Friday, January 29, 2010

Let's Support These Guys!

I received word from a reader that a local farmer, C&D Family Farms, run by Crystal and Dan Nells, that raises great hogs and sells them along with beef, eggs, lamb and sausages experienced a devastating fire on Monday night. First of all, the story starts out with one of the farmers waking up at 12:15 AM--yes 12:15 AM--to feed a piglet they have in the house. It was then that she noticed their barn engulfed in flames, containing 13 piglets, 3 mother pigs, and 2 mothers-to-be. Most of the pigs were able to escape, but sadly, one piglet, one mother and one mother-to-be were all lost to the fire.

Aside from the terror of waking up to this sort of scene, one can imagine the huge sort of financial blow this deals to a small farm. To that end, if we can, let's throw a little support their way. They will be in the Lincoln Park High School parking lot tomorrow, Saturday, January 30, from 9-11am selling their products. Otherwise, stay tuned to their website for more opportunities to support them.

Good luck to Crystal and Dan on getting things back up and running.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Back in From The Cold, More Soon...

Berries frozen from summer. Greek-style yogurt. Bowl. Really good way to bring summer into winter, especially in one of the coldest places in the country. Soon: more on braised lamb shanks (good!), gumbo (good!), pecan pie (good!) and the phenomenon of certain nostalgic foods and restaurants somehow being able to transcend their mediocrity into something special (strange!)...

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What's This? A Food on the Dole Collaboration?

Last week I had the pleasure to join a group of about a dozen strangers at a dinner put on by a group of friends and fellow chefs, who operate a pretense-free, clandestine dining experience factory named X-Marx. Take note of the term "pretense-free", because as some of you know, I'm not the biggest fan of events where form takes over function. But no worries here, not only because I know these folks behind X-Marx (believe me, these people are in it because they sincerely adore food), but as the night unfolded it became clear to all that the mission of the evening was first and foremost to put food on a pedestal.

Right now, X-Marx hosts a weekly "X-Market" dinner. The idea is to shop in one of Chicago's ethnic neighborhoods, find inspiration in these markets, and cook a 4 to 5 course meal driven by said inspiration, using the food found there, spontaneously on the same day. This week there was a Devon Avenue-inspired vegetarian dinner and as well as one from Koreatown; next week is Little Italy. I attended the Argyle Street night, and was thrilled to do so--toasted barley tea, a Thai beef salad that will destroy any sad little overcooked and one-dimensional catering dish that name conjures up in one's mind, a sunny-side up duck egg playground of homemade sambal and sausage and roughly 35 more "condiment" options, a decadent piece of pork belly concealed in a pan-roasted skatewing. I'm Pavlovian about that salad. Can't get it out of my mind. Stop me.
They also host what they playfully call "Junkets", a double-meaning word that, aside from the commonplace meaning of something like an extravagant trip, is also the name of an old dessert, probably English, made of sweetened curds of milk. I'm guessing the former definition is appropriate, in that these dinners involve upwards of a dozen+ courses, usually inspired by a theme. This weekend is the "Ice-Age Barbecue", where those lucky enough to join will have some of the better barbecue in Chicago done in large part by the creator of the hot and delicious Holy Ghost Hot Sauce. There go my salivary glands again.

I seem pretty into this, right? Well, I am. And good reason. I'll be teaming up with the X-Marx crew on Saturday, February 27 for a Food on the Dole Junket. From the X-Marx newsletter:
After finding himself "on the dole" in 2008, Chef and Writer Hugh Amano created Food on the Dole as a way to bring people closer to food and each other, whether in their own Home or at one of the Food on the Dole Community Dinners. Hugh has a keen eye for squeezing the best flavor and experience out of modest ingredients.
X-marx is pleased to team up with him to bring you seven courses of some Hard Hobo times inspired dishes. We will elevate Broke Cuisine to Haute Cuisine via dishes in the vein of Not-So-College Ramen, Tuna Helper, Canned Spinach, and Fat-Ass Franks and Beans Cassoulet. This is not to be missed.
So. There you have it. We'll be working on some really interesting dishes, all the while having fun with some great food and each others' creativity. And I can promise that the food will be full of heart. Not the kind of heart that X-Marx will be serving at their Offal Dinner on February 23, but the kind that, well--you know what I'm talking about. Interested in coming? Follow this link. The code? HAUTEDOG. No spaces. The cost? 70 clams. Booze? BYOB. It costs a pretty penny, indeed, but we will do everything we can to make certain it is worth each one. Even if you can't make it, I'll tell you all about it at some point.

And Mom, my apologies for the name of that last dish.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

New Year's Feasts, with Apologies to Foghorn Leghorn

Extreme Close-Up of New Year's Eve Hoppin' John
Just a quick report on the New Year's Eve festivities at the Food on the Dole headquarters--we had an impromptu little gathering, which turned into a great sort of multi-tiered evening/morning. It all originated with my wanting to make a big pot of Hoppin' John for the evening: black eyed peas cooked long and slow with a ham hock (basically, the wrist of the pig, often smoked) and rice, and whatever garnish you like thrown in. I made mine with a big ham hock, a diced pork steak, some sausage, onion, celery, red pepper, and a rich pork stock, which I will talk about in a later post. I think I even threw a few lamb cubes in there as well. Plenty of Tabasco, too.

Now, for those of you southerners who are already mad at me for serving this on New Year's Eve rather than New Year's Day, please forgive me. For those of you new to the Hoppin' John tradition, it is a dish that combines the great one pot rice and bean meals of the Caribbean and Africa with those of Europe, all brought to the States during one of our more unfortunate eras, long ago. I've found as many recipes for it as there are cooks out there, and despite this meaning that it is, ultimately, a free-form sort of thing, my experience with Southerners is that they are very, shall we say, passionate about their food and their traditions. And despite a recipe being published in The Carolina Housewife in 1847, Hoppin' John, by my estimations, was largely a dish of those people not routinely included in the Christmas Card lists of the elite.

Moving right along, the dish is routinely served on New Year's Day to bring prosperity for the upcoming year. The peas represent coins, and I've read tales of counting the peas in a serving to forecast one's wealth in the new year, or actually putting coins in each dish. Seeing as how copious amounts of champagne and beer and wine (and later, whiskey) were going to be consumed that night, I opted to keep the coins out of the pot. And, I decided to make the entire menu southern in theme, adding fried chicken legs and macaroni and cheese to the menu. A friend brought some intensely flavorful collard greens stewed with great big ham hocks and a bunch of cornbread. Someone else made Moon Pies. Yes, Moon Pies. And they were great.

I kept the chicken simple--again, I used legs from the great new Gene's Sausage Shop in Lincoln Square, soaked them in buttermilk and then shook them in a bag with just flour, salt, pepper and a touch of cayenne pepper. Fried 'em in my trusty cast iron skillet in shortening as I was low on lard at the time. Crispy and flavorful stuff. Made a batch of bechemel, with butter and flour thickening milk, added a ton of cheddar and swiss cheese to it, and tossed it with cooked pasta shells, covering it with more cheese and baking it until it was gooey and bubbly. And for the star of the show, I browned the pork products, sweated the vegetables in all that nice fat that rendered out for a long, long time, maybe 30-45 minutes, may have put some wine in to deglaze the pot (sorry, hardcore traditionalists!) added my black eyed peas and the stocks I mentioned and let it all cook on a low flame until the peas were almost done; added rice to the pot and let that cook up, and seasoned everything with salt and Tabasco. Tasty stuff. And a ton of it. Made cheaply. I container-ized it and much of it lives in the freezer now; I gave some to friends and am happily revisiting it now and then.
There was a great turn out despite the 2 day notice I gave most people; a bottle of Cynar was brought, the Campari-like artichoke liqueur, which makes really nice sour and bitter drinks when mixed with fresh lemon juice; a surprise guest showed up with a bottle of artisanal Cacha├ža he smuggled back from Brazil; there were almondy little rainbow cookies glued together by apricot preserves and chocolate; those moon pies...mmmm...the moon pies; thoughtfully wrapped individual banana breads for each guest to take home for the morning (what a terrific idea!); grapes to be eaten at the stroke of midnight for another tradition's sake; a violin was produced and played by a musician who had made the scene, so rich and loud in the chamber-like setting, making me feel the way I feel when I head down to the Art Institute and stand in front of certain paintings or sculptures, the power of what I'm witnessing blowing me apart. Finally, just shy of midnight, a friend arrived bearing olives, cheese, more champagne, cotechino (a type of pork sausage we sliced and cooked in lentils, a perfect post-midnight welcome to the new year), and Cuban cigars. We counted down, toasted the new year, ate our grapes, ate more cheese and olives and the cotechino, and smoked our cigars, sharing stories well into the early morning; when everyone had left, it was nearly 6:00am. The next day would be one of recovery, left over Hoppin' John, a gyro from the guy on my street, and lots of sleep. But what a great night, one of the warmer New Year's Eve celebrations I've been part of, and a fitting welcome to a year full of good food and drink.
New Year's Baby Banana Breads

Monday, January 4, 2010

F.o.t.D. Op-Ed, or, Happy New Year!

Christmas Eve-Eve Pappardelle, Chicken Leg Ragout

So. Everyone's outside jogging. I've always been amazed/amused (those words certainly are similar, aren't they?) by the amount of joggers in brand new gear struggling to breathe in the frigid Chicago/Boston/Colorado air, fighting away a New Year's Eve hangover and the newly formed layers of fat and guilt, taking the first step in what is surely the right direction on a new path. A new year. A new world. A new chance to avoid those major blunders of last year. The problem, though, is that these are the same thoughts we had precisely one year ago. And we kept imbibing too much. And we kept eating to much. And we kept watching too many episodes of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. And here we are again. Welcome to the new year.

Now, I'm not aiming to be a messenger of gloom teasing a dark view of the new year out of everyone. And I'm definitely not going to embarrass us all by quoting a Death Cab For Cutie song. What I'm getting after is the fact that after all of the end-of-year indulgence, all of the "I'll be good after the holidays" nonsense, all of the new year's resolutions, food somehow becomes the enemy. All of the butter we used in those cookies. Eggs and cream in the egg nog (people still make egg nog, don't they? If not, email me at and I will send you the best recipe ever--as written by my brother, who was, at most, barely in his teens when he wrote it.). Rich meats and sauces and heavy beers. Cheese balls (well, for those of us who were around cheese balls). It all lurks in the corner of our memories now, fangs exposed, and somehow, just somehow, we've got to banish it away for another year. Or at least until summer barbecues start up.
Fra' Mani Salametto and Fuji Apples

I, however, implore all out there who do, in fact, eat, to continue to embrace real food. There is a great little place in Vermont called The Farmer's Diner; they sell t-shirts and mugs with whimsical food-related sayings on them. And no matter how many times I went there, I had to settle for my second choice in the end: "Eating is an Agricultural Act". Which is a very true (if a bit smug when taken out of context and slapped on a t-shirt) quote from the great farmer and writer Wendell Barry. But the one I coveted, and was always denied, was the one reading "I prefer butter to margarine because I trust cows more than I trust scientists," a quote from the author Joan Gussow. The saying, in its simplicity, speaks volumes to what I believe about food. That real food, the food we've been eating for millennia, the food our bodies know how to process, the food our palattes know (or at least knew) how to identify is the food to embrace and eat. Now, I could post all sorts of opinion and conjecture and scientific facts (as I sort of did once before), but I think it is best summed up by Ren, the author of the simply and well presented site Edible Aria:
Margarine typically contains some combination of sterol esters, genetically modified liquid soybean oil, liquid canola oil, hydrogenated soybean oil, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, soy lecithin, vegetable mono- and diglycerides, potassium sorbate, calcium disodium EDTA, artificial flavors and synthetic vitamins.

Butter contains milk. From a cow.
So, to this end, I vote for eating smart by way of giving real food a chance. Let's eat well prepared, well seasoned whole food. Just yesterday I had the pleasure of cooking, with friends, a hearty winter meal of Coq au Vin that was homemade down to the wine that the host's uncle made. We used his (the host's) chicken stock as well; nibbled on olives from a friend's restaurant, as well as cassoulet he made a bit earlier in the week on little pieces of toast. We rolled out big fat pasta noodles and ate it all up with a salad dressed with our own vinaigrette. Everything was so simple, and everything was mind-blowingly good. Not only were these whole foods nourishing to our bodies and spirits; the time spent in the kitchen together was, equally.
Big Fat Pappardelle

So next time the temptation arises to label cooking as "too time-consuming" or "too hard to do", grab a bit of pasta (even if it isn't homemade, get a good box from a good source) and throw together a quick tomato sauce, made guessed it, tomatoes! Well-sourced canned tomatoes, this time of year, of course. Cook it all with someone you care about, or can at least tolerate, turn off the tv, and enjoy the food and the company.

What I'm saying is, throw those resolutions (at least the food-related ones) out the window. And next time you want a bag of Doritos? Head to The Hop Leaf and get some Frites instead. I promise they're way better for you. Or, at least, less bad.