May 13, 2010

Book & Restaurant Reviews: Bobby Flay's Burgers, Fries, & Shakes and State & Lake

It's a two-fer today... Call me a bad Hindu, but I love a good burger every now and then. I personally can't tell a flank steak from a strip steak, so I leave the real meat prep up to the professionals and hardly ever make them at home. However, I am a HUGE fan of Bobby Flay, and so when I stumbled across his newest, Burgers, Fries, and Shakes, at the library, I immediately brought it home and proceeded to salivate.

I dream of throwing down with him one day on his famous TV show, be it cupcakes, cookies, or even my chilis and soups, which many of you have told me are your favorites here at Spoonfoolery. But at least this cookbook has given me some confidence for summer grilling season. His basic burger recipe is the same throughout, but he spins each possibility for between your buns as anything but ordinary. From giant basil leaves in place of lettuce for his Trattoria Burger to a burger variation on the Cubano, today's "It" sandwich, Flay travels the globe in good flavor. Burgers such as the California (avocado, tomato, and watercress--what else were you expecting?), the Carolina (BBQ sauce and slaw), the Cheyenne (shoestring onion rings, bacon, and a to-die-for black-gold of a homemade BBQ sauce recipe that he gives you as well) represent this great nation of beef too. And the fries-and-onion-rings tutorial midway through the book is great for the frying illiterate, such as yours truly. I couldn't even deep fry the Indian stuff until very recently, so it's good to know some foolproof ways to handle a burger's best buddies.

The shakes portion of this cookbook simply made my day! Somehow, Flay makes it seem A-OK to prepare a 1,500-calorie meal at home, even with topping it off with one of these sweet-and-creamy indulgences. I see a Blackberry Cheesecake Milkshake or a Toasted Marshmallow Milkshake in my very near future. I am also realizing how my plan to borrow cookbooks from the library is slowly backfiring, as this is officially the third book I've borrowed lately and then purchased promptly afterward!

Perhaps what made a burger cookbook catch my eye in the first place was thoroughly enjoying one at State & Lake, inside the Wit Hotel in downtown Chicago. This is the quintessential gastropub, with a mighty fine beer list (16 on tap!) and even a reasonably priced wine list (for downtown Chicago). It's standard pub fare taken up a notch, with such recent fancy-pants items on the bar scene as salted cod brandade, savory beignets, and braised short ribs. The mac-n-cheese, which my husband sort of ate (but not really, since stout on draft generally replaces a meal for him in such places!) sports a little truffle oil but unfortunately was not cooked al dente, so I grew bored with it fast. However, my burger was nicely done (for some reason medium well seems to be a hard thing for a lot of places to accomplish these days), and the fries would probably meet Bobby Flay's standard--crispy on the outside, long and skinny enough to cook through well on the inside, with a minimal toss in salt and parsley flecks. Yum! I tend to do only half a burger in the restaurant and take the rest home for lunch the next day, and I must say, it heated up nicely and was just as enjoyable a day later. Now, if only they could master mac-n-cheese, and it'd get my total seal of gastropub approval, but then, I guess there's always Bobby Flay's Four Cheese Burger in the book to make up for that!

All this said about burgers, fries, shakes, and mac-n-cheese mistakes, I'd like to take this moment to introduce our latest addition to the Spoonfoolery editorial staff, Burger King. Burger King is a true connoisseur and hopes to take you all over Chicago (and perhaps this great nation) in search of the more perfect union of meat, bread, toppings, and fries. Look for his restaurant reviews and random research on America's favorite sandwich soon!

May 9, 2010

Chocolate Chip Cookies Three Ways

I've been on a quest for the perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe. A few weeks ago, I had the middle schoolers I teach at a local youth center make the Nielsen-Massey chocolate cookie recipe I've been meaning to try for years. Recommended to me by a dear fellow baker friend of mine, I knew we could do no wrong with this one. They couldn't have come out more perfect, really. They were slightly crispy around the edges and evenly puffed from the middle out, so they were nice and chewy on the inside with some crunch to the edges. In fact, I think they looked quite like anything you'd buy in a box, but then tasted so much better. However, when I got home and tried the same recipe, they came out overly spread-out with hardly any heft to them at all. Like a bunch of flying saucers with chocolate chips in them! Disappointing in my pathetic Frigidaire convection oven (which is really just a mere bunch of gnomes huddled together and blowing from the back--convection my a$$!). In this case, I'd lend the perfection at school to the good ol' trusty Blodgett commercial convection oven. Oh, how I'd love to have one of those aerators in my home! I also think weak home ovens, like the Frigidaire brand in general (the stock developer's appliance from this housing bubble), don't really know what to do with all that butter, and so, well... spread happens.

Next up, I leaned back on my standard staple, Sherry Yard's Quintessential Chocolate Chip Cookies. I got her Desserts by the Yard cookbook about a year ago and switched over from the Tollhouse recipe to this then and have never really gone back. Her recipe requires a little less butter and quite a bit less sugar than the Nielsen-Massey one (you'd have to double Sherry's to come up with equal proportions to the Nielsen-Massey one). Again, a much more flat and crispy return than we got at school, but my husband and I actually liked the flavor of these better. I think we are fans of anything with less sugar, so I do believe this will still remain our staple chocolate chipper. One major difference with Sherry's recipe is that she asks you to give it some fridge-chillin' time--an hour or up to overnight. Interesting, since one doesn't really think of cookies as needing any kind of "glutenization" process. So I speculate she's just going for the chill-before-baking plan of action, which helps most cookies keep their shape. I often do this with my giant decorated cookies, chilling them cut and laid out in their pans for 10-15 minutes before baking. This helps keep them from spreading too much and maintains their sturdiness for handling during the decorating process and for packing and shipping. Next time, with Sherry's, I'm going to go for overnight and see if they hold their shape better.

Last but not least, a recipe on the back of the Gold Medal flour bag caught my eye, and I thought I'd try them tonight--Oatmeal-Chocolate Chip Cookies. I love oat-anything cookies because somehow, they make me feel less like I'm eating a cookie and more like I've got a granola bar in wolf's clothing! At the risk of sounding rather Goldilocks, these were just right! The gnomes in the back of the oven seemed to make them nice, puffy, and even like the ones at school, but then they were also chewy and crispy in all the right places. With the added heft of the oatmeal, they made the perfect ending to a weekend stuck inside working both days. Here's the recipe, with a special secret ingredient. If you like Indian fusion, you'll love this!

Chai Oatmeal-Chocolate Chip Cookies a la Gold Medal Flour

2 cups quick-cooking oats
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon chai spice blend
1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar
1 cup butter, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 egg
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup chopped nuts, optional

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In a medium bowl, sift together oats, flour, baking soda, salt, and chai spice. Set aside. In a large bowl, cream butter and brown sugar with an electric mixer until well-blended. Add vanilla and egg and mix well. Add dry ingredients and mix well. Stir in chocolate chips and nuts (I used a mix of butterscotch, white chocolate, semisweet, and M&Ms!).

Drop by rounded tablespoonfuls or with cookie scoop about 2 inches apart onto parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake 9-11 minutes or until golden brown. Cool slightly and remove from cookie sheets to cooling racks. Makes about 3 dozen.

May 3, 2010

Zesty Lemon and Flaky Pastry visit Longman & Eagle, The Whistler

All the cool kids live in Logan Square these days. They're eating at recently opened Longman & Eagle, and they've been drinking at the nearby Whistler for a while. Admittedly, I'm not really cool. I always sat with the nerds when I was in school and would probably still fit in with them today. But Flaky Pastry, who I hereby declare a fellow nerd, and I did our best to fit in as we checked out both venues.

You can't argue with Longman's simple motto, which is emblazoned on its door: Eat Sleep Whiskey. All three count me as one of their biggest fans. Longman handled the latter expertly in Vieux Carre, a cocktail comprised of rye whiskey, vermouth, cognac, and Benedictine—a sort of uber-manhattan. (Whiskey lovers will find an exhaustive list of bourbons and other mainly American whiskeys on the menu.) I didn't find the kitchen as skilled as the bar, however. Yes, the kobe meatballs are little nuggets of deliciousness, served with a bright pesto and creamy polenta. And the arugula, roasted beet, and goat cheese salad was perfectly enjoyable, if a little too skimpy on the cheese. But my main course, veal breast and beef cheek manicotti, left me feeling a little flat. The veal was mostly tender and enjoyable but too fatty in parts. The manicotti, meanwhile, was too chewy. I also thought the pairing of the two didn't make sense, but that's a minor quibble. This isn't Alinea, after all. Flaky Pastry found her hamburger to be unforgivably dry and bland, and didn't even finish half of it. And it seems that veering off the whiskey list and ordering a simple white wine caused some melodrama between the bartender and the varietals. That had to be sparkliest Chardonnay she'd ever had! Some of our fellow patrons swore by the enormous, unwieldy appearing Sloppy Joe, though my thoroughly cool hair stylist (and Longman regular) tells me it shares the same quality as the burger. Caveat emptor!

Following dinner, we headed to The Whistler, a hipster haven that has (justifiably) gotten a lot of press for its creative, classically inspired cocktails. It's rather nondescript, easy-to-pass-right-by exterior decor is really no indication of the good times that can be had inside. Live music each night is a virtual guarantee, and although there's no food service, pizza delivery and takeaway is never frowned upon.

Among the cocktails, my favorite was the Slippery Slope, another manhattan-ish blend, but this time with apricot and lemon, in addition to the usual whiskey and vermouth. I also wouldn't turn down the Welcome Back, with gin, St. Germain, lillet blanc (one of those liquors popping up everywhere these days), and absinthe, which we both enjoyed. Every cocktail is just $8—a more than fair price for the quality and effort. We arrived early, around 8 pm, but by 9, the bar was brimming with neighborhood folks sporting the standard Logan Square uniform: skinny jeans, flannel, shaggy hair, and a PBR in the right hand. (Lest you think I'm exaggerating, the guy sitting at the bar next to me matched that description to a T). But these not-so-cool kids would happily drink at The Whistler again. Maybe you'll find us both relaxing on the back outdoor patio this summer!