Thursday, December 20, 2012

It's the end of the world as we know it...AND. WE. ATE. SWINE.

As the Mayan calendar winds down to the alleged end of times and every sensational news program pontificates on pending doom, it got me thinkin'...what a perfect excuse to get together with some friends and celebrate one last wink of a meal - filled with abundance, decadence and in the midst of it all - celebrate LIFE!  I think I'm still suffering from a self-induced food coma...

I love my friends.  You know you have chosen your company wisely when the main ingredients they bring with them to represent in this potluck menu are pork, sparkling wine, seafood and chocolate. Food. Soul. Mates.

For Starters:
The meal commenced with three "staples" of culinary love: pink bubbles courtesy of all, funky truffle-infused cheese courtesy of Ms. Sara and some meaty, briny olives courtesy of myself.
"After I have the baby, I'll go on a bender" - Anonymous.
Shannon brought out the "glass slippers," same idea as those wine charm thingies but a little furrier, so we wouldn't mix up our bubbles.  I honestly thought it was a cat toy.
"God I hate puns." - Sara Jean

Moving on into the evening - Ms. Jackie was very excited to learn how to make sushi for us but, this woman is silly busy: she's raising two toddlers, pregnant with a third, managing a household, a voice teacher, a choir director, an accomplished photographer - you'll find some of her work in this very blog - and a small business owner.  Did I leave anything out?  Probably.  Anyway, here is her recipe for sushi...

Sushi by Jackie:
1. Research how to make sushi for two weeks.
2. Stress out about how the hell you are going to make sushi for the first time when you have too much shit going on.
3. Psych yourself into thinking you can actually find time to learn how to make sushi.
4. Realize you have no time to make sushi.
5. Give in and decide that you are just going to buy and bring sushi.
6. Stop at your favorite sushi restaurant to purchase sushi.
7. Realize your favorite sushi restaurant no longer exists and is now another sushi restaurant.
8. Decide that you'll just pick up sushi from the new restaurant.
9. Bring said purchased sushi to potluck.  Suck it.
"I think that would be a stipulation of your rapture meal - is that you don't cook it..." - Sara Jean
For a risky first time sushi joint, it was actually good!

Next up, Sara threw together a crab bisque that she had at Joe's Stone Crab a few weeks back.  She created this recipe entirely from sense memory and here's what I can tell you -  IT. WAS. DELICIOUS.  Later, we actually found the recipe and learned that she was pretty much right-on!

Crab Bisque inspired by Joe's Stone Crab, interpreted by Sara Jean
"First you need to get some shellfish stock. I really wanted to make stone crab stock since that is what i imagine makes this soup so amazing, but, alas, could not find any - so I went to THAT FISH GUY and got a quart of lobster stock."

Melt a few Tablespoons of butter. Saute shallots, garlic, carrots, celery. Saute until translucent and slightly tender. Add 3/4-1 cup white wine and cook down a little bit. Add 4 cups shellfish stock, 1/4-1/2 half cup brandy or sherry, 1/4 cup rice (i used brown but you could use white), 2 T tomato paste & 2-3 bay leaves. Simmer until rice is completely cooked. 

Add about 1-1/1/2 cups crab meat (i just used the refrigerated lump crab meat from Trader Joe's) and 1 cup heavy cream. Remove from heat and let cool a bit.

Add more half and half or heavy cream. Remove bay leaves. Use soup wand to puree until smooth. Add salt, white pepper and cayenne to taste. (old bay would probably also be delicious).

Add more butter, half and half, veggie stock to taste and get proper consistency.
"I always did love a good mirepoix." - Me.
Saute chopped vidalia onion, carrot, celery and garlic in butter until tender. Add some crab. Squeeze with lemon juice.
"When I worked at Bin [36], we always put a pretty garnish in the bottom of the bowl & then poured the soup over it in front of the customer.  It made for a fun presentation & also gave dimension to the flavor and texture of the soup..." - Sara Jean
Place crab mixture in bottom of bowl and ladle soup over it.  Voila.
Shannon likes it!
Now, because Sara Jean is also an -  she made two more dishes for us that evening.  One dish contained scallops and one dish that contained several kinds of pork.  Yum.  A shout out, again, to THAT FISH GUY for the amazing product. 

Fancy Scallops with Champagne Cream Sauce by Sara Jean
1. Bowl your yummiest pasta in salted water. (Sara used the lemon pepper papardelle from Trader Joe's)

2. Saute 3 medium minced shallots in 1 cup champagne until champagne is just about evaporated. 

3. Lower heat under scallops and add 1 cup heavy cream. Stir until just thickened (very short time). Add some black or white pepper to season.

4. While sauce is cooking, sear scallops in olive oil or butter. Sear until they are brown and crispy on the outside and opaque through. 

5. Toss pasta with olive oil (if it is plain pasta, add lemon juice and black pepper to the pasta).

6. Place pasta on plate, a spoonful of cream sauce on top, scallops on top of that. Squeeze some lemon juice over scallops and sprinkle a LARGE dash of truffle salt over each scallop.
"It's like a nice bridge for dessert..." - Shannon
The other recipe Sara made is stolen (not really) from AVEC: Chorizo Stuffed Dates.  She explained that the first time she had these dates, she knew she had to immediately order another plate before she even finished eating her first bite.  Clearly, one plate is just not enough!  She then somehow stumbled upon the recipe in Time Out Chicago and it was a sign, she knew she had to try and make them.  I have also had these amazing bits of sweet and savory joy at Avec and I must give Sara credit - she nailed them spot-on.  
"Bacon clears the palate." - Vanessa?  At this point it is kinda foggy who says what!

Recipe for Avec's Chorizo Stuffed Dates:
1. Preheat oven to 350.
2. Get a package of about 2 lbs of Medjool dates (the bigger the better). Make a small slit in the side and push out the pit and discard.
3.  Stuff each date with Spanish chorizo. This is chorizo spiced with smoked paprika. If you cannot find Spanish chorizo, you can use ground pork and add 1 T smoked paprika for each 1 lb of meat.
4. Cut 12 slices good quality bacon in half and wrap each date with a half-strip of bacon. Place on rimmed baking sheet and bake about 40 minutes or until chorizo is cooked. Once sausage is done, broil for a couple of minutes more until bacon is crispy.
5.  While the dates are baking, create the sauce.  Chop 2 jars piquilllo peppers (or you can use jarred roasted red peppers) and 1 can chopped good quality tomatoes (i used fire-roasted organic tomatoes with garlic). Saute 1/2 chopped onion and 2 cloves garlic in olive oil. Once tender, add peppers, tomatoes, a dash of smoked paprika, cayenne pepper and cinnamon. Saute on very low heat the whole time the dates are cooking. Save some of the juice from the tomatoes to add if it seems to be reducing too much. Season with salt*** and pepper and puree with soup wand until a thin salsa texture.
6. Pour over dates and bake a little longer so flavors can be combined.
**Sara used soy sauce instead of salt because it adds a deeper, more complex flavor**

I digress...but, ever hear of this trick?  If you don't have a wine or Champagne stopper put a spoon in the bottle of bubbly to keep the bubbly...bubbly.  Something to do with the metal.  The effervescence should hold for up to 24 hours...
Fourths and Fifths:
When I thought of what I would make for this last chance meal of sorts, memories of Spain and Italy were definitely high up on the list as some of the best culinary experiences of my life, and ones that I wanted to humbly try and replicate.  These are the meals I remember that were so good they leave you speechless - meals with inexplicable flavor that could only come from fresh ingredients and really good olive oil - happy food dance meals that you would never want to end.   One dish in particular that seemed to leave its imprint on my soul during my travels was Pulpo de Galicia - this amazing fresh octopus and potato dish I had several times all over Spain, although I'm told it origins are in the north of Spain in Galicia...thus the name.  

Okay, so, Pulpo de Galicia it is!  But, where the hell do I find octopus?  And, how do I find fresh octopus in the Midwest.   How do I prepare it so it comes out meaty and tender and not rubbery?  Well, ask and ye shall find, my friends!  Jackie had suggested I head to Fresh Farms Market in Niles to buy the little suckers.  Now, my first thought was "Niles?  Really, Niles?"  But, Jackie would never lead me astray, so off to Niles I went.  

With that being said, I just have to stop for a minute.  Have you been to this place?  This mecca of every international item you could possibly want in a one-stop-shopping arena?  I could go on for days but, let's get real, this blog entry is already too long.  We'll save it for another time when the girls and I take a field trip to experience and report on it first hand.   In the meantime, if you ever need some international ingredients, check this place out:

Moving back to my friend and yours: the octopus.  How do you prepare these darn things?  I had to do some research before I could even attempt to try and make this dish for my friends.  What I found out is that these lil' creatures have no bones and, as we know, bones are what help create moisture and tenderness in animal proteins - so, therein lies the rub.  However, I knew that it was possible to have a tender and meaty octopus that just melts in your mouth because I've had it several times so, that is what I set out to achieve...
Awwww, look at this poor sucker.
Side note: I need a manicure.

Important tip - buy frozen octopus.  Apparently freezing octopus also tenderizes it.  And, let's face it, you are not going to find fresh octopus in Chicago - the next best thing to fresh is flash frozen.

Step one: The creepiest thing about this whole deal is cutting the eyes and the 'beak' off.  We used scissors. Good luck.  It's an adventure, people!!!  

Step two: Dip the octopus in boiling water until the tentacles curl.  Dip in three or four times.  This helps tenderize it.
Step three: Let the octopus boil for 1 to 2 hours.  This tenderizes it even more. (I know!  I thought the same thing, too - how is that possible???  But it does!)
Step four: Boil the potatoes.  Slice them.
Sept five: Cut the octopus up in chunks.  Throw in bowl with potatoes.
Step six: Drizzle with Spanish olive oil (the best in my opinion). Season with sea salt and this amazingness below. 
"I could eat a foot if it was seasoned in smoked paprika..." - Me.
Step seven: Toss it gently and serve warm.
The Finale:
Shannon and Vanessa then took us into our dessert courses.  Surely there is always room for dessert...

Shannon made her very first (and quite impressive) Chocolate Lava Cake. You can find the recipe here: Shannon's chocolate lava experiment!
Blending...and folding.
Sometimes chocolate balls can be messy...
Drop your balls in the batter.
Bake and they come out all gooey and delicious!
The perfect ending to the evening...

 And, to pair with Shannon's Chocolate Lava Cake...because it's just not enough on it's own...Vanessa has made her famous 'Satan's bacon' paired unintentionally but perfectly, with a lovely salted caramel gelato found only here at the BEST GELATO PLACE IN TOWN!
"Nothing like ending a heavy meal with something really light.." - Shannon

Satan's bacon by Vanessa (Interpreted by Carolyn after four glasses of Champagne - did I leave anything out Vanessa?)
Place bacon on a cookie sheet
Sprinkle bacon with cayenne
Bake at 375 or 400 until it gets nice and crispy
Dust with Brown sugar
"Bacon clears the palate." - Unknown
"Oooooh, you dip the bacon IN the gelato!" - Me.
So, what did we learn on this lovely evening of gluttony, debauchery and impending doom?  Mainly, the sentiment that seemed to echo around this 'Death Row Meal" was the celebration of life!   Someone is excited about the possibility of starting a family.  Someone is talking about the hustle and bustle of getting a family up and running and off to school in the morning.  Someone is talking about planning an upcoming wedding.  Someone is discussing the possibility of new love.  Someone is proud of a new project.
 All these discussions seem to celebrate our appreciation for just how full and blessed our lives truly are - we certainly didn't need an "End of the World Feast" to recognize this.  But then again...maybe we did.
Veruca says: "Bring it, Mayans.  I am not impressed."

Until next time, hopefully...Ciao.

Saturday, December 8, 2012


A quality deserving praise or approval; virtue.

Something that is passed down from preceding generations; a tradition.

A neologism created by California winemakers for their high-quality blended wines.

The "art" of teaching your lady friends how to make some of your traditional family recipes...all the while mixing many varietals of wine...oh, and vodka.

Around this time of year - once the tree is up, snow dusts the ground and Bing Crosby croons on about Silver Bells and Parson Brown - I become nostalgic for my Polish heritage.  Ha.  Non-sequitor, anyone?  Well, for my family, Christmas Eve was always the time of the year we celebrated our Polish traditions.  And, even though I'm a fourth generation partial Pole (a.k.a: mutt), this is the only heritage I experienced growing up and it's the only one I still celebrate, to this day...
Leo and Stella Klein (Grandma and Grandpa on my Dad's side)

Every Christmas Eve, many generations of my family would gather to celebrate the Polish tradition of Wigilia.  Our feast, while I'm sure bastardized over the years, consisted of many courses - a soup (borscht or a sour mushroom lima bean concoction), creamed herring (which no one eats without a dare or death-wish), pierogis, sauerkraut, kielbasa (traditionally Wigilia is vegetarian but, we didn't seem to adhere to that rule), potatoes, galabki, etc...
Now, I realize this feast is a gluttonous entity (it's like a whole new world of Thanksgiving hurt just one short month later) and for calorie intake alone, should only be consumed once a year.  Still, I think we can have certain parts of this meal once and a while, right?  And, in my mind, the star of the meal - the element I always loved as a kid and continue to crave until this day are the pierogis! Yes: doughy, delicious, butter-laden and onion-slathered pierogis - with a dollop of sour cream, please...

Anyone who has made pierogis (and I really hope you didn't try to make them by yourself) knows they take a long-ass time.  This is the kind of work that you begin to understand why women used to say "slaving in the kitchen."  Don't get me wrong - this is not hard work by any means but, incredibly time consuming and labor intensive.  And this, my friends, is why I thought it'd be a great idea to invite some ladies over to help me in my sweatshop of dough and butter - in trade for a good time, some wine and the promise of many leftovers!

We start with some Polish Vodka that Sara brought to help us get in the "spirit" of things!  I'm pretty sure my great aunts were drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon or that syrupy Blackberry liqueur in the kitchen when they were cooking for the crew but, we opt for a more hard-core tribute to Poland.
Na zdrowie! 
(This beautiful vessel is made for Vodka.  My mom gave this to me about 10 years ago and this was actually the first time I've used it.  Genius!)
Before you start - lets just get real - you need, a LOT of butter.  And diced, a LOT of diced onions.  One more friendly tip: there's simply no reason to even try to make this recipe low fat - it will fail miserably and make you very sad. 

Oh, yes, it all starts out so innocently...
The beauty of scoring an onion - makes it so easy to dice...

I made all the fillings ahead of time because it's pretty darn easy, saves time and well, that's what my Mom does!  I made three traditional fillings and, as an homage to my family's weird obsession with making one special pierogi that someone will "luckily" consume and win a prize, which is simply that you get to pick next year's weird filling: one experimental concoction.

My experimental concoction: Sweet Potato (a safer, more savory choice)
  • Boil three sweet potatoes
  • Mash with butter and a bit of sour cream
  • Sauté in diced onions and butter
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Set aside your fillings for later...


  • 2 c. of flour
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 4 ounces cream cheese (room temp)
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 tsp butter, softened
  • 1/2 c. lukewarm milk
Now, we doubled this recipe and made three batches (makes about 250-ish pierogis)
 If you can find a beautiful hand model, like Shannon here, the dough will also look pretty when you roll it out!
  • Use a cookie cutter (or I just use a rocks glass) to cut the dough out in circles
  • Spoon teaspoon of filling in each piece of dough
  • Score the dough just like you would any other pie or dumpling

  • Two pots of boiling water on stove
  • Two sauté pans with butter and onions ready to go
  • When the dumplings float to the top, take them out with a slotted spoon and fry them up in butter and onions

"It's like a Jesus butter baby..." - Vanessa Greenway
Somewhere in between boiling and frying, Kristen brought out this beauty of a wine.  Kristen is my most favorite "wino."  She's quite knowledgable, always willing to share, not snobby about it, up for a good bargain or investment - all the while having the most exquisite taste.  Anyway, she brought this bottle to share, opening it up to breathe right when she arrived explaining she brought a back up bottle "just in case!" because she was afraid something might have happened to it in transit.  I can tell you that only amazingness must have happened in transit because as we all took our first taste, we immediately did that thing where your eyes get really wide and you all start smiling and laughing and saying things like, "Wow!" "Yum!" and "Holy shit, Kristen!"
"The wheels are falling off this bus but, it's okay because it's delicious!" - Sara Jean McCarthy
And, once they are all fried up, they look like this...
"Eat whatever you want because we have five thousand million pierogis here..." - Carolyn Klein

Oh, and I also made some kielbasa and sauerkraut in the slow cooker to compliment our doughy love.  Such an easy recipe - kielbasa, fresh kraut, an onion, stick of butter, 1/2 cup brown sugar and pepper to season - cook for 3-5 hours.
Three words: GENE'S. SAUSAGE. SHOP.

Sara's Mom used to call this ''toothpick food" - so we stuck some toothpicks in as a tribute...
And, this is how we look after 5,000 glasses of wine and vodka while slaving in the kitchen for five plus hours!
"I can feel the butter in my system now..." - Kristen Hudson
"It's like savory donuts right to your soft spot...happy food dance moments..." - Shannon Rawley

We came. We drank.  We diced many onions and used a shit-ton o' butter.  We talked about life, love, work, marriage, holidays, travel, family and cooking.  We ate.  We conquered.  We took leftovers home to our partners and neighbors.

Just as our ancestors did.

Until next time...Ciao!