Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Butternut squash and Brussels sprout panzanella + Roasted Beets, Goat cheese, and Pistachios


The next morning after having chai we walked to the Ferry Building Farmer's Market. This place is like foodie heaven. It's amazing how comforting cooking is and how food in general provides a great way to explore a new city through local ingredients and influences. When I was deciding between job offers, my dad teased me that one of my criteria must be the foodie-ness of the city!

We ate my absolutely favorite chilaquiles on a bench over looking the Bay Bridge. It is quite possible that these chilaquiles may have influenced my decision to move to SF when I visited in June.

After we ate, we browsed the stands at the farmers market and decided on the menu for dinner: butternut squash, brussels sprouts panzanella, roasted beets with fresh chevre from Cowgirl Creamery and pistachios, and pomegranate and persimmon arugula salad- seriously this salad has become such a popular request! Not only are the colors gorgeous but it is one of those salads that I just can't stop eating. It is a good thing that people keep asking me to make it for them!

Our morning was spent wandering the stalls of the farmer's market, an absolutely perfect way to spend a Saturday morning in SF. Have you ever seen Buddha's hand citron? It sort of looks like a cross between a lemon and a squid.

We cooked up a feast for dinner and invited over another friend from college who also recently moved to SF. We reminisced about college, while sharing cooking tips for busy work schedules. It was interesting to hear two incredibly smart, successful and driven women talk about their experiences balancing ridiculously impressive careers, Indian cultural values, and married life as they start to think about building a family. I took a different path than both of them by going to graduate school essentially right after college so I am only now starting my career. I admire and respect both of them and can only hope to be able to be half as amazing as them at figuring it all out.

It's amazing what a weekend with a good friend can do for you. Thank you MS, I mean MR, for a lovely visit, miss you already. 

Monday, December 27, 2010

Wild Mushroom Risotto


My dear, dear friend visited from LA recently. I hadn't seen her since her wedding last December so I was super excited to have her all to myself for the weekend! Eager to show her my new life in SF I asked what she wanted to do for the weekend and her response was simply, "Let's cook together!"

During one of her visits to Chicago last year, we randomly attended a cooking class at my beloved foodie haven, Fox & Obel, where we learned how to make risotto. It was only appropriate to make risotto together this time around, and a wild mushroom risotto sounded delightful to both of us. We did some urban foraging for mushrooms at Whole Foods for hen of the woods, shiitake, and crimini mushrooms. As we cooked, we sipped wine and snacked on a delightful spread of cheeses, olives, and amazing sourdough that she thoughtfully brought.

I have been wanting to use vermouth in risotto for a while and was excited to try a new recipe using it. We sauteed the mushrooms in butter until tender, cooked the arborio rice with sauted leeks, white wine, and vermouth, slowly stirred in about 5 cups of vegetable broth until absorbed, and finished off by incorporating freshly grated parmesan. It was probably the creamiest, ooziest risotto I have ever had and we even cut the butter in half from the original recipe!

The flavor and high quality of the mushrooms really stood out in this dish; I didn't want to mask the flavor with herbs. If you use less woodsy mushrooms, I would recommend cooking the mushrooms with a bit of thyme to round of the flavor.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Diwali - The Festival of Lights


My absolute favorite time of year is Diwali, the festival of lights. Diwali embodies the theme of the triumph of light over darkness commonly found across cultures. To celebrate this day, sumptuous feasts are prepared with mounds of desserts, homes are brightly decorated, and most importantly, oil lamps and candles are lit to invite joy, prosperity, and love into your home. In many parts of India, Diwali also marks the beginning of the new year.

Two weeks ago I found myself wrapped in the kitchen for endless hours preparing my annual Diwali feast for guests once again but this time in SF not in Chicago. Weary and sleep-deprived from my trip across the country to Boston and back in 24 hours, I began preparing for the dinner minutes after walking in the door from SFO late Friday night. To-do list for the night before dinner: make paneer, cilantro-garlic chutney, and dessert. Done and done.

The next morning groceries were bought and cooking commenced 8 hours in advance of dinner. Around 6:30pm, an hour and half before guests were scheduled to arrive, I received a call from a delivery service- my living room furniture was finally here! I was more than a little worried that my guests would have to sit on the floor, but the good folks at Pottery Barn rose to the occasion. Somehow everything- from the food to the furniture (and even myself)- was in order by 8pm. The guests started to arrive and helped to light candles and pour wine. And one of my dinner guests showed off his amazing camera skills by capturing the beauty of the lights (all photo credit goes to him).

Diwali Dinner Menu 2010
potato and pea samosas 
cilantro-garlic chutney and tamarind chutney
dal makhani... lentils simmered with onions, garlic, tomato and cream
chole... chick peas in a spicy tomato gravy
mutter paneer... peas and paneer in a tomato gravy
paneer makhani... paneer in a rich tomato and butter gravy
bangain bharta... eggplant curry
pullav... rice with cumin seeds
kheer... saffron, pistachio, cardammon rice pudding
barfi... coconut, pistachio, cardamom sweet

The food turned out delicious and the wine was excellent. And the company was fabulous (there may have been some Bollywood dancing). Thanks to all for making this special day memorable and for making me feel at home in a new city. Happy Diwali and Sal Mubarak. ♥

Monday, November 22, 2010

Roasted Patty Pan Squash and Moroccan couscous


I bought the cutest little patty pan squash the other day. They were so small that they fit in the palm of my hand. I've never had this type of squash before and decided to cook it simply to let the true flavors come through. I was a bit worried when I read a few posts expressing disappointment with the lack of flavor in patty pan squash. After speaking to some folks at the farmers market, I learned that they key is to pick smaller, young patty pan as the larger older ones tend to have less of the buttery flavor.

I sliced the pretty patty pan squash into eight wedges and pan roasted it with olive oil, a generous amount of thyme, sea salt, and pepper until browned on both sides. That's about as simple as it gets. And surprisingly, this side dish was the biggest hit out of the entire menu!

Continuing with the Mediterranean theme of the night, I made Moroccan couscous to accompany the patty pan squash. Moroccan food counts as Mediterranean right? I mean, Morocco is on the Mediterranean Sea. The couscous was simmered in a vegetable broth with aromatic cinnamon and bay leaves and served with nutty, toasted pine nuts, sweet dried currants, and tangy Greek feta.

The food paparazzi was too busy eating this to take a photo of the couscous.

This Moroccan couscous recipe is a great base and is amenable to the addition of chick peas, vegetables, and meat. For a heartier main dish, simmer chick peas, carrots, zucchini, turnips, and cabbage in vegetable broth and add to the couscous and serve with spicy harissa.

Moroccan couscous
1 cup couscous, pearl or regular but whole wheat
1 1/4 cup vegetable broth
1 tbsp butter
1 shallot, minced
1 bay leaf (I used dried)
1/2 stick cinnamon
1/2 tsp lemon juice
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
1/4 cup currants
4 oz Greek feta, cubed
sea salt

Heat butter in a medium saucepan until foams. Add shallots, cook for 3 minutes. Add bay leaf and cinnamon and couscous, stirring frequently. Cook until couscous is slightly toasted, about 4-5 minutes. Add vegetable stock, bring to a boil, cover and simmer on low heat for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Once cooked, discard bay leaf and cinnamon stick and transfer couscous to a shallow pan to let cool. Before serving, combine couscous with pine nuts, currants, and feta. Toss to mix well. Freshen with a squeeze or two of lemon juice. Taste for balance and seasoning.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Figs and prosciutto* with melon and mint


A friend just returned from Turkey and was telling me about the juicy, plump figs she had when she was back home. As she described the way the smooth skin was almost cracking from the plumpness and the honey-like syrup was just oozing from the bottom of the figs, my mouth was watering for fresh figs. We used to have a fig tree in our backyard when I was growing up, so thinking about the floral scent and luscious feel of super ripe figs just about to burst with juicy goodness took me back to my childhood. Luckily, I caught the tail end of fig season in California and I was able to find some beautiful, super ripe Turkish figs at Whole Foods!

Fresh figs are highly perishable so be sure to use them within a couple days of purchasing. Pick figs that are plump, but not mushy, and unblemished, with a sweet, floral fragrance. If not using immediately, store in a paper-towel lined container, covered in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before serving.

As my mouth began to work on possible uses for the lusciously super-ripe figs, I remembered the classic combination of prosciutto and melon (and sometimes figs) found around Tuscany. I was really excited when I found a recipe elevating the classic combination with arugula and a light mint cream dressing. The sweet, juicy figs and melons contrast the salty and tangy prosciutto and peppery arugula, whereas the mint brings a refreshing brightness to the platter. The ingredients lend their way to a beautiful presentation for a light snack or an antipasto when entertaining. For maximum sweetness, look for melons that slap you with fragrant sweetness at the tip.

*Of course I omitted the prosciutto. In lieu of the cured meat, it would've been nice to add a salty/fatty/tangy component to the mix. From what I understand prosciutto is wonderful and there is no real replacement, and let's be clear that I don't think fake meat is wonderful. Maybe long shavings of pecorino and parmesan? What do you think?

Figs and prosciutto with melon and mint (adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques)
8 figs, super ripe (I used Turkish figs)
1/2 ripe cantaloupe, skin and seeds removed and sliced lengthwise into 1" slices (about 6)
6 thin slices of prosciutto di Parma
10-12 pretty arugula leaves, cleaned and dried
7 mint leaves
1/3 cup of heavy cream
1/2 tsp lemon juice
1/8 tsp sea salt

Using a mortar and pestle, grind 4 mint leaves into a paste. Gently stir in heavy cream and lemon juice. Do not overwork otherwise you will end up with a thick, lumpy dressing (obviously a mistake made by me, see photo). Season with salt and pepper, taste for balance and adjust as needed.

Slice the figs in half and slice half of them into quarters. Leave stems on some of the figs. Scatter the cantaloupe slices randomly around a large platter. Drape prosciutto over and under the melon slices, leaving some of the melon peeking through. Arrange figs in between and layer arugula over the wrapped melons.

Drizzle mint cream over the platter. Chop remaining 3 mint leaves and scatter over the platter. Finish with a couple quick grinds of black pepper.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Tomato, Niçoise, Caper, Caramelized Onion Tart


In search of an excuse to have a weeknight dinner party, I invited a few friends over to watch Game 5 of the World Series. After all, I do live in SF now so I should be excited about the Giants, right? Just to clarify, I mean the baseball team, not the football team. And before you ask, just because I grew up in Texas doesn't mean that I am a Rangers fan.

While planning the menu, I decided to stick with a more Mediterranean theme, thinking it would fit well with the way that I have been thinking about cooking lately. As much as I enjoy cooking spicy Indian dishes with elaborate curries and complex flavors, I haven't wanted to cook like that for some time now. I am much more intrigued by food focused on high quality, seasonal produce. Maybe this is a sign that I am meant to live in California?

After work, I threw myself into the kitchen and cooked up a feast for dinner:

figs with melon, arugula, and mint cream
cheeses with olive bread
heirloom tomato tart with Niçoise olives, capers, and caramelized onions
cherry tomato fresh herb salad
moroccan couscous with pine nuts, feta, currants
roasted patty pan squash with thyme

The tart has all of the flavors of a traditional Italian puttanesca sauce- late season heirloom tomatoes, Niçoise olives, capers, and anchoives (optional) all piled onto flaky puff pastry and carmelized onions with thyme. It is tangy, sweet, salty, and packed with flavor. And of course it looks so pretty with a mix of colorful heirloom tomatoes! I tossed several shards of shaved parmesan over the top.

I served the tart with a complementary salad of cherry tomatoes, fresh herbs (chives, basil, and parsley), and peppery arugula generously dressed with bright lemon and really good olive oil. This salad is all about using fresh herbs and a light and refreshing vinaigrette. It is a perfect example of how to really get the maximum goodness out of fresh ingredients.  This beautiful salad would brighten up a heavier dish like risotto or pasta.

The dinner party was a fun evening with good food, friends, and wine. Oh and the Giants won the World Series!

And many thanks to my amazing dinner guest turned sous chef turned food photographer for taking such beautiful photos.

Tomato, Niçoise olive, caper, and carmelized onion tart with cherry tomato-fresh herb salad (Adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques)
2 tbsp olive oil
6 cups thinly sliced onions
1 tbsp thyme leaves
1 sheet puff pastry, defrosted
1 large egg yolk
3 medium heirloom tomatoes, mixed colors
4 tsp capers, soaked and drained (or 3-4 salt packed anchovy fillets, rinsed, bones removed, sliced on the diagonal + 2 tsp capers)
1/4 cup Nicoise olives, pitted and cut in half
1-2 oz of parmesan, shaved using a vegetable peeler

Cherry tomato fresh herb salad
1/2 pint cherry tomatoes, cut in half
1 tbsp finely diced shallot
1 tbsp really good extra virgin olive oil
1/2 lemon, for juicing
1/2 lb arugula, rinsed and dried
1/2 cup flat-leaf Italian parsley
1/4 cup small basil leaves
1/4 cup 1/2 inch snipped chives
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat a large saute pan over high heat for 2 minutes. Swirl in 2 tbsp olive oil, and add onions, 2 tsp thyme, 1 tsp salt, and some pepper. Cook 10 minutes, stirring often. Turn heat down to medium and cook 15 minutes, stirring often, until onions are a deep golden brown. Let cool completely before combining with puff pastry.

Preheat oven to 400.

Roll out defrosted puff pastry on a floured surface. Transfer to parchment lined baking sheet. Score a 1/8 inch thick border around edge of pastry. Whisk together egg yolk and 1 tsp water; brush the border with egg wash. Add caramelized onions evenly within the border.

Core the heirloom tomatoes. Slice into 1/4 inch round slices. Place tomato slices, just touching but not overlapping, over the caramelized onions, staying within the border. Season the tomatoes with 1/4 tsp salt and generous grinds of black pepper. Arrange anchovies, if using, capers and olives over the tomatoes and onions. Sprinkle with remaining tsp of thyme and scatter several shards of parmesan over the top.

Bake tart 20-25 minutes until crust is golden brown.

Just before serving, place halved cherry tomatoes and diced shallot in a bowl. Season with 1/4 tsp salt and generous grinds of black pepper. Drizzle with really good olive oil and squeeze in a little lemon juice. Toss, add arugula and herbs. Toss well and taste for seasoning.

Serve tart with cherry tomato herb salad.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Persimmon, Pomegranate, and Pistachios with Arugula


Recently our office fruit basket was stocked with some lovely Fuyu persimmons and pomegranates; although I must admit that it is a bit ridiculous to think that someone would eat a pomegranate at work.  Inspired to make something new (and colorful) for dinner, I grabbed both fall favorites. Usually the fruit is delivered at its peak so I was a bit surprised that the persimmon felt as firm as an apple. My only previous experience with persimmons was a wonderful dessert I had at Green Zebra in Chicago a few years ago. After a quick Google search I learned that Fuyu persimmons, shaped like a tomato, are firm when ripe while the Hachiya variety, shaped like an acorn, become very soft- like a water balloon- when ripe. Fuyu persimmon is perfectly for slicing and throwing into salad, while Hachiya persimmon works great as a puree in cakes and breads.

On the other hand, pomegranate is very familiar to me as it was synonymous with fall in our house while I was growing up. My mom would lovingly peel pomegranate and pick out each seed for me. I would eagerly sit on the edge of my seat, watching her patiently prepare the fruit with such attention. Although I love pomegranate, as an adult I rarely buy it- it is just so much work. Hmm, if only my mom could still peel it for me! 

In my previous post I mentioned the Sunday Suppers at Lucques cookbook; with a focus on seasonal ingredients "from market to table", it was the perfect source for my search. The result was an absolutely addicting salad. What a healthy way to combine some of the best flavors of fall!

Persimmon, pomegranate, and raw pistachios are tossed with peppery arugula and tart pickle-like shallots and dressed with a light vinaigrette of lemon, pomegranate juice, sherry vinegar, and rice vinegar. The original recipe calls for toasted hazelnuts, but I opted for coarsely chopped raw pistachios instead. Beautiful colors, complementing sweet and tart flavors, and contrasting textures, are all balanced by bright acidity and peppery arugula making this a fabulous salad for entertaining.

Persimmon, Pomegranate, and Pistachio Arugula Salad (Adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques)
1 Fuyu persimmon, thinly sliced
1 to 2 pomegranates- 3 tbsp fresh juice and 1/3 cup of seeds
1/2 lb arugula, cleaned and dried
1/2 cup raw pistachios
1 tbsp sherry vinegar
2 tsp rice vinegar
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp diced shallot
1-2 small shallots, thinly sliced lengthwise
1/2 lemon, for juicing
sea salt
black pepper

Place diced shallot, pomegranate juice, sherry vinegar, rice vinegar, and 1/2 tsp salt in a bowl and let sit for 5 minutes. Whisk in the olive oil and taste for balance and seasoning.

In a large salad bowl, toss persimmons, sliced shallots, and pomegranate seeds with the dressing. Season with salt and pepper. Gently toss in the arugula. Taste for seasoning and add a squeeze or two of lemon. Arrange salad on platter and scatter pistachios on top. Serve immediately.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Baked ricotta with herbs + Cannellini bean spread with pita chips


It is so nice to finally have an apartment where I can host dinner parties. I may not have a couch yet (it is supposed to be delivered sometime in mid-December), but that doesn't stop me from cooking up an elaborate meal in my amazing kitchen (with actual counter space, gasp!).

I had guests over for dinner at the last minute and was pressed to come up with several appetizers in a short amount of time. I immediately thought of the really good fresh ricotta I had just bought. I decide to make baked ricotta with thyme and parsley based on a recipe I had mentally bookmarked from one of my dearest cookbooks, Sunday Suppers at Lucques. It is a simple, fast, wonderful recipe that is perfect for entertaining.  Bake the ricotta in an attractive dish and serve it direct from oven to table. The result is warm, creamy, and fluffy goodness. My guests kept heaping spoons of it onto bread and muttering sounds in between bites.

The inspiration for the next appetizer comes from some wonderful cannellini bean brushchetta I recently tasted at a restaurant. Although delicious, it was a bit challenging to eat the bruschetta because the beans kept falling off of the bread. For my dinner party I instead made a cannellini bean spread with garlic, parsley, and lemon and served it with toasted pita brushed with olive oil, sea salt, and oregano. Made with simple ingredients, the cannellini spread had good acidity and garlicky-ness with a fresh kick from the parsley.

The final appetizer is one of my usual favorites and probably one of the fastest hors d'oeuvre for entertaining- bite sized caprese salad. At numerous parties, I have sereved mini caprese skewers: a toothpick piercing bocconcini, cherry tomato, and a basil leaf drizzled with good olive oil and seasoned with sea salt and pepper. This time we were working with some very large basil leaves so my fabulous sous chef decided to wrap the bocconcini and cherry tomato with a basil leaf and then pierce it with a toothpick. Beautiful presentation and a wonderful way to get all of the flavors into one bite!

All in all, I highly recommend keeping these fast, delicious, and interesting appetizers in mind for your next dinner party!

Baked Ricotta (adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques)
1 cup fresh whole milk ricotta
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp thyme leaves
1/2 tbsp chopped italian flat-leaf parsley
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
sea salt

Preheat oven to 400.

Add ricotta to a medium bowl and stir in 1.5 tbsp of olive oil, half of the thyme, parsley, and crushed red pepper. Season liberally with sea salt and pepper. Transfer to a small, attractive au gratin dish or cazuela. Using finger tips, gently make indentations on the top of the ricotta. Sprinkle remaining thyme on top and drizzle remaining olive oil over the top. Bake for 20-25 minutes until golden brown on the top.

Serve with good bread.

Cannellini beans with Pita Chips (Giada de Laurentiis)
15 oz can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
1/3 cup olive oil
2 tbsp lemon juice (1 lemon)
1-2 cloves of garlic (depending on your preference for garlicky-ness)
1/4 cup loosely packed Italian flat-leaf parsley
sea salt

Pita chips
6 pitas
olive oil
sea salt
1 tsp dried oregano

Preheat oven to 400.

Combine beans, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and parsley in a blender or food processor until coarsely chopped. Season well with sea salt and pepper. Transfer to serving bowl.

Slice the pita into half and each half into quarters. In a small bowl, combine olive oil, sea salt, and oregano. On a large baking sheet, arrange pita and brush with oil mixture. Bake for 8-10 min until reach a golden color. Serve warm or at room temperature with cannellini dip.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Tomato, Onion, and Goat Cheese Galette


My obsession with galettes and tarts has officially begun. The culprit is a tomato, onion, and goat cheese galette. It is like biting into wonderful deliciousness. I immediately had a request to make it again (and again) over a period of one week. And it was just as amazing each time.

The base of the tart is grated parmesan topped with onions sauteed with thyme and white wine, followed by a layer of tangy garlic and herb goat cheese and thick slices of tomatoes and salty olives, all topped with shards of parmesan and basil. Are you drooling yet?

The salty olives, sweet onions, tangy goat cheese and flavor packed tomatoes coupled with a buttery, crisp crust create a perfect blend of complex flavors and textures in this savory tart.

The tart is a perfect appetizer for sharing or a great main course with an arugula salad, you know, to balance out the buttery goodness of the puff pastry. Speaking of the dough, I like to make my own galette dough, see this post for the recipe.

Recently I experimented with a savory whole wheat, black pepper, and parmesan dough. I swapped in whole wheat flour for all of the all purpose flour, added 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper, 2.5 tbsp finely grated parmesan, and 1/4 tsp homemade thyme kosher salt. It was so very wonderful!

The whole wheat worked quite nicely in the same dough recipe; you may need to add slightly more water than you are used to, but otherwise the recipe is the same.

However, I occasionally splurge on this ridiculously good Dufour puff pastry available at Whole Foods (seriously, this stuff is heavenly). It is especially great if you are short on time. The photos below use the puff pastry dough.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Pan roasted Zucchini (summer squash) with Parmesan and Thyme


Meet my new favorite side dish. Zucchini and other summer squash are pan roasted to a beautiful golden brown with onions and garlic, sprinkled with fresh thyme, and tossed with a generous helping of finely grated good parmesan. For an equally delicious variation, omit the thyme and add a drizzle or two of balsamic vinegar just before removing from the stove (photo above is with balsamic, photo below is with thyme). It is fabulous, especially in the summertime!

Seriously, make this side dish tonight. It is easy, healthy, and delicious. If you are anything like me, dinner just might turn into one of those meals where the unassuming side dish steals the show from the main course. Photo credit goes to my favorite dinner guest.

Pan roasted summer squash with parmesan and thyme
2 medium zucchinis or summer squash, sliced and then halved
1/4 yellow onion, thinly sliced lengthwise
1 clove of garlic, minced
leaves from 4 sprigs of thyme
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp sea salt (or to taste)
1/4 tsp pepper
good parmesan for grating, about 1/4 cup or more to taste

Heat olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet. Add onions and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and continue to cook onions, about 5 more minutes until limp and just about to brown. Add zucchini with one of the cut sides down in a single layer. Don't crowd the zucchini in the pan, otherwise they will steam instead of roast. Season liberally with thyme, sea salt, and pepper. Toss to coat well. Cook until zucchini is golden brown on one side, about 7 min. Toss and cook until zucchini is golden brown on other side but still holds its shape, about 5 min. Sprinkle with half of the grated parmesan and give a good toss to mix. Transfer to serving bowl and generously top with the remaining grated parmesan.

Serves 4 as a side.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Panzanella with heirloom tomatoes, cucumber, and peppers


Produce in California is so delightfully fresh and flavorful that I find myself wanting to showcase a particular vegetable with a simple dressing. I know, I know it is way too late to be talking about tomatoes, but in SF the late season heirloom tomatoes are still ridiculously beautiful and the inviting warm weather just screams a very late summer.

When I was in Tuscany earlier this summer, I fell in love with panzanella, a Tuscan bread salad with juicy heirloom tomatoes, fresh basil, and rustic bread tossed in a red wine vinaigrette. I returned inspired to make the dish over and over again. Panzanella is a great way to use up leftover bread and add substance to a salad. Even in post-tomato season, you can make a Tuscan-inspired panzanella showcasing seasonal vegetables in the spring and in autumn/winter- I'm thinking butternut squash, sage, and brussel sprouts.

In this late summer panzanella, tomatoes, bell peppers, hot house cucumbers, red onions, basil, capers, and sourdough are tossed in a light champagne vinegar-dijon dressing. Although the dressing is lighter than the tradiational red wine vinaigrette commonly used in Tuscany, it has enough acidity to balance the sweetness of the tomato and bell pepper. It is best to let the dish sit for about half an hour before serving to allow the bread to soak up all of the tasty goodness.

*Update: If you are like me and have heaps of corn, shuck an ear or two and toss it in with the tomatoes. The sweet crunch adds a lovely dimension to my favorite summer salad!

For a light weeknight dinner, I served this delicious panzanella with a more fall appropriate dish- a small side of pan roasted zucchini tossed with onion, thyme, and parmesan.

Panzanella (Ina Garten)
1 heirloom tomato, cut into 1" cubes (I used late season tomatoes)
1/2 hot house cucumber, halved, seeded, and sliced 1/2" thick
1/4 red onion, thinly sliced lengthwise
1/2 red bell pepper, cut into 1" cubes
1/2 yellow bell pepper, cut into 1" cubes
10 basil leaves, coarsely chopped
1.5 tbsp capers

1/2 tsp minced garlic
1/4 tsp dijon
1.5 tbsp champagne vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 tsp sea salt

kosher salt
small baguette (I used sourdough), cut into 1" cubes, about 3 cups
2 tbsp olive oil

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add bread and season well with salt. Cook until nicely browned, about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add more oil as necessary.

Meanwhile, whisk together the ingredients for the vinaigrette.

In a large bowl, combine tomato, cucumber, red onion, yellow and red bell pepper, basil, and capers. Add bread cubes and toss with vinaigrette. Season with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Let sit for half an hour to let the flavors blend before serving.

Serves 2-3 as a main.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Quinoa (or Orzo) with Roasted Eggplant, Bell Peppers, and Feta


Update: In an effort to eat healthier, I now make this dish using quinoa in place of orzo and it is just as loved around here. 
The last few months have been a complete whirlwind. The journey started with an indulgent vacation devoted to food and wine in France, Spain, and Italy (food pictures to come soon), saying goodbye to very dear friends in Chicago, moving across the country, starting a new job, finding an apartment (key criteria: must have an amazing kitchen), and somehow figuring out how to completely start over in a new city.

I am finally settled in enough to start cooking (and blogging) again. Of course being in a food-and-wine-obsessed city has certainly helped to smooth the transition!

One of the first dishes I made once I moved into my new place was orzo with roasted eggplant and bell peppers. Roasted vegetables are tossed with orzo, drizzled with bright lemon, and topped with Greek feta, sweet basil, and crunchy toasted pine nuts.  Using both red and yellow bell peppers and red onions adds gorgeous, happiness-inducing color to the dish. The result is a perfectly light but satisfying weeknight meal with fantastic Mediterranean flavors.

I loved the orzo so much that I was excited to have leftovers the next day, and I absolutely hate eating the same thing two days in a row. I have a feeling that this will be one of my staple weeknight dishes!

The recipe is from Ina Garten and is so perfect that I didn't feel the need to tweak it one bit. Plus I am convinced that with good olive oil and bright lemon you just can't go wrong. Throw tangy Greek feta into the mix and you just made my day!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Big Star + Piece

Image from Big Star

Paul Kahan, of Blackbird, Avec, and the Publican fame, seems to have some pretty awesome friends. Kahan, Justin Large (formerly of Avec), and Michael Rubel (the genius behind the Violet Hour), joined forces to open Big Star, a "honky-tonk taco shack" in Wicker Park.

The location was previously home to the hipster-haven Pontiac Cafe, converted from a gas station and loved for its great outdoor patio.

Big Star has maintained the fantastic patio but with a mix of tables and barrels for smaller groups. No frills decor. No website. No credit cards. Just good tacos, whiskey, beer, and margaritas. At reasonably low prices.

Boasting wait times average 1.5-2 hours, Big Star has quite the following.

On a Monday night, there was still a wait, but significantly less than on the weekends. We snagged seats at the bar and fearing rain, we decided to eat at the bar rather than wait for a table outside.

We ordered ridiculously good guacamole with hot, freshly made chips ($5), queso fundido with warm tortillas ($8), and tacos for all ($3 each).

Oh. My. Goodness. Those tacos were SO good!

The vegetarian tacos were smoky rajas poblano and onions with a strip of fried cheese (queso para freir) wrapped in a warm homemade tortilla. It was so fingerlickin' good that we ordered more for the table.

To drink, the menu showcases a number of whiskeys, bourbons, beers, and margaritas. I had the Big Star margarita which has mezclan so it was smokier than a classic margarita. I was impressed to see Michelada on the menu- tecate, salsa, lime, and a salted rim. It was great!

Our server was a bit slow and forget to bring the beer from the tap to the person who ordered it more than a couple times. But she was nice enough given the crowd.

Not ready for the night to end, we made our way around the corner to Piece for New Haven style pizza and in-house brewed beer.  If you aren't familiar with New Haven style pizza, it has plenty of red sauce, extra parmesan, garlic, and olive oil on a thin crispy crust (no mozzarella).

We had the Golden Arm, a German-style Kolsch beer, won the 2004 Bronze at the World Cup Beer competition. The beer names had a certain, ahem, theme: Top Heavy, Dark & Curvy, Full Frontal, and Fornicator... Not sure what's going on with the naming of the beers at Piece, but they seem to win quite a few awards.

 It was a fun low-key night spent with friends!


Big Star
1531 N. Damen
Chicago, IL 60622

1927 W. North Ave
Chicago, IL 60622

Friday, July 30, 2010

Pops for Champagne

Who doesn't love a little champagne?  I am a firm believer that a glass of champagne makes an average day sparkle and that drinking champagne should not be reserved for NYE.

And I absolutely adore a cool, refreshing glass of champagne on a hot summer's day. On a Monday evening, I stopped into Pops for Champagne on my way home.

Generally I avoid going to Pops on the weekend because I find it to be rather touristy. But during the week, it is a wonderful place to relax, unwind, and indulge.

Over a lovely glass of Jean Vesselle Réserve champagne, I nibbled on two decadent and creamy cheeses accompanied by red pepper jam and flatbread crackers. The first cheese, recommended by the bartender, was the delectable lazy lady la petite tone- a lush, melty, and tangy goat's milk cheese from Vermont. The second cheese was the crave brothers petit frere, a creamy, slightly stinky, and earthy cow’s milk cheese from Wisconsin.

The bartender was fantastic! He was knowledgeable, friendly, and helpful. We discussed our favorite cheese pairings with champagne and how Pops has evolved over the years. To be fair, the sterile ambiance isn't as inviting as it was the previous location, but the bartenders and staff are so friendly and helpful that there is an added charm and warmth to the experience.

As I sat at the bar listening to the fantastic live jazz, I temporarily escaped from my rather long day. It occurred to me that there are few places in Chicago where you can sit back and relax with live music on a weeknight. Another point for Pops!

Everything about Pops is elegant and decadent but thankfully without pretension.

Pops for Champagne
601 N State St.
Chicago, IL 60611

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Duke of Perth


A friend and I met for early evening drinks at Duke of Perth, a Scottish pub in Lincoln Park featuring some 90 single malt whiskeys. Scottish music plays lightly in the background. Black and white framed photos line the walls, along with an antique clock and a deer head wearing a police hat. Oh, and there's no TV in this pub.

We decided to order flights in order to sample more of the single malt menu: for peat's sake and roving dover. For Peat's Sake featured peaty single malts from the islands: Talisker 10, Caol Ila 12, and Laphroig 10. Roving Drover highlighted single malts from the Highland and the Lowland: Clynelish 10, Glenkinchie 12, and Caol Ila 12. 

Of these, the Talisker 10 and Glenkinchie 12 were our favorites scotches. The Talisker was complex and showed good peat with a lingering pepperiness that had a warming effect. The Glenkinchie was smooth and pleasant with intense lemon on the palate with oak. We bought found the Caol Ila to be too oily for our taste.

Duke of Perth is always packed on Wednesday and Friday for unlimited fish and chips night for $9.50. And if you are worried about having a balanced meal, don't you worry, the breaded cod and french fries come with a generous side of peas!

Duke of Perth
2913 North Clark Street
Chicago, IL 60657

Monday, July 26, 2010

Hot Doug's


Living in Chicago, I've been lucky to explore the cutting-edge culinary scene focused on creating sophisticated dishes from simple, locally farmed ingredients. However this haute scene coexists with another type of food obsession: deep-dish pizza, Vienna beef hot dogs with an assortment of toppings and neon green relish, and Italian beef sandwiches.

As mentioned in a previous post, I realized that I needed to round out my food experiences in Chicago with some of the iconic hometown specialties. I finally made a trip to Hot Doug's, arguably the best hot dog joint in Chicago.

On a whim, we decided to make the trek out to Avondale on a Saturday afternoon. We waited in line for 1 hour and 45 minutes. Thankfully I really like the person I was with so the wait brushed by.

Dangerously close to the 4pm closing time, we managed to get inside the door. The decor says it all: black and white checkered floor and bright yellow walls adorned with kitschy hot dog tributes. Oh, and you must check out the bathroom.

We giggled as we read the extensive, entertaining menu of "encased meat" featuring the classic Chicago hot dog and gourmet dogs with creamy sun-dried tomato mustard, spicy tapenade and tallegio cheese or sweet chili-garlic mustard and cheese-stuffed marinated hot peppers

At 4pm, a staff member walks past us to the door, saying "Watch, this is my favorite trick to play on people." He turns the lock on the door and you see jaws dropping. Laughing, he unlocks the door, and tells them how priceless their expressions were. Actually everyone who was in line was served, even though it was close to 4:40pm by the time the last person was served.

Doug Sohn, the owner, took our orders with a smile and was super friendly. We ordered the Pete Shelley (meatless... and delicious) and The Elvis (smoked and savory- just like the King) with everything.

Everything means mustard, chopped onions, florescent green relish, pickle spears, sport peppers, tomato slices, and a dash of celery salt. What a particular combination! And notice the obvious absence of ketchup.

On Friday and Saturday, you can order duck-fat fries. We opted for a small cheese fries, which was plenty for 2.

We picked up our sodas, found a seat, and waited for about 5 minutes for our food to arrive.

It was seriously the best veggie dog I have ever had. And I had my fair share of veggie dogs in college. The cheese fries were devastatingly delicious and failed to get soggy. You could actually taste the potato in the crispy fries.

Now I feel like a true Chicagoan, just in time for me to move...

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