What’s Cooking Wednesday: Spring Rolls!

Technically this was what was cooking on Tuesday, but let’s not nitpick. Last night I went to my first class at the new Fearless Food Kitchen on making one of my favorite dishes on earth, fresh Vietnamese spring rolls. It was fantastic!

Shrimp and tofu was my favorite combination

If you ever had Vietnamese spring rolls, you know they bear little resemblance to the deep fried versions at Chinese restaurants. These delicious bites are about as fresh as it gets: delicate (but sturdier than you’d think) rice paper wrappers stuffed with fresh herbs and vegetables, noodles, plus shrimp, pork, and/or tofu and dipped in a sweet, salty, peanut-y sauce. They’re also great for using up whatever bits and pieces you have in the fridge.

The group was small, maybe eight people–perfect for chatting and asking our teacher plenty of questions. I’ve made these rolls before but what I loved about the class was learning the little tips that only someone who’s been making them for decades knows–things like what order to layer the ingredients (protein on the bottom so it looks pretty when it’s done, followed by noodles, vegetables, herbs, then lettuce), how to roll them to keep all the good stuff inside and look pretty too. She even taught us that you could make a simple light soup from the broth made after cooking the shrimp and pork to serve with the rolls.

Great class in a beautiful space!

After our lovely instructor gave us a spring roll assembly demo, we all got to make as many rolls as we liked with our favorite mix of ingredients. It was great fun to try different variations and especially to see what other people were making. The only think I’m bummed about is that I missed how to make the dipping sauce! I know it involves peanut butter and possibly hoisin. I hope someone in the class reads this and shares what I missed, it’s probably my hands-down favorite part of eating spring rolls.

Dipping the rice paper wrappers Beautiful!

If you’re looking for a fun way to spend an evening, try out one of the Fearless Food Kitchen classes (and class volunteers get to take the class for free in exchange for some help prepping and cleaning up–totally worth it in my opinion). They have a class tonight on making seasonal salads that sounds awesome and I’ve heard great things about the juicing and smoothie classes too.

Recipe to come soon!

What’s Cooking Wednesday – Better Chicken Broth, Drunk Cooking, and My Favorite Restaurant

Vietnamese Chicken Soup, and My New Favorite Broth-Making Method
I caught my first cold of the season last week and before I got too far down the whiny, useless, tissue-strewn path, I made a huge pot of Vietnamese chicken soup (pho) from Smitten Kitchen. The soup itself is good (I think, I couldn’t really taste it due to the aforementioned cold) but I really loved the method for making broth. Simmer a quartered chicken plus a bunch of wings or bones for 30 minutes, take the chicken out and pick the meat off and reserve it, then add the bones (and skin if you want) back to the pot to simmer for another 2 hours, then strain. The broth was amazingly rich and the chicken meat wasn’t dried out. My test is always if it’s basically chicken jello the next day and this passed with flying colors. Delicious, delicious chicken jello.

Cure for all ills (hopefully including this stupid cold) courtesy of @smittenkitchen

My Drunk Kitchen
Have you heard of this? I don’t remember how I found it years ago, but I rediscovered it while I was home sick and watched through her entire catalog of cooking videos. Do yourself a favor and if you don’t watch any other videos, at least watch the one with Lance Bass, I about cried laughing. (And just in case the name of the series doesn’t suggest it, don’t watch if you’re easily offended by foul language or drinking in excess.)

French Method+Mexican Flavors=Mexique
In another recent, but rather more upscale, rediscovery, I went out for dinner last week to a restaurant, Mexique, I haven’t been to in probably 5 years. When I went the first time, right after they were named one of the best new restaurants in Chicago, it was one of the best experiences I’ve had–food to wine suggestions to service (the chef, Carlos Gaytan, came out to ask our table how everything was and I saw him check in with each table in the restaurant).

I hadn’t been back in part because I was worried it wouldn’t live up to my first meal, but on a whim I went a few weekends ago and everything was as excellent as I remembered and the chef still came to every table. Now, as much as love food, I am sorely out of touch with the goings-on of the Chicago restaurant scene, which probably explains how I missed that the chef just placed fourth on Top Chef or that the restaurant was recently awarded a Michelin star–all after being on the verge of closing 2 years ago. I found this all out after the fact, but this was a great article about the restaurant’s ups and downs.

Meditation on a chicken

This summer has been kind of crazy to say the least and I’ve found I’ve taken on fewer cooking projects that seem worth sharing (though if you’d like a post about blanching and freezing green beans or corn, I’d be happy to oblige). Lately the tasks I’ve gotten the most pleasure out of are the most mindless; the meals, the simplest.

Don't forget to grill a few lemons

Yes, it would be faster to cut the tips off green beans in a big bunch, but it’s nice standing at my new counter and breaking off the ends of a pile of beans one by one, getting into a rhythm–pick a bean from the pile on my right, snap the end with my left hand, ready bean goes in front of me, end goes to the trash bowl on my left.

Similar to the pleasure I’ve found in yoga, sometimes these repetitive actions are just what I need, a kind of moving meditation. Same with my meals lately–a simple open-faced tomato sandwich, a bowl of gazpacho, corn on the cob–they don’t require much effort and leave plenty of mental space to enjoy the sunset view from my new porch, a new book, or simply listening to the bells from the church around the corner.

I know, this is all a rather contemplative for a post about chicken. But it’s a really good chicken, I promise!

All you need

Over the 4th of July weekend, I got a new grill. I have lots of capital-T Thoughts on it I’ll share another time, but the relevant point is it has a lid, which means I could finally try a whole butterflied (or spatchcocked) chicken on the grill. (My mom has taken to calling it “sasquatched” chicken, which actually kind of makes sense–what else would a chicken look like if it were stepped on by a sasquatch?)

Marcella Hazan and her Essentials of Italian Cooking gave me exactly the recipe I needed. Five ingredients I have on hand always–salt, pepper, lemon juice, olive oil, chicken–requiring the barest amount of thought, but ending in a fantastic meal. Adding herbs, some garlic, maybe some lemon zest all occurred to me, but maybe another time.

Lemon juice, olive oil, pepper
On the grill
"Sasquatched"

Whether your mind is occupied with enjoying last-minute beach vacations or the busy-ness of getting back to school (or, in my case, preparing for the newest round of students to come to campus and oh, planning a trip to Paris in fall), give this a try. It’s not only an easy dinner, it makes amazing chicken sandwiches the next day, leaving plenty of time to savor the not-fall-yet season.

Crispy skin
Looks prettty, but just try flipping one side over without losing all the pieces
Best chicken sandwich, all assembled

Grilled Chicken with Lemon and Pepper
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Feeling saucy–The Cooking Lab, Part 3

What do cream of potato soup, mayonnaise, and a delicious, buttery pan sauce have in common? More than I realized after last week’s class, it turns out. (Also, we got to play with fire.)
It's like a Rorscach test in fire. I see a pterodactyl.In some ways, this session of Cooking Lab has been the most challenging to recap. We covered a lot, but (if you’ll excuse the pun) it boiled down to two simple words: fat and fond.

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Facing Fears – The Cooking Lab, Part 2

What intimidates you when you cook? For me—and plenty of others if the rest of my classmates were any indication—the fear of burning a dish is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to cooking intuitively. That was essentially the fear we confronted last week.

Examples of dry cooking methods

Officially the topic was understanding the parallels in dry cooking methods—mainly sautéing and roasting—to get that good, tasty brown crust on the outside with an evenly cooked interior. We learned the science of why it’s harder to get evenly cooked meat straight out of the fridge (let meat rest at least an hour at room temp before cooking) or straight off the pan (meat continues cooking off the heat). We learned how water slows down browning; that’s why it’s so important to pat meat and vegetables dry. Continue reading

Too much of a good thing

Summer is a funny time for food. It starts with FRESH. EVERYTHING.

Skewered and fired

On one side of the coin, fruits and vegetables are so good I want to make every recipe I stumble on. I want to make a pie a day, fruit scones and sauces, ice cream and jam. I want salads of everything I can get my hands on, grilled anything, stuffed sandwiches spilling their juicy vegetable insides all down my arm while I try to pretend that I’m civilized and that I know how to use a napkin.

Kabobs

On the other side of that coin, though, I don’t want to cook at all. What could be more perfect than the freshest berries or sweet little peas eaten straight out of hand? Why mess with perfection like that? The most amazing lettuce tossed with a squeeze of lemon, drizzle of oil, sprinkle of salt—nothing else is called for or needed. A plate of vegetables and fruit, maybe a little sausage and cheese, a chunk of crusty bread and (hopefully! finally!) a sunny, not-too-humid evening on the porch with a glass of wine and the sounds of the city.

Smoky Garlic-y

(That all sounds much more romantic than the more frequent reality—it’s too hot or rainy to grill or I’m too tired to cook anything by the time I get home. I like the romantic version better.)

Sauced
That said, I think this recipe is a pretty good compromise between the two sides. Vegetables (whatever you like and is in season) are skewered and brushed with a smoky glaze before a quick sizzle on the grill to barely soften; shrimp and spicy smoked sausage are an optional, though delicious, addition. Add a chunk of salty Spanish cheese and that piece of crusty bread (along with that glass of wine) to elevate this to fancy party snack fare.

Grilling

Speaking of the sounds of the city, I’ve been on a Chicago reading kick this summer. The two books so far that I’ve been recommending to everyone are 1001 Nights in Chicago by Ben Hecht (I got the edition with the introduction by Bill Savage, expert in all things literary and Chicago, and my former professor and thesis advisor), and Never a City So Real by Alex Kotlowitz.

1001 Nights, a compilation of 2-3 page character sketches written for Hecht’s 1920′s newspaper column, is easy to pick up and put down or open to any page and start reading–nothing feels as break-the-rules summer-y as that to me. Kotlowitz’s book is short, only 160 pages, but it’s a great look at some of the less-talked-about parts of the city and its people: the Bud Billiken parade, the southwest side’s union past, an artist who paints murals in public housing, a lawyer who works at the county courthouse. Kotlowitz’s book is pretty current, Hecht’s is nearly 100 years old, but there’s a not-so-surprising continuity in the people, history, and feel of Chicago.

Next on my list, whenever I get my hands on a copy, is The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream by Thomas Dyja, along with some requisite summer fluff reading. Anything on your summer to-read list?

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Getting deep on deep dish

If you go down a checklist of what makes a Chicagoan, I’m still an East Coast transplant. I think no hot dog is complete without ketchup. I root for the Cubs and the Sox (unless the Sox play the Indians, then it’s Cleveland pride all the way). Soda is soda, not pop. The appeal of craft beer is lost on me–or any beer for that matter, though I’m working on it. I think thin crust pizza is where it’s at.

However.

Beautiful

On a rare gluttonous occasion, deep dish calls. Some Chicagoans say deep dish is only for tourists who eat at Uno’s, and that the best Chicago pizza is the extra thin cracker-crust. Personally, I like both for what they are. A monstrous bread/cheese/stuff/sauce casserole, deep dish is a one-slice meal and most certainly has its appeal–when it’s good.

Cooked in pans as ancient as the Cubs last World Series appearance, the crust somehow comes out flaky and buttery and golden and crisp as the most perfect croissant, but with midwest heft. The reverse-layering of cheese/stuff/sauce goes to show Chicagoans’ ingenuity when it comes to food. It keeps the crust from getting soggy (the bane of all good pizza is a soggy crust, also why I don’t like NYC-style pizza), protects the cheese from burning, and is overall just one of those “Oh. Duh.” moments. As for the “stuff,” sorry, deep dish is not meant for just cheese and sauce. Peppers, onions, chunky mushrooms, spicy sausage, yesss.

Pizza crust with the same process as croissants? Yes

It’s funny how the nine years I’ve lived in or around Chicago have made their mark on me. While I still like ketchup on my hot dogs, they seem naked and bland now without sport peppers, and I’m somewhat distraught that I can’t find them at a grocery store back home (poor misguided Wegman’s stock guy, your confusion made me sad). The difference between “downtown” and “the city” actually makes sense. Trying to navigate somewhere that the streets aren’t laid out in a nice, organized grid would confuse the hell out of me now. Holding a conversation about the Bears and actually following a game no longer makes me laugh out loud at its impossibility. I appreciate the unique pride (and gloveless pain) Chicago has in its 16″ softball games. And I will whole-heartedly come to Chicago’s defense if anyone tries to compare it unfavorably to any other city.

Oh this will be goodNot as much cheese, but it makes me feel less guiltyStuffedReady for heat

I love this city, my adopted home. I know it has its problems, which aren’t insignificant, but what city doesn’t? Its neighborhoods and lakefront, culture and history, quirks and perfections, and of course its food from pizza to farmers markets–these make Chicago great to me, especially when I can share them with you.

Deep dish for the neat freak

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Hugs in a bowl

Fair warning–if I had to pick one type of dish to eat for the next four months, it would be soup, hands down.

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Soup is so much more than the sum of its parts: water; bits and pieces of vegetables and herbs; maybe a little meat for flavor and richness; maybe some grains, beans, or noodles for heft. Those are the basic ingredients, but the end result is soul-satisfying like no other: it’s curling under a blanket with a warm bowl in your hands, inhaling the rising steam while the wind howls past the window; it’s dipping the golden corner of a gooey grilled cheese into the unmistakable reddish-orange creaminess of tomato soup; it’s essentially a big hug in a bowl.

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I love making a huge pot of steamy, simmering delicousness on Sunday and not having to think about cooking dinner or packing a lunch for at least three days. I love how soup warms me up from the inside out; allows me to satisfy my carb cravings with a hefty slice of bread and salty butter, fluffy dumplings, or a perfect grilled cheese; keeps my hands toasty warm as I wrap my fingers around the bowl. No other single dish can do all of those things the way soup can.

I have two soups in the queue to share, the first stick-to-your-ribs rich, the other equally satisfying but a perfect prescription for when I start to feel like I’ve over-indulged a bit and need a reset.

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This first soup is one of those great freezer-clearing recipes that uses up whatever vegetable odds and ens you have around, adds some incredibly flavorful but inexpensive cuts of meat, and finishes by cooking the grains in the broth, leading to a soup that’s creamy and pretty much defines stick-to-your-ribs. It makes enough to satisfy a crowd but the ingredients are about as humble as they get.

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So with the first snow in Chicago appearing this week, I’m grabbing my favorite cozy blanket, my biggest stock pot, and cooking up some comfort in a bowl–how about you?

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Cure for the creeping crud

It seems inevitable that any time the season changes, I start to come down with some bug or other. You know the feeling: running normal errands suddenly feels like running a marathon, that tell-tale tickle starts in the back of your throat, your ears start to itch, and you just feel…off.
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As soon as I felt it sneaking up this weekend–this gorgeous, perfect, early fall weekend–I made my list: carrots, celery, onions, garlic, chicken. Roasted then simmered for most of the afternoon while I napped, it is the best cure for just about anything that ails you. And by freezing the broth, I’ll be sure to have some handy for the next time that little tickle starts in on my throat. Continue reading

Family feud-worthy ribs

“Don’t tell your Uncle Dave…but I like your ribs better.”** In my family, those words are spoken quietly out of earshot of most other family members, but I’ve been lucky enough to hear them a few times over the past few years that I’ve made these ribs for get-togethers at my mom’s house.

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Braised and grilled ribs, good enough to start a family feud.

Ok, so the ribs may not actually instigate a family feud (though this post might), but they are damn good.

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