Archive for December 2008
While certainly not my most flattering photo op (my friend Brodie already strongly advised I lose the chin cinched hat ASAP), these are pictures from my annual Christmas Day run with my brother, Kelly. For the last several years, my dad, brother, and I have made it a tradition to run from my parents’ house in Brookfield to the Milwaukee lakefront (approximately 10 miles) on Christmas morning. Unfortunately, my dad is currently sidelined with a knee injury, so this year’s run wasn’t quite the same, but Kelly and I felt like we had to keep the tradition alive and brave the 8-foot snow mounds, uncleared sidewalks, and icy patches, to literally earn our Christmas day feast.
Running to the lakefront has become similar to a rite of passage in our family. I like to do the run each time I visit my parents. My mom made the journey for the first time a few months ago, and has been rewarded accordingly with a coveted spot in our secret sect. I love the run because I get to spend quality time with my family and enjoy memorable conversations (sometimes my dad will ask if there are any new guys in my life, which is always classic). I also love the variety of the route and terrain. During the course of the 10 mile journey, we experience the suburbs, parks and trails, the campus of Marquette University, the ghetto, the city, lakefront, and Milwaukee Art Museum (aka, Mecca).
I definitely love good family and holiday traditions (what could be more memorable?), and our annual Christmas run to the Lakefront is one of my favorites. Although we missed my dad this time, I’m glad my brother and I kept the tradition alive for yet another year.
My favorite holiday gifts for friends are simple and homemade. This year, using an idea I found in a Martha Stewart holiday magazine, I made several batches of my famous homemade granola :), bagged them into 1lb window coffee bags, and decorated with festive ribbons. I bought the coffee bags from an online coffee wholesaler, and used a modified recipe for granola that I found in the Joy of Cooking.
This past Friday night, a few friends and I went out to dinner at the Old Fashioned, followed by a performance of the Nutcracker at the Overture Center. I love the Old Fashioned, and hadn’t been there in a while. It’s a relatively recent entrant to the Madison dining scene and is essentially a trendy take on a Wisconsin supper club. It’s good stuff. I enjoyed a burger, and we all split a $4.50 pitcher of Shlitz. It doesn’t get much more Wisconsin than that. Afterwards, we headed to the nearby Overture Center, where we barely arrived in time for the show. The performance was good, but nothing extraordinary. I feel like I’ve seen the Nutcracker a bazillion times, and this performance wasn’t particularly noteworthy, except for when two of the professional dancers fell on their butts during two seperate sequences. When does that ever happen?
Chriskindlmarket (Daley Plaza)
More of a seasonal favorite, Christkindlmarket is the largest German holiday market outside of Germany. For the last 12 years, the event has been held daily on Daley Plaza from Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve. The market features a very large Christmas tree, nativity scene, daily dance and music entertainment, and vendors from Germany, Ukraine, Austria, and Chicago, selling beer, spiced wine, baked goods, toys, and handmade holiday ornaments.
I’ve made the trip to Chistindlmarket in December for the last several years. Last week, I met up with my friend and college roommate, KJ (Kristen), to enjoy the outdoor market. It was the coldest day in Chicago I’ve experienced, so shopping outside wasn’t terribly pleasant, but we still had a good time. We enjoyed a lunch of traditional German potato pancakes with apple sauce, brats, and hot apple cider in the warming hut. Afterwards, we stocked up with traditional German candy and roasted nuts at the “Sweet Castle” and perused the beautiful handmade ornaments. Chriskindlmarket is definitely a beloved Chicago tradition, and a must-see during the holiday season.
Starting with a classic favorite, I enjoyed a record-breaking six meals at Fox and Obel Café (401 E. Illinois Street), which covered the span of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My favorites are still the breakfast offerings, specifically the French Toast, Applewood-Smoked Bacon, and Healthy Start Parfait (layers of milk an honey granola, vanilla yogurt, and seasonal berries). I also love any and all of the baked goods.
Also along the lines of breakfast, my friend Seif (Katie) introduced me to a new restaurant, The Bongo Room (1152 S Wabash Ave.), which specializes in creative French toast and pancakes. The strategy, as Seif explained it to me, is to order multiple items on the menu, but as half orders. That way you can sample as many different pancakes as possible. So Seif and I essentially created a pancake/french toast flight, and enjoyed four varieties, including the Chocolate Tower French Toast (bittersweet chocolate chunk bread stuffed with maple mascarpone, banana crème brulee sauce, bananas and shaved chocolate). It was quite hilarious to see all of the decadent varieties of pancakes spread across the table for just the two of us. It was sheer gluttony, and I loved every moment.
Next up was another Seif recommendation, Tango Sur (3763 N. Southport), which is where I enjoyed dinner on Monday with Seif, Karen, my friend Mel from college, and my colleague Cydney, and her boyfriend Ben. I loved this place, definitely now among my Chicago favorites. It’s essentially an Argentinian BYOB steak house with a very intimate atmosphere and great prices. We started out with appetizers, sampling the four varieties of Empanadas, as well as the Provoleta (Argentina provolone cheese cooked on the grill with olive oil and roasted red pepper). Seif and I then split the El Filet as an entrée (range grown filet mignon cooked on the grill then topped with a red onion wine sauce and accompanied with spinach mashed potatoes.) We also took advantage of the BYOB, with two bottles of red wine with dinner. I’m embarassed to admit I was a tiny bit hung over on Tuesday!
My next restaurant adventure was to The Publican (837 W. Fulton Market), which recently opened in October to much hype (it’s the latest venture from the team who opened Avec and Blackbird). The menu is unique and eclectic, and primarily highlights seafood and heirloom pork, as well as an incredible beer list and communal dining. Karen, her sister Sue, and I shared three dishes—the mussels, the heirloom apple salad, and a dish with chicken, sausage, and frites. The heirloom salad stood out most for me. It was very good. The rest was good, but not great. The service was very good, and the bathrooms are also cool. But I’d still pick Avec over The Publican any day.
And my final culinary adventure in Chicago was to Sweet Mandy B’s (1208 W. Webster Ave.), which features “old fashioned” homemade cakes, cookies, cupcakes, and more. I ordered two cookies and the “Magic” bar. I’m such a sucker for good bakeries. They just draw me in with their creamy frostings, cheery pleasantries, and sugar.
Hip. Cool. Fashion-forward. These aren’t adjectives you’d ordinarily think of applying to baked goods.
Think again. Not every baker wants to re-create Grandma’s pound cake or cherry pie. Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito certainly didn’t, when they left their advertising careers behind, pooled their life savings, and opened their dream bakery, Baked, in Brooklyn, New York, a few years back. The visions that danced in their heads were of other, brand-new kinds of confections…
Things like a Malt Ball Cake with Milk Chocolate Frosting, which captures the flavor of their favorite Whoppers candies (and ups the ante with a malted milk ball garnish). Things like spicy Chipotle Cheddar Biscuits that really wake up your taste buds at breakfast time. Things like a Sweet and Salty Cake created expressly for adults who are as salt-craving as they are sweet-toothed.
Which is not to say that Lewis and Poliafito sidestep tradition absolutely. Their Chocolate Pie (whose filling uses Ovaltine) pays loving homage to the classic roadside-diner dessert. Their Baked Brownies will wow even the most discriminating brownie connoisseur. And their Chocolate Chip Cookies? Words cannot describe. Whether trendsetting or tried-and-true, every idea in this book is freshly Baked.
Now you probably think I went crazy and spent all kinds of money on Michigan Avenue, but au contraire, my friend. Besides extravagant dining expenses, I kept my pocket book relatively tight lipped. I’m saving for skate skies.
My biggest purchases were the two ornaments pictured above. I’m on a mission to amass a fantastic collection of personalized Christmas ornaments. I found the top ornament at Crate&Barrel. It’s the “Cook’s Tools in Crock Ornament.” I purchased it for close to $10, and of course when I checked online this morning, it’s down to $6.97. But even at full price, I think it’s an excellent ornament and truly fitting for my me and my love of cooking.
Obviously I found the second ornament at Starbucks. But luckily this time, I scored a deal. The ornament was 30% off, so I think I paid somewhere between $3 and $4. I fell in love with the ornament because it reminded me of all the Carmel Apple Spice drinks I had during my time in Chicago. Only on vacation do I indulge in the extravagance of daily grande Carmel Apple Spice drinks.