Juicy Olive

The quest for “the good life” should never be complete but it should definitely begin now.

Brunchola, Bruncharoo, Le Brunch, Brunchito June 10, 2009

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Seriously, what other way would you want to start your day on a weekend?

Seriously, what other way would you want to start your day on a weekend?

I’ve been living in Chicago for more than five years. I can’t believe how much time has passed and how quickly it has flown. There is much that I miss about my old stomping grounds. In Colorado, I skied like a maniac, had a killer vegetable garden and played golf whenever I pleased. Before that, in Nashville, I listened to live music, walked “the loop” around Vanderbilt’s campus and mastered the art of margarita consumption. But here in Chicago, we’ve got the Cubs, the lake and – of course – the food. Ask someone what their favorite restaurant is, and you may never get the same answer twice. That’s because this city is a breeding ground for creative, innovative chefs to practice and perfect their arts. Whether it’s taking a simple hot dog to new heights at Hot Doug’s, making a mockery of all the other sushi in the world at Kaze or surprising us with the simplicity of fresh, local ingredients at Uncommon Ground, Chicago’s dining scene has something for everyone.

 Without fail, I get to tempt my tastebuds every week at brunch – the official weekend meal of true Chicagoans. By mid-week, my friends and I are already discussing weekend plans, who’s free for brunch and, of course, where we’ll go. There truly seems to be a brunch spot for every situation. Consider the following:

  •  Ladies Who Brunch – for my birthday last year I eschewed the idea of a meet-up at a bar in favor of a fun girly brunch with my gals. A perfect setting for this gathering was Jane’s. It’s a convenient location and has wonderful food.
  • Big Spenders (aka “Mom and Dad are in town…let’s go to brunch!”) – there’s something quintessentially Chicago about the Ralph Lauren restaurant on Michigan Avenue. With the high-backed leather chairs and beautiful service, you can’t help but feel like fashionable, urban royalty while eating their steak tartare followed by crab cake benedict.
  • Hangovers – this is an obvious one. You go out on a Saturday night and tie one on. The only thing that can cure what ails you on Sunday morning is a stiff breakfast cocktail and grease. Definitely go to Stanley’s. This place has a serious buffet that includes macaroni and cheese, an omelet station, lox with bagels and – my favorite treat – the waffle boats with fruit and whipped cream. The bloody mary bar is also a winner.
  • Kid AND Adult-Friendly – Recently, my friends and I have been hitting Wilde when their kiddos are in tow. It’s big and noisy (thanks to the crowds and the excellent tunes the DJ spins) but features very good pub fare. I’m a major fan of the fried egg sandwich with grilled tomatoes, caramelized onions, thick-cut bacon and sharp white cheddar.
  • Sports Watching – Any other day of the year, you wouldn’t catch me at Duffy’s in Lincoln Park. But when a non-stop set of football games are on, this place is excellent. The brunch buffet has a little something for everyone, and the umpteen flavors of mimosas keep me entertained almost as much as the games.
  • Cuddly Morning with your Sweetie – When l’amour is in the air, the surroundings should simply nurture your inner love-bug. Think about hitting Big Jones in Andersonville or Hot Chocolate in Bucktown. Someplace where you won’t have to wait, and you’ll be encouraged to linger at your table long after the French press coffee is finished.
  • Healthy Habits – It sounds abhorrent to go for the low-cal, no-fat, all-healthy approach on a weekend morning, but on the off chance I’m seeking a dose of goodness, I head to the Chicago Diner in Boystown or Lola in West Town.

 Of course, one of the best ways to spend time with friends over our favorite combo meal is to host your own. That’s exactly what Tiz and Mike did for Tiz’s recent birthday celebration. Everyone brought a dish (still dreaming about Lindsay’s breakfast casserole!) and we all plopped down for food, drinks and relaxing conversation in the comforts of a friend’s home. When in doubt about where to break your fast, open your pantry doors, bust out the speed-dial invite list, tune up some good music and prepare for a great time!

Breakfast of Champions - brunch with friends to celebrate Tiz!

Breakfast of Champions - brunch with friends to celebrate Tiz!

A special BrunchCake to fete Tiz on her birthday!

A special BrunchCake to fete Tiz on her birthday!


Plat du Jour April 17, 2009

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Yesterday’s post about Morocco has me straight back in the medinas. I can’t get my mind off that trip today. So, I figured it may be fun to share a bit about the glorious cuisine in Morocco as a way to channel my memories and tempt your tastebuds.

The interesting thing about Moroccan food is that there are actually a fairly limited number of ingredients, but the way you work with them transforms even the most simple of items into masterpieces. I learned that one day at the charming cafe called Nid’cigogne. Just across the street from the Saadian Tombs, I sat and looked down at the street from the third floor terrace of this simple establishment. After climbing a steep set of stairs, I settled in at the table and gazed out at a couple of storks who were carefully guarding their nests – and potentially engaging in similar people-watching as I.

Storks spectating from above.

Storks spectating from above.

I had read that Nid’cigogne was a good spot for an authentic, yet simple lunch. Boy did it deliver.

Upon glancing over the menu I noticed very affordable salads, and so I assumed that they’d be an appropriate starter. I selected the sampler of Moroccan salads. As a main course, I asked for a beef kabob sandwich.

Seemed basic, and in many ways it was. But this simple establishment was clearly waiting to teach me a thing or two about what makes these basic dishes so remarkable.

First course: moroccan salad medly

First course: moroccan salad medly

The salad sampler was HUGE! Truly, I didn’t need any more food than that. For a mere $3, I received three different salads. One was a sweet carrot mixture – served at room temperature, the carrots were cooked al dente and dressed in a vinaigrette of bright olive oil, cumin, parsley, sugar and salt. Another was a cold rice salad with tuna. I honestly wasn’t sure if there were any other ingredients. As a result, you got the true flavor of the fish and the real texture of the rice. Finally, a classic tomato salad with roasted peppers, olive oil, salt, pepper, cumin and onion. All three were alarmingly simple, yet so flavorful.

Beef Kebab Sandwich with Fries

Beef Kebab Sandwich with Fries

Next up was the $4 beef kebab sandwich. There’s basically one kind of bread in Morocco: khobz. Cooked in a huge, wood-fired community oven, loaves are about 6″ round and 2″ high. They’re crusty on the outside and soft on the inside. At Nid’cigogne, they took half a loaf and stuffed it with perfectly grilled steak (juicy and charred) and shredded lettuce. That’s it. The fries were crispy and not greasy. I didn’t even end up using the ketchup, though I went heavy-handed with the mixture of cumin and sea salt served with it. The earthiness of the cumin and the sharpness of the salt brought out the natural flavors of the beef.
By the time I was about halfway through the sandwich and a few fries in, I was stuffed. And I was amazed. The ingredient list to make this meal was so simple. And yet I had so many flavors coursing through me.
While I’m clearly someone who is willing to go all-out for the meal of a lifetime, it’s critical that we all remember how much simplicity counts when pleasing our palates and getting back to the core of what makes food so good.

Foodgasm April 16, 2009

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Remember when you’re a little kid and you hear someone talking about their recent crush, and they talk about going weak in the knees? And then in your early romantic years you THINK you’ve gone weak in the knees for that person you’re dating at the time. But THEN you actually meet someone who truly gives you that stomach-churning, joint-reducing, heart-palpitating, mind-blowing sensation that lets you know AT LAST what knee weakness is really all about?

Well, that’s what happened to me tonight. I thought for ages I knew what inventive cooking was. I thought forever that I was aware of the limits of the human palate. I thought I had weak in the knees on my kitchen speed dial.

How wrong I was.

Tonight, I went to Alinea. It saddens me that I barely know how to put into words the emotions I have about this unique culinary and dining and sensual experience. Everything from the flavors (who knew wax could be so important as a serving utinsil?) to the textures (frozen white pepper sorbet anyone?) to the scents (goat cheese, onion and rhubarb dessert on lavender pillow, please) – they wowed me.

I’m thinking of what a genius Grant Achatz is and how mesmerized I was by his well-oiled machine. I’m wondering if I’ll ever know anything as tasty as his food again.

More than anything, I’m hoping all of you Juicy Olives put pennies in your jar for whatever splurge makes you happy. Maybe it’s a meal at a dining mecca. Maybe it’s a brand new bike. Maybe you want a new keyboard to fine-tune your piano skills. Maybe you just want to take lessons to learn piano skills!

No matter what, please know that the greatest lesson I can take home with me tonight and the one I want to impart to you is that the splurge is worth it. It is worth every ounce of anticipation, excitement, planning, discussion, dialogue and stress. Take the plunge. Go for the thing that felt out of your grasp yesterday.

Reaching beyond what you thought was yours is so rewarding. It gives you that feeling of knowing what being weak in the knees is. It teaches you that you never really have had a foodgasm, and that the real ones are worth it – and faking it never is. It empowers you and makes you feel full. It gives you a sense of purpose and makes goals exciting, not dreadful.

You may not be interested in giving the poached pear with olive oil and eucalyptus vapors a whirl…and that’s okay. But I urge you to figure out the adventure you’re ready to take, and then stop thinking about it – just jump off the high dive. If you need a push, just ask. I’d be happy to give you the nudge you need to give yourself over to the ecstasy of self-indulgence.


Anticipation April 15, 2009

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I hear that Carly Simon wrote “Anticipation” for Cat Stevens. In it, she sings: “We can never know about the days to come, but we think about them anyway…I rehearsed those words just late last night, thinking about how tonight would be.”

So, I can’t really relate to an  early 70s love affair to a rock star, but I can totally empathize with her emotional connection to her imagination. It’s so easy to romanticize an experience before its even happened. And then you’re rolling the dice: will the actual event live up to my dreams?

I’m putting all of my hopes on my anticipation proving me right tonight – Allison and I are going to Alinea, and I’m convinced it’s going to be one heck of a meal. I shared with someone that all of this daydreaming about my meal at one of the best restaurants in the nation has been the best foodie foreplay I’ve ever had. He agreed that if there’s ever a reason to get worked up about a single meal, Alinea has to be the restaurant with all the answers. 

And answers I will need, as I have so many questions: What will happen? What will I taste? How will it feel? What will I see? Will this be my only chance? How can I make my first time as meaningful as possible? Will I feel different tomorrow?

I know, it sounds as if I’m talking about a far more intimate experience than dinner. But, in my mind’s eye, this IS a far more intimate experience than your four-square meal. I’ve been told about a powder served for dessert that, when mixed with your saliva in your mouth, becomes a delicious salted vanilla caramel. I’ve heard rumors of a thin sheet of fruit – called a “transparency” – that makes fruit roll-ups look like prison food. I read that the sound is curiously controlled so you’re able to hear only the music and your conversation – not everything else.

In efforts to channel my energy, I’ve done the following things today:

  • 90 minutes of yoga
  • a 30 minute walk
  • extensive planning and re-planning of my evening attire, shoes and accessories
  • started then deleted about 15 emails to Allison about how excited I am
  • perused Twitter feeds to determine what people are saying about Alinea today

I really cannot wait to write about my foodie delight tomorrow. I hope the anticipation is worth it. Otherwise I’ll be doing 90 minutes of yoga and taking numerous walks around the block to overcome disappointment.

Let’s hope gluttonous karma is on my side.


A Love Letter April 8, 2009

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Dear Avocado,

I think I’m in love with you. Your soft yet firm way has me all aflutter. It’s probably those healthy monounsaturated fats that take me over the edge.

When I met you for our lunch date today, I could hardly stand it. It was wonderful to see you making nice-nice with our friends goat cheese, tomato and olive bread. And the way you let that miso dressing take center stage for a little while…well, it was love at first bite.

A, I want you to know how much I appreciate you. When I see that brown paper bag on my counter, knowing you are ripening in there for me brings me so much joy. I only hope I can return the favor by singing your praises to the world.

I’m yours if you’ll have me, persea americana.


The new love of my life?

The new love of my life?


Excuse me…probably not. April 5, 2009

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Tonight I had dinner with Lindsay at Adesso – a neighborhood BYOB joint with homemade pastas and a funky local vibe. I grabbed a bottle of Kokomo wine, which paired perfectly with our short rib arrancini, rosemary frites, butternut squash risotto and pasta arrabiata. As the bottle of wine whittled, we ventured back to Chez Anderson where we relieved Ryan (fab husband of Lindsay) of Daddy Duties and cracked another bottle of rouge.

After a couple of glasses of wine, girls can talk. After a couple more, we can really get into it. Tonight’s main topics: relationships.

Recently I met a guy who seems to have it all…EXCEPT the ability to properly date a gal. A few dates in, I’m realizing I need to hire him a coach in order to get him to call me back, make a move, pay a compliment or – in general – make it worthwhile. I told Lindsay that I took a while to reach this conclusion. At first, I wondered if it was me. Am I too busy? Too fat? Too forward? Too silly? Is my hair too curly? My smile too toothy?

At least I was able to pay her back during my musings; Lindsay was wrestling with her own struggles – a friend who recently made a comment that felt less offhand and more slap-you-in-the-face. Was she feeling too sensitive? Too annoyed? Too avoidant?

It doesn’t matter if my feelings or Lindsay’s were too anything. At the end of the day, they were ours. I needed to remember an adage my mother once shared with me: whatever someone is feeling at that time – at that moment, it’s the biggest thing they know.

At the end of the day, our feelings were legitimate. In your eyes, I may be strange for being annoyed with Mister Lame, and Lindsay may be silly for being sensitive about Miss Insensitive’s comments, but it doesn’t matter. We feel what we feel. And by not making excuses for those sentiments, we’re stronger for knowing ourselves and being honest about the repercussions of relating with us.

I’m proud to know that for all I ask of this world – health, human kindness, flexibility, love, friendship – it’s rare I need to make excuses for myself. I’m proud to have chosen friends who equally don’t need to make excuses. We are smart and interesting and unique – and I’ll not stand for anyone to require an explanation for that.

THAT would be inexcusable.


Getting it out of my system (in advance?) March 26, 2009

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My parents went to school in New Orleans. For as long as I can remember, they’ve regaled us with tales of life in the Big Easy. Even though it has been decades since they graduated, the NOLA experience is clearly top-of-mind.

The classic muffaletta - who could ever finish a whole one!?

The classic muffaletta - who could ever finish a whole one!?

No matter the context of our discussions of their days at Tulane, my parents always return to the legendary food in Louisiana. They’ve told us about long lunches at Galatoires, garlicky shrimp at Mosca’s, po-boys at Domaliese’s, muffelettas at Central Grocery and icy cold oysters at Acme. We’ve discussed in-depth brandy milk punches, hurricanes and the banana daquiri that my mother swears was her first ever alcoholic bebida.

Mom and Dad close each menu recital with veritable groans – hands over stomachs and some kind of masochistic smile on their face about how painfully full they would become. They’d talk about our grandparents coming to visit them and needing to spend days afterward fasting just to return to a sense of normalcy after the gluttony.

Urban Dictionary defines a food coma as ” The feeling of listlessness, bordering on sleep, that one feels after eating a large meal.” We all love the indulgence, but said feeling can be downright miserable, and bouncing back can feel like torture.

That’s why I’m adopting a new practice: the pretox. (No – not that kind.) Sure, we’ve all heard of the detox – after you have a food fest that would make my parents proud, you switch to salads, water and several dates with your on-again off-again lover – the Elliptical machine. Doesn’t it make sense to give your body a healthy head start to offset what you KNOW you’ll be submitting it to in the coming days?

As I head into a weekend in California (yay!),  I’ve guzzled about a gallon and a half of water a day recently. I’m exercising like a fiend and just spent 45 minutes on a real Stair Master (you know – the kind with the revolving set of steps that is hard as hell on your thighs?). I’ve even been upping my fruits and veggies.

Will these extra efforts eliminate any glutton coma? Probably not, but they may reduce the intensity of the aftermath associated with wine tastings and every meal out. And, if they don’t is it that bad to have had a healthy week? If I keep it up, this Juicy Olive may just be bound for the Big Easy sooner than later.


Learn from the Locals March 23, 2009

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During her trip to Italy, my friend Stephanie took a cooking class. For her, it wasn’t so much about learning to prepare a bangin’ bolognese sauce, but rather that she left the class understanding the cultural idioms and nuanced practices that make the Italian people so special. Stephanie said that she’ll always take a class in a foreign destination from now on.

With that tenet in mind and my trip to Morocco around the corner, I began my research and came across Souk Cuisine. The  class promised to convey the intricacies of Marrakchi culture. It did not disappoint.

The day of the class came, and I met seven other tourists at Cafe la France. We split into groups to shop. My team was assigned to buy herbs, oils, grains and vegetables. Remarkably, this simple grocery list became the most unique cultural syllabus of my journey to North Africa. Through the two hour shopping trip, our guide took us to stall after stall of food vendors – each selling something different: preserved lemons, cured meat, fresh mint, giant pumpkins and dried beans – to name a few.

This gentleman sells numerous kinds of mint - each with a different purpose. The green bags hanging overhead contain dried mint - just add water (and a ton of sugar) and you've got yourself "Moroccan Whiskey" (also known as sweet mint tea.)

A mint vendor - each variety with a different purpose. Fresh for cooking and dried for "Moroccan Whiskey" (AKA sweet mint tea.)

We learned that the Moroccan women awake early each morning and make an extensive trip through the markets to buy all of the food for the day.

Lunch is the primary meal. Served in the early afternoon, it is a huge feast and includes multiple courses. The women begin preparing it each morning while their husbands leave the home and their kids go to school.

Moroccan cuisine is based on such few ingredients: cilantro, mint, cumin, paprika, cayenne, salt. Tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, carrots and onions. Raisins, dates and apricots. Couscous, lentils and bread. Chicken, fish and lamb. Yet do not underestimate the power of such a simple shopping list. The wondrous and varried meals that can be concocted with these items can make any mouth water.

Our shopping continued, and I learned the proper way to barter and the times when you just give in and pay the $1.50 for a huge bag of salt. I learned that butter sits in enormous vats in the open air, and olive oil is dispensed to the truly savvy into the clay vessels they bring to the vendor. 

Grain Souk

Grain Souk

I tasted the salty-bitter tang of preserved lemon and watched in wonder as a man pulled six fresh eggs from a chicken cage (feathers and gunk still attached to the shell!) and plopped them into a plastic baggie for transport. I marveled at the way the spice sellers knew not only how to measure the perfect amount of tumeric onto the scale, but also how to prescribe homeopathic remedies with the same herbs and spices.

Perfect Pyramids of Juicy Olives

Perfect Pyramids of Juicy Olives

Being a person who is sincerely interested (perhaps obsessed?) with the process of food going from farm to table to mouth, I knew this was going to be fun for me. But it became instantly obvious that this was a special experience for anyone partaking in Souk Cuisine when we joined the other groups in the kitchens. Everyone was abuzz with tales of whom they had met and what they had seen in the labyrinthe-like food souks. We talked about whether we felt we had recieved the best deal on squash and what it was like to watch the fishmonger quickly skin, fillet and mince the sardines right there on the wooden board. We all agreed that witnessing the lamb meat being lowered into the subterranean ovens was fascinating and that the remaining sheeps heads were exciting and repulsive at once.

Over the next two hours, we prepared a multi-course luncheon that included several vegetable salads, including my favorite, Zaalouk – an eggplant puree heavy on olive oil, garlic, tomatoes and cilantro. We made a couscous with carrots, onions and raisins and sardine meatballs, which were surprisingly flavorful.

Simple cookies and sweet lemon-mint tea. A lovely close to a gorgeous meal.

Simple cookies and sweet lemon-mint tea. A lovely close to a gorgeous meal.

And we baked two different cookies – my favorite being a sesame shortbread. Our hard work was rewarded with eating the incredible food on a sun-drenched terrace. We sipped rose wine and lounged on pillows on the warm terracotta tiles.

I learned virtually more in those six hours about life in Morocco than I did throughout the rest of my vacation. I gained an immense appreciation for the concepts of family and commerce and gender roles – just by buying groceries, preparing and eating lunch. I spent time with Moroccan women who firmly imparted their knowledge of good food, cultural mores and simple traditions. I think I shall never forget the image of one woman carrying a steaming tagine full of our couscous royale on top of her head. I’ll probably never chop cilantro again without recalling how another woman scolded me for not being precise with my knife. I may always look at lentils and want to dip my warm hand into the cool underlayers of those smooth, pebble-like legumes.

Should you find yourself in the position to journey to a unique locale, don’t forget to learn from the locals. They will teach you something a guidebook never can, and you will appreciate the destination so much more!

Cooking instructor or cultural guide?

Cooking instructor or cultural guide?


Yummy food…yummier friends. March 22, 2009

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Decktop dining on a spring afternoon. Perfect for a French rose, junky magazines and lots of tasty nibbles.

Decktop dining on a spring afternoon. Perfect for a French rose, junky magazines and lots of tasty nibbles.

They say that birds of a feather flock together. For my girlfriends and I, at least part of that equation must be our love of food, drink and conversation. As the years have rolled along, we’ve strolled from one delicious table to the next, forging bonds and swapping secrets over cold glasses of rose at the lake, grilled chickens in Mexico or a homecooked meal around the dining room table.

Last night was no exception. I met the gals for dinner at Turquoise in Roscoe Village. Nestled into the busy strip of Roscoe Street just west of Damen, this is a destination for thoughtful and authentic Turkish food. Our hungry group of eight women began our feast with appetizers including mujver – zucchini fritters with a creamy yogurt dipping sauce; patlican salatisi – smoked eggplant dip; and lahmacun – flatbread with a thin layer of ground beef and tomatoes garnished with red onion, parsley and lemon juice. Flavorful, unique and (all things considered) pretty healthy.

The piles of food were a welcome sight, as we had unfortunately had to wait for nearly an hour to be seated – this after our very organized friend Lindsay had made and confirmed our reservation…evidently they had accidentally cancelled it! And, it was good that we got the apps, as it was yet another hourlong wait for our entrees.

What kind of wine IS that? We probably should have ordered a beer, but the odd bottle made this a worthy sipper.

What kind of wine IS that? We probably should have ordered a beer, but the odd bottle made this a worthy sipper.

Improper timing aside, the food continued to impress us – my entree of pan-seared grouper on sauteed spinach and a lemon garlic sauce was light and fresh. Lexie and Courtney split a gorgeous mixed grill kebab platter with salmon, lamb, chicken and some very spicy grilled peppers. Robin’s lamb and onion kebab with a pomegranate sauce was the star – rich, pungent and decadent.

In all, I’d give Turquoise a B. The food was very good, and it was clear that the staff was committed to providing a dining experience true to their Turkish roots. I’d like to return and determine if the sluggish service was just a fluke, or a symptom of a larger imperfection in this team’s talent.

Even if the entire experience isn’t top-rated, I’m always fulfilled by a fun time with our friends. And, to be fair to the dear team at Turquoise, we were a handful last night. Unlike many evenings, this one was short on wine-infused philosophy but big on laughs. We entertained each other with silly stories that had us roaring with laughter until our sides hurt and tears were streaming down our faces.

Three budding chefs? Maybe, maybe not...but we had fun anyway!

Three budding chefs? Maybe, maybe not...but we had fun anyway!

Was it ladylike for us to be giggling like children who had uttered their first naughty word? Probably not entirely. But if you can’t  find true humor in tales of digestive issues in Little India on Devon (no bathroom in sight besides the cramped loo at Patel Brothers’ Grocery – uh oh) or the obvious rationale for utilizing a platform driving shoe (keeps you further away from the airbags!), then you’re not having fun. And, yes, it’s true that our lovely server had to kindly tell us to keep it down. But I’d venture to bet that they were partially entertained and partially envious, too, of the way this great group of women are able to take pleasure and find humor in daily life.

The moral of the Turquoise Tale? For me, it was about relaxing and enjoying my time with a great group of smart, sophisticated and downright entertaining friends. It actually made me so grateful for the lethargic service. Without it, I wouldn’t have learned all of those funny tales and more (several not-safe-for-blogging) about the people who are so important to me. For that, I’d give the night an A+.