Porridge sweats

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I’ve pretty much hit my limit with this winter. I now eat hot starchy things at almost every meal. Polenta, rice, pasta, cous cous, cracked wheat: whatever grain I can get my hands on gets cooked in liquid with a little cheese, herbs and/or butter and mixed with meat, vegetables, broth and–usually–additional cheese.

I know this isn’t a good solution, but I like the little bout of what I call “porridge sweats” that follows when I eat this type of insides-warming food. The sweats usually last long enough that I can make it a few blocks down the street without shouting “THIS IS BULLSHIT!!” into the bitter wind. (Yes, I’ve been yelling at the weather.)

Call me dramatic, but this is what Chicago winter does to a person. Each year, it discovers new ways of inducing despair. It might be through snow almost every day in December that turns the sidewalk into a distant memory; 15 straight days with no sunlight (trust me, that’s a lot); or like this year, a blizzard followed by a whole month of zero-ish temps so the snow turns into dirty styrofoam and everything else becomes permanently coated in either salt or black ice. Chicago winter, you are a sly minx indeed.

In search of new sources for porridge sweats last week, I ventured into savory oatmeal territory. I first had a variation on it with pork belly a few months ago at Owen & Engine and have been dreaming about it ever since. Steel-cut oats cooked risotto-style with a bit of wine for tang (or wine vinegar if you don’t have any wine open) and warm stock added little by little till they’re creamy with a slight bite in the center. My version, laced with sweet cherry tomato jewels and topped with Parm and a very runny egg, made for the perfect solo lunch. But you could also up the ratios, add some smoky bacon lardons and serve it for brunch to some poor, cold bastards in need of a good porridge sweat.

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Steel-cut oat risotto with poached egg
serves one

Ingredients

    Olive oil, as needed
    1 small onion, minced
    Salt and pepper, to taste
    2 garlic cloves, minced
    12 cherry tomatoes, halved
    3/4 cup steel-cut oats
    3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
    3-4 cups chicken broth, warmed over medium-low on the stovetop
    1 egg
    1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar
    1 tablespoon butter
    1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
    3 tablespoons minced parsley

Method: In a medium Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat, add a tablespoon or 2 of olive oil, the onion, and a generous pinch of salt and pepper. Saute for about 5 minutes, until soft. Add the garlic, and stir for a minute until fragrant. Add the cherry tomatoes and the oats, stirring to coat each grain in the oil. Add the red wine vinegar and stir until it’s all but dissolved.

Turn the heat down to medium. Add about 1/2 cup of the warm broth, and stir frequently until most of the liquid is gone.

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Repeat this in similar amounts each time, until the oats are cooked to al dente and have achieved a creamy texture. This should take about 20 minutes.

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Meanwhile, crack the egg into a small bowl or ramekin. Heat a saucepan over medium heat until lightly simmering (not boiling). Add a large pinch of salt and the distilled vinegar. Use a spoon to quickly stir the water in all one direction until it’s smoothly spinning. (This will keep the white from spreading out too much). Ease the egg into the center of the whirlpool, and let it simmer untouched for 2-3 minutes for a runny yolk (4 for a firmer yolk).

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Use a spoon to carefully remove the egg, and set it on paper towels to dry.

When the oats are cooked, turn off the heat and add the butter, along with most of the Parmesan and parsley, saving a bit for garnish. Check the seasoning and adjust as needed with salt and pepper.

Spoon the oats into a bowl, top with the rest of the Parm and parsley and the egg. Season the egg with salt and a few grinds of pepper, and eat!

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Shepherd’s pie. Because February.

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I’m always amazed by how short February is, when winter-wise it tends to feel eternal. Eleven days in and we’ve already had a blizzard; several gray, zero-ish days; and a little icy rain.

To cope, I’ve eaten a lot of stewed meaty things, pizza, eggs, cheese fries (twice in a span of three days last week) and pasta, and drunk at least a couple bottles of wine. In other words, I’m not handling this last stretch of winter very well.

So on Monday, I decided to branch out and add a little mashed potatoes and lamb to the mix with shepherd’s pie. Truthfully, I’ve always been a little averse to this dish because of the various pots and pans I pictured it requiring. But all you need is a pot for potatoes, one for the meat and vegetables, and then a baking dish to layer it all together in. Not so terrible, especially if you’ve roped in some poor sucker to help with the dishes. (Full disclosure: the partially Irish Mister was so excited at the prospect of shepherd’s pie on a Monday, he happily would have done a whole pile of dishes.)

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It turns out that shepherd’s pie isn’t the most photogenic stuff on earth (as you can see, Sean and I tried pretty much every angle). But who needs pretty when something is this delicious?

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Shepherd’s pie with lamb
serves 3-4

Ingredients

    Olive oil, as needed
    1 pound ground lamb
    Salt and freshly ground black pepper
    1 large onion, chopped
    1 medium carrot, chopped
    1 celery stalk, chopped
    2 large cloves garlic, minced
    1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
    2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
    1 tablespoon worcestershire sauce
    1 teaspoon soy sauce
    1/2 cup diced tomatoes
    1/2 cup chicken or lamb stock
    3 russet potatoes, peeled and cut in 1-inch cubes
    2 sprigs rosemary
    2/3 cup whole milk
    3 tablespoons butter
    Fresh parsley leaves, for garnish

Method: Heat a medium Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high. Add a teaspoon of oil and the lamb, and brown until cooked through. Season with a sprinkling of salt and pepper; then remove and set aside.

Wipe out the pan, and set it back over medium high. Add another tablespoon of olive oil along with the onion, carrot, celery, and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Saute for about 5 minutes, until the vegetables soften and just start to brown. Stir in the garlic, rosemary and thyme, and cook for about a minute until fragrant. Add the meat back to the pot, and pour in the worcestershire, soy, tomatoes and stock.

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Cover the pot, crank the heat up to high and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered, for 15 to 20 minutes until most of the liquid is gone. Check the seasoning, and adjust as needed.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400F.

Place the potatoes and rosemary sprigs in a large sauce pan and cover with cold water. Sprinkle generously with salt, and bring to a boil over high heat.

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Cook, uncovered for about 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are fork-tender. Drain the potatoes, discarding the rosemary sprigs, and return them to the pot. Add the milk, butter, and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Mash until fairly smooth and creamy, adding more milk as needed if they seem too dry. When you’re done, the potatoes should be pliable but not runny. Check the seasoning and add salt, pepper or more butter if desired.

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Tip the lamb mixture into an 8-in. by 8-in. baking dish, spreading it out evenly.

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Pile the potatoes on top, smoothing them out with a spatula.

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With a fork, make a little cross-hatch pattern all over the top. Bake the pie for about 20 minutes, until the meat mixture starts bubbling up around the sides of the pan. If you like the top a bit browner, stick the pan under the broiler for about 2 more minutes. Remove, and let cool for 10 minutes before cutting to minimize roof-of-mouth burning.

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Cut the pie into large squares. Tear a few parsley leaves over the top, and serve.

Apricot coconut granola

Ever since Sean and I left for the Epic Chicago-to-Boca-and-back Road Trip last week, I’ve been waking up ungodly early for no apparent reason. Below are some of the sunrises I’ve seen, in order by city, over the past week.

Crown Point, IN

Crown Point, IN

Forsyth, GA

Forsyth, GA

Louisville, KY

Louisville, KY

Chicago, IL

Chicago, IL

I actually like getting up really early. Pre-dawn hours are great for strong coffee and solitary writing (some of my best ideas strike first thing in the morning).

They’re also good for making granola, if you’re feeling particularly ambitious at 5 a.m. and are able to pull out a baking sheet, measuring cups and a prep bowl with minimal clamor.

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Still, I have found that there are two major setbacks to early rising:

(1.) If you live with someone else, the second you hear that person stirring, chances are you will overwhelm them with rapid, coffee-fueled conversation before they’ve even made it to the bathroom. (“But don’t you think that’s a genius idea for a book? Sean? SEAN, are you even listening to me?”)

(2.) 7 pm will feel more like 10 pm, especially once you come to the terrifying realization that you’ve been awake for 14 hours.

But about that granola. This was my first time making granola from scratch, which is kind of surprising because I tend to find store-bought granola overpriced and disappointing. I think I’m going to make my own from now on.

This simple version combines rolled oats, sliced almonds, pine nuts, dried apricots, coconut, honey and a little maple syrup. But if you don’t like any of the above additions, feel free to swap them out with an equal amount of something you do like. Note: This granola can also be made during normal human hours of operation.

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Apricot coconut granola
Ingredients

    3 cups rolled oats
    1 cup sliced almonds
    1 cup unsweetened flaked or shredded coconut
    1/4 cup pine nuts
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    1/3 cup honey
    2 tablespoons good-quality maple syrup
    2 tablespoons grapeseed or coconut oil
    1/4 cup chopped dried apricots

Method: Preheat the oven to 275F (or 300 if you like darker granola). In a large bowl, mix together the oats, almonds, coconut and salt until combined. Add the honey, syrup and oil and fold together with a spatula until everything is evenly coated.

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Spread the oat mixture in a single layer onto a large baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a silicon mat. Bake for 40 minutes until golden, stirring two or three times during baking to ensure even browning.

Remove; set the baking sheet on a wire rack to cool for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally as it hardens to prevent big clumps from forming. Sprinkle the dried apricot pieces over the top, and toss with your fingers to combine. Store the granola in airtight containers for up to 2 weeks.

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A hummus fail turned tasty lunch

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This garlicky tomato-kale soup was a bit of a revelation for me, mainly because it came out of a failed kitchen experiment.

Earlier this week, I tried making hummus in a plastic bag. It happened just as you’re picturing it: I dumped chickpeas, a few tablespoons of tahini, minced garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and S+P in a quart-sized freezer bag and mashed it with a meat hammer. The end result was really coarse and unattractive, though delicious enough when laboriously smeared on bread for breakfast.

With about 1/2 cup of my chewed-up hummus left, my thoughts turned to soup. I often love a few spoonfuls of pesto or pureed beans swirled into almost any veggie-based soup; why can’t hummus(ish) serve the same purpose?

I. Was. Right. The starchy chickpeas provided heft (plus I liked getting whole chickpea bites here and there for texture), the tahini lent a round sesame note and the garlic–well, it gave the soup its primary descriptor.

Because I can never have too much starch when it’s this cold, I served it over cous cous.

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Garlicky tomato kale soup
serves 1 to 2

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, finely diced
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch kale (about 10 leaves), stemmed and finely chopped
1 cup diced tomatoes (I used canned)
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/3 to 1/2 cup homemade hummus (recipe here)
3 cups chicken broth (or good quality vegetable broth to make this vegan)
1/2 a lemon
1/4 cup fresh parsley leaves, roughly chopped and divided
1/2 cup cous cous

Method: Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium high heat until it slides easily around the pan. Add the onion and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Saute for 5 minutes until soft. Add the garlic and cook for another minute until fragrant. Then add the kale and cook for 2 to 3 minutes until the kale has wilted slightly. Add the tomatoes, paprika and hummus, stirring to combine everything.

Pour in the broth, cover the pan and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium low and simmer for about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat a small pot with 1/2 cup water and a pinch of salt. When it comes to a boil, add the cous cous and immediately turn off the heat. Let sit, covered, for 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork and set aside until serving.

Cut the 1/2 lemon in half again, saving one wedge for serving. Squeeze the remaining juice into the soup along with about half the parsley. Check for seasoning and adjust as needed with salt and pepper.

To serve, pile some cous cous in the bottom of a large bowl. Ladle the soup on top and sprinkle with the rest of the parsley. Squeeze additional lemon juice as desired.

A love letter to the restaurants that feel like home

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The Mr. and the Mrs. stuff themselves with Smalls fried chicken

The Mr. and the Mrs. stuff themselves with Smalls fried chicken

My friend Mary over at the lovely blog See View Play mentioned something in a recent post that got me thinking. When describing a meal she’d eaten at West Loop spot Nellcote, she mentioned how the place just felt like home to her.

I think we all have restaurants like that in our lives. New or old, trendy or fusty, there are certain eateries or bars that feel like they were made for us. Know what I mean? It could be the cuisine, decor, staff, a certain cocktail mixed just right, the music selection, or just the general vibe. It just gets you.

But that’s one of the many joys of going out to eat. It’s not always about having adventures in eating, but finding your homes away from home, too.

I’m writing this in part because 2014 saw some of my favorite Chicago spots shutter: from my beloved neighborhood wine bar Bluebird; to the craft beer bar that predated the craft beer bar trend, Smallbar on Division; and more recently, Azzurra EnoTavola–an inviting little Wicker Park newcomer with great handmade pastas and wine.

Now I know there are a lot of factors that impact the success or failure of a restaurant–among them location, experience (or lack thereof), management ability and food quality. Azzurra co-owner Ron DiNella admitted that the year-old eatery simply wasn’t in the right neighborhood.

That being said, I have really mixed emotions about the way media cover dining and drinking in this city. There’s so much emphasis on what’s hot or what’s new, which chefs moved where and whether there was drama involved. I understand that’s part of the business of covering restaurants; it also tells us a thing or two about ourselves–the way we eat and how we spend our disposable income.

But amid the 24-hour news cycle of what’s hot and what’s next and why we should get ourselves on that shit as quickly as possible, we sometimes forget to commend the restaurants that nestle themselves into our regular rotations. Where we feel perfectly apt to go whether we feel celebratory or like total shit; where we order the same thing over and over again without a shred of shame.

Admittedly, I keep a running mental list of new restaurants I want to try–and check them off every few months or so. But my dining-out life is far more defined by the places I keep going back to: because of a consistently perfect burger (Owen & Engine), the best glass of (insert wine varietal) whose name I always forget but don’t care (Vera), the only cup of coffee that never needs cream (Buzz: Killer Espresso), wonderful service and impeccable lamb (Cumin), because I want to feel fancy for an hour (Trenchermen’s bar), succulent fried chicken brought to me in takeout box from next door while I sip cider in a bar called Lizard’s Liquid Lounge (Smalls Smoke Shack & More), or the most beguiling poblano rajas taco there is (L’Patron).

New restaurants make my regular rotation from time to time, too–like Dove’s Luncheonette, for its heavenly Tex-Mex diner food and warm service. And others make my “dream” regular list (if only freelance work paid a bit more regularly), like The Publican, with equal parts perfect raw shellfish and cured weird meat parts. Or The Winchester, with its almost militant dedication to locally procured ingredients packaged in comfy yet refined ways like meatloaf, BLTs and brandade.

So if you find a place that feels like home to you, tell someone–or five people–about it. Bring friends and family there to share a meal. There might be a lot going on behind the scenes that you can’t control, but showing loyalty to a place that feels like home to you can’t hurt either.

Piece Pizza: ordered (almost) every Friday night without fail.

Piece Pizza: ordered (almost) every Friday night without fail.

One more Big Star margarita for the road? Yes, please.

One more Big Star margarita for the road? Yes, please.

Awaiting the perfect burger at Owen & Engine

Dan and Sean await the perfect burger at Owen & Engine.

Snails before steak frites is a must at Le Bouchon.

Snails before steak frites is a must at Le Bouchon.

And all the Publican's oysters were gone

And all the Publican’s oysters were gone

Shakshuka (eggs in spiced tomato sauce)

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Lately, it seems everywhere I look I’ve been seeing recipes for shakshuka. To the point where the word has begun entering my thoughts and daydreams like a soft chant: Shakshuka, shakshuka, shakshuka. Doesn’t it sound lovely when you say it?

I’ve been unwittingly making variations on this North African soft cooked egg dish for years without even knowing what it was called. (I think I called it tomato-poached eggs or some other similarly unrhythmic, not-sexy name). So I thought it fitting to begin 2015 with a proper shakshuka, whose gorgeous, fragrant sauce combines turmeric, caraway seed, paprika and cumin, and is laced with hearty greens, plenty of garlic and onion, salty feta, and a bit of heat from a minced chile.

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I heard somewhere you’re supposed to eat round foods to bring good luck in the New Year. With the amount of eggs we eat, we’re sure to have some marvelous luck in 2015. (Above: The Mister, eating his round lunch out of a round bowl atop a round pouf, is positively swimming in good fortune.)

I hope the coming year is good to you all, too.

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Shakshuka
adapted from Jerusalem, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

Ingredients

    2 tablespoons olive oil
    1 medium onion, diced
    3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
    1 serrano chile, finely minced
    Salt and pepper, to taste
    1 teaspoon smoked paprika
    1 teaspoon caraway seeds, crushed
    3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
    1/2 teaspoon turmeric
    1 28-ounce can diced or crushed tomatoes with their juice
    2 tablespoons tomato paste
    2 teaspoons honey
    1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
    1 cup loosely packed greens, such as kale, spinach or watercress, coarsely chopped
    4 ounces crumbled feta
    4 eggs

Method: In a wide skillet, heat the olive oil over medium high. Add the onion, and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another 2 minutes, until fragrant. Add the chile, salt, pepper and spices. Cook for a minute, stirring constantly, to release their aromas.

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Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, honey and vinegar, plus more salt and pepper to taste. Reduce the heat to medium and cook for 12 to 15 minutes, until it has thickened a bit but is still fairly loose.

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Check the seasoning and adjust as needed, and turn off the heat. Stir in the greens, and sprinkle in the feta.

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Then, use the back of the spoon to create a well in one corner of the pan. Crack an egg into the well. Repeat this step in the other three corners of the pan.

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Turn the heat back on medium low, cover the pan and simmer for 5 to 8 minutes, depending on how done you like your yolks. While the eggs cook, periodically baste the whites with spoonfuls of sauce.

To serve, spoon some sauce in the bottom of a large shallow bowl. Top with two eggs, and serve with crusty bread for sopping.

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Note: This dish would also be wonderful served over soft polenta.