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Imagine turning your house into a restaurant for one night…literally. For some of us with beautiful showpiece kitchens and separate dining rooms, perhaps it wouldn’t be so difficult. For those of us in otherwise (quite) cramped Chicago quarters, it might be next to impossible. But perhaps you were provided with a local chef, all the right ingredients, the right amount of time to prepare your meal, beautiful dishes and servingware, tables and seating, and a staff to run food and pour drinks… Let’s just say, with enough help, anything is possible.

 

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Turning her home into a restaurant, very much quite literally, was Cara, our host for Morton Salt’s Next Door Chef in Chicago. Cara opened her doors to local chef Jason Vincent (Giant, Logan Square) and his crew, along with the team from Morton Salt to transform her home from the place you hang your hat, to a chic pop up restaurant known as Cara’s Place, serving a three course dinner for one night only.

Lucky enough to score an invite, my trusted companion (blog wife), Chrissy and I walked in, definitely not knowing what to expect. Had my own home been turned into a restaurant, you would have seen me likely semi-clothed, running around putting the finishing touches on outfit, hair and makeup, with a Monica Geller-esque bedroom holding all my worldly possessions out of sight of my guests. Something would almost definitely be on fire in the kitchen, and more than likely, I’d be swearing like a sailor and sweating profusely.

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None of that happened at Cara’s. We walked into an elegant scene that truly looked like a restaurant, a hostess greeted us and directed us to the bar, and I happily obliged, picking up the specialty cocktail of the evening, the Salty ‘Rita, prepared with gin instead of the standard tequila and served straight up with a rim of Morton’s Kosher Salt. Perhaps you know this salt – it’s the one in the blue box, and famously known for THE salt that rims margarita glasses. Yes, it’s amazing, and yes, the gin Salty Rita was certainly salty, but also very delicious. Oh, and Morton Kosher Salt – it’s NOT just for rimming your glasses.

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After mingling for a bit with some fellow familiar faces, we were seated for dinner service. The table was beautifully set, and we were lucky enough to eat dinner with Cara’s mom! We learned a bit about Cara, our elusive hostess, who at this point I assumed was trying desperately to squeeze herself into proper dinner attire while smearing eyeliner all over her lids. Oh wait – no, that would again have been me preparing a three course meal for a bunch of foodie strangers.

Still no sign of Cara, but ah! dinner was about to start. The first course was Brussels Sprouts with pears and pecorino cheese with a ginger almond dressing, finished with Morton Coarse Sea Salt. Don’t worry, this dish was as absolutely phenomenal as it sounded. It was the perfect way to start dinner, and the Rosé that accompanied the rest of dinner was the ideal drink accompaniment.

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The second course was somehow even better than the first, with a theme made for Thanksgiving. We were served roasted and brined turkey (yes!), spicy rice (yes!!) and the best sweet potatoes I’ve ever tasted (YES!!!). The turkey was beautifully plated, served over the spicy rice with the sweet potatoes on the side. The turkey was brined in Morton Kosher Salt, and the breast and thigh were rubbed with spices and more kosher salt. Served with a creamy cilantro sauce on top, and the spicy (oh yes, it was spicy) rice underneath, it was the perfect blend of mild and spicy, yin and yang. Kosher salt stole the show, as both the spicy rice, made with Thai chili, peanuts and cilantro, and the sweet potatoes, made with bacon, maple syrup, anchovy, parmesan and sour cream were also seasoned with the coarse salt. I just need to take a moment to bask in how absolutely delightful the sweet potatoes were – I’ve honestly never tasted anything like them, and I’ll be sure to post the recipe for you asap!

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After our second course we were full, but come on, I’ve always saved room for dessert, and was happy to find a giant (hey, like Jason Vincent’s restaurant!) chocolate chip cookie, dusted with kosher salt. Thin and crispy isn’t my idea of a great cookie, but somehow this thin cookieseemed to magically disappear. So much for saving any sort of calories on this meal. Maybe I’ll rethink my perspective on thin and crispy cookies.

During our dessert course, Cara came out from behind the kitchen doors, along with our executive chef for the evening, Jason Vincent. Cara couldn’t have been more welcoming, and a put-together and polished At Home Chef, unlike yours truly. They answered our questions, and while Chef Jason admitted that Cara had a lot of help, he also said they truly worked together to create the dishes. It took time to create and set up, but in the kitchen, they worked as a team.

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This whole experience made me stop to think that salt is one of those funny things that isn’t ever really the star of a meal, but it HAS to be there in order to be done right. A key phrase in our household growing up was “I didn’t add very much salt to this, so make sure you add it yourself.” But topping your dish with salt at the end just can’t compare to when salt is added during cooking, or adding a sprinkle of coarse salt at the end. Morton Salt not only makes kosher salt, which is preferred by chefs, and was certainly the salt star for our experience at Cara’s, but they also have coarse sea salt and fine sea salt. Both kosher and the coarse sea salt add texture to a dish when sprinkled on top, and fine sea salt dissolves quickly, making it perfect for blended meal elements, like soups, sauces and marinades.

If you can somehow be as calm, cool and collected as Cara, you can go to MortonSalt.com/NextDoorChef to download your own hosting kit complete with recipes and how-to steps to add that extra something to your meal. BONUS – for added fun, see if you can spot me in the video here:

And, hey, if you do host your own “Next Door Chef” party or have a recipe idea for using Morton Kosher or sea salt, post your photos using #NextDoorChef.

Dinner at Cara’s made me realize two things: 1) that I need to get myself over to Giant, Chef Jason Vincent’s restaurant in Logan Square, and 2) I somehow WILL recreate those sweet potatoes. Main Squeeze is going to be truly delighted to learn they take anchovies – he LOVES them and will gladly eat any leftovers right out of the can. Oh, and a bonus 3) I’m going to make myself a BIG margarita with extra Morton Kosher Salt.

* I was compensated by Morton Salt for this post. All opinions expressed here are my own.

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So guess what!? Ravioli has its own holiday (it’s today, March 20!), and I can’t think of a more deserving stuffed pasta. Good for you, ravioli!! I’m pretty sure we should all have the day off because of it, and if you’re reading this during work hours, go ahead and take the rest of the day for yourself – you deserve it.

As a very important food blogger, I sometimes get the alert to national food holidays I might not have known about, and get to try foods that aren’t on my list of dazzling go-tos like bananas and tuna pouches. Giovanni Rana contacted me because they are participating in some beneficial hashtag fun for National Ravioli Day. Each time the phrase #RanaRavioliChallenge is used on social media today, Giovanni Rana will donate 1LB of pasta to the Northern Illinois Food Bank.* Hey, if I can provide a bit of buzz for a company doing some good in my little corner of the interwebs, then it’s basically awesome for everyone, but especially me, because in this case, I get to eat some really good ravioli.

Rana Ravioli

Ravioli and I have been in a steady relationship for quite a few years now, ever since Chef Boyardee won me over as a child with his scrumptious canned pasta. Seriously, my brother and I couldn’t wait until Friday night when we were served something Chef B created by Chef Mom. Friday night was ravioli and TGIF, thereby making it the best night of the week.

Fast forward 25 (whoa) years, and ravioli still has a special place in my heart. I’m eating (somewhat) less canned pasta now, and I’m onto ravioli the grown-up way – fresh, or sometimes even deep fried. Oh, and I’m really, really into Bolognese…

Let’s talk about how delicious this Rana Ravioli is. It’s really good, and takes barely any time to cook, so you can get your ravioli eating on pronto. The variety I tried was the Caprese Duet with Bolognese sauce, which has two different colors and fillings, tomato mozzarella and basil pesto – basically awesome for the girl who has a hard time making up her mind.

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Rana Ravioli with Bolognese

As with many foods I love (sour cream, cream cheese), this Bolognese sauce falls into the category of “inappropriate to eat with just a spoon, but it’s so delicious you really want to”. Yes, that perfectly explains my thoughts and feelings on the sauce.

So, get out there and celebrate National Ravioli Day, and remember to tag #RanaRavioliChallenge on your Twitters, Instagrams and Facebooks to help the Northern Illinois Food Bank.

*This post is sponsored by Giovanni Rana, and I received the pasta and sauce gratis; thoughts and opinions are my own. Guests, friends, and family are invited to post up to three times on National Ravioli Day (March 20) on the same or different social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or others) to increase the amount of pasta donated.

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