Salad in the City

9 03 2012

Daily life as a culinary entrepreneur can be pretty strange sometimes.  You don’t have set hours.  You don’t have an official office.  You don’t have to get up at 8am, run to Starbucks by 8:30am and be at your desk at 9am like everyone else in the world.  Someday’s I love the freedom of making my own schedule.   Other days, I wish I could succumb to corporate america and feel more normal.

So what do I do?  I make my own schedule to structure my life.  I go to yoga four days a week and take it as seriously as having a business meeting.  I assign specific days each week to get out of my pj’s, put on a cute outfit, and work at a coffee shop with other self-employed people in Chicago.  What continues to amaze me is how many people are working for themselves these days.  Coffee shops make “the outsiders” feel comfortable.  I look around as I sip on my chai latte and feel understood.

As a result of my coffee shop work days, I have tasted all kinds of cafe food in Chicago.  My expectations for the “soup de jour”or cafe “signature salad” are never high, but once and I while I am impressed.  Today I was at my favorite cafe in the city, Swim Cafe  at 1357 Chicago Ave (Ukranian Village). It’s not my favorite place to do work because it’s posh or decorated nice.  But they have THE BEST cafe food in the city.  You could easily pass by this place without any idea that it’s a hidden gem.  But believe me, GO INSIDE!!!!!  Everything I have eaten at this dive is delicious. (including their Seitan Gyro with feta cheese….I have never liked seitan before trying this sandwich)

My favorite thing on their menu is definitely the Summer Salad.  It’s full of basically every ingredient I am in love with: avocado, tomatoes, hearts of palm, toasted sunflower seeds, thinly sliced shallot and mixed greens.  The best part is their signature Green Goddess Dressing.  The flavors are herbaceous, acidic, yet well-rounded and earthy.  Every time I order the salad I spend at least 10 minutes tasting the dressing and thinking about why it is so damn good.  It never occurred to me to simply ask the chef what is in it.  Today….I got the goods. (and obviously I am sharing them with you!)

Swim Cafe’s Green Goddess Dressing:

1 bunch parsley, stemmed

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

1/2 cup tahini

Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste

Blend all of the ingredients together and store it in a air-tight container.

*It’s fabulous on any salad but would taste great over fish, chicken, scrambled eggs or bread.  I’m obsessed.

Let me know what you think!


Pappa al Pomodoro

14 09 2010

I was always a good student growing up.  I studied hard, memorized the facts, and then took the tests.  I executed well on the exams but if you ask me to recall anything I learned from history or english class in college I would have little to tell.  The two things I never forget are the people I meet and anything related to food.  When I say I never forget food….I literally can recall special meals that my mom cooked for me when I was five, the ingredients in a dish I had at my 16th birthday or a recipe technique I read from a Savour magazine two years ago.  My heart and soul soak up food memories and new ideas like a sponge.  I guess it’s just how I was made.

When you are planning a trip to Italy, it seems like everyone has a suggestion for you about where to go and the food you “have to try”.  Pappa al Pomodoro, or Tuscan tomato-bread soup, is one of those dishes that I knew I could not miss. My best friend Bree, from culinary school, went to Italy for her honeymoon and came back with a some serious food stories.  I vividly remember her describing this Tuscan tomato soup with the juiciest tomatoes in the world absorbed by chunky pieces of bread and coated with the flavors of fresh basil and garlic.  The description made my mouth salavate ….I knew this was a dish on my list.

Last week when I was visiting different regions in Chianti, my friend Cristiana introduced me to a beautiful town called Greve.  This town had a different feel from the others I visited.  It was far more sophisticated and chic then the other rustic villages nearby.  Some might notice a snobbish vibe while walking around because the stores are pristine, the prices are high and the streets are full of high-end wine shops and restaurants.  I felt like I was in foodie heaven.

A local in a town nearby suggested that we try “Osteria Mangiado Mangiado” for lunch.  I typically don’t throw down thirty or forty dollars for lunch in the states, but when in Greve I thought “why the hell not”.  The menu enticed me from first glance when I saw the “Pappa al Pomodoro” and other local specialties.  I choose the famous tomato soup for my first dish and  also ordered a Porcini Risotto with a glass of local Chianti Classico (it was a bit intense, but I can not help to over order these days). Let me just say, the first taste of the Pappa al Pomodoro blew me away.  This was not a typical summer soup.   It was more like a thick, summer stew with robust, clean tomato flavors that seemed to burst in my mouth. I savoured every bite, closing my eyes and feeling as if I could taste all of the flavors of Italy….tomatoes, basil, garlic, olive oil. The other thing I truly appreciated was that this was a simple peasant soup.  This soup was constructed so that the peasant farmers would never throw away ingredients in their kitchen.  Pappa al Pomodoro became an efficient and hearty summer soup that was made to use the leftover scraps in the kitchen.

As a chef, this dish reminded me of how important it is to stay creative when you have a limited amount of ingredients or a low-budget.  I have developed some of the most interesting dishes by combining leftover ingredients to create something new and different.

Check out this link for a good Pappa al Pomodoro recipe:

My Artichoke Obsession Continues….

5 09 2010

Ever since I was a little girl, artichokes were my favorite food in the entire world.  I guess that might have been an indication that I was far from a picky eater and might become a foodie later in life.  I remember going to the grocery store with my mom and she would ask me what I would like for dinner.  I always begged for artichokes and she would shake her head and laugh because most kids my age craved chicken fingers and mac and cheese.  I was lucky to have a mom that loved to cook and knew great food.  She definitely passed on her appreciation of food to me.
My last day in Rome I decided to hit up the Jewish Ghetto to obviously connect with my Jewish roots but more importantly (sorry dad) to eat the food.   We all know that Italians love their food and family so i thought it would be interesting to check out the Jewish scene here.  When I read about the typical food of Rome, the fried artichokes in the Jewish Ghetto were mentioned several times. I thought this was pretty odd because artichokes never seemed particularly Jewish to me, but I couldn’t wait to taste what all the hype was about.

I sat down and checked out the menu.  I think about 4 of the 8 options for antipasti were made with artichokes (again, this made me very happy).  I knew I had to try the fried preparation and I asked the waiter, in seriously broken Italian, if he could suggest another typical item of the region.  He pointed to the baked anchovy and endive tart on the menu.  This was definitely something I would never order back in the states, but that is exactly the reason I choose it.  My goal in Italy is to eat anything and everything out of my comfort zone to be inspired and truly get a feel of the place through its food.

The fried artichoke was served first and I couldn’t help but smile when it was put in front of me.  Nothing could have looked more gorgeous to me that this fried vegetable (it sounds funny but it seriously looked like a crispy sunflower) .  The stem and the stingy tips of the artichoke were cleaned so every bit was edible. I dove in, squeezing a wedge of lemon over the top, and devoured some of the outer leaves first.  They were perfectly crispy, fried to perfection, and they tasted exactly like artichoke chips.  Then I cut into the heart of the artichoke, obviously the best part, and enjoyed its perfectly tender and juicy taste.  The only issue I had with eating the artichoke was that it was almost too pretty.  I felt like I was ruining a well constructed piece of art with every bite, which made me eat it slowly and admire its taste and beauty.

I was sure that the artichoke was going to be the centerpiece of my food experience that afternoon, but I must say, the anchovy dish blew me away. I don’t know what I was expecting because I have seriously never eaten a dish solely based on anchovies in my life. When it was served, I sat and looked at the plate, admiring the rustic preparation and realizing that it was not a tart by any means.  I actually wasn’t looking forward to eating another bread based entrée, considering my last few days were filled with pizza, delicious sandwiches and pastries.  I took a bite, closed my eyes and enjoyed the new mixture of flavors.  I couldn’t believe how savory, delicate and creamy the anchovies tasted.  I expected to be overwhelmed with a fishy and salty flavor from the anchovies and bitterness from the endive.  It tasted nothing like this. I learned that slowly cooking anchovies and endive softens the flavor and creates a lovely mixture that can be served as a main dish, a topping on bruschetta or pureed into a delicious dip. I asked the waiter if there was any Parmesan or cream added to the anchovies, but she shook his head, waved his pointer finger (very Italian) and said “absolutely not”. He was almost offended that I asked this question.  I realized this was another example of simplicity at its best. All you need is a few quality ingredients, good technique and a lot of love to create beautiful food.

When in Rome….Eat Pizza!

3 09 2010

Italy…, romance, and beauty everywhere.  It is everything I expected and more.  I have never been so overwhelmed with the food of one country in my life.  Italian cuisine is all about their ingredients.  Take a look at this pizza.  This is the first pizza I experienced in Rome, and let me tell you, it did not disappoint.  My second day in Rome, I met up with a friend from Glencoe and his wife (Josh Wechter) who happened to be on vacation in Italy for 10 days. Josh’s wife Sara had some of the best food recommendations in the city because her best friends studied in Rome for several months and ate their way through the city.  I was so happy that they could take me to a local hole in the wall, surrounded by Romans, to experience some real deal pizza.

This is my first bite of heaven.  I am eating the most delicious piece of Quattro Formaggi pizza that has ever come close to touching my lips. Quattro formaggi is always a good choice because it means four cheese pizza. How can you go wrong with melted cheese and crust? The thing is, I never knew you could go so right.  Somehow, the Italians really know what they are doing.  This pizza had the best mixture of fresh Italian cheese I have ever had in my life…Pecorino, Grano Padano, Provolone and Gorgonzola topped with fresh basil on thin crispy crust.  The key to this slice of heaven was definitely the salty and slightly stinky flavors of gorgonzola.  It was the first time I have tasted blue cheese on a cheese pizza, and it wont be the last.

The rest of the experience was wonderful.  We ordered a mushroom pizza and a tomato-buffalo mozzarella pizza with basil.  When I saw the tomato-mozzarella pizza I wasnt thrilled, even though it looked gorgeous, because I expected lots of melted cheese and a some serious tomato sauce.  (Could I be more American?)  But once again, the simplicity and freshness of this pizza blew my mind.  The crust was brushed with the juice of fresh tomatoes and then topped with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil and local olive oil. This pizza tasted so good because I could really taste the subtle flavors of the mozzarella that usually get lost when it is melted.  I left this meal feeling completely satisfied but not uncomfortably full.  It was a nice contrast to eating Chicago deep dish (which I love by the way)  I think the Italians understand the meaning of “less is more” and I must say, I completely agree with them.

Chicago’s Underground Food Scene

11 08 2010

Before leaving Chicago on my Italian voyage, I decided to venture out in my city and discover the new hot spots in the culinary scene. I can honestly say that as a foodie who travels a lot, I rarely stray from my “go-to” restaurants in the city when I am home.  In other words, I really don’t know much about Chicago’s current food scene, which is quite embarrassing.  I recently met an amazing new friend in Chicago that loves to eat and exposed me to an unbelievable side of Chicago dining that I never knew existed: The underground food scene.  I mean, how mysterious and amazing does that sound?

I couldn’t resist the temptation to check out a dinner by the ” Xmarx” culinary team when I heard “the food is amazing, the ingredients are local and fresh, it’s BYOB, you get at least 5 courses and the dining is communal”.  After moving back from San Francisco 7 months ago, I have been craving a dinner exactly like this.  The best part was the dinner only cost 50 bucks.  I was in! My friend and I signed up for the “Friday Fish Market” dinner and I knew I would be in for a treat.

The dinner was actually not only a treat, it was a memorable culinary experience.   It was located in a really simple gallery on the west side of Chicago.  Nothing too fancy, but pretty hipster chique.

Everyone gathered in the back of the dining area for the first hour to get to know each other and sip on wine or beer.  When it was time to sit down, it was pretty much a free for all.  There were three long tables where everyone could randomly seat themselves.  Food seemed to be the hot topic of conversation.  My friend and I were the only people in the industry at our table.  Everyone else was at the dinner because they loved food and most seemed to be underground food regulars. Let’s just say, I felt right at home.

The first course arrived and I had no idea what I was looking at.  I took a bite without questioning ingredients and my eyes rolled back immediately. That bite set the tone for the rest of the meal.  Layered in a simple rocks glass was a complexity texture, flavor, temperature and color that truly came together perfectly. Specifically, this was a ceviche of conch (a type of mullusk) with young coconut, radish, avocado, crushed ice cubes, coconut juice, lime juice and cactus pear ice (the bright pink foam on top).

The second course proved to be just as creative as the first.  This dish of hot rice dish was the chef’s interpretation of risotto, using broken Vietnamese rice, with the addition of some unexpected ingredients.  Combined in the peasant like gourmet porridge were cold Littleneck Clams, miso glazed eggplant, shaved cucumber, jalapeno and crispy linguica sausage with a drizzle of salsa verde.  I would never in my wildest dreams think of putting all of those ingredients together in one dish but somehow it worked. Maybe it was the difference in temperature of the hot steaming rice and the cold clams and crisp vegetables.  Or possibly it was the array of textures layered throughout.  Sometimes it really doesn’t matter why a dish works, it just does.

The third course was not my favorite.  It wasn’t bad or anything, it just wasn’t amazing like the first two.  It was a simple preparation of a whole red mullet topped with a shaved fennel and herb salad.  Overall, the fish was cooked perfectly but it lacked acidity and an “it” factor. The highlight of this dish was definitely when my friend dared me to eat the eyeball of the whole fish.  I looked at her and said “your kidding, right?” She calmly said “no.”  I’m not one to normally eat fish eyeballs, but in the heat of the moment surrounded by 30 foodies, I went in for the kill. I grabbed the little fish skeleton and sucked down the whole eyeball.  Everyone at the table seemed very impressed.  The funny part was that I tasted nothing!  I swallowed the fish eyeball whole, like I was taking a pill….apparently I was supposed to eat the gelatinous part around the eye and spit out hard center.  The ” correct way” sounds pretty gross to me.

The fourth course proved to be the highlight of the entire meal. Once again, the combination of ingredients were crazy but also the intricacy of seasoning blew me away.  The focus of the dish was grilled baby octopus paired with blanched romaine stems, sweet Japanese melon, red onion, and toasted peanuts. All ingredients were served over the most incredible Asian tahini-soy-peanut sauce that I have ever tasted in my life! The little dot in the right corner was Indian ghost pepper, the hottest pepper in the world.  I could have done without the pepper, but it served as comedic relief to see how many people in the room dove in to eat the hot pepper and burnt the crap out of their mouths.  All in all, this dish pretty much made love in my mouth.  I could have eaten it over and over again. It was just that good.

The last fish course was a beautiful and delicate way to end the meal.  It was a perfect preparation of Skate Wing served over seared baby green bananas and oyster mushrooms with a sour cherry sauce.  The way sweet, savory, tangy flavors danced over the fish were lovely.  The only thing the dish was missing was a bit more acidity from the cherry sauce.  Otherwise, the dish was pretty much flawless.

The moral of the story is for those that live in Chicago, there’s more than you think going in the culinary world.  It took me 7 months to experience a dinner that I will never forget. I highly recommend Xmarx,, and I know there are several other chefs doing underground dinners all over the city.  You don’t have to know someone in the industry to enjoy one of these amazing meals.  You just have to do some research, get on a mailing list and be open to a new experience.  I’m sincerely happy that this sort of food movement exists in Chicago and I hope more people become exposed to it soon!

Check out this website to find out about more underground dinners: