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So you might know that I work at Terlato Wines.  And a few weeks ago, we had some guests in for a tasting.  They happened to be from Canlis restaurant in Seattle, a legendary family-owned restaurant renowned for, among other things, its salad.  I’ve read about this salad in various magazines and newspapers – but had never made it.  So what’s a hungry and curious girl to do but make it?  And I just happened to have a bottle of Protea Chenin Blanc, so I had a glass of that with the salad.  And then: my head started spinning with delight!  I could not believe how the wine made the salad taste even better and the salad made the wine taste even better – exactly what good wine and good food are meant to do!  When you hit that perfect combination, it’s bliss!

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The wine is a South African Chenin Blanc – in the most gorgeous bottle ever (which, after you’ve enjoyed every last sip, makes an ideal bottle for olive oil, vinegar or other stuff – you could even serve water out of it.)  It’s lush with pear, citrus and honeysuckle notes and medium-bodied.  And the salad – loaded with crisp lettuce, tomatoes, bacon, scallions and chopped fresh mint and dressed with a tangy, lemony dressing – is the perfect complement!  Oh, I could have this every night for dinner and be a happy girl!  Want to know how to make the salad?  I’ll show you:

Canlis Salad (adapted from The New York Times)

Ingredients (serves two, or one if you’re really hungry – and the dressing recipe makes a lot, but the acidity in it means it’ll keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks – for more salad!)

1 head of romaine lettuce, chopped

2 slices of bacon, cooked crisp and chopped

1/2 C. cubed fresh Italian bread

1/4 C. scallions, thinly sliced

1/4 C. fresh mint, chopped

1 tsp dried oregano

8 cherry tomatoes, halved

1/4 C. cucumber, (not in the original recipe – my addition; it adds crunch and I like cucumbers)

A bunch of grated Romano cheese (I buy the containers of finely grated Romano at Trader Joe’s)

For the Dressing:

1 egg, at room temperature

1/4 C. fresh lemon juice

1/2 C. extra virgin olive oil

salt and pepp, to taste

What You Do

1. Fry your bacon and remove it to a plate.  Save one Tbl of fat.  Or, if you’re like me, use bacon you already baked in the oven on the weekend and tap your reserves of bacon fat, stored in a ramekin in the fridge.

2. Make the croutons — heat a blob (like, a Tbl or two) of bacon fat in a cast iron pan over medium heat (or any skillet, really) and add the bread cubes to coat.  Over low heat, toast those cute little nubbins of bread in the yummy bacon fat til they’re golden – then remove them to a plate or cutting board or whatever.

3. Make the dressing.  First, mix your lemon juice and olive oil in a jar – add a bunch of salt and pepper until it tastes good.  And now for the cool part: take your room temp egg and put it WHOLE (do not crack the egg) into a Pyrex measuring cup or coffee cup.  Pour boiling water over it and let it sit for 1 minute.  Pour the boiling water off and crack that egg into your lemon juice-olive oil mixture.  Shake, shake, shake – WITH A LID ON OBVIOUSLY – and then taste it.  The egg helps emulsify the whole mess into a creamy-ish, slightly rich dressing.  God, it’s good. Super lemony. MmmmmmMM!!

4. Okay, time to assemble your salad.  Into a salad bowl, put the chopped lettuce, tomatoes, scallions, mint, oregano, croutons and pour some dressing in.  Toss to coat and then shower on the Romano cheese (as much as you want; I’m pretty generous – maybe an 1/8 of cup or a little more).

5. Pour the Protea and enjoy!  Cheers!

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Hi Food Friends: it’s been a while – 10 months to be exact.  My blogging had to take a back seat for a while, as I needed to dedicate serious time to my “new” job at Terlato Wines.  But today I went to Chicago Gourmet (my fourth visit) and was inspired to reignite my blog!  Yes, my blog is mostly about cooking, and I didn’t do any of that today – only eating — but events like this are what inspire me to cook my head off!  And I tend to think of fall as Cooking Season, so the timing is perfect.  Herewith, I share some top trends I saw, sipped and savored at Chicago Gourmet.

First of all, it was possibly the most gorgeous day in Chicago EVER, as thousands lined up on the plaza at Millennium Park, in the shadow of “The Bean,” to get into the event.  And second: a personal shout-out to my friend, Liz Sorrentino, who Executive Director’ed this whole affair to perfection!

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Once in, I made a strategic decision: eat, eat, then drink, eat, eat, then drink, and so forth, so as not to get completely bombed.  I tried 17 dishes, and 23 wines and one cocktail.  Here are the six best things I tried:

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Clockwise, from top left:

Sunda: Lobster roll – chock-full of huge chunks of tender, sweet, juicy lobster, with minimal frou-frou – a whisper of mayo and celery for a bit of crunch. Delightful.

Courtright’s: An herbed disc of goat-cheese over a salad of shaved brussel sprouts with bacon and vinaigrette. ADORE!

Sumi Robata Grill: the cutest little skewer of wagyu beef with a tiny, perfectly poached quail egg and some yummy Asian-y / soy-ish sauce.  GOD, that was good!  And you know how much I love cute food – this one scored huge points on cuteness.  Sorry the photos aren’t fab – it was too dang sunny out!  OK, onward…

Honey Butter Fried Chicken: Yeah, you would think they’d serve some of that, but no – they opted for a spicy pita chip topped with candied pork, roasted grapes and I think they said egg plant.  Hope I’m getting this sort of right – but the point is,  it was freaking delicious and those people can COOK!

Municipal Bar & Dining Co.: Again – points for cuteness, with a tiny cone full of flavorful and tender tuna tartare on a bed of avocado cream.  It was really good.

Stetson’s: Yes, at the freaking Hyatt Regency Chicago.  This is the second time they’ve wowed me at Chicago Gourmet.  This time it was a red lentil puree, with amazing roasted octopus on top with some microgreens.  Crazy good.  Also: cute.  Even though it was octopus.🙂

Trends: Everyone was talking about how much octopus there was – I ate it three times and it was delicious every time.  Pork everywhere – from roast whole pig to pulled, barbecued to candied – pork has taken bacon’s place in the hierarchy.  Cocktails: there were more spirits at CG than ever.  The one I tried — Campari, Cynar (an artichoke/herbal-y liquor), chocolate bitters and some Vermouth-like wine – was really nice.

Okay, on to wine!  First let me say this: I work for a wine company.  I am a HUGE advocate of everything in our portfolio.  But it’s always good to try new wines, so that’s what I did.

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Of all the above, the most interesting to me were a sparkling Pinot Grigio called Voga, in a radical bottle (think Voss mineral water).  There was also Lady Lola – 80% Pinot Grigio, 20% Moscato blend. I’m no Moscato fan, but this was nice.  Then, a very nice gentleman from Tedeschi Vineyards in Italy took me through their Valpolicellas, which were amazing.  And I always like Grgich Hills, so I tasted through their Chard, Zin (yipes on that alcohol! 15.3%!) and Cabernet Sauvignon. Classic Napa-style wines, always consistently good.

But perhaps the most fun was the seminar I went to: Master Sommeliers & Their Desert Island Wines.  It was a great tasting of six wines that three Master Somms collectively cited as their all-time must-have wines:

Krug Grande Cuvee Champagne Brut NV: lovely light bubles, a touch of bready yeast, a tiny bit of honey. Lush and yummy.

Chateau St. Michelle Washington State Riesling – Meh. I know Rieslings are raging now, but I still don’t really care for them.

Antinori Cervaro della Sala 2011— 90% Sauv Blanc, 10% Grechetto, from Umbria.  Really interesting – earthy, a touch of smoky bacon-y goodness and nice acid.

Antinori Col Solari 2008- a Columbia Valley (Washington) Bordeaux-style red blend (Cab, Merlot, Malbec, Cab Franc).  My own Desert Island wine – jammy, blueberry-ish, ripe black plums. Bring me some salami or a nice strip steak, stat!

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars “Cask 23” Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 — interesting Napa cab, with a rich, chewy texture, earthy, smoky, some salinity and maybe a whisper of lavendar.

Antinori Solaia 2009 – a “super Tuscan” (so named because it apparently transcends the usual Tuscan blends.  This was the big finale (at $225 a bottle).  I liked it, but it needed food. Very dry, high tannins, with whiffs of cocoa and smoke.  Would probably be divine with beef or a great pasta-mushroom-y type of dish.

I didn’t make it to the Grand Cru – where I know my colleagues were pouring EPISODE (an amazing Napa Valley Bordeaux-style blend) and Sanford Pinot Noir (I die of happiness every time I have this wine)

So, there you have it. Here’s to you – if I have any readers left — and to my next post!  Bon Appetit to you!


Hi Food Friends:

I’m a little behind on posting these days, as my new job at Terlato Wines (which I love!) is taking most of my time these days, so pardon my absence.  But I’m here today to share with you the cooking and eating adventures of the most recent gathering of my cooking club, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pans.  We met in October for a “Master Chef Challenge”  and we each had to make something we’ve always wanted to make from one of our favorite chefs.  I chose Chef Art Smith’s Hummingbird Cake.  Behold:

I had this cake at Smith’s restaurant, Table 52, several years ago on my birthday, and ever since, I’ve wanted to make it – so I did!  It’s a cinnamon-y batter with pineapple, bananas and pecans and a super-rich cream cheese frosting and IT. IS. DIVINE!  Also? It’s not hard to make!  The hardest part was the flipping of the whole cakes out of the pans onto cooling racks and then onto a serving platter.  It’s rich and sweet and I’ll definitely make it again.   But right now I’m going to show you how to make it!  Ready? Let’s bake…

CAKE INGREDIENTS

3 C. al-purpose flour

2 C. white sugar

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp salt

2 C. chopped ripe bananas (2 large bananas)

1 C. drained crushed pineapple (canned is most reliable)

1 C. vegetable oil

2 large eggs, beaten

1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

1 C. finely chopped pecans

FROSTING INGREDIENTS

1 stick butter, at room temp

8 ounces cream cheese, at room temp (1 “brick” type package)

1 pound (yep) powdered sugar (about 4 1/2 C.)

1 tsp vanilla extract

WHAT YOU DO

1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Get your cake pans ready: butter two 9″ round pans and then sprinkle flour in and shake the pan about to coat it and then tap out the excess into the sink.  Yes, this took me about 10 minutes, but it is the KEY to getting those cakes out of the pans cleanly, so just do it.

2) Okay, onward!  Get two bowls – one really big, and put your flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon and salt in the really big one.  And yes, there is no baking powder in this cake.  I had to call my mom and ask, “How can there be no baking powder in a cake?”  And it’s because this cake is not built to rise a ton, because of the all the moist, yummy bananas and pineapple in it.  So there you have it.  No baking powder.  Whisk all this dry stuff together til its combined.

3) In the other bowl, put your bananas, pineapple (You’ve got to drain it well; one 20-ounce can yielded just a tiny bit more than I needed), oil, eggs and vanilla.  Stir it all up til it’s combined.

4) Merge the wet with the dry!  Pour the wet stuff into the flour mixture and fold it in with a rubber spatula.  No beating, just stirring.  Now add in the pecans and stir those in.

5) Pour the batter into the pans.  Just do the best you can to pour neatly and evenly and use your spatch to smooth things out a bit.  Now pop ’em in to the oven, on the same rack, together, like cake friends and let ’em bake for 30 to 40 minutes.  Now my oven runs cool, so 350 means 360 on my oven, and mind turned out a teensy bit undercooked in the very center, so next time I’ll go 40 minutes to fully cook them.  The ol’ “stick a toothpick in it” thing doesn’t work, because you might hit a piece of banana and it’ll come out wet.  So use your eyeballs and a finger – the center should spring back ever so slightly when you press it lightly with a finger – and it’ll be done!

6) Put the pans onto a cooling rack and let them cool for 15 minutes.  Then carefully flip the cakes out onto the cooling rack.  It’s easiest to just upend the rack on the top of the pan and turn the whole thing over and then remove the pan.  Et voila!  Now let them really cool completely.  And I mean completely.  You don’t want to attempt to handle them warm  OR frost a warm cake.  Time to make the frosting!

FROSTING

1) Two things: make sure your butter and cream cheese are REALLY at room temp, so they’re mixable.  And: a stand mixer works best, I think.  I tried to use an old electric hand mixer and it was a clusterf%&@k.

2) Just beat the cream cheese and butter together until mixed and then gradually beat in the powdered sugar, then the vanilla and presto!  Cream cheese frosting.  Mmmmm.  Taste it to be sure it’s delicious.  Then stop tasting and start frosting.  Ready?  Here are some tips for frosting this baby:

1) Get a cake stand or serving plate.  Put one cake onto, upside down (so the flat side is face-up) .

2) Get an off-set spatula!  I cannot tell you how much easier it is to frost a cake with this thing.  It’s the angle, or the leverage you can get that makes it SO much easier than using a table knife.   Plus, you can make fancy swirls and stuff.

3) Use about 2/3 cup frosting on top of the first cake (I just eye-balled it).  Then gently plop the second cake face-up (the way it came out of the oven) on top.  Now frost the top — and then do the sides, holding the spatula at a 90-degree angle; you’ll figure it out.

4) Slice and serve!  It was hard to take a beautiful picture of a slice, but here’s the best I could do:

The rest of The Sisterhood made some fabulous food, too and here’s just a quick look at the fun and the food.

Clockwise from top left: Tina finishing the sauce for her potato-wrapped Halibut, Mara’s version of Rick Bayless’ pork something or other (sorry, I can’t remember its name, but it was gooood), Tina’s finished dish and Amy’s version of Ferran Adria’s tortilla Espagnol, made with potato chips!

Alright – happy baking and happy Saturday.  I’m off to Old Town School to rehearse with the ELO ensemble for a set we’re doing tomorrow night!  Bon appetit!

 


Hi Food Friends: Well, I’m back from Chicago Gourmet 2012 and I am full!  (Okay, maybe also the teensiest bit tipsy, on which I will blame any snarky remarks in this post).   I ate 23 things and tasted 18 wines and I’m here to share my faves.  In case you’re not familiar, Chicago Gourmet is a two-day food and drink extravaganza that takes places in Chicago’s gorgeous Millennium Park, in the shadow of the Pritzker Pavilion.  It’s sponsored by Bon Appetit magazine, the Illinois Restaurant Association and Southern Wine & Spirits, a trifecta of food and drink powerhouses.  More than 160 chefs participate and God knows how many wineries, brewers and distillers.  The event was sold-out both days and today was super-crowdy, probs because it was an absolutely gorgeous day.  (The fact that tickets are more than $150 a pop says something for Chicago’s avid foodie population!)

So the first thing I encountered was a really interesting Buick booth.  As not only a food freak, but a PR and marketing person, I am fascinated by Buick’s invasion of the foodie community.  This was about the fourth or fifth time I’ve encountered them at a food event, and they’re smart – they’ve changed up their gimmick, and this one was COOL.  They had all these ingredients – different chocolates, nuts, bacon, cinnamon, etc. — and you could create your own chocolate bar!  And then they send the bar to you in the mail in two weeks!  How cool is that?

I chose milk chocolate, bacon, buttered, roasted peanuts and cinnamon.  I can’t wait to get it and see how it tastes!  I don’t know if I’ll buy a Buick anytime soon, but they’re creating some interesting buzz in an interesting target audience.  OK, onward.

So, as I did last year, I set out to find the BEST savory item and the most TANTALIZING sweet item.  Now, I certainly didn’t taste everything on offer (seriously?  the line for the Supreme Lobster & Seafood Tasting Pavilion was, like, two days long – I couldn’t deal with that), but I tasted a fair amount and my very favorite was: Chef John Des Rosiers’ (Inovasi restaurant, in Lake Bluff) Pork and Chanterelles Rillettes with Aromatics and his own gin.

Shut up.  This dish had so much flavor and everything worked.  You could taste all the ingredients and nothing was overwhelming.  Served chilled, it had amazing, meaty texture and the herbal tang of the gin and the aromatics was just perfect.  Dear Chef Des Rosiers: we might have to establish a dealer-junkie relationship over this dish, because I adore it and want more!   Bravo!

Okay, I’ll share a few photos of other things that were also really, really good.

Clockwise, from top left: Glazed Pork Belly from Roka Akor, a Grilled Kale Salad on a Potato Cracker from Terzo Piano, a Lump Crab with Truffle situation atop Brioche, a Barbacoa (brisket) taco from Cantina Laredo and an amazing gazpacho with lump crab meat and avocado from Grill on the Alley.  Yum to all!

Then I took a short eating break and watched Chef Art Smith and Chef Takashi Yagihashi do a “Top Chef Masters – Chicago” demo, hosted by Bon Appetit editor Adam Rapoport (who is pretty dang hot, if you ask me.  Oops, the wine might be talking a little now.)  That was fun, to see them in person.  That Takashi – he’s a very funny guy!

On to dessert!  My friend Leigh Omilinsky, head pastry chef🙂 at Cafe des Architectes at the Sofitel Hotel nailed it!  She did a pear bavarois (a custard sort of thing) with a delicious paper-thin wafer of fresh pear and a perfect cube of butter cake.  And some tapioca pearls for fun flavor and texture.

It was perfect: sweet, creamy, fresh and luxurious.  I. loved. IT.

As for the drinking: I’m not so much a spirits girl, so I stuck to wine (and a Leffe Blond ale; I like that stuff and I had to take a break from all the wine).  Want to see what I tried?  I will tell you: the Terlato Family Vineyards Episode and Terlato Family Vineyards Galaxy are amazing (full disclosure: I work at Terlato Wines now and this was my first tasting of these two and they are EXQUISITE red blends).

And there you have it: four hours of eating and drinking on a gorgeous fall day and one big, fat blog post.  Hope you are inspired to try some of the restaurants I loved from the day and some of the wines, too.  And if you were at chicago Gourmet, tell me what you loved!  (Shout out, too, to Isabelli Media Relations, for making my visit possible.)  Until next time!


Hi Food Friends: Welcome to my “new” blog!  Yep, the Lazy Cook and the Crazy Cook have separated – in a friendly way.  While Cathy Kapica, aka the Lazy Cook, and I had a great run doing videos (starting back in ’09!), she didn’t really have food blogging in her blood, so she opted out.  So I’ve renamed it and hopefully the change-over I’m muddling through with WordPress is working.   Both names – Lazy Cook Crazy Cook.com and No Whisk No Reward.com – should bring you here, so I’m hoping not to lose anyone in the transition!

My mission with this blog is to inspire people to cook.   The saying, “No Risk No Reward” says it all to me:  if you don’t cook, you don’t eat well!  And of course I had to throw a pun in there, because I’m, well, me.  I’ll also share fun and unique experiences I have in the food world.  (If you read this and/or know me, you know I love meeting chefs and eating their food, too, in addition to my own!
So here we go – new name, new look and fingers crossed I can get this WordPress business sorted out!  So go cook something in the meantime, and I’ll be back with more soon!


Hi Food Friends.  It’s been a while since I last posted, I know, but it’s been B-U-S-Y!  So I thought I would catch you up on a mish-mosh of my summer culinary adventures.  And for some reason, I’m going backwards, from today back to July 11.  Ready? Come on!

Watermelon Pickles!

So my cooking club, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pans, met on July 8 and the theme was “summer time.” While all the food was fantastic, my friend Tina made THE MOST AMAZING WATERMELON PICKLES!

First you think, “wait, WHAT?  Tough, flavorless, watery watermelon rind – pickled?”  And I’m here to tell you,YES!   They are delicious.  Crisp, a little crunchy and sooo flavorful, kind of sweet-savory all at one time, steeped for three days in rice wine vinegar, honey, yuzu juice (more on yuzu juice later), juniper berries and salt.  So good as a snack or a little side to any meal.  And I was just dying to make them, so I did!  You do, too, trust me.

Ingredients:

1/4 C. plus 2 Tbl rice wine vinegar (not the seasoned kind, the plain kind)

1/2 C. plus 1 Tbl yuzu juice.  NOTE:  I could not find yuzu juice anywhere in Chicago and princess here needed immediate gratification so ordering online was out of the question.  So I Googled substitutes and lime juice came up.  So I used the juice of four limes, which equaled 1/2 C. and 1 Tbl.  (Tina used yuzu juice, so I’ll be eager to see how mine taste with the lime juice.)  Yuzu is a Japanese citrus fruit many describe as a sour mandarin orange, so I can see why lime juice might be a good sub.

1/4 C. plus 1 Tbl honey

1 Tbl juniper berries (found them at Whole Foods)

1 1/4 tsp fine sea salt

18 ounces diced watermelon rind

What You Do

1) First you buy what I call a “big-ass watermelon.”  I wanted a regular one that I knew would have thick rind, unlike some of those weird “personal watermelons.”

And you slice it up, like below, in half-moon slices and then trim off the rind, leaving a little pink on it, so it looks like you have a pretty, pretty pink watermelon rind headband.🙂

2) Now, with a sharp knife and a lot of caution (I have to play violin on-stage next week and a Hello Kitty Bandaid is not that cool with a group of cool musicians), trim off the green skin so you have little squares of just white and a little pink.  Pile them into a scale until you have 18 ounces (it took about half of my big-ass watermelon).

3) Now, mix up the brine ingredients in a 16-ounce jar and put your diced rind in.  Put the lid on tightly and give it a few turns to coat everything.

I’ve never used juniper berries before, but oooh, the aroma.  Juniper is used to make gin, and it has a green, herbaceous, slightly citrus-y scent.  Love.  Now, Your  brine won’t completely cover the rinds, but I’m guessing the rind will release some juices over its three-day vacation in the fridge.  But you’ll want to give it a few turns each day, I think, to be sure the flavors get soaked in evenly.

4) After three days, stick a fork in and try them!  Note: This is not “professional canning” where you boil jars and all that, so eat these within about a week.

Yacht Party with Rick Bayless

Back in April, I ponied up some bucks with a group of friends from Lookingglass Theatre (I’ve been associated with the board for many, many years) so we could bid on a summer yacht party with Rick Bayless – and we won!  So on a beautiful Chicago summer evening, we set out on Lake Michigan and Rick was on-board cooking up some amazing bites and shaking up some mighty fine margaritas. And here are a few shots of that fun night with amazing food and friends.  And Rick Bayless is about as nice as can be.  And yes, the guy (who won Top Chef Masters, after all) – can cook.

Rick and his fabulous sous chef Zach and server Juan served up his famous guacamole with bacon, two kinds of ceviche, oysters with chicharrones (I think – that’s fried pork skin), grilled shrimp with chipotle sauce – and the bite you see above – grilled foie gras with Rick’s famous mole — ooooh, shut up, it was so good.  So yeah, that was a really fun night – with an amazing boatload of fabulous friends.

Alinea

Well, I finally did it.  Ate at Alinea.  I’m not sure what took me so long.  But when my friend Kate came to town, and I just happened to be on Facebook the very minute Alinea released its first tickets for August (yes, Alinea is now just like its sister, Next, selling tickets instead of reservations), I clicked “purchase” on a Sunday night table!  Yes, it is expensive (nearly $500 a person).  But for a person who is endlessly curious about food and wine, it is SO worth it.

Here’s a little photo montage below.    The “Black Truffle Explosion” – a ravioli-like pasta pocket filled with truffle broth – was just that – the happiest, most memorable explosion of flavor in your mouth.  The summer tomato salad was beautiful and delicious and I wanted to drink the liquid at the bottom.  (But I didn’t.) And there was a helium apple balloon!  I stuck a pin in it and a whoosh of helium went into my mouth, which made Kate die laughing when I said, “It’s delicious” in a munchkin-like voice!   I might do a separate post on it, because this one’s getting long and I can’t do it all justice.  Suffice it to say: WE LOVED EVERY MINUTE OF IT!  The staff was a delight – professional and formal – but also friendly and funny.  And the wine pairings?  Perfect.

So there you have it: a month in my food life.  Yes, there was a baked-Dijon-mustard dressing that I found in Food & Wine magazine that was divine on warm new potatoes and there have been untold BLTs and other summer veg delights, but these are the high spots.  I’ll be back soon… with a new blog name and hopefully look, too.  In the meantime, keep cooking and eating!


Hi Food Friends!  And happy (hot!) summer to you!  You might know about my obsession with NEXT restaurant in Chicago, Chef Grant Achatz’s and Chef Dave Beran’s innovative concept, where the entire menu and theme change about every three months.  In February, I brought you my adventures at their El Bulli tribute and now I bring you the Sicily menu, which started in June.  It was fun and it was delicious and this post will mostly be photos.   I don’t routinely throw down the big bucks in restaurants, but there’s something so compelling about trying out each and every menu, to taste new things, to revel in the culinary skill and imagination of Chef Beran and the wine pairings of Joe Catterson.  I can’t stay away!

First, if you have interest in NEXT, I highly recommend checking out their Facebook page — it’s evolved into a really fun community of  “Nexties” who share feedback, funny comments about trying to get tickets and help out newbies with information and insights.

Second, my friend Amy and I were excited to finally visit  The Aviary before dinner, which features brilliant cocktails and bites in a sexy, modern space right next door to NEXT.  Behold my Watermelon cocktail:

Wish I could remember all the ingredients, but I was so damn excited, I forgot to write them down.  I know the perfect, spherical, watermelon-red ice cubes were made with bitters and the whole drink was redolent with watermelon and just the right amount of ginger bite.  It. was. divine!  And because I was actually, in fact, starving, at 8:30, before our 9:30 reso at NEXT, we ordered a “bowl of chips.”  But no – not potato chips.  Pish-tosh: Aviary would never send out a bowl of plain potato chips.  No, it was this:

Photo is not so great, because it was kind of dark and I wasn’t about to let loose with a big obnoxious flash, but there were chips made of lotus root (the lacy one), seaweed, chicharrones (pork rind, uh huh), polenta, squid ink with puffed rice, bonito, parmesan, and tapioca (a crazy-looking, bumpy thing with some cheese flavor on it, I swear). So much fun.

Okay, time to go NEXT door!  The dinner opens with the cutest handwritten note autographed by Chef Beran and our section server Terrance and another chef, who it’s killing me I can’t remember (or read) his name.

What a fun touch.  And it was immediately accompanied by a fantastic cocktail of amaro averna (a Sicilian herbal liqueur), honey, chamomile tea, Meyer lemon and Prosecco.  Sensational.  Okay, on to the food!

There was beautiful Caponata (a stew of eggplant, onions, celery, I think some raisins, and definitely pine nuts) and crisp, golden Arancine, fried orbs of risotto-style rice filled with a lamb’s tongue ragout (yes, delish!).  There was also the most amazing char-grilled artichokes, but it didn’t photograph well, sorry!

Then came two pasta courses:

On the left you have handmade bucatini with Bottarga (cured fish roe shaved thinly into slices) and a cream sauce, and on the right, gemelli with fresh sardines, bread crumbs, currants and who knows what herbs and other delicious bits.  Both were divine!

Then came the most tender and delicious swordfish on a bed of fresh mint pesto, accompanied by one of my favorite dishes: ceci – chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans) with purslane, a wild, nutty-tasting succulent, which many call a weed, and romanesco, the freaky-looking child of a cauliflower and a broccoli.  Plus white raisins and Lord knows what else – it was fabulous.

Aaaand, here comes the most tender, fatty, delicious pork shoulder … braised for six hours … with a side dish of sauteed zucchini and a gorgeous, spicy nasturtium, shaved raw asparagus and a delicate, perfectly fried zucchini blossom.  Stunning.

Oh, my Godfather.  I’m so freaking full.  But here comes a lovely raspberry sorbet (I think it was raspberry – it was red and refreshing).  And dessert.  Full disclosure: for some reason, Italian desserts (with the huge exception of panacotta, which is not Sicilian) are not my fave.  NEXT created a beautiful cassata, a traditional Sicilian cake, gilded with green and white marzipan (almond paste), covering white cake and a ricotta layer – it was gorgeous – just not to my taste.  And tiny, perfect cannoli, which were light and delish.  And I just realized I neglected to share the wines – but one of our favorites was the Planeta Passito, di Noto, 2008, a Sauternes-style dessert wine that was THE BOMB! Not overly sweet, crisp – completely delightful.

So there you have it.  I can only hope I did it justice.  It was three hours of food bliss, Sicilian style, and I cannot end this without giving a very loud SHOUT OUT in BIG SHOUTY CAPITALS to the staff at NEXT.  The servers – many of whom I happily recognize from previous visits –  are SO nice, so much fun, SO knowledgeable about the food, the ingredients, the preparation, the wines, the everything, it’s amazing — and lends so much to the entire experience.  Mille grazie to all!  And to those who plan on going: enjoy.  And to those who cannot: enjoy eating my pictures!