Thanksgiving, revisited

On those things for which I give thanks:

-This year, it seemed more difficult to determine what tops my list of things for which I am most thankful. Maybe it was the hectic holiday plans that had us driving to Cherry, IL  then back to Chicago in 5 hours (it takes 2 hours to drive there and another 2 to drive back), not to mention a second day of thanksgiving, a leftovers version, with our close family friends.

But I stop and think.

This chaos I’m using as an excuse to not find thanks, really just means that we are surrounded by family and great friends. No complaints there.

-Then I allow myself to consider the surgery I have scheduled in the coming week. Great timing? Right in the midst of the holiday season… sweet.

But I stop and think. 

This is a minor surgery to rectify a rather debilitating problem I’ve been dealing with that knocks me on my ass every time I am around someone who has the sniffles. No more chronic strep throat and bacterial infections in my throat after December 5th? No complaints there.

-Oh, that’s right, I get to spend my holiday season explaining why I’m single.

But, again, I stop and think. 

This is the first time in close to a decade that I have not been attached to someone who ultimately ends up not quite panning out (or worse!) Perhaps it’s time to reevaluate the necessity for constant companionship at an age when I can barely evaluate what comes next in my own professional and personal life. How can I possibly hope to make another person happy when I haven’t mastered how to make myself happy? No complaints there.

——–

So I suppose that for which I’m thankful this year is the support and warmth that emanates from my sometimes chaotic but always dependable group of friends and family who have already offered their professional services, keeping me well stocked with homemade broths and ice cream for the flip side of this surgery, and who keep me busy and engaged with this time I’ve come into now that I can finally think about what I want out of this fleeting, infinitesimal blip of a thing I am fortunate enough to call my life.

 

 

Credit- Trying new things

When I woke up this morning, I didn’t think to myself: “Gee, I think I’d like to chew my liquids today.” So why, you might ask, did I purchase a Kombucha with seeds and other undesirable things floating around in it? I just reread that sentence. I’d like to note that I’m not talking about the standard odds and ends floating around in Kombucha… 

I’m talking about a whole new level of raw and fermented materials. There are more seeds in there than raspberries used to infuse this beverage.

That said, I wanted to try it. And here’s why:

1. I like weird things. I have never refused to eat anything, at any time…. even when I lived in strange places, where PETA has no voice and venom is a fairly normal ingredient.

2. There was a sale on Kombucha at Whole Foods. It was 2 for $4, which led me to believe that if ever there was a time for me to try the strange new Kombucha, it was now.

So I got myself my standard and awesome Kombucha, the tried and true, and went out on a limb and purchased the seedy “chia” variety as well.

Let’s just say, not all limbs are sturdy.

It’s not that is was undrinkable, it was just rather unpleasant to drink. It was almost like drinking tapioca pudding. You had to actually chew the gelatinous liquid. Not really my thing, I guess.

Not to mention, it didn’t have that fermented Kombucha taste I have grown to love. And it wasn’t “naturally carbonated” so really none of the perks.

And that’s all she wrote.

Discredit- An angry letter

To whom it may concern,

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the unfortunate situation of requiring your services. I have chosen to place emphasis on the term by italicizing it due to the fact that, already, I find myself in need of an ironic tone. This should indicate immediately that what follows is not complimentary. If you should choose not to read on, in light of the negative tone being set so early, I would understand. However, I would caution you against this reaction. Although I subscribe to very few biblical idioms, one I quite enjoy and find incredibly a propos, is “an eye for an eye…”[Matthew 5:38. King James]

Weeks ago, I spent 3 hours trapped inside one of your parking structures due to an error message telling me my ticket was unreadable, and I intend to return the favor of lost time. If that means that I flood your inbox with letters and/or emails until I get an appropriate response, then so be it. If I call your offices and leave messages playing inane elevator music, taking care to accompany the wretched smooth jazz by static noise so as to replicate the response I got from your ludicrous little box claiming to connect me to a human “in case of emergency,” then so it shall be. My only talent that overshadows my gift for ironic prose and angry letter writing is my persistence when it comes to retribution.

That said, I wonder what you could possibly do for me to compensate me for the 3 hours of my life I spent waiting for the Chicago Police Department to respond to a non-emergency call to a parking lot in Lincoln Park. If you know anything at all about the police force in question, you know that I could have very well been waiting there over night. Immediately after calling the police (after trying to reach someone on your pathetic little box for over an hour) did I regret the decision to call in the authorities.

Why the regret? It was not because I was guilt stricken by the prospect of wasting the valuable time of the Chicago Police Department, but rather because I no longer felt secure getting away with busting through the flimsy barricade that was keeping me from resuming my life.

So I waited.

Finally, 2 hours later, an officer arrived on the scene. And you know what we did? After several attempts to trick your machine with a highly evolved pressure sensor system considering the lack of a functioning emergency call system, the officer sent to uphold the law actually suggested sneaking under the barricade at the same time on a ticket she had just purchased. By this time you should realize that a customer doesn’t pay for a ticket time-stamped at under 10 minutes… and the bureaucratic entrapment spirit of yours should quiver at the very thought that not only I, but a badge wearing member of the Chicago Police Department conned you out of not only one egregiously expensive parking fee, but two.

As I do not anticipate being compensated in any way by your painfully dysfunctional company, I will take comfort in knowing that you now share my frustration. This shared frustration has a dual impact. On my end, I have learned to never again park in one of your structures, and on yours, you might learn that even the Chicago Police Department will go out of its way to screw you if you don’t stop screwing your customers.

Good day,

Leigh M. Hansen

Credit- Taking Bourdain up on fishery recommendations

I would like to take a moment to thank the parties from many centuries ago responsible for smoked fish. I’d also like to extend a hearty congratulations to those establishments who are able to prepare battered and fried fish that taste like something other than dough. I might as well also thank Anthony Bourdain for his recommendation to drive to a shack on a bridge just a few miles from the Indiana border. And a final hoorah to my whimsical and adventurous equal who agreed to hop in my car at noon on a Monday to investigate Calumet Fisheries, one of the last standing smokehouses in Illinois.

It may not be a whole lot to look at, but there’s actually something very appealing about making the trip down here. My mother called the landscape a hybrid of Chicago’s industrial past and a scene from Mad Max. As you can see from the sign, it’s located at “95th at the bridge.” The fact that they listed their address as such tickled us. You’ll all be relieved to know that this brand of humor was not lost on my Canadian counterpart for this adventure.

They really do get jokes! I kid, I kid. He knows I’m joking…

Anyway, they have all sorts of smoked fish to sample and a friendly staff. The guy who helped us out used one breath to poke fun at my driving (yeah I may have backed up at a somewhat rapid speed to snag a parking spot on the bridge… hey, they’re hot commodities!!) and then in the next breath told us all about the different fish, allowing us to sample a few things to make sure we got exactly what we wanted!

As it turns out we wanted smoked sturgeon, smoked peppered salmon and fried perch. He let us try the famous smoked shrimp, and they were fantastic, but we went another direction. Of the three things we got, we were the most impressed with the salmon. In fact, though we inexplicably had four plastic forks between the two of us, we deep sixed the forks entirely and started ripping into the smoked fish with our teeth. It got kinda feral… think last piece of fish in the Lord of the Flies.

The (deep) fried perch was great. When batter is involved, you run the risk of getting a mouth full of greasy dough instead of fish, but they nailed it here. My companion, being from Port Dover and thus from an area where perch practically jump out of the waters onto your plate, knows his perch. Even he had to admit it was some mighty tasty perch.

Note, in the photo to the left, that this was apparently before we “misplaced” all of our forks and reverted to animal instinct.

The smoked fish really was delicious!

Our favorite was easily the Salmon. We were told that the salmon had just come out of the smoker and thus was still sort of warm, which may have impacted our opinions.

We both agreed that the smokiness of the salmon was not matched by that of the sturgeon which was quite a bit cooler having come out of a day’s worth of refrigeration. I sent the leftovers back with the man who clearly should investigate a career in hand modeling based on his masterful pose (left) showcasing the smoked salmon.

He’ll have to fill me in on how the smoked sturgeon tastes room temp! It sure looked like it should taste AT LEAST as good as the salmon, don’t you think?!

Oh, and for the record, yes I am crediting this in the travel section. We traveled well outside the comfort zone of most Chicagoans (totally worth the 17 mile trip) AND we took local streets most of the way home to check out South Chicago. I’m not saying I’m Magellan or anything, but damn if I’m not claiming this as travel!

Michelin Guide 2012

The time has come for the 2012 Michelin stars to be scrutinized.

I suppose I should at least address the topic… though my response may not be what you expect, and I never allow the guide to sway my personal opinion of the restaurants I consider most worthy of my patronage.

I’ll state the most outrageous point I have to make first: it’s Michelin folks (glean from the italics whatever inflection you wish). To guide you concerning the tone of my statement, I invite you to consider that they call themselves “inspectors” which gives them less of the puffy, friendly marshmallow man vibe and more of the invading, swooping force of chaos I have come to expect.

ROOOOOARRRRRR

Here they are, in case you haven’t had them flung in your face yet:

3 stars: Alinea

(Absent from last year’s 3 star list: L20 which dropped down two star categories)

2 stars: Charlie Trotter’s, Ria

(Absent from last year’s 2 star list: Avenues)

1 star: Blackbird, Boka, Bonsoiree, Courtright’s, Everest, Graham Elliot, Longman & Eagle, L2O, Moto, Naha, Schwa, Seasons, Sepia, Spiaggia, Takashi, Topolobampo, Tru, Vie 

Okay, deep breath. Annnnnnd go.

Yes, I believe that Chicago is full of amazing restaurants that deserve to be distinguished in some way. Yes, I have a hard time sorting out why certain restaurants are absent completely from this list… I have made the executive decision this morning to not talk about the actual star lists, and focus instead on another problem that I see as the crux of the issue.

As a preliminary hypothesis, could it be that the Bib Gourmand list -which is supposed to represent a list of restaurants that are good deals- is really a place where they put the honorable mentions that they didn’t deem deserving of a star?? Bear with me here for a second: in the Michelin guide the exact explanation of this category is “This symbol indicates our inspector’s favorites for good values. For $40 or less, you can enjoy two courses and a glass of wine or a dessert” I want to first note that perhaps it is possible to sit down at Avec or Maude’s or Purple Pig or Publican and order two courses and wine for under $40, but that’s not the point or even what happens realistically, is it? Places like Maude’s and Purple Pig and co. that specialize in smaller plates that are meant to be shared, inspire and almost dictate that diners will want to order as many as possible to get the full effect of the experience. It is unrealistic to put places, especially ones that are as popular and hyped as these, on a list of “good deals” because I guarantee 90% of the clientele is not worried about their pocketbooks when they’re gorging themselves on small plates.

Deep breath.

Now, that is not to say that I believe that the Bib Gourmand recipients are not deserving of being on a list in Michelin, or that I believe that you can’t order frugally at these restaurants, but I would politely point out that this category is rather inadequate, see inappropriate. I suppose I just can’t fathom why The Girl and the Goat, Avec, West Town Tavern and Purple Pig are on the same list as Hopleaf and Ann Sather. Sure, Ann Sather makes a mean cinnabun, but they also throw sloppy piles of eggs on plates and call it breakfast. There is a time and a place for this, of course, but it’s just not even in the same ballpark in terms of type of experience.

And that is why I hypothesize that the Bib Gourmand is functioning as a sort of inadequate, safety net category for restaurants that Michelin thought they should showcase that did not receive stars, for reasons that will always remain unknown to the public. Not to mention, I think they have left some restaurants off this list. Why has it not expanded at all since last year, is 56 restaurants the arbitrary cap of this category?

Take Avec as an example, it made the Bib Gourmand list this year and didn’t make a showing at all in the honorary categories last year which was a shock to many… is Michelin just using the Bib Gourmands to throw certain chefs a bone to keep them off the path of revolt?

Et voilà, j’ai plus rien à dire, foutez moi la paix 😉

—————————————-

I found this on Ebaum's.

Here’s a complete list of 2012 Bib Gourmand restaurants:

http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/michelin-reveals-chicagos-bib-gourmand-restaurants-for-2012-133531263.html

Sunday Brunch: it’s a quiche kind of day

It’s that time of the week again… time for me to pull it together and make sure my Sunday brunch fiesta (see fiasco) does not go undocumented.

I sent out a text to some very busy people that I hadn’t seen in far too long, expecting one or two to be able to squeeze in a last minute brunch. When I woke up on Sunday I thought I’d have a couple guests, but by the time 2pm rolled around, I had 6 people sipping on mimosas in my living room and the promise of a few more on the way. (Thankfully the last few thought to bring some more champagne… kudos on the foresight folks) We have to start making the larger scale brunch parties a tradition, I loved having everyone. Aaaaaand maybe every once in a while we can make it a potluck!

When circumstances hand you more guests than you originally anticipated, it’s a good idea to keep things simple. There’s no reason to start a complicated assembly line to attempt to serve 8 people eggs benedict… at least not when you haven’t adequately planned out your feast. So I did what any self respecting pseudo french person would do and turned to an old friend: the quiche.

I made a sort of makeshift quiche lorraine (though I used ham and not lardon, so more of a Normandy thing) as well as a spinach and mushroom quiche. I added copious amounts of cheese to both, because, honestly, if you don’t like cheese, I’m not sure why you’re at my house because we probably aren’t friends.

I mentioned I was in a bit of a bind: very little time to execute a meal. I ran over to Dominick’s (bane of my existence; you know this if you’ve been following for a while) and picked up some pie crusts. Way to cheat, I know. I’m sure my pastry chef friends are cringing behind their screens, and considering recalling our friendship, but good lord does it cut down on prep time.

1. Pop the pie crusts in the oven to cook them through (about 8-10 minutes in a 400 degree oven).

2. While those crusts are getting some color, I sauté the shallot (one whole shallot, both lobes) then add the mushrooms and finally the spinach. Don’t forget to season your vegetables. If the ingredients don’t taste well seasoned enough to serve sans quiche, the flavors of the veggies will get lost in all that egg, cheese and crust once they are incorporated… and we wouldn’t want that.

This should be fairly obvious, but I’ll mention it anyway. When trying to cut down on pan usage to reduce cleaning time, you want to add the ingredients in order of their respective cooking times ( ingredients that take the longest time go in first and you finish with things like leafy greens which take practically no time to cook )

3. Since the quiche lorraine ingredients don’t require any precooking, once I squeezed out the excess juices from the mushroom, shallot and spinach mélange, I assemble a sort of quiche station. Those are bowls of: shredded cheddar cheese, mozzarella and provolone cheese, chopped up ham and the sautéed veggies.

Then in a bowl, I whip up the eggs (6 eggs per quiche, I’m making two quiches so that’s a dozen eggs total for those of you playing at home)

I mix the (cheddar) cheese and ham into 6 eggs and pour that into the crust, then do the same with the (provolone and mozzarella) cheese and sautéed veggies. In the spirit of overkill, I topped each quiche with more shredded cheese.

In a 400 degree oven, the quiches take about 30-40 minutes to cook, it’s pretty easy to tell when they’re done. The center of the quiche is the last bit to cook all the way through. So check out the center, if it is still wiggly and soupy it needs more time. When it looks ready, take it out and let it set for a couple minutes before cutting.

I served the quiches with arugula salad with a makeshift vinaigrette (olive oil, spoonful of dijon, some lemon juice and salt and pepper).

Et voilà!

Credit- Thomas Bowman (of iNG)…. WARNING a rant on molecular gastronomy might occur.

On Sunday, I had the pleasure of seeing Chef Tom Bowman of iNG lead a presentation on Molecular Gastronomy as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival. I’ll preface this by saying I was incredibly impressed with the young chef. He was collected and witty but most of all extremely articulate under pressure.

Before I delve into the topics he covered, I have to say I was somewhat shocked by the amount of resistance I felt from a room full of people who were assembled for a presentation called Deconstructing Dinner. In the land of Achatz and Cantu (among other talented “modernist” chefs who call Chicago home), how is it that we are still so threatened by molecular gastronomy?

I suppose it’s important to give the diner something to grab onto that’s familiar. Otherwise, the food runs the risk of alienating its diner. Tom Bowman stressed several times that at iNG, he tries to keep the food fun and approachable (and if you read my review of iNG for Rock ‘n Roll Ghost, you’ll know I approved of this wholeheartedly). Most importantly, he believes it is important to keep food engaging.

He showed the packed auditorium examples of how iNG brings food and science together. He demonstrated a few clever ways to use liquid nitrogen (he made a frozen waffle, joking about the irony of how much one has to employ fire when “cooking” things with liquid nitrogen) and talked about all the fancy equipment in kitchens these days. He also covered the miracle berry, joking about conspiracy theories regarding the lengths to which the sugar and aspartame people went in attempt to ban it as well as the underground, flavor tripping parties that resulted from the ban.

All in all, the presentation was a success. He was knowledgeable, clear, concise, funny but most importantly stood his ground when it came time for the audience to lob passive aggressive statements at him questioning the basis of molecular gastronomy along with comments concerning the fear that American cuisine will become an alienating, freeze dried, machine and technology oriented process that loses touch of the very soul and art of cooking.

I was shocked to witness the frustratingly hypocritical and subdued mutiny that occurred in the auditorium… most of it, as I mentioned, under veiled, overly polite chuckles indicating quiet disapproval. I’m not saying the entire audience was against it, but the most verbal faction of the audience was not shy about expressing the (I would say) groundless concerns most likely based on fear of the unknown. Even more unfortunate was that I happened to be sitting directly in front of a misinformed yet obnoxiously outspoken couple.

I have to wonder if these people who are opposing “chemical heavy” molecular gastronomy to the merits of entirely organic cooking are forgetting that the use of chemicals such as agar (which ironically is derived from algae, a natural source) or even the chemicals that are not derived from plants, is not mutually exclusive with using organic product.

I think, most importantly, that if you sincerely claim that because a chef cooks with chemicals it makes him/her less soulful and passionate about food then you clearly haven’t had the pleasure of the experience.

I’ve had enough of frightened, close-minded and short sighted individuals who judge things without first trying them. You don’t have to look very far (or even pay an arm and a leg) to find extremely talented, dedicated and, most of all, soulful modernist chefs in Chicago.

I suggest you go out -on a limb, if you must- and find them.

Discredit- Collateral Damage from Business Meetings AND the return of my anti fast food challenge

The other day I had meeting, which was incidentally totally unrelated to food. My clients suggested meeting at the Lincoln Park Whole Foods. This may seem like a strange place to conduct business, but if you’ve been there you know that the place has everything but a bowling alley. They have features ranging from test kitchens and sushi bars to wine bars and massage parlors. It borders on bizarre, honestly.

In any case, after my hour long meeting with a lovely French man who distributes wine in Chicago and his wife, I paid the price of doing business…. and by that I mean I beelined for the Kombucha section, making (approximately 80) stops on the way, picking up everything from Spanish anchovies to produce I could have gotten at half the price at Stanley’s. I’m not sure what it is about Whole Foods, but they have my number and they won’t stop pressing redial.

For the record, the price of doing business at a Whole Foods is $289. 30…

… which makes me miss the days when I couldn’t get out of Whole Foods for under $80

Speaking of overpaying for one’s obsessions, this brings me full circle to a stance I threatened to take many weeks ago. After reading an article in the NY Times on the very issue, I’ve decided to put my money where my mouth is and cook two meals a day for the same cost as eating at [insert chain fast food restaurant here]. Since I understand that not everyone has the luxury of farmers’ markets and high end chains (not to mention it doesn’t serve my own purposes to buy expensive food whilst trying to prove a point on thrift) I will buy my groceries for the week at Target. A caviat: I will be going to a Target that offers fresh food; many have this feature now. I figure they have items one might find at Walmart, Kmart or whatever other discount establishment we are up to our eyeballs in ’round here.

Finally, the terms of my personal challenge:

If you follow the link I provided above, you’ll see that author Mark Bittman (a personal idol of mine) estimates the price of a meal for a family of 4 at McDonald’s at between $23 and $28. I’m happy to use his math, and to show some good faith, I’ll take on the challenge for $20, which means that I can spend $10 per meal for two. For those of you following along, that means I have $20 per day… giving me $140 for the week.

So let the challenge begin… and trust me if I hadn’t lost my favorite minimalist Mark Bittman’s cookbook to an unmarked box in my storage unit during the moving process, I would be thrilled to pay homage to him by using some of his recipes along the way.

Perhaps a visit to my storage unit is in order before the official launch of this challenge.

Bolognese Ragù

When I’m craving a hearty meat sauce, I typically just make it the way my mom makes it… which happens to be the way my grandmother makes it. (This would be on the Bartoli side of the family) But this time, I decided to do some research.

I found out from the Italian Academy of Cuisine that this sauce dates back to the 5th century, and traditionally has very little tomato in it, most of the time taking only a couple spoonfuls of tomato paste.

In the Italian Academy of Cuisine’s records, the recipe takes no herbs or garlic, very little of the tomato component we Americans tend to think of as a large part of the sauce, and quite a bit of milk! In the more recent update of the recipe, you add a cup of milk little by little at the end of the process (after the rest of the sauce has been simmering for over 2 hours). The classic recipe calls for ‘a panna di cottura’ of a litre of whole milk… milk that has been reduced to about half in a separate saucepan. 

I was famished before I even started the process of cooking, so I decided to alter the classic recipe slightly, but use some of the components that my grandmother’s recipe has, over the years, let slip through the cracks.

Because I was so hungry I decided to cut the simmering time in half and not use the litre of reduced milk (my Italian ancestors are apparently rolling in their graves). I also incorporated some spices and herbs. Sorry sorry sorry… But I did add the celery, carrot and cup of milk that my grandmother’s recipe omits.

So here’s where I give you a quick rundown of my bolognese ragù… which, in one last godsmack towards my Italian kin,

I served with spaghetti

 

 

 

despite the traditional vehicle being tagliatelle:                                             For the sauce, it’s quite easy, dice the onion (I used 1 and a half because I had an extra half of an onion on its last legs and I hate to see a good onion go to waste), carrots (2) and celery (2 stalks) and sauté them with some olive oil and butter.

Your keen culinary eye will notice some fresh thyme in there (it’s a sickness; I can’t help but put herbs in a pasta sauce!) I also put some salt and pepper. Once the veg is soft, you add the ground beef. I don’t like using ground beef that is too lean, so I chose 80/20.

Before I threw in the beef, I got rid of the excess liquid and kneaded in some salt, black pepper, crushed red pepper and chili powder. Once that’s in the pan it will cook fairly quickly.  Add the red wine first… I have a bad habit of not measuring anything because most of the time I don’t use recipes, but I’d imagine it was about a cup (?!) then add the tomato paste.

Remember, the traditional recipe only calls for tomato paste (5 spoonfuls) but I also added some canned crushed tomatoes. 

The sauce simmered for about an hour. I couldn’t hold out any longer, so I brought my salted water to a boil and started my spaghetti. Once my water came to a boil, I added my pasta and turned my attention back to my sauce. I incorporated the cup of whole milk…tasted for salt and pepper (my grandmother and mom both add a nice pinch of sugar to the sauce at the very end) but I figured the milk would achieve a similar sweetness and the sugar was overkill.

People have asked me how I manage to never overcook or undercook pasta. I believe it’s just a matter of tasting the pasta frequently, biting into it, you know? Once it gets to that point where it’s just slightly too firm to be really enjoyable (but if you had to eat it, it wouldn’t get stuck in your gums and cause legitimate dental problems) I take it out. It will keep cooking. If you undershot it and think it’s still too firm, throw it in with the sauce and let it swim around in there until it’s cooked to your liking.

I strain the pasta but leave a bit of the starchy water in the pot. After I put the pasta back in, I add a bit of olive oil and a couple cups of the sauce. I mix that in with the pasta so that it’s completely coated with the sauce… I don’t like my pasta naked, it’s just wrong. Then add more sauce to the bowl/plate and top with (parmesan) cheeeeeeeeeeeeeeese.