Friday, August 19, 2005

How I Eat Local

The family and I had a delicious lunch today of assorted bruschettas (how do you say it?), and I think the lunch illustrates some of my do's and don'ts on eating local.

Here's what he ate that could be called local: kale, swiss chard, tomatoes, garlic, onions, bread baked at Bittersweet bakery.

Here's what we ate that was not local: olive oil, Portuguese tinned sardines, Pecarino Romano cheese, Turkish olive oil (and I am sure, the ingredients in the Bittersweet bread).

I feel I made no compromises. Cheated not one bit. Why? In my theory of eating local, anything that can be effectively shipped with no degradation of quality is as good as local. Another way I might put it, if people could reasonably eat it in Chicago 100 years ago, it's legitimate to eat today. It means that I am not restricted to cooking with butter or lard. It means Stilton as well as Maytag. It also means citrus in season because I think there is little degradation in quality. It surely allows for bananas, and because these products were part of the Chicago culinary scene for a long, long time, shrimps and oysters. On the other hand, I make no exception for modern transport. Sure, a fish caught in Hawaii can be in my kitchen with a day of it being hauled in, but I won't count that. I do not count that mostly because it is highly unrealistic that I can truly get such fresh food. I am not Thomas Keller.

As long as we are the subject, and I have alluded to this already, but I am too cheap to fully commit to eating just local meat. I like to think that I treat meat a bit in the Mediterranean fashion, as an infrequent luxury, but I am too American. So, there are times where I will give in and buy supermarket meat.

That's the basic of how I eat local. Come back in December and see how I am faring. That's when the challenge kicks in.
No Good Chinese Food in Chicago (?!?)

Not! 'til my dying days I will fight against two fallacies, that the New York Times aint so librul (Krugman, and thank god for Krugman excepted) and that there is no good Chinese food in Chicago. I think a lot of the no good Chinese food is propagated by the same New Yawkers who pine for a good triangle style slice. That is, it is not good Chinese food they want, but Chinese food like the take away they once got. But there is also a home grown school of Chinese restaurant detractors. This school mostly bemoans the lack of sophistication and airs of our Chinese restaurants and tends to be tone deaf to the greatness of "real" Chinese food (oil and all). For instance, this later school, push comes to shove, might point to places like Ben Pao or Opera as the few good Chinese restaurants. Me, I have a hard time hitting all the places I like, and then I run across a place like Lee Wing Wah, and I am even more pissed.

Lee Wing Wah is one of a several Chinese restaurants in the mall North of Archer, on the Northern part of Chinatown. The mall has had these restaurants for years but only now, about ten years later, does the mall feel alive. And all these years, I never bothered to try Lee Wing Wah. I am mostly a creature of habit, and while I go to a lot of places in Chinatown, I tend to have set places for things: Happy Chef for Cantonese, Mandarin Kitchen for Shanghainese (which sounds weird but makes sense if you know the back story); The Sevens, Treasure for soup noodles, Wives for breakfast; Spring World for spicy/oily stuff; Triple Crown for late night; Ken Kee if I wanted to be weird. I know there are places I need to try like Sky, and I know that others off the short list, like Lao Sze Chuan or Moon Palace can be pretty special, but like I say, I am a creature of habit. Now, a few weeks ago we finally tried the pho place in the Chinatown mall, so I guess I was inspired to seek out new things.

I gazed long into the Lee Wing Wah space because it was so packed on this weeknight. And it all looked good, especially the salt 'n pepper shrimps on a lot of tables. Mostly for Cantonese food, I've stuck (well) with Happy Chef. Happy Chef has three things I like in a Chinese restaurant: a broad and easy to navigate menu; good value and great cooking. Well, not that long ago I was noticing some great looking food on customer's tables at Lee Wing Wah, and I thought, finally, to give that place a try. Lee Wing Wah also has a broad and easy to navigate menu; good value and great cooking.

I have been to Lee Wing Wah twice. Sorry, I have not sampled too many dishes between the visits. On the first visit it was salt n' pepper shrimps, fried (crispy skin) chicken, stir fried tong choi with spicy bean sauce (not really spicy at all); "egg style tofu", and steamed oysters with black bean. On the second visit, we got the dinner for 4--crab with ginger, fish fillet with vegetable, snp shrimps and fried chicken*; we added the egg style tofu (for the kidz) and Chinese broc with oyster sauce. Not a single dish has been less than excellent on both visits. The shrimps are a little different than say Happy Chef's shrimps. The salt n' pepper make a very thick coating at Lee Wing Wah, like battered fried shrimp. Egg style tofu is called egg style because the tofu was cut to look like hard cooked eggs. It looked solid but it was just barely, and it contrasted well with typical brown sauce. Let me also get out of the way, that we picked the dish (one of my daughters picked it) from a menu with color pictures, making the place easy to navigate. The other thing about that menu is that they gave away the game on "crispy skin" chicken. That is, the picture menu translated it as fried chicken. Fried chicken, it definitely tasted more fried, more greasy than others around Chinatown, but not in a bad way at all.

I do have one bone to pick though. As I noted, there are several color pictures to help form a menu. But, but, there is also a page of lunch specials, much cheaper, written soley in Chinese characters. My first visit was for lunch, and I could have read Chinese, I would have spent even less. If anyone tells you there is no good Chinese food in Chicago, take them to a meal at Lee Wing Wah.

*The dinner for 4 is a very good deal at $39. You are allowed to substitute out from the choices; there about six alternative dishes. We asked if we could substitute out the chicken instead. They were fine with that for an extra $1.75. All in all, still a very good deal.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Eating Local

I'm sorry but I have not been following all of the other Eat Local Challenge attempts, but I wonder has anyone mentioned the obvious? August is not exactly a strenuous time to eat local (at least in the Northern parts of the USA, in Florida it could be a challenge challenge). For the second week, we picked up a friends box from Angelic Organic's CSA, giving us local vegetables for a while.

I DO appreciate the capital providing aspect of a CSA, but as a practical matter, I much prefer getting my stuff at the Farmer's Market. Yes, there is a neat, Iron Chef aspect of getting a weekly box of cooking materials. "What shall we do with two zucchini, hon?" But that is precisely the problem. If last week it was two small zukes, this week it was one medium sized eggplant. What would Morimoto do with one eggplant? Worse, we got like a half a bunch of swiss chard. With last weeks bit of kale, there might be a portion there soon. What we are getting is, is a lot of sweet corn. And if I'd like more eggplants, I'd take less corn. Corn is weekend food, fire up the grill food. Still, these six ears of corn in the box demand pretty immediate attention. Luckily, Mark Bittman has some ideas of what to do with corn that sits for a few days. Last week was like one green bell pepper and one purple bell pepper that were sliced into rings and munched as a side. This week we got a fair amount of red peppers, and I am anxious to roast them (the question then becomes, store then in oil or vinegar). And I aint complaining with the amount of tomatoes received last week or this week. About a dozen "determinate" tomatoes (I always thought they were called hybrid) and a few heirlooms--more heirlooms this week. I do not have so many tomatoes that I am to the make sauce stage yet. I am enjoying all the versions of tomato salad I can contrive--today the kidz had the luxury of sel de gris purchased at the Maxwell Street Market (yes!) with their tomato chunks. It will be an easy week for me to eat local.

Eat local yes, eat well? The other thing I do not like about a CSA is you feel guilty about not liking anything. You own the stuff. It's like saying bad things about the kidz. When you buy at the Farmer's Market (or God Forbid the store*), it is an arm's length transaction. If you do not like it, you visit a new vendor next week. With great regret, I mention that we got some very weird carrots last week. Maybe they are good and we just do not know. Carrots ARE related to parsley. These carrots tasted a lot closer to parsley than carrots, or shall I say, the greens and the oranges did not taste that different. Maybe carrot aficionados, however, appreciate this uber carrotness to these carrots.

*I would like to report for all the millions who read this blog on an hourly basis that at the peak of local tomato season, Whole Foods in River Forest, Illinois was selling, well not just asparagus from Peru, but "vine ripened" tomatoes from Holland. Yea, there were organic heirrloom potato-tomatoes from California. Hardly matters. Senator Whole Foods, "do you have no shame?"

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

How Local?

One of the first things you are s'posed to do in the Local Food Challenge is define what local means. Now, before I give my definition, let me say that one can *really* eat local in Chicago. Protein, well, there ARE fish near the city limits. Start here. There are live birds for sale in Chicago, but they are not necessarily raised here. Here's a listing. There are people raising things, fruits and vegetables within city limits. In fact, with the amount of vacant land (and little use for all that old industrial space), it will not be long until a LOT of food is grown within Chicago. Growing Power stared in Milwaukee and were leaders in urban farming. They operate in Chicago now. You can purchase their stuff at the weekly Green City Market. There is also City Farm, who sells their stuff twice a week, Tuesday and Thursday, from a location on the near north side (1240 N. Clybourn). Of course, there is butter made on the south side, beer on the north side and Beeline honey on the west side. To drink, Filberts.

Alas, I will not keep myself to city limits. [ed. don't you live outside of city limits?]. I define local eating as roughly matching the "real" Big 10 (that is, skipping Penn State), but Ohio seems far away too. Mostly, it is Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan, although for milk, I HAVE to include Farmer's All Natural Creamery Milk from Amish farmers in Iowa 'cause it is SO good. Within these broad boundries are some of the best fruits and vegetables around. We are especially blessed with peaches, grapes, potatoes, cabbage, blueberries, cranberries, apples, and especially that greatest of fruits, the sour cherry. Plenty of other fruits and vegetables in season as well. Just scroll down.

While local fruits and vegetables have been very available, local meat has been a bit harder to come by until the last few years. Now, Farmer's Market's like Green City and Oak Park feature meats raised, typically on grass, in nearby farms. As I have remarked before, the Wettstein's are about the coolest farmer's around, raising pigs, chicken, turkeys, lamb and beef on grass and grains grown on their farm. The eggs their chicken's produce (sold at Henry's Farm in Evanston as well) will easily convince you why to eat local. The only problem with the local meat is that it is almost all frozen at the time of processing because of market factors.

Chicago is still a major center for the manufacture of food. There is a big (very) and secretive plant not too far from in the Galewood neighborhood of Chicago that turns out a Milky Ways, Mars Bars and similar. At the other end, Vosge tries a few new things to do with chocolate. Great cheese is around these parts like Wisconsin's Roth Kase, Capriole, which David Hammond hates, but sadly no blue cheese made any more in Nauvoo. Maple trees are tapped in Wisconsin and Illinois (where it's sirup). Lotsa jellies, jams and honey.

Way more fer sure, but the next post on this topic will be on my jealousy towards the state of Wisconsin, a state that really knows how to eat local.
Recent Chow
Assorted Mini Reports

A lot of this stuff has found its way into various Internet fora already.

Well, Chicago has an abundance of very good Eastern European places (and we live in close proximity to them). This is food that wows you with its elegant simplicity, its over-arching basicness, NOT its intense flavors. Still, it is very satisfy food. Klas is VERY old school a castle within a restaurant (or is that a restaurant in a castle). Lately, this remment of Cicero Bohemia has been pretty empty, and the food's been so-so (but the value outstanding). On Friday, they hosted a Czech art show/rave-up (look, real Bohemians!), and it filled the house. The food, breaded pork cutlets, potato dumplings, ligher than usual liver dumpling soup, assorted salads, kolachy's, was better than ever.

A favorite Polish spot is Halina. If nothing else, get the soups. Lunch the other day included cucumber soup and fried liver.

Grota is a Polish buffet, which serves much better food than you expect. Of course you get soup first. I got dill with soft dough dumplings. Then, you watch what's getting placed on the buffet and grab that first. Blood sausage, stuffed cabbage, fried fish. To fill in the gaps in the tummy, there's potato dumplings, boiled potatoes, blintzes, pierogis, potato pancakes, roasted potatoes and noodles with fried onions.

There is a LOT of great Mexicn food, including regional offering from Puebla, Oaxaca, Jalisco, Nayarit, D.F., Durango, Michohoacan, San Lois Potosi, and probably a few more I have yet found (although as far as I can tell, no true Vera Cruz and NO Yucataneo.) But the best Mexican food, week in, week out, is at Maxwell Street Market. Very pleasant event was seeing Rico Huarache* back. Perhaps it was the delay, but Sunday's hurache seemed better than ever. There is a level of effort in these things that makes them (almost) haute cuisine. They are folded around black beans, griddled, fried, topped with home made sauces. You get a range of textures and flavors. To steal a phrase from a SethZ, it was crisp where it should be crisp, pliant where it should be pliant (and suitably spicy where it should be spicey). The cooresponding dissapointment was the Aguascaliente birria people were missing. Swarming Jalisicans told me it must be good. It was. And I am almost positive the birria was either lamb or goat not the beef served at the Ocotolan stand nearer to Dominicks. Sunday only.

Or Maybe the best Mexican food is an hour South of Chicago in Joliet.

A fair amount of foodies will concede good Polish and good Mexican in Chicago, but good ice cream? Some will claim there aint any around here. Well, where's here? Go South young man (woman) to South Holland, Cunis Candy. To me, Cunis is an adult place. The home made peach ice cream tastes like peach, but like real peach, and the flavor is muted because it is ice cream. It is not some kinda hyped up peach that appeals to kiddies. Adults, much more than kidz, love the salty, fresh roasted pecans that go on the sundaes. And the winey, dark, near bitter fudge sauce is not so kid like either. It is really worth it for visiting foodies to Chicago to trek to Cunis or other far away ice cream parlors like Gayety or Mitchell's.

I met a friend at Freddy's in Cicero the other night for an early dinner. Freddy's is probably the best "small" Italian market around. On any given day you can admire all their house made salads, sausages, hams; choose from fried rice balls or similiar items with spinach, cheese, potato. There are entrees like roast chicken and pastas made in the 3 ingredient style found much more in the old country. Of course there is house made ices and ice creams. My purist kidz both got lemon ice the other day. Me, I got a slice of deep dish sausage pizza and took home one of their breads. Freddy's bakes about the best breads around.

When I pulled into the strip mall (small strip mall) near a bunch of office buildings for a party at Fabulous Noodles in Lisle, I immediately said to my wife, in a million years I never would have tried this place on my own. But the gentleman whose birthday we were celebrating loves this place, claiming to have eaten there over 1,000 times. And after 1 visit, I'd be happy to return. It is regular Cantonese food, but regular as in Chinatown Cantonese not suburban/chop suey stuff. We had a best of meal: crispy skin chicken with salt; stir fried ong choy with garlic, duck-taro casserole, egg noodles in broth with bbq pork; mock chicken; soft-shell crabs fried with spicy-salt (with a fair amount of jalepenos). The only dish I passed on was the ketchupy smelling shrimps. Lisle is probably a little further than Chinatown for me, but I'd go back if in the area fer sure.

McCormack's is a pure looking roadhouse at the intersection of US 41 and Illinois 176 in Lake Bluff (it's only visible from US 41). It is the kinda place that is either too good to be true or just plain awful. And our luck, find this place on the way to Milwaukee, too good. Ideal thick, red inside traditional burger.

Oh, and what did we do in Milwaukee? Besides run into Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith and family at a used book store (no joke!), we ate the requisite frozen custard, this time Bella's Fat Cat, figured out what that Sunday ham/rolls thing was and visited the Wisconsin State Fair. We also had a grand Serbian dinner, but I'll (really) get around to a fuller report on that. So this ham and rolls Milwaukee thing we see advertised all over Milwaukee, it was, and you know what, not much. Regular, cheap deli ham (althought the rolls are good). The one positive, actually a pretty redeeming aspect of the ham is that it is seeped in an elixer, clove scented, honey, who knows, but it really makes this cheap ham good (or shall I say partially beyond tolerable). Then, it was on to the fair, which meant quarter glasses of flavored milk (thanks Sen. Kohl), Sheboygan brats, baked potatoes, and yes, freakin yes (Cathy2), giagantic globs of whipped cream encased in a "puff." The State Fair is a real foodie paradise. Not just for quarter-pounder sized (actually much bigger "patties") cream puffs, but Cedar Crest ice cream, honey tastings, pig roasts, corn done "elote" style (just fantastic corn it was too); elk jerky, micr0brews. Who needs corn dogs? It was damn hot and we could not last at the fair to dinner, but high tailed it instead, to the GWiv recommended, Zafiro's pizza. I would say that Zaffiro's thin is a lot better than Candlelite (based on the pizza-athon), but I am thinking that perhaps, I just am not a fan of the ultra crisp/thin school of pizza. The pizza had a lot more flavor, which I liked, but the crust itself still verges on bland like the other thin-thins I've tried.

*This is a little insider play on words. This particular stand that serves huarches (and seafood cocktails) has a big sign, "rico hauraches" or rich (or tasty) huraches (huraches are like a smooshed ball of corn dough, oblong, slighly bigger than a tortilla, but also thicker, like a sandal bottom, get it?). That sign is how most people know/find the place. Now, we joke that the owner is a guy named Rico (and yes I know if true, the place would be huaraches de Rico...)

Monday, August 15, 2005

Eat Local Challenge

I have the attention span of a gnat, and I take frequent breaks from my work to visit the online world. This afternoon, I decided to cleanse my brain-palate by seeing the fabulous life at Chez Pim. And I learn, as usual, I have no idea what's going on with the food blog world. Eat Local Challenge. That's me! Should have paid attention...

Well, I'm too late really, but I'll try to post some of my thoughts. Use these people for inspiration. And here's an old post with some resources.
11th Market
Oak Park Farmer's Market 8/13/05
Same As Before

Ok, this is one of those market's that worth bloggin' about only for the sake of completeness, the way people buy Charlie Parker CD sets with 5 takes of the same bop. Last week we bought apples, plums, peaches, raspberries, blueberries, apricots and melon. This week we bough plums and peaches, raspberries, blueberries, apricots and nectarines. Last week's peaches were peach, this week's peaches were white; tiny red-yellow plums instead of blue-black.

There really is nothing new or gone at this time of year. It is all there from tomatoes to potatoes; lotsa peppers, sweet and hot. If there was anything that caught my eye, there was a lot of eggplants in all shapes and sizes. Again, I skipped all veg, as for the next two weeks we're "borrowing" a friends share from Angelica's Organics.

See ya next week even if nothing changes (actually we might be in Madison this weekend, so if anything changes, I'll get a guest blogger to update.