Shrimpy Things

While most of what we walk away from a soul-crushing relationship with entails regret, disappointment and nightmares, there is a silver lining – acquiring a family recipe that wins big at home parties (and may cause brutal feuds over the last bite). The combination of shrimp, jalapeño, bacon and BBQ sauce proves to be dangerously addicting. Friends and family often ask when Shrimpy Things will next appear on the menu.

I’m a sucker for appetizers and this one is an occasion in itself. There have been nights where we’ve cooked an entire batch for dinner. When friends came over that night, we had to shoo them away from our platter (eventually giving in to their sad eyes and drooling mouths, sharing a few).

final product - shrimpy things

final product – shrimpy things

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Santa Barbara Celebration of Harvest – La Paulee de Santa Barbara

Friday night of fest weekend marks one of the most anticipated events of the Harvest Fest – the La Paulee de Santa Barbara Dinner. This grand affair, held in the Solvang Veterans Hall, celebrates the winemakers and vineyard owners who work hard to consistently produce some of the best wines in the world.

The event is open to the public for $90/person. I’ve had more extravagant tasting menus in Chicago for a smaller price tag, but the vibrant representation of “local” at its finest was well worth the most expensive dinner of our trip.

Santa Barbara AcresLocal venue. Local wine. Local guests. Local chef. Local ingredients. Local pork raised and plumped for the occasion.

The Local Trend has swept the nation but is becoming a diluted scene. Restaurants that feature locally provided cuisine are everywhere now, boasting the term like a Twitter hashtag. But we have to remember that “local” doesn’t mean ‘hormone-free’, ‘organic’, ‘free-range’, ‘grass-fed’, or any of the other hot-ticket food qualifiers. So what really matters is what the local area has to offer. It’s a game of “playing to your strengths” – something the Santa Barbara area has acres and acres of.

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Santa Barbara Celebration of Harvest Festival – Day 2

The Santa Barbara Celebration of Harvest Festival occurs biannually in April and October to honor the luscious yield that marks the 2014 vintage of California wine. Vineyards and winemakers offer tastings of their creations at reasonable prices and eager wine lovers from all over the state, country and globe come to swirl and slurp down some liquid Cali gold.

But the epicenter isn’t actually Santa Barbara. It’s Solvang – a 5,000+ person Dutch town on a patch of country 40 minutes West of beach town limits, bordered by rivers and low mountain ranges, and completely a surprise to me. Farmland surrounds the grid of small houses, Dutch chalets, specialty stores and wine shops, sprinkled with gorgeous landscaping and towering landmarks. Solvang gives off the vibe of a tight-knit town with a sense of novelty and humor. It was fun to walk around and wander in and out of stores selling furniture made primarily of wine barrels or that have exploded in Christmas jubilee premature by months.

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Santa Barbara Celebration of Harvest Festival – Day 1

There’s nothing like a good wine buzz. Cheeks flushed, limbs loose, warm belly – all the result of extraordinary care and effort to bring grapes to their most enjoyed form. My mother drinks white wine – chardonnay. Full-bodied, dry, oaky and buttery. I’m typically more of a red girl, but working in a restaurant family that heavily appreciates good wine, I’ve become more adventurous.

Scenic view from our hotel

Scenic view from our hotel

Our love for wine guided our interests in embarking on a wine-centric mother-daughter trip. I let my mother take the lead with her suggestion of traveling to Santa Barbara, CA in October to experience the Celebration of Harvest Festival – a cost-effective way to fully enjoy every aspect of this region during the best season of the year. I needed this little vacation and I couldn’t wait to tune out the Chicago restaurant life and tune into some good eating and drinking.

After a grueling trip out of O’Hare, we drove up the coast from Santa Barbara to Buellton, where our Marriott awaited us. I literally (no, not figuratively) shed a few tears while taking in the mountains and coastline. We stopped at the local CVS for a couple bottles of wine to get our trip started. Our room wasn’t ready – the perfect excuse to grab lunch. The Marriott desk person suggestion Firestone Brewery down the street. Knowing we had a long wine-o fantasy ahead of us, we figured this would be the time to grab the first and only brews of the trip.

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Fun Fine DiniNG

menu – “Wonder Years” – drawings by Chef Cantu’s daughter

Food enthuses people much more today than it seemed to 10 years ago. Innovative fine dining joints are popping up around Chicago like dandelions, many of which becoming only a trail of fuzzy white seeds after their first couple of years. You need an edge or theme – something that draws the guests in with the expectation that they are attending an event, not just a meal.

iNG Restauranti’s niche is “flavor tripping,” using the miracle berry (m-berry) as a key ingredient in the menu to enhance cuisine enjoyment. Chef Homaro Cantu’s cooking plays on the m-berry’s ability to deceive taste buds, turning sour and bitter into sweet and savory. The m-berry originates in West Africa, scientifically named synsepalum dulcificum.

(slide show included)

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Happy Birthday, Birchwood Kitchen

front sign - Birchwood logo

front sign – Birchwood logo

Back when I lived in Wicker Park there was one day when my spirits needed a lift. Usually in this case, I go on the hunt for good food. I pulled up the trusty Yelp! in search of a local favorite and I stumbled across a new and highly-rated gourmet sandwich joint – Birchwood Kitchen.

There are a lot of delis in Chicago, but I feel like most lack originality and creative flare when it comes to soup and sandwich shops. Birchwood upturns this stereotype and delivers on all levels that a café should.

(slide show included)

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Miller’s Pub: “Cheers” in Chicago

Everyone wants a pub to call home like the Boston bar depicted in the 1980s sitcom “Cheers.” I’m lucky to have found this just a couple blocks from DePaul’s Loop campus – in Miller’s Pub at Adams and Wabash. With its warm atmosphere, consistent quality in food and service and strong drinks, Miller’s fuels me through many long school days.

Inside Miller’s, Chicago reclaims its status as a “small town.” Patrons, ranging from young adults to retirees, escape their ant-like daily grind. At the bar, people no longer experience fleeting interaction like bugs merely bouncing feelers off each other in passing. Millers, open for several decades, is where real interactions occur over rejuvenating brews served by staple employees.

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