Friday, October 26, 2012

A Taste of Italy: Caprese Bean Salad

After our recent encounter with a very expensive bean salad at a restaurant, I found myself with a hankering for a homemade Caprese Bean Salad, at a fraction of the cost.  It’s exactly what it sounds like it should be: a Caprese salad with the addition of green beans.  We first had it at a Chicago Italian restaurant, but I’ve since included the dish in my rotation of simple-but-special salads.  In fact, it’s one of the dishes that my mother has repeatedly asked a “recipe” for—my mother, who never would use a recipe in her Korean cooking!  I hated to deflate her sense of wonder at what she considers exotic, but really the only fairly unique items you need are good balsamic vinegar and expensive fresh mozzarella.

Ingredients (to make 2 main dish salads or 4 side dish salads):

½ lb. trimmed fresh green beans (or haricot verts)
1 ripe tomato
1 ball of fresh buffalo mozzarella
4-5 large leaves fresh basil
4 T extra virgin olive oil
3 T aged balsamic vinegar
1 small clove garlic, minced
Coarsely ground sea salt and black pepper
1 T toasted pine nuts (optional)

Like most Italian dishes, the magic is in first-rate ingredients.  You don’t need to utilize special preparations or sauces or a long list of spices and herbs.  In fact, all you need in terms of seasoning would be good salt and pepper, fresh basil and garlic.  But do make sure that your buffalo mozzarella is soft—even creamy in the center—and that it does not resemble any mozzarella that could be shredded!  You need a ripe tomato that is room temperature, not something that is refrigerated or unripe or mealy.  You get the idea.  Everything should be in top form.


1.  Boil a large pot of water and then add ½ t salt.  Pour in trimmed and cleaned green beans and start the timer immediately.  If using haricot verts, do not cook for more than 2-3 minutes.  With regular green beans, you can cook for 4 minutes.  As soon as the timer goes off, drain the beans and then dump the beans into a large bowl of iced water to stop the cooking process and to crisp.

2.  Cut your ripe tomato into 8 wedges and place in a wide shallow salad bowl.  Tear your fresh basil leaves into irregular pieces over the tomatoes.  (Note: Thomas Keller believes that chopping fresh herbs leaves too much of the flavor on the cutting board.  Sometimes, for aesthetics, I chiffonade herbs.  Sometimes, I tear.  Use your preference.)

3.  Drain your beans and add to the salad bowl.  Then combine minced fresh garlic, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar, and then salt and pepper to taste.  Pour dressing over the beans, tomato, and basil.  Mix gently.  Top with wedges of buffalo mozzarella and toasted pine nuts (if using).  Try not to mix again since you don’t really want to stain your milky mozzarella pieces with the dressing too much.  (Note: At some restaurants, the buffalo mozzarella is an option--an expensive one at that.  At our home we rarely opt not to include the cheese, but the salad is perfectly acceptable without it.)

Serve with a chunk of nice crusty bread to make a light and elegant dinner.  Lately, we have become enamored of two different kinds of bread: a potato scallion boule and a mushroom rosemary roasted garlic baguette.  They make nice companions to this salad, along with a glass of chianti.  

Friday, October 19, 2012

Unique Slices of Chicago Restaurant Scene: Great Lake Pizza and Burt's Pizza

Chicagoans tend to be pizza snobs.  I remember being in California visiting family and turning up my nose when my sister and sister-and-law were debating whether Domino’s or Papa John’s was the better pizza.  I wondered if they could possibly be serious to have such inane choices to consider.

When we lived in Norwood Park, we ordered thin-crust take-out from Phil’s Pizza d’Oro and usually ordered the meat-heavy Sam’s Special (  Even greasy divey Village Inn Pizzeria (in Skokie, has superb pizza compared to the likes of Domino’s and Papa John’s.

For thick crust, we have a weakness for Edwardo’s Natural Pizza (from which we like to order a stuffed pizza, half pesto and half spinach, at, along with a virtual tie for Lou Malnati’s, Gino’s, Pizzeria Uno, Giordano’s and the rest of the usual crowd.  We’ve also tried those places which are “institutions” in downtown Chicago, though we don’t care for those as much as the restaurants listed above.

So, having eaten at most of the other well-known places, we decided—in one week, no less!—to attempt to try out two places widely recognized in recent years as premier pizza destinations, two Chicago restaurants named in Food and Wine Magazine as best pizza places in the U.S.: thin crust at Great Lake Pizza in Andersonville and deep dish at Burt’s Pizza in Morton Grove (of all places…).  Here is our review of both places which can be summed up the same way: good pizzas, slightly traumatic experiences.

Great Lake Pizza
1477 West Balmoral Ave. (in Andersonville), Chicago

They don’t seem to have their own website, so here is a google page that gives Zagat rating information. (

It was hard getting in here.  There are very few tables in this tiny restaurant, so the best bet is to get there when they open at 5pm—really.  After a few tries, we were able to finally finesse the timing such that we got there when there were still two (visible) seats available—at a table we would share with a foursome.  Will was right outside the restaurant, about to park, while I went inside to make sure there was seating available for us before we paid for parking.  Almost immediately I was chastised—twice—to close the door fully.  The first time, I didn’t hear the server because she was at a table and I assumed she was talking to the diners there about something.  Which is the reason why I got a testier second request to please close the door shut.  Then, she told me that there were spaces for the two of us but that they would not seat us until we were both inside.  I made a quick trip right outside to tell Will, and I came back in and closed the door firmly behind me.  Then I groaned with dismay as another couple came in before Will finished paying for parking at the meter.  (When Will stepped in right behind them, I did glare at him out of sheer anxiety of the situation though it wasn’t really his fault, per se.)  Thankfully the other couple was just ordering take-out or I’m not sure what would have happened to our seats.

The food?  Well, the food was excellent, but that almost goes without saying.  Great Lake is one of those places where they tell you which farm they source their goods from.  Nichols Farm for the salad greens?  Or Mick Klug Farm for their green beans?  You get the idea.  Everything is just a little too (?) perfect.  And, everything is just a little too little for the prices they charged.  We also like Nichols and Mick Klug farms and have gotten produce from them from Irv and Shelley’s Fresh Picks or from the Evanston Farmer’s Market.  We can make some great sherry vinaigrette at home, and can toast nuts and breadcrumbs.  So perhaps we shouldn’t have been the couple that ordered the $13 bean salad only to discover that the plate that came out was about the size of a coffee cup saucer.  The 14-inch pizza we got for $27 almost seemed like a bargain in comparison since it was at least covered fully with sliced cremini mushrooms (though it’s not like cremini is one of the more expensive mushrooms…). 

The pizza was very good.  While I wished that perhaps we did also ask for garlic as an additional ingredient, knowing that the move would set us back another $5 dissuaded us from longing for that too much.  In case it doesn’t sound convincing, I should repeat that the pizza was very good.  The crust was nice and chewy, yet with a crispy exterior; the mushroom slices were generously distributed; the black pepper was very much in evidence.  We finished the whole pizza.

Then we got the bill.  1 salad, 1 14-inch pizza, BYO courtesy charges for 2, and tax.  $50.10.  Only cash tip allowed.  All in all, $60.10.  We might order out one of the other pizza choices, but I’m not sure we’ll try too hard to go back otherwise.

Burt’s Pizza
8541 Ferris Ave., Morton Grove, IL

Burt’s also doesn’t have a website, but here’s something better: a short youtube video with Anthony Bourdain visiting the restaurant (

Burt apparently used to make pizza at Pequod’s, also in Morton Grove.  I’ve both ordered out from and eaten in at Pequod’s.  But we hadn’t made it to Burt’s before Anthony Bourdain’s famous review, before their pizza was on the cover of Saveur, before they were impossible to get into on weekends.  Reading helpful Yelp reviews, I understood that we needed to order the pizza a day in advance--yes, a day before showing up.  There might have been suggestions of secret handshakes too, but I stopped reading by then.

So I called.  I talked to someone who later turned out to be Burt.  It being a Thursday, he thought it might even be possible for us to get in at “7, 7:30” as long as we order the pizza in advance.  I called Will to make sure that he could make it home by then and then phoned Burt’s Pizza again.  This time, another man answered.  I had just gotten used to Burt’s idiosyncrasies, and now I was dealing with an unknown factor.  I was right to be concerned.  When I told him that it looks like it will be possible to come in at, quoting Burt, “7, 7:30,” the exasperated retort was the there was a whole half-hour between 7 and 7:30.  He’s right, of course, but I felt like replying that he should take that up with the last guy who answered the phone!  I swallowed my pride—because I knew Will really wanted to try Burt’s—and ordered my pizza (Italian sausage, mushroom, and banana peppers).  We were told to get there exactly at the reserved time and that the pizza will be on the table 15 minutes later.  Yikes!

We made it just in time, me hyperventilating with fear of getting yelled at by yet another temperamental pizza-master.  The restaurant was actually half empty when we arrived, and I apparently got lucky and ended up sitting where Anthony Bourdain sat (there was a plaque identifying this sacred spot), across from a huge poster for the Saveur cover.  The place was dingy and dark and was badly in need of a renovation, but aside from these cosmetic factors, the rest of the experience was actually quite smooth and pleasant.

The deep-dish pizza, when it arrived exactly on time, was beautifully fluffy yet substantial, its edges indeed caramelized black in places with the buttery dough.  The sausage was in large chunks and seemed, well, so real!  Perhaps they could have used smaller pieces of sausage and spread it out more evenly across the whole pizza.  In fact, the only complaint might be that we could have used some more of the cheese and toppings.  But really, I was very impressed with Burt’s pizza.  (As you can see from the leftover slice at the top of this post, the pizza is nicely studded with sausage.)

We had a large salad (though it turned out we could have shared a small one), 1 microbrew bottle of beer, a large deep-dish pizza with 3 toppings (which was so filling that we brought exactly half of it home for leftovers—and which reheated surprisingly well).  That and tax came out to just over $32.  I told Will to leave $40—they are cash only—and not to bother with change.  He asked if I was sure about that.  I replied that I’m just glad it’s not $60. 

When Will handed Burt the money while our server was busy elsewhere, the formerly disgruntled-looking hippie was sweetness itself.  He offered us change without even looking at the bill and seemed surprised and delighted when we said that was not necessary.  He shuffled off happily beaming while we left with our lunch for the next 4 days.  We'll be back to Burt's.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Homestyle Ratatouille, the Way a Busy French Mother Would Make It

Early fall is a great time to make ratatouille.  Not only are lots of ingredients needed for this dish fresh and plentiful during this season, but the weather has also cooled down enough for the cook to endure the tedium of chopping up mounds of vegetables and patiently stirring over a hot stove.  In fact, I just made a large batch of ratatouille and find that there are still more leftover eggplants, tomatoes, and onions.  Maybe time for another batch?  They freeze very well, and it’s nice treat to defrost a serving-size portion of ratatouille during a hectic work week. 

My husband Will and I are fans of Ratatouille the movie, but there is one detail that never sat right with us.  Supposedly, the ratatouille recipe was one which reminded the acid-tongued Scrooge-like food critic of his own childhood and which recalled fond memories of eating his mother’s ratatouille.  Yet the dish presented bore no resemblance to a ratatouille that a busy mother in the countryside would prepare.  The casserole was filled with colorful slices of vegetables of similar sizes and widths very carefully alternating so as to create an aesthetically pleasing array of colors.  What busy mother—anywhere!—would be preparing ratatouille that way?

While the cartoon ratatouille was beautiful, it certainly didn’t seem “homestyle.”  When I think homestyle ratatouille, I picture intensely flavored gobbledygook of vegetables, too thick to be called a stew and too runny to be called a casserole.  In short, I picture the recipe I make from Hay Day Country Market Cookbook (

You gotta love a recipe that starts by suggesting that you pour a cup (yes, a whole cup) of olive oil into a pan.  Thus starts the recipe for one of my go-to fall side dishes.  As always, I use more garlic and herbs than a recipe calls for, and I like the idea of including even more colors (and using whatever you have around).  Thus, my ratatouille might have summer squash along with zucchini and eggplant, parts of orange and yellow peppers as well as red and green ones.  Otherwise, I follow Hay Day's recipe fairly closely and am presenting it here in steps, along with pictures of what each stage might look like.

Step 1 Needs: 1 cup olive oil; 1 large onion sliced; 4-5 garlic cloves minced

Heat olive oil in a heavy saucepan (preferably an enameled cast-iron pan like a Le Creuset), then add onions and garlic and sauté over medium heat for 5-10 minutes.

Step 2 Needs: 2 pounds combination of eggplant and zucchini/summer squash cup into ½ inch cubes; 2 large bell pepper of various colors (red, yellow, orange or green) cut into ½ inch pieces; 1 teaspoon salt

Into the pan, add vegetables and salt and cook down for about 15 minutes until eggplant pieces become translucent (like the picture above) and the rest of the vegetables are softened.

Step 3 Needs: 4 generous cups of fresh or canned chopped tomatoes; 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar; 1½  teaspoon chopped fresh thyme or ½ teaspoon dried thyme; 1/4 teaspoon hot sauce (to taste).

Add the above ingredients and bring to a simmer before reducing the heat to low.  Partially cover and cook over a gentle simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour.  The juice should not be too runny or too dry.

Step 4 Needs: 4 tablespoons fresh basil, chiffonaded; salt and pepper.

Add the fresh basil and then salt and pepper to taste.  Voila!

Hay Day Country Market Cookbook suggests using the ratatouille as topping on bruschetta, over pasta, and as a sauce for grilled fish.  All excellent suggestions. 

I would also suggest something even simpler for a midweek lunch or dinner.  I like to pack the ratatouille in 1-cup quantities and freeze the containers.  Then, in the middle of winter, when paper grading has me scrambling for quick meals, I defrost a container and microwave some frozen nutty pre-cooked brown rice (available at, among other place, Trader Joe’s) and have a super simple and quick but nutritious and yummy meal.


Friday, October 5, 2012

Bake Sale Fundraiser: Time for Brownies, Cookies, and Cupcakes!

Some thoughtful students in our department came to us and suggested that the faculty could host a bake sale.  Apparently, they’d seen students having to go without textbooks for class, some waiting for tuition and book vouchers to come in and some having to choose between purchasing books and paying rent.  On the less needy side, there were graduate students who wanted to attend conferences but could not afford the increasingly exorbitant registration fees.  These are the realities of teaching at a commuter university in the city.  No fancy buildings named after founding millionaires of the university.  No classical columns supporting a student union housing faux Queen Anne furniture resting on massive Persian rugs.  And, sometimes, no books.  But, on the flipside, a tremendously rewarding teaching experience.

Student groups host lots of bake sales, but most faculty members are consumers rather than the suppliers in these transactions.  On Monday, we brought in our baked items to our “Village Square”—a strip of hallway next to our only real coffee stand—and hawked our goods to passing students, faculty, staff, and administrators.  And these passersby were tremendously generous for the large part.  We brought in more than $600 in 6 hours of the bake sale, our optimistic projected schedule of 10am-6pm having to be cut short because we literally ran out of food to sell.  Even the crumbs of burnt and dried out cookies were somehow taken. 

My baking vanity did not suffer any deflation since my two batches of cookies—Dark Chocolate Walnut Chunk (top of the post) and M&M, Oatmeal, Almond Chocolate Chunk Monster cookies (below)—disappeared quickly.  One student claimed that the two monster cookies she ate (she purchased one and then came back for another a few minutes later) were hands-down the best cookies she’d had.  I am not going to discount the possibility that this student, facing a Shakespeare exam the next day, thought it might not hurt to stroke the ego of her professor…  You judge.

The big tip of the day: Do not price your items.

Those same students who asked us to host the bake sale gave their neophyte fundraisers a piece of advice that came in quite handy.  We were told not to price our items and instead operate on a donations basis.  The thinking goes this way: If we price a cookie at 50 cents and a brownie at $1, then most people would just pay the price listed.  But if we ask for a “donation,” many are willing to give extra just to help out (or feel too chintzy giving less than a dollar per item).  A colleague from the History Department pointed to 3 small cookies remaining on a plate, added a tiny piece of brownie, and gave us $10.  A student who didn’t appear particularly flush with cash unobtrusively dropped a ten-dollar bill in the donation jar even though she only took two cookies.  Apparently the idea that English faculty members baked over the weekend and early morning for their students’ books was a major selling point.

Admittedly, I was a bit skeptical about the no-pricing strategy when the first half-hour I was on the scene brought two individuals who each gave a 25 cent donation and proceeded to pile plates full of food.  Perhaps we need to place a limit on the number of items taken per donation?  But, of course, I would be happy if I thought that they were very hungry and needed some food.  One student longingly eyed a piece of cream-cheese brownie but said that he didn’t have any money and started walking away.  The chair of our department called him back and said, “Dude, just take the brownie.”  The student walked away with a brownie in his hand and a smile on his face--which had us smiling the rest of the bake sale.