A Favor To Ask...

I am not a religious person, though I do have some spiritual inclinations. I find it comforting to think that there are forces at play in the universe that are larger than myself. Either way, whether you belong to an organized religion or profess a faith of your own devising, I would appreciate any thoughts/prayers/good vibes/positive mental energy you can send my mother's way today.

This morning, my mother is going into surgery to donate her kidney to a complete stranger, and in return, someone associated with that person, of whom all we know is that they live in Minnesota, will donate a kidney to my great-aunt, Dolly. Mom has been on this donation journey for over a year now, before we even knew that Aunt Dolly was sick, because she wanted to do something incredible for another person, as if being an amazing mother, wife, daughter, sister, and aunt wasn't enough.

Selfless and altruistic as this act is, I can't help but worry for her. Major surgery comes along with significant risk, and her recovery will be long, so I would really appreciate it if we could all pull together for her today. Good luck, Mom, we love you very much and we will all be thinking of you.


They Grow Up So Fast...

Two months ago, I reported that Justin and I had brought a botanical life into the world by successfully sprouting an avocado pit from a fruit given to us from some family friends from their garden in Florida. We had been trying to conceive for quite some time, so we were ecstatic to become plant parents. Like any new mom and dad, we are so proud of our fledgling tree that I wanted to share a photo and an update:

We repotted our baby after its first month of life, since it appeared to have stopped growing. It really wasn't a moment too soon either, as the plant was already becoming root-bound. In accordance with advice we read online, Justin conducted some extensive pruning that reduced the plant to just the stem and a single leaf, in hopes of forcing it to grow in a more aesthetically pleasing manner.  While it was nerve-wracking to see it looking so bare, it was definitely the right call, as the tree is looking fantastic now.

I sense another repotting is in our near future, as our baby is continuing to grow every day. I also fear that my initial concern that the massive size of the seed would lead to the growth of a massive tree may ultimately prove correct. We'll have to cross that bridge when we come to it, but for now, we are simply enjoying this new addition to our houseplant menagerie.


Stop The Presses - Part Eight

"Dining Due Diligence" has been on quite the roll lately, with three editions in the past two months. For the curious, here is my latest column, from today's Chicago Daily Law Bulletin:
Sequestered away in a sleepy corner of River North, Baume & Brix — with chefs Thomas Elliott Bowman, Ben Roche and Nate Park — creates a design-conscious space where the food vies with the decor for diners' attention.

The chic, yet industrial loft-style space might easily double for one of the designer lighting stores surrounding Merchandise Mart, given the no less than eight different fixtures we spotted.

Baume & Brix, 351 W. Hubbard St., is plagued by another "no seating until the party is complete" policy that was inconsistently and annoyingly applied, with some diners being seated right away while others were forced to languish at the bar. If you plan on visiting Baum & Brix on business, keep your fingers crossed that you make it into the former category.

Service was similarly inconsistent; the wait staff was obliging to the diners' every whim, though our table was not offered the wonderfully fragrant bread that was served to the tables surrounding us.

The trio of chefs divide the menu into contrived sections such as "explore," "summit," "conquer" and "divide," corresponding roughly to appetizers, entrees, desserts and shared desserts, respectively.

To "explore," the shrimp and grits bisque was lacking the traditional southern flavor profile that the name implies, but was brimming over with intensely concentrated corn flavor instead. The grilled octopus was perfectly cooked without a hint of chewiness, and the play on "fun-dip" created by the addition of flavor powders for dipping was novel and delicious — a rare combination.

On the less successful end of the spectrum, the "naked" lobster called to mind a breadless lobster roll, with off-putting textures as well.

Portion sizes for the entree course were somewhat miserly in scale, but what they lacked in quantity they made up in quality.

The black cod was accentuated by a slightly sweet mirin and sake marinade, and was served in a flavorful, but delicate, broth with a delightful edamame dumpling. Red curry-flavored short ribs were fork-tender and surprisingly well matched by Okinawa sweet potato puree and a vinegar-laced kale. The butterfish was also a highlight, with flesh that was especially rich and succulent.

Only the duck went astray — though cooked to the requested temperature, it was unpleasantly gamey, and the squash and barley "risotto" had a musty, earthy flavor that was not entirely pleasant.

To close out the meal, we ordered the "divide" course — a batch of baked-to-order chocolate chip cookies served with vanilla-infused milk. Because we ordered the cookies at the start of the meal, the interminable 45-minute wait for them seemed inexcusable, and when they finally arrived, they were hardly warm at all.

If you wish to linger after the meal discussing business, feel free to order this poorly paced course, but if you have other pressing matters to tackle, you are better off "conquering" your meal instead.


Happy Blogiversary...

Four years ago today I sat down at my computer, created a Blogger account, and said "hello" to the world. My cousins had started blogging as a way of sharing pictures and stories about their growing families, so I decided to jump on the bandwagon with tales from my single, childless life in the city. My life has changed a lot in the past four years, but I have managed to keep blogging through all of it, no matter how far behind I got, and no matter how much I felt like quitting and getting all of that time back.

I had started blogging as a way of holding myself accountable; I figured I couldn't just sit at home living a boring life if I expected anyone to be interested in reading about it. Blogging forced me out into the world, and gave me a greater appreciation for my city and all it has to offer. It also motivated me to tackle bigger and more complicated projects in the kitchen, leading me to not only expand my repertoire, but to increase my skill set as well.

Finally, the past four years here at "The State I Am In" have helped me to keep my writing skills sharp. After college, I felt like I was squandering all of the writing talent I spent my life honing up to that point, so blogging gave me a means of self-expression, and a way to keep my writing skills up to date. Those writing skills helped me land a new full-time job in November, and the small portfolio of restaurant reviews that I had compiled over the years led me to my gig writing "Dining Due Diligence" for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. Truly, my persistence over the years has paid off.

In the past year, I managed to crank out 187 post, down just slightly from the 191 that I generated in my third year of blogging, but certainly not shabby by any means. That works out to a post every 1.95 days - a number of which I can definitely feel proud. To celebrate, I decided to keep up my tradition of trying out a new cake recipe, only this year, I found myself tempted to cheat a little.

You see, this year, I didn't actually bake a cake to commemorate my blogiversary. The same cake-related lack of inspiration and motivation that struck a few weeks ago for my birthday seemed to be plaguing me still, and I just couldn't settle upon anything I wanted to conquer. Meanwhile, I couldn't stop thinking about an icebox-style chocolate cheesecake that boasted four simple ingredients and was calling to me from my Pinterest baking board like a siren's song.

Last year, I happened to discover the joys of Nabisco Famous Wafers while making the crust for the Mexican Chocolate Tart I made for the Cinco de Mayo-themed dinner I prepared for Justin's family the first time they came over to see our new home. I only needed part of the package of cookies to make the crust, and I idly grabbed an extra to munch on while I was working. That proved to be a mistake -- I had soon eaten the entire rest of the package, even though I was in the process of making a separate dessert. 

An obsession was born that day; imagine if you will, a slightly crispier version of an Oreo without the frosting, and you can envision the experience of eating a Nabisco Famous Wafer. Given my fondness for Oreos, which dates back to my childhood (they are the only pre-made cookies I spend my money on), and the fact that I have never been a fan of frosting (in fact, while most people twist open their Oreos to scrape out the filling and eat it, I twist mine open to scrape out the filling with a knife and throw it away), Nabisco Famous Wafers are pretty much my dream dessert.

Later that summer, after one of the early game nights we hosted with our friends, Jess and Brad, I found myself with a huge surplus of whipped cream left over from an angel food cake and strawberry dessert that Jess had brought over. I didn't know what to do with it (it was seriously a lot of whipped cream), so I did the sensible thing and Googled "leftover whipped cream," and found the same suggestion on multiple food forums: turn it into an icebox cake by layering it with Nabisco Famous Wafers. I was sold.

I was skeptical that a dessert consisting of cookies and whipped cream would be good, in spite of the fact that cookies and cream was my favorite childhood ice cream flavor. Internet wisdom turned out to be spot on, however, as I was blown away by how delicious my results turned out. Evidently, the magic of the icebox cake occurs when the cookies sit overnight in the moisture of the whipped cream. They absorb some of the liquid, acquiring an almost cake-like texture, and the whipped cream sets up as some of its moisture is absorbed. The thin cookies turn into thin striations of cake between light and fluffy cream, and the result tastes far lighter than its actual caloric content would lead you to believe. 

Hence, when I spotted a recipe in Food and Wine for an icebox cake that substituted a combination of cream cheese and chocolate syrup thinned with a bit of water, I knew I had to make it happen. I've never been tempted to tackle a real cheesecake, which must be baked in a water bath and still has a tendency to crack, but this shortcut version proved irresistible. 

As you might expect, this was the easiest recipe that I've ever selected for my blogiversary. In fact, the hardest part was trying to keep the plastic wrap in place while I was spreading out the layers of cookies and cream cheese filling without making a huge, sticky mess. Simple as it was, however, it was also one of the tastiest desserts I've ever made for this occasion. My one-year blogiversary cake was largely forgettable; my two-year cake gave me my beloved maple cream-cheese frosting recipe; and last year I mastered Grandma Betsy's red velvet cake, which will probably always be my sentimental favorite. This chocolate icebox cheesecake is easily the second-best dessert that I have created in honor of this joyous occasion. 

I think this cake will be making a comeback sometime soon. Not only is it quick and easy, it is a great make-ahead dish for entertaining, since it needs to sit overnight, and it doesn't require any oven time, making it great for the summer. I'm already mentally penciling it into a cookout menu a few months from now, and I think you should plan on doing the same. 

Until then, Happy Blogiversary to me, and stay tuned to see where year four takes me here at "The State I Am In!"

Icebox Chocolate Cheesecake
adapted from Food & Wine

70 Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers (from 2 packages)
Three 8-ounce packages cream cheese, at room temperature
1 c. chocolate syrup, such as Hershey’s
1/4 c. water

1. Put 20 of the chocolate cookies (reserving 50 whole cookies) into a zippered plastic bag and, using a rolling pin, crush them to fine crumbs. Line an 8-inch round cake pan with enough plastic wrap to extend by 4 inches all around.
2. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese at high speed until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in the chocolate syrup and 1/4 cup of water and beat the chocolate cream for 2 minutes.
3. Arrange 9 cookies in an overlapping ring on the bottom of the prepared cake pan and place 1 cookie in the center. Spoon one-fourth of the chocolate cream (about 1 1/4 cups) over the cookies, being careful not to disturb them. Repeat with the remaining cookies and chocolate cream, ending with a layer of 10 cookies on top. Fold the plastic wrap over the top of the cake. Lightly tap the pan once or twice on a work surface. Refrigerate the cake for at least 8 hours and preferably overnight.
4. Peel back the plastic wrap and invert the cake onto a serving plate. Carefully peel off the plastic wrap. Press the cookie crumbs onto the side of the cake to coat evenly. Cut into wedges and serve. 

Cake should be consumed within 3 days of preparation.


Such a Flake...

As much as I haven't been inspired by cake baking lately, I haven't been able to get cookies off my mind lately -- specifically the cookies from Momofuku Milk Bar. I keep justifying my preoccupation to myself with the thought that I need to work through the book so that we can return it to the library, or in case somebody puts a hold on it and we have to return it, but in reality, I think the book has just awakened my dormant obsession with cookies.

For example, all I wanted to do last week was bake Tosi's Cornflake-Chocolate-Chip-Marshmallow Cookies, but I was just too busy. I needed at least two consecutive evenings at home to make them - one to make the cornflake crunch and the cookie dough, and another to refrigerate the dough overnight and bake them the next day. Between a doctor's appointment on Monday night, going to the theater on Wednesday, and being at the office until 9:15 on Friday for an all-day meeting and dinner, there was just no time to dedicate to baking until the weekend, and I finally got the chance to make my cookie dreams a reality.

I was intrigued by this recipe, not only because of the drool-worthy photo in the book of a pair of hands tearing apart a gooey, melty cookie, but because I've not encountered a cookie recipe before that calls for adding marshmallows directly into the dough. According to what I've read, adding marshmallows too early results in them melting into the dough and disappearing, so most cookies that feature them call for pressing marshmallows into the surface of the cookies midway through the baking process. When I have baked with marshmallows myself, that is the technique I have followed as well, so I was curious to see whether Tosi's novel idea would pan out.

I must confess, however, I was a little intimidated by these cookies at the same time, not because they seemed especially difficult, but because the reviews I'd read of the recipe on other blogs were full of stories of disaster. The cookies spread too much, or they burned, or they cooked unevenly. My last two batches of Milk Bar cookies turned out perfectly, and I was sure to follow all the directions carefully, so I decided to roll the dice and see if my baking prowess could lead me to success where so many others had failed.

When I set out to start preparing the dough, I was faced with another one of Tosi's nested recipes, but the cornflake crunch was less labor intensive and dangerous than the peanut "brittle" had been, and even better, since I wasn't dealing with molten sugar, I was able to scale down the recipe to make only as much cornflake crunch as I needed so I wouldn't have to figure out what to do with leftovers. I was able to prepare and cool the cornflake crunch in the time it took my Plugra to soften to room temperature, so it hardly even seemed like that much of an extra effort.

The dough came together without incident, though I did vary slightly from Tosi's instructions by using regular chocolate chips instead of the mini-version she prefers for better distribution throughout the cookie, mainly because I'd already had to buy cornflakes, marshmallows, and powdered milk and I didn't want to have to invest in mini-chips too. I did, however, decide to add more chips than the recipe called for, since I had the remnants of an open bag hanging out on my cabinet and I wanted to finish it off. After finishing the dough and portioning it out to chill overnight, it would be 24 hours before I would discover if my change to the recipe would prove to be my downfall.

Today, when I pulled the cookies out of the oven, I could see that they were somewhat less attractive than the other Milk Bar cookies I've baked so far, but they were far from a disaster. The marshmallows had indeed melted, as I'd predicted, and the ones that were close to the sides of the cookies created pools of molten candy around the edges that caramelized and turned brown, which made the cookies look less uniformly round and perfect than usual. However, I didn't really mind the melted marshmallow puddles because their caramel flavor proved to be a welcome addition to the cookies.

I was also surprised that, despite sitting in the moist cookie dough overnight, the cornflakes retained their crispiness without getting soggy, and added an extra crunch factor to the cookies that contrasted with the chewiness of the melted candy. The extra chocolate chips didn't keep the cookies from sticking together, as I had feared, but I did notice that the cookie dough itself, while exceptionally buttery, was more crumbly and less chewy than the other two Milk Bar cookies I've experimented with. Though I generally prefer chewy cookies, I didn't really see the crumbly texture as a problem here.

So far, I would rank these cookies between the corn cookies and the peanut butter cookies in my emerging hierarchy of Milk Bar cookies. I still have three more that I want to bake from the book before I return it to the library, so we'll just have to wait and see where it falls in the final rankings...


Through The Years...

Embarking on this cookbook project and working my way through the past decade of my cooking career has been not only a nostalgic experience, but also a pensive one. My recipes, and the stories behind them, reflect not only how I have grown in my kitchen skills, but also how I have grown as a person. I've become more adventurous, more confident, and more open-minded over time. Plus, my recipes conjure memories of people in my life; someone for whom I made a specific dish, someone I learned from, someone who I taught a given recipe.

I think, in part, that this powerful connection to memory is why I don't make today's dish more often. At one point, in college, it was the star of my cooking arsenal -- the recipe I kept up my sleeve for when I needed to impress someone. It was a little unconventional, a bit unexpected, but it was also a huge hit with anyone I ever served it to. I wouldn't say I ever made it often, because its rich, cream-based sauce made it more special occasion fare, but I certainly made it every few months. Now I'm lucky if I make it once a year.

The recipe is for chicken with grapes, and it consists of sauteed chicken, browned and then served with a mustard cream sauce and a combination of cooked and nearly raw grapes, for textural contrast, served over a bed of noodles. I saw it on an episode of Rachel Ray (like I said, I added this dish to my repertoire while I was in college), was intrigued by the marriage of sweet and savory flavors, and decided to give it a try. It became so popular among me and my friends that when a friend asked me for advice on what she could make to impress her boyfriend who was visiting her from out of town for the weekend, I taught her how to make it over the phone, and emailed her the recipe.

Chicken and grapes became a thing between the two of them, and I gradually came to associate the recipe with her because she mentioned it so often. People change, or sometimes fail to change, however, and friendships come to an end, as did ours. I wouldn't say that I mourn the loss of that relationship, nor do I have any ill will towards her, but I did stop making chicken and grapes as often I once did because it reminded me of her, and I felt that I had largely left that part of my life in the past.

Still, this dish is just as delicious as it ever was, and it deserves to be revisited every now and then regardless of the memories attached to it. I shouldn't punish the recipe just because somebody once liked it, and now that I've introduced it to Justin, he's become a fan himself. Hopefully, I can build up new positive memories surrounding this dish, and it will resume its rightful place in the pantheon of my most-beloved recipes. Until then, you should give this recipe a try. Since you have no baggage associated with it, you are missing out on all the comforting, rich, sweet/savory goodness for no good reason.

Chicken and Grapes
adapted from Rachel Ray

2 tablespoons light tasting olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
seasoned salt and pepper to taste
1 cup chicken stock, measured in 1/2 cup increments
1/4 cup stone-ground Dijon mustard
1 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 cups seedless red grapes, halved
2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into 2-inch pieces

1. Heat a large skillet over medium to medium-high heat. Add the butter and olive oil to the skillet and wait for the butter to melt.
2. Season the chicken with seasoned salt and pepper to taste. Place the flour in a large Ziploc bag. Add the chicken and thoroughly toss to coat.
3. Add the chicken to the skillet and cook for 7-8 minutes or until browned. Remove chicken once it is done and set aside.
4. Add 1/2 cup of chicken stock to the pan and scrape up any browned bits sticking to the pan. Allow the stock co cook down for 1 minute.
5. Add the remaining stock, heavy cream and mustard. Stir the chicken and half of the grapes into the sauce, tossing to coat. Simmer for at least five minutes over low heat. Season with seasoned salt as necessary.
6. Add the remaining grapes and serve immediately over egg noodles.


Don't Wanna Be An American Idiot...

Though I am decidedly closer to thirty than twenty, the arrival of my 28th birthday didn't really have me feeling old until tonight, when Justin and I went to see the theatrical version of American Idiot, the seminal 2004 album by Green Day. We both had fond memories of the album, which was released when I was a freshman in college, nearly ten years ago -- a frightening prospect unto itself.

American Idiot was a powerful expression of adolescent angst, set against the backdrop of Bush-era America, with palpable political overtones. At the time, it felt like an instant classic, and its rock opera structure made it seem almost like a foregone conclusion that it would eventually make it to the stage. Given my love for musical theater, I decided to keep my eye out for it, but in the meantime, I listened to "Wake Me Up When September Ends" so many times on my brand-new iPod that it was firmly lodged in my 25 Most Played Songs playlist for years to come.

The long-awaited stage version did not come to fruition until 2010, and it wasn't until last year that it finally made it to Chicago on tour. Out of nostalgia, I tried my best to obtain tickets, but I never managed to find them at a discounted rate, and the base price was even higher than most ticket prices for shows that come through my fair city, so I eventually gave up.

Last month, however, the Broadway in Chicago Facebook page alerted me to the fact that not only was American Idiot coming back through town, there was a half-price spring ticket sale in effect for all Broadway in Chicago shows. With all the ridiculous Ticketmaster fees, the tickets were still expensive, but they were at least in the realm of affordability, so I jumped at them.

We braved a horrific rain storm to be at the theater for the show tonight, and it appeared that our fellow theater patrons were not as motivated, as there were vast tracts of empty seats surrounding us. Those who had defied the elements instantly sent us down the path of feeling old, as we seemed to surpass them in years by a factor of a decade at least.

As the show started, our senses were affronted by a barrage of overly loud music and flashing strobe lights that would have been enough to induce a seizure even in the non-epileptic. The performers emerged clad in a wardrobe that seemed to consist largely of items that could have been found at Hot Topic, a store that I have not deigned to enter in close to a decade, and even then it was only to buy a gift. Given my initial reaction to the performance, I couldn't help but wonder if my next thought would be, "Damn kids! Get off my lawn!"

Throughout the rest of the show one-act show (Whose bright idea was that anyway? You have to give people the opportunity to use the bathroom!) I found myself distracted by the choreographer's unsuccessful attempt to create a method of dance that communicates apathy. In my mind, dance inherently carries an emotional valance, and to ask people to dance like they don't care makes them look like they just can't dance. With their jerky, flailing, uncoordinated movements, I could have probably jumped up onto stage and fit right in.

Finally, I found myself lacking sympathy for the characters. I wanted them to stop self-sabotaging with drugs and alcohol, stop whining, and pull their lives together. Frustratingly, the only character who seemed to make any progress on that front got his leg blown off in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

Yes, the music was good, and the cast did an adequate job in singing it, but in all honesty, I would have been happier if I had stayed dry at home and listened to Billie Joe Armstrong sing the album himself on iTunes. Then I could have reflected in peace on what it was like to be young, without being painfully reminded of the fact that I am turning into an old curmudgeon.



Though I can understand the appeal of "semi-homemade" food to people without the skill or inclination to cook proper meals, part of me cringes whenever I see a recipe that is entirely made of processed foods. If I spot a photo on Pinterest of some dessert that has been concocted by combining cake mixes, Jello mixes, pudding mixes, soda, and/or Cool Whip, I die a little on the inside and scroll on to the next thing. The same goes for casseroles or slow cooker dinners that are made up of some combination of chicken, flavoring packets, canned cream of something soup, canned vegetables, Rotel, and/or salad dressing or barbeque sauce. Call me a snob, but in my mind, these "meals" barely qualify as food.

That's why it's so embarrassing to me that I have a beloved recipe in my own arsenal that comes perilously close to these "semi-homemade" recipes that are forever floating around the internet -- taco salad. It was one of the few recipes I learned to cook from my mother, meaning that it was one of the first dishes I ever learned how to prepare, period. I still make it with relative frequency too, not only because it is delicious, but because it has a powerful nostalgic connection to my childhood. I've resisted blogging about it for the past four years because I was kind of ashamed of it, but I figured since I was photographing it anyway for the cookbook Justin is making me as a belated birthday gift, I might as well come out of the closet and share it with the public.

This recipe has no redeeming nutritional value, in fact, I usually eat more than a recommended portion size of Doritos while I have the bag out to crunch up some chips for the topping. Since these pulverized Doritos make up the crunch factor of the salad, it may make the recipe a soupcon healthier than the traditional deep-fried tortilla bowl version, but probably not by much. Really, if you think about it, the addition of Doritos to this salad was way ahead of its time, considering that Taco Bell did not introduce the Doritos Locos Taco until 2012 (and they just came out with Doritos Locos Tacos flavored Doritos, which actually aren't that bad, even if the concept makes my head hurt.)

I guess the beans are good for you, and the substitution of black beans for kidney beans was only contribution I have made to this recipe since learning it from my mother, since I prefer the texture of them. However, I'm pretty sure that any nutritional benefit you may get from consuming the nice, fibrous beans is negated by the sodium-laden packaged taco seasoning on the ground beef, the ground beef itself, the iceberg lettuce, and all that delicious, delicious cheese and taco chips. At least I use low-fat salad dressing?

This dish is definitely a guilty pleasure for me, and perhaps it can be for you as well. If you are less adverse to vegetables than I am, you can feel free to embellish upon this base recipe. When Mom makes it for Dad, she often cuts up a tomato and adds it to his plate, and I do the same for Justin, with the addition of a cubed avocado. Bell pepper might be good, though I can't be sure, since I don't eat them. Feel free to let your imagination run wild, and treat yourself to this tasty delight, being sure to take a night off from worrying about the caloric consequences of your choices.

Taco Salad
adapted from Mom

1.25 lbs of ground round
1 packet of McCormick taco seasoning (mild)
1 medium-large head of iceberg lettuce, washed well and torn into bite-size pieces
shredded cheddar cheese to taste
one small white onion, diced
1 15-oz can of black beans, drained and rinsed
2 handfuls of Doritos tortilla chips, crushed

1. Brown the beef over medium-high heat, then blot off the grease with a paper towel.
2. Add the taco seasoning and 3/4 cup water and bring to a boil.
3. Reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes, uncovered. Allow to cool slightly.
4. In a large salad bowl, combine the lettuce, cheese, diced onion, beans, and beef.
5. Serve garnished with the crushed Doritos.


Picasso and Chicago...

When I was younger, the Art Institute hosted a series of landmark exhibitions concerning the great Impressionist painters. Every year there was a new show, the galleries were always packed with patrons who flocked to the museum to see these shows, and the works captured my imagination. My mom bought me books about Degas, Monet, Cassatt, and Van Gogh (though he was technically a Post-Impressionist), and I claimed Impressionism as my favorite art movement for years, until my tastes turned darker in high school and I acquired an affinity for German Expressionism (Van Gogh's The Starry Night remains my favorite painting of all-time, however.) Still, I remember with fondness going to see those exhibits at the Art Institute and looking forward to them all year.

Maybe I've just gotten jaded and harder to impress, or maybe the current economical climate has made it more difficult to ship paintings from all over the world to create blockbuster exhibits like those of yore, but I feel like the Art Institute's offerings have been substantially less impressive in recent years, with the exception of last year's Lichtenstein retrospective. 2011 witnessed the Art Institute's massive exhibition of Soviet Propaganda posters, which was a triumph of art scholarship, however, the vast majority of the pieces were drawn from the museum's own collection.

The same was true of "Picasso and Chicago," the current temporary exhibition at the Art Institute, which touts itself as the museum's first major Picasso show in over three decades. I was keen to see the exhibit, not only because I love a blockbuster exhibit, but because I admire the artistic genius and prolific career of Picasso, but I ultimately found myself to be somewhat underwhelmed by the experience.

"Picasso and Chicago" is designed to demonstrate the ties between the artist and our fair city, where his work was heavily collected by wealthy Chicagoans following his showing at the 1913 Armory Show, which was housed at the Art Institute during its tour of the United States. In 1965, Chicago unveiled a monumental statue by Picasso in the Richard J. Daley Plaza that remains a city landmark to this day. Despite these connections, I couldn't help but feel like the Art Institute selected this focus for their exhibit to facilitate curating an exhibit based largely on their own collection.

Sure, the show was brimming over with famous works like The Old Guitarist and the sculpture, Cubist Head of a Woman (Fernande), but all of those notable works are ones that you can see during any visit to the Art Institute in any given year, as they are part of the permanent collection and are always on display. Plus, the case for the Chicago connection felt half-hearted, as if the curators really just wanted to discuss the life and art of Picasso and were forced to tack an extra sentence onto every caption in order to prove the Chicago-relevance of the preceding text.

This doesn't mean, however, that the exhibit is not worth seeing. Though it wasn't as grand or impressive as I was hoping, I was still intrigued by the large volume of works on paper included in the exhibition. The Art Institute has a staggering collection of works on paper, but in exhibitions, they tend to take a backseat to paintings and sculpture. It was in "Picasso and Chicago's" selection of prints that I found the most value in the exhibition.

The Frugal Meal, 1904.
Before visiting this exhibit, I had no idea that Picasso was one of the 20th century's most active print-makers. Seeing as how I have a soft spot for etchings and wood-block prints, collect them myself, and have used them to decorate our home, this was not an insignificant revelation to me. "Picasso and Chicago" offered a longitudinal study of the role of printmaking in the artist's career, from early experiments with etching seen in 1904's The Frugal Meal, to whole series of prints he created to illustrate books, such as 1936's Texts of Buffon, to visually dense explorations of drypoint and lithographic techniques that he would work and rework repeatedly.

Selection from Texts of Buffon, 1936
Weeping Woman I, 1937
It was illuminating to witness Picasso's waxing and waning fascination with the medium, in which he even went so far as to obtain his own printing press so that he could exercise full-control over the production of his work. A particularly interesting series of prints from 1909 entitled Two Nude Figures: Woman with a Guitar and Boy with a Cup showed the progression in Picasso's printmaking craft, as the early pressings reveal crunched paper, slipping plates, and other failures that were part of the artist's learning curve. It was truly an amazing insight into his process, and a powerful reminder than even an artistic genius such as Picasso is still human.

Two Nude Figures: Woman with a Guitar and Boy with a Cup, 1909
I was also intrigued by some very interesting late-career ceramic pieces that he created by incising the clay, much as one would to create a linocut or wood-block print. It was almost as if he created the plate for a print, and decided to make that into the object that would hang on the wall instead of the paper that would normally be pressed against it to create an image. I can't be sure if that is what he was going for, but that was my interpretation of it. 

Woman's Head with a Crown of Flowers, 1964
Much as I enjoyed learning more about Picasso as a print-maker, I felt that the exhibit fell short in its aim of establishing a Picasso/Chicago connection - after all, they admitted themselves that the artist never even visited the city! If I weren't interesting in printmaking, I don't think the exhibit would have held much appeal to me at all, and I was bummed that there weren't any paintings that stood out as being new to me.

Still, from the huge queue of attendees lined up outside the museum to see "Picasso and Chicago," it looks like the museum has another hit on their hands. I just hope this doesn't inspire them to lower the bar for their temporary exhibitions in the future, and that next time, they look beyond recycling their own collection for inspiration.


A Religious Experience - Part Fifteen

It only took me six months to write about them all, but today's entry will round out the complement of posts concerning the churches and houses of worship that Justin and visited last October as part of our Open House Chicago experience. I can't express how pleased I was when I spotted Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica under the "Sacred Spaces" section of the Open House Chicago listings. It had not participated the year before, or I would have made a point of going then. 

Our Lady of Sorrows has been a priority on my Chicago religious tourism to-do list ever since its inception almost three years ago, due to its status as one of only three Chicago Catholic churches designated as a basilica-level house of worship by the Vatican. Only the pope can designate a church a basilica, and the title is reserved for the churches that are the largest, most grand, and of most significance to pilgrims. I had made it to Queen of All Saints, another Chicagoland basilica in 2010, but the questionable west-side neighborhood in which Our Lady of Sorrows is located gave me pause, and I didn't want to trek there on the bus, or alone for that matter. Hence, their participation in Open House Chicago gave me a perfect opportunity to finally make a point of checking it out.

Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica
 3101 West Jackson Boulevard
Chicago, IL

The parish of Our Lady of Sorrows was founded in 1874 by a group of Servite friars hoping to cater to a handful of Catholics living in what was then the prairie to the west of the city. As the city grew, the urban sprawl engulfed the parish and construction started on present church building in 1890. It was not finished for 12 years, but the church did not truly come into its own until the 1930s, when the Sorrowful Mother Novena series of services was originated. By the end of that decade, the Sorrowful Mother Novena had spread to over 2000 other churches worldwide, and the church was home to 38 separate services a day, accommodating some seventy thousand worshipers daily. If you stop to consider that, it's truly astonishing!

If you factor in the scale of the space, however, it is perhaps not so surprising. The soaring coffered ceiling of the nave extends some eight stories into the air, and the coffers themselves are constructed in a tromp l'eoil manner that gives them the illusion of stretching even higher by strategically elongating some squares and foreshortening others. Plus, the insides of the coffers are painted to get darker as they extend upwards, furthering the illusion of extreme height.

The altar is built of white Carrara marble, flanked by balconies on both signs in a design that mimics that of the altar in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. That is not the only allusion to the Vatican, however, as a side chapel dedicated to silent prayer and reflection houses a faithful copy of Michelangelo's Pieta.

This image better depicts the tromp l'oeil qualities of the coffers. In fact, in this section of the church, they further manipulate the eye into seeing a rounded, half-dome appearance, when the wall is actually flat.

A smaller altar in the east transept is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, who is recreated in marble and Venetian mosaics. She is surrounded by the seven founders of the Servite order, who are depicted as being called to serve her. The murals in this end of the transept are more recent, dating back to 1956, when the church was designated as a basilica by Pope Pius XII, making it the first church in Illinois to receive that honor. The image below depicts the actual signing of the papal bull that declared Our Lady of Sorrows to be a basilica.

Initially, Our Lady of Sorrows catered to a predominately Irish and Italian population, and then later a Hispanic congregation as the neighborhood changed. Today, the West Side is predominately African-American and Protestant, but the church has managed to retain some of its significance by drawing a large number of pilgrims. It is the national shrine of not only Our Lady of Sorrows, but also St. Peregrine, the patron saint of those afflicted with cancer, AIDS/HIV, and other life-threatening illnesses. Plus, people still travel there to participate in the Sorrowful Mother Novena, which has been practiced there for over seventy-five years now.

When I walked into Our Lady of Sorrows, I was almost overwhelmed with joy. Not only was it easily the most elegant and monumental ecclesiastic space I've yet to encounter in my home city, it is still beautifully maintained. It may not have the most lovely stained glass, the most elaborate stained glass, or the most intricate murals, but the sheer volume of the space and the amazing coffered ceiling were more than enough to inspire awe in this most veteran of church visitors. It was a perfect note upon which to close our two-day odyssey of architectural tourism, and it gave me hope that if this incredible gem is hiding out on the West Side, that there are still plenty of secrets waiting to be revealed as I continue my own pilgrimage through Chicago's great churches. I can't wait to see where this journey takes me next, and I hope you stay tuned to find out.


Rain, Rain, Go Away...

It rained today, it rained yesterday, it rained Monday, and there is rain in the forecast for Thursday and Friday as well. I suppose I should be thankful that it is at least staying warm enough that it is raining and not snowing, but that is little consolation in a week that is as dark, dreary, and damp as this. Really, when conditions are this miserable, there is only one thing to do, and that is to hole up at home and make soup... again. Even though we had soup yesterday, there was only one thing that sounded good for dinner tonight and it was another piping hot bowl of comforting, delicious soup.

This time, I turned to another old, beloved recipe which I almost always have all the ingredients for in my house at any given time. That is not to say that it has common ingredients, but rather, that I am the kind of person that considers Parmesan cheese rinds and cannellini beans to be pantry essentials. Actually, I largely consider them to be must-haves in my kitchen because I love this soup recipe so much that I need to be able to make it on the fly.

The only reason that I haven't seen fit to blog about it in the past four years is that it is a polarizing recipe; whereas I love it, and Justin enjoys it, both of my parents dislike it because it is pureed, and they prefer their food to have texture. I find it so savory and flavorful that I don't miss having to chew, plus, I don't really enjoy the texture of beans or their skins -- a problem that is solved by pureeing. I wasn't sure how other people would feel about eating a virtually liquid soup, and the bowl of texturally homogenous beige liquid doesn't exactly photograph in a way that sells its enticing qualities, so I kept this recipe to myself for years.

However, now that I needed to try to get a decent picture of it for my new recipe book, I figured it was time to go public with this recipe and let you make your own decision about whether pureed food is right for you. It really is one of my favorite soups in my repertoire, not only because it involves minimal chopping and prep-work, but because all that Parmesan cheese basically turns it into a big bowl of umami, that elusive but highly satisfying fifth taste. If you leave out the heavy cream, as I sometimes do when I want to freeze the leftovers or I just don't happen to have any, you have an almost healthy dish on your hands. Plus, if you prepare it with vegetable broth, it's a lovely vegetarian meal, if you're entertaining guests who don't eat meat.

If you don't mind the lack of texture or toothsomeness, please, I implore you to give this soup a try. Your palate will thank you.

White Bean and Garlic Soup
adapted from Giada De Laurentiis

2 shallots, chopped
2 tablespoons butter and 1-2 tablespoons light olive oil
2 15-oz cans of cannelini beans, rinsed and drained
5 cloves garlic, halved
1/2 teaspoons dried sage
4 cups chicken stock
2 Parmesan cheese rinds
1/4 - 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
freshly cracked black pepper to taste
1/4 cup heavy cream (optional)

1. Melt the butter with the olive oil over medium high heat in a large pot.
2. Add shallots and a bit of salt and cook until softened, about 3-5 minutes.
3. Add the beans, sage, chicken stock, garlic, and cheese rinds. Bring to a boil.
4. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 25-30 minutes.
5. Turn off heat, remove cheese rinds and puree soup using an immersion blender.
6. Stir in the grated cheese and heavy cream (if using) and warm through over low heat. Serve with fresh artisan bread.


Straight Up Ballin'...

I have an embarrassing confession to make: back in the early days of my cooking career, when I was teaching myself how to cook, a significant portion of my burgeoning recipe portfolio came from Rachel Ray. Yes, I know, she's incredibly annoying and foodies love to pick on her, but before she had her own talk show and dog food line, and she was known predominately for her show "30 Minute Meals" and not for her myriad catchphrases, she wasn't so bad.

I would watch her every day when I got home from class and was just starting on my homework. If whatever she was making caught my eye and didn't feature too many ingredients I didn't care for, I would try to give them my best shot. If you think about it, the "30-Minute Meals" concept is really perfect for someone who is learning to cook: the recipes can't be too complicated or demanding, and if you totally screw everything up, the relatively small investment of time creates an atmosphere in which it is okay to fail.

One of my favorite early Rachel Ray recipes was actually not one that I saw on her show, but rather, one that I accidentally stumbled across while surfing the Food Network website. I had been feeling ambitious that day, and performed a search for dumpling recipes with the thought that I might as well learn how to make one of my favorite foods.

One of the top hits, was for a Hungarian-inspired Rachel Ray soup that that actually didn't have dumplings at all, but rather turkey meatballs. I wasn't really sure where she got off calling them dumplings, but the recipe called to mind Italian wedding soup due to the mini-meatballs, and since I harbor a soft spot in my heart for Italian wedding soup, I decided to give it a try anyway.

I made a few modifications to her recipe, eliminating peppers and substituting regular paprika for the smoked paprika she called for since the smoked variety could not be located in the St. Louis grocery store I frequented in college. Nonetheless, I was ultimately quite satisfied with my results, and I ended up making the resulting soup over and over for my friends and non-red meat eating roommate while I was in school.

I kept making the soup with relative frequency until I met Justin, who deemed the dish bland. Because he wasn't a fan, I would occasionally trot it out whenever he was feeling sick, but other than that, it fell out of regular rotation, and all my ground turkey purchases found their way into turkey burgers, which are one of Justin's favorite dishes. Since I didn't do much savory food blogging until after we met, the recipe never made it to my blog either.

Without a picture of it, however, Justin couldn't cross this recipe off his Tastebook to-do list, so he had to suck it up and eat it for dinner tonight. Having finally located smoked paprika for the Spanish lentil soup we made last month and listening to Justin proclaim it his new favorite spice, I decided to swap it back into the recipe in an effort to earn his favor, and surprisingly, my gambit paid off. He proclaimed the soup to be much less bland and much tastier, though the difference was barely noticeable in my opinion.

I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth, however. If this simple change will allow me to enjoy this soup more often, I am more than willing to make it. If you choose to give this soup a try (and I think you should), feel free to use whatever kind of paprika suits your fancy.

Hungarian-ish Mini-Dumpling and Egg Noodle Soup
adapted from Rachel Ray

8 cups (2 1-quart boxes) chicken stock
1 pound ground turkey breast (NOT lean)
1 egg
3/4 - 1 cup plain bread crumbs
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated (or not) nutmeg
1 teaspoon smoked sweet paprika
dried parsley (eyeball it)
salt and pepper (to taste)
1 1/2 cups egg noodles
6 scallions, chopped

1. Heat stock to a boil in a large pot; reduce to a simmer.
2. Mix the turkey with the egg, bread crumbs, nutmeg, paprika, parsley, salt and pepper. Roll the meat mixture into 3/4 inch balls and add to the simmering stock. Allow the meatballs to cook for 3-4 minutes.
3. Add the egg noodles and scallions, then season again with salt and pepper. Cook for another 4-5 minutes or until the noodles are tender. Serve immediately.


Golden Oldies...

When I left for college and set out into the world, I was armed with one critical tool in my arsenal: my handwritten cookbook. Granted, at that point in my life, I barely knew how to cook, having watched the Food Network for years, but picking up virtually no practical experience along the way. My cookbook was populated with only a few recipes that I had learned from Mom, and a few recipes that I had copied from her recipe collection that I knew I liked but had never helped her make. As I taught myself how to cook, I loving transcribed my favorite recipes into the book, creating an elite tome of only the best recipes in my repertoire that I turn to again and again.

Some of those dishes have made it onto my blog over the years, but a lot of them exist only in that space because I figured they would be of interest only to me. For example, I figure nobody really cares about my spaghetti recipe, which is basically a set of instructions on how to doctor up a bottle of Ragu the way that my mom does. This is vitally important information for me, but probably not of general interest to other cooks out there.

Over the years, however, my precious collection of recipes has been loved perhaps a bit too hard. The pages are covered in stains, some are tattered from the book having been dropped, and the binding is disintegrating. When I pointed out the carnage to Justin, and asked him to be gentle with it whenever he uses it, he came up with the idea of creating a Tastebook, a customized recipe book that you create online and have printed by the Tastebook company. He created one for his family using his grandmother's recipes as a Christmas gift a few years back, and he decided that he would do the same for me as a birthday gift.

Though it takes a considerable investment of time and energy to enter all the recipes, you have the ability to add a photo for each recipe - something that was lacking in my homespun version - and you can order reprints and add recipes over time as it becomes necessary. It was really a perfect gift idea.

Of course, the amount of effort necessary to undertake this task was lessened somewhat in my case because of my blog, from which Justin could simply copy and paste, and for which images already existed. However, not every recipe in my repertoire is represented on my blog, especially family recipes, dishes that I don't frequently prepare, and items that are not photogenic to the extent that I feel like nobody would want to make them based on the associated image. Justin is determined to include an image with every recipe, so I find myself newly motivated to dust off some of my old favorites, and challenge myself to take the best photos possible of some of the ugly ducklings in my oeuvre.

Tonight, I tackled a recipe for chicken fingers, of all things. It is something that my mom used to prepare when I was younger, and it was one of my favorites, even though she rarely prepared them. When I transcribed her recipes, I included it out of nostalgia, but I never actually tried to make it, partially because my palate has changed and partially because I did not own the pizza stone required to make it until just recently. Now that I have one, however, there was no excuse not to revisit this recipe, so I stocked up on pre-fab croutons and found a place for this meal in our weekly meal plan.

It was a simple enough dish to put together, and the garlic croutons add a novel flavor that is interesting enough for adult taste buds, but simple enough to appeal to kids. Baking the chicken makes the dish healthier than the fried alternative, but with the processed croutons, I wouldn't exactly call it healthy per se. I don't really have very many kid-friendly recipes here at "The State I Am In," so if you are looking for something to feed your children for dinner tonight, this may be your best bet.

Crispy Parmesan Chicken Strips
adapted from the Pampered Chef

1 1/2 cups seasoned croutons, crushed
1 1/2 ounces (1/3 cup) fresh Parmesan cheese, grated
1 teaspoon dried parsley
1/2 teaspoon garlic salt
2 egg whites
1 tablespoon water
1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, cut into 1-inch strips

Preheat oven to 450°.
1. Crush croutons in resealable plastic bag.
2. In a medium bowl, combine croutons, cheese, parsley, and garlic salt.
3. Whisk egg whites and water in a small bowl.
4. Dip chicken pieces into the egg mixture, then into the crumb mixture to coat evenly.
5. Bake for 14-16 minutes or until chicken is no longer pink in the center. You may wish to turn the chicken after 8 minutes.


Where Have All The Flowers Gone...

Justin is a man who is great at the small things; every day I feel loved and cherished by him, and he never hesitates to tell me that he loves me. Grand romantic gestures aren't really his strong suit, however, so it took a little gentle nudging and a coupon I found for $10 off a $20 floral purchase at our local grocery store, but I received some very lovely belated birthday flowers from him today. Check them out:

Better late than never - thanks babe!


Cake Walk...

Ordinarily, the arrival of my birthday would be a source of much anticipation and planning when it comes to cake selection. There aren't a lot of occasions during the year that justify the baking of an elaborate, multi-layered cake with frosting and festive decorations, so I try to seize them when they come along. This year, however, I just couldn't seem to muster much enthusiasm for the cause. I looked at my dessert board on Pinterest over and over trying to will inspiration to strike, but nothing captured my imagination.

Honestly, the more I thought about it, the more I wanted my standard, go-to chocolate cake, the one I've made maybe a dozen times before, often for my birthday. I've made it as a Bundt cake, like the recipe calls for, with and without the accompanying chocolate ganache, in a variety of decorative pans, and I've made it as a layer cake and blogged about it in the past. There really wasn't anything new that I could bring to this cake, nor did I wish to -- I just wanted the comfort of revisiting an old favorite.

So I apologize that I don't have something more interesting to share with you for this occasion, but the heart knows what it wants, and it's my birthday and I'll bake what I want to. Besides, in all my baking experience, I've still yet to come across another chocolate cake recipe that is this good. As a Bundt cake, it really couldn't be simpler, so this time around, I'm going to give you the instructions for that variation as well. If you want the best, uncomplicated chocolate cake for your baking repertoire, this is it my friends. Happy birthday to me!

Double Chocolate Bundt Cake 
adapted from The Food and Wine Annual Cookbook 2007
For cake:
2 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped
3/4 c. vegetable oil
1 c. sugar
1 egg
2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 c. Dutch-process cocoa powder
1 tablespoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 c. water
1 c. buttermilk

For chocolate ganache:
3 oz. bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/3 c. heavy cream
1/2 tablespoon corn syrup
1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter

Preheat oven to 350°. Spray a 12-cup Bundt pan with Pam.
1. Chop 2 oz of the chocolate in to small pieces of more or less equal size. In a large glass bowl, melt the chocolate by microwaving it for 10-second increments, stirring between each. Allow chocolate to cool slightly.
2. Stir vegetable oil and sugar into the chocolate until the mixture is smooth. Whisk the egg into the mixture.
3. In a small bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt. Add 1/2 of the dry ingredients to the chocolate mixture and 1/2 cup of buttermilk and 1/2 cup of water. Whisk until smooth.
4. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake in the lower third of the oven for about 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out with a few moist crumbs. Turn cake out of pan and allow to cool completely.
5. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, bring the heavy cream to a boil. Melt the other three ounces of chocolate in a small glass bowl (as before), and combine with corn syrup and butter. Pour the boiling cream over the chocolate and and let it stand until melted, about 5 minutes.
6. Whisk ganache mixture until the texture is smooth. Allow the ganache to cool to a point where it is thick but still pourable (usually about 5 minutes).
7. Pour the ganache over the cake and allow it to stand until the glaze is completely cooled, usually about 30 minutes.



Today, I quietly turned 28, in perhaps the most understated birthday I've had in recent memory. I didn't plan myself a party because I was expecting to just be returning from Germany and I didn't want to go through all the effort while I was jet-lagged. Similarly, I didn't really make any plans to go out, aside from scheduling a dinner with my parents at my favorite restaurant. I didn't ask for any gifts, so I didn't really receive any aside from some new clothes (though Mom did promise me a new camera as soon as I finally decide what kind I want), and between being sick and being busy over the weekend with Easter, I haven't even baked myself a cake yet. Twenty-eight just didn't feel like a milestone birthday to me - perhaps this is a sign that I am getting older...

Nevertheless, my father came through this year in a big way with his annual birthday poem. As I've written in the past, my father has written me a poem for every Valentine's Day and birthday since I was relatively little.  I treasure this gesture, but this year, his creation was especially clever. It was easily the highlight of my admittedly meager festivities, and I thought I would share his work with all of you in the hope that it will brighten your day as it brightened mine:
After several attempts to make a start
At trying to say what's in my heart,
No need this year to pontificate:
Haley has turned Twenty Eight!

Why harass her with my point of view?
Why lecture now what she should do?
Make a statement she can't debate:
Haley has turned Twenty Eight!

This wouldn't work at 27 or Six:
There aren't enough rhyming tricks!
Tell her something to which she'll relate:
Haley has turned Twenty Eight!

Sure, she costs me a ton of dough
And at times gave me plenty of woe
But today is a day to celebrate:
Haley has turned Twenty Eight!

It's great she has escaped the void
And left the ranks of the unemployed.
It's time she began to participate:
Haley has turned Twenty Eight!

And what about finding her true love
As if the guidance came from above?
So what if she found him on a computer date?
She found him before she turned Twenty Eight!

Her man has charm and lots of dash
And what couple doesn't sometimes clash?
Haley has found her true soul-mate
At the ripe old age of Twenty Eight!

May the year ahead surpass the year behind.
May you enjoy all the blessings you may find.
May you search boldly, and seize your fate
In this, the year you turn Twenty Eight!