The Bee’s Knees

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Just when we thought Spring would never arrive in Chicago, it dropped in for a surprise visit yesterday afternoon.  The Chicago Botanic Garden, one of our favorite places to explore during any season, is bursting with buds and flowers right now.  I took these photos on a path winding through the Japanese Garden just as the sky shifted from overcast to this glorious blue.

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Big Mac Throwdown

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Last weekend during our outing to Little Goat Diner, Hannah ordered the All-American Burger – complete with special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, and onions on a sesame seed bun.  Everyone at the table tried it and loved it, so I decided to surprise them with a version we could enjoy at home.  I started by Googling “Big Mac Special Sauce,” and there it was – the original recipe.   But gack!  It was pre-bottled, sugary, preservative-laden stuff.  Consequently, I set about making a healthier version (and by healthier I do not mean low-fat, simply not so processed) that would still taste like the real deal.

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My homemade version of a Big Mac.

My trip to the store was somewhat amusing because, I have to be honest, I was a little embarrassed to put iceberg lettuce in my cart.  Seriously, when was the last time you bought iceberg? 1995?  Not to mention American cheese!  But with potential comments about inauthenticity looming in my mind, I did what any semi-rational/semi-ridiculous woman would do – I put the lettuce and cheese in the cart and buried them under oranges and bananas so no one but the check-out guy would see them.  (I even felt compelled to explain to the check-out guy that I was trying to replicate a Big Mac so he wouldn’t be all judgy over my vitamin deficient lettuce.  What is wrong with me?!)

Anyway, back to the burgers.  I am thrilled to tell you that they received rave reviews and I even had requests for the leftover Special Sauce (recipe below) to be used on turkey sandwiches for lunch the next day.  It probably didn’t hurt that I served the burgers with whipped cream-laden strawberry milkshakes and that I didn’t try to sneak veggies onto their plates save for the fries (which are loaded with potassium, are they not?).

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Homemade Big Macs with Special Sauce

serves 4

For burgers:

  • 1 pound ground chuck, gently formed into four patties
  • 1/2 head iceberg lettuce, cut into shreds
  • 1/2 small white or yellow onion, finely minced
  • 4 sesame seed buns
  • 4 slices American cheese
  • jarred pickle slices

For sauce:

  • 1/2 cup Veganaise or Miracle Whip (I used Veganaise and it is worth seeking out  – in the refrigerated section)
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons sweet pickle relish (I used Wickles)
  • 2 teaspoons finely minced shallot or use 2 teaspoons of the onion you minced for burger topping
  • 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon ketchup
  • 3/4 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt and a few grinds of pepper
  1. Whisk all of the sauce ingredients together.
  2. Season the formed beef patties with salt and pepper and grill or pan fry to desired doneness.  Melt cheese on burgers in last minute of cooking.
  3. Assemble and enjoy!

Recipe and photos via the aesthete and the dilettante.  Original Big Mac sauce recipe here.

Michael Smith at the Antiques and Garden Fair + Treasures from the Day

Image of Michael Smith via online.wsj.com

Michael Smith, one of America’s premier interior designers (and the one chosen by First Lady and President Obama to redecorate the White House family quarters), gave a fantastic lecture on Friday at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Antiques and Garden Fair.  I’ve been a huge admirer of Smith’s work, particularly his ability to layer textures, ages, and cultures seamlessly throughout his interiors as well as his extraordinary attention to detail, but given his success and his rolodex of beyond A-list clients, I had preconceived notions of him taking himself a bit too seriously.  Right?  Wouldn’t you think?  I couldn’t have been more wrong, and feel comfortable saying that everyone in the room fell in love with him and secretly wished he was their best friend, present company included.  Not only is Smith thoroughly knowledgeable about art, history, and architecture (which I expected) and wickedly funny (which I did not expect), he is also disarmingly genuine.

Smith’s new book, available May 7th.

A big part of Smith’s lecture revolved around the upcoming April 23-24th Christie’s sale of a breathtaking Palladian villa he designed on the largest privately held piece of California coastline (click here to view the auction catalogue).  He also documented this phenomenal home in the above book Building Beauty (click here to pre-order, available May 7th).  Smith spent half a decade working on this house, searching the globe for treasures both humble and grand to fill the vast space.  Upon completion, his clients inhabited the home for a short time until someone knocked on their door and offered them 70 million dollars, which they accepted.  Thus the Christie’s sale.  If you have the time, you really should look through the catalogue.  Sure, there are exceptional pieces with exceptional auction estimates to match (including a to-die-for Helen Frankenthaler) but there are also several lovely objets d’art estimated at less than $1000.  They may not sell for less than $1000, but a girl can dream.

After his talk, my friend Cynthia McCullough (who happens to be a brilliant designer in her own right) and I walked around and took in the booths of antique dealers from the U.S. and Europe.  We almost lost our minds when we spied a vintage leather trunk trimmed in brass, painted one of my favorite colors, with the most outrageously perfect patina I have ever seen.  I debated for less than a minute, knowing if I went home without it that I’d regret it for the rest of my life.  It has taken up residence in the living room, adjacent to my antique Chippendale chairs that we had upholstered serendipitously in Michael Smith’s Grace fabric in Willow a few years ago.

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This is my other treasure from the antiques fair, a great little crab-handled cachepot.  How could I resist?
This is my other treasure from the antiques fair, a great little crab-handled cachepot. How could I resist?

Strawberry Avocado Salad with Fennel and Mint

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If you’ve been craving bright, fresh, seasonal ingredients that taste like Spring, I have the perfect salad for you.  Sweet strawberries, creamy avocado and crisp shaved fennel are layered on delicate bibb lettuce leaves and dressed with a lime-ginger-mint vinaigrette.  Finished with a drizzle of honey and a sprinkle of sea salt, this salad makes a light, satisfying lunch or delightful first course for a Spring inspired menu.

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Strawberry Avocado Salad with Fennel and Mint

serves four

  • 1/3 cup grapeseed or canola oil
  • 1/4 cup fresh squeezed lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon honey, plus more for drizzle (replace honey with 2 teaspoons agave if making vegan)
  • 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
  • 1 tablespoon minced shallot
  • 1 tablespoon chopped mint leaves
  • 1 head Bibb lettuce, leaves torn into large pieces
  • 1 small fennel bulb, fronds removed and shaved thin with a knife or on a mandolin
  • 2 avocados, halved and sliced thin
  • 8 ounces fresh strawberries, sliced
  1. Whisk oil, lime juice, honey, ginger, shallot and mint together in a bowl.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  2. Layer fennel, strawberries and avocado on lettuce leaves on four plates and dress with vinaigrette.  Drizzle each salad with honey and sprinkle with a bit of sea salt.  Garnish with fresh mint.

DSC_0405recipe and photos via the aesthete and the dilettante

Sunday Brunch at Little Goat

It is just as amazing as you imagined.  Stephanie Izard, Top Chef champion and genius behind Girl and the Goat, has nailed it again with Little Goat Diner in Chicago.  She’s so good that when you eat anything she has created, you think, “I thought I knew what great tasted like, but I was so wrong.  THIS is great!”.  And you are sad for a minute because you know she has ruined you, but your plate of heaven quickly distracts you from this miserable thought.

Little Goat 1 blogClockwise, from top left: (1) Husband to the rescue with lattes from adjoining Little Goat Bread.  (2) Kids loved the rotating goat sign.  (3) Smoked Corned Beef Hash with Poached Eggs.  Trust me when I say no hash will ever compare to this.  (4) Waiting for our table with mini-me.  (5) Hannah’s Smoked Pork and Toffee Crunch Milkshake.  Yes, you read that correctly.  (6) A glimpse of the inventive comfort food menu.

Little Goat 2 blogClockwise, from top left: (1) The best 14-year-old on the planet, our son Will.  (2) Chicago el tracks and blue sky.  (3) Leftover hash.  We had to save room for dessert!  (4) Clever check-holding magnet board and the remains of a warm butterscotch caramel-topped banana gelato sundae.  (5)  I wasn’t kidding.  (6) Tempting treats to go at Little Goat Bread.

all photos via the aesthete and the dilettante

Little Goat Diner: 820 West Randolph Street, Chicago, 60607.  Sadly, no reservations.  Open breakfast, lunch, dinner, late night.  Click this link for hours.

Seared Salmon with Creamy Leeks and Mushrooms

DSC_0237I am really, really crazy about salmon.  I eat embarrassing amounts of it sashimi style, make it once a week for my family, and until recently I would order it whenever we went to Francesca’s, craving the fabulous crispy sear that eluded me at home.  But guess what?  I have discovered the salmon searing trick and now I’m sharing it with you.  When you try it (and you really should) you’ll fall in love and wonder how you ever did it any other way.DSC_0211I’ve prepared salmon this way several times now, and paired it with everything from spiced lentils to noodles in a coconut curry broth.  You just can’t go wrong.  This time I came up with a creamy, lemony leek and mushroom sauce and spooned it over soft polenta, but mashed potatoes or pasta would be pretty fantastic, too.

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Seared Salmon with Creamy Leeks and Mushrooms

serves 6

  • 1 ounce dried shiitake mushrooms, rehydrated, chopped, and broth reserved
  • 3 leeks, sliced in half lengthwise then cut into 1/4 inch segments and sloshed around in cold water to remove grit
  • 1 pound fresh baby portabello mushrooms, sliced (though any variety of fresh mushroom would work)
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh tarragon
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine (I used Sauv Blanc)
  • 1/2 cup reserved mushroom broth
  • 3/4 cup half-and-half
  • 2 lemons, zested and juiced
  • 6 (6-ounce) salmon fillets, skin on

-For the Creamy Leeks and Mushrooms:

  1. Rehydrate dried shiitakes: place dried mushrooms in a bowl and pour one cup boiling water over the mushrooms.  Let steep for half an hour.  Remove from the bowl and squeeze excess moisture from the mushrooms back into the bowl.  Set mushrooms on cutting board and strain mushroom liquid through a fine mesh sieve lined with paper towel to remove grit. Reserve liquid and chop rehydrated mushrooms.
  2. Heat butter and olive oil in a large saute pan over medium heat.  Add washed and chopped leeks to the pan and cook for 10 minutes or until leeks have softened, stirring occasionally.
  3. Stir in fresh mushrooms, chopped shiitakes, tarragon, wine, 1/2 cup reserved mushroom broth, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper.  Cook for 10-15 minutes or until almost all of the liquid is gone, stirring occasionally.
  4. Reduce heat to low, stir in half-and-half and lemon zest, and simmer until sauce has thickened, about 10 minutes.  Stir in 1/4 cup lemon juice and remove from heat.

-For the Seared Salmon (learned from this recipe):

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

  1. Pat dry salmon fillets.  Rub fillets with olive oil and season tops generously with salt and pepper.
  2. Heat a dry, heavy oven-proof skillet (I used cast iron) over high heat for four minutes.  Add salmon fillets flesh side down and cook for two minutes without moving fish.
  3. Flip salmon fillets over, place pan in oven and cook for 4-5 minutes.  Do not overcook!

To finish the dish, place salmon on a generous helping of polenta, mashed potatoes or pasta and top with creamy leeks and mushrooms.

recipe and photos via the aesthete and the dilettante

The (Healing) Power of Food

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know how passionate I am about food and that I derive a great deal of joy from cooking for friends and family.  The intention varies from simple nourishment to celebration, but preparing meals is most often an act of love.  When my mother died, several friends took turns bringing dinner to my family anticipating I would be too paralyzed to do anything, and it was one of the greatest gifts I have ever received.  Whether purchased or prepared, the meals that came through the door (and the comforting hugs and words that came with them) made us feel taken care of.

Truthfully, I was cooking a lot during that time.  The immediacy of tasks like chopping, baking, and kneading kept my mind occupied while allowing me to feel connected to my mother and the times we had shared in the kitchen.  In essence, I needed to return to my experiences with her in a way that only food could fulfill.  I can’t prepare a roast chicken and baked potatoes without being transported to my childhood kitchen table with my sister, mother and grandmother surrounding me or have mussels in white wine and not  mentally flip back to Le Bouchon in Chicago where my now husband and I used to go on special occasions when he was in law school.  Isn’t it astonishing how scent and taste can take you back in ways nothing else can?

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Easter was a little rough and emotional.  It was my first holiday without her and one we had often prepared for together.  Part of me did not want to celebrate this favorite holiday of mine but I needed to do it, to cook for those I love and to have them near me.  My daughter Hannah and I spent three days preparing the food, decorations, and Easter eggs for 24 guests, and we made my mother’s famous carrot cake.  When she took her first bite, Hannah said the cake felt comforting like home, and in that moment I knew she was with us, smiling down on her family’s bittersweet celebration of life.