Archive for the 'Foodgasm' Category

Hot, Sweaty, and Delicious

Last night, with temps in the 90’s and a heat index well into the danger zone, my friend K., her friend M., and I headed to the Green City Market BBQ in Lincoln Park to pursue the offerings from some of Chicago’s best and well-loved chefs.

The BBQ is essentially a scaled-down version of some of the more heavily attended street food fairs around the city, and boasted offerings from roughly 100 Chicago restaurants, served out of booths that were, more often than not, manned by the headlining chefs themselves. To be sure, the BBQ is pretty much everything Taste of Chicago isn’t, and that’s a good thing. I’ll gladly take a swampy summer evening sippy classy wine and perusing dishes from Paul Kahan, Rick Bayless, and Paul Virant than fried fucking cheesecake on a stick topped with a chocolate-dipped turkey leg. Now, because I was so besieged with sweat and overwhelmed by all my options, I’m not going to give an entire rundown, but here are some highlights:

 First stop, wine tent. Here’s K., casually drinking her wine and being totally casual. We started out with some delightful Sauvignon blanc poured by a friendly man in a sweaty shirt. I kept coming back to him and dropping hints about how stingy every other wine booth was being with their pours and nonchalantly motioning with my empty wine glass. After about the second round of this, sweaty shirt caught on and began filling my glass with glugs, not dribbles.

Oh, then this happened:

 

 

 

 

 

(That’s Stephanie Izard, btw.)

 

 

Also, there was this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yes, I was that close to Rick Bayless. He was right there alongside his staff, mingling with the hoi polloi and serving up insanely spicy salmon tacs. What a guy.

After that, there was alla this:

And finally, a baby who somehow made his way from the 1940’s:

Now, this wouldn’t be a proper Hungrypants post if there wasn’t at least one thing to bitch about, right? Well, here it is: the goddamn process for throwing out garbage. What should be a simple, one-step procedure (throwing out garbage), Green City Market staff somehow turned into a convoluted and nerve-wracking game of what I can only describe as reverse whack-a-mole. They had each trash disposal station manned by a volunteer wielding a paddle (like the kind you use for playing paddleball but without the ball and string), and three holes: one for compost, one for recycling, and one for “landfill”. I could never get it right. I would hover a hand over the recycling hole, tentatively, only to have the staff member sigh and sharply point to the LANDFILL hole with her paddle, clearly indicating that I was a moron for being unaware that compostable food cannot go into the compost hole, and recyclable plates and forks simply don’t belong in the recycling hole.

On and on this went, all night, staff whacking at our hands with their paddles whenever we approached the trash stations. It was confusing! Doesn’t it all wind up in a landfill? The anxiety of being faced with this sudden and remarkably vague pop quiz regarding my knowledge of the intricacies of trash disposal and sorting was too much for me, so whenever I saw an unguarded station I just threw my shit in the recycling bin. Let them sort it out on the other side, I said. Only God can judge me, I said.

Food-wise, a few trends I noticed were the extensive use of lamb and goat meat, a large number of booths serving tacos; handmade sausages, and a proliferation of sustainable, local, ingredients. Apparently last year it was nothing but pork belly.

I’d say my absolute favorite, standout item of the night was the “adult popsicle” from the Primehouse booth: think frozen, gingery bourbon popsicle in a plastic push-up sleeve, not unlike the Flav-or-ices of our youth. It was tangy, a little spicy, and exactly what you need on a hot-ass night. Upon asking the chef handing the popsicles out what the recipe and freezing process was for these little beauties, we were met with a wink and two words: “elf magic”. I almost believe it.

BREAKING: Blogger Remembers She Has Blog; Posts For First Time in Months

Wow, the time really gets away from you, huh? When you’re….doing…nothing in particular that’s different from what you were doing before.

Big things going on over at HPHQ (Hungrypants Headquarters). I had my first GOOD EXPERIENCE AT BIG STAR last month. I swear. I think the secret to managing this place is just patience, patience, margaritas, cheladas, and copious amounts of patience. B. and I went for dinner on a Friday night, and were quoted a 3 hour wait by the doorman, which I suspect is a ploy to keep the hayseeds and riffraff/streetrats away from the inner sanctum. By claiming an absurd wait time, Big Star thereby drives away the tourists, the impatient ones, the desperately uncool and maintains a clientele that knows what it is to really earn their table, diners who can brag to their friends that the wait “wasn’t too bad” and that the food was “uber-authentic”.

I become one of those tragi-comic people that rainy April evening. We disregarded the doorman’s ridiculous assertion and forged ahead, putting our names down on the list with the pleasant list-minder girl. Yeah, pleasant I said. It’s like they got a whole new staff! The girl sympathized with us, and seemed almost upset to inform us that there would in fact be a long wait. Having already actively decided to change my ‘tude, I cheerfully told her it was okay, and we’d be by the bar so she could find us once a table opened up.

Svetlana the Russian Bartender tried to break my spirit by actively ignoring me as I waved my fist full of singles right in front of her Slavic nose, but I won that little game by just shouting our drink order right at her face. She grudgingly assembled our cheladas and give me the stinkeye, so from then on I made B. place our drink orders.

Long story short, I’d say we stood for about an hour and a half by the bar, periodically checking in with List Girl to see how far we’d moved up. I didn’t mind it; Big Star is excellent people-watching and they were cranking out some great classic rock on the ol’ Victrola. We stood and talked and drank and it was quite pleasant, really. Miraculously, four bar seats opened up all at once and we swooped in for two of them, deciding to just fuck it, forget the table, we’ll eat at the bar. Full food service at the bar is a key perk of Big Star, and really made the difference between a crappy  night and a decent one. We chowed down happily (the food really is excellent), paid without hassle, and bounced off into the night.

I won’t take back everything I’ve said about them, but I have no qualms about extolling Big Star for finally, at long last, providing me with a decent dining experience.

It’s Fun to Gather for Culinary Reasons

A few weeks ago, my friend A. (not FDL A., this is a different A. Keep it straight!) celebrated her birthday party in one of the best ways I can imagine: by hiring a chef and having a group of her friends come over and get drunk and help cook the meal. I know! It was fantastic.

Chef Kasey Passen started her company, Culinary Gatherings, last year after returning to her native Chicago after a stint at a few of San Francisco’s top restaurants. She has traveled extensively and incorporates her wordly knowledge into her cozy, accessible, and totally delicious get-togethers. Basically, Kasey showed up at A.’s apartment with all the necessary ingredients, menus and instructions for all of us, and a sous chef. She was incredibly knowledgeable, friendly, NOT condescending (we all know how much I hate those who condescend) and unendingly patient. She had planned a Mediterranean menu which included a stuffed chicken, a spicy eggplant spread and a couscous and chickpea salad (I’m improvising here, as I was so deep into my red wine coma by the time dinner was served that I scarcely remember the actual names of the dishes. But I digress.)

A. had made the mistake of asking everyone to bring a bottle of wine, AND she made sangria, so there we were, about twelve girls with what amounted to a bottle of wine each and copious amounts of sangria. Because of this, we did not make the best audience for Kasey’s wine pairing tutorial and spent most of the time loudly asserting how much we hated white wine. Which is weird because I don’t hate white wine. Kasey had provided us with a slice of apple, a slice of lemon, and a glass each of white and red wine. She encouraged us to take a sip of the wine, a bite of the fruit, and then another sip of wine and told us what tastes and notes to look for each time. I wish I’d taken notes because this chick knows a thing or two about wine.

Then, it was time to cook. Kasey had tasks for each of us, and set up stations to make sure no one strayed from their assigned project. I totally showed off my super sweet knife skills while I was chopping garlic for the eggplant spread, which Kasey complimented me on thankyouverymuch, and watched as the girls at the chicken station drunkenly crammed stuffing up a chicken’s ass. Believe it not, this was even more entertaining than it sounds.

The whole thing took about three hours from start to finish, and the resultant feast was that much more rewarding; knowing we had had our hands up that chicken’s ass and had chopped the garlic and sauteed the eggplant and fluffed the cous cous ourselves. It was truly a collaborative effort and extremely, extraordinarily delicious.

I have to praise chef Kasey for her unending patience and willingness to answer inane questions in addition to her superb menu.

It’s 2011.

Yes it is, and I rang it in in the best way I know how: luxuriously. Behold, my plate full of luxury:

Yes, what you see there is a lobster tail, a filet mignon, truffle mac and cheese (which I made MYSELF thankyouverymuch), champagne risotto with asparagus AND blanched green beans. My dear Lord, it was delicious.

Now, because of my previous promise to myself to start actually getting my hands dirty in the kitchen, I chose to contribute to this New Year’s Eve Meal of Luxury by making truffle mac. Ina’s recipe, of course, because Ina knows what’s up when it comes to cheese and carbs. So, this recipe had shiitake and cremini mushrooms, and Gruyère and sharp cheddar cheeses, garlic breadcrumb topping and just an assortment of all the kinds of buttery delicious things I love to put in my face hole. And it actually turned out pretty well! People claimed it was good and I agreed with them, but vowed next time around I’d take it easy on the breadcrumb topping (and use FRESH breadcrumbs opposed to store-bought) and perhaps mix in a little extra shredded cheese with the crust. It was good, though. Truffly and crunchy and cheesey. I’m also thinking maybe I could, to paraphrase Emeril Lagasse, kick things up a notch by making it a tad spicy.

The rest of NYE weekend was spent playing extreme amounts of Xbox Kinect, competing intensely in track and field events and dance battles. I have never been so sore. Like, the arches of my feet are sore. How does that even happen?? I laughed when the introductory instructions to each game encouraged me to “rest or sit down” if I felt sore, disbelieving that anyone could be so terribly out of shape that they couldn’t even handle a few jumps or volleyball serves or javelin throws while playing a mere video game. I stand super corrected. Moving is still a little difficult on my tight calves and hamstrings and muscles I didn’t even know existed in my back and sides now twinge with every arm movement.

Another highlight of my Holiday Eating Extravaganza was taking B. to Hopleaf for the first time, after seeing TRON LEGACY 3D (must be said in robot voice). He’d never been and after the movie let out, I was in the mood for some warm, rustic, homey food and a good Belgian beer. We made a split second decision and shot over to Hopleaf where we settled in at the bar to wait for a table. We had a few beers, a pot of Belgian-style mussels, and a charcuterie plate with duck liver pate, duck prosciutto, and quail eggs. It was, simply put, perfect.

I hope you all spent your New Years Eves and holidays in the best company possible, as I did, and enjoyed doing whatever it is you enjoy doing the most.

Oysters on the Half Shell! Oyster Power!

Friday night was just one of those nights. I’d come off a hellish workweek and wanted nothing more than to spend the entire evening with in my pajamas, on my couch, drinking wine from Walgreen’s. B. had other plans, however. After a good hour of waffling back and forth between going out and staying in, I finally decided to cave into B.’s insistence that we have a “night on the town” and his desire for fresh seafood, so off we went to Half Shell on the northern edge of Lincoln Park.

I’d heard nothing about this place, ever, and I kind of feel like a bad Chicagoan for admitting this because apparently it’s in the same league as far as Chicago institutions go as The Berghoff and Gibson’s. It’s easy to miss, nestled as it is on an unassuming corner of Diversey, and hidden in a space no bigger than someone’s basement.

This is the kind of place that is downright ideal for whiling away several blissful hours on a cold and blustery winter’s night. It’s dark and lit mostly by strands of multicolored Christmas lights that I’m willing to wager remain on display all year round, a la Butch McGuire’s. Tables are mismatched and packed tightly together, assuring for some awkward maneuvers as people squeeze their way between chairs to get to their seats. A fireplace burns brightly in the back left hand corner of Half Shell, crowned with a plastic stuffed fish and surrounded by walls adorned with other such kitschy nautical items like anchors and rusted-out signs.

B. and I were expecting a long wait but the bartender, who is also in charge of seating in a remarkable lack of attachment to traditional restaurant seating procedures, informed us there was a small table in the back. Our table bordered the busy thoroughfare used by the staff and while this may have bothered some, it allowed us a firsthand view of the orders being brought forth out of the clanging kitchen. A few minutes later, the table behind us left and we were able to snuggle into a cozy, two-person booth right next to the fireplace. Our server was a no-nonsense, middle-aged dude with tatted arms and a thick, Ditka-esque accent; and whose way of asking if B. wanted a refill on his beer was to nudge the mug with his knuckles and raise his eyebrows.

The menu was slightly off-putting to me at first, as it was limited and filled with things like fried clam strips and fried oysters and other manner of breaded sea dwellers. Luckily, the specials board informed us that there was an Alaskan King crab and snow crab leg combo basket available, which instantly caught my eye. B. ordered six blue point oysters as our appetizer and they arrived at our table almost instantly. These oysters were meaty things, each rugged shell half was filled with a mouthful of briny oyster and the entire plate came with a tiny paper cup of horseradishy cocktail sauce and two lemon slices. B. chose to suck the oysters straight from the shell after a squirt of lemon and a dab of sauce, whereas I used my tiny fork to dislodge the meat from its shell. I slopped on blobs of the horseradish sauce and nearly drained the lemon of its juice to make a delicious little oyster soup of sorts before scooping it out with my fork. They tasted unbelievably fresh and juicy, with only a slightly brackish tang at the back end.

Our crab legs came in a big plastic basket; giant, steaming, hulking crab legs that dwarfed the basket itself and were served with little ramekins of melted, garlic herbed butter. After digging under the crab legs, a mountain of fries were unearthed, deeper still and there sat slices of toasted bread. It was like the never ending basket of seafood miracles. We instantly went to work on releasing the crab meat from its shell, crunching with our crackers and digging with our tiny forks for every last scrap. Half Shell’s crab legs weren’t any dinky, anemic excuses for crab legs from Red Lobster, no sir. These legs were bursting with meat and boasted a remarkably aromatic and fresh flavor, requiring so much work that for awhile our table fell silent as we focused intently on extracting the tastiest morsels.

Meals like the one at Half Shell are among my favorite kinds of dining experiences. There’s no frills, no pretension, just simple but completely and undeniably delicious food in a laid-back, jovial atmosphere. It’s the perfect place to take a date, or a friend, or your family, or a STRANGER for God’s sake, as long as they can appreciate a basket o’ crab and a cold beer.

The Giving of the Thanks: Part One

Thursday

B. and I were awakened at 5:45 AM by B.’s sister, A., calling my phone. She was outside my building in a cab with her boyfriend M., well-rested and ready to get on with the day. B. and I were still drunk from the night before, and sound asleep when her call came through. “What? Oh, you’re here? Totally, we’re DEFINITELY NOT ASLEEP and we’ll be down in two minutes!”

Our flight was at 8 AM and we showed up a good hour and a half before the boarding time, which is not wholly unusual for me as I was raised to get to the airport hours before takeoff time. Flight’s at 9 AM? Why not get up at 5? Takeoff scheduled for Wednesday?? Sure, let’s all get there on Monday, you know, just to be on the safe side. Getting to the airport obscenely early is just ingrained in my biological makeup at this point, but B.’s family loves cutting it close. Fortunately, B.’s sister had the foresight to account for any potential mob scene that could be taking place at O’Hare on Thanksgiving morning and got us there in plenty of time.

Around 7 AM, I choked down an Egg McMuffin, figuring I should probably eat something to soak up the booze sloshing around in my stomach. That, combined withe the following series of events is what made me–promptly and without fanfare–eject the contents of my stomach not ten minutes after the plane landed in Louisville, Kentucky. The plane we boarded was tiny; one of those deals where there’s two seats on the righthand side and one on the left and tall people have to stoop and crouch down to get to their seats. My hangover was already starting to kick in as the plane took off; the force of it shoving me back into my seat and sending my head reeling. I tried to ignore it as I flipped listlessly through US magazine, trying super hard to care about what kind of queen Kate Middleton will be and what brand of injectable poison Kim Kardashian uses to keep her face looking so delightfully swollen and mask-like.

B. fell asleep almost immediately, leaving me to struggle alone with my impending nausea and splitting headache. I begged the flight attendant for two glasses of water, loaded with ice, and chugged them in quick succession. Nothing. If anything, the icy cold water was making me feel worse. I breathed a sigh of relief when the PA system bing-bonged and the captain announced we were beginning our descent into Louisville. I gazed out the window at the gray clouds, waiting anxiously for a glimpse of land, thinking that if I could just see the ground I might feel better. Again, not thing. We were lost in the clouds, and staring out a window with nothing to look at was intensifying my headache and doing something weird to my eyes; they felt swollen and unable to focus.  This went on for twenty minutes. Twenty minutes. Then, something really special happened. We hit turbulence. Turbulence in a regular-sized plane, with no hangover, is bad enough but still kinda tolerable. Sickening, jolting, floating and then slamming turbulence in a mini-plane with nausea knocking at your throat is a whole different beast. B. slept soundly as I clutched the armrests, practically white-knuckled, alternating between pleading and praying as I tried desperately to find a place to rest my eyes that wouldn’t exacerbate my sickness.

Finally, mercifully, the clouds broke and I saw the ground, the houses, the blessed runway! At this point, I was sweating and I doing that thing where you’re breathing really carefully and swallowing a lot and just basically trying not to die right there on that plane. We shuffled off the plane and into that horrid funhouse of a hallway that always seems slightly tilted and off-angle, where I pretty much ditched everyone else and booked it to the bathroom.

It’s amazing what a good vomit will do for your spirits isn’t it? I felt loads better but was dreading the next leg of our trip: a three-hour car ride to Greenup, Kentucky. A three-hour car ride with me stuffed in the tiny third-row back seat of a Volvo SUV. A three-hour car ride in a car driven by B.’s dad, who believes firmly that making good time is far more important than slowing down from 75 mph to take those hundreds of turns on curvy country backroads. I honestly can’t believe I made it out of that car alive. We arrived at our destination at around 2pm, shaky and pale and nauseous but ready to indulge in Thanksgiving goodness.

Know what the absolute best hangover cure in the world is? Ale 8 ginger ale. I’d never had it before, and learned that its distribution is limited to very specific parts of Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky. It is like a goddamn miracle in a bottle. After a few sips, my stomach felt settled and my head cleared and I finally didn’t feel like curling up under a bed and dying a slow, slow death. I was then taken around the house to be introduced to uncles and aunts and cousins and tiny little babies, all while clutching my bottle of Ale 8 with a death grip. I musta drank me about twelve Ale 8’s.

Gradually, I felt hunger slowly overtake my hangover and realized I hadn’t had a thing to eat since my airport Egg McMuffin earlier that morning. I inspected the growing collection of casserole dishes and bowls and plates that had been placed on the kitchen counter, and was told by B.’s aunt what to expect. There was regular stuffing, oyster stuffing, broccoli and cheese casserole, mashed potatoes with gravy, two kinds of dumplings, ham, turkey, cranberry salad, apples cooked in sugar, baked beans with bacon, and green beans cooked within an inch of their delicious life. Hot fluffy rolls had just been brought out of the oven, and in the dining room there sat an astonishing array of pies. I was ready.

I heaped my plate with steaming stuffings and fluffy mounds of mashed potatoes; slices of turkey and ham and a block of the broccoli casserole. Room was made for two deviled eggs and a roll, a spoonful of dumplings along with a plop of cranberry salad atop the turkey. I was still a bit shaky so I begged off a glass of wine, feeling at this point that a hair of the dog would only serve to worse my already unsteady stomach.

Aside from the ginger ale, I think it’s safe to say that a Thanksgiving feast will work just as well on a hangover. I was satiated almost immediately after my first plate, but went back for more mashed potatoes, this time ladling on the gravy I’d missed the first time around. It was everything you’d want out of a Thanksgiving meal; salty and full of carbs and meat and every sort of comfort food you can dream of. When the meal had petered out, we retired to the den to watch football in a tryptophan haze. I slept sporadically, waking up here and there to snuggle a baby or grab another glass of water.

Around 7 or so, I was about ready for dessert. I was itching to try the chocolate pie I’d seen sitting on the dessert table; it was smooth and creamy-looking with a perfect crust. The pumpkin roll was also tempting me with its ho-ho-like swirls of cream and pumpkin cake. I loaded a plate with a slice of the chocolate pie and a slice of pumpkin roll and retreated back to my spot on the couch. If you’ve never had chocolate pie, readers, then you are missing out on one of the most delightful dessert experiences I’ve ever had. Each bite was soft but slightly dense, infused with chocolate flavor and supported by a flaky, slightly crumbly crust.  The pumpkin roll, iced with frosting and thick as a slice of bread made for a perfect second dessert.

The time came to say our goodbyes for the night, and take off for B.’s cousins house where we’d be staying the weekend.  “Wait til you see breakfast,” everyone kept saying as we were leaving. “Just wait til you see breakfast.”

Beepa da boopa! Boppa de beepa!

That’s my impression of the way Italians talk! Is that rude? Whatever, I have a friend who’s like half Italian so it’s totally cool. Also it’s my way of telling you guys that FDL hit up its first ever Italian restaurant last night! J. sent out an email yesterday to the rest of us, listing all the places we’ve eaten since April of 2009 when this whole project got started. After last night, we’ve been to 17 of Chicago’s finest eateries; running the gamut from chic gastropub to classic Chicago steakhouse. UNreal. I’m so proud!

Last night was the absolute perfect night for a hearty Italian meal, which is precisely what we got at Coco Pazzo. It was cold, it was windy, and Thanksgiving was two days away. We weren’t exactly in the mood for salads, if you catch my drift. Coco Pazzo was J.’s choice, and was decided upon after she had researched and polled and asked around for the best Italian joint in the city. I won’t say this place is the most “authentic”, and the menu is slightly more refined than that of a more rustically-based cuisine. We were seated in a cozy corner of the warmly lit dining room, half-hidden and ensconced by blue velvet curtains. I noticed that our group was pretty much the youngest in the place, save for a family with a kid who was about seven or eight. The rest of the diners were older and finely dressed in suits and business-casuals, chatting quietly over glasses of wine and plates heaped with thinly-sliced prosciutto, olives, and chunks of parmesan.

I think all of us were feeling a bit selfish and decided to forgo our usual sharing of appetizers and entrees, and to be perfectly honest I was slightly relieved that sharing was not required or even encouraged. In general, the sharing of food is something I relish; being able to take a bite of a particularly delicious dish and look around the table, eyes wide, knowing exactly how the rest of the table feels to be enjoying the same experience. Last night though…I just wanted the food all to myself. Bites were had off plates here and there, but our usual free-for-all was more of an every man for himself situation.

It seems to be an established yet unwritten rule of FDL that someone just has to get grilled octopus at some point in the meal. I unselfishly took that burden upon myself and ordered an appetizer of grilled baby octopus served atop a bed of greens, the plate studded with gigantic white beans and fresh olives, served with a thick slice of lemon. J. eyed my plate and made me promise to give her a bite, so unable is she to resist a plate of grilled cephalopod. (Yeah, that’s right. Cephalopod. Look it up.) I requested a smidgen of M.’s duck liver terrine, which was incredibly rich and resembled a cross-section of a giant hot dog in color and shape. Applause to her for finishing the whole slice, which was paired with sweet accompaniments to presumably balance the luxurious texture and taste of the liver. I should mention here that I DID TAKE PICTURES but I used some stupid iPhone app that–for some godforsaken reason–did not SAVE my pictures after taking them. Thanks a lot, Instagram! More like InstaCRAP, am I right?!

Anyhoodle. For awhile now, there has been some deep and insatiable craving inside me for a plate of squid ink pasta. I can’t tell you why, for I’d never actually eaten it, but I kept hearing about it here and there, seeing recipes in cookbooks and magazines…I’ve even gone so far as to poke at a bag of it in the fancy pasta aisle at Treasure Island, wondering what flavor was hidden in those dark and mysterious strands. Lucky me, then, that Coco Pazzo’s menu boasted a squid ink pasta dish served with PEI mussels (also yum), calamari, zucchini, tomatoes, and a chili-infused marinara sauce. I mean, could you just die? Doesn’t that sound heavenly?

I had always imagined that squid ink pasta would somehow be imbued with a fishy, sea-like taste; so inseparable in my mind are the ideas of squid and sea. After my first bite, though, I could tell that the majority of any such flavor came mostly from the mussels and the calamari rather than from the pasta, which by itself tasted salty and even a little bit sweet. I needed no extra salt or pepper, and the only extraneous condiment added to the meal was a light sprinkling of freshly-shaved parmesan. We rounded out our dinner with two bottles of red wine, no dessert. Dessert would just be far too much, we simply couldn’t. I’d say we made out like bandits, seeing as we managed to get out of there without spending over $60 a person. Blammo! Nailed it.

Our next round will be my choice, and I’m hoping to finagle a way in to Grant Achatz’s new spot, Next, which is speculated to open sometime in the next month or so.

Happy Thanksgiving y’all.