Friday, June 18, 2004

Real Meat in Chicago

Organic and local meat is easily available in Chicago.

The best bet, probably, is the weekly Green City Market on Wednesday's in Lincoln Park. On any given week, there are at least a few organic meat vendors such as Heartland and Joel Rissman. Last year, the product tended to be a lot of hamburger, but this year there are more vendors and the vendors are bringing more varieties of stuff.

The Wettstein's, who I mention below, make a few trips up to Chicago and Oak Park to deliver the meat. You can order in advance what you want or you can take what they have. They sell beef, pork, lamb, chicken (available June through December), turkey, duck and I bet if you plead your case, one of those guinea hens. They also make pork patties, pork sausage, brats, bacon and ham. Alternatively, instead of picking as you go, they are initiating a monthly CSA. Each package would contain a month or so worth of meat. Each month differs in what they bring, although I have to say, you're gonna have to like hamburger. Finally, you can purchase 1/2 cow or a 1/4 cow and get it processed yourself--they deliver it to one of 4 lockers in central Illinois, the rest is up to you. They will be at the Green City Market this week, but are not there every week. There number, BTW, is 309-376-7291

Rissman does a monthly delivery to Oak Park.

One of my fetishes/fantasies is to obtain the parts as well as the meat in this process. I've made the argument before about respecting the beast, but I also believe that if we order and eat the Fergus parts, nose to tail, we increase the profit for the farmers. Otherwise this stuff would probably just be sloughed off to the dog food people. I've got the Condiment Queen agreeing to make me chopped liver and perhaps even some pate--I know the same thing, but think of them as different recipes and different animals, but as I mentioned in another post, she's balking at the headcheese.


Wednesday, June 16, 2004

No Finer Shwarma

Then the chicken shwarma served at Pita Inn (is there?). Really, is there anything finer in the Chicago area for the price then Pita Inn's chicken shwarma? How so? They begin with chicken breasts skinned totally. No surprises of slime effect the eating. These breasts get enough marinade to turn them yellow and lend enough undertone to an essentially bland meat--I'll return to the condiments in a second. Pita Inn then cooks the shwarma ideally. Unlike some other stalwarts, including Salaam, which is still a really fine shwarma, this shwarma gets cooked totally on the vertical grill. When shwarma gets even some heat in a pan on the stove, it greases it up, and you lose crucial crust. With Pita Inn's method, each shard of shwarma gets plenty of crisp crust, but nary a piece gets dry and there is no residual grease. Finally, you dress the meat with as much of Pita Inn's two sauces as you want. There is white, tahini based, a bit gritty, and there is red, not Zim hot, but perky. There are all sorts of secret ingredients within the red sauce that it reminds me of a good Mexican salsa instead of the one note players that usually accompany Middle Eastern food (and do not get me wrong, those one noters, like Salaam's green sauce, are plenty good, what's wrong with one note if it is played well?) And could there really be a finer shwarma?

Wait, let me add, Pita Inn serves the shwarma two ways that I absolutely adore, and lucky me, the Condiment Queen adores these two ways as well, and I do not have to choose. First, they serve it on a bed of finely diced romaine lettuce with a bright vinaigrette. You get contrast between hot and cold and even more flavors to perk up the meat. Second, they serve the meat on a bed of hummus, which again adds more flavors and also a bit of moisture. I prefer these two options to Pita Inn's standard plates. I have nothing against their fluffy yellow rice, but the thin cuttings of iceberg lettuce are just plate wasters. The above two options present much better deals.

Pita Inn has other locations but I was at the Skokie branch:
3910 Dempster, Skokie
Tel: (847) 677-0211

Monday, June 14, 2004

Down on the Farm - Henry's and the Wettstein's

Before Sophia and I had a chance to dig into the pot luck lunch, a documentarian from Farm Aid asked if we could talk for his camera. He wanted to know what everyone was looking to get out of Saturday's tour. I told that since I was so into eating, I might as well understand a bit about the start of the whole cooking process. I never got a chance to tell him how great the day was and how much I learned.

As our tour guide, Tara (Henry's sister) correctly told us, we were in a bit of Eden in the middle of Illinois. The bulk of the ride down I-57 contains what you mostly expect of Illinois, a lot of nothing, and faux farms as Tara would tell us again and again, the huge anti-agriculture, bio-tech dependent, soil-less (and soul-less) farms planted with endless rows of soy and corn. The world changes as you approach Henry's Farm. You first encounter the county seat of Eureka. College home of RR, and if this town did not already exist, those endless processions would have surely created it. Outside of Eureka, the grounds turn decidedly un-Illinois, with many a rolling hill. Seems one of the last glaciers spent a few extra years here and carved up this land to look more like our state to the north. This accident of nature is one of the primary factors for Henry's Farm. One of the first things I learned on Saturday.

Hills and valleys are not very conducive to large scale agri-business. Perhaps even out of necessity, this county has been organic for a while. In fact, the second thing I learned was that neighboring Henry's Farm was several acres of organic wheat farmed by an octogenarian and his son. Now, did you even know that anyone grew wheat in Illinois, let along organic wheat. Oddly, though, the entire production of this organic wheat went last year to Canada. We did learn that a portion of Henry's farm, the upper, flatter fields, had once been farmed in the Illinois way. This is when we really learned what soil-less and souless soil meant. All our cides used by farmers drive the life out of their soul. With all the nasty critters and fungi and weeds go all the earthworms and bacteria and such that make the soil alive. Tara told us that when Henry first sought to plow his field for organic crops, he could not get an contraption through the hard soil. He had to use nature, hay crops with deep seeking roots, to turn the soil, bring it back to life. Henry's lower field, isolated by a stream and forest, never saw hard agriculture.

What a vista when you end the deerpath and gaze up the lower 40. My mind instantly replaced the crops with rows of grapes because this field looked like a classic European vineyard. Instead it was full of a portion of the 450 varieties grown yearly by Henry. As we poked around the fields we learned how the crops are rotated yearly, that nothing stays in the same spot, and that hay--which we learned was a generic term for any grass fed to animals in the winter--was included in the rotation. Firstly, the crops were moved to control pests. If certain worms attacked the tomatoes one year, they could be well controlled by planting the tomatoes somewhere else, fooling the dormant larvae when they arrived the next year. The hay attacked as fertilizer, getting that patch of soil rich in nitrogen for next year's vegetables. We got to sample some of the more unusual things growing down there including the peppery Madras podding radish (as it sounds you eat the pod not the root) and weeds like amaranth and lamb's quarter. We also learned, new to me at least, that cultivated dandelion was actually chicory bred to look like dandelion, but since this was totally organic pastures, we also got to try actual wild dandelion (as well as much more delicious actual wild raspberries). Another in the long line of things we learned was the reason for the dog houses around the fields. Come harvest time, spot and fido and the rest would be keeping the fields free of any unwanted guests.

We went up and down some of the biggest hills in Illinois to get to the storybook farm of the Wettstein's. With their 8 kids, 18 goats, tree swing, free-roaming chickens, pet raccoon (an interesting story), flock of sheep, flock of sheep protector llama, stray kitten, herds of cattle, boxes of bees, cages of rabbits, grain towers filled with their own organic feed, wandering ducks, suckling pigs and angry sows, barns a plenty, a few gardens, wells with nasty water, and assorted tractors parked here and there, this was THE storybook farm. I so admire what they are doing, and as Sophia and I later worked out, these folks could pretty much live off of their farm, needing perhaps salt and coffee extra. Even the fuel for their outdoor grill could come from their timber fields.

For me, the chowhound, it seemed like one big buffet. What did I want for supper? It was there. Incredulous that they simply released the guinea fowl and quail, I asked twice, about them. Do not you know guinea would command big bucks back in Chicago? I am going to do my best to order and eat their beef, chicken, turkey, eggs (what Henry's Farm sells at the Evanston Farmer's market), maybe even roast a goat. The Condiment Queen, will not, so far, agree to make me headcheese from one of their piggies even though there is a recipe in a Diana Kennedy book she just got at the Brandeiss bookfair. I'll post later on some ways to obtain the Wettstein's organic meat in Chicago.
The Sonargaon Restaurant - Chicago's Only Bangladeshi Place

When I compiled the Indian and Pakistani restaurants for the forthcoming Slow Food guide to Chicago, I also included Chicago's lone Bangladeshi place. I included Sonargaon not just because of its unique Bangledeshi/Bengali specialties, but because it did them so well. It also did the more ubiquitous tandoori specialties darn well too.

About a week ago, the VI family had another delicious, guide book worthy meal at Sonargaon. We went about 50-50 between Bangladeshi specialties and tandoor food. From the Bengal side, we got a dish I have been wanting for a while, the fish ball curry or fish kufta. Even the best fish balls often taste a bit too much like cat food. As the popular Yiddish proverb states, if gefilite fish was so good, why did God invent horseradish sauce? Alternatively, many a fish ball, especially those of the far east tend to be of the rubber variety. The ethereal pike quenelle is rarely encountered on local menus (although if chef's followed my urging to use more local products it *would be*). Anyways, that was a lot of words to say what these fish balls were not. There were instead airy without being unsubstantial. Fishy without being cheap. An orange thick sauce provided the proper counter. Our other fish dish was a simpler yet equally delicious grilled one. Sonargaon takes great pride in serving fish from Bengali waters. My instinct tells me that they should be seeking non-frozen things, but I cannot argue with the results.

They continue to put out dishes just as good from the tandoor. I really know of no better chicken tikka in Chicago. We followed Zim's recommendation for the tandoor cooked eggplant. And this is hardly anything more than tandoor cooked eggplant. The eggplants sit in the clay oven long enough to be pliable and then get worked with a hint of masala. Much denser and creamier than baba ganoush, but with a similar smokey taste. And of course, who does not think a fresh parantha a better scooper than mere pita?

It was a very quiet night at Sonargaon when we visited. Musharaf, one of the partners, spent a long time at our table, telling us about Bangladesh, Bangladeshi food, his wife who would be soon coming to America, and life at the Palmer House Hotel, where he also worked. An astute businessman, he asked for input on his restaurant. I offered the most sanguine of advice, I hope. Don't change. Do not take the lack of customers today as a sign that anything was wrong. Keep on doing it this way, and they will come. And I also said, add a few more Bangladeshi things to the menu (i.e., they were making their haleem, the grain and meat dish, in a Pakistani manner instead of the Bangladeshi way.) I hope he follows my ideas.

The Sonargaon Restaurant
2306 W. Devon
Chicago, IL
(773) 262-8008