Monday, November 28, 2011

Back Inside, and Stolen Yiayia

Back from yet another splendid trip yonder to the Mississippi River area, where the usual Thanksgiving feast and festivities throve, including the traditional bourbon in the morning, followed by bloody marys and goose right out of the smoker, creekside campfires every night, great slabs of rib roast cooked over said fire, tons of wild geese bestowed upon me by a hunter in the area, and of course, the overwhelmingly delicious Thanksgiving feast. A top notch time and a huge thank you to all those involved. It's always so nice to get out for a bit--in the city, when people ask the obligatory small talk question "what do you do?", and you say you are a chef, they immediately, almost desperately respond with "WHERE?" In the country, when you say you are a chef, people almost always respond "Oh, that's nice. What do you like to cook?"

So refreshing.

Anyway, upon returning home, I combined the two obsessions--that of where and what and made what I've loved so long and have touted as the perfect way to get children into some more advanced flavors: Pasta Yiayia, stolen straight from the playbook of the great Lula Cafe. Noodles (they use a great big bucatini noodle, but I had spaghetti on hand, which is absolutely fine) tossed with thinly sliced garlic that has been browned nice and crisp in butter (I added a good deal of olive oil and a couple arbol chiles) as well. Topped with crumbled feta cheese and a good dose of cinnamon, this is the classic, comforting noodles and butter, but with some pretty delicious kid-friendly-but-loved-by-adults flavors thrown in. Real easy riding after a long trip home.

Meanwhile, I've had a couple seats open up for Thursday's Vegetarian Salon, and would love to get them filled. Tickets can be had here--I'd love to see you there!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

In The Spirit of The Holiday Season, a Re-Run

I was reading over what I wrote after last year's Thanksgiving, and I got all excited in hoping that this year's will be much of the same. In fact, in my child-like holiday head, every single thing is going to happen, in sequence, again this year. So since I've got a foot out the door to head towards the Mississippi, leaving all electronic devices behind, what say we revisit yesteryear in a trip down memory lane, shall we? Here's what happened last year on Thanksgiving for F.o.t.D., as belatedly written on December 6, 2010:

When a Guy Gives You a Duck That Was in the Air That Morning, You Cook it Up and Eat It

I had the extreme fortune of traveling to the banks of the mighty Mississippi River over Thanksgiving. Included in this trip:
  • Outfitting in new winter gear (just in time) via Farm King, a store full of Carhartt and the like, luxuriously empty on Black Friday when I went. (What am I doing in the city?)

  • Eating a delicious huarache (a big huge disk of masa topped with good things I wrote about here) in a curious and unexpected Mexican restaurant, one of a few, in a small midwestern town of less than 10,000, which were all attached to pretty well stocked Mexican groceries, on par with what can be found in Chicago.

  • The obligatory Thanksgiving feast, complete with traditions such as corn pudding, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. We brined a turkey for a few days and roasted it, of course--and had a couple extra breasts in the brine that we rolled and smoked a couple days later over what could be one of the greatest backyard, creekside, all-year-long firepits I've known. When the breasts were finishing up, we grilled a huge bone-in ribeye, I'm talking a couple of inches thick, and roasted some vegetables in foil as well. Where'd we get the vegetables? We got them the night before when dining at a place in Peoria, IL, called June, where the chef (a guy by the name of Josh Adams who is more enthusiastic about farms and farmers and vegetables than the oxyclean guy is about soap) came out to chat and wouldn't let us leave without a big bag full of crazy vegetables for us to cook. Ahh, the benefits of being in the industry. Oh, and did I mention this bonfire took place around 33 degrees or so? Fire warm. Carhartt, too.

  • Whiskey at 8am Thanksgiving morning in a small bar full of smoke on said Mississippi River. Tastes good. Too good. Too easy. So we left after one and went to a friend's cabin on the river. This man, a science teacher, is also quite the hunter/fisherman/maker of bloody marys. Stories were exchanged in the taxidermy-filled cabin, cigars blazing, deer sausage on the cutting board and in the belly. Toasty from the wood burning stove (and booze, I suppose), we decided to go out on the river on his boat. It was that good kind of really cold that I like so much walking along Lake Michigan in the winter--no one else around, really biting and invigorating and cleansing. We spotted a few bald eagles, so much larger than the back of any dollar bill has ever led me to believe; a woodpecker (also really huge) whose breed, I was told is that of the Woody Woodpecker; and a few ducks here and there hiding from the hunters. Back in the cabin, I asked how a city guy who might be interested in tasting one of the ducks shot that morning might be able to acquire one. Thankfully, instead of handing me a shotgun (yeah, I grew up in Colorado, but no, I never learned to hunt), he took me outside and pulled out a duck he had shot that morning before our arrival. It was a diver duck, he told me, and as such had very small parts. He easily plucked the feathers and removed two tiny breast for me. The legs on these guys were really scrawny and do not lend themselves to cooking very well, nor did the organs--but the breasts, he told me, were strongly flavored. "Livery" was the term he used. I licked my lips and thanked him. Seeing how it was Thanksgiving, I held off cooking the duck that day. But when the time came a couple days later, I got a pan hot with some butter and fried those two breasts, getting a nice dark sear on one side, flipping them, and spoon-basting with butter. They came off nice and medium-rare. I gave them a rest, then sliced. Delicious. Strong. Ducky. Just as a heritage breed turkey tastes like turkey, as opposed the the tastes-like-chicken-bred broad breasted white, this duck, flying in the midwest just days earlier tasted like duck is supposed to taste. I recommend it. Just be sure to remove any shot left in it.

All in all, it was the kind of trip that makes a city dweller wonder what he's doing in the city. But I suppose proximity to this sort of thing is, for now, good enough. I know a guy here who is out hunting before showing up to work in the absolute middle of Chicago at 5pm (to be clear, he is hunting in rural Illinois; working in Chicago). That lovely winter isolation can be had out on the lake during the coldest times. And sometimes, sometimes the city skyline on a blustery, wintry night can be as stunning a a sky rich with glowing stars. And where else am I going to be able to wake up to Metropolis, eat at Anteprima or Schwa, drink at the Hop Leaf, shop at Reckless and Myopic, create with crazy-haired guys, and see that noisy Hanukkah truck driving all over the city, all in the same week?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Duck is Delicious, and, If You're Gonna Kill a Turkey, You Gotta Be Sure You Want To Eat It

What a great Salon on Saturday night! We hit the Pre-Thanksgiving pavement, picked up a duck and made some Mission Street Food inspired flatbread--think tortillas laden with butter and duck fat--into which went duck confit, pickled thai chiles, cucumber, cilantro and radish for a decadent first course. From there, we made celeriac puree-filled tortellini, and served these creamy little nuggets in a rich duck broth with pea shoots and black cumin. And finally, a big fall/winter salad of chicory, watercress, Brussels sprout leaves, pomegranate, oranges and seared duck breast all rained over with crispy duck skins. Oh, and a caramel ice cream bombe with brown sugar and butter roasted honey crisp apples. Some beautiful food with a great, lively bunch! Thanks, all!

Moving on, in anticipation of the shopping madness that begins this time of year, I'd like to say that Food on the Dole Salon Gift Certificates are now available in any amount you like. Click on the link for details.

And one final anecdote--a friend who was acting as middle (wo)man for the great Gunthorp Farms and selling their turkeys received word from someone who put in an order for 3, yes THREE birds, that "oh, nevermind, I guess I don't want those anymore." Problem is...gulp...the birds have already been slaughtered, and are not returnable as are, say, a pair of suspenders you just don't like. So, my friend is left holding these three great turkeys in an understandably furious fashion (on so many levels). SO, if you find yourself without a great turkey (or three) for Thursday, send me an email at and I can point you in the right direction. Thanks!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

May the Frigid Month of December Find You in the Salon

We've got a new round of Salons to warm you up in the chilly month of December, and I hope to see you there! Remember, all events are BYOB and tickets can be had by clicking on the name of the desired Salon:

Vegetarian Salon As you know, we're not about replacing meat with boring faux-meats here at Food on the Dole. We're celebrating all the gorgeous vegetables available to us as we enter the depths of winter in several different preparations, letting each vegetable and grain be what they are--delicious and nourishing! Come explore all of the bounty from the local farms in this highly market-driven Salon; based on what I find at the market, we'll prepare a full and delicious meal. The Salon is BYOB, please bring whatever you'd like to drink! Thursday, 12/1/11, 7pm. $50.

Seafood Salon
We're paddling ahead into another Seafood Salon! Depending on what the market is providing, we'll cook up the freshest fish around, and definitely crack into some top-notch oysters. We'll keep everything light yet warming, and don't forget to BYOB those crisp white wines! Saturday, 12/3/11, 7pm. $60.

Parisian Bistro
We're bringing back the Bistro Salon! Last time we discovered that these are the picture perfect foods for the Salon, so come back as we revisit some classic, simple favorites like steak frites, pork rillettes, and big bursting salads on a festive evening in the Salon. Come discuss your love of bistros, or come find out just what makes them and their style of food so important and well-loved. Wednesday, 12/7/11, 7pm. $50.

Brunch Salon
We're putting on a brunch! In the Food on the Dole Brunch Salon we create a highly market-driven menu together, touring some classic dishes and exploring some new terrain as well; a perfect way to resurface in the middle of the decadence of the holiday season! Sunday, 12/11/11, 11am. $40.

Beer Food
Join us in this rollicking BYOB Salon as we kick back and make some simple, completely from scratch food to go along with your beer. We'll steam some mussels, roast some sausages, and who knows what else? Bring whatever style beer you like--this food goes well with anything from the lightest swill to the heartiest Belgian! Teetotalers not allowed! Saturday, 12/17/11, 7pm. $50.

Pasta Salon
Fresh pasta is one of my absolute favorite things to make, so come spend an evening in the Salon kneading, rolling and cutting fresh pasta for a lovely winter feast. We'll share stories of our experience with pasta, learn about what makes this simple food so comforting and dig in to a hearty and soulful meal together. Come with questions and an empty belly; leave with technique, a sense of community and a snapping waistband. Wednesday, 12/21/11, 7pm. $50.

As always, thanks for your support--and for making the Salon such a wonderful place to cook and eat!

Monday, November 14, 2011

All Hail Cast Iron

A friend asked me about cast iron and my seemingly unnatural love of it recently. Specifically, she asked me about "curing" or "seasoning" it, a question most common among folks who have cast iron but don't use it too much. Simply put, curing or seasoning cast iron simply refers to the application of a small amount of fat to the pot or pan, then heating it for awhile to set the fat into the pan. Scientifically speaking (and thus quoting Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking): "The oil penetrates into the pores and fissures of the metal, sealing it from the attack of air and water." Furthermore, the fatty acid chains oxidize and bond to form to form a hard, protective layer on the surface of the pan, "just as linseed and other 'drying oils' do on wood and paintings". To put it simply: the fat bakes into the pan, sets, and protects it from rusting, while creating a surface that, when heated thoroughly, is essentially non-stick.

Of course, one wants to preserve this seasoning. To begin with, many cast iron pans sold these days are "pre-seasoned" and are all set to go. However, if you are surfing the thrift store and yard sale circuit, and find a great pan for a couple bucks that is all rusty and beat up (or if you have this very pan hidden away in the depths of your lower cupboards), never fear, for it can be salvaged by scrubbing all of the rust away with an abrasive metal scrubbie, drying it completely, then rubbing it with some fat. Canola oil is fine. Pop it in to a 350° oven for an hour or so. It'll smell weird, but don't worry. Then, turn off the heat and leave the pan in the oven overnight. Good as new. As far as maintenance: DO NOT USE SOAP on the pan. This will remove the protective fatty later described above (which can be replaced using this same process when, unavoidably, someone comes over and "helps" with the dishes, but really--you don't want to do this every time). Instead, scrub it out the same way you normally would, just don't use soap. If anything gives you a hard time coming out (a result of food sticking due to not giving the dense cast iron plenty of time to heat up before cooking--i.e. 5 solid minutes over at least a medium flame), pour in some kosher salt for added abrasiveness. Just don't lose that fat layer. Dry it thoroughly and store (I actually keep mine in the oven sometimes, as the pilot light provides enough heat to ensure it is always dry). You shouldn't need to re-season it; in fact, the fat used each time you cook will build on the coating already present, creating a slick layer of seasoning that should last forever. This is one reason things cooked in cast iron always taste so great: the subtle flavors of a thousand meals past.
And how about a quick, easy, one-pan route to killer tri-tip (or any steak for that matter) with romesco sauce inspired by Mr. Mark Bittman:
  • Get a cast iron pan smoking hot. Get an oven to 450°.
  • Season a hunk of meat. Add a touch of canola oil to said pan. Add meat. Throw some whole almonds and grape tomatoes in the pan next to the meat.
  • Get a lovely sear on the first side of the meat. Nice, dark golden brown. 3-4 minutes. Flip meat and remove almonds and tomatoes. Replace them in the pan with some chopped shallots and move the pan to the oven.
  • In a food processor, mince 2 cloves of garlic. Add almonds and tomatoes. Puree while drizzling in some olive oil until it tastes good. Season with salt and pepper and perhaps some red wine vinegar.
  • Remove steak from oven when it is done to your liking. Let it rest. Slice and serve with the sauce and what are now carmelized shallots. (Admittedly, the pictures prove that my appetite is matched by only my impatience as a long rest prevents some of the juice from escaping. But hey. Do as I say and not as I do, kids.)

Moral of the story here: use that cast iron! It's cheaper and better than pretty much all other cookware out there. And don't forget to remember meals past while cooking new ones in this beauty.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A Brief History of Cheesemaking

Warning: This post contains graphic vomit-related material. Not for those easily made queasy, or those who do not have cats.

I just heard a story about a woman returning milk to a store insisting that--despite the fact that the expiration date on said milk was nowhere near happening, and despite the fact that the milk smelled fine, and despite the yet more bewildering fact that one of the two bottles she was returning was not even open--the milk was bad. Her reason: her son, who apparently has never been sick in his life, drank the milk, then vomited awhile later. In this vomit, there seemed to be chunks of curdled milk. Yes, the milk had curdled in the stomach of this boy (who may or may not also lay golden eggs). In the head of this woman--who I'm sure is a lovely person--this meant the milk was somehow bad.

Nay, fine woman! Instead, you have bore witness to a magical feat indeed, for this lad had made cheese right in his stomach!

Well, as you may have guessed, the milk was not bad, or at least if it was this is not what made it curdle. For inside the brave young boy's stomach was a complex of enzymes and acids, not unlike the rennet (harvested from the stomach linings of young animals, as well as some vegetarian-friendly sources) that cheesemakers use to separate milk into curds and whey. That milk, good or not, inside a warm stummy with all kinds of digestive acids floating around gets broken down into parts that look a lot like this curds and whey situation in the cheesemaker's pot, making the milk digestable and the nutrients absorbable, and this lady simply was lucky enough to see it up close. Could have been a good teaching moment. But hey, she got her seven bucks back, and junior got out of school. Of course, if that milk is curdled before drinking, that's a different story...but here's trusting our senses to protect us from that one.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Big Misunderstanding That Causes Winter

One of my great Southerner friends brought me a pomegranate from her grandparent's Alabama backyard, where they apparently litter the ground in much the same fashion as the oranges in Florida and grapefruit in Arizona, a problem I'm not sure is a problem. The tale of the pomegranate is one of my favorites, where the lovely Persephone is captured by Hades and whisked away to the underworld, sending her mother--who happens to be Demeter, goddess of the harvest and earth's fertility--into a deep depression. Well, Zeus just couldn't have this, what with Demeter all mopey all the time and the earth basically dying because of it, so he commanded Hades to return Persephone back upstairs. Unfortunately, this didn't happen until after she had eaten six pomegranate seeds and--a well known fact when visiting the underworld--eating or drinking down there means you stay down there. Forever. There are signs all over the place. So, Zeus had to compromise his demands for her return so as not to contradict The Fates, and Persephone was doomed to spend one month each year in the underworld for each pomegranate seed she ate. Which translated to Demeter's depression for half a year, every year. Which translates to this terrible winter we're about to face. But it does make it easy to remember when this delicious fruit is in season. So, not a bad trade-off.
ANYWAY, the pomegranate may seem difficult to deal with, but it really is quite simple. The gentle way is to cut it in half and coax the seeds out in a bowl of water, where they will sink and the foamy, inedible membrane around them floats, making it quite simple to separate them. I find a much quicker and effective method is to score the pomegranate about 6-8 times from top to bottom, cut it in half, and whack it on the skin side with a wooden spoon handle.
They'll rain out, and if you get stuck at all, just give the fruit a squeeze to loosen the seeds, and continue whacking it. No problem, and the seeds are delicious with yogurt and pistachios and honey, in savory braised-meat pasta dishes, or just by themselves. Special thanks to Hades, Persephone, and that little backyard in 'Bama for making it possible.