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The Best Things I Ate in 2014

30 Dec

As 2014 comes to a screeching halt, social media is inundated with cliched “Best Of” lists and “Top 10” countdowns. These compilations can be trite, but they can also be a great way to reflect back on a year, on the people who you shared it with, and where you spent time. What is the best thing you ate in 2014? Who were you with, and where were you?

Here’s my list, in homage to a very good year.

1. Vigorón street vendor in El Parque Central; Granada, Nicaragua

Vigorón is a traditional Nicaraguan street food. Tender slabs of boiled yucca (AKA cassava) are covered in thick, crunchy chicharrón (fresh pork rinds) and then smothered in a very tangy cabbage, onion, and tomato slaw. It was my first meal in the country and a perfect introduction to it’s simple cuisine. What is even more memorable than the food though, is the setting. I bought lunch from a street vendor and sat at a picnic table in El Parque Central, the large public square in the center of town. The square is docked on one side by an enormous, bright yellow cathedral, and on another side by a similarly-colored Spanish Colonial hotel with beautiful balconies. Peddlers hawking knickknacks, perfect for vacation remembrances, line the perimeter. Freshly rolled tobacco wafted from a small cigar shop.  Horse-drawn carriages click-clacked down the streets. An impromptu concert of lively music drew a crowd. A man kept the  mid-afternoon dusty haze at bay by continuously wetting the ground with a garden hose, Women tempted us with homemade peanut candies and rich chewy caramels. When I think of eating salty and sour vigorón, I’ll always remember my first day in Nicaragua.

2. Spicy Seafood Chulpan Sik Gaek, Flushing, NY

This place is best known for live octopus, but the real star of this meal was the chulpan. An enormous pot was full of steaming seafood broth flavored with gochujang and teeming with all manners of crustaceans and mollusks. Underneath that big red lobster lay razor clams, squid, conch, shrimp, crab legs, and abalone resting in a nest of long rice noodles. We cracked shells and slurped soup to the beat of loud Korean techno music. A good time was had by all.

And about that live octopus…I ate that too, but it didn’t make this list. Those little suckers (literally) hang on to your tongue, the roof of your mouth, or the insides of your cheeks just as long as they possibly can. If that sounds fun to you, and you enjoy the deeply salty and mineral taste that is overly described as “of the ocean” give it a try next time you’re in Queens.

3. Pineapple Upside Down Cake Buttermilk Frozen Yogurt Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, Chicago

If I could pull a “Freaky Friday” with anyone in the food industry for a few days, I’d do the ol’ switcheroo with Jeni Britton Bauer of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. Ice cream, in all of its frozen incarnations, is my very favorite food, and Jeni’s flavor pairings are modern and innovative. Her cookbooks are drool-inducing, and she’s running an expanding chain of the coolest retail scoop shops in the country. She’s my hero!

Pineapple Upside Down Cake Buttermilk Frozen Yogurt is a mouth full for sure, but the mellow, roasted, tangy flavor more than makes up for the tongue-cramping name. Just look at how happy I am to be eating this on a warm summer evening. Don’t think I could even be any happier.

Ice Cream Super Nerd

4. Stamped Cinnamon Biscuit (Cookie), The Cinnamon Tree Bakery stall at Borough Market, London

Tell me that isn’t THE COOLEST cookie you’ve ever seen in your life. I was completely taken with its imperfections – the slight cracking at the edges and the uneven white outline of the off-centered elephant. Now imagine that it tastes just as interesting as it looks. Pure cinnamon in the form of a crisp, buttery cookie. No other “fall baking spices” muddying things up. Just cinnamon, in all of it’s spicy and warm glory, and tasting exactly the way it looks.

Elephant Stamped Cinnamon Cookie. I mean biscuit.

5. Basque Cake MFK, Chicago

There’s only one dessert on the menu at MFK, one of the city’s most-lauded new restaurants of 2014. In my mind, the Basque cake rides solo because nothing else could come close to being as good. It’s a rich, tender cake with a faint almond flavor underneath a darker, caramelized crust. As someone who eats cake nearly every day, I can say without a doubt, that this was the best cake I ate in 2014 (including my own). Congratulations to Chef Nick Lacasse and Sous Chef Joey Schwab, both of whom I have had the pleasure of working with. (Now give me the recipe for the cake, pretty please!)

6. The Eastman Eastman Egg Company Food Truck, Chicago

You know that overused phrase that simple food prepared simply is the best tasting food? That’s what is happening here. I would never have thought to pair cucumbers with scrambled eggs, but why not? I would never have thought to put sweet chili sauce on eggs either. Add a slab of ham, a bit of cheese, and sandwich it all together on a fresh ciabatta roll.

After I ate my first Eastman, I started putting cukes and sweet chili sauce on my homemade egg sammies, too. Easy like Sunday morning. Tastes like Sunday morning, too.

The Eastman Egg Sandwich

7. Yo Amigo Taco Salad, Native Foods, Chicago

This is the perfect salad for salad haters, like myself. It’s beautiful to look at and has a lots of different textures, from crunchy to creamy, which means it doesn’t get boring after 5 bites. And surprise! Native Taco Meat isn’t really meat at all! It’s seitan (sounds like the dark lord of the underworld, but it’s less scary), a vegetarian protein made of wheat gluten that cooks up and tastes just like the real deal. Toss in some crispy tortilla strips and add avocado for a very large, very summery meal.

The Yo! Amigo Salad, with avocado.

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One-Word Wednesdays: Sammich

8 Feb
Al's Beef Italian Beef

Italian Beef with Sweet Peppers from Al's Beef

Have you entered yet for your chance to win a copy of The 150 Best Slow Cooker Recipes, Second Edition by Judith Finlayson? Because you should! Click here for the rules and to give yourself a fair shot. It could be your lucky day!

The Girl and The Goat Sauteed Cauliflower

3 Jan
Sauteed Cauliflower with Pickled Peppers, Pine Nutes, Parmesan, and Fresh Mint

Sautéed Cauliflower inspired by The Girl and The Goat

It may not look like much, but this is the best vegetable I ate in 2011, or rather a damn fine recreation of the best vegetable I ate last year.  A few weeks ago I had an amazing dinner at The Girl and The Goat, run by Top Chef’s Stephanie Izard. The menu was fantastic, filled with oddities like Crispy Duck Tongues and Sweet and Sour Cod Cheeks (we ate both of those delicious things, and a lot more). A friend who had dined there before recommended that we order the cauliflower, saying it was one of the best dishes she had eaten at The Goat. It took some convincing, but the cauliflower made it onto our roster of food, and at the end of the night, after we’d eaten 11 or 12 plates of amazingness, the cauliflower was my very favorite dish. It’s an unlikely combination of sauteed cauliflower, pickled banana peppers, pine nuts, Parmesan, and fresh mint. Talk about a  sleeper hit. The Girl and The Goat is taking vegetables to a new level.

I anxiously recreated the sautéed cauliflower after watching Chef Izard’s how-to video. It takes a little bit of  planning to make this side dish, but it is so worth it. Remember last week’s One-Word Wednesday? Those pickled peppers went into tonight’s cauliflower. I also mashed together a compound butter last night, full of roasted garlic and breadcrumbs. If you do those two things in advance and let them hang out in your fridge, the cauliflower dish comes together in a matter of minutes. And if we’re being honest, why wouldn’t you want pucker-inducing veggies and savory butter on hand at all times? Think  of all the other stuff you can put them on! It’s condiment nirvana! And those two items make a truly special side dish that you’ll want to eat again and again. Thanks to The Girl and The Goat for a new vegetable inspiration!

Sauteed Cauliflower inspired by The Girl and The Goat

Sautéed Cauliflower with Parmesan, Pickled Peppers, Pine Nuts, and Fresh Mint

Amazing Sautéed Cauliflower

Adapted from The Girl and The Goat

Makes about 4 servings, but I just ate all of this by myself, so you’ve been warned.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 head cauliflower, sliced into bite size pieces (If making an entire head, double all ingredients, but don’t crowd the saute pan or the cauliflower won’t have a chance to get nice and golden brown. It will steam instead.)
1 tablespoon roasted garlic and breadcrumb compound butter – see recipe below
1/4 cup pickled peppers, chopped and divided – see recipe below
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1 walloping tablespoon torn fresh mint leaves
1 tablespoon toasted pine nuts

Heat a saute pan over medium high heat. Add olive oil and cook until shimmering. Add cauliflower and butter. Season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally (or tossing, like Stephanie does in the video) until cauliflower is just cooked, about 4-5 minutes. Add half of the peppers, cheese, mint, and pine nuts and stir to incorporate. Top with the rest of the peppers, cheese, mint and pine nuts and serve.

Easy Pickled Peppers

Makes about 1 quart of pickled peppers

3/4 pound peppers (I used a mix of Anaheim and banana peppers)
6 Cloves of Garlic, slightly crushed
1 1/2 Cups Water
1 1/2 Cups White Vinegar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
4 Teaspoons Salt
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
Slice peppers into rounds about 1/4 in. thick. Put into a quart-sized jar. Add garlic cloves.
In a saucepan, bring water, vinegar, sugar, salt and crushed red pepper flakes to a boil. Pour hot liquid over peppers in the jar. Cover tightly and leave at room temperature for about 8 hours. Refrigerate for a week for the best flavor. The waiting is the hardest part! Peppers will keep for several weeks if refrigerated.

Roasted Garlic and Breadcrumb Compound Butter

1 stick (4 oz.) butter, softened
1 head garlic
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt
1/3 cup breadcrumbs

Preheat oven to 375°F. Cut the top off the head of garlic. Cover with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Wrap in foil and roast for 20-25 minutes, or until garlic cloves are tender. Cool slightly.

In a small bowl, mash butter, garlic cloves, and breadcrumbs together until well combined. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Graham Elliot – Check Out The New Menu

22 Dec

What do you get when you combine an artistic kitchen crew with knowledgeable  front-of-the-house staff in a relaxed yet refined establishment, with a little LCD Soundsystem and A Tribe Called Quest* thrown into the mix? You get Graham Elliot, one of Chicago’s most fun fine dining experiences. My sister and I had the pleasure of eating our way through their thoughtful new 15 course menu (with 4 additional small bites, introduced as gifts from the kitchen) along with wine pairings, launched just last night. What a wild ride!

What do you get when you combine low lighting and stark white plates? Crappy food photos. I wish the pictures were a fraction as good as the food tasted, but they give an idea of the playful nature of the plating of each dish.

It was a long, luxurious meal. 3 hours and 15 minutes, to be exact. Each course had many components, building layers of flavor, but none of the courses were more than a few bites. If I wrote about each and every course, it would take you 3 hours and 15 minutes just to digest the info, so here are the highlights, in the order in which we ate them.

Pillow Talk – The cocktail that I started with. Colleen and I couldn’t have loved this any more. A nearly slushy mix of Tito’s Vodka, Americano Cocchi, St. Germaine, and sparkling Gamay, it was fragrant, floral, sweet, and very deserving of the award the mixologist won from Tito’s. I would drink this all the time if it was acceptable to drink all the time.

Caesar

Caesar

The only item that has consistently been on Graham Elliot’s menu since day one, and for good reason. This deconstructed salad is fun to look at, fun to eat, and packs all of the flavor of the classic salad into a few bites. The buttery brioche crouton (our server referred to it as a “Twinkie,” but that’s kind of insulting to the crouton) is filled with a creamy dressing. A tight bundle of crisp romaine rests on the crouton, and a filleted anchovy rides the wave of lettuce. It’s a fantastic riff on something you’ve eaten a million times in your life.

Octopus

Octopus

The octopus was cooked sous vide in chorizo fat, and served alongside both regular and dehydrated chorizo, and somehow the ocean flavor wasn’t lost. It’s a miracle! Saffron and fennel flavored the dish, and ultra thin grape slices add color and sweetness.

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