Can I get a WTF?

I bought some honeycrisp apples the other day, and I’m apparently now being visited by some sort of spiritual or ghostly presence. How are the two connected, you may ask? Well, one of the apples was pretty overly waxy, so I was going to peel it before eating it. I left it on the counter for a couple of days, and just noticed that it had gone all pale and anemic-looking. I picked it up to see if it was going bad and *DUMDUMDUMMMMMMM*

APPLE STIGMATA

this photo was in no way edited, and the apple was in no way altered. It’s for rizzle.

Any ideas what the hell is happening to my apple? Is there some kind of “I saw the Virgin Mary in a tortilla” hotline for elderly Spanish women that I should know about?

Sustainable Sustenance

This isn’t really a blog post, but kind of important all the same–

The Texas grocery store HEB has kind of a bizarre philosophy wherein they only offer a couple of free-range/humanely-raised meat items, and even those are only offered at a couple of the select branches in high income areas. That means at the ones closest to us, I will find nothing but feedlot meat. Period.

Enter an unlikely player–Target. Our Target carries Laura’s lean beef, Niman Ranch bacon, Maverick Ranch bison and ground beef, and naturally raised chicken. How cool is that? Who would have thought Target would have a list of meat suppliers that included humane heavy-hitters?

Now, they don’t carry everything. If I want to make a pot roast, I still have to drive down to WhoFo and get one there. But they DO have most things, and I am incredibly grateful.

So I wrote them a letter. I’m a big fan of writing letters if a company goes absolutely above or absolutely below customer service standards. I just wanted to let them know how important it was that they offered products for and supported a lifestyle committed to animal welfare, personal health, and responsible sourcing.

Today I got a call from their head of purchasing in Minnesota (I think that’s where it was), thanking me for my letter and saying it made his day that somebody noticed and appreciated it. He said they’re going to start bringing in more options, as well as sustainable seafood.

I’m just excited. I think it’s cool. And I think it proves that you don’t have to go crazy out of your way, or spend a billion dollars to thoughtfully choose the food you buy. Sometimes it’s as easy as opening your eyes, looking around, and seeing that there really are convenient options to do the right thing.

So I’m basically in love with Target right now. And Whole Foods, but Target is so much closer…

Rhymes with “bong”

Turns out, I was wrong. Cilantro is not a foul, parsley-pretending motherf*cker that tastes of soap and hamster-greens. I always thought it was, but it turns out I just hadn’t unleashed its full potential.

This has happened a lot in my adult life. For example, I once thought of cardamom AND nutmeg as “the spices that you forget what they taste like, and then a recipe calls for them and you put them in and then the whole blueberry cheesecake ends up tasting like it fell on the floor of a Moroccan market, and nobody saw so you just picked it up, half-heartedly blew any visible pieces of camel fur off the top, and then went about serving it.” They are not just the musky flavor equivalents of moose testicle. They are, in fact, lovely in both sweet and savory applications. The other day I made white chocolate/dark chocolate brownie/blondie bars that were featured in the King Arthur Flour catalog, and the recipe called for a healthy smattering of fresh nutmeg, and I absolutely put it in, and the best bites of the ambrosial bars were the bites where it was only white chocolate and nutmeg and gooey, slightly underdone butter-dough.

And cooked spinach is not the consistency and color of the puddle that would surround the Grinch if the Whos down in Whoville had had enough of his evil, anti-Christmas behavior and taken the Christmas tree axe to his femoral artery, leaving him to bleed out at the top of the pointy mountain. Sometimes, in fact, cooked spinach is a tangle of adorable baby spinach leaves, whose folic acid and Popeye strength has been sauteed for a grand total of 10 seconds in butter and garlic and sea salt.

So it shouldn’t have surprised me that I had a burgeoning love for cilantro creeping around the back of my brain, waiting for me to embrace it. Cilantro on its own is still a little bit like licking a Rainforest Fresh Glade Plug-In. But in salsa and pho and Thai curries and vinaigrettes it adds flavor that can’t be replicated. Period. A good flavor, I mean. And what versatility, right? To be able to be an integral part of both Asian and Central American cuisines? I’m frankly impressed.

And was even more impressed when it made bitchin’ hamburger rolls who on night one held a chipotle-bacon burger with Avocado crema, and on night two re-appeared as happy holders for coconut-crusted chicken thighs and broccoli slaw tossed in a coconut-peanut satay sauce.

Cilantro Rolls

3/4 cup lukewarm water
2 tablespoons softened butter
1 egg
3 1/2 cups unbleached AP flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon instant yeast (I use SAF brand with great success)
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh cilantro, chopped fairly small

Either put all of the ingredients into your bread maker (except for don’t add the cilantro until partway through the kneading process–usually your machine will beep to let you know it’s time) on the regular dough setting.

Or

Knead the ingredients together (except your cilantro) using your hands or your stand mixer until the dough is very smooth and elastic, stopping partway through to add your cilantro and continue kneading until well incorporated.

Allow to rise until the dough doubles in volume. Punch it down and divide it into 12 equal pieces. Roll them into balls and allow to rest for 10 minutes. Then pat the balls down and stretch them gently to make flat (1″ in thickness) circles that are about 3-3 1/2″ across. Allow to rise on a parchment-lined sheet tray until fairly puffy.

While they’re rising for the second time, preheat the oven to 425 F. When the rolls have risen to puffy glory, bake for about 10 minutes, or until golden brown (check them at 8 minutes, just to be sure they’re not done). Brush them with butter and sprinkle with salt immediately after you pull them out. Let them cool a few minutes, et voila!

Put whatever you want in them. You can use shredded pork, burgers, chicken breasts, grilled portobellas, whatever you feel like. Because cilantro is VERSATILE. And it only tastes a little bit like Dawn liquid detergent, and we all love Dawn liquid detergent because it cleans oil spills off of sea otters and ducks (or so my tv would have me believe).

Great Balls of Fire

The other day when Chris was flopped on the couch with a fever of 102, battling whatever brand of Hanta virus he contracted at work, I spent a lot of time dutifully mopping his forehead with cool towels and sticking a thermometer in his mouth about every 10 minutes to see if it was cooking his brain.

I had run to Walgreens for a thermometer when he first started to get all burny and hot and sad-looking. The only thermometer they had was a basal body temperature thermometer, which I think is the kind that people put in their yoo-hoos when they’re trying to get pregnant but don’t want to have sex any more times than they ABSOLUTELY HAVE TO to make that happen. The thermometer was pink and had a little picture of a stork on it. I don’t think Chris noticed, since his brain was slowly roasting in the All-Clad roasting pan of his skull.

He had a serious fever. He was not, however, ovulating.

But when I wasn’t being all wifely and sweet and caring, I was in the kitchen cooking away. Was I plucking and boiling a whole chicken carcass so that I could spoon little droplets of nutrients and Jewish medicine into his infectious little mouth? No. Was I baking chocolate chip cookies in hopes that the smell would be a comfort to an otherwise very uncomfortable, achy ball of sweat? No. What I was doing was so, so much more.

I was spherifying alcohol. Not just one kind, either, but many, many kinds. And it wasn’t even hard, really.
This is a sphere of rum cream and a sphere of butterscotch schnapps. There’s a very thin skin on the outside making the bubble, and then, when pressed against the roof of your mouth, it bursts and all the alcohol just whooshes onto your tongue. They’re very pliable and easy to work with when done correctly.

Here is the basic, easy recipe for spherifying alcohol, plus some tips and tricks to make it work:

.5 C of some kind of alcohol (not milk-based, but we’ll discuss that later)
1 t calcium lactate gluconate
2 lbs water
4 g sodium alginate

Step 1- Put your water into a blender. Stronger blenders are better for this (think Vita-Mix).
Step 2- Turn on your blender, and sprinkle the sodium alginate in as it runs. Continue to run for 30 seconds so there are no lumps of sodium alginate left and it’s a homogeneous, cloudy mixture. Pour into a glass bowl.

Now wait 1-2 hours until the sodium alginate mixture is clear and the bubbles are all gone. You want a still, not-cloudy solution to work with.

Now take your alcohol and whisk the calcium lactate gluconate until it’s completely dissolved. Take a tablespoon (or chinese soup spoon or other deep-ish spoon) of the mixture and submerge the spoon slowly into the sodium alginate bath. Right as the spoon is about to be totally engulfed in the water, gently turn the spoon over to allow the ball of liquid to slide out of the spoon and into the bath. It should settle at the bottom.

Leave it for 1 minute and gently remove from the bath. Dip in clean water and shimmy it a little to clean it. Remove it from the clean water and place it in a dish. It can be set aside for a few minutes while you assemble the rest of your spheres.

Tips and tricks for spherification

1–Always let the sodium alginate bath rest. It takes time.
2–calcium lactate can be used, but calcium lactate gluconate works best for alcohol. You can get it at any of the molecular sites, including Willpowder and L’epicerie.
3–Use a colored alcohol your first time around. Dark rum is a good, easy one.
4–play around with your proportions. If the sphere isn’t setting a firm enough skin, either you need to add more calcium lactate gluconate to the alcohol mixture, or you need to let it sit for a bit longer in the solution.
5–Use distilled water. Not mineral water, not tap water, not Brita filtered water, but distilled, plain water. The minerals in regular water can seriously mess with your alginate bath.
6– And I cannot express how important this is:

Do not use this recipe to spherify anything with milk, like Bailey’s or the delicious rum cream that we brought home from our honeymoon in Jamaica. Or you will get this:
which looks like any number of horrifically unpleasant things that could burst in your mouth and ohmygoodnessI’mgagging.
I tried to serve these to Chris, but he was all sick and ungrateful and slept right through my little miracle. It’ll be done again soon, though, never you fear.

I grant all of your weeshes with my taco-flavor keeses

I’ve been feeling some pressure lately (from myself) to come up with my culinary point of view. As many of you know, I’ve struggled to find what type of cuisine I want to make my “specialty,” or whatever they call it. I’ve settled, I think, on a reasonable philosophy.

I like to make all kinds of foods, and I don’t like being limited by some arbitrary set of mandatory ingredients. Giada deLaurentiis puts parmaggiano in everything she makes. On pasta, on casseroles, on desserts, whathaveyou. Bobby Flay puts chiles de arbol in effing lasagna. They’re not trying to do “fusion” cooking, per se, but rather to force their flavor profile into dishes where it doesn’t want to go. I feel like it’s culinary date rape to take a very specific flavor (soy sauce/parmaggiano/chipotle) that is very familiar to you, and then rip off its shirt and throw it into a pool with completely foreign ingredients and expect it to perform in a manner you’ve always imagined.

I’m not a purist (my tenuous relationship with Three Olives cherry vodka will attest to that). I have had things like sesame barbecue sauce, green chile hollandaise and enchiladas with fresh mozzarella to great success. I’ve really enjoyed them, no less. But if I were to decide my point of view was, I don’t know, Creole or whatnot, and then spent a week cooking crawfish lasagna, mu shu alligator, schnitzel with gumbo gravy, and tres leches king cake, I’d have to kick myself in the general junk region of my bodily map. That’s not only forcing an issue, but it’s also taking away the soul-satisfying authenticity that a dish can bring when made the way its forefathers intended it to be made.

I think it’s important to push the culinary envelope. I can’t overestimate the value of trying new things and developing a cuisine that’s all your own, based on your own creativity and experience and access to fresh ingredients. But I will never condone the use of arborio rice for sushi SOLELY because you think you have to stay true to your Italian point of view.

So, now that I’ve offended basically everyone with my qualifications, I’ve decided to focus a little bit more on Mexican cuisine.

Hold the iPhone, you might be screaming, don’t you HATE Texas?? And now you’ve decided to adopt their cuisine as a personal goal? Ees Bullsheet!

FIrst, I run with gangs and do what I want

Second, Chris and I both LOVE authentic Mexican food. Not cheddar cheese enchiladas with Taco Bell brand red sauce, but real Mexican food. Things like the red adobo marinated chicken with potatoes (pollo adobado con papas) that we had last night really get my cockles warmed to the point of nearly set aflame. The chicken was wearing a warm coat of spicy, tangy, intense adobo that had caramelized in just the right places. The potatoes had a crisp, crunchy patina of roasted drippings on each side and were cooked to the perfect doneness. Were I the lactating type, I would have nursed this bird, that’s how much I loved it. Such a simple thing, done so well, and done so authentically. It’s a thing of beauty when foods are in perfect harmony.

Third, I’m stuck in Texas (barf, gag, retch) for the next 10 months, and I have access to some incredible ingredients and very knowledgeable people. I’d be a fool not to make the best of that time by learning the cuisines of the natives (and if we’re being totally honest, the natives of Texas are, in fact, Mexicans).

Fourth, Chris and I have a raging chef-crush on Rick Bayless, and I just bought another one of his genius cookbooks. As an homage to Chef Bayless, here is my variation on his recipe for
Pollo Adobado con Papas (Adobo chicken):

3 T vegetable (or grapeseed, or olive) oil
6 medium dried ancho chiles (or a combination of ancho and pasilla)
3 cloves garlic
1 t dried oregano (Mexican oregano works best)
1/2 t fresh ground pepper
1/2 t ground cumin
1/8 t ground cloves
1 t sugar
salt
1/3 C plus 3 T apple cider vinegar
1 whole bone-in chicken breast
2 large russet potatoes, peeled and cut into large cubes
1 sweet onion, sliced very, very thinly
fresh cilantro to finish

The marinade

Clean the chiles and take out the stem and seeds. Tear them into flat pieces–one or two tears should do the trick. In a medium pan over medium high heat, bring oil to high temp, but not smoking. Saute the torn chiles until they are starting to smell very toasty and blistered. This doesn’t take long. Transfer to a bowl and cover with 2 cups very hot water. Submerge by using another bowl to weigh the chiles down, if necessary.

Meanwhile, measure the rest of the spices into your blender, as well as 1/3 cup cider vinegar. After about 20 minutes, the chiles should be fairly rehydrated. Pour the chiles and the soaking water into the blender. Blend on high for a minute or so, until it looks pretty smooth. Pour through a steel-mesh strainer if you have one. If you use a Vita-mix, you can skip the straining step altogether. The mixture should be thick, but runny enough to evenly coat the chicken. Think A-1 sauce, maybe. Taste it and add salt until it’s relatively salty (but not terribly so).

Flatten your chicken by cutting through the backbone (this may have been done at the butchers), pulling the ribs apart and pressing VERY hard on both sides of the breast to crack the breastbone and maybe a rib or two so your chicken breast can lay relatively flat. Cover the chicken with marinade, then put the rest of the marinade in the freezer in a ziplock for later use.

Toss the onion slices with the rest of the apple cider vinegar and a teaspoon of sugar. Set aside to marinate.

Allow the bird to marinate at least an hour; longer is better. To roast, heat oven to 375 F, put the chicken breast-side-up on a roasting rack in a roasting pan. Scatter your potatoes under and around the chicken in the roasting pan (below the rack). Put about 1/2 cup of water into the pan with the potatoes.

Roast until the internal temperature of the chicken reaches 155, turning the potatoes once halfway through so they brown evenly. Pull the pan from the oven, and allow the chicken to rest on the counter for a full 10 minutes to finish cooking with the residual heat.

Cut the breast in half down the middle at the breastbone, careful not to touch the meat too much. Serve each person a breast and some potatoes, and scatter some of the marinated onions and cilantro over the top of both.

I served this with a cilantro-lime vinaigrette salad and the two hour season premier of House, which was awesome and on our Tivo waiting for us to reverently sit down and focus.

You guys should buy this cookbook, for rizzle. It’s “Rick Bayless Mexico: One Plate at a Time”. It’s phenomenal.

So now you know where I’m headed and can expect to see a touch more Mexican food on the blog. I’ll do my best to provide more recipes, without infringing on copyrights when at all possible. You can also expect to see Japanese, Indian, Thai, American, Italian, French, German, and God knows what else on here. I’m not going to give up my flavor-chasing just because I’m focusing a bit more on one thing (I sound like the married bachelor who’s getting married but is still planning on trying to sleep with much younger women because he’s ‘married, not dead’).

What I can promise you, though, is you won’t be seeing spaghetti with adobo pesto and pepitas solely because I’m craving spaghetti and feel like I can’t make an all-Italian meal without betraying myself. Unless I’m drunk. Because that goes against my previous rant.

Until I change my mind.

Alinea #2, part deux


Back once again with the renegade master, D4 damager, power to my dinner. I was going to begin this post with a long story involving the epic movie “Santa with Muscles,” starring Hulk Hogan, and how a line from the movie evolved from “Take a note, Chaz” to “take a note, Chatz,” but I was afraid you’d think I was either disrespectful or incapable of correctly pronouncing Achatz, so I decided against it. Just know that “take a note, Chatz” was a favorite line from the vacation, thanks to Erik. And Hulk. Now back to dinner.

One of the coolest, but also the most disconcerting, things about Alinea is what happens when you go to the bathroom. It happens frequently enough over the course of eleven glasses of wine to be notable. The second you remove your rear from your seat, a phantom alert signal enters the collective brainwave of the Alinea staff. Once your back has turned to walk toward the restrooms, within a split second, staff has de-crumbed your seat, whisked away your old napkin, and replaced it with a brand-new, perfectly folded, monogrammed napkin. I should point out that none of us ever made frivolous restroom trips just to see how quickly it happened, but there definitely was a certain undercurrent of competition as to who could make it the furthest before their napkin had been replaced. And not to sound petty or anything, but I totally won. I made it all the way to the bathroom door, I’m told. Yeah, what’s up? The restroom was gorgeous, by the way. I half expected one of those wacky Japanese toilets that sings lullabies and has a seat-warmer, but none materialized. A very pretty room, though, with beautiful monogrammed towels with which to dry your hands.

Take a note, Chatz. You need a Japanese toilet.

Returning to the meal at hand, though, we have a delicious specimen of a Japanese magic wand.

Yuba, shrimp, miso, togarashi

This was the food of Japanese astronauts. The yuba itself is basically a “skin” of tofu. Soybeans are versatile little beasts, and this freeze-dried (or dehydrated and then fried, perhaps) stick of goodness was a great usage. It wasn’t exceptionally flavorful in and of itself. Tofu never is. But it served as a texturally fascinating delivery system for a ribbon of shrimp sprinkled with togarashi (Japanese 7-spice). The whole wand was to be then dipped in a miso mayonnaise. Given my furious hatred for mayonnaise, I decided to pretend it was a miso hollandaise. And it was damned good. I like dipping things. It gives me a sense of control over the flavor saturation of my food. With semi-unfamiliar flavors, I really enjoy this ability to add as much or as little of the new sauce as I choose with each bite. And it was really pretty (not that you’d be able to tell from my vomitous photography skills)

Much like Nicolas Cage, “I could eat a peach for hours.” Only I’m not talking about vaginas like N.C. was in Face Off. No, I’m talking about stone fruit. And I totally could, because they’re the succulent underbelly of summer goodness. Watermelon’s all like “look at me, look at me!” But peaches are so much more.

Avocado, peach, fennel, shiso

A cup came out, filled with a fragrant peach liquid, and topped with a fork that precariously held slices of beautiful avocado and stern-looking fennel. The idea was to take the bite of unctuous avocado, then gulp down the contents of the cup. We were told twice to NOT put the cup down on the table, as it would tip, It had no bottom, much like basically all of the Victoria’s Secret magazine models (I’m pretty sure Victoria’s Secret is withholding food to assure obedience). The avocado we were given was in place of yet more foie gras (which I still don’t eat, unless it’s an extreme circumstance, like Fear Factor). It was perfect, and played beautifully with the squeaky-clean flavor of sweet, fresh peach. The fennel was a delicate back-flavor, and I didn’t detect any shiso. Perhaps this is because I don’t know what shiso tastes like. I’ve never had it. I’ll try some soon, promise, as soon as I get out of this ass-tablet of a state. Overall, I liked the dish very much. I kept wanting to put my bowl down, though.

Onward, hooooooooo! Next up, a little chilly cup of froth with amber-colored gel cubes…wha?

Crab, carrot, five spice, duck

I’ll be totally honest with you–I’ve never had crabs. I guess it was just a matter of being really careful in college, being true to my own finicky nature, and also kind of believing that crabs were really giant, pink sea spiders. I had prepared them a few times before for a beau who really liked them (this should have been a hint as to how successful our relationship would be. That’s three years of college I’ll never get back—out of about seven years of college, so who am I kidding?). I had never eaten them, though. And I missed the explanation of what this dish was, so while I was enjoying its gorgeous balance of sweet, savory, meaty, chewy, spicy, I had no idea that a key member of the party was crab. The little amber cubes were a spicy ginger chew, I think. And there was carrot puree at the bottom of the cup. Carrot and ginger are like, long lost lovers or whatever, so that was a perfect match. Then there was firm crab meat and meaty duck and a foam of ginger ice (again, I’m just guessing). Each forkful pulled all of it together into a sexy package, and even Erik (whom I will venture to say has also never had crabs) really enjoyed it. Only thing was that the ginger gummies were tacky (not “I wear Crocs in public” tacky, but “this shit is really sticking to my teeth” tacky). Overall, a great dish. I’m glad we didn’t get the softshell version of this one, because softshell crabs creep me the eff out.

Okay, for this next dish, nothing I say is going to make much of a dent in our feelings for it. I’ll do my best. The pictures are in segments, so you can see each piece. In the final photo, you’ll see the whole dish, which was

Waygu beef, powdered A-1, potato, chips

: This is the potato and chips portion of the dish. A cube of mashed potatoes that were so clearly making out with twice their weight in butter that it was almost obscene, and then covered in crushed salt and vinegar chips. I’ve had this twice, and I still don’t even understand how something so simple could taste so freakin’ amazing, but there you have it. It does. I love salt and vinegar chips anyway, and have a theory that only women and gay men like salt and vinegar chips. There are a few straight ones who sneak through a loophole somewhere (maybe it’s being British, I have no idea), but for the most part, it’s a true fact that straight men hate them. But this dish? John Elway would eat this dish. And that is HIGH praise around here. The little potato cube isn’t lonely, though. It’s paired with this little fella:
a glistening slab of what is too good to be Waygu beef, so we determined (via the scientific method of letting Erik decide) that it was unicorn meat. What other mythical beast could produce a piece of steak so tender and deep and fucking outstanding?? I don’t like to throw the “f” word around (I totally do), but that’s the only way to say it. The powdered “A-1” elements are kind of a gild to the lily, but definitely nice for a few bites. We found ourselves bisecting the meat into progressively smaller and smaller pieces, hoping to make it last. Erik was downright emotional about his dish, and said “I’m worried about going to the bathroom in a couple of days. I’m actually going to feel resentful about saying goodbye to this meat.” If he looks at his firstborn child with the love he had looking at this plate, then I’ll know he’s going to be a good father someday.

the smoke was from a tippy vase of dry ice that was infused with smoke smell for that “barbecue experience.” Nice touch.

None of us really wanted to move on after that plate, but it was dessert time. If there is thing I can get behind, it’s dessert time.

Watermelon, lime, nasturtium

The first bite was a ping pong ball-sized sphere of crispy something holding a torrent of watermelon and lime flavor. It was intense and refreshing and wanted desperately to escape the confines of our mouths. I didn’t really detect nasturtium, though I saw a petal on top. I do love when he puts liquids in spheres, although this wasn’t the traditional spherification that I keep failing at reproducing.
Almost immediately thereafter came a paddle (spanking-style) that had three little, triangular packets filled with white powder. Cocaine? No. This is good, because I was still high on unicorn and wouldn’t want to mix vices. This was lemon soda, one bite. The packet was filled with powder that tasted and fizzed just like lemon soda. The packet dissolved, too. It was a good, understated little piece of fun. I don’t know how they got their triangle folding so precise. Perhaps a team of very strict, old Japanese women? Or a T-square, maybe?

Next, a thin sheet of pink.

Transparency of raspberry, yogurt

This brittle sheet of invisible awesome was raspberry flavored, and immediately dissolved in the mouth, and dusted with yogurt powder for a whack of tang on the tongue. It came in a funny little clip that wobbled all over the place. I made a mess with mine, which was okay because they come by after each course with a playhouse-sized broom and a napkin and clean up your crumbs. I need this to happen at home. I currently have maple syrup on my shirt. I’ve never been able to feed myself without making some kind of mess.

The tube of bubble gum was another repeat, but one that I would cheerfully repeat on a daily basis.

Bubblegum, long pepper, hibiscus, creme fraiche

The glass tube is meant to be horked back in one go, and is filled with tart hibiscus gel, creme fraiche, and tapioca balls, and tastes for all the world like actual bubblegum. Even the fun chewiness is replicated via the tapioca. I love this dish. It makes me feel less like Chef Achatz is this culinary batman who lives in an underground cave and only comes out in some kind of advanced transport system replete with lasers and a Pacojet to save the world. All of a sudden he seems fun and like maybe he’d laugh at NPH in How I Met Your Mother. A sense of humor is what this dish adds.

Our next dish, which I forgot to photograph, but it’s okay because I photographed it last time I had it, was the rhubarb, goat milk, onion, lavender air. Who knew onion could be sweet? Well, we did from last time, but Erik didn’t yet. This is the one that came on the inflatable pillow filled with lavender air that whooshed out every time you pressed onto the plate with your fork. Chris, Erik and I all watched a video on Gizmodo about how this and some other effects are put together, to which Erik announced “that’s Harry Potter stuff.” Yes, it is.

Then they cleared off the table and rolled out a big silicone mat. We got excited because we’d heard of such trickery before, and were jazzed for the “special treatment.” For all I know, they do this for everyone, but it felt really special.

First, they brought out a gang of ingredients and pieces for the composed dish of Chocolate, blueberry, tobacco, maple

Then Chef Beran (I believe he’s the Chef de Cuisine) came out and used the ingredients to make abstract art on our silicone mat. Can I just say that Chef Beran is totally adorable? I kind of wanted to smuggle him home in my purse to play in our kitchen at home. He flung spheres of liquid blueberry and maple all over the place, drizzled something or other, freeze-dried chocolate ice cream, and other mystery surprises. We were given silverware and allowed to go at it once he was finished. I was giddy about this whole experience.

The final composition

Finally, it was time for the last course:

Pound cake, strawberry, lemon, vanilla bean

A single bite of compressed, flavored pound cake, skewered by a moist, fresh vanilla bean, and sitting on a sweet vanilla powder. I sucked on the vanilla bean for a while after the pound cake was gone, dipping it over and over in the powder on the plate. And then it was time to say goodbye *sniffle*

Our tea came, and Erik quizzed Sommelier about the tea selection. At first he seemed confused by the question on origin, but then he all of a sudden was Mr Knowledgability about silver needle tea, so I’m pretty sure he has a microchip in his brain that gets activated by someone in the basement of the restaurant whenever a tough question comes up.

So it’s all over. Alinea has been the two best culinary experiences of my life. I don’t even remember what we ate after that. I know we had RJ Grunts two days later, where I had the best burger of my life EVER but that’s all I remember. Two days of post-coital bliss following my meal at Alinea, and it was time to head home.

I got the cover of my cookbook autographed by Chef Achatz, which was cool, but it ended up getting all creased up on the flight so that breaks my heart, plus he wrote “toward creativity” instead of “Kristie is Awesome,” which is what I wish I would have asked him to write had I a moment to consider it.

Also, how the hell do some of these people get fully lit pictures from their dinners? Twice now I’ve had mealy, dark photos because there’s no flash. Is there a special room that allows real pictures? Or am I just a fool for obeying?

Anyway, I’m going to go make myself a stiff white russian and watch the Broncos game. Right now I’m just feeling sad that it’s all over, and trying to scam another trip at some point in the future. Sigh. True love for food is still true love.

Alinea #2

I’ve been putting this off for too long. The thing is, I’m afraid once I write it all down, I”ll be all the way done with Alinea, and then I’ll have to go upstairs into the bathroom and try to slit my wrist, but do it horizontally, because all I really want is attention and a third trip to Chicago. But, lest I forget the subtle nuance of all the glorious food I consumed, I am going to do this now. Tearfully. Joyfully. Nostalgically. Hungrily.

Alinea is the main reason we ended up in Chicago. The scheme started taking place while I was drinking tea after my first dinner at the restaurant. You see, that’s the thing about food that good. By the time the last course has found your belly, before you’ve even left, you begin trying to think of ways/reasons to return. It’s really kind of sad, actually, because it ruins those last few minutes at the restaurant. It’s like sending your last child off to college, except for that Alinea probably won’t call me asking for money or try to move back into its old bedroom over the summer.

I wanted to share the experience with other people. I wanted to be a culinary missionary. I wanted to eat the food again. So immediately I wanted to take my little brother there. He’s the foodiest of my family members (aside from me, obviously), and also a damned good time. He worked at Whole Foods for a brief time this summer, learning about all sorts of edibles, and then ate a pig heart with his football buddies (grrrrroooooossssss) so I knew he’d be game to try anything and everything presented. Additionally, with him commissioning into the marines, I don’t know when I’ll next get to run around an unsuspecting village with him, so this was an important trip.

And run around we did. After we got home from Hot Doug’s, we got dressed in our finery and headed out. Chris tried to take a couple of pictures of Erik and me for our mother, but they turned out as they always do: and then, on a “re-do” we came up with A couple were walking their baby, so I asked them to take a group picture of us before we trotted away from the house.
With that success under our belt, it was time to complete the 3 minute journey from the house to the restaurant. I wore my J-41 walking sandals with a BCBG dress. I don’t think anyone thought “hey, those don’t go together.” That’s the beauty of walking sandals. I can put several miles on those babies, and they just look like black strappy sandals with a teensy bit of heel, perfect for a dress. WIN.

The front of Alinea looks like nothing. It’s gray and there aren’t any signs, but they don’t need them. As my brother pointed out, President Obama could show up at the door there and they’d be like “you has reservation?” and he’d be like “no, I’m the freaking president” and they’d say “sorry, we’re booked.” That’s the way it played out in our heads, anyway. We went through the door to the magic red hallway with the fiber optic lights at the end. When we had just about reached the end of the hallway, and Erik was looking kind of baffled at where he was supposed to go, the door on the left slid open and revealed Perky Hostess. She led us immediately to our table. That’s one of the perks of a place so refined that it takes a very limited number of guests per evening. There’s never any waiting, and it makes you feel like they’ve been hovering around your table, just super-excited for you to arrive and make their night, nay, their week, with your glistening presence. My chair was pulled out, after a round of non-verbal duck, duck, goose as to who would sit where.

Sommelier came over almost immediately to give us the wine menu. Erik found a $7000 bottle of wine in there, and we all giggled a little bit. Until I reach 50, I probably won’t spend an entire, I don’t know, cosmetic surgical procedure’s worth of money on a bottle of wine. Someday, though. Someday. When the guy came back, he treated us to a speech in which he used the words “that’s where we focus our energies” like, six or seven times. Yeah, guy. I don’t care where you’re focusing your energies, but I can personally guarantee that there is a LOT of energy going into my food preparation, and that’s why I’m here. Wine is just a really attractive piece of arm candy for the rich, seductive meal. We agreed to the full pairing, because the wine at Alinea really does enhance the meal something fierce. It doubles the price tag, but adds so much depth of experience that it’s unwise to turn it down.

Sommelier seemed to approve of our decision and minced off in a cloud of insincere deference. It’s fine, though. I was shocked at the airs that accompanied Sommelier last time, but this time I was old hat, and expected it. I just laughed it off and kept my excitement for the meal very, very high. When he returned with our champagne cocktails, I forgave him immediately. I do love champagne cocktails. This one was a mixture of brut, aquavit, and curacao. What is aquavit? Good question. I’ve heard the term flung left and right, but never knew what it was, and was never near enough a computer to Google it when I heard it. Last time I was very intimidated by the waitstaff. They were lovely, but I felt out of my league, like I was being granted a favor by being served. This time? I had worked a job that required me to haul heavy weights around at 6 a.m., just to save up the money for the experience. I deserved to be there. I was not afraid. So I totally balled-up and asked Sommelier WTF aquavit was. It’s a grain alcohol flavored with herbs and spices, including caraway, which is straight from hell. I didn’t detect any caraway in my cocktail, and drank it happily.

When we toasted, Chris’s suit-sleeve knocked over his water, and before the water could even cross the table to my brother, several waitstaff materialized with towels and cloths. They had it mopped up before Chris could even realize his own embarrassment, and then tried to get my brother to give up his chair for a new one. The water hadn’t even touched it, but they were almost aggressive in their eagerness to replace his chair. Several times that night we saw chairs being whisked through the dining room through a back door into what is probably an incinerator for chairs that had witnessed terrible things.

Partway through our cocktails, we were presented with our first dish:

Osetra, traditional garnishes

I still cannot believe I ate this. I always swore I’d have naught to do with fish eggs, but there I was, blithely smacking away at a bowlful of caviar, surrounded by a yolky, creamy, dilly creme fraiche and topped with a cloud of bread foam. The creme fraiche was intense. It tasted like a hollandaise that had gone off its diet and started eating the fatty foods it felt like eating. It was almost too rich, but the traditional tang of creme fraiche managed to cut through and waken the senses. The bread foam was subtle (foamy?), but cool. And the roe? Not too bad. I think, had it been anything else in the world other than fish eggs, I would have thought the texture was the coolest thing ever. The little balls burst into your mouth when you press them against the roof of your mouth with your tongue. The liquid inside was briny and fresh, and the whole thing left a very clean statement on the tongue when it had been swallowed. I had a hard time making it through the entire bowl, but mostly just because each bite for me was a tenuous revelation. I won’t be socking away pennies to purchase my own Osetra stash anytime soon, but I enjoyed it. And I felt very glitterati drinking my Champagne and eating my caviar (in my walking sandals).

Next came an old friend, wearing a different hat:

Pork belly, iceberg, cucumber, thai distillation

The first time we had this, the distillation was in the form of a loose gel. This time, it was a perfectly clear, liquid shot. We were instructed to first down the shot (holy peppers! but without the heat), then to dig into the dish itself. I apologize for the grainy, crappy pictures. The one from last time is better. I think we were in a darker room this time, without the windows that allowed for a touch of lighting. Anyway, once the shot is downed and the mouth feels crisp and verdant with fresh pepper flavor, the fatty pork belly, crunchy toasted garlic, bright basil seeds, and old school iceberg (compressed so that all of the water in the iceberg has been replaced with cucumber juice–how cool is that??) are set free on the palate. It’s such a well-balanced dish, and the only criticism I have is that the “spicy” red dollop of pepper puree is actually devoid of any kind of heat. I’ve had more scoville units from a Girl Scouts Tagalong than I got from the red blob on my plate. Tastes spectacular, though. Honestly. And it’s one of the ones that feels like (with the exception of the distillation) you could put together at home. Sure, it wouldn’t be as perfect or well-executed, but the flavor profile is really what makes this dish sing, and the flavor profile is ultimately pretty accessible.

Our next bite, and I do mean bite, was this titchy, miniscule square of clear jelly with plants in it:

Oxalis, juniper, gin, sugar

After we got over the dollhouse scale of the dish, Erik and I felt a pang of hesitation. Juniper? Gin? Blech. Our mom drinks gin and tonics, and our dad whiskey, so gin and whiskey were our options when we were younger and wanted to steal our parents’ booze. Whiskey is a flavor that you get accustomed to–possibly even begin to enjoy. But gin? Gin is AWFUL. I picture Hitler and Saddam Hussein holding tumblers of gin and having a jolly evil time. Tonic is no better, with its chemical, toxic aftertaste. Ewewewewew. But back to the nugget in front of us… Oxalis is related to sorrel, and has a green flavor. The tiny adornment of sugar cube crystals on the corner add a sweet crunch, and the snap of the fresh oxalis is exciting on the tooth. The dish was small enough to sit on the little metal tab, but the mouth felt too small to contain the flavor.

Next came another sea-dweller. This was a repeat of last time as well, and it tasted…pretty much like last time.

Lilac, scallop, shellfish, honeydew

Our mom doesn’t eat fish. As a result, we’ve had very little exposure to it. I’ve tried to bully Erik into trying tuna, with some decent success, but neither of us were very familiar with the scallops, clams, and mussels up in this motha. I had to ask one of the lurking suits which animal the orange bits were, which the white squares were, and which the pinky-white squigglers were. He answered nicely. By this point, I had developed a very firm set of favorites among the staff. There was one in particular who had a sense of humor and would say funny and semi-sarcastic things when he presented the food. You couldn’t hear then unless you REALLY listened for it, but the comments were intelligent and subtle. Good stuff.

The next dish was somewhat of a production, and rightly so:

Pigeonneau a la St Clair

First they brought out some ornate silverware and cordial goblets, then plates bedazzled with old patterns, then a glass of badass red wine, and finally this little gem. The idea was to present something from Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire in the middle of a very modern dinner. Escoffier is the original gangsta of chefs. His book is one of the first tomes of haute cuisine, and very ahead of its time in 1903, when it was originally published. It was cheeky to put this dish where they did, but thank GOD they did it. I have never, in all of my days, had a more sumptuous thing placed in front of me. I still have my favorites (truffle, haaaaiiiii), but this was mind-blowing. A crisp tart shell that flaked apart like it had no desire to be held together to begin with, but was firm enough to hold a thick mash of caramelized onions, truffle jus, slices of perfectly cooked squab, and a pair of expertly presented salsify (Ent-weiner) rounds. Hot damn, was that tart good. I will likely never prepare anything that tasted as good as that tart. And if I do, I will have to stop cooking altogether, lest I never make something that good again. The salsify was in place of the fois, which I don’t eat, and worked very well with the sweet onion puree. The flowery talk began on this dish, I believe. Our table began coming up with descriptors like “I want to take this tart back to my parents house and introduce it to my mom, all bashful like, and then take it up to my bedroom to study, but really we’ll be making out.” It’s because we ran out of traditional adjectives.

This next fella was my all-time favorite bite of food in the last meal (or ever, to that date). It also happens to be brilliantly photographed by accident on my part, and a nice surprise when I downloaded the pictures onto the computer:

Black truffle explosion, romaine, parmesan

A raviolo filled with black truffle stock and butter, topped with a dab of parmesan and romaine to dress it. This bite is still a wonder of the world. This time it seemed less life-changing. I don’t know if it’s because the stock was weaker or what, but it wasn’t the same as last time. I wouldn’t kick it out of bed, don’t get me wrong. It was still incredible. But it didn’t have the power to leap tall buildings in single bounds, either. I love truffles the same amount as I love Chris. He understands. Erik was pretty blown away by his first unadulterated bite of truffle flavor, and it was really fun to watch him fight the grin, lest the raviolo fluid try to escape through his teeth.

Our next dish was ENORMOUS. It was also very pretty and intricate:

Tomato, fig, nicoise olive, pine nuts

I didn’t really know what to make of this dish. There were bites that had star quality. The figs, for example, were perfect and sweet and tasted (somehow) just like a steak with fruit salsa. The two small tomato balls were bursting with sweetness and goodness. The olive blankets were interesting–sometimes good/sometimes overpowering. The olive oil ice cream was great, and the pine nut butter a work of genius. But somehow it just seemed like too much. I’ve only recently started to befriend the raw tomato, and this was a LOT of raw tomato, and a lot of nicoise olive, which doesn’t taste like the olives I use every day. It’s very strong and pungent and…everywhere. So I liked most bites, but not all, and Erik felt the same way. Chris ate his up like a kid with a sack of Sour Patch Kids, though, so to each his own.

Our next plating came out as a trifecta. First, they used a tiny offset spatula to place a little glass disk topped with a frozen circle of ice cream. The ice cream is a sweetly savory mustard ice cream, and it’s paired with passionfruit and allspice. I dug the hell out of that ice cream, letting it melt on my tongue and tell my tastebuds who was boss. Then the bacon trapeze from last time, which is dehydrated bacon wrapped in caramel, dried apple, and thyme. Good, but I always want this dish to be more assertive than it is. And finally this VERY cool presentation of a cake plate filled with smoking chips and little shotglasses, topped with a dome: The dome is lifted to reveal:

Dates, molasses, corn, smoke

A tiny spoon let us dig through the layers of the gooey parfait, bringing up pieces from the bottom. I was amazed by this dish. Chef Achatz and his crew always come out with great food, but periodically throughout the menu, they come up with this pairing that is just so much more than its ingredients. This was rich and dark and deep and savory, but also sweet and fresh and creamy. It tasted simultaneously like all of its ingredients and none of its ingredients. A whole new food had been invented with this pairing. I wish I had one right now. I wish it so badly. Maybe if I write a really nice letter to Chef he’ll put the recipe on Mosaic so I can try to wrap my brain around it a little better. Love. LOVE.

Okay, I need a break. I’m overstimulated and hungry, and I’m tired of sitting in my chair. I’ll post the second half of this meal tomorrow, including a picture of the wine pairings so you know what we were drinking (Peter, I’m catering to you). Sigh. I wish I lived in Chicago.

Day 3 Chicago–The Morning

Day three dawned with a mission–eat at Hot Doug’s.

boys, grab your hot dog blasters

Why, you ask? Because Hot Doug’s serves duck fat fries and world class hot dogs. So much so, in fact, that we spent almost three hours in line at Hot Doug’s waiting to get in. The line snaked all the way around the building.

Now, leading up to that, we had gone to Argo and had tea for breakfast. We figured a light breakfast would be good, because we were going to Hot Doug’s early so we wouldn’t have to wait in as long a line (HA!). Afterwards, we ran the four or so miles to the restaurant to pre-exercise off all of the glorious calories we’d be jamming down our gullets in a very short time. Mistaaaaaaaake. First of all, it was very warm outside. We were all sweating like hogs by the midpoint, and our shirts bore evidence in the form of large wet spots. We passed a McDonalds, so I asked if we could go inside and dry off before we got to Hot Doug’s. In the bathroom of the McDonalds, I took off my shirt (I was totally wearing a cute sports bra underneath) and dried it underneath the hand dryer. Then Jabba the McDonalds Eater came in and gave me this disgusted look. Yeah hi, lady. You can give me all the dirty looks you want, but the reality is that I’m cleaning up after exercising in the McDonalds and you’re EATING in the McDonalds. Who should be more ashamed. Exaaaaaactly. She went to the bathroom, threw me another look, and ran out of the bathroom WITHOUT WASHING HER HANDS. Gross.

We finished the run, took some obnoxious tourist photos along the way,

fy dolla, sailah boi!

and found the aforementioned line had already built. There was an ice cream truck outside, to which I succumbed after about an hour of waiting in the heat. The girl in front of us also got an ice cream cone, but she was like the effing bee whisperer, and would let these wasps hover right next to her hand, sharing her ice cream, and I was trying not to break out in paroxysms of horror. I HATE bees. HATE. How the hell can anyone just let them flit around their hands and faces without doing the crazy-person dance and running away?? I pawned my cherry slush off on Erik, lest bees discover I, too, was holding sweet stickiness.

the very end of the line…little did we know how far we had to go

Here’s the second reason running was a mistake: after waiting for that long, all of us were absolutely tapped out of blood sugar. The cherry slush did almost nothing, and as you know, not eating after any length of serious exertion leads to headaches and slap-happy and then cranky. I felt like ass. I’m sure they did too.

After about a jillion hours of waiting, we finally got in the front door, only to see a sign that said “cash only.” Fuck. Who carries cash?? Not any of us, that’s for damned sure. So Erik sprinted (literally) about a mile to the nearest ATM and then sprinted back barely in time to order. He was clutching a wad of cash and his achilles tendon. Poor little bastard. Running isn’t kind to him.

The men, happily inside at last

So, the order: I had a Chicago style dog, which comes festooned with neon green “sport” peppers, onions, tomatoes, mustard, and a whole spear of pickle laying along the length of the dog. I also had a ribeye sausage with chimuchurri, a big ol’ basket of duck fat fries, and a Doc Brown’s cherry soda. Erik and Chris each got a Selma Hayak (known for being a very, very hot sausage, but is actually a normal-heat andouille), a ribeye sausage, and a basket of fries apiece. Oh, and Erik had a celery soda, which was weird. Celery is a worthless vegetable, and an only marginally-less-worthless soda, but Erik liked it.


My Chicago dog was very, very good. The hot dog itself was the best hot dog I’ve ever had, so I don’t know if it was made out of something other than the typical meat detritus, or if it was just well executed, or if it was because they deep fried it or what. I loved it. And the pickle spear alongside the dog in the bun? C’est awesome.

The ribeye dog was good, but not as spectacular as you’d think.
The chimi was a little less flavorful than I’m used to, and the sausage needed a bit more fat, but overall very good. The boys liked theirs, and I ate much of mine.

The Selma Hayek was not that spicy, but very garlicky and flavorful, much like Selma Hayek herself. I tried a bite, and the guys demolished theirs after Chris promised he wasn’t anthropomorphizing his hot dog and thinking of Selma Hayek.

The fries were good, but honestly? Not what I expected. I thought I’d be just blown away by the duck-ness of them, but they were just good fries. Freshly cut, fairly crispy…I didn’t taste duck, so I dipped them in ketchup. Sue me.

Seconds away from actually vomiting from hunger, this picture was taken (by a Japanese tourist) in a frantic rush to begin eating

We had to take a bus home, since Erik’s tendons were all nonfunctional and broke-ass. Po’ Erik. We grabbed another bubble tea, then headed home to relax for an hour, then get ready for Alinea…and I’m totally going to post the pictures tomorrow. Chris has a fever of 102.5, and it’s taken me 6 hours to write this much, stopping periodically to take his temperature, force him to drink fluids, wander into the kitchen to eat plain chocolate chips because I’m bored and there aren’t any formal meals because he’s so sick…I’m not going to accomplish a 22 course meal in any kind of reasonable time limit until he’s at least not actively being sick.

Gimme some more a’ that sticky-icky

—-Alinea post next, I promise, maybe today—-

I don’t mince gently around the subject of rice pudding. I lurve it a million. I don’t need any fancy-schmancy custard bases, or rum-soaked raisins (I wouldn’t kick them out of bed for getting crumbs on the sheets, though), or flecks of vanilla bean…I just want tender yet chewy rice with some kind of sweet, creamy fluid suspending it. And a big spoon, of course. Often I just take leftover rice and stir in some sweetened condensed milk, then eat it just like that. Everyone knows I’m a big fan of sweetened condensed milk, but here’s a little Disgustor, Queen of the Gross Stuff story for you:

When I was young, I would take sweetened condensed milk out of my parents’ pantry and eat it straight from the can. But I couldn’t finish a can all at once back then (I totally can now), so I would just hide it behind the curtains in my room and sip from it periodically over the course of a week or so. I don’t ever remember it going bad, but it was dairy, so it had to, right? I mean, a can of sweet milk sitting in the sun by a window for a week isn’t going to stay fresh. I was less discerning back then. Now I’ll throw yogurt away just for looking at me funny, and it’s definitely heading to the trash can if it gets to its sell-by date. I don’t mess around with dairy.

Very occasionally, though, I get hit with the urge to have Thai rice pudding. It’s made with sticky rice, which is also known as glutinous rice, which is also known as sweet rice. It can be black, or it can be white (black rice? Wha? Yeah, it’s good). The rice is short-grained and very starchy, and sticks to itself beautifully (or infernally, if you’re not wanting it to stick together). I bought a bag of it once thinking “I’ll make Thai rice pudding!” It sat in a bag for a while, unused, because I know making a batch of pudding means I’ll eat the whole damned thing, warm from the pot. While it lay fallow, we had the cockroach scare of ’09, where I found one on the porch. After a fiesta of tears and panic, I revamped the entire pantry system to be bug-proof. All of our flours (and yes, there are many, many flours), and all of our sweets or grains are in these sealed plastic containers. I cut the title from the bag or box of food, taped it to the side of the plastic bin, and then dumped the contents of the bag or box inside. They stack nicely. I love them. We’re safe from bugs, and I’ve got a healthy, bouncing baby neurosis to nurse.

But back to Thai rice pudding…I wanted some. Then I remembered that Thai rice pudding is so calorie-laden that it just kind of jumps off of my plate and attaches itself to the backs of my thighs. The custard is just sweetened coconut milk, and it’s usually served with mangoes. I wanted the texture without the coconut milk fattiness. What to do?

Enter National Starch Company. They are a company that innovates/sells different processed starches for use in the food manufacturing business. They’re well-known for their N-Zorbit, which is used to turn high-fat creamy foods (like peanut butter or caramel) into powder. They make all kinds of wacky powders, though, and I have a lot of them. I ordered them to experiment for culinary school, but haven’t used many of them yet. They also make something called N-Dulge SA1, which is a corn maltodextrin that takes low-fat liquids and gives them a creamy, sumptuous, fatty mouthfeel. Uh, perfect?

So I made a very basic rice pudding with sticky rice using the N-Dulge SA1 to turn skim milk into glorious, creamy, thick custard that coated the mouth

or back of the spoon

in the same way a creme anglaise would, but with basically no fat. It was hella cool. I wasn’t at all sure it would work, or how it would work. The starches don’t come with recipes or instructions, because they’re meant to be used by large manufacturing companies that have R&D; departments and food scientists. I am not a food scientist, despite my fervent wishes.

The powdered SA1 looks much like cocaine, and has a texture unlike something you would ordinarily want to consume, and when mixed with liquids and left to sit (like on the walls of the blender) turns into something akin to cement. It got me to thinking: sure, this is a naturally based starch. But it’s not something found in food without processing it. And the way it clung to the sides of that blender makes me very, very glad that I don’t eat many processed foods. Think of what that probably does to your GI tract over time. Just coats it with a plaque of indelible grit…ugh. Then I thought about how it made a delicious creaminess out of nothing, and how it DID come from corn, and how obesity deposits even worse plaque in your heart, and then I figured, hey–this is actually a really cool product. And I ate the hell out of my rice pudding, which was decadent and had the chew of Thai with the rich vanilla flavor of traditional with the custardy goodness of true pudding with the fat of friggin’ Jello sugar-free pudding cup. Can you beat that? I tried, by using half Splenda-half sugar. It tasted authentic, and Chris ate it too, and he has always protested that he hates rice pudding.

Now, if you are afraid of using random o-chem-style ingredients, this isn’t for you. But maybe you still want to have a lovely sticky rice pudding. If that’s the case, I included a recipe for you using the full-fat version of these ingredients.N-Dulge SA1 —Sticky Rice Pudding

1 C sweet rice (glutinous rice, sticky rice, they’re all the same)
3 C skim milk
¼ C sugar
2 packets splenda
¼ t salt
3 T N-Dulge SA1 (National Starch Company)
1 t extract (vanilla or almond work well)

Soak rice in cold water for 10-15 minutes, then rinse until the water runs clear. Don’t skip this step, or you’ll have a gluey mess on your hands.

Combine 2 C milk, rice, sugar, and salt in a large saucepot, covered, and bring to a boil. Remove the lid and allow to simmer on medium heat, stirring periodically.

While this is happening, take the remaining cup milk, Splenda, and N-Dulge SA1 and blend on high speed in a blender until completely smooth.

After rice has been simmering for 10 minutes, stir in the N-Dulge slurry and keep simmering for 10 more minutes, or until the rice is tender. Taste for sweetness, stir in the extract, and allow to sit off of the heat for 15 minutes to thicken. Season with cinnamon and sugar if you like, and eat up!

–OR—

Natural sticky rice pudding

1 C sweet rice
2 C milk
1 C half and half
½ C sugar (scant)
¼ t salt
1 t extract (vanilla or almond work well)

Soak rice in cold water for 10-15 minutes, then rinse until the water runs clear. Don’t skip this step, or you’ll have a gluey mess on your hands.

Combine all ingredients in a large saucepot, covered, and bring to a boil. Immediately turn to medium, remove lid, and cook (stirring periodically to avoid sticking/burning) for 20 minutes, or until rice is tender. Adjust the sweetness, stir in extract, and let sit off the heat for about 15 minutes to thicken. Season the pudding with cinnamon and sugar if you feel so inclined, or just eat it warm out of the pot.

Or if you want an easy Thai rice pudding, do this the same way, but use coconut milk instead of regular milk. It’s all good! The world is your oyster! Or your bowl of rice pudding, at least.

It continues

Day two: Rise and shine, early enough to go for a tea, but not a run. I had the red velvet, which is a combination of red tea, cream, and white chocolate. Crazy-good, but Chris had bubble tea, so I drank much of his, and then some of Erik’s. They’re more tolerant of me than they should be.

We walked downtown, which is approximately far as f*&k.; Actually, only about 3 or 4 miles, but it was warm outside. We stopped for a bagel, first at Twin Sisters bakery, but they completely ignored us while we stood inside drooling on the chilled display case, so we walked next door to Einstein Bros and got a quick bite. I had a cinnamon apple bagel with caramel apple cream cheese. It was as good as the Einstein Bros anywhere else in the US.

Across the street from the bagel shop was a mecca of flavor. First we hit the Spice House, which is a little boutique that looks for all the world like Ye Olde Apothecary inside. There were clear glass jugs of every spice imaginable, and a group of cheerful gay guys who would scoop your spices into baggies or jars for you to take home. I made a list, including truffle salt, vulcan fire salt, seville orange rind, meyer lemon rind, pink peppercorns, freeze-dried sweet corn, savory maple sugar rub, Chicago deep dish pizza seasoning, grains of paradise (WTF? I don’t know), Ozark fried chicken rub, za’atar, English prime rib rub, and a hearty vial of pure ground Spanish saffron. I couldn’t believe my good luck, both that they had so many great, fresh spices for me, Kristie, to take to my own personal home and eat, as well as Chris being so atypically enthusiastic about spice shopping, saying “get it, get it, get it” about all the spices on which I was wavering. I love that he gets excited about exotic spices. Having dated plenty who don’t “get” that side of me, I really appreciate being married to someone who does.

But what to do while they fulfilled my wish list? Ah, yes. Next door. The artisan olive oil and balsamic vinegar shop! Old Town Oil was very cool. The walls were lined with flavored balsamics in big drums, and the center of the room was an island of flavored olive oils. Little paper shot glasses were spaced periodically throughout the room so you could mix and taste.

Yes, that’s a robot on Chris’s shirt. My husband really likes robots. I support that.

Roasted garlic olive oil with traditional 18 year traditional balsamic? Excellent. Blood orange olive oil with meyer lemon balsamic? Woot! Shot of straight aged balsamic? What, what in my butt! SO good. And all you had to do was point, and they’d take a pretty glass bottle and fill it with your choice, sealing it with a cork and wax while you wait. I bought a 375 ml bottle of the 18 year for under $20, which was offensively inexpensive for the quality of this vinegar. It’s sweet and tangy and DEEP, better than the best balsamic I’ve ever had, which cost $120 for the same quantity (I didn’t buy it, obviously. Willie can’t yet lay golden eggs). Honestly, much like black, I won’t be going back…wait a second…

I picked my spices up, and off we went to Topolobampo. Topo is a brainchild of restauranteur and undisputed Top Chef Master Rick Bayless. Aside from being a gentle, yoga-doing hippie who is polite to everyone all the time, he’s also a world-renowned Mexican chef. He’s a white boy, totally, but spent enough time in Mexico that he’s mastered the cuisine. We’ve spent some time with his cookbook at home, and it’s by far the most user-friendly, authentic cookbook I’ve used. Having watched Top Chef Masters with bated breath, Chris and I were pretty excited to try his food firsthand. The restaurant was right downtown, and had a modest interior, decorated with little wire Day of the Dead statues. The food was very, very good. I got the (and I’m pulling this directly from the website)

“Pollito con Elote: pan-seared Gunthrop heritage-breed rock hen and a celebration of Three Sister’s Garden corn: sweet corn tamales, braised wild greens (quelites) with seared corn esquites, creamy jalapeno-corn sauce.”

The tamales were good, but lacked the filling I am accustomed to, so I was surprised by them. The sauce was creamy and sweet, but didn’t have the kick I expected. Again, tasty, but different. The hen, though, was fall-off-the-bone tender, and the skin caramelized to a sweet/salty/fatty crust. I could have eaten three or four hens, by myself.

Erik got the

“Falda Asada “Brava”: spicy serrano-marinated grass fed flank steak (from Bill Kurtis’s Tall Grass) with spicy salsa huevona (hand-crushed, grill-roasted tomatoes, jalapenos). Grilled knob onions and sweet corn tamales (topped with homemade sour cream and fresh cheese).”


I love grass-fed beef. And I love tiny onions. And I loved the weensy little hand-tossed corn tortillas that came with his dish. And I loved his homemade sour cream, even though I hate sour cream. So his dish was eyed covetously after I tasted it. He very nearly lost a limb in the struggle for additional bites.

Chris, dear Chris, got the famed dish that I believe won Bayless the Masters competition.

“Cochinita Pibil’:overnight-braised Maple Creek Farm suckling pig “pibil” with crispy pig’s foot, sour orange jellies, habanero-pickled onions, sunchoke pudding.”

Eh. Meh. Geh. These little logs of pork, textured like confit, flavored within an inch of their lives…to die for. Literally. Like, I would off someone in order to eat this again. Even the sauce that came with it (in a quaint little sake-looking jug) was rife with depth of flavor and umami (hate to use the word, but it is the only way to describe it). This dish was an epic win.

But not as big as Chris’s win on the way out. He’d been eyeing the kitchen expectantly, hoping to see Chef Bayless. I tried to explain that he likely wasn’t there, as he has many different pots in the fire, and cookbooks and a life. Chris looked disappointed. But on the way out, in the restaurant next door (which opens this week, I think) we saw… BAYLESS! And he was BOSSING PEOPLE! And we were VERY EXCITED! Chris wrote him a little love note and stuck it to the window. Chris has a very special man-crush on Rick Bayless, probably because of his cowboy beans (not a euphemism).

On the way home, we stopped at a grocery store called Fox and Obel, right across the street from Oprah’s apartment building.
It was ritzy, full of expensive and gourmet prepared foods, free-range meats with the actual farm source listed on the signs (I wish, I wish, I wish I could find this in Texas). Erik bought a chocolate tart with a caramel crust, and didn’t share any. Po’ me.

We went to Lou Malnatti’s for dinner, to get some famous Chicago deep-dish, only to find it wasn’t the sauce-on-top variety that Chris loves.

Sorry for the grainy picture, it was dark.

Great pizza, just not what we were hoping for. They serve pizza in the waiting room while you’re getting seated for more pizza. The only other place I’ve seen this is Krispy Kreme. It’s such a good idea, but by the time we sat down, after a couple of Leinenkugel Summer Shandies, I was full and a little buzzed.

We dressed ourselves and headed off to Kinkade’s, where Chris came to the sad realization that his bar isn’t the same as it was 6 years ago, or whenever he was in med school. Very sad, but functional, as I managed to get pretty sauced out on Tuaca and car bombs. Went home, passed out. New day tomorrow!