Monday, July 23, 2007

Auf Weidersehen, German Food!

I've just returned from a pretty glorious trip to Europe in which I was lucky enough to visit a bit of both Austria and Germany. We spent most of our time in teeny tiny farming towns in the Alps, and if we hadn't been traveling with native Germans I don't think we would have gotten very far. There were few to no Americans and even the English of most people we encountered was pretty limited. If you'd like to see and read more about the trip, click here to check out my photo blog.

As much fun as we had, I'm not sure I'm going to be ready to have German food again for a long, long time. With the exception of the odd pizza or spaghetti here and there it was nonstop schnitzel (with a variety of sauce types), frites, red cabbage, goulash and beer.

Here's sort of what the typical dinner looked like. Don't even try to ask me what those circular potato things are. And get your mind out of the gutter! But it didn't all look like this. Below are three of our top choices.

These "frites" were a favorite. They count as a food group, right? Yeah, they're basically french fries, but they're served piping hot with plenty of salt, and a ketchup that I found to be less sweet and more tomato-y than American ketchup.

Second, the "schneeballen" we found in the super-charming, medieval city of Rothenburg. These are sliced pieces of dough fried up in "snowball" shape and flavored with everything under the sun. I had one filled with hazelnut cream and coated in frosting. Deelish.

And last, but certainly not least, I have a new favorite beer drink: the Radler (pronounced Rahd-lur). It's basically just the town's locally brewed beer mixed with about a quarter Sprite, but who would've thought that such a simple mixture could be so refreshing? The perfect antidote to the 95-degree weather we had. I'll be recreating this drink on my deck here in Chicago in the very near future.

No, German food isn't quite up at the same level of French or Italian, but I'd still be hard pressed to find a more satisfying appetizer than a tall glass of beer and a salty, crispy plate of frites at the end of the day.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Bacon Pinto Beans

If you know me well, you know that I pretty much absolutely adore beans. Of any sort really, I'm not too picky. In fact, good old cans of refried beans as a surefire hangover cure when nothing else sounds good. Those lovely legumes are a huge part of my diet so I'm always eager to try new recipes, and this one is really a winner. I love and often enjoy Betsy Beans but if you want something a little fresh and spicy with just the right amount of smoky flavor, try these sometime soon. Peter had 3 helpings they were so good. Maybe that's the reason his stomach hurt Saturday night? Beans, beans, the magical fruit...

Don't let the ingredient list scare you. Especially if you live in Chicago I promise you can find them in the Mexican section of your local Dominick's or Jewel

4 slices thick-cut bacon, cut in small pieces
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped (use your mini Cuisinart so your hands don't get sticky)
1/2 15-oz. can of fire-roasted tomatoes
2 15-oz. cans pinto beans, with juices
2 canned pickled jalapenos
1/2 cup chopped cilantro (optional)
Queso Fresco or Queso Anejo (optional)

1. Cook bacon in large stock pot over medium heat until crispy. Be sure to breathe in all those wonderful bacon smells and let them permeate your house.
2. Add chopped garlic and let saute until just golden brown and not burned.
3. Add the 1/2 can of tomatoes. Be careful, as they'll bubble up when you add them to the rendered bacon fat. Cook for about 5 minutes.
4. Add the canned beans, with all the juices intact.
5. Take the pickled jalapenos from the can and remove the stems. Cut them in half and rinse out the seeds and white membrane (they contain the heat, or capsaicin).
6.Turn heat to medium low and simmer as 15 minutes or as long as you need to get the rest of your meal complete, making sure to stir every now and then so they don't stick or dry out.
7. Just before serving, stir in the chopped cilantro if you like so it stays a bright, vibrant green. Add salt to taste.
8. For an extra special added bonus, top with a sprinkling of crumbled Queso Anejo. It's salty stuff, sort of the consistency of feta cheese, so you might not want to add extra salt if you plan to use the cheese.

Adapted from Mexican Everyday by Rick Bayless

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Mexican Fiesta!

I know, I know, it's been a little while since my last post. After a few weeks of eating out (I'll blog about them soon, I promise) and several "grab and growl" meals at home, we finally decided to make a night of it and cook a real meal. Since it's Saturday we went all out and pretty quickly settled on Mexican food as our theme. We were lucky enough to receive a great book recently: Mexican Everyday by none other than legend Rick Bayless. You're probably familiar with Bayless and his locally popular and nationally recognized Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, but this was my first time trying any of his recipes myself.

Some cookbooks, especially those by famous chefs, look nice but lack a lot in execution, unless you're a professional chef with access to things like glace de viand, truffles and foie gras. This book however lived up to our expectations. Each recipe we chose had excellent, detailed instructions and clearly had been thoroughly tested in a home kitchen. The descriptions and variations helped us adjust each recipe to our particular tastes (spicy vs. mild) and avaible ingredients (canned fire-roasted tomatoes vs. fresh). And one of my favorite features of any cookbook, it has lots of full-color pictures to accompany the recipes throughout, not just a small sampling pasted together in one section.

Here's what we chose to make:
Rustic Roasted Tomato Salsa
Guacamole with Blue Chips
Quick Cowboy Beans
Ancho Chile Flank Steak

We were going to have an upside down cherry cake too, but after all the above and several passion fruit margaritas courtesy of a mix given to us by Shelley Heinen, we quickly determined that we should hold off on dessert until tomorrow.

Everything was delicious. Sitting on the deck and sipping our margaritas in the gorgeous weather, I couldn't help but think that this was really the most perfect date night possible. It was made only slighly more un-romantic by the fact that Peter ate so much of the delicious food that his stomach started to hurt.

I'll share our twists on some of the recipes this week, but I highly recommend you buy this cookbook if you don't already have it.