Last weekend Nick and I met our friends Ben and Ruchama at the Garfield Conservatory for their annual Chocolate Fest. We did not succeed in sampling any of the chocolate due to the huge crowds, but we were able to warm up in the dewy, climate-controlled gardens for a bit. The conservatory is a gorgeous and easily accessible resource for Chicagoans -- the Green Line will take you nearly to the entrance. Few places can compare in their ability to genuinely rid your body of the pervasive chill that accompanies the winter months here. I've had fun at the Chocolate Fest in the past, but arriving when the doors open in the morning seems like the only way to successfully consume any chocolate.
We traveled to Ben and Ruchama's house in Hyde Park and proceeded to make a fabulous dinner.
Ben and Ruchama made a beet, orange and watercress salad that was based on a similar salad that Ruchama recently ordered at the Hop Leaf. I love watercress, but rarely buy it. I thought this salad was superb.
They also made a tasty appetizer of grilled artichoke heart bottoms with snow peas and asparagus dressed in parsley infused olive oil. The artichoke was soaked in lemon juice before being grilled, which gave it a light flavor that complimented the dressing well.
Earlier that morning Nick and I had ventured to Oak Park to visit Penzeys spice store. They have a few locations scattered across the United States -- but you can also sign up for their mail-order catalog on their website. (The catalog is peppered with recipes to try.) If you have the luxury of living in close proximity to a Penzeys, I guarantee that once you visit you will never buy spices anywhere else -- or at the very least, not from a grocery store. Their top-quality spices range from familiar standards to exotic flavors and they are always inexpensively priced. We went in search of annato seeds for our soup and came away with a bit more than that.
In the most recent issue of Gourmet magazine, Nick and I were both quite taken with their recipe for Andean potato stew and decided to try our hand at it. We began by heating the annato seeds in oil to make the achiote. The seeds are strained out, leaving a bright red, flavored oil. We added potato, onion, water, cumin, salt, and pepper and let this simple soup simmer for about an hour before adding whole milk and queso fresco. We served the soup over avocado slices and enjoyed it with a bottle of New Glarus Raspberry Tart lambic that I had picked up in Wisconsin the weekend before.
The texture of the rich avocado provided a great contrast to the hearty potato stew. I thought the stew was a success and the leftovers made a nice lunch the next week. I might add more achiote if I were to make this soup again so that the flavor is more pronounced.
We sat and talked over wine and cheese long after dinner was over and left sleepy and sated. It was a lovely night.