May 302014
Tilapia Tacos | Madison & Rayne

Tilapia Tacos to die for!

It’s no secret that great ingredients, an even better recipe, and the skills to take it all from farm to table factor into an amazing meal. Even more of a issue, for me, is finding time to gather ingredients and recipes to cook for just myself.

Though there have been improvements in serving sizes, most gourmet options are not made for individuals. It’s a small wonder I prefer to dine out or order in.

Happily, there’s a solution: ready-to-cook meals from Madison & Rayne.

Ingredients are laid out | Madison & Rayne

Ingredients laid out in advance.

The concept is simple. Log onto the site, choose the meals and the number of servings that are needed, and Madison & Rayne will deliver the ingredients and instructions to your doorstep.

Each recipe arrives with color coded with recipe cards. The ingredients are packed together and labeled with their step in the recipe. All that’s required is standard kitchen equipment, salt & pepper, and cooking oil. And, of course, a little skill.

Fortunately Madison & Rayne provides thorough instructions, tips for success, and if all else fails, a phone number to call during prime dinner prep hours if you really need help.

Cue Cards | Madison & Rayne

Step by step instructions for a fabulous meal.

Madison & Rayne isn’t the only ready-to-cook provider in Chicago. However, they do a few things to set their service apart.

Their recipe selection service is extremely flexible. Unlike some services, you can order a single serving of a dish, or opt to have a vegetarian version of the same meal. They also explicitly say what the substitution will be for vegetarian meals, which I really appreciate.

They separate selections into seasonal recipes, regular recipes, and a la carte options like salad, bread, or cookies. Allergy and dietary restrictions are managed through the check-out process.

They also set themselves apart by hand-delivering your recipe selections. Repeat customers are encourage to return the tote, containers, and gel packs. I can get behind any effort to reduce, reuse, and recycle!

Flatiron Steak | Madison & Rayne

Flatiron Steak with will-it-waffle pop-overs.

How did the recipes turn out?

Well, the one thing that Madison & Rayne didn’t make explicit on their site was the type of equipment each recipe would require. A part of each recipe required an oven, and sadly mine wasn’t working.

However, my waffle iron worked just fine.

I used my waffle iron to to make crispy tortilla chips and curious-looking pop-overs. Will it waffle? Oh yes, it will. I made other recipe modifications using the stove top, and everything came out delicious and reasonably presentable. I didn’t even need to call the number.

Everything tasted so good, especially the pork loin with mushroom spaetzle, and the flatiron steak with sprouts.

Pork Loin | Madison & Rayne

Fool-proof pork loin.

Even with my improvisations, each dinner really did take less than 30 minutes. I had tilapia tacos, the boyfriend had flatiron steak, and everyone was made happy with little extra fuss or unused ingredients wasting away in the refrigerator.

The meals averaged out to $15 per person, which is a little more than comparable services but much better and tastier than delivery.

If you’re ready to become a gourmet star in your own kitchen, why wait? Madison & Rayne is ready to help.

I was not financially compensated for this post. This service was provided to me as a member of the media. The opinions are completely my own, based on my experience.


May 282014

Parachute (3500 N Elston), the Korean-American restaurant by Beverly Kim and John Clark, recently opened along a lonely stretch of Elston. Like other neighborhood spots, the restaurant doesn’t take reservations, so my date and I went super early to get a prime seat.

The first question the hostess asked was if it was our first visit to the restaurant. Apparently in just a few short weeks, the spot already has repeat customers. Promising, right? I said we hadn’t been and asked to be seated near a window partially covered with drapes made from parachute material. My back was against a wall so I didn’t initially notice that it was covered with old woofer cabinets. I was more concerned with having a view of the open bar and dining room. This would become important later.

Bing Bread | Parachute

The Bing Bread was so addictive, we had to take an order home.

First Bites

The menu was a maze of unfamiliar and unusual ingredients, so we enlisted the help of our server in deciphering dishes and ordering the right amounts. For two people, she recommended a dish from each section of the menu (snacks, smalls, noodles and rice, large plates), and promised to rein us in if it was too much.

We started with a half-order of the Bing Bread — a sweet baked potato dough topped with bacon bits and scallions, and served with a mountain of sour cream butter on the side. After a couple of bites, I understood why Parachute had a following: they come back to get their fix of dough. It’s made fresh every day, and both waitresses confessed that they eat it for breakfast and dinner. It’s no mystery why. We placed a to-go order so we could have it for breakfast, too.

From the snack section, we ordered the crispy sesame leaves. The flash-fried leaves had a lovely translucent green color and were stiff enough to be dipped in soy sauce. They completely fell apart in the mouth, leaving a slightly salty sesame taste behind. I could gobble them up like potato chips all night, and would have but we had more food coming…

Sesame Leaves | Parachute

The Korean version of potato chips.

Bigger Bites

A pork belly and mung bean pancake was next. Beautifully covered with kimchi, pineapple, greens and a little egg in the center, it was both lovely to behold and vexing to approach. There’s some part of me that hates to break apart a pretty dish. Fortunately, the enticing aroma helped me grab the knife and dig in. So good! The saltiness of the pancake was balanced by a zing of kimchi and sweetness of the pineapple. It was a little tricky to build a “perfect bite” but worth the effort and mess to get all the flavors together at once.

The next dish was easier to eat and just as tasty. Thick noodles were the backdrop for a ragout of lamb crumbled with sichuan peppercorn and cumin. The addition of cilantro sprigs gave the dish a freshness and texture. As it turned out, all the larger dishes we tried had fresh greens generously heaped on top. I don’t know if this is a hallmark of Korean food or the chefs, but I personally loved it.

Pancake | Parachute

A pancake made for two.

Biggest Bites

Instead of ordering a large plate, we opted for the hot pot. It has its own section on the menu for a reason. The pot took up half our table and was filled to the brim with prawns and clams in a spicy broth made with blue crabs. The adventure was in the additional layers both above and below the broth. From the zingy crown daisy greens on top, crispy black radish circles in the middle, and sticky rice cake on bottom, each spoonful was a treat of flavors and texture.

Note to self: on date night, don’t wear a cute silk top and try to dismember prawns. Nothing good will come of it. The alert staff was quick to send over soda water to help me out — much appreciated!

The drinks at Parachute are worth noting, too. They only had Rosa Hibiscus ale from Revolution Brewing on tap, which was our choice for the evening, but also had a brief, but nicely curated selection of ales and Belgium beers in the bottle. Three house cocktails are available, including a wonderful looking pisco sour we saw delivered to our neighboring table, and a fairly priced wine selection. A carbonated rice wine called Makgeolli, locally made in by Baesangmyun Brewery, was recommended with the hot pot. It would have won but we were enjoying our Rosa too much.

Hot Pot | Parachute

Layers of flavor await in a hot pot.


There was no dessert. Why? It was brutally loud. They completely ruined any desire I may have had to spend a single a moment longer. When we sat at our table, the volume was reasonable. Unnoticeable even. However, after our first dish arrived and the tracks crept up to shouting range, we asked our waitress for help.

She went back and forth all night between guests (not just our table) and the “DJ” working at the bar who had no idea how loud the speakers were in the front of the house. If your stereo system needs fixing, fix it. If I have to resort to texting in order to have a conversation with the person across the table, then there is a problem.

It was an amazing meal and I want to try more of the menu. However, unless they get the volume right, I’d rather eat at the White Castle up the street.

Have you been to Parachute? Were you blown away or blown out? Let me know!

Interior | Parachute

An entertaining view. Of the speaker controls.


May 232014

There’s no shortage of great food in Chicago. However, I’m happy to add to the list of dining decisions to make for your Memorial Day weekend. If you need a spot to meet-up with friends, a new brew to try, or a better bite, I’ve got you covered:

Da Lobster 1) Da Lobsta

Da Lobsta, located in the Gold Coast and in the Chicago French Market, offers diners different versions of New England lobster rolls, salads, and seafood-filled soups.

Go for the straight-up traditional roll with mayo and garlic butter, and if you need variety, spring for the Mexican with salsa and avocado. However, I think the Lobsta Poutine is going to be a hit — especially when festival season gets into full swing and Da Lobsta serves this from their food truck. What is it? A bag of crunchy chips split open and topped with hunks of lobster. I can’t think of an easier, grab-and-go seafood fix for the summer.

The Dec 2) The Dec

The Dec, the outdoor bar/patio area of Deca in the Ritz Carlton, opened for its second season. Now that the weather has caught up with the times, put this spot on the calendar.

Not only does The Dec have a sweet view of the Hancock Building (and the tourists tilting out of it), it’s also a convivial space to hang with friends — especially if you’re sprawled near the mirrored fire pit. If you’re in a more solitary mood, try the open-air bar with taps pointing skyward toward the Hancock.

Nibbles are in order and you can’t go wrong with jars of smoked, spicy nuts or plates of ahi tuna. Or, opt for a bucket of ice cream bonbons served smoking atop dried ice for a sweet treat.

The drink menu is pretty stellar, too. The Dec had a custom brew made for them by Ale Syndicate called “Tailor Fitted” This brew falls somewhere between a hoppy pale ale and a wheat beer, with especially pronounced pilsner malts. It’s worth the trip to try it. If you prefer cocktails, grab a Ritz Spritz made with Stiegl Radler and sparkling wine — I loved the punch of orange and grapefruit without any cloying sweetness.

Goddess & Grocer 3) Goddess & Grocer

The Goddess & Grocer held a reception this week to celebrate their move to 1649 North Damen (read more about the new space here). Owner Debbie Sharpe was on hand to greet guest and show them around the new space. However, I didn’t need the help to find my new, favorite Bucktown hang-out spot: the veranda overlooking Damen. With a sandwich in one hand, and a brew in the other, I’m in danger of moving in.

As I said before, if you need to look like a chef at your backyard party, pick up sandwiches, cheeses, and chocolates from the gourmet producers featured in the downstairs deli. Go the extra mile and pick up a local brew, like Revolution’s Rosa Hibiscus Ale. It’s a delicious new beer that will change your spring into summer almost instantly.

Craft Beer Cruise 4) Craft Beer Cruise

Everyone knows that beer tastes better when you’re on a boat, so I took the opportunity to sail on into Chicago Craft Beer Week with a Craft Beer Cruise sponsored by The Mystic Blue and Lakeshore Beverage.

The cruise featured 21 different breweries, including my favs, Ale Syndicate and 3 Sheeps. I was especially jazzed to try Nimble Lips Noble Tongue by 3 Sheeps, an oaked IPA with an exceptionally creamy mouth feel that didn’t surrender to the sandpaper effect of hops. As an added bonus, I was able to speak to brewmaster Grant Pauly about his creation and plans for more limited edition beers in the future.

Speaking to the brewers and distributors was almost as much fun as discovering new breweries and trying the beers. Almost. If you haven’t yet, add Sea Legs Baltic Porter, a surprisingly light-bodied beer with hints of chocolate and bitterness, from Unita, and Citra Ass Down, a hopped-up IPA with lots of pine and grapefruit, from Against the Grain to your must-drink list. While I tried, and did not like, Not Your Father’s Root Beer from Small Town, the BF declared it an excellent marriage of root beer, hops, and dessert.

If possible, I’ll do more of my future beer shopping on a boat.

First Slice 5) First Slice

There are more famed pie shops in Chicago. However, First Slice not only has great pie, they support families in need of a good meal. If that doesn’t make you feel a little less guilty about the extra calories, I don’t know what will.

Since the “guilt” is taken care of, indulge in a slice of Michigan Sour Cherry or their incredibly smooth French Silk. If you’re feeling extra generous, buy a whole pie.

The flavors rotate daily. The delicious is forever.

Enjoy the holiday weekend!

I was not financially compensated for this post. Access to some events was provided to me as a member of the media. The opinions are completely my own, based on my experience.