Friday, March 28, 2008

The Vie-Dict

Spring Break at Vie

Aside from a quick jaunt to Madison, we did not leave town for spring break. With Trillinesque logic (as well as an about to be expired gift certificate) we planned on visiting Vie this week. The chance to arbitrate between Ulterior Epicure's stellar meal and Abby from Gaper's Block trying experience gave me all the more reason. Fodder, fodder, fodder.

And, as long time devotees of my eating can suss, the winner is Mr. Epicure. This is no offense to Ms. Abby. Bad meals happen to everyone. Our dinner last night met all our expectations for Vie in terms of deliciousness, innovation, ingredient quality, and generosity. I'm just always left ready to return. Is there no better endorsement than that?

My daughters are somewhat reluctant gourmets. In fact they pushed for delivery pizza as this week's splurge. At Vie, both had a hard time deciding what to get, especially the younger who decided she was in a no-split kinda mood that day. Still, after tense ordering, Sophia sez with confidence, "I always look forward to the amuse. I may not like it, but I'll always try the amuse." What a proud papa moment.

The amuse is always good at Vie. Most of the time I am left with the desire to have about five more helpings. Yesterday's meal started with a fritter dotted with green garlic, served over a green garlic mayo. We all picked up a bit of curry of what not. It reminded us of the pakoras we had last weekend on Devon (Da'bomb).

First course for me was a touch choice between house made salami/mortadella and house-made pork sausage. I'm glad I went with the later. One of the best dishes I've had a Vie. For one thing, I loved the sausage with its high funk and lose texture. For another, the garnish really made this dish. It was marinated chick peas (a Virant signature ingredient) with bright preserved oranges (think more than one meaning of bright) and a smoked paprika vinaigrette. Seems like a lot, no? It was a prime example of a Vie dish; the combination of fresh and tang, use of the wood stoked grill, and mostly, the hand, the special taste that only small batch sausage can have. Moreover, not many think molecular gastronomy when they think Vie, but here was a dish were all of those disparate elements (plus some miner's lettuce) combined into something wholly greater than their parts. A true recipe.

My wife's scallop appetizer converted older daughter to a scallop lover; really garlic heavy salad enticed the other daughter (what's that you are always saying about wine friend food Paul?). The New Zealand venison combo I shared with my wife offended my localvore convictions but not my palate. Chef Virant is incapable of sending our an inferior plate of gnocchi. It was nearly all good. Just so you know I am not a shill, I will point out a few things.

My younger daughter, who loves a good amuse, also has a thing for just trying stuff on a menu. Why something appeals to her, I'm not quite sure. In Madison, shrimp de jonge called out to her; last night it was the baked farinata or chick pea cake. She and pretty much the whole table, found it bland (especially compared with so much else on the table). The fresh bacon, crisped on the surface and gooey within, between my wife and I, tasted good, fatty-good, but was, perhaps, just a bit too much fat even for me. Maybe. The house made giardinara helped cut the richness. Fatty or not, we still made empty plate.

We really made empty plate from that venison. The venison itself, seared leg and smoked loin, was somewhat inoffensive, not bad, but on its own probably boring. Chef Virant takes this blank space and fills it with good things: wild rice and preserved pecans and preserved blueberries. He cooks down the juices of the preserved items and makes a sauce with browned butter. With tiny, earthy fried sunchoke chips atop, this was a pick your plate up and lick clean kinda dish. Maybe next time, sticky customer that I am, I might just have them skip the venison and have the wild rice as a side dish.

The rest of the meal proceeded with an array of tasty food. Mid entree, for the table, house manager Jenny brought over a special of ramp cake with fried egg. As much as this is spring and local and new ramps, what made the dish was the perfectly cooked, awash in butter, farm egg. Pre-dessert, the kidz got sorbe made with mandarins, my wife and I got sorbets made from white wine. Like the egg, the fritter, Vie's techniques are so good. The sorbets had that fruitier than fruit quality to them. The kidz shared a creme brule, my wife and I the gooey butter cake, and we split an order of donuts with caramel corn. Our last bites were tiny whipped up nutty meringues. We were stuffed.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Today's Must Rant

Phil Vettel, Tired of Root Vegetables

In today's CTrib, Phil Vettel writes:
No more rutabaga! I mean it. Don't get me wrong; I love root vegetables. Roast me up some beets, throw a turnip in the blender and I'm a happy guy. But it's the end of March. Subterranean vegetables have been a part of Chicago menus since, oh, October. And if I have one more hunk of braised meat on a bed of parsnip puree, I'm going to do something drastic. Like move to Mexico. I've given a name to my pain: Culinary Cabin Fever. It's caused by a prolonged, harsh winter and an endless stream of seasonal menus.

I hear your Phil. I mean who's suffered more from the endless winter then me and my apple loving daughters. I should be like, "right on bro", right? I'm not. Sure, I get the bit of humor in his rant, but frankly, the bit did not ring true. I think the end of the article gives it away.

Chicago's most respected produce wholesaler offers this advice to Phil:
"We're starting to get strawberries," he says, "and the answer is, look to Florida. I love the Florida berry. And in the early spring, first off, we'll see the fiddlehead ferns, morels from the woods, ramps. Green garlic—it's wonderful for soup. Then the rhubarb, and finally the California delta asparagus."
Does that sound like a man living off his root cellar?

Drink Local Water

It Tastes Better

For a while, we were uncorking a bottle of Polish fizzy water per dinner. It had a bright, clean taste. More importantly, it was only about a dollar per bottle (16 ounces). As Mom and I drank wine or beer, the inclusion of bottled water helped make the meals seem a bit more complete for the kidz.* For reasons stated in this Monica Eng piece, we've mostly ditched the bottled water.

*I'm a big believer in the little things make the meal matter; theory of eating at home. We hardly ever allow ourselves to eat dinner in front of the TV; at least two courses helps, a bowl of olives or a plate of pickles increases the pleasure of the meal. Good bread makes a difference and fresh bread is nearly always good bread. Things like that. You cannot eat local unless you make the dining experience worthwhile. And the ephemera of dining makes a difference.

Locally Grown With Love and Dedication

Look Who Has a Web Site Now

My favorite farmer, Farmer Vicki of Genesis Growers has gone online. Information for ordering from her CSA is on the site and a nice schedule of her forthcoming crops (pdf).

Site Meter

Turn Over a New Leaf...for Life! Eat More Watercress

The crawler from got my site today. Who knew! I do agree with the sentiment from the banner on their site.

End of an Era/Era Continues

Thai Grocery/Abruzzo's

Just some quick vital info:

Thai Grocery (5014 N Broadway St., Chicago), the source for all things Thai food, and repository of the finest curries (head straight back, choose three from six or so, with rice for $4.50) is closing. They are having a retirement sale now. The always smiling man behind the counter (what's his name Erik M?) will use his laser pointer to show you his favorite fish sauce, sweet chili sauce, mushroom sauce and more amongst the array crammed into his store. While contemplating the curries, other good things you'll find in the back include mash-ups of herbs, spices and peppers called nam prik, battered fried ribs that hold up better to time than someone's corn dogs, and house-made sausage. This is a place who's departure will be sorely missed.

In Melrose Park, at Abruzzo's (1509 Division St, Melrose Park*) when you hear "How ya doin' Bobby", six heads turn. When my wife and I first tried the buffet at Abruzzo's, we were the only ones in the crowd not named Bobby. OK, maybe not everyone was Bobby, but amongst the Tony's, Nickys and such we were the only ones not known to each other. It did not make a difference. The staff appreciated our visit and the food made us return. An Italian wedding spread still exists Monday through Friday, lunch, in Melrose. There's a pasta or two, the lasagna noodles are house-made, the salad has that kinda delicious vinaigrette that I can never figure out how to make myself. Once it was Chicken Vesuvio, heavy with dried spices; another day nearly the same type of baked chicken was smothered with pickled hot peppers, olives and artichoke hearts and called hunters's. There's things like bite sized sausage and simmered greens and beans. The bread from Labriola is amazingly good, and to finish, there's slices of pound cake, three varieties per day. The food is refilled as needed. For roughly $8, a great lunch option in the Near West suburbs.

*Don't let the address fool you. It's the same Division but Division does not run through from Chicago/Oak Park/River Forest. The easiest, pretty much the only way, to get to this place is off of 15th Avenue (see this Google map). It's worth the schlep not just for the classic Melrose Park Southern Italian fare, but it's a short jaunt then to Caputo's Cheese Market on the other side of North Avenue on 15th.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

You Know You are a Localvore


We worked our dinner last night around a few sprigs of watercress, but before I get into that, let me amend something I wrote yesterday. I said hooray, something grown in the ground, the watercress. Now, there have been all sortsa things local to eat, all winter, grown in the ground, using hoop houses. These polyethylene plastic contraptions trick Mother Earth, keeping the ground from freezing, and allowing for various plants to grow around here in the winter. For instance, all winter long, Paul Virant at Vie has been serving a salad with lettuces from Wisconsin. The frost kissed spinach from Snug Haven Farms is grown ala hoop. Hoop stuff is grown in ground stuff. It tastes real, natural. What I really meant to say is that the watercress is the first thing grown outside in the ground. Nature grown.

It's a great thing watercress, certainly this wild watercress from Wisconsin. When you start nibbling you get a pleasant, anise-ish taste in your mouth, just a bit vegetal. Then, before you know it, the mustard's creeped up on you and soon that pleasant taste in your mouth is not one of licorice but of spice; not habenero hot, but nicely hot. It's worth building a meal around. One of the best ways to use watercress, I think, is with egg salad. Now, being a local eating family but also a snobbish family at that, it cannot just be egg salad. First we have to run to the Dominick's on Lake Street in Oak Park. We cannot have egg salad with mere Hellman's. This store has absolutely one thing we like about it, only one thing to ever cause us to set foot in it: Davidson's Pasteurized Eggs. My wife and I, even with Farmer Vicki's farm eggs, feel safe(r) making our mayo from the pasteurized eggs (of course I say we, but only one person makes the mayo in our house and it aint me). What did we find. Three cartons of Davidson's eggs, two expired and the third with a broken egg. We trucked to the next closest Dominick's, the one in River Forest (an even worse example of the modern supermarket). They had maybe three cartons as well, a few days past their sell-by date, which seemed good enough. So it's a-boiling eggs, whipping up mayo. That's not good enough for our cress. I have to boil maybe twelve red potatoes to make salad to side our egg salad. Dinner came eventually.

Watercress garnish for egg salad sandwich makes little dent in our stash. I went to bed last night dreaming of watercress ideas. One of the most famous dishes in the modern French era was the late Bernard Loiseau's frog legs with parsley sauce. I figured given the natural proximity of frogs to water and water to watercress, would not this dish be more interesting with a watercress coulis? Having also looked at several watercress soup recipes and washed about 10 small freshwater snails outta our cress, I wondered about a cream of watercress soup with snails and garlic croutons. Let me know your watercress ideas.

Winter's Just a Market Away - For One Last Day

This is It

This is your last winter market and also last farmer's market (except Geneva) in the Chicago area until May. Stock up. Market notice/details below.

It’s officially spring, and time for the
Winter Farmers Market
of the 2007-2008 season!

Winter Farmers Market & Brunch
Sunday, March 30
10 A.M. TO 2 P.M.
Grace Lutheran Church
7300 Division Street, River Forest, IL (One block West of Harlem & Division)

Plenty of free parking on-street, in the Concordia parking garage just South of the church, or in the Priory lot to the North across the street.

will be served while quantities last,
featuring ingredients from participating farm vendors.
Suggested donation for brunch is $8 Adults, $4 Children under 12

This Market will feature:
* Natural, hormone-free meats

* Organic lettuce, kale & chard

* Organic herbs (including basil)

* Micro-greens & shoots

* Tilapia (farm-raised in Illinois –no mercury!)

* Organic potatoes

* Fresh mushrooms (several varieties)

* Onions & shallots

* Michigan apples NEW to the market this week!

* Organic wheatberries; several varieties of milled flours

* Cheese, in a variety of flavors

* Yogurt, in a variety of flavors

* Honey, in a variety of flavors

* Apple & pear butters

* Goats’ milk soaps

* Pet products

* Mead (honey wine) NEW to the market this week!

* Spa & beauty products

* Freshly made basil vinaigrette dressing & pesto NEW to the market this week!

* Infused vinegars & dried herbs

* Wool yarn & woolen goods

* Sorghum syrup

* Beautiful fruit tarts & pastries by the Sisters of Fraternite Notre Dame

* Fair trade coffee, chocolate & tea

* Fair trade organic olive oil from the Palestinian region

* CSA (community supported agriculture) subscriptions for fresh, locally grown vegetables this summer—available for pickup at the Oak Park Farmers Market!

* Free blood pressure screenings and nutrition information by members of Grace’s Health Cabinet

* And much, much more!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

What's In Season Now

New Products Spotted!

The localvore has a few new things to try these last weeks of March:

Spinach - "frost kissed" spinach from Snug Haven Farms has been available all winter on and off from Irv and Shelly's Fresh Picks. It's on now and should on for the rest of the month. Snug Haven was also selling last week at the Dane County Farmer's Market. I also expect them to be there through the end of the month.

Watercress - Something from the ground! Watercress really is cress from water. It grows right up against many streams and creeks and such in these parts, and has actually peeked its little green heads up out of the ground already. At the Dane County Farmer's Market, there's a man who specializes in these types of things, wild-ish/forest-y kinda products (he got my kids to buy some slippery elm). If you cannot make it to Madison, you might be able to forage some of your own.

The previous edition of March's What's In Season Now is below.

This month, we will not see local asparagus, peas or green garlic [all items on the Chez Panisse menu this month.] We do have a couple of interesting items this month. March is generally maple syruping time in the Midwest. Here's a listing of some maple festivals [most of these are past]. In addition, those little wild onions that gave Chicago its name, ramps (try Google), will begin their short season in March. Read about past ramp digs at Spence Farm here and here, and consider the Rampfest on March 28.

Beef, lamb, chicken, pork - Winter markets; farm direct, Cassie's Green Grocer,
Grains - Winter markets, farm direct
Eggs - Winter markets, farm direct, grocery, Cassie's Green Grocer,
Farm raised tilapia - Winter markets
Farm raised rainbow trout - Grocery
Great Lakes fish - pike, whitefish, pearch, white bass, lake trout, carp - Grocery, speciality stores
Microgreens, sprouts and related - Winter markets,, grocery
Lettuces - Winter markets, farm direct
Carrots - Winter markets, farm direct,
Potatoes - Winter markets, farm direct, grocery,
Apples - Winter markets, farm direct, grocery
Herbs - Winter markets, farm direct,
Mushrooms - Winter markets, Grocery, Cassie's Green Grocer,
Onions - Winter markets, farm direct, grocery
Burdock root -
Horseradish -
Radish - Winter markets (limited quantity)

Those interested in February's What's In Season, see here.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Vie Not Bad After All

Hold the Presses

Just moments later, we find a new verdict in, this one from the blogger and poster at various food forum, Ulterior Epicure. He likes Vie.

Vie No Like

Sez Abby

Because I am nothing if not a fair man, I bring you (a link at least) to the most trashed I have ever seen Vie. Abby over at the Gaper's Block finds about nothing worthwhile at Vie. I plan on taking the girlz to Vie this spring break. I am pretty sure I will enjoy my meal more. I'll report back soon.

Local Mystery Meat

We did not fully commit to local when we committed to local. We were just not ready to pay the price of getting all of our meat from the farmers markets. We could get some of our meat there, but given the prices, my wife and I agreed that we could not get all of our meat there. We have since leaped the price hurdle by buying our local meat in bulk. Although we can now comfortably eat local meat, we still face problems.

I've complained before about the frozen nature of our meat. It means that all meat meals must come with a bit of fore-planning--in fact I could not quite understand how the Top Chef chefs bought meat at the Green City Market and then used it shortly thereafter????? [ed. TV Magic?]. The other problem with local meat, one I'm sure I've mentioned before, especially local bulk meat, is the mystery of it all. One never know quite what will be in side the white paper packages until they are unwrapped. It happened the other day when I decided to cook skirt steak or as I'll call it, "skirt steak".

I could tell from the feel of the package that it was not a big steak. It was not to be an Atkinsesque meal. Instead, I planned on making big salad with the steak and some our mondo lettuce head. I did not expect to find steak pinwheels. Inside my package marked skirt steak were two rolls of meat, each pinned in place with wooden skewers. The meat itself was about the size of a garter snake all rolled up. They were perhaps the skirt or from that part of the cow. Perhaps, they were surely quite fatty but also with the livery-ish flavor of hanger steak. I pan grilled one rolled and one unfurled (the kidz like their steak more well done).

Like all of our meat, it featured the sweetness of our cow's diet of surplus fruits and vegetables. It may have been too fatty. How it got packaged as a skirt steak, well that's a mystery.

Da' Inventory

Spring Has Not Sprung

Updates from the last inventory are marked in italics.

Cranberries - two packages, amazingly these seem to be holding out. What they are for, I have no idea. - No change

Celery - Farmer Vicki gifted us with a brand new, simply enormous head of celery. It looks like those vegetables that grow in Alaska. We plan on freezing and drying much. - No change

Herbs - rosemary, thyme, basil, cilantro - In addition, now have mint and even more basil

Winter squash - Our pace right now is: toss one about every two weeks; that still leaves about five. Like the cranberries, we are gonna have to find a use soon. - No change

Keeper onions - we are very good on onions. We added about ten the other day from Farmer Vicki. - While we make great use of onions in our cooking, we are fine on stocks

Sweet potatoes - I thought we were low here, but found a stash. These are mostly holding up well. Some have been used in my wife's famous sweet potato kugel. - No change

Garlic - like onions, we are holding fine and should have enough garlic to last us through until the new crop. - See onions above

Cabbage - I finally tossed the ugly head of white that has been in the basement fridge, but we still have a head of red. - No change

Sunchokes - 2 lbs - Our emergency food - No change

Carrots - We were running out, but I got about five pounds a few weeks ago at the Geneva Winter Market. - Have used about 25% of current stock, should be enough to last until newest harvests soon.

Parsnips -We have used some, but parsnips like the sweet potatoes keep magically re-appearing - No change

Potatoes - Dwindling but fine. All of the bigger russets have been baked, but there's still a good amount of odds and end sized; the 1o lb bag of reds is hardly touched and the heirloom types are partially there. - Using, but also obtained some (5 lbs of pinks--also, we'll be able to add from Robin's forthcoming Winter Market this Sunday)

Apples - These are about gone. We have about five yellow delicious. The rest were dedicated to baking, Granny Smiths, Rome and a bag of seconds. We might need to dip into the Granny Smith's for kidz lunches. - All of our yellow delicious are gone; obtained a five lb bag of Michigan red delicious from Costco, noted but did not buy Michigan yellow delicious at Fresh Farms market on Devon (da'bomb)

Lettuce - Alaska sized head of leaf lettuce from Vicki - Gone through about 1/2 of that lettuce, obtained a bag of mixed lettuce

Microgreens/Sprouts - When I went foraging with Robin, I got a big container of peashoots in Elburn. We have been working our way through them since. - We have this up the wazoo. Using but but getting new

Mushrooms - No current crop of mushrooms - Obtained one lb of shitake and one lb of oyster

Celery root - 2 lbs - no change - No change

Burdock root - 1 lb - No change

Additions since March 17, 2008
Wild watercress

Local Pantry
Cheeses, yogurt, eggs, noodles, pork, beef, lamb, bacon, granola, grains, milk, cream