Archive for the ‘Best Thing I Ever Ate’ Category

IMG_0385Summer in the Midwest means corn – tall, green, hearty stalks that march on for miles along Illinois’ flat highways and byways. Visitors complain that it’s so FLAT, but to my mind, it’s breath-able and open and you always know what’s up ahead.  In Summer, it’s just more corn.  As the second largest corn-producer in the US, you’d think you could just hop out of your car on Route 116 and pick a dozen ears. Not recommended for two reasons:  1) our hard-working farmers will not be pleased; and, 2) that corn is not for eatin’ (at least for two-legged humans or until its been processed into things that no one has ever actually seen like high-fructose corn syrup).  Now, the sweet corn harvest, on the other hand, is just starting to come in stacked high at the Farmers Markets.  I eat mine raw, right from the cob, no cooking required.  The sweetness pops in your mouth with every bite and fairly bursts with sunshine. On a recent weekday travelling south to Champaign to pick up my daughter from volleyball camp my stomach is rumbling and “I got to get me some of that corn”!

Luckily, I can stop in again at Maize Mexican Grill to load up on hand-made corn tortillas and authentic Mexican fare that warms my palate.  The tiny spot right on Green Street (the main campustown drag) offers dine-in, carry-out, or outside dining on picnic tables.  Not fancy, and can get really busy with long lines out the door, the always hoppin’ place serves simple, hearty, homemade dishes with fresh ingredients and friendly service. Indoors is a small counter with colorful Mexican tiles where you can drink your Mexican coke from a bottle and feast on chips with two kinds of salsa and fresh limes.  On this visit I had a spicy, chorizo taco with loads of fresh cilantro, a grilled chicken quesadilla, and velvety guacamole piled so high we couldn’t even finish it!  They were also offering fresh watermelon water that day which the woman next me said was wonderful.

Collecting awards since opening in 2011, Maize says 90% of their menu is gluten free, how about that for hitting on a trend, and they offer some interesting ingredients to try on each new visit – chicharron (pork back) or pastor (marinated pork), zucchini blossoms, and huitlacoche (a corn ‘mushroom’ and let’s leave it at that).

Take a road trip this Summer before the students all come back and enjoy Mexican food in the middle of the Heartland celebrating the eternal kernal.

Maize Mexican Grill
60 East Green Street
Champaign, IL
11am – 9pm every day
Minimum $5 credit card purchase (and no AMX)



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018There’s a Paleta-man in every neighborhood in Chicago.  He pushes his little cart on wheels and rings his bell and positions himself at parks and playgrounds to entice kids and adults alike.  I’ve never seen a Paleta-woman.  What’s a Paleta-man?  He’s the ice cream man, but selling Mexican popsicles.  They come in every flavor – strawberry, pineapple, watermelon, chocolate, and the list goes on.

We have a new ice cream store Las Delicias Helados y Paletas, yes, right here in Peoria, serving Mexican ice cream, paletas, smoothies, and other Mexican snack foods.

Both the ice cream and paletas are made with either milk or water resulting in rich, smooth and creamy or fresh, bright, and fruity.  The pecan ice cream is intensely nutty and packed with flavor.  Butter Pecan this is not.  You can taste as many flavors as they’ve made that day – don’t be shy.  I ask for a small scoop because it’s rich, rich, rich.  The watermelon paleta is bright, not too sweet, fresh, frozen, fruit on-a-stick.  And the strawberry smoothie has a secret ingredient – maybe crema – that adds a little to the taste.  There are piles of fresh fruit every time I have gone in and don’t worry, everything is listed in English and Spanish.  I think I can hear the ding, ding, ding.  Can you?

Las Delicias Helados y Paletas
837 W. Main St.
6am – 10pm
*on-street parking right out front

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021According to my Lebanese sister-in-law … that’s the truth.  On a recent visit, she talked shop with the very friendly owner, who closed the place up (we came late) and served us dinner like we were family.  Situated off of Pioneer Park in a strip mall, it’s not big on atmosphere, but the food is very good.  The hummus with shawarma meat and pine nuts is tangy, lemony, and rich with the marinated, char-grilled meat.  With warm pita, it’s a meal in itself.  I’ve never seen hummus served like that and I’ve eaten my share of Mediterranean food.  Their yogurt cucumber salad is also a must have with crunchy cukes and a cool, refreshing sauce. It’s perfect for Summer, but brings a breath of fresh air to the Winter doldrums.  They say that falafel is their specialty and I liked it, but nothing can compare to the Falafel sandwich in Paris’ Le Marais – and that was almost 15 years ago!  We also had beef kabab, but the shawarma beef had a lot more flavor.  The kabab is dry marinated and the shawarma has a wet marinade and I think that makes it more tender and flavorful.  The kabab did come with the best condiment I have ever had – a garlic paste.  It came in a small little cup and was pure white and purely beautiful!  My sister-in-law said it’s just garlic and water mixed to a paste, but the consistency was something else – I don’t know how you get that.  Finally, I love baklava, even though it’s something I never eat.  We finished with baklawa which looks almost the same and has that crunchy, syrupy sweet taste – a perfect way to end a meal.   Too bad they don’t serve liquor – probably not in the cards – but maybe they could offer BYOB.

7800 Sommer Dr., #610
Peoria, IL
Mon-Thur 11am-8pm
Fr-Sat  11am-8pm

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Uncle Bucks Sports Bar in Mahomet sponsored a BBQ Contest on September 8th and my brother and nephew, both avid cooks and adventurers, decided to enter. My brother is guest blogger and here is his account of the day.

We arrived at 6:30 am to get our Brisket on the smoker as it would take 7 1/2 hours for a 190 degree finishing temp. We entered all 4 categories; brisket, baby back ribs, chicken and the open category. For the open category we smoked a pork belly.  We used chicken thighs basted in a dijon mustard, maple syrup and rice wine vinegar sauce, which the judges did not like as they marked us down in the sauce points for the chicken….live and learn. We took 1st place with our brisket (this was dry rubbed the night before, smoked for 8 hours, sprayed with apple juice while smoking and presented to the judges with a homemade BBQ sauce). Our ribs took 2nd place (brined, dry rubbed and smoked for 3 hours, wrapped in foil with brown sugar, butter, agave and apple juice and then finished cooking for another 2 hours). Our chicken and pork belly bombed, though we did get good judge points, just not enough to take first place. We were just shy of the overall trophy for the day by 5 points!  We had a great time cooking, sharing our food and socializing with the great spectators for this event. We are hooked and will surely do this again!  Posted by Kevin “the smokin’ BBQ” man

Hey, how come there are no recipes!  Oh, they’re a secret now.  So I’ll post where you can get some brisket and ribs at the next Central Illinois BBQ contest.  If anyone knows of local contests, let me know!  They are ready to compete.

Additional Recipe Note posted 9/15/12:
Chicken was pretty easy……(6-8 chicken thighs)

3/4 cup Dijon mustard
1/4 cup REAL maple syrup
1 Tbsp of rice wine vinegar

Whisk together all ingredients.  Prepare the chicken by either leaving the skin on or removing it.  Salt and pepper and place in a glass baking dish.  Pour the mixture over the thighs, making sure you turn over the pieces to coat evenly, set for 30 min-1 hour to marinate. Either cook on a charcoal grill and baste with the marinade while cooking or put the whole dish in a 450 degree oven for approx 30-40 min.

That’s it!

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I know, Woodridge is not exactly Central Illinois, but I was visiting family and we drove out to Clara’s Pasta because we had heard good things.  And it was definitely chock-full of good things….a family-owned Italian restaurant with photos of weddings, first communions, anniversaries, and graduations adorning the walls like you walked into someone’s house in Elmwood Park.  Not fancy, but the pasta is homemade and the preparations are much lighter and fresher than a lot of your standard Italian/American spots.  The lasagna was not a smothered tower of cheese and red sauce but a lightly layered creation with a fresh, chunky tomato sauce spooned over the top with lots of fresh basil flecks.

The outstanding dish for me was a creamy, garlicky, textured puree of cauliflower that was warm, and, oh so rich.  Served in a casserole dish hot from the broiler, I could use this in place of ricotta cheese in ravioli or lasagna or spread it on toasted peasant bread with a few tomatoes on top and a sprinkling of basil.  This is one of those deceptive dishes.  You know there  is more to the recipe than cauliflower and garlic but you don’t know what.  Maybe parmesan cheese?  I will keep you posted.

If you’re in the burbs, seek Clara’s out – featured on Chicago’s Best.  The true test of good food – I ate it all cold for breakfast again the next day!

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I heard about the Sustainable Business Center in Galesburg from a friend and I have been wanting to visit ever since.  An end-of-Summer kid-trip to the Galesburg Children’s Museum was the perfect excuse.  Not exactly on the beaten path, the SBC is a business incubator to assist the development of green, innovative companies through business support resources and services.  In addition to several green businesses, they have a commercial kitchen for rent and they operate En Season Cafe, offering a daily menu of locally-sourced food.  The Cafe is only open Wednesday-Friday, 11:00 am-2:00 pm and Saturday, 9:00 am-2:00 pm.  There are five local farms, including one dairy and one livestock, who provide much of the food served at the restaurant.

The menu changes daily depending on what’s available from the farm but usually includes a selection of soups, sandwiches, salads, entrees, and dessert, but maybe only 1 or 2 of each.  We had half a grilled cheese sandwich with white cheddar from Milton Farms in Iowa on multi-grain bread (it was excellent – I’ll find out where it came from) and a bowl of Provencal Pistou soup.  Doesn’t sound that exciting, but the grilled cheese is one of their specialties. The hot, gooey, richness of the wonderful cheddar was balanced by the hearty, chewy, crunchy multi-grain loaf.  The Pistou, a hearty French soup with potatoes, zucchini, corn, and an herbed “pesto” on top was actually lighter than it sounds especially on the 102 degree Summer day we were experiencing!  It tasted fresh and straight from the field.  Our lunches were garnished with the fattest pickle I have ever seen – and the taste was like nothing I have ever eaten.  It wasn’t as sharp and vinegar-y as a store-bought dill, but still had a distinct biting flavor and a nice, satisfying crunch.  I suspect someone had just made it.

The Cafe has an open kitchen with a counter for viewing and eating as well as traditional tables and chairs.  They sell some fresh produce and all kinds of grains, flours, dried beans, herbs, honey, and other dry goods.  On Wednesdays they host a small farmers market.  All-in-all, well worth a trip to experience the whole package and support our local farmers.  This is how eating out should be – a limited menu, fresh, fresh ingredients, and an open, easy atmosphere that’s efficient,  inexpensive and very, very enjoyable.

Learn more about En Season Cafe

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I realize I am sadly behind the times, but at least I finally joined a CSA and it feels exciting, and adventurous, and healthy, and just plain FUN!  Guessing what’s coming next in my share, figuring out what I’ll do with it, and how I’m going to consume it all before the next delivery.  There’s some stress (maybe nervous excitement), but I’ve always done better under a deadline so I’m motivated.  I recently read a NYT article describing the general level of stress we are all under due to Summer’s bounty.  NYT, 7/18/12,  “Raw Panic” .  Only in America can we be stressed about too much food, but that’s another post.

I have managed not to cave under the pressure yet, but I don’t necessarily agree with the author’s recommendation to immediately cook everything to get the most for your veggy dollar.  I’m eating raw – raw kohlrabi, cabbage, corn (did you know you can eat corn raw, right from the cob), turnips, carrots, radish, kale and beet greens.  It’s a raw-tastic buffet with intense flavors and crazy combinations.  I’m writing and eating potato salad with kohlrabi, radish, broccoli, onion, and basil with a homemade buttermilk dressing.  Yes, I’ve been gnawing on the softball-size kohlrabi for at last a week and a half, but it came straight from the field so it takes forever to break down into an inedible mess.  I’m good for at least another week.

I want the true taste of each vegetable.  Maybe next year I’ll cook some, but for now it’s all fresh and un-altered.  Now where are those ears of corn . . .

Thanks Broad Branch Farm for working so hard to provide super wonderful organic veggies.  And for making my life a little “raw-er”!

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