On a movie theater project he oversaw years ago, Alan Lake experienced first-hand what the kitchen could do to someone with autism and other developmental disorders.
"A state agency approached me to employ several candidates. We hired a couple of young adults and the training culminated with a week of having a representative from the agency attending as liaison before leaving anyone on their own," said Lake, a local chef and fellow Drive-Thru writer. "They were very upfront in telling us what we could or could not expect in our new charges, both in behavior and abilities."
Two workers became ticket takers, others answered phones or ran errands around the facility. One with Aspergers Syndrome, whose social skills Lake noted left something to be desired, loved watching the Food Network and wanted to work in the kitchen. Lake put him in the pantry where his job was to take inventory of numerous items on a prep sheet and prep and plate whatever was needed.
"He started slow but blossomed shortly after his minders left," said Lake. "Within months he was cha-chaing to the music I played in the kitchen and even going out with the staff on occasion. Months later, though not the life of the party, he'd pretty much extracted himself from his shell and was very much a regular guy."
Lake says agency reps came back saying they couldn't believe what progress he'd made, and that he was like the poster boy for the program -- never figuring he'd function as highly as he did.
"I don't know if they were being conservative in estimating his abilities or if he just rose to the occasion because I needed him to, as often happens in a restaurant."
As parents of an autistic son, Chicagoan's Julie and Michael Tracy known the impact of autism and understand the gap in the system between childhood and adulthood.
Packing House, the former Market, recently closed to the public after reconcepting only six months ago. SmallBar Division, the 10-year old veteran of Division Street announced its impending closure this week. They are among the newest casualties to join the shuttering list that includes Laughing Bird and Cicchetti, which shockingly closed after only 10 months despite glowing reviews.
Why those restaurants closed is a mixture of many factors, but all are testament that making it in the restaurant industry isn't easy.
As a model, opening a restaurant is arguably the stupidest thing anyone can do -- thin margins, large overhead, unpredictability, seasonal dips (say Q1 to anyone in the restaurant business in Chicago and they reach for the nearest bottle of whiskey and call their accountant). Yet we continue to do it in this city, almost to the point of exhaustion.
In a panel at the recent Chicago premiere of Taste Talks, "Ten Years Later -- Building Restaurants That Last," Donnie Madia (One Off Hospitality), Jason Hammel (Lula Cafe), Michael Nahabedian (Naha) and Paul Virant (Vie, Vistro & Perennial Virant) convened to answer the overarching question, "How do you make it in this city?"
I was using Rick Bayless' restroom, I mused, staring up at the ceiling window that was projecting a heavenly beacon of light upon my less-than-angelic duties. I could barely distinguish Rick's faint murmurs through the orange walls, something about how Spaniards added hard-boiled eggs on top their gazpacho. This was Rick, the host of "Mexico: One Plate at a Time," the winner of "Top Chef Masters," the almost executive chef of Barack Obama, the guy whose chips and salsa you purchase en masse at Whole Foods. The white chef who cooks like a 80-year-old Mexican woman from some Yucatan village. And I was using his bathroom in the middle of his garden party.
Despite my general disdain for the concept of "celebrity chef," Bayless is an exception. That guy is good. Unlike many chefs, his extraordinary palette doesn't use profligate amounts of butter, salt, and sugar to delight to the senses. His food is the Mexican counterpart of Thai food -- curiously spiced, exceptionally balanced, and traditionally flavored. Bayless' empire speaks to his culinary prowess and business acumen, but behind all the demos and appearances and cookbooks, there is a vibrant streak of genuine passion. Only inherent love for his craft explains why he hasn't completely burnt out yet.
In the introduction to Locally Brewed: Portraits of Craft Breweries from America's Heartland, author and photographer Anna Blessing writes that she wants "to tell the story of the people behind the beer." She provides glimpses of 20 Midwestern craft breweries and their oft-tattooed brewers, their music, their humble beginnings and cult-like followings. These breweries make anything from lagers to sours, from beers inspired by Latin America to beers inspired by candy bars.
They represent a sliver of an industry that has continued to grow while the overall U.S. beer industry has declined. This is an exciting time for craft beer, especially in the Chicago-area where there is no shortage of something new and creative to try. Even the neighborhood grocery stores and Targets stock some of the beers noted in Locally Brewed. I spoke with Anna Blessing on the phone about what she discovered while writing and interviewing for Locally Brewed and of course, about what she likes to drink.
Jesse Valenciana knew what he wanted his mole-inspired stout to taste like, but he was a cook and home brewer, not a professional brewmaster. The co-founder of ManBQue, the local men's grilling and social club, and recent author needed a brewer with the same depth of skills for manipulating flavors in beer as he could in the kitchen. To create his first craft beer collaboration, Valenciana called upon Clint Bautz, co-founder of the Northwest side Lake Effect Brewing Company.
An avid fan of Bautz's work, Valenciana was unsatisfied with the mole stouts on the market, as they were not "authentic enough." Bautz, equally as passionate about food and someone familiar with working with chefs in beer making, jumped on board to create the Unholy Mole, a seasonal milk stout inspired by one of ManBQue's recipes, and infused with various roasted chilies. The beer made its debut at Dimo's Pizza in Bucktown and select taps around the city late last year and was so popular that the two men recently met again in the brewery to revive the recipe and bottle it for distribution.
Little did Valenciana know, however, that he and Bautz were contributing to the vanguard of one of the curious partnerships coming out of Chicago's exploding craft beer scene - the intersection where chefs and brewers meet. This time, however, it's more than just beer and food pairings.
The creamy tomatillo sauce is what makes the dish, Jennifer Moore tells me as I awkwardly pour the velvety green sauce onto layers of sautéed poblano peppers, corn, beans and golden tortillas. She then hands me a package of shredded jack cheese, which I sprinkle delicately onto the beginnings of a cheesy tomatillo casserole. Dump the whole thing, she advises with an impish grin, and I willingly oblige. If I was going vegetarian, at least I wasn't going to skimp on the cheese. As we wait for the casserole to melt and caramelize into a goulash of Mexican ecstasy, I leave Moore to clean up the prep -- in our case, four plastic bags labeled Meez Meals. After all, the lack of post-cooking cleanup is arguably one of Meez Meals' best features.
As the founder of Meez, a meal delivery business based in Chicago, Moore is a spritely and slender woman, with intelligent eyes and a sharp bob cut that screams business-savvy. Originally from Boston, Moore relocated to Chicago after college and worked as a brand manager for Unilever before launching Meez.
When West Loop Salumi opened in July, it generated a ton of buzz. What's the big deal about another meat facility in the city's meatpacking district, you ask? Well, dear reader, make no mistake -- this is no ordinary sausage shop.
Considered and labeled by man as the greatest chef in the United States and one of the finest and most respected in the world, 39-year-old Grant Achatz has been at the forefront of molecular gastronomy (or as he likes to call it "progressive") cooking since he opened his world-renowned restaurant Alinea in 2005. In just a few short years after Alinea's opening, it was declared the finest dining establishment in the country and one of the top 10 in the world.
Before opening his own restaurant, Achatz worked as the executive chef of Trio in Evanston, and before that at the French Laundry in Napa Valley, California. Although Chicago was certainly a food-oriented city prior to Alinea coming into being, it was mostly about attracting customers from the suburbs to drive down into the city on the weekends. But since Alinea, the city has now become world travelers' destination if they are interested in fine dining. In more recent years, Achatz has expanded his empire to include Next (which opened in 2011), a restaurant that changes the theme of its cuisine every three months, and the adjoining bar the Aviary, in the city's Fulton River District.
A revolutionary book called The Flavor Bible was published five years ago. Its theme was ingredients and their possible uses -- both common and classic, or unusual and interesting. A who's who of chefs acting as consultants in turn suggested pairings to go with each ingredient. Some selections were obvious and some odd- but all worked. More reference than cookbook (there are no recipes) you need a certain amount of ability and intuition to use it properly. While full of suggestions, it's up to you to be creative and savvy to extract its full potential.
In all, it was ingenious. As co-authors Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg say, they "chronicled new flavor synergies in the new millennium" -- inspiring the creation of new recipes based on imaginative, harmonious combinations.
Conceptually, it intrigued me. As a chef always up for a challenge, the fact that you need some chops to best use it appealed to me as well.
Say your ingredient of choice was lobster. Below it in bold type would be examples of other ingredients that were classic or commonly paired with it, say brandy or tarragon. Below that in another typeface would be a bit less normal pairings, like vanilla or fennel. One final typeface contains the wildest suggestions that could coax the most curious flavors from our lobster, passion fruit, cucumber or clove for instance.
It ended up winning a James Beard award it was also named by Forbes magazine as one of the ten best cookbooks of the past century. Accolades abound. The Flavor Bible has been called "must have", "brilliant " and "a masterpiece" by a litany of culinary titans.
In the ensuing years its become my go to gift or referral for my gastronomically well-endowed friends or colleagues. I've personally been responsible for dozen sales on three continents. Its tagline is "The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs," and I can vouch for the truth of that statement.
The authors are making the rounds, doing a victory lap for its five year anniversary, and at a recent stopover at the Spice House, I had the good fortune to be able to throw some questions their way.
Summer is often the only time I'm able to get out of Chicago for more than a day at a time, and I tend to plan my vacations around eating. This, inevitably, becomes a problem around Day 3, when the food hangover and driving-neck crick start to compound my road rage, but that's a story for another time. Excursion eating is one of the joys of the modern road trip, when the scenic route takes you past places you'd never otherwise encounter, and a destination restaurant is often a great excuse to take the scenic route in the first place.
But where to begin? How do you find the scenic route when it's the least likely to show up on Google maps' list of trip options? How do you seek out the hidden gem when it's not on MenuPages, and the sweetly disconnected backwater where your cell phone won't even get a roaming signal doesn't have anything like LTH forum? Crowd-sourced travel sites have done much to point curious pilgrims towards the road less traveled, but two even more primitive sources are worth discussing: the printed word, and word of mouth.
A few months ago, I was sorting sweet potatoes fresh from a downstate farm on the west side at the Greater Chicago Food Depository headquarters. Working alongside my coworkers on a volunteer outing, I felt good giving back to those less fortunate. Today I sit in a room with at least 30 other people, waiting my turn to receive food that I myself am struggling to afford.
Being laid off is hard. You already feel like less of a person the moment it happens. My unemployment barely covers my rent, and I'm trying to slowly use my saving and severance so I can keep health insurance, so I am joining the ranks of many Chicagoans asking for help. Food stamp usage in Illinois is on the rise, but many individuals fall just above the qualifying line, myself included. Or perhaps do not qualify for enough assistance. Yet they are still struggling to survive and are being forced to choose between bills and basic needs. For many, visiting a food pantry is the best option, and one that I myself have thankfully found in my own time of need.
Recently I caught the green thumb. There is something so rewarding about growing your own plants. Germinating the seed, watching the fruition of life day-by-day, and then devouring the fruits of your labor. I decided to use the space in my new backyard to grow a humble vegetable garden. I ordered some organic seeds and began the process. As my babies grew and demanded a bigger space for their roots to spread out , I began to dig up my patch of dirt and check out the soil.
It looked like a family picnic was buried in my yard. I pulled out a small action figure, a broken plate, a tennis ball, piece of a Frisbee, shards of beer bottles, bricks and countless rocks. After talking to a gentleman with some knowledge on the subject at a local grow store and realizing my soil was battling the elements, I had some doubts if I wanted to even grow my plants in the ground.
North Center's Bad Apple, like so many restaurants, has jumped on the all-natural bandwagon. The restaurant is free of chemicals, pesticides and preservatives, and has been since it opened almost four years ago. Everything has been all natural and as-local-as-possible since the day the restaurant opened its doors. Well, everything except for the ketchup.
Chef and owner Craig Fass opened Bad Apple with a mass-produced ketchup but quickly converted to making their ketchup in-house.
This housemade ketchup is made two to three times a week, 15 gallons at a time, producing over 120 gallons a month. The pot, larger than most toddlers, sits on the stove for six hours. If you're a cook at Bad Apple, here's your routine: put a burger on the stove, stir the ketchup, flip the burger, stir the ketchup, put the burger on a bun, stir the ketchup, add toppings to the burger, stir the ketchup. Get the idea? It's a time-consuming process.
Last year's winter was so mild that the foods I look forward to seeing in the produce aisle or farmers markets come summer were tasteless and weak--blueberries the size of raisins, pencil-sized ears of corn and peaches that tasted like gauze dominated my crisper, making for a disappointing season.
I've used my snow boots more for protection from mud than that white stuff that shuts down the suburbs this season, but I have a feeling that this year's food may be a little better, more bountiful, and sweeter. Having that in mind, starting one's planning now for spring and summer eats sounds like a smart idea, right?
Seeing burrata become one of the new popular menu items on Chicago menus was a huge plus for me this year; more mozzarella is never a bad idea. The historically bloated Taste of Chicago getting smaller had its down sides, but maybe next year it will start to get better. Somehow Malört becomes the fashionable add-in to already complicated cocktails. Why? Cupcake vending machines and the opening of Balena (1633 N. Halsted) rounded out 2012 for me.
I know, I know. People talk about this place as hot dog nirvana, the Shangri-La of red hots. What's worse, I'm a passionate hot dog consumer, a connoisseur of the corner yellow shack, a lover of hot dogs high and low. As someone who uses her Vienna Beef Finder app regularly, I knew I should be particularly ashamed.
Maybe it was the supremely inconvenient location that turned me off, or the way foodies talk about the journey as so worth it. I happen to know quite a few outstanding hot dog joints that don't take an hour to get to, and that give you a poppy seed bun to boot. But in any case, I couldn't listen to one more rapturous description without trying this place myself.
After a mind-blowingly frustrating hour and a half on the Kennedy, I arrived at the glowing yellow sign full of ravenous hunger and road rage. Gripping the counter, I tried not to scream my order at the teenager in front of me: "Double dog, everything."
It was at a local bar that my friend remarked, through a face smeared with buffalo sauce, that the wings he was noshing on were particularly hot. I perked up from my beer. "Or would they be spicy?" I questioned. He looked at me with an expression bordering annoyed and confused: "No...they would be hot?"
I wasn't satisfied. And so the question was posed: Is it hot or is it spicy?
Chicago, which boosts a diverse mixture of culinary camps who spend an unnatural amount of time searching for the best this or the best that, definitely has its fair share of the avid heat seeker. The hot and spicy craze has taken on popularity nationally with the television show "Man vs. Food," the popular sauce Sriracha, a culinary world that blends spicy cuisines from across the globe, and the arrival of the ghost pepper (Naga Bhut Jolokia), previously the hottest commercially available pepper (but trumped overall by the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion in 2011). I don't have data on the amount of hot sauces in the market, but we love to bottle pain for pleasure, and what was once used conservatively is now poured onto our food without abandon. But I wanted to know if there really was a difference between hot or spicy, or if it was just semantics driven by good marketing that some big ad agency started back in the '50s.
What makes a Chicago-style hot dog so unique? It's the melding of all the ingredients, the balance of flavors tested over time and eventually made canon: hot dog, yellow mustard, relish, chopped onion, tomato slice, dill pickle spear, sport peppers, celery salt, poppy seed bun. All together, they create a delicious harmony.
Nonetheless, one ingredient stands out, especially to visitors to Chicago: the neon green relish. Its artificial hue can't help but draw attention, and it's the most talked-about element among tourists and insult comedians.
Nobody is quite sure where the bright green relish got its start. Hot Dog Chicago Style claims it was introduced in the 1970s at classic stand chain Fluky's, while Dining Chicago's Leah Zeldes reports that Superdawg cofounder Flaurie Berman says her shop has used it since it opened in 1949. Zeldes guesses that the lurid green may have been an overzealous attempt by a relish manufacturer to ensure a consistent color in his product. Who knows how many copycats it inspired, but today there are only three brands of neon green relish available at retail: Vienna, Rolf's and Puckered Pickle Co. (BestOfChicago.com sells a Fluky's branded green relish, but only in a $25 four pack with yellow mustard, giardiniera and, for some reason, serrano peppers.) None of them is easy to find -- you're lucky if the grocery store near you carries even one -- but a Chicago-style hot dog isn't quite the same without it.
Think you've got what it takes to make sausages as creatively as Doug Sohn?
Personally, I wouldn't go that far, but I did want to try my hand at making some sausages for Memorial Day weekend, so my partner and I roped our friend Drew, who has a meat grinder attachment for his mixer, into making sausages with us. Read on for some photos and rough instructions.
People who move out of Chicago have justifiable reasons for leaving--soul-crushing winters being a popular reason--but no one ever says they miss the food. Chicago has great food in every variety and price point, from the chemistry lab that is Alinea, to the bowls of chili at Ramova Grill (which closes mid-May; get over there now). So when one leaves the friendly confines of Cook County, what sorts of Chicago cuisine can they encounter in the outside world? And how does it measure up against what we know so well?
Many of us evaluate a restaurant based on the food; after all, restaurants are about eating. But how many of us stop and think about the design--like the look of the interior, the materials used, and the color scheme--when it comes to our food experiences?
This is the question that the Chicago Architecture Foundation wants you to think about through their series Appetite for Design. Over a year in the making, this program is part of CAF's adult education series (yes, CAF does more than just river tours). I sat down with Kristy Peterson, Manager of Public Programs and Justin Lyons, Director of Communications to learn more about what this world of food and design has to offer.
What is the Appetite for Design program? Appetite for Design is part of our adult education series and it seeks to blend the architectural space of a restaurant with the whole aesthetic of the cuisine, so it's pairing the design of the food with the design of the space. We spotlight about one restaurant a month where we join the restaurant owners and chefs as well as the architect or designer to talk about the restaurant's concept and the inspiration behind it.
What is the general format of a typical event and who is this program for? It usually starts off a casual welcome reception, and then a 30-40 minute presentation by the chefs/owners and the architect, followed by a specially prepared meal. Everything is designed in consultation with the chef and restaurant, from the menu to the place settings.
Since our mission is to connect people of greater Chicago with the built environment, architecture, and design, this program is open to anyone interested in design, architecture and food.
Considering that it would be sacrilegious for me to skip writing about Mardi Gras since I am a born and raised Cajun girl, I thought I couldn't miss the opportunity to write about the quintessential Cajun dish: the gumbo. Unlike any other Cajun dishes, gumbo is the best yet most difficult thing to perfect. If you ask any Cajun how it's done, the first thing you'll hear is, "Well, first you start with a roux, cher." Roux (pronounced roo) is the ubiquitous stock in Cajun cuisine. Oil and flour, browned to the color of coffee, slightly entertaining the fine line of burnt. Mais cher (that's pronounced "may sha," stay with me), that's the start of everything good and right about a gumbo.
Hoping that Cajun cuisine had finally made its way to Chicago, I thought I'd take a visit to Big Jones in Andersonville to taste chef Paul Fehribach's version of low country, Cajun, and Creole, which included the holy grail of gumbo and boudin. Boudin ("boo-den") is rice dressing stuffed into casing. It looks like a sausage, and technically, the name boudin refers to cold cut, but it's not sausage. Unlike every other sausage I've met in my life (gutters people, gutters), once you steam it or boil it, you can actually squeeze out the rice dressing and spread it on a nice chunk of bread. But I digress. The menu seemed spot on: Gumbo Ya-Ya, Crawfish Boudin, Andouille, there was even a reference to chow-chow on the menu (a spicy relish) and no one's ever said chow-chow here in Chicago without meaning a breed of dog. I felt at home. I immediately went in for the Gumbo Ya-Ya and Crawfish Boudin and a side of hush puppies for sharing. If Big Jones had got it right, I would be like a Californian boy stuck in Kansas.
Snagging fish is allowed seasonally in a few spots on Lake Michigan. Find out more from the Chicago Reader.
About The Grid
The Grid is a series profiling Chicago businesses, subcultures and landscapes. These short, lyrical documentaries aspire to be art cinema, ethnographies and experiments in form. Joe Riina-Ferrie and Mel Gonzalez teach filmmaking to high schoolers on Chicago's South and West Side through Community TV Network. Ben Kolak's directorial debut, Scrappers, won Best Documentary at the 2010 Chicago Underground Film Festival and made Roger Ebert's top 10 list of documentary films for that year. Graphic designer Akemi Hong is a recent graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Stories from the front line (no pun) provided by Gapers Block contributor Alan Lake, in italics.
In what has long seemed to be the labyrinthine (and at times Byzantine), world of Chicago restaurant inspection, two recent developments seem to promise a glimmer of sense in the new world order of Rahm Emanuel's administration — at first glance, anyway. Kitchen inspections generally make me think of two things: Gordon Ramsay's "Kitchen Nightmares," and that episode from "Friends" where Phoebe dates a health inspector and feels the thrill of "Shut it down!" years before Tina Fey and company would popularize it on "30Rock." It seems clear, then, that my knowledge of kitchen inspection is pretty media-conditioned, and most likely a bit fanciful.
This past July, Rahm Emanuel held a press conference at a farm in Bridgeport. The much-praised urban agriculture nonprofit Growing Power had installed tidy beds and hoop houses in an abandoned truck depot, providing an appealing backdrop for the new mayor to announce an ordinance easing restrictions on farming within the city limits. "When we have all the farm operating, there will be 200 jobs at this site alone," Emanuel crowed.
In a saner media world, this pronouncement would have made big news. It's difficult to find 200 new jobs in any neighborhood these days, let alone in gritty Bridgeport.
But the 30 or so reporters standing before the mayor were not impressed. They wanted to talk about the latest City Hall controversy, namely, news that Emanuel's children would attend private school.
Much has been written about the abundant produce generated by urban farms, on sale at weekly markets throughout town. Yet as this wayward press conference suggests, the corresponding crop of jobs has gone unexamined. Looking around at the spry, young farmers in attendance, all sorts of unasked questions leap to mind. How many farming jobs are in Chicago? How much do they pay? What are the perks?
While it's important not to overstate the money involved--we're talking about gardens, not diamond mines--there is also no denying the economic promise of urban agriculture in Chicago and across the country. Research shows that more than half of all jobs in organic food and farming, and virtually all the new ones, are located in large metropolitan areas. At least two Chicago farms are in the works that would seek to mentor new farmers into business.
I went looking for these new farmers at Growing Power and other organizations to find out who they were and how they were faring.
Luis Deleón's black "Baked is Better" Costello's t-shirt and camo shorts are covered with a creased, tomato-red apron. He bends down near the back wall of the sandwich shop to tear open a cardboard FritoLay box. Two short, dark crescents of eyebrows cap his close-set eyes, which seem small on his oblong face that rounds at the jaw, meeting his thick neck at a stubbly curve. The apron-tie stretches around his waist, cutting him slightly in the soft sides of his barrel-like body.
He joins Oliver, a sandy-haired guy at the register, to share a funny story. Laughing freely, Deleón reveals a tiny black circle of a gap between his two front teeth. Even with his comfortable slouch, the rim of his baseball cap, snug on his shaved head, hovers above Oliver and the stacked chrome wire shelves that hold chips and paper-lined wicker baskets. Oliver lets out a single courteous puff of amusement.
Deleón's gaze darts fleetingly over the wood-paneled barrier that separates them from the seating area. Chipped red, green, and yellow paint cover the chairs, and the beige-and-brown speckled linoleum floor is scuffed and scratched. The space is awash with late day sunlight from a bay window facing Roscoe Street. It's Deleón's first week on the job, and he's learning to build Italian Grinders and Smokin' Turks. On a white, rectangular slab behind the counter, he layers thin slices of capicola, salami, and ham with pieces of provolone onto a sub.
When news broke that the Sun-Times had fired Pat Bruno, its long-time restaurant critic, one of the first questions asked was, who will replace him? The paper chose to keep that a secret until just before the new critic's first column appeared -- which is today. Michael Nagrant's byline is at the top.
Nagrant is well known in Chicago's food circles. He got early attention and acclaim for his now-dormant Hungrymag blog and podcast; soon he seemed to be writing for everyone in town, filing freelance stories for the dailies, weeklies and even national magazines. His dedication to food writing earned him a spot as one of the essayists in the Alinea cookbook. The economy and a growing family caused Nagrant to pull back a bit from food writing, taking a day job in ecommerce and limiting himself to regular reviews in NewCity and CS; his new position as dining critic for the Sun-Times he sees as a step back into the scene.
I spoke with Nagrant earlier this week about the new role, the state of food writing in Chicago, and whether anonymity is important to a dining critic today.
By now, many of you have heard of canning, putting up, etc. Well, it's that time of year to start thinking of ways to have fresh tomatoes in mid-January or enjoy strawberry preserves that are actually red and not reddish-brown!
According to the ever-authentic Wikipedia, canning is a method of preserving food in which the food contents are processed and sealed in an airtight container. Canning provides a typical shelf life ranging from one to five years, although under specific circumstances, a freeze-dried canned product can last as long as 30 years in an edible state. The process was first developed for the French military by a chef and inventor named Nicolas Appert in 1810. The packaging prevents microorganisms from entering and proliferating inside.
I know what you're thinking. Wait, what about botulism? Can't you harm someone (or even worse, multiple people) if you take canning into your own hands? The key to preventing any of that from happening is having a little patience and a little time.
I can a lot. I wanted to conquer any fears, so last summer, I learned the process by taking a class at The Chopping Block in Lincoln Square (who will be holding a Summer Canning and Preserving demonstration this Saturday at 10am).
I will admit that canning is a tedious process, but once you do it a few times, everything will just flow. Take a look at this video from the (in my humble opinion) source of canning, Ball:
That video should give you a brief synopsis into what the process entails. Although the video doesn't "scream" fun, it actually is. The best part is that it's so rewarding to have these things on hand--that you made with your own hands! It's also great to give these edible gifts to friends & family. They will love you for it.
Yes, you may feel like an older individual (say, like your grandma), but this is a new generation of canners. I think it's on its way to losing the stigma.
The housing boom--and crash--has many victims scattered among the neighborhoods in Chicago. Empty homes, unfinished condos, and boarded-up windows are all too common; currently the city has around 20,000 vacant homes and over 50,000 vacant lots. What follows when neighborhoods are affected by problems like these is increased crime, litter, and stress on the community due to the shared responsibilities of keeping the area clean and orderly.
While Mayor Emanuel's city council is making headway in requiring maintenance in bank-owned properties, the city still has a lot of forgotten lots that become part of the scenery. For many residents, letting vacant land in their neighborhood sit idle is no longer acceptable.
Both Morton brothers worked at the Ford plant on the far South Side like their father before them: Brian was a materials handler, and Greg, a quality control inspector. But about 10 years ago, both men saw the auto industry in decline, and they left their comfortable union wages and benefits to strike out on their own.
"I left, cold turkey," said Brian, in his signature white-on-white White Sox cap. He owns the new fast-food restaurant chain Just Turkey with his brother. "I just had this entrepreneurship thing in me." Since starting in Calumet Park in 2008, the Morton brothers have grown Just Turkey to six locations, three in the city and three in the south suburbs.
True to their name, they sell just turkey -- no pork, beef, chicken or fish. "It was a gamble," Brian said at the Just Turkey restaurant on Cottage Grove in Bronzeville. "I had people come to me saying, 'You can't sell only turkey. You'll never make it.'"
They sell turkey burgers, turkey hot dogs, turkey Polish, turkey tacos, turkey nachos, turkey chili, turkey spaghetti, turkey lasagna and turkey salad. They even sell turkey ribs and turkey tips. "It just seems like the African-American community gravitated to it right away," Brian said. "Within the first year, we were already in the profits."
"The process of enjoying food does not need to be pretentious," Vanessa Moses insists, as she chops rhubarb fresh from Klug Farms and gets ready to welcome a group of strangers into her home for a dinner party.
The idea that delicious gourmet food is attainable for everyone to make at home, not just reserved for lofty tasting menus at five-star restaurants, inspired Moses to found Chicago Cooking Chicks, a culinary club for women.
"We're a different genre of foodie," Moses said. "Our concept is cooking for yourself and building relationships." Cooking undergrounds, where women come together for an intimate dinner party in someone's home, are one of Chicago Cooking Chicks' signature events.
Tonight, Moses' husband has surrendered the kitchen and living room to the Cooking Chicks. He's kind enough to ring guests in but refrains from making an appearance.
"A cook's kitchen should always look slightly like a hot mess," Moses said with a grin, scrambling to get her strawberry lavender rhubarb pie in the oven before her guests arrive.
Even cities as big and friendly as Chicago can be lonely places. With women representing nearly half of the work force, and working longer hours than ever, friends and fun sometimes fall through the cracks.
Although the Chicago Cooking Chicks Meetup group has only existed for 15 months, it boasts 461 members and Moses has organized more than 20 events, ranging from cooking undergrounds and book clubs to technique classes with industry professionals.
"I've seen woman really taking chances with recipes," Moses said, typing on her laptop with fingers covered in flour and brown sugar. She embodies this herself, making a strawberry lavender rhubarb pie for the first time. Using a Food Network recipe is a starting point, Moses adds some lavender, freely admitting she has no idea how it will turn out.
The Chicago food truck debate has been approaching a fever pitch within the lastfewweeks, between Heather Shouse's recent book and the National Restaurant Association show last weekend. It occurred to me, ever-present as this issue has become, maybe it's time for me to start caring about it. And then it occurred to me that, while I tend to offer blanket support for anything that reduces the Byzantine nature of Chicago's food laws, I have no experience with which to back up my food truck support. And then it occurred to me that that was kind of...strange.
I do not now, nor have I ever, considered myself a professional, investigative journalist. And I allow myself a certain amount of leeway on knowledge regarding Chicago food issues, if for not other reason than the sheer volume of them. Foie gras, dogs on patios, trans-fats, CSAs, croissant-gate. I mean honestly, who can keep track of it all? Food trucks have been around for a while now, yes, but I realized I hadn't actually seen one in person until about four weeks ago. And herein were sown the seeds of my food truck doubt -- if I haven't even experienced one of these things, is it really deserving of my full-throated, unquestioning support? Does it really matter?
If you have had the opportunity to enjoy an extended backcountry hiking trip, you are no doubt familiar with the campfire moment when you begin to fantasize about your first meal off the trail. If you happen to find yourself in northwest Montana, hiking in the North Fork Valley, you will likely be fantasizing about Polebridge Mercantile. This general store, bakery and gas station is a mile from the northwest entrance to Glacier National Park and the only bakery between Apgar ranger station and the Canadian border. Though, even without that distinction, Polebridge would be worth the long, gravel road drive.
If you're familiar with food writing, or just writing, you're likely familiar with David Foster Wallace's pivotal piece "Consider the Lobster," written for Gourmet magazine in 2004. While Infinite Jest may be the touchstone of Wallace's literary catalog, "Consider the Lobster" is perhaps the touchstone of modern food writing. A meditation on the meaning of eating, negotiating the space between animal pain and human pleasure, and an at times mouth-watering read, Wallace's piece received more responses by mail than any other article in Gourmet's history--and with its author's too-soon departure from this world, the desire to determine a literary inheritor has been often expressed, even now.
Well brother, this article is not it. This is about Lobsterfest.
Spring approaches, bringing warm weather and the promise of fresh, local food at Chicago's many outdoor farmers markets. Those who can't wait until May for fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy sourced from Chicago and its local environs can get their local food fix all year round at the Green City Market. The market moves outdoors to Lincoln Park on May 4, but takes place during colder months (approximately mid-November though late April) in the lobby of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum (2430 N Cannon). While indoors, the market is held every other Saturday.
The food on offer during the winter months is admittedly not as tempting as the fragrant herbs, plump strawberries, and delicate squash blossoms of summer, but the products are by and large just as delicious. At a market a few weeks ago, an apple I sampled from Ellis Family Farms was pleasingly crisp and tart, and the milk from Kilgus Farmstead tasted the way milk should taste--which is to say, much better than milk from the grocery store generally does. In addition to milk and apples (which are harvested in the fall and stored), there were also numerous varieties of greens from several different farmers (the greens at the winter markets are typically grown indoors), mushrooms from River Valley Kitchens (which are grown indoors year-round) and a dizzying array of root vegetables (which, like the apples, are usually harvested in the fall and stored). Among the root vegetables were several varieties of potatoes from Nichols Farm and Orchard. A variety of local meats, cheeses, baked goods and prepared foods were also for sale.
Cooking is making a comeback. Of course, to a degree, it never left--people will always apply to heat to their food so, at the very least, it isn't toxic. But the culinary renaissance we're experiencing is less about the simple necessity of sating hunger and more about galvanizing culture, promoting good health, and reintroducing the communal bonds food can enable. First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move initiative is educating children and families on the benefits of healthy eating habits; and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution has campaigned to get more nutritious menus in schools.
In Chicago, the non-profit organization Common Threads is front and center in the movement. Co-founded by chef Art Smith in 2003, the organization has a simple goal: to use food as a tool to build cultural awareness and strengthen family bonds. What started as a small initiative at Shoesmith Elementary in Hyde Park has ballooned into a national organization buttressed by a lineup of all-star chefs, including Paul Kahan of Blackbird and Chris Nugent of Les Nomades.
In that initial start-up period, the focus was on breaking down cultural barriers; Smith hatched the idea for Common Threads after cooking for 9/11 volunteers. His thinking was that by teaching kids about other cultures through food, he could help create a more tolerant and open-minded world.
The snow is gone; it's grey and wet and I am starting to go stir crazy. Somehow a winter of stews and soups and casseroles still has left me hungry. I try eating out more often in hopes that the freshness I'm looking for will suddenly appear on my prepared plate. But even out on the town in good restaurants, my plate is wanting. Everything just feels tired.
Needless to say, it doesn't seem like anything could possibly grow out of the compacted muck I like to call a "backyard." If I cut into one more mealy tomato that I paid two dollars for, I think I'm going to lose it. We're turning our clocks back this weekend and with your extended light into the evening, I propose that you help usher in your own little spring. Start reminding yourself that the end is near, asparagus is on the way and spring is coming.
"This is just wonderful, a wonderful surprise. Oh, I can't believe it! You hear about churches giving out stuff and everything. This has never happened in this neighborhood that I know of. Not from a store. When was the last time you heard of a store giving you twelve dollars' worth of food? Thank you."
These words of gratitude were expressed by Barbara Sullivan, who has lived in the Avalon Park community for eighteen years, in response to the bag of groceries that contained oatmeal, fruit snacks, cereal bars, popcorn, raisin bran, corn and fruit cocktail left on her doorstep by Save-A-Lot Food Store's street team. "I came out because my mother took in a bag. She said, 'I don't know what's going on...all this food." She thought it was a church or something. I looked at the bag and it said 'Save-A-Lot.' I go, 'I don't believe this!' I saw the truck and came out to see if you were going down the block."
Save-A-Lot Food surprised nearly 7,000 families with a free bag of groceries this past Monday in the Chatham, Englewood, West Englewood, Avalon Park and Greater Grand Crossing neighborhoods where they opened new stores the previous week. All of these areas are considered to be food deserts because they meet one or more of the criteria: 1) no grocery stores are in the immediate community; 2) more fast food restaurants than healthy options are in the area; or 3) the price of healthy food is not affordable.
Food deserts, or city neighborhoods with a lack of healthy, affordable food, have captured the hearts and attention of food writers, public policy professionals, and even mayoral candidates. Rahm Emanuel plans to gather grocery executives to address the issue in Chicago--if he becomes mayor.
One of the groups working to bring grocery stores and farmers markets to people in underserved communities is the Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council. Part of the CFPAC's mission is to engage young people, who are often enticed--in every neighborhood--to fill their bellies with readily available and attractively packaged snacks loaded with salt, sugar and fat.
"It's a nice way to give back, and all you have to do is eat a cupcake," says Dana Lieberman, COO of Sweet Miss Giving's, a bakery and job skill training organization whose profits support Chicago House, a support residence for people living with HIV that provides housing, health counseling, and education.
A little sugar goes a long way: Sweet Miss Giving's runs a job-training program out of their Near North Side headquarters for at-risk disabled adults that teaches baking and general work skills, from how to work in a kitchen to delivering items and knowing good customer service techniques. The two-year-old program receives applications from those referred from a range of places--social agencies, case workers, Chicago House itself--who undergo a four-week unpaid training stage followed by six months of paid interning in the Sweet Miss Giving's kitchen. All who join the program must have minimal education skills and stable housing. Graduates have gone on to work in hospitality, food service, and customer service jobs in other industries.
Not many cities gain such fierce allegiance from its citizens than our own lovely town of Chicago. Even for those long-departed from our stately inland shores, being a Chicagoan becomes something of a lifeblood wherever one may go. As a Chicago transplant, it's a trait I both admire, envy, and if a time ever comes to sled on elsewhere, feel pretty confident I'll embrace as my own.
If there is one thing I love more than food (gasp!) it's scoring a good deal. I get a natural high from clipping coupons and looking for a discount all in the name of saving a few dollars. It's true - I'm a closet cheapo.
But, what really whets my appetite? Eating great Chicago food on the cheap.
Now I'm not talking about taking your girlfriend out to McDonald's and letting her get one of everything on the Dollar Menu (although that does sound quite fabulous). I'm talking great Chicago food at even better prices.
With a few clicks of your mouse you too can eat like royalty, and not just once a year when Grandma cuts you that oh-so fabulous $50 birthday check.
"Dining is and always was a great artistic opportunity."
—Frank Lloyd Wright
"I just like to throw a party," Eric May told me when I interviewed him about his newest endeavor E-Dogz, a mobile culinary community center run out of a trailer hitched to the back of his truck. "If we can show people how to live better and have a really crazy good time while we're doing that, it's a successful project to me."
May has a background in both food and art. His best-known project is an art gallery-cum-cultural center in Noble Square called Roots and Culture, which he opened in 2006. His plan for E-Dogz is twofold: to plant the seeds for a mobile food truck movement in Chicago and to inspire good, old-fashioned positive and progressive human interaction out on the street in the process.
Here's the deal: it's cold. In fact it's really cold. On days when the high is 12 degrees, I need something that is going to revive my soul and restore my faith in the fact that those warmer days will come again. Having grown up the in the South for the majority of my adolescence, the past three years in New York and Chicago have taken some serious adjustments; the dry weather, the inability to do anything that resembles exercise and of course, the way I eat.
When I moved to Chicago in the fall of 2009, I thought, "this winter can't be that much worse than the bitter cold I experienced in New York." I mean, I had lived in Michigan until I was nine. I can handle this, right? Ha...Mother Nature, no one laughs more than you. For anyone who has spent winter anywhere outside of Chicago, I think we can agree - this is unlike most other winters.
During these tundra-like weeks from the end of December to the middle of February, food plays a huge role in my life, more so than in other seasons. I'm not going to the grocery store every night, I'm not running out to meet a friend for dinner and I'm not ordering pick up. You've seen the snow that flies at you sideways; I'm not going back out in that. Instead I'm stocking up on potatoes, onions, beets and other root veggies, so at the drop of a hat I can prepare something filling and delicious that will last at least a couple of days.
As 2010 comes to a close, we look to what new items 2011 brings, but we also look back to the great meals of 2010. Behold, our EATACULAR 2010:
Beef karee w/roti at TAC Quick (3930 N. Sheridan).
Tofu w/spicy and salt at Chinese Kitchen in Westmont, (6551 S. Cass, Westmont). Creamy, egg-like center between crisp pillows of fried tofu.
Pig's ear with crispy kale, cherry peppers & fried egg at Purple Pig (500 N. Michigan).
Grigliate Mista at Volare (201 E. Grand) . Grilled octopus, sea scallops, calamari and shrimp drizzled w/ balsamic vinaigrette. Simple, but perfectly cooked and seasoned each time I've had it.
Okra @ Kabul House (4949 Oakton, Skokie).
Macau pork belly @ Ming Hin, a new restaurant in the Chinatown Mall (2168 S. Archer).
Earlier this year we purchased a 1/4 cow from Slagel Farms and picked it up at Mado restaurant. The steaks we've made have been undoubtedly the best steaks I've ever eaten. Salted before cooking, a little pepper afterward, no sauce needed. Delicious! Thankfully we have a chest freezer which made this doable, but we ended up paying just as much for high-quality free-range beef as we would have for corn-feed beef from a major grocery chain. The quality and variety were so great that I'm really looking forward to frequenting Butcher & Larder.
It's been my experience that good attracts good and evil, evil. Hanging with certain individuals ups or downs one's game accordingly. Captains Merrill and Nancy Powers, the husband and wife team that oversees Chicago's Salvation Army Harbor Light Center, are two of the former. Being around them it's as if goodness was contagious.
Running a huge residential recovery program on Chicago's near West Side, they've seen it all. Offering refuge and rehabilitation to those tortured by alcohol and addiction, their staff of 85 furnishes outreach for 200 residents and 1,300 offsite clients.
Helping with housing, drug treatment and job training, Harbor Light provides valuable services that the homeless community needs in order to reestablish their self-sufficiency.
In one of many life skills classes the mission offers, how to dress for work is elaborated upon in depth. Successful completion of the course garners you a voucher to help buy appropriate clothing (many in the class have never been employed beyond hustling or dealing dope). Some classes teach resume writing and conduct mock interviews. Others teach anger management and coping techniques -- like how to handle conflict minus a narcotic crutch, alcohol haze or a gun.
Those seeking a way out of the chaos of street life need look no further.
This article was submitted by freelance writers Lora Swarts and Ivy Liu.
Step into the shoes of Cob Connection founder Chad Bliss and be surprised. When most executives push papers and write checks, Bliss spends his days in Humboldt Park farming and harvesting crops on the once empty lots he transformed into organic farms five years ago. Bliss and his organization change lives by engaging and inspiring local youth and ex-offenders.
"What we do is develop local food systems," said Bliss. "When you develop local food systems, you have to look at the factors within that. We have work force development by teaching young people skills so they can be more involved in their communities and make a difference. We have micro-enterprise by selling to farmers markets, restaurants and local businesses. We have food security by showing people they are going to have food tomorrow by growing it. So it's a very successful model. We've come a long way from that wheelbarrow and shovel in the beginning."
Shebnem Ince remembers the flavor profile of the first wine she ever tasted. She was nine years old, and her father, who worked in a Gold Coast wine shop, would bring home bottles from the store. In their Rogers Park home, Ince (pronounced IN-ja) remembers, there was a "huge, long hall, maybe 30 feet, and he just filled that hall with wine." Her father sat down with her at the dining-room table before dinner: "He was sitting at the head of the table, and I was to his left." He opened a bottle of 1978 Spring Mountain Vineyard Chardonnay. "I just remember," says Ince, "it had this kind of golden apple and pear flavor profile, with a lot of caramel, toasty caramel. It was oaked in French oak, but I didn't know it at the time."
Following her father's passion, Ince worked in his wine shop, Bragno World Wines, during high school and over the summers while at the University of Iowa, doing the daily bank deposit, cleaning, gift wrapping, and helping to carry cases. Her father, who was a singer in Turkey before coming to the States, had cultivated a huge collection to fill the half-city-block cellar underneath the store. "It was filled with bordeaux and barolo and barbaresco and burgundy," she says. "That's kind of where I cut my teeth."
The most important meal I've had this year was a box lunch from Sopraffina. No, it didn't earn a Michelin star or introduce me to sea urchin. Those are fun, exciting moments in eating this year that have been only subtly underscored by something much more serious, something which makes me uncomfortable and is much easier not to think about. So, like most people, I usually don't. But it was something that was staring me in the face in the form of a roast beef and provolone sandwich, nestled in a cardboard box resting on my knees during the lunch break at Wednesday's State of the Plate conference on sustainable meat production, the new (hopefully annual) forum put together by the Green Chicago Restaurant Co-Op: Where does our food come from, and what power can we possibly have over it?
It's not like these questions are groundbreaking in and of themselves. I've read The Omnivore's Dilemna and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I've skimmed through Fast Food Nation. I've seen clips of Food, Inc. CAFOs bad, local food good, organic labels confusing. It's frightening, and depressing. But there's something very different about encountering this information on my couch or in front of my TV in my spare time, and sitting in a room with people whose daily lives are very much affected by these issues. At State of the Plate, I was literally surrounded, with chefs and culinary students on one side, and sustainable ranchers and food scientists on the other. And through their words, in the form of several panels and a keynote from Robert Kenner, director of Food, Inc. it also seems that there may be a glimmer of hope in the dark night of American eating.
Coffee roaster Michael McSherry ushers me through his Wicker Park apartment, across the backyard and through the side door of a dim garage. Soaring classical music blares from a plastic radio. David Meyers, McSherry's comrade in DIY roasting, smiles and watches over two flame-filled grills under a shower of what looks like ashy confetti. The two share McSherry's ramshackle garage space -- which reminds me either of an old-timey blacksmith's shop or a cheerful, deliciously coffee-scented hell.
When I first learned about DIY roasting, I instantly wanted to try it, even though I couldn't articulate the appeal: Why huddle over jerry-rigged propane grills in cold, smoky garages? Why not just go to the supermarket or a big local roaster like Intelligentsia or Metropolis? My friend Rich Park, co-owner of the Ch'Ava cafe in Uptown, pinpointed the allure of the craft: "They're hackers," he said. "They're the MacGyvers of coffee." Micro-roasting means constantly improvising, creating new machinery where there's none on the market or none for your budget. It means drinking lots and lots of test coffee and fine-tuning your ear to hear how beans are faring on machines without high-tech sensors.
The first thing I pulled out of the gift bag was a hanging calendar with a man on the cover holding half a wheel of golden cheese. I immediately took a photo and texted it to a friend: "The cheese journey begins."
I had no idea then that man was Andy Hatch, a cheesemaker at Uplands Cheese Company, and he was holding their award-winning Pleasant Ridge Reserve. (As pretty much everybody loves to point out, Pleasant Ridge has won the American Cheese Society's Best of Show award three times--no other cheese has won even twice).
But let's not jump too far ahead here. I was in Madison for a three-and-a-half day media trip sponsored by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, a nonprofit funded by dairy farmers that promotes the wide variety of Wisconsin cow's-milk cheese. They work with other dairy products too -- milk, yogurt -- but 90 percent of the state's cow's milk is used to make (you guessed it) cheese.
Over the course of the trip, a group of about 20 food journalists and bloggers from around the country visited seven different cheesemakers around the state, including Bleu Mont and Willi Lehner's famous aging cave, and Otter Creek Organic Farm, which makes seasonal cheeses that even Rick Bayless loves. Our ride: a plush, limo-bus that drove us from Madison to Spring Green and back.
This article was submitted by freelance writer Philipp Batta.
At a point in my unemployed desperation, I decided to inquire about the ice cream vendors--the paleteros of East Rogers Park.
Earlier this summer, I was dining with my girlfriend at a local taqueria at Clark and Devon. We were watching one a cart-vendor from the window, watching how he pushed his way up the street. On our walk home, we passed by what I appeared to be a glorious nexus of the paletas, just one of many in East Rogers Park. The storefront window was covered in vibrant ice-cream stickers and a cartoon polar bear happily chowing down on a paleta under the words La Polar. We opened the door.
After years of living in Chicago, I've finally joined the club: I went to Michigan for the weekend.
Other than a trip to the (beautiful) Upper Peninsula that I took while in college for an internship work assignment, I've never had a reason to head to the mainland--the mutterland, if you will--of Michigan. When I got the invitation to a friend's wedding in Grand Haven over Labor Day, I knew it was finally happening. I packed my Sufjan Stevens albums and a toothbrush, and got on the road for the three-hour trip.
When you're cooking not everything turns out just-perfect every time. Sometimes you have a few missteps along the way. The frosting does set up right, you accidentally over salt the soup, or something ends on fire. Well, the same goes for writing. Sometimes what you set out to do... just doesn't happen. My original feature idea fell flat on its face this week. I originally intended to find local bars, restaurants, and coffee houses that had special, Fall-inspired drinks. I didn't care if they were alcoholic or non, I just envisioned a nice map of go-to places across Chicago to satisfy any urge for anything pumpkin, spiced, or mulled AND support a local business.
I called. I tweeted. I facebooked. I asked friends and family. I asked people on the street.
Nada. Zilch. Not one place had anything special on the menu!
When it became apparent my Chicago road map to all Fall drinks wasn't going to happen, I went to Binny's and bought a bottle of pumpkin liqueur and figured, what the heck, I'll make my own Fall drinks.
This article was submitted by freelance writer Italia Patti.
Over 600,000 Chicago residents live in food deserts, or neighborhoods where mainstream grocery stores are scarce, according to the Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group's 2009 Food Desert Progress Report. But for those Chicagoans, new options are emerging to make fresh, wholesome food more accessible and, perhaps more importantly, more affordable.
One older but recently improved alternative to mainstream grocery stores is the neighborhood farmers market. Many of Chicago's food deserts have had seasonal farmers markets for years, but new initiatives are making the markets a more affordable option. While food deserts affect a diverse population, the majority of residents are poor. To thrive and properly serve Chicagoans inhabiting food deserts, farmers markets must address this socioeconomic reality. Dennis Ryan of the Experimental Station, a not-for-profit organization that supports a variety of community-based projects (including the 61st Street Farmers Market), emphasizes the need to make the food at farmers markets affordable for potential customers. To that end, he notes that "in a low income area, you need to accept Link," Illinois' state-run food subsidy program.
This article was submitted by freelance writer Carrie Miller.
The Velika Gospa is to the 100,000-plus Chicagoans of Croatian descent what St. Patrick's Day is to the Irish. It celebrates an unlikely 1715 victory over an impending horde of Turks who were threatening the town of Sinj, with thankful credit given to the Virgin Mary for a violent sickness that felled and thus repelled the invaders. Synonymous with tremendous victory against superior force, it seems fitting that the men of St. Jerome's Croatian Catholic Church in Bridgeport undertake the monumental task each August 15 of charcoal-barbecuing of some 80 lambs and pigs. Perhaps even more amazing is that customers begin lining up at 7am to buy it by the pound, and, by 10am there's nothing left but sawdust, lamb fat and ashes.
Over the summer while working in Evanston, I've found myself wandering around one block of Noyes Street in search of lunch. Nestled in a quiet, student-less (for the time being) residential area west of Northwestern's campus is an impressive group of restaurants that cater to all price points and tastes. The street's anchor is the Piven Theater Workshop, which resides in a beautiful white brick building bordering a busy, children-filled city park. Far from home and working in an office with a scary, ancient microwave, I did what any curious foodie would do: I began an endless (and often enjoyable) lunch crawl in the neighborhood.
This article was submitted by freelance writer Hallie Busta.
Tom Hart is undoubtedly a salesman and he has his pitches down. Spend enough time watching him interact with customers and you too will know them by heart.
The customer comes in. He offers a sample and a few lines of PR for his product.
"They're easy on the teeth, but highly addictive," he'll say. "The ladies in Chicago have nicknamed this 'Amish crack.'"
Nut crunches, peanut butter granola bars, cinnamon caramel doughnuts and cheeses of all sorts arranged in a sparsely decorated, wood-shelved storefront. His one-liners would be much less convincing if the samples he relentlessly doles out weren't so, well, addictive.
Hart is the general manager of the Rise 'n Roll Bakery & Deli and its wholesale division, Rise 'n Roll Specialties, which first opened in Middlebury, Ind., in 2001. Since then, the business has expanded, changed ownership and opened two locations in Chicago.
With Hart running the front of the operation, the more technical matters are left to 33-year-old Orvin Bontrager, the bakery's founder. "He's the number cruncher. He's the backbone of the business, even the owners admit that, that he's the driving force," says Hart.
Bontrager, who is Amish, started the business out of his Middlebury, Ind. home in 2001. For eight years he, his wife and a small staff produced their baked goods without air conditioning or electricity. The nearest telephone was a half a mile down the road and they received their faxes through the local copy store.
"I'm Amish. I like being Amish and always will be Amish," he said over the phone. "I'm not the type of guy that likes to push things."
The Central Waters Brewing Company has been creating notable "microbrew for the microfew" in central Wisconsin for over a decade, and recent brewhouse improvements have put them on the map as one of the leading energy-efficient small breweries in the Midwest.
The Central Waters Brewing Company was founded in 1998 in Junction City, Wisconsin by Mike McElwain and Jerome Ebel, two homebrewing friends. In 2001, the founders sold the business to colleague Paul Graham, who now owns the company with business partner Anello Mollica. In 2007, as demand increased and the original brewing equipment began to wear out, the brewery moved 30 miles southeast to the tiny town of Amherst.
In 1998, Central Waters took advantage of Wisconsin's Focus on Energy Program and received a $25,000 financial incentive to install a solar hot-water system. The roughly $100,000 system includes 24 solar collector panels and a 2,500-gallon solar hot-water storage tank. The new system also qualifies the business for substantial federal tax credits.
I have been accused of having an unnatural love of bacon, and that's probably true. While I don't completely indulge in the recent surge in bacon-philia, I firmly believe that there isn't much that bacon cannot make better. Consequently, I've tried all sorts of brands of bacon, recipes using bacon, and even a lot of the "bacon-flavored" gimcrackery out there.
Being Southern and only a generation or two removed from the farm, I recently decided to try my hand at curing my own bacon. While my family never raised hogs, I have fond memories from family reunions of stories about curing and hanging of bacon and hams in the smokehouse mere steps from my great-grandparent's house.
As a child, I remember playing around the smokehouse and peeking in. Thanks to the convenience of supermarkets, the rashers and hams were long gone, but if you put your nose to the walls and inhaled deeply, you could still detect faint hints of the delicious smoky smell of the process that turned cheap cuts of salted meats into something luscious and sustaining.
I think it was those formative spring and summer days spent watching my grandmother and great-grandmother work in the kitchen, cooking and baking large Sunday meals, using salt pork and bacon for flavoring, that awoke a love of good cooking and hospitality in me.
So when a friend of mine hosted a soiree with a menu that included home-cured duck breast prosciutto, I was finally motivated to make my first foray into curing my own meats.
What do you think of when you hear the phrase "vocational education"? Perhaps it's the student-staffed auto-shop in your high school, the ivy and red brick of the IIT campus, or those late-night UTI commercials (which, by the way, I totally thought was a urology program--it's not, in this case). But you probably don't think of local artisans or DIY types, woodworking craftsmen, or white-toqued culinary students doling out oysters on the half-shell. I didn't, until fairly recently--right around the time I was trying one of those oysters (with a tangy, well-balanced mignonette sauce, no less) on the second floor of the City Colleges of Chicago. The world of vocational education is changing--and Chicago's French Pastry School is helping to make that happen.
The second floor (as well as the eighth, part of the first, and soon most of the fourth) of the CCC building at Jackson and Franklin is home to the French Pastry School, a labyrinth of white-tiled kitchens, coolers, and stock rooms doubling as faculty chefs' offices. Everything is neat and gleaming, though at times a bit crowded, and the narrow aisles buzz with the motion of white- and houndstooth-clad teaching chefs and interns, a mix of English and French, and the intoxicating smell of chocolate. Wafting from the tempering machine, from the chocolate cooler--the stuff is everywhere. And in its complexity, chemistry, and malleability, it's an apt metaphor for education itself at the school.
Let's get straight to the facts: a Chicago hot dog isn't a Chicago hot dog without a Vienna Beef sausage in the middle. I've gone to quite a few hot dog places since moving to Chicago in 2005 and although there are those rare exceptions Vienna Beef hot dogs have been and will be my dog of choice. From that satisfying snap on the first bite to that rich beefy taste all the way through, it's hard to find a sausage that better compliments the condiments that go on a Chicago-style or Depression-style hot dog. But what makes Vienna Beef the quintessential hot dog for the majority of Chicago hot dog stands? Why has this company been a successful business since the heyday of Chicago's meat packing industry? And why does it continue to succeed amidst a dismal economy and dozens of cheap hot dog options? Lots of questions, and only one place to get the answers -- the Vienna Beef Factory on Damen and Fullerton.
[This story was submitted by freelance journalist Charlotte Eriksen.]
With some of his employees and students checking into a shelter after work each night, Café Too Executive Chef Sean Cunneen said he has to get them out by ten o'clock to ensure they have a bed.
A branch of Chicago's Inspiration Corporation employment services, Café Too is a 13-week job training program for those affected by employment obstacles such as homelessness and poverty. The program consists of four weeks of basic training at Inspiration Café (4554 N. Broadway) and a nine-week internship at the Café Too restaurant (4715 N. Sheridan).
I've noticed in the past few years that Japanese mushrooms are getting much more readily available in Chicago. I used to pick up shimeji and maitake mushrooms at Mitsuwa, realize that they are either moldy or soggy upon closer inspection, and put them back on the shelf in disappointment. Now, I see them in so many places, and often in much better conditions. (To their credit, Mitsuwa's mushroom offering has improved as well.) Quite a few varieties of Japanese mushrooms are available in Korean, Vietnamese and Chinese groceries, as well as gourmet-grocers like Whole Foods and Fox & Obel.
These mushrooming mushrooms (sorry!) are apparently a result of a few specialty mushroom growers that opened up recently. According to a story on LA Times, a mushroom grower from Japan opened their first California plant in 2006, producing a respectable range of tasty far-eastern fungi in collaboration with an American mushroom grower. Given this wider availability of Japanese mushrooms, I think a little "culinary field guide" might be due. Below is an attempt at just that -- a brief guide to Japanese mushrooms.
At Green Youth Farm, a crop of Illinois high school students spend their summer afield.
Turn off Green Bay Road and enter the Greenbelt Forest Preserve, and the first thing you'll likely notice is all the green. The Preserve is a haven amid urban environs, featuring prairie, wetlands, and woodlands dominated by oak. Follow the road around a few bends, and you'll come to an organic farm--the North Chicago site of Green Youth Farm (GYF), a youth leadership program of the Chicago Botanic Garden. Located in the heart of Greenbelt and spanning an acre, it's a haven inside a haven.
If you're like me, you're the sort of city dweller who refers to almost any kind of abundant nature in/around Chicagoland as a refuge or a rarity. The farm is both. What it isn't, though, is rural (despite a certain city-dweller tendency to describe it that way). Heidi Joynt, Coordinator of the North Chicago farm, is familiar with this tendency. "Sometimes students from North Lawndale or Washington Park [the two other GYF sites, both within city limits] will get up to North Chicago and be like, 'Dude, we're out in the sticks!'" she says. "But it's not really that rural; we're just in a forest preserve! There are trees around, and it's really quiet."
Navy Pier is Illinois's number one tourist destination; home of Chicago Public Radio, Chicago Children's Museum and Chicago Shakespeare Theater; hub of summer lakefront activities, from bikes to Segway tours to sight-seeing helium balloons... and it is also sometimes a frustrating place to find yourself when hunger strikes.
The debate may rage about whether the Pier is worthy of its touristic magnetism -- I happen to content it's a dead-end mall with little to see (once you take in the skyline view, which can be impressive if it's not too hazy) and less to do. But millions of visitors each year, particularly visible now as the mercury creeps up the thermometer, clearly disagree. And you should know I'm jaded -- I work on Navy Pier. And I worked on Navy Pier when I was fresh out of college. And sometimes, by God, Fun-Maze and IMAX be damned, you just want a good meal out there a quarter mile into Lake Michigan! Well I'm here to tell you, before you let your Sea-Dawg boat cruise Groupon expire, that it is possible to eat well out on the Pier, if you know what to expect, where to look, and don't object to setting foot back on proper land. That's right -- I'm reviewing eating out on Navy Pier. You can thank me after you recover from your Ferris-wheel sunburn.
In the world of sweet treats, the trendy "it"-snack cupcake isn't the only baked good in town. Think about it: what oven-fresh treat has always been there for you, making your day brighter without a trace of messy frosting?
That's right. Let's hear it for the cookie!
This week marked the opening of a new cookie-centric joint in Lincoln Park, called the Cookie Bar. A full video review from Jennifer T. Lacey and I will be up on Monday; until then, let's take a look at some of Chicago's prime cookie spots, hand picked by something of a cookie expert: yours truly.
If you've been to the French Market, you've probably seen the brightly-colored Raw food stall in the back corner. I visited recently and was not only impressed with the samples I tasted and the willingness of Polly Gaza, one of the shop's owners, to talk and answer questions. I have to admit, I was also really impressed with Ms. Gaza's glowing complexion. It made me want to get rid of my oven, clear out my pantry full of pasta, cereal, and cookies and become a raw foodist. In Chicago, that isn't such a hard thing to do. Besides Raw, which has been open since December, there are a number of caterers, restaurants and even classes offering food (or the chance to prepare food) untouched by mysterious additives or processing.
Ever dined at a restaurant in Chicago and wondered who picked the musical soundtrack? A few local premiere restaurants eschew jukeboxes, DJs and Justin Bieber, realizing good music is as important as the food served.
"I've been making the playlists for almost two years now," Christopher McGauran, partner and marketing handler of mid-scale Lakeview neighborhood bistro Socca says. "Before that, we had a manager who would just pop in five CDs on a rotating carousel and press shuffle. And although his music taste wasn't that bad, he played the same CDs all of the time and just about drove everyone -- mostly the staff -- mad, not to mention he almost ruined Pete Yorn for me with all of the overkill."
Being eco-friendly is all the rage right now, and partly as a result of that, many people are trying to eat local, sustainable foods.
When I was growing up, I remember almost everyone had some kind of garden. My family had a pretty decent-sized garden that was the home to almost any fruit or vegetable that could survive the bizarre weather in Minnesota. Today, it seems there is never enough time (or space if you live in a large city), to tend to a full-sized garden and that can make eating local difficult.
For me, eating local goes beyond being healthy and eco-friendly; being able to support local farmers and businesses is really what motivates me to search out local food whenever possible. Don't get me wrong, I still love my fair share of processed foods (Cheetos!) but I've been making a conscious effort to cut back on them. When I made the decision to change my eating habits, I was a bit overwhelmed but over the past few months I've come across some resources that have helped me make smart decisions about what I eat.
One tequila, two tequila, three tequila...okay, well you know the rest! We've all had those evenings that started out with a shot or two of tequila and ended up with you walking in the middle of street barefoot with your address written in your arm (or is that just me?). I digress. Tequila has a reputation: mix-it-up in a 'rita or shoot down with lime and salt, and wild nights (and serious hangovers) result. But lately, tequila makers are trying to shed the college rave image, and turn tequila drinking into sophisticated experience. Isn't it kind of hard to imagine sipping a reposado in a flute while enjoying an aged Gouda cheese? Well, start imagining it. In the past month, I've been to two very different tequila tasting for three different makers - Partida, Ocho, and Corzo. All three are 100% blue agave tequila (yes, this makes a big difference!)
It's that number at the end of a 1040 form that makes or breaks you: "This is the amount you overpaid." For some, both owing and receiving little back in tax refunds is a good thing, as it means that you've been able to enjoy your money to the fullest; however, a tax refund for the rest of us means significantly paying down debt or making reservations at expensive restaurants.
If you're a little down in the dumps because you had high hopes for your refund but TurboTax didn't deliver, we've got some recipes that will help you through this tough time. And if you're jubilant over your newfound cash and are looking for some classy ways to spend it, keep your braggy mouth shut and read (we've got some recipes for you too, hot pants).
When winter turns to spring, our thoughts turn to warm, sunny days, blooming flowers and eventually, sweet, fresh fruit. And while we'll have to wait a few months for the best and the ripest, the cheapest may be available sooner than you think... if you like strawberries, that is. According to multiple news outlets, strawberries at local supermarkets are (or will be soon) selling for half as much as they usually do. This sudden drop in price is due to a late frost in Florida, which caused the harvest there to be pushed back to the same time that the California crop hit the market. The result? Eighty million pounds of strawberries picked last week alone.
For strawberry lovers, news of the strawberry glut is music to our ears. Personally, my favorite way to eat a strawberry has always been plain and adorned. I like to grab hold of the leafy end and just sink my teeth in, but as experts will tell you (and your taste buds will probably confirm), the mass-market strawberries available to us now often lack the full, sweet strawberry flavor we yearn for, so dressing them up helps coax out the best in them.
I compulsively photograph what I eat. Family and friends once deemed me crazy for this practice, but after years of asking dining companions if I can take pictures of food before anyone begins eating, they now pass me dishes to photograph as if it were the most natural thing to do.
Who are these photographers, and what could I learn from them? I spoke with three accomplished Chicagoans for whom photographing food is hobby and, in two instances, full-time career.
Jonathan Tam of River North wasn't much interested in photography until he received a digital SLR as a present when he graduated from medical school back in 2007. Then he began photographing everything. He set up a Flickr account, and, indeed, the first photos he uploaded included such mundane subjects as keys, flowers and the Clark Street bridge.
Nothing breaks my heart more than walking by someone outside who is in need of a meal. No matter their past or how they got to where they are, no one should go hungry. In a city that attracts people for its great food, I always have such a hard time understanding how some people go hungry for days on end.
In 2009, the Greater Chicago Food Depository conducted extensive research in conjunction with Feeding America and found that nearly 678,000 people each year rely on emergency and supplemental food in Cook County, a 36 percent increase since 2006. Each day, food pantries in Cook County serve more than 142,400 men, women and children. Check out more key findings from this study here.
The Lakeview Food Pantry is one of the most successful pantries in Chicago and has been helping feed the hungry since 1970. Delivering more than a million pounds of food each year, the pantry has two distribution centers, a home delivery program, case management services and clothing distribution.
With its 40th anniversary quickly approaching in April, Executive Director Gary Garland says this is the busiest he has seen the pantry in the 23 years he's been working for the organization. Last year, 33,000 people visited the pantry and more than 1.3 million pounds of food was distributed, a 10 percent increase from 2008; in 2008, the organization saw a 17 percent increase from the year before. Keeping up with the growing demand is the biggest challenge that Lakeview is currently facing.
[Editor's note: This article was written by freelance writers Aixa Velez and Araceli Pedroza.]
For years, street vendors in Chicago's Latino neighborhoods have fought to legalize the selling of prepared warm food.
In Chicago's Little Village neighborhood, there are more than 200 street vendors that sell their food products throughout the year on 26th Street between Kedzie and Cicero Avenues.
The Asociacion de Vendedores Ambulantes (AVA), also known as the Street Vendor Association, meets every Wednesday at noon at 2800 South Hamlin. They are currently organizing a campaign to reform the current city ordinance that states their sales are illegal. They plan to present their proposal to the city in November 2010.
"I am hopeful that the new ordinance will pass," said Augusto Aquino, director of the AVA.
The vendors are seeking licenses that will allow them to sell their prepared food from their cart. There are organizations that support the vendors in making sure they are treated fairly and have a voice when facing the city's regulations.
Aside from the AVA, another organization that helps the vendors is the Chicago Workers Collaborative. CWC officials refused comment, but according to its Web site, the collaborative's mission is to "help build the AVA's leadership so the vendors can organize to stop repressive police action and convince the city to adopt an ordinance that would enable them to obtain a license to legally prepare food."
Many vendors on the South Side sell the same products: elotes (corn); chicharrones (pork rinds) and chips.
One of the main reasons for not allowing warm food to be prepared is due to sanitary and health risks, said Efrat Stein, a spokesperson for the Chicago Department of Business Affairs and Licensing.
"If health is a concern, I have never heard of anyone getting sick off of eating elotes," Aquino said.
I've been a bad writer recently. Which, in my particular case, means mostly that I've been a bad eater recently. With long hours at my office, little energy in the kitchen and, after finishing my taxes this past week, less cash on hand, eating out has become a recent luxury. Ham sandwiches, yogurts and granola bars have been more of the recent norm than a new dish on Lula's menu or special charcuterie option at Old Town Social (or getting a table after a reasonable wait at Revolution Brewing -- still unsuccessful!) However, a recent business trip has taken me to the westernmost reaches of our fine state, and while there has been little time for much more than work there has, blessedly, been eating out! Should you find yourself across the river from Iowa and looking for a bite, I feel I can now advise your gustatory tour of at least one of the four Quad Cities with a smidgen of authority and the warm glow of an impending food coma.
When asked to be a member of the advisory board for the upcoming Family Farmed Expo, I was flattered. I met Jim Slama, the host of this event, while I was tagging along with friend and colleague Chef Michel Nischan earlier this summer.
Michel had taken an early flight into town for a meeting that was to focus on some of the concepts of his Wholesome Wave Foundation. In particular, doubling the value of food stamp coupons spent at farmer's markets- a win-win scenario my man Michel thought up.
I picked him up at the El around 7am. We killed some time back at my apartment, had some coffee and a nosh, played some music and then drove to the meeting. We were going to have lunch afterwards in Chinatown, so I stayed and found myself drawn into a very compelling discussion based upon what I felt was a truly inspired idea.
Months later, Slama asked me to be a part of the Family Farmed Expo. My role would be to chair the committee for the Localicious party, which will feature 20 restaurants, bakeries, bars and farms that embrace the local organic movement.
Crate and Barrel's website sells 236 of them. Williams-Sonoma offers just as many. I'm not talking about artisan-made hand soap: I'm talking about kitchen gadgets and tools--sifters, slicers, juicers, spatulas. The products that are supposed to make your cooking and baking easier. And while some of these things can be absolute lifesavers, sometimes they are wastes of money and time. The Drive-Thru staff presents their opinions of the unnecessary, the overrated, and the useless items in their kitchen collections for your benefit. We're trying to save you.
A few weeks ago, a tragic thing happened. My West Town building was broken into, and my single, prized possession--my bicycle--was stolen. About a week after the theft, I received a miraculous tip that my stolen bike had been spotted at a Back of the Yards flea market.
I called a friend who dropped everything to jump in her car and pick me up so that we could race to the flea market in hopes of recovering the bicycle. It was an early Sunday morning, and we zipped down Ashland Avenue, through the Near West Side, the growing University of Illinois at Chicago Medical District and Pilsen, finally arriving at the industrial expanse that is Back of the Yards, a section of the city still best known as the former home of the Union Stock Yards.
The Swap-o-Rama flea market sits nearly atop a former railroad yard at 42nd Street. The Ashland location is the most bustling of the Swap-o-Rama trifecta of markets, which began in September 1969. (Melrose Park and Alsip are the other Swap-o-Rama locations.) The Chicago market's web site touts "acres" of free parking, which we promptly discovered is very much necessary for the crowds who descend here to buy and sell and browse.
When we visited the Door County two years ago, we brought home a big bag of honeycrisp apples. It was not the first time we had these sweet, crunchy apples, but the specimen in the bag were so amazingly good we were completely hooked.
Until the end of that season, we almost exclusively ate honeycrisps. To make our addiction even worse, the honeycrisps were consistently tasty--no mushy or flavorless "loser"apple got into our shopping basket. Everybody else seems to be discovering this variety around us, too. I saw huge crates full of honeycrisps at farmers markets with a large crowd milling around them, as other varieties sat untouched on the next table. Being a contrarian that I am, I started to grow a little skeptical about my (and others') enthusiasm about honeycrisps.
Next weekend, a lot of couples will go out to celebrate Valentine's Day with a romantic dinner. Many are in love, some are just in like, and some are just pals in search of a nice night out. Regardless of which group you belong to, we're giving you some options for celebrating February 14th.
In the last article (found here), we discussed the four essential ingredients of beer. In this article, we're going to take a look a the equipment you'll need to set up your own homebrewery. Most brewing suppliers have a kit version of this equipment, and on average it will cost you anywhere from $75 to $150 depending on what's included. This may seem like an expensive way to get started, but a starter kit will usually save you quite a bit (as much as 20%) as opposed to collecting all this equipment individually.
Another advantage is that a well-considered starter kit should be customizable or expandable depending on your experiences and desires.
Once we've taken a look at the necessary equipment needed to brew beer, we'll also look at some of the "nice-to-haves" for the homebrewer.
What would happen if you decided to sink all your money into opening a grocery store--yet you had no grocery (or even retail) experience? The team behind Open Produce is finding out that it might very well be a way to revolutionize business.
Tucked between a barbershop and a dollar store on East 55th Street, Open Produce is a tiny grocery store trying to make a big impact in the community. It's the brainchild of Steven Lucy and Andrew Cone, University of Chicago alumni who, after feeling not incredibly fulfilled by their real-world jobs, decided to go into business for themselves.
At first they thought of reselling leftover fruit from farms and farmers markets. They quickly found out this wouldn't be a sustainable business. After further research, they discovered the produce distribution chain was very efficient in terms of loss. This led them to the idea of opening up a produce market in their neighborhood of East Hyde Park.
There is a practice in Chicago that's as traditional as the old world, yet as robust and proud as the American Dream itself: Brewing.
Taking water, malted barley, hops, and yeast, and with a little bit of work and patience transforming those four ingredients into a magically delicious beverage that is the third most popular in the world and found in nearly every culture on the face of this planet throughout history.
As the Midwest metropolis, Chicago has history of brewing that goes all the way back to the city's founding. German immigrants built the first brewery in Chicago in 1833, the same year the city was incorporated. Beer was the reason for Chicago's first civil disturbance during the Lager Beer Riot in April of 1855. And by 1900, Chicago was home to 60 breweries that pumped out more than 100 million gallons a year.
20 years later, Prohibition put paid to that industry as the majority of those breweries closed their doors.
Some 250 people came out to celebrate the grand opening of the Dill Pickle Co-op's Logan Square store last month, an event much longer in the making than the four months it took to transform the former printing shop on the 3000 block of Fullerton Avenue into the vibrant 1,400 square-foot retail space.
You might be looking forwards, but we're eating backwards. The Drive-Thru staff compiled its personal favorite eats and restaurants of the past year for your enjoyment.
For me, the best things this year were the sweets. I fell in love with and pigged out on the cupcakes from Bleeding Heart that combined savory and sweet flavors, especially the curry cupcake. It was truly the best thing I ate. I also loved the ones with rosemary and basil combined with fruit.
My children were happy to discover the chocolate croissants at Fritz Pastry. Our usual chocolate-croissant spot changed its chocolate filling midyear, so we were lucky to come upon Fritz, not only for the croissants but also for the macaroons.
Vying for best dishes of the year status was the tofu w/spicy and salt at Chinese Kitchen in Westmont. Creamy egg like center between crisp pillows of fried tofu. Taste and texture-wise, a 10. I'm pretty sure it's togarashi as seasoning but whatever it is, the dish was transcendent. The other dish would be a ravioli of minced smoked goose with lardons garnished with bean sprouts, fried shallots and culantro- drank with a white Burgundy at Tan Dinh, a Vietnamese restaurant in Paris known for pairing French wines with Asian food.
Best restaurant/most enjoyable time was at Bel Canto in Paris. Besides a phenomenal meal featuring quite possibly the best chicken dish (Bresse chicken) I've ever had, they feature opera singers from the Paris Opera singing arias from yards away instead of auditoriums. Brilliant evening.
Best thing I ate this year was a goat cheese soufflé I had during on a Princess Cruise!
Ras Dashen is awesome - I feel like everyone knew about it before me. I ate there for the first time in the spring and have been back several times. I love having a cup of chai tea with my meal.
The best "new" restaurant I tried this year was The Publican. The best thing I ate this year? Well, something I continue to love every time I eat it (like this past Sunday night) is "Jasmin's Bruschette" at Pizza Art Cafe. It's described as "Garlic, olive oil, tomatoes, basil and feta cheese on our homemade pita bread." but the bread is much more like a puffy mini pizza crust and the garlic is strong but,with the feta and tomatoes, so good.
Best things I ate/drank:
* Fried squash blossom, house-cured salt cod brandade, shallot soubise amuse at Vie. Who knew a flower stuffed with fish could be the most ethereal way to start a meal?
* Amaro Lucano-soaked orange almond cake made by me. I adapted the recipe for Flourless Orange and Ginger Cake from Chocolate & Zucchini, omitting all ginger and soaking the final, cooled cake with Amaro by the tablespoon until saturated. That's a lot of tablespoons and the bitter cake of my dreams.
* 1974 Chateau Montelena Zinfandel, Napa and Alexander Valleys, from a friend's cellar. The most historically significant vintage to touch my lips, dating to the revival of the famed winery, this was an epiphany of fruit and spice.
* My first hot dog--mustard, onions, sport pepper, no relish--from Jimmy's Red Hots.
Best new restaurant: Hoosier Mama Pie Company. The opening of this three-top introduced to Chicago a culture of pie. It's a celebration of all that is good in the world...two blocks from my house.
I just returned from a surprising meal at a new restaurant in my hometown. The Thomas House was recently opened by family friends and seems to be breaking new ground in the eating landscape of our small Wisconsin town. In my formative years of eating, our options were limited to Perkins, McDonalds, and a variety of fish fry and fried chicken options at what were essentially bars with stoves. If you think about restaurants as extensions of patrons' own kitchens, this perhaps isn't so strange--we go out to either eat what we can't make or don't feel like making at home, to socialize, to share an experience with others. Ideally, anyway.
'Tis the season for house parties, cookie exchanges, ornament exchanges, and family-get-togethers. With all things going thrifty, including gift giving, sometimes it's hard to balance the purse strings with holiday cheer. But being on a budget doesn't mean crafting macaroni cards covered in glitter--all you need is a few cups of sugar and a heaping spoonful of patience to bring delicious, holiday gifts without looking like Scrooge.
If you have time to impress, I suggest harnessing your candy-making skills and twisting up some homemade candy canes. Yes Virginia, it can be done (and no, you do not have to be Martha Stewart)! It is time-consuming, and moderate candy-making skill is involved. If you're a newbie at hard candy-making, that's okay...just be prepared to end up with peppermint goop a few times. The "goop" actually tastes fantastic, and even after two failed batches, your failures are worth sharing with a friend...or being selfish and spooning it out of the pot, by yourself, in your kitchen (yes, I'm admitting to that).
I love the holiday season - it's such a happy time of year and there are always so many fun, festive things going on. One of my favorite things to do this time of year is go to the Christkindlmarket at Daley Plaza. Modeled after the famous Christkindlsmarkt in Nuremberg, Germany (it began in 1545!), the Market features traditional German food, handmade crafts and beautiful lights. You can even go inside a heated tent and watch video from the magical event in Nuremberg.
When it comes to Thanksgiving meals, cooks nationwide demonstrate the same focus that Montgomery and Eisenhower did for Operation Overlord. Planning the dinner courses and their courses of action with a critical eye and hard heart, woe betide to the poor fool who, like the Germans at Normandy, stands in their way.
The sheer variety of ways to prepare a turkey boggles the mind. Do you brine it or not? Roast it or fry it? Traditional sage and thyme, or go avant-garde with a rub of butter and chipotle powder beneath the skin? Baste it? Legs tied for presentation, or untied for more even cooking? Stuff the bird and risk salmonella? It's enough to drive a cook crazy, even before the drinking starts.
And that's why instead of turkey, I prefer the standing ribeye roast.
With Thanksgiving right around the corner, I'm sure you're making a list and checking the refrigerator twice before heading out to the grocery store in preparation for your turkey dinner. But before you run out the door, check and make sure you have the ingredients to this power breakfast treat: Cranberry Pistachio Biscotti along side a cup of Earl Grey tea.
We get jaded with age. The older we get, the harder we are to impress. "Ah ha!" light bulb moments grow fewer and farther between. Moments that when you see or hear something so smart or so innovative, you can't help but smile and think "what a great idea" or "how smart is that?" When that same idea is geared toward helping the underprivileged and underserved, it's all the more impressive.
Enter Michel Nischan, champion of the farmer, James Beard award-winning chef and New York Times best-selling author. On the forefront of the NY culinary scene for two decades, he was the force behind Heartbeat at the W Hotel, where he originated his "Cuisine of well being" after his child was diagnosed with diabetes. He later partnered with actor Paul Newman at the Dressing Room: A Homegrown Restaurant in Westport, CT, where he holds court today.
Nischan is an advocate of organic, sustainable cuisine and all its social implications. He's a nationally recognized authority and one of the leading champions of this movement. I'm honored to call him my friend and colleague and can attest that whenever we work together, he's responsible for numerous "ah ha!" moments.
I'm not one to blindly follow trends -- and I do see a little truth in talk that the current bacon mania is a bit overblown. But I've come across a bacon product that rises above the hype. And it's one you can make yourself, just in time to impress your friends and family at the holidays.
In May I traveled to Buenos Aires and spent a week eating and drinking in South America's second largest metropolis. Many guidebooks are quick to peg Argentina as the place to drink Malbec. While this is true, Argentina has much more to offer.
Last week I attended the book launch party for Sweetness: Delicious Baked Treats for Every Occasion by Sarah Levy. Chicago native Sarah Levy opened the original Sarah's Pastries and Candies in 2005 after making candies out of her mother's kitchen and has since expanded to a larger location at 70 E. Oak and on the 1st floor of Macy's on State. I asked Sarah why she decided to write a book and she said that she wanted to try to bridge the gap between professional bakers and normal women. She wanted to create a resource that would take away some of the fear and apprehension behind creating treats and candies. Click on for my review of the book.
Who said the finer things in life should be off limits to the rest of us?
That's the premise driving a new salon series kicking off this Sunday at The Bluebird in Bucktown. Over the next four Sunday evenings (through November 15), two artists--Mary Livoni and John Coyle Steinbrunner--and 25 to 30 guests will put themselves in the capable culinary hands and comfortable setting of The Bluebird for a delicious family-style dinner, wine and beer pairings, and art-centered conversation that cuts through the crap.
I came home from the Ravenswood Art Walk with my mouth buzzing. It should, probably, have been because I couldn't wait to talk about the art I'd seen. But it was actually because I stopped in to tour local spice company Urban Accents, where I tried samples of Sloppy Joes made with their Rio Grande Chili blend, jalapeno-infused lemonade and some pineapple grilled with chili peppers and paprika. The rest of my body may have been in a still-half-asleep, Sunday morning daze, but by midmorning my tongue was abuzz and happy.
Before starting his business, Tom Knibbs, Urban Accents' owner, worked in plastic packaging, but his heart was always in specialty foods and spices. He says he once had to be dragged out of a spice shop, where he'd gotten lost amid the scents and ingredients lists. That and a desire to find a lemon-pepper mix without salt, lead him and co-owner Jim Dygas into the business. Their spice blends, once mixed in the basement, are now sold at Whole Foods, Fox & Obel and other specialty markets in Chicago and beyond. After talking with Tom during the weekend of the Art Walk, I exchanged some e-mail with him in order to learn more about life behind the spice rack.
Don't get sloshed. Don't get sloshed. Don't get sloshed.
This was my mantra as I walked into Tru to attend a wine dinner. Wine (and beer) dinners seem to be all the rage, don't they? You have a multi-course meal that's paired with wines from a specific winery, and usually someone from the winery is on hand to talk about the wine, answer questions and become your new best friend. Well, maybe not that last bit, but they certainly seem to be pretty accessible.
If you've ever been to a wedding, graduation, or an awkward send-off for a coworker, a cake was likely involved. The symbol of celebration sits in the center of the party for all to admire -- and when I say that, I don't mean the expectant mother or happy new couple -- I mean the lump of cake covered in frosting. Sometimes the writing on it spells out a polite, measured phrase of goodwill, or a mention of a weary inside joke among friends. Either way, the cake makes the event. And if it's tacky, in poor taste, or -- even better -- incorrectly spells a name or leaves off a word or two, your guests will remember. And pull out their camera.
Ryan Poli, the Executive Chef at Perennial Restaurant, is serving his first vegan dish. It's a thick cut of thoroughly marinated local tofu, grilled to a very nice char flavor, and deep grill marks. I sat down with Chef Poli to chat about his inspiration for the dish, how it's prepared, and how it's been received.
Chris Brunn: What inspired you to do the tofu?
Ryan Poli: It was really the product that we saw at the Green City Market from Tiny Greens. We were just cruising by and [they] had a sign up that said organic tofu. It struck a little bit of interest because we're always struggling with a vegetarian dish. We always overcomplicate it with, "just a little bit of butter would be great here. And you know what would be really great? Some bacon." The vegetarian dishes always turn into an awesome scallop dish, or a cool striped bass dish. When we got the tofu back, we marinated it. We tasted it. We thought it was something so special that we started to brainstorm. When the final dish came around, it was a vegan dish and not just a vegetarian dish. We're really proud of it.
"We have a great culinary group here in Chicago. Great restaurants. Great chefs. And [Uncommon Ground] will be the future right here for many of those restaurants. The customer wants this."
—Mayor Richard J. Daley
No matter where you turn, it's gotten pretty hard to avoid the words "green," "sustainable" or even "farm to table." And since green (ecologically speaking) has become so green (financially speaking) it's only a matter of time before even McDonald's hawks a sustainable solution while eating out. The problem is that some of the greening of our dining tables is merely lip service.
Bron Weaver, turning around the parquet stage with arms wide, declared of her family's optimistic venture, Heritage Prairie Market: "We bought the farm!" And in this case, it was a very good thing. We'd just enjoyed multiple courses of a multitude of fresh-to-the-table dishes, everything from pickled green beans to a traditional English summer pudding (sort of like the world's richest, fattest crepes draped luxuriously over a mound of sweet berries--it just kind of sounds sexy, doesn't it?). Twinkle strands and car headlights barely pierced the darkness as we wandered back to the crushed rock drive way, back to vehicles, back to the road home. With the smell of rain, earth and green grass flowering in the cool but humid air, it felt like another world. An older world. A world somehow just outside the Chicago city limits, and with every star in the sky in view.
Michigan has a proud history of producing tourism ads that tug at our inner cheeseball. These days, the state's tagline is "Pure Michigan," a nod to the back-to-basics lifestyle most of us - with our shiny new canning equipment and homegrown Purple Cherokees - aspire to, but actually experience only in brief flashes. Take it down a notch, Michigan implores. Be real.
Fall is, hands down, my favorite season. I love everything about it - the colors, apple cider, crisp air, the sounds of leaves crunching, and soup. During the hotter months (as rare as they've been lately) I really miss having a big bowl of hot soup with a piece of fresh-baked bread, and I always promise myself that I will celebrate the first cool day with just that. Well, this summer I started to think that maybe I don't have to wait until the temperature drops below 60 before indulging in a bowl of soup. My family makes a great chilled soup during Christmas that we call fruit soup (check out this post to learn about the history and get the recipe) and last weekend I decided to throw a batch together.
I sat down to chat with Sara Voden, co-owner of Vella Cafe, to look back at the cafe's two-plus years in business. On August 23, Vella will permanently close after serving brunch from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. - or after they run out of food (if that happens first).
A few months ago, I called Editor Andrew in a desperate moment. I had friends in town from New York over a holiday weekend, and I wanted to take them somewhere impressive and affordable for dinner--but for the life of me, I couldn't think of a single decent place (this is how stress overtakes me). He instantly knew the answer--the Hopleaf. We went, had a great meal that they raved over--and they even paid the whole bill. I should've ordered a second CB & J to go.
Introduction/Statement of the Problem.
I really do love yogurt. I love the tangy flavor of Trader's Point's yogurt; I enjoy mixing in a bunch of Milk & Honey Granola for some crunch and sweetness. The benefits of probiotics on the digestive tract are well-known, and a friend's nutritionist mother once advised yogurt to alleviate my seasonal allergies. Since I've started taking my coffee black, it's my best chance for calcium many days.
A couple of weeks ago my co-worker and I got into a discussion about how important it is to really take care of your body. As we learn more about the effects the food we eat has on our health, it becomes more and more clear that we need to think before we eat.
After high school, I moved to the Bay Area with visions of enrolling at UC Berkeley. An older cousin of mine lived there that played Alto Sax. The plan was that I would use his address and get into school as a California resident for dirt cheap tuition. Instead, I ended up playing music gigs with him full time, so while I went to Berkeley, I never "went" to Berkeley. I was 17 and it lasted until I was 23.
The summer of love was a recent memory, Chez Panisse had just opened and we lived down the street from Patty Hearst when she got snatched by the S.L.A. In fact, we heard it going down. Across the bay, the Zodiac Killer was on the loose and Harvey Milk was in office. Quite a heady time for a ripe and impressionable manchild.
Oakland is directly adjacent to Berkeley and one of my cousin Steve's favorite haunts was Lois the Pie Queen, a legendary soulfood restaurant that became my benchmark for all soulfood to come. The world champion Oakland A's would hang out there occasionally delivering lunch orders (Reggie Jackson and Vida Blue in particular) as would the Pointer Sisters, whose father had a church down the street that they sang at. All were welcome and treated like family, from neighborhood characters to local celebrities. Lois was bigger than life and radiated warmth as did her staff, mothers to all.
Smothered pork chops, oxtails and greens, unreal fried chicken -- and then there were those namesake pies. So it was with slight apprehension that I stepped foot into West Side soul food restaurant Doggy's SS. Within moments I felt deja vu. A Lois-like vibe overcame me. To one side, older gentlemen discussed last Sunday's sermons, a waitress that was sweet, efficient and teasingly funny took orders and then there was the fried chicken. And what fried chicken it is.
It's economical, ecological, and environmentally-friendly. In many cases, it's downright delicious. And there is a chance that you could die. This seems to be the main thesis of the new "field-to-kitchen guide," Edible Wild Mushrooms of Illinois and Surrounding States, by Joe McFarland and Gregory M. Mueller.
HarvesTime Foods could be one of the best kept secrets on the north side. It's like the Millennium Falcon. From the outside it doesn't look like much. The awning is torn and a bit sun-faded. The LCD sign's functionality is sometimes spotty. The building is coated in a stark whitewash in a neighborhood where one side of the street is rundown and the other is neo-gentrified. So at first glance, purchasing even canned food from this market may make you cringe a bit and wonder if you're taking your life into your own hands.
Linda Long wanted to convince some of the best chefs to contribute to a vegan cookbook. If top professionals in the culinary world would endorse vegan cooking, it would be hard to argue against vegan food as legitimate cuisine. Twenty-five of the highest awarded chefs signed on, each contributing a three or four course vegan meal. The book includes chefs Charlie Trotter, Daniel Boulud, and Thomas Keller, each many time winners of the James Beard Award, the so-called Oscar of the culinary industry. Long photographed the book, Great Chefs Cook Vegan, inside the chefs' kitchens.
A couple of months ago, I enjoyed one of the very best dining experiences of my life at City Provisions (check out the post), Chicago's green, locally-focused catering company and monthly supper club. At the dinner, I had the opportunity to speak with the owner/chef of the company, Cleetus Friedman, and he told me of his hopes to open an organic deli within the next five years. Little did he know that in just two months his plan to open a deli would be underway.
With a grey and drizzly Memorial Day in our rearview mirrors, the official backyard -- or back deck alley, sidewalk, whathaveyou -- barbecue season is upon us. And sure, you could simply pull out the Weber and grill up some hotdogs and hamburgers. But if you really want to impress your friends, take it to the next level and start smoking -- meats, that is.
Next Wednesday, Whole Foods Market is scheduled to open their new Midwest flagship store at 1550 North Kingsbury Court. Eight years in the making and clocking in at 75,000 square feet, it will replace the present North Avenue store and be considerably larger in scope (the third largest Whole Foods in the world) with approximately 75,000 items, one-third more than what the average store contains to date.
Some people may have booze flowing through their veins, but for husband and wife team Robert Birnecker and Sonat Birnecker Hart, it's also figuratively true--in opening Koval Distillery this year, the pair became third-generation distillers.
These days I keep seeing increasedattention paid to miso. However, my sense is that many in the United States are still a bit squeamish about venturing beyond the little bowls of miso soup served in sushi joints--which is a shame: Miso is a great condiment (historically more of an item to nibble on as is than a condiment, but anyway) that adds instant depth to almost any dish with minimal effort. There are basically three kinds of miso: rustic (yellow), white and red--and here's a litte primer on what they're like, and how to use them in miso soups.
Ham and swiss, with tomato, on wheat. Peanut butter and jelly, on white. Roast turkey on toast with fries and cheese sauce. You know them, you love them. They're sandwiches. (Well, that last one is technically a horseshoe. But same concept, and so good.) Long the stalwart of the school day brown bag lunch, sandwiches are quickly becoming the vanguard of the new middle ground between traditional and trendy cuisine. Don't believe me? Look no further than the lobster dog, my friends.
A coworker of mine ambled over to my desk and said "Please finish this," placing a blue and white paper bag next to me. I looked inside and saw an old friend: caramel corn. From Garrett's. After an hour, the bag was empty and I was headed to the bathroom to wash off the caked goo on my fingers, after which I was going to look up the nearest place that sold caramel corn. Just as a backup.
Easter isn't necessarily a holiday I associate with food. Since childhood, the thought of Easter has conjured the nausea that would set in after a morning spent eating jelly beans, chocolate bunnies and Peeps. As an adult, I've learned to temper my candy consumption before breakfast. Still, I've never been a fan of lamb (the name alone makes me squeamish), mint jelly or hot cross buns, items usually found at the Easter table. For the past few years, since moving to Chicago, Easter brunch for my family has meant a trek to Dunlays, with my kids' pastel Easter garb covered in layers of wool and down. This year, however, with the recession and a spring-break trip to California gnawing into our brunch budget, I'm planning an Easter meal at home.
Chicago lacks for little when it comes to food. Yes, there are better versions of certain items in other zip codes, but all and all, we do pretty well on any number of foodstuffs. Take pork for instance, which is exactly what we're going to do here.
When the opportunity to write a post about City Provisions' March supper club event arrived in my inbox, the title of the email "Breakfast for Dinner" sold me on it right away. I love breakfast foods (who doesn't?) and really couldn't turn down the offer, even if I wanted to.
My version of traveling often includes some fumbling around with a map. I like to plot out the exceptionally appealing vegan-friendly spots before leaving home. In unfamiliar cities, I can then have some fun finding my way - and eating, of course.
I set out to research Depression-era cooking mostly by accident. I was thumbing through my recipe box and came across a card for a lemon dessert. It was an odd one, which used a bit of this and a bit of that, and I always had it stuck in my head it had been created as a result of Depression-created hardships. But what is true about American households during the 1930s is that while there were significant, life-altering hardships, most families did not suffer starvation.
Am I alone in feeling gleefully smug after whipping up an enormous batch of, say, pumpkin soup or meatballs, and then stashing half of what I made in the freezer for dinner a month from now? It's like I've out-smarted the What's-for-Dinner God.
I love beignets. This may not seem strange on the face of things. Beignets are delicious. They are tiny bits (scraps, lumps, balls... pick a shape, it'll work) of fried dough, most traditionally sweet and dusted with a heavy mantle of powdered sugar -- though occasionally, exotically savory and flavored with meat or fish. A French-inflected fried pastry particularly popular in New Orleans, the beignet is as much an American doughnut as a Krispy Kreme or Dunkin variety. Or the paczki.
I've been using Twitter for quite some time now. About a year ago, I was still trying to figure out WHY anyone would use it (can't someone just call or text me if they want to know what I'm doing?), but then I began using it professionally and it all sort of clicked. I use Twitter to stay updated on my favorite blogs, news feeds and people.
I've been dedicating more time to cooking lately. The weather has made me a bit of a shut-in and a more strategic traveler, carefully planning my outings so that I can stop by a grocery store on my way home from work in order to get a few things for my kitchen experiments, which lately have been all soup. So far I've been pleased with the results (a nice lentil, a pureed potato and red pepper) but I'm always looking for shortcuts.
I grew up in the Chicago area, and when it came to snacks, my family was a Jays family. We always ate Jays snacks. Chips, Okee-Dokee popcorn, shoestring potatoes. Nothing came close to the salty goodness of a Jays snack. Not Vitner's, and especially not Lay's.
Every home cook has a recipe she thinks belongs in a cookbook. For me, it's my Polish family's holiday cookie, rogaliki. Rogaliki are brandy-spiked, nut-filled pastries topped with a light coating of sugar-dusted meringue. They're not as well-known as kolacky, but in my opinion they're far superior and better-suited for holiday cookie trays because they have a longer shelf life.
Sambar is a South Indian stew that is tricky to get used to making - especially when you're not measuring. You need to get the right feel for how toor dal, the critical ingredient, helps create just the right thin, chowdery consistency. I'd been following my South Indian friend Vidya's fabulous instructions and meticulous step-by-step photos, logging my trials in a previous post, but something still wasn't perfect.
I called my mom in Minnesota earlier this week to say hello, and I could tell she was preoccupied - the banging dishes and "mmm-hmms" and "uh-huhs" gave her away immediately. I asked her what was going on, and she told me she was making rice hotdish for dinner that night - one of my most loved and hated meals.
At his time of year, many stomachs and many home cooks turn their attention to comfort food. This year, especially, as food budgets shrink and panic hovers near the hearth, comfort food is being called upon to bolster our defenses. Amid all the mac and cheeses, soups, brownies and meatloaves spilling from stoves and take-out containers, the meatball often gets overlooked, even though it's a well-versed staple of comfort.
Earlier this month, Alinea, a cookbook collecting more than 100 recipes from Chef Grant Achatz's phenomenal restaurant, made its debut. Weighing in at 6 pounds and more than 400 pages, the hardcover book features essays by Achatz, his partner Nick Kokonas, and food writers Michael Ruhlman, Jeffrey Steingarten, Mark McClusky and Michael Nagrant. It is illustrated with more than 600 photographs of the food and the kitchen by photographer Lara Kastner -- some of the most luscious foodporn you'll see in a long time.
I had the opportunity to interview Michael Nagrant about the book, how he got involved and what it was like writing about one of the country's top restaurants.
Every October, the Brewers Association puts on the Great American Beer Festival (GABF), where hundreds of brewers and thousands of people descend upon Denver for three days of celebrating beer. The culmination of this event is the awards for the best beers in 75 categories, as well as naming the breweries and brewers of the year.
The Drive-Thru staff met recently to eat and socialize under the theme of a Bodega in a Box Party. The Neighbors Project created Bodega in a Box to highlight the benefits of shopping at bodegas and to benefit their Food and Liquor project, which encourages corner stores to stock more produce on its shelves.
I'm no saint, but I've done my fair share of volunteer work through the years. I've picked up trash at a national forest, helped build a house and a park, and set up for Chicago's Bike the Drive in unseasonably warm weather - all fun and rewarding in their own way. Coming from the former Girl Scout, Catholic school alum, nonprofit employee school of volunteer work, I was wholly unprepared for how awesome it would be to volunteer for Chicago Gourmet.
I'd fallen in love with India over her beautiful food, accepting her dusty and sour streets as they were. Last year, a friend put me up with her family in Bombay and showed my hungry stomach around the neighborhoods she used to stomp around in. Then weeks ago, I flew to Delhi to tag around with another friend on her South Indian family's vacation.
While the past few days have been undoubtedly lovely, a chill is creeping into the evening air, the late afternoon light is a little more burnished and waters down into darkness a little earlier every day, and the next wedding I have on my calendar to attend is in May of next year. Just as summer slips silently away into fall, another wedding season has come to a quiet end, but not without its share of trends and manias sure to influence next season's brides- and grooms-to-be.
When I told the Drive-Thru editors last week that I wanted to take them up on their last-minute offer to interview Food Network celebrity chef Sandra Lee, creator of the Semi-Homemade television and cookbook empire, their response was instructive: "You're not going to shred her, are you?"
Several years ago I took a train from Moscow to Beijing. The eight day ride made me fall in love with train travel, but not with the train food. The dining car served primarily cabbage and salted cod, which they stored under the dining car seats. I survived on vodka, pickles, salty mineral water and, thanks to the samovar on our car, tea and ramen.
My cousin was married in Portland, Oregon a few weeks ago. While the rest of the family bought their plane tickets, my boyfriend Nick and I decided to pay a bit extra and reserve a "roomette" on the Empire Builder Amtrak line. Any private room reservation on Amtrak includes local newspapers and coffee in the morning, bottled water, bed linens and towels, shower access, and breakfast, lunch and dinner.
I'd spent my fair share of time on Amtrak, visiting Nick at the University of Illinois and eating rubbery bagels and burnt coffee when the train would stop for hours. I wasn't sure what to expect from the dining car on this 46 hour trip.
We arrived at our cabin to find a small bottle of cheap champagne waiting for us. It was a nice touch, that would have been ever nicer had we actually left on time. Instead, we sat on the track in Union Station for over an hour. Amazingly, this was the one and only delay.
The first-class car attendant came by to take our dinner reservation shortly after we departed. At 6:30 we made our way through half a dozen train cars to find our seats. The dining car is made up entirely of booth seating and, as a result, we were seated with a different couple at each meal. Nick and I often find that our travel pursuits put us in the company of primarily middle-aged couples. This was no exception. We met some wonderful people, but we were the youngest pair in the cabin area by about 30 years.
The tables were set with Amtrak service-ware, menus, and a basket of rosemary rolls. I ordered the "Vegetarian Pasta Special" and Nick ordered the salmon. Each entree comes with a small side salad, which very obviously comes from a bag.
The pasta was a cheese tortellini covered in a creamy pesto sauce with vegetables. It tasted pretty good and the generous portion size was quite filling. Nick said the salmon was ok, but that he wouldn't order it again.
For dessert we had our choice of a chocolate torte, strawberry cheesecake or Häagen-Dazs ice cream. I ordered the ice cream, but snagged a taste of Nick's torte. It was good, but sickly sweet after more than a bite.
We watched the scenery pass until the sun set. The attendant took our breakfast reservation and assembled our bunk beds while I used the shower. I was very impressed to find that it had excellent water pressure and hot water.
We went to breakfast at 7:30. Nick ordered French toast and I ordered a Greek omelette with feta and spinach. The omelette was fairly bland and dry. I'd recommend the French toast.
The distance we had traveled over night was beginning to pull us out of the plains and into the beautiful pines and rolling hills of Montana. The train goes directly through Glacier National Park, stopping at East Glacier Lodge in the summer.
At lunch Nick ordered a hamburger and I ordered a Gardenburger. I was very disappointed to find that they were out. I ordered the only other vegetarian option instead, a Caesar salad, which ended up being a slightly larger version of the side salad they serve with dinner.
I left lunch slightly annoyed and quite hungry. As we settled into our cabin our attendant made the rounds to ask if we would like to attend a wine and cheese tasting when the lunch traffic ended. We agreed and I dove into the bag of stadium peanuts I had packed along.
The tasting is a nice event reserved for first class guests. We sampled four cheeses from Wisconsin and Minnesota and four wines from Oregon and Washington. We didn't sample anything to write home about, but it was all higher quality than I expected.
That evening at dinner I ordered the "Vegetarian Pasta Special" to find that it was the same meal as the night before. Nick ordered the "Flat Iron Steak" which received a better review than the salmon. We both left with ice cream for dessert.
During the night the train splits in Spokane, Washington. Half of the cars head to Portland and half head to Seattle, along with the dining car. We received a boxed breakfast that left a lot to be desired. After a gorgeous ride along the Columbia River Gorge we pulled into Portland ahead of schedule. Nick and I promptly headed to my favorite Portland bakery to find a real breakfast.
The train ride was beautiful, and overall I was impressed with the food. Though the days of luxurious train travel are largely gone, Amtrak still runs a nice service that I highly recommend. (Though, I will admit that our stomachs were a bit out of whack for the following days.)
I know a Michael Phelps fetish is sweeping the nation, but I haven't exactly caught the fever. Of course he's won more gold medals than any Olympian in history. I get it, I get it . . . but I don't get it, in my gut, if you know what I mean.
It should come as no surprise that some of the best beer in the country (and arguably in the world) can be found in Wisconsin and that some of the best beer in the Badger State can be procured just a few hours from Chicago.
There's something sort of delightfully hometown-y about Dairy Queen. In my experience, DQ's tend to be side of the road affairs, usually a shed or shack with two windows (dine out and drive thru), maybe a picnic table or two, and an interior eating area only in the fanciest of locations. Dairy Queen seems to be one of the most charmingly minor of the franchises dotting the modern American eating landscape. Maybe A&W Root Beer takes the ice cream cake for ultimate franchise frumpiness, but only by a sprinkle or two.
I fell in love with cold soup the year I moved to New York City. My husband—then my boyfriend—and I had a favorite cheap Italian restaurant in the East Village that served a cold strawberry soup, made with Champagne and served with basil leaves sprinkled on top.
People have been talking a lot about hot dogs lately, and with the declaration of tomorrow being "National Hot Dog Day" by Evanston tube steak aficionados Wiener and Still Champion ($1 hot dogs will be sold all day!), we thought we'd take a minute to give props to some of the great places that sell our friend in the poppy seed bun.
With every leap in technology and taste that professional chefs make, there are always some fearless home chefs looking for ways to make the same moves in their smaller spaces on their limited budgets. And the ones with time and energy to spare will sometimes blog about it as well.
This year's grilling season is now in full swing. These days, I often come home to find my apartment full of wood smoke wafting in from our neighbors' backyards. The wood smoke reminds me of my childhood summers in Japan when we occasionally hauled out a rickety ceramic grill to our mosquito-infested backyard.
New York City is a fun place for anyone who's a fan of vegan food and also has a decent eat-out budget. One list for options in the Lower East Side alone scrolls and scrolls. I'd flown in to spend some time with some friends, with the intention of trying to get as much food into one day as reasonably possible. By the end of a Saturday, I'd tasted from eight eating establishments, plus a street pretzel. I had a bagel from H&H three times, and thought about a meal at Candle Cafe hours afterwards. It's also an expensive city, and to keep accommodation costs to a minimum without imposing on any local friends, sleeping quarters were closet-like tiny (no exaggeration).
Chicago has a lot of restaurant options. You can eat on the cheap, on the high end, or somewhere in the middle and still eat well. While some focus on the best new places to eat in Chicago, the Drive-Thru staff is talking this week about the new, the old and the closed—the places we’ve all heard someone say “You have to eat at ______” for several months or years before finally making our own trip or a place that gets revisited after a long hiatus, the places that are newly opened but not exorbitantly priced, and the places that have dearly departed a storefront, but not our hearts.
Now that warmer weather is en route, the wedding invitations start showing up in the mailbox. Summer weddings, autumn weddings, holiday weekend weddings, destination weddings--now begins the months of Saturdays filling up on your calendar as you commit to being with your friends as they take the marital plunge. Which also means that you gotta eat what you're given.
If you’re non-Orthodox – like me (unorthodox?) – Greek Easter always seems to just pop up out of nowhere. If it pops up for you at all. While the Western calendar follows the lunar cycles and spring equinox to determine where Easter will fall, the Eastern Orthodox churches tie Easter to the Hebrew calendar and Passover. My first experience with the concept, let alone practice, of Greek Easter (or, Pascha) was during study abroad in Athens four years ago.
When I arrived at Dark Lord Day 2007, the Three Floyds Brewery parking lot was filled with people clustered around picnic tables. New to Dark Lord Day, my companions and I had neglected to bring any beer to drink that morning.
FIG Catering isn't trying to be the hippest caterer in Chicago. They're not into molecular gastronomy, they don't dig Rachel Ray and other Food Network "personalities," and they are not the ones to call on for a family-style mostaccioli dinner for your next family reunion.
April 15 is a four-letter word to many people as they see their year’s wages summarized in divisions and multiplications that may end in a check written to the government for what is owed them, or a small refund amount that could cover the cost of a high-end item on the menu at Olive Garden. Regardless of where you stand on the scale, Tax Day is tough on everyone, which leads us to how you’ll celebrate: cheaply. This week, Drive-Thru staffers compile their best recipes that need only a few low-cost ingredients. Dine on.
One of the major perks of living in a big city is 24-7-365 access to any type of food imaginable. Crave Korean barbecue at 4:30 a.m.? Pizza for breakfast (and not the same pie that sat on your coffee table all night)? Chilean sea bass after a night of debauchery? You want it, you got it.
With the weather getting gradually warmer, we need to remember the things we love about summer food, such as the desperate need for a butterscotch malt. In this week's Drive-Thru feature, we review a few recent additions to the city's ice cream scene in preparation for the months to come.
If Jacob Elster has his way, when you think of Uganda, you won't even dare think of Idi Amin. Instead, you'll conjure up the heady aroma of fresh-brewed coffee made from Arabica beans. Or, better yet, you'll think of your recent exchange with the farmer who grew your cup of joe.
It’s Good Friday, and I’m tethered to the computer at my office in the Loop, wishing I was 10 years old again. Back then, Easter Week was an enchanting confluence of religious mysticism and sacred food traditions, all swirling around the nucleus that was my Nana’s Formica-laden kitchen in Hammond, Indiana.
When Chicago Restaurant Week was announced earlier this year, I was ecstatic. A long list of local restaurants offered prix-fixe lunch and dinner menus at (comparatively) nominal prices, a move intended to attract some new diners into these places to see how the other half lives. The half that doesn’t bat an eyelash in the presence of upscale flower centerpieces and sommeliers. Several Drive-Thru staffers took advantage of the week’s festivities, and took a moment to write about their experiences.
Last fall I went to a dinner party hosted by a friend of my husband. I’ve been impressed by nearly every dinner party I’ve been to—it’s not easy to have a few dishes ready at the same time and to appear relaxed when serving them. But never before had I seen one person feed such a large group of people. This guy, this single guy, had appetizers ready when his guests, about 20 of them, arrived. He also had two entrees and dessert ready. As I was leaving, I told the host, Tom, that I loved to cook for friends, but I didn’t think I could ever cook for such a big party. “Of course you can,” he said. “I’ll help you. Let’s do it in February.”
It was around 2:30 p.m. in Lake Tahoe and I was hungry. I'd been up since 4:15 a.m. in Chicago, where it was now 4:30 p.m., and only eaten a peanut butter and jelly with tomato from the Potbelly's at Midway Airport, plus maybe some peanuts on the plane. (This reminds me of the hard time I had ordering peanut butter and jelly with lettuce and tomato at a different Potbelly's another time, when someone kept asking me if I was sure that's what I wanted. Yes, it's an odd combination, especially with the lettuce, but I assure you that the tomato contributes a friendly juiciness.)
Three years ago I moved to "Little India," the neighborhood along Devon Avenue extending from Damen to California. Almost all of the restaurants and grocery stores along this strip are Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Afghani, etc. It's been wonderful, but its also been intimidating. All those menu items, all the vague and short translations, all the potential that I'd never remember the name of things I really liked.
Valentine's Day gives us all a solid opportunity to take on a box of chocolates. As we gear up for Thanksgiving, we mentally assemble a plate of turkey. But when is a good time to eat gumdrops? Empanadas? Surf and turf? National food holidays, as silly as they seem, serve as an eating schedule of sorts, and can settle the problem of having too many options for dinner. Let's review the upcoming week of food holidays to get some variety in our eating, and take some trips to places in the city to stay on target.
February 16: National Almond Day
What better way to celebrate this low-calorie protein source by throwing it into a dessert? Marche's Gateau cerise aux amandes is a delish sour cherry almond cake with Balaton cherries and cinnamon stick ice cream.
February 17: National Indian Pudding Day
Those of us who flock to the restaurants on Devon Avenue may think their rosewater- and cardamom-infused rice pudding is Indian Pudding, but we would be very wrong. Indian Pudding is a mushy custard made with molasses, spices, and cornmeal (aka "indian meal"). You could make it on your own; however, Crofton on Wells also makes a sleek, modern version of the dessert (Chicago Bites reviewed it as part of a recent visit).
February 18: National Drink Wine Day
I'm sure to a lot of people this holiday is EVERY day. GB contributor Sean Ludford of BevX is the place to go for this resource. Read some of their newest wine reviews to get some suggestions to celebrate.
February 19: National Chocolate Mint Day
Hello, Frangos! I defer to fellow GB Staffer Bobbi Bowers on this one, as she recently reviewed the Frango Cookbook: Simple Recipes and Sweet Ideas, which features such decadent sweets like the Flourless Frango Chocolate Cake. Yum-o!
February 20: National Margarita Day
This is where I get foggy. The last time I drank a margarita was in college at a sports bar called the Pitchers Mound which was located in a strip mall next to a Shopko. Eh, I miss Shopko. Anyway, I turned to Citysearch's Best Margaritas in Chicago list from last year, which hails Old Town's Salpicon as the city's best margarita makers.
February 21: National Sticky Bun Day
I usually stay away from vegan bakeries (I'm more of a Dolly Madison person if you get what I mean), but Bleeding Heart Bakery's pecan sticky bun is out of this world. Go see them at their Damen and Belmont location.
February 22: National Cherry Pie Day
Today is George Washington's 276th birthday, and even though there is no evidence that he chopped down a cherry tree and "could not tell a lie" when asked if he was the culprit, the cherry is symbolic of the country's first president. I know that I cannot tell a lie when it comes to brunch food: I get the savory, eggs and bacony meal but I always want the sweet dish on the menu. This weekend I will be living free (like George wanted!) and celebrating this holiday early by ordering Lula Cafe's vanilla custard stuffed brioche french toast with chocolate, goat's milk creme fraiche, and dried cherry chutney. I will then struggle home to watch old episodes of Arrested Development. Ah, the weekend.
February 23: National Banana Bread Day
I'm a big fan of banana bread, as it is a great way to use dying bananas and seems like a healthy alternative to the sweets I normally want to eat. While I am very happy with my mother's amazing recipe that can move mountains and possibly create peace in the Middle East, I highly recommend the moist, sweet banana bread at Logan Square/Avondale's Golden Rise Bakery, which is a tasty (and much-needed) addition to the neighborhood.
We can hardly believe it. Drive Thru turned 1 this week!
We've taken some time to look back at what we've blogged about in the past year and have come up with a condensed list of our favorite news, recipes, ideas, rants, and general observations. Consider this the birthday edition of "Mmm, Midweek Links."
Good restaurants should be able to take care of you. Even us vegans. Some chefs have told me that they enjoy a challenge. If you have dietary restrictions, you shouldn't have to limit yourself to places that cater specifically to you. In other words, vegans shouldn't be stuck going to just the places that call out items as "vegan" on their menus. With sufficient notice &mdash sometimes a day, other times a week &mdash upscale spots should be able to make something really special.
Friends and I were searching a restaurant for a special dinner for my sweetie's birthday. Our criteria: upscale and elegant with great service, ten minutes by taxi cab to Redmoon (1463 W. Hubbard) for a show after dinner, availability for ten at 6 p.m. on a Friday night ten days out and more than willing to serve at least two of us an all vegan dinner and everyone else all vegetarian without egg.
Eating is one of the top highlights if not the best thing about traveling. Any opportunity to take a plunge into the unknown is thrilling and exciting, even if what you experience doesn't match what you're comfortable with. Sometimes it's just good to get away and do everything you'd do at home somewhere else.
I recently took a day trip to Milwaukee and condensed a food tour of the city into fewer than 12 hours. My friends pointed out that we were like Hobbits, enjoying second breakfasts and third lunches in order to get it all in. We opted not to stay overnight and spread out our tour because this was more of an adventure, to see how much we could see and eat in one day. That the city is a mere 1 1/2 hour drive only helped our case. It's a cheap and fun way to spend a day and you don't end up losing your entire weekend by being out of town.
Browsing through the Broadway Antique Market this fall, I came across a thick book with a green cover. Embossed on the cover, it said, "The Chicago Daily News Cook Book" in gray art deco-ish letters. The 363-page (including index) book cost $1.00 when it was published in 1930. It was marked $8 in pencil on the endpaper. I knew I had to have it.
Edited by Edith G Shuck, home economics expert for the Daily News, and Dr. Herman N. Bundesen, Cook County coroner and health editor for the Daily News, the book claims to be "a practical guide on hot to balance a diet, meet a budget and prepare a tasty meal for the average urban family."
Developing a taste for the range of delicacies Chicago restaurants have to offer can take a long time, especially if your roots are in plain turkey sandwiches and chocolate Yoo-Hoo. Drive-Thru editors Meghan Murphy Gill and Robyn Nisi reflect on the culinary milestones that tried their palates.
Chicago turned me into a picky eater.
Ever since I transplanted myself out of a small college town in Virginia, my once up-for-anything palate has taken on a personality of its own. While it didn't morph from easy going to total snob it has become downright discerning, to a point that an impromptu Friday night out can easily transpire into a back and forth discussion, in which my talking points dominate, about what and where to eat.
Big cities like Chicago and San Francisco come to mind when I think of eating out vegan style. Small progressive cities are good, too. Take Asheville, North Carolina: number one in PETA's list of America's Best Vegetarian-Friendly Small Cities. In Logan, Utah, I didn't expect much beyond our own vegan family cooking. Maybe there would be accidentally vegan fare like hash browns and grits at diners, burritos at Mexican spots, pasta, and the occasional Indian restaurant offerings.
Making end-of-the-year lists of superlatives is my one of my favorite things to do in December. I love looking back at the past three hundred and sixty-five days and listing my favorite TV, food, music and movies because it forces me to recall a year's worth of memories. For example, the songs that made my best of lists in 2006 were picked largely because of the way they sounded when I was driving through Wisconsin over Labor Day weekend with my husband and pal, Angela, or of how they could fill the dance floor at my wedding or how they made me feel when I had the apartment to myself for the weekend.
I'm known around my house for always commenting, "X doesn't exist in a vacuum, you know," and I definitely think it applies when recalling your favorite meal of the year. Don't agree? Just read how so many of the Drive Thru staff's favorite meals occurred thousands and thousands of miles from Chicago, some across oceans, others across the country. How can you not be haunted by fresh fish in Barcelona or "Auntie's" upma in India? And those of us who did enjoy our favorite meal right here in town share recollections of simplicity or special details. An amazing meal doesn't exist in a vacuum, you know? What makes it a favorite is usually all the surrounds it, the experience of it.
With that in mind, the staff of Drive Thru shares our superlatives of 2007.
If you haven't bought your holiday gifts yet, you may think that now is the time to head to the nearest chain store and pick up a unremarkable gift card for your special someones. But if that someone likes to cook (or think about cooking), you can give them the gift that keeps giving: a cookbook. Even with the billions of recipes that you can find online (often for free), cookbooks still are important to developing skills and knowledge. When I crack open a cookbook and look at a recipe whose page is streaked with ingredients from past meals, it's a neat time capsule; the recipe doesn't change, but your ability to make it does. Food is ultimately timeless; the red sauce recipe that my thick-ankled grandmother brought over from Sicily in 1916 is the same recipe that I struggle to reproduce a few times a year; the notes I made in my notebook about how to handle the pork neck bones needed to make the sauce meatier are almost laughable ("Note to self: where can I find pork neck bones?") and a great chronicle of how I've improved (or deteriorated).. Cookbooks are a wonderful gift and resource for the cooks in your life. The Drive Thru staff took a moment this week to review some new titles, as well as older favorites in their collection.
If you ask me, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a batch of gingerbread or sugar cookies and a sticky mess of frosting. This kind of cookie is far from being the best-tasting treat you’ll eat this holiday season; in fact, making these cookies is much more about the experience of decorating than about taste.
And while it’s perfectly acceptable to let your creative side run wild - channeling Jackson Pollock or Monet is encouraged – it’s also fun to pick a theme and impose some discipline on your decoration.
So what better theme than our fair city? This year, I decided to attempt cookies modeled after Chicago landmarks and team logos, and here’s what I came up with.
It all started innocently enough when Katherine, my office buddy, suggested we organize a holiday cookie contest for staff. Early on, a cooperative vibe prevailed. Lunchtime conversations revolved around warm and fuzzy holiday baking memories, and we even flirted once or twice with the notion of submitting a joint cookie, a symbol of our shared belief in the power of the baked good to bring joy to our harried comrades.
Our coworkers’ wild enthusiasm for the contest buoyed our spirits in those early days, the days when cookies were cookies and coworkers friends.
Things began to unravel as we established the rules of the game.
There is something special about December. Gap and Old Navy ads would have you believe that it's their striped and fair isle sweaters, but I tend to think that it has to do with all the gatherings and get-togethers concentrated into one month. Seeing so many friends and family members in such a short amount of time leaves me feeling exhausted, but exhilarated. And then there's the food. The combination of the two, and it's no wonder most of us emerge on the other side, in January, about five pounds merrier.
Some people complain that the holidays are stressful. For me, it's the obligatory gift-giving and the gift-getting. Financial beatings aside, its the sheer amount of stuff that ends up in my possession (and others') that gets me frantic, especially knowing that in a year's time, we'll just be adding to the pile. Hosting a gathering for friends or family, however, is one way to avoid all that. Plus, getting creative with a centerpiece and a menu is way more fun than being subjected to lame Christmas music performed by even lamer bands while you stand in a long line waiting to purchase a gift card so your office BFF can go back and pick out a striped turtleneck sweater.
It’s the day after Thanksgiving. Your food coma is in full-force and you’re still rockin’ the sweatpants that you changed into at about 5 o’clock the night before. The last thing you want to think about is cooking—didn’t you just do enough of that? Admittedly, you did enough eating too, but there’s always room for leftovers.
- Refrigerate all leftovers as soon as possible.
- Be sure to spoon the stuffing out of the bird right away and refrigerate immediately.
- Pull the turkey meat off the carcass before you refrigerate it.
- Cover the turkey tightly so that it stays as moist as possible.
If stored properly, turkey, stuffing and gravy will last about three days. Cranberry sauce and other acidic foods will keep for about a week.
Three days worth of turkey is a lot of turkey, but your post-Thanksgiving meals don’t have to consist of everything smashed together between two pieces of bread (although, I realize this is a popular option—even Cosi has its own version). A little work and creativity can produce dish that could be (dare I say it) even more delicious than the original.
The holiday season is approaching, which means that you're going to be at a party or holiday celebration staring at food. A lot of food. You will be expected to make hard choices between what you want to eat and what you should eat. The holidays are often a time for letting go and having that extra helping, but if you're surrounded by vegan dishes, you'll likely eat good-tasting food that won't require use of a defibrillator afterwards. Chris Brunn, our resident vegan chef, weighs in on how to innovate gourmet holiday recipes.
Reading the November 2007 issue of Bon Appetit, which includes a slew of Thanksgiving recipes, I thought of ways to renovate the dishes that require dairy or meat. If you skip the turkey in the first chapter, "Turkey and Gravy," the guide is quite vegan-friendly. I see a recipe like Three-Mushroom Dressing with(out) Prosciutto (Chapter 2, Stuffings), and think, "Mushrooms, tasty." I'd follow the recipe, just omitting the meat, eggs and changing the butter for margarine (non-hydrogenated of course) or a good olive oil. I don't see how I could go wrong with rosemary, white wine, sautéed onions and three types of mushrooms. The wild rice and roasted grapes and walnuts recipe is vegetarian straight away (at least after changing to vegetable stock). Again, substitute out the butter for vegan.
In Chapter 3, Cranberry Sauce, all four recipes are vegan by default. In Chapter 4, Potatoes, take out dairy and you'll be laughing through five recipes: a bourbon-walnut sweet potato mash, red potatoes with ancho chiles, a wasabi mash, a hash of sweet potatoes, and a recipe for roasted fingerlings. Vegetables, in Chapter 5, are an obvious score, from Brussels sprouts with caramelized shallots to smashed rutabagas with ginger-roasted pears, green beans and almonds to parsnips with carrots and rosemary to roasted fennel.
If you're still with me on the vegan tip, skip over to the November/DecemberVegetarian Times for cranberry-cherry lattice pie and upside-down apple-cinnamon pie (both vegan). They have Thanksgiving meal plans, too, and a short feature on sage with a mention of flash-frying sage leaves for a "potato chip-like garnish." Crispy sage leaves sound fun.
If you're wondering how you'd go without meat on Thanksgiving, or at least how my family is going to do it, Chicago Diner has posted the tofu roulade recipe that I've been cooking for the last few years and it's brilliant. When the roulade is rolled up inside plastic wrap, just before baking, I love to twirl the ends of the plastic around and around to smooth any edges (or more honestly, primarily to amuse myself).
Now I'm back and know how to get "there" but don't always know what's "there" when I do. Fascinating.
Quite a detour. The city is as different as I am. I've returned home and see things in a different way. When you leave for a while and come back many years later, you view and appreciate things differently.
I'm glad to be here instead of yearning to leave. There's an energy that I feel here today as opposed to back in the day. It's palpable to me. Some of the streets vibrate with it... like Michigan and Wacker. I have a Mary Tyler Moment every time I walk over the river going north. That view down West Wacker and the river and up Michigan Ave. If I wore a hat, I'd not be able to resist tossing it in the air as I whirled dervishly around.
That view is special to me, Mr. Grant. It makes me happy to have some association with it and I swell with pride and do a little dance each time I'm there. Or behind the Planetarium looking back at the City. Or Diversey Harbor looking towards downtown. Big smiles.
The day after Halloween is always grim. The streets in my neighborhood are littered with the remnants of the foot traffic from the night before, with chocolate bar wrappers and forgotten parts of costumes dotting the sidewalks and lawns. Partially blackened and molding carved pumpkins sit on doorsteps, their one-night job done.
The worst part of this day, however, is figuring out how to use up leftover candy. Even the most seasoned sweet tooth can’t take eating four pounds of the stuff before it becomes a gooey, dusty mess sitting on a pantry shelf. Here’s where the Drive-Thru staff comes in: several of us have contributed recipes for transforming your candy into dessert greatness.
As the weather becomes colder, my thoughts turn to apples. Whether baked into a sweet pastry, slathered in peanut butter, or paired with a hunk of cheese, apples are a versatile, healthy fruit that is emblematic of the season. Fall is also the time to make the Mecca-like trip to an orchard to pick, buy and taste apples in their natural habitat.
My favorite place is Edwards Apple Orchard, located in Poplar Grove, a small town east of Rockford. Edwards is a picturesque, sprawling property located in an area dotted with farms and endless county roads. A country store sells a large variety of picked, packaged apples and cider from the Edwards orchards. If you are an apple connisseur, I highly recommend the Jonagold, which makes a wonderful applesauce when your one-person apple-eating contest goes awry and you're racing to use up your supply. A separate candy kitchen manned by a gaggle of local teenagers makes fudge. The store also sells a range of jams, honey, ornaments, candles and preserved beef (no lie). The place also smells like fir trees and cloves.
The word "artisanal" is rapidly replacing "organic," which suddenly seems so... twentieth century. Unlike the term "organic," federal regulations do not govern the use of "artisanal," though most definitions refer to "hand-made" and "small-batch," which would apply to most of the food our grandparents ate.
At Chicago's Green City Market, I talked to artisanal cheese-makers and -mongers who satisfy consumers eager for the honest flavors and pleasures of traditional cheese.
Many American artisanal cheesemakers started into operation just a few years ago. Leslie Cooperband and Wes Jarrell opened Prairie Fruits Farm outside Champaign, Illinois in 2005. Though new to the business, their old-style artisanal cheesemaking techniques recall a much earlier era, a time well before large-scale computerized cheesemaking and quick service restaurants.
Cooperband explains that "Historically, there have been numerous small cheese plants dotting the landscape in the US. Even here in Illinois, there used to be a lot more small dairies and small cheese plants."
The origin of the sandwich is mysterious. The oft told legend is that the name came from the Earl of Sandwich (John Montegue) who asked to be brought a piece of meat between two pieces of bread while he was playing poker He didn’t want his hands to become soiled, as he was holding cards. Whether this is true or not, we do know that the Earl did not invent the sandwich. The earliest form of a sandwich (though not by that name) was mentioned by Hillel the Elder in the first century B.C.E. As the story goes, he placed charoset between two pieces of matzo, a practice which would become a Seder custom at Passover.
Despite elusive beginnings, sandwiches can can be found in every culture. Each has its own version of some kind of filling eaten inside some kind of bread. The sandwich is multi-cultural and the varieties are endless. From hamburgers to reubens to veggie gyros, we here at Drive-Thru love all kinds of sandwiches. This week a few of us thought we’d share some of our thoughts on sandwiches, including where to find the best ones and how to make our favorites at home.
Chicago. The Windy City, The City of Big Shoulders, or The City That Works; these are just a few of the common Chicago monikers. Chicago is a city of icons; some made of stone or steel while many more are made of flesh and blood. It’s a city of heart, soul, and above all - passion. You can hear and feel passion in the legendary Blues Clubs or in the fans that pack Wrigley Field each and every game-day to support a team that perennially disappoints cursed by fate, a goat, or an infamous black-shirted and walkman-wearing man known simply as, Bartman. Above all, Chicagoans are passionate about community. In Chicago, community is self evident and best understood in the city’s ten thousand-plus restaurants and bars. In each of these establishments from big to small, renowned to unknown, Chicagoans can often be found sipping, swirling, and shooting an unctuous amber Spirit known as Whisky.
A near perfect storm of circumstance has conspired to make Whisky part of the fabric of the Chicago scene. A city of immigrants, Chicago saw its first Irish community in 1837. Many of the Irish had come to work on the Illinois and Michigan Canal and by 1844 they comprised 10 percent of the city's 7,580 residents. Separated from their homeland, the Irish in Chicago remained connected to their elixir of choice: uisce beathe, Gaelic for water of life – Whiskey. Add to this the fact that Chicago enjoys four seasons, and often to extremes. Just as tropical breezes and warm sand inspires slushy Rum drinks; cold and blustery evenings demand Whisky. Further, you must wrap history and climate in the communal attitude. Chicago has always been a no nonsense city largely unimpressed by trends. Time spent in Chicago instructs on the differences between being cosmopolitan and being hip; which is embracing sophistication whilst rebuffing its contemporary trappings. No beverage embodies this ethos as perfectly and timelessly as does Whisk(e)y.
Taste of Melrose Park – a year younger than Taste of Chicago – is smaller than its big city cousin, but size is only one difference. At Taste of Melrose, 74 of 76 vendors are not restaurant owners but simply neighborhood families who come together every Labor Day weekend, drawing upon homegrown recipes to sustain and celebrate the shared heritage of what was a predominantly Italian-American enclave.
At this fest, everything is two bucks, which means you can taste a lot for a little. There’s something besides food going on here, though: there’s the vibrant collective memory of the local community, reinforced by rituals like the yearly reenactment of a Rat Pack performance. Joe Rosa, who sells some of the best tiramisu you’ll ever have, remembers when Sinatra and his crew would come to Slicker Sam’s, his dad’s old restaurant a few blocks away.
Even with the best sole-supporting footware, in this case Klogs (their spelling), and specially fitted insoles that were a gift from a thoughtful friend... my dogs are barking.
After working at the Sherbourne in Dublin nearly nonstop for the last couple weeks, I have a bit of R&R coming and have chosen to spend it in Barcelona checking out two things: tapas and Gaudi. I've been interested in both for years.
Most cultures have a version of tapas: dim sum and panchan. Chef's degustation or tasting menus. Small plates and mezze. Antipasto or kiyaseki. It's a way of eating I embrace entirely.
Kenosha, Wisconsin seems like the last place on earth you'd find amazing cannoli. Or prosciutto. Or a good bottle of Valpolicella. But nestled in this city, 50 miles North of Chicago on the state border, is Tenuta's Deli, an impressive Italian food and wine store that rivals (and exceeds) stores of its kind in far larger cities.
What’s up with those Activia commercials that claim yogurt can make you “regular”?
I got an email from a friend of mine who had seen the Activia commercials about bowel regularity and was wondering what kind of crazy story Dannon was trying to sell. “How does that Activia keep you ‘moving’ without fiber?” Well, I responded, “Dannon includes a special strain of live bacteria that promotes bowel movements by decreasing intestinal transit time.” When my friend was more disgusted by the thought of something alive in her food than my explanation, I knew I had to write something about probiotics. Although the product is new people have been consuming probiotics for centuries.
[Note: a version of this story can be heard on Chicago Public Radio's 848, 91.5 FM, July 27, 2007]
Jainism is one of the world’s oldest and smallest religions. Though it started about the same time as Buddhism, there are in India only 4 million or so practitioners of this peaceful, militantly vegetarian faith.
Around the table, people were eating crepe-like rolls of griddled chick pea flour called “khandvi,” remarkably tender and subtly flavored, each sheet delicately separating on the tongue and satisfying with simple textures. Another favorite was the walnut “halwa,” a rich mixture of ground nuts, oil, and brown sugar, one of several sweet dishes, accompanied by green and red sauces packing some serious heat.
This week's feature is the first in series of a collaboration between Chicago Public Radio's Eight Forty-Eight and Gapers Block to bring readers and listeners stories about food. You can listen to the 848 piece on the Veggie Bike and Dine here or by listening to 91.5 on Thursday, July 12 from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. or from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m.
While you're vegging out on your couch this Saturday, 50 bicyclists will be literally vegging out on meatless foods at the fourth annual Veggie Bike and Dine. If you're not lucky enough to be participating this year, don't fret. Ironically enough, Drive-Thru has the inside scoop on just where to find vegan and vegetarian fare while biking through Historic Pullman.
Our very own Drive-Thru contributor and co-founder of the Veggie Bike and Dine, Chris Brunn, and accomplice Arline Welty of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation are both kind of the Sherlock Holmes of vegan food finding. They act on "hot tips" and clues that lead them to unlikely locations such as Pit-Stop BBQ at 65 W. 103rd St. Pit-Stop is a car-themed spot featuring a giant hog outside who raps about meat. "The meat is so tender you don't need teeth," the hog proclaims.
Taste of Chicago is an event I've avoided for years (paying four bucks for a slab of pizza to be eaten in the hot sun in a crowd of hundreds of thousands... why?). That said, it is possible to find some good chow there (I'll make some recs at the close), but I think where the Taste generally stumbles is by featuring mainstream places that don't require much imagination to find on your own. I mean, you need to go downtown to the Taste to eat Lou Malnati's?
Right now, I'll cover some food items that are all available in Chicago and do, I think, challenge the imagination. All involve some conceptual hurdles that make them unsuitable for the Taste — that's why I'm calling this listing the Alternative Taste of Chicago.
These foods are unlikely to be found on the dinner tables of Gapers Block readers, but they're eaten — and eaten with gusto — particularly in some of Chicago's ethnic communities, where there has been a traditional tendency to eat head-to-tail, the whole animal.
Service begins badly enough and deteriorates throughout the day and into the night. One man short on the hot line and the person enlisted to cover it moves like a snail with an attitude. He's a bit pissed off because he's worked five doubles in a row, was supposed to be off but was pressed into duty instead and doesn't want to be here. He's the one that likes to remind me what city we're in, or not in.
"Dublin, mate, not Chicago."
"As if I need reminding, mate. "
The raw bar isn't set up and there's already people sitting there ordering. In an open exhibition kitchen there's no hiding anything. Every itch scratched, every epitaph hurled, every sweat bead wiped is in plain view of all to see or hear.
A week ago, in the start of the month-long strawberry season, I set out with two friends, Rose and Meleah, on a very short road trip to pick some. Later, I came home with some 17 pounds and made a tart with 7 cups of them. I took the almond tart shell from The Millennium Cookbook, from the famed fine dining and all-vegan restaurant in San Francisco, rewriting the recipe in my own words below. The book's suggested filling, red wine and pear cream, provided some inspiration for my strawberry cream filling. I attribute the key to Meleah, who showed me by pancake-example how lovely balsamic vinegar enhances strawberries when cooked together for a sauce. Freshly sliced strawberries and shavings from a bar of extra dark chocolate finish the tart.
I arrived in Dublin and took a shuttle into the city to the Shelbourne, my home for the next month. The hotel just completed a 250-million-Euro remodel (a third of a billion American dollars) over the last two years and had reopened less than two weeks prior to my arrival. A private Irish consortium purchased it from the Bank of Scotland as a faded, aging dowager with the intention of refurbishing it to its former splendor.
Since these are investors with little or no experience of running a Five Star Grand Hotel, a condition of the sale was that they needed to bring in a management group to oversee day-to-day operations.
For 20 years.
Marriott got the contract and they in turn subcontracted the food services to Myriad Restaurant Group out of New York. Myriad, which was created by renowned restaurateur Drew Nierporent, owns Nobu, Tribeca Grill, Rubicon, Montrachet and numerous other restaurants of note. In addition to running their own restaurants, Myriad offers "a full menu of hospitality services on a consulting basis," and Drew had asked my buddy John Mooney to take over the Shelbourne Hotel as his next executive chef assignment.
John is a former Chicagoan I'd met in India at the Taj Hotel Land's End Mumbai (another Myriad client) where he was executive chef for Michel Nischan's restaurant, Pure. When he asked me if I'd be interested in being part of a "task force" for the reopening, I jumped at the chance. Over 30 specialists from all areas of hotel and restaurant operations were brought in from all over the world to help.
As I watched "Chicago Tonight" on Tuesday evening, I was humbled to be featured on a program that hosted a panel of experts who intelligently discussed gambling in Illinois, the author of a probing and important book about public defenders, and me, a guy who eats bugs.
I've been rather gratified by the copious interest in cicadas — and my interest in cooking and eating them.
It all started when I posted on Yelp.com about how I planned to cook up cicadas; a few weeks later, I got a call from Tara Burghart, a journalist who had read the post. This started things rolling with an AP story that ran in many regional papers, as well as on Comcast, MSNBC and Yahoo.
Then I got an email from Barbara Pinto — an ABC on-camera journalist — about appearing with Marilyn Pocius on "Good Morning, America." This was a riot — it was fun talking on-camera about the taste of bugs, and this was my very first sampling of the creatures. I had never had them before that evening; up until then, it was all conceptual. Like many that night, I was surprised how good, or, let's say "non-yucky" they were.
The word "cocktail" first appeared in print in 1806. In 1862 Jerry Thomas published the first book on mixing drinks. I have yet to find a recipe in it calling for vodka. The Savoy Cocktail Book, written by Harry Craddock, a New York bartender who fled to London during Prohibition, includes very little in the way of vodka recipes. Vodka's ubiquity in this country didn't come until much later. It enjoyed wider growth in Europe in the first half of the last century. Pablo Picasso named it one of the three great discoveries of the 20th Century, along with the Blues and Cubism. (Say what you will about the arrogance of including the latter.) But vodka didn't really even begin to gain an American following until the 1950s, and it wasn't until the 1970s that vodka outsold bourbon to become the top selling spirit.
As with country music, the '70s marked the sharp, sudden decline in the cocktail. Elegance and class virtually disappeared, being as they were overrun by saccharine and soulessness. I blame Alabama. (The band, not the state. And even then it wasn't really their fault. The brimstone was in the air. Alabama just came galloping on their four horses taking advantage of the situation.)
Vodka, by its very definition, is supposed to be tasteless, colorless and odorless. (This is why the market is flooded with flavored vodkas. How many different ways can one possibly sell nothing?) Vodka is by its very definition boring and innocuous, making it extremely mixable. It adds little to a cocktail beyond a buzz. Vodka is the mixological equivalent of plain chicken breast. (The Cosmo is, by far, the worst offender. No matter how well made it is, that drink is, frankly, pretty fucking boring. There. I said it.)
Wherever I go, whatever I do, it's nearly always food or music related. It's been that way since I was a child and continues through today; both are my careers. Depending on when you meet me, I'm either a player who cooks, or a chef who plays.
Some people eat to live. I live to eat.
Growing up in Chicago on a street in a neighborhood like mine, the smells and sounds wafting from the windows would seduce me. I tried and loved nearly everything offered and later on when I couldn't get it or afford it, I made it myself. I'm fascinated by other cultures and often incorporate things I find in them into my own life.
I've never been impressed by the things I can do, it's the things I can't do that get my respect and attention.
Alcott is the first Chicago public school to have the program in its lunchroom, though there are two other schools also participating, Hammond Elementary and McCorkle. David Domovic, Alcott’s principal, said he read an article about Greg Christian, the OSP's founder, in a South Loop newspaper a few years ago, and "I couldn’t get to the phone fast enough," Domovic said. Christian, a local chef with his own catering company, became interested in organic food after he saw how a change in diet helped stave off his daughter’s chronic asthma attacks. He now wants to help other families understand and become more connected to the food they eat.
We wound up with a bottle of it at home rather accidentally. It, along with a few other things, were bought as a gift for someone. Come gift giving day, the entire package was too heavy to lug downtown on a rush hour train. The bottle was sacrificed. Really, the decision to leave this bottle behind wasn’t a difficult one, and the decision was made before we were aware it was made.
We finally opened it a week later when we had an unforeseen evening together and made gimlets. I had told her about the killer gimlets this gin makes.
“This is good. It’s really good. And it’s the gin that does it,” she said, adding for my ego, “But, good for you for figuring it out.”
For both Jews and Christians, it's a big week for a big meal. Whether you're hiding the afikomen or stashing plastic eggs, we've got plenty of ideas for Chicago folk to dine out or in on the holiday.
If you must dine out for one of these holidays, get on the stick and make reservations now. Easter Sunday brunches are booked up notoriously early. Your Mother in Law spent three days shopping for a new hat and if she doesn't get to wear it, it will be all your fault.
I had the good fortune to work at "Izakaya Hiwatta" in Ichinomiya, Japan. That would be a traditional eating and drinking establishment, similar to what we would call a pub.
It was owned by Jiro and Akemi Iwata, old friends of mine.
Many years ago, shortly after they'd arrived in America, I had taken them under my wing. They worked at my local sushi bar in Chicago. He as a sushi chef, and she as a waitron unit. As our friendship developed and we began to know each other, I basically taught America 101 to my willing students. They returned the favor tenfold. Early on JIro told me in fairly broken English the reason for our friendship was that "many people hear me, but very few listen."
I evidently had a golden ear.
Chicago. 1980-86. Trips to the deli to lecture them on which meats may never touch mayonnaise. My new friends truly were aliens and I was trying to prevent a sacrilege upon corned beef or pastrami. How to not wait in line at hip nightclubs, and once in, how to not buy drinks. How to buy a car... a Toyota Camry, but of course. And insurance. Cool music or neighborhoods or stores to check out. What Doctors or Vets or shoe repair to use. Assorted happenings about town. Whatever.
While it looks to be warming up some, it's still not quite gin and tonic weather yet. With their weight and more overt complexity, brown spirits are still the order of the day. While Knob Creek is a fine enough whiskey, if you dig a little deeper there are certainly some more interesting spirits out there. To find the following one doesn't even really need to dig all that deep. These are all available at Sam's and Binny's.
Rant: Knob Creek is, along with Booker's, Baker's and Basil Hayden's, part of a "small batch" collection. This I think is misleading. How small batch can Knob Creek be when it's available at most of the bars in town? They're also all made by Jim Beam.
Elmer T. Lee, though, is made by Buffalo Trace. Now, Buffalo Trace is by no means a small operation, but its production doesn't come close to matching Jim Beam's. Additionally, Buffalo Trace may not have the legacy that Beam does, but its whiskeys have the reputation of being some of the best. In addition to Elmer T. Lee (which is named for their master distiller emeritus), Buffalo Trace distills the esteemed Van Winkle and Blanton's.
There will be no shortage of green food and green beer on Saturday. You can start the day with a plate of green eggs and ham, and then spend until the wee hours of the morning sampling corned beef and emerald cocktails. If the Irish peasant food grows old, there are some more eclectic offerings: a Leprauchan maki roll at Wildfire, or vegan shepherds pie at Chicago Diner.
We've compiled a sampling of dining specials and events for St. Patick’s Day. The list is in no way complete. Your corner bar is probably pouring dye into their kegs at this very moment. Slainte!
These are a couple recipes from my old neighborhood in Chicago. In fact, they're from one of my oldest and dearest friend's mother, Lolita. She gets a kick out of the fact that I grew up to be a chef, considering I used to hang out in her kitchen as a kid.
You can't beat that recipe.
It was a natural for me. Ask anyone who knew me then and they wouldn't be surprised at all. I always knew where to find the best food. Chicago had plenty of it, and I had my finger on the pulse.
Once I actually left someone 20 miles from home in the middle of a snowstorm, when he dared to order incorrectly. "A hot dog at Al's? Sorry... I warned you, see ya."
A legendary move back in the day.
Early interests firstly with food, and later with cooking, began in my friends' and neighbors' homes observing the "best cooks in the world."
In happy-go-lucky Gourmetville, everyone has a lovely boutique wine shop with their own savvy salesperson to help them select just the right wine to go with tonight's tea smoked duck and soba noodles. Sadly, most of us don't live in this rosy world of unlimited time and funds. It's far more likely that we grab a bottle of something at the Mega Mart after we sweep through the deli section for a pre-roasted chicken and two sides. Now it's not just the Uber-Fud gourmet joints that have a big wine selection. Your big chains and bigger box stores now have multiple shelves of hooch staring you and your rapidly cooling bird down. What to do?!
Don't panic. While it's generally preferable and more fun to get a bit of expert advice when you're wine shopping, there's no reason to be afraid of flying solo. Here are a few hints for making you an informed shopper.
I didn't grow up here. I'm from Boston originally. After college I moved to Seattle. (It was 1994. Back then they handed you a one way ticket to Seattle with your diploma. What else was I supposed to do?) After a few years in the Pacific Northwest sandwiched around a year back in Boston I moved to Chicago. I'm realizing as I write this that I don't even talk about going back home to Boston anymore. I did for a long time, but haven't for a few years. This is my home.
The point of all of this is that I chose to live here. But, man, that weather kicks my ass sometimes. There isn't much one can really do about it except shiver and bitch and dream about going all Gauguin.
There are options other than taking after an alcoholic syphilitic.
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