Saturday, May 23, 2009

Dinner for seven.

This morning was my first trip to the Evanston farmer's market after it opened its doors for the spring, and oh, I've missed it so. It is asparagus and rhubarb season in the midwest, and the vendors were overflowing with them, as well as with fresh potted herbs and green onion as big as leeks. In the end, I picked up a bunch of nice-looking tarragon, three huge bunches of purple asparagus, and some shallots for the night's dinner party.

My friend Eugenio, whom I've known and loved since freshman year, is moving away tomorrow, and this long Memorial Day weekend was perfect timing for my roommate and I to invite him and other friends over for one last dinner.

On the menu:
- lemon-oregano chicken thighs, seared in butter then roasted
- carrots and shallots, cooked with butter and tarragon
- roasted asparagus
- forbidden rice with slivered almonds

For dessert:
- homemade fruit tarte, a la the roommate

I chopped and marinated everything in advance. Half an hour before guests arrived, I turned on the rice-cooker and browned the chicken in batches. The chicken then went into the oven with the asparagus, and I cooked the carrots on the stove top. My timing was spot-on: everything finished at the same time, fifteen minutes after people arrived.

All the food was eaten, and people got seconds - always a good sign. As much as I cook and think about food and really enjoy what I make for myself, I'm frequently self-conscious when it comes to others eating what I make for them. Sometimes I worry that the only reason I love my own cooking is simply because, even at this stage in my culinary self-education, I view everything that I make as a remarkable chemistry experiment, and I am still in awe that my hands can create such things at all. That said, it is difficult to view my cooking in an objective light, and I often wonder what people really think about it.

During cycling spring break, I spent a couple hours every night making food for the sixteen members of my team, and I enjoyed every minute of the challenge because I love many of them like family. However, during the week, I had the impression that the food I had planned out was not quite adequate for the purposes of a training camp. Here I was making eggplant parmesan and margherita pizzas when these voracious athletes should be getting meat and carbs and, well, loads more food in general. Towards the end of the week, I learned that someone had indeed complained to another that I was making everything too complicated, that I was trying to show off, that I should have been making functional food instead of fancy food.

I could only assume that others thought at least a little bit the same way, and it made me feel terrible. I couldn't stop thinking about the comment for days, and I still consider that week an embarrassingly unsuccessful episode in my short history as a wannabe chef.

The point is, cooking for others is to me one of the most basic ways of showing love. It is important to me that the food I make conveys this message, but I'm not yet at a point where I can be fully confident that this happens each time.

Friday, May 15, 2009


It's not often that I'm still raving about a restaurant experience the day after, but I discovered a real Chicago treasure at the Belgian bar called Hopleaf last night.

I've heard tales of this place for months and months, and I finally rounded up a group of friends to head down to Andersonville. Oh baby, the tales were true. This was my idea of the perfect establishment: several hundred Belgian beers (check out just their bottle menu), an innovative food menu that went far beyond typical pub-grub, cozy and comfortable and a touch romantic.

For dinner, I had Belgian-style mussels, steamed in white ale with herbs, served with frites and aioli, plus sweet bread for soaking up the juices. The mussels were melt-in-your mouth, soft and creamy in texture and sweet in taste.

It was very difficult to choose what to drink from the extensive menu, but it was also impossible to make a wrong choice. Grimbergen was my favorite - spicy and full bodied. Kwak was a simple, easy-to-drink amber brew. The Rochefort 10, with an alcohol content of 11%, was a tad on the strong side but dark enough to satisfy my partiality to deep, toasty beers.

And the company was unbeatable.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Flavor tripping.

Adventures with the miracle fruit, a little berry that binds to the sweet receptors on the tongue and changes the tastes of acidic and bitter foods.

As inspired by this article.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Linguine alle vongole.

Pasta with clams, scented with lots of garlic, dried chilis, and a dash of thyme. An elegant no-brainer.

Set a pot of pasta to boil, salted with sea salt (slight ocean taste!). Meanwhile, cook clams with seasonings on high heat until they start to pop open. Lower the heat a bit and continue to cook until they open all the way. Keep them moist with pasta water if necessary. Drain pasta, add to the mixture, toss, adjust seasonings.

Astonishingly good. There is so much juice from the clams themselves that you don't even need to add salt. Clams, to me, are the perfect springtime dish -- light, flavorful, fresh. Added plus: the whole thing took less than 20 minutes to make.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Climbing, dancing, and parkour.

Australia first introduced me to rock-climbing on the outdoor cliffs of Kangaroo Point, overlooking the Brisbane River. The view: sparkling city lights, rock and rope and climbers illuminated by the giant spotlights at the base of the cliffs.

There is no substitute for real rock under the fingers, but back here in Illinois, I've been frequenting the Vertical Endeavors climbing gym since the beginning of the year.

Indoor climbing has its merits. The routes are graded, so you know exactly the difficulty of the climbs, and can mark your own improvement. Climbs range from grades of 5.5-5.13 at the gym, going from easiest to nearly impossible. I could only do 5.7s and 5.8s in my first indoor climbing session, but last night I made it up a 5.10a and almost up a 5.10b. For months, it seemed like I had a hit a plateau of 5.9s, but I'm encouraged by yesterday's effort that harder climbs are still in my reach.

I liken rock-climbing to dancing and also to the art of parkour. They all assume a base of solid physical ability, but are executed with a superior sense of balance and agility. Experienced climbers, dancers, and traceurs are beautiful to watch, in that they manage to project an elegance in movement that masks the actual difficulty of the undertaking. That tension between strength and grace is something that I admire and aspire to.

After attempting a difficult climb yesterday (and failing), I sat back to watch another climber attempt it. She floated so lightly up that all I could think about was how much she looked like she was dancing.