Friday, March 30, 2012

Foodie Pen Pals - Indian Style

When I was younger I had a pen pal that lived in Nova Scotia. This was back in the day when pen and paper were king. I loved the whole process of being a pen pal - picking out fun stationary and seeing the words move across the page, buying stickers (OK, if you've received a card or a letter from me in the past few years, you know I still get really into stickers!) It was such a comfort to write my pen pal about what was going on in my world and reading her responses to me. Fast forward some 15-20 years and once again I have a pen pal though not in the traditional sense.

Foodie Pen Pals - who wouldn't want to get a gift like this in the mail?!
Foodie Pen Pals was started a mere 6 months ago by fellow food blogger Lindsay. To date there are over 350 participants across the US, Canada, and now the UK too. Impressive, right? "Pen pals" change every month, and you don't write/buy gifts for the same person that has you as a pen pal (though I think this would be a fun way to do things, you might foster a stronger relationship if you're focusing on one another.) There's a $15 spending limit and items are geared towards food related products your pen pal would be interested in. I sent a box of chocolate and peanut butter themed treats to pen pal Cinnamon in Washington state. I had a great time putting the box together for was just like my old pen palling days as a preteen!
I was spoiled by all the delicious Indian treats!
I came home about a week ago to see that I had received a large box. Huge. I knew it was my pen pal gift. Aurvi did a wonderful job creating an authentic Indian gift basket of goodies for me complete with homemade treats and mixes galore - chai masala, daal lentils and spices (I made a lovely stew for dinner and even sent my friends home with leftovers), cardamon cookies, biscuits, spicy snack mix (with rice krispies and chickpeas), tandoori spice mix, an addictive snack mix that I need to keep my little hands out of (it has shoestring potatoes, nuts and dried fruits - LOVE IT!) and homemade cupcakes. Wow, right? It was impressive and so lovingly assembled. I felt like it was my birthday! I made a delicious feast for two of my lucky friends and even had enough of the daal leftover for them to take home as leftovers.

Aurvi made this special blend of tea - brewed with milk & sugar it's fantastic!
I am a huge fan of this Foodie Pen Pal program as you can tell. It gives us food bloggers and opportunity to get to know one another and promote one another. It fosters a community that being digital can sometimes manipulate. It helps us to foster relationships.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Springtime means Salads

After a not too cold Chicago winter the sun is beginning to shine. Flowers are blooming. Mid-March temps are reaching 80+ degrees (yes, it's true!) More fitted clothes and sun dresses are just around the corner. I am training for marathon #6 coming up in May, but a girls still got to take some dietary precautions when it comes to the waistline. Yes, me of all people hates to say that, but with age comes the knowledge that healthier eating is important to a happy weight and overall well-being. Sigh. That's where my friend the salad comes in.
Look at all that beautiful produce - it's salad time!
I'm not talking about some iceberg lettuce with croutons and fat free dressing. Gross. I'm talking about hearty salads with lots of fixings. Dressings that enhance the flavors of the ingredients. Something that will actually leave you full when you reach the bottom of the bowl. All of these salads will leave you feeling satiated and happy. I can personally attest to their deliciousness as I've made them at home, or have ordered them recently. Here's my list:

Thai Peanut Salad with Shrimp
This one I made at home and was influenced by Trader Joe's spicy peanut vinaigrette (this can be found in the refrigerator section.) Mixed greens, shredded carrots, diced red pepper are the bulk of the salad. I topped the dinner with crushed peanuts (just put them in a plastic bag and use a rolling pin to make them into tiny pieces) and thawed shrimp. Yummers!

Roasted Beet and Burrata Salad at Pierrot Gourmet
We're talking the lovely French-style cafe of Chicago's famed Peninsula Hotel, so you know the quality and flavors will be there. First off the restaurant's ambiance is warm and inviting whether you're sipping iced tea on the patio, or cozied at a table pre-Michigan Avenue-shopping. Spicy arugula, yellow beets, orange segments and apple cider vinaigrette with a generous helping of Burrata cheese (Robyn's note: cheese makes good things even better.)

Sushi Roll Edamame Salad (Adapted)
A friend of mine sent me this recipe which included nori (seaweed), sesame seeds, and a few other ingredients to make the salad more like a sushi roll. It's a really fun idea, but would have required a trip to Whole Foods and more money/effort than I wanted to apply. My adaptation was included one head of romaine lettuce (chiffonade), brown rice (cooled in the fridge for at least a few hours), shelled edamame soaked in rice wine vinegar and light agave nectar - about 1 tbsp of each for the 1/4 cup - I used this "sauce" as the dressing), 1 carrot cut into matchsticks, 1/2 seedless cucumber cut into matchsticks (somehow this makes it more fun) and 1/2 an avocado. If the salad seems to dry to you you could mix together more of the rice wine vinegar/agave nectar blend, but I actually didn't seem to need much more than the initial recipe provided. This is a really hearty salad with the brown rice!

Baby Spinach, Golden Beet & Duck Confit Salad at The Bongo Room
I don't get to famed Chicago brunch spot The Bongo Room all that often for lunch (when it's served during the week), but when I do I am a huge fan of the spinach, goat cheese, beet and duck salad. There are candied walnuts to add to that too, but I think it's the duck confit that makes this huge lunch salad a meal to remember.

Spinach, Hazelnut and Butternut Squash Salad
This is more of a fall salad, but still one I love. I made it for my family over Thanksgiving. This is a spinach salad with toasted hazelnuts (this can be a messy process, but when you toast the nuts there is a little something extra that's added), roasted butternut squash (if you're too lazy to cut up the entire squash like I was, TJ's offers pre-cut squash pieces - just toss with EVOO and some herbs when roasting), goat cheese and dried cranberries. I then made my own vinaigrette using apple cider vinegar and some fresh herbs. If you wanted to add some bacon too that would make this salad even more decadent, because of course everything's better with bacon. Unless you're a vegetarian.

The list could go on, but these are just a few of my favorites. Please share some of your recipes and/or favorite places for a salad in the city. New suggestions are always welcome!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Disney Dining

My house
Just so you know, I am Snow White. Dark hair, snow white skin, red lips. My parents always called me Snow White when I was little, and I grew up with seven dwarfs plastic figurines and Snow White halloween costumes. When my parents announced several months back that we would be taking a family trip to Disney World I was elated. I have a 5 year old nephew and knew it would be as fun for him as it would be for me (Ok fine, I knew it would be MORE fun for me as an adult to enjoy and appreciate everything.) I was even more excited when I saw in my Runner's World Magazine (aka my running bible) that there would be a Disney Princess Half Marathon that same weekend. The only thing I love more than eating and running, is running some sort of race that has a fun gimmick to it (like running all over the Magic Kingdom and taking pictures with Disney characters.)

Sorry Jonno! Looks like a VERY excited 5 yr. old dining in Morroco; he also did some belly dancing after dinner!
Our four-day family adventure in Orlando brought together my parents from Ohio, my sister, brother-in-law and excitable nephew from New York, my BF from LA and of course me, my brother and his GF from Chicago. I of course planned out all of the meal options, because let's face it trying to get into places at the last minute with a party of 9 is tough (note to future Disney travelers - make reservations in advance for the restaurants!) I'm not proud of all the reservation choices I made, but I think we made the most out of the dining aspect in all four of the Disney parks. The race (and endless walking) gave me a reason to have fun and let loose a little with the food options.
Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater - I think we all liked this one the best!
Probably everyone's favorite meal was at the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater in Hollywood Studios. Diners sit in replicas of 1950s convertibles and watch clips of black and white sci-fi movies. It's dark inside the restaurant and they do an awesome job of recreating the experience of being outside at an old-time drive-in theater. Of course there are burgers, fries and milkshakes galore on the menu (all were pretty tasty), but really it was about the fun scenery.

Look at al those fun noodle options!
Another favorite meal was in Epcot at Nine Dragons Restaurant. If you haven't been to Disney before, you might not know that workers in all the countries housed in Epcot are citizens of those nations. It's a very cool thing to walk into France and speak French with someone selling croissants who hails from Aix-en-Provence or go on the Viking Ship with a Norwegian person guiding you on and off the ride. I think Disney might be missing the mark a bit because all though they have restaurants and food vendors in all of the countries represented in Epcot, the food isn't necessarily all that authentic. Case in point, in Morocco we were served mint chocolate chip ice cream with fruit and when I tried to ask about authentic Moroccan iced desserts (because I like to ask these things) our waiter merely offered that there were "many types of ice cream in Morocco". I do love authentic Chinese food (I'm happy when I am only one of a handful of non-Chinese diners in a restaurant) which this wasn't, but it was still very tasty. I can only imagine that Americanized taste buds are at the forefront of Disney dining gurus so there was lots of fried appetizers and other menu items you'd see in your local Chinese restaurant. I loved my noodle sampler which gave me a chance to mix and match different meats and veggies together for the perfect salty dinner.

Best part of the race was all the fabulous photo opps! When else would I dress-up like this?!
And that little race I ran? There were about 20,000 runners! It was grueling having to get up at 3:30 am to make it to the shuttle and my corral on time, but considering I had only 4 hours of sleep and had walked around the parks the day before I did pretty well. Of course I reverted back to my childhood icon and took the opportunity to dress like my favorite princess...Snow White you got it.