A Chip On Your Shoulder...

Now that we are almost a whole month into 2013, I feel like I've been making decent strides towards working on my New Year's resolutions. For January, I feel like I've made a good-faith effort to get out of the house by checking out the Zoo Lights, seeing the Maharaja exhibit at the Field, and trekking downtown to see the Snow Days Festival. Not bad for the dead of winter, eh?

Though I'm not quite ready to tackle Grandma's caramel recipe yet, there was one thing left on my to-do list that I had not yet started to chip away at: trying more cookie recipes. And I knew just which one I wanted to go for first -- a shortbread-type cookie featuring potato chips in a salty-sweet mash-up, from Smitten Kitchen. It had been calling to me from my baking board on Pinterest, and there was finally a deal on potato chips at the store. It appeared that the time had come for these cookies, right under the wire for January.

God knows what must go throw Justin's mind when I take on an unusual project like this. When he saw the chips going into the grocery cart, he said, "Chips? Yay!" When he wandered into the kitchen while I was baking, he said, "Having a little snack while you bake?" These were all rational assumptions, and I didn't feel a need to tell him he was off-base.

Which is why, when I handed him a freshly-baked cookie, he had no idea there were potato chips inside, despite the fact that they were crumbled on top as a garnish. When I asked him to guess the secret ingredient, he suggested nuts, which were in fact in the cookies, but not exactly the response I was going for, and I finally had to shed light on the matter. Apparently, potato chips aren't such an oddball addition to sweets after all, in fact, they barely stand out.

Don't get me wrong, both of us liked the cookies, and I enjoyed the extra crunch provided by the chips. However, I think the potato chips put me in the wrong frame of mind to really fall In love with this recipe. I was ready for something saltier, and at the end of the day, thinking about chips just made me want to sit down with a bag and go to town on the chips themselves.

In my opinion, baked goods should be an indulgence unto themselves, not leave you jonesing for another snack. I guess it's a good thing that I have all year to find more contenders for this year's Cookie Bonanza!

Potato Chip Cookies
adapted from Smitten Kitchen

1 cup (2 sticks or 225 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar, divided
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon table salt (optional, see note above)
1/2 cup chopped and toasted pecans
1/2 cup finely crushed potato chips
2 cups (250 grams) all-purpose flour

Potato chip salt finish (optional)
1 tablespoon crushed potato chips
1 1/2 teaspoons flaked sea salt

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside. In a large bowl, cream together the butter with 1/2 cup of the sugar until lightly and fluffy. Mix in the vanilla and table salt, if using, until smooth. Add the pecans, 1/2 cup crushed potato chips and flour together and mix until just combined.

Place the remaining 1/2 cup sugar in a small bowl. Scoop a tablespoon-sized mound of dough and form it into a small ball with the palms of your hands. Roll the ball in the remaining sugar until coated. Place on prepared baking sheet and using the bottom of a drinking glass to slightly flatten the cookies. Cookies only need to be an inch apart; they only spread a little. Sprinkle with a few flakes of the potato chip salt, if using. Repeat with remaining dough.

Bake cookies until lightly golden at the edges, about 15 minutes. Transfer to cool on a wire rack.


Rise and Shine...

In the course of our nearly two and a half years together, one thing has remained a constant - Sunday morning breakfasts are, and always have been, Justin's domain. Early in our relationship, I suspect Justin assumed this responsibility as a means of impressing me, but now that we've been living together for a year, I think it has more of a practical basis -- Justin always wakes up hungry and wants to eat right away, whereas I am content to grab some extra sleep while he toils in the kitchen, because my hunger instincts don't kick in until later. Still, I appreciate the extra time to lounge in bed, and I still love being waited on by the man that I love.

Luckily for me, I still get a say in what he makes. Sometimes I am in the mood for something classic, like pancakes, or sometimes I request one of my favorites, like the sweet potato and sausage hash we discovered together. This week, however, I had something different in mind, to hopefully further expand our breakfast repertoire. I had filed away a breakfast hash recipe some time ago that employed Brussels sprouts and bacon, and because we had leftover sprouts from my ill-fated salad experiment, and bacon lurking in the freezer inventory, now seemed like the perfect time.

I think Justin got a little annoyed with meticulously slicing the Brussels sprouts into thin ribbons for this dish, but in my mind, it was well worth the effort. Though Brussels sprouts may not be the first thing that come to mind when one conjures up a mental image of hash, or of breakfast in general, I really enjoyed this less heavy take on the dish. A hearty, stick-to-your ribs meal can be a great start to your day, but sometimes you want to eat a breakfast that won't make you want to go right back to bed, and this is it.

Bacon and eggs are a classic breakfast pairing, and bacon and Brussels sprouts are a match made in heaven, so really, what is there not to love about this meal? Whether you have someone making your breakfast and you can make a request, or you have to do all your own chopping and cooking, this recipe is definitely worth trying either way. If the idea of Brussels sprouts for breakfast is just too weird for you, then by all means, make this hash for dinner; it will be equally tasty no matter the time of day.

Brussels Sprout Hash
adapted from Cook Smarts

4 strips of bacon, chopped
12 Brussels sprouts, halved and thinly sliced
1/4 c. pecans, toasted
2-4 eggs

Heat a medium-sized non-stick pan over medium-high heat. Add half the oil and then chopped bacon. Cook bacon for about 3 to 4 minutes until the edges start to crisp

Add Brussels sprouts and sauté for about another 2 to 3 minutes. Since the sprouts have been sliced so thinly, they will cook quite quickly. Add the nuts and toss through. Spoon your hash onto a serving plate, and return the pan over medium-high heat

Add a half tablespoon of oil to the pan and crack your eggs into pan. Once your eggs are cooked over-easy, slide it over your hash and sprinkle with desired amount of salt and pepper.


Ain't Snow Thang...

I've always said that traditions are very important to me, but after a few recent experiences, I'm starting to question the wisdom of that belief. You see, today Justin and I schlepped downtown to see the Snow Days Festival, the annual Chicago snow sculpture competition that started in 2010. Even though there was practically no snow on the ground and they had to create all of the artwork using artificial snow, they still held the festival this year, and I was determined to see it again after missing it last year (it was held the same weekend as our move, and there was no way I could make time for both.)

When Snow Days first started, it was held in Grant Park, practically across the street from my old apartment, which made it convenient enough to lure me out into the cold for an outdoor event. I was seriously impressed that year with the quality of the sculptures, enough so that I traveled to Navy Pier the following year, when it relocated, even though I normally avoid that tourist trap of a destination like the plague. It was worth the trip that year as well, and I enjoyed sharing the experience with Justin, whom I had only been dating for a few months at the time. I had such positive experiences the first two years, that I was really bummed to miss Snow Days last year.

So when the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events announced the date for Snow Days this year, I made a point of scheduling it into our calendar. I wanted to go so badly that I even planned to make the trip when I found out that my parents would both be parking at their condo that weekend while they were out of town, and we would have to take public transportation unless we wanted to pay full-price to park in the Loop. I was that determined.

We decided to make an afternoon of the trip, and have lunch first in the city. I presented Justin with a few options: La Madia (my favorite, and I hadn't been in months), XOCO (Chef Rick Bayless' torta emporium), or Slurping Turtle, a ramen-focused hotspot that had made it onto a lot of "Best of 2012" lists and had a Bib Gourmand from Michelin to recommend it. Justin, when faced with many food options, has a tendency to skew Asian in his preferences, so he chose Slurping Turtle, and it ended up being the best decision we made all day.

Even though we had to wait quite a while for a table despite the fact that we had arrived pretty late in the lunch hour, the food was worth the inconvenience. It was certainly the best bowl of ramen I've had in Chicago, and possibly ever, since I don't think I actually ate ramen when I was in Japan in 2008. (How did I let that happen?) Plus, the portion size was so generous that Justin and I easily could have shared one bowl instead of each having our own, making it the perfect meal to fortify ourselves for our journey out into the cold.

However, our wonderful afternoon kind of fizzled out when we got to Navy Pier. The festival may have been crowded with spectators, but the quality of the artwork was nowhere near where it has been in the past. There were fewer sculptures in general, causing me to speculate whether artists had cancelled due to the lack of snowfall so far this year, and the sculptures that were there were lackluster, to say the least. They lacked the gravity-defying risks taken by artists of years past, and they were not nearly as detailed. There was an overall underwhelming lack of ambition on display, to be sure.

This is supposed to be a climatic battle between Batman and Jaws. Yes, you read that right.
The amateur contest, which pits teams from Chicago-area high schools against each other, boasted nearly as many entries as the professional competition, and the quality of the submissions didn't seem all that much lower. My favorite was a Lego mini-fig sculpted by a team from Lane Tech High School; in fact, despite some collapses in areas of the sculpture, it was one of my favorites of the day overall.

Of the professional sculptures, this one was my favorite, since I can't resist gargoyles or cathedrals.
Needless to say, we were both disappointed in the Snow Days Festival this year. The best part of our afternoon was our lunch, by far, but I didn't need to schlep downtown on the Red Line in the cold just to eat ramen. I could have waited to do that until the weather warmed up. 

Much as I like to observe traditions and build routines into my schedule, I think it might be time to let this one go. Though it pains me to say so, I think the same might be said about going to see the Zoo Lights at the Lincoln Park Zoo each holiday season. The quality of the light display hasn't changed, but Justin's willingness to pay for parking has, and it's not really worth going if I have to squeeze in a visit in under thirty minutes. Traditions are nice, and create a wonderful sense of shared history and common experience, but they also need to stay relevant to the times. Looks like I'll be looking for some new traditions come next winter!


You Can't Always Get What You Want...

Though my palate seems to be getting broader with age, my tortured history with vegetables is well-documented. That's why it came as such a surprise to discover a salad at my office holiday potluck last month for which I fell head-over-heels. My supervisor, Tara, had made it, which is why I had felt obligated to try it; otherwise, the "Kale and Brussels Sprout Salad" label would have been enough to deter me, no matter how "yummy" she claimed it to be.

You see, I have never had a particularly good experience with kale; it is so tough that the only time I seem to be able to tolerate it is in soups, and even then it does a shockingly good job of maintaining its robust texture. My experiences with kale salad have been even worse, to the point of being completely inedible. Plus, even though I've been nursing a burgeoning love affair with Brussels sprouts, I've never been particularly fond of them in their raw state.

As a result, I spooned the most meager of portions of Tara's salad onto my plate -- enough to say I'd tried it, but not a morsel more. When I reluctantly brought the fork to my mouth, I was blown away! It tasted very similar to a Caesar salad (probably my favorite way of consuming lettuce, maybe because its also the least healthy), and the thinly-sliced ribbons of kale and Brussels sprouts were surprisingly tender. The cheese provided a sharp tang, and the nuts added crunch to an already texturally-rich dish.

It was so good that I went back for seconds, thirds, and even fourths. I noshed on salad all throughout the day, even though I knew we were going to Girl and the Goat for our office party later that day. I just couldn't seem to stay away, and for me to have that experience with something that is actually relatively good for me is practically unheard of. I made sure to get the recipe from Tara right then and there.

However, later that night, I started to feel terrible. My stomach hurt throughout dinner, but I thought I was just overly full and figured I probably wasn't doing myself any favors by continuing to sample every new dish that was brought to our table because I didn't want to miss out. However, by the time I got home, my stomach ache was so bad that I could hardly sit up, or stand. There were no other gastrointestinal symptoms -- just horrific and debilitating pain. It continued to be so bad that I had to stay home from work the next day.

I couldn't figure out what I had eaten that had upset my stomach so much, because I had eaten so many things, both at the holiday potluck and at Girl and the Goat that aren't normally a part of my diet. It really could have been anything.

Fast forward to this evening, when I persuaded Justin to make Tara's salad for me, because I was feeling too tired to cook. He meticulously cut up all the vegetables, toasted the nuts for garnish, assembled the dressing, and tossed everything together. I was in seventh heaven -- the salad was just as good at home as it had been at the office potluck. I rejoiced over finally finding a dish that was good for me and good for my palate.

And then it started; the stomach pain was back with a vengeance. A friend of mine has been suggesting to me for a long time that I should get checked out for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, based on a number of symptoms that have been plaguing me for years. She has the conditions, and recognized a lot of similarities between our complaints. Doubled over in pain on the couch, I did some Googling and discovered that people who have the type of IBS my friend thinks I might have tend to not be able to tolerate raw kale, and other otherwise healthy raw vegetables.

So maybe there is something to my friend's hypothesis; I'll have to bring it up at my next annual physical. But until then, there is a huge Tupperware container full of kale salad in my fridge that Justin is going to have to polish off on his own. For my part, I am heartbroken that I'll have to watch him eat it from the sidelines, knowing how delicious it is but not wanting to injure my insides any more.

As long as you don't have a sensitive stomach, you need to make this salad. It is seriously one of the most delicious bowls of greens I have ever consumed in my 27 years, and I consider it a tragedy that I will not be able to savor it again. So enjoy it on my behalf, loyal readers, because I feel that even though I can't eat it myself, I owe it to the universe to spread the word about this tasty vegetable treat. Go forth and enjoy -- I'm jealous!

Kale and Brussels Sprout Salad
adapted from Bon Appétit

1/4 c. fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon minced shallot
1 small garlic clove, finely grated
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt plus more for seasoning
Freshly ground black pepper
2 large bunches of Tuscan kale (about 1 1/2 lb. total), center stem discarded, leaves thinly sliced
12 oz. Brussels sprouts, trimmed, finely grated or shredded with a knife
1/2 c. extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1/3 c. almonds with skins, coarsely chopped
1 c. finely grated Pecorino

Combine lemon juice, Dijon mustard, shallot, garlic, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and a pinch of pepper in a small bowl. Stir to blend; set aside to let flavors meld. Mix thinly sliced kale and shredded brussels sprouts in a large bowl.

Measure 1/2 c. oil into a cup. Spoon 1 tablespoon oil from cup into a small skillet; heat oil over medium-high heat. Add almonds to skillet and stir frequently until golden brown in spots, about 2 minutes. Transfer nuts to a paper towel-lined plate. Sprinkle almonds lightly with salt.
Slowly whisk remaining olive oil in cup into lemon-juice mixture. Season dressing to taste with salt and pepper.

Add dressing and cheese to kale mixture; toss to coat. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Garnish with almonds.


Cold As Ice...

All things considered, we've been having a remarkably mild winter so far this year, giving ever greater evidence of the impact of climate change. Chicago has actually broken a record for least amount of snowfall already this season, and though I just bought two new winter costs, one of which was a heavy-duty parka, I haven't really needed it until this week. In fact, Justin has been getting by on just a jacket, choosing to leave his winter coat in storage until today, when winter finally decided to make its presence known in the Windy City.

I've always said that it's not truly cold until my breath makes my scarf freeze to my face; this morning, not only was my scarf covered in a film of ice crystals, but my eyelashes were getting stuck together with frost, making it hard to see as we walked to the train station. For his part, Justin had ice on both his lashes and his eyebrows, and his glasses had completely fogged up, rendering them virtually useless. Luckily, I can see relatively well without mine, so I can store mine in my purse until I get to work, which is only slightly more convenient.

It's official folks: it may have arrived late, but even without the snow, winter has arrived!


Beyond Rubies...

Though museums will always hold a special place in my heart, I must confess, I have not been getting out to see them with my usual enthusiasm ever since I lost my job at the History Museum and it was no longer free to do so. Much as I believe in cultural enrichment and supporting these institutions, the price admission for most of the larger museums around the city is double that of a typical movie ticket, and I don't go to the movies either unless I have a gift certificate, free passes, or I'm seeing the cheaper matinee showings. I just don't have that many entertainment dollars to spend, even for something as important to me as a museum.

Hence, when I started seeing the signs around town for the Field Museum's current special exhibit entitled, "Maharajah: The Splendor of India's Royal Courts," splashed with images of glittering gold, rubies, and diamonds, I did not make a beeline to go see it. Instead, I asked my mother if she was interested in going, because she has special museum privileges through one of her credit cards that get her her guests in for free at several local institutions. From there, I could only bide my time until we could find a time that was mutually convenient for us both.

That day turned out to be Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, since I had the day off from work (one of the perks of no longer working at the History Museum, where MLK Day was one of our busiest days in terms of programming and events). However, when the day rolled around and the weather proved to be miserably frigid cold, we had no choice but to persevere and go anyway, because it was the last week the exhibit would be open. This is why you shouldn't procrastinate folks, especially in winter!

As I mentioned, the advertising for "Maharajah" featured spectacular jewels and precious objects, so I was expecting a jewelry-focused exhibit. The Field knows that these are the kind of exhibitions that draw the crowds (hence last year's "Gold" exhibit and "Diamonds" the year before), but I felt that they were engaging in a bit of false advertising with this one. In reality, there were not that many pieces of jewelry on display, though there were an impressive array of other grandiose artifacts. There was a gilded howdah, or elephant-mounted carriage, and numerous gem-encrusted ceremonial elephant wrangling tools and fans from the processions that carried the maharajahs through town in a display of power and affluence. There were numerous prints and etchings depicting court life at the time, and incredibly elaborate clothing worn for weddings and other ceremonial occasions.

Really, it was more an exhibit about Indian culture and government, and its interaction with the forces of colonialism than anything else. For that reason, it was more educational than I Was expecting, not that that was a bad thing. I felt like I learned a lot about a time and place that I was relatively uninformed about before, so I have to give the Field Museum credit for hosting an exhibit that was information-rich, and actually furthered their mission statement. However, I couldn't help but feel cheated out of the opportunity to see lots of pretty, sparkly jewelry. Sometimes I don't want to have to think too hard, and this was one of these times.

I don't think people need to be tricked into participating in educational activities, like trying to get a small child to eat their vegetables. Besides, I think if you know what to expect, and go into a cultural experience ready to learn, you will take more away from it. The Field offers enough mindless opportunities to ogle shiny jewels without having to sell their educational content short. I enjoyed the Maharajah exhibit, don't get me wrong, but if you go, you should enter with an open mind and be ready to encounter a new culture, not just its loveliest artifacts.


Please Sir, Can I Have Some More...

Food cravings work in mysterious ways. Normally, I tend to crave salty snacks, like Doritos or Cheetos, and for one week every month I experience a sudden, insatiable need to ingest chocolate, but today I woke up with a strong desire to eat oatmeal for breakfast. Now, don't get me wrong, I like oatmeal, but I don't really think of it as a crave-worthy food. At least I certainly can't remember craving oatmeal before (and before you think it, no, I'm not pregnant.) So instead of any of our go-to weekend breakfast options, I did a quick Google search to locate a pumpkin oatmeal recipe I'd sent my mom ages ago, when she was looking for oatmeal ideas.

Though I could have replicated that traditional pumpkin pie flavor profile through spices alone, I feel like pumpkin itself is pretty neutral in the flavor department, and I figured that adding the real thing would up the nutritional profile of the dish, adding even more fiber as well as vitamins and minerals to the mix. The recipe I found, from Aarti Sequeira on the Food Network, called for almond milk, which we didn't have, so I went ahead and added regular milk to the dish, which probably made it a little less healthy, and certainly no longer vegan. While the texture of the dish didn't suffer from my decision, the flavor probably did, as almond milk has a certain sweetness to it that regular milk does not, and I was definitely missing sweetness in the finished dish.

As someone whose primary exposure to oatmeal came from those highly-sweetened flavored packets from Quaker (maple and brown sugar is my all-time favorite!), this healthy oatmeal was nowhere near sweet enough to appeal to my palate. I tried adding some maple sugar, but it wasn't quite enough to do the trick, but I didn't want to add any more, in fear of undoing the healthful good I was doing for my body by eating pumpkin oatmeal in the first place. As a result, I sort of suffered through the bowl, feeling a bit like I was being punished with healthy food instead of delicious food.

Justin, however, has a greater appreciation for wholesome, nutrient-dense foods (the man is thirty, and he willingly eats Grape Nuts for breakfast, because he enjoys them), and he really liked the pumpkin oatmeal, even without the extra sugar. So if you can handle an unsweetened breakfast and you enjoy warm spices, go ahead and give this a try. And if you're willing to give up the idea of having a healthy meal and are willing to add sugar to your heart's content, then go ahead and give this recipe a whirl; I suspect it could be great!

Pumpkin Oatmeal
adapted from Aarti Sequeira

1 14 oz. can unseasoned pumpkin puree
2 c. water
2 c. milk, or almond milk
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
2 c. quick cooking oats (not the instant kind)
maple sugar, for serving

1. In a large saucepan over high heat, combine the pumpkin puree, water, milk, salt, and pumpkin pie spice. Bring to a boil.
2. Add oatmeal. Turn down the heat and cook according to package directions; stir often.
3. Once the oatmeal is cooked (each grain should be tender), serve with maple sugar.


Stone Soup...

For better or worse, we live in a world that is saturated with advertising. As a result, whenever I think about winter, and winter foods specifically, I cannot help but think about that iconic Campbell's soup ad from 1998, when a snowman comes out of the cold, sits down to a steaming hot bowl of Campbell's, and melts to reveal a young boy trapped inside. It encapsulates everything about why we eat soup during cold weather.

Still, we've been eating rather less soup than usual this year, probably because the warmer-than-usual temps this winter have pushed thoughts of comfort food to the back of my mind this season. However, I found myself in need of a way to dispose of some leftover parsnips that have been kicking around my crisper drawer ever since I made an ill-fated (and non-blog-worthy) attempt at making a Hungarian-style chicken and dumpling soup sometime last year. (Root vegetables stay good a long time, y'all!) Even though I don't really care much for parsnips, I hated the idea of tossing them after only using a couple, so I went hunting around in search of another recipe that could help  me use them up.

As it turned out, I didn't have to go far; I already had a recipe in my "maximum freezer content utilitzation plan" for lentil soup that happened to call for parsnips. The soup recipe had made it on my list because it also called for Italian sausage, and we discovered several random links tucked into different corners of the freezer that were leftovers from various recipes that only called for four links of sausage, rather than a whole package. As if those two features weren't enough to recommend it, the recipe also called for spinach, which we needed to buy anyway for one of Justin's favorite curry dishes that he was planning on making to take for lunch this week. All the pieces were falling into place nicely.

Besides, I had been looking for a new lentil soup recipe for a while now. I only started eating lentils after college, and I've added a few recipes employing the healthy, protein-rich pulses to my repertoire, but I wasn't really satisfied with the lentil soup recipe I had inherited from my mom, who had originally found it in an old issue of Early American Life magazine. It was good, but it called for red wine, of which I am not a huge fan. How many other people can say that they don't know what to do with the wine that is leftover from cooking? I never wanted to drink the rest on its own, so I had beeb looking for a recipe that could stand on its own without the addition of booze for years.

I think I have finally found my go-to lentil soup recipe at long last. I liked the spicy kick from the sausage, the sweetness of the vegetables (though the parsnips were a little strong, to be honest), and the extra feeling of doing something good for myself with the spinach. I know, I know, if I left out the sausage, it would be even healthier, but I really enjoyed the meaty texture and flavor with all the other ingredients. I'm just not ready to go vegetarian yet!

Plus, this recipe yielded a ton of soup; in fact, it just barely fit in the large pot we were using. We will be set for lunches for the rest of the week, so if you are ready for a hearty, warming and delicious bowl of soup and you want to minimize the amount of time you'll spend in the kitchen this week, I definitely recommend you give this lentil soup a try.

Lentil Soup with Spicy Italian Sausage
adapted from Bon Appétit

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 lb. spicy Italian sausage, casings removed
1 large onion, chopped
2 large carrots
2 large parsnips
2 large celery stalks
2 1/2 teaspoons dried Italian seasoning
1 lb. brown lentils
3 quarts chicken stock
1 5 oz. package of baby spinach leaves

Heat oil in large pot over medium-high heat. Add sausage and cook until browned, stirring occasionally. Using slotted spoon, transfer sausage to bowl. Add onion, carrots, parsnips, celery, and Italian seasoning blend to drippings in pot; cook until onion is translucent and vegetables begin to soften, stirring often, 7 to 8 minutes. Add lentils; stir to coat. Add 3 quarts broth. Bring to boil; reduce heat to medium and simmer until lentils are tender, stirring occasionally and adding more broth by 1/4 cupfuls if soup is too thick, 20 minutes.

Add sausage to soup and simmer until vegetables are tender and flavors blend, 10 to 12 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir in spinach. Cook until spinach is wilted, about 3 minutes.


Les Miserables...

Though I have sworn off of writing any more movie reviews here at "The State I Am In," because my heart just isn't in it any more, I would be remiss if I did not share my thoughts on seeing Les Miserables today. I have been waiting with bated breath for the release of this film, basically ever since the last film version came out in 1998 and wasn't a musical. That's 15 years, people! To say that I was excited to finally see my favorite musical realized on film is something of an understatement.

Really, I was so predisposed to enjoy this film that it could have been terrible and I still would have liked it, but thankfully, it wasn't terrible. To be sure, there were some things that didn't work, in my opinion. Of these, Russell Crowe being cast as Javert was probably the most glaring; he just did not have the vocal chops for the role. "Stars," Javert's biggest number, is one of my favorite songs in the entire show, and Crowe's lackluster version was a major disappointment. 

Though Colm Wilkinson will always be the Valjean as far as I'm concerned (and my inner fan girl was psyched to see him in a cameo role as the Bishop of Digne, with a bonus appearance at the end, when he appears to lead a dying Valjean to heaven), Hugh Jackman handled the role with apolmb. Jackman has serious Broadway experience under his belt, and it shows, not only vocally, but through his ability to emote with an intensity usually reserved for the stage.

I was a little concerned about Anne Hathaway's unconventional, more vulnerable interpretation of Fantine, but I ended up liking her portrayal more than I would have expected. I even enjoyed Amanda Seyfried as the adult Cosette. I have never liked her in any film I've seen her in, and I find her generally annoying, but wide-eyed look gives her an aura of innocence that was right for the role. On the other hand, I did not care for Eddie Redmayne as Marius; in no universe is he the kind of man you would see across a crowded street and fall in love with at first sight. The role of Marius should have gone to Aaron Tveit instead, who was cast as Enjolas. Not only was he easy on the eyes, he has serious singing talent as well: he played Gabriel in the original Broadway cast of Next to Normal. 

Casting and performances aside, there were only two other real flaws with the film as far as I was concerned. First, I found the director's constant use of tight close-ups to be very distracting. I get that we wanted to capture the actors emotions in a way that isn't possible with the distance naturally created between the stage and the audience in live theater, but he went too far in the opposite direction, and it made me uncomfortable. As an American, I value my personal space.

Secondly, the director made numerous small changes to the lyrics, removing words that aren't common to American English (Herbert Kretzmer, who translated the lyrics from French for the musical, was South African), and clarifying relevant points of French history for an American audience that is most likely ignorant of 19th century European politics. The average viewer probably wouldn't have picked up on these subtle alterations, but I have listened to the original soundtrack hundreds upon hundreds of times in my life, and to me, they stuck out like a sore thumb. I didn't like that they dumbed down the lyrics, and to me, the changes were a huge distraction.

Even with those two problems, I still enjoyed the movie. I still cried my eyes out when Valjean died at the end, because the film still took me on an emotional journey with the characters. It may not have been perfect, but I would definitely watch it again if I were jonesing for a Les Miserables fix. I will definitely be buying a copy of my own when it comes out on Blu-ray, and I am happy that the film has enjoyed so much success both in terms of box office receipts and awards. Hopefully, the success of Les Miz will inspire film makers to tackle some of my other favorite musicals. Miss Saigon, anyone?


In Too Deep...

Recently, Justin came to me and complained that he never gets to cook any more. With my ambitious plan to try new recipes in 2012, and the fact that I enjoy cooking as a hobby, he felt as if he was not getting the opportunities he would like to experiment in the kitchen in his own right. After all, he used to cook all the time for his family before he met me.

And, to be honest, the process of trying a hundred new recipes last year was leaving me feeling pretty burned out when it came to cooking. I needed a break, and I was all too happy to hand over the reigns. At the top of his list was deep dish pizza; it has long been one of his favorite dishes to prepare, in fact, I even gave him a special deep dish pizza pan for our six-month anniversary. That we had not yet used it even once after nearly a year of living together was a further motivating factor for him. His inaugural deep dish pizza in our own home was truly long overdue.

My only request was that he find a new crust recipe, because his old one was a concoction of his own devising, in which he had substituted whole wheat flour for whatever it had originally called for, and the flavor and texture weren't really working for me - it was just too hard and crunchy. He agreed to try a recipe from our Baking Illustrated book from America's Test Kitchen, since I've had pretty good luck with their pizza crust recipes in the past. Unusually, this recipe called for the addition of cooked potato, with the idea that it would create a softer dough by decreasing the amount of gluten by reducing the amount of flour, and that sounded like a plus to me.

Unfortunately, the potato-based dough took things a little too far in the softness department. The dough didn't brown well in our pan, and while the cheese was melted and the toppings were cooked, the crust was anemic and soggy upon eating. The rest of the pizza was good, but the crust just wasn't what I was hoping for. Clearly, we're going to have to keep looking for a dough that will live up to the standards set by some of our favorite deep-dish places from around town.

However, I must say that it was very nice to be able to kick back and not have to worry about dinner in the slightest. It was great to let Justin do all the work, and if he wants to do more of the cooking around here, I'm more than happy to make that happen. I could get used to this!


Food Hoarders: Frozen Alive...

I will never forget our Fourth of July party last year. It was a housewarming party of sorts, so it was the first time most of our friends had seen our new home, and it was also a potluck. My friend, Jess, was in charge of bringing a dessert, and when she showed up on that brutally hot day with ice cream sandwiches in tow, I should have been elated -- after all, they are my favorite ice cream novelty. However, I was horrified, and more than a little embarrassed, as she went to stash them in the freezer and found it practically packed to the gills with food. A piece of paper would barely fit in there, much less a couple boxes of ice cream sandwiches. Luckily, we were able to move things around enough to find a spot for them, but the look on Jess' face when she saw how over-stuffed our freezer was has always stuck with me.

Last month, I did make a valiant effort to clear out some of the backlog in order to have the space to store cookie dough for the Cookie Bonanza, but once the cookies were baked, that extra space was quickly put to use to store more food. When I opened the freezer this week and saw the sorry state it had once again achieved, I knew it was time to take action. Even if it wasn't an official New Year's resolution for this year, it was clear that cleaning out our freezer needed to be my first big project of 2013.

I knew the first step needed to be a comprehensive inventory, because the situation had gotten out of control to the point that I had no idea what was even in there anymore. I enlisted Justin's help, and as he diligently pulled every item out of the freezer, I recorded it all on my iPad. There were items that I scarcely remembered, duplicate items that I bought because I didn't realize I already had them, and scarily, even a few things that preceded our move almost a year ago that had come from my old freezer. Clearly this was a project that was overdue.

Looking at all the food I had to work with, I created an extensive meal plan designed to employ at least one ingredient from the freezer in each dish, while trying to select recipes for consecutive that employed common ingredients to cut down on what I would need to buy from the store. Hopefully, if I can reign in my impulse cooking and can stick to this plan, I'll be able to not only make some space in my freezer, but save some money on groceries for the next month or so as well...


A Religious Experience - Part Twelve

In my last installment of "A Religious Experience," I pondered what would become of the beautiful chapel at the St. Scholastica convent if all of the nuns there eventually passed away from old age and the institution were forced to close its doors. As it turned out, I got an answer, of sorts, at the next stop on our Open House Chicago itinerary: Agudas Achim. I had been wanting to include a synagogue, or really any non-Christian house of worship, in my project since its inception, but it turns out that synagogues are even harder to gain access to than churches.

Since they often don't hold regular services in their main sanctuary, reserving them instead for high holiday services when they are so crowded that they sell tickets to guarantee seats, it is difficult to get in to see the sanctuary unless you are attending a wedding or bar/bat mitzvah. When I saw a couple of synagogues listed on the Open House website, I knew I had to work them into our plans, and since Agudas Achim was the closest to our house, we went there first.

Agudas Achim
5029 North Kenmore Avenue
Chicago, IL

The Agudas Achim congregation was formed in 1884 on Chicago's west side. As the neighborhood changed and many of Agudas Achim's members moved to Uptown, a then-upscale community which was attracting newly affluent Jews, the congregation moved as well. In 1922, the wealthy congregants built a spectacularly elaborate synagogue capable of seating 2,000 worshipers. 

Mosaic tiles were imported from Italy for the ark, which houses the Torah, or Hebrew holy texts, and the walls were flanked with rows of stained glass windows. A soaring, cathedral-style ceiling capped off the sanctuary, underneath which rows and rows of seats radiated out from the arch, each engraved with the name of its owner. It was a majestic, timeless space, designed to house a thriving congregation for decades to come.

However, about twenty years later, in the 1940s, the neighborhood started to change again. Jews started leaving the city for new neighborhoods in Skokie and Highland Park, on the North Shore. Gradually, Aguda's Achim's congregation dwindled to a couple hundred elderly members. Though they continued to convene for worship in another part of the building, there was no money to maintain the sanctuary. As the neighborhood declined even further, drug addicts would break the stained glass windows and sneak into the sanctuary to get high, or to steal whatever they could to sell in order to support their habits.

Years of further neglect led to holes in the roof, the floor peeled up, and the interior began to crumble. Miraculously, only the ark seemed to remain in relatively good repair. A glimmer of hope appeared on the horizon in the 1990s, when the descendent of one of the former congregants became interested in the building, and took over its leadership. With his youthful energy, a new rabbi was brought on board, and young Jewish college students were enlisted to help renovate the building.

This stained glass was added during the late 1990s; today it is shattered.

Still, the elderly congregation continued to die off. Even though gentrification is finally coming to Uptown, improving the neighborhood and driving out the drug dealers and addicts, it has not brought with it a new wave of members for Agudas Achim. Recently, the rabbi and the president of the congregation were forced to throw in the towel, and put the building on the market. According to the real estate listing, they hope they will be able to find a buyer for the space that intends to use it for a religious use, but they note that the space could also be converted into condominiums -- it's a tragedy.

Today, the space retains traces of its former grandeur, but it is also dirty and and decaying. Frankly, looking up at the holes in the ceiling and the pigeon droppings on the floor, I was a little concerned that Open House was opening the space to the public. I felt unsafe being there, and though I wanted to appreciate the remaining beauty of the sanctuary, I also really wanted to get out of there and into some fresh air.

Agudas Achim is an example of what happens when magnificent religious spaces fall into disrepair and neglect. Without a vibrant community and a reason for being, even a fabulous building can't be saved. I hate the thought of a developer coming along and gutting the building to turn it into condos, or even worse, tear it down altogether and start over. I can only hope that another religious group will come along with the resources to restore Agudas Achim and allow it to live on as a house of worship, as it was meant to be.


All of the Lights...

Technically, the holiday season may have officially ended yesterday, but there was still one thing left on my to-do list that I still needed to accomplish -- going to see the Zoo Lights. Justin and I first went to see the free light display at the Lincoln Park Zoo two years ago, and I had hoped to turn it into a seasonal tradition for just the two of us, until we got preoccupied with our move last year and never made it. Even though its usually freezing outside, I find it very romantic to walk hand-in-hand, taking in the festive colored lights, so I was determined to take another stab at turning it into a tradition this year. Though we didn't make it before Christmas, Zoo Lights usually stays open for about a week after New Year's, so we were still in luck.

Since the zoo is about an hour away by bus, and not located especially close to any train stations, we decided to drive, which was a fateful error in judgement. Though admission to Zoo Lights is free, the zoo has to make money on it somehow, and they do this by charging an arm and a leg for parking. We were unable to find street parking in Lincoln Park, so we had to use the lot, and Justin was outraged by the hefty rate of $20 if you parked your car for more than 30 minutes. As a result, he demanded that we finish our entire Zoo Lights tour in enough time to make it back to the car and out of the lot in under 30 minutes.

We hustled through the whole thing, seldom pausing to admire the sights longer than the few moments needed to snap a photo. The only time we really stood still was when we tried to get a photo of ourselves using my handy portable tripod. Even though it was cold outside, I would have liked to have taken more time to take in the lights, and perhaps watch the ice carving demonstration that was taking place. All too soon, it was time to leave.

Even though we rushed through the zoo and hurried back to our car, we got caught in a long procession of vehicles that were leaving at the same time, and were still in the exit line when our thirty minutes was up. Not only did we rush our visit unnecessarily, we still ended up having to pay $20 for the privilege. The experience left a bad taste in Justin's mouth, and I'm not sure I'll be able to persuade him to return.

Sadly, it looks like I'm going to have to give up on making Zoo Lights a tradition for us, unless we can magically figure out a good way to get there via public transportation, or unless we befriend someone who lives in the neighborhood and has an extra parking space. Much as I would like to say, "There's always next year," this time, at least, I fear that probably won't be the case...



Generally speaking, I try to be realistic in my goal-setting. I try not to set the bar too high, because I know that it is better to set goals that can be achieved, rather than intimidate myself out of trying by setting out to accomplish too much. Hence, my New Year's resolutions always tend to be a little boring. Back in 2007, I resolved to floss my teeth every day, and I have managed to maintain that lifestyle change steadily for the past six years. Last year, I resolved to cook more at home, and over 100 new recipes later, I believe I have accomplished that goal and then some!

This year, I'm sticking to a modest set of goals once more:
  1. Bake more cookies - I realize this resolution is a little unorthodox. After all, most people resolve to eat healthier and lose weight around this time of year. Meanwhile, I'm looking to increase my output of caloric treats. Here's my rationale: last year, I baked more cakes and made more ice cream than cookies, and when it came time for my yearly Cookie Bonanza, I found that I hadn't tested nearly enough recipes. This year, I plan on getting back into the groove when it comes to cookie baking, so that I will be able to return to my usual lofty standards when it comes time to bake in December.
  2. Master Grandma Betsy's caramel recipe - Every year at Christmas, Grandma Betsy makes homemade caramels that are absolutely to die for. They are one of my favorite things about Christmas with the Wyatt family, and they are a taste memory that I will forever associate with my grandma. For the past several years, Grandma has threatened that each additional year will be her last making them, as they are labor-intensive and her health is ever-deteriorating. A couple years ago, she gave me the recipe, along with a list of pointers, in hopes that I would take up the mantle. I genuinely want to preserve this tradition for future generations, but I've also been scared. All I've heard my entire life is how challenging this recipe is, and I've never worked up the nerve to give it a try. Last year, I dipped my toe in the waters of candy-making and emerged unscathed, so I think 2013 is going to be the year for me to put on my big girl panties and master this recipe while Grandma is still around to give me further advice if I need it. Culinarily speaking, there's nothing more tragic than a family recipe that is allowed to die off with its maker, and I refuse to let that happen.
  3. Get out more -  Back when I started this blog in 2009, I did so largely to give myself a reason to get out of the house and experience more of what Chicago had to offer. I knew that I couldn't sit on my couch all the time and expect to have anything interesting to write about, so I forced myself to go to more museums, see more sights, and see more theater and movies. Up until we moved in January of last year, I had been pretty good at adhering to that mission, but newly house poor and living far away from downtown has meant that Justin and I have gotten kind of boring in the last year. Though I'll probably never get out and about the way I used to when I was living in the heart of the city and had no house payments, I'd like to try to do better in 2013.
These are resolutions that I firmly believe I can adhere to in the year to come, so stay tuned for updates on my progress...