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We have just returned from a whirlwind visit to Chicago to spend time with my sister and her fiance and have a number of exciting items to report on. First of all, who knew that Chicago is quite the foodie haven? There are food trucks, farm-to-tables, and many other exciting gastronomic delights. Secondly, early November in the windy city is remarkably bearable. Third, when the great suppliers of the MTA ticketing stations also manufacture for the Chicago Transit Authority, you’re bound to see some familiar infrastructure. Go public transportation!

But back to point number one… We spent the weekend gorging ourselves on some of Chicago’s finest and have lived to tell the tale. Below are a few key recommendations from our visit. Keep in mind that all reviews are based on one visit only.

Giordano’s — fairly standard deep-dish pizza with a long wait and cheeky decor. This is a Chicago staple, but we were hoping for better.

Big Bowl — the biggest surprise hit of our trip. This restaurant was equal parts Chinese and Thai and remarkably good at both and with a strong emphasis on fresh vegetables. We ordered a hot and sour soup with freshy made tofu (I haven’t had hot and sour soup as good as this outside of the Pacific Rim), a green curry with a plethora of vegetables, and Kung Pow chicken with baby spinach and chard. There was also a stir fry bar where one could select from an extensive assortment of vegetables and sauces. Further, there was a table of an older Chinese family at the restaurant, so we knew it was legit!

Cafe Iberico — among the best seafood either of us have had. It was a pretty  no-frills tapas place with extensive seating upstairs. (A key difference between Chicago and New York is the enormity of space available and the frequency of midwesterners!) We went as a party of six and ordered one paella, 8 tapas, and a pitcher of sangria. The most adventurous item in our order was noodles with scallops and snails. The snails were perfect.

Al’s Beef – another Chicago staple. We ordered a Polish sausage that came in a poppy seed bun with relish, onions, and mustard, and an Italian beef sandwich on a soggy baguette. Though the soggy baguette was supposed to be part of the charm, and even considered desirable, as bread snobs, we were a bit underwhelmed. These were some of the best fries we have had though, and I am sure Upton would roll in his grave if we came to Chicago and did not have encased meat.

Signature Room — Having done these high end cocktails from the top floor of very tall buildings only twice, I will say our experience in Shanghai was heads and shoulders above what the Hancock Tower had to offer. The drinks were fine, we paid what we expected, but the lines were out of control. Yes, a line to enter the elevator, a line to enter the bar from the elevator, and a line to return down in the elevator. They didn’t rush us once we got there (part of the reason why the lines were so long, perhaps) and the view was incredible, but I don’t think I would recommend this as a must-do for a first-time visit to Chicago. But like many people have mentioned to me, should you decide to do this, the view from the ladies’ room is the best.

Cumin — This was one of the best Indian restaurants we have been to (and Michelen rated). They market themselves as being Nepalese and Indian, which may be a bit disingenuous as the only item on the lunch buffet that was new to us was a Nepalese style goat stew. Everything else looked fairly standard Indian (though very good). The restaurant was in the neighborhood that we stayed in, Wicker Park, which is sort of a Chicago version of Brooklyn. It was very hip and cool with some high end retailers, some graffiti, and a good amount of attitude.

Buzz — This was among the snootier (read: better) coffee shops I have been to which has pour over coffee and tasting notes on a dozen varieties of beans. We ordered a cappuccino which was fantastic and a pour-over yirgacheffe.

If we had more time, there were a number of other restaurants we were hoping to try — Purple Pig (wine, swine, and cheese), Mindy’s Hot Chocolate (James Beard outstanding pastry chef award winning), The Peasantry (elevated street food), Saigon Sisters (home of a fabulous banh mi), and others. If you have a chance to visit Chicago, do pass along other recommendations. Overall, we had a fabulous time and will look forward to the next visit!

P&P and Greg & I are now on our fourth straight year of celebrating annual squash fests! These fests are a celebration of all things fall and is easily one of our favorite autumnal traditions. They started the year that we began dating our now-husbands — that first year involved transporting an assortment of colorful varieties from the farmers’ market in Morningside Heights across state borders to our long-distance boyfriends in Connecticut. The second year involved a novice attempt at spaghetti squash; the third year was a bit forgettable but we think it was in Willington; and now, the fourth year.

This fourth year of squash celebration has been truly spectacular. Now that I’m done with school and life has calmed down a bit, we’ve prioritized seeing P&P every fortnight or so, and every gathering has yielded a thrilling outdoor activity and some exciting inclusion of squash. Today we saluted the last of the apples at Lyman’s and finished the evening off with some roasted barley-stuffed pumpkins.

I imagine these pumpkins can be stuffed with just about anything and can be made savory or sweet. For a savory version, we used barley, which can easily be replaced with rice or wheat berries or millet or any other variety of grain. Instead of red swiss chard, one could substitute in cooked beans or zucchini or other cooked vegetables. For a sweet version, some coconut flakes and cubed apples could be a delicious alternative.

Roasted Barley-Stuffed Pumpkins

2 sugar pumpkins
1 c pearled barley, pre-cooked
1 onion
3 cloves garlic
1/2 bunch of leafy greens
1 can diced tomatoes
8 oz cheddar, cubed
Cayenne pepper, cinnamon, crushed red pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Slice off the top 1 1/2 inches of the pumpkins and discard. Scoop out the seeds and stringy pulp.

Saute the onion and garlic until the onion is slightly tender and translucent. Stir in the greens and salt and cook, stirring until the greens are slightly tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and cooked barley, about 2 minutes. Add cheese. Put the pumpkins in a 9-by-13-inch baking dish and fill evenly with the barley mixture.

Add 1 inch of boiling water to the baking dish. Cover loosely with foil and bake until the pumpkins are tender, about 1 hour, 15 minutes. Let cool 5 minutes, then serve.

Original recipe here.

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds, Two Ways

Pumpkin seeds and olive oil

Cayenne pepper
Habanero salt
Oregano
Cracked black pepper

Cardamom, freshly ground
Holiday black tea leaves, crushed
Sea salt

Preheat oven to 375 F. Rinse pumpkin seeds and combine in a bowl with a drizzle of olive oil and desired seasonings. Mix well. Spread in one flat surface on a baking sheet. Roast for 10-12 minutes, stirring at least once. All seasonings are to taste.  Careful not to burn!

Recent research shows that psychological well-being peaks at 7 portions of vegetables per day. This relationship is documented in three datasets, covering approximately 80,000 randomly selected British people,  for seven measures of well-being (life satisfaction, WEMWBS mental well-being, GHQ mental disorders, self-reported health, happiness, nervousness, and feeling low). Original paper here.

In honor of this new finding, we’re sharing here a broccoli rabe recipe created by the one, the fabulous Megan. This is a girl who wants her wedding bouquet to comprise a stalk of brussel sprouts and some cruciferous florets, and I’m sure she’ll be tickled to know that a plate of broccoli rabe she made for us back in August is now finally featured here.

Be forewarned, broccoli rabe has a very strong flavor. Few greens are as hearty and bitter, but like any other sturdy green, these are extremely healthy. It comes packed with Vitamins K, A, and C and has a high percentage of folate, iron, and calcium as well.

Sautéed Broccoli Rabe with Garlic 
1-1.5 lbs broccoli rabe
several cloves garlic
olive oil
shaved parmesan or romano
salt and pepper, and red pepper optional

In large sauté pan heat a few tablespoons olive oil, then add chopped garlic.  Add sprigs of broccoli rabe enough to fill the pan but not to over crowd.  Add a little water and salt and cooked covered for about 3-5 minutes, turning part way.  (Adding some lemon juice may also be desirable as a way to cut the bitterness.) Broccoli will still be crisp when done, but the flowers will have wilted.  Add pepper, remove from pan, and repeat with remaining broccoli rabe.  Top with shaved cheese at the end.

I made this for lunch for my mom when she visited in August.  We had saved a hunk of pancetta for her visit but after calculating the meals we had planned out, using the pancetta was looking unlikely–until I realized our need for a light lunch.  Ironic but true, pancetta would be the star of this light meal.

The dressing has a strong, smoky flavor (even though pancetta is not smoked).  Sturdy romaine is ideal, both for its texture and its light flavor.  Adding croutons or caramelized onions might put this salad over the top, but the simple recipe is enough on its own.

Pancetta Vinaigrette
~2oz pancetta, cubed tiny
~1 tsp mustard
~1 tsp balsamic vinegar

Over medium heat cook pancetta.  When cooked, turn heat to low to continue to render the fat.  Transfer pancetta and fat to a heat-safe bowl.  Whisk in mustard and vinegar.  Thin with oil if necessary.  Of course, you can be creative with what you add to the pancetta.

Fall is upon us here in Connecticut, and we are entering into the most magical time of year in the Nutmeg State. This weekend, Greg and I took a long drive on our way to the annual Celtic Festival in Hartford, and the display of foliage was just spectacular.  The Celtic Festival featured a  “weight over bar” event in the Highland Games and samples of traditional Welsh cookies.  If the two namesake festivals are any indication, we learned that Celtic and Asian cultures differ tremendously.

We have a surfeit of overripe bananas on our counter these days, and smittenkitchen just posted a new “crackly” banana bread recipe a few days ago. Though I have my long-standing go-to banana bread recipe, the raw millet added in this version caught my fancy. Millet is one of the staple grains around the world, but in the U.S. is primarily used as birdseed. The protein content of millet is roughly equivalent to that of wheat four, and it has a nice fluffy texture that is similar to that of couscous.

I made a number of adjustments to the smittenkitchen version of this recipe. First, I eliminated all additional sugars. The recipe called for brown sugar and maple syrup, but bananas are really sweet enough on their own. Additionally, after seeing this horrifying infograph recently, I decided we don’t really need to contribute to our lifetime intake of processed sugar.

The other big adjustment is that in place of whole wheat flour, I used a homemade almond-oat flour.Wheat flour is delicious and inexpensive, but we’ve found that almond-oat flour just adds a nice touch of extra flavor and nutrients. 1 part almonds, 2 part oats — grind it up in a food processor or Magic Bullet or blender, until it is finely ground. A few small chunks of almonds may remain, and for most baking purposes, a bit of extra crunch is nice.

Our version also is a bit more heavily spiced than smittenkitchen’s. I can also envision this being delicious with some ground cardamom or dark chocolate chunks. Enjoy!

Crackly Banana Bread (original from Smitten Kitchen)

3 large ripe-to-over-ripe bananas
1 large egg
1/3 cup melted butter or oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon table salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon freshly ground cloves
1 teaspoon freshly ground allspice
1 1/2 cups almond-oat flour
1/4 cup uncooked millet

Preheat your oven to 350°F and butter a 9×5-inch loaf pan. In the bottom of a large bowl, mash bananas with a potato masher or the back of a wooden spoon until virtually smooth but a few tiny lumps remain. Whisk in egg, then oil, brown sugar and syrup. Sprinkle baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves over mixture and stir until combined. Stir in flour until just combined, then millet.

Pour mixture into prepared pan and bake until a tester comes out clean, about 40 to 50 minutes. Cool loaf in pan on rack.

Lentils have always been a staple for us. During Greg’s first year of graduate school, before we were married, his work week sustenance consisted almost entirely of brown rice and lentils. High in fiber and magnesium, and easy on the wallet, this was a quintessential “poor man’s food”, and delicious to top it all off.

Since then, our lentil repertoire has evolved quite a bit. We add red lentils to soups or stews for extra depth, creaminess, and nutrition without interfering with flavor. (Fun fact, red lentils somehow complement the flavor of roasted tomato soup!) Brown lentils, the cheapest option, are slightly meatier and, unlike their red cousins, hold their shape much better when cooked.  We often cook them up in soups and stews with a melange of vegetables — carrots, eggplant, kale.

Recently we saw French lentils on sale for roughly the price of standard brown lentils.  They are earthier and have a beautiful, delicate black and green color.  Technically, these lentils are called “green lentils” because true French lentils, or puy lentils, come from the region of Le Puy.  This below cooking method seemed most appropriate, whether the lentils were actually from France or not.

Red Wine Braised Lentils
4-6 large carrots
4-6 stalks celery
1 large onion
2-4 garlic cloves
1 quart chicken stock
~1 cup red wine
2 cups dry lentils (brown or green)
salt to taste

Soak lentils in advance.  They will plump to about 4 cups.  Dice vegetables.  In large pot or dutch oven, saute onion with salt over medium heat.  When translucent and beginning to brown, add garlic, celery, and carrot, salt again, and continue to cook (covered is fine) until soft.  Add wine and let alcohol burn away.  Add stock and lentils and simmer, covered, until lentils are tender. Season with salt and pepper.

You could add other sturdy vegetables as well, like fennel or potatoes.  Tomatoes would be another good addition.  We served ours topped with greek yogurt and paprika.  The yogurt was for creaminess and to cool it down.  The paprika was just for vanity.

When Greg and I were dating in New York, we used to have a number of ingredient-themed dinner parties for select guests and roommates. New York was great for this, where dinner parties weren’t just dinner parties but adventures into exquisite new foods, and Fairway (the mecca of foodies) was just a few blocks away. There was a squash night, a duck night, and an ill-fated artichoke night.

The artichoke-themed dinner party was a disaster, and the only edible dish was a soy-based artichoke dip which used jarred artichokes. The roasted artichoke hearts were prickly with an uninspired dipping sauce, the steamed artichokes were bland, and the artichoke pasta was only acceptable because we used artichokes from a jar. I distinctly remember FDS (a former roommate and unlucky guest) cautiously nibbling away at the outer peels, uncertain of which pieces were to be discarded and which pieces to be consumed. We swore off fresh artichokes that night. (That said, FDS seemed to enjoy everything we made.)

Three years later, perched atop the reduced-price produce rack at Stop and Shop, was a box full of baby artichokes. There were easily 20 of them, for only $1.99, and our inner adventurers just couldn’t resist.  This time fresh artichokes delivered.

Sauteed Baby Artichokes and Tomatoes

~20 baby artichokes
12-15 cherry or grape tomatoes
grated hard cheese to taste

Prepare the artichokes by peeling off all of the outer layers until you reach the soft pale yellow inside. Be liberal in your discarding, as any ambiguous pieces will likely be too tough to eat. Save the outer peels for broth (see below).Quarter the artichoke hearts, and immediately place in a large bowl of water with lemon juice. This will keep the artichoke hearts from browning before cooking–this happens fast.

When all of the artichoke hearts have been prepared, heat a large skillet with 2 T of butter and some oil. When the butter has melted and the pan is hot, drain the artichokes, and toss them and the tomatoes into the skillet. Season liberally with salt, cover and let simmer.  Check often, stir often, and taste often (for doneness, of course!).  When the artichokes look/taste mostly done (you’ll know because they are soft), add crushed red pepper, and lemon juice. When the tomatoes are blistered, they are done.

Serve with freshly ground black pepper and a sprinkle of hard cheese (e.g. pecorino romano, parmesan, etc.) This can also be served with pasta or garnished with basil or oregano.

Artichoke Broth

Discarded outer artichoke peels
6 c water
2 bay leaves

Homemade vegetable broth is one of the easiest things to make, significantly cheaper than store-bought varieties, and contain all known ingredients and nothing processed. We regularly make a big stock pot full, store in 1-qt containers, and freeze until ready for use. It can be used as a base for other soups and curries or as a special addition to quinoa or rice.

We made artichoke broth the same way we make regular broth — bring all ingredients to a boil, salt liberally, and let simmer for some time. The longer it cooks, the more flavorful it is. We were in a rush to make some quinoa with dinner so we cooked it for only 20 minutes or so, but even that was enough to lend a nice artichoke-y flavor to the quinoa.

If you don’t have artichokes, you can use an onion, a few carrots, and a few stalks of celery instead. Typically, we store the outer onion layers, carrot peels, and the inner parts of celery in the freezer until we are ready to make stock. We typically use the carcass of a rotisserie chicken as well, which does add extra flavor, but vegetable stock is just as good. The key thing to remember is, pre-packaged broth is never as good as homemade!

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