Sunday, March 25, 2012

This Week

It seemed unlikely at times, but I survived the week. What started as a battle through the Saint Patrick’s Day crowd on an unbelievably beautiful March afternoon to get meat sauced at Fogo de Chao for Alex’s birthday quickly became “Eat Week” in my mind. Alex’s birthday will do that, with three more dining events to follow culminating in brunch at Frontera yesterday morning. I love how consistently delicious food at Frontera is, and have missed it since it became impossible to walk in without reservations. One evening Alex and I had the misfortune of deciding to eat there sans res—we waited four hours for a table at the bar with one chair.
Eat Week had one disappointment: Tuesday’s much-anticipated blog meeting ladies’ dinner gossip fest at Perennial was moved to the Pump Room. Luckily, the key to a good time ladies’ event is chatter and booze, which the Pump Room provided well. Wine, lavender cocktails, and Allagash White were the drinks on the table. The food was good—Brussels sprouts paired with avocado was a first for me, and I always enjoy a lemon-cream sauce on pasta—but otherwise unremarkable. Perhaps, I’m taking out my frustration on everything, when truly it was the “pretzel-crusted” calamari that irked most. I could not in any way distinguish a pretzel flavor in the crust, and I’m super into pretzels these days, so my inner snacker felt the brunt of that dissatisfaction.
Pump Room did turn out dessert: the salted caramel ice cream sundae with popcorn delighted. As did the unprecedented gossip round the table—my lips are sealed! As I’d no doubt be betrayed by my loud-mouthed friend the Interweb.
I guess Tuesday’s re-telling was my first unofficial event in Columbia College’s Story Week. We attended a second on Friday night, listening to Chicago authors read Chicago authors at the MCA. I really enjoyed it, finding it inspiring, though quite gloomy at the same time.

See, I started a novel once. I’m an English major and would be remiss if I weren’t also an aspiring writer.  Of course, it was right before the Great Hard Drive Malfunction (which resulted in the very strict Back-Up Reform Act).

The patient apple genius turned to me as a concerned comrade, said he could save the machine, but—he faltered in his diagnosis with an impeccably understanding bedside manner—the information would be lost. His sad eyes locked with mine, was there anything I would lose? I answered honestly, with regret: Yes, 14 pages of my novel and a short story about a dream I had. He cheered visibly.

In any case, there’s nothing the same note of depressing as being in a room filled with yearning authors, their unpublished novels hovering above their heads, lowering the ceiling as the air becomes thick with admiration, jealousy, and false hope.
It’s back to normal here, now. Nichols produce in the crisper. Cool, foggy, appropriate March weather. Guacamole on deck for lunch. Downton Abbey on the Netflix. Thoughts of Monday pushed to the back of my mind, as I enjoy a fresh cuppa from Alex’s new French press. Despite what we ate and what we heard, it was Birthday Week we enjoyed all along.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Amaryllis, amaryllis! (Yes, you should be reading that to the tune of “Rock me Amadeus”)

Our lovely Friday evening ushered in an equally pleasant weekend. Saturday brought us again to the Green City Market, and also to an afternoon with family and a night out at the movies. My hero, Lance Mackey, might be out of this year’s Iditarod, but the rain on his parade can’t compete with our literal and figurative sunshine.
Legend has proved true again, as spring showers have given way to flowers all over the neighborhood. I picked up some beautiful amaryllises (yes, Mom, I did have to spellcheck that) from Nichols and spent most of Sunday morning alternating between telling Alex how pretty they were and asking him to tell me if he thought they were pretty, too.
The snappy conversation carried over to lunch: a picnic on the hill. Hungry after a jaunt out on our ’cycles, we packed up lunch in a basket and headed to the park. The spring-green menu included ravioli, tossed with the last of our frozen pesto, and an avocado, peanut, kale salad in garlic-lime vinaigrette. Filling, yet light, and definitely tasty.
It seems too early to be bike riding and picnicking, especially after such a mild winter (mild both in weather and in grocery store meltdowns). Using my mother’s “If I bring an umbrella it won’t rain” logic, it’s my fault we didn’t get a lot of snow: I finally got real snowboots. Then again, I’m probably jinxing early spring right now with all these optimistic posts. But it’s not like Chicago weather ever changes its mind.

Garlic-lime vinaigrette
2 cloves of garlic, grated
1 spoonful of grainy mustard
Juice of one lime
¼ cup of olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Mix the garlic, mustard, and lime juice together in a small bowl, then slowly whisk in the olive oil and season. Or: Put all ingredients in a jar and shake it like... a jar of salad dressing.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Eating our feelings at Publican

It’s been a comfort food kind of week. A cold wind blew through town, pushing out the warm temps that enabled bike rides and smiling. Guess winter wasn’t ready to let there be a new sheriff in town just yet. And, as a result, I had a couple too many donut days in a row (most notably: Do-Rite’s almond-flavored Boston cream).
The much-needed comfort continued into the weekend at Friday night dinner. Alex and I were looking for a spot of good eating before my evening out at a button party, and we found it at the Publican.
We arrived early, and, sans reservations, we were quickly seated at one of the long communal tables. The scene was calm, but buzzing—there was a definite hum of anticipation, from the happy hour crowd to the wait staff. 

Soaking up the vibe, Alex and I perused the small yet encompassing menu. I love places that force him to share each dish with me, and Publican’s family-style service does just that.
We started with a half plate of aged Serrano ham, served simply with bread and goat butter. The ham was briny, wild, and meltably thin.

Next came the Brussels sprouts salad—shaved thin and raw, with tangy red onions and rich, creamy burrata. It’s cold farm comfort, without anything nasty in the woodshed.
The meal ended with ribs, “country style,” with grilled onions, spicy sweet potatoes, and crunchy peanuts. Alex ordered frites on the side to round out the meal, but I thought they crossed the tracks into the wrong side of salty town: they were almost inedibly over seasoned.
The ribs, though, were delicious. Solid flavor from seasoning and the perfect amount of char, without overpowering the taste of good juicy meat.  It’s the kind of balance you strive for every time you grill. (...we don’t own a grill.)

Still, I feel qualified to state that Publican serves up pure, homey satisfaction. Comfort accomplished.
Publican on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A spring in my step

Do you hear that? That silence? That vacuum of cold, noiseless space? That’s what my inspiration sounds like these days. I don’t want to cook. I hardly want to eat. Except sushi and milkshakes (though not together). I haven’t opened a book in weeks. I spend endless hours watching “Lost” on netflix instant, but haven’t mustered the strength to send back the discs we got at the beginning of February.  If you need a visual, my inspiration looks a lot like the last sorry batch of sweet potatoes at the soon-to-be-closing Downtown Farmstand. That’s right. My main grocery store is closing.  Local vegetables have forsaken me.
But then a glimmer of hope. The news of the Farmstand’s demise was cushioned by its messenger: I found out on Saturday when I ran into some familiar faces at the Nichols Farm table at the Green City Market. This Saturday’s market displayed the same-old wintered potatoes, squash, and apples... but the fellas also had bright green bags of shallot and leek shoots. These vibrant blades have pushed through the gray crumbly earth, bringing color and life to our table once again. Life returning to both our landscape and my daily routine. Spring, shout the shoots, is coming!
And so, alight on the wings of reunion with my farmer friends, we had a fresh frisée salad for lunch--topped with chunks of crisp apple, fresh pecans, lardons of City Provision’s incredible pancetta, and a grainy mustard, lemon, shallot shoot, bacon fat vinaigrette. The next day I featured the shallot shoots in a pesto, as Alex and I paused “Lost” to stream the official start of the Iditarod. On Monday, I started reading a book.
Still, it wasn’t until yesterday that I felt the joie de vivre return. I stepped into Pastoral for a loaf of peasant bread, a brick of Prairie Breeze cheddar, and a tub of cornichons. With the addition of one pantry staple (more grainy mustard), we were in grilled cheese by 5 pm. Crunchy golden bread, salty melted cheddar, flavor-packed mustard, and tangy pickles. Simple and delicious. Then, after dinner, on a lovely 60-degree March evening, I took my bike out for a spin!
We’re almost through, almost back to the plentiful seasons where there is so much to anticipate. If shallot shoots signal the beginning of spring, my two rubber wheels hitting the pavement remind: Oberon is coming, too. Ah, the circle of life.