Saturday, January 31, 2009

Rotwang's Lab, or: No Wonder I Can't Sleep

Could many things be much better than walking through softly falling fat, plump snowflakes to your buddy's new coffee roasterie after stopping at the Swedish Bakery to pick up cookies to exchange for the coffee you're about to get?

My friend just set up shop in a new space --make that a new enormous space --make that a new enormous space with a ping pong table, beer left behind by a band in exchange for rehearsal space, and some really, really loud speakers. Sure, it's hard to get into; the door is always locked and I'm the one person left in the world without a cell phone, so it usually involves several precious laundry quarters and multiple calls from the pay phone across the street in order to get in. But that entertains him, and he's got a couple of beautiful ancient and super controllable roasters custom installed pretty much by him, a big scary fan that made me feel like a goose on the Hudson River, and the place smells really good.

And this day I got there right in the middle of the whole process; my other friend who does most of the roasting was there, filling bins with wonderfully whitish-green beans in order to load the hopper to the roaster just as another batch was finishing. Standing over the cooling pans as the finished coffee (as we talked, he kept pulling out a biopsy-like sample of the coffee in the same way a wine maker would pull samples from a barrel, smelling it closely each time, and believe me, this guy's nose and palette are pretty close to being unmatched) came pouring out of the roaster filled my head with deep, wonderful smells, a nourishing experience usually reserved for things like my mom's pound cake or roasting poblanos on a fire outside or the way the ocean smells in Gloucester, MA (this is a good thing, I mean, in addition to the sea smells, the beauty of the place attracted people like Edward Hopper and Mark Rothko and Marky Mark, so...).

He handed me a bag of the stuff, which in my opinion is the best in Chicago and by Saveur's opinion, one of the nine best in the country. I reciprocated with the cookies, in the standard Swedish Bakery packaging of a white box wrapped in red string (which reminds me of Mike's Pastry from my Boston days, the North End bakery that sold the greatest cannoli and wrapped each box with blue string, sort of a required score before, during, or after a stop at Caffe Vittoria for espresso and/or grappa. Which, while we're on this path, reminds me: ever since the tiny La Tavernetta, the strangest looking yet so so good Italian restaurant with such wonderful cannoli in Lakeview closed, I've been despondent for great cannoli here in Chicago, until Pasticceria Natalina opened, with it's perfectly crisp pastry shells hand filled to order with the richest ricotta filling, garnished with candied orange. Mmmm...). Cookies swapped for coffee (and as good as the S.B.'s cookies are, I still won out in this exchange, and what a deal, 'cause I'm unemployed, remember?), I shook my friends hand in that confusingly complicated way guys will often shake hands involving several steps and left into the snow to walk home, smelling like a big cup of coffee the whole way.

Monday, January 26, 2009

What Are All Those Bean Sprouts Pho?

When one lives in Chicago, there are two certainties. It'll be cold for longer than you care to think about, and you can always eat a cheap meal on Argyle Street. I know I mentioned this at some point in another post. But let's look into this thing a bit more--and I'm specifically talking about pho. And to clear up something that came up the other day, just after Obama's inauguration, and having absolutely nothing to do with said inauguration, pho is properly pronounced not so that it rhymes with the word "bro", "dough", or "moe"; rather it rhymes with the sound made when punched in the stomach by a mask wearing, shave needing crook, otherwise known as "uh". But this presents a problem, because if you say this to most people not of an Asian demographic, they don't get what you're saying. You're then forced to pronounce it the incorrect way, which they will then understand, if they even know what pho is anyway. So when that happens, the incorrect pronunciation is perpetuated. The same thing happens with the Japanese name Akira. Americans usually pronounce this as "ah-KEE-ra", which probably has something to do with watching too many He-Man cartoons as children. The proper pronunciation is something along the lines of "AH-kee-da". I thus face this problem whether talking about one of my favorite noodle soups, my younger brother, or that fashion boutique from Wicker Park that seems to be taking over the world.

So, let's discuss the wonderful pho now that we've got all that straightened out. Pho is a Vietnamese soup, involving flat, wide rice noodles, beef broth, sliced beef, meatballs sometimes, onions, and usually a platter of bean sprouts, basil, limes, jalapenos, and often culantro, not to be mistaken for it's cousin, cilantro. This platter is usually picked from and put into the soup; I like to tear the herb leaves apart and let them steep in the broth, along with the jalapeƱos for heat, which I never actually eat; I take them back out towards the end to avoid the old "chunk of jalapeƱo stuck in the pipes when pouring hot broth down one's throat" conundrum, which is hilarious for dining companions, onlookers, and cartoons, but bad for short-range throat health. Heat can also be added, if desired, with the beloved Sriracha sauce. And since slurping is sort of obligatory, I don't worry about using a spoon for the broth.

All of this backs up the one word uttered most when I hear people talk about pho: restorative. Even if you aren't a big booze hound who needs a delicious hangover cure because you knocked back several Manhattans with your beloved at the Green Mill the night before, pho will bring you back from anything. The broth is full of time and love and history, and the salt probably doesn't hurt either. You're obliged to have your face in the broth as you slurp up the noodles, and the rising steam will open all the sinuses and pores and get things running right again. The noodles are hearty and chewy and so satisfying like all noodles are, and the beef's, well, it's beef, and sometimes that's just what you need in your gut when nursing a hangover. If you're more adventurous, you can add soft, chewy tendon to the bowl as well, and even some tripe if you aren't afraid of a little stomach in your stomach.

Plus, the great thing about pho is that it isn't dependent on the season. It'll make you sweat in the hot hot summer, cooling you off; in the winter it'll warm you right up. And after you make your way through the noodles, which for me, always seems to happen too fast, you can add more bean sprouts and herbs to the bowl, and slurp everything down to the last bits of the meaty broth. Then, as you pay the meager bill and leave into the day outside, be it hot or cold, whether you are sweating out last night's alcohol or the season's flu, something in your gut makes you feel that all is well.

Friday, January 23, 2009

That Kielbasa Across The Room Keeps Looking At Me

So I made some Cabbage and Kielbasa Soup for the Soup and Bread thing I was talking about the other day, with a clever strategy in mind. The way I see it, cabbage soup is a typical soup kitchen soup. There's always extra cabbage laying around, and even though I personally love cabbage, I think it gets misused a lot. How much gets thrown away every day in every half-rate BBQ shack in Chicago, let alone the rest of the States? You know what I mean, that pathetically neglected little paper condiment cup sitting next to the ribs full of lamely shredded cabbage and mayonnaise and maybe a carrot peel or two. No one ever asks this ugly betty to dance. It gets left every time, and this is a lot of people's impression of coleslaw, and therefore cabbage. Which is a shame. 'Cause cabbage is good. Braised with some vinegar and brown sugar and butter, maybe some caraway seeds and bacon? Sliced and placed underneath grilled chicken and rice in a Hawaiian box lunch, the juices dripping down and dressing the cabbage as the heat slightly wilts it? Shredded fresh with some good vinegar and mustard and just a touch of mayo, coleslaw can be downright delicious, and a perfect foil to the rich gut bomb of ribs or brisket, or even in a rich sandwich. Who doesn't love the ham sandwich at The Hop Leaf: pumpernickel bread, Neuske ham, Gruyere, and apple tarragon coleslaw? Come to think of it, maybe the slaw on this sandwich is just made of apples, without cabbage. But you get my point. And I feel I should declare my love for this sandwich anyway.

So yeah, cabbage can be really good, and it gets a bad rap. Thus, my goal was to conjure the Charlie and The Chocolate Factory image of the watery cabbage soup of soup kitchens, and then whack people on the head with a really delicious soup, all in the name of cabbage. Of course the kielbasa didn't hurt; but I promise that the soup would totally stand on its own without meat in it.

And it was easy, too. I diced and fried the kielbasa (which I got cheap, 2 pounds for about $7, and good stuff from Bobak's) in a touch of olive oil until it was seductively browned and crispy. I poured it into a strainer, along with all the fat that rendered out of it. I then returned a bit of the fat to the pot and sweated onion, carrot, celery and garlic in it for a really long time. I mean like 20-30 minutes. I do this when making soup; it really brings out the sugars and essence of the vegetables, and helps to build multiple flavor levels in the soup. I splash a bit of water when needed to keep the vegetables from burning (EGGHEAD TIP: this is a good trick when sweating vegetables or rendering something like bacon for lardons, because the cooking process is a bit gentler, as the temperature in the pot never rises above 212 degrees Fahrenheit--the boiling point of water. Since sugars tend to brown via the Maillard Reaction at 310 degrees, a longer, slower cooking process is possible, allowing deeper, more complex flavors to develop. Once the water has evaporated, browning can begin if so desired at that point.).

Now gets added a head of chopped cabbage which, like so many old men with their birch bark in the Russian Bath House on Division Street, sweats with the rest of the veg for another 15 minutes or so. Stock or water makes the soup, well, soupy and everything is simmered for another 20-30 minutes, then pureed. I then adjusted the seasoning with salt, as well as vinegar. (SIDE NOTE ON ACID: Acid seems to be neglected and underused as a seasoning agent. In my opinion, good vinegar or lemon juice should always be used to fine tune food at the last stage of cooking; acid helps open the palate to other flavors in food that the salt is enhancing. In fact, I'm all for replacing the obligatory pepper shaker or mill with a lemon or bottle of vinegar on every table. Keep the pepper in the kitchen by the stove.) As I pureed and seasoned, I added a bit more of the rendered fat to the soup--this really added a backbone I thought necessary in a soup advertised as having a wonderful Polish sausage in it. When all was adjusted, I put the fried kielbasa in, and the soup was ready to go.

I should warn you, though, that you will encounter a problem when making this soup. See, when the kielbasa is in the strainer, and you are doing everything else for the soup, a siren song of sorts slowly starts seeping out of its smoky, crispy goodness. The kielbasa winks at you and wags a seductive finger; a better person than me would be able to resist. I folded after about 15 seconds, and must have eaten about a pound of the stuff before the soup was done and sealed and in the fridge. I have no will power.

The Soup and Bread event went well. Money raised for the food bank, soup stories exchanged, friends I hadn't seen in awhile showed up, I met a dog, I heard a great story about a crazy odyssey to D.C. for the inauguration, and an acquaintance from the farmer's market kindly and unexpectedly brought me a mason jar of his great homemade apple butter. Isn't that what it's all about?

~one satisfied cat~

Monday, January 19, 2009

What Does a Guy Have To Do To Get a Home Cooked Meal Around Here?

So. The enchiladas the other night. This was a great, much needed experience, and the best part is I can still smell the enchiladas on the pants I was wearing that night. Which is made easier due to the fact that I pretty much wear the same pants every day.

A good friend of mine used to bring things she made in to work for me to try, which I loved, because people would never do that. And people would never invite me to their house for a meal. Hoping it wasn't due to a glaring-to-everyone-but-me personality defect, or the aforementioned wardrobe planning skills, I decided it was because people were worried that I, as a chef, would nitpick their cooking and judge it if it wasn't high-caliber 5 star cooking. Which, in actuality, is the opposite of what I was after--in fact, I wanted the casseroles, I wanted overcooked green beans, I wanted to cover what was served with ketchup. I wanted real food, that real people ate. Not food that was overthought and stressed over and picked and prodded and wiped. I wanted a meal, not a project. "Please, someone, just invite me to dinner and give me tuna casserole!" became my motto.

So my friend decided it was high time we make enchiladas. And I think it was something she wanted to prepare and serve herself; of course I didn't allow that and got in the kitchen with her, looking in each pot (one with simmering guajillo, arbol, and ancho chiles--the smell coming out of that as I stuck my head into the steam bath after lifting the lid off was simply amazing; one with poaching chicken, and one with only water--she was making tea, as it was 1 degree out). The fourth and final burner was occupied with a pan of oil--the idea was that tortillas would be fried in here slightly to give them a bit of a crust and backbone to hold up to the sauce when rolled, but not so much that they would crack. (Side note: you wanna make tortillas? It's the best, and it's easy, and you can get a great, heavy iron tortilla press down at Maxwell Street Market for like 10 bucks, depending on your haggling skills and audibility impairdness due to taco-eating and mexican hot chocolate (so thick and rich and from a big bubbling pot) drinking. One can also acquire reasonably priced socks here.)

So I drank some tea, and she pulled the chicken apart. She grated the melty Chihuahua cheese, and turned on the oil. But she was worried that water had spilled into the oil, and went to great length describing her fear of popping and cracking and spattering oil. I assured her that this wouldn't last long, assuming that the water would evaporate and pop out in a few big cracks. I had no idea what I was talking about. Sure enough, the thing started cracking like mad, and shooting hot oil everywhere. So, I grabbed the lid off the chiles, and this served many purposes: we could now smell the chiles as they simmered away, and I now had a shield and a reason to be in the kitchen. I would bravely fry the tortillas to the occasional jolting POP of oil and revel in the clever way I insinuated myself into clumsily helping. After all, cooking should involve all hands on deck (something that, I'm aware, I am much better at talking about than actually allowing when said cooking is done in my kitchen; but I believe in it, and I am trying).

She transfered the chiles and their liquid to a blender and pureed them in batches; then returned the sauce to the pan to cook some of the water back out of it. She added something from a great big jar she called "boullion", but with a hard-edged Spanish accent, to the sauce. She said it was something her grandmother always had, and I surmised it had to be similar to the cubes most American moms have in their cupboards, the same thing I always assumed was a gastronomical no-no until I read an article on the discovery that many French and Italian chefs actually use the stuff quite a bit. Whatever the case--and whatever your opinion on MSG--this stuff made the sauce unbeatable. The depth of dried, roasted, smoky chiles dancing with the new darling of everyone's palate, umami, made me continually cut chunks of the cheese to dip into the sauce.

She then dipped the fried tortillas into the bubbling sauce and let them soak a bit, then, with the brave bare hands of a hundred generations, transferred the tortillas to a pan where she filled each one with the chicken and cheese, then rolled them up and lay them in a row all next to each other. The pan filled, she poured sauce over the enchiladas and rained more cheese everywhere, and baked the dish until everything came out ooey and gooey and warm and melty and wonderful. I must have eaten half the pan. What a rare, special treat. I finally got my casserole, and it was way beyond anything I had hoped for in my quest for the elusive home cooked meal.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Soup That's Sorta Free

I made some enchiladas with a friend last night, and I'm still feeling it. In a good way. I love that about food--kind of like eating a really old, sharp cheese, and your mouth is still tingly 20 minutes later? That cheese is really letting you know that you're eating it, and it's a great symbiotic relationship, in a way. Like a performer and an audience. Among many others, that's one of the best vibes food gives me.

So I will soon write about the enchiladas and process of making them, which when made completely from scratch (save pressing masa into tortillas, though I don't see that adding too much trouble), is really not overly difficult, but a great way to get everyone in the kitchen and involved and talking and spattered with oil and chiles and dipping cheese into the sauce as it bubbles.

But I wanted to quickly mention something called Soup and Bread happening at The Hideout. Each Wednesday from 5 - 8, a few different folks will make soup and bring it to The Hideout; the soup is donated and free, but donations are requested, all of which go to the Greater Chicago Food Depository. It's a great little thing to build community and help out the Depository a bit, so come out if interested! More information can be had at the Soup and Bread site. I just discovered it, and I'm lucky enough to be making soup this week. So I'm figuring out what it'll be right now. At any rate, come on down! And more on the wonderful enchiladas soon...

Friday, January 16, 2009

Scotch, The Thin Man, and Wet Fries

When I lived in Vermont, people from 2 blocks north in Canada always seemed to talk about wet fries: french fries with some sort of gravy on them. That's great, but as a disclaimer, that's not what I'm talking about here; what I made last night just sort of asked to be called wet fries. So, apologies to all wet fries traditionalists.

Have you ever seen the Thin Man movies? I can't ever really say what happens in them, because I'm always captivated by the relationship between the main characters, Nick and Nora, which I think is kind of the point of these movies. They have this wonderfully ideal marriage, and in an unorthodox way, especially for the 30's-40's era in which the movies were made. As my friend put it, "So there's this lovable lush named Nick and he married the greatest woman in the world named Nora". And that sums it up. They've got this great, playful, snappy, booze soaked relationship, and they just make you want to be around them. And the movies always have some great over-acted death scenes, depression-era street-tough talk, and a mystery in there somewhere, too.

So my friend brought half of a bottle of 12 year Glenlivet over, and some Thin Man movies. The idea being that we'd watch the movies and be inspired to drink scotch. Instead, we drank scotch, and basically talked about the movies we'd already seen--that's the great thing about these films, as with all great films--the real meat is in the discussion afterwards.

So my point here is that we were drinking scotch and chatterboxing it all night. Then, around 2:00am, we got hungry. I had potatoes, aged cheddar, an onion, and Sriracha. And an egg. I sliced the potatoes into fries and roasted them 'till soft as I caramelized the onion. I grated and threw the cheese on top of the potatoes with the onions, and cracked the egg in the middle and threw it under the broiler. Out it came, all nice and browned; the egg slightly underdone as the heat from dragging the hot potatoes through it would finish the cooking process (it reminded me of my favorite meal, Sukiyaki, in which hot meat, vegetables, and noodles are drawn from a hot communal pot into a dish of raw egg, simultaneously cooling the hot stuff and lightly cooking the egg around it). I doused the whole thing with Sriracha, and despite the picture I got of it being less than perfect, it was an amazing 2:00am meal to be had, on the pizza pan I cooked it on, set on top of a stool in front of the couch, with two forks (which would soon be discarded for the more appropriate greasy fingers) and the glasses of scotch waiting patiently at our sides. There's nothing much better than feeding the inebriated stomach the late night salt and fat bomb after feeding the brain with conversation all night.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Brunch and the Science of Mimosas Preventing Affordable Cultural Indugence

So I read somewhere that the Museum of Science and Industry is free this whole month. I've been there before, but that place is huge, and I could spend several free months checking it out. It's a great place, and during January, the price is right. So I got the word out to some friends and suggested it. They were excited about it. Then I got excited. Then I invited everyone to brunch at my house beforehand, thinking it'd be good to get everyone well-nourished before heading out into 10 degree weather to give the CTA 5 bucks for a round trip way down to the site of the world's first Ferris Wheel. This became an exercise of making brunch for 5 people on the fly with nothing in the fridge, as the plans were finalized at about 11:30 am, and they'd be at my place at 1:00 pm. So, with 2 hours and about $10, I trudged through the snow we'd gotten overnight and found some milk (organic, as milk is somewhat cheaper now due to the dairy surplus), eggs (sadly not organic, as they are, at least right now, super expensive), and butter (which, as shown in the photo, is available in whole cow form at the Iowa State Fair). I mean, brunch doesn't really require much more than this, does it? Okay. I got some potatoes and onions, too. Sometimes, you can get the big 5# bag for a lot cheaper. But beware--this is not always the case. The onions for example, were $2.49 for a 3# bag; loose onions, which can be pawed through to find the best and most ideal size, were $0.79/#. So yeah, loose was a little cheaper, and a lot less restrictive. I had spinach at home to bring something of a more vegetal and green element to things. Off I went, back home (after paying, of course, I'm not a thief...yet. INTERESTING SIDE STORY, OR MAYBE IT'S JUST INTERESTING TO ME: One time, a friend and I decided to indulge in a night of moderate to heavy drinking. "Meet me at the store," I said, the plan being we'd get some bargain beer or something like that. He 'forgot' his jacket in Michigan, so he'd been wandering around town without one. He asked that I bring him one, and I did, a great big huge Carhartt jacket, warmest and largest thing ever. When I met him, he had a box of clementines he had gotten at another store near his place. I gave him the jacket, he gave me the clementines, and we walked the store looking for the booze, finding an extremely minimal selection, as the store was being remodeled. Saddened by this, we left the grocery store without buying anything despite extensive walking around the store and handling things, carrying an enormous jacket that, for some reason, he hadn't put on yet, 2 DVD's he had also brought, and a box of clementines. Nothing suspicious about that, right? And of course we encountered no resistance when leaving. Worried about what we drank that night? Well, we invented (as far as we know, which is not very far) the Clementonic--clementines buzzed and infused into gin and mixed with Squirt, or Soda Water, depending on if you trust him or me more.).

ANYWAY, I got back, calculating that I had about 45 minutes to cook, or at least start to, do some cleaning (dishes, floors, and the all important and usually offensive litter box), and bathe myself. So I made a quick coffee cake, creaming flour and brown sugar and butter for a streusel filling/topping. I usually bake with recipes, and I bake this sort of thing in this great Le Creuset ceramic baking dish thing, which usually requires recipe conversion due to it's unorthodox size (3" deep, 10"x7" on the top, 9"x6" on the bottom, which makes the volume of it somewhere between a loaf pan and Lake Michigan). So I decided to convert the recipe by 3/4, and since I was in a rush, did it all in my head as I went, even though it's the kind of recipe that lists one amount for butter and sugar that is used in two places. A real brain buster and good way to wake up and "turn on" before a bunch of hungry, potentially hungover people (these are restaurant people, and it was Monday morning) in need of coffee show up. Somehow I made it through the conversions and got the beast into the oven before tending the the aforementioned domestic duties.

Stepping out of the shower, the reek of cheap soap allegedly from the pristine waters of Ireland was replaced by the always heavenly aroma of baking pastries, and a late-call from the friends due at 1:00 bought me about 15 minutes. I pulled the coffee cake out, started boiling water for coffee (I've got this great old green thermos that I pour coffee into when making more than one french-press of the proper - brew - and - storage - worthy Metropolis coffee), and sliced a few potatoes about 1/2" thick, tossed them with onions of the same thickness, some crushed garlic, really good olive oil, fennel seed, red chile flake, pepper, and this awesome Sea Salt from the coast of Brittaney. I threw this in the already hot oven and soon the smell of roasting onions and garlic, backed by a fainter ghost of anise, mixed with the coffee cake, and the apartment smelled like a place people would want to be. I put a bunch of whole eggs in a big bowl on the counter next to the cake for aesthetic effect (more pleasing than a gray cardboard box, right?) and sliced more onions into my big heavy cast iron skillet for caramelizing.

The friends buzzed my door, and arrived up the stairs in grand style with several bottles of champagne and a big batch of orange juice (they even brought some orange-pineapple juice to jazz things up). Mimosas were poured, coffee cake devoured along with the potatoes and onions and a big fritatta-like bunch of eggs with the caramelized onions and spinach, and the space was filled with good things. Time passed and passed, and we all finally admitted what we'd all been thinking since the brunch plan came up but were too nervous to say before a couple mimosas--there's no way we were going to the Museum of Science and Industry today. And it worked out. Because January is a long month, and I have a lot of time, and I need to have good big things like free museums in the bank for the days that the mimosas aren't flowing so freely.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

We Can Make Sandwiches

One thing that comes with unemployment is time. Lots of time. And one thing that comes with Chicago in the winter is snow. Lots of snow. Snow + Time in real life could be very exciting. It means sledding and snow men and skiing and log cabins. Snow + Time + No Income, on the other hand, means stir craziness. I mean, this is basically what happened in The Shining. Ice, snow, lots of quiet, and slowly ticking clocks. Add weird spirit happenings and an axe and it gets ugly.

SO, I had to get out of the house today. I called my friend up, and cleverly convinced him that we needed to make sandwiches. See, he's told me that he loves to make sandwiches. So I knew he would go for it. Plus, he's always been really supportive of me. In fact, he's the one who told/ordered me to write this blog. And sandwiches are a great way to pack a lot of flavor into something that doesn't necessarily need to cost that much. So I got on my bike and rode to the store, then his house. Yes, I rode through the 12 inches + of snow we've gotten over the past few days. Yes it was difficult. But the transit system just raised the El fares again, and it basically costs about 5 bucks to go round trip. I could be spending that on PBR.

So, I picked up his favorite, roast beef. I don't know why this guy likes roast beef so much. I mean, I like it too, but this is the only sandwich meat I have ever heard him talk about. It's kind of funny. So I indulge him. And it was on sale. I'll take that wherever I can get it. I picked up some chips as all important sandwich item; I remember as a kid, loving the texture without understanding why when I put chips in sandwiches. Soft and crunchy is one of the most satisfying feelings ever--a PB&J with chips in between, chips and guacamole, chips and rice or beans. And non-chip items like a great crust from a hard sear on a nice piece of fish, with soft, flaky flesh inside. Crusty, toasted, buttery bread that breaks apart to melted, gooey cheese. Crisp red onion snapping and giving way to a juicy cheeseburger.

ANYWAY, I made the nordic trek up to his house, and got there just as he was leaving the house. See, the thing is, there was a bit of a lapse of urgencies; we were both going to go to the store, get our assigned items (me: meat and chips, him: fixin's and bread. Possibly unnecessary explanation: My idea being that fixin's and bread are things that you have left over after sandwich making so he'd be able to keep these things as we were doing this at his house.), and meet back at his place. He really dragged his feet and I, thus, would accompany him to the store to get his items.

But it was a good thing, because we went up to a market on Morse Avenue, oddly called Morse Market, and it was a world apart from the chain grocery that I've been having to go to in order to keep things as absolutely cheap as possible. It's a tight little market, no room in the melted snow-covered aisles for the huge winter coats, carts, and baskets. But as I told my friend, I love markets like that...for the same reason I love living near the El. It makes me know that I live in the city. And this market had the most pristinely organized food ever. Each pepper had a place, every banana lay in order; the bags of lentils and beans were fully stocked and aligned as were the cans. It was almost weird how organized it was, and not in a Whole Foods/Stepford Wives kind of way. My friend explained it was called "facing", something he learned in his early years as a stocker in a grocery store.

SO, we picked up some things. He had mayo, but wanted to dress it up because it was "you know, a weird, flax-seed oil type mayonnaise." I thought we could put horseradish in it--but only fresh. They didn't have any. So despite admitting it was a cop-out, he grabbed a can of chipotles and we decided we'd spice up the mayo with that and some roasted garlic. At first, we grabbed this crazy loaf of rye bread, but then we later, by the deli, found this great Armenian Rye bread baked by Levinson's Bakery, on Devon Avenue, not far from us at all. We jumped at that (I love that also, in small stores like this, "local" products are often just kind of the norm, as opposed to the sought after, high priced, farmer's market-type things), and got some red leaf lettuce and red onion. Then we got out of there and walked back to his apartment, stopping at a coffee shop.

Can you believe some people will spend $5+ on a cup of coffee?

So, we started assembling the sandwiches; then I just sat back and let him do it. He loves it, and he had ideas for it, so I let him get after it. He roasted the garlic, chopped it up, mixed it into the mayo with the adobo sauce from the chipotles, toasted the bread, and piled everything on, with some swiss cheese. We drank some beer and watched tv, welcome diversions. It's funny how tv looks after not seeing it for awhile. Since I don't have a tv, I forget what it's like. It was captivating. And consuming.

But it was a great time, and therapeutic, and the sandwiches were simple and great. And, at the end, we ate a couple of pieces of pecan pie from the coffee shop just for good measure. The stir crazies, if only temporarily, were pacified.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

As We Look To The Year Ahead, Leftovers & Hangovers From The Year Before; or, I'd Rather Have a Bottle In Front Of Me Than A Frontal Lobotomy

~Two Loafs~

So, we are here in the new year, the ninth one after the world did not explode due to the new millennium, and lots has changed. About a third of my life has passed, and I'm in a very different spot now than I was then. I think back then was right about the time I started a relative calming down; which is to say I stopped being out all night drinking 6 nights out of 7, and reduced it a bit. I think I probably ate out a lot more then; LOTS of 3:00 AM breakfasts and 2:00 PM brunches, if you know what I mean. Burritos were regularly involved, and to be honest, I had no clue culinarily. I was probably aware of a few things, but really didn't have the tools to understand them. Little ladies sold burritos and tamales outside of the bars in Denver where I'd go, and I ate plenty of those late at night.

But importantly, my girlfriend was Peruvian (note: she still is Peruvian; she's just not my girlfriend anymore), and I came across some great food via her: Lomo Saltado, strips of beef, onions and peppers cooked with tomatoes and served with fried potatoes; a soup that I can't recall the name of that was quite similar to Posole, with hominy and pig's feet; papas rellenas, potatoes baked and stuffed with a load of meat, olives, onions and more; and even the mysterious pancha mancha, involving a pit dug in the ground, a fire made in the pit, resulting in super hot coals over which a goat was placed, then buried in the dirt for hours, slow roasting the beast, until it was ready and exhumed and devoured by all. Maybe I'm romanticizing some of this in my head. Nevertheless, I can write this and feel good about myself in the fact that I recognized the significance of this food then--it wasn't a complete waste on a beer guzzling idiot whose main claim to fame was my ability to chug an entire pitcher of Guinness at once.

So here we are, nearly ten years later, and the food I experienced then and in the years before and after is still in the forefront of my mind. It's reassuring to know that, especially during a time when so many discouraging things are happening: Governors thumbing their nose at the people who elect them, broken transit systems raising prices, 60 degree temperatures the day after Christmas. But we can still get an awesome bowl of Pho followed up by Jin Dui (glutinous rice pastry filled with red bean paste and rolled in sesame seeds) on Argyle Street in Chicago for less than ten bucks. We can also get vegetable pies, each rolled uniquely to denote what is inside, for cheap at the Middle Eastern bakery on Foster and Clark. Huaraches Dona Chio has ridiculous Huaraches for super, super cheap. A Huarache is most popularly known as a kind of sandal; what I'm talking about is a sandal shaped wad of masa that a wonderful woman, shaped not unlike a thick Huarache, makes from a fresh tub full of the stuff. She presses it on this enormous old press and throws it on a flattop griddle, and ultimately tops it with whatever you like. The al Pastor was wonderful, everything done in big pots on a few burners in the tiny, exposed kitchen, as cramped as the dining room, which consists of 3 tables, 8 seats, a few stools at the bar overlooking the kitchen, and one large television blasting novellas. It's the kind of place that people of my "demographic" tend to get nervous being in, trying to act as natural as possible and trying to pronounce things properly without sounding patronizing, and as we all know, these are the places that the best food can be had at. The great food writer Calvin Trillin, in his essay Divining the Mysteries of the East, writes about his difficulties in eating at Chinese restaurants and his displeasure in receiving the dumbed-down menu given to most Americans when what he really wants is the "off the menu" type items, usually displayed in Chinese prints on the wall, available only to those speaking and reading the language. He's not scared to ask. I still kind of am. ANYWAY, the Huaraches at Dona Chio are delightful, and plenty for two, even when one of those two is a race-to-the-finish, eat-it-all-before-anyone-else-does hog.

I suppose all of this means that I am at a good spot culinarily speaking. I'm lucky enough to live in one of the best cities to access cheap food at it's finest, and I'm also privy to lots of great whole foods (i.e. vegetables, meat, etc., NOT the overpriced, phony grocery store chain--ugh!) with which to cook. So things are good, and as far as the leftovers and hangovers mentioned in the title of this post are concerned, the hangover is gone (though it takes awhile for several negronis to make their way through the system), and the leftovers were pretty non-existent. The bread I made for New Year's Eve and discussed in the last post turned out great, though I had to add just a dash of packaged yeast because I was lazy and started the starter a day or two too late--but the flavor was definitely there from the few days it was allowed to cultivate, and the crust was crisp and thin and flying off everywhere when we cut it, and the crumb of the bread was nice and chewy--very satisfying. One of the friends who came over for dinner that night started eating the meatballs I made instantly out of the pot, and never stopped; of the 4 pounds and roughly 50 meatballs, there were 5 left the next day. So much for meatball sandwiches well into the new year. But it was worth it--nothing is so flattering and satisfying as to make someone genuinely happy with food, be it fancy, cheap, or whatever--and I sat back with glee and nourishment and watched him throw meatballs in his mouth like popcorn. We each ate 12 grapes at midnight; a tradition I'd encountered before, with the Peruvian family, making a wish with each grape. But this time, the tradition of Las doce uvas de la suerte was explained to me--it was started in Spain in 1909, by a wine producer that had a monster harvest, too many grapes to make into wine, in fact, thus they created the event of eating a grape for each month of the new year, making wishes along with each one. I suppose I felt kind of scammed, especially since a grape harvest coinciding with New Year's Eve seems a bit off, but who cares--it was now a tradition amongst us, and we'd keep it so.