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A Real (If Short) Vacation

You may not be able to tell, but that’s us on the beach.

[Editor’s Note: Every time I think I’m just going to write a super short post and throw up some pictures, it turns out to be… well… the opposite of short. Sorry. Remember you can always skip the words and just look at the pretty stuff.]
 
We just got back from the first non-visiting-relatives vacation we’ve been on in years. True, we were visiting a friend, but… it is so not the same. We went to Portland, Oregon, which is an excellent place to be, and is the current home of my best friend in the world ever, Lindsay. If you haven’t been, I highly recommend it. Funky city plus lots of amazing nature and only 90 minutes from The Ocean. (Which, we decided while there, should be the goal of ALL vacations.)

Aside from the Incident* with my drivers’ license, it was an awesome trip. We had some adventures in and around the city with a plethora of gorgeous views, some of which you’ll see below, we ate really well. Possibly the best ever on a trip away from home. So let me recap for you. 

Saturday.
We arrived, famished, a little after noon. 2pm our time. Lindsay had leftover roasted root vegetables (delicious) which we ate with some black bean burgers and cheese (also tasty.)

Our plan was to celebrate her birthday as well as mine (they’re about 2 weeks apart) during our visit, so she invited a handful of friends over for a dinner party. We discussed some options and hit the farmstand and the grocery store, where we snagged some tasty local wines in addition to the other ingredients. We ended up with an appetizer of some wonderfully creamy cheese (not Brie, but something like it, sorry I forgot what), caramelized shallots, and fresh figs cooked in wine on some very crusty bread. We followed it with fennel-roasted (FRESH ALASKAN!) salmon over mixed greens. For dessert, we made this Mocha Marjolaine cake, which was fantastic. While devouring it, Lindsay and I discussed the handful of little changes we would make to the recipe to take it from a 10 to an 11+ the next time. (In case you’re thinking of giving it a try – and you should – we agreed that you should ditch the almonds and use only extra-toasty hazelnuts; make the coffee whipped cream stronger and use it between all the layers; coat the whole thing with the dark chocolate ganache; and skip the ‘light’ chocolate ganache altogether.) We also grilled some peaches and served them with vanilla ice cream. Amazing.

And then? Board games and WhiskeyTime™and even more desserts because a few more people showed up with brownies. Somewhere in the midst of all this, it became way late in our time, and moderately late on Portland time, and we totally crashed into bed and slept forever.

Apparently, we took no pictures on Saturday. 

Sunday.
Until we woke up at what felt like noon but was actually 9am or so. We cooked up some eggs on toast before driving out to the coast. Once there, we had lunch at a pub/brewery, which had totally decent beer. We all ordered some kind of fish because, you know, we were on the oceanfront, so why would we eat anything else? I had some excellent crab cakes; Julia had a seared tuna wrap which was good, but would have been improved by more tuna and less wrap and a menu description that actually implied it was in a wrap (as opposed to on a bed of spinach as we imagined.)

Wave Jumpers.

Then we EXPLORED. We ran in the ocean and jumped over the waves. And maybe, just maybe, while I was trying to film one coming into shore, it might have come faster than anticipated. And I might have a video of us squealing and running away, taken on my phone-in-hand, à la Blair Witch. It is hilarious. At least to us.

We climbed up a sand dune…
Beach, with view of the sand dune we hiked up
Victory. And pretty rocks. And my finger.
…and sat on the edge of an amazing cliff…
Awesome rocks and a big cave

We ate dinner at another seafood joint near the water. Clams, Bouillabaisse, Fish & Chips, Shrimp, Clam Chowder. And then three of us fell asleep in the car on the way back to the city…

Sunset at the Ocean

Monday.
On our last full day, we decided to run amok in the city proper. We visited Powell’s bookstore, which was as huge and awesome as I remembered it. We went to a little tea shop with over a hundred varieties of tea (in bulk!) and re-stocked our supply. We wandered up and down the street around it, window shopping, trying things on that we’d never buy, trying things on with no intention of buying them and then buying them anyway…

When we tired of that, we sat on Lindsay’s front porch with glasses of wine. And then we finished the day with a bountiful, yet unbelievably reasonably priced, sushi dinner. And by reasonably priced, I mean we spent less for the four of us than we ordinarily do for the two of us in Chicago and we got more food. 

Tuesday.
We had just enough time for a quick stop at the infamous Voodoo Doughnut followed by a tour through the Columbia River gorge. Which is lovely and breathtaking and very rainforest-y.

Washington state to the left of the river; Oregon to the right
Waterfalls are pretty.

And then we went to the airport and came home to Chicago.

*The Incident: So when we got to the airport in Chicago to get on the plane to Portland, we found out the hard way (yes, that means during the TSA screening process) that my driver’s license had expired on my birthday. Which was the week before. The lady was nice enough to let us through, and I breathed a sigh of relief. But after about 24 hours in Portland, I realized I could have the same problem on the way home and they might not be so nice and ohmygod panic. Which was followed by another, smaller incident in which I was not allowed to purchase a really wonderful-sounding glass of wine because I couldn’t prove my age. So. I called Illinois, who told me they couldn’t do anything and I needed to come in person to renew it. Which, of course, I cannot do from Portland. So. I went to the airport hoping they’d be nice and let me through, and somehow, magically, they didn’t notice my license was expired and they let me through. And then Julia tried to go through but her license lists 2009 as its expiration date. But. Illinois does this stupid thing where you can renew online if you haven’t been in any accidents lately and then they mail you a sticker to put on the back which says it’s good for 4 more years. Which she’d done, and it was, so they let her through too. And then we went home. On Wednesday I renewed my expired license in about 7 minutes and hopefully that is that.

I Made Another Cake

It was TWELVE LAYERS. I’ll spare you knowledge of exactly how many pounds of butter, cups of sugar, and dozens (yes) of eggs I went through to make this sucker. (Hint: more than any other cake I can recall making, except maybe my wedding cake. Which was for many more people.)

Yellow Sponge Cake Chocolate Soufflé

Yellow Sponge Cake.
Mocha Buttercream.
Hazelnut Meringue.
Coffee Buttercream.
Chocolate Soufflé Cake.
Mocha Buttercream.
Repeat.
Shave Good Dark Chocolate on top.
Serve.

What can I say? It was my birthday. I went overboard.*

Close up.
Finished Cake

I made a whole bunch of other food too. I know you’re interested, because you love food as much as I do (don’t you? Isn’t that why you’re here?) so here’s a round up of the party menu. I decided to keep it classy with fancy, bite-sized apps and none of the usual chip-and-dip business. Also, I attempted to maintain a balance of hot and cold things and to make sure my vegetarian/vegan/gluten-free/kosher friends all had options. Here’s what I made, in no particular order:

  • Bacon-Wrapped Dates (hot) – a time-tested standby, it is hard to go wrong with these. Plus, Julia and I had them on our first date, and so they are special. Plus, you know, really freakin’ tasty.
  • Caprese Skewers (cold, vegetarian) – my play on the classic Italian salad. I put a cherry tomato, a small basil leaf, and one of those tiny (3/4″ diameter or so) mozzarella balls from the deli onto each stick, arranged them on a plate, and then drizzled with olive oil, salt, and pepper.
  • Brie with Apricot Preserves & Almonds (hot, vegetarian) –  I make this a lot at parties because it is quick and easy but also fancy and delicious. All you do is top a wedge of brie with a few spoonfuls of preserves, warm it for about a minute in the microwave, sprinkle it with nuts, and serve with crackers. The amount of effort involved is nearly zero, and compared to the usual grabbing of chips & dip on the way to the potluck… WIN. Seriously, do this instead.
  • Chilled Cucumber & Dill Soup (cold, vegetarian, gluten-free) – This was a new recipe I tried. I tasted it while I was cooking it, and truthfully, I liked it better warm. Still, it was pretty good. I served it in 1oz shot glasses. FYI, I subbed vegetable stock for the chicken called for in the recipe to keep it as a meat-free option.
  • Red Wine Poached Figs (hot, vegan, gluten-free) – Holy crap, these were good. Unfortunately, they came out of the oven right after we decided to bust out the cake, so they were largely overlooked by the guests. Too bad for them. If you like figs, you should make these sometime. Soon, because as I mentioned, they are almost out of season.
  • Cucumber Chickpea Bruschetta (cold, vegan, gluten-free) – We made these once before, at our vegan/gluten-free dinner party, and they were as good as we remembered. Yum.
  • Shrimp Cocktail (cold) – Let’s just say we started with two pounds of shrimp and leave it at that.
  • Lemon-Parsley Gougeres – I’ve been wanting to make these for a while. Glad I finally got around to it – they were heavenly little flaky pastry puffs with a zesty lemon bite. They did not last long.

Of course, there was also wine a plenty along with champagne and some non-alcoholic punch, which turned out to be so good that I ended up drinking quite a bit of it.

In summary: delicious food + wine + the most excellent people = one awesome 30th birthday!

*I spent the better part of my actual birthday on Saturday prepping for this party. There were spreadsheets involved. Because, you know, I needed a schedule and a list of prep times and to make sure I had enough vegetarian, gluten-free, & kid-friendly things as well as a balance of hot & cold; sweet & savory. And also I just like spreadsheets. Yeah, I’m a major geek. But you knew that.

Tru

Hi friends! Today we have a special treat. Perhaps you remember the other day, when I was babysitting so Keely and her husband P.J. could go out for a fancy birthday dinner? Maybe you recall that they went to Tru? Which I have heard nothing but lovely things about and desperately want to check out? (As soon as I win the lottery…?)

Well. Keely is taking a break from her lollygagging today to tell us about all the lovely things they ate. Please go get a napkin or something to catch the impending drool, and then read on.

The other night, I had the completely overwhelming thrill of dining at Tru. (For the second time, mind you. The whelm has not yet ceased.)
We do not often indulge in four hundred dollar meals – not on a Sunday, at least. However we were in the possession of – as we also were when we last dined there – a few American Express gift cards racked up from copious overspending at places like Cermak Produce and Target. (My husband P.J. and I have decided that this is the best use of our AmEx points, as airline travel remains too pricey and I already own more Hammacher Schlemmer than anyone really needs.)
Plus, it was my birthday. And nothing says the big 3-1 like dining at one of the nation’s top restaurants. 
We were seated at 8pm and, for the parents of a toddler, felt very grown up indeed. We were immediately presented with our choice of napkin. (That’s right, a color choice. From a tray.) Even though this wasn’t my first rodeo, I choked and chose a white napkin. Even though my dress was black. Thankfully, no fibers embarrassed me.
I treated myself to a glass of absolutely stellar Riesling (did I mention that I’m five months and change pregnant? Judge not. For it really was a good glass of wine). P.J. had the same. At this point we were simply stoked to be sitting at a quiet table and not dicing anyone’s food.
And then they brought us each a fluffy little puff of baked cheese. Just ‘cause. And it was good.
Moments later we were presented with an amuse-bouche (literally translated to: say that with a straight face) of cucumber lemongrass gelee with a decadent soup surrounding it. [Cindy’s Note: actually it literally means “amuse the mouth” and is intended to be a pre-meal palate tease of the snooty French variety.] I love to start my supper with a shot glass- always have. Also, “cucumber” was the word of the day at Tru. (When I informed my sister of this, she asked if I had to yell every time something was brought over, a la Pee Wee’s Playhouse. No.)
Then the bread course! We had our choice between pumpernickel, challah, something really puffy (I’m such a stickler for details) and asiago flatbreads. So we took one of each. Here’s an example of how good the bread was: when we had finished our various carbs, P.J. began picking up crumbs from the tablecloth, one by one. I reminded him that the servers carried table scrapers for that express purpose. He held up a breadcrumb and told me that he wanted to put them in his pocket. 
We decided on the three course prix fixe option (and my menu even had ‘Happy Birthday, Keely’ artfully faded behind that evening’s selections). [Cindy’s Note: True story. I saw it. It was lovely. And I said hey should have asked the chef to autograph it.] Here is what I chose: duck confit and foie gras ravioli in some sort of awesomesauce reduction, Maine lobster with madras curry and roasted cauliflower, and a passion fruit mousse with lime, coconut, and dark chocolate. And here is what P.J. ordered: bay scallops on organic polenta with truffles and bacon, the prime beef ribeye with foie gras and wild mushrooms, and an apple beignet with vanilla ice cream.
I realize we had more than our fair share of foie gras. I have guilt over this. I do. Not a lot, but enough.
The appetizers were really, really good. We didn’t speak a word until they were finished, other than, “Oh, did you want a bite?”
My lobster came on a plate with built-in waves. (I really dig that kind of synchronicity.) The roasted cauliflower came on a bed of pureed cauliflower- and while I’m not usually a huge puree kinda gal (again, we have a little kid and she’s the captain of that ship), I wanted to suck it down with a straw. P.J.’s prime rib and foie gras were incredibly tender, but the surprise standout of that meal was the whipped pudding-like potato with curls of saffron. He said it was the ultimate comfort food times a thousand. I said it felt like my mouth was getting a hug. 
At the end of the first two courses, we were given a teensy cup of cucumber (ah!!!) foam with vanilla and most likely eight other pivotal ingredients that enhanced the cuke. But all I could remember to type is cucumber and vanilla. (I am not their target demographic.) 
Then the mousse came. And it was…exactly as awesome as you’d expect something with those ingredients to be. P.J.’s beignet was light as air, covered a slice of tart green apple, and accompanied by a dish of churned vanilla bean ice cream. We were happy campers.
Then they surprised me with the cutest and bitsiest individual confetti cake I’d ever seen, with a birthday frosting greeting swirled on the plate. (And I never know what to do with the dessert-y words. It seems wrong to mash it up, but it’s downright sinful to leave anything on a dessert plate. So I licked it. Kidding. Kind of.)
And of course, once we had finished our individual bites of heaven, a cart appeared at our table. We were offered little plates of truffles, bon bons and tiny pastel pastries – as many as we wanted. (They SAID.) I chose a rose petal macaroon, a blackberry jam truffle, and a dollop of light lemon meringue custard in a dark chocolate shell. P.J. chose the same, minus the rose, plus a small rum cake. (I called him an old man. But to be fair, it was really good. Obviously.) I think our favorite were the lemon ones, but we certainly weren’t going to kick the other ones off the table anytime soon.
We enjoyed these with a fruity sunset tea and a cappuccino, respectively, and marveled at how much we were able to put away. Also how long we were able to sit nicely at a table without running around the kitchen for various things. 
Our meal ended with a last truffle apiece – dark chocolate with gold leaf, filled with a chilled bitter almond cream. [Cindy’s Note: It’s entirely unfair that I have to read about this concoction without having one available to me for the eating. Someone please remedy this, STAT.] We were advised to take it in one bite, or it would explode into a puddle of uselessness. (My words, not his.) However, despite how gently I [thought I] picked it up, mine cracked and threatened to spill all over the table, my teacup, and my pregnant belly. So I did what any rational diner would do: I shoved it into my mouth and immediately drank the filling from the saucer. And stole P.J.’s spoon to slurp up the rest from the truffle plate. Graceful.
As we exited Tru, we were each handed a small cherry sponge cake wrapped in foil for a take home treat.
I love this place.
I also love the two married ladies who pinch hit babysat for our kiddo that evening and facilitated one of the best meals I’ll ever consume. What say we meet up there for the next big decadent event? [Cindy’s Note: YES!]
Just lemme score some more AmEx points, first. [Cindy’s Note: See above, re: lottery winning.]
 
Thanks Keely! People, if you enjoyed this post, you will LOVE hearing from Keely three(ish) times a week over at the Lollygag Blog. So please go visit and then come back here. Preferably bearing truffles.

Sprout!

– OR – 
An Appropriate Day* on Which to Remember This Blog Exists
(and Therefore Write Something)

So. It has come to my attention multiple times and from multiple sources this week that, oh yeah, this blog exists. And also? I’ve written nothing in it since October. I could give you excuses, but who cares? The point is, here we are, and I have some food to share with you. And I’m thinking, in the future, I will be sharing other things that I make. Like, clothes and stuff. And maybe some posts just about life, where no stuff is even made at all. [Travesty!] Plus, I don’t believe in guilt.
Five years ago, my hair was short and long enough to be an appropriate length for a Louis XIV-era pageboy. Which is what I was dressed as for schlepping the scenery around Remy Bumppo’s production of Power. Julia had worked on their previous show, and so she decided to come to the opening night to support her friends in the production. At the party which followed the performance that night, our eyes met across the crowd, and we’ve basically been inseparable ever since.**
Anyway…. Julia surprised me with a super fancy dinner at Dale Levitski’s (of Top Chef fame) restaurant, Sprout. Which was AWESOME. Their deal is you get your choice of dishes for an appetizer, entree, and dessert course, and the chef decides on a soup/salad and cheese course for you. Total of five courses, if you’re counting. They also have a wine pairing option, and I have to say – it was phenomenal. I don’t remember exactly what I drank, but I do remember that the food made the wine taste better and vice versa. Here’s the rundown:
To start off, we were presented with a delicious baguette and white bean butter. It was reminiscent of hummus and rather tasty.
For the first course, I had smoked duck breast with foie gras foam, cornbread, and sour cherry sauce served with greens, cucumber, and pickled ramps. Overall, it was excellent, though I did not really care for the foam. It was very… foamy… and not very foie gras-y. Julia had a seared scallop with salmon, pineapple, soy beans and mixed greens. The bite I stole was fantastic.

   

As you can tell, we enjoyed it, because we both cleaned our plates before it occurred to me that I wanted to take a picture.

Before I tell you about the second course, there’s something you should know about me: I HATE PICKLES. Hate, hate, hate them… a LOT. [Except for that one time a few months ago when I was suddenly craving pickles and so I ate about 5 of them and they were really good. And before you ask – no, I wasn’t pregnant.] You can ask my wife, my sister, my best friend, or anyone else who knows me well, and they will tell you that whenever I’m served something that comes with pickles… I am offering it to them for eating. Because I will not have that.
So, the second course was a soup (Chef’s choice) – a play on Borscht, with a twist – instead of the customary red beets, they used golden beets and it was topped with…

 
a pickled pickle!

Well, guess what, friends? I ate that pickled pickle and it was delicious. The soup itself was also wonderful, and I am pretty sure I said something to the effect of, “I may like this better than the really awesome duck I just ate.”
Oh, but then there was this:

That’s rabbit with truffle gnocchi, pistachios, peas, a super-thin sliver of cheese (something hard, maybe Parmesan?) and arugula over some kind of wonderful, creamy sauce. It was rich and wonderful, and I couldn’t stop eating it. Except that I had to take a break about halfway through because it was also quite filling. I wondered if I’d be able to finish it all. And then I contemplated – out loud – the possibility that I might not have room for dessert. Um…. what?? That is unheard of.
While I was having these dilemmas, Julia was enjoying a seaweed and mussel dish with beef sashimi and sesame broth. As he poured the steaming sesame-chili broth into the bowl, our delightful waiter informed us that the reason it was poured table side was so that it would cook the beef ever-so-slightly as it sat in front of us. Neat. Julia thought the dish was amazing.
Next we had the other Chef’s choice, a cheese course. I was expecting a small assortment of exotic cheeses, but what came out was the fanciest grilled cheese I’ve ever seen. It was made with an organic, aged Cheddar from Canada, coupled with apple slices and caramelized onions. Next to it on the plate was a bit of raisin-mustard to spread on it. I failed to take a picture, but despite my full belly, I finished it in short order.
And then, it was on to dessert. (Now, remember earlier, how I was so full I thought I wouldn’t have room? I definitely didn’t. But that didn’t stop me from trying.) Lately I have been eyeing the rhubarb as it’s started to show up in the grocery stores, so when I saw it paired with strawberries and goat cheese gelato in the dessert choices, I had to have it. In case you weren’t paying attention, I just said goat cheese gelato. Wow. It was a giant plate of yummy.
Which I COULD NOT FINISH. Because I was TOO FULL.

Luckily, Julia was there, and after she finished her dessert, she took care of mine too.*** And by the way – she has a serious aversion to goat cheese. So she really took one for the team this time.

Lillet. It was very good, but more citrus-y than I like my desserts.
After we finished our dessert, the waiter came back – and not with the check! Instead, he was carrying two glasses of champagne, on the house, to help us celebrate five years together. Which, he declared, was a really, really long time in gay years, and therefore worthy of their best bubbles.

– The End –
(of the first five years)
Oh, wait! I almost forgot: once the meal was over, we headed to a theatre because Julia had some costume fittings to do for an upcoming show. It just so happened to be the very theatre whose lobby we’d met in five years prior. So, we had a chance to revisit the night we meant in a very literal sense, and Julia snuck in a card, some chocolate mousse truffle things (which I was still too full to eat) and a strawberry plant. Because a few weeks ago, I mentioned that I saw them outside the grocery store and almost bought them because I desperately want to grow berries and veggies, but didn’t because we only have a porch, not a yard, but then after that, the parents of the girl I nanny offered their yard up for anything I felt like growing… so it was really sweet. 
Here are some really terrible cell phone camera pictures of us attempting to look cute in said theatre lobby:

*well, it would have been appropriate if I had actually written or posted this on that day. But I digress…

**yeah, so there was that whole thing where Julia dated another girl for two months while I pursued her relentlessly, but eventually she realized she felt the same way about me as I did about her, and that’s what really matters. [If you want the full story, ask and I will write a post about it for you.]

***Because that’s what married people do – take care of each other(‘s unfinished food.)

Dinner Party: Cornish Hens & Triple Chocolate Mousse Cake

We decided to throw a dinner party this weekend and it went splendidly. The food was fantastic, and the company even better. I may have gone a little bit overboard in making it fancy, but we had a great time. Honestly, the only thing stopping us from doing this on, say, a weekly basis is the cost of the food. Apologies in advance for the blurriness of some of these photos… the amount of wine I consumed may have contributed to a slightly shaky camera, and the inability to notice at the time. Without further ado, here’s what we served:


Amuse Bouche
Warm Brie with Sun Gold Tomato preserves, served on water crackers.
wine Paul Masson Medeira (California)


First Course
Greek Salad with Orzo and Black-Eyed Peas
wine Winking Owl Chardonnay (California)


Second Course
Cornish Game Hens with Blackberry sauce; Sweet Potato Souffle
wine Tilia Malbec (Argentina) and Fat Bastard Shiraz (France)


Third Course
Triple Chocolate Mousse Cake
[that’s chocolate cake, dark chocolate mousse, and mocha whipped cream]
wine Winking Owl Cabernet Sauvignon (California)

Tuesday night is craft night.

Generally, this means that a handful of us get together and work on whatever sewing and/or crafty projects we are currently working on. Of late, this has been largely focused on wedding-dress-making, and with the wedding and honeymoon actually happening this month, we have had the past couple weeks off. So, despite this being the final Tuesday of July, it was our first craft night of the month.

Here’s what we accomplished:

Fine Art Trifecta: Eating, Drinking, and Discussing.

That’s right – pretty much nothing. At least in terms of crafting. As it turned out, I (Cindy) was not the only one interested in socializing but completely unmotivated to actually craft last night. So, when Greta showed up toting two bottles of three buck Chuck and dark-chocolate-covered-almonds-with-sea-salt just as I pulled the slightly-too-melty brie with farmers’ market sun gold tomato preserves out of the oven… the mentality went from “Maybe we’ll start making shit when Greta gets here” to “Fuck it, let’s eat, drink, and talk.” Which makes this post totally allowed on the food blog. Except, of course, that we failed to get any pictures of the actual food. But trust me when I say Brie + Sun Gold Tomato Preserves + Crushed Almonds = Delicious. [In case you’re wondering about those Sun Gold tomatoes, they’re orange, they look a lot like apricot, and don’t really taste much like what your brain says is tomato. But they’re delish nonetheless. And really, really good on baked brie.]

Tonight, we experimented with Red Snapper, which neither of us had tried before. It was a tasty piece of fish, accompanied by rice, and topped with tomatoes, shallots, kalamata olives, and thyme. We did take pictures, but they didn’t turn out very well – funky lighting or something, but here’s a shot anyway:


Red Snapper with Thyme, Tomato, and Olives (Click for recipe)

Guess I’ll have to do some learning about photographing food. Tasted good though. Up tomorrow is a Zucchini “Tagliatelle” with mint, cucumber, and lemon which sounds pretty good. Hopefully I’ll do better with the camera so we can share.