Archive for December, 2011

Framily Dinner

A few months after buying that big ol’ dining room table, we finally took advantage of its full potential this week when we hosted some of our dearest friends for a holiday reunion potluck. Or, as my friend M. would say, a “framily dinner.”

Under different circumstances, I would have liked to cook a big meal for everyone. But the week between Christmas and New Year’s was totally jammed and I had no time for that kind of undertaking. Fortunately, all of my friends are talented cooks and were amenable to a potluck. I provided an appetizer and the main course, both of which could be partially prepped the night before. I also chose a main dish that could be done in the slow cooker because I knew I’d be racing home from work to meet the guests.

For the appetizer, I made a heart-friendly platter of sausage-cheddar balls. I prepared all of them the night before and popped them into the oven when I got home. Quite a heavy starter, I know, but it’s the holidays and I really wanted to try the recipe. They turned out well, with a nice kick from the cayenne pepper.

The main course was Hawaiian-style short ribs from the Thanksgiving issue of Everyday Food. The original recipe serves 6 and I increased it by 50 percent to feed our group of 10. Alec had the Whole Foods butcher cut the ribs into 3.5-inch pieces. I marinated the meat in the cooking liquid (brown sugar, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, Sriracha) overnight. While the other liquids got scaled up by 50%, I kept the amount of brown sugar the same because it already seemed like a lot of sugar, plus I used canned pineapple and figured it would be a little sweeter because of the juice. The sauce turned out fine, but next time I will add more Sriracha. Heck, I think one of my 2012 resolutions should be to add more Sriracha to everything.

Anyway, we jammed all the meat and cooking liquid, along with some red onions, garlic and ginger, in our slow cooker. The thing was stuffed to the brim and as a result, all the fat bubbled out of the crock pot and congealed into an enormous lake of grease on the counter. On one hand, this saved us the cooking step of skimming the fat off the top before adding the pineapple. On the other hand, it was TOTALLY DISGUSTING and an enormous hassle to clean up. Thank you Alec and Bar Keepers Friend  for doing all the dirty work!

You’re probably wondering what all this food looked like. Well, I forgot to take photos of the beautiful spread, so you’ll just have to squint at this dark photo of my half-eaten plate:

The other dishes were salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, feta cheese and three (!) kinds of olives; pumpkin lavender bread, sweet potatoes with golden raisins and walnuts; homemade chocolate truffles; chocolate fondue and a gluten-free angel food cake that was truly delicious and would hold its own against a traditional angel food cake.

Of course, the company was the best part. I wish we could get together more often!


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California Pizza Kitchen

I recently got back from a fantastic long weekend in California, where I celebrated my 30th birthday and Christmas with my in-laws. While discussing what to do for Christmas dinner, Alec’s brother proposed making pizza at home instead of going out to eat. We splurged on ingredients at The Pasta Shop in Berkeley: Vero Lucano bread flour, housemade rosemary pine nut sausage, a very nice tomato sauce whose name escapes me and Tumalo Classico goat cheese. OMG that goat cheese! I can’t stop thinking about it.

The Pasta Shop is one of those high-end shops where everything is super aspirational – a huge block of outrageously expensive pink salt that you’re supposed to keep on your table so guests can grate it directly onto their food! A tiny bottle of pinecone bud syrup! It’s not a place for regular grocery shopping, but it’s fun for the occasional extravagance. And I think the quality of the ingredients really came through. Here are some photos of the prep work:

My BIL made the pizza dough by combining two recipes, one from Alton Brown and one from Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix (we did not do an overnight rise). We made two pizzas. The first was all veggies, with garlic, peppers, olives, zucchini and the goat cheese. Alec’s mom already had the garlic, peppers and zucchini in the fridge. I used a vegetable peeler to get thin shavings of goat cheese.

The second pizza had mozzarella and provolone cheeses, along with the sausage and bacon. We had bought salami too, but the pizza was already so loaded with meat it couldn’t handle any more! (The photo below is pre-bacon.)

The pizzas were baked on an Emile Henry stone that we picked up at Sur La Table for the occasion. I don’t own a pizza or baking stone, but I kind of want to get one now. The instructions said you can use it to grill fish or meat, bake tarts, etc. And it’s dishwasher safe, although I’m not sure it would fit in our dishwasher.

Anyway, here are the pizzas in all their glory. I lost count of how many pieces I ate!

Hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas with good eats!

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As I mentioned before, we had barely any time to get ready for Christmas this year. All the shopping got done, and we watched The Muppet Christmas Carol and White Christmas, but that was pretty much it. I think we’re the only house on the block without Christmas decorations – not even a wreath! And inside, we’ve got no tree, no tinsel, no garlands, no stockings.

We did, however, rummage up a wrinkled roll of wrapping paper that somehow survived the move from the apartment. When I got home from work, Alec had wrapped some presents for me and put them by the fireplace, along with a little Christmas tree that my brother gave me several years ago. (I was living in Buenos Aires and he sent me a box with the tree, some ribbon, fake snow and a string of lights – one of the best Christmas presents ever!)

I added my own presents for Alec to the pile, which then looked like this:

It’s kind of like Charlie Brown Christmas, but I think this is pretty good under the circumstances. Also, I’d like to give Alec a shout-out for making this cool gift tag out of a spare Edward Gorey holiday card:

But I’m supposed to be the crafty domestic one, right? So what did I come up with for Alec’s present?

Yup, I reused a bag I got from my parents last year and didn’t even bother to take off the old tag. Eat your heart out, Martha Stewart!

P.S. When Alec read this post, he said: “Oh, that’s for me? I thought it was something your parents got for you.”



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Holiday Eats

Edible gifts are awesome. I mean, you can eat them! What’s not to like? This year, because we are spending Christmas with Alec’s extended family in California, I had ambitious plans to do homemade edible presents for everyone. That didn’t really pan out because I had so little time to do anything between getting home from our Asian vacation and leaving for California.

Fortunately, Chicago has many talented food artisans whose products are far superior than anything I could make. So this year, I put together little Chicago food samplers for Alec’s relatives. I bought everything at Goddess & Grocer in Bucktown because it was on the way home from church on Sunday, but Chicagoans can find these items at other stores such as Provenance Food and Wine, Whole Foods and the Marion Street Cheese Market in Oak Park. (If you’re going to Marion Street, make sure it’s the weekend and order the Belgian waffle – easily the best waffle I’ve ever had!)

These are the items I’m putting in the samplers:

Rare Bird Preserves. It was hard choosing among the flavors, but I settled on apple caramel, plum apple hibiscus and clementine cranberry. These jars are sitting on the sideboard, daring me to open them and eat their contents with a spoon. I will resist! By the way, if you’re wondering whether jams/jellies/preserves qualify as liquids under TSA rules, they do. Sigh. This means I have to check my suitcase. Looks like we’re getting to the airport three hours early to wait in line!

Vosges Chocolate. I’m pretty sure Vosges has national distribution, but they’re still a Chicago company and their bacon chocolate bar is one of my favorite chocolate bars of all time. Again, hard to choose just three flavors, but I went with peppermint candy cane, Woolloomooloo (I did not make that up – it has macadamia nuts, coconut and hemp seeds in it) and the Barcelona (hickory-smoked almonds and Fleur del Sel).

Metropolis Coffee. Both bags are La Cordillera Blend fair trade organic. I am taking a chance that Alec’s uncles’ families haven’t switched to Keurig machines or something because I bought whole beans.

Grandma Dees “Everything But Dee!” gourmet cocktail mix. I got a bag of these nuts for Alec’s grandparents because he doesn’t think they are coffee drinkers.

If I had more time, I would have tracked down some cute, Chicago-themed canvas totes to package up all these items. But that obviously didn’t happen, so it’s brown kraft paper bags and tissue paper to the rescue.

Now, if Chicago’s food truck vendors could figure out a way to package their products and keep them fresh, I’ve got a killer idea for more edible gifts for Christmas 2012!

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Last Minute Gift Ideas

It’s nearing the end of the final weekend before Christmas – who still needs gift ideas? Shopping for presents is one of my favorite things, even when the process is slightly rushed, like when we got home from our Hong Kong/China vacation and saw we had just under two weeks to buy gifts for everyone. If you’ve still got shopping to do, here are some items that you can still buy this week – either in a store or via that most magical of services, Amazon Prime. (Not to sound like a shill for Amazon Prime, but we ordered some stuff on a Sunday night and on Tuesday at 9:30 am, we heard a little thump on the front porch and there was the Amazon package. I wasn’t fast enough to catch a glimpse of the little elf who delivered it.)

1. Design*Sponge At Home by Grace Bonney. Confession! I actually requested this for myself this year because I’ve been a fan of the Design*Sponge blog for some time now. But I also bought it for my sister-in-law (don’t worry, she’s not one of the five people who read this blog) because she and my brother are putting on a big addition to their house and she’s looking for practical decorating ideas. She’s also pretty crafty and I think she’ll like the DIY projects.

2. Brooks Brothers men’s flannel pajamas. I bought these for Alec a few years ago and he wears them every day of the winter. They are the kind of silly and luxurious thing most boys (that I know of, anyway) would not buy for themselves. I originally was going to get Alec Turnbull & Asser PJs, based on this Padma Lakshmi interview in the NYT where she endorses them (and also drops ridiculous double entendres such as “I work every part of body below the belly button”), but they were kind of hard to buy online and there’s no store in Chicago.

3. Oregon Scientific weather station. My co-worker bought one for his dad and said older people really like these gadgets because they like to talk about the weather. I got this one for my dad last year and I think my parents actually use it. Yay!
4. Serveware and dinnerware from Fishs Eddy. This store (they’re in NY but you can order stuff online) has the cutest selection of dishes. I am partial to the Brooklyn pattern – we own a beautiful and sturdy ceramic crock from this line – but I see they have a New York Times Crossword puzzle pattern, which is one hundred kinds of adorable.
5.Luxury plush throw from Restoration Hardware. I saved the best for last. And it’s marked down to $29 right now! My high school girlfriends (meet them here, here and here!) and I call this the magical blanket because it is so soft and fluffy you would think it was made by fairies from the hair of My Little Ponies or something. We all own this blanket and I have recommended it to pretty much everyone I know. So now Alec’s grandparents have one, and my co-worker bought one for her friend, etc. Restoration Hardware does a whole line in luxury plush. I haven’t tried out the other products, but how can you go wrong with something called a “plush foot duvet?”
Hope this list provided some inspiration, whether you’re shopping for loved ones or yourself! I’ll be back later this week with a peek at the food-centric gifts I put together for Alec’s extended family members.

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Thanksgiving Redux

Alec and I just got back yesterday from two fantastic weeks of vacation in Hong Kong and China. There was lots of family time, sightseeing, shopping and eating – mostly eating. A four-day tour of Guilin featured eight-course family style meals for both lunch and dinner, while I spent much of my time in Hong Kong strategizing about where I could score my next fix of condensed milk toast and yinyong (half coffee/half milk tea).

We each gained a few pounds while on vacation and I kept telling my relatives (while stuffing my face at one of many dim sum outings) that I would detox when I got home. But when I was back in our kitchen and took inventory of our fridge and freezer, I realized that we still had Tupperware after Tupperware of Thanksgiving leftovers to consume. And I wanted nothing more than to make The Pioneer Woman’s turkey tetrazzini, which is – as Alec noted – a big pile of pasta and fat. Ehhh, detox can wait until after the holidays, right?

Shortly before adding the noodles, I realized the pot would not hold 1.5 pounds of cooked spaghetti. Alec transferred the mixture to our big stockpot and that was large enough, thankfully. Uhhh…but that also meant we had an insane amount of turkey tetrazzini. We filled two baking pans!

We ended up with about a pan and a half of leftovers. If you’re keeping track, that means we have at least a week’s worth of leftovers consisting of Thanksgiving leftovers. Third generation leftovers, oy. But the turkey tetrazzini was very tasty. We’ll see how I feel after five days of eating this for lunch and dinner.

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Going Digital

A few weeks ago, we finally took the plunge and bought a Kindle. This was a big deal for us, given that we’ve both built careers around the printed word and have a lot of fondness for physical books (and newspapers). You can read more about Alec’s view on the Kindle on his blog.

The $79 price point was a huge factor in our getting over the e-reader hump. For me in particular, I was also getting tired of lugging around a ridiculously heavy work bag. My George Costanza-like wallet isn’t helping, that’s for sure. And I’m never without a book because I have a 45-minute commute each way and that is prime reading time. Right now I’m finishing the marvelous and reasonably sized UK edition of Disney War by James Stewart.

But there are lots of fat books out there I want to read too, like American Pharaoh by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor. I found the hardcover version for $10 at Myopic Books in Wicker Park and started reading it at home in the evenings because it was way too heavy to bring on a commute. But then I stopped and never went back to it. I seem to be incapable of reading unless I’m on public transportation.

And there’s also the issue of new hardcover releases. I do buy these pretty often, but the Kindle versions are cheaper – and lighter! All these reasons were nudging me toward the digital age, so here I am:

Part of the fun of getting a Kindle was buying a cute case for it. There were some tempting options on Etsy, especially this Totoro one. But I wanted a case I could open like a book, and it couldn’t be too girly because Alec will be using the Kindle too. So I decided on a navy blue and red case from M-Edge and it’s working out nicely so far.

Tonight I downloaded two books: The Magician King by Lev Grossman (have you read the first book in the series, The Magicians? It is awesome. And don’t let anyone tell you it’s “Harry Potter for adults” because while I love Harry Potter too, The Magicians is much different in tone and flavor.)

Oh, and I also downloaded American Pharaoh. I feel better already!

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