Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Happy Holidays 2014!

I love end-of-year holidays.  I used to think it was Christmas I enjoyed so much, but I have come to realize that there isn’t anything very institutionally religious in my joy over the end of the year.  Instead it’s the mostly mythical, magical image of “Christmas in Connecticut”—think Currier and Ives prints!—that I look forward to.   I’d always wondered if my interest in Americana has a lot to do with the immigrant’s idealized image of the host country, but that’s for another post.

In the past few months, I flew through reading a series of “cozy” murder mysteries by Canadian author Louise Penny.  The novels are set in a tiny Quebec village near the border of Vermont, and this village has everything I’d ever dreamed of: one bakery, one bistro, one general store, one book store, café au laits, steak frites, Friday potluck candlelit dinners with friendly neighbors, kids playing ice hockey in the winter, adults hiding Easter eggs in the spring.  An awful lot of murders for such a tiny and welcoming village, but that comes with the “cozy” genre…

Anyway, these mysteries offer an escape to a lifestyle that was probably always a fiction, but that fiction is very attractive during the holiday season when you wish good will on everyone and hope that everyone could enjoy their favorite things.  Like pine wreaths, winter flowers, and dessert with loved ones.

Happy Holidays everyone!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Pre-Emptive "Cleanse" for the Holidays

We decided to start the “cleanse” a little earlier this year.  We usually wait until after we return from visiting my family in California, but then we got the January 2015 issue of Bon Appetit and got inspired by the idea of actually eating healthy.  So, we thought: Why wait for two weeks to start something we know is good for us?

We limped through Thanksgiving—though being 3 pounds heavier now than before Thanksgiving doesn’t really sound like we’ve survived that eat-fest—but that was just a sprint.  Now we have an ultra marathon coming.  Friday we have our romantic holiday dinner out (with lots of food).  Sunday, we have our holiday brunch (with lots of food).  Then Christmas Eve we have a long-standing tradition of a dinner out with another couple (with lots of food).  Then Christmas day, Will makes a special breakfast for us (with lots of food).  Then we fly to LA and enjoy/endure seven days of doing NOTHING but eating.  (Yes, lots and lots of food.)  By the time we return to Chicago on New Years day, we're sure to resolve to consume nothing other than water and gruel for two months.

So, for dinner tonight, I thought that maybe some vegetables and grains might be the way to go.  We had a Wild Rice Salad with Pecans and Cranberries (above) we prepared as a side for another dinner, and we parboiled broccolini (below) for a simple room temperature salad with olive oil and lemon juice (or a sherry vinaigrette, if you wish).

Our “main” dish (pictured at the top of post) is one I used to prepare all the time and then completely forgot about.  I don’t even remember anymore, but I think I got the recipe originally from a Moosewood cookbook years ago.  In any case, you slice cleaned portabella mushroom caps into ½ inch thick slices.  Then you whisk together an Asian-fusion style thick dressing of miso, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper, and a bit of water (to make whisking together easier).  I think I’m the one who added minced garlic—it’s the Korean in me, and I cannot help it!—but I really do like the dish with or without the minced garlic.  Brush both sides of the slices with the dressing and then put under the broiler for 3 minutes, turn after 3 minutes and brush on some more dressing, and broil another 3 minutes until it’s slightly browned.

Portabella mushroom is always a nice substitute for meat, and this meal had everything I could ask for.  Think about the flavors: sweet (cranberry), salty (sea salt in the broccolini), spicy (red chili flakes in the broccolini), tart (lemon juice in the broccolini and also in the wild rice salad), and umami (miso in the mushroom dressing).  It also had so many textures: chewy (al dente rice and cranberries), crisp (parboiled broccolini and the toasted pecans), and soft (mushroom).

If we eat like this all the days we are not gorging ourselves, we might just be able to survive the holidays!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Our Most Excellent City Adventure

Last weekend, we took advantage of a more-than fair trade.  During our two summer drives across the country, between Illinois and Colorado, we stayed at a number of Best Westerns since they (and Comfort Inn) often allow pets.  After staying at Alton, Illinois and then Wakeeney, Kansas—neither places that we’re eager to return to any time soon—we found that we had two out of the three required stays at a Best Western to make us eligible for a promotional free night of stay at another Best Western. 

Though we were not at all sure that we would indeed be staying at another Best Western before January 31, 2015 (the end date of the promotion), we decided to reserve a third night at a Best Western on our return trip to Chicago in August.  That landed us in a Council Bluffs, Iowa, Best Western which was the worst of the three stays.  I’m sure upper floors might have been superior, but our first floor room, right next to the noisy ice machine and the busted open door to the outside—and the only place allowed for people with pets—had seen better days.  But, ah well, we stayed the night and duly received the free voucher in an email.

A few weeks ago, I remembered that we needed to use the voucher soon.  I didn’t think they’d allow it, but I wondered if the well-reviewed Chicago River North Best Western would allow us to use the voucher.  Will was excited enough about the idea that he called them up—despite hating to call businesses—and sure enough, we got a reservation.  So, in return for paid stays in Alton, Il, Wakeeney, KS, and Council Bluffs, IA, we got a free stay in River North area of Chicago!

We dropped off Katie with her dog-sitter, took the el down, and walked the 3 blocks to a much nicer (and, yes, much more expensive) Best Western than the ones we stayed at in order to earn the free voucher.  And we had a glorious 22 hours in the city.

We started with a late lunch snack at Xoco (really only two blocks away from our hotel), then we walked down to the Christkindl Market in the Daley Plaza (above).  It was so crowded that we were barely able to get in before we found ourselves desperately attempting to get back out somehow.

Then we walked to State Street to look at Macy’s windows, a holiday tradition with us.  I snagged a picture of the famous clock and the plaque (above) that marked the old Marshall Field flagship store (before it was bought by Macy’s), and generally enjoyed the festivities of being in the city.  We popped into Macy’s for a little bit of warming up and to look at gourmet goodies in the basement floor.

Deciding that we’d like a little more to walk and a hot chocolate at the end of that walk, we made our way over to the Art Institute of Chicago.  Because we have membership at the museum, it’s fairly convenient to stop over there for an hour or two at a time.  We caught a mini-exhibit on Japanese prints of ghosts and demons, but honestly we were really there for the Member Lounge’s free coffee and (for the holiday season) hot chocolate.  We spent a blissful 20 minutes just relaxing and soaking in that refined artsy atmosphere until we saw that large families with children were swarming around the hot chocolate pot.  We decided that we’d better give up our prime lounge chairs to the groups scouting for seating.

As planned, we stopped by the line forming at Frontera Grill on the walk back to the hotel.  After a short wait, they took our name and cellphone number, and told us to come back in 40 minutes for our table.  Perfect!  We went back to this unexpectedly convenient Best Western, changed our clothes, and got back to the restaurant in plenty of time.  Will particularly loved his striped bass dish (below) which had an almond-jalapeno mole sauce and which was also grilled to perfection.  We both thought that the broccoli florets were especially well-flavored with the charcoal grill aroma!

In the morning, we had a delicious breakfast of spicy chicken “tinga” and light and fluffy lemon pancakes with a side of brown sugar cured bacon.  We also loved that coffee from La Colombe which they poured generously at Beatrix, a place we will definitely return to on our next visit to Chicago.

After breakfast, we walked all around the city, along the river, past the Wrigley building, down upscale shopping districts, and back towards our hotel on Ohio St.  Just east of our hotel, we saw that we had been unwittingly just minutes away from Eataly.  We stopped in, savored food porn—bought nothing—and decided that we’ll at least visit the wine bar there on our next visit.

Did we mention that we enjoyed our brief sojourn so much that we’ve vowed to make a habit of overnight stays in the very city we call home but never actually visit?  

Friday, December 5, 2014

Breakfasting at the Bryn Mawr Breakfast Club

Some of our favorite weekend breakfast places: M. Henry, Marmalade, Alexander’s Breakfast and Lunch (click here for review).  A new breakfast and lunch place opened by the guy who helped created menus at these aforementioned favorites: Bryn Mawr Breakfast Club.

Add to these credentials that this place transformed a former dive into a gourmet dining option with quaint and minimalist and comfy decor.  (Look at what the place looks like inside now!)

And add to that minor miracle that this place is in the middle of a stretch of land contested in an eminent domain fight with much bigger political powers.

And you have…?  An amazing place with creative dishes that pay tribute to the surrounding Korean and Latino neighborhoods.  A place with good coffee served in thick ceramic mugs.  A place with sweet and savory dishes that make you wonder why you would want to fight crowds at 8am to go to M. Henry in Andersonville when you can stroll in and be made comfortable on Bryn Mawr and Kimball, a much less hip and congested area.

Apparently, they wanted to make sure that Korean patrons would feel welcome, so they included a dish called “Pajun Pancakes” (at top of post)—savory scallion pancakes with jalapenos and minced kimchi and a soy dipping sauce—with eggs, Brussels sprouts and pork belly (so, that last bit was more like some bacon pieces).  It was a lot of excellent food and a great deal!

Their Chilaquiles (above)—served here with a verdes sauce, but also available with a rojos option—are served with eggs, plaintains, rice and beans, and tortillas.  I love how slightly soft but still crunchy their tortilla chips are when cooked in the sauce, and the dish is a substantial vegetarian offering.

While smallest of the dishes ordered, Will’s “Cinnamon Hotcakes” (below) were really very special.  The apricot glaze was not terribly apricot-y (and I mean that in a good way), and the pancakes were shaped and swirled like a flattened cinnamon roll, but also fluffy at the same time.  The “frosting” was the vanilla mascarpone cream that is ubiquitous in breakfast places these days—and for good reason too!

Now we don’t know where we should have our weekend breakfasts!