Thursday, September 30, 2010

Chicken with Chanterelles

One of my favorite meals I had in Paris, just about a year ago, was chicken with mushroom sauce at Polidor. Nothing fancy, just a really great lunch of chicken breast, a thick mushroom sauce, and fries.

The dish at the restaurant just had a mushroom sauce, but no whole mushrooms. I saw these chanterelles at the farmers market and thought I could try to make my own version.

Serves 2
2 bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
2 shallots, minced
1/4 cup white wine
3/4 cup chicken stock
1 cup chanterelle mushrooms
1 tablespoon cream
2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Rise the chicken breasts and dry well. Season with salt and pepper and brown skin side down in the skillet.

Bake the chicken in a baking dish for about 30-35 minutes.

Melt butter in the same skillet used for the chicken. Add the shallots and cook over medium heat until golden brown, about 5 minutes.

Add the white wine and let it cook down for a couple minutes to burn off the alcohol. Add 1/4 cup of the chicken stock to the pan. Slice chanterelles lengthwise and add to pan.

After a few minutes lower the heat. As the mushrooms cook continue to add the rest of the chicken stock a couple tablespoons at a time. After the mushrooms have cooked for about 10 minutes add the cream and flour. Stir to combine thoroughly. The flour should thicken the sauce to the point that if you scrape a line through the liquid down the middle of the pan it should take a few seconds to fill back in.

Keep the sauce on low heat until the chicken is done. Put the chicken onto plates, and pour half (or all, if you like) of the juice in the baking dish into the sauce.

Add salt and pepper to taste. Pour over chicken.

I think it was pretty close to the taste I remember. The original was a little thicker, probably more butter and flour, but I didn't want to go overboard and make it too rich. And I liked the addition of the whole mushrooms. If chanterelles aren't available any other kind of wild mushrooms should be fine, as long as they're cut into small enough pieces. This dish turned out really, really well. I'll definitely be making it again!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Cupcake Chronicles

Ok, I seem to have developed a bit of a problem. In the cupcake department. The problem is...I can't stop eating them. Not just cupcakes in general, cupcakes from Sprinkles.

I already wrote about Sprinkles once, when they opened. I thought - great new cupcake place, just a block away from my apartment and couple blocks from work, I'm sure I'll eat them once in awhile. But the thing is...the cupcakes are just so darn good I can't stay away. Living in New York, I was over cupcakes. I mean, as much as one can really be over cupcakes. I didn't think about them and crave them all the time like I do with Sprinkles. I've already aired my grievances with many NYC cupcakes - too much frosting, frosting is too sweet, cake sometimes isn't too fresh, and some of the places have just become more of a novelty and a tourist destination.

But Sprinkles cupcakes are just pure perfection. The cake is always moist and fresh, not too much over-the-top sugary icing, and they have different seasonal flavors - some lasting just a week, some nearly a month, some for a whole season. For example, my newest favorite is vanilla hazelnut chocolate. Vanilla cake with hazelnut chocolate icing. And it was only around for a week! How could they?!

Another part of the "problem" is that they do a free cupcake almost every day. All you have to do is look on their Twitter feed or Facebook page and learn what the secret word is, then be one of the first 25 (or sometimes 50) people to say the password and you get a free cupcake of their choice. For example: "Last day of summer! First 25 people to whisper “autumn” at each Sprinkles receive a free pumpkin adorned with a fall leaf!"

Peter told me he thinks I'll eat 100 over the next year. That seems a little drastic, but I did start keeping a tally since he said that. Here's my current standings. Lots of halves because sometimes I get two different flavors for us to share. This probably isn't something to really be proud of.

Carrot: 2 1/2
Vanilla milk chocolate: 1
Dark chocolate: 1
Lemon: 1/2
Key lime: 1
Vanilla: 1/2
Cinnamon sugar: 1
Red velvet: 1/2
Chocolate coconut: 1/2
Vanilla hazelnut chocolate: 2
Pumpkin: 1/2

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Homemade Ice Cream - 2nd Try

My first attempt at ice cream wasn't a total disaster. The flavor was good but it was too icy. I don't have an ice cream maker, which isn't a big deal, but I don't think I did a good enough job of breaking up the ice cream during the freezing process. I also used a recipe without eggs and with more milk than cream which contributed to its less-than-creamy consistency. Higher fat content makes ice cream creamier, so I used eggs this time, and more cream than milk. How strange, more fat = better taste.

Success! The second attempt was much better than the first. It's hard to say whether the ingredients or the process made a bigger difference, but I'm quite certain both changes were necessary. Plus I didn't feel like conducting a high school science experiment with a control and several variables to find out which ingredients and processes had exactly which effect. Nerd alert.

Ok, before I get started - have you ever eaten a concord grape? I hadn't. I like green grapes better, plus concord grapes have seeds which is pretty annoying. But seriously...I tried one before I started making the ice cream, and wow. I'm not kidding, they taste like grape Jolly Ranchers or Blow Pops. I always thought grape candies were gross exaggerations of what real grapes taste like, but not in the case of concord grapes. If you've never tried one buy some while they're in season, or just sneak a taste of one while you're at the farmers market or grocery.

Concord Grape Ice Cream

1 cup pureed concord grapes
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
5 egg yolks

Put a glass or metal 9" x 13" baking dish in the freezer. Puree the grapes in a blender and pour through a fine mesh sieve to discard seeds and big pieces of skin. The puree will be pretty thick, so use a spoon or soft rubber spatula to work the puree through the sieve.

Heat the cream and milk in a saucepan until just starting to boil. Add the sugar and stir until dissolved. Remove from heat. Beat the egg yolks in a mixing bowl. After the hot cream/milk has cooled for a few minutes, add to the egg yolks by the spoonful while stirring.

This is called tempering the eggs. Basically you want the cool eggs to be added to the hot liquid, but if you just pour them in they'll cook very quickly and become chunky. So by adding the hot liquid bit by bit you slowly warm them to the point where you can add them to the pan. Add enough cream, spoon by spoon, until it's about equal parts egg yolk and cream. Then add the egg and cream mixture back to the pan and stir until combined.

Reheat the cream/egg mixture over low heat for about 5 minutes, until hot throughout. Add the vanilla and the grape puree and stir to combine.

While the cream mixture reheats, prepare an ice bath - a larger bowl with ice water, and a smaller bowl resting in the ice water. Pour the mixture into the smaller bowl and let cool for about 20 minutes.

Pour into the frozen baking dish and put on a level surface in the freezer.

The first time I made ice cream I waited 45 minutes before breaking it up for the first time, and then at 30-minute intervals after that. I learned that my freezer is very strong so this time I let it freeze for 30 minutes, and mixed it up at 20-minute intervals after that.

Don't be shy when you're breaking up the ice cream. Use a plastic spatula, and really get in there and chop it up, then smear it against the bottom of the dish. You're not going to mess it up by totally destroying the work the freezer has done - that's the whole point. An ice cream maker keeps the ice cream moving (very slowly) while it freezes so ice crystals don't form.

After mixing the ice cream up about 5 times every 20 minutes (or 30 minutes depending on your freezer), scoop it into a tupperware and let it finish freezing. So you're looking at roughly two and a half hours.

I give it a good to very good rating. The consistency was much improved compared to the first time. As for the flavor...I probably could have used another half a cup of grape puree and a bit more sugar. I didn't want to go overboard on the sugar since the grapes are already pretty sweet, but it did need a little more. Last time I made pumpkin spice ice cream and the flavor was perfect: 1 cup unsweetened pureed pumpkin, 2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice. Mix the pumpkin and the spice together and add when reheating the cream after adding the eggs. And I used 2/3 cups of sugar that time. I'm sure I'll have more posts about different flavors in the future now that I've found a basic recipe and process that I like.

I didn't stop with making the concord grape ice cream...just wait until you see what I did with it!

Monday, September 27, 2010


I don't know where to start. How do you describe the most amazing meal of your life? We went to Alinea last night for our anniversary, and I can confidently say it was the best dining experience I've ever had. Sure, it's the best restaurant in Chicago. The best in the U.S., and the 7th best in the world according to this year's ranking's by Restaurant Magazine. Obviously it's going to be an unbelievable culinary experience. But it was also FUN. The staff was as professional and accommodating as you would imagine at a place of this caliber, but they were also laid back and made our experience so enjoyable.

I told myself going into this that I was only going to take 2 or 3 pictures, just to document a couple of my favorite courses, but it didn't work out that way. I couldn't help but take more, but I was using my phone so the quality isn't great. You can find really beautiful photos of a meal at Alinea on ulterior epicure's Flickr page. The photos were taken in 2006 so the menu was totally different, but you can still get a sense of the precision that goes into each course.

Here's the stats:
  • 3 1/2 hours
  • 21 courses
  • 10 wines
  • 7 servers (maybe a couple more, I lost track)

First of all, they don't give you a menu until the end of the meal. You don't have a choice anyway (unless you have food allergies), so I think they want to keep up the element of surprise and show. Let's look at some pictures! First up: edible cocktails. The one in the front was a Pisco sour, the middle was cucumber, gin and mint, and the last one was cherry with bourbon. I'm simplifying the descriptions they gave us.

The Pisco sour reminded me of a frozen, wet meringue. It was very cold and a little chewy but still light. The second one was a cube of cucumber infused with gin and rosewater and topped with tiny mint leaves. Really refreshing. Bourbon isn't my favorite, but I liked the combination with cherry in the last one.

Skipping over a couple courses, here's the "tomatoes" course. Heirloom tomatoes with freeze dried powders of different ingredients you would find in a caprese salad, and a few extra. Parmesan, mozzarella, balsamic, onion, red pepper, onion, pine nuts, and bread crumbs. And croutons infused with thyme.

This was one of my favorites. The very first thing they brought when we sat down were two pairs of chopsticks propped up at a 45 degree angle by a little metal clip. Pinched in each set of chopsticks was a sheet of rice paper, hanging down like a flag, with colorful bits of vegetables trapped in the rice paper. We were told they were decoration for the table, until a later course when we would be eating them. So here's that course: build-your-own spring roll with the rice paper, curried pork belly, and garnishes which you can see on the glass plate. Black salt, cucumber, crispy garlic, curried mango, lime segments, daikon, onion, hot sauce on the spoon, then a couple cashews, greens, and a dressing with sesame seeds. I wish I could go even more into detail here but I honestly can't remember every little thing.

This course was so incredible that I have to share a picture, but it's very dark so I apologize. It's pheasant breast, green grape, and walnut lightly fried in a tempura batter and skewered with an oak twig. The leaves on the oak twig were briefly lit on fire then blown out but still smoking to give the aroma. The whole thing is propped up in a little metal holder. Amazing.

The "hot potato" course was the only course I expected going into the night. It's been on the menu for awhile and all the reviews I read raved about it. It's a lot smaller than it looks in the photo. The dish that the soup is in is just a couple inches wide. The little bowl contains hot potato soup and you lift the bowl up, then pull the pin on the side out to release the cold potato, black truffle, butter, and parmesan into the hot soup and take it all down in one gulp. The biggest item on the pin is the black truffle draped over a piece of potato, but obviously the picture isn't great. Here's a much clearer photo taken by ulterior epicure.

This was the second to last course - one of the desserts. Earl grey was the predominant flavor. Earl grey cookies, the curly things are caramelized white chocolate, and the other flavors were lemon and pine nut. Oh and that pillow the dish is resting on? It's an inflatable pillow filled with earl grey cream tea scented air, so when the dish is placed on the pillow it releases the scent. I think I'll try to make this one at home. Ha!

Last course. Flavors: chocolate, apricot, honey, peanut. So the server asked us to lift our water glasses off the table, and he spread a grey silicone (I think) sheet over the table. Then this appeared at the edge of the table:

We knew something was going on, we just weren't sure what. A few minutes later one of the chefs appeared at our table and got to work. First he placed the two tubes towards the middle of the table. They are actually open on both sides, but he poured about a half inch white liquid in each so the liquid was directly on the table. He then spread dried apricots, an apricot puree, milk chocolate, honey infused milk, peanut nougat, and chocolate and peanut crumb around the table. I use the word "spread" but he was really creating an incredible masterpiece of a dessert in front of us. I don't remember which happened first but the last two parts were removing the clear tubes and somehow the liquid had hardened into a custard and stayed put. He sprinkled sugar over the top and torched it to make creme brulee. And the last element was freeze dried chocolate mousse (all the dark pieces in the middle) which arrived at the table smoking like dry ice.

See how the milk chocolate spots are square, and the milk/honey spots are round? I was completely mystified by this because I was watching the guy like a hawk the entire time and he poured both the exact same way. I asked him and he kind of shrugged it off as though it was a secret. But when the table next to us had the same course I heard him say they change the elasticity of the liquid so it spreads into different shapes. Ohhhh, ok. I do stuff like that at home all the time.

And was over. Starting with peeking into the kitchen upon walking into the restaurant (it's very open and right by the entrance) and ending with a work of art for dessert spread across our table...three and a half hours of amazing tastes and flavors. Every dish tasted good. That sounds like a silly thing to say, but I genuinely loved every course. Flavors that you think wouldn't be good together all worked in perfect harmony, for example one of the earlier courses with steelhead roe, coconut, licorice, and pineapple. You think - how could those flavors possible work together? But they more than work together, they were perfect.

At the very end they bring you the menu (which they let you keep) so you can look back over everything you've just enjoyed. It's too small to read here but if you click on the picture it should be big enough to see everything. The bigger circles indicate a bigger course, and the smaller circles were small bites or just a taste of something. The lighter print under some of the courses are the wine pairings. We did the wine pairings...I didn't even mention them, there was so much else to talk about. We were really on the fence but I'm glad we did the pairings.

The whole night was truly amazing. A once in a lifetime kind of meal. Alinea is definitely classified as molecular gastronomy, but I didn't feel like the whole thing was a crazy science project. Everything was unbelievably creative both visually and in taste. And one of the craziest things - Chef Grant Achatz was diagnosed with Stage 4 tongue cancer just a few years ago. Can you imagine...a chef of that caliber not being able to taste his food? Miraculously he had treatments that allowed him to keep his tongue and he's since regained his sense of taste. You can read more about his story here.

1723 North Halsted St., Chicago IL 60614

Saturday, September 25, 2010

36 Hours in Chicago

This weekend's "36 Hours" in the Travel section of the New York Times is Chicago! Here are some of the food-related suggestions:

The three I haven't been to (Gilt Bar, Xoco, and Longman & Eagle) are all definitely on my list. My very long list. So much to eat in this city...

This reminds me, there was a "36 Hours" about Boston not long ago, and a short article about Columbus recently. Take a look.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Calumet Fisheries

Earlier in the week we took the car out (sounds like no big deal, but our parking spot is not by our apartment) to go apple picking, and whenever we take the car out we try to take advantage and go to places that are otherwise too difficult on public transportation or too expensive in a cab. So...Calumet Fisheries, here we come.

CF is on the south side of Chicago, on 95th Street by the Calumet River bridge. The bridge was up when we arrived, kind of cool. Peter has been once before and wrote a little something for me, but now it's MY turn.

Before going in we took a peek around back at the smokehouse. They smoke all their own fish right in there.

It's not a big place. Just a counter to place your orders, some fryers in the front room and a bit more of a kitchen in the back. No seats, no bathrooms, just get your fish and go find somewhere to eat it.

Here's a better look at the menu:

We ordered a half order of fish chips (NOT fish & chips), a half order of fried clams, and a quarter pound of smoked shrimp. There's plenty to look at while you wait for your food, including a wall pasted with lots of recognition from various websites, newspapers, tv shows, etc. I like this sign on the wall:

This one's not bad either:

That's right folks, Calumet Fisheries won a James Beard Award this year. As legend has it, the owner had to look up who James Beard was when he found out.

And of course there's the breaded seafood ready to fry and the smoked fish to admire.

Order's up! Time for a picnic on the hood of the car.

We could have sat inside the car to eat, but it was kind of warm out. Plus we saw some other people doing the same thing and it looked like a good idea. Here are some close-ups of our spoils. Fried clams:

Smoked shrimp:

And the fish chips:

I know this place is known for their smoked fish, but if I had to pick a favorite - if someone was holding a knife to my throat demanding that I choose one type of fish that I liked best at Calumet - I would say the fish chips. They were very lightly breaded and white and flaky on the inside. The smoked shrimp were amazing though.

I should note that besides the typical menu, hours, and directions pages on their website they also have pages for James Beard, Anthony Bourdain, and Blues Brothers. Anthony Bourdain visited Calumet while filming his Chicago show (last season I believe). And part of Blues Brothers was filmed right at that bridge. Any place that smokes their own fish, has won a James Beard award, has been paid a visit by Bourdain, and has been a part of such a great more than ok in my book.

Calumet Fisheries
3259 E. 95th Street, Chicago IL 60617

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Slow Cooker Apple Butter

Apple butter does not actually have butter in it. Very tricky, apple butter. You had us fooled. What else do you have up your sleeve? Turning from this...

into this?

12 small apples (or about 8-9 medium apples)
1/4 cup apple cider (cider is preferred but juice is ok)
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Peel, core, and chop the apples into slices. Don't worry about them looking pretty, just as long as they're all roughly the same size.

Put the apple pieces into the slow cooker, spread evenly. Pour the cider over the apples, and sprinkle each of the dry ingredients and the vanilla evenly over the apples.

Cook on high for one hour, then cook on low for 8-10 hours (I was ok with 8 hours, but if your apples are bigger you might need 9 or 10). Stir every few hours. Here's what I had after 2 and a half hours:

After 5 hours:

After 7 hours:

And at the end. You can see on the left side I started mashing the apples up with a fork. Just take the back side of a fork, or a potato masher and crush the apples while in the slow cooker. Or you could scoop them out into a bowl and do it, but I wanted to do it in the slow cooker in case they ended up needing to cook a little more.

Some recipes say to put the apple mixture into a blender (or use an immersion blender) once they're done cooking, which you certainly could do, but I wanted my apple butter to be a bit chunky.

Spread on a roll/croissant/biscuit/pancakes/potato latke. I used only 3/4 cups of brown sugar, but many recipes call for a lot more. I didn't want mine to be overly sweet, and the variety of apples (Gala, Golden Delicious) I used were already pretty sweet. If you use apples that are more tart, like Granny Smith, you probably want to add more sugar. You can do a combination of brown and granulated sugar, too. Apple butter can of course be made without a slow cooker, but this way was so easy. Plus, it makes your house/apartment smell good all day!