Sean and I are having new backsplash installed in the kitchen in a couple weeks. When I told my good friend and borderline DIY addict Katie I was planning to hire someone to do it, she responded: “You’re not doing it yourself? We can do it together! It will be so easy!”

So I thought I’d humor her and half-heartedly read a few articles about installing tile. Predictably, at the first mention of “wet saw,” I called Sean into the room. “Do you have the number for that handyman your dad uses?” I asked.

Sorry, Katie.

This got me thinking about priorities. In much the same way that Katie derives inexplicable joy from the prospect of installing crown molding, stripping and painting old doors or making window screens, I rarely shy away from absurdly labor-intensive kitchen projects. I love to tackle a good 8-hour pot pie with scratch-made crust and scratch-made bechamel sauce filled with vegetables and chicken that were all precooked in separate pots. I’ve also been known to stay up all night on Thanksgiving Eve to make gougeres, bacon-wrapped breadsticks and spiced nuts, and to take personal days to make two-day Sunday gravy.

But do I think it’s worth it to turn my kitchen upside down for days on end while I attempt (then likely fail and end up hiring someone) to install a couple of tiles? Nope. I’m not that kind of DIYer.

That said, this Alsace onion tart likely qualifies as Absurdly Time-Consuming. Homemade pastry crust (that is baked twice even before it gets a filling) is filled to the brim with slow-caramelized onions; rendered bacon; and a heavenly blend of crème fraîche, eggs and nutmeg. Add in the final bake, plus all the chilling and cooling at various stages, and the thing will take you no less than six hours to make. But, oh, is it worth it.


Alsace onion tart
adapted from Gourmet magazine, serves 6


    2 cups AP flour
    1 stick cold unsalted butter, cut in 1/2-inch cubes
    1/4 cup vegetable shortening
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    4 to 5 tablespoons ice water


    4 bacon slices, cut into 1/8-inch-wide strips
    3 tablespoons unsalted butter
    2 pounds yellow onions, halved and thinly sliced crosswise
    Salt and black pepper, to taste
    1 cup crème fraîche
    4 large eggs
    1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Pastry: Pulse together flour, butter, shortening and salt in a bowl with your fingertips or a pastry blender in a food processor, just until most of mixture resembles coarse meal with some small (pea-size) butter lumps. Drizzle evenly with 4 tablespoons ice water and pulse in the processor until incorporated. Don’t overmix the dough, or it will become tough.

Turn out the mixture onto a lightly floured surface, and gently knead three or four times until it comes together. Gather the dough together with a pastry scraper and press it into a ball, then flatten the ball into a disk. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and chill until firm, at least 1 hour.

Roll out the dough on a floured surface with a floured rolling pin into a 14-inch round and fit it into the tart pan. Trim the excess dough, leaving a 1/2-inch overhang, then fold the overhang over the pastry and press against the side to reinforce the edge.

Lightly prick the bottom with a fork and chill until firm, about 30 minutes. Position an oven rack in the middle and preheat the oven to 400F.

Line the chilled shell with foil and fill with pie weights (dried beans work well). Bake until pastry is set and pale golden along rim, 15 to 20 minutes. Carefully remove the foil and weights and bake shell until golden all over, 10 to 15 minutes more. Transfer to a rack. (Leave the oven on.)


Filling: Cook the bacon in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat until crisp, 6 to 8 minutes. Transfer the bacon with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain. Pour off about half the bacon fat. Turn the heat down to medium low. Add the butter, onions, salt and pepper to the skillet, and cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are very soft and pale golden, about 30 minutes. Note: Whenever the onions start to look a little dry (i.e. like they might start to brown too fast), stir in a few tablespoons of water. Add the bacon back in, then remove the mixture from the heat and let it cool for 10 minutes.


Whisk together the crème fraîche, eggs, nutmeg, about 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper in a large bowl, then stir in the onions and bacon.


Pour the filling into the cooled tart shell, spreading the onions evenly, and bake until the filling is set (not jiggly in the middle) and the top is golden, 25 to 35 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Warm French lentil salad

VLUU L210  / Samsung L210

I don’t cook lentils very often, probably because there are too many good Indian restaurants nearby that work fragrant magic on them for me on a weekly basis. But I’ll make an exception every once in awhile for this bistro-style French lentil salad, which couldn’t be further from spicy Indian dal. (See what I did there?) It is equal parts tart, savory and smoky–all things I love. It’s simple yet extremely satisfying.

I’ve often seen French lentil salad paired with a simple grilled salmon fillet, which would be delicious, though I like it best with a few hunks of buttered baguette for a comfy lunch or light dinner. The little green French (or Puy) lentils have a toothsome texture and earthy–almost minerally–flavor that works well with their flavorful counterparts. The best part is, aside from the bit of hunting you’ll have to do for the lentils, everything else in this salad is widely available all the time. Note: Don’t substitute brown or yellow lentils in this recipe; they’re too mushy when cooked.

VLUU L210  / Samsung L210

Warm French lentil salad

    5-6 pieces bacon
    Extra virgin olive oil, as needed
    1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped (reserve 1/4 cup for the dressing)
    1 bay leaf
    6 sprigs thyme, chopped and divided in half
    1 1/2 cups French (puy) lentils, picked over for little stones
    Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
    1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
    1/2 cup red wine vinegar
    1 1/2 cup chopped baby spinach

Method: In a heavy-bottomed pot, render the bacon slowly over medium heat until crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon, and set on paper towels to drain, leaving the bacon grease in the pot. Add 1 teaspoon olive oil to the pot, and turn the heat up to medium high. Add the chopped onion, saving 1/4 cup for the vinaigrette. Saute the onion till soft, about 5 minutes; then add the bay leaf, about half the fresh thyme and the lentils. Cook for 2 minutes, then add 3 cups water. Cover the pot, bring it to a boil and reduce it to a simmer.

VLUU L210  / Samsung L210

Cook the lentils for 15 to 20 minutes, or until they’re tender while still maintaining their shape. Drain off the excess water, and remove the bay leaf. Check for seasoning, and adjust as needed. Set aside to cool slightly.

Meanwhile, combine the rest of the onion and thyme with the parsley, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil, whisking constantly. Taste for seasoning, adjusting as needed.

Add the warm lentils and chopped spinach to the bowl with the vinaigrette, and toss to combine. Crumble the cooled bacon into small pieces and add it to the salad. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Serves 4 as a salad course.

Oma’s stuffed cabbage rolls


My German grandmother, known best to me as Oma, never made me her recipe for stuffed cabbage rolls, though I’ve probably eaten them a hundred times. We usually visited my grandparents in summertime, and stuffed cabbage rolls–filled with bacon, beef and rice and slow-braised in tomatoes and sauerkraut–are best saved for chilly winter nights.

My mom still makes them almost every year using the same stained, handwritten recipe that Oma dictated to her over 30 years ago. I didn’t start making them until I moved back to Chicago after college, and I haven’t actually written the recipe down until now. In the past, I would simply call Mom and announce, “I’m making Oma’s stuffed cabbage.” “Hold on, Marge. Let me find the recipe,” she’d say. I think I just like hearing her dictate the way Oma always made it.

Stuffed cabbage rolls are common throughout Eastern Europe, and they’re the perfect expression of the type of woman my grandmother was–resourceful, labor-intensive, warm and tidy, with a slight bite. Whenever I make them, I picture her hovering over my shoulder scolding me gently for putting too much tomato in the sauce.

Be warned: There’s a fair amount of prep in this recipe, which will take about 45 minutes and an assortment of different sized pans. But after that, the ingredients, the pot and the heat do the rest.


Stuffed cabbage rolls
from my Oma

    1/2 cup white rice
    Salt, as needed
    1 medium head cabbage
    3-4 strips bacon, diced 1/4 inch
    1 teaspoon butter
    1 medium yellow onion
    Pepper, to taste
    2 pounds ground beef, 85% lean
    2 eggs
    1 pound sauerkraut
    1 14-ounce can tomato sauce
    1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes

Method: Bring 1 cup water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the rice, and cook for about 10 minutes, until cooked about halfway through (it will cook the rest of the way inside the cabbage rolls). Drain off any excess water and dump the rice into a large bowl.


While the rice is cooking, heat a large pot two-thirds full of salted water until boiling. Carefully add the whole head of cabbage and boil for 5 minutes. Remove, and immediately plunge into a large bowl of ice water for 30 seconds, turning constantly, to stop the cooking process. Set on paper towels to drain.


Cut the bacon into 1/4-inch dice, and place it in a cold skillet with a large pat of butter. Turn the heat up to medium, and slowly render the bacon until slightly brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the onion and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Saute until the onion is softened and slightly caramelized, about 5 minutes. Add the onions and bacon to the rice mixture. Then add the ground beef, eggs, and a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper. Puncture the yolks, and mix everything together until evenly incorporated.

To assemble the cabbage rolls, pull one cabbage leaf off at a time and place it on the cutting board with the inside facing up and the root end closest to you. (I used 12 leaves from a fairly large head of cabbage in this recipe.)


Place a few tablespoons of the beef mixture in the center of the leaf. Fold each side in toward the center so they’re overlapping. Don’t worry if there are a few rips in the cabbage leaves. Everything will come together when it cooks.


Roll forward and away from you, tucking in the sides as you go like you’re rolling up a burrito.


Set the rolls seam side down on a sheet tray, and repeat until you’ve used up all the filling. If there is only a little cabbage left, chop it up finely and toss it in the pot with the cabbage rolls. Otherwise, seal it in an airtight container and put it in the fridge.

Place a 5-quart Dutch oven or other large, heavy-bottomed pot on the stove. Cover the bottom with a layer of sauerkraut (and extra chopped cabbage if you have it), then a layer of cabbage rolls. Season with salt and pepper. Repeat this process until all the cabbage rolls are nestled inside the pot.


Pour the tomato sauce and diced tomatoes over everything. Fill the tomato sauce can with water and pour that over the rolls as well. Top with a little more sauerkraut and season again with salt and pepper.


Turn the heat on medium, and bring the mixture to a simmer. Turn the heat down to low (the pot should be lightly bubbling), and allow the cabbage rolls to cook for 2 hours until the meat is cooked through and the cabbage leaves are tender.

To serve, place 2 rolls in a shallow bowl or on a plate. Top with a few ladles of the sauerkraut tomato sauce. Serves 6.

Note: Stuffed cabbage rolls freeze beautifully. Place the cooked cabbage rolls and a few spoonfuls of sauce in airtight containers in the freezer up to 3 months. The day you’re ready to eat them, put them in the fridge 8 hours ahead to thaw, then reheat them gently over medium low on the stove.

Brunch that hugs back


The one area in which I’ve always considered myself to be a bad Chicagoan is brunch. People are always writing articles about what a great brunch city we live in, and I often get asked where to go to get the best brunch. Frankly, I’d rather spend my Saturday morning on the couch with a cup of coffee and homemade egg sandwich, watching the Premier League with Penny and the Mr. But when forced to suggest a place, nine times out of ten I recommend SmallBar on Division.

Yes, it’s a bar. And yes, the main Saturday morning crowd consists of dudes watching soccer and drinking pints. But the food is wonderful. The menu was redone two years ago by Justin White, a chef who’s worked at the Bristol (my favorite Chicago spot), Green Zebra and Custom House. He brings an elevated, gastropub sensibility to the food, but you don’t feel like you have to dress up to come eat it.

Corned beef is cured for 21 days in house for a rustic, filling corned beef hash that’s topped with a perfectly poached egg. Quiche gets spruced up with grated nutmeg, roasted cauliflower and a crunchy, prickly little side salad. And the farmer’s cheese and tomato jam sandwich is just that: housemade, sticky-sweet tomato jam and smoky farmer’s cheese smeared on hearty, thick country bread.

The menu changes fairly often, in tune with whatever strange garbage the Midwestern skies are hurtling down on us. Take last week for example. Icy rain, then snow, then brilliant sunshine accompanied by single-digit temperatures. On Sunday morning, Sean and I left the comfort of the couch to catch the last half of the Liverpool vs. Swansea game there.


It took me about 8 seconds to decide that I was going to order the rice porridge. Rice slowly cooked with smoky bacon lardons and dinosaur kale, streaked with smoky-sweet chile sauce and topped with a poached egg–it was like they knew just what I needed. I was so tired of being cold, of bundling and unbundling and of having chapped lips all the time. I just wanted a meal that would hug back.

So below is my lazy attempt at recreating SmallBar’s heavenly rice porridge. I didn’t feel like frying, soaking and pureeing chiles, so I used store-bought mole sauce instead. I didn’t feel like poaching an egg, so I fried it instead. But I don’t really want my version to be exactly like SmallBar’s. I’d rather go there and have them make it for me again before the winter’s gone.


Lazy rice porridge with fried egg
serves 4

    1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more as needed
    5-6 bacon slices, cut in lardons
    1 large leek (white and light green parts only), rinsed and cut into 1/4-inch rounds
    Salt and pepper, to taste
    2 cups arborio rice
    1/4 cup red wine vinegar
    5 cups chicken stock, plus 1 cup water
    1 bunch lacinato (dinosaur) kale, sliced in thin ribbons
    4 eggs
    Mole or other non-vinegary chile sauce, for drizzling

Method: Add the olive oil and bacon pieces to a large Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot. Heat to medium, and cook until the fat is rendered and the bacon just starts to caramelize, 5 to 7 minutes.

Add the leeks, along with a sprinkling of salt and pepper, and cook until softened, another 5 minutes. Add the rice and toast for 2 or 3 minutes, until all the kernels are coated in the oil and slightly translucent.


Pour in the red wine vinegar, stirring constantly until it has completely reduced. Then add the chicken stock, turn the heat up to high and bring the mixture to a boil. Cover, and reduce the heat to medium low. Cook the rice on a low simmer for about an hour, stirring occasionally. After the first 30 minutes, stir in the kale. Fifteen minutes after that, add the remaining cup of water.


Once the rice is done, check the seasoning and adjust as needed.

In a nonstick skillet, heat the olive oil over medium high and add the eggs one or two at a time, depending on the size of your skillet. Season with salt and pepper, and fry for about 2 minutes per side, until the whites are set but the yolks are still runny.

To serve, divide the rice porridge equally among 4 bowls. Top each with a fried egg and drizzle with 1 or 2 teaspoons of mole.

Marge’s next great sandwich

I am an editor of a magazine for bakery owners. Because of this, I spend a lot of time tasting and talking about all the things we deprive ourselves of, such as Danish, cookies, cupcakes, doughnuts, pies, pastries and bread. But bakeries don’t exist to remind us of what we can’t eat; they are there to provide those small doses of happiness that punctuate our everyday lives. Since I wasn’t born with an especially sweet tooth, I derive a lot of this kind of joy from great bread.

The enemy?

If you read my blog somewhat regularly, you may have noticed that I dabble a bit in scratch bread-baking. This is because I am on a mission to master the art of bread, despite my puny home cook’s oven. The main reason for this is bread is the foundation of a great sandwich. A salty reuben on marble rye, an airy, crisp fried walleye fillet on white bread slathered with tangy tartar sauce, an oozing fried egg sandwich, a steak torta on a shattering bolillo roll–the best sandwiches are truly an art form.

So I have decided to launch a little project called Marge’s next great sandwich. Every few entries, I will share a recipe that showcases my favorite fillings between bread. Please leave me a comment if there’s a sandwich you’d like to see recreated! You may even see a few more bread recipes along the way.

To me, a perfect sandwich should be:

    1. a nice balance of bread, protein, condiment and vegetable/fruit
    2. served on the right bread, which not only makes the sandwich handheld, but also adds some heft and gives the juicy stuff a place to go (no, a lettuce wrap doesn’t count as “bread”)
    3. messy, though not impossible to get through without the filling seeping out
    4. lots of different textures (think crisp radish, creamy cheese, chewy bread, tender meat)
    5. glued together with some kind of spread, which also adds a bit of fat and/or moisture (i.e., mustard, mayo, tapenade, bean spread)

For my first great sandwich entry, I am sharing one of my go-to breakfast sandwiches: bacon and fried eggs on toasted Tuscan pane. I elevated this version with smashed avocado spread and arugula lightly dressed with olive oil and lemon zest. I often have a slightly fancier egg sandwich like this for dinner, reassuring myself that I don’t have to make a salad because there is already one on the sandwich. The bread, made by Chicago-based Labriola Baking Co., is slightly chewy and not too flavorful–perfect for a rich, salty, oozing filling.

Fried egg sandwich with bacon and avocado

    2 slices good-quality bacon
    1/2 cup arugula
    1 teaspoon chopped chives
    1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
    Extra virgin olive oil, as needed
    Salt and pepper, to taste
    2 eggs (preferably cage free–see my Ireland entry)
    Tuscan pane, or other chewy, Italian-style bread, cut into 2 thick slices and lightly toasted
    1/2 ripe avocado

Method: Place the bacon in a cold skillet, and turn on the heat to medium. Cook the bacon until a good amount of fat has rendered and it’s golden brown on both sides, 8-10 minutes. Remove and place on a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Once cooled, break the bacon into a few large pieces. Drain off all but about 1 tablespoon of bacon fat, and set the skillet aside.

Meanwhile, make the “salad.” In a small bowl, toss the arugula, chives and lemon zest with olive oil, salt and pepper. Reserve.

Add 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil to the skillet with the bacon fat and heat it to medium. One at a time, crack the eggs into the pan. Season them with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Cook the eggs for 4-5 minutes, until the whites begin to set. Now, slightly tilt the pan and start basting the tops of the whites with the hot oil.

Do this for about 3 more minutes until the whites have set completely. During the last minute or so, carefully spoon oil over the yolks a few times so they set slightly.

To build the sandwich, scoop the ripe avocado onto one of the bread slices, and spread it around with a spatula or the back of a spoon. Top the other slice of bread with the bacon pieces. Slide the eggs on next and top them with the arugula salad. Place the lid on top, slice the sandwich in half and serve immediately. Serves 1.

Note: The very last thing I do before tucking into a fried egg sandwich is press down on the top with the palm of my hand so some of the yolk dribbles onto the plate. This creates the sauce, which I then drag the sandwich through before each bite.

I’m heading to Ireland!

In a few weeks Sean and I are heading overseas with two dear friends for 11 days of driving through the south and west of Ireland. After months of research and Guinness-infused meetings, we’re ready to see the quaint towns and salty wind-swept green countryside that make up this gorgeous, rugged place.

During our last meeting, I prepared Guinness-braised beef in honor of the first three days of our trip, which will be spent in Dublin over St. Patrick’s Day weekend. This dish of tender beef, rendered bacon and vegetables lacquered with a thick sauce of Guinness, beef stock and wintry herbs is perfect for winter months when wearing many layers of clothing hides those few extra pounds we need to keep ourselves warm.

Nearly empty Guinness

Resources used: This recipe comes from Cooking with Friends, a sweet little cookbook with gorgeous photography that’s wonderful for any kind of entertaining. I really like the addition of the steamed red potatoes in this dish. Cooking them separately and adding them right at the end allows them to maintain some texture and keep their lovely brick colored skins.

Guinness-braised beef

    1 tablespoon vegetable oil
    2 pounds beef stew meat, such as beef chuck, cut into 1-inch cubes
    Kosher salt
    Freshly ground black pepper
    2 slices bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
    1 tablespoon unsalted butter
    1 medium yellow onion, large dice
    2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
    1 1/4 cups Guinness stout beer
    2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced into 1/2-inch rounds
    1 bouquet garni (two bay leaves and a few sprigs each of parsley, thyme and rosemary tied with butcher’s twine)
    1 1/2 cups low-sodium beef broth
    1 pound red potatoes (skin on), quartered
    Freshly parsley, chopped

Method: In a large, heavy-bottomed pot heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Season the meat with salt and pepper, and sear it in batches until brown. Remove the meat with a slotted spoon and transfer to a plate; cover with foil to keep warm.

Turn the heat down slightly, add the bacon and cook until brown and crisp. Remove, and add to the plate with the beef.

Now add the butter and onion, and sauté for 8-10 minutes until tender and slightly brown. Add the flour and cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly, to remove the raw flour taste. Pour in the Guinness and stir to incorporate the flour, scraping up any brown bits from the bottom.

Return the beef and bacon to the pan (along with their lovely juices), and add the carrots and bouquet garni.

Add the beef broth, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for about 2 hours until the beef is very tender, stirring occasionally.

While the meat cooks, prepare the potatoes by bringing a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the potatoes, and cook until just tender, about 10 minutes. Remove, and set aside.

When the beef is tender, pull it out along with the bacon, onion and carrot and transfer it to a large bowl. Raise the heat to medium high, and cook the braising liquid until it thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. Check the seasoning, and adjust as needed. Return the beef, bacon, onion and carrot to the pot, and stir in the potatoes.

Sprinkle with chopped parsley, and serve. Serves 4. It might seem like a lot of beef, but truthfully, this meal served exactly 4 slightly ashamed yet very ravenous people.