5.31.2012

Thirsty Thursday: Watermelon Sangria


As I mentioned in Tuesday's LTP post, I have a serious love for fruity summer cocktails. Apparently, I'm not the only one who worships at the temple of alcohol-infused fruity goodness... after I posted a photo on facebook of the watermelon sangria I had at a friend's BBQ on Monday, I received a crazy number of requests for the recipe! Luckily, I was able to get Charles (aka the BBQ friend/Mario's best friend) to divulge the secrets to his delicious concoction. Let me just say that I am so lucky to have Charles in my life - not only is he a really cool guy, he's also an amazing chef. The time I spend with him is always filled with delicious food and tales from the restaurant world (he knows my future BFF, Marcus!!).

While sangria is one of those drinks I would order any time of the year, the addition of the watermelon really turns it into the perfect summer cocktail. It's light, refreshing, and fruity. It's also really fun to serve yourself a drink from a watermelon (especially after you've already made a few visits to said watermelon). This is the perfect summer drink for any party, BBQ... or just a fun weekend on your own. ;-)

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5.29.2012

Tuesday LTP: Summer Cocktails



I'm definitely not the biggest fan of summer (I'm more of a cooler weather girl), but even I have to admit that there are a few fantastic things about summer that the other seasons just cannot touch. There are so many awesome festivals (two more weeks until Midsommarfest! Woo-hoo!) and outdoor concerts. There are BBQs, picnics, and bonfires happening just about every weekend (everything just tastes so much better when it's grilled outside!). There's also really nothing like walking along the shoreline of Lake Michigan and experiencing the gorgeous summer sunrises & sunsets. Of course, we can't forget the most important and delicious part of the season... the amazing summer cocktails! :-)

Yes, you can drink these cocktails during any time of the year, but there's just something about the summer weather that makes them taste 10x better (bonus points if they're consumed outside!). My favorite summer cocktails are all refreshing and full of flavor. While I tend to favor those on the fruity end (margaritas, daiquiris, fruity vodka lemonades, Riesling strawberry slushies), I also love my minty drinks. My absolute favorite is the watermelon mint mojito, which strikes the perfect balance between the two sides (it's soooo good!). Really, I love just about any cocktail that involves watermelon - it's no wonder that I went crazy for the watermelon sangria a friend served at his BBQ yesterday (recipe forthcoming!).

Today's LTP: What is your favorite summer drink? Are you strictly a beer drinker or are you all about the summer cocktails? Do you have a preference for fruity or minty drinks?



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5.25.2012

Friday Five: Starved Rock

Welcome to the first edition of the Friday Five! Since I started writing over here, I've been thinking about ways to integrate some possible non-food related topics without taking the main focus of the blog too off track. I don't know about you, but while I love reading blogs that are all about food, I also like to get to know a bit about the person behind the blog. If you don't want to know anything about my life beyond my food interests, then you'll probably want to skip most of these Friday posts... however, I am totally awesome, so why would you want to miss out on that? ;-)
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As promised on Monday... Starved Rock!

For those of you who live in more interesting/hiking-friendly areas (i.e. not the Midwest), Starved Rock may not be too exciting, but for those of us who live in either the urban jungle (Chicago) or on flat farmland (the rest of Illinois), it is quite an awesome place to visit. Not only can you get a serious cardio workout, it's also a really beautiful area. There are miles and miles of trails that lead to random waterfalls and cool rock formations - it's amazing that such a place exists less than two hours from Chicago! Before I discovered Starved Rock, I didn't think there were any really great places to hike in Illinois (I was mostly heading up to WI or over to MI to get my hiking fix).

I would love to go back during the winter to see the frozen waterfalls (click on each trail to see photos), but I have to admit that I'm a bit of a wuss when it comes to sliding around on the ice. :-)

French Canyon: It's the easiest waterfall to hike to, which also makes it the one of the most popular/crowded. However, it's a really gorgeous little area - one of the most scenic areas in the park and definitely worth fighting through the crowds!

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5.21.2012

Meatless Monday: Bay Avocado Salad


Happy Monday! I hope everyone had a fantastic weekend. I took full advantage of the lovely weather and spent most of the weekend at my favorite hiking spot in Illinois, Starved Rock State Park. I even made it over to Matthiessen State Park for the first time, which was nice, but a bit smaller than what I was expecting. Unfortunately, one of the falls (Devil's Bathtub) was already fairly dry (they're seasonal falls), but Cascade Falls was still going strong and was quite a sight to see!

I have a ton of great photos and plan to share some of my favorites later in the week in my inaugural Friday Five post, so make sure you stop by then for more!

Now, on to the food! As it did during our mini freak summer back in March, the warm weather is making me crave some of my favorite summery dishes (lighter meals, mostly comprised of fruits and veggies). Today's Meatless Monday dish, Bay Avocado Salad, is designed to be a sandwich filling, but it goes just as well over brown rice or quinoa, or served on its own with a side of greens (it's especially good with spinach salad). It's super easy to assemble, packed with flavor, and can be used in so many ways - highly, highly, highly recommended!

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5.15.2012

Spring Break!

I've spent the last week buried under a pile of papers, portfolios, and end-of-the-term paperwork, emerging only for student conferences and the occasional trip to Starbucks. Thankfully, I made it to the other side... I just posted the last of my final grades, which means that it is finally time for spring break (woo-hoo!!).

The unfortunate side effect of this craziness is that my brain is now far too fried to think of any stimulating content or questions, so in lieu of today's Lunchtime Poll, I give you this gem:

Muggers by Aaron Jay
Word humor + food humor = the most awesomely perfect nerdy print EVER.

HA! :-)
Now it's time to party! sleep.


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5.14.2012

Meatless Monday: Chili Almond Asparagus

I am an asparagus fiend. Although I will eat it year-round, I'm happiest during the spring when it's super fresh, sweet, and cheap. I'm definitely a fan of the less is more mindset when comes to cooking it (there's nothing like some freshly grilled spears with olive oil and lemon), but since I eat so much of it, I'm always looking for ways to jazz it up a bit.

I came across this recipe for Chili Almond Asparagus (via Vegan Yum Yum) a few years ago and it instantly became one of my favorites. This asparagus dish contains the perfect combination of sweet and tart with just the right amount of heat. It's intended to be served as a side dish, but I will often use it as the main component of dinner, served with some grilled red bell peppers drizzled with cream of balsamic, and brown rice. This is a must try for all asparagus lovers! 

Chili Almond Asparagus
INGREDIENTS
1/4 cup sliced almonds, roughly crushed
1 Tbs powdered soup stock (I use either Bill’s Best or Vogue Cuisine)
2 tsp red chili flakes
1 lb asparagus spears, trimmed
2 carrots, peeled
2 tsp peanut oil
1 tsp toasted sesame oil
Fresh zest and juice of 1 lemon

DIRECTIONS
1. Preheat oven to 450°

2. Roughly crush the almonds so that most are ground fairly fine, but leave a few larger pieces left in the mix. Mix together 1/2 of the ground almonds, soup stock powder, and the chili flakes.

3. Trim the carrots to the same length as the asparagus spears. Cut half the carrots lengthwise, then quarter them, and continue cutting each piece lengthwise until you have a sizable amount of long, flexible, thin strips of carrots.

4. In a large bowl, toss the carrots and the asparagus spears in the oils. Sprinkle the almond seasoning over the asparagus and carrots and toss well, making sure the coating sticks to the veggies.

5. Arrange the veggies in one layer on a parchment covered baking sheet. If there is any seasoning left in the bowl, scrape it onto the veggies.

6. Bake for about 5 minutes, or until the veggies are tender and starting to color. Finish under the broiler for a few minutes until brown and crispy in places.

7. Top with the remaining almond pieces, lemon zest, and season with a sprinkle of lemon.


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5.10.2012

What's in your freezer?

I love checking out all of the stuff people pack into their kitchens. I'm fascinated by what you keep in your junk drawers, the dishes you stack in your cabinets, and the gadgets you shove into various nooks. I'm especially interested in seeing what you have in your refrigerators - not only is a good way to learn about different/new products, I also feel like it gives me a glimpse into your private behaviors and/or neuroses. Your refrigerator can reveal so much... not just about the the foods you eat, but also your level of organization (I'm slightly anal), your tolerance for dirt/messes, and what you value (what foods do you keep in front? what do you try to hide?).

It's no wonder that I was excited to see that on a rainy day in NY a few weeks ago, Anita (Hungry Couple) picked up her camera and snapped some photos of the contents of her freezer for her blog readers. Now, let me just say that Anita has the most awesome freezer ever. Unlike mine, it's not stuffed with Lean Cuisines and ice packs - nooo, her freezer is complete with alcohol, ice cream, and martini glasses. She has exactly the type of freezer an adult should have... I want a freezer just like hers when I grow up. :-)

As Anita mentioned, these are not beauty shots - I didn't reorganize, purge, or stage anything before I took the pictures. Also, you may think that everything looks really cramped. Unfortunately, it is. All of our appliances are those compact, apartment-sized models (I think the refrigerator is 7.5 cu. ft) - it sucks and I hate it. I long for the day in which I have a full sized, double door refrigerator to fill (sigh).



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5.08.2012

Tuesday LTP: What Do You Tip?


Last week's LTP post on Tip Guides brought up a ton of interesting points and questions! I was planning to respond to each one individually, but once I realized how much I had to say, I figured it would better to just turn into another post on tipping.

According to the Emily Post Institute, the general tipping guidelines for restaurants are as follows:

Wait service (sit down): 15-20%, pre-tax
Wait service (buffet): 10%, pre-tax
Host or Maitre d': No obligation for greeting you and showing you to your table.
Take Out: No obligation/10% for extra service (curb delivery) or a large, complicated order

First, let me just get this out of my system: yes, Bandera, you heard from Emily Post's people - the tip amount should be based on the the PRE-tax amount. Hmmmppph.

As I mentioned last week, I think it's the job of the restaurant owners (i.e. their employers) to pay their servers a proper salary. In fact, I would go so far as to say that all states should force all restaurants to pay their waitstaff at least the federally mandated minimum wage. Servers should be paid by their employers to complete the mandatory duties of their positions - they should not have to depend on tips to earn a livable wage, just as customers should not feel guilted into tipping at a higher rate just because they know the servers are being paid so little.

As a customer, it shouldn't be my concern if the server is being paid a fair wage or not. If a server does acceptable work (satisfactorily completes his/her duties), then they should be fully compensated by their employer and that's that. Tips should not be used to make up a gap in the server's salary. It should be my choice to decide that if server does exemplary work that merits a tip for going beyond expectations (the basic duties of his/her job). Tipping was originally meant to reward servers who provided customers with extraordinary service - now it's expected that you tip at least 10% even if you were unsatisfied with your service.

Yes, I know that tipping is technically optional, but I don't see it that way. Unless there's an extreme situation (more on this later), I would never not leave at least a 15% tip (my standard is 20%, but I will go down if there was a server-specific issue) because I know the system is complicated and unfair. Even the government treats tipping as though it's mandatory! I've heard various people argue that the low wages/tipping system is necessary in order to force servers to give the customers a high level of service. Bullshit. I've been to several restaurants in the U.S. and many in Europe in which tipping was abolished or there never was a standard tipping system. The service was excellent in those places and the servers seemed much more motivated to provide a high level of service - maybe because they were actually being paid fairly & didn't have to bust their assess just to pick up a few extra bucks from each table? Also, as a customer, I felt much more inclined to actually want to leave to a leave a tip (even though it wasn't expected) because I had received such good service. I think my money has much more impact when it's being used to reward someone providing more than just basic service (positive reinforcement), rather than being used as an excuse for employers to not pay a fair wage.

[FYI, I worked as waitress/host/cashier when I was in college - it was at a restaurant that paid fairly well & discouraged tipping. The job totally sucked, but not because of the lack of tipping.]

Today's LTP: I want to know all about your views on tipping...

1. Do you take anything in consideration (e.g. cost of meal, speed of service, overall satisfaction, type of restaurant) when deciding on what to tip? Do you have a set standard?

As I mentioned, I normally leave a 20% tip unless there's something that goes wrong and/or the service isn't all that great (and I will go up if the service is especially spectacular). I have a friend who always leaves a flat $5 tip, no matter what... I guess servers just better hope they get her table for a $20 meal and not a $50 one. :-)

2. Has there ever been a time in which you didn't leave a tip? What made you decide not to leave a tip? Did you inform the server and/or manager of why or did you just leave without saying anything?

Discounting my college days in which we were all a bit naive about tipping, there have only been two times in which I intentionally chose to not leave a tip. The first time happened in Salem, MA during lunchtime. The waitress dropped off our food, cashed out the two tables next to us, and then disappeared back into the main dining area (we were the only table left on the patio). We didn't see her for the rest of the meal - not only did she never return, but no other servers came out to check on us at any point. Half an hour after we finished the meal, we wandered into the dining room to try to find her, as we were sick of waiting (we didn't even have the bill!). Oh, that's when we found out that she had actually left for the day after she brought us the food... and neglected to let anyone inside know that there was still a table outside. They didn't even have a ticket for us. Awesome.

The second time was at one of my favorite restaurants in Chicago - the waiter was extremely rude and condescending and made everyone at the table very uncomfortable. A member of my party actually ended up complaining to the manager and we also decided not to leave a tip. We knew that the waiter wouldn't possibly think it was his behavior that led to the lack of tip (as we were obviously uncultured cheapskates), so we left a note on the receipt that detailed exactly why we made that decision. I don't know if anything good came out of that note, but I do know at least the a-hole waiter, the hostess, and possibly another manager saw it (and it made me feel better to write it).

3. Do you ever tip when you get take out?

I don't tip when I'm just picking up an order, but I will say that I always feel really uncomfortable when the host/hostess watches me cross out the tip line on the receipt... it makes me feel like I'm doing something wrong (maybe because I'm just a little do-gooder at heart).


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5.01.2012

Tuesday LTP: Tip Guides

In the last year or so, I've noticed more and more restaurants are printing tip guides at the bottom of their receipts. Some of them give suggested dollar amounts for good/excellent/outstanding service, while others are solely focused on flat percentages. While I once received a receipt with the message "Please tip 20-30 percent if you enjoyed or really enjoyed your experience," the guides usually tend to suggest a more reasonable 15-20%, like the most recent one I encountered at Bandera.


It was the first time my dining companion had encountered a tip guide on a receipt - her initial reaction was shock ("Are people really that math challenged?!"), but that quickly faded into indignation and irritation. I usually ignore the guides because I have my own method of calculating the tip (the tax rate in Chicago is 9.5%, so you can easily take the tax, round up & double it for a 20% tip), but when I really thought about it, I completely understood her irritation.

While I'm not someone who is a anti-tipping or a cheap tipper (mostly because of the system itself - I do think it should be the responsibility of their employers to motivate & pay their employees a fair wage, but I understand that's not the case), it is slightly presumptuous of the restaurant to assume the server even deserves a certain standard level of tip. Shouldn't it solely be based on the service that was provided at that time? Also, are the guides really there for the math challenged or is it because restaurants owners are afraid patrons are unaware of tipping protocol? It kind of feels like they're passive-aggressively goading people into tipping (or tipping more than usual for standard service just so that the server won't think they're cheap). And what about the calculation itself  - why was the tip amount at Bandera based on the after-tax total and not the subtotal? Um, since when did it become the standard to tip on sales tax? I'm sorry, but the sales tax I'm paying to the city has nothing to do with my restaurant experience or the service I received.

Today's LTP: How do you feel about tip guides on receipts? Do you think they're helpful or just annoying? Should there be a standard tip guide included at every restaurant or does the suggestion do more harm than good (especially seeing as a lot of people tend to err on the side of overtipping)?


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