Friday, August 30, 2013

An Everyday Dish Everyone Needs to Know How to Make: Vanilla-Cinnamon Raisin Challah French Toast

A new acquaintance I made was mortified when a compliment she attempted to make came out sounding the wrong way.  After I had served some bruschetta and guacamole, she declared that I knew “how to make things that everyone is supposed to know how to make.”  Being newly introduced to each other, she was afraid that the comment might appear to damn me with faint praise—that I might interpret her remark to mean that I am not a special cook, just an assembler of items that everyone knows how to make.

Of course I realized exactly what she meant.  At the time, we were both much younger and—obviously—less experienced in the kitchen than we are now.  She was simply pointing out that people who got started on cooking by using recipes find themselves flailing when they discover that there are not recipes for simple dishes—like bruschetta and guacamole—that everyone is supposed to know how to make (but don’t always).

French toast is a dish that falls in this category of too-simple-to-require-a-recipe.  But, for really nice French toast, it’s not a bad idea to have some reminder of basic principles.  In addition to plain French toast, two other kinds I like making are Mascarpone-stuffed Brioche French Toast (for another post, after Will bakes me some more brioche bread) and Raisin Challah French Toast.


4 extra-thick slices of Raisin Challah bread (we like day old Breadsmith bread)
1 large or extra-large egg
1/3 cup half-and-half
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
pinch ground (Saigon) cinnamon
tiniest pinch of fine sea salt

1 teaspoon butter for the pan, and more for serving
Pure Maple Syrup (warmed up)

1.  Beat egg and half-and-half together, then add vanilla, cinnamon, and sea salt.  Mix well.  Let sit for at least 5 minutes for flavors to meld.

2.  In a shallow wide pan (preferably a square flat pan), melt the teaspoon of butter over medium heat.

3.  Beat egg mixture right before adding bread.  One at a time, dunk each slice in the egg mixture and turn to coat.  Some people like to soak the bread longer (and you might need to if the bread is older than day-old), but I like to be quick about the dunking process and let the custard soak in later in the process.  Just dunk and flip and then place in one corner of prepared pan.  Repeat with remaining slices.

4.  After you have placed your final slice in the pan, wait another coupe of minutes.  If the toast is not browning more quickly, you might raise the heat to medium-high (depending on your stove).  Not flipping the bread too soon allows the egg mixture to soak in and let the toast get its custardy center.  Once the bottom is browned to your liking, turn each piece (in order they went in the pan).

5.  When both sides are browned to your liking, remove from heat.  Serve with warmed maple syrup (microwaved for 10-15 seconds) and more butter.  Bacon is always a nice complement to breakfast food that includes maple syrup (like French Toast and Pancakes).

Friday, August 23, 2013

Best Little Tapas Bar in Santiago

Will and I walked for many many days this summer on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain.  For most of those many many days—33 days on the trail, only one of them a resting day during torrential downpours—many of our dinners consisted of the same menu del dia.  Insalata mixta was invariably topped with canned tuna and that was more often than not followed by breaded fried pork or breaded fried merluzzo (fish). 

I’ve only recently discovered that merluzzo is whiting fish, a “fish of the poor.”  That makes perfect sense now since the menu del dia was almost always ONLY consumed by those of us pilgrims walking the camino, eating out every meal for over a month.  We could hardly get very extravagant with each meal, so it seems fitting that we were eating the fish of the poor—at every dinner.

By the time Will and I arrived at Santiago, which was a veritable metropolis compared to towns of 30 or 50 we were sleeping in some nights, we were ready to eat something different—anything different.  We asked a tour guide what Santiago restaurant she would recommend, and we went straight on to a tapas bar she named: A Taberna do Bispo.

We’d walked past it before and wondered about it.  The gleaming bar full of all sorts of delicacies sounded a siren call to our poor (recently) impoverished gourmand senses.  We ignored the warning that the bill can easily add up quite quickly (it did!), and we ordered probably some of the tastiest foods we had in all of our 5 weeks in Spain.

I’m not going to hold you in suspense very long.  Probably our favorite items were the pimientos de padron, a deceptively simple preparation of small green Spanish peppers blistered in a pan and served with sea salt.  Yum.

We also enjoyed brie cheese (on a stick) rolled in almonds and then deep fried, with a sweet and tangy sauce drizzled over a piece of baguette.  They also served the same sauce with bacon wrapped around a date stuffed with cheese and then breaded and fried.  Yes, we went for a lot of fried foods in Spain.

Including these shrimp—gambas.

And these baby sardines.

In another post, I will talk about some of the best Spanish foods we had during our walk itself, but it’s not dishonest to say that this tapas bar served some of our favorite foods!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Alexander's Breakfast and Lunch: A Review

Will and I love to cook a special weekend breakfast at home, but we also love to have special weekend brunches out!  We’re very brunch-y people, you might say.  One reason why we enjoy going out for brunches has to do with the fact that being at a restaurant allows us to order one savory plate and one sweet item and share both.  (Not so easy to do at home or with lunches and dinners, at least not for entrées…)

Skokie—a suburb close to Chicago for those not familiar with the area—has a new breakfast and lunch place (hence the name of the restaurant) which rivals some of our favorite brunch places.  Keep in mind that we are familiar with and are long-time patrons at some of Chicago’s finest brunch places: Lula, M. Henry (and M. Henrietta), Sola, Yolk, Over Easy, Bongo Room, Big Jones, Ann Sather, Walker Brothers, Tre Kronor, Milk and Honey Café, etc.  I hope this brief list gives us some “street creds” and lends us an air of subject-matter expertise.

So, Alexander’s (on 5025 Oakton St in Skokie) had plenty of competition when it came to what they needed to measure up to.  It met most of these challenges—we are so thankful to say—and we are happy to announce that it’s our new to-go brunch place. 

Is Alexander’s better than M. Henry or Lula?  No, probably not.  (Though it definitely seems to channel M. Henry.)  But it’s much easier to 1) get to and 2) park and 3) get a table at on a weekend at 9:45am.  It gets full on a weekend by 10:00am, but that’s much easier to handle than getting to M. Henry at 8:30am only to discover that it’s an hour long wait. 

Another point in its favor is that it’s cheaper than some of these other places.  We had 3 straight weekends of brunches at Alexander’s, so we thought we’d better go back to one of our old stand-bys.  We were slightly dismayed when the same order (one savory, one sweet, and two cups of coffee) at Big Jones amounted to $37.35 (with tip).  The same amount of food at Alexander’s for the previous three weekends came to $25 (again, with tip).  We like Big Jones and their complimentary beignets—and the fact that its New Orleans influences make it a bit different from some of the others listed above—but we don’t need to pay 50% more for the privilege.

Yet one more point that I need to mention is the institution that Alexander’s replaced.  For decades, the very popular (and cheap) “Pat’s Place” was in the space now occupied by our new favorite brunch place.  Some Yelp reviewers are upset, it seems, that Alexander’s is not Pat’s (in terms of prices, mostly).  Let me just say that perhaps more people are ecstatic that it’s not Pat’s.

Alexander’s serves a decent cup of coffee—perhaps not as good as what we enjoy at M. Henry or Big Jones, but good solid diner coffee.  But it’s really the food that makes it special.  They offer a variety of sweets: Lemon Meringue French Toast with Strawberry Coulis (pictured at top) and Peach and Sour Cherry Pancakes with Granola topping (pictured below) are just two examples.

Equally yummy are the savory offerings.  I first fell in love with the Chile Relleno with Chicken Chorizo and Scrambled Eggs, rice, and sautéed plantains (served with warm corn tortillas).  I was pleasantly surprised by the “kicky” sauce, and I enjoyed the combination of flavors.

Will has tried both “skillets” and gives thumbs up for both.  The pictured skillet here has lightly charred skirt steak slices, creamy and crusty-fried polenta, two perfectly cooked-to-order eggs (we asked for “over medium”), roasted potatoes, slathered with gorgonzola and topped with fresh pico de gallo.

We are working our way through the entire breakfast menu, and then will hit the lunches.  I’ve already had Mahi Fish tacos with a side order of Portuguese soup.  More to come!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Eating Cheaply in Paris: Yes, It's Possible!

When my older sister first went to Paris a couple of decades ago, she came back with horrifying stories of how expensive it was to eat in what is now one of my favorite cities.  She talked of eating gas station pizza slices—even while her husband was on a business trip and could afford to expense a part of their meal!  Extravagantly expensive—and not very good—Chinese food was something she found difficult to stomach (in all senses), especially since she lived in Los Angeles, a haven for cheap and excellent Asian food.

Since Will went through Paris as a college student eating mostly bread and water, with the occasional splurge for cheese, we were prepared for how expensive the city would be even on our first trip there together.  In June, on our latest visit to Paris, we had the added unfair comparison of having come straight from walking in rural Spain.  After 5 weeks on the Camino, we could depend on a cup of café con leche to cost us the fairly narrow range from 90 cents to 1.30 euro.

Then, we flew to Paris.  While we waited to check into our short-term rental apartment—better deal than hotels—we walked down to the nearest café.  Talk about sticker shock!  A cup of café crème was 4.40.  Will settled on beer instead for the same price.  When we were staying in the more expensive Rue Cler area years ago, we had coffee out at least once every day.  During this our most recent two-week stay in the north Marais neighborhood—a trendy and hip but not necessarily the most expensive Paris district!—we ended up ordering coffee only twice more.  Once for 3.80 and once for 5.20 (yes, euros!, yes, per small cup!).

So, yes, we realize Paris is very expensive.  But we also found ways to circumvent this beautiful city’s attempt to bankrupt us.  Enter city markets!  We were staying half a block away from the oldest food market in Paris, Le Marché des Enfants Rouges.  (The market first started in 1615, and in case you’re wondering why the market is named after “red children,” it’s got something to do with area orphanages historically dressing kids in red.)  Its proximity was great, and we did enjoy the lamb tagine with almonds and prunes, but the market was still quite expensive.  Think about a very bustling and upscale Whole Foods, except make it three times more expensive because it’s in Paris.  As you can see by the picture above, everything is beautifully presented and in a pristine and picture-perfect “French market” setting—perhaps because it really is…

Later in our trip, we took the metro over to the area near the Eiffel Tower and went to the twice-weekly HUGE market there.  So much stuff, so many different stands just lined up on both sides for blocks!  Possibly because there were so many vendors, prices were cheaper as well.  We bought a dressy blouse for me, some t-shirts for family members, fruits, vegetables, cheeses, breads, meats, desserts!

Then, and this is the best part, you bring all that stuff back to your place—hopefully one that has a table and chairs and cutlery—and spread it out and feast to your heart’s content.  What a great way to spend a Sunday in Paris!