Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Getting An Ugly Dude Dressed Up For The Big Night, or, The Dark Side Of The Nutmeg

Do you like Celeriac a/k/a Celery Root? I do, and when I bought it the other day, the lady putting it in the bag had no idea what it was. Naturally, I spent the next 5 minutes explaining it to her--how it has a strong celery flavor, and is the root of a celery plant, though not the celery that we eat. How when peeled and sliced nice and thin, it is great raw; how when cooked low and slow it has a sweet, creamy celery flavor. She seemed pretty excited about it; maybe she was just frightened by my excitement. Anyway, I took my bag and went home, as I had a big, long night ahead.
It was Christmas eve; I was due at a friend's house for a large gathering. He and another friend had a whole black bass packed in a salt crust in the oven; short ribs were braising; creamy little polenta cakes baking; a controversial but decadent pancetta macaroni and cheese bubbling. I shaved my celeriac nice and thin, tossed it with minced serrano chile, thyme and cream, and baked the whole thing in a gooey gratin with the nutmeg pictured above shaved on top. Strong celery flavors, a touch of heat, herby-ness and unctuousness. As you can tell, this was a rich dinner, and, on Christmas eve, rightfully so; thus I decided to bring something else to cut all the fat: wilted chicory. Not the kind those of you in the South put in your coffee; this was the endive form of it. A bitter green, types of which include radicchio and the mild Belgian endive; the one I used was tall with white-to-green leaves, and quite bitter.
I got the cast iron out, still slick from frying that sausage for that sauce a couple weeks ago, got it super hot and put some olive oil in. Fried some red chile flake and whole cloves of garlic for a bit; removed the garlic (keep it and munch on it 'cause it's good) and threw in the greens. Just hammered them. Super fast; then I added some of my homemade red wine vinegar and another drizzle of olive oil and let it cool down. Packed it all into a mason jar (2 bunches squished down into one pint jar), and we served it room temperature. A great, sharp foil to all the richness that evening.
Which led into some gorgeous pastries brought by some other guests who happen to make some of the best pastries I have ever eaten, no joke. And of course, we all ended up talking into the night, drinking beer and whiskey after all the great red wine. Cuban cigars were produced at one point, and we indulged. Heavily. It made for a groggy brunch the next day, one more of recovery than celebration, but it was completely worth it. More meals should be like this. Not the indulgence part--but the warmth part. The sharing part. The "everyone has something to offer" part. So often I hear, "I don't know what to make" or "I don't know what to bring". Everyone can make something. And if you really think you can't, it's your chance to learn. Give it a shot. You'll find it's easier than you think. And if things should go wrong somewhere along the way, learn from it. I've bungled countless meals. But that's where we grow as cooks, and as humans.

And about that lamb stock I've been going on about. It's in its final state (before, that is, I put it into something and gobble it up): In cube form, in a ziplock bag, in my freezer. Little cubes of super flavor. Up next: a pork stock I made after excitedly finding pork neck bones, cheap, nearby. Rest assured that'll be going into the New Year's Hoppin' John.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Looking at Fat, Driving Flakes and the Reflection of Big Colored Bulbs

Well, this is appropriate weather for Christmas. Looking out my Chicago window I see big, fat flakes falling on even fatter birds bundled up in a tree across the way; it's one of those moments where a mental snapshot is so much more important than an actual snapshots, especially as the forecast calls for rain. Boo. But for right now, the weather is seasonally appropriate, which is a good thing.
A bit of a pre-Christmas celebration dinner tonight: I'll make one of my favorite salads, frying bacon and big, big chunks of red onion, deglaze the pan with vinegar (of which I have another homemade batch a brewin' right now), toss in some thyme and pour the whole warm thing over spinach, a rich dressing made from the bacon fat and vinegar, with the spinach ever so slightly wilting under the heat of it all. Then, we'll roll out some fresh pasta and cut it nice and fat into tagliatelle. While that's happening I'll have some chicken legs braising in a sauce I made for a good friend's winter solstice party last week (for this I fried a nice, big, fat coil of sausage another friend gave me with onions and carrots and celery and fennel and garlic, let everything get nice and caramelized, added red wine and tomatoes and even threw in a couple of cubes of my lamb stock and let it all simmer for a bit. I also wrapped some of the fennel with bacon and roasted the resulting tray of little candy-cane looking tidbits.); the legs will fall apart nicely and the sauce will become a thick, meaty ragout that I will add mushrooms to and toss the tagliatelle in. Just a couple of courses, really, to keep things a bit modest this year. A Whiskey Sour to start, then maybe some champagne, and a nice big bottle of red wine. And to finish it off, a little slice of a chocolate "parfait" as described by Giorgio Locatelli--essentially chocolate melted, egg whites meringued and folded in, followed by cream whipped and folded in. It gets frozen in a pan, then sliced into little squares. He serves it with a chocolate foam; I'm going to forgo the frothing show and crush some roasted almonds to top it with, and candy some mint, dipping fresh leaves into egg whites and dusting with sugar, dehydrating them low and slow in a low, low oven until they are crispy little leaves of sweet mint.

For me, it doesn't get much better than thinking about and executing simple meals like this, especially with the luxury of being able to do so in front of big windows during a snowfall with a purring couple of cats nearby. So wherever you are, find a space in your home and day to do so. It's more than worth it. And happy holidays to you.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Soup, Bread, and Other Alternatives for Dealing with Huge Boiling Pots

So the cold weather has come just in time, because what do you do when you are headed out to a holiday party and you realize you have a hot pot of lamb stock that you've been simmering all day? Well, you stick it out on your fire escape, put a pizza pan on top of it, and a brick on top of that. It's like having an extra fridge (or freezer, in our case here in Chicago).

And the pot stayed out there for two nights, because after said Christmas party, I was in no shape to deal with bones and fat and even opening that back door once to carry in the frozen pot. So, on the second night, I checked to make sure no critters had found their way into it, and headed off to The Hideout for the Soup and Bread Cookbook release party. As I've described before, the book is a sweet little compilation of last year's Soup and Bread series put on by Martha Bayne over at The Hideout. Something like 52 soup recipes and 8 bread recipes, but more importantly, Martha took the time to write a bit about each recipe and each person who brought the soups. It's like a little diary of Soup and Bread, and it is quite heartfelt. Aside from yours truly loving it because yours truly is in it, and the fact that a large portion of the proceeds will go to the Greater Chicago Food Depository at an extremely vital time, the book is a significant document on the importance of food and community. It isn't glitzy, nor are there any celebrity chef endorsements. It's a super-local (is there any bar more local than The Hideout?) source of lore about and recipes for real food (what is more real than soup or bread?). It's a book of genuine people from all angles of life sharing food and recipes with each other in an effort to help more others yet. As put forth by Martha, Soup and Bread is "an 'everybody wins' type of project". And the cookbook is a beautifully designed, thoughtful extension of that.

So, this isn't so much a sales pitch (though if you want to buy one, check out this link for info. on how) as a call to all of you Food on the Dolers who might be interested in contributing next season, which starts in January. You can stay updated on the events and find contact information to volunteer your best soup and/or bread here. Let's help continue the growth of this important undercurrent of the food community.
And about that lamb stock. It's cooling in an actual refrigerator as we speak, after being strained, vegetables all mushy and bones completely clean, gelatin dissolved nicely. Once the fat solidifies on the top, I'll skim it off, and have a rich roasted lamb stock. Maybe you'll taste it at The Hideout sometime soon.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Best Part of A Lamb Dinner is The Way The House Smells When You Make Stock the Next Day, Don't You Think?

So, the word is out. But fear not, because Food on the Dole has never been about anything but the food, and it shall continue that way. We'll still think about everything we eat, and do it in a way that makes sense to the majority of us--not gilded with truffles and foie gras (except when possible), but kept down to earth with roasted meats and whole ingredients and a minimum of the boxes and packages that have infected our cabinets.

To that end, this weekend's Lamb Dinner was a great success. A baker's dozen of guests braved Chicago's burgeoning cold season to come to the Food on the Dole world headquarters (a.k.a. my tiny Edgewater apartment), bearing side dishes, desserts, wine and tables and chairs to complete the scene. Some were old friends, some new; some joining us for the first time, some "three-time offenders" from the first potluck and the summer's pie-off.

I rubbed down the leg of lamb I scored at Paulina Meat Market with some olive oil; scored the meat a bit and rubbed it even more with chopped rosemary and garlic and gave it a good shower of salt and pepper. It was placed on a bed of onions, celery, carrots and garlic in a sheet pan, and I added a touch of white wine (a glass for me, a glass for the leg) and chicken stock to the pan, and blazed it around 450 degrees for a half hour or so. Rotated it and turned the heat to a low, slow 325; a total of about 90 minutes or so later, the leg's temperature was about 130 degrees and the outer layer of fat was sizzlingly crisp; I took it out of the oven and let it rest while we got all of the sides ready. There were slow-cooked lentils and a really nice jalapeno-manchego beer bread; Brussels sprouts well-charred and so delicious, responsible for a few "I never thought I liked Brussels sprouts until now," comments; a hearty Kale salad much like the one brought to the first potluck; gorgeous stuffed pumpkins, bubbly and filled with gruyere, chunks of crusty bread, and emmenthaler--roasted so tender that when the gooey fondue-like inside was scooped out, a nice chunk of soft pumpkin flesh came with it; some boiled red and purple potatoes simply finished with whole grain mustard and butter. I scooped the vegetables out of the pan the lamb was roasted in--they were soft and slightly caramelized and covered with the lamb juices, the rest of which I used to make a gravy.

The table was full of food and glasses of wine and people; the air with the aroma of roasted lamb and music and conversation. Each new guest brought in with them a gust of that crisp, clean winter air from outside, and we moved on to desserts--a stunning almond-cranberry-caramel tart that was given a full day's attention (so refreshing to know people still make their own pie and tart crusts!), which I am enjoying the remnants of while writing this post; chocolate cookies so soft and decadent and seemingly made of 200% chocolate; show-stopping brown butter cookies (and I realize that this entire post is starting to seem full of hyperbole but I am not kidding about these cookies), and a tart cherry lambic sorbet to cut through all the richness and bring us back down to earth.

Everything was top-notch, and really what we were going for here at F.o.t.D. It's simple: community + thoughtful food - the glare of the restaurant scene = a warm, memorable evening. Thank you to all who participated, or at least intended to (thank you for your understanding, Lorna!). We'll do this again, and soon, and hopefully we can keep this grounded food community growing and merging with other ones.

And before signing off, and speaking of food communities, remember the Soup and Bread thing from last year? Well, the ever-active Martha Bayne over there has put together a cookbook from last year's participants, and will be holding it's release party Wednesday, December 5 from 5:00 - 9:00pm at The Hideout. No soup this time around, just the books--a portion of the proceeds (along with all of last year's collections) will go to the Greater Chicago Food Depository. If you've got spare time and some snow boots, trek on over! Otherwise, see you at the next Food on the Dole dinner, yes?

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Day Destroys the Night, Night Divides the Day

It snowed yesterday, the first time here in Chicago this year. I was in a kitchen with another chef, and when we realized it, we ran to the window, hands on the sill, looking out at the fat, soft flakes, few as they were, floating down from the dark gray sky. The Christmas Carols started making sense. I became okay with the lights and ribbons and wreaths all over town.

And this morning, when I stepped out to head to Paulina Market to get my coveted leg of lamb for tomorrow's Lamb Dinner, I realized that Winter was, indeed, here. And standing on the El platform waiting for the train, I counted the months ahead before the shivering would stop. It'll be awhile. But you know, as much as contrast makes us appreciate and love things (the summer here is that much sweeter after our rough winters in a way no warmer city could ever appreciate), here's to being in the moment and enjoying where we're at. And that's not the easiest thing for me to say, being someone who romanticizes things in the past, or the future, or anywhere but right here and right now. And maybe life doesn't exist anywhere except for in our memories, but I'm all for making some really great memories.

To that end, what better than to stop in at Dinkel's Bakery, something Chicago has loved for the past nine decades, and get one of their crisp yet somehow soft Sour Cream Doughnuts in all of their deep fried splendor along with an ooey-gooey Cinnamon Bun while on my way back from Paulina Market, carrying the leg of lamb, raised in Colorado just like me, trimmed by the butcher Joe's expert hands and sharp knife, tools that have been responsible for the guidance of countless cuts of meat from a source of careful raising to a fulfilling and meaningfully warm meal?

And then to turn the corner on my street, and find the tamale man waiting, in one of his sporadic appearances, with a box full of tamales? I'm a lucky guy to return home with all of this loot, and to be able to look forward to tomorrow night's feast with friends, the smell of this roasted leg of lamb in the air and a table full of shared food and wine. And while the warmer, more colorful months have their share of great things, there's no way this happens in summer. At least, it wouldn't feel as good.

Welcome, Winter.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Tamale Man Cometh

I've recently been upset about all of the new places opening: Big Star, Belly Shack, and the like. Why am I upset? Because they are all opening way down in the Wicker Park area, which is no quick jump from Edgewater here in Chicago. And don't get me wrong, we have a few of the best food and drink spots in the city up here, what with Anteprima, The Hop Leaf, and Metropolis Coffee. But I just feel like recently, everything is opening up so far away!

Rejoice! For a tamale man has appeared on my corner. As seen in the surveilance-style photo above, his cart is parked in perfect proximity for me to devour his delicious tamales at whim. Filled with braised pork and green or red chile sauce, they were perfect when I discovered them, out and about on a chilly, misty, gray day. Not that good tamales are difficult to find in Chicago, but to have a guy on the corner is golden. Here's hoping he gets no grief from the dreaded food police. Nothing keeps you warm on a day like today in quite the same fashion as walking home with a bag full of warm tamales as you hastily unwrap one from it's corn husk, releasing a puff of spicy steam as you bring it to your mouth and dig in...

Yeah; this'll stave off my Wicker Park blues, even if only for a little while.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Grumpy Old Man

I went out this morning in search of something good to eat. I was already in a bit of a dour mood after noticing a glaring typo in the New York Times; the eighth word of the most prominent article, front page, upper left hand corner, was missing several important letters. If it happens in such an obvious place in a paper like the New York Times, with who-knows-how-many-eyes reading it before it goes to print, what does that say about where our standards are going? Does it matter that the word surprisingly was spelled surpringly, even though we can all figure out what the intended meaning was? You know; the whole "a rose by any other name" thing. To quote a reluctant William Safire, the late writer and authority on language, most notably for his On Language column in the Sunday magazine of the newspaper in question, “At a certain point, what people mean when they use a word becomes its meaning."


So, anyway, I had a supring moment of mood redemption this morning. Again, I was gloomy, which was amplified by my culinary equivalent of the tossing and turning of a privileged, bratty child: I couldn't seem to find something to eat in my neighborhood. I wanted something other than my usual cheesy eggy salt bomb; I just wanted to sit in peace and trudge, in the day's curmudgeonly fashion, through my New York Times, and drink some coffee and eat a bagel. But the waitress I can't stand was at the one place up here where I can do that at a table-service place (she, in all her 22 years, finds it necessary to call people "hon", and "sugar", and "sweetie"; to me, the charm of that is lost unless the speaker has several more grizzled miles under her life belt; it also doesn't help to sit at a table without silverware for 5 minutes after food has arrived, or to be misremembered as to whose bill is whose in a place with 2 occupied tables), so naturally, I moved my ornery self on, never to find that combination of good coffee and tasty bagel and table in which to spread out the paper and read.

It was in my gloom, then, that I came across a shady looking figure smoking a dirty cigarette on the sidewalk in front of me. I made a move to get around him, when I realized it was my buddy. We exchanged greetings; without knowing my "predicament", he pulled a bagel out of a paper bag he was holding. It was laden with cream cheese and cucumber. "Come up to the roasterie and sit down for a minute," he said. I did. He poured me some of his own coffee, surely roasted within the week; we sat at a table, I ate the bagel, we read the paper, we drank coffee, we talked; someone in the roasterie came over and told a fully-in-character story/joke. I explained the situation I was dealing with before running into my friend. His reply: "Sometimes, things work out."

Indeed they do.

Drinks with a Ploughman, or, This Sure Is A Picky Ghost

I spent a really nice day not too long ago walking around, and ended up walking from my neighborhood (Edgewater/Andersonville) over to Lincoln Square. A good couple of miles or so, and it was a gorgeous fall day. You know the type--blue, blue skies, so crisp; leaves of every color, cold enough to make you know what we're in for but not too cold as to keep us from enjoying it. And somewhere along the way, I ended up in The Book Cellar, reading a magnificent cookbook called Made In Italy by a fellow named Giorgio Locatelli, an Italian chef with a Michelin-starred restaurant in London called Locanda Locatelli. I love cookbooks like this--it's more prose than anything, and it's filled with Locatelli's reminiscences and anecdotes of his life as a boy in Italy through his chefdom in London. You can feel his passion on every page, and his recipes--though a bit cheffy and difficult at some points--come from a quite simple place, and really inspire the same simple passion in the reader.

Naturally, it drove me to eat. The first thing that came to mind was a bottle of prosecco; I love champagne and find it appropriate at any given moment in time, and for those of you saying "Hey, isn't this supposed to be the On The Dole guy?", rest easy knowing that decent bottles of sparkling wine, nay, any wine can be had for around ten clams these days. It's not going to be something you serve the Queen of England when she comes over, but it will serve the purpose and work wonderfully any other time.

So I beat it into the wine shop there on Lincoln. Weirdest window displays ever, but great staff who know their stuff and have a ton of it. And while in there, perusing, my thoughts turned to beer. And a nice big bottle. And I settled on the perfect one--between BIG HUGE beer and delicate champagne. And this was Rodenbach Grand Cru. Light and sour, with deeper flavors emerging soon after these as the first initial mist from opening the champagne-like cork dissipates; a really beautiful beer. And thus the muse carried me further and suggested thoughts of really nice sausages and cheese. You know, that simplest of meals: nice wine, a hunk of meat, a hunk of cheese, a hunk of bread. And I thought, I've got the time, I'm going to head down to Paulina Meat Market. After all, I was about to perform what I would tell myself was a good deed by pushing a stalled car down the road a bit. And never mind that I kind of cut out once the guy told me he was going down to Montrose Avenue (we were roughly at Lawrence, and we're talking like a half mile). I mean, he had some other guys helping him. So I slipped silently into the train station and waited for the brown line to come.

And I made it to Paulina in short time, basically closing my eyes and floating in on a wave of smoke, that wonderful Paulina smoke, the way Bugs Bunny would float through the air when smelling a roast or something like that. For those of you who don't know, Paulina Meat Market (aside from selling the best meat available in Chicago not sold at markets by the farmers themselves), smokes all kinds of meat and sausages in-house right there in their shop. And this illuminates the neighborhood with unthinkably wonderful smells. And so I floated right in, Bugs Bunny style, and ordered a pepperoni and a linguisa (a heavily spiced pork sausage), added on a hunk of stilton blue cheese, and made it out of there on the cheap. Stopped off at the market and picked up an apple, greens, and a shallot, and threw in a small demi-baguette.
Yes, you read right. I was making the Ploughman's Lunch.

Finally home, I opened that lovely beer and poured a glass; minced a shallot and whisked it with Dijon mustard, champagne vinegar and olive oil; washed my greens, rolled them gently in a dish towel to dry, and then dressed them; sliced my apple, broke off some cheese and cut up my sausages. Bread went in the oven for a quick few minutes and I was set...
...and it was great. It'd been a really long time since I had this; it was an old favorite at the haunted, now being remodeled Red Lion Pub in Lincoln Park. And as I munched and sipped away, I asked myself why it had been so long. Ah well, nevermind, I said, as I poured more beer.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Puff Pastry, or, Isn't It About Time To Get Ready For Hibernation?

A group of friends gathered at my place last Sunday to do the usual: talk about food and eat plenty of it, along with some nice wine, beer and cider. The catalyst for the get-together was to simply talk about a project we are all working on, but when you get these people together, you can't help but put out a big spread. 'Cause you know they're going to be bringing some tasty stuff, too.

So I had a bunch of food in the larder when this thing got planned. And why go drop a lot of cash at the market when I have so much at home? Let's see. I had about a pound of left over beef tenderloin from an event I worked; barely seared, which was in my favor. I also had, in the freezer, a filling I had made from a friend's old chicken. (He had let this chicken run loose on his farm for a long, long time; thus the chicken, when it was given to me, weighed about 10 pounds cleaned and gutted. That's like a turkey, and far heavier than the 3-4 pound fryers one usually finds. This also means the meat was a lot tougher, but also a lot more flavorful. Some might call it gamy. All in all, it tasted like chicken is supposed to taste: like chicken. I remember roasting a heritage turkey at Thanksgiving one year, free range, and so many of the people eating it, who were used to the usual bland Butterball turkey, said it tasted "weird". In fact, it tasted like turkey, and many people haven't been exposed to that in the past 50 years of industrialized meat production. The chicken I used in this meal, however, was deliciously well developed; I ground the legs and mixed the meat with scallions, ginger, garlic, sesame oil and soy sauce.) Another friend had brought me some ham steaks, and I had, coincidentally, been stewing some lima beans and kidney beans with some onions and carrots and garlic, and a great big smoked ham hock. And a Miller High Life. And I did pick up some salami and St. Andre cheese and a big loaf of french bread to start things out.

So, people arrived, bearing fresh figs and more cheese (Roquefort and another triple cream, I believe) and a beautiful hard Apple Cider from Michigan which would serve as dessert; a hoppy 3 Floyds beer and the makings for a rich, unctuous "salad" also showed up. Naturally, we popped a bottle of champagne and dug into the cheese and salami.

I had decided, the day before, that I would turn the beef into pot pies, and thus decided to make some puff pastry. It can be daunting to think of making puff pastry at home, and it can border on being one of those things that is better when bought, made by people who make it for a living. But hey, it had been awhile, and I was in the mood to make it. And I had remembered seeing a pretty good looking recipe for it in Saveur at one point. And for those of you not familiar with the process, it is similar to that of croissants: rolling dough out with lots of butter, then making a series of folds that create exponential layers of dough separated by thin layers of butter (81 layers are created when making croissants). Lots of work, but really worth it. And when the dough is baked, moisture in the butter basically separates the layers of dough, and the crust puffs up, making the ever so texturally interesting light, crispy layers that are puff pastry. Just think of apple turnovers.

So, on the big day I sauteed some carrots, onions, turnips and beets in butter, got 'em nice and soft and added some flour, then some red wine, beef stock, parsley and thyme. This made a nice, unctuous, gooey stew, which I ladled into individual bowls. I rolled my pastry out and laid it over each bowl, brushing it with an egg wash, and into the oven it went. It came out nice and puffed up, a delicately crispy crust over that thick stew. Perfect timing, too--sun was cascading into my place by that point, and as we broke through the pastry into the stew, steam came billowing out for the ultimate in cozy effects. Hearty as an appetizer, wouldn't you say? It's okay, 'cause we had a big Bordeaux to wash it down.

Next came the rich salad my friend made: caramelized onions, roasted mushrooms, roasted radicchio (yes, roasted!), goat cheese and mint.Heavy for a salad, hence the quotes used above. But tasty; freshened and lightened up by the mint. A good second gear in this first fall feast.

Now, for that chicken leg filling I had. I decided to make tortellini with it, and simply serve it in chicken broth. Not having any on hand, I got some broth from the store, and simmered it on the lowest of heat for a couple of hours, fortified with some onion, carrot, and plenty of herbs. I made some fresh pasta and rolled it out, cut it, filled it, and formed the tortellini. It was a nice moment in the kitchen, a couple of us in there, my buddy working on his salad and me forming the torts, champagne flowing. Reminded me of one Thanksgiving where a chef friend of mine came over, and we spent the entire day cooking all kinds of food, drinking all kinds of wine; no one being "cheffy" and stepping on anyone's toes--a perfect day of cooking. Anyway, the tortellini were simmered in that broth, then served in the broth with scallions and parsley on top.
Which brought us to those ham steaks, and those beans. The beans were nice and soft by now, and I slowly cooked the thick (about 1 1/2 inches!) ham in my cast iron skillet 'till it was nice and browned. Sliced it and put it on top of those beans, alongside a sweet potato gratin (thinly sliced sweet potatoes, grana padano cheese, and cream that had been warmed with onions, herbs, and scraps of the sweet potatoes, baked nice and slow until thick and bubbly), and a maple-mustard sauce made of, well, maple syrup and whole grain mustard. It ain't rocket science to see that would go well with ham. We ate this with that beer my friend brought, and finished the meal out with the cheese and figs, and the hard cider. A perfect fall meal.

Naturally, all the excitement got me riled up to go have some more beer at the Hop Leaf (I, for one, can't wait until the fireplace gets lit in there on a daily basis), which we did, where we met some more friends; after awhile, I forced us all back to my place where I insisted on making a plate for my underfed college student friend who I try to feed any chance I get in the hope he won't waste away over the winter.

And the leftovers? Well, I did have some puff pastry left a couple of days later. And some of that tenderloin. And the beans. Tons of beans. So I wrapped the beef in the puff pastry and baked it, and put it on top of the beans. So I'm staying well fed as the winter approaches. This is a time where I eat like mad; some ancient survival technique is what I tell myself. I think we all know better.

And, looking to the weeks ahead, any of you who haven't already expressed interest to me in the lamb dinner (hughamano@yahoo.com), please do so as plans are coming together for that as we speak!

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 hughamano@yahoo.com, 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:

...cooking 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.