Category Archives: by Neil

Compounding the Deliciousness

“Don’t compound the problem,” some people say. “It looks like a compound fracture,” your doctor says, taking a drag from his cigarette. “Let’s, uh, drive the cah down to the, uh, Hyannisport Compound this weekend, Jackie,” JFK would always tell his wife. But I turns out the best use of “compound” is: “Here, taste this compound butter.”

I first learned about compound butter from my know-it-all brother Eric, who once answered so many rhetorical questions correctly at a cooking class that the teacher finally asked him, “Are you a chef, or WHAT?” Compound butter is essentially butter infused with flavors–and as you’d guess, it makes everything taste amazing. Like famous Canadian Tom Green once said, “It’s better with butter.”

So armed with this knowledge, we recently topped off some steaks with a compound butter infused with garlic and green onions. You gotta try it.

1. Chop up some green onions and garlic (or whatever flavors you want) and add to a bowl with half a stick of butter.

2. Once it’s all mixed together, put the mixture on a sheet of plastic wrap and roll the plastic wrap until you have a tube of butter. Then grab both ends and spin it around til it’s wrapped tightly.

3. Tightly tie off both ends of the plastic wrap and then set it on the counter so your wife can take a photo of it. (The photo part is optional.)

4. Put the butter in the freezer for a few minutes so it hardens–the goal is to get it back to a consistency where you can slice it.

5. Once your steak is ready, cut the plastic wrap off of one end and slice some perfect discs of compound butter to place on top.

There it is. So easy a Neil can do it. Now you know one more way to use the word “compound,” you’ve learned a great new cooking trick, and you’ve thought about Tom Green for the first time in at least 10 years. What a night.

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Mo Money, Mo Problems

There’s a phenomenon called the Paradox of Choice that says when people have too many things to choose from, it becomes paralyzing and they make no decisions at all. I think that the scientists who came up with this were probably watching me and Caili try to choose a restaurant. On paper, our neighborhood sounds great–right downtown, steps from Millennium Park and Lake Michigan, just a 10-15 minute walk to tons of food options. But in reality, it’s made our dining choices really difficult. The problem is much like a diamond–multifaceted, hard to stop looking at, and it ends up costing me a lot of money. Consider:

1. All the cheap places shut down at night. If you wanted to get lunch on a weekday, you’d love it here. Thanks to the surrounding office buildings, there’s McDonalds, Panda Express, Sbarro, Panera and everything else you can think of. But at night, all the businesspeople go home and leave only a sorry Giordano’s to tide us over.

2. Everything nearby is trendy. You might think that Caili and I are stylish city people, but we’re not. As I type this, between us we’re wearing two Old Navy shirts and a hoodie. (And neither of us are wearing pants! Kidding.) The point is, we’re not that into the floofy gourmet restaurants that they have downtown. One of our most recent restaurant outings was to the only Chili’s in Chicago.

3. The good restaurants won’t deliver down here. When we lived in Lakeview, we had an ongoing love affair with a Chinese takeout place called Yen’s. We got their General Chow Chicken, extra spicy, almost every weekend. But we’ve discovered that Mr. Yen refuses to deliver to our current place. The one place that will deliver? The aforementioned Giordano’s. Meh.

So the next time you’re calling up your local takeout place–or driving your big suburban automobile past a line of amazing fast food options–think about those of us in the inner-city who are every day, every hour, coping with life in a food desert and wondering where their next meal is going to come from.

If You Having Girl Problems, I Feel Bad For You Son

Just a small sampling of what I'm dealing with.

 

Caili is a fantastic roommate. Honestly, living together has been really harmonious. But until six months ago when we got married, I’d never lived with a girl before. Here’s what I’ve learned in my short journey in the land of female roommates. These are really just based on one girl–Caili–but haven’t we learned that when it comes to gender/ race/ sexual orientation, it’s better to just generalize about people?

They’re really concerned with smells.
Caili has one scent for her bath products and another for her perfume. One for a room spray and another for candles that she lights when guests come over. She wants to make sure that every time she smells a smell, it’s a good one. But it doesn’t stop there–she also has a thing about demanding we close our bedroom door every time we cook meat in the adjoining kitchen. Apparently she doesn’t want our bedding and all of her clothes to smell like cheeseburgers. And all this time, I thought that smell was an aphrodisiac.

They watch what you eat.

Not what they eat, necessarily–but the food choices you’re making. My Dad always says that if he lived alone, he wouldn’t make it another five years, since there’d be no one to stop him from eating whatever he wanted all the time. On this I agree. Often when I’m standing at the pantry, Caili’s mouth says “I love you” but her eyes say “Do you really need to polish off that whole bag of gummi bears while we’re cooking dinner?”

They have SO many toiletries.

I’m no caveman or anything–I like my hair gel and nice shaving cream–but I can’t believe how many bathroom items Caili has. Our cabinet is overrun with lotions, creams, gels, ointments and salves of all kinds. I have no idea what most of them are for, but as long as she does I guess we’re okay.

They’re sensitive about TV shows and movies.

This might be specific to Caili, who is also the world’s harshest movie critic, but girl roommates really would prefer you don’t watch violent shows. Caili made it through about 5 minutes of a Boardwalk Empire episode with me before someone got shot in the head. Her immediate response: “Why would anyone watch this??” Other girls may not be as sensitive about this, though–after all, Caili is on record as saying she doesn’t like any movies with “guns, explosions or surprises.”

 

 

Happy Leap Day!

It only comes once every four years, and it’s like it never happened at all–it’s Leap Day. I imagine that in olden times, you could’ve committed a crime on February 29 and then at your trial, you could dramatically exclaim: “But Your Honor! Everyone knows February has but 28 days!” Case dismissed.

Anyway, before you start to look ahead to your plans for March–or flip over to the next month in your “babes” or “hunks”-themed wall calendar–here’s a final February photo: a baby in his finest Leap Year regalia. Presenting our new nephew Damien in a frogman suit, ready to leap onto the next lily pad and grab some flies with his extra-long tongue. You have to start eating solid foods sometime.

This day never happened…

-Neil

We’re Not In Kansas Anymore (Because We Only Went There for One Day)

On Sunday, our parents/parents-in-law Guy and Patti were flying to Kansas City anyway, so Caili and I decided to hitch a ride. The coolest thing about this? We didn’t have to book a ticket, go through security, or overpay for Gardetto’s at Hudson News. Nope–we were flying in Guy and Patti’s 4-seater plane! (Or as Guy would probably prefer I call it, the PA-28 Piper Arrow.)


Not that you need a reason to fly around in a private plane, but we had a specific goal for the day: get to Kansas City and see our brand-new nephew, Damien. He’s managed to pack a lot of life experience into his five days on earth and a lot of cuteness into his 7-pound frame.

We arrived in downtown KC at about noon and raced to his house to meet him and to see the rest of his family. Our nearly 2-year-old nephew Kendan was a pleasure as always, trying to con us into giving him candy from the pantry and telling us about the “bock-bock” (chicken) he was going to eat at lunch. He seems less interested at this point in his doppelganger Damien. (Doppelganger, of course, is German for “someone who moves into your house unexpectedly and starts wearing all your old clothes.”) But we are sure that as Damien gets bigger–and shows Kendan that he’ll be a good partner for golf in the front yard–that their friendship will grow.


As we flew home that night, the thought of two beautiful nephews in our minds and the whirring of a propeller in our ears, we felt very thankful to live in an era of air travel, good postnatal care and plentiful chicken fingers.

What Do You Call Yourselves? The Aristocrats.

Lord Grantham and his 1914 hoopty.

The Duke of Edinburgh. The Duchess of Cornwall. Count Chocula. How did they get their titles? That’s the subject of my latest fascination, peerage.

Peerage is the incredibly sexist, terribly outdated, woefully unfair, really cool system of aristocracy that passes down titles like “baron” and “earl” from generation to generation. I first got interested in peerage after getting obsessed with the show Downton Abbey. On Downton (set in 1910s England), the Earl of Grantham has no job other than to rock really great formalwear, act like a badass (but a benevolent badass) in front of his servants, and keep up his sprawling estate. As someone who aspires to have no job, peerage is right up my alley.

Here are some of the top things to know about peerage:

-In the UK (the only system of peerage I’m interested in), there are five main titles for lords and their wives. In descending order, they are: Duke/Duchess, Marquess/Marchioness, Earl/Countess, Viscount/Viscountess, Baron/Baroness. (On an interesting sidenote, viscount is pronounced “vy-count.” Also, historians speculate that England uses the title “Earl” instead of “Count” because the latter sounds too much like an obscenity. No joke.)

-Peers used to have all sorts of special privileges. If charged with a crime, they were judged by literally a “jury of their peers”—other dukes, earls and viscounts. Although they were also immune from actual arrest because they needed to be able to “advise the sovereign” at any time, as if the king cared what the 4th Earl of Shrewsbury thought about anything.

-Parliament killed all the fun with a bunch of new laws in the 60s and the House of Lords Act of 1999, which took away some Parliamentary seats from the heirs of aristocrats and gave the power back to “the people.” How dreadful.

-In modern day England, life as a peer is both a blessing and a curse—you get addressed by a really cool name but you also are often expected to keep up an elaborate palace that you’ve inherited. The current Earl and Countess who live in the castle where Downton Abbey is filmed sound like they’re really not that rich, yet they have a house that costs at least $200,000 a year to maintain.

So there you have it, lords and ladies—a quick overview of peerage. Now if you’ll excuse me, my butler needs to use the computer.

Why You Should Be Drinking Tequila

I love tequila. It is by far my drink of choice. But if you’re like most people, your reaction when someone mentions tequila is either a) “Oh, I’ll never have that again—too many bad nights in college” or b) “Isn’t that the song Pee-wee Herman danced to at that biker bar?” Well, yeah, and it was cool of that busboy to give Pee-wee his white platform shoes. But my goal is to convince you to give tequila another try.

Tequila has played a starring role in our relationship—it was to thank (or to blame) for the first time we kissed, it was the central ingredient of the “signature drink” at our wedding, and we probably set a record for tequila consumption on our honeymoon. Here are a few reasons why you should give tequila another chance:

1. You’ve probably never actually had tequila. “But Neil!” you exclaim dramatically. “I’ve had plenty of Jose Cuervo.” First, stop being so dramatic. Second, Cuervo is not really tequila. It has tequila-like ingredients, but it’s made the cheap way instead of the proper way. The shots of Skol you did at that frat party were bad too, but you wouldn’t take it out on Grey Goose, right? If you’re going to buy tequila, you need to buy a bottle that’s labeled “100% agave.” That means Cuervo, Sauza, Margaritaville and a bunch of others don’t make the cut.

2. Good tequila is not that expensive. Sure, Patron and some other brands cost $40-70, but you can get 100% agave tequila for less than $20. And with this built-in ratings system (it’s either 100% agave or it isn’t), you know you’re getting something that’s quality. There’s no rating like that for vodka or rum.

3. It has zero carbs. All spirits are zero carbs, but it’s a bonus that it’s not as heavy as drinking a bunch of beers.

4. It tastes like summer. Whiskey tastes like an old library. Vodka tastes like a Russian battleship. But the refreshing taste of tequila makes you think of Mexican beaches, pool parties, and palm trees.

The truth is, I can’t convince you to like the flavor of tequila through a wiseass blog post. You just have to try it for yourself. So next time you’re at the liquor store, put down the Mike’s Hard Lemonade and give brands like Espolon, Camarena, or El Jimador a try. Pour it in a glass with ice and squeeze lime juice over the top. Even if it doesn’t make you dance like Pee-wee Herman, it’ll still be a good time.

I Got Interested in Whaling So You Didn’t Have To

"Wait, this is a really bad idea, right?"

One of the things Caili first realized about me is that I get obsessed with certain topics really quickly. It might be called either “Neil’s latest fascination” or “Neil’s flavor of the week.” No matter what you call it, this is what happens: I get deeply interested in a random subject, learn everything there is to know about it…and promptly lose interest after about two weeks. I’ve covered a lot of ground with my fascinations over the last few years, from English Premier League soccer to obscure historical murders, from Lyndon Johnson (a complete maniac) to the 1910s (one of the most turbulent decades ever). But one of my favorite fascinations ever—one that holds a special place in my Wikipedia-addicted heart—is whales and whaling.

Like most of my momentary obsessions, my interest in whales started with a book: the fantastic In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick. (I cannot recommend this book enough. Buy it now.) Here are some things that are awesome about whales and whaling:

  • In the 1800s, whale oil (extracted from the whales’ brains) was so prized for its use in street lamps and as heating oil that sailors traveled from the East Coast of the U.S. to the middle of the Pacific Ocean to collect it. There was no Panama Canal so this involved sailing from Massachusetts out into the Atlantic and then around the bottom of South America, all in an old-timey sailing ship. This is absolutely insane to do.
  • To kill a whale, sailors got into glorified rowboats and paddled for miles, finally spotted a whale and then attempted to stab it in the head with a harpoon at point-blank range. This is even crazier than bullet #1 above, because it didn’t kill the whale but only pissed him off.
  • Whaling was so absurdly dangerous that at the industry’s peak, about 25% of the adult women in Nantucket were widows on account of their husbands getting eaten by whales like in Pinocchio. (Or maybe just drowning.)
  • Remember when you were in grade school and some kid made a joke about sperm whales? “Sperm, heh heh,” went the joke. Well, that was an accurate joke. They were named that because the oil in their heads looks like semen. Not kidding. They were also called “right whales,” because they were the right whale to kill if you wanted to earn a bunch of money. Sailors in those days were pretty literal.
  • Once they had a whale captured and exhausted enough to finish him off, sailors turned the deck of their ship into a full-blown butcher shop, hacking the whale up and getting just the parts they needed. Can you imagine how much blood there was? I bet you’re getting lightheaded just reading this.

Those are some of the best things I remember from my 2-week whaling obsession. Stay tuned for more of my momentary obsessions and let me know if you have a topic you think I’d enjoy—I’ll love it for a while and then discard it like a bunch of old whale blubber.

The Great Cheeseburger Cookoff

My palate has gotten a lot more diverse in the last few years. It might be part of the aging process, or it might’ve been that I met a girl who wouldn’t let me eat the same chicken breast (burnt to a crisp on the George Foreman grill) & egg noodles for dinner every night. But despite any advances I’ve made, I still have a soft spot for my original culinary love: the cheeseburger.

Last Sunday, we had our brother/brother-in-law Eric over for a burger cookoff–we each made up our own recipes and got to grilling. We were like three little Bobby Flays running around the kitchen, except without the Archie haircut and the condescending attitude. I invented a sandwich called The Snack Aisle Burger, Caili created The Monte Cristo Burger, and Eric conjured up a burger called Funky Boy.

I never met a carb I didn’t like–so here are two of my key ingredients, Fritos and Cheez-Its. I used crushed Cheez-Its as bread crumbs in my beef patty. The Fritos would later add some crunch when the burger was ready to be served; it was also a garnish when plated.

Here’s the Snack Aisle Burger before I fully mixed in the seasonings and Cheez-Its. I used hamburger seasoning, a dash of salt and pepper, and a little seasoned salt.

Eric shows off his burger patty with the edge perfectly coated in his secret blend of seasonings.

Caili’s Monte Cristo burger makes its debut. She used ground turkey and then added swiss cheese, sliced ham and raspberry preserves. Rather than frying her bun, she used sweet Hawaiian rolls and dusted them with powdered sugar.

Eric’s Funky Boy burger lived up to its name with a mushroom-infused sauce and a perfect coating of swiss cheese. But what really put it over the top was the cheese crisp he made with pecorino romano. I would eat this burger every week if I could.

My Snack Aisle Burger brought together three of the supermarket’s best carb snacks: pretzels (in the form of a pretzel bun), Cheez-It breadcrumbs, and Fritos on top. The flavor was exactly what you imagine. The best part was that you could definitely taste the Cheez-Its in the burger itself.

Full from too many burgers, Eric, Caili and I show off our creative names. Luckily our expanding waistlines are not visible.

To top things off, milkshake mixologist Caili blended up some Toasted Marshmallow Milkshakes. This may have been one of the top 10 things I’ve ever had in a glass.

So what did we learn?? Well first, stuffing your face is fun! (But as Ali G would say, “I already knew that, let me read some other things.”) The real lesson is that it’s hard to mess up a burger. So don’t hold back from creating a new burger recipe–if I can make something delicious out of Cheez-Its, I’m sure you can top it easily.

Notes on Recipes:

Snack Aisle Burger – Combine a half pound of ground chuck with salt, pepper, seasoned salt, hamburger seasoning and a handful of crushed Cheez-Its. Cook in a cast-iron skillet on medium/high heat (or grill it). Top with cheddar and add Fritos on top.

Monte Cristo Burger – Mix ground turkey with salt and pepper. Cook in a cast-iron skillet on medium/high heat (or grill it). Top with swiss cheese and raspberry preserves. Serve over a slice of ham on sweet Hawaiian rolls dusted with powdered sugar.

Toasted Marshmallow Milkshake (courtesy of the above-mentioned Bobby Flay)- Broil 8-10 large marshmallows on a baking sweet under golden brown. Turn marshmallows over and repeat. Remove marshmallows from oven and let them cool. In a blender, combine marshmallows with a 1/4 cup of milk and 11 ounces of vanilla ice cream. Garnish with more toasted marshmallows.

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Neil & Caili fight it out (through cooking)

One thing I love about us is that we try our best to turn mundane things into fun, memorable events. So it was fitting when one night last week, we turned dinnertime into a hardcore TOP CHEF BATTLE TO THE DEATH! Okay, so it wasn’t that intense. But we both of us picked a dish we’d never made before, then we judged it. (Since we’re usually silently judging each other anyway, this was a chance to put it on paper.) Caili decided to tackle an intricate soup & salad, while I picked a marinated steak with pineapple. What follows is an epic chef battle–caught on film!

The gloves are off (and so are the wedding rings) as I prepare my steak for marinating.

Caili whisked together a salad dressing from scratch. Ingredients included either lemon juice or Lemonheads–I can’t remember which.

Caili prepares the Asiago cheese for her soup and the green apple for her salad.

After being marinated in a chimichurri sauce, my steak & pineapple skewers are ready to hit the cast iron–with my secret ingredient (brown sugar) waiting anxiously in the background.

Caili’s dish hits the table: “Roasted Garlic & Tomato Soup served with a Lemon Salad with Apple Matchsticks and Avocado.” The soup was a bit overcooked, but the salad and dressing were masterfully done–you could taste at least 7-8 ingredients and none were too overpowering.

My “Sweet & Savory Beef Skewers with Pineapple” make their debut. The steak was done at a perfect medium but what put it over the top was the brown sugar I sprinkled onto it at the very end. I don’t think I’d ever NOT put brown sugar on steak now.

It was a hard fought battle, but when the results were in, my skewers edged out Caili’s soup & salad by a few points.

All in all, a fun event. So if you’re ever bored and you’re cooking anyway, turn it into a competition. You’ll get to eat two meals in one and maybe even feel superior to your spouse. It’s a win-win.

Notes on Recipes:

Neil based his dish on this Food Network/Giada de Laurentiis recipe, but increased the spice and garlic in the sauce.  You can also use any chimichurri sauce recipe in place of the “parsley sauce.”

Caili looks at so many recipes that she can’t remember where she got hers.