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.