Archive for December, 2008


Salty, sweet and smokey - what's not to love!

Salty, sweet and smokey - what's not to love!

So I was actually expecting to be alone for Christmas day this year. My husband was visiting his family in Ohio and my family was going to have a rather understated celebration a few days later. At the last minute (meaning Christmas day), my parents decided to visit me in Chicago. Not a lot of stores are open on Christmas day and to be honest, I had very little time (an hour and a half to be exact), so I threw together a menu based on what I could find in my house. It actually turned out pretty spectacular if I do say so myself. Sometimes it is best when you don’t have time to overanalyze the situation.

One of my “top 5” favorite dishes of all time is the chorizo-stuffed madjool dates with smoked bacon and piquillo pepper-tomato sauce at Avec in Chicago. With just three ingrediants, the dates are amazingly complex. Really, it’s pork wrapped around pork. How can you possibly go wrong?? What took mankind so long to come up with this? Oddly enough, I had all of the ingredients I assumed to be in this dish on-hand so I gave it a shot.

Chorizo stuffed bacon wrapped dates


Thinly sliced bacon – cut in half

Pitted dates 

Spanish Chorizo – don’t use the non-cooked Mexican kind – cut into pieces small enough to stuff into date

Wow, that was easy, wasn’t it?


Preheat oven to 350

Slice date so you’ll be able to open it up and stuff it

Put small piece of chorizo inside date

Wrap bacon around stuffed date

Place on baking sheet (covered in foil for easy cleanup)

Bake in oven for 20-25 minutes or until the bacon fat is rendered and bacon crisps up

Watch out – they are hot!

I served them in a spiced Mediterranean tomato sauce – similar to what is served at Avec (and lo-and-behold! I found a use for my Harissa!)


Spiced Tomato Sauce


14 oz can diced tomatoes

2 T olive oil

4 T chopped onion (or thereabouts)

2 cloves garlic

½ cup dry red wine

1 roasted red pepper coarsely chopped

2 t harissa

1 t brown sugar

1 T fresh parsley chopped – plus some more for garnish

salt and freshly ground black pepper


In a medium saucepan, saute onion in olive oil over medium heat until soft – 5 min. 

Add the garlic, red pepper and harissa

Saute another minute

Add the red wine

Bring to a simmer and reduce by half

Add canned tomatoes and brown sugar

Simmer 20 minutes

Salt and pepper to taste

Put in food processor (or blender) and process till smooth

Finish with herbs

Serve hot

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A treat from our yearly cookie basket

A treat from our yearly cookie basket

Magic Cookie Bars
Or depending upon where you live, Seven Layer Bars

I can’t claim nostalgia for these because my family didn’t make them when I was growing up. In fact, my family didn’t bake much of anything while I was growing up. Really, it’s not as sad as it sounds (and I most certainly am making up for lost time now). But anyway, I’ve never actually made magic cookie bars nor can I tell you what makes them magic.

At Christmas, we receive our annual shipment of cookies from my husband’s mother and inevitably, the magic cookie bars are the ones most fought over. What better cookie to fight over? I mean really, can you imagine anyone fighting over a rosemary lavender shortbread? Granted, those types of baked goods do not make it into our yearly gift basket and I am grateful as I don’t expect it’s the kind of thing my mother-in-law would make. So this is why the magic cookie bars make a once a year appearance on our table – and probably why they deserve a coveted spot in our hearts.


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A smidge salty for my tastes

From time to time I come home from the store with an ingredient I know nothing about and have no idea what to do with. Harissa is my most recent acquire. Upon reading the label, it was supposed to contain peppers, lemon and um, salt. How could it be bad? Sadly, it did not live up to my expectations (of which there were few). I mean, it has potential, but it’s just so overwhelmingly salty. I do hate it when I break my rule of not buying that which I can prepare myself (prepared pesto, anyone?). After I finish this jar (and I vow to), I will make Suzanne Goin’s version to see if the homemade trumps the bottled. Really, does Ms. Goin ever steer me wrong?


So, uh, yeah, got any ideas on how to use up a jar of harissa? Or at least, how I can make it not so salty? For the record – spreading it on baguettes is no good nor is as a pizza sauce (even mixed with tomato sauce). 

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Despite the dough debacle, it still tasted great!


Apologies. That was uncalled for. But seriously, WTF. I’ve made this recipe a number of times but TWICE something very strange has happened. As I stretched the dough, thousands of tiny holes appeared. This time it was salvageable. Last time, it literally disintegrated in my hands. You can see the beginnings of the hole problem in the dough picture. Why, Signor Batali, does your dough treat me this way? Did it overproof? Was it kept too warm? Should I have stayed with white wine instead of the Vermouth? Do I not have the loving touch?

See the holes in the dough already?

See the holes in the dough already?


Tonight’s pie was topped with whatever I could find in the refrigerator – since I totally forgot to thaw the Italian sausage (and couldn’t be bothered when I finally remembered). Leftover pizza sauce was the base for one pie. Leftover pizza sauce spiked with Harissa was the base for the other (in retrospect, not sure I’d do that again). Bits and bobs from the cheese drawer: the end of a hunk of gruyere, a smidge of extra-aged gouda, the last of the feta crumbles, and the bottom third of a bag of Tillamook Italian blend cheese. The only other toppings I could find were herbs – fresh thyme, parsley and chives. Oh, and the obligatory red pepper flakes.

Serious Heat

Let’s talk a sec about the oven. You do let it preheat, yes? To at least 450 degrees? Until the buzzer goes off? I know many people let it preheat for an hour, but I’m not that patient and truthfully, I feel like it’s wasteful. So anyway, I do let it preheat for awhile. And I can’t go any higher than 450 in this tiny condo or the fire alarm will go nuts (curse you – hard wired alarm system!). And most importantly, I have a pizza stone. Love it. Cannot believe I lived without it. My friend, you must buy one.  But if you do, make sure it’s substantial. No ridges or edges. Preferably square – something you can slide a pizza peel onto. And whatever you do, don’t ever, EVER put a frozen pizza on it (and if you do, do not come crying to me when your stone breaks into hundreds of tiny pieces – not that I’m speaking from experience or anything…)

Without further interruption, here’s the recipe for the dough

• 1/4 cup light red wine or white wine
• 3/4 cup warm water
• 1 package yeast (This is where I went way wrong the first time – I used 2 packages. Don’t do that).
• 1 tablespoon honey
• 1 teaspoon Kosher salt
• 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
• 2 1/2 cups double zero flour and 1/2 cup AP flour, sifted together

Combine the wine, water, and yeast in a large bowl and stir until dissolved. Add the honey, salt, and the olive oil and mix thoroughly. Add 1 cup of the flour and mix with a wooden spoon to make a loose batter. Add 2 more cups of the flour and stir with the spoon for 2-3 minutes to incorporate as much flour as possible.

Bring the dough together by hand and turn out onto a floured board or marble surface. Knead for 6 to 8 minutes, until you have made a smooth, firm dough. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with a towel. Set aside to rise in the warmest part of the kitchen for 45 minutes.

Cut the risen dough into 4 equal pieces (an interruption: please, I never get 4 pieces. I get two) and knead each portion into a round. Cover again and let rest 15 minutes.

Shape, top and bake for about 10 minutes at 450 degrees.

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This is NOT the mac and cheese described in this post. It's leftovers from Kuma's Corner - Andouille sausage and sundried tomatoes.

This is NOT the mac and cheese described in this post. It's leftovers from Kuma's Corner - Andouille sausage and sundried tomatoes.

It’s the cheesiest!

Macaroni and cheese. Sigh.

Cheese, pasta, heavy cream. What’s not too like? As a young child, I ate Kraft dinner in the blue box maybe once a week – the spirals and the special shapes being the most coveted varieties. I carried this tradition with me through college and beyond. Today, I have converted to the Kraft Deluxe with Aged Cheddar squishy cheese. Those without low-brow tendencies may cast the first stone. For what it’s worth, I have always stated that I am a foodie, not a food snob (Taco Bell Cheesy Fiesta Potatoes are a once-a-month must in my book). But I digress. On to the good stuff. 

Sometimes I actually muster enough energy to prepare macaroni and cheese from scratch. Alas, it is usually when my dear husband is out of town. Oddly enough, he doesn’t share my love for the dish. When I do get this desire, my favorite recipe is taken from Patrick O’Connell’s Inn at Little Washington cookbook. This recipe not only introduced me to Aged Gouda (absolute heaven – do search it out if you have never had it) but also to making parmesan tuile baskets which were to contain the gift from the Gods. Yes my friend, the macaroni and cheese is actually served in a crunchy, salty cheese basket. Cheese on top of cheese! Oh, be still my beating heart! And a final touch is shaved truffles over top. Ok, I don’t go that far – I am not a trust-fund baby, after all. Anyway, I am not making this dish NOW, but have in the past and it is my all-time favorite macaroni and cheese recipe. Please check it out for yourself. You will not be disappointed.

Parmesan tuiles

I’m talking tuiles here – not the aforementioned baskets (just use more cheese if you want a basket – and shape the hot cheese over the bottom of a drinking glass when cooling). These are indispensable. Use them to dress up your salads, soups, or garnish your mac and cheese.

Approx 1 oz grated parmigiano reggiano = 1 tuile (alright, maybe 1.5). Make sure to use coarsely grated parm. Will not work with powdery parm (or if you’ve used your rasp grater. Trust me on this one).
Baking sheet
Silpat or parchment paper (or use a non-stick baking sheet)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
On baking sheet lined with a silpat or parchment paper, arrange 3 T parmesan in mounds. Gently tap the mounds to make a relatively flat circle.
Bake in the oven for about 12 minutes
Let sit one minute
Remove from baking sheet using spatula
Cool (this would be the time to shape over a drinking glass if making baskets)

The absolute best mac and cheese – Aged Gouda with Virginia Country Ham and Parmesan tuiles

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Before: my "unrefined" cake plate and After: stylin!


Upgrading to a real cake plate

For years, I’ve been using a makeshift cake plate – whatever I can piece together from what I’ve got on hand. Well, this Christmas after racking my brain to come up with a gift (and family members refusing to give me yet another Saks gift cert so I can get my coveted Louboutins – hold on for six more months, I’m coming baby!) I asked for a cake plate. Tired of my unrefined (I’m trying hard not to say ghetto here – as I know it offends many people. Although really, what ghetto is assumed when people use this term? Warsaw ghetto? The ghetto I actually live in right now? Is it really unappropriate to say this? I think people are making all kinds of assumptions when using that term and making equally as many assumptions when saying it is inappropriate. Once again, I digress…) , makeshift options, I have now moved on to the big league. No, it is not the most beautiful work of art (much to my husband’s chagrin), but it is functional and most often will be on the shelf or in the refrigerator. 

On to the cake

So what is the first baked good to grace this plate? Awhile back I found this recipe for Meyer Lemon Cake with Lavender Cream.  Never having had Meyer lemons nor lavender in my food, I was intrigued. I picked up a container of lavender buds from a nearby gourmet store. Meyer lemons come into season from around December to February in this neck of the woods; I picked mine up from Whole Foods. Please note that these lemons are softer than standard lemons – this does not mean they are past their prime.  Their taste is also not as sharp as regular lemons. 

The cake in this recipe is a real keeper. It’s olive oil based, light and airy with a hint of lemon. If I had to do it again, I’d go with a different lemon curd. The recipe for the curd was a little different than normal and to be honest, I found the curd to be a bit bitter. The lavender cream was also intriguing and a definite necessity to complete the dish. But be aware that it makes a very soft whipped cream – even after freezing the cream for 20 minutes. I think it’s due to the honey in the whipped cream, so you might want to try sugar instead.

Check out the Meyer Lemon Cake with Lavender Cream for yourself.

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Mayhem burger at Kuma's

Everything but the kitchen sink

How can I possibly start off my first ever post in a blog meant to explore the economics of frugality with a visit to a restaurant? Does this not go against the concept of my musings? Well, gentle reader, I feel one must always be open to research and what better place to research the concept of making do with what you have on-hand than Kuma’s Corner – a burger joint in Chicago known for throwing everything but the kitchen sink on a burger, slapping a band name on it and serving it to you with Death Metal screeching in the background. This is not a place for suburban Muffy’s and Buffy’s or their citified kin, Trixie (aka Buffy in training). No ma’am. Now, I’m not saying the staff would turn your Burberry-clad self away, but if you would prefer to dine without having to listen to the likes of say, Skeleton Witch, blaring at top volume, Kuma’s probably isn’t for you. Since my angst-ridden youth was spent listening to Ministry and Bauhaus, I figure I might somehow relate to the heavily tattooed, black clothed waitstaff. Just maybe…  

Yesterday was my third ever trip to Kuma’s. I don’t want to discuss the second trip as we never got seated. We had a party of six which proved to be a problem in a place with only nine tables consisting entirely of two and four-tops. I vowed never to return. Until, of course, I had a week off of work, could go at weird hours and in a party no more than two. This wintry day, my husband and I walked in the door around 4pm and although there was already a line ahead of us, we were immediately seated (the hostess informed us how lucky we were that there were only two of us). As I stated before, Kuma’s is known for their burgers. On my first ever Kuma’s experience, I had the Lair of the Minotaur – caramelized onions, pancetta, brie and bourbon soaked pears. My husband had the Mastodon – bbq sauce, cheddar, bacon and frizzled onions. Today, I wanted to branch out and get the “make your own” macaroni and cheese. I chose Andouille sausage and sundried tomatoes. My husband ordered the Mayhem – sliced jalapeños, pancetta, pepperjack and giardinara mayo. Like I said – everything but the kitchen sink. Our order arrived and we dug in. Everything I hoped it could be and more. Hands down best mac and cheese in Chicago – and I’ve sampled a lot.

So now we come to the frugal part of the post. Due to my recent weight loss, there was NO WAY I was going to eat that entire place of mac and cheese. I ate half and had the other half wrapped up for a future meal. I think when you know the caloric intake your body needs to maintain your weight and balance that with what you are putting in your mouth, you eat a lot less. Which is a win-win – for your pocketbook, your body, and your mind (not having to come up with a meal plan for the following day is a definite score in my book).  In fact, right now sounds like a good time to sneak another bite. I’m off…

For creative burger toppings (or bands to explore), check out the menu at Kuma’s Corner. Proof that anything in your fridge can top a burger. Perhaps you’ll get an idea for the Build a Better Burger competition offered by Sutter’s Home. Hmm…that reminds me, it’s time to go perfect my Thai burger.

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