meant to be

making ketchup

Up until about the middle of January this year, it had never occurred to me that one could produce ketchup in any way other than, well, walking into the local Dominick’s and grabbing some.

Then Kelly of wonderful Eat Make Read posted her version of a recipe from Saveur. This, in addition to sending me promptly to the store to buy my own copy of the issue, which was dedicated to home cooks, got me curious.

Around that same time, my friend Kelley (different Kelley, she with an e and of banana bread fame) and I had started reading a book together. (All right, full disclosure, we actually ended up reading different books but by the same author, Jefferey Steingarten.) She was making fast headway in hers, but it took me a few months to reach even the middle of mine, where he would discuss, it turns out, the subject of ketchup, in great detail.

And that was not the end.

See, when I’d read Steingarten’s ketchup chapter last week, it was just a few days after I had also seen, over at Endless Simmer, a post by my blogging friend Nick of Macheesmo. He wrote, if you can believe it, an entire post in defense of—what else?—ketchup.

Now, I don’t know what your feelings are on this thing we call fate (or as some like me might say, providence or even sovereignty). Probably these are questions best considered when one watches last week’s episode of LOST, I know, but, honestly: How can you look at those top three references—all of which took place within the same two-and-a-half-month span and after a lifetime of no such thing—and not see what I see: I was meant to make ketchup.

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Brunch at The Bristol

the bristol

If you’re from Chicago, cancel your brunch plans for next weekend. (Please?)

I know I don’t often make demands around here, but in this case, it is justified—and you will thank me later, I promise. Instead of whatever you’d originally planned, you’ll be visiting The Bristol in Bucktown this coming Saturday or Sunday, and here’s why:

This restaurant—well, neighborhood eatery, as it calls itself—is beautiful, with a cozy interior of exposed brick, hardwood floors, a chalkboard menu wall, a long bar with rows of ordered glasses and a communal dining area of intimate seating. I’ve read several reviews that warn how crowded the main room will be, but on a Saturday afternoon, we walked right in and got our choice of tables.

Speaking of when we walked in: I didn’t even open my own door because they saw us coming, and this staff is friendly. That makes sense, as the way I discovered The Bristol in the first place was on Twitter, through @JohnTheBristol (John Ross), one of the partners behind this restaurant, who posts updates about the seasonal Midwestern menu. The chef is Chris Pandel, formerly of NYC’s Cafe Boloud and local TRU, and his creative brunch plates range from a duck and potato skillet to a fried egg sandwich with pork belly and Mornay sauce.

bristol burger

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tipped in my favor

chocolate birthday cake

One awkward summer afternoon last year, I sat across the table from a boy, eating dinner together, and he told me he didn’t like cake. Can you believe that? He didn’t like cake.

He was so bold, in fact, he actually dared me to name a cake that could change his mind and, darn it, I must not have been ready because my mind went totally blank (or maybe I was just confused since the conversation changed topics so many times, without warning, when I’d be mid-sentence, even).

So I didn’t tell him about Swirlz and their magical cupcakes with the most amazing, creamy frosting I’ve ever tasted, nor that he should, on his way home, grab a $2 slice of chocolate cake at Portillo’s, that fast-food chain popular around Chicago, and feel its silky, rich frosting melt on his tongue.

Mostly though, I really regret that I’d never made this one, which, if I’d had to offer in my defense, definitely could have tipped the scales in my favor.

As you may have noticed from the post about truffles, there were two of my coworkers that had birthdays this last month. First was Carrie’s (provoking the celebration with Restaurant Eve’s cake, which you’d swear was a sugar cookie in cake form). Today is Alicia’s, celebrated at work Monday with this—a wonderfully moist and delicious chocolate cake, filled with homemade whipped cream and topped by chocolate buttercream frosting.

assembling the cake

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just what you need

chocolate truffles

OK. Next time I say I want to make bread pudding, taken from some random Web site I’ve never heard of before, just so I can use up my loaf of bread that hardened two days after I bought it?

Stop me.

If you do, I might be able to write a better post than this one, in which I will just tell you that, Yes, I did in fact spend a disproportionate amount of time tonight caramelizing sugar and softening bread cubes to layer with a creamy custard in a tube pan that would then, tragically, leak all over and around the oven liner, meaning not only that the bread pudding was a disaster but so was the kitchen and myself.

And, Yes, also, after I did all this, I would still head up to my computer, flicking on its glowing screen and gentle humming sound, just because, even at almost 11 PM, I’d know I’d planned to sit down and write something interesting about the dark chocolate truffles I made for Carrie’s and Alicia’s birthday presents, and, by gosh, that stupid bread pudding wasn’t going to stop me.

Tell me you’ve had nights like this?

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The Best Pizza in Chicago. Period.

spacca outside

spacca napoli from inside

While it’s true Chicago is traditionally known for its deep-dish pizza, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: this city makes a mean Neapolitan-style. Especially at Spacca Napoli.

Back in the days when we were trying every local bakery, my brother and I were also on a months-long quest to find the best pizza in Chicago, having gotten the idea from Chicago Magazine, which did a write-up on all the Neapolitan-style pizzerias in and around the city.

What I didn’t expect from this experiment, as a girl who has been known to crave frozen Tombstones from the grocery store, was that it would revolutionize the way I felt about pizza—not that I would stop liking the cheap kinds on lazy weeknights, but that, after having the smoky, thinner style considered a trademark in Italy, I would love this other kind much more.

Here’s how it’s made: A simple, thin round of dough is topped and slid into a hot, hot stone oven (we’re talking over 900 degrees Fahrenheit) and baked for less than two minutes over an oak-wood fire. When it emerges, the result is crispy, but not like a cracker—more chewy and tender, with a swollen lip around the edges and a wet, cheesy center. If done right, the pizza will have faint hints of char from the fast heat and punches of fragrance from the tomatoes. At Spacca Napoli in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood, a pizzeria owned by Jonathan Goldsmith, pizzas are baked in an oven actually made in Naples, Italy, which cooks at 1200 (!) degrees Fahrenheit, amidst light golden walls with black and white photographs.

pizza margherita

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a word of advice

comforting carrot soup

If you don’t want anything in your life to change, say, for example, your food stereotypes?

Don’t read this book.

Because if you do, one chapter in, you might start saying things like, Maybe I could like mushrooms! Or fish! Or pickles! And so you will, try some of those things, I mean, after a lifetime of not, and you won’t hate them, not even a little, and you’ll suddenly see an entire world of menus and restaurant options that you’ve always overlooked, and, really, everything will change.

Now the second thing (which could seem unrelated): If you buy a birthday present six months early, don’t, please, make that present be for me.

Because if you do, you could be talking to me one night, about something simple like what what you did that day, while I eat forkfuls of tender pot roast and whipped mashed potatoes, and just randomly, I’ll tell you, You know, I think I’m going to buy a Le Creuset French oven next week, and you won’t be able to hold it in, that you bought me one, so within minutes, I’ll be opening the big box, uncovering the cream-colored, beautiful, beautiful cast-iron pot inside, ruining the surprise. And I will have to make something in it, right away.

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up and down

kale

Oh, spring.

I have been waiting for you for such a long, long time.

And now that you’re here, you’re playing games with me.

One minute, we’re pure magic—all fresh breezes and warm sunshine. Bailey and I go for an evening walk, his paws trotting past tiny green buds peeking out of the earth and I breathe in the new air, cold and clean, inhaling it down deep and sighing, happy sighing, the kind filled with satisfaction yet anticipation. The next, you’re waking me up in the middle of the night, my eyes swollen and my throat tight, while what feels like a hundred tiny hammers bang against my head and nothing—not the Vicks VapoRub® or the warm compress on my eyes or the two tablets of pain medication—makes me feel well again. I always forget about this part. Every year.

Then, just when I’m ready to give up on you—to say I’ll bide my time and wait for summer’s long, hot days—my mom buys and brings me a neti pot, a small contraption in the shape of a genie’s bottle that, when filled with lukewarm saltwater, clears my nasal passages and frees my airways and makes me breathe again, so I can taste your sweet, windy gusts that burst through my windows, signaling the rainstorm that will come, along with the temperate days and green, green grass.

Spring, I take it all back. I think I love you.

When I look at things clearly, I say you’re like kale. Does that make sense? Kale is dark green, leafy, sold in thick bunches wrapped with bands, filled with promise, the kind of produce you want to take home with you because it’s beautiful and healthy (!) and, you know, there will be a way to enjoy it. Even though it’s usually considered a winter vegetable, kale is easy to find on days like these in March, just like natural light and rainy evenings and smells of charcoal grills wafting through the sky.

But after I’d made a failed winter vegetable gratin and a botched attempt at blanched kale, I was ready to give up on kale. And then.

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