Pure joy happening on my tastebuds

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Kevin and I went away for a long weekend vacation recently. We made the 7 hour drive up to Mackinac Island, Michigan for a lovely stay in the Grand Hotel. Much fun was had biking around the island, playing tennis, a little bocci ball, lounging by the pool, long walks in the garden, and dressing up in coats, ties and dresses for dinner. The old hotel has a long-standing dress code in effect after 6pm. It made getting ready for dinner an event and it was so lovely. We had some very delicious meals there but nothing to write home about. It wasn’t until we left the island and stopped in Traverse City for the night on our drive back home that I ate, quite possibly, the best fish dish in the entire world. Entire. World.

I had done a little research before we set out on our weekend getaway as to the best places to eat in Traverse City, Michigan. Kevin’s boss had a stack of the latest issues of Northern Michigan’s Magazine Traverse for reference. The magazine listed Apache Trout Grill as the best place to get brunch, best outdoor dining, and best whitefish. After checking out the reviews on TripAdvisor I was convinced this was the place we needed to go. We arrived to a full parking lot (we had to park across the street in overflow) which was a good sign to begin with. We were told the wait was an hour twenty to an hour thirty but with a cocktail bar out on the back deck by the bay we were welcome to grab a drink while we waited. What else were we going to do? Cocktails on the deck it was! We were lucky enough to grab a table right at the water’s edge and took in a spectacular view of the bay with boats bobbing and waves lapping. With an Old Fashioned in our hands, a cool breeze in the air, and the warm sun on our backs we had the most pleasant time waiting for a table ever. The picture above was taken as we waited.

When it was finally time to go inside to eat I was almost disappointed! However, we were seated in the main dining room in which the walls of windows were opened and it was like eating on a patio. Since I had read that the whitefish was the best in northern Michigan I decided that’s what I would get. I chose the pecan crusted whitefish. It was a fresh Lake Superior filet deep fried and served with Michigan cherry amaretto sauce. When my dish arrived my eyes popped from my head. The filet was larger than the plate! It gently draped over both ends and sat there in all of it’s crunchy fried goodness. The cherry sauce crowned the filet as it slowly melted down the sides of the pecan crust. To say that the meat was delicate, fresh and flavorful isn’t hitting the tip of what this dish had to offer. The fish was almost silky and the pecans added the most exquisite crunch. When I added a forkful of the cherry sauce to a bite I broke out into an audible laugh at the pure joy happening on my tastebuds. I had never tasted anything so perfectly simple and delicious in all my life. Honest to goodness, I can’t even remember what I ordered as a side dish. I know I ate it but I couldn’t tell you what it was for $100. That dinner was all about the fish. It was everything.

And I ate the whole damn thing, draping sides and all. I couldn’t get enough. I would make the 5 hour drive up there to eat it again. It was that good. I never thought a piece of fish would be on my top 3 list of the best things I have ever eaten. Fish! Who knew? Perhaps it was the unexpectedness of it or the fact that I was in a beautiful setting with the man I love or a combination of the two that made this dinner so wonderful. All I can say is, if you’re ever lucky enough to find yourself in Traverse City, Michigan get your butt over to the Apache Trout Grill and order yourself the whitefish. You won’t regret it.

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Food moments of the moment

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Once again, I dared to try my hand at preparing one of my favorite restaurant dishes. And once again, it’s a dish from Eataly’s Verdure. This time around I was attempting to make their decadent Farrotto con Piselli which is farro cooked in the style of risotto with peas. I can gladly say that the dish came out tasting fantastic and pretty darn close to the original! I’ve said it before, I am head over heels in love with the texture and taste of farro. The ridiculously awesome chewiness is a texture that works great in salads and soups and just completely shines as a star in dishes like the risotto. This recipe might be vegetarian but it isn’t exactly “healthy”. There are very generous amounts of butter and cheese melted into the creamy mixture. But you know what? Sometimes you just need to indulge and enjoy every bite on your plate. I did add bright, nutritious peas and served it alongside a salad made with roasted butternut squash and shallots, toasted pumpkin seeds and an apple cider vinaigrette. As long as your indulgence is balanced out I don’t see anything wrong with it.

This whole try-to-recreate-restaurant-dishes-at-home have become my food moments of the moment. I’ve started with really easy ones so it’s not that impressive. It helps when the menu lists ingredients (and sometimes cooking techniques). I knew this dish was cooked risotto style and included peas and pecorino. I happened to have Parmesan on hand so I used that instead. I also knew that they must have used vegetable stock versus chicken stock because Verdure is the vegetarian restaurant of Eataly. I also knew they used lots of butter to finish off the dish because you REALLY taste it and it’s divine. They always have some variation of this dish on their menu. Back in the fall, the risotto was made using a butternut squash puree. Yum. I feel like the combinations for this dish are absolutely endless. Below is my recipe for Farrotto con Piselli inspired by Verdure.

Serves 2 as a main dish or 4 as a side dish

1 cup pre-soaked farro (follow package directions)

4 cups vegetable stock

½ yellow onion, diced

1 garlic clove, minced

2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

½ cup frozen peas

1-2 Tablespoons unsalted butter

½ cup grated Parmesan or Pecorino cheese, plus extra for finishing the dish

salt

black pepper

Heat the vegetable stock in a saucepan over low heat and keep the stock warm.

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and sautee until soft. Add the garlic, and stir for one minute. Add in the farro and stir for about one minute to get the grains covered in oil and toast a bit. Add in a couple of ladles of the stock and continuously stir the farro until the stock has almost all been absorbed. Continue adding one ladleful at a time, stirring and letting it absorb in between until the farro is cooked through and a thick, creamy sauce has formed, about 30 minutes. In the last 5 minutes of cooking, add the frozen peas and keep stirring. Off the heat, add in 1-2 Tablespoons of unsalted butter and ½ cup of the grated cheese, stirring until the butter has melted. Serve with extra cheese if you so wish.

Favorite salad of all time

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Today’s food moment was something of an experiment. Some of my friends out there will know that I’m a little bit smitten by the Verdure menu at Chicago’s Eataly. Verdure is the vegetarian restaurant inside Eataly and I can’t get enough of it. The first time I ate there we had chosen it because all of the other restaurants had a line for a table. Verdure was wide open and almost always is. I can’t understand it. Actually, I can. The other restaurants are the pasta place, the pizza place, the fish place, and the meat place. I wish more people could understand that vegetables can rock your socks off when prepared in a healthy and delicious way. I always order at least two different dishes to share with whoever I’m with. However, I can’t keep myself from ordering their Scarola alla Griglia every single time. And why shouldn’t I? It’s delicious! Grilled lettuces and balsamic vinegar. Winning combination.

Time to plan dinner at my house. I realize I have pine nuts and a container of dried currants I used to make a granola. What else is served with pine nuts and currants? Scarola alla Griglia! Only my favorite salad of all time! I decided to make this happen. How hard could it be? Since I’ve eaten this dish at Eataly so many times I didn’t even need to look at the restaurant’s menu for a reminder of the ingredients; romaine lettuce, radicchio, Belgian endive ( I think…why not?), pine nuts, dried currants, balsamic vinegar, and parmesan cheese. Preparation? Drizzle some olive oil on the greens, sprinkle with a little salt and pepper, grill. Done. Sprinkle over the pine nuts and currants and drizzle over some balsamic vinegar. I purposefully omitted the cheese only because after our 14 day detox diet I’m really trying to stick with the guidelines as much as possible in our everyday eating. The salad was still great without it.

What does the Scarola alla Griglia taste like? Grilling the lettuce gives it a smoky, charred crust that contrasts beautifully with the usual crispness of the lettuce. Be sure not to grill them too long. You don’t want a wilty mess of lettuce. The romaine keeps its delicate flavor while the bitterness of the radicchio and endive is bathed in the tangy sweetness of the balsamic vinegar. The creamy, nutty bite of the pine nuts and the chewy, fruity currants put this salad over the edge. It’s that good. Also, I chopped up my lettuce after grilling them. At Verdure they are served more intact and while it looks beautiful it can be a pain to cut into. It seems my experiment was successful. A salad is a good start at attempting to remake restaurant dishes at home. I’m going to need to think about my next recreation attempt…

A balanced and pleasurable life

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Yesterday was Bastille Day and while there is not a drop of French blood that runs though my veins (as far as I know) I couldn’t let the holiday go by unnoticed. I am a self-proclaimed Francophile, after all. I’m not sure how the French celebrate this historic day in their country. I would hope it’s a little more respectful than how the majority of Americans celebrate our Independence Day. This year, Kevin and I headed down to the beach in Chicago to meet up with some friends before having a BBQ later in the afternoon. We arrived at the most popular of the lakeshore beaches and were shocked at the amount of people gathered there. Just as we were searching for a place to settle a voice came over the sound system and said, “Happy 4th of July North Avenue Beach!” People starting cheering and raising their Solo cups high into the air. Then the National Anthem started playing and not a soul took notice. Everybody went back to partying and cooking out while the American flag waved like a lonely forgotten banner up above the restaurant/bar on the boardwalk. I’m pretty sure I was the only one who stopped what they were doing and took the few moments to honor our flag and the brave people who fought for our independence. I hope I’m wrong in thinking I was the only one but I didn’t notice anybody else. It made me ashamed of my fellow Americans gathered on the beach to celebrate our day of independence.

I’ve never lived in France but I respect the history and the battle for French independence. Aaaaand it’s always good to have an excuse to have a dinner party. My girlfriends and I were planning on meeting for dinner anyway and since Kevin was out of town on business I suggesting having dinner at my house. What was on the menu? French food, of course! I consulted the recipes of Bon Appetit and put together the menu for the evening. When I came across the recipe for Roast Provencal Chicken I knew that would be our main dish. Last year, my best friend Jenny went to France with her husband and his family. She brought me back a jar full of fragrant herbes de Provence and I knew this was the perfect opportunity to use some of it. The chicken came out so moist and flavorful! Since potatoes go so well with roast chicken there wasn’t a question as to what one of our side dishes would be. This was my second attempt at making this Crispy Potato Cake with Garlic and Parsley. I don’t know what the heck I’m doing wrong but both attempts have not turned out the way this cake is supposed to. It never ever sticks together and I have ended up simply piling the potato slices together after turning them out of the baking dish. It just completely falls apart. C’est la vie. It still comes out tasking pretty yummy but it is definitely not a crispy cake. To me, leeks are such a quintessential French vegetable. Maybe it’s because I first became aware of their potential after reading French Women Don’t Get Fat. I love that book, by the way, and suggest it to both men and women alike. Forget that the word “women” is in the title. It really is a lifestyle book for anybody wishing to create for themselves a balanced and pleasurable life. Go read it if you already haven’t. Anyway, I made the quick and easy Leeks in Vinaigrette to add to the meal. I could have made a trip to my favorite local bakery to get a loaf of French bread but I wanted to make something a bit more special instead. I decided to try my hand at Classic Gougeres. I had never made this before and followed the Bon Appetit recipe to a tee. Somehow the batter DID NOT turn out the way it was supposed to. I used the electric mixer like they suggested and everything. Not wanting to give up on them I  made up my mind to consult the queen of French cuisine. I went to the shelf and took down my copy of Juila Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Her recipe was slightly different (more butter, less flour) and it instructed me to use a wooden spoon and my elbow grease to get the batter to the desired texture. By God, Julia was right. The dough came out perfect and the cheese puffs were delicious. Last but not least, was a rustic Raspberry-Hazelnut Galette for dessert. This dessert was perfect and came out exactly as it should have. What a desirable way to end the meal.

Sitting at the table decorated with a simple vase of fresh French lavender and set with my grandma’s china and silver we popped open a bottle of Cotes du Rhone and toasted to the long-gone spirits of the Revolution and the incredible stand they took for a better life. My girlfriends are the best and totally indulged me with this excuse for a dinner party. Hmm, perhaps I should consider cooking in honor of other countries throughout the year…

One of life’s simple pleasures

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Several reasons I haven’t posted in a month…I was in a play, Kevin and I were knee deep in a 14 day detox diet, and I went to visit grandma in Oklahoma. The last of which brings me to this very special food moment. As some of you know, my precious Grandma Betty’s health has been declining for some time now. She was put on hospice care back in December and they didn’t think she’d make it another three months. Well it’s 7 months later and she’s still kickin’. It’s a wonderful thing to still have her here but sometimes she looks like she’s in so much pain and so tired of dealing with her illness. One of the things that breaks my heart the most is her reliance on a permanent feeding tube. Grandma was so prone to aspirating when she ate that it was immediately leading to pneumonia. Not good for a woman so frail with COPD. So the doctors decided on inserting a feeding tube. She’s had it for nearly a year now. When you’re immobile, can’t use your hands, can’t lead a normal life, the one thing you hope to keep is your ability to eat. It really is one of life’s simple pleasures. We always told grandma when she felt like she didn’t want to fight anymore we would let her eat whatever she wanted. In the past few weeks she’s been periodically asking for small bites of this and that. So I decided that when I went to visit her next I would cook for her her most favorite meal I used to make. She LOVES this dish and I was so excited to make it for her.

It’s a recipe for Sour Cream Chicken that she had in her Beta Sigma Phi Millennium Cookbook. It’s simple, naughty, and totally delicious. No wonder she loves it so much! The chicken is basically a vehicle for the sauce. You hardly even notice the meat. Haha. The sauce is rich, tangy, creamy, and the French fried onions provide a mouth-watering salty crunch. She also goes crazy for mashed potatoes. Not the rustic smashed potatoes with the skin and chunky bits of potato throughout. No, she craves the smooth, whipped kind laced with lots of butter and cream. The kind of mashed potatoes that grace every Thanksgiving and Christmas table. The kind of mashed potatoes that melt in your mouth, the kind that sets your healthy diet back two whole weeks. Delicious! The peas I made more for show. Grandma could have cared less about the peas. But I feel guilty if I don’t serve greens with a meal.

After I had plated the food, I wheeled her up to the kitchen table, set both of our meals before us, and said a special blessing for this wonderful moment. I think I was more excited to see her reaction to the food then she was to actually eat it. The moment I put the first fork full of chicken in her mouth she closed her eyes and slowly worked the much- desired meal before carefully swallowing it. She was so happy and my heart was so full. We continued to enjoy our meal together and she ate nearly the entire thing! I was floored at how much she ate after not having had a real home cooked meal in so long. This will definitely be a food moment that I will remember for the rest of my life. I don’t know if I’ll have the opportunity to ever cook for her again. You never know what life has in store. This was just a simple, no fuss meal that I made for my grandma. It sounds cheesy, but don’t take a single meal with family or friends for granted.

Sour Cream Chicken

4-6 thin boneless skinless chicken breasts
1 envelop ranch dressing mix
1 (10oz) can cream of mushroom soup
1 cup sour cream
1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
1 (3oz) can French-fried onions
Place the chicken breasts in a single layer in a shallow baking dish. Sprinkle with the dry ranch dressing mix. Combine the soup and sour cream in a bowl and mix well. Spread over the chicken. Layer the cheese and onions over the soup layer. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until chicken is cooked through.
Recipe courtesy of Sharon C. Johnson of Grandbury, Texas

Something out of nothing

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Do you ever have those nights when you have no idea what the heck you’re going to make for dinner? That was me yesterday. When I lived alone it wasn’t such a problem not having a dinner plan. Whenever that happened I usually had a bowl of cereal or perhaps some scrambled eggs and toast. But now I have Kevin to feed, as well. He’s a strong man who comes home from his strenuous Crossfit workouts after work and is in need of a good, hearty dinner to replenish the nutrients his body needs. I don’t think a bowl of cereal would cut it for him. I had made a terrific dinner for us the night before of lentil salad and roasted cauliflower and chickpeas but, as I’ve learned in the last few months, leftovers are basically a thing of the past. Kevin’s appetite is twice the size of mine and there is rarely any leftover food for the next day’s meal. Since we’re having guests stay with us this weekend and I have a glorious meal plan in the works I’m trying to save every dollar I can in order to purchase the food. So last night I did what a lot of us end up doing. I opened the pantry and the fridge and tried to figure out what I could scrap together for a decent dinner.

This is what I found. I had 1/4 of a box of Arborio rice left, a half empty box of vegetable stock in the fridge along with a small block of Parmesan, and a bag of frozen peas in the freezer. Risotto it would be. I also had half of a container of hummus, a bag of raw broccoli, one red bell pepper, and a few cherry tomatoes. Crudites, anyone? Perhaps I’d add in a slice of avocado toast. It it also from Gwyneth Paltrow’s It’s All Good cookbook and we’re obsessed with it. To round out the meal and give us a little extra protein and deliciousness I would fry up some eggs and serve it over the rice. Didn’t sound half bad, eh? It was delicious and the only thing that took up any time at all was the risotto. But then again, there is something wonderfully relaxing about making risotto. The almost mindless process of adding a ladle full of stock to the pan and stirring, stirring, stirring is somewhat meditative.

When it’s warm outside there is such pleasure in eating dinner on the patio and biting into the crisp snap of a red bell pepper covered in a smear of spicy, velvety hummus. Save the warm pita slices for winter when we need the cushion only bread can provide. Give me a platter of fresh veggies as a substitute anytime. The risotto was just creamy enough but topped with the egg it was out of this world. Since I didn’t add a finishing touch of butter to the risotto the runny yolk added a luscious golden sauce that didn’t make me miss the butter one bit. And we can’t forget the avocado toast. It’s as simple as running a thin layer of Veganaise over a toasted piece of low-glycemic bread, topping it with meaty chunks of vibrant avocado, and sprinkling on a bit of coarse salt and fiery flakes of crushed red pepper. Delicious!

I’m not a trained chef, I’m not even a gourmet home chef, but I’ve been cooking long enough to know that sometimes you have to use your imagination and past experiences to make something out of nothing. If cooking at home is seen more as a challenge to you than it should be, trust me, just keep doing it and eventually you will have done it long enough to know what’s what. Recipes won’t seem as daunting and you’ll start coming up with substitutions based on personal preference all on your own. Then you’ll be creating wonderful food moments from almost nothing at all.

Semi-acceptable stand-in

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I hail from the great Southwest Texas city of El Paso. That dear city might not be known for much but it is famous for it’s incredible food. Being situated right at the border of Mexico and New Mexico, the cuisine of El Paso is like no other. It’s the perfect combination of the best Tex Mex, chile-centric New Mexican, and classic Mexican food. I look forward to the trips home not just to see friends and family but to EAT! But when I can’t be out in the west Texas town of El Paso  I have my trusty Seasoned with Sun cookbook from the Junior League of El Paso. First published in 1974, Seasoned with Sun has found its way into almost every kitchen in El Paso…and at least one kitchen in Chicago! The introduction to the cookbook says the collected recipes “represent a rich heritage, indeed. Some have the spice of Indian life, often with a Spanish accent. Others have the flavor of the Old West. But all are American classics.” When I’m feeling a little nostalgic for the home cooked comfort food of El Paso I turn to the pages of this cookbook. I own a copy of the original 1974 print but there have been many reprints and recipe updates since then. Bringing a little bit of the Southwest into my Chicago home is always a special food moment for me.

The little gem I made here is so comforting and a semi-acceptable stand-in for the real chile rellenos I love so much. But who is going to turn down the opportunity to dig into a chile relleno casserole made with browned lean ground beef, sharp Cheddar cheese and juicy chunks of New Mexican green chile? Not this gal.

If you want to get your hands on this classic cookbook it can be purchased here.

 

Chile Relleno Casserole

Serves 8

1 lb lean ground beef

½ c chopped onion

½ t salt

¼ t pepper

2 4-oz cans diced green chiles

1 ½ c grated sharp Cheddar cheese

1 ½ c milk

¼ c flour

4 beaten eggs

Dash Tabasco

½ t salt

¼ t pepper

Preheat oven to 350. In skillet, brown beef and onion in a little oil; drain off excess fat. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place half the chiles in a casserole dish, sprinkle with cheese. Add meat mixture and another layer of chiles. Combine remaining ingredients and beat until smooth. Pour over meat mixture and bake until knife comes out clean (45-50 min). Cool 5 minutes and cut into 6-8 squares.