Monday, May 31, 2010

Ramps with spaghetti

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The appearance of ramps, wild baby leeks, signifies the arrival of Spring. Chefs and foodies excitedly await the first ramps of the season and sometimes even freak out about ramps.

Perhaps the biggest influence of ramps is their role in the naming of the city of Chicago. According to Wikipedia, Chicago is a French rendering of the Native American word for wild onion, shikaakwa.

Ramps kind of look like a scallion with purple/red stems topped with broad green leaves and taste somewhere between onions and garlic. When cooking ramps, it is important not to overwhelm their earthy, delicate flavor.

David Chang of Momofuku fame likes to pickle ramps. Others prefer to grill, braise, or roast ramps. My inspiration for dinner came from Mario Batali's recipe for spaghetti with ramps from Babbo.

The dish was simple but elegant. I gently sautéed the thinly sliced bulbs and stalks of the ramps in butter and good olive oil. I then added the ramp leaves, briefly sautéing until the leaves wilted. I tossed in the spaghetti and sprinkled fresh bread crumbs toasted in olive oil on top.

The fragrant dish certainly highlighted the unique, delicate flavors of the ramps. The fresh bread crumbs added a lovely texture to the dish.

Spaghetti with Ramps (adapted from Mario Batali)
1 bunch of ramps, about 12-15
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil
Maldon or other flaky salt
1/2 lb spaghetti
kosher salt
1/4 cup fresh bread crumbs toasted in olive oil (see recipe below)

Cook spaghetti just before al dente in salted water. Drain and reserve 1/2 cup of pasta water.

Thoroughly clean the ramps, removing the translucent husk over the bulb if necessary. Thinly slice the bulb and stems, reserving the leaves.

In a large sauté pan, heat butter and olive oil over medium heat until butter foams. Sauté the bulbs and stems of the ramps until soft but not browned, about 4-5 minutes. Season lightly with Maldon or other flaky salt.


Add ramp leaves and cook until leaves are wilted, about a minute.Transfer spaghetti to sauté pan with 2 tbsp reserved pasta water. Toss gently to coat well, and if necessary, increase heat to high to evaporate the liquid.

Transfer to plates and dust with fresh bread crumbs toasted in olive oil (see recipe below). If desire, top with freshly grated pecorino romano. I didn't find it necessary to add cheese.

Serves 2.


Bread crumbs toasted in olive oil

Tear 2 slices of good rustic bread into roughly 1" pieces. Grind in a food processor to coarse size leaving some pieces slightly larger. In a small sauté pan, heat 1/2 tbsp olive oil over medium heat until hot. Add 1/4 cup coarse fresh bread crumbs and toast until golden, stirring occasionally. Transfer to a plate and let cool.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sautéed Morels

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Shortly after our first attempt to cook ramps and morels turned into an Epic Fail, my friend Rachel graciously gave me a bunch of ramps and a brown paper bag filled with fresh morels. Yes, I have awesome friends.

After obsessively cleaning each nook and cranny of the honeycomb textured morels, I sautéed the mushrooms in a good amount of butter with ramps and garlic, seasoning with fresh thyme and flaky salt. I took a deep breath and prayed for the best. Or, at the very least, for no grit.

Success!

Just as we imagined, the nutty, earthy morels paired wonderfully well with the delicate ramps.  I suspect that the previous grit-laden adventure will be a mere hiccup in the memory of this beautiful marriage of Springtime treasures.

I served the sauteéed morels on crostini. I imagine they would make a great side dish or be delightful tossed with pasta. Shallots could easily be substituted for the ramps.


To be fair, these morels were certainly much less gritty than the previous batch. Nevertheless, I was very careful about cleaning the mushrooms.

I soaked the morels in boiling salted water for 10 minutes. Rinsed thoroughly. Soaked the morels a second time in boiling salted water for 5 minutes. Rinsed. Sliced in half and trimmed woody stems. Rinsed in hot water to clean insides, dewormed and de-gritted. Yes, there can be tiny worms inside of the bigger mushrooms. Rinsed again and spread on a paper towel. Finally the morels were clean!

Some mushroom enthusiasts warn that overly washing morels causes them to lose their flavor. I don't know about you, but I am willing to forgo some flavor in exchange for worm-free morels.

A final bit of advice: do not wash the morels until you are ready to use them, as they don't hold up well once washed.

Sautéed Morels
1/2 cup fresh morels, or 1/4 cup dried morels (see note if using dried)
1 clove of garlic, minced
4-5 ramps, bulbs thinly sliced or 1/2 shallot, minced
1.5 tsp fresh thyme, chopped
1 tbsp butter
flaky salt and freshly ground black pepper

Thoroughly clean fresh morels, slice into quarters.

Heat a medium sauté pan over medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Add butter and when it foams, add ramp bulbs or shallots and garlic. Sauté until softened and slightly browned about 3-4 minutes.

Toss in the morels, avoid overcrowding them. Sauté for 3-4 minutes, stirring often. Reduce heat to medium.  Add thyme and season lightly with flaky salt and freshly ground black pepper. Sauté another 5-7 minutes until morels are tender but crispy on the outside.

Serve on crostini. For tips on making crostini see this post on leek crostini.

Note: If using dried morels, bring 3 cups water to boil in a medium saucepan. Add dried morels. Remove from heat. Cover and let steep for 1 hour. Using a slotted spoon, transfer morels to bowl. Reserve soaking liquid. When adding morels to sauté pan, add reserved soaking liquid too, leaving any sediment behind. Increase heat to high to evaporate the liquid and cook mushrooms about 8 minutes.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Romesco Sauce, Grilled Spring Onions, and Roasted Potatoes

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I have been pouring over local menus in order to plan a graduation dinner party next month. This is a terribly unproductive process for me. You see, I get distracted by the food descriptions and the party planning gets put on hold while I obsessively take notes on interesting flavor combinations and ingredients I must use ASAP.

A recent description that rendered me unproductive (at party planning) and spawned my latest cooking project was Mercat a la Planxa's grilled green onions with salbitxada, a type of romesco sauce, and The Purple Pig's charred ramps and scallions with romseco sauce.

Romesco sauce is an absolutely wonderful combination of ancho chiles, toasted hazelnuts, toasted almonds, toasted bread, tomatoes, paprika, and garlic. If you usually shy away from chiles, don't worry, ancho chiles are more tangy than spicy. The paprika adds a nice kick and the toasted nuts and bread add a richness to the sauce. This versatile sauce from Catalan is often served with vegetables, flat bread, fish, shrimp, or grilled chicken.

Sadly my Whole Foods was out of ramps so instead I bought lovely spring onions. I had bookmarked a recipe for romesco potatoes from Smitten Kitchen, originally from Sunday Suppers at Lucques, a couple months ago. I was excited to try her romesco sauce recipe and thought the potatoes would be a perfect accompaniment to the grilled onions.

The result was one of the best meals I've had at home in a long time.

People, this sauce is so delicious that you will want to put it on everything. I am slightly embarrassed to admit that I just sneaked a spoonful of the sauce straight from the fridge in the middle of writing this hunger-inducing post.


Romesco Sauce (adapted from Smitten Kitchen)
5 dried ancho chiles
2 tbsp raw almonds
2 tbsp blanched hazelnuts (or you can toast them with the almonds, and then transfer them to a textured kitchen towel and rub together to remove the skins)
1 1/4 cups extra-virgin olive oil
1 slice country bread, about 1" thick
1/3 cup canned San Marzano tomatoes (diced or puree)
*2 cloves garlic
1 tbsp Italian flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1/2 lemon, for juicing
*1 tsp of sherry vinegar
*1 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp sea salt
* Indicates my changes to the original recipe

Preheat oven to 375. Slit the ancho chiles lengthwise, open, and discard seeds and stem. In a medium bowl, cover the ancho chiles with hot water and soak until softened, about 15 minutes. Drain and dry with paper towels.


Meanwhile, in a pie plate, toast hazelnuts and almonds in the oven for about 10 minutes, or until they are fragrant and golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool.


Heat a large skillet over high heat for 2 minutes. Add 2 tbsp olive oil, wait a minute until hot, and fry the bread on both sides until golden. Remove from pan and cool. Slice into 1" cubes and set aside.



Return pan to the stove over high heat. Heat 2 tbsp olive oil until hot but not smoking. Add chiles and sauté for two minutes. Add tomatoes, season with 1/2 tsp salt. Cook for 2-3 minutes, until the tomato juices have evaporated. Remove pan from heat and set aside.


In a blender or food processor, combine the toasted hazelnuts, toasted almonds, fried bread, and garlic cloves until coarsely ground.



Add the ancho chile and tomato and pulse for another minute. With the machine on, slowly pour in the remaining 1 cup of olive oil and process until blended and smooth. The sauce will “break” (separate into solids and oil). Scrape the sauce into a bowl, stir in lemon juice, sherry vinegar, and parsley. Season with paprika and more salt, if needed.

The romesco sauce is best if made a day in advance. Chill overnight to allow flavors to meld. Bring to room temperature before serving.


Romesco Potatoes (from Smitten Kitchen)
1 1/2 lbs Yukon Gold potatoes (full size or minis)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
5 cloves garlic, unpeeled
2 bay leaves
6 thyme sprigs + 2 tsp thyme leaves
1 cup Romesco sauce
2 tbsp Italian flat-leaf parsley, chopped
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 375. Place potatoes in a roasting pan and toss with 2 tbsp olive oil, garlic cloves, bay leaves, thyme sprigs, and a heaping teaspoon of salt. Cover tightly with aluminum foil.


Roast potatoes until tender when pierced, about 55 minutes for medium to full sized potatoes (30 minutes for minis). Remove from oven. Discard bay leaves and thyme. Set aside roasted garlic.

Heat a large skillet on high for 2 minutes. Add 2 tbsp olive oil, reduce heat to medium-high. Add the roasted potatoes and smash them with a fork until a little broken up. Season with thyme leaves, sea salt, and freshly ground pepper. Sauté for 6 to 8 minutes until potatoes are crispy on one side. Flip the potatoes to crispen and brown on the other side for another 6 to 8 minutes. Turn off heat.


Generously spoon the romesco sauce over the potatoes. Squeeze roasted garlic over the potatoes. Sprinkle parsley on top. Serve while hot.

The romesco potatoes were so good that I couldn't wait to come home the next day and eat the leftovers for dinner. And I rarely eat the same thing two nights in a row.


Grilled Green Onions with Romesco Sauce
8-10 green onions
1/2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

Heat grill pan over medium-high heat. Brush green onions with olive oil and season with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Grill for 3 minutes until slightly charred, rotating once. Alternatively, place seasoned green onion under the broiler for a couple minutes.

Serve with romesco sauce on the side. Peel back the first layer of the onion before eating. Eating this will get messy, but it is so worth it.


And if you find yourself at The Purple Pig, do yourself a favor and order the grilled ramps. You will thank me endlessly.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Dirty Tramps and Morals

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When it comes to tramps and their morals, the dirtier the better, n’est-ce pas? We adore it in Madonna, not to mention Mata Hari, and who could possibly trump the Marquise de Merteuil?

At great length we giggled as we planned our little meal, affectionately dubbed “tramps and morals”, to feature the seasonally available ramps and morel mushrooms. How perfectly in apropos a name for a dish intended to capture subtle, tender flavors. With the idea that we would simply prepare said foods with a light sauté and then toss with pasta, a fitting name would lean more toward “angel wings” and less toward “brothel mattress.” The utter ridiculousness created a sense of deliciousness long before reaching the kitchen.

Beware the self-containing properties of a name, which may indeed transfer characteristics to its associated object.

Having prior experience with ramps, we approached their preparation with confidence. The morels, however, required consultation of a trusted source which advised soaking in salt water ten minutes prior to cooking. Led by this council and our irrational exuberance, we simply drained the morels after the prescripted time, then chopped and lightly sautéed with the ramps.



Divine smells wafted, Pavlovian responses ensued, and at the seemingly perfect moment we turned off the heat and sampled our fare. Woodsy, warm morels and distinct but soft ramps were accompanied by... crunching. Grit. Our morels were not so clean after all, and the dirt necessitated discarding the entire pan.


Though it could have been a painful moment, the good doctor in the house quickly improvised a delightful lemon/cream/wine/shallot sauce which perfectly suited the pasta with sautéed asparagus that had been waiting for the ramps and morels addition.


How could distress persist with such a remedy? All’s well that eats well.

Infinite love goes to the doctor, who can cure the most unfortunate of afflictions.

This post was written by guest blogger and dear friend, Rachel.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Wrigley field

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I finally went to my first Cubs game. It is sort of embarrassing that it took me this many years to actually go to a game. It wasn't quite the experience I envisioned because 1) it was a weeknight, 2) it was gray and rainy all day, and 3) it was so cold that, in addition to the guy selling cold beer in the stands, there was a guy selling hot chocolate. Come on Chicago. It is May.

Maybe it was the weather or maybe it was because the Cubs were not playing well that night, in either case, what ensued was an artery-clogging glutton fest starting at Wrigley field and ending at Goose Island.

The group ordered nachos topped with velveeta-like cheese and mounds of jalapenos, a foot long hot dog (but it wasn't the real Chicago dog because it had ketchup), a Bavarian pretzel and a cheddar jalapeno pretzel with dijon and a cheesy jalapeno dipping sauce, and steak nachos piled around a bread bowl filled with even more cheese.


We almost ordered chili cheese fries and fried pickles (really?), but we managed to harbor some self-control. We are ladies, after all.

What is it about ballparks and high caloric food? My friend tells me that the minor league Whitecaps' ballpark in West Michigan sells a 5/3 lb burger, appropriately called the Fifth Third burger.  I have no words.

Image from The Grand Rapids Press

The smell of hot dogs wafting through the stands at Wrigleyfield got me thinking. Chicago is a fantastic food city-- I've had amazing meals at Avec, Blackbird, Cafe Spiaggia, Frontera, Publican, and Green Zebra.

Oh snap, am I name dropping? It's not like I dropped Alinea or Trotters, the Tru stars of Chicago's stellar culinary scene.

But seriously, most people think of hot dogs and deep dish pizza when they think of food in Chicago. Although I have had my share of deep dish pizza, mostly when friends and family are in town, I have not explored the nuances of the Chicago hot dog.

Obviously, encased meat isn't really my thing, but I've been informed that Chicago's beloved hot dog joint, Hot Doug's, serves veggie dogs. I know, I was shocked to hear it too, but I assure you that the source can be trusted; he was, after all, donning a shirt that said, "Trust me, I'm a Doctor."

Image from Hot Doug's

Now we are on a mission to eat at Hot Doug's.

I hear that the line can be up to 2 hours but it is the shortest on a Tuesday or Wednesday before noon. Shh, don't tell.

Goose Island - Wrigleyville
3535 N. Clark St.
Chicago, IL 60657


Hot Doug's
3324 N. California Ave.
Chicago, IL 60618

Friday, May 21, 2010

Spring Panzanella

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Ah, Spring in Chicago. Tulips bloom on Michigan Ave and gardens burst with pansies. Gray, rainy skies remind us that winter just passed, and deceptively sunny days marked with absurdly cool temperatures hint of approaching warm weather.


Yes, this post is really just an excuse to share pretty pictures from a lovely walk around downtown on one of those sunshine-filled-but-ridiculously-cold days. Thanks, S, for a fun-filled day!


With Summer just around the corner, I wanted to create a dish to pay homage to the delicate flavors of Spring: asparagus, peas, and spring onions. Since I love, love, love heirloom tomato panzanella in the Summer, what could be more suitable than Spring panzanella?

I was so excited to find purple asparagus. It is slightly sweeter than the green variety and turns dark green when cooked. What a delicious treat!


I tossed purple asparagus, baby spinach, peas, and spring onions with a bright lemon vinaigrette, basil, and garlicky parmesan croutons. I used frozen peas instead of fresh (shame on me) and it worked fine, but I think fava beans would also be lovely in this dish. I initially thought to use meyer lemons for the vinaigrette but opted for the more acidic regular lemon to balance the sweetness of the purple asparagus.

Spring Panzanella
1/2 lb asparagus, tough ends broken off, cut into 1.5" pieces leaving tips 2" long
1/2 cup peas, frozen or fresh
1/2 cup fresh baby spinach
20 basil leaves, chiffonade (stack leaves, roll tightly lengthwise, and cut into thin slices)
2 spring or green onions, finely chopped

Croutons
1 clove of garlic, finely minced
2 cups of day old country bread or other rustic bread, cut into 1/2" cubes
2 tbsp butter
3 tbsp parmigiano reggiano, finely grated
sea salt
freshly ground pepper

Vinaigrette
1/2 lemon, juiced
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
sea salt
freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 350. Over medium heat, melt butter in a large sauté pan until it foams. Add garlic. Toss in bread cubes. Remove pan from heat. Season generously with salt and pepper. Toss with finely grated parmesan cheese. Coarsely grated cheese may not stick to the croutons as well. Transfer to a baking sheet and bake for about 15 minutes until golden.


Meanwhile, bring water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add asparagus, cook for 3 minutes until crisp tender. Remove asparagus with a slotted spoon, transfer to a bowl with ice and cold water. Drain and set aside. Leave pot of water boiling on stove.


Add peas to the boiling water, cook for 3 minutes. Remove with slotted spoon and set aside. Drain some of the boiling water. Add spinach, toss in boiling water for 1 minute until just wilted. Drain and set aside to cool. Remove pot of water from heat.


In a large bowl, combine lemon juice and white wine vinegar and slowly whisk in olive oil. Season with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Add spring onions, croutons, and asparagus to the bowl. Toss to combine well.


Add cooled peas and spinach to the bowl. Mix to combine. Season with freshly ground black pepper and adjust salt if needed. Toss with basil.

Serves 2.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Israeli (pearl) Couscous with lemon, feta, pine nuts

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In college I ate so much cafeteria couscous that I developed a distaste for it (don't even get me started on tabbouleh). Many years later I discovered Israeli (pearl) couscous at Graham Elliot. Hello pearl couscous, where have you been all of my life? The texture reminds me of sabudana khichdi, a pearl tapioca dish my mom used to make during times of fast.

I am totally in love and feel like I have to make up for lost time. Currently my most favorite method of preparing pearl couscous is to sauté shallot and garlic in olive oil and toss it with cooked couscous, fresh lemon juice, Bulgarian feta, pine nuts, and freshly chopped parsley. I simply cook the couscous in water because the other flavors are so pronounced. You can also cook it in vegetable (or chicken) broth.

I recently served this dish for dinner with a side of spicy Moroccan carrots. All together, it was a satisfying, healthy meal with interesting, complex flavors.

Israeli (pearl) couscous with lemon, feta, pine nuts
1 cup pearl couscous, whole wheat
1 1/3 cups water (or broth)
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 shallot, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 lemon, juiced
2 oz feta, cut into small 1/4" cubes
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
1/4 cup Italian flat leaf parsley, chopped

In a medium saucepan, bring 1 1/4 cups of water to a boil. Add 1 cup pearl couscous, bring back to a boil and cover. Reduce heat and simmer until water is absorbed and couscous is just tender, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat, and stir to keep couscous from sticking. If there is remaining water, drain. If you will not use the couscous immediately, spread it into a thin layer in a baking pan to avoid clumping until you are ready to use.

Heat oil over medium heat in a skillet. Add shallot and garlic, sauté about 3 minutes. Stir in cooked couscous. Let cook for 1 minute. Turn off heat. Add lemon juice, toasted pine nuts, and feta. Stir to combine well. Toss with parsley. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Spicy Moroccan Carrots

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In search of inspiration for the bag of carrots sitting in my refrigerator, I remembered singing praises to the spicy carrots at Cafe Mogador and to Taïm's spicy Moroccan carrots during various visits to NY. Yes, I still dream about food I had in NY, but who doesn't?

I decided to experiment with typical Moroccan flavors and create a side dish to serve with my Israeli (pearl) couscous with lemon, feta, and pine nuts (will post recipe). I tossed carrots with cumin, paprika, cayenne pepper, garlic, parsley, and lemon juice and decided to contrast the spices with the perceptible sweetness of honey and fresh orange juice.

One bite of these spicy Moroccan carrots and all unpleasant memories of carrot sticks in a ziploc bag will be banished.

Moroccan Carrots
1 lb carrots, peeled and sliced diagonally into 1/4" thick rounds
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
3/4 tbsp honey
1 tbsp + 1 tsp orange juice
1/2 lemon, juiced
3/4 tsp salt or to taste
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1/4 cup Italian flat leaf parsley, chopped

Bring just enough water to cover the carrots to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add carrots. Cook until slightly tender but not mushy, about 8 minutes. Drain and let cool.

Meanwhile, in a bowl, combine garlic, lemon juice, orange juice, honey, cumin, paprika, and cayenne pepper. Slowly whisk in olive oil. Season with salt.

Transfer carrots to bowl with marinade and mix until well coated. Toss with parsley. Let sit for at least two hours before serving to allow the flavors to meld. For best results refrigerate overnight and serve at room temperature.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Chicks and Salsa

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Over the weekend, a dear friend invited me over for dinner. Well, actually, her 5 year old son invited me over to cook dinner. As soon as I arrived, her son ran towards me and enthusiastically started to tell me about a book called Chicks and Salsa, by Aaron Reynolds, a local Chicago author.

In the story, the animals on Farmer Nuthatcher's farm became tired of eating the same old food. The rooster, having watched the farmer's wife's cooking shows, decided that chips and salsa are what the chickens needed. Enticed by the aroma of salsa, the ducks whipped up guacamole, the pigs made nachos, and the farm animals had a fiesta!


The best part of the book is that the fiesta doesn't have to end with the animals. You can create your own fiesta at home by following the recipes listed in the back of the book for rooster's roasted salsa, quackamole, and hog wild nachos. These are the recipes he wanted me to make for dinner!


Available on Amazon, Chicks and Salsa is a fun book and a wonderful way to get kids excited about cooking. We certainly had a blast making the three items. First we made rooster salsa with grilled tomatoes, grilled onions, garlic, lime, cilantro, and salt.


Then we made the quackamole with avocados, green onions, garlic, lime, cilantro, salt, and the secret ingredient, rooster salsa. He was quite eager to smash the avocados and set the dining table for the fiesta. It was ridiculously adorable.


Finally we made the nachos by layering a large plate with tortilla chips, topping off with drained black beans, green onions, diced mild green chiles (canned), and nacho cheese sauce (of Tostitos fame). We giggled as we exchanged the childhood joke, "what do you call cheese that is not yours? nacho cheese!" The jury is still out on whether the adults or the 5 year old found the silly joke more amusing.

We microwaved the plate for a minute and then layered delicious dollops of salsa and guacamole over the nachos, leaving the sour cream on the side.


As expected the tasty nachos were immediately devoured by all. But before we dug in, I had the beautiful opportunity to experience my first Shabbat with freshly baked challah. Thank you guys for a fun and memorable evening!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Frontera + Mercadito

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You know how I've been going on and on about how much I love Mexican food? Well my dad is an even bigger fan. He was in town recently, so I just had to take him to Frontera and Mercadito.


Frontera

We were fortunate to get a table for lunch at Frontera on cinco de mayo. To start we had chunky guacamole with lime, garlic, and jalapeno and three salsas: garlicky three-chile (cascabel, morita, guajillo), roasted tomatillo with serrano and cilantro, and habanero. I could not stop eating the garlicky three-chile salsa. I wanted to pour it onto everything. My dad, loving all things spicy, could not get enough of the habanero salsa.

Frontera's main menu changes monthly, so there is always something new and exciting to try. We ordered several small plates to share, starting with the vegetarian tamal filled with swiss chard and shiitake and oyster mushrooms, steamed in banana leaves, and doused in a hoja santa tomatillo sauce. The tangy hoja santa and tomatillos added a welcomed acidity to the smoky mushrooms.

After all, it was lunchtime, so we shared the ensalada frontera, a blend of romaine, arugula, radish, grilled knob onion with garlic-lime dressing topped with aged queso anejo, crispy tortilla angel hair, and cilantro. The combination of the bitter radish, crunchy tortilla, and crisp greens with the juicy garlic-lime dressing was superb.

We moved on to quesadillas nortenas which are flour tortillas folded over Samuels melted Jack cheese and filled with tender Mexican woodland mushrooms and roasted poblano peppers. Again the woody earthiness of the mushrooms did not disappoint. My only compliant is that the server did not inform us that the black beans were not vegetarian and served them even after I let her know our dietary restrictions. Thankfully I knew that the beans were not vegetarian from previous visits.

My dad loved the Topolo Margarita. A well-made margarita is worth taking note of, especially in this city. Naturally, I had to find the recipe to share with you!

Image from flickr user kevinlacassin

Topolo Margarita (from Rick Bayless)
3/4 cup fresh lime juice, about 3 large limes
6 tablespoons sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons blanco tequila
1/4 cup Gran Torres orange liqueur
Lime wedges
Coarse salt
About 1 1/2 cups small (or coarsely broken) ice cubes

Make limeade. Combine the lime juice, sugar and 1 cup water in a glass or plastic pitcher. Cover and refrigerate if not using right away (but no longer than 24 hours).

Finish and serve margaritas. Add the tequila and orange liqueur to the pitcher of limeade. Rub the rims of 6 martini glasses with a lime wedge, then dip them in a dish of coarse salt. In a large shaker, combine the half of the margarita mixture with half of the ice and shake 10 to 15 seconds, then strain into the prepared glasses. Repeat with the rest of the mixture.


Mercadito

To continue with our Mexican food kick, we went to Mercadito, a NY based restaurant that recently opened in Chicago. It was as loud and crowded as you would expect from a glitzy, River North restaurant on a Saturday night. At 6:45pm the wait for a table was 2 hours. We promptly decided to head downstairs to the lounge for drinks and to whet our appetites before dinner elsewhere.


I was dying to try the huitlacoche and mushroom tacos. Huitlacoche is a fungus that grows on corn and is sometimes referred to as Mexican truffle or corn smut. Deep rooted in Aztec cuisine, huitlacoche is considered a delicacy in Mexico.

Image from Buried Mirror

When the platter of four tacos arrived at our table, my mouth had a sudden pavlovian response. Woody, smoked mushrooms and warm huitlacoche topped with manchego cheese and tangy salsa verde and served in a mini corn masa tortilla. These tasty tacos made me so happy. Each three bite taco induced a finger-licking frenzy.

 
Someone forgot to wait for the food paparazzi

In his usual fashion, my dad added a kick to his tacos with a side of habanero salsa with grilled tomato, garlic, and lemon. (He liked the habanero salsa at Frontera better). I cannot wait to go back to Mercadito for dinner so that I can sample more of the menu. I think the tacos just might be worth the 2 hour wait for a table.


Frontera
445 N. Clark St.
Chicago, IL 60654


Mercadito
108 W. Kinzie St.
Chicago, IL 60654
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