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Out and about in Chi Town

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

The Culinary Fight Club Blended Burger Challenge: A fight is a fight is a fight – for a great cause

The first rule of the Culinary Fight Club is: You do tell people about the Culinary Fight Club 🙂 If you’re like me and like watching movies and immersing yourself into pop culture, then you must be familiar with the movie Fight Club, which features testosterone-brimming one-on-one fights, voyages into the unconscious and a breathtakingly charming Brad Pitt. What is the subject of Fight Club?  That’s actually a very good question, and many answers have been suggested ever since the movie was released, back in 1999. At the most basic level, the movie and the novel it’s based on are about the competitive spirit embedded in human nature, and about competition as the key to break free from the conformism imprinted on us by modern society. Ultimately, fighting is the key to Life, and a fight is a fight is a fight.

In a move that has pleased foodies and movie buffs alike, the concept of a fight club has been adapted to suit the culinary world under the name of the Culinary Fight Club, a national organization which hosts live cooking competitions. Contestants – be they home cooks or executive chefs – come together to compete, amass glory and new followers, and give back to the community. Indeed, what makes the Culinary Fight Club so special is this emphasis on competition with a higher purpose: ending hunger and helping local friends in need. To achieve this goal the Culinary Fight Club gives 20% of the proceeds from each competition to Fight2Feed, a nonprofit organization which provides service and support to hungry men, women and children.

I know about the Culinary Fight Club events and I love their emphasis on helping the community – and this is why the invitation to attend their latest cooking competition in Chicago was an offer I simply could not refuse 🙂

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Time Out Chicago mac & cheese smackdown: what’s in a great mac & cheese?

It is the moment you take the first carb-loaded bite and feel your culinary discovery mission is complete. The moment you lock lips with the decadent béchamel, savor the shy nutmeg  undertones, and realize you never knew gruyère could be so delicious. You are clearly in awe of the chef’s artistry to break new ground and to create innovation in a dish which always struck you as basic, mundane, uneventful. It is that moment when your eyes open in wonderment and you can’t quite believe you’re tasting what you’re tasting: is this the humble mac & cheese – or is this history in the making? Hello, great mac & cheese rendition 🙂

Recently I had the chance to taste several exquisite takes on mac & cheese and to cast my vote to crown the best mac & cheese in Chicago. How exciting – and what a great way to spend the day for me and my mom! Keep Reading

2017 Sweets & Snacks Expo review: the perfect way to celebrate the advent of National Candy Month!

Baobites, a baobab-based snack

Who doesn’t like a piece of sweet at the end of a meal? Make it not just any sweet, but baobab-based sweet – and I think you will love the change! Citrusy and refreshing like an apricot yet also gentle to the stomach like a pear, the pieces of baobab pictured above are pure flavor Heaven. Having tasted baobab for the first time at this year’s Sweets & Snacks Expo, I am pleased to report that I am now a baobab fan. Not only are baobites delicious without being sickeningly sweet, but they are also good for you from a nutritional standpoint. I checked out several peer-reviewed articles on the topic, and the facts (high vitamin C and fiber content, amongst others) are there. Hurray for nutritious sweets and snacks!

Held in Chicago at the end of May, the Sweets & Snacks Expo celebrated its 20th anniversary in style this year, bringing together 17,000 professionals from the confectionery, cookie and snack industries and over 200 new exhibitors. A show of this caliber can be anything you want it to be: an exploration of food trends, a networking opportunity, a series of exciting and fun discoveries. This year I did a little bit of everything, and time flew by really fast. 🙂

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