In the swim: Strawberry rhubarb upside down cake

I’m swimming in local waters again—the pool at the Lodge is a few minutes away and if I time my visits, I can avoid the aerobic bouncers who take over the pool five times a week for six hours a day (not complaining, just reporting). In Chicago, I swam in a lap pool that was usually empty—one of the benefits of living in a hotel. Now I queue up and select my swims carefully (again, not complaining, just reporting). 

The Lodge pool, Lacey

 

Our first Chicago hotel didn’t have a pool, so I searched for alternatives. Concierge guy called the East Bank Club, a toney athletic facility a fifteen minute bus ride away, and set me up with an interview. We were clearly not a match—$25.00 for a one-day guest pass, a $500 membership initiation fee, $195 a month for “pool privileges,” plus an out-of-state annoyance fee. But what a beautiful place to swim!

East Bank Athletic Club, Chicago

Second stop—Elkhart Pool in the West Town neighborhood of Chicago, the journey was as good as the destination. I picked up the #65 bus a block from the hotel and took it to the end of the line. I was ready to move in as soon as I stepped off the bus. I walked five blocks to the pool past residential brownstones, independent coffee shops, small ethnic restaurants, neighborhood taverns, a bakery, vintage retail stores, and no big box stores, chain restaurants, or high-rise apartment buildings. Think Ballard, forty years ago. More my speed, no initiation fee, ten swims for $5.00, or $25.00 a month. But once the temperature dipped into the frigids, the bus ride back to the hotel with wet hair stopped me cold.

West Town, Chicago

Eckhart Park pool, Chicago

I hit the jackpot when we moved to our third hotel—a beautiful four-lane lap pool with a view. No bus necessary, I rode the elevator from the eleventh floor to the nineteenth floor and usually swam solo.

Homewood Suites pool, Chicago

I know it’s early—just getting ready. Saw this several places on line, so it must be true.

Strawberry rhubarb upside down cake

  • 1 1/4 cup butter (equals 2.5 sticks of butter)
  • 1lb strawberries (cleaned, stemmed)
  • 1lb rhubarb (sliced into chunky cubes)
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 heaped teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 lemon (zested, and juiced)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1/3 cup sour cream
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch

Preheat oven to 325 F degrees. Sift flour, baking powder and salt together in bowl, set aside.

On low heat in a cast iron frying pan (10” – 12” works fine), simmer brown sugar and 1/4 cup of butter for 2 minutes while whisking to incorporate; remove from heat.

Cut rhubarb into chunks and clean strawberries, leaving small ones whole and large ones sliced in half. Toss fruit with cornstarch and 1/2 cup of sugar, set aside.

Whip 2 sticks of room temperature butter until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add one cup of sugar and zest of one lemon. Cream until smooth, about 4 minutes.

Add vanilla extract, then add eggs, one at a time, mix well. Add sour cream and lemon juice, mix well. On low speed, add all of flour mixture 1/4 cup at a time.

Add fruit mixture to the warm frying pan, coating fruit with brown sugar and butter mixture. Pour batter on top of it, and smooth it out.

Place frying pan in oven at 325 degrees F. Bake for approximately one hour or until a toothpick comes out clean. Remove from oven, cool for at least 15 minutes, and flip over onto large serving plate.


Posted in Recipes, Travel | 4 Comments

An old

This morning, I hooked my bra in the front (cups to the back), spun it around, and put my arms through the straps. Now that may not mean much to you, but to me it’s another sign that I am an old. When I was in sixth grade, my mom took me to Yonker-Martin’s in downtown Sioux City to buy my first bra. Along with starting my period, I had been both dreading and anticipating this day since fifth grade. A prune-faced sales clerk wearing a brown skirt and sensible shoes ushered me into a dressing room and brought in a stack of “training bras.” She firmly turned me around, slipped my arms through the straps, directed me to lean over and do a “quick jiggle,” then she straightened me up, scooped my “breasts-in-training” into the cups, and hooked the bra into place. 

Once we found the perfect one, I was on my own. When I fumbled hooking the bra behind me, the sales clerk showed me the “easy” way: bra back to the front, hook up, turn bra around, slip arms into straps, stuff small breasts into cups and Viola! “But that’s cheating,” she said, “A real woman puts her bra on cups to the front and just knows where the hooks fit in.” Which I did until today when my left hand would not cooperate.

This afternoon, I went to see my doctor about a hand transplant. I have two titanium hips, why not a new hand? I would settle for a new ring finger and a new pointer but I’m holding out for the complete deal. I used to be able to flip a cast iron skillet with my left hand, now the Sweetie has to help. What indignity is next? Well, I’ll tell you. 

I asked my doctor if she would schedule another cortisone shot for my knee, which she did. Then she added, “I also have another suggestion that you’re not going to like—a cane or walker would be helpful.”

“But canes are for olds!” I said. 

Struggling not to roll her eyes, she looked up at me over her readers, “Use hiking poles if you want to look sporty—but think about it.”

Anyways, Chicago is over, project is done, and we’re back in our almost-moved-in house. I enjoyed the view from the eleventh floor, my hotel friends, swimming on the nineteenth floor, having a Trader Joe’s two blocks away, and not having to drive, but I love more being home with the Sweetie. 

Marina City, also know as “the corn cobs”

Here are a few random Chicago-related musings:

  • For a city the size of Chicago there’s not much local coffee. When I google “coffee,” Starbucks shows up in seven out of ten listings. 
  • Despite the abundance of sunny Winter days, you seldom need or see sunglasses in downtown Chicago.
  • Children should be banned from hotels, especially on weekends and in the swimming pools.
  • Never accept a hotel room booking next to the elevator or near the “Storage” room.
  • Elevator logic suggests that potential riders wait until the elevator empties before entering with their bags, strollers, and breakfast trays.
  • Beeps from annoyed horn honkers sound like quarrelsome children—“Did not!” “Did too!”
  • Those big-city movie scenes where someone walks partway into a busy downtown street, waves their up-stretched arm, and hails a cab in a few minutes are true. No kidding, there is always one right around the corner or down the street. 
  • Pedestrians should wait up on the sidewalk for the light to change. All street lanes are active and you will be squashed like a bug if you’re in their way.
I’ve thought about it and I’m not using a cane or sporty sticks.
Posted in Family and friends, Travel | 3 Comments

Beauty and the Beast

In the late 1980s, the Sweetie and I watched the television series, Beauty and the Beast—a fantasy/romance/crime drama about the relationship between noble Vincent, the man/beast who looked like a lion, and beautiful Catherine, the smart, successful Manhattan lawyer. Vincent lived in “the World Below”, with like-minded misfits who had been shunned by society, and Catherine moved freely between the World Below and the World Above. The secret, subterranean community, hidden in caves and tunnels miles below Fifth Avenue, was furnished with books, artwork, and faded elegance taken from the World Above. The imagery of the World Below was as romantic and appealing to me as were the story’s plot and characters. 

So, when a breakfast-room acquaintance told me about Chicago’s “Pedway”, a complex, forty block underground passageway linking more than 50 buildings in the Loop to the CTA’s Red and Blue lines, I planned my trip that day. Construction to provide weatherproof passage between the buildings began in the 1950s and has continued haphazardly ever since. Each section is independently owned and maintained by the building above and has different lights, different wall and floor composition, different decoration or lack thereof, and even different air temperatures. 

The route is illogical, with hidden entrances leading to dead end exits and dark, mysterious hallways. Signage is sketchy and obscure, so there are urban legends of lost souls still wandering the Pedway looking for a way out. There’s an entire world under those fifty buildings: the beautiful, ornate, old Marshall Field’s (now a Macy’s), an LA Fitness swimming pool, restaurants, bars, barber shops, and a Walgreens. Old-school Chicagoans pride themselves on being able to use the Pedway and are usually willing to help, while some long-time residents don’t even know that the Pedway’s exists.

My subterranean tour was brief but spectacular—I was there to see the 22 American Victorian, non-religious stained glass window installation displayed next to the Wabash Street Macy’s entrance. The windows are backlit, adding a strange glow to the dimly lit corridor.

 

 

Spiderweb, attributed to Louis Tiffany

 

Twins supporting a knight’s plumed helmet, 1890s

  

 

A Chicagoan led the way to the World Above, and I took the Red Line back to the hotel. Vincent and Catherine would love Chicago’s Pedway.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Holi, the Festival of Lights: Cauliflower or Potato Pea Curry

  

In November 1998, after twenty hours in the air and a two-hour layover in London, we walked out of the Mumbai airport into a hot, sultry night and were immediately surrounded by a push of taxi drivers vying for our business. Nothing was familiar: weather, alphabet, language, sounds—all completely new. This out-of-body experience intensified on the white-knuckle, three-hour drive to Ahmednagar as we hurtled down the two-lane road, narrowly avoiding certain collisions with Tata trucks, rickshaws, scooters, and cows. I was completely out of my element, but exhilarated and strangely at home. The sights, smells, colors, music, and food of India I so enjoyed during our stay have become consistent favorites. 

 

Last week when I saw a billboard on the bus advertising “Holi Festival Celebration at the Navy Pier”, the event went straight to my calendar. I picked up the NB #65 at the usual stop, but the crowd waiting to board was not usual. There was no need to worry about stumbling, as we were packed into the bus vertically (and intimately) like books on a shelf.

Holi, known as the festival of lights, is an ancient Hindu festival that celebrates the victory of good over evil, the end of Winter, and the arrival of Spring. Holi has become best known for its color-throwing free-for-all, where no one is exempt from being smeared, covered, and sprinkled with colored powder and doused with water-filled balloons and water guns. 

The color throwing and water drenching took place in a cordoned off outdoor area surrounded by blue plastic tarps and carefully protected sidewalks. Inside the Aon Ballroom, a standing-room-only audience watched dancers, musicians, and storytellers backed by the Surabhi Ensemble. Exotically dressed performance artists wandered around the perimeter dispensing iridescent bubbles, candy pops, and colorful yarn bracelets.

I‘m surprised how busy downtown Chicago is on the weekend. The hotel fills up with theater, museum, and concert goers, couples looking for no-drive, no-DUI party time, singles doing whatever it is singles do, and young families swimming in my pool.  Restaurants are packed with brunch, happy hour and dinner customers and clubs stay open until early morning. Maybe all big cities sparkle on the weekend, I wouldn’t know, I stay home. Anyways, it’s all fun to see, but I’ll choose a snuggle, a baseball game, and the Sweetie.

Thanks to my  dear friend Patty for the use of her beautiful photos of India. 

Cauliflower or Potato Pea Curry

  • 1 T. ghee 
  • 1 T. coconut oil
  • 1 T. mustard seeds
  • 1 diced onion
  • 1 T. fresh garlic
  • 1 T. grated ginger
  • 1 t. cumin
  • 1⁄2 t. turmeric
  • 1 t. cardamom
  • 1 fine-dice Serrano
  • 1 can diced in juice tomatoes
  • 1⁄2 c. tomato sauce
  • 2 t. sugar
  • 1 head cauliflower or 4-6 waxy-type potatoes
  • 1 c. frozen peas (defrosted and cooked 2-3 minutes)

Sauté mustard seeds in hot oil—add onions, garlic, ginger and spices.

Add serranos, tomatoes, tomato sauce and sugar. Simmer 10-15 minutes to thicken.

Add 1 head cauliflower divided into small florets or peeled and diced potatoes. Simmer the raw cauliflower or potatoes in the sauce; it will absorb the rich spiciness.

Simmer until cauliflower or potato is tender. Add peas, heat through. Serve with a squeeze of fresh lime.


Posted in Recipes, Travel | 3 Comments

Brush up your Shakespeare: Italian Wedding Soup

I wish I could say that I read Shakespeare when I don’t have to—I would seem so much deeper. Maybe it’s the language that looks artificial to my shallow, modern eye or maybe it’s the discipline of reading rhyme, but I never pull out my old “Chaucer to Shakespeare” textbook when I want to curl up with a good book. 

Watching a play in person is another story—after a few minutes, the awkwardness of hearing 16th Century English fades away and the drama, or comedy, takes hold. I wanted to visit Chicago’s Navy Pier anyway, so when I saw that there was a Saturday matinee of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” I bought an on-line ticket and took the #65 bus to the pier. 

It was a bright, sunny day, the Pier was crowded with the young and hip, Mom, Dad, and the kids, olds like me, and packs of roaming teens followed by an occasional adult. Prominent signs declaring that “No one under 18 allowed on the Navy Pier after 5:00 pm without an escort” assured even the most timid that tomfoolery and shenanigans were unlikely. 

I found my seat in the intimate theater and settled in as the lights flickered to quiet the audience. An actor dressed as his character bounded onto the stage, welcomed us, and encouraged everyone to relax, not to worry about the plot, and to just enjoy the experience. The actors, who were skilled professionals, changed characters and costumes offstage frequently and presented the play confidently, without hesitation.

After the last bow was taken, the entire cast sat down on the stage floor and opened the floor to remarks from the audience. There were grade school, middle school, and high school English classes in attendance and many eager hands shot up, waving to be the one chosen to ask a question. Anyways, I enjoyed it all and vowed to see another play soon.

Navy Pier yacht, Odyssey, available to book for cruises on Lake Michigan.

The set for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Prism.jpg

Polk Brothers Park sculpture, “Prismaticia—an installation comprised of pivoting prisms more than two metres high transforming the space into a giant kaleidoscope.”

Italian Wedding Soup

Meatballs:

  • 1/2 lb. ground beef
  • 1/2 lb. ground pork
  • 1  egg, slightly beaten
  • 2 tablespoons breadcrumbs
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1 tablespoon Parmesan cheese
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1/2 tsp. dried thyme
  • 1/4 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1/4 tsp. dried rosemary
  • Or 3/4 tsp. Italian herb combination
  • Salt to taste

Soup base:

  • 1 cup diced onion
  • 1/2 lb. diced mushrooms
  • 1 Tblsp. minced garlic
  • 1/2 tsp. dried red chilies
  • 1/4 tsp. salt 
  • 1 peeled, diced carrots
  • 1/2 cup uncooked orzo 
  • 1 quart chicken stock
  • 2 cups chopped spinach 
  • grated Parmesan cheese for garnish

Meatballs: In medium bowl combine, meat, egg, bread crumbs, milk, parmesan cheese, seasonings, salt, and pepper; shape into small meatballs.

In large sauce pan, sauté diced onion, mushrooms, garlic, and chilies for 3-5 minutes until onions are soft. Season with salt.

 Add carrots, meatballs, and orzo and sauté 3-5 minutes. 

Add chicken stock, bring to simmer and cook until carrots are soft, 10-15 minutes. 

Add chopped spinach.

Serve with additional Parmesan cheese sprinkled on top.


Posted in Travel | 1 Comment

Fat Tuesday, Paczki Day

 

If you were with me in Houston, you may remember kolaches, those fruit and cream filled Czech pastries so popular in East Texas—here in Chicago, it’s paczki. Last Tuesday was Paczki Day—picture, if you will, a plump donut made with an eggy, yeasty dough, deep fried until golden brown, poked and filled to the bursting with preserves or pastry cream, then sugar-glazed, and finally iced with frosting, sprinkled with powdered sugar, or both. Available only on Fat Tuesday, a paczki may be the best possible pre-Lenten indulgence. 

I listened to a local radio piece about them Tuesday morning and thus began my paczki adventure. Before we set out, a word about the word itself. How would you pronounce paczki—packs ski, pak zi, pakz kee? Oh no, it’s pōhnsch key—with an long o, an n, and a sch. I guess that pronunciation shouldn’t come as a surprise. Mike Shih shef ski, Duke University’s Polish basketball coach, spells his name, Krzyzewski—now where does the K, the R, the Z, and the EW fit in?

Anyways, both the Chicago Tribune and WBEZ, my radio companion, warned that today was the only day in the year that paczki would be available, that I’d better have my pre-order in, and that lines were already forming, so I skipped my swim for the better good. I Googled “Chicago’s best paczki,” but Dinkle’s and Bridgeport Bakery both required a 45-minute Red Line ride, so I kept scrolling and found Do-Rite Do-nuts, a ten minute walk from the hotel. The media was right—lines were formed, I hadn’t placed an order, and they were already out of strawberry buttercream, Fat Elvis, and lemon curd. I gratefully settled on four Glazed Chocolate Nutella paczki, four Frosted Raspberry Cream paczki, and threw in a couple Buttermilk Old Fashioneds.

 

Paczkis are traditionally shared, so I stopped at our hotel’s valet kiosk where Dimitri and Hector rock/paper/scissored to choose a Nutella. Next stop, the front desk where one raspberry and one Nutella vanished. A guest from Pittsburg checking in didn’t hesitate to pick his favorite, a raspberry. Lupe the housekeeper also wanted a raspberry, leaving me a Nutella to immediately consume with a glass of milk (the recommended beverage), plus two for later. 

Sorry Houston, so much for kolaches. And you Portland, meet the paczki—even better than a Voodoo Doughnut.

Paczki

  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 4 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast (2 standard sized envelopes)
  • 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 5 cups (22.5 ounces) all purpose flour
  • 4 eggs yolks plus one whole egg
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
  • 2 quarts canola oil for frying
  • 1 1/2 cups of your favorite preserves
  • 1 cup powdered sugar for dusting

In a small saucepan heat milk to between 110 an 115°F. Pour warmed milk into a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer. Dissolve yeast in milk. Add one Tablespoon sugar and two cups of flour. Mix until consistency of pancake batter then cover with plastic wrap and place in a warm spot to allow yeast to activate. Let rest for 30 minutes or until starter is very bubbly.

In a medium bowl combine egg and yolks. Whisk until light and frothy, about 4 minutes. Whisk in 1/2 cup sugar, salt and vanilla.

Slowly stir cooled melted butter into yeast starter until combined. Then slowly incorporate egg mixture until just combined. Fit mixer with dough hook. Stir in flour, working 1/2 a cup in at a time until a soft dough comes together. Note: this dough is very sticky.

Spray a large bowl with cooking spray and transfer dough to bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and set in a warm place to rise until double in size. About an hour.

Turn out dough on a very generously floured surface. Dust surface of dough with flour then punch down dough to about half an inch high. Using a floured two- or three-inch biscuit cutter, cut out doughnuts. Carefully transfer doughnut rounds to parchment lined baking sheets. Cover sheets with a clean dish towel and set in a warm place to rise until doubled in size, about 30 minutes.

Pour canola oil into a large dutch oven to a depth of 2 inches. Heat oil to 360°F. Once oil reaches the proper temperature use a heat resistant spatula or shallow strainer to carefully drop doughnuts in, one at a time, cooking a maximum of 3 at once. Cook doughnuts until a warm, deep brown on one side, then using heat resistance tongs turn the doughnut and cook the other side until it reaches the same degree of doneness. Remove from oil letting any excess oil drain off then transfer to a wire rack for cooling. Test your first doughnut to make sure that the insides are completely cooked, if not adjust your cooking time accordingly. Let doughnut cool. 

Prepare a wide and shallow bowl with powdered sugar. Fill your pastry bag with your favorite preserves and fit the bag with a filling tip. Pipe filling into pączki then dip each side in powdered sugar until covered

Posted in Recipes, Restaurants, Travel | 2 Comments

Not me: Pear Tarts

Every day, the hosts and servers at Sound Food threatened to yank this tape out of the machine and throw it into the blender.

The Me Too movement pointed a finger at politicians, TV hosts, the clergy, military personnel, restaurant chefs and managers, financial wizards, corporate higher ups, athletic trainers, comedians, and Hollywood players but it seems to have skipped rock stars. It’s hard to imagine that rock stars never took advantage of their stardom—I’m just sayin’.

Until this year, I hadn’t thought much about sexual harassment in my old work world. I started my restaurant career on Vashon Island when I was thirty—past the “sell-by” date in restaurant years. Sound Food wasn’t a brutal, pressure cooker stereotype but a hippie-tinged cafe where hostility and aggression were rare and bullies or predators just didn’t fit in. Women played major roles: three of the night cooks, two of the bakers, a janitor, most of the waitron units, half of the owners, and four of the hosts were women. Oh, there was definitely crude language, inappropriate humor, politically incorrect banter, sharp criticism, and personalty clashes but it was always out in the open and part of the everyday fabric of restaurant life

Sexual harassment didn’t show up for me in Los Angeles either. Although sharp-tongued, perfectionist men ran both Stratton’s and Trumps kitchens, as far as I knew, neither used his power to force favors from the people in his employ. When I worked for the 1984 Olympics Committee, two women (my supervisor and her boss) hired me to replace the existing chef because they didn’t like working with his aggressive attitude and large ego. And in a Susan Feniger/Mary Sue Milliken or Tom Douglas restaurant, tolerance for threatening behavior was inconceivable. Anyways, I never did have to resort to a defense recommended by one of my mentors: “Just give him a good kick in the shins.”

I am not dismissing or discounting anyone else’s experiences and maybe I was just lucky, but it just never happened to me. Oh I was yelled at, fired, criticized, blamed, and ridiculed—but never groped. Maybe I was too old or too happily-married, or perhaps an encounter with someone who wore baggy hound’s tooth-checked pants and a ridiculous paper hat, smelled like duck fat, and was so sweaty her socks squished doused the fire before it was lit. 

So while I didn’t see sexual harassment, I did see an industry that treats its employees poorly. Food service workers are routinely overworked and underpaid, in a physically demanding, poorly equipped, marginally safe, and just plain unpleasant work environment. Breaks are few and either discouraged or not allowed—so cooks, dishwashers, and prep staff often work eight to twelve hours without a rest. Again, in my experience, Feniger/Milliken and Tom Douglas were the exceptions and ran kitchens where staff meal was planned and break hours paid for. 

There’s pressure on restaurant kitchens today to develop a more enlightened attitude and to transition from the exploitative, old-school culture into one that supports an employee’s physical and mental well-being. Of course that means higher prices which neither management nor the customer wants. Hiring that considers more women for management positions and puts less emphasis on the wonders of young men could also go a long way toward creating a better work environment. So, maybe it is time for a good shakeup.

Here are a few random Chicago shots.

Yikes!

Chicago River

Chicago Tribune 

In a previous post, I mentioned Chicago’s winter tradition of calling dibs on just-shoveled parking spaces with lawn chairs. Yesterday on my way to the cleaners, I saw this window display about a neighborhood shelter raising money by auctioning chairs painted by local artists.

Tom Douglas’ Pear Tarts with Caramel Sauce

Poached Pears:

  • 3 ripe but firm pears
  • 2 c. sugar
  • 4 c. water
  • 1 t. vanilla
Dissolve sugar in water over medium heat. Peel, core, and half pears. Add to liquid and poach gently until pears are soft. Will take approximately 20-25 minutes. Remove pears from liquid, cool. Blend ingredients in mixer or food processor until smooth.
 
Almond Cream:
  • 4 oz. almond paste
  • 1⁄2 c. sugar
  • 3 T. soft butter
  • 2 egg yolks
To make the almond cream, mix the almond paste and sugar using the paddle attachment of an electric mixer. The mixture will look crumbly. Beat in the butter, bit by bit. Add the egg yolk and mix until creamy and smooth, set aside.
 
Caramel Sauce:
  • 2 c. sugar
  • 1⁄2 c. water
  • 1 1⁄2 c. heavy cream
  • 3 T. soft butter

Dissolve sugar in water over low heat, shaking constantly. When sugar is dissolved, raise heat to high until sugar is warm brown. Remove from heat and add cream—be careful, it will splatter. When caramel stops bubbling, return to medium heat for about 5 minutes. Add butter, keep warm.

Using purchased frozen puff pastry, cut into squares 5” by 5”. Place squares on parchment-papered baking sheet. Spread 2 T. almond cream in a circle on each unbaked square. Top each with a thinly sliced poached pear half. Dot with butter and bake 20-25 minutes at 400°. Pour small amount of caramel sauce on dessert plate. Set tart next to sauce, garnish with whipped cream. Serve with extra sauce.

Posted in Chefs, Recipes, Restaurants | 1 Comment

Space, the final frontier: Iowa Cheesecake

If you received this new post as an email from Marla in the Kitchen, watch the video below by clicking on the post title, “Space, the final frontier.” You’ll be redirected to the blog’s website where YouTube videos can be played. If you like the music, check out HBO’s new documentary, “May it Last: The Avett Brothers.”

The Sweetie and I wonder, where are Chicago’s wider citizens, pastel clothing, baggy blue jeans, pickup trucks, pedestrians who stroll, drivers who don’t honk at every perceived insult, and chain restaurants? We now know: they’re in DeKalb.

Last week the Sweetie’s team supported a short Go Live at Kishawalkie Hospital in DeKalb, IL (60 miles NW of Chicago), so Friday night we lugged a suitcase full of clothes and coffee to the Allerton Hotel on Michigan Avenue to pick up a charter bus, destination—Country Inn & Suites. Twenty-five people with twenty-five pieces of luggage lined up in front of a large van, not a bus (as it turned out).

We boarded first (thanks in no small part to my sharp elbows) and got two seats in the back, but found ourselves trapped behind a center aisle filled with heavy suitcases—no rest stops for us. Hilarity ensued as twenty-three trainers (and two tagalong wives) fought for a place to sit, space to rest arms, a lap for a laptop, leverage to cram legs over the wheel-wells, and room to unwrap tuna sandwiches. Luckily the front windows wouldn’t roll up, so everyone kept their coats on, staying warm and avoiding accidental whacks as a bonus. When the bus driver admonished, “Now, buckle up!”, there were no obedient seatbelt clicks, only the sound of fifty eyes rolling. No one sang Kumbaya or exchanged jolly tales as the van crept along, stuck in Friday night, stop-and-go traffic.

Three hours later when the driver parked in front of the Country Inn & Suites, we all limped off, headed for the bathrooms, then lined up to check in. When I opened the curtains in the morning and looked out—we had been dropped off on a different planet. 

 Friday, out the window

Saturday, out the window

What a difference a day makes. On Friday I could lunch in downtown Chicago on tlayudas at XOCO, arancini at Eataly, a pork belly bowl at Sweetgreen’s, or sushi at Oysy. On Saturday I browsed Walgreen’s Snack aisle, opting for Pringles and a Thin Mint. Down the block, instead of Nordstrom or Neiman Marcus, there was Blain’s Farm and Fleet, home to plaid shirts, Dad jeans, tractor accessories, and seeds. Lest I sound like a city brat, I did enjoy the quiet streets, the wide store aisles, a large hotel room that wasn’t next to the elevator, and crispy waffles in an empty breakfast room.

No wonder big cities and rural towns don’t agree on political matters—it’s all about space. Navigating crowded Chicago sidewalks requires constant compromise among pedestrians—move over a bit, deal with transit delays, accept the occasional weird encounter, live with the shoulder brush, and rely on access to everything on foot. In rural DeKalb there is minimal contact with strangers, wide streets, enormous parking lots, expansive space between businesses, houses on half-acre lots, but no sidewalks or mass transit. Apparently, there is no life without a car.

Anyways, rural living is not for me but then, as it turns out, downtown city living is not for me either. How about, the outskirts of an interesting small city, Olympia perhaps?

“You had to be there, Chicago”

Back in Chicago, the Sweetie has no clean hankies. My Bridget keeps the Sweetie supplied, but even her special ones, engraved with an “A”, are at the bottom of the dirty clothes pile. Now I understand that carrying a handkerchief is a dying art, but nevertheless, we decide to buy some new ones. 

Nordstrom is across the street from the hotel, therefore the logical spot to shop. We avoid the perfume counters, wind through aisles of Prada purses and Gucci shoulder bags, ride up the escalator to Men’s Furnishings, walk past skimpy Tom Ford suits, indolent Italian loafers, and trendy wool shoes to “ Accessories.” Italian silk ties, leather wallets soft as a baby’s cheek, neatly folded designer pocket squares—but no white cotton hankies.

 

A young retail salesperson, sleek as a greyhound, Jimmy Choos over to us, “Can I help you find something?”

“Hankies”, says the Sweetie waving his last one.

“For the nose?”, she asks in wonder and disbelief.

Iowa Cheesecake

Crust: 1 1⁄2 c. graham cracker crumbs, 1⁄2 c. melted butter, 1⁄2 c. powdered sugar. Combine graham cracker crumbs, melted butter and powdered sugar. Press into bottom of 8” springform pan.

Cheesecake: Three 8 oz. packages softened cream cheese, 4 eggs, 1 c. sugar, 1 t. vanilla, 1 pint sour cream. In large bowl beat cream cheese, eggs, sugar and vanilla until smooth. Pour mixture over crust.

Bake at 325° for 50 minutes. To minimize cracking, place shallow pan half full of water on lower rack of oven during baking. Remove from oven, spread sour cream over cake. Be sure sour cream is room temperature. Return to oven and bake an additional 5 minutes. Remove from oven, cool. Serves 16.

Posted in Travel | 1 Comment

Living For the City

If you received this new post as an email from Marla in the Kitchen, watch the video below by clicking on the post title, “Living for The City.” You’ll be redirected to the blog’s website where YouTube videos can be played.

In the heart of downtown Chicago there are endless products to buy, places to go, and things to eat, all within walking distance. Eataly (guess we can’t call it Mario Batalli’s Eataly anymore) is a half block away, Trader Joes, Whole Foods, and an AMC “Dine-In” Movie Theatre are within one block, and there’s a Nordstrom, a Rolex, and a Burberry across the street. You can find Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Mediterranean, vegan, raw food food without pausing to take a breath. There are enough dive bars and taverns selling burgers, hot dogs, pizza, and wings to support a pop-up Maalox kiosk. 

I can find a $2000 pair of shoes, a $5700 watch, a $175 throw pillow, $100 Lucky jeans, $800 sheets, or a $350 Swarovski bauble without having to cross the street. What I can’t find is thread, push pins, or packing tape. The Jewel Osco, a block away, is crammed with groceries, health and beauty aids, rows of assorted Scotch and flavored vodka, a million artisan beers, two aisles of prepared food, and three aisles of frozen entrees but it got rid of the office supply section and never did carry thread or needles. I did find a two-spool travel pack and some scotch tape at Walgreens, a six-block walk away and the sales clerk did breezily suggest an Office Depot for packing tape only a short Uber away. What? So, no push pins or packing tape for me.

But I really need fabric and thread for my current quilt, so I asked Mr. Google what to do. His advice: walk to Michigan and Erie, take the #157 bus, get off 17 stops later at Jefferson, walk three blocks, turn on DesPlaines and there you are at Fishman’s Fabrics.

                     Desplaines & Taylor

 

               Chicago Fire Academy Memorial

                         Chicago river

                            Fishman’s

Ginny would love it. Fishman’s is a wonderful old Chicago institution with giraffe prints, animal hides, high-end upholstery material, three aisles of sparkly prom dress material, enough tulle to make a bride swoon, commercial-grade zippers, satins, laces, and bows—but no quilting fabric. I so wanted to buy fabric at such an authentic, old-school warehouse but no…where did I have to go? Down the block and across the street to my least favorite store: JoAnne’s, easily found at any strip mall across America. Oh well, the outside temperature was above 30°, I waited on the right side of the street for the bus, and came back fueled with fabric and plenty of thread—I’m still looking for pushpins and packing tape.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Saturday in Chicago: Okonomiyaki

If you received this new post as an email from Marla in the Kitchen, watch the video below by clicking on the post title, “Saturday in Chicago.” You’ll be redirected to the blog’s website where YouTube videos can be played.

Neighborhood streets in downtown Chicago move with specific rhythms. Michigan Avenue hums to the tune of retail consumerism: sidewalks bustle with tourists window shopping along the Magnificent Mile and locals in-store shopping for Hermes bags, jewelry, Needless Markup glamour, and Nordstrom shoes. Walk a block over to St. Claire and the song is a business-like drone: blue-scrubbed doctors, nurses, blue-suited office workers, and bleary-eyed medical students. A few blocks across State to Dearborn, sidewalk storefronts reflect ballads about ordinary life and routine errands: Kathy’s Cleaner, the Post Office, Bank of America, the X5 barbershop. Walk toward the La Salle Street Bridge and you’ll hear the beat of wholesale commerce at the Chicago Merchandise Mart (so large it has its own zip code), home to architectural/design vendors and showrooms.

Weekend early-morning streets are quiet—sidewalks empty, construction sites silent, cranes unmoving, taxis still in line at the airport, city dogs and toddlers asleep, Starbuck windows just beginning to fog over; but by 9:00 am, black puffy coats and backpacks cruise along the sidewalk ready to eat. 

Weekend routines revolve around food. City residents love brunch, a chance to sleep off Friday night and celebrate weekend freedom with biscuits and gravy or chicken and waffles, washed down with a little hair of the dog. By 2:00, it’s time to eat again: tacos at XOCO, nachos at Rockbottom, jazz and wings at Buddy Guy’s, Lou Malnati’s for deep-dish pizza, beers and dogs at Mom’s, a burger at the Billy Goat Tavern, or Irish whiskey at Fado. Last Saturday afternoon, my choice was Ramen-san for okonomiyaki, served on Saturdays before 3:00. 

When I got there at 1:30, the dining room was packed and the bar in full swing. A sweet hostess showed me to a table, gave me a menu, and disappeared. As I slipped off my puffy coat and looked around, I noticed that I was one of two people in the room over 30. I also counted eight out of ten customers holding their phone in their hand, looking down at the phone in their hand, or sharing what was on the phone in their hand. No one actually talks on phones anymore. 

But I digress, I was there for the okonomiyaki. I have had a better one in Seattle, but this version, served in a bowl with pork belly and a fried egg, hit my savory-pancake spot. I ordered a bowl of “tonkotsu » traditional broth, chashu, molten egg” for two to go, bundled up, and walked home.

Osaka-style Okonomiyaki (Savory Japanese pancake)

 

Pancake base: 

1 cup okonomiyaki flour, regular flour can be substituted 

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon granulated sugar

2/3 cup water (if you use nagaimo root, omit water)

1/2-3/4 cup peeled, grated nagaimo root – tuberous vegetable, similar to a potato found in most Asian markets. Authentic but not necessary. Peeled, grated nagaimo is starchy and somewhat gluey, with a slightly sweet taste and crunchy texture, used mostly as a binder. 

 

3 large eggs

1 cup shredded green cabbage

1/2 pound pork belly or bacon slices

Tenkasu (bits of fried tempura batter, available in Asian markets)

 

Fillings:

Shrimp with green onion

Beef with grilled onions, and kimchi

Pork with green peas, and bean sprouts

Octopus, crab, or squid

Cooked Yakisoba noodles

 

Okonomiyaki sauce: 

4 tablespoons ketchup, 3 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce, 1 tablespoon soy sauce or oyster sauce, 2 tablespoons sugar. Change proportions to suit your taste. This sauce can also be purchased ready-made at Asian grocery stores.

 

Garnishes:

Bonito (fish flakes)

Green dried seaweed (aonori)

Soft-boiled eggs

Pickled ginger

 

Step 1: Combine okonomiyaki flour, baking powder, salt, sugar in a mixing bowl. Mix well. 

 

Step 2: Trim one end off the nagaimo root. With a sharp knife, peel off the light brown skin. Grate about 1/2 to 3/4 cup of nagaimo into the bowl. Try not to grate your knuckles; the nagaimo has a very slimy consistency. Add water or grated nagaimo to flour mixture. Refrigerate for one hour.

 

Step 3: Thinly slice about 1 cup of green cabbage. 

 

Step 4: Add raw eggs, grated cabbage, and tempura scraps to flour/nagaimo mixture.  Add your choice of fillings and mix well. 

 

Step 5: Heat a large, flat skillet or griddle. Evenly spread 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil on the surface. When oil shimmers, spread okonomiyaki batter in a circle, 6 inches across and 3/4 inch thick. You will get several servings out of the batter, so don’t use all the batter at once. Don’t make the pancake too big. You will flip it twice, so don’t make the pancake bigger than your spatula.

 

Place pork belly or bacon slices on top of okonomiyaki and cook covered for 7-10 minutes. 

 

Step 6: When pancake is browned on one side, flip the okonomiyaki and cook the other side for 7 to 9 minutes. Flip it over again, and cook for 3 minutes more.

 

Step 7: Remove the okonomiyaki to a plate and with a pastry brush, brush the brown okonomiyaki sauce over the surface. Take the bottle of Kewpie and squeeze lines of mayonnaise across the surface in a criss-cross pattern; it should look like lattice. Sprinkle about 2 to 3 tablespoons of fish flakes and aonori on top. Place a tablespoon of pickled ginger in the middle.

Posted in Recipes, Restaurants, Travel | 1 Comment