Because there’s no good way to trump Alinea

Grant Achatz, shot slyly with my phone as he made dessert at the next table.

A year ago this coming weekend, Tim and I were celebrating 10 years of marriage. We marked the hard-earned decade by taking an unexpected sum of online poker winnings and spending every last dime of it on a dinner for two.

But not just any dinner. We dined at Alinea, in Chicago, a 3-star Michelin restaurant (there are only about 80 in the world) — home of progressive, tongue-cancer-surviving chef Grant Achatz (who just won a James Beard Award for his newest restaurant, Next). It was, by giant leaps and bounds, the most expensive meal we had ever eaten (or likely will ever eat again).

I never wrote about that dinner.

The words just never came to me. I tried a few draft posts, passed my laptop with hope to Tim to read and tell me I’d done the evening justice. But he (rightfully, thankfully) never gave his approval — my mind, vocabulary, word-crafting-skills just couldn’t adequately paint a picture of what it was like to spend an evening at Alinea.

When I think about it now, it feels other-wordly, like I dreamt it all. From the moment we entered a dark, red-lit, low-ceiling hallway, our eyes adjusting from early-evening sunlight as a Star-Trek-like pocket door hissed open to a group of four well-dressed servers waiting for our arrival, to the moment during our final dessert course when Grant Achatz stood at our table and painted chocolate and blueberry sauces in a balanced asymmetrical composition directly onto the silicone tablecloth placed specifically for this purpose (we scraped the table clean with our dessert spoons) — it felt as though we were the only patrons in a dining room with 10 other guests. The serving staff was impeccable, simultaneously professional and approachable, meeting our every need before we knew we had it.

It was like the first time you go to Paris. Or the first time you see, in person, a work of art you’ve only seen in textbooks. Or your first trip to the mountains. It was, for three hours (and 22 courses) a place in time and space that we could have never imagined. So out of my realm of what’s normal, I cannot begin to communicate it.

But I can communicate our new conundrum: unless you are a person of such means as to eat like this on a regular basis (I’m thankful we’re not, or else the magic might fade), it’s hard to follow that up when it comes time to celebrate year eleven.

But, when you think about it, we sort of set up all of marriage to be that way. We have a big party, and invite all of our friends, and do this whole pomp and circumstance thing with a ceremony. And then we go on a well-constructed vacation for a week (ours was low-key, jaunts to two delightful cities within driving distance of our wedding and home). And then, you get home, and real life begins. The life that has two people trying to live together, love each other, even when you can no longer agree to disagree. When eventual sick babies have you both sleepless. Even as you grow older, and your bodies change, and your interests change, and things aren’t the way you thought they’d be (and when are they ever?).

So it’s eleven years this Saturday, though I could swear it was just last week. And since we are not Alinea people, we plan to celebrate by having a good friend come keep our kids (babysitters are a luxury) while we go for dinner and a movie. This year we’re hitting up a local place we’ve enjoyed before and qualifies as a “special” dinner out. And then we’re going to see Avengers (before you scoff — I’ve not set foot in a movie theater since moving to Indiana almost three years ago, so in watching something other than Friday Night Lights or Madmen on a very large screen while wearing something other than pajamas, I’ll be doing something exotic).

It’s funny for me to think that in our stage of life, dinner and a movie is momentous-event-worthy. But just like Alinea isn’t what eating out is always supposed to be, whirlwind trips alone to Chicago isn’t what marriage and anniversaries are always supposed to be. Eleven might only be momentous in that it is 365 days past 10 — but it’s still another year in a life we are continuously building, tearing down, and rebuilding together. Another year worth marking.

Just me and my man. With plenty of support from Iron Man, the Hulk, and Captain America.

 

Tip Tuesday, no. 1

Welcome to the inaugural edition of my new blog series: Tip Tuesday (not to be confused with Tipsy Tuesday, which *should* be a blog series sometime in the future).

Why the new series? Well, let’s see. (Any given) Monday came and went, and I faced one of the following conundrums:

  1. I had absolutely nothing to write about.
  2. I had plenty to write about, but no photos to go along with.
  3. I had an entire post written, but deleted it in a fit of dramatic self-loathing because it was boring, pretentious, redundant, or all of the above.

Tip Tuesday solves the no-post problem, and creates a purposeful arena to briefly share some of my favorite kitchen tricks. I have at least five of them, and I’m sharing two today, so that means I can use this series for roughly three more Tuesdays.

We’ll see if I can come up with a few more, just enough to make it worth this shabby introduction.

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Tip #1: Freeze those bananas (alt title: Tell me something I don’t already know, Katy)

Got a pile of over-ripe bananas creating a cozy b&b for your rapidly-reproducing family of fruit flies? Don’t change your afternoon plans in order to whip out a half-dozen loaves of banana bread. Just peel them, cut in half cross-wise, and pop them in a quart-sized freezer bag. When it’s smoothie time, grab a frozen banana instead of a fresh one — it will add thickness and chill to your smoothie, and you’ll never have to starve a smoothie craving because you’re out of bananas.

Tip #2: Freeze the skins of your juiced citrus for future zesting.

Need the juice of a half-lemon for a recipe, but no zest? Rinse off the leftover peel, dry it quickly with a towel, and pop it in a freezer bag kept for this purpose. When you need lemon, lime, or orange zest for a recipe, you can reach for a peel and zest it frozen (it’s actually easier to zest this way). If thick frost has accumulated on the peel, just give it a quick rinse under water first. You can do this with any citrus — I mostly freeze oranges, since that’s a fruit we rarely have on-hand. (Note: this isn’t ideal for zest used as garnish — but in any cooked recipe it works great.)

Coconut-lime fish curry

coconut-lime fish curry

Eating fish is tough. Not in a flavor sense — I could likely eat it every day (though we all know what happens when you get what you wish for in that department). But financially, it’s difficult to get enough into our diet. Fish is one of those things where you get what you pay for — I’m no longer a fan of my old-standby bargain tilapia (for reasons such as these), and I’d like to buy wild-caught. For a while I thought I’d found a solution by purchasing mostly at Trader Joe’s, but then read this, and have since avoided that supply (insert mantra here about something seeming too good to be true, and therefore likely being so).

So instead, I wait for big sales at Whole Foods (some friends like Costco fish, but we aren’t members) and buy when the price is right. While we occasionally get the rare treat of bright-red wild-caught salmon, I most often buy cheaper cuts like cod (used in our fish sticks) or other inexpensive whitefish.

I like to use mild white fish in dishes with amp’d flavor — cod especially needs help beyond the simple lemon-dill roasting that lets a good piece of salmon shine. A few weeks ago I had purchased cod on sale, and brought it home, only to realize I just wasn’t in the mood for fish sticks. The thought came to me that it would likely hold up well in a curry, and the strong spices would lend a hand to its inherent blandness. Using other curry dishes as a base, with the added color and flavor of canned tomatoes, I believe we’ve found a way to get more fish on our dinner plates without breaking the bank.

As a bonus, my kids (ahem… 2 out of 3) actually love it. And Tim says it should go under the “Slap Yo Mama” section of my eternally non-existent cookbook. Taken as a compliment, and not as a passive-aggressive directive to my children, we’ve labeled this curry a keeper.

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Recipe: Coconut-lime Fish Curry (dairy-free, grain-free)

: serves 3-4

If you don’t have unsweetened coconut cream, omit it and the water, and replace with 3/4 cup canned unsweetened full-fat coconut milk. Make sure your curry powder is fresh — the fragrance should fill your head the minute you open the container — a stale curry powder will leave this dish flat.

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 Tbsp coconut oil
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 tsp finely grated fresh ginger
  • 1 1/2 tsp curry powder
  • salt & black pepper
  • 1/2 cup coconut cream (see note)
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/2 cup fish, chicken, or vegetable stock
  • 1 (14 oz) can diced tomatoes, drained & rinsed
  • 3/4 pound fresh mild white fish, such as cod or sole, chopped into bite-sized pieces
  • chopped fresh parsley or cilantro, to garnish
  • 2-3 Tbsp fresh lime juice

Instructions

  1. In a large saucepan, cook the onion in coconut oil over medium heat until translucent (do not brown), about five minutes.
  2. Add the garlic & ginger, and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
  3. Add the curry powder, 1/2 tsp salt, and 1/4 tsp pepper. Cook, stirring, another minute.
  4. Add the coconut cream, water, stock, and tomatoes to the pan. Reduce heat to low, cover, and gently simmer for 10 minutes.
  5. Add the fish to the pan, cover, and continue cooking another 10 minutes, or until fish is opaque.
  6. Stir in 2 Tbsp lime juice. Taste for seasoning, adding more lime juice or salt if necessary.
  7. Serve immediately over hot basmati rice.

Copyright © Katy Carter, 2012.

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This post was linked up to Simple Lives Thursday, via GNOWFGLINS, and Seasonal Eats at Delectable Musings.