Happy Easter...

The task of figuring out how to spend our holidays so that Justin and I can be together and still accommodate the wishes of our respective families is very much a work in progress, and I imagine it will be for years to come. It is an extremely complicated proposition for the holidays for which my family has traditionally traveled, since my parents solved the holiday conundrum by dividing their time and spending Thanksgiving with Dad's family and Christmas with Mom's. That was all fine and dandy until Justin came into the picture, and dividing our time either means I go a year at a time without seeing one half of my family, or he has to cope with the disappointment and guilt of missing a holiday with his family. So far, we're managing the best we can.

That's what make holidays like Easter seem like a joy by comparison. My family doesn't normally travel, and since our parents live relatively close to each other, we can fit in visits to both sides with ease. Today, for instance, we started our day with brunch at the Drake with my parents. The past couple years we stuck to the suburbs for brunch, dining at the Chicago Botanic Gardens, which made it even easier to stop by and visit Justin's parents in the burbs as well. Last year, however, we were less impressed with the quality of the food, so we decided to take a chance on the Drake.

As one might expect based on the Drake's longstanding reputation for elegance and luxury, the hotel brunch was considerably pricier than that at the Botanic Garden, but I think it was worth it (though admittedly, I wasn't the one paying for it). The food was definitely better, with a very nice sushi and Asian dumpling station, a breakfast station that included waffles, omlettes, and eggs benedict cooked to order, as well as well-balanced carving and seafood stations. Though immense in scale, I was not impressed with the quality of the dessert offerings, but then again, I am a very discerning judge.

The setting, however, was beyond spectacular. I felt like I had stepped back into the Gilded Age, and the level of service seemed to harken back to a more genteel era as well. Plus, the Drake had a professional photographer on hand to take family pictures (at an added cost), and we got a great image of our little family that may just be the first family photo to make it into a frame at my parents' house since I was in middle school.

After a brief stop at home to change, we headed north to Justin's parents' home, where they were hosting a much larger gathering than I had anticipated when I planned on making my apple cake, which serves about nine people. They had invited Justin's grandma, his maternal aunt, uncle, and some of their family, and Justin's paternal uncle and cousin. I really didn't need to worry about not having enough dessert, however, since Justin's mom also picked up an enormous carrot cake from Costco, his grandma made a jelly roll, and his uncle's sister brought a lamb-shaped cake. We were practically inundated with cake.

Justin's mom and sister Lizzie prepared a lovely meal, and it was nice to have the chance to spend time with so much of his family all at the same. Plus, Justin's uncle's sister brought along her giant, friendly Great Dane mix, who kept everyone entertained with her antics. 

Even though we had to do a lot of driving and we probably overate between the two meals, it was a great holiday, and we are very lucky to have such great families in our lives. Happy Easter everyone!


Apple of My Eye...

Let's be real for a moment - if you are having a party, especially a dinner party, you probably want to include me on the guest list. Why, you ask? It's not because of my dazzling wit and formidable intellect; it's because I will bring dessert. I will most likely bring dessert whether you ask me or not. It's really not even about you or your gathering, but because I am always looking for an outlet to dispose of the excess baked goods that result from my baking habit.

This is precisely how I found myself in the kitchen whipping up an apple pudding cake, a classic recipe from my mother's somewhat limited baking repertoire. It was the dessert she would prepare whenever she was entertaining or hosting a dinner party, because it was impressively delicious, even if it was somewhat homely in appearance. The addition of a cinnamon-scented, butter-based sauce elevates the moist, heavily spiced cake and adds an elegant touch. I've made it several times before, but it had been such a long time that it was one of the first things that popped into my mind when I discovered that we were invited to Justin's parents' house for Easter dinner.

Sure, transporting the sauce in a separate container would make for unnecessary logistical complications, and we'd also have to figure out a way to reheat both the sauce and cake to make sure everything would be served at the optimal temperature, but I was undeterred. Though not technically difficult or impressive in a conventional sense, I knew I needed to share the unparalleled deliciousness of this cake with my future in-laws as part of my ongoing mission to win my way into their hearts via their stomachs.

Only time will tell if my gamble will pay off, but really, this cake is kind of a sure thing in the flavor department. If you are looking for a dessert to serve at your next gathering and cake decorating isn't your strong suit anyway, please look no further than this recipe -- you seriously can't go wrong with this one. It is so good that your guests are bound to be impressed, no matter what it looks like.

Apple Pudding Cake with Cinnamon Butter Sauce
adapted from Classic Pillsbury Cookbook #153

For Cake:
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 egg
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups chopped apples

For Sauce:
1/2 cup unsalted butter
2/3 cups sugar
1/3 cup half-and-half
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350° and grease one 8-inch square pan.
1. In a large bowl, beat brown sugar and butter 2-3 minutes. Beat in egg until combined.
2. Add flour, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt. Mix well.
3. Stir in apples. Spread batter in greased pan - please note that it may be stiff and hard to spread.
4. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.
5. Meanwile, combine all sauce ingredients in a small sauce pan. Heat over medium heat until butter melts and sauce is hot, stirring frequently.
6. Serve warm sauce over warm cake.


Stop The Presses - Part Seven

Uncharacteristically, due to a change in editorial oversight, "Dining Due Diligence" happened to run twice this month in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. I'm looking forward to working with my new editor in the months to come, but for now, please enjoy the latest edition from today's paper:
Restaurateur Brendan Sodikoff is the culinary mastermind behind some of Chicago's hottest restaurants and stepping into the River North location of Bavette's Bar and Boeuf, his latest venture, it is easy to see why.

At Bavette's, Sodikoff captures the essence of a French brasserie, down to the dim lighting and luxurious oxblood leather booths, but without the claustrophobia that often accompanies the dining experience abroad. Tables are widely spaced, and unobtrusive jazz music wafts through the air, fostering conversation.

If it weren't for the obnoxious policy of refusing to seat diners until their party is complete, Bavette's would be a welcome haven for business-minded customers wishing to discuss  important matters or woo new clients. With that policy, however, Bavette's is better suited to an after-hours cocktail with coworkers who arrive together.

At 218 W. Kinzie St., Bavette's greets guests with a complimentary basket of house-made sourdough bread, served warm, instead of giving in to the burgeoning trend of charging extra for so-called "bread service."

For an appetizer, the shrimp de jonghe is rich and well-rounded, though a bit too zealously salted. The sauce perhaps outshone the crustaceans floating within it, leaving one longing for more of the marvelous bread to soak it up. For those seeking a lighter start, the apple and endive salad is bright and acidic, despite a heavy dose of salty Parmesan that adds an important umami element.

The entree course was inconsistent, succeeding wildly in some dishes and falling flat in others. The fried chicken was surprisingly succulent, but the crust so lacked in seasoning it drew unfavorable comparisons to Shake 'n Bake. Similarly, the short rib stroganoff offered a less heavy riff on the original, with remarkably tender beef, though the flavor did not translate to the bland noodles.

Boeuf is in Bavette's name for a reason, as even the most modest offering, the steak frites, was exceptional. The flatiron steak had incredible flavor and was perfectly cooked as requested, in addition to being tender in a way that cut is seldom experienced. Both components were accentuated and complemented by the lemony, tarragon-scented Béarnaise sauce, which magically added richness and much-needed acidity.

On the side, the chili-laced elote-style corn is a certain crowd-pleaser, while the almost absurdly crisp hash browns were unevenly seasoned, though this oversight was easily addressed by the addition of Bavette's custom steak salt.

Dessert was memorable largely for its grandiose scale. Chicago-style cheesecake towered over the table like the city skyline, and the airy cloud of meringue heaped on top of the lemon meringue pie was equally epic in proportion.


Go Nuts...

As I've slowly convalesced this week, along with my returning health has come a growing compulsion to bake. Maybe it has something to do with my desire to console myself over the loss of my trip to Berlin, but I've been longingly looking through the Momofuku Milk Bar book this week planning my next cookie experiment. Initially, I was drawn to the Funfetti-inspired cookies, but then I realized that I could never bake such a cookie without being able to share it with my cousin Trista, the biggest Funfetti fan I know. Then I considered the decadent looking chocolate cookies, before ruling them out in favor of a chocolate birthday cake in the weeks to come. That left me with the Milk Bar version of peanut butter cookies in terms of recipes I could make using ingredients that I had on hand.

Initially, I had ruled out the peanut butter cookies since I already have a perfect recipe for them, handed down to me by my mother, who learned how to bake them in her 4-H group as a girl. I figured that even Christina Tosi would not be able to improve upon them, but as I was perusing my usual assortment of food blogs and food blog aggregator sites, I happened to come across a post someone else had written about Tosi's recipe. The blogger proclaimed them the greatest peanut butter cookies she had ever eaten, let alone baked herself, and I felt a sudden obligation to give them a try, if only to make sure I wasn't missing anything.

As with most of the Momofuku Milk Bar creations, I had to work through at least one nested recipe before I could get to the cookies themselves. In this case, at least there was only one, and it was for "peanut brittle," though that's not really the correct descriptive term to use. Tosi's "brittle" consists of little more than sugar and nuts, creating something that can only be used when ground up into a near-powder in the food processor, as the glass-like shards are too sharp and too hard to eat on their own, like a conventional peanut brittle. The logic behind this step, I believe, is that the tiny fragments of caramel and nuts melt into the cookies, producing a chewier end result with caramelized flavor overtones.

Though I am fairly comfortable with caramelizing sugar at this point in my cooking career, this step still irked me somewhat, as the cookie recipe only called for half of the "brittle" I was required to make, leaving me with a surplus that I have no idea what to do with. I would have just made half as much "brittle," but it is notoriously difficult to caramelize small amounts of sugar evenly. I could maybe turn it into an ice cream mix-in, or else I'm going to have to make more cookies.

Not that that would be the worst thing in the world, mind you. The cookies, like the corn cookies, turned out very well. As promised, they were delightfully chewy in the center, whereas my usual go-to peanut butter cookie is more crumbly. They were also a huge hit at the office among my coworkers who have yet to sample the joys of my standard recipe. For me, however, these cookies just didn't quite measure up. I still prefer the texture, flavor, and the ease of preparation of my usual peanut butter cookies, even though I'm usually "team chewy" when it comes to cookies.

I'm glad I gave Tosi's cookies a shot, even if they didn't beat out my heirloom recipe, and I'm even more glad to have scratched another Milk Bar recipe off my to-do list so that Justin can get the book back to the library. I'm not sure why this book has captured my imagination in such a palpable way, but I simply can't rest until I've tried every delicious-looking cookie in there!


Hey Sexy Lady...

I did end up getting one day off today, though not because I was off jet-setting, but rather, because I we still too sick to head into the office. While I was kicking around the house today, I noticed this little gem in the mail:

It is a take-out menu for Panchito's, a new restaurant that has opened in the neighborhood. For better or worse, Roger's Park is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city, and as a result, the majority of the small business owners in the neighborhood are non-native English speakers. Many of the businesses circumvent the language barrier by offering no signage or advertising in English, so I guess you have to give Panchito's some credit for making an effort.

Still, this menu raises more questions than it answers: are the owners incredibly sexist, or just unaware of the meaning of saying that salad sandwiches are for "sexy ladies," and that the other sandwiches are for "hungry man?" As a woman, can I order something besides a salad sandwich? What is a salad sandwich anyway? Based on the descriptions, I think they just mean salads, but I can't really be sure.

Will I be checking out Panchito's? Probably not, but not just because of the unfortunate writing in their take-out menu -- the actual food just doesn't look that tempting. I'm thankful to them, however, for the laugh they gave me on this otherwise dull and icky day of illness.


You Can't Win 'Em All...

I was supposed to be writing this post from a hotel room in Berlin, but instead, I am writing it in my own bed, in my own apartment, in humble Rogers's Park. Dad and I were supposed to be off on our latest father-daughter adventure, planned around an invitation from the Chicago Chamber of Commerce (of which Dad is a board member) to check out Air Berlin, a new air carrier in our city offering non-stop flights to, you guessed it, Berlin. To promote the new service, they had offered chamber members a sweet deal on airfare and accommodations, and we had jumped at the opportunity.

I was excited and looking forward to the chance to get away, especially to one of my favorite cities, but then on Wednesday I started to feel an ominous tickle in the back of my throat. Praying that it was allergies was to no avail, and by Thursday night, I felt even worse and was running a fever. However, I couldn't take off work yesterday and get myself to a doctor because I had to be in the office for a half-day, critically important work meeting with a number of surgeons who were in from out of town. All I could do was leave early and get myself to an urgent care center by the late afternoon.

The doctor I saw diagnosed me with a respiratory tract infection, and advised against flying, given my history of asthma, wheezing in the office, and below average oxygen levels. She gave me a prescription for antibiotics, but it was already too late. I was crushed.

We made the decision this morning not to go, and while I know in my heart of hearts that I am in no shape to fly, and it was the right decision, it doesn't make me any less disappointed. I love Berlin, and now I have no idea when I will have the opportunity to make it back again. Nobody ever said life was fair, but knowing that doesn't make it any easier.


Pop It Like It's Hot...

For better or worse, I now share my home with a voracious snacker. I've actually never been much of a snacker; I usually consume snack foods in meal-size portions like half a bag of Doritos in one sitting, or a third of a package of Oreos at a time (though I'm doing better on that front than I did when I was in college). I never really snacked much growing up either, in fact, the after school snack enjoyed by so many kids was practically an unknown entity in our home, probably because we always ate dinner so early, usually around five o'clock.

However, my beloved is a constant grazer -- at times, I wonder if there is a black hole where his stomach should be. As a result, we keep more snack foods in the house than I ever did as a single person, and I find myself constantly on the hunt for new snack ideas that previously would have flown under my radar.

It was one of these ideas that Justin spotted when I finally managed to get him to look at my food-related Pinterest boards yesterday, to get his input on what he might be interested in making, now that he is doing more of the savory cooking around here. With laser-like focus, he honed in on a popcorn recipe I'd saved, that called for smoked paprika and Japanese snack crackers. You see, Justin already has a recipe in his repertoire for a popcorn and Japanese snack cracker blend, so I though he might like to try this variation just for the sake of trying something new. I was right.

Given our bountiful and well-stocked pantry, we actually had everything we needed to make this popcorn treat in our house already, despite the somewhat exotic ingredient list. Justin whipped up a batch today, almost the moment we walked in the door after work.

I wasn't even planning on eating it at all, since I'm sort of a popcorn traditionalist, and prefer to stick to butter and salt on mine. But as Justin rhapsodized over his new creation and proclaimed smoked paprika to be his new favorite spice, I decided to give it taste. I actually rather enjoyed the smoky/sweet combination that came from the paprika and a sprinkling of sugar. It was like a more complex version of kettle corn.

The rice crackers weren't doing it for me, but then again, I've never really been a fan. As it was, I just sort of picked around them, but in the future, if we were ever between visits to H-Mart and out of rice crackers, I would be more than happy to eat the popcorn with just salt, sugar, smoked paprika and butter. It may even turn me into snacker...

Smoky Popcorn
adapted from Food & Wine

1/4 c. vegetable oil
1/2 c. plus 2 tablespoons popping corn
1 teaspoon smoked hot Spanish paprika
1/2 tablespoon sugar
1/2 stick unsalted butter, melted and kept warm
1 tablespoon Japanese furikake mix*
2 c. Japanese mixed rice crackers
Kosher salt

1. In a large saucepan, combine the oil and popcorn, cover and cook over moderate heat until it starts to pop. Shake the pan and cook until the corn stops popping.
2. Transfer the hot popcorn to a large bowl. Sprinkle with the paprika and sugar and toss well. Drizzle with the butter and toss, adding the furikake and rice crackers. Season with salt, toss again and serve.

*Furikake is a seasoning mix that includes seaweed, sesame seeds, sugar, salt and dried bonito (dried fish flakes).


Spill The Beans...

I'll admit it -- I've fallen off the wagon with regard to my plan to clean out the freezer. I made some progress, and got rid of some of the items that had been lingering in there a questionably long time, but for everything that I removed and used, I found something new to take its place, and the freezer remains as full as ever.

In spite of this failure of will, one meal planning stratagem that remains enmeshed in my arsenal is making an effort to select chains of recipes that utilize the same ingredients, so that I waste less food. For example, I had to buy rosemary for Friday's ditalini with chickpeas, so I started looking for other recipes that also utilize the herb to get the most out of my purchase. This led me to the rosemary lemon white bean dip I made yesterday while I was home alone, and to request herbed baked eggs for breakfast from Justin this morning.

Tonight, it was on to Creamy White Bean Soup with Chorizo, for which we had all the ingredients on hand except the dried beans and the Mexican-style chorizo, which we were able to find at one of the Hispanic grocery stores in our neighborhood. We actually forgot to start soaking the beans the night before (I very rarely used dried beans; though everyone asserts their textural superiority, I prefer the convenience of the canned variety), so it turned out to be a rather late dinner by the time we had finished waiting for them to soak.

Contrary to the recipe, I decided to sauté the sausage first and cook the vegetables in it, as it seemed like a shame to waste the extra flavor, but the chorizo proved to be exceptionally, almost shockingly lean. I ended up having to supplement the meager drippings with olive oil anyway.

The most arduous part of the recipe proved to be chopping all the vegetables and herbs, as my trusty immersion blender made the puréeing process relatively painless. It was still more effort than I would want to expend on getting dinner on getting dinner on the table on a week night, but it was a worthy weekend project.

The chorizo definitely made this dish; without it, the soup would have been fairly bland and uninteresting. In fact, discovering the quality of the chorizo at our local bodega may have been the most significant thing to come out of this recipe experiment. I'm sure you can look forward to seeing more fresh-chorizo dishes around here in the weeks and months to come!

Creamy White Bean and Chorizo Soup
adapted from Bon Appétit

1 pound dried cannellini or Great Northern beans (generous 2 cups)
8 cups water
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
3 garlic cloves; 1 smashed, 2 chopped
1 large fresh rosemary sprig
1 bay leaf
1 large onion, coarsely chopped (about 2 cups)
1 large carrot, coarsely chopped (about 1 cup)
1 large celery stalk, coarsely chopped (about 3/4 cup)
2 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme, divided
4 c. chicken broth
1 pound fresh chorizo link sausages, casings removed
1/4 c. whipping cream

Place beans in heavy large saucepan. Add enough water to pan to cover beans by 4 inches. Let beans soak overnight at room temperature.

Drain and rinse beans; return to same saucepan. Add 8 cups water, 1 tablespoon oil, smashed garlic clove, rosemary, and bay leaf. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, partially cover, and simmer until beans are just tender, 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Season to taste with salt.

Drain beans, reserving cooking liquid. Discard rosemary sprig and bay leaf.

Heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in heavy large pot over medium heat. Add onion, carrot, and celery. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Sauté until vegetables are beginning to soften, about 10 minutes. Add chopped garlic and 1 teaspoon thyme; sauté 2 minutes. Add 2 cups reserved bean cooking liquid, 4 cups chicken broth, and beans. Bring to boil; reduce heat to medium and simmer uncovered until vegetables are tender, about 25 minutes. Cool soup 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, sauté chorizo in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat until cooked through, breaking up lumps with back of spoon, about 5 minutes. Transfer chorizo to paper towels to drain.

Using slotted spoon, remove 1 1/2 cups bean mixture from soup; reserve. Working in batches, puree remaining soup in blender until smooth. Return puree to pot. Stir in reserved whole-bean mixture, remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons thyme, chorizo, and cream. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve.


Dip It Low...

In the past, I have discussed how I have recently come to terms with being an extrovert, meaning that I draw energy from being around others, and do not enjoy being alone. This is why, though the rational half of my brain understands that it is good for Justin's career to pick up extra shifts on the weekends at a public library and keep up-to-date experience in that field on his résumé, I do not relish the fact that he takes the car with him and leaves me alone all day on the weekends.

To keep myself distracted and cut down on the feelings of despondency and boredom that accompany solitude for me, I try to stay as busy as possible on the unfortunate Saturdays when Justin is working,and I usually treat these days as an opportunity to scratch chores off my to-do list, catch up on the multitude of television shows that I TiVo but don't have time for during the week, and to tackle involved projects in the kitchen.

This week, however, our house was already relatively clean, we had leftovers we needed to eat, including enough leftover ice cream pie to make baking a wasteful option, and enough shows were on reruns that I had nothing to watch. I managed to talk Dad into having lunch with me as a pitstop on his way back to the burbs after picking up some papers downtown, but I was still desperate for something to keep my mind occupied.

Naturally, I turned once more to my Pinterest board, where I spotted a bean dip I could make using ingredients I already had on hand, including some of the rosemary leftover from last night's ditalini with chickpeas that wasn't going to stay good forever. Plus, given Justin's fondness for legumes, I figured I couldn't go wrong.

I ended up with only two complaints about this recipe: first, it was so quick and easy to make that it hardly helped me kill anytime at all, and second, it didn't make nearly enough dip. It was so good, that once Justin arrived home from work with the bag of pita chips I'd asked him to pick up, we polished off the dip much too quickly.

In the future, I would double this recipe if I were making it for just the two of us, and maybe even triple it if we were entertaining guests. (I've changed the recipe below to reflect this.) Lately, we've been making our quickly-becoming-legendary spicy Moroccan carrot dip whenever we have people over, but it will be nice to have something simpler in our arsenal, as that recipe is rather labor-intensive, even if people do love it.

I actually prefer this new bean dip, as the flavor profile is more in line with my palate. I'm glad we gave it a try, and I look forward to using it as a disposal mechanism for more leftover rosemary in our future.

Rosemary Lemon White Bean Dip
adapted from Serious Eats

2 15.5 oz cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
4 medium cloves garlic, peeled
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice and 2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest from 1 lemon
1/2 c. extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon finely minced fresh rosemary
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Place beans, garlic, and lemon juice in the workbowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Pulse until beans are roughly chopped.
2. With motor running, slowly pour 1/2 cup of oil through feed tube. Process until mixture is smooth.
3. Transfer bean mixture to a small bowl. Stir in rosemary and lemon zest. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.


Chickpeas: Neither Chick Nor Pea: Discuss...

In our house, I am solely responsible for planning our meals, as well as planning the grocery runs that make them possible. I sit down every Thursday or Friday and look at the store ads online to see what the best bargains are for the week. Then, I conduct a mental (and sometimes physical inventory of the fridge, and what ingredients need to be utilized in short order. Next, peruse my Pinterest boards to see what new recipes I could try that best combine items that are on sale with items we already have, and finally, I write down a list of what ingredients we need to buy.

Given that all this decision-making falls on me, it would be easy to abuse this power and impose my culinary vision on Justin however I see fit. I could easily eliminate ingredients from our diet that don't appeal to me, but for the most part, I strive to make my kitchen dictatorship a benevolent one.

This is why I decided to include a variation on pasta e ceci, or pasta with chickpeas, a classic Italian pairing, in this week's meal rotation. I've never been much of a fan of the legume, in fact, I eschewed eating hummus at all until the past couple years or so, but my beloved loves chickpeas almost as much as he loves me.

I think he also loved this recipe because he was able to do almost all the chopping in the food processor, which is a huge time-saver compared to the usual recipes I request him to make that require lots of meticulous chopping my hand. (It was truly a stroke of tremendous foresight to have signed us up for that knife skills class back in the early days of our relationship!) 

It did have an added step, in the form of creating a garlic and rosemary-infused olive oil to drizzle over the top of the finished dish, but we felt that the effort-to-result ration was skewed in its favor -- it really brought something special to the dish, and rescued it from being bland. As for me, I felt that the starch-on-starch of the beans with the pasta was a little much for me, though the chickpeas maintained their texture surprisingly well. For a non-chickpea lover, this wasn't actually a good thing, but the dish benefited from having a bit of textural contrast, even if I was left longing for some meat, or nuts, or really anything besides the garbanzos.

Still, Justin really liked this dish, so I'll be sure to incorporate it into our future meal planning. After all, I'm always on the lookout for something to do with the giant seven pound cans of chickpeas he buys from a nearby ethnic grocery store. A girl can only eat so much hummus, and even if I'm not super enthusiastic about this dish, it could be a welcome change of pace...

Ditalini with Chickpeas and and Garlic-Rosemary Oil
adapted from Bon Appétit

1 medium onion, quartered
1 medium carrot, peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 celery stalk, cut into 1-inch pieces
6 garlic cloves, 4 whole, 2 chopped
1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 cup olive oil, divided
Kosher salt
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 15-ounce cans chickpeas, rinsed
1 pound ditalini or elbow macaroni
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary

1. Pulse onion, carrot, celery, whole garlic cloves, parsley, and red pepper flakes in a food processor until finely chopped; transfer to a small bowl and set aside. Wipe out food processor bowl and set aside.
2. Heat 1/4 cup oil in a large heavy pot over medium heat; add reserved vegetable mixture, season with salt, and cook, stirring often, until golden, 8-10 minutes. Stir tomato paste and 1 cup water in a small bowl to combine; add to pot. Cook, scraping up any browned bits from bottom of pot. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until liquid has almost evaporated, 5-8 minutes.
3. Add chickpeas and 2 cups water to pot and simmer for 15 minutes to let flavors meld. Transfer 1 cup chickpea mixture to food processor; purée until smooth, then stir back into sauce to thicken.
4. Meanwhile, cook pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally, until al dente. Drain pasta, reserving 1 1/2 cups pasta cooking liquid.
5. Add pasta and 1/2 cup pasta cooking liquid to sauce and stir to coat. Increase heat to medium and continue stirring, adding more pasta cooking liquid as needed, until sauce coats pasta.
6. Heat remaining 1/4 cup oil in a small sauce­pan over medium-low heat; add chopped garlic and rosemary and cook until sizzling stops, about 1 minute. Divide pasta among bowls and drizzle with garlic-rosemary oil.


Keep Your Fork, There's Pie...

Heading into March, I didn't really have much on my agenda, besides planning for Pi Day, on 3.14. Last year, I finally managed to make a real pie to celebrate the occasion, after years of good intentions, and I wanted repeat the feat this year. I looked through all the pies on my Pinterest board, narrowed down the options to a few serious contenders, and then proceeded to get really, really busy.

Between work, a deadline for the next edition of "Dining Due Diligence," and my attempts at maintaining some semblance of a social life, the time has practically flown by lately. I knew I was going to have to scale back my plans for Pi Day, and when I took a look around my kitchen last week, I knew just how to do it.

Sitting in my cookie jar were the leftover corn cookies I had baked from the Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook, and Christina Tosi, in her modular approach to baking, had included instructions for turning the cookies into a crust for her cereal milk ice cream pie. Cereal milk is a Momofuku Milk Bar signature, and they turn it into a range of desserts from panna cotta, to popsicles, to ice cream, in addition to selling it by itself, either to drink on its own, or as a coffee additive. It's basically exactly what it sounds like: milk that has been infused with cereal, like what is left at the bottom of your breakfast bowl in the morning, with a bit of extra sugar added.

I was a little skeptical about the whole cereal milk concept, but thought it might be worth trying, due to its incredible popularity. When I described the concept to Justin, he was similarly cool on the topic, but I won him over when I told him that we'd have to buy Captain Crunch for the project, and that there would be leftovers for him to eat.

The modular nature of the recipe made it perfect for my time-crunched lifestyle of late: I was able to grind up the cookies for the crust, press it into a pan, and freeze it while the cookies were still fresh, and I outsourced the cereal milk production to Justin earlier this week. Basically, all it involved was crushing some Captain Crunch, pouring milk over it, steeping it for 20 minutes, and then straining it and adding sugar.

The "ice cream" base was the most complicated step, as it required making s custard, but it was allegedly designed to freeze well without first being churned, because the recipe dated back to a time in Tosi's career when her pastry kitchen was too small for an ice cream machine. Any streamlining that results in fewer dishes to wash is fine with me.

Ultimately, I was forced to question Tosi's wisdom in not churning the ice cream base. Though the cereal milk had a surprisingly pleasant taste, the texture of the ice cream was extremely icy and almost crunchy. I honestly can't imagine a professional chef serving that in a restaurant or a bakery. Plus, though the cereal milk was mild and surprisingly good given what it was, I felt like it needed something, like some berries or fruit spooned on top for garnish, because it was a little bland on its own.

The crust, however, was the highlight of the pie by far. It was truly excellent: sweet, corny, and with a nice hint of salt for balance. I suspect it would be great paired with a variety of other pie fillings, like a cream or custard pie, or something in the blueberry family. I'm definitely going to keep this crust in mind, not only as a potential use for leftover corn cookies, but also as a justification to bake a batch of the cookies in the first place.

It's kind of funny that cookies turned out to be the star of Pi Day, but I'm glad to have a new pie crust for my repertoire, and to have been able to delve further into the Momofuku Milk Bar book, even if the cereal milk ice cream filling was kind of a bust.

Corn Cookie Pie Crust
adapted from Christina Tosi

3 corn cookies
2 tablespoons melted butter

1. Put the corn cookies in the food processor and pulse it on and off until the cookies are crumbled into bright yellow sand.
2. In a bowl, knead the butter and ground cookie mixture by hand until it is moist enough to form a ball. If it is not moist enough to do so, melt an additional tablespoon of butter and knead it in. 
3. Using your fingers and the palms of your hands, press the corn cookie crust firmly a 9-inch pie plate. Make sure the bottom and the walls of the pie plate are evenly covered. Wrapped in plastic, the crust can be frozen for up to two weeks.


A Religious Experience - Part Fourteen

It was actually a case of mistaken identity that led us to South Lawndale, a part of the city I most certainly wouldn't have ever visited otherwise, in pursuit of the Greater Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church. When I had been scoping out the "Sacred Spaces" section on the Open House Chicago website and planning our day, I saw a thumbnail photo of the church and mistook it for a half-remembered building I'd spotted in Chicago Churches and Synagogues: An Architectural Pilgrimage, my version of the Bible when it comes to ecclesiastic architecture in Chicago. Both buildings had impressive wooden ceilings, and though I thought I remembered the church being closer to the United Center, I thought perhaps I had just recalled incorrectly, and put Greater Zion Hill on our itinerary. 

Greater Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church
2255 S. Millard Ave.
Chicago, IL

Originally built in 1891, the Greater Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church was originally known as the Fowler Methodist Church. Charles Henry Fowler was a Methodist pastor who was active in Chicago during the 1860s and 1870s, and a former president of Northwestern University before he was elected a bishop of his church, necessitating a move to California. Following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Fowler worked to raise funds throughout the East in order to rebuild Chicago's churches and provide aid to its religious communities.

South Lawndale was established by refugees of the Great Fire, and attracted mainly residents of German and Czech extraction. Over time, the neighborhood changed demographics several times, as they are wont to do in Chicago, and today, South Lawndale is home to a mostly Hispanic population. This evolution was evidenced at Greater Zion Hill by the presence of bilingual signage at every turn.

The exterior of the church is rendered in the Richardsonian Romanesque style that was so popular in Chicago following the construction of architect Henry Hobson Richardson's home for International Harvester magnate, John J. Glessner, in 1886. Though some of the windows could use repair and restoration, the building is in remarkably good condition, considering all the changes its seen in the past century, as well as the economic stagnation of the neighborhood it calls home. 

As we walked in, it was clear that we were not in the church that I remembered seeing in my book, despite the presence of the glorious wooden ceiling. In fact, the ceiling felt a little out of place for the rest of the sanctuary, which was quite plain, but had a homey, lived-in quality that has been lacking in some of the religious spaces I've visited as part of "A Religious Experience." True, it was a little threadbare, but nothing near the devastation at Agudas Achim, or even the level of creeping decay visible at the Second Presbyterian Church or Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple in Oak Park. Even if the building wasn't especially notable, it was nice to see that it was so well-loved.

It turns out that the church I had confused it with was the 1885 Church of the Epiphany, which boasts a Richardsonian Romanesque exterior as well as an ornate, dark wood ceiling. I was right, it is located at 201 South Ashland, much closer to the United Center, but it's going to have to remain on my to-do list for now. Perhaps I'll manage to get there some time in 2013...


You Gotta Roll With It...

Overall, I am really very thankful to be gainfully employed once more. I was incredibly fortunate to be without a job for such a short period of time, and I like my new situation. I am learning all kinds of skills that will serve me well in the long-run, plus I work with great people who are positive and create a healthy work environment. That said, I am going through a bit of a stressful patch. I am juggling multiple projects, nearly all of them are in a highly active phase, and deadlines are flying at me at an alarmingly fast rate.

This weekend, I've been putting in extra hours from home trying to make some headway on a particularly large project with a looming deadline, and as a result, I felt a bit of a need to treat myself for my efforts. Baking has long been a source of stress-relief for me, and chocolate has always been a handy emotional salve for me, so I turned to my Pinterest board in search of a chocolate-focused baking project I could tackle to make myself feel better.

Inspiration came in the form of a chocolate-swirled breakfast roll from Smitten Kitchen, based on the chocolate babka that she had eaten growing up. Though babka is associated with Eastern European Jewish communities, and I was raised in a predominately Jewish suburb, babka was never really a part of my childhood. Still the concept was appealing -- rich, buttery, brioche-style yeast dough, swirled with sweet chocolate and cinnamon streusel. I love cinnamon buns, I love chocolate, and l love chocolate and cinnamon together, so the idea of combining all these elements and getting to call them breakfast was an undeniably attractive prospect.

The recipe turned out to be a bit more labor-intensive than I probably should have tried to attempt during a weekend when I was already so busy, but attending to the dough throughout its various stages also provided a welcome distraction. Though our apartment is generally on the chilly side during the coder months of the year (and a nightmare to air-condition sufficiently in the summer), the yeast did its job without incident.

As instructed, I rolled out the dough as thinly as possible to allow for maximum chocolate dispersion, but I do think that this strategy resulting in blurring the distinct striations between dough and filling that create a characteristic swirled bun. Chocolate was definitely the dominant flavor in the rolls, eclipsing the cinnamon, though I didn't much mind.

Overall, these babka-inspired buns were a decadent breakfast indulgence, and while I don't think they would be appropriate for regular consumption, from both a caloric and effort-expenditure perspective, I did enjoy the process of making them, and even more the chance to eat them when I was done.


Read My Mind...

Justin has been working a lot of weekends lately, filling in at the public library where he used to work before he got his full-time job, and when he heads up to the burbs for the day, he takes the car with him. As a result, I've been spending a lot of time around the house these last several Saturdays and that means one thing: I've been watching a lot of cooking shows on PBS. As I've mentioned in the past, watching the Saturday cooking show line-up on WTTW is something of a habit of mine, and since the recent debut of their new show The Mind of a Chef, my interest is even greater.

I started watching the program solely based on the fact that Anthony Bourdain narrates it (though he very seldom appears in the flesh), and I've been a huge fan of his shows and writings for years. Being both a foodie and a former historian,  I found that I really enjoyed The Mind of a Chef's fusion of food theory, ingredient history, and travel features. Plus, there was something very charming about the star, Chef David Chang's giddy enthusiasm for his craft.

Naturally, I found that the segments that inspired me the most were those featuring Chang's pastry chef, Christina Tosi, whom I watched week after week taking innovative approaches to dessert, until I finally couldn't take any more. I had Justin pick up a copy from her book from the library while he was there, and I started eagerly flipping through the pages of Momofuku Milk Bar.

By reading the book, it is easy to see that it was written by a pastry chef and not a cookbook author writing for the average home chef. Momofuku Milk Bar is structured around the concept of "mother recipes" which you make and then transform into other desserts by adding more components. This approach makes total sense if you are working in a commercial kitchen, where you can make a huge batch of say, liquid cheesecake filling, and then save time by turning it into ice cream, pie filling, cake filling, et cetera.

If you are a home cook, however, it is a little daunting to read a recipe for a cake, for example, that includes five or six nested recipes within it. Tosi's thought processes are interesting, to be sure, and the desserts look delicious, but very few of them are practical, especially because they also tend to call for ingredients that are either expensive to purchase in small, retail-size quantities instead of wholesale, or simply because there is little else the average home cook could do with them.

As you might have guessed, I still didn't let that stop me. I was determined to try at least one recipe from Tosi's book, even if it meant dedicating a significant amount of time to sourcing ingredients. I selected one of the more simple recipes in the book, for corn cookies, which I had watched her make on The Mind of a Chef, and then subsequently turn into a pie crust. Though corn may sound unorthodox at first in a dessert, the Italians have been puttin polenta in their cookies for ages, and cornbread (at least in the North), can have a significant sweet component, so I was willing to give it a chance.

I ended up dedicating the better part of an afternoon to locating the two specialty ingredients in the recipe - corn flour and freeze-dried corn, and ended up traveling to three different stores. I really thought I'd find the corn products at Whole Foods, so I went there first, but I was surprised to find neither. I did, however, find the Plugra brand imported butter recommended by Tosi, and though I was originally planning on just using the unsalted butter I had on hand, I opted to buy the expensive Plugra just to justify my trip to Whole Foods.

Next, I tried Jewel, a local mega-mart, thinking I might find the freeze-dried corn there, because I remembered that they once carried a line of freeze-dried fruit and veggies there for snacking and salad-topping, but discovered they no longer carried the brand. I did, however, stop in the organic aisle, where I was shocked to see corn flour on the shelf, where Whole Foods had failed to stock it.

I was at a loss, however, on the freeze-dried corn, so I Googled it, figuring I'd have to order some online. After all, in Tosi's own words, "Amazon is your friend." However, one of the top hits was for The Spice House, a spice and specialty food shop, which just happens to have a brick-and-mortar store in Evanston, the closest suburb to my house. I called ahead before driving there just to confirm that they had it in the store, and soon, I was in business.

After locating everything I needed, the hard part was over. Though grinding the freeze-dried corn down to a fine powder in the food processor was an extra step not required by most cookie recipes, the cookies were actually fairly straight-forward. I made sure to follow all of Tosi's instructions to the letter, even when I thought they were borderline ridiculous, which included creaming my butter and sugar together for nearly ten minutes before adding the dry ingredients. Tosi claims that this step is critical and really does make a difference, so I indulged her, even though I don't think I've ever creamed for that long before in my entire cookie baking career.

I also dutifully scooped out the dough in the exact size that Tosi specified, and refrigerated the prepared dough overnight to ensure perfect results. Her recipe called for 2 3/4 ounce cookies, which may seem large, but is only a scant 1/8 ounce larger than my beloved chocolate chip cookie recipe, so I was ready to get on board with her there. It does produce big cookies, but they are large enough that you feel satisfied eating just one, and don't end up justifying several small cookies to yourself instead.

In the end, the cookies turned out magnificently. They were golden yellow in color, almost like the unusual saffron snickerdoodles I made last year, but unlike those, their flavor was not nearly as polarizing. The corn flavor is subtle; if you didn't know what it was, you might not be able to identify it. It just adds a lovely depth of flavor and complexity to a cookie that is delightfully crisp on the outside and chewy in the center -- just the way I like them. They were also fantastically buttery. Plugra has only 2% more butterfat and less water compared to standard American butter, but Tosi was right again, that 2% makes a difference!

Justin even went so far as to procliam them a new favorite, or at least certainly in the pantheon of his favorite cookie recipes that I have made while we've been together. As for me, I'm relieved that they turned out so well, after chasing down all the ingredients. Plus, I will be happy to use up the leftovers to repeat this recipe in the future.

Now that Tosi has proven herself to me, I foresee myself doing more specialty shopping in the future, as the rest of the cookies in Momofuku Milk Bar are looking pretty good right about now...

Corn Cookies
adapted from Momofuku Milk Bar

225 g unsalted butter, at room temperature (preferably Plugra)
300 g sugar
1 egg
225 g flour
45 g corn flour
65 g freeze-dried corn, ground into powder
3 g baking powder
1.5 g baking soda
6 g kosher salt

1. Combine the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and cream together on medium-high for 2-3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl add the egg, and beat for 7-8 minutes more.
2. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the flour, corn flour, corn powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Mix until the dough just comes together, no longer than 1 minute. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
3. Using a 2 3/4 oz. ice cream scoop, or 1/3 cup measure, portion out the dough onto a parchment-lined sheet pan. Pat the tops of the cookie dough domes flat. Wrap the sheet pan tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or up to 1 week. Do not bake your cookies from room temperature -- they will not bake properly.
4. Preheat the oven to 350.
5. Arrange the chilled dough a minimum of 4 inches apart on parchment or Silpat-lined sheet pans. Bake for 18 minutes. The cookies will puff, crackle, and spread. After 18 minutes, they should be faintly browned on the edges yet still bright yellow in the center; give them an extra minute if not.
6. Cool the cookies completely on the sheet pans before transferring to a plate or airtight container for storage. At room temperature, the cookies will keep fresh for 5 days; in the freezer, they will keep for 1 month.


Bowling for Soup...

Remember back when I said we'd been having a mild winter, and how we had broken a record for lack of snowfall? Well, here we are in March now, and winter is now in full swing. In the last month, we've had enough snow that we are within a couple inches of the 30-inch average for Chicago for any given winter season. We still got all our snow, it just came late, and all at once!

In fact, today we are experiencing yet another bout of snow, and the forecasts are predicting it will be the biggest storm of the season. Flights were cancelled, schools were closed, and employers sent their staff home early. Actually, Justin's office closed early, but my intrepid boss was determined to achieve maximum productivity for the day, so we were not released ahead of schedule.

Since he was home so much earlier, Justin got a head start on dinner, so that I could come in from the cold and have a piping hot bowl of soup waiting for me. I had planned for a Spanish lentil soup for this evening, from a recipe I spotted in the most recent issue of Cook's Illustrated. Normally, I don't attempt to make a recipe so soon after I see it in that particular publication, either because it is too labor intensive or it calls for an ingredient that is too hard to find. In fact, this little video is probably the most accurate description I've ever seen of Cook's Illustrated:

However, this particular dish seemed so manageable, I thought it could even be tackled on a work night. French lentils can be hard to find, but I actually had a surplus in my pantry, after inadvertently buying too many at Whole Foods, thinking I was running low when I was actually fully-stocked. And although Spanish chorizo is surprisingly difficult to find in Chicago, despite its trendiness, I remembered seeing it at Publican Quality Meats during one of my previous visits, so entering this soup into our meal plan would give me an excuse to treat myself to lunch. It seemed like a win-win.

Justin didn't seem to have any trouble with the recipe, other than that the grease from the chorizo created a somewhat unfortunate oil slick on top of the broth. We were also short a carrot, but it didn't seem to affect the taste noticeably.

In fact, the soup turned out very well indeed. It was spicier than I was expecting, which I can probably attribute to either the PQM chorizo, or the smoked paprika I was able to find at the grocery store, which didn't state it's strength on the bottle. Either way, the kick was an unanticipated bonus.

I actually think I liked this lentil soup more than the one we made back in January, and I though that one had become my new go- to recipe at the time. Perhaps my enjoyment of this soup is a testament to the importance of high quality ingredients, after all, that chorizo set me back about $9 per pound, and the recipe called for a pound and a half worth. I usually pay less than a third of that price for Italian sausage at the local mega-mart, but it has never made such a memorable impact on a dish I've made either.

Due to the expense, I'm not sure this dish will become a standard in our home, even though it was simple and relatively quick to make. I'll definitely keep in mind for a special occasion, however, or if we are entertaining guests for dinner. Unfortunately, I'm not going to be able to share this recipe with you because Cook's Illustrated has a vigorous legal team out there protecting their intellectual property. If you are interested in trying this one at home, you'll have to run out to the nearest newsstand and buy yourself a hard copy while they are still on shelves...


Getting Sloppy...

As I have gotten older, I find that I have become less and less pessimistic. I realize that most people tend to become more cynical with age, but where, as my mantra once was, "I try not to expect too much so I won't end up disappointed," nowadays I am more inclined to say, "Everything will work out just fine." I'm not sure how this happened, other than an overall improvement in mood that has come with the end of puberty and the balancing out of my hormones that came with it, but the change has made me a happier person in general.

This sense of hope that I have developed, however, does occasionally get me in trouble. For example, I recently purged my magazine rack of nearly a year's worth of Bon Appétits and Food and Wines by going through all of them and pinning the interesting recipes to my savory and sweet recipe boards on Pinterest. While I was filing all my inspiration recipes for later, I came across one from chef Ming Tsai, for Asian Sloppy Joe Sliders. I have been watching Ming on television since he was on the Food Network with East Meets West back in the 1990s, and I continue to watch him on Simply Ming on PBS, and yet I couldn't remember ever trying one of his recipes. It seemed like the right thing to do.

Nevermind the fact that I hate sloppy joes. As the name suggests, they are messy and hard to eat, which has always bugged me, but I've always attributed my disdain to the fact that sloppy joe sauce reminds me of barbeque sauce, and I can't stand that either. However, as an adult, my palate has expanded since childhood, and I hoped that this Asian-inspired sauce would be the thing to change my mind about sloppy joes and open my eyes to a new genre of sandwiches.

The ingredients seemed promising: garlic, ginger, sriracha, hoisin sauce, ground pork and ground turkey -- all things that I enjoy in other recipes. Except that as I was cooking it, and smelling it, all I could think about was, "I wish I were making those bahn mi burgers with this ground pork instead, because this looks gross." I'm not even sure what my hang-up is, because I am fine with ground meat in other scenarios, such as in spaghetti sauce, or tacos. As I spooned the filling onto my sandwich, my stomach turned. 

All things considered, the sandwiches weren't terrible; in fact, Justin liked them. The meat tasted good, but as the bun disintegrated and the meat started falling all over my plate, I thought back to all those sloppy joes I've eaten in my life, and I just could get past my disdain. Though I'd had high hopes that I could bring myself to enjoy sloppy joes by changing the flavor profile, it just wasn't going to happen for me. 

If sloppy joes are your thing, then by all means, go for it with this recipe. As long as you enjoy Asian flavors, you'll probably enjoy this unique twist. As for us, it's a good thing Justin liked these sandwiches, because he'll be polishing off the leftovers all on his own.

Asian Sloppy Joes
adapted from Ming Tsai

2 tablespoons canola oil
2 medium red onions, finely chopped
1 cup finely chopped celery
3 tablespoons sriracha
2 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
Kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
1 pound ground turkey
1 pound ground pork
1 cup hoisin sauce
1 cup drained canned diced tomatoes
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
hamburger buns
Shredded iceberg lettuce and spicy pickles (optional), for serving

1. In a large, deep skillet, heat the canola oil until shimmering. Add the onions, celery, sriracha, garlic, ginger and a generous pinch each of salt and pepper and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened, about 8 minutes. Add the ground chicken and pork and cook, stirring occasionally to break up the meat, until no pink remains, about 5 minutes. Stir in the hoisin, tomatoes and lime juice and bring to a boil. Simmer over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

2. Spoon the sloppy joe filling onto the bottom half of each bun. Top with shredded lettuce and pickles and serve.


Variety Is The Spice Of Life...

When I interviewed for my job, the CEO explained to me that his work philosophy runs something like: "If it ain't broke, break it, enjoy the mess you've made, then put things back together in the most cost-effective and efficient manner possible." When he asked me if I could get on board with that, I said yes, and gave an example in the form of my approach to cooking. Even if I have an amazing recipe for a given dish (I believe I used brownies in my response, because it was the first thing to pop into my head, even though I've never had a brownie recipe that I was really satisfied with), I am always willing to try a different recipe, because there might be a new tip, trick, technique, or ingredient that will make my food that much better. I never rest on my laurels.

Needless to say, I got the job, and I continue to refuse to leave well-enough alone in my kitchen as well. Just last night, I tested a new stir-fry recipe, despite the fact that I have an incredible recipe for a beef and snow pea stir-fry that I have happily made over and over since we discovered it last year. Good as that one was, this one called for different vegetables, and I thought it might make for a nice change of pace.

Though it featured Brussels sprouts, which are far from being one of Justin's favorites, the dish also called for chiles and carrots, which I thought might appeal to him, in light of the fact that one of his main criticisms of our existing stir-fry routine is that it would be improved by the addition of more vegetables. I wasn't crazy about the thought of chiles, even though I don't mind spicy food all that much, but I figured I could always pick them out.

In terms of effort, I think this recipe was actually slightly less work despite the need to meticulously chop more veggies since it did not require the pan-frying of any noodles. That being said, those crispy, golden brown and delicious noodles are worth every extra moment of work and make our usual stir-fry the treat that it is. This one felt dull by comparison.

Plus, I did not care for the sauce in this new version. This version features rice vinegar, which was a bit too tart my palate. Each bite did not leave me craving the next, but rather indifferent to it. I had to compel myself to finish my plate so I wouldn't be hungry again later.

Really, the best part of the meal were the Brussels sprouts, and I can think of any number of ways I would rather eat those. For now, we will most definitely be sticking with our tried-and-true stir-fry favorite, but at least I can rest assured that it is the top recipe out there. There is no room for mediocre dishes in my repertoire.

Brussels Sprout and Steak Stir-Fry
adapted from Bon Appétit

3 tablespoons oyster sauce
3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar
4 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
1 pound Brussels sprouts, halved
8 oz. flank or skirt steak, thinly sliced against the grain
Kosher salt
4 scallions, whites chopped, greens sliced
3 garlic cloves, sliced
2 tablespoons chopped peeled ginger
2 medium carrots, peeled, thinly sliced on a diagonal
1 Fresno chile or jalapeño, sliced into rings
Steamed rice (for serving)

Whisk oyster sauce, soy sauce, vinegar, and 1/4 cup water in a small bowl; set sauce aside.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add brussels sprouts and cook, tossing occasionally, until golden brown, about 4 minutes. Cover and cook until crisp-tender, about 3 minutes longer. Transfer to a plate; wipe out skillet.

Season steak with salt. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in same skillet over high heat until just beginning to smoke. Add steak in a single layer; cook until browned, about 3 minutes. Turn and cook until nearly cooked through, about 30 seconds. Add to brussels sprouts.

Heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil in same skillet. Add scallion whites, garlic, and ginger and stir until fragrant, about 1 minute, adjusting heat as needed. Add carrots and chile and cook, tossing occasionally, until carrots are slightly softened, about 2 minutes.

Return brussels sprouts and steak to skillet and add reserved sauce. Cook, tossing occasionally, until sauce is thickened, about 3 minutes. Serve with steamed rice and garnish with scallion greens.


Stop The Presses - Part Six

Since I know the majority of my readership here at "The State I Am In" are likely not subscribers of The Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, I just thought I would share with you the latest installation of my restaurant review column "Dining Due Diligence," which was published today:
Stepping into owner Keene Addington's Tortoise Club in River North feels like entering a portal back in time, to a bygone era when service reigned supreme, and the customer was always right.

Diners are greeted by a luxurious, masculine interior dominated by dark woods and vintage-inspired artwork. The soft lighting adds to the aura of privacy, making the venue a perfect location for sensitive business discussions that require confidentiality.

Even the bustling bar scene retains a sense of intimacy, making it an ideal destination for an after-hours drink with coworkers. A live jazz trio provides a soothing touch of sophistication without drowning out conversation.

Although the drink menu relies heavily on classic mixed drinks, the signature cocktail — the Tipsy Tortoise — provided a crisp and refreshing opener to the hearty, sumptuous meal to follow.

Also preceding the meal were offerings from the restaurant's bread program, the highlight of which were the minute pretzel batons. Their only flaw proved to be their petite size, which leaves diners wanting. Pumpernickel rolls and asiago tournedos, however, were merely average.

Sharing a plate of the crispy shrimp is an ideal way to start your dinner, as the crustaceans emerge perfectly cooked, superlatively juicy and accented by briny pickled chilies to cut the grease. The beef and barley soup is warming, stick-to-the-ribs fare, ideal for winter.

On the lighter end of the spectrum is the Brussels sprouts salad, which is well-balanced with a bright and acidic dressing, but somewhat lacking in the eponymous sprouts. The obligatory beet salad is distinguished by the presence of a chilled quinoa base, which was a bit disharmonious, but still palatable.

For the entrée course, the Berkshire pork chop proves succulent, but the maple glaze is somewhat aggressive, veering almost into dessert territory. The "caulimac," which derives its creamy texture from puréed vegetables and not dairy, is a surprise hit — with unique noodles cooked to an ideal al dente and a crust of toasted Parmesan and caramelized cauliflower.

Pheasant pie is another standout, with a buttery, flaky crust and a rich, gamey filling. For the less adventurous, chicken is an immensely satisfying choice, with earthy lentils and crisp-tender cabbage, all in a richly savory jus.

If you wish to extend your decadent dining experience, the intensely chocolaty brownie will satiate any "chocoholic." Unfortunately, the pecan pie fell into the too-common trap of overly cloying sweetness and is best avoided.

Tortoise Club is perfectly suited to important meetings, where its traditional, stalwart atmosphere conveys power and prestige. For those planning a larger function, its opulent library space can host receptions and celebrations.

For your business-entertaining needs, run, walk, or crawl to the Tortoise Club, 350 N. State St.