Friday, May 28, 2010

Pizza Pie and Poor Grammar on Restaurant Signs

I'm always fascinated by the ease with which pizza is made at home juxtaposed against the low willingness of people (myself included) to do so. It's the simplest thing--cheapest, too--with the ability to deliver big flavor with minimal volume of ingredients. So we made pies a couple of times recently.
Quick homemade dough is simple to do. I always like to get some whole wheat flour involved; I suppose it tricks me into thinking something healthy is happening, but it also looks a bit better and tastes good, too. The longer the dough rises, the more funky it can get (a good thing), but really the dough can be ready in an hour or so after kneading and rising. Keep extra in the freezer and have the foresight to take it out the night before you want to use it again. Get an oven really hot, roll the crust out, brush it with oil and sauce if you are using it, top it, remember that not all pizzas have to be doused, Dominoes-style, with tons of poor quality cheese, and bake it in said hot oven. Quick and easy. Bake it on parchment paper on a pan, or, get a pizza peel (which will surely give you some sort of street cred with your hipster baking friends if seen hanging on your wall) and do the following trick I learned from a joker I used to work for: forgo the expensive pizza stone and buy a cheap terra cotta plant pot bottom. You know, the thing that the pot sits in to catch excess water? Get the biggest one that will fit in your oven. Leave it in your oven all the time (be sure the oven is cold when you put it in so it does not crack from a sudden temperature change). Not only will it soak up heat and help greatly in heat retention anytime you use your oven (as will not standing there looking in the oven with the door open, wondering if something is done or not while heat escapes--in this case take the item in question out of the oven, close the door, then do your wondering while the heat remains inside the oven), it will serve as a great baking surface for bread and pizza. That's how you'll get that great crust bottom you are most certainly striving for.
Topping wise, be creative. Concentrate flavors and use big ones. In the first case, we used that good Tennessee bacon, caramelized leeks and onions, sauteed mustard greens, and roasted garlic. I think the cheese was fontina. The second time around two pizzas were made: caramelized cremini mushrooms, cooked long and slow in olive oil, sopressata, a quick tomato sauce, and cheddar leftover from the farmer's market the previous Saturday. The second pizza got more of that remarkable bacon, sauteed fennel, quick roasted garlic (simmered in olive oil on the stove top, giving us a lovely garlic oil to brush on the pizza) and chihuahua cheese.
Other things made on that first night: strawberry ice cream (I've been amazed at the quality of strawberries this early on) with cashew butter churned right in, and a soup of pureed, roasted cauliflower and corn (using the cobs from the corn to make a quick stock with carrots, leeks, coriander and parsley), finished with a pistou of parsley, garlic, lemon and scallions.
Then there was a remarkable meal at Nightwood in Pilsen; solid food there to continue my love of all things Lula Cafe-related. Salty smelts, poached eggs everywhere (one way to my heart), hand cut pasta, whipped goat cheese, ricotta cream, some super crispy fries, and another spot-on vegetable dish of greens, farro (so satisfying!), and crusty bread with herb butter slathered right on...rhubarb panna cotta, crazy brownies, sorbets, gelatos, much to list without overload. Check it out.
And finally, a "meal" that never happened, due to some technical issues at a brunch spot, that reminded me that sometimes, actually getting the food doesn't even matter if you're in the right company. In the end, isn't that--being able to be around those you wish to be around--what it's all about?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Bagels, Stratas and Eyebrow Strategies

A favorite New York memory of mine is walking through the morning steam rising from the pavement and buying coffee and bagels from a street truck. The guy always seems to tuck an extra bagel or two into the bag, always nice and chewy. Great to chomp on sitting in the mist on autumn mornings.
Here in Chicago, it can be a bit more challenging to recreate the bagel portion of this flashback. Unless you go to New York Bagel and Bialy up in Lincolnwood. (Note: I am not one of these people always comparing Chicago and New York, and am well aware of how annoying that is. This place could be called Lincolnwood Bagel and Bialy and still be the best place to get bagels in the city.) They've got the whole operation there in the storefront, boiling bagels and whatnot, and I've heard some delightful rumors that they actually make their cream cheese there. Take some home and toast them bagels good (seems like that never happens when someone else does it for you in a store--nice and crisp and brown), slather on some of that cream cheese, and top it all with thin slices of cucumber and radish, maybe red onion? Tasty...
And now that Green City Farmer's Market is up and running outside (as opposed to its indoor locale over the colder months), be sure to hit it. Lots of good stuff right now; sneak your way back to Green Acres in the rear corner; some really beautiful early vegetables, and lots of variety, too. But be sure to go early. Anytime after 9:00, and you are in the middle of stroller/people watching/"isn't this whole farmer's market thing so quaint and cute and I wonder if I'll see a famous chef here" boutique crowd. On Saturday, I actually heard someone say "I've been thinking about growing out my eyebrows!" I don't even know what this means but I don't like it one bit.
Another reason to arrive by 9:00: you might not be able to get eggs much later than this. Which is what we got this weekend. A huge loaf of yeasted cornmeal bread from Floriole Bakery (which, by the way, just opened a storefront on Webster--check it out--definitely one of the better bakeries in the city if you ask me), black kale and spring onions from Green Acres, oyster mushrooms, cheddar, purple asparagus, this weird cheese dip thing and more, all from several different vendors as I like to spread it around. We sauteed some ham my friend brought back from Tennessee then added the mushrooms and onions, some garlic, then the kale and asparagus. Braised that quickly and folded the mixture into the egg-soaked cornbread with chunks of that cheddar and baked it for awhile. I wrapped the asparagus in foil with a drizzle of olive oil, salt and pepper and threw it in the oven for a bit, as well. Tasty, and a nice way to spend a morning.

Now, off to research that whole eyebrow thing...

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Pork and the Art of Sauerkraut Maintenance

Last time I left off planning to repair the "a" button on my keyboard. Yeah. Well, that hasn't happened (something about a 48 hour wait just to get it diagnosed), so, impetuous as I am, I'm just going to be cutting and pasting for awhile.
Getting back to the pictures in the last post below, the first is a salad of super flavorful greens--some of the earliest of the year--of great variety including pea shoots, tatsoi, and baby red and green leaf lettuce, surprisingly flavorful early tomatoes and avocado all tossed in olive oil and red wine vinegar made in my kitchen. The vinegar is nice and mellow (though I lost a bit during my recent move due to being hasty and lazy in that last bit of packing--you know, where you're just throwing everything into a trash bag that goes over your shoulder, burglar style?), so we added a bit of cane vinegar to bring things to the usual level of sour, and then some, due to a "finger's-too-small-to-cover-the-opening-of-the-vinegar-bottle-when-pouring-vinegar-out" incident. Big flavor here, and a glowing example of the fact that given the best possible ingredients to begin with (all of the vegetables were from area farms purveyed by an exceptional little market called The Green Grocer in Chicago's West Town neighborhood), preparing top-notch food is not that difficult.
The second picture is from the same meal, and includes a double smoked pork loin and a pork porterhouse from my new #2 source for meat, Gene's Sausage Store (the #1? Paulina Market, of course). The beer is from Ska Brewing in Durango, Colorado--an IPA named Modus Hoperandi, hoppy as implied by the name without being ridiculous about it (I'm suspicious, these days, of the hop trend. I love hops, but think it important to remember that there is more to them--like subtlety of flavor and character--than just something to crank up and hit people over the head with. Kind of like Marilyn Monroe. If we stoop to the obvious and see her simply as a top-heavy blondie, we'll miss the actual substance behind her persona. And isn't that what's interesting at the end of the day?) The little jar contains sauerkraut made from a friend's excess CSA cabbage, slivered, smashed, and salted, then left to ferment on my counter next to the vinegar over a couple of months. The smoked pork loin was diced and fried, then the sauerkraut was added to the pan with a dollop of whole grain mustard, with the pan roasted porterhouse right on top. Good stuff that night.

So, that meal was awhile ago. Lots else has happened and been eaten since then. Most recently, a stellar meal was had in my new Lincoln Square neighborhood at Brown Trout. Through and through, a thoughtful meal, on the mark from the frites (crispy to the bottom of the dish) with homemade catsup, gruyere fondue and aioli, to mushroom, bacon and braised pork pappardelle, to chorizo, clams and mussles to a vegetable platter with spring artichokes, red quinoa, stinging nettles, spring onions, radishes and their greens, to a flat iron steak with farro porridge and caramelized mushrooms. Thoughtful service despite questionable glassware (I just cannot get into stemware, gracious and kind throughout. Check it out. Oh, and everything is all local and sustainable and all that hoo-haw. Which is great. But shouldn't we all be doing that already?

Next time...let's talk about the ramen shown up top, and maybe even fava beans and Bettin' Hams.