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chicago cheap ass (13)
Drink, Food,

GIVEAWAY: Best Chicago Tea Spots

I’m somewhat of an anomaly in our extremely caffeinated world. I HATE coffee. I don’t know what it is about the brew – I’m just not a fan. As such, I’ve adapted to 9-5 job life by pledging my allegiance to another popular caffeinated beverage: tea. Tea has a lot of awesome health benefits, but really as far as I’m concerned, it just tastes better. Check out my picks for purchasing and enjoying tea in Chicago and beyond!

Argo Tea

Chicago Tea

Green Tea Strawberry
Source: Argo Tea

Argo Tea has to be my favorite tea spot in Chicago. They have so many delicious signature drinks that can be served hot or cold, and they rotate new ones in and out on a monthly basis. Past that, there are so many different customization options – they really have something for everyone. Loose-leaf tea canisters tend to cost about $10-12, which is a great value for the everyday tea drinker. When I buy a container of loose leaf tea, it lasts FOREVER. I have 3 or 4 that I use all the time, I got them a year ago, and I’m not more than halfway through any of them. They also have a solid LoyalTEA (see what they did there?) loyalty program that rewards the frequent hand-crafted tea drinker. Besides Argo Tea, the remaining tea spots on this list don’t necessarily advertise the fact that you can get a drink to go (as opposed to purchasing loose-leaf tea to brew yourself), but Argo Tea specializes in these beverages. I love their flavored green and white teas. If I had to pick just one to recommend, I’d suggest the Green Tea Strawberry. It mixes great with lemonade after being cooled down with ice!

Adagio Teas

Chicago Teas

Ali Shan Tea Source: Adagio Teas

Adagio is where I first fell in love with loose-leaf tea. I got a Groupon (still available through the link) for a tea tasting and (which included a ceramic teapot!) when a tea-loving friend was in town to visit. I decided to taste a few types of tea I hadn’t really given a chance to before – oolong and white tea. Their Ali Shan Tea is a premium oolong tea that I love. Did you know that oolong tea improves digestion? You’ll learn this and many other fun facts about tea if you go through the tasting experience! Personally, I’m pretty obsessed with green tea because of it’s metabolic benefits and how it tastes. But once I gave these two new varieties a chance, I keep replacing them whenever they run out. I would consider Adagio to be slightly more premium than Argo Tea, with a wider selection. They have a ridiculous amount of tea-related accessories – tea brewing apparatuses, travel mugs, etc. This store is the tea-aficionado’s dream.

DavidsTea

Chicago Tea

Countess of Seville Tea Source: DavidsTea

DavidsTea is an interesting tea store. It has elements of Argo Tea and Adagio Teas, in that you can get a to-go drink and they have plenty of tea accessories. But there is something that also makes it completely different. DavidsTea offers a lot of unique tea blends that change the flavor you’d expect to get from the respective tea bases (green, white, oolong, etc). For some of my tea-loving friends, this is unacceptable. They don’t like DavidsTea because the tea has weird additives that make it into more of a novelty than a detoxifying beverage. DavidsTea is probably a good place to go if you don’t have many preconceived notions about how tea should taste, or aren’t a purist. My favorite tea is the Countess of Seville, which is a green tea that draws similarities to a black tea.

Coffee & Tea Exchange

Chicago Teas

On the purely local business side of things in Chicago is the Coffee & Tea Exchange in Lakeview. This place is awesome. There are so many different tea (and coffee, obviously) varieties, and the presentation includes colorful and crafty hand-drawn signs (see picture). You can ask for as much or as little tea as you want, and it’s priced and packaged accordingly. The Coffee & Tea Exchange is a great place to go if you like to try a lot of different varieties and don’t want to be stuck with the same flavor for a long time. Or if you don’t want to shell out a lot of money at once for a large amount of tea that might go bad. I like their gunpowder green tea and super-affordable matcha tea.

Teabox

Obviously great tea options aren’t limited to the geographic area of Chicago. In fact, all of the aforementioned companies ship across the United States if there’s not a physical location near you (Hi, non-Chicago readers!). But another option that requires even less effort is to purchase a subscription to a service that curates different teas each month. Teabox is one such service.

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The packaging itself is reason enough to order a subscription. It’s functional and informative. It used to be (when I got this box) that you pay $15 each month (including shipping!), you get a specially-curated selection of fresh teas. The box I got focused on minimal-caffeine teas to wind down with at night.

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What I love about each individual tea is the attention to detail. Check out the label that tells you what exactly the tea is, what it smells like, tastes like, what you should add to it (if anything!) and some very specific steeping instructions. I don’t think any of the aforementioned companies can make the same claims about attention to detail in the tea tasting experience. Teabox comes highly recommended by me as a company that truly understands tea.

Teabox has changed their strategy slightly as of late. Now, their process is more personalized where you take a quiz to determine the type of tea that best suits your taste and lifestyle – the first company in the tea industry to go this route. Another awesome feature – it’s only $9.99 each month!

Giveaway!

Argo Tea and Adagio Tea both donated products to be given away to you lucky readers! Enter below:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Where’s your favorite place to enjoy tea in Chicago? Or buy some to enjoy at work? Let us know in the comments!

*Disclosure: Argo Tea, Adagio, and Teabox each donated products and giftcards when I reached out to them about writing this article.

chicago cheap ass (10)
Drink, Food, Recipes,

I Threw Some Fruit Into A Mason Jar With Vodka And Now All My Friends Think I’m A Fancy Mixologist

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Put that shit down.

You heard me. Yeah, you with that bottle of birthday cake flavored vodka. Put it down right now. You make me sick. Though, not as sick as you’re gonna make yourself when you down it all in one night and wake up the next day with a high-fructose-corn-syrup-induced hangover to end all hangovers.

Do not allow BIG ALCOHOL to dictate your flavored-spirit whims. You can make your own flavored liquors at home, and it’s super easy, not to mention the fact that it makes you seem like some fancy microdistiller hipster.

Cocktail Infusions

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dinnerseries

Which, well, isn’t necessarily a good thing. Just don’t go buying a fedora or anything.

Anyway, all you really have to do to make flavored spirits is to buy a big ol’ thing of cheap-but-not-undrinkable liquor, a mason jar, and whatever you want the spirit to taste like. Then you chop the flavoring agent, whether it’s a fruit, vegetable, or a handful of raw shrimp (do not do this) and throw it into the mason jar. Cover with the spirit of your choice, and just, like, leave it in the fridge for a few days. Taste and shake the jar every day, and when you think it’s done, strain it through a cheesecloth and label it. It’s really that easy.

Let’s do some math. Depending on what kind of spirit you get, a big bottle of cheap liquor will cost somewhere between 15 and 25 bucks. That’ll be enough for you to make 4 decent-sized infusions. Throw in the cost of fruits, vegetables, and whatever else you want to use to flavor your hooch, and the total cost will average somewhere around 30 bucks for a whole bunch of delicious flavored spirits. Compare that to the $19.99 per 750mL that Smirnoff charges for their whipped cream flavored vodka.

In terms of specific infusion recipes and strategies, feel free to get creative, but I would be remiss if I didn’t give you a few tips to start you off on this wonderful boozy journey.

Usually, it’s best to infuse vodka. It’s relatively tasteless, so it absorbs flavor well. It’ll go with pretty much anything. Rum is similar, but with a sweeter flavor. Generally, the lighter the spirit is, the better it will take to other flavors. Once you get into spiced rums, bourbons, whiskeys, and aged tequilas, you should be careful when infusing, because you run the risk of overpowering the spirit’s natural taste.

Some combinations that I’ve found work well include:

Mango Habanero Vodka (use 1 small habanero, and leave it whole for this recipe.)
Cucumber Lime Gin (when using citrus, you can choose to either just use the peel for a more bitter, zesty flavor, or cut the citrus into rings for a more juicy flavor.)
Vanilla Whiskey (split the vanilla bean lengthwise and pour the whiskey on top. Strain after a day. Vanilla is a very strong flavoring agent.)
Kiwi Coconut Rum (getting the flesh from a fresh coconut sucks. I know. Trust me. It’s worth it. Get a fresh one, crack it, and toast it in the oven before infusing.)

Now, before you get started, a few words of warning.

Infusing with chocolate can be dicey. The resulting cloudy liquor will be difficult to strain, and sometimes can take on a sour taste. Be very careful here. Infusing with caramel, however, is delicious, despite the fact that it also takes hours to strain. When coming up with your own flavor profiles, think of things that complement the nature of the spirit itself. Herbal vodkas work quite well, but herbal gins are a trickier proposition given the floral and herbal nature of the spirit itself.

At the end of the day, though, if you mess up, it only cost you like, 7 bucks, and hell, it’ll still get you drunk. Plus, now you know firsthand not to try to infuse gin with a handful of raw shrimp. Maybe you should listen to me next time. Don’t worry. I’ll call the ambulance for you.

chicago cheap ass (3)
Drink, Food, Recipes,

Cooking Tips For City Living: Sell All Your Possessions And Buy A Wok

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I see you.

I see you watching the Food Network on weeknights, laughing every time someone forgets an ingredient on Chopped. I hear you mutter to yourself “I could do better” in between bites of reheated Chinese take-out. I feel it when you roll your eyes at Rachel Ray, Alton Brown, and at Bobby Flay, wondering why they’re famous and you’re not. Then you finish your microwaved meal and continue picking Dorito crumbs out of your belly button, just like you do every day.

No more.

Today, we embark on an adventure. Throw away your microwave. Clean out your freezer. Set your “instant” foods ablaze and never look upon them again. Today, my friends, we cook.

And hell, it’s not as hard as you think.

If you live in the city (of course you do, why would you be reading this otherwise), you most likely have a few, but not many, cooking vessels and implements for stovetop use. Maybe a skillet and a few pots.

You don’t need them.

No, friends, the only tool you will need to boil, sauté, steam, and deep fry is a wok. I recommend ones made by The Wok Shop in San Francisco—I own one, and I couldn’t be happier.

When choosing a wok, there are a few important things to keep in mind. The most important thing is to get something light, preferably made from carbon steel. You want something that will get hot fast, and be manageable enough to toss over the heat. Oh, and also, if you have an electric or induction stove, you’ll need a flat bottomed wok. Otherwise you’ll be forced to balance the wok on its end while you cook and that just sounds like the most terrible thing. If you’re cooking with gas, you can get either a flat bottom wok, or a normal round-bottomed one and mount it on a wok ring.

You’ll also want a wok with some texture to it. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the whole point of a wok is that parts of it get super-hot, while parts stay relatively cool. The texture on the sides of the wok allows you to push cooked food up to the cooler sides of the wok to avoid burning while other food cooks near the bottom.

You shouldn’t pay more than 40 bucks for a nice big wok, and you really can use it for pretty much any kitchen task you can think of. You can scramble eggs in it, cook pasta in it, deep fry in it, steam vegetables in it, or, of course, make yourself a stir fry.

Oh, but you don’t have any shelf space! Where are you going to put this gigantic wok? Aw, jeez. Sorry, guys. My bad. Go return it.

Or you could just hammer a nail into your drywall above your stove and hang the wok from there. Woks actually look really good hung up in a kitchen, and despite their size, will be both out of the way and readily available there.

So you have your wok! Time to start cooking!

Hah, just kidding. Nah, you’re not ready yet. And neither is your wok. You gotta season it first. The Wok Shop has a pretty great video guide for a few different ways you can season your wok, but if you’re pressed for time or just don’t want to watch a video, here’s how I seasoned mine.

First, you’re gonna want to wash the wok thoroughly with hot soapy water, and then dry it by setting it on high heat on your stove until all the moisture evaporates.

While this is happening, chop a whole bunch of scallions, and mince a big ol’ handful each of ginger and garlic. Open a door or window. Things are about to get really smoky.

Keep the wok on the stove, and turn the heat all the way up if you haven’t already. You want the wok to be screaming hot. You’ll know you’re ready for the next step by flicking some water at the wok. If the wok hisses loudly at you like an angry cat, you can move on.

Take the wok off the heat and pop a couple tablespoons of a neutral fat (canola or vegetable works here, but traditionalists like to use lard) in the wok and toss it around so that it coats the bottom and sides. Throw the scallions, ginger, and garlic in there.

Burn the fuck out of them.

I’m serious. Burning these elements until they are carbon-black will release an enzyme that will keep the food you cook in the wok from tasting ever-so-slightly of, uh, metal. While you stir-fry, make sure you get the oil and aromatics up to the sides of the wok.

Continue tossing until the color of the wok starts to change. You’re looking for just a slight tinge of yellow or orange in most cases. The wok will also start to look a bit glossy. Again, make sure that this change happens on the bottom as well as on the sides of the wok. Discard the burning hot oil by throwing it at the invaders trying to scale your castle walls, or alternatively, by waiting a few minutes for it to cool and dumping the aromatics and burnt oil into the sink.

Wash your wok with hot water, and use a paper towel or brush to knock away any burnt-on residue. You’re done!

Your wok is still new, though, and boiling water in it, or cooking with heavy acids like lemons or vinegar will damage the coating, so wait on that until the wok gets a nice, broken in brownish black hue around the bottom and sides.

Luckily, the recipe I’m about to share with you is perfect for a new wok. It’s healthy, quick, and perfect for getting rid of random stuff in your fridge. It doesn’t taste half bad either.

Simple Shirataki Stir-Fry (serves 1)

1 package Shirataki Noodles
1 Green Bell Pepper, diced
1 Jalapeno, seeded and diced
1 Onion, diced
1/2lb Pork Loin, cut into cubes
Garlic
Ginger
Red Pepper Flakes
Soy Sauce
Sambal
Peanut Oil

Before we begin, a note on shirataki noodles. These are inexpensive, super low calorie noodles made from a Japanese yam that are packed with fiber and take very well to surrounding flavors. You can buy them at Jewel—they usually run around a buck or two per pack. They come (usually) packed in a liquid, and will need to be drained and thoroughly washed in order to remove the earthy, briny, and fishy odor of the liquid.

Here’s how this is going to work. Right now, before you even start reading the rest of this recipe, you’re going to season your meat with salt and pepper and cube it, dice your vegetables, and mince your garlic and ginger, okay? Because this is going to get real fast real quick. Once you turn the heat on under your wok, there’s no going back. Ready? Okay. Let’s get started.

When cooking with a wok, dishes are enhanced by flavoring the oils used to stir-fry ingredients. Traditionally, this is achieved by throwing a clove of minced garlic into the oil with some red pepper flakes and a healthy amount of minced ginger. Turn the heat all the way up under your wok, and coat it with peanut oil. Before the wok gets too hot, wipe the oil up and around the pan with a paper towel, removing the excess oil and spreading it up to the sides. Throw the garlic, ginger, and pepper flakes in there and toss with a wooden spoon or spatula.

Make sure your door is still open.

Test to make sure the oil is hot using the same water method as when you seasoned the wok, then throw the pork in there. Make sure to toss and stir often so that it cooks evenly. As soon as the outside is cooked move the pork to the sides of the wok and throw the noodles and veggies into the middle. Toss the veggies and noodles together—you want the veggies cooked to the point where their flavors are brought out in the oil while still retaining their crunch and brightness. When the pork firms up and starts to brown in the wok as you toss it with the rest of the ingredients, you’re done. Pour the stir fry out onto a plate, and dress with sambal (a hot chili paste available in the international section of the grocery store) and soy sauce to taste.

Dig in!

Hah, no, kidding again. Your wok needs some love first. Run some warm water in your sink and wipe off all the stuck on food with a brush or wet paper towel after the wok has cooled off enough to touch. Put the wok back on the flame to dry. This will prevent rust, and should be done right after cooking.

Now you can eat.

I know, you’re full, and you don’t want to think about wok maintenance, but here are some quick rules for you to ignore. Don’t use soap on the wok. Warm water and a paper towel or brush should be enough to loosen any stuck food. The more you use the wok, the more seasoned it will be. In essence, be good to the wok, and the wok will be good to you. It really is impossible to ruin your wok. Even if the seasoning deteriorates, all you have to do is scrub with steel wool, wash with soap, and re-season. It’s as loyal as your family dog, except you can also make delicious food in it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, there are some marauders scaling my apartment complex so I have to go heat up some peanut oil.

chicago cheap ass (4)
Drink, Food,

Skip The Clubs And Stock Your Own Damn Bar

Saturday night! Aw, yeah. The weather’s good, and you’re feeling fine. Have you lost weight? Man, those skinny jeans look really good on you. That’s a good choice. So where to tonight? Smart Bar? The Mid? The dive around the corner? The world is your oyster, let’s dig in.

Sunday morning. Headaches. Waking up in last night’s clothes, tangled in blankets and sheets. What was that girl’s name? You can’t remember. But it’s fine! It was a good night. Then you get an email from your bank, asking if it was really you who rung up a $250 bar tab drinking nothing but long island iced teas. Maybe it wasn’t such a great night after all.

Listen, going out is a favorite pastime here in this great city, and it’s always good to see friends and make a fool of yourself on some bar along Clark street. Because you always end up along Clark street.

However, it’s just not cost-effective, or really even possible to go out every week and get sloshed on $12 cocktails. You’ll end up saving a lot of money (and making a whole bunch of new friends) simply by spending time stocking your own bar.

First and foremost, there are a few tools that you should have if you plan on having people over and making cocktails for them. Perhaps most important is a bartending app that you like, so that even if you don’t know how to make a certain drink, you can at least fake it when friends ask you for one. I’m partial to Mixologist, but there are plenty of others available for all smartphone platforms. Here’s Lifehacker’s rundown of 5 of their favorites.

Other tools aren’t really necessary, but it’s nice to have a jigger, a shaker, and a strainer as well. You can make most common drinks without these, but they’re all inexpensive, and if nothing else, will make you feel really freaking classy.

In terms of what you actually need to stock your bar, most guides will tell you to buy pretty much every bottle of liquor at Binny’s and turn your quest for frugality into a $400 nightmare. The truth of the matter is that when you are stocking your own bar, you can focus on the ingredients you need to make the drinks you like.

As a basic guide, here’s a list of ingredients that every home bar absolutely should stock, given how ubiquitous they are in cocktail recipes:

  • Vodka
  • Tequila
  • Gin
  • Light or Dark Rum
  • Whiskey (whatever type you like, it’s your bar, not mine)
  • Bitters
  • Sweet and Dry Vermouth
  • A Jar of Olives
  • Simple Syrup (you can make this at home. Just mix equal parts sugar and water.)
  • Rose’s Lime Juice
  • Assorted garnishes (cherries, oranges, lemons, etc…)
  • Assorted mixers (juices, Coke, tonic water, club soda)

Anything on top of that is gravy, and should be informed by your tastes.

Now, I realize this is a little daunting. That’s a pretty long list, all just for a basic bar. But hear me out. Liquor, all told, really isn’t that expensive. You can get away with smaller 750ml bottles of all of these spirits, and your friends won’t care if you don’t splurge for expensive vodka, gin, or rum. You really shouldn’t be paying any more than $20 per bottle for any of those spirits since they’re mixed with other, more flavorful ingredients most of the time, making their taste less important.

As far as whiskey and tequila are concerned, you will want to plunk down a bit more cash. These spirits are often drunk neat or on the rocks, and even when they’re not, they impart a large amount of flavor to the cocktails they are included in. Taste matters here. That said, you can find decent bottles of tequila and whiskey for under $30, even if you’re looking for the snooty aged stuff.

As a sidenote, most well-stocked home bars carry multiple types of whiskey (rye, bourbon, etc…) for use in different cocktails. This is fine! It’s also expensive. The great thing about building a bar in this way is that you can add to the bar as you need to, so if you get an urge to make yourself a sazerac, you can just head to Binny’s and pick up some rye and absinthe. In doing so, you’ll also be upgrading your bar.

All in all, even if you stock your bar fully with nice spirits, juices, and fancy artisanal bitters hand-hewn in Portland, you’ll probably end up spending somewhere between $150 and $200 for a bar that will last you ages. Compare that with the $150 to $200 you spent at that bar in River North last weekend. You’ll get a lot more for your money this way.

Keep in mind, when you have a bar like this, each bottle of liquor will last longer, since it’s being mixed with all the delicious other ingredients you now own. And when the bottles do run out, it’s only around $20 to restock. I usually only have to restock a bottle every 6 weeks or so, despite the fact that Chicago sports fandom forces me to mix myself more old fashioneds than is probably healthy.

If you take care of the bar and keep it stocked, you’ll find that you and your friends will go out to the bars less, and instead have stronger, cheaper drinks hanging out at the apartment watching Netflix. Plus, you’ll be able to unwind with a Manhattan after work instead of a crappy Bud Light.

So shake off the chains. Do not be beholden to bartenders when you want a mixed drink that requires more ingredients than “rum” and “coke”. Stocking your own bar and learning how to make your own cocktails is fun, social, and will end up saving you a lot of money in the long run.