Snow Days...

As you may have deduced from my relatively small number of posts this month, and the fact that 25% of them had to do with cooking at home, I have been in a bit of a hibernation phase this January. Aside from a few art-house documentaries I went to see (and skipped reviewing, since virtually no one in this audience would be able to see them), I've mostly been staying in and avoiding the cold. Today, however, it was time to get brave and venture out for a bit of winter fun.

Last year, I was impressed by the Snow Days Festival, which I attended mostly because it was basically outside my front door and it seemed ridiculous to miss it. I admired the artistry of the various snow sculptures, and was awed by the quality of the pieces I saw. As a result, I was excited to see signs for this year's festival -- until I noticed that it was being moved from the park across the street to Navy Pier, the epicenter of the Chicago tourism industry. Sure, more people were likely to attend (a benefit in the eyes of the Mayor's Office of Special Events), but I appreciated the intimate quality of the smaller event, and felt that it enriched what is often an impersonal neighborhood in which to live.

Still, I hauled myself, along with Justin and Lauren, out to Navy Pier to take in this year's Snow Days sculpture competition, which was larger in scope, and featured more competitors than last year. The quality of the pieces was just as high, if not higher, and I was glad we made the effort to go, even if it was considerably more of a hassle this year. Check it out for yourself:

My favorite thing about this aquatic scene is the level of detail and texture they were able to achieve in the coral.

This team, which features an eccentric, wild-bearded leader in a tri-cornered hat, also competed at last year's Snow Days Festival. This year, they tackled social commentary with a piece intended to tell the story of the Great Recession.

A team from Russia crafted this detailed work, and it's clear that all that cold weather provides ample practice opportunities.

Although perhaps not the most impressive sculpture of the day, it was nice to see this rendition of Japan's Himeji Castle, which I visited with Katherine in 2008.

Representing the story of Davy Jones' Locker, this sculpture featured a daunting level of detail, down to the individually sculpted doubloons pouring out of the treasure chest at the bottom.

Lauren took this photo of Justin and I in front of the Davy Jones sculpture. It just goes to show the importance of selecting a proper camera setting, as the details are mostly lost without the snow-specific setting in effect.

I appreciated the sense of humor inherent in this one, as well as the creative use of ice for the upper penguin's drumsticks.

Marcel Duchamp's 1912 painting Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 served as the inspiration behind this abstract piece.

This Medusa sculpture was my favorite, and it garnered my vote for "Best In Show." I find that I am always the most impressed by sculptures with lots of gravity defying negative space -- it amazes me that they don't collapse under their own weight.


I Say Potato, You Say Frittata...

Continuing in our weekend of spending time together in the kitchen, Justin and I took on the "white whale" of my cooking career -- the frittata. A frittata is an egg dish, similar to a crustless quiche or a very thick omelet, that is served sliced into wedges. I've enjoyed eating them ever since we made a baked version (that I have long since lost the recipe for) in home economics class in middle school, but so far in my life, successful preparation of this dish has remained elusive.

My most notable frittata failure dates back to my senior year of college. I was attempting to make a tortilla espaƱola (basically, a frittata with fried potatoes and onion), the night before I was scheduled to take the GRE. Leery of trying to flip the frittata and cook it completely on the stove, I opted for the alternative method of starting it on the stove and finishing in the oven. Distracted with stress over the exam, I failed to make the connection that the handle of the pan would be hot (having just come out of the oven), because it was sitting on the stove (where pan handles remain cool to the touch). I picked up the pan by the handle, and burned the shit out of the palm of my hand, causing me to cancel my exam the next day.

Subsequent attempts, though free of physical harm, were uniformly lacking in the deliciousness department. I was so fearful of flipping the frittata and making a mess, that I tried several different techniques to avoid it, none of which yielded a palatable entree.

Despite my lack of success, I was unwilling to give up. When I was hunting for new dishes to try, I was drawn to two separate frittata recipes. One, which I made last week, featured corn, green onions, potatoes, and mozzarella cheese. Although I wasn't crazy about the flavor combination (the corn was too sweet and it overwhelmed the other components), the recipe was a success in that it helped me overcome my fear of flipping. I still made a huge mess trying to do it for the first time, but it was the most well-browned, properly cooked frittata I'd ever produced, even if it was still a bit aesthetically lacking.

Hence, this week, I was willing to try again. This time, I picked a recipe that called for potatoes, onions, and dark leafy greens, all things that Justin enjoys. The original recipe called for kale, but Justin and I were unable to locate any in the produce department at the grocery store, so we went with fresh spinach as a substitute. Graceful as ever, I managed to burn myself with a spatter of cooking oil as I slid the onions and potatoes into the skillet, so Justin did the lion's share of the cooking, whereas I stepped in only to flip the frittata. In spite of my injury, the practice had really helped, and I flipped the frittata without incident, producing the most attractive one to ever grace my stove.

It was also quite tasty, and the cold leftovers made a tasty addition to my lunch in the following days. We had it for breakfast, but it would also make a lovely lunch or light dinner, paired with a salad. Go ahead and give it a try -- the flipping isn't nearly as scary as I had believed for so many years, and with a little practice, you'll be producing perfect frittatas of your own.

Potato and Kale Frittata
adapted from Serious Eats

4 tablespoons olive oil
4 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 3/4 inch dice
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 c. kale, chopped (we substituted fresh spinach)
6 eggs
salt and pepper to taste

1. Pour the olive oil into a large cast-iron skillet set over medium heat. Add the onions and potatoes. Cook, stirring carefully and occasionally, until the onions brown and the potatoes are tender. This should take about 15 to 20 minutes. Toss in the kale and cook for five minutes, stirring occasionally. Turn off the heat and season with salt and pepper.
2. Crack the eggs into a large bowl and whisk together. Pour the eggs into the skillet. Smooth mixture out with a spatula. Cook for about six minutes, until the edges are cooked but the middle is still runny.
3. Slide the half-cooked frittata out of the pan onto a plate. Carefully place the skillet upside down over the frittata, and quickly flip the entire thing, so that the runny side of the frittata is against the bottom of the pan. Cook 5-6 minutes more until well browned.
4. Slide the frittata onto a clean plate, and cut into six wedges for serving.


A Grape Idea...

Although I haven't blogged about it yet, I have been chipping away at my New Year's resolution of trying some new recipes. The results have been largely unmemorable up to this point -- certainly no permanent additions to my cooking repertoire. This weekend, however, afforded the opportunity to tackle some more ambitious recipe choices, as Justin and I decided to stay in this weekend and cook together.

The inspiration for today's project was a recipe I came across when perusing my favorite food blog aggregation site, Tastespotting, earlier this week. I'd spotted a photo of a pizza that looked interesting, and left the page open on my computer. Justin came across the open page when he was using my computer, agreed that it looked interesting and potentially tasty, so we agreed to take a stab at making it for ourselves.The original recipe called for a store bought pizza crust, but I've never had a particularly positive experience with one (not even the Trader Joe's brand, which I've seen uniformly praised), so I opted to use my favorite scratch recipe. I think that was the right call, as the fantastic crust elevated the unorthodox combination of ingredients to a nearly sublime level. Initially, we had been curious as to how grapes would work as a pizza topping, but not unlike the presence of pineapple on the classic "Hawaiian pizza," the grapes created a lovely sweet counterpoint to the salty cheese, pesto, and chicken. It was an extraordinarily balanced pie, and by far the best new dish to come out of my kitchen in ages.

My one piece of advice if you choose to replicate this dish at home (and I strongly recommend you do), is to seek out a high-quality pecorino romano cheese to grate over the top. It provides a very important salty/tangy flavor note. Chicken Pesto Pizza with Grapes
adapted from
Cooking Light

1 batch pizza dough, either store-bought or homemade
1/3 c. refrigerated pesto
1 1/2 c. red seedless grapes, halved
8 oz. chopped rotisserie chicken meat

3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

4 oz. part-skim, low-moisture mozzarella cheese, shredded

3 tablespoons grated Romano cheese

freshly cracked black pepper

1/4 c. sliced green onions

Preheat the oven to the temperature listed in your recipe or on the package, and par-bake the dough until spotty brown; remove from the oven. Spread pesto evenly over dough, leaving a 1/2-inch border around edges. Arrange grapes evenly over dough; top evenly with chicken. Top with garlic and mozzarella; sprinkle with Romano and pepper. Return to oven and bake until crust is golden brown, and cheese has melted. Sprinkle with onions.


The King's Speech...

With the Oscars just a month and a half away, I find myself in much less of a rush to get to the theater to screen the likely contenders than usual. There's just not much that appeals to me this season that I haven't already seen, with one glaring exception that I remedied today -- The King's Speech. As I've explored here in the past, I am an ardent admirer of Colin Firth and his cinematic oeuvre (his embarrassing appearance in What a Girl Wants, and his unfortunate song stylings in Mamma Mia! aside). As a result, The King's Speech would have been on my must-see list even without all the accolades and Oscar buzz.

Thankfully, with regard to Firth's work in The King's Speech, (and that of his equally talented co-stars Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham-Carter for that matter), every piece of positive press was richly deserved. This is a superbly acted film, practically sparking with chemistry between the two male leads. Firth and Rush are infinitely believable as unlikely friends, and their repartee is a joy to watch.

Furthermore, Firth does a commendable job in portraying a stutterer. Often, speech impediments are used for comedic effect in films, or to indicate a dangerous mental imbalance. Firth manages to avoid both associations, and portray George VI compassionately, and turns a monarch into a relatable human being.

Strangely, given my predilection for sad, or otherwise emotionally challenging films, I really enjoyed the uplifting trajectory of The King's Speech. The film carefully cultivates the audience's empathy for the king, and when he ultimately manages to overcome his speech impediment to deliver a clear, unencumbered speech to the British people, we feel we have shared in his victory. If you enjoy feel-good movies (or, like me, even if you don't), do yourself a favor and catch The King's Speech this Oscar season -- it will warm the cockles of your heart, even when the temperatures are bitterly cold.



I bet right now, there's a piece of clothing lurking in the back of your closet that doesn't quite fit anymore, but that you can't bear to get rid of. There's a little voice that pops up every time you look at it, promising that you'll lose that extra weight and wear it again... someday. Every year or so, I try to cull my clothing collection, ridding myself of clothes I haven't worn recently, or won't wear again -- it's the only way to keep my closet even remotely manageable. Even so, there are a few select items that make the cut year after year, because some little part of me can't let go of them, even though they haven't fit in years.

Generally, my weight is not a topic I care to talk about. It's something I've been battling almost my entire life, but not a struggle I like to share with others. I can count on one hand the number of people I've opened up to about it over the years. So I'm not going to go into a deep, soul-baring discussion of it here. However, people have been mentioning it with increasing frequency of late, because they've been noticing a certain change in my appearance.

I've lost twenty pounds in the last six months. I haven't been on a diet per se, so I can't really explain to you how it happened, other than the benefits of therapy, and the effects of having a great boyfriend. By finding new ways to reduce and manage my stress and anxiety through therapy, and finding tremendous joy in my personal life, I find myself relying less on food for comfort.

As a result, I was poking around in my closet today, looking for something to wear, and on a whim, I reached for a skirt that's been languishing there since I was a sophomore in college, circa 2004. It hadn't fit in years, but I always loved it, and I'd been secretly hoping I'd get a chance to wear it again. With my heart racing, I pulled it on, and lo and behold, the zipper zipped and the buttons buttoned! I was so happy I very nearly cried...

So here it is, the skirt that I've been saving for the better part of a decade. It might not look like anything particularly special to you, but to me, it symbolizes a lot, and I'm proud to show it off to all of you today.


That's What Friends Are For...

They say that friends are the family you choose. Even though I don't have any biological sisters, I've managed to curate an extraordinary family of female friends throughout the years, and each has enriched my life in different but equally tangible ways. Today, I was searching for famous quotes to inspire one of my closest girlfriends, who is going through a hard time in her personal life, and I came across a line from Albert Camus that really struck me:
Don't walk in front of me, I may not follow;
Don't walk behind me, I may not lead;
Walk beside me, and just be my friend.
I think those are good words to live by. We can't shield our loved ones from pain, we have to let them make their own decisions, and stand by them, whatever the fallout may be. That is how we foster growth and learning in one another, and build the support systems that are so critical in life. I am truly thankful for the sisters I've brought into my non-biological family, who walk beside me on the journey I'm navigating through life. I can only hope they feel I've enriched their lives as much as they have mine.



Everyone makes New Year's resolutions, and most of us are terrible at keeping them. For my part, I'm pretty sure the only New Year's resolution I've ever kept was my 2008 pledge to start flossing my teeth on a nightly basis. Still, regardless of the 4% success rate I've maintained in following through with resolutions in my 25 years of life, I still managed to come up with a pair of New Year's resolutions for 2011:
  1. As I was reading through my posts from 2010, I discovered that I didn't try a single new recipe in the last year that wasn't for a dessert item. That means I spent a whole year in a cooking rut, and didn't even notice it. Therefore, I've resolved to start working through the piles of recipes I've cut from magazines and newspapers, and start sifting through all the online recipes I've book-marked over the past few years. Time to get back to experimenting in the kitchen!
  2. As soon as the weather improves, I'd like to return to the project I started in August of visiting some of Chicago's most historically and aesthetically significant houses of worship. I want to see the remaining churches on my list, and continue searching for new ones. Chicago is an amazing city, and I want to continue exploring its hidden gems in 2011.
So there you have it folks, in print, for all the world to see. Hopefully with a little outside accountability, I'll be able to follow through this year, and bring up my resolution success rate...


Fields Of Gold...

After a hectic, travel-filled holiday season, I was excited to have one holiday left to celebrate with Justin -- New Year's Eve. We didn't have any special plans, though we did make a brief appearance at a party hosted by one of Justin's friends. Instead, we spent most of the evening quietly at home, just enjoying each others' company, and it couldn't have been more lovely.

To start off the new year, however, we decided to get out and do something slightly more exciting. For months, I'd been spotting signs and banners around the city announcing the Field Museum's latest special exhibit --
Gold -- and searching my calendar for a convenient time to visit. Given the proximity of the museum to my apartment, catching the Gold exhibit seemed like an ideal outing for a cold winter's day.

Justin and I in front of the city skyline -- two of my favorite things in one photo.

Considering the Field Museum featured a special exhibit on diamonds a few months ago, it seems that their recession survival strategy is to lure visitors with the promise of glittery, pretty things. It worked on me, to be sure, but I am left wondering about if they shouldn't be featuring more scientific, anthropological fare in order to truly fulfill their mission.

Justin and I getting the obligatory Sue photo.

Although Gold featured artifacts that had more historical value than the jewelry featured in The Nature of Diamonds, including a range of gold artifacts from various ancient cultures from Europe, Asia, and the pre-Columbian Americas, and present-day uses for gold, such as award statuettes and circuitry, I felt that the actual educational content of the exhibit was lower. The Nature of Diamonds spent a much larger percentage of its space explaining how diamonds are formed and extracted from the Earth, along with the socio-political ramifications of diamond mining. Gold, on the other hand, explained the science behind the metal, and the way it is mined through a series of overly redundant panels and reader rails that easily could have been reduced by half.

We also checked out the other dinosaur exhibit, and had it mostly to ourselves. Clearly, New Year's Day isn't a popular one for museum-going.

Indeed, the artifacts were the star of the show in Gold, but even so, they weren't used to their full potential. There was little written explanation of the objects, and little to contextualize them. It seemed fairly clear to me, that the exhibition's designers assumed their audience would merely look, admire, and move on. Maybe they were right. Perhaps I'm over-estimating the public's appetite for educational material. However, sometimes it's a cultural institution's duty to provide what the public needs, not what they want. The increasing dominance of entertainment over education is troubling, but not something I can hope to resolve here.

My recommendation? If you want to see some bright, shiny artifacts without having to think too hard, go check out Gold. If you'd like to be intellectually challenged, look elsewhere.