Thursday, March 5, 2015

Chicago 2015: Day 2

Our second day in Chicago was so much better! The sun was shining and the sky was blue, it was still really cold but the excitement of exploring kept us going.
We stopped at Waffles Cafe for breakfast. Do you know how much I love waffles? It's amazing that I still don't own a waffle maker. I was excited to see all the different flavours on their menu and ordered the green tea waffle with lemon ginger cream and ground pistachio. Sadly, I didn't like this pairing at all. I found the waffle lacking in matcha flavour so much that I kept stealing bites from Howard's egg and chorizo dish.

We also tried the wonut - a waffle doughnut hybrid. Do they use doughnut batter in the waffle maker or deep fry a regular waffle? I don't know how they make it but I did like the light crispy shell that the wonut had before the soft interior. We tried the white ganache with chocolate sprinkles (second tray on the right on the photo above) since it is one of their bestsellers. And the chocolate turtle (bottom tray in the middle) with pecans and a caramel glaze - this was our favourite of the two.
With all that sugar in us, we walked and walked and came upon Maggie Daley Park that brought the kids out of us. There was a skating ribbon and small play areas filled with the coolest equipment.
There's a nautical theme in this play garden (at least I think that's what it's called after searching online).
I'm wondering if this is all new? Everything was still clean, shiny, and a delight to climb on - didn't risk going down the slides in case they were icy or wet inside.
I love this little boat. I want to take it home with me!!!
The beautiful BP Pedestrian Bridge. I loved the shiny plates of shingles and the curves, this is one sexy bridge. One bonus of Chicago in the winter is that there aren't many people out exploring in the cold with us. It felt like we had the bridge to ourselves!
The Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Most sections are roped off to help preserve the greenery, but we could still admire the design and imagine the music here on warm summer nights.
The bean!!! Technically called Cloud Gate and as I got closer to it, I became captivated by the shape and reflections. I can see why photographers and tourists can spend hours here, just looking at it from different angles and different spots.
Howard sprouted off some facts that he read about, telling me that it was made with stainless steel plates that are welded together. And that it has seams that aren't visible unless you look closely. So we looked closely to see if we could spot the waves and bumps from the seams.
I love how it looks like a giant dew drop.
Crown Fountain in the winter becomes one of the many sculptures as the water is turned off.
Hmm, how about these tiles from Crown Fountain for a kitchen back-splash? Equipped with lighting in the back!
Walking around the park and the loop had us pop into Macy's to warm up and fill up on fuel. Luckily the food court on the seventh floor (Seven on State) had lots of great options. From Frontera Fresco, I ordered short rib tacos filled with wild arugula, cotija cheese, and cilantro crema and a sweet corn and green chile tamale with ricotta and goat cheese, tomatillo salsa, queso fresco, and cilantro. That tamale is so good, the corn tortillas were a bit too dry and rough for the tacos, but the short ribs were tasty and nicely braised.

Howard ordered noodles by Takashi Yagihashi, apparently a hot bowl of made-to-order ramen hits the spot in the winter. I still preferred my lunch over his. =P
CHICAGO, don't think that the Chase advertising was always there. Marina City, what's your take on the cob-like building? Yay or nay?

By the way, don't break in new boots that you bought the night before if you plan on walking everywhere. Ouch. Let's just say that my feet were throbbing for the next few days.
After some booth duty in the late afternoon, my boss and I went to Graham Elliot Bistro for dinner. The place is long and narrow, dim and quite loud. We were seated along the wall, squeezed between two other tables with loud parties, so it wasn't the best place for conversation. I normally take whatever table the hostess gives, but here, we did try to ask for a quieter table to no avail.

We shared a starter called Milk & Honey which consisted of burrata cheese, raw honeycomb, and baby arugula. The salad was light and we wished there was more honeycomb crumbles. I tried the Salmon Filet served with whipped​ parsnips, brussels sprouts, and bacon lardon. My boss tried the Shortrib Stroganoff. The portions were larger than I expected and we skipped on dessert. Overall, we weren't very impressed, maybe we expected more unique and playful dishes. The food was decent but nothing special.

Howard, on his own, went for deep dish pizza that night because I said it was probably something I didn't want to try (the amount of cheese and sauce and crust looks so heavy, like it would just sink to the bottom of your stomach). So he ventured over to Giordano's for his deep dish experience. From what I heard, he had to pace himself to eat it and then he had to walk it all off before meeting me back at our hotel.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Chicago 2015: Day 1

This year, I was fortunate enough to be chosen to go to ALA Midwinter for work. The conference was held in the windy city of Chicago (why do they choose places that are cold?). And even though the winter is being icy, cold, and snowy, I was still excited because I've never been to Chicago before! Yup, this was my first trip to Chicago and I wanted to see the sights, eat great food, and pick up a book or two. Howard even tagged along as it was his birthday weekend, aka Super Bowl weekend and Groundhog Day.

Another first was flying Porter! For our first experience, I have to say, it was great! We arrived at the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, took the ferry (a little bit of nausea for me, even though the Lake was semi-frozen), and sped through checking in. There were lots of business folks with carry-on bags so they all breezed right through. Which was great for us because by the time we reached the counter and security, there were no line ups. The staff was friendly and the lounge offered free WiFi and complimentary beverages and snacks! We didn't have to spend a small fortune on bottled water, juice, and pop at the airport - and that was so refreshing considering you're not allowed to bring your own beverages any more.

Our flight was delayed for 20 minutes, but at least the estimate was accurate and they kept us up-to-date. It's a pretty short distance from Toronto to Chicago, but they still offered snacks and drinks in flight. Upon arrival, everything was just as fast as checking in. Our luggage was waiting for us and we were on our way to the convention center for setup.
If you think book publishers just sit around all day, you should try setting up a booth. You need to be a seasoned pro to know to wear comfortable shoes, tie your hair back, and peel off the layers. It gets warm and your feet will start to hurt (idea: massage booth in the exhibit floor). But our editorial director and I did it - our booth looked great! Next step: check into the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers, leave our luggage, and go eat lunch!

We stopped at Shake Shack because we were so hungry from setting up all those books. We got to try the ShackMeister Burger (cheeseburger topped with crispy marinated shallots and ShackSauce) with crinkle fries (why wouldn't you get crinkle fries?), and my favourite - Shack-made mango lemonade!
Next up, some sightseeing on the Magnificent Mile. Are there twinkling lights along this stretch for the entire year? It's just beautiful seeing the glowing trees, the beautiful buildings, and the stores I can never shop at. I know this section of the city is known for the shopping, but we were perfectly happy window shopping.

We made stops at Eataly, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's. The home decor and kitchen stores were tempting, but there was no way I could bring all that back to Toronto. Of course, we had to stop by to see all the Jordans at the Nike store. Howard was pretty much in love with this wall display.
Speaking of shoes, we both ended up buying a pair. Not from Nike, but a close relative of this global brand: Cole Haan. Pretty boots for me and Chukkas for Howard. We're such huge fans of their foot wear, mainly because they have the Nike Air cushioning without the looks of sneakers and runners. All year round, I stay comfy with my ballet flats, pumps, and boots from them. I was really, really tempted by a pair of ankle boots too, but one big purchase was enough for me.

By the end of the night, we were exhausted. We made it all the way to the Drake Hotel before having to hail a taxi to take us back to our hotel by the Chicago River.
For dinner, we went to XOCO (pronounced “SHO-ko”) by Rick Bayless. It's a more casual dining experience compared to the usual sit in restaurant. You order at the counter, get a table number and are seated, and then they bring the food to you. We tried the Chicharrones with Tamazula hot sauce, queso añejo, onion, cilantro, and lime. This was a large basket, perfect for sharing. Watch out though, it has some heat! We also got the fully dressed guacamole for the table, which means a little bit of each available topping: sun-dried tomatoes, queso fresco (fresh cheese), pomegranate seeds, pumpkin seeds, spicy roasted poblano, chicharron (crispy fried pork skin), grilled onion, and smoky bacon. Also served with tomatillo salsa, three-chile salsa, and just-made chips.
I also got their famous hot chocolate to warm me up (I'm all about the sugar, so this was a bit too bitter for my liking). Some more comfort food for the cold winter night, their Carnitas Caldos: slow-cooked Gunthorp pork with potato-masa dumplings, chayote, roasted serrano chile, greens, arugula, and avocado. I happily divided this into smaller portions for everyone at the table. It was really good, but really salty at the same time!
We tried two tortas, the one picture above is the Milanesa: crispy Gunthorp chicken, Jack cheese, pickled jalapeños, red onions, Napa cabbage, tomatillo-avocado salsa, and black beans. This was one delicious sandwich. The other one was the Cubana: smoked Gunthorp pork loin, bacon, black beans, avocado, spicy morita, Jack cheese, and chipotle mustard. This was also very good, except it was unanimous that we all preferred the Milanesa! 

At this point of the night, we were so tired that we couldn't even muster another bite or order churros for dessert. After all that eating, we still didn't have the energy to stay awake and walk back to the hotel. You know you're done when . . .

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Southwestern Chili

What do you really want this Valentine's Day? A sexy, beautiful homemade treat or a hot and spicy, comforting bowl of chili? I choose comfy any day, in fact, I'm happily wearing sweatpants with fuzzy slippers and sporting a messy hair bun right now. Then, there's the delicious chili I made waiting for me to devour. I've tested this recipe twice so far, so I know it's a winner!
Southwestern Chili
Recipe adapted from Curtis Stone's What's For Dinner?
(Makes about 8 hearty bowls)

A handful of dried chili
8 garlic cloves, peeled
900 milliliters of reduced-sodium beef broth
2 tablespoons of lean ground beef
2 1/2 teaspoons of ground cumin
1 1/2 teaspoons of pepper
1/2 teaspoon of cayenne pepper
2 medium white onions, finely chopped
28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes
1 tablespoon of white vinegar
2 19-ounce cans of red kidney beans, drained
Grated cheddar cheese
Chopped Scallions
Fries or tortilla chips

Boil hot water in a small saucepan.

I never actually measured how many dried chili I dump in this. It's roughly a handful or enough to fill a small bowl as seen in the photo above. I cut them in half and remove the seeds as well. There's still a very good spicy kick! If you love putting hot sauce and sriracha on your food, this is a good heat level. You can of course add more or less depending on your comfort zone. After the chili is prepped, put it in the saucepan with the hot water. Leave for 20 minutes so that chili softens. You can use a bowl or plate to place on top to keep the chili's submerged. During this time, peel your garlic cloves and chop your onions.
When the 20 minutes are up, place the beef broth, garlic cloves, chili, salt, and pepper in a blender, chop until everything is well blended. Set aside.
Place your pot or Dutch oven over high heat. Pour in the canola oil, once you see it shimmering, add the ground beef. Cook for 8 minutes, stirring occasionally to scrape the bottom and break up the meat. Add in the cumin, black pepper, and cayenne pepper.
Add the onions and cook for about 10 minutes or until tender. Stir in the chili-garlic-beef-broth sauce, the tomatoes, and the vinegar. Bring to a gentle simmer, uncovered. Reduce the heat to low or medium-low depending on how strong your stove is. Cook for an hour and fifteen minutes, stir occasionally. After half an hour, add in the kidney beans. Chili will thicken, best served hot!
Don't forget to garnish!!! Grate some cheese and chop up some scallions.
Make chili cheese fries by topping the fries with cheese and pour on some chili to melt it. Garnish with scallions.
Gooey goodness. I love melted cheese.

Or, serve with tortilla chips for dipping. Go Tex-Mex by garnishing with cilantro and avocado instead! I don't know what the weather's like where you are, but Toronto is going through a deep freeze, it's currently -17°C and it's supposed to feel like -40°C tonight. So warm up with a hot bowl of chili. This only takes 3 hours - tops - to make!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Chase Fish and Oyster

10 Temperance Street
Toronto, ON M5H 1Y4

Birthday weekends are the best! We haven't eaten out and tried a new restaurant in a long time, so Howard did a little research and picked a restaurant for my birthday dinner last week. The only stipulation I gave him was that I wanted oysters. I think it's been more than a year since I've had a good oyster platter!
Oyster platter delivered. Each table is given a card and pencil to mark the amount of raw seafood they would like to order. So I penciled in three Foxley Bay oysters and three Salt Grass oysters after our knowledgeable waiter went through the description. All oyster platters come with fish and oyster hot sauce, cocktail sauce, and migonette. Just so perfect that I could try each sauce per oyster. Maybe eight next time so I can really load up the lemon and horseradish on one.
We tried a bunch of sharing plates and this was by far our favourite. The big eye tuna "nachos" - in quotation marks because it was made with crispy taro root chips, hot mustard saffron emulsion, and sweet onion and shoyu dressing. Delicious and refreshing, it was so good during this chilly winter, imagine how much better it would be eaten on the patio during the summer!
Next up, the hot smoked white fish on toast with caviar and pickles. Great flavours and I don't even like pickles! But everything worked together to form that perfect bite.
Couldn't resist a side of shoestring fries. I love fries.
Octopus with harissa, spiced merguez sausage, mustard greens, and sauteed red onions. We made merguez sausages last summer and I thought they were pretty awesome. But this one was a hundred percent stronger and punchier in flavour. There were only a few slices on the plate, which is a good idea because it can easily overpower the octopus.
We decided to share a main, but thought that the portion was similar to the sharing plates. Regardless, the scallops with pumpkin ravioli, foie gras butter, and arugula was rich and creamy.
I always look forward to dessert, but felt this was too much chocolate and sugar for one person. Did I just say that? Darn, I am getting old! But thank goodness we shared it because it could not be finished as a single serving. The hazelnut bombe with hazelnut whipped ganache, dark chocolate cream, chocolate cake, and candied hazelnuts was like a giant Ferrero Roche minus the thin wafer shell. I can't believe I'm going to say this as well, but dessert was our least favourite dish of the meal!

But that doesn't matter, we are definitely going back and looking forward to trying the other restaurants from this hospitality group: The Chase (which is upstairs), Little Fin (right beside), and Colette Grand Café.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Caramel Stuffed Snickerdoodles

Happy new year! We hope you all had a wonderful holiday and that the start of 2015 has been a joy as well. Our new year's eve plans consisted of being around great friends, Chinese food takeout, board games, and a cookie exchange. There were delicious caramel and chocolate chip cookies as well as an oatmeal, chocolate, and Skor cookie. We contributed a caramel stuffed snickerdoodles - the name having many confused. Where are the Snickers? What makes them doodles? I had no idea, but a chewy cookie is my favourite kind of cookie.
Caramel Stuffed Snickerdoodles
(Makes about 4 dozen cookies)

2 3/4 cups of all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons of baking powder
1 teaspoon of baking soda
1/4 teaspoon of salt
2 sticks of unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 3/4 cups of granulated sugar
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
2 large eggs
48 caramels
  1. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt; set aside. 
  2. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter and 1 1/2 cups of sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy (about 2 minutes)
  3. Add the eggs and beat to combine. Carefully pour in the dry ingredients and beat until mixture is well combined
  4. Take out plastic wrap and wrap the dough. Chill overnight (or one to two hours if you're in a hurry).
  5. Preheat the oven to 400°. Line your baking trays with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.
  6. In a small bowl, combine the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar with the ground cinnamon.
  7. Use a tablespoon to scoop the dough. Roll into a ball and then flatten to form a disc. Take another scoop of dough and roll into a disc shape. Place a caramel in between the two discs of dough, like a sandwich! Gently fold the edges over so that that top and bottom dough meet. Roll to seal, make sure none of the caramel is sticking out. It should be encased in the middle.
  8. Roll the ball of dough in cinnamon sugar. Place on parchment paper (or silicone mat) on a baking tray. Cookies should be placed two inches apart because they will spread!
  9. Bake for 10 minutes, there might be some minimal cracking on the top of the cookies, but that's' okay!
  10. Immediately transfer to a wire rack to cool, you don't want the cookies to over bake.
Find caramel squares if possible, they're the perfect size!
Leftover cinnamon sugar is great on peanut butter toast with slices of banana.
Don't forget to give the cookies space to spread in the oven!
I love how these turned out. Little soft puffs. Like cinnamon sugar clouds.
And then there was the gooey, melting caramel in the center . . . good luck just eating one!
Snickerdoodles all packed up and ready for the cookie exchange!
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