smashed burger fries

(Almost) smashed burgers and crispy homemade fries

Last night, we had a couple friends over for dinner. The weather in Chicago was kinda gross, and we had burgers on the mind, so we attempted a few recipes from The Food Lab, and the results were delightfully delicious.

smashed burger fries

slow-cooked fries, fry sauce and an (almost) smashed burger. look at those crispy fries!!!

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s smashed burger came out delicious, though not quite as smashed as we’d hoped. My guess is that in fear of burning things, we didn’t kick up the heat quite high enough, so the burgers puffed back up a bit. We’ll attempt again and update with results.

We topped the burgers with onions (under the cheese = game-changer), Organic Valley American cheese (which is apparently a thing, and actually really great on burgers. It tastes like American and cheddar cheese had a baby, and is almost as melty as American, but not at all artificial and doesn’t look or feel like plastic), Kenji’s fry sauce, and cucumber muchim from Tyler Kord’s A Super Upsetting Cookbook About Sandwiches (which is hands-down the most entertaining cookbook I’ve read in years).

The fries were also from The Food Lab–we opted for Joel Robuchon’s slow-cooked fries because they promised to be a 2 in effort and 8 in flavor. They tasted like they were from a restaurant!!–a first in fry-cookery for me.

Sidenote: In the book, Kenji suggests using a wok to fry in, because the wider upper lip reduces potential for boiling over (which if you’ve never had that happen–it’s a little terrifying). Worked great.

messy kitchen

the aftermath. worth it.




Southwest sweet potato salad

I (Laurel) made this for a potluck at work. It was a hit, so figured I’d share it here. No images, unfortunately, but the next time I make it, I’ll add one!

Also – it’s worth saving a couple single-size portions of this for lunches. Add some sliced avocado for extra nums. 

Southwest sweet potato salad (makes enough for a potluck)


  • ½ – 1 c quinoa
  • 2 large sweet potatoes, chopped into about a ½-inch dice
  • 1 lb chorizo
  • 1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 red pepper, chopped
  • 1 poblano pepper, chopped
  • Feta and/or cojita cheese, crumbled
  • 1 bunch green onion, chopped
  • 1 small bunch cilantro, chopped
  • 1-2 limes
  • Olive oil
  • Cinnamon, cumin, ancho chili powder, salt & pepper


  1. Cook quinoa as directed (usually boil with 2x water and some salt, then simmer for about 15 minutes)
  2. Heat oven to 400*. Toss sweet potatoes with olive oil, cumin, ancho chili, salt, pepper and cinnamon to taste (just a little cinnamon / I like lots of cumin). Put them on a baking sheet (with foil for easier clean-up!) and roast until done – probably about 20 minutes, tossing once. Cool a bit.
  3. Cook chorizo in a pan until done. Adjust seasoning if needed.
  4. Mix quinoa, sweet potatoes, chorizo, black beans, peppers, cheese, green onions and cilantro in a big bowl. Add some lime juice and olive oil, mix and taste. Adjust seasonings as you’d like.

Totally nuts nut-butter granola (OR) The most cluster-rific granola I’ve made to date

Granola is one thing that I love to make at home, and pretty much refuse to buy in store. Why? When you make it at home, 1) you know exactly what’s in it, and 2) you realize what a price-gauge the store-bought stuff really is.

My problem for awhile though, was getting granola into clusters. At first when making it at home, I’d end up with a bunch of tiny, crunchy oatmeal flakes … which tasted good, but were nothing like the chunky, delicious stuff you can buy in stores.

I’ve now found several recipes/techniques to end up with clustery granola (use egg whites, make a wetter mixture — like with pumpkin puree — and squeeze the granola into clumps prior to baking …) but recently made easily the best batch ever. The best secret for big-cluster granola in my book? Nut butter.

nut butter cluster granola

Totally nuts nut-butter granola (OR) The most cluster-rific granola I’ve made to date

Adapted from Pinch of Yum 

Ingredients (you can pretty much eyeball these)


  • 3 1/2 c rolled oats
  • 1-1 1/2 c nuts (whatever you have on hand)
  • 3/4 c whole wheat flour
  • 1 1/2 t baking powder
  • 1/2-1 t salt (depending on how salty your nut butter is)
  • Spices: Cinnamon, cardamom, and/or nutmeg to taste (probably no more than 1 1/2 t total; I just eyeball it)


  • 3/4 c nut butter (again, whatever you have on hand should be fine)
  • 1 mashed banana (over-ripe is best)
  • 1/2-2/3 c maple syrup
    • Depending on how sweet you want it, and what kind of nut butter you use, play around with this. Like if you have standard peanut butter, I’d go lighter on the syrup; if you have natural/unsweetened nut butter you may want to use more.
    • You could probably use honey if you prefer. (I’ll update if we try that, but my aunts just gave me a quart of homemade maple syrup from their backyards, so we have it in abundance.)
  • 2 t vanilla extract OR 1 t each vanilla and almond extracts (<– I kind of like the combo, but use what you’ve got)
  • ¼ c milk or milk substitute of your choice (again, if this is sweetened, keep that in mind when measuring your maple syrup)

What do to

  1. Preheat the oven to 275 degrees.
  2. Line a large baking sheet or jelly roll pan with parchment paper or a silpat.
  3. Mix the dry ingredients in one bowl.
  4. Whisk the wet ingredients together in another bowl.
  5. Combine the dry and wet mixtures together in the bigger of the two bowls.
  6. Pour the granola mixture onto your prepared baking sheet and spread it out as evenly as you can.
  7. Bake until done. Ours takes about an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes. Every 15 minutes or so, take it out and turn/stir the granola. You should have clumps of varying sizes by the end. After about 30-45 minutes, start testing it for done-ness. You want it to be slightly darker than when it went in, and crisp. We try to take it out right when it’s stopped being moist at all when taste-tested (about one hour and 15 minutes), but if you prefer it a little chewy on the inside, take it out sooner. It’s your granola. And that’s part of the beauty of cooking at home.
  8. Let the granola cool, then store in whatever containers you have on hand. This keeps for a few weeks sealed at room temp, longer the in fridge, and even longer in the freezer. (Use a zip-top freezer bag if you’re going to freeze it, to keep the air out.)

The resulting granola is crunchy and clustery, and an ideal blend of salty-sweet. I loved this mixed into yogurt with blueberries and bananas, and it also makes a yummy snack all on its own.

Savory citrus chicken marinade

So the other day, Brock was in the mood for salad with grilled chicken, and we somehow made up the tastiest marinade for the chicken.

For about one pound of boneless/skinless chicken breasts:

  • 1 shallot, sliced
  • 2 anchovy fillets, chopped
  • Small handful of thyme springs
  • About 1 t kosher salt
  • Few grinds pepper
  • Juice of 1/2-1 lemon
  • Healthy glug of olive oil

Mix everything in a ziptop bag, add chicken, shake it around and marinate for one hour in the fridge. Mix it around and flip it over once if you think about it. Take chicken out of the fridge about 20 minutes before cooking (we “grilled” on a cast iron grilltop).

We served this over romaine lettuce with roasted red peppers, sundried tomatoes, olives and avocado, but really the possibilities are endless. It was so good that I’m seriously considering making more already (3 days later).

Food companies actively try to “make food taste better”?! WTF are we doing to our bodies?

Mad scientist transparent backgroundFrom Inside ADM’s $3 billion plan to make food taste better by Crain’s Chicago.

“After a decade helping pull fat, sugar and salt out of food, ADM scientists now are working to add fiber, protein and nutrients. The trick is to avoid delivering bland or unpalatable products, which is where Wild Flavors comes in.

“ ‘We can make it healthy but what we are really focusing on is also making it tasty,’ said Mark Matlock, the Chicago-based company’s senior vice president for research. ‘Something kids will come back for a second one, or third one. If they consume it on Monday, will they also consume it on Tuesday?'”

I’m fully convinced that a majority of our health problems are related to, if not somewhat caused by, our deviance from eating real food, and instead choosing processed crap that tricks us into thinking it tastes good.

For more info on chemical additives and the craziness that is “food science” (like, literally people get paid to make Doritos crunchier, and there’s a reason Subways always smell the same) read Fast Food Nation.

Note: We are in no way above eating processed food. Cheez-its and Jack’s pizzas are mainstays in the Casper/Miltner home, and sometimes late-night Taco Bell tastes like the most delicious thing in the world. But for a lot of people, processed, packaged and fast food make up the majority of their diet. And, in a lot of cases that’s about affordability and the effed-up-ness that are government food subsidies, which is a whole other rant we’ll get into another time, but you can read The Omnivore’s Dilemma or watch Food, Inc. if you’re interested.

< / rant>

Asparagus, egg and bacon pizza

I (Laurel) love asparagus in the spring. It’s a sign of all the produce coming in the next few months, and delicious to boot. These past few months, we’ve made a lot of asparagus dishes, but one of my favorites every year is this asparagus, egg and bacon pizza recipe that I stole frequently borrow from Michael Ruhlman.

Except I almost always use a no-knead pizza dough

… that I found here, and converted to weight instead of volume measurements. For 2-3 pizza crusts: 10 oz water, 3/4 T yeast, 1/2 T kosher salt, 1/2 T turbinado sugar or honey (or white sugar if I’m lazy), just <2 oz olive oil, 15 oz flour.)

asparagus egg bacon pizza

My pizza in the oven

asparagus egg bacon pizza

Ruhlman’s perfect pizza

^^Not TOO shabby an attempt, yeah?

What makes this dish exceptional is using great ingredients

… so I hit the farmers markets and local shops for:

… And then I topped it with some amazing truffle salt that Brock’s sister gave me, and shared the pizza with her and a friend. Because the best best food is that you share with those you love. 🙂 asparagus egg bacon pizza

asparagus egg bacon pizza

Ruhlman’s perfect pizza, sliced.

^^ I mean it’s obviously not going to come out looking like a pro chef and photographer’s … but I was happy.

Where’s the best sushi in Chicago?

This post is a work in progress, which we’ll add to over time, but so far, in our Chicago sushi battle:

Usagi Ya > Sushi Para M > Blue Fin > Rolls n Bowls

Usagi ya  is legitimately tasty. They have an appetizer called steak tataki that is incredible. Standout rolls include: godzilla maki, fireball maki, snowball maki.

Sushi Para M comes in second (so far) solely because it’s all-you-can-eat for $19. Caveat: You literally have to eat everything you order, or else the charge you for it. The gyoza are quite tasty, and so are some of the apps. The sushi is mediocre to maybe good. BYOB!

Blu Fin was good, but nothing amazing. The decor is pretty cliche and haphazard, and the tunes just don’t jive the cuisine or vibe. As far as the food itself it concerned: The gyoza were only OK–crispy but not great flavor. For rolls, we had the orange dragon, bluefin fire, ronin and volcano roll. Both of our favorite was the orange dragon. We also enjoyed the volcano roll, except that the seared salmon was overdone. The bluefin fire was good but not standout, and the ronin was too one-note texturally–would have been better as sashimi. Blue Fin is BYOB, but with a $2.50 corking fee per person. 

Rolls n Bowls: The bonzai mushroom appetizer is super tasty. Gyoza were also good and really crispy. The ramen is a huge portion and yummy, but not amazing-umami-wowness that you want in a ramen broth. Spring fever roll was pretty good. BYOB!

rolls n bowls sushi chicago

Date night at Rolls n Bowls

Chicago burger battle

Who doesn’t like burgers? No one. Shooooot, even vegetarians want to get down with some burger action.; that’s why you see a vegetarian option on almost every burger menu these days.

So, of course, we decided that it was our mission to eat a bunch of burgers in Chicago and share our thoughts with you, dear readers, all in one place, so you can navigate this city’s burger options with ease. We’ll share our thoughts on what we think are key burger needs, but the bottom-line baromoter will be: Would I have been happier with Wendy’s?

(Yes, it’s fast food but damn, it’s the one of the best fast food burgers out there.)

Judgement criteria:

  • Presentation: Does it look appetizing?
  • Eatability: Can I actually fit this in my mouth?
  • Burger Seasoning: Salt, pepper, and seasoning levels.
  • Temp/Doneness/Juiciness: It is cooked properly, is it dry?
  • Combination: Bun, Cheese, Toppings (Does it add or detract from the overall experience of the burger? Especially for “signature” burgers.)

Chicago burger battle


Current Standings: Rocking Horse>Standard Bar

The Rocking Horse

-The Bacon Jam Burger. (sorry, no picture. It’s a dark place)

  • Presentation: Good size, not so tall that we couldn’t eat it but also felt like we got our money’s worth.
  • Eatability: Solid two hander.
  • Burger Seasoning: 9/10 Tasted meaty and had great seasoning.
  • Temp/Doneness/Juiciness: We ordered it medium but it was closer to medium rare. Not the worst thing in the world.
  • Combination: 7/10. Flavors were great but it was the texture was one note. It’s served w/out a garden so it was lacking in any kind of crunch. Throw on some crispy bacon and I’d inhale this beast.
  • Wendy’s? Maybe. If we’re just going for food, yes. If food and beers then no.

Bottom line: All in all it’s a good burger for the price ($11) with the two-dollar truffle tots (which are basically crack BTW). The reason you’d come here besides the crack tots is undoubtedly the atmosphere. It’s located in Logan Square and has a dive bar/hipster rock vibe that makes this a great joint to get a beer and burger with buds.


Standard Bar

Cortland Burger

– The Cortland St. Burger.

  • Presentation: Impressive, tall, slightly intimidating.
  • Eatability: Initial impression was WTF? But it worked.
  • Burger Seasoning: 4/10. Was bland. Was lacking in the typical beef flavor.
  • Temp/Doneness/Juiciness: Cooked properly, but a little cold. More watery than juicy.
  • Combination: 6/10. Bites with the bacon were best, needed the salt. The rest of the toppings were fairly typical. Cheese difficult to detect. Bun was good quality.
  • Wendy’s? Yep. Too expensive for the experience.

Bottom Line: Overall it worked but was nothing out of the ordinary. We picked it because it had won the 2012 Chicago Magazine award and 2013 Roscoe Village Burger Fest award although I can’t really see why… Maybe they produced a better burger for the event. It wasn’t busy when we were there.


Chicago buffalo wing battle

As many food enthusiasts/people with a pulse/David Letterman (COLBERT???) know there is a top ten list for everything and anything under the sun. So we figured hell, let’s make our own. We’re starting with buffalo wings. Because buffalo is both a delicious wing flavor as well as epic “OH MY GOD WHY DID I EVER SAY YES TO THIS?” drinking game.

Chicago buffalo wing battle.

(WORK IN PROGRESS) We learned quickly that we are wing purists. Spicy Asian garlic, garlic parmesan, Caribbean jerk,  BBQ???? Who the hell knows? It’s NOT buffalo sauce. Buffalo wings should be:

  • Classic buffalo goodness. Vinegary “tingling sides of your tongue” and spicy-to-a-point sauce.
  • NO breading. It’s soggy nastiness.
  • Super crispy. Filled with hot juices that make you say “uff da.”
  • Fall off the bone succulent. Done and done.
  • Chunky bleu cheese dressing and crisp celery stalks.

LET THE BATTLE BEGIN!! (Cue Mortal Kombat theme music)

Current standings: The Harding Tavern > Frontier > Fifty/50

Our barometer is 50-cent wings at McNamaras. They meet all of the above criteria, but do not excel in any particular category. Good all around wings. AND A DEAL!!

The Harding Tavern

Harding Tavern Wings


  • Price: $7 for roughly 8 wings. Each wing costs less than a dollar!
  • Sauce: Tangy, buffaloey goodness. Nicely balanced. Not swimming in dressing. They’re from a chicken, not a duck.
  • Breading: Not breaded. +1
  • Crispiness: 8.5/10. Skin was great but they added shaved carrots to the wings which was surprisingly delightful.
  • Juiciness: 9/10 – These were fantastic. Properly cooked with a nice crispy skin and soft juicy chicken underneath
  • Chunky Bleu Cheese: This one was a little different. Rather than having dressing on the side there were bleu cheese crumbles on top. Side of dressing was an option but we were intrigued and decided to go sans dressing on this one.
  • Would we have gone to Mac’s? Nope! Good flavor, crispy and the price point was spot on. Good experience.



What’s unique about the wings at Frontier is that they’re “lollipop wings,” which makes them classy.


  • Price: $12 for five large, lollipop wings.
  • Sauce: Delicious, thick, Frank’s red-hot style sauce. The downside: There wasn’t enough of it. I get that this is place that emphasizes meats of all kinds, though, and that this is a riff on standard bar wings, and thus understand the drizzle over drowning.
  • Breading: They were breaded, which normally would be a bad thing, but in this case with a cornmeal breading, it worked. Well.
  • Crispiness: 10/10
  • Juiciness: 9/10
  • Chunky bleu cheese: We got it. And it was homemade.
  • Would we have rather gone to Mac’s? NOPE!


  • Price: $11 for eight wings.
  • Sauce: Too spicy yet also strangely sweet. Honey sweet at first, then felt like burning, with little flavor to back it up.
  • Breading: They were breaded. -1.
  • Crispiness: 5/10
  • Juiciness: 9/10
  • Chunky bleu cheese: We got it.
  • Would we have rather gone to Mac’s? Yes.

Bottom Line: We checked this place out because we found it on several best wing lists. It unfortunately did not live up to the hype. It was super busy due to the hawks game, but the fried pickles and onion rings were delicious, so that’s no excuse. This came down to the breading and sauce.

Homemade General Tso’s Chicken.

As many of you know, I (Brock) am a FIEND when it comes to General Tso’s Chicken. It’s all I order from Chinese restaurants and the standard by which I judge all others. So to be fair, Laurel and I decided to try it on our own and see if we can make our own Chinese deliciousness at home. Here is the evidence of our attempt…

We followed the Serious Eats recipe for “The Best General Tso’s Chicken,” because Serious Eats is arguably the best food website on the planet, and their food lab experiments are the bomb.

We prepped everything a few hours ahead of time, so we just had to cook when we wanted dinner, which was a good call. Since we’re newbies, no timer was used, but I’d estimate 20 minutes prep + 30 minutes cooking. Fair warning, I’m (Laurel) a terrible estimator.

homemade general tsos sauce

Sauteeing aromatics and making the sauce

homemade General Tsos chicken

Chicken in sauce, then dredged, and finally fried. (We did the marinating as part of prep, dredging and frying during actual cooking time.)

homemade General Tso's chicken


homemade General Tsos taste test

Brock’s taste test and approval!

We had to buy a lot of ingredients to make this the first time (and will hopefully soon have a post about the gin we’ll make with the leftover vodka, because that’s good for nothing but Bloody Marys in our book) but with a decent pantry/freezer, and knowing that we’ll have random cravings for the General, we could probably pull this off anytime from here on out. And it wouldn’t take too much longer than waiting for delivery.


  • Crispy! Adding part of the marinade to the dry mix is CLUTCH.
  • Nice balance of flavors, but  not quite spot-on with the General Tso’s Brock craves.
  • Chicken done properly.
  • Rice perfectly done. (L: Brock is too nice to me. The rice was my job, and adequate.)
  • Bonus: No off-putting, uhm, side effects that sometimes come with Chinese take-out.


  • Saltier, sweeter, spicier.
  • Less time consuming. (But it was quite easy. Also, worth noting this is a Brock complaint.)
  • Dish washer? As in, damn we had a lot of dishes to do after this was done. Live and learn.

Leftovers (microwaved at work): Flavor = excellent, texture = no longer crispy (obv), overall though, happy with it. Better than reheating take-out.

Tweaks for next time:

  • Play around with the sauce a bit … maybe add come garlic-chili paste … and add more green onions. We’ll break some of the chiles next time to release more heat, and taste test the sauce along the way more.
  • Remember to buy a new candy/deep fry thermometer.

Bottom line: When you want Chinese / General Tso’s, don’t you typically just want to be lazy and have someone bring you delicious(?) food you can eat for three days? Maybe. Definitely sometimes. So is planning and making and eating this General Tso’s worth it?


Now we just need to try our hands at egg rolls.

Comment of the adventure: “It’s either you have children or you enjoy drinking all day.”

PS: Worth noting: With the leftover rice, ginger and single lonely chicken thigh, we made a riff on this ginger fried rice … added diced chicken to the leeks for the last five minutes or so, and stirred the eggs into the dish. Pretty awesome.