Friday Favorites

Some food-related (mostly) things we enjoyed this past week:

Cloud bread

We thoroughly enjoyed the dinner we had several weeks ago at La Macchina, one of our favorite local Italian restaurants, and it turns out that they serve a pretty amazing brunch as well.  We had our first ever taste of croque madame (basically the best grilled ham & cheese sandwich you’ve ever had, with mornay sauce [bechamel + cheese = heaven] and a fried egg on top) and wondered where this delicacy has been all our lives.  We were also pleasantly surprised when our server brought out a plate of their signature house “bread” to start our meal.  We don’t know what their official name is, but calling these light-as-air dough miracles “bread” seems almost criminal.  As perfect as they are with salami and cheese as a dinner appetizer, a light dusting of powdered sugar transforms them into the greatest bite of the day’s first meal.

Lamb feast

We caught a recent episode of Nigella Lawson’s cooking show where she made “lamb cutlets with mint, chili and golden potatoes” and promptly added the dish to our dinner line-up for the following week.  We loved everything about it, including how easy it is to make.  The lamb is marinated in olive oil, red pepper flakes, dried mint and celery salt, then pan-seared in a skillet until medium-rare.  Using the same skillet (with rendered fat from the lamb) to brown the par-boiled baby red potatoes is genius.  Serving the lamb and potatoes family-style on a bed of arugula (or “rocket,” as Nigella calls it) made us feel like we were having a fancy dinner party, just the two of us.

C'mon Spring!

According to the weather reporter on the local nightly news, normal temperatures for our area at this time of year should be in the 40s.  That’s just mean, considering how we are currently (STILL) experiencing temps in the teens and 20s, with a few days in the single digits here and there and sub-zero windchills.  If I can’t have Spring outside any time soon, I’ll have to make do with blooming branches inside.  I picked up some forsythia at Trader Joe’s last week and the blooms brighten up our foyer nicely.

Need a better name

If you’ve never tried them, cheese curds do not sound very appetizing.  But done right, they are a light/cheesy/melty treat.  Done wrong, their name suits them perfectly.  Lucky for us, this place and this one do them very, very right.

Only slightly creepy

I got to have lunch with Dan at his office this week, a/k/a “Kraftown.”  It’s an impressive facility with a young, hip, creative and inspiring vibe (yet somehow, they still let Dan work there **rimshot**).  I enjoyed seeing the place where Dan spends his weekdays, and we had a great lunch with his colleague who also happens to be an old friend.  The food at the cafeteria there is surprisingly good (and un-cafeteria-like.)  Dan has raved about (and sent me pictures of) the Thursday buffalo chicken salad since the week he started working there.  I’m happy to report that the salad lived up to every bit of the hype.


The English translation of this recipe for Braciole di Manza is “Italian beef rolls in tomato sauce.”  Braciole (pronounced “bra-jule,” loosely and inexpertly if you are me) is a dish that Dan orders just about every time we go to one of our all-time favorite Italian restaurants in the town where he grew up.  When researching recipes to attempt to recreate braciole at home, we found that while the cooking method is consistent across nearly all recipes — thinly pounded beef topped with filling ingredients, rolled up and tied, then slowly cooked in a simmering red sauce — the filling components vary widely (other than breadcrumbs and cheese, which are pretty standard), with everything from prosciutto, parsley and rosemary, to spinach and mushrooms, to pine nuts and raisins.  Interestingly, my mom makes a similar style of dish, but with roots in Germany rather than Italy and totally different ingredients.  Her “rollfleisch” as we call it (I found related recipes called “rouladen” online) uses bacon, celery, onion and bell pepper for the filling, then the rolled and tied beef is cooked in gravy (or broth, wine or water.)  For our own, inaugural version of homemade rolled-meat-with-filling-cooked-in-liquid, we went with a basic braciole filled with breadcrumbs, Parmesan, garlic, parsley, oregano and Provolone, cooked in a simple red sauce.  The finished dish was anything but basic or simple, with rich, beefy goodness that complemented and infused the sweetness of the tomato sauce.  We’ll definitely make homemade braciole again, and maybe next time we’ll add prosciutto to the filling for another layer of meaty flavor.  But first, we plan to try our hand at a FoodieLawyer interpretation of rollfleisch.  Even better, we could take this slow-cooked, stuffed and rolled meat thing global, with versions inspired by all different types of cuisine — Mexican, Asian, Greek, Indian, French — so many possibilities!

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Friday Favorites

Some food-related (mostly) things we enjoyed this past week:

Tex-Mex Quest

One of the things we miss about Dallas is the availability of Tex-Mex restaurants.  Although Mexican food (as we know it) is not nearly as prevalent here in Chicagoland, we look forward to trying it when and where we can find it.  While running errands last weekend, we drove out to a shopping area called The Glen, for the sole purpose of trying the Mexican restaurant there called El Jardin.  It wasn’t quite as good as some of our old Texas favorites (Mi Cocina and Chuys:  you are sorely missed), but El Jardin met several of our Tex-Mex requirements pretty well — balanced margaritas (not too sour, not too sweet); salsa with fresh-roasted flavor; well-seasoned chicken in the flautas and excellent char-grilled flavor on the carne asada.  We’d go back there.

Olive Oil

We’ll also go back to The Glen for the shopping opportunities, including a shop that sells a wide variety of olive oils and vinegars.  It was interesting to taste some of the different oils and pick up subtle flavor notes and profiles — almost like a wine tasting.  According to the sales clerk, the taste of the olives can be influenced by other types of trees growing near the olive tree.  I used some of the olive oil we bought that day to make this vinaigrette the next evening, and Dan picked up a very slight apple flavor in the salad, even though there were no apples in it.  Dude either has a really sophisticated palate, or a very active imagination.

Ice Walk

We took advantage of balmy temperatures in the 30s (did I really just type that?) and calm winds last Sunday by walking over to the lake to see how much of it is frozen.  From what we could see, a good bit of the lake is iced over, with huge snow drifts along the banks and ice crystal formations at the edges.  It was really beautiful to see.

Thawed Grill

A couple of slightly warmer days this week also meant that Dan could be outside on our terrace — without coat, hat, gloves and scarf — to grill our dinner.  The BBQ game hen was the perfect little sneak peek into what will surely be an amazing start to the grilling season this spring.  In about 3 more months.

Magnet Fancy

We don’t currently have a backsplash in our kitchen, which doesn’t really bother me at this point, except for the wall space above the kitchen sink.  Until recently, doing the dishes involved staring at a blank white square that was slowly acquiring splatter stains and spots (and was slowly driving me insane.)  So I stuck a big, faux marble-patterned bandaid on the problem by hanging our old magnetic dry erase board in the space.  I tried to make the board look more kitchen-y and less office-y by covering it with self-adhesive contact paper in a marble pattern (found at our local Lowes.)  We can’t write on the board, but the magnets still stick through the contact paper so we can use to board to put up notes, our grocery lists and our weekly menus.  And I can just wipe down the contact paper if anything splatters up there from the sink.  Sanity saved.  (For now.)

“Your Dressing”

For the sake of variety, we generally try to branch out with our vegetable side dishes; yet for the sake of convenience, the regular old green salad appears on our weekly menu at least a couple of times per month.  Lately I can almost always count on Dan to ask “Is this your dressing?” every time we have salad, no matter what combination of salad veggies and leafy greens we happen to be eating.  By “your dressing” he means — in the most complimentary way — the homemade balsamic vinaigrette I make that we both love.  I take his question as a compliment because I’m generally more of a recipe follower than creator and can count on one hand the number of recipes I feel like I created (and even then, they are based on researching and tweaking other people’s recipes for the same thing.)  The vinaigrette is simple — honey, lemon juice, Dijon, garlic, balsamic vinegar, olive oil and salt & pepper — but goes really well with pretty much any green salad we’ve ever dressed with it, even as it tends to taste a bit different each time, depending on what’s in the salad.  Basic and easy, yet consistently praise-worthy and versatile is my kind of recipe.  Now it can be yours too.

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Friday Favorites

Some food-related (mostly) things we enjoyed this past week:

Monk contemplates winter

Dan turned another year older on Monday, and nothing says “Happy Birthday!” quite like a cherubic stone monk holding a small bowl with a snowball in it.  The monk caught Dan’s eye while we were shopping for dining room chairs at Pier One.  It’s pretty rare for Dan to take an active interest in anything related to home decor (anything that doesn’t have a remote control or involve a trip to Best Buy anyway), so I surprised him by ordering the monk for his birthday.  We both enjoy seeing Monk out on our bedroom terrace every day, serene and peacefully oblivious to the bleakness, no hope for Spring wintery conditions around him.

Gift of laughter

In further celebration of Dan’s birth, we took the train downtown for an AMAZING dinner at Le Colonial and a show at Second City.  For our first course, we split the Pho (oxtail soup), which our knowledgeable and extremely charming waiter deemed to be the best in the city.  We wholeheartedly agree, even though we’ve never had pho at any other restaurant in Chicago, and have only ever tasted it one other time, in Dallas.  But it’s hard to imagine any better version of this particular soup (outside Vietnam of course.)  For entrees, Dan had the “Ca Chien Saigon” (crisp, seared whole red snapper in a light, spicy-sour sauce) and I had the “Tom Xao Sate” (sauteed shrimp, asparagus, onions and scallions in a light sauce of sate spice, chili and garlic.)  Both meals were excellent.  My asparagus was so good that the shrimp was almost a distraction, and the sauce on Dan’s meal had us both practically licking the plate long after the fish was all gone.  Not to be outdone by our meal, the comedy show was every bit as funny and entertaining as one would expect from the place where Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Steve Carell and countless other hilariously talented people got their start.  We wrapped up the evening by catching a cab back home and grabbing a couple of slices from the pizza place around the corner.  Not too shabby a Friday night for a couple of crazy 40-somethings.  Happy Birthday Daniel!


Speaking of pizza, we were pleased to discover that this little Italian restaurant in our neighborhood has really good thin-crust pizza, some with unexpectedly delicious topping combinations.  I’ll eat olives with just about anything, but would never have thought they’d work so well on a pizza with salami and onions.  It’s a good thing that Tuesday is half-price pizza night, because we have lots more flavor combos to try.

Dining room art

Our dining room may not have any chairs in it yet, but at least we have art up on the walls.  I was inspired to hang the pieces this way (high and vertically “stacked” with the smaller ones at the bottom) after coming across this post about the European way of hanging art in a stacked manner, especially after seeing the images from Highclere Castle, the setting of one of our all-time favorite TV shows.  If it’s good enough for Downton Abbey, it’s plenty fancy enough for our little Chicagoland condo!

Hallway rugs

Finally, I feel compelled to share my new favorite source for rugs, which I found through this wonderful and always-inspiring design blog.  (I know, for a food blogger I sure do spend a disproportionate amount of time reading design blogs.)  eSaleRugs is an awesome site for finding very affordable (as well as crazy expensive), good quality rugs.  We’ve bought several rugs from there since we moved and have been more than happy with all aspects of the purchases.  It’s easy to search and filter the huge selection on the site to find exactly what you’re looking for, the rugs are packaged well and ship really quickly, and did I mention that they are high in quality, yet low in price?

Food for Thought

  • However you feel about Facebook — love, hate or indifference — it can sometimes be a great place to find recipes and cooking techniques.  Facebook is where my mom recently discovered this clever idea for “lazy eggs” cooked in a muffin pan.  All you do is spray the muffin wells with nonstick cooking spray, add a slice of ham, some chopped tomatoes and a little cheese (or whatever egg “accessories” you like), then break one egg into each well and bake until the eggs are done.  Especially genius for cooking breakfast or brunch for a crowd.

Spicy "fried" chicken

  • Speaking of eggs, Dan found this recipe that uses egg whites to coat chicken wings and dry them out in the fridge overnight before baking the wings in the oven to get a crispy, “fried” texture without actually frying the chicken.  We tried it and the chicken turned out pretty great (although not quite as crispy as true fried chicken), and we’re intrigued to try the technique with other recipes involving chicken, breading and baking for a “fried” result.  Next time we make “unfried chicken,” we’ll incorporate this drying out technique.

Cup o' breakfast

  • Continuing the themes of both breakfast and smart ideas, insulated disposable coffee cups with lids are perfect for hot breakfast on the go.  Whenever we make hot cereal during the week, Dan takes his in the car to eat during the drive to work.  Spoon a dollup of hot cereal or oatmeal into the cup, add a layer of blueberries (or whatever fruit you like), then repeat a couple of times.  Stick the handle end of a plastic spoon through the sip hole in the lid, then place the spoon in the cup and seal the lid.  The cereal stays nice and warm until ready to eat, and heats the blueberries just a enough to make each bite taste like a fresh-from-the-oven blueberry muffin.

Pasta with Arugula and Prosciutto

Time for a little guilty confession:  we throw away stale, expired or otherwise past-their-prime fruits, vegetables and other foods more often than I like to admit.  Cooking portion-friendly meals for just the two of us can be difficult at times, considering how many recipes are intended for at least four to six servings.  We cut recipes in half often, freeze extra portions for later and/or reheat leftovers for lunch when we can, yet sometimes still end up with too much of a certain ingredient or leftover to use or consume before it goes bad.  We feel terrible throwing away food, so this particular recipe is a direct result of making sure we used up a container of arugula before it spoiled.  Whenever we have a particular ingredient in mind but can’t think of a recipe, Epicurious is our go-to site to begin researching.  I found this recipe there by doing an initial search for “arugula,” then refining the results by specifying arugula as the main ingredient (the site also has several other very useful ways to refine the results, including by meal/course, cuisine and “dietary consideration.”)  This pasta dish is a quick, easy and satisfying way to use up at least two cups of arugula, tossed with sauteed leeks, fettuccine, green onion, Parmesan, prosciutto and lemon zest.  And it’s good enough to justify the purchase of arugula in its own right, rather than waiting until we have leftovers.

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