Friday, April 13, 2018

Day and Night Drinking: Vintage Cocktails and Farmhouse Beer

You know how food bloggers tell a random story about their life before segueing into what the post is actually about? Well, I'm one of those food bloggers now, I guess...

When I was in college in Pittsburgh, there was an Italian restaurant where everyone went when they turned 21. Because most of us had only had beers, hard lemonades, and wine coolers up until that point, we all became obsessed with ordering classic cocktails once it was suddenly legal for us to get wasted. Some TV show or movie would mention a cocktail (like when Sex and the City made Cosmos a requirement of a girls' night out) and then one person would order it, bring it back to the table so that 5-10 friends could try it, and then a craze would ensue. One week, we were all ordering grasshoppers. Another week, it would be a round of Manhattans. Then dirty martinis. Then tequila sunrises. And so on as we challenged the limits of the bartender's handbook.

One night, I suddenly decided I wanted to try something new. I had been watching a lot Jeeves and Wooster and there must have been an episode in which Wooster went to America and indulged in some illegal gin cocktails at a party. I can still picture Hugh Laurie doing a frantic Charleston while spilling a drink all over his white gloved fingers. So I took a chance and ordered a lime gimlet, then proudly brought my prize back to the table, where it was passed around and excitedly sipped by a gaggle of theater majors. The gimlet then became the official cocktail of the week.

Wanting to retain my crown as a drink taste maker, I did a little research before my next trip to the local hangout. The following week, I sauntered up to the bar and ordered a Bee's Knees. The bartender sighed at me and shook his head at my pretentiousness, but he mixed up the cocktail all the same. Sadly, this one wasn't as much of a success as my previous choice due to the bartender being out of honey (which is kind of essential to the flavor) and my crown was usurped by a dancer who introduced everyone to Sex on the Beach.

The same thing would happen with beers. Everyone started off ordering whatever the $2 special was, but slowly we began asking about some of the more adventurous brews. This was before the micro-brew explosion happened, so things like seasonal releases from Samuel Adams were usually enough to impress us. Still, this kind of experimenting taught me that beer could actually be flavorful and complex and didn't just mean sipping vaguely bitter carbonated water that gave you gas and heartburn before it ever got your drunk.

These days, I like to honor my beginner drinking days by mixing up classic cocktails at home or trying new beers with friends. Picking up random finds from the grocery store or liquor store has helped me really identify what I like and what I don't. Still, I'm no mixologist, so I tend to stick to the classics. But now when I go out, I'm now a little more informed when browsing a cocktail menu or a beer list then I was back in my college days.

Last weekend, I queued some Jeeves and Wooster and put myself in the mood for some classic gin cocktails. I recently discovered Eau Claire Distillery, a Canadian company that just debuted its craft spirits in Chicago, and I was anxious to test out two of their signature products: Parlour Gin and Prickly Pear EquineOx.

The gin reminded me of more European styles, which tend to have less sweetness and more of an herbal flavor. I made a twist on a Bee Knee's with it, adding some Earl Grey tea along with lemon juice and honey. I really liked how smooth the gin made the cocktail, adding flavor and not just bite. The bergamot in the Earl Grey really complimented the subtle fruit and herb notes in the gin as well. Now with the Prickly Pear EquineOx, I didn't want to go the expected route and make a margarita. Instead, I used it to revamp my favorite classic cocktail; the gimlet. A little lime juice, a little agave syrup, and a splash of tonic water brought out the sweet fruity flavor of this spirit. I kid you not, this tasted pretty much like the most delicious juicy candy and I had to resist the urge to mix up more of these babies.

I also had the chance to sample a new brew from The Bruery out of California. I am already a huge fan of their Girl Grey, an ale brewed with Earl Grey tea (did I mention Earl Grey is my favorite flavor ever?), so I was interested to try their Saison Ardennes. To be honest, I'm not usually partial to blonder beers, but I am a big fan of sour or tart beers. This saison had a wonderful pucker to it, but it stayed firmly on the more savory end of the spectrum without veering too fruity. The floral and malt forward flavor made this ideal for pairing with simple, hearty food. I really enjoyed this alongside a BBQ chicken flatbread with some pepper jack cheese, which matched the beer's tang as well as it's spice.

I do have to say that my drinking options are much more exciting these days then they were back in college. But I'm glad that I took those years to develop a fearlessness about my beverage choices. When you go out to a restaurant and see a cocktail that has one or two things in it you're not sure about, don't be afraid to ask about them. A lot of the time, I order drinks without really knowing what I'm getting myself into. When it's not good, I know for next time. When it is good, I make note of the cocktail ingredients or the brewery that created the beer, and that gives me a new outlet to explore the next time I'm looking for something exciting to add to my home bar.

I was sent products free of charge by the companies mentioned in this post, but all opinions are my own.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Food News: Brunch Bites Returns to River North + GIVEAWAY!

UPDATE: A winner has been picked and confirmed. The giveaway is now closed, but tickets are still available for purchase.

Brunch Bites is back in Chicago on April 21st for another year of brunchy goodness!

This innovative event features some of River North's finest brunch destinations in a neighborhood-wide food treasure hunt that sends participants on a self guided walking tour in search of delicious food and awesome cocktails. There's 8 participating restaurants this year; 6 returning from last year's line up and two new additions.

Pick up tickets and check out the full list of participating restaurants and what they'll be serving HERE. Jump on it, because last year's event did sell out!

Want to see what last year's festival was like? Check out this post

Want to try your luck at winning a pair of tickets? Leave a comment below this blog post to be entered! A winner will be chosen at random next week. For extra entries, keep an eye on the Bunny and Brandy social media pages! Good luck!

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Bunny and Brandy's Easter Brunch Guide 2018

Best Bet Buffets
(Prices listed are per adult, prices vary for children)

Howells and Hood in The Loop: $39 

IO @ The Godfrey Hotel in River North: $39 
Maple & Ash in the Gold Coast: $90 ($25 additional for unlimited bubbles)
The Langham Hotel in The Loop: $155 
The Florentine in The Loop: $75 + additional $15 for drinks
Allium in the Four Seasons Hotel in the Gold Coast: $180  (includes tax and gratuity)
Torali at The Ritz Carlton Hotel in Streeterville: $155 
Signature Room on the Mag Mile: $80 (includes a cocktail)
Filini at the Radisson Blu Hotel in the Loop: $55

Superb Suburban Spots

Prairie Grass Café in Northbrook will feature a special buffet + signature benedict for every diner for $51 per person
Libertad in Skokie will feature an a la carte menu with special menu items
Perry’s Steakhouse in Oak Brook: will be serving their dinner menu starting at 11:00 am
Tuscany in Wheeling will host a special buffet for $43 per person

Day Drinking Destinations

Cantina Laredo in River North: a la carte menu options with a complimentary mimosa or Bloody Maria
III Forks in Lakeshore East: $45 for one of three signature Eggs Benedicts and a brunch cocktail 
Lowcountry in Lakeview & The South Loop will both feature an a la carte menu with special items and $15 bottomless mimosa packages
Commonwealth Tavern in Roscoe Village will feature an a la carte menu with $3 mimosa bar and $6 bloody mary bar

Exclusive Easter Eats

Home Bistro in Lakeview will feature  a special Southern inspired a la carte menu
BarRoma in Andersonville will feature an a la carte selection of special menu items
Mercata la Planxa in the South Loop will feature an a la carte menu with special items
DelFrisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse in the Gold Coast will feature a special a la carte menu
Eden in West Town will feature an a la carte menu with special treats
Imperial Lamian in River North will feature an a la carte dim sum menu featuring special Easter dumplings
Seven Lions in The Loop will have a 2 course pre fixe for $24 plus their regular a la carte brunch menu
TheLate Bloomer in Old Town will feature an a la carte menu with special items and cocktails
KingCrab Chicago in Lincoln Park is featuring their brand new a la carte brunch menu
Nana in Bridgeport will feature a special a la carte menu
Marchesa in River North will feature a special a la carte menu
Porkchop (All locations) will feature a special a la carte menu
Roanoke in The Loop will feature an a la carte menu with special items
Weber Grill in River North will feature an a la carte menu with special items

Friday, March 23, 2018

Recipe: Vanilla Scented Potato Croquettes

I'm kind of obsessed with Nielsen-Massey's Vanilla Bean Paste. I mean, actually obsessed. Sometimes I take the bottle out of my cabinet just so that I can open it and smell it, like it's cologne left by an ex-boyfriend. If I could pour this stuff into a diffuser and make my whole house smell like vanilla, I would. If I soak my hair in it, I would. It's not the same smell as vanilla extract, which is usually great at the front, but has that sharp alcohol bite on the tail end of the scent. The paste smells like you've just walked into a bakery owned by a beautiful French pastry chef who just happens to be single and just happens to be a former underwear model.

Although the vanilla bean paste is my go to flavoring agent for baked goods and desserts, I've always wanted to try using it in a savory context. Imagine that same French pastry chef decided to open a gastro pub next door to the bakery. Same amazing flavors, whole new environment. That's what I wanted to try.

I'd heard of people mixing vanilla into mashed potatoes before, so that seemed like a good place to start. I whipped up a simple batch, using red potatoes to make the mash extra smooth. I actually really liked using vanilla in this sort of way because it made the potatoes seem even more creamy and decadent, even though I hadn't added any cream (like I normally do when making mashed potatoes). The slightly floral flavor really added a depth and a certain je ne sais quoi to the spuds. While they were good with the vanilla added in, but they weren't going to be stealing any spot lights. So I decided to transform them into croquettes.

Now, the first time I attempted to do this, I used the potatoes chilled. Because they were extra creamy, I had a really hard time getting them coated in breading, and they turned out a bit bigger and flatter than I would have liked, almost like chicken cutlets. However, they tasted fantastic, with a lightly crisp exterior and a super creamy interior. Another downside was that they were rather delicate and could only be eaten with a knife and fork. I wanted finger food. So I made a second batch of the potato mixture and froze it. This resulted in the croquettes of my dreams! Crispy outside, impossibly creamy interior, infinitely snackable.

Version #1

Version # 2
To serve alongside the croquettes, I wanted some dipping sauces that were a little sweet and a little savory, but I also wanted to highlight the vanilla flavor at the heart of these magic nuggets. I tried a simple combo of sour cream, yellow curry sauce, and a bit more vanilla paste for my savory sauce. This was the right way to go, as the curry and vanilla made delicious friends, while the sour cream and potato made for a classic flavor combo. For a touch of sweet, I whipped up some home made applesauce (I used this recipe as a base, but subbed out the cinnamon guessed it... more vanilla). The overall combo of these two sauces could not have been better, and I loved that the potato+applesauce+sour cream medley gave off a kind of potato latke vibe.

Check out my final recipe below and then head on over to the Bunny and Brandy Instagram page to find out how to win some fabulous Nielsen-Massey Vanilla Bean Paste for your own sweet and savory experimenting!

Vanilla Scented Potato Croquettes

1 lb of red potatoes, peeled
2 tablespoons of butter
1 tablespoon of vanilla bean paste
2 egg yolks
4 tablespoons of all purpose flour
4-5 eggs
2 cups of unflavored bread crumbs
Frying oil (vegetable, canola, corn, etc.)

Optional serving sauces:
2 table spoons of yellow curry sauce, 2 teaspoons of vanilla bean paste, 1 cup of sour cream
Homemade or store bought apple sauce with vanilla bean paste added in to taste

Place the potatoes in a pot of water, making sure they are completely covered, and bring up to a boil. Cook for 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender all the way through. Drain and cool slightly.

Transfer the potatoes back into the pot. Cut the butter into small pieces and add to the potatoes and vanilla bean paste. Use a stick blender to puree the potatoes until completely smooth. Let the potatoes cool to room temperature. Add in the egg yolks and flour, combine well, and then transfer the mixture into a lidded freezer safe bowl. Freeze the potato mixture for 1-2 hours, or until they achieve an ice cream-like consistency.

Heat frying oil on medium high in a deep pan. Set up a breading station with the eggs scrambled in one dish and the bread crumbs in a second dish. Scoop the potato mixture into the 2-3 inch balls (a small trigger action ice cream scoop or melon baller works well for this, but a large spoon can also be used). Drop the balls into the egg mixture, then transfer to the bread crumbs and coat thoroughly. Repeat this process so that the balls have a double layer of coating.

Add no more than 5-6 balls into the oil at a time and watch them carefully. They will brown quickly and only need to cook for a minute or so on each side. Once the croquettes are browned evenly on all sides, transfer them to a paper towel covered plate to drain any excess oil.

Serve immediately.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Recipe: Mini Cottage Cheese Cheescakes with Muuna Cottage Cheese

When I was a kid, cottage cheese was one of those things I'd forget I liked. There was always some in the fridge, but my go-to snacks usually involved carbs and sugar and cartoon animals. Then, I'd spy my mom having a few spoonfuls on a Sunday morning and I'd insist on being given some as well, and then I would usually eat it non stop for weeks on end until I once again forgot I loved the stuff. Sometimes we mixed jam into the cottage cheese or crushed pineapple. Once, I slept over at a friend's house and found out that they mixed apple butter into theirs. It was a revelation and to this day is still one of my favorite things to add into cottage cheese.

These days, I'm kind the same way. I forget that cottage cheese is delicious for long swaths of time, then I rediscover it, eat tons of it, and then repeat the cycle. It's a strange thing that I don't entirely understand, but I think it has something to do with the fact that I have to buy the stuff in such large containers. Eventually, I'll finish one off and I just get out of the habit of buying it.

Recently, I was sent three of Muuna Cottage Cheese's new flavors, all of which come in individual cups, sort of like yogurt. I really liked that the serving size was built into this particular cottage cheese, as it spared me from having to guess at how much I wanted to spoon out for myself from those larger containers. The three new flavors were Black Cherry, Raspberry, and Vanilla, all of which I highly approved of. Again, much like a yogurt, the fruit comes at the bottom, ready to be mixed through the extra creamy cottage cheese. This was another advantage over the larger tubs because if I wanted to take some into the office with me for a little protein boost, I didn't have to worry about bringing a jam jar along as well. Even though these were packed with flavor, their sugar levels were still pretty low (9 grams per cup),

Speaking of sugar...

I'd heard about making cheesecake with cottage cheese before, but I'd never tried it myself. I figured that since these cups were already flavored, they might be ideal to give this kind of healthy(ier) dessert a try. I knew I wanted to make the cheesecakes individually sized, just like the cups, and I knew I wanted to give them a chocolate crust. Originally, I wanted to try making the crusts with crushed cereal, but when Trader Joe's failed me (WTF, Trader Joe's at Diversey and Clark? No chocolate cereal? Why?!?!), I picked up a package of brownie crisps instead, and that ended up working out rather well. The result? A surprisingly smooth, light, and flavorful dessert that tastes exactly like it was made with full fat cream cheese!

Definitely pick up some of Muuna's new flavors if you're a fan of cottage cheese, and let me know if you give this recipe a try!

Mini Cottage Cheese Cheesecakes

2 individual cups of Muuna Cottage Cheese, any flavor
1/3 cup of low fat sour cream
1 large egg
2 tablespoons of sugar
2 tablespoons of all purpose flour
1 package (5 oz) of Brownie Crisps
1/4 a cup of butter, melted

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

For the crust, crush the brownie crisps as fine as you can get them (you can either smash them in a plastic bag or grind them in a food processor). Add the melted butter to the crumbs and mix well, then distribute them evenly into the bottoms of a non stick muffin tin and press them flat.

Add the cottage cheese and sour cream into a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Add in the egg, sugar, and flour, and blend again until the batter is completely mixed.

Pour the cheesecake mixture into the muffin tin cups, filling all the way to the top of each cup. Bake in the oven for about 30 minutes or until the filling is no longer jiggly and the cakes are slightly golden around the edges.

Let the cakes cool to room temperature, then refrigerate them over night so that they set completely.

Run a pairing knife dipped in hot water along the sides of the muffin tin to loosen the sides of the cakes, then serve and enjoy.

This recipe should make about a dozen and a half cakes, depending on the size of your muffin pan.

Thank you to Muuna for sending me the cottage cheese free of charge in order to facilitate the writing of this post. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the brands I partner with.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Bites Asian Kitchen or Street Meats

The Slow and Savory Review

Umm... hey there! I'm Jessica and I have been Bunny and Brandy's "interpreter" since the inception of this blog seven and a half years ago. If you've been reading this blog on the regular since then, thank you so much. It's been a crazy journey that has taken me to a lot of places I never dreamed I would go. That being said, Bunny and Brandy, those darling old lushes we all know and love, are getting on in years now and have decided to hand the reins over to me for a little while. I hope you all won't mind, but if you do start to miss them, feel free to let me know in the comments, and I'll see what I can do about getting them back in the saddle.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to check out Bites Asian Kitchen and their new East meets West brunch menu. Funny thing is, Bites is actually right across the street from my office. I am literally looking at their teal awning as I type. And while I am in the habit of supporting a lot of the restaurants in the immediate area, for some reason, I had never gone to Bites before. I don't really know why that is, but (spoilers) after this meal, I am determined to frequent it a lot more often!

I met up with my friend Kristin, who I've barely seen since she gave birth to beautiful baby girl last spring. And this being one of the first chances she's gotten to step out of the house on her own, she was just as excited as I was to check out the cocktails. She started off with Good Morning Mexico, a sort of mix between a Paloma and a Mimosa, which she really liked because it was refreshing and very original. I went for the Wake Me Up Before You Go Go, which had mango, strawberry, cucumber, lemon, elderflower liquor, and gin. I get kind of iffy with cucumber in my cocktails because it tends to take over the ENTIRE drink. In this case, however, it actually worked quite well with the sweetness of the fruit.

As Bites specializes in smaller, shareable dishes, Kristen and I decided to order a few things to munch on. First up was the Emerald Gyoza. These were pretty traditional gyoza (a type of Japanese dumpling that can either be pan fried or steamed), but they had a really creamy interior filling because of the incorporation of some edamame. The whiskey soy sauce and wasabi mayo on the side also gave them a more interesting flavor and more modern feel. Next, I reached for the Teriyaki Sliders, which were literally dripping with a beautiful soy butter glaze. As sliders can be a little tough sometimes, I was really happy to find these suckers were perfectly pink in the middle and plenty juicy. The western side of my palate was satisfied with the melty mozzarella cheese and the crispy fried shallots, while the eastern side loved the shiitake mushrooms and the slightly sweet flavor. Kristin had requested that we order the Tempura Avocado, which I was a little skeptical about, but they turned out to be really delightful. The outside of the wedges was light and crispy, while the inside was perfectly creamy and not at all greasy. The last of our little snacks were the massive shrimp cakes. These had a nice bouncy texture to them, and while their flavor was a little muted, the addition of some sweet chili dipping sauce and a cucumber salad really helped to bring out their specialness.

For our second round of drinks, Kristin picked the Blueberry Mojito, while I went with the Thai-rish Coffee. Kristin's mojito was very fruity and had just the right amount of mintiness to it. She actually managed to lap me because she could not stop sipping on this thing, and she ended up having to order one more cocktail before we ended the meal (her last drink was the Smokey Blonde, which was a really excellent whiskey cocktail). I have a deep love for Thai coffee and Thai iced tea, so you can imagine how much I LOVED the Thai-rish coffee. It was a little bit too easily drinkable, if you know what I mean.

For the main event, I really wanted to try their Okonomiyaki, a Japanese dish that is sort of like a combination of a pancake and a frittata, and comes slathered in Japanese mayonnaise and a sweet glaze that resembles BBQ sauce (yes, it's different, and yes, it's delicious), and is then topped with seaweed and bonito flakes. I'd only had okonomiyaki once before, but I knew what to expect because of my obsession with food Asian food vloggers, so I warned Kristin that the bonito flakes would be "dancing" on top of the okonomiyaki so that she wouldn't freak out and think it was alive. She was interested to try it, but she was already pretty stuffed, which left the entire dish up to me to finish. I really liked the big hunks of bacon hidden in the batter along with a variety of veggies, which made every bite kind of exciting and different. One of these days, I'm going to try my hand at making one of these suckers.

Finally, we finished off our massive meal with their Coconut Milk French Toast. The French toast itself was pretty good, nothing amazingly special, but had a good texture and just a hint of coconut flavor. The real star on the plate was the pandan syrup. I've never really had pandan anything, but I am officially now on the lookout. It's got a vivid green color, like matcha, but the flavor is like a coconut and vanilla custard, and it turned this French toast into something really spectacular. I would order this again in a heart beat if only so that I could drink that syrup.

If anything sums up my new found love for Bites, it is probably this; while sitting here at my office desk, trying to write up this post between doing actual work, I have just been salivating at the memory of this meal. I literally just went to Grubhub to see if I could order some lunch, only to have my heart broken when I was informed that they don't open until 4:30. Ah well. I'll just have pop over there tomorrow morning.

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

Friday, February 9, 2018

Postcards from Bunny: Macro-Nutrient Meal Delivery from HercuLean Meal Prep

BBQ Salmon
Bunny awoke with a start. The light in her room seemed odd and everything was strangely silent. Throwing open the curtains, she saw that everything outside was covered in a thick blanket of snow. "Now I remember why I don't usually come to Chicago in the middle of the winter!" she said aloud.

Indeed, she had been underground for quite some time (literally underground, that is, as she had been helping her archaeologist husband to explore the catacombs under Paris for several months) and had only intended to stop over in Chicago for a quick hot dog and slice of pizza. But with several inches of the white stuff turning all of Chicago into the North Pole, she knew there would be no escaping her lodgings anytime soon.

Turkey Scramble
The house she was staying in just happened to belong to a dear friend who was world class body builder and who was off competing on the pageant circuit. "The snow's still coming down pretty heavily," she told him over the phone, "Do you mind if I raid your fridge? I'm getting a little peckish and I don't want to make some poor delivery person wade through this mess." "Go ahead! Actually, you may find something you'll really like in the freezer. Help yourself!" said her muscle bound chum.

That was when Bunny discovered his stash of HercuLean meals. Curious, she extracted one of the packages from the freezer and examined it. The meals, it seemed, were specially designed for those wishing to consume mostly low fat, high protein foods. There was an abundance of meaty options, from steak and chicken to salmon and tilapia, and each came with the amount of proteins, fats, and carbs listed quite clearly on the front.

Shredded Steak
HercuLean, it turned out, was founded by a pair of brothers; one a chef and the other a body builder. Together, they combined their knowledge of nutrition and flavor to create a line of freshly prepared and flash frozen meals that would help people who were trying to live healthier lives get a head start. Though the company is based in Indiana, they recently started delivering to Chicago, packing their frozen meals into specially insulated boxes and shipping them overnight to ensure their freshness. Best of all, in addition to a large variety of entree options, they offer a pretty extensive variety of breakfast options.

Not being able to resist a little tasting, Bunny heated up a few of the meals. For the breakfasts, she particularly enjoyed the Turkey Chili served over egg whites, which was hearty and well spiced, and the Chicken Sausage, which had a strong fennel flavor and was nicely complimented by a side of shredded sweet potatoes. Venturing into the dinner options, Bunny favored the Curry Tilapia with sauteed spinach and a side of wild rice, and the Pesto Chicken with green beans. Overall, she was very impressed by how flavorful all of the meals were, and she loved that the packaging was microwave and oven safe, meaning she could heat the meals straight from the freezer without any other prep work or plating.
Curried Tilapia
Chicken Sausage

In fact, Bunny consumed so much protein that day that she was suddenly filled with energy. Not wanting to waste such a surge of vivaciousness, she headed outside and began to shovel the snow, and by day's end, she had actually cleared a path out of the house! "Well, I guess now I could go get that hot dog and pizza," she said, "But I did see HercuLean Cod Burger in freezer... I think I'll stay inside after all."

Pesto Chicken

The writer's of this blog were sent products free of charge in order to facilitate the writing of this post.