party in your mouth

What was your all-time favorite snack when you were a kid? Did you eat a ton of Chips Ahoy cookies? Oreos? (and let me clarify – it’s totally a-ok to still consider these your favorites.) Twizzlers? How about some Combos? Oh, those were the days – I chose the ones in the green bordered bag. And man, I used to swoon over Bugles, so much so that I ate AN ENTIRE BOX of them in one sitting, which subsequently led to hours of stomach pain. Haven’t really dug them since…

After the Bugles craze, I moved on to Chex Mix. I could have probably eaten the entire blue and white bag of crunchiness all at once, too, but I learned from my mistakes. I just ate most of it. The little bagel chips were my favorite. And don’t tell anyone, but I always left the rye chips in the bag…so if you were always wondering why your Chex Mix had an obscene amount of rye chips, well, now you know.

That said, I have never actually made Chex Mix, unless you count Puppy Chow as a version of it, but I’m guessing that’s a no. I’ve had a box each of rice and corn chex in my pantry since Thanksgiving (unopened, duh.) and never really felt the need to do anything with them but let them take up space. And then, the date of our Paso Robles road trip with Liz & Kevin approached. As if it was meant to be, I came across a recipe for an ultra-spicy version of chex mix on Pinterest. Ah, Pinterest.

I’m not going to beat around the bush on this one – these mo-fos are SPICY! And this comes from someone who orders their curry dishes “Thai hot” and is rarely satisfied with that. Think about the spiciness of these as being up there with the “fire” or “atomic” versions of wing sauce. Or close, at least – I’d probably add a little more Sriracha next time around… but that’s just me. I like to live on the edge.

I like the idea of a party in my mouth. And I don’t mean that to be taken the wrong way, so stop the nonsense.

Sriracha Chex Mix
adapted, barely, from Taste for Adventure via Pinterest; makes 10 cups

time commitment: 1 hour and 10 minutes (most inactive)

printable version

ingredients
3 c Corn Chex
3 c Rice Chex
1 1/2 c pretzels
1 1/2 c wasabi peas
1 c peanuts
1/4 c butter
1/4 c Sriracha
2 T soy sauce
1 t ginger, grated
1 t garlic, minced

instructions
Preheat oven to 250 F. Mix all the solid ingredients together.
Mix all the liquid ingredients together. Add ginger and garlic. Microwave to melt butter and warm the mixture. Pour the sauce over the cereal mixture and toss to evenly coat.
Bake at 250 for an hour, stirring every 15 minutes or so until crunchy and flavorful.
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Twisted Sister

When you grow up in the South, you get accustomed to hot weather. Extreme humidity, clothes sticking to you from the moment you wake up until the sun sinks underneath the horizon, you look forward to October. Heck, you look forward to January, which is probably hard for those of you from the Midwest or the New England area to imagine.

Prior to moving here, I thought the Midwest was the land of moderate summers. Aside from one or two lackluster ones, I was sorely mistaken. You see, while the humidity may not be anywhere near the stifling heat of the South, it is still nice and toasty here in the Windy City. The difference, is that here in the Midwest, we have Fall.

And whoa Nelly, I do love me some Fall, but I’m not quite ready for it. I’m not ready to wear a jacket, to put away my sandals, and to stop enjoying the city I’ve lived in for 6 years. And after that, I most certainly am not ready to wear snow boots and curse the city for operating ‘normally’ in feet of snow, and I am not in any way, shape, or form looking forward to windburn from the lake on my way to work. If you can’t tell, I am milking Summer for all it’s worth. Sadly, that poor cow is dry as a bone…

It was different a couple of weeks ago, when my sista and niece came to visit (my niece’s first flight!). Fearing a swift end to the blue skies and jacketless walks, we took full advantage of the 70-80 degree weather and trampled through the city with the rest of the tourists. And even though I live here in this wonderful place, I know many of you do not, so I thought I’d post some pics of our wanderings. Who knows, you may find yourself visiting these parts one day, and we’d be happy to have ya. Here goes.

While most tourists walk through the city, or ride those unsightly Double Decker buses, I prefer to view the city by river. Above is a view from a Chicago ‘water taxi’, which costs a whopping $2 for a one-way trip. Pay a little more and you circle all the way around through Chinatown. Any Wilco fans among you? Notice the ‘corncob’ building on the left side, seen on the cover of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. They are from here, you know…. and if you don’t, now you do ;).

Yes, friends, this is a life-sized ginormous bean. It’s the centerpiece of one of Chicago’s newest sights, Millenium Park, which opened the year we moved here (2004). Designed by artist Anish Kapoor, the real name of this monstrosity is ‘Cloud Gate’, and it’s made entirely of stainless steel that’s polished so well you see not a seam, but lots of wicked reflections. It is gorgeous at night.

I think this might have been my sista’s favorite: the library. And no, it’s not because she’s a bookworm. Truth be told, she’s more of a movie buff, anyway. This is the main library in Chicago, the Harold Washington, and it is 10 stories large. The outside’s primarily red brick and early in the 90’s they put those green sculptures on top. I refer to them as gargoyles, but apparently they are call ‘acroteria’. Details, details.

Another new addition, the Eye sculpture, made of fiberglass and housed in the Loop (near the library). This one’s outta here later this year, though. If you look closely, you can see that the homeless folk like it here, as do the pigeons.

Please tell me you remember the show, ‘Married, with Children’?! My sista didn’t, and that made me a little sad. She made up for it by making zillions of movie quotes though, which is something I’ve never been good at, but that might be because I’m sleeping halfway through most movies… Anywho, the fountain at left is Buckingham Fountain, which is housed in Grant Park. Not only was it filmed in the opening of MwC, but it is also the hub of Lollapalooza, the weekend concert festival that’s here every summer. The right is an area of painted tree trunks, which is pretty genius if you ask me. Genius and pretty.

Just like any city worth visiting, Chicago has a shit-ton of museums that’ll each cost around 20 buckaroos to get into. Some boast free admission on certain weekdays, and some claim to be free but suggest donations. Anyways, while we didn’t venture into any of them during this touring venture, this is one of the gardens outside of the Art Institute. If art is your thing though, definitely check this place out on the inside. There other ‘main’ museums are the Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium, and the Field Museum (all downtown; I still haven’t been to the Planetarium or Field Museum) as well as the Museum of Science and Industry, which is further south.

Outdoor sculptures, anyone? I much prefer this sorta art to the indoor paintings and displays. These are both in Grant Park and are a couple of my faves. I also like the cast iron legs, but we didn’t get to those this time around.

Another view from the water, but this time it’s Lake Michigan. The following day was a bit cloudy (that’s obvious, right?!), but this is the day we wandered over to Navy Pier. Aside from tons of tourist traps including a ferris wheel and Bubba Gump, the views are pretty great, and the boat tours are again, some of the greatest ways to see the city.

If you don’t go anywhere else, go to the Hancock Tower. It’s not as tall as the Sears (now supposedly call the Willis) Tower, but get this: there’s a “free” observatory on the 96th floor with 360-degree views. All ya have to buy is a drink, which while steep, is far less than the price at the actual observatory. Sears Tower has a new observatory with a glass bottom, which isn’t half bad though, if you’re into that sorta thing. This view is from the Hancock looking south, with the Trump tower, the newest skyline addition, over to the right.

And with that, the tour’s over! This is certainly only a snippit of Chicago; the best part of being here is seeing all of the neighborhoods and cultures, and there’s tours for that too, if you want. Even in 6 years of living here, there are still plenty of things we’ve yet to do; living here gives one the illusion that you can put touristy stuff off, but some of it really is fun, even to the residents. Either way, I hope you enjoyed the tour, and if you didn’t, no worries – there’s a reward at the end for all of your hard work.

A reward meaning, pretzels, which I hinted at up top. I made these prior to my sis and niece getting here in case we ever found ourselves in need of a snack while lounging around the house. I don’t think we were ever really hungry enough to snack on them, what with the deep dish pizza, sushi, and ice cream, but that’s generally not a problem with Hubs around, because they certainly got eaten eventually (most of them, at least). These are the result of another recipe from Kim Boyce’s book featuring rye flour, which adds a nutty character, and a little sour note as well. Perfect in pretzel form, I promise.

Oh, and were you wondering about the food in Chicago? Yeah, I’ve got that covered too. Click here for a Chicago Food page; I try my best to update it with the places we’ve been to and recommend, starting with 2010.

Soft Rye Pretzels
Adapted from Good to the Grain, makes 12

i tend to agree with Kim Boyce on this one – these twists are best right outta the oven. though I didn’t try it, I’d be willing to bet that you could probably freeze them right after the poaching part (before butter and salt), and then bake them straight from the freezer (after buttering and salting). if you try it, let us know how it works! In our house, one Wetzel had his pretzel with grainy mustard, while the other had hers just plain.

printable version

ingredients
cooking spray
1 package active dry yeast
1 T honey
1 c rye flour
2 1/2 c all purpose flour
1 T kosher salt
1/2 c baking soda
2 T butter, melted
coarse sea salt, preferably Maldon

instructions
measure yeast into large bowl. heat 1.5 c water (warm, not hot) and pour over the yeast. add honey and stir, add flours and salt and stir again.

pour dough over floured surface and knead. add up to 1/2 c flour if needed, until dough is “tacky” but not “sticky” (it won’t be smooth, but won’t stick to your hands constantly). knead for about 12 minutes, or until dough is smooth and soft. spray bowl and put dough into bowl. cover with plastic wrap and let rise for about 1.5 hours, until doubled in size.

once the dough has doubled, pour it onto floured surface and cut into 12 equal pieces. take each piece and roll out into a snake, about 17 inches long with thinly tapered ends. try to keep minimal flour down as your roll so the dough will roll out easier. form each snake into a pretzel shape by folding one third of the left side over the center and then one third of the right side over the left. place onto sprayed baking sheets and let pretzels rise for 15-20 minutes.

while pretzels are rising, place two racks at top and bottom thirds of the oven and preheat to 450 F. fill a large pot with 10 cups of water and bring to boil. once pretzels have risen and the water is boiling, add the baking soda to the water. to poach pretzels, lift pretzel and place in hot bath; let each side boil for 30 seconds, removing from water bath with a strainer. pat excess water with a towel and transfer back to baking sheet. finish boiling pretzels, brush with butter, and sprinkle liberally with salt.

bake for 15-18 minutes rotating sheets halfway through. pretzels will be dark in color. transfer to rack to cool.

Wetzel’s Pretzels

stuffed pretzels

Stop drooling. Well, stop just long enough to read, print the recipe, and drool over your own. I’ve been wanting to make pretzels for a while now and all I needed was a teensy weensy shove – or maybe just a little nudge would have done. Either way, here we are.

Maybe you’ve never really thought about this before, but ‘pretzel’ is really the only word I can think of that rhymes with ‘Wetzel’ (my last name…thanks to hubby – my old one was much easier to spell and rhymed with things like ‘fall’, ‘mall’, ‘ball’, and so on). The sad fact of the matter is that I actually have to say something along those lines often when spelling my last name for some idiot on the phone. “Wetzel – like pretzel”. Good times.

And sadly enough, we aren’t related to the lucky owners of the real deal Wetzel’s Pretzels. It’d be so cool if we were though.

risen dough


Although Auntie Anne’s is much better, if you ask me. I do fancy a greasy, jalapeno-studded pretzel every now and then, particularly when shopping at the Woodfield Shopping Center, which I don’t do often. Chris, on the other hand tends to grab a pretzel anytime he sees anything resembling a pretzel vendor – Auntie Anne’s or not. And yes, he prefers those over Wetzel’s too, if you can believe it. He really wants to like theirs better, but it’s utterly impossible.


He even gets the pretzels at the Cubs games or at concerts – the nasty, über salty, room temperature (although generally downright cold) blobs of dough that in my opinion can barely be eaten even when doused in hot melted nacho cheese. I’d honestly rather eat the nacho cheese with my fingers rather than dip those chewy nubbins of briny stiff dough into otherwise perfectly good over-processed cheese.


filled with cheese and ham


That being said, I knew he’d practically swoon over homemade pretzels. And although I’ve meant to find a good recipe for them, I was relieved of that duty when Gourmet magazine’s penultimate edition (sniff, sniff) graciously provided me with a recipe for ‘mini pretzels’. I don’t know about you, but in my mind the only thing better than regular-sized pretzels is lots of mini-pretzels – especially if they’re stuffed with ham & cheese! Don’t they look strangely familiar?


cut into little bites


The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. In Chris’ quest to knock out another graduate degree with about ten “sub-degrees”, he can sometimes have a rough week or two, and these last couple really had him in a tizzy. And when he’s in a tizzy, I get to cook. I figured I’d really do it up and make an appetizer, which I only do when we have company. Well, sometimes I’ll make things that can be either appetizers or dinner, and sometimes I’ll make salads, if that counts. But in general, I don’t make dishes specifically meant to be an appetizer.


pretzels - fresh outta the oven


 After scarfing down a handful of these here pretzel bites, I’m beginning to think I might be missing out. Good thing I tucked a few of them into the freezer for safekeeping.


But you – you gotta make your own. You know you wanna.


pretzel bites with mustard sauce


 

Ham & Cheddar Pretzel Bites w/ Jalapeno Mustard
Adapted from Gourmet, October 2009; makes 4 dozen bites

while these are fine as-is, do not hesitate to use other ‘mix-ins’. bacon would work well as a ham substitute, and there are a list of cheeses to try. i took the liberty of adding more cheese and ham below as i had to chop more halfway through filling :). like jalapenos? these would be great with a little diced jalapeno inside. i bet they’d even be good with a little nutella or chocolate if you’re wanting something more along the lines of dessert.

printable recipe

ingredients
1.5 t active dry yeast
2 T plus 1 t light brown sugar, divided
1/4 c warm water
1 c warm milk
2 1/2 – 3 c ap flour
1/2 – 1 c country ham
1/2 – 2/3 c sharp cheddar cheese
4 t baking soda
1/2 c Dijon mustard
2 T finely chopped jalapeno (~1 average-size)
1 T honey
1/2 stick melted, unsalted butter (for brushing)
1-2 T coarse salt or pretzel salt

instructions

  1. stir together yeast, 1 t brown sugar, and warm water in a large bowl and let stand until foamy (8 minutes or so; no foam = bad yeast).
  2. in a separate bowl, stir remaining brown sugar and warm milk until sugar is dissolved
  3. add 2 1/2 c flour and milk mixture to yeast mixture and stir until a soft dough forms, adding up to 1/2 c more flour if necessary. turn onto lightly floured surface and gently knead a few times to form a smooth ball. transfer to clean bowl and cover with plastic wrap. let rise in draft-free place, room temp, for about 2 hours
  4. turn dough out onto lightly floured surface and cut into 4 equal portions. lightly dust your hands with flour and gently roll and stretch 1 piece into a 12-inch long rope. flatten and roll (with floured pin) into an approximately 12×4 inch rectangle. press 1/4 of cheese and ham into lower third of rectangle, leaving a 1/2 inch border at bottom. stretch bottom up and over filling and roll tightly. cut into 12 1-inch pieces and transfer to sheet pan. repeat 3 more times. let rest at room temp for 30 minutes
  5. preheat oven to 400 F. line two sheet pans with parchment paper or silpat and bring a large pot of water to boil
  6. once water is boiling, reduce heat and add baking soda, stirring to dissolve. cook pretzel bites in batches in gently simmering water, turning over once, about 20 seconds. bites will slightly puff up. transfer with slotted spoon to baking sheets
  7. bake until puffed and golden, about 15 minutes. that cheese will be oozing and looking yummy
  8. meanwhile, stir together mustard, honey, and jalapeno
  9. brush just-baked bites with melted butter and sprinkle with salt



*if desired, you can freeze these little suckers, once cooled. thaw them for ~30 minutes and bake for about 10 to reheat