The HOTTEST Foodie Event in Chicago

Hey Foodies! I wanted to invite you to an event that I’m hosting with the Associate Board of Common Threads. Common Threads is an organization started by Art Smith where they teach low income kids how to cook healthy, affordable meals. I volunteered w/them last fall, and it’s a pretty awesome organization because in addition to cooking, kids learn about different parts of the world, math (through measurements), and science.
 
This event is going to be the hottest Chicago foodie event of the year. Mark my words. It’s a cook-off between some of Chicago’s most popular restaurants, and the chefs can choose to compete to cook something on a bun, on a stick, in a glass, or in a shell. There will also be a whiskey tasting. 
 
The event takes place on Thursday, September 27th at 6:30pm over at Fulton’s on the River in Chicago. Tickets are $75 until August 31st (this Friday), and after this Friday, they go up to $85. (This donation is tax-deductible). There will also be a silent auction with some amazing prizes.
 
Click the below link if you are interested in attending. When it asks how you found out, just click other and type in my name.   
 
 
Below is a listing of just some of the restaurants that will be participating, along w/their categories:
 
Participating Chefs & Mixologists

IN A GLASS 
William Hewitt, Bin 36 
Lynn House, Blackbird 
Ben Schiller, BOKA 
Mike Trow, Bridge Bar 
Elizabeth Samples, Nacional 27 
David Blonsky, Public House 
Sarah Kosikowski, Sixteen 
Lee Guidry, SUSHISAMBA rio 

ON A STICK 
Erik Freeburg, Bar Toma 
Kevin Schulz, Fulton’s on the River 
Bill Kim, Belly Shack/Urban Belly/BellyQ 

IN A SHELL 
Mike Bellovich, Paris Club 
Table 52 

ON A BUN 
John McLean, Burger Bar 
Rah Shabazz, C-House 
Kristine Subido, Pecking Order 
Brad Alexander, The Grillroom 
Curtis Hawk, ZED451 
Image
Also Attending:

KOVAL Whiskey Distillery
Sparrow Coffee Roasters
KIND

 

Flavors – A Culinary Experience: Event Recap

Yesterday, I had the honor and privilege of attending Flavors – A Culinary Experience, which was a fundraiser to benefit the American Liver Foundation. The event was held at the Renaissance Hotel in Chicago (my first time visiting this hotel), and it was very well organized with over 80 silent auction and raffle items, however this event was all about the food.

The concept was quite unique with over 15 restaurants crafting table side meals with a custom menu from each restaurants. Featured Chicago restaurants included Browntrout, Frontier, Tavern on Rush and Bread and Wine. 

I was seated at the Chicago Renaissance Hotel restaurant table which featured a 5-course dinner with Executive Chef James Samson. Usually when I think about restaurant food from a hotel, I think “eh…just ok. Rubber chicken” – it just reminds me of the countless business meetings and weddings that I’ve attended that have “just ok” hotel food. This was quite the exception. Chef Samson had some very thoughtful and flavorful dishes, each of which were paired with wine. 

We started off with an Asparagus Salad, and my favorite part was the fried brie. There is nothing like some good fried cheese. Tuna Tartar was the second course, and the highlight of this dish was a compressed watermelon, which was put into a special machine overnight to make a large piece of watermelon fit into the palm of your hand. It was much like a dehydrated mini watermelon. Very interesting. The third course was the Beef Fheek Pierogi, which was very tasty – I don’t believe that I’ve eaten beef cheeks before, and now I won’t hesitate to try it again. Next was a perfectly cooked Lamb Porterhouse with a chic pea mint ragu. We finished off our meal w/a chocolate dessert that looked like a masterpiece. 

As I mentioned previously, this event was a fundraiser to benefit the American Liver Foundation, and we heard some touching stories about people that had been affected by Liver Disease, and it really put faces and names with a cause that does not get a great deal of exposure. One of the speakers almost had me in tears as she talked about her two babies that she lost to liver disease shortly after their birth. This is truly a cause worth supporting. 

The American Liver Foundation has these events every year, and they take place all over the country. Below is a link to the website for more information. Definitely check it out if you have the chance:

http://go.liverfoundation.org/site/PageServer?pagename=2012_flavors_localevents

I would also highly recommend Chef Samsons food – you can experience it yourself at Bar Novo at the Renaissance Hotel. The menu looks good, and it has 4 stars on Yelp. I’ll be visiting to try the bacon-wrapped dates. You can’t go wrong w/Bacon-wrapped dates!

So delicious

That Sneaky Sugar…

The other day, I was commenting to one of my friends about how much I was enjoying my iced tea. She took it from me and looked at the nutrition facts panel to find that it had 36 grams of sugar. She then informed me that the sugar in this iced tea included more than my daily recommended value of sugar. How much sugar should you have a day, you ask? According to the American Heart Association, women should have no more than 24 grams of sugar a day (equal to 100 calories or 6 teaspoons), and men should have no more than 36 grams per day, (equal to 150 calories or 9 teaspoons.)

All of this is quite disturbing, considering that I have a huge sweet tooth. Be sure to check your nutrition labels on processed food. For example, my favorite Yoplait strawberry yogurt has 27 grams of sugar. A 7-Up soda has 38 grams of sugar, and even innocent Mott’s Apple Sauce has 22 grams. I will definitely be paying more attention to what I’m eating and will be looking for alternatives. Don’t get me wrong, I will still enjoy my occasional soft drink, but I probably won’t be drinking them as much as I used to. What are you doing to manage your sugar intake?

Chicago Chef Week 3/18 – 3/23

Chicago Chef Week starts today – it’s Open Table’s version of restaurant week where selected restaurants offer a 3-course Prix-Fixe menu. Lunches are $22 and dinners are $39/person.

I like these kinds of promotions, but I have to say that I have gotten a little bit jaded after my last dining experience during Chicago Restaurant Week. After going to a 3-course lunch at a restaurant that will remain nameless, I was disappointed because my portions were so tiny that I ended up having to go to Corner Bakery to satisfy my appetite.

Restaurants have to balance offering the right menu selections and keeping their costs down so that they can still make a profit.  The best restaurants are the ones that let you choose your courses from the entire menu, instead of offering a scaled-down menu for you to choose from. Also be sure to check the hours that these offers are valid, because sometimes the restaurants restrict these kinds of offers to a set time during the day.

As long as you keep these things in mind, you can manage your expectations. Prix-fixe offers are a great way to try a new place and experience the ambiance for a fantastic price.

See below link for restaurant selections:

http://www.opentable.com/promo.aspx?m=3&ref=4981&pid=346

Bon Appetit!


Chef Spotlight: Pastry Chef Jessica Ashley

[slideshow]I consider myself to be quite the food connoisseur, and I recognize talent when I see it. If I were a chef talent scout (I’m sure those exist), I would definitely be recruiting Jessica Ashley to join my team. She’s young, ambitious and doing her thing! Her talent is undeniable.  In just 3 years after graduating from culinary school, she has baked custom cakes for MTV and celebrity events, and worked as a production chef on the kids cooking TV show Junior Cuisine. In the midst of all of this, she has also been running her own cake business, baking specialized cakes for weddings and special events.

During her college internship with Kraft, Jessica instantly knew that she wanted to be a chef when she visited to the Culinary Institute for Education.  This life-changing “aha” moment led her to apply for culinary school at Kendall College in Chicago after finishing her undergraduate degree. She kept her application a secret until she applied, because she “just knew” that this is what she wanted to do, and there was no stopping her.

The level of creativity and skill is instantly apparent in Jessica’s cakes. They look like the kinds of cakes that you see on shows like “Cake Boss” and “Ace of Cakes”.

Her specialty? The Cream Cheese Pound Cake. This recipe from her great aunt has been in her family for years. In addition to her decadent cakes, she also bakes vegan and dairy-free cakes, and she’s been experimenting with sugar-free dessert offerings for those with diabetes.

Jessica has observed that people aren’t buying the grocery store sheet cakes as much anymore because they are opting for decorative cakes to serve as a trendy centerpiece. Just when she thought that cupcakes were on their way out, they are quite popular, even in weddings.  Some of her clients have requested cupcake towers vs. traditional tier cakes to avoid the “cutting fee” that many banquet facilities charge when using an outside cake vendor.  Cupcakes also allow wedding guests to grab a cupcake and go, and they offer flexibility with providing an assortment of flavors.

What’s next for Jessica? She’s working on offering after school cooking classes for kids centering around nutrition, baking with healthy ingredients, and decorating. She will also continue to host private events, and plans to travel more with her business. Her next trip is scheduled in New York, where she will be baking for a corporate launch party event.

Jessica inspires me because she is truly living out her passion and purpose, and success has followed her along the way.  I see big things for her future. One of her goals is to compete in a Food Network competition, so keep your eyes open!  With her passion and drive, you just might see her on TV!  Hopefully her story inspires you as much as she inspires me.

Jessica’s Baking Tips for Home Chefs:

  • Instead of sticking a knife or toothpick in your cakes/cupcakes to check for doneness, gently press the top of the cake to see if it springs back. If it springs back, its done.
  • If you start baking, make sure all of your dairy items are room temperature.
  • Bring eggs to room temperature before baking. If you don’t have the time, place eggs in warm water to bring to room temperature faster.
To learn more about Jessica Ashley, visit her website at  www.jacakes.com. 

10 Inexpensive and Creative Ways to Sharpen Your Cooking Skills

As Featured On EzineArticles

How are those New Year’s Resolutions going? Some people say that they want to stop eating out so much, then realize that they need to sharpen their cooking skills. The more you cook, the better you get. Here are some creative and inexpensive ways to learn:

1. Host A Cooking Party:

Each One, Teach One- Everyone has cooking strengths. Whether you are more of a cook or a baker, everyone has a signature dish. Use the knowledge from your friends and family by asking a friend/family member to show you and a small group how to make a dish. The different members in each group can rotate “cooking classes”. Maybe you have a friend that knows how to make Indian Food. Have them to teach everyone how to make an Indian dish. The next month, someone else can show off their specialty. There is a great wealth of knowledge in your friendship circles. Use it!

You could also ask a chef at one of your favorite restaurants to teach you and a group of friends how to cook at your house. If you invite 10-15 people and everyone pays about $30, that could cover the cost of the chef’s time and the food ingredients.  Ask the chef to make the class as interactive as possible. This is a great way to get tips on how to make delicious, restaurant quality food.

2. Community Colleges:

Check your local community college for cooking classes. They are often a great value, and you get instruction from people that are trained to cook. In the metro Chicago area (suburbs), College of DuPage offers cooking classes. Downtown, the Chicago Cultural Center also offers cooking classes that are quite affordable, starting at $30 a class (visit www.chicagoworldkitchen.org).

3. Grocery Stores:

Upscale grocery stores often offer cooking classes.  Check your local Whole Foods, Wegmans and Publix stores to see if they offer classes.  Local gourmet stores are also great places to check.

4. Online:

Get cooking tips from the comfort of your own home – there’s no need to go anywhere. Set up your laptop or iPad to watch cooking podcasts and YouTube channels.

  • Cooking-specific podcasts are a great way to learn how to cook. Many of them have a nominal cost, and some of them are free.
    • Subscribe to Podcasts like Start Cooking, which covers cooking basics (you would be surprised at what you don’t know) http://startcooking.com/,
  •  Visit the video section at allrecipes.com for quick, instructional videos on everything from Shortcut Recipes to how to make French Toast.
  • YouTube: Search the videos for the dish that you’ve been wanting to learn how to make. I would suggest that you watch a few videos, and follow the advice of an expert source. I learned how to make sweet plantains by watching YouTube videos, and they were delicious. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wCHIeRYzKII

5. Attend Local Festivals

Local festivals often have cooking demonstrations. For example, in Chicago, The Taste of Chicago, Printer’s Row Lit Fest and the Flower and Garden Show all have cooking demonstrations, many times with local celebrity chefs.

6. Specialty Cookware Retail Stores:

Retail stores like Sur La Table and Williams Sonoma offer cooking classes in select locations.  Some classes are offered for free, while others require a fee.  Check their websites for details:

Williams-Sonoma

http://www.williams-sonoma.com/customer-service/store-events.html

Sur La Table – Currently offering a knife skills class:

http://www.surlatable.com/product/CFA-168532/

7. Join a cooking meetup group

Meetup.com is a great website to meet people w/similar interests. Visit the website and search your city for cooking groups.

8. Online Daily Deals:

Daily deal websites like Groupon, YouSwoop and Living Social often offer deals on cooking classes. Scoop them up when you see them.

9. Get a Part-Time Job:

Want to learn how to professionally bake and decorate pastries? Get a part-time job at a bakery. They might be willing to train you. The pay might not be amazing, but it’s an affordable option to learn professional level skills vs. going to a culinary school.

10. Volunteer:

Whether you are volunteering at a soup kitchen, making meals at the Ronald McDonald House, or teaching kids about healthy eating with Common Threads, food-based volunteer organizations are also a great way to learn some cooking skills. As simple as many of the dishes may seem, I’ve always learned at least one cooking tip during my volunteer experiences. It’s great to be able to serve the community and learn all at the same time.

How to Make Homemade Apple-Cinnamon Infused Vodka

I was inspired to create some homemade Christmas presents this year, and decided to make infused vodkas as a gift. I purchased the bottles from the Container Store (no more than $5 each), and used a mid-range vodka (Svedka) which is recommended when infusing – no need to spurge on the Belvedere when adding infused flavor. Once the vodka is finished infusing, remove the fruit, strain, and pour the vodka into the bottle w/a funnel. Decorate the bottle and wrap as a gift!

Check out my video for a demonstration:

Homemade Apple-Cinnamon Infused Vodka

Apple-Cinnamon Infused Vodka Recipe:
– 1/2 liter of vodka
– 3 apples
– 2 cinnamon sticks

I originally was planning on infusing it for 5 days, but it ended up turning into 3 weeks. The vodka was absolutely amazing and full of apple-cinnamon flavor. It was dangerous because you could literally drink it on the rocks. For an apple-cinnamon flavor, I would suggest mixing it with Sprite, Ginger Ale, or Apple Cider (hot or cold). I gave the vodka to my friend Jenny as a hostess gift for her holiday party, and I think she enjoyed it.
At this present moment, I’m infusing a Blueberry-Vanilla vodka as a gift for a party that I’m going to in 2 weeks. Vanilla doesn’t require as much time to infuse, so I removed the vanilla bean after 3 days, and I’ll let the blueberries continue to “marinate”.

Blueberry-Vanilla Infused Vodka Recipe:
– 2 cups of blueberries, sliced
– 1 vanilla bean, sliced down the middle
– 1 liter of vodka

Tips:
– Shake the infused mixture from time-to-time to accelerate the infusing process
– Taste the infused mixture along the way to ensure that it does not taste too strong with the infusing agent. If it does taste too strong, add more vodka to tone down the flavor.

– If you don’t have the time to infuse, you can also present the vodka and the fruit in a bottle, and tell the recipient to open after a certain amount of time.

If you like cocktails, or if you have a friend that does, this is a great gift that can be used year-round.

Cheers!

Just Ask…

Today, I was feeling like I wanted a burger and fries, but I didn’t want to eat a huge order. You know, most of these restaurants give you huge portion sizes, and I didn’t want to end up eating more than I needed to. (Especially since I had a burger, fries and chocolate shake at Portillo’s over the weekend – I’m surprised I’m not 500 lbs.).

Anyway, I called a local burger restaurant (Poag Mahone’s) to place a carry-out order, and asked if I could get 2 sliders instead of 4… and she said yes. Nice! Normally they don’t do this, she said, but they weren’t busy, so they went ahead and made it. The best part was that my bill was cut in half too! $6 instead of $12. That’s what I’m talking about! So glad I asked.

I normally ask to reduce the size of my order at brunch – i.e. getting 2 pancakes instead of 4, but I usually don’t do this for lunch and dinner. The moral of the story is to just ask at any place you eat – you never know…they might accommodate, which can benefit your waistline and your pocket book.

Do you REALLY know how to tip when using a Groupon?

So, I was out to dinner with a friend and we were using a Groupon. At the end of dinner, the question came up about how to properly tip.

One thought was that you tip on the value of the Groupon plus any extra money that you spend – so if the Groupon deal is $25 for $50 worth of food,  tip on the $25 + any extra food that was purchased.

I always thought that you tip on the TOTAL value of the food, i.e. tip on the $50 + any extra food. After a brief discussion, I decided to read the fine print of my Groupon, which said to tip on the value of the Groupon. This was not as specific as I would have liked, so I called Groupon to clear this up.

The Answer: (Ding, Ding, Ding!!)

The very nice customer service rep at Groupon said that you should tip on the TOTAL value of the Groupon + any extra food you buy. So, in this case, you would tip on the $50 + any extra food that was purchased over the value of the Groupon.

I wonder how much confusion is out there about this. This is probably why some restaurants aren’t happy to see people w/Groupons and other daily deals…What do you think?

 

Recipe Randomness

Below are a couple of random recipes that I’m inspired to make:

Severed Finger Cookies:

Halloween is such a fun holiday. I saw these cookies in the Rachael Ray magazine and knew that I had to make them. I’ve showed them to a few people who are a little grossed out, but they are just sugar cookies in the shape of fingers with a little raspberry jam on the ends. I’ll be making these for a Halloween party this weekend, and let you all know how they turned out.

Below is the link to the recipe:

http://www.rachaelraymag.com/Recipes/rachael-ray-magazine-recipe-search/dessert-recipes/severed-finger-cookies

Sweet Potato Waffles

Another recipe that I’m inspired to make are these Sweet Potato Waffles from Bon Appetit magazine. They are showing this recipe with fried chicken, but I think that it would taste even better with jerk chicken and some maple syrup. Below is the link to the recipe if you are inclined to try it:

http://www.bonappetit.com/recipes/2011/10/sweet-potato-waffles

Enjoy!

Follow your taste buds!!