Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Bananas Have Leaves?

The Fishguy Market (Elston and Montrose http://www.fishguy.com/), had grouper today which is one of my favorite fish ever.  I rarely see it around here, and for $10 a lb, I couldn't pass it up.  I felt inspired by this amazing find and wanted to do it justice, so I got a little wild.

I had no idea what I wanted to do with it at first so I went hunting around for fish recipes online.  I stumbled across a Malaysian fish recipe that roasted a fish in a banana leaf.  My first thought was "bananas have leaves?"  My second though was "where am I going to find a banana leaf?"  I had the method of cooking the fish nailed down, but I had no idea where I was going to get the necessary ingredients.  Undeterred, I set off to Jewel, still having no idea what I was going to serve with it.  I was wandering around in a semi-lost daze when I started thinking about tropical/warm weather flavors because of the banana leaf.  The first thing that came to mind was coconut.  I figured that a Thai coconut rice would be a perfect tropical (and Asian) side dish to go along with the roasted fish.

I had two of the elements of the dish down (roasted fish and coconut rice), but I figured that I should have a sauce of some sort.  At first I started thinking about papaya or kiwi, but I didn't know what I could do with that.  I quickly shifted to thinking about oranges.  The idea began as an orange jelly, then morphed into an orange marmalade.  I picked up the oranges and lemons and checked out.  At some point after this, I scrapped the whole jelly/marmalade idea and settled on an orange-soy sauce.

I only had one bullet in my finding-a-banana-leaf gun, and that was the Asian market that is right next to the Jewel.  I also needed coconut milk, so I figured the worst case scenario is that I just skip the banana leaf (even though it was part of the main inspiration for the flavors).  Fortunately for me, they have the largest assortment of random stuff ever, so they had frozen banana leaves.  I purchased a package and headed home.

I opened the package of banana leaves to examine them.  It turns out they are about six feet long and about a foot wide.  There is a new champion in the "strangest thing in my freezer" contest.  Congratulations, banana leaves, you earned it.  If you are looking for a banana leaf, I would suggest checking your local Asian market.  Anyway, here is the recipe.  It really is quite easy.  Check it out and let me know how you feel about it.  I feel like this dish would work with any light colored fish, especially the somewhat tropical fish like mahi mahi.  By the way, this might be the best entrant in the Fish Tuesday Pantheon.

Grouper (serves 2)
2 fillets of grouper
1 banana leaf, cut into 3 pieces, each large enough to wrap totally around the fillets
kosher salt

1.  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees, and put a baking sheet lined with a Silpat (or foil) in the oven.
2.  Lightly salt and pepper both sides of the fish.
3.  Put each fillet skin side down on the middle of a banana leaf piece.  Fold each end of the banana leaf onto the center of the flesh side of the fish.  Flip over and put the seam side of the banana leaf down.  Repeat for each piece of fish.
4.  Put the banana leaf and fish  packets seam side down on the baking sheet and cook for 10 minutes.  The banana leaf will turn mostly brown, but do not worry, the fish is protected.

Coconut Rice (serves 2)
1 cup jasmine rice
1 cup coconut milk
3/4 cup water
2 tbsp unsweetened shredded coconut
kosher salt.

1.  Put rice, coconut milk, water, and shredded coconut into a sauce pan.  Stir to combine.
2.  Put sauce pan over high heat until just boiling.
3.  Reduce heat to low and cover with a lid.  Continue cooking for 15 minutes until all the water is absorbed.  Note that you may want to stir it once in a while while covered to prevent it from sticking.
4.  Remove from heat and fluff with a fork.  Cover for 5 more minutes, then adjust to taste with salt.

2 cups orange juice
1 tbsp unsalted butter
1 1/2 soy sauce

1.  Put the orange juice in a small sauce pan and put it over medium heat.
2.  Cook for about an hour until the sauce reduces by 3/4 and the orange juice gets dark and syrupy.
3.  Remove from heat and whisk in the butter until melted.
4.  Whisk in soy sauce, and keep warm until service.

To Assemble:  unwrap the fish from the banana leaf and put the banana leaf on the plate.  Put a large spoonful of coconut rice on the banana leaf and top with the fish.  Drizzle some sauce over the fish and serve.

The sauce really brings this dish together.  It is both sweet and a little citrusy.  It goes excellently with the coconut rice (which was a little too sweet to be honest).  I even think it would be a nice sauce to put on ice cream if you wanted to get real crazy.  Anyway, here is a picture of the dish.  I hope you give this one a shot!

Pork Shoulder Surprise

I was sitting around the house in the early afternoon on Sunday trying to figure out something to make for dinner that night.  I was digging through my fridge and realized that I had about 5 pounds of pork shoulder left over from my pasta bolognese night.  I decided that I should probably cook that before it went bad, so off I went.

A good pork shoulder needs to sit with a rub for a few hours, so I needed to work fast.  I didn't have enough brown suger to make my normal rub, so I kind of made something up.  When I make pork shoulder, generally I will make my own barbeque sauce, but I had too much stuff to do during the day, so I settled on some Sweet Baby Ray's Hot & Spicy BBQ Sauce.  I usually baste the shoulder in my bbq sauce for the final two hours of cooking, but I was concerned that there was too much sugar in the Sweet Baby Ray's to do that, so I opted for a mop instead.

I will say that it is significantly better when smoked on the grill, but for doing it in the oven, this was very tasty.  Here is what I did.

1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup chile powder
1/4 cup ancho chile powder
3 tbsp garlic powder
1 tbsp cayenne pepper
1 tspn cinnamon

1.  Stir all ingredients together in a bowl so they are well mixed.
2.  Rub generously on all sides of the pork shoulder.
3.  Let sit for at least 2 hours (and up to 12 hours) in the refrigerator.  Be sure to take it out of the fridge for the last hour and a half to bring it up toward room temperature.

Pork (serves 4-5)
5lb pork shoulder
1 1/2 cup apple cider

1. Preheat oven to 250
2.  Using cold water, wash the rub off of the pork belly.
3.  Pat the pork dry with paper towels
4.  Pour the apple cider into a roasting pan or oven-proof casserole dish
5.  Put pork belly into the pan or dish
6.  Put the pan in the oven and let sit for 7 hours, basting occasionally (every 30-45 minutes).  The pork should get up to at least 180 on a meet thermometer.

1 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup grain mustard
10 juniper berries
1 tbsp paprika

1.  Put all ingredients in a bowl and whisk together.
2.  For the last 2 hours of cooking, using a brush, glaze the pork shoulder with some of the mop.  You should use it all up by the end.
3.  Don't forget to continue basting with the fat that will render out of the shoulder.

To Finish
1.  Using 2 forks, pull the pork in opposite directions so that it shreds.
2.  Put some on a plate and toss with your favorite bbq sauce.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The South Side Again? Why Not

I went out to Elmhurst during the afternoon to finish up everything with my new car.  I was preparing to go to the wine bar (as is tradition when I go out to Elmhurst) when my mom called me and asked if I wanted to go to early dinner with them around 5:30.  She managed to refrain from using the term "early bird special," so I agreed to go with even though 5:30 sounds more like a lunch time to me.

She told me that they were going to Han 202 in Chicago.  She said it was near the stadium where the Gary, Indiana Black Sox play.  Being a northsider, I have a natural distrust of any street that has a number in it, so when she told me that it was on 31st, I began to regret my decision a little (especially in light of my vaguely terrifying trip to the south side only a week earlier).  Han 202 is located at 605 W. 31st St. and its website is http://www.han202restaurant.com/.  It serves Japanese food, but it is definitely of a more modern variety than any other Japanese food that I have ever had.  It is also BYOB, which is always nice.

I didn't look too much into it since I was busy watching football, so I had no idea what to expect.  We got there (after some more terror driving around on Ashland).  The place was long, narrow, and was mostly empty (due to us being there at 5:30).  I looked over the menu and was semi-shocked that they offered a 5-course menu for $20.  I thought it might be a mistake, but apparently it was not.  Gleefully, I went about selecting my five dishes.  I went with the Spicy King Crab Soup, Lemongrass Beef Salad, Seared Scallop, Duck Breast in a Sichuan Bean Sauce, and Vanilla Ice Cream with a Mango Tomato Sorbet.

The King Crab Soup came out first (as you would expect).  It was nicely flavored, but probably a little bit too spicy for most people.  Also RJ spilled his soup within about four seconds of receiving it.  Amanda, contrarily, managed not to spit anything all over the restaurant this time, so I guess she is taking strides in the right direction.

The next course was the Lemongrass Beef Salad.  I'll say it.  I hate salad.  Hate.  I fully expected this to be some salad that was over-laden with a whole bunch of random greens and doused in some gross dressing (since 99% of salads are).  I generally do not like salads, since salads are nearly always a hodgepodge of mismatched greens that are tossed in a bowl with as many other random vegetables as possible.  It seems to me that most dishes should have as few elements as possible and putting those elements together requires some thought and creativity.  The general salad conception is the antithesis of thinking.  That being said, this salad was one of the best salads I have ever had (the best was the cucumber, rhubarb, and scallop salad at Sixteen).  It was hot beef marinated in a teriyaki-like sauce ontop of a bed of lemongrass and apples.  The savory flavor of the beef went well with the sweetness and tartness of the apples and lemongrass.  The only problem I had with it was that there was too much apple and lemongrass in comparison to the amount of beef.  I only ended up eating about half of the apple, but I suppose that is not a very serious problem at all.

The next dish was the seared scallop.  I though the scallop had a beautiful crust on it and excellent seasoning.  I did not like the vinegar sauce that was served in the tiny coffee cup that accompanied the dish.  It was too strong and did not go well with the scallop.  I think I would still order it again though because the scallop itself was so good.  One thing that bother me about this dish though was that they served me 1.25 scallops.  I imagine the 0.25 is because they give you a certain weight of scallops so they needed to add a little (I ran into this problem on a much more extreme degreeonce before at Coopers Hawk).  My thought is either 1) find a bigger scallop or 2) don't put the extra little piece on.  To Han 202's credit, the extra piece did not look like it was bitten off as it did at Coopers Hawk, but the error persisted.  Not a huge deal, and maybe I'm the only one who would care about that.

My entree was Duck Breast with Sichaun Bean Sauce.  This course was the best thing that I had at this restaurant (including all the things that I nabbed from other people's plates).  The duck was beautifully cooked and remained extremely juicy in the center (I ordered it medium).  My mom even enjoyed it even though she claimed it was "undercooked poultry."  She may have taken a shot of bleach after eating it, but I think she liked it overall.  The sauce was just spicy enough to add an exciting element to the dish.  I loved this dish and would definitely order it again.

Everything about the dessert (vanilla ice cream with mango tomato sorbet) was normal to me except for the odd addition of tomato element of the sorbet, so I did not know what to expect.  It came out in a small ramekin with the vanilla ice cream on the bottom and a small scoop of sorbet on top.  Even though it was an extremely simple dessert, the greatness of it lied in its odd complexity.  Firstly, the vanilla ice cream was very smooth and intensely flavored.  Secondly, the mango tomato sorbet, when eaten by itself, tasted like eating peach juice.  Apparently, in a strange bit of arithmetic vanilla + peach juice = coconut.  I liked this dessert because it was like having three desserts in one, and each bite I took was slightly different than the one before it.

Han 202 was definitely a keeper, though the thought of going to the south side still does not sit well with me.  Perhaps I will get lucky and they will open a north side location in the not too distant future.  I can virtually guarantee that you will never find another 5-course dinner for $20 with BYOB.  Check it out and let me know what you think.

Law School Hunger

I started this semester of school on Monday.  I was sitting, semi-attentively, in Marital Dissolution when I got really hungry thinking about pasta bolognese.  I saw a recipe a long time ago on one of Heston Blumenthal's shows.  I hunted around the internet for the recipe, and, oddly enough, I found two different versions of the same recipe.  I browsed through them and found the one that I liked better.

This recipe takes a really long time, but virtually all of it is just waiting for it to be done.  If you start it in the morning, you will be ready to go for dinner (it takes about nine hours).  It also is extremely hearty, so you won't eat too much of it.  It really is quite a great dish, and some of the elements in it you would never imagine would go in a savory pasta sauce. 

This is a multi-staged sauce.  You  make a meat sauce and a tomato sauce separately, then you blend the two and continue cooking them together in the same pot at the last step of the cooking period.  I may cut down on the oil and butter a little since I thought it was a little greasy.  Two other people ate it and said the grease wasn't too heavy, so I guess it's all personal preferance.  You will also need a fair amount of cheesecloth

Here is the recipe:

Pasta Bolognese
Meat Part
8.5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
0.5 lbs oxtail, boned and minced
0.5 lbs pork shoulder, cubed
1/2 bottle of oaked chardonnay
1 star anise, crushed
2 large white onions, sliced
2 large white onions, diced
2 large cloves of garlic, minced
3 large carrots, finely diced
1 cup milk

1.  Put 1.5 tbsp of oil in the pan and heat it over medium heat.  Put the star anise in a small cheesecloth bag.  When the oil is hot add the sliced onions and the star anise.  Cook for 20 minutes, stirring frequently until its carmelized.
2.  In another pan, heat 3 tbsp of oil over low heat for 3-4 minutes.  Put garlic, diced onions, and carrots in the pan and cook for 20 minutes.
3.  In yet another pan, heat 3 tbsp of oil over high heat until it starts smoking.  Add the meat and stir constantly to brown all over (about 4 minutes).  Drain the fat off of the meat and put the meat into a large pot.  Do not wash the pan the meat was cooked in yet.
4.  Return the pan the meat was in to the stove and heat for a few seconds over high heat.  Deglaze the pan with a splash of wine.  Scrape the bottom and pour the wine into the pot with the meat in it.
5.  Remove the bag of star anise from the sliced onions and put the onions in the pot with the meat.  Do not wash onion pan yet.
6.  Return onion pan to the medium heat for a few seconds to reheat.  Deglaze with the rest of the wine and scrape the bottom.  When wine has reduced by half, pour it into the pot with the meat and onions.
7.  Add the garlic mixture to the pot with the meat.
8.  Pour the milk into the meat pot and then add enough water to the pot to just barely cover the contents of the pot.
9.  Simmer uncovered over very low heat for 6 hours.  The meat should always be covered with liquid, so you may need to add some water later on (but probably not).

Tomato Compote
2.25 lbs beefsteak tomatoes
1 tspn kosher salt
10 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
3 large cloves of garlic, minced
1 large white onion, diced
1 heaping tspn coriander
1 star anise, crushed
3 cloves
4-5 drops of Tobasco
4-5 drops of Thai fish sauce
2 tspn Worcestershire sauce
1 tbsp ketchup
2 tbsp sherry vinegar
7 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf

1.  Bring a large pot of water to a boil.  Cut a large "X" into the bottom of each tomato.  Drop each tomato, one at a time, in the boiling water for 15-20 seconds.  Remove from the water and immediately shock in an ice water bath.  Reserve tomato in a large pan.
2.  When you have finished with the tomatoes, peel each tomato (the boiling makes the skin come off really easily).
3.  Cut each tomato in half vertically into 1/3 inch slices.  Push out all the seeds and membranes and reserve separately from the tomato flesh.
4.  Sprinkle the seeds and membranes with the salt and let it sit for 20 minutes to draw out the juice.  Strain and reserve the juice.
5.   Chop the tomato flesh roughly.
6.  While the juice is coming out of the seeds and membrane, heat the olive oil over low heat for 5 minutes until hot.  Put in the garlic and onion and cook for 10-15 minutes.
7.  Add the reserved tomato juice and the tomato flesh to the pan.
8.  Add the tobasco, fish sauce, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, and sherry vinegar to the pan.
9.  Wrap the star anise, cloves, and coriander in cheesecloth and tie into a bag.  Put it in the pan.
10.  Wrap the tyme springs and bay leaf in cheesecloth and tie it into a bag.  Put the bag of thyme into the pan and cook for 2 hours until the liquid in the pan has rendered and evaporated, stirring occasionally (more often toward the end).

Finishing the Sauce
kosher salt
sherry vinegar
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
6 tarragon leaves
4 sprigs parsley
3.5 tbsp butter

1.  Put tomato compote into the meat pot which should have been simmering for the last 6 hours.
2.  Cook on very low heat for 2 more hours (no need to add any more liquid).
3.  After 2 hours, stir in the parmesan cheese.
3.  Sift through the sauce and look for the 2 cheesecloth bags.  Take them out and discard.
4.  Put the tarragon and parsley in some cheesecloth and tie into a bag.  Put in the pot and continue cooking for 5-10 more minutes.
5.   Remove from heat and stir the butter into the sauce.
6.  Adjust to taste with salt, pepper, and sherry vinegar.
7.  Remove the cheesecloth bag and serve.

Lastly, be sure to boil some pasta (preferably tagliatelle) and serve with the sauce and some freshly grated parmesan cheese.

After all that hard work, here is a picture of my efforts.  It was amazing.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Ice Skating

Right before we went to Hot Doug's, we went - as always - to Fishguy Market on the corner of Elston and Montrose (http://www.fishguy.com/).  They had a very good selection, but the skate wing on the bone particularly caught my eye.  I have cooked skate many times, but never "on the bone," so my interest was naturally piqued.

I got home and looked up a classic skate preparation and then changed it to suit my preferances.  It was basically a white wine and lemon sauce, but its made in the same pan as the skate.

Here is the recipe (I'll give you the changes that I would make after):

2 skate wings, on the bone
kosher salt
olive oil
1/2 lemon
3/4 cup white wine, preferably sauvignon blanc
1/2 stick butter, cut into 4 pieces
pinch of dried thyme

1.  Preheat oven to 400.
2.  Film the bottom of the pan with olive oil and heat over medium-high heat.  Lightly salt and pepper both sides of the fish.
3.  Dredge both sides of the skate in flour and shake off any excess.
4.  When olive oil is very hot, put the skate in the pan for 4 minutes until bottom is golden brown.
5.  Flip the fish to the other side and put pan in the oven for 3-4 more minutes.
6.  Remove fish from pan to serving plate and tent with foil.
7.  Return the pan to the stovetop on medium heat (careful, the handle is probably really hot, so cover it with a towel).
8.  Deglaze the pan with the wine, scraping the bottom to get up all the tasty fish stuck to the pan.  When it comes to a boil, squeeze in the lemon juice.
9.  Add thyme to  pan and continue to cook until the liquid reduces by half.
10.  Whisk in butter one piece at a time.  Add a new piece only after the previous piece has melted.
11.  Serve the fish and spoon some of the sauce over it.

I thought that the sauce had too much lemon in it, so next time I will cut it down by half and only use 1/4 of a lemon.  I think I might also add some capers to get some more salinity added to the sauce.  The crust on the fish was nice, so I would keep that the same.

One thing that was kind of an unpleasant surprise was that the whole wing was full of bones, so it was quite difficult to eat before you got the hang of it.  I served it with roasted potatoes, which were nice.

Late Late Lunch

As always, I headed out to the Fishguy Market on Tuesday to buy some fish for $10/lb.  We got off to kind of a late start, so we were both very hungry.  There is not a terribly huge selection of eateries in the neighborhood of the Fishguy, so we had to venture elsewhere.

We remembered that Fishguy isn't far from Hot Doug's.  I reviewed Hot Doug's once before, but for those of you who don't remember, the address is 3324 N. California Ave. and its website is http://www.hotdougs.com/.  We were racing against time since it was about 3:30 p.m. and Hot Doug's closes at 4:00 p.m.  If it had been a weekend, I wouldnt have even tried to go because of the huge, duck-fat-caused lines that file down the block, but I felt it was worth the trade-off (no duck fat fries, no lines).  I'm pretty sure we were the last customers that day, and we possibly kept them late, but the good folks at Hot Doug's handled it well (we didn't even feel like they wanted us to leave, which they surely did!). 

I ordered the "Game of the Week" that was advertised under the stuffed jackalope (a cross between an antelope and a jack rabbit) head that is on the wall.  In a curious twist, the "Game of the Week" was a char-grilled antelope sausage with garlic mayo, and three types of cheddar cheese.  We also split a small cheese fry (which is plenty for any two people). 

The fries, though not as fully savory as the duck fat fries, were astoundinly amazing.  They were much darker colored than the pale golden color of most other fries.  Hot Doug's, quite simply, makes the best fries I've ever had.  The duck fat that they cook the fries in just takes it to a whole other  level.  The cheese sauce that comes with it tastes almost exactly like Portillo's sauce, which is my favorite cheese sauce.

Anyway, the antelope had an awesome crust on it with just a few splotches of black on it.  One of the great things about Hot Doug's is that the sausages have a great variety of textures and tastes even within the same sausage.  It had a much more game flavor than any sausage I've ever had.  The mayo added a nice creaminess to it and it was finished with three types of sharp cheddar.  There was a bit much cheese for my liking, but I guess I could have just taken it off if it was that big of a deal.

It was a great late lunch, and I hope to come back soon.  Here are some pictures.

Not Opart of the Regular Thai Rotation

I took a day to recover from the craziness of Tru, tacos, and hitchhiking before getting back into the swing of things.  I figured we could do something simple and head out to a Thai place.  I wanted to try somewhere new, so after much debate, I ended up going to the Opart Thai House.  Opart Thai House is located at 4658 N. Western Ave. and their website is http://www.opartthai.com/

It got very good reviews on Yelp, so I figured that it could be a challenger from the current king of Thai food, Ben's Noodle & Rice.  I drove there and was pleasantly surprised that there was ample parking in the area.  We walked up to the place and realized that this place, while not terribly crowded, had a huge dining room.  We were seated in the front of the restaurant even though there was no one else in the same room as us.  That was a bit disconcerting.

The waitress power-walked up to us and immediately demanded to know what we wanted.  It was a bit snippy, but we had our orders in mind, so we put in the order.  We ordered egg rolls and chicken pad thai.  I always like to do standard orders the first time I go to a restaurant because I figure if they cannot manage to get a simple dish correct, they aren't worth trying for something more complex. 

The egg rolls came out and they looked nicely golden brown and they were predictably served with delicious delicious thai sweet and sour sauce.  I bit in and the outside was crisp and delicious, but the inner filling was bland and uninspiring.  Of course, if you put enough sweet sour sauce on it, it will be tasty, but it certainly was not that good standing on its own. 

Feeling a little bit let down by the mediocre egg rolls, I anxiously awaited the pad thai.  I figured as long as the main dish was good, I could simply avoid egg rolls in the future.  The dish was hastily served by our waitress (who was kind of a jerk for no reason).  I took note that the noodles were more brown than orange.  Usually that is a good sign that the pad thai will not be too sweet (a fatal flaw in many pad thais).  I bit in, expecting a burst of savory flavor, but I was taken aback by the flood of sweetness that poured out of the noodles.  Dismayed, I squeezed every possible drop of juice out of the lime that they gave me to counteract the intense sweetness, but it was of no use.  The pad thai was simply too sweet to be saved.  I also did not like that they did not bring out any chili paste for mixing, but I suppose I could have asked (even though the waitress was a jerk).

Opart Thai ended up being about $3 less than I usually spend at Ben's, but it was nowhere near as good as Ben's pad thai.  I suppose the food was not terrible, but when it comes to Thai food, I have very high standards.  I will not be returning to Opart Thai House.  Here is a picture of the pad thai.


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Things Really Took a Strange Turn After Tru

After our amazing dessert tasting at Tru, we headed out to meet our friend Ashley for her bday at The Boundary in Wicker Park.  They had a great beer selection, I may have accidentally sold a baby zebra, and I volunteered myself to ride a tiger in someone's wedding (though I have to steal the tiger).

However, that was a relatively normal evening by my standards.  After The Boundary, we set out to get some tacos at La Pasadita.  La Pasadita is located at 1132 N. Ashland (though there are three La Pasaditas on the same block...unclear why) and its website is http://www.pasadita.com/.  As a bonus, it is open until 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.

I pulled up to the restaurant, saw a parking lot nearly full of cars, and parked therein.  I walked into the restaurant and browsed the menu.  The menu was not incredibly diverse (only about 4 types of meats that could be put on a taco or in a burrito).  After debating between tongue and carne asada (not really), I ordered 3 carne asada tacos.  They were juicy and amazingly flavored.  They were among the best tacos that I have ever had.

Feeling sated from the delicious tacos that I just ate, I noticed something peculiar once I got outside.  The parking lot full of cars that I  parked in no longer had any cars in it - including my own.  I instantly realized that I was either the victim of the world's greatest car thief (like Nic Cage from Gone in 60 Seconds) or my car had been towed.  Although Nic Cage is in desperate need of money, I figured it was still pretty unlikely that he was stealing VW Jettas out of the parking lot of taco places in Chicago at 3 a.m.  After some cops told us we had been towed, we jumped in a cab to head way out west to get the car back.

We started heading in the right direction, but at some point the cab driver decided to go adventuring in a different direction.  Evetually he turned off the meter when he realized he had driven across the city in the wrong direction for twenty minutes.  Finally and mercifully he dropped us off at the tow yard.  Was that the end of the adventure?  Of course not.

I paid for the towing fee and headed into the yard on the bone-chillingly cold night.  I went to get my keys from my pocket....and the keys were gone.  Fortunately I have a spare key in the car, but, of course, the door was locked.  We went out front to look for the keys on the ground, but soon realized that I had smartly left them in the cab.  Neither of us had any idea what cab had driven us there, so we could not contact them to have him come back.

Sitting out on the frozen tundra in the most desolate part of the city that I have ever seen, we had no idea what to do.  We decided to take a cab back to our house, grab the other spare key, and then head back.  We set to work hailing a cab, but naturally there were no cabs around (since there was nothing - and I mean nothing - around where we were).  Eventually a man came to get his car out of the tow yard, recognized our plight, and offered to give us a ride back toward an area with more cabs.  It just happens that this man was about 6'5" and 350 lbs.  It was a very nice offer, but my wariness of other people made me reluctant to accept.  I glanced around pondering whether I would rather freeze to death or be murdered in a Seabring.  I opted for the latter and hopped in the Seabring with our driver, Jermaine.  Jermaine pulled out of the yard ever so slightly and then began screaming obscenities at the tow yard.  Could anyone hear him?  Was anyone even there?  I don't know, and I don't really think he cared.  Miraculously, he did not even attempt to murder us before he dropped us off at Damen and North.

Once we arrived at Damen, we hopped in a cab.  I was careful to observe the cab number (3590) in case I left anything else in this cab (fortunately I didn't).  While on the way to the apartment, I had a vision come down from the sky to me.  The cab colors of the cab I left my keys in flashed before me (yellow with a red roof).  We asked our cab driver what cab company had those colors, and (after repeating himself several times) we came up with King Drive Cabs. 

We looked up the number and called to see if they had the key to the car (it was now rounding 5 a.m.).  They did not have anything, but said they would call if they found it.  Even more miraculously than not being murdered, the cab company called at about 6 a.m. to let us know that they had the key.  We took down the address so that we could get in the next day, and (as seemed to be the trend that night) it was really far away.  In fact, it was at King Drive and 80th Street.  Perhaps I spoke too soon about not being murdered.

The next day, I got up, took yet another cab to the tow yard on the West Side with my spare key to get my car out, gave the finger to the tow yard, hopped on the highway to drive to the South Side, grabbed my key from the cab guy, and finally headed home.  I had seen every part of the city (North, West, and South) in a two hour span.

For those of you keeping track at home, I went from eating dessert at a super-high-end restaurant to devouring tacos at 3 a.m., and finally to hitchhiking across the city.

Tru-ly Delicious

I took my brother and sister to Tru for dessert.  After much convincing, we talked them into letting us come before 10:30 p.m. to do a dessert tasting.  We all put on our fanciest garb, and headed off for the experience of Tru.

I think everyone should try a dessert tasting at Tru, if only to watch the army of waitstaff buzz around the place like a swarm of bees.  Waiters will come at your table from all angles and drop all manners of delectable treats in front of you, often without you even knowing it happened.

We sat down and ordered the dessert tastings for the entire table.  Under this option, you do not order anything, the waiters just start bringing out whatever dessert that the chef wants to serve you.  I have been here many times for dessert, so I know that the basic format is amuse dessert, table sharing dessert, fruit dessert, chocolate dessert, dessert cart, and a round of insulin shots.

I decided to start with a sweet white wine that would carry me on through the fruit course.  After reading over the wine list like someone reading a manual on how to diffuse a bomb, I came up with a 2006 Dr. Loosen Riesling Beerenauslese.  This was really sweet, but it was a small glass and it is not intended to be served in huge amounts, so it was fine.  It had notes of petroleum, coconut, honey, and tropical fruits.  Michelle ordered a 2005 Oak Valley "The Blend" (from South Africa), which was a tremendous red wine.  It had huge oaky toasty-ness and reminded me almost exactly of Silver Oak (for a fraction of the price if you can find it).  After I finished the riesling, I switched over to a vintage 1985 Delaforce port for the chocolate dessert.  When it comes to eating and planning wine at restaurant, I am  like a general, planning his attack down to the smallest detail.

Now comes the part you have all been waiting for...the dessert.

The first course, the palate cleanser/amuse was a Meyer Lemon Puff with Tapioca and Mint.  It was very tart, but the tapioca gave it a creamy roundness to balance it out.  The mint added an interesting element to complete the dish.  It wasn't necessarily the most interesting or best thing I have ever eaten, but it was a nice way to start the tasting.

The table-sharing dessert was a bowl of warm honey madeleines.  These would be the perfect desserts to sit at home and eat on a cold day.  They were lightly dusted with powdered sugar and had some faint floral sweetness to them to go along with the amazing butter flavor.  Also the madeleines were probably the best possible dessert to have with the riesling.

Next the individual desserts came out.  The guys at the table got a star anise semifreddo with grapefruit, pomelo, and honey sponge.  You would not imagine that grapefruit, licorice, and honey could go together so nicely, but I suppose that it is the same flavor profile of a breakfast that I have eaten for years (grapefruit with honey).  It was creamy, but offset by the bitter tartness of the grapefruit.  Again, the riesling went amazingly with this dish as well.  The honey really played off of the cake (which was like a crumb cake) and let the grapefruit shine.  The girls got fried buttermilk cakes with stewed blueberries and a lime-blueberry sorbet with a cinnamon meringue stick.  I did not get a chance to have a bite of this since it got wolfed down so fast, but I heard it was really good.  I did here some complaints that the sorbet was too sour though.

For the next course, the guys got a scoop of 80% cacao ice cream with a hazlenut financiere filled with vanilla custard.  This dish was AMAZING.  Hazlenuts and chocolate is a relatively classic combination, but the intensity of each flavor was unmatched.  Though there was a heavy hazlenut flavor, the extremely strong and smooth ice cream restrained it in the context of the dessert.  This was my favorite dessert of the night.  The girls got a web of tainori chocolate served over a scoop of marscarpone ice cream with a golden rice krispie treat.  Again, the selfish pigs stuffed their faces before I could swoop in for a bite, but they said it was the best dessert they had too.

I was expecting the dessert cart to come around, but either by the graces of the restaurant gods or the fact that I had ordered so much delicious/expensive wine, they brought out yet another chocolate dessert.  Fortunately for me I had saved some of my port, despite RJ's attempt to spit it out/projectile vomit all over the restaurant after  having his first ever sip of port...I guess it's an acquired taste.  Anyway, the last dessert for the guys was baked chocolate mousse with dried chocolate, raspberry gelee, olive oil ice cream, and chambord.  Again, chocolate and raspberries are a pretty traditional pairing, but the olive oil ice cream added an interesting vegetal element.  The biggest problem I had with this dessert was that it was too salty.  Yes, the dessert was too salty.  The girls got a recreation of a candy bar.  This dessert had a squiggle (for lack of a better word) of chocolate with some coffee ice cream, burnt carmel mousse, and a crisped piece of chocolate on top.  It looked really cool, but apparently it was not as good as their middle dish.

I fully expected the dessert cart next, but no...apparently the restaurant gods smiled on us once more.  the waiter came out with four large cubes of chocolate (probably 1 inch on all sides).  He said that they were chocolate truffle explosions.  He said to put them in your mouth all at once, close your mouth, and bite down.  He told us a "explosion" (though the quotes aren't really necessary because it was, quite literally, an explosion) of raspberry juice would occur.  Apparently my sister neglected to listen to the "close your mouth instruction when she bit down.  Raspberry juice went everywhere, it hit me, it struck Michelle's glass on the other side of the table, and it got all over the table cloth.  This apparently was hilarious to my sister, and she started laughing again with her mouth open.  This created another salvo of raspberry juice rocketing in all directions across the table.  By the time she finally covered her mouth with the napkin, the table looked like someone had committed a mass murder in Candyland.  It was a disaster.

After recovering from the raspberry juice attack, the famous Tru dessert cart came around with all sorts of goodies on it.  My favorites included the chocolate truffles, the passion fruit jelly, and the orange marshmallow.

All in all, it was a good night, and at least I have a good dry cleaner that was apparently able to get raspberry juice out of my suit.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Drumbeat Approaches

No matter how hard I close my eyes and wish, I can't seem to delay the fact that law school is looming in just the next few days.  I have also learned that not buying my books does not delay the start either since apparently the world doesn't revolve around me...yet.  On Saturday, I finally gave in and was eviscerated by the bookstore bought my books.  Every semester when I pick up my absurdly heavy stack of books to purchase and the cashier reads the total, I feel like Sub-Zero from Mortal Kombat has ripped my head off of my body (Finish  Him!!!!!!!).  After buying my books, I was wallowing in a pool of self-pity.  If you have been reading this blog for long enough, you know the way I lift myself out of such pools is to go out to eat somewhere.  Since I'm trying to be at least semi-thrifty, I looked up available 1,000 point reservations on http://www.opentable.com/ (a great site, by the way).  The closest, cheapest, and soonest reservation was at Rosebud Theater District (70 W. Madison).  I snapped up the reservation faster than you can say "baked clams," and off I went.

I hadn't eaten all day and it was nearing 4:00pm (the time of the reservation and restaurant opening), so I felt a bit like I was kicking down the door to get in, fortunately I didn't utter the words "early bird," so I think I'm still safe.

We got an order of baked clams to start.  They had a  nice garlic flavor and everything, but the breading was extremely mushy.  Also they were served with lemon twists instead of wedges.  Even though they look more elegant on the plate, they are difficult and messy to squeeze, and hence no good.  I'd much rather take practicality over some senseless attempt at elegance anyway.  I'm pretty sure I would not order the baked clams again (they were so mushy that  I almost doubt that they were baked).

For a main dish I had the Malfaldine Bolognese.  As with most Italian restaurants, the dish was a comically large portion.  I'll never understand this concept as long as I live, but I guess that's the way it is.  The meat had some nice flavor, but the tomato sauce was a bit bland.  Another huge problem I saw was that the noodles were overcooked.  We were the only people in the restaurant (on account of it being 4:00p.m.), so if an Italian restaurant cannot get pasta cooked correctly when there are only two people present, there is a major problem that would likely express itself in more extreme ways in a more crowded dining room.

For $12, I suppose my dish was worth it, especially if you subscribe to the notion of leftovers (I don't).  The 1,000 opentable points that I received also probably pushed it from the realm of average (with no return trip) to "return trip if there is nothing else good open."  I would not come here and expect to be wowed with wonders of culinary delight, but for the price and perks, it is fine. 

Topless Tapas

John's b-day was last week, so we decided to meet him for dinner.  John always (or so it seems to me) takes his dates out for tapas, so I was mildly distressed when he asked me to go out to dinner with him for tapas for his bday.  I agreed, but I was ready to drop him if any funny business ensued.  He wanted to go to Twist Tapas.  Twist is located at 3412 N. Clark and its website is http://www.twistinchicago.com/

I don't really like driving places in general, but I particularly do not like driving to Wrigleyville.  Wrigley's endless mazes of permit parking makes me feel like I am in the 7th Circle of Hell.  In short, I'd rather eat a razor apple than drive down there, but I was running late on the way out there, so I had no choice but to make the treacherous journey.

John arrived at the restaurant around 8, but due to some near road rage and lots of yelling while trying to find a non-permit spot, I showed up at 8:30.  Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), we did not get a table until shortly after 9.  One odd featur about Twist is that there is absolutely no waiting area, so it is kind of awkward standing on the side of the dining room waiting for a table for 30 minutes and having to dodge people who enter.  I'd highly recommend they figure out a way to put a little waiting area in there.

Beyond the odd waiting area, I really liked Twist.  We ordered Grilled Calamari, Pork Tenderloin Medallions, Beef Dijon, Grilled Veggies and Goat Cheese, Patatas Bravas, and Sesame Asparagus.

Ill just go in the order I listed them.

Grilled Calamari:  I generally don't eat calamari, not because I don't like the idea of eating squid, but rather because almost everywhere screws it up beyond belief, turning it into some sort of rubbery, tasteless mess.  Twist; however, avoided this problem by grilling the calamari rather than breading it and deep frying it.  This way creates an infinitely better texture and even introduces a smoky flavor that was balanced nicely by the lemon vinegarette.  Great dish.

Pork Tenderloin Medallions:  This was served with a red wine sauce, potatoes, pears, and onions.  I also really liked this dish.  The only problem I had was that the potatoes and pears soaked up so much flavor that they kind of stole the show from the pork (even though the pork was really good too).

Beef Dijon:  At first, I really liked this dish, but the more I ate it, the less I liked it.  That begs the question of why I kept eating it, but that is another story for another day.  This was grilled beef and grilled mushrooms covered in some sort of cream-mustard sauce. 

Grilled Veggies with Goat Cheese:  This dish looked like bruschetta, but instead of tomatoes, it had either zucchini or summer squash on top and a dollop of goat cheese.  The cheese was very good, but this dish didn't particularly thrill me.

Patatas Bravas:  Patatas Bravas was my favorite single thing about Madrid (I think that shows how much I don't like Madrid).  The basic dish is roasted potatoes with a spicy paprika-vinegar sauce on top.  Needless to say, I decided that we had to get some patatas bravas to compare to the best thing about Madrid.  I was quite disappointed in the Twist version though.  In Madrid, almost every bar had patatas bravas that were smoky, spicy, creamy, and slightly tart.  Here, they did not nail any of these except perhaps creamy.  It was almost like they made an aioli, but then forgot to flavor it.  No good.

Sesame Asparagus:  I'm not the hugest fan of asparagus, though I have been coming around on the concept lately.  Twist had some awesome asparagus.  Asparagus, as many people know, is notoriously hard to pair with other flavors (particularly wine), but the sesame vinaigrette went almost seemlessly with it.  For anyone who even kind of likes asparagus, you should try this.

Overall, I thought Twist was one of the better tapas places I have ever been to.  There were some hits and misses, but that is to be expected at almost every tapas place.  The hits were really good, and the misses weren't terrible, so I'd definitely be up for trying it again.

Ohhhh...then after that we took John to the dirtiest place on Earth...The Playpen in Stone Park.

Violets are Blue

My favorite bar in the city now is Violet Hour.  It is located at 1520 N. Damen and its website is http://www.theviolethour.com/.  The address, while seemingly similar to every other address you have ever seen, will do you absolutely no good because Violet Hour is a speakeasy.  Not only is there no address, but there is also no signage of any sort.  Beyond the lack of signage, there is also not even a visible door.  There is simply a white wall with a door handle on it.  If you pull the handle, you end up in a dark, completely nondescript room that gives no hint as to what lies beyond the curtain (literally).  I was a little surprised there wasn't a secret word needed to enter or a sliding vent on the door as in the Wizard of Oz.  I guess its locale is secretive enough that it does not need any additional obsucring elements.

However, what lies beyond the curtain is the best bar in the entire city.  There are tall violet velvet curtains all around the place and freakishly tall high-backed violet leather chairs strewn throughout the room.  I would love to have chairs like these in my house, but only if my house was a spooky castle.  The entire room is lit almost soley by a few candles, which makes reading the menu somewhat difficult.

They have a dizzying array of liquor, and they hand-make every element that goes into each drink (syrups, flavored liquors, etc.).  I had a Moscow Mule in honor of my mom (she loves these, even though she doesn't really know what it is) and a mojito.  The Moscow Mule (vodka, lime, ginger syrup) was very refreshing, but a bit heavy-handed on the ginger side.  If you like crystallized ginger, then you will love this.  I think I would have enjoyed it more if it were about half the size that it was.

I next decided to have a mojito since 1) I love mojitos and 2) I wanted to compare it to a drink that I have had many times before.  The best mojito that I have previously had was at a Cuban bar in Madrid, but miraculously,  Violet Hour blew it away.  The rum was clearly aged for a while and had a distinctive oaky (buttery) taste.  The lime and the mint were perfectly in balance even though it did not appear as if the mint had been muddled.  In short, it was amazing.  I felt a little bad drinking it in the middle of January when it is rightly a summer drink, but a mojito this good transcends the season.

Violet Hour is not a place to be loud or obnoxious.  In fact, they do not let you use your cell phone or get up and walk around, so be prepared for that.  It is a place to have fantastically made drinks and talk in a cool looking bar.  The drinks are on the expensive side.  That being said, they are very strong and likely the best version of that drink you will ever have, so suck it up, have a couple drinks and enjoy the night.

As a word of advice, Violet Hour gets very very crowded on weekend nights (think 2 hour waits, remember they don't let people stand around in the bar), so you may want to show up early or on a weeknight (we showed up around 11 on a Tuesday and there was no wait).  Have fun and let me know what you think!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Final XMas Break Fish Tuesday

As you may have noticed, most of my Fish Tuesdays involve some combination of butter, wine, and lemon.  This was my last Fish Tuesday before school starts on Monday, so I wanted to pull out all the stops.  I poured through my vast library of cookbooks looking for something kind of crazy to make.  I found a sea bass dish in the Alinea cookbook that looked amazing.  However, it had 36 elements on the plate, so that idea was scrapped (though if I had thought about it the day before, I would have made it).  I looked through my Charlie Trotter's Seafood book, but most of the fish in that book are either endangered, extinct, or purely mythical, which is basically just a long way of saying that some fish in his book is nearly impossible to find.  Finally, I just decided to go to the Fish Guy Market and figure it out from there.  I ended up buying the final five mahi mahi fillets, still completely unaware of what I was going to do with it. 

I got home and realized I had some saffron that I bought while in Spain, so that was going to go into the dish.  Next I saw some arborio rice in my cabinet, so I decided on risotto of some sort.  The dish was starting to come together, at least in my head.  For the vegetable element, I wanted to make spinach.  So, I'm sitting in my kitchen staring at a bunch of mahi mahi, a package of saffron, a half box of arborio rice, and a whole lot of spinach.  I was once called the MacGyver of Hamburgers, so I put my MacGyver-like skill to use.  I decided to make the mahi sous vide in duck fat with saffron risotto and sauted spinach.  Here is how that went down.

Mahi (Serves 5)
5 fillets of mahi mahi
5 tbsp duck fat
kosher salt

1.  Fill a large stockpot almost all the way full with hot water, clip a thermometer to the side and heat on low to 141 degrees.
2.  Salt and pepper both sides of the fish.
3.  Put 3 fillets of mahi in a vacuum bag and 2 fillets in the other.  Put 3 tbsp of duck fat in the bag with 3 fillets and 2 tbsp with the 2 filets.
4.  Seal the bags using a Vac Saver
5.  Put the bags into the stockpot and cook for 35 minutes.
6.  Cut bags open and serve immediately.

Saffron Risotto
1/2 stick butter
1 1/2 cup arborio rice
1 spanish onion, diced
1 shallot, diced
2 pinches saffron threads
1 tspn rosemary leaves
1 cup chicken stock, hot
4 cups water, simmering
1 cup parmesan cheese, grated
kosher salt

1.  Melt butter in a large saute pan over medium heat.
2.  Add onion, shallot, a few pinches of kosher salt, and some pepper to pan and cook until onion turns translucent.
3.  Add saffron and stir until the dish mostly looks yellow (about 2 minutes).
4.  Add rice and stir around to toast and coat in butter (about 2-3 minutes).
5.  Add 1 cup of water and stir continuously until absorbed.  When absorbed, add in chicken stock and stir continuously until absorbed.  (About 10 minutes)
6.  Add in rosemary and stir until incorporated.
7.  Continue adding water and stirring continuously until absorbed until rice is creamy and completely cooked (about 15-20 more minutes).
8.  When rice is al dente, remove from heat and stir in cheese until fully incorporated.

Sauteed Spinach
6 oz spinach leaves
3 long strips of orange peel, 1/4 inch wide
olive oil
2 tbsp unsalted butter
kosher salt

1. Film the bottom of a large saute pan with olive oil.  Put orange strips in it and heat on medium until the oil bubbles around the orange.
2.  Put the spinach in the pan and sprinkle a few pinches of salt over it.  Heat until spinach wilts, then cook for a few minutes longer to evaporate some of the liquid.
3.  Remove pan from heat and take out the orange strips.
4.  Divide the spinach into 5 equal sized piles.
5.  Put a pile of spinach in the center of a paper towel.  Fold the towel in half over the spinach and twist each end in opposite directions to form the spinach into a tight ball.  Put the spinach ball on a plate and repeat with each other pile of spinach.
6.  In a small saute pan, melt the butter.  When butter is melted, put the spinach balls into the pan and roll around until they are heated through (about 3 minutes).

To plate it prettily, put four small piles of risotto on the plate in a square pattern.  Put a ball of spinach in the middle and place a piece of fish over the spinach.  Serve.

Sunday, January 3, 2010


As you may have noticed, I have neglected writing anything over the holiday break.  Since it would take a while to catch up with all of the back posts, I decided just to restart from today.  I'll give you a brief recap of important things that have happened in the last couple weeks.

Christmas was hectic, but I made the pork with cranberry dish that I posted a couple months back, it turned out very nicely despite a malfunctioning meat thermometer that tricked me into taking the pork out early.  I jumped into a frozen lake, cut my legs up when I fell chest deep into a mountain of razor snow, and lost feeling in my feet for about two days.  Cibo Matto is awful and one of the worst five eating experiences of my whole life (the guy who fills up the water was amazing though).  The bar Roof is cool looking but I think the Cougars and Sugar Daddys need to coordinate their schedules so they all don't end up there at the same time.  Fish Tuesday continues to be a resounding success.

I went out last night to the Westwood Tap in Schaumburg and Nick ordered buffalo wings, and ever since then I have been craving them for some reason.  Tonight I had to make some.  I headed down the block to my local Jewel to pick up a few simple items to try my hand at buffalo wings; however, I ran into trouble when Jewel management decided not to stock up over the holiday weekend.  It looked as if someone had robbed the place.  Beaten, but not defeated, I drove to the Dominick's on Thorndale; however, this too had apparently been robbed by the New Years Weekend Chicken Thief.  He apparently forgot a big bag of frozen party wings, so I grabbed that before he came back.  Frozen meat usually isn't something I like to buy, but a craving is a craving, so I caved in.

The wings were cooked very well, but I feel like I should have made the sauce more spicy.  I like to bake my wings because I hate greasy food, but you could also deep fry them (and they would be more crisp).  Here is the recipe that I used.

Buffalo Wings (serves 3-4)
32 assorted chicken wings/drumettes
1/2 cup Frank's Hot Sauce
1 stick unsalted butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp white vinegar
Tobasco sauce
1 tbsp brown mustard
kosher salt

1.  Preheat oven to 450
2.  Lay out the chicken on a large baking sheet and lightly salt and pepper both sides of each piece of chicken.  Put the skin side of each piece up.  Let it rest while the oven comes up to temperature.
3.  Put in the oven for 35 minutes, there is no need to flip them.
4.  When there is 15 minutes left on the timer, begin making the sauce.
5.  In a small sauce pan melt the butter over medium heat.  When melted, add the garlic, a pinch of salt, and a little pepper.  Cook for 3-4 minutes.
6.  Pour in the hot sauce, vinegar, and Tobasco (adjust to desired spiciness level) and return to a boil.  Cook for 4-5 minutes.
7.  Remove from heat and vigorously whisk in the mustard.  You will barely taste it, but it will prevent the sauce from separating.
8.  The chicken should be finished when the sauce is completed.  Put a small amount of sauce in the bottom of a large bowl and put half the chicken on top.  Pour some more sauce onto the chicken and put the rest of the chicken in the bowl.  Pour most of the rest of the sauce over the chicken (save some for dipping).  Toss the bowl around to coat all of the chicken.
9.  Serve with ranch or bleu cheese dressing and some celery.  Be sure to have something to drink if you make it too hot!