Hell o dear
This is a new test!
Every nice day in summer is another great excuse to indulge yourself – after you work, do your chores and exercise of course, right? Everywhere you turn in Chicago – and online of course – another opportunity presents itself to help you get creative with your enjoyment. Here are just a few restaurant ideas and home cooking/drinking products to get you rolling:
River Roast is celebrating summer with their weekday happy hour Oysters & Rosé special. Every weekday from 3 to 5 pm enjoy a dozen oysters and bottle of Rose wine for $35. Sit at the bar or along the river soaking in the sun all while enjoying a refreshing summer combo that’s irresistible.
And while you’re dreaming about enjoying the outdoors, think about having friends over – or just treating yourself – and serving something unique and easy: Sangria in cans, the most popular product made by Round Barn Winery, located in the hills of Southwestern Michigan, complete with tasting room. A fizzy, lightly sweet version of the drink beloved by so many in Spain, this Sangria is a nice combination of fruit, dry wine and sweetness. Be aware of the calories, though. A single 12-ounce can packs a whopping 290 calories, so feel free to consider this dessert…
Oh, and if you’ve got your grill out and ready to go, here’s a spice company that puts together some really tasty combos to rub on your meat, poultry and even vegetables. Pereg Natural Foods offers classic blends that are made from fresh, natural, 100% pure spices, bringing more than 100 years of expertise and quality to the table. Get to know some of these Middle Eastern-style secrets when the grill heats up.
Pereg’s Koobah starts with baharat, a ubiquitous Israeli and Mediterranean staple, and then adds warm layers of cinnamon, allspice, rose, nutmeg, and cardamom for a complex finish. It makes an excellent dry rub for grilled or roast lamb, salmon, and chicken, sprinkled into burgers, mixed with hummus, or tossed onto vegetables (particularly corn on the cob and eggplant) before roasting. Use their Kabab seasoning to douse cubes of chicken, beef, or lamb liberally with Pereg’s hearty mash-up (paprika, black pepper, coriander, garlic, and cumin). Thread on skewers with vegetables of your choice, and grill over medium heat until fully cooked. Serve on warm pita bread with tahini and cucumber salad for an authentic version of Israeli street food. And check out their special take on Shawarma and Ras El Hanout plus some sweet mix seasonings.
Casati’s, the family owned, modern Italian restaurant – claiming designation as home to the “healthiest pizza in Chicago” – offers Pinsa creations, which offer 90% less fat, carbs, and gluten than traditional pizzCasati’s, which is home to a new 42-seat, pet-friendly patio, will also offer 40% off specialty cocktails and wine during lunch. Owned and operated by Italy-native Stefano Casati, and run by Michelin Star Chef Christian Fantoni, Casati’s aims to bring light, fresh, healthy, and authentic tastes of Italy to Chicago’s Lincoln Park.
Carnivale Restaurant, 702 W. Fulton St. Things are heating up outside AND inside at Carnivale, where talented chefs and mixologists have created a new Lounge menu that features a Charcuterie Tabla, Sliders, Carnivale Mai-Tai, Jackie’s Daiquiri, and much more! Lounge open: Monday – Thursday from 4-10, Friday 4-11, Saturday 5-11, Sunday 5-9. *Every Weekday, enjoy Happy Hour from 4-6:30pm.
Coming soon: more beverage ideas perfect for summer sipping.
Chicken cacciatore has always been a big hit with my family. My recipe from years ago is laden with chicken-tomato-onion-pepper-mushroom goodness. Some years after this became a standard that I could make without consulting a cookbook, I developed a skinless, lower-fat version that still knocked everybody’s socks off.
So I was really curious when I was given a review copy of Mark Bittman’s latest cookbook, Dinner for Everyone: 100 Iconic Dishes Made 3 Ways – Easy, Vegan and Perfect for Company. Think about it. Under the “Pot Roast” heading, he’s got 1) Easy – Pork Tenderloin simmered in peanut sauce; 2) Vegan – Cabbage Pot Roast, first boiled gently til tender, then stuffed with processed steel-cut oats and hazelnuts seasoned with parsley, and braised in a fragrant tomato sauce; and 3) Perfect for Company – Braised Pastrami that you coat with a homemade rub mixture for 7 days, then cook on very low oven heat on a bed of hickory chips, then simmer gently until the meat is super tender.
New York Times food writer Mark Bittman has written a number of cookbooks during his career. And now he’s piggybacking promotion of his latest one onto the work of a reliable Chicago service called Peapod Grocery Delivery, a service we’ve been using for more than a decade. Together, Bittman and Peapod are delivering Bittman’s recipes along with the high quality food you need in order to make the most of his cookbooks. His recipes are top notch. Their meats and vegetables and groceries are excellent quality, and their delivery service is flexible, affordable and dependable. Perfect combo.
Bittman’s book is extremely easy to use. Beautifully laid out with photos and lots of white space to make it easy on the eyes, it also has some unique photography like the one of a “Boozy BBQ Jackfruit Sandwich.” But now, back to my opening paragraph on cacciatore. Interestingly, Bittman labels this chapter just “Cacciatore.” The three versions he presents include 1) Drumstick Cacciatore, 2) Hearty Vegetable Cacciatore, and 3) Rabbit Cacciatore.
The first version thankfully refers to drumsticks from chickens (as opposed to rabbits, quail or some other exotic creature), and boy, does it have a different method. Definitely fewer ingredients and a simpler process than my old standby recipes. Eliminates the onion and peppers completely, but leaves the succulence of garlic and sauteed mushrooms. Suggests different herbs. Adds some heat with chile flakes. But the real killer trick is the sauce – tomato paste and balsamic vinegar.
I was intrigued by this unusual – to me – combination for a sauce. And worried that it would be too thin without any flour or other thickener. Did the browning step – loved his explanation of how to brown chicken without having it stick to the skillet – and then mixed up the sauce. It sure did look thin. Poured it in and finished the cooking – a surprisingly fast total of 30 minutes – and the sauce wasn’t quite as thin now.
Then I tasted. Wow, truly a different experience from a traditional cacciatore recipe. The sauce was rich without being heavy. Piquant. Lightly spicy. The chicken and mushrooms bathed in the garlicky, just-enough-tang juices was a seriously tasty combination. I consumed the entire dish myself over only a couple of days with veggie sides and a glass (or two) of red wine. Num.
His vegan version of cacciatore stars portobello mushrooms and features white wine (or water), red onion, red pepper, olives, potatoes, fava beans and whole tomatoes. This may be my next encounter with Bittman’s expertise. The company-suitable Rabbit Cacciatore has similarities with my traditional recipe, including flour for browning, but it calls for brining the rabbit pieces ahead of time and garnishing with fried capers. Sounds like a winner, but as a former owner for ten years of a lovely pet rabbit, I might have to substitute some other meat protein.
We love PeaPod around here. The freshness and quality of their stuff is excellent. Their delivery window options are extensive. The packaging is thorough; keeps all frozen stuff together, all refrigerated, etc. If anything, their packers are almost too thorough – a single head of garlic doesn’t really need to be in two separate bags.
And if you should, by some chance, run into a quality problem – like a cauliflower with too many brown spots – just pick up the phone. Their customer service is 100% responsive. They will immediately – without asking questions or demanding proof – issue you a refund for the price of that item on your next order. All of this makes shopping a much easier experience than any get-to-the-store, run around and hand-pick every item type of trip. Yes, I know you might say, “Oh, only I can properly pick out my fruit and vegetables, etc.” Yes, I understand. But almost without fail, you will feel like you personally hand-picked the items that show up in your PeaPod insulated grocery boxes. The quality is that good. Prices on many items are, if anything, only slightly higher than, say, Mariano’s, but if you’re watching the budget, do some comparisons. Plus, they regularly offer special deals on delivery fees.
So pick out one of Mark Bittman’s 419 excellent recipes – for yourself, your family, your vegetarian/vegan friends, or when you entertain your boss. – Or make it even easier. In order to get exactly the right ingredients without any stress, order one of Bittman’s meal kits from #PeapodDelivers. Yep, shop from the comfort of your couch and have the ingredients brought right to your door. I’m telling you. You cannot beat it.
Here’s more about Mark Bittman.
Giving gifts can be a huge challenge. Here are a few products we’ve sampled that you could consider for your kitchen-neatnik pals (Wellslock Storage Containers), your vegan-only circle (Just Sauces) and your chocoholic/sweets friends (American Heritage Chocolate and Dave’s Sweet Tooth Toffee). Or you, if the shoe fits.
Wellslock single-snap storage containers. The container portions are made of a really sturdy, super clear, freezer and microwave safe plastic (but don’t put it in there empty), and their unique locking lid is leak-proof with one double-snap. Took us a bit to figure out how to get the lids off smoothly. Sometimes the closure was so firmly seated that we felt we had to use a sharp knife to pry it open – which we were pretty sure was not the right approach. But once we figured it out, they come off pretty easily. The trick is to push/slide the lid to the opposite side once you release the double-snap closure tab. We love the sizes and shapes these come in – several interesting ones that you don’t typically find in storage containers. One configuration, for example, is perfect for holding two partially cut lemons or limes, or a giant red onion, or a cut avocado, notoriously difficult-fit items. And happily, these actually are airtight, unlike some containers that claim to be but then fail. These are great for storing food items or, really, anything you want to be able to see into the containers to identify. No cloudy plastic to obfuscate the contents. The lids are made of regular somewhat cloudy plastic, but the containers themselves are almost as clear as glass, without the weight or the breakability factors. Don’t know how much scratching will happen over time with using knives and forks in the dishes. So far no sign of that. Prices start at $9.99 for a single large container and then up to $29.99 for the 22-piece set. BPA free, freezer and microwave safe. Great gift for the foodie or crafty types on your gift list.
Just Sauces. This collection comes with mayo, Ranch, Chipotle and others. These are lower-calorie, vegan options for dressing salads, fish or whatever. You’ll need to test out the flavors for yourself; opinions seem to vary widely. Our tasters thought the taste and appearance were somewhat artificial (it does contain modified food starch and canola oil – said to be genetically modified), so it doesn’t feel like a “whole food” kind of product. But then, it’s vegan. Many of us meat-poulty-fish-egg-eaters might feel that way about anything vegan. And, just as some Amazon reviewers complained, our samples arrived with imminent expiration dates. This line of products is a great idea but may not yet have thoroughly overcome its birthing pains, but if you’re looking for vegan sauces to spark up your meals, these are a good starting point at a reasonable price ($4.69 and up on Amazon).
American Heritage Chocolate makes old-fashioned chocolate, and the company behind it is the Mars Wrigley Confectionary Company, so you know they know what they’re doing. Yes, delicious chocolate in grated, chunk and other forms, as well as things with chocolate in them, like hot cocoa and bark and so on. Their downloadable original recipes for both savory and sweet chocolate treats are good to make for your holiday guests, or pass them on to your giftees so they can make the most of your gift of chocolate. The company has even established a historical research grant. Launched in 2013, the Forrest E. Mars, Jr. Chocolate History Research Grant, named after the company’s owner, awards grant funds for projects that investigate/educate the public on the history of chocolate or the chocolate making process from one or more cultural, historic or scientific perspectives. A good reason to gift friends and loved ones with chocolate, especially when it’s artisan-made and you can get 20% off (coupon on their website) from Amazon.
Dave’s Sweet Tooth Toffee comes in a bunch of toothsomely delicious flavors like Butter, Dark Chocolate, Milk Chocolate, Cranberry Pecan, Maple Bourbon Pecan (oh, my!) and more. It’s chewy toffee, not the crispy-break-apart kind you might be thinking of. Like any good toffee, it will stick in your teeth somewhat – that’s part of the pleasure of toffee, right? And you can really taste the cream they use to make it. Num! It comes in jars and in cute pouches or mini-pouches with pictures of jars on them. They even sell a jar of scraps already broken up so you can use it as a topping. Or buy it in big variety tasting packs to hoard for yourself or split up to give to many friends. Pricing starts at $2.99 for a mini-pouch and goes up from there. A sweet-heart something-for-everyone gift for the holidays.
A company called Masterpan is out to change your cooking habits. Their live Kickstarter campaign for the new MasterPan collection began on August 31. And after using the samples we received for a couple of weeks, we admit to being impressed.
The pans are heavier than you expect for a non-stick pan. Each pan has a large heavy steel disk on the bottom which, when preheated for two minutes, actually distributes the heat across the entire area of the giant square pan. It minimizes cold corners and edges. The nonstick coating seems thicker and sturdier than others we’ve used. And the lid fits all of the pans, so you can steam something for a little bit and then brown it on both the flat surfaces and the grill surfaces.
One night I decided to challenge the pan to produce some crispy potato wedges. I was delighted to find that five minutes in the microwave for a couple of very large red potatoes got them just soft enough to slice into thick wedges. Then, using an absolute minimum of oil – we use a pump mister for our olive oil – I distributed the wedges around the three sections of the pan. Then I noticed they weren’t quite cooked through, so I put the lid on the pan for five minutes and got them just tender enough. The soft-rubber-edged seal makes the lid fits closely and thus creates a good head of steam to hurry the cooking along.
Took the lid off and continued cooking to end up with crispy potato wedges with those appetizingly brown grill marks on them. Sprinkled half of them with chipotle chili pepper and garlic salt, the other half with just garlic salt, and applied the oil mister a couple more times. Really delicious and crispy and not oily in the least. And I didn’t have to turn the big oven on – a problem in our small kitchen, which heats up outrageously when the oven is on. We are always looking for good ways to avoid that, especially in the summer.
Made a beautiful breakfast the last two mornings. Four minutes for a potato in the microwave. Meanwhile, steam as much fresh baby spinach as you can fit into the grill side of the 3-section pan. Throw a few drops of water or olive oil in first, then put the leaves in and cover it. After the potato is squeezably soft, grate it (thin slice the peels, too). Open the skillet lid, remove the spinach to your plate. Mist the 3 sections with olive oil, throw the grated potato in the grill section and one of the flat ones. Cook a few minutes – it will brown delicately – and then break an egg into the third section. You can cover to steam the egg a bit, or you can flip it over. Voila. You have fresh steamed spinach, hash browns and an easy-over egg, all from one pan, in under 10 minutes. This is simplified cooking, people.
We love the heaviness, the close-fitting multi-pan lid, the multiple cooking options (grill, flat) and, for a single person living alone, the small divided sections do actually help control portion sizes – as long as you stick to that much. Get yours now during the MasterPan Kickstarter campaign. And, just for fun, here’s their cute promotional video.
It was a stroke of genius for Homewood Suites by Hilton, 40 E. Grand, to invite Kevin Curry to show Chicago media how to cook his unique dishes easily with their food-friendly amenities, including the full complement of pans and other kitchen utensils available in every Homewood suite in all of their three downtown Chicago locations.
Curry is really fit. You notice immediately upon meeting him how his nicely cut shirt strains over his nicely cut muscles. He operates FitMenCook and part of his mission, since he himself travels a great deal, is to make up delicious recipes for low calorie, low-cost dishes that you can make with minimal ingredients.
The family-friendly, all-suite Homewood Suites by Hilton are designed for people who want to stay for several days in the city, whether for business or pleasure. The Grand Ave. location has undergone a dramatic re-design in the last few years. It used to be more of the old-fashioned dark green and maroon colors, cozy with lots of walls. Now they have opened up the spaces, removing walls and installing light, modern furnishings along with a wall of glass, so guests can see some of the most iconic buildings in downtown Chicago while relaxing with a glass of wine or a snack at cocktail hour.
And Homewood Suites by Hilton make cooking in your suite, pardon the pun, a piece of cake. One of the most amazing services they offer is the free shopping service. Seriously. You heard right. You make out the list. You give them the list. You relax or work while they go shopping for you. Then, they deliver your items to your suite. Or hold them at the desk if you’re not back yet. How cool is that?
*Consider putting a package of Miracle Noodles (see pic above) on that shopping list. Eating Curry’s recipe for shrimp in avocado -coconut sauce served atop of these almost-no-calorie gems is as close to guilt-free, rich pasta eating as you can get.
All of the rooms have been newly conceived: clean, crisp, and nicely designed. A very pleasant place to come home to when you’re staying in our busy city for several days. Certainly, on the really hot day of the cooking demos, the air conditioning was struggling a bit with 25 observers in a single room. But obviously that shouldn’t be a problem when you book a room with a normal number of occupants!
All of the people who were involved with the event seemed passionately committed to helping guests enjoy their experience in this lovely reimagined 23-story building in the heart of Chicago’s downtown. Consider it for your home-away-home when you’re in town for business or just want to take a break from ordinary life for a few days.
Doesn’t the idea of sitting down to a comforting pasta meal and a glass of deep red wine sound mouth-watering? What if you could do that – at home – in less than 5 minutes?
Well, as we all know, it only takes a minute to open a bottle of wine, and we have a recommendation for you if you love the structure and depth of a bold red wine – Ravage Cabernet Sauvignon. You’ll taste dark, luscious berries rounded out with vanilla and mocha for a beautiful balance of flavors. Color is intense. Feeling could be described as romantic or assertive, depending on your frame of mind. Powerful complement to braised meats; rich and striking on its own. It made us feel like we were in an exotic country. You can buy it in dozens of retail locations in Chicago and elsewhere. And, not surprisingly, it goes beautifully with pasta dishes.
Imagine this: restaurant-quality cooked pasta in a tasty marinara sauce that you can just heat and serve. Yes, it is possible. We were pleased to sample Victoria Chef Collection Penne Marinara and found the pasta cooked to perfection (not mushy or overcooked).
The sauce was delicious, but a little sweet for our taste. They don’t add any sugar, but they do use apple juice concentrate. However, we were pleased to find that adding a tablespoon of ricotta cheese balanced that bit of extra sweetness to our satisfaction. Really surprising to taste this kind of quality from a jar. No refrigeration necessary until after the jar is opened. Victoria Chef Collection’s philosophy is Ingredients Come First™. Their recipes are based on the same ones their founding family brought with them from Italy to Brooklyn. Happily, the list of ingredients has nothing you wouldn’t put in your own pasta sauce. Check out VIctoria’s wide variety of authentic Italian sauces and delicacies.
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.
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.
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.
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.