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After a couple of nights eating out for Restaurant Week I decided to give our stomachs, as well as our wallets, a little bit of a break. Simple, cheap, and delicious, I made a stew with cod and vegetables. Warm stews like this are great for cold winter nights and are packed full of nutrients that won’t bulge your belly or bank account.

I started off with my typical dashi. I boiled 1/3 cup of dried anchovies in 3 cups of water for about 30 minutes and then strained out the fish. I really love making this dashi because it’s easy, healthy, and delicious.

The rest of my ingredients included 2 carrots chopped, 1/2 head of cauliflower broken into florets, 1 head of broccoli broken into florets with the stem chopped, 5 large fingerling potatoes chopped, 1 onion large diced, 3 garlic cloves large diced, 5 ounces of spinach rinsed, 3/4 pound of cod cut into bite-sized pieces, 3 tablespoons of soy sauce, and 2 tablespoons of sake.

I heated up a stock pot and poured in about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Once the oil was hot and shimmering I added the onion, carrot, and garlic. I let that all sweat down for about 3 minutes and then added the broccoli and cauliflower. About 2 minutes later I poured in the dashi, soy, sake, and a bay leaf and brought that up to a boil. Once boiling I added the potatoes and turned the heat down to med-low so that it could simmer for about 10 minutes. Then I added the fish and let it simmer for another 10 minutes before throwing the spinach in. Once the spinach was in I seasoned with pepper (no need for salt because of the soy in the broth), covered the pot, and let simmer for another 10 minutes. After that all I did was adjust the seasoning and serve it up with some white rice.

Just be gentle stirring after you add the fish, cod will flake apart.

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I’m just not as young as I used to be. I can tell that I was at an izakaya last night because all of that sake floating around my liver is taking its toll. However, slow-moving Saturdays usually mean fun Friday nights.

A group of Yuki’s co-workers got together last night for food and drinks at Chizakaya, a newly opened izakaya here in Chicago. Actually, it’s probably the only real izakaya in town. While there are a few places claiming to be izakayas, they’re really just sushi places. Chizakaya doesn’t serve any sushi at all. I first heard of Chizakaya a few months ago when my mom sent me an article in the Huffington Post about the very fact that there aren’t any real izakaya’s in Chicago, until now. It also mentioned that the group that opened Chizakaya came from L2O, arguably Chicago’s finest seafood restaurant. Naturally, it made the list of places I wanted to go. With Yuki’s group meeting there last night I took the opportunity and ran with it.

I got there before the rest of the group, except for the two white guys in her work team (everyone else is Japanese). We sat at the bar and had a glass of sake while waiting for everyone else. I will say that the bartender knows his sake! It’s not a huge sake list, but a very well put together one with a good variety at all price points. He also gave us each a sample of sweet potato shochu, something none of us have ever had. It’s actually quite good.

Once everyone showed up they took us to the back room at one of the two big tables. I like it much better back there because the kitchen is open and the atmosphere is a little more izakaya-like.

Our waitress was also well-trained in the art of sake flavors as well as their menu. True to being an izakaya, the menu is based on small plates and nibbles to go along with drinking. We ordered a bunch of things and just grabbed and ate as we went, along with numerous bottles of sake. Since I’m drinking for 3, I’m struggling to keep my eyes focused as I write this.

As we sat they brought out little bowls of miso soup. Really good miso, they got the ratio of miso-to-dashi right. Instead of wakame which is typically put in miso soup they used hijiki.

Japanese sweet potato fries with spiced mayo.

Puffed pig ears with togarashi soy dipping sauce. Move over potato chips, these little cracklins are fantastic!

Crispy pork with a slow poached egg.

Pork shoulder gyoza. The gyoza could have been a little bit crispier, but the braised pork shoulder filling more than made up for that shortcoming.

Oysters with bacon and shishito. I don’t know if the bacon was over smoked or if they added a little liquid smoke, but there was a bit too much smokiness to this one. The natural sweetness of the beautiful little oysters was lost. Cut back on the smoke and this one is a winner.

Grilled ika togarashi with a yuzu vinaigrette. This was some of the most tender squid I’ve had in Chicago.

This was one of the night’s specials, duck liver karaage with scallions. Little deep-fried nuggets of ducky deliciousness!

Home-made basket tofu with bonito flakes, scallions, ginger, and soy sauce. You haven’t had tofu until you’ve had a really good home-made tofu. This was a really good home-made tofu. Totally different beast than the store-bought packaged tofu. Very clean, very light, very tasty.

Crispy-braised lamb belly with chopped edamame. This one was another of the night’s specials and quite honestly, one of the most special dishes I’ve ever eaten! I’ve never had lamb belly before and after eating it am wondering why. You see pork belly everywhere as it’s one of the more trendy cuts of meat these days. As much as I love pork belly, and I do love pork belly, I’d drop it in a heartbeat to sink my teeth into some lamb belly. That layer of belly fat may be the most lamby of all lamb flavors that animal has. I absolutely luz it! The only thing that would have made this dish better would be to puree the edamame into a thick sauce instead of leaving it chunky. Otherwise it was perfect.

Now, I’ll show you all of the kushi-yaki (grilled skewers of meat) that we had.

Chicken skin, mother of schmaltz how I love thee!

Chicken meatballs.

Chicken gizzards, next to liver and sweetbreads my favorite offal.

Beef heart, surprisingly tender and juicy for such a hard-working and lean muscle.

Beets with shiso, both red and golden.

We also ordered a the ramen and oden. Both of which were, quite honestly, very disappointing.

The ramen came with braised pork, fish balls, a slow poached egg, radish, bamboo shoot, shredded scallions, and some nori. The ingredients were all top-notch, but the noodles were overcooked and soft while the broth wasn’t quite were it needed to be. With everything else so high quality I wonder why they’re using regular old store-bought quality noodles. This bowl of ramen just wasn’t up to standards. If it’s ramen you want, head over to Arami instead.

The oden wasn’t even close to what oden is. Oden should be a dashi broth filled with various fish cakes, potato, hard-boiled eggs, konyakku, etc. It’s something that we make at home a couple of times every winter. This was nowhere near oden. This was a soy-based dashi with overcooked soba noodles, a few spinach leaves, a couple of pieces of potato, some slices of radish, and a few adzuki beans. It wasn’t a terrible noodle soup, but they shouldn’t call it oden and they should be more careful with the noodles.

Now, on to desserts, which were all very creative and well-prepared.

Yuzu cake with green tea ice cream.

Tofu cheese cake with kuro mitsu (black honey) and adzuki bean sorbet. Usually you see adzuki bean ice cream, making it a sorbet was a nice touch.

Chocolate ganache with puffed barley and black sesame ice cream.

I will say, that all three desserts are among the best desserts I’ve ever had at a Japanese restaurant.

Overall, Chizakaya is a fun atmosphere with great food. There were a couple of lows, oversmoked bacon and poor noodle soups, but the rest of the food was outstanding. Don’t come here expecting a substantial sit-down meal. Come here expecting a great list of sake, beer, and cocktails with delicious small plates and skewers to match. In that sense, this is a true izakaya. They also use top quality ingredients from local sustainable farms, and you can taste the difference. I will definitely go back, I just have to be more mindful of the amount of sake that I guzzle.

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Back porch garden

I wish more people would utilize their outdoor spaces more efficiently. I know that outdoor space is precious in cities like Chicago, but look here at what my wife and I did. Our space is only 3.5 feet by 5.5 feet. Since it’s also one of two exits there must be a clear path according to fire code. That didn’t stop us from planting a few veggies and a few herbs to enjoy throughout the summer (come winter we can move the herbs onto our window sills). We have three types of basil; Thai, Spicy Globe, and Sweet. We also have Juliette Tomatoes, Japanese Eggplant, and Rutgers Tomatoes.

So far we’ve enjoyed basil almost every day. I swear those things grow like weeds! It’s just too bad we can’t grow any “weeds” in our makeshift garden. We already have one eggplant that’s almost mature and a dozen little eggplants on the way.

Eggplant

The Rutgers Tomatoes are growing better than the Juliettes, but we’ll get a nice yield from both. It shouldn’t be too much longer before we’re enjoying our tomatoes.

Tomatoes

The best part about all of this is that we used all-natural organic soil free of pesticides and chemicals. We keep them watered accordingly and the fruits should taste much better than anything storebought. There’s also some satisfaction in eating something that you grew yourself. I just wish everyone took advantage of little opportunities like this. You’ll end up helping the environment in numerous ways; less produce bought from Big Ag, a notorious pollution machine. It also saves money as purchasing seeds or sprouting plants along with soil costs a lot less than produce at the supermarket. Using organic soil also ensures that your plants will obtain full nutrient capacity. It just makes sense people!

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