Quick Creamy Black Bean Soup

Since we cannot quite seem to get rid of winter here in Chicago, I thought I’d post a quick soup recipe.

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1/3 C  red onion, diced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 tsp ground cumin

1/2 tsp dried oregano

1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

2 C chicken broth

2 15 oz cans black beans, drained and rinsed

2 tbsp fresh cilantro, chopped

1 tbsp lime juice

Heat oil in a large stock pot over medium heat;  add onions and garlic and sauté 2-3 minutes.  Add spices and cook an additional minute.  Add broth and increase heat to medium high;  bring to a boil.  Add black beans and return to a boil.  Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 15 minutes.

Remove from heat and let cool for 10 minutes.  Stir in lime juice and cilantro.  Using an immersion blender, puree until smooth.  Serve immediately or refrigerate.

For serving I like to top with greek yogurt, pico de gallo and some crushed tortilla chips.

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Davanti Enoteca – Italian Small Plates on Taylor Street

I’ll start by saying, if you are looking for a traditional Italian restaurant, with spaghetti and meatballs, this is probably not the place you want to go.  However, if you want good Italian food, with some very unusual combinations, I would highly recommend Davanti!  The concept is small plates, meant for sharing, similar to Spainsh Tapas.  If you don’t like to share your food, also not the place you want to go!  The atmosphere is very nice and the the menu is varied, with something for all tastes.  I’d recommend Davanti for anything from a date to a casual group dinner.

The menu is divided into sections – Vasi (mini mason jars with toast), antipasti, boards salads, fromaggi + salumi (cheeses and meats), flatbreads, pizza, pasta, mains and daily specials.  I’d recommend staring with an antipasti, maybe a jar, one of the boards or some meat & cheese selections and a salad, or two.  Then I’d move on to a flatbread and a couple of mains.  How many choices you’ll need to make will depend on the size of the group.  The waitstaff can help you figure out the right amount of food.

IMG_0531We started with the Focaccia di Recco, which is a focaccia bread with soft cow’s milk cheese, be sure to add the local honey as it makes for a delectable starter.

My favorite pasta was the Caramelle di Zucca – butternut squash filled pasta pockets with brown butter, sage and hazel nuts.  It is a bit rich however very creamy with a hint of sweetness.

I’d also recommend the Bistecca on Patate e Cipollini – hanger steak with cipollini onion and fingerling potatoes.  The steak was perfectly cook and we were able to be cut without a knife.  The Capesante e Fregola – seared scallops with chantrelle mushrooms – was also excellent.

The wine list includes a good selection of mostly Italian wines.

Davanti Enoteca is owned by the same group that created the Purple Pig, so if you have been there, you will see some similarities which in my opinion, is a good thing!

http://www.davantichicago.com

Siena Tavern – A Hot Spot with Good Food!

This is definitely a hot spot in town right now, and actually has been for some time!  During happy hour the bar is packed and most nights you’ll likely need a reservation to get a table.  I’ve been several times and while I’ve read some less than stellar reviews, I have not been disappointed by anything I’ve tried, though some things are certainly better than others.

The service is very good; during my second visit one of our dishes was delayed due to a kitchen issue and the manager came over to apologize; we were having a “girls” night out so had not even really noticed.  Without even being asked,  they took the charge for that dish off the bill.  I consider that to be over and above service.  In general, both the wait and bar staff is very attentive, and knows the menu, including the wine list, well.

For an unusual salad I’d recommend the Farro Salad.  The mixture of Farro, marinated calamari, shrimp and vegetables is topped with a  mustard vinaigrette.

IMG_0430They have a good selection of pasta, most with a unique twist.  If you are a mushroom lover, I’d recommend the Pasta in a Jar.  The pizzas are also good and are a nice size for sharing; my favorite so far is the Prosciutto Pear.

I think the most unusual thing on the menu is the Coccoli, which is a combination of crispy dough, Stracchino cheese, prosciutto and truffle honey.  It is absolutely delicious and melts in your mouth.  Just be forewarned, it is very rich!

A tasty side dish is the Sticky Parmesan Potatoes; they taste much more interesting than the menu makes them sound.

While the 6 plus inches of snow and ground definitely mean that patio season has quite obviously ended, they do have a decent patio, which I’ll look forward to visiting again next summer!

http://www.sienatavern.com

Chicago’s Table – A Foodie Charity Event

This annual event is the perfect charity event for any foodie who wants to check out some interesting dished and support a good cause while doing it;  and it is just a fun event in general.  With limited tickets sales there are no long waits for food or drinks and the crowd includes a diverse age range.  This year’s event showcased 20 restaurants – each created a food and wine pairing.  The event is hosted by Chicago Magazine and benefits the Auxiliary Board of Northwestern Hospital.

All of the restaurants got very creative with their selections.  Some of my favorites included Savory plum and foie gras macaroons paired with 90+ Cellars Lot 65 French Fusion White from Chez Moi, the goat chili paired with a Malbec from 90+ cellars from Little Goat Diner, the pasta in a jar from Sienna Tavern,  and the shrimp & scallop ceviche paired with a Strawberry rhubarb Paloma from Nacional 27.  They definitely got my vote for the best drink of the night.

The best dish of the night night was the sliced filet with mini crab cakes and cajun lobster sauce, paired with a Cranberry Collins from Del Frisco’s.  It was enough to make me want to make a reservation with them!

The annual event is held in October.

Homemade Taco Seasoning

For a long time I used packaged seasoning mixes when I made tacos, then one day, I stopped to read the ingredients and realized that in addition to a lot of sodium, they contain many other less than desirable ingredients.  So I switched to using Penzey’s Original Taco Seasoning, which is great and I still use in a pinch.  I’d highly recommend it if you are in a hurry, however I prefer to make my own as you can change the amount of something suit your mood, they type of meat or your dining companion’s tastes.

I’m a big fan of Penzey’s Spices, so I always use their spices in my recipes.  They are always exceptionally fresh and come in a variety of sizes; if you are lucky enough to live near one of their stores it is a fun experience to stop in and shop, otherwise you can order online from them.  Shipping is free if you spend more than $30 and the spices usually arrive quite quickly.

Here’s my basic recipe, which I’d recommend with ground beef, ground turkey or chicken.  This makes enough for about two pounds of meat; so this recipe gives you enough for more than one serving.  It keeps will in a small airtight jar.

2 tbsp chili powder

1 tsp garlic salt

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1 tsp paprika

1 tsp minced dried onion

2 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp dried oregano

1 1/2 tsp ground black pepper

1/2 tsp allspice

1/2  tsp cocoa powder

1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes (more if you prefer spicier tacos)

1/2 tsp cornstarch

Mix all of the spices together in a small bowl,  add cornstarch and mix well.

When making tacos I mix 1-2 tbsp of the seasoning with a pound of ground meat, I tend to use less for ground turkey than I do for beef.  Brown the meat in a large skillet; add about 1 cup of water and 1 tbsp of lime juice per pound of meat, mix well.  Cook for about 10 minutes or until the sauce slightly thickens.

Drunken Banana Bread

I wanted to create a somewhat less traditional version of banana bread, so I came up with this, which is nice as a side for a Sunday brunch party, and also makes a nice afternoon snack with tea.   I prefer a slightly lighter banana taste, so if you love bananas, add a 2nd one to the recipe.

1 1/2 C. All-purpose flour

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp Penzeys ground cinnamon

1 large ripe banana

5 tbsp butter, divided

1 1/2 tbsp Cointreau, divided

1/2 C dark brown sugar

2 large eggs

1/3 C plain yogurt

1/3 C powdered sugar

1 tsp orange juice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.   Spray a 9 inch loaf pan with cooking spray.

Place the first five ingredients, flour through cinnamon, in a small bowl.  Mix well and set aside.

Slightly mash the banana with a fork.  Heat a medium sauce pan over medium low heat.  Place 3 tbsp (56g) of butter in the sauce pan and heat until melted.  Add banana and 1 tbsp cointreau.  Cook for 3-5 minutes, until slightly thickened.  Remove from heat and cool slightly.

Place brown sugar and 2 tbsp (28 g) butter in a large bowl (I prefer to use a stand mixer).  Beat on low speed until small, pea sized chuncks are formed.  Add eggs, one at a time, beating until smooth after each addition.  Add banana mixture and yogurt; beat until smooth.  Slowly add the flour mixture and mix until just blended.

Pour batter into the loaf pan.  Bake for 35- 45 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean.  Remove from oven and let cool for 10 minutes.  Remove from pan and place on a wire rack and continue to cool.

While loaf is cooling mix the powdered sugar, 1/2 tbsp Cointreau and orange juice in a small bowl.  Drizzle over slightly warm loaf.  Slice and serve.

Recipe notes:  As I’ve mentioned in other posts, my preference for herbs and spices are Penzeys, however you can substitute any ground cinnamon.

Bridge House Tavern – Great Food & a Great View!

Est102Bridge House Tavern opened just over two years ago right down on the Chicago River. It has a fantastic outdoor space great for lazy summer afternoons and evenings. The indoor space is very nice and especially cozy in the wintertime. The menu includes some unique options for appetizers and entrees, including daily specials, and changes seasonally.

This is one of those places you go over and over; the food is always excellent and both the wait and bar staff are extremely customer focused. It’s the ideal place hang out with friends for an afternoon or evening and enjoy the beautiful city view!

They have some very interesting cocktails which are great for summer afternoon drinking; my two favorites are the Pink Lemonade and the St. BHT.  Cocktails come by the glass and by the carafe – the perfect option when you want to stay for a while! They also have a decent wine list, though a better selection by the bottle than by the glass.

I absolutely love popcorn, so the Bacon Jalapeno Popcorn is one of my favorite things on the menu. The spice from the jalapeno is tempered nicely by the sweet from the honey. And who doesn’t like bacon, which gives it that nice salty taste you expect from popcorn.

My other favorite is the Salmon on Toast; smoked salmon is one of those things I have a love/hate relationship with, this one I absolutely love!  The mix of honey smoked salmon, mascarpone and candied onions really almost melts in your mouth.

A couple of my other favorites include the Tavern Chips and the Wild Mushrooms. The chips are smothered in blue cheese, bacon and mushrooms; definitely not healthy but well worth the indulgence!

I could write for a very long time about how fantastic the food is at Bridge House, however that might get boring so I’ll say that honestly, I’ve been there more than a dozen times and I’ve never had anything that I didn’t like or wouldn’t order again.

IMG_0389As the weather gets warmer, boats cruising down the river pull up and dock at Bridge House, which makes for some good people watching.  On Friday and Saturday evenings, the upstairs terrace is open and provides a great spot to sit and relax on the couches. You can have drinks and a limited appetizer menu.

In the summer they also do a $29 mimosa brunch on Sundays, which can make for a very fun afternoon. The brunch menu is just as tasty and creative as the regular menu.

If you’ve not been I highly recommend stopping by to check it out, you won’t be disappointed!

http://www.bridgehousetaven.com

Derby – A Lincoln Park Beer Garden

IMG_0425I recently had my first dining experience at Derby, which used to be Charlie’s Ale House (it has been Derby since late 2011).   They have a nice secluded patio with ivy covered walls which is set back from the street.  This makes it a good place to hang out and relax on a warm summer afternoon.  The cocktail menu includes some unique options; my drink of choice was the  Afternoon Delight,  a mix of fresh brewed sweet tea, Stoli Strawberry and lemonade – I could drink these all day!!  Just be forewarned, they are stronger than they taste!

Overall the food was good, though not out of this world.  I’d go back again, probably more for the beer garden and the drinks, however two appetizers noted below really stood out and I’d be interested in trying some of the other things on the menu.

I was with a couple of friends so we sampled several different things.  Best dishes we had were Fresh Baked Bavarian Pretzels and the Sweet Corn Tamale Cakes.  We actually like both of these so much that we had a second order of each!

The pretzels were nice and warm, soft on the inside and just a little bit of crunch on the outside – exactly the way a fresh pretzel is meant to be.  The beer cheddar sauce was my favorite of the dipping sauces.

The Sweet Corn Tamale Cakes were delectable; definitely one of my favorite dishes of the summer.  In theory this is a relatively simple dish, a cornbread cake topped with avocado, pico de gallo and a slightly spicy sauce, with salsa verde for a base.  All of these combine for a light and slightly spicy bite that literally melts in your mouth!

Two of my dining companions had the Seared Tuna Salad and said it was good, but nothing special.

The Buffalo Mac & Cheese was made with Gouda, so the mac & cheese part of the dish itself was pretty mild.  That was  nicely offset by spiciness of the buffalo chicken and sharpness of the blue cheese.  I prefer a more traditional mac & cheese so this dish was not particularly to my taste but had good flavors and the rest of the group enjoyed it.

The Hummus was ordinary, a lot like something that you’d get from the grocery store, with no real unique flavors.

While they promote themselves as having Southern food, I consider it more along the lines of  upscale “bar food”.  That said, the food at Derby is far better than average bar food, however if you are looking for Southern comfort food,  I’d suggest The Southern in Bucktown as a better option.

http://www.derbychicago.com

Prasino – One of Chicago’s Best Patios!

Prasino (pronounced Pra-see-no) means green in Greek.  This Wicker Park restaurant opened in August of 2012 and has become a neighborhood favorite, as well as an attraction for foodies from around the city.

They focus on using organic, locally sourced ingredients whenever possible.  The menu is very diverse and includes everything from sushi rolls to flatbreads, and is a combination of small and large plates.

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The patio is a huge draw; Division Street is known for its wide sidewalks and all the restaurants take advantage of that – Prasino is no exception.  The beautiful patio runs the length of the restaurant is on nice days there is typically a wait to be seated.  They have a combination of tables and some nice couches, which are a fantastic spot to sit and relax if you are just having drinks or appetizers.

I live in the neighborhood and have  had the pleasure of dining at Prasino at least two dozen times.  I’ve never had anything that disappointed me, so I’ll talk about a few of my favorites in this post.

The have a small selection of maki rolls, my favorite of which is the Polar Bear.  It combines super white tuna with crab and avocado.  It’s a nice combination of flavors in a unique roll.

According to our waiter, the Lobster Stuffed Avocado is one of their signature dishes.  It is very creamy but not too rich.  It goes very nicely with many of their white wine options.

They have five taco options, including the unique combination scallop and pork belly (I have actually not tried this one).  I love the fish tacos;  they have good flavor and come with a slightly spicy salsa.  I actually prefer them without the salsa so I can more of the flavors of the other ingredients.

IMG_0402The four different flatbread options that are all very good.  My favorite is The Farm which is topped with a blend of soft cheeses and truffle honey.  It is a little bit rich but a nice mix of flavors and goes well with any of their salad options, and is also nice with the French Chardonnay they serve by the glass.

Sunday brunch is another big draw at Prasino!  The menu is unique with several very decadent choices including the Lobster Omelette with Hollandaise.

The wine list is very extensive, both by the glass and the bottle, including some unusual selections that are hard to come by on restaurant menus.  My favorite is the ZD Chardonnay, which is a very traditional oakey, buttery California Chardonnay.  According to the staff they are the only restaurant in Chicago to serve this Chardonnay by the glass.

They also have a good selection of specialty cocktails, including some unique mimosas that vary seasonally; and a nice craft beer selection.  They make their own soda which is fizzy and flavorful.  I had them add vodka to the strawberry lemonade which made a great afternoon cocktail!

It is definitely worth a trip to the west side of the city to check out Prasino!

http://www.prasino.com

Gazpacho

1/2 C. red pepper, chopped

2/3 C. cucumber, chopped

1 garlic clove, minced

1/3 C. red onion, chopped

4 plum tomatoes, chopped

2 C. tomato juice

2 tbsp olive oil

1/2 tsp sea salt

1/4 tsp pepper

2 tsp worchestershire sauce

1 tsp white wine vinegar

1 tsp sherry

4 tbsp creme fraiche

1/2 avocado, diced

2 ounces lump crab meat

Place red pepper through olive oil in a blender, puree at low speed until just slightly chunky.  Add salt through sherry, blend again on low for one minute.  Place in a large bowl and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

To serve, top with 1 tbsp creme fraiche,  diced avocado and crab meat.

I’d pair this with a either with a light Pinot Noir or a crisp Chardonnay (I’d skip my favorite oakey, buttery version for this soup).