Thursday, October 31, 2013

Happy Halloween

Growing up, Halloween was one of my brother and I's favorite holidays.  When it came to costumes, we dressed up as a range of characters - soccer players (by far the easiest costume and used a few too many times), dogs, Pocahantas, a witch, Cinderella, and a hockey player, just to name a few.  We'd carry our pillow case from door to door in strategically selected neighborhoods and accumulate a slew of sugary treats.  Our favorite part, however, was not the trick-or-treating itself, but rather the days that followed.  Every afternoon when we arrived home from school we would dump out our respective bags of candy, sort everything into piles, and spend far too long contemplating which 4 pieces of candy we would have for dessert that night.  No more, no less, four pieces was the rule.  There were negotiations and trades, as we each had our favorite candies.  It was serious business, and easily kept us busy for an hour each afternoon.

Today, I'm far too old for trick-or-treating.  In fact, over the past couple years, I haven't even been home to hand out candy.  Although I won't be donning any crazy costumes this year, I did celebrate the holiday with some friends with a night of pumpkin carving.

After a barbecue dinner, we set forth to plan our designs, using pre-made templates to guide our creativity.  I chose the cat design, hoping that the designated beginner-intermediate level would be fail-proof.

Being the group of orthopaedic surgeons that we are, power tools and scalpels were ready and available for use.  Have you ever seen a pumpkin gutter?  This thing is seriously the best invention ever.  No more scooping handful after handful of slimy pumpkin guts.  If you carve pumpkins, it is without a doubt the best $11.99 you could spend.

Despite my complete and utter lack of artistic talent, I managed to succeed in my carving.  I think it actually looks like a cat, so I consider that a win.

Camden carefully oversaw the carving festivities.

A whole family of pumpkins - ghost, cat, scary face, and bat.

All of the girls and their respective pumpkins.

 With a little coaxing, we even managed to get the guys in the picture.

And last, but not least, no pumpkin carving session is complete without saving the seeds for roasting.  A quick boil in salt water, sprinkling with EVOO/cinnamon/cumin mix, and then 20 minutes at 375 degrees resulted in perfectly crispy pumpkin seeds.


What were your favorite childhood costumes?  Did you have any similar candy-sorting rituals?

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Fall is in the Air

Temperatures are dropping, darkness comes earlier each evening, leaves are changing colors, and pumpkins are being sold on many street corners.  Here are a few things that I consider to represent the start of fall:

1.  Warm soups, stews, and crock pot meals.  

2. An abundance of squashes and gourds.  Butternut, delicata, and kombucha are just a few of my favorites.

3.  A new season of farmer's market produce (turnips!) and a hot caramel latte to sip on while strolling from vendor to vendor.

4.  Roasted vegetables with nearly every meal.  My oven can go nearly the entire summer without getting turned on more than a few times a month, yet the second the weather cools off it's on a few time a week.  Broccoli and turnips were the roasting victims this week.

 5.  Perfect running weather.  Without a doubt, spring and fall are the absolute best climates for running.  I even splurged on a new pair of shoes to kick start a great running season.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Chicago Eats

Now that you've seen many of the Chicago sights, it's time to get to the serious business - THE FOOD!  Our family is serious when it comes to searching high and low for the best cuisine that a city has to offer.  While I hadn't given much thought to must-try restaurants prior to our arrival, we had no trouble keeping bellies full of delicious food and drink.

Thursday morning started with a short walk to Dallop Coffee Co, a small coffee shop a couple blocks from our hotel.  To supplement the fruit eaten at the hotel, I sipped on a soy pumpkin chai latte and a cranberry oatmeal scone.  The scone was just slightly sweet, filled with oats and flax, and a perfect accompaniment to the latte.  We made a second trip later in the weekend for Dad to try their Metropolis drip coffee.

The main event on Thursday was a Bucktown and Wicker Park Food Tour.  This walking food + architectural excursion is one of three tours, each in a different neighborhood, that Chicago Food Planet hosts.

"Discover the unique artists’ colony that has slowly evolved into a hidden foodie paradise as you enjoy delectable food and drink samples from 6 authentic mom-and-pop restaurants and ethnic eateries"

We met our group outside of George's Hot Dogs, the #1 Chicago hot dog stand and family-owned restaurant established in 1948.  The classic Chicago hot dog features an all-beef frankfurter and is topped with yellow mustard, chopped onions, sweet relish, tomato slices, pickled sport peppers, a dill pickle spear, and a dash of celery salt.  Despite our vegetarian preference, we opted to try the true classic and enjoyed each and every bite.

A short walk through Bucktown brought us to the entrance of Hot Chocolate.  Owner and chef Mindy Segal is a James Beard award winner multiple times over and established this pastry and dessert restaurant in 2004.  The large front window panels were opened to let in the gorgeous weather, and I could have definitely the afternoon lounging there.

We were presented with glasses of their soy iced dark hot chocolate, featuring 72% french chocolate.  As an added treat, a homemade marshmallow topped our glass.  The sweetness was the perfect compliment to the salty start to the meal.

The next stop was Goddess and Grocer, a gourmet foods delicatessen and purveyor of local, organic, and artisan groceries.  Their sandwich and soup menu looked delicious and we enjoyed learning about the local product that fill their shelves.  Our taste was a kale salad, featuring massaged kale, roasted red peppers, raisins, and parmesan.  We were happy to be served some veggies to balance out the indulgences.

Mom and I looking like twins with our dueling scarves.

Eventually we crossed the street and found ourselves moving into the Wicker Park neighborhood. Piece, a New Haven-style pizzeria established in 2001 is recognized for their award-winning brewpub on-premise.  We took a short break to sit down and feast on a pairing of a pizza + beer.

Our tasting slice was their "white pizza" - thin crust brushed with olive oil, garlic, mozzarella cheese, and tomatoes.  Contrary to popular belief, New Haven thin crust pizza outsells Chicago deep dish year after year in the city.

At this point, our stomachs were approaching full.  Fortunately, next on the agenda was an hour-long walk through side-streets admiring the local homes and learning about the history of the neighborhood.  Eventually we made our way towards  Sultan's Market, a Middle-Eastern cafe established in 1985 serving authentic falafel, shawarma, and babaghanoush.

We feasted on a falafel pita - lined with hummus, lettuce, tomato, and topped with jerusalum salad. Shockingly, this was only half of a regular portion.  Can you believe a full portion sells for a meager $3.75?!  Our guide told us that the owner prides herself on maintaining the original prices since their initial opening.

The last stop of the tour was at iCream, a creamery rapidly freezing custom concoctions utilizing a unique liquid nitrogen system.  I was beyond full at this point, but found just enough room for a taste.  The Bucktown and Wicker Park food tour was a great way to taste our way through a new city while also learning about it's history and I'd definitely recommend it to future travelers.

Thursday evening, Dad rejoined the girls and we opted for dinner at Bandera.  Located on Michigan Avenue and just a few blocks from our hotel, they offer traditional American cooking.  Despite a rather short and simple menu, we were pleased with an excellent meal.

Thanks Mom and Dad for letting me join in the fun of a trip to Chicago!
Cornbread Skillet
This was equally as good as it looks - hearty bread mixed with corn kernals, a crispy exterior,
and a wonderfully savory, sweet, and moist base.  Butter does wonderful things!
Veggie Burger with Emerald Kale Salad
The picture doesn't do it justice, but this was a HUGE burger.
Dad polished off every last bite!
Butternut and White Cheddar Enchilada with Escab├ęche and Brussel Sprouts
Mom was very pleased with this selection and also joined the clean-plate club.

Macho Salad with avocado, dates, almonds and goat cheese + Brussel Sprouts
This was the best salad I have had in quite some time.  The combination of large chunks of avocado, creamy and tangy goat cheese, sweet dates, and crunch of almonds was the
perfect combination.
On Friday, I chose Intelligentsia for a jolt of espresso post-long run.  The coffee is locally roasted in Chicago and then sold throughout several gourmet markets across the country.  I opted for the simplicity of an extra-hot soy latte to truly savour the true flavors of the coffee bean.  It was certainly a perfect birthday morning!

The only research I had done prior to our arrival with respect to food, was for the best falafel in the city.  I'm not sure that anything will ever compare to my first and very favorite falafel pita from Taim in NYC.  Falafill was touted as the best, and so we found ourselves there for lunch on Friday afternoon.  My selection was the "classic falafel wrap."  Inside the whole wheat pita was falafel, tahini, and then my choice of selections from the mezza bar (hummus, baba ghanouge, jerusalem salad, minted cabbage, and curry roasted cauliflower).  Needless to say, I had no problem devouring it.

We were seeking waterfront dining for dinner on Friday night, and thus selected Catch 35 on the Chicago River.  Although advertised as waterfront dining, we learned upon arrival that they were a block off the water and lacked a single seat in the restaurant with a view of the river.  Despite this, we were pleased to discover a quiet restaurant with excellent service and a fresh seafood meal.

Appetizer of Grilled Calamari
Hearts of Palm Salad + Yellowfin Tuna Sashimi
Still feeling quite full from a day of indulgences, I opted for a lighter meal with selections
from the appetizer menu.  The tuna was seared and paired perfectly with the pickled ginger.
Naturally, no birthday celebration is complete without dessert!  Fortunately, I had saved room.

Flourless Chocolate Fudge Cake + Peanut Butter Mousse
Rich, decadent, chocolate goodness!

Espresso Creme Brulee
We all agreed that this was one of the best creme brulees that we had ever tasted.
Just for the record, we did try Chicago deep dish pizza, stopping for lunch on Saturday at Giordano's.  Sadly, we were anything but impressed.  The crust was no better than freezer-quality and the filling was 90% cheese and a meager 10% toppings.  Some people may love it, but it certainly wasn't one of our favorite meals.

Saturday night was deemed Mom's birthday dinner, since we would be in-flight on her Sunday birthday.  Among many dining establishments, we discovered a vegan restaurant with a mouth-watering menu and were quick to make reservations.  Karyn's On Green is in Chicago's Greektown neighborhood and advertises contemporary cuisine that makes vegan sexy.

I had a difficult time deciding between the many entrees, and eventually determined that what I was really craving was a combination of sides.  Fortunately, the kitchen happily prepared a custom vegetable plate for me.  My three selections included quinoa hush-puppies with coconut-curry aioli, elote (roasted corn on the cob) with spicy root beer aioli and cilantro-lime butter, and caramelized brussels sprouts with grain mustard vinaigrette.  Although it appeared to be a ton of food, I managed to devour almost every morsel.  So delicious!

Mom's celebratory dessert was a vegan creme brulee.  While not quite as decadent as the traditional dairy version, we all agreed that it was skillfully prepared to closely mimic it's counterpart.  Happy birthday Mom!

Wow, that was a lot of stellar food!  Chicago appears to have a great culinary scene, and we only touched on a small number of possibilities.  Here I sit typing this at 11pm and I can't stop drooling.  Some say you should not grocery shop while hungry.  I, however, would add that you shouldn't blog about food when hungry.

That concludes my trip to Chicago - one that I will remember for birthday celebrations, beautiful fall weather, runs along the lake, long walks exploring city streets, quality time with my parents, and an abundance of delicious eats.  Farewell Windy City!

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Chicago Sights

Welcome to Chicago!  Let me take you on a tour of the Windy City on what has to be one of the most beautiful weekends of 2013.

Friday morning, I couldn't think of any better way to start my birthday than with a long run along the water.  By 8am I was running up Michigan Avenue past the likes of Apple, Nordstrom, Lululemon, and Coach.  Within a few minutes I was making the turn towards Lake Michigan.  From there, I made my way south along the Lakeshore Path.  It was a perfect 55 degrees and the energy of all of the runners and bikers on the path was exactly what I needed at the start of vacation.  After making the turn around at the five mile point, I caught the sidewalk running along the river back into the heart of the city.  Before I knew it, my Garmin was beeping for 10 miles and I was back at our hotel.

The Chicago Marathon just so happened to be occurring on the same weekend as our vacation - a fact that I somehow overlooked when we first planned the trip.  My parents and I enjoyed a three mile walk from the hotel to the conference center to partake in the marathon expo.  I was unsuccessful in the hunt for new running shoes, but the walk in the sunshine was well worth the effort.

We made a quick stop for lunch at Falafill and then made our way back to the river to catch the Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise.  We sat on the top deck of the boat and enjoyed a 90 minute narrated cruise down the Chicago River.

Marina City
Built in the 1960s, the circular twin towers feature residences, parking,
restaurants, shops, a marina, and a hotel.
 Heading west along the river, we approached the division of the north and south branches.  Toward the far left of the picture below, you can see the rounded glass building that is 330 West Wacker Drive.  The design is an example of contextualism - the shimmering glass is designed to symbolize the flowing harmony of the river.

Mom looking quite fashionable with her shades and 330 West Wacker Drive in the background.
Along the south branch of the Chicago River, we came upon Willis Tower.  Built in 1974 and formerly known as Sears Tower, it was the world's tallest building for 24 years.  The entire structure is composed of multiple towers of variable height, a design known as bundled-tube construction.

As the River approaches its entry into the lake, the Navy Pier comes into focus.  The ferris wheel seen in the distance appears quite large, yet is only half the height of the original ferris wheel built by George Washington Gale Ferris for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.  The original structure stood 250 feet high.

After basking in the sun on the boat cruise, we slowly made our way back to the hotel in the Streeterville neighborhood of Chicago.  Between my ten mile run and then another five miles of walking the city streets, my legs were ready for a reprieve.  While some elected for an afternoon nap, I put my legs up and spent a couple of hours working on an upcoming presentation.

My birthday celebration continued at the 96th floor of the John Hancock Building.  From the lounge, the views of the city were breathtaking.  We arrived just in time to witness the sunset.

A round of celebratory drinks was ordered and enjoyed.  I sipped on a mojito and enjoyed relaxing and taking in the views of the city.

In just a short time, the bright daytime skies turned to night and the city lights created an entirely new appearance of the downtown area.  Eventually we reached the finals sips of our drinks and made our way back down to street level and towards our dinner destination.

Saturday was a bit gloomy with intermittent rain, yet we seemed to luck out and enjoy a day of shopping without getting too wet.  Sadly, the general consensus was that Michigan Avenue featured high prices and not a single sale within sight.

Sunday morning Dad and I set out for some marathon spectating and a run of our own.  Without a doubt, the energy of the marathoners filled me with a sudden urge to train for 26.2.  I've yet to decide for sure whether I will race that distance prior to Ironman Chattanooga, but I'm definitely more interested now than I was prior to witnessing the Chicago Marathon.

Practicing with the new panoramic camera feature on the iPhone 5S.
Mile 1 - only 25.2 miles to go!
Sunday was Mom's birthday, and also our last day in the city.  Our flight wasn't until late that evening, so we had nearly the entire day to play.  Mom's choice to begin the day was a walk to Argo Tea for a pumpkin spice chai latte.  Yum!

We continued our stroll with our warm beverages into Millenium Park.  Check out the modern metal architecture of the Jay Pritzker Pavillion and Great Lawn.  I can only imagine how much fun it would be to attend outdoor summer concerts at that venue.

Cloud Gate, dubbed "The Bean" by locals due to it's legume-like shape, is positioned within the center of AT&T Plaza.  The three story structure was built in 2004 by artist Anish Kapoor and cost a shocking $23 million.  It is composed of 168 stainless steel plates and weighs 110 tons.

And with that, I bring you to the end of your tour through Chicago on a picture-perfect early fall weekend.  Naturally, no trip with our family would be complete without lots of great food.  Up next, I'll take you on a culinary tour featuring the many of our epicurean delights.