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MickyN

Hard Rock Cafe Test Kitchen menu review: heaps of Chicago inspiration, loads of delicious food!

The folks over at Hard Rock Cafe surely work hard to please! They want to know what music you like, the first live concert you went to, and what you make of their dishes – and they want your feedback delivered raw, spontaneously, and straight to their faces. I definitely like this no-nonsense approach: what’s better than an honest opinion, delivered on the spot? I like the approach – and I like the HRC food even more 😉

I recently got the chance to taste several dishes from the Hard Rock Cafe Chicago Test Kitchen menu, which showcases HRC’s commitment to locally inspired and responsibly sourced ingredients. It was an amazing night, filled with good jokes, great food, and karaoke performances – and here’s my review of this experience. Keep Reading

Nielsen-Massey Vanillas review and giveaway: when baked desserts are done right!

The kitchen is filled with zesty rich aromas, and my daughter is getting impatient: she wants cake, and she wants it now! My repeated attempts to temper her kitchen tantrums are a failure – and, after all, who can blame her? The flowery notes in the air are pungent and unrestrained, promising heaps of flavor and refreshing baked joy. They are just too alluring to resist. Faces covered in sweat, MIL and I have been baking for about one hour, and the waiting will soon be over. I take the round pan out of the oven, and a fresh explosion of citrusy notes permeates the hot air in an instant. Say hello to orange ricotta strudel! 🙂

I have baked a lot this summer. From éclairs to cookies and from clafoutis to strudels, I have baked – and baked – and baked some more! – and have found it very therapeutic. In the process, I have used a variety of extracts to elevate my desserts. Indeed, extracts can add or enhance the flavors of baked goods and can provide convenience to the busy baker. My mom used a lot of extracts in her baking when I was growing up. Sadly, these were all fake extracts – colored water with a drop of artificial flavors and very little else. Since then, we both have learned to appreciate the value of the “real deal,” of authentic extracts made with natural ingredients. This is why I was very excited when I was contacted by Nielsen-Massey Vanillas, a Waukegan IL based company with worldwide distribution, for a product review and a giveaway. I chose their pure orange extract for my review.

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My review of Forno Rosso Pizzeria: pizza or panuozzo? I’ll have both, thank you! :-)

Give me tasty Italian food, and I’ll love you forever – this seems to be my foodie life’s motto. Indeed, nothing gets me more excited than the opportunity to spend time enjoying the delights of Italian cuisine – panini and beyond 😉 – while out and about in our beautiful city. Splendid in its rusticity and profound in its flavors, Italian cuisine is a work in progress to me: I enjoy learning about it, I enjoy tasting it, and I never miss an opportunity to learn and to taste even more.

I recently got an invitation to try the food at the Forno Rosso restaurant in the West Loop, and the invitation mentioned something about panuozzi, a form of street food which comes from the Campania region of Italy. A panuozzo (plural: panuozzi) is made by using pizza dough to make a type of panino, which is then filled with various ingredients and is baked in the wood-burning pizza oven. As a big panini lover and self-confessed foodie, I was intrigued by the concept and definitely wanted to give it a try, and this is why I accepted the invitation and took my friend Marina along to experience Italian dishes made the authentic Neapolitan way.

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Calendula summer salad: make it now, love it forever!

What’s the first thing you do when you are bitten by mosquitoes? I don’t know about you, but I immediately cover the affected skin area with calendula cream. Indeed, calendula (also called pot marigold) has been my family’s go-to option for minor scrapes and bruises for as long as I can remember. Nowadays, I use calendula cream to moisturize and treat my daughter’s skin. Such was the case yesterday, for instance, when she was bitten by mosquitoes during our usual walk in the park.

In 2008, calendula was named Herb of the Year by the International Herb Association, an official recognition of the exceptional healing properties and culinary value of this plant. You read that right: culinary value. The petals of calendula flowers can be eaten raw (in salads) or cooked (in soups and stews). To satisfy my family’s appetite for fresh summery dishes, I recently used calendula petals as an ingredient in the salad pictured above. The tangy, peppery taste of the petals made this a summer salad like no other – a salad packed with layer upon layer of flavor, a great lunch option for vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike. Here’s a salad to remember 🙂

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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