Kelly the Culinarian: November 2015

Monday, November 30, 2015

Goose Black Friday 2015

I’m only slightly embarrassed to admit I did Black Friday shopping. But I didn’t shop for clothes or toys or electronics. I don’t think the sales are that good, and I’m not willing to demean my humanity to save $10 on a TV I don’t need anyhow.

But beer. That’s another story. For the second year, I’ve waited in line before the sun is up to buy Goose Island Bourbon County stouts. These are highly sought-after, drool worthy stouts aged in bourbon barrels. While you can buy it at some Costcos and Jewels, you’d better know when and where to get it or it will be gone. It comes in original and several variants, which are generally coffee, barleywine, rye and proprietors blend, which changes annually.

Now a veteran at this game, I chose a store with a large shipment allowing your standard allotment (two original BCBS and two variants of your choice), that had an overhang in front of the store, because it was raining. I also leveraged my camping prowess and brought a propane grill, hot hands and a sleeping bag for the waiting time. I thought breakfast burritos would be a welcome distraction, but strangely, no one other than the people I knew in line took the burritos. Anyhow, the time clicked off quickly and I bought my fair share quickl y before visiting my local Costco and Jewel, then calling it a day.

But this year, I upped my game and went to the official Black Friday tasting at Goose Island Clybourn. This tasting is tough to get into and you have to buy tickets a few weeks in advance. For $75 per person, you can a tasting of each of the six offerings that year, paired with tiny desserts. The brewers lead you through the tasting and talk about how they decided on the variants for the year. Lucky tasters are sent home with a bottle of Prop, a tasting glass and a ticket for a pour of original BCBS to cash in at the bar. Taking into account the value of the bottle, pour and glass, it’s basically paying $30 to taste the entire vertical. It’s well-worth it for a classier Black Friday experience, but I think I’d rather go to FoBAB the week before and taste all the variants before waiting in line to buy it before dawn the day after Thanksgiving.

My thoughts on the tasting? 

The original BCBS and the Regal Rye, which has a distinct sour cherry after note, were my favorites. 
Previous Prop collaborations
Rare, which was going for $80 a bottle, was way too much whiskey. Maybe in two years it will cool down and mellow, but right now, the two-year aging in 35-year-old Heaven Hill whiskey barrels was just too much heat for my palate. 

This year’s coffee, which was made with Intelligentsia coffee, was very coffee forward. It basically tasted like a syrupy coffee with an alcoholic aftertaste.

The Prop this year is made with maple syrup aged in bourbon barrels. You can’t really taste the guajillo peppers, which is good. It’s delicious, as always, but I like the ’14 prop better, which I think tastes like an almond joy.

Barleywine didn’t make a huge impression on me – it was good, just not as unique as its fellow variants.

A few notes about the tasting itself:
  • Arrive early. Parking is free all over the place, but a bit of a nightmare on Black Friday in Lincoln Park.
  • Don’t come hungry. It’s not a lot of food.
  • The tasting it about 75 minutes long, but the bar is tapping the variants and other rare pours throughout the night. It’s worth sticking around for a while.

Friday, November 27, 2015

5 Friday Things

1. The only Black Friday shopping I do is for beer, and I got quite the haul this year. Goose Island releases Bourbon County Stout every Black Friday and I wait in line for this and this alone. They issue variants as well, and I got all of them, plus a bottle of Rare, which is the box in the middle. I got very lucky this year.

2. My sisters and I decided to forgo tradition this year and instead went out for Chinese food for Thanksgiving. We did have roasted duck instead of Peking duck, in honor of the season.

3. It's for the best because I upgraded my oven this week, because everyone knows the best time to buy a major appliance is halfway through preparing a complicated holiday meal. I went from a standard-issue, old and unreliable base model to a double-oven, five-burner masterpiece. My oven makes me happy.

4. Going back to beer, did you know they make beer advent calendars? You get a delicious beverage every day leading up to Christmas. I got these at The Beer Cellar in Glen Ellyn, but I'm sure this is something you could replicate at home for the beer lover in your life.

5. Napoleon is so cautiously curious about other dogs. I had company this week and he spent the better part of a morning staring at the cage and sitting at my desk while I worked. I couldn't tell if he wanted to play or thought he was protecting me or was scared. Either way, he investigated the kennel thoroughly once it was empty.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Win it Wednesday: ALDI Gift Basket Giveaway

It's time to kick off the holiday season! Let's get festive - one of the many exciting things I did when I visited ALDI headquarters last month was tour the amazing products they've got in store for the holiday season. There's just so much giftable good stuff going on there, from crispy pizelle cookies to caramel-filled stroopwafels and truffles. Plus, the wine selection at ALDI is incredible. Think prize-wining offerings, all under $15. With only 4-6 aisles at any given location, it's pretty easy to buzz through an ALDI to put together a quick hostess or teacher's gift without a lot of fuss or expense.

If you'd like to try before you buy, this giveaway is just for you. I gathered an assortment of cookies, chocolates, sweet bites and surprises to giveaway to one lucky reader. The wine pictured will be replaced with a giftcard to pick out your own bottle at your neighborhood ALDI. Imagine how nice it would be to get this on your doorstep this holiday season. Nothing brightens my day more than chocolate, so enter now to win!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

RaffleCopter will randomly select one winner on Dec. 3. Good luck!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

#WhatsGoodNow: A Winter Tasting at Seasons 52 Chicago

Ah, I love Seasons 52. It's healthy, locally sourced and seasonally available, with a new menu every week. Every season, however, new dishes are rotated onto the menu to highlight the tastes of the season, hence the name. The Chicago location is also under new management, so I got a first look at what to expect now. Everything here is available on the menu now, until the next season rolls out. While I enjoyed a free meal, the opinions are all my own. We started with wine, the seasonal cocktail and the new flatbread.

The cocktail this season is a cranberry sage number featuring gin, cranberry juice, lime and a candied sage leaf. I appreciated that it wasn't too sweet but still packed a punch. The seasonal flatbread featured braised shortrib and aged cheddar. It was light and savory at the same time, providing just a taste of beef coupled with horseradish cream and micro cilantro. I also sampled the grilled garlic pesto flatbread, which was my favorite. The balsamic onions and roasted peppers really brought it together.

Next up, appetizers. This season features a black and white lobster ravioli with squid ink and egg pasta, topped with a sherry lobster sauce. It was a great opening for good things to come.

We had to try a salad, and out waiter suggested the warm arugula and mushroom salad. It was topped with truffle dressing and Parmesan shavings, which melted into the warm mushrooms for a surprisingly fulfilling flavor profile.

We also sampled the duck wing lollipops, which packed quite the punch with a Korean red chili glaze. So much so that it called for another beverage.

The New Old Fashioned is a beautiful drink, as it's served with the craft bourbon on the side so you can sample the cherry apple bitters separately and add more as desired. It's also served with a rock candy stirrer.

The best thing I ate all night was the Asian-glazed Chilean sea bass, which was served atop organic black rice, snow peas, shitake mushrooms and micro wasabe. It was a stand out that I would order again and again.

And because no meal is complete without dessert, Seasons 52 features microdesserts served in shotglasses that are the perfect amount of sweet to finish out a meal. I've done this more than once, and my favorite dessert is the ultimate smores cup. It has all things chocolate topped with a toasted marshmallow. I have tried all the rest, in the interest of journalistic integrity, and this is the best.

Thanks for a wonderful winter tasting, Seasons 52!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Three Things Thursday

1. Remember the game Mall Madness? I asked for it for Christmas two years before I got it, because it's a ridiculously complicated set up with a million pieces that was pricey even when I was 9. I played it this week and went online to try and buy some of the missing parts. Apparently in good condition, this is worth $300. I should have been nicer to my toys.

 2. I'm on my final day of Social Media Week Chicago in the Merchandise Mart, learning about perfecting my professional skills for staying social. Other than commuting downtown daily, it's been a great experience. My favorite insight: The ROI of social media is that your business will continue to exist in five years. Let that one sink in.

3. I went to Target to buy Christmas lights and was immediately reminded of why I don't go to Target. I ended up with a skirt, jeans, underwear and a cake plate, before I ever got to the lights. There was room in the budget and it keeps me from splurging on completely useless stuff, but still. Those lights made an an expensive "just running in" trip.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

My Day at ALDI

I am living the dream, folks. It’s been a hot minute since I wrote about how to shop at ALDI, but I’ve been an almost-exclusive ALDI shopper for most of my adulthood. It’s a matter of priorities – if I save money on food costs for identical products, I can spend that money better elsewhere on evenings out, mini vacations and other splurges that make my life feel luxurious. It’s also how I’m able to host Sunday dinners without much expense, and how I can grocery shop without a list most weeks.
I’ll stop gushing now.

Anyhow, I’ve always wanted to tour the ALDI test kitchens. I enviously read other bloggers’ accounts of the delectable food, pristine kitchens and helpful kitchen secrets. Finally, I was one of the chosen ones! My mother is so proud that years of ALDI shopping and blogging have finally paid off.

The first thing we did was tour the ALDI store in Geneva, IL., which is the closest location to headquarters. It’s almost identical to the newest ALDI location near me, except with perhaps an additional aisle. I saw all of my favorites there, along with a few more seasonal buys. 

We discussed how ALDI saves consumers’ money – by not taking credit cards and having to pass that cost onto consumers, with shopping carts that require a quarter so they don’t have to pay people to retrieve carts, by having multiple UPC codes on items to speed up check out and creating shipping solutions that also function as displays to eliminate the cost of stocking shelves. It really is a feat of engineering to see all the different ideas they come up with to save cash. For example, almost every ALDI lay out is identical so that employees working at a different location know where things are, and so warehouses can ship merchandise in a manner that reduced the amount of running around employees have to do to restock.

After the tour, we all headed over to ALDI’s headquarters, a tourist destination for maybe only me, but still. It was fully decked out for the holidays and we started in the Test Kitchen. We had a head-to-head blind taste test of ALDI products versus nationally available items (think ALDI Greek yogurt v. Chobani). 

Every item in the store undergoes rigorous blind taste tests at least twice a year that were far more in-depth than what we delighted in, but in this scenario, we just selected our favorites. I don’t know if it’s because I don’t have a huge basis for comparison or my palate isn’t that nuanced, but some products I couldn’t taste a difference at all. With the yogurt, for example, one tasted creamier and sweeter to me, but I wouldn't say I prefer it. From tortilla chips to orange juice, the main message was that by switching to the ALDI brand, consumers can save 28 to 65 percent.

From there, we went on to enjoy holiday d├ęcor and entertaining tips, which I can’t wait to share soon! Stay tuned my friends ….  

Monday, November 16, 2015

An Evening at Earls Kitchen + Bar, Part 2

After savoring our appetizers and enjoying a few delicious artisan cocktails featuring house-made syrups and clever glassware at Earls Kitchen + Bar, we were on to the main course. Which, admittedly, we were all starting to get full, but I never let that stop me from enjoying a gourmet meal. At the suggestion of Chef Luke, we agreed to split a few entrees. He said the chimichurri flank steak was his creation, and the bibimbap was a popular offering featuring a house-made sauce people couldn't get enough of.

The man was right. It was incredible. The bibimbap is served in a heated bowl with a soft-cooked egg on top. To serve, you cut up the egg, mix the ingredients and press it against the sides of the bowl to sear the rice and cook the egg. The sauce was slightly tangy, which went well with the creamy egg york. We opted for chicken, which was a wise choice coupled with the rest of our meat-tastic meal. 

In addition to the steak and bibimbap, we decided on the trip downtown we needed ribs in the most primal of ways. This set fell off the bone and boasted a homemade barbecue sauce. It was also paired with a warm potato salad and coleslaw. I'm not usually a huge coleslaw person, but this was refreshingly crunchy and so fresh I couldn't resist.

The steak was also a very interesting entree. It was rather tender and cooked atop a homemade chimichurri sauce, which I love. There were also a few roasted potatoes and tomatoes nestled into the skillet that rounded out the dish nicely.

And despite having more than enough to eat, I never say no to dessert. Ever. I have an extra stomach just for the occasion. Again, we shared, so don't think I'm a total glutton. We started with the pumpkin pie - it had the most amazing crust. I need lessons. It was topped with fresh whipped cream and a cinnamon-sugar sprinkle.

I may be basic and love pumpkin, but my heart belongs to chocolate. This sticky toffee pudding cake was just unreal. It was a warm cake topped with chocolate and toffee sauces, served aside vanilla bean ice cream ensconced in a candy snap basket.

I was so full, but I regret nothing. What I loved about #EarlsLincoln in addition to the food and drinks was the atmosphere. It would be a great place to snag an after-work drink, as well as have a first date. The layout is such that it almost feels like there are two dining areas, each with a specific ambiance. There's also outdoor dining that I can't wait to go back and enjoy, including a fire pit and insulated nearly year-round patio options. Sounds like a cozy brunch destination, indeed!

Friday, November 13, 2015

A Night at Earls Kitchen + Bar Lincoln Park, Part 1

This week was incredible - I got an invite a while back to the grand opening of Earls Kitchen + Bar in Lincoln Park but was unable to attend. I was bummed because it looked tasty, but lucky for me, I was still on the list. Several bloggers visited the upscale casual restaurant this week to take a behind-the-scenes look at what makes this place different. If I had to boil down all the reasons, I'd say quality and care. The quality of the food and the care in the preparation is only matched by the care taken to create an ambiance befitting the food. While it is a chain with a ton of locations in Canada, it's a family-owned business that's new to Chicago.

Let's start with the decor. The art was selected to reflect the locale, and the bar was specifically constructed to ensure an unobstructed view. This particular piece has a patina finish created with sea water from Canada, where the place hails from. The trumpets are in a sound wave taken from a three-second snippet of "Hello, Dolly!".

The kitchen is just the same, basically putting food prep on display. It looks like a ton of people because the manager, Brad, explained he had somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 people in from various locations to train the new staff.

I got to check out the walk-in cooler, too, which features wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling homemade creations and sauces. Everything is meticulously labeled to maximize freshness.

Every dish is cooked on demand to order, with the prep chefs starting at 5:30 a.m. for a day of service. Earls pickles their own items and creates all the simple syrups for cocktails, which each feature whimsical glassware and garnishes.

There are some truly innovative cocktails on the Earls menu. Perhaps my favorite was the Lemon Meringue, which is in the top left of the images above. It was incredibly smooth and satisfying - basically a dessert in a cup. It was a frozen cocktail featuring limoncello and skyy vodka, then topped with meringue fluff that was bruleed for good measure. On the right, my table also sampled the Silly Wabbit, Cabin Fever and Bees Knees. I loved that the honey cocktail was served in a glass reminiscent of a bottle of honey, and my cabin fever tasted like Christmas in Hawaii.

As for appetizers, the photo in the middle is the roasted corn and poblano cheese dip. It has a creamy cheese profile that's highlighted by the specks of roasted corn, which accompany the salted Navajo-style fried bread. Luke, the chef, explained it as Earls' answer to the tired queso or spinach dip with tortilla chip option. My table also sampled tuna toastadas, which coupled lightly seared tuna with fresh avocado atop a crispy corn tortilla complemented with crunchy jicama slaw. I couldn't pass up an opportunity to enjoy sushi, and this dynamite shrimp roll did not disappoint. Additionally, we sampled the hot wings and the Korean-style wings, which were a great departure from typical bar offerings. The homemade sauces and custom garnishes made all the difference.

This is already loooong, so tune in tomorrow as I talk entrees and desserts. Of course, you can get a preview of what I tasted if you follow me on Instagram.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Three Things Thursday

1. I went to an amazing event at Goose Island Clybourn Monday. It was a clear the cellar event in which you gave your top choices to the waitress, and then they brought out the bottles that were available. There were only four bottles of Rare, and I didn't get one, but I still got to taste it! It was basically the most over the top, decadent collection of coveted stouts I've ever had. Plus, they had half-priced appetizers, which I made quick work of. Try the hummus, it's great. 

2. I've complained about how sick I was before, but I genuinely think I cracked a rib. The pain has been pervasive, impacting my ability to run outside in a big way. When I was laying in bed last night, I noted a pretty substantial knot in my ribcage, right about where it's been killing me for almost a week. I'm guessing there's no treatment for a broken rib, so I'll just keep soldiering on and hoping for the best.

3. My mom got me a Nest Learning Thermostat for my birthday and I'm a little obsessed with it. I love that I can turn on the heat and the fan from afar, as well as see my energy consumption and set an auto-away status. It's fabulous. I might write a whole post about this gem.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Care and Keeping of Cast Iron

My collection: a Lodge Cast Iron Dutch Oven
 and a Crofton Cast Iron Skillet from ALDI
I've feared cast iron unnecessarily for years. I always thought it was an antiquated and messy way to cook, but what I've realized as I've come around to the glory of cast iron is that all my previous misconceptions were because I failed to maintain my equipment properly. Without fail, every time I tried to cook with my cast iron skillet, it smoked while preheating enough to set off the smoke detector, while my food still burned and stuck to it. It was user error: I wasn't maintaining the seasoning on the skillet and failed to clean it enough between uses to keep it pristine.

Let me explain: cast iron skillets almost universally arrive to you pre-seasoned, meaning it has a little nonstick on it. Even old cast iron can be restored, however, with a little elbow grease and oil. The benefits of cooking with cast iron are numerous - because it takes heat well, you can get an awesome sear on meats. And if you're anemic, cooking in cast iron increases the level of iron in your food. Pretty nifty. Plus, these things are indestructible, if you take care of them.

First, when you're done cooking, try to scrape off as much food while the skillet or dutch oven is still warm. If the stain is particularly nasty, you may wish to add a cup of water to the skillet while it's still warm. When you're done eating and it's cooled a bit, it will have worked some of the gunk off the bottom to make the next step easier.

These things are your friends! Unless you're removing rust from an old skillet, never use soap on cast iron. Instead, use silicon scrapers to remove stuck-on food. Your next line of defense is a chainmail scrubber. This looks weird, but it works well. It's basically a non-abrasive scrubby pad that you can use over and over again. I also have a cast iron brush to scrub out little bits. If the mess is particularly sticky, you can sprinkle plain old salt on the surface to increase your scrubbing ability.

Once you've removed the gunk, dry your cast iron ware the best you can with a paper towel or rag, and then coat it with a thin film of oil. I've used plain old spray PAM, but I'd suggest canola or coconut oil. This reseals the seasoning and protects the integrity of the cooking surface. Store your cast iron in the oven, upside down, and don't be afraid to leave it in the oven when you're baking. Not only does it help maintain a consistent temperature by storing and emitting heat, it also "cooks" the coating back on and burns off any extra oil.

In fact, if you're trying to restore some cast iron you've lost hope on, go ahead and scrub and scour the thing within inches of its life, then coat it in oil and bake it at 350 for 30 minutes. It should do the trick!
Sleep tight, cast iron collection!

Monday, November 9, 2015

A Faith-Building Run

It's been a rough couple of weeks, truth be told, from a training perspective. I've been sick since my birthday, a solid three weeks ago. Today is the first day in quite a long time I've felt better. I haven't coughed yet today, so there's an accomplishment. The short version is that I coughed hard enough my ribs hurt and my running was tough. The long version is I haven't been sleeping because of a cough so obnoxious my coworkers were concerned. I saw a doctor, who prescribed antibiotics and cough syrup, which seemed to helped me sleep but that was it. During a run Friday, I made it to the two-mile mark before coughing and feeling a crack in my back. I turned back and considered flagging down a state trooper I saw to take my back because I was short of breath, thinking I broke a rib. Needless to say, I did not run Saturday.

So Sunday, the trail stretched before me. I had zero faith this run would go well. My tummy was full of greasy food, I was not well-rested and my rib still hurt. But alas, the worst that could happen is I'd have to walk. I distracted myself, tried not to think about it, and consciously fought the urge to cough at every crosswalk.

When I finally got back to the car, I was shocked. I ran the entire 13.1, busted rib and all. I didn't have to walk, I barely wanted to quit and in fact, I think I could have ran even a bit further. I didn't, because no need to push my limits.

It's always refreshing, and frankly shocking, to see I've still got it. It wasn't my fastest run, but in many ways, it was even more fulfilling that a PR. It was a battle of wills and against my own doubts. It's amazing that running not only fortifies your heart and body, but also builds up your confidence.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Three Things Thursday

1. In very exciting news, someone spoiled me very much for my birthday and upgraded my stand mixer from a seen-better-days classic white model to a liquid silver Artisan model. It's got more power, more capacity and a sexy exterior. Merry BirthdayMas to me!

2. I'm getting ready for a fun-filled day with ALDI learning about grocery store operations and holiday meals. I arrived last night and joined the whole gang for dinner at The Patten House. Everything we ate (and drank) was amazing, including this grilled salmon salad. It's a blackened salmon filet on top of goat cheese, avocado, pecans, blueberries and mandarin oranges. The sriracha and bacon glazed brussel sprouts and baked brie were also amazing.

3. And despite being a mere 30 minutes from home, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to stay at The Herrington Inn in Geneva. I've been to many a wedding just across the street, but never stayed here because it's constantly booked. I can see why - my room walks out to the river, the turn down service includes milk and cookies, the fireplace turns on with a switch and I have a jacuzzi for two. This is quite the life of leisure.

Monday, November 2, 2015

My Cheap Halloween Costume

My work has a Halloween costume contest that is a force of nature. There's big prize money on the line: $100 for the best costume, and $75 and $50 for runners up. I took this seriously and all, but I'm also super cheap, so here's what I came up with:

The cloud!

You should know that I work in IT, so this is way more funny than it seems. It was easy and funny, and most people knew what I was. It involved acquiring a white cocktail dress, white foam core and tissue paper. The dress was $16 on Amazon and I'll wear it again, the rest came from the dollar store.

I cut the poster board into a cloud shape, then pasted on a package of white tissue paper. I pasted on logos of different cloud computing programs, then snagged some photos from my desk to add to my cloud.

I didn't win, but I also didn't put a lot of time or money into this, so oh well.