Kristina Eats: Chicago

Chicago: bright, electric, innovative, resilient.

I was born in Evanston, Illinois, but I moved to Ohio when I was two months old. Needless to say, I hardly had any memories of Chicago or the surrounding area. Last weekend, I finally made the trip for the first time as an adult. Here are some of the places my friends and I fell in love with.

The Publican

A few of my colleagues at America’s Test Kitchen recommended this West Loop restaurant to me. The Publican and Publican Quality Meats boasts high-quality, local meats and cheeses. They diligently document where they source their ingredients. Our meal was guaranteed to include seasonal ingredients.

To start: Honeycrisp Apple—a salad featuring a whole ball of fresh, ultra-creamy burrata, mouthwateringly sweet honeycrisp apples, julienned brussels sprouts, and walnuts topped with a whole-grain mustard vinaigrette. Every bite was at once sweet, earthy, crunchy, tangy, and creamy. Gorgeous.

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For the main affair: Pork Belly, seared and placed atop creamy, chewy grits. Roasted pears and hazelnuts were placed on top of the pork belly with greens and crumbled farmers cheese. This portion of pork belly featured the meatiest part, with hardly any fatty sections. Pure heaven.

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Bombobar

Located on the side of Bar Siena, this is a walk-up gelato and bomboloni (Italian donut) joint with picnic tables for you to sit at (and heat lamps for when it gets cold outside). The flavors are out of this world. I chose to have one scoop of Caramelized Coconut Fudge and one scoop of S’Mores gelato. Creamy, decadent, and incredibly unique.

Tip: If you ask, they will make you a bomboloni ice cream sandwich. Yes, you read that right.

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Portillo’s

Chicago’s go-to place for the quintessential Chicago hot dog (poppy seed bun, yellow mustard, sliced tomatoes, sweet pickle relish, chopped onions, a dill pickle, pickled sports peppers, and celery salt). I was skeptical, but the poppy seed bun made it work and I loved the combination of flavors. That’s not a soda I’m drinking there, either. Nope, that’s a cake shake. Portillo’s puts a whole slice of double-layer chocolate cake in a milkshake. And that’s their size small. Worth a try, but you’ll probably need to share!

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Lou Malnati’s 

My Chicago friends all told me one thing: feast on deep dish pizza at Lou Malnati’s. Below marks the first moment I’ve ever had this deep dish pizza pie. The crust was crunchy yet buttery. The cheese was melty, gooey, and stringy, even with fresh tomato sauce placed on top (still a conundrum to my Regina’s pizza heart).

Tip: If you have to wait a long time for a table, never fear. You can place your pizza order on the spot. Since the pizza takes almost an hour to make, your pizza will be ready for you by the time you sit down.

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Fork

Situated in Lincoln Square, this casual brunch spot specializes in cheese and charcuterie. Because of this, I ordered their burrata cheese plate (can you tell I’m a bit of a burrata freak?). This cheese plate featured a ball of homemade burrata placed on top of pistachio pesto. To the right of that is grilled grapes with a balsamic vinegar reduction. Grilled, buttered crostini complete the plate. I loved the smoky grapes and the savory, nutty flavors of pistachio in pesto. The burrata was also top-quality.

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The Allis

For an affordable, casual-chic afternoon tea, I could not have imagined a better place in my mind than The Allis. Situated in the West Loop, this historic building features glass chandeliers and chairs upholstered with various colors of velvety fabric or soft leather. So while the building seems to have once been a warehouse, the furnishings make the space chic and luxurious (hence the casual-chic descriptor). I loved the dishes. I wanted to steal them and take them home with me (I didn’t though, don’t worry!). While I would have loved more tea sandwiches, the buttery, flaky scones and the expertly crafted pastries made the experience well worth it.

Tip: If you run out of tea, just ask for more hot water!

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Here’s to you, Chicago. Thanks for treating me like a queen. Until next time!

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Cheesy Quinoa with Sautéed Rainbow Swiss Chard

Hello! I’m back.

Transitioning into the full-time job lifestyle is not an easy task, but with every new week I settle more and more into a routine. The test kitchen is busy making delicious food (some of which they allow employees to take home!), and I’m learning more about new ingredients.

Take quinoa. I grew up with rice, pasta, barley, and farro, but quinoa is a relatively new grain for me and my family. I’ve tried the pre-packaged, pre-flavored kinds. Don’t go there. Buy the plain kind and doctor it up yourself. Do keep in mind that there are different types of quinoa (like red quinoa), and check to see if the quinoa is “pre-rinsed.” If not, then please rinse it yourself! Don’t do what I did once and have a dish of bitter quinoa. Rinsing the grain helps take that bitter layer off. Now I’m imagining those NBC commercials with that music playing as the celebrity says “the more you know…”

Swiss chard is my new favorite green, leafy vegetable. Unlike fibrous kale, the leaves are soft to the touch. Swiss chard’s more mild flavor comes to life when simply sautéed with extra virgin olive oil, minced garlic, and a splash of red wine vinegar. If you’re feeling like a healthy leafy vegetable but don’t want to stomach kale or spinach, I highly recommend swiss chard. I used rainbow chard over green chard. Why? The texture was more pleasing to my mouth, and, I mean, who doesn’t want to cook with a rainbow vegetable?

Cheesy Quinoa with Sautéed Swiss Chard
Cheesy Quinoa with Sautéed Swiss Chard

Cheesy Quinoa with Sautéed Swiss Chard takes less than 30 minutes to make—heaven to my ears after I come home from work.

Cheesy Quinoa with Sautéed Swish Chard

Quinoa

  • 1 cup white or red quinoa, rinsed if the package does not say “pre-rinsed”
  • 2 cups water
  • 1/2 cup grated monterey jack cheese (you can also use sharp cheddar, smoked gouda, gruyere, fontina…any nice melting cheese)
  • 3 tablespoons light cream
  • salt, pepper, garlic powder, and cayenne pepper to taste

Swiss Chard

  • 1 bunch of fresh swiss chard, washed
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
  • salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper to taste

1. First, prepare the swiss chard by washing each leaf thoroughly in cold water. Stack the leaves one on top of the other and then chop horizontally, so pieces will be about an inch wide. Unlike kale’s stems that are difficult to cook down, swiss chard’s stems become tender right along with the leaf. I usually chop the whole leaf and a little of the remaining stem. Set your washed and chopped swiss chard aside.

2. If your quinoa is not pre-rinsed, grab a fine-mesh colander or a bowl and rinse the quinoa under cold water for about 30 seconds. If your quinoa is pre-rinsed, then you can skip this step.

3. With a cheese grater, grate 1/2 cup of monterey jack cheese (or the cheese of your choice). Set that aside.

4. Now, I like to go back and cook my swiss chard. First, peel and mince two cloves of garlic. In a medium-large pot, add three tablespoons of olive oil. Turn the heat up to medium high and add your minced garlic, salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper. Let the garlic sizzle for about 30 seconds.

5. Add your swiss chard and mix around with tongs. Put the lid on the pot to let the swiss chard wilt.

6. After about 2 minutes, take the lid off the pot and mix the swiss chard around with tongs once again. Let the swiss chard cook until the liquid is almost evaporated. This should take about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and add the red wine vinegar. Mix it around again and have a taste. You can add more seasoning, vinegar, or oil to your taste. Let that lovely veg sit.

7. Now, for that quinoa. Bring 2 cups of water to a boil. Add one cup of quinoa and let it simmer for about 10-15 minutes, or until the liquid evaporates.

8. Add your shredded cheese, light cream, and salt, pepper, garlic powder, and cayenne pepper to taste. Mix the quinoa until the cheese has melted. Taste and see if you need to add more seasoning or cheese. If you would like the quinoa to have a thinner consistency, add more light cream. Tailor the dish to your taste!

While I love pasta, quinoa provides a toothsome, protein-filled alternative to your traditional mac and cheese. You will feel energized after eating this meal, rather than feel like you’re in a food coma.

How do you cook quinoa? Do you love swiss chard as much as I do, or prefer another leafy vegetable? Let me know your thoughts!

Have a wonderful weekend, everyone!

Farro Alla Norma

Do you ever have one of those days when the only thing that will make you feel better is comfort food? Last week, I had one of those days. Comfort food differs for everyone. Macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, green bean casseroles, any casserole really…these are what most think of when they hear the phrase “comfort food.” However, I’m learning that the concept of comfort food changes for each person. While the foods I listed above are surely delicious, my idea of comfort food includes those types of dishes that are both nutritious and hearty at the same time.

Remember that tomato sauce recipe? I sure hope so! We’ll be using that today in a recipe I call “Farro alla Norma.”

Have you heard of farro? Farro is an Italian grain that seems to form a happy medium between barley and wheat berry. When cooked, farro promises a chewy texture with a pronounced wheat flavor. My Dad and I first discovered farro when we watched Lidia Bastianich make farro salad on her PBS show Lidia’s Italy. We concocted this salad while on vacation in Cape Cod. Cooked farro with fresh mozzerella, fresh cherry tomatoes, basil, and an olive oil/red wine vinegar vinaigrette makes for a most refreshing picnic treat. Companies even make farro pasta these days, a healthy whole wheat pasta that does not taste like cardboard.

“Alla Norma” is attached to any Italian recipe with eggplant as the star. My grandfather (I call him “Nonno”) told me that “Norma” is the name of an opera by Vincenzo Bellini. Who knew?

Farro alla Norma combines farro, roasted eggplant, and tomato sauce. Yum! Let’s get cooking.

Farro alla Norma 

Yield: 2 servings (or one if you are super hungry)

  • 1/2 cup farro
  • 1 medium eggplant
  • olive oil
  • salt
  • pepper
  • garlic powder
  • tomato sauce

1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Wash your eggplant. Cut both ends off and peel the eggplant with a potato peeler.

2. Cut your eggplant into chunks. I made mine about a half inch thick and an inch wide. You can make your eggplant pieces as large or small as you please! Just know that smaller pieces take less time to roast, and larger pieces take more time to roast.

3. Take out a cookie sheet and line the cookie sheet with parchment paper. Parchment paper will be your lifesaver whenever roasting vegetables of any kind. When your vegetables are all roasted and pretty, you just throw the parchment paper away and you have a clean cookie sheet. Amazing!

4. Put your eggplant pieces on the cookie sheet with parchment paper. Pour a generous amount of olive oil onto your eggplant, enough for them to absorb some oil. Season your eggplant with salt, pepper, and garlic powder to taste. Mix your seasoned eggplant around with a spatula so all the oil and seasoning is incorporated.

5. Put your eggplant in the oven and let it roast for about 30-40 minutes. Check your eggplant after about 25 minutes to make sure you have enough oil on your eggplant. You want your eggplant to look more translucent (not completely), but you don’t want burned eggplant.

6. Take your eggplant out of the oven and let it cool.

7. Bring a pot of water to a boil, add a pinch of salt to the water, and then add your farro. Note: Farro can take forever and a day to cook. My suggestion? Get this miracle of a product:

Trader Joe's 10-Minute Farro
Trader Joe’s 10-Minute Farro

8. After 10 minutes, or however long your brand of farro takes to cook per the product’s cooking instructions, drain your farro and put it back in the pot.

9. Add your desired amount of tomato sauce and the roasted eggplant to the farro in the pot. Stir it all together, letting the mixture warm up in the pot for a minute or two.

Farro alla Norma
Farro alla Norma

There you have it! Serve this in a bowl with a generous helping of grated pecorino romano cheese, and you have yourself a hearty bowl of comfort food ready to make your day that much better.

As always, comment with any questions, thoughts, or results you have with this recipe!