Monday, March 31, 2008


You may have noticed I changed my template!

It's still the same old blog here, just with a darker color palette - what can I say, I thrive on change.

This post isn't a true Fearless post, but it's a quick, healthy dinner that I decided to randomly take photos of, so here it is: Mexican-spiced Quinoa with Black Beans and Chicken.

My inspiration for the dish was this recipe, which I turned into a full meal by adding chicken simmered in salsa.


3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 c. chicken broth
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. olive oil
1 jar salsa, any kind you like
1 c. uncooked quinoa
1 c. frozen corn kernels
1 can Cuban style (seasoned) black beans
1 T. cumin
1 tsp. chili powder
ground cayenne pepper to taste
salt and pepper to taste
2 avocados
2 roma tomatoes, diced
a couple dollops of light sour cream
chopped fresh cilantro


Boil the quinoa according to the directions on package. When it has absorbed about 90 % of the water, add the can of beans (without draining them), and let the quinoa continue to cook while the beans heat up. In a colander, run the corn under hot water to defrost, and stir it into the quinoa and beans and cook until it's hot. Stir in the cumin, chili powder, and cayenne pepper.


In a large saucepan over medium heat, combine the entire jar of salsa and the chicken broth. Place the chicken breasts, raw, into the mixture, stirring it around to combine. Cover and simmer on medium-low until chicken is cooked through, about 20-25 minutes.


Heat the olive oil in a small saucepan, and cook the garlic for about a minute, then add it to the quinoa. Meanwhile, dice the tomatoes and halve the limes. Squeeze the juice of 2 limes into the quinoa mixture.


Halve the avocados and remove the pits. Squeeze a little lime juice on top to prevent oxidation (keeping them green). Scoop some of the quinoa mixture onto a plate. Top with an avocado half. Take a chicken breast and cut it into strips. Pour some of the salsa-cooking liquid on top, and top with a dollop of sour cream, diced tomatoes, and chopped fresh cilantro.

Muy facil! Ole!

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Secret Ingredient Is...

My every dream came true last week, blans.

The whole Mac Grill team flew to Dallas for a Macaroni Grill Iron Chef competition, led by Chef Antonio and Chef John, head Chefs for Macaroni Grill. I was under the impression that we were going to WATCH the competition. But when I showed up Wednesday morning, I was told to put on an apron - we were going to be cooking!

You can probably imagine how excited I was. Think Sally-Field-accepting-her-Oscar excited.

When we showed up at Central Market (which is far and away the most amazing food store I've ever set foot in, and sadly only in Texas), we got chosen for teams, 3rd-grade kickball style, Team John vs. Team Antonio (I'm proud to say that, unlike 3rd grade kickball, I was chosen first for Team Antonio). We then huddled and decided what to make (well, Antonio decided, and then we all volunteered to make specific items. I immediately offered to man the Fennel Gratin, since I've lately become a bechamel-making enthusiast. I knew I could handle it. While we were shopping, I casually suggested we add leeks to the Gratin, which Antonio thought was a great idea (be still my beating heart!).

I was there, ostensibly, to be coming up with brilliant radio campaign ideas for Macaroni Grill (and I wasn't short on inspiration, to be sure), but admittedly, I got a little carried away. But how many times am I going to be able to cook in the kitchen with an actual, bonafide CHEF??!! I had a million questions for Antonio, all of which he answered patiently.

After we got all our ingredients, we headed back to the kitchen and had till noon to concoct our feast. The kitchen was super-cool, complete with an overhead mirror and live-action TVs. This is all of us:

This is Chef John, of the two head Macaroni Grill chefs, with a few of my colleagues:

And the man on the right here is Chef Antonio (whose team I was on), cooking for an audience of three:

Cindy looks intense!

Everything's in little bowls, just like on TV:

My Creative Director, making a warm tomato bruschetta (which Antonio INSISTS we pronounce "broo-SKETT-ah," just like they say in Rome. I do as Antonio says).

The "Secret Ingredient": heirloom tomatoes.

One of the dishes was fresh pasta, with thyme, Meyer lemon zest, and cracked pepper. Antonio and I made a vegetable sauce for it with fried zucchini and artichokes, roasted heirloom tomatoes, and sauteed peppers.

This is Antonio bruleeing the top of the Cara Cara Orange Crostata with one of those small kitchen blowtorches. I had never actually seen one in real life before, but they're every bit as cool as they look on TV.

We cracked open the wine around 11. Yes, A.M. Just another day at the office...

This photo is so much more impressive when you know that that saute pan weighed no less than 30 pounds, literally. I could barely lift it with both hands.

My main contribution to the meal: a Fennel and Leek Gratin that was to DIE FOR. I'll give you the recipe later in the post.

Our elegant pre-meal snack:

Chef John's team deboned a half a chicken, hammered it out with a kitchen mallet, stuffed it with prosciutto, rolled it up, and baked it in its own skin, with mushrooms and sunchokes. Then he made a sauce out of onions, grapes, and the pan drippings, which was unexpectedly delicious.

Our team made these two Cara Cara Orange Crostatas, and we used that particular type of orange because you can actually eat the rind. It was amazing.

This salad, from Chef John's team, had ricotta salada cheese on top, which, according to John, is the "goat cheese" of 2008--apparently goat cheese is SO last year. But ricotta salata is salted ricotta, which is drier and more firm than its lasagna-filling cousin. It's an incredible cheese. I'd use it inplace of feta, since I find feta to be a bit overpowering in most things.

Behold our feast:

And this is me, taking undue credit:

And now for the Fennel and Leek Gratin recipe, as nearly as I can approximate it:

1/2 stick butter
1/2 c. flour
3/4 pint of whole milk, cold
3 fennel bulbs, fronds removed (save the fronds of one bulb)
2 large leeks
salt and pepper
1 1/2 c. grated parmesan cheese

Cut the fennel bulbs in half, then quarter each half. Boil them in salted water for 6-7 minutes, until they're tender, but not soft. Using just the white and light green parts of the leeks, julienne them, and place the strips in a bowl of cold water (to remove sand particles). In a large saucepan, melt the butter and whisk in the flour, making a roux. Whisk in the milk a little at a time to make a thick bechamel sauce, and heat until it just boils. Remove from the heat and stir in 1/2 c. parmesan, and salt and pepper to taste. In a gratin dish, arrange the fennel pieces in concentric circles until you've used all of them. Sprinkle the leeks on top evenly. Pour the bechamel sauce over the fennel and leeks, and sprinkle the remaining 1 c. parmesan cheese over the top. Bake at 375 (?) for 35-45 minutes. Chop the one reserved fennel frond and use it as a garnish around the edges of the gratin.

Of course, after all our hard work in the kitchen, we got to sit down and enjoy the fruits of both teams' labor - and what delicious fruits they were. The fresh pasta was amazing, and the Gratin - if I do say so myself - was delish. What a great day in the ad business, eh?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Birthday, Part 2

As I was sitting down to eat the dinner I made for Ross as the closing ceremony of sorts to his birthday weekend, I realized that it wasn't very Fearless. Not only had I cooked something very similar to every component of the dish before, I have cooked every component of the dish for this BLOG before!

But, since Mother Nature INSISTS on dragging out Winter as long as possible here in the Windy City (see below for evidence), some good old comforting treats seemed like a good idea. Red meat, baby!

So, lack of Fearlessness taken into consideration, I must give my Filet with Balsamic Reduction with Baked Mac 'n' Cheese & Tomatoes and Bacon-Roasted Asparagus a

It would be even lower if I were not a bit on edge from the German Chocolate incident on Friday - the Great Cake Disaster of '08 (which has now eclipsed the Great Salsa Disaster of '06 as my worst kitchen performance to date). So I was conscious of trying to redeem myself, and additionally, steak (especially filet) is always a bit tricky, because it can go from perfectly cooked to tough in just a few short minutes, and I wanted it to be perfectly medium-rare and melt-in-your-mouth.

Read on to see if I did better on this birthday endeavor than the last one...


2 filet mignon steaks
Emeril's Steak Rub
1 T. olive oil
1 T. butter

1 bunch asparagus
3 strips bacon
1/2 tsp. olive oil
salt and pepper

1/2 lb. cavatappi noodles
3 oz. sharp cheddar cheese
3 T. butter
2 T. flour
2 c. milk
3/4 pint grape tomatoes, halved
1/2 c. Panko-style bread crumbs (I use Ian's brand)
salt and pepper

1/2 can beef broth
1/2 c. red wine
1/4 c. balsamic vinegar
1/4 c. brown sugar
1 T. butter
pinch red pepper flakes
salt and pepper


Boil the cavatappi noodles until they're al dente. Preheat the oven to 375. When the noodles are almost done, melt the butter in a large saucepan, and whisk in the flour to make a roux, cooking it for about a minute. Whisk in the milk, and cook it over medium heat for 5-6 minutes, until it begins to thicken.


Break up the cheese (I used slices of cheddar since that's all I had), and whisk it until it's smooth and melted. Drain the pasta, and stir it into the mixture. Add in the halved grape tomatoes, stir to combine. Pour the whole mixture into a shallow baking dish and top with bread crumbs. Bake for about 30 minutes at 375.


Cut the tough ends off the asparagus and rinse. In a small baking dish, toss them in the 1/2 tsp. olive oil and salt and pepper. Chop the bacon into small pieces, and sprinkle it over the top. Add it to the oven with the mac 'n' cheese and bake it for 15 minutes.


In a small saucepan, combine the balsamic vinegar, wine, beef broth, brown sugar, pepper flakes, and salt and pepper. Bring to almost a boil, and cook it until it's reduced by 3/4 and thickens enough to coat a spoon. Take off the heat and stir in 1 T. butter.


Heat butter and oil in a skillet for the steaks. Using about 1/2 tsp. Emeril's Steak Rub (or any steak rub you like), press the rub into the raw steaks on both sides. Then cook them in the pan on both sides until desired doneness (it took about 5 minutes total for medium rare, but these were relatively thin filets).


Ladle a few spoonfuls of the sauce over each steak, and plate them up with the mac 'n' cheese and asparagus. Mangia!


It was just Ross this time, as it was his special birthday meal. He had some wonderful things to say. A few soundbites:

"It took me 10 years to realize that steak rub is way better than steak sauce."
"I didn't think you could still impress me with your cooking, but I'm impressed."
"I love when my vegetables can taste like meat."
"The steak is seasoned perfectly."


I give it 8 stars. I'm proud to say I did NOT overcook the steak, and it was nicely spiced. The 2 missing stars are for the asparagus - while Ross likes his vegetables to taste like meat, I like my vegetables to taste like, well, vegetables. And the bacon didn't get super-crisp, as I'd hoped. It was still sort of mushy - not my bag.

I do feel like I redeemed myself for the birthday cake quasi-fiasco. (It's worth mentioning that I am the only one who feels that it's a travesty - fortunately everyone had had enough beer by the time they tasted the cake that it wouldn't have been very memorable even if it had been spectacular.)

NOTE: I have a new favorite food blog that you MUST check out: Smitten Kitchen. The photography is so beautiful (in fact, it's inspired me to step up my OWN photography - how's it looking so far?).

As always, thanks for reading! More soon...
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