Wednesday, December 30, 2009

XOCO for lunch

The holidays are busy, whether you are baking, organizing a party, or shopping for those last minute gifts. Which makes it a perfect time to relax, head out and grab a bite to eat.

My husband and I had the wonderful and rare opportunity to eat lunch out last weekend, sans children. We stopped in XOCO, Rick Bayless' newest Mexican restaurant in downtown Chicago. I heard about it recently on Twitter, and have always been a Bayless fan, though I have never eaten in his restaurants. XOCO is a "quick-service cafe," as opposed to his fancier restaurants Frontera and Topolobampo, but there is nothing compromised about the food or atmosphere. In fact, it was one of the most amazing lunches I have eaten in a cafe.

The warm atmosphere created by the bold yellow and blue walls, and modern wooden tables and chairs enveloped us as we stepped in out of the snow. The line was long, as promised, but the service was efficient. We waited about fifteen minutes to order, but once we ordered we were seated right away and served within 5 minutes.

We had a hard time choosing our lunch. The menu features oven-warmed sandwiches, grilled tortas, soups and a few sides. Homemade ice cream and a slew of house-ground cocoa beverages complete the menu. (Breakfast looks great, too!). Everything sounded delicious, from the chicken and posole soup to the prosciutto, cheddar, avocado and chipotle-mustard torta.

We started with a smoky chicken-apple chile soup. It was the daily special, and I honestly can't remember the name, but it was divine! The red broth perfectly combined sweet, smoky and spicy. Chunks of chicken and a crunch of roasted pepitas topped it off. We also ordered a side of chips and guac, and I am pleased to say that the guac didn't run out before the chips!

Our main course, sandwiches from the woodburning oven, were unbelievable. Both sandwiches started with fresh, crusty bread and were filled with savory combinations of meat, cheese and vegetables. I ordered the Gunthorp Chicken, featuring marinated chicken, with back beans, pickled onions, avocado, and a red chile salsa. My husband indulged in the Choriqueso, a sandwich of homemade chorizo sausage, roasted poblanos, jack cheese and Rick's famous tomatillo salsa.
The flavors were bright, but balanced. A bold combination of heat, sweet, pickled and sour. More amazing? The sandwiches tasted just as good heated up two days later. Yep, the servings are ample, and affordable. For all of our food, plus a beer, we spent about $35.00. Not bad.

There's more to love about XOCO. They use lots of local veggies, meats and cheeses (many from Wisconsin, too!), and organic milk. And the cooks taste the food as they make it (with a clean spoon)!

My husband and I left XOCO happy to have had time to taste our food, and happy that the food was well worth tasting. And with a renewed holiday spirit.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Swedish Meatballs-A Holiday Tradition (Sort of)

As the holiday season approaches I find myself thinking about family traditions. As my children get bigger, I feel like I owe it to them to create memories that they can pass on.

I don’t remember any really solid holiday traditions as a child in my family. We were dabblers (and still are!). Of course we had a tree, and certain ornaments that we loved, and my dad always brought out the angel chimes that spin from the heat of candles.

What I remember most about “our” traditions is trying out other people’s instead; some years I went to midnight mass with a friend (hey, I got to stay out late) and sometimes we went caroling with neighbors. Some years we opened gifts on Christmas eve (like our German and Swedish relatives) and sometimes we waited until Christmas morning. Sometimes, as we got older, the gifts didn’t even arrive wrapped.

As far as food traditions, we didn’t have any that stand out to me. Which is probably why, when I traveled to Sweden after high school to live with my relatives, I became fixated on their traditions. Learning about my own heritage, and searching for my identity meant that I could claim gingerbread cookies, whisked whipped cream, rice pudding and Swedish meatballs as my own. And, yes, lutefisk, too.

This year I made those Swedish meatballs, though I don’t have a personal favorite recipe. I turned to my handy Joy of Cooking cookbook, and found a recipe that sounded good. I mixed the meat, breadcrumbs and typically Scandinavian spices, nutmeg and allspice, and cooked them up.

After the first batch I decided they need some garlic. So I added in garlic. Then I decided they needed an accompaniment of some sort. So I boiled water for noodles. I stuck some garlic bread in the oven, heated some tomato sauce, and voilà, spaghetti and meatballs.

So much for tradition.

Swedish Meatballs

1 tbsp butter
4 tbsp chopped onions
1/3 cup (plus or minus) bread crumbs (can substitute mashed potato)
1/2 (plus or minus) cup water
1 pound ground beef, or beef and pork
1 egg
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp each allspice and nutmeg
2 tbsp heavy cream
garlic (optional)

1.Saute onions in butter until soft.

2.Meanwhile put bread crumbs and water into a mixing bowl and let sit one minute.

3.Add in onions and remaining ingredients and mix vigorously (kneading or with mixer attachment) until meat balls are well mixed, and light.

4.Form small balls and cook in buttered skillet until browned and cooked through.

5.Enjoy plain or however else you like. Hey, it's your holiday!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Tortilla Soup

I know winter is here, because I have had soup about five out of the last seven meals.

Oh, and Mother Nature dumped 18 inches of snow outside our front door.

It seems like there is some internal clock that craves warm liquids as soon as the weather turns from that pleasant fall chill (when I crave baked goods) to downright cold.

I had intended to use the leftover Thanksgiving turkey to make a turkey soup, but just couldn’t bring myself to face the leftovers (I have become a meat snob of sorts, and the cheap turkey that contained about five ingredients did not sound good). So instead I scrounged the freezer for chicken breasts that I stored away after cutting off most of the meat.

I spotted some tomatoes that I froze and blanched during those warm summer months (when I crave fruit and grilled veggies) and immediately thought of Mexico. Well, partly I thought about it because I am going there in a month!!! But that is another story. As soon as I thought of Mexico, I grabbed Rick Bayless’ Mexico: One Plate at a Time, and searched for tortilla soup—a deliciously light soup, with a flavorful, lime-tomato broth.

With Mother Nature just getting started playing with the snow, we will likely have cabin fever for a few weeks (wishful thinking) to come. It’s nothing a bowl of soup, and a couple of shovels, can’t cure.

Tortilla Soup (w/ chicken)


6 corn tortillas
vegetable oil for frying
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped or pressed
1 small onion, died
2 dried pasilla chiles, stemmed seeded and torn into flat pieces
1 15 oz. can tomatoes, or 2 large tomatoes, blanched and peeled
6 cups chicken broth
1 large sprig fresh epazote (I used dried)
6 oz Mexican queso fresco, or grated Monterey Jack cheese
I large ripe avocado
1 lime cut into wedges
cilantro (optional)
shredded chicken (optional)

1.Heat oil in skillet, about ¼ inch deep. Cut tortillas into strips and fry in hot oil. Oil should not be smoking, but hot enough to sizzle right away. Fry for about 2 minutes on each side, or until golden. Drain on paper towels.

2.Pour all but a thin layer of oil from skillet, and sauté onions until translucent. Add garlic and sauté another minute. Remove from heat.

3.Puree onion garlic mixture with tomatoes in blender. Heat in soup pot about 10 minutes until it thickens slightly. Add in stock and epazote and simmer 30 minutes.

4.Season with salt.

5.To serve, ladle the soup into bowls, garnish with a few tortilla strips, a little crumbled, toasted chile, cheese, some avocado chunks and cilantro. Serve with a lime wedge.

Tip: if adding chicken, boil chicken on bone until cooked through. Use broth from cooking chicken in soup. To remove fat, chill broth first and skim solidified fat off of top.