Friday, August 17, 2018

Summer Loves: Muuna Cottage Cheese, Louis Raison, RIND dried Fruit Snacks

Let it be known that I am about the only person in Chicago who does not like summer. Maybe it's because I grew up in Arizona, where desiring to be outside between the months of June and August was akin to having a death wish. Maybe it's because I am...ahem... a tad over weight, and everyone knows fat people don't do well in sweaty situations. Whatever the case may be, I usually spend the majority of the warmer months inside with the AC blasting.

While in my heat induced exile, I usually start experimenting with recipes and products that can give me a little energy boost to get me through the long humid days. One of my new favorite things is from a company called RIND, which have brought out some rather interesting dried fruit snacks. These snacks (which come in California Kiwi, Tropical, and Orchard blends) are large slices of dried fruits that have their rinds intact. Now, admittedly, their appearance can be a little off putting, mostly because they look a bit more like potpourri then something edible. But these snacks have no added sugar, no sulfates, and no dyes and are GMO free, gluten free, and vegan. All of the fruits (except for the pineapple in the Tropical blend) have been prepared with their skins in tact, giving every piece more fiber and nutritional value then traditional dried fruits. I'm not normally a fan of fresh kiwi, so I was skeptical about the dried version, especially because of the intact skin, but the kiwis ended up being my favorite fruit of the bunch. They were perfectly sweet, tart, chewy, and crunchy and I nearly ate the entire bag in one sitting! The Tropical blend combines the kiwi with pineapple and bittersweet orange, while the Orchard blend is a combination of apples, peaches, and persimmons. I am currently keeping bags of these snacks behind my desk for a quick burst of natural fruit energy and vitamins wherever the mid day lull hits. If you want to give RIND a try, you can pick them up on Amazon!

One of my other recently discovered favorites is Louis Raison ciders. These classic French ciders (or cidres if you want to be fancy) have just launched in Illinois with three varieties: Original Crisp, Organic Dry, and Rouge Délice. Two of my good friends are self professed cider experts, so they are constantly introducing me to new varieties and flavors from all over the world. This being my chance to finally introduce them to something new, I invited them over one night to try the Louis Raison ciders and get their expert opinions. While we all enjoyed all three of them, they both lent towards the Original Crisp as their favorite because of it's bright flavor and caramel-like finish. I have a slightly sweeter palate, so I really liked the Rouge Délice, which was a blush cider with a very clean and slightly floral flavor. The Organic Dry was very light and refreshing with a flavor almost like baked apples or apple pie. I decided to use it to cook up some chicken apple sausages I had in the fridge, and it gave them such a delicious depth! Since this was the least sweet cider, it made for a perfect boiling liquid and also made a great glaze once reduced. I had some pickled red cabbage in the fridge, as well as an onion and garlic jam, which I thought would be perfect as toppings. I also mixed up a mustard cream (whole grain mustard, powdered yellow mustard, sour cream, and a little bit of apple butter). I may never go back to beer brats. These were sweet and savory perfection!

The one thing I do like about summer is going to farmer's markets. I always get inspired by all the fresh produce, meats, and eggs. My usual farmer's market takes place on Sunday mornings, which makes it rather convenient for me to go there to find something for breakfast. A week ago, I ended up with some cremini mushrooms, beautiful heirloom cherry tomatoes, thick cut bacon, and pork breakfast sausage. It wan't until I got home that I realized I had accidentally bought all the fixings for a traditional English breakfast! But me being me, I couldn't simply just fry everything up and be done with it. Oh no! I had also bought two small wedges of very strong cheddars, which gave me the idea to combine all of these delicious ingredients into a massive pot of breakfast mac and cheese.

Pssst... the green one is the Vanilla flavor with some matcha powder mixed in!
Since I was going to be including the pork sausage and the bacon, I didn't want to make a cheese sauce with a lot of butter or milk, because the meat fats would probably cause them to separate and become too greasy. Instead, I decided to use some Muuna Cottage Cheese to bind everything together without adding too much additional fat or liquid. I've been a big fan of Muuna for a while now, especially their individually sized cups which come in a ton of delicious flavors. I even make little cheesecakes with them sometimes!

I started my mac and cheese by cutting up the bacon and sausage into bite sized pieces and browning them in a dutch oven. I then used the fat from the meats to blister the tomatoes and saute the mushrooms. I cooked up some elbow macaroni, then added them to the pot, added the meats back in, then put in all of the cheddar (which I had grated) and two large containers of plain Muuna, then mixed everything together. I baked it at 400 for about 45 minutes, then I added a can of drained baked beans to the top (it's not an English breakfast without baked beans) and cooked the whole thing for another 15 minutes. I served each portion topped with a perfectly poached egg. And voila! English Breakfast Mac and Cheese!

I received some of the products mentioned free of charge from the mentioned companies. All opinions stated are my own.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Brunch at The Craftsman by Two Brothers

I've been watching with great interest over the last few years as Two Brothers Brewing Company grew from a Chicagoland based microbrewery into a nation conquering empire, with not only an army of uniquely crafted beers under their belts, but an amazing coffee line, an artisan spirit collection, and several fine restaurants. I'd been to their flagship restaurant, The Roundhouse, once before when some friends and I attended the Two Brother's Summer Fest, but we didn't really get to sit down and enjoy a proper meal that day (though both the carnival-style food being cooked outside and the buffet offerings inside the complex were amazing). That's why when I was offered the chance to stop into The Craftsman, Two Brother's locally focused craft pub in Naperville,  I jumped at the opportunity, despite the 90 minute drive.

I managed to rope a friend with an actual motor vehicle into driving us out there one Saturday morning. I hadn't been to Naperville in about 10 years, so I was really impressed to see how much change had taken place around the river walk area, with lots of sweet little independent shops and restaurants instead of the chain stores and fast food joints I remembered. The Craftsman itself cuts an imposing figure on the quaint avenue; it's multilevel facade housing not only the restaurant, but also a buzzing coffee shop and a cocktail bar. We were taken up to the second floor of the building and given a cozy seat by the window, where we happily watched a giant group of dogs causing adorable havoc on the patio below as their owners brunched.

I was a little perplexed that the variety of coffee cocktails we saw advertised downstairs in the cafe were not also being offered upstairs, as that seemed to be to be a perfect opportunity for Two Brothers to showcase two of their signature product lines. Instead, we ordered a couple of smoothies, both of which were very fresh tasting and not overly sweet.

Speaking of sweets, we decided to kick things off with a couple of their more sugary options: The French Toast with bananas and coffee rum sauce and the Bacon Waffle with apricot jam. The French Toast was pretty good, though the highlight was definitely the coffee rum sauce (I'm assuming it was made with Two Brother's coffee), which we nearly licked off the plate. I do wish they had brûléed the bananas a little, or maybe cooked them in that awesome sauce, just to dress the dish up a little. The waffle was really fun. Not only did it have bits of bacon mixed into the batter, it came topped with more candied bacon as well as apricot jam. It was light and crisp with a very subtle sweetness. The bacon, though, was some standout stuff. This is going to sound really stupid, but the bacon had a heavy pork flavor to it, rather than a more typically smokey flavor.

Moving onto savory dishes, we picked three to share (mostly because I couldn't decide between two of them). Firstly was the Cuban Benedict, which came with shredded pork, Swiss cheese, mustard hollandaise, and ham on an English muffin. The pork was a nice touch and very tender, so I wasn't really sure if the ham was necessary.  The mustard hollandaise, though, was amazing and turned everything it touched into gold.

Next was the New England Lobster Roll. I'm not normally a huge lobster fan, but a rash of lobster rolls being posted to Instagram had put me in the mood for this summer time favorite. There was a decent amount of lobster meat on the roll, but it had been cut with a bit too much celery for my liking. The bun had actually been toasted and buttered in proper New England style, a step some restaurants sometimes forget.

Lastly was the Butcher's Burger, topped with bacon, tomato, lettuce, onion, and cheddar. This was the perfect kind of pub burger; simple, well put together, well prepared, and recognizable. As an admitted big fan of overly complicated gastro pub burgers, it was actually kind of refreshing to see just as much care and thought put into this classic burger as others put into more outlandish fare.

All in all, we spent a very pleasant afternoon at The Craftsman. Our server was very chipper and sweet despite being saddled with waiting on both the main dining room and the patio. The food was approachable and didn't take a whole lot of crazy twists and turns in an attempt to appeal to passing gourmands. But I do wish Two Brothers had put a bit more of themselves into the menu. Beer battered something would have been nice. Or the aforementioned coffee infused cocktails. Maybe even a beer mimosa, just to remind people of the restaurant's parent company. But I get that the goal may have been to carve out a niche in the dining scene that was more independent. I thought that the modern industrial decor made for a very relaxing atmosphere, and all the prices were extremely reasonable, especially when taking into consideration the quality of the ingredients.  Would I drive 90 minutes to go there for brunch again? Maybe not every weekend. But if I was in the area, it would definitely be on my list of stops to make.

I was invited to dine at this restaurant free of charge in exchange for an honest review of my experience.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Sponsored Guest Post: Four New Brunch Destinations with Chicago Car Service

The following is a sponsored guest post, written by our friends at Chicago Car Service. Enjoy! 

There's no better way to start your day than with some fantastic food. These are some of the newest brunch destinations to open their doors in Chicago. They represent quality all around, and have been attracting tons of customers. With all of the great feedback we've heard about these fresh spots, we're confident that you're going to have an incredible experience at these places. For more information on local events and destinations to enjoy, check out Chicago Car Service!

Breakfast Mac and Cheese, from Yolk's FB page

Yolk Test Kitchen
1767 N Milwaukee Avenue
This place specializes in unique breakfast and brunch options in Chicago! They do a fantastic job at adding a creative twist to all of their dishes, even the ones that are considered to be comfort food. Some of the menu highlights include avocado toast with salmon, short rib benedict, spinach crepes, and the breakfast macaroni and cheese. Their coffee bar has an impressive list of drinks to choose from as well.

Frittatas, from FARE's FB page

205 W Wacker Drive
You get to customize your own bowl at this breakfast and brunch destination, similar to casual restaurants like Chipotle or Subway. The fact that you're able to make something that perfectly suits your own tastes is part of the charm here! We love the sweet potato hash bowl with arugula, feta, garlic breadcrumbs, and red pepper sauce. Their porridge and oatmeal are two solid choices, too.

From The Churro Waffle's FB page

Churro Waffle
2845 W Irving Park Rd
Can you guess the signature dish at this restaurant? Churro Waffle has a full menu of hearty dishes to choose from beyond their namesake! Their abuelita omelette comes stuffed with chorizo, onion, jalapeno, avocado, and corn tortillas on the side. Or, try one of their delicious skillet bowls with ingredients like country fried potatoes, ham, bacon, sausage, green pepper, onions, egg, and pepper jack cheese!

Sourdough Waffle from 3 Squares Diner's FB page
3 Squares Diner
1020 W Lawrence Avenue
This Uptown diner has consistently been knocking it out of the park since their opening! We've heard that the Bloody Mary's at this diner are out of this world. Plus, where else can you find lamb bacon? There are many options for vegans and vegetarians to choose from, too. This might just be your new go-to brunch destination after you try it out once!

Chicago Car Service
3963 N Nordica
Chicago, IL 60634
(312) 494-0042

Friday, July 20, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 9, 2018

June 2017 Brunch & Stuff Roundup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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