I am prone to forgetting that I live in a world-class city. I live right outside Chicago, and Millenium Park and the Magnificent Mile are literally just a train ride away. Around these parts, entertaining visitors is awfully easy, assuming big-city excitement appeals to them.
I don’t wish to speak badly about Chicago, because it is such a beautiful city, but I feel a little homespun entertainment is necessary to balance all the glitz and glamour of Chicago. I like my glamour in small doses, preferably no larger than a martini glass, sipped while sitting inside the spectacular lobby of the Palmer House Hilton, a hotel that I still feel a little bit funny entering, as though I’m spying on the high-rollers as they slink around in their heels and dresses, expensive suits and gold watches, doing their best to look as though they belong there. I certainly don’t feel like I belong there, until I look around the lobby and spot the tourists who must be in Chicago on a school trip, all wearing matching t-shirts and the older women wearing fanny packs.
I first saw the inside of the Palmer House Hilton about ten months ago. It was late December, and a blizzard of huge wet snowflakes was swirling around outside. I was meeting Matt inside the lobby; we had plans to go out for dinner at a hip downtown restaurant, another place where I feel as though I don’t belong. I was dressed up for dinner and bundled up for the weather: grey winter peacoat, pink scarf, pink hat, fat purple mittens. After exiting the train station, I circled the block like a shark, looking for the Palmer House entrance, which seemed to be missing, despite the signs: “Parking for Palmer House Hilton this way!” Finally, cold, wet, exhausted, I slipped into the hotel through a little side entrance and followed a long hallway into the lobby. I looked up, felt my jaw drop open, and stood there, stunned.
Walking into the lobby of the Palmer House Hilton is a little like stepping into a palace. At first, all I could see was gold and light and people everywhere. The surfaces sparkled and glowed; the crowd seemed radiantly happy, sipping drinks inside this palace. I thawed out for a moment, the snowflakes still melting on my hat and dripping down my face. While a puddle formed around me, I tipped my head back and squinted to examine the paintings on the ceiling, images of human figures who seemed quite content not to be wearing much clothing at all. How very appropriate, I thought to myself, to be meeting Matt in a place like this. It was just like him: lush and grand, indulgently beautiful and welcoming to all of us who were retreating from the blizzard.
It was, I decided later, the perfect place to take my sister for a little big-city glitz when she came to visit me over Labor Day. I figured it was the least I could for Theresa after she hopped on a plane, flew over Lake Michigan, and greeted me with a smile and a hug at the airport. So on a warm Sunday afternoon, we boarded the Metra commuter train and zipped downtown for a little shopping and sight-seeing. After some difficult decision-making at Macy’s, I was ready for a drink. Entering the Palmer House lobby, we were surrounded by fancy people drinking fancy things. But we managed to snag two girlie cocktails, a plate of bruschetta, and a comfy little couch with a table in front of it. I got tanked off of half a martini and warned her that she might have to carry me out of that place. We nibbled our appetizer and plotted our next move, which ended up being over to Millenium Park, where dozens of kids splashed in the face fountain, and Theresa insisted we wait until the digital face display shot water out of its mouth. We wrapped up our big-city adventure with a trip to Trader Joe’s and deliciously salty chimichangas at a little hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant, where their table salsa will set your hair on fire with its heat. Woo-wee! Good stuff! That was a fun night.
Big-city entertainment is always so much more fun with a person you love. So is cooking at home. Even better is when your guest comes up with a calzone recipe that can rival Matt’s. I had e-mailed Theresa with the links to my Spinach and Zucchini Calzones and Matt’s Calzones. She countered with another idea: take Matt’s basic recipe with those delicious artichokes and add seasoned spinach to them. It sounded like a great idea in words and turned out to be an even better idea in our mouths. In order to fit a layer of spinach into the calzones, I used a light hand with the cheese and the other vegetables that go into Matt’s recipe, which meant that we had little bits of this and that left over after we made dinner.
In a flash of brilliance, Theresa suggested we make a morning-after egg scramble with our leftover onions, artichokes, and spinach. My goodness, was that a breakfast to remember. I made the scramble with a couple spoonfuls of cottage cheese, a trick my mom uses to make her scrambled eggs especially fluffy and flavorful. Theresa and I love scrambled eggs with cottage cheese. Our scramble was one of these best I’ve ever eaten--each bite was a little different, sometimes creamy, sometimes sweet with onion, sometimes herbal and green with spinach. We ate our eggs with these blueberry ricotta pancakes and a tart, lemony blueberry sauce that Theresa couldn’t get enough of.
I love it when people come out to visit me. My sister’s visit was especially meaningful. It was, to me, a gesture of friendship and love; we hadn't seen each other in nine months, since my last trip to Michigan. Adult siblings don’t have to be friends, but I want to be friends with my sister. I haven’t always been kind to her. Since college, I’ve been striving to build our relationship, one baby step after the other. More than a few times I’ve tripped and said something mean or done something thoughtless, but I want to keep trying. I think she does too.
Theresa’s Spinach Artichoke Calzones
Serves 4 as an entrée
Like I said a little earlier, this recipe is an adaptation of Matt’s Calzones. He might be offended by the addition of spinach, but if so, he’ll have to duke it out with Theresa (and me), because these calzones are delicious. I kept the caramelized onions, which I think are outstanding, so maybe he’ll be happy with that.
Keep any leftover bits that don’t get stuffed into your calzones and make Theresa’s Egg Scramble with Vegetables and Cottage Cheese (see below for recipe). You’ll be happy you had leftovers!
1 recipe Pizza Dough for Calzones and Other Good Things or ~1 lb of storebought pizza dough
1 perfect yellow onion
Olive oil (roughly 1-5 tbsp.)
2-4 cloves of garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 10-oz. package of frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed to remove the excess liquid
1/2 tsp. dried basil
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1 14.5-oz. can artichoke hearts
Handful of shredded monterey jack or other similar cheese
Spicy Italian seasoning
Marinara sauce to taste (out of a can or a jar; pick your favorite flavor)
1) Get the pizza dough going first. It will need to rise for about an hour, which gives you plenty of time for the next step: caramelizing the onions!
2) Chop the onion in half, remove the ends, and then chop the remainder into 1/4-inch slices. Discard the tiny pieces from the center, or core, of the onion, as these pieces will end up burning rather than caramelizing during the cooking. Into a large pot (preferably not non-stick), pour enough oil to coat the bottom and heat the pot over medium heat. Add some of the onions to this pot, tossing them in oil. Add more onions and toss, adding more oil as needed to make sure the onions are well-coated. Repeat adding onions and oil until everything is in the pot and cooking. Cook for a few minutes over medium heat, stirring frequently and checking to make sure the onions are well-coated in oil and not sticking to the bottom of the pan. Turn the heat down to medium low or low and cook the onions for 30-60 minutes, depending on how much time you have. Stir them frequently (Matt recommends every minute or so), scraping up the tasty bits on the bottom.
3) While the onions are going, you can get the spinach going. Heat 1 tbsp. of olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet. Add the garlic and saute for a minute or two until it smells fragrant and is lightly golden. Add the spinach, basil, and oregano (crumble the herbs into the spinach by rubbing them between your fingers; this trick helps to release their flavors), and toss everything together to mix it very well. Cook the spinach over medium heat for a few minutes to infuse it with the flavor of the oil, garlic, and herbs. Turn off the heat and set aside until you are ready to assemble the calzones.
4) Drain the artichoke hearts. Chop them in half, removing any rough, unappetizing layers. Place them in a bowl. Place the cheese in another bowl to make assembling the calzones easy. Feel free to sample any and all of your ingredients as a quality-control measure.
5) Once the onions and the pizza dough are ready, you are ready to assemble the calzones. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Spray a large baking sheet lightly with cooking spray. Taking one piece of dough, place it on a clean, lightly floured surface and use a rolling pin or a drinking glass to roll it out into an oval roughly eight inches in length and 4-5 inches wide. Place the oval on the prepped baking sheet. On one half of the oval, fill the calzone by layering some cheese, caramelized onions, a few pieces of artichoke, and a small scoop of spinach. If you like, you can top the spinach with more cheese. Sprinkle Italian seasoning on the unfilled side of the calzone and fold it over the filled half to form a half-moon shape. Use your fingers to pinch the calzone shut. Repeat this calzone-assembly process with the remaining three pieces of dough to make four filled calzones. Use a spoon to drizzle olive oil on the top of the calzones, smoothing it over the dough with the back of the spoon. Sprinkle a little more Italian seasoning on top if you like.
6) Bake the calzones at 400 degrees F for 15-20 minutes, or until the dough is nicely golden brown on the outside. I find that 15 minutes is a little underdone for my taste, but 20 minutes might be too much. So take a peak after 15 minutes; if the dough is looking fairly pale, give it another few minutes, checking frequently.
7) Serve hot from the oven, passing around the marinara sauce at the table for dipping. Since the calzones will be piping hot, it’s nice to have the marinara sauce at room temperature to make each bite of calzone just cool enough to eat.
Theresa’s Egg Scramble with Vegetables and Cottage Cheese
Serves 2 generously, especially when accompanied by a few pancakes!
This recipe sounds vague, but precise instructions would be overkill here. Throw in whatever you have lounging in your refrigerator that goes well with eggs, and then dig in.
4 large fresh eggs
A few spoonfuls of any leftover vegetables from Theresa’s Spinach Artichoke Calzones, such as seasoned spinach, artichokes, or caramelized onions (yum!)
A few spoonfuls of cottage cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
1) Crack the eggs into a medium mixing bowl. Give them a few brisk stirs to scramble the yolks into the whites and add the vegetables and cheese. Stir again a few times to combine. Add a little salt and pepper.
2) Lightly spray a nonstick skillet with cooking spray. Place the skillet over medium-low heat. Pour in the egg mixture, and cook for several minutes, stirring frequently. The eggs are done when they have cooked to the firmness that you like. I like my eggs well-cooked but still soft and a tiny bit wet. Taste, season with more salt and/or pepper as you like. Divide the eggs between two plates and eat with gusto.