Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Beer me Brussels sprouts

Brussels sprout salads were the vogue in 2010, and the Purple Pig menu hosted one of my favorites. Shaved raw sprouts and citrusy dressing make the dish light and fresh, while lots of grated pecorino and parmigiano make it decadent and rich. I’m not in the habit of trying to recreate dishes from my favorite restaurants, but, worried this would go out of style, I gave replication a try. 
I ended up with a simplified version of PP’s b-sprout salad that is just lovely. Frankly, it probably tastes good because it is so simple. It is rull simple. Fur rull. 
I rinsed, de-outerleaved, and halved a bunch of jumbo Brussels sprouts, then thinly sliced them to the stem.  This process garnered me about a cup and a half of prepped sprout shavings.  That’s about how much you’ll need for two people.  Dress with the juice of half a lemon and a fine drizzle of olive oil and toss with at least a quarter cup of salty, grated pecorino romano and/or parmigiano reggiano (whatever is on hand). Season to taste depending on how salty your cheese is and how much you use… we didn’t need much salt.
I try to incorporate a raw element into our meals, and this one really hits the spot. Crisp cabbage flavor balances sharpness from the cheese and the tart bite of lemon. Brussels-sprout enthusiasts take note: this salad is easy and delicious. 
In other edible news, to celebrate the official end of winter at the start of Oberon season (you know that’s right), I am drinking my emergency Oberon saved from 2010.  

Let’s do this, spring—I want to ride my bike with an Oberon daybuzz.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Leave the gun, take the [salami]

We rounded out Alex’s birthday week with dinner at Scoozi! While the restaurant punctuates its own name with exclamation, Alex and I happen to agree. Scooz is the first place where we had a table (#100—a corner booth, to boot) and the first place where we had “a guy” who knew our usuals (Dre—the most greatest, generous, up-beat waiter/person in the biz (both “the bizs,” actually—he’s moving to LA to be a movie star)). I fell for Scooz’s profiteroles back in the day, and Alex joined later on account of their classic chicken parm, fantastic calamari (accompanied by fried lemons and chilies), banging chopped salad, and outstanding service (VIPs, what?).

…No, I don’t have any pictures for you. What? It was Earth Hour Saturday and mad dark on account of the lights being off. Fine: Here’s one of ’erbody and the dog on their pooch-friendly patio last summer. Blurry and delightful.
BEFORE dinner, Alex and I stopped by pastoral and picked up some salami and cheese. Contributing more Italian flair to our weekend, that’s what I want to talk about tonight—and I have pictures.
Salami. Salami! Is there a better way to get pork fat into your system? … bacon… prosciutto… pancetta… Fine. But, salami! For our famous Sunday lunch, Al and I enjoyed a no-maintenance feast that was high in flavor and low in preparation. Light and crispy French baguette, sharp-sharp 8-year-old Wisconsin cheddar, creamy tangy triple crème, and the star, Salumeria Biellese finocchiona.
From quality-dedicated salami artists in New York, finocchiona packs the traditional salty/peppercorn punch with added grandeur: fennel seeds. The slight licorice flavor adds balance and distinction, softening some of the bite from our strongly flavored cheese counterpoints. Sliced paper thin, this salami was delicate in form and flavor. It makes you want to get into the olive oil business; this is Corleone-level salami. All I’m saying is, if offered, I wouldn’t refuse.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Through the sands of time and over the cliff of fate: An origin story

I have a theory that Alex comes from another universe or distant time. I think it happened like this: On a dark and stormy night at least a decade ago—perhaps centuries, who’s to say?—a servant girl is fleeing an impossibly cruel man on a majestic black steed. She is running through the brush when she stumbles near a rip in time (or space). She trips, the baby she is clutching close to her chest falls, rolling through the hole in universal matter. A bolt of lightning zags across the night sky—CRACK!—and the rip closes, taking the baby to an unknown time, an unknown land. On the other side, the baby continues to tumble, unraveling his cloth trappings and plummeting off a sudden cliff. But! His ragged blanket catches on a jagged tree branch that protrudes from the rocky ledge. There he dangles, lost to his own world, until a curious wolf happens upon him, no doubt drawn by his lonely cries. The charitable creature carries the baby through the pouring rain, depositing him in a basket of tortillas left waiting on the steps of a local monastery. The babe is returned to his own kind, but forever apart from his intended realm.

Whether or not he is originally from our world, Alex turned 25 yesterday. If he hadn’t been so insistent that we acknowledge the day, I would have just let is pass as another stepping-stone on the six-month countdown from Christmas to my birthday. In any case, we decided to celebrate the culmination of Alex’s youth like real grownups with a quiet dinner at home.  We popped a bottle of sparkling wine and settled in for classy supper for two.
I prepared a two-course menu of nachos and molten chocolate cake.  What? Nachos aren’t classy enough for you? Well, you aren’t eating the right nachos. These nachos are super.
Birthday nachos begin with El Milagro chips and Chihuahua cheese—top-quality Mexican ingredients for my top-quality Mexican button. Black beans stand in for meat and Greek yogurt replaces sour cream, adding two super foods to this birthday extravaganza.  To top off the triangular bites of glory, I made Alex’s mom’s guacamole.  This isn’t the over-garlicked, tomato-packed guac of your last block party. It is zesty with lime and full of fresh cilantro flavor.  Plus, avocados add a third super food to the lineup. If you count the chips as whole grains, these nachos hit four super foods! ...probably just the first three count. Still, that’s pretty good.

Imagine the perfect mouthful: melty crunchy tangy smooth. Nachos!
No birthday is complete without cake, so I gave the “molten” minis another shot and—birthday miracle!—they came out with chocolate lava centers.  

Recipe successipe, grownups for the win.

Green guacamole
Two or three ripe avocados
Juice of one lime
A handful of coarsely chopped fresh cilantro leaves
A few splashes of Tabasco
Salt to taste

Smash it all up and eat it.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

There will be berries

A few too many bleak documentaries about how corporations have ruined the Earth and everything we put into our bodies is poison can really take a toll on your culinary motivation.  That and burning gravy to tar-pit status. Lack of variety and inspiration in our food and lack of consideration for our environment are really getting me down. On Sunday I ate four bowls of rice krispies and half a banana. Imported produce and over-processed boxed cereal! I was a real mess and I gave up. With winter toiling on and all hope lost for our planet, I began to complain: Will there ever be brightness and freshness in the world again? Why do the aliens want our planet if the ocean is so full of plastic waste? Is it ever going to be my birthday?
Open bar!
I was grumbly at work on Monday, too. I wore my lazy on my sleeves. I mean fo reals: I rocked the biggest hoodie I could find and tucked my shame away in the pouch. Then I read a message on the interwebs bringing me word of a cheese-oriented trivia contest. Google don’t fail me now! I cried, enthusiasm twinkling to life inside me. And in one season-changing swoop I won two tickets to the UCP Great Chefs Tasting Party, a charity event featuring Chicago food-makers and restaurant-havers.
So tonight, Alex and I spent the evening at the Sheraton with a bunch of fellow Chicagoans who are excited about food. I wanted to write about how this fancy event inspired me to make top-quality food, but it really reminded me how uncomplicated food should be, and how exhilarating it can be when it is simple and clean. It doesn’t need a bagpiper. (Not to hate on bagpipers. Outlawed tunes on outlawed pipes, represent.)
There were tables set up all around the ballroom—each for a different restaurant and chef plating their signature dish (just like on Top Chef! There was even a foam!)—and (in true Top Chef fashion) there were hits and misses.
One owner remarked to Alex that his restaurant was in Oak Park and thus unknown. That’s not why, Alex concluded after one bite of the tamale we’d been given. In the mix of overcomplicated lackluster offerings, there were some sparklers. Pastoral’s cheese and fruit pairings were spot on and Top Chef Stephanie Izard’s goat empanada was delicious—even if we thought Colicchio might say it was salty. 
We tried some alleged new fruit from Africa stuffed with cheese that tasted like a complex piquillo pepper (points for being on a stick and easy to eat). 

My favorite tonight was Capannari Ice Cream. Their raspberry chocolate chip flavor was smooth and tasty, but I thought their limoncello was outstanding, the definition of crisp and refreshing. I had to send Alex to get me more because I’d been seen too many times at the table.
When we left the sun was just setting and I didn’t need a jacket on the way to the car. It seems, when inspiration and excitement are lost, a sudden boon of spring reminds us that the end of winter is near.  We’ll be riding bikes soon. The farmers’ markets will move back outside, even if they only have asparagus and rhubarb at first. If the backwash of cold becomes too much for you to bear, just remember: There will be berries.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Is it all gravy? IS IT?

All I smell is burning. There is smoke in the air and an undercooked chicken on my stove. Muzgaash has struck again, and struck with vigor. Ashes, disease, and suffering—Alex and I are one leper king away from Crusade. I’d love to tell you more, but we’re working on a charcoal wall drawing in the living room and set up of our salmonella triage center is next. FMOven. 

Sunday, March 6, 2011

All things super

The Iditarod starts today and I couldn’t be more excited! We are so ready with our Ultimate Insider package, which, I quote from the website, is “Video + GPS = 100% Awesome.”  In honor of Lance Mackey—four-time winner, defending champ, and prospective officiate at my glacier-top wedding—Alex and I had wild Alaskan salmon for our Sunday lunch. I know—I don’t even like salmon! Well, that’s not entirely true, it’s just that I’ve always associated salmon with fluffy white Persian cats eating from tiny crystal goblets. Thanks to Lance Mackey, the miracle machine, I will no longer consider salmon to be cat food. Instead, it will be known as the food of champions!
I’m sensing that some of you aren’t that super excited about the Iditarod.  Didn’t you see Balto? Perhaps the most influential film of my childhood, this Kevin Bacon classic ignited my love of James Horner soundtracks (what up, Braveheart?) and led to my 2006 pilgrimage through NYC to the me-what?-memorial in Central Park. I highly recommend watching Iditarod: The Toughest Race on Earth on NetflixInstant. Should I tell you that I’ve watched it seven times this year? Because I have! Get on board, kids, the sled is leaving for Nome as we speak! (I should point out that these particular sleds aren’t made for “tourists,” but that would ruin my metaphor.)
Don't mind the bow in my hair... that was a phase.
Lance isn’t entirely responsible for my newfound Salmon enthusiasm. This week at work we held a Super Food competition to see who could eat the most servings of foods that are super for you. A list was compiled, ingestion was tallied, and I was pronounced the winner: 50 to 45. I edged out my competitor by drinking a thousand cups of peppermint tea and supplementing with raw cacao beans. Not my best work.

Wild Salmon (bt-dubs, super expensive, but worth it) was one of two proteins on the list (the other was turkey) and it was the topic of much conversation this week. It’s good for your heart, brain, arteries, eyes, skin, and more! As reigning Super Food champ, it would be a disgrace for me to continue shunning such a super fish. So in honor of the salmon we were eating in honor of my hero, I constructed a secondary theme for lunch: Super Food.
I found a salmon recipe that included orange juice and ginger (two more items from the Super Food list) and served it with an orange, fennel, and olive salad (olives and olive oil also made the list). Lunch was colorful and flavorful, and I managed to get four Super Foods into one meal! Not too shabby. You know what else isn’t too shabby? Winning five Iditarods in a row. Go Lance!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Day six: That is… Day seven: The end

So… I don’t know if you’ve been paying enough attention to notice this but… I did my math wrong. Saturday was technically the first day of the Master Plan program, and yet I gave Sunday the title of “day one.” …I’m an English major: Math, no so good.

In any case, today marked the end of our week-long adherence to scheduled eating and the plan was to go out for dinner.  There were a couple of caveats we had to take into account:
  1. Nothing tastes like anything because of my cold. I drank five cups of peppermint tea in an hour so I could enjoy a free cupcake.
  2. I finally watched Food, Inc. and decided I didn’t trust most of our go-to restaurants to be buying ingredients worth eating.
The answer? XOCO. Big bold spicy flavors and thoughtfully selected vendors!

For dessert: we ventured over to a lot at Randolph and Peoria to see a Chicago Banksy.
And that’s it. I baked, we fried, we laughed, I cried. All in all, a nice little experiment.  I won’t be scheduling next week’s mealsalthough, I did enjoy having such a complete shopping list. That’s one thing I’ll try to take away from this experience. Read: An English major searches for meaning. 

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Day five: Soup vs. Salad

While the lunch portion of the Master Plan has gone to hell in a hand basket, our dinners continue to plow through obstacles like illness and unexpected store closings and outages. Dinner on day four was a miracle meal prepared by Alex’s mom and brought to us in our den of sickness, so I’ve moved on to day five: Tonight’s meal was soup and salad.  One was a hit and one was a miss.
I don’t love soup. I guess I thought if I kept making it, I’d learn to like it, but it just isn’t working.  I like some soups—brothy ones with lots of goodies… this roasted carrot soup was not that. And I didn’t love this soup. Maybe if I hadn’t pureed the veggies, I’d have liked it more. Maybe I should have thinned it out a bit. Maybe it just wasn’t for me. Maybe my taste buds are busted because of my cold. Maybe I definitely need to stop telling people I don’t get sick.
The bright side of this meal was the salad: a frisee base loaded with furnishings. I set Muzgaash to a supposed 400 degrees and began making toppings: 
  1. Croutons. Cubed the leftover ciabatta, tossed it olive oil, salt and pepper, put it in the oven for ten to fifteen minutes.
  2. Bacon.  I waited for the croutons to be done so I could use the same baking sheet.  Bacon is clearly a personal matter. We like crispy, so our bacon needs about ten minutes per side.
  3. Walnuts. After removing the bacon to a draining platform, I tossed the walnuts in the bacon fat and put them into the oven to toast.
  4. Orange. While the hot items cooked, I supremed an orange, squeezing the leftover juice over the greens.
  5. Chevre. It never hurts to throw a couple ounces of goat cheese onto a salad, am I right?
I dressed the salad with a mustard-balsamic vinaigrette and we sat down to our feast. The strong, yet lacy, frisee was a great foundation for such a heavy onslaught of toppers—juicy oranges, toasted walnuts, fresh sponge-like croutons that soaked up the dressing, pungent cheese, and fantastic bacon. It felt delicate, with a great balance of flavors and textures. Really, really good. Sometimes, more is less. Sometimes, more is delicious.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Day three: A side of hysterics

I don’t get sick.  If I did get sick, I’d tell you that I’m reading around 102 as far as I can tell from my meat thermometer and I’m having trouble breathing out of my face. Also, I might’ve embarrassed myself with a feverish breakdown at my office today. And then I would’ve come home and started a rigorous schedule of napping and watching documentaries on NetflixInstant.

Fine. You caught me: I do have a fever, and it isn’t for more cowbell. It’s a good thing the Master Plan doesn’t require me to cook tonight, and a better thing that last night’s meal made great room-temperature leftovers. 
¡Tortilla Española! ¡Ay caray! ¡Que fantastica!

(I speak Spanish in my dreams, so, you know, be impressed.)

Translation: We had Tapas Night yesterday! I had been craving Spanish tortilla—or omelette for you uncultured savages—and put it on the books for Tuesday dinner. Bacon-wrapped dates seemed to be the most appropriate (and authentic) side dish.
While the meal hit the spot, the execution could have been better. My knife cuts on the potatoes were a little inconsistent and a few bites were a slightly underdone. Also, we experienced a mild panic during the flipping portion of the event… accompanied by limited yelling and a trivial amount of arm waving.  After the frenzy, Alex apologized for his antics and we ate bacon and eggs Spanish-style. How do you like breakfast for dinner now?
Dinner was delicious even if it wasn’t perfect. Slight oniony sweetness and tender (for the most part) potato slices suspended in fluffy eggy structure paired with bites of hot candy dates and crispy, salty, smoky bacon.  Well worth the hysteria.

Spanish Tortilla

4-5 baking potatoes, peeled and sliced thinly
1 medium onion, diced
1 cup of olive oil
5 large eggs

Heat the oil in a medium (9-inch), nonstick pan. Salt the potatoes and fry in the oil for a few minutes.  Add the onions and fry until the potatoes are cooked and tender.  Drain in a colander over a bowl.  Whisk the eggs together in a large bowl with a little bit of salt.  Add two tablespoons of the oil to the pan (on high) to ensure that the tortilla won’t stick. Mix the potatoes and onions into the eggs. Mix well to make sure the potatoes aren’t sticking to eachother. Pour the mixture into the hot pan and reduce the heat to medium.  Shake the pan frequently until mostly set with a browned bottom. Put a large plate on top of the pan and flip the tortilla out. Gently slide the tortilla back into the pan to cook the runny side.
Let cool slightly and then slice.

The EverydayFood blog also discussed tortilla this week and provided a link to a helpful tutorial.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Day two: My cookie crumbles... or does it?

It began when I forgot to buy bread. I had Planned for bread buying on Monday night, but scheduled bread eating for Monday lunch. A Major Fail that set the tone for my day.

Beet and orange salad with no crusty sidekick was not enough for my lunch, and I left work hungry and ready to get crackalacking on dinner.  But, wait—what’s this? Pastoral, Planned place of purchasing cheese and baguette, is closed early for inventory? Seriously? Couldn’t they have tweeted this? Is that not how people get news? Hungry and hindered I marched onwards, unprepared for my next disappointment.

It seems no amount of Planning could predict the Cod Crisis of 2011—yes, Mom, it was worse than the Raisin Crisis of 1974... Because it happened to me.  Monday’s dinner schedule went south when I visited every two grocery stores in HP last night and did not find a single codfish. I was stuck with the dreaded tilapia, fish of weight watchers who still insist on eating at Chili’s. Fail part two means Double Fail. Time for the lightning round.
Why is this happening to me? Is it because I prefer Faux-livia? Is it because I lied when I was seventeen?

I pondered these questions and more as I shoved together my despicable ingredients and waited for my supper to be cooked.  And then, prosecco poured, lackluster photos taken, we sat down to eat and I was astounded. Last night was easily the best dinner we’ve had all week. Besides the store-oriented mayhem, it was a breeze to prepare, and it was fracking delicious. 
The tilapia was tender, flaky and flavorful in a salty tomato-caper sauce, perfect with warm garlic bread. We dipped and sipped and ate (and ate). If you want no-fuss comfort food, this is the dish for you. 

Tilapia in tomato-caper sauce

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 can diced tomatoes
1 small jar of big capers, drained (about 3 tablespoons)
2 tilapia filets
1 bunch of fresh basil

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees.  Heat the oil over medium heat.  Add tomatoes and capers.  Cook together for five minutes.  Season to taste with salt and pepper (I didn’t find salt necessary because of the nature of capers and the particular brand of tomatoes I used).  Pour half of the tomato mixture into a baking dish. Add the fish. Cover the fish with the other half of the sauce. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, until the fish is cooked through.  Finish with a chiffonade of basil.

4 large garlic cloves, minced
¼ cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
¼ olive oil
3 tablespoons room-temperature unsalted butter
½ of a real big ciabatta loaf

Mince the garlic and chop the parsley.  Heat the oil over medium heat.  Add the garlic and parsley to the oil and remove from heat, letting the garlic cook, parsley wilt, and the oil absorb the flavor. Salt and pepper to taste. Butter the bottom half of the ciabatta and spread the garlic oil over the top half. Cook bread in 400-degree oven for 10 minutes for crispy crust and melty stuffing.