My crunchy three cheese and veggie panino: “Blame” it on the celery sticks!

Yes, I want texture – and I’m looking at you, celery stick. Why did you have to make my three cheese panino so crunchy and delicious? Firm and perfumed, with an emerald appearance and a lovely bite, you are the perfect addition to lunches in a hurry – and you are here to stay 🙂

We’ve always been celery root fans – but sticks? Not really. My mom and aunt never used the sticks in their cooking, and eating them raw was unheard of. They would add shredded celery root to soups and stews and would throw away the stalks – or, in the best case scenario, they would use the stalks as a “filler” when canning stuffed peppers or cabbage.

Since coming to this country I have learned there’s more to celery sticks than meets the eye, and my appreciation of them has increased. My mom used a few sliced sticks in a soup just before she left for Europe: I simply couldn’t believe how much the flavor of the soup had been enhanced! Still in awe, I decided to use celery sticks in a panino. The recipe below is the result of these recent “celery experiments.”  Keep Reading

My review of The Good Taste Series culinary competition: goetta sausage, shrimp chilpachole – and so much more!

Their hands move restlessly, as if playing the piano. Sweat covers their foreheads and they nervously wipe it out in-between the cooking sessions. “I’m sorry I can’t talk right now, but I promise I’ll cook you the best dish when the judges are gone,” one tells me with visibly shaking hands, while putting the finishing touches on his salmon&goetta sausage dish. One extra garnish here, one hot sizzling pan there – the spectacle is on! They are the nine Hyatt chefs who are performing in The Good Taste Series culinary competition. They are determined, focused, fierce.

I admire professional chefs and I never miss an opportunity to watch them work. This is why I was very excited when I was invited to attend the third edition of The Good Taste Series Midwest regional competition, which was hosted by Hyatt Regency McCormick Place last week. A well-established contest organized by Hyatt as a means to support and recognize its culinary talent, The Good Taste Series gave me the chance to observe nine well-seasoned chefs as they created stunning dishes – and to try them all!

Keep Reading

Baking for comfort, baking for memories: Why these cranberry cookies remind me of my mom

Can you smell the cookies? Yes, it’s happening: I’m baking! It’s 86 degrees in here, very humid, and the air conditioning is on. The noise of the hood is cutting through the heat, yet – thankfully! – the little one is sound asleep on the silky brown carpet. I’m baking not because I’ve been craving cookies, nor because I enjoy sweating next to the hot oven, but because I need to feel that, somehow, my mom is  still with me.

My mom went back to Europe last month, and we did several rounds of baking just before she left. We looked through her old recipe notebook – a bunch of butter-smeared and cocoa-dusted pages barely hanging in there – and found culinary gems we had long forgotten. We shared memories about the loved ones who are no longer with us, and my mom’s eyes often grew sad as her mind revisited the past. We spoke, baked and remembered, and traveling through time provided comfort and a bitter-sweet, almondy sense of happiness. Isn’t this what baking is all about? That’s what I think, anyway 🙂

This is one of the recipes we revisited before my mom left for Europe. Keep Reading

My review of Devon Seafood Grill’s new Oyster Bar: a feast fit for a queen on National Oyster Day!

Dark-faced and stern-looking, oysters are not the winners of beauty contests. One needs to go behind their grey, sturdy exterior to find the secret to their success. I have wondered about it myself: What makes oysters so luxurious and desirable – and what makes them stand out  on the dinner table? Taste must definitely play a part. A quality oyster stands true to itself. In just one bite, its flavor must remind you of the environment it came from: the shelter of the estuary, the calm depths of the water. Equally important, however, is the freshness. A quality oyster is fresh, and it is this freshness which allows the flavor of the oyster to actually shine through.

Chicago has its fair share of restaurants which serve oysters, and Devon Seafood Grill is among the most famous and well-known. Last week I faced the heat and rain and spent an excellent couple of hours indulging in oysters, scallops and other delicacies at the grand opening of their new Oyster Bar. Perfect timing and a great party to host just before National Oyster Day, which is today, August 5. Keep Reading

Back to sour cream-packed deliciousness: my chicken, celery & bocconcini salad and sandwich

You will have a hard time trying to find sandwiches with mayo on this blog. On the other hand, when it comes to sour cream, you will find lots and lots of options. This is hardly surprising: We are sour cream lovers – are we are loud and proud about it 🙂

My family considered sour cream a delicacy when I was growing up. Hard to imagine, but sour cream was difficult to find in the local grocery stores, and we would form a line to buy it. We would take it home in jars we’d brought with us, and we would eat it on its own with a spoon, or on white bread. For the ultimate family treat, we would serve it with hot polenta – a delicious combo with a  creamy consistency and a wholesome flavor.

These days, I eat sour cream with polenta at least once a week. However, I have also been trying to use sour cream as an ingredient in various salads or sandwich fillings. Keep Reading

My review of Smithfield 2016 Chef’s Table: bringing together flavors from all corners of the world to highlight the beauty of pork

Slaughtering a pig can be a rather gruesome event – and I remember it well. When the days were getting colder and holidays were approaching, families all across my home country would gather together and slaughter pigs to have food to put on the table during the harsh winter ahead. Ambushed by people who would get on top of them and leave them unable to breathe, with screaming noises and terrified eyes, the pigs would give their last breaths under the knife, their blood leaving a trail on the velvety snow, their guts exhaling steam in the icy cold morning. This was way before “humane” slaughter practices gained momentum, before “sustainability” became a buzzword and “social responsibility” turned into a big commitment for companies. Back then, there were no private hog producer companies to speak of, and we didn’t much care about how the animals had died. On an empty stomach, one is only concerned with the meat.

Time has passed and practices have evolved, and these days companies are under intense public scrutiny to ensure that they deliver on their promises of good care for the animals and for the environment, in addition to delivering flavorful products. Such is the case with Smithfield, the world’s largest pork processor and hog producer. Smithfield has its own DURoC breed of pig, and the company has held a series of Chef’s Table events throughout the country to highlight the flavorful versatility of the DURoC pork products and to emphasize its corporate sustainability policies. I was invited to attend the event which was held in Chicago earlier this week – and that was an offer I couldn’t refuse 🙂 Keep Reading

BFree giveaway: We have a winner!

I know you’ve all been waiting to find out the winner of the BFree giveaway. The winner is Sheila K, who wrote, “I like honey-maple turkey, asiago cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickle, and a bit of horseradish-mustard on my perfect sandwich!”

The winner has been notified. Thank you all for taking part. Stay tuned for more exciting giveaways! 🙂