Friday, November 16, 2018

Mad Social

I was invited to dine at the restaurant free of charge in exchange for an honest review.

When I first started this blogging adventure 8 years ago, I remember people asking, "What happens when you run out of places to go?" That was when the Chicago restaurant industry was just beginning to explode, so running out of places to go was an actual possibility. Now, I couldn't get to all the restaurants in Chicago even if I ate out at every single meal for a year, because sadly, that explosion also means that many places close long before I can get to them.

Mad Social has been on my wishlist since the day it opened. The flurry of whimsical, indulgent brunch dishes they premiered with immediately caught my attention, but my dance card was already so booked out that I just never could find a time to go visit them. That time finally arrived last weekend when Starr (who had also been dying to visit Mad Social, but hadn't been able to yet) and I headed to the West Loop, hungry and in need of a few cocktails.

Mad Social was already packed by the time we arrived, attesting to the loyal following it has built over the almost three years it's been open. The decor had a sort of inoffensive industrial feel, with heavy wood furnishings, exposed brick, Edison-esque light bulbs in mason jars, and coat hooks sticking out of the walls (which is actually a pretty clever design touch). Cozy, yet not stifling.

We both started off with a coffee cocktail called the Strange Brew, which consisted of cold brew, walnut bitters, bourbon, and a few other magical ingredients.  I thought it was a nice change of pace from the more expected options (mimosas and bloody mary's), but it was a bit too heavy on the bourbon flavor for Starr's delicate palate.

We split up our meal into two parts.

Part 1: The Short Rib Benedict and the Havarti Mac and Cheese. I cannot say enough good things about the mac and cheese. Not because it was particularly special or mind blowing, but because it contained all of my favorite things: pasta, cheese, corn, mushrooms, crispy brussels sprouts, and a crap ton of calories. The sauce was nice and creamy, though not super cheesy, and I loved the adventure of discovering which delicious nugget each forkful would pick up. In fact, I may have encouraged Starr to take more pictures of the benedict than was necessary as to distract her while I gobbled up half the skillet. As for the benedict, it was definitely one of the most original takes on the dish I've seen in quite a while. Succulent chunks of braised short rib and brussels sprout "kimchi" topped toasted pretzel buns and were slathered in a togarashi spiced hollandaise, making some sort of delicious American/French/Korean/Japanese hybrid creature. The vinegar element from the pickled veggies was a little strong, but actually worked rather well with the rich hollandaise, and I very much liked not having to saw through yet another overly toasted English muffin.

Part 2: The Mad Burger and the Chicken and Waffles. Two things struck me about the burger when it was brought to the table; first was the scent of truffle oil from the fries, which Starr and I were already grabbing off the plate, and second was the "MAD" branding on the top of the bun. And not "branding" in the marketing sense. The bun was LITERALLY branded, as in, with a hot iron. Pointless in the context of flavor, but a fun visual touch, none the less. The burger itself was pretty hefty and had been adorned with a mountain of crispy onions, pickles, melted chihuahua cheese, and a thin slice of pork belly. Oddly, the house made pickles were the strongest flavor, so I could have done with a few less on the burger, but all together, it was a pretty nice flavor and texture combo. The chicken and waffles was a downright show stopper. The entire waffle had been deep fried (they refer to it as a "churro waffle") and came topped with a giant slab of panko encrusted chicken breast and another small piece of pork belly. While I liked the touch of smokiness the pork belly added, I really could have done without it, as the chicken and waffle were already such strong elements. The waffle had a unique crisp texture that matched with the juicy chicken and it's crunchy coating, and a good dousing in maple syrup gave the whole thing the perfect balance of sweet and savory. It's my understanding that they also use these churro waffles to make ice cream sandwiches, which I'm sure is absolutely incredible.

So all in all, I was happy to have finally ticked Mad Social off my list. The food was good, the service perfect, and the atmosphere fun and lively without being obnoxious. I was sad to see that some of the dishes they'd blasted across social media early on had fallen off the menu (they had a decedent looking Monte Cristo sandwich once upon a time that I had been hoping to try), but what is still there is solid and well balanced with lots of international flair to make things exciting and original. I will definitely going back for one of those churro waffle and gelato sandwiches.

Friday, November 9, 2018

SideDoor: Revisit and New Brunch Menu

I was invited to a complimentary tasting event by the restaurant. All opinions are my own.

The last time I visited SideDoor (so named because it is literally on the side of sister restaurant Lawry's The Prime Rib) they had just stopped serving brunch. Not for the day, but seemingly for good. They were still offering a decent weekend lunch menu (that included a delectable short rib poutine), so I made the best of it, but I still would have loved to have seen their take on some brunch standards.

Flash forward to 2018 and SideDoor has finally re-launched their brunch service. Carnivores rejoice! Last weekend I was invited to attend a preview of these new menu items along with some other lovely bloggers and Instagrammers, where we passed dishes back and forth across a big table like it was Thanksgiving. But with phones and cameras.

Picking a cocktail was the most difficult task of the day. I went with the Very Classy Affair because I needed an excuse to put my pinkie in the air and gaze appraisingly through my monocle. The drink was made with coconut whiskey (!), banana liqueur, Aperol, and rum and tasted like a tropical Old Fashioned. A bit Aperol forward for my taste, but still enjoyably smooth.

That's Freddie Mercury on my nail. I'll explain his presence later.
Now, the brunch menu consists of just a handful of dishes, accompanied by a full lunch menu. We got to try all of the brunch items, but also sprinkled in some of the restaurant's standards and top sellers. The standout dish for me was the Horseshoe, a sort of poutine-meets-disco-fries concoction with prime rib, pickled peppers, a fried egg, and cheese sauce. Sloppy, spicy, and meaty; just want you want to cure a hangover. The Biscuits and Gravy were also quite good, having been made with a rich prime rib gravy (sensing a theme here? They really like prime rib!). The ham and cheese omelette was pretty standard, but I really enjoyed the spinach mushroom omelette. Score one for the vegetarians, I guess! Lastly was the singular sweet dish; French toast sticks served with a side of raspberry sauce and chocolate sauce. This is the type of thing you would want to order for the table to share, as it was the perfect respite from all the meat-focused dishes.

A flurry of dishes from the lunch menu then hit the table. Some amazingly fresh oysters, a delicious potato gnocci with apple and pork belly, and a baked mac and cheese with a garlic streusel were gobbled up almost immediately. I also got to try small hunks of the prime rib sandwich (one of my favorite items of the day) and the surprisingly spicy smoked pastrami sandwich. The show stopper, though, was the twice roasted BBQ ribs, which looked like they had been carved out of the belly of a mastodon.

And now the sad part of the story, ladies and gentlemen. I had arrived for brunch early and decided to buy tickets to a showing of Bohiemian Rhapsody at the movie theater around the corner. I excused myself from the event with about 15 minutes to go before show time, thinking they couldn't possibly be bringing out any more food. Much to my chagrin, I discovered later that I had MISSED all the desserts! Ah well. I instead had the sweet, sweet syrup that is Freddie Mercury's voice to satiate me. And now I have a legitimate to return to SideDoor one more time!

Friday, October 12, 2018

Follow Me Around Chicago Gourmet 2018

I attended Chicago Gourmet free of charge as a member of the media. All opinions are my own.

So... Chicago Gourmet happened and I'm already sad that it's over. This year's theme was "Rock the Fork," which is kind of ironic, considering most of the dishes served there aren't meant to be eaten with forks (spoonables and finger foods are far more common and less complicated), but the addition of some random musical elements to the festival did help spice things up. The lines this year, though, were an ordeal, with most tents boasting more than a 20 minute wait for food. I'm not sure if this was due to more tickets being sold, or too many overly ambitious chefs taking too long to plate complicated dishes, but either way, it definitely effected the pace of the day and my stamina.

I am very specific about how I go through Chicago Gourmet, so I thought it might be fun to walk you through my usual strategies. A few general notes before I begin:
1) I ate far less this year then I normally do and left far earlier, due to my hubristic decision to attend a second large food festival later that evening
2) I drank far less then I usually do for that same reason, but my normal MO is to stick to ready to drink cocktails and steer clear of the wine tents
3) I attended the festival on Sunday only
4) I didn't eat a damn thing for 16 hours before the festival and nearly a whole day afterwards
5) The weather was far cooler and more comfortable this year than it was last year, but a rain shower in the middle of the day did threaten to ruin a few dishes, moods, and expensive shoes.
6) No, I did not hit the Supreme Lobster tent. I avoid it like the plague because the wait is usually twice as long as all the other tents, and when you're trying to cram tons of food into a few short hours, time is precious.

For the last few, years, my first stop has been to the Four Corners Tavern Group tent, mostly because they usually have several fun presentations ready to go and I can get pictures of them before they are swarmed with people. This year, I discovered their usual spot was now occupied by the Godfrey Hotel, who were serving a spiced berry cocktail, avocado toast, herbed hummus, and chicken satay, along side branded freebies like sunglasses and mints. They also had a large plastic igloo, furnished as a private seating area/selfie station. Later in the day, they even brought in a snow machine, apparently.

Next, I headed for the Mariano's Tasting Pavilion. The tent's namesake had brought along a London Broil sandwich from their catering division, which was good, but seemed out of place next to it's gourmet neighbors. There was quite a bit of seafood at this tent: Cameron Grant from Osteria Langhe presented a shrimp and octopus stuffed pasta with puttanesca sauce, Chris Pandel with Swift and Sons brought along a chilled corn soup with king crab, and Ian Davis from Band of Bohemia had a smoked sturgeon caviar crepe. Weirdly, the thing I had to force myself not to finish (because I needed to save room) was the pork gyro from Jimmy Bannos Jr.'s newest venture, Piggy Smalls. I've never enjoyed a gyro more, but then again, I was still pretty hungry at that point in the day.

I then made the controversial decision to hit the Dessert Pavilion. I like to do this early in the day, because most people tend to hit up the sweets later, causing all kinds of traffic jams and long wait times. Samantha Gonzales from Blue Agave Tequila Bar was serving large chunks of tres leches cake, while Greg Reich from Terry's Toffee had four different flavors of of their signature sweets, chopped into tiny tasting pieces. Evan Sheridan from Free Rein had two very interesting desserts, but was sadly not behind the table when I came through, so I have no idea what they were. My notes say, "Some sort of flaky donut hole with candied orange, and a spiced pudding-like thing with sesame seeds." They were pretty tasty, in any case.

Back to savory things with the Hungry Like the Wolf tent (side note: only a few of the tents had these silly musical pun names, while other had sponsor names. I wish they all had the musical names). Here, Guy Meikle from Heritage Restaurant and Caviar Bar made his fellow tent occupants a little testy by holding up the front of the line with his expertly plated cauliflower and apple soup, garnished with a white fish roe and chicharon. Italian Village Restaurants handed out their chicken wings while they were still hot to those of us waiting. Blu57 Seafood started doing the same with their fried chicken salad. My standout from this tent was Sam Burman and MCA Catering with their pork rib with fennel pollen and lime. Louie Alexakis gave the attendees something sweet with a Greek dessert that consisted of crispy filo dough, spiced cheese, and pickled grapes. "Just mash up everything together," he told me with a wink.

After wandering around the lawn for a while, I ended up at one of the international tents, where chefs from foreign restaurants were presenting their hometown favorites. At the Mexico Tasting Pavilion, I got to sample a corn tostada with smoked crab, avocado mousse, and a paste made from 32 different peppers, which was made by Tomas Zertuche Diaz from Anita Li, a Nogalas style beef tartar with chili from Darren Walsh at Casa De Piedra, and a golden passion fruit tart from Fernanda Covarrubias with La Posteria, all restaurants in Guadalajara.

My last stop of the morning session was the US Foods tent. John Gatsos from Tavern on the Rush had a nice little short rib slider. Brian Jupiter from Frontier had brought along a crawfish elotes (which is actually a feature dish from his other restaurant, Ina Mae). Rick Gresh presented a pair of small bites from Ace Bouce: a mushroom and goat cheese dumpling and a mini barbacoa taco. Lastly, Juan Carlos Ascencio from Mercadito put forth a pork carnitas taco.

By now, I was hitting my midday lull, so I grabbed a couple of cocktails from the Three Olives tent and headed for the Bon Appétit main stage to recoup with some cooking demos. I got there just as Stephanie Izard was finishing up a raucous musical number with Graham Elliot, a live band, and an entire choir. I have no idea what she cooked, but the crowd seemed excited about it. She was followed by the subdued duo of Andrew Zimmerman (Sepia/Proxi) and Erling Wu-Bower, who walked everyone through making some easy crudos. After that, Graham Elliot returned with his pal, Matthias Merges (or as I like to call him, Chef Wolverine) to make some sort of fish dish together. I skipped out for the afternoon tasting sessions just as Matthias handed Graham the head of the fish and told him to figure something out. Hopefully it ended well.

On my way out of the demos, I stopped into the seemingly forgotten Porter Road tent and grabbed a lamb bacon and curried corn dish from Devon Quinn at Eden and a Korean short rib with fermented turnip, pickled radish, puffed sushi rice, and bone marrow butterscotch from the evil genius that is Brian Fisher (representing Entente).

Another trip to the dessert pavilion resulted in possibly the longest wait of the day (I told you, hit this tent early in the day!). I managed to snag a panna cotta sugar cookie sandwich from Michael Meranda with Gelato D'oro, a tasty but soggy pumpkin spice waffle with bourbon caramel sauce from David Rodriguez at Whisk, and a bread pudding with peach and raspberry coulee from Martial Noguier at Bistronomic.

By this point, I only had time and room for one last stop. I picked the US Foods Pavilion once more, since it was the closest tent to the exit. I got an apple and chive spatzel with chicken, pork, and pickled mustard seeds from Eric Mansavge at Farmhouse. Michael Armstrong from TAO had a pretty standard chicken pad thai. Giancarlo Valera from Tanta presented a shrimp ceviche with green plantain chips, Caribbean pepper and Peruvian corn. Marcos Flores from Latinicity had a braised mole shortrib. And then there was a mystery entrant (which my notes say was Rick Gresh and Ace Bounce again, but I'm not sure that was the case) with a lobster and shrimp dumpling in a shiitake and ginger broth. See? Told ya there was no need to wait at the lobster tent!

And there you have it! Just about everything I ate at Chicago Gourmet 2018! Let me know if you went and if I majorly missed out on anything. Until 2019!

Friday, September 28, 2018

Tea Party: Earl Grey Cream Puffs and Fruity Tea Spritzers with Nielsen Massey and Waterloo

Some of the products mentioned in this post were sent to me as PR. Free products do not and will not ever influence my opinions.

Anyone who has been around me for any length of time has probably heard me expound upon my love of all things Earl Grey. The magical combination of bergamot and black tea is one of my favorite flavor pairings in the universe. I even have Earl Grey scented candles, for when I want my house to smell as though I just brewed a fresh cuppa, but I don't want to ingest the caffeine. In fact, I'm a pretty big fan of most tea flavored things; I adore the grassy notes of matcha and the roasted depth of hōjicha, when I want to unwind I always turn to chamomile, and there is pretty much always a hibiscus fruit tea of some kind chilling in my fridge

So a few weeks ago when some friends and I were casually chatting about an afternoon get together, I decided to turn our gab session into a miniature tea party. Since I was expecting a mixed crowd, I knew I had to come up with a versatile drink that would please a variety of palates. I thought back to late last year when I discovered one of my favorite mixers, Waterloo Sparkling Waters. Since then, they've added a mango flavor to their existing line, making for 8 amazing options in all. I decided to make a black tea simple syrup (I boiled 2 bags of black tea in 1 cup of water and 1 cup of sugar for about 10 minutes), which I put into a squeeze bottle. Then I set up a little station with a bottle of chilled vodka, some ice, and a variety of the Waterloo flavors (I thought the mango, lemon, and coconut flavors worked especially well) so that everyone could make their own fruity tea spritzers!

For snacks, I knew I wanted to highlight my favorite tea of all time, Republic of Tea's Earl Greyer Vanilla (AKA the Downton Abbey Estate Blend). Since I am addicted to The Great British Baking Show, I had the idea of making some Earl Grey cream puffs with a craquelin top in honor of the newest season. As I plotted out exactly how to make the perfect Earl Grey pastry cream, I reached for a bottle of Nielsen-Massey Mexican Vanilla extract. I went with this particular vanilla because of it's warm baking spice notes, which I thought would really bring out the bergamot in the tea. And oh man... let me tell you how good this pastry cream was! I seriously had to stop myself from eating it all with a spoon before I could pipe it into the cream puffs! Mary, Paul, and Pru would all be proud of me.

So what do you think? Will you turn your next get together into an impromptu tea party? Let me know your favorite tea treats in the comments below!

Earl Grey Cream Puffs

Pastry cream

2 cups whole milk
2/3 cup of sugar
1/4 cup loose leaf Earl Grey tea
1 large egg plus 2 egg yolks
1/4 cup cornstarch
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon Nielsen-Massey Mexican Vanilla extract
1 cup heavy whipping cream

Craquelin Crumble Topping

5 tablespoons butter cut into small pices
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 cup of flour
1 teaspoon Nielsen-Massey Mexican Vanilla extract
1/4 cup of loose leaf Earl Grey tea, ground very fine

Choux Dough 

16 tablespoons butter
2 cups water
1 and 1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups flour
6 large eggs

For the pastry cream: Add milk, half the sugar (1/3 cup), and Earl Grey Tea to a medium sauce pan and heat over medium low until milk is steaming and infused with the tea. While the milk steeps, add an egg, egg yolks, the rest of the sugar (1/3 cup), and cornstarch to a medium bowl and mix until well combined. Once the milk has steeped (about 10 minutes), strain out tea leaves with a fine mesh strainer. Very slowly, add warm milk to the egg mixture, whisking constantly to make sure the eggs don't scramble. Once all the milk has been incorporated into the eggs, add vanilla and transfer back into saucepan. Heat over medium until the mixture begins to thicken, then remove from the heat, add in butter, and whisk until fully incorporated. Let cool.

In a large bowl, whip the heavy cream until stiff. Carefully fold in the thickened milk and egg mixture until no more streaks of white remain. Use a hand mixer to fluffy up the cream, then refrigerate over night in an air tight container.

For the topping: Add sugar, flour, vanilla extract, and ground tea leaves to a medium bowl and mix. Add in butter and use your hands to mash it into the mixture. It should form into a loose, sandy-like texture. Spread the mixture as thinly as possibly onto a sheet pan lined with parchment paper, making sure to break up any large chunks. Refrigerate until ready to use.

For the choux puffs: Melt together butter, salt, and water in a medium sauce pan. Once the mixture is at a simmer, take off heat and add in the flour. Add pan back to the heat and mix vigorously with a spatula or wooden spoon until a homogeneous dough forms. Press the dough against the sides of the pan to make sure that all of the flour cooks evenly, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let the dough cool about 5 minutes. Begin adding eggs one at a time, mixing thoroughly between each one. Once all the eggs have been mixed into the dough, transfer to an air tight container and refrigerate over night.

Assembling the Cream Puffs: Pre-heat oven to 425 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Scoop and form the cooled choux dough into balls about 2 inches across. Dip the top of the balls into the crumble topping, then place them dough side down on the parchment paper. Bake for 15 minutes, then turn the oven down to 350 degrees and bake for an additional 15 minutes, or until the puffs start to turn golden brown. Let the puffs cool to room temperature.

Load pastry cream into a piping bag with a medium round metal tip. Puncture the bottom of each puff with a knife, then pipe pastry cream into the center.

Makes about 3 dozen puffs.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Revisit: Lark

I was invited to dine at Lark free of charge, but all opinions stated below are my own and have not been influenced.

As I've talked about before, up until last year, I'd spent over 10 years living in Lakeview, but what some of you might not know is that my day job is also in Lakeview. I literally used to walk to and back from work every single day, and let me tell you, it was pretty glorious to not have to deal with the CTA. It was during one of those morning walks to the office a few years ago that I first noticed the signage for Lark going up. The space had previously been occupied by some generic Boystown bar that served forgettable food and watered down cocktails, so I was very excited to see what this new development might bring. And as you can see from my original... um... I mean Brandy's original review of the place, I was pretty smitten with their simple, yet flavorful food, especially their wood fired pizzas.

Flash forward to today and Lark is now a staple of the neighborhood, hosting themed brunches every weekend and all kinds of trivia nights and viewing parties during the week. The restaurant recently underwent a few updates, so I happily accepted their invitation to come in and see what kind of changes they'd made.

Although they have a drop dead gorgeous patio, the day we stopped in (I took along my friend Jenna) was pretty warm, so I opted to stay inside and enjoy the AC. Their new drink menu sections off all the cocktails by spirit. I loved this sort of set up, as it enabled me to quickly narrow down what I was in the mood for. I went for the Monotonous Lark, a cocktail from the "Tiki" section of the menu, that combined coconut rum, blue Curacao, pineapple, and vodka. I love a good tropical blue drink. Jenna went for the El Diablo Duck Mule, which was made with tequila instead of vodka, mixed with ginger beer, lime, and cream de cassis. The mule even came adorned with an adorable rubber ducky painted like a panda, and we were informed that the restaurant had an infinite supply of different designer ducks to float atop their drinks. They even had special ducks in lederhosen ready to go for Oktoberfest. Too cute!

I insisted that we start off with one the house signature wood fired pizzas, so we went with the prosciutto, arugula, and mozzarella. The crust was just as crisp and chewy as I remembered, with the slightest hint of char on the edges. This particular pizza's mix of salty, peppery, and creamy flavors was right up my alley, and the little finishing drizzle of truffle oil sure didn't hurt anything.

For her entree, Jenna wanted the Chilaquiles, which turned out to be a re-worked version of the Breakfast Nachos from Lark's original menu. It still resembles the nachos more than a traditional chilaquiles, which are generally prepared more as a hash, but I wasn't about to complain. The chips were nicely crisp, which made it easy to scoop up the mountain of toppings. Jenna had chosen to add some chicken to hers, which was a perfect addition to the zesty guac, spicy green salsa, scrambled eggs, pickled peppers, and streams of sour cream. I may have stolen a few bites from her plate, not gonna lie.

I decided to try the Recovery Burger. This burger was a pretty traditional stack, with cheddar, bacon, tomato, lettuce, a fried egg, and an onion ring, but everything was prepared exceptionally well. The onion ring added a very nice crunch to the whole thing that I really enjoyed. The only aspect I was a little confused by was that I had been asked how I preferred my meat cooked, to which I responded, "medium rare." But as we found out later, these burgers are always cooked as "smash burgers," that is to say, they are smashed on the griddle so that they develop a slight crisp on the outside. Since smash burgers are typically thinner, I'm not sure how they intended to cook mine medium rare, but I was perfectly happy with the result regardless.

Finally, the restaurant surprised us by bringing out one of their signature desserts: a S'mores Pizza. Using the same wood fired oven, they had topped their Neapolitan-style crust with Ghirardelli chocolate chunks, mini marshmallows, chocolate syrup, and crumbled graham crackers to create the ultimate campfire fantasy. Just looking at this thing brought a smile to my face, and the smell of the toasted marshmallows nearly hypnotized me. Though the crust was pretty light and airy, the whole thing was so rich that we could barely finish a slice each. I highly advise bringing along some friends to help you down this sucker.

All in all, I'm very glad to see that Lark is still operating to the high standards they were when I first visited them all those years ago. Though I may not live in Lakeview any more, I'd be more than willing to once more take the journey south from my current home in Rogers Park to visit with Lark and slowly work my way through every single one of their cocktails.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Experimenting with Fermented Food from Bao Cultured

Since all the drama in the Chicago food world this week has led to a discussion about proper disclosure, I'm going to start off this post being honest with you guys. I get sent stuff for free. Shocking, I know. And a lot of times, the stuff I am sent ends up on this blog. Do I post about it because I have to? Never. Have I ever over exaggerated my love of a product? Well... I have to admit that I have, on occasion. Or rather, Bunny and/or Brandy did. Not me (that's how I used to keep my conscious clear). But for the last several years, I've made an effort to be more discerning and honest because I didn't like the idea that I was encouraging people to buy something I may not have believed in whole heartedly.

The truth of the matter is that I am very excited about most of the things I am sent. Generally, they come from smaller, start up companies who can't afford to pay the thousands of dollars some bloggers demand for a post. I'm happy to accept samples without monetary compensation because I love being allowed to try these products on my own terms and really get to know them. A lot of times, they are things I never would have come across organically, but they become products I end up buying over and over again. Every time I see a company I worked with suddenly appearing on grocery store shelves, it makes me incredibly happy. Watching these home grown startups thrive and knowing that I may have helped them in even the teeniest tiniest way to achieve their goals truly gives me a thrill.

Now that that's all out of the way, let's talk about Bao Cultured. This company produces a host of fermented products, from pickled veggies to hot sauces to kombucha. Every single one of their products is certified organic and brimming with probiotic cultures They were kind enough to send me a humongous box filled with their wears, and I have been slowly testing and playing with them for about a month now.

First, let's talk about the kombucha. I'm actually a pretty big fan of kombucha. I try to drink it at least once a week to keep my digestion on track. These guys are producing some of the most unique flavors I've ever seen; stuff like cola, elderberry, and hibiscus. There's also plenty of approachable flavors, like grape, mango, and ginger, and even a Super Green flavor for an added boost of nutrients. I was really impressed with all of the Bao kombuchas I tried, but I was really surprised by the Cola. It had a natural herby flavor that weirdly reminded me of the sarsaparilla you can get at the Bristol Ren Fair. The grape was also a favorite, as was the ginger, but I honestly loved them all. I'm sure there's plenty of creative things to be done with kombucha, but I just drank all of them straight out of the bottle.

I also had the chance to try two of their jarred veggies and a few of their signature sauces. Giardiniera is a condiment immediately recognizable to anyone in Chicago, but if you're not familiar with this pickled veggie mix, it usually consists of cauliflower, carrots, cabbage, plenty of vinegar, and various spices. It's commonly eaten on Italian Beef sandwiches out here in the Windy City, but I've seen it used on everything from hot dogs to eggs benedict. Bao's verison wasn't overly spicy or briny, and managed to maintain the crunchiness of the veggies. I found that I enjoyed piling it on a good steak burger to add texture. They had also given me their Spicy Slaw, which was mainly cabbage and daikon radish. Since I'm a little iffy with spice, I was kind of nervous about this one, but it ended up being perfectly balanced. I used this mix to top off some smoked chicken tacos, along with a little avocado and sour cream. The crunch and tang of the veggies was an absolutely perfect accompaniment, though I wish I had drained them off a little first instead of spooning them on straight out of the jar, as the juices made my tortillas fall apart slightly.

Lastly was the sauces; four signature hot sauces and a sour ketchup. Again, I'm not a huge spice head, but I have an appreciation for hot sauces that have good flavor and not just heat. I first tried the Chipotle hot sauce on the aforementioned burger. It added a really great smokiness and tang to every bite that I very much enjoyed. Next time, I might even mix a little into the patties. The mango hot sauce was another stand out. I used that to spice up the chicken in the tacos, and the slightly fruity flavor worked really well with my other chosen fillings. Lastly, there was the sour ketchup. I have to admit that I wasn't a huge fan of this product. I think my brain is just too accustomed to the sweetness of traditional ketchup, so the tang and slight fermented funk of this product just didn't quite work for me in a traditional French-fry-dipping sense. But perhaps I'll find another use for it somewhere down the road.

So thank you to Bao Cultured for sharing the fruits (and veggies) of your labor with me! What do you think? Do you fear the funk of fermented food, or are you curious about add a few probiotic-rich ingredients into your routine? You can order Bao products directly from their website, or you can look for them lots of specialty food markets across the US.

I was sent products by the company free of charge in order to facilitate the writing of this post. All opinions are my own.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Cochon555 Returns to Chicago to Celebrate 10 Years of Piggy Goodness

Photo courtesy of Grand Cochon
As summer ends, the onslaught of heavy hitting food festivals begins. This year, I am making room in my schedule and my stomach for the final stop of the Cochon555 2018 tour. On Sunday September 30th, 11 chefs from the all over the US and Canada will converge on City Winery with their best pork themed dishes in hopes of becoming the North American King or Queen of Pork.

Photo courtesy of Grand Cochon
The showdown, which was first held in Atlanta 10 years ago, brings together winners from every stop along the Cochon555 tour so far this year, including Chicago's own Chef Cory Morris (Boleo). A few years ago when I attended one of the semi-finals, Cory Morris presented one of the most spectacular sweet and savory bites I have ever had in the form of the Bacon Fat PB&J shaped like a little pig face. At first, I thought it was too cute to eat. Then I ate it. Then I tried to eat several more before being hustled along by the crowd. So needless to say, my money's on the home town boy.

The event highlights nose-to-tail cooking by giving every chef a whole heritage hog to do whatever they wish with. It also highlights just how special these heritage pig breeds are, and even helps to preserve them by raising funds for Piggy Bank, an organization that is dedicated to bringing several breeds back from the brink of extinction.

Tickets are on sale now and can be purchased HERE. Hope to see you there for the biggest piggiest party of the year!