Monday, December 26, 2011
I have written about both of my adventures in creating bacon. I just finished my most recent foray. In this case, I made pancetta. Known also as Italian bacon, pancetta is also made from pork belly but there are some significant differences. It starts with a salt cure like American bacon but the skin is removed before the cure is started instead of at the end. It is cured with salt for a week like American bacon but whereas bacon is essentially finished after a week, either being slow cooked or smoked, Pancetta is then rolled up, tied, and hung to dry for several weeks. The cure does have a lot of salt but the recipe that I had also included garlic, bay, coriander, sage, and juniper berries. While it did lose some liquid in the refrigerator like the bacon, it didn't lose as much. I assume that was by design so it wouldn't be completely dry before it was hung up. It did look really good in any case. The rolling and tying was a job. It took about an hour and then I had to tie it up. That was also a job. I tied it under my sink and let it hang for two weeks. The ideal conditions for drying meat is about 60°F and about 60% Relative Humidity. I keep my place relatively cool when I am not home or sleeping but it's more than 60°F. I did keep it in the dark and kept a pan of water near it to try to maintain some humidity. I did check it every few days and saw that it did stay firm without getting hard. There was a little mold along one edge but from what I had read, as long as it was white (it was) and the meat looked fine (it did) you could just wipe it off. As you would cook the meat anyway it would be fine. After cleaning it off, I bagged it and put it in the refrigerator. I was planning on saving it until I came to my family's house later in the week but someone asked me how it was so I had to try it. The meat is more firm than bacon and it had a stronger flavor but it is really good. Now comes the fun of trying to find recipes in which to use it. While I could use it just like bacon, I have an idea that there are a world of other possibilities.
Monday, December 19, 2011
One of the first things I think of when I think of bar food is a good hamburger. I have been to O'Shaughnessy's Public House several times and they do the Irish Pub thing pretty well. They have a good beer list and as a good pub does, they have a pretty good menu of bar food with an English and Irish bent. At various times, I have had the Irish Breakfast (2 Eggs, bangers (sausage), rashers (bacon), grilled tomatoes, potatoes, baked beans, and black and white pudding), a really good roast beef sandwich, Shepherd's Pie, and Irish Curry and Fish and Chips. I have always been happy with the food that I have gotten. I was there on Saturday and while I knew that all of this stuff was good, I really wanted a burger. They have a burger on the menu called the Triple Bypass Burger that sounds absolutely decadent. In addition to the usual lettuce, tomato, and onion, it had applewood smoked bacon, cheddar cheese and was topped with an over easy egg. It also came with a side of fries. I got the burger and it looked pretty good and the egg exploded over my hand but that was the height of excitement for the burger. It was filling but as far as taste was concerned, it was positively boring. I like applewood smoked bacon but for whatever reason it went without notice. I was really wishing after I had the burger that I had ordered the curry.
While I like the vibe of O'Shaughnessy's, the staff is friendly and the bar looks nice with a lot of wood and a fireplace in the back room, I know now when I come back to stick with the standards and not to bother with the burgers.
Sunday, December 18, 2011
While Chicago has a wide variety of ethnic restaurants, most people wouldn't even think to put Chicago and Cuban food in the same sentence. There are however many pretty good Cuban restaurants in Chicago. Most are sandwich shops, but there are a few that go a little higher end i.e. appetizer, entree, dessert. I went to Cafe 28 on Friday which is a Cuban Restaurant in the guise of a Neighborhood Restaurant. Located in Ravenswood, it is kind of out of the area where most Cuban Restaurants are located: Logan Square, Humboldt Park, and Hermosa but there is nothing that says that a given ethnic restaurant should stay in a certain community and may actually play to it's advantage by being able to stand out from the other restaurants in the area. Cafe 28 is actually a pretty large space divided into a bar and 3 dining rooms, 2 of which also had bars. The dining room that I was in had track lighting and several large square pillars. Three of the walls were antique bricks with pictures of rustic and very colorful doors and windows. The floor was hardwood and the wall serving as a dividing wall between another dining room had a spiral design on it. Looking at the menu, I saw that I could have gone a number of different ways but I decided to stick with what I think of as fairly standard Cuban dishes. Before I start with the actual dinner though, I have to talk about the bread plate. It really didn't look like much but it was something special. The bread was a nice dense country-style bread that was nice and crusty. The butter that was served with it was whipped so it was very easy to spread. I tasted it and got a nice sweetness. I thought possibly that it had a little honey added. My first thought was that it was nice but not especially special but as I ate the bread, I started to get a burn. There was cayenne pepper in the butter. It was a nice spicy start.
My dinner started with a hot appetizer (they also had cold appetizers which I didn't try), Papas Rellenas. It was fried jalapeño mashed potatoes filled with grilled chicken, pico de gallo and cheese and served with a saffron cream sauce. It was cut in half and split and served with arugula. It was very hot when it was served to me so I had to eat it slowly but it was very good. There was a range of flavors all in one bite. It was salty, creamy, cheesy, and spicy; all of which went with the chicken and potatoes.My entree was a Cuban standard, Ropa Vieja. It literally means old clothes but obviously, that's not what it is. It is a flank steak that is cooked in a garlic tomato and bell pepper sauce until it falls apart. The shredded beef kind of looks like the old clothes where it gets it's name. It was served with black beans, white rice, and sweet plantains. It was good but really not anything spectacular. I did try to combine the flavors somewhat by taking bites of different things together, but it might have worked better if I had actually combined them on my plate. As it was, I left the different ingredients separate.
Generally, I have found that it can be fairly easy to pass up dessert at a Hispanic restaurant. There is generally some sweet stuff but other than flan, there really isn't anything special. I will look most of the time though to see if anything struck my eye. This time, the Tres Leches Cake sounded good so that's what I ordered. Tres Leches literally means three milks which are what are used in this cake. A sponge cake is soaked with evaporated milk, condensed milk, and heavy cream. As one might guess, the cake is sweet and kind of heavy and was topped with whipped cream, a couple of mint leaves and a strawberry. It was very good although it did make my bike ride home of about 5 miles a little uncomfortable.
Overall, I liked the look of the restaurant and the service while not exceptionally attentive, was nice enough. While the ropa vieja and the tres leches cake were good, the papas rellenas and the bread were something special. The restaurant was good but not great but I would go again if someone wanted to go there.
Monday, December 12, 2011
My coworkers and I have traditions about where we go for lunch in certain times of the year. In February we go to a Mexican Restaurant, Paradise Pup in the summer time, and in December we go to Kuhn's Delicatessan. Located in a strip mall in the suburbs, it looks like an ethnic grocery in the front with a deli counter in the center, containing all manner of German sausages and meats and coolers on the side walls containing lots of German beer. While some of this stuff does look pretty good, we come here for lunch for good German food that has already been prepared and that's on the cafe in the back. The place is kind of small and could seat about 40 or 50 people. It doesn't look like much but we don't come for the aesthetics but for the food. They serve several hot sandwiches including a really good reuben but when we come, I usually go with the schnitzel which you can get in veal, chicken, or pork, or the goulash. Served with spaetzle or german fries and rahm sauce, if you eat one, you probably won't need to eat dinner. I decided when we came last week that I wanted something a little different and went with the schweinhaxen which was served with potatoes and sauerkraut and horseradish on the side. I didn't know what schweinhaxen was when I ordered it except that it came from a pig (schwein) so I had to ask. It was a braised, bone-in pork shoulder with the joint. It came with the skin on which was nice and crispy and the meat was very tender. It was also so big that it served me for several lunches.
While the food here is very good, it is a good thing that we don't eat here regularly otherwise I would just roll home. I enjoy Kuhn's and we could probably come more often than once a year but I do enjoy our December trips.
Sunday, December 11, 2011
While I had been to Rick Bayless' newest place in Chicago, the Mexican street food restaurant Xoco, earlier this year, it had been a very long time since I had been to Frontera Grill. I owed a friend, whose favorite cuisine is Mexican, a dinner out and it was close to her birthday so it gave me an excuse to go there. Frontera Grill specializes in seasonal, Mexican based cuisine primarily using the produce of local farmers. While it does have a lot of the standards, they are very definitely upscaled. While it is possible to make reservations here, the vast majority of seating is by walkup. Unfortunately, because of this, if you want to get a table on any given night, you will need to get there early and expect to wait. First seating for dinner starts at 5 pm and we arrived at 4:30 pm to see about 40 people in front of us. The host came by while we were waiting to get our names and told us that there was one table left for the first seating and we should come up to the host's station to get a beeper at about 5:30 pm and expect seating around 5:45 or 5:50 pm. While the doors open at 5 pm, they use staggered seating so the kitchen and wait staff aren't overwhelmed which would happen if they attempted to seat everyone at once. We were able to enter when the door opened and wait by the bar until we could be seated though so we weren't freezing for over an hour. The restaurant is divided into a dining area and the bar area with a few tables which is where we were when we were seated. There is also a second dining area for Chef Bayless' fine dining restaurant, Topolobampo which is located at the same address but it isn't obvious. The restaurant has a lot of avant garde Mexican art hanging like a couple of very colorful dragon sculptures and a very strange crocodile man in addition to a lot of pottery and textiles. The color scheme is in bright colors and the music is in Spanish. We were seated and while we were able to figure out what we wanted to drink pretty quickly, it took some time to figure out what we were going to eat. We finally decided on a couple of appetizers between the three of us, the Taquitos de Pollo Alhumado which were taquitos filled with smoked chicken, poblanos, and black beans, and served vertically with guacamole on the side and topped with house-made sour cream, anejo cheese, salsa verde, and jicama. It looked nice (even if it was a little dark to take a good picture) and tasted better. It was salty, sour, and a little spicy, with a nice crunch to the tortillas.
Our other appetizer was the Queso Fundido de Hongos. Queso Fundido at its most basic, is melted cheese (which is what queso fundido means). It is normally served with tortillas as an appetizer and has a variety of add ins. Ours included Otter Creek organic cheddar melted with beer-braised mushrooms (wild & woodland), ham hocks, epazote, and habanero chile. It was warm, salty, gooey, slightly funky, and the habaneros added a nice bite to it.
Knowing that I would get a little bit of a hard time for it, I ordered the duck for the entree. While it is my favorite meat, I also wanted to compare the duck served at Frontera to the duck served at one sixtyblue. While both ducks came from local farms,they were both the same breed and both were served medium rare, the dishes were very different. While the one sixtyblue duck used a lot of apple and root vegetables, the Frontera duck was served with mole. To be specific, it was called Pato en Mole de Calabaza and contained Red chile-rubbed Gunthorp duck breast cooked medium rare, pumpkin mole with ancho chile and spices, Spaghetti squash that I actually thought was fideo, grilled onions, brussels sprouts, and toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds). The meat was tender and savory, the mole was a little spicy and had the pronounced unsweetened chocolate flavor that mole is supposed to have but there was the underlying flavor of pumpkin. The spaghetti squash was both served fried as a garnish to top it off and underneath like fideo (a thin Mexican pasta that is frequently used in soups and served with sauces. Spaghetti squash does have a squash flavor but as it was in the mole that incorporated pumpkin, that flavor was masked. It was a good dish but it would have been a good dish if they had used something other than duck.With the size of the dishes that I had been served, I really didn't need the dessert, but after seeing the dessert list, there really wasn't a question about ordering dessert. We did. We ordered two desserts for the three of us but while we tried both, we really didn't sure our respective desserts. My friend ordered Duo de Flanes, two flans. The first had a fairly standard flavor, if a very good version of standard, Mexican vanilla topped with an ancho-candied orange zest. The other incorporated the orange zest into the flan itself and was topped with a cranberry jicama salsa. They were very good flans but I was looking for something a little different so I ordered something that I had a hard time pronouncing, Buñuelos Navideños. It was described as a Oaxacan Christmas fritter but it reminded me of a fruitcake that had exploded. As I like fruitcake, it played to my palette. It had the crispy Oaxacan Christmas fritters which were like small, round and crispy tortilla chips, spiced pumpkin ice cream, brandied fruit (cherries, apples, apricots, figs) in piloncillo syrup, toasty meringue, and caramelized pecans. It was really good and I thoroughly enjoyed it.I really like Frontera Grill and enjoyed my meal despite the wait. It shows that Mexican food is much more than tacos, burritos, and tamales. I would recommend anyone who enjoys their food a little spicy and doesn't mind the wait to try this place out.
Wednesday, December 7, 2011
I wrote about one sixtyblue earlier this year but I had gone then as part of Restaurant Week and I was ordering off of a limited menu, so I thought that I would write again after going again on my own and choosing from the full menu. Ever since the first time I came to one sixtyblue a few years ago, it has been a favorite of mine. Their food is very approachable serving upscale versions of American favorites, changing the side vegetables according to the season. In addition to eating at the restaurant itself, I have had their food at a chef demo at Green City Market where they get a lot of their food (or at least get a lot of their food from the same farmers that sell at Green City Market), at a couple of charity benefits, and at the Taste of Randolph Street Festival. While the food was good at all of those places, they can't match the aesthetic of the restaurant itself. For this visit, I was seated close to the kitchen. There is an open kitchen at one sixtyblue so you can see the goings on from the dining room. sitting next to the kitchen, I was not only able to watch the kitchen but I could also see the flow of the dining room. It was fun to be able to see everything. I started my dinner with a spin on something I had had before, the one sixtyblue Hash Brown. It was topped with a House Smoked Salmon, with Chopped Eggs, Capers, and Sweet Potato Creme Fraiche. The hash brown is fried into about a 4 inch disc that is about half an inch thick. While it tastes good on it's own, I think that it's a bit too crispy around the edges. I figured that the addition of the salmon would both complement the flavor of the hash brown and with the texture, provide a contrast to the crunch. It did. The capers and egg provided a nice tartness to the dish as well.
I was really torn about what to order for my entree because there were so many things that looked really good. I finally went with something that, in general, has been a long time favorite, the duck. Duck is a favorite of mine to the point that for a while, when I would tell a friend or family member that I went to a new restaurant, they would ask me how the duck was. I hadn't had duck in a while so I thought it was safe this time. Even if it wasn't, it really looked good. It was a Wood Grilled Duck Breast from Maple Leaf Farm, that was served with salsify, fennel, cabbage, apple chutney, and apple-caramel sauce. The combination of flavors was both obviously seasonal and very good and even without my bias, I wouldn't be afraid to recommend it to someone.While I was waiting for the dessert menu to arrive, I got a surprise, a dessert amuse bouche. I am very familiar with amuse bouches (French for "Happy Mouth" and it is an off-the-menu treat that is normally served as a pre-appetizer). I was surprised to get an amuse bouche before dessert. What I was served was a spiced apple cider with tapioca pearls (like Japanese bubble tea) and whipped cream. It was a nice surprise that was refreshing and got me ready for dessert.
While I was feeling a little full after what I had had so far, there was no question about my having dessert. The dessert chef had wowed me more than once and I had liked everything that I had ever had that she created. There were a few things that interested me on the dessert menu but I was interested in the description of one dish that I would think is a classic, carrot cake. I really like carrot cake and my Mom makes a good carrot cake, I was wondering how a high end carrot cake based dessert might compare. The dessert was called a carrot cake terrine and it was amazing. The term terrine is usually used in reference to charcuterie. It is a coarsely chopped meat pressed together and held together with fat of the same animal. This dessert was almost nothing like that. It started with a carrot cake that was coarsely chopped and pressed into a mason jar, a layer of vanilla cream cheese custard is then added followed by another layer of carrot cake with pineapple, another layer of custard and topped with candied walnuts. Did I mention that this was amazing? It was so good, I almost proposed to the pastry chef. It was one of those desserts that you make sure that you get every crumb. As far as the comparison between this and my Mom's homemade carrot cake is concerned, it's a comparison that can't really be made because while the dessert incorporates carrot cake, it is much more than carrot cake. The carrot cake itself is very good and it compares positively to my Mom's carrot cake, but as it is just part of the terrine, it can't be compared as a whole.
I really enjoy one sixtyblue, I enjoyed my meal and I have no problem recommending it to anyone. While I do enjoy dining at a lot of different restaurants, this is one that I will always come back to.
Friday, December 2, 2011
When most people think of peanut butter, they think of the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that everyone ate as kids. While peanut butter is definitely not haute cuisine, gourmet peanut butter can and does exist. I recently discovered a company, Peanut Butter & Co that does gourmet peanut butter. I like peanut butter but I don't eat it often enough to warrant buying any. When I think about eating peanut butter, I think of peanut butter sandwiches- which I am not a huge fan of; peanut butter cookies which I like but I don't bake; Thai food, and Elvis burgers (peanut butter and bacon). While all of this is good, it would require a lot of preparation and planning to use even one jar of peanut butter. While I could probably manage to eat one jar of peanut butter, Peanut Butter & Company makes more than one type of peanut butter. In fact, they make 8 types of peanut butter which is something that I know that I couldn't do. I really wanted to try this but knowing I couldn't eat this much peanut butter, I had to come up with a plan. My little sister likes peanut butter and has kids so I thought that I might send some to them. I sent her a package of the six most popular peanut butters with the understanding that they could eat as much as they wanted as long as she saved a little of each for me. In addition to the standard smooth and crunchy, they also include white chocolate, dark chocolate, cinnamon raisin, and red pepper peanut butters in the package. They also make honey and maple flavored peanut butters which are not included in the Big Six.I got a call from my sister a few days before I came to visit her. After sitting unopened at her house for a few weeks, she took it to her work to see what her coworkers might think of it. While they said that they all have great flavor, the white chocolate was a huge hit and the red pepper was really hot. When I was visiting, I got to try the peanut butters. There was just enough white chocolate to try but that was about it. It was creamy, sweet, and had a subtle flavor of white chocolate. While it was good, my favorite was actually the crunchy peanut butter. It was salty, not exceptionally sweet, and was the nuttiest peanut butter that I have ever seen. The cinnamon raisin was also pretty good. It had whole raisins and a nice cinnamon spice to the peanut butter. Creamy was a very good creamy peanut butter. The dark chocolate I thought, could make some really good peanut butter cookies and the red pepper peanut butter would work well in Thai food.
It was very good peanut butter and I'm glad I got to try it. I discovered that Whole Foods carries the smooth, the crunchy, white chocolate, and dark chocolate. I might decide to pick some up for myself but it still isn't something that I will eat on a regular basis.