Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Chicago travels to Italy

Living in such a large city has given me a chance to experience a lot of interesting things. There is always a new band playing or an exhibit opening, and you can never complain that there's nothing to do. The summer festivals here are outstanding, full of food, music, art, and so many people. And the diversity around the city is amazing. I think if I tried hard enough, I could find food from any country or ethnic group you can imagine!

Some of the food is not quite as foreign, but is still exciting and different from what I am used to eating. Italian food is nothing new to me-- I have two full blooded Italian grandmas, after all. I've always enjoyed Italian food, and I grew up with fantastic variations of homemade sauces and freshly baked biscotti. But I have yet to visit Italy, and I have not experienced many Italian desserts beyond my ever-favorite tiramisu.

This changed about 8 months ago, when I got a job at an office in the Hancock Building on Michigan Avenue. You might wonder how this landmark building has anything to do with Italian cooking. It's not so much what's in the building as it is what's below it. L'Appetito is an Italian deli that is in the basement of the building, and it's sweet and decadent pastries and cookies are the special treat that helps me survive any rough (or regular) day at work.

One of the standouts are their amaretti cookies. I've heard about and seen packaged versions of these before, but they sounded like kind of boring, crunchy, almond flavored cookies... nothing too special. The fresh ones at L'Appetito are another story. Moist, chewy, and bursting with almond flavor. They are hard to resist, and I find myself munching on this Italian sweet at least once a week.

Summer has been busy, and I've found myself less inspired in the kitchen lately. I was explaining this to my coworkers recently while munching on my favorite aforementioned almond cookies, and I realized the answer to my kitchen dilemma was right in front of me; it was time to attempt some amaretti cookies of my own.

I searched online for inspiration, and a couple blogs led me back to the source I should have consulted right from the begining. Cream Puffs in Venice is a blog full of delicious Italian desserts, and of course she had an amaretti recipe that sounded like a perfect foundation for my first attempt. I might try to play around with ingredients more, adding candied orange, pearl sugar, or sliced almonds on top, but overall I was really happy with how the cookies turned out. Chewy, sweet, and very 'almondy'... just as I hoped. If you're in Chicago, be sure to check out L'Appetito, then go home and make your own cookies!

"My Mother's Amaretti" from Cream Puffs in Venice

1-1/2 pounds almonds, finely ground (plus extra whole almonds to garnish cookies)

2 cups granulated sugar (plus 1 cup extra sugar to roll the cookies in)

1-1/2 tbsp. cocoa

4 eggs

3 tbsp. almond extract

  1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Position your oven racks so that one rack is at the bottom of the oven and the other rack is in the middle of the oven; line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
  3. In a large bowl, combine ground almonds, sugar and cocoa.
  4. Add eggs and almond extract and mix until well combined.
  5. Using a tablespoon or your hands, scoop out enough of the almond mixture to form a ball that is roughly 1-1/2 to 2 inches in size.
  6. Roll each ball in the 1 cup of extra granulated sugar and place on cookie sheet.
  7. Use extra whole almonds as garnish by placing one almond in the center of each cookie.
  8. Bake cookies on lower rack for 10 minutes and then move to middle rack for an additional five minutes.
  9. Remove cookies from oven and allow to cool in pan for 5 minutes. Transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.
  10. Once cool, store cookies at room temperature in an airtight container. Cookies will keep for up 10 days.
  11. Enjoy!

If you have a food processor, it's easy to turn these blanched almonds into ground up poweder for the cookies.

This recipe was also a perfect chance to use the Fair Trade Cocoa Powder that my mom gave me for an Easter treat.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The best birthday on record

So today I officially have been alive for a quarter of a century. The last year has been a fantastic one, and I know the upcoming year will only be better. My 25th year has started off well, with a musical and fantastic dinner. The bad news, though, was that I realized as soon as we got to the theater that my camera battery was dead. It was a shame, too, because I was wearing a freaking cute dress and there is no proof of how hot I looked ;)

First, a bit of non-food blogging. After almost a year of talking about it, we finally decided to use my birthday as an excuse to see the musical Wicked. If you're from Chicago (or New York), I'm sure you know all about this incredibly popular show. It's the story of the friendship between Glinda the Good Witch and the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz. I wasn't sure if it could live up to the hype after hearing about it for so long, but I really did end up loving the show. The characters were colorful, the sets were elaborate, and the costumes were so creative and fun. And, obviously, the music was fantastic. Let me just say, those Broadway types have some impressive pipes. Go see it; you will not regret it!

We went to the matinée, because the second part of my birthday gift was a dinner that I did not want to rush through. I've heard about Avec a lot lately, in Chicago magazine, Time Out Chicago, and even when the chef, Koren Grieveson was a judge on an episode of Top Chef this season. It is a Mediterranean-inspired small plates restaurant, and it was like no other restaurant I'd ever experienced.

I'd read online that it reminded some people of a dry sauna, and I could see what they meant. It's narrow and lots of light colored wood, and it's way smaller than I expected. They don't take reservations, but we were there pretty early, so we got in without a wait. It is set up for communal dining, so the long tables are shared by multiple groups or couples. We had a group of girls on one side that kept to themselves, but the two couples on our other side were fun to chat with. It's a setting that I wouldn't always been in the mood for, but we really had fun with the intimate feeling for this night.

More importantly, let's talk about the food. This is where I'm made I didn't have the camera. I might have felt kind of dorky taking pictures of my food throughout the meal, but I think it would have been worth it to document the delicious food we enjoyed. The chorizo stuffed dates wrapped in bacon were spicy and sweet, and seemed to be a popular dish at every table in the place. I love the way the dates are like candy that just melts in your mouth, and the spicy red pepper sauce was a great contrast. We also had chicken sausage with a fingerling potato salad. The salad had snap peas in it, which made it taste light and summery, and the Green Goddess dressing was one of Joe's favorite parts of the meal.

We also had a cheese plate, which is something I always enjoy. I'm a cheese fanatic, and we had the waitress pick three cheese that she thought we'd like. I wish I could tell you what they were, but all I remember was a perfectly balance blue cheese and a creamy soft cheese.

The last thing we had was my favorite--red pepper and tomato braised cod with caperberries, pancetta, and spicy mustard greens. The cod was moist and perfectly cooked, and the combination of salty capers, smoky pancetta, and earthy mustard greens was to die for. I was pretty stuffed at this point, but I still did my best to eat my share.

The best part of the meal might have been the pleasant surprise when we got our bill-- only $80 for the four dishes and four high-quality beers. That meant we would be able to afford another delicious meal at one of my new favorite restaurants, because it was affordable enough we didn't necessarily have to wait for another special occasion.

And just because it's fun to tell, I have to tell you about the two celebrity moments of the night. First, we had the chance to chat with Koren, the chef. She was gracious and funny, and I loved having the chance to tell her how much we enjoyed the whole experience. She seems like a very cool person, and I respect her for being a rocking chef in a field dominated by men. Then, partway through dinner, Ashlie Simpson and Pete Wentz came in to meet some friends for dinner. The star power confirmed the fun and cool-factor of this restaurant, and it was a special (and random) way to end the birthday evening.

So, go to Avec as soon as you can, and I promise you'll not be sorry. You don't even have to wait for an important event, like a landmark birthday. Enjoy!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Spur of the Moment Party Food

I've been pretty uninspired in the kitchen for the last couple weeks, with the start of summer and a lack of planning on my end. Usually, I plan a few menus on Sunday and make a complete list before heading out to do my grocery shopping. The last couple weekends have been busy, though, so I've just ended up stocking up on random stuff when I made it to the grocery store. This provides the sustenance Joe and I need to get through the week, but doesn't give me much to share in my blog. Tonight's meal of chicken w/ BBQ sauce and quinoa with sauteed zucchini was an example of the kind of meal we've been eating lately. Not bad tasting or particularly unappetizing, but also not something I feel the need to share with all my foodie friends out there on the web.

Last weekend I did pull out a few tricks, though, when we had some friends over for a housewarming party. Leave it to me in my uninspired state to leave all the planning, shopping, and cooking until the day of the party, but that's just how things have been going lately! I fell back on a couple sure-fire recipes, and also tried a couple new recipes that caught my attention. It was a crazy day of prep, but the party ended up being a great time. The sangria got everyone in partying spirits, and it turned into a great celebration with the awesome friends we've made here in Chicago.

The recipe I need to share with you is one I got from my mom. It is a perfect summery salad that works really well in a party situation. It's simple, and since you serve it at room temperature you can fix it and forget it while you're preping other parts of the meal. I promise, you will make your guests happy if you serve this side next time you have friends over for dinner. Sorry about the horrible picture... hard to remember to use the camera when you're busy with hosting duties :)

Green Bean and Feta Salad

1 1/2 lbs green beans
1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled
1/2 cup red onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup toasted walnuts

1 Tbsp lemon juice
1 Tbsp white wine vinegar
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1/4 tsp dried basil
1/4 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1/3 cup olive oil

1.) Plunge the beans into a pot of boiling water. Cook until tender crisp- about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare a large bowl of ice water. Drain the beans and plunge into ice water until cold. Drain beans and pat dry with paper towels.

2.) Whisk together ingredients from lemon juice through olive oil, making a vinaigrette.

3.) Place beans on a platter and drizzle with vinaigrette. Top with red onion, feta, and walnuts. Serve at room temperature.

And since it was a housewarming party, I guess you might want to see a picture or two of our new condo!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Fresh Produce Improv

After last week's farmers market visit, I had some beautiful produce laying around the kitchen, calling out for me to use it. The tomatoes I bought were perfectly ripe and a gorgeous red color, and I knew I couldn't resist the two-toned asparagus for long. I had also picked up some Mediterrian Seasoned Feta cheese at Trader Joe's, and I knew it's flavors would pair perfectly with these vegetables. My first inspiration came from Proud Italian Cook's Roasted Tomato and Ricotta Tart. Her blog is full of delicious looking Italian treats, and I knew that this Tomato tart would be the foundation of my own Tomato and Asparagus Tart.

A visit to our nearby grocery store, however, changed my plans. I try to avoid the regular grocery store near our house, going instead to the fantastic Mexican grocery store that is a short 2 blocks from my condo. This store has great values on beautiful produce, and has a pretty solid assortment of regular groceries as well. They don't carry everything a regular grocery store has, though, and I ended up in front of a cooler full of phyllo dough, but no puff pastry to be found! So I went to plan B-- Tomato and Asparagus Tart with Phyllo crust.

This was an adventure, since I have never used phyllo dough before. I found some tips on Bridget's blog, and just decided to see how things turned out. My phyllo didn't fall apart too much, and I was liberal with melted butter as I put the layers together. I roasted the tomatoes and asparagus separately before putting the tart together, so the cooking time was not too long. The tart did end up a bit soggy on the bottom, but the combination of flavors was enough to keep me happy. It felt like a summery dish, and would be great to make again as an appetizer when we have company over.

I roasted the tomatoes with olive oil, salt and pepper, and herbes de provence.

The asparagus were roasted with oil, garlic, and salt and pepper.

Not going to lie to you, it's getting late and Blogger keeps posting this picture sideways. So that is just how it's meant to be. Once the veggies are roasted, here's what you do.

Put a layer of phyllo dough on a baking sheet, and brush with melted butter. Place another sheet on top, smooth out, and brush with butter. Repeat until you have 5 phyllo sheets stacked up. As you're using the phyllo, keep a wet dish towel covering what you're not using, to keep it from drying out.

When the layers are in place, spread the feta cheese on top, leaving a 1 inch edge around the outside. Top the feta with the roasted vegetables. Fold over the layers of phyllo, and brush the edges with more melted butter. Bake at 375 degrees for about 20 to 25 minutes.

I was too excited to eat to take any successful post-baking pictures, but in the picture at the beginning of this post you can see the tart in the bottom corner. It was so good, and now that I've tried using phlyo I'm excited to see what else I can do with it!

Monday, June 9, 2008

Foraging in Lincoln Park

Saturday I finally had a chance to visit the Chicago Green City Market, something I have been wanting to do for months. I was excited when I first found out they do the markets on Saturdays, because I work a typical 9-5 job during the week and have to save my foodie excursions for evenings and weekends.

I should warn you that I had high hopes going into this market, because I've had a lot of market experience on my travels in Europe. I did not get to explore any of the markets in Chicago last summer, so Saturday was my first experience around the area. While it was not a bad market at all, I was expecting a lot more out of a city this size. The fact that is was in a grassy park struck me as odd-- I picture markets to be in a square or on a blocked off street. This may be a silly thing to criticize for, but it just didn't fit with my vision of what a market is like. I also had not considered that the local crop is not that exciting so early in the season, so there was not a ton of selection. At the same time, this is also something that's cool about this market-- everything there is local, organic, and sustanible. It was interesting to check out what the various vendors had available, and I do think I'll head back to the market in the next month or so, to see how things develop as the season progresses.

Here is a sampling of what I bought this weekend, to give you an idea of what was availiable.

I bought some beautiful tomatoes on the vine, and had to eat some for lunch when I got home. I made the sandwich with organic sourdough from a bakery out of Evanston.

I love asparagus, so when I saw purple ones I knew I had to try them. Their color faded when I roasted them, but they still tasted great.

I got some fingerling potatoes that had a rich, buttery taste when roasted, and some fresh lettuce that made a beautiful salad dressed simply with a vinagrette. I was most excited about the free range chickens I bought, because Joe and I have been talking about trying to buy more naturally farmed meat. It's from TJ's Free Range Chicken in Piper City, Illinois. They're required to sell it frozen at the market, so I haven't tasted it yet, but I can't wait to see if I taste any difference. I may have given up on Omnivore's Dilemma because it felt too much like a textbook, but I still am motivated to move away from processed and corporate farmed food as much as possible. If I like this chicken, I might have an excuse to visit this market more often!

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Cookbook Challenge: Mushroom Ragu

I am behind schedule in my cookbook challenge. For the month of May I was cooking from Giada's Everyday Italian, and now it's getting close to mid-June and I'm just now posting my last recipe. Things got busy somewhere in there! I think for the month of June I'm going to take a break, since we're already a week into the month. I will still be cooking though, maybe even from cookbooks... we'll see what happens! Come July, though, I'm going to go back to focusing on one cookbook for the month. This challenge to myself has been great so far-- I'm doing a much better job of utilizing the collection of cookbooks that was previously collecting dust on the shelf.

I have to admit I tweaked the mushroom ragu recipe just a little, because I had a couple extra ingredients on hand that I didn't want going to waste. I decided to research a little bit online, and it turns out the vegetarian feature of this dish makes it a fake ragu, since traditional ragu involves slow cooked meat. So I decided if it wasn't too authentic in the first place, that was all the more reason to add onto it to make it my own. The recipe below is Giada's original version, and in red I've added my changes. It was a substantial, satisfying dish, which really hit the spot. I served it over quick and easy baked polenta, with sauteed asparagus and salad on the side. We didn't miss the meat at all, which is the sign of a good vegetarian dish from my meat-eating point of view. I don't see myself making this again incredibly soon, but come fall and winter it will be a dish that shows up on our table on a more frequent basis.

Everyday Italian Review-- I was really happy with my choice of cooking more out of this cookbook. Overall, the recipes are simple, fresh, and great tasting. I would like to challenge myself to cook more complicated dishes, but for a busy weekday night, these are the kinds of recipes I'm looking for. I appreciate that the ingredients are easy to find, and that there are no really intensive methods involved. This cookbook has been one that has really helped me gain confidence in the kitchen, and I'm sure it will remain a go-to source even as I move on to more challenging recipes.

Mushroom Ragu
- from Everyday Italian

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, min
1 pound mixed mushrooms (cremini, oyster, shiitake-- I used portabella, cremini, and shiitake) chopped
2 Tbsp chopped fresh sage leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup Marsala
1/2 cup tomato paste
2 cups chicken broth
1/3 cup heavy cream
5 fresh basil leaves, chopped (I omitted)
1/4 cup flat-leaf Italian parsley, chopped
1/2 to 3/4 cup grated Parmesan

In a large skillet heat the oil. When almost smoking, add the onions and garlic over medium-low heat until the onions have wilted, about 8 minutes. Add the mushrooms and season with salt and pepper. Raise heat to high and saute until mushrooms are tender and all the liquid has evaporated. Stir in the fresh sage when the liquid is about halfway reduced.

Remove pan from heat and pour in Marsala. Return pan to stove and allow wine to evaporate, about 3 minutes. Add chicken broth and tomato paste (stirring well) and simmer for 1/2 hour until the sauce has reduced by half. Add heavy cream and mix well. Take the pan off the heat and add the fresh herbs and Parmesan and mix thoroughly.

Baked Polenta
- from Everyday Italian by Giada de Laurentiis

Vegetable oil, for greasing pan
1 (16-ounce) package instant polenta
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Sea Salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Grease an 11 by 17-inch baking sheet pan with oil. Line pan with waxed paper. The oil will secure the waxed paper onto the pan.

In a large pot bring to a boil 2 quarts of salted water. Stir in extra-virgin olive oil. When water has reached a boil, reduce heat to medium high and slowly add the polenta, whisking constantly for 3 minutes. When polenta is thick and smooth, pour it into the prepared pan. Spread the polenta evenly.

Bake in oven for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool in pan. Note: the polenta will not brown or change in color. When cool enough to handle, cut into any shape you desire.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Chicken Tikki Masala

Usually when I make a new dish, I at least have an idea what to expect for the taste. This dish was an exception to that rule. I have seen pictures of the dish and read about it in other people's blog posts, but I really did not know what I was getting myself into. If I were a contestant on Top Chef, it would be risky to make such an unfamiliar dish, but in my kitchen that's how things go.
The recipe I used was a Cook's Illustrated version, so I was pretty confident that I was creating a dish we would be satisfied with. The result was so flavorful, and matched with roasted cauliflower and pita bread it made for an excellent Sunday night dinner. I loved the way the sweet spices mixed with the hot pepper, creating a flavor that was very exotic compared to our usual meals. I'm keeping the "cook Indian food" on my to-cook list, but I will say this was a great place to start. The sauce is really tasty, and would be great over rice or cous cous if you want something to soak it all up.

Thanks to Annie and her blog, Undercover Cook, for the great recipe!

Chicken Tikka Masala
Adapted from Cook's Illustrated, courtesy of Undercover Cook

Serves 6 to 8

Chicken Marinade
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon table salt
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts , trimmed of fat and cut into 3/4" cubes
1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt (I used non-fat)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 medium garlic cloves, pressed through a garlic press
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

Masala Sauce
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium onion , diced fine (about 1 1/4 cups)
2 medium garlic cloves, pressed through a garlic press
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
1 fresh serrano chile , ribs and seeds removed, flesh minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon garam masala (I couldn't find this at the store, so I subbed 2 teaspoons ground coriander, 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon, and 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper )
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes (I used diced, and Joe said he really liked it with some chunks of tomato)
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon table salt
2/3 cup heavy cream (I used fat-free half and half)
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves

1. FOR THE CHICKEN: Combine cumin, coriander, cayenne, and salt in small bowl. Sprinkle both sides of chicken with spice mixture, pressing gently so mixture adheres. Place chicken on plate, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 to 60 minutes. In large bowl, whisk together yogurt, oil, garlic, and ginger; set aside.

2. FOR THE SAUCE: Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion and cook, stirring frequently, until light golden, 8 to 10 minutes. Add garlic, ginger, chile, tomato paste, and garam masala; cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add crushed tomatoes, sugar, and salt; bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in cream and return to simmer. Remove pan from heat and cover to keep warm.

3. While sauce simmers, adjust oven rack to upper-middle position (about 6 inches from heating element) and heat broiler. Cover chicken well with yogurt mixture and arrange on wire rack set in foil-lined rimmed baking sheet or broiler pan. Broil chicken until tender and exterior is lightly charred in spots, 10 to 18 minutes.

4. Let chicken rest 5 minutes, then stir into warm sauce (do not cook chicken in sauce). Adjust seasoning with salt, add in cilantro if desired, and serve with basmati rice.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Summer Tart

Today I found myself thinking about my previous travels in Europe. Specifically, I was thinking about the bakeries. I'm not sure what got me started, but I couldn't stop thinking about the beautiful pastries that call out to me when I'm traveling overseas. The urge was pretty strong, so I decided I might as well try to make a special dessert to go with our dinner tonight.

Whether you're in a large city or a tiny village, there are certain treats that seem to be in every bakery window. The fruit tarts always look the best to me, with the shiny, colorful fruit covering the delicious custard and flaky crust. I really don't do much baking, but the ambitious baker hidden within me decided I needed to make one of these tarts to enjoy at home.

Making the crust wasn't too bad, but it did end up drier than I expected. I did the best I could to make it stick together, but rolling it out just wasn't happening. I ended up lifting the tart crust into tart pan, and just using my fingers to push it to the edges of the pan. I also didn't read the directions closely enough, so my larger tart pan meant the crust did not go up the sides of the pan as expected. Still, the crust came out of the oven looking as expected, and I moved on to the next step.

The pastry cream (like a custard) was pretty easy to put together. I used vanilla extract instead of a vanilla bean, because I'm too cheap to buy real vanilla beans. I know, a good cook should use vanilla beans, but I'm trying to keep my grocery budget under control. The custard was thick and tasted unbelievably decadent, and at this point I knew the end result would be a good one.

The last step was putting it all together, and this is where you creative types could get all fancy. I'm not the most artistically inclined person, so concentric circles was my stab at pastry art. Slightly crooked, but I was still pretty proud of myself :) The final product was one of the best looking creations I've ever made, and I had a hard time cutting the first slice. One taste, though, and I was ready to eat the whole thing! Tonight's tart was just a random treat for Joe and I, but I have a feeling this dessert will show up again at an upcoming dinner party. I can't keep this pretty treat just for us!

To keep this from being too long a post, I'll just tell you the recipe is from Joy of Baking online. The full recipe can be found here.