Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Crisis in America's Nuts

When I ordered my Signature Salad at Cosi this afternoon, the cheerful big guy behind the counter broke some news: FDA recall on the pistachios, miss. I've got bigger problems, so I snarfed it anyway. But let me tell you, if this were Italy, I'd probably be out on a campanile ledge right now. Italian life without pistachio gelato is unthinkable.

It turns out the issue with the nut in question is salmonella found in the crop of a large producer from California. A mere million pounds or so. First peanuts, now this. What is happening to our country's nuts, I ask?...not altogether seriously. But truly, how is it that these alerts are happening often enough to justify the FDA going on Twitter?

Memories of School Food

The people behind the Memories of School Food contest at NBC must be counting on the fact that they're opening a Pandora's box of formative traumas. The only place I remember more grade school angst going down was at actual recess.

I went to Catholic school, where we had rules for everything, poly-blend uniforms, and mass on Fridays. And nuns. An army of them, scorning our innocence into military-like precision under the beatific gaze of our loving Lord Baby Jesus and Virgin Mother. I encountered my first school-engineered meal in the first grade at Our Lady of Fatima. After months of knowing only the homemade fare packed into my metal Strawberry Shortcake lunch box, I piled into our burnt-orange 1981 Volvo one morning to my mother's shocking announcement: "I couldn't make you lunch this morning. Here's money to buy it." She handed me a tenner. This was more money than I had ever held in my entire six years, and I was stunned into silence. Buy it?...You mean like those kids whose mothers don't care about them? With this? No one is allowed to have $10 by themselves. The food stinks like grease and plastic...

Seeing my worry, my mom walked me into class, where she briefed Sister Ada about my monetary surplus situation. Sister slipped the bill into an envelope and said I could get it before lunchtime. As if I wanted to. Lunch eventually rolled around and I obediently picked up my cash and made my way into the eating hall line like a little prisoner clutching an atom bomb. My menu options were sweaty hot dog in flaming hot plastic or gritty hamburger in flaming hot plastic. Both sat shrieking under the gamma rays of a heat lamp. Distrustful of the grease collecting at the bottom of the hot dog packages, I chose a naked burger, burning the total crap out of my fingers.

My stomach churned as I approached the cash lady with my specimen, who did a double take at my loot. "This is all you have? This can't be all you have. Oh, well..." and she dug below to change the $9.25 in singles and coins. At which point I began sobbing because I had no idea what to do with all that money. (No pockets on a standard issue first-grade plaid jumper, strangely.) The lunch monitor jumped to my aid, promising to keep the money for me if I would just get some milk and sit down. Humiliated, I did so, taking refuge in my cold dairy goodness and nearly gagging on the smell of the burger as I attempted applying mustard to it.

My peace didn't last long. Sister Lucille, our 5 foot tall, bulldog of a principal in a dress, brought 80 clamoring children to a halting silence with the repeated bang of her keys on the metal cash box. "Who put the wrong money in here?!! Someone paid with ten dollars!! This is the WRONG MONEY! WHO PUT IT IN HERE?!" She was facing the children, and she wanted names. No one, apparently, had discussed with Sister Lucille the idea behind this particular form of currency being legal tender for all debts public and private. Nor the virtues of stocking the till with plenty of ones. I looked at the cash lady. She avoided my glance, probably nearly as afraid as I was. And that was the first time in my 16-year parochial education that I had the thought: To hell with the nun and her crazy talk, I've been through enough.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Feasting on Life

When one of my closest friends went through a horrible break-up five years ago, I gave her this poem by Derek Wolcott, which I'd since forgotten about. She stumbled across it last week and mentioned it to me this morning. Reading it reminds me of two things: 1) God, am I glad our 20s are over, and 2) the imagery of nourishing oneself back to wholeness with food and wine after heartbreak would certainly resonate my Italian aunties and mom. No wonder I love it.

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Strategic Planning for Foodies

Kate at IFA posed a Pantry Challenge today, listing a bunch of ingredients that she discovered in her cabinets. She resolved not to grocery shop until she uses all 29 of them. It's a formidable challenge. I find that even when I have rock stars in my pantry and freezer, some fresh produce from the store is always in order to bring them alive.

Which brings me to The System. Shortly after my husband and I shacked up a few years ago, I decided it was time to finally summon the full flower of my cooking mojo with some inspiration and organization. For the former, I subscribed to Cook's Illustrated and refreshed my cookbooks. For the latter, I just winged it and created The System for planning meals and shopping at warp speed. It's pictured above and it goes like this:

Make a chart with three sections: Have, Need, and Make. I start with Haves, meaning the ingredients I've got on hand that I want to use up during the week. Next the Makes, the meals I want to use the Haves for, usually four dinners, a couple of snacks, maybe a dessert. Then...I think you get the idea...I just continue working backwards to the Needs to identify the items I'll get at the store or order from Papa Peapod. The key to the idea is that the Haves combined with the Needs results in the Makes. I have no idea if anyone else uses this too, but it's so logical, I figured it's fairly common. My husband saw it and asked me to explain. When I was finished he said, "You know. You basically have your MBA. That's pretty much an entire two-year curriculum distilled down to an executive summary in visual form." Since he's a big UofC MBA geek, I took that as a compliment. I pretty much know what Goolsbee knows....and I make quiche.

Some cooks have a favorite appliance or piece of equipment they use in the kitchen. This is my favorite tool.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

So Easy to Love

Monday night my husband and I sat on the couch wondering what to do. It was officially and actually his birthday, but somehow after the 10-course dinner that weekend, three gifts from me, and piles of well-wishing from friends, he still wasn't done being feted. (I attribute this to a childhood short on juicy presents and envelopes stuffed with cash on birthdays, but then that's just my spoiled Italian butt talking.) Then he lit up and shouted, "The port!"

Upstairs to the wine fridge. Downstairs to the glassware. Some rummaging through a gift bag... and out came a 40-year Taylor's Fladgate Port, two glasses, and a tub of Trader Joe's almond chocolate clusters.

I chose my spouse well, no?

We are not what you would call novice port drinkers. Our good friend Mr. Just Grapes gave us the bottle on my husband's 40th last year because it's one of the adult beverages we're known for loving. Rubies and tawnies are like dear, beloved friends we invite over year-around. The highlights: We served the 2003 Fonseca Vintage Port as one of the dessert wines at our wedding a couple of years ago... and it sort of took over the party after a certain point, in the best way possible. I still snicker at the tiny dots that stain my silk wedding dress. This fall we enjoyed a gorgeous 1986 tawny the night before Thanksgiving dinner, and then...this, the Full Monty of ports. It was incredibly rich, with loads of buttersotch, caramel, and hazelnut, with a silky smooth finish that lingered and lingered like only port can. Adding the chocolate with the almonds actually made me swoon. Since then we've also tried it chilled before dinner, and found it to be absolutely delish.

Excellent idea for a birthday, or really, any night you decide to take Alpana's advice and open something lovely...now-ish.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Review: Coast Sushi

Coast does just fine for a solid weeknight sushi nosh, but it's nothing special. Maybe I'm spoiled -or possibly have spent too many nights dining in Vegas - but for a place that's so often described as sexy, I find it a little on the ordinary side. Yet it's totally packed every single night. We went yesterday evening after a long absence and found the minimalist interior to be still, well, basic and dark. The long list of sushi rolls offers a mostly typical menu of options, although the quality of our fish was strong overall and I was glad to see that they aren't over-using so many rich sauces as they did a couple of years ago. The BYOB status is clearly a draw - literally every table in the place had a bottle sitting on it. A good meal, but you can get much better elsewhere if you're looking for great sushi.

Coast Sushi on Urbanspoon

Monday, March 23, 2009

The First Garden Goes Live

The inevitable photos of Michelle Obama and co. digging into the White House lawn for a garden have hit the wires. A few thoughts:

1. Girl, who do you think you're kidding in that outfit? Maria Pinto and the sheath dress notwithstanding, ditch those city boots stat and put on some denim and a pair of Wellingtons. America loves a First Lady who can dig in the dirt like a real woman, I just know it. All of Kansas and Nebraska are laughing at you right now.

2. Would the media please stop calling Alice Waters for a minute? We get it. Organic. Sustainable. Out of the ground. All very, very good for the future of food policy and the planet. Now let the woman zip it so she can roll up her sleeves and DO.

3. Alice "never dreamed of the brilliant stroke of bringing in schoolchildren" for the garden? Wow. She really hasn't been around the block with politics much. Or anywhere near most urban garden programs, apparently.

4. Landscape architects are likely a little miffed that Alice said they taint the movement. She better watch herself before they organize and build a manure topiary on her front lawn.

5. Yay fifth graders. Yay Sam Kass.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Recipe: Matcha Hottie Latte

Between Starbucks' green tea lattes and Jamba Juice's matcha smoothies, I developed a full-blown matcha addiction about two years ago. For once, it's a culinary Siren song that I don't have to resist. Matcha has a long list of health benefits, including the ability to detoxify blood, instill a relaxed state of alertness, boost metabolic rates, and flood your system with twice as many antioxidants as red wine. So I bought a little tin of it from Stash Tea a while back, looking forward to all the matcha magic that I would make in my kitchen. My ardent enthusiasm was met with defeat. Following a couple of recipes for lattes I found online, I achieved vaguely green soy milk with a ton of bitter powder clinging to the bottom of the mug...and a big honkin' hive on my upper lip. Lesson One: in high doses, I'm allergic.

This weekend I dug a little deeper and found an enlightening web site that describes all the different methods people use at home to coax the beloved froth out of their matcha powder, with most recipes calling for a 1/2 teaspoon of the green stuff. After researching Japanese whisks and Bodum's cute (although somewhat sex-toy-like) electric frothers online, I decided what the hell? Let's just try a martini shaker first. SUCCESS! Beautiful froth, deep green suspension of the tea in the milk, and no hives anywhere on my person. It totally works. Here's how:

1. Using a Cobbler martini shaker, pour in 6 oz. of cold soy milk
2. Add 1/2 teaspoon of high grade matcha powder
3. Toss in a bit of sweetener if you like - I use stevia leaf powder, another super-concentrated antioxidant source
4. Cap and shake it, shake shake shake it, shake like a Polaroid picture...for about 30 seconds
5. Pour this green loveliness into a deep cup or mug, making sure to tip out all of the froth from the bottom of the shaker
6. Nuke it in the microwave for one minute. The green froth will expand as it heats - once again reminding you that physics can be our friend.

When is physics not our friend? When we put hot soy milk into a metal martini shaker, that's when. Unless you miss the nice folks at the ER and/or cleaning explosive gunk off your kitchen ceiling, don't try this experiment at home.

Review: Sixteen

Ever since Trump planted the first shovel in the ground on Wabash for Trump Tower, Chicago has honed its art of publicly hating the Donald. It's hard to resist. Between his obnoxious antics, ego, and excess there's enough to make your lip curl. At some point though, that gets trite and you may as well see if the reality lives up to the hype.

Sixteen's space is just as gorgeous as every review describes - stellar architectural views of the Wrigley and Tribune towers, and a luxurious interior to match - but then that's not really a rarity. There's no shortage of expensive, opulent restaurants in Chicago, although I don't think any of them have been vaguely derided for it like this one has. We went to Sixteen last night to celebrate my husband's birthday, and overall the food and wine pairings of our blind tasting menu were just shy of excellent, with truly great service that's actually too rare in our city.

Over three hours, Paul our sommelier presented all 10 of the small courses and their wine pairings to us. Chef Frank Brunacci's kitchen did a great job of adjusting the menu around my dietary restrictions of no meat or poultry, with one hiccup that was quickly resolved. The highlights were Brunacci's signature scallops with "bang bang" pear chutney, a Tasmanian sea trout with an amazing ginger reduction... and fried winter point oysters that I'm still thinking about. My husband's scallop, accompanied by fois gras, was his favorite of the evening, followed by a duo of fillet mignon and short ribs that had him swooning. The plate of artisanal cheeses was one of the best we've had anywhere, followed by two very good dessert courses. Paul's wine pairings were solid with moments of brilliance, and when he learned of our fondness for the Mary Edwards Pinot Noir, he sent more. You only eat like this a couple of times a year, if you're lucky. Would we go back? In a hearbeat.

The consumate lover of a great view, my husband eyed Sixteen's massive terrace from our table all night long. Paul said they plan to open it for brunch service later in the spring.

Sixteen on Urbanspoon

Friday, March 20, 2009

Texting Shamu: R U Green?

As a pescatarian, I eat a lot of seafood. Not as much as Jeremy Piven maybe, but at least five times a week. Given that the FDA appears to barely bother to monitor seafood sold in the US, there are a few questions you might ask yourself when sitting down at the sushi bar. Like, where did this fine specimen come from? Is it endangered? Am I depleting the ecology of the ocean and planet and altering the entire weather system by dipping it in wasabi and savoring its buttery flesh? Or maybe, this is perhaps not yellowfin tuna at all but some sort of fraudulent usurper of tuna?


The Blue Ocean Institute has devised a simple way to help answer the first three questions easily enough with their cool service called FishPhone.

1. Text to 30466 FISH + the name of your potential dinner victim.

2. They'll text you back an environmental thumbs up or down.

For example, I texted them for Artic Char, and their cheerful reply was,"Farmed Artic Char: very few environmental concerns; most char are farmed in inland facilities that cause little pollution."

It won't give you PhD-level insight into the issue, but it's one step closer to gaining peace of mind at the fish market or while perusing the specials menu.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Recipe: Crab Quiche

Despite my Italian/New Mexican upbringing, my favorite food to make and eat at home is, without question, quiche. To me it's the perfect dish: low-effort, comforting, with seasonally adjustable ingredients, and you can enjoy it for any meal or at any temperature. All that, and it fills the entire house with a delightful smell that says something awesome is happening in the oven. When I know I'm going to have a gauntlet of a week at work, I make two different quiches on Sunday to bail me out of making dinner for a few nights. I have no idea why my mother never thought of this. A salad, or some fresh fruit, and maybe a glass of wine, and I'm happy as a clam.

Crab quiche is by far my favorite version, and I've experimented with it for a few years... beginning with a recipe that's supposedly John Travolta's fave. Surprisingly, I prefer to use at least half imitation crab meat because the whitefish in it holds the pie together well and gives it a great, meaty texture. Pure crab on its own is too rich, and this is a hell of a lot more convenient. Harder cheeses are best, like Parmesan and Swiss because they have a sharper flavor that gives the custard more dimension, but shredded mozzarella on its own does fine in a pinch.

Crab Quiche

Frozen deep-dish 9" pie shell

6 oz crab meat, picked through for shells
6 oz imitation crab meat
2 cups half and half (I always use fat-free)
4 eggs
1 cup shredded Swiss, mozzarella, and/or Parmesan cheese
1/2 tsp Old Bay seasoning
pinch nutmeg, preferably freshly grated
2 tbsp chives
2 tbsp cilantro and/or parsley

Pre-bake the pastry shell for ~10 minutes, according to the package instructions. Remove it from the oven onto a baking sheet to cool for a minute and re-set the temperature to 375 degrees.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs and half and half, and then add the herbs and seasonings. Blend well. Make sure the crab is completely drained, and if necessary blot with a paper towel so that it won't leach out excess water into the custard while baking. Place the crab meat in the warm pie shell, top with the cheeses and slooowly pour the custard over, so that the liquid has time to fill in all those delightful crevices before overflowing onto your baking sheet.

Bake 35-45 minutes, first checking your quiche at the 30-minute mark. The top should be puffy and kissed golden brown all around. Remove and let it cool 10 minutes so that it's easy to slice and serve.


1. I'm sure this would be wonderful with a proper homemade crust, but due to my great aversion to anything resembling baking, I've never done it.

2. For taking this dish to parties, I've found it's best to double the recipe for a large glass or ceramic baking dish and go crustless (easy, now!), using just cooking spray to grease it. This way the crust doesn't have a chance to get soggy or crumbly between transport from your kitchen to the serving table. I let it cool completely and slice it into large square, stackable individual pieces. Every single time I've brought it, someone yells, "Crab quiche!" and a crowd gathers.

I'm sure Vinnie Barbarino would tell you, enjoy it with a Riesling, Chenin Blanc, or a Chardonnay.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Sterling & Goss: Glammed Up Bucktown Butcher

I was surprised Sunday when my husband I stumbled on the new Sterling and Goss Purveyors on Milwaukee. As a non-red-meat or poultry consumer, I'm hardly going to be this local butcher's best customer. But I warmly embrace all gourmet food arrivals in the neighborhood. A dig through the cases and shelves turned up a few nice cheeses and olive oils, and more than a couple of great little chocolate bars. True, when I ordered my veggie wrap to go, I got a look of puzzlement at first. But then what do you expect from a 6' 5" Mr. Lamb Shanks?

Raising a Glass to Cook the Wolf

I'll confess, I rarely enjoy the food and wine writing that I bother to read in newspapers. Maybe I'm a snob or I just take eating too personally, but I almost never enjoy what the populist foodie pages are dishing up. Bill Daley... how do you go on? Every time I read a question posed in that column, I want to tell the author to put their bloody pen down and go back to their box of Franzia.

I know, Mee-OW.

Literate, personal, insightful food writing...now that's the stuff. Some blogs have it, some don't. I'm not entirely sure that I read Emily Nunn's work in the Trib when she was with them, but I'm already a fan of her new blog, Cook the Wolf. And I'm not just saying this because we share a first name, a salon, or blog titles inspired by MFK. She wants to tell me about her grandma's mayonnaise? Bravo. I'm all ears when someone tells me of a formative food love. Especially when they know their parts of speech. She wants to suggest turnip perfume? Well.

The Demeter Fragrance Library doesn't have turnip cologne spray specifically, but comes close. How about Basil, Beet Root, Celery, or Dirt? Wet Garden maybe? Or better, in honor of a much needed new direction in life, New Leaf.

I'm personally a Tiramisu + Paperback + Champagne Brut blend. My own grandmother would definitely be Clean Windows + Angel Food + Gin and Tonic. No question.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Review: Think Cafe

Despite high hopes, our dinner at Think Cafe on Western Ave. was an all-around letdown. We arrived at 7 p.m. on a Saturday, and literally the entire little space filled to capacity within 10 minutes. Many larger restaurants can handle this tough service challenge, but Think can't. The handful of waiters and bussers that they have room for literally tripped all over each other to get everyone settled, and it took a good 15 minutes before we actually heard the specials.

The food was mediocre. My husband enjoyed his seared scallop appetizer, but my Caprese didn't have much more than presentation going for it. The "organic grilled" tomatoes were bland and just slightly warmed. The mozzarella was barely flavorful and the texture was too chewy. The only highlight was the excellent balsamic vinegar. My lobster pasta special was a miss too. The lobster meat was lovely, but there wasn't much of it. The sauce was too oily, the wilted tomatoes contributed no flavor, and I'm still unsure what the buffalo mozzarella was doing showing up in this dish. Most of the flavor came from several beautiful, large grilled shrimp, but they were overdone and leathery. His venison was festooned with rich flavors of truffle oil, demi-glace, black truffles, and mashed potatoes...but it was slightly overcooked and somehow not very flavorful. Our banana caramelo dessert was fine, but Think has an issue with using awkwardly designed plates. This one showed up in a reed-thin canoe that kept capsizing as we tried to eat out of it. Next to that, I tried to drink my coffee out of a cup with a wavy handle so poorly designed, I fantasized about what it would feel like to hurl it into a fireplace and yell OPA!

Nonetheless, the place was packed and most people around us seemed oblivious to the bone-rattling noise and poor service. Maybe they were so happy with their BYO wine, they didn't care. I can't help thinking that the BYO policy is only thing keeping people so interested.

Think on Urbanspoon

Saturday, March 14, 2009

BYO Follow-up Edition: Know Your Liquor Control Act

So there author Jean Iversen was, giving us the rundown on BYOB logistics on Thursday, when someone asked the question I had in mind: Why? Why is Chicago one of the only major cities in the US to allow people to bring their own wine or other hooch into a restaurant? The answer, most likely, is beer.

Jean didn't really know. Liquor control is a state-level jurisdiction, so all of Illinois is allowed to have BYOB restaurants, should the establishments choose, according to the Liquor Control Act of 1934. Being a big geek, I decided to dig further to hopefully discover the Founding Father of BYOB in Illinois. I didn't. But here's what I did find out:

1. Two-thirds of Chicago was dry in the early 1900s due to the temperance movement, which advocated for wards to vote taverns and saloons out of town. Chicago was a wild place back then, and utterly shocking deeds - even by today's standards - went down in the city's much maligned Levee district nightly. (For a thorough read on this, see Sin in the Second City. Crazy. Stuff.) The idea was that affluent, white Protestants loved Jesus too much to drink or fornicate...at least not at home. That's what the Levee was for.

2. At that same time, Chicago was a beer capital of the country, with over 60 breweries in town. The huge Irish and German immigrant populations brought with them the tricks of the trade, and business was great. Chicagoans couldn't buy beer retail because large amounts of ice were necessary to keep it cold, so they had to go to a tavern to enjoy it or buy it off a huge beer wagon. Retail sale didn't really begin until the 1930s, when refrigeration became commercially viable - an invention that was underwritten by Chicago's largest brewers like Charles Wacker.

3. In 1934, Illinois passed what still serves as its liquor act. Although portions of it have been amended heavily, its hallmark is known as the Local Option law. In a nod to the still highly charged temperance movement then, the Local Option allows wards and other municipalities to vote themselves dry or control liquor sales as much as they want. Some wards in Chicago have been dry for decades, places where you're sure to find BYO restaurants operating since they can't get a license. Tre Kroner on Foster is an example.

4. The act, however, explicitly allows for recreational establishments to permit their patrons to bring in alcohol, should the business choose. Huh. This strikes me as an amusing loophole in the dry clause. The lawmakers knew that plenty of wards would go dry, but they allowed businesses in those places to let patrons enjoy alcohol on premises if they brought it in from elsewhere. It's entirely up to the business to set the rules for how much can be consumed on site. A commerce-friendly decision, indeed.

5. The other thing that strikes me about the act is that "recreational establishments" term. So...we can have BYOB movie theatres? Yes, in fact, the 3 Penny Cinema in Lincoln Park was a BYO until it closed in 2006. Bowling alleys? Yep, although all of the ones I've checked in Chicago have their own liquor license. I'd imagine that pool halls and anything else you can legally make a case for as recreational could work too. Spas? Bookstores? Imagine the possibilities...

6. I couldn't write anything about this topic without mentioning Prohibition. Naturally, the Mob presence in Chicago during the 1920s "underwrote" shall we say a lot of illegal production that went underground for a while. While the lore is legendary, Prohibition did a huge amount of damage to legit business. Among the casualties were of course those 60 breweries. It's very possible that we owe the BYOB clause to a lawmaker hoping that the breweries would recover in Chicago post-Prohibition, but all of the large-scale operations died out. Micro-breweries and brewpubs keep the city's beer making tradition alive.

So here's to beer, Chicago. As we celebrate St. Patty's Day today all over the city, it's a fitting reminder that it has always run through her veins...and sometimes the streets.

Food Pairing for BYOB Bliss

The BYOB Basics class at Just Grapes on Thursday night was enlightening and great. Naturally, it was primarily a food pairing class, with five fantastic dishes prepared by some of the city's BYOB restaurants to each try with six different wines. Delish! It was incredibly fun to experiment with the chemistry happening in my mouth. Here's what I figured out:

1. By far the most versatile of the varietals we tried was a Riesling, in this case O'Reilly's from Yakima Valley, Washington. It was light and drinkable, with a just barely a touch of fruity sweetness, decent acid, and a very clean, almost watery finish. Nice - but I wasn't gaga for it solo. It was absolutely stunning with maki from Meiji, picking up the sweetness in the unagi sauce in particular. Surprisingly, it paired almost as well with guacamole, contrasting the spiciness while complementing the acidity of the lime and tomatoes. It also worked very nicely with pad Thai, although I preferred a Gruner Veltliner slightly more.

2. It's wise to check the BYOB's menu online to pair your meal in advance. If you're unsure about pairing a tricky place, like say, Schwa, where they'll be throwing all kinds of innovative flavors at you (mmm...barnacles), you can print out the menu and take it into your favorite wine store for advice. You'll become an instant darling of the staff.

3. Saving that, it's usually fine to take a few bottles with you to the BYO so you can have some options. Please fetch a decent carrier, so you're not rolling in there all ghetto with your brown paper sacks. The market abounds. Just beware, a few places like Coast Sushi have a limit on the per head amount of alcohol you can bring in.

4. The most versatile food pairing wines are those with low tannin and good acid. Many whites naturally excel at this: most sparklers, Riesling, Albarino, Gruner Veltliner, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and a lot of Chardonnay and Roses are great. Regionally, wines from Alsace and Austria often have that clean style with decent fruit to keep things interesting. For reds: Pinot Noir, Barbera, and Beaujolais are good bets. We stocked up on more of these to have on hand when BYO duty calls, and to play with pairings at home.

5. Stick with that profile especially for anything that's kick-you-in-the-arse spicy, like Mexican or authentic Thai. Tannin and high alcohol will just throw gasoline on your already en fuego situation, mi amor. More sweetness is a great idea to cool you down.

6. Don't fear the fruit. Even sushi tastes fantastic with wine that's showing some interesting fruit character.

7. More robust cuisine with earthy flavors, like a lot of Italian, Spanish, and other Latin food can obviously take bigger tannins. This where the Old World wines of my grandfather work: big, hairy, interesting reds with some Kung Fu acid. Go for it, Don Corleone.

8. If you're in a rush or just totally overwhelmed by wine performance anxiety, grab a bottle of something from the same country as your cuisine. It'll probably work.

9. A technical note: When you're playing with pairings, make sure you have some of the food in your mouth when you actually take a sip of wine. The chemistry happens when the food and wine come into direct contact. I can't think of a better place for such magic than right on my palate.

10. Don't sweat it too much. Open the bottle and enjoy.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Cupcake Provocateur

A co-worker just breezed into my office to ask me whether I've been to the cupcake store up the street? Um. The WHAT?! Apparently a little sweet spot called Sugar Bliss opened on Wabash across from Macy's in January. She knew. Mike Doyle knew. I didn't know. This is what happens when you work 6 gazillion hours a week and walk around stressed out and sleep deprived. You miss out on cupcakes, that's what. No matter. I think fair play means that you have to let a new place get its legs before you go there once or twice and then blog all over them for not being good. Like some cupcake eaters might.

So obviously I need to ditch one of several dozen meetings and get myself there stat. While I'm at it, I'm going to pop around the corner to enjoy cup of Clover-brewed goodness at the Intelligentsia. Call me the un-Doyle.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Nigella 4-Eva

The first time I saw Nigella Lawson, she was deep-frying a Twinkie on Oprah. I was appalled and awe-stricken in the same way you might be in the waiting area of an ER or perhaps a Chicago police precinct on a Saturday morning (oh like you never did it). But then a few minutes into the segment, I felt myself succumbing to her loquacious charm, perfectly pink, pouty lips and old soul banter about needing to play to your strengths in life. And I nodded in unison with Oprah, 'So true, Nigella, so true.'

A few years later this January, I went on a Nigella spree while stuck home with a cold, watching hours of Express segments on YouTube and ordering up the cookbook on Amazon. Like any courtship, I need to live with a cookbook for a while before I decide if we're meant to be. I might fall hard in the beginning. But then it's trial by fire, baby, and you better bring your A-game. And let me just say that after two months, Nigella Express has passed the gauntlet with flying apron strings. She's my girl. Knock her at your own risk. I will cut you.

Some observations:

Linguine with Lemon, Garlic, Thyme and Mushrooms - Sweet Jesus, the brilliance of this sums up the genius of the entire book. Here's a combo of familiar ingredients that you can literally throw together while all cranked out and exhausted after work. And not only is it simply delish, it requires no more actual cooking than boiling water. Magic.

Ginger Passon Fruit Trifle - How is it that we don't have more cookbook authors advocating for the free-form, non-bake, high wow-factor dessert orgasm that is the trifle? How? 'Gella even encourages us to skip the work by acquiring our "sponge" at the store. Her version of dessert perfection calls for none of the patience, all of the pleasure. And it's gorgeous. Yes. Please.

Moonblush Tomatoes - I love three things about this: 1) It's an old idea dusted off, and a damned good one at that -- roasting tomatoes by shutting off a hot oven and leaving them to gradually reduce overnight. 2) She understands that for those of us who are brain dead after a typical workday, "easy" takes different forms. You can't get much lower effort than walking away from the kitchen and going to bed. 3) The results are bloody great. I mixed them into the mushroom pasta above, and a choir of Italian ancestors appeared in my living room to hum sweetly as my husband and I snarfed it down like starved wolves.

Cheddar Cheese Risotto - Imagine what would happen if creamy Arborio rice had sex with mac n' cheese. Now imagine it some more. Keep imagining....I'm not going to tell you it's wrong.

Caramel Croissant Pudding - Are we back to dessert already? Imagine that. Forget food porn, just reading the name of this thing put me in a tailspin. After all those years of turning my nose up at the notion of English puddings, I realized that I'm a big dumb dork. I now have a new outlook: I don't trust people who don't like dogs, or this pudding. Because who wouldn't adore being handed a bowl of this? No one I can hang out with long, I assure you.

And as for the fried Twinkie, I'm defending it as a genius publicity stunt. Got her on Oprah. Beat that.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Sazerac Theatre

Yesterday as a colleague and I enjoyed a walk downtown in the gorgeous sun and dry weather, he asked me if ever I'd had a Sazerac. He's a big fan, I'm a big fan, and this delicious drink is definitely enjoying the huge resurgence in popularity it deserves after being relatively obscure in most parts of the US for ages. For this, we have to thank the group of many new "bar chefs" revolutionizing the cocktail world, most of whom at one point have worked in the bartending captial of the country and home of the Saz, New Orleans.

There are over a dozen videos on YouTube to teach you to mix it, all of them featuring a fairly hefty history lesson -- it's the George Washington of cocktails after all. This is the best one I found, once you get past the intro. Cheers!

Friday, March 6, 2009

Michelle Obama: Lovin' America with Risotto

The IFA blog posted a piece this morning on the state of the American corporate cafeteria. Having worked for the non-profit sector all my career, the thought of having such an employee amenity at my disposal is as foreign as Christmas bonuses or office parties not preceded by the word "potluck."

Even so, IFA makes a great point. How can we even pretend to care about the quality of the meals we feed kids in public schools when most corporate cafeterias - the Beemer of high-volume lunchrooms - sell adults swill smothered in cheese? My observation has been that European companies do an amazing job of offering cafeterias with impressive food - a truth illustrated by the change that happened when my husband's Dutch employer was bought out by an American company last fall. Literally overnight, the employee cafeteria food went from fresh fish grilled to order to coagulated meatloaf sitting under a heat lamp. And the meatloaf was more expensive.

I was inspired by another news item this morning that occurred in a cafeteria setting most consider to be even below the standards of a public school: Michelle Obama volunteered at a soup kitchen in DC yesterday. Rather than serve their usual menu, she brought with her mushroom risotto and broccoli from the White House kitchen. That kind of respect for how we nourish other people's bodies and spirits in even the most basic of ways isn't the norm, which favors efficiency, convenience, and cost containment. This makes me like Michelle even more.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Lighter Reds with Moves

You know how you're always buying the same little black dress over and over again ... only to realize that your prized new booty has 7 clones to cavort with in the closet? Or maybe it's the same black turtleneck or snakeskin fuchsia clutch (my, my, I can't imagine who would do THAT). Whatever form it takes, when we really like something we tend to fall for it again and again. This is a rut, people, and it can even happen with wine.

My honey and I are a New World, fruit forward couple. I know that's awfully personal, but it's true. So we often end up lugging home more than a few bottles of big, sexy, fruit bomb wine, only to wonder why we never have anything to go with the veggie pizza I like on a weeknight. We finally got wise a few months ago and started reigning ourselves in at the wine store...FOCUS! We need light reds! Bold whites! Step AWAY from the Shiraz and Barolos!

Alas, the trick to any rehab program is finding a few solid standbys that work over the long haul. Here are two we've begun to warm up to:

Makor Merlot, Bien Nacido Vineyards, Santa Barbara County "Westside," CA - Aside from the obviously cool gangland terroir, Makor isn't your average soft, flabby Merlot. Tea, tar, chocolate, and black cherries with great structure and balance have me all over it.

Graziano Zinfandel 2005, Mendocino, CA - Some wines are just totally drinkable and delicious, and this is one of them. It's filled with red fruit, white pepper, and smoke, so it's ideal with anything grilled.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Sexy Vocab 101

My brilliant friend Janet forwarded me a new word that I love so much, I have to share it. Art, wine and literary geeks, rejoice with me.

vinaceous - \vye-NAY-shus\

: of the color of red wine

Example Sentence

Matisse's The Red Studio painting at MOMA is a moving example of a vinaceous interior that seems to fill the entire gallery with its vibrancy.

Cue the Civic Minded Cake Consumption!

Today is Chicago's 172nd birthday, and I can't imagine she's ever looked or tasted better.

I mean seriously.... We have a sparkling, gorgeous lakefront; a twinkly Bean in Millennium Park; and the Art Institutes' absolutely stunning Modern Wing opening in a matter of months (wink, wink, nudge, nudge), and that's just within a few square city blocks. We have Grant Achatz and Michael Carlson keeping the entire culinary world guessing what's next. We have dozens of home-grown boutiques dedicated exclusively to shockingly exotic truffles, gourmet cupcakes, and organic cookies for dogs. We even have cult-status gourmet cocktail bars so rarefied, no one can get into them. Oh, yes, and there's certain former Senator in the White House, and a very promising bid for the Olympics brewing.

So I don't want to hear any boohooing about the economy or the weather today, people! Today, I want to see cake and candles and puppies frolicking. May I suggest something luscious from Sweet Mandy B's on the way home? Or a cocktail named for our fair city?

Chicago Cocktail
A classic after-dinner drink from the city of big shoulders

2 oz. Brandy
1 oz. Champagne
Dash of Angostura Bitters
Dash Triple Sec

Use a cocktail glass with a sugar rim (make by rubbing a lemon around the rim and then dipping in powdered sugar). Then combine ingredients (except the champagne) in a shaker with ice. Shake well and strain into the glass. Finally, add the champagne.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Clueless Urban Farm Chick

Last Christmas, I decided 2009 is my year to plant a rooftop garden. Maybe it was reading the Blue Zones book, which told that me that planting any garden is one of the healthiest things a homo sapien can do to grow old gracefully. Maybe Mayor Daley (aka Mayor Flowerpot) and his Green Mafia finally got to me. But more than likely it was the crap tomatoes at the grocery store. That, and the fact that I have a 900 square foot rooftop deck that I share with only my husband and a Chihuahua. I'm a lucky girl, and there's definitely room up there for a few veggies to take root.

I definitely want herbs. I definitely want tomatoes. I know there's going to be some big containers with some nice, happy dirt. Aside from that, I'm clueless. Ironically, my family has owned a company that has sold horticultural products to garden centers for over 20 years, so...it seems like some knowledge by osmosis should kick in. But there's something that feels so different about an urban rooftop environment at the 41st North latitude. It's not a greenhouse in the Rocky Mountains.

What I have learned from the past two summers on the roof is that it's exposed to blazing hot sun and some occasionally fierce wind over the relatively short Chicago growing season. I need hearty stuff that can take full sun.

All forms of advice are welcome. So far, I'm starting to study up with the Mayor's green roof guide. I can just picture him sleeping with a copy of it under his pillow, dreams of radishes dancing in his sweaty head.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Jugo Verde for the Soul

We returned last night from a perfect long weekend in Mexico to... well, the regularly scheduled Chicago winter starring sleet, snow, and their cranky bed mistress, the blahs. Ay carumba, I miss the Yucatan. By the time I trudged my way into work this morning, I wanted to smash my computer with a hammer. Instead I settled for a cup of tea and scratched at my itchy, sunburned shoulders.

What would cure this funk is a nice tall glass of the happiness I discovered on the brunch buffet Saturday morning - jugo verde. After chugging my third or fourth glass of its delightfully sweet, green goodness, I realized that I 1) felt awesome, and 2) had no idea what it was. Exotic tropical fruit? No, mamacita. Turns out it's simply jucified parsley, maybe with a little pineapple juice mixed in. That's it. I could actually spelunk into the depths of a cabinet right now, dig out my juicer and whip up a batch of the stuff tonight.

In Chicago. Where my soul has once again become encased in a layer of icy winter discontent.