Carbs in the Clouds | Mealsharing for the First Time

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I have cooked for family. I have cooked for dates. I have cooked for judges. But now it was time to cook for strangers.

A few weeks ago I met Jessica, one of the founders of Mealsharing.com, at a meeting for Chicago Food Bloggers. Sharing photos and stories on here is great, but I have been looking for a space for friends and strangers to sample my creations. Jessica said she knew people who would host if I was willing to cook. I emailed my friends to pick a date, then started planning the menu.

The Prep

I settled on crostini with four different toppings, a salad, carbonara alla bucatini and tiramisu. If you read this blog on a regular basis you know I rarely bake. My girlfriend offered her services to whip up tiramisu from scratch.

On mealsharing, you can specify where, how much guest should chip in and how many people you’d like to host. I figured 10 of my friends might come. Thursday night I only had one faithful friend who had registered. I considered rescheduling the dinner. On Friday, friends and strangers started claiming all the seats to sell out the event.

We hit a few stores to procure all the ingredients. For the crostini toppings I reached out to my grandma’s cousin Ciccio in Sicily for advice. He sent three suggestions for Crostini marsalesi: Patè di olive, Patè di tonno in scatola and Patè di pomodoro. I added roasted eggplant with roasted garlic to the lineup. I made all of these with my KitchenAid Chopper before heading to the city.

The Meal

Leann and I emerged victorious in the battle against rush hour traffic from the ‘burbs. We stopped at Mariano’s in the South Loop to get the final ingredients. Ben & Jerry’s was camped outside with free samples, which served as an energy booster after a long drive. Once at the space, Leann and I may have skipped around in amusement. The space Jessica set me up with was a common space for a condo building in the South Loop. It overlooked Soldier Field, Lake Michigan and had an unrivaled view of downtown’s skyscrapers. Leann and I unpacked our items, started prepping and wondering if they’d ever know if decided to never leave that rooftop paradise.

Guests started arriving shortly after 7:15. Scaling a recipe for 4 to serve 12 isn’t as simple as you would hope.

I know why they called it a miracle when Jesus fed all the guests at Cana. He was smart to limit the menu to loaves and fishes.

Leann and my friends jumped in as sous chef to help me get the food out. The crostini and salad bought me time to assemble the carbonara. There was a bit of a delay between courses, but thankfully no one rushed the kitchen. After the carbonara was done, everyone left the kitchen to enjoy wine, food and conversation.

The Dessert

Not long after plating myself carbonara and crostini most of the food was finished! Always a good sign. We sat for a bit letting the food digest. Then it was time for the jewel of the meal: Leann’s homemade tiramisu. My friend Miguel, who was carb loading before two triathlons this weekend, snapped a pic of tiramisu with Chicago’s skyline as the backdrop. Then one of the guests began getting every last bit of tiramisu out of the pan. It was too good to let any go to waste.

Recap

Huge thanks to Jessica and Jay for allowing me to share my love of cooking with friends and strangers in a ridiculously awesome space. I was a bit ambitious in aiming to make all the food on the menu. A salad, main and dessert would be more feasible. A make-ahead dish would also enable more interaction with my friends and guests. Carbonara doesn’t reheat well, so I was in the kitchen most of the night.

Next time I will simplify the menu and limit the number of guests to four. Overall, it was a great experience and sharpened my kitchen skills. Plus it confirmed I have some great close friends who trekked out and helped me make this dinner in the clouds a reality.

Underground dinners may be all the rage for foodies, but I like my food with a view.

Linguine al Limone | easy recipe

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Jamie Oliver and numerous other chefs have posted recipes for this dish. The appeal is it’s incredibly fast and easy.

Make pasta & drain.
Heat olive oil in separate pan.
Smash garlic and add to hot oil.
Zest/juice a lemon.
Cut heat.
Toss pasta with garlic oil, lemon zest/juice, red pepper flakes, pepper, shredded cheese (I used pecorino).
Serve.

Spaghetti Carbonara | First Attempt

pasta, spaghetti, carbonara, bacon, dinner, italian

Spaghetti Carbonara. Creamy. Salty. Perfectly cooked pasta. It was a thing of beauty when I ate it in Trastevere, outside of Roma. So, good that my latest quest is to master it. Or come as close as I can to the inspiration dish. To the internet to read up on different recipes and tips! After reading Mario’s recipe, America’s Test Kitchen’s recipe and the array of takes on The Kitchn, I settled on the “foolproof” option from Chris Kimball and Co. With basket in hand I wandered the three aisles at Trader Joes. I grabbed pecorino and organic spaghetti from whole durum semolina. All the recipes stressed the importance of quality ingredients, especially when there are only four. I wasn’t pleased with the bacon offerings and lack of pancetta, so I walked to TJ’s unknown sister: Aldi. They had thick cut applewood bacon and some salad fixins. Last night’s dinner was of the traveling variety. I hadn’t spent bro time with my buddy in a while and I wanted to test run this dish before serving it for the masses. So I cooked at his place. He had cage free, organic eggs. 20140617-124515-45915128.jpg

They were so fresh the package gave the name of the chicken.

I fully expected one of the eggs to hatch. Step one is to fry up the bacon/pancetta. The quantity of bacon strips was cut off by the printer, so I guessed that the number was a 3. Turns out it was an 8. So my creation was lighter on the salty greatness. 20140617-124514-45914782.jpg While the bacon cooked, I shredded the cheese to combine with the eggs. I also started the half pot of water to boil for the spaghetti. 20140617-124515-45915453.jpg This dish comes down to timing. None of the steps are that time consuming or difficult. ATK’s procedure is a good one to follow as a starting point.

  • Start the bacon.
  • Then the water.
  • Mix the cheese, eggs, salt & pepper.
  • Place pasta in salted water once boiling.
  • Use a spoon to remove the bacon and place on a paper towel to drain some of the fat. Save the fat! (I want a t-shirt that says that.)
  • Reserve a cup of pasta water before draining.
  • Drain pasta.
  • Quickly dump hot spaghetti into egg/cheese/bacon fat/seasoning mixture.
  • Add bacon to bowl.
  • Toss.
  • FEAST!

This dish wasn’t as good as the Italian inspiration dish, but I have some thoughts on the next batch: two whole eggs, two yolks. That may create a texture closer to the original. Or maybe I should just go back for another taste. 20140617-124516-45916255.jpg

La Famiglia – 437 Rush Re-Opening

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Within 10 minutes of entering Phil Stefani’s 437 Rush’s re-opening party last night, I had a glass of vino and more food than I get at my grandma’s house. (I hope my grandma doesn’t read this.) The waiters came in unrelenting waves with trays of everything from bruschetta to tuna tartar. I had quickly amassed more plates than a circus performer, replete with my very own mini trident.

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For the Stefani family, food is their life. This restaurant goes beyond being a mom-and-pop upscale steakhouse to being part of their empire, which includes CastawaysChango LocoRiva Crab House and Tuscany (4 locations throughout Chicagoland).

Gina and Anthony Stefani grew up with a restaurateur for a father and learned the family business from an early age.

“My dad had me working the pasta stand at 11,” Anthony recalled.

“And I was washing dishes at 15,” Gina added.

Phil, the patriarch, makes it back to Italy five times a year to sample the authentic flavors of the motherland. Their family vacations might sound a bit different than yours and mine.

“Whenever we took trips, it was always focused on the food,” Gina said. Instead of waiting in line for the teacups at Disney, they sampled sauces and breads in Italy.

“But the food in Italy is amazing. You’ll never have anything better.” Gina continued.

The brother/sister duo were entrusted with updating 437 Rush from the old-school Italian steakhouse vibe.

“Anthony is more of a foodie than I am,” admitted Gina. “He knows all the trends for new ingredients.”

Gina stepped away from her gig in PR and event planning with XA to lead the project management of the redesign.

“This has been my baby for the past two months and tomorrow will be its birthday. I told people we should’ve had a film crew in here,” Gina said of the remodel resembling those featured on HGTV. It came down to the final hours of pulling the plastic off light fixtures the day before the party.

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The white tablecloths have been removed. With new floors, Edison lights (a requirement for any new bar), Chicago-themed art, dinnerware and flatware, the only thing that hasn’t changed is the focus on the diner. Their new menu retains classic staples like gnocchi, branzino and the montecarlo, a dish that was a non-negotiable for staying on the menu.

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“We wanted to still serve the dishes our regulars come here for, but also offer some smaller plates and new cocktails,” Gina said. The aim is to attract the lunch and happy hour crowds looking for a place to unwind.

Like the Stefanis, executive chef Christian Fantoni also comes from a family involved in food. His father was the cook for an Italian prince in northern Italy. Gina and Anthony worked with the chef to adapt the menu to include more small, shareable plates. Some of the apps offered last night included wild boar pate, melazane (a pesto with eggplant) and risotto with buffalo mozzarella.
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The redesign also includes a salumeria bar with sliced, melt-in-your-mouth prosciutto, mortadella and salamino nostrano. I fought the urge to request half a pound sliced thin to trump anyone else’s lunch at the office.

The next wave of waiters brought glasses of warm lobster bisque. He informed us that their process takes 12 hours to make their batch.

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If that weren’t enough to satiate your appetite, martini glasses of limoncello and cosmos were the next round to wash down the food. Then came the barrage of cakes: vanilla, strawberry, chocolate and banana.

After the din of the 150+ guests started to wind down, I found the Stefani family gathered, like most families, near the kitchen to enjoy what matters most: good food and la famiglia.

 

Pi Day Food For Jesus (and Nerds)

arancini, lent, appetizer, pi day, pi, vegetarian

arancini, pi day, sphere, 3.14, pi, recipe, food, appetizer

Nerds unite! Pi Day often is celebrated with pie, but I opted for a different route last night.

I’ve only had arancini, fried rice balls, once before. After nabbing a recipe from my cousin’s mother-in-law, I set out to make these spherical wonders for Pi Day.

We all recall how to find the area of a sphere:

A=4πr2

The only math you need to worry about is how many you can eat before your friends call you a gluttonous swine.

They take a bit of work and small hands. Two things I’m not always fond of when it comes to cooking. Find a helper to assist with compacting these tight spheres of wonderment.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cups raw white rice, cooled
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1 1/2 cups chicken stock
  • 8 Tbsp butter, divided into 2 chunks of 4 Tbsp (MATH!)
  • ½ cup grated Parmesan (I used the canned stuff. It was lackluster.)
  • 1 egg
  • 10 small cubes fresh mozzarella
  • 1 cup Italian-style breadcrumbs
  • About 1 cup of vegetable oil for frying

arancini, pi day, sphere, 3.14, pi, recipe, food, appetizer

Process:

  1. Melt 4 Tbsp butter, then brown the rice. You want all the grains to be coated in butter.
  2. Once the rice starts to brown, add the vino. Stir frequently until the rice absorbs all the wine. This process is similar to how you’d make risotto.
  3. After the rice has absorbed all the wine, add the chicken stock, cover, stirring occasionally.
  4. Once the rice is done, beat an egg (not a sphere) with a fork (also not a sphere), then add shredded Parm cheese and butter. Stir in with the rice. The cheese and butter will help the rice bind/clump together.
  5. Let the rice/cheese mixture cool.
  6. Use an ice cream scooper to form uniform spheres. Make an indentation with your thumb and place a cheese cube inside. Mash into a tight sphere.
  7. Roll in breadcrumbs. Set on a plate. Once you have all of them made, pour a glass of wine. That’s tedious work. Put the rice balls in the fridge to congeal.
  8. Heat the oil in a medium sauce pan. I let mine heat for about 8 minutes on medium heat. You’ll start to smell the oil. Or you could be all fancy and use a thermometer. Aiming for burn-your-skin hot, or 375.
  9. Gently place the breaded rice balls in the oil with a slotted spoon. Think Mighty Ducks pass-the-egg-scene gentle.
  10. Flip after 1-2 minutes. Then remove to a plate with a paper towel to absorb the excess grease. Lightly salt after they come out of the oil.

mighty ducks, quack, flying v, eggs, accept the egg, gordon bombay

This was my first time and there is definitely room for improvement. Mine were uber wet and tough to form into tight spheres. Dipping sauce is a great way to add some more flavor. I’d opt for my spicy arrabiatta sauce. Or maybe something with even more kick and chipotle peppers.

Check out my friend Kelly’s recipe. Hers look a ton better than mine. She also has some good tips. Wish I’d read her advice before this adventure. Let me know how yours go.

Bust out that ruler if you want to figure out the area of these versatile little appetizers.

 

Yes, and… A Guide to Improvising Dinner

 

SCENE: You have worked through lunch and feasted on feelings. The last hour was a struggle. You are running on fumes. After looking at BuzzFeed food articles you started making a list of what food each co-worker resembles.

Now you’re on your way home…in a rocket car… and decide to stay strong. No fast food for you. Because you’re in a rocket car.

After tuck-and-rolling out of the rocket car, you get back to your kitchen. Magically, groceries are not only in your fridge, but they are also still fresh.

In an ideal world, the dinner would be waiting for you on the table. If one of these women I have met would support me in the lifestyle i’m accustomed, this would be their reality. Some day…

Cooking and improv are two of my favorite things. Perhaps the improvisational elements of cooking are part of the allure. The other is sharing food with people also leads to sharing stories.

Last night’s supper was a mish-mosh (culinary term) of ingredients I had. One of the distinguishing characteristics of a good cook is the ability to combine flavors. Italian food tends to have some core ingredients and herbs: garlic, tomatoes, onions, cheese, basil. Mexican cuisine tends to rely on some of the same ingredients, but more cumin and peppers.

The great chefs tend to embark on their own path of flavors and herbs; pairing unconventional items.

One of the worst dishes I ever made was a stuffed pork chop. It looked good, but I deviated from the recipe because I didn’t have all the ingredients. It had apples inside. They were cut too big and subsequently didn’t cook. Did I still eat it? Of course. I spent good money on those pork chops and I was in college. Leave no meal behind!

With experience you’ll learn which vegetables and herbs/spices to add to dishes. When in doubt, experiment. I followed recipes for a while to get an idea of what goes well together. Eventually, you’ll start asking yourself “and what else can I put in this?” Once that happens, your next step will be to the psychologist’s office. When talking to yourself, it’s best to do in public, especially on public transit.

Pesto, Pronto

I bought a jar of pesto sauce. Huge helper, especially when everything has died in the tundra that is Chicago.

Remove the sausage from the casing and saute the Italian sausage for 4-5 minutes.

Add chopped bell pepper, onion, garlic, mushrooms. Then I ripped some kale and tossed that in. Get your vitamins! The sausage has to cook for 10-15 minutes. Removing it from the casing makes it cook faster. Meanwhile, I had pasta water coming to a boil in a separate pot.

From there, cook the pasta, drain, add sauce. Then add in the sausage and veggies mix. Shave or sprinkle some cheese on top.

Photograph and post on all the cougar dating sites. Wait for your phone to start lighting up like a [your joke here].

The Real Purpose of Business Cards

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They aren’t for networking events. They aren’t for making a ridiculous house of cards.

The main purpose of business cards is to fill fishbowls at restaurants for free lunch drawings.

It is known by many that my favorite food is “free.” And my favorite drink: whiskey, with a strong preference for free whiskey.

During a routine trip to Noodles & Company to pickup food for my office, I reached into my pocket, grabbed a business card and deposited it into the fishbowl full of elbow noodles. The following Monday I received a call from Noodles. I thought it was to check in on my catering order. Instead it was a man named Andrew–great name–who informed me that I’d been selected to enjoy a tasting menu with eight of my friends.

My first thought was “Do I have eight friends?”

After boasting of my good fortune on social networks, I extended an invite to coworkers who have taken me out to lunch, and to my team. All this serendipity came on the heels of Pablo Day. A sacred day where a generous and kind New Yorker (they do exist) paid for my pizza in the wee small hours, when, inebriated, I grabbed pizza and didn’t pay. Since then, I try to return the favor to someone on Pablo Day. The group was set and today we experienced a total immersion culinary adventure around the globe, one carb dish at a time.

I had no idea what to expect from their tasting lunch. All I knew is that they’d have my favorite food. Here’s what it means: They bring you one of everything on the menu. Every. Thing.

We started with salads before departing for Asia. After sampling pan noodles, pot stickers and pad thai, we worked our way west as part of some global manifest destiny. Next was the Mediterranean region: penne, pesto and problems. At this point everyone in the group started to get concerned that this was all part of an updated Hansel and Gretel situation.

How long before they started feeling our fingers for plumpness?

A few coworkers left claiming they had “work to do.” Those who remained soldiered on to get real work done–licking bowls clean and consuming more carbs than a runner the night before a marathon. The American noodle dishes were barely sampled as we all neared our breaking point.

“Do you want me to just wrap up the sandwiches?” Catherine, our tireless server asked. She saw the collective closing of eyelids and slouching in our chairs. One coworker waived his paper napkin in defeat.

They tossed in some cookies and krispie treats. The four remaining carb crushers and I waddled out the door with our large bags of leftovers.

So go ahead and order those business cards. They practically pay for themselves. Until you get diabetes or get fired for passing out at your desk. “Carb coma” isn’t recognized in the DSM-5.

I checked. Then passed out at my desk.