Monday, January 25, 2010

Day trip to the Bayou brought to you by Tasting Table

Slow cooking for the entire month of January has been incredible, and probably will continue well into February but at some point, a girl needs a break. Through a rare stroke of genius this summer, I discovered about 10 different emailed subscription newsletters that send me a little somethin, somethin on food, new restaurants or new ingredient trends every day.  Daily Candy, Thrillist, and Tasting Table are my absolute favorites and if you are new to Chicago, or sick of going to the same 4 bars around the corner from you since moving to Chicago 6 years ago, it's TIME!  Time to expand horizons, go to grand opening parties and socialize with the 70 year olds who are hotter on the scene than you are (true story, met the cutest couple at Branch 27's opening night- she was a hard core Daily Candy supporter and loved dragging her husband to all the new restaurants on opening night).

Recently TT has pulled solidly into the first place spot.  They have sent me pieces on Eco-tourism, farm-to-table meals and most recently a delightful, albeit hair-brained, suggestion for a 'Day Trip to the Bayou.'  Just what the doctor ordered.  We drove 130 miles deep into the flatlands of Illinois, out into the fields where all those plants are labored over, cared for, processed and rapidly fill my grocery aisles.  It's good to get out there and remember where all this food is coming from.  On I-55 about 30 miles outside of Chicago, the highway lights disappear and there's little between you and the earth again.  We coasted through some thick fog, with about 50 feet visibility for 45 miles on I-55 and 45 miles on I-80 to the Uttica exit.

About a mile south, and a mile east of the exit, there arose from the thick mist Ron's Cajun Connection.  

The sign for restaurant hours tells you how good the food is: Sunday, Monday, Tuesday- CLOSED.  Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, OPEN 4-9.  That's a 20 hour work week my friends.  I'm instantly jealous. 

We stroll into the Louisiana kitch bedazzled dining room, and the white board reads: Dungeness Crab, Shrimp Etouffee & Crawfish Jumbalaya $18,95 as the main special.  I can hardly believe my eyes.  It's the middle of January and we're in the middle of the dark fields of Illinois and they have fresh crab here?  A wheat Abita,  Boudin sausage, Boudin balls and four quarters in the jukebox and I'm already starting to slur my words, just enough to sound southern-ish, but these locals take one look at my boots and know I'm not from around here.   Everything, including the hot sauce on the table Ron has made himself.  Boudin balls were to die for.  I think I'd make the 2 hour trip just for that warm cosy blend of rice, boudin sausage and cajun spices all rolled up and fried.  Delish.  My trusty frosted mug helps cool down the heat that's building in my mouth and my ears are humming with creole.  I love this kind of music.  Bluegrass mixed with French folk music and a little Afro-Caribbean rhythm thrown in?  What's not to love.  

For main courses I headed straight to frog legs and gator.  I swear I haven't had frog legs since I was 13 at my uncle's house in France so I'm feeling justly overdue.  We dragged along someone who was hungry for the taste of home and so our resident NOLA judge (born and raised) was my true benchmark for authenticity.  Ron strolls into the dining room, takes one look at us and starts narrowing in on NOLA "how'd you like that etouffe, son??"  "and those Boudain Balls?"  NOLA ranks Ron's place a solidy 7, maybe even an 8 against his local favorites.  Not all bad man.  We tried the gumbo, jumbalaya, crawfish etouffee, fried gator, shrimp creole, french fries, Christmas, Wheat & Lager Abita.  Oh! and every plate comes with Ron's raspberry barbecue sauce for dipping, or drinking cause damn it's that good.  Next time, I'm gunning for some blackened catfish.  

We polished off the meal with one piece of pecan pie with cinnamon ice cream to split between the three of us.  The pecans are unbelievably fresh, crust is delicately buttery and hmmm what IS that?  The cinnamon in the pie seems more forward-- not that he's used more, it's just...louder... What'd you do Ron??  "You want to know dear?  You want to know my secret ingredient in that pecan pie?  It's right there on that table girlie."  He picks up the tiny red bottle on the table and slams it back down on the table, "TOBASCO!?!?" 

Next time we GO, I'm planning on making it an all day affair, running around the lovely little state park nearby and then treating myself to a delightfully spicy fried dinner to appropriately balance the day.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Turkey Chili & my slow cooker infomercial

It's cold.  Winter is upon us.  I get out of work and if the sun isn't shining, likely as not, neither am I.  But today, the world vertices have aligned.  Today is the first day since before Christmas that the blustery city of Chicago has seen temperatures above 32.  Today is the first day in I can't remember how long that I can see full, blue sky between skyscrapers.

And today is the first day that I came home to delicious dinner, already prepared by my alter ego.  7 pm last night, "Tuesday night Joanna" sauteed onions and meat.  She opened up can after can of tomatoes, spooned out heaping teaspoons of spices, dug old ice cubes of cilantro made over the summer out of her frosty fridge.  She begged her roommate for the privilege to use Grandma's frozen corn: grown, shucked and frozen by the Captain's very own grandparents in Hamilton, MO.  And then, that Joanna went to bed.

I woke up this morning, pulled my crock pot, already full of uncooked chili out of the fridge, clumsily slammed it into the slow cooker and set it on low- 10 hours.  (Grumbling, I thought to myself, 'I wish I had that kind of setting.  I'd like to be on low for 10 hours.' Sigh.)  Instead I strutted out of my apartment, down the stairs to my bus stop, lightly hopped on the bus and beamed at my alter-ego productivity.  All day, I bragged to coworkers.  I sung the glories of my productive slow cooker.  One colleague immediately called his wife and said, "hey how come we don't have a slow cooker?" "We do!!!"  she retorted.  "YOU!!"

With an extra spring in my step I walked up my stairs and put the key in the door...ahhhh, I can smell it from the hallway even.  Was some dark-haired, argyle-sporting man cooking something deliciously steamy in my kitchen for a mid-week surprise?!  No no no, it's the slow cooker!  (I realize this might be slightly anti-climatic but honestly, I'm seeing him later tonight and daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamn look at that chili).

 The brilliant machine has simmered on low 10 hours and now has cleverly switched itself to warm mode. It's beautiful. It's cozy.  It's healthy. 

Whoever you are.  Put down the computer right now.  Stop reading and check your cabinet if somewhere in the depths of your pantry you have a slow cooker.  If you don't, BUY ONE NOW.  You know I'm going to just keep taunting you for the rest of January, and probably February considering the success thus far.

Turkey, Corn, White Bean Chili

1.25 lbs turkey, defrosted
1 large white onion
3 t dried oregano
2 t cumin
1 1/2 t hot chili powder
3 t cornmeal
6 cilantro ice cubes or 1/2 cup finely chopped
1 can cannelli (white kidney) beans --or 2 if you really like beans
1 medium bag of frozen corn (I think I had around 2 cups, but I love love love corn)
1- 16 oz can diced tomatoes
1- 28-32 oz tomato sauce (though I used only 12 oz can tomato sauce & leftover sauce from the Southwestern Beef Rolls)

In a medium saute pan, heat 2 T olive oil.  Add onions and spicing (excluding cornmeal) and saute until onions are well browned.  Pour into crock pot insert.  Brown turkey in saucepan, using more oil if needed.  Add to crock pot insert.  Add remaining ingredients and stir to combine.  Cook on low for 10 hours and it will patiently wait for you.

If you like, feel free to prep the night before, refrigerate all the ingredients in your fridge and pop into the slow cooker the next morning. 

And yes, it's not even 5:30 and I've already finished my bowl.  And I'll probably have another at 8 tonight.  And 11 AM tomorrow...

Monday, January 11, 2010

January: A Month of Slow Cooking

It's time I slowed down a little bit.

If New Years Resolutions (NYRs) could talk, this one would be bouncing off all 4 walls of my apartment, ceiling and floor shouting, "Isn't it time yet you fanatic?!?!  You've been going going going non-stop since you began to walk, getting triangles (think: worse than a check minus) in self-control on your report cards!! Pick me this year!  Slow life down a bit!!!  Learn to SIT STILL!!!!!"  Well little NYR, you just got lucky because this year, is your year.  Or, err, depending on my diligence, maybe decade.

I love a new year, if only for the excuse to make some drastic ridiculous change to your life and watch your friends do the same.  So many become overwhelmed by the daunting task of picking resolutions.  While it may be a pretty failed concept (I'm supposed to actually rehearse all the things in my mind that I had failed at over the past year and decide which ones I want to pick up again, which ones I'm ready to scrap and what new things can I add to my now overflowing plate????  Breathe...) I think I may just spring for ONE this year.  I don't believe in resolutions.  Last year I picked 5 words that would shape the way I took care of myself.  This year, I've got only one.  Slow.

I move fast at work- trying to keep up with markets (which can be quite the daunting task when you're at it 10 hours a day). I move fast at home- I clean my apartment Tasmanian Devil style, driving forward on Lady Gaga beats.  And of course, I move really fast in the kitchen.  I'm used to cooking by myself and learned to cook by whipping away and throwing things into the dishwasher, cleaning while I cook.  I have this sick obsession with sitting down to a meal and already having 75% of the dishes done, or at least already in the dishwasher.  Friends calmly sit and drink at my kitchen table, sipping on margaritas, wine, what have you, all while I cling and clang away, whipping up something lovely.  This is the way I've cooked.  This is what I know.

Until January.  I asked Santa for a 5.5 qt digital Slow Cooker for Christmas and my oh my did he deliver.  I picked up a modern, well designed, ethnically creative, 'not-your-1950's' slow cooker cookbook  and have begun to tag the recipes I'll start with and swore to myself that the entire month of January, I was only allowed to cook out of the slow cooker.  Prep early, cook for hours and forget about it, and when my friends arrive, I will sit: calmly, serenely, sipping on wine and letting my slow cooker do the work for me.  Well, at least that's the idea.

Thus far, I've made Southwestern Beef Rolls, horridly named (I'm imagining the 49 cent menu at Taco Bell) but this was quite far from it.  Take a roasted green chili, stuff it with chorizo, wrap a round steak around the whole deal, secure with toothpicks and roast in tomato puree, 3 kinds of peppers and hot pepper seasonings.  Straight forward, not too much prep, good. I'm still using all the tomato sauce on pastas and pizzas.

Next up:  Chicken Breasts stuffed with Boursin and Spinach (recipe modified below).  A bit clunky to prepare (read: this is not the recipe you choose to prep before going to work in the morning) but everything turned out splendidly.  Yes, the chicken was unbelievably moist and because I pounded it flat enough, I didn't need toothpicks to secure them shut.  No, the cheese didn't melt all out of the chicken and into the white wine sauce.  It stayed in its proper place, wrapping itself around the spinach and cozily nestled inside chicken.  No, my spinach wasn't too wet!  The cookbook suggested I used a ****potato ricer**** to squeeze all the extra liquid from the spinach and for all of you spanikopita makers out there-- this WILL WORK!  And yes, I did use a whole cup of heavy whipping cream.  It's winter and I need to keep warm.

Just a suggestion for all of you cooks out there who are looking to be healthier, stay warm, have leftovers, save on buying lunch out-- embrace that slow cooker.   I'm planning on using ONLY this lovely little cooker for the next month, or maybe two depending on how cold February is, with more recipes to post on.  Stay tuned...

Chicken stuffed with Boursin and Spinach

6 chicken breasts, pounded to 3/4 inch thick
1/4 c shallots, minced
16 oz frozen spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry ****
1 5.2 oz Pepper and Herb Boursin Cheese
2 t nutmeg
3 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup white wine
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 c chives, finely chopped

Sautee shallots in 1 T olive oil for 2 minutes.  Add spinach and saute until spinach is dried and flaky.  Pour into a medium sized bowl and allow it to cool.  Meanwhile, pound chicken breasts to about 3/4 inch thick.  I use 2 sheets of clear plastic wrap and place my chicken inside, pounding in it with my rolling pin and listening to Lilly Allen for extra motivation.  Sprinkle each chicken with salt and freshly ground pepper.  Combine Boursin, spinach mix and nutmeg.  Scoop about 1/2 cup of mixture onto each chicken.  Roll lengthwise and tuck the ends underneath the roll.  If they don't sit flat (ie. come unrolled) use toothpicks to secure.  Place in your slow cooker.  Cover with chicken broth and wine and add a little extra salt and pepper for good measure.  Cook on high for 2 1/2 to 3 hours.  When chicken breast reads 170 when poked at with a meat thermometer, remove from the slow cooker and keep warm.  Pour remaining broth into a medium saute pan and reduce by half.  Add cream and reheat.  Add chives and serve over chicken.  I served with steamed lemon brussel spouts and whole wheat pasta shells.