Thursday, January 29, 2009

Pardon my French

Is there really anything more glorious than a croissant? I mean, really. What the French lack in warmth, they more than make up for in warm pastries, no?

But take a croissant, soak it in vanilla-infused cream and egg yolks, and well...God bless America.

My esteemed colleague (read: person at work I'd absolutely DIE without), Megan, and her wonderful bf Matt had Ross and myself over for a travelling Fearless brunch this past Sunday. We brought the break-feast, they made the Bloody Marys. (Waking up to liquor? Again, God bless this country.) It was hovering somewhere in the single digits temperature-wise, so a Bloody spiced with plenty of Frank's hot sauce paired with a creamy baked breakfast casserole was just what the weatherman ordered.

Want to see what it takes to go grocery shopping in near-zero temperatures? Behold:

Despite having to don our winter finery just to survive, picking up food for the brunch date was really fun. We stopped into an Austrian bakery close to our apartment to get the croissants, then headed next door to the amazing Sultan's Market for some delicious pitas and fresh hummus (not for brunch, but just to have on hand).

Read on to see how everything came together.



4 stale croissants
3 c. half and half
5 egg yolks and 3 whole eggs
zest of 1 orange
juice of 1/2 an orange
1 tsp. vanilla extract
handful golden raisins

2 nectarines
2 oranges
2 peaches
zest of one lemon
2-3 T. sugar
a few dashes balsamic vinegar

8 slices bacon


The night before (or a few hours before) you want to serve the fruit salad, cut the nectarines and peaches into cubes (leave the skin on). Put them in a bowl with a lid, and add the sugar, vinegar, and zest. Let them macerate for awhile, then taste it before you serve it and add a little more sugar if it's too tart. Add the orange pieces just before serving.


Cut croissants into large chunks. Place in a deep baking dish. In a large bowl, combine eggs and egg yolks, half and half, zest, and vanilla. Whisk until slightly thickened. Pour over the croissant pieces, smushing the bread down to soak in the custard mixture. Sprinkle the raisins on top, poking them down into the bread crevices so that they don't burn in the oven.


Preheat the oven to 375. Bake the bread pudding for 30-40 minutes, until set. Cut into six pieces.


Cook the bacon. Serve with the bread pudding and fruit salad. (When serving the fruit salad, scoop it out with a slotted spoon to let the juices drain.)

Big ups, WhizBang!

A note on the Bloody Marys: Matt stopped into Pastoral, an amazing wine/cheese/deli/market specializing in fresh-from-the-farm products, to get some accoutrements: goat-cheese stuffed sweet peppers, olives, etc. (the peppers, I might add, were one of the most delicious things I've ever put in my mouth). The add-ons are waht really make a Bloody Mary great - that, and the tomato base. Matt and Megan used Zing-Zang, and it was really good. We even gilded the lily with some homemade pickles Megan had on hand.


Here's what Megan had to say: "Fabulous fruit salad - fresh, not mushy like they usually are. Also, no melon of any type which is great, melon always ruins fruit salad. Egg thing - delicious. Even tasted great the next day. Bacon - perfection. Appreciate Ross' tip about draining fat/oil halfway through the cooking.
Bloody Marys - God bless Pastoral."

I completely agree with Megan about melons ruining fruit salad! You'll never find a melon of any kind in a fruit salad I make.

MY VOTE ON MY DISH: 7 stars. I think the croissant bread pudding (inspired by a Barefoot Contessa show I saw awhile back) was really good, although next time I'd probably add cinnamon or some other spicy element. The fruit salad was a nice, acidic complement to the richness of the bread pudding, but next time I would try to find riper fruit. The bacon, as always, was great (I put Ross in charge of all things bacon a few months ago, and it's been great ever since).

It was a great early afternoon with friends. Thanks to Megan and Matt for hosting, and for making such delicious drinks! Thanks for reading. More soon.

"Sunday, Bloody Sunday!"
-- Megan

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Salmon, Au Gratin Potatoes, & Spinach

This past Saturday night was an evening of improv all around. First, the LeCroys came over for improvised baked salmon. Ross, pictured above (isn't he ridiculously photogenic?!), improvised some cocktails. Then, we headed over to Improv Olympics, where our friend Robert was a contestant in a fierce head-to-head battle of wits.

I'll talk fish first, then give you the rundown on the show.



1 salmon filet per person
salt and pepper
1-2 lemons
salt and pepper
fish or all-purpose seasoning


1 c. white wine
1/2 pt. grape tomatoes, halved
1/2 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, and all-purpose seasoning
1 tsp. dijon mustard
2 T. half and half
1 tsp. sugar
juice of 1/2 a lemon

20-ish baby yukon gold potatoes (or other small potatoes)
1 1/2 c. grated sharp cheddar cheese
3 c. 1% milk
3 T. flour
4 T. butter, divided
1/2 c. breadcrumbs
salt and pepper

1 large bag spinach leaves
1 T. olive oil
salt and pepper


Boil the potatoes in salted water for about 8-10 minutes. Do not cook them completely (they should still be raw in the center). Drain. Slice very thinly. Preheat the oven to 375.


Start the sauce. In a medium sauce pot, combine wine, tomatoes, and red pepper and cook over medium heat until vegetables start to break down. Add the mustard, lemon juice, sugar, and seasonings, and continue to cook. Stir in the half and half just before removing from heat to serve.


For the gratin sauce, make a roux with 3 T. of the butter and the flour. Whisk in the milk and bring to a boil, whisking constantly until thickened. Stir in the shredded cheese and whisk until melted and smooth. Season with salt and pepper. Be generous with the salt, as this will serve as the seasoning for all the potatoes as well.


In a shallow baking dish, spread the potato slices. Pour the cheese sauce over them, making sure they're completely covered. In a nonstick pan, melt the remaining 1 T. butter and cook the breadcrumbs until they're all coated in butter. Spread the breadcrumbs evenly over the top of the au gratin potatoes. Bake at 375 for 35-45 minutes, until edges are bubbly and breadcrumbs are beginning to brown.


Rinse the salmon filets and pat dry. Cover a baking sheet with aluminum foil and spray it lightly with nonstick spray. Arrange the filets on the sheet and season with salt, pepper, and fish seasoning. Bake at 375 for 10-15 minutes (depending on the size of the filets), or until fish flakes easily with a fork (this is for completely cooked salmon).


Heat olive oil in a large pan. Add the spinach and salt and pepper and cover. Cook for 5-7 minutes, until spinach is wilted, stirring occasionally. Serve with the fish, sauce, and potatoes au gratin.


I didn't do a very good job of recording what everyone said, but here is a direct quote from Taylor:

"Very well put together meal. I thought the salmon was perfectly cooked and went with the sauce very well. It also wasn't too watery like you might expect from a fish-with-sauce dish. For me though the potatoes stole the show. Nice creamy texture with a crunchy crust. The whole thing just oozed with winter comfort. I would definitely eat here again."

Nice! And Sarah's plate said more about how much she like the dish than any verbal comments ever could've - she ate more than I have ever seen her eat in one sitting - she actually ate almost all of the salmon! Any of you who have had the pleasure of eating with Sarah know that she is picks adorably, like a graceful little bird (cut to me licking cream sauce directly out of the pan). Ross, as we have come to expect, would have preferred his salmon to be breaded and fried, his sauce to be creamier, and for there to be an element of bacon on the plate.


7 stars. I think the sauce was a bit on the acidic side, and I would've liked my own piece of fish to be a little firmer (not sure what was going on with my piece). I did really enjoy the au gratin potatoes. I didn't even feel too bad eating them, since even a small portion was so creamy and satisfying that I wasn't tempted to gorge myself (OK, I was, but that's when you put the leftovers immediately into the fridge and don't walk through the kitchen until breakfast). The spinach was average - nothing creative about it, really.

And about the show (ALERT ALERT: shameless plug for friend's comedy show in 3...2...1...) - it was AWESOME! No offense to the great improv team that went up against Robert's group, but his was clearly funnier.

At Improv Olympics (former home to Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch, and a whole slew of other SNL stars), each team gets 20 minutes to improv - and this is improv comedy in its purest form - no props, no suggestions from the audience, just pure made-up-on-the-spot hilarity. At the end, the audience votes for their favorite group, and that group advances onto the next round of the tournament. Robert's group won! The ultimate winners get $800, so Robert, we're all rooting for you.

At a very recession-friendly $5 a ticket, you really can't find a better deal on a funny Saturday night in the city.

Thanks to Robert, our hilarious friend, and to my dear LeCroys for coming over. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Risotto: The Second Coming

All day, I complained about how tired I was. I slumped. I hunched. I slunk around corners, rubbing my eyes and checking the clock. I drank caffeinated coffee, caffeinated tea, and (horrors!) Mountain Dew.

So what on earth would possess me, on a day as energy-less as today, to make risotto?

There is no shortage of quick and easy carbs in my pantry: spaghetti, cous cous, Success Rice (yes, I sometimes use Success Rice). But despite the availability of all those, I chose to make risotto.

It's basically the polar opposite of Success Rice. And those of you who were there for my Risotto Disaster a few months ago know my history with this starchy little devil.

Read on to see if I destroyed it...or coaxed deliciousness out of every grain....


***As a preface: I am completely aware of my recent obsession with all of the above ingredients. But let me defend myself: first of all, hot Italian sausage is one of the top five most delicious foods in the world (you heard it here first, people). Second, eating broccoli alongside anything makes me feel less guilty for whatever I'm eating (i.e., sausage). A culinary Hail Mary, if you will. And caramelized onions...well, there's just not a whole lot I can even say about them. How amazing they taste in or on just about everything really just says it all.***


1/2 large white onion
1 c. dry Arborio rice
one 32-oz. container chicken broth
2 T. butter
1 T. olive oil
3 hot Italian sausages
1 head broccoli
1 can Italian-seasoned diced tomatoes
juice of half a lemon
salt and pepper
1 tsp. sugar
grated parmesan for garnish (optional)


Thinly slice the onion and chop the broccoli into smallish florets.

Remove the sausage from the casing and brown it over medium-high heat until almost cooked through (i.e., just a tiny bit pink inside). Remove from the pan and set aside, leaving the drippings in the pan. Add a T. of butter to the pan drippings (don't freak out, just put it in the pan, you'll thank me later).

Add the onion to the pan and cook over medium heat (add a little salt and pepper) until the onion is caramelized. Throw in a pinch of sugar at the end to help it get brown. When they're done, set aside and keep warm.


Make the risotto. You're supposed to use hot stock for this, but I never do. I just add it cold or room temperature, and this time around, it came out fine. First, saute the rice grains in a T. of butter and a T. of oil until they're coated and beginning to turn translucent.

NOTE: This is where you would normally add about a 1/2 c. of dry white wine, but I didn't have any, so I just skipped it.

Then slowly add the broth, about a 1/2 cupful at a time, and stir the rice until the batch of stock is almost absorbed. Then add mroe. Then stir more. Continue to do this (and trust me when I say you need to seriously stand there and stir it - you do not want to be scrubbing glued-on risotto off your pots). You'll know it's done when the grains are al dente (like pasta), and there is enough liquid in the mixture to allow the risotto to slightly run on the plate when you serve it. If you can't serve it immediately, put a ld on it, and stir in a tad more liquid when you reheat it. When it's done, fold in the caramelized onions, add the lemon juice, and season to taste.


Pour the can of diced tomatoes and all the juices into a large saucepan. Bring it up to medium-high heat, and add the browned sausage and the broccoli florets. Cook, covered, for 5-7 minutes, until the broccoli is just tender.


Place some risotto in a shallow serving bowl, and ladle some of the sausage-broccoli-tomato mixture on top. Sprinkle with a little parmesan if desired.

ROSS: When I first saw this, it looked like ingredients that would not go together very well, but I'm impressed at how well it's all working together. The risotto is cooked perfectly, and that's the key to the dish. Even though I wanted to use my sausages for sausage sandwiches [pouty frown]...

MY VOTE ON MY DISH: I give it 7 stars. Most of those stars are for getting the risotto right this time (wonders!). It was not sticky, gluey, and unpalatable, like last time. It was al dente, but still creamy and flavorful. I'm forgoing the other three stars due to ingredient overuse (sausage) and lack of creativity (i.e., pouring some stuff over a bowl of carbs). Although I must say, on a cold night, there aren't too many things more satisfying than a bowl of fresh risotto, spicy sausage, and homey tomato sauce. It was a tasty Winter treat - and, despite the risotto-stirring ball-and-chain, very easy to make.

Thanks for reading! Heads up for a blog-on-the-road brunch post soon, and a salmon post (this goes out to you, Andrea :-). Later, friends.

Monday, January 12, 2009

A New Year's Two-For-One Special

I love when I turn on my camera (in today's case, to document the first wave of the impending blizzard, which is without a doubt a sign of the apocalypse) and find photos of a meal that I captured, then forgot about. It's exciting - except of course, when I made it so many days or weeks ago that I have no idea what went into it in the first place. So, enjoy my haphazard recreation of roast beef (the cut is anyone's guess, but you can bet it was a cheap one) with a mustardy brown sauce, broccoli, and sweet potato mash.

On the other hand, there's nothing like a January blizzard in Chicago to make you crave - and defiantly cook - summer grill food. In tonight's case, BBQ and caramelized onion turkey burgers. Or, as I affectionately call them, Turkey Burgers That Don't Totally Suck. I mean, am I the only one who sees a turkey burger on a restaurant menu and has to fight the urge to rip the menu to shreds with my steak knife? Most are dry, flavorless, and uninspired. Hopefully, my BBQ burger, featuring SmokeDaddy BBQ sauce, will give you a hankering for a patty of something other than ground chuck (not that there's anything wrong with that).

I'll just get the forgotten roast beef out of the way first, since I can't accurately list the ingredients, their approximate measurements, or how long I cooked things.


1 large piece of beef, an economical (tough) cut
salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, steak rub or other dry herb mixture
olive oil and butter

Dijon mustard
brown sugar
red wine
balsamic vinegar
beef stock?
fruit preserves or chutney?

1 head broccoli, cut into pieces

1 very large sweet potato
milk, butter, salt, nutmeg

Heat butter and oil in a large nonstick skillet until foam subsides.

Season the beef on all sides with salt, pepper, and any other dry seasonings you want. (Steak rubs work well for this sort of thing.)

Sear the roast on high heat on all sides until a brown crust forms.

Make a sauce using red wine, vinegar, stock, fruit preserves,brown sugar, and mustard. I'm not kidding when I say you can just put a couple spoonfuls of each of these in a pot, heat them up and whisk them, and you will have a sauce that's pretty tasty. I don't blame you if you don't trust me, though.

Pour the sauce over the beef. Cook at 325 for about 3-4 hours. (This, by the way, is not what I did. I remember eating this beef, if not cooking it, and it was really tough. That's why, if you buy cheap, tougher cuts of meat, you should have the time on hand to roast or braise them for a long time. Trust me on this. This is why poor Italian grandmas never left the kitchen - they were braising the gristly parts of the skinny cow until it tasted just as delicious as the fatty, expensive parts.)

Boil broccoli in a pot of salted water until just tender, about 3-4 minutes. Do not overcook.

Add milk, butter, and nutmeg to the hot sweet potato and mix until semi-smooth and creamy.

Here's what Ross had to say about the meal (I made the wise decision to save this in my Stickies application):

"It's a 'meat and potatoes' meal for a meat and potatoes football team: broccoli - all about a tough defense. You got your gold potatoes and your black steak. Well, not black. Black and gold, like the Stillers! The sauce was what dreams are made of."

It would help to mention that we (apparently) were watching a Steelers game during dinner.

He went on to say, "The best part was one of the edge pieces. The middle wasn't that great, but I can chew through anything with my remarkably sharp incisors." What a guy.

Like I said before, just make sure you cook the beef for long enough, on a gentle enough temperature, to make it really tender. The easy weeknight way to do this would be to put it in a crockpot and leave it on low while you're at work. Crockpots, I might add, are completely underrated. 10 minutes of prep in the morning while you have your coffee, and you get to come home to a delicious hunk of meat in its own gravy.

Moving on to a different variation on the age-old hunk of meat: my BBQ Turkey Burgers That Miraculously Do Not Suck At All. Or: Further Proof That BBQ Sauce is Infallible.


1 lb. ground turkey (get the kind with a little bit of fat - I usually buy 90% lean for burgers)
1/2 c. seasoned bread crumbs
1 egg, beaten
salt and pepper
ground cayenne pepper, a few dashes
Pam spray
sliced pepper Jack cheese
whole wheat burger buns

1 large yellow onion
2 T. olive oil
salt and pepper
a couple pinches sugar

BBQ sauce (I used SmokeDaddy)
mayo (unless you hate mayo)

1 head fresh broccoli

5-6 carrots, the cute kind with the green parts still attached. Why? Because I think they're better.
squeeze of honey (I used some homemade pear honey my aunt made, but the kind in the bear is just fine)
1 T. butter


Thinly slice the onions. In a nonstick skillet, heat 2 T. olive oil. Cook the onions, with a little salt and pepper, over medium heat, stirring and flipping every now and again, but not too much, until they are deeply brown. When they're about 2-3 minutes from being done, throw in the pinch of sugar to help them caramelize. Set aside and keep warm.


In a large bowl, mix the ground turkey, bread crumbs, egg, salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper (to taste) until combined. Shape into patties and set aside.


Heat a grill pan or a nonstick skillet, with a light spray of Pam, over medium-high heat. Cook the burgers about 4-5 minutes on each side. When they're about 2 minutes form being done, place a slice of cheese on top of each and cook until burgers are cooked through (this is not the time for medium-rare burgers), and cheese is melted.


Boil some salted water and cook broccoli until it's just tender. Meanwhile, thinly slice the carrots on the bias. In a separate nonstick pan, heat 1 T. butter over medium-high heat. Saute the carrots, seasoned with a little salt, for a few minutes, then add a few tablespoons honey. Continue to cook in the honey and butter until carrots are just tender, about 5-6 minutes.


Spread some mayo (if you're going for it) and some BBQ sauce on a bun. Place a burger on top, and top with some of the caramelized onions. Serve with the carrots and broccoli. Enjoy!

I'll give this the official Fearless Cook rundown.

From Ross: "The carrots are amazing. Best carrots I've ever had. Can I have another burger?"

MY VOTE ON MY DISH: Hmmm...I give myself 8 stars. I have made turkey burgers before, but not like this. They were juicy, flavorful, and I actually didn't feel like a cow eating it - there was nothing about them that was suspect. I, too, agree that the carrots were magical. I've never been a huge fan of cooked carrots (I love them raw), but I will definitely be making them this way again. I felt like I was eating an indulgent, carby side dish, but really I was just having another veggie! If I had to change one thing, I might actually ditch the cheese (and no, I have not been abducted by aliens). Despite my cheese obsession, I have to say it didn't really add anything to the burgers. The BBQ sauce and onions were such powerful flavors that the little old slice of cheese just couldn't make himself heard.

Overall, it was a great dinner. Almost makes me forget about the snow...


Cheers to 2009! Hope it's off to a great start. Thanks for reading!

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