Sunday, February 28, 2010

End of the Weekend

I wanted to redo the duck dish that I made for Valentines Day, but I could not find any fresh duck since my butcher is closed on Sundays.  We ended up at Sam's Club to buy 75 lbs of pork rinds or something like that.  At some point I got lost in the endless maze of bulk supplies and ended up in the meat section.  It actually looked like they had some pretty good porterhouse steaks, so I picked those up.  I was just talking about how I do not have enough posts about red meat, so here we are.

I made the steak with a balsamic sauce and carmelized onions.  I got it off the Food Network website but cut it down a little and added the onions.  Also, I substituted garlic for shallots.

2 porterhouse steaks
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup of ketchup
1/4 cup honey
4 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tbsp mustard
1/4 tspn allspice
kosher salt
1 white onion, sliced
olive oil

1.  Combine balsamic vinegar, ketchup, honey, garlic, and Worcestershire sauce, mustard, and allspice in a small saucepan.  Bring to a simmer over medium heat.  Simmer for about 10 minutes until thickened.  Adjust to taste with salt, pepper, and sugar.
2.  Meanwhile, film the bottom of a large saute pan with olive oil.  Heat it over medium-low heat until hot.  Add the onion slices and a pinch of salt and stir frequently for 20 minutes until carmelized.
3.  Heat a grill over high heat.  Lightly salt and pepper the steaks.  Put them on the grill and cook for 3 minutes, then, without flipping, turn them 45 degrees and cook for 2 more minutes.  Flip the steaks and repeat the process.
4.  Remove from grill and wrap tightly with foil and let rest for 5 minutes.
5.  Spread sauce on top of the steak and top with carmelized onions.

Fish Saturday?

Since Fish Tuesday ended due to some newfound employment, we had to transfer fish day to Saturday.  I suppose we aren't getting the sweet deal of $10/lb, but we do have jobs which allows us to spend a little more on fish.  It's a cruel tradeoff, but a necessary one.

This week, the Fishguy had some very fresh barracuda, so I immediately jumped on it.  They were in a little bit of shock that we weren't there on Tuesday, but they were excited that we could spend more on fish.  Again, we are all making sacrifices.

Like I said, the week was pretty stressful, so I wanted to do something pretty eash with the fish.  Inspired by the skate at Blackbird, I wanted to try to get a good crust on the fish and serve it with a lemon-wine sauce (of course).  I decided just to wing it, and it actually turned out really well.

2 barracuda filets
olive oil
kosher salt
1/2 lemon, sliced into thin rounds
1/3 cup sauvignon blanc
pinch of dried thyme leaves
2 tbsp butter

1.  Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2.  Film the bottom of a pan with olive oil and heat over medium heat until very hot.
3.  Lightly salt and pepper the fish.
4.  Dredge the meat side of the fish in flour and shake off any excess.
5.  Put the meat side down in the pan and cook for about 4 minutes.  Flip the fish and cook for 2 more minutes.  Add the lemon slices to the pan.
6.  Put the pan in the oven on the top rack and cook for 5 more minutes.
7.  Remove the pan from the oven and put the fish on a plate and cover tightly with foil.
8.  Meanwhile, put the pan over medium heat again, deglaze the pan with the white wine and scrape the bottom of the pan.
9.  Add the thyme and boil until the alcohol is burned off.
10.  Remove from heat and whisk in the butter one tbsp at a time.
11.  Pour the sauce over the fish and serve.

Restaurant Week Continued

After trying and trying to get a Restaurant Week reservation at Blackbird, I finally scored one, though it wasn't until 9:00p.m.  I was hoping that would mean it wouldn't be terribly crowded, but I was very very wrong.  Blackbird is located at 619 W. Randolph and its website is

I had never even seen Blackbird before, but I have heard some tremendous things about it.  We got off of the Green Line at Clinton and walked the block and a half to the restaurant.  We passed its large plate glass window and saw an extremely crowded front room that was long and narrow.  We entered and told the hostess that we were ready.  She took our coats and started leading us through the crowd toward the back of the restaurant.  I thought to myself, "great, we will get a seat in the back room."  Little did I know a back room did not exist, but I also did not see a table for us to sit at.  However, she led us to a table that I was 100% sure was part of another table since it was so close to each adjacent table.  Since there was no other place to go, I reluctantly accepted the table.

We both ordered the same appetizer, the mussel soup with saffron and garlic.  The mussels were very good, but the soup was a bit spicy.  I enjoyed it, but I did feel like they could have toned down the heat a bit.

For my main dish, I ordered the skate wing with spaghetti squash and orange sauce.  Firstly, it was the most perfect looking skate wing that I have ever seen.  It was like something you would see in a cookbook.  I have cooked skate many many times and have never had it look anything like the Blackbird skate.  It was lightly crunchy, and very juicy, though it had just a touch too much salt on it.  The orange sauce was the perfect complement to cut through the saltiness of the fish.  I really wish they had served it with more sauce since I ran out about halfway through.  The spaghetti squash had some interesting texture but  I didn't feel like it added very much to the dish. 

Michelle had the duck breast with a raisin sauce and sauerkraut dusted potatoes.  The duck, as the skate, was perfectly cooked to a medium rare.  The raisin sauce was deeply flavorful and married with the fatty duck.  The potatoes tasted like a rich man's sour cream & onion Pringle.  I liked the tartness of the potatoes with the sweetness of the duck and sauce.  However, it also came with some sort of house-made sausage that was awful.  The taste was bad, the texture was bad.  It was a bit of a trainwreck.  Fortunately it could be simply taken off so you didn't have to worry about it too much.

We finished off with dessert.  I had a relatively classic flourless chocolate cake with a tonka bean ice cream (tastes like a more complex vanilla).  The cake was soft, had a whole bunch of chocolate flavor, and, obviously, went well with the ice cream.  Michelle had something that could only be described as a rearranged cheesecake.  It had something that resembled a cream cheese ice cream, then it had a bunch of citrus flavors, like orange, to round out the dish. 

The big question is whether I would go back.  I'm not sure if I've ever been less able to answer that question about a restaurant than I am about Blackbird.  It had way too many tables packed into a small area.  I eyeballed about 7" between tables.  This probably would be fine if everyone acted calmly and spoke at a normal volume; however, we got seated next to a jackass who was trying to impress his date with all sorts of obnoxious stories about cruises down the Rhine river and his dry cleaning.  It was awful to the point that I think I would have rather been next to the insufferable children from Nella Pizzeria than this guy.  I think I would go back for next year's restaurant week, and perhaps on a normal day if I could get some guarantee that I wouldn't be nearly sitting at another party's table.

A Revolution!

After an extremely stressful 10-day stretch, I was finally done with all of the things that I needed to do with law review, work, and class.  I went to get some pants hemmed and then I was hungry.  After sifting through a massive amount of places that I wanted to eat, I finally settled on Revolution Brewing.  Revolution Brewing is located at 2323 N. Milwaukee and its website is

I was mainly looking forward to their homemade beers, but I had also heard that they had some pretty good food.  We started with the bacon fat popcorn, as it sounded ridiculously good.  I mean popcorn, bacon fat, bacon, and parmesan cheese?  How could that not be amazing?  Even though I had really  high expectations for it (and at only $4), it blew the doors off of anything I could have imagined.  The bacon was strongly applewood smoked.  The bacon alone with the cheese would have been a fantastic appetizer, but the popcorn took it to a whole other level.  It was definitely the best $4 dish I have ever had.  I wouldn't even complain if they doubled the price (though I hope they don't). 

I ordered a bacon burger for my main dish because, as you may know, I like to do plain things at places that I have never been to before.  If they can't do a plain thing right, I don't trust them to do something more complicated.  Though the burger was not on the same level as the unbelievable popcorn appetizer, it was quite good.  I ordered it medium and it was a little over done (like a medium well), but the bacon (as with the popcorn) was high quality and the onions were pretty good too.  I wolfed it down too quickly to take a picture.  No matter how many times that I have taken pictures of food that I eat, I can never get used to it.  I imagine that you have all seen a burger before though.

We ended with a bourbon soaked cherry cake.  Michelle had really high expectations, and she did not particularly like it.  I, on the other hand, was not really that excited about it, and I thought it was very nice.  The cherries were very tart and the cake had a mellow bourbon taste that contrasted with the cherries.  I would definitely get it again.

A Non-Alcoholic Beginning to a 21st Birthday

Michelle's sister came into Chicago to celebrate her 21st bday/get alcohol poisoning.  However, before she nearly met her death, we took her out to lunch (it was Restaurant Week, afterall).  We tried to get into Topolobampo, but for some inexplicable reason, they don't do lunch on Saturdays.  We ended up at Cafe Spiaggia, which is not a bad backup option.

I started out with the tuscan bean soup with olive oil.  It was all full of olive oil deliciousness.  It was pretty tasty except that there was way too much of it and there was no textural diffentiation in there, so I got bored of it pretty fast.

My next course was the butternut squash ravioli with brown butter and sage.  The pasta was a very nice thickness, but the butternut squash wasn't terribly flavorful, so the dish probably wasn't as good as it could have been.  Michelle and her sister got the grilled chicken with potatoes.  Theirs was much better.  I only had one bite, but it had some awesome wood-grilled flavor in there.  I would like to come back and see what they can do on a non-Restaurant Week menu.

We finished off with an assortment of gelato and sorbet.  I ordered a chocolate, pistacio, and pineapple-basil.  I do say that these are the closest things to gelato from Italy that I have had in America, and the pineapple-basil sorbet was very interesting.  It tasted very melon-like, but then it melted away into a delicate basil flavor.

A Celebration

For the third consecutive time, Michelle and I started a job on the exact same day.  I'm not sure if that means we are equally good at finding jobs or equally terrible at keeping jobs, but it's got to be one of them.  Anyway, to celebrate, we went out to Smith & Wollensky's

They seated us back near the windows for the big day.  A few tables down, some guy was cackling absurdly loud.  I'm almost positive one of the waiters had to tell him to calm down.  I don't think he was drunk, I think he was just annoying.

We ordered the chateaubriand for two because it sounded better than anything else.  We also got a half bottle of Rombauer Cabernet.  Rombauer must purposefully make their wines sweeter than the counterparts at other wineries because I've noticed that is a common thread running through their wines.  We also ordered a side of truffle mac & cheese, or as I like to call it, "the Best Side Dish Ever."

The chateaubriand had a beautiful crust on it and was cooked to a perfect medium rare.  It also came with some bernaise sauce, but I'm pretty sure it was of the Knorr variety since it didn't separate as it got cold, but whatever, the steak was delicious.

However, the star of the day was the truffled mac & cheese.  It had surprisingly large pieces of truffles in it and it was so perfectly savory that I'm not sure if they could have improved it at all.  I would have ordered four of these had I known it would have been so good.

We finished the dinner with an Orange Cheesecake.  While it was one of the better cheesecakes that I've ever had, the whole dinner was purely overshadowed by the mac & cheese.  I thought about getting a glass of 1986 Chateau D'Yquem, but I figured that could be an adventure for another day after we had been working for a while.

Final Fish Tuesday

I have both good news and bad news.  The good news is that after a long, harrowing journey, I finally got a job.  The bad news is that I no longer have time to make it to the wonderful Fishguy Market for Fish Tuesdays.

Before I set out to the Fishguy, I checked my kitchen to see what I had on hand.  I had some green onions and parmesan cheese that were left over from Valentines dinner.  I also noticed that I had a stale pretzel roll from the wine bar that I left on top of my fridge.  I figured if I could incorporate them all into one dish, that would be awesome.

I went out to the Fishguy and got some cod that looked good.  I ended up searching for some cod recipes that would incorporate the ingredients I had on hand.  I found a recipe for lobster dejonghe that looked like it could work out well adapted to the cod. 

I have to say that if this is the last Fish Tuesday, I sent it out with a bang.  I liked the amount of topping, but I could see it being too much for some people.  If you want to reduce, take out 1/4 cup of butter and cut everything else in half.

1 large cod filet
3/4 cup melted butter
1 cup of pretzel roll bred crumbs
1 cup parmesan cheese
4 tbsp chopped green onions
juice from 1/2 lemon
kosher salt

1.  Preheat the oven to 350
2.  Put the cod in a small, shallow baking pan, lightly salt and pepper each piece of fish.
3.  Pour the melted butter over the cod.
4.  Mix the rest of the ingredients together in a bowl.
5.  Pour the bread mixture over the cod so it is completely covered and pack it down gently.
6.  Put the baking dish in the oven for about 25 minutes until the topping gets nice and brown.
7.  Cut in half and serve with lemon wedges.

Is There a Way to Get Kids Banned from Restaurants?

While running around picking up all the stuff for the Valentines Extravaganza, we got hungry around lunch.  We were down in Lincoln Park, and I had wanted to compare Nella Pizzeria Napoletana to the wonder that is Great Lakes Pizza.  Nella Pizzeria is located at 2423 N. Clark and its website is

We rolled in around 1:00 p.m., and there were very few people in there, which was kind of nice.  The first thing I noticed was that the interior was much nicer than that of Great Lakes.  The host gave us the choice of seats, so we picked one kind of close to the window.

No sooner did we begin browsing over the menu when two women came in with five children in tow.  I didn't even realize that kids could be had that close together without being twins, but apparently they can.  Fortunately for us, they were the five most insufferable children of all time, and of all the seats they could have chosen, they chose the seats immediately next to us.  I tried tripping the kids a few times when they were running by or scaling the seats next to us, but they managed to evade me.

Wanting to get out of there before my head exploded because of these ankle-biters, we rushed our order.  I ordered the Diavola pizza, which was a tomato sauce based pizza with spicy salami, red pepper, and mozzerella cheese.

It was a very good pizza and the salami was very tasty; however, the same problem that Piece has, soggy center, was present at Nella Pizzaria.  I'm pretty sure this would have been terrible heated up, but luckily it was only a 12" pizza, so there were no leftovers.  I'm not sure if I would go back, particularly since its much farther away than Great Lakes Pizza, but if I was in the area, I might give it another shot.  Perhaps if I could get some guarantee that I wouldn't have little kids slamming into my chair, there might be a better shot of my return.

We got out of there, with my blood pressure raised and a brand new facial tic.

Annual Valentines Extravaganza

As mentioned in the previous post, I generally avoid going out to restaurants on Valentines Day.  It is almost always over-booked to the point that the kitchen can't keep up.  I'd rather go out almost any other day of the year other than Valentines Day.  Also, I don't like all the desserts named after terrible movies like "Sleepless in Souffle." 

Anyway, this year I think I went a little over the top, but it mostly turned out well outside of a few missteps.  Also, the "Weird Stuff in my Kitchen" category has now been expanded to include 10 lbs of candle wax.

The first course was Alinea's Hot Potato, Cold Potato.  The black truffle and potato soup was amazing and full of black truffle-y goodness.  The candle wax bowls were much more difficult to make than I imagined because they kept cracking.  Eventually we got them down and they turned out nicely.  Here's how to make the candle wax bowls.

1.  About 2 lbs of unscented candle wax.
2.  5 9" baloons

You melt the candle wax in a double boiler over medium low heat.  Meanwhile, fill the balloons with a little water and tie them off.  You then dip the balloon 8 times in the melted wax, take it out and press it down really really gently on a flat surface.  Dip 16 more dimes and again, press down to make a flat bottom.  Allow the wax to harden, then gently pop each balloon and remove the bowl from the balloon.  The last step is to heat a pan over low heat until warm.  Put each wax bowl on the pan upside-down for a few seconds to smooth the edges.  Remove and put in a safe place as they are very delicate.

Lots of work just to make some bowls, yes?  Onto the real recipe.  I didn't want to spend $80 on black truffle juice, so I made a quick mushroom stock.  (2 lbs of mushrooms, sliced, brown over medium heat with a little oil, add 4 cups of water, and simmer for about an hour until reduced by half.  Strain).

100g Yukon Gold potatoes (this is about 2 medium sized potatoes), peeled and diced
225g mushroom stock
500g heavy cream
25g black truffle oil
5g kosher salt

1.  Bring potatoes and mushroom stock to a boil over high heat.  When it hits a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer for about 20 minutes.
2.  Add cream and return the mixture to a simmer.
3.  Put it all in a blender and blend on high until smooth.  With the blender still running, add the oil in a thin steady stream.  Throw the salt in and then turn the blender off.
4.  Strain the soup and refrigerate for at least 8 hour.

For the potato part

4 sticks worth of clarified butter
5 spheres of potato scooped out with a 1/2 inch melon baller

1.  Heat the clarified butter over medium heat.
2.  Add the potato spheres to the hot butter and roll them around the pan for 20 minutesuntil tender.

To make the mushrooms

5 shiitake mushroom caps
1/4 cup mushroom stock
1 tbsp butter
kosher salt

1.  Melt the butter over medium heat.  Add the mushrooms to the pan and cook for about 5 minutes.
2.  Add the mushroom stock and a pinch of salt and cook until the stock is mostly evaporated.

Now to assemble:

1.  Pour some cold truffle soup into the bowl (about half full)
2.  Take a pin or needle and impale a small cube of parmesan cheese, a small cube of butter, and a small cut of chive onto the pin.  If using a needle, stab the eye end of the needle into the hot potato sphere.  Stick the sharp end of the needle gently through the wax bowl where the bottom begins to flatten.  To eat, pull the pin out, dropping the hot potato, butter, cheese, and chive into it.  Drink it all down like an oyster.

I served this with a Schweiger Chardonnay.  John from Cuvee Cellars said that the oakiness of the chardonnay would be awesome with a cream based soup.  He was right.  It was a spectacular match.
The next course was a duck with a honey-orange sauce, duck confit, a candied orange, and green beans almondine.  This would have been the best dish of the night if not for the fact that I overcooked the duck a bit by leaving it in the pan for too long.  When I was formulating this dish, I was almost positive that the Ridge East Bench Zinfandel would be the perfect match since it has such strong notes of freshly cut orange.  I asked John for confirmation, and he agreed.  This was the best matched wine of the evening.

Here is how you make the duck.  I'll note the point where I went wrong and it became overcooked.

l large duck breast (about 2 lbs)
3/4 cup chopped shallots
1.5 cup orange juice
2.25 cups chicken broth
4.5 tspn Earl Grey tea leaves
1 tbsp honey
3 tbsp butter, cut into 1 tbsp pieces
kosher salt

1.  Preheat oven to 450.
2.  Heat a large saute pan over high heat for a few minutes until the pan is very hot
3.  Meanwhile, score the skin side of the duck in a cross-hatch pattern.  Lightly salt and pepper each side of the duck.
4.  When pan is hot, put duck in, skin side down.  Cook for 4 minutes until the skin side is really brown and lots of fat has been rendered.  Flip the duck and cook the other side for about 2 minutes.  Take duck out of the pan and reserve on the side.  Reserve the rendered the duck fat.
5.  Take another large pan and put the duck breast in it, skin side up.  Put the pan in the oven for 20 minutes.
6.  While the duck is in the oven, make the sauce.
7.  Heat the reserved duck fat over medium heat until hot.  Add the shallots to the pan and cook (stirring frequently) until they begin to brown (about 5 minutes). 
8.  Add the orange juice to the pan to deglaze, scraping the bottom as you pour it in.  Then add the chicken broth and the tea leaves.
9.  Cook over medium heat for about 20 minutes, until reduced by a little more than half.
10.  At some point while the sauce is reducing, you have to get the duck out of the oven.  When you do, take the duck out of the pan and cover it tightly with foil to let it rest.  I left it in the pan to rest and it became woefully overcooked.
11.  Strain the sauce into a sauce pan to remove the solids.  Push down on the solids to extract all the flavor. 
12.  Put the sauce pan over medium heat and whisk in the honey.  When the sauce returns to a simmer, whisk in each piece of butter.
13.  Slice the duck crosswise on a bias.  Put each piece on the candied orange with some duck confit.  Put the green beans with some almonds between each slice and drizzle the whole thing with the sauce.

You can also candy orange slices if you want to jazz up the presentation.  To do this, boil equal parts sugar and water together in a large sauce pan to make a syrup.  Reduce to low so it is at a simmer and add the orange slices.  Cook for about an hour, uncovered, turning the orange slices over ocassionally.  Heat the oven to 350 and put the orange slices on a baking sheet.  Put them in the oven for about 20 minutes to dry.  For an added touch, blowtorch each segment to get a little blackness on it.

I served this with green beans almondine (which I have posted a few times).  The duck confit was store bought from my butcher (because I didn't have enough time to make it myself).  Anyway, here is a picture.

The final savory course was lamb with 3 toppings and burning rosemary.  I got this general recipe again from Alinea, but I changed one of the toppings, and I use river rocks instead of a terra cotta plank.  I served this with a 2005 Oak Valley merlot blend.  It's an outstanding wine, get it from Cuvee Cellars.

Ingredients for Lamb
3 lamb loins
3 tbsp butter, cut into small cubes

1.  Seal the lamb loins and butter into a vacuum bag using a Vac Saver
2.  Heat a large stock pot of water to 135 degrees.
3.  Put the lamb-filled bag into the water and cook for about 20 minutes to get it to medium-rare.
4.  Remove from water, cut bag open, take lamb out, cover lamb with cold, wet paper towels and immediately refrigerate.

Red Wine Braised Cabbage Topping
1 lb red cabbage
1 shallot, chopped
6 tbsp butter
1 scant cup red wine
1 1/3 cup port
1/3 cup honey
pinch of kosher salt
a couple grinds of black pepper
1/4 russet potato
1.25 tbsp red wine vinegar

1.  Slice cabbage thinly.  In a large, deep pan, melt the butter over medium heat.  Add the cabbage and shallot and cook for 5 minutes.
2.  Add all ingredients except the potato and red wine vinegar.
3.  Cover with a parchment paper lid for about 1.5 hours until liquid is almost evaporated.  Make sure to stir ocassionaly so the bottom doesnt burn.
4.  When it reaches this point, remove the parchment.  Grate the potato on a box grater or microplane.  Add the potato and cook for 30 minutes more.
5.  Remove from heat and stir in the vinegar. 
6.  Refrigerate.

Date Compote Topping
1.1 lbs dates
1.1 lb water
1/3 cup plus 1 tbsp sherry vinegar
1/2 cup sugar
pinch of kosher salt
a couple grinds of black pepper
2 1/4 tbsp olive oil

1.  Fill a bowl with some hot water and put the dates in them for about 5 minutes
2.  Pull the skin off of each date and remove the pit.
3.  In a medium sauce pan, combine the pitted dates, the 1.1 lb of water, the vinegar, sugar, salt, and pepper. 
4.  Cook for about an hour until at least half of the liquid is evaporated.
5.  Transfer contents of the pan in to a blender and blend on high for 3 minutes until smooth.
6.  With motor running, drizzle the olive oil in. 
7.  Transfer to a squeeze bottle and refrigerate.

Red Wine-Plum Topping
3 plums
1/2 cup plus 3 tbsp red wine (like cabernet)
2 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp butter
1 sprig of rosemary
1/2 cup veal stock

1.  Preheat the oven to roast at 350.
2.  Cut 2 of the plums in half and remove the pit.  Put them in a pan with the butter, 3 tbsp red wine, the sugar, and the rosemary sprig.
3.  Put the pan in the oven for 30 minutes, covered with foil.
4.  Remove the skin from the plums and discard it.  Cut the plums in half to make quarters.  Put them back in the pan.
5.  Meanwhile, chop the last plum and put it in a small sauce pan with the 1/2 cup of red wine and 1/2 cup of veal stock.  Heat it over low heat for 20 minutes.
6.  Put the roasted plums and the red wine mixture in a blender and blend on high until smooth.  Add some Ultratex-3 to the blender to thicken.
7.  Refrigerate in a squeeze bottle.

To Assemble
1.  Gather 15 2" diameter circular river rocks.  Drill a hole through 5 of them.
2.  Heat the oven to 550, and put the rocks into it for at least 30 minutes.
3.  Slice the lamb loin into 3/4" thick medallions.  Heat some olive oil in a pan over high heat.  Put 15 lamb medallions into the hot oil for 30 seconds.  Remove and set aside on a plate.
4.  Cut 5 small squares of cabbage and put them on top of 5 lamb medallions.  Put a generous squeeze of date compote onto the next 5 medallions.  Finally, put a generous squeeze of plum sauce onto the last 5 medallions.
5.  Carefully put three hot river rocks into a small, cast-iron skillet with the rock with the hole in it in the middle.  Put the date compote medallion on the rock on the left,  the red wine braised cabbage medallion in the middle, and the plum sauce medallion on the right. 
6.  Set them in front of each diner and put a sprig of rosemary in the drilled hole.  Eat with chopsticks.

We had panna cotta for dessert, which was delicious, but I did not make that, so I do not have the recipe for you.  I attempted to make tempura fried chocolate gelatin served with burning vanilla, but that did not turn out well at all.  I'll have to go back to the drawing board on that one.  Another successful Valentines Day in the books, and we avoided any terrible puns in the process.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Some Light Stalking

On the Thursday before Valentines Day, I went to a wine dinner at Reel Club in Oakbrook with my parents.  They were having a wine dinner with Alpana Singh, the wine director of Lettuce Entertain You.  Despite Lettuce Entertain You being the dumbest word play in the history of word plays, I wanted to go and do a little light stalking of Alpana...and I did.  She is also the host of Check Please, which is apparently a TV show that I have never seen.  I wanted to do a little light stalking of her, and see how that went.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the shining star of the evening, my mom.  She looked, in a word, glorious, that night, as if a team of platinum, glistening steeds ferried her to the restaurant via chariot directly from the heavens.  At one  point, I think she was literally glowing with the aura of righteousness and maybe even briefly floated.  Her hair was the same color as the fire in the fiery pits of Gehenna shone like the brilliance of a thousand suns, and her black dress looked as if it were sewn from the finest silks by the best tailors.

After managing to snap out of the awe-inspiring vision that was my mom, I finally got around to looking at the menu, and more importantly, the accompanying wines.  As an initial note, I'm always pretty skeptical about special events for Valentines Day.  It seems to me otherwise good restaurants overbook themselves and can't keep up with the crush of people, so the food suffers.

The first course on the menu was grilled baby octopus with fingerling potatoes, chorizo, and pistacio pesto.  However, the first course our elf-looking waiter brought us was a shockingly similar course involving a seared scallop instead of octopus.  I would have more information for you, but he didn't explain it at all.  The scallop was pretty tasty, but it was not nearly seared enough.  The best part of a seared scallop is the crunchy crust, but that was missing here.  This dish could have been really solid if it was seared properly, and also if it wasn't so similar to the next course.  It was served with a La Marca, Prosecco.  I like sparkling wine with scallops as a general proposition, and this was no exception.

So, the second course which would have been the first course was the baby octopus.  I'm not the hugest fan of octopus, but usually I've had it fried, so I was looking forward to it being grilled.  Unfortunately it was covered with my least favorite herb - cilantro.  The smell of cilantro makes me want to throw up, so even putting the octopus in my mouth was pretty difficult.  However, I did enjoy the potatoes and the chorizo with this dish.  It was served with a Mer Soleil Silver Chardonnay.  I don't usually like unoaked chardonnays, but this was pretty good.  It had some tropical notes and a hint of sweetness.  I could see myself drinking this again, so it wins the award as best unoaked chardonnay that I've had.

The next course was a salt-crusted NY Steak with creamed wild mushrooms and a watercress salad.  I really liked the sauce on this steak since it had a strong mushroom flavor; however, the restaurant made the terrible decision to put a biscuit of some sort under a medium-rare steak.  This made it look like there was a blood soaked sponge on the plate, which, and maybe I'm in the minority here, is not appealing to me.  I feel like this could have been a solid dish if there were fewer people that they needed to serve and they dropped the gross biscuit.  However, the saving grace again was the wine.  They served a Bouza Tannat from Uruguay, which was by far the best wine of the night (even though the others were solid).  They did give Uruguay the unfortunate spelling of "Urugay," but after some child-like giggling, we got past that.  The wine was like a blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot.  It had huge berry flavors like a cabernet, but it was super smooth like a good merlot.  We drank lots and lots of glasses of tannat, and it was awesome.  I'll definitely have to look into finding that wine.

The next course barely warrants mentioning, but I will if only because my mom made time stand still with her glory at that point.  The dish is best described as "a giant brick of blue cheese with a bunch of other stuff."  It was about 1 lb of cheese for each person except for me (I mercifully got a normal sized slice).  The spiced walnuts were tasty, but I'll move on from there.  There was a brief discussion of giving me $300 if I would eat the whole chunk in one bite, but that never actually came about even though I could have done it.

The best dish on the menu was the chocolate souffle to end the night.  It was almost cloud-like in texture with a deep chocolate flavor.  The ice cream was good, but clearly playing second fiddle to the souffle.  I found it curious, and, quite frankly, disconcerting that they were serving moscato d'asti with such a big chocolate dish, but it was a bit more earthy than some of the other moscatos that I have had, so it worked nicely.

Finally toward the end, Alpana came over.  She seemed tired, and sort of like she wanted to go home.  She was nice though and autographed some menus and took some pictures.  I repeatedly asked her to go to Cuvee Cellars, and though she seemed interested, it wasn't going to happen that night.  It's too bad for her because I'm sure I had more fun than whatever she ended up doing.

Was it enough to make me rethink my aversion to Valentines Day dinners at restaurants?  Probably not.  However, I could see myself doing a Valentines Day wine tasting next year...

After a Long, Harrowing Journey, I've Returned to the World of Blogs

Since my last post, a whole bunch of crazy stuff has happened.  I had to finish two trial briefs, finish my law review article, interview for several jobs, get a job, start that job, carry around a 50lb box of napkins and get stopped by Sears Tower security thinking I was carrying around a bomb, and then interview for the editorial board for the law review next year.

Sadly, writing this blog took a backseat to all that stuff.  However, I am finished now and free to give you my food musings until I get swamped again.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Thai Update

I went back to Ben's Noodle & Rice (Bryn Mawr and Broadway) today.  It is still definitely my favorite Thai place in the city.  Today, our waiter asked if I wanted the pad thai to be spicy.  This was an unusual request simply because he has never asked that before.  They put in some smoke hot peppers or something.  Whatever they did, it was undoubtedly the best pad thai I've ever had in my life.  I could (and may) go back tomorrow.

Doubting Thomas

In conjunction with the ribs that I made for the Super Terrible Commercials Bowl, I popped out an amazing pineapple upside-down cake despite my mom having a terribly negative attitude about it.  I was second-guessed at every turn, some might even say sabotaged.  In light of her horrible attitude, it's amazing any food was produced that day, but I prevailed once again.

Just as an example, she insisted - some might even say she threw a tantrum - that I use canned pineapple rings rather than fresh pineapple (which she had on hand).  I guess that would have been an option if I wanted people to choke on it and die.  I feel that I have a little bit higher standard than that though.  Next she demanded that we caramelize the sugar in a pan with the syruped up pineapple rings. I'm still unclear if she even knew what she was talking about there or if she just wanted to be a contrarian.  I'm leaning toward the latter.  Needless to say, I didn't follow either of those commands.  Lastly, she was nearly in tears begging for it to be laden with maraschino cherries (the worst of all the fruits) and walnuts.

If you want to make a pineapple upside-down cake that is delicious, here it is.  Generally I wouldn't use a cake mix, but I was in a hurry so I used a yellow cake mix.  My sister apparently is taking a cooking class in high school, so she took care of making the batter and helping me with the pineapple.

Pineapple Upside-down Cake
1 cup brown sugar
1 stick unalted butter, salted
1 1/2 tbsp honey
1/2 tspn dark rum
1/2 tspn vanilla extract
1/2 pineapple
kosher salt
batter from yellow cake mix

1.  Combine the brown sugar, butter, honey, rum, and vanilla in a bowl and whip until it is well combined and looks like a thick batter.
2.  Spread a thin layer of this mixture (about 1/4" thick) evenly on the bottom of a circle cake pan (I think it was about 8").
3.  Cut the half pineapple in half lengthwise.  Cut the core out and cut the bark off.
4.  Cut the pineapple crosswise into fan shapes about 1/8" thick.
5.  Starting at the outer edge, place the pineapple fans around the ouside with the rounded side facing outward.  When you have covered the perimeter with the pineapple slicdes, make another ring just inside of that pineapple ring, but this time with the flat edge facing outward.  Continue this process, alternating directions of the pineapple slices until the sugar mixture is completely covered.
6.  Pour the batter into the cake pan until the pan is about 3/4 full.
7.  Heat oven to 350.
8.  Put cake in the oven and cook for about 40 minutes, turning it halfway through.  When you insert a knife into it, the knife should come out clean.
9.  Remove the pan from the oven and allow it to cool for 5-7 minutes.
10.  Put a plate on top of the pan and invert the whole thing so that the cake turns out onto the plate.

Here is a picture, hopefully it will help with the explanation.

Impromptu BBQ

I was sitting at home on Saturday night after a delightful meal at Great Lakes Pizza, when I realized that I didn't have any plans for the Super Bowl.  I had an open invite to go out to the burbs, so I hopped on that.  I needed to cook something for the party, so I started pouring through my many many cookbooks.

I only made chili once in my life, so I got myself all prepared to revolutionize the world of chili.  I was going to cook down some oxtail and pork shoulder with some peppers to make the meat portion.  Then I was going to cook some onions and tomatoes until they were carmelized and delicious.  In essence, it was going to be like the bolognese sauce I made about a month; only modified with peppers and chile powder and some other tweaks to turn it into chili.  I also have a dream about replacing beans with small diced potatoes in the chili.

Alas, someone else was making chili.  Undeterred, I set about revising my plan.  I wasn't going to have time to make pulled pork or brisket for that matter, so I settled on ribs.  I always like putting a rub on the ribs and cooking them with the rub still on there.  Essentially, I cooked it in the same way I make pulled pork, but on an abbreviated schedule.  I made a mop that I brushed on it for the last 4 hours to get a nice crust.  Here is the recipe for the ribs.

2 racks of baby back ribs (though you could also use spare ribs)
1 cup brown sugar
1 tbsp chile powder
1/2 tspn cayenne pepper
1 tspn oregano
1 tbsp garlic powder
1 tspn cumin seeds, crushed
12 juniper berries
1/2 cup apple juice
spicy brown mustard
a bunch of cherry wood chips, soaking in a bowl of water
1 cup of apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup brown sugar
3 tbsp maple syrup
1/4 tspn cayenne pepper
1 tbsp chile powder
2 tbsp spicy brown mustard

1.  Turn ribs over so the bottom side is facing up.  Starting at the thin end of the rack, scrape the membrane off the bone.  Once it comes off, start pulling at it until you can pull the whole thing off of the ribs in one piece.
2.  Combine brown sugar, chile powder, cayenne pepper, cumin, garlic powder, and oregano in a bowl and stir to combine.
3.  Rub a thin layer of mustard on both sides of the ribs (this will help the rub stick as well as give it a nice crust).
4.  Pour the rub all over the ribs and spread it on into an even layer.  If you have time, cover and refrigerate overnight.  If not, make sure that it sits for at least 2 hours.  Before you put the ribs on, put the apple juice in an aluminum pan that is big enough to hold both racks.  Put the juniper berries in the juice, then put the ribs on top.
5.  Start a charcoal grill about an hour before you are ready to get the ribs cooking.  When coals are lit, push the pile all to one side of the grill.  Be sure that the bottom vents on the grill are open wide.
6.  Once the coals die down to low, put the pan with the ribs on the grill, opposite the side of the coals.  Cover with the lid (vents wide open, holes above the meat).  You should try to maintain the temperature around 250 degrees, though you should be sure it never goes above 300.
7.  During the first hour of cooking, make the mop.
8.  Combine all mop ingredients in a bowl and whisk vigorously until combined.
9.  Cook ribs for 5 hours, adding a handful of wet cherry wood chips and a little more coal to the grill every 30 minutes.  When you add the wood and coal to the fire, brush the ribs all over with the mop.
10.  Be sure to turn the pan 180 degrees every hour or so.
11.  It is tempting, but do not brush the ribs with bbq sauce at any point.

You can make your own bbq sauce too.  I put up a recipe for a fantastic and pretty easy bbq sauce a few months back, so check it out.