Welcome to Vacationland

This photo is the property of Gritty’s, I assume.

So “welcome” isn’t exactly the right salutation… it’d be more along the lines of “Five months and counting” in Vacationland, which sounds weird. The whole thing strikes me as odd. Most people get, what? maybe 2 weeks of vacation a year? I’ve been living in Vacationland since March. Sometimes, I’ll look up after a hot day in the field forgetting completely how insanely picturesque my environment is. It’s like waking up suddenly from vivid dream and coming to the conclusion you must still be dreaming based on how unreal the scenery looks. Honestly, though, it just dawned on me how fitting the nickname is for Maine. There’s even a local beer named Vacationland (above), bottled with a bright green label featuring a bear offering up a cold one he stole from a campsite.

Maine is known as the state well-to-do (hell, even just well-meaning) parents send their kids off to for summer camp. The whole place is like one giant camp complete with swimming areas, trails, waterparks, boat rides, whale watching, rafting, canoeing…you get the idea. They even call their summer or vacation homes “camp.”

The state is entirely populated with a whole bunch of happy campers, too. There’s something about Mainers, it seems like no matter how hard their work day/week has been that there’s always room for a little fishing, camping or hiking. “Hey Jack, just finished my 18 hour shift at the Iron Works, what say you to some casual, deep-sea fishing or crabbing to cool off?” Bless them.

I got out on the Appalachian trail, enjoyed the novelty of it for about 3 days before I began plotting my escape route to the nearest shower. [More on that in a post on my experiences hiking the AT.]

It’s also the only state I’ve ever lived in where it’s sunny even on a rainy day. I saw my first double rainbow here and documented it thinking “How rare! I must collect photographic evidence for posterity.”

At this point I’ve seen and photographed so many freaking rainbows I had to delete some of the images from my gallery to conserve space. Maine is so cheerful and vacation-y that rainbows are as common place as fog in London and sunshine in southern California.

 

Is it really surprising, though, that the state that brought you “Whoopie Pies” and $5/lb lobsters would be such a cheerful and well-meaning place? My boss’s car broke down on his way to a farmers’ market, and a Burger King employee jumped into action offering to drive him and all his market set-up to the farmers’ market because “he was on his break.”

The Burger King manager on duty obliged, but was not available for commentary because he was probably having a cookout and pool party during his own15 minute break at work.

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Learning to canter from a walk

Yesterday I made it my mission to teach an old horse new tricks.

This is not a bad mare, but I’d definitely call her a lazy one. She’s 23, I think… and has made it her mission in daily life to make it back to the barn as quickly as humanely -or horsely- possible. She belongs to a young girl who tends to let her get away with bad habits.

So when I took her out to exercise her, I made it my goal to give her a good workout. On a previous ride, I was told that she won’t canter unless the horse with which she’s in the ring is also cantering. Balderdash, thought I. It helps that I’m an adult who has spent a fair amount of time riding and can spot those telltale signs leading up to full on misbehaving. It also helps that I weigh more than a 10 year old and can ancor myself into my saddle after smacking a horse to teach it a lesson.

So I grabbed a crop and worked that poor horse until she finally realized she wasn’t cutting corners and smoothly agreed to transition from walk to canter.

So you can teach an old horse new tricks… who knows, maybe she knew the tricks but conveniently forgot them once she hit 20 and her owner became a young girl. Either way, I can’t help but compare myself to good old Penelope (that would be the old mare). Like poor Penny, I had become accustomed to a certain pace and style of life… and like Penny, I went from walk straight to canter. No time to ease into things: my first week on the farm I was performing surgical procedures on piglets!

Just when life gets to be rather tiresome, some crazy new experience comes along to shake things up. For Penny, I was quite the new experience. For me, I’d say moving across the country to take up life on a working livestock and organic produce farm satisfies the “new experience” criterion.

That said, I will be posting weekly in various categories (TBA). I intend to come up with set categories that will be easier for me to update, because so much has already happened, I need to compartmentalize!

For now, thanks go out to Penelope for reminding me that you can always learn new tricks. I desperately needed the reminder.

Credit- The Goosefoot Experience

I’m not entirely sure where to begin my report on our experience at Goosefoot.

Should I rattle off all the reasons Goosefoot is a unique restaurant? Or should I take you course by course through Chef Chris Nugent’s incredibly well thought out menu? Do I give you the inside scoop, straight from the chef’s mouth, on where to shop for groceries? (Oh, I’m onto you, all food obsessed people are constantly on the prowl for the best places to shop.)

I know! I’ll start by saying Chris Nugent has some sort of psychic ability…. he came out for a tableside chat during one of the dessert courses [that’s right, for all of the sweet toothed folks of Chicago, there are two of them not including the cheese course] and he flat out asked: you’re a soup person, aren’t you?

Sure, that could have been a shot in the dark, though that would imply that he randomly goes up to all his diners guessing, carnival attraction style, what their favorite dishes and preparations are…and since he’s not in the least socially awkward, it has to be that he has a 6th sense for taste.

It would explain plate after plate of visually stunning culinary innovation.

If I had to choose one word to describe Chris Nugent’s menu, it would be assiduous. Not in an overly fussy sort of way either. The vibe of the restaurant as a whole is laid back, casual and very upbeat. The celebratory ambiance could have stemmed from the 6 birthdays being celebrated that night, but I get the sense that Goosefoot is no stranger to birthdays. I’d imagine this is exactly the kind of place you would take a food loving friend for a festive meal. To my right were seated a chef (celebrating his birthday) and his date, and to my left sat a professor (also celebrating a birthday) with his wife.

But back to assiduity. The attention to detail within each dish, but also when it came to the conceptualization and orchestration of the meal as a whole, was astounding. It seemed as though each dish was meant to play off some aspect of the one before or after it. Clearly a lot of thought went into the menu planning, and it paid off. After not one but two amuse-bouches, we were taken on an intricate 8 course journey.

It’s true that you eat first with your eyes, and in some cases it was almost a pity to destroy the presentation by eating. But I sucked it up and ate every bite off every plate. My favorite courses were (unsurprisingly) of the seafood persuasion.

The lobster had a delicate curry sauce and was paired with flavors and textures (hubbard squash and licorice root) that meshed perfectly with the dominant flavors of lobster and curry.

The loup de mer (French sea bass) was also perfection on a plate. Perfectly cooked and served with a meyer lemon sauce with tapioca pearls and sunchokes. I only wish I could have requested a double portion!

Of the remaining courses, the angus beef was the most straightforward (not a bad thing!) The chestnut soup with white alba mushrooms and truffle essence and the quail with spiced beluga lentils as well as one of the dessert courses struck me as more playful and innovative. Each had elements that could have been featured on the pages of Modernist Cuisine. Hell, the soup has “smoke” listed as an ingredient. The cinderella squash with nougatine and spice meringue was also a prime example of how to use modernist techniques to play with textures without assaulting your diner with them.

Chef Nugent clearly knows how to innovate without intimidating and that’s sometimes a fine line to tread.

For those of you who read all the way through this post muttering “will she just get to where the chef buys his groceries?” that time has come.

Chef Nugent told me to check out Harvest Time Foods on Lawrence right next door to Goosefoot, and after my own trip there I urge you to do the same.

Silent Night

The words Silent Night are powerful and steeped in enough tradition in the United States that they quickly evoke myriads of different images and memories for people when uttered. Whether it’s thanks to the carolers outside your door, or because that damn song  has come on the radio 25 times during your 10 minute car ride with your boyfriend to pick out a Christmas tree, the song is virtually inescapable.

I remember, for instance, the year when a family member of mine put a lot of effort into compiling and binding enough christmas carol books for each member of our rather large family. We all sat down with every intention to chant a few christmas carols, but quickly realized that despite the continuous loop they appear to be on from Halloween to New Year’s Day, none of us really knew what we were singing… even with the lovely, bound booklets my aunt had made. Who knew that Frosty the Snowman has three distinct verses?! That said, the one song we all made it through was Silent Night. It felt like an accomplishment, but I think secretly we were all grateful it was over…

The true sentiment behind Silent Night is never really what jumps to mind when you hear the song, is it? Your mind never really races to that serene country church glowing in the darkness of a cold winter’s night (above). It’s probably for the best, since I doubt there were many churches covered in snow on night of Christ’s birth anyway.

Last night I attended a holiday party at my family friend’s house. There were no Christmas Carols, but the jovial ambiance and warmth emanating from the busting Gold Coast home would have done nicely as that memory evoked by hearing a Christmas carol.

People who hadn’t seen each other in ages flocked to the kitchen, sharing food, drink and stories of their children and travels over the past year. It was exactly the type of scene you would expect from a movie montage playing a song like Silent Night in the

background as the scene fades to black and the credits roll at the resolution of a Christmas movie about a great group of friends.

But this year I experienced a whole new take on Silent Night. Having just had surgery on my throat, I attended this gathering of some of my family’s closest friends as a mute. I was never worried about feeling out of place around this group of people, but the thought did occur to me, how much could I enjoy a party of which I couldn’t really be a part?

To my surprise, I enjoyed the party more than I’ve enjoyed a holiday party in a long time. There’s something to be said about the power of quiet observation. I was able to take in every interaction, every detail of the party unfolding around me.

From my perch on the couch that I occupied the entire night, I noticed things like the genuine smiles on peoples’ faces when they greeted each other, and I caught up (vicariously) with more people than I could have possibly talked to that night.

The most endearing thing was that despite my complete silence, I was never alone on that couch. There was a constant stream of people who would come sit by me on the couch and put their arms around me wishing me a speedy recovery. They would ask me as many yes or no questions as they could muster, and then almost as suddenly as they arrived, they would depart to get more wine or talk to someone who could hold a conversation.

This was a completely unique experience for me, and if I learned anything from it, I believe the lesson would be that we should all spend a little more time being silent and taking things in… whether it’s the energy of a room full of friends, the beauty of a piece of music or a passage from the book we’re reading. But especially, perhaps, as a speaking member of society, we should all spend a little more time really listening to what the other person has to say and less time thinking about what we can throw into the conversation as soon as he or she is done speaking.

You never know what you might learn in one silent night.

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.

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!

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.

Credit- Cooking with what ya got (Stuffed Orange Peppers)

Last night, feeling better and finally having an appetite after 5 days of strep induced grossness, I took at crack at the challenge I called upon Curtis Stone to tackle.

Since I know Curtis Stone will never actually receive my taunting challenge (unless, of course, some jackal of a creative scout from Food Network or Bravo is out there scouring the little known sites on the internet for new ideas…. and good lord do they need them) I decided it was time to take my own challenge. Having been bedridden for the last 5 days, it was no surprise that I found scarce amounts of sustenance in my kitchen. You could sum it up by listing fuzzy strawberries and some orange bell peppers hanging on for dear life by a thread.

After searching the freezer, we found some ground beef, and I knew immediately what was for dinner:

Stuffed roasted orange peppers

Ingredients: 2 bell peppers, 1/2 jalapeno pepper, ground beef, rice, stock, canned tomato, onion, garlic, olive oil,butter and whatever condiments you got lying around (I’ll explain later)

Preheat the oven to 350.

Cut out the stem and seeds from the bell peppers and wrap them in aluminum foil.

     

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I put them in the oven (fully wrapped) hole-side down so that the juices would trickle out and not sit in the bottom of the pepper for the 30 or so minutes it takes to roast them through. Depending on the presentation you want at the end, you may want to roast them for less time. The longer they’re in the oven, the softer they get. So when you peel that sort of tough waxy outer skin off your roasted pepper (and you want to do that), a less cooked pepper will have a better chance of being able to be stuffed whole and be served standing up. 

While the peppers are in the oven, dice 1 onion, finely chop up your garlic (about 4-5 cloves) and, depending on your taste, 1/2 or 1 whole jalapeno. Then arrange the results artistically near soft light so as to take ridiculously over worked photos of them for your own food blog.

 

 

 

Over medium heat, melt a large tab of butter into a few teaspoons of olive oil. When the butter has melted, but not yet starting to brown, sauté the onion first until translucent and then add the garlic and jalapeno peppers (with seeds if you like heat!) I think I put some fresh thyme in the onions while they were sautéing, but I just happened to have that lying around, so don’t worry about it if you don’t have any.

Then you want to add your ground beef (defrosted, obviously, and patted dry). Once the meat releases some of its juices, add the uncooked NOT INSTANT rice. The idea here is the juices from all your other ingredients will cook the rice. Not to mention, your rice will soak up all those awesome flavors from the sauce in which it’s cooking!

It is at this point that you can start madly experimenting with condiments you found in the fridge. I added a few splashes Worchestire sauce, some soy sauce (for Umami, naturally) cayenne pepper, red pepper flakes and a large can with juices of canned tomatoes.

Turn the heat down to low, and simmer uncovered until you notice the juices are running low. This is where the stock comes in handy. Essentially, from this point out it’s like you’re making the poor man’s risotto. You gotta keep replenishing the juices until the rice is fully cooked. Don’t forget to stir with some regularity.

I thought it would be a worthy experiment to add some beer to the mix to see what that would bring, flavor wise, to the sauce. It was Dos Equis… most interesting, I know! Honestly, I just had lying around the house.

You want to add any alcohol first so it loses that straight alcohol taste while it simmers and doesn’t make it appear that you accidentally spilled your drink in the food when it comes time to serve it. So I added about 1/2 bottle of beer and let that simmer then from here on out I added chicken stock. I would guess it took about 2 cups of stock to fully cook the rice. You just want to keep sampling little bites of the rice to gauge when it’s fully cooked. Once the rice is fully cooked, let the rest of the liquids cook out (you want the rice, beef and veg mix to be sticky not soupy!) Then taste for salt and pepper and serve with your roasted pepper.