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Archive for the ‘Out and About’ Category

Long time no post, no excuse other than the usual. But now, I’m officially on holiday and I hopped over from a 2 week business trip in Basingstoke, UK to Belfast, Northern Ireland. We are staying with friends in their home. So it’s going to be some serious recharge time.
Lucky was able to escape early and flew into Dublin on Wednesday morning and bussed it up to Belfast. Since then she and Annemarie have been shuttling about having a grand time. Northern Ireland beware! Actually, more like Kieran and my credit card beware. Ha, just kidding.
To celebrate the start of our “official” holiday, we went to a fantastic local restaurant in downtown Belfast called Tedfords Restaurant. You can’t get any seafood fresher than this! Let’s just say we aren’t in cornfield country anymore!
The meal was fantastic. For a Starter I had smoked porkbelly with fried squid and a sweet potato foam. For my Main I had the sea breem which was served on a warm bean salad and garnished with a lemon foam. The fish was cooked perfectly, crispy skin outside, flaky moist inside. Yum! Lucky started with the seafood chowder and then had the Pan Roast Turbot & Scallops, crab crushed new potatoes, buttered asparagus, Hollandaise .
Today we are going to see what fun I can have with the local produce. It has been two weeks of eating out and too often at the hotel for my liking. Not bad, just miss having a little more control for what I can get. With that in mind as soon as I got off the plane, Kieran, Lucky and I hit the local farmers market. Lucky left me and Kieran to go fondle the produce, which I did with a vengeance. Fresh fish local meats, and plenty of fresh veg. I also found something called dulse. Which is fresh seaweed. It reminds me of japanese kombu, only this variety is smailler and “stringy”. It has the smell of the sea. I also got a smoked variety. After having a good look around, I picked up a monkfish tail, lemons, potatoes, asparagus, shallots, garlic, cherry tomatoes and the dulse. We plan to fireSo the menu for tonight is going to be :
Starter
===
Roast garlic
roasted fennel
homemade tapenade
Crusty bread from a local baker

Main
===
Grilled monkfish skewers
deconstructed sushi roll (sushi rice, smoked dulse, sesame seed)
Salad of asparagus, tomato with a warm bacon dressing

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I recently had the opportunity to wander to the Windy City for a weekend of food education and fun.  Who wouldn’t go?  Thanks to a benefit auction for Gilda’s Club Chicago, I had two tickets in hand to the French Pastry School for a day.  WOO HOO!!!  (Another blog….hopefully soon….part two of this trip!)

I packed up my friend Brad and away we went!  First stop, our lovely hotel, the Palmer House Hilton.  Except….their power had been out and only recently partially restored.  The Grande Dame of Chicago was filled with squatters baking in the lobby sans A/C.  The staff was AMAZINGLY gracious and offered bottles of Evian and wet towels to attempt to cool the nerves of their guests.  Brad and I checked our luggage, decided that it was going to have to be our traveling clothes for dinner and we were off! 

We started by wandering the streets – State Street specifically – and shopping a bit as we wandered.  Soon it was time for our journey to dinner at The Backstage Bistro.

The Backstage Bistro is an extension of the Culinary Arts program at Illinois Institute of Art.  The restaurant is run by students and has been featured on Food Network.  You watch classes in session through the glass while your meal is prepared.  I can’t imagine what it must feel like knowing that people are watching your every move ASIDE from your instructor!

 

Essentially this means you should be able to get fine dining at a fraction of the price.  I wasn’t disappointed. 

Brad chose the stuffed pork chop because he wasn’t crazy about the sides for the other entree. 

 

Our slightly-shy server, Ramona, was VERY positive about the pork, so I hoped that he would enjoy it.  He did.

I thought the Pescado Veracruzana was more to my liking.  Red Snapper filet with tomatos and olives on a bed of pilaf with rice and corn. 

 

They recommended the Fife Zinfandel with this dish.  Zinfandel with fish?  Really?  Okay…..!  It was VERY tasty.  Fruity, soft and against the tomato and olive stood nicely.  Granted, at that point the fish was more texture than flavor, but that was just fine.

 We also received a dessert of chocolate “brulee” (their word – I would call it more mousse…no crispy top) and a brownie gratis.  YUM!!

I highly recommend that if you want tasty food at less than “upscale” dining prices, give these college kids a try if you find yourself wandering the Windy City with Central IL cash…..

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I’m a terrible dancer.  I’m just not a graceful individual.  This is not a newsflash.  As a child I was asked to repeat beginner gymnastics at the YMCA instead of graduating to the advanced class.  A big, red flag hangs over my head that screams “KLUTZ” but I ignore that and pretend it’s an awning.  I like to envision myself as the graceful swan but alas, I’m the duck with orthopedic webbing.  I’m an obliviously happy dancer – even without the benefit of mind-altering substances.  Which is why, after attending a friend’s wedding, I decided that I wanted to see what dance lessons were offered locally. 

I came across the C-U Swing Society offering lessons in Beginner Swing.  I was THERE!  For a mere $25 for 6 weeks of endurance, they would attempt to teach you the basics.  What hilarity!  Charmed took ballroom basics with me in Chicago and won’t dance to this day, so asking him was perfunctory but I knew already that I was going alone.  

I just went to my second class yesterday at the Illini Union.  Bless these students and their patience.  I was a cow with a crutch but they still kept trying to teach me.  Fortunately for me, there are others that are also struggling.  Perhaps not as badly as I am, but I am not the only one not tuck-turning my way into stardom.  They’re not laughing at my face, at least!  Well, not yet….

Prior to my class, Charmed and I went to The Bread Company on Goodwin.  I love campus.  I am so obnoxiously wistful when I go back there.  I miss being a part of something awesome.  I firmly believe that the University of Illinois is one of those magical places.  But it, like the rest of your youth, you cannot appreciate until it’s gone.  A little over ten years ago I was cramming for exams, attempting to graduate and escape so I wouldn’t be a 19-year undergrad (I think there’s a 7 year limit, but I’m an overachiever.)  I didn’t have take the time to smell the roses that were the coffee shops, the other students, the eclectic restaurants.  But I always made time for “Pie” at midnight at O’Malley’s…..rest its sticky-floored soul.   Ahh….priorities!

But, back to The Bread Company.  They always seem to be a vestige of civility in an otherwise collegiately-geared world.  They have wines by the glass, specials consisting of “off the beaten path” items as well as pizzas, sandwiches and salads… Just not your usual fare that’s on every menu in town.   I noticed that they even had fondue now and was very tempted, but alas – I was off to dance with boys who didn’t know me….best not smell of cheese and oil.

I chose the Ricotta pizza with kalamata olives and artichoke hearts.  This was served on a light crust that was perfectly crispy.  The flavors blended and I had 3 slices before declaring myself dance-ready and boxed the remainder for the road.

Charmed had the seared Yellowfin Tuna with haricots verts and roasted potatoes.  He seemed to be very pleased with his meal.  I tasted the tuna and was enamored with the smoky char and the richness of the flesh. 

We finished our meals and then popped in next door for an after-dinner coffee at Espresso Royale on the corner.  I was satisfied, I was revving on caffeine…. it was time to DANCE…. or clumsily attempt not to fall down.  Another week of attempting to swing!  On to Week 3!!

Hooray for an enjoyable meal, an entertaining evening of attempting to better myself…. and revisiting the campus that I love.  Gotta love Champaign-Urbana!

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My very first blog encouraged my limited readership to vote NO to prohibition in Catlin Township.  You did.  Thankyouverymuch!

Charmed and I wandered out to the winery last weekend and had a lovely visit with Joe and Dawn Taylor, the owners of Sleepy Creek Vineyards.   They are thrilled at the response that they have received from the community, and it is for good reason!

Currently they’re offering three wines for sale – a dry red, a off-dry white and a semi-sweet red.  I was very pleased.  Their grapes are all from Illinois, but don’t let that put you off!  These are not California wines but they have depth and character. 

Hen-Pecked, the semi-sweet red is not TERRIBLY sweet.  I started with cloying wines back in the day (and didn’t we all?) but now they are harsh on my palate.  This wine was soft, started sweet and fruity with a port nose, but ended at the middle of my tongue.  While that’s probably not fantastic in wine circles, I’m pleased that it wasn’t sappily sweet on my tongue for a finish.  The best description I can offer is “chocolate covered cherry.”  This would be a lovely wine slightly chilled after dinner or even by itself for picnic fare.

Sour Puss white has bite!  Acidity rules in this yummy, clean wine.  Crisp, big apple flavors dominate the palate but again, no heavy after taste.  This reminds me of a slightly sweeter version of Sauvignon Blanc – it’s aged in stainless steel and the lack of exposure to wood lets the true flavor of the grapes shine.  For those of you who enjoy the German style of Riesling, this will please you!

Bull-Headed Red is bigger and bolder than what I expected.  It has some funk to it – and I mean that in the best way possible!  An earthy nose leads into an acidic but not terribly tannic palate.  Dark red fruit prevails with cherry and currant.

   

 You owe it to yourself to make a journey to the winery.  The atmosphere is lovely – walk amongst the vines and around the pond, enjoy conversation with Joe and Dawn – they’re passionate about what they’re doing and excited to be contributing to an up-and-coming industry in Illinois. 

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Fun with Fruit!

So, I received an e-mail the other day inviting me to a “Spiked Fruit” party.  Who could resist?  So, I started scouring the internet for something interesting since I had never made spiked fruit for the sake of spiked fruit…. 

I encountered a Sangria recipe that I found to be quite pleasant and appeared to be simple.  I’m a firm believer in lazy prep, so here’s what I did….

I took dried fruit (apples, pears, apricots, prunes, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries – all purchased at Sam’s) by the handful and put them into a ziplock bag, then added 3 scant cups of Captain Morgan “Tattoo” Rum (it was what was left in the bottle.)  I put this in the fridge along with an inexpensive bottle of shiraz / merlot blend and wandered out for a few hours.  While out I grabbed a can of Five Alive frozen juice concentrate.  I came home, grabbed the fruit, wine and a pitcher and set off for the gathering.  Upon arrival I mixed the entire bottle of wine with the Five Alive.  I ladled the inebriated fruit into glasses and poured the wine mix over the top.  Pretty tasty – and CHEAP!!  Plus the bonus of using dried fruit meant I didn’t have to shop for fresh or chop / peel / section ANYTHING.  Lucky has limited culinary skills, as you will recall.  😉

My friends were entirely more ambitious than I am.  They actually got together prior to the party and made fruit preparation an evening’s entertainment. 

Beautiful work, but I’m just not that “Martha.” 

B.S. bought a “horny melon” for our interest and edification.  Nothing like a learning experience when you’re sucking down vodka-logged melon balls! 

None of us had ever tried such a thing, so he quickly sliced it open for our perusal.

It smelled grassy and “green.”  It tasted like licking the underside of the mower.  One of the partygoers thought it was reminiscent of kiwi.  I always thought kiwi tasted much better than this!  We all had a spoonful of the seed-logged flesh, pronounced it “icky” and it was promptly trashed. 

We then returned to our evening’s entertainment of wincing at the contestants on “So You Think You Can Dance,” eating / drinking our fruit and picking at the fantastic brined chicken that B.S. made. 

What fun!

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Charmed and I mysteriously received an invitation to view the Coolley House, currently under refurbishment in the Renaissance District.  Not one to turn down an interesting opportunity, we paid our entrance to see the home….and fell in love.

The Renaissance District has been plugging along for several years now attempting to renovate the homes on Pine Street.  There are some beautiful properties that are still remarkably well-preserved, considering their years of neglect.  It is hopeful that through this initiative we will increase the property values, improve the neighborhoods and also motivate others to care for their properties.  Here’s hoping. 

Here are some photos from the interior of the home.  All were designed by different individuals or groups but the house still has a remarkably cohesive feel.

 

Above left: stairwell, right: master bedroom (loved the dusty eggplant!)

      

Two upstairs bedrooms.  I enjoy the one on the right more due to its attempt to look older with the quilt and shutters.

The foyer inside the front door and a view to the front porch through the dining room.

I highly recommend that if you have the inclination that you visit this lovely property before May 20.  You can make reservations for a tour by calling 443-3095 or purchase a ticket at B&J Music or the Renaissance Danville office at 149 N. Vermilion St.

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Ahh yes…. A day I’ve been waiting arrive for oh…..at least a week!

I have a small handful of friends in Danville that like to be adventurous with their cooking.  One of them, Brad, had never been to some of the eclectic grocery stores in the Champaign-Urbana area.  Upon learning this (and nearly keeling over with shock!) I took it as my personal mission to lead him astray!   We met the Breakfast Buddies at our usual spot at 9AM and after copious amounts of coffee, we were off!

First stop on our journey….. World Harvest.  Or, as it’s referred to at our house – IHOG – (International House of Groceries!)

 

Charmed spends a LOT of time here.  We have enjoyed many an interesting meal because he’s brought home something that looked intriguing.  Brad was no exception.  He was in awe of the options, selection and variations.  We spent quite a bit of time asking each other, “So, what do you think THAT is?”  WH can be overwhelming at first visit, but I knew he had found a new scouting ground.  Made my heart swell with pride – and this was just our first stop!!

After leaving WH, it was off to Ethnic Emporium #2 – Euro-Mart!

 

This is another fantastic grocery with an amazing selection of international foods.  And, believe it or not, they have a different selection.  Granted, they do carry some of the same items, but, for example, they have German cookies at EM that WH doesn’t carry.  EM just celebrated their third birthday which Lisa of Champaign Taste had the good fortune to attend (and told us all about it!)  Following Lisa’s lead, I was going to ask the lovely young man behind the counter for a taste of the Chaman for Brad but – *GASP!* – it was, um…..furry….  EEEEEK!  When I checked out my gnocchi and soda I surreptitiously told the same young man who promptly looked, blanched and pulled it from the case.   We left EM with booty in tow when Brad mentioned that he would be interested in stopping by Strawberry Fields for bread on our way back home.   No argument from me!!

That segued into me asking if he’d ever visited Great Harvest Bread Company, which he hadn’t, so we turned left onto Neil and headed on out!

I like the atmosphere, the philosophy and their goodies even though they are a franchise.  Do they have the best bread?  Not always, but it’s better than me turning on the oven in 90 degree heat!  I introduced Brad to the shop, grabbed a loaf of flax and oat and we were back on the road cruising through campus and down memory lane for us both. 

The final stop on our journey was a location well-known to both of us – Strawberry Fields.

 

It was here that we found wonderful goodies for our Italian potluck dinner this coming Saturday.  We got tapenade and crusty bread covered with seeds for the dinner and I got yogurt and granola for breakfast as well as polenta chips because I just had to have them.   

The backseat was now sufficiently covered with yummy goodness, therefore it was time to head home again, mission accomplished. 

As an addendum, later this summer Danville residents will have an option to order goodies from the same European Imports that supplies World Harvest and Euro-Mart.  The business will be called “Crave” and focus on being a coffee shop with a small offering of gourmet and ethnic foods available at all times.  If they don’t regularly carry what you seek, you will have the opportunity to order anything available to them in the gargantuan catalog.  (I’ve perused it – it’s HUGE!)  I can’t wait!  I promise to provide more details, photos and an opening date as soon as I have them. 

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