Friday, August 26, 2016

Carmine's or Larger Than Life

The Slow and Savory Review

Patio season has always been an odd phenomenon in Brandy's mind.  "The people of Chicago get so excited every year to eat their meals outside," she says, "And I really don't understand the compulsion.  That is to say, I do realize how cooped up the population feels after a long Chicago winter and that any excuse to be outside feels like a blessing at first, but as the humidity seeps in and the bugs begin to swarm, I for one run straight for an enclosed and air conditioned space."

Bunny's dear friend Bailey is an example of one such person who will take any excuse to be outside during the summer.  "Let's go find a beautiful patio and have brunch!" she cheerily declared one Sunday morning.  "Must we?" Brandy whined.  "Yes.  It's beautiful outside, the sky is blue, and there's so few days like this left in the year.  Quit being such a stick in the mud!"  And so with much grumbling and rolling of eyes, Brandy agreed to a patio brunch.

They decided on Carmine's in the Gold Coast, a relaxed Italian steakhouse atmosphere with a beautiful covered patio space that made even Brandy scratch her chin in appreciation.  Filled with lush green color and flowering plants, the patio space gave diners the best of both worlds with television screens and sweetly twinkling string lights along with fresh breezes and prime people watching views.

Brandy and Bailey settled in with a couple of cocktails while they planned their menu strategy.  Brandy enjoyed the refreshing and sweet Pimm's Royal while Bailey chose a classic Bellini with a nice, crisp peach flavor.

"Let's switch things up and start off with something sweet," suggested Brandy, eyeing up the Bananas Foster French Toast, which Bailey agreed to wholeheartedly.  When the French Toast appeared on the horizon however, hefted by the smiling server, both ladies gasped in amazement.  The massive sweet treat consisted of what looked to be a whole loaf of bread, sliced into three pieces, coated in a crispy breading, slathered in sliced bananas and caramel sauce, and accompanied by several large scoops of vanilla gelato.  The thing tasted just as good as it looked with a crunchy exterior and a soft, eggy, chewy interior.  The flavor was true to the banana's foster moniker with plenty of sweet, buttery, and rummy notes.  "I was originally thinking we might order some dessert to share at the end of the meal," said Brandy, "But I hardly think that will be necessary now!"

Bailey picked the Surf and Turf Benedict for her main course, with half the dish coming adorned with a crab cake and the other with a small filet.  Bailey found that the steak had a good char on it and was still incredibly tender for a thinner cut of beef.  The crab cake was indeed mostly crab with very little cake and had a bit of brightness added to it with some red and green peppers throughout.  "Whoo boy!  This hollandaise has a bit of a kick to it!" Bailey exclaimed in delight.  On the side, some simple roasted marble potatoes were a nice accompaniment, while a small bowl of fruit provided a touch of sweetness to cleanse the palate of all the rich and salty flavors.

Brandy was feeling more in a lunchy kind of mood, so she went with the Lobster Roll.  She was very pleased to see that the lobster roll was composed of about 90% lobster, unlike some others she's had that are loaded with fillers like celery or potato.  The chunks of lobster were big too, and very tender and fresh tasting.  The buttered and slightly warm bun perfectly complimented the cold lobster salad, as did a sprinkle of cayenne pepper in the mayo, adding a touch of heat to liven things up.  Brandy also received a side of fruit along with some crunchy seasoned fries.  "Lobster rolls are always a bit of a gamble," she said, "But this one is certainly a winner in my book."

Perhaps it was the high quality food, the generous portions, the friendly service, or merely the indulgent weather, but Brandy found herself in a rather good mood following her brunch at Carmine's.  "Alright, perhaps there is something to this so called patio season," she begrudgingly admitted to Bailey, "But I'm still never going to be a sun worshiper."  "That's fine," said Bailey, "I'll soak in enough sun for the both of us."

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

The Short and Sweet Review
Carmine's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

From the Kitchens of Bunny and Brandy: Breakfast Pierogi Casserole with Popkoff's

Dumplings are one of those things that turn up in almost every culture's cuisine in some form or another.  Brandy, for one, has made it her mission to try as many dumplings as possible.  From Xioa long bao to mandu to samosas and raviolis, Brandy takes a special joy in trying all sorts of exotic fillings wrapped in dough and fried, boiled, steamed, or baked.  "Dumplings might be the perfect food," she's often been known to observe, "They can be sweet or savory, they can be meaty or vegetarian.  Every dumpling is a pocket of infinite possibilities until you take that first bite."

Recently, Brandy came across Popkoff's, purveyors of frozen, high quality, authentic Russian dumplings.  They carried two types of traditional Eastern European dumplings; Pelmeni (or rounded pouches originating in Siberia and resembling tortellini) and Vareniki (or half moon shaped pouches in the style of a pierogie) and each type came in a variety of taste bud tempting flavors.  With her love of dumplings spurring her on, Brandy decided to experiment with a few packages.

First, Brandy cooked up some of the Pelmeni.  She started off with the chicken flavor, boiling them for five minutes before tossing them in brown butter with sauted spinach and caramelized onions for a deliciously savory dinner.  The next day, she cooked up the beef variety in the same manner, and then tossed them along with some garlic sauted mushrooms and onions and some sour cream to create a lovely variation on beef stroganoff.  Following that, she looked to the Farmer's Cheese variety and stewed up some fresh peaches with cinnamon, nutmeg, butter, and cream to to make a deeply flavorful sauce, making for a brilliant and unconventional dish that would have been right at home as either a dessert or at brunch.  But saving her favorite for last, Brandy decided to create something special and yet simple with the Potato and Onion Vareniki.

Breakfast Pierogi Casserole

6 eggs
1/4 cup of heavy cream
1 cup cheddar cheese
1 package of Popkoff's Potato and Onion Vareniki
1/3 cup of cooked and crumbled bacon or sausage
Salt and pepper to taste

Cook the vareniki according to package instructions.  Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.

In a medium bowl, scramble the eggs, then add the cream, salt, pepper, and cheese, and stir to combine.

Spray a 9x9 inch baking dish with non stick cooking spray, then add in the vareniki.  Pour the egg mixture over the vareniki and make sure everything is coated and level.  Bake in the over for 35-45 minutes or until the eggs are solid.  Sprinkle cooked bacon or sausage over the top, cut into squares, and serve warm.

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

Friday, August 19, 2016

Postcards from Bunny: Step Up Shine and Dine 2016

There's not many nights that Bunny looks forward to more than Shine and Dine for Step Up Women's Network.  For the past few years, she has been privileged to join this stellar event full of food, fun, and most importantly, inspiration, so when she saw that the evening in question was fast approaching, she hopped on the next plane to Chicago.  "There's not much that would keep me away from good food," Bunny said, "But when you add an amazing program like Step Up into the mix, there is literally nothing I wouldn't do to be there."

The Shine and Dine event brings together some of Chicago's finest restaurants to celebrate a group of extraordinary girls and the women who work to make sure they have the best opportunities in life.  Step Up Women's Network gives young girls a network of mentors and resources to help them plan for the future and achieve their true potential.  Every year, the Shine and Dine event helps raise money for these programs by delivering amazing food, pop up experiences, and even some of the girls themselves, who mingle among the guests in order to really put a face to what the night is all about.

Bunny, anxious to get started, jumped right into the food.  Meats and toasts seemed to be a theme of the evening with several restaurants serving up carnivorous and carb loaded bites.  The Radler brought forth a sweet and savory Summer Sausage with one having plum mustard, endive, candied pecans, and black lemon, while Troquet offered two different "tartines" with white peach, heirloom tomato, chili, and prosciutto, which made for a fresh, summery bite, while the other one featured smoked salmon, cucumber, asparagus, cream cheese, and pickled radish, which reminded Bunny of a tea sandwich.  Eden had a different version of a smoked salmon toast, this one with pickled beet, radish, corn, red oinon, and Fresno chili and Eno presented a Country Ham on grilled caraway bread with pickled peaches and micro greens.  Breaking the mold a little with their offerings were Micheal Jordon's Steakhouse with a grilled Mesquite New York Strip and lobster creamed corn as well as Honey Butter Fried Chicken putting up a scrumptious Fried Chicken Nacho plate with pimento cheese, lime crema, and roasted corn pico de gallo,

There were also lots of treats for sweet toothed individuals at this year's dinner.  Bang Bang Pie offered up a Peach Berry Crisp, which was perfect on the late summer evening, while Nico Osteria had a delightful Peach Financier with mascarpone cream. Found had an unbelievably rich Chocolate Stout cake with honeyed peaches and mint that Bunny could have eaten several of if there hadn't been people watching.  Bunny's favorite bite of the evening came from Acanto, which was a Foie Gras Terrine on a pistachio biscotti with currant pate de fruit, making for a perfectly balanced sweet and savory experience.

Now full and with cocktail in hand, Bunny explored the rest of the room, stopping off to take a flirty red carpet portrait, then a silly pic at the Luna Bar station, checking out all the extraordinary lots available at the silent auction, watching with delight as participants won amazing mystery prizes from the Step Up and Pull game, and finally getting a lip makeover from the Ulta Pout Bar.  Of course, she also sought out some of the orange clad young girls to hear their inspiring tales of just how important the Step Up program has been for them.

After a few inspiring speeches from Step UP CEO Jenni Luke and special honorees Jodi Caro (Ulta Beauty) and Aminata Bah (Step Up class of 2014), the food slowly disappeared from the tables, the auctions came to a close, and the crowd began to head out of the beautiful Bridgeport Skyline Loft.  "I just adore the Shine and Dine event more and more every year," Bunny sighed, "There's very few food events quite like this one where so much good is being done while having such an enjoyable time.  I certainly cannot wait to see what they have in store for next year!"

The writers of this blog were invited to attend this event free of charge in order to fascilitate the writing of this post.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Food News: Crush Cubes Bring the Flavor to Home Cooks Everywhere

Brandy is always on the lookout for new and exciting products she can use to spruce up her brunch recipes, and during a recent stroll down the frozen foods aisle she noticed something extraordinary.  "What are these now?" she questioned, opening the freezer door to gaze upon the boxes of colorful little squares.  As it turned out, these were Crush Cubes, a line of frozen flavor cubes, offering infinite possibilities for creative home cooks by presenting flavored butters, sauces, soup starters, beverage bases, and more in convenient form.  "What a lovely idea!" Brandy exclaimed in wonder, "I simply must find out more about these darling little things!"

Returning home to do some research, Brandy discovered that Crush Cubes were conceived of by a gentleman by the name of Jon Startz, a veteran of the food industry.  Made in America with premium-quality, locally-sourced ingredients, Crush Cubes are sold in portion-controlled, easy-to- use packages containing 24 cubes that are each individually sealed and flash-frozen to capture flavors and nutrients at the peak of their freshness and potency.

Wishing to learn a little more about this extraordinary sounding product, Brandy reached out to Jon for a more information and personal perspective.

B&B: What gave you the idea to make Crush Cubes?

JS: A few years ago, I was walking through a store and saw some ice cubes and it struck me that people are familiar and comfortable with the concept of making food products and then freezing them into “cubes” and various other forms. So I started considering that approach for items we use every day for cooking, including flavors, sauces and seasonings. I realized that consumers not only gravitate toward convenience, but of course don’t like spoilage or waste. I also realized that they were open to freezing things they use frequently such as herbs and purees. I did consider a wide variety of shapes but kept coming back to a cube, which like a sugar cube, was a very appealing and even comforting concept.

B&B: What is the difference between Crush Cubes and other bullion or stock cubes?

JS: Our bullions are all natural and healthy, gluten free, zero cholesterol, zero calories, and are frozen not freeze dried, which makes for a great tasting seasoning or cup of soup.

B&B: What is your favorite way to use Crush Cubes?

JS: I like multiple mixing and matching. For example, Garlic Herb butter with Ginger, or Souper Cubes with Basil. All our products can be used multiple ways in every dish.

B&B: What was the process of finding the perfect ingredients to put in Crush Cubes?

JS: Just using the actual ingredient, whether it is ginger, basil, butter or whatever in its purest form with little else besides a dash of olive oil or sea salt.

B&B: What are the benefits of flash freezing Crush Cubes as opposed to freeze drying them?

JS: Taste, color, texture, flavor are captured like a “snapshot” in time. The purest way to capture the essence of something is to freeze it.

B&B: How important was it to make a product that was environmentally friendly?

JS: Consumers respond to good wholesome products for their family and we wanted to make great tasting, natural, healthy and environmentally-friendly products everyone can enjoy.

B&B: What are some of your favorite brunch dishes and how might you use Crush Cubes to prepare them?

JS: Maple Butter cubes can be used in egg dishes, thrown on top of bacon or in a scramble, same with Herb Butter cubes. As mentioned, all our products can be used in various dishes since they feature all natural ingredients most commonly used in all recipes. Our Ginger cube is great for smoothies and also to throw into a cup of tea in the morning!

B&B: Who would get the most use out of a product like Crush Cubes?

JS: On the go people, especially families without lots of time to cook who are yearning for consistency, convenience and affordability when preparing meals. Many people use our cubes to spice up their meals, including leftovers. Most of all, our consumers are people who want their food to taste as fresh and delicious as possible, want little storage in the pantry but a wide variety of flavors, and are anxious to provide important nutrients to their family without the time and hassle of measuring, chopping and cleaning. When you mix together convenience, great taste and pre-portioned amounts, you really can’t lose.

The writers of this blog have been compensated for the information presented in this post.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Food News: Innagural Culinary Fight Club Festival

Culinary Fight Club, the nationwide organization that throws extraordinary cooking competitions between some of the best chefs around, has announced its first ever Chicago food festival.  Being held on Sunday August 21st from 11:00am-3:00pm at Joe's on Weed, the festival will bring together chefs from across Chicago, asking them to prepare the best bite they can muster for the attending crowd.  Attendees will have the chance to vote for their favorite dishes, and at the end of the afternoon, four chefs will rise to the top.  Those four chefs will then be challenged to prepare a dish in just 30 minutes, and the winner of this head to head competition will be handed a $1000 prize, bragging rights for the next 12 months, and a free pass to the World Food Championships in Orange Beach, Alabama.

Brandy is all for a little healthy competition, so she was naturally very interested to hear about this particular festival.  "I do so love tasting festivals, but I also like the idea of chefs competing for my favor," she commented, slyly, "And it certainly doesn't hurt that this particular festival is happening during my normal brunching hours.  I certainly know what I will be doing on the 21st!"

More info and tickets can be found HERE.  Hope to see all you brunch fans there!

Friday, August 12, 2016

On the Road: A weekend in Lake Geneva

Everybody needs a getaway every now and then, and Brandy is no exception.  Though she set down her roots pretty firmly in Chicago a few years ago, she's recently been missing her jet setting ways.  "Bunny's always flying off somewhere exciting," she often moans, "And I'm so used to the city that what was once sparkly and new now seems dingy and mundane.  Perhaps it's time for a little trip out of the city.  Out of the suburbs even.  Out of the state!  Yes, I think I know exactly where to go for a little refreshment."

Packing her bags and throwing them into her handy Zipcar, Brandy got on the road and headed to Lake Geneva for a soul refreshing weekend stay at Ridge Hotel.  The Ridge is located just a short drive from the center of Lake Geneva and features breath taking views of Lake Como.  The entire location had recently undergone extensive modernization and renovations, transforming it into a more relaxed, yet luxurious hideaway for wedding parties, holiday makers, and the like.  The grounds were lush and beautiful, while the newly decorated lobby welcomed guests with modern furnishings and an open, inviting space to sit, relax, and people watch for a spell.  Around the back, the hotel featured a cabana style bar, both indoor and out door swimming pools, cozy fire pits, and several nature paths leading down to the lake.  The hotel also housed a salon and spa, a gym, a cafe at the front and a brand new restaurant called Crafted Americana.

Brandy checked in with ease and before she headed to her room, she wandered over to Bean and Vine, a quaint cafe in the lobby.  Coolers at the front housed bottles of wine, liquor, and cocktail mixers so that guests could easily grab and go on their way to a lake side picnic.  She picked up a quick sandwich from the cafe (a hot and melty Ridge Scramble with cheese, bacon, eggs, onions, and spinach) as well as a massive eclair and a large cup of iced coffee, then she headed up the stairs to see her digs for the weekend.  She was delighted to find a comfortable room with a lakeside view, a kind sized bed, a loveseat, a desk, a luxury bathroom, and a flat screen television.  "This will do nicely," Brandy sighed as she set down her bags.  Not having been far away from the city in such a long while meant that the peaceful quiet of birds chirping and a gentle breeze running through the trees outside were already doing wonders for Brandy's state of mind.  But of course, she hadn't come out to Lake Geneva to simply sit around her hotel room, so she put on some of her favorite music and got ready for dinner.

Heading five minutes further down the road, Brandy landed at Hunt Club, a beautiful converted mansion over looking a scenic golf course that now housed a world class steak house.  Brandy was immediately charmed by the non-pretentious feel of the place, an achievement for a steak house, which can often feel stuffy and overly formal.  Seated at a window overlooking a water hazard, she ordered a glass of Moscatto to start off her meal while she munched on some house baked bread and herb butter.

First to the table was a Colossal Crab Cake roasted asparagus, sweet peas, and a beautifully delicate caramelized onion ragu.  Brandy really enjoyed the texture of the crab cake, which held together well, and had the perfect ratio of crab to breading.  Next up, she tried the Lobster Bisque, which was so rich and buttery and flavorful that she instantly knew it was the best lobster bisque she'd ever had.  "Oh, I could slurp about three more bowls of this and call it a night!" she exclaimed.  For her entree, she ordered the Tenderloin Trio, a grouping of filets with garlic parmesan, au poivre (peppercorn), and candied pecan crusts.  The steak, as to be expected, was cooked to a perfect medium rare, and was tender and juicy as a good steak should be.  Brandy loved all of the crusts, but was especially surprised by the candied pecans and how their slight bit of sweetness and crunch went perfectly with the steak.  For her sides, Brandy requested some Creamy Macaroni and Cheese (which she ordered topped with lobster at the suggestion of the waitress), and some smokey Roasted Brussels Sprouts with more candied pecans and house cured bacon.  Finally, she ended her meal with a delicate Apple Tarte Tatin, which had lovely tart Granny Smith apples over a thin and buttery crust, and was topped with salted caramel sauce and some vanilla gelato.  "It's no wonder they call this place Chicago's Playground," Brandy sighed in contentment as she finished off her dessert with a tiny espresso.

Returning to The Ridge, Brandy adjourned to the veranda for a few cocktails.  There she mingled with some of the other guests, most of which were part of one of two wedding parties at the hotel that weekend, and enjoyed the beautiful grounds and views of the lake until the sun fell below the horizon.  She considered going for a brief dip in the indoor pool, but remembered the old rule about not swimming after having eaten, and instead retired for the evening.

The following morning, Brandy awoke feeling somewhat refreshed and hungry once again, so she headed down to the newly opened Crafted Americana restaurant to see what Lake Geneva had to offer in the way of brunch.  The restaurant faced out towards the back of the hotel so that one could sit and admire the lake while enjoying a meal.  The tall windows filled the place with sunlight, even on a cloudy day, and everything from the open kitchen to the light fixtures to the leather backed booths gave off an atmosphere of comfort and luxury all at once.  Brandy started off with a simple Yogurt with granola and fresh berries, which had a lovely lightness.  For her main dish, she opted for the Beef and Grits, an unusual twist on the Southern classic made with a scoop of beef stew over creamy parmesan grits and topped with a perfectly poached egg.  Brandy quite liked the homey feel of the dish, which added to the over all unpretentious air of the place.

Finally, Brandy decided to explore the town.  First, she walked down to Lake Como and had a lovely and peaceful think by the water side, watching various boats wiz by, and then she headed out to the main drag to do a bit of shopping in the collection of unique boutiques and independent businesses that lined either side of the street.  Finally, she booked herself into a local spa for some real relaxation with a facial, pedicure, and a massage, before she ended her trip with a walk around an outdoor art fair.  "I can certainly see why Lake Geneva has become such a popular getaway for harried city folk like me," she commented, "And in fact, the gentle peace and friendliness I've experienced here is almost making me think twice about living in the city altogether!"  Regardless of her longing to stay for a few more days (or weeks, for that matter) Brandy reluctantly headed back to sweet home Chicago, but with enough left over peace of mind to confront the daily grind with some new found perspective.

Make sure to check out our Facebook page for lots more pictures of Brandy's trip to Lake Geneva!

The writers of this blog were invited to stay at The Ridge and dine at some of the mentioned restaurants free of charge in return for an honest review.