All posts by Barbara Payne, Editor

New brand for National Lemonade Day August 20

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This image shows a whole and a cut lemon.
Real lemons. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wouldn’t it be fun to drink real lemonade – just juice from real lemons, sugar and water – without going to all the trouble of cutting, squeezing, measuring and stirring to make it? And then standing out in the hot sun waiting for some poor motorist to take pity on you and buy a glass? Oh, wait, that was when we were 5…

Natalie's Natural Lemonade for #NationalLemonadeDay
Natalie’s Natural Lemonade for #NationalLemonadeDay

A lot of packaged/bottled lemonades on the market today have preservatives, additives, fake sweeteners, HFCS or GMO ingredients.  Now – though not exactly low-sugar (27 grams) or low-carb (29 grams) – there is a brand that comes in a bottle with only those 3 natural ingredients – and includes 20% natural lemon juice (as opposed to a typical 2-4%). It’s from Natalie’s Orchid Island Juices (see below for where to get them in this area), and here are two fruity – one lightly spirited and one non-alchoholic – recipes you can make with the lemonade. Get thee hence and sip on #NationalLemonadeDay.

Lemonade Sparkler Recipe by Cafe Johnsonia

Blackberry
Blackberry (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

32 oz Natalie’s Natural Lemonade
8 oz St. Germaine (elderflower liqueur)
1 qt sparkling water or club soda
1 1/2 cup fresh blackberries
2 large lemons, thinly sliced
Crushed ice
In a large pitcher, stir together the Natural Lemonade and St. Germaine. Add 1 cup blackberries, 1 sliced lemon and a few cups of ice. Add enough sparkling water to fill pitcher to the top. Fill glasses or jars with ice, add a few blackberries and lemon slices to each glass. Fill with lemonade, and serve immediately.

Frozen Blackberry Lemonade by Trendy Mom Reviews

8 oz Natalie’s Natural Lemonade
4 oz fresh blackberries
8 oz ice
Pour Natalie’s Natural Lemonade into a blender Add the frozen blackberries. Add ice. Blend at high speed until well blended. Serve promptly.

Where to buy Natalie’s Orchid Island Juices in and around Chicago:

  • Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Markets (Chicago)
  • County Fair (Chicago)
  • Eataly (Chicago)
  • Fresh Thyme (Joliet, Fairview Heights, Crystal Lake, Deerfield, Mt. Prospect, Naperville, Downers Grove, Chicago)
  • Peapod (Online) (Chicago)
  • Restaurant Depot (Chicago)

P.S. This is a woman-owned company, and they make a bunch of interesting juices like beet-orange, grapefruit, honey tangerine, tomato and more. Check ’em out.

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Never too late to celebrate National Prosecco Day

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Riondo names National Prosecco Day
Riondo names National Prosecco Day

Wouldn’t you know we found out just a little late that this year Riondo Prosecco designated August 13 National Prosecco Day to celebrate the sparkle of summer. This sparkling wine from Italy recently surpassed the 4-million case mark in sales (according to Impact Databank). So it makes sense that this charming wine should get its own national day of recognition. Some say no other beverage defines the Italian philosophy of la dolce vita – the good life – quite like the young and fresh sparkler called Prosecco

 
It’s got an elegant mousse (bubbles) and a touch of sweetness, delighting with light-bodied, refreshing aromas and flavors of white spring flowers, citrus fruits and green apples. Pair that with a wallet-friendly price tag and you’ve got a fun drink for everyday, party or not.
About Prosecco:
  • It can only be produced in the Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia regions of Italy
  • Prosecco is no longer the name of the grape; it’s the regional designation, protected since 2009 by regulation. The name of the grape was changed t
    o Glera, and

     that grape must account for at least 85% of all Proseccos which might also include any of these native varieties: Verdiso, Bianchetta Trevigiana, Perera, Glera Lunga and international grapes Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco and Pinot Grigio

  • Prosecco’s effervescence comes in several levels. While iconic Proseccos are sparkling, versions can be made in sparkling (Spumante) or semi-sparkling (Frizzante) and even as still (Tranquillo) wines
  • It comes in 3 levels of sweetness — Brut (driest), Extra Dry, Dry or Demi-Sec (sweetest).
  • Even though Prosecco makes a quintessential before-dinner drink, you can pair one of its varieties with almost any menu and/or use it in an array of cocktail recipes.
English: Cans of prosecco.
English: Cans of prosecco. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

#NationalProseccoDay is the hashtag if you share on social media.  And while you’re tweeting, sip a glass of Riondo Prosecco Spago Nero. Based on a review sample we tried, Riondo’s premium version can make you feel like it’s a special day any day. This super premium sparkling wine features Riondo’s signature string closure. Grapes: 100% Glera. Alc 10.5%. SRP ~$14.00

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Osteria La Madia

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Update: As of March 25, 2017, Osteria La Madia is closed. The owners are now focused on building their Firecakes brand.
Osteria La Madia, 59 Grand Ave., sits in the heart of the red-hot River North section of downtown Chicago – a great place for drinks and unique appetizers. Or try their handmade, wood-fire-grilled pizzas or a full meal from among entrees that include fresh seafood to short ribs and housemade pastas with a variety of proteins. Several salads on offer range from a selection of greens with unique dressings to a full-meal version of Ahi Tuna Nicoise.
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The bar and a small seating area form a cozy spot at the front of the divided space. Then a line of booths leads down a short path to the main two-level, large, airy dining area set with varying size tables and comfortable chairs. And the wood-fire grills are centered at the back of the space; it’s cool to watch the pizzas being made behind the protective glass shield. The overall effect is of a room that’s spacious with cozy areas. The decor is unobtrusively simple yet modern with a truly comfortable ambiance.
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Osteria La Madia's fabulous Spinach cheese fondue
Osteria La Madia’s fabulous Spinach cheese fondue

Our server happily recommended favorites when we asked. She especially recommended the Spinach & Taleggio Fondue appetizer. Picturing something oozing with oily cheese, we hesitated but decided to trust her – she said it is the restaurant’s most popular appetizer. We were amazed when she brought out a platter with a huge slab of puffy, clearly-wood-fired, pita-type bread that dwarfed a small crock of beautifully smooth and creamy-looking green sauce drizzled with truffle oil. The proper approach, she explained, was to rip off a piece of the bread, place it on your individual plate and spoon some of the green stuff over top. Wow, it was really good. Would never believe it was spinach – rich with the velvety consistency of heavy cream without betraying the slightest hint of iron, as spinach can sometimes do, or greasiness, as melted cheeses often do. The truffle oil dribbled on top gave the fondue extra pizzaz. The Sardinian bread was made of the same dough they use for their pizzas, several of which we’d tried and enjoyed on an earlier visit. They offer a wide variety of unique pizza toppings and offer several of them at bargain prices during their bar-only happy hour (currently 4:30 to 6:30 M-F). Excellent way to slake your thirst and gratify your hunger after work.

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Our other appetizer, the mussels in a tomato onion broth was simply scrumptious. The mussels perfectly cooked, the broth deeply flavored with stock and tomato and just a hint of spice. I couldn’t resist mixing some of the dark, rich, red broth with some of the spinach fondue. It turned out to be a fabulous flavor combination, although mixing the colors green and red results in a not-too-attractive shade of grayish brown. I didn’t care; it tasted SO good.
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The heirloom tomato salad was in season and just delightful. The bright range cherry tomatoes were super sweet and tasty. And the thick slice from a giant red tomato reminded us both of the tomatoes our fathers used to grow. Hard to get much better than that. The burrata was gooey and creamy and good.

Housemade ricotta-stuffed tortellacci with summer vegetables and truffle shavings
Housemade ricotta-stuffed tortellacci with summer vegetables and truffle shavings

Our entrees: scallops were nicely seared without being overdone, while the side dish of farro was a bit salty; the housemade ricotta-stuffed pasta and vegetables were all good individually without feeling quite melded in the overall dish. In any case we enjoyed both dishes, and they went perfectly with the fine, light red wine our server recommended from among the nicely rounded list of wines by the bottle and by the glass (priced as 4oz, 7oz and full bottle portions). A shared dish of strawberry gelato along with an after-dinner liqueur put a mellow ending on a nice evening. We’d gotten there early and by the time we finished, the place was hopping with diners, including several large families sharing a meal together.

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The whole experience was lovely, with wonderful service in comfortable surroundings. We’d recommend visiting Osteria La Madia any time; check their hours of operation here. In case you don’t want to fight traffic or pay through the nose for parking, get to La Madia in a snap via the 156, 36 or 22 buses or the Red Line (Grand/State station). It’s a short walk from any of those lines. You’ll feel welcome while you’re there and leave feeling glad you came.

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And by the way, the same folks who operate La Madia also operate the top-rated Firecakes bakeries. If you like donuts, do not fail to visit one of their locations. Hint: We highly recommend the coconut cream-topped cake donut. And La Madia recently started offering brunch on Saturdays and Sundays (10 – 3pm) and guess what? You can feast on Firecakes donuts there in addition to either their prix fixe brunch or lots of variety priced a la carte.
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The restaurant provided a meal to facilitate this review. All opinions are strictly those of the writer.
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Steadfast, From The Fifty/50 Restaurant Group, Opens Today

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Steadfast, From The Fifty/50 Restaurant Group, Opens Today

WHO: Steadfast…
WHAT: … the highly-anticipated new concept from Chicago’s Fifty/50 Restaurant Group, opens its doors today welcoming guests to experience the chef-driven concept inside The Kimpton Gray Hotel (opening soon).  Presenting a dining room reminiscent of old Hollywood glamour and beautifully composed food and beverage programs, a new dining adventure now awaits, all with The Fifty/50 Restaurant Group’s special touches.

Steadfast showcases food done by no one else in the city at this price point, with elegant, vibrant salads, small plates, and entrées at a value.  Executive Chef Christopher Daviesand Executive Pastry Chef Christopher Teixeira showcase seasonality and creativity through collaborated New American cuisine, incorporating Mediterranean and Portuguese influences.  Fried Chicken Skins, Chocolate Covered Foie Gras, Smoked Oxtail Croquette, and other playful bites begin meals.  Sharable items and larger plates showcase Smoked Sweetbreads, Carrot Salad Pave, Chicken Ballontine, and Cioppino, and for the table, Whole Roasted Duck, Butter Poached Maine Lobster, and Cote en Boeuf.  From the pastry kitchen, diners find a selection of house-made breads and indulgent desserts like crème brûlée with yuzu gelée, and elevated s’mores with coconut cream.  An exhibition kitchen invites guests from every seat in the house to personally connect with the culinary team, and a charcuterie room with windows allows guests to peek in.

Behind the bar, Beverage Director Benjamin Schiller and Bar Manager Tomasz Sasset the tone of Steadfast’s progressive cocktail menu incorporating the regional flavors of the cuisine throughout. Highlights of the spirits program feature progressive drinks incorporating big and bright flavors and remarkable presentations, one of Chicago’s largest antique whiskey collections, tableside drink options, and more. Shannon Hill-Sancheztakes the role of Sommelier, establishing a global wine program.

The intimate restaurant showcases a bold design reflecting the historical building’s classic revival style architecture.  Integrating original elements with custom-built components, the opulent space includes separated dining areas each boasting its own vibe.  The 100-seat dining room includes a series of chef’s tables, bar seating, a 14-seat, pre-ticketed tasting room, and a 16-seat patio.  Bespoke furniture with dark, plush accents and sleek marble, rich woods and lacquers, gold accents, and a zinc bar tie together the gracefully styled space.

Steadfast is open for lunch and dinner, with breakfast launching later this summer. More information and reservations may be found by calling (312) 801-8899.

WHERE: 120 W Monroe St.
Chicago, IL 60603
WHEN: Steadfast is open seven days a week, Monday through Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.
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The Chicago Restaurant Examiner

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Welcome to the ChicagoRestaurantExaminer.com online magazine. Follow us as we report on the culinary scene around town – news from chefs, restaurants, bars and more.  New menus, happy hour goodies, wine dinners and specials galore.

We are gradually uploading material from 8 years of archives from the former Chicago Restaurant Examiner site. It’s an ongoing effort that usually takes a backseat to current news. Which means you’re getting the scoop on recent and upcoming happenings in Chicago Restaurant news!

Open the door to Chicago's rich culinary scene
Open the door to Chicago’s rich culinary scene
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Loire Valley wines spring to the fore at Sepia

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Sepia sets a gorgeous table for #SpringtoLoire
Sepia sets a gorgeous table for #SpringtoLoire

#SpringtoLoire was the name of a recent presentation by two reps from French Loire Valley wineries. Isabel Moreau from Monmousseau and Juliette Monmousseau from Bouvet Ladubay explained the intricacies of the flavors in a broad selection of delightful white wines from this region that flows along the valley of the Loire River in France. Characterized by fruity complex aromas and crisp, palatte-pleasing tastes, the wines were professionally paired by sommelier Arthur Hon and served in the beautiful surroundings of the elegant private dining space of Sepia Restaurant, 131 N. Jefferson. Attendees learned about several dry and sparkling selections and enjoyed them with small plates of delectable creations by Sepia Chef Andrew Zimmerman and his team.

Velvety rich spring-onion-potato soup, handmade spinach pasta served with smoked trout and crispy fresh pea shoots, salmon grilled to exquisitely juicy perfection, to name a few. Plus a fabulously tender and succulent slice of breast of chicken served with sausage bread pudding and two sauces in a dish that was reminiscent of Julia Child’s most outrageously good poultry recipes. Dessert was a luscious pear-ginger-rum tart with a dollop of creme fraiche ice cream. All gloriously flavorful and perfectly paired with the floral, fruity elegance of the AOC Loire Valley whites.

The Loire Valley, known for its magnificent chateaux and rich history, runs through the heart of France and contains 5 distinct wine regions – Pays Nantais, Anjou, Saumur, Touraine, Centre-Loire – each with its own characteristics of grapes, appellations and styles. The wine-growing regions dotting the Loire’s banks feature no less than 4,000 wineries, 170,000 acres of vineyards and 61 appellations of origin, thus making the Loire Valley the third largest French wine making region. Producing 380 million bottles per year – be they red, rosé or white, still or sparkling, dry or semi-dry, supple or sweet – the Loire Valley is also France’s leading producer of white wines and ranks second for rosés. The region as a whole exports 68 million bottles every year to 157 export markets.

Notable among the wines presented at Sepia were:

  1. Saumur brut, Bouvet Ladubay, sparkling NV with the soup
  2. Quincy blanc, Philippe Portier 2013 with the salmon
  3. Saumur blanc, Domaine Guiberteau 2014 with the chicken breast (~$20)
  4. Vouvray Moelleux, Domaine du Petit Coteau, l`Etoile 2010 – a sweet style with the tart – Lovely! (~$23)
  5. Bonnezeaux, Domaine Rene Renou, Les Melleresses, 2000, also with the tart – Gorgeous! (~$32)

If you love white wines, consider one or more of these for your next fine meal. You will not be disappointed.

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Antonio Rallo talks to Chicago about Sicilia DOC and making wine

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Alberto and Antonio bring Chicago the news about Sicilia DOC
Alberto and Antonio bring Chicago the news about Sicilia DOC

Antonio Rallo, winemaker at Donnafugata Wineries is a tall, slender, handsome man who is currently president of Sicilia DOC. He came to Chicago recently to share news about Sicily’s passionate rededication to consistently high quality. He spoke fervently about the new consortium of Sicilian winemakers, Sicilia DOC. As of 2012, he said, every winemaker on the island banded together to form Sicilia DOC—a rare case of consensus in Italy, where winemakers tend to be fiercely independent.

Sicilia DOC intends to be a new force in the wine world with its many winemakers, one of whom, Alberto Buratto of Baglio di Pianetto, came visiting with Antonio. “Sicily has the biggest vineyards in the world,” said Antonio. In the small area around Trapani on the northwest segment of the island, he said they produce 3,500,000 hL (hectoliters) of wine every year. Surprisingly, despite Sicily’s 600 miles of coastline, the country has no vineyards in those areas. But since a mere 11% of the land in Sicily is flat—not good for growing grapes—they’ve got plenty of other space to do so. The island is home to 90 wine producers (where they crush and process the grapes), some of whom are also part of the 3000 vintners who grow their own grapes.

The soil of Sicily is so varied, said Antonio that it is said to “change from the width of one palm to another”—so the country can offer a great variety of wines. The climate is gentle for growing grapes—and makes it easy to grow organically. Summers are dry; in fact, May to September is generally completely dry, and since there is no water to irrigate with, winemakers instead reduce the quantity of grapes to conserve their resources. “Constant breezes help the grapes do their job and eliminate any concerns about mildew,” he said. “The island has the lowest-yield grapes and greatest amount of wine produced per hectare compared to any other location in Italy.”

Antonio and Alberto graciously showcased some of the DOC members’ wines. A few notables included Stemmari 2014 Grillo (distinctive lemony long-finish unoaked white), Planeta Rosé (fresh and fruity, perfect with almost any food), Baglio di Pianetto Ramione 2013 (blend of Nero D’Avola/Merlot with aromas of red berries followed by vanilla and licorice notes), and Donnafugata SurSur 2014 (100% Grillo with fruity and wild flower notes).

Antonio talked a little about Sicily’s multi-cultural history and the fact that Sicily has for centuries been a strategic location for armies on the move. Arabs dominated the area for 300 years. Next the Phoenicians, then the Romans, and then the barbarians, the Byzantines, the Normans, and the Germans. “The Greeks finally brought the concept of growing grapes to Sicily around 800 B.C.E.”

“Sicily is the highest producing area for wine in all of Italy,” he said. The DOC was formed in order to exert better control of the processes for growing and the quality of final products on the market, and the only DOC in Italy that is bigger is Prosecco DOC. A panel of tasters travels about the Sicilian countryside tasting wines in the facility and then tasting the same wines after they’re bottled and arrive in the shops and restaurants. The mission is to make sure the quality and flavor of each wine are consistent at each step with what originally went into the bottles. Anything labeled DOC undergoes this rigorous tasting and chemical analysis and must be certified.

The agriculture and artisanal production of grapes is in the blood of many winemakers. Each succeeding generation brings its own contributions of experience and expertise to the process. Antonio remembers going with his grandfather to the wine cellars when he was only three and a half years old. “I rode around on my little bike with an extra training wheel.” His family has been in the industry since 1851, and now the fifth generation is involved in all aspects of it – the business side, the law, the language, etc.

Antonio talked about how he, as a winemaker, tastes wines. “It might take seven hours to taste up to 300 wines,” he said. Starting with white wines, then old reds (in the barrel), they progress to new reds and then dessert wines. The tasters eat grissini (unsalted, crispy breadsticks) to help cleanse the palate. “After 100 to 150 tastes, it’s hard to tell the difference anymore,” he admitted. So they might taste from 9 am to 1 pm, then have lunch and continue tasting from 3 to 6:30 pm. “In the old days—say, 1975,” he said, “we might have had 35 people tasting a thousand bottles of wine, with five people washing bottles. Today, with modern machinery, three people can do 7000 bottles in an hour.” Staggering numbers, indeed. He said Italy is a constant source of innovation in winemaking machinery and that, in fact, France and Napa Valley often buy machines developed in Italy.

He went on to reveal an interesting trick of the trade. “All wines taste good with fennel,” according to Antonio. A common ingredient in Italian cooking, “that flavor makes even a bad wine taste better.” In fact, it is such a common ruse that people in the industry have made a verb of the word itself. Some give it to tasters because it clouds their ability to determine the real quality of the wine.

The Sicilia DOC wines are anxious to bring their goodness and complexity to the United States market. The consortium will exercise strict control and carefully record data for each Sicilia DOC wine via the Internet. For more information, watch for Sicilia DOC mentions on Facebook and Twitter and in advertorials in Wine Spectator and other American publications. They are intent on bringing the good news about Sicilian wines to the “passionate and demanding American public.”

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Jeff Mauro gives thumbs up to LeadBelly winner of RedEye Burger Battle 2015

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Food Network star Jeff Mauro (The Kitchen, Star Salvation, Sandwich King) took time out from his crazy-busy schedule recently to host the 3rd annual RedEye Battle of the Burger 2015 presented by Amstel Light. More than 500 guests enjoyed the beautiful summer evening on the patio of the Chicago History Museum where they sampled the between-the-bun, mainly-beef specialty offerings from nearly two dozen of the city’s well-known eateries and cast their votes for Chicago’s best burger. Winning burgers are at the end of this article–and man, they taste good with Amstel Light.

Jeff was kind enough to do a brief Q&A about being a Food Network star. Jeff originally wanted to be a comedian, but after years of cooking and working in delis and four years as a private chef in a big jeff mauro leadbellycorporation, he also knew he wanted to be on Food Network. So, on his third try at the contest, he finally got cast.

What’s your favorite story about how you got started?

“I was in NY for 11 weeks. My son was 2 years old. We just got done living in the basement with my in-laws. It was so stressful leaving, but I was pursuing this dream. When I came home from the call, I was in the top two and I knew I was going to make it. I went to my house—that I’d saved up for so long—and after thirteen years, my house, family, son. I was elated to be with my family again.” He went on to win the Food Network star competition.

How do they choose contestants for competitions on Food Network TV?

“The show’s producers hire a casting company and these folks do an incredibly thorough job of vetting contestants. First, you make and submit a video, then you wait for a casting call. Then you go and then wait for a call back, then you compete. They do background checks, psychological testing, incident testing, on-camera test, ask very personal questions, and so on. They want to be very sure that this person will make a good appearance on television in terms of behavior, attitude and strength of character. It’s a long process. But my wife just knew that last time that I’d make it. She told me, ‘This video is going to get you there. Your life is going to change forever.’ She was right.”

How did you become known as the “Sandwich King”?

“When we were in the midst of the competition and I’d been mentioning all the diners and delis I worked at, Bobby Flay said to me, ‘So, you’re gonna be the sandwich king, eh?’ And it stuck. That became my name henceforth. That had been my point of view for years as I went from butcher shop to sandwich catering company. I knew I was good at constructing those.” For handy hints on making a non-slip sandwich, visit Mauro’s Sandwich King web page.

What do you enjoy most—besides money!—about being a Food Network star?

“All the travel is hard, but it’s great that I can include my family and travel places and experience foods. You get treated a certain way in restaurants. It’s unique. I don’t take it for granted. We still live in the same house and same neighborhood. I love making television. I’ve been doing it four years now.”

What do you like most about Chicago as a foodie heaven?

“I’ve been in LA and NY. I’m in New York four to five times a month. I go to all the great restaurants everywhere, but I absolutely adore Chicago. It is a place where chefs can exercise their creative chops without the intense pressure that chefs in, say, New York have to face every moment when they’re paying tens of thousands of dollars a month in rent. Chicago allows chefs to experiment and feel comfortable with trying new things, without always worrying about being first or how high they are in the competition.”

What are some of your favorite restaurants in the Chicago area?

“I’m a neighborhood guy as opposed to downtown. I like, for example, Boka (Michelin star 2015) is one of my favorites right now. Boho (Bohemian House)—phenomenal schnitzel and housemade sausages. Jimmy’s Place in Forest Park for pizza, Vesuvio Bakery and sandwiches, Gibson’s. Hot dogs at Gene and Jude’s, in River Grove. Johnny’s Beef & Gyros.”

Jam Restaurant in Logan Square is owned by a Jeff Mauro, but that’s not the same guy.

“Yeah, it’s a different Jeff Mauro who owns Jam Restaurant. I actually had him appear as a guest on my Sandwich King show.”

What would you say to anyone who aspires to become a famous chef?

“Work in the kitchen at a restaurant for a summer. That’ll tell you whether you really want to cook and whether you can stand the life. Short order cook, work the line, whatever—for free most likely. Save yourself 30-40 grand for culinary school.”

Is there a book in your future?

“Maybe. Probably a memoir, though, not a cookbook. Anybody can get my recipes from TV. If I do write one, it’s more likely to be the story of my life.”

Anything else you’d like to say to our readers?

“God bless America!”

Top 3 winning burgers

3rd Annual Redeye Battle of the Burger sponsored by Amstel Light

  1. Leadbelly (Portage Park and Gladstone Park): Old Time Religion Burger – Roasted tomato, goat cheese, arugula and truffle aioli (and I might add, try their fabulous housemade butter cookies).
  2. Beef & Barley, 3001 N. Ashland: The “Smang It” Burger – Chipotle mayo, Spanish chorizo, avocado, jalapeno, lettuce, tomato and pickle.
  3. Whisk, 2018 W. Chicago: House Burger – Chihuahua cheese, chipotle mayo, guacamole and tortilla strips.

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Spirits-infused recipes for cookouts and football parties

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BBQ chicken bacon bites

Nothing says party like food cooked on the grill – meat, chicken, vegetables, whatever. The smells alone make me want to invite people over. One way to put those meals over the top is to brush with spirits-infused sauces and toppings. And another way is to wash ‘em down with tasty cocktails made with matching spirits.

Below are a few rum-, whisky- and gin-infused food and drink ideas for your next family and/or friends gathering. These food recipes are so good you don’t even have to have an outdoor grill – your oven’ll work fine. You could even adapt them to cook in a big covered skillet if you don’t want to heat up the kitchen when your A/C is straining to keep up with blistering temps or soggy humidity (and yes, that can happen these days even in football season).

Thanks to the folks at Captain Morgan rums and Crown Royal whiskies, here are a few intensely flavored dishes and drinks to try for your next barbeque or football party.

BBQ Chicken Bacon Bites
Recipe and photo courtesy of Georgia Johnson, The Comfort of Cooking

  • Nonstick cooking spray2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch cubes8 oz. (half pound) bacon, cut into thirds1/2 cup Spicy Sweet BBQ Sauce (recipe below)Toothpicks

Instructions: Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with aluminum foil. Spray lightly with cooking spray. Wrap each chicken piece with a small strip of bacon. Secure with a toothpick and place on the baking sheet. Brush with BBQ sauce. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove pan from oven, brush bites with more BBQ sauce, and return to oven. Bake for 15 more minutes. Serve warm.

Spicy Sweet BBQ Sauce
1 1/2 cups brown sugar1/2 cup chili sauce1/2 cup Captain Morgan® Original Spiced Rum1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce1/4 cup ketchup1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce2 garlic cloves, crushed1 teaspoon ground dry mustardGround black pepper, to taste

Instructions: Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan over low heat. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes, or until thickened as desired. Stir occasionally. Use immediately as you wish, or store in refrigerator until ready to use.

Play Action Spiced Rum Punch
1.5 oz. Captain Morgan® Original Spiced Rum2 oz. pomegranate juice1 oz. apple cider1 oz. fresh lime juice0.5 oz. simple syrup

Instructions: Combine all ingredients in a punch glass. Add ice and stir well to blend. Garnish with a mixture of orange wheels, apple slices or pomegranate ice cubes.

Whisky recipes (Photo courtesy of hirejoejohnson)

Brats with “Maple-ized” Onions
2 large onions1 1/2 tablespoons butter1 tablespoon olive oil3 oz. Crown Royal® Maple Finished WhiskyPinch of SaltBuns

Instructions: Grill bratwursts over medium heat, turning them every three minutes until they turn golden brown or the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

Meanwhile, melt butter and oil in skillet on medium-high heat. Thinly slice the onions and stir them in and add a pinch of salt frequently, until the onions begin to brown, about 5-10 minutes. Add Crown Royal® Maple Finished Whisky to the skillet and continue to cook onions, stirring occasionally, until well “maple-ized.” Simmer until there is very little moisture left in the pan. Place brats on buns and top with generous amount of onions.

Bull Rush cocktail
1 oz. Crown Royal Black® Whisky0.5 oz. Triple Sec Liqueur1 or 2 splashes grenadine3 oz. club soda

Instructions: Combine all ingredients in a punch glass. Add ice and stir well to blend. Garnish with a mixture of orange wheels, apple slices or pomegranate ice cubes.

And not to be left out, Sapphire gin and Barking Irons, makers of the ultimate home mixologist’s bag of tools ($495), bring us a few other classic cocktail recipes:

Gin & Tonic Reimagined
1 ½ oz Bombay Sapphire East Gin3 oz Fevertree tonicLime wedge OR different garnish (lemongrass, juniper, coriander, cassia bark, etc)

Press lemongrass stem and lime wedge into base of old-fashioned glass. Fill with ice and build. Garnish with lime wedge, lemongrass stem.

Sapphire Peppered Peach Tea Collins
1 ½ oz. Bombay Sapphire Gin¾ oz. Fresh Lemon Juice½ oz. Simple Syrup1 ½ oz. Peach Iced TeaPinch of Black PepperClub Soda

Build with ice in a highball glass. Top with Club Soda. Garnish with peach slide and lemon twist

Bombay Negroni
1 part Campari1 part Bombay Sapphire1 part MARTINI Gran Lusso

Stir the ingredients over ice. Strain into a lowball glass with a large chunk of ice. Garnish with an orange slices.

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Trattoria 10 hosts Sardinian wine dinner

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Trattoria 10 sets an elegant table
Trattoria 10 sets an elegant table

Had a chance recently to learn a little about the island of Sardinia. Where’s that, you may ask? North of Sicily about 120 miles west from the edge of the boot. It’s a land where, so they say, people tend to live longer than people anywhere around them – many living to 100 and beyond. Credit goes to the Mediterranean diet, of course, but also to their specific wines, made with native Cannonau grapes (similar to Grenache but unique to Sardinia). These fruits are said to have three times higher levels of antioxidants and flavonoids that are known to “slow down aging in your cells” and – imagine! – “reduce stress in males.” What? Only guys?

Ladies, never fear. Wine of all types reduces our stress.

Tasted several Italian wines imported by Cantina Oliena (a group founded to promote the wines of Sardinia) and ate some scrumptious Sardinian-inspired dishes by Executive Chef John Caputo of the popular Itaian restaurant, Trattoria No. 10, located at 10 N. Dearborn. Walk in from the street and take either the stairs or the elevator down to the lower level. Despite lots of dark wood and heavy, embroidered, lacy-looking curtains shirred on rods on the windows separating the private dining area from the public spaces, the place has a light and comfortable feeling.

The Sardinian dinner menu included a light yet piquant salad of arugula and shaved fennel topped with Parmesan chips, dressed with a light hand and sprinkled with Bottarga di Muggine (a grated fish egg preparation that gave it a touch of salty tang). Excellent!

The wine that accompanied the salad was a standout – Istrale Vermentino Bianco 2012 (retails at about $16). This is a white wine worth searching out. Dry, but round and full and smooth in the mouth with lots of herbal notes – one of few wines that go well with green things like artichokes, asparagus and so on. Buon Gusto Market, importers of Sardinian goods, including cheeses, wines and olive oils, provided the wines and a number of the food items in Chef Caputo’s American take on Sardinian foods. They don’t sell direct to consumers but do have a page on their website listing all the Illinois restaurants where you can expect to find their products.

Next was a grilled octopus – marinated first, then grilled nice and brown and crispy. It was so well browned that it almost looked overdone, but the taste was marvelous and went perfectly with the little chunks of watermelon and pieces of heirloom tomatoes, all dressed in a light tarragon vinaigrette. The wine in this case was a dry, darker pink rosé called Jannas Rosé Cannonau DOC (no vintage). Nice pairing.

The main course was a seared lamb loin, cooked pink, and served with a small pool of rich, translucent brown reduction I couldn’t quite identify – delicious – and accompanied with a hunk of lamb-pecorino sausage. That same type of sausage had been cooked long hours in the tomato sauce that the side of pasta, rapini and sweet corn was served in. Oh, man, that tomato sauce was full of flavor and quite unique. I’d come back again to Trattoria No. 10 just for that sauce. The whole dish was most enjoyable. And it was served with two different red wines – one light and dry, and the other deeper and richer-flavored. The first was Lanaito Cannonau IGT 2011 (a blend with 20% Monica grapes) and the second, Nepente Cannonau (100% Cannonau) DOC 2011. I give them 3 stars and 4 stars respectively.

The dessert, ravioli filled with young Pecorino, was served with a scoop of Torrone Gelato (Torrone is a hard nougat made of honey, sugar, egg whites and toasted and chopped almonds and nuts). The whole dish was drizzled with Sardinian bitter sweet honey. Loved the gelato! The two different red dessert wines paired nicely.

I wouldn’t hesitate to come back to Trattoria No. 10 and sample from their regular menu. Clearly Chef Caputo has a passion for combining flavors and cooking to perfection that I’d like to experience more of.

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