Friday, April 30, 2010

My kind of town.

Our recent trip to Chicago was really, really great. Some tidbits:

  • On the recommendation of some friends and TripAdvisor, we took an architecture river cruise and LOVED it. I can't recommend it highly enough - make sure you bring a camera (and a coat, if it's a chilly day like we had).

  • The Museum of Science and Industry is really cool, and even better when it's free, like it was on the day we went.

  • Public transportation in Chicago is outstanding. We parked early in the morning and took trains and buses just about everywhere. Get a 3-day pass and go to town!

  • Millennium Park is beautiful and worth a visit. If you're lucky, you'll go on a quiet, chilly morning and get the Cloud Gate all to yourself:

  • Make a reservation to eat lunch at Rick Bayless's Frontera Grill. I didn't know what real Mexican food was until we ate there. HINT: cheese was conspicuously (and pleasantly) missing from our plates). 

  • Shedd Aquarium is beautiful, the sea otters and the sea turtle are mesmerizing, but thank the universe the Fantasea show only costs two dollars. I know what Frontera Grill did with all the cheese that's missing from their food - they shipped it off to Shedd and Fantasea was formed out of it. What an cornball show. If you go, sit in the front row so you can at least get a glimpse of a penguin.

  • Oh yeah, and we saw four incredible Ben Folds shows (one was in St. Louis) - numbers 32, 33, 34 and 35! His cover of Dresden Dolls' The Jeep Song was particularly great, as was hearing these other songs live for the first time ever:
    - Jackson Cannery
    - Video
    -  Don't Change Your Plans
    - Mess
    - Carrying Cathy
    - Fired
    - Time
    - Wandering
    - Songs of Love
    - Practical Amanda (from new Nick Hornby collaboration due out in September)
    - Say Yes (Elliot Smith cover)
    - Twin Falls (Built to Spill cover)
    - The Jeep Song (aforementioned)
    - Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head
    - Long Tall Texan
    - Chopsticks (Liz Phair cover)
    Whew!

  • The drive back to KC flew by, thanks to podcasts of This American Life. INDISPENSABLE on a road trip. Seriously.
When we got back home, I was really happy to cook again - I missed it! We had grilled chicken with a spice rub from Penzey's, some mashed sweet potatoes and I made a really delicious quick brown bread, the recipe for which follows below. This bread is dense, but not heavy, and is just wonderful with a touch of buttery spread. Mmm... It reheats nicely in the microwave, too.

I have a picture somewhere, but I haven't uploaded it yet. It looks like the bread from Outback Steakhouse, only slightly lighter in color.

Sweet Brown Bread
Servings: 8
Weight Watchers Points: 1.5 per serving

1 1/4 c. whole-wheat flour
1 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. grated orange zest
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/8 tsp. salt
1/2 c. low-fat buttermilk
1 large egg
2 Tbsp. molasses
2 Tbsp. dark brown sugar, packed

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Spray an 8 x 4-inch loaf pan with nonstick spray.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, zest, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. In another bowl, combine the buttermilk, egg, molasses and brown sugar. Pour over the flour mixture, mixing quickly to blend (do not overmix).

Transfer to the prepared pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 35-40 minutes. Cool completely on a rack.

We're heading to Texas next week for more shows, food and fun. Yee haw!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Where's the beef?

This weekend we head off to the Windy City for several days of food, music and fun. Lots of chicken sandwiches on the road, sushi, a trip to Frontera Grill and other surprises await. We might even take in a show or two (or four). But as excited as I am for our trip, I'm really going to miss cooking for the next week.

I've gotten to the point with cooking that there are very few places I like to go out to eat any more. I can put together something delicious and far healthier at home for a fraction of the cost, and have fun doing it. It is so very satisfying to sit down to a meal I've put together myself and realize it looks every bit as good as something I'd pay good money for in a restaurant. Then to take a bite and go, "Wow - this is GOOD!" It amazes me every time. Even when I get a good meal out somewhere, I still miss the feeling of having made it myself.

That said, I am looking forward to new tastes, new places and several days of not having to put together a shopping list :)

While I'm away, you should cook one of my favorite meals: Grilled Portobello Mushrooms with Thyme and Garlic and Creamy Polenta with Roasted Red Pepper Coulis. (I think it takes longer to type out the title of the dish than to make it.) These two dishes are great accompaniments to other things, but they go especially well together.  The mushrooms can marinate while the polenta cooks, then you broil the mushrooms while the polenta rests. Make sure to use plenty of fresh thyme - and save some to sprinkle over the whole thing before serving. We have this a couple of times a month - I hope it finds a way into your rotation, too! I think we made this twice before we considered it is meatless - the mushrooms are so... so... meaty, that we didn't miss not having chicken or fish on the plate.

Creamy Polenta with Roasted Red Pepper Coulis
Servings: 6
Weight Watchers Points: 3 per serving

1 red bell pepper, roasted, seeded and chopped - jarred is just fine
1 clove garlic
1/4 tsp. dried basil
1 3/4 c. water
1 3/4 c. skim milk
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 tsp. salt
1 c. polenta, preferably stone-ground
1/4 c. grated Parmesan cheese
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh thyme, plus extra for garnish

In a blender or food processor, combine the roasted red pepper, garlic, basil and 1 Tbsp. of the water. Process until smooth and set the coulis aside.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Lightly coat a 9-inch round cake pan with cooking spray.

In a large saucepan, combine the milk, remaining water, olive oil and salt. Whisk in the polenta and place over medium heat. Whisk constantly until the polenta begins to thicken. Reduce heat to low and resume stirring with a wooden spoon. Cook, stirring frequently, until the polenta pulls away from the sides of the pan, about 15 minutes. Add the coulis and stir to combine. Pour the mixture into the prepared cake pan and sprinkle with cheese. Bake until firm, about 15 minutes. Let stand in the pan for 10 minutes before serving. Cut into 6 wedges and sprinkle with thyme.

Grilled Portobello Mushrooms with Thyme and Garlic
Servings: 4
Weight Watchers Points: 1 per serving

2 Tbsp. vegetable broth
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp. fresh thyme, chopped, plus more for garnish
1/4 tsp. salt
4 large portobello mushrooms, brushed clean and stemmed

Combine the stock, olive oil, vinegar, garlic, thyme and salt in a large zip-lock bag. Arrange the mushroom caps in one layer in the marinade, turning once to coat. Seal the bag, pressing out excess air. Marinate the mushrooms at room temperature, turning occasionally, about 30 minutes to 1 hour.

Prepare a hot grill or broiler, and lightly coat the grill rack or broiler pan with cooking spray. Positon the cooking rack 4 inches from the heat source.

Arrange the mushrooms on the rack or broiler pan and grill or broil, turning often, until tender, about 4 minutes total per side.

Using tongs, transfer the mushrooms to a cutting board. slice thinly and serve warm.