Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Wrap It Up, B

This week's Fearless expedition was truly impromptu. Jess and I had just gotten done selling some old clothes at a few resale shops, and, $43 in cash burning a hole in my pocket, we stopped by Whole Foods. Where I spent $43.11. No kidding.

As we wandered the aisles, mezmerized by the bulk flax seeds, soy candles, and googly-eyed trout in the fish case, trying to decide what to make for dinner, Jess exclaimed, "Veggie Burritos!" It sounded perfect. I've been wanting to do a vegetarian post for awhile now, because - despite how it may appear on the blog - I am not, in fact, a raging carnivore. I love vegetarian food (yes, I love tofu), and I often eat meatless meals. So Jess called a friend over for dinner (more on this later) and we decided to make it fearless.

FEARLESS FACTOR: Pretty low - I'd say a 2 out of 10. I am one with the burrito. It's pretty hard to make them NOT taste delicious.


Roasted Red Pepper tortillas (or any kind you like)
2 bunches fresh spinach
2 medium ripe tomatoes
1 avocado
1 bunch cilantro
1 medium onion
1 1/2 red bell peppers
1 small container sliced mushrooms
1/2 can low-fat refried beans
1 T. olive oil
salt & pepper
Southwestern seasoning (I used Emeril's)
3 T. sour cream
orange slices (for serving)


Heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Chop the onions and peppers and start to sautee them (about 3-4 minutes). Add a little salt, pepper, and Southwestern seasoning.


Wash the spinach and chop the stems off. Chop it into pieces. Put the spinach and mushrooms into the pan. Add a little more seasoning. Sautee until the spinach begins to wilt, then cover the pan and turn the heat to low and continue to cook until veggies are tender.


Halve the avocado and remove the seed. Mash it up. Add the sour cream to it and stir until mostly smooth. Chop the cilantro. Dice the tomatoes.


Prepare the tortillas by wetting a paper towel and wringing it out, then wrapping a tortilla in it. Stick it in the microwave for 15 seconds, and the tortilla should be warm, moist, and easier to work with. Spread 2-3 T. of the refried beans on the tortilla.


Top the beans with the avocado-sour cream mixture, some cilantro (to taste), and a couple scoops of the veggie mixture. Place the chopped tomatoes on top of all of it.


Roll up and place on a plate seam-side down. Top with a little more avaocado-sour cream, cilantro, and tomatoes. Serve with orange wedges.

Well, now's the time where I tell you what the judges said. This is where it gets a little complicated. Our friend who came over for the burritos wishes to remain anonymous. She is - unlike my constantly-blogging/myspaceing/facebooking self - opposed to having her name and picture all over cyberspace. So our guest judge for this week, in place of our actual friend, will be the beautiful and talented Angelina Jolie.


ANGELINA: I loved it. It was so good. [Insert my confused expression here, as I gaze upon Angie's mutilated burrito remains, spinach strewn to the four corners of her plate.] Oh...I just really don't like spinach. [Angelina doesn't like spinach.] But I loved everything else about it! [Awkward pause.] Can I have another tortilla? [Anything for you, Angelina.]

JESS: Wow, they were really great. a good amount of the beans made a great base. Without enough of them, it would have just been hot salad on a tortilla.

Ross did not have the pleasure of dining with us this evening, but he told jokes while we gossiped. (I can only imagine he would demand more sauce.)


I give it 5 stars. Only such a mediocre score because it was so dreadfully easy. Not my most fearless dish to date, that's for sure. But it tasted great. And really, I think the healthfulness more than made up for the lack of toil in the kitchen. I didn't even use any cheese! I must have slipped into an alternate universe where I am not constantly dreaming about how I can fit cheese into my next meal....

NOTES: Angelina just loved how I served it with orange wedges. I must say it was a nice change of pace from the usual rice or chips side dish.

It was the perfect light supper (we're all trying to get a jump start on those inevitable New Year's Resolutions).

Thanks for reading, and a special thanks to Angelina for taking time out of her busy schedule adopting children from obscure third-world countries to come and have a delicious burrito with the little people.

More soon, my little blans...

Monday, November 26, 2007

Idol Worship


Ah, the big city. Hands-down, one of the best things about living in Chicago (or New York, or LA) is the ever-looming prospect of seeing a celebrity just around the corner. Word on the street is, when Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn were together, you couldn't go out in Chicago WITHOUT running into them. I, myself, have seen THE John Cusack at BB's (be still my beating heart), and the inimitable Ricki Lake riding the escalator in the NBC building. But a recent evening out topped them all - I saw Dale Levitski, Top Chef Season 3 Finalist and hunky gay Chicagoan, in his element at Sola, working the front of the house with all the grace and finesse you'd expect of someone who has one of the most impressive resumes in Top Chef history.

Upon glimpsing his mohawk-crested visage through Sola's window, I proceeded to jump up and down like a ten-year-old at a New Kids on the Block concert, but contained myself once inside, and of course refused to actually speak to him, choosing instead to gaze across the restaurant as he expertly took down orders, hoping my ridiculously stylish knit newboy cap would catch his eye.

Well, Dale and I have yet to officially meet (and subsequently become inseparable best friends, a la Will & Grace), but I did find a few great interviews with him on Chi-centric sites. He had some pretty interesting stuff to say about the molecular gastronomy trend in gourmet cooking these days (and if you watched Marcel on Season 2, you know what I'm talking about - I mean, does the culinary world really need another FOAM?). Dale says:

"The whole molecular gastronomy fad, or trend ... most of those ingredients and techniques are coming out of how commercial products are made. A lot of the chemicals are just stablilizers, [which is] how candy stays on the shelf forever. Or how things get a certain consistency. And toying around with those with fresh food instead of packaged food ... it's pretty interesting that people haven't commented that. These are the chemicals that people are putting in their body in junk food every day. And now we're making gourmet food with junk-food chemicals."

Read the whole interview here. Or, check out his interview with Metromix.


Many of you have probably heard of (or read) the book "Julie & Julia" by Julie Powell. Circa 2002, Powell started a blog where she attempted to cook all 524 recipes from Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" in one year, in her tiny New York apartment. When I found the book lurking in a lilliputian used bookstore (all the better to up the enchanting and alluring why-can't-this-be-my-life factor), I immediately bought it and devoured it whole. I must say it is supremely entertaining. 10 stars.

I had read the Amazon user reviews awhile ago (which is an activity that I highly recommend to anyone with a few hours of freetime and a laptop), and it had gotten some negative buzz - mostly centered around readers' opinions that Powell talks way too little about cooking and way too much about herself, her friends, her husband, the sex lives of the aforementioned parties, and insists on peppering her speech with colorful four-letter colloquialisms (I, myself, tend toward the pirate-lipped, so none of this really gets under my skin). I think the book is great, and Powell is an excellent writer (I see why her blog achieved relatively stratospheric fame (within the blogosphere) - her "bleaders" even went so far as to send her random gifts! (She was creeped out, but rest assured I would be most appreciative.)

I think it's fair to say that in 2002, there were substantially fewer blogs out there than there are now (I mean, I hardly know anyone who DOESN'T have a blog), which would explain why the New Yorker isn't beating down my door to interview me or give a book/TV/movie/mini-series/line of stylish ceramic-ware deal. Which makes me even more appreciative of my blans!

The actual blog is still out there in cyberspace. The thing that's sort of amazing about it is that it contains no pictures of any kind. I mean this woman succeeded in creating a successful blog with WORDS ALONE. The book is available everywhere.

Go get Julie & Julia. You'll love it.

Oh, and please visit City Bookstore. I couldn't find it online (which makes it even cooler, don't you think?), but it's on Broadway a couple blocks north of Clark and Diversey. You'll see the rolling carts of sale books on the sidewalk. Jess and I went there the day after Thanksgiving and got - are you ready for this? - SEVEN books for $19.99. It was half-off for the holiday, but still. Talk about being rich in knowledge....

Thanks for reading, guys. Seriously! I love you all....

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A Fearless Thanksgiving

Burnt rolls...
Lumpy gravy...
Dry turkey...

Thanksgiving is a holiday that strikes fear in the hearts of seasoned cooks and novice kitchen-pilgrims alike. Much like the knot of anxiety that must have tied up the stomachs of our forefathers and the Native Americans as they sat down to the original feast, awakening to a day filled with chopping and carving can be downright scary.

Good thing I'm fearless. Now, this isn't your typical eat-and-be-judged fearless post. Not only did I have a teammate in the kitchen who's fearless in her own right (Ross' mom, Connie, flew in from Pittsburgh to keep us company - not to mention cook the turkey), there were no judgments at this meal (befitting a time of thanks and good vibes).

She even came bearing gifts! Check out this Christmas tree plate - the light on the knife actually lights up!

We awoke to beautiful snow flurries and...NO COFFEE IN THE HOUSE. So I strapped on my Uggs and schlepped to Dollop to get a pound. I completely forgot that it was a holiday, but luckily they were open till noon (they obviously know their clientele).

I got a pound of Indian coffee, in honor of the book Eat, Pray, Love, which Connie is reading, and which I read recently and am totally obessed with. I suggest reading it immediately. This is a great micro-roaster, Metropolis, that's pretty easy to find in the independent coffeeshops around town. A cup of this got the day started off energetically.

Since there were only three of us sitting down to this feast, we kept the menu small, but focused on making each dish great. We had turkey (of course), gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, whipped and baked butternut squash (you might remember that recipe from the pomegranate-scallops post I did awhile back), rolls, and green bean casserole (one of our family traditions, and my little bro's favorite). For dessert, we had Beulah's Famous Banana Pudding (and I don't use the word "famous" lightly) and pumpkin pie (we may be only three people, but one dessert does not a Thanksgiving feast make).


1 1/2 lbs. fresh green beans, trimmed and cut into pieces
1 can gream of mushroom soup
1/2 c. milk
salt and pepper
French fried crispy onions

Boil the green beans for about 8-10 minutes, until they're still bright green but beginning to get tender, then drain. In a baking dish, mix the green beans with the soup and the milk. Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper, then top with the onions. I baked mine in a 325 degree oven (because the turkey was already in there at that temp) for about an hour. The green beans for really tender, but using fresh green beans instead of canned really brightened up the flavor.


Check out my old post for the squash recipe. This one was slightly modified because I started with whole (not pre-cut) butternut squash, and added the sugar, etc. after they were cooked. Then I spread the mixture into a baking dish and baked it for about an hour (again, at 325 because it shared the oven with the turkey).


Connie manned this one on her own. She made a roux, using about 4 T. butter and a few T. of flour. She added the pan drippings (the little brown bits from the bottom of the turkey roasting pan and the juice) and some chicken broth to the roux, and reduced it until it was deliciously cravy-like (it took about 20 minutes).


We just used a regular old bag of stuffing, with chicken broth, and Connie added some fresh onions and celery. We stuffed it in the turkey (that was truly a team effort), and when we took it out, we put it in the oven to get it extra hot.


OK, so that's not a picture of OUR actual turkey. Somehow, I managed NOT to snap the most important picture of the evening, so this one found on the world wide web will have to do. By the time I got my camera over to the bird, Ross was busy carving away like a maniac.

Hmmm, this picture reminds me of something....




On an impulse, we bought this eggnog with the brandy already in it. At $6 a bottle, it was a deal. We haven't cracked it open yet (we had wine with dinner), but I'll let you know how it goes.

All in all, it was a great day, filled with warmth in the kitchen, great phone talks with everyone in my family, who I missed very much, and thoughts of gratitude for all the wonderful blessings in all our lives. And now we all have leftover turkey sandwiches and Black Friday to look forward to!

Thanks for reading! Hope you're all full and happy.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Odds and Ends of Positivity

In my day-to-day gathering of cool info to pass along to my blans (blog fans), I have collected these great niblets of knowledge for you.

My pal Liz at the agency (remember? the cool foodie/ art buyer/ fabulous lady?) passed along this AMAZING article to me from the New York Times Magazine called The Age of Nutritionism. Basically, it's about how we as a society have gone from eating food (comestibles that your great-great-grandmother would have eaten - like, say, an apple) to consuming "food" - highly-processed, cardboard-box-dwelling fare with the shelf life of a piece of petrified wood and the nutrition of, well, a cardboard box. Be prepared, though, for a few hard-hitting wake-up calls that are impossible not to mull over. For me, it was the fact that Americans spent 24% of their income on food in 1940 (this is a good thing), whereas now we spend just 10% on food. So it turns out that my constant bitching about Whole Foods (AKA Whole Paycheck) has been for naught - I really should be buying high-quality, honest-to-God, no-quotation-marks-around-it FOOD.

Read the article in its entirety here.

And, in other pro-world news, I came across this great little $10 book called The Better World Shopper. It breaks down puchaseables into categories (such as "Personal Care Products"), and then lists the best and worst companies from whom to purchase these products. There's even a website!

Check out these great Top Tens from the site:

My best friend's husband (Brent Lopp, of the Athens Lopps, married to one Amy Stone Lopp) worked at Odell brewery in Ft. Collins, which (like New Belgium) is wind-powered, sells sustainable products, and encourages bike riding (thanks for the correction, Ames - sorry for the misprint). Their beer is delicious! When in Ft. Collins, testing the microbrews while gazing at the Rockies should be at the top of your list of things to do.

I also LOVE Endangered Species Chocolate - not only do I get to eat chocolate while helping to save endangered animals, the chocolate itself is INCREDIBLE. Try the panther or the tiger varieties.

Lately, I've been hearing some seemingly negative buzz about gluten. Not knowing the first thing about gluten, I did some quick research. What I found out is that gluten itself is no villain - it makes bagels chewy, and that's good enough for me - but some people are allergic to it. I think I might have been confusing it with glucose, a type of sugar (which in our low-carb world is pretty much public enemy number one, despite the fact that it is crucial to photosynthesis, ergo, crucial to all plant life on the planet).

Which reminds me - I read a great Newsweek article about the rise of allergies in Western culture. I had no idea that in elementary schools these days, it's de rigeur to have "peanut free zones" in the lunch room, and dairy-free, wheat-free birthday cakes! Read it in its entirety here.

Thanks for reading! Have a great holiday!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

What A Crock

It was all I could do not to title this one "Nice Heiny." Why, you ask? Because I cooked pork in Heineken. Read on...

This week, my dear friend Kent came over - with a bottle of Smoking Loon Merlot in tow - before he went to the Improv Olympics show. I call the dish I made:


FEARLESS FACTOR: I'd say medium-fearless. As faithful readers know, this is my second blog meal using my trusty orange CrockPot, so I was confident that the meat would be good. Even the Heineken wasn't too crazy - I've boiled many a bratwurst in beer before grilling it, always with great results. The pesto was the biggest leap of faith - I had never made any kind of pesto, let alone my own red-pepper-sun-dried-tomato version. And, since I royally destroyed last post's asparagus, I made it again this time with much better results. No mushy veggies!


One 5-lb. pork shoulder roast (about $1 per pound - very economical)
1 medium onion
5 garlic cloves
1 T. dried oregano
1 T. dried basil
2 bottles Heineken or other lager
2 jars roasted red peppers
1 large jar julienned sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil, undrained
2 (1/2 c.) bags pine nuts
1 c. pork broth from CrockPot
1 large bunch basil
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley
1 lb. rigatoni pasta
2 bunches fresh asparagus
2 small or 1 large zucchini
olive oil
salt and pepper


Dinner was at 7 PM, so at about 11 AM, I put the pork (5 lb. of pork shoulder) in the Crockpot. It needs about 8 hours on LO or 4 hours on HI. Pour the beer around the pork - it should come to the top but not completely cover it. Slice an onion and mince about 4-5 cloves of garlic. Add the onion, garlic, and dried oregano and dried basil, as well as some pepper (no salt yet). Cover and cook on LO for about 7-8 hours.


In a blender (doing one half at a time, the repeating for the second half of the ingredients so as not to overload the blender), add the roasted red peppers, the sun-dried tomatoes with all the oil, the pine nuts, fresh basil, parsley, and about 1 c. of the pork roasting broth from the Crockpot. Blend on high until the ingredients start to break down. Open the blender and stir around the ingredients, scraping the bottom of the blender. Add a little salt and pepper. Continue to blend until the mixture is mostly smooth, with some small pieces of pine nuts still visible. Transfer to a container until you're ready to warm it.


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Trim the tough ends off the asparagus. Trim the ends off the zucchini and cut into pieces lengthwise. Place in a baking dish and sprinkle with a little salt and pepper and drizzle with a little olive oil, tossing to coat. Bake for about 10 minutes.


Remove the pork from the broth and allow to cool enough to touch. Remove the meat from the bones, discarding any excess fat (there will be a lot of fat to remove - pork shoulder is a tough, fatty cut of meat, which is why it needs to be slow-roasted for hours). My 5-lb. roast yielded about 2 1/2 cups of torn meat). Tear into small pieces. Keep warm.

This is how much meat a 5-lb. roast yielded:


Boil salted water and cook pasta according to package directions.


In a large skillet, combine the pesto and the pork, and heat on low until hot. Don't let it bubble heavily - you don't want it to evaporate/ reduce.


Spoon the pesto and pork over the rigatoni and serve the asparagus and zucchini on the side. Top with a little grated parmesan cheese if you want.


KENT: I don't think I've ever had pork with pasta before. It's interesting. It's really good. The vegetables are perfect, I love asparagus.

JESS: This is really good. I'm really impressed with the sauce. The only bad thing is it got a little cold before we got to eat it. But the meat was perfect. The zucchini could've used a little more seasoning, but the asparagus was awesome.

ROSS: This is awesome. Maybe top 5 you've ever cooked. Top 10, maybe. Well, maybe Top 15. You cook a lot of stuff.

MY VOTE ON MY DISH: Hmmm...I'd say 8.5 stars. Aside from the bad timing on my part (the pasta sat a little while and got a bit sticky, and nothing was piping hot), everything came out great. The pork was tender and flavorful, and the pesto was great. It somehow tasted creamy without containing any cream. And the veggies were crisp and yummy.

NOTES: Next time, I would just wait longer to cook the pasta, so it didn't get sticky and too soft, and I would heat the sauce for a little longer so it stayed nice and hot. This isn't a dish I'd cook a lot, not only because the CrockPot is time-consuming, but because pork shoulder is a fatty cut of meat. Even though I trimmed off most of the fat, there is fat that's just integral to the meat that can't really be extracted from the meat. In small portions, it's not too terrible, but as I rule I try to keep pork to a minimum (and red meat, too, for that matter). If I made this dish again, I would substitute whole wheat pasta, and I would make it vegetarian - I might incorporate the zucchini and asparagus into the sauce in lieu of meat.

We had a great night. Rather than watch Desperate Housewives and veg, we desperately ate some veggies in our house. The wine was great, too. I usually don't like Merlot, but the Smoking Loon was really good.

Thanks for reading, guys!

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