Monthly Archives: January 2012

Baked BBQ Tofu

Baked BBQ Tofu Burger

When I lived in Austin, Texas, I loved going to Mother’s Restaurant in Hyde Park for their “BBQ On a Bun” sandwich. The sandwich was basically BBQ tofu with lettuce, tomato, red onion and thick sandwich pickles. The tofu was spectacular, seemingly baked in a nutty coating, similar to a peanut satay sauce, then slathered in delicious BBQ sauce. The pickle was essential.

Mother’s is still there, and the BBQ on a Bun is still on the menu, but the sandwich just isn’t the same. At least, such was the case in 2009 when I last went to Mother’s while in Austin for a friend’s wedding. The whole peanut slather aspect of the tofu was gone. The bun was unremarkable. The pickle was minute.

This was a major disappointment. Who knows, maybe I was there on an off day. Or maybe they had to lose the peanut stuff due to allergy concerns. The point is: I’ve been on the search for the BBQ Tofu Sandwich of my dreams ever since, and it all comes down to mastering beautiful BBQ tofu.

Smokey BBQ Sauce

The best BBQ tofu I’ve found so far is the Baked BBQ Tofu from Veganomicon. The recipe doesn’t have the peanut slather, but it’s so easy that I’ll forgive it that indiscretion. And with a beautiful BBQ sauce, it doesn’t really need it. I used the Backyard BBQ Sauce recipe in Veganomicon, but it could easily be made with your favourite BBQ sauce to save on time (Stubb’s, perhaps?).

I like to eat the tofu on its own, with sauteed greens and baked potato. But I LOVE to eat the tofu on a delicious bun, such as Ottolenghi’s crusty bread rolls or my Ultimate Burger Buns. It’s great with just lettuce, avocado and giardiniera.

This BBQ tofu sandwich is not quite as good as I remember the BBQ on a Bun of yore, but it’s still mighty fine and a recipe I’ve made again and again. Perhaps next time I will experiment with my own peanut-coating for the tofu.

BBQ Tofu Sandwich Stack

Baked BBQ Tofu

You can use a homemade or ready-made BBQ sauce for this. I like the Backyard BBQ Sauce recipe from Veganomicon, as well as Hank Shaw’s Smoky BBQ Sauce.

Ingredients

  • 1 pound tofu, cut widthwise into eighths
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 cup of your favourite BBQ sauce (more or less to taste)

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. In a (prefer¬ably glass or ceramic) baking pan, dredge the tofu in the peanut oil and tamari to coat on both sides. Bake for 15 minutes, then flip the slices and bake for 15 more minutes. Meanwhile, prepare whichever sauce you’re using.
  2. When the tofu is done baking, pour the BBQ sauce over it, smothering it all over. Return to the oven and bake for 15 more minutes. Remove from the oven and serve (with extra BBQ sauce on the side if you’d like!).

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 45 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Per serving: 235 Calories | 11.7 grams Fat | 24.9 grams Carbohydrates | 9.5 grams Protein | 1.4 grams Fiber

Vegetarian Haggis for Burns Night

Vegetarian Haggis

Today marks the occasion of Burns Night, a celebration of the life and work of Scottish poet Robert Burns. These celebrations usually take the form of a “Burns Night Supper” where the traditional Scottish dish of haggis is typically served, along with equally traditional neeps (mashed swede) and tatties (mashed potato).

I didn’t know any of this until I wrote about vegetarian haggis for the Great British Chefs. Traditional haggis is made of offal and cooked in a sheep’s stomach. Burns Night just isn’t Burns Night with out a haggis, so what’s a vegetarian to do?

A little research turned up a company called “MacSween” which makes a vegetarian version haggis. I’m not usually one for pre-packaged foods, but for the sake of dear Mr Burns, I decided to give it a try. In place of meat, the veggie haggis contains mushrooms, legumes, beans, carrots, lots of nuts plus oats and vegetable margarine to hold it all together. The taste experience: a bit like mushroom barley soup in congealed log form.

MacSween's Vegetarian Haggis

I confess, the whole concept of haggis was a mystery to start with. As a vegetarian, I had no idea what to expect, or how to serve it. The flavour of MacSween’s Vegetable Haggis is nice and peppery, but it’s essentially a vegetable mush pile and it all becomes a bit same-y after a few bites. And as a mush pile, it doesn’t seem like it would suit neeps and tatties. Mush pile next to a mush pile? No thanks.

MacSween's Vegetarian Haggis

Still, the concept sounded good. I like beans. I like nuts. I like veggies. Could the vegetarian haggis work?

Here I turned to the advice of trusted friend and foodie Carl Legge, who was gracious enough to share his tried and tested vegetarian haggis recipe. The recipe called to me immediately, as it used lots of things I had in the kitchen larder that I was trying to use up: adzuki beans, chana dal, barley, hazelnuts. Add mushrooms, pinhead oats, lots of pepper and nutmeg, and, well, I just had to make it to find out what I was in for.

The result: a definite win! Two key things did it for me: (1) the texture was just fantastic; I loved the adzuki beans and the pinhead oats were essential, (2) the strong flavours, particularly the nutmeg and white pepper, were wonderful and worked really well with the other ingredients.

But as Carl notes in his last paragraph, enjoying this dish depends largely on what you serve it with. I had mine with a side of savoy cabbage, but I think I will enjoy it far more as a stuffing for red romano peppers (which I’ve since tried and loved), mushrooms or cabbage rolls (which I will make tonight for my own mini Burns Night celebration). In that sense, I’m thrilled to have lots of leftovers because vegetarian haggis is a dish from which you can make many other dishes!

Vegetarian Haggis

A couple points: the flavour of the mushrooms didn’t really come through for me. I might like a bit more “mushroominess”. I also think more nuts wouldn’t go amiss. That one is easily solved by stuffing the haggis in a red pepper, baking it and then topping it with toasted pine nuts.

I should also add that Carl’s recipe instructions are excellent and indicative of his thorough research and testing. My veggie haggis creation produced almost exactly the same amount of haggis as Carl stipulated (about 2.7kg). Although this is an involved recipe, Carl’s instructions are easy to follow and succinct, but detailed enough to resolve any questions along the way. It was easy to bring everything together following his step-by-steps. So if you’re thinking about giving vegetarian haggis a go, definitely skip the MacSween’s and head straight for Carl’s blog.

Recipe: Vegetarian Haggis

Vegetarian Haggis

Ranch Dressing


Match Made in Heaven

While I was in the US, I rediscovered Ranch dressing. Or should I said, discovered Ranch dressing, because I was never really a big fan of the stuff even when I lived in America.

Ranch dressing has a bad reputation.

First, Ranch is generally regarded as being terrible for you. Not only is it full of high fat mayonnaise and sour cream, but it’s often served with other fatty (but delicious!) foods like breaded fried zucchini and french fries. Ranch is a staple of the salad bar, usually with its friend “low fat Ranch”, America’s attempt to satisfy the nation’s craving with a less sinful but entirely substandard imitation.

Second, Ranch dressing is almost always of the bottled “Hidden Valley Ranch” variety. Highly processed, and just sort of generic-tasting, this type of Ranch doesn’t taste horrible, but it doesn’t taste remarkable either.

And yet, the concept of Ranch is entirely promising. Made with mayonnaise, buttermilk, sour cream, yogurt, garlic, onion and herbs, it sounds like it could be good. After all, creamy dressings, for salad or for dipping, have their place in society. And while I’m saving Ranch, I’d like to also put in a few goods for mayonnaise which also gets a bad wrap. What is mayonnaise but a lot of oil and a little bit of egg? We put oil on our salads every day! How is mayonnaise so different?

But back to Ranch. Seeing its promise, my sister Stephanie set out in January 2010 to create a Ranch dressing that is truly remarkable. She succeeded in spades, discovering that pickle juice is the magic ingredient that gives Ranch a fresh lift. The rest comes down to herbs and spices, of which parsley, chives, onion and garlic are key. The result is pungent, dynamic, creamy and, as I discovered on this last trip, good with almost anything you throw at it.

Breaded Green Beans and Homemade Ranch

The Great Ranch Fest of 2011/2012 began at my friend Abby’s and Matt’s on New Year’s Eve. We were mulling over recipes and salads and I mentioned the Ranch dressing. Abby suggested we make it to serve with her breaded green beans. The first bite blew our minds. The Ranch was PERFECT with the breaded green beans. Then, we tried some Ranch on our pizza. Again, ka-pow.

We finished the whole batch of Ranch that night, and the next day, made another batch to go with fish tacos. Again, the Ranch was gone by the end of the meal. (This probably goes a fair way to explaining why my clothes don’t fit quite like they did before the trip!)

I made Ranch again later on my trip with Stephanie, where we staged a repeat of Abby’s breaded green beans (they are about as awesome as the Ranch itself). It was here Stephanie taught me a thing or two about why her recipe works.

The secret(s) to good Ranch

First, there’s the pickle juice, which should be from dill pickles – Claussen Kosher Dills are best (I just discovered to my delight that Claussen owns pickles.com, and to my disappointment, Kraft owns Claussen – alas). It’s important that the pickle juice be not very sweet (I’m pretty sure Claussen’s has no sugar in its pickling juice). As I discovered at Abby’s, for lack of dill pickle juice you can use normal pickle juice with a good pinch of dried dill.

Then there’s the mayonnoaise. I made my first batch at Abby’s with Hellman’s, and the second batch with some hippy organic mayonnaise. Guess what: the Hellman’s won. Annoying, but true. I would like to try making Ranch with homemade mayonnaise, or the stuff that Riverford sells which is truly awesome. Verdict TBD (please let my mayo win!).

Ranch Dressing

This recipe was created by my sister Stephanie and appears in the family cookbook, “Seasoned with Love” (Mom’s title). If you can’t get dill pickles, use any kind of non-sweetened pickle juice, plus a pinch of dried dill. And for UK folk, “sour cream” in the States is a bit different from the “soured cream” you get in the UK – it’s thicker, and possibly more sour. I’ve never tried “soured cream” but suspect it would be OK, just a little runnier – if anyone tries this let me know!

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/4 cup sour cream
  • 2 Tbsp dill pickle juice (Claussens is best!)
  • 1 Tbsp buttermilk
  • 1/4 tsp dried parsley
  • 1/4 tsp dried minced onion
  • 1/4 tsp dried minced garlic
  • 1 tsp dried chopped chives
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1 pinch of pepper

Method

Combine mayonnaise, sour cream, pickle juice, and buttermilk and mix with a fork until smooth. Add the herbs, salt and pepper and stir until mixed. Chill at least 2 hours before serving (well, you don’t have to do this if you just can’t wait, but it does help the flavours blend).

Prep Time: 0 minutes

Cook time: 5 minutes

Yield: 5 servings (approx. 2 Tbsp per serving)

Per 2 Tbsp: 73 Calories | 6.4 grams Fat | 3.6 grams Carbohydrates | 0.6 grams Protein | 0 grams Fiber

Stories from America

Lunch at Munch

It’s been a week since I got back from my trip to America, and it’s been a most surreal return. I’ve gone from four weeks of constant people-time in a thriving metropolis (Chicago mostly) to complete solitude in my quiet country cottage. It feels weird. Quiet. And so just as I have to re-adjust my eating habits to non-holiday mode, I also have to re-adjust my brain to “normal” life, which is comparatively quiet, busy and, work-wise, productive.

But let’s not be too hasty: I’ve also tried to give myself lots of time to this week to process the trip and jot down all those notable moments, meals and outings that I want to remember. Most of the time was spent with family, and I’m very grateful to have a family so INTO hanging out with each other doing things. I’ve also been uploading lots of photos (all 580 of them). So before I start getting all future-looking, here’s a few stories from the recent past.

Pre-Christmas

I left for Chicago on Dec 15 and when I arrived, was fully immersed in the holiday swing. I’m cynical about a lot of things but I refuse to be cynical about Christmas: I love it. I love the music, the lights, the trees and the many reasons to celebrate. Calories be damned.

There was the cookie baking extravaganza with my Aunt Sue and my cousin-in-law Hollis, wherein we baked eight types of cookies and sweets to be served at the family Christmas dinner. The cookie fest is a Sue tradition, and this was the first time I participated since I was a little kid. We made pecan tassies, crispy chocolate jumbles, cranberry pistachio biscotti, chocolate covered pretzels, peanut butter cookies, spritz, chocolate almond toffee and sirapskakor. It took all day but somehow we got it all done (this may have something to do with Sue’s nickname, the “cookie nazi”).

Christmas cookies

Then there was the Big Sur Productions Christmas Party – BSP is the (very very) small business my sister and I run, and one of the most fun things you can do if you run a business is have an “office” Christmas party, even if there are only just two of you.

We held the event in my sister’s neck of the woods in LaSalle County, about an hour and a half from Chicago. The party was more of a drunken sleepover than a party but all the better. We started in Ottowa with a tour of the Reddick Mansion (a bit of culture before the debauchery) followed by bowling at “Dettore’s Town Lanes”, where we both proved miserable bowlers but rockstars at the juke box (think “Eye of the Tiger”). We also had what seemed to be the best Blue Moon beers in the world, served ice cold from a fresh keg into chilled mugs. Bliss.

The best beers ever

We returned to Stephanie’s crib for a couple negronis (a tribute to our memorable Italy trip) before finishing off the evening at Tracy’s Row House with food and martinis.

Dirty Martini

Crab Cake

Given our evening, it’s probably no surprise what we did the next morning: ate a big breakfast of French toast (made with Stephanie’s amazing homemade challah bread), blueberry compote, tempeh “bacon” and a Champagne-bottle’s worth of mimosas.

Beautiful breakfast

After observing that neither of us were really ever “drunk” the night before (and observing that the older we get, the harder and less appealing it is to ever get to that point) we dragged ourselves out of our mostly-imagined hangovers and took Halo (the latest addition to Stephanie’s household, a Pittbull cross with a heart of gold) for a walk on the I&M Canal Trail. There we came across the most bizarre thing: various discarded squashes, including butternut and spaghetti, strewn in the woodsy brush along the trail. Who discarded these perfectly good squash? Why were they there? Mystified:

Bizarre collection of abandoned winter squash found along the I&M canal trail with @meppies. There's gotta be a story here.

Naturally, we collected as much as we could and started planning what we’d do with them.

The rest of the day was spent cooking, as we do. We had our most successful attempt at chestnut pasta to date, using Pian di Marte’s recipe and Shipton Mill chestnut flour that I brought from the UK. In Pian di Marte style, we did an olive oil and rosemary sauce, with pine nuts, parmesan and cavalo nero on the side. Oh, and a rocket and parmesan salad, too.

Chestnut Pasta, Cooked

Christmas

Christmas in my family happens in two parts: Christmas Eve with my immediate family and Christmas day with the extended family.

Christmas Eve is kind of a big deal: since three of us are vegetarians, it’s our opportunity to have an all-veggie Christmas meal, and this year we all pitched in. Stephanie made some amazing dinner rolls and roasted veggies. Mom made cranberries and roast brussels sprouts with orange. Dad made mashed potatoes. I made “Dazzling Winter Slaw” and my first ever nut roast (using this super-seedy recipe for Demuths Christmas Roast) along with port and shallot gravy (another Demuths recipe).

Red Cabbage Salad

Christmas Eve Nut Roast

Everything was delicious, especially the port and cheese – more of my imports from the UK – shared while we opened gifts. The gifts, by the way, were out of control. We’re not a materialistic family by any means, and no one really makes Christmas lists. But this year, the gifts were more thoughtful, touching and personal than ever before. For example, Stephanie gave me this fantastic self-published cookbook of recipes that we cooked together when she was last in the UK.

New Favourite Cookbook

Christmas Day found us in the kitchen again for another epic day of cooking. It started with dad’s Egg in a Frame, one of the most awesome breakfasts in the world:

The Flip

We held our now-traditional Thrift Store Grab bag before moving on to the kitchen for our separate duties. As the honourable vegetarians of the family, we are always in charge of bringing the veggie main dish. Inspired by our found squash (see above), we did stuffed butternut squash with a tempeh and sourdough bread stuffing (I should mention that I brought sourdough starter from the UK with me so I could bake bread while at home – it’s such a treat to have people to bake for).


Stuffed Squash with Tempeh Sourdough Stuffing
The dish was an experiment that would benefit from further trials. Stuffing was adapted from this recipe for sourdough stuffing (subbing sausage for tempeh!). The result was good, but could definitely be improved upon. I want to toy with the stuffing, adding more tempeh, seasoning and maybe upping the fresh herb factor.

In addition, mom made her signature pies (pumpkin and pecan) while Stephanie made challah bread. We also did a Cranberry Coleslaw, inspired by the most unlikely sources – the Weber Grill – and adapted using this recipe from Paula Deen (who has a rediculous photo, by the way). The slaw was a big hit at the Christmas party, as was the challah, which unfortunately was partially uncooked in the middle (mom’s oven sucks) so only the lucky people who got in on the end pieces had a taste. No one seemed to noticed the slightly janky mis-braided bit:

Challah sliced

Christmas Coleslaw

Christmas wasn’t all food, of course. Most of it was spent catching up with family, and I feel super lucky to have such a terrific family to spend the holidays with.

Mom and Dad on Christmas Morning

Sandy and Monica

Stephanie and Dad

Me and Grandpa

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple

One of Stephanie’s Christmas gifts to the family was an outing to Unity Temple, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s building in Oak Park. We all agreed that a.) an outing as such is a really awesome Christmas present and 2.) getting out to DO something, rather than just eat, is high quality time. And we were all really taken by the Unity Temple, a Unitarian Universalist church that is fascinating in both its architecture and its history. It was a fantastic space to simply BE in.

Visit to Frank Lloyd Wright Unity Temple in Oak Park.  Thank you @meppies.

Frank Lloyd Wright Unity Temple

New Year’s Eve

I managed to do a two-night side trip in Milwaukee over New Year’s to visit my dear friend’s Matt and Abby. I know Matt from Austin, Texas, so I guess you could say “we go way back”. And with Abby I felt an instant kindredness as soon as we met. Their idea of a perfect new year’s is a quiet night at home spent cooking, eating, drinking and talking. So you see why we get along so well.

Candid

Matt and Abby’s is where the Ranch dressing fest began. My sister has an ace Ranch recipe that’s become immortalised in the family cookbook my mom published last year. I made the Ranch to go with Abby’s famous breaded-and-baked green beans. The two were a match made in heaven.

Abby's Breaded Green Beans

Match Made in Heaven

In fact, everything with Ranch seemed to be a total win that evening. That also goes for the pizza, the main event, of which made four types:

  1. Abby’s crust, Monica’s tomato sauce, pineapple, giardiniera, green pepper, onion, mozzarella (loved it but thought it could use more pineapple)
  2. Monica’s sourdough crust, romesco sauce, mushroom, green olive, green pepper, onion, olive, goats cheese (the least memorable pizza)
  3. Monica’s sourdough crust, caramelised onion as the “sauce”, roasted beetroot, rosemary, goat cheese (the big winner and hero of the pizza orgy)
  4. Monica’s sourdough crust, romesco sauce, pineapple, giardiniera, mozzarella, goats cheese, green pepper (we liked this and were surprised how well the pineapple / giard combo worked with the romesco sauce)

New years eve pizza in action.

Abby also made a killer romaine salad with satsumas, celery, chives and toasted almonds with an improvised dressing of olive oil, cider vinegar, mustard and honey.

Romaine Salad with Almonds and Mandarins

New Year’s Day was spent in more revelry. Pool, American beer and old fashioneds at The Iron Horse Hotel (I love Milwaukee for places like this).

Old Fashioned
Then more cooking – fish tacos, which we convinced ourselves would go well with Ranch dressing (that dressing is addictive). Kind of like a twist on the usual white sauce that goes in fish tacos. That night, we made a lot of food.

Fish taco feast

Abby also reminded me that in my New Year’s Eve jubilee, I spontaneously started a no knead loaf (“how’s the bread coming” she kept asking…because I kept forgetting I had started it), which I finished on New Year’s Day and we enjoyed for breakfast.

Breakfast at Matt & Abby's

It was sad to go but I had to move on – there was much to do back in Chicago, and I had only a week left of my trip.

Mom and Brody Photoshoot

Stephanie’s and my “big” Christmas present to mom was a photoshoot with her horse, Brody, a gift that to some would be hell but for my mother was perfect – she loves that horse and my mom loves to be the centre of attention (and I mean this in the best possible way).

Mom's cashing in on her Xmas gift from me & @meppies: a photo shoot with her and her horse Brody.

Props to Stephanie for sorting out Jeremy Reed, a local photographer, and basically orchestrating the whole event. I just came along for the show. Still, none of us knew what to expect. Certainly not Jeremy’s uber-relaxed approach, nor his generosity with his time, nor his willingness to traipse around mud and poop in the horse pasture.

The result was above and beyond what we all expected. Hundreds of beautiful photographs that captured mom and Brody in an honest, but artistic, and sometimes even amusing light.

Mombrody

Jeremy asked Stephanie how she found him. “I Googled ‘Ottowa photographer’,” she said – what else? Jeremy explained how hard it is to complete as a photographer these days, especially when so much has been “done” already (especially in the wedding arena, where Jeremy does most of his work). But this is why we liked Jeremy in the first place: even though he’s a photographer-for-hire, he has a style all of his own. I especially love his use of the fish-eye lens, and the way he brings out specific colours and textures in “post”.

Mexican Food

One of my missions when I go home for the holidays is to eat Mexican food. Yes, you can get good Mexican food in England, London mostly, where Mexican food is becoming increasingly trendy. But as a result, most restaurants are upmarket, a little too modern and with the distinct air of trying to hard. Sure, you might get some delicious food, but it lacks of the honesty and simplicity of a good ol’ taqueria. Chicago is thankfully rich in Mexican restaurants, some awful, some astounding. I was lucky to try two that fell into the latter coffee, and yet couldn’t be more different.

Frontera Grill

Some of you might know Rick Bayless – he’s a celebrity chef who specialises in “traditional Mexican cuisine with modern interpretations” (Wikipedia). He has a few restaurants in Chicago, most notably, Topolobambo – a fine-dining restaurant – and Frontera Grill, the more casual edition of Topolobambo.

Lunch at Frontera Grill

Ok, so that “modern interpretation” stuff makes Frontera Grill the kind of Mexican restaurant that all of those London Mexican restaurants are trying to be. But here I’m not complaining, Frontera Grill is fantastic. And I had to try it. If not for me, then for dad, who’s got a “thing” for celebrity chefs and has been hinting at a desire to eat at Rick Bayless’ restaurants for years. So for Father’s Day, I gave him a meal at Frontera Grill, which he cashed in over my visit – father and daughter in the city.

Frontera Grill has only a few reservable tables which were all booked when I called a day before our outing (I later learned you have to book six weeks in advance). I was warned that the wait could be up to two hours, so dad and I got there early and took our station at the bar. The 1-1/2 hour wait turned out to be a good chance to just chill and enjoy the whole experience over a couple of drinks (yay us for taking the train). I asked the waitress for their “least sweet” cocktail, which was still too sweet for me. So I had a taste of my dad’s beer and as was totally wooed. “Alma”, locally brewed by Goose Island specifically for the restaurant and apparently in short production, is one of the tastiest beers I’ve had in a while, and tastes especially good when consumed at 11:30am on a weekday (mental and physical satisfaction).

Dad and his Alma

Of course, the food was the main event, and when we finally got our table we were definitely ready to eat. Dad and I shared ceviche (dad’s first ceviche) which was awesome, but could have used more corn chips. Though having said that, extra cornchips would have meant less room for the rest of the dishes which were dfeinitely worth saving room for.

Ceviche Fronterizo

The salad freak in me couldn’t resist the Ensalada Frontera, with Little Gem lettuce, spicy pumpkinseed-lime dressing, “quick-pickled” tomatillos and wood-grilled knob onions. Pretty good, but didn’t have quite the wow factor as my main dish: Pescado en Pipian de Almendra: Garlic-marinated day-boat catch, almond pipian (tomatillo, fennel, poblano), “crispy-herby” Three Sisters corn polenta cakes and slow-cooked fennel. After a few beers, this seriously hit the spot and the fish was perrrfect. I wish I could remember what it was. Something that sounded like “Oahu”. Any ideas?

Ensalada Frontera

Pescado en Pipian de Almendra

Dad’s main dish was the big surprise: Enchiladas Suizas de Verduras Asadas. These were like no other enchilada I’ve ever had before. They were filled with what seemed to be caramelised onion and red cabbage and topped with a creamy tomatillo sauce and Samuel’s cheese (whoever that is). I want to try to recreate this at home (in fact, mom suggested we try but we both abandoned when we realised that ours would never live up to Frontera’s).

Enchiladas Suizas de Verduras Asadas

Several hours later, we walked out of Frontera feeling pretty good, like we ate well but didn’t feel gross or horrible. The portions were right and the ingredients were quality. Top and tail that with a walk in the city and a nice train ride, and my afternoon with dad was pretty superb. I hope to make Frontera grill a tradition. But note to self: it IS possible to wait FAR less time for a table and just eat at the bar. Though it’s hard to be in a hurry at that place.

Esther’s Sueno

Later in the trip came a Mexican restaurant that couldn’t have been more different from Frontera Grill. Esther’s Sueno (translated “Esther’s Dream”) is a hole-in-the-wall Mexican take-away in Ottowa. Totally unexpected, including the take-away aspect – we had planned to eat in. So Esther improvised, pushing her two tables together, served the rice in a plastic tupperware and gave us take-out containers for dishes. Ok.

Esther's Veggie Tacos

Everything was cooked and served by Esther. She was super nice, maybe because she had just returned from vacation in Mexico to visit her sister, but probably because that’s just the way she is: an honest lady who’s just doing her thing the best way she knows how. Her beans and rice were To Die For. Her guacamole was made fresh for us – avo, white onion, tomato and salt (no lime or cilantro I could detect). Very good.

Esther's Guacamole

We ordered way too much food. Enchiladas stuffed with potato, onion and cheese. Avocado tacos with rice, beans and salad. A side of rice and beans. Corn chips. Dad had something meaty.

Esther's Enchiladas

I told Esther that I live in the UK and try to get my Mexican fix every time I come home – hers is my new must-go destination. It was perfect, and satisfied my need for simple, no-nonsense, completely unpretentious Mexican food, cooked by someone who cares and who I felt good about giving my money to. Though next time I go, I’ll probably opt for the take-out option.

Esther’s Sueno – the Mexican take-out of Esther’s dream, and mine.

Memorable Food

Mention must be made of several other foodie adventures had on the trip. First, there was lunch at Munch, a vegetarian / vegan cafe in Oak Park that we went to prior to Unity Temple. We’d never been before, but are already making plans to return for their brunch: the food was delicious and the atmosphere super-chill. I’ve already tried to recreate their “Kale Munch a Bunch of Protein Salad” at home. More restaurants should put raw kale on the menu:

Kale Munch a Bunch of Protein Salad

We also loved the “Amazing” Black Bean Burger with Seitan Bacon, which WAS pretty “amazing”, and so so good with goats cheese.

"Amazing" Black Bean Burger with Seitan Bacon and Goats Cheese

The Chopped Quinoa Salad came with cucumber, tomato, corn, chickpeas, scallions, parsley, mint and avocado with a lime-chipotle dressing. This salad was good but could have used more dressing.

Chopped Quinoa Salad
This Vegan Lasagne was amazing and we were all impressed by the tofu ricotta. Also delicious was their cole slaw!

Vegan Lasagna
And then there was the Vegan Brownie Sundae, ordered mainly out of curiosity. It was alright, but the brownie seemed a bit dry and the ice cream not very creamy.

Vegan Brownie Sundae

Perhaps my response to the brownie has something to do with the phenomenal Triple Chocolate Cake my sister had made a few days prior, to which no other chocolate cake in my world compares (serious).

Triple Chocolate Cake

Speaking of chocolate, Stephanie and I made some fabulous peppermint brownies as Christmas presents for Grandpa.

Peppermint Brownies

And speaking of cakes, I also made the famous Ottolenghi orange polenta cake by request – Mom’s been asking for it. It turned out pretty well, though the caramel could have been darker, and I think dad was a little disappointed when he bit into it and realised it wasn’t pineapple upside down cake.

Orange Polenta Cake

My other rendition of an Ottolenghi cake – cauliflower cake, adapted to include broccoli, was much better received.

Cauliflower & Broccoli Cake

And speaking of baking, I baked a lot of bread, mostly sourdough, with the occasional six-seed no knead bread thrown into the mix:

IMG_3967

But the most memorable cooking adventures were those I had together with my family. Early in the trip, we made this delicious Mayan Harvest Bake with sweet potato, plantains and black beans. The photo is atrocious, the flavour, the bomb.

Mayan Harvest Bake

There was also lentil dal, nachos, scrambled eggs, whey biscuits, tofu scramble and TLTs (I was on a total tempeh trip this visit):

TLT Sandwich

Tempeh!

When we didn’t eat in, we out, with careful planning – Chicagoland is full of fantastic restaurants and it’s always so hard to choose. Yokohama, however, was an easy choice – it’s a Japanese restaurant in the most unlikely of places: Westmont. And Japanese is just the kind of food you feel like eating after holiday excess. It was also a chance to have lunch with just me and my mom.

Veg rolls

Avocado Cucumber Sushi

House Salad with Ginger Dressing

One place that surprised us was Redstone Grill – a seemingly stock standard “American grill” type place on one of those busy horrible roads in the burbs. We went for brunch on my last full day in town, chosen for its decent-sounding menu and the likelihood that it would be less rammed than other cutesy breakfast places on a Sunday morning. We were right – it was very quiet, relaxed and totally perfect.

The service was good, food was tasty, the mimosas were free, and the bloody marys were exceptional.

Best Bloody Mary
My last meal in town before coming back to the UK was with ironically at an Irish pub called Ballydoyle near my parents house. There I got my last fix of American beer and engaged in a hearty potato fest with the whole family. It was good, mostly for the family part, who I realise now I failed to get very many pictures of with all of us together. But I do like this one of us at Unity Temple:

Shaws

As far as stories go, I think that’s all I have in me for now, but I’m sure more will trickle out in dribs and drabs as they come to me. As always, it was bittersweet saying goodbye, but when I saw what I was wearing on my last day, I knew it was time to go (lest I completely morph into a female – or male! – version of my dad).

Like father like daughter...

(Don’t worry, dad, I am proud to tote the sweats – and this will forever remain one of my favourite pictures from the trip.)

View all photos from America on Flickr.