Female. Lives in United States/Illinois/Chicago, speaks English. My interests are Food, Restaurants, Cooking, Baking/Travel, Dining Out, Raising Children.
This is my blogchalk:
United States, Illinois, Chicago, English, Female, Food, Restaurants, Cooking, Baking, Travel, Dining Out, Raising Children.

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

More Boston Eats

On our second day in Boston, we were drawn by an incredibly powerful force to The Pour House for brunch. We used to live just a few blocks from The Pour House and we spent almost every Sunday morning there. It's a fun, casual bar and greasy spoon kind of place. They offer a huge menu of breakfast and brunch specialties, hamburgers, sandwiches, and some nice Italian and Mexican dishes. The prices are ridiculously cheap, the food is always ready fast, and the servers are usually very nice.

When we were Pour House regulars, we'd always eat at the bar (instead of a regular table) and all the bartenders knew us. The minute we'd sit down, the bartender would pour us our regular drinks. While I ordered many different things from the menu at other times in the week, Sundays were usually reserved for huevos rancheros. And the bartenders knew that. One of my favorite bartenders even took the liberty of ordering me the huevos rancheros once without asking me what I wanted. (He did check after he put in the order...and he was right)

So this visit was no exception. I had their delicious huevos rancheros...a big plate of scrambled eggs, black beans, salsa, shredded cheddar cheese and a bit of sour cream. Win had one of their burgers and it was just as good as he remembered. Something else that's nice about The Pour House is that they serve breakfast foods for quite a while into the day and they start serving their lunch menu earlier in the day than most. So everyone can find something they like. It's probably just because it became such a comfortable routine for us when we lived there, but in my mind there's very little that beats a walk over to The Pour House on a weekend morning for a delicious breakfast, a cozy conversation, and maybe a skim of the newspaper.

Since we had eaten a rather large morning meal, we decided to forgo a traditional lunch and just relax with a drink in the afternoon. We headed to Aquitaine in Boston's South End for this refreshment. Aquitaine is a lovely bistro and wine bar and they have been recognized by Wine Spectator for having one of the country's best wine lists. In addition to wine, they have a full bar and make delicious cocktails as well. It was the hottest day Boston's had all summer, and sitting at Aquitaine's sleek, pretty bar with an amaretto sour sounded really good. And it was. We also spotted a bottle of rum called Sailor Jerry. Win's a rum fan so he tried it to see what this Sailor Jerry was all about. It had more of a vanilla essence to it than other rums and Win enjoyed it.

Next we were off to our friend's wedding. The wedding was beautiful and it was so nice to see how happy the bride and groom were. They did a wonderful job planning and executing every last detail of the event themselves. They held the wedding ceremony in the backyard of their house and included their beloved dog, Pepper, as one of the bridesmaids. Oddly enough, when a guest asked them if Pepper was coming to the reception too, the couple gave the guest a strange look and said very seriously "No. Why would Pepper come to the reception? She's a dog!" So now we all know: Dogs can be in wedding ceremonies, but it's crazy for them to come to the reception afterwards.

With our Boston trip fast drawing to a close, we had just one more meal we could squeeze in. We saved that for Ming Tsai's Blue Ginger. More on that tomorrow...

Monday, August 30, 2004

I'm Back

I'm back and I missed you. Am I officially the nerdiest person in the world for saying that I missed blogging while I was travelling? Well, I did and now that I'm back I'm excited to tell you about my culinary adventures of the past couple weeks.

My trip was broken up into two locations: New Jersey and Boston. (Please hold all New Jersey jokes. I am a lifelong New Jersey defender. There are beautiful parts of New Jersey and they know how to grow a mean tomato there.) First, Lima and I flew to New Jersey to spend about a week with my parents. We had so much fun and it was great for them to be able to spend such a nice, long time with their granddaughter. On the eating front, my mom is an excellent cook and she fed us very well. She did a nice mix of some old favorites (her delicious lasagna, her delectable lemon squares) and new ones (grilled shrimp with a lemon dill marinade she had never tried before). We also did our fair share of takeout food from the pizzerias and Chinese restaurants I loved when I lived there.

After about a week in New Jersey, I switched travel partners. I left Lima with my parents and met Win for a weekend in Boston. My parents never mind watching Lima (they really do love it, especially now that she's a toddler and does funny stuff). Some friends of ours were getting married in Boston, so we decided to make a weekend of it and try and enjoy as much as we could of the city in addition to participating in the wedding festivities. We stayed in the Back Bay section of Boston (my favorite) and I loved looking around Newbury Street, Commonwealth Avenue, and the Public Garden (pictured above). We lived in a Comm Ave. apartment for three years and that part of town feels so fun and comfortable to me.

I was also happy to come upon the Copley Square Farmers Market. I used to stop by there now and then for fruits, veggies and some wonderful homemade bread. I was glad to see it's still going on and as busy as ever.

It was really hot on our first day in Boston, so I stopped at a tea shop I like called Tealuxe. I love bubble teas so I ordered an Apricot Arabesque Decaf Bubble Tea.

It was really delicious and refreshing. It was also a real treat for me because I very rarely spend money on coffee or tea to go. You probably have heard financial experts talk about the "Latte Factor"---that phenomenon where people make lots of small purchases (coffee, lattes, magazines, vending machine snacks) that really end up costing them quite a significant amount over time. For whatever reason, I am the anti Latte Factor. There's something in my brain that will not allow me to routinely purchase $4 cups of Starbucks coffee and other related fare. I'm not cheap...I'll gladly spend a lot of money on a nice dinner out or other large purchase if we feel like it...but when it comes to the daily coffee and tea scene, I can't bring myself to fork over the cash. So this delicious bubble tea was even sweeter because I so rarely get them.

OK, so I'm rereading this and realizing that my nerd quotient has increased even more now with the "won't pay for coffee" revelation. It's probably time I try and redeem myself and tell you about the terrific place we had dinner on our first night in Boston.

When Win and I were talking about our Boston trip, we realized that we had too many restaurants we wanted to hit and way too little time. So we had to develop a short list and The B-Side Lounge immediately jumped to our number one spot. The B-Side Lounge doesn't look like much from the outside. Inside, it's got nice leather booths and lots of tables and barstools to welcome you but the decor is rather minimalist. The waitstaff is heavily tattooed and pierced and if you were one to make snap judgements, you might write this place off pretty fast. That would be a huge mistake. The food and drinks are some of the best in Boston and the waitstaff is friendly, knowledgeable and eager to help. While we like their whole menu, Win and I have found that we actually prefer their large appetizers to their entrees. So we've made a habit of ordering a few appetizers to share when we go. This time was no exception. We went to B-Side with our friends Art and Kate and between the four of us we had:

*A mini clambake with lobster, clams, and sausage
*Fried calamari
*Fried heirloom tomatoes with truffle grits and a nice field greens salad on the side
*Baked gouda with crostini to dip in the gouda
*Mussels cooked in a delicious broth

Win and I dream about the gouda. If you go to B-Side, please have it. The gouda is melted in a skillet with sliced onions and probably a hint of other seasonings and then served with crostini for dipping. Our friends tried it for the first time with us and they loved it too. B-Side's menu is far beyond a standard bar menu and their food is absolutely delicious. They always use really fresh ingredients, showcase interesting flavor combinations, and put together delicious dishes.

Their cocktail list is immense and between us we've sampled quite a few. My favorite is the B-Sidecar, a sidecar that gets a cute little kick from the pink sugar on the rim of the glass. Win stuck with their lemon drops the other night, but he's been known to enjoy their rum-based concoctions too.

For dessert, we shared a grilled banana split and a dessert fondue which included fruit, pound cake, and candied fruit to dip in their delicious melted chocolate. So, so good.

I really can't emphasize enough how good the food and drinks are at B-Side. They get some famous clientele too...I once was watching "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" and Matt Damon was one of Conan's guests. They told a story about how they both were back in Boston visiting their families one Christmas and ran into each other at The B-Side Lounge. Both raved about what a cool place it is. Check it out if you're in the Boston area.

Well, that's a review of the first part of our Boston trip. We did a lot more eating and sightseeing but I'll save that for subsequent posts.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Eating, Eating and More Eating

I haven't been posting as frequently as usual for the past few days and there's good reason. I've been doing some travelling and far too much eating. At the end of each busy day I seem to have too little time to write anything meaningful, so my posts are sparse this week. I do plan to catch up in a few days though, so stick with me and I'll be back soon with some new restaurant reviews, recipes, and food photos from my eating experiences this week.

In the meantime, the latest "Is My Blog Burning?" event was a big success with over 40 people submitting recipes. If you'd like to check out the full review by Jarrett of Life in Flow and Food Porn Watch, click here. You'll find loads of dumpling-themed recipes from food bloggers around the world, myself included.

So what have I been eating, you might wonder? Here's a brief review:
*amazing lasagna and meatballs
*delicious chicken fajitas with smokey chipotle salsa
*part of a 6-foot hoagie
*eggplant parmesan
*strawberry pretzel salad (this is such an unbelievably weird sounding side dish, but it is great and a huge hit with everyone who dares taste it)
*outrageous peach kuchen
*a Nathan's hot dog with sauerkraut and mustard
*a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup Blizzard from Dairy Queen
* and the list goes on...

I didn't say I was eating healthy, but I am eating fun stuff. This food is much different than my usual fare so I'm enjoying it while it lasts. I've also been to some outstanding restaurants this week and will be writing those up in the next few days. Once I get more time, I'm really looking forward to sharing the details of those special meals.

On an unrelated note, I took the Lima Bean to a pond today for a lunchtime picnic. It was a beautiful setting and there were loads of ducks, geese and swans enjoying the pond with us. Lima was very excited to eat her little turkey and cheese half sandwich out of her new Winnie the Pooh lunchbox. I think she loves the lunchbox because it makes her feel terribly grown-up and because she can carry it like a purse over her wrist if she wants to. She loves anything she can carry like a purse these days. Her little sandwich was cut up into toddler size squares and she was enjoying them thoroughly when a goose came up and snatched one right out of her little hand. With one snap of his bill, the sandwich was gone. Lima was startled and cried, but soon recovered nicely. At first I thought she was crying because it was shocking and scary to have a goose steal your lunch. Then I realized that she was crying because her lunch was gone and she wanted more. Once I gave her some of my sandwich, all was well again.

The apple doesn't fall far from the tree when it comes to a passion for food, I guess.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

IMBB 7: You're Just the Cutest Little Dumpling!

For the past few months, I've read about the various "Is My Blog Burning?" events on other food blogs but I didn't have occassion to participate, as I didn't have a blog then. All that's changed with the advent of At Our Table, and so I'm really pleased to participate in this one.

This month's "Is My Blog Burning?" theme is "You're Just the Cutest Little Dumpling" and it's hosted by Jarrett of Life in Flow and Food Porn Watch. When I first read the theme, I was a bit concerned because I don't have much experience cooking dumplings. I was thinking of traditional dumpling recipes and nothing was jumping out at me. But then it hit me: Make a grunt! I've read about grunts in cookbooks and magazines and always thought they sounded good, despite their unusual name. I didn't have any plans to make one any time soon, but then when I saw Jarrett's theme, the grunt stepped forth from the recesses of my brain. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to try one out.

I made a Summer Berry Grunt. A grunt, also known as a slump, is a traditional American dessert that is often associated with New England. It usually consists of dumplings baked over simmering fruit. Before commiting to the grunt as my submission to IMBB, I did some research to confirm that the dough used here really is considered dumplings. After a few reputable web sources and cookbooks confirmed it, I was off and running.

Summer Berry Grunt
This very simple recipe requires 10-15 minutes to prepare and about 10 minutes to cook. While I altered the recipe some, it's based on one that I saw in Shape magazine by Robin Vitetta-Miller, M.S.

1 pint fresh raspberries
1 pint fresh blackberries
1/2 cup water
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons vanilla sugar
1.25 cups all-purpose flour
1.25 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup nonfat milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Homemade whipped cream (optional)

Note: You can obviously use plain sugar in place of the vanilla sugar. I happened to have made some vanilla sugar and thought it might give the dessert a little something extra. Regular sugar would work just as well.

Rinse your raspberries and blackberries well. In a large skillet, combine the berries, water and 1/3 cup vanilla sugar. Set the skillet over medium-high heat and bring it to a simmer.

While the berries are cooking, combine flour, baking powder, salt and remaining sugar in a medium bowl. Mix with a fork to combine.

In a separate bowl, whisk together milk and vanilla and add to dry ingredients. Mix together with a fork until dry mixture comes together in a soft dough.

Drop the dough by heaping spoonfuls onto simmering berries, making 8 dumplings. Cover pan and cook 10 minutes, until dumplings are puffed up and cooked through.

Makes 4 servings. Serve with homemade whipped cream, if you'd like. We did. The grunt was a really nice summertime dessert that showcased some beautiful seasonal berries. It was quick and easy to do, but it tasted special and satisfying. I'll definitely make it again and experiment with other fruit combinations in the future.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Like Giving (Cotton) Candy to a Baby

Win went to a Cubs night game recently and came home with some leftover cotton candy. He's a bigger cotton candy fan than I am; I usually like a little fat with my sugar when it comes to desserts. But very sweet of him to save some for me nonetheless.

When we woke up the next morning and heard the Lima Bean awake in her room, Win's first words were "Oh, good...she's awake. I can let her try the cotton candy now!"

So now we know who the cotton candy was really for.

PS: He didn't actually end up giving it to her. I convinced him that it just seems way too wrong to have her cut her new molars on pure sugar. He did slip her some french fries at lunch though. She doesn't miss out on much when Daddy's at the table.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Focaccia, Pizza and Calzones at The Chopping Block

Last night, I went to another cooking class at The Chopping Block. The Chopping Block is a retail store and cooking school with two locations here in Chicago. As a birthday present two birthdays ago, Win got me a series of their "Building Blocks" classes. These classes are usually organized around a specific skill (such as how to roast and carve poultry or how to select cuts of meat) or type of cuisine (French, Greek, traditional American, etc.). I've had the pleasure of learning dishes such as steak au poivre, grilled fish with fruit salsa, crab and spinach souffle, baklava and panna cotta with macerated berries. Everything I've learned in my classes has been delicious and very replicable in my own kitchen.

I love Italian food and have been experimenting with baking bread and using various doughs more lately, so needless to say I was really excited about last night's class. The menu for last night included:

*Roasted Garlic Focaccia
*Pesto Pizza
*Calzone with Meatballs

Yum. When I walked in, I was really pleased to see that Siobhan Straka was the chef teaching that night. All of the Chopping Block chefs are excellent, but some of them pepper their teaching with more helpful hints and kitchen shortcuts than others. Siobhan is one of the chefs who is always adding additional information to her teaching and sharing the little tricks of the trade that only professional cooks usually know.

The class ran about two and a half hours and in that time Siobhan prepared all of the dishes on the menu, explaining carefully how to do each. Win and I have roasted garlic many times, either to eat with bread or to add to a potato dish he makes, but we haven't yet made our own focaccia incorporating it. The Roasted Garlic Focaccia last night came out really well; the dough was a nice texture and the flavors of roasted garlic, olive oil, and coarse sea salt danced together on top of the bread. The Pesto Pizza was divine. Pesto is so easy to make, relatively healthy, and absolutely delicious...it's much better to make your own if you can than buy the jarred stuff. Last night we did a side-by-side taste comparison of the fresh pesto Siobhan made and the pesto that you'd buy in a jar at the store. There was no comparison. The jarred pesto, while good, tasted mostly of cheese and oil. Much of the fresh basil flavor was lost. The pesto Siobhan created was so quick and easy, but rich with basil and garlic flavor. To create this pizza, we used a basic pizza dough recipe and then topped it with fresh pesto, pine nuts, sundried tomatoes, sliced fresh mozarella, parmesan cheese and a bit of sliced red onion. It was as beautiful and bright as it was delicious. Finally, Siobhan made the calzone with meatballs. We learned the Chopping Block recipe for a basic tomato sauce, their recommended method for preparing meatballs, and the technique for filling a calzone. The calzone came out nicely crispy and crunchy on the outside but then was full of moist, warm loveliness created by grated mozzarella, grated parmesan, the tomato sauce and the meatballs. Like the other dishes, the calzone was quite good.

While we're on the topic of calzones, I'll pose a question here. Growing up and living in various cities up and down the East Coast, I always experienced calzones stuffed with both mozzarella and ricotta cheese. You could always request additional ingredients (like spinach or pepperoni, etc), but the cheese base seemed to always include mozzarella and ricotta. When I moved out to Chicago, I noticed that most pizzerias just include mozzarella in their calzone...no ricotta. I asked Siobhan about this and whether or not it was a regional thing. She wasn't sure, but she did say that she preferred them with ricotta too. She kindly consulted the Food Lover's Companion for me and it says that the traditional cheese of calzones is fresh mozzarella. So if anyone happens to know of places in Chicago where they make calzones with ricotta and mozzarella, drop me a line. I'm sure they are out there and this former East Coaster just hasn't bumped into them yet.

Since I just took the class last night, I obviously haven't had a chance to cook these treats yet. But I absolutely will and will post some photos and recipes when I do. The premade pizza dough you can buy at the grocery store is convenient, but there's something so nice about making your own dough and building these creations from scratch.

I really enjoy classes at The Chopping Block and always come home with new ideas, reliable recipes, and inspiration for future menus. If you're in Chicago and enjoy cooking (whether you are a beginner or more experienced), they are worth a look. Plus, they are running a special in August and these "Building Blocks" classes are two for one...take a class in August and you can bring a friend for free. It's a great deal and a fun night out.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Fresh Summer Soup: Avocado Shrimp Bisque

On Saturday I was looking through my freezer and spotted a bag of cooked shrimp that I bought at Trader Joe's a couple weeks ago. I had been eating the shrimp here and there alone or with some sort of dipping sauce, but I decided it would be nice to try and do something more fun with them. So I hopped on to one of my favorite sources for quick and easy recipes, Allrecipes.com, and found an interesting looking recipe for Avocado Shrimp Bisque.

The recipe on Allrecipes.com was provided by someone named William Anatooskin. I don't know William, but he sure did come up with an interesting and delicious soup. Here is the link to William's original recipe. Based on user comments from others and on my own preferences, I modified his recipe a bit. Here's how I made mine:

Avocado Shrimp Bisque
3 avocados
1 (14.5 ounce) can chicken broth
2 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons minced onion
1/2 pound cooked fresh shrimp
1 teaspoon ground black pepper

Cut avocados in half. Discard pits and spoon out the meat. Place all your avocado and about 90% of your shrimp into a food processor or blender and puree until smooth. Reserve the rest of your shrimp for later.

In a large saucepan, combine the avocado and shrimp puree, chicken broth, whole milk, lemon juice, chopped onion and pepper. Heat slowly to almost boiling, stirring frequently. Add the remaining shrimp and turn down the heat to low. Let the soup heat just long enough to get the newly added shrimp warm. Adjust seasonings to taste.

Soup may be served hot or cold. Serves 12.

It's very close to the original, but I altered William's recipe a bit by:
*pureeing most of the shrimp and all of the avocado first
*reserving some whole shrimp for addition later
*adding more pepper
*omitting the salt
*using a very large saucepan (it's a small, silly point...but my medium pan was practically overflowing and I had to switch in the middle of the recipe)

This is a very unique soup. I tried it both warm and cold this weekend and it works both ways. For summer, the chilled version is refreshing and feels particularly seasonal. The warm version feels truer to its bisque roots though and the creaminess of the bisque seems to come through more when served warm. So I'm on the fence about which is better...I think I'm going with warm but I'm sure I'll alternate between cold and warm as I eat what's left in the coming week.

Yes, we have leftovers. You see Win is not a fan of shrimp or avocado so this soup was a Linda and Lima creation. We girls will be polishing it off for the next couple days. On that note: This soup has a very distinct avocado flavor so I might hesitate to serve it to guests unless you know they are avocado fans. If they like avocado, they should adore this soup. If they don't like avocado, this probably won't be a hit with them. Something to consider when trying it out.

Another thing to consider: I used very reasonably priced, frozen, tail-off, ready to eat shrimp for this bisque and they worked wonderfully. Since I was pureeing most of the shrimp anyway, it would seem silly to go out and spend a fortune on fresh shrimp when the more economical kind work just as well in this particular case. I was happy to find out that they worked so well.

Delicious soup. My thanks to William Anatooskin for his submission to Allrecipes.com. It was just the kind of inspired use I was looking for for my shrimp.

Friday, August 13, 2004

Bread and Tulips with Julia Child

As everyone's heard by now, Julia Child passed away today. Her influence on the world of cooking is legendary and she'll be missed both for her talents and for her charming and unique personality. The New York Times does such an excellent job remembering her, I'll leave it to them to provide the details of her life and career. Instead, I'll spend some time here sharing a funny little story about an encounter we had with Julia a few years ago.

A few years ago when we still lived in Cambridge, MA we went to see the movie Bread and Tulips. Whenever we wanted to see a foreign film we'd hit the Landmark Kendall Square Cinema. It's right in the heart of Cambridge and reasonably close to where Julia Child lived before moving out to the West Coast. We were waiting for the film to start and in walks Julia with a middle-aged female friend. It was impossible for it to be anyone else...she looked just like she does on tv and was in good shape for her age. They sat down a few seats away from us in our row and started to munch on some popcorn. While Julia seemed to be enjoying the popcorn fine, her friend decided that the popcorn tasted stale and she needed to go back to the concession stand for a better bag. Julia didn't seem fazed at all by the alleged staleness, but she let her friend go and then upon her return the friend proclaimed the new bag to be a bit better.

I love this interaction for three reasons:
1. Julia Child was eating movie theater popcorn! And she was totally casual and unfussy about it. I've always read that she had the capacity to be quite down-to-Earth in her tastes; this pretty much proves it.
2. I can't help but wonder if the popcorn guy knew the person who returned the popcorn was with Julia Child. And what did he think of that? It's not every day that he pops kernals for a famous chef.
3. Julia laughed at all the right places in the movie.

While most of us let her enjoy the movie uninterrupted, one person in the theater came up to her and proclaimed his admiration for her and her work. She was very gracious and kind to him. I'm happy I got to experience a bit of Julia from four seats away in the theater. It's a nice little memory to have every time I pick up my copy of The Way to Cook.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Dona Torta: Delicious, Inexpensive Mexican Food

I've developed quite a soft spot for a Mexican restaurant in Lakeview called Dona Torta. While it's nothing fancy, the food is great, the staff friendly, and the prices extremely reasonable. We stumbled upon Dona Torta quite accidentally a few months ago. We had intended to have lunch somewhere else and found the place closed, so we just kept driving on Ashland hoping to find something else interesting. Lima was younger then and at the frequent napping stage, so time was limited. We had to find a lunch place fast or we'd risk running into her nap window. This is why we steered the car into Dona Torta's tiny parking lot. It was there and it was open.

Dona Torta doesn't look like much from the outside. It's a small restaurant nestled in a mini strip mall. Its sign says both Dona Torta and Tortas USA, leading us to wonder which was the official name at first. Its parking lot holds about 8 cars tops and it's a tight squeeze to get in and out. While it doesn't impress with looks, Dona Torta's food won us over from the first bite.

At Dona Torta, you can order at the counter and take your food to go or sit down and be served by a waitress. We've always eaten in the restaurant and found the staff to be extremely warm and friendly. The food is excellent and a very good value. Their chorizo tacos are wonderfully flavorful and their chicken flautas are the perfect combination of crispy on the outside and moist and tender on the inside. The mini fajitas, pictured above, are delicious and the quesadilla la gran dona is heavenly. This quesadilla comes with a wide variety of fillings that you can customize as needed. Some of the options include chicken, red and green peppers, mushrooms, spinach, and chihuahua cheese. This quesadilla was the largest one I have ever seen. Although meant to serve one, it could easily serve two or three people. I'm not shy about food and can definitely eat, and even I ended up taking most of it home and making three meals out of it. Many of the meals are served with rice and beans and you are greeted with chips and salsa when you sit down.

Another reason why I love Dona Torta is the size of their beverages. Pictured above is their large soda, conveniently placed next to a salt shaker and ketchup bottle for scale. This is a giant soda and for Diet Coke junkies like me, it's a thrill. The sodas there also remind me of Master Shake from Aqua Teen Hunger Force, potentially the weirdest cartoon I've ever seen. Have you seen it? It's on the Cartoon Network and it is the story of a milkshake, an order of fries and a meatball that try and solve crimes in New Jersey. Depending on your mood, you'll either find it hilarious or deeply disturbing. I don't know what it says about me that every time I see a Dona Torta soda I think of Master Shake.

We often eat at much fancier Mexican restaurants with prettier decor and more elaborate menus, but time after time we comment that Dona Torta's food is just as good for about half the price. For a casual lunch or dinner, it's hard to beat the taste and price of Dona Torta. Check it out if you're in Chicago.

Dona Torta (Tortas USA)
3057 N Ashland Ave
Chicago, IL 60657-3035
Phone: (773) 871-8999

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Food Reads for Rugrats

I was at The Land of Nod a few days ago, shopping around with Lima. It's a great children's furniture, accessories, and toy store here in Chicago and I sometimes take Lima there just to look around. She is crazy about these monkeys. Every time she sees them, she just starts shrieking with delight. In addition to the wonder-monkeys, they also have a really nice selection of classic children's toys, like play stoves and refrigerators, Curious George paraphenalia, and wind-up toy radios.

While Lima was perusing a basket of pretend food next to the play refrigerator (and using all her willpower to resist biting into a piece of fake bread, tasty as it might have looked), another mom and her preschool age son came by. The son saw a cute children's apron hanging in the display and he asked his mom what it was. The mom said "Oh, yeah, you've probably never seen one of these. This is an apron. People used to use these in olden days when they actually cooked. I don't cook so you haven't seen one." Then the mom gave me a very self-satisfied look, either to convey pride in her non-cooking lifestyle or in her description of an apron...I'm not sure which.

Bummer. I hoped Lima didn't hear that explanation because I actually think people still do cook and some might even wear aprons. Call me crazy but I don't think this practice was confined to "olden times." Anyway, this got me thinking about the importance of introducing kids to cooking and eating together as a family. Now, I have no idea about this other woman's lifestyle, budget, time constraints, etc. She might have absolutely no time to cook and that's fine. I at least hope she and her son and whoever else is in their home sit down and eat together once in a while...whether it's takeout food or at a restaurant.

This got me thinking about 2 books that can inspire our littlest chefs' imaginations. The first is Baby Food by Saxton Freymann and Joost Elffers. Lima got this as a gift recently and she loves it. The whole book is photos of baby animals carved out of fruits and vegetables. It's so incredibly creative and absolutely adorable. Lima loves the baby lion (carved from a potato) because she loves to roar whenever given the chance. I have a soft spot for the whale calf because it reminds me of the legendary Fudgie the Whale cake from Carvel. This one's carved from an eggplant and quite charming in its own way. The animals are so creative and the book provides a neat way to introduce little kids to various kinds of animals and different types of fruit and vegetables, all in one.

The second book is Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes: A Cookbook for Preschoolers & Up by Mollie Katzen. Katzen, author of the Moosewood Cookbook, has put together a very charming and easy-to-follow cookbook for children. At 15 months, Lima is too young to be cooking so we don't have this book yet, but I have flipped through it and it has very cute, fun recipes for kids. It's real food that both parents and kids would enjoy, but twisted to be extra interesting and fun for the children, such as the recipe for Green Spaghetti.

I don't know whether Lima will enjoy cooking the way I do when she's older, but I at least want to introduce her to it and give her the chance to decide.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Saffron Fettucce with Roasted Garlic Marinara, Spinach, Olives and Goat Cheese

Last week, another shipment from The Flying Noodle came. If you've been reading for a while, you might remember that Win got me a gift subscription to The Flying Noodle pasta club as one of my Christmas presents last year. (see entry from June 29, 2004) Every time I see the FedEx man heading towards our house with a Flying Noodle box I get so excited to dive into it and see what's in store for this month.

Tonight I decided to cook up some of the treasures from our most recent shipment. I made saffron fettucce with roasted garlic marinara, spinach, kalamata olives and goat cheese. Fettucce is of the fettuccine family. According to my research, it's a broader kind of fettuccine noodle, at about 1/2 an inch wide. Very similar to fettuccine, just slightly different in size. This specific pasta was enhanced by saffron. The accompanying literature says that it takes over 14,000 stigmas from a special purple crocus plant to make one ounce of saffron. There are only 3 stigmas per plant and they must be carefully hand-picked and dried. This labor-intensive process certainly explains why saffron is so expensive.

The Flying Noodle provided the fettucce as well as the roasted garlic marinara and I filled in the rest. Here's the very simple recipe:

Saffron Fettucce with Roasted Garlic Marinara, Fresh Spinach, Kalamata Olives, and Goat Cheese
12 ounces saffron fettucce
16 ounces roasted garlic marinara
1 large bunch fresh baby spinach leaves
10 kalamata olives, pitted and sliced (I used about 15 and liked having a few more)
4 ounces of goat cheese, crumbled

Bring water to a boil, add pasta and cook until al dente. Drain pasta. Heat marinara in a separate pot with spinach and olives. Toss the drained pasta thoroughly with goat cheese and then top the pasta with the sauce.

There are a lot of strong, potentially competing flavors in this dish, and I was moderately worried that it would come out as a mish-mash of clashing tastes in every bite. Quite the contrary. The roasted garlic marinara was flavorful and the spinach and olives added nice texture and subtle nuances. The goat cheese melted beautifully into the pasta when I mixed everything together and it brought a richness and creaminess to the sauce. This dish is a good example of what is meant when people say "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts."

In cooking this dish, I also came upon a faster way to pit olives than I had been using. I historically had just gotten out my knife or used my fingers to some extent to pit my olives one at a time. I like Wolfgang Puck's suggestion for how to save time on the pitting.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Please Don't Revoke My Chicago Citizenship

OK, I'm taking a chance here by telling you this. I'm not a big fan of bratwurst. There, I said it. In a city famous for all its different kinds of hot dogs and sausages, this is probably an unpopular opinion to express. I've tried brats a few times, but I just can't get into them with the same vigor that so many others do. I know I'm jeopardizing my Chicago citizenship by saying this. Fortunately for us though, Win loves them so maybe I can keep my Chicago citizenship through marriage.

Last time we were in Wisconsin, we passed through Milwaukee long enough to stop in at Usinger's. Usinger's is famous for its high quality sausages of all types. Win immediately became a huge fan of Usinger's and his only disappointment was that we were limited in what we could possibly carry home that day. We bought some cajun brats and some onion brats to take with us. Win cooked up the onion brats when my parents were in town visiting and they agreed that they were excellent. We stored the cajun brats in the freezer until tonight when Win decided to break them out.

Since I'm not a brat fan, I just had some leftover chicken, corn and salad tonight. Good, but nothing exciting. The excitement tonight was on Win's side of the table with his cajun brat. He grilled the brat and served it loaded with sauteed peppers and onions and melted provolone cheese on a toasted roll. He loved it and is already planning another brat night perhaps later this week to polish off the rest of what we bought.

Usinger's is great and they do ship sausage through their web site. If you can't make it to their store in Milwaukee, check them out online. The brat lovers in my life agree it's worth it.

Saturday, August 07, 2004

I Know Why Emeril Says "Bam"!

Last night a very reliable source told me where and how Emeril Lagasse came up with his famous "Bam!" line. He knows because he was there. But we'll get to that part of the story later...

Last night, Win and I went to a cooking class at Heaven on Seven. Heaven on Seven is an excellent cajun and creole restaurant here in Chicago, with three downtown locations and one in Naperville, IL. We have eaten at Heaven on Seven several times and loved the food and drinks every time. The food is rich and spicy...but without being overwhelmingly so...and an authentic taste of the South. On my last visit to Heaven, I saw an advertisement for cooking classes run by the chef/owner Jimmy Bannos. Father's Day was right around the corner, and this type of food ranks high on Win's list of favorites, so a trip to the cooking class seemed like a perfect gift. Our trusty Lima Bean (with some help from me) got her Dad (and me) registered for the first available class. They only do these classes once a month, hence the time lapse between Father's Day and when we actually went.

The cooking class is held in the 111 N. Wabash location. It's the original Heaven on Seven, on the 7th floor of the Garland Building. The photo above shows just part of Heaven's "Wall of Fire," a collection of hot sauces gathered from around the world. The minute we walked in the door we were greeted warmly by Cleetus, Heaven's Director of Catering and Special Events, and handed 2 hurricanes. What a way to start a class! The hurricanes were delicious and I had to repeatedly remind myself to take it slow since they're one of those drinks that are so tasty you can easily drink them down before realizing how much alcohol you've had. They had set up a cooking station and portable stove in the middle of the restaurant and surrounded it with tables and chairs for the students. Each student was greeted with strands of mardi gras beads at their place plus complete recipes and instructions for cooking each dish.

Born and raised in the restaurant business, Jimmy Bannos is a character and this was unlike the usual cooking classes I go to. Right off the bat, Jimmy said that he's not interested in teaching us specifics like "you need a quarter teaspoon of this or that." All of that information is contained on the recipes he had already provided. He was more interested in sharing general techniques and imparting common sense understanding of how cajun and creole food works and the basics for making some favorites from this genre. So this wasn't a class where we learned how to chop or where we saw the chef measure out every single ingredient. Jimmy already had most of his ingredients measured out and waiting for him when we got there. Instead, it was more of a conversation---and a very fun one at that---about this type of food and how to approach it.

The menu for the evening included:

*Andouille Sausage with Creole Mustard as an amuse bouche
*Creole Caesar Salad with Creole Caesar Dressing
*Chicken and Sausage Gumbo
*Habanero Chicken Jerktouffee
*Corn Bread
*Blueberry Corn Blasters

The andouille sausage amuse bouche was outrageously good and helped to fill our stomachs a bit and soak up some of those hurricanes. Heaven on Seven sells sausages and other meats that they use in their cooking, which I didn't know until last night. So if you find yourself needing tasso ham or andouille sausage, maybe think about getting it at Heaven. The creole caesar salad was essentially your basic caesar salad, seriously revved up by creole croutons and a dressing using creole mustard and Jimmy's Angel Dust Cajun Seasoning. Very good and a nice break in what would be a rich menu. Speaking of rich, the chicken and sausage gumbo was to die for. Thick and creamy, it was my favorite part of the menu last night. When Jimmy asked if anyone wanted more, Win and I actually split another cup; it was that good. The orzolaya is Jimmy's version of jambalaya but made with orzo pasta. Yum, yum, yum. The habanero chicken jerktouffee is like etouffee, made with jerk seasonings. Jimmy served it over corn bread. It was so good, but by this time I was seriously filling up. For dessert, we each got some blueberry corn blasters, which are tiny pieces of blueberry cornbread, deep fried and then coated with powdered sugar. They were just the right level of sweet and a nice way to cap off our meal.

All of the dishes we tasted came in full size or close to full size portions. So this wasn't one of those cooking classes where you watch the chef cook for 2 hours and then get a little nibble of the final creations. We chowed down heartily on every course and Jimmy and his team kept the hurricanes coming all night. His assistant, called "Billy Boy" by Jimmy, was outstanding and he made sure that all guests' needs were met immediately.

Watching Jimmy cook and tell his stories was almost more like dinner theater than a formal cooking class, but we did learn how to cook the dishes too. He uses a common sense approach to cooking and his passion for what he does is evident. He told us he still cooks at all his restaurants and just shows up at the various locations unannounced to check in every week. I know we saw him on the lunch shift at the Rush Street location in June.

At the end of the class, Jimmy let us ask any questions we wanted and it turned into a really spirited food discussion. Jimmy shared his favorite restaurants in and around Chicago (too many to possibly list), shared anecdotes about his chef friends (Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, Mario Batali, and Charlie Trotter included), and filled us in about life as a chef and entrepreneur in the food industry.

Probably my favorite story from the night was about how Emeril started using his "Bam!" tagline. Back in the early days of the Food Network, Emeril was taping a show and one of the cameramen kept falling asleep during takes. He'd shoot a scene, then the director would say "cut," and the cameraman would fall asleep. When they said "action," he'd wake up again. This was apparently driving Emeril and others crazy, and so they joked that he needed to do something to keep this guy awake. So he yelled "Bam!" to keep him awake and alert. And that's how the catchphrase was born. Emeril was smart enough to take it and run with it as his thing. Jimmy was there; he knows.

We absolutely loved this cooking class and highly recommend it for a unique night out. It's just the right balance of instruction, fun, and delicious food. The cost is $75.00 per person, and this includes all the courses described above and all the beer, wine or hurricanes you want. We felt this was extremely reasonable, given the food we had and the terrific cooking instruction and entertainment.

Heaven on Seven

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Stanley's World of Opportunity

I've known about a place called Stanley's Fruit Market for a while now, but never got myself together to go. Rumor has it that Stanley's has amazingly cheap produce and a great selection. After going to Stanley's today, I can confirm that the rumors are all true.

For fruit and veggie lovers, this place is a wonderland. It's a big store loaded with unbelievably cheap produce and a wide variety of offerings. The one downside is that Stanley's produce is quite ripe, so be advised that you probably should eat what you buy in a day or two. So if you can deal with the ripeness issue, definitely go to Stanley's. Here's what I toted home today:

1 head of iceberg lettuce, 69 cents
1 cantaloupe, $1.98
2 apricots, 39 cents
2 kiwi, 40 cents
2 packages (half-pints) of raspberries, 98 cents!!!
2 packages (half-pints) of blackberries, $1.96!!!

This brought my Stanley's purchases to a grand total of $6.53 after tax. It was all I could do to restrain myself from buying a lot more, but as I mentioned before the stuff you buy at Stanley's really does need to be consumed fast. I worried that if I bought too much it would just rot and go to waste.

So...Lima already took care of one apricot and one kiwi and tonight I'll be using the berries in a fruit cobbler. I was planning on making a berry dessert tonight, and it'll taste even sweeter knowing how reasonably priced the berries were. I just need to say it again...Can you believe how cheap the raspberries and blackberries were?

Stanley's is decorated with streamers and crepe paper decorations almost like what you'd see at a 5-year-old's birthday party. It's quite a scene and I wanted to take a photo to post here, but Lima would have none of that. She was in quite the toddler mood this morning and really mad at me for taking her to a place with all that yummy fruit and then not allowing her to have any until we paid for it. Oh, terrible, mean, mean Mommy! So rather than have her totally melt down while I had my Kodak moment, I skipped the picture this time. If you're in Chicago and you haven't tried it yet, check Stanley's out and see for yourself.

Stanley's Fruit Market
1558 N. Elston Avenue, Chicago, IL

In other news, we took the recommendation of someone who posted a comment on the site a few days ago and had a wonderful dinner of pork chops marinated in olive oil, vinegar, crushed garlic, pepper, and oregano. The person posted his or her comment anonymously, so I can't give them credit by name for the marinade suggestion...but I do offer big thanks to him or her. The marinade made the pork chops delicious and it was something new for us to try at our table. Thanks for reading and thanks for the helpful suggestions!

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Win's Perfect Burgers and Espresso Jello

I didn't expect to have Win home for dinner tonight, so it was an unexpected treat when he called and said he was on his way and that he'd love to grill up some burgers and eat on the deck. I've mentioned it here before; Win is excellent with the grill and an all-around good cook of meat. I don't know how he does it, but he always manages to cook all varieties of meats appropriately to maximize their flavor and to suit the tastes of the eater. I think it must come from a life of extreme carnivorousness.

Now we all know burgers aren't that tough to do, so I'm not going to ask you to buy into his meat cooking prowess based simply on how he does burgers...we'll wait until he shows off something more complicated. But c'mon...you can't tell me this burger doesn't look absolutely delicious. Perfectly seasoned and cooked (his rare, mine medium-well), these were some tasty burgers. We kept it simple tonight and just had some potato chips on the side and washed it all down with a beer. Tonight we had a Honker's Ale from the Goose Island Beer Company. Goose Island is a local Chicago brewery and they turn out some delicious ales. Always nice to drink local.

For dessert, I made the jellied espresso mentioned in Food & Wine magazine this month. It was incredibly simple to make, but the recipe produced a beautiful, bold dessert. The espresso flavor is quite strong, and that flavor paired with the gelatin's texture is quite unique.

Espresso Jell-O
Serves 4
Active Prep Time: 10 minutes
Total Prep Time: 3 hours

1 envelope unflavored gelatin
1/4 cup cold water
1.5 cups hot brewed espresso
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream, chilled
coarsely ground coffee, for garnish

1. In a medium bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over the water and let stand for 5 minutes. Add the espresso and 1/4 cup of the sugar and stir until thoroughly dissolved. Pour into 4 1/2-cup molds or a loaf pan, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until set, 2-3 hours.
2. Meanwhile, in another bowl, whip the cream with the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar until it holds soft peaks.
3. Dip the molds in warm water and turn the desserts out onto plates or cut the gelatin into 1-inch squares and mound in wineglasses or bowls. Garnish each serving with whipped cream and sprinkle with ground coffee.

So tonight was a quick and easy dinner, but a really tasty one. I realize I haven't said too much about Lima lately; I'll have to fill you in on her in some upcoming posts. She's become quite the character lately.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Enjoying light summertime flavors

It's been so hot and humid here in Chicago this week that I wanted to cook something light and fresh. Something with a full flavor but a light, easy, summertime feel. Mediterranean Grilled Chicken struck me like the perfect fit. Its flavor comes from lemons, garlic, rosemary, oregano, olive oil and some other seasonings and in my mind it's a great summer taste.

Mediterranean Grilled Chicken is quick and easy, but the result tastes delicious and the flavor combinations make it seem much more complex than it actually is. This recipe, like the hummus I previously shared, comes from The Chopping Block. I've made it several times, most recently this week.

Mediterranean Grilled Chicken
Prep Time: 2 to 6 hours (2 hours for marinating should be fine if you're time constrained)
Grill Time: 7 to 10 minutes

4 chicken breasts
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 lemon, including both the juice and the zest
1 teaspoon minced oregano
1 teaspoon minced rosemary
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
1/4 cup olive oil
sea salt to taste

1. Prepare the chicken: Pound out your chicken breasts until the meat is a uniform thickness. Place chicken in a large, sealable plastic bag.

2. Assemble marinade and marinate chicken: Combine remaining ingredients except salt in a small bowl. Add marinade to chicken in plastic bag. Toss to coat all the chicken with the marinade, press excess air out of the bag and seal. Marinate in the refrigerator for 2-6 hours. Note: The chef that taught me this recipe suggested 2 hours as the marinating time. She warned that leaving the chicken in too long can cause the lemon to have a chemical reaction with the chicken and almost start to cook it. I have marinated my chicken both on the short side and the long side of the scale and each time it turned out fine.

3. Grill the chicken: Preheat grill or grill pan over medium high heat until very hot. Remove chicken from marinade and discard marinade. Stop and smell the aroma---wow! Season chicken on both sides with sea salt. Grill chicken until a light brown sear is created, usually about 4 minutes. Turn chicken over and grill until cooked, about 3-6 more minutes. Remove from heat and let rest a few minutes before serving.

So you can see it's a fast and easy dish, but I promise it tastes like you worked a lot harder than you did. I've made this dish many times and it's been a hit every time. Lima even likes it. I've served it with plain rice, with corn on the cob, with tabouli salad, and with other green salads and all have been nice accompaniments.

I can't write up this recipe without also touting the wonders of my lemon squeezer. This isn't a new gadget; I think they started popping up in full force around the US sometime last year but maybe even before then. If you have occassion to juice lemons with any frequency, get one of these lemon presses. They are revolutionary. You just slice your lemon in half, insert one half into the bottom half of the squeezer and then push down with the top half. The lemon juice comes gushing out and the seeds stay behind. This little gadget gets out much more of the lemon juice than I ever could by hand and saves me the trouble of rooting around for errant seeds that might have jumped into my dish. I bought the lemon-sized press, but they also come sized for oranges and limes too...maybe even other citrus fruit sizes I don't know about yet.

On a final note, I'd love to hear your suggestions for what I can do with the leftover fresh rosemary and fresh oregano I have after making this dish. As you see, this dish doesn't require much of the herbs but the packages the herbs were sold in were much bigger. I have a few thoughts about dishes I can sprinkle them onto or into, but I'd love to hear any thoughts you might have. Always looking for new ideas and inspiration. Also, could these be frozen? If anyone has had success with that, I'd love to hear. Post a comment or e-mail me directly at atourtable@hotmail.com. Thanks.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Inspiration in September's Food & Wine

The September issue of Food & Wine magazine came this weekend and I greedily read it cover to cover. Normally I like Food & Wine and get some recipe ideas and interesting travel tips from them. But I absolutely love the September issue. Its theme is cooking delicious food fast and it includes an interview with Masaharu Morimoto, Gale Gand, Mark Bittman, Rachael Ray, and Anne Byrn (better known as The Cake Mix Doctor). These are all talented chefs and I have relied on the recipes of Ray, Bittman and Byrn in the past, always with fast, successful results. The interview is interesting and provides some excellent kitchen shortcut tips. Even better are the recipes provided by these chefs. I'm dying to try Ray's pasta shells with swordfish and Bittman's grilled skirt steak with chimichurri. Since I got my fill of chickpeas with the hummus I made last week, I'll wait a week or so to try Bittman's Spanish cod with chickpeas, but that recipe is calling me too.

There's also an excellent article in this issue called "My Big Fat Greek Feast." I think I'll try and recreate some of the dishes from this piece next time we have friends over. In the near term, I'll be making lemony greens with olive oil and olives this week.

Finally, there's a startingly simple recipe for jellied espresso with whipped cream. It requires no baking and looks very refreshing...perfect for a hot August night. This is on my to-do list for the week ahead also. So excited to try these new ideas!

Isn't it great to find new recipes that you can prepare quickly? Leaves us more time to savor these dishes later on.