Friday, July 20, 2018

Sun Basket: The Best Clean Eating Meal Prep Delivery Service?

I've been curious to try some of the meal prep delivery services that have sprung up in the last few years. The convenience is certainly the main draw for me, but I've noticed that the recipes some of these companies put together aren't always the healthiest or the most inclusive of different diets. Also, I've heard from friends who have tried different services that the packaging can sometimes get out of hand, causing much more waste than a trip to the grocery store would have.

Recently, I decided to finally bite the bullet and give one of these services a try. Sun Basket caught my attention right away because they featured several different meal plans (vegetarian, vegan, pescitarian, paleo, gluten free, family, etc) but also allowed users to jump across the different menus. As an omnivore who tries to limit her meat and carb intake, I loved that mixing and matching was an option. They also promised all organic produce and responsibly raised meats as well as fully recyclable packaging.

For my first week of recipes, I picked a Steak and Stone Fruit Salad, some Smokey Chicken Tacos with mango salsa, and Tofu Burgers with potato match sticks and corn on the cob. right off the bat, I was really impressed with how efficiently set up the box was, with all the ingredients for each recipe packed into a labeled brown paper bag so that I didn't have to wonder what belonged to what. Both the chicken and the steak were put in a separate compartment, securely packaged, well trimmed, and looked vibrant and fresh. Best of all, the booklet that came in the box contained recipes for not only my meals, but all 18 meal options on the menu for that week, meaning I could still try to make all the meals I didn't pick on my own!

I decided to make the Smokey Chicken Tacos for my 4th of July dinner (because nothing says 'Merica like tacos). Being that this recipe included two of my not so favorite thing- cilantro and jalapenos- I was a little worried that leaving them out would make the tacos bland. I was wrong. Whatever the magical spice mix they gave me was was so flavorful and perfectly balance that I didn't feel like I was missing out on anything. My friends, who were trying the tacos with me, were also able to customize their tacos to their individual tastes by adding the cilantro or jalapenos as they wished. I was immediately impressed.

Next up was the Steak and Stone Fruit salad. Now, these boxes are meant to feed 2 people (or more if you choose the family plan) and since I live by myself, I figured I could split some of the more filling meals into dinner and lunch. I wasn't planning to split this one, since... well, it was a salad. But when I saw the two generous cuts of steak they had given me, I changed my mind. In fact, every meal I received was enough to make two filling portions. And that's saying something for someone with an appetite like mine! The salad was super easy to prepare and I loved the addition of the charred peaches, though I would have loved a little bit more of them. The steak itself was top notch, which is pretty impressive considering that every serving only runs about $11.99. I modified this recipe slightly by candying the walnuts that were meant to top the salad, just to give them a little extra crunch.

The tofu burgers were my my least favorite of the first three meals, though through no fault of their own (they were against stiff competition). Funnily enough, this meal was the most involved recipe, requiring a bit of prep with the potatoes and the various veggies that were to top the burger, then the baking of the potatoes, the boiling of the corn, and the grilling of the tofu burgers. I made my meal slightly not vegan by adding the little spice mix they had given me for the corn to some mayonnaise and Parmesan cheese to make the corn into elotes, but I stuck to the rules for everything else. The burgers were substantial and the texture of the tofu was perfect, but the cashew cheese sauce wasn't as flavorful as I had hoped it would be.

The second week's box brought me a Warm Quinoa and Corn Salad, some Pulled Pork Sliders and Carrot Slaw, and a Saigon Noodle Bowl. As should be obvious by now, Sun Basket features a lot of international recipes, which I loved, since I have a tendency to stick to very westernized flavor profiles when left to my own devices.

The pulled pork sliders came with Carolina mustard BBQ sauce, which packed quite a bit of unexpected heat. This was the only meat dish I ordered that came pre-cooked and frozen, but I was still really satisfied with the texture of the final product. The slaw was supposed to be a mix of carrots, celery, and raisins, but I decided to leave the celery out (because celery is the worst vegetable EVER) and I was perfectly happy with the results.

The Noodle Bowl turned out to be my favorite of this crop of recipes, thus proving that I do actually enjoy vegan food. The braised tofu they sent was the perfect firm texture, and I loved that the recipe called for making my own scallion oil to pour over the noodles and veggies. This recipe in particular I really want to try recreating.

Lastly was the Warm Quiona and Corn Salad. I ordered this one mostly because I liked the sound of the ingredients, but I wasn't sure how they were going to go together. The fresh burst of flavor this salad produced was a welcome surprise. The sweet corn, zucchini and quinoa were to be simply dressed with some lemon, oil, and mint, then topped with crushed hazelnuts and fresh ricotta, all of which combined in a really pleasing blend of textures. Definitely a wonderful summer dish that I would love to make again for a backyard BBQ.

So, the ultimate question is: Would I recommend Sun Basket? 100% yes.I went in very skeptical about the quality of the ingredients, the thought behind the recipes, the ease of preparation, and the size of the portions, all of which I was extremely impressed with. If fact, I'm thinking of doing the paleo meal plan moving forward so that I have a built in way of cutting some carbs out of my diet every week. Lord knows I need some kind of device for stopping me from eating pasta all the time!

The products mentioned in this post were sent to me free of charge by Sun Basket, but all opinions are strictly my own.

Monday, July 9, 2018

June 2017 Brunch & Stuff Roundup

Hi there, happy July! We're gonna try something a little different, since we're all busy people and such. Every first Friday of the month, I will be rounding up my favorite brunches from the previous month for you in one handy post. No flowery language, no in depth analysis, just quick and dirty deliciousness. So, without further ado, here's where I've been and what I've eaten in the month of June. For more on the go info, make sure you're following me on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook. Happy brunching!

It's taken me a long time to really learn how to appreciate a good taco place. My upbringing in the Southwest left me with a lot of traumatic taco memories that involved shredded lettuce, colby jack cheese, and weirdly textured ground meat. The bright colors and eccentric art work inside Pink Taco immediately put me at ease, though. This place was obviously trying to give off a relaxed, fun-times kinda vibe, and I was digging it. It's hard to believe the space used to house one of my favorite gastro-pubs, Bull & Bear, because it now seems so much more open, sunny, and and spread out. Drinks wise, I had to order the Fro-Mosa (a frozen mimosa), which did not disappoint. The Street Corn was killer and the Ceviche Tostada was amazingly fresh. The Lobster Tacos were good, but not something I'd be craving in the weeks to come. On the other hand, the Veggie tacos, with mushrooms and caramelized onions, were so good that I considered ordering a second plate of them. I didn't, though, because the slab of carbs that was the Mexican Bread Pudding French Toast was way too enticing to allow anything even remotely healthy to take up unnecessary room in my stomach.

This intriguing breakfast themed concept opened in Lincoln Park not too long ago. From their cereal themed decor to their cereal themed coffees, they've definitely got a clearly identifiable brand; indulging the inner children of the hungover masses. One of their signature items is breakfast themed scoops of raw cookie dough. They have three flavors available at any given time, and they usually come adorned with a variety of fruit, cereal, and/or candy. My favorites so far have been the Just Jacked (which tasted like apple pie) and the Yabba Dabba Dough (which combines Fruity Pebbles and fresh strawberries). As far as the savory side of the menu goes, there's a lot of options for soaking up any of the previous night's residual alcohol. The Triple Double Breakfast Sandwich is a nearly unconquerable mound of meat, cheese and carbs, topped with a fried egg and bacon fat mayo. I was also a pretty big fan of their sweet and spicy Morning Colonel sandwich, which featured a nicely crispy fried chicken breast and pickles on an English muffin. But my ultimate favorite pick? The AM Fries. They've got melty Swiss cheese, they've got crispy bacon, they've got peppery hollandaise sauce; literally they've got a little bit of everything. Even 100% sober, I found these things delicious, though I would image that they are total heaven when you're fully wasted too.

Every Sunday this summer The Dawson is hosting Camp Dawson; a sort of post-brunch-pre-dinner party on their patio, meant to evoke the joys of summer camp, but you know... with legal boozing this time. The cocktail line up is (of course) stellar, highlighted by the Bug Juices; three bottled cocktails in vivid colors meant to simulate the sugary drinks of our youth. The food menu is also on point, and is all made to be shared. The BBQ Chicken Sliders were my particular favorite, but their version of a Chicago Dog was also fantastic. The S'mores pie though... the S'mores pie... THE S'MORES PIE. Combine all of this with live music from local bands and you've got a Sunday afternoon well spent.

It's not often that I venture out to the suburbs for brunch these days, but when I do, it's got to be for a good reason. Rack House provided me with a very good reason in the form of a MASSIVE Bloody Mary called the BAM (Bad Ass Mary). This monstrosity not only had a liter of cocktail and two pints of domestic beer, it came topped with basically an entire buffet. Brisket and pulled pork sliders, sausage, fried shrimps, chicken wings, smoked ribs, cheeses, Nashville hot chicken, even Nutella brownies and donuts! I took one look at this thing and was instantly full. If you want to tackle the BAM yourself, seriously consider bringing an army of friends. If you're in the mood to actually walk out of the restaurant unaided, I cannot recommend their Breakfast Waffle Nachos more enthusiastically. The Hangover Cure sandwich, which gives you all the comfort of a burger, but with tender slices of brisket, was also a standout.

How did I never know that hidden deep within the Sheraton Grand is a fantastic little burger place with a gorgeous patio right on the river?! I'm so glad I had the chance to visit the recently revamped Chicago Burger Company for a taste of their classic diner fair and cocktails. There is just no beating the views you get as a free side dish with your meal. The River Rum punch tasted like liquid summer, the battered fries were crispy perfection, and the signature CBC Burger was everything I hoped it would be. Best part of Chicago Burger Company's River views? You can't see Trump Tower!

I went to dinner at this Lincoln Square favorite a few months ago and had an absolutely wonderful time, so when they announced that they were launching brunch service, I was counting the days until I could go see what they had in store. Right off the bat, I'm gonna say that this is one of the most gorgeous restaurants in Chicago. The sculptural light fixtures, the industrial bar, the dark and broody art, all of it gets my blood going. The brunch cocktails are good, but pretty much what you would expect (passion fruit mimosas and the like), so my recommendation is to go for the hardcore stuff and get yourself a Caipirinha. After that, you're going to want to order empanadas. All of them. Order every single one, even whatever the mystery one for the day is. The day I went, it was rabbit and root vegetables and I have absolutely no regrets. I also ordered an Acai bowl, admittedly so that I could appease The 'Gram with a glamour shot or it's purpley goodness, but it actually was quite nice and I would absolutely get it again if I wanted something a little lighter. The Benedict had a nice South American twist to it, coming served on grilled corn arepa's instead of English muffins. I went out of my box a little and ordered the Cazuela, which was basically roasted portobello mushroom and tomatoes with a soft boiled eggs, some bĂ©arnaise sauce, and some rustic bread, and I found it's simplicity infinitely satisfying.

I was invited to dine free of charge at the restaurants mentioned in this post, but all opinions are my own.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Summer Ice Cream Favorites and Fluffy Japanese-style Pancakes

It's no secret that my sweet tooth is my worst enemy. Back before Christmas, I gave the whole Keto lifestyle a try, and it was absolute torture. Now, I hear you saying that giving up sugar and carbs just before Christmas is a stupid idea. And you'd be right. But I wanted to test drive the lifestyle and see if it was something I could easily fall into after all the holiday excess.  Needless to say, I never did find my footing. I went running back to sugar like it was a boyfriend I had broken up with for all the wrong reasons, and now we're talking about getting engaged.

My number one weakness is ice cream, especially during the summer months. I will take all comers, from cookies and cream to strawberry cheesecake to mint chocolate chip. So when Hudsonville (a Michigan-based ice cream company I have loved for years) offered to send me some of their best selling flavors, I had no choice but to say yes.

The Mackinac Island Fudge was a new one for me, and I was an instant fan. It has ribbons of the rich buttery fudge that is the signature treat of Mackinac Island in Michigan. To my mind, this was the perfect ice cream to build a sundae with, because it already had the classic flavor profiles we all know and love, but with more interesting textures. It's not quite chocolate syrup, not quite chocolate flakes, but somewhere perfectly in between.

I was honestly surprised how much I liked the The Traverse City Cherry Fudge. I've never been a big fan of cherry ice creams, as they often have an overly artificial flavor to them and can lean extremely sweet. This one, however, had an amaretto ice cream base, which gave the diced cherry pieces a more sophisticated air. The chocolate wasn't heavy handed either, but was perfectly proportioned so as to make it a co-star and not the main attraction.

Lastly was the classic French Vanilla. As much as I love the flavor of a true, rich vanilla ice cream on it's own, I knew I wanted to find a special use for this one. Since I've always got brunch on the mind, I flashed back to the greasy spoon diners of my youth, who used to serve waffles and pancakes topped with a scoop an vanilla ice cream. I had also been wanting to try my hand had making some souffle pancakes, made internet famous by any number of Japanese cafes, where the locals and tourists wait for hours, just to try their fluffy texture.

Going through my cabinets, I zeroed in on one of  the new Nielsen Massey Organic Extracts. This new line features some of their classic extracts (peppermint, orange, lemon, and almond) with all the flavor and high quality of their other extracts, but now formulated with all organic ingredients. Since I am constantly experimenting with my Nielsen-Massey products, I wanted to give one of these new extracts a trial run. The orange one suddenly jumped out at me and the word, "Creamsicle," floated into place in my brain, like a long awaited block on a Tetras board. Creamsicle Souffle Pancakes. I needed to make them a reality right away.

Creamsicle Souffle Pancakes

4 egg whites
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
2 egg yolks
6 tbsp cake flour (sifted)
1 tbsp of melted butter
1 tbsp Nielsen-Massey Vanilla Bean paste
1 tbsp Nielsen Massey Organic Orange extract
2 tbsp sugar
1 1/2 tbsp melted Hudsonville French Vanilla Ice Cream

Hudsonville French Vanilla Ice Cream
Candied Orange Peel
Orange Blossom Honey

Place all of the egg whites into a medium metal or glass bowl (do not use a plastic bowl!) and set in the fridge to chill until just before ready to use.

In a large bowl, add the egg yolks, vanilla bean paste, orange extract, butter, and melted ice cream. Sift the cake flour into the bowl and stir to combine until the mixture is smooth and free of lumps.

Add sugar and cream of tartar to your chilled egg whites, then use a hand mixer to whip until they reach the stiff peak stage. Add one third of the egg whites to the egg yolk mixture and carefully fold until most of the swirls are gone. Add in the second third and repeat. Add in the last of the egg whites and repeat until completely combined.

Place a non stick skillet over medium heat. To achieve perfectly round, higher pancakes, you can use ring molds sprayed with cooking spray. For a more rustic shape, simply spoon the batter in small globs into the pan. Cook for about 2 minutes, then carefully flip the pancakes (they will appear uncooked on top, but this is ok). Cook for another minute, or until both sides are evenly browned.

Plate and serve immediately. Should yield 4-5 pancakes.

Products were supplied to me by the companies mentioned in order to facilitate the writing of this post, but all opinions are my own.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Chicago's Ultimate Last Minute Mother's Day Brunch Guide 2018 Edition

Downtown Go-To's
Del Frisco’s- Gold Coast, a la carte, special hours
Maple & Ash- Gold Coast, $90 buffet plus all moms receive a complimentary glass of champagne
The Albert- Streeterville, a la carte, special menu and hours
III Forks- Lakeshore East, a la carte, special menu items
Michael Jordan's Steakhouse- Mag Mile, special menu items, special hours
The Signature Room- Mag Mile, $80 buffet, includes one glass of house sparkling wine*
Howells and Hood- Mag Mile, $39 buffet
Cantina Laredo- River North, a la carte, special menu items, complimentary drink for all moms
The Gwen- River North, a la carte, special menu items, all moms will receive a complimentary glass of rose and a box of truffles.
Benny's Chop House- River North, $39 4 course prix fixe, all moms receive a complimentary cake and a family photo
Imperial Lamian- River North, a la carte, special menu items
Portsmith- River North, a la carte, special menu items
Taco Joint- River North and Lincoln Park, a la carte, brand new menu and cocktail packages*
Nonnina- River North, special hours
True Food Kitchen- River North, a la carte, specialty mimosas*
Tortoise Supper Club- River North, $65.95 buffet, special hours
IO at the Godfrey Hotel- River North, $39 buffet
Weber Grill- River North, a la carte, special menu items*
Steadfast- The Loop, $49.99 buffet, additional $14.99 for bottomless mimosas
The Florentine- The Loop, a la carte, special menu items
Roanoke- The Loop, $33 3 course prix fixe*
Cindy's Rooftop- The Loop, a la carte, special menu items
LondonHouse- The Loop, $54 buffet
Punch Bowl Social- West Loop, a la carte or $25 buffet, complimentary mimosa for all moms*
Mercat a la Planxa- South Loop, a la carte, all moms will receive a complimentary mimosa
Acadia- South Loop, $55 3 course prix fixe, special hours

Northside Favorites
Shore Club- Lincoln Park, $45 for buffet, $11 for drinks
The Late Bloomer- Lincoln Park, a la carte, special menu items, moms receive a complimentary cocktail*
Bar Roma- Andersonville, a la carte, special menu items, all moms will receive a chocolate dipped* strawberry
Low Country- Wrigleyville & South Loop, a la carte, special menu items and drink packages
Commonwealth Tavern- Roscoe Village, a la carte, $3 mimosas & $6 build your own bloody marys*
The Second City- Old Town, $40 buffet, bottomless mimosas, and a 45 minute improv performance*

West and SouthTop Picks
Split Rail- Humbolt Park, a la carte, special Golden Girls themed menu
Tuscany- University Village, a la carte, special menu items
Kizuki Ramen and Izakaya- Wicker Park, a la carte free peach mimosa or sangria with every ramen purchase
MAK (Modern Asian Kitchen)- Wicker Park, a la carte, mom's will receive a free bowl with the purchase of another bowl of equal or lesser value
Cafe Robey- Wicker Park, a la carte, special menu items
Eden- West Town, a la carte, special menu items
Nana- Bridgeport, a la carte, special menu items*

Suburban Hot Spots
Prairie Grass Café- Northbrook, $51 signature benedict + buffet*
Pete Miller-s Steak and Seafood- Evanston & Naperville, $49.99 buffet
Perry's Steakhouse- Oakbrook, a la carte, special hours, $4.95 cocktails
El Tapeo- Oak Brook, $45 chef's market table plus one entree, dessert, and sangria
Rackhouse- Arlington Heights, $32.99 buffet, all moms get a complimentary raffle ticket to a prize drawing

*These brunch services have been personally tested and approved by Bunny and Brandy. Check out our reviews of these location for more info!

Friday, May 4, 2018

Weber Grill or Buff-Yay or Buff-Nay?

Brunch buffets can be tricky. Buffets are great for large or mixed groups, especially when those groups contain picky eaters, because chances are better that everyone can find something they'll like. Sometimes buffets are also the most economical option, but not always the most delicious. Sometimes they are overwhelmingly loaded with amazing food, but also with overwhelming price tags. The choice usually boils down to luxury or basic survival with very little in between. Over the years, I've taken mental note of a handful of buffets that I think do a good job of providing quality food for the price they're charging, and this small list usually ends up being some of the places I recommend most often.

After seeing some interesting items on Weber Grill's Easter brunch menu, I was curious to check out their breakfast buffet. I entered into it with a hopeful outlook and a touch of skepticism; hopeful in that I've had Weber's perfectly grilled cuisine before, but skeptical because their website didn't list much more than a few items. I took Starr along with me (she is a burger expert after all) and we settled in for what we hoped would be some delicious meaty offerings.

Weber Grill's interior is a little dark with a definite masculine aesthetic in the woods and red tones throughout. We settled into a comfy booth by a window and our adorably chipper server, Igor, made sure we had water and (in my case) coffee right away. We then sampled a couple of their breakfast cocktails while we created our game plan. The house mimosa was pretty simple, and actually tasted quite fresh. The Backyard Bloody Mary was made with their house mix and boasted a garnish of smoked Gouda, sausages, pickles, olives, and a chaser of Weber's own Backyard Brew. Though I'm not the biggest fan of bloody mary's, this one had a nice briny flavor with just a little kick of spice that I rather enjoyed.

The small selection of buffet items had been set up along the side of the bar, and the kitchen had a few items they could make to order. We decided to have the kitchen fix us up some sweet dishes while we composed our plates. Aside from the normal stuff you'd expect to see on a buffet (fruit, yogurt, cottage cheese, various bagels, pastries, cereals, and muffins), we were a little saddened to find only four hot dishes; scrambled eggs, house potatoes, bacon, and sausage. We took a little bit of everything back to the table and methodically tasted our way through them. What we discovered was that everything was actually cooked really well. The eggs were still moist and fluffy, unlike a lot of other buffet eggs I've come across, and the meats weren't overly greasy. The potatoes ended up being the best part, as they alone showed signs of the Weber Grill I know and love; along with the perfectly crisped spuds, there were chunks of tender steak.

Now, I don't mind a smaller buffet, and the food that was on this buffet was surprisingly good. I was just disappointed that there wasn't anything there that showed off the Weber brand. No grilled meats or veggies, nothing fire roasted or broiled or skewered. Just a simple continental breakfast. Now granted, this buffet will run you less than $20 a person, and for those kinds of prices, I'm more than certain that most people can get their money's worth. I guess I was just expecting to see a little more personality.

Igor cheerfully delivered our freshly made sweet dishes: some French Toast and a Belgian Waffles. Both had been garnished with fresh berries, fresh whipped cream, and came served with butter and maple syrup. Again, these were both plenty tasty, just not very creative, and with so many other restaurants in the area vying for attention, it was hard for me to understand why Weber wouldn't want to add a little more sparkle to their menu. After chatting with a few of the employees there, I came to understand that the buffet was created to offer the guests in the hotel upstairs an easy option, rather than to entice people off the street. This made total sense, and for a "hotel breakfast buffet," I think what they were putting out was pretty good. I just wanted more... fire.

Starr and I decided to stick around for the lunch service, which started at 11:00, so that we could remind ourselves what Weber Grill was really all about. We ordered a Firestarter Sampler, which came with a skewer of shrimp, chicken, steak, and BBQ ribs. Now this was what I pictured when I think of Weber Grill! Glistening meats with perfectly seared grill marks, wonderful marinades, and succulent seasonings, ready to be picked up and consumed in the most primal kind of way.

Starr decided to try out the Pulled Pork Sandwich, which came dressed with their house BBQ sauce and topped with a scoop of creamy cole slaw. This was backyard eating at it's finest, with lots of finger licking and lip smacking and sauce going absolutely everywhere. I went for the Prime Burger, which was topped with bourbon grilled onions, Wisconsin white cheddar, and fried pickles. The cheese had a bit of a mealy texture to it, but otherwise, this was a perfect burger, with plenty of flavor and a perfect char on the outside.

At the end of the day, if you're looking for a breakfast buffet that is quick, good, and not overwhelming to the senses or the wallet, Weber Grill is a great option. But if you're looking to satisfy your carnivorous cravings, get there after 11:00 and order from the lunch menu instead.

I was given parts of my meal free of charge in exchange for an honest review.