Shine on, shine on

Located off an I-70 access road, a visit to the quaint and rustic Firefly Grill capped off a rather lackluster daytrip I made to Effingham, Ill. earlier this summer.

In an area otherwise populated with all the usual highway dining suspects, Firefly Grill is a real breath of fresh air, and a pleasant discovery to make. It takes some work to find the place; you have to first wend your way though the chain restaurants off the exit and back a little ways. When it comes into view, though, there’s no mistaking you’ve come to the right place. It’s basically a big old barn with firewood stacked out front and the name of the joint in big red letters scrawled across the roof.

Firefly Grill in Effingham, Ill.

Besides the fab food, the charming lakeside setting and the upscale casual vibe, Firefly Grill apparently finds it easy being green. Meaning eco-friendly. In fact, Bon Appetit has named it the No. 2 eco-friendly restaurant in the country. Yep, right here in little old Effingham. Farm-to-table doesn’t get much fresher than this. On-site gardens supply herbs and produce for use in the kitchen. The staff takes pains to get to know the farmers, fishermen and foragers from whom they source mostly local and organic products (of course). Inside, the soaring ceiling is made of what looks like reclaimed wood. Overall, Firefly Grill makes a great first impression, as well as a second and third.

inside Firefly Grill

I was flying solo for my visit, as I often do on freelance assignments, and didn’t feel at all out of place. I brought a book in for company, but never even cracked it open, occupied as I was instead by the food and décor.

The one-pager dinner menu boasts “contemporary Midwestern” cuisine by way of small plates, brick oven pizzas, soups, salads, steaks, pastas and fish dishes. I struggled to make decisions, torn between halibut, a Szechaun pork tenderloin and other tempting fare. Red meat reigned supreme in the end, and I went with something called a Montana Mignon, a beef Wellington-esque concoction with filet, housemade boursin cheese and barbecue sauce all tucked into a puff pastry crust. Sides are all ala carte; I opted for Brussels sprouts with lardons and parmesan cheese.

the (very rare) Montana Mignon

The server had warned me that the steak would be served rare/medium-rare to prevent the pastry crust from burning. This made me a little nervous. I like my meat pink, but not bloody, which I let her know. Still, when the dish arrived and I cut in, it was really, really red in the middle. She told me the kitchen could take the filet out, sear it a little more and bring it back, but I was already a few bites in and it tasted so good, I might have stabbed her with my fork if she’d tried to pull my plate away. The combination of boursin and barbecue sauce was rich and fantastic, and the puff pastry layers shatteringly light and yummy. The serving size was a little small, but packed with flavor. I left the very center bite of meat behind, but devoured the rest.

crunchy Brussels sprouts with lardons and Parm

Likewise, the Brussels sprouts were treated with respect, not overcooked to mush. The sprouts had been halved and roasted to preserve a good crunch, and the crispy bacon lardons and parmesan cheese really upped the flavor ante. I should also mention the housemade sourdough bread boule I received with sweet whipped butter. I only managed one slice and would have cried to see the rest go to waste. The server kindly wrapped up the remaining loaf for me to take home. I sliced and toasted it for lunch the next day, and it was awesome.

One good thing about keeping the portions on the smallish side, I had plenty of room for a dessert. Again, narrowing down on one was something of a challenge, and although a trio of housemade sorbets sounded light and summery, I couldn’t get past something called “liquid cheesecake.”  I do love me some cheesecake.

the luscious liquid cheesecake

My little parfait was pretty as a picture, a cute dish with layers of pudding-like not-too-sweet cheesecake filling, fresh berries, and panko-crisp graham cracker crumbs with a mint sprig on top. I usually prefer chocolate desserts when I dine out, but this was perfect for the season and sooooooo good. I think I might have even inspired the ladies dining next to me to order one for themselves.

Firefly Grill isn’t cheap; I dropped over $50 on my dinner and that’s without any wine (alas, I still had to drive all the way back to Indy after I ate). Then again, I felt ok paying for food and service of this quality. You could get away with a lower bill by choosing less expensive menu options or sticking with small plates. The chefs and cooks here obviously put a ton of tender loving care into the plates they’re putting out, and the whole experience was so much more satisfying than stopping in an Applebee’s or Chili’s off the road. If you happen to be driving by on I-70 or I-57 and you’re in the market for a good meal, I highly recommend giving the Firefly Grill a go.

For more info:


Firefly Grill on Urbanspoon

A toast to the roast

At hubby’s suggestion, we have decided to institute a new weekly tradition this winter — the Sunday roast. While we usually sit down as a family to eat most of our meals, the Sunday roast takes things one step further by adding an increased sense of reverence and occasion.

(As if we needed more incentive, the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine states “frequent family meals are associated with a lower risk of smoking, drinking and using drugs with a lower incidence of depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts; and with better grades in 11 to 18 year olds.” We’re starting our little guys young.)

The Sunday roast concept is nothing new where hubby comes from, and as we explore recipes and menus, I find it’s not much different than the family meals I grew up eating. Meat-and-potatoes-centric, heartwarming comfort food that’s perfect for cold winter days and nights.

For our first Sunday roast effort last weekend, we went the very traditional route of pot roast with potatoes and carrots. It turned out well, very much like the wonderful meals we’ve eaten at my mother-in-law’s house in Ireland, right down to the jus-based gravy.

In between the two Sundays, our Thanksgiving dinner consisted of a roast chicken (we had a very small crowd), stuffing, cranberry sauce and green bean casserole. No sooner did we get those leftovers polished off than it was time to think about the Sunday meal.

Yesterday, we branched out to try something more ambitious – stuffed pork loin with roasted potatoes and Brussels sprouts au gratin. For a little while, I was concerned we’d bitten off slightly more than we could chew. At one point, the kitchen was a total mess, every pot and pan was dirty, and hubby and I found ourselves up to our elbows in pork trying to butterfly, stuff and truss the loins. However, the beauty of a roast is that once you get all the prep work done, you have some time to chill while your dinner just hangs out in the oven for a few hours getting all tender and delicious.

spinach-stuffed pork loin with roasted potatoes

The pork loin was great, albeit the spinach/mushroom filling could have used a little more flavor punch and the meat was just the teeniest bit dry. Hubby made a good call by insisting we leave the outer fat layer on; I was all set to cut it off when he stopped me. In the end, the fat crisped up nicely to create a yummy, salty pork rind-esque crackling on top. Lesson learned. We’re already plotting our next pork loin attempt with a pesto/proscuitto filling.

A roasting tip from yours truly: invest in a good meat thermometer. I don’t know what I did before I bought my digital version. Overcooked a lot of meat, I suppose. Pull your roast out of the oven a few degrees shy of your target temp, cover it with a piece of foil and let it rest for 10 or 15 minutes before you slice in. You’ll have a juicy roast every time.

Brussels sprouts au gratin

The Brussels sprouts au gratin was another successful experiment, I thought. Much like my feeling that you can convert haters into believers by oven-roasting vegetables, drenching them in a cheesy cream sauce and baking until bubbly works well, too. The veggies, not the haters, of course.

We’ll be out of town this coming weekend, but we’re already discussing new roast ideas for the following Sunday. Haven’t done lamb yet, or maybe a side of salmon? You never know what you might find on our table next.

… and to all a good meal!

This Christmas has been one of relaxation in our household, which is not a bad thing at all considering the busy year it’s been. The week has been very low-key, filled with cooking, shopping and lots of cozy fires in the fireplace. Nice.

During the past 10 days or so, I’ve been busy making holiday treats of various shapes and sizes — milk chocolate pots de crème for our Christmas dinner finale, white chocolate Oreo fudge and peppermint meringues to name a few. I found this recipe for cookies and crème fudge on and have been making the heck out of it this season. With just three ingredients to worry about, it’s super easy to make, looks very pretty all packaged up in a holiday tin and tastes awesome. For the last batch I made, I used the holiday Oreos with the red filling, thinking they would look beautiful nestled into the white chocolate fudge. However, the color ended up bleeding out into the fudge, turning it sort of an alarming shade of red, but I threw in a little peppermint extract and called it festive. A brilliant and quick-thinking move on my part, if I do say so myself.

Since it was originally just going to be a quiet Christmas Day with hubby, the toddler and me, I didn’t go overboard on my dinner plans. My dad ended up joining us, which was fine, but for once, I was secretly glad not to have to cook a big meal for a tableful of folks.

For our main course, I ended up buying a turkey breast, which I stuffed with lemon slices and thyme sprigs and threw into the crockpot. It was delicious – moist and juicy with great savory flavor, and I used the stock that was released to make a scrumptious gravy. For sides, we had wild rice with dried cherries, apricots and almonds, and a panful of Brussels sprouts that I sautéed with garlic and olive oil, then steamed and topped with bacon. I’m telling ya, if you don’t like Brussels sprouts, I can convert you. Really, you can’t go wrong with almost any vegetable by sautéing it in olive oil and garlic, then topping with bacon or cheese. Alternately, roasting it in the oven until it turns brown and crispy works, too. Try it next time you have broccoli or asparagus on hand. Yummy.

Christmas dinner spread

Hubby really wanted to make Yorkshire puddings, something we’ve talked about for ages but never actually tried. For non-British readers, Yorkshire puddings aren’t really puddings at all, they’re like a popover/dinner roll thing that caves in the middle to create a little bowl of dough, into which you then spoon a big ladleful of gravy or jus. You see them often served abroad at carvery lunches in England or with roast-and-potatoes-type meals.

I looked up a few recipes and thought they all sounded deceptively simple. Hm. This immediately made me somewhat suspicious, but I was willing to give it a try. The batter is just milk, egg and flour, stirred together and left to sit for 30 minutes or one hour, depending on the recipe you’re using.

The next step is to coat your muffin tins with oil or a little of the drippings from your roast (I used bacon grease), spoon in a little batter and off you go. The puddings are supposed to puff up as they bake, then collapse in the middle as they cool to create the bowl shape. Mine didn’t collapse; they just stayed puffy in the middle. They tasted good, but there was no way you’d have been able to use them as edible gravy vessels. I’ll try them again, though, maybe throwing in some parmesan cheese and herbs next time.

the failed Yorkshire puddings

I spent a good chunk of my Christmas loot on new cookbooks! Shock of shocks, I did not previously own a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, but I do now. Along with an awesome slow cooker recipe book I found on the bargain rack for $5, and a series of Culinaria books on Germany, France and Italy. What could be more perfect! They contain not just recipes, but tons of cultural information and profiles on various cities and regions. I can’t wait to dig into them.

Elsewhere in the week, we’ve been talking about making paella for awhile. I researched online and came up with a Gordon Ramsay version that sounded promising. Gordon definitely hooked us up on the shepherd’s pie, so I figured his paella would fit the bill as well. Plus, he’s looking kinda hot now that he finally got those weird craggy lines fixed on his chin… His recipe called for a slew of shellfish, which I had to leave out if I had any hope of hubby eating it at all. And the onion as well, of course, but that goes without saying.

Gordon’s paella calls for rice, tomato, spices, chicken, chorizo and some veg. That’s about it, really. Nothing too intimidating. I’d never cooked with chorizo before, and I had exactly one kind to choose from during my shopping excursion at Kroger, so I hoped for the best. It looks like a regular cased sausage, but I found as I sliced it up and tossed it into my pan, it completely melted away into the sauce. It definitely left a kicky flavor behind, but no chunks of nicely browned sausage to bite into like I was hoping for. Alas. Next time I’ll know to use a hard sausage or include some chunks of ham as well for texture. Everything else came together nicely. It was really just exactly like a risotto, which I’ve made many times over.

As I was stirring hot stock into the rice, chicken and veggies, I was struck that many different cultures share a go-to chicken and rice comfort food just like this. In America, what is possibly more comforting than a steamy bowl of chicken and noodles? In Italy, you’ve got risotto; in France, coq au vin; in India, chicken tikka masala. There’s arroz con pollo, pilaf, dumplings, chow mein, you name it. Wherever there is chicken, there is chicken and rice.

The paella turned out very spicy, but good. We enjoyed it with a bowl of olives, garlic bread and some Manchego cheese (that was the only disappointment of the meal). I stirred through a handful of shrimp into my own bowl, which added a lot, I thought.


my bowl

Would love to make paella again, this time with all the seafood… maybe a girls’ night dinner in the offing?? Although I still need to have the gals over for an Italian spread inspired by our trip to Milan. I’ve already got that one all planned out in my head – bruschetta, pasta, grilled steak with parmesan and arugula, and tiramisu for dessert.

The New Year looms ahead. I’ve been writing my blog now for a whole year! Here’s hoping my few and faithful readers have enjoyed hearing about my food exploits as much as I’ve enjoyed experiencing them. Happy 2010!!!