Wednesday, March 29, 2017

From the Kitchens of Bunny and Brandy: Smoked Arancini with Amira Basmati Rice

One of Brandy's favorite flavor profiles is smokiness. She loves smokey whiskies and smoked meats, she even loves a wisp of smoke in her sweet treats like chocolate or caramel. "It's an underrated and often over done flavor," as she likes to say, "And artificial smoke is one of the worst atrocities that can ever be committed upon one's palette. The slightest hint of artificial smoke will put me off a dish quicker than a hair on the plate."

This is why when Brandy discovered that Amira Rice had launched a smoked variety of their signature basmati rice, she knew she had to get her hands on it. The smoked basmati rice is an exclusive Amira variety, only available in the U.S.

Opening the foil sealed bag, Brandy was greeted with a scent not unlike a  roaring fire place. Not just smoke, but wood smoke met her nostrils, instantly filling her with a warm, happy sensation.

To get the most out of the unique smokey flavor of the rice, Brandy decided to pair it with an equally smokey cheese and turn it into arancini. She helped out the smoked flavor of the rice by cooking is in a little beef stock, as opposed to water, and she used an especially soft mozzarella for the filling, because low moisture smoked cheeses tend to not be quite as melty. As arancini is normally made with arborio rice (or specifically, left over risotto) which tends to be a bit more starchy, she quickly learned she had to be a little extra gentle with the formation of the rice balls, but once they were fried, they held together perfectly, had a nice crisp exterior, and a warm, soft interior.

Smoked Arancini
1 cup of Smoked Amira Basmati Rice
2 cups beef broth
2 eggs
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
about 2/3 cup of smoked mozzarella, cubed
1 cup Italian style bread crumbs
4 cups frying oil

Cook the rice in a rice cooker or on the stove top with the beef stock according to package instructions. Let the rice cool down slightly, then mix in eggs and parmesan cheese. Wetting hands before handling the rice, scoop up enough of the mixture to fill your palm, then place a cube of smoked mozzarella and form the rice over it into a ball about two inches big. The rice will not form a tight ball, so be gentle when forming the balls. Place the balls into the bread crumbs and lightly toss to coat.

Heat oil in a medium sauce pan over medium high heat. Test to make sure the oil is hot enough by dropping in a grain of rice and watch to see if bubbles form around it. Carefully place rice balls into the oil (no more than 4 or 5 at a time) using a slotted spoon and let cook for about 5 minutes, or until the outside is golden brown. Remove from the oil and let drain on a paper towel.

Serve immediately with dipping sauces of your choice (marinara or yellow curry are great options). Makes about 16 rice balls.


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

Friday, March 24, 2017

Grand Lux Cafe Revisit: National Waffle Day

With spring in the air and a spring in her step, Brandy was feeling light as a feather. "The weather may be manic and the world may be crumbling to pieces, but there's always happiness to be found if one looks hard enough," was Brandy's sentiment of the day. She decided to take her energy for a walk around the Gold Coast and do a bit of window shopping and people watching. The streets were teaming with the happy faces of those who had come outside to see some long awaited sunshine and Brandy gleefully wandered up and down Michigan Avenue amongst them for quite some time, that is until she began to feel a bit peckish. Glancing up, she realized she was right below the Grand Lux Cafe, a recent favorite brunch destination, so she decided to head upstairs to grab a seat near the window and continue her people watching from afar.

Settling into the gorgeously decorated space, Brandy examined the menu. Skipping over the cocktails for once, she ordered the Mango Raspberry Swirl smoothie. For something non-alcoholic, the drink was presented beautifully, with a vibrant red puree blended into the orange-yellow drink. The flavor was refreshing and fruity without being overly sweet. It didn't exactly taste like a healthy type of smoothie, but it wasn't a decadent as a milk shake either. "Just the perfect little bit of sipable sunshine," Brandy smiled to herself, now feeling slightly uncomfortable with her own uncharacteristic cheeriness.

A pair of appetizers in the form of the Pastrami Reuben Eggs Rolls and the Asian Nachos were the next things to the table. The egg rolls were a rather delightful fusion of Eastern and Western cuisine, with a crispy skin on the outside and melty Swiss cheese, salty pastrami, and tangy sauerkraut on the inside, and a side of Thousand Island dressing for dipping. The rolls were a tad greasy, but still very crisp with a true Reuben flavor that Brandy was both infatuated with and befuddled by. "I'm not sure a born and bred New Yorker would be happy with one of their signature dishes being transfigured into such an interesting form, but then again, New Yorkers aren't usually pleased by much."


Next up, the Asian Nachos, another international fusion, with crisped wontons serving as the chips and green onions, melted cheese, peanuts, and a spicy wasabi cream. The dish also came with a mound of Mexican fried rice, which had corn and beans mixed in. While she thought the rice side dish was a little unnecessary, the chips themselves were amazingly flavorful with a great balance between sweet, savory, and spicy. Though a little unwieldy to consume, Brandy thought these in particular would also make for a wonderful happy hour snack for a table full of friends who wanted to catch up over a few beers. "Happy hour and brunch are really cousins, in a way," she reasoned, "What with happy hour not quite being lunch or dinner. It's no wonder there would be some cross over between some of the best suited dishes."


Keeping with the theme of crispiness, Brandy next chowed down on an order of Chilaquiles, which came dressed with scrambled eggs, avocado, pepper, onions, tomatoes, corn, beans, cilantro, and cheese. The resulting mix was a little overwhelming at first, but with every bite being a little different, Brandy actually found it to be quite an interesting version of the Mexican classic breakfast dish. The spice level was bordering on being a little high for Brandy's liking, but sips of the mango smoothie helped to tame it. The most impressive thing was how crisp the chips remained under the weight of all of the veggies and eggs, a telltale sign of a good chilaquiles in Brandy's book.


Finally, in honor of the upcoming holiday, National Waffle Day on March 25th, Brandy ordered the Fried Chicken and Waffles, which came served with a butter maple syrup and chopped pecans. The waffle was perfectly fluffy and light with a slight crisp to the edges. The chicken had a substantial breading and a nice hit of pepper to it. The syrup, though, was the thing that really sealed the deal by adding a light caramel-like flavor to cut through the savoriness of the chicken. Brandy loved the syrup so much that she actually emptied out the tiny carafe, something she doesn't normally do when presented with a side of sauce. Her only criticism was that she could have done with a little side of fruit to help break up the richness of the dish, but otherwise, she couldn't imagine a better way to celebrate National Waffle Day, even if it was a little early.


Having taken her sweet time, savoring all of the dishes as she let her mind wander, Brandy headed out of Grand Lux Cafe not exactly feeling as light as a feather any more, but still feeling rather cheerful. "I wish every day was National Waffle Day," she was heard to sigh into the wind.

The writers of this blog were invited to dine at the restaurant free of charge in order to facilitate the writing of this post.

Friday, March 17, 2017

From the Kitchens of Bunny and Brandy: Spring Forward Brunch with The Chopping Block

One of the hallmarks of Brandy's personality is her constant need to learn new things. "Sometimes, I even like to re-learn things I already knew," as she says, "because Lord knows I've had enough drinks in my life to wipe out a brain cell or two." This is why, from time to time, Brandy enjoys taking a cooking class, where she can pick up new skills and brush up on some of rustier ones. She also finds that taking communal classes increases the learning possibilities, as one doesn't just learn from the instructors, but also from the others in the class, who generally come with a wide variety of pre-existing skill levels.

Following her urge to attend a new class, Brandy stumbled upon CourseHorse, a discovery and booking tool for classes that makes local education more accessible by enabling people to easily search for the subjects that interest them the most. Using the CourseHorse website, Brandy was confronted with oodles of cooking classes, so she simply typed "brunch" into the search bar and narrowed down the list of classes being held all over the city to only those which concentrated on her favorite meal. Her first choice was a Sunday morning class at The Chopping Block with a springtime themed brunch menu.

When the day of the class finally arrived, Brandy entered the classroom to find that individual stations had been adorably set up with a recipe packet, a name tag, an apron, a cutting board, a knife, and a little bowl of banana yogurt parfait. Chef Leah Stuckey took center stage for introductions and a few quick instructions, splitting the room into three groups and handing them their first batch of ingredients.

The first order of business was to mix up the batter for a decadently moist coffee cake, which included actual coffee in both the liquid mix and in the crumble topping. Chef Leah gave the group a few baking tips, such as always treating sugar as a wet rather than a dry ingredient and not skimping on the butter to coat the pan with. The group was also fascinated to hear about the differences between vanilla extract and vanilla bean paste, a product that has long been one of Brandy's favorite things to use in her baked goods.


Next up, they started on a pair of side dishes; some turkey sausage patties and crispy home fries. The groups quickly sectioned off to get the prep work and cooking covered while Chef Leah and her assistant demonstrated some knife skills in how to dice onions and chop parsley (to which, if Brandy had paid closer attention, she may not have sliced through her own fingernail). Brandy was excited to see green apples added into the sausage mixture, which would give the meat moisture as well as a subtle sweetness. Brandy also took great interest in Chef Leah's tips on getting the perfect crisp to the potatoes by adding in a bit of water to the pan on occasion in order to de-glaze any delicious caramelization.



Following that was the main course, a baked egg dish with lots of fresh spring vegetables and herbs. Brandy took over the cooking station for her group on this one, wilting leeks, mincing garlic, and making sure the tomatoes and artichokes were well combined in the enamel pan before digging out wells for the eggs to nestle into. Chef Leah also gave the group a quick lesson in the old one handed egg crack trick before showing them how to pinch off a small membrane from the egg white so that the yolk would be exposed and cook to a perfect soft doneness in the oven.



Lastly, the class watched and listened as Chef Leah explained how to pair a salad with the perfect dressing by balancing flavor levels of acidity and sweetness. The class then put together some fresh watercress and radishes with chopped hazelnuts and a tangy green goddess dressing to complete their meal.

As Brandy sat around the brunch table with her group, enjoying the fruits of their labor, she chatted with them about different classes they'd taken. One was a graduate of The Chopping Block's cupcake boot camp, while another had attended a Thanksgiving class that had her bringing all sorts of new ideas home to her family for the traditional holiday meal. Asking them how they had found Chef Leah as an instructor, the other ladies had nothing but compliments, saying they thought she had been extremely approachable and informative, to which Brandy had to agree.

Packing up some of the remaining food in the provided containers, Brandy headed for home, happy to have picked up a few new tips, a handful of new recipes, and of course, a few new friends. "This is exactly why I love classes like these," as she explained, "No one there was above learning. No one there was above getting their hands a little dirty. Food has the extraordinary ability to bring together friends, family, and even strangers in that way, because at the end of the day, we all have to eat."

The writers of this blog were given entrance to the class by CourseHorse free of charge in order to facilitate the writing of this post.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Avec/Lost Lake Collaboration Brunch or Brunch Friends Forever

The Slow and Savory Review

Back when 2017 was fresh and full of hope, Brandy learned of the exciting collaboration series Avec was running through April, in which they were inviting chefs from various other restaurants and breweries to come in and produce some unique fusions between their styles and Avec's existing brunch menu. "If there's one thing I adore, it's collaboration," said Brandy at the time, "Creative people reaching out with what they each bring to the table and coming up with an entirely new idea that never would have existed otherwise. Why, that's the very spirit that brought Bunny and I together to start this bloggy thingamajig."

Having not been to Avec at that point, Brandy decided she needed to remedy that situation post haste and picked the weekend in which Lost Lake would be bringing their unique take on Polynesian cuisine and tiki cocktails. With Bunny not being in town, Brandy had to enlist another collaborator of her's, Starr, to come along and sample what the busy West Loop restaurant had in store.

Avec was a true little shoebox of a restaurant, but the space had been used somewhat efficiently to pack in as many diners as comfortably possible. Starr and Brandy took seats at the metal counter so that they could watch Paul McGee, the mastermind behind Lost Lake, work his magic. Though a little cramped and a little noisy, the room was generally in a bright mood, helped along by the small squadron of smiling servers and food runners who knew the menu up, down, sideways, and in every other dimension. "I'm not certain I'd come here with a large group of people," Brandy observed, "But it's not so bad for a couple of chums out for a morning on the town."

Picking two drinks from the Lost Lake side of the menu, Brandy and Starr watched on as the master himself mixed them up from behind the narrow bar. Brandy had chosen the Fish Eating Fish, a typically tropical tiki cocktail with Jamaican rum, pineapple, passion fruit, and a few other liquids. The look of the thing was absolutely delightful, coming adorned with a wedge of pineapple, a Lost Lake drink stir, a twisty straw, and a beautiful orchid. The flavor was as sweet and fruity as it looked, but it was well balanced with a touch of sour that made it more sophisticated than someone not familiar with Paul McGee's expertise might expect. Starr had picked the Tiger's Milk, which visually wasn't as exciting, but flavor wise delivered completely with a smooth, creamy texture and a caramel-like rum flavor with a hint of toasty coffee.


For their food, Brandy and Starr stuck to the Avec side of the menu, starting off with their signature Medjool Dates. The little bacon wrapped jewels came stuffed with chorizo and smothered in a piquillo pepper and tomato sauce (with a side of bread to sop up all that deliciousness). The dates were the perfect mix of sweet, savory, and spice with a slow heat that built in a very pleasant way. They were certainly satisfyingly meaty, but also more complex than a typical bacon wrapped date. "Even though this is available on their regular dinner menu," Brandy commented, "These dates are an example of a perfect brunch dish. Veg and meat, sweet and savory, shareable, and interactive. So perfect."

Loving the flavor of the dates so much, Starr decided to order the Avec Burger, which took the same flavor profile and translated it into an American standard. The burger itself was infused with the same chorizo and then topped with bacon, a date mostardo, and a piquillo pepper aioli. Rather than being an exact copy of the dates, the burger actually proved to be a nice accompaniment to them. The patty was a little dense and dry due to the chorizo, but was still pretty tender. The initial sweetness of the dates gave way to a bold, meaty flavor and the same slow spice that felt so good on a cold winter morning. As a side dish, Starr enjoyed the Papas Bravas, which was a skillet full of crispy potatoes drizzled with a garlic aioli and topped with a sprinkle of herbs. The potatoes had a wonderful crunchy exterior and a subtle spice to them, which made them rather a unique side dish. "If there's one thing I've had my fill of, it's boring potatoes," said Brandy, who had stolen a bite, "But these have quite an unusual flavor to them. It's good to see side dishes not being ignored in the scheme of things."



Brandy picked the Pizza Carbonara, which came dressed with garlic, arugula, guanciale, and a couple of poached eggs. The crust of the pizza was impossibly thin with a perfect crisp and a really nice chew at the thicker parts. More of a flatbread than a pizza really, the quality of the ingredients were clearly being showcased with the pure flavor of the cheese and the bacon really coming through without being too rich or heavy. "In fact, I find this a rather refreshing and light dish, which is surprising for something that comes topped with bacon and cheese!" said Brandy. For her side, she indulged in even more meaty goodness in the form of some Sumac Glazed Pork Belly. The pork was incredibly tender and sweet with a really unique herbal after taste that solidified it as one of the best "sides of bacon" Brandy and Starr had ever tasted.



Finally, they decided to end the meal with a touch of sweetness in the form of the Oven Baked French Toast. This unique plate came with sliced almonds, mint, whipped cream, and a meyer lemon compote, all loaded onto wedges of custard soaked house made bread. The texture of the French toast was much more like a bread pudding to Brandy, with a spongy, airy feel to it, rather than a crisp and chewy one. The flavor was not overtly sweet, but actually had an herbal flair with touches of bright citrus and toasty nuts. "Not a typical French toast to be sure," said Brandy, "But certainly one of the most well dressed ones I've ever seen!"


Squeezing their way towards the door, Brandy and Starr were already feeling the effects of the massive amount of meat and carbs they had just ingested. "I may need to take a nap in the car before I drive us home," said Starr with a giggle. Looking back at the unassuming edifice of Avec, Brandy reflected on the slightly chaotic, yet eye opening meal. The thing that surprised her most was perhaps just how affordable everything had been, especially when considering the portion sizes, the quality of the ingredients, and the inventiveness of the dishes. "You know, I thought this brunch would be all about seeing a couple of chefs collaborating, but I think I just realized something. Brunch is not just the collaboration of sweet and savory or breakfast and lunch. It's also a collaboration between those consuming the meal." "You mean because you can sample a little bit of everything by stealing bites off your friend's plates?" Starr asked, to which Brandy only grinned mischievously and got in the car.

The Short and Sweet Review

Friday, March 3, 2017

Ixcateco Grill: Revisit

Because of her busy schedule, it's rare that Brandy can make time to visit a restaurant more than once, so when she does, it's a good indication of just how good the place must be. This was the case when she found out that one of her favorite discoveries from last year, Ixcateco Grill, had revamped their brunch menu of authentic Mexican staples and new innovations. Ixcateco picked up all sorts of accolades last year for being one of the best new restaurants in town, even expanding their brunch service into Saturdays as well as Sundays to accommodate their ravenous fans. "I know a good brunch when I see one, and I certainly saw one there," says Brandy, "I'll be interested to see what, if any, improvements have been made to an already stellar menu." And so, she brought along her friend Bailey Blue (promising her one of the best cups of coffee she would ever have) and headed to Albany Park to see what wonders Chef Anselmo Ramirez had in store.

The meal started off with some classic Queso Fundido. This version had been dotted with bits of crispy house made chorizo, which not only made for a lovely contrast in texture to the stretchy Chihuahua cheese, but also gave everything a smokey flavor and a touch of heat. It also came topped with some pickled cactus, which added a nice brightness to the otherwise rich and indulgent dish. Brandy and Bailey had a grand old time piling the cheese mixture into some of the house made tortillas, so much so that they quickly ran out of them and had to borrow chips from the basket on her table to make sure every cheesy bite was consumed.

Next, Brandy and Bailey lightened things up with the house salad, or the Ensalada de la Casa. This version consisted of mixed greens topped with cherry tomatoes, almonds, Cincho queso, crispy corn tortilla strips, and a lemon dressing. The whole affair was quite crisp and refreshing, especially after the decadence and heat of the queso fundido, and Bailey rather liked how the tortilla strips added a nice crunch to each mouthful. Brandy actually found the salad a little disappointing, not because it wasn't good, but because it didn't seem as inspired as the rest of the menu. "It's just a run of the mill salad," she said with a sigh, "Lovely in it's own way, but not very inspired or interesting. I suppose I just have high flavor expectations, knowing what this place is capable of."

Bailey ordered the Huevos Motulenos for her main course, which was an interesting sounding hash made from black beans, green beans, ham, queso fresco, and plantains, topped with a fried egg and a Molcajete Sauce. "What is Molcajete Sauce?' Bailey had asked Brandy when she was trying to decide which dish to get. "It's a tomato based sauce prepared with a mortar and pestle," Brandy replied (after covertly Googling the answer on her phone). The dish certainly had a nice roasted tomato flavor with a little tang and a little sweetness. Bailey loved all the various textures of the ingredients blending together to make each bite unique. Her special favorite on the plate was the caramelized plantains, which she had to scoot to the center of her plate to keep Brandy from stealing bites of them.

Brandy had picked the Enchiladas de Mole Negro, which came slathered in a black mole sauce and filled with slow roasted pulled chicken meat. Brandy just loved the deep flavor of the black mole, which had a slow heat that really lent itself to the overall flavor, rather than impairing it. The chicken inside the enchiladas was very tender indeed, but Brandy felt it could have used a little something else to add some textural variety. "Regardless, this mole is so delicious that I barely care what it's covering," said Brandy.

Pleased to see that Ixcateco Grill was continuing to chug along in the right direction with their home style authentic Mexican dishes. "Wait, we can't leave yet," said Bailey as Brandy was gathering up her coat and purse. "You can't still be hungry?" Brandy questioned her friend. "I'm not," said Bailey,"But I do need another cup of that amazing coffee!"

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

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Tea Time with Brandy: Farmer's Pantry


For Brandy, the height of culinary experiences is the perfect balance of sweet and savory. "It's one of the many reasons brunch is my favorite meal," she says, "Where else can one experience the joy of chicken and waffles? Or bacon and pancakes? There is no finer treat for the tongue than a symphony of sugar and salt."

As one can imagine, when it comes to snack time, Brandy often has trouble choosing between sweet and savory options for this very reason. Luckily, she recently came across some ingenious snacks from Farmer's Pantry. Their twin lines of Cornbread Crisps and Meal Snacks really intrigued her, as they proclaimed to have the same flavor as homemade cornbread and fresh grilled vegetables and meat, but in convenient bite sized pieces.

Made from fresh corn and other whole grains grown on American farms, Farmer’s Pantry Cornbread crisps are delicately sliced and toasted to crispy perfection. The crisps come in three delightful flavors; Original, Jalapeno and Honey-Butter. Though the Honey Butter sounded like it was going to Brandy's favorite, she actually favored the original for it's pure corny flavor. The Honey Butter did have it's charm, though, with a the same sweet and authentic cornbread taste, touched off with the slightest hint of buttery goodness, while the Jalapeno flavor had just enough heat to make things interesting. All three flavors had the same neat crisp, the same cornmeal texture, and the same perfect amount of sweetness and saltiness.

Firmly on the savory side of things was the Farmer's Pantry Meal Snacks: a snack that combined meat jerky and freeze dried veggies in an ingeniously designed pouch. Each Farmer's Pantry Meal Snack is like a complete hearty meal, slow-roasted into a crunchy snack. Before all the goodness has a chance to escape, it's immediately seal in the dual-pouch package until one tears it open. Brandy found that the Grilled Chicken and Vegetable variety really packed a punch of powerful savory flavor, with the slightly spicy jerky pairing well with the slightly sweet veggies. The pieces of corn were Brandy's favorite to munch on, as they were a little more substantial, but there was no beating the flavorful of a handful of everything together.

Farmer’s Pantry Cornbread Crisps are approximately $3.99 for 6 oz bags, and under $2.00 for 2 oz bags. Farmer’s Pantry Meal Snacks have a suggested retail price of $5.99, in a 2.5 oz bags. Both can be purchased on the Farmer's Pantry website or at Costco's in the Chicagoland area.