Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Pork Burger Dinner Party!

As part of what we hope becomes a monthly-or-so occurrence, and as repayment for such a delightful dinner, Nicole and I made dinner for Norm and Katie a few weeks ago. The food was delicious, the drinks refreshing, and the company out of this world.

The menu was simple: sage and rosemary pork burgers, apple slaw, and sweet potato fries with grown up Californias to wash it all down. Simple, but delicious twists on the ever classic burger-n-fry combo.

Here’s how it all comes together:

Before any cooking can get underway, it’s important to stoke the fires of creativity and hunger with a cool refreshing cocktail. Katie and Norm brought the mixings to make an adult variation on the popular Swenson’s libation known as the California. Swenson’s, a popular Akron-area drive-in burger chain makes theirs out of ginger ale, grape juice, and a lemon wedge. We made ours like this:
Fill a highball glass with ice, pour in 1½-2oz of grape vodka (they brought Skyy). Fill remainder of glass with ginger ale and garnish with a slice of lemon.

This is basically a fun, fruity take on a buck or mule, the classic combination of liquor, ginger ale, and citrus. While the grape flavor dominates the concoction, the spicy hints of ginger and the tart bite of the lemon bring balance and depth to the drink. The perfect sipper when standing around a hot grill.

As a side dish we whipped up some “perfect oven sweet potato fries.” I’ve tried similar recipes to this before but this time they actually turned out the way I hoped they would. We started with 2 medium-large sized sweet potatoes which I skinned and chopped into even sized pieces. Or at least as even as I could. I then arranged the potato bits on a cookie sheet and drizzled olive oil over them and tossed to coat all sides. Once they were sufficiently coated I seasoned them with salt and pepper. All set and ready to go I placed them in an oven pre-heated to 450. The baked for 15 minutes the first time before being removed, flipped and baked again for about seven minutes. The recipe called for a 15 then ten minute term in the oven, but after the first 15 things were well on their way so we shortened the second cook time to prevent total charification. The finished product was slightly overdone in a few spots but basically yielded fries that were crisp and toasty on the outside, soft and sweet on the inside. About as good as they get without a deep fryer. We served these with sriracha and a sauce of Nicole’s invention made from sour cream, cinnamon, and brown sugar. Sweet and spicy with that excellent acrid funk from the sour cream, this was the perfect dip for these fried beauties.

The main course came courtesy of a recipe Nicole found in Self magazine. Pork burgers seasoned with thyme and sage, topped with spinach, chive “mayo,” and apple slaw sounded great on paper, seemed easy enough, too, but could we pull it off at home? Totally. Everything was easy to find and assemble, but the results were far beyond anything we expected.

For the burgers: combine ½ pound each of lean ground beef and pork with a tablespoon of chopped fresh rosemary and a tablespoon of sage, also chopped fresh, and season with a healthy pinch of salt (about ¼ teaspoon). Since we were feeding five of us and two members of the dining party have removed beef from their diet we subbed more pork in for the beef and doubled all ingredients. This yielded 6 1/3 pound burgers that cooked for about 15 minutes total over both direct and indirect heat.

For the “mayo”: combine 2 tablespoons of chopped, fresh chives with ½ cup of low- or non-fat sour cream. Season liberally with salt and pepper, stirring to combine.

For the slaw: peel and core 3 firm, ripe green apples, ours were Granny Smith. Grate the apples on the widest side of a box grater. Place apples in a bowl and dress with olive oil, 2 teaspoons; lemon juice, 1 teaspoon; and salt, another healthy pinch or two in the ¼ teaspoon neighborhood. Toss ingredients to combine and let sit for flavors to marry.

Once the burgers are finished place them on buns and top with the slaw, “mayo,” and plenty of spinach. Serve with fries and icy cold Californias for a great evening meal.

I managed to cook the burgers perfectly, I’d alternately over and under done things the last few times I’d manned the grill, but this was the confidence boost I needed to get back behind the flipper. Well seared and marked on the outside, just lightly pink, hot, and juicy on the inside. The sage/rosemary combination added muscle and earthiness to the sweet pig flesh and played well with the excellent smokey grill taste. The tangy bite of chives and sour cream added some fattiness to the dish and accompanied the sweet/sour dynamic of the apple slaw perfectly. While the delicate taste of the spinach was all but lost in this complex, flavorful burger, the texture of the crisp green leaves was exactly what this otherwise soft palate meal needed.

It’s unfortunately rare to create something so perfect in the comfort of one’s own swelteringly hot kitchen, but when it happens, especially in the company of friends, it’s truly one of life’s greatest pleasures.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

South of the Border con El Castigador del Hígado

The season premiere of Mad Men aired this past Sunday and we celebrated with a little get together and hors d’oeuvres buffet. The snacks were simple: chips, dip, snack mix, cheese and crackers, etc. Nothing fancy or mind blowing just fun and filling and easy to share.

BUT! We drank well. Very well. Guests, Paul and Alicia, contributed a six pack of Dundee’s Summer Wheat ale. A crisp, refreshing, golden hoppy wheat beer that I’m sure was had at a price that belied its tastiness. My offering to the party was a pitcher of sangria.

I’ve mixed and tested numerous batches of the red stuff over the years. It’s a great summer libation, perfect with Spanish or Mexican dishes, of course, but also excellent with summer grill fare or on its own before dinner. Plus it’s one of the easiest ways to treat you and guests to a delicious, refreshing beverage.

Having tasted a few variations of the drink I think I’ve found the perfect version. It’s simple, flavorful, and, best of all, not loaded down with fruit salad. (A quick aside: I understand the concept of “eating with your eyes.” That presentation is important. But when did it become acceptable practice to scrimp on the drink by filling glasses with soggy fruit. I know the old song and dance about how “the fruit absorbs the booze and then you eat it and it gets you drunk.” But I call bull shit. Save for porous apples and melons fruits have skins designed to keep fruit juice in and foreign liquids out so a whole, skin on grape is going to absorb next to nothing. Besides, good fruit is so full of liquid already, somewhere between 70 and 80% that there’s little to no room for it to absorb booze. At best alcohol soluble essential oils and fruit juice will leach into the punch/sangria/hairy buffalo adding some depth of flavor—although it will likely be imperceptible in the presence of high proof grain alcohol and Froot Punch Kool-Aid—but any loss of liquid from the fruit or break down of pectin due to prolonged soaking will make the fruit limp and unpleasant. Using frozen melon balls in lieu of ice cubes for some drinks is fine, topping a cocktail with a fruit salad is not. Ever. Thank you.) and now back to our regularly scheduled food blog posting...

Anywhoozle, the recipe, gleaned from the beverage section of a favorite Mexican/South American cookbook of mine, goes a little something like this:


1 bottle (750mL) red wine

½ cup orange juice

½ cup brandy

¼ cup super fine (castor) sugar

Juice of 2 limes


Mix all ingredients in a large pitcher. Refrigerate for at least two hours. Serve over ice with garnish of lemon slices.


For this party I used a shiraz, but any mostly dry red will due. I’ve had good luck with cabernet sauvignon in the past, pino noir is good, too, but merlot may be too dry in most cases. Don’t be tempted to use a sweet red as Sangria is a drink of checks and balances. The drier, spicier, sometimes bitter notes of dry reds are essential to the balance of the drink. Besides you’re going to be adding sugar and orange juice. This is a cold, mixed drink so the quality of wine isn’t urgent, but it should be something you’d be willing to drink on its own. I used Barefoot, about $6 per bottle, but I wouldn’t go a whole lot cheaper, unless you can find Crane Lake. If you don’t have castor sugar, a super finely ground that dissolves easily in water, fear not! Either give regular table sugar a spin in the food processor until finely ground OR make up a 1:1 simple syrup by heating ¼ cup sugar and ¼ cup water until completely dissolved. Some recipes call for triple sec, a sweet orange flavored liqueur, but sangrias made with triple sec are often too sweet, if you don’t have brandy—a type of distilled wine—and must use triple sec leave out the sugar. Using the juice of one and a half lemons or one lime and one lemon are acceptable variations. I like to garnish with lemon slices as the yellow peel contrasts nicely with the deep, purple-y/red color of the sangria.

Oh, and if it ain’t red wine it ain’t sangria. A perfectly nice wine punch or spritzer or whatever can be made with whites or blushes, but the name of the drink is sangria. As in sangre, as in the Spanish for blood. Unless you have some sort of horrible blood disease I’m assuming that your sangre is as rojo as mine.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Liver Punisher: Chicago War Journal: Operation Pitchfork Part 2

We awoke Saturday morning reasonably well rested and ready for action. We decided that the best course of action would be to make our way to the festival via breakfast. We began our trek with a vague idea of where we were headed. When we arrived at the corner of West Chicago and North Damen it was decided that breakfast would be had at the Sunrise Café. Simply decorated to the point of non-décor, the Sunrise is every café, diner, or greasy spoon you’ve ever been to. The menu is simple and to the point, focusing on burgers, sandwiches, and breakfasts served all day. Shortie ordered a BL, a BLT minus the T, while Nicole and I opted for breakfast. Figuring I probably wouldn’t be eating again until at least 10pm I knew it had to be a solid meal. At the same time I didn’t want to spend the whole day, lumbering around in the sun with a belly full of lead. Therefore I opted out of the Smokey Mountain Eggs, a Barnyard Buster of sorts that piles all that is good and right about breakfast on a plate and then douses it in sausage gravy. Plus bonus bacon! It sounded as delicious as it was a bad idea for the coming day. Instead I chose an omelet and filled it with Gouda and sausage. The Gouda was rich and buttery, the sausage lightly spiced, but the eggs were a little over cooked. I guess better over than under, but not by much. Still, generally tasty and good fuel for the coming day. My dish also came with a side of hash browns and wheat toast. The has browns were golden crispy on the outside, soft and potato-y inside, just like they should be, and a perfect vehicle for a little ketchup and hot sauce. Nicole’s breakfast was less satisfactory, so I’m told. I tend to believe it was as the eggs in her Florentine were mostly over poached, still a little runny gold in the center, but the yolks look mostly set. I didn’t try any of it, but reports indicated a fair-at-best Hollandaise, as well. I doff my cap to Sunrise for attempting to class things up with a dish like Eggs Florentine, A-for-effort, but it seemed like the follow through was in the C to C- neighborhood. Of course, maybe I’m just a spoiled brat during breakfast since I’ve been dining on Vine and Bean and Inn on Coventry these past few months.

Fed and ready for action we walked the rest of the way to the fest and wandered about. We caught the closing tracks from Spanish electro marvels Delorean and most of the Bright-Eyes-meets-Hold-Steady anthems of Titus Andronicus before moseying over to the Flatstock poster fair. A village of tents had been erected just outside the vendors’ area for Flatstock merchants to display their wares. Their offerings? Just some of the coolest concert posters ever created. There were art styles to meet every taste and just about every band imaginable. Highlights from Flatstock: the adorable minimalism of Stackmatic, the sketchy abstraction of Landland, and the brilliant simplicity of the Small Stakes. My big score, and (small) boost to the local economy, was a foam beer cozy from the Cleveland/NYC collaboration the Bubble Process, hot pink ghosts on black foam kept my drinks cold and me looking cool (photo to come soon!). Already feeling hot and parched having guzzled our water on arrival we scored a few Arnold Palmers in the “Big-Ass” size from the Chicago Diner food stand. A little sweet, a little sour, and a lot refreshing, AP hits the spot, every time. A few among us also took this opportunity to grab a bite, which included Julie’s veggie corndog, the Chicago Diner is known for its vegetarian and vegan interpretations of classic diner fare, and Brooke’s soy ice cream. The corndog, topped with a vegan cheese-like sauce was tepidly received, while the faux ice cream was more popular amongst those who accepted the offer for a taste. Me, I’ve never had a pleasant experience with soy ice cream so I passed, Nicole said it tasted like frozen butter. Sufficiently rehydrated we investigated the grungy glam of the Smith Westerns and the crowd murdering Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, still awesome after all these years. Wolf Parade would later jam eclectic and Panda Bear provided the perfect hazy soundtrack to the muggy evening. Finally LCD Soundsystem grabbed the reins on the main stage and brought the crowd to rolling boil before closing the night with a gorgeous, blaring version of Sound of Silver closer, “New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down.” We considered our asses rocked.

Next stop on this balmy Saturday evening was the Bottom Lounge for yet another birthday celebration. The walk to West Lake, near North Ogden, was relatively quick and Bottom Lounge, as well as Mark’s birthday area, was well stocked with patrons and well wishers. While waiting for a much desired seat I forged my way to the bar and eventually got the attention of the bartender. I placed my order and coughed up only to watch her deposit my change directly into the tip jar. What. The. Fuck! In no time or place or world or ever is this an even remotely acceptable practice. I was gladly going to tip her when she brought my change, it was, essentially hers, but to just take it? To assume that it was hers? It’s tantamount to theft, albeit petty, but theft is theft. For the rest of the night I opted to not order beers from the bar, lord knows what else might’ve been stolen from me, and ordered instead from our waitress and the lady selling beers out of a large bin upstairs, but we’ll get to that. Once we found some stools to park our weary bodies in we ordered some food from Bottom Lounge’s small menu. Julie and Nicole decided to share a grilled cheese sandwich and some fries, I got some pita and hummus. Despite the hurried atmosphere in the bar our food arrived quickly. Unfortunately it wasn’t fantastic. My pita was soft and tender, a plus, but the hummus was overly lemony, with citrus obliterating any of the nuttiness of the chick peas, creaminess of the tahini, or any trace of herb or spice, while the cucumbers that arrived in the basket were lifeless and limp. The bite I had of Nicole’s grilled cheese half was filled with bland, soggy bread and chemically cheese. The only bright spot was the fries. Perfectly fried and seasoned with garlic and parmesan it gave me hope that at lease one person in the Bottom Lounge kitchen knew what they were doing. With a little food in us we were able to try to enjoy our company, but it was difficult due to the throngs of people in the bar. This was due in part to its proximity to the festival as well as the fact that it was hosting the big post-Pitchfork concert which was a rare Cap’n Jazz reunion. All these factors considered it was still just too crowded, so we decided to get some air on Bottom Lounge’s rooftop patio. On our way out we stopped a bought a round from a lady sitting on a stool in front of what must surely have been an animal watering trough full of ice selling beers and trading Pitchfork drink tickets for shots, not a bad idea. Out on the patio things weren’t much better, instead of being surrounded on all sides in the air conditioned bar, we were surrounded and back in the evening heat. Despite the crowd we were able to enjoy a little fresh air and a stunning view of the city skyline. When we’d had enough we wandered back down to the first floor bar and bid farewell to the birthday boy.

The night was young yet and while we were walking back to Shortie’s we decided to take a brief detour to meet her and Maureen at the High Dive. What began as something I thought to be a reasonable walk turned what felt like an epic hike across this city, however this might have just been my exhaustion talking. When we arrived we discovered no Saturday drink specials to match Thursday’s and grabbed a round of bourbon and gingerales. Seeking rest our weary feet again we sat down with Mo and Shorite and a few others when suddenly food arrived. Shortie had ordered some of High Dive’s chicken wings and a basket of fries. Once again, the fries were beautifully executed, crisp outsides and flakey delicious centers, perfectly fried by someone who knows their way around a frymatic. The wings on the other hand were… interesting. I was told that High Dive Starts their wings by par-frying them then tossing them in sauce and finishing them on the grill for that smokey char and some sexy grill lines. The resulting meat is tasty, fried fattiness, smoked grilly-ness, and tangy sauciness. But the multi stage cooking process, especially something as dry as the grill, wrung most of the moisture from the already dry wings. Good flavor and bad texture do not great wings make. The bright side to this, however, was the triumphant, albeit somewhat misplaced, side sauce. A soy and wasabi mayo came with the wings and, when I dipped a fry in, revealed itself to be wonderfully rich and perfectly salty with just the right amount of tingle in the sinus from the wasabi. Like the man said: “Two out of three ain’t bad.”

After three days of hard eating and hard partying we were starting to feel the wear and tear, so a little extra sleeping in was in store. Eventually rousing from our slumber, Nicole and I set out on a search for brunch. We originally planned on meeting some friends at a restaurant, but were cut short when they texted us letting us know that said restaurant no longer serves breakfast. Bummer. Undaunted and across the street from our second choice spot we crossed the street and put our names on the wait list for Earwax. This oddly named, carnival side-show themed eatery was busy enough for a Sunday morning but we were seated quickly. We parsed the menu while sipping some of their delicious, fresh brewed coffee. One of the better cups I had on this outing, Earwax boasts a strong, full bodied joe with smokey aftertastes, and a pleasantly bitter twang. A little cream and just a touch of sugar and it was just about the best thing a body can drink first thing in the morning. Earwax’s menu is smallish, but strong, with plenty of great sandwiches and breakfast served all day. Being a dyed-in-the-wool breakfast aficionado I was all over their bevy of choices finally selecting their breakfast burrito. Nicole was also feeling the burrito vibe and ordered the barbequed seitan burrito. Earwax’s menu skews towards the veggie/healthy end of the spectrum and, in fact, the menu reminded a bit of Cleveland’s own Tommy’s. Anyways, food arrived in good time despite the fact that they were constantly busy and we tucked in. My burrito was massive, filled with scrambled eggs, cheddar, refried beans and avocado. With a side of potatoes, salsa, and sour cream, this was a champ-worthy breakfast for sure. The eggs were perfectly cooked, light and fluffy, but firm enough to stay in place while eating. The beans and cheese added some meatiness and body to the wrap, but the avocados were oddly scattered. I’d eaten about a quarter before I found even a hint of green and then bam, a huge pocket, my only real complaint with my breakfast and it’s a minor one. The potatoes were well seasoned and beautifully fried and extra tasty with some hot sauce mixed with the sour cream and salsa. Come to think of it that mixture was a bit of alright on the burrito, too. Nicole’s “barbequed” seitan burrito was pretty tasty as well, but Earwax seems to be playing pretty loose with the term “barbeque.” In my mind barbeque means one of three things: (1) meat that’s cooked low and slow in order to enhance texture and flavor, (2) more loosely, anything that’s been cooked on a grill, or (3) something with barbeque sauce on it. Earwax’s burrito fell into none of these categories. The seitan had more of a southwest/Mexican flavor; the beans and rice inside certainly backed this up, as did the chips, salsa, and sour cream that accompanied her brunch. While I am wasting too much time on the semantics of nomenclature here, I am not saying it wasn’t delicious which it was, just improperly marked.

With some serious gut fuel to get us through the last day of the festival we made a short detour to Shortie’s before heading to the park as we had been soaked in a sudden downpour on the way to brunch. Dryly attired and amply sun screened we wandered over to the park. We arrived in time to catch a portion of Lightning Bolt’s set. Unfortunately the Brians’ blown-out sonic extremism didn’t translate from skuzzy house show to massive P.A. A lot of Gibson’s calculated racket was translated into a bland din post-mixing board, and all but one of Chippendale’s drums and cymbals were making any sort of impact. Surfer Blood and St. Vincent, on the other hand, sounded perfectly crisp and clear. Vincent especially shone on the middle stage combining her perfectly crafted pop with live guitar shredding and noisy, arrhythmic breakdowns that, as if by magic, reshaped into her shimmery, esoteric jamz. After the long, dreary, dancehall pastiche of Major Lazer, we forged our way into the fray to snag a decent locale for the impending Pavement-ing. Just a few yards right of the main stage sound booth and about 100 from the stage we felt pretty confident in our vantage. After a thoroughly rousing performance from Out Kast’s Big Boi, a couple Heineken Lights—the surprisingly drinkable sponsor beer at Pitchfork this year, not fantastic, but as easy drinking as any other major brand light beer— and soft pretzels with tangy beer cheese from the Berghoff food stand—totally awesome!—it was Pavement time. The band took the stage in a properly shambolic way that brought to mind Bevis and Butthead’s infamous Pavement jab that these guys aren’t trying hard enough. The power quintet ripped their way through an excellent set of mid-album rockers and a few slow jamz, reaching back to Slanted and Enchanted just twice—“Two States” and “Fame Throwa”—with “Spit on a Stranger” the only representative of Terror Twilight. But the set list mattered little as I would’ve been happy to hear them play Wowee Zowee b-sides for the hour.

We and the other thousands of lucky souls trudged out of the park and towards some destination or another. Ours was the quest for a bus and food. Packed like sardines in what I’m sure was a safety violation of some sort on the blue line, we headed back towards Bucktown and Ukranian Village in the hopes of scoring pizza and beer from Piece Pizzeria and Brewery. But our dreams were dashed upon arrival when we were informed that the kitchen was closed. The pizza place next door had recently been cleaned out, presumably by throngs of hungry concert goers, so we moved on to plan “C.” Appropriate since our third option was Cleo’s. A ten minute walk brought us to our destination and a large table where we tried our best to devour all the cheese in the joint. Cheese cubes and fried mac’n’cheese appetizers were the opening salvo followed by a full cheese blitzkrieg. There were pizzas of all flavor and stripe, a few quesadillas, and, of course, cheese burgers. Nicole and I kept things simple with a pepperoni pizza and some fried cheddar cheese cubes. The cubes were excellent--how could battered, fried cheese not be--and the pizza was, well, pizza. Homemade dough, a zesty tomato sauce, good cheese, and a healthy sprinkle of pepperoni; all well executed and delicious, but nothing terribly new or mind blowing. Other dining companions were a little more adventurous, the buffalo chicken pizza smelled amazing and the bite or two I had from the barbeque chicken quesadilla was excellent. The real food winner of the night, however, was the bacon bleu pizza. Homemade dough again served as the base, but instead of regular tomato sauce Cleo’s subs in a tangier, heavily herbed tomato sauce. The whole thing is then covered in bacon and smothered in sweet, funky bleu cheese. I only had a small piece, but wow. Wow.

Feeling sufficiently refueled those of us that didn’t have to work the next morning, or simply didn’t care, walked across the street to the Map Room. Map Room is one of my favorite Chicago watering holes. The walls are covered with, you guessed it, maps; maps of all types, variety, and age, as well as numerous shelves of National Geographic. The beer selection is ample as it is impressive, more than two dozen draughts, a huge bottle list, and a hand pumped, casked beer. The selection leans towards the fruitier, more malty Belgian beers and domestic sympathizers, but there’s plenty of room for hops in the Map Room rotation, too. I opted for the hand pulled Arcadia IPA and received and imperial pint, 20oz, of hoppy, smooth beer goodness. Not as bitter or robust as say a Sierra Nevada or its ilk, the Arcadia variation had a nutty, brown color and at times was reminiscent of New Castle. At least when it first hits the tongue, the after taste is pure IPA citrus/pine goodness. Hand pulling from the cask gives the beer a smoother mouth feel, not as carbonated as a bottled or traditionally drafted beer, the beer engine makes for a creamy texture which is fantastic, but creates a strange disconnect between taste and texture when drinking hand pulled IPAs. Nicole’s choice was the Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye. Dark and hoppy the Hop Rod tastes of IPA when if first goes in, but has a wonderful dry, spicy finish from the rye with which it is made. And at 8% ABV it packs a pretty good kick. After round one we discussed another and decided that we were on vacation, damnit, and we would drink beer all night if we so chose. And we did! Round two found me with a Boulder Beer Company Cold Hop English Style Ale. Golden, wheaty in color this interesting brew boasts a great floral nose and some serious fruity flavors followed by a great hoppy sting and an oddly buttery/fatty aftertaste and mouth feel. Delicious and refreshing, like a more complex variation on Boddington’s Pub Ale. Nicole, perhaps at the recommendation of the beer list, Chose the Goldbräu by Stiegl, due to it being “perfect for warmer weather.” A light, crisp German lager this would be an ideal beer to sip before, during, and/or after mowing the lawn or most any other summer activity. Refreshing to max and served in one of the coolest pilsners I’ve ever seen. The one curious aspect of this otherwise simple beer was the aftertaste. While we both agreed it was quite literally corny, Nicole felt it tasted of Fritos while I thought it was more along the lines of corn tortillas. Tasty but odd. Our cravings for late night food and drink well sated we departed the Map Room at last call and staggered back to Shortie’s one last time.

It was a bittersweet morning when we woke on Monday. On one hand glad to be headed for home, on the other sad to leave so many wonderful people and places behind. We packed up our, now very sweaty, belongings and loaded up the car. But the six hour drive ahead of us demanded a solid farewell brunch. After a little debate over where to eat and what may or may not be open on a Monday afternoon we decided on late-night Lakeview beacon, the Pick Me Up Café. Just a few blocks stumbling distance from MLB’s most iconic stadium, the Pick Me Up is a 24 hour espresso bar and diner serving up a variety of traditional diner fare with veggie and vegan twists—if you find yourself in Lakeview in need of some serious late night munchables I can’t recommend the veggie chili and vegan, that’s right, mac’n’cheeze! We drifted the few blocks from Bucktown to Lakeview with Nicole offering her one-woman tour of Chicago along the way and found an amazing, albeit expensive, parking spot in front of our diner. We seated ourselves at a table decorated with images of the Sesame Street crew made from food. For starters I grabbed a huge mug of PMU’s excellent coffee. Strong, flavorful, scorching hot, this cuppa was a fitting farewell to all the great coffee that can be had in Chi-tonw ( Nicole’s Americano, espresso and hot water, was also excellent. I suppose none of this should be surprising since it is an espresso bar, but still good coffee is good coffee and I believe in giving credit where credit is due. The menu at Pick Me Up is a well curated selection of breakfast/lunch/dinner options in, as I said, the diner vein with a healthy/meat free twist. In what is an occasional twist for me I strayed from the egg route and ordered a plate of PMU’s “famous” Kahlua pancakes and a side of home fries. For Nicole: the New Yorker, a base of potatoes, peppers, onions, pesto and goat cheese topped with two eggs of your choosing. She chose scrambled. We lazily worked the Chicago Reader’s crossword puzzle and sipped our drinks while waiting for our food. Pick Me Up takes a pretty relaxed approach to most things so it wasn’t a surprise that we had a bit of wait, but it was well worth it when food arrived. My pancakes’ dark brown hue reflected the rich, dark liqueur that flavored them and were dusted with powdered sugar and (too much) cinnamon. Smeared with a little butter and a splash of syrup, they were delicious. Perfectly cooked on the griddle, the pancakes had a firm outer ring and a soft cake-like interior. They were perfectly sweet on their own and boasted an essence or hint of Kahlua, like a memory of the drink, thankfully, and not a shot in every bite. The potatoes were a little on the soft side but well seasoned and cooked with red and green pepper bits and a few onions, much improved with a few shakes of hot sauce and some of Heinz’ finest. Nicole seemed to have won the breakfast lottery this time, her plate was heaped with firm, well cooked potatoes, bright hunks of pepper and onion, creamy mounds of goat cheese, and a vibrant green pesto, bursting with the flavor of fresh basil, and topped with some perfectly scrambled eggs. For whatever reason her potatoes were cooked better than mine, with a much better texture, and I’m filing away the idea of a goat cheese and caramelized onion omelet topped with fresh pesto for later. Yum to the maxxx!

With the crossword mostly completed, our third of forth cuppa polished off, stomachs well plied we got some gas and water before getting back on the road. The drive home on a Monday afternoon was also pretty easy, a little more traffic than a late Wednesday evening, but no traffic jams or long lines on the expressway, just smooth sailing. We stopped a few times for coffee and other pit stops, but basically made it home without issue. Road weary and famished upon our arrival we bandied around some dinner ideas, the short walk to Aladdin’s at Surrey and Cedar was a front runner before settling on an overlooked gem in Cleveland’s ever expanding food crown: Richie Chan’s. Located just west of the Cedar/Lee intersection, Chan’s is easy to miss with all the glitz and glamour just up the road, but it shouldn’t be missed. Primarily a carry out, there are a few tables available, Chan’s is run by a middle aged couple we’ve dubbed “Mr. and Mrs. Chan.” She takes the orders then barks them at him, he cooks them up, she packs them and dishes out the goods. While the menu at Richie Chan’s appears at first/second/hundredth glance to be pretty standard, the food is vastly superior to almost any I’ve ever had, save for maybe a few meals in New York’s Chinatown and the always surprising Yangtze on Chardon’s square. Chan’s General Tso’s Chicken is unlike any I’ve ever had, sweet, spicy, and loaded with ginger. Their wonton soup should be the standard to which all others are held, buttery, meaty broth, delicate wontons, and sumptuous roast pork; it’s a rare visit that we don’t leave without a quart. And the egg rolls are not to be missed, crisp and fresh tasting in both veggie and shrimp incarnations. My order that night, and my “usual” is the cashew pork. Loaded with carrots, peas, corn, and mushrooms and peppered with savory thin sliced pork it is utterly simple and wildly delicious on its own but doesn’t mind being perked up with some spicy mustard or sriracha. Nicole scored some veggie lo mein which was so straight forward and compact that it belied its simple intrinsic deliciousness; also excellent with a few dashes of the spicy stuff.

An epically entertaining trip to and from the Midway, full of great food, excellent drink, and, most importantly, wonderful people. I can’t wait for my next opportunity to eat and drink my way through one of my favorite cities on the planet.

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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Liver Punisher: Chicago War Journal: Operation Pitchfork Part 1

It was Pitchfork season again last weekend so with tickets in hand and bags packed, Nicole and I made that not-at-all-short-but-not-too-long drive to Chicago for three days of out door music, sun, and, of course, binge eating!

We left late Wednesday night and arrived early Thursday morning. Despite the late hour of the drive we made excellent time and encountered no traffic on any of the turnpikes, the Sky Way, or the Dan Ryan Expressway. Not ideal driving time, I know, but not having to deal with anyone else on the road was nice. Of course this trek required fuel for both drive and car so we slurped down coffee and noshed on sandwiches, everything bagels with horseradish cheese, salami, and stadium mustard—yum!—and Planter’s salt-n-pepper cashews, tasty but nothing notable (try s+p pistachios for a delicious nut that will knock a new ass in your taste hole!)

Exhausted but glad to be there, we both crashed upon arrival in the City of Big Shoulders—due to a dearth of breeze this past weekend I will reserve all “Windy City” references for later, cooler posts. After some serious sleeping in, at least on my part, and a relaxing morning of reading Jeffery Steingarten’s The Man Who Ate Everything, which is probably the best book ever written about food, we made our first of many dining excursions.

We kicked things off right in Chicago by visiting one of the most esteemed culinary outposts in a city crammed to the gills with good eats: Hot Doug’s. Hot Doug’s Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium has been a dream food destination of mine for several years now, ever since Justin began extolling the merits of their countless varieties of house made sausages. In fact I’d heard so much about how great Hot Doug’s was that I, briefly, began to doubt weather it could be that good. Any doubt I had was obliterated when we arrived and took our places in line. I understand that on some days, especially Fridays and Saturdays when fries cooked in the culinary gold known as duck fat are on the menu, the wait for some encased meat can reach the two-hour mark, but we made it out of the heat and into the a/c in about half an hour. Not a bad wait, all things considered. But the wait was the easy part. Once we were inside I had to figure out what I wanted to eat. I’d been thinking about this moment for so long I felt like Ralphy when he finally gets to see Santa in A Christmas Story. I was blanking! Here I was about to face Doug himself and I had no idea what I was even doing there! I took a few deep breaths and asked Nicole what she would be having while I took a more composed glance at the menus. At first I was focused mainly on the special menu which features items like the Foie Gras and Sauternes Duck Sausage with Truffle Aioli, Foie Gras Mousse, and Fleur de Sel, or a “Damn Spicy” pork sausage with Chipotle Dijonnaise and Habenero Jack Cheese called the Atomic Bomb. Where else in the world could you ever hope to find sausages so esoterically designed and lovingly created? Surely they must be mine! But then there was the standard menu chock full of simpler, but no less delicious sounding, encased meat fare. The Keira Knightly Fire Dog and Salma Hayek andouille sausage each sounded appealing for a variety of reasons. As did the Elvis, a smoked Polish sausage and maybe the only Elvis referencing food item in the world that does not feature peanut butter and banana. The Marty Allen, beef, pork and garlic was tempting for sure, so was the Pete Shelley if for no other reason than a veggie dog in a self-described “Encased Meat Emporium” has to be something worth trying once. In the end I think I chose wisely, opting for: The Paul Kelly: a beer soaked bratwurst that is grilled and split bilaterally. I had it topped with tangy mustard and caramelized onions. As well as the smoked and spicy alligator sausage topped with shrimp remoulade and fontina cheese.

Nicole also chose from the special menu and picked up a Sonoran Dog: a jalapeno and cheddar beef dog with jalapeno mayo, jalapeno bacon, pinto beans, tomatoes, and onions with a small order of HD’s hand-cut fries and a dish of cheese sauce for dipping.

I can only describe this dining experience as incredible. The food is perfect. The Paul Kelly was flavorful, tender with a good crunchy casing and the mustard/onion combo provided a little sweetness and a little spice. Everything a brat should be, and more. My gator sausage was huge, dangling off the ends of the bun. It was spicy and smokey with a delicious garlic and wild-game funk. The spice and game was beautifully foiled by the creamy, fishiness of the remoulade and chunks of fontina. The flavor would best be described as gyro-like, if gyros were made from wild game and had a nice fishy aftertaste. Absolutely wonderful, and it filled me with strength and animal energy eating something that could easily kill and eat me! Nicole’s Sonoran was fantasic as well. It was bright and flavorful despite being so cramjammed with jalapeno. Spicy to be sure, but not overwhelming, it left me wondering: where can I get my own jalapeno bacon? The house made fries were great as well, perfectly cooked with crisp outsides and soft flakey insides, tasting equally of fry-o-later magic and earthy goodness.

Prior to this visit I couldn’t wait to have my Hot Doug’s craving sated and be done with it. But now it’s even stronger! I want to try all the dogs in Doug’s bag of meat tricks as well as the legendary Duck Fat Fries, although I do not feel that my visit was in any way shape or form tarnished by their absence.

Having gorged on Hot Doug’s as a late afternoon lunch Nicole and I returned to Shorties, our unofficial Chicago flop-house, for a little post meal r’n’r. We napped and lounged for a few hours before rinsing off the day’s heat and the previous night’s car ride in preparation for Maureen’s birthday extravaganza. According to Mo, on her last visit to Cleveland, the only time she eats Mexican is on her birthday so I guess it was kind of an honor to be there for this annual occasion. The site of this fiesta was Jose’s, a modest BYOB spot on North Winchester in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village neighborhood. We were told to come prepared so just about every other person in attendance had a bottle of tequila tagging along for the meal as Jose’s will make you a margarita if you bring the hard stuff. We were handed a few Tecate’s on our arrival and ordered a pair of margaritas while settling in with some chips and salsa. The chips were delicious and more than likely homemade, and the salsa had a fres, spicy kick. Things were off to a good start. We put in a few table wide orders for appetizers, a couple plates of guacamole and some queso fundido loaded with roasted Mexican peppers, all excellent. I guess at this point I should come clean on the fact that I was still stuffed from Hot Doug’s and the idea of eating more, even that manna from the gods that is Mexican, seemed like a reasonably to terribly bad idea. But I thought I should at least have something other than chips and dips so when the waiter came around I selected one barbacoa and one al patstor taco. Actually, I originally picked those two meats to fill some soft and tender tamales, but the menu fails to mention that tamales are only available on the weekends, boo-urns. So I checked the taco box on my order instead and waited very patiently to see what kind of room I had left in my food vault. In turned out there was just enough for these two excellent specimens. The barbacoa was tender and beefy with a little spice, a little onion, and a healthy handful of cilantro. The al pastor was porky and delicious but a little over done. While the charred bits on the edges added some great smokey flavor to my “Mexican gyro” the inside was a tad dry. The onion/cilantro/salsa on top helped this matter immensely. The rest of the food on the table looked delicious and huge, so I felt less guilty about not ordering something I probably wouldn’t have finished more than a third of, plus I was still running on Doug’s and gator so I didn’t need much anyways.

Having plied ourselves with Mexican goodies and a handful of margaritas we moved the party just around the block to the High Dive. Located on West Chicago Avenue, between Winchester and Wolcott, the High Dive is an understated little bar with a handful of 4-6 person high-tops, several expansive booths, and a gorgeous bar that is either an antique or a very reasonable facsimile. Every one ordered a round and we toasted Maureen again. Not knowing what the High Dive had to offer I watched another partygoers order that Champagne of Beers and followed suit, just moments before noticing the weekly specials posted way above the bar. Thursday night at the High Dive is $4 Absolut drinks, if only I’d seen that sooner! I contentedly sipped my High Life before switching to the 3 Floyds IPA they had on tap, and what a world of difference! 3 Floyds’ IPA is a strong entry into the category, full of aromatic and bitter hops that lend it that floral bouquet and citrusy aftertaste sought after in most IPAs, rank it right in there with Sierra Nevada for a excellent and fully competent IPA, yardsticks to measure all others against. From there on out I was Moscow Mules for the rest of the night, the sumptuous blend of ginger ale, vodka, and lime is perfectly refreshing on a hot summer night after a long day of eating heavily. I should also note in here that while at High Dive I chanced to try a few swigs of a friend’s New Castle Summer Ale. Tasting somewhere between regular New Castle and a watery IPA, New Castle’s summer ale is tasteless and alternately bland sweet, soggy, and bitter. Avoid this beer at all costs.

Having properly rung in Mo’s b-day on Thursday and with Pitchfork not getting revved up until later on its first day we decided to sleep in for a bit before fueling up for a long day of rocking and quite possibly rolling. When we finally roused ourselves from slumber we wandered around the corner from Shortie’s to Small Bar. There are actually three Small Bars in Chicago, we visited the Division location. Charming and ramshackle, Small Bar exists in a limbo between actual dive-iness and affected dive-iness. Regardless of its actual status as a dive it was welcoming, offered a great beer selection, and is apparently the place to watch soccer in that neighborhood; the walls decorated with Arsenal and United scarves and a huge banner baring a logo similar to that of the Ramones with the word “SOCCER” emblazoned in that blocky, san-serif font. While scanning the menu we discussed the need for some dog hair that morning and finally decided on 3 Floyds Gumballhead for Nicole and I and an Allagash White for Shortie. You may judge if you like, but Gumballhead is so good I offer that it should be nationally instituted as the official beer of breakfast. Wheaty, hoppy, citrusy, and just a little bitter, Gumballhead is as delicious and refreshing as any juice you might slug down in the morning, plus it’s filled with the beer goodness your Q-zone requires so much of. Also, it was about 12:30 or 1:00 when we got there and we were on vacation so, yeah. At any rate, if you’re a fan of Bell’s Oberon and feel it’s unreasonable that such a tasty draught is only available in the summer I recommend moving to 3 Floyds’ distribution area or stock piling 3 Floyds for those long, cold winter months.

With a splash of beer to revive body and soul we were ready to eat. Small Bar offers a brief but solid menu of bar standards: burgers, sandwiches, assorted sides and snacks. Nothing wild and crazy, just good food that tastes better with beer and possibly sports. Having been told to by most everyone I’d encountered the night before, I ordered the pulled pork nachos. For breakfast. Well, brunch I guess given the timing of our meal, but it seemed an odd choice for my first meal of the day. While I got my own order, Shortie and our dining companion Adam opted to split theirs. When they finally arrived I could see why. The nachos arrived in a bowl most restaurants would use to serve a family style pasta dish with a pile of crisp, delicious tortilla chips piled high above the rim. On top was a mound of steamy hot barbequed pork, several generous handfuls of cheese, and a healthy dollop of sour cream. It was big, but I was hungry. Before diving in mouth first I needed to test the waters and so took a healthy bite of nothing but pork. It was good, real good. Slow cooked beautifully, although not smoked, and slathered in a sweet barbeque sauce, a tasty counterpoint to the spicy pork that makes up the Pig Destoyer, Led Zeppelin, and pulled pork fries over at Kuma’s Corner. Kuma’s sauce is a bright, bold, and daring dressing, while Small Bar’s is unctuous and inviting. Coupled with zesty jack and cheddar and supplemented with daubs of sour cream, Small Bar’s pulled pork nachos are a great way to start a long day of outdoor music festival attending. Continuing the theme of appetizer-for-brunch Nicole ordered some of Small Bar’s other infamous app: fried cheese curds. Dipped in a stout based batter and fried, these cheddar curds are as hearty and fun as any mozzarella stick, with the bonus of that sharp cheddar zing. The tangy honey mustard dipping sauce that accompanies the curds was excellent, but I found a few dots of sriracha to be just as tasty an accompaniment.

More than well fed, we departed Small Bar so that Nicole and Shortie could get hair cuts from their favorite trimmer and I roamed the streets of Chicago in search of danger. And by danger I mean comic shops, book stores, and record retailers. My first stop at Brainstorm, a comic book shop and video rental spot that boasts a respectable selection of both despite its limited retail space; I picked up a copy of Doom Patrol volume 2: The Painting That Ate Paris. From there I wandered down the street checking out the local stores as I wandered. When I came to Gallery Café I couldn’t help but venture in. For coffee lovers the world round freshly and expertly roasted beans are a must. Cleveland’s Phoenix Coffee has its own roaster in the city, as does Bowling Green’s Grounds for Thought. But Gallery takes this demand for freshness one step further and roasts their beans on site as they need them, while you might smell more like the inside of a coffee pot after a few minutes in Gallery than you might at other cafés, the funk is well worth it as this is some of the finest coffee I’ve ever sipped. With the mercury speeding ever northward in Chicago I opted for Gallery’s iced coffee. Rich and bold with a splash of cream for color and a reduction in acidity, this was exactly the thing I needed to survive such a heat wave with such a full stomach. My last stop, I never did make it to Reckless, was Quimby’s. One of the finest bookstores in the world, specializing in all the weird and eccentric books other stores tuck away or simply refuse to stock. This is an excellent spot to find everything from the newest graphic novels to local and national `zines to The Anarchist’s Cookbook. There’s a whole section dedicated to the printed materials from and related to McSweeney’s, the art books have their own graffiti subsection, and they proudly sell “gay smut,” their words not mine, in the front section of the store; no beaded curtains or hushed whispers for something behind the counter. I perused their aisles for a long time but was ultimately overcome by choices; I wanted it all, but I got none.

I was soon whisked away for an afternoon of rock’n’roll fun at Pitchfork where I managed to digest away all the pork and chips while enjoying the abrasive post-everything jamz of Liars, the comedy melt-down of Michael Showalter, and the competent execution of Modest Mouse. But all this loud music and a few beers had left me feeling mighty hungry. Post fest we boarded a blue-line bus and made for that beacon of late-night Mexican goodness: Arturo’s. A perennial Chicago favorite of mine, I was introduced to Arturo’s by Nicole on our first visit to the city last September. We’ve been many times since and I knew what I wanted before we even got there. Arturo’s was busy when we arrived but we managed to find two tables to accommodate our eight hungry companions. A double check of the menu showed that they did indeed still serve tacos both barbacoa and al pastor. The quesadilla was not on the menu, but it never is. I overhead some rumbling concerning the al pastor come from our sister table and was struck by a cold sweat. Might I not be able to have my al pastor? Was the spit layered with slabs of seasoned pork and slowly roasted as it spins, like a Mexican gyro, really scraped bare? When the waitress came to take our order my worst fears were confirmed. Yes, they have no al pastor. I scrambled over the menu again looking for a replacement. There is no real replacement for a good taco al pastor, but I decided on a taco carnitas. Spiced, slow cooked pork shoulder that is shredded and tossed in a hot pan for crispy edges and soft, savory centers. Arturo’s does it right and the taco carnitas was excellent. As was the barbacoa, natch, both are served in homemade corn tortillas and garnished simply with a sprinkle of raw onion and cilantro. Arturo’s quesadilla is simplicity and deliciousness defined. Just two of their fantastic corn tortillas filled with soft, white Mexican cheese (queso blanco? Chihuahua? Oaxaca?) and grilled until melty. The perfect late night pick-me-up, Arturo’s gave us the strength for a night cap across the street at the Green Eye Lounge. Dark and loud like a bar should be, the Green Eye Lounge on West Homer seemed a perfect final destination on this long first day of the fest. We sipped a few PBRs while check out the place and its clientele and noticed that from Sunday to Thursday Green Eye offers $5 bourbon and PBR boilermakers, an excellent deal if I do say so myself. Well fed, well beer’d, and all kinds of tired we made for home base to rest up for another long day of fun.

Hot Doug's on Urbanspoon

Arturo's Tacos on Urbanspoon

Friday, July 9, 2010

Blast Off Into July with the Liver Punisher Drink of the Month Club: July Drink of the Month!

It’s a scorcher out there which means it’s time for a cool, refreshing summer drink which means it’s time for the Liver Punisher’s Drink of the Month Club: “Drink of the Month!”

July’s DotM takes me back to my childhood when I’d swill sugar beverages all day long. Before carbs, high fructose corn syrup, and mystery chemicals in food products were more than the remote concern of hippies. As I’ve said before we didn’t have much pop in the house as a lad, but what we did have was plenty of other sugar laden drinks. There were almost always several packs of Hi-C in the fridge, Ecto Cooler, if you please. And some sort of powdered drink mix in the panty.

From a youngerish age than most I was a fan of iced tea. In my current state I find a strong, dark, unsweetened black tea to be one of the more perfect thirst quenchers on the planet, but back then the sweeter the better I would say. Pre-sweetened, lemon flavored ice tea mix was a long time favorite, and then one day my mom brought home a canister of Tang from the grocery store. Mostly sweet with a slightly sour kick, a handful of vitamins, and it mixed up quick in water. I was hooked.

After bouncing back and forth between the two mixes for a while, it dawned on my one day: why not both at the same time. Surely it would work the lemony zing of the tea and faux citrus splash of the Tang? And guess what. It did.

In the spirit of the Black and Tan and the Arnold Palmer I give you the next great 50/50: the John Glenn!

The recipe is simple enough, just mix equal parts Tang and sweetened, lemon flavored ice tea mix together in a vessel of your choosing, stir in cold water until dissolved, and fill with a much ice a you can. The best part about this recipe is that it translates from I used to mix a scoop of each into my water bottle before little league games.

But wait, this is a Liver Punisher endeavor, surely there must be booze involved, yes? Duh.

First up is the Yuri Gagarin:
Add equal parts Tang and iced tea mix to a container. Use three quarters the water normally used to dilute the mixes and make up the rest with hearty Russian vodka, garnish with a twist of lemon and blast off, comrades!

For something a little more Americano try the Neil Armstrong:
Mix up a pitcher of John Glenns, half a gallon or so. Crack open your favorite lawnmower lager, something in a PBR might be nice, but anything in a 12oz. will do. Pour your brew into a pint glass and top with 3-4oz. of John Glenn for a space age twist on the michelada or summer shandy. Use some Yuri Gagarin if you’re really feeling adventurous.

And finally for those looking to really fire things up I offer the Buzz Aldrin:
Into a shaker, pitcher, or other mixing device pour enough 151 proof rum (151 vodka or citrus rum works in a pinch, but the operative word here is “buzz”) for you and your guests—you are making this for more than yourself I hope. Mix in ½ teaspoon of Tang and ½ tsp of iced tea mix per shot of liquor. Dose into shot glasses or serve over the rocks, but beware of black holes after take off!
Just be carful what you do with your Tang when you're not drinking it...,2933,356491,00.html

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Aoeshi Cafe: Cleveland Sushi At Its Finest

Man-oh-Manischewitz did we have some amazing sushi this week!

Tuesday was my last day off this holiday weekend so I tried to make the most of it. I slept in a little, I had myself a workout at the gym, I watched some Battle Star Galactica. All in all a pretty solid day that was capped off with a trip to the pool to take some of the heat out of a hottt day.

But all this activity leaves a body hungry so we started thinking about food options. Burgers were out having just had $5 burger-and-beer specials at the Cedar Lee Pub. It seemed that something lighter and on the healthy side was called for. The idea of Aladdin’s was tossed around until Nicole suggested sushi. As much as I love—love—sushi, I rarely ever think of it as a meal option. Almost never when weighing dinning options will I suggest it, it’s an idea that must be brought to me.

Having decided that sushi was the plan of attack for the evening’s repast we were then stuck with the decision of which restaurant to visit. And with four in the immediate vicinity it was not an easy choice to make. We’d already had a good experience with Ariyoshi on Lee, and I’d had a nice lunch at Tree Country Bistro on Coventry so the quality of half our choices could be vouched for. Pacific East, also on Coventry, has won numerous awards from local papers and is usually pretty busy which suggests that it, too, has merit. But with all this in mind we somehow decided on the mystery fourth contestant: Aoeshi Café.

Located just a few doors down from the Cedar Lee Theater—as well as previously the reviewed Charles Stewart Parnell Pub and Cedar Lee Pub—I’ve walked past this quiet little café numerous times, but never really stopped to notice much more than a sign in one window that simply says “Japanese.” I’ve seen people coming and going from the restaurant, but I’ve never seen it overly crowded, hell, I didn’t even know what the place was called until we got there, it was just “the other sushi place on Lee.” But we’d made our decision to try some place new a ventured on.

When we got in the place there were only two other customers there, seated at the sushi bar (Aoeshi does not seem to serve alcohol) as well as the chef and our server. We seated ourselves and parsed the concise but delicious menu, marking our order on the provided Sushi-Score-Card. Our order looked something like this:
2 pieces yellow fin tuna nigiri
1 piece eel nigiri
1 spicy tuna roll
1 eel and avocado roll
1 flower roll
1 order edamame

The steamy hot edamame appetizer was the first to arrive, almost to hot to handle at first. After a few steamed fingers and a little—very little—patience we began devouring the salty soy beans, popping them from their pods. The only remnants looked like the last reel of an Invasion of the Pod-People-type movie. Already hungry to the maxxx this little snack only primed the pump for the real action.

Our main course arrived quickly, all arranged on a large plate that had been laid out in a simple but elegant manner. The first thing to go was the yellow fin. Light, sweet, a hint of melon like fruitiness, and just the right amount of fishiness. Perfect in just about every way, this was one of the single best pieces of sushi I’ve ever eaten. This piece of fish alone should serve as argument for the consumption of raw fish, that eating raw and cooked are two completely different, albeit equally delicious, dishes. Next I chomped down on a piece of the eel and avocado roll. The eel was perfectly cooked; well balanced between supple and firm, and perfectly seasoned with a sweet and salty, light barbeque-like sauce. The taste of the eel, which is as delicious as eels are creepy, slightly overwhelms the extra subtle avocado, but the lean saltiness of the fish is beautifully complimented by the fattiness of the alligator pear. Next was the flower roll. Comprised of tuna, salmon, and roe this was about as “sushi” as sushi gets. Having had some mixed-at-best experiences with roe (fish eggs, caviar) in the past I was a little nervous about it but as it turns out these were amazing. The lighter, sweeter taste of the tuna was perfectly balanced by the hearty, meatiness of the salmon in the roll, with a slightly crunch, mildly fishy bite from the roe. Nicole then offered me a piece of her spicy tuna roll which was, as she said, one of the weirdest, best STRs she’d ever had. It’s been a while since I’ve had another STR so I can’t pinpoint the difference, but Aoeshi’s was definitely a bit different. It was certainly one of the spiciest STRs I’ve had, with a chili heat that sneaks up on you in the aftertaste then lingers for just long enough.

On a cooking/travel show I was watching one time the host suggested that sushi be eaten the way it is served and that if it were meant to be dressed in anyway the chef would have already done it. I don’t agree 100% with this, but I do make sure to eat a little of everything plain before messing with condiments. So, having tasted a little of everything on the plate unadorned I made a second lap this time with a little soy and wasabi. The already soy seasoned eel/avocado didn’t need a second dunk in soy, but the nasal zing of the wasabi was definitely a welcome addition to this party. The flower roll, which was already excellent, was jazzed up a bit with the spicy green stuff and the soy? Well, what doesn’t benefit from a bit of salt, right? Eaten either way, though, everything we ate was delicious, with Nicole assuring me that her eel nigiri was, indeed, so good.

And then the check came and like woah! was the price right. We were both agreeably full of a lot of delicious, healthy food for less than thirty dollars with tip. It must be the small dining room and staff that lets Aoeshi keep costs down because even the "premium" rolls, like my flower roll, topped out at about $6. Great food and great prices, `nuff said.
But it’s just sushi, right? I mean some raw fish, a little seaweed, and some sticky, vinegary rice, but nothing amazing, right? Wrong. This meal was so good that since Tuesday night every time I get hungry all I can think about is eating that sushi again. I think that’s the mark of a truly great meal. Not just something that fills you up and provides some basic level of nourishment, but something that sticks with you and elicits some sort of response even a few days later. I’ve just finished my lunch, but writing this has set my mouth watering and my stomach quivering with antici…pation of the next visit to Aoeshi.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Adventures With Myself and an Ice Cream Maker


Last week good friends and fellow food lovers Katie and Norm invited us down to Katie’s house in Akron for a little dinner party. They told us they’d be making some sort of lasagna and would be providing wine. So, when we asked what we might bring, “dessert might be nice” was the response. Being one of the world’s biggest fans of dessert, both eating and making, I started wracking my brain for the perfect ending to this friendly meal.

My first thought was the usual baked good. Cookies, cakes, etc. are a fun, favorite of mine to make, but with the mercury edging ever northwards these days the thought of spending a couple hours in a hot kitchen with oven on sounded like about as much fun as dental surgery. Something cold was certainly called for in this matter, and then it struck me: my ice cream maker.

For my birthday a few years ago I received a 1 quart capacity Cuisinart ice cream maker. Any chance I get to make something in it I do, that is, as long as there’s freezer space for the drum. Once I’d decided on a frozen dessert I began to consider what flavor. A big, rich chocolaty mocha or a smooth, creamy vanilla might be nice. But then again on a warm summer’s night after a filling meal and a glass or two of wine a full flavored, full fat ice cream assault might be too much. I began to reconsider my options and decided that a sherbet or sorbet might be the right answer.

(Note: in America the terms “sherbet” and “sorbet” are used interchangeably to refer to a frozen dessert made of sweetened water flavored with fruit, juice or puree, for the rest of this post when I refer to “sorbet” I will be referring to the aforementioned concoction. When I refer to “sherbet” I will be speaking of a dessert with the aforementioned ingredients as well as a small amount of dairy fat.)

While looking over the instruction book for the ice cream maker, I haven’t used it in a few months and needed a refresher; I also looked over some the recipes they included. I’d had good luck with their ice cream recipes in the past so I figured I couldn’t go too far wrong with much simpler sorbet recipe. Lime sounded cool and refreshing for a summer’s eve, but it needed a little kick. Having recently perused the cocktail section of a Latin American cook book I own I had mojitos on my mind, and it came to me: Mojito Sorbet! The cool, refreshing combination of mint and lime would surely be a welcome finish to a hearty meal. Using Cuisinart’s recipe as a jumping off point here’s what I did:

1½ cups fresh squeezed lime juice (I needed 11 [eleven!!!])
2¼ cups water
2 cups sugar
Freshly grated lime zest
Chopped, fresh mint (my addition)
2-3 tablespoons cold white rum (my addition)

In a medium sauce pan combine the sugar and water. Heat on high until syrup reaches a boil then reduce heat to a simmer and stir until syrup is clear and sugar is fully dissolved. Once dissolved, remove syrup from heat and allow to cool to room temperature before transferring to refrigerator, this can be done in the cooking vessel or syrup can be transferred to another vessel for refrigeration. Meanwhile juice enough limes to yield 1½ cups of juice, again this will take a number of limes, and zest two, this is easiest pre-juicing. After juicing strain the lime squeezings to remove any pulp or seeds and mix in zest. Transfer lime juice to refrigerator. Ideally the syrup and juice should be prepared the day before and allowed to chill in the fridge overnight, but this can all be done the morning of, just remember that all the ingredients should be as cold as possible before they go into the machine. After a few hours chill time add the ingredients to ice cream maker per the manufacturer’s instructions.

This was the standard recipe, now here are the changes I made, and what I learned from my mistakes:
I put off making assembling this until just a few hours before the dinner party, and while I was able to get everything together I didn’t allow myself enough time for the syrup and lime juice to properly chill in the fridge. This meant that even after a spin in the ice cream maker’s my sorbet was more slushy than icy. This wouldn’t have been the end of the world if I’d had more freezer time, but the two hours it got to chillax just wasn’t enough so unfortunately this frozen treat had to stay at home.

Now, as for my additions to the recipe, the rum and mint, there are good results and bad results. The Good: the rum, with a much lower freezing point, ensures that even after a few hours in the chill chest the sorbet is still scoopable, a half-hour warm-up in the fridge prior to service is still a good idea, but not 100% necessary; I add alcohol to all ice cream maker recipes during the last two minutes of processing for this reason. Also, the rum adds a nice little bite to the dessert and helps clear the palate of any residual aftertastes. The Bad: While adding mint to the recipe was an excellent and inspired move on my part, it wasn’t chopped nearly enough and when I added it to the machine it all floated to the top and stayed there. I think if the concoction had frozen better initially it would’ve incorporated better, but there are still large ribbons of mint in the sorbet which aren’t the best thing to try and eat. If I was to try this again, and I probably will, I would process the rum and mint in a food processor or blender for a few seconds to make a slurry with mint flecks. It would be even better to do this at least a week or so a head of time so the alcohol could have time to extract soluble oils from the mint and allowing the flavor to permeate the desert more thoroughly.

The end result of this experiment was a wonderfully limey dessert that’s sour then sweet then sour again. It’s cool, refreshing, and delicious on a hot summery night, plus it tastes great mixed into other things. Nicole scrapped a few spoonfuls direct from the freezer into a glass and topped it with chilled vodka and lemonade to make a delicious and refreshing summer cocktail. It would also fair well in a blender with a shot or two of tequila and a splash of triple sec to make a frozen margarita that’s all growsed up.

Part II:
Following this reasonably, though not wholly, successful attempt at making a sorbet I was tempted to try something again. With the Fourth of July holiday in just a few days and a family cook-out in tow I was asked by the fam to bring some dessert along for the festivities. With this in mind and the idea of turning refreshing summer time beverages into icy desserts in mind I started to think about what would be a delicious follow-up to the traditional holiday fare of burgers and dawgs on the grill. Lemonade is an always popular cook-out libation, but lemon something would be too similar to the lime sorbet that I’d just attempted. Then it dawned on me: iced tea! I love iced tea in the summer, especially sweet tea and that seemed like the perfect thing to pour into the ice cream machine. But this time I felt the end result should be at least a little creamy so I decided I’d add a little milk and make a sweet tea sherbet. Here’s what I did:

3¼ cups water
¾ cup sugar
4 tea bags
1 cup whole milk
½ pinch baking soda (optional)
2-3 tablespoons chilled vodka (optional)

But What Do I Do With It??!?:
Into a medium sized pot add the water and tea bags. Heat on high until water boils then reduce heat and stir in sugar and baking soda (the saltiness of the baking soda helps curb some of the bitterness of the tea and will help set the deep brown tone of the tea, it’s not necessary but many sweet tea recipes call for it) and allow to simmer until sugar has dissolved and tea has reduced slightly. Once tea syrup is thoroughly combined remove the tea bags and allow to rest until mixture reaches room temperature. Once cooled, cover tea syrup and place in refrigerator until completely chilled—again, all ingredients should be as cold as possible, but still liquid, before put in the ice cream maker. Once completely chilled add ingredients to ice cream maker per manufacturer’s instructions, reserving the addition of the vodka until the last two minutes.

How It Turned Out:
In a word: awesome. In two words: totallyfracking awesome. The resulting product was richer and creamier than the lime sorbet, but not as big and full as ice cream. It had a nice, smooth mouth feel with just a hint of crystalline, icy crunch. And after analyzing the taste over and over, I feel like all the elements were perfectly balanced. The tea flavor was full and apparent without being overwhelming or terribly bitter; I had originally thought about adding a fifth tea bag to the mixture but my decision against was correct. Also, instead of using plain black tea I opted for Earl Grey, the light, citrusy tang of the Bergamot oil was the perfect sour component to a dish that was already slightly sweet and bitter. While deciding on what dairy to add I considered using half-n-half and heavy cream, but ultimately I feel that whole milk was the right choice, adding some rich-and-creaminess to the dish without making it overly fatty or terribly unhealthy (about 1oz./18 calories of whole milk per serving). With only ¾ cup of sugar in the whole quart the dessert isn’t overly sweet, either. It could be upped to a whole cup for a really sweet dessert or pared down to half a cup for between-course palate cleanser.

I’m pretty modest when it comes to the food that I make, but all things considered, this sherbet recipe was a pretty solid homerun, especially since I invented the recipe myself. Having looked over a number of other recipes and knowing the total capacity of the cream-machine, I realized that anything I wanted to make in it was simply a matter of creating one quart of a flavorful, freezable liquid.
Post Script:
After reading this you might be thinking, "Jon, I don't have an ice cream maker and I can't afford to go out and buy one, but I really want to make these and other recipes just like them. Please help!"
Well, fean not, my gadgetless friends for the Italian's have just the thing for you: Granitas! A granitas is essentailly a courser frozen treat that is slightly more akin to a sno-cone than a sorbet, it's name refers to the grainy texture of the ice crystals that are formed when it is made. To make a granita pour all your ingredients, throughly pre-mixed of course, into a 9x13 inch metal pan and place in the freezer. Every half-hour remove pan from freezer, stir liquid and scrape any ice crystals that have formed off the sides. Repeat this process until the liquid is frozen and the pan is full of flakey ice. Fluff your granita with a fork before serving and enjoy.
For more granita recipes and information visit these links:

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