Ummmm......yeah, so the leftovers from the Global Travelers Dinner Club went straight home with me (well, at least the sweets did) and as you know my favorite dish was the apple-stuffed crepes with dulce de leche. Well, last night, I pulled those little mamas out of the fridge, tossed them in the oven and got 'em all crispy and warm, threw on some passionfruit sorbet, sliced strawberries and some fresh mint and promptly had a feast. This was all after a lovely (very healthy) dinner at my new favorite sushi house, Cafe Blossom (I've always been a hearty eater, but since I started getting into Bikram Yoga--the 105 degree/hour and a half long class---I have been really chowin' down). This concoction was straight-up delicious and Colleen, the chica who made this dish from Argentina, had mentioned that making the dulce de leche was as easy as tossing sweetened condensed milk in the oven and baking it 'til it becomes caramelized. Though that is great to know...it's not so great to know for my sweet tooth. I'll just pretend like I never got that helpful hint~And, I will say, these were even better the next day.
My favorite gallery in all of Chicago is called Sacred Heart and it's smack dab in the middle of my 'hood, Roscoe Village. The owner, Sarah Seyedin, is super-cool and prices the art so affordably---literally, she makes it so every day folks can afford to buy on a regular basis. I was just in there today and I noticed this AMAZING piece of work strung up on the wall. This artist is so talented and paints the most creative murals on glass paned windows. I've been admiring her work for some time and this one I think I have to buy--I love the wild bright color of the octopus mixed with the soothing blue of the ocean and the wide-eyed girl on the sailboat tops it off---that's me in a nutshell. Reminds me of all my trips to Mexico (especially the trip to Yelapa where we caught an octopus off the side of a fishing boat in the middle of the Pacific and my epic trip to Baja where I learned to sail in the brilliant Sea of Cortez) and makes me happy and excited about all the trips that I've not yet taken. If you make it over to my neck of the woods, check it out:
2040 W. Roscoe St.
Last night was the first month of our new Global Traveler's Dinner Club where everyone brings a traditional dish from the chosen country (and the host provides the indigenous cocktail). What fun it all was to discover all the tastes of another country made by folks who've never cooked from there before. We chose Argentina as the first country and there were so many good things to eat (I personally OD'ed on apple stuffed crepes smothered in dulce de leche)~I made this crazy cabbage pudding with tomato sauce (Budin de Pepollo) that was really quite good--and the tomato sauce had cinnamon in it. Very interesting...I never would've put cinnamon in a sauce like that, but it made it smoky and sweet (right up my alley). Other dishes in the lineup were a thick codfish stew, meat and veggie stuffed empenadas with salsa, tender flank steak pinwheels, a creamy swiss chard saute, and little cookies with dulce de leche. Everything was totally delish and what a perfect way to taste your way around the world---I chose August as my month to host and my country is India---which is perfect, because I have the perfect book to get inspiration from: Mangoes and Curry Leaves (a brilliant tomb detailing one couples culinary travels thru the sub-continent) and the perfect backyard to chill in. We also managed to round-up a few bags full of old shoes to send down to the Hurricane Katrina victims--awesome stuff all the way around.
P.S. I was the one who wrote down all the countries to toss in the bowl that we drew from and it was great...the first three countries drawn for the summer months were Pakistan, Ghana and Senegal. Everyone flipped out at my choices, though, and demanded a redraw---their loss, no? Instead, they drew Mexico, Sweden and Puerto Rico...still good, but really, who can resist the flavor sensations of the previous three...
I've been eating at a number of places lately that reference the word elephant and perhaps the best one is a homey Thai joint called, Elephant Thai. I trekked all the way west to Edgebrook to get a taste of their famous chive dumplings and I now have a brand new appreciation for the onion family. These little biscuit like discs are absolutely delicious~Never would I have thought that I'd dive so deep into a pile of fried dumplings, especially a batch that was full of emerald green chives, but these babies are totally worth the spicy bite that accompanies them; they remind me of a crunchy pancake--you know the kind you can't stop eating. I'm now a big can of anything to do with chives, scallions, garlic, leeks and the whole damn onion family, especially when they're encased in little baby biscuits~
I've never cooked with meatless ground beef crumbles if you can believe it. You know, the kind that Boca makes? They are tiny crumbles of ground burger that honest to God taste almost like the real thing. I really can't tell much difference between them and real ground beef now that I've mastered cooking with them (really, all you do is toss them in some homemade spaghetti sauce and give 'em about two minutes to thaw out and sop up all the juice---and just like that, they're done). I whipped up this masterful spaghetti feast (made with rice noodles, no less) the other night and I truly outdid myself...even I was impressed. Lately I've been eating out so much and have almost (but not quite) grown sick of it. I'm just craving all the goodness of home cooked meals and nothing does it for me like homestyle spaghetti like my mom used to make. Topped with a little shaved parmesan, watch out! This is definitely my new obsession. What else can I make with those no-meat crumbles? Creamy sausage gravy and buttery, homemade biscuits; Southwestern chili with skillet cornbread; cheesy lasagna and garlic bread; baked burritos el suizo and crunchy tacos---wow! The list can go on and on...what an exciting discovery.
Cafe con Leche is a hectic place. The tiny restaurant was throbbing with activity, slinging platefuls of cheap south-of-the-border cuisine (Mexican with a splash of Cuba) to a patient line. Hungry customers flowed in and out, managers offered advice on what to try, and pick-up orders were pushed out the door every few minutes. To my virgin eyes, it seemed to be the hub of all movement in Logan Square, yet it somehow maintained an airy, friendly feel.
I was standing in line when I met Hector the Cuban. He was an older gentleman who happened to be placing his order when I accidentally cut in front of him to ask about molletes (think Mexican pizza). I wasn't quite sure what they were and thought he was simply wrapping up his lengthy chat with the all-Spanish staff behind the counter. Once I realized that he hadn't ordered yet and that I'd broken rank, I stepped back, apologized profusely and lightly brushed his arm to show my sincerity. From that moment on Hector and I were buds.
I'm what you'd call a tamale nut. Everywhere I go, I'm always scouting around, hoping to eagle-eye spot a tiny vendor tucked away on a shady street corner hawking homemade tamales. There is something about the mix of soft/firm corn stuffed with pork or chicken or my favorite, chile and cheese, that causes me to melt. I don't even have to be hungry and I could easily slam down a cool half dozen. I just happened across a new vendor yesterday as I was leaving a shoot in Logan Square and his tasty little tamale has rekindled my affair all over again. He's set up shot right on the corner of Belden and Milwaukee and sells tamales by the dozen along with big cups of cold lemonade. Saborea Nuestros Ricos Tamales--each one goes for just 75 cents. Not too shabby for this neck of the woods. I know you can get a little cheaper down by Maxwell St. and in Pilsen, but this is one that's much closer to my hood, and therefore has created a regular customer out of me.
++The best though are the Cuban pork tamales at La Unica, the Cuban grocery on Devon. I also just discovered some delicious frozen chile and cheese tamales at Trader Joe's. I was stunned at how authentic they tasted~
One thing I'm not is a spinach fan. I always have this underlying suspicion that the dirt was never really cleaned off all the way and the greens are still covered in bitter bits of sand. This spinach thing is a weird obsession of mine and the only way I can really stomach it is in the form of gomae. Gomae is an always delicious way to prepare spinach, mostly due to the excessive use of LOADS OF SUGAR and I've found the mama-of-all-sugar-coated-go mae's at a tiny sushi house in Lincoln Park called Green Tea. Theirs was an astonishing version because it was if they'd used actual sugar in the raw for the sesame/sugar paste that covers the blanched and pressed spinach. I've never had such chunky bites of gomae, but I really loved it (well, anything covered in sugar is bound to be edible).
*Quick side note: The best gomae I've ever had is at one of my fave restaurants in Roscoe Village, the always packed sushi house Kaze. Their take on the popular dish is literally deconstructed and a total sensation to the tastebuds. But, I will say, this wildly thick, insanely sweet appetizer at Green Tea pulls a close second.
I have figured out the perfect way to travel (for me at least). When I was in Bali, I stayed in extremely charming homestays. They're basically tiny bungalow style rooms in a very lush, traditional Balinese compound (one where the owner is well tucked away, but always close by when you need them). My favorite was Warjihouse, in the village of Ubud (my room with veranda and two beds, pictured right). I loved staying there for most of my days in Ubud and it was only $10 bucks a night (with breakfast included). Nyoman, the adorable fella who runs it, would cook me the most amazing omelette's with buttered toast in the morning, or if I felt like it, a delicious crispy banana pancake doused in honey. Everything came with a huge platter of fruit and there was always a thermos of tea on the small table on my veranda. Staying here allowed me to integrate myself into the community and meet all sorts of locals AND I saved a ton of dough. I got very accustomed to waking up at about 3 am, heading out to my veranda, slamming a whole thermos of tea and watching the sun rise. So, I stayed at Warjihouse for many nights and made like a local, then the way to do it is to upgrade to a bad-ass room at some MAD luxurious hotel on the last couple of nights. I chose to chill at Uma, one of the most incredible hotels I've ever stayed in (very small, very luxe boutique hotel in Ubud). This way, I got to dive into the way of life in Bali and then I got to leave feeling like a rock star. That's the way I'm gonna roll from here on out in all my travels. You just get the best of both worlds.
I'm always on the hunt for a great veggie sandwich and the California Avenue hub of popular Borinquen Restaurant has a tasty one. Their veggie version is crazy simple: Just cheese, lettuce, tomato, mayo and a little surprise addition of fried eggplant, all on warm, crusty french bread. The sandwich alone is great, but they have this gigantic squeeze bottle of some sort of homemade mayo/ketchup dressing on every table that brings the sandwich to a whole new level---well, everything this mock/Latin-style 1000 island dressing comes into contact with becomes rave worthy. I douse everything I order with it--my chewy yellow rice with pigeon peas, my crispy french fries (not homemade, mind you), my veggie sandwiches, my black beans---you name it. It just makes everything taste better--not that the food at Borinquen needs it, though. Everything at this Puerto Rican restaurant is pretty awesome, including the jibarito sandwich (instead of bread, they use mashed plantains). Plus, the California Ave. restaurant is just down from my other love, the New Life Cafe~