Friday, May 31, 2019

A Beginner's Guide to Cooking Fish with Sitka Salmon Shares

I received free products from Sitka Salmon Shares in order to facilitate the writing of this post. All opinions are my own.

The first thing you need to understand is that I grew up in the desert. You know what there's not a lot of in the desert? Seafood. I mean, other than Red Lobster. In addition to being a desert dweller, my mother was not really a fan of fish. I have vague recollections of breaded fish sticks coming out of a toaster oven at some point, and on occasion, she mixed up a bit of tuna salad using stuff from a can, but that was really it. Add to that the fact that my only other experience with seafood was wrinkling up my nose as we passed the fish counter at the grocery store, and you have the makings of a 20+ year aversion to anything with gills.

When I started this food blogging journey so so so very long ago, I began to think about my food phobia. I hated fish, but why? I'd never really had it. I'd certainly never ordered it in a restaurant. And I liked shellfish well enough, so what was the real problem?

Everything came to a head when I was at an event in which a very famous Chicago chef was cooking a meal live in front of a small crowd. That meal was a take on bouillabaisse, a tomato based fish stew, and he was chucking just about every type of aquatic life into his pot. "It's ok," I thought, "I'll just pick around the fish and eat the mussels." Then, much to my horror, the chef himself began ladling soup into our waiting bowls, and with a smile, he gave me a huge chunk of fish meat. "Want to make sure you get a little bit of everything," he said with a wink. I steeled myself for the worst as I lifted a spoonful of fish to my lips and... it was actually quite good! Then and there, I made a deal with myself: if I was ever offered fish, I was going to accept it, and I have been happily surprised by many delicious fish dishes ever since.

Now that brings us to the present and my first interactions with Sitka Salmon Shares. When they first approached me about trying one of their boxes full of freshly caught Alaskan seafood, I was admittedly apprehensive. Having seafood presented to you by a master chef was one thing; preparing it myself was quite another. But now that I have a proper kitchen and my cooking skills have increased beyond that of a starving college student throwing things together in the vein hope they will be edible, I decided to be brave and give cooking fish a shot.

When I received the box from Sitka, I was immediately impressed with everything. Not only did the vacuum packed cuts of fish look vibrant and clean, they had also included several recipe cards, information pamphlets, and a small cedar wood plank, presumably for grilling the fish on. The even had an insert informing how to properly remove pin bones from the fish, something I had been worrying about doing wrong! Each individual cut of fish was portioned and cleaned, and then clearly labeled with its species, date caught, and even the name of the fisherman who had caught it! Best of all, everything arrived frozen solid with not even a hint of odor.

Sitka Salmon Shares works much like a farm co-op; subscribers sign up for a period of 3-9 months, and are then sent a box each month containing a portion of an individual fisherman's harvest. This system not only ensures that the fishermen get to keep a higher portion of the sale than they would by selling their wears on the open market, it also gives the subscribers access to the most seasonal varieties of fish.

I decided to start my fish cooking journey by tackling a small cut of Coho salmon. I made a quick little marinade out of soy sauce, honey, garlic, and ginger, then steamed the fish in my Instant Pot along with some mushrooms, peas, and onions. The result was a nicely flavorful fish, but a little over cooked and dried out. Next, I decided to attempt a salmon quiche. I oven roasted a cut of Keta salmon, then shredded the meat. This time, I cooked the salmon to a perfect consistency, so it remained moist and flavorful. I added the meat to a pre-cooked pastry shell along with some sauteed onions, spinach, and Swiss cheese. I then poured a mixture of eggs and heavy cream over the whole thing and baked it for about 35 minutes at 350. Now, I know some people are squeamish about fish and cheese, but I thought the nuttiness if the Swiss and the butterines of the salmon worked really nicely together!

Feeling a little more confident, I decided my next task was to tackle the two pieces of Wild Alaskan Pacific Cod. The first thing that popped into my mind was fish and chips, and following that, fish tacos, so I decided to combine the two. I cut the cod into small chunks, beer battered it, fried it, and combined with with a simple slaw (cabbage, red onion, and carrots mixed with mayo, sour cream, and lime juice), and did a quick pickle on some apple sticks to add a bit of brightness to everything. I was pretty happy with the results, and the softness of the cod inside the crispy batter was so perfect with all the crunchy toppings!

I saved the best and most daunting fish for last. My box had included a beautiful piece of sea bass, and I fretted for a while about what I was going to do with this delicate fish. I just so happened to have picked up a sous vide circulator, and after a bit of research, I discovered that using a sous vide machine to cook sea bass was a very good idea. I placed the fish into a ziplock bag along with some butter, garlic, salt, and pepper, the cooked it in the water bath for 30 minutes at 133 degrees. In the meantime, I whipped up a quick gnocci side dish with some wilted baby kale and Parmesan cheese. The sea bass out of the bag was so tender that it began breaking apart as I plated it! This was definitely my favorite preparation of them all, if only because it made me feel so dang fancy!

It really surprised me how comfortable I've become with cooking fish over the last few months. I've gone from completely intimidated to completely enthusiastic. It just goes to show that when you are working with a product of such high quality, you really can't go wrong. Whether you are an experienced fish chef or a curious beginner like me, I cannot encourage you enough to consider signing up for one of Sitka Salmon Shares' subscription plans. Let me know in the comments what your favorite way to cook seafood is!

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Last Minute Mother's Day Chicago Brunch Guide 2019

Explore the City
Take mom somewhere new and exciting for her special day or visit an old neighborhood favorite.

III Forks, Lakeshore East, a la carte or prix fixe for $45
Red Fish Bleu Fish, Hyde Park, a la carte, half priced entrees for moms
Eden, West Loop, a la carte, featuring special menu items
The Florentine, The Loop, a la carte, featuring  special menu items
Staytion Market and Bar, The Loop, a la carte, featuring special menu items
Chicago Q, Gold Coast, a la carte, featuring special menu items
Blue Door Farm Stand, Lincoln Park, a la carte, featuring special menu items
Blue Door Kitchen and Garden, Gold Coast, a la carte, featuring special menu items

Freebies for Mom
Many restaurants around the city want to pamper your mama as much as you do. Here's some that are featuring gifts, cocktails, and more for your beloved matriarch.

Bar Roma, Andersonvile, a la carte, complimentary dark chocolate hazelnut truffles for moms
Acadia, South Loop, three course prix fixe for $85 with complimentary flowers for moms
Broken Barrel, Lincoln Park, a la carte, free cocktail for moms
Safehouse, River North, a la carte, free mimosa for moms
Sunda, Rive North, buffet, $65, complimentary glass of champagne for moms
Cantina Laredo, River North, All brunch dishes include the choice of complimentary mimosa made with fresh-squeezed orange juice, or bloody maria made with Casa Noble organic tequila
The Chicago Firehouse, South Loop, buffet, $59, free sparkling cocktail for moms
True Food Kitchen, River North, a la carte, all moms will received a $10 gift card
The Albert, Gold Coast, a la carte, flowers for moms
Tortoise Supper Club, River North, buffet, $69.95 per adult, all moms will receive a freshly cut rose
Porkchop, Hyde Park, a la carte, complimentary mimosa and entree for moms
Kizuki, Wicker Park and Lincoln Park, free mimosa with purchase of any ramen

Brunch and a Show
These options offer not just a great meal, but a little entertainment to boot.

The Signature Room, Magnificant Mile, buffet, $80, featuring live music
Artango Bar and Steakhouse, Lincoln Square, 3 course prix fixe for $39, featuring live music
Punch Bowl Social, West Loop, a la carte, arcade games will be free all day

VIP Access
Chicago restaurants love moms so much that many who don't usually serve brunch open wide their doors for only one special Sunday morning a year.

Michael Jordan's Steakhouse, Magnificent Mile, a la carte
Ocean Prime, River North, a la carte
Eddie V's, The Loop, three course prix fixe, $49 per adult
Perry's Steakhouse, Oak Brook, a la carte
Benny's Chop House, River North, 3 course prix fixe for $49

People Pleasing Buffets
Large family? Picky eaters in the group? Buffets are the way to go. And there are options all over the city for every budget.

I|O Godfrey, River North, $39 per adult
LondonHouse, Magnificent Mile, $70 per adult
Travelle at The Langham, River North, $175 per adult
Prairie Grass Cafe, Northbrook, $53 per adult
Burnham's at Eaglewood Resort and Spa, Itasca, $48.95 per adult
Pinstripes, River North, $36 per adult
Hubbard Inn, River North, $50 with bottomless drinks, $30 without
Parlay at Joy District, $50 per adult
Tuscany, Wheeling, $44.95 per adult

Friday, May 3, 2019

Home Made Spinach Manicotti with Pirro's Sauce

I was sent products free of charge by Pirro's Sauces in exchange for an honest review of their line. All opinions are my own.

My life was forever changed when I received a pasta roller as a Christmas present last year. Since then, I have been obsessed with perfecting my own fresh made pasta recipe. I started very basic, trying different combinations of flour, eggs, oil, and water, and I quickly discovered just how many variables there are in pasta making. Do I use whole eggs, or just the yolks? Do I salt the dough, salt the water, or both? Does adding oil to the dough actually make a difference? Should I rest the dough, or work with it straight away?

After much experimentation and research (ie, late night Googling), I arrived at a method I felt comfortable with, but I couldn't quite get the texture I wanted. I started trying different flours; semolina, whole wheat, tapioca, and on and on. Finally, the answers I was seeking came in the form of bread flour, which is essentially all purpose flour with more protein. This added protein promotes the formation of gluten, which in noodle making terms, gives a chewier, stronger product than just using the regular old white stuff. Once I discovered bread flour, I was making fresh pasta pretty much every week.

With my new found ability to produce copious amounts of carbs tucked neatly into my culinary tool belt, I was thrilled when Pirro's Sauces reached out to me to see if I'd like to sample their line of all natural, authentically Italian products. Pirro's Sauces are based on the recipes of owner Brianna Pirro's grandmother, handed down through her father, who founded Pirro's Restaurante in Woodstock, IL. The sauces were so popular at the restaurant that customers used to request jars of them to take home, so the move to professionally bottle and sell them was a natural progression. Though the restaurant may have closed in 2012, the Pirro legacy lives on through their lineup of delicious, high quality sauces; Marinara, Pesto Pomodoro, Bolgnese, Puttanesca, Rustic Vodka, and Pizza Sauce.

When I first got my hands on the sauces, I decided the simplest way to get an idea of their flavors and quality was to first try out the classic Marinara with some hand made noodles and fresh mozzarella (this has literally been my go-to meal for half my life. I literally eat it once a week). I was really impressed to see that there wasn't a single chemical, preservative, or artificial thing listed in the ingredients; just veggies, olive oil, and spices. The sauce itself had a bit of a chunkier texture to it with a thinner base than what I usually see from a jarred pasta sauce. This was actually perfect for tossing with the fresh pasta, as the noodles absorbed much of the flavorful liquid, and the finely chopped ingredients were able to disperse evenly throughout. The flavor was so wonderful; no metallic or overly acidic notes, but lots of sweet tomato goodness with a little bit of a crunch from the celery and carrots and an aromatic hit of garlic and basil.

Now that I was certain Pirro's knew what they were doing, I took their Pesto Pomodoro and made a quick and easy take on a Shakshuka with it. Basically, I just poured the whole jar into a non stick skillet, heated it up to a simmer, cracked a few eggs into it, sprinkled in some goat cheese crumbles, and let the whole thing cook over medium low for about 5 minutes. Lastly, I toasted up some naan bread, then sat down and started scooping into my concoction. Because the pomodoro has a good bit of Parmesan cheese in it, the flavor of this sauce was a little richer and the texture a little more hearty. I think it's a testament to how good this sauce is that I was able to really enjoy it basically straight out of the jar with very little alteration.

Finally, the sauces having proven their worth to me, I dived into something I had not yet attempted; a stuffed pasta dish. Deciding to use the Rustic Vodka sauce to make my pi├Ęces de r├ęsistance, I whipped up a batch of spinach pasta dough (recipe below), rolled it into thin sheets, and stuffed it with a simple mix of ricotta, mozzarella, Parmesan, and a few spices. I lined a few of my little makeshift manicotti into the bottom of an enamel lined Dutch oven, covered the tops of them with some of the creamy tomato sauce, then added the next layer of pasta, then sauce, and continued layering until all the pasta and sauce was in the pot. I put the whole thing in the oven for about an hour at 400 degrees, took it out, and dived in. The Rustic Vodka may have been my favorite sauce of them all because it was just so rich and buttery. I don't know if I've ever had a better version from a jar (or in a restaurant, for that matter).

So that settles it for me: Pirro's might now be my official favorite jarred pasta sauce brand ever. Not only are they delicious, I love that their story started right here in Illinois and that they are female owned. This is exactly the kind of company I want to clear room on my shelves for.

Spinach Pasta Dough

2 cups bread flour
1 teaspoon of salt
2 cups of spinach
3-5 whole eggs

In blender or food processor (I use a bullet blender), add the spinach, eggs, and salt, then blend until the mixture is smooth and a vibrant green.

On a counter top or large cutting board, mound the flour and make a large, wide hole in the center of the mound (I use the base of a measuring cup) so that it resembles a volcano. Slowly pour about half of the egg and spinach mixture into the middle, making not to let the liquid leak outside the flour mound. Using a fork, slowly begin whisking flour into the liquid until it forms a paste. Keep adding more liquid until a solid dough can be formed (a bench scrapper is great for this stage when the dough is prone to stick to hands). You may not need all of the liquid, but you also may need to add flour if the dough is becoming too sticky to kneed. Once you have a smooth, non sticky ball of dough, wrap it in a dry kitchen towel and let it sit for at least 15 minutes before putting it through a pasta roller. If the dough sticks at all to the roller, add more flour, kneed, and rest again.

This dough will keep for a while in the fridge, but be aware that the longer it sits, the more the color will darker. Alternatively, you can freeze the dough for later use.