I adore exploring the diverse and booming restaurant scene in Chicago. There’s nothing quite like that moment when you realize you’ve found something special. It can arrive in a variety of ways, from the bustling atmosphere, a servers warm smile and accommodating nature, the first sip of a craft cocktail or even a pleasant surprise when the bill arrives. We all know that moment, it’s the moment when you remind yourself mentally (or via the notepad app in your iPhone) that you must return for a second time.
When I think back on past Valentines Day, I’m reminded of some hazy memories that involve myself, my couch, a box of chocolates and a big, fat bottle of red wine.
While things have been slightly different this past year, I wanted to share a recipe that involves at least one V-day favorite: red wine. However, instead of drinking your wine tomorrow, why not cook with it? Red Wine Spaghetti, also called Drunken Spaghetti, is ridiculously easy to make and evokes a sense of sophistication and total sexiness. That’s right. I said it. This pasta is incredibly sexy! And if there’s ever an appropriate time to call food sexy, I’m pretty sure that’s Valentines Day.
I’ve seen some recipes where you boil the spaghetti in red wine, but for this, I simply boiled the pasta in plain, salted water but took it out after 4 minutes before transferring it to a red-wine filled pan, where the pasta finishes cooking. I kid you not – this is a short ingredient list where one of the ingredients is a bottle of wine. Might I suggest doubling that so you can have your wine and cook with it too?
One of my favorite reasonable red wines to drink & cook with is Apothic Red. You can find it in most grocery stores for under $10 and I’ve gotta say, it’s insanely tasty for that price tag. It’s rich enough to provide a dark, deep color to the pasta but also full-bodied enough to drink on its own. Win-win!
Red Wine Spaghetti – serves 4, slightly adapted from Giada De Laurentiis
- 1 lb spaghetti
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 1/8 tsp crushed red pepper flakes (could add more for stronger heat)
- 3 large garlic cloves, crushed and chopped
- 1 small shallot, chopped
- One 750ml bottle of red wine
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- Chopped rosemary to garnish
- Parmesan or goat cheese to garnish
- Salt, pepper to taste
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Add the pasta and cook for 4-5 minutes, stirring pasta occasionally, until par-cooked. Drain and reserve the pasta water.
In a nonstick skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the, crushed red pepper flakes, garlic, shallots and 1 teaspoon salt. Cook until the garlic becomes fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes.
Add the wine and tomato paste. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer gently for 3 minutes.
Add the pasta to the skillet. Cook, stirring frequently, until almost all of the wine is absorbed and the pasta is tender but still firm to the bite, about 5 minutes (if the pasta mixture is too dry, add pasta cooking water 1/4 cup at a time).
Stir in the butter and 1 teaspoon salt. Increase the heat, and toss until the wine sauce thickens enough to coat the pasta, about 1 minute. Toss to blend. Add chopped herbs / cheese to your liking.
I can’t say no to Italian food. Dipping warm bread in oil. The al-dente handmade noodles. Luscious red wine. The scent of sauteed garlic with onions. Anything with balsamic vinegar. I’m a sucker for all of it and completely embrace my Itali-obsession.
So, you probably can understand my excitement when I was invited to try a local family-owned restaurant in the Lincolnwood neighborhood of Chicago (not too far from where I went to high school) called Via Veneto. Chef Tony Barbanente has been cooking at this restaurant for 20 (!!!) years, a fact I couldn’t get off my mind throughout our whole meal. From each dish that appeared at our table it was evident Chef Tony not only is passionate and loving with his cooking, but he’s extremely proud of each individual plate he sends out.
G and I took up shop in the coziest of booths with a full, expanded view of the dining room. We toasted our glasses of a bottle of Barbara d’Alba, one of my absolute favorite red wines and dipped warm, homemade bread in olive oil, vinegar, black pepper & parmesan. Big props to our waiter who left the parmesan on the table – he must have subconsciously known I’d be using it for later. But seriously – waiters – don’t sprinkle parmesan on a guest’s plate & then take it back. If we asked for it, we want it. All of it. All of the cheese!
Via Veneto is known for their fresh seafood, so we were treated to a speciality appetizer plate filled with four popular items: oysters baked in pesto, garlic and breadcrumb’d sea scallops, lemony calamari and the best tasty fried eggplant with mozzarella & roasted peppers. To say it was a tasty little start would be an understatement.
Next up was the pasta. Now, please don’t curse me, but I didn’t snap a photo of this dish, so you’ll have to let my explanation do the talking. When I spotted the giant bowl full of spaghetti topped with shrimp across the dining room, I knew exactly dish was headed our way. I had browsed the menu beforehand and these particular flavors caught my eye: lemon spaghetti, artichokes, shrimp, fresh tomatoes, garlic & oil puree. Let’s just say, we cleared our plate in minutes. The pasta was perfectly al-dente and handmade. The shrimp was spiced and generously coated in the garlicky puree. Artichokes were tender and flavorful and the tomatoes were bursting with their juices. I happily slurped up every last bite, nodding in contentment with G – this dish really was fantastic.
Plates cleared – we were definitely getting full. But, as any good Italian knows, the pasta is just a precursor to the main dish. A palate cleanser. A light appetizer. The calm before the (steak) storm.
Yep. This happened. A perfectly medium-rare, juicy hunk of meat served with roasted brussels, roasted potatoes and the most buttery, tender, heaven-sent mushrooms I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. When it comes to steak, there shouldn’t be any bells & whistles. Let the flavors shine, with plenty of seasonings. Chef Tony, you nailed it. I’m still thinking about those mushrooms and I don’t really like mushrooms to begin with.
As my Itali-obsessed self, I beamed when Chef made his way over to the table and we were able to chat for a few minutes. We talked about his family and where they’re from in Italy – the Mola di Bari region on the S.E. coast and my family, from both Calabria in S. Italy and Rome. We discussed the history of the restaurant, the techniques of the dishes and of course, the ‘shrooms. As they’re only available in-season, it was a real treat to experience such a wonderful delicacy.
While browsing the dessert menu, we promised ourselves no sweets. We were simply too full.But of course, I convinced G to end with the tiramisu. “It’s light…you’ll like it,” I promised him. Fluffy, chocolatey and *exceptionally* light, Chef Tony’s handmade tiramisu was a wonderful ending to a special meal.
Thank you so much to the gracious team at Via Veneto & Chef Tony for treating us to such a great evening. I can’t wait to come back!
Via Veneto: 6340 N. Lincoln, 773.267.0888.
My cravings for comfort food always seem to hit the hardest during the months of early November to late February. I tend to attribute it to the weather and my desire to stay inside, cozy up with blankets, a glass (or two) of red wine and usually, a big bowl of risotto. Growing up in an Italian household, risotto was a specialty in our kitchen. What began as plain ol’ rice would eventually turn into luscious, hearty, al-dente pieces of deliciousness tossed with butter, herbs, tomatoes and parmesan. Then, all the leftovers would be covered in breadcrumbs and deep fried to make Arancini, traditional Sicilian rice balls. Totally #normal.
Recently, when I told my roommates I wanted to make risotto, they both seemed eager to try my take on what one called, “fancy rice.” As we stood stirring the rice with a glass of wine in one hand and a wooden spoon in the other, my friend confessed, “I’m so confused. What exactly is risotto? How do you make it a meal?” I giggled and pointed to the sweet potatoes roasting in the oven, the smell of crispy and spiced starch filling our apartment “That’s what makes it a meal,” I replied.
Since sweet potatoes are currently in-season, I figured they’d roast up perfectly for a bowl of risotto. I added in a few handfuls of leafy spinach (get your greens!!), plenty of rosemary and lots of freshly grated parmesan cheese. To my roomate’s surprise, the finished product was so much more than just “fancy rice”. What appeared before everyone was a bowl full of rich and buttery (thank you, brown butter) comfort food. It was slightly spiced from the nutmeg and paprika with a hint of woodsy flavor from all the chopped rosemary. The parmesan added a sharp bite and the sweet potatoes were hearty enough to take this dinner from plain ol’ rice to spectacular-can’t-get-enough-of-this-Wednesday-night-dinner. Let’s just say, I served myself one plate for dinner, another for lunch the next day and another for lunch the following day. It was simply that good.
Roasted Sweet Potato Risotto: Recipe slightly adapted from How Sweet It Is (Serves 4-5)
- 2 medium sweet potatoes, chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 3 shallots, diced
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 cups Arborio rice (original recipe calls for 1 1/3 cup, I made it 2 so we’d have plenty of leftovers)
- 1 1/3 cups dry white wine
- 1 container (around 6 cups) vegetable stock
- 1/3 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
- 2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, chopped
- 1 bag spinach
- 2 tablespoons brown butter (see note below)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. In a small bowl, combine the chopped sweet potatoes with 2 tablespoons olive oil, salt, pepper, nutmeg and smoked paprika, tossing well to coat. Spread on a baking sheet and roast for 35-40 minutes, until edges begin to brown and the potatoes are nice and crispy. Remove and mash – using either a blender, food processor, potato masher or spoon. For this recipe, I used two wooden spoons. Set aside.
Heat a small saucepan over medium-low heat and add the vegetable stock. Heat until hot. If it begins to boil, turn it down so it’s no longer boiling.
Next, heat a larger saucepan over medium heat. Add in the remaining olive oil and butter, then add the shallots with a pinch of salt. Stir to coat and cook for 2-3 minutes until soft, then add in the garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Increase heat slightly and add rice, stirring to coat. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring 2-3 times until the rice is translucent and begins to toast. Reduce the heat to medium-low and add in the wine. Continue to stir as the rice absorbs the wine. When most of the wine is absorbed, add in about 1/3 of the warm stock. Repeat the process (add stock, let rice absorb stock, add more stock, etc) stirring until the stock is all absorbed, then add another 1/3 cup. Repeat until all the stock is used and the rice is cooked to your liking. This process can take anywhere from 25 – 35 minutes, depending on how al-dente you prefer your rice.
Then, reduce the heat to low and stir in the mashed sweet potato puree until fully absorbed. Stir in the parmesan cheese, brown butter, spinach and rosemary, mixing to combine.
Serve immediately – garnish with more parmesan and herbs if desired.
If you’ve never made brown butter before, here’s a step-by-step guide. Hint: it’s easier and more delicious than it sounds.
I remember the first whoopie pie I ever made. After reading up on what exactly a whoopie pie consists of (it’s the best kind of cross between a slice of cake in cookie form), I knew I wanted to try combining two of my favorite flavors: chocolate and mint. I followed a by-the-book recipe from Bon Appetit (they featured my photo as well) and was pleasantly surprised at what I had created. Tasted like a rich thin mint and looked like a giant cake cookie. They were gone in minutes.
This time, right as the leaves began to change and I had my first glass of scrumptious apple cider, I knew I wanted to recreate a whoopie pie, this time with a seasonal twist. A little over a month ago I was fortunate enough to try a new line of products from Gourmet Garden, the lightly dried herbs. I adore the squeeze bottle herbs and thought those were fun and easy to cook with – turns out, the lightly dried are even easier. They add a slightly punchier herb flavor to your dish, as most dry herbs do, but since they’re only lightly dried, they add a much appreciated texture, crunch and bite that dry herbs can’t provide.
For this recipe, I wanted to add Gourmet Garden Lightly Dried Ginger to the frosting – something I’ve never tried before. I like ginger as much as the next person but never really experimented with it in my baking. Again, bad mistake on my part because the specks of ginger were harmonious with the maple frosting. I could eat that frosting all day long. Well, I pretty much did eat that frosting all day long. Tip? Don’t make step 2 of a dessert while you’ve got step 1 in the oven. Why? Because you’ll eat a lot of step 2 and then be left with a very empty step 1 sitting on a baking sheet in your kitchen. Just speaking from experience.
I stuck to a traditional whoopie pie recipe, with the addition of canned pumpkin. You may have heard this before, but if you’re baking with pumpkin, make sure to read those labels. You want plain ol’ canned pumpkin or pumpkin puree NOT pumpkin pie spice or pumpkin pie filling. If you pick the latter, you will have a very different whoopie pie on your hands and who wants that?! Also, I’m the first to admit – this batch of whoopie pies wasn’t my smallest. I (yes, purposefully) made giant whoopie pies. Think of them as giant, sharable, spiced desserts.
When my first gigantic pie was being devoured by a friend at my kitchen counter, she looked up at me in between bites and said, “You have to help me eat this. I can’t finish it on my own!” Ten minutes later, she put her fork down on an empty plate sprinkled with crumbs.
Moral of the story? Share them. Or don’t share them. Just please, make them before it’s suddenly time to start baking with peppermint.
Pumpkin Whoopie Pie – recipe from Brown Eyed Baker
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 cup dark brown sugar
- 1 cup canola (or vegetable) oil
- 3 cups chilled pumpkin puree / canned pumpkin
- 2 eggs
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda, salt, ginger and nutmeg. Set aside.
In a separate bowl, whisk the granulated sugar, the dark brown sugar and the oil together. Add the pumpkin puree and whisk to combine thoroughly. Add the eggs and vanilla and whisk until combined.
Gradually add the flour mixture to the pumpkin mixture and whisk until completely combined.
Use a small cookie scoop or a large spoon to drop a rounded, heaping tablespoon (I used a touch more than a tablespoon) of the dough onto the prepared baking sheets, about 1 inch apart.
Bake for 10-12 minutes, making sure the cookies are just starting to crack on top and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. The cookies should be firm to the touch. Remove from oven and let the cookies cool completely on a cooling rack.
Maple & Ginger Spice Cream Cheese Frosting
- 1 8oz package cream cheese, softened
- 4 tablespoons of butter
- 1 tablespoon Gourmet Garden Lightly Dried Ginger
- 3-¾ cups powdered sugar, sifted
- 2 tablespoons maple syrup
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Combine butter and cream cheese on medium speed until mixed well. Add the Gourmet Garden ginger and beat well. Add powdered sugar a little at time until blended, then add the maple syrup and vanilla and beat until light, fluffy and smooth. (Resist urge to sample too much frosting while pies are in the oven).
Assembly – from Brown Eyed Baker
Turn half of the cooled cookies upside down. Pipe or spoon (I used a spoon) the filling (about a tablespoon) onto that half. Place another cookie, flat side down, on top of the filling. Press down slightly so that the filling spreads to the edges of the cookie. Repeat until all cookies are used. Put the whoopie pies in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes to firm before serving.
I’ve been 27 for a week now and am still basking in the birthday glow. There was something different about this years festivities. I barely slept the night before (no surprise there), tossing and turning throughout the night. Excited, overwhelmed, but mostly happy about the possibilities of what 27 could bring.
Tomorrow I turn 27…
As another birthday passes, I can’t help but reflect on the last year and all my favorite moments 26 has granted me. We all know how much I love birthdays (not just my own!), so I figured if there’s any day to get all mushy and nostalgic…today is the day.
Celebrate with me, won’t you? Grab a glass of bubbly, a slice of cake and enjoy what I’m sure will be a list full of pasta, smiling faces, wine, things with chocolate and probably “like the best burger I’ve ever had.”