Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Tea Time with Brandy: Tiny but Mighty Popcorn

While preparing her various Thanksgiving dishes, Brandy was looking for something she might be able to have out as a snack for those dropping by throughout the holiday weekend.  "It needs to be light, but flavorful.  Artisan crafted, but approachable.  Familiar, but with a twist," Brandy said while wandering down the snack isle of her local grocery store.  Then suddenly, there it was.  "Popcorn!  Or course!" She said, stopping so short that the shoppers behind her were involved in a three cart pile up.  "But it can't just be any old popcorn.  It has to be something special.  Ah... what's this?" she said, reaching for a bag on one of the shelves.

What it was was Tiny but Might Popcorn, an heirloom popcorn grown on a handful of small farms in Iowa.  The corn is purposely grown to have smaller kernels, which is actually a major benefit.  Tiny But Mighty’s kernels are more dense, which means they have a compact and concentrated corn flavor as well as being high in fiber, gluten free, non-GMO and possessing a thin hull that virtually disintegrates upon popping, which makes the popcorn easier to chew and gentler on the digestive system.  Tiny but Mighty comes in three varieties: loose kernels, pre-popped bags of popcorn (in Butter, Sea Salt, and Kettle flavors), and their newest addition, microwavable popcorn (in Butter, Light Butter, and Kettle varieties).  Brandy instantly adored the true corn flavor of the popcorn as well as light touch of flavoring.  "It's pretty good on it's own, but I think I know how to make this even more special!  A little touch of sweet, tart, and salty should do the trick."

Tiny but Mighty Popcorn is available at most Whole Foods locations, on, and on the Tiny but Mighty website.

The writers of this blog were provided with samples of the products mentioned above in order to facilitate the writing of this post.

PB&J Popcorn Clusters

1/2 cup of Tiny but Mighty loose kernels or 1 bag of Tiny but Might Sea Salt pre-popped popcorn
1 tablespoon peanut oil (if popping your own kernels)
Sea salt (if popping your own kernels)
3/4 cup meltable peanut butter chips
1 tablespoon of milk or cream
1 cup dehydrated strawberries, crushed into small pieces

In a large stock pot, heat the peanut oil and add in 2 test kernels.  When those kernels pop, add in the rest of the popcorn, turn down the heat, and cover with a lid.  Once all the popcorn is popped, remove from heat and place off to the side.  (Note: you can skip this step if you're using the pre-popped popcorn.)

Place the peanut butter chips in a medium bowl over a double boiler and melt until they are an even consistency.  Add in the milk/cream and combine.  The mixture should be smooth and a little loose.

Carefully pour the melted peanut butter chips over the popcorn and stir until the popcorn is well coated.  Moving quickly, spread out the popcorn on a max paper covered cookie sheet, sprinkle with the dehydrated strawberry pieces, and finish by cracking the sea salt over the popcorn (Note: if you used the pre-popped popcorn, you don't need to salt it).  Place in the refrigerator for about an hour or until the peanut butter coating has set, then break into small pieces and enjoy!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Kokopelli or Dancing off to Baja

The Slow and Savory Review

It was a cold, blustery fall day when Brandy ran into her old friend, Brocco Leigh Binto (eccentric scientist and inventor extraordinaire) outside of a Blue line stop on Milwaukee.  "You're looking especially...tanned," Brandy commented, eyeing up his unusually golden skin.  "I just got back from InVenCon.  It was in Tijuana this year," Brocco beamed.  "InVenCon?" Brandy questioned.  "The Invention Convention!" Brocco explained, "The biggest and best festival for professional inventors to get together and share our latest innovations.  Though, the sharing part doesn't happen so much between the fellows who haven't finished their patenting process, but that's understandable, I suppose.  In any case, the trip's given me a craving for Baja style food.  Know anywhere good?" "I think I've got just the place for you," Brandy grinned.

She took Brocco down the road a little ways to the newly opened Kokopelli, the first US location of a popular series of restaurants in Mexico, all serving fresh Baja inspired food with an emphasis on seafood and handmade tacos.  Brandy had been interested to try out Kokopelli for herself, especially as seeing how Chicago has become a battle ground for some of the most highly regarded taco joints this side of the Mason-Dixon line.

Kokopelli had a bright and vibrant interior with warm lighting and high ceilings.  The space was open and spaced out so that patrons weren't on top of each other.  Brandy took a good, hard look at the giant chalk drawing of a kokopelli on the wall near the door, remembering fondly a certain time in her life when she was hitchhiking across South America and ended up one night dancing with a man who claimed to be a Hopi chief in a discotheque in Mexico City.  As her mind wandered to the figure he had tattooed on his arm (it was a fertility symbol, he told her), Brocco began to worry about the glazed look on her face and quickly made a big fuss of coughing and adjusting his water glass, which eventually brought Brandy back to reality.

The meal started off with two of the house guacamoles; the Chicarron and the Seasonal.  The Seasonal was a fairly traditional guac, although it came garnished with some beautiful pomegranate seeds, and served with a side of Veggie Chips, which consisted of thick slices of root vegetables like carrots, beets, and radishes, that provided a nice bit of crunch and color.  The Chicarron guac was a little more spicy with a little touch of sweetness from chunks of pineapple.  This guac came with a side of the house made tortilla chips, but also a gigantic deep fried pork rind, hence it's name.  "I do enjoy an edible condiment holder," Brandy said, breaking off a piece of the crunchy fried pig skin.

Next came the rainbow of house made salsas.  Brandy's favorite were the Espuma de Mar, a bright and acidic pineapple salsa with plenty of heat from habanero pepper and the Robo de Dante, a nutty almost soy sauce like concoction with pumpkin seeds and serrano peppers.  Brocco favored the charred chili and peanut infused Castigo Azteca, which almost resembled satay sauce, and the Lagramis de Lucifer, the spiciest salsa on the menu with a pink color that denoted its heat like the neon markings on a poisonous Amazonian tree frog.  Brandy watched with a raised eyebrow as Brocco shoveled a chip piled high with the devil sauce into his mouth and smiled wide as sweat broke out on his forehead.  "It's the chemical reaction of the capsaicin that really fascinates me," Brocco said before his throat began to close up.

Next came the Kokopelli Salad with mixed greens, grilled beets, candied pecans, cherry tomatoes, gorgonzola cheese, and a balsamic vinaigrette.  Brandy very much appreciated the mix of salty, sweet, and tangy in the salad, as well as the different textures.  "It's always nice when a salad is more than just over dressed greens," Brandy said, eyeing the larger portion of salad she had willing given to Brocco (he is a vegetarian, so Brandy did want to make sure he had his fill of what he could have).

The following course was two of the three Ceveches on the menu: a fish of the day with squid ink, pickled onion, and dressed with the pineapple and pumpkin seed salsas, and an octopus with avocado, tomatoes, and pepper.  Brandy did like the freshness of these ceveches, which both had a nice citrus tang without being too acidic, and the seafood itself was all very fresh and tender.

The main course was a parade of tacos.  Brandy's favorites included the Steak a las Brasas with a green salsa, grilled rib eye, and a chimicurri sauce, the Gringo en Vacaciones with grilled shrimp, adobo sauce, and pineapple with a charred pepper, and the Chicken Mixteca with baby spinach, a creamy poblano sauce, and pickled radish.  Brocco, who got to taste both of the vegetarian tacos, favored the Italiano con Machete with roasted portobello mushroom, Mexican pesto, and pickled red onion.  "I do appreciate that there are two vegetarian choices, I just wish they weren't both mushroom," Brocco said, "They both taste good, they're just very similar."

Throughout the meal, Brocco and Brandy sampled from the cocktail menu as well.  The TJ Sour was particularly nice with a good mix of fruit and citrus flavors that wasn't overwhelmingly sweet.  The El Dandy was probably the favorite of both Brocco and Brandy, as it had a nice smoked flavor with just a hint of cherry, lemon, and a good warming aftertaste of cinnamon (in fact, Bocco and Brandy enjoyed the El Dandy so much, they ordered a second round of it).

Lastly was the dessert, the Sweet Chimichanga, a sort of begger's purse filled with roasted fruit and sweet cheese, coated in cinnamon sugar, and served with a vanilla creme anglais, grapefruit segments, and pomegranate seeds.  After such bold flavors in the rest of the food, Brandy actually appreciated that the dessert was more subtle, playing more on textures from the crunchy and chewy purse, the creamy sauce, and the tender fruit.  Dessert also came served with a big cup of sweet Mexican coffee, which Brandy found deeply comforting.

Back out in the cold streets of Chicago, Brandy found herself instantly wishing to be back inside Kokopelli with its warming food and satisfyingly uncomplicated drinks.  "Well, that certainly did quench my desire for Baja style food!  I feel like I was just in Tijuana all over again." Brocco proclaimed happily.  Indeed, with such fresh ingredients, colorful presentations, and welcoming staff, Brandy did feel as though someone would be hard pressed to find such excellent food outside of Mexico.  "I think we'll have to make a return trip to try those salsas again, just to make sure we liked them," Brandy winked, and as though the Lagramis de Lucifer in his system had heard her, Brocco's face suddenly grew bright pink and a bead of sweat sprang to life on his forehead.

The writers of this blog were invited by the restaurant to dine at no charge in exchange for an honest review.

The Short and Sweet Review

Kokopelli on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Postcards from Bunny: Cocktails, Wine, and Beer

Brandy has just been so darn busy these last few months that she simply can't seem to keep her schedule straight, which is why she completely forgot that Bunny was due into Chicago for a brief stay in between her husband's archeological digs.  "I just don't know if I'll have the time to do more than have a quick drink," Brandy apologized to her oldest friend over he phone, "I've become very much in demand since you left Chicago, you know."  "Of course you have," Bunny replied, her eyes rolling so hard they were nearly audible, "Well, if time for a drink is all you can spare, I guess I'll have to find a way to entertain myself.  I know!  I'll find us the absolute best places to grab a drink in the meantime!  After all, you're sooooo important, it would be unseemly for you to be seen at just any old pub."  "Brilliant idea!" Brandy gasped, "Give me a choice of where to get the best cocktails, wine, or beer, and then we'll see what kind of a mood I'm in." "Challenge accepted," affirmed Bunny.

Cocktails at The Barrelhouse Flat
Bunny started her quest off at The Barrelhouse Flat, a speakeasy style bar and lounge in Lincoln Park that prides itself on hand crafted cocktails using an incredible array of artisan ingredients, right down to their hand carved ice cubes.  The cocktails there are intricately designed twists on classics, as well as original concoctions, all of which are invented by the team of highly skilled and highly knowledgeable bartenders (they don't like the new-fangled term "mixologists" there).  Bunny loved seeing that the Featured Cocktails section of the menu was an especially exciting playground for the bartenders to invent some seasonal drinks.  First she tasted Mrs. Hudson's Smash, a delightfully bright cocktail, inspired by the Victorian punches of old, and made with gin, strawberry, lemon, allspice dram for a little kick, and a sprig of fragrant mint.  Another favorite was the Apple-Tiki, a tribute to tiki-style drinks from the height of their popularity on the 1930's and 1940's.  This cocktail had apple brandy, lime juice, cinnamon syrup, a few obscure herbal liquors, and some absinthe, which all combined for a surprisingly sophisticated beverage that wasn't too sweet and had just the right amount of fruitiness and spice.  The food at The Barrelhouse Flat wasn't bad either, consisting of smaller bites like sliders, root vegetable chips, and rustic almond macaroons that wouldn't overwhelm or over shadow the artistry of the cocktails.  "I think the thing I love most about this place is that they play period appropriate music," Bunny said, smiling as she closed her eyes and listened to a vintage recording of Louis Armstrong playing softly throughout the bar, "Makes you feel like you've stepped back in time.  I'd take a speakeasy over a night club any day!  Alright, cocktails, check.  On to wine!"

Wine at Max's Wine Dive
Bunny was very impressed by Brandy's description of her visit to Max's Wine Dive a few months ago, but she did have one criticism.  "How did you go to a place labeling itself as a "wine dive" and not drink oodles of wine?!" Bunny had asked her.  Well, now that it was Bunny's turn to visit, she decided to go whole hog, so to speak, and try a bunch of different wines, paired expertly by wine director Kristin Irwin with some of Max's new fall dishes, created by chef Jessica Brumleve.  Among Bunny's favorites of the evening were the Avancia Godello, an oaky white wine with touches of fall fruits that paired extremely well with the rich bone marrow jam on Texas toast, the  Flora Springs Triology, a red blend with bold notes of anise, sandlewood, and red fruits, paired with an apple cider braised pork belly, and the Jorge Ordonez & Co. ‘Victoria No. 2’ Moscatel, an absolutely addictive dessert wine, served with a caramelized apple crisp that came topped with a scoop of salted caramel ice cream from Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams.  Bunny could have stayed and sipped every single one of the 100+ wines Max's had on offer (indeed, there were quite a few varieties that caught her eye, and luckily, as it turned out, Max's offers a to-go service with any of their drinkables), but she knew she had to keep to her mission.

Beer at SideDoor
Last on Bunny's list was to find a swanky beer bar, which was probably the hardest item to cross off, as so many places in Chicago have such outstanding beer programs.  "I need somewhere with attention to detail, history, and knowledge of product," Bunny mused before finally settling on the relatively new SideDoor, a so called American style gastro-pub with a beer menu so extensive that parts of it are kept secret from the population at large.  Beverage Director Jeff Van Der Tuuk keeps some of his most prized acquisitions off the main menu, hoping to find customers who are looking for more adventurous and exciting beers to enjoy along side Chef Brian Kwak's dishes.  Bunny had the chance to taste some of the rarer prizes from Van Der Tuuk's cellar, including the Rodenbach Caractere Rouge, a red Belgian brew with a little touch of acid from raspberry and cranberry, which went perfectly with Chef Kwak's pear salad with arugula and candied pecans, the Boulevard Saison-Brett, which had a slight lemongrass flavor and a smooth, dry finish, which matched the succulent smoked chicken wings with bleu cheese dressing to a tee, and the Revolution Very Mad Cow Milk Stout, possibly the sweetest beer in the house, paired with a divine sticky toffee pudding.  These perfect pairings were probably due to the tight cooperation between Chef Kwak and Van Der Tuuk, who plan the ever changing menus together, matching the beers in Van Der Tuuk's stash to each new dish.  "I can't imagine a better way to truly enjoy a beer!" Bunny squealed with delight, "I just know Brandy will be pleased.  And if my eyes don't deceive me, it seems they serve brunch here too!  Perhaps I'll have to plan a return trip..."

And so after her extensive research into exactly where she and Brandy should get a drink, Bunny had a contender for every category on her list she felt sure Brandy would approve of.  "You've certainly done your work well!" Brandy said admiringly, "But it's so bloody cold outside...what do you say we sit in by my fireplace and mix a couple of hot toddies?"  "Oh no, you don't!" Bunny exclaimed, "You get your coat on right now!  We're going to all three spots tonight!"

The writers of this blog were invited to attend the events mentioned in this post at no charge in exchange for an honest recap.

The Barrelhouse Flat on UrbanspoonMax's Wine Dive on UrbanspoonSideDoor on Urbanspoon

Friday, November 14, 2014

Firecakes or Donut it 'till You've Tried It

The Slow and Savory Review

For Thanksgiving, Brandy usually meets with a group of fellow displaced Europeans for one of the most eclectic pot lucks known to man.  It's the same every year; Inga brings the lutefisk, Gari brings the vegetarian haggis, Rudolpho brings a variety of heirloom olives and several bottles of wine from his family's vineyards in Santa Christina, and Brandy brings a dessert.  "I used to like changing it up each year," Brandy says, "Bringing in a sticky toffee pudding one year, then a tres leches cake the next.  But it all went to pot the year I brought the pumpkin pie.  Now they all think I'm the most American of the bunch and I have to bring that damned squash every year.  But perhaps this year, it's time for a change."

In search of new and exciting sweets, Brandy stumbled across Firecakes Donuts, or rather she stumbled in front of them when they were presenting at this year's Chicago Gourmet.  In a sea of donuts that were presented this year, Firecakes stuck out in Brandy's mind as the best, as their flavors were exciting, yet approachable, so she decided to seek out their home base for some inspiration.

Firecakes, as it turned out, has a small store front just off the corner of Hubbard and Clark.  There was enough room for a few people to move about comfortably in front of the display counter, though the only place to stay and enjoy one's donuts was outside at the tables in the small side walk patio enclosure.  Still, the atmosphere was quite a bit more welcoming than certain vault-like donut shops and Brandy loved that all of the wears were on full display while not overwhelming the customer with choices.

After getting her precious pastries home, Brandy dug in straight away.  She started with one of the seemingly more simple flavors, the Triple Valrhona Chocolate Donut.  This was a cake donut, though it wasn't as dense as some other cake donuts Brandy has had in the past, nor was it sickeningly sweet.  The texture was velvety and smooth with a very fine crumb to it, the icing rich and slightly bitter, and the crunchy cocoa nibs on top an absolutely perfect finishing touch.

Next was the Almond Joi donut, which Brandy had previously tried at this year's Chicago Gourmet festival.  The coconut custard inside was nicely rich without being overwhelming and the chocolate glaze was the same bittersweet masterpiece that had topped the previous donut.  Brandy again appreciated the little bit of texture from the sliced almonds.

The Classic Jelly at first appeared to be just that: a traditional sugar coated jelly filled donut, but the girl at the shop had told Brandy about how the jam fillings changed with the seasons, and the current flavor was raspberry blood orange.  The yeast donut was nicely soft, but not without some weight to it, and the jelly center was incredibly bright with a pleasant hit of acidic sourness.

The Butterscotch Praline was one of Brandy's favorites, not only because it was gigantic, but because the buttery glaze and slightly salty custard filling were infinitely eatable.  "The only thing that would make this donut better would be if it came with an actual shot of scotch," Brandy mused, dreamily.

The Bacon Maple Pineapple donut was the only confection on the current menu with a savory twist.  Brandy was a little disappointed to see that this donut did not have a filling, though the toppings were quite bold enough to make up for it.  Sadly, the maple flavor got pushed a little to the side and the bacon and pineapple combined to remind Brandy of a Hawaiian pizza.  "Not too sure about this one," Brandy said, starring down the donut, "Though, I respect its right to exist."

Another favorite was the Nutella Long John, which had a thick layer of chocolate glaze, crumbled hazelnuts on top, and an addictively creamy Nutella flavored cream center.  Brandy loved that the richness of the hazelnut spread was toned down a little by turning it into a more pudding like texture that held its place nicely in the center of the donut without dripping out.

The Chocolate Espresso Cream donut was another traditional flavor combination, made special by the use of extraordinary ingredients.  The cream center of this donut was spiked with a pretty potent coffee flavor that rich and smooth without being bitter.  "I appreciate this," Brandy said, "You don't need a cup of coffee with your donuts when your donuts are your coffee!"

Lastly was the elusive Pumpkin Pie Donut, This was another cake donut with a heavy amount of spice added, almost like a traditional apple cider donut, but topped with a light and fluffy pumpkin mousse and bit of roasted pecans.  "This is good enough to have for Thanksgiving!" Brandy swooned, "It's just as satisfying as a slice of pumpkin pie.  Perhaps its time start a new tradition..."  And without further ado, Brandy picked up the phone and ordered several dozen of the delicious treats to be picked up just before Thanksgiving.

Brandy was sure that the donuts from Firecakes would be a success at the annual Ex-Pat Thanksgiving dinner as she didn't have a single one she disliked.  Great quality ingredients, generous portions, adorable yet simple decorations, and a cheerful and helpful staff meant that even though the donuts were a little on the pricey side, they were well justified.  "It may shock one or two of the Ex-Pats at first to see donuts at dinner," said Brandy, "But if they insist on labeling me as the most American in the bunch, then they should be pleased.  After all, what's more American than a deep fried dessert?"

The Short and Sweet Review
Firecakes on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Food News: Fall/Winter Specials at Lyfe Kitchen

A few weeks ago, we related the story of how Brandy became a "Lyfer" when she tried Lyfe Kitchen for the first time, and already Brandy has become obsessed with the health and sustainable focused fast casual restaurant.  "I've never been opposed to healthy food, I'm only opposed to terrible food, and if healthy food is also tasty food, then all the better," as Brandy put it.

Her current obsession lead Brandy to visit Lyfe Kitchen's River North location once more in order to try all of the fall and winter specials for herself.  The fall/winter specials all seemed to have one thing in common: heat.  Lots of spicy ingredients went into these dishes, presumably to keep Chicagoans from freezing their toes off in the on coming polar vortexes, which Brandy didn't mind in the least.  "I like spice if it's used well," she said, "I object to heat for heat's sake, but certain dishes can certainly benefit from a good hit of the hot stuff."

First up were two of the seasonal beverages, the Spiced Apple Chia and the Pumpkin Pie Latte.  A big bonus for the latte was that it had butternut squash puree in it, which gave it a rich, smooth texture most pumpkin spice drinks don't have, but sadly Brandy found the flavor a little weak.  The Spiced Apple Chia, which can be served warm or cold, was an absolute hit for Brandy, as the flavor was much more potent than she expected.  "I thought it would be along the lines of the Lyfe waters, which are more subdued and refreshing, but this is like a fortified apple cider!  Delicious!"

Two seasonal soups are currently on the menu: a Squash Lemongrass and a Chicken and Kale.  Brandy though the squash soup had a nice citrus undertone to it, but wasn't quite as rich as she wanted it to be, and the mint it had been dressed with a bit confusing to the palette.  The chicken and kale soup, on the other hand, was a delightful surprise with it's hearty chunks of meat and veggies and just a little bit of warmth from some chili oil.  "It's like a chicken noodle soup, but the noodles have been replaced with greenery!" Brandy exclaimed in delight.

Following that, Brandy tried the Buffalo Chicken Salad, which might have been her favorite dish of the day.  Though the minced chicken on top of the salad had a good tangy kick to it, the greek yogurt ranch dressing and fresh avocado helped to balance out the heat.  Brandy also loved the addition of sweet corn and black beans for a little bit of texture.

Next Brandy tried the Shishito Pepper Flatbread with mushrooms and capers.  The veggies gave this crunchy flatbread a nice earthy flavor just as the peppers lent a decent amount of heat.  Brandy felt this would make a great starter or even a nice lunch, but might not be satisfying enough for dinner by itself.

Lastly was the Spicy Chicken and Black Bean Bowl, which was hearty, and as the name implied, quite spicy, as the base of it had been concocted from jalapenos.  The chicken had a pleasant grilled flavor to it, while the beans were nicely firm and stood up well to the sauce.  The over all feeling of the bowl was in the vein of a chili, which made Brandy wish she had some sort of sturdy roll or bread to dip into the dish.

These dishes will be available throughout the fall and winter, changing over to the spring specials somewhere between March and April.  Lyfe kitchen is also due to change over their beer selections, which they hope to do every three months or so to keep returning customers like Brandy on their toes.

 Lyfe Kitchen on Urbanspoon