Kelly the Culinarian: October 2008

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Food find: Grand Lux Cafe, Chicago

ALERT: A new Kelly the Culinarian launches Nov. 1.

Now that we're all out of college and either working or working on a PhD, my friends and I are pretty busy. Between husbands, babies, managing a whole department at a Fortune 500 company, overseeing a department at a library and becoming a doctors, I barely get to see these ladies. We've always made it a point to get together once a year, even if we have to plan four months in advance.

This year, my friend cashed in on the best connection I've ever seen. Her uncle works at the W Chicago Lakeshore, perhaps the cleanest, most trendy establishment I've ever been to. Her uncle was nice enough to get us a family discount, send us a bottle of wine and call us just in time to watch the fireworks over Navy Pier from our room on the 21st floor.

Because we live life on a budget, we made lunch our big meal. One of the ladies pick the Grand Luxe Cafe and I'm quite glad she did. I've heard about this place before and it's quite the experience. The interior at the Chicago location, one of just a handful in the county, features a large staircase and a huge seating area that manages to still feel cozy thanks to whimsical decorations, generously spaced-out tables and strategically placed room dividers.

The food here is all about presentation -- heaped mounds of greens with soaring arches of green onion strands and generous portions of extras such as chunks of seasoned bacon, crunchy tortilla strips of blue cheese hunks.

I was also a big fan of the bread. It came straight out of the oven and tasted like it might have been proofed on site.

I ordered the lunch portion of salad and pasta, which was the basic house salad and pasta telephono. The menu said the pasta was a rich tomato sauce blushed with creamed and baked with a crunchy crust. The salad had a delicious honey vinaigrette and was quite tasty. I was of the opinion that the pasta was a little average -- it would have been nice to get a pasta with a little more texture. The sauce was very rich and flavorful, but the baking and creation of the crispy crust left the pasta a bit dry. Oh well, it was still yummy.

The piece de resistance was the cookies. At the end of the meal, one of the ladies ordered a fresh batch of chocolate almond cookies, which arrived in a little box that we took to our hotel. It smelled delicious the whole way home and I couldn't wait to have a few. The cookies melted away in you mouth and were quite rich without being overwhelming. I suspect at least two different chocolates were used in the cookies to produce the flavor. And for $75 for five people, the meal was a bargain.

Oh how I love girls' weekends.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Cooking with Kelly: Fall favorites

I'm a big fan of fall food, and really, what's not to love? Pumpkin pie, roasted squash, turkey in every form, hearty soups and even pumpkin ice cream, if you travel out to Morton, Ill., for Pumpkin Fest.

Anyhoo, a few of my friends that I've known for the better part of a decade got together for a fall kick-off party that included mull spiked cider and pumpkin carving. If you'd like to celebrate the changing of the seasons like we did, here's a great drink that will make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, courtesy of the lovely host of our shin dig:

Spiked Cider:

4 cups apple cider (not apple juice!)
1/2 cup orange juice
3 whole cinnamon sticks
1/4 teaspoon whole cloves
1/4 cup brandy
Wrap the cloves in a coffee filter and tie off with unflavored dental floss to create a pouch. Combine all ingredients, minus the optional alcohol, and bring to a boil in a large saucepan. Reduce heat and simmer for five minutes, adding the alcohol at the end. Serves 3 to 4. Place in clear coffee mugs such as those used for Irish coffee and adorn with a cinnamon stick as a stirrer. Remove spice packet and discard before serving.

Another favorite is pumpkin seeds. We seasoned ours and watched them while we decorated pumpkins. Mine had a ghost, tombstone and tree, but the tree was a little deformed when all was said and done.

Remove the seeds from the pumpkins you carved and try to discard as much of the goo as possible. Using a colander, rinse thoroughly. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Season the seeds now while they're still damp as the flavor will stick. I used seasoning salt and a bit of garlic powder before placing them all on a single layer in a greased baking sheet. Allow to bake for five minutes or until most of the moisture is removed, then turn heat down to 250 and shake to turn. Bake for another 10 minutes or until golden brown. Tasty!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Food flash: The Chef Jeff Project

I *heart* The Chef Jeff Project. I've been packing like a madwoman, but I did it with the television on all of Sunday night. I listened to the biography of Jeff Henderson, who at 19 was running a cocaine ring that brought in more weekly than most reporters make in a year. He was arrested at 24 and spent 10 years in jail, after which he became the chef at the Bellagio in Vegas and wrote a best-selling cookbook.

He currently visits jails to let inmates know that there is life after incarceration. He makes a great point when he says there are plenty of successful people out there who have been to jail and made something out of themselves later, they just don't talk about it.

On The Chef Jeff Project, Jeff takes in several at-risk young people who have sad tales of addiction, homelessness and abuse. He has each kid working at his catering company and uses food and leadership as a way to show them what else is out there.

It's not always pretty. On the first episode, a profanity-laced fight broke out on the line while the employees were serving up the crew of a soap opera. Clearly, they all have issues to work out, but it will be interesting to see how the show plays out.

I always thought food was like therapy. It's easy to think things out when you're watching something cook for an hour or kneading bread for 20 minutes. It's a stress reliever and a great way to think your way through issues, so I'm not at all surprised someone has found a way to bring the therapeutic nature of food to those who need it the most.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Food find: El Bueno Burrito

The economy is pretty sucky right now. Everything related to food and fuel is increasing in price to the point that I heard a woman on the radio this morning advising people to tell kids there won't be Christmas this year and get a part-time job now.

I'm not that doom and gloom, but I will be cutting back, just like most families. My coworkers and I recently went out for Mexican food, which was specially described to me as cheap burritos. Indeed, I got a great, filling lunch with enough leftovers for dinner for a cool $5, including a soda. One person at my table even walked away for less than $2. Gotta love it.

And how did it taste? Well, it wasn't the best Mexican food I've had, but it was pretty tasty. I ordered the steak taco platter, which came with rice and beans and three tacos. The tacos had tender steak chunks along with tomatoes, shredded lettuce, queso blanco and sour cream. I got the corn tortillas, but flour tortillas were also available.

So if you're looking for some cheap eats, try El Bueno Burrito in Glendale Heights on North.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Everyday with Rachael Ray: November

Brrr, it's starting to get chilly in Chicagoland and that means it's time for a new Rachael Ray. All sorts of goodies in November's issue:
  • Homemade guac recipe

  • A mini guide to Chicago going-ons

  • A review of milk frothers

  • A five-ingredient pork and fennel salad

  • Secret menu items (Especially important if you go to In-n-Out Burger)

  • A guide to getting stains from Thanksgiving dishes out of clothes

  • A taste-test of prepared dinner rolls

  • What Dakota Fanning eats (Who knew she was an adult?)

  • Fall side dishes -- the sweet potato custard looks tasty

  • A review of meat thermometers

  • Beef wellington that looks mighty impressive

  • Dinners for $10 or less (I don't think that's difficult to do)

  • A guide to different types of onions

  • 101 ways to make Thanksgiving easier

  • Inventive twists on on Turkey day sides

  • Thanksgiving in 60 minutes (no word on the budget, but a complete shopping list is attached along with tools needed)

  • Italian favorites, including the basics of homemade pasta

  • Hosting an Election Day party

  • Stuffed mushroom options such as Caesar salad, creamed spinach and cheeseburger

  • Idyllic inns that serve up fall favorites

  • Whistler, Canada activities

  • What's in Trisha Yearwood's fridge

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Food Find: Schnitzel Platz

Sigh, I'm finally back! I can't wait to get back to the routine of blogging. I finally have a working camera, no thanks to Best Buy, but here I am.

Anyhow, I've never had German food. I thought it was all sausages and kraut and heavy beers. When a few coworkers decided to go out for German food, I thought I'd give it a try.

Schnitzel Platz is a very popular German joint on North Avenue in Glendale Heights. Now that we're in the midst of Oktoberfest, people will line up around the building during the weekends. There's even a band on the weekends with singalongs and dancing.

But at lunch, it doesn't take that long to get a table, but it might take a while to get your check. The decoration inside reminded some of my dining mates of Germany, but then again, I wouldn't know.

The lunch specials are more than I would normally pay for lunch -- about $15 per person -- but it's a ton of food. Just a word of caution: all the items are in German with English translations, although I'm pretty certain that what I ordered was not what I ate, but it was tasty.

What I ended up with is something that reminded me of a Salisbury steak with an au jus sauce made with red wine, drippings, mushrooms and onions. I ordered my meal with french fries, but they were more like rustic hash browns. It was all quite delicious and extremely filling.

Even the lunches came with bread and soup. The bread was delicious. There was a bread with nuts that I wasn't a big fan of, but there were different breads that were like tiny pretzels. The bread is served with spicy mustard and horseradish. I loved the pretzel bread.

There's also your choice of soup. The afternoon we went the soups were potato leek and liver dumpling. I went with the potato leek because the alternative was essentially a liver meatball in a dark broth.

Other items at my table that looked delicious was the schnitzel with cheese (essentially a very rich mac and cheese) and dumplings, which were the size of a small meatloaf.

Who knew I liked German food.