Thursday, September 25, 2014

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Crispy Prosciutto

We have friends who like their Brussels sprouts served very plainly.  One likes them steamed, and then accented only with a splash of white vinegar.  Another likes them with lemon juice.  While I appreciate their purist styles, I like my Brussels sprouts a bit more dressed up.  Cooked with more fat.  Cooked with more flavor…

Luckily for us, similarly dressed up Brussels sprouts are ubiquitous at countless Chicago area restaurants.  We enjoy them fried crisp with a basil dipping sauce like the way Prairie Grass Café serves them.  At Big Jones, they are julienned and then caramelized with onions and pecans.  At home, we often stir fry them lightly in butter with shallots and just a touch of sugar—and topped with toasted nuts (whatever we have around).  Or, a warm Brussels sprouts slaw made with cream and parmesan and a touch of garlic is another favorite way we like to prepare our sprouts.

This past weekend, we opted for the other method we like to employ: slow roasting.  This is a simple recipe only slightly modified from the way Ruth Reichl suggested in Garlic and Sapphires.  

Since we had just been to our local Farmer’s Market that morning, we were able to get the freshest possible produce.  If you have that opportunity, from your local grocery store or farmer’s market, get a fresh whole Brussels sprouts stalk and remove individual sprouts from the stalk.  

Trim to remove dirty or damaged outside leaves, and then cut in half the larger sprouts and leave whole the smaller ones.  Larger sprouts to be cut in half are on the left side of the picture above, the smaller sprouts to be left whole on the right side.  (Or, as Ruth Reichl suggests, use about 1-1 ½ pounds of Brussels sprouts.)

Place the cut and whole sprouts into a casserole pan or a jelly roll pan (half sheet pan with about 1 inch sides) and drizzle with 2-3 tablespoons Extra Virgin olive oil and then stir to coat sprouts.  Then salt and pepper before placing into a 400 degree preheated oven.

After about 15 minutes, take the pan out and then throw on top 4-6 julienned slices of thin prosciutto.  Place back in the pan and cook another 5 minutes, then stir, and put back into the hot oven for another 5-10 minutes for a total of about 25-30 minutes. 

You can decide how brown and caramelized you like your sprouts, but we like them about the way they look in the top picture.   Hard to believe that people used to dread the idea of eating Brussels sprouts!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Roasting a Whole Chicken On the Grill

We eat meat less and less these days.  When we do break our mostly vegetarian diets, it’s usually for pork or beef.  For some reason, chicken doesn’t really do much for us—especially chicken breasts—except when it comes to our poultry weaknesses: fried chicken or whole roast chicken.

While we don’t often fry chicken at home because of the resulting mess we’d need to clean up, we more frequently turn to roasting a whole chicken.  There’s something that screams “quintessential Sunday dinner” about a roast chicken dinner, and we’re not immune to such charms.

Luckily for us, over a decade ago we evolved the perfect way for us to cook our whole chicken: on the grill.  We cannot credit any one recipe or chef for our recipe since we cobbled together elements of Taunton’s Fine Cooking, Steven Raichlen’s How to Grill, and tips from Martha Stewart, Ina Garten, Ruth Reichl, and other less famous figures.  I think we can safely say that this is our recipe now.

Step 1: Buy a good chicken

Get yourself a free-range organic (and/or kosher) whole roasting chicken, not larger than 3 ½ lbs.

We’ve seen plenty of documentaries and heard horror stories about what goes on in chicken “farms” and processing facilities.  Moreover, we were one day terrified to discover that a cheaper whole chicken we got from a grocery store was deformed (I’ll spare you the details).  That has put an end to purchasing cheaper cuts of meat.  We’re now firmly in the camp of those who save money by eating cheaply as vegetarians and then splurging on occasional forays into eating only quality cuts of meat.

Step 2: Prep the chicken

At least a few hours before you want to eat your dinner (at least 4 hours ahead but as much as 24 hours earlier), rinse your chicken inside and out, remove visible chunks of fat, and then pat dry with paper towels.

Mix together 1 teaspoon chopped thyme (save the sprigs), 1 teaspoon kosher salt, ¼ teaspoon freshly grated black pepper.  Peel 5 cloves of garlic and then thinly slice three of the cloves.  Halve a lemon.  (Note that it’s perfectly fine to use lemon halves/parts which have been grated or juiced for other purposes.  They’ll serve fine.  My cooking motto: Don’t be too fussy about cooking.)

Carefully pull away skin from the chicken at the breasts and at the drumstick areas such that you can stick your fingers inside both areas and slip in garlic slices.  In the picture below, you should just be able to spot slivers of garlic in the breasts and drumsticks areas.  (You can skip this step if you wish, but including this extra step will produce much more flavorful chicken.)

Then rub a little of the salt mixture inside the chicken, and then rub it also outside the whole of the chicken.  Then, into the cavity of the chicken place the thyme sprigs, remaining cloves garlic, and lemon halves.  Then put the chicken in the refrigerator until 30 minutes before you want to start cooking.

Step 3: Roast the chicken

Take the chicken out of the fridge and let it come closer to room temperature.  Depending on your grill, you might want to start the gas 5-15 minutes before you want to start cooking.  Have the gas on M-O-M (Medium-Off-Medium) if you have 3 bars of heat.  (If you only have 2 bars, then use Off for the inside setting and Medium for the side closer to the opening.) 

When it’s almost time to put the bird on the grill, melt 1 tablespoon butter and then brush the butter on the chicken.  You don't have to bother "trussing" the chicken.  Place the chicken (breast-side up) in the middle of the grill (or wherever the Off portion of the heat is), close the lid, and cook with indirect heat for about 1 hour.  Make sure that the temperature inside the grill hovers around 350 degrees and that you are monitoring the grill for flare-ups. 

Unless there are serious flare-ups, you should be able to leave the chicken in its place for the hour.  You can baste with more butter, but we hardly ever do that.  After about 45 minutes, check the temperature just to make sure that it’s not too cold.  If so, you might need to adjust the heat.  (Play around with this to make sure that you figure out a good process for your grill.) 

Once the chicken reaches 180 degrees of internal temperature, it’s cooked.  The bird should be nicely brown, with crispy skin.  Take the chicken off the grill, let it rest for 5-10 minutes, and then enjoy!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

XOCO Wicker Park: A Review with Views

As I have mentioned before, I absolutely adore churros con chocolate.  (Click here for a related post.)  I’m also a fan of Rick Bayless’s restaurants, cookbooks, and salsas.  So, when Rick Bayless opened XOCO a few years ago, I expressed a fervent desire to go there.  However, we kept on hearing about how difficult it was to get in—even if you were lucky enough to find parking.  It always seemed like we couldn’t go there on a Saturday (and impossible to go to downtown Chicago on a weekday), but XOCO was not open on a Sunday.  So we never did make it down there.

Then, lo and behold, we were excited to hear that XOCO would open up in Wicker Park.  Much more convenient a location for us!  And when it finally opened late this summer, we saw that they had Sunday brunch hours—along with a much larger space that would seat more people.  Our enthusiasm abated a bit when we read Yelp reviews grousing about small portions, expensive prices, and—gasp!—untasty food.  We weren’t inexperienced with unreasonable complaints about portions and prices, but we found ourselves a bit dismayed and surprised at criticisms of Rick Bayless’s food.

This past weekend, we decided that we’d risk disappointment.  We made our way down to 1471 N. Milwaukee and found ourselves directly opposite the Bongo Room.  When we saw people waiting outside the Bongo Room, we expected the worst and prepared ourselves for a wait at XOCO.  However, the place was HUGE!  We were shown a table too close to a drafty door, and then promptly moved to a nicer table when we asked for a change. 

Lots of waitstaff, and all very friendly.  In fact, three people felt the need to usher us to the new table, and they insisted that we not lift a finger when we said we could grab our menus!  Then two of the three returned in the next few minutes—separately—to ask if we were warmer.  A different person then filled our water glasses, and then yet another came to refill them and take away the half-full water carafe so that we could get a new one.  We were starting to wonder whether they were actually OVER-staffed since everyone was so eager to do something…anything!

Though I wished, after-the-fact, that we had considered trying one of the caldos (which apparently are served after 11), we enjoyed the food we did order.  Will was especially delighted with my zucchini-egg-poblano torta (pictured above).  I agree that the zucchini and poblano were nicely roasted, but I almost think that he was reacting more to the size of the dish.  At $7.50, my torta was much more substantial than his $10 Pork Belly Chilaquiles (pictured at the top of post).  Will’s dish might have been the tastier of the two, on its own, without consideration of price.  But, having biked that morning, Will needed something more filling.  On the whole, the combination worked out well.  (Click here for a pdf of the Wicker Park menu.)

I know we should be too worldly to complain about things like this, but I do wish I could get at least one refill of coffee.  We’ve traveled much and know that bottomless cups of coffee are a U.S. phenomenon.  I would never expect “free” refills of coffee in Paris or Vienna or Florence—or, for that matter, in Starbucks.  But, when I go to a sit-down restaurant in the U.S. paying $10 for a small breakfast entrée, I think it is not an unreasonable expectation to get 2 cups of drip coffee.  So when you do order, I would suggest the Americano.  At $1.75, you could get two cups for $3.50.  Since Will’s Americano was much hotter than my café con leche ($3) or the two sizes of café presses, that would be the path I will take next time.

Will there be a next time?  I think so.  We were planning on ordering churros after our meal anyway—to cap our experience—but in any case we ended up NEEDING the churros to augment our portions.  We ordered 3 churros for $4 (much better deal than 1 per $1.60), along with a “shot of chocolate” (for $1.25).  The churros could actually use less sugar, but the dough was nicely fried.  And Will was very satisfied with his shot of cinnamon-y dark chocolate.  Not as good as we had in Astorga, Spain, but Wicker Park is a bit closer…

The coda to this brunch though was that we decided to take advantage of the 20 extra minutes we had for our parking space by walking down to Stan’s Donuts.  There, we got possibly the best Boston Cream Donut one could have (with vanilla beans in the custard!)—and a dark roast Intelligentsia coffee…large.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Quick Weeknight No Fuss "Risotto" Dinner

I love making risotto the old fashioned add broth-stir-add broth-stir-add broth-stir way.  (Click here for a link to a previous post on making wild mushroom truffled risotto using the traditional method.)  If I have all the time in the world, or when cooking for guests, I would cook risotto no other way.  But, (now that school is back in session!) during the workweek, I do cheat on a risotto-like rice dish from a recipe I got out of Food & Wine Quick from Scratch One-Dish Meals Cookbook.

The beautiful thing about “Rice with Mozzarella, Prosciutto, and Peas” is that you can do all of your prep work WHILE the water comes to a boil and the rice cooks.  Then, all you do is add the rest of the ingredients.  Presto!

Here’s a link to the recipe online, or you can also follow these steps (all credit goes to Food & Wine!):

·      Bring a pot of water to boil.  While that is happening, get together 1½ cup of risotto rice (Arborio, Carnaroli, whatever you have around for risotto) and take out to defrost ½ cup of frozen peas.

·      Once water comes to boil, throw some salt in it (and watch it go poof!), and then the risotto rice and put the timer on for 15 minutes.

·      While rice is cooking, prep the rest of the items: In one bowl, grate ½ cup of Parmegiano-Reggiano or Pecorino-Romano, add 3 tablespoons butter, 3-4 tablespoons chopped parsley, and ½ teaspoon salt.

·      On your cutting board, cut into strips 3-4 ounces of prosciutto (to taste) and grate or chop up a large ball of buffalo mozzarella or burrata (about 5-6 ounces) or 3 small burratas (2 ounces each).  (Note: We used the burrata for our last recipe and enjoyed the way the extra bit of creaminess helped make the dish more risotto-like in consistency.)

·      Once your 15-minute timer goes off, dump in the now-almost defrosted frozen peas and let the mixture just come back to boil.  Then drain everything and the put the peas and rice back in the same pot and place over a very low heat.

Stir in everything from the bowl and the cutting boards, let cheese melt and prosciutto slices separate, and then dinner is ready.  Enjoy all that cheese-gooey goodness!