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.
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”).
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.
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.
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:
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.
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).
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.
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:
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).
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Abby’s crust, Monica’s tomato sauce, pineapple, giardiniera, green pepper, onion, mozzarella (loved it but thought it could use more pineapple)
- Monica’s sourdough crust, romesco sauce, mushroom, green olive, green pepper, onion, olive, goats cheese (the least memorable pizza)
- Monica’s sourdough crust, caramelised onion as the “sauce”, roasted beetroot, rosemary, goat cheese (the big winner and hero of the pizza orgy)
- 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)
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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?
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
We also loved the “Amazing” Black Bean Burger with Seitan Bacon, which WAS pretty “amazing”, and so so good with 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.
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).
Speaking of chocolate, Stephanie and I made some fabulous peppermint brownies as Christmas presents for Grandpa.
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.
My other rendition of an Ottolenghi cake – cauliflower cake, adapted to include broccoli, was much better received.
And speaking of baking, I baked a lot of bread, mostly sourdough, with the occasional six-seed no knead bread thrown into the mix:
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.
There was also lentil dal, nachos, scrambled eggs, whey biscuits, tofu scramble and TLTs (I was on a total tempeh trip this visit):
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.
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.
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).
(Don’t worry, dad, I am proud to tote the sweats – and this will forever remain one of my favourite pictures from the trip.)