Today For You, Tomorrow For Me...

I cannot tell a lie, while "S" cookies have a place in my heart, they do not have such space in my belly, which is why I also baked some cookies for Thanksgiving that I could be more excited to eat. The "S" cookies may have been a nod to family tradition, but for pure, unadulterated, indulgent deliciousness I baked up a batch of one of my favorites: oatmeal toffee cookies. They are everything that the "S" cookies are not: chewy, rich, unfussy, and somewhat homely, but for what they lack in looks they more than make up for in flavor.

My quest for a perfect oatmeal cookie dates back to Easter of 2005, when I was still in college, and Dad's cousins invited me over to celebrate the holiday with them. One of my cousins had baked a batch of oatmeal cookies, and despite the fact that I was an avowed oatmeal cookie hater (since they almost always have raisins in them, and I more or less consider there to be no room for fruit in my cookies), the smell wafting off of them was intoxicating. I bit into one, and was taken aback by its utter perfection. There was a nutty, caramel-y flavor that I couldn't put my finger on. I thought perhaps peanut butter was involved, but I really couldn't be sure. I consumed an embarrassing number of those cookies that day, and I brought back a goodie bag of them to my dorm. I tried to get the recipe, but no one seemed to know for sure at the time who had made them, although I suspected it was my cousin Abby. The memory of those cookies would haunt me for the next several years as all of my attempts to replicate them failed.

Flash forward to 2008: I was trolling my usual collection of food blogs when I came across a recipe for oatmeal toffee cookies. I had just visited the north of France the previous year, where I was introduced to the splendors of salted caramel and was still deep in the throws of an obsession with all things caramel. I needed something to bring to a barbeque I was attending, so I hunted down the Heath toffee bits that the recipe called for, only to discover that the recipe had been stolen straight from the back of the package! Thankfully, I didn't let my annoyance at the plagiarizing blogger stop me from making the cookies, because they were fantastic. I've ultimately made a few changes since that first batch, such as omitting the cinnamon, which I found to be a distraction from the buttery toffee flavor. In the past year or so, these oatmeal toffee cookies have emerged as one of the most-baked recipes in my cookie repertoire.

Because they are so tasty, I brought along a batch to Thanksgiving in St. Louis last week, only to be asked by my cousin Julie if it was the recipe from the back of the Heath Bits O' Brickle bag. When I responded in the affirmative, she exclaimed, "Oh, Abby makes those! They are SO good!" Turns out, I had stumbled across the recipe for the vaunted cookie of my memories and not even realized it. All I knew was that I had discovered a damn good cookie.

Humble but delicious.

Oatmeal Toffee Cookies
adapted from the Heath Bits O' Brickle bag

1 c. unsalted butter, softened
2 eggs
2 c. light brown sugar, packed
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 3/4 c. all-purpose flour
1 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 c. quick-cooking oats
1 8 oz. package Heath Bits O' Brickle Toffee Bits

1. Preheat oven to 375.
2. Beat butter, eggs, brown sugar and vanilla in a large bowl until well-blended. Add flour, baking soda and salt; beat until blended. Stir in oats and toffee bits with spoon.
3. Drop dough by rounded spoonfuls about 2 inches apart onto a parchment-lined sheet. Bake 8-10 minutes or until edges are lightly browned. Cool 3-4 minutes and remove to a wire rack to cool completely.


All Together Now...

I confess, I was bad this weekend. Not just bad as in overindulging in festive treats (because goodness knows that happened as well), but bad as in I didn't manage to take any photos. But, when you have as gifted a photographer in the family as my cousin, Sheri, there doesn't seem to be much point. I stole some of her pictures off of Facebook, which is why the image quality is a little shaky, but trust me, she is brilliant at what she does. So, with no further ado, here is a photographic journey through our Thanksgiving with the Ingrassias:

Even though we aren't religious, Dad was asked to lead part of the pre-dinner blessing. He also ad-libbed a few words of remembrance for our family who are no longer with us, which was a nice touch.

Aunt Faye enjoyed my "S" cookies, and she's also indulging in another family tradition in this photo: chocolate pudding served in yellow melamine cups. My great-grandmother, Nana, would always make pudding and serve it in similar cups when her grandchildren would come to visit. Although I can't remember her doing it when I was a child, it is something that Dad's generation looks back fondly upon.

I enjoyed moderate success in the annual bingo game. This year, I won a nice photo album and a box of candy with five dollars taped to it. Mom won a lovely art nouveau-inspired coffee cup and a deck of cards.

The day after Thanksgiving, part of the family met up for pizza at my favorite St. Louis pizza place, Dewey's. Their heavenly crust and fresh toppings are the one culinary aspect of St. Louis that I've missed since I graduated. I think we made a lot of converts that day.

There are a lot of kids in the family these days, and this is just a small fraction of them. From right to left: Cousin Julie's son Max, Aunt Carolyn's son Nate, Aunt Faye's daughter Courtney, and Cousin Julie's daughter Cecelia. The kids got a huge kick out of watching the chefs make the pizzas behind the large picture windows looking into the kitchen.

Dad and I enjoyed my favorite pizza topping combination: Canadian bacon and green olives. I know it sounds odd, but somehow it really works. We've been eating it on pizzas in our family ever since I can remember.

It was great to see everyone again this year, and to keep alive all of the traditions that our family has acquired throughout the years. We even watched some old home movies this year, most notably a tape from my first Thanksgiving with the family back in 1985, when I was seven months old. Much has changed since then: my cousins Daniel and TJ were infants that year as well, but there have been many marriages, new babies, and sadly, deaths in the past 24 years. A lot of things are still the same, however. We still use the same oval Chinet plates, eat the same rice and ground beef stuffing, and the same green beans almondine. We still gather gather around the food to say grace before we fill our plates, and we still spend the day "ooo"-ing and "aah"-ing over the new babies in the family. No matter how the faces change in the years to come, I'm sure that these things, at least, will remain the same.


Happy Thanksgiving...

Christmas may be my favorite holiday, but Thanksgiving ranks pretty highly for me as well. Basically, I enjoy any occasion that gives me the excuse to eat a ton of delicious food whilst surrounded by family that I don't get to see often enough. Ever since I can remember, our family tradition has been to spend Christmas with Mom's family, and Thanksgiving with Dad's. Since Dad's family is smaller and more widely dispersed, this has always meant that we have spent the holiday with Dad's cousins, who are numerous and concentrated in the St. Louis area. The actual celebration has moved from home to home over the years, and the family has gotten progressively larger over time, but the essentials of the experience are still the same.

While I'm sitting down to a plate of turkey, more pie than you can shake a stick at, the traditional post-Thanksgiving luncheon meal of Italian sausage, and sitting out on the annual game of "Rob Your Neighbor," here are the top three things that I have been thankful for in 2009:

I am truly blessed to have both of my parents in my life, and that both of them are healthy. There are so many people out there who are not as fortunate. Not only are they alive and well, we enjoy a very close relationship, and they are supportive of my decisions, and invested in my success. They put a roof over my head, even though I don't directly live with them, and this allows me to enjoy a lifestyle that I would be unable to lead otherwise. I am lucky to have them in my life.

I am also thankful for all of my extended family, and for the social networking tools like Blogger and Facebook that allow me to keep in touch with them. The world is a much smaller place than it used to be, and that's a good thing in my book.

The past year has seen considerable change within my group of friends. I have reconnected with old friends, met and bonded with new people, and ended a few toxic relationships. As John Dunne wrote, "No man is an island," and I am very thankful to have expanded my support network with such great people.

In the midst of the Great Recession (and despite what the economists say, it certainly doesn't feel like things are in much of an upswing lately), I am very thankful to have a job, even it is a temporary position. I have a steady source of income that is actually related to what I studied in college, does not involve multiple hours a day of data entry, and does not involve being on my feet all day. I get to work at the institution that I long dreamed of working for. Even if I don't love every aspect of what I do, I am very lucky and thankful for my job, and the people I have met through it.

All things considered, it has been a great year, and I am feeling very fortunate indeed. What are you thankful for this Thanksgiving?


Why Does He Fiddle On The Roof?


Every family is full of idiosyncratic rituals that baffle outsiders. In Dad's family, one of these traditions can be found in the form of "S" cookies, an anise-flavored confection with pastel icing whose recipe has been in the family as long as the family has been in America. They are dry, crumbly, and like many Italian cookies, more palatable when dunked in coffee. They are definitely an acquired taste, and seeing as how I don't drink coffee, my modest enjoyment of them is rooted largely in childhood nostalgia. However, they are Dad's favorite cookie, so I tend to whip up a batch for special occasions like Father's Day and Dad's birthday. Since the "S" cookies are a family specialty, and we are heading down to St. Louis tomorrow to spend Thanksgiving with Dad's side of the family, I decided this year that my contribution to the annual feast would be a batch of them.

The icing was actually purple, but it was hard to get a decent photo of it in the kitchen lighting.

I'm not going to share the recipe for these with you, because I seriously doubt that anyone outside of the family would want to eat them. Instead, I will share a memory with you:

I have lost both of my grandparents on my father's side, but one of my happiest memories of them comes from one of my annual summer visits to their house. Near the end of each trip, my grandparents and I would bake up a massive batch of "S" cookies to bring home to Dad. When I say massive, I do not exaggerate: my copy of the recipe, scrawled out on a piece of notepaper by my grandpa for me when I was just starting to learn to bake, calls for 12 cups of flour and 3 cups of shortening, yielding approximately 9 dozen cookies! Nana would make the dough, and Grandpa Jack and I would shape the cookies, rolling them into snakes and then forming the snakes into "S" shapes. The cooling cookies would be perched on every horizontal surface of the kitchen while they were waiting to be decorated.

One year, with the typical inquisitiveness of a young child, I asked Grandpa why we made "S"-shaped cookies when our last name starts with an "L." He didn't know why, just that that was how we had always done it. That year we experimented with "L" shapes, and plain round cookies, but in subsequent years we reverted to the classic form. Why? It's not like they taste any better when shaped like an "S." Indeed, I've never shared them with anyone who didn't grow up eating them who actually liked them. It's just tradition.


And So It Begins...

I just couldn't wait any longer -- Thanksgiving is only a couple days away, but that didn't stop me from getting a head start on Christmas this weekend. Given the large volume of decorations I have to put up, and my increasingly crowded calendar for the month of December, I decided it would be in my best interest to do my decorating gradually, over a number of days. There will be no photos until I've completed my masterpiece, so you'll just have to wait to see it for the time being.

I also got a start on testing new cookie recipes for this year's Cookie Bonaza, the multi-day period before Christmas in which I bake cookies, package them attractively, and distribute them to friends and coworkers. Last year, I made a few classics, and a few cookies for the first time and wasn't entirely pleased with the results, although I didn't have the time to bake replacements and had to box them anyway. Everyone seemed to like my offerings just fine, but I couldn't shake the sense that I could have done better. Therefore, this year I decided to do a little test-driving in advance, to weed out the recipe clunkers.

First on my list for this year was Maple Pecan Shortbreads, from Martha Stewart's Cookies: The Very Best Treats To Bake And Share. I had made her Chewy Chocolate Gingerbread Cookies for last year's Cookie Bonanza, and they were a huge hit, even though I didn't care much for them myself (as it turns out, I just don't like molasses in general), so I thought I would give another one of her recipes a try. Plus, I have been hunting for a good maple-nut cookie for ages. An experiment last year with a recipe from King Arthur Flour was a bust (too much artificial maple flavor and a poor texture), but I was undeterred.

Aside from producing more than five dozen cookies when the recipe claimed it would produce a mere two dozen, the cookies turned out well, and were quite attractive. My only problem with them is that they tasted mostly like buttery shortbread, and not very much like maple. They were still delicious, just not quite what I wanted. I think, if I had decorated the tops of them with maple sugar instead of the raw, turbinado sugar that the recipe called for, there would have been more maple flavor, but that's an experiment for another day.

Martha used plain round cookie cutters, but I think the fluted ones add a nice touch.

Maple Pecan Shortbread
adapted from Martha Stewart

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cake flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup finely-chopped pecans
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup real maple syrup
1 large egg yolk
1/4 teaspoon maple extract
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Maple sugar, for sprinkling
5 dozen pecan halves, for decorating

1. Into a medium bowl, sift flours and salt. Whisk in 1/2 cup chopped pecans, set aside.
2. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter and granulated sugar on medium-high speed until smooth and light, about one minute. Add the maple syrup, egg yolk, and extract; beat on medium speed until well combined. On low speed, gradually add flour mixture, beating until just combined. Dough should be smooth and pliable. Flatten into a disk. Wrap in plastic; chill until firm, at least an hour and a half or overnight.
3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line baking sheet with parchment paper.
4. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out dough to 1/4 inch thick. Cut out rounds using a two-inch cookie cutter; place one inch apart on prepared baking sheet. Brush tops with beaten egg; lightly press a pecan half into the center of each cookie. Sprinkle the entire surface with maple sugar.
5. Bake cookies, rotating baking sheet halfway through, until golden around the edges, 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Store in airtight containers at room temperature up to four days.



Although I skipped this weekend's Muppet screenings at the Gene Siskel Film Center (they weren't showing anything I couldn't watch on DVD), I did still make it out to the cinema today, this time to catch the much-buzzed-about potential Oscar contender, Precious. Let me just say this right off the bat: I liked this movie. I didn't love it, I didn't think it was the greatest movie I've ever seen, I don't think every actress in it deserves an Oscar nomination, but I did like it and I did find it uplifting despite the very disturbing situations it explores.

Much has been made of Mariah Carey's portrayal of Precious' social worker, and the de-beautifying that she undertook for the role. While the performance was certainly an improvement over some of Mariah's other roles (I'm looking at you Glitter), I still didn't sense much genuine emotion in her acting. Even when stripped of the artifice of her glamorous persona, I'm not sure that she can act. She should stick to her day job.

The star of the film, Gabourney Sidibe, fared much better in her first on-screen role. She managed to capture the depth of Precious' pain at the hands of her incestuous father and abusive mother, and her mix of escapism, despair, and hope as she confronts monumental challenge after monumental challenge. Compared with other actresses her age, her feat was impressive. However, I thought her performance was overshadowed by the actress who I consider to have the best chance of winning an Oscar for her work in this film: Mo'Nique.

With a resume that includes such work as Phat Girls, Mo'Nique's Fat Chance, and Flavor of Love Girls: Charm School, there wasn't much to inspire my confidence that Mo'Nique possessed the dramatic chops to conquer so challenging a role as that of Precious' violent, self-consumed mother, Mary. As Mary, Mo'Nique was genuinely terrifying and repugnant, and the strength of her portrayal affected me on a visceral level. For an actress to step so far outside of her traditional type-casting with such ferocity is far more Oscar-worthy in my opinion than the willingness to be filmed without makeup, as Mariah Carey did. It may not be pleasant to watch on its own, but I think Mo'Nique's performance is reason enough to head to the theater and see Precious.

If you need further convincing, take heart in the fact that the film ends on what I considered to be a positive note, or at least a hopeful one. Despite the horrifying events that Precious faces, she does not let them define or conquer her. Plus, there is a great deal of comic relief interspersed throughout the film to lighten the mood. I was concerned that seeing Precious would leave me depressed for the entire day, but it was ultimately much less sad than I had originally anticipated. So, take heart, and get yourself to the movie theater before Oscar season roles around!


One Of These Things Is Not Like The Other...

Fusion cuisine can be a polarizing thing. Some critics have dubbed it, "confusion cuisine," and consider it an over-used culinary device that relies more on novelty than taste in attracting diners. Much like molecular gastronomy, which also has its share of detractors, I don't have anything against fusion cuisine. I might not want to eat it every day, but I think it's a positive, enriching experience to expose myself to new flavor combinations and to expand my ideas about what food can be.

When Caitlin invited me to try Belly Shack, the latest "fast-casual" concept from acclaimed Chicago chef, Bill Kim (whose previous venture, Urban Belly, lent part of its name to the new restaurant), I agreed right away. I'd been wanting to try Urban Belly for ages, but its location in Avondale makes it more or less inaccessible without a car. Belly Shack, however, is located directed under the Western station on the Blue Line. Its accessibility would give me the chance to sample chef Kim's food, but my excitement was quelled when I did further reconnaissance on the weeks-old restaurant: Belly Shack features Korean/Puerto Rican fusion.

First of all, Korean and Puerto Rican food seemed to have nothing in common that would suggest that they could create a harmonious blend. The two countries are more or less on opposite sides of the planet. Plus, my only experience with Korean food was the odoriferous kimchi that my college roommate, Jena, used to eat for breakfast, the smell of which almost always put me off of eating mine. I ultimately decided that a little culinary adventure would be good for me, and that if Belly Shack could pull off a mash-up of Korean and Puerto Rican cooking, then perhaps Urban Belly would be worth the odyssey it would take to get there.

Tonight, Caitlin and I met up after work at Belly Shack, which, true to its word, was directly underneath the El station. Thankfully, the building seemed to have some impressive sound insulation, as I only noticed the passing of the trains overhead when incoming patrons opened the door. The atmosphere was minimal: there was minimal lighting, there was minimal seating (no chairs, only stools clustered around a handful of two person tables and a large communal table), and the decor was limited to some Latin-themed wall murals. Caitlin and I both ordered the same meal: the Asian Meatball "Sammich," a shared side-dish of tostones with chimichurri sauce, and soft-serve ice cream with bacon and chocolate chip topping.

The food turned out not to be quite the train wreck I had anticipated, but I'm not sure I'd be motivated to return to have it again. The meatballs in my "sammich" were tasty enough; they were coated in a sweet glaze of which I believe one of the primary components was plum sauce. However, it came in a pita that was so overstuffed with meat, noodles (yes, on a sandwich, go figure), and hot sauce (which wasn't advertised on the menu) that it was impossible to eat with your hands. I had to use a knife and fork, which made it difficult to get a little bit of each component in every bite. I will say though, that the homemade pita bread was fantastic. The tostones were also acceptable, although I think it's hard to go wrong with fried starchy vegetables. I was not a fan of the chimichurri sauce, but I knew in advance from prior experience that it is not one of my favorite flavors. I had been hoping that it would come on the side, but no such luck.

In all the reviews I had read of Belly Shack, the bacon-chocolate soft serve seemed to receive the most universal acclaim, but again, I thought it was just okay. Unlike the rest of the food blogosphere, I don't really understand what all the bacon-in-dessert hype is all about, but I figured I would try it anyway. I think the dish would have been more successful had it been chocolate soft serve with bacon crumbles, but I found the cloying sweetness of the vanilla soft serve overpowering against the backdrop of bacon and chocolate -- I scarcely noticed that the topping was there.

In my opinion, the clash of cultures occurring at Belly Shack proved to be somewhat of a non-event. The highlight of my evening there turned out to be the chance to hang out with an old friend, and to complete one of my longstanding Chicago-based goals: I have now ridden every CTA train line. For months, the Blue Line had stood as the only route I had never had an occasion to take. I had thought about riding it a few stops just so I could scratch it off my list, but I felt that it would be cheating if I wasn't riding it to get somewhere I needed to go. I'm glad that I was able to finish my quest before the end of 2009; now I just need to come up with a new goal for 2010...


Reality Bites...

My life is pretty great, most of the time. In the last 48 hours, I've been to the Gene Siskel Film Center twice: once to see my beloved Emmet Otter's Jugband Christmas and once to see Labyrinth for the first time. I am lucky to live in a city that offers such opportunities, and for the free time and the disposable income to take advantage of them. However, all the interesting, blog-worthy activities that I engage in often keep me from attending to the boring household chores that need to get done. Tasks pile up until I can't stand it anymore, and much as I might not want to, I have to take the time to clean and organize my apartment, which is precisely what I did this weekend (Emmet Otter aside).

This may not be the best song in Emmet Otter's Jugband Christmas, but it's certainly the one that gets the most stuck in my head.

I was particularly motivated this weekend, because this week we have an appointment with an appraiser who is going to evaluate the condo in conjunction with a mortgage refinancing that my parents are undertaking. Things are going to have to look their best in order to showcase the apartment in its best light. Hence, I spent time vacuuming, doing dishes and laundry, and generally tidying up. The larger undertaking, however, was tackling some of the projects that I'd been meaning to get around to for a long time.

I finally felt the impulse to take action on them, so I figured I should capitalize on my sense of motivation before I lost it again. As a result, I dismantled the refrigerator, got rid of all the questionable contents, washed and sanitized the drawers and shelves, and replaced them. I also went through the contents of both of the closets that hold my clothes, removed anything that was damaged or had gone unworn in the past year, and reorganized the remainder by clothing type (i.e. all the sweaters together, all the blouses together, all the trousers together, etc.), and packaged the rejects to donate to charity. It was tedious and unpleasant work, but I feel a tremendous sense of relief in not having these tasks hanging over my head anymore. It certainly wasn't my most entertaining weekend in recent memory, but sometimes a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do.


Mah Na Mah Na...

The release and subsequent success of This Is It seems to have cemented the status of Michael Jackson's musical genius in the minds of many, but so far, I have resisted the temptation to buy into all the hype. Instead, I spent my weekend at the cinema celebrating the genius of another performer cut down in his prime -- Jim Henson. After all, the Muppets he created have been a part of my life since before I can remember. My mom has always been a huge Muppets fan and she started my immersion in Muppet culture at a very early age.

Here I am as a toddler, surrounded by Muppets paraphernalia.

I know that I must have watched Sesame Street growing up, and I was quite fond of several other shows as well, but I can remember with the greatest amount of clarity watching Muppet Babies and tapes of old episodes of The Muppet Show. The Muppet Show provided my earliest introduction to pop music, and for years whenever I would hear the original, non-Muppet version of a song that they had performed, my first thought was inevitably, "Hey, that's the Muppets' song!" In fact, embarrassingly, it wasn't until I started studying the Vietnam War in college that I paid attention to the lyrics of Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" and realized that the song was actually about social protest, and that the Muppets had rewritten the words to relate to the woodland creatures in their sketch.

Nostalgia being the powerful force that it is, I still love the Muppets today. When the Gene Siskel Film Center (Chicago's preeminent screening space for independent, experimental, foreign, and classic films) held a retrospective on Jim Henson last year, I was lazy about making my way there to see it, and I ended up only catching Emmet Otter's Jugband Christmas. Even though I was somewhat disproportionally excited about seeing it again (the only version you can find on DVD has had portions excised due a legal battle with Disney), I didn't realize how sad I was to have skipped the other screenings until I saw on the Siskel Center website that they were bringing back a new Henson retrospective this month due to popular demand. Immediately I vowed to be more diligent about attending. After all, second chances in life are rare, much less third.

Hence, Saturday found me at the Gene Siskel Film Center with Mom, watching Muppets History 201, a collection of rare clips from Muppet performances and television appearances, many of which came from Henson's very early career, when he was still experimenting and refining his craft. There were surprisingly violent commercials for Wilkin's coffee from the 1950s, appearances from The Ed Sullivan Show and other variety shows, and some test footage of Jim Henson as Kermit and Frank Oz as Fozzie wandering the British countryside in a car, testing the viability of shooting the Muppets on location for a potential movie (a project which later became The Muppet Movie). All of these pieces gave me a much deeper appreciation for Henson's genius. He brought puppetry to new media, and expanded everyone's conception of what puppets could be and what they could accomplish. It was truly inspiring.

Sunday I returned to the theater for another Muppets screening -- Muppets Music Moments. This compilation featured memorable music performances from The Muppet Show, and although they didn't offer any rare or less-frequently seen footage, it was still a crowd-pleasing selection. Almost all of my favorites were represented: "Mah Na Mah Na," of course, Kermit singing a jungle-themed version of "Coconut," Harry Belafonte's African-themed rendition of "Turn the World Around," the woodland creatures hiding from hunters in "For What its Worth," Viking pigs singing "In The Navy" and biker pigs singing "I Get Around," and my personal favorite, Linda Ronstadt singing "Blue Bayou" accompanied by ribbeting frogs. The presentation may not have expanded my appreciation of the Muppets, or their history, but it was a powerful dose of nostalgia that totally made my day.

Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more Muppets screenings to come in the month of November, and I am pleased as punch. Some things you never outgrow...


How the Recession Stole Christmas...

Much as I may feel ambivalent about Halloween, for me, Christmas is a different story entirely. I LOVE Christmas. As soon as Thanksgiving passes, I break out the "Holiday Mix" on my iPod. I decorate my apartment even when there's nobody there to see it, and I leave up the decorations for months, not just because I'm lazy (which is partially true), but because having Christmas decorations around makes me happy. I have an excuse to experiment with new recipes, and bake copious amounts of cookies and gift them to people. I salivate over wired ribbon, and get a high from the methodical wrapping of presents. Unlike many people I know, I don't mind the fact that holiday merchandise starts showing up after Halloween now. I say, bring it on. There's no such thing as too much Christmas in my book.

So it was with no small amount of dismay that I read the recent news out of the Mayor's Office of Special Events that the City of Chicago is being forced to reduce the size of the municipal Christmas tree due to recessionary budget restraints. In previous years, the mammoth tree (which stands in Daley Plaza) has actually been a structure built out more than a hundred smaller trees tied together. This adds not only size, but the structural stability for the display's many ornaments. Instead, this year's display will consist of one large tree donated to the cause by a suburban family. Since the branches will no longer be able to support heavy ornaments, the tree will have festive lights only. The city seems to be of the mind that we should be grateful to have any tree at all -- apparently many municipalities are forgoing trees all together to save money.

Still, I'm not sure that I can be content with the rationalization that "half of the normal tree is better than no tree at all," especially when the Daley Plaza tree figures so prominently in one of my favorite holiday traditions. In recent years, Lisa and I have made it our new tradition to take a trip over to the city's German-themed holiday market, the Christkindlmarkt, take in the sights, smells, and flavors, and pose for a photo in front of the Christmas tree. It doesn't matter that Lisa is Jewish and doesn't celebrate Christmas - shared traditions are as important to friendships as they are to families. There is comfort to found and bonds to be forged in engaging in a special ritual, whether you have been doing it forever or just a few years.

Lisa and I will still go have our picture taken in front of the Daley Plaza tree this year. It won't quite be the same, but I am determined that even if the Great Recession has taken away half of our tree, I will not let it dampen my Christmas spirit.

2006: The inaugural year for our annual photo in front of the Daley Plaza tree. This was actually after Christmas, because the Christkindlmarkt had been dismantled, and we could actually stand far enough away to get most of the tree in the shot.

2007: The year that the photo became a tradition. This time, we made it before Christmas, and got to check out all the vendors at the Christkindlmarkt. We skipped the popular mulled wine, but the wafting scent of roasted nuts was enough to put me in the holiday spirit.

2008: The first year we've made it to the Plaza during the daytime. The weather was terrible, but we braved the elements to keep up our yuletide tradition. Note that the city recycled the ornaments from 2007 to cut costs in the first year of the Great Recession.


A Fiesta of Flavor...

As I recently discussed in my post about the virtues of life in Chicago, my fair city has quite a crop of renowned chefs. However, there is only one among this group who we can claim as a bonafide home-grown celebrity chef: Rick Bayless.

Bayless started his career in anthropological linguistics, and developed his interest in Mexican cuisine during the time he spent there while working on his doctoral studies. He penned a seminal cookbook on Mexican food and hosted a PBS miniseries based upon it before entering the Chicago food scene twenty years ago, with his first restaurant, Frontera Grill, which focused on authentic Mexican food (as opposed to the Tex-Mex style that dominated the American food scene). Frontera Grill's success was followed by that of Bayless' next venture, Topolobampo, a Mexican fine-dining concept with a seafood focus, and his own nationally-syndicated cooking show on PBS, Mexico: One Plate at a Time. Just this year, he competed as a "cheftestant" on Top Chef Masters, and proved victorious over prominent chefs from across the country.

Given his cult of celebrity, I've always been a little embarrassed to admit that I've never eaten at any of his restaurants. Frontera Grill and Topolobampo are a little too far out of my personal price range, and my parents never seemed interested in eating at either of them. Therefore, I was more than a little excited to hear that Bayless was preparing to open a third restaurant in the city, Xoco. His new project would be a fast-casual concept (somewhat akin to an upscale Panera) with a menu inspired by Mexican street foods such as churros, tortas (sandwiches), and soups. With most of the menu items priced at $12 or less, Xoco would definitely fall more within my budget, and its opening was hotly anticipated by not only me but several of my friends.

Even so, I felt it was important to give the initial buzz some time to wear off (as I had seen first-hand the line winding out the door when I passed it on the bus one day shortly after its grand-opening), so I did not have the opportunity to check it out until today, when I joined Lauren there for dinner. I will say, there were several idiosyncratic operational choices at Xoco that were not particularly user-friendly: since the restaurant is intended to do a brisk take-away business and to cater to diners on the run, there are not many tables, and counter seating is at a premium as well; you must have a place to sit before you can order and they assign you a number once you have a seat that enables you to jump to the front of the line, in front of the people waiting to order take-out food; you must order all of your food at once (entree, dessert, beverage, etc) but you can opt to have the different parts of your meal brought out at different times, and you must return to the counter when you are ready for the next part of your food to come -- very strange. I had read about all of these things before we ever set foot in Xoco, but I still felt like I needed an instruction manual to eat there.

That aside, some aspects of the food experience were extraordinary, others not as much. Lauren and I both ordered hot chocolates to start off the meal. Bayless' staff hand-grinds the chocolate from cacao beans in the restaurant. Yes, you read that right. They don't just make hot chocolate, they make the chocolate that goes into it. It was a transcendent experience. I ordered an Aztec hot chocolate, which was spiced with chili and allspice, and the aroma wafting off of it was out-of-this-world. Lauren was similarly pleased with her order, which featured chocolate mixed with almond milk instead of traditional cow milk.

The beverages got the meal off to such a soaring start that I could scarcely avoid being disappointed with my choice of entree. I selected the Ahogada sandwich, which featured pork carnitas (meat that has been roasted or braised and then briefly griddled to make it succulent on the inside and crispy on the outside), black beans, and pickled onions, and was described as being served with "tomato broth," ostensibly for dipping.

Unfortunately, and oddly, the sandwich arrived upright in the bowl of soup, such that the submerged portions were already soggy and the toppings were falling out. The flavors were okay, and the balance of spiciness was right on, but I couldn't shake my sense that the whole thing would have been better if the sandwich had been on the side of the soup instead of in it. Also, the pork wasn't quite as juicy or tender as I had been hoping. Still, it wasn't bad by any stretch of the imagination, and the rest of our meal was so outstanding that I would be more than willing to return and try a different menu item, especially one of Xoco's soups.

For dessert we opted to try the churros, which are fried to order and have been recieving a tremendous amount of buzz across the Chicago foodie blogosphere. They more than lived up to the hype. They were steaming hot and perfectly crunchy -- easily the best churros that I've ever sampled, not that I'm any sort of authority on the subject. The only thing I would do differently would be to order them at the same time as the hot chocolate to enable dipping. On their own, each item was incredible. I suspect that with their powers combined, they would be completely mind-blowing.

Despite the delicious food, the most exciting part of the evening occured after the meal, while I was waiting in line for the ladies' room. I was zoning out, not paying much attention, when a figure passed my field of vision. Just as it was about to walk out of sight, I realized that it was Rick Bayless himself! He had walked right past me and into the kitchen, and I very nearly missed him. I didn't have the chance to get a photo, or even say something to him, much less something intelligent, but I still saw him at his own restaurant. It was good to see that he was taking a hands-on role at his new venture. So many celebrity chefs are keen to manage their restaurant empires from afar while they make appearances on television and at food events, but not Mr. Bayless it seems.

I have no doubt that I will give Xoco another try, probably many more, and I'm confident that they will iron out their early challenges with their seating and ordering protocols. After all, Bayless' other restaurants have withstood the test of time, the food at Xoco is a solid product, and if his recent win on Top Chef Masters is any indicator, he hasn't lost his touch.


Veggie Tales...

In the six months that I have been blogging, a transformation has taken place. The need for material to write about has prompted me to get out and take advantage of more of the events and happenings occurring in my beloved city, and it has made me more adventurous. Today, when Natasha asked me if I wanted to to check out Karyn's Cooked, a vegan restaurant where she had been offered a free pizza, my first instinct was to say no. The offer had come from a proselytizing waitress she had met, who was hoping to convert her to a vegan lifestyle. Free or not, I couldn't wrap my head around the idea of rice protein cheese. But, just as I was about to decline, I thought to myself, "Why not? Even if it's terrible, it'll still make an interesting story for my blog." So I agreed to step way outside my comfort zone and give vegan food a try.

Much as I felt out of place, the atmosphere at Karyn's Cooked was relatively inviting, in an upscale sort of way. Our waitress, the one who Natasha had met earlier that day, was very friendly, and eager to spread the vegan gospel. She brought out the appetizer-sized pizza in short order, and fielded our questions about the menu with aplomb.

After all of my trepidation, the pizza turned out to be mostly okay. The ultra-thin and crispy whole-wheat crust isn't my favorite style, generally speaking (bring on the thick, chewy, and bready crust for me!), but it was edible. The scary rice cheese did not stand out in any way, which was probably for the best. The single thing most contributing to my dislike of the pizza was the presence of bell peppers and black olives as toppings. I would imagine that people who like "supreme-style" pizzas would probably have no problems with this vegan incarnation.

Since the pizza was just an appetizer-sized portion, and I didn't care for it much anyway, I decided to leave it for Natasha, and I ordered a "steak wrap" as an entree. The wrap consisted of seitan, a meat substitute that supposedly has a more meat-like texture than tofu, lettuce, grilled onions (and peppers, which I requested to be omitted), and a spicy chipotle sauce. It initially came with the peppers intact, but the very nice waitress corrected it for me while apologizing profusely, and overall, I actually found myself enjoying it against all of my better judgement. The seitan was thinly-sliced, and actually reminded me of the re-heated frozen gyros that they used to serve in the cafeteria when I was in college. It definitely didn't taste like steak, and I wouldn't want to eat it every day, but it was surprisingly filling and palatable.

In another instance of great service, the waitress also brought us a free sampling of the various meads they offer on their organic alcoholic beverage list. Since my only experience with mead came from reading Beowulf in middle school, I had asked her about what the beverage was made from, and she responded by offering us tasting portions. Although they all reminded me a little bit too much of wine for my tastes, I didn't mind a mild selection with pomegranate overtones. Natasha's favorite was one with strong berry notes, and neither of us much cared for the floral flavors of the waitress's favorite selection. Much like my experience with the seitan, I doubt that I'll be hanging out at the neighborhood mead-hall, but it was worth trying once.

All in all, vegan food wasn't quite the ordeal I had expected. I wouldn't go so far as to call it delicious, but it was certainly a worthy adventure, and I have you, my readers, to thank for inspiring me to keep an open mind to new experiences.