Friday, June 15, 2007

7 For 1

It's been a very (very) busy few weeks as we put together the arrangements for my older daughter's call to Torah. Not much time to blog (even cut back on the computer poker), but as busy as I am, I'm always filled with thoughts of what to blog. If I could I'd expand on these I would [ed., like the promised farmer's market reviews?]:

Organic Farming is Hard

Farmer Vicki reports that the typical Chicago quick change from cold to hot keeps her job that much harder. Sugar snaps, we hardly knew ya.

Where There's a Nicholl's There's a Market

The Thursday Eli's Cheesecake Factory Farmer's Market had one stand, but when the one stand is Nicholl's Farm, what the hey. Five kinds of strawberries, ranging from good to great, red currents, shelling peas that were tiny orbs of green sugar, beets, carrots, greens. We are lucky in Chicagoland that the most ubiquitous farmer's market vendor (present at about 20 markets) is also one of the best.

Local Beats Seasonal

It's always someone's asparagus season, but when I want asparagus again, I can eat from the several bags I froze. I've taken the time to put away broccoli and greens too. I have rhubarb piling up, I just hope I can get to it.

Save, Save This Restaurant

Time Out Chicago's Save This Restaurant is like a running list of "my places", i.e., the kinda places I really like (even if I had not known of them until the column appears). David the Hat Hammond pleas for us to save Klas in Cicero, a place really, really in need of saving.

Hate This Restaurant

Trattoria Pepino, Elmwood Park

Book Reviews

William Grimes in today's NYTimes compares the current round of Eat Local books against the ultimate global food, sushi. His heart seems to be with the latter.

Vital Book

Enjoy shots of raw meat as much as me, then you'll appreciate that the River Cottage Meat book, by my guru Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has been search and replaced for the the US market (keeping stateside readers from having to figure out their topside from their bottomside, their chuck from their clod). Wonderfully informative, a text book for any foodie.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Every Day a Market

If It's Wednesday It's Not Forest Park

I really like Drake's Farmer's Market calender, but in need of market today beside Green City, I ran into the little boo-boo. The Forest Park French Market is on Saturdays. In search of other market advice, I came across this good calender of Farmers Markets and the like from the Illinois Department of Agriculture (especially helpful for roadtrippers like the VI family; I'm keen on the Heritage Market in Pekin, which seems to run all year).

Today's Ringing Endoresment

In the News

The CTrib's Food Section reports on a new store in Bolingbrook, Great Steak's and More:
The new shop is owned by Quantum Foods, which sells meat to such restaurant giants as Applebee's and Olive Garden. In fact, said Jane Fitzjerrell, store launch project manager, the "ribs might be the same as those in Applebee's."

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Eat Local Cheese

Create Your Food Culture

Jeanne Carpenter of the Cheese Underground ponders the new Atlas of American Artesian Cheese (h/t the hated Martha B at the Reader)
California is home to the most artisan cheesemakers, with 36; Vermont has the most per capita, with 34, while Wisconsin weighs in with a paltry 22 artisan producers.
Rightly, she's miffed. She wonders if it's due to a limited definition of "artisan". I wonder if it's just lack of respect for the heartland.

I had a very good meal at Avec last week, a Chicago restaurant that does a pan-Euro take on wine bar food. It's not really Avec's fault that its cheese list contains no local cheeses. I mean it does not even have any American cheeses to offer. But what about local non-cheese? Avec's Chef, Paul Kahn, is a very visible and notable farmers market shopper. I recognized him at Green City Market (because he was always there) before I knew he was Paul Kahn (and before I ate at Avec or his main place, Blackbird). Yet, after interrogation of the staff at Avec last week, it was determined that the menu contained about one local ingredient, asparagus for a salad. Avec wants to be of another place. It is of another place. Fine.

312 Chicago is another place that shops some local. Chef Dean Zanella is known to buy an entire Wettstein pig (yes!). Yet again, a recent meal at his restaurant found that local ingredients comprised less than 1/4 of the menu. Here it was like asparagus AND beets. And again, it's because Zanella looks to another place. He is through and through an Italian restaurant. His focuses seems on foods that would be in Italy like squid. He goes local only when it fits, as in using the Wettstein's piggies to sub for a Tuscan porchetta.

I've actually been on tour of late, checking out local restaurants that serve local food. I've had recent meals at Hot Chocolate, Lula's and Vie. (North Pond's next on the list.) So far, only Vie really produces a menu that's mostly local. Vie, however, still reads mostly foreign in its dishes.

Something I think about when I think about my vocation of eating local is, what defines my local. Not what defines the boundary of where food has to be farmed to be considered local. I mean what is the local as in our local culinary custom. I mean I am not so sure myself. I had pasta carbonara last night...

I have one idea and one source to mill. The source first. Cathy Lambrecht and others are spearheading a Midwestern Food Alliance. As reported in the CTrib's food blog:
A Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance is in the works to celebrate, preserve and promote the region's food traditions and treasures, including top Chicago chefs and homecooks, church suppers and Wisconsin fish boils, barbecue, hot dogs and pies. The organization is modeled after the well-known Southern Foodways Alliance and promises to set a "common table" where "black and white, rich and poor--all who gather--may consider our history and future."

That shoud be a great start. I look forward to participating.

I do have one idea of what our food is about. It's hard to think of a Midwestern cuisine. There are few if any axiomatic recipes, our bagna cauda, cassoulet or gumbo. Instead, we are a region of foodstuffs. The raw not the cooked. From persimmons at one end to those lawyers (burbot) off the other end. Black walnuts to wild rice, we do have many unique products. Moreover, we are blessed with about the ideal climate and conditions for farming. Anything that can survive a winter can grow and prosper here, and we have outstanding examples of cherries, tomatoes, peaches, grapes (maybe not the kind you ferment), apples, potatoes. It is no accident that the Green Giant took his first giant steps in Minnesota. Finally, we are blessed with artisans, people who care about the land and care about their food. They make caviar, chocolates, roast coffees, brew beers, and they make cheese. Don't ignore our cheese makers because they are in the Midwest. Don't ignore them because we have no local in our local.

We will.

I (Continue) to Hate Martha Bayne

Gets Her Bottle of Death's Door Vodka

About a month (now), I was up in Madison shopping. Not only did I get to the Washington Island Coffee House after it had closed for the day, but my (feeble I admit) attempts to buy some Death's Door Vodka* went to no use. The Reader's Martha Bayne, who shares my affection for Washington Island, claims to be the first one in the Chicago area with a bottle, the only locally made vodka (I mean gin) we know--vodka (I mean gin) made from wheat grown in Washington Island, Wisconsin. The rest of her time in Washington Island sounded pretty fun as well, although there were no reports of fried lawyers.

*Death's Door=the straits between Lake Michigan and Green Bay.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Eating Our Cow

As Hash

At this pace, it will take a while to eat 1/2 cow. My wife and I battle over buying more freezer meat, especially when offered 1/2 lamb and 1/2 pig from the Wettstein's. "We don't have room," she sez. "We save so much money," I say. "The kidz don't like lamb." "We do." In a moment of relenting, I ordered more meat, the lamb. We have not, however, made any more dents in the freezer supply.

We had a good deal of sirloin roast left from the other night. My wife knew exactly what to do with it, make hash. She's started a new job, making pies professionally. She now works Sunday and Monday nights. These have become the nights now, for frying in the Bungalow.

Here's an approximation of the VI hash recipe:
Find the least grottiest potatoes in the cellar, scrub off star-shaped growths, boil--in this case I used purple potatoes from Driftless Organics, purchased in Madison a few weeks ago. Cube after boiled to barely soft. While the potatoes boil, chop up one keeper onion, sweat in a cast iron pan with some grapeseed oil. Cube the leftover sirloin, ditching the sinewy parts. Add the meat and potatoes and more oil to the pan. Hard fry to crust. Flip and turn. Fry. Add a knob of butter. Mix. Flip. Turn. Season aggressively with salt and pepper, use more fresh ground pepper than you can imagine. Serve.
With the hash, we had a bread salad made from stale Gonnella and squishy tomatoes--an alchemy, old tomatoes and drecky bread makes for a delicious salad. The key to a bread salad is to give the bread time to absorb the tomato juice, plus the juice of 1/2 lemon, a heavy hand of kosher salt helps the liquids flow. I also added a few mashed cloves of garlic. I would have used a jalepeno, but what was in the house was spoiled. After that absorbtion time, I added Vicki's mint, basil and arugula, fresh mozz from the Farmer's Market, and Italian olive oil. Strawberries for dessert. We sat on the couch and watched Mythbusters while we ate.

In a Hurry for Old Fruit

Oak Park Farmer's Market June 9, 2007

For sad reasons (death of a friend's mother), I could not spend much time at the Oak Park Farmer's Market this week. I did not even bring the camera. A donut, two types of Nicholl's stawberries, ordered my lamb from the Wettsteins, and I was about done. Except for the biggest reason I got up early.

Last week, when also in a rush, I espied keeper apples at the stand of Walt Skibbe. Interestingly enough, also last week, I had some e-mail correspondence with another eat local fan, and she wondered specifically about apples. Apples are the potatoes of fruit. They keep. Well. Especially varieties like red and yellow delicious. With good facilities, the previous crop can stretch almost until the next crop. The local zone for Chicago includes the ample fruit farms of Michigan, where many apples grow and many apples wait. It is common to find Michigan apples off-season at Caputo's, Costco, even Trader Joes (although never (ever) at Whole Foods. My friends at Serrelli's on North Avenue stocked leftover's from Berry's Berries most of the winter. I advised her that local apples were quite available--just pay attention to the label, box or package.

Even more available as Skibbe is selling them right now, along with his strawberries, asparagus and lettuce at the Oak Park Farmer's Market. In general, I'm a fan of his stuff, including his apples. I do not know how long these keepers will last, if they will be there next week, but I'm getting them while I can. The kidz never tire. I really appreciate he kept some of last year's fruit for me this year.

Eat Local Fish

New Vie Menu Posted!

My job is nearly all based on computer research. I'm facing my Dell six to ten hours each day (at least). It gives me ample opportunity (and excuse) to peruse the Internets, working my vast catalogue of bookmarks. Maybe not once a day, but often, especially when it's been ages since a new menu has been posted, I go to my favorite restaurant's site. Has a new menu been posted for Vie?

Yes! The June 9, 2007 menu has posted, roughly a month since the last menu was posted. And Chef Virant has seen our pleas, here and here (for instance). The new menu features:

crispy fried lake perch, mustard aioli, local lettuces,
lemon vinaigrette and house pickled asparagus


pan-roasted walleye pike, smoked fingerling potatoes, pancetta, local spinach and wood-grilled baby fennel vinaigrette
As usual, there are so many things I'm anxious to try. This dish especially appeals to me:
salad of wettsteins house made country ham, confit of spanish judion beans, local tuscan kale and “cepa vieja” aged sherry vinaigrette (I just put an order in for 1/2 lamb from the Wettstein's, still thinking about the pig)
Still, next time I go, I'm getting the fish.