Archive for May, 2010

Dear Chicagoans,

I’m about to get a little bossy with you. Bear with me – I promise you’ll be glad you did.

If you get summoned to jury duty at Criminal Court (2650 S. California), do the following:

1) Eat a good breakfast before you hit the road.

2) Don’t panic about being a little late. Things don’t get going right away.

3) Bring a snack, and eat it sometime during the morning hours while you sit reading a good book in a huge, frigid room.

4) When you are released for the lunch break, skip the courthouse cafeteria and Popeye’s Chicken on the corner. Instead, walk a few blocks west on 26th, keeping your eyes out for a colorful mural on the side of a brick building. You’ll notice a few others walking with you who are probably also aware that this neighborhood has great Mexican food, and thus also did their food research when they got their jury summons.

5) Arrive at Taqueria El Miagro, which you know gets 4.5 out of 5 stars on Yelp. Don’t be intimidated by the line – you have an hour and a half. Relax.

6) While in line, enjoy the people watching. The colorful, ultra-casual restaurant has an incredibly diverse clientele.

7) Ignore the obnoxious lady screaming at the bewildered guy behind the counter for not getting her order right.

8 ) Step up to the counter. Breathe in the spicy smells coming from the cafeteria-style service line. Order whatever strikes your fancy. For me, this was:

◊ 1 taco dorado de papa ~ a small, fried tortilla filled with potatoes. Kinda like a very basic samosa, but perfectly flavorful and crispy.

◊ 1 taco de arroz y frijoles ~ an open-faced corn tortilla smothered with refried beans and rice. I requested the additional toppings of avocado, tomato (not really necessary due to the accompanying fresh salsa), peppery cabbage slaw (the clear choice over lettuce), and cheese (“American or fresh?” Um, queso fresco please!)

◊ A sweet Mexican beverage – I chose tamarind, which pretty much tasted like sugar water but was a nice foil to the two dishes above.

◊ And for dessert…1 tamale piña con nuez ~ Open the leaf wrapper to uncover a warm mound of corn masa, subtly sweetened with a honey flavor and studded with pineapple and pecans. This unusual dish may have been my favorite, but it was all so good it’s hard to say.

9) Try to refrain from murmuring “mmm” out loud as you are eating (I may or may not have done this). Revel in the knowledge that the tortillas you just ate were made at the tortilleria next door.

10) Return to the huge, frigid jury room with a full stomach – enough to get you through the grueling questioning by a hotshot lawyer working on a juicy case which will be in all the major newspapers…

Ok, ok…it’s also enough to get you through a few more hours of sitting around until you are dismissed at the end of the day without your panel number ever getting called.

Either way, you ate a really good taco.

Sincerely, Rachel

Photo courtesy of InfoUSA


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Restaurant exploration is one of my favorite activities, but with a student budget it remains a luxury! That’s why it’s great when an event comes along that provides an extra reason to eat out.

In the past month, I have attended two dining events benefiting causes that are important to me.  On April 29, J and I “Dined Out for Life” at Jin Ju in Andersonville, happy in the knowledge that a percentage of our check would be donated to AIDS service organizations. Jin Ju is a favorite restaurant of ours – we love the Korean fare and classy atmosphere enough to ignore the thumping club beats (yes, I admit it, I can be a little curmudgeonly about restaurant music…but that’s another post).

We started with our usual steamed veggie mandoo dumplings, and as usual, the dipping sauce was so good that even the cabbage leaf garnish somehow disappeared. For his entree, J got his favorite bulgogi – beef marinated in soy sauce and sauteed with veggies. I decided to branch out and ordered a couple of appetizers – seaweed and scallion soup in a mussel broth, and tempura vegetables. Sadly, neither was very impressive (the tempura batter was too greasy, and the soup tasted like your basic miso), so next time I’ll go back to bi bim bap or one of the more complex soup entrees.

On to event #2! Last week I went to Wilde in Lakeview with a group of friends in support of marriage equality. Orders ranged from seafood chowder to bison burgers, but I went for the famous mac and cheese – and I was not disappointed. A giant crock of noodles swimming in a creamy cheddar sauce, accented with tomato, caramelized onion, bacon and a garlic crumb crust, all washed down with a cold beer? I’ll be back for more sometime soon, in support of a good cause like…my appetite 🙂

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By now you know how much I love to contemplate food, but I also enjoy contemplating food words, especially those from other languages.  Doesn’t fresa sound perfect for a fresh strawberry? And fromage has the rich, gooey feel that’s just right for cheese. Though in the same language, culinary terminology in England and the US can be quite different. Growing up with a British mum (plus assorted family and friends), I was privileged to gain an alternative food vocabulary.  Here are a few of my favorite American  → British “translations”:









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As my sister and I were out of town last weekend (see “Scenes from L.A.”), our family’s Mother’s Day was a bit belated this year. Happily, we have a flexbile mom who was happy to postpone the celebration! Also happily, these kinds of special events provide an excuse to go all out on a decadent meal.

While I enjoy the adventure of planning a menu, it’s also fun to experiment with ones that have been planned for you. Epicurious.com allows you to search for menus (as well as individual recipes) from past issues of Bon Appetit and Gourmet based on an event, time of year, or specific ingredient. I didn’t find quite what I was looking for in their Mother’s Day files, but under Seasonal ideas I came across “Springtime Country Menu,” which sounded just right.

So, in honor of my mom, my sister, J, and I made the following on Sunday:

  • Crispy Bruschetta with Goat Cheese, Tomatoes and Mint
  • Radicchio, Grapefruit and Spinach Salad
  • Farfalle with Asparagus, Roasted Shallots and Blue Cheese
  • Lemon-Pistachio Tart
  • My dad brought the wine – as suggested, we had Côtes du Rhône (white during appetizers and a red with the meal).

    Photo by Bon Appetit. Ours didn't look quite as pretty, but tasted great!

    A few recipe notes:

    ~Bruschetta: The unexpected mint flavor was a nice change from the more conventional choice of basil. Rubbing the garlic on the warm toast made the kitchen fabulously fragrant!

    ~Salad: Interesting combination of ingredients. I would recommend leaving out the fennel seeds if you are not a fan of licorice.

    ~Pasta: Perfect for blue cheese lovers! Make sure to use a creamy blue so the pasta doesn’t end up dry. We combined a couple different types recommended by the friendly cheese counter guy at Whole Foods, and we’ll certainly be buying the buttermilk blue again (great flavor and price).

    ~Tart: The crust puffs up a lot, so next time I’ll try weighing it down with pie weights or beans while cooking. The lemon custard is amazing – we had a little left over which made for a wonderful breakfast spread!

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    You might think that all salts are created equal, but I’d have to humbly beg to differ. Salt is often essential to bringing out the flavors of a dish, but the flavor of the seasoning itself can vary widely. Over the years I’ve built a preference for different salts for different uses, with the result that we now have a number of types on the go. Currently on our salt spectrum…

    From left to right:

    Table Salt ~ The old standby has the least delicate, most metallic flavor of all the options. On the plus side, it’s cheap to buy in large quantities, and often has added iodine (which helps prevent hypothyroidism). Favorite uses: flavoring pasta water, or in baking.

    Sea Salt ~ Pictured here is French grey sea salt with a handy grinder for breaking it up into more edible bits (while retaining the characteristic crunchiness), but sea salt comes in a huge variety of textures and colors. A delicious – though expensive – version is fleur de sel, which is hand-harvested off the top layer of ocean water in several areas in France. Favorite uses: topping finished dishes from salads to pastas to seafood.

    Kosher Salt ~ Another inexpensive choice, but with a more pleasing texture than table salt. Because of the larger, flat shape of the grains, kosher salt dissolves less quickly than table salt (hence the name: it’s used in making meat kosher because it stays on the surface longer, helping to draw out fluids). Note – you typically need about twice the amount of kosher salt if substituting it for table, but grain sizes differ so check the box for conversion guidelines. Favorite uses: adding to veggies before roasting, or tossing with edamame.

    Specialty Salt ~ I use this title loosely to describe all of those salts you see in gourmet stores which you’re tempted to try despite the ridiculous price tag. Pictured here is a jar of white truffle sea salt flakes, which J put in my Christmas stocking two years ago. We savored it all year and ran out just in time for me to get another holiday treat last year! With that time frame in mind, I say go ahead and splurge on those smoked chipotle salt flakes…

    Not pictured but also a part of our salt collection are seasoning salts: my favorite is Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoing, while J prefers Lawry’s. Both contain salt mixed with other spices such as garlic, but Tony’s main secondary ingredient is red pepper, while Lawry’s is (perhaps surprisingly) sugar, which gives it a milder taste. Either adds a nice little kick to foods like eggs or potatoes.

    Guess I better get to work on a post about pepper…

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    Scenes from L.A.

    I love trips that include food of all kinds: casual, fancy, home-cooked…my recent venture to the West Coast had it all! A few highlights:

    Starting things off right with in-flight cocktails!

    Pickled veggies at Il Tramezzino in Beverly Hills

    Beignets with Venezuelan dipping chocolate and a ginger milkshake at Hatfield's in Hollywood

    Feasting with family: Tom's mushrooms and tomatoes

    Full English breakfast with an American twist (bagel + Trader Joe's black beans)

    Burgers and beer at Father's Office in Santa Monica

    A few of the many options at Yogurtland in West L.A. You serve yourself with as many flavors and toppings as you want, then they price your creation by weight. Nice!

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    I’m off to L.A. for the weekend, and my schedule there will probably mean I’ll have to take a brief hiatus from my “blog post every day for a month” pledge. But before I sign off for a few days…

    My trip to the land of movie stars has gotten me thinking about great food scenes in film. There are tons to choose from, but a nostalgic favorite of mine is the Chocolate Room scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Not the new Johnny Depp remake, but the old-school, Gene Wilder version.

    These days there’s CGI, but the giant candies that look plastic-y now were enough to convince the budding foodie that I was back then. I always wished I could take a drink from the chocolate waterfall (although I’ll pass on the creepy boat ride…you know what I’m talking about).

    Looking forward to thinking about other great food scenes, and entire movies, for a future post!

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