I was in Chicago from December 13th – January 13th (lucky 13!) visiting family and doing the whole Christmas thing. There wasn’t much chill time (even though the temperature was -20 F at times!). Instead, we did as we usually do – as much as possible, to make up for a whole year of absence. Here were the highlights, in rough chronological order.
Meeting my niece
This has to go at the top of the list. My sister Stephanie’s baby Jordan was born on October 22, 2013 and this was the first chance I had to meet her. She is not an ugly baby! In fact, she’s charming… when she’s not suffering internally. The poor little girl (Stephanie and her partner nicked named her “PJ” for “Poor Jordan”) has colic so is not her best self at the moment. But she is a trooper. One of my Jordan highlights was on “Christmas” (see below) – Jordan was crying so I took her to give my sister to sleep. I actually managed to get her to stop crying for a few minutes. Who knows, my maternal instinct may emerge yet!
The other bonus of meeting my niece: getting to spend time with my sister and her gorgeous dog, Halo. I am really REALLY looking forward to Jordan being old enough to accompany my sister and I on our famous road trips and camping expeditions.
My parents have this amazing old 1963 Schwinn given to them from my grandpa. I’m in love with this bike, and one of the big achievements of my trip was in having it cleaned up, greased, tires changed and ready for action. Thus, this was much ride during my trip – I wish I could have taken it home with me.
Meeting some of my Mom’s crew
My mom is always talking about her awesome friends and this time I got to meet a few of them over a potluck lunch. I brought kale sale (a riff on the family recipe for Mandarin Orange Salad), Turkish style flatbread and no knead bread. Mom made her awesome Middle Eastern red lentil “Shorbat Adas” soup Her friend Kathy made a stellar Iraqi rice Sweet and Sour Salmon in Almond Prune Sauce from Delights of the Garden of Eden by Nawal Nasrallah (the sauce alone was outstanding). I attempted to make Iraqi rice that didn’t exactly have the crispy rice crust (hikaka) I was hoping for but it was good.
Dessert was pretty special: Kathy made Ginger Ginger Cake using fresh ginger and stem ginger. It was pretty much perfect, and even extra amazing with labna and jasmine tea.
Father Daughter Day
Dad and I planned a couple days out together, partially give my mom some well-deserved time for herself, but also, it’s great having some one-on-one time with dad! We deliberated over what to do – museums, movies, bowling… but in the end it was my mom who had the best idea ever: a day out at and around the University of Chicago campus, where my dad got his PhD and a source of many of his stories. This was one of the best days ever!
We started with lunch at one of our favourite Chicago spots, Victory Banner in Roscoe Village. Then we cruised down to Hyde Park, had a romp around the U of C campus (via the book store so I could pick up a souvenir sweatshirt). Then we went on an excellent tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House on the U of C campus, then finished with coffee at cake at Medici, where my mom says she and my dad “fell in love”.
More photos on Flickr: Father Daughter Day
I have developed a soft spot for solstice and equinox occasions over the last year (see this post) and I was very grateful that my family was willing to do something special for the occasion. I started the day with tea, a smoothie and some mood padding. This was also the day of my Aunt’s cookie mission (see above), and I can’t think of a better way to spend winter solstice afternoon than in the spirit of creation and collaboration with my family, especially those extended family members I rarely get to see.
In the evening, mom made a wonderful wintery meal of veggie chilli (Emeril’s Vegetarian Chilli recipe, and it’s a total keeper – bam!). I made cornbread and glogg. We reflected and talked, then took a post-dinner walk to welcome in the darkness (and practise our carolling). Back home, it was dutch apple pie for dessert (Kate Hill’s Easy French All-Butter Pastry for the win), then an early-ish night in order to wake up for a sunrise walk in the morning: a stroll in the woods, snow falling all around me, and thoughts about what this season means to me.
My winter solstice mission: to make this winter a time of nourishment, mentally and physically.
Christmas Cookie Baking
Every year my Aunt Sue has a day in which she bakes all of her Christmas cookies, and she always invites some helpers along. I’ve been very grateful to have been on the invite list the last couple years, and as I said above, I treasure these days because it’s a great opportunity to hang out with my extended family in a more intimate way than at big family parties. Plus, there’s baking involved! And this year saw a new cookie revelation: rosemary shortbread! I basically followed Chocolate & Zucchini’s Shortbread recipe, and added some chopped from rosemary from my Aunt’s kitchen garden. These were delicious on their own, but even extra special with cheese (particularly Stilton, thank you UK!).
I also got a new Ove Glove – thanks Aunt Sue!
Flickr photoset: Chicago 2013 / 2014
This is what it’s all about, right? Well, unfortunately my mom and Jordan were both sick, so we decided to postpone Christmas with the immediate family until everyone was better. On the plus side, Dad and I were feeling well and made it to the big family party – and the family keeps getting bigger. I’m hoping to see more Christmas Sweaters next year.
Flickr photoset: Christmas 2013
My dad is from Ohio and has two brothers who live there with their families. I don’t get to see “The Ohioans” very often, so it was pretty cool that they were ALL able to come down for a few days between Christmas and New Year’s. We crammed a LOT into those two days. I had an especially good time on the day we tried to go to Brookfield Zoo, only to get on a non-stop train to Chicago. We ended up having a terrific day in the city and the weather was beautiful.
We also had some great outings to Morton Arboretum and my sister’s place, plus some good meals too. There was the Mexican feast: tortilla soup, pan-fried cod with chilli seasons and an amazing apple cobbler, which was extra good because we all pitched in to make it (Aunt Rosella had the genius idea of adding oats).
The best might have been our final breakfast at the extremely friendly, reasonably priced and quite good “family restaurant”, The Baked Apple We were all in high spirits following an incredible trip, plus we scored a free baked apple pancake from the charming Angelo.
Consequentially, I also invented the “Monica Frittata” – basically their veggie frittata without the potato, plus jalapeno. I am only writing this so that I remember to order it again next time I go. Delicious! (Though Uncle Ed would argue, not as delicious as their grits and blueberry waffle.)
Flickr photoset: The Shaws Come to Town
New Year’s Eve with Matt & Abby
Matt and Abby are two of my dearest friends and I’ve been very grateful to spend my last couple of New Year’s Eves with them (it’s becoming a tradition!). One of the reasons why we get along so well is that we enjoy the virtues of staying in, which is especially handy when New Year’s Eve coincides with a snow storm and some very cold weather.
We did another one of your New Year’s Eve smorgasbords, this time incorporating a few new recipes and a few new people. We ate cheese, played The Bowl Game, drank craft beer and stayed up talking until about 3am. Pretty solid.
The menu (more on this in a separate post):
- Cheese plate with olives and tasty crisp breads
- Abby’s green bean fries
- Triple Umami Brussels Sprouts Slaw with Cashews
- Quinoa Salad with Sweet Potatoes and Apples
- Raw kale salad (my standard)
- Beetroot and Walnut Hummus
- Turkish Style Flatbread
- Tiramisu jelly (recipe forthcoming)
Flickr photoset: New Year’s Eve 2013
We had some pretty serious cold weather in Chicago this visit, and a lot of snow. I loved it, but it helped that I had nowhere to be. It also gave me, mom and dad the chance to do some hunkering for a few days.
Our outings were constrained to bowling, lunches and movies. We all had a delicious nourishing lunch at Prasino where I satisfied my craving for fish tacos and mom had some amazing mushroom soup (no problem finding a table that day).
We saw Saving Mr. Banks and Gravity at the cinema. And back at home we watched an epic amount of the Muppets, a theme which carried throughout the whole of the trip (let 2013 forever be known as the year I discovered The Muppets). I also discovered the wonderful thing that is sweet potato fries at Standard Market. The place has a whole ROOM devoted to cheese – amazing! And they also do great pizzas and a pretty mean veggie burger (extra pickles, please).
Flickr photoset: Chicago 2013 / 2014
The upside to everyone being sick at Christmas meant that we got to extend the holiday merriment a little longer and were even extra prepared when we finally had Christmas together in January. Aside from getting the car stuck in Stephanie’s driveway (did I mention the snow?), everything was perfect, and we all learned something: Christmas is far better when you keep it simple. With the gifts, as well as the food. The menu was basic and came together without stress:
- Bread and insalata caprese with Mom’s balsamic reduction for appetisers
- Roast vegetables
- Blanched green beans with toasted almonds
- Mashed potatoes (expertly made by dad – learning moment: when out of milk, use sour cream – it may have actually been better than the usual)
- The requisite veggie loaf with cashew gravy
- Ginger Ginger Cake for dessert
We’re thinking that we’ll do more “alternative Christmases” like these in the future. Since I’m out of the country, anyway, why not have them at a completely different time of year when the world is less crazy with holiday buzz? I’m all for this.
Flickr photoset: Chicago 2013 / 2014
Raw food lunch at Borrowed Earth Cafe
My parents’ town is home to one of the few raw food restaurants in Chicago, Borrowed Earth Cafe and it’s a pretty good one at that. Mom and I met with my friend Jim for lunch and had a pretty inspiring meal. Raw gyros, lasagne, pierogis, tortilla soup and an impressive raw raspberry cheesecake that I’m hoping they’ll share the recipe for!
Photoset: Borrowed Earth Cafe
Kate Hill tribute dinner
For dessert, we made Kate’s recipe for prune clafoutis. We devoured that too. My mom was in ecstasy eating this meal, and Dad gave it a “10 plus”. Camont in Chicago – it was the best!
Flickr photoset: Chicago 2013 / 2014
Lunch at Topolobampo
Following my dad’s and my outing to Rick Bayless’s Frontera Grill last year, we decided then and there to take mom to his “fancy” restaurant, Topolobampo this year.
I had to book a table two months ahead! But we went and it was DELICIOUS. Interestingly, the appetisers blew the main dishes away, especially the “Modern Mexican Winter Salad” and the “Nutty Stuffed Pasilla Chilli”. I think mom was especially blown away by the flavour bomb, and she seemed to have a mushroom a-hah moment. The pasilla chilli and the “Griddle Baked Huitlacoche Quesedillas” both included wild mushrooms and both dishes seemed to cause my mom to enter another plane of existence (that and the coconut horchata).
We were all impressed with the dessert, too. Super rich brownie type cakes with vanilla bean ice cream, corn masa crisps, sweet puffed rice and some kind of jellied thing. I mean, look at it:
Flickr photoset: Topolobampo, Chicago
Dinner party and sleepover at Dawid’s
I’m so glad I made the time to have an overnight in the city at my friend Dawid’s, one of my dearest friends from University (jeez, he’s known me for over a decade!).On Friday, Dawid hosted a wonderful dinner party with me and three of his friends. I arrived early to help and it was so much fun cooking together, just like old times but with far better taste in food. I learned that hosting a good dinner needn’t take an excessive amount of time or turn the kitchen upside down. Not everything needs to make from scratch, especially when there are quality producers out there (and there are many in Chicago).
Flickr photoset: Dinner Party Sleepover at Dawid’s
Shaw Family Breakfast Buffet
A new family tradition? We decided to theme our last get together around a breakfast buffet. I resisted my urge to set up an “omelet station”, but I did do poached eggs, cinnamon rolls, no knead bread and granola. Stephanie made an awesome baked apple pancake and mom did roast potatoes on the weird (but effective) Pizza Pizzazz.
Flickr photoset: Chicago 2013 / 2014
So I’m getting into games, and mom and dad treated me to a day of gaming and food, including bowling, lunch at Standard Market, and a dinner, Yahtzee and craft beer evening and the nearby Ballydoyle. The super great bonus was having Matt, Abby and Sam along for the Yahtzee bit, and sunshine cake after!
Flickr photoset: Game Day aka Monica Day
Yes, sunshine cake. It’s a family recipe from my Auntie Jo (RIP) and I’m pretty sure it’s the best cake ever. It is so simple and easy to make (flour, sugar and eggs!) and is THE perfect delivery device for strawberry shortcake. Recipe to follow in a future post.
My family has been going to Sher-A-Punjab (or just “Shera” as we call it) for decades. It’s an Indian buffet. No big deal. But it’s special to us. My dad (a former priest) says their food is the closest he’s ever been to heaven. My parents still go at least once a week. And this visit we learned they were BYOB, too. Bonus!
Consequentially, Shera is the place where I had the buffet binge nightmare that resulted in my slow eating mission (you can read about it here: In Praise of Slow Eating). The experience jarred me to the core, and changed my life forever.
I’ve shied away from going to Shera ever since, but I knew how much it meant to my parents – especially dad – to have me go with them again after so many years. So I decided to go for it, but with a different approach. We decided to enjoy the buffet in “courses”. No piling on of plates. No going back for seconds. And it worked SO well. I started with soup and a samosa, then moved on to some of the curries, and finally a bit of dessert. I was very tempted to heap my plate high, and very VERY tempted to go back for seconds (their food really IS great). But I kept it real and saw it as a real achievement. I now think every trip home will involve a visit to Shera – instead of a thorn in my side, let this place be a reminder of how I’ve learned to CONTROL MYSELF. From now on, let Shera be a symbol of SUCCESS! (Yes, I’ve been practising my positive thinking.)
And, also, who can deny the delight of fresh tandoori-baked naan. Shera’s is the best!
I made a point to taste a lot of local-ish beers while at home (and a local craft Root Beer, too!). This one was my favourite: New Belgium Brewing’s seasonal winter “Accumulation Ale”.
My last hours in the USA were spent having sushi with my parents. We meant to go to our local favourite, Yokohama but – gasp! – it was closed. We were hell-bent on sushi so decided to try Nabuki in nearby Hinsdale. Where Yokohama is very traditional (why we like it), Nabuki is a much more elaborate affair. Fancy sushi for Americans! But guess what – it was REALLY good and I think it may have opened dad’s eyes to the idea of sushi (even the raw fish part).
I like the whole pre-flight lunch idea. It forces me to pack up early and puts us all in a place where can just relax and enjoy our last couple hours together without distraction.
It’s always bittersweet leaving home. I always think a lot about the things we didn’t get to do. But on this visit, even though there were a lot of hitches (illness, plan-cancelling snow storms, pulled butt muscles), I had a great time and I can only focus on all the great things we did together. I am very grateful to have a family that I LIKE and who likes spending time together. I think when we’re young, it’s easy to blame our parents for all of our shortcomings. True, I often lament that I’m “turning into dad” (partly when it comes to mannerisms and inability to get a haircut) but these days I’m seeing all the ways my family make me a better person. Perhaps having everyone sick or busy or stressed gave me a chance to “take care of them” for a change. I am the Toast Fairy, after all.