Friday, June 20, 2008

The Big Picture

Eat Local Later

I may not have much in common with Tony Soprano, but when he confesses to Dr. Melfi that he admires the Gary Cooper type. I nod. I may not exercise my anger quite in the same way as T, but I long to be a bit less temperamental. To help, my wife reminds me to look at the Big Picture. So, if a driver going North on Narragansett is going less than 20 mph as I work my way into the city, I should look at the Big Picture. I'll get to my destination, say Khan BBQ, soon enough. As I remarked the other day in my Foodways talk, the locavore needs to look at the Big Picture too. You cannot just focus on what's for dinner this week. You have to think about what will be for dinner in the weeks when there are no farmer's markets, no CSA deliveries.

My family is in luck because our CSA provider, Farmer Vicki of Genesis Growers looks at the Big Picture too. The boxes she provides each week often contains more than can be expected to be finished that week. Farmer Vicki expects you to set aside when times are flush for times that are lean. This week, for instance, the box came with about 30 stalks of asparagus.

The easiest way to preserve vegetables for future use is to freeze them. The process of freezing them is hardly complex. Blanch, which means boil and then shock in cold water, for up to three minutes, essentially until the color of the veg intensifies. Let the vegetables cool as much as possible before bagging--if you put hot stuff in your freezer, it will raise the temperature in your freezer. Put in plastic bags. Try to squeeze as much air out of the bags as possible.

Frozen vegetables can be used in nearly all preparations, except for some salads. A few minutes in the microwave, a dab of butter, and you have a side dish. We have had success freezing most everything but tomatoes (although some say you can), and I would not try cucumbers, zucchini, eggplants, radishes or other watery veg. I would say avoid freezing vegetables that are actually fruits, but bell peppers freeze nicely if cut into strips (use for pasta). Still, some vegetables freeze especially well, and nicely enough, the vegetables that need to be eaten the soonest after harvest are also the ones that freeze the best. In other words, not only can you freeze these, you should freeze these (if you cannot eat them soon). These for freezing include peas, corn and asparagus.

I'm of the mind for freezing because my hard workin' wife froze some asparagus yesterday. Yes, dear reader, she does the work, I do the blog. You can read about what we have put away here. I'll update as we set aside more.

The Raw Asparagus Food Movement Continues

I asked you the other day to join the raw asparagus movement. You may want to try the recipe I used last night.

A few stalks of purple asparagus, cut on a bias, thin
A few radishes, sliced likewise
A glop of fresh ricotta
1 TSP extra virgin olive oil (or so)
Salt and pepper to taste
Mush together
Serve on buttered bread
Note: scallions, green garlic or some herbs would be nice additions but I served this for me and my younger daughter who abhors "green things" in her food.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

What's Local - Fox & Obel

Wanna see Chicago foodies go after each other. Get them talking about Chicago BBQ. About as bad can be a discussion on Chicago pizza, especially if you salt your match with people who grew up in other cities (cough-new york-cough). Unite them, ask them about the state of Chicago deli's. Manny's may be listed in the Encyclopedia Britannica as Institution, Kaufman's in Skokie may offer more than decent take-out and Max & Benny's thrives in Northbrook, but the foodies or the media elite so to speak (e.g., about anyone talking food on the Milt Rosenberg show) will lament the lack of deli's around here. What they really need to be lamenting is the lack of a grand gourmet store.

Fox & Obel jumped into the fray several years ago, with press releases a-blazin' and heavy inlay of capital on packaging, but never quite fulfilled its destiny. Now on its, and don't quote me on this, third ownership team, the store does a few things well. It can bake bread. It has, I believe, by far the best baguette in town. It has a great tasting wall of olive oil. Does it have local?

I cannot resist popping into F&O if I am in the neighborhood. Inspector Local found Michigan asparagus the other day, priced at $3.49/lb, about what Whole Foods has charged and not that different in price from what I saw yesterday for Mexican asparagus at Caputo's. That was it. Any place with aspirations of gourmet grandeur should know that greatness begins with ingredients and great ingredients begins with local. Put another way, if Cassie at her tiny Green Grocer can do it, why cannot they.

F&O was not totally lacking in local. They have a good selection of dairy, including cream from Farmer's All Natural Creamery. They were offering samples of Wisconsin's Pleasant Ridge Reserve the other day. Still, their cheese department pales when compared to Pastoral or Marian Street Cheese.

A couple of other observations. I like that they carry some cuts of Tallgrass beef besides steaks; the 21 day dry aged, prime beef looks worth their exorbitant prices. When the store opened, they made New York worthy displays of whole fish and seafood, but lately it's been a pathetic display of fillets. Likewise, the cured meats and sausages section has deteriorated. F&O introduced us to La Quercia hams from Iowa, yet they no longer carry them. I like their whitefish salad, but its price is such that I (almost always) resist. I greatly admire, but fully resist the various sides of smoked salmon, hand sliced to order. Perhaps all this looking but not buying has made Fox & Obel what it is today.

Fox & Obel Food
401 E. Illinois Street
Chicago, IL 60611

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

What's Local, Whole Foods

Credit Due Department

I still struggle to find much local at the Whole Foods I most frequent, River Forest, Illinois. On the other hand, I have heard that the Whole Foods at Cicero and Peterson in Chicago carries more local. This, though, appears to be a Whole Foods with local on the mind.

Evanston's Ridgeville Farmer's Market

Save This Market!

All markets should have a blog this nice. The Ridgeville Farmer's Market in Evanston sez:
In creating a mid-week market, the Ridgeville Farmers’ Market hopes to make an environmentally sustainable lifestyle and connection to organic and locally-produced foods a realizable possibility for the community in south Evanston – as well as for Chicagoans from all over the city. Ridgeville Park is within walking distance from the South Blvd. stop on the Purple Line CTA, as well as the Main St. Metra station. The Recyclery of Evanston will be at the market on the last Wednesday of each month, offering free tune-ups and minor adjustments to those who travel via bicycle.

What's the word for me? Addict, junkie, deranged, enraptured, hobbyist, dilettante, ardourist, advocate, compulsive, zealot; In a ten day span I've been to eight farmer's markets. I like farmer's markets. Yet, I find them imperfect vehicles to support the locavore. Leaving aside the issue of selection, my biggest concern is the hours of the markets. Are markets really there when you need them? A lot of suburban markets are during the week but in the morning. On the other hand, many more markets are during the weekend, but this is the time when people tend to go out to eat. The Chicago area needs farmer's markets at various times.

The Ridgeville market is one, mid-week with late hours. I would love a market like this closer to me. Yet, my contention that markets like this are needed seems not to be holding. MHays on wrote nicely about the market last year. She took pictures to back her up. She comes back this year to report her good works have not been well received. The market is down to four vendors. Another LTH poster noted the market was a bit sad. The area PTO is trying to revive interest. We need markets like this.

I'll try to visit soon. In the meantime, give this market a whorl.

The Raw Asparagus Food Movement

Eat Seasonal Food

I confess that there are years where I have tired of asparagus. The mantra of the seasonal eater is to gorge for the time being then forgetaboutit. This year it seems that we have not so much gorged on asparagus as maintained a steady path. A reason for this, I know, is that the cool and the rains of this year's spring delayed the crop. Last year, we were getting Genesis Growers Illinois asparagus by late April, so you could see how I could tire of it by June. This year, asparagus did not really get flowing until Mid-May. Another reason for my lack of asparagus ennui is that we have added a new preparation to our repertoire.

Or shall I say, lack of preparation to our repertoire. Asparagus supports a lot of cooking methods. It is equally good roasted, grilled, steamed, boiled or sauteed. None of these methods are especially difficult. Yet, how often are we avoiding these for the easiest method of all. No method. Raw. I think a lot of chefs, especially, looked at the deep purple asparagus found in the farmer's markets--Michigan farmers Stovers and Klug both carry--and said how can we maintain that. It's pretty hard to keep the purple once it's cooked, so the chefs did not cook. No one gagged. If you are afraid raw asparagus will be too tough or stringy, do not worry. When you get asparagus at the local markets the asparagus is not the least bit stringy, only the ends are too tough.

A mandoline or great knife skills can achieve thin slices that really accentuate the contrast between deep purple exterior and bright green interior. It's like a 60's black light poster. Still, if you cut them chunkier you will not lose any taste. Leave them whole and they make nice vehicles for dips. Sliced, use any available dressing, although I would advise you dress on the light side. This is not your wedge of iceberg.

Asparagus will not be around too much longer. Gorge now while you can.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

What's In Season Now - June

(Update below)

We are more than half-way through the month, and I am just getting around to posting my guide to what's in season. (Last month's guide here.) You may think I am lazy. You may think I promise more than I produce, but there is a good, decent reason for waiting this long. The market, the what's in season, starts to change big time around now. In other words, up until a week or so ago, the market looked mostly like May and even a bit like April. About now, mid-June, is when new crops start rolling. To a large extent, mid to late June is our season of "Spring" crops around here. The locavore should be able to find the following:

Last Leggers
Those harvesting asparagus from Illinois and points south like my friend Farmer Vicki of Genesis Growers are mostly out of the crop, but those from further north, like the Michigan farmers, still have plenty. Expect to see asparagus in the markets through the month. The hearty, cool weather greens such as kale and spinach are likewise still around. Radishes don't thrive once we reach our summer heat, so get them now too. Rhubarb grows early and then lasts for a while. Buyers tend to gravitate to it when there is not much else around, but it will be around still.

First Arrivers
Strawberries have been in our markets for a few weeks now, expect a few weeks more. Like asparagus, the Michigan crops will last a bit longer. Cherries should show up before the end of the month and probably raspberries. Last week was the week that peas in their forms showed up, shelling peas, sugar snaps and snow peas. If you want your pea in leaf form, some farmers are selling the pea tendrils.

Farm Fresh
These are the types of crops you will see most of the season at various stands. Farmers started planting these crops as the weather warmed, and they harvest them as they bloom: broccoli, cauliflower, beets, arugula, fennel, swiss chard, lettuces (until it gets really hot), kohlrabi, carrots; zucchini and cucumbers (soon).

Most of the onions are still young as in spring onions or scallions, but I expect fuller summer onions to be around soon. Garlic is maturing a bit, the green garlic stalks you may see have a more bulb to them, and you will now see the sprouting scapes in the market.

Organic cultivator of mushrooms, River Valley of Wisconsin, shows up in tons of markets around Chicago. They will always have portabellas, baby bellas or crimini's, and white button mushrooms and most likely oyster and shitakes. They've had fresh porcini's. I've been told that they are local, but someone else was told they are not.

If you go to farmer's markets in Wisconsin and Minnesota, you will find many stands fun by Hmong farmers. They bring a variety of Asian vegetables to their markets. In the Chicago area, Nichol's Farm, Genesis Growers and Green Acres Farm grow some Asian vegetables. Green Acres Farm at Green City Market and Evanston will surely have the most, so if interested check their stand. Otherwise, you might be able to find some bok choy, baby or mature; tat soi, mizuna or napa cabbage at a market near you.

What Green Acres is to Asian, Kinnikinnick Farm is to Italian veg. At their stand at Green City and Evanston, expect to find Italian cooking greens that you will not see elsewhere. Nichol's grows rapini.

Herbs and Hot Peppers
Mint, cilantro, rosemary, basil, chives; these are the mostly likely herbs this time of year, but I've found lovage, oregano, cayenne peppers, lavender, sage and savory at various markets.

Old Stuff
Nichol's Farm is still selling last year's potatoes and they are still plenty good. There may be apples around, but I have not seen them. Ellis Farms, at their stand at the Hyde Park Farmer's Market (Thursdays) had shelled black walnuts (!).

A report on early July arrivers here.

Monday, June 16, 2008


Eat Local Out

On Saturday, the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance was generous enough to let me lecture on eating local. During the question period, someone asked about eating local out. First, I realized I had glossed over the part in my speech where I said I limit my eating local to eating in, that I still enjoy the wealth of interesting restaurants around Chicago (see this meal for example). Then, when talking about local restaurants serving local, I went on for a bit about Lula's Cafe, in Logan Square, where I had had sous vide rhubarb the week before. My wife, in the front row, was mouthing to me, Vie, Vie. She's was making little victory signs with her fingers if I could not read her lips. She was afraid that if Paul Virant hears the speech when it's podcast by WBEZ (I'll post the details when I know), he'd be offended (or at least disappointed) that I did not mention his place. To my wife's relief, I spent a minute or so kvelling about Vie. I never did mention Rob and Allison Levitt of Mado. My bad. Any discussion of eating local out must include them and their restaurant Mado. I bet within a few months, any discussion of eating local out will begin with them.

Diligent readers of this blog will know that I've entertained the idea of opening a restaurant. If I did, it would not be quite like Mado--I'd like a more classic decor: tile floor, wood booths than Mado's spare style, and our cuisine would be a bit more Midwestern, haute farm, than Mado's Mediterranean focus, but in spirit, we'd be Mado. I SO admire what they are doing and how they are doing it. Buying local. Changing the menu frequently to reflect the buys, the seasons, the offerings; using the whole beast, butchering their own animals, making use of each part. On one visit I had lamb belly. Every have lamb belly? Try Mado.

It's already cliche to begin a Mado review by telling the audience they will not eat the same food as the reviewer. That's not really true. I've been to Mado twice, and both times had the bruschetta con pulpo, braised octopus, seasoned with a bit of red chile, on toast. Mike Sula at the Reader found the dish "off-key", but I've enjoyed it each time. Rob must do a lot of slamming of his octo, because it's never been the least bit tough. My second try with this dish received a bit less chile, a slight shame, as this item can support a fair amount of spice-heat. I would order it again, and I bet you can too. Likewise, you will probably find some type of headcheese, translated to the Italian testa, to assuage the squeamish, on the day's menu. In fact, Rob told me that Crain's Chicago Business is doing an article on him and Paul Virant and headcheese. Sic! And, and in fact, in a few week's Rob's gonna make headcheese (or something) from the head of the hog we've purchased from the Wettstein's. Get the headcheese. Mado's methods limit the jelly aspect of the dish. Instead you get nicely seasoned, meat made into neat shapes, square once, ribbons another.

Another thing you might have heard about Mado is that it's maybe a bit on the pricey; not so much pricey but small portions for the money. I disagree with that too. I think their prices/portions are eminently fair, and I've walked away twice finding my bill much less than I believe it should have been. Mado prices their chaucuterie at $4 each or 4 for $15. I've tried several items in this category. The slabs are big enough to fully enjoy, and rich enough you don't want more. A half order of pasta, I've tried a ramp stuffed ravioli, is worth adding $8 to the bill. Dinners come with a side, but are already portioned with sides. I will confess that my very, very favorite thing I have eaten at Mado were the two sides that came with our fish last Saturday: thinly sliced raw Michigan asparagus, lightly dressed, and English peas, with a dab of butter [or what I thought was butter, see comments below]. I have never left Mado hungry, nor feeling gypped in any way.

I do have my quibbles. We can all quibble, no? In between my first and second visits to Mado, I ran into Rob at Red Hen Bakery. My wife was aghast that practically the first thing out of my mouth to Rob after "hi" was, "funny seeing you in Red Hen as you need to serve some bread." He does. Mado's food is spare and intense. He does not need bread so much to mop up sauces as to give a bit of palate relief. This was especially true for the rabbit pate we had the other night. My next quibble would be that Rob has a heavy hand with salt. I can understand why he uses it. It's the same issue as the bread. The richness is such that salt cuts. Still, sometimes, I would like just a wee bit less. It's a fine line, and maybe I'd rather him be at edge and fall over than undersalt this kinda food. Finally, I would say, richness aside, a sauce, a bit of sauce would not be the worst thing. For instance, on Saturday, we had pike, cooked just fine, perfect; moist, crisp skin. Yet, pike is a very mild fish. It begged for a beurre blanc (although my wife sez, "I disagree totally"). Likewise, on my first visit, I had the lamb belly as noted above. It was very much in the same vein as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's lamb breast St. Ménéhould, long cooked, then breaded and fried. Only Hugh gilds the lily with a tarter sauce. Rob leaves the breaded lamb meat on its own. I liked Rob's spicing and he fried it well, but I would have liked the sauce.

So, Mado and She's Cooking will not be the same restaurant, but good natured rivals. Until my place opens, I'll be eating a lot at Mado. I will certainly mentioned them more, next talk I give.