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Mikey gives props to…..

Cooking Light Magazine–I’ve mentioned on here before that I am on Weight Watchers. Yes, it sometimes affects and stifles my creativity as a home cook, but it also opens up possibilities and challenges me. Well, I recently started subscribing to Cooking Light Magazine. And of all of the food magazine recipes I’ve made lately, almost everything we’ve tried the past two weeks from their 25th anniversary edition have been phenomenal. Here are a few you can try that we did:

Chef JimCreamy Four-cheese Macaroni & Cheese–You will not believe how few calories this is per serving. I defy anyone to find me a full-fat recipe that is as good as this one.

Chef JimCheesy Meat Loaf Minis–Some of the best meat loaf we have ever had. It helps that you can use full-fat cheddar, and being in Wisconsin, we have some good cheddar.

Chef JimTop Chef: Seattle–I need to be honest. I am a fan of the Top Chef brand, but have found Curtis Stone hosting Top Chef Masters to be grating. And their new Life After Top Chef is kind of so-so. But the original, which now is in Season 10 for Top Chef Seattle, remains one of the best shows on television, cooking show or otherwise. Bravo to Bravo and to Magical Elves production. I mean, I’d rather look at and listen to Padma Lakshmi than Curtis, and Tom Colicchio is like the Godfather of the show, but every season they do not disappoint with the collection of chefs, and with the episodes and challenges. It’s just a fun show to watch and guaranteed to make home chefs inspired.

Chef JimHome Run Inn Frozen Pizza–This is hands down the best frozen pizza on the planet. It comes from Chicago, so I’m not sure if they ship beyond the proximity of the Midwest, but my goodness. The crust is ridiculous–it tastes like fresh bakery bread. The sauce is perfectly simple with no garlic whatsoever, unlike many sauces on other frozen brands that ruin the pizza that way. The cheese is just mozzarella. And now they have thin crust varieties that are Weight Watchers friendly–for real.

Offal = Awful

I won’t mince words here. The thought of eating offal–i.e. organ meats and other parts of animals–makes me want to hurl and/or run for the nearest exit. I won’t tell you that brains, tripe, eyeballs, hearts or blood in general don’t taste good. It’s just that I don’t want to try them to find out. I start gagging as the thought of something like that crossing my lips seems just wrong. It’s a mental thing with me. I can’t get past what I would be eating. Now, I did make an exception last year when we went to Graham Elliot in Chicago and had the foie gras lollipops. Those were decadent and delicious and I’d eat them again. But I won’t go much further beyond that. Heck, I only recently started enjoying fish.

I felt compelled to write about this when I saw Chris Cosentino win Top Chef Masters recently. Chris’s specialty is offal meat, as evidenced by this website of his. And he made tripe, blood sausage and some other really gross looking dishes on his way to winning it all. A few seasons ago on Top Chef Masters, they also had an episode where the contestants had to make things like tacos out of things like tongue. I’m sorry, but ewwwww. I often look at the judges to see how they react to this stuff. And I think that I could never be a full-fledged food critic because there are foods I won’t touch, much less enjoy, with a ten foot pole.

How about you? How do you feel about offal?

Mikey’s Food Resolutions for 2012

The last few years, Mrs. Mike and I have done New Year’s resolutions together on New Year’s Day. And I must say, we’ve stuck to many of them, often referring to our lists as the year wears on. That’s what resolutions are intended for, but many of us forget about them on or around January 3. But I thought it would be fun to put together a few food resolutions for 2012–feel free to add yours below or on Facebook:

Try one new kind of cheese per month–I started doing this in 2011 and got sidetracked or disinterested. But wait, I live in Wisconsin. Disinterested? Not an option, so I’m going to follow through this time. There are simply too many good cheeses to try in this part of the country.

Try a few things that are out of my comfort zone–I’m not a big fan of seafood, or anything in the organ meat vicinity. But in a meal at Graham Elliott in Chicago this past September, Mrs. Mike and I had a meal that had cooked fish; a deconstructed Caesar salad with a whole anchovy on top; and a foie gras lollipop with watermelon pop rocks. That was enough out of comfort zone for a whole year for me, but the foie gras was phenomenal–and I’m glad I took a step out of my comfort zone to try it.

Eat less junk–and by junk I mean stuff like candy, snack cakes and greasy chips. I am vowing to get back into shape in the New Year, and especially after having back surgery in February. And while I don’t think there is anything wrong with occasional junk food, I ate far too much of it in 2011. Time to start eating more nuts, dried fruit and sensible snacks when possible.

Work even harder to eat what’s in season–we belong to a CSA (community supported agriculture) but found ourselves not using everything in our box before some of it went bad. I want to make more of an effort on that one.

Teach our son to eat better–our four year old, who has autism, is very picky about his food. We work hard on this, but it’s extremely difficult to get him to open his mind with food. I think we can work harder at it.

Revive “a can a week”–that was a fun column I started here but need to revive it, reviewing a canned food item per week, be it a new product or one that we’ve been eating for decades.

Use the deep fryer more–I don’t think I took that thing out at all in 2011, and that’s a shame. Who doesn’t love fried food (except me, when my doctor is reading this!)?

Find more cool restaurants and review them here–We live in Madison, one of the coolest food cities on the planet. Mrs. Mike and I love trying new places to eat but need to do so more often. And I’ll bring you the play by play here.

DVR more food shows–I keep seeing press releases and then forget to DVR the shows.

Eat more tofu–seriously? No, that was a joke. Blech.

Thanks for reading, and happy new year!

Chicago meal #3: Graham Elliot

Mrs. Mike and I walked off our lunch at Frontera Grill by taking a leisurely 90 minute walk from our hotel to the park with the giant reflective bean and then to our final Chicago meal of the weekend, dinner at Graham Elliot. You may know Mr. Elliot, first from Top Chef Masters, and then on the hit Fox show Masterchef, in which Graham is a judge along with Gordon Ramsay and Joe Bastianich.

Elliot, still only in his early 30′s, is known for interesting and exciting cuisine, and when we showed up at his restaurant, the atmosphere from the start was interesting. The music was hip and sort of blaring, almost like it was a nightclub. Then the menus arrived, and the list of items was a bit confusing, but again, extremely interesting.

We decided to go with the tasting menu–which would give us the chance to try small portions of many items from the menu. There were three levels of tasting–and we went with the first one, which they said would take about an hour and a half. There was a mid-level and a top level that was more of an event–but based on how large our lunch was, the smaller tasting menu would be perfect.

The server told us that the chef would bring us a few “extras” that were not listed on the menu, and if we desired, they would also bring us each a foie gras lollipop coated in watermelon Pop Rocks. Now, I’m not adventurous, but this was too weird to pass up.

But first, they brought an “extra”….a shot glass of watermelon consomme with mint and jalapeno oil. Oh, but before that, some popcorn with parmesan and truffle oil. Then came the lollipop–holy crap, that was the first time I’d had foie gras, and it was delicious, something I’d totally eat again. But the Pop Rocks gave it the most amazing contrast–creamy and fatty with popping candy in your mouth. Just crazy but delicious.

Next was the deconstructed Caesar salad–this was the one we had a hard time with–it was creative and cool looking–a nub of romaine with Parmesan, some dressing on the plate, and a brioche twinkie with marscarpone. But it also had a Spanish anchovy on top, and that tasted like it just came out of the ocean. We ate it, but blech! Next was the corn bisque, with lobster, toasted coquito and vanilla essence. This was an interesting contrast in flavors too, and one that totally worked. Yum.

Next up was an extra of “cucumber salad,” which consisted of tiny bits of cucumber with rice wine and sabayon. Pretty good, and it was what they might call a palate cleanser after the creamy soup. Then came the main courses–first the seafood dish, which was crispy seared halibut topped with bacon, leeks and haricot verts (thin green beans). I’m not a big seafood eater, but this was also very good–at least way better than the anchovy! Then it was the meat course–bison loin with an onion ring, baked bean puree and pepper salsa (pictured above)–it was unbelievable.

Then there were a few small dessert items–first, a homemade grape soda; then a flourless chocolate cake with root beer ice cream, port cherry and birch caramel. Wow, that was one of the highlights of our weekend. Finally, there was an extra–a small pistachio and coconut biscotti.

I love trying new and innovative cuisine, and this entire meal was that. If you are in Chicago and feeling adventurous, you have to try Graham Elliot–just make sure to make a reservation well in advance!

Chicago meal #2: Frontera Grill

It’s amazing how being away from your kid and pet for a night makes you sleep a few hours later than normal, but that’s what happened this past Saturday. Mrs. Mike and I slept off our Friday night food coma, grabbed some a small breakfast at the bagel shop downstairs in the hotel we were staying at, and then walked around town for a couple hours before arriving at Frontera Grill for our 1pm lunch reservation. If you’re not familiar, Frontera Grill is owned and operated by celebrity chef Rick Bayless, who is a Top Chef Master. And his MO is fresh and creative Mexican food. Even before I tell you what we had, my mouth is watering, the food was that freaking good and quite honestly, the highlight of our trip.

Chef JimFirst, after discussing that maybe we should forgo the alcohol and try to enjoy the food more, Mrs. Mike read in an article posted in the Frontera window that the cocktails are as good as the food. Well, duh. We’ll take two blue agave margaritas, please. You want to talk about fresh tasting, smooth and butt-kicking all at the same time? Man, were those tasty. And by tasty I mean tasty and butt-kicking.

Chef JimThen we shared an apps platter that had the following–cheese quesadillas, which were more like little empanadas; chicken and black bean taquitos; fresh guacamole and chips; tuna ceviche on tortilla chips; and a salad of jicama, pineapple and cucumber dusted with chili powder. Holy freaking crap. The quesadillas were fried pillows of deliciousness. The taquitos were also delicious, but had a semi-interesting flavor we couldn’t pinpoint. The guacamole was fresh and tasty. Even the chips were phenomenal. The ceviche was fresh and not in the least bit fishy, and I must say that even as I must say I don’t really eat or like seafood. But I would eat that again. And the jicama salad was something I’d order even as a meal–the chili powder, I’m sure, was homemade like everything else, and really brought the crisp jicama to life.

Chef JimFor the main course, Mrs. Mike had the sopitos–corn cakes with chorizo, chicken and scrambled eggs with black beans and cheese sauce. The one bite I had was delicious, but I want to tell you that my main course–the huevos vechios (I could not find this item on the menu online and will correct it when I confirm what it was called), was one of the ten best meals I’ve ever had. It was masa corn cakes with poached eggs, chorizo and a poblano cream sauce. It was spicy, and creamy and the eggs were done to perfection; plus, the chorizo was tangy and delicious and a few days later my mouth is still watering.

Chef JimFinally, we closed our meal with a dessert of zucchini donuts with chocolate sauce, cinnamon ice cream, candied zucchini and glazed walnuts. Damn. If that was borderline orgasmic reading it, imagine what it was like eating it. Yeah, it was that good.

Oh, two other things–we saw Bayless when he poked his head out of the kitchen to see what was going on in the restaurant. That was cool. And the homemade hot sauces (made fresh daily) were just unbelievable–especially the habanero one, that was equally tasty and explosive.

You know, when we go back to Chicago and intend to try more restaurants, I think I will insist that we return to Frontera Grill–maybe even for dinner this time if we can get in (I think you have to make reservations for dinner like 2-3 months in advance). And if you go there, you must eat at Frontera or Bayless’ other gem in the same location, Topolobampo. I know we’ll be back and maybe we’ll see you there.

Chicago meal number 1–The Purple Pig

Mrs. Mike and I rolled into Chicago last Friday night, sans kid–that meant that it didn’t matter how late we arrived, that we could just drop our luggage and go grab some grub. And we did just that as the clock struck 10pm. The first place we intended to check out was called The Purple Pig–and their theme is “swine, wine and cheese.” It sounded too funky and cool to pass up. So we were disappointed at the 60 minute wait. However, the hostess assured us that a lot of folks did not stay, so that it could be much less than 60 minutes.

We thought about not staying, but then decided to just have a drink and see what happened. Turns out 60 minutes was more like 3 minutes, and we were thrilled. Then we got a look at the crazy menu–which had sections such as appetizers, fried items, sandwiches, cheeses, sausages, and main courses. It is a tasting menu too, with most dishes being small portions that are meant to be shared.

Okay. So we ordered some wine, and then chose a few food items–salt roasted beets with goat cheese and pistachios; fried manchego cheese; fried olives with chorizo; a coppa, cheese and fennel panini; and a JLT–their take on a BLT with the J standing for “jowels,” i.e. pork cheeks, i.e. just real tender ham-like meat. Anyway, Mrs. Mike was willing to try the fried pig ear and/or the bone marrow, but not me. The jowels were the extent of my ambition.

Anyway, the beets were sweet, salty and had the creamy cheese–a crazy combination of flavors that just worked. The cheese was in squares and along with the really tasty olives were like sophisticated bar food. Seriously, that was some killer fried cheese. The panini was good, but the JLT was better–and the duck egg on top was the weirdest part of it. So much for tasting menus– we were rolling out of there, and ordered dessert to go–a nutella, banana and whipped cream panini–that I could not force a bite of until the following morning.

But the meal itself, and especially the experience, was a great start to our weekend in Chicago.

Chicago: foodie weekend

Greetings fellow readers of Mikey’s Kitchen. This past weekend Mrs. Mikey and I went to Chicago for the weekend, for the sole purpose of eating at some of the city’s great restaurants we have heard much about. The rest of this week will be devoted to talking about the meals we had–at The Purple Pig, Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill, and Graham Elliot. There was some interesting food–stuff we would never try on any given day–but it was all good. So stay with me this week for the recap….

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