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A Few Of Our Favorite (Food And Drink) Things 2014

By Melissa McEwen in Food on Dec 22, 2014 9:30PM

Satsuma orange cream soda, citrus gelee and pink peppercorn at Sumi Robata Bar (photo by Melissa McEwen)

Sadly these isn't a Best Of list for every single awesome thing we ate and drink, but that's why we made this list, a free for all list of deliciousness ranging from recipes to things we ate at our favorite restaurants.

Pink Peppercorn: I admit I forgot this spice even existed. It’s like black peppercorn’s red headed step child that you sometimes see in mediocre plastic grocery store pepper mills. And then I was reminded thanks to the fries at G&O and the gorgeous kakigori, a shaved ice dessert, at Sumi Robata Bar. I bought some for my own kitchen to add that slightly sweet and deliciously aromatic kick to my own cooking. —Melissa McEwen

Mastering an easy classic (Marcella Hazan tomatoe’s sauce): I grew up with two cultures steeped in rich culinary traditions, my heritage a mix of German and Southern cuisine, yet I didn’t learn a lot of cooking techniques passed down from generation to generation. I was more an observer and taster. So learning how to cook, especially improvising in the kitchen, has been a struggle for me. I tend to overthink, scrutinize and end up not enjoying the whole process. It took learning a classic recipe by heart to really understand the joy and love that cooking brings to many. After the passing of iconic chef Marcella Hazan, one of the food blogs I read on the regular, the Amateur Gourmet, posted a lovely eulogy along with the recipe to Hazan’s classic tomato sauce. It looked too easy, too simple to be that good. I filed it away and after the holidays passed and a very cold January set in, I pulled out this simple dish to give it a try. It is a testament to quality ingredients and restraint, just really great tomatoes, an onion and some butter go into a pot. You let it perfume your entire house, play with the seasoning, then toss in some pasta and add a heaping amount of cheese right before you serve it. This is a one pot meal that warms your soul, the food equivalent of a warm blanket on a cold day. I spent much of the winter enjoying this frugal yet delicious dish with a better understanding of how mastering a simple classic can not only build your cooking confidence, but makes you understand why food can be such a comfort. Grab the recipe here and enjoy. —Lisa White

"'N'duja : A spicy, spreadable salami rich with roasted hot peppers, wine, and a hint of smoke." from Underground Food Collective, which sells at The Logan Square Farmer's Market
Hello, fermented meat: My favorite trend in Chicago dining is the emergence of in-house charcuterie. Restaurants all over the city are implementing charcuterie programs while others perfect their craft. Since opening in 2013, West Loop Salumi, a company specializing in Italian style salamis, has improved their product immensely. New restaurants are taking the charcuterie game to the next level, like Tête Charcuterie and Table, Donkey and Stick, which produces an out-of-this-world schweinekopf. Butcher & Larder has some of my favorite paté in the entire city. Cured meats are gaining in popularity among chefs and eaters alike, and I can’t wait to see how this trend plays out into 2015. I’m hoping for more N’duja (if you’ve never had it, go try some today.) —Erika Kubick

Lilith By Goose Island: I’ve never been a beer drinker, not that I haven’t tried. I’ve tasted sips of fantastic brews and can tell that they are wonderful and special, all while my face contorts from the taste on my tongue. I really want to like beer, and yes over the years I’ve found a few I enjoy, but I met my true brew match this year when I tasted Goose Island’s Lilith. Paring pomegranates with a traditional Berliner Weisse is a perfect idea, the slightly tart yet sweet fruit matches up perfectly with a refreshing and light sour beer. Sadly only a limited batch existed for a very short period of time, but I’m hoping to meet my beer match again and am thankful that Goose opened my eyes to trying out other Berliner Weisse around town. —Lisa White

Butcher and Larder sausage with rice, pickled peppers, spinach, black sausage, smoked paprika and homemade preserved lemon

Preserved Lemon: are you tired of your lemons going all moldy in your fridge door? Because I am. That’s why I love preserved lemons. Because they are preserved in salt they take a pretty long time to go bad. And they are also an essential ingredient in many now-trendy Middle Eastern recipes (AKA most of Ottolenghi’s recipes like Chicken meatballs with preserved lemon and harissa relish). You can also get creative with them and add them to other things. I sometimes add a bit of the liquid to cocktails to give them a sour and briny boost. Some people have complained these are too salty, but they ARE mostly salt, so use in dishes like a salt and a sour.

Adapted from The Ancestral Table
4 lemons
⅓ cup kosher salt (though you may need to use more depending on the size of the lemons)

1. dip the lemons in nearly boiling water for 45 seconds, slice the lemons into quarters and place in a large bowl. Mix in half the salt.
2. Line the bottom of a pint jar with salt, pack each quarter tightly into it (some juice will come out as you pack them in) and after putting each quarter in top with a layer of salt. Top the final layer with extra salt. If there is not enough juicy salty brine covering the lemons try packing them in tighter and if that doesn’t work, add more lemon juice.
3. put a lid on the jar and store in a cool dark place for 3-4 weeks. Then put in the fridge, where they’ll keep for up to 6 months.

—Melissa McEwen

The Publican's Sourdough Pancake (via Facebook)

Sourdough pancake with bacon wrapped chicken thigh and sausage at The Publican: I grew up with a childhood spent enjoying my Dad’s summer tradition of bacon wrapped cheese dogs on the grill, so you wrap anything in bacon and I am game. Now stuff it in a delicious pancake, slather some syrup on it and I’m yours forever. I first tasted The Publican’s sourdough pancake with bacon wrapped chicken thigh and sausage at a media event, everyone else cooly nibbling at their food while I was more concerned with this magical pancake in front of me. I wanted more of this perfect balance of savory with a hint of sweet. I even confessed online that I wanted to smuggle the rest out in my purse. The Publican really gets me, since they responded that they wouldn’t judge me if I tried. —Lisa White

The Fried Chicken in Louisiana: A week before Halloween, I made my goth kid pilgrimage to New Orleans. I toured cemeteries, drank absinthe, practiced some witchcraft, and learned about what fried chicken should taste like. No offense Chicago, but you just aren’t doing it right. I was under the impression that all chicken breast is dry even when it’s submerged in fat, but that’s not the case in NOLA. Imagine a skin so crunchy and sweet it tastes like corn flakes and breast as moist as the thigh. I found fried chicken God and Willie Mae’s Scotch House, and if you find yourself in The Big Easy, you best get yourself there on an empty stomach. —Erika Kubick

Freeze-dried Satsumas: If you like tart things as much as I do (were you also addicted to Warheads as a child?), you will love these crunchy sweet-tart snacks. You might even eat the whole bag as a snack by accident, but don’t throw away the bag yet. It’s full of “dust”, the pulverized remains of some of the tangerines that makes an amazing topping for vanilla ice cream or an addition to cocktails. I get mine at Epic Spices. —Melissa McEwen

Quail egg and burrata ravioli with brown butter and truffle at Schwa: The tales of infamous Chef Michael Carlson, the give-no-fucks attitude compared to other fine dining establishments and the praise from chefs and critics alike always made me wonder what lay behind this tiny storefront door on Ashland. So when a friend visiting town this summer during Pitchfork Festival mentioned he needed to fill a few seats for a reservation he was actually able to score, I jumped at the chance. A culinary “yolo” if you will. The night was full of strange flavors, ideas I never would have dreamed of (looking at you, salad served in a giant white chocolate egg) and one of the most perfect bites I’ve ever ate. Their signature quail egg ravioli, with burrata, brown butter and truffle served as one bite arrived, almost too big for the small dish it sat in. We were instructed to tip it back and enjoy, truffled brown butter glossing our lips and dripping down our chins. It was an incredibly earthy and rich flavor, sensual and luxurious- a singular perfect taste. A friend and I actually asked if it was OK to lick the bowl and the chef nodded. He knew what was up. It went along with the whole tone of the evening, a heady mix of food that made your brain bend while hip hop thumped through your body. This wasn’t your typical fine dining and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Give me a BYOB bottle of bourbon, some Run the Jewels music and I’ll follow those ravioli to the end of time any day. —Lisa White

This one came with a free orange peel kitty
Ma La Colada at The Violet Hour: During warmer months I crave cold and fruity cocktails, something refreshing poured over a mound of ice. The Violet Hour has never done me wrong in the cocktail department, mixing up some of my favorite drinks over the years, and this summer was no different after I became obsessed with their Ma La Colada. One of the few tiki drinks to grace the menu at Violet Hour, of course what set it apart was the variation bartender Tyler Fry brought to the table. Your typical pina colada base got a punch of heat, the perfect way to tame a sometimes too sweet classic cocktail, with the addition of ginger, Sichuan peppercorns and a ghost-pepper infused El Dorado 151. The heat wasn’t too overpowering, just enough to make your lips tingle a bit, and the coconut cooled things down with each sip. I found myself stopping by for a round after work, snatching up as many Ma La Coladas as I could during the summer season. Zagat Chicago has a guide on how to make your own batch, which I might have to try next year, but nothing beats the cool dark respite of an air conditioned Violet Hour while sipping a round or two of these on a hot summer day. —Lisa White

Comforting cabbage: Cabbage is one of the only leafy green vegetables that is hardy enough to withstand low temperatures and lengthy storage, making it an ideal vegetable to consume throughout the winter. While it’s comforting, nutritious, and a longtime companion of animal fat, green cabbage is usually an under-appreciated vegetable, living in the shadow of its happening cousins like kale and Brussels sprouts. But cabbage has an array of health benefits and it’s dirt cheap. While you hibernate the winter away, warm your soul with this recipe for green cabbage that I got from my Aunt Carol. Upon first glance, it’s pretty damn ugly. The tumeric and tomato cast a garish yellow color, but this wholesome dish is so easy a monkey could make it and it’s simply wonderful. Pair it with a pale ale and get ready to be addicted.

2 Tablespoons peanut oil
1 teaspoon plus turmeric
½ teaspoons cayenne
1 teaspoon salt
1 Cup shallots, sliced
½ lb ground beef
4 Cup shredded cabbage
1 cup tomato wedges
1/3 Cup peanuts

Heat oil over medium. Add spices, salt and shallots and stir until softened and fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add ground beef and cook for 2 -3 minutes. Add cabbage and tomatoes, reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Add peanuts, cover and cook for another 10 minutes, or until cabbage is tender. —Erika Kubick

Eggplant at Rootstock

Rootstock: If you haven’t been to Rootstock lately, go. It’s one of those restaurants that’s quietly gotten more interesting and more delicious over time. The nutty crispy, eggplant dishes layered with creamy baba ghanoush I had there were some of the best things I’ve eaten all year.- Melissa McEwen

Infusing vodka: Prairie Organic sent me a bottle of their vodka. But I don’t usually use vodka. Luckily vodka is the perfect home for all the spices I’ve hoarded that are close to being past their prime. A few kaffir lime leaves and star anise covered in vodka for a week and then filtered out and I now have something cool and interesting for cocktails. —Melissa McEwen

My last trek to Hot Doug’s: The closure of Hot Doug’s meant many things to so many people. Personally for me, Hot Doug’s was friendship and memories. Anytime I had lunch there I was surrounded by friends and always happy to be greeted with a smile from Doug. It’s one of those places that is just special, you either feel it or you don’t. I knew the end would be rough, full of last-minute procrastinators and die hards that I just couldn’t compete against. So on a weekday in August, before the lines truly got out of hand, a friend and I made the decision to make our last trek to Doug’s. We waited maybe an hour if that? We thanked Doug. Like the cornball I am, I even got a photo with him. And then we split an obscene amount of hot dogs, adding on a few corn dogs for the road for when we felt sad later knowing we’d never visit Hot Doug’s again. It was bittersweet and I’m not going to lie, I thought about going back “one last time” at least a few times, but I wouldn’t have wanted my last visit to Hot Doug’s to end any other way than with a car ride home smiling, a full belly and a good friend next to me. —Lisa White

The Veggie Thali at Ghareeb Nawaz: Four different types vegetable curries including spinach and potato, channa masala, lentil daal, and mixed veggie are served alongside a huge portion of fragrant basmati rice, warm paratha bread, fresh slices of onion, and creamy raita....all for less than $4. You read that right. It’s not a lunch special or limited-time promotion. This price is good at both locations (the original 24-hour Ghareeb Nawaz in Roger’s Park and Ghareeb Nawaz Express in University Village) and ensures leftovers. This dish has been near the top of my best-eats list for years. —Carrie Laski

Tuesday Night Fried Chicken at Analogue: can you tell Chicagoist is addicted to this restaurant? One of the reasons is their Tuesday night fried chicken, featuring dark and light meat perfectly fried chicken, a fluffy biscuit, silky mashed potatoes with gravy and their rich and fatty dirty rice. —Melissa McEwen

Meet Your Meat (butchering demo at Butcher & Larder): I grew up knowing the nastier bits of an animal, chomping down on brain sandwiches or livers and gizzards at a tender age. And although my great-grandmother was able to snap one of her backyard chicken’s neck with the flick of her wrist, I never actually saw an animal butchered, only the plastic and paper it came wrapped in from the store. My curiosity led me to join in on the purchase of a pig this year with a group of friends from a local farmer, Paulie. After our hog was ready, we met at Butcher & Larder where we got to watch Rob work his magic and break down half of a pig. I enjoyed this a helluva lot more than dissecting anything in AP Biology. Besides learning where all the cuts of meat come from, we were able to learn the art of butchering, how a thin knife can slide between meat and joints and almost fall apart with minimal effort...if you know what you are doing. And even the parts that require more effort, Rob possessed a sense of grace and finesse on an animal much larger than the birds I pathetically hack at before enjoying at home. Besides getting an education in anatomy, being able to see an animal go from its actual size and form to broken down in stacks of meat makes you realize just how much an animal yields. A healthy pig can feed so many. It brings a new level of respect, of being thankful to not only the animal but the farmer who raised it with such joy and love and the butcher who handles it with such care. And it left my table with some of the most delicious pork I’ve ever ate. My friends weren’t as enthusiastic when I exclaimed a few days later over dinner “these pork chops were still alive less than a week ago,” but I was proud of knowing where my chain of food came from, supporting local businesses that support healthy and happy animals along the way. —Lisa White

Pupusas: if you haven’t had a pupusa, you are missing out. It’s soft corn dough filled with things like cheese and tender pork and then grilled. The best are grilled so some of the filled spills out and forms golden crunchy bits. And you can get them at Pupuseria El Excelente (1758 W. 18th St.) along with a whole lot of other El Salvardorean delicacies. —Melissa McEwen

Apple pop tart with foie gras ice cream at Longman & Eagle: Longman & Eagle should get into the ice cream game and sell pints of their foie gras blend because I would gladly buy up a whole lot of it. I wrote up how surprised I was with this dish coming out of left field, leaving me scraping my plate wanting to order a second round immediately. The frilly powders and gels balanced by a flaky apple pie like pop tart worked perfectly with a side of the best ice cream I’ve had in a long time, rich and creamy foie gras that imparted a buttery flavor to every bite. The dish is no longer on the menu, but one can dream of a day when I’ll enjoy that foie gras ice cream again. —Lisa White

Fear and Desire at Drumbar: Corn is on the up and up in the cocktail world, mark my words, and even enjoyed a renaissance moment at Kansas City’s PopFest this fall, where an inspiring bartender named Caitlin married tequila with corn milk, corn cream, and popcorn grits. In Chicago, Alex Renshaw at Drumbar similarly took roasted corn to mezcal but cleverly added chocolate, salt, two amaros, vanilla, and a whole egg. The shaken result is a bewitching flip that resembles chocolate corn off the cob, salted and buttered just right. —Kristine Sherred

Local Sour Beers: I can’t get enough sour beer and luckily local breweries are obliging. My favorite was Madame Rose by Goose Island. Of course it tasks a bit like cherries, but it’s more interesting than that, with notes of toasted coconut and bitter cocoa. Despite the fancy name, I can personally attest to the fact it pairs damn well with pork rinds, balancing out the fat and salt with plenty of refreshing tartness and a mild sweetness. Another favorite of mine was the funky and tart Fierce, by Off Color, another brewery that's devoted their time to making great sour beer. —Melissa McEwen


That time I had 8 pounds of cheese: I met with 6 sexy French cheese representatives, they gave me samples, and now I’m just bragging about it. —Erika Kubick

Rabitos: Traders Joes used to sell these chocolate fig brandy bonbons before they sadly betrayed me and stopped carrying them. Basically they are booze soaked figs stuffed with chocolate and then dipped in more chocolate. Luckily ganache isn’t that hard to make and there are lots of recipes online, but most of them are missing the crucial step, which is alcohol. You can add the alcohol to your ganache, or you can do what I do and steep the figs in it. Rum and whiskey are my favorites for this. —Melissa McEwen

Porridge: I know what you’re thinking: Is she serious? Well, yes, I am. Oatmeal is, granted, technically a type of porridge, but technicalities hardly matter when the real McCoy still lingers playfully on your tongue and American oatmeal feels like death warmed over in comparison. And just as the British like their cream clotted, their hot breakfast cereal is creamy beyond what most Americans seem to want to stomach. I haven’t spent much time in the UK, but each time I’ve been to London I’ve gobbled up Pret A Manger’s porridge with a relish I can’t explain even to myself- I just know that letting go is hard, people. When Pret made inroads into Chicago, I held out hope they’d sneak some British porridge in through customs, but no such luck. Then I remembered Spencer's Jolly Posh Foods and I swear the clouds parted. Topped with strawberry jam, a bowl of Jolly porridge is a perfect prelude to taking in a matinee at the Music Box next door over. —Melissa Wiley

2014_12_box_lunch.png Box Lunch: I think people would revolt if they took this drink off the menu at Billy Sunday. It’s like a way more interesting version of a White Russian. It has the unapologetic weird goatness of goat milk, genepì’s bitter medical wormwood flavors (the same stuff that’s in malort in case you didn’t know), Palo Cortado sherry’s sweetness and notes of oak, with the addition of what they call oatmeal spices, a blend that reminds you of warm winter breakfasts. You can also grab the recipe at Punch Magazine to make it at home. —Melissa McEwen

Unicum and Unicum Plum: A national spirit of Hungary, Unicum just entered the US market in 2013, but despite the growing popularity of bitter this year, I had yet to hear of this Hungarian delight. A kind and obviously knowledgeable bartender at The Violet Hour suggested the Unique New York, a cocktail with with Unicum as the first ingredient under the brandy category. There’s no added sugar here: navy strength gin and lemon juice are balanced out by a silky egg white and bittersweet intrigue of Unicum’s sassy Plum sister. While the original Unicum harkens to bitter Italian reds in aroma but hits with a Fernet’s piney punch, the plum adds a gentle touch without deserting the medicinal qualities of the 40+ herbs and spices featured in the base spirit. Both are a terrific addition to our bitter/amaro cabinet. —Kristine Sherred

Fairy Tale Cookies: I’m not really the target audience for Geneva, IL but last time I was in the area, I discovered a little bakeshop and café called Moveable Feast. This place makes insanely delicious cookies and healthy lunch items that change daily. My favorite item on the menu is the fairy tale cookie, soft sugar cookies with a nutty, light-as-air frosting and a dusting of edible sparkles. They’re simple and modest, but so delicious. It’s worth the trek out to Geneva. I promise. —Erika Kubick