Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thanksgiving Potluck

A few times a year we have a potluck dinner.  Usually we have one at Thanksgiving and another at Christmas, but we also threw in one for Labor Day this year.  I like to make something kind of wacky for the main course (after all, I don't have to transport anything so I have to make something a bit more substantial).

I have done lots of types of main courses at previous potlucks like korean bbq chicken legs, lasagna, and ravioli.  I wanted do something that most people had never had, and I wanted it to be reminicent of the fall season.  My attention turned to pork shoulder, but that did not meet either of my requirements.  I began thinking about quail, pheasant, or other game birds, but that was too expensive and time consuming to make a bunch of.  I combined the idea of pork shoulder and game meat and came up with wild boar shoulder.  The only problem was where I could get something like wild boar shoulder.  Fortunately for me I live in a city where every conceivable thing can be found.  I began the hunt and eventually located a place that sold wild boar (and a whole bunch of other crazy stuff).  The place is Chicago Game & Gourmet, and it is located at 350 N. Ogden in Chicago (chicagogame.us). 

As mentioned in a couple previous posts, I went out to the suburbs to begin preparing the boar shoulder.  It is difficult to make really good pulled pork/boar in my apartment because it requires a long smoking period.  Although i have smoked things in the apartment, I did not want to do it again after nearly dying of smoke inhilation the last time.  I decided to take the safe route and just get a nice layer of smoke on it in the burbs, then bring it back here and finish it in the oven.  This ended up working fantastically, though I think it could have used about another hour of cooking to really make it easy to pull apart.  I also made watermelon "meat" for Katie, but I'll run down that recipe in my upcoming massive Thanksgiving post.

The potluck turned out better than I could have hoped.  All the food was excellent and it seemed like everyone had a great time talking to each other (even if the ladies' table (plus John) got somewhat inappropriate and the Bears suffered another loss).  Here is what everyone brought.

Katie brought Cauliflower Mac & Cheese
Joel brought Mashed Potatoes
Jackie brought Sweet Mashed Potatoes and Jalapeno Bread
Mairin & Melody brought stuffing and a corn casserole
Mia brought a Pumpkin Pie with not one but two secret ingredients
John brought a Chocolate Cake
Voelker brought a Reese's Pie
Urgo brought a bottle of Zinfandel (bless her soul)
Last, but not least, Kurt brought Protien Shakes

I really liked everything that people brought (even the protien shakes).  Perhaps I can track down any recipes if there is interest in them.  Here is how I made the boar and its accompanying sauces

Pulled Boar Shoulder (serves 12)

1 6 lb boar shoulder
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup kosher salt
20 juniper berries, smashed
1 cup apple juice
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

1.  Put thawed boar shoulder in a large bowl.
2.  In a separate bowl mix the salt, sugar, and juniper berries together until well incorporated.
3.  Cover all sides of the boar with the salt mixture.  Put in the refrigerator overnight.
4.  The next day, take the boar out of the refrigerator and let it come up toward room temperature for about an hour and a half to two hours.
5.  Meanwhile, start a charcoal grill going with indirect heat (coals all on one side).  Allow the coals to cool until the grill is at about 250 degrees (this should take about an hour).  Also put a bunch of cherry wood chips in a bowl of water for at least an hour.
6.  Wash the salt mixture off of the boar and put it in a foil pan.  Pour the apple juice into the pan.
7.  Put the foil pan on the grill on the side opposite from the coals.  Put a handful of wet cherry wood chips on the coals.  Cover the grill with the lid with the grate open and directly above the boar.  Also be sure the bottom is open to maximize the air flow.
8.  When you see the smoke stop (about 30 mins), take the lid off the grill and place a couple briquettes on the hot coals followed by another handful of wet cherry wood chips.  It is important you maintain the heat at about 250 degrees so you don't ruin the boar (never ever let it get above 300).
9.  Repeat this process for 4 hours, turning the pan around at the 2 hour mark.
10.  You can continue this process for 5 more hours (turning the pan every couple hours) or you can put it in the oven at 250 for the remaining 5 hours.  The former option would lead to a more smoky taste, but I had to finish it at my apartment, so I opted for the latter option.  At this point sprinkle the brown sugar over the top of the boar.
11.  In any event, after about 5 hours total of cooking, you should start basting the boar with the fat that has rendered from it every half hour.
12.  At the 7 hour mark, pour the apple cider vinegar in the pan and continue basting every 15 minutes.  Don't worry if the shoulder turns black, it is supposed to do that.  It will not taste burnt
13.  You need the internal temperature of the boar to get over 180 degrees for the fat to liquify so you can pull it.  Ideally you can get it between 190 and 200 so it really comes apart easily, but 180 is your minimum.
14.  Once it hits the proper temperature, take it out of the oven and tent with foil for 15 minutes.
15.  After 15 minutes, take the foil off.  Take two forks and stick one into the boar to hold it in place.  Using the other fork, rake the boar in a downward motion to pull the boar off of the shoulder.  It should come off very easily if it is at the right temperature.  Continue raking until the whole shoulder is in bite sized pieces.

BBQ Sauce
3 cups root beer
1.5 cups ketchup
5 cloves garlic, smashed into a paste
just under 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
2 tbsp worsteshire sauce
1 tbsp chile powder
8 juniper berries
1/2 tspn ground all spice
1 tspn Tobasco sauce or 1/2 tspn cayenne pepper
small handful of bittersweet chocolate chips
juice from 1/2 lime

1.  Combine root beer, ketchup, garlic paste, vinegar, worsteshire sauce, chile powder, juniper berries, allspice, and tobasco in a medium sauce pan.  Stir together to incorporate. 
2.  Bring to a boil over medium heat.  When it begins boiling, reduce heat to low.
3.  Simmer for about an hour until the sauce thickens and ths bubbles look like they are stacking on top of each other.  Stir ocassionally.
4.  When it is thickened, toss in the chocolate and stir until melted.
5.  Remove pot from heat and squeeze in the lime juice.  Stir and refrigerate covered (preferably overnight).

Cherry Port Sauce (modified a bit from the Alinea cookbook)
1/2 lb dried bing cherries
1 cup cabernet sauvignon
1 cup ruby port
1 cups low sodium chicken stock

1.  Put cherries, cabernet, and port in a medium sauce pan.  Bring to a boil over medium heat.  When it hits a boil, reduce to low and simmer until it is the consistency of syrup.
2.  Whisk in stock  and raise heat to medium and bring to a boil again.  When it hits a boil, reduce to low again and simmer until reduced by half.
3.  Strain through a chinois into a clean sauce pan.  Reduce over medium-low heat until it is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.

Give it a shot.  Let me know how it turns out.

Thai Food...the Sequel

On the day of the potluck, we needed a quick bite to eat for lunch.  Of course, we went with the old standby of Thai food.  Perhaps I subconsciously wanted to drown out the memory of the grossness that was Bambu Thai or perhaps I just never learn my lesson.  We ordered some delivery of chicken pad thai from Yes, Thai.  Yes, Thai is located at 5211 N. Damen in Chicago (http://www.yesthaichicago.com/).  I have been there before and I greatly enjoyed their pad thai, though it was a bit sweeter than the pad thai at Ben's Noodle & Rice, so I did not like it quite as much.  However, we had not had Yes, Thai in a while, so I wanted to give it another shot.  I think the lesson I should take from this experience is to avoid delivery Thai food.

That is not to say that it is horrible, but I think (after having a couple less than awesome experiences with delivery Thai food) that the key is immediate service.  Yes, Thai does have the most well cooked and juicy chicken of any pad thai I have ever had, which leads me to believe that they cook it separately then add it in at the end (probably the logical thing to do).  However, the delivery pad thai was a bit too sweet and maybe even a little fishy.  It was still pretty decent tasting and certainly better than my awful experience at Bambu Thai the previous day. 

Lesson learned though...no more delivery Thai.  The Chinese do it much better.

Dairy Thai

I was out in the suburbs on Saturday around lunch time to begin preparing for the Thanksgiving potluck dinner the following day.  Since I am tired of the usual fare in the burbs, I wanted to give something new a try.  I settled on Thai food since I am semi-addicted to their delicious cuisine.  I had never been to a Thai place in Elmhurst, so I was curious to try the place that went into the now defunct Dairy Queen space, Bambu Thai.  Bambu Thai is located at 1035 S. York Road, Elmhurst IL (http://www.bambuthai.com/). 

As is my usual custom, I ordered chicken pad thai.  The theory is that if the place can't do a chicken pad thai correctly, then it is not worth eating at.  Well, folks, this place certainly is not worth eating at.  This is the single worst bit of Thai food I have ever eaten.  I have eaten a whole bunch of gross things in my life (particularly when I was in college, like egg noodles and bbq sauce), and I've mostly finished them despite their less than stellar flavor.  I could not even take more than three bites of this pad thai (if it even deserves to be called that).  It was nearly flavorless, and what little flavor it did have was gross.  For some reason the lime wedge that was included with it did not even have any juice in it (that's not a joke).  When you can't even slice a lime correctly, you know something is seriously wrong.

After rejecting the rest of the meal like it was a mismatched organ transplant, I went over to Burger King for a quick bite.  I hate beating a dead horse, but when you get beaten out by Burger King, you are doing something wrong.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Thanksgiving Wine Selection

Since I'm cooking Thanksgiving dinner, I also have to make sure that the wine is perfect as well.  Just in time, Cuvee Cellars (545 Spring Road http://www.cuveecellars.com/) steps in with a pair of holiday wine tastings to save the day.  I was thinking that I should go with a Riesling for the white wine and a Pinot Noir for the red.  However, to confirm, I asked John and Craig (the owners), separately, which wines I should get for Thanksgiving.  In an incredible display of on-the-same-page-itude, not only did they both come up with the same varietal recommendations (Sauvignon Blank or Riesling and Pinot Noir), but they even came up with the same producers (Frogs Leap Sauvignon Blanc, Willow Crest Riesling, and Angeline or Meomi Pinot Noir).  I realized that we already had a whole bunch of white wine, including the Frogs Leap and Willow Crest, so we went with the Meomi Pinot and an Audelssa Cabernet Sauvignon (even over my protestations against Cabernet for Thanksgiving).

Here is the rundown of the rest of the tasting

Starting from right to left:
Willow Crest Reisling - Nicely balanced, sweet Riesling, but not one of those cloyingly sweet Rieslings that are gross.  It has a nice balance of acidity with a faint scent of petroleum jelly.  This is going to be delicious for Thanksgiving
Hinman Pinot Noir - This one is on the menu by the glass.  Has a bit of an earthy smell, nice and fruit forward, though I think it may have been lacking some of the secondary flavors.  I like this one, and it would also be a nice choice for Thanksgiving.
Killer Syrah - I went through about a 4 month stretch (like January - May) where all I drank was Syrah, so I'm still a little bit soured on it, though I am coming back around.  That being said, this one was very nice, perhaps because it wasn't as peppery and big as a lot of Syrahs.  It also wasn't as full of glycerin as many Australian shirazes.  Even though it isn't as big as many syrahs, I still think that it would wash out the flavor of the turkey.
 Earth Series Merlot - I really did not like this one.  I felt as if it had too much alcohol in it (I'm not sure what the content was, but it smelled like grain alcohol).  It didn't go down terribly easy, which is usually the hallmark of merlot.

  Going from left to right this time:

Grgich Hills Fume Blanc - Last time I was in Napa, I visited this winery and had this wine, so I knew it was good.  This is a great winery to visit, so I'd definitely recommend it.  The wine is super mellow with nice notes of citrus fruit like lemon or maybe grapefruit.  It is probably too mellow for Thanksgiving, but it would be excellent with seafood.
Luna Vineyards Freakout White Wine - This is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, and a grape called Tocai Friulano.  Although Cuvee Cellars sold many bottles of this, I was not a fan.  I thought it was too acidic and not all that well balanced.  People seem to like it though, so maybe give it a try for yourself.
St. Clement Chardonnay - I enjoyed this one.  It had a a nice creamy texture and a popcorn-y aroma.  It also had notes of pineapple and other tropical fruit.  Too buttery for Thanksgiving, but delicious on its own.
St. Clement Merlot - As much as I liked the Chardonnay for its buttery-ness, I did not like the merlot for that same reason.  It seemed to overwhelm the fruit flavor and it didn't seem to have that much going on with it.  Maybe some notes of chocolate, smoke, and cherry.

From right to left this time:

Bitch Bubbly - This is a pink sparkling wine that is much too sweet for me.  It does have some interesting floral notes and has some flavors of red fruit.  However, like I said, it is way too sweet.  Not for me.
A to Z Pinot Noir - I love pinots, but this one seemed a little plain to me.  Funny story with this though.  One night after track season ended, we ended up drinking somewhere between 5-17 bottles of this stuff at the track party.  It brings back some fun memories.  It is not bad by any stretch, but it is not nearly as good as some of the other pinots at Cuvee Cellars.
Gine Gine Priorat - I'm pretty sure this is the only Spanish wine in Cuvee Cellars.  It had some nice aromas of black fruit like blackberries or dark cherry, but it was very acidic and had too much of an alcohol smell to it.  I have a feeling if this was left to age for a while longer, it could turn out well, but it was not ready to go just yet.
Obsidian Ridge Cabernet - This was another one that was flying off the shelves.  I first had this one in a side by side comparison with a very fruity pinot noir, and had I not known what each one was, I would have guessed them incorrectly.  This cabernet is very restrained, but in a good way.  It was nice to drink now, but I bet this one would age really well and probably open up a bit more.

Here are a few additional pictures from the night.  I think they are going to have a tasting shortly before Xmas, so you should stop by if you get a chance.

Here are all the guys (left to right) Craig, Peter, John, and Joey

A Rarity

I'm not sure exactly how this all came about, but suddenly Michelle wanted to have Chicken Marsala for dinner.  While that may not seem like an unusual event (because Chicken Marsala is delicious), it is for me because, for reasons that are still unclear to me, she hates it.  Even though I was 99% certain that this was a trick of some sort (like she was going to try to sell me a timeshare or rope me into a ponzi scheme), I agreed for the simple reason that I love Chicken Marsala.  Here is the recipe.  It is one of my favorites.

Recipe (serves 2-3)
3 boneless skinless chicken breasts
2 sticks of butter
1 cup dry marsala wine
1/2 cup mushroom soaking water
1 cup of sliced mushrooms (I like portabello, but we used shiitake mushrooms in this one)
kosher salt

1.  Fill a bowl with hot water and put mushrooms in it, leave to the side for approximately 10 minutes.
2.  Put a large saute pan over medium heat and start the butter melting while you prepare the chicken
3.  Lightly salt and pepper both sides of the chicken.  Dredge in flour to coat the chicken.  Gently shake as to get rid of excess flour.
4.  When butter is melted and hot, put in the chicken for 4 minutes per side.
5.  When you are about halfway through cooking the second side (6 minutes in), remove the mushrooms from the water, gently squeeze out any excess water that the mushrooms may have soaked up back into the bowl they were in.  Put 1/2 cup of this soaking water (should be a reddish color) into a measuring cup (be sure not to get any dirt that may have settled on the bottom).
6.  When the first stage of cooking is completed (the first 8 minutes), add mushrooms to the pan, then pour in the marsala wine and the 1/2 cup of mushroom soaking liquid.  Cover and let cook for 12 minutes, flipping halfway through.
7.  After 12 minutes, remove the chicken and loosely cover with foil for a few minutes while you finish the sauce.
8.  Add about 1 tbsp flour to the pan and whisk until sauce thickens up and there are no visible traces of flour left (this will prevent it from separating for a while)
9.  Serve chicken and sauce over egg noodles.

...and yes, I did end up buying a timeshare.  It was that good.

Once Again...

I can't believe it has been over a week since I have posted anything, but when school takes you out behind the shed and beats you with a belt, there really is no other option.  I'll try to plow through my last week of eating/cooking now, so these posts may be a bit shorter than usual. 

Last Tuesday, as always, was Fish Tuesday brought to you by The Fishguy Market (http://www.fishguy.com/).  We got there near closing so our options were limited to black cod or black cod.  After thinking about it for a while, we went with black cod.

I had never cooked cod before, so we were in for an adventure.  I wanted to switch it up from grilling, so I decided to poach it.  In the end, I felt like it could have been a little more lemon-y.  That being said, I really liked how the fish was cooked, so I'll have to continue playing with this recipe.

Recipe (serves 2)
2 black cod filets
1 lemon sliced into 1/8" thick disks, plus 1/2 lemon cut into wedges
1 cup white wine
3/4 cup low-sodium chicken stock (always try to get low-sodium chicken stock)
2 cloves garlic, smashed and diced
1/2 tspn dried thyme
kosher salt

1.  Preheat oven to 350
2.  Lightly salt and pepper both sides of fish and let sit on the side while you prepare the poaching liquid
3.  Melt stick of butter over medium heat
4.  When butter is melted add garlic and let cook for 2 minutes
5.  After 2 minutes, pour in the white wine, chicken stock and add the thyme.
6.  Allow to simmer for a few minutes while you prepare the casserole dish
7.  Put disks of lemon on the bottom of a small casserole dish untill the bottom is completely covered with lemon
8.  Pour the poaching liquid over the lemons.
9.  Put the fish into the poaching liquid.  It should come at least halfway up the side of the fish.  If it does not, add some white wine until it does.
10.  Put in the oven for 20-25 minutes until done (mine took 25 minutes, but it was extra thick)
11.  Serve with wedges of lemon, and spoon some poaching liquid over the top before serving.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Thanksgiving Trial Run

I've been appointed as the Grand Wizard of Thanksgiving this year, so I am in charge of cooking for twenty-two people in about a week and a half.  As many of you may know, I can't do anything the normal way, so I wanted to do a scaled down version early to get out many of the bugs that could plague the day in two Thursdays. 

Enter the lovely Miss Brianna.  She, unfortunately for her, has to work on Thanksgiving.  All the selfish people at the hospital can't just quit being sick for even one day, but I suppose that's how it works.  Plus she had every weekend for the entire summer off, so this is some decent payback.  Anyway, she got to experience a Thanksgiving early with us.  Here is how everything went.  I got some of this off the Alinea Thanksgiving, but tossed in a few modifications of my own. 

The turkey and stuffing are cooked sous vide, which means that it is vacuum sealed (in a Vac Saver) and then cooked in a large amount of water that is held at a specific temperature.  When I do it again, I will cook the dark meat at 168-170 degrees instead of the 175 I did today.  I will cook the white meat at 155-157 rather than 165.  If you want to make your own sous vide thing at home, you need a giant stockpot and a thermometer with a clip.  You then fill it almost full of water and clip the thermometer on the side.  Heat the water over low heat until it stabilizes at a temperature, then adjust the heat up or down until it stabilizes at the proper temp.  Also, if you are using a vac saver, you have to be sure there is almost no liquid in the bag.  It doesn't seal if there is liquid in the bag, so be sure the turkey is dry.  You could use a large zip lock bag too, but it might take a little longer because of the air in the bag.  No you won't have a nice turkey to present, but you will have perfectly cooked, not dry turkey.  Since this is cooked well above 140 degrees, there shouldn't be too much of a food safety concern, but I should note that you should either serve the meat immediately or cool it quickly (by covering it in moist paper towels and putting it in the fridge) as to prevent bacteria growth.  I don't want to turn you off of sous vide since it's an awesome way to cook, but you should take heed of those safety measures.

Turkey (serves 4-6)
1 eleven lb turkey, thawed (mine wasn't fully thawed, so butchering it was not easy.
1 stick of butter cut into 3 pieces
6 sprigs of thyme
half of a  package of sage, stems removed
kosher salt
olive oil

1.  Put 2 large stockpots filled with water on the burners.  Heat one to 170 and the other to 155
2. Butcher turkey into legs, wings, and breasts.  Break bones down with a cleaver and reserve.
3.  Pat the legs with paper towels to be sure that they are very dry.  Put the legs together in a vacuum bag.  Toss in 1 of the pieces of butter, 2 sprigs of thyme and 1/3 of the sage.  Put in a few pinches of salt and some pepper.  Seal the legs in a vacuum bag and put into the 170 degree pot of water.
4.  Repeat, putting wings in one bag and breasts in another with the remaining butter, thyme, and sage.  Put the wings in with the legs in the 170 degree pot and put the breasts in the 155 degree water.
5.  Cook in the water for 2.5-3 hours.
6.  When you remove the turkey from the bag, reserve the rendered turkey fat for the gravy.
7.  Remove the turkey from the bags and put to the side.  Film a large saute pan with olive oil and heat over medium-high heat until smoking.  Put the legs in first, skin side down for about a minute until skin is browned.  Flip and do the same with the other side.
8.  Repeat the browning process with the wings.
9.  Repeat the browning process with the breasts.  The breasts only have skin on one side only, so no need to brown the other side.

Turkey Stock (You may want to start the stock an hour or so before you cook the turkey)
Bones from the butchered turkey
2 carrots, large diced
2 celery stalks, large diced
1/2 onion, diced
2 bay leaves
1/2 cup white wine
olive oil

1.  Film a large saute pan with the olive oil and heat over high heat until smoking.
2.  Carefully arrange the bones in the pan.  Cook until the bottom is very brown and then flip.
3.  When both sides are very dark brown (almost burnt), deglaze the pan with the white wine, scraping the bottom to get up all the turkey.
4.  Put in the carrots, celery, onion, and bay leaves and cook with the bones for 8-10 minutes until aromatic.
5.  Add enough water to cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 3 hours until reduced by at least half.
6.  Skim the fat off the top occasionally.
7.  If you have time, refrigerate overnight to get the fat to the top.  Pull the fat layer off.

Stuffing (serves 4)
7 cups of whole wheat bread (about 3/4 loaf), cut into medium sized squares
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 package of sage
1 scant cup of turkey stock
1 stalk celery, small dice
1/2 onion, small dice
2 bay leaves
4 cloves garlic, small diced
1 1/4 stick unsalted butter
2 tspn kosher salt

1.  Put bread in a large bowl.
2.  Melt butter over a medium heat.  Add garlic, onion, celery, sage, and bay leaves to the hot butter, and cook for 7 minutes until onions are slightly browned.
3.  Pour butter and its contents over bread and stir until incorporated.
4.  Gently stir in eggs and turkey stock until incorporated.  Too much stirring will make the bread mushy, and no one likes mushy bread.
5.  Put the stuffing in a large zip lock bag.  Presss out all the air and seal.  Put in the 170 degree pot with the dark meat for about an hour and a half.
6.  After an hour and a half, remove the stuffing from the bag and put into a bread pan.  Put under the broiler for a few minutes to crisp the top.

Reserved turkey fat
Turkey stock

1.  In a shallow pan, bring the turkey fat to a simmer over low heat.
2.  Stir 1 tbsp of flour into the simmering turkey fat, whisking constantly until there are no visible lumps of flour.
3.  When there is no flour visible, stir in another tbsp of flour while constantly whisking.  Repeat process until turkey fat is very thick and leaves a trail on the bottom of the pan when you run a spoon through it.
4.  When it reaches this stage of thickness, thin it out with some turkey stock until it seems watery.
5.  Continue simmering and whisking stock until it rethickens.
6.  It should already be properly seasoned from the rendered turkey fat, so no need to mess around with it.  Keep warm over lowest heat until serving.

Mashed Potatoes
6 yukon gold potatoes, peeled and large diced (yukon golds hold liquid better), peels reserved
1 stick of unsalted butter, cold
1/3 cup milk, hot
2 tbsp kosher salt

1.  Rinse potatoes in cold water to get the surface starch off of them.
2.  Heat a large stock pot of water to 160 degrees, and put potatoes in it for about 30 minutes, be sure not to let it get much above 160 degrees.  This stage is to render the starch which would make the mashed potatoes lumpy.  You will see the water get very cloudy.
3.  Pour out hot water and rinse potatoes in cold water again to get the starch off.
4.  Rinse out the stockpot and put the potatoes in it.  Put in enough water to cover.  Put the peels in a cheese cloth sack and put this in the water as well.  Heat over medium heat.
5.  Once the water gets hot, stir in salt.  Simmer for about 30-45 minutes until potatoes are tender and are easily pierced by a fork.  Discard cheese cloth containing potato skins.
6.  Put butter in a large bowl, put hot potatoes in a potato ricer or china cap and rice the potatoes over the butter.  Mash the potatoes with a potato masher until the butter is melted and incorporated.
7.  Stir in hot milk.  Salt (you shouldn't need much, if any) and pepper to taste.

Here is the dinner, in all its glory!

Who could forget dessert?

Berry Crisps (serves 6)

1 lb assorted berries (raspberrys, strawberrys, blueberrys, blackberrys, etc.)
1/4 cup sugar
2 tspn corn starch

1 cup flour
2/3 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup chopped nuts
1 1/2 cup crushed cereal (like corn flakes)
1 handful of crackers, crushed
1/4 cup oatmeal
1/2 tspn cinnamon
1 1/2 tspn pure vanilla extract
1 stick butter, chilled and cut into small cubes

1.  Combine all Filling ingredients in a bowl and refrigerate while preparing the topping.
2.  Combine all topping ingredients in a mixer bowl.  Using the paddle attachment on a stand mixer mix together on medium speed until the butter is crumbly and well combined.
3.  Refrigerate the topping while the oven preheats.
4.  Preheat oven to 350.
5.  Mix half the topping into the fruit.
6.  Put fruit mixture into ramekins, generously sprinkle the topping onto each fruit-filled ramekin.
7.  Bake in the oven on a baking pan for 30-35 minutes until fruit is bubbling on the sides.
8.  Remove from oven and allow to cool for about 10 minutes while the top sets and the inside cools slightly.
9.  Serve with vanilla ice cream and eat while warm.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

What is this Craziness?

Fish Wednesday?  Could it be that Wednesday has usurped Tuesday as the fish day?  No, the wonderfully wonderous Fish Guy Market just had a great deal on scallops yesterday, so I had 3/4 of a lb laying around the house.  On this most unusual day, I wanted to do something special with these scallops to commemorate the first ever Fish Wednesday.  I remembered a few years back on Top Chef, one of the contestants did banana scallops, so I got to wondering how those would go with real scallops.  I figured it would go well so long as it had something sweet and tart to bind it with the scallops.  It seemed pretty clear that I should make a maple syrup and balsamic vinegar sauce, so that's what I did. 

Recipe (serves 2)
3/4 lb of bay scallops
2 bananas, sliced into 1 inch disks
1/2 cup of maple syrup
2 1/2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp lime juice
1/2 tspn of thyme leaves
kosher salt
olive oil

1.  Mix maple syrup, balsamic vinegar, lime juice, and thyme leaves in a small pot and place over low heat.  Heat until reduced to a syrupy consistency, which will take about 10 minutes.
2.  Put olive oil in a frying pan and heat over medium-high heat until smoking
3.  Meanwhile, heat a non-stick frying pan over medium-high heat
4.  While pans are heating, salt and pepper the scallops and dip the cut sides of each banana in sugar.  Reserve each on the side while the pans heat.
5.  Once the oil is to the proper temperature, put the scallops in the oil.  Leave the scallops sit without stirring for one minute in order for one side to brown.  After one minute, stir the scallops to brown the other side. 
6.  While the 2nd side of the scallops is browning, put the bananas, cut side down in the hot non-stick frying pan to carmelize the sugar for 30 seconds.  After 30 seconds flip banana to the other sugared side and cook for another 30 seconds to carmelize.  Put bananas on a warm plate while you finish everything else.
7.  The scallops should be finished the same time as the bananas, so remove them from the pan.  The sauce should also be finished at this point, so keep it over the lowest heat while you plate.
8.  Put 4 carmelized bananas (which look like big seared bay scallops) in the middle of the plate, put a pile of scallops on top of the bananas.  Put a pile of scallops on each side of the bananas to form a continuous ribbon of scallops.
9.  Pour 2 or 3 spoonfuls of sauce over the ribbon of scallops and bananas.  Pour 1 spoonful of sauce on each side of the ribbon and smear with the bottom of the spoon in opposite directions to make it look cool.
10.  Enjoy.

You Guessed It...

Another entry in the vaunted history of Fish Tuesday.  I ended up with some lovely Mahi Mahi filets.  I have this crazy article due later this week, so I needed to do something simple and fast.

I decided to grill them and serve them with a lemon butter sauce, as seen in the following pictures.

Anyway, here is what I did to throw this together.  I can't wait til X-Mas break so I can cook something that doesn't only take 20 minutes.

Recipe (serves 2)
2 mahi mahi filets
1/2 stick butter
1 lemon, juiced with seeds removed
1 cup white wine, preferably sauvignon blanc
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
kosher salt

1.  Heat grill to medium heat, spray with non-stick cooking spray
2.  While it is heating, put butter in a pan and melt over medium heat.
3.  Once butter is melted and hot, put lemon juice, wine, and white wine vinegar in pan and simmer for 10 minutes while fish cooks.
4.  When grill is at the proper temperature, put fish filets on the grill for 5 minutes per side.
5.  Plate fish, drizzle with lemon-butter sauce and serve with jasmine rice and/or green beans.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

On the Rebound

I apologize, but I have to start this post out on a sad note.  After a fantastic seven-year run as my all-time favorite Italian restaurant, Merlo on Lincoln and I have broken up.  No, neither of us did anything wrong per se, but its just that we have grown apart.  Although there were persistent rumors for the past couple years that they were planning on changing the concept of the restaurant from perfection to something less than perfection, it always seemed as if it would never happened.  I mean, seriously, why would you mess with perfection let alone willingly give it up?  Gone are the wonderful memories of tagliatelle with white truffle oil an veal ragu, spinach lasagna with a bechamel sauce, artichoke tort, and prosciutto-wrapped buffalo mozzarella.  I realize that I can get all these dishes at Merlo on Maple, but the atmosphere there is so much less welcoming and relaxing.  Today is a sad day that I will not soon forget.  Goodbye sweet Merlo, we had some great times.

Fresh on the open market, I was looking for a quick fling to replace the hole in my heart that Merlo left.  I found my rebound with a sexy little place called Custom House.  Custom House is located at 500 S. Dearborn and its website is http://www.customhouse.cc/.  Custom House is Chef Shawn McClain's meat-focused restaurant in his Chicago restaurant empire (Spring (fish), Green Zebra (vegetarian)).  We did find out that Chef McClain is giving up the reins of Custom House to focus on a new restaurant he is opening in Vegas.  Nevertheless, tonight, as always was a tremendous effort by this great restaurant.

Upon arriving in the lobby of the restaurant, we were quickly whisked away to our table in the middle of the dimly lit, modern dining room.  A friendly waiter named Eric brought us our menus and the wine list and explained the special of the evening (pork chop, sunchoke puree, pork reduction).

We discussed some options for wine before we decided to settle on a half-bottle of 2005 Bordeaux.  The wine was very good with hints of black currant and some earthiness that would go well with pork.  The only problem with this wine was that it took the better part of an hour to even begin to open up.  When you are opening a bottle for dinner, that amount of time is seldom a luxury that you have.

As I viewed the menu, some difficult choices presented themselves.  There were four dishes that sounded absolutely tremendous, and many more that would have made fantastic substitutes.  I was mainly torn between the pork special mentioned above, the pork shoulder canneloni with shiitake mushroom puree, rabbit with bacon, and scallops with bacon vinegarette (as you can see, I love bacon).  Although a out of character for me, I settled for a non-bacon related dish, the pork shoulder canneloni.  Michelle ended up ordering the chicken under a brick with black truffle potatoes.  We also decided, in an homage to Merlo, to order the prosciutto and mozzarella as an appetizer.

The prosciutto came out served with sliced radishes, shallots, and basil.  The buffalo mozzarella was melted over a piece of bread.  The prosciutto was wonderfully salty as it should be, but I was a bit confused by the bread underneat the melted cheese.  I feel like they could have done better just wrapping some lightly warmed balls of cheese with the prosciutto, but maybe I was just reminiscing about the wonderful ex-Merlo dish.  Beyond my minor quibble with the bread, I thought this was a nicely executed, simple appetizer.

A few minutes after the appetizer was cleared, our main dishes came out.  My dish had some sort of large swirly looking thing on top, which turned out to be a chile pork rind.  The pork shoulder was very moist and had an extreme pork flavor, so it was very tasty.  There were some chile flakes to add a touch of spice.  Finally, the shiitake mushroom puree served to frame the immense flavor of the braised pork shoulder.  Without the puree, the pork flavor would be unrestrained, and I would have gotten bored eating it.  However, the mushrooms added an earthy element that was a baseline for the pork.  All said, it was a very nicely rounded dish that was interesting to eat throughout.

The chicken under the brick was also a phenomenal effort.  As you probably know, chicken is extremely easy to dry out while cooking, particularly while grilling.  However, this chicken was very moist throughout, but it had a beautifully crisp skin to contrast the moist meat.  The spinach and potatos were ripe with black truffle flavor, thus they were extremely scrumptious.  This was one of the best, if not the best, chicken that I have ever had.

These dishes were extremely filling, so we opted to share one dessert.  There are some extremely strange-sounding, but probably wonderful desserts on the menu.  Chief among these was the foie gras pot de creme with pickled grapes.  I've had a foie gras creme brulee before, but that was served as a side dish to another savory course.  I couldn't comprehend how this could be a dessert.  I was not about to head down this alley since we were only getting one dessert, but the waiter assured me that it does work well as a dessert.  Rather, we settled on "Smores."  This dessert consisted of a graham cracker tuile filled with chocolate custard.  On the side was melted marshmallow and a pile of bacon powder.  Did you really think I could go a whole meal without eating some bacon?  The custard was extremely chocolatey and dense.  The bitterness from the chocolate was offset by the subtle flavor of the graham cracker tuile.  The crisp tuile also contrasted the texture of the custard.  While it would seem that simply adding marshmallows would complete the smore concept, Custom House took it a step farther.  The bacon powder was not there just for the sake of adding bacon (although I would have been fine with that), rather it was necessary to add a smoky element that smores get from the campfire.  Even more elementary, it added a contrast of saltiness to the intense sweetness of every other element.  For any of you have eaten Doritos and bananas or cookies and pretzels together, you know how powerful the sweet-salty connection is.
Custom House was an excellent meal and made for an awesome escape from my article.  Even more importantly, it may have replaced my ex, Merlo on Lincoln.  Perhaps if she changes back to her old ways we can reconcile, but that does not look promising right now.  Give Custom House a shot and let me know what you think!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A BBQ Trip Diverted to Cuba

Today I was all set to go to the newly opened (as of Halloweekend) Brand Market BBQ for lunch.  I mainly wanted to get out of the house and away from my law review article since it was a wonderful global warmingly induced 77 degree day in November in Chicago.  Brand BBQ Market is located at 2824 W. Armitage and their website is http://www.brandbbq.com/.  We hopped in my car and headed out to this new bbq place.  I parked on the street and was nearly annihilated by a bus that got way too close to my parking spot.  After luckily dodging near certain death, I walked a block to Brand BBQ.  During this block walk, I thought about how I was going to write a compare and contrast to the Chicago bbq standard, Smoque BBQ.  I got to the entrance, tried to fling open the door to announce my presence, but alas, a paper sign in the window said that they were not open for lunch, despite the workers being in there.  Brand BBQ, you have earned yourself a powerful enemy (shakes fist). 

Not knowing what to do next, but still being hungry, I remembered that I saw the other outpost of 90 Miles Cuban Cafe a few blocks back.  I remembered this because I nearly completely blew a stop sign pointing it out to John.  You may recall that I reviewed the 90 Miles that is on Belmont and Western a couple weeks ago.  This is the second, and much larger, location that they have opened.  It is located at 2540 W. Armitage and its website is http://www.90milescubancafe.com/.  This location is also BYOB, but since we didn't know we were coming here, I didn't prepare for this.  This 90 Miles also has a greenhouse-like room attached for semi-outdoor eating.  It has things like white couches and palm trees, which makes it look like a place where Tony Montana would be face down in a mountain of coke. 

Although I greatly enjoy the lechon sandwich, I had that last time.  I owe both you and I the duty to try all sorts of different things.  Today I decided on the Media Noche sandwich.  This sandwich is sliced roast pork, pickles, and mustard served on a sweet bun.  Michelle, predictably, ordered the garlic steak.  John ordered the ropa vieja (braised pork) with peppers.  I did not try either of these dishes, but they both looked quite tasty.  My sandwich was decent, but not great.  The bun was interesting tasting, and the pork was flavorful.  However, the pork was dry and the pickles and mustard were not assertive enough, so they were largely washed out by the pork flavor.  I would have much rather re-ordered the lechon sandwich, but there is only one way to find out what things you like.

Even though the sandwich certainly was not the best that I have had at 90 Miles, I still got to drink delicious delicious Iron Beer.  I really have to find out where I can buy a case of this stuff because it is addictive.  Anyway, 90 Miles still has high praise in my book, so give it a shot.

Encased Meat Emporium

After two unsuccessful attempts at eating at Hot Doug's, I finally made it there on Friday.  Hot Doug's is located at 3324 N. California, and their website is http://www.hotdougs.com/.  I got there around 3:30, and the line stretched down the block.  Since it was a lovely fall day, I was undeterred by the length of the line.  I parked right across the street from the line, but soon realized that it was a tow zone during the week for some reason.  I got in my car, and moved it to the other side of the street.  Once I got out of the car, I found out that this side too was a tow zone.  Slightly embarassed after my parking troubles in front of a long line of people, I considered leaving.  Fortunately, I saw a spot on California out of view of the line that I could park at, so I jumped all over that opportunity.

Eventually I got into line.  I started waiting, and waiting, and just when I thought the line was moving, I waited some more.  About forty-five minutes later, I began questioning whether waiting this long for some sausage was a good or even sane idea.  That question was answered as soon as I stepped inside the actual restaurant and the wonderful wafting aromas of grilling sausage and rendered duck fat filled the air. 

I began reviewing the large variety of sausages and sausage specials on the menu.  I gave passing consideration to the notorious Hot Doug's foie gras hot dog, which holds the distinction as the only dish that ever earned a fine under Chicago's now repealed and completely asinine ban on foie gras.  I thought to myself that I should probably try a basic style sausage to see how well they can prepare a regular dish.  No sooner had I decided to get two bratwursts than my eyes stumbled upon the Buffalo sausage with bacon mayonnaise and maple smoked cheddar.  I was completely sold since bacon makes everything better.  I was three people from the counter, and I was ready to go with my order when I overheard the counter guy say that the last buffalo sausage was ordered.  Quickly a woman appeared to take the buffalo sausage entry off of the specials menu.  Slightly distraught, I fell back on my default position of two brats.  Here is the menu.

You have several options as to how they prepare your sausage: steamed, char-grilled, deep fried, or char-grilled and deep fried.  I chose to get both of my brats char-grilled, both with mustard.  To get a little differentiation, I got one with sauerkraut and one with grilled onions.  I also got an order of their duck fat fries because a) how delicious do fries cooked in duck fat sound? and b) I didn't wait in line for almost an hour not to get the most popular thing on the menu.  Just a note, duck fat fries are only served on Fridays and Saturdays, so don't try to sneak in mid-week expecting to get these delicacies. 

I went and sat at a table to wait for my food.  It arrived in paper baskets shortly thereafter.  The fries, though pricey for fries at $3.50, are easily enough for two people.  The brats are obviously butterflied before cooking, and then grilled on a charcoal grill.  I'm envious of their cooking skill.  I've cooked very many brats on a charcoal grill, but I have never attained the pure delicious smokiness that acompanied the Hot Doug's brats.  Perhaps it has something to do with the butterflyification (go ahead, look it up).  I'll give that a shot next time.  Of the two brats, I preferred the one with saurkraut, though the one with onions was nothing to sneeze at.  The kraut was tart, but in a subtle manner.  The clear star of the dish was the sausage, and the kraut was merely a complement, even if it was a very good complement.  The only problem I had with the sausage was the buns.  They got soggy and fell apart quickly, though at the speeds you will wolf down these delicious brats, that probably won't be too much of an issue.

The sole reason I wanted to come to Hot Doug's was for the duck fat fries.  After driving twenty minutes to the restaurant, then waiting another hour in line, you would guess correctly that my expectations for these fries were through the roof.  As crazy and improbable as the next thing I say will sound, just trust me.  The hour and twenty minutes journey for fries was worth it, and maybe even a little more.  The hand-cut fries are deep fried in rendered duck fat.  The result is an incomparable blend of crunchy, meat flavored exterior and creamy, custard-like interior.  I will go ahead and say that these are the best fries that I have ever had.  As a tip for those of you who do not want to wait in line for an hour or more, try going after 4:30.  I noticed that there was nearly no line at this point, so that might be an idea if you have less time or the weather is terrible.  Anyway, Hot Doug's is amazing, perhaps the next time I will indulge in the the pinnacle of sausage achievement, the foie gras hot dog...

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

I Must be Trout of my Mind

As always, I have fish on Tuesdays from the Fishguy Market. Fishguy is located at 4423 N. Elston and their website is http://www.fishguy.com/.  Today we had the choice of whitefish, snow trout, mahi mahi, and perch (among a few others).  Since whitefish sounds to plain to me and we have eaten so much mahi mahi lately, so I wanted to try something new.  We ended up with a very nice looking snow trout.  I wanted to do something fast (since I don't get home until 9:15) and traditional.  Trout Meunière immediately popped into my head.  Trout Meunière is a crusted trout served with a brown butter and lemon pan sauce.  I found a general recipe online, but changed it a bit while cooking.  I like serving fish with green vegetables, as I think I discussed below, so we settled on green beans.  Anyway, here is what I did.  The whole thing took up 2 pans (one for fish, one for green beans) and it took 15 minutes, so this dish is a definite keeper for the late weeknights.

Recipe (serves 2)
4 trout filets, skin on (they are very thin, which is why you need 4)
3 tbsp butter, preferably unsalted
1 tbsp vegetable or canola oil
juice from 1 lemon, seeds strained out
kosher salt
a few sprigs of parsley

1.  Salt and pepper both sides of the trout.
2.  Put oil and 1 tbsp of butter into a large sauted pan over medium heat.
3.  Pour about a cup of flour into a long bread pan.  Dredge both sides of the fish in flour.  Gently shake to get off any excess clumps of flour.  Place on a plate while the butter heats.
4.  When the butter begins to foam and turn brown, add the fish filets, skin side down.  Cook for 5 minutes.
5.  Flip fish and cook flesh side down for 4 minutes.  The exterior of the fish will look brown and be crisp at this point.  Gently remove each filet and put it on a plate while you complete the sauce.
6.  Add the remaining 2 tbsp butter to the pan that you just removed the fish from and put it over the heat.  While the butter is melting, scrape the bottom of the pan to get the browned fish incorporated in the sauce
7.  As soon as the butter is melted, pour in the lemon juice.  Cook for 2-3 seconds and remove from heat.
8.  Dress each filet with a sprig of parsely and pour the hot butter sauce over the fish.
9.  Serve with a side of green beans and some lemon wedges.

This dish is quite oily, so it calls for an acidic white wine.  It seems the perfect opportunity to break out a Sauvignon Blanc.  My favorite Sauvignon Blanc is from Frog's Leap (http://www.cuveecellars.com/page/cuvee/PROD/00008/FROG2008005975).  Caymus also makes an amazing Sauvignon Blanc, but that is a bit harder to find in this area.  If you wanted to walk on the wild side, you might try an albarino.  Anyway, give it a shot and let me know what you think.

Too Much Cheese!

I cannot believe that I neglected to mention this with my other Halloweekend posts. On Halloween night, or more accurately 11/1 morning, our crew went to Clarke's (930 W. Belmont, open 24 hours) to conclude our evening with some diner food. I ordered some sort of egg, potato, and bacon skillet, and from what I recall, it was pretty solid. I always like eating eggs with plenty of tobasco, which was dutifully provided. However, this post really is not about the food. Rather, it is about the absurdity that took place at the table next to ours.

A group of four college-age girls were sitting next to us. Apparently one of these drunken ladies ordered extra cheese on whatever she was ordering. The waitress informed her that it would cost $2.50 extra, and the girl went ahead with this request. The food came out with extra cheese, and the girl ate it without so much as a comment to the waitress about the cheese quantity. As with every meal, the check came out at the end of the meal. Although this seemed to be a straightforward transaction, the cheese girl objected to paying the extra $2.50 on the grounds that there was "too much and too many kinds of cheese." In a panic, the girls summoned the waitress to voice her concerns over the $2.50 charge. The waitress explained that she told her it would cost extra and she at the whole thing, so there was nothing she could do about it. Apparently this explanation was not satisfactory to them, and they demanded to see the manager. Now the hornets nest was poked. When the manager arrived, the girls opened the flood gate of cheese-related concerns, throwing out wild accusations and never even attempting to make a logical point. The manager, perhaps sick of dealing with drunk college kids all night, pretty much told them to, and I'm paraphrasing, screw themselves. The manager stormed, yes stormed, off, leaving the girls in an angry and bewildered state. They loudly discussed the unfair cheese situation amongst themselves and plotted their next move.

Being the jerks that we are, Michelle offered to pay for their cheese if they would just stop talking. Apparently it was not about the money though. It was about the principle, nay the right, of women everywhere being free from the evil grasp of unwanted cheese being forced upon them. These crusaders valiantly threw the money back on our table. Apparently after much consternation, these warriors, left with no other options, paid their bill, no doubt heading home to write their local congressman. As they departed this ugly scene, they began hurling insults upon everyone within earshot, including our semi-innocent table. Pipes, inquisitively shouted a question about their lack of boyfriends, I asked if they would like to make $5 the hard way. Vu fell over laughing in his corn beef & hash. If they came in with a bang, they exited with a whimper.

The story; however, does not end there. The cheese haters, apparently forgetting their earlier confrontation with the manager, called in to complain to the manager about their ill treatment and to demand satisfaction. When the manager replied that she already talked to them about this situation, they demanded to talk to either her manager or Clark himself (who may or may not actually exist). Apparently they didn't realize that this is a small diner that would clearly not have any sort of supervisory chain in place at 5:00a.m. on a Sunday. The battle was lost. I'm sure a lawsuit is in the works, and we can only hope it is successful, because in the year 2009, women should not be subjected to eating cheese that they ordered.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Pizza Mecca

My old roommate, Pipes, came to Chicago for Halloweekend.  In the planning stages of his trip, I told him about Great Lakes Pizza, a pizza place that is on my block that earned "Best Pizza in America" from GQ Magazine and the now defunct Gourmet Magazine.  Great Lakes Pizza is located at 1477 W. Balmoral (near the corner of Clark and Balmoral).  He said he wanted to put a trip to Great Lakes on the agenda for the weekend.  After reading a lengthy article in the Chicago Tribune (www.archives.chicagotribune.com), I felt I needed to warn him about the "Soup-Nazi" like reputation that this article makes them out to have.  Note that I find the reputation totally unwarranted, and they have been very nice each time that I have been there.  That being said, there are a few quirks that you should be aware of.  Firstly, they have only three types of pizza each day made from whatever ingredients are fresh that day, so you can't order the exact type of pizza that you want.  I've also heard the rumor that you cannot add anything or take anything off of any of the three types of pizza.  I have never tested this rumor, mainly because they always have turned out incredible pizza, so there is no reason to change the pizza.  If they are making a pizza a certain way, just trust that they will not mislead you.  I'm sure if you were allergic to something, they would probably make an exception (if this rumor is even true), but I can't stress enough that they really know what they are doing with pizza, so just go with their judgment.  They list all of their suppliers of their ingredients on the ever-changing pizza board, which I feel is a very nice touch.  They are open only four days a week, I think Wednesday through Saturday from 5pm to 9ish.  If the weather is nice, there will be a line (especially on the weekends), so plan on showing up 15-30 minutes early so you are assured a seat.  Note that there is one communal ten-person table and two two-person tables (that's 14 total seats) and if you want to order a to-go pizza, you have to go in and order it, no phone calls.  Lastly and most importantly, the pizza will probably take a while to cook, so be patient (you aren't going to starve), have some fun, and know that this will be one of the best pizzas that you will ever eat.  As discussed in the Thai food post, I love restaurants where the owners are present.  The husband and wife owners are not only present at Great Lakes, but they are also the only workers.  They have made every pizza that has been cooked since the time the place opened.  Great Lakes is BYOB (it's like they went down a checklist of things I like at restaurants when they opened), and there is a great little wine store right around the corner on Clark St. called In Fine Spirits, so you can be sure to have something nice to drink with your pizza.

Anyway, now that all the initial matters are out of the way, I can actually talk about the adventure to Great Lakes on Friday night.  At 4:15, I looked out of my apartment window and saw that it was raining.  Normally I am slightly disheartened when I need to go out and it is raining, but when a trip to Great Lakes Pizza is in the making, the exact opposite reaction happens since there will be less of a wait.  I trudged through the rain to the bus stop.  After a short bus ride to Clark street, I walked to the wine store to pick up a bottle.  I had no idea what would be on the menu today, but I figured that a nice, light red wine would go with anything that could be put on a pizza.  Eventually I arrived on a zinfandel (I forgot the name, but it had a picture of a bride with a skeleton in a tuxedo on it) since zins are generally very food-friendly.  I picked up a six-pack of beer for Pipes since he doesn't like wine (he describes himself as a working man).  I wasn't sure what type of beer he wanted with the pizza, so I made a sampler pack that consisted of three Metropolitan Brewery Flywheel Lagers (made in Chicago), a Bells Pale Ale, and two different beers from Three Floyds.

We arrived at Great Lakes shortly after 5:00p.m., and fortunately there was no line so we were able to be seated right away.  The three pizzas on the menu Friday were: 1. mozzarella cheese, tomato sauce, garlic, and fresh herbs; 2. Some type of squash pizza with cream sauce (we did not get this one); and 3. mona (a sheep-cow milk blend cheese), marconi peppers, pepperoni, cream sauce.  As noted, we got the first and third pizzas. I watched as the chef/owner stretched and pulled the dough into the proper size and shape.  I noted the meticulous way that he placed each ingredient on the dough and how he spread the thin layer of sauce.  He pulled a pizza out another table's pizza and in ours went.  Great Lakes has only one oven, but it looks exactly like an oven that would turn out awesome pizza (if that makes any sense).  He repeatedly opens the oven to check on the pizzas to make sure they have just the right amount of char on the crust.  What I'm telling you is that they are pizza perfectionists.

About twenty-five or thirty minutes after we put in our order, the pizza was done.  Both pizzas were so stunning that I wasn't sure which to eat first.  I figured that I would go in the order they were listed on the menu.  The first pizza (the tomato-basil one) had a delicious layer of tangy mozzerella cheese (which I have heard is homemade), a very thin, ethereal spreading of tomato sauce that perfectly accented the tangy cheese with some sweetness, but did nothing to bog down the crust with sogginess.  For an additional layer of complexity, they put a decent amount of fresh herbs on top of the cheese after it was cooked.  The herbs gave off a minty and vegetal character, and the garlic gave off the sharpness that rounded out the pizza.  This pizza was similar to one that I had the first time I went, except this one did not have bacon.  I was especially excited about the second pizza since I normally order pepperoni pizza at other places, so I wanted to see how Great Lakes would improve upon this.  However, when I looked at the pizza, I noticed that it was very liberally covered with peppers with very little cheese.  I like peppers very much, but I was concerned that the peppers would drown out the flavor of everything else on the pizza.  Going back to my default position of "just trust whatever they give you", I took my first bite and my trust definitely paid off.  Everything on this pizza was the way it was for a reason.  While there was a relatively large amount of peppers, they were so delicately flavored that they gave off fruit notes and somehow (after being cooked in a 600+ degree oven) were still crunchy.  The small amount of cheese belied the impact that it had on the pizza for it was sharp , but not overwhelming.  Lastly, there was a layer of pepperoni under the peppers that had a subtle spiciness, again, building the complexity of the pizza. 

So far, I have refrained from mentioning the part that makes Great Lakes have the best pizza...the crust.  The crust is difficult to describe without actually having it.  It is light and dense, airy and cakey.  It is crisp all the way to the center, but still doughy throughout.  It's like an edible contradiction, and it is slightly difficult to understand.  It comes out with charred spots, almost like a char-grilled steak, so you expect a burnt flavor, but a burnt flavor never comes through, at least not as powerfully as you would imagine.  Since the dough is hand tossed, each bite has a slightly different texture, thickness, and level of cooking.  It is fun to eat since no two bites are ever the same.

I really feel bad about forgetting to take pictures of our pizzas (I was too excited to eat them), but I did manage to snap a picture of a pizza as it was being whisked to another table (that's why it's so blurry).  Here it is.  If you ever have a chance to eat there, I'd highly recommend that you take it.  Remember, just trust their judgment and be patient.  If you aren't then NO PIZZA FOR YOU!!!!

Thai Obsession

About four months ago, my friend Brianna asked me to go get Thai food with her one afternoon.  I had eaten Thai food only a handful of times before that fateful day, and I was never particularly impressed.  This day; however, was different.  I ordered the chicken pad thai since that is the standard-bearer of any Thai restaurant.  With minimal expectations, I took my first bite.  I'm not exactly sure what happened next, but I'm pretty sure my eyes dialated and I blacked out as in the heroin scenes in Requiem for a Dream.  The next two months were a haze of deliciousness as I ate Thai food nearly every day.  I thought I was in control, that I could stop any time I wanted...I was wrong.  I spent a month in rehab, kicking the Thai habit, but every once in a while the craving comes calling.  On Friday, I answered that call at Ben's Noodles & Rice

Ben's Noodles & Rice is located 1139 W. Bryn Mawr, which is right next to the Bryn Mawr Red Line stop.  Their website is http://www.bensnoodlesandrice.com/.  On weekdays during lunch hours (I think 11:30-3:00), Ben's has a lunch special that includes a cup of soup (miso, tom yum, or tom kha kai) and a small side dish (egg roll, potstickers, or fish cake).  I ordered chicken pad thai with tom yum soup and potstickers.

The soup and potstickers came out first, as you would expect.  Tom yum soup always reminds me of a liquid version of pad thai since a good tom yum has an excellent balance of tartness, sweetness, spiciness, and savory seafood flavor.  The soup at Ben's certainly falls into the "good" (or probably more accurately "great") category.  My only problem is that the chicken in the soup bowl seems unnecessary.  The immense flavor of the soup completely washes out the chicken, so the chicken doesn't add anything to the soup.  I suppose this is a very minor problem since the soup is so tasty.  The potstickers are deep fried and served with a sesame sweet-sour dipping sauce.  The exterior is delightfully crunchy, the meat filling has some great flavor as does the sauce.  All said, the opening stanza at Ben's was everything a Thai lover could hope for.  I neglected to take a picture of the first courses because it still is not natural for me to take pictures of things that I eat.

As a side note, I always like restaurants where the owner is usually present.  I feel like it shows that the owner is really standing behind his or her food and service.  The owner(s) of Ben's are always there, although I'm not sure if his name is actually Ben.  I'll have to find that out.

Anyway, the immense plate of pad thai came out.  The pad thai at many Thai places has an unnatural orange color that almost invariably signals that the dish will be way too sweet.  As you can see, Ben's pad thai has no such unnatural color (the orange stuff on the right is a pile of carrots).

As with the tom yum soup, this dish has so much flavor, but it is also so well balanced that it is not overwhelming.  Another common problem that Ben's manages to avoid is overcooking the chicken in the pad thai.  I've made pad thai before, and I'll be the first to admit that it is not an easy problem to avoid since it is cooked in such a hot wok.  Besides having very well cooked chicken, the chili paste takes the dish to a whole other level.  I enjoy spicy food, so I always add some of the chili paste (served on the side) since they do not include any spicy element in the dish.   That is probably better since not everyone can handle spicy food.  Another bonus is that the dish is so big, you will usually only eat half of it, so you can eat it the next day (pad thai heats up really well).  Ben's is definitely my favorite Thai place because it has amazing food at very good prices, and that is a hard combination to beat.  You will likely never find a Thai place that has such well balanced and delicious food.  I also enjoy Yes Thai and Jim's Noodles & Rice, but for now, the star belongs to Ben's.

They even serve fortune cookies at the end of the meal.  Apparently a "new relationship is on the horizon" for me, so I have that going for me, which is nice.  Maybe I'll go heat up my leftover pad thai.  Don't worry, I can stop whenever I want...