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.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

At Our Table e-mail alerts now available

A quick note to highlight that I just added an e-mail notification service to At Our Table. If you'd like to receive an e-mail telling you when a new entry has been posted to At Our Table, feel free to sign up in the box on the lefthand side of the page. Don't worry, I won't be using your e-mail address for any purpose other than sending out these updates.

Thanks for reading!

Nonpareils Overboard!

On Wednesday morning, there was an explosion in my kitchen. We have guests visiting us this weekend, and I was busy readying my kitchen for their arrival. This involved some cleaning, dusting and restocking all the essential foods they might want to dip into. As I reached up to a high shelf in my pantry to retrieve a bag of sugar (with the hopes of refilling my sugar bowl), I accidentally knocked down my package of nonpareils.

What happened next can really only be called a Nonpareil Explosion. Check out the photo above. Nonpareils (which by the way are those little multicolored sugary beads that you put atop cakes, ice cream and other desserts to make them look festive) went everywhere in my kitchen. This photo really just shows the center of the explosion. The nonpareil blast was extensive (probably since the canister fell from a height above my head onto the ground) and those bright little beads of sugar flew everywhere.

My trusty sidekick, the Lima Bean, was of course by my side when this all happened. She thought it was amazing and you could just see the wheels in her 17-month-old brain processing the event. I explained to her that I had made a big mess and needed to clean it up. She then said "Boom!" and made great sweeping hand motions across the floor to show how the nonpareils had flown everywhere. A couple minutes later, she let out another "Boom!" and performed another demonstration of the incident. It was very cute to see her try and "discuss" what had happened, using her limited toddler vocabulary.

As I was cleaning I told Lima to try not to walk in the nonpareils. She was actually very, very good about listening to this direction. But since they were EVERYWHERE, she did end up with a lot stuck to the bottoms of her feet. When I went to clean off her feet, the little candies slid right off but they left some colored marks.

Lima actually loved this little explosion and happily let out another "Boom!" when I was telling Win about it later at dinner. So at least someone got some entertainment value out of the mess.

It took a while, but I think I got all of the nonpareils cleaned up. The blast radius was huge, so if a stray nonpareil rolls into your living room, you now know where it came from.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Vanilla Bean and Cinnamon Poached Pears

Last night, this New York Times article by Mark Bittman inspired me to make poached pears. I love pears in all forms, so it was surprising that I hadn't ever poached them myself at home before. Bittman made it sound quite simple, so I was eager to give it a whirl.

As you'll see in Bittman's article, the poaching relies on a very simple ratio. Use two parts water to one part sugar. If you'd like to add additional flavors, just mix them in to the pot of sugar and water with your pears and wait for the delicious results.

Any kind of pears will do and I used Bartlett. I had some vanilla sugar on hand, so I used that and also threw in a split vanilla bean. Finally, I added a generous sprinkling of cinnamon to the pot. Here's how the pears looked as they were simmering away in their vanilla bean, cinnamon and sugar bath:

These pears were extraordinary! So easy to make, but so delicious. The vanilla and cinnamon flavors were just right and the pears had poached to a pleasant level of tenderness. I'm sure these would be absolutely lovely over vanilla ice cream or perhaps atop a nice pound cake, but they were so tasty on their own, we chose to eat them alone, still warm from the pan.

Confession time: After we had eaten the pears, there was a decent amount of poaching liquid (the water, sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon mixture) left in the pan. I thought about what other delightful things I could make with this liquid gold and then decided I'd simply gulp it down myself, while standing in the kitchen in front of the stove. This is a true story. I know that was so, so wrong, but let me tell you it felt so, so right.


Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Filet Mignon with Vegetable Sauce

Last night, I cooked a dish from Giuliano Bugialli's Foods of Italy. As mentioned here, I adore this cookbook and have spent hours pouring over its gorgeous photos and delicious sounding recipes. It's been a while since I cooked something from it though, and at Win's suggestion, I decided that Filet Mignon with Vegetable Sauce (Filetti alla Griglia con Salsa Contadina) would mark our reintroduction to this book.

This dish is wonderful and I am so happy that we tried it out. I must confess that I was a bit worried about making it work due to the limited prep time I have at night. Most of my early evening is spent taking care of our Lima Bean and cooking dinner often is left until after she's asleep. This meal seemed just complicated enough that I was worried we'd be eating dinner at 10:00pm by the time I had it all done. (Late for Americans, although standard in many other parts of the world, I know.) Fortunately, I was able to squeeze in some food prep time this afternoon during Lima's nap and the dish turned out to be much easier than it seemed. The recipe below is based on the one found in Giuliano Bugialli's Foods of Italy.

Filet Mignon with Vegetable Sauce
Filetti alla Griglia (o alla brace) con Salsa Contadina

Serves 6

6 filet mignons
3 celery stalks
3 carrots, peeled
1 medium-sized red onion, peeled
1 clove garlic, peeled
15 sprigs Italian parsley, leaves only
4 fresh basil leaves
1 bay leaf
1 whole clove
4 ounces boneless beef or veal in one piece
1 cup dry red wine
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon butter
3 tablespoons olive oil

Remove the meat from the refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking.

To prepare the sauce: Coarsely chop the celery, carrots, onion, garlic, parsley and basil. Put all the chopped ingredients into a saucepan then add the bay leaf and clove.

Put the meat on top of the vegetables and pour the wine over it all. Here is what this step looks like:

Cover the pan and cook over medium heat for 30 minutes, without stirring. Enjoy the delicious aroma that soon fills your home. Season with salt and pepper, mix all the ingredients together, and cook, covered, for 15 minutes longer.

Remove the pan from the heat and discard the meat, bay leaf and clove. (In our house, this means give Win the meat and he'll enjoy it on the deck while grilling the filet mignon.) Put the contents of the pan through a blender or food processor and puree until just slightly chunky/almost smooth.

Heat the butter and oil in a saucepan over medium heat and, when the butter is melted, add the vegetables. Taste for salt and pepper and simmer, uncovered, for 5 minutes, or until a smooth sauce has formed. Here's what my somewhat chunky sauce looked like at this stage (keep in mind I was only making two servings, so the sauce quantity is vastly reduced from what's listed here to serve six):

Bugialli suggests cooking the filet mignon with the broiler, for about 5 to 7 minutes per side. Win opted to use our grill instead and the filets came out beautifully. As I've mentioned before on this site, my husband knows what he's doing when grilling meat.

Remove the meat from the grill or broiler. Place each filet on a bed of warm vegetable sauce on individual plates. See the photo at the top of this entry for a look at our finished product.

Despite my initial concerns, this dish was actually much easier to prepare than I thought and we got it on the table at a very appropriate dinner hour. It looks great when plated and tastes even better. The vegetable sauce is very fresh, yet it has a nice depth, and it complements the meat so well. We enjoyed this meal with some red wine and savored what might be one of the last nights we sit out on our deck before Fall and Winter's cold air snatch that ability away from us.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Cleaning Up and Stocking Up

Lest anyone think my life is all nights out at hipster bowling alleys and cocktails with girlfriends at stylish haunts, I thought I'd provide a little snapshot of my Friday night activities. After a casual dinner with Win on our deck (really tasty burgers and a beer), I cleaned up the kitchen and tried to bring some order to the massive pile of mail that seemed to be overwhelming our kitchen table. Made a pitstop in the bedroom to fold some laundry. Then I set about crawling around on my hands and knees with some cleanser, a sponge and paper towels to try and remove all of the greasy little finger and handprints I have at just under the 3 foot high mark in my house. Our little Lima Bean sure gets around, as evidenced by the omnipresent handprints.

Then I decided that I'd be able to pack my diaper bag more efficiently for outings if I had some toddler snacks already measured out into little single serving or day-long travel sized bags. So I pulled out the Veggie Booty and Honey Wheat Pretzel Sticks from Trader Joe's and the old-faithful Premium Saltines and divvied them up into smaller portion bags. I also have a few little containers of fresh fruit and vegetables pre-sliced in the fridge too. Check out the photo above; with a stash like that Lima is well-stocked for wherever our travels take us in the next few weeks.

And it's a good thing: I think there's a trip to a pumpkin patch in our near future. Lima saw some pumpkins on display in the parking lot of our grocery store this morning and got so excited about them. This little city kid should get to see pumpkins in their natural habitat; not only in a grocery store parking lot.

Oh, I've selected a couple dishes to cook from Foods Of Italy. I'll be gathering the ingredients this weekend and getting the cooking started probably Sunday...recipes to come.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Bowling (and Eating) with Style

This week Win and I went to a party at the 10pin Bowling Lounge. This is, I think, the only bowling alley in Chicago's Loop/River North area. Adjacent to the House of Blues Hotel, the 10pin Bowling Lounge is completely different than your standard bowling alley. It's very stylish, full of retro chic, and in addition to bowling it offers good food and cocktails.

The party was really well-planned and fun, and guests were treated to bowling, a buffet dinner with food well above your standard bowling alley fare, and an open bar for drinks. Some of the food we sampled included chicken marsala, caprese salad, garlic bread, caesar salad, penne in a vodka cream sauce, and seasonal roasted vegetables. For dessert, there was a gorgeous display of mini desserts, tarts and pastries as well as a chocolate fountain where guests could run fresh fruit, pound cake, marshmallows, and pretzels under the fountain's streams and then indulge in a chocolate covered masterpiece. That was really fun and unique, since it's not every day that you encounter a chocolate fountain (despite dreaming of such things almost daily since seeing "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory").

I don't know if all of the food was catered by 10pin or not (I'm thinking at least the chocolate fountain was obtained elsewhere), but their menu is far from the usual bowling alley fare. If you are in Chicago and looking to mix things up a little, check out 10pin. It's a fun place and you'll get a tiny bit of exercise with your dinner and drinks.

So how did I bowl, you might wonder? Let's just say it wasn't pretty. I got there and started off strong, but that quickly deteriorated and I probably bowled the worst two games of my life. We're talking scores like 58 and 65. That kind of bad. As Win said, it's never good when your bowling score is a speed limit. But it was fun nonetheless.

10pin Bowling Lounge
330 North State Street
Chicago, Illinois 60610
Telephone: 312-644-0300

*Please note that the photo above comes from the 10Pin Bowling Lounge web site. Since it was dark and crowded at the party, it was hard to take good photos. So I'm borrowing one straight off their web site. 10Pin owns the photo above.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Italian Food Porn

Last time my in-laws visited, my father-in-law was thumbing through my copy of Giuliano Bugialli's Foods of Italy over breakfast one morning. While it's not exactly what you'd expect one to read over their bowl of Raisin Bran, this cookbook is the ultimate in food porn. It's full of glorious photos of Italy and that country's fabulous foods. If you can bear to tear your eyes away from the photography by John Dominis, the book also includes excellent discussion of Italian culture, travel stories, and of course recipes.

Published in 1984, this book is hardly new and it has admittedly been a while since I leafed through my own copy. How glad I was that my father-in-law picked it up off my shelf! He sat there reading the names of dishes and telling us about recipe ingredients. Every now and then he'd show us a photo from the book to make us drool. One of my personal favorites (although it is so hard to pick) is the one of tagliatelle con dadi di prosciutto, presented in a hollowed-out wheel of parmigiano. The presentation of this dish is so striking---the hollowed-out wheel of cheese---and it sets the tone for the kind of beautiful and delicious meals you find within this book.

It's been far too long since I cooked something from Foods of Italy and I need to do something about that. This book conjures up really fond memories I have of my time in Italy and I'm losing myself in it this week with an eye for new dishes to try. Stay tuned for the (hopefully) delicious results.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Moms Night Out at the Kit Kat Lounge

Who is this sparkling singing sensation, you might ask? No, it's not me. We'll get to that in a bit.

Once a month, a group of moms I'm friends with gets together for a Moms Night Out. No husbands and no babies; just us. We each take turns planning the monthly event. September was my turn and I decided we needed to do it up right. In planning this event, I decided that the place I selected needed to meet three criteria:

1. The restaurant needed to have fabulous food and cocktails
2. The place needed to be somewhere we'd never take a child
3. The atmosphere and style of the destination should encourage us to dress up a bit and sparkle

When I had my criteria together, the perfect restaurant popped into my head. The Kit Kat Lounge and Supper Club, of course! I've eaten at Kit Kat twice before and have loved the inventive food and decadent cocktails both times. I also knew that Kit Kat boasted a very hip, stylish atmosphere and had unique entertainment such as performances by drag queens. Cool cocktails, delicious food and singing drag queens...what more could we want?

So off to Kit Kat we went. We got an excellent table, perhaps the best in the house, and sampled a few of their cocktails to start while absentmindedly glancing at the old movies they were projecting onto the restaurant's walls. I had the Ruby Slipper which is a concoction of vodka, triple sec and ruby red grapefruit juice. Smooth, just the right blend of sweet and tart, and oh so good.

I loved that there were five of us at the table because that meant we could sample a lot of Kit Kat's dishes. Fortunately, everyone wanted something different, making for even better sampling. I had the "Now That's Amore" ravioli. Ravioli stuffed with brie, asparagus, and herbs in a creamy, perfectly flavored sauce. Another friend had the "Big Daddy's Shrimp Goes Tropical" (an artfully presented plate of coconut shrimp) and wasabi mashed potatoes. Two others had a halibut daily special and a stuffed chicken breast daily special. Finally, another friend ordered the "Cafe Filet," a gorgeous beef filet with a completely unique coffee flavored sauce on top. We all loved our meals and commented that they were both beautifully presented and absolutely delicious.

Our only disappointment with the food was that they didn't have a full dessert menu. When we were offered dessert, we learned that the dessert selections for the evening were apple pie or carrot cake. I'm sure both would have been lovely, but neither jumped out at us as a "must have." So we passed on dessert.

So I've mentioned the great food and spectacular cocktails. What else made this evening so much fun? A stunning performance by a drag queen named Tracey! Tracey, pictured above in her Diana Ross attire, treated diners to several performances throughout the night. The lights would flash for a brief moment and then out would come Tracey, strutting into the main dining room, in full costume, makeup and wig, ready to dance and lip synch some popular songs. First Tracey performed as Anita Baker and she was practically a twin to the star. Then a few minutes later she reemerged in completely different costume, wig and makeup as Whitney Houston. Then we were treated to Dionne Warwick, then Diana Ross, and then finally in a surprising turn of events, Madonna. Watching Tracey perform was so much fun and her energy and enthusiasm was contagious. While it's slightly disconcerting that the performer in drag looks more beautiful than 90% of the women you know, it's a testimony to Tracey's art.

Tracey came over to our table and welcomed us at one point in the evening. She told us to "have as much fun as is necessary." I don't know how much fun is necessary, but I like the thought of that. It's my quote of the week.

The Kit Kat Lounge and Supper Club has a terrific, hip atmosphere and its staff is very helpful. One of the staff's best traits is that they completely understand when diners want to take their time and just relax over their meal and cocktails. I never feel pressured when I'm at Kit Kat and I always get the feeling they'd let me sit there all night if I wanted. The food is excellent, with inventive flavor pairings and pretty presentation. The cocktails...don't even get me started on how good some of those are. And of course there's the added benefit of really fun, unique entertainment.

I think all my friends enjoyed this Moms Night Out. I know I did.

Kit Kat Lounge and Supper Club
3700 N. Halsted Street
Chicago, Illinois

Monday, September 20, 2004

Chicken Francese

Tonight I made one of Win's favorite dishes: chicken francese. This is a light chicken dish with the robust flavor of fresh lemons. There are many versions of this dish out there, but my favorite comes from Arthur Schwartz. Schwartz is a newspaper food editor, restaurant critic, and host of a daily food talk show in the New York area. When I was growing up, my Mom would often listen to Arthur Schwartz on the radio (WOR 710 AM for those of you from the New York area) and I got the biggest kick out of his classic New York style and delivery. So about five years ago when I went searching for a delicious chicken francese recipe, I knew I had to go with Schwartz's because of sheer nostalgia and because I usually trust his guidance when it comes to food.

I adjust my recipe a bit from Schwartz's original, and I've noted those changes below.

Chicken Francese
4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 eggs
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons dry white vermouth (note: I always just use white wine and then serve that same wine with the dinner)
6 tablespoons chicken broth
4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
lemon wedges

Note well: Be sure to have all of your ingredients measured out and lined up before starting to cook. You will have to make the chicken in two batches of two cutlets each, so the frying fats and the sauce ingredients will be used half at a time. Before beginning, put the oven on 200 degrees so you will have a warm oven to keep the first batch of two cutlets warm while cooking the second two.

Pound the chicken breasts until about 1/3 of an inch thick. Season well with salt and pepper.

Place some flour on a dinner plate or piece of waxed paper.

Beat the eggs with a fork in a wide, shallow bowl or a deep plate with a rim.

Dredge two chicken breasts on both sides in the flour, coating heavily by pressing on it. Then pass the breasts through the egg, making sure they are thoroughly coated.

Just before placing the breasts in the hot oil, dredge them in the flour again, again coating heavily.

In a 10-inch skillet, over medium-high to high heat, heat the oil and the butter together until sizzling. Place the coated breasts in the pan and fry for about two minutes or slightly longer per side, until the batter is browned and the cutlets are just done through. If the fat in the pan starts smoking before the cutlets are done, turn down the heat slightly and add just a touch more oil. Do not let the fat burn or, for that matter, the flour that has migrated into it.

As the cutlets are done, (two fit easily in a 10-inch skillet), remove to serving platter and keep warm while making the sauce.

Immediately add the vermouth, chicken broth, and lemon juice to the pan. Let boil over high heat for about a minute, until reduced by about half and slightly thickened. It will be brown.

Pour the sauce into a cup and set aside while repeating the whole procedure with the remaining cutlets and ingredients.

When you have made the second sauce, add the first to it, in the skillet, to reheat it. Pour the sauce over the cutlets, garnish with lemon wedges and serve immediately.

Serves 4.

We love this dish and I hope you will too. I've been making it for about five years now and over time have adjusted parts of the recipe and process. Here are some adjustments that I have made:

1. As indicated in the ingredients list above, I always use white wine instead of vermouth. The reason behind this is simple: I always have a nice white in the house, but I don't always have vermouth. Wine works just as well and then we serve the opened white wine with dinner.

2. I always double the sauce recipe. Win and I feel the sauce is key to this dish and we always like to have more. Therefore, I always double the amounts of wine, chicken broth, and lemon juice used. There is no harm in having this delicious, lemony sauce in abundance, trust me.

3. While I still do cook the chicken cutlets in two batches, I've stopped cooking the sauce in two batches. I've found that this step is unnecessary and instead I cook the first two cutlets, remove them and keep them warm, then cook the second two cutlets, then cook the sauce all in one batch. I used to cook the sauce in two parts, but that just seems to add an extra I don't need.

Tonight, I served the chicken francese with a special wine my brother Mike sent us. It's a 2002 Chardonnay called Viandante del Cielo. This wine is the product of a joint venture between George Lucas (famous director, most known for the "Star Wars" trilogy) and Francis Ford Coppola (famous director, most known for "The Godfather"). The grapes come from Skywalker Ranch, George Lucas' estate, and the wine was bottled by the Niebaum-Coppola winery. Mike is a filmmaker and thus he had a special interest in this wine. When he bought a few bottles for himself, he kindly had one shipped to us too. What a good guy! This wine is delicious and it worked well with the chicken francese.

While I'm discussing wine, I thought I'd share a note with you about the corkscrew that changed my life. For years, I was a nervous wine opener. I'd always have Win open bottles for us at home and at social events would pray that I wasn't called upon to do the uncorking honors. All that changed when we got the Kurketrekker Corkscrew. This gadget is amazing and it pulls a cork out smoothly and easily every time. I highly recommend it for its ease of use and consistent effective performance.

Dinner was delicious and we enjoyed the wine very much. Best of all, there's some left over, so we'll have this treat again another night this week.

Organic Style's Best American Green Cuisine

Organic Style magazine just published its list of the Top 20 Green Restaurants in the United States. The list is limited to restaurants that opened after 2001 and focuses on restaurants that are "creative, organic-driven, and committed to locally-grown produce." The recommended restaurants are listed below, including Green Zebra from our own city of Chicago.

Blue Hill at Stone Barns 630 Bedford Road, Pocantico Hills, New York
Bradley Ogden Caesars Palace, 3570 Las Vegas Boulevard, Las Vegas, Nevada
Calendula, A Natural Café 3275 S.E. Hawthorne Boulevard, Portland, Oregon
Counter 105 First Avenue, New York, New York
Eccolo 1820 Fourth Street, Berkeley, California
Five Fifty-Five 555 Congress Street, Portland, Maine
Franny's 295 Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn, New York
The Green Table Chelsea Market, 75 Ninth Avenue, New York, New York
Green Zebra 1460 West Chicago Avenue, Chicago, Illinois
Incanto 1550 Church Street, San Francisco, California
Iris 1314 Glenwood Avenue, Atlanta, Georgia
Juliano's Raw 609 Broadway, Santa Monica, California
Lark 926 12th Avenue Seattle, Washington
Pure Food and Wine 54 Irving Place, New York, New York
Ripe 2240 North Interstate Avenue, Portland, Oregon
Roots Restaurant and Root Cellar 1818 North Hubbard Street, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Savory Olive Historic Baxter Hotel, 105 West Main Street, Bozeman, Montana
Sublime 1431 North Federal Highway, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida
T'afia 3701 Travis Street, Houston, Texas
Zaytinya 701 Ninth Street, NW, Washington, D.C.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

IMBB 8: Raise Your Spirits High!

This month's edition of "Is My Blog Burning?" is hosted by Donna of There's a Chef in My Kitchen. "Is My Blog Burning?" is a monthly cooking event, started by Alberto of Il Forno, where people around the world prepare recipes around a central theme and then share them on their web sites. This month's theme, as suggested by Donna, is wines and spirits. Participants should prepare a dish where one of the central ingredients is wine or spirits.

The minute I saw this IMBB theme one recipe came to mind: Poppy Seed Cake. My mom has been making this delicious poppy seed cake for years and it's always a hit. I started making it in the past couple of years myself and now I too can swear by its ease to make, consistent quality, and most importantly delicious taste. It gets its distinctive flavor from sherry.

Now while I knew this is a fabulous cake, I did have one hesitation about using it as my IMBB submission. As you'll see in the recipe below, it's made using cake mix and instant pudding. Hmmm...not exactly from scratch, gourmet ingredients here. Is this really the kind of recipe that I should make for IMBB? Shouldn't I make something more challenging, without the help of any pre-packaged mixes?

Nah. I pondered this for a while and then came to the conclusion that this cake is so good that it must be shared. I promise you it's simple but delicious.

Poppy Seed Cake*
1 package (2-layer) yellow cake mix or pudding included cake mix
1 package (4-serving) Jell-O instant pudding, vanilla flavor
4 eggs
1 cup sour cream
1/4 cup oil
1/2 cup cream sherry
1/4 cup poppy seed

Combine all ingredients in a large mixer bowl. Blend, then beat at medium speed with electric mixer for 4 minutes. Pour into greased and floured 10-inch tube or fluted tube pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes or until cake tester inserted in center comes out clean and cake begins to pull away from sides of pan. Do not underbake. Cool in pan 15 minutes. Remove from pan and finish cooling on rack.

Here is a photo of the cake when I just took it out of the oven:

And here's what it looked like when I removed it from the pan after cooling:

Finally, here is what one of the delicious, poppy seed laden slices looks like:

It's the sherry that gives this cake a very distinctive flavor. When people taste it, they always are surprised at how good it is and immediately ask what the unique flavor is that they are tasting.

What I love about this cake is its versatility. It works well as a dessert but I've often seen overnight guests snatch a piece of it for their breakfast. I've also served it with coffee and tea as a mid-afternoon treat when friends come over for a visit. It's got that nice light, moist quality that makes for a perfect daytime snack or dessert.

This one's been a hit with our friends and family for years. I hope you enjoy it too!

*I believe the Poppy Seed Cake recipe is from page 72 of an old Jell-O Desserts Cookbook. I don't have the actual cookbook in hand to provide the official title, but it comes from Jell-O.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

And the Verdict Is...

Two days ago I began The Great Green Bean Experiment 2004. The goal of this experiment was to see if I could get our 17-month old Lima Bean to eat green beans (which she usually doesn't like) if I let them soak in some minestrone for a while, hopefully enhancing their flavor. Why would I do this, you ask? Three reasons:

1. I like to encourage Lima to eat a wide variety of foods and I'd like for her to try as many vegetables as she can.
2. I had leftover beans and leftover minestrone in the house.
3. I'm nuts and am always making little concoctions in the kitchen for her to sample.

The results are in and as you can see from the photo above, not too many minestrone-soaked green beans were eaten. First, I tried to feed her the beans as part of the soup but she decided she'd rather pick them out and eat them with her fingers. So I put some on a plate and we tried that. She ate one or two happily and then I think the jig was up. Something clued her in to the beaniness of it all and she was done.

So Lima gives green beans a thumbs down, even when disguised with another flavor. It was worth a shot though. I've got some really nice, fresh carrots on deck for tonight and I'm hoping she'll like them more.

PS: How do you like our very 1980s plate there? That's a relic from post-college, pre-married life. That dish set isn't the most stylish in the world, but the plates come in handy for feeding babies and cats and as a saucer under potted plants.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Ribollita: Tuscan Vegetable and Bread Soup

Last night I had the urge to make something a bit fall-ish. It still feels like summer here, but autumn is approaching and that always gets me in the mood for a good soup. I haven't cooked anything from Rachael Ray's 30-Minute Meals 2 in a while, and when I perused it for ideas I was excited to try her Ribollita Bread Soup.

Ribollita is a very traditional Tuscan dish. Ribollita means “reboiled.” In doing some research, I found that an authentic ribollita often takes 3 days to prepare. On the first day, minestrone is made and eaten. On the second day, any leftover soup is layered with bread and thin slices of red onion and baked. On the third day, the leftovers are reboiled for the ribollita.

Since I was working from the cookbook of Miss 30-Minute Meals herself, my version certainly didn't take 3 days to prepare. I came in at about 40 minutes and was very pleased with the result. This soup is full of fresh vegetable flavor and has such a nice mix of soft texture (from the beans and the bread) and slight crunch (from the celery and carrots). It feels hearty and satisfying without being too heavy or fattening. Really, really good and it does have the essence of the kinds of food you eat when you're in Tuscany. I will definitely make it again. I'm thinking it'll be a perfect lunch the next time my parents are in town...I think this is something that would be right up their alley.

Ribollita-Bread Soup
Recipe from 30-Minute Meals 2 by Rachael Ray

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 large cloves garlic, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 ribs celery, chopped
1 fresh or dried bay leaf
coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 cans (15 ounces each) small while beans (cannellini beans)
6 cups chicken stock or broth
2 cups tomato sauce
3 cups stale, chewy Italian bread, crust removed and bread torn into pieces
1 small white onion, thinly sliced or finely chopped, for garnish
1 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

Heat a deep, heavy-bottomed pot over moderate heat. Add oil, garlic, onion, carrots, celery, and bay leaf to the pot. Season with salt and pepper and saute until veggies begin to soften, 5 to 7 minutes.

Add beans, stock, and tomato sauce. Cover pot and bring soup to a boil over medium-high heat. Remove lid and stir in torn stale bread. Continue stirring to incorporate bread as it breaks down. When soup becomes thick and bread is distributed evenly, adjust your seasonings and serve the soup in shallow bowls.

Top shallow bowlfuls of soup with raw onion, a drizzle of olive oil and a generous sprinkling of cheese. See photo at top of this post for how my finished product came out.

Serves 4

Note: I used asiago cheese instead of parmigiano reggiano because I happened to have it in the house. It was delicious that way too.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

The Great Green Bean Experiment 2004

Our almost 17-month old Lima Bean is by all measures an excellent eater. Despite being a busy toddler, she happily sits down for three meals a day and is usually open to trying anything we give her. She likes most things she samples and is basically a very easy child to feed. We've heard stories about how difficult and picky some kids can be about food and we know we're very lucky that she's like this.

The one food that Lima's not a big fan of is green beans. On a good day, she'll eat a few of them and then start spitting out the rest. On a bad day, she moves them all around her plate hoping they'll disappear or she just tosses them overboard from her highchair onto the floor. I've read that kids need repeated exposure to foods so that they can continue to sample them as their tastes develop. What might turn off a one-year old could appeal to them at 14 months, for example. So this is why I continue to cook green beans for Lima every now and then.

While I was digging through the fridge tonight in search of foods for Lima's dinner, I noticed that I had some leftover green beans and some leftover minestrone soup. A lightbulb went off. Lima loves minestrone soup and happily gobbles up every vegetable in it. So what if I took all the beans, dumped them into the soup, and then let that "marinate" overnight? Would the green beans soak up enough minestrone flavor for Lima to like them tomorrow?

An experiment was born: The Great Green Bean Experiment of 2004. It's things like this that will probably land Lima in therapy down the line ("And my crazy Mom just wouldn't let it go and kept making me try beans I didn't like..."), but I'm all for experimenting to see what works.

Stay tuned for the results...

Monday, September 13, 2004

Maternal Neuroses

I feel a bit tired today because I was up for a couple hours in the middle of the night last night. I don't know why this is happening, but lately I keep waking up in the middle of the night thinking that the Lima Bean is running around the house. Now clearly it is the middle of the night and she's soundly asleep, tucked away in her crib. But for some reason I've been popping awake lately with a worry that she's somehow gotten out of her crib and is running around the house playing. Since I think this is real, my brain then goes through the list of possible dangers she could encounter while playing in the house unsupervised in the middle of the night. Did I remember to latch the stair gate? Could she be pulling bottles out of the wine rack? Is she tugging at the computer cables?

Even though on some level I know this is just a dream, it feels real enough to get me out of bed just to make sure everything's ok. Usually by the time I hit the hallway I wake up enough to realize how crazy it is that I think she's running around the house and I go to bed. But last night, while standing in the hallway like a nut, I realized that I had gone to bed without covering the pan of brownies I baked last night.

So while I woke up for unreal purposes, I realized that I had a little matter to attend to in the kitchen and headed off to do that. And since I was in the kitchen at 2:36am, I figured I'd have one of the delicious brownies I'd made before I covered the pan with aluminum foil. So I stood there and cut one moderately sized square for myself. That was really good. So I sliced off another little piece. Again, really good. So I went back for just another little edge off the side. And so on until I had eaten a mightly big chunk of brownie. See the photo above. All that damage is mine, minus one square that Win ate earlier in the evening when normal people eat their brownies.

So at about 2:58am, fueled by brownie power, I decided I'd check the web and see what was up. First stop was Food Porn Watch. Jarrett's site is so good for keeping up with food blogs. Then I was off to Culinary Epiphanies to see how Kelli's sourdough experiment was going. Looks like things are going well with her starter. Up next was a visit to Chocolate & Zucchini; Clotilde's on vacation and her travels are heavenly to read about.

Then I came across a site I hadn't seen before and it spoke to the neurotic mom in me that got up at 2:36am thinking my kid was running around the house unattended. Three Kid Circus had me laughing for a while and I'll be checking back in there frequently. On to the Style section of The New York Times, but none of this week's articles thrilled me. Normally the Styles section is my favorite (how cerebreal of me, I know) but this week left me cold. This article on packing children's lunches for school was kind of interesting though.

After about an hour on the web, I flipped through some magazines (Time, Newsweek and Glamour) and some cookbooks (The Minimalist Cooks at Home, The Way to Cook, and The Extra Virgin Olive Oil of Lucca). This brought me to about 4:30am and I guess the brownie buzz had worn off because I was finally tired enough to get back to sleep.

I was now ready for a really nice, deep sleep. Too bad Lima decided she'd get up extra early this morning and started talking in her room at about 5:30am. Let's hope my maternal neuroses (and brownie cravings) take a break tonight and we all get a better sleep.

Friday, September 10, 2004

The Week Of Decadence

This is not the dishwasher of someone who cooks. These are all the dishes we as a family of three have used at home in the past week. (Okay, not quite true...Lima used many more for her meals but they are not all dishwasher safe and I hand wash them daily.) Literally one week has gone by since I last used the dishwasher and the bottom rack just contains a few small plates and a modest amount of utensils.

This is a telltale sign of my Week of Decadence. If you're a faithful reader of this blog, you might remember the days when I published recipes and accounts of what I cooked. There were weeks when I'd post a recipe or two a day, sharing what I'd prepared in the kitchen the night before. I love to cook and bake and enjoy sharing what I'm doing with you all.

But not this week. This week was The Week of Decadence. For unknown reasons, factors kept converging that had us eating out all week. Monday was Labor Day. With Win off from work, how could we stay home? We needed to try an Italian place we'd never been to before. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday were beautiful days here in Chicago...low to mid 70s and gorgeously sunny. Win got home from work and it seemed like a crime to stay inside our house and eat when the sunny patios of innumerable Chicago eateries beckoned us. So out we went. It's rare that our Lima Bean can wait to eat dinner when we do (she's usually more of a 4:30 or 5pm kind of gal), but her little stomach somehow managed this week and that also enabled us to dine out so much.

So very little cooking was done by me this week. I must say it was fun to open a menu every night and choose something delicious without worrying about the food prep before or the dishes afterwards.

But I do miss cooking. Now that The Week of Decadence is over, I'll be back to cooking more regularly and sharing recipes with you. I'm going to spend some time thumbing through a couple new cookbooks this weekend to see what strikes my fancy.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

A Visit to Millennium Park

Yesterday Lima and I met up wth a couple friends and their daughters at Chicago's Millennium Park. Millennium Park is a 24.5 acre park right in the middle of the city, showcasing unique sculpture, beautiful gardens and landscaping, a music pavilion and much more. I am going to be the first to admit that the photos I took (or tried to take) don't do it justice. I was taking the photos before my friends arrived and so I had to contain Lima in her umbrella stroller while I took some shots or else risk her running off unattended. She's just figuring out how to try and jump out of the stroller when she's tired of it (ugh!) and even though she's belted in, I worry that she could throw her weight just the right way and tip the whole thing over. (It's just a light umbrella stroller, so the worrywart in me thinks that could happen.) So I took these photos while yelling "Please sit down! OK, just one more minute. Be careful, you could fall out!" and other such things. Given the circumstances, I did the best I could.

If you want to see some photos that really capture the beauty of Millennium Park, check these out by Mark Gallagher at gallagher.com.

Once my friends and their kids arrived, we nestled into a secluded corner of the park so that the kids could run around and play without being in the midst of so many other people. One of the moms brought cantaloupe and watermelon which were greedily devoured by the three kids. They seemed to get a real thrill from thrusting their tiny hands into the fruit container and pulling out a slippery, sticky piece of the fruit. I think even they knew it was messier than they'd ever be allowed to be indoors at the table so this activity had a forbidden fun to it.

After about an hour, I took my fruit-stained Lima Bean to another part of the park where we were going to meet up with Win. He was able to break away from work for an early lunch and it was such a nice treat to see him in the middle of the day like that. Since I needed to get Lima fed and home in time for her nap, we had to keep things basic (as is usually true with a toddler in tow) and we decided on lunch at Caffe Baci across the street from the park. Win went with the Walnut Apple Salad (which included walnuts, sliced apples, gorgonzola cheese and dried cranberries on mixed greens with a light dressing) and I had the Mozza e Pom Panini (fresh mozzarella, tomato, basil and a touch of olive oil and black pepper on a baguette). Both, pictured below, were very tasty.

Later that night I got another ice cream inspiration. Tuesday night was ice cream sodas. Last night's idea was homemade ice cream sandwiches. So out came the delicious vanilla bean ice cream again to be sandwiched between two chocolate chip pecan cookies.

Nothing fancy but good, good, good.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Dinner at Schuba's Harmony Grill and Ice Cream Sodas

Last night was such a gorgeous night we decided to go out for dinner somewhere with a patio where we could enjoy the early evening air and peoplewatch. We picked Schuba's Harmony Grill in Lakeview. I've been to Schuba's several times with friends and family, but for some reason Win's never been with me when I've gone. So he was eager to try it.

We sat outside on their cute little flower-box rimmed patio and had a very basic dinner. Win got their buffalo chicken sandwich and I ordered a chicken and black bean quesadilla. The quesadilla, pictured above, was very high quality and stuffed with delicious roasted chicken, chihuahua cheese, and warm black beans. Many places just toss tiny bits of chicken into their quesadillas, but Schuba's fills theirs with the tasty meat. Everything I've seen from the Schuba's kitchen has been excellent and in addition to the quesadillas I'd recommend their mac and cheese, their salads, their pulled pork sandwich, their chili, and almost anything on their brunch menu.

Dinner was really good and then we enjoyed a leisurely stroll home afterwards. Instead of riding in her stroller, Lima decided it would be fun to walk behind it and push it herself. I have to give her little legs credit...it was a long haul and she did it. Since she seems to suddenly love pushing her stroller so much, it might be time I buy her one of those little toy ones to push dolls in. I think she'd like it.

Later in the evening, a lightbulb went off in my head. We have ice cream in the house! Really good, vanilla bean ice cream. Time for an ice cream soda! Win and I became as excited as little kids over this idea and greedily scooped some of the delicious ice cream into a tall glass and then doused it with Coke. Ahhh...so, so good.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Anybody want some watermelon?

Last week my grocery store was having a one day sale on watermelon. $1.99 for a whole melon. Watermelon wasn't on my shopping list when I went to the store, but I couldn't turn down this good deal on such a quintessential summer fruit.

Win thinks watermelon is fine, but he's not a huge fan. The Lima Bean and I love it. With Win's parents coming for a visit, I thought they might enjoy some watermelon too. Turns out, neither of them really like it. So there it sat...the very big melon left to be eaten by me and the very small Lima.

I usually don't buy whole watermelons since there are so few melon eaters in our house. Usually just a small wedge suffices. So I started cutting into this one and as you can see from the photo above, we still have a lot of melon left. The Tupperware container is holding bite-sized pieces for the Lima Bean and the plastic bags are serving as temporary homes for the rest of the melon wedges until they can be sliced up further and enjoyed. It's funny to open our fridge and see at least one large wedge of watermelon per shelf.

This abundance of watermelon encouraged me to check out the web for innovative watermelon recipes. Watermelon.org is full of so many good ideas. I'm thinking about making watermelon lemonade for a kids playgroup I'm hosting on Friday and the fresh mozzarella watermelon salad with purple basil for lunch this week. There are several other interesting watermelon recipes on the site; if you're a watermelon lover this is worth a look.

Monday, September 06, 2004

German and Greek Food with Family

Win's parents came for a visit over the Labor Day weekend. We did some cooking at home (dinner their first night here was grilled herbed pork chops, corn on the cob, fresh spinach with lemon and olive oil, salad and then homemade cake for dessert) and lots of eating out. Since we live in the heart of the city, there are too many good restaurants to share with guests and we usually do more dining out than cooking when they come. I always tell myself that that will change if we ever move out of the city and have fewer exciting dining options nearby...but we'll cross that bridge when we get to it. For now, it's so much fun to experience different cuisines in various parts of the city.

Win's parents went to Germany this Spring and loved it. Given their enjoyable German travel experience, we thought they might enjoy a German restaurant. So we took them to the Chicago Brauhaus in Lincoln Square. The Brauhaus has been open for over 35 years and it definitely feels like an old neighborhood place. The servers are mostly older German women who are competent and friendly but no-nonsense. At night, a live band plays German music and guests are invited to dance on the little dance floor in front of the bandstand. They have a nice selection of beers served in large steins and we liked each one we tried. The food is very good and although it's not exactly as they had in Germany, according to my in-laws it's pleasantly close. Among the dishes sampled at our table were cabbage soup, chicken schnitzel, rindsroulade (beef rouladen rolled with mustard, bacon, onions and pickle), braised pork shank served with sauerkraut and dumplings, goulash, red cabbage and German potatoes.

As is typical with German food, these dishes were filling. We all enjoyed what we ordered and Lima even liked almost everything she sampled. Oddly enough, she was a big fan of the cabbage soup. She would have stolen the whole cup of cabbage soup right out from under her grandpa if we'd let her little toddler hands do it. The one food she didn't like was the red cabbage. She was excited to try it when I put some on a fork for her, but after about one second in her mouth, it reappeared and was promptly spit out into my hand. So thumbs down from Lima on the red cabbage, but her vote is counterbalanced by the two big thumbs up given to it by Lima's grandma and grandpa.

Fall and Winter seem like a perfect time to visit the Chicago Brauhaus. It's kind of dark and old fashioned feeling and the hearty food is perfect for the colder months. My in-laws loved their meal and we'd definitely go back again. Sorry I don't have any photos from the Brauhaus here; I didn't have my camera with me for that meal. You can get a sense for the look and feel of the place from their web site though.

Later in our weekend, we decided to hit Greektown for lunch. My in-laws like Greek food so we decided to pay a visit to Greek Islands (pictured above). We'd been to Greek Islands before and loved their delicious food, gregarious staff, free valet parking, and bright, sunny decor. This visit was no different. We loved their Greek salad generously dotted with feta cheese and Greek olives. Win and his parents all ordered different lamb dishes, prepared in a variety of ways. I ordered baby mediterranean octopus. It quickly became clear which three in this bunch were genetically linked and which crazy octopus eater married into the group.

Win and his family raved about the lamb. Tender and flavorful. I loved my octopus. It was served grilled with an olive oil and herb marinade. The herb and charcoal grill flavors popped without covering up the natural taste of the octopus. Unlike what you might expect, it wasn't too rubbery or chewy either. The photo above just shows a few little pieces from the octopus dish, not the whole entree, but it provides a glimpse into what it was like.

Due to the Lima Bean's impending need for a nap, we had to leave before indulging in dessert. We have had the pleasure of trying Greek Islands' desserts on a previous visit though and they were excellent.

My in-laws left today, hopefully having enjoyed their trip. Two things are certain: They left well-fed and happy to have seen their granddaughter (and son and daughter-in-law...but we're no dopes, we know Lima's the main attraction).

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Dinner at Blue Ginger

Since our stay in Boston was short, we only had time to squeeze in one more dinner before returning to Chicago. Win surprised me by making a reservation at Blue Ginger. Blue Ginger is Ming Tsai's restaurant and it's located in Wellesley, MA. Tsai was recognized by The James Beard Foundation as 2002 Best Chef Northeast and Blue Ginger has received numerous accolades from Zagat, Boston Magazine, Esquire and many other publications. This would be our fourth time dining at Blue Ginger and I was excited for the opportunity.

Blue Ginger serves an "East Meets West" fusion menu very similar in style to the cuisine Ming Tsai prepares on his various television shows. Every time we've eaten at Blue Ginger the food has been outstanding and since the menu changes frequently you'll always find something new and interesting to try. Of the four times we've been there, we had the opportunity to see Tsai in action once. He was working hard, expediting orders in front of their open kitchen (see photo above of kitchen). On this visit, we apparently missed him by just a few minutes, as he left for the night at 9:30pm and we had a 9:45pm reservation.

Of the 11 appetizer offerings on the menu, I was seriously intrigued by 9 of them. Win was in the same boat, so this made appetizer selection a bit tricky. Win opted for the crispy fried calamari with thai dipping sauce and I selected the shiitake-leek springrolls with three chile dipping sauce. Both were delicious with very interesting flavors and textures.

As my entree, I ordered Garlic-Black Pepper Lobster with Lemongrass Fried Rice and Pea Tendril Salad (pictured above). After I decided on my dish, I announced it to Win and then realized I had unknowingly selected the most expensive dish on the menu. I wasn't a cheap date that night, but this exquisite lobster was worth it. Beautifully presented, the lobster had a distinct flavor of garlic and black pepper...just the right amount to be flavorful but not overpowering. The lemongrass fried rice was beyond good. I love the taste of lemongrass and to have that scent and flavor combined with fried rice was just amazing. The pea tendril salad added a nice additional texture, color and palate cleansing flavor to the plate too.

Win selected the Pan Seared Sea Scallops with Sweet Corn-Lemongrass Sauce, Koshi-Hikari Miso Risotto and Heirloom Tomato Salsa (pictured above). He loved every bite and I found the risotto to be especially intriguing, with its mushroom and miso flavor.

We were certainly full after these two courses, but the dessert menu was too spectacular to pass up. Everything on it looked appealing and unique, but my eye was drawn to the Star Anise Infused Peach Cobbler. What a treat! The peach cobbler was served warm with homemade vanilla ice cream on top. What I loved about this cobbler was that you really tasted the star anise flavor. So often chefs will concoct creations and give them fancy names listing what the dish is infused with and yet that flavor is practically undetectable. In this case, the star anise added such a wonderful complexity to the cobbler. Next to the cobbler was a stuffed plum with apricot-ginger compote. This little side treat was delectable. The plum and compote combination was otherworldly.

Win felt more full than I did, so he opted for a more simple dessert. He got the Blue Ginger Ice Cream with Almond Cone. It included tahitian vanilla bean, milk chocolate and sesame nougat ice cream. Extremely high quality ingredients and delicious taste. As good as it was, I didn't take a photo of it because after all it was just a dish of ice cream.

Blue Ginger's decor is lovely and the atmosphere appealing, perhaps because it was designed with the help of a Feng Shui Master. The one odd observation I had was that some of the clientele at Blue Ginger weren't dressed very well this time. In the past, we've noticed most patrons wearing business casual or perhaps even more formal attire. This time out, we both agreed that several diners didn't just look casual, but their look bordered on sloppy. I'm not a fashion critic or a clothes snob, but the difference in people's attire since my last visit did strike me. As did a little sign in the ladies room next to a beautiful orchid. While standing at the sink, I noticed the gorgeous orchid on the vanity and the small sign next to it. Upon further examination of the sign I saw that it said something like "Ladies, this lovely live orchid is here for all to enjoy. Please don't pick its flowers." How sad that people need to be told not to pick flowers off a ladies room orchid. So, people, show Ming some respect when you go to Blue Ginger: dress up a little, keep your hands off the orchids in the bathroom, and enjoy a wonderful dining experience.

Dinner at Blue Ginger was a perfect way to cap off our weekend in Boston. Now that we're back I'll be posting more about Chicago restaurants and our own home cooking again soon.