All posts by Barbara Payne, Editor

Writer/editor - food, wine, spirits, travel and fun, plus news about developments in biomedicine and about single working women

Super-flavorful tomatoes grown all year here in Chicagoland

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
If you’re like us, you might consider really good tomatoes as comfort food – our kitchen is naked without a pile of flavorful tomatoes on the counter every day – and I mean, all winter long, too. Up until now, Campari, the bigger-than-cherry tomatoes available at Costco all year around, have been  fulfilling our tomato cravings. The problem with them, though, is they have to be shipped long distances – not good for the environment.
.

We are excited to have just discovered a Chicago-area business, MightyVine in Rochelle, Illinois (about 80 miles from Chicago), that’s going to do the job for us now. It has perfected a sustainable hydroponic (water-based) drip-irrigation growth system that produces fresh tomatoes all year long that are full of sweetness and real-tomato flavor. Plus, it uses only 10% of the water required for field grown plants. Their varieties – the medium-sized Roterno on-the-vine type and the Robinio cherry-on-the-vine type – are both really tasty. Slice the Roternos for sandwiches or bagels. Cut the super-sweet Robinios into wedges for salads or platters, or eat them alone with a sprinkle of salt. Either way, these little gems will make your tomato-hungry eyes, nose and mouth happy any time of year. And they keep fresh on your counter top for at least a couple of weeks.

These delightful local tomatoes are available at Chicago groceries including Jewel-Osco, Whole Foods Market and Treasure Island, and are used in more than 100 restaurants in the Chicago area, according to MightVine Chairman Jim Murphy as quoted in an article in the Chicago Tribune last year.
.
Poached cod studded with super-sweet MightyVine Robinios
Poached cod studded with super-sweet MightyVine Robinios

The MightVine Robinios cherry-size tomatoes are also excellent in cooked dishes – see photo of poached cod with onions, broccoli and tomatoes. The only issue we had was that the skins are relatively thick, and we sometimes had to pluck them out, especially when heated. But that’s a small price to pay to have sustainably grown, super-flavorful tomatoes all year that don’t have to come from far away. Thank you, MightVine!

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Maggiano’s does brunch Italian-style

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
Maggiano’s, 516 N. Clark St., a long-time favorite in Chicago along with 51 other locations across the nation, is now doing brunch. Their creative series of Benedicts ($14-$15) is available seven days a week until 3pm, and the extended menu with pancakes, frittatas, and more is available Saturdays and Sundays from 11 to 3pm.

Why brunch, you ask? Because there’s no longer any doubt that brunch in America has become a special occasion in its own right, and Maggiano’s is all about helping you make your occasions special. They now open at 11 on weekends to satisfy your brunch cravings with their own unique take on traditional brunch features and a few surprises of their own. Naturally, because libations are a critical component of the good brunch, order your favorite Bloody Mary – Italian-style with a distinctive Maggiano’s flavor –  mimosa or peach Bellini. The full bar selection – from champagne to whiskey – is available if you prefer your drinks unmixed.

Maggiano’s was recently voted top allergy-friendly chain by Allergy Eats, and in a massive consumer survey by Restaurant Business, was voted the nation’s #1 favorite special event venue and one of the top 5 favorite chain venues in the country. So it’s a good bet there is something for every one.
When you order brunch at Maggiano’s, the first thing that appears in front of you is a light-crumbed orange streusel cake coated in an orange-flavored sugar glaze to amuse your bouche while you look over the menu. One of the star items on the extended brunch menu is the Lemon Ricotta Pancakes ($14.95). When Executive Chef Josh Rodriguez demoed this, we watched him fold whipped egg whites in to lighten the batter that also includes freshly grated lemon zest, egg yolks and vanilla bean paste. Chef uses an ice cream scoop to portion the batter and smush each cake down. Cooked 4 minutes on each side, they come out super-light and ready for you to go crazy with the whipped cream, blueberries, and syrup.

Another these-carbs-are-so-worth-it! dish is the Crème brûlée French toast. Made with cranberry-raisin bread, it’s got the creamy, rich flavor of the restaurant’s house-made Crème brûlée mix and is another great way to enjoy helpings of strawberries, blueberries, whipped cream and syrup.

Maggiano's fresh veggie frittata
Maggiano’s fresh veggie frittata

Veggie frittata features smoked Gouda, spinach, mushrooms – fresh flavors, softly finished eggs – served with crisp Vesuvio potatoes. You can also choose from the can’t-eat-anymore Italian breakfast of three eggs with ham, bacon and Italian sausage plus potatoes.

How about the Maggiano’s special Chicken & Waffles where the fried chicken is breaded in the same batter as the waffles are made from? Didn’t get to try that one, but it’s on my brunch bucket list.
Alright. The king of all brunch dishes is the Benedict, right? How do you make a bad one of these gloriously rich creations? If you’ve got your Hollandaise under control, your muffins are nicely toasted, and your ingredients are fresh, it’s hard to fail. But it takes some work to get original with it. Maggiano’s has managed it by putting together a few unique combinations.
  • Meatball Benedict – surprising combination. Nice tomato chunk balances richness of egg yolk and Hollandaise with the flavor of the sturdy beefy meatball. The Italian woman at our table – who, of course, makes her own meatballs – couldn’t stop talking about how much she appreciated how these meatballs worked with the Benedict formula. Hey, if an Italian approves…
  • The Chicken Francese Benedict takes a popular item from the regular Maggiano’s dinner menu – lightly breaded chicken that’s fried and served with arugula – and turns it into a house-made Benedict special.
  • The regular Eggs Benedict is served with a uniquely flavored ham made locally and shipped in from Wisconsin – Nueske’s, which also makes the thick, juicy bacon served at brunch.
  • Crab cake Benedict – nice combo. A pleasantly standard crab cake mixture blends well with the Hollandaise and egg yolk.

All Benedicts are served with house-made crispy Vesuvio potatoes – a deliciously salty preparation that was slightly undercooked on this occasion. If you’re a stickler for thoroughly cooked-through potatoes, make sure to ask your server to tell the chef to make them extra crispy.

Everything on all of Maggiano’s menus is made from scratch to order. If you’ve got any food issues, the chef will always come to your table to determine what they are: allergies, celiac, etc., with a view to designing and custom making your food for you. They make sure you’re safe by using completely separate equipment to cook your meal.
The Maggiano’s Clark St. location has been there for 25 years. It’s a dark-wood-paneled cozy spot perfect for dates, family dinners and special occasions. Patrons can reserve private dining space in the Wine Cellar below the main restaurant or around the corner in the beautiful separate building that sports graciously carpeted wide stairways and wood paneling and the warm welcoming service you can always expect at Maggiano’s. Call for reservations and go enjoy brunch at an Italian Chicago institution.
And don’t forget the Make-a-Wish special dessert and the Chef’s guilt-free pasta dishes (less than 600 calories each). And P.S. – their lasagna is DELICIOUS. They often give you an extra portion to take home when you order their pasta. Chances are really good that you will leave full and happy.
Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Book reviews – 2 diabetic-friendly cookbooks

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
Diabetes is a condition that affects every part of life, including one of the biggest parts of anyone’s life – what you cook and eat. In the past, people living with diabetes didn’t have a lot of guidance on how to make food that’s good for them taste good. But lately, authors of all stripes are writing cookbooks with recipes that go for taste while honoring the special guidelines required for a diabetic-friendly regimen. Here are two for your consideration.
.
Simple diabetic-friendly recipes and tips
Simple diabetic-friendly recipes and tips

The 4-Ingredient Diabetes Cookbook: Simple, Quick and Delicious Recipes Using Just Four Ingredients or Less!, by Nancy S. Hughes. This cookbook is good for anyone who’s in a hurry to make a decent meal without investing too much time and effort. The Salmon with Lemon-Thyme Slices (p.147) made a nice entree for family dinner, though I had to throw the fish in the microwave before serving because the length of time stated in the recipe left it mostly raw. Came out fine, then, and everyone enjoyed. You may find a few trusty treasures in this book that will become regular go-to recipes in your repertoire – like the Toasted Pecan and Apple Salad (p.75) or the Chicken Kale Salad with Fresh Ginger Dressing (p.36). Simple, simple, simple is the key – lots of grilled meat and poultry, tricks for fancying up ready-made salad dressings, and so on.

The section near the beginning of the book called “Make the Most of All Your Meals” has some great ideas for simplifying your cooking life and getting more out of what you do make. The “cook’s tips” given on pages throughout the book either explain why the recipe is written as it is or give some good idea about how to make sure the dish turns out well. Every recipe gives full nutrition data as well as diabetic exchanges and choices. Occasionally you’ll find good tips for substituting, e.g., instead of 1 teaspoon of honey you can use 1 teaspoon packed dark brown sugar and 1 teaspoon of water.
.
You’ll probably notice as you page through the book that some of the recipes fudge a bit on the “4 ingredients only” claim in the title. But that’s okay – ingredients like water, salt and pepper shouldn’t have to count against the 4-rule anyway. In paperback ~$13 on Amazon.
.
Gorgeous photos and inspiring diabetic-friendly recipes
Gorgeous photos and inspiring diabetic-friendly recipes

Switch It Up: A Fresh Take On Quick and Easy Diabetes-Friendly Recipes For a Balanced Life, by Corinne Trang. This book is for people who want to spend a little more time putting their food together and are willing to try new vegetables and combine different foods in some unique ways. The photographs are positively inspiring – they make you feel absolutely this food will be worth the time it takes to make. And in case you really want to think outside the box, the suggestions of other recipes in the book to pair with each dish give you new ways to look at what to serve together. The international inspirations result in unique takes on common dishes, e.g., the Spicy Miso Guacamole (p.22) pairs the lightest, least salty version of Asian miso with lime-and-sriracha spiced avocado of warm climes. And here’s a unique combo – julienned raw zucchini with prunes, dressed in a soy-ginger-sriracha dressing (p.8). The recipe for Ginger Lobster Salad (p.86) is really simple but intriguing with a very light dressing that also includes ginger, soy and sriracha along with rice vinegar. Like so many in this book, it looks deliciously appealing in the photo.

While soups and some other items can be frozen, many of these recipes are best served very fresh. Yet most of the ingredients here are portioned to serve 8. If you are a single or a couple. those extra 4 to 6 servings of every recipe might very well go to waste, so be aware you may have to calculate and then cut the ingredients in half or thirds in order to eat the dish fresh. As in all good cookbooks for diabetics, every recipe gives diabetic exchanges and choices and full nutrition data.
.
Fifty internationally inspired recipes with professional close-up photographs of items clearly styled by a food artist. It’s a beautiful thing. Proceeds from sales of the book support the American Diabetes Association. In paperback ~$11 on Amazon.
Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

2 new rums and a Chile liqueur

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
Havana Club hot cocktail with homemade ricotta cheese on cinnaman oat pancakes
Havana Club hot cocktail with homemade ricotta cheese on cinnaman oat pancakes

Rum is one of those drinks that can vary wildly in taste and smoothness. Some of the best are so smooth and delicious they can be enjoyed neat – like brandy/cognac, sipped as a post-prandial libation or nightcap. One of the leaders in the rum game is Captain Morgan, and they make a dozen different varieties from spiced (love it!) to regular to tropical flavored and super-premium. Below are a couple of rums and a unique chile liqueur we just learned about.

Oakheart spiced rum is deLISH as a nightcap
Oakheart spiced rum is deLISH as a nightcap


Oakheart Spiced Rum from Bacardi
 is delicately but richly spiced and tastes utterly lovely all by itself, even without ice. In a recent blind taste test, results indicated Oakheart won out over Capt. Morgan, but of course, you must judge for yourself. Oakheart is a clear winner for our nightcap needs around here.  Love the subtle layers of flavor and the gentle spicy warmth going down.

Uh, yeah. You can mix this with cola, but we think it’s a shame to drown all these flavors: “characteristics of oak barrel staves with the essence of bourbon or brandy, a hint of smoke from the charring process, background notes of dried fruit and heavy delivery of sweet creamy butterscotch. Notes of custard, maple and honey flavors [emphasis ours!] coat the tongue and [the drink] finishes with a touch of pepper.”

Havana Club Añejo Clasico Puerto Rican rum is a dark rum with oaky hints of vanilla and almond, along with fruity notes akin (think pineapple and apricot) with a robust and velvety finish. It’s really good in mixed drinks like the one in the recipe below. Perfect with a weekend brunch or a fireside session.

And on the 8th day...
And on the 8th day…

The 8th Day

  • 1 ½ parts HAVANA CLUB Añejo Clásico Puerto Rican Rum
  • 3 parts Chai tea
  • 1 ¾ parts coconut milk
  • 1 part simple syrup or 1 tbs white sugar

Method: Prepare Chai Tea. While the tea steeps, warm coconut milk over medium heat, do not boil. Combine ingredients in a high temperature resistant mixing glass, adding rum last and stir. Serve in an Irish Coffee Cup or preferred glass coffee cup, and garnish with a cinnamon stick.

Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur for something different
Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur for something different

And then there’s the unique Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur from Puebla, Mexico. It’s good for after-dinner or aperitif, depending on your mood and your menu. This has been a favorite around here since we received the review sample. Thick and creamy, dark amber color, heat and peppery flavors make this a unique experience for your tongue and nose. Maker’s notes say: “Pleasantly sweet, followed by chile with moderate heat and slight acidity. Hints of spices, tamarind, plum, cacao, apple and almonds then subtle notes of fine herbs. A pleasantly lingering pungent taste on the finish.” Works for us!

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

2 reviews – Canned meats and ready-to-use sauces

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
When Keystone Meats asked us to review a sample of their products, we were skeptical. Because, yes, it sounds funny to a foodie to think in terms of using canned protein (well, except tuna), but we took a chance and were pleasantly surprised.
.
Just a few of Keystone Meats products
Just a few of Keystone Meats products

Keystone makes and sells all-natural chicken and beef (and more) in cans that come in 14.5 ounces or 28 ounces, and we were impressed to see that the only ingredients are beef or chicken and sea salt. Contrary to our fears,  the chicken did not taste dry. It tasted more than satisfactory in the chicken fajitas recipe we selected – the one on the back of the can seemed like too much chicken and not enough vegetables for our preferences.

We season our chicken fajitas and peppers and onions with Greek low-fat yogurt instead of sour cream – works really well – and some salsa and fresh tomatoes. It was pretty darn good. And we only used two thirds of the can for four servings. So we’re talking about a lot of bang for your buck.
.
The recipe for quick and easy pot roast on the back of the beef can looks tasty and certainly easy. Using one of these instant-protein options could be a lifesaver for a busy person who’s starving and doesn’t want to order high-sodium takeout food. Because another nice thing about these canned meat products is the low sodium content – only 120 mg in a serving. Plus a serving of 2 ounces is only 70 calories for the beef and 60 for the chicken.
.
When you open the chicken there is a lot of liquid, and we started at first to pour it out. But then we realized it had to be juices from the the cooking process because the can says no water added. It also says no artificial ingredients and only minimally processed. So if you would be happy to have a reasonably priced, not-too-processed and tasty meat or chicken on hand, ready at any moment, without worrying about refrigerator or freezer space – handy, too, for camping or trekking – these Keystone canned meat products fit the bill pretty well. They make soup bases and canned broths, too. Review the entire product range online at Keystone Meats.
.
Moores Habanero sauce - spice and vinegar
Moores habanero sauce spice and vinegar

Meanwhile, Moore’s Marinades & Sauces makes a whole group of sauces you can use to spice up your cooking. They sent us a sample of their new Spicy Habanero Wing and Hot Sauce. When we used it as extra seasoning on the above chicken fajitas, it overpowered the multi-layered fajita spice combination. Yet its strongly tart, vinegary taste would be great on wings to zing the meat and cut through the fat. FYI, sometimes vinegar is the first ingredient in hot sauces, but in Moore’s Habanero it’s water first, peppers second and next come vinegar and salt.

Moore’s also has some recipes on their website that look worth trying. The Southwestern soup made with this Habanero sauce, for example, sounds good. Some of the recipes made with their Ranch sauce look particularly appealing. The marinades and sauces come in 16-ounce bottles and are available online and in select retail outlets like Walmart.
Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Bordeaux wines galore – and at RPM wine dinner

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Last week was a great time for Bordeaux in Chicago. Dozens of winemakers and representatives from dozens of appellations in the Bordeaux, France wine region converged in one of the ballrooms at the elegant historic Drake Hotel to introduce their mainly 2014 vintages to press, trade and the public. Visitors walked around tasting while, behind the tables, reps from members of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux gave out pour after pour of mostly red blends, plus a few whites and Sauternes for good measure. As you read my recommendations, keep in mind I’m partial to big, dry, complex reds.

A few of my favorites came from a region I hadn’t previously been very familiar with, Saint-Estephe, and included all four of the wineries present from there (check links for wine notes and prices): Château Ormes de Pez 2014, Château Cos Labory 2014, Château Phelan Segur 2014, and especially Château Lafon-Rochet 2014.

Others that I gave highest marks to were from among the Grand Crus de St. Emilion and included Château Beau-Séjour Bécot 2014, Château Canon-La-Gaffelière 2014, Château Grand Mayne 2014, and Château Villemaurine 2014. Really beautiful wines.

I was also impressed with some from the Pomerol appellation of Bordeaux. Check out Château Beauregard 2014, Château Clinet 2014 and Château La Cabanne 2014. Two notables from the Pessac-Leognan appellation were Chateau Olivier and Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, each of which presented both a white and a red.

And later that evening, a fine wine dinner at RPM Steak House featured 5 lovely wines from the Pouillac appellation in Bordeaux – food and drink to set the imagination afire. Amuse bouches were tiny and flavorful, including oysters with mignonette. The appetizer course was a generous-sized disk of Hamachi, studded with caviar and surrounded by a warm, slightly sweet yuzu emulsion. First course was an outstanding Pepper-Crusted Tuna Belly – one piece of which was prepared confit (NUM!) and the other ahi-style, both served with a spoonful of sturdy mushroom Bearnaise. Utterly succulent and delicious and perfect with a Bordeaux blend, Les Tourelle de Longueville, Pauillac 2011.

Next came Prime Dry Aged Beef – two small pieces of beef aged 90 days and two aged for 9 days. Both were spectacular and were served with two vintages of Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron Pauillac, one from 1990 and one from 2009. Lovely, rich reds.

Then came, not one but two desserts, both outstanding. One, poached apricots served in a warm almond custard that was to die for (I am wild about anything custard), and then a Sticky Toffee Pudding with rum raisin ice cream, both served with Chateau de Suduiraut Sauternes, one from 2004 and the other from 1975. Beautiful, beautiful. Thank you, RPM and thank you, makers of Bordeaux wines par excellence. (And thanks to Elizabeth for some nice shots!)
Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Book reviews: 3 health-smart and delicious cookbooks

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
I love to cook. I love to eat good food. As age has begun creeping up, my granddaughter’s growing older, and I keep learning more, I find myself thinking more and more about the nutrition in the things we eat. I happen to be lucky enough to love vegetables, which many people don’t – including most kids – so it’s not hard for me to get my big doses of vitamins with pure vegetables like tomatoes (according to my Fitbit food tracker, they are the #1 food I consume across all meals every day of the week), orange squashes, romaine, kale and spinach, to name a few. But that just doesn’t work for a lot of folks – some of whom may also have physical conditions that require special consideration in their meal planning.
.
Below are three books I’ve recently been asked to review, and I gotta tell you, these are all three excellent books for eating delicious and nutritious foods every day of your life – one addresses stomach issues, another diabetes, and the third is about just plain wonderful recipes that also give you tons of extra nutrients. Five stars for all three.
.
    1. pH Balance for GI difficulties
      pH Balance for GI difficulties

      The pH Balance Health & Diet Guide for GERD, IBS & IBD: Practical Solutions, Diet Management and 175 Recipes, by Dr. Fraser Smith BA, ND, Susan Hannah BA, BScH, and Dr. Daniel Richardson BS, MSc, PhD, DAANC, CNC. This is a carefully researched guide to helping people with certain disruptive gastrointestinal (GI) disorders. It gives the science behind the digestive system and detailed explanations about how highly processed foods acidify your system, as does a diet high in meat, dairy and sugar. Here are a few of the questions the book answers: Why acidity can contribute to illness in most body systems; why the Western diet is so poorly balanced for pH; and what you can do about it.

      For some people, the initial explanatory section and the many boxes giving more science may be too much information. But if you are suffering from a GI disorder, you want relief. And the suggestions for balancing your system make sense; the recipes are clear and uncomplicated. Plus, we think you’re going to just plain like the food. Check out the recipe for Crispy Coated Veggie Snacks (p. 195) that has you dip zucchini, sweet potatoes, etc. in yogurt, then breadcrumbs and bake. You can make your own Multi-Seed Energy Bars (p 194) with quinoa, sunflower and sesame seeds and puffed rice or millet with sweeteners like natural cane sugar or brown sugar and pure maple syrup or brown rice syrup. Orange French Toast (p. 179) uses orange juice and optional orange liqueur in the soak mix plus an Orange Marmalade Sauce with honey and orange liqueur (or not). Mmm. Don’t you want a piece right now?  Paperback on Amazon ~$21.
      .
    2. Whole Cooking for diabetics and other food lovers
      Whole Cooking for diabetics and other food lovers

      Whole Cooking and Nutrition: An Everyday Superfoods Approach to Planning, Cooking and Eating with Diabetes by Katie Cavuto. Thorough, user-friendly science and recipes for diabetics and anybody else who appreciates delicious foods that happen to be healthy, too. The author’s Italian, so there are some wonderful recipes that feature those full-flavor ethnic secrets. She offers a whole section on how to make your own way-healthier versions of pantry staples like tomato sauces, applesauce, nut milks, spice blends and other special dressings and spice-up-your-dishes condiments. Think: Everyday Roasted Garlic (p. 64) which she says you can spread on crackers, whisk into dressings, sauces and dips and swap out for fresh garlic in soups and baked dishes. You simply bake it with olive oil, squeeze out the cooked cloves, cover with a bit of oil and keep in the fridge for two weeks. You’ll feel virtuous for the nutrition and happy with the taste. Plus she gives a great recipe for using it: Garlicky Grilled Pork Chops with Navy Beans (p. 214) that also includes fresh lemon juice, lemon and orange zest, her Herb Oil (p. 60), parsley, canned navy beans and her Olive Tapenade (p. 113).

      The Sweet Potato Oats (p. 96) breakfast dish amps up the nutrition of a bowl of oatmeal with the addition of almond milk and sweet potato puree (you can use canned) and is seasoned with vanilla, cinnamon and maple syrup. The Chicken Sausage and Lentil Soup (p. 184) with Swiss chard, seasoned with thyme and fennel seeds, is her Italian family’s lower-fat version of a classic.

      Cavuto’s vegetable sides and mains offer some unique ways to put life into potatoes, red pappers, spaghetti squash (with walnut arugula pesto!) and more. Think about Roasted Cabbage “Steaks” with Vinaigrette (p. 150) – thick center cuts basted with vinaigrette and baked. The recipe for Roasted Green Beans with Smoked Paprika (p. 137) introduces a brilliantly easy way of seasoning and then cooking them in a very hot oven and dressing with a bit of fresh orange juice. All simple and delicious. Each recipe also gives full nutrition info plus the diabetic exchanges. Kindle $8, paperback $13 on Amazon.

    3. Get more nutrition and flavor in your food
      Get more nutrition and flavor in your food

      Sneaky Blends: Supercharge Your Health with more than 100 Recipes Using the Power of Purees, by Missy Chase Lapine, The New York Times Bestselling Author of The Sneaky Chef: Simple Strategies for Hiding Healthy Foods in Kids’ Favorite Meals. This and her other books are based on a brilliant idea: that you can add bales of nutrition – and serious extra flavor – to almost any recipe by using a super-nutritious puree of vegetables and/or fruits as one of the ingredients in a recipe. And she proves it with recipes for everything from appetizers, dips, salads and soups to entrees and desserts.

      I gave up eating pancakes a couple of decades ago when I discovered they left me starving an hour after I’d eat them. But my 9-year-old granddaughter loves pancakes – and generally eats the usual ones that are nothing but a load of empty calories and carbs. Lapine puts her Cinnamon Oat Protein Pancakes recipe (p. 123) on nutritional steroids by including 1/4 cup of Carrot-Sweet Potato “Base Blend,” (p. 86) some oatmeal and a couple of scoops of vanilla protein powder into the batter that’s also made with ricotta cheese, cinnamon, vanilla, and a tablespoon of maple syrup (yes, in the batter). I’m telling you, I can’t wait to make these even for myself.

      Lest you freak out about the whole “base blend” concept – which seems to imply a bunch of extra work – Lapine gives ideas to substitute in a pinch (for example, baby food), though she points out that the original purees (most of which sound fairly simple to make like spinach-blueberry) are superior in nutrition and flavor. The idea is to combine a vegetable and fruit (2 veggies in the case of sweet-potato/carrot) and puree them together. She recommends using time-saving frozen versions of many veggies like sweet potatoes, carrots and butternut squash (for this last, she also gives a smart and easy new way to prepare). Adding purees to original salad dressing recipes, she says, ups the nutrition sufficiently that you “don’t have to eat your weight in greens to get your daily allowance.” {smile!} Check out her All Hail Eggless Caesar Dressing (p. 182, uses her Cauliflower Base Blend) on raw kale with grated hard-boiled eggs. Or her Raspberry-Beet Vinaigrette (p. 187) on arugula with goat cheese. Kindle $15, paperback $13 on Amazon.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Cooking live lobster – an adventure story

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
Lobster by Fabio delivers seafood. We were happy to be invited recently to review a sample of their wares. The large box – overnight from Maine – arrived on the morning of the day we’d agreed on for delivery. Nice that we didn’t have to wait all day for it.
.
What we were not prepared for, however, was the fact that their product is alive when it comes to the door. Even though we’ve tried lots of challenging dishes over the years, the truth is, we’d never cooked live mussels or – gulp – live lobsters. Today’s the day, guys.
.
Fabio seafood cooking instructions
Fabio seafood cooking instructions

Having read over the years probably dozens of recipes for cooking mussels, this part doesn’t feel too intimidating. Fortunately, the single printed sheet that comes in the box contains straightforward, simple instructions for preparation. The next challenge is that we don’t have on hand the scallions specified for the mussel-poaching broth. After briefly considering it, we reject the idea of going to the grocery store. Thinking first that we’ll go to the trusty Internet for help, we remember our handy-dandy little mini Julia Child cookbook, Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom. Naturally, she comes through for us once more. We luckily do have on hand the shallots and garlic she calls for – sauté them in butter, she says. Oh, good, we think. That sounds really good. So now it’s time to punt.

.
We open the insulated box to see what’s in it. Underneath the layer of still-solid ice packs, the net bag of mussels looks easy enough to handle. The live lobsters – nestling in the dark, tight-fitting cardboard slots and trying to wave their rubber-banded claws about – look a great deal less so. Did I mention we never cooked live lobsters before? Oh, yeah. Gulp.
.
After some discussion about the humaneness of cooking live lobster I urge my granddaughter to stop looking at them; we don’t want to make friends with them. She mentions again that she just ate an entire lobster a mere two nights earlier when her mom took her to Shaw’s for their annual Christmas lobster dinner. I tell her I’ll be glad to take hints from her on the most efficient ways to eat this seafood. She assures me – with all the finesse of a confident, experienced 9-year-old – she’s happy to instruct me.
.
We first review Internet instructions for determining whether a mussel is dead or alive. We are reminded that if the mussel is open when it’s not cooked, that’s a bad thing. However, we also learn that we can tap the shell on the sink and if it then closes, that means it’s alive and okay to cook and eat. Dutifully we go through the bag and end up discarding about 10 mussels before cooking. I decide afterwards we could probably have tried cooking them and seeing what happened. But being newbies, we didn’t know how much leeway to give the little shell guys, so the percentage we deemed inedible was probably not typical with Fabio’s service.
.
Live mussels cooked in buttery broth
Live mussels cooked in buttery broth

Ok. We bring the shallot-and-garlic-infused buttery chicken broth and white wine mixture to a gentle simmer, throw in the mussels and cover the giant skillet. Five minutes later our black bivalves are open and ready to eat. We dish those into a big serving bowl to wait while we tackle the giant clawed crustaceans next. First adding the provided bag of sea salt and seaweed to a couple of inches of water in the bottom of our biggest pot, we then set the steamer rack on top of that. Bring it to a roaring boil, the instructions say, so we do.

.
Next step: put the lobsters in the steamer. There’s no way we’re removing the rubber bands from the claws until after these guys expire. Using a pair of tongs with some trepidation, we lift one out of the box and plunge it headfirst into the steaming cauldron. Same with number two and slam the lid on. It says cook exactly 14 minutes, opening the pot and rearranging the lobsters at the halfway point. Okay. So far, so good.
.
Open is good
Open is good

Next, toast some bread and melt some butter for dipping. We’re getting excited now. Set out the big white china plates, napkins, silverware and wine glasses. I’d earlier gotten the big, fancy white serving dish down from above the cabinets and washed the accumulated dust and grease off – don’t often use serving dishes this big – so that’s ready to hold the two lobsters. We sit down with gusto to enjoy our mussels, and they are very good indeed. Dip bread in the broth. Num. We dispatch a lion’s share of the pile in under 14 minutes.

.
Lobster by Fabio - fabulous!
Lobster by Fabio – fabulous!

The timer goes off. Open the pot. Wow, those lobsters are now an intensely bright orange-y red. Transfer to platter. Sit down. Realize we haven’t yet located the cracker. Get up and scrounge through every drawer. No dice. Think fast. Get the pliers out of the tool – aka junk – drawer and sit down. She starts with the legs. Demonstrates the technique for squeezing them with the cracking implement – whatever – and sucking the meat out. I try one but then can’t wait and go straight to a claw.

.
Pliers work in a pinch
Pliers work in a pinch

Luckily, the pliers work fairly well for this delicate operation. As I crack along the edge, the succulent claw meat begins to peek out. Eventually, to my surprise, I get the beautiful claw out in practically a single piece. Dip in the puddle of rich, melted unsalted butter. Nibble. Close my eyes, the better to savor. How good it tastes! Is it the effort we put into it, or does this lobster really taste like the best I’ve ever had? We’re each wearing an oven glove to hold the shells so we don’t get stabbed as we wrestle the meat out – a technique we recommend for proper-techniqueanyone eating lobster at home. Companion cook/young lady and I continue attacking our plates with enthusiasm, the shell bits pile up, and then we’re both ready to eat the tail. She explains how you tear off and discard the main part of the body with its green goo – “unless you like that part.” And we both eat every last bite of the tails on our big, juicy one-and-a-half-pounders from Lobster by Fabio.

Wild-caught. Fresh from Maine. Sustainably grown. Flown and delivered overnight to your door. Utterly delicious. Do not hesitate to order some whenever you’re ready to do the honors. Bravo, Fabio!
P.S. Upon roaming around on their website the next day, I stumbled on a small section that explained how to kill lobsters humanely. You put them in the freezer for two hours and then plunge a knife in the back of their heads before you place them in the steam bath. So you might want to make sure there’s room in your freezer (these guys are big) before you order. Sorry, lobsters – but thank you for your wonderful meat! And thank you, Chef Fabio Viviani.
Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Crown Royal Vanilla greets the new year

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
Crown Royal vanilla in a hearth- and heart-warming drink
Crown Royal vanilla in a hearth- and heart-warming drink

Crown Royal’s Canadian blended whiskies offer something for almost everyone. Its Signature series includes smooth Deluxe, Rye and Black. Its high-end Master series features XO and XR and more. And its Flavor series includes apple, maple and, now, a lovely vanilla-scented and -flavored version that mixes beautifully – and simply sings on its own. Maker’s tasting notes for Royal Crown Vanilla: “Rich vanilla bean with delicate hints of oak. Creamy vanilla on the palate with a smooth, light whisky finish that’s viscous and warming with a Crème Brulee aftertaste.” Yikes. No wonder we love this new version with Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla! Makes us feel in some ways like we do when we sip a fine long-aged rum.

The company’s new tag line is especially meaningful in our world today. “Live generously and life will treat you royally.” In sending a sample for review, the company lived up to its motto by sending not only a bottle of the new vanilla-flavored Crown Royal to taste but also a bottle of the original Crown Royal. Each was nestled in a signature Crown Royal drawstring bag – one reading “One to keep” and the other “One to give.”

This kind of attitude in a business is admirable. We all know that corporations are in business to make a profit. So it stands out when a company takes a higher road in its advertising and then lives up to that position in other ways.

And if you like smooth sippin’ whiskey, you’re bound to love one or more of Crown Royal’s sophisticated blends. Get ’em at Binny’s or your favorite spirits merchant.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Holiday drink surprise – Hot Ruby cider

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
Hot Ruby cranberry cider
Hot Ruby cranberry cider

Surprise is right. We have always been tepid fans of sweeter drinks, including even fresh-made-in-the-fall apple cider. But this drink has us making an exception. Hot Ruby is a rich red cider with cranberry and citrus flavors and spicy-warm aromas of cinnamon and cloves. It tastes really good by itself just heated up in the microwave, like any heart-and-hand-warming winter beverage should. Love the intensity of both the flavors and the spices.

Hot Ruby hot and cold recipes
Hot Ruby hot and cold recipes

But if you’re celebrating the holidays on the beach somewhere, Hot Ruby changes personality in the twinkling of an eye. Try one of their chilled cocktails like Ruby on the Beach, Paloma Rojo, or Bubbly Ruby. Check out all the neat recipes – both alcoholic and not – on the card in the photo. Just expand it so you can read the ingredients, or read ’em here.  Intriguing combinations of flavors like coconut rum and Hot Ruby, or Hot Ruby and sparkling wine sound just delightful. This drink would make a fun party gift for your host/hostess or just bring a bottle or jar along when you next go visiting. Highly recommended. Buy it online because it’s not yet available in Chicago, but we hope it will be soon.

Works for romantic intentions, too!
Works for romantic intentions, too!
Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail