banquettes that run down about one-half the length of the restaurant - straight down the middle. Large mirrors adorn the walls and the front windows open up onto the street. My favorite part, though, are the floors. The red, black and white tile is unimpressive on its own. But as a part of the whole it completes the scene. It brings a quaintness to the space and allows what has the potential to seem too fancy to be entirely unstuffy. The clientele is a bit on the older side; that could be either a cause or an effect of the low noise level of the restaurant. I have never struggled to maintain a conversation, and you are far enough from the table next to you to speak at a normal level and not fear unintentional eavesdropping. The waiters are all dressed in white shirts and black ties with white aprons tied around their waists, and are all very accomodating and pleasant. The menu is typical French bistro fare, featuring staples like Salad Niçoise, Soupe à L’Oignon and Steak Frites. There is also a seasonal menu that changes monthly, but still keeps the typical French theme a running constant throughout the entire menu. I've been here a few times before and have never been disappointed with my food. I've never really left thrilled and blown away, but Bistrot Zinc executes the standard French fare quite reliably, with Chicago-sized portions, which are not so French, of course.

Moules Mariniéres
Mussels steamed with white wine, shallots, cream and parsley:

The portion size of this dish has decreased dramatically since the last time I ordered it, which was probably a good eight months ago and was also the last time I had eaten here. The sauce in this dish is very good, if standard. It is perfect for soaking up and devouring with bread, which I did happily. The mussels themselves are incredibly plump, as you can probably see from the photo above, far larger than any other mussel I have found in any Chicago restaurant. I do wonder, though, why the protion size is now less than half of what it was before.

Sautéed Skate with Brown Butter, Capers, and Lemon:

This dish was a bit too greasy for my liking. I know, I know, a brown butter sauce is going to be greasy, but it permeated the fish a bit too much and made parts of the portion a bit soggy. From the color of the fish I expected a bit of a bite, a slight crunch, but I was wrong. It was cooked well though, it was not at all overcooked and the fish flaked into sections with the slightest touch of my fork. The capers lent a nice flavor to the butter, and thereby to the fish. The plate was completed with a giant mound of mashed potatoes, which were quite bland. This characteristic was at the same time disappointing and relieving, since I then had the ability to season them myself. Why, however, there were croutons thrown atop this mound I don't quite understand. It seemed like a last-ditch effort to complete the dish and give the potatoes a bit more of a presence on the plate, to ensure that they didn't just blend into the white china on which they were served. Grinding some pepper into the potatoes would have lent the same effect, though, and the pepper's role in the dish would have been a bit more apparent. The croutons just didn't do anything for the dish, their texture wasn't necessary and their presence lent no flavor to the dish, as the croutons themselves were not at all seasoned.

And it was another pleasant dining experience. Not the best food I have ever eaten, but I left sated and happy. Part of that happiness has to be attributed to dining with my boyfriend, Andrew, but it was also due to the fact that Bistrot Zinc delivered exactly what I had expected of it, good but not great food and good service, and that was all I had asked of it. I don’t go into Bistrot Zinc expecting to be wowed and awed by culinary creations, but I know what I expect and I get just that, reliably.

Bistrot Zinc
1131 N. State St. (at E. Elm St)
(312) 337-1131

Friday, October 19, 2007

Lula Cafe

Last week I participated in what seemed like an improvisational offbeat tour of Chicago with a friend from high school (and McGill) and a couple of others. We were all over the city, which is great for me because I tend to get trapped in the same routine. My school schedule keeps my life pretty much centered around a few neighborhoods - the one in which I go to school, the one in which I study, the one in which I live. My friend Josh comes in every once in a while and takes me out of my comfort zone and I get to see the city in a whole different way. Josh is a pretty transient person, so he has more of an inate tendency to explore than I probably do. Last time he was in we went to a beer festival at Three Floyds Brewery in Munster, Indiana. Who knew? This time there were plans of a corn maze, which were thrown to the wayside one the downpour arrived. We still managed to make some pretty good stops, which took us all around Wicker Park, Andersonville, Uptown, the Clybourn Corridor, Lincoln Park, the list goes on. The feature of the night though, was our meal at Lula Cafe in Logan Square.

Logan Square has recently turned into a haven for young professionals. Hipsters have flocked en masse and the area has become quite gentrified in recent years. Lula Cafe has been around for a while, and like the area in which it's found, has become a destination for the hipster set and yuppies who think themselves edgy. The space itself is really comfortable, no tables are too close together and the bar is in a separate room, leaving diners with minimal disturbances. The restaurant has gained exposure and crowds flock consistently; we entered at about 8:15 on a Wednesday and were greeted by a hostess telling us there was a 40-minute wait for a table. Josh spoke quite highly of the place, so we happily sat down at the bar and waited.

There are two sides to the menu. On the left lays a seasonal menu that changes (I believe, don't quote me on this though) weekly. On the right is their cafe menu, the kitchen staples served year-round. An unexpexted mix of salads, sandwiches, soups and other small bites comprise the cafe menu. Among its entrees are a couple of pasta dishes, a Moroccan tagine and a roast chicken, which is by far the most expensive item on the cafe menu at $14. The food is incredibly affordable and you certainly get a lot for your money. With two drinks and an appetizer for the table, our dinner for four, including tip, came in at around $25 per person. And was it ever worth it.

"Fettuccine Alfredo " with Pumpkin Egg Cream, Wild Mushrooms, Braised Duck, Pecorino, Pan di Zucchero, and Brown Sugar Bread Crumbs:

By the way, that is the pork confit that was supposed to be served with my fish at the edge of the plate above. I ordered it on the side and came on a separate plate with the radicchio. I didn't order this dish, but I had a couple of bites off of my friend's plate. The flavors were really good, the brown sugar bread crumb lent a really sweet note to the pasta, which is something I can't say I've experienced too many times before. At the same time, it was this sweet note that gave me the impression that a full plate would have been far too much. The two bites I had were more than enough for me, I got to taste something I hadn't and that was that. The sauce was definitely not as heavy as actual alfredo sauce, which was a good thing, but I couldn't really discern the taste of pumpkin too well under the sweetness of the bread crumbs and the saltiness of the cheese.

Rabbit Ravioli with Sunchoke, Escarole, Rabbit Broth, and Citrus:

I don't typically eat rabbit, but I was peer pressured into it by the three boys with whom I was dining - I guess I didn't really put up much of a fight now that I think about it. The ravioli were pretty good, the meat was moist and the pasta had a nice bite to it. I couldn't really figure out what the rabbit was seasoned with, but it had a nice subdued spice to it. The greens were good and the broth was really light.

Pan Seared Rushing Waters Rainbow Trout with Pork Confit, Radicchio, Delicata Squash, Watercress, and White Anchovy:

This was a huge piece of fish, so everyone at the table got a good taste. All of my dining companions agreed that this was the best dish on the table. It was ordered off of the (purportedly, this was my first time here) ever-changing seasonal menu, as were the Ravioli and the Fettuccine. I ordered the pork confit on the side, not knowing that the radicchio would come on the side with it, but the dish was still great. The fish was perfectly cooked, the skin crispy. The citrusy-dressed watercress complemented the saltiness of the fish quite nicely. The squash was fork tender and delicious. I don't recall much of an anchovy taste at all and I wish I had, since anchovies are one of my favorite things of late. The sauce from the radicchio and pork plate might have elevated some of the flavors a bit, but the dish was delicious even in its absence.

Shiitake Quesadilla with Queso Fresco, Spinach and Chevre:

This was the only item on the table ordered from the regular menu. The shiitake mushrooms gave the quesadillas the impression of meatiness and had a great, substantial presence between the tortilla. My friend declared them the best quesadilla he's ever had. The moisture of the mushrooms did not escape, preserving the crunchiness of the quesadilla. The cheese was perfectly melted and stretched out just enough with eat bite, and the chevre provided the perfect salty edge. The dipping sauce, which was paired with sour cream, tasted pretty heavily of paprika, but was really interesting because of it.

I would love to come back to Lula Cafe and sample more items from their cafe menu. However, I don't realistically see this happening. Seasonal menus always suck me in, I feel as if I MUST order off of the seasonal menu lest I never get the chance to taste what has been offered to me again, or at least for another year. I can see the future of my dining experiences at Lula Cafe: I enter knowing what I want, since it is the item I wanted to try last time but was wooed away from by the hot ticket at the moment. I tell myself that I will not let that happen again, and I will be strong, and I will try that dish. But I know that dish will always be there, and again I will be tempted away to the seasonal delights. Come to think about it, that isn't really such a bad thing after all.

Lula Cafe
2537 N. Kedzie Boulevard (just south of Logan Square)
(773) 489-9554

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

As the Leaves are Changing

One of the benefits of my blogging endeavor is that I now have a reason to buy magazines like Gourmet and Bon Appétit, publications I have coveted for so long on grocery store lines but on which I have never had the will to spend those few dollars. I am just a poor student, after all. My blog is my new baby, my cause, and it places upon me the affirmative duty to broaden my horizons and learn more about the culinary world I have entered. This is one of the main reasons I started this endeavor - I really want to learn. I want to be inspired to try new things. And last week I learned that not all new, exciting things are difficult.

I turned to this month's Bon Appétit for dinner this week, to a simple-sounding yet intriguing dish perfect for an unseasonably warm fall evening. The green of the chutney popped off of the page, serving as a reminder of a summer recently lost. Every once in a while I have a tendency to get a little bit stressed out while cooking, but this dish was amazingly simple - I was handling multiple pans with ease. Maybe it's this new cause I've found - I am no longer making dinner, I'm cooking. I'm doing this because I really, really want to become great at this. I want to learn, but most of all I want to share. This has had a great calming effect on me in the kitchen. I'm doing something I truly love. Now that I've come out and entered this wonderful world of food, I can bask in all of its delicious glory.

Mahi-Mahi with Cilantro Chutney (from Bon Appétit, Volume 52, No. 10)

For the fish:

Cumin, salt, pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
Mahi Mahi - 6 to 8 ounce filets. The chutney is probably enough to liberally sauce 4 filets.

For the chutney:

1 large kiwi, cubed
1 large clove of garlic, peeled
2 teaspoons diced jalepeno
1 cup cilantro, tightly packed
1/4 cup coconut milk

Put all of the the chutney ingredients in a food processor (I used my blender, did the job just fine) and process into a coarse puree. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Sprinkle the fish liberally with salt, pepper and cumin on both sides. I thought I sprinkled mine pretty liberally, but the fish itself came out rather bland, so I would sprinkle very liberally. Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Saute the fish until opaque, about 5 minutes per side. Spoon chutney over the fish and serve.

I served the fish on top of brown basmati rice with a side of bok choy that I sauteed with shallots, garlic and ginger in sesame oil and then braised in cider vinegar and some soy sauce and water. I really didn't know what I was doing with it, but it worked out alright. In the end, I would have just cut it lengthwise and braised it in two pieces as opposed to chopping and cooking. The chutney is fantastic, incredibly flavorful and the color is really something. I almost felt badly putting the bok choy next to the fish, since it's green had faded in cooking, and it seemed to cruel to taunt it with the color it once had.

It was an almost tropical-feeling dish, conjuring up memories of summer as the leaves turn colors outside. The fish combined with the chutney really well, and would work well as the main elements of a fish taco. The dish is a quick-fix meal with just enough flair and is really, truly simple.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Something from Slightly More than Nothing

This is the second appearance that salmon is making in my posts. I apologize for the lack of diversity, but that's just pretty much all I've been eating lately. It's just that it's pretty novel to me. I am going to tell you this with the full understanding that I may lose your readership because I am insane. But believe me, I could not make this up.

I used to be allergic to all fish. Well, except canned tuna, I guess that processing did something to the fish that enabled me to eat it without the risk of turning into a puffed-up, swollen mess with a rapidly closing throat. Sound miserable? Well, it was. I wasn't allergic to shellfish, so that was a bit of a consolation. As I grew out of other allergies I began to gain some hope that fish would enter my life without causing me pain. And eventually, it did. I was able to eat almost all fish. Except salmon. I'm not really sure why this one fish decided that it hated me. And like many other broken-hearted, I couldn't give up - I just loved it so. Watching the rest of my family eat bagels and lox on weekend morning was tortuous. I yearned for that which I could not have.

The severity of the reaction lessened as I got older, so every once in a while I would coax myself into dealing with the incessant itchiness guaranteed to follow and binge on some salmon. I somehow (don't ask me how, I'm not really sure) figured out that I had the least extreme reaction to the fish when I ate it cooked and cold. Raw didn't work, smoked didn't work, and for some reason when it was hot it still made me itch. I pitched this theory to my parents expecting them to call me crazy, but my mother confirmed that my grandmother indeed had the same exact allergy. So maybe I'm not crazy. Or maybe the rest of my family is just as insane as I am. No matter, I was reassured.

Towards the end of this summer, the summer of gluttony and seafood about which I will likely post in greater detail a little bit down the line, I decided that I had enough. I was going to will my body to eat salmon if it killed me. I just kept eating it in its many forms, which culminated in a veritable gravlox binge at Aquavit, and eventually, I was able to eat it with no reaction at all. Yes, I know, I likely just grew out of it like the other allergies, it just took me longer, but I like to think that I was responsible for tricking my body this time. And so I have been reveling in my newfound salmon normalcy - I have joined the salmon eating population. And I've been eating it with such frequency that I will likely develop a new allergy, but I'll worry about that when that happens. In any event, I'm going to tell you about a pasta dish I made last week, featuring, what else? Salmon.

While in undergrad in Montreal, my friends and I would frequent L'Academie on St. Dennis. Its name was misleading - despite popular belief, it wasn't a culinary school kitchen at all, just a huge three-story restaurant with a guaranteed line snaking out the door on weekends. It had very reliable food, often quite good, and always at a fair price. And it was BYOB, making it that much more attractive to a poor college kid. There was a salmon and mushroom pasta that was on the menu there, and like all other salmon dishes, it taunted me. My friends would order it and I would stare and long for it. It was something so commonplace, yet something forbidden. That is probably why the one of the first things I did when I absolved my salmon allergy was attempt to recreate that dish. I used many shortcuts, mostly because it was easy and I had it all in my kitchen, and that's the secret. One of my roommates in college would make something like this sauce, she would regularly throw the contents of a couple of cans into a pan and eat it happily. I used a couple more ingredients that she used to, but It's a great last-minute, something-from-nothing dish made with things that are already lying around the house.

Pasta with Salmon and Mushrooms

Sorry for the sub-par photo, the light was not cooperating with me that night. There's no real recipe here, just a bunch of stuff I threw together, but I will attempt to capture it as accurately as possible.

I set some thin spaghetti in a pot of boiling water. While it was cooking I started to saute about 8 ounces of white mushrooms, which I purchased cleaned and sliced, in a pat of butter. Once the mushrooms were well on their way and rather soft, I added some garlic and a liberal sprinkling of dried thyme to the pan. I then emptied the cream of mushroom soup into the pan and added about a half of the empty can worth of water and allowed that to start heating. I would have added white wine instead of the water, but I didn't have any on hand.

Once this started looking saucy (ha) I added probably about half a cup of parmegianno cheese into the sauce to thicken it and give it a good saltiness, since I had used reduced sodium soup. With the parmegianno went another tablespoon of butter for richness. I opened up a can of Bumble Bee salmon (cooking salmon is obviously a good option, but it didn't fit into the theme of a quick-fix dinner too well, and the canned stuff actually tasted pretty good and didn't leave the apartment smelling like fish) and flaked it into the sauce. Once that was heated I adjusted the seasoning and added quite a bit of pepper and some more cheese. I mixed it up with the cooked pasta and it was a lovely dinner for two. And all I had to do was throw some stuff in the pan.

Outside of the grating of the cheese, there was really no effort required. I'll never know how close I came to the dish at L'Academie, and one of these days I'll go all out and cook the salmon and make my own sauce from scratch, but until that day, this will do.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Something from Nothing

I found myself in quite the pickle a little bit earlier today. I was hungry. Not starving. Not I-haven't-eaten-since-8 a.m.-voracious, but 4-p.m.-hungry. Not hungry enough to leave the apartment on an unseasonably cool day, but hungry enough that I couldn't do much (or anything) else until my hunger was sated. I must admit something - the state of my kitchen is shameful right now. It's not that it's filthy, it's that it's understocked. I just have nothing. Alright, that might be a bit of an overstatement - I'm not really talking freshman-year-dorm-room-understocked. I have a few canned goods and a loaf of bread and some eggs. That's better than three cases of ramen (right?). These cans are mostly full of beans of various shapes, sizes and textures. As I racked my brain for ideas, I decided that I wanted something fun to eat that preferably was not labor-intensive. One among my line-up of beans was a can of Garbanzos. And then it came - epiphany.

I drained the chickpeas and laid them out in one layer over a paper towel to allow them to dry. I put them in a mixing bowl with about two teaspoons of olive oil, some cracked red pepper, garlic powder, dried basil, salt and pepper.

I spread them out over a baking sheet and placed them in the oven for 20 minutes at 350 and 15 minutes at 425. The timing will vary slightly and they should be watched carefully towards the end so that they don't burn.

In the end, I had the perfect snack. Some of them looked like Corn Nuts. Damned if I could tell you if they tasted like Corn Nuts. I've had Corn Nuts a mere once in my life, quite a few years ago, so the taste is not something to which I often find myself offering comparisons. The look is unmistakeable though:

They were simple, yet they were so many things: nutty, crunchy, spicy, healthy. That last aspect was an afterthought (I suppose a 'non-thought' is a more accurate description), but it's always a good feeling when you can shovel something into your mouth and not feel too badly about it.

They reminded me of wasabi peas with their crunch, though the flavor profile was obviously different. These would also be good with a curry spice blend or a hot and spicy blend. The combinations are likely endless. I'm not sure how these are going to hold overnight, but I am going to put them in a baggie and hope for the best.