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Posts Tagged ‘vanilla’

Lares is a crusty little mountain town in Puerto Rico. It’s famous for two things. First, in 1868 it was the birthplace of the uprising against Spanish rule, El Grito de Lares. Second, and even more historically important, in 1968 Salvador Barreto opened Heladeria Lares.

This is no ordinary ice cream parlor, no sir. This ice cream parlor not only makes regular old chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, etc. ice cream. This ice cream parlor will make ice cream out of anything!

When you walk in there are literally at least 50 different flavors to choose from. The do limit you to 3 samples though. Kind of a shame because there are so many I wanted to try, but they need to be able to sell some ice cream so I understand they don’t want customers to fill up on free samples.

I sampled the Arroz con Gandules. Rice and pigeon peas, it was actually really good.

Ajo, or garlic. They did a great job of accentuating the sweetness while suppressing the sharpness of the beloved garlic clove.

Bacalao, salt codfish. This one was absolutely disgusting! Salted fish should never ever be turned into a sweet treat. It was one of the worst flavors I’ve ever had in my mouth.

I ended up getting a scoop of two flavors I didn’t try but was confident would work together, ginger and pumpkin. I was right, as usual. They gave me a little bit bigger scoop of ginger while I would have preferred more pumpkin, but hey, you can’t have your ice cream and eat it too.

Yuki got a scoop of the Arroz con Gandules and one of the sweet potato. Both excellent scoops of ice cream.

If you ever get to Lares, you have to hit Heladeria Lares up for a sweet adventure. Some of the flavors are just as terrifying to even think about as they are to eat, but mostly what they do works out just fine. With people like Bill Clinton haven eaten their ice cream, I wonder if they’ll come up with a special cigar flavor.

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So, today is Yuki’s birthday. Since she has a conference call with Japan tonight I took her for a nice dinner last night. We found out a while ago that Top Chef Master Marcus Samuelson quietly opened up a place here in Chicago, without much fair. Being fans of what we saw him cook as well as knowing his reputation we went there, C-House, located in the Affinia Hotel.

A real casual place with natural colors, the interior is just what we wanted. It was very comfortable, tables were well spaced, and music was not too loud (they even played some Afrobeat throughout the night, a huge plus in my book). Service was also casual for a fine dining restaurant. It was friendly and professional, but not the slightest bit of pretension. Food was brought at a nice pace as well.

Of course, bread service started off the meal once we ordered. Home-baked cheese bread with butter topped with sea salt. Hard to beat fresh-baked cheese bread.

Yuki started with the Scallops. Two near-perfectly cooked scallops with crab-apple butter, golden raisins, smoked almonds, shaved celery, and pear matchsticks. A nice blend of sweetness and bitterness to start the taste buds off right.

I ordered the Sweetbreads, one of my new favorite cuts of carcass. It was breaded and fried then served with a brown butter, pear matchsticks, and sautéed sweet potatoes and apples. Again, the sweetness on the plate got me ready for more grub.

Yuki’s entrée was the Fish Stew. Arctic char, prawns, leeks, and root vegetables stewed in a Goose Island Matilda and sassy cow cream broth. The beer gave a nice bitterness to the sweet seafood while the parsley garnish brightened it up.

I got the Hanger Steak. I nice bloody rare piece of meat with sautéed kale, carmelized pearl onions, lobster mushrooms and raclette cheese. I have to tell you, that cheese is some funky stuff! My plate smelled like a barnyard, but once I got that first bite in my mouth it turned out to be one delicious barnyard indeed. Bitter kale, sweet onions, earthy mushrooms, and funky cheese…a very well-balanced plate.

We split the Sage Flan for dessert. This was a winner! I’ve never had a savory flan before. The flan itself was perfectly rich, yet light. It was served with baked apples, a smear of cranberry sauce, and a maple-pear sorbet that tasted like cider. The flavors matched perfectly. This was one of the best desserts I’ve ever eaten.

Since it was Yuki’s birthday they brought out a little vanilla cupcake with a raspberry and candle for her. We liked that better than the typical “Happy Birthday” written in chocolate on the dessert plate that most restaurants do. This was a nice little touch.

Overall, the food was great. This was our kind of fine dining. Nothing complex and pretentious at all. Just a casual atmosphere with top quality ingredients cooked to perfection and flavors in harmony. Everything was also very seasonal taking advantage of produce at its peak. Prices are also very respectable considering the location, the celebrity chef, and the quality. I would highly recommend C-House.

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I’ve been doing more baking lately and find that I quite enjoy it. There’s nothing like biting into a warm, fresh, moist baked good. With just the two of us one batch lasts about a week giving us healthy afternoon snacks. My latest were these Raspberry Yogurt Buns. They’re made like a muffin, but with the yogurt they don’t rise very much. They are absolutely delicious though and could be made with just about any kind of fruit, fresh or dried.

The ingredient list includes 3/4 cup pure cane sugar, 1 package of fresh raspberries, 1 3/4 cup cake flour, 2 eggs at room temperature, 1/2 cup butter at room temperature, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract, 1 cup plain yogurt, and two teaspoons baking powder.

In a large bowl I mixed together the butter and sugar until it was nice and fluffy. An electric mixer would make this easy. I don’t have one, but I kind of enjoy the challenge of doing this by hand. I used a fork to cream the butter and sugar. Once it was nicely creamed I switched to a whisk and added the eggs one at a time followed by the vanilla, the yogurt, and then the raspberries. I whisked it really well until the raspberries mostly came apart and mixed in evenly.

In a seperate bowl I sifted the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt and mixed that all together with a clean fork. In batches of three to make sure it’s evenly incorporated I mixed this flour mixture into the yogurt mixture. I whisked it all together until I had a nice smooth batter.

I have a 12 cup muffin pan that I lightly buttered each cup. I poured the batter in each cup and then put it into a 350 degree oven for about 20-25 minutes. The tops should be a little springy when touched. Once cooled I had some fantastic little buns.

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Well, I finally got to Xoco today. Really, I can’t believe it took me this long to be honest. Being a fan of his cooking for years and sharing some precious moments with him shopping for produce you wouldn’t think it’d take me this long to check out his newest joint. Tortas just never really excited me all that much, though. Whenever I’m at La Pasadita or any other taqueria tacos, burritos, or parillada always get the nod over gentrified Mexican food like tortas. Bread with taco meat? It just never seemed quite right, until today that is.

When you walk it you see all of the action behind the counter. A big chalkboard has the menu. You can either take out or wait for a seat. We waited for a seat, about 15 minutes or so. It wasn’t bad though, it took that long just to decide what to order since everything looked so damn delicious! The menu is on his website.

After we ordered we sat down and ate some chips and salsa. About 10 minutes later our tortas arrived. I got Saturday’s daily special, the goat barbacoa. Nice crunchy on the outside but soft in the middle bread with slices of avocado, onions, cilantro, and Oaxacan pasilla-tomato salsa accompanying moist, soft, fall-apart goat meat. A fantastic sandwich if ever there was one.

Yuki got the Pibil. Just like the goat, this suckling pig was so moist and delicious. The pickled onion and black beans were natural with the pibil. I gotta tell you though, that habanero salsa was some spicy shit! Rick got every bit of heat out of those peppers when he made that stuff. Wow.

We also ordered some churros with ice cream, but I forgot to take a picture. No biggie, the plate had three churros that were heavily sugared and cinnamoned (are those words?). They were slightly overcooked, but delicious nonetheless. The ice cream was vanilla soft serve. Rick has it made in-house and they leave the bean in the mix. I like that. The ice cream was really good.

I have to say, I still prefer tortillas for those flavors, but I will not frown upon tortas anymore. There is definitely a place for them in my stomach from here on out. Here’s to the torta. Thanks Rick.

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Yes, I do bake (get baked) on occasion. When I do, it’s usually nothing special. I don’t have enough baking experience to really screw around with the basics so I stick to recipes pretty closely. I did, however, alter the basic chocolate chip cookie this weekend. The results were fantastic! What I did was added some kinako.

Kinako is flour made from toasted soybeans. It’s extremely fine and has a subtle nutty taste, like a mild peanut. When baking with it you can replace some of the all-purpose flour in a recipe and end up with delicious results.

I started by mixing a half cup of room temperature butter with a quarter cup of cane sugar and a half cup of brown sugar until light and fluffy. Well, as light and fluffy as butter and sugar can get. My mixing bowl isn’t that large, so I always have to tape some newspaper together and build a wall around it to keep the sugar from flying everywhere. Yuki laughs at me, but not just because of that.

In a small bowl I scrambled an egg with a half teaspoon of vanilla extract and then beat that into the butter and sugar mixture. Then, in another bowl, I sifted together one cup of all-purpose flour, a half cup of kinako, a half teaspoon of baking soda, and a quarter teaspoon of salt. Once that was sifted it got mixed into the butter, sugar, and now egg mixture. After I had a thoroughly mixed together dough I mixed in a cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips.

I put big blobs of the dough on a greased baking sheet and baked at 350 degrees for about 12 minutes. It was really hard to let them cool though, I just wanted to dive headfirst into those things!

The additions of kinako really does add a peanuty flavor. It’s not quite as strong as the peanut, so it doesn’t overpower the vanilla or chocolate. If cooked properly, it’ll be just as soft in the middle as a good chocolate chip cookie should be. The only problem is that now Yuki wants me to make them every week! I’m going to get fat!

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Alright, Restaurant Week restaurant number 2…Cafe Spiaggia. I’ve long thought that Italian food in Chicago was sub par with only a couple of good restaurants around. Most Italian joints here serve big heavy sauces and overcooked pasta. Even some of the higher end ones I’ve been to were extremely disappointing. I’ve always wanted to hit up Spiaggia, but it’s a little out of my normal budget. By a little I mean a lot. When special occasions come along I’ve always opted to go to other places instead. However, the $22 pre fix lunch deal at Cafe Spiaggia this week is too good to pass up. I know it’s not quite the haute that the main room of Spiaggia is, but it did give me a very good idea of what it’s all about. Good things, all good things.

We started with two salads. This one is the PERA; Baby arugula with toasted pear chips, Alto Adige I.G.P speck (a ham from northern Italy), goat cheese and balsamic vinaigrette. The pears were a little under-ripe, but otherwise everything was light, clean, and fresh.

This salad is the ITALIANA; Escarole, treviso, and frisee with Parmigiano Reggiano and Chianti vinaigrette. The vinaigrette was outstanding! Otherwise, it was a very simple salad that was not overdone, exactly what a salad should be.

We ordered one each of the two entrée’s that are offered on the Restaurant Week Menu. First is the CAPPELLACCI; Hand crafted butternut squash filled pasta with amaretti, Parmigiano Reggiano, brown butter, and sage. You see this dish on a lot of Italian menus and in a lot of cookbooks, so it’s nothing creative or off the wall. However, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone execute the dish to this level. The pasta was perfectly al dente, there was just the right amount squash seasonings (I think cinnamon), and the brown butter wasn’t greasy at all.

The other entrée offered is BATTUTA; Pounded chicken breast with sautéed Swiss chard, fingerling potatoes, cipollini onions, and Pecorino Siciliano. Again, nothing off the wall. Just simple, fresh, top quality ingredients prepared perfectly to allow each other to compliment one another.

For dessert you’re given three choices out of the Gelati and Sorbeti menu. Yuki ordered the passion fruit, vanilla, and pineapple-basil.

I ordered the red raspberry, grapefruit and stracciatella (vanilla with chocolate shavings). They were all great, but out of the six I think the pineapple-basil was the best. It wasn’t too sweet and had just the right amount of herby basil in it. The grapefruit was also great as it tasted just like eating a slice of grapefruit.

Service at Cafe Spiaggia was fluid and attentive. That’s pretty much to be expected of such a high quality restaurant. The interior was also nice and laid back. It had the feel of an outdoor cafe in Italy with views of Lake Michigan. One of these days we’ll dine in the formal restaurant to get the full on experience. I will tell you this though, there is no doubt that Chef Mantuano is one of the few chefs in Chicago who truly understand what Italian food is all about. No need for heavy red sauces or huge plates of gut-busting, overcooked pasta. Keep it simple, light, and fresh while letting the ingredients themselves do the talking. I can’t wait for the full-on experience!

Side note, there is a bit of irony for me to finally dine at Cafe Spiaggia. About 5 years ago when I was looking to get back into the restaurant biz I interviewed to become the manager of the cafe. I was called in for a total of 3 interviews and turned out to be the runner-up in their search. I lost out to a long-time server of theirs. I wonder what life would have been like had she not gone after the position……hmmmmm?

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Being an atheist Jew who doesn’t celebrate the birth of fictional characters I always end up at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas day. I know that Saturday Night Live had their famous skit about Jews going to Chinese joints on Christmas, but it’s only funny because it’s true. Buddhists share the lack of blind faith in Jesus that we do. Plus, with every other restaurant and grocery store closed someone has to make money on this capitalist holiday!

I did countless research to find something new and interesting as Chinatown (other than Cafe Hoang) is really nothing special. Every website had Lao Szechuan and Phoenix as the best places in Chinatown. Honestly, neither of them excite me at all. They’re ok, but nothing special. One thing New Yorkers truly can claim is far superior chinese food than Chicago (I don’t buy their claims of having better pizza or hot dogs, oh, they do also have better bagels though).

Then I came across Han 202. A little 36 seat restaurant in the Bridgeport neighborhood, 605 W 31st street. They do 5 course meals for only $20! When I read that Phil Vettel, he of the Tribune’s food critiques, enjoyed his visits there I thought it would be better than typical greasy chinese stir-fry. It was!

I started with the Spicy King Crab Miso Soup. A basic miso soup with real crab meat and some spicy bean paste added. It wasn’t en fuego spicy, but it had a nice little heat to jump-start my taste buds.

After that I got the Green Apple Salad. Julienned granny smiths tossed in a mix of olive oil and truffle oil with just a hint of fish sauce. There were also a few capers for saltiness and some red peppercorns for a little bite.

Yuki got the Lemongrass Beef salad which turned out to be the exact same as mine but with extremely tender slices of lemongrass beef on top. Had I known they were the same salad but with the beef I would have ordered this since beef is my favorite vegetable. Oh well, what can you do?

For the appetizer course I ordered the Salt and Pepper Calamari. Deep fried slices of squid with diced jalapeno and green onions. The squid was cooked to perfection, nice and tender without any rubberiness (is that a word?). My only complaint would be that it was a little too salty, but with salt in the dish’s name I guess that was to be expected.

For my entrée I ordered the Duck Breast in Sichuan Hot Bean Sauce. This was the only dish that truly had an authentic Chinese aroma to it, so good! The duck was a perfect medium rare. I would have liked for the skin to be a little crispier, but I can’t complain since it was otherwise cooked the way a good duck breast outta be cooked. The sauce had a nice little tinge of spice. There was sliced bell pepper, green onion, carrot, some sort of chinese green, and some diced pineapple for a little sweetness. It was a very well-balanced sauce that matched beautifully with the duck. A really nice modern take on a classic chinese dish.

Dessert was vanilla ice cream with some mango-tomato sorbet on top. The ice cream was nice and smooth while the sorbet added a nice flavor to the spoon.

Overall, I find Han 202 to be one of Chicago’s absolute best values. Besides my enjoyment of the food, Yuki also had only positive things to say about her Scallop and Lamb Chops. Our friend who joined us also enjoyed her Tuna and Strip Steak. Having sampled everything, I have to agree with their assessments as well. We walked out fully satisfied but not overly stuffed. They could have easily charged us $35 per person (I’m glad they didn’t) and I still would have been satisfied.

They’re also BYOB, which cuts the cost of dining. No corkage fee and they kept our beer in the cooler for us. They also have nice pint glasses.

Next time you’re in the mood for some good Chinese food head south of Chinatown for an updated take on not only classic Chinese flavors, but also extremely reasonably priced pre-fix.

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