Friday, January 11, 2008

How to Eat Local

Cheater's Paradise

Not that I've conducted a comprehensive survey or anything, but the feeling seems to be, you cannot eat local all the time in Chicago. After all, our growing season is just too limited. Farmer's markets do not get rolling until late May and close up shop come October. Cannot be done. Maybe, if you cheat.

What if you have a super-secret source that grows vegetables for you during the dead of winter. She also parcels out crops kept well stored including giant onions and red apples. Is it cheating because she only sells her wares to a few?

Don't care. I'm damn lucky to be friends with Farmer Vicki of Genesis Growers, and I'm damn glad she trucks out to Oak Park even in January. The picture is of the haul. Head lettuce, mesculun, turnips, carrots, celery, rosemary and broccoli all grown in her greenhouses; plus an onion and apples from storage. I cannot be that pissed that she cut but forgot the parsley. It was so nice to sit down the other day, in a the bungalow well insulated from the cold, to a nice, locally grown, just picked, green salad.

Eating local year round in Chicago is not easy. It is possible. It helps, of course, to cheat.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Culling the Heard

Strike these from the inventory: about five shriveled parsnips that had somehow escaped bagging in the basement fridge; a beet or two likewise on the lam; cabbage sprouts that I never knew quite what to do with anyways and some broccoli that I did not even realize we had. On the other hand, we did find usable broccoli that we also did not know we had.

The inventory did grow this week, but that's for another post.

I did find the 50 # bag of Wisconsin russets off to the side in the attic. No sign yet if this weeks warm-up is harming things.

First Impressions, Fine

MenuPages Fallout Fallout

I respect, admire, and appreciate what Adam Peltz does with his blog,; in some ways his aggregation and comments of reviews was what I originally had in mind for this blog. He does it a lot better than I could have done, and I'm happy to have the Eat Local beat. Anyways, Adam takes a little umbrage with the early reviews of Lao Beijing on LTHForum
Yes, editorkid, we agree with you. Newly opened restaurants should get a chance to get settled before they're reviewed, and the more influence a reviewer has, the more he or she should abide by this code of conduct. Unfortunately, it seems impossible to put the genie back into the bottle. LTHForum could establish a policy of not allowing reviews for restaurants less than a month old, say, but this is both unlikely to happen and almost beside the point, anyway. The rabid foodies of the Internet cannot be made to follow rules in the quest for information (and to be first).
Nope. Count me as one who does not agree, nor with his commentor, editorkid who first raised the issue. It is basic. Commerce, if you charge for a meal, you should expect the customer to be satisfied. And you should be aware that someone is going to talk about it, online or off.

I'm all for cutting a restaurant some slack in its opening, to the extent that it needs slack, but I also do not believe the slack should stay hidden. With some places, as in the restaurant in question here, Lao Beijing, early eaters may be able to put the experience in context against the track record of the owner. So, for instance, G Wiv, who has eaten at other places owned by the owner of Lao Beijing expects things to improve. Perhaps. On the other hand, how can a restaurant improve if they do not get critical feedback. Also, first impressions, even mixed experiences, can drive traffic to a place. There's not much experience in Chicago with Northern or Beijing style Chinese food. Just hearing about meals at Lao Beijing will raise interest in this style of food and get people to try for themselves. Besides, foodies are gonna talk about their experiences whether they post it or not. Would not the restaurant, besides the public, be better that this chat take place in the open?

I surely concede that there can be problems if the reviewer does not inform the reader that the place is new, assuming, of course (and it's not always obvious) that they know it's a new place. Without such information, the reader cannot put the experience in the right context. Yet, the failure of some reviewers (and this is not the case cited) to best disclose does not mean that any and all first peek reviews should stop. Once a place is taking your money, they are fair game as far as I can see.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Eat Local, A Trend

Jealous Too

Via Ramon's LinkTH's, I found my way to this web site spotting trends. First, they tell us about a store in Sussex, the United Kingdom, that only sells food produced within 50 miles of the store. Then, they point out this store in Brooklyn that will primarily sell food and dry goods produced less than 100 miles from Brooklyn.

Eat Local Fish

The Vie Way

Chef Paul Virant of Vie restaurant in Western Springs is also a fan of Great Lakes fish. He has graciously allowed me to reprint the following recipe that uses whitefish. Note, I have not tried the recipe itself. All I can say is first, it sounds great, second, it looks complicated!


Braised Sauerkraut

2 C sauerkraut, rinsed in cold water

1/4 C diced bacon

4 T butter

1 onion, sliced

2 ribs celery, peeled and sliced on a bias

1 t each coriander seed, dill seed, fennel seed, caraway seed, toasted and coarsely ground

1 C riesling (preferably Alsatian)

1 C chicken stock

salt and pepper

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

2. In a heavy bottom wide saucepan render the bacon until crisp, about 5 minutes.

3. Add 2 T of the butter, onions, celery, and toasted seeds.

4. Sweat for 5 minutes.

5. Add the rinsed sauerkraut and wine, bring up to a boil.

6. Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil

7. Cover with a parchment paper lid and place in oven.

8. Bake for 45 minutes.

9. Remove from oven and keep warm (there will be extra).


1/2 lb littleneck clams

2 T minced shallots

1/4 C champagne vinegar

1 t honey

1/2 C olive oil

2 T chopped dill

salt and pepper

1. Cook the clams with 1/4 C of water in a covered saucepan for 2-4 minutes (or until the clams open).

2. Remove clams from shells and strain liquid (if any) into a mixing bowl.

3. Add shallots, honey and vinegar to the mixing bowl.

4. Whisk in the olive oil, season with salt and pepper.

5. Add chopped dill and clams and reserve.

To Finish

4 3oz portions of whitefish

1 qt rendered duck fat or chicken fat

1/4 C dill sprigs, loosely packed

2 T julienne house made pickles

1 T olive oil

1. Season the fish with salt and warm the duck or chicken fat to 150 F in heavy bottom saucepan.

2. Place the fish in the fat submerged.

3. Poach between 10 and 15 minutes in the fat until firm, remove from heat.

4. Heat up the sauerkraut finish with remaining 2 T butter.

5. Place about 1/2 C sauerkraut on the center of 4 warm plates.

6. Place poached fish on top.

7. Spoon about 1T vinaigrette on each plate with 3 clams.

8. Garnish with salad of dill sprigs and pickles tossed with olive oil.

9. Serve and enjoy!

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Vital Boston

Well, I would not call this the definitive list of Boston restaurants, but it is a path that will guide you to some pretty good eating based on my family's visit in the last week of 2007.

Christmas means one thing to a Jew. Chinese food. From our hotel, the Boston Hyatt, we could practically smell the tofu. We peeked into Grand Chau Chow but got the wrong vibe. East Ocean City (25-29 Beach St.) seemed more hopping. I wanted one of the cods swimming in the tanks, but the waitress warned us off, too big for our party of four. Instead, we got the decidedly non-local baramundi. I cringed a bit as we all, especially the kidz, liked the fish. We liked nearly everything: steamed oysters with black beans (also not local! Canadian Pacific); fried soft shell crabs with "house sauce" (something ketchupy and not that special, although the crabs were fine); baby bok choy with garlic (excellent); and best, salt and pepper shrimps with something like deep fried chili sauce.

I expected to find more places like Charlies Sandwich (429 Columbus) in Boston. A barely altered diner. The above picture kinda captures it. I rued that we skipped the fishcakes and eggs, after all, it's a fishcakes and eggs kinda place, but my wife and I did not go wrong when we split the house special turkey hash and the french toast with cranberry compote.

While my plan included visits to Union Oyster Bar AND Durgin Park, family obligations and a too long list of need to try places got me only to the latter. Both are part of the Faneuil Hall/Freedom Trail complex, which is not quite as gaudy as it could be. (Durgin Park is at 340 Faneuil Hall Market Place, parallel to Quincy Market.) The lobster roll was expensive, over $20, but about worth the money. Better, the lunch special of scrod, baked with crumbs and a good amount of butter. Fish chowder needed a bit of something beyond the butter. And I liked the Indian pudding, but the kidz found the molasses too much. Go for lunch when the prices, lobster roll aside, are lower.

My wife first read about the local food centered market, Lionette, in one of our in-room magazines (I think). I'll cover Lionette and some related places in another post. We did not love-love brunch at the associated cafe, Garden of Eden (571 Tremont Street)--although we had an open mind, honest! we were less than impressed with the New England cheeses that were one of our dishes. Smoked bluefish pate could have used more ooph. Still, our visit made me fall in love with the South End. That is, there were all these restaurants that just looked great, especially the so French it could not exist in France Aquitaine. Two places above all else that called to me.

When I became obsessed over the idea of a meal starting with oysters at B&G Oyster Bar (550 Tremont) and finishing with meat at the Butcher Shop (552 Tremont), I had no idea that they were brainchild's of one of Boston's top chefs. I had no idea who was Barbara Lynch. I do now. The planned meal, if it was not quite as sublime as I hoped, it was because B&B was so good, Butcher Shop could not compare. At B&G we had three East Coast oysters, and I am a convert to East Coast oysters, so much more intense. Then, we had oysters shucked and fried, a dollop of tarter sauce put in the shells, and the oysters placed back. My kidz are now fanatics over fried oysters. At Butcher Shop we had a small portion of hanger steak (arrived a bit cold), oxtail pot au feau and crispy skin roast chicken, whose side of mustard potato salad made with bacon fat was that good.

I'm no expert on Boston restaurants, but the oyster bar may be the best thing about in-town eating. Was Neptune (63 Salem) a better oyster bar? Classic, white tile and all, to B&G's more modern stone, fried clams instead of fried oysters (and now the kidz like fried clams too). I would return here just as fast as B&G.

We had one more Charlie's and two more visits to Chinatown. This Charlie's is Charlie's Kitchen (10 Eliot St., Cambridge), and you can get two lobster rolls for less than half of one at Durgin Park. It was not quite as good, but not nearly 1/2 as bad. Great selection of local beers and top caliber juke box. One time we visited Chinatown for dim sum breakfast at Chau Chow City (88 Essex, h/t Galleygirl). Generally better dim sum than in Chicago. Lobster dumplings! Another Chinatown breakfast Pho Pasteur (682 Washington) was generally not quite as good as we've had elsewhere, an especially fishy batch of beef noodle soup.

Of course there was corporate but well done seafood at Legal (bring your child for the $17 whole lobster deal); internatonally corporate Wagamama (fine respite on a rainy afternoon); ice cream at Emack and Bolio's (good) and Herrell's (better) and really good espresso in the North End. My list of places not tried is long including Peach Farm Chinese, No Name, Flour Bakery, South Street Diner, Summer Shack, and Henrietta's Table.

Eat Local Fish

Rainbow trout, whitefish, huh? Said about five times as I roved the River Forest Whole Foods looking for a better cell spot. Whole Foods did have a whole case full of fish: halibut, salmon, tuna, sustainable and not, it's just as a localvore, we are forced to eat from our foodshed. To us, local fish meant Great Lakes whitefish, sold at Whole Foods as fillets or Rushing Waters rainbow trout sold head-on but mostly boneless. Sure it's a bit of a conceit, to ignore all the ocean fish, even the farmed catfish from North Carolina, but we believe in local. I heard trout. Bony, I mentioned. Huh, trout? Trout? OK. I took the trout.
Local fish matters to us for a few reasons. Aside from frozen lamb and off-season asparagus, is there more miles on a consumable? Take Whole Food's squid, while vast amounts of squid, in season, can be found off or Rhode Island Whole Foods was shipping them in from Greece. One example. The distance matters, but even more, taste matters. Fish tastes better fresh. C'mon. We bought whitefish at Robert's (2916 W. Devon Chicago--see below) that was alive the day before. Was any of the ocean fish at Whole Foods.

Really fresh fish is just so good. Try some freshwater fish and you will find out. That's the last reason. We are on a mission to expand the market for local fish. Create demand. Help the environment for sure, but also more demand will make the local fish options that much better.

Making the trout could not have been easier. An oven pre-heated to 350, salt pepper (fish needs a heavy hand with the salt), a solid Le Crueset pan, a spritz of olive oil (not local), a spritz of white wine (not local) and bake until done, about 20 minutes. The fish was so fresh that the skin turned so blue a Frenchmen would have belted the Marseillaise as proudly as they did here (who does not get a bit teary at that scene!). Boiled local potatoes the obvious side. The trout came a few days after a whole roasted whitefish.
Like an old transaction on Maxwell Street, we mock challenged Arturo Venegas, who ably carries on the traditions at Robert's (he can explain to you which fish may be kosher but are still now blessed by the CRC). Fresh, he unfolded the whitefish to show us innards still crimson, practically beating. As I said, the fish was alive the day before. About following the recipe in last month's Saveur, I roasted the fish whole.

I will concede a few drawbacks to the local fish. It's surely not clear how much Great Lakes fish one should safely eat, and probably twice in a week is enough. Culinary-wise, the fish can be a bit softer. OK, the whitefish is a lot softer than tuna or salmon. You know it's fish. And bones, there's always bones. You have to handle the bones, but if my daughters can deal with the bones, cannot you. Eat local fish.

Monday, January 07, 2008

How to Eat Local

Prepare, Prepare and Prepare to Prepare

This is our third winter of eating local. The more we do it, the more the same truisms apply. Eating local is like being a boy scout. Be prepared.

First of all, each week of meals needs some forethought. Be prepared on Monday for what you will eat on Friday. Mainly, it is a question of defrosting meat. As there is no steady source for local beef, pork or lamb in our area, our supply is what is in our freezers. It takes time, a fair amount of time for bigger cuts to defrost, surely to defrost safely. Thus, we need to prepare for our Friday night meal early (took out a round roast that we will braise).

Second, be prepared to work each meal. It is a truism of truism that nearly every meal in the bungalow begins with some form of low impact aerobic exercise. Down the stairs to the canning room, another trip down to basement fridge. My wife commented the other day that tight homes would make for limited local eating. We are lucky to be in an older home with a big (full size) basement and an attic. We have food planted strategically. Each meal begins with a game of hide and seek. After finding the food, be prepared to work more. I was reminded of this on Friday as I peeled just a few more beets to supplement the already made beet salad. Excruciating work, the older beets do not necessarily skin easily, and I only did about ten. Eating local means nearly always starting with food in its rawest of states.

Third, be prepared to prepare. As I have said many times, you cannot just jump into the localvore thing. What you need to do is try, experiment, see what happens. We are constantly working on the best storage options, what to store, where to store, how long will it last us. Plus, we search out markets and vendors. Last year, Farmer Vicki of Genesis Growers helped us paper over a lot of months with our hot house produce. This year, we plan also to shop the winter markets. Next year, I expect to have more options. Still, each day of eating local this year helps me prepare for eating local in coming years.

I Search for My Food

Missing Bag

The other day I checked on the state of our food in the attic. Today, I needed to bring a bowl of shallots back to the basement (and along the way, take some meat out of the freezer for later in the week), so I thought I'd check on the basement stuff. For the most part, the onions are doing fine, as are the squash, but there are several red potatoes lost to sprout. I can live with some shrinkage in the red potato as there are more up in the attic. Plus, we bought a fifty pound bag of Wisconsin russets back in latke season. The only problem, I cannot seem to find the big bag of potatoes.