Archive for February, 2012

First of all, let me say that if my mom is reading this, and I’m sure she is (Hi, Mom), she is one of many who think I am certifiably crazy as a mad bat, for having done this, but I did it.  I ate at Next last Wednesday, Feb. 22, succumbing to the undeniable and almost out-of-control allure of the El Bulli menu.  Yes, it was expensive.  Crazy-expensive.  Hundreds and hundreds of dollars.  But it was hands-down the most amazing food experience I’ve ever had.  The creativity, the imagination, the “think outside the plate” concepts absolutely blew me away. I sum it up in four words: inspiring, magical, fun and absolutely delicious.  Also, a little drunken.

If you’re not familiar with Next, visit their Facebook page.  The entire menu changes every few months, and the current menu, which started in early February, is an homage to the famous El Bulli, in Roses, Spain, where chef Ferran Adria broke barriers like no one else.  El Bulli closed in July 2010, so Chef Grant Achatz and Chef Dave Berans of Next decided to recreate the experience, Next-style.   Along with the amazingly crafted food and the wine pairings, I have to say the staff at Next is simply amazing.  The atmosphere is fun, the servers look like they are really enjoying bringing this experience to diners and they know everything about every dish, every wine — they’re amazing.  And nice as can be!

Now, I’m not a football fan, a Hollywood actress or a politician, but this was like the Super Bowl, The Academy Awards and the presidential elections of dining all rolled into one amazing 5 and 1/2 hour evening.  Behold the “Carrot Air:”

Yes, it looks like a brilliant orange bubble bath – but it was the purest, most intense carrot flavor EVER!  The combo of the light, airy foam and the flavor and the aroma was  just amazing.  Definitely in my top five dishes.  Of the 29 courses.  Yes, 29.  But some are just literally one bite, like these:

Clockwise from top left: trout roe tempura, a quail egg in a “toffee” shell, liquid chicken croquettes and El Bulli’s famous “spherical olive:” a molecular gastronomy first, with olive brine and oil magically (yes, magically!) transformed into a liquid-y slurp of briny olive goodness!

And how can you not love a black sesame sponge cake with miso?  “What?” you say? Yes – it’s sweet, it’s black, it’s shaggy-looking, it’s salty from the creamy miso and it looks like it was made by a Muppet chef.  And it was delicious.

OK, onward.  Here you have some of the more substantial courses.

From top left, clockwise: savory tomato ice on almond milk custard, cauliflower “cous cous” surrounded by a ring of ingredients that you mix together as a sauce (peanuts, Campari gelee, I don’t even know what all, but it was damn good), shrimp “bisque” (my description, not theirs) and get ready – because it sounds gross, but it was amazing– hot crab aspic with mini-corn cous cous. Deeelicious.

Okay, ready for more?  Here it comes…

From top left, clockwise: Trumpet mushroom carpaccio, Red Mullet “Gaudi” (a bite), Nasturium with eel, bone marrow and sweet cucumber.  Sigh.  That red mullet was served on a sheet of glass, which was placed onto a “place mat” that was a big bag full of hot water and sea shells.  Shut up.  So clever!

Okay, by now we had quite a few wine glasses on our table:

All told, I think there were about a dozen different wines, all of them fabulous.

And then there was the civet of rabbit with hot apple jelly:

And here was the one thing that I did not care for, since I am (inexplicably) a life-long blue-cheese hater.

This is the gorgonzola balloon.  A cold orb of (strong) Maytag blue cheese sprinkled with nutmeg.   I don’t know how they do it, but I don’t like it (and I did try it!)

And now for the finale!  Sweets!

Top left was the Mint Pond – a giant glass plate with another “plate” of ice perched on top.  They sprinkled on dried mint and two other things (sorry, I’d hate rather a lot of wine at this point) and then you smacked it with your spoon into shards.  And ate it!  Fun!  Then came tiny chocolate donuts, filled with liquified coconut, a chocolate plate with gold leaf, cafe Cortado with a tequila gelee you dropped into your cup and finally, a whimsical plate of gloves waving goodbye.  Under one was a dish of passionfruit marshmallows.  Sigh.

If you want to go to Next, my suggestion is to join their Facebook communty; they offer same-night and next-night tables and you have to act fast, but it can be done.  The way I went was through a new friend I met on the Facebook page last June, looking for two people to share her four-top for the Paris 1906 menu.  She needed to fill her table for this one, so we made it happen!  The El Bulli menu runs through May and will be followed by menus inspired by Kyoto and Sicily.  (The other menus are considerably less expensive than the El Bulli menu.)

Yes, it’s expensive and excessive in every way, but to a food-freak like me – and many others – it is a simply unforgettable experience.  I’m an official Next groupie at this point.

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So I was eating up a recent issue of Fine Cooking magazine and I saw a recipe for Braised Leeks. I luuuuuuuv leeks – oniony, but mild, with a touch of savory sweetness.  And they’re so pretty!   Dark green tops fading down into light green and then white.  So I made it, and then I was like, “WAIT! This is just begging for a poached egg!”  If you know me, you know I’m all about tossing a poached egg on top of something and calling it dinner.  This recipe is SO EASY and SO DELICIOUS.   Look how yummy!

You’ve got the warm braised leeks that are both tender and a little chewy because of the slight char and caramelization, you’ve got a luscious poached egg with a golden yellow yolk and two cute little pieces of toasted baguette brushed with some of the olive oil-thyme mixture in which you braised the leeks.  It’s a perfectly satisfying light dinner.   And a glass of New Zealand sauvignon blanc or a California chardonnay makes it even better!   Want to make it?  Come on!  It’s so easy.

Braised Leeks with Poached Eggs


4 big leeks, with the dark green part trimmed off (you could zip-bag and freeze them for making veg stock later, if you want – or chuck ’em; your choice)

1/4 C. extra virgin olive oil

1 Tbl white wine (any kind works, except for a sweet wine, like a Riesling, or white zin – which should be outlawed, but that’s another story)

1 Tbl water

A bunch of thyme sprigs, or dried thyme, whichever you have

Sea Salt

What You Do

Preheat oven to 375 Fahrenheit.

1) Slice the leeks lengthwise, in half, and trim off  the root end.  Rinse them under cold water, splaying the leaves a bit to make sure there’s no grit or sand (leeks can contain sandy grit – ick)

2) Put the leeks cut-side-down into a 9″ x 9″ baking pan. Nestle your little thyme sprigs in.   Mix the olive oil, wine and water in a little bowl or measuring cup and drizzle that all over the leeks.  Sprinkle the whole lot with a generous 1/2 tsp of sea salt.

3) Put a tight tin foil hat onto your pan and slide ‘er into the oven for 45 minutes.  After 45 minutes, take the foil off, and braise for 15 more minutes.

4) Poach an egg (bring 4 inches of water to a bubbling simmer, not a crazy boil and slide in an egg; cook undisturbed for 2 and 1/2 minutes, ’til the white is set; use a slotted spoon to retrieve the egg and rest it on a paper towel for a minute so it’s not all wet.)  Slide that baby onto your leeks, season with salt (I luuv Maldon sea salt) and pepper and enjoy!  Add a couple toasted baguette slices rubbed with some of the olive oil and you’ve got a pretty nice dinner!

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When my friend and farmer Bob Borchardt called a couple of weeks ago to tell me about the Harvest Moon CSA member party and chili cook-off, his first question was, “Do you want to cook or judge?”  I immediately said, “I wanna cook!”  And then I asked, “Wait – who else is cooking?”  That’s when I found out I’d be putting my bowl o’ red up against not only a number of passionate home cooks, but several top Chicago restaurant chefs.  Yipes.  Well, it was too late now.  I had to rise to the Red Challenge! 

My friend Tom, who also happens to be a farm owner, found out about the event and offered to bring me several pounds of fresh ground beef from his own farm.   Then I found two big jars of Harvest Moon’s own heirloom tomatoes in my cupboard.  I figured I could do this.  So I turned to my battered and splattered page from Nigella Lawson’s “Feast,” which is all scribbled with notes, tweaked the recipe just a bit, and whipped up a huge batch of chili.  And guess what?  I was the runner-up!   I about fell over with surprise!  First place went very deservedly to Chef Rick Gresh, of David Burke’s Primehouse (everybody was talking about his chili, rich with braised beef shoulder and toasted spices – that was some damn good chili.)  Here we are with farmer’s Jen and Bob Borchardt.

The judges included Chicago food photographer extraordinaire Grant Kessler, Chicago Foodies editor Josh Brusin and Families Farmed founder Jim Slama.  The judges judiciously tasted each chili and while they figured out the winners, everyone ate chili, drank some good Goose Island beer and even got to do some farmer’s market shopping from Harvest Moon.  And now that I’ve got one cook-off under my belt, I’m a little hooked! 

So I share with you my recipe, adapted from Nigella’s (love her).  It’s a little untraditional, in that it does not contain chili powder (which I’m really not wild about), and it does contain some warm spices like cardamom, coriander and cocoa powder!  Instead of chili powder, I used ground Turkish Aleppo Chili (available at the Spice House), and I even added some brewed coffee, which, I think, lent it a depth of flavor that brought out all those spices.   

I  hear there is a big football game this weekend, so maybe it’s the perfect time to try it!   Ready? Come on, I’ll show you how!

Warm Winter Chili – Serves up to 15 people (just halve the recipe to make a smaller batch, but it does freeze beautifully if you make a whole lot of it.)


3 large sweet onions, chopped

2 large cloves of garlic, minced

1/4 C. olive oil

3 red peppers, cored, seeded and chopped

2 tsp ground coriander

2 tsp ground cumin

2 tsp ground cardamom

2 tsp ground Turkish Aleppo chili

2 Tbls cocoa powder (the unsweetened kind; I used Hershey’s)

2.5 pounds good-quality ground beef

6 C. canned, chopped tomatoes, with their juices

1/4 C. ketchup

1/4 C. tomato puree (I used the left-over tomato sauce from a recently used can of San Marzano tomatoes, which I’d frozen)

3/4 C. water

3 14-ounce cans of black beans (you could use kidney beans if you prefer); drained and rinsed (a colandar is handy for this)

1/4 C. brewed black coffee

What You Do

1) Chop your onions and garlic – and I recommend going straight to the Cuisinart for this to save time.  Toss in the garlic cloves while you’re at it.

2) Heat the olive oil in a BIG pot.  Big.  Saute the onions and garlic for about 15 minutes, until they’re almost caramelized. 

3) Add the Turkish Aleppo chili, coriander, cardamom and cumin and stir it all about.  Cook for five more minutes while you chop your red peppers (again, the Cuisinart does wonders here, with the thin slicing blade).

4) Add your chopped red peppers to the onion-garlic mixture.  Stir.  Confession: This is when I realized I was going to have to split the recipe between two large pots.  I just took half the veg and transferred it to a second pot, and split the ingredients between the two pots for the rest of the recipe.

5) Add the ground beef, breaking it up with your hands and two wooden spoons.  Brown the meat – yes, it’s a lot, all in one pot (see my confession above!), so just do the best you can.

6) Add the chopped tomatoes, the beans, ketchup, tomato puree and water, stirring carefully so you don’t slop it all over the stove and yourself and the floor.

7) Bring the whole lot to a boil, and sprinkle the cocoa powder in, stirring it in well.  Add the coffee and stir again.  Now, turn down the heat, and let the chili simmer, partially covered, for 90 minutes to 2 hours, over low heat, stirring every so often. 

And that’s it!  Serve right away, or let it cool down and refrigerate it and re-heat it the following day.  I actually find chili improves a day after you make it, as the flavors really develop with a little time.  I like to serve it with, yes, Jiffy corn bread, or corn or flour tortillas.  And yes, Fritos are also a divine accompaniment for chili!  You can also serve it with classic chili condiments, like sour cream and/or shredded cheese if you like. 


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