Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Bristol

Sometimes it's okay to forgo main courses, opting to snack through dinner instead. It is especially encouraged at restaurants like The Bristol, the newest addition to Bucktown's culinary landscape. On an impromptu visit, Dave and I nibbed our way through half of their organic, sustainable, and delicious menu of "snacks." Thankfully, the talented folks behind The Bristol had the intuition to avoid the overused term, "tapas," and even worse, "small plates." Those words alone have turned me off to what are probably very fine restaurants, with very fine food. But I swear to God, if I hear of one more small plates resto opening in this city...

Anyway, I appreciate the use of the term "snack," because that's exactly what these are: a few bites of something tasty that will leave you wanting more and won't allow you to stuff your gut sick. We shared several noshes, and everything was fantastic, but these few are the lovely thoughts running through my head this morning.

House smoked pork butt with celery root custard and shaved pears
In a truly sustainable effort, Chef Chris Pandel will be butchering his own animals and using as many parts as possible to reduce waste. He's curing and smoking his own meats, too. I was hoping for a charcuterie plate, but it's not on the current menu. Instead, we started with a plate of smokey, savory pork butt, shaved so thin that it fell apart in the tines of your fork. A couple of varieties of pears were sliced as delicately, and provided great sweetness and moisture. Shards of crisp radishes added bite. A bed of celery root custard was cool, creamy, and much more subtle than I could have imagined. Together, it was delicious.

Corn on the Cob, Taco Stand Style
Dave pushed for this one, and I'm glad he did, because in September, every time I eat corn on the cob could be the last time, until next season. A succulent ear of corn was basted with butter, tangy lime juice, salt, and ancho chili powder. It was cut into five pieces and arranged beautifully in a deep bowl. A small puddle of limey butter accrued at the bottom, which I happily used recoat my veg.

Roasted Beets with Frisee
One seasonal plate was comprised of smoked salmon (not my favorite), beer cheese (never again, even though the server assured me it was not stinky), homemade saltine crackers (just not exciting), and roasted beets. Dave's a sucker for beets, so our wonderful waiter obliged him a huge mound of them. They were the best beets I've ever had, a combination of goldens and reds, cut smaller than playing dice and cooked to fork-tender. They were perfectly seasoned to taste just like themselves, only better. We gobbled them up.

Chocolate Sabayon with Homemade Nutter Butters
I say Sabayon, you say Zabaglione. I don't care what you call it. If it's rich egg yolks and fine sugar whipped over a double boiler until it's pale and creamy and your arm is about to fall off, it's delicious. Sabayon is truly a labor of love, as the maker stands for twenty to thirty minutes over a bowl of simmering water, manically whisking all the while to prevent the delicate eggs from scrambling. The Bristol served it cold, like custard, with a spot of olive oil and a few fat granules of salt sprinkled on top. Along side were two sizable peanut butter sandwich cookies studded with chunks of nuts, and stuck together with more peanut butter. They were crisp on the outside and softer in the middle. Dave thought they tasted exactly like his mother's recipe, which I need to get.

The Bristol has a really unique cocktail list, and many of the ingredients, including ginger beer and bitters, are made by hand. I had a very nice Dark and Stormy, and Dave tried something with Pear and Elderberry that was pure nectar. It's casual neighborhood setting and long list of snacks make this a perfect spot to grab a little something; happy hour drinks, pre-evening nibbles, dessert and wine. The kitchen stays hot until 1:00 am on the weekends, too. It's rare for food of this caliber to be available at that hour, and I predict that The Bristol will very soon be known as Chicago's Blue Ribbon.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Party Crackers - Daring Bakers September

Even the most dedicated sweet tooth enjoys a little salt from time to time. The Daring Bakers September test offered a welcome change of pace with a challenge to produce lavash, a crispy flatbread type of cracker, and a dip, spread, or other accompaniment . Participants were given the liberty of seasoning the lavash to their liking, ad the dip had to be gluten-free and vegan (no wheat or animal products).

After mixing and proofing the yeasted dough, I sprinkled it liberally with ground cumin and rolled it to 1/8" thick. I brushed fresh lime juice over the top and sprinkled with kosher salt.

During baking, I realized exactly how scathing the hot spots are in my oven. The entire left side of the pan was full of blackened lavash, while the right side was barely golden. On the second batch, I was careful to rotate the pans midway through baking.

I completed this challenge during the second week of September, while I was still clinging to summer veggies. In an effort to make the most of it, I made a roasted corn salsa with tomatoes, avocado, red onion, cilantro, lime juice, salt and pepper. It had no choice but to be delicious, as is usually the case with fresh produce used at its prime.

This lavash recipe would be great for parties, as it can be flavored a million ways. I'll stash the recipe away for a day when I'm no longer cooking in a finicky, rented oven. Until then, I'll be purchasing my crackers.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Kuma's Corner

On an unassuming stretch of road, in whatever Chicago neighborhood is just west of Roscoe Village, sits a corner bar not unlike other corner bars. From the outside, it's average in stature, except that people pour out the door, waiting for a table or a bar stool. A year ago there was no queued wait, but thanks to the Chicago-centric PBS program, "Check, Please!" Kuma's Corner has been unearthed as a gem.

Two things set Kuma's apart from other pubs with grub. The first thing that hits you, other than the smell from the fryer, is the bewildering clamor of electric guitars and screeching man-falsetto. This place is a heavy metal haven, make no mistake about it. Album covers from bands I've never heard of line the walls. All of the menu items are named after more bands I've never heard of. Dave digs it, I ignore it.

The second thing that makes Kuma's unique, and the reason I keep returning, are the fantastic burgers, which comprise 90% of the menu offerings. Toppings range from traditional condiments and cheeses to stuff that makes you scratch your head and say, "Really? I mean, seriously?" There are well over 20 burger combinations, all beginning with 10 ounces of delicious red meat stuffed into a pretzel roll. There's a rotating monthly special burger. Each selection, as I mentioned, has a metal band namesake. Check it out:

This burger made me really, really happy. I would happily order it again.

A burger sans bun, avec a bunch of extra meat. More like a dinner skillet than a sandwich. Dang, that andouille sausage was spicy!

Diana and Mike enjoyed their first visit to Kuma's, regardless of their facial expressions. Hey, it's an action shot!

Good stuff to know before you go:
If you go at peak dinner hour, expect a wait. Arriving just before 8:00, we happily cozied up to the bar and ordered rounds of craft beers for about an hour-and-a-half before our table was ready. Just after we were seated, we noticed that the wait for tables had completely ceased, and that there were a few open ones around us. Take note: go late, avoid the wait. Or just be happy with the interesting beer selection, like we were.

The music is loud, but conversation is still possible. Keep in mind you're eating dinner in a bar, not at Charlie Trotter's.

The ventilation isn't the greatest. At first, you might find the smells coming from the tiny, open kitchen overwhelming. You'll get used to it, and it will become unnoticeable. And, it's worth it.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Vino, anyone?

There's an event taking place a couple of blocks from my house this weekend - Winefest Chicago. It's a chance to sample a lot of different varietals and speak with wine makers and local chefs. I am particularly interested in going on Saturday afternoon to hear the presentation at 3:15, led by the folks from Lush Wine and Spirits, a great outfit run by people who are really enthusiastic about the beverages they carry. I might also be persuaded to go on Sunday, since it is conveniently located right outside my doorstep. Anyone want to join me for early drinks?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Enter the Apple

The beginning of fall is so pleasant, when luscious berries and stone fruits give way to heartier options. Firm apples in shades of green, pink, and red, curvaceous pears with creamy flesh, and succulent, juicy figs take center stage. Apples are an American grocery store staple. Granny Smiths, Golden and Red Delicious can be found year round. In my mind, their immediate accessibility makes them the fruit equivalent to a desperate, single 33-year-old who will settle for any companion to avoid being alone with themselves. No one wants them, because they're always available.

When autumn hits, and a wide selection of varieties is available, nothing is better than a fresh apple. My favorite to eat out-of-hand is the Honeycrisp, an apple that was bred by crossing a Macoun and a Honeygold. It is refreshingly crisp to the bite, and the juicy flesh is a balance of sweetness and acidity. They're a treat on their own, but they don't hold up well to cooking.

The standbys for baking are supermarket residents; soft and sweet Golden Delicious, and crunchy, tart Granny Smith, but there are many lesser known varieties that are suitable for cooking. Jonagolds, Cameos, Empires, Cortlands, Galas, and Braeburns all hold up to heat without turning to mush. To add depth of flavor to baked goods, try using a combination of apples instead of one variety.

This cake is a variation on a German kuchen. An array of textures meet in your mouth, as crumbly struesel and crunchy hazelnuts mix with supple cake and soft, caramelized apples. It's perfect for breakfast or an afternoon snack, and would be wonderful dressed up with creme anglaise for a formal dessert.

Apple Kuchen

For Streusel
1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup (packed) brown sugar
1/2 cup chopped toasted hazelnuts, skins removed
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

For Cake
4 cooking apples, peeled, halved, cored, cut into 1/8-inch-thick slices
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 3/4 cups cake flour
1/3 cup cornstarch
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup applesauce
2 cups powdered sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 large eggs plus 1 large egg yolk, room temperature

Make Struesel:
Mix first 4 ingredients in medium bowl. Add melted butter and stir with fork until moist clumps form. Chill.

Make Cake:
Preheat oven to 325°F. Butter and flour 10-inch-diameter springform pan.

Combine apple slices, cinnamon, and cloves in a bowl. Toss to coat.

Sift flour, cornstarch, baking powder, and salt into another bowl.

Use an electric mixer to cream the butter, powdered sugar, applesauce, and vanilla extract. Mix until very smooth. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating until well blended after each addition; beat in egg yolk. Add flour mixture and beat just until incorporated. Spread batter in prepared pan.

Arrange apple slices in concentric circles on top of the batter. When the top is completely filled in, sprinkle a handful of struesel over it, and arrange a second layer of apple slices. Sprinkle the remaining struesel evenly over the apples.

Bake cake until streusel topping is crisp and tester inserted into center of cake comes out clean, about 1 hour 20 minutes. Cool cake in pan on rack 20 minutes before removing the sides. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Grace's Best Cookies

The name doesn't lie. These tiny cookies are insanely good.

I'm nearly speechless over this bag of Sunflower Seed cookies, made by Grace's Best in Kansas. Whole Foods suckered me into their purchase with a strategically placed sample tray near the check out counter. One sample led to a second, and then a third (and probably a fourth), before I realized that I absolutely had to buy a bag, and to hell with the steep price tag. At $7.99 for 12 ounces, these are neither the cheapest nor most expensive cookies I've ever bought, but they are right up near the top of the tastiest ones.

These little gems are made with oats, sweet cream butter, and brown sugar The namesake sunflower seeds add just a hint of nuttiness, and add an extra dimension to the overall crunch of the cookie. Overall, the texture of the seeds is barely noticable; not at all like birdseed. My first instinct was to pour the cookies into a bowl, cover them with milk, and eat them for breakfast, but the bag didn't last long enough for that experiment. I'll sample the new "Cookie Crisp" cereal when I get my second bag from Whole Foods. You can also buy Grace's Best Sunflower Seed Cookies here. Don't waste time - buy them now, before I snatch up all available product!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Kabob-A-Thon IV

According to American Heritage Dictionary , there are several ways to spell it:

shish ke·bab also shish ke·bob or shish ka·bob (shĭsh' kə-bŏb')
n. A dish consisting of pieces of seasoned meat and sometimes vegetables roasted on skewers and served with condiments.

No matter how you spell it, skewered meats are fun and delicious. My awesome friends, Delia and Nathaniel, were smart enough to realize the powerful combination of kabobs and the beach, and yesterday we gathered for the Fourth Annual Kebab-A-Thon. All are welcome, all are fed, some poke themselves painfully on skewers.

Beef, pork, chicken, and seafood were represented in this round. Homegrown cherry tomatoes, and all the traditional accoutrement filled out the skewers. My swordfish and bacon kebab recipe came directly from Epicurious.com. The bacon is par-cooked and then threaded around chunks of marinated fish and tomatoes before grilling. The bacon crisps up, guarding the swordfish from drying out. Tomatoes and bacon are a classic combination, and something that I've enjoyed a lot this summer.

This recipe comes together very quickly, and unlike chicken or beef, the fish acquires fantastic flavor from the marinade in just 45 minutes. It's the perfect dish for times when you haven't planned ahead, but still want something delish from the grill.

I anxiously await the fifth installment of Kebob-A-Thon, a day devoted to good eating, drinking, and lazing with friends. If you're interested in A-Thoning with us next year, shoot me an email. The more the merrier!

Monday, September 1, 2008

So Long, Summer

I eat ice cream all year round, but the level of consumption really ramps up during the warmer months. This was the first summer that I owned an ice cream maker. In an effort to reduce my food waste, I used it to make ice cream out of all kinds of things. Right now, the freezer is holding bluebery basil sorbet and lemon buttermilk ice cream. My favorite homemade ice cream of the summer, by far, is one that I made last week. It's a variation on Isaac Mizrahi's Mint Chocolate Chip recipe, found on Epicurious.com. I adjusted the original recipe for ingredients that I had on hand, and I was delighted. There are no artificial flavors or colors in this recipe. It garners all of its biting, crisp flavor from fresh mint leaves. The fresh but strong scent hits the nose long before the spoon reaches the lips. It's cold, refreshing, and not too sweet. I don't think that store-bought mint ice cream will ever cut it again. Here's a horrible photo of some of the mint ice cream enveloped in hot fudge sauce, which I had on hand from the last Daring Bakers Challenge.

Mint Ice Cream with Chocolate Flakes

6 large egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups whole milk
2 cups fresh mint leaves, loosely packed
1 cup heavy cream
5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, shaved into flakes with vegetable peeler

Special equipment: ice cream maker

In large bowl, whisk together egg yolks and 1/2 cup sugar.

In heavy medium saucepan over moderately low heat, stir together milk, cream, remaining 1/4 cup sugar, and mint. Heat until steaming but not boiling, then remove from heat. Allow to steep for one hour.

Reheat to steaming but not boiling.

Ladle about 1/2 cup hot milk mixture into egg yolk mixture, whisking constantly to prevent eggs from cooking, then slowly stir the egg mixture back into the hot milk, whisking constantly. Place over low heat, and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture is nape, 5 to 6 minutes total (do not let boil or custard will curdle). Strain through fine-mesh sieve into large bowl. Press firmly on mint leaves to release their juices. Discard solids. Cover surface of custard with plastic wrap and chill until cold.

Process custard in ice cream maker, adding shaved chocolate during last minute of churning. Transfer to airtight container and freeze until hard.