Lucky Pea Soup – Hernesupp- for Mardi Gras in Estonia

EstoniaIt seems that there are two main categories of Mardi Gras food, rich, sweet cakes meant to use up all the sugar and fat before Lent, and savory,”lucky” foods. In the sweet camp are Polish Paczki, French galette des rois, Scandinavian Semla (called vastlakukkel in Estonia) or Hawaiian Malasadas. On the other hand are savory foods that are deemed lucky. In Eastern Europe, one such lucky, savory dish is a hearty pea soup. The classic Estonian Mardi Gras Soup is called hernesupp, and is a hearty mix of yellow split peas and pork. Check out these classic recipes from Nami-Nami (seen below) and Stanfordpeasoup

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Wood-fired Baja Californian cuisine at Leña Brava

Mexico FlagBy now, it is pretty much common knowledge by now that Rick Bayless has something of a Mexican food empire in Chicago. In 2016, that empire grew by two more – Leña Brava (900 W Randolph St, Chicago, IL) and Cruz Blanca. These two restaurants are more modern, updated spots in the always-buzzing Randolph Street corridor in the West Loop. Cruz Blanca’s is a brewery with a taco bar, and Leña Brava is all about the wood-fire grilled seafood, Baja California-style. When choosing between the two we knew we had to go with the wood fire! In any case, they are basically connected, so you don’t necessarily have to choose -if you want to grab an after-dinner drink at one or the other.

laminado The interior of Leña Brava is sleek and stylish, and seems to draw a similar crowd, fitting with the location. The massive wood-fire grill is one of the features of the restaurant, and it is in full view of diners on the first floor. Not everything is wood-fired, though. The menu is divided into both hot and cold items – in sections called “ice” and “fire.” The cold menu is composed of oysters, ceviches, seafood cocktails, aguachiles (similar to a ceviche, but with a super-spicy broth) and laminados (raw sashimi-style fish – above). On the hot side of the menu, you can get grilled fish, pork belly, scallops or even roast chicken for two. We decided to sample items from both the hot and cold sides.lenapastor

From the cold side we knew we had to start with a ceviche – there were 3 versions ($15-16) – classic Lena with albacore, lime and ginger; spicy Verde with yellowtail and green chiles; and the Asian-inspired Maki with nori, sushi rice and avocado. We tried the verde version, we were also intrigued by the laminado, so we picked the Hiramasa, with yellowtail, chamoy and papaya ($15). From the hot side we tried the scallops in salsa macha, these were oven-grilled with pasilla-almond salsa and mashed plantains ($25). Finally, we couldn’t resist the wood oven-roasted black cod with “al pastor”-style marinade and a sweet pineapple salsa ($27), inspired by our favorite tacos al pastor with a bright-red chile and achiote marinade. The fish in each of the dishes was extremely fresh. The raw preparations highlighted the unique flavor combinations of sweet, sour, spicy and acidic really well, and we especially loved the unique flavor combinations of the laminado. We were also impressed by the surprisingly delicate “salsa macha” and we just may have to steal the idea of an almond-based salsa for ourselves. Both of the hot seafood dishes were cooked perfectly, and we felt that the wood fire definitely imparted a little extra flavor to the sear.

scallopslena

We also appreciated the variety of unique desserts (prickly pear ice cream with grilled pineapple, for example)  and the selection of teas from the Rare Tea Cellar (we sampled the hibiscus mango). On the beverage side, there are also a large amount of specialty cocktails, rarely-seen Mexican wines and over 100 Mezcals, one of the biggest lists anywhere. We finished our meal with creamy horchata custard topped with puffed hibiscus-scented rice and blueberry preserves – a flavor combo we never knew we needed in our lives. We really enjoyed our meal at Leña Brava – everything was fresh and the flavor combinations were memorably innovative. Leña Brava felt very different from the more buttoned-up Topolombampo and the more casual Frontera Grill, and was definitely modern and accessible. We can’t wait to go back and try more off of the menu. Maybe next time we will get a grill-side seat!

lenabrava

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Vintage Food Valentines

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, whether you are celebrating or not, I think you will get a kick out of these quirky, vintage food Valentines featuring anthropomorphized food – and a lot of puns…. breadvalentine cakevalentine eggvalentine kettlevalentine popcornvalentine teavalentine2

 

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Pastry Post-Doc: Chiacchiere for Carnevale in Italy

ItalyAs we enter mid-February, Carnevale / Mardi Gras / Carnival is right around the corner! It’s never too early to start planning some sweet treats for the festivities. In Italy, Carnevale is a big deal, and Mardi Gras (or Shrove Tuesday) is celebrated with sweet, fried dough fritters called Chiacchiere. The simple-to-make Chiacchiere is popular throughout Italy, and goes by many regional names including Frappe, Cenci, Guanti and Bugie. There is a tradition of serving fried dough or doughnuts on Mardi Gras (think beignets, paczki and malasadas), in order to use up all the sugar and fats in the house before the austerity of Lent sets in, and Chiacchiere is no exception. Here are a few traditional Chiacchiere recipes from Academia Barilla, Cooking with Rosetta and Napoli Unplugged.

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Chiacchiere by Chefpercaso

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K.O. Rasoi: Indian Recipes with East African Roots

kenyaIndia FlagThe history of the Indian community in Eastern Africa is long, and complicated. Countries like Kenya and Uganda have had Indian communities for centuries, but the Indian migration to Africa started at a large scale in the 1800s. We recently stumbled upon a great blog with Indian recipes with East African roots: K.O. Rasoi. The author, Sanjana, is British-born, but with a Gujarati family with roots in East Africa. Sanjana’s recipes are primarily Gujarati and vegetarian in origin, but with East African influences. Check out her recipes for the Mombasa-style Kachri Bateta (potato stew with sour green mangoes) and Mombasa-style Daal Kachori (samosa-like lentil fritters, seen below), and chili-lime cassava. We were also intrigued by her recipe for the popular, creatively-named Ugandan street food – “Rolex.”

kachori

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Sampling Unique Turkish Food in Avon at Istanbul Grill

turkeyWe have had a lot of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food in our day, and to be honest, a lot of it tends to run together. So we are always glad to happen upon spots that serve more regional dishes beyond the ubiquitous kebabs and hummus. At an unassuming strip mall in Avon, we found a hidden Turkish gem doing just that: Istanbul Grill (35840 Chester Rd., Avon, OH). One thing that sets Istanbul Grill apart is that it serves some slightly more unusual (and authentic) Turkish dishes you won’t see elsewhere. For example you can get kebabs over diced bread, a serving style that is common in Turkey, but I haven’t really seen much in the US. They also serve Lahmacun ($13.49) on Sundays – a Turkish pizza-style flatbread topped with ground lamb. istanbulgrill

The decor at Istanbul Grill is simple but comfortable, with bright red walls and enlarged photos of Turkey hung throughout. We received a basket of fresh Turkish flatbread while we perused the substantial menu, with an assortment of meze, salads, kebabs (filet, lamb, chicken, shrimp and doner) and specialty meat dishes. Though there are some vegetarian options, the menu is very meat heavy. We started off with two distinctly Turkish starters: a riff on Tzatziki sauce – Cacik ($6.99) – which consists of yogurt with dill sauce, and Sigara Boregi ($7.99)- fried phyllo filled with cheese. Both were delicious and comforting, and we think we’d take Sigara Boregi over mozzarella sticks any day. For mains, we ordered the Iskander kebab – lamb and beef carved off a spit, like gyros, served over diced bread with a mild tomato sauce (seen below – $16.99); and the Hunkar Begendi (aka Sultan’s Delight – $17.99) – which was lamb with bell peppers in a tomato sauce, served over pureed eggplant and cheese. We haven’t seen either of these mains on a menu before – so we were excited to try something new.

iskanderkebab

For dessert we finished up with Kunefe ($6.99), a hot dessert with shredded wheat topped with cheese and sugar syrup, which goes perfectly with a hot cup of Turkish coffee. Both main courses were perfectly spiced, and we enjoyed the eggplant and bread as alternative sides to the more common rice. Though the prices seemed a little high, you make up for it in portions, and we were left with enough for the leftovers for the next day. A final plus, the service was friendly and attentive throughout. We highly enjoyed everything we sampled at Istanbul Grill and we look forward to working our way through the Turkish menu and coming back for some Lahmacun!

 

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The weird and wonderful world of Japanese Kit Kat Bars

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Green Tea Kit Kat by Smallbrainfield

JapanKit Kat, the chocolate-coated wafer candy from Nestle, is experience a bit of a publicity resurgence in the US, due to a popular series of quirky ads featuring Chance the Rapper. However, nowhere is Kit Kat more popular than in Japan, where the humble Kit Kat bar is only a jumping-off point for fanciful flavors and gourmet Kit Kat creations. Kit Kat was introduced to Japan in 1973, and has since become ubiquitous convenience store treat, as well as a popular gift for students and a present for friends and family when traveling. In Japan, the different flavor varieties of Kit Kat are seemingly endless – there are nearly 300 – including anything from strawberry cheesecake to plum to wasabi. Now there’e even a Sake-flavored KitKat. When we visited a candy store in Chicago’s Chinatown, we were able to sample the sweet potato and green tea Kit Kats. The sweet potato flavor basically tasted like white chocolate, but the green tea flavor was really excellent! If you are hankering for some unique Japanese-flavored Kit Kats, check out Amazon – you can get a variety pack, or pick up bags of esoteric flavors like Pumpkin Pudding. And just when you think it couldn’t get any weirder – enter Kit Kat sushi!

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Kit Kat display in Tokyo by jpellgen

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Pastry Post-Doc: Polish Kolaczki and Hungarian Kiffles

hungaryflagPolandKolaczki are woven into Chicago food culture so deeply that it took me a while to realize that they were indeed a “foreign” cookie. Kolaczki dough is made with cream cheese, and it is traditionally folded (as below) over a filling of fruit – raspberry, plum or apricot usually – or sweetened cream cheese. Originally, the kolaczki is said to be from Poland (though its exact origin is unknown), and are popularly seen around the holidays. They seem to be just as popular in Cleveland, where we learned that they are known as Kiffles in Hungarian. This type of cookie is found throughout Central and Eastern Europe, with several variations, including a circular shape. Even more confusingly, there are many similarly-named desserts, including the Czech kolache, which is more like a yeast roll, and is most popular in Texas (post forthcoming)! Here is a recipe for apricot-filled kolaczki from American Heritage Cooking, another apricot from Cooking the Globe and one for cream cheese from All Recipes.

Photo by Kurman Communications

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Chai and Momo at Chiya Chai Cafe

Nepal FlagWho would have thought that Logan Square in Chicago would be home to a cafe with amazing hommade Chai and Nepalese food? We wouldn’t have either, until we came across the eclectic Chiya Chai Cafe (2770 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL). The main draw for the Chiya is the amazing array of Chai teas. One of my pet peeves is when you go to cafe, order a chai, and they don’t even hide the fact that they are just pouring your drink out of a box of Oregon Chai concentrate…and then charging $4.50 for it. Not so at Chiya, the brainchild of longtime tea importers, where all of the chai is brewed in-house. Along with their signature masala and spicy masala chais, you can get a variety of interesting non-traditional chais in flavors like Salted Caramel, Vanilla & Nutmeg and Orange & Ginger. Each flavor profile I have tried has been delectable, but my favorite is Pistachio & Cardamon. It is also nice that you can choose between black, green and rooibos teas, though on my last visit, the server gave me black tea twice when I had asked for rooibos.

chiyacafe

The vibe at Chiya is bright and airy, with large windows overlooking Milwaukee Ave. Going with the coffeehouse vibe, Chiya also serves coffee and continental pastries like cookies, muffins and croissants if you happen to be in that mood. However, it was the mango lassi that most caught our eye for dessert. Though you will see people tapping away on laptops with mugs of tea while utilizing the free Wifi, don’t think it is just a coffeehouse. With a compact food menu alongside its teas, Chiya is actually a legitimate Nepalese restaurant. We are always glad to see Nepali food, which is only available at few places in Chicagoland, including Mt. Everest in Evanston.momoc

At Chiya, you can get a basket of steamed Nepali dumplings, momo, in a variety of flavors (pork, veggie and even bison, $8). There is also an interesting range of side dishes (many of which are gluten free, $3-6) including a green apple raita, samosas, and curry fries. For the bigger appetite, you can get curry bowls ($9 small, $12.50 large) and savory pie in flavors like chicken balti and spicy minced pork ($8.50). We ordered the vegetable momo and spicy pork vindaloo curry bowl. The momo dumplings were made in house, steamed to order, and came out perfectly formed. The kale, bell pepper and mushroom filling was delicious, as were the two spicy dipping sauces. The pork vindaloo had some nice heat, and a slightly different flavor with the addition of fenugreek and mustard seed.  Despite all this, the creamy, yougurt-y green apple raita just may have been our favorite dish of all. currycAt first glance, it may seem that Chiya Cafe is trying to be too many things at once. As if the current options were not enough, for dinner, they also open up the larger dining room in the back and serve more substantial meals and alcohol. However, somehow it all works. The Nepali small plates and the chai work well together, and we were happy with everything we sampled. If you are a tea fan, make sure you sample some of the real stuff at Chiya Chai cafe. You’ll never be able to drink boxed chai again.

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The importance of the immigrant experience to American food

For a large part, Eating the World is a site is dedicated to exploring the vibrant food cultures made possible primarily by immigrants to the US. Though this is not a political site, recent egregious events related to immigration in the US have made it impossible for me to not speak out and take a stance. To be frank, without immigrants, food culture in the US would be much more limited (no pasta, no sushi, no falafel, no tacos, etc.). Unless you are 100% Native American, we are all descended from immigrants (whether in the distant or recent past) and through these immigrants, American culture (and food) has grown richer. Sharing food forms bonds within and across communities and is a celebration of culture that is easily enjoyed by all. So today I’d like to shine a spotlight on a recent Syrian immigrant, Yassin Terou, who has woven himself and his family into the fabric of Knoxville, TN through food. ETW will always be a place that celebrates immigrants from every country!

yassin

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Pastry Post Doc: Fa Gao for Chinese New Year

chinaSaturday is Chinese New Year – kicking off the year of the horse! Chinese Fa Gao 发糕 aka “Prosperity Cake” is a delicious part of Chinese New Year festivities, and is said to bring good luck. So what makes this cake so “prosperous?” Turns out wordplay is part of it – “fa” means both “prosperity” and “raised.” The recipe for Fa Gao is super simple – and consists of not much more than sugar, rice flour, water and baking soda (hence the “raised”). The rice flour imparts a a more sticky, dense texture, which comes through during the steaming. The individually-sized cakes, baked in cupcake tins, have a distinctive split at the top. Even if they are not flavored, the cakes are often dyed in bright colors for the festive holiday. Check out the Fa Gao recipes from Kirbie Cravings, Random Cuisine and Yes to Cooking to add to your Lunar new Year Table.

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Fa Gao / Huat Kueh by Tobym

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A classic Wisconsin Fish Fry at Colony House Restaurant

One of the last things we did before we left the Chicago area was to have one of the most authentic experiences in the Midwest: a classic fish fry at a Wisconsin supper club. M went to grad school in Wisconsin, but somehow we managed to escape this tradition over the years. Sure we had fish frys before, but not a real, official, down-home Wisconsin fish fry at a supper club with all the fixins. We are talking all-you-can-eat fish. Our friend K had recently moved to Wisconsin so we figured she would be the perfect person to experience a fish fry with. K did some research (we knew we were good friends for a reason) and she found the perfect place: the Colony House (25811 119th St, Trevor, WI 53179), located 45 minutes south of Milwaukee.

colonyhouseext

Colony Club is located pretty much in the middle of nowhere in a white wooden house, and when we arrived on Friday night it was pretty crowded. Colony House couldn’t have been more Wisconsin-y if it tried: when you walk in, you will think you have stepped back in time into a 1960s supper club. We arrived a little bit early for our reservation, so we sidled up to the bar. K got the official cocktail of the Wisconsin supper club, the Old Fashioned, which she deemed excellent. Before too long we were led to the basement dining room for our fish fry experience. The basement kind of looked like the interior of a grandma’s house – with wood paneling, nautical-style chairs and tables and tchotchkes. To be honest, it was perfect! The photo below is of the upstairs dining room since the basement was too dark. The upstairs room is a little more subdued.

colonyhouse

There were other things on the menu, but of course we were there just for the fish fry. The Friday fish fry at Colony House comes with a few options – you can get all you can eat Icelandic Cod ($9.95), or a set portion of other fish for a slight up-charge (Perch, Pike, Bluegill or Smelt $10.95-12.95) – any type of fish selected can be beer-battered or fried. For the side dishes you get potato pancakes or fries along with applesauce, family-style sides of sour cream (of course), rye bread and coleslaw. We got an order of Cod alongside Perch and Bluegill, both fried. Everything we sampled was delicious – the fish was moist, the batter was golden brown, light and crispy, and the potato pancakes were surprisingly scrumptious. If we had to choose again we would have probably all gotten the Cod with the potato pancakes. We were really happy with our experience at Colony House, it may not have had the best fish of all time, the but fish fry itself was just what we needed. Colony House was the perfect place for a relaxed night out with friends, and a real piece of Wisconsin history.

fishfry

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Guide to Korean Banchan

koreaThis year, Lunar New Year falls on a Friday! If you will be celebrating Lunar New Year in Korea the festivities are called Seollal, and you can expect a crazy amount of food and festivities. We covered one of the most traditional Seollal dishes previously on ETW, tteokguk (rice cake soup). However, that only scratches the surface. Most large Korean meals come with an assortment of small dishes called Banchan, and the Seollal table is no exception. However, to the uninitiated, the array of banchan presented alongside a meal can be overwhelming. Fortunately, the internet is brimming with banchan guides: Lucky Peach, Crazy Korean Cooking,  Zen Kimchi, Thrillist and HuffPo, to name a few. Personally, my favorite banchan are japchae, radish kimchi and toasted seaweed. I love the concept that every meal comes with an additional portion of delicious, tiny dishes. Do you have a favorite banchan?

Gogi Banchan

Banchan at Gogi in Chicago

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Around the World at Compass Rose in Washington DC

Sometimes it’s hard to know which type of cuisine to choose when deciding on a restaurant, especially when traveling in a city with as many great options as Washington DC. When we were in DC we found some great restaurants from various countries, but we also found a great one that covers a bit more ground: Compass Rose (1346 T Street NW, Washington, DC 20009) in Washington DC. Compass Rose is a globetrotting restaurant with a little bit of food from a bunch of various countries. According to Compass Rose, “So while it’s great to travel around the world, we understand that’s not always possible; instead of waiting for the smells and tastes on a great trip, we’ll bring them to you—in a cozy row home right in your own neighborhood.” Each dish at Compass Rose is listed alongside its country of origin, and the selections rotate frequently, and span the globe. Some examples off the menu when we visited include arepas from Venezuela, bhel puri chaat (kale, puffed rice, potato and tomato) from India, anticuchos from Peru and lamb kefta from Lebanon.

compass

When we saw that they had one of our Brazilian favorites, shrimp moqueca, we knew we had to visit. It can get pretty crowded, and there are no reservations, we made a point to stop in early. The atmosphere at Compass Rose is pretty romantic: with low lights and wooden tables in a few connected rooms. There is also a special secret room in the back for people ordering the set menu (which is by reservation), when we visited it was a Bedouin Tent theme, with a selection of North African dishes. The international theme even goes to the cocktail and wine list, which spans less commonly-known wine regions like Lebanon and Hungary.

smorrebrod

We could have picked any number of the eclectic dishes, but we eventually landed on:

  • Camarão na Moranga (Brazil) – shrimp curry with coconut milk and dendê oil (Palm oil), served inside a small acorn squash. This seemed like a riff on the Northeastern Brazilian dish moqueca – shrimp in a creamy sauce – and is what initially drew us to Compass Rose. Happily, this was probably our favorite dish of the night. We have never had a moqueca served inside anything but a bowl – and the squash bowl was a great addition.
  • Smørrebrød (Denmark – above) – house-cured trout, with trout roe and edible flowers. The presentation of this dish was amazing, and we were very impressed by the house-cured fish, giving us a real taste of Scandinavia.
  • Grilled Calamari (Greece – below) – served over red quinoa, with toasted pistachio & feta cheese salad, and doused with lemon and oregano. We were surprised how big this dish was! The calamari was deliciously tender, with an acidic punch and without chewiness.
  • Kogi Ribs (Korea) – Berkshire pork with a sweet-hot honey-ginger scallion marinade. The ribs were delectable, and had a great touch of sweetness along with a little bit of spice.
  • For dessert we got Crema Catalana (Spain) – A Spanish version of creme brulee. This dessert was tasty, with a hint of vanilla, but we were sad that it was so small!

octopus

Everything we sampled at Compass Rose was delicious, with fresh ingredients and clean flavors. If we went back, we would also order the Georgian flatbread – Khachapuri – with cheese, egg and butter. We saw a few being served at tables all around us, and it looked beyond delicious! Compass Rose is the perfect place to temporarily cure your wanderlust, we really liked everything we tried. Whether you are feeling like Spanish or Korean, Compass Rose will have something for everyone in your dining party.

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Pastry Post-Doc: Scottish Cranachan for Burns Night

ScotlandFlagJanuary 25th is Burns Night, a yearly celebration of poetry and food to celebrate the beloved Scottish poet Robert Burns (held on his birthday). I covered a complete Burns Supper menu previously, but for this week’s Pastry Post-Doc I will be featuring the best part of any meal – the dessert. One of the tastiest Scottish desserts to grace any Burns Supper table is Cranachan. Cranachan is basically a Scottish trifle made with toasted oats, honey, raspberries, whisky and whipped cream. Simple to make, but very delicious. Here are traditional cranachan recipes from the Telegraph and BBC Good Food. Jamie Oliver has a modern riff on the traditional cranachan with a raspberry cranchan influenced cakee.

cranachan

Cranachan by Jon Nagl

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Marcus Samuelsson’s recreation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Meal That Never Was

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In honor of Martin Luther King Day, Chef Marcus Samuelsson will attempt to recreate a meal that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was scheduled to have on the day he was assassinated. On April 4, 1968, MLK had planned to have dinner with Reverend Samuel “Billy” Kyles in Memphis. The dinner, to be prepared by women in Kyles’ congregation, included Southern favorites like fried chicken, ham, sweet potatoes, and sweet potato pie, and was later known as “The meal that never was.” Today at his restaurant in Harlem, Red Rooster, Samuelsson will pay tribute to MLK with a meal based on that menu.

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Pastry Post-Doc: Pampushky for Malanka – Ukrainian New Year’s Eve

Ukraine FlagHappy New Year! Even though it is almost 2 weeks after the Gregorian calendar marks the new year – January 13 is celebrated as Malanka – “Old New Year’s Eve” – in the Ukraine. The holiday marks the Julian calendar’s new year and is one of the most festive days in Ukraine, full of caroling door-to-door, costumes, dancing the Kolomyjka, merry-making and of course food.  We are novices when it comes to Ukrainian desserts, but we have found a holiday recipe for pampushky – fried donuts filled with poppy seed or prune. These seem to be a cousin of the paczki, another Eastern European donut (this one popularly eaten on Shrove Tuesday). You can find pampushky recipe from Claudia’s Cookbook (below) and Ukrainian Classic Cuisine. Who doesn’t love something indulgent and fried as a perfect cap to the holiday season?

pampushky

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Cypriot Cuisine at Zenon Taverna in Astoria, Queens

cyprusThe neighborhood of Astoria in Queens, NYC is known for its huge Greek population (which is still growing today), and accordingly, you can find some of the best Greek food in the city (and country) in this one neighborhood. It also means that a diversity of Greek and Mediterranean cuisine not seen elsewhere abounds. We were happy to find that one of the few Cypriot restaurants in the US was located in Astoria, Zenon Taverna (34-10 31 Avenue, Astoria, NY 11106 ).

zenon

Cypriot food is similar to what most Americans think of as typical Greek food, but with more Middle-Eastern influences, given its history and location. The menu at Zenon is staggering, with a huge option of cold and hot meze appetizers including favorites like hummus and tzatziki as well as more unusual options like quails and stuffed mushrooms. For entrees, there are dozens of pitas; chicken, lamb and fish platters; as well as meat and veggie samplers. Each day, there are also upwards of 6 specials including: Keftedes Kypriaki ($10.50 S / $17.99 L) pork and potato meatballs; Louvia me Lahana – blackeyed peas with Swiss chard ($6.50 S / $12.50 L)and pastitsio (a lasagna-like layered lamb dish). We didn’t really know what to pick, so we went with 2 samplers to share among our group, along with an appetizer of char-grilled octopus ($17.95) and Cypriot rabbit stew on special for the day- Kouneli Stifado ($19.95).

meze

The Cyprus Meze sampler ($24.95 a person) came with a total of 16 meze – 8 hot and 8 cold. Everything was bright, fresh and delicious, but there were a few standouts. Zenon did a great job with classics like tzatziki and hummus, but we really loved some of the more unusual choices like the tarama – carp roe with potatoes and the fresh, vinegar-y pantzarosalada – beet salad. In terms of the hot dishes, there was a heavy emphasis on fish and pork. We highly enjoyed the smoked pork loin – lunza, the loukaniko spitisio – Cypriot pork sausage cooked in wine – and the keftedes arnisia – garlickly lamb meatballs. Of course another winner was the baked sheep and goat milk cheese halloumi, doused with lemon juice. The octopus appetizer we ordered was another favorite, and the special-of-the-day rabbit stew cooked in red wine was tasty, if a little game-y.

octopusmeze

If you leave room for dessert, there is baklava and semolina desserts like siamali and halouvas, which you can wash down with a traditional frappe or Greek coffee. Alas, we did not leave room, since our Cypriot Meze order was so huge! We are a big fans of Greek food, and we really enjoyed trying something a little different at Zenon. One caveat – they are cash only! This is not a super-cheap place, so we went to the ATM in advance instead of testing our luck with the ATM around the corner. We recommend you come to Zenon with a crowd – there are so many dishes and mezes to share – the more, the merrier!

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Pastry Post-Doc: Sicilian Cuccidati cookies and Buccellato Cake

SicilyToday is Three Kings Day / Epiphany – which officially marks the end of the Christmas holiday season! In addition to Epiphany (Epifania in Italian), the eve of January 6th is also when La Befana arrives in Italy. Similar to St. Nicholas Day in other parts of Europe, La Befana (who takes the appearance of a witch on a broom) leaves presents and candy for good children and coal for bad ones. In honor of La Befana and Epifania, we are heading to Sicily, where the holiday season is celebrated with a myriad of sweets including the fig and raisin-filled cuccidati cookies.

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We have made cuccidati before, but we have recently learned that there is a similar holiday dessert that is basically a giant version of a cuccidati – a Buccellato ring cake. To add another layer of potential confusion, it seems that sometimes in Sicily buccellato refers to small-sized ring-shaped fig cookies, too. Now I am not really a huge fig or raisin fan (though M is) and even I like cuccidati cookies (which I guess are the distant ancestor of the Fig Newton). There are tons of cuccidati recipes with slight variations in filling according to region, family and personal taste so I will only include a few: A vintage Milwaukee recipe from 1965, Washington Post, Brown Eyed Baker and Savoring Italy (seen above). If you want to go all out, Cooking with Rosetta has a traditional buccellato recipe, as does L’Italo-Americano (seen below).

buccellato

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Battle of the Nam Khao Tods in Chicago

thailandOne of our favorite Thai dishes is the Northern Thai specialty Nam Khao Tod. It is a more unique dish that is pretty hard to find at most neighborhood Thai restaurants in the US, but we happily found that there are two places in Chicago on a stretch of Western Avenue that both serve Nam Khao Tod – Spoon Thai (4608 N. Western Ave., Chicago, IL) and Rainbow Cuisine (4825 N. Western Ave., Chicago, IL). Spoon Thai is a longtime favorite for more authentic Thai dishes in Chicago, and Rainbow Cuisine is a relative newcomer on the scene, but is producing great Northern Thai specialties. In an interesting twist, the chef from Spoon Thai, Wanpen Phosawang, actually left to open Rainbow Thai with her husband (and we have been using the recipe from Spoon Thai at home). Since Nam Khao Tod is so hard to find – we knew we had to try the two Chicago contenders head to head.

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Nam Khao Tods head to head

The Challenge: Nam Khao Tod is a complex dish made with a great combination of clean flavors: Northern-style nam / naem sausage, red onion, red curry, chili peppers, fresh ginger, limes, peanuts, fish sauce and cilantro. However, making the dish itself takes some finesse – especially when making the crispy rice – which requires deep frying rice croquettes, discarding the soft bits and breaking apart the crispy exterior. The mix of textures and sweet-sour-salty-acidic flavors is what makes Nam Khao Tod so special.

The Winner: The dishes were about the same price and size – Spoon Thai’s ($9.95) is on the left, and Rainbow Cuisine’s ($8.95) is on the right. The dishes both had all the key elements of nam khao tod, however Spoon Thai’s also had the addition of carrots, and was served on a bed of lettuce. When comparing the two, we agreed on a clear winner: Rainbow Thai. The rice was much crispier (a necessity) and the flavors were all melded together much more coherently. The nam sausage in Spoon’s version was also somewhat undercooked. Though both Nam Khao Tods were delicious we have to say that Rainbow Cuisine handily won the Nam Khao Tod face-off. If you want to try a new Northern Thai dish, make it this one.

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