The Windy City, Our Second Home

Chicago is special for us.  It was our first vacation destination back in 2006 when we first started dating and we have some really special memories from that trip.  We try to go back every chance we get. 

Chicago, July 28, 2006
Chicago, May 19, 2007

Chicago, June 14, 2008
Chicago, April 24, 2011

Looks like we didn't make it to Chicago in 2009 when I was studying for the bar exam or in 2010 when we got married and went on our honeymoon.  Oops!  But we had the chance to get there this year during a long weekend in March, so we hit the road with no plans other than to eat at our favorite restaurant, Avec, which is always on our Chicago itinerary and was even referenced in our wedding vows.  We also wanted to try XOCO, a Rick Bayless restaurant.  So off we went! 

Chicago, March 3, 2012

Upon arriving in Chicago, we headed to XOCO for lunch.  Rick Bayless is Alessandro's hero.  He is a chef who specializes in cooking authentic Mexican food with a high-end spin.  Bayless lived in Mexico for a period of time and still travels regularly to Mexico searching for authentic dishes that he can recreate and modify in his own way.  Bayless has three restaurants on the same street right next door to each other in Chicago:  XOCO, Frontera Grill and Topolobampo.  We'd like to visit each one.  Topolobampo is the fancier of the bunch and reservations for the place book far out in advance, so we would have to make a reservation and then book a future trip around the reservation.  

XOCO is a casual lunch place that serves tortas (Mexican sandwiches) and caldo (Mexican soup).  XOCO is uniquely ran, in a methodological kind of way, and I was very impressed by the way that every single worker knew their role, which allowed the long line out the door to dwindle down in only about a half an hour.  That place was efficient!  Here's how it works:  when you walk in, you stand in a long line which will eventually lead you to the register to place your order.  The restaurant is small and narrow, (sorry, no pics, I was shoulder to shoulder with other patrons), and the kitchen is right behind the register and you can see fresh churros being made...it's pretty cool.  As you reach the front of the line, a host will ask how many are in your party, and you aren't allowed to place your order until the host finds a table for you.  You place your order at the register, and you have to anticipate whether you'll want dessert or not because this is your one chance to place your order!  We ordered a ton of food because, "you're only in Chicago once," which isn't true at all, but ended up becoming our mantra that weekend.  After you place your order, you sit down at your assigned table and then someone brings your food to you.  They wait until you are done with your meal before bringing out the dessert.  It was a well-run ship that place!  And the staff was memorably friendly. 

So for our lunch, we had the Carnitas Caldo, which was a slow-cooked pork soup with masa dumplings, roasted chile and topped with arugula and avocado.  It was really good, but so spicy that I couldn't really eat it.  

Alessandro had the daily torta special, which was goat barbacoa.  It was a sandwich with braised goat, tomatillo sauce, avacado and cilantro.  

I had the chicken milanesa torta, which was topped with black beans, cheese, pickled jalapenos and served with tomatillo-avacado salsa on the side.  

For dessert we had a perfectly cooked churro and authentic hot chocolate.  Both were extremely indulgent and topped us off.  Neither of us wanted to eat ever again after that meal.  

After lunch, we checked into our hotel, which was the Doubletree-Magnificent Mile.  We priceline-named our own price on that bad boy and snagged a room for $60/night!  We love Doubletrees because they make the best chocolate chip cookies and every guest receives one upon check-in.  My mom gave Alessandro a canister of Doubletree cookies for Christmas, and it was by far his favorite gift.  He dreams about those cookies.  And, if you have never tried priceline's name your own price feature, you should give it a try.  We have used it 9 times, and have only gotten 2 hotels that we wish we wouldn't have.  So I'd say that is a pretty good success rate considering how much moola has been saved.  

Here we are at our hotel about to head out to go shopping, which was only two blocks away.

Alessandro and I never go shopping together because, well, he doesn't like shopping and I like to shop alone.  The last time we went shopping together was last summer, which I wrote about here.  Ironically, that story also has to do with tortas and lots of eating, so I'm starting to see a trend in our activities. 

But, for some reason, Alessandro was in rare form this particular weekend.  He wanted to go shopping since "we're only in Chicago once."  My goal of the shopping trip was to buy Alessandro a new pair of jeans.  He was still wearing the jeans he wore 6 years ago when he was 20 pounds heavier, so I have been desperate to get him into a pair that fit.  

It was a successful shopping trip, and we came back with lots of goodies...all for Al!

He got the following:
  • A new hat from Nordstrom that he found on clearance for $13...booyah!
  • A starter shaving kit from The Art of Shaving
  • A white tea mix and tea pot from Teavana (which is actually for both of us)
  • A new pair of Levi jeans!
  • And a box of Vosges truffles "because that was the only thing [he] asked for for Christmas that [he] really wanted and didn't get," said jokingly...he's not really that spoiled.  (Read more about Alessandro's love for Vosges truffles here, and today is the last day to vote for his truffle, so please vote for it here!)   

He absolutely loved The Art of Shaving store.  I could tell that he really wanted to buy something, but he was hesitant because the stuff was pretty expensive.  So I "pressured" him into buying the starter shaving kit, which was only $25.  That ended up being $25 well spent.  I think he actually looks forward to shaving now with that kit and is always talking about how smooth his face feels.  And I have to admit that the Sandalwood scent of the product smells really good, and I typically hate the smell of shaving products.  I think Alessandro has his eye on the full shaving kit someday.  

Shopping took a lot out of us, so we wanted just a low-key dinner, and ended up at a pub down the street from our hotel called Elephant & Castle.

We had janky service and we didn't really like our food very much.  We ordered Guiness, chicken pot pie and shephard's pie.  Alessandro compares every chicken pot pie he ever eats to KFC's chicken pot pie, which I have heard from numerous other sources is delicious (albeit kinda gross actually).  So he was underwhelmed to say the least.  

On our way home from the restaurant, I got a Dunkin Donuts coffee, which made my night complete.  I don't know why, but DD coffee always completes me.  

Stay tuned for Day 2 of Chicago this week, which was the BEST day ever because we discovered an awesome market with more delicious Mexican food and drinks and also finally got what we came for:  an amazing dinner at Avec. 

What are your favorite Chicago destinations?  We need to know!


Grandma's House One Thursday Afternoon

*  *  *
Notes to self about photos:

  • Anytime I point the camera at CJ, he gives me this smile.
  • Nothing, seriously NOTHING better than Grandma's tostadas
  • CJ entertaining the crowd
  • Sis putting CJ in a headlock because he wouldn't stop acting like a dog
  • CJ and Alessandro played a racing game on the iphone while we cleaned up.  CJ loves his Uncle so so much.  They're bffs.  
  • Grandma and Mom cracking up about Liana's sleeping habits
  • Grandma, comfy in her chair.  Waiting patiently for everyone to leave so she can relax.  Hand lotion nearby on the floor, diet coke and pale pink nail polish within reach on the radiator, grandkids' colorings on the wall and a basket of knitting supplies next to her chair 
  • CJ in my Grandma's beautiful backyard with scary storm clouds overhead


A Song

Artist:  Lenka
Title:  The Show

Haven't been able to (and don't want to) get this song out of my head 
ever since hearing it last weekend in the movie Moneyball.  It's my jam.


My favorite home video...

This was taken last year on our way back from the beach.

CJ's facial expressions, Ava's laugh and Alessandro's smile really do it for me.

P.S.  They were trying to come up with directions to Ava's second playhouse.  Duh.


A Plant-Based Diet

Alessandro and I have been on a plant-based diet for nearly two months now.  When we told our family what we were doing, we got a lot of:  What?  Why?  How?  But you guys love food.  Of course you are.  You guys are weird.  What?!  

All true statements.  

Here's my attempt to explain what being on a plant-based diet means for us, how we have changed our eating habits and what our long-term goals are.  This is just our take on a plant-based diet, and we don't claim to know anything about anything other than about what we're doing.  (And sometimes we don't even know that much).

What is a plant-based diet?  
It is a diet focused on the consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes.  Meat, fish, dairy and oils should be limited, if not totally eliminated from a plant-based diet.  If animal products are consumed, they should be of a higher quality (ex:  organic grass-fed meat over non-organic corn-fed meat).  Oils should also be eliminated, but if they are used, they should contain no hydrogenated fat.  All processed foods are a no-no.  Processed foods are bad!  Bad!    

What can we eat?
We can eat whatever we want.  We want to eat things that will keep us healthy, energized and feeling good about ourselves.

Things we eat regularly on our plant-based diet:  beans (black, naturally refried, white, red), whole grain pasta, whole wheat and multi-grain vegan bread, lentils, brown rice, corn tortillas, quinoa, oats, farro, hummus, soy milk, and fruits and vegetables (with an emphasis on kale, swiss chard, spinach and other leafy greens).  Oh yeah, and Montel's Smoothie, which we have been drinking long before we started this diet.
Things we have eliminated from our diet:  meat, fish, dairy (eggs, cheese, milk, butter, cream), olive oil, vegetable oil, regular pasta, refined white flour, and all processed foods.

We eat a lot.  As Alessandro likes to say:  "It's not about what we can't eat.  It's about what we can eat and what we should eat more of."  One day I ate an entire box of chocolate covered raisins because it was technically fruit, so yeah, you can see where I can take that concept in moments of weakness. 

Are we vegan?
No.  We like to joke that we're better than vegan since we don't eat processed foods.  Ha.  But, actually we're nowhere near vegan because we do dabble in animal products occasionally.  For example, on Opening Day we each had a hamburger from Cliff Bell's and that bad boy was delicious.  And the other day at brunch, I had huckleberry ricotta pancakes with scrumptiously fat sausage and Alessandro had a bagel gravalox (salmon).  We were in heaven.  For Easter, we each ate a piece of ham, but instead of having sweet potatoes smothered in brown sugar, butter and marshmallows, we pulled a few pieces aside and baked ours plain--no oil or butter or salt--and did the same for our asparagus.  Our rule of thumb if we are eating meat is that the meat serving should be only 1/4 of our plate while the other 3/4 of our plate should be filled with greens/veggies/grains.

Since our hesitation to eat meat or dairy is not based on ethical considerations, we will still eat meat and dairy occasionally as a treat or if we just plain out really want to.  But we try not to.  And we try not to want to too.  (Got that?)

How did we implement our diet?  
Soon after we decided we were going plant-based, I did a major overhaul of our cabinets and pantries.  I got rid of everything we didn't want to eat anymore.  I gave my mom a huge bag filled with boxed mac-and-cheese, stove-top stuffing, white pasta, graham crackers, cheezits, etc.  (She was pretty excited about it!  And it made me realize how much bad stuff we had in our house).  I stopped buying milk, cheese, eggs and butter and instead bought soymilk and lots of avocados.  I stocked our pantries with canned beans and veggies (with no added salt--that's important, so look at the ingredients label), barley, vegetable stock, whole wheat pasta, lentils and quinoa.  Our fridge is always stocked with spring salad mix, spinach, herbs, pears, grapes, apples, salsa, corn tortillas and hummus.

So, since there is really nothing in our house that we can't eat, we are good to go!

Why are we doing this?  
It's healthy.  Eating fruits, veggies, grains and lots of natural foods is not a bad thing.  (Although I realize for some people it might seem like we're party poopers; like what it might feel like to hang out with a friend that doesn't drink during cocktail hour.  But don't worry, we still booze it up, so we're good to go).  

But if you know Al and I, you know that we loooove food.  We are total foodies.  So, there must be more to us going plant-based than just "wanting to eat healthy."  And there is.  We're hoping that our new diet helps Alessandro.  That it helps him walk better, feel better, be more energized, strengthen him and improve some of his symptoms.  And guess what? After eating this way for nearly 2 months, Alessandro has noticed an improvement!  He says that he feels a lot more energized, he has been having less bathroom issues (must be the fiber) and has generally felt really good about himself.  He is not necessarily walking any better, but hopefully that might come in the future.  (Disclaimer:  He is still taking his medicine!  This new diet is in no way meant to replace that form of treatment).

What inspired us to go plant-based?
The first bit of inspiration was this video:
Dr. Terry Wahls:  Minding your Mitochondria, found here, on twitter.  Dr. Wahls has Multiple Sclerosis and was wheelchair bound before she decided to self-medicate herself by changing her diet.  She went from a wheelchair to standing to walking to biking in a short period of time, and she credits her improvement to her plant-based diet.  Dr. Wahls' own daily diet consisted of several servings of greens (especially kale), a variety of colored fruits and vegetables and small portions of grass-fed meat.  Special thanks to Lee for forwarding this to Alessandro!
The second piece of inspiration was:
Forks Over Knives, a 2011 documentary that not only demonstrates the health benefits of a plant-based diet through research and live case studies, but also highlights the risks and consequences associated with a typical "Western" diet.  The doctors featured in the film, Drs. Esselstyn and Campbell, are pretty hard core.  They are 100% anti-animal products, processed foods and added oils.  Our favorite line from Dr. Esselstyn from the movie:    “Some people think the plant-based whole foods diet is extreme.  A Western diet guarantees there will be half a million people who have to have the front half of their bodies divided, their heart exposed, then veins will be taken from their leg and sewn on their heart.  Some people would call that extreme.”  Touché, no?

What has been the hardest part of changing our diet? 
Cooking without oil was weird at first.  I thought it was impossible, so at first I was all like, "Oh, I'll just use a little bit of olive oil to saute these veggies.  That should be fine."  But now I'm all like, "Vegetable stock is an awesome way to cook veggies.  Who needs EVOO?"

UPDATE:  I was way too over-enthusiastic about that.  I have since reverted back to using olive oil when sauteing or roasting veggies; broth just isn't the same. 

Also, healthy food is really expensive.  I bought a little tiny jar of all-natural jam from Eastern Market last week for $7; and a jar of all-natural pasta sauce from Rocky's in Eastern Market for $10.  Both super delicious and very good for you, but seriously expensive to buy on a regular basis.

What is our long-term diet plan?
We hope that we are strong enough people that we can make healthy eating a way of life for us.  When we started this, I don't think we thought we would even last this long.  I mean, we live for food basically.  Eating is our pastime, as is evidenced by my wealth of blog posts on the topic.

But we are actually pleasantly surprised with the plant-based meals that we have made at home so far.  Some of them have been really really good, and a  lot of them have gotten us excited to try more things and to master this new way of cooking.

And, we have our eye on the prize:  a better Alessandro.  Even though he's pretty perfect already.


* * *
Homemade food from top to bottom:  Vegetable stir-fry; black bean and zucchini corn tacos; spinach, hummus and mushroom panini with potatoes and asparagus; steel-cut oats with cinnamon, coconut, pure maple syrup and raisins; whole wheat veggie wrap.  Anyone want the recipes?  I could do that in a separate post.

* * *
If you haven't already, please follow this blog on Facebook.  While you're there, take a minute to vote for Alessandro's truffle pretty please!

* * *
I'd love to hear from you on the topic of food, so please comment if you have any thoughts!  I'd appreciate it.