So long, 2015!

It’s been quite a year. More travel than I ever imagined, growing and cooking delicious food, taking (and teaching!) my first paella class, starting a new group of like-minded foodies…As December 31 comes to an end, here are a few of my favorite moments from the past year.

One of my favorite pictures of the trip
First crawfish boil in New Orleans in January.

Feathers fly

Beachy keen

The only acceptable icy slushy white stuff I want to see
The only acceptable cold slushy white stuff I want to see on a beach in Aruba in March.
Mashed and infused
Garden chive flower vinegar.
My favorite meal this year–Sarma in Boston in April with some of my favorite people.
Paella, ready for eating
Barcelona paella class in May.

Sant Pau Hospital

Yes, the bottom rack is a little overdone
Slow-smoked ribs to kick off summer.
London calling
London calling.
Tower Bridge
London’s Tower Bridge in July.
Teaching a sold-out class in August.
Digging in
Sharing what I learned about paella in Barcelona with my class in Chicago.
Tomato season
Glut of garden tomatoes.

Start to finish Eiffel

Paris by night
Paris by night in August.
Good people and good stories
First meeting of Cooking the Books in November. Can’t wait for the next one in January!

And no reflection on the year would be complete without mentioning the passing of my grandpa. I think about him often and wonder who I’ll send my paczki to this year…

My grandparents

Cheers to an incredible year past and a promising new year to come!

Holiday Giving Guide

Happy belated Thanksgiving everyone! Hopefully your weekend was full of food and friends and family, lots of pie, and plenty of good leftovers.

After Thanksgiving, though, the holiday season seems to come down like an avalanche of Can’t! Miss! Deals! that I’m still trying to dig my inbox out from under. Black Friday keeps creeping closer and closer to Thanksgiving dinner and I was getting emails about Cyber Monday deals last Tuesday. It’s barely December 1 and I’m already tired of every retailer on Earth yelling at me for not spending money.

Don’t get me wrong, I love buying gifts for people and I’m certainly not so self-righteous as to say I don’t like getting them (or that I didn’t snag a deal or two online over the weekend). But I’ve never posted a holiday gift guide here mostly because the Internet doesn’t need another list of too-expensive candles that smell like campfire and gin or a $200 scale to measure coffee beans, and no one wants to hear what’s on my actual Christmas wishlist (seriously, why are the caps for the air valves on my tires so easy to lose?!).

So instead of a gift guide for the holiday, how about a giving guide in honor of Giving Tuesday? Here are a few non-profits that I’m especially fond of that would be happy recipients of some holiday giving.

An amazing anti-hunger organization based in my hometown, Rochester, NY. They’re primarily a food bank, but they also organize year-round free and reduced-price lunch (and other meals) for kids, urban gardens and farm stands, a mobile market to neighborhoods where fresh produce isn’t easily accessible, healthful food education, and more. (I’m also a fan as the organization is currently run by one of my high school classmates.)

Girls Who Code
Working in IT at a major university, I see the gender gap in technology on a pretty regular basis, both in my job and in higher education. Girls Who Code encourages and teaches young women to pursue technology interests (they get to build robots!) and helps them build networks in the field.

Green City Market/Evanston Farmer’s Market
My two favorite farmers markets in Chicago. In addition to fantastic local fruits and vegetables and support for local farmers and food producers, both offer community outreach and education programs. Plus, you know, all the tomatoes.

Farmers market

Off the Street Club
Chicago’s oldest boys and girls club, founded in 1900, gives kids a safe place–physically and mentally–to be kids. In a neighborhood that’s more often associated with crime and gangs, Off the Street runs afterschool programs in the arts and sports, organizes fun outings around the city, provides resources for homework help, and sets up mentorship opportunities. They even run a full-on summer camp.

Open Books
Just like everyone deserves a full belly and a place to feel safe, everyone deserves to have good books in their life. Open Books provides high-quality used books to kids and adults through grants to schools, educators, and other non-profits, in addition to mentoring and creative writing and publishing workshops. Even better? Indulge your own book habit online or in their stores and the funds go to support their literacy programs.

Open Books

Peterson Garden Project
This one should be pretty obvious, coming from me. PGP teaches people to grow and cook their own food through their community gardens and cooking school, along with lots of other educational programs to support that mission. I loved teaching my first class there this summer and am looking forward to another year of gardening with them in spring (only five months to go!).


Planned Parenthood
They’ve been victim to a lot of attacks in both word and deed this year, but the health services (yes, all of them) and education they provide to women (and men) are so important. They’ve been a life-saver for me and more than a few people I know.

Slow Food
I knew about slow food as a movement, but Slow Food as an international organization was new to me this year. In Chicago, they offer amazing food events, classes, and an urban garden all to support better access to food that is good, clean, and fair for everyone.

Slow Food

Station North Tool Library
One of my sisters just moved to Baltimore to build her jewelry business and she told me about this community organization in her neighborhood. They have a lending library for all kinds of tools, a woodshop, metalshop, and classes on how to build all kinds of things. I wish there was something like this in Chicago! I mean, come on, they have a class where I could make my own chef’s knife.

Co-Op Sauce
Technically this isn’t a non-profit, but Co-Op Sauce started off as one, and half of their profits still go to youth arts education in Chicago. Needless to say, their hot sauce (and everything else they sell) is really, really good and I will be sad if their cafe ever moves out of my neighborhood.

Co-Op Sauce

There are so many more I could list, but do you have a favorite organization I missed? Share it in the comments!

Browned Butter Vanilla Ice Cream

Every year on November 1, the Internet collectively explodes in a shower of “new/favorite/best make-ahead pumpkin-apple-cranberry-turkey-roasted-vegetable-mashed-potatoes-oh-and-don’t-forget-the-cocktails” recipes. And almost every year, I’m about three weeks late on sharing anything for the holiday, but not this time! This time, I have ice cream. Ice cream…with butter in it. You’re welcome.

Browned butter ice cream

This is not just any ice cream, but my new favorite best ice cream that’s perfect alongside a slice of warm apple pie. And yes, you can make it ahead, though I can’t guarantee you won’t need to make a second batch before Thanksgiving. In fact, best be safe and plan on making two batches.

All you need for amazing ice cream

Can I confess something? As crazy as everyone goes over salted butter caramel, I wish it wasn’t so sweet. And was maybe a little more salty. And a smidge more buttery. This ice cream is all that. It’s that toasty, nutty, caramelized flavor I love from the butter (incidentally, the same flavor that makes these my favorite chocolate chip cookies and these my favorite brownies) but without the toothache. And with just a little bit of vanilla? Perfection.

Browned butter
Vanilla bean innards

And while I’m stirring the proverbial hornet’s nest, I’ll argue that this is better than even the best vanilla ice cream alongside apple (or any) pie. Vanilla ice cream is so often the default with dessert because the flavor is somewhat neutral and doesn’t compete with the pie for center stage; here, the browned butter actually complements and elevates the flavor of a perfectly browned pie crust and juicy, cinnamon-y apples (or pumpkin, pecan, sweet potato–whichever is your pie of choice come November 26).

When it comes to styles of ice cream, I prefer just milk, sugar, cream, and flavorings (aka Philadelphia-style, aka the style that Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream has made so popular) instead of the more common egg-based custard. This allows the flavor of really good milk and cream (and, in this case, really good butter) to stand out. Plus I don’t end up trying to uncurdle half a dozen egg yolks (vanilla scrambled eggs are decidedly un-tasty) or trying to figure out what to do with the half-dozen leftover egg whites.

Cream cheese

By the way, once you’ve melted the three sticks of butter and used the one tablespoon of butter solids in the ice cream, for the love of god and all that is holy, save the rest of the butter. It’s clarified butter (though with a slightly toastier flavor than what you’ll get in a jar at the store) and is spectacular in so many things. Like, oh, say, apple pie filling. Or a pan of roasting vegetables, or stirred into mashed potatoes. Or for basting your turkey. As if the ice cream itself wasn’t reason enough to make this, you have a great ingredient for the rest of your dinner too. You can thank me later.

Love this ice cream container
Perfect scoop
Browned butter ice cream

Browned Butter Vanilla Ice Cream Continue reading

Damson Plum Gin

It’s easy to like ripe, red strawberries, peaches that leave your hands and face sticky with juice, watermelon that tastes like a bite of pure summer. They don’t need anything but a sunny day for perfection. The fun ones for me, though, are the fruits that are unassuming, that don’t look or taste like much at first; the ones that need a little coaxing, maybe a bit of fuss, to really shine. But, oh, when they do, their flavor is enough to rival the most perfect of strawberries. And, in this case, they have the added bonus of a cocktail at the end.

Ready for sipping

Damson plums, like my other favorite stonefruit, sour cherries, fall into the “unassuming” category. Barely bigger than a large cherry with dusty deep blueish-purple skin, Damsons have hardly any flavor when eaten raw. Pop one in your mouth and all you’ll taste is sour, but give them some time and attention and you’ll be rewarded with the most plum-y tasting plum you’ve ever had, rich with flavor and deliciously, mouth-wateringly tart. It doesn’t hurt that their skins impart the most gorgeous color to anything you make with them.

Plums, sugar, gin

I mentioned this recipe off-hand last fall, but it was so good it really deserved its own post. It was a happy discovery to learn that Damson plums are related to sloes (as in sloe gin), which is as simple as combining gin, sugar, and fruit and waiting a few months. For the longest time, gin was not something I was a fan of. Someone once described it to me as “like drinking a pine tree;” considering one of the essential elements in gin is juniper berries, that’s not too far off. Happily, this woodsy flavor is actually a perfect complement to the plums.

Pretty purple infusion

What I’ve discovered about gin, too, is how widely the flavors can vary beyond the juniper base. Hendricks is known for flavors of rose and cucumber; Few, a local Chicago brand, has vanilla and citrus; I’m intrigued by the mix of herbs and spices in St. George’s “botanivore” gin. And honestly, this is good even if you only shell out for the low-shelf stuff.

Handy place to keep your recipe

Since the flavors of gin vary so widely, this is a fun recipe to make a few small batches and compare them come winter. Last year I particularly liked the rose flavor of Hendricks with the plum, and I have another two gins I’m giving a try this year. When it’s ready right around holiday time, this makes a gorgeous and delicious cocktail when you mix a bit of the gin with sparkling wine. Make more than you think you’ll need now, it’ll disappear faster than you realize.

Damson plum gin

Now if anyone has some ideas for what to do with a whole bunch of gin-soaked plums, I’m all ears!

Damson Plum Gin
Continue reading

What’s Cooking Wednesday: Memorial Day Meals

Chicago can’t quite seem to commit to warm weather–we had four days of 80s and sun (perfect for working outside all last weekend at the plant sale and getting a little done in my garden), then, as soon as I get my tomatoes in the ground, down to 40s. Thankfully this weekend is supposed to be solidly beautiful, perfect for grilling, gardening, and generally being outside and eating all the almost-summer foods.

With that in mind, here’s what I’m thinking about making during the long weekend.

IcyWith rhubarb season in full swing and strawberries close behind, it was a good opportunity tonight to clean out my freezer of some of both that I haven’t gotten around to using. Easiest thing? Rhubarb-strawberry syrup. A bag each of frozen rhubarb and strawberries, enough water to cover, a few cups of sugar, zest of a lemon, simmer about 20 minutes or until it tastes good. Take off the heat and add the juice of a lemon, refrigerate. I love it with seltzer (and maybe a splash of triple sec).

Don't forget to grill a few lemons I loved this grilled chicken I made last summer, and it would go perfectly with grilled asparagus tossed with green garlic and thinly sliced French radishes, a beautiful salad, a glass of wine, and some friends on my porch. Yum.

Arugula walnut pesto on grilled pizzaAs for any leftover chicken? A batch of this pesto on a warm flatbread or spread on a toasty pita with some of the lemony grilled chicken tucked inside sounds like a perfect lunch after I finish planting my garden with tomatoes and basil and some new herbs.

Rhubarb pie And because this is the start of pie season for me, rhubarb pie is a must. I made this to celebrate my first “blogiversary” because it represented so clearly what I wanted from this blog–a new skill learned or perfected (pie crust), a new favorite ingredient discovered (rhubarb) and a recipe to bring them together. And hey, May 21 also marks happy 3 years blogging to me!

Come in for a drink and a bite

I’ll keep this short and sweet, as it’s a busy week of travel and family and food and gifts. And in that vein, two quick and easy treats–one for eating, one for drinking.

Mulled Wine

The first may be my new favorite party snack–spicy whole grain mustard sprinkled with herbs sandwiched between flaky pieces of buttery puff pastry. They’re about the easiest thing on earth to make; perfect to make ahead, freeze, and bake right before a party (or bake off a few to have with dinner); look festive and fancy; and, most importantly, they taste fantastic and are a great compliment to just about anything on your menu.


These are from my absolutely favorite new cookbook, Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table. I feel like I’m losing food blogger credibility admitting this, but it’s incredibly rare that I’ll sit down and read a cookbook cover-to-cover like a novel, but I’ve read through this at least twice (granted, once was when I was laid up with the world’s most miserable cold and I was just dreaming about being able to taste anything again). The recipes themselves are wonderful–simple, unfussy, delicious–and Dorie’s writing is equally comfortable, like a friend chatting about a great recipe she discovered.

Mustard Batons

On the libations side, this is less a recipe and more an ingenious idea for on-demand mulled wine (and really, if there’s any season that’s perfect for festive spirits on a whim, this would be it). The base of this mulled wine is actually a wine syrup infused with citrus and whole spices that is easy to customize (the spices below are just what I like, a few slices of ginger for instance would not be out of place).

And since the syrup can be made ahead (it’s actually better after infusing for a day), it’s just a matter of deciding how much mulled wine you want to make–enough for a party or a glass for a cozy treat by the fire.

Mustard Batons and Mulled Wine Continue reading

What’s Cooking Wednesday: A Party, Gifts, and Restaurant Week

I hosted my first holiday party last weekend and…well, I think I kind of love having parties. There is absolutely, 100%, nothing more satisfying than seeing my friends happy and well-fed in my home.

Party spread, and a tree!
Ready for entertaining!

As for what I made, this was the menu:

  • Smoked salmon
  • Mustard batons (I loved these, they were dead simple and tasted great)
  • French Onion Soup palmiers (puff pastry covered with caramelized onions and gruyere, rolled, and sliced)
  • Gougeres with gruyere (from Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table, but you can find the recipe at West of the Loop)
  • Muhammara
  • Mustard (I made three kinds: white wine, hard cider, and blueberry stout)
  • Pickled vegetables
  • Herb marinated olives (from Around My French Table)
  • Baked brie/cheese plate/salami
  • Mulled wine
  • Hot chocolate (from Smitten Kitchen)
  • Damson plum gin (this turned out spectacularly, and went amazingly well with champagne)
  • Cookies (full list in the next post)

Plus the usual bread, crackers, nuts, beer, sparkling wine. It was quite the spread if I do say so myself!

Party spread

In other news, while I didn’t put together a gift guide, the Chicago Food Bloggers saved me the trouble and put together a great one. My fellow foodies gave some awesome suggestions–books, edibles, experiences, gadgets–for just about anyone on your list. If I had remembered to contribute, I would have suggested a cooking class or two at the Peterson Garden Project.

And finally the Chicago Restaurant Week(s) lineup was announced today! These two weeks starting January 30 are great for getting out and trying new places around the city. My favorite discovery from last year was Ada Street and their amazing cocktails, creative (and, more importantly, delicious) small plates, and the most spectacular buttermilk pannacotta. Yum. This year they’re doing a pretty funky menu based on the last meals of criminals–a bit morbid, but intriguing.

I always end up over-analyzing my options and then only end up going to one place, but this year I want to hit at least 3. Now I just have to pick some places and actually go!



Happy baking season: The perfect chocolate chip cookie

It’s kind of adorable when cookie recipes say “Cool completely before serving.” Who are they kidding, really? They’re lucky if the dough makes it to the oven before disappearing by the spoonful in the name of “taste testing.” And let’s be honest, a warm cookie oozing chocolate may be one of life’s small perfections. “Cool before serving”–bah, humbug.

It's all worth it

So starts December, month of cookies and baked goods coming at you from every direction. (I know, we’ve barely finished the last bites of turkey and pie. Time flies when you’re having fun eating all the things.)

Simple ingredients
Butter, browned

I’ve said before I’m much more a fan of savory than sweet (pretty obviously so if you look at my recipe archive), but I’ll make an exception on occasion. And an exceptionally good chocolate chip cookie is just one of those occasions.

Add the egg
And we whisk

These cookies also happened to be the first use for the 6.5 pound bag of bittersweet chocolate I brought back from Paris. While you can of course use whatever chocolate you like, I’ve found I like the less-sweet dark chocolate. And while chips are traditional, I also prefer chopping up a big chocolate bar instead. I love how the pieces end up in varying sizes so I get a mix of nice chocolate chunks along with shards that melt into thin chocolate layers throughout the cookie. If you can find these fun little coin shapes, use them, or simply chop up a thick chocolate bar (I like Trader Joe’s Pound Plus bars).

This smells exactly like caramel Flour goes in Don't over-mix

And of course chocolate chip cookies require nuts (preferably walnuts). If you leave them out…well I just don’t know why you’d do such a thing (barring a deathly allergy, in which case you get a pass).

More good stuff It is physically impossible not to sneak a bite at this point Nearly cookies

What I absolutely love about this recipe though is the browned butter. I know, browned butter has become as irritatingly trendy as pumpkin spice or the cronut (a terribly obnoxious word that will keep me from ever eating one, by the way), which is unfortunate as toasty brown butter just so damn good. Honestly after you mix the butter with the sugars, salt, and vanilla, it smells exactly like the best caramel on earth. (I will not admit to pretty much huffing the dough as I was stirring it. Nope.) And then come the aforementioned chocolate and nuts, and why are you still reading? Go. Make cookies. I won’t tell if you eat them before they’re cool.

Best chocolate chip cookies

(I also won’t tell you that it’s super easy to freeze this cookie dough in balls so you can bake one or two cookies at a time, because do you know how good frozen cookie dough is? Just trust me, the cookies will be even less likely to make it to the oven.)

Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies
Continue reading

What’s Cooking Wednesday: Almost Thanksgiving!

Just over a week to Thanksgiving! It’s tied with the 4th of July as my favorite food/friends/family holiday. While I don’t have any turkey (or mashed potato or stuffing) recipes to suggest for anyone’s feast, I thought it would be fun to see what I could contribute to the Thanksgiving table.

Let’s start with dessert (as all meals should, really). Might I suggest something slightly different along side the apple and pumpkin pie? How about a plum pie spiced with orange, brandy, ginger, cinnamon and a crunchy, crumbly, nutty topping? Yum.

Plum crumble pie

Cranberries? I have two options, both of which can be done in advance. Option one is equally good accompanying a perfect slice of turkey as it is stirred into a bowl of hot oatmeal on a cold morning–a fantastic conserve of cranberries and oranges, nuts and apricots. You can water-bath process it if you feel like it, or just store in the fridge.


Option two is for the slightly more adventurous: pickled spiced cranberries. The berries themselves are delicious, sweet and tart and an excellent complement to the richness of a Thanksgiving meal, but the syrup is equally amazing mixed with some seltzer (…and possibly a little vodka or gin).

Pickled cranberries

Need something to nibble on with said drink? These spiced candied nuts work nicely and conveniently are also delicious (with the pickled cranberries) on a post-Thanksgiving salad with leftover sweet potatoes and goat cheese.

Candied spiced walnuts

And finally, since I feel no meal is complete without bread in some way, shape, or form, cornmeal biscuits with green onion and black pepper. If these are a bit too casual for your dinner table, they do make for a particularly delicious turkey sandwich.

Flaky biscuits, topped with salt and pepper

What are you planning for your Thanksgiving meal (or the leftovers, which are obviously the second best part of the holiday)?


Giving the gift of cookies

Fair warning–if I know you, you probably have a box of cookies heading your way right now (honestly, you may get a box even if I don’t know you). This past weekend was my annual Cookie Day, and as usual my apartment is absolutely overflowing with sweets and treats of all kinds (16 kinds, actually, all told). For the sake of brevity and my poor sleep-deprived eyes, I’ll keep this short and say how much I admire my family and family friends who can manage to pull off massive cookie-baking extravanganzas and keep their kitchens and sanity in any state of not-chaos. This is what I ended up making, along with recipe links where I could find them:

Boxed up

Pecan tassies
Pecan Tassies (from my Grandma Bello)
Coffee toffee shortbread
Coffee Toffee Shortbread
Biscotti three ways
Anise-Almond Biscotti, Anise Biscotti (from my Grandma Bello), and Chocolate-Orange-Almond Biscotti (adapted from David Lebovitz)
Fig-date swirls
Fig-Date Swirls (from Lottie and Doof)
Rye pretzels
Rye Pretzels (from Smitten Kitchen) *My favorite new cookie recipe. Not too sweet, nice and crispy, and the rye flour adds a nice nutty flavor without the nuts.
Spice cookeis
Spice Cookies (from The Wednesday Chef) *This is the latest in a long line of attempts to find the perfect spice cookie. I rolled my eyes when the recipe called for “1/2 a free-range egg,” instructed that the dough be rolled into “perfect” balls, and called for candied orange peel to top (I left it out as I couldn’t find it at any store and figured making my own toffee was quite enough this season) but they sounded delicious. They were good, but still not what I’m looking for. The search continues…
Suprise Insides
Surprise Insides (from my mom)
The surprise
The surprise
Raspberry almond meringues
Raspberry-Almond Meringue Bars (from my mom)
Thumbprints (from The Better Homes and Gardens cookbook) with homemade blueberry-orange jam
Peanut butter blossoms
Peanut Butter Blossoms (from The Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, with some tweaks from my dad)
Chocolate Snowcaps (from my mom)
Chocolate crinkles
Chocolate Crinkles (from my mom)

And finally, not pictured, nut roll and poppyseed roll (from my Grandma Connie).

This is the first year I haven’t made rugelach, marshmallows, or hot chocolate mix. I kind of missed all three at the end of the day, but I was happy I discovered the new rye cookies, which I think will be added to my list of staples (I don’t think I’ll do them as pretzel shapes next year though). And of course I can’t forget biggest thanks to my most reliable cookie helper for the past 6 (??!! really??!!) years! Thank you as always Andrea for covering yourself in powdered sugar so I don’t have to.

With that, I’m signing off until after the New Year. I hope you all have wonderful, relaxing fabulous holiday(s) with all your loved ones! (And if anyone has a favorite spice cookie I should try next year, please share!)