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Archive for March, 2010

Last night was the first night of Passover. In America, typically the first two nights of Passover are a huge deal in the Jewish household (in Israel they only have Seder on the first night). Families get together for big feasts of traditional foods and celebrate the liberation from Egypt led by Moshe himself, called a Seder. I do want to state that I am not religious, I’m atheist. However, I am culturally Jewish and thoroughly enjoy a meal that consists of Matzah Ball Soup and slow braised Brisket. This year my brothers and I had the first night at our cousins with my mom’s side of the family.

Here is the traditional Seder Plate that sits in the middle of the table. It contains the symbols of the Passover story. Starting at 2 o’clock is the Beitzah, a roasted egg that symbolizes the festival sacrifice. Then is the Zeroa, a roasted shankbone symbolizing the lamb’s blood that was marked on doors to keep the Jews safe from the 1oth plague. After that is the Maror, we use green onion to remind us of the bitterness and harshness of slavery. Charoset is next, apples, honey, walnuts, and wine that are blended into a thick paste representing the mortar used by Jews in constructing Egyptian storehouses. Next is Karpas, parsley is used for the coming of Spring. There’s a bowl of saltwater that is used to show the tears shed by Jews in slavery. You dip the Karpas into the saltwater. Finally, in the middle is a glass of wine that’s set aside for Elijah the prophet.

At each individual seat there’s a small plate with the edible symbols. After we get through the Haggadah and eat the Seder plate dinner gets started.

The first thing that get’s passed around is Gefilte Fish. It’s basically a classic Eastern European fish dumpling made out of whitefish and pike. It’s eaten with horseradish.

Next is the Matzah Ball Soup. I had two matzah balls, but had already cut them up into bite sized pieces when I remembered that I needed to take a photo. I also forgot to take a pic of the matzah, but that isn’t the end of the world. I do have to say that my Matzah Ball Soup is far superior, but that’s always the case.

Then some fresh vegetables. Cucumbers, tomatoes, and red onions.

Here’s Grandma’s chopped chicken liver. Unfortunately it’s the only thing she makes anymore. She cooks up the livers, seasons them, and mashes it all down. My cousin Lorrie has to salt it though. Grandma’s taste buds aren’t quite what they used to be. But hey, she’s 86! She gets a pass.

Some bagels made out of matzah meal. They resemble bagels in shape only, but they aren’t bad.

Here’s the famous slow-braised Passover Brisket. Brisket is to Passover what turkey is to Thanksgiving. Again though, my brisket is better. I made the brisket last year, but not this year. I need to take charge of it again for the betterment of all our digestion.

Dessert consists of various cakes made with matzah meal flour and fresh fruit. Chocolate cake with raspberries, strawberry shortcake, brownies, carrot cake, grapes and strawberries.

For some reason I always tend to eat too much at Seders.

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Alright, going back to last November in Japan, I wanted to show you the dinner we had in Kobe. My buddy Tom lives in Osaka which is a short 25 minute train ride from Kobe. On our way to the Chinatown section to meet up with him we walked by a sake tasting. We knew right away that we had found our appetizers! So, we grabbed Tom and headed back for some sake.

For 500 Yen per person (about $5) they give us each 3 different kinds of sake, a bag of mixed salty snacks, and a tube of sausage. The sake was great, the sausage….not so great. We ended up drinking with a bunch of businessmen that were already hammered and a lot of fun. One of them recognized Tom from a wedding he did (Tom performs weddings in Osaka). Once we were finished with the sake we needed some dinner. Being in Kobe, it had to involve beef! So, we ended up at a Yakiniku joint.

You can probably tell from Tom’s eyes that the sake already had a hold on us when we sat down for dinner. I honestly don’t remember all of the cuts we ordered, but I do know that there was some beef tongue, rib eye, and short rib.

Yakiniku is great. It’s the Japanese version of Korean BBQ. You have the grill in the middle of your table and you order up various slices of meat to grill at your leisure.

Once the meat is grilled you wrap it in lettuce leaves and top it with sauce, and scarf it down.

They also give you little pickled items to eat. I don’t remember what we had that night, but everything was fantastic! Not Kobe’s highest quality beef that made them famous (that would have cost 4 times as much), but still great beef nonetheless.

After finishing up the grilled beef we ordered some Bibimbop, a Korean hot stone rice dish. The stone is heated up super hot, then rice is put in and topped with vegetables and an egg. You stir it all up and eat it down. The best part is the rice that almost burns at the bottom. It’s a great way to finish off a Yakiniku meal.

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Last night I joined a couple of buddies for a happy hour drink. With that in mind I put together a dinner that I could cook and assemble quickly once I got home. Broiled chicken and vegetables seemed perfect.

Before I headed out to the bar I got all my veggies cut. Asparagus, red pepper, yellow pepper, and a half onion. I set them aside and covered so that they wouldn’t dry out. I also trimmed up some skin-on bone-in chicken thighs and kept them covered in the fridge.

After getting the ingredients prepared I ground a tablespoon of fennel seeds with my pestle and mortar. I mixed them into a quarter cup of olive oil and let that sit. Then I made the mustard sauce. 1 tablespoon of fresh thyme leaves, 1 tablespoon of rinsed capers, 2 tablespoons of mustard (I use Boetje’s, use whatever is on hand), the juice from a half lemon, 4 tablespoons of olive oil, and some black pepper. That all got stirred up and left in the fridge. Then I rinsed some rice, put it in the rice cooker, and set the timer so it’d be ready once I got home.

Off to go drink.

When I got home I put the rack in the upper third of the oven and turned on the broiler. I laid the chicken thighs and all of the veggies on a baking sheet and brushed the fennel seed olive oil over everything. I salted and peppered and then put everything under the broiler for about 15 minutes. At that point the veggies were carmelized and the chicken a little crispy and fully cooked and juicy.

I served the chicken on top of a bed of arugula and laid everything else out on the plate. Then I drizzled some mustard sauce over the chicken. That’s it, time to eat.

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Yuki requested a simple, lightly flavored dinner last night, so to please my wife I made a Japanese-style line up of chow. I made Hijiki Rice, Miso Soup, and Pork-stuffed Aburage.

For the rice, I made two cups in our rice cooker. I simply washed the rice and added a little less water than necessary to cook it. To get the liquid up to the right amount I topped it off with some soy sauce, no more than about a quarter cup. Then I added a couple tablespoons of dried hijiki seaweed (available at more and more groceries), about a half teaspoon of dashi-no-moto (dried, instant dashi, also available at more and more groceries), as well as half of a large carrot diced. That’s it, turn it on and let it cook.

The miso soup was also simple. I brought two and a half cups of water to a boil with 6 green onions chopped to inch-long pieces. Once it started to boil I added 6 baby bok choy and 6 quartered shiitake mushrooms. I let that boil for about 10 minutes, turned off the heat, and added a half teaspoon of dashi-no-moto along with 2 tablespoons of soy sauce. I put that aside until dinner time.

Before making everything I cooked up the ground pork. I sautéed a chopped clove of garlic with a half-inch of chopped ginger in some oil for a few minutes. Then I added about a quarter of an onion, small diced, and let that cook for a few minutes. After that I added a half pound of ground pork and cooked that all the way through. Once the pork was mostly cooked I added 1.5 teaspoons of soy sauce, 1 teaspoon of sake, a half teaspoon of mirin, and some black pepper. I let that liquid boil down and then took off the heat to cool.

To prepare the aburage I first layed them in a colander, boiled some water, and then dumped the water on them to rinse off the excess oil that they come in. Then I squeezed all of the water off. I took my sharpest knife and carefully slit open one side and then gently used my fingers to open them up. After that I just spooned the ground pork mixture and then set aside.

Once the rice was ready I put the soup back on some heat and put the aburage under the broiler. Just before the soup started to boil I added some diced tofu and some wakame seaweed. Then Yuki whisked in a couple tablespoons of miso. When the aburage was heated through, about 5 minutes, I took them out and layed them on beds of arugula and drizzled with ponzu sauce.

Dinner was served!

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As if Restaurant Week wasn’t enough, Chicago also has a Chef Week sponsored by OpenTable. It’s a much smaller promotion than Restaurant Week, but there are a couple of tasty deals at $30 pre fix dinners. One restaurant that’s participating is Sepia, easily one of my favorite joints in town. So, last night, Yuki and I ate a delicious pre fix.

My appetizer was the Scotch Duck Egg. It was a perfect croquet of ground duck meat, nice and medium rare after frying, coated in bread crumbs and filled with duck egg yolk that just oozed out when you cut it open. Chef Zimmerman served it with wild rice, arugula, and black olive honey.

Yuki ordered the Grilled Squid. Perfectly grilled, nice and tender. It was served with cara-cara and blood orange segments, watercress, thin slices of red onion that’s been soaked to remove the sharpness, and herb oil.

My entrée was Cider Braised Pork Belly with barbeque lentils and crispy cavalo nero (not sure what cavalo nero means, it was red cabbage in some kind of vinegar). Delicious fatty pork belly! MMMM! The cider and bbq flavors really tasted like backyard cooking, but it definitely had an upscale, modern twist. The only thing I would have done different is to give the pork belly a quick grill after taking it out of the braising liquid. That would have crisped up the skin a little and added some smoke. It’s hard to argue with what was served though.

Yuki’s entrée was the Vegetarian Lasagna with herbed ricotta and piquillo pepper. The herbed ricotta cheese was brilliant with that tomato sauce. The piquillo pepper almost tasted like an olive, lending an interesting briny contrast. The noodles may have been slightly overcooked, but it was up there with the best lasagna I’ve ever tasted.

For dessert I ordered the Maracaibo Mousse with mango ice cream and caramel-mango rum sauce.

Yuki got the Citrus Meringue-Tart with champagne-raspberry sorbet and lemon sauce.

While all of the individual components of both desserts were delicious, they didn’t all work out quite so well. The mango ice cream’s texture and overall feel were very similar to the mousse. There wasn’t much diversity in textures. On Yuki’s, the sorbet was more tart than the tart. Two tarts don’t make a match. We actually switched the ice cream and sorbet and the sorbet matched the mousse perfectly. While I wouldn’t say the mango matched the tart perfectly, it did offer a nice reprieve from the tart lemon. Maybe some sort of herb sorbet, like mint or basil, would have matched the tart better.

Overall, Sepia still resides towards the top of my list for best restaurants in Chicago. Last night’s meal wasn’t perfect, nor was the service as we had to ask for bread (should have been put down as soon as we ordered, but that’s nitpicking), but the ingredients were fresh, perfectly cooked, and for the most part thoughtfully prepared. I will definitely head back at some point.

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Last night’s Meatless Monday was quite possibly the most simple one yet. Not feeling up to doing too much in the kitchen for some reason, I decided to keep the cooking minimal and quick. The answer? Stir-fry!

I first pressed the water out of a block of tofu. Lay some paper towels on a plate, set the tofu on top, cover with more paper towels, put a cutting board on top of that, and lay a weight of some sort on top of the cutting board. I kept that in the fridge while I cut up the rest of the vegetables.

I cut a bunch of asparagus, green onions, a yellow pepper, a red pepper, and about a half pound of fresh shiitake mushrooms. I let the shiitake sit in a sunny window for about an hour before cutting them up. Sunlight helps the mushrooms produce higher levels of vitamin B.

To start, I fried an inch of minced ginger and two chopped garlic cloves for about 3 minutes. Then I added the green onions, followed by the peppers, and then the asparagus. After a few minutes I added the shiitake sliced in quarter inch strips. I let that all stir fry up for a few minutes then added about 4 tablespoons each of soy sauce and sake along with some black pepper.

While the liquid was reducing a little I cut the tofu into bite-sized pieces then threw them into the stir-fry. I let the tofu absorb the flavor, then took off the heat and drizzled some sesame oil in it, and then served with it white rice.

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Last night I took advantage of another nice evening and grilled up some fish, at Yuki’s request. I decided to make some brochettes with Moroccan spiced cod. Any firm-fleshed fish would work for this recipe, cod just happened to be the cheapest and freshest as it just came in yesterday morning.

I cut up the fish into chunks large enough to skewer for the grill. Then I mixed up a marinade that consisted of 4 chopped garlic cloves, 1/2 teaspoon of paprika, 1/2 teaspoon of cumin, 1 teaspoon of salt, 1/2 teaspoon of cayenne, about 4 tablespoons of olive oil, the juice from one lemon, and a few tablespoons of chopped cilantro. I tossed the fish into the marinade and let it sit in the fridge, covered, for about 3 hours occasionally turning.

When it came time to grill I took the fish out to rest for about a half hour to come to room temperature. During that time I chopped an onion and a red pepper as well as thinly slicing , about 1/4 of an inch thick, a chinese eggplant (the regular eggplants weren’t as fresh) and two small zucchini. I also let my bamboo skewers soak in water for an hour.

After all of the vegetables were cut I skewered the fish with the red pepper and onion chunks. Then I drizzled the eggplant and zucchini slices with olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. I put the skewers on the bottom rack and the slices on the top rack. Everything was cooked at medium heat. That way the vegetables would cook at about the same rate as the fish. If the heat were too high the fish would cook much faster and the veggies would be too raw.

I made a sauce to drizzle on top of everything after grilling. The sauce consisted of 2 tablespoons of tahini, 1 tablespoon of soy sauce, 1 tablespoon of olive oil, the juice of 1/2 lemon, 1/2 teaspoon of paprika, and 2 tablespoons of chopped cilantro. I served with white rice and garnished with some cilantro sprigs.

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