All posts by Contributing Writer

New Sukkah Hill liqueurs come to Chicago

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Sukkah Hill liqueurs fabulous for holidays and special occasions
Sukkah Hill liqueurs fabulous for holidays and special occasions

Liqueurs are traditionally thought of as après dinner, but these two I recently received to sample look to be comfortable just about any other time as well. Strangely named—one is Besamim and the other is Etrog—these are hand crafted with meticulous care in small batches using locally sourced  ingredients as much as possible—including from the maker’s own orchard.

The tastes are distinctive for sure. Besamim (74 proof) is described by the Beverage Tasting Institute as “Vibrant aromas and flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove with a silky, moderately sweet, medium body and a gently warming frosted carrot cake and candied spiced nut finish. Elegant, natural and balanced spice flavor that is great on its own and in holiday cocktails.” I can’t improve on that. To put it simply in my words, it tastes like Christmas in a glass. Think of mixing or serving with creamy or apple-y or pumpkin-y things. The flavor is intense but beautifully balanced. My mouth is watering at the thought of a glass of this with a piece of pumpkin pie.

Etrog (76 proof) is a more mysterious combination of flavors that inventor, Marni Witkin first created by adding leftover holiday etrog – the yellow citron, a fruit traditionally used by Jewish people during the week-long holiday of Sukkot—into some vodka to see what would happen. As it happened, she passed the drink around to her friends, and they all liked it—a lot. She and her husband planted an orchard and now grow these unique fruits.

English: Etrog, silver etrog box and lulav, us...
English: Etrog, silver etrog box and lulav, used on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The finished commercial Etrog product likely tastes more complex than that first accidentally infused spirit. On its own, the liqueur has a tiny bit of a medicinal taste that’s similar to an amaro, the popular Italian digestif, but Etrog is somewhat lighter and lemon-based rather than evocative of dark roots and herbs. Mixed in cocktails, Etrog layers in a unique citrus-y subtlety that works well with a variety of liquors and other mixers. From gin (the Etrog Ricky recipe is super refreshing and a bit more complex than the traditional simple gin rickey) to bourbon, this liqueur is a star when it comes to building a cocktail with layers of flavor. Read here for more recipes.

Now available at your local Binny’s for $24.99 for a 375ml bottle. More locations on the way as these unique new cordial/liqueurs make their way into outlets across the country.

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Izakaya Mita – Japanese comfort food and drink

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Akachōchin lantern outside an izakaya; the cha...
Akachōchin lantern outside an izakaya; the characters read “izakaya” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Japan, an izakaya is basically a tiny little bar with just a few seats. In Chicago, Izakaya Mita, 1960 N. Damen, is a warm yet modern and clean-lined bar and restaurant featuring Japanese cuisine. Japanese-accented easy listening music makes a nice background. Helen Mita, who with chef son Brian opened the place early in 2015, says the goal is to create a comfortable, unpretentious space that offers the best of Japanese comfort food and a full line of versatile and sophisticated alcoholic drinks, including sake (pronounced sah-kay) and shochu (like sake, but distilled rather than brewed). It was a pleasure to be invited to try the place.

 If the last time you tasted sake (we Americans used to call it rice wine even though it’s actually brewed like a beer) was in the 70s or early 80s, you’re in for a delightful surprise. Back then, many characterized the flavor as “rotten rice.” But today, the range of flavors and intensities of offerings makes a sophisticated field ripe for investigation—and Izakaya Mita is a perfect place to do your exploring. Helen and her staff are at your service to explain all the choices and give you background on how these food and drink items are made and enjoyed in Japan.

Sake, according to Frank who was our guide/server for the evening, is made by pressing liquid out of rice and then adding some of the rice back into the brew. It’s very clear and has more alcohol than beer or wine, but not as much as hard liquor. Two-ounce pours at Izakaya Mita go for $3.50 to $6 each, five-ouncers for $8 to $13.50, and most varieties that come in the “Sake One-Cup” (6 ounces) for $10-$11. We didn’t get to sample the shochu but look forward to reporting on that next time. The sake wines have poetic names like Chrysanthemum Meadow, Demon Slayer, and Fragrant Jewel.

Frank was incredibly knowledgeable and helpful. He explained that sake wines come in a range–some slightly sweet and others much drier–and he helped us understand what each food item would be like as served. When we ordered the chilled, marinated baby octopus, he warned us about it, saying that many people are shocked to see that these are literally baby octopuses (yes, the correct plural of octopus) served as single bites. We assured him that was okay with us; they were dark reddish, a little chewy and very tasty.

The Piri Kara Kyuri—unpeeled cucumbers—were chunked and served in a spicy, intensely flavorful glaze ($5). Most enjoyable. The Ingen Goma ae—green beans in sweet black sesame—was outstanding ($5). Crisply cooked and nicely accented by a light and thin but mysteriously good sauce. These are a customer favorite, he said.

The sake menu is extensive and varied. For a novice sake drinker like me, Frank suggested a flight of three two-ounce samples and selected two more delicate flavors and one more assertive. They all had layers of floral and other flavors. Later he suggested two more with a little more gumption, and he made excellent choices. One had mushroom-y undertones, and both were richly aromatic and light but fuller-flavored. My companion enjoyed a favorite Asian beer of hers, Asahi, with her meal.

 The Ika Geso Kara Age—deep fried squid legs—were crispy and delicious and happily accented with a small tangle of fresh greens ($7). Tokoyaki—octopus balls-sounded irresistible ($7): four half-golf-ball-sized spheres of rice with little chunks of chewy octopus are deep-fried, drizzled with a couple of tablespoons of mayonnaise-based sauce and topped with surprisingly tasty shaved dried fish. Hot and delectable at first bites, a little like rice-based hush puppies. The Kinoko Itame—mushrooms sautéed in buttery soy citrus sauce—made our mouths pucker and smile. What a happy curiosity to taste butter in an Asian-flavored dish; I enjoyed every bite.

The Bincho-Tan grilled items—cooked on a Japanese grill with chemical-free, smokeless, super-hot charcoal made of oak—were offered in one of two ways: either sweet (Taré—Tamari-based teriyaki) or savory (Shio—salt and sake) style. We got shrimp ($5.50) prepared with the sweet approach, and crispy wings ($3) and asparagus ($3.50) made with the salt and sake approach. The shrimp came three small to a brochette, nicely cooked—though missing conspicuous grill marks—with a much lighter flavor than some of the other dishes. The wings were tasty, though not particularly crisp (we were there when the restaurant first opened, so it may be the grill hadn’t reached its full-scale charring stage), and the asparagus was crisply cooked and good. Happily, none of the dishes tasted overly salty, as has been known to happen with Asian sauces.

We made room for one more dish, an Unagi rice slider—broiled eel with eel sauce, brushed with egg and sugar and served on a dense, compact inch-square rice patty ($6). Greatly enjoyed the rich eel flavors. By this time, the two of us were full, but there is a whole array of other menu items to choose from including various tempura ($3 to $6.50), hearty bites such as sirloin, pork, fish, etc. ($6.50 to $14.50), and noodle dishes featuring mixed seafood, pork, vegetables, chicken, etc. ($13.50 each).

Izakaya Mita is a great place to educate yourself about Japanese food and drink—and a cozy place to sit back and enjoy some unique bites and sips. It’s right on the corner of Armitage and Damen, so take public transportation or look for street parking.
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Wine terms and picks from Ste. Michelle fine wines

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Ste. Michelle Estates winery
This is the picture that you see in most bottles of Chateau Ste. Michelle wines from Washington state. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Titled “Women in Wine: Sip Summer Tasting,” a recent portfolio tasting of Ste. Michelle Estates’ wines took place inside the cool and elegant confines of City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph St. The showcase, meant to celebrate the influence of women on wine making, featured a series of booths designated by place of origin and staffed by experts in each of the wines displayed. Presenters offered generous samples of their wines to enjoy with unique and tasty appetizers chosen specifically by City Winery’s chefs to pair with each set of wines.

A couple of the experts manning (and womanning) the tables defined some terms we hear all the time but may not know the precise meaning of. “Fruit forward”–a term that’s become very popular recently–simply means, according to one expert, that fruitiness is the first thing you notice when you smell or taste a wine.
“Legs” refers to that phenomenon whereby when you swirl the wine in your glass you notice long “legs” of it remaining on the side of the glass after the main portion of wine re-settles at the bottom. The longer and thicker the legs, the fuller, more viscous the wine is–and that’s often the most noticeable visual difference between a $10 bottle and one that goes for $20. Wines with legs are said to have great staying power and can be aged longer.

Tannins is another term used constantly in the wine industry. Naturally occurring substances found mostly in grape skins, seeds and stems, tannins can give young wines a mouth-puckering bitterness and astringency, but some tannins are desirable in red wines to give them structure. Generally, wines with high levels of tannins can take a long time to mature. For more about the language of wine tasting, check out the Gallo glossary of wine terms online.

 The Ste. Michelle portfolio is extensive, so it can help to have specific recommendations when you shop:
 To find retailers who carry Ste. Michelle wines, use the handy “Find Our Wines” feature on their website. There are hundreds of outlets in Chicago that carry at least some of these wines, including many locations of Walgreens, CVS, Mariano’s and Jewel/Osco, among others.
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An edible idea for back-to-school fun

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Magnolia Bakery, 108 N. State St #128, home to some truly delicious cupcakes, has a bright idea for back-to-school fun–personalized image cupcakes. Think about how fun it might be for a kid to take her new teacher a super-luxe frosted cupcake with the child’s picture on it?  Even  if the teacher is a hidebound, I-never-eat-sugar type, s/he’s bound to enjoy such a charming and thoughtful gift.

Magnolia bakery makes personalized photo cupcakes
Magnolia bakery makes personalized photo cupcakes

Or how about you give your first-time-in-school grandson one with a picture of his mom or dad or even yourself on it? So he’ll know you’re with him in spirit.

 Here’s the deal: One week before you want to give it to your giftee, you provide the friendly folks at Magnolia with a picture of whatever you want to appear on the cupcake–even the kid’s favorite toy or a pet–and they print it out on edible paper. When you pick it up, the image that comes out on the cupcake looks identical to the picture you provided.
I can even imagine putting the kid’s picture on one and having him give it to his mom–and telling her “This is so you won’t miss me so much!” But hey, this idea sounds great for lots of other occasions, too. How about a child’s or friend’s photo on birthday cupcakes? Or a family picture on holiday cupcakes? At $5.25 apiece, this is a unique and affordable gift.
P.S. Cupcakes with cute, back-to-school decorations (see photo) and that fabulous buttercream frosting are $3.50.
Free lunchbox notes from bydawnnicole.com
Free lunchbox notes from bydawnnicole.com

And while you’re at it, how about some free pre-printed lunchbox notes you can surprise your school-age kid with?  Did your mom ever put a note in your lunchbox? I don’t think mine did. What a neat idea. Check these out at bydawnnicole.com.

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