Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy Harbor Country!

We decided to take the kids away again for a few days as a part of their Christmas gift. This year we chose Harbor Country. We've been many, many times but never in the winter. It seemed like the ideal place to hole up, play games, read, experience the winter beach and watch movies together.

In the 20's and 30's this area was a huge vacation destination for Chicagoans in need of escape. The well-to-do gathered here for the beach, picnicing and typical summer fun. We stayed at the Paradise Villa. Could the name be any kitchier? I love this place. When we approach the sign, it gives me chills thinking of what this was 70 or so years ago. A sucker for history, I close my eyes and envision children running, tinny jazz, fires burning and giggling girls headed to the beach in wool bathing costumes.

Paradise Villa is set up in three vertical rows, if you will. On the left a row of cottages, the middle a path and tall pines and then to the right another row of cottages. You walk to the beach with pines soaring above, brightly colored cottages all around and the sound of the crashing waves of Lake Michigan. It's a quick walk and suddenly you find yourself at the top of the steps to the beach.

Here is "our" cottage at Paradise Villa.

A perennial classic, The Stray Dog. We've been coming here since before they expanded and when you never saw a Stray Dog shirt walking by.

The Red Arrow Roadhouse, another favorite. We were there Monday for half price ribs, as was everyone else in town. Good food with a little more finesse. I had a great salad with roasted sweet potatoes and we always order the Homemade Blue Cheese Chips. I think we are going to try to re-create the chips at home this weekend. I think we can make them even better.

Drier's Butcher Shop, open since the Civil War. A must-stop for ham salad and liverwurst. Doug loves the meat sticks and Henry eyed up the sausages.

His nose is pressed to the glass of the vintage case in hopes of scoring his own summer sausage, hand tied with butcher's twine. BTW, he did get a sausage.

Froehlich's I love for a lot of reasons. A dilapidated old building saved and a food business born. Sandwiches, coffee and a line of jams, jellies and relishes canned on sight. I love that.

I want to do that.

We all had a lovely time away. Trips to our favorite haunts, our favorite beef stew and a great big breakfast, lots of games and many books read. It was pretty much picking up and moving our home to someplace else without the urge to take down decorations or begin new year's projects. I think that's exactly why we like it some much.

And after all, isn't home wherever the pile of shoes by the front door is?

Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Family Cookie Exchange

I love cookie exchanges. I've only been to one but I thought it was great fun and have always wanted to host one. This was to be my year. I made plans, mentioned it to a few friends and at some point, told Jake. His response was, "will there be kids for us to hang out with?" Well, at that point, I had no choice but to shift gears and make it a family cookie exchange. After all, Christmas is for the kids.

A save the date email (that for some served as an invitation...the best laid plans) preceded invitations printed on cute paper from the dollar bin and a party was on. Each family was asked to bring a dozen or two cookies for exchanging at the end of the night.

Our offerings were simple. Chex Mix and homemade pimento cheese spread with crackers and celery. Our childhood classics.

Pots of chili. Doug's family-style red and THE BEST green tomatillo chili EVER. Both received four star reviews. He does make the best chili. Jack and Cheddar cheeses, sour cream and some Fritos for topping. I also made a small batch of mini corn muffins.

I draped our dining table with "eco-snow" and set out some empty platters for cookies brought by guests. I can't imagine forgetting I had those cute snowflake cutters! The bowl of (gasp) grocery store marshmallows was purely decorative. They seem festive and "snowy".

A Cocoa Bar made with Alton Brown's recipe and lots of fun accompaniments. Whipped cream, homemade marshmallows, mini chocolate chips, candy canes, cinnamon sticks, peanut butter cups........

To drink, apple cider for the kids and a tasty ginger berry cocktail for the grown-ups.

And, of course, the centerpiece of the evening, the many beautiful cookies brought by friends to share.

We had almost 50 people attend our little party and our hope is that they had as much fun as we did. It was so nice to actually accomplish a festive merry-making event for my children to remember fondly.

I can't wait to do it all over again next year!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Let It Snow!

Happy Day After Christmas! The perfect day to stay inside, play with new toys, watch new movies and read new books! Enjoy!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve On Prairie Street

A busy Christmas Eve day began in the kitchen....

Preparing Christmas Brunch...

Crafting to kill time....

Packaging gifts for neighbors. Butterscotch Caramels, Marshmallows and Layered Peppermint Bark.

Stamping a few more tags...

Baking everyone's favorite...


Fooling around...

Delivering gifts...

Checking out the ice...

Ready for bed...

Merry Christmas To All And To All A Good Night!

Baked Mustard Fruit Compote
I use canned fruit once a year in this Marcia Adams recipe. A staple to my Christmas Brunch table, even if Max and I are the only ones crazy about it. I usually use dried cranberries but because my french toast recipe uses them, I opted for the cherries used in the original recipe. It really needs the color. I make this the night before and fold the bananas in right before putting it in the oven

1) 8oz. can pineapple, undrained
1) 15oz. can each, pears and peaches, sliced
2 bananas
1/2 cup dried glaceed cherries or dried cranberries
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup butter, melted
1 1/2 T. dijon mustard

Drain pineapple, reserving juice. Toss bananas in pineapple juice and then drain. Combine all fruit into 1 1/2 quart baking dish. Combine remaining ingredients in a small saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until smooth and bubbly. Pour over fruit and toss gently to coat.

Bake uncoverd, at 325 degrees for 25-30 minutes.

Allow to cool about 15 minutes and serve.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Christmas Milk - It Does a Body Good...

Years ago, I received a wonderful Christmas gift from a good friend. A bottle of a special family recipe, Christmas Milk. I immediately fell in love with it and she was kind enough to refill the bottle. No, I am really not a lush but it's soooo tasty on the rocks. Equally wonderful in weekend coffee but of course, not in your travel mug while you drop the kids off at school. Not that I know anyone that completely accidentally did that on the first day back to school after winter break....I'm just saying.

Just looking at the bowl you know it's good. Rich and creamy, a bit of vodka scented with almond and vanilla. The ingredients are whisked together and it's ready to bottle.

I usually save neat bottles for these gifts throughout the year. Any clamp top bottle is really cool or a tall thin ice wine bottle. Although I love to upcycle, my presentation of choice this year is Weck juice jars. They come in three sizes but I opted for the smallest 8oz. size. They remind me of little milk bottles - get it? So clever.

I happened across some paper straws in several magazines this year and thought they would be the perfect addition to this gift. (get it? so clever) The deal of the season at $1 a box. Of course, I had to contemplate how many I wanted. I mean $1 a box, I hated to go all crazy and spend $10 if I didn't need to. You know where this is going, right? Of course, they sold out, even the boxes from another source for $3. If they had been $5 a box I probably would have bought 10 without thinking, but a good deal like that...well, that needed some mulling over. I was completely annoyed with myself, to the point of distraction for a day or two. Now I am over it....sort of.

Here is the finished project (ahem, sans straws) and I think it's cute. I rubber stamped the front of the tag and handwritten notes on the back.

Now here is the bad part. I was given the recipe on the grounds that I not share it with anyone. However, all is not lost. If you're in the neighborhood, stop by. I'm sure I'll have extra bottles and will even put a splash into your coffee.

It just can't be in a travel mug.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Feliz Navidad!

Doug took last Friday off so we could finish up the kids' Christmas shopping. We took the opportunity to give ourselves a gift, lunch out and alone at our favorite Mexican restaurant, Bien Trucha, in Geneva.

Newly expanded, it was still packed at lunch and after a 20 minute wait we were debating what to eat while munching on homemade chips and pinto beans with chipotle and garlic. The Negra Modelo was nice, too.
On our last date day we went to Frontera Grill and had a fabulous meal. My only disappointment was not ordering the ceviche. Not wanting to make the same mistake twice, the tilapia ceviche with lime, olive oil, serrano, tomato and onion was the highlight of my meal. I may even order it as my meal the next time. The presentation was beautiful and the portion surprisingly large.

Ancho-guajillo marinated pork tacos. Delicious and made more perfect with pineapple and a squeeze of lime were next.

When we ate here last we ordered the Bien Trucha skirt steak taco. Here Doug dives in to the Arrachera with avocado, caramelized onions and tomatillo-serrano salsa. We love tomatillos and they made these tacos even better.

We also had the grilled corn with epazote-butter and lemon aioli. I may have to eat a bowl of this with my ceviche next time. We tried the white rice with poblano cubers, sour cream and chihuahua cheese, too. It was Doug's least favorite dish, but I thought it's creaminess was a nice counterpoint to the spice.

I'd like to think that date day will become a quarterly event but certianly a Christmas tradition. There are so many restaurants to try maybe in the new year, we'll try a new place or ethnicity.

Or maybe not.

Feliz Navidad!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Thanks Jack!

Old Man Winter officially arrived this week. Just in case we had forgotten this is Chicago with the relatively "balmy" temps, he arrived with a vengeance.

I like to think I am one to make lemonade from life's lemons. So, while the wind whistled in and the heat flew out of our remaining single pane windows, I took a few moments to snaps some photos of Jack's work.

As a child a visit from Jack Frost was a thrill. As an adult, I wish I had better windows.

It is beautiful though, isn't it?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Snow Falls on Prairie

Today the first real snow arrived on Prairie Street. Henry was beside himself last night in anticipation and the older kids were crossing their fingers for a snow day.

This was the view through the screen door or shall I say storm door. (ok, actually from the porch). Henry and Ella at work, Henry no doubt acting as foreman. Jake desperately trying to avoid being nailed by Max's incoming snowball. Needless to say, they were having a wonderful time, even if they were supposed to be shoveling. Who am I to stop their fun?

Here she is, our yellow house, dressed for the holidays and softly dusted with snow. Doesn't she look lovely? We have a perfect roof line for icicle lights and for years have hung them on the upper and lower roofs. Last year, after discovering that brand new lights, from the year before, had died, we decided we were done with lights. The expense is not as much of an issue as is throwing yards and yards of lights into the landfill is. This year we opted for garland with hand-me down lights and wreaths in all the windows. Will the green police come if I admit the garlands are fresh?

At the estate sale of a neighbor lady in our first neighborhood, I was able to purchase an old pair of skates. I've always wanted a pair to have on the porch through winter and was pleased to give these a home. The cute wooden folding chair I found on a curb.

Finally, the snow imps that were supposed to be working, eating the first snowballs of the season. Lights in the landfill, the killing of trees and small children eating snow. I think the green police will be arriving any minute. At least I'll earn points for estate sale-ing and garbage picking, right?

Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Lotta Crostata(s)

I think one of the best things to happen to the home baker is the crostata. Essentially an open face pie, sort of resembling a tart. It's an ace in the hole, "oh, you shouldn't have gone to the trouble" dessert that leaves you smiling, accepting complements while thinking, "gee, it took about 5 minutes"

A single or double recipe of pie dough is all you need to throw together a beautiful dessert at a moments notice. Sounds easy, but but pie dough? Takes practice, right? Don't worry, I have you covered.

A simple pie crust filled with the fruit filling of your choice. Sometimes as easy as slicing up a bunch of apples, tossing in a little brown sugar and spices before piling it high in the center of a crust and dotting with a bits of butter.

Other times you can utilize a recipe that requires a bit more time and ingredients. The above is an almond paste that I recently tried....

...for a beautiful fig crostata. (thank you Martha) Slightly nutty with the sweet almost grape-y essence of black mission figs.

(gratuitous fig shot)

This pie dough recipe changed my pie making experiences and you should really try it. It's a Williams-Sonoma recipe, that I've changed a bit. It suggests rolling the dough as soon as it's mixed together. Not having super chilled dough makes it easy to roll out. Sometimes I'll roll it out and freeze it on a 12" or 14"cake circle well wrapped with plastic so I have them when the mood strikes. If you want a round larger than 12" you'll want to double the recipe and have pie scraps left. Yummy with cinnamon sugar. If you have the freezer space go ahead and set the dough into your pie plate and crimp the edges. Let the frozen dough thaw in the fridge and proceed with your recipe.

Basic Pie Dough
1 1⁄4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 Tbs. sugar
1⁄4 tsp. salt

8 Tbs. (1 stick) cold unsalted butter (stick it in the freezer for awhile)

3 Tbs. very cold water (I use the fridge water and add a few ice cubes, depending upon how dry your flour is you may need to slowly add more a teaspoon or so at a time)

To make the dough by hand, in a large bowl, stir together the flour, sugar and salt. Using the large holes on a box grater grate the butter directly into the flour mixture. Rub together with your fingers until the texture resembles coarse cornmeal, with butter pieces no larger than small peas. Add the water and mix just until the dough pulls together. It may appear a bit shaggy still but that's okay.

Dump the dough onto a lightly floured work surface, and gently pat into a ball and flatten into a disk. (Although many dough recipes call for chilling the dough at this point, this dough should be rolled out immediately for the best results.) Lightly flour the work surface, then flatten the disks with a rolling pin. Lift the dough and give it a quarter turn. Lightly dust the top of the dough or the rolling pin with flour as needed, then roll out into a round at least 12 inches in diameter and about 1/8 inch thick. Makes enough dough for one 9-inch single-crust pie or one 10-inch crostata.

Proceed with the recipe of your choice.

Friday, December 4, 2009

By George, I Think She's (finally) Got It!

I am super excited. I've been working on developing my own business. Business is a daunting word. Being the simple girl that I am maybe endeavor is better. Or just doing what I love. I love to cook, entertain and feed people. I love to host and take care. I also love to play with kids, read, knit, be crafty, garden, etc, etc, etc, so it should be no surprise it's taken me a while - a long while - to come to this. nourish, is the name of this endeavor and "teaching you to feed those you love" is my goal.

I've been working toward this for a long time, teaching many classes, doing many demos and an occasional private classes. My goal was to find a place to teach consistently which would allow me to do my own thing.

By the grace of some wonderful people I met through the green market, I've found a home and sent out my first class schedule a few weeks back. The first class, Easy Kitchen Gifts was held on Tuesday and was tons of fun. I was blessed with a great group of participants that were receptive to the many ideas I shared and, I hope, left inspired.

I really enjoy making food gifts and have done it for years. I had an abundance of ideas and up until that afternoon was putting little treats together. Above is a jar of Spiced Plum Jam that I made in September. I topped it with a scrap paper and adorned with a vintage sticker and paper ribbon. I knew the total score of a box of vintage paper goodies would come in handy. Isn't it adorable. I think it was my favorite gift, at least aesthetically.

A cute take out box from the dollar store (i think), filled with Layered Peppermint Crunch. A layer of peppermint ganache between peppermint topped white chocolate make this even better - and more habit forming. Another score, green velvet Martha ribbon for 50 cents and a bit of greenery finished the box.

This by far, was the hit of the evening. Rosemary-Orange Salt uses basic ingredients with stellar results. Warmed salt, fennel and peppercorns are infused with orange zest. Rubbed on a pork loin or to flavored roasted vegetables. I used a recycled jar and made a label with my trusty rubber stamps. Teeny, tiny roasted potatoes skewered and dipped in the finely ground salt made a tasty hors d'oeuvre.

There was also a great Balsamic Cranberry Drizzle, Joy the Baker's Salted Cocoa Roasted Nuts and fruit liqueurs and brandied fruit and......

So many ideas and things to share. I think I've found what I love and it only took 40 years.

Rosemary-Orange Salt

1 cup coarse sea salt
2 T. fresh rosemary leaves
1 t. black peppercorns
1 t. fennel seeds
Zest of 6 oranges

In a saute pan, combine the salt, rosemary, peppercorns and fennel seeds over medium-high heat and cook, shaking the pan gently, for 2-3 minutes, or until the pan gets hot and the salt and fennel seeds begin to crackle.

Remove the pan from the heat, add the orange zest, and toss with the salt or until the pan begins to cool.

Spread the salt over a dry baking shet and set aside to cool completely.

Transfer small batches of the salt mixutre to a mortar. Using a pestle, crush to the consistency you prefer. Alternately, grind the salt mixture in a spice grinder or a coffee mill reserved for spices.

Store the salt in an airtight container, in a cool place for up to 4 months.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Olive Project: Weeks 1-2

There is this great chain of Italian markets in the far western suburbs of Chicago called Caputo's. It's THE place to go for all things Italian, Boar's Head meats, deli goodies and great produce inexpensively. For me, one of the best parts of Caputo's is that you can find quantity of items you don't find in a regular market. Last year, I bought a flat of figs and made Ginger Fig Jam that was adored by anyone whom had it pass their lips. I saw fresh olives then too, but was unsure how to brine them so I only bought a few handfuls and put them in a vintage pottery bowl. The looked pretty cool at least.

A few weeks ago, it's probably overdue by now, I cam across Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It at the library. When the book first came and hit the shelves at Williams-Sonoma, I was sure that I needed to have it. Upon further inspection, I realized I had done many of the projects in the book already and couldn't spare the shelf space. However, never one to pass up a cookbook free for the borrowing I checked it out, and brought it home to read in depth and take a few "notes" before returning it. (who wouldn't want to make HOMEMADE pop tarts?)

This year, when fresh olives came into season, I was prepared and went to Caputo's in search of quantity.

I had hoped for both green and black but the green were out of stock. I picked up three pounds with plans to go back for green. Of course, I have yet to make it back and am afraid, I may be too late. I am not sure of the variety but as you can see in the photo, they are what I would consider colossal. Some of them even looked a bit like plums.

The olives need to be cut, top to bottom, as the pit runs with a sharp knife. The brining, obviously just amounts to dissolving kosher salt and water, and submerging the olives.

Here they are in one of my favorite, great big bowls. It's a good thing I like it since it'll be sitting on the counter for six weeks. (I wish I could think of somewhere else to put it.) I set two supper-sized glass plates on top to keep them submerged. This allowed me to check them out like water mammals at the zoo, that is until the water clouded and scum started to form. No cause for alarm, this is a natural part of the process though and in truth isn't as gross as it sounds or looks for that matter.

Here they are at one week. At first they started to get that rosy hue jarred black olives have, then they started to get mottled. They look like I added some bleach to the water and are really quite ugly. They are beginning to smell like brined black olives though - beauty is only skin deep? in the eye of the beholder? - that remains to be seen.

I have 4 more weeks to wait at which time, I plan to jar them with a bit of brine and olive oil and flavor them a few different ways - chili pepper, lemon rind, garlic and so on.

I'll keep you posted as this project progresses. If we're lucky we'll have one hell of an antipasti party.

I'll send you an invite!