Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Couple of Dudes, The Last Tomatoes and A Really Old Lamb

A good friend of mine called the other morning, and he was in the dumps. And it was a place that I could relate to, having inhabited it a few months earlier at the beginning of the summer. So what better to do than to tell him to come over and cook and eat with me?

He arrived bearing 12 big brown eggs from some farm somewhere; I had a ton of produce from another friend's CSA box. Great tomatoes, carrots, onion and basil. Oh, and bacon. I had some bacon laying around. Even better yet, another friend had given me a pound of coffee from his roasterie recently, so I brewed that up. My droopy faced friend (also a chef) smelled the coffee, considered it, remarking that he had had this very roast before, and tried to identify it. I just told him it was decaffeinated Sanka and we set the esoterics aside.

We sliced the onion and caramelized it in some butter and olive oil (which, incidentally, I found a great litre bottle of at this place in Andersonville called Piatta Pronto, a little deli/specialty foods market that also makes some pretty great sandwiches (try the Dulce di Parma) with a super friendly guy who always says "how's it going, boss?" or "that's alotta Mascarpone, boss!" ever present up front. This bottle cost $9.99, yes $9.99, and has some pretty righteous green, grassy aromas to it, totally on-the-dole appropriate. The name? I don't know. Just go in and check it out. And get a sandwich. Good coffee next door at The Coffee Studio, friendlier coffee down the street at Kopi Cafe.). Then we shaved the carrot ever so thin with a vegetable peeler and added it to the pan for about 5 minutes to get these caramelized, too. Cut up a bunch of the multi-colored tomatoes, which were remarkably good (soapbox side note: don't you feel that in recent summers there has been a plague of really bad "heirloom" tomatoes? I think the title of an heirloom tomato has somehow come to mean that it will also be a "good" tomato, and this just isn't the case. To my mind, heirloom does not equal good. And believe me, the marketers will try to push these poor representations of heirloom tomatoes on the unsuspecting public; and, unfortunately, they will be accepted simply because they are claimed to be heirloom. For my money, I would take a normal, ripe, red, juicy Roma tomato over a bland, mushy, white fleshed heirloom as sold far too often. And don't get me wrong. The subtleties in flavor, texture and aroma and the difference in taste of a good heirloom to said Roma tomato is huge, but here's to considering things before we just go charging toward the heirloom label, yes?). We cooked these guys really quickly, and held some back to have on top of this frittata (by the way, that's what we were making, a frittata, and as you are probably coming to realize, I go to the frittata quite often in the morning), along with some torn basil. Added the good eggs and let them cook through for a bit before finishing the whole thing in the oven. The bacon got started in a warming cast iron pan, then put in the oven until done, which for me is preferably not quite crisp, with some meaty texture left to it (I was in heaven for 5 straight mornings when staying at a great tiny hotel in London with a terrier named "Bob" as a guardian--every morning they put out a great big spread which included nice, fat thick cut rashers among so many other things). It gets strained out on a cookie rack set over a plate and the cast iron put back on the stove top; a few hearty slices of French bread then get put in to fry up nice and crisp in the bacon fat. Never waste the bacon fat. Rule #1.

So there we were, a couple of dudes, one of us may or may not have been in a robe still, crying into our breakfast. But hey, it was a good one. And good conversation always get started with this guy. He had finally returned all of my Smiths cd's after several threats of violent leaps from dark alley shadows (note: never give a down in the dumps guy your Smiths cd's if you plan on listening to them anytime soon.), and we talked about music for a bit, but naturally, the conversation turned to food, and, seeing how this was the first really blustery day of autumn, the first really chilly day, I had a bee in my bonnet to roast a leg of lamb. So we started talking about lamb. (And how I am hoping that really full flavored lamb is the next wave of carnivorous fascination, given that the pig thing is everywhere, and the message has gotten out, and while that is wonderful, I think it is time to add something new (while still appreciating the pig), and why not make it lamb? And I don't mean the milky, veal-like flavor of suckling baby lamb we see everywhere in the spring; I mean the older lamb, the hogget and the mutton, that tastes more and more like lamb actually tastes the further it gets in life and the more grass it gets to graze on. Here's to seeing a big old lamb as the picture hanging outside some new restaurant's door!) And then I started roasting beets. And, naturally, it smelled like roasting beets in the house. Then I wanted even more than ever to roast that leg of lamb. To cook some beans down with some of the ham hocks he'd brought over. Or lentils. And cut up all the beets and add them to the beans with some of the good jus we'd get from cooking that sweet lamb leg. Find some rutabaga and turnips and parsnips and carrots and add them to the same. And to reduce all the drippings (jus, red wine, all the essence of a bunch of onions and carrots and maybe some fennel) into a thick sauce for the lamb.

Alas, this couldn't happen that day, sadly. However! Seeing how I dropped the ball on the World's Greatest F.o.t.D. BBQ Exposition and failed to make it happen while it was still summer, I now propose a roasted leg of lamb dinner, to be held at F.o.t.D. headquarters a.k.a. my place. I'll do the leg, participants do the other stuff, like the beans and/or lentils and/or potatoes roasted in duck fat and/or whole roasted lobe of foie gras and/or fall apple dessert concoction. If interested, it will be on a Saturday 2-3 weeks from now. Let me know at, and until then, let these kids remind us of fall and heading back to school and everything else wonderful, and here's to making our way through the crispness of autumn.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Welcome, Fall, or, I'd Forgotton These Colors Exist In Nature

It's a sticky day in Chicago, one of those days where the air has the weight of its humidity on display, making everything clear and mysterious at once. I remember walking into work on a day like this in Providence, RI and a girl who was really into Bauhaus and Joy Division gleefully exclaimed "Did you see that CREEPY mist?" Days like these always look much colder than they are, so you do things you haven't been in the habit of doing all summer; things like put on pants, consider long sleeves, and find beautifully colored leaves on the ground. The leaf above seemed fake when I found it; all of the colors of a tree leaf in one laying on a grey sidewalk.

Naturally when autumn arrives, those of us who eat food turn to thoughts of soups and stews and braised meats and preserves we've made over the summer. And we remember the summer we just came through. And it's been a full, if tumultuous summer:

The obligatory farmer's market visits yielding all kinds of great produce, like these greens, tomatoes and radishes:

...and these Purple Haze Carrots: brunch for some old, dear friends, I served a salad straight from my friend's CSA box of raw sweet corn (Yes, raw! Try it without cooking it!), green and yellow wax beans, tomatoes and summer squash:

...and a fritatta with caramelized onions, garlic, chard, parmigianno and fresh torn basil:

...I opened up a cross-country dialogue with an old chef buddy and my brother about carnitas, and our thoughts on it essentially being a "pork confit" to capture the truest essence of pork, basically braising pork butt in pork fat, while I took it in a bit of a different direction and made more of a pulled pork, braising the pork butt a friend gave me in achiote paste, oregano, RC Cola, Squirt, lime juice and chicken stock:

...and making pico de gallo, black beans and rice to serve it with:

...without forgetting the fresh tortillas:

...baking tart cherry and blueberry crostadas in walnut crusts for a bake sale:

...loading up fresh pasta with a bunch of zucchini and dill and onions and feta cheese (lots of vegetables for such a carnivore, huh? Reminds me of a time I did a 5-course tasting for a restaurant I intended to work at--afterward, the chef said "That's the most vegetables I've had in the past month!"):

...a great trip to Portland, OR, full of top-notch beer, mustard and coffee, not to mention the wonderful Voodoo Doughnut:

...and downtown Portland's food truck scene--a flavor for every taste:

...and a lot of undocumented meals (such as last week's summer send off, an unknowing wake of sorts for a summer that never fully arrived, full of pork ribs, mac and cheese, corn bread, and never ending glasses of the "goes-with-absolutely-anything" champagne), epic dinners, and culinary experiences that can only really be retold over yet another meal. And let's not forget the pie-off. The wonderful pie-off.

So, as we enter fall, let's get those ovens turned back on; let's start kneading some dough and baking and enjoying what we preserved of the summer; let's get some pots simmering with the rich aromas of slow cooking meat; let's remember that Meryl Streep is not Julia Child; let's drink some hearty red wines and strong beer; let's enjoy the fading wink summer is giving us and take lots of early evening strolls through cascading leaves on their way to crunch under foot; let's smell the first fires of the season, work on our pie dough for Thanksgiving, and get an order in for a great heritage turkey. And mostly, let's cook and share meals with friends and loved ones, and appreciate not only the end result, but the journey to get there.