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Couscous: The Food So Nice They Named it Twice

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

I recently took myself on a food adventure, which translates into “Lauren attempts to make a food she’s never tried before but constantly hears how delicious it is”.

I decided to finally give making couscous a shot. All of my chef friends constantly talk about the versatility of this tiny wheat pasta, and I have enjoyed it a few times before. I didn’t have a recipe set in place when I began this adventure but I had a cucumber, tomato, some lemons and a dream. I knew the flavor profile I was going for, and figured I could make it up as I went along.

couscousTo start, I followed the directions on the package to make the pasta and it really was a “set it and forget it” type preparation. It was super simple, and since I didn’t need to keep a watch on the pasta, I could prepare the mix-ins while it was cooking. I do always enjoy a meal that can be made and prepped simultaneously, since my available time for cooking is not ideally as long as I wish it was.

Once the couscous was cooked, I drained it and let it cool so I could mix everything in and let the flavors marinate. After doing a quick sweep of my kitchen, this resulted in a mixture of the veggies, olive oil, lemon, mint and parsley. The flavors were really fresh and light, and I think the couscous was the perfect canvas to feature the other ingredients.

couscousdishI would definitely make couscous again. This time around I just served it by itself, but I know that I could pair it with a variety of proteins and feel it would be successful in many ways.

I’d love to hear about food you’ve tried making for the first time. I have a long to-do list of ingredients and meals that I want to attempt, but I am always interested in new ideas. Maybe the next time you are thinking outside the box, you can give preparing couscous a try.

Let’s celebrate your successes here!

If You Can’t Beat Them, Bake for Them

Wednesday, July 10th, 2013

It’s no surprise that I love baking. My office mates enjoy my almost weekly cookie creations, and I feel that any excuse to use my Kitchen Aide mixer is a good one. When we had people over in honor of Steve’s birthday last month, I knew I wanted to make something for our guests, but figured this would be more of an appetizer party rather than desserts. So, the obvious choice was one of my favorite recipes from The Chopping Block: Homemade Pretzels!

rockbandI decided bite-size soft pretzels would be a great addition to the chips and dips other people were bringing, and baking allowed me to zen out in the kitchen before becoming the hostess with the mostest. This recipe is super simple and can easily be made in an afternoon. They do require a bit more work than regular bread since you have to boil them in baking soda before you can bake them, but it’s not anything that should stop you from trying.

These little bites were the hit of the party and no one could believe they weren’t store bought! I paired them with cheese dip and a variety of mustards, and they were the first appetizer to completely disappear. If it wasn’t for the improvised game of Rock Band, I think they would have been the highlight of the whole evening.

Give the recipe below a try the next time you are having people over, or just for yourself! I did notice I could have eaten the whole batch myself if others hadn’t been there to stop me. I suggest you add them to your entertaining database, they can then be a hit at your celebrations!

What’s your favorite party appetizer? Share with me in the comments.

 

pretzal-bitesHomemade Pretzels 

Yield: 8 pretzels

Active time: 45 minutes

Start to finish: 2 hours

 

1 cup warm water (110°)

1 1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast

1 tablespoon salt

2 to 3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons baking soda

1 large egg white beaten with 2 tablespoons water

Kosher salt as needed

Assorted mustards

  1. Place the water in a large bowl and stir in sugar and yeast. Allow to sit for 5 minutes to ensure that the yeast is alive. It should look frothy.
  2. Add the salt and 2 cups of flour. Stir until the dough becomes thick.
  3. Turn the dough out onto a floured board. Knead until smooth, about 6-7 minutes, adding more flour if the dough is too sticky.
  4. Place in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and allow to rise at room temperature for one hour or until doubled in size.
  5. To shape the pretzels, punch down dough and divide into 8 pieces.
  6. Roll each piece into a rope, then shape into a pretzel.
  7. Bring about 2 to3 inches of water to a boil in a large shallow pan. Add baking soda and reduce heat to a simmer.
  8. Carefully add the pretzels, a few at a time, and simmer for one minute.
  9. Return to the sheet tray and brush with the egg white glaze and sprinkle with salt. Bake until well browned, about15 minutes.
  10. Preheat the oven to 450°.
  11. Place on a greased sheet tray, cover with plastic, and allow to rise about 15 minutes more.
  12. Serve with the assorted mustards.

I Got the Blues

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013

Some people consider Memorial Day the start of summer, but I always know the heat is on once my favorite festival commences at the beginning of June. I look forward to this every year, and since meeting my husband (pictured here in his patriotic gear), it is the only festival I attend without fail.

steve at blues festBlues Fest is a chance for the city to join together in Grant Park and enjoy the freedom and expression of one of music’s most versatile genres. Each stage presents a new act that is just as mesmerizing and exciting as the last. I love wandering around and discovering some new bands or musicians that I might not had found anywhere else all in the much anticipated warm weather. Did you know the Chicago Blues Festival is the largest free blues festival in the world?

Just like last weekend’s festival, a good blues song is exactly how I find myself in the kitchen. Each song builds on a basic idea, and allows every musician to apply their background and life story into the songs they create. Even when playing a song that may have been around for years, each time its played a new spice or flare is added to the final product. Every time I cook, I take advantage of the same type of liberties. It allows me to enjoy some of the recipes that my family has been making for years, but trying new tweaks here and there. Sometimes you’re in the mood for a little sass and that can be found in both some hot sauce or a tight guitar riff.

So next time you’re in the kitchen, think about dinner like a smooth blues beat. Build a little off of what you know, try something new and put your soul into your food. I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy the results.

What’s your favorite Chicago summer festival?

Champion of Dinners for One

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

I have never claimed to be a Chicago sports fan. True, I do root for the Sox over the Cubs and I at least know what happens in most games, but all of the recent championship matches are not really my cup of tea.

My Kind of Sports

My Kind of Sports

As a result, I have found myself home alone quite often these past few weeks as my husband goes out to enjoy these tournaments with other people who care. He gets to watch the game and I get to watch old movie musicals. Win-Win.

This also presents the problem that I am home by myself for dinner these nights. As someone who is used to cooking for two, this now presents the issue of altering and making dinner for one that is either a smaller portion or can easily be saved for work the next day.

Lately, that has resulted in a lot of risotto. I love risotto, and that is one dish that I can make as little or as much as I want, and it also heats up pretty well the next day. I had never dreamed of making risotto before working at The Chopping Block, and after learning how in class, I make it all the time. It’s really not as hard or intimidating as Top Chef makes it seem!

This is my favorite TCB recipe, and I challenge you to make it the next time you’re home alone (or with a house full of sport fanatics) and let me know how it turned out in the comments. It is sure to be a three point power play!

Fresh Herb Risotto

risottoYield: 4 servings

Active time: 35 minutes

Start to Finish: 35 minutes

3 1/2 to 4 cups of chicken stock

2 tablespoons of butter

1 small onion, small dice

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup arborio rice

1/2 cup white wine

1/4 cup fresh parsley, rough chopped

2 tablespoons fresh dill, rough chopped

1/2 cup parmesan cheese, grated

salt and pepper to taste

1. place the chicken stock in a saucepan and heat over medium-low heat. Keep handy off to the side.

2. Heat a heavy-bottomed pot over medium low heat and add the butter.

3. Gently saute the onions until softened, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook an additional minute.

4. Stir in the rice, and cook an additional 2 minutes while stirring constantly or until the rice is lightly toasted. Add the white wine to deglaze, and then reduce until the pan is almost dry.

5. Add one ladle full of the warm stock and stir until the pan is almost dry. Continue in this fashion until the rice is cooked to your liking.

6. Sprinkle in the herbs and remove from the heat. Fold in the cheese and season, to taste, with salt and pepper.

 

Sick of April Showers

Monday, April 15th, 2013

I am not afraid to admit it: I am ready for warmer weather! Stir craziness has set in, as I stay inside every night and dream of sitting on outdoor decks. I’m ready for driving with the windows down, long walks with my dog and all the general amazingness of the long-awaited Chicago warmth!

raincoat-catsMother Nature seems to be taking that April showers thing to heart in these past few weeks of spring. I’m still waiting for  those first crisp warm days that mark the end of our cold bitter winters and provide the tiniest whisper to the glory that is Chicago summer. To finally have the smell of BBQ and happiness wafting through the air for all to enjoy is something I yearn for, where baseball games can be enjoyed without multi-layers and walks outside are not met with the agonizing task of selecting the appropriate coat.  I think we all can agree that this rainy, sometimes cold, sometimes colder, start to spring is no one’s favorite and has overstayed its welcome.

Now you may be asking yourself: “How does this relate to a food blog that I come to for wonderful recipes and insight into the delicious food that my friends at The Chopping Block are making?”

shandyWarmer weather is inspiring for food! People throw dinner parties. Guests leave their houses to attend said parties. Folks cook outside and finally meet those neighbors that have been holed up in their heated apartments avoiding the chill.  And stores start selling tasty Summer Shandy!

I know that warm weather will be just the motivation I need to explore some of the great restaurants I have yet to try and test out a few new recipes I’ve been saving, like this Thai Turkey Burger with Cilantro Carrot Slaw. Now, that belongs on a deck with a beer.

What summer dish are you waiting to try? Share your ideas here!

 

grillThai Turkey Burgers

Yield: 4 sliders (or 2 regular burgers)

Active time: 25 minutes

Start to finish: 40 minutes

1 tablespoon grapeseed oil

1 scallion, thinly sliced on the bias

1 small shallot, minced

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon ginger, freshly grated

1/2 pound ground turkey

1 egg white

2 teaspoons fish sauce

1 tablespoon fresh cilantro, rough chopped

1 tablespoon fresh mint, rough chopped

1/2 teaspoon nam prik pao (roasted chili paste)

Salt to taste

4 slider buns or brown ’n’ serve rolls

Sweet chili dipping sauce

  1. Heat a sauté pan over medium-low heat and add the grapeseed oil. Gently sauté the scallions, shallot, garlic and ginger until aromatic, 1 to 2 minutes. Allow to cool.
  2. In a bowl, mix together the ground turkey, egg white, fish sauce, cilantro, mint, chili paste and salt to taste. Stir in the sautéed aromatics.
  3. Form the mixture into four sliders.
  4. Heat a grill pan over medium heat.
  5. Grill the sliders on the first side until caramelized, 3 to 4 minutes. Flip and continue to cook until the meat reads 155º on a meat thermometer. Set aside on a plate.
  6. Toast the buns on the grill until light golden brown.
  7. Serve the sliders on the toasted buns and top with a dollop of sweet chili dipping sauce. Serve with Cilantro Carrot Slaw (recipe follows).

 

slawCilantro Carrot Slaw

Yield: 4 servings

Active time: 25 minutes

Start to finish: 25 minutes

1/2 pound carrots, peeled and grated

1 jalapeño, seeds removed (optional), and minced

2 scallions, thinly sliced on the bias

1/4 cup unsalted peanuts, roasted and rough chopped

2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, rough chopped

Zest of 1 lime

1 to 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

1/4 cup grapeseed oil

1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted

Salt and pepper to taste

  1. In a medium-size bowl toss together the carrots, jalapeños, scallions, peanuts, cilantro, lime zest, rice wine vinegar, olive oil and sesame seeds.
  2. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve chilled.

 

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Lauren Fountas is the newest member of the Private Events Team at The Chopping Block. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Lauren moved to Chicago about 5 years ago and has been living it up ever since. Lauren has a background in Theatre and Photography, but has always had a love of all things food (even if she's never been real good at cooking it.) She loves learning and trying anything new, and looks forward to all the adventures The Chopping Block is sure to provide. She lives and enjoys life with her new husband and their puppy and can often be found dancing through the hallways and singing along to the radio.