Friday, January 30, 2015

From the Kitchens of Bunny and Brandy: Bacon Cheeseburger Lasagna with Red Gold Tomatoes and GIVEAWAY!

As loyal readers of this blog will know, Brandy loves coming up with recipes in honor of the Super Bowl.  The last few years, she's designed recipes for both teams participating, but since she's already come up with goodies for both the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks, this year she decided to come up with an overall crowd pleaser.

Having developed two previous lasagnas last year with Red Gold Tomatoes, Brandy again used one of their party packs, which this year consisted of 1 large can of crushed tomatoes, two cans of tomatoes with basil, garlic, and oregano, a box of noodles, a Red Gold can carrier, a sturdy apron from Laura's Lean Beef, and a coupon for $10 off any Laura's Lean Beef product.

And because Brandy believes in sharing the wealth, she is giving away an identical Red Gold lasagna party pack to one of our lovely readers!  To enter, simple tell us what your favorite Super Bowl snack is in the comment section below, on our Facebook page, our Instagram, or our Twitter.  A winner will be chosen at random and announced on Tuesday February 3rd.

Not content to make a simple meat lasagna, Brandy went all out and combined the aforementioned pasta dish with another classic American favorite, namely the bacon cheeseburger.  This lasagna is so full of cheesey and baconey goodness that it's sure to be a hit with even the most diverse Super Bowl crowd (unless it's a crowd of vegetarians... in which case, probably don't make this).  If you do try out Brandy's recipe, be sure to let us know what you thought!

The writers of this blog were provided with products from Red Gold Tomatoes to facilitate the writing of this post as well as the give away.

Bacon Cheeseburger Lasagna

For the sauce:
1 can of Red Gold Crushed tomatoes
1 cup of heavy cream
1 cup of shredded white cheddar cheese

For the lasagna:
2 cans of Red Gold Tomatoes with Basil, Garlic, and Oregano
1 box of lasagna noodles (pre-cooked according to package instructions)
1 lb of lean ground beef
6 strips of thick cut bacon
1 1/2 cups of whole milk ricotta cheese
1 large onion, sliced thinly
1 lb of mushrooms, sliced
2 cups of shredded mozzarella cheese

Spread the bacon slices out on a baking sheet and bake in the oven at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes or until the bacon is crisp.  Crumble bacon into large chunks and set aside.

Empty the crushed tomatoes into a medium sauce pot and cook on medium for 5 minutes.  Add in the cheddar cheese and stir until the cheese is fully melted and combined.  Turn the heat down to low and add in the cream.  Let the sauce simmer on low for 10 minutes, salt to taste, then take off the heat.

Brown the beef in a skillet and drain if necessary, then set aside.  Add the onions to the skillet and cook on low heat for about 10 minutes, then add salt to taste and the mushrooms and turn heat up to medium, cooking for an additional 10 minutes.  Remove the skillet from the heat.

In a 9x11 baking dish, lay down one of the cans of garlic and herb tomatoes (this will prevent the noodles from sticking or burning to the bottom of the pan).  Lay down your first layer of noodles, then add 1/3 of the tomato cheddar cream sauce, half of the ricotta, 1/3 of the mozzarella, and half of the bacon.  Lay down a second layer of noodles, then 1/3 of the sauce, all of the beef, and then the onions and mushrooms.  Lay down a third layer of noodles and repeat the ricotta,bacon, sauce, and mozzarella layer.  Top with one final layer of noodles, the second can of garlic and herb tomatoes, and the last of the mozzarella.  Bake in the over at 375 degrees for 35-45 minutes, or until the cheese on top is golden brown.  Remove, let cool, and serve immediately.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Peasantry or High on the Hog

The Slow and Savory Review

Mama Bee was still stuck on the idea of opening up a new version of her successful business, Honey Bee Bakery, but she was having trouble pinning down exactly how she wanted to go about it.  "I'm not so sure I want to go after the tourist trade any more," she told Brandy one day, "But I still want to revamp my brand, you know?  Make it younger, hipper, more edgy!"  "You make baked goods.  None of those words should ever be used to describe pastries," Brandy grumbled.  "But this is how you keep something relevant," Mama Bee explained, "One has to adapt to the times."  "Well, maybe it's just me, but I think a restaurant should find a personality and stick with it.  That's how you keep your audience.  If you start out edgy, young, and hip, then you stay that way."

To prove her point, Brandy took Mama Bee to The Peasantry, a restaurant that has recently undergone some changes in the background, transitioning from focusing on street food to comfort food, but still maintaining an eclectic identity.

The Peasantry had a sort of edgy street vibe to it with it's quasi-graffiti walls, but also a rather comfy feel with its heavy wood communal tables, dividing brick wall, and full fire place.  Brandy rather liked the eclectic feel, which, judging from the menu, reflected the food in a way that decor rarely does.

A couple of cocktails were ordered up: A Naughty Chai Latte for Mama Bee and a Kir Royal for Brandy.  The Kir Royal was pretty typical, though the sometimes tooth aching sweetness of the raspberry liqueur was balanced nicely by a dryer champagne.  On the first sip of the warm chai cocktail, a smile spread across Mama Bee's lips.  "Oh, this is just the perfect thing for a dreary day," she sighed.  She thought that the warmth of the spices was perfect, as was the level of alcohol, which didn't overwhelm, but enhanced the flavor.

The pair of ladies started by splitting an order of Dutch Apple French Toast.  This was a heavier French toast than Brandy was used to, as it had been made from Irish soda bread, studded with dried fruits, and covered in a tart apple cider gastrique.  Though it wasn't the typical eggy, sweet French toast, Brandy rather liked the dish.  "This is most certainly a wintery dish," she said, chewing over the last bit of bread, "It's rather hearty in a stick to your ribs sort of way, as you Americans would say."

Mama Bee picked the Vegetarian Hash as her entree, which consisted of onions, peppers and butternut squash with crispy potatoes and two fried eggs.  She felt the dish was a little on the salty side, but the veggies were nice and crisp, including the potatoes.  "I do like when breakfast potatoes aren't coated in grease," she commented, "And these are just perfect.  Light crunch on the outside and soft on the inside."  What surprised her about the dish was the poblano cream sauce, which she had expected would have a bit of heat to it, but was actually quite mild and smokey, which helped to liven up the eggs.

Though tempted to go for the Brunch Dog, which she had previously eaten at Franks 'N Dawgs (The Peasantry's sister restaurant), Brandy instead went for the Shrimp and Grits.  When she was presented with the head on prawns, laying on their bed of cheesy, corny goodness, Brandy was rather amazed and slightly horrified.  "I don't usually like my brunch to look back at me," she said, avoiding the gaze of the shrimps, "But today I'll make an exception."  She found the shrimps to be extremely tender, almost melt in the mouth soft, but a little on the bland side flavor wise.  Once Brandy tasted the grits, however, she could see why the shrimp had been a little more subdued; there were little chewy bits of bacon throughout the golden grits, which were on the denser, more polenta-like side texture wise, (this is how Brandy prefers her grits, as opposed to the more Southern creamy style).  The over all flavor of the dish was brilliantly smokey from the roasted corn salsa with just a little zing of lemon to brighten up the richness.

Brandy and Mama Bee were rather impressed with the edgy "comfort food" style of The Peasantry.  The food was unique, nicely presented, and priced around $10 per entree, which is par for the course at most Chicago bunches.  "I still sort of like the idea of giving my bakery an edgy twist, especially after seeing how well it worked for them," Mama Bee said.  "Or you could, you know, stick with what you've been doing," Brandy suggested.  "No, no.  I'm ready for a change.  What do you think of a croissant in the shape of a Mohawk?" Mama Bee mused.  "I don't think it's ever a good idea to make your food remind people of hair, dear," Brandy replied.

The Short and Sweet Review

The Peasantry on Urbanspoon

Friday, January 16, 2015

Unite Urban Grill or A Study in Contradictions

The Slow and Savory Review

"You have got to talk to Bailey for me!" Hawk cried to Brandy over the phone one day, "She spent all of the Christmas break watching food documentaries on Netflix and now she's terrified to eat anything but kale and quinoa!  You have to help me, Brandy.  A man cannot live without bacon!"  "Calm down!" Brandy said, "I'll have a chat with her, don't you worry.  If there's one thing I can't stand, it's someone with no sense of balance in their life, and I'll be damned if one of my friends is going to start lecturing others on what they should or should not be eating based on fad diets and unproven testimony."

Brandy decided to take Bailey out to Unite Urban Grill, a West Town hidden gem that recently launched their brunch service, which featured a lot of brunch classics with their own signature twists.  Brandy thought this choice was particularly apropo because of it's back story: opened by married couple Joe and Megan Krouse, the name itself came from the fact that Joe based the restaurant's concept on a combination of his love for grilling and meat with Megan's love of grains, vegetables, and semi-vegetarian cuisine.  "The two of them have come together to to create well balanced cuisine, which is what we should all be striving for," Brandy explained to Bailey.  "But is their food gluten free, organic, heirloom quality, fair trade, cold processed, and raw?" Bailey asked in a panic.  Brandy rolled her eyes.  "Now listen here.  You're going to order a cooked meat dish, you're going to eat it like regular food, and you're going to like it, just as you always have," she said, to which Bailey gave a frightened whimper.

Stepping inside Unite, Brandy was greeted with something she didn't quite expect: a bright and vibrant rather modern and chic looking lounge with comfy blue sofas, warm woods, and colorful pillows, with a sparkling bar area beyond and a dining area with high tables beyond that.  "Perhaps this is rather ignorant, but I was thinking a place with "grill" in the title would be a bit like," Bailey ventured.  "Exactly," agreed Brandy, mischievously.

Quickly after being seated at one of the tables near the bar, the ladies ordered a couple of drinks.  Bailey took advantage of the customizable Bloody Mary menu and ordered one made with scotch instead of vodka and a skewer with salami, mozzarella, and a pickle.  Bailey thought the Bloody Mary had a nice subtle kick of spice with an extra richness from the scotch.  Brandy went for a cocktail called the Noble Square, which consisted of vodka, lemon, port, and chocolate mole bitters, which she found to be positively enchanting with its bright flavor, warm spices, and sweet, zingy finish.  "Strangely, it makes me think of summer and winter all at once," Brandy commented, "Yet another harmonious contradiction."

As for food, the ladies started off with a shared plate of the Brioche French Toast, which came topped with roasted apples.  Though simply plated, the French toast was actually quite unique in texture: the outside of the thick cut bread was lightly crisp and caramelized as though it had been rolled in cinnamon and sugar before being put on the griddle, while the inside was airy, creamy, and rich like a bread pudding.  "I've had a lot of French toast in my day," Brandy said thoughtfully, "And this is probably one of the most unique and delicious ones yet!"  The roasted apples on the top were also a nice touch, adding a bit of tartness and spice to each bite, though Brandy and Bailey wished there had been just a little bit more of them, as they found themselves silently wrestling over the last two slices.

For her entree, Bailey ordered the Steak and Eggs, which consisted of a hanger steak with a Worcestershire glaze, crispy breakfast potatoes, a garlic Bearnaise sauce, and two eggs, which Bailey requested scrambled.  Bailey found the steak a little on the chewy side, but the flavor was spot on with the silky, umami rich glaze.  The Bearnaise sauce was beautifully buttery with a very light veil of garlic flavor that Bailey rather liked, as it didn't overwhelm the palate, and went extremely well with the lightly crisp potatoes.  "I especially like the fact that they used some herbs in the sauce because it adds not only a bit of flavor, but a nice little touch of greenery to the plate, so at least I can pretend I'm eating some vegetation" Bailey observed.

Brandy ordered the Unite Reuben with a side of fries.  The fries were much like a Belgian frite; thin and crispy.  Brandy found them very easy to munch on, enhancing them by dipping them into some sriracha aioli, which their server had strongly encouraged her to try (Brandy was at first terrified of the spicy aioli, but her fears were at once quashed when she tasted the smokey, creamy, and slightly tart sauce).  The main event, the sandwich, looked like a typical Reuben, with its succulent pastrami, melty Swiss cheese, Russian dressing, and sauerkraut on marble rye ("I've never noticed how international a Reuben sandwich is!" Brandy exclaimed), but Brandy was pleased to see that, while fairly traditional, it had been done very well.  "It's not too vinegary or overly burdened with spice from the meat," Brandy mused, "Though I could do with a little more cheese."  "There's never enough cheese to satisfy you!" Bailey laughed.  Brandy began to rebuff her, but found her friend was probably speaking the truth, and so she just continued enjoying her sandwich.

To finish off the meal, the ladies enjoyed one last cocktail, the Bridgeport, which came beautifully presented with a purple orchid in it.  The cocktail itself was a little herbal and floral from some Petal and Thorn Vermouth, and quite citrusy from the use of lime and grapefruit juices.  "Really quite a nice finish to a meal," Brandy observed.  "It's such a feminine drink, yet its strong and bold," said Bailey, "Would you just listen to me!  I think I'm getting the hang of this critiquing thing!"

The well balanced food of Unite Urban Grill certainly did seem to calm a lot of Bailey's food fears with their well prepared versions of classic dishes, knowledgeable service, and bright, friendly atmosphere.  "Now do you understand how one can eat healthy and mindfully without sacrificing needless deliciousness?" Brandy asked her as they headed out of the restaurant.  "Yes," Bailey smiled, "But I still kind of like kale and quinoa."  "That's fine," Brandy sighed, "But for Hawk's sake, when just throw some bacon in there next time."

The writers of this blog were invited to dine by the restaurant free of charge in exchange for an honest review.

The Short and Sweet Review

Unite Urban Grill on Urbanspoon

Friday, January 9, 2015

Local Root or the Root of the Problem

The Slow and Savory Review

"I'm thinking of opening a new bakery on Navy Pier," Brandy's good friend Mama Bee (owner and operator of Honey Bee Bakery and all its subsidiaries) said one afternoon as the two were wandering about downtown.  "Navy Pier, eh?  Trying to cater to the tourist trade?" Brandy asked jokingly.  "Well... yes!  Imagine all those hungry people milling around, looking for something to nosh on while they... do whatever it is they do at Navy Pier.  It's an untapped goldmine, I tell you."  "I hardly think it's untapped," Brandy scoffed, "If anything, if might be a little over tapped.  There may not be a bakery right on the pier, but there are so many donut shops, coffee houses, and pubs up and down Streeterville, one can hardly move for some good to eat."  "Ah, yes, but what about somewhere fresh?  Somewhere that uses only local ingredients?  Somewhere that doesn't buy into the hype of the metropolis?" Mama Bee asked.  "Yeah, they've got that covered too," said Brandy, and walked Mama Bee across the street to Local Root.

The inside of Local Root was rather eclectic and homey, more of what you would expect from a neighborhood joint in Andersonville or Roscoe Village, not a piece of prime real estate minutes away from Navy Pier.  "See?  No glitz, no pomp, no overly contrived design, just a typical diner sort of place," Brandy mused, "Isn't it nice to see they aren't trying to snag the tourists with lots of flash?"  Mama Bee shrugged.  Brandy also noticed that at the very top of the menu, the restaurant had listed which farms all of their meat and produce had come from, solidifying their commitment to serving up only locally sourced ingredients.

The pair started off with a couple of hot cocktails to warm up on such a dreary, cold day: for Mama Bee the Hot Texas Toddy with tea flavored vodka, lemon, and organic honey ("This cocktail appeals to me for some reason," Mama Bee commented, to which Brandy rolled her eyes) and for Brandy, the Diving too Deep, with apple cider, cinnamon, and aged brandy ("This one appeals to me for some reason," Brandy commented sarcastically).  Both cocktails were pretty tasty and definitely nice just to hold in their cold hands as to sip.  "More places should push hot cocktails in the winter time," Brandy commented, "Now that's how you make supply match the demand!"

One of the specials of the day was fresh beignets with a rum cream sauce for dipping, so the two ladies decided to start off with that.  The large balls of fried dough were nicely crisp on the outside and wonderfully fluffy and light on the inside with a decent bit of chew.  The rum sauce actually packed more of a punch than either Brandy or Mama Bee were expecting, and they both wished they had been given much more of it, as it seemed to disappear completely halfway through the dish.

For her entree, Mama Bee ordered the Omelette of the Day, which came with broccoli, cheddar, and spinach as well as a aside of house potatoes.  The eggs were on the denser side, which Mama Bee actually enjoyed, and the vegetables were still nicely crisp and vibrant, though Mama Bee felt the seasoning was a little heavy handed and uneven.  The potatoes were nicely crispy on the outside with a soft interior, and had been seasoned with large granule salt, which provided a nice bit of added texture to them.  "They've followed your rule of adding a bit of greenery and fruit to the plate as well," Mama Bee commented to Brandy, "Though I would have liked a little pot of honey for my toast... No matter!" and she produced several small pots of her own honey from the depths of her purse.

Brandy ordered the Crab Cake Benedict ("A rather odd thing to see on a menu concentrated on being local," Brandy said, "I'm not aware of Chicago keeping crabs in Lake Michigan."), which also came with a side of the same potatoes.  The crab cakes had a nice crabby flavor, even slightly bordering on being too pungent, and boasted a decent hit of spice, just enough to warm up the inside of one's mouth.  The somewhat aggressive flavors of the crab cake were tamed by the addition of some sauted spinach, and the poach on the eggs was near to perfect.

Though the service was adequately friendly and the food reasonably good, though unexciting, the real surprise of the meal came along with the bill.  Because Brandy has a, perhaps, bad habit of ordering things based on curiosity rather than price, she was a little more than shocked that the total for a two cocktails, a shared appetizer, and two entrees came out to just over $80 after tax and tip.  "$11 for a cocktail I can sort of understand, but $9 for a few pieces of fried dough?  $15 for an omelette?  $21 for a Benedict?!?!  How can they charge prices like these for such un-gilded food?  I've had dishes topped with caviar that cost less!"  Brandy exclaimed.  "Perhaps it's the price you pay for eating locally," Mama Bee suggested.  "Nonsense," Brandy scoffed, "I've eaten at plenty of places that use local ingredients and have never seen this kind of markup.  My guess is these prices are a product of the restaurant's location."  This hypothesis seemed to ring true for Mama Bee.  "Maybe you're right," she said, "I would love open my little bakery on Navy Pier, but perhaps the tourist game is a little too rich for my blood if this is the kind of example I'm to follow."

The Short and Sweet Review

Local Root on Urbanspoon