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Frontera, finally

I love Mexican food. I admire Rick Bayless. And I live in Chicago, minutes away from Bayless’ much-lauded Frontera Grill (as well as the fine-dining Topolobampo and street-food Xoco). One would think that I would have taken advantage of those three variables coming together. But no.

With Frontera’s no-reservations policy — and typical two-hour wait — Drew and I had somehow never found the right night to do it. Then, a few months ago, my mom read about a Chicago Botanic Garden event that involved a tour of Bayless’ home garden in Bucktown (conveniently within walking distance of our place) and a meal at Frontera. Awesome? Yes. Expensive? Oh yes. My parents wanted to get me two tickets for my birthday, which was last week, but I suggested that instead, the four of us — me, Drew, my mom and my dad – go there for dinner together for my birthday.

We got there on Saturday around 4:15 p.m. (Frontera opens at 5 p.m.), and Drew graciously offered to wait in line for us while we got a beer around the corner at Hub 51. When we returned, he had already put his name in and gotten us a 5:20 p.m. seating time. It worked out perfectly — one drink at the bar, and we were seated.

Since this meal was four years in the making, we didn’t hold back.

Chips and guacamole

Frontera Guacamole with cilantro, lime, green chile and tomato

Obviously, we had to order the guacamole and house-made tortilla chips, which were excellent. And, since my dad is somewhat of a tortilla-soup aficionado, we had to get a bowl to share. It was hard to directly compare it to other tortilla soups because it was much more brothy than the thick, cheesy versions we’re used to, but it was absolutely delicious, with deep, layered flavors and big chunks of chicken and avocado.

Tortilla soup

Topolobampo Tortilla Soup with grilled chicken, avocado, hand-made Jack cheese, thick cream and crisp tortilla strips

Drew and I first tried Mexican-style corn when we were living in New York, and we’ve loved it ever since. (Speaking of, if you’re ever in NYC, tiny Cafe Habana in Noho is worth the wait.) Frontera has two styles of Mexican corn, and we tried the one with sour cream, anejo cheese and chile. I don’t know if I liked it quite as much as the version with mayo, cojita cheese and lime that I’m used to, but I certainly wasn’t disappointed. I think the picture speaks for itself.

Grill-roasted corn

Grill-Roasted Corn from Three Sisters Garden with homemade sour cream, anejo cheese and chile

For the main course, the Saturday special: chipotle-glazed ribs with black beans and “tangy cabbage” that was more like giardinere. Every bite packed a punch.

Chipotle-glazed ribs

Chipotle-glazed Gunthorp Farm pork back ribs with tangy cabbage and black beans

Oh, and for the other main course, the Big Wood-grilled Tacos al Carbon Trio. The pork was our favorite.

Big Wood-grilled Tacos al Carbon Trio

Taco trio with grassfed skirt steak, Gunthorp chicken and pork, with roasted poblanos, guacamole, grilled knob onions and local shishito peppers

Even though we were stuffed, and we’re not really dessert people to begin with, the savory-sounding blueberry bread pudding with sour-orange ice cream was too hard to resist. We ordered one with four forks.

Blueberry bread pudding

Warm, buttery blueberry bread pudding with local blueberries, sour-orange ice cream, oat-amaranth crumble and Klug Farm blueberry compote

The bread pudding was indeed buttery, and the crumble provided the perfect contrasting texture. But the best part was the tangy ice cream, which must have been made with sour cream. Since none of us love sweet foods, it was the perfect dessert — and, surprisingly, perhaps the highlight of the night. The biggest endorsement came from my mom, who doesn’t often gush over food. She said it may have been the best dessert she had ever had.

As much as I would have loved to see Bayless’ amazing garden, I think it was a good call skipping the tour.

Homegrown edamame

One night last week when the hubby had class, I picked up some takeout sushi and decided to try out the edamame I’ve been growing in my roof-deck garden. I simply steamed them for about five minutes, then sprinkled on a little kosher salt. Aside from tasting fresher (and having a bit of a prickly skin!), they were just like the edamame you’d get at any Japanese restaurant.

My edamame plants haven’t yielded a whole lot; has anyone else experienced this? Maybe I just need to plant more next year!

Confused pepper

Among the many different vegetables I ambitiously planted on my roof deck this year were peppers: 1 red, 1 yellow and 1 poblano. I finally got my first legitimate pepper today, not only of the year, but ever. This one was supposed to be yellow; guess I picked it at the wrong time. Hopefully it’s still tasty!

First pepper of the season

Best of both worlds?

Today was perfect grilling weather, and I had a taste for a dish I made for the first time last summer: grilled scallops and nectarines with corn and tomato salad. I know it sounds strange, but the combination of the different textures and sweet and salty flavors just works. Beautifully.

Not bad for a Tuesday night, if I do say so.

Grilled scallops and nectarines

Grilled scallops and nectarines with corn and tomato salad

Grilled scallops and nectarines with corn and tomato salad
Adapted from Bon Appetit

Servings: 6

INGREDIENTS

Dressing:
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 1/2 teaspoons lime zest
1/8 teaspoon chili powder
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Fleur de sel or ground sea salt

Pesto:
1 garlic clove, peeled
2 cups fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts or walnuts
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
2 tablespoons lemon juice

Salad:
24 large sea scallops, side muscles removed, patted dry
3 firm but ripe nectarines, each cut into 6 wedges
Olive oil, for brushing
Corn kernels cut from 2 large ears of grilled corn
24 grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
1/3 cup thinly sliced basil leaves
Fleur de sel or ground sea salt

PREPARATION

For dressing:
Whisk lime juice, lime zest, and chili powder in a small bowl. Slowly whisk in oil. Season with salt and pepper.

For pesto:
In a food processor, add the garlic, basil leaves, pine nuts, salt, and pepper. Pulse until finely chopped. With the blender still running, slowly pour in 1/2 cup of olive oil. Add more oil if necessary. Transfer to a bowl and stir in Parmesan.

For salad:
Heat grill to medium-high and spray or brush with oil. Brush scallops and nectarines with oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grill nectarines until slightly charred, about 1 1/2 minutes per side. Grill scallops until slightly charred and cooked through, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer nectarines and scallops to plate.

Arrange four scallops at the center of each plate and arrange nectarine wedges decoratively around them. Add corn, tomatoes and basil to dressing and season to taste with salt and pepper. Spoon salad around the scallops, then drizzle some of the pesto over the top. Enjoy! 

 

With childhood obesity on the rise, I feel like I keep hearing more and more about the importance of teaching kids where their food comes from. The concept always made sense to me in theory, but when I started my first vegetable garden on my roof deck this summer, it finally registered.

When spring fever hit in March this year thanks to a string of 80-degree days, I got a little overexcited and ordered not one, not two, but FIVE EarthBoxes. (Hey, go big or go home.) I also got overexcited about what to plant in them. I followed EarthBox’s recommendations for how many of each type of vegetable to plant in one container, but I think I tried to include far too many varieties:

Box 1: 1 cherry tomato, 1 heirloom tomato
Box 2: 8 peas, 4 green beans, 4 edamame
Box 3: 1 red pepper, 1 yellow pepper, 1 poblano pepper, 1 basil, 1 cilantro, 1 kale, 1 spinach (BTW, is basil an invasive species? ‘Cause mine is going crazy…)
Box 4: 1 zucchini, 1 cucumber
Box 5: 2 strawberry, 2 broccoli, 2 green onion (The broccoli has completely overtaken the box; the strawberries are probably benefiting from the shade of the broccoli leaves, but the green onions have been totally overpowered — pretty funny to see.)

I planted the zucchini and cucumber plants from seeds, and they quickly took off. Every time I went up to the roof, I saw an explosion of leaves and yellow flowers but no vegetable starts. Despite my love of food and cooking, I came to the embarrassing realization that I didn’t know how squash actually grew. It was the same for my broccoli: tons of stinky-smelling broccoli leaves, but no florets — where would they come from?

Then, yesterday, with my zucchini flowers blooming more than usual, I took a closer look underneath the big leaves. And there they were: squash growing right out of the base of the plant topped off by big, now orange, flowers.

My first zucchini: It’s huge; how did I miss this until now?

How cool is that? If my excitement and wonderment about growing my own vegetables as an adult is any indication, I’d say this could be a pretty good tactic to get kids interested in eating their fruits and veggies.

One night last week, my plan was to use up some ingredients I had on hand to make goat cheese, spinach, and sundried tomato-stuffed pork chops with lemon quinoa. But since it turned out to be 79 degrees and sunny — and the pork chop recipe required turning on the oven — I aborted mission.

Plan B: Grilled shrimp, green rice, and guacamole salad, one of my favorite light summer meals.

Perfect summer meal

Grilled shrimp, green rice & guacamole salad

Grilled shrimp

Servings: 2

14-16 medium or large shrimp, peeled and deveined, tails on
2 teaspoons olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste

Preheat grill or grill pan to medium-high heat. Toss shrimp with olive oil, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes, and thread onto two metal skewers. Cook shrimp 2-3 minutes on each side or until pink in the center.

Green rice

Servings: 4 (I usually make the full recipe, knowing we’ll have leftovers)

2 cups chicken stock
2 poblano peppers, roughly diced
1 cup cilantro, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 cup long-grain rice (basmati works well)
3 cloves garlic, minced
Freshly ground black pepper
3 or 4 chives, chopped

In a blender, combine chicken stock, poblano peppers, cilantro and 1 teaspoon salt. Blend until smooth.

In a medium saucepan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Cook onion until soft, about 4 or 5 minutes. Add rice and garlic and stir for another minute or two. Add chile puree, cover, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer until liquid is absorbed and rice is tender, about 15 minutes.

Remove from heat, garnish with scallions, and serve.

Guacamole salad
Adapted from 2006, Barefoot Contessa at Home

Servings: 2-3

1/2 pint mixed grape tomatoes (red, orange and yellow), halved
1/2 yellow or red pepper, seeded and diced
1/2 (15-ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained
1/2 red onion, chopped
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice (about 1 lime)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1 ripe avocado, seeded, peeled, and diced

Whisk together the lime juice, salt, black pepper, garlic, and cayenne pepper. Combine the rest of the ingredients, and pour the vinaigrette over the top. Toss well to combine.

Since Drew had to get back to studying for finals, we skipped the cold beer that usually accompanies this meal , but it was still a satisfying ending to a gorgeous early-summer weekend.

Good people

When my friend Megan broke up with her boyfriend several months ago, she made a big effort to up her girl time. Before that, we had hung out every now and then — mostly in a group — but no matter how hard we both tried to strike a balance, the lure of cozy nights at home with our significant others often won out over getting together with girlfriends.

But when Megan became a free woman, we happily started meeting for dinner on random weeknights every couple of weeks. Instead of planning weeks ahead to try to get a big group of us togehter, we called each other last-minute when we had a free night, and she came by me or I went by her. I loved it, because even though I’ve been married for more than three years now and the we-have-to-be-together-every-second syndrome has subsided a little, I still get stuck in my routine and don’t reach out to my friends as much as I should.

The best part is that even though Megan is now in a new relationship and the happiest she’s ever been, girl time has remained a priority. And I think that says something. She and her boyfriend love the time they spend together, but they’re secure enough in their relationship that they can still live their own lives and pursue their own passions.

A few weeks ago, Megan and I had another impromptu dinner, this one at People in Wicker Park, adjacent to my place. We shared skirt steak, calamari with pesto sauce and aioli, and potatoes with roasted red pepper aioli — as well as a pitcher of passion-fruit sangria (and an extra glass each!). Everything was delicious, but we were so busy catching up and laughing that I forgot to take a picture of our feast until the end of the night, when only the sangria remained.

Sangria at People

Sangria and lots of laughs at People in Wicker Park

I’d say that’s the sign of a good night — and a good friend.

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