Monday, December 12, 2011

A perfectly perfect cookie

Years and years ago, when I was baking at full throttle, I had grand cookie ambitions around Christmas time. I would find pictures of elaborately decorated cookies on the cover of Gourmet magazine, and I would make them. All twelve varieties, each more complicated than the next. And then I would make a batch of puff pastry just for fun.

I'd be lying if I said I don't have the energy to do that anymore. I don't have the desire. I'm not nearly as enamored of trying a million different recipes, but thank God I was once a compulsive recipe tester, because now, thanks to my 16 hour baking marathons, I know definitively what works and what doesn't.

Case in point: Animal Crackers from Nancy Silverton, my pastry idol. I've been making this recipe forever, and I make it whenever cookies are called for at school, or any other event. Even though nothing in the world is perfect, these are. A perfectly balanced, tender sugar cookie, forgiving, easily re-rolled, just lovely and perfect. I sometimes want to hug this recipe. It comforts me like a family member who knows me, and never - not ever - acknowledges my flaws.

Animal Crackers
from "Desserts by Nancy Silverton"

8 oz. unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 eggs
2 Tbs. cream
1 Tbs. real vanilla extract
4 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
(Note: I add a big pinch of salt to the recipe. Don't tell Nancy)

To decorate cookie tops:
2 egg yolks
crystallized sugar

Using the paddle attachment of an electric mixer, beat the butter on medium speed until it whitens and hold soft peaks, 3 - 5 minutes. Beat in the sugar until well-blended. Whisk together the eggs, cream and vanilla and beat in, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary.

Sift together the flour and baking powder, and add to the butter in three batches, mixing briefly after each addition. After the last addition of flour, beat until just combined. Make sure any flour on the bottom of the bowl is fully incorporated.

Flatten dough into a disk, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate at least two hours, and as long as several days.

Preheat oven to 325. On a lightly floured surface, roll dough out to 1/8" thickness. Cut dough with your favorite cookie cutter, using as much of the surface area as you can - this will leave less dough for re-rolling. Place on paper-lined or non-stick cookie sheets. If you have enough sheets, place one empty sheet under your cookie sheet. This keeps the bottom from browning too quickly.

Whisk the egg yolks together, and lightly brush the tops of the cookies, then sprinkle the top with crystallized sugar. This gives them a delightful crunch. If you're going to decorate them with frosting, you can omit this part.

Bake for 15 minutes, then turn the sheets from front to back to ensure even baking. Bake for about 7 - 8 minutes more, checking to make sure they don't brown too much. They should just turn light gold.

Monday, November 7, 2011

A quick one

When I was a kid, I liked to make concoctions. I would gather ketchup, mustard, salad oil, dried spices, and any other bottled liquids I could find, along with a bowl and start "cooking." Everything would get mixed together and inevitably turn into....vomit. Cooking did not come naturally to me.

But the idea, the desire for the impromptu mixing together of ingredients to create something wonderful, remains. This is why I love making soup. Shoot from the hip. No measuring. With the wild promise that anything could happen. Spontaneity reigns when you make soup.

So the other day, I grabbed some florets from the pumpkin-sized head of cauliflower I had and a red pepper, and something magical happened. I only use the word "magical" when something really is magical, and not as hyperbole. It was magical; trust me on this. An Indian cauliflower soup with curry, turmeric, and a hint of cayenne. I served it with a scoop of basmati rice because I live for carbs, and it seemed authentic that way. The whole thing came together in an hour. Here's the recipe, give or take.

Indian cauliflower soup

For 2 servings:
1 1/2 cups cut-up cauliflower florets
1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1/2 small onion, diced
1/2 shallot, diced
1 Tbs. canola oil
1/2 tsp curry powder, or to taste
1/2 tsp turmeric
pinch cayenne
chicken stock to cover (about 2 1/2 cups)
1/2 cup chopped frozen spinach
salt and pepper to taste
a squeeze of lime

Heat the oil in a heavy-bottom pan, like a Le Creuset or a heavy pot. Saute the onion and shallot until translucent and soft, about 8 minutes. Add the red pepper and cauliflower, and sauté 5 minutes more. Add the spices, salt and pepper to taste, and sauté another couple of minutes, until everything is well-coated and starting to soften. Add the chicken stock and enough water to cover the vegetables by an inch or so. Bring to a boil, then reduce and partially cover. Simmer for about 25 minutes. The cauliflower will break up into little bits and become very soft. Remove from heat, let cool a couple of minutes, then puree in a blender. You may want to do this in two batches to keep the lid from blowing off the blender and exploding all over the kitchen. You can use a food processor as well. When fully pureed, thin with stock if necessary. The soup will be very creamy. Add the frozen spinach (the soup must still be hot for this to work), and stir well.

Ladle the soup into wide soup bowls and put a scoop of basmati rice right in the middle. I added a squeeze of lime, and it was magical.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

A completely unbiased take on chocolate

My friend, Bob, and I have this ongoing argument about chocolate.

Bob: Milk chocolate is the best.

Me: If you think that, you must be a pussy.

Chocolate lovers love bittersweet chocolate. End of story. They can also like milk chocolate, but they know that bittersweet is far superior, and that milk chocolate is a poor man's semi-sweet, which is a poor man's bittersweet. Milk chocolate is for those who don't like cilantro, olives, and Indian food. You know, people with immature palates. White chocolate won't even be discussed here.

The real argument is this: just how bitter should bittersweet be? Some people, like myself, favor a mellower bittersweet, while others like it so bitter, it borders on unpleasant, even punitive. In any event, bittersweet rules.

The best bittersweet is Callebaut, a Belgian brand that produces some of the most balanced chocolate around. I am in love with Callebaut and will defend it to my death. I know some people love Valrhona, and I will admit that its exotic names and wine-like complexity make it sexier, but give me the frank directness of Callebaut any day of the week.

When I worked in the kitchen, Callebaut came in whopping 11 pound blocks. Chopping large blocks of chocolate is about as fun as plucking one's nose hairs, one by one. After a day of chopping, I would go home and soak my wrists in ice cold water and try not to weep. But there is one extremely satisfying part of the process. To get it going, the chopper would lift the block over head, still wrapped in paper, and fling it to the ground, resulting in a resonant THUD! Sometimes, you might even get a THWAP! if it hit the ground just so. If you did this with vigor, or even better, in a murderous rage, the chocolate might break into ten or so pieces. But if you were tentative in your flinging - a tentative flinger - you'd be lucky to end up with two or three still barely manageable pieces. If someone was particularly pissed off that day, they automatically got the job.

Chocolate is moody, like my eight year old daughter, and that's why, when you prepare chocolate for coating (a melting process used in making candies and truffles), it's called tempering. Because it's like giving a child a bath. The chocolate may decide it's not in the mood to be tempered that day, and have a tantrum. I think this is why the French like chocolate so much - because chocolate is a challenge, like a beautiful, enigmatic woman who offers glimpses of availability and then just as quickly withdraws, enjoying the pursuer's misery.

Here are some good chocolate sources, in case you feel like getting in the ring with the beast.

Callebaut - available in smaller 12 - 16 ounce chunks at Whole Foods. Or through the website, which has every brand and product you'll ever need.

Valrhona - perhaps a sexier chocolate than Callebaut, but I still like my workhorse. Valrhona also makes an amazing cocoa powder (available at and a variety of bittersweet bars with varying degrees of bitterness for tasting.

La Maison du Chocolat - Makes the best plain chocolate truffles I have ever had, and they'll gladly ship them to you. I haven't been to their shop in New York, but have been to the one in Paris, and it was miraculous. The entire shop is cloaked in chocolate brown, from the walls to the carpeting. They have everything chocolate - cakes, candies, amazing macarons - and the taste level is exquisite.

Vosges - a Chicago success story. Exotic truffles and bars. They have a few shops around town, and also sell in Whole Foods.

As for milk chocolate, well, gee, have you tried Hershey's?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Living in a creamy alfredo world

During the summer, my family and I traverse the 90 miles from Chicago to southwest Michigan on a fairly regular basis, passing through the soft, moist armpit of Indiana. Indiana is Americana; love of God and country come before just about everything else except maybe alfredo sauce.

I noticed this on our last visit, as we decided on a restaurant for dinner. We always seem to stop in Michigan City, Indiana, the land of outlet malls, and home to every chain restaurant in existence. If you look around the main drag, there's Steak n Shake, Chili's, The Olive Garden, Baker's Square, Denny's, Culver's, and the fast food Big Three: McDonald's, BK, and Wendy's. You can add to that Quizno's, Subway, Pizza Hut/ get the picture.

My pick is always The Olive Garden (even though canned olives in my salad are a disgusting folly, they're also sort of delightful), which is overridden by the other members of the family, who inevitably pick Chili's. It's really all the same, now that alfredo sauce has infiltrated pretty much every fast food menu (At Chili's, it's Cajun Pasta with garlic alfredo sauce).

You won't really get an argument from me regarding alfredo sauce. Screw my arteries; it's a wantonly self-indulgent cloak on bland food, and besides, the heart wants what it wants. And mine wants alfredo sauce. Like, a big plate of it, with a side of fettucine, a big grind of pepper, and a squeeze of lemon. And yes, please pass the parmesan and the grater. I love the creaminess of the sauce mixed with the salty grit of the cheese, and the slithery slipperiness of the noodles. I don't know if there's a more sensorially pleasing food.

In Italy, there is no cream in the sauce, which is to say, we've taken something perfect and Americanized it. In Italy, it's all butter and cheese, and some pasta cooking water to emulsify those two perfect ingredients into something even more compelling. The Italians, who know a thing or two about pasta, know that the cream is superfluous, and perhaps even detrimental.

But try telling that to the Americans. I grew up with cream in my alfredo. I'm used to it, although once you taste the real version, it gives you pause. Oh, so that's what it's supposed to taste like. But I suppose once you start mixing alfredo with the likes of jalapeño and cajun spices, you're not much concerned with authenticity anyway.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Viva la frita!

If there's one thing I fret about, it's a missed opportunity. Take last weekend. I went to Ann Arbor, one of my favorite food places in the world. It's not quite the food holy land, but it's close. One reason is Zingerman's, the world's greatest deli. If $15 sandwiches seem like highway robbery, you've never tasted Zingerman's Bakehouse rye. Or their Georgia Reuben, or Pat & Dick's Honeymooner, or the sublime mushroom barley soup, or the I need to go on?

But last weekend, I missed out on Frita Batidos. I had never heard of the place until I stumbled upon a spirited discussion about it on a football blog (my other passion) a few days ago. Its proponents declared it the next coming in Ann Arbor, so I decided to check out the website. I figured with that name, it was a nacho place. You know, refried beans, sour cream, a Latin bandito with a six-shooter in one hand and a margarita in the other, welcoming you inside.

What I found was a revelation, as these things go. A modern Cuban-inspired sandwich place, with beautifully plated food, sides of rum-soaked pineapple, and fruity tropical milkshakes (I'm close to tears).

A frita, I learned, is a Cuban burger made from spicy chorizo. The ones at Frita Batidos are served on an egg bun with chili mayo and shoestring fries on top. But you can also get a fish frita or a black bean frita or one topped with a fried egg or cilantro lime salsa or tropical coleslaw, or all three. And if you don't want shoestring fries on top, that's fine, too, although who would be that foolish?

Other ridiculously great-sounding sandwiches include seared shrimp, cilantro oil, pea shoots, and bermuda onion on brioche, and the Inspired Cuban: aromatic roast pork, tasso ham, thick bacon, gruyere, cornichons and chipotle mayo on Cuban bread. You can also get a bucket of fried smelts, which I might consider here, or the Best Snack Ever, which is beans, rice, salsa, and cheese. Something tells me its simplicity belies its complexity.

Come October, when I return, I will grab a seat in the window and eat my fish frita with tropical coleslaw and drink a perfectly tropical batido (guava maybe?) and be happier than a human has a right to be.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Donut anxiety

I've always considered donuts a laid back proposition. Not the case at the Donut Vault. The stakes are high, quantities are limited and timing is everything. And with the advent of real time social networking, you know exactly where you stand (in a really, really long line with your smart phone, obsessively checking Donut Vault status updates every two minutes) at all times.

We hit that line on Saturday at 10:00 AM. It was about 50 people long and it wound around the corner of Franklin on to Kinzie into the hot sun. I've stood in lines for food before, but this time, I felt sort of foolish, like a donut novice, which I'm not. I grew up on mother's milk and donuts. It's a genetic certainty, my love of donuts, that was passed down from my mother. Just recently she confessed that when she turned 16 and got her driver's license, she would lie to her parents and tell them she was going to a late mass on Sunday, but instead, she'd head to a bakery on the outskirts of town, where she'd get half dozen glazed donuts and eat them all, unrecognized. Now, she's probably going to hell.

But that sordid foray explains our outings at the grocery store when I was in high school. Before we started to shop, my mother and I would head over to the bakery section and buy a dozen sugared donuts in a white paper sack. By the time we finished our shopping, 4 or 5 would be gone. In the cart was another bag of mini powdered sugar donettes, which my stepfather would eat over the course of the next few days, two here, three there, the telltale white powder lingering on the counter at all times from the constant reaching in and pulling out of donuts. I lived in a donut crack house and we were all addicts.

I know my donuts. I don't like Krispy Kremes. Too sweet. Dunkin Donuts taste like the test tube they grew in. My favorite bakery donuts come from Dinkel's here in Chicago. They're dreamy, especially the apple cider donuts rolled in sugar and spice available in the fall. The best restaurant donuts I've ever had came from Campanile in Los Angeles. Nancy Silverton, my pastry idol, concocted a dream plate of two kinds of donuts - ricotta fritters and beignets - accompanied by homemade vanilla ice cream and warm huckleberries. I had that dessert twenty years ago and I'm still reeling.

So there I was, in line at the Donut Vault on Saturday, slightly scared. It takes balls, and a modicum of arrogance, for a restaurateur to expect people to wait in line for any extended period of time, especially for a $2.00 donut. For the first time during one of my many food pilgrimages (there have been many), I wondered if it was worth it. I considered going across the street to Dunkin and getting the test tube donut and calling it a day. Who wants to wait an hour in the hot sun for a freaking donut?

As I was standing there, getting angry, I was also following Facebook, and getting real time updates on which donuts were selling out, and which were getting low. As this was happening, I watched single people come out of the tiny shop carrying two boxes of donuts. And I was starting to get donut rage.

REALLY? You really need two dozen donuts? You know, there are people in line here who would be happy with just one. Asshole. Asshole with a little dog.

And then before I knew it, I was standing inside the vault. Only it wasn't really a vault, it was a hallway pulsating with hip hop music. My 8 year-old daughter was with me and when the singer sang, "Motherfucker motherfucker mother fucker bitch," she looked up at me, alarmed. I was alarmed. These better be great donuts. Motherfucking great donuts. Bitch.

And then it was our turn. I stepped up to the very hip hip hop counter and ordered one of each: old-fashioned buttermilk, chocolate glazed, vanilla glazed, and pistachio. Score. The only one that was sold out was the gingerbread stack and that didn't even sound like a donut, so who cares?

One hour and fifteen minutes after we first stepped in line, I had a Donut Vault bag in hand. We found a spot right in front of the Moody Bible Institute (I knew God would somehow find his way back into this), sat down on a bench and started eating (pictures below, beginning with pistachio, then chocolate, followed by vanilla glazed then buttermilk).

These are good donuts. Good, big, squishy, and very sweet donuts. The chocolate one needs more chocolate glaze. The pistachio wasn't pistachio enough. The vanilla glazed had little flecks of real vanilla bean - a nice touch on what was probably my favorite. And the old-fashioned buttermilk was delightful - I think. I don't remember it very well, but I'm pretty sure it was good.

I still prefer Dinkel's, where there might be one or two people in line in front of me. And where the donut anxiety is at a minimum.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Meat palace

"Too much of anything is too much for me." Pete Townshend

It's been two days since my unapologetic meatfest at Fogo de Chao and I'm still not right. We went to celebrate my son's entrance into manhood, otherwise known as his 11th birthday. He is a carnivore first class, the kind that would have meat (and by this, I mean beef, pork or lamb, or preferably all three) for dessert.

Fogo de Chao is a Brazilian churrascaria/circus that's more of an event than a restaurant. I hate these kind of places. They charge $8 for a bowl of ice cream. And that's not even what you come for.

You come for the meat. Fifteen different kinds, mostly beef, all brought to the table by swarthy Brazilians in white blousy pirate shirts, knickers, and the male equivalent of tough leather bitch boots. The meat is speared on a sword, and the aformentioned gauchos slice it off at your discretion with giant machetes. Sirloin, garlic sirloin, bacon-wrapped sirloin, pork ribs, leg of lamb, lamb chops - it's obscene.

The meal starts with a visit to a vast salad bar. The waiter tells you to save room for the meat, but it's nearly impossible to act with restraint. There are marinated vegetables like asparagus, artichokes and beets. Cheeses, salumi, roasted potatoes, Brazilian slaw, bread, Spanish olive oils, olives and roasted peppers. Who needs meat with all this?

Then the sides come. Cheese biscuits, garlic mashed potatoes, fried polenta dusted with grated cheese and fried bananas. I was already feeling somewhat sick at that point, so when the first cut of meat came (plain sirloin), I wasn't nearly as excited as I had hoped. I felt more obligated than anything. We're paying good money for all this flesh, so I had better eat a lot of it.

The sirloin was followed by garlic sirloin, then lamb, then I lost track. I know there were sausages, because I had one. They refilled our mashed potatoes and polenta several times, so we must have cleaned those plates, too.

It was Henry the VIII gluttony, and I didn't feel good about it. I'm trying to downsize across the board, you know, use less of everything, and this didn't fit into my plan at all. And so, when the kids wanted dessert, we said yes, have the $9 slab of cheesecake and the $8 bowl of chocolate ice cream that they probably picked up down the street at Walgreen's. A birthday is a birthday.

Post script: In the middle of the night, my 8 year old daughter appeared in our bedroom to inform us she was going to throw up. And she promptly did.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The simplest of potages

Try as I might, I could not find a gorgeous picture of Italian parsley, or of parsley soup, the recipe I'm offering up here. A friend of mine is embarking on a vegan adventure and she, and now I, feel compelled to make it exciting. Well, ok, when there's no braised short ribs or lobster tacos or marinated skirt steak, it's tough to be exciting. But this soup is hauntingly magical, and that has to count for something.

I found it in Jean-George Vongerichten's book, cleverly titled Jean-Georges. Like Shakira, he doesn't really need a last name. He's a preternaturally ambitious French superstar chef who initially made his name in New York, where they all do, but then unleashed a vast cooking empire across the globe. His restaurants, Vong, Jean-Georges, and Jojo, have been cloned and sent to Las Vegas and elsewhere, and he now has many others, too. His cuisine could be described as adventurous French with lots of southeast Asian influences.

From this very eclectic chef, I give you a really simple French potage. I normally only make it in the winter, but it's so freaking cold where I live, soup seems appropriate now. Plus, my friend loves soup, so this a great addition to her repertoire. Enjoy!

Parsley soup with mixed mushrooms
From Jean-Georges by Jean-Georges Vongerichten
4 - 5 servings

1 bunch of parsley (I use Italian)
3 Tbs. olive oil
1/4 cup minced onion
1 medium leek, trimmed of hard green parts, split in half, washed and roughly chopped
1 medium-to-large parsnip, chopped (you may substitute potato, but it's not as good)
2 1/2 cups vegetable stock or water (or chicken stock if you still welcome animals on your plate)
4 oz. mixed mushrooms, trimmed of tough stems and roughly chopped
1 Tbs. minced shallot

Wash the parsley in a bowl. Separate the leaves from the stems (yes, this is laborious but it must be done). Tie the stems in a bundle with kitchen twine.

In a large saucepan or soup pot, melt 1 1/2 Tbs. oil over medium heat. Stir in the onion, leek and parsnip. Add a healthy pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables become translucent. If they start to brown, lower the heat.

Add the parsley stems and a good grind of pepper, and stir again.

Add the 2 1/2 cups of water plus the vegetable stock (or use all water). Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to medium, and cook, stirring now and then, until the vegetables are very tender, 30 - 45 minutes.

When the vegetables are soft, remove the parsley stems, add the remaining parsley leaves, and cook for another minute. Let the soup cool slightly, and then place the soup, in batches to avoid a parsley explosion, in a blender or food processor, and blend as smooth as possible. Taste the soup and adjust the seasoning. If you're looking for a finely textured soup, pass it through a food mill. I have never bothered doing this.

As soon as the soup is done, heat a skillet with the remaining 1 1/2 Tbs. oil. Saute the shallots for a minute or two and then add the mushrooms. Season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally until the mushrooms are tender, about 10 minutes.

Divide the mushrooms between the soup bowls and ladle the soup over the mushrooms.

This makes an amazing start to a Thanksgiving meal. As long as you add the parsley leaves at the last minute, the soup stays bright green. Sometimes I'll make the base of it, through cooking the stems in the stock, and put that in the fridge overnight. Then I bring it back up to a simmer right before serving, and add the parsley leaves, then proceed with the rest of the recipe.

If you're looking for a more substantial soup, the addition of cooked white beans (yes, you can use the canned ones) is darn near magical.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Vegetable love

I don't know if you've heard but the government just came out with a brand new set of dietary guidelines. In a hideously art-directed graphic, the government has submitted My Plate for our perusal, a paint-by-numbers directive for the obvious impaired. Apparently, the Food Pyramid was confusing.

Whatever. I'm not going to make a judgment on the intelligence of our society as a whole. Rather, I'm going to pull out my well-worn copy of Vegetable Love by Barbara Kafka, and every other vegetable-loving cookbook I have, and get to work. Because vegetables are now getting top billing.

Surprisingly, I'm ok with this. I, like Barbara Kafka, love vegetables. It's surprising because I didn't eat a vegetable until I was safely into my 20's. When I questioned my mother about this recently, not only did she agree with the vegetable assertion, she also added that I probably didn't eat anything healthy - anything - until I was in my 20's. But, she added, you were happy.

My mother's idea of vegetables was canned peas. She put those army green pellets in everything, from creamed tuna fish on toast to my Stouffer's Chicken a la King, for some extra vegetable oomph. This was the same mother who regularly took us to White Castle for dinner, and gave me Wonder bread sandwiches filled with bologna and mayonnaise for lunch. And the same one who bought boxes of Hostess treats and counted them as more than adequate after-school snacks.

So here I am, pulling out my Greens cookbooks, from the eponymous restaurant in San Francisco, two tomes by Deborah Madison, the former Greens founding chef, and a delightful softback I found at the Ferry Building in San Francisco on market cooking. The one by Barbara Kafka, Vegetable Love, has a lot of recipes for stuff no one eats anymore (like carrot raisin salad from the 7th grade cafeteria), and soups made with three ingredients (celery, salt and water - from her lunch with Gandhi?). I like her because she bears a resemblance to Bea Arthur. Every time I open her cookbook, I imagine standing in Maude's Tuckahoe kitchen, making Feminist Salad with Adrienne Barbeau. The likeness, at least in my mind, is that striking.

Vegetable Love is encyclopedic in its breadth, with chapters on everything from broccoli to fennel to the wide world of lettuce. It even has an entire chapter devoted to Odd Roots, like scorzonera, which I've never heard of, and burdock root, which looks like a hairy stick. I'm not going to eat these things, but it's nice to know that if the world ends tomorrow and we all have to forage for our food, everyone will come to my mud hut for burdock tempura.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Excuses, excuses

I haven't written much lately, and I have to chalk it up to one thing: I'm just not that excited about food these days. There are a couple of reasons.

1) I have kids. Kids are excited about brownies and not much else. So cooking in my house is not an exercise in creativity and inspiration. It usually involves opening a box. Maybe not for the whole meal, but for part of it, and nothing sucks the life out of me like opening a box. Sometimes it's macaroni and cheese, other times it's rice pilaf or frozen pizza. I've lowered myself so far that I am now giving my kids ramen noodles, the kind with the little foil flavor packet that has more harmful ingredients than Drano. I blame the kids.

2) Cooking is a bit like writing in that one has to feed one's self constantly for inspiration. With writing, one reads, goes to movies, eavesdrops on conversations complete strangers are having on the bus, etc, etc....With cooking, it's literal. I need to go out to eat more, and at more interesting places. So I'm making a list and welcome any suggestions you have in the comment section. Keep in mind I live in the Chicago area. I might fly somewhere exotic, as long as it's in the midwest and I can get there by car.

My next tentative venture is Manghal, a Kosher grill in Evanston. When you drive by, it looks vaguely Mongolian, like the servers might be right out of that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Karen Allen drinks a gender-challenged Mongol under the table. But it's actually an Israeli restaurant that serves grilled kosher meats, breads baked in the in-house taboun (a type of clay oven), and other middle eastern delights. If you go to the website, you'll notice this place has the much-sought-after stamp of approval from the rabbinical council. I feel like I'm in Jerusalem already. L'chaim!

3) There is no 3. I have no more excuses. Lunchbox resumes now.