Culinary Fight Club Steak Challenge: unique talent competes again – for the common good

Chef Stephen Sandoval celebrating his win in the Chicago Culinary Fight Club Steak Challenge

“Do you want to try it?,” Chef Stephen Sandoval asked me, spoon on hand, ready to share the last remaining bits of Oaxacan mushroom&pasilla purée. I had been pestering him about his dish, but the music was loud, the smoke cloud-thick, and communication was difficult, so what better way to answer my questions than to let me try his food one more time? The proof is in the food, as they say – and the steak Chef Sandoval had prepared in the Culinary Fight Club competition was a thing of beauty: melt-in-your-mouth, aromatic New York strip steak sitting pretty on a velvety blanket of spicy purée, with cherry-churri and a crispy piece of Patagonian-style potatoes on top. Brimming with grilled cherries poached in balsamic, the smokiness of the cherry-churri instantly reminded me of the dried prunes I used to enjoy as a child. Same depth of sticky flavor, same unmistakable honest and true aroma, unadulterated and vibrant, like a child in the countryside. With that cherry-churri, Chef Sandoval had to be crowned the winner – and he was 🙂

This was the second time I attended a Culinary Fight Club competition (here’s a review of my first experience), and I am loving these more and more. In addition to raising money for the less fortunate and to promoting Fight2Feed, a nonprofit organization that delivers service and support to hungry people across Chicagoland, Culinary Fight Club is also an excellent platform for showcasing talent – and the Steak Challenge held in Chicago this week was a case in point. Joining Chef Sandoval (of Leña Brava) at the start of the competition were Chefs Joelle Brown (of Nola Nights Southern Aromas), Geo Phelps (of Chili Rocks) and Corey Rice (a former MasterChef contestant). With such a diverse lineup, we were in for a treat! Keep Reading

Celebrating summer flavors: sour cherries, the ruby fruits that keep on giving

Mom and MIL getting busy over jars of sour cherry preserve

You get sweet, you get a hint of bitter, you get caramel notes. It’s layer upon layer of thick, rich flavor, sophisticated yet pure. The moment you try sour cherry preserve, your mouth explodes with this complexity of summer tastes, and your foodie world changes for good forever. Having used sour cherries every summer since childhood, I have taken it upon myself to let everyone know how wonderfully versatile they are. Right now, I just want to pack this sour cherry preserve in tiny jars and gift it to the whole wide world. It’s that good – and, in my opinion, deeper and more satisfying than the coveted jarred amarena cherries.

We used to do a lot of baking and canning with sour cherries when we lived in Europe. These fruits are precious and very delicate, and there is only a small window of opportunity at the end of June -beginning of July when you can buy them and use them straight away, otherwise they spoil. You can find sour cherries at select Chicagoland grocery stores, such as Fresh Farms International Market and Rich’s Fresh Market. For those of you with a bit of time on your hands, I strongly suggest you pick them yourselves. It can be so much fun!

This is what we did recently, when we spent one lovely Saturday morning picking sour cherries at The Valley Orchard. Keep Reading

My review of Trattoria Gianni: Italian culinary classics await on the patio!

Italian cuisine is love, pure and simple. The kind of love that rubs your senses with unadulterated pleasures and fills your belly with a hearty simplicity. The kind of love that comes from someone – be it mother, grandmother, friend etc. – who wants to see you well-fed and happy in a world filled with worries, tension and uncertainty. The kind of love that puts together classic ingredients on the kitchen table and goes on to create food which celebrates life and stays true to it.

I know that kind of love. We’re not Italians, but my mother-in-law epitomizes the classic image of the Italian matriarch, with her passion for honest food and desire to see us well-nourished and content. Every time she cooks she has to have us try her food, no matter what. Had lunch already? She swears she’ll only give you “one tablespoon of food, no more.” Of course, her understanding of “one tablespoon” is different from the generally accepted one: we get big portions of wholesome dishes, brimming with meat, sauces and all the right spices. Food made out of love – and so yummy 🙂

I had the chance to reconnect with traditional Italian cuisine recently, when my friend Marina and I were invited to a tasting of Italian classics at Trattoria Gianni. Keep Reading

Rooftop magic galore – and other fun weekend spots & events around Chicagoland

My friend Marina admiring the beautiful murals at Gino’s East in Streeterville

What are you doing this weekend? With so many fun food-related events going on in Chicagoland, there is plenty of choice – and only 2 days to spare! DH is almost always at the office during the weekend, and as such we have yet to make any plans. Hopefully he won’t have to leave for work and we’ll be able to go to at least one of the events below. Wouldn’t that be awesome? Keeping my fingers crossed 🙂

Taste of Chicago is the highest anticipated foodie fest by far this weekend. Keep Reading

Chicken, tomato & arugula salad: the perfect side dish for burgers and hot dogs on 4th of July

I don’t know about you, but we love to eat salads on July 4th. Don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of burgers and sausages on our grill to keep up with tradition (check out my posts here, here and here for 4th of July meat-based menu ideas). However, we also have 4-5 kinds of salads on hand, to brighten up the atmosphere and to ensure we eat a balanced meal. Yep, for us, 4th of July is a balancing act 🙂

The salad recipe below concludes my Pure Flavor veggie cooking bonanza, and it’s a salad I will definitely make again on July 4th. Simple yet very effective, this salad succeeds thanks to the crunchy baby arugula and the thirst-quenching cherry tomatoes, whose assertiveness cuts through the richness of the roast chicken and provides it with summer flavors and freshness galore. Keep Reading

When life gives you eggplants, you make an eggplant & sweet pepper panino!

Today, post #2 covering my Pure Flavor veggie cooking bonanza, where I highlight the taste and versatility of eggplants. I’m so excited to be writing about good, nutritious food!

I had a colorful assortment of Pure Flavor baby eggplants and I immediately thought I should use them to make my family’s version of baba ghanoush, one of the oldest recipes ever posted on this blog. In the end however, I decided to push myself a little harder (lol) and after some thinking and experimentation I came up with this vegetarian panino recipe, in which I married the gorgeous eggplants pictured below with the Pure Flavor Aurora Sweets peppers.  More on these peppers will be revealed in my upcoming veggie post #3 (hint, hint!) Keep Reading