Friday, December 25, 2009

Making gnocchi: a pictorial

Well, good news. My husband bought me a camera for Christmas. He claims it's a good one. Which is fortunate, because not only am I not a good photographer, I am not interested in learning how to become a good photographer. I'm about as interested in the workings of a camera as I am in learning how to do my own taxes.

These pictures are with the old camera. From here on in, we can use them as a benchmark. We'll look at the new pictures, then at these, and marvel at just how great the new pictures are.

Step one (see top picture). For manhandling the dough, I used one of my favorite kitchen tools, a plastic bench scraper. I got it at a cool, old French cookware store in Paris called Dehillerin. If you're ever looking for old, crotchety French guys in aprons, Dehillerin is a good place to look.

It's a good thing I have a tall husband. He took this overhead shot of my sticky fingers.

The action shots. In real time, it took me about 15 minutes to form all the gnocchi. My sister-in-law got me that great apron from a trip to some Scandinavian country - I can't remember which one.

The gigantic gnocchi, resting comfortably. I think they should have been half that size.

The finished dish. This is where a good camera might come in handy - like when something needs to look appetizing. They were actually pretty good for a first timer. My son deemed them, "Good enough to eat," and then cleaned his plate. Next time, we downsize.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Things I learned while making gnocchi

First. Gnocchi making and hot sex do not necessarily go together.

I say this with some regret, since I fondly remember the scene in Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather III where Andy Garcia and Coppola's real-life daughter Sofia do the deed over a batch of floury gnocchi. At the time, I thought Andy Garcia was the cat's pajamas (today's verdict: too hairy), and the whole of the scene - sex between cousins, marinara simmering on the stove, the rolling of the gnocchi - was almost too much to bear. Gnocchi took on a whole new meaning for me, an exalted pairing of food and eroticism.

(For the record, there was no hot sex, or any other kind of gnocchi sex, today.)

Second. Chefs lie.

I'd like to think there are some chefs I can trust. Like Mario Batali. He seems like a straight shooter. He doesn't try to look good for the cameras. Plus, he's an eater. Turn the cameras off, and he's still stuffing his face. This is the mark of a real cook, one you can trust.

Today, I used his recipe. Ricotta gnocchi with Italian sausage from his fabulous restaurant, Lupa, in Greenwich Village. I've had the gnocchi twice there, and both times, a revelation. I didn't know you could have the same revelation twice. But I did.

I've used the term "pleasure bomb" before, but nowhere is it more apt than here. Ricotta gnocchi are different from potato gnocchi because a) they're cheesy, and b) they're slightly chewy. Served with a fennel-laced Italian sausage marinara, they become arguably the perfect food. Salty, tangy, spicy, both chewy and tender, and just a little bit sweet from the carrots (Mario's secret ingredient in the sauce). My only complaint: too few on the plate. Come on, Mario, when you concoct something this great, give the people more of what they want.

But back to the lie. So, I'm about to form the gnocchi. Mario says to take about 2 Tbs. of dough and roll it into balls. So, like a good soldier, I do just that. I then drop the little balls into boiling water (as instructed), only to watch them inflate like balloons.

What were supposed to be little nuggets of cheesy pleasure are now swollen knobs of cheesy pleasure, grotesque in their elephantine size. Due to this development, I have decided to put on a second pot of water for tortellini because I know my kids will not eat something that is apparently made for Andre the Giant.

Did Mario lie? Did he not want me to have yet a third revelation? Sometimes I think chefs leave out the most important steps in their recipes because they can't bear to share the wealth. It's an ego thing. No one - not one person on this whole planet - can make this _______ as well as me.

As for the gnocchi, I'll post a picture of the finished dish and you can have a good chuckle over your holiday roast beast. As a friend of mine might say, it's gotta be 'roids.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Fried pork rinds and the lure of sockless gentlemen

We finally went to The Publican the other night, that super hip temple of pork and shellfish that is probably the traifest place I've ever come across. Right this minute, my kosher-keeping grandmother is rolling around in her grave at the thought of all the ham I ate, the mussels and clams I sucked down, and the gluttony with which I ate all of it.

Gastronomy aside, the Publican is probably too hip for me. For one thing, I did not at all understand the booths for four. They're enclosed on all sides with wood - like veal pens, my husband noted - and to get in, the waiter swings a door open, the patron slides in, and the door is closed behind him. There's probably some historical significance to this set-up. Perhaps the English noblemen sat in the enclosed booths for privacy while the commoners stood at the bar once upon a time ago. But once I envisioned the veal pen, there was no going back. Fortunately, we sat a two top.

The room feels like a nicotine-stained common house where sweaty men congregate after work under giant globe lamps to consume their ale and, with any luck, get shnockered. We came for the beer list, too, but mostly we came for the food. Paul Kahan, the chef, is one of those guys that may have a PR machine running at hyper speed, but truly puts delicious food on the plate in spite of it.

His menu is one of parts. There's veal heart, head cheese, sweetbreads, spicy fried pork rinds (a must-have, I hear), and even a little pig's ear in a salad. For queasy eaters like me, there's plenty of seafood, too, and his vegetable dishes are as intriguing as everything else.

Appropriately, we over-ordered. We got a tasting of three hams with goat butter and rustic bread, roasted woodland mushrooms with hazelnuts and burrata (a melty by-product of mozzarella making), a huge iron pot of the best mussels I've had in a long time with a loaf of crusty bread, and an even bigger iron pot of Basque seafood stew - a take on Bouillabaisse, with spicy rouille and yes, more crusty bread.

This last course was brought to us by an older sockless gentleman who might have been an aging rock star in a different life. His skinny black suit was a size too small, his hair was punky and gray, but it was his bony bare ankles that gave me just a little tingle. Every time he walked by, I found myself gazing at those ankles. They were not at all attractive, not sexy, not masculine and maybe even a little bit femmy, but they were also titillating and forbidden like only an aging rock star's ankles could be. So now, when I think about the Publican - a restaurant of parts - I think ankles.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Forgive me, father, for I have sinned.

And since I'm Jewish, there is no prior confession. But if it's guilt you want, I'm swimming in it. Yesterday, I went to the new Whole Foods in Lincoln Park. You know the one. It looks like a monolithic battleship and has a food court that's almost as big as the Mall of America.

And this wasn't my first time.

The first time, I just went shopping. I swear. And I hardly bought anything - just a loaf of sugar-dusted pumpkin bread with candied San Joaquin Valley walnuts and some organic ginger ale.

The second time, I broke down and entered the food court. It was a modern-day Garden of Eden, a bubbling cauldron of temptations of the flesh. There were handmade pastas with sustainable pesto flown in from Liguria, real Asian people making udon, organic ham sandwiches made with silky meat from some farm in the nether regions of the Blue Ridge mountains where the pigs sleep on fluffy pillows and eat certifiably organic slop.

I opted for the fish tacos for $6.99. A guy named Pedro prepared them the "authentic" way, with organic cabbage leaves that were so delicate, they brought in a tiny Mexican child named Pepita to pluck them with her lilliputian hands.

After the gluttonous meal (I can honestly say I hated myself at that point), I walked over to the packaged meat department and fondled the charcuterie.

From there, I went over to the Bins of Abundance. Cashews roasted six different ways, texturized vegetable protein in powdered and granulated forms, enough couscous to feed the school children of Marrakesh for a year. And then there was the Wall of Salt. Smoked, gray, truffled, coarse, medium coarse, medium, Hawaiian, Britton. It went on and on.

I started to feel the way I had felt in 8th grade, when my best friend and I took out the family car and crashed it into a judge's Cadillac. This was somehow wrong.

So I quickly finished up my shopping: tomatoes from San Marzano, where the volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius acts like a super fertilizer, French lemonade (is there any other kind?), bar soap made out of Sicilian pistachios and mountain goat milk, and $17 lentils. I paid for it all with my children's college fund. And I was on my way.

On a brighter, I-might-not-be-going-to-hell-afterall note: unlike that Lexus LX10, I did not park in the spot reserved for "alternate fuel vehicles only." That guy is definitely going to hell.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

As if plain butter wasn't great enough

I thought I'd write a bit about browned butter, seeing that it's one of my favorite substances in the whole wide world, along with diet coke, cocktail sauce, and the gravy in the shrimp chow mein at Joy Yee Noodle. I make it as often as possible, most recently, this morning in browned butter pancakes (recipe to follow).

My introduction to browned butter was one of those my-dessert-life-is-about-to-change-forever affairs, and I thank my former boss at the pastry shop for showing me the way. She made a tart filling called browned butter custard, and it was light and chewy, almost cakey, with a depth of flavor that was about as mind-blowing as Meredith Baxter declaring she now likes gals. Whenever there was an extra finger tart filled with the stuff, I would secretly put it in my mouth, chewing as unobtrusively as possible as I went about my daily tasks. I believe the term "pleasure bomb" would not be an overstatement.

I could live on browned butter custard alone, as long as I chased it with a multivitamin to avoid getting scurvy, rickets, anemia or any other malady associated with poor nutrition. BBC, as we came to call it, is all fat and sugar and white flour - a baker's holy trinity - with not even a scoche of good-for-you ingredients.

Browned butter is made by cooking butter until the milk solids turn brown and fall to the bottom of the pan. The remaining clear butter on the top is clarified butter, also known as ghee in Indian cooking. Clarified butter is great for making anything that you don't want to brown - like an omelette - because the part that can brown - the milk solids - have been removed.

But the flavor of browned butter - rich, nutty, intoxicating, devastating - comes from the browned milk solids, so they're left in. I devised a recipe for pancakes using browned butter because hell, I can't think of one thing that can't be improved by the addition of it.

Browned Butter Pancakes

Makes about 12 good size pancakes

1 1/2 Tbs. unsalted butter
1 cup all-purpose unbleached flour
3 Tbs. sugar
1 1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
pinch kosher salt (1/4 tsp if you want to be exact)
1 cup buttermilk
1 large egg
Optional: 2 Tbs. flax meal (I add flax to everything, the thinking being it's going to healthfully counteract the ill effects of the butter)

Let the egg and buttermilk sit at room temperature while you make the rest of the recipe.
To brown the butter: put the butter in a small saucepan or skillet, and heat over medium heat. After the butter melts, you will see a white foam rise to the top. These are the milk solids. They will bubble furiously, but as they cook, the bubbling will get slower and eventually stop. The butter will start to turn an amber color, and the milk solids will turn golden and then brown and fall to the bottom of the pan. Turn off the stove. To stop the cooking, transfer the browned butter to a glass dish or measuring cup, being sure to scrape all the brown stuff out of the pan. This is where the flavor is. Now inhale deeply and let cool a bit.

In a large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients. In a medium bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, egg, and the just warm browned butter. Add the liquid ingredients (and flax meal if you're using it) to the dry ingredients and whisk just until mixed. It will be lumpy. Let it sit for about ten or so minutes before you make the pancakes.

I ate these without syrup, and they were tasty - almost good enough to go nude, but maple syrup is another one of those delicious amber liquids that I can't get enough of. It's your call.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The chef wants to see you

There was a fun little game the staff used to play when I worked in my last restaurant kitchen. It was called "The Chef Wants to See You," and it was a fraternal rite of passage for all the unsuspecting noobies who passed through.

It went like this:

Let's say you're the new guy. The new guy is the guy who walks around scared 99% of the time. The fear is palpable and unrelenting. It causes you to lose sleep. You are an easy target now. Noobie. You are afraid of not being able to poach an egg correctly. Of burning the top of the soupe a l'oignon in the broiler. Of slicing off your finger and then having to stay quiet because only a pussy would complain about losing a finger.

Your eyes are bloodshot from getting four hours a sleep a night. Thanks a lot, unrelenting fear. So when the sous chef tells you in a very stern, you're-in-big-trouble-now-buddy tone that the chef wants to see you, you mentally backtrack on your way down to the locker room. You make a list of all your crimes, the worst being that time you threw away a piece of perfectly good foie gras because you couldn't think of anything creative to do with it. Then you remember the time you served a salad even though you knew there were bugs in the lettuce. Man, you are so fired.

You stop at the door. You knock and then almost puke because you know this guy's a yeller. He's a kicker, too. You once saw him kick a waste basket in full-blown red hot poker anger in the middle of service, and you know he didn't give a rat's ass if the whole dining room heard him. You are dead.

"Come in."

You do. And standing there is the chef. But it's not the chef you're expecting, with his starched white coat and oddly out-of-place casual slacks.

This chef is completely nude. You are looking at head-to-toe skin.

You're confused and have what can only be described as an out-of-body experience. This can't be happening, you think. But before your mind starts going to the darker places - why is he nude? will I come out of this in tact, and not in need of intense psychotherapy? - he cackles. He has a sleep apniac's plegmy cackle. Then he hawks up a loogie.

"Are they fucking with you?" he asks as he puts on his gigantic underpants, but not before he leans over so you get a long, uninvited look at his butt crack. He then finishes getting dressed. As he heads upstairs, you hear him yelling for the sous chef.

You've been had. Only later, when another new guy takes your new guy place are you let in on the secret game. And you dream of one day saying to him in a stern, you-are-so-busted tone, "The chef wants to see you."

Monday, November 30, 2009

Perception. Reality.

For the record, I am absolutely against baked goods that come out of a cannister. By this I mean anything in the refrigerated dough section. I am so morally opposed to the idea of pre-made crescent rolls, buttermilk biscuits, and cookie dough that I find myself breaking a fine, adrenalin-induced sweat of rage just thinking that there is an entire section in the grocery story devoted to faux dough.

Which is why it pains me to tell you that this morning, I made Pillsbury Cinnamon Rolls. My memory served me well; in raw form, they do look like scraped knees that have scabbed over. And, to make matters infinitely worse, I ate one. It was a crusty chemical bomb frosted with white goop scraped out of a plastic tub. This morning at 7:36 AM, I experienced one of the lowest points in my life, even lower than throwing up Spaghettio's in the back seat of the car when I was 7.

I did it to prove a point. For years, my husband has been having a memory-driven love affair with Pillsbury Cinnamon Rolls. These things happen. For years, I had a memory-driven tryst with my grandmother's potato soup. Then one day, I made it for myself, exactly the way she used to make it. Up until that point, I didn't know it was possible for something to taste like a vaguely grainy bowl of nothing. It - the memory, that is - was good while it lasted.

Food memories aren't just about food. They're about circumstance - when did you eat the item in memory question? Were you wearing your pajamas? Were you watching TV at the time, maybe The Sonny and Cher Show or Creature Features? Did your grandparents let you stay up late while you were eating said memory item? Was your brother not punching you while you were eating the item? All these things greatly enhance the memory.

As for the cinnamon rolls, my husband told the truth. They're ok, he acknowledged. Not great, just ok. My daughter, on the other hand, loved them. Loved Them. Greatest thing ever. Greater than the greatest macaroni and cheese, the greatest pizza, but maybe not greater than the greatest chocolate cupcake. That one needs further thought. Could it be a food memory has been born?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The perfect thanksgiving. No, really.

I like thanksgiving well enough, but maybe it's time for a change. I've made the same meal - more or less - for years. I shop with my eyes closed, pull out the same stained recipes, usually add a new one just to keep it interesting for me, and then start chopping mindlessly. Today, my mojo is waning.

Maybe it's time to pull out the popcorn, the jelly beans, the buttered toast and the pretzels. In the history of Thanksgiving meals, I know of no other that is so inspiring, such a patriotic head nod to the Pilgrim experience. Besides, if it's good enough for Charlie Brown and his comrades, it's good enough for me and my in-law's.

Oh, I'm sure once they got their first look at the popcorn (which I already know I would serve in demitasse cups with a little gray sea salt), they'd think I'd finally lost my mind. Just as they had suspected. Someone at the table would reach for his Blackberry, presumably to locate the name of a good divorce lawyer to pass on to my husband. There would be a general sense of amused disdain, and a few "I told you so's." And then someone would say, "Ok, where's the food?"

But I think they might start to soften once the pretzels and buttered toast arrive, artfully arranged on our good wedding china. The jelly beans would serve as the palate cleanser - the trou normand - an inspired trio of Bubble Gum, Top Banana, and Tutti Frutti flavors. I'm anticipating a real conversion at this point, and some affirmative head nodding.

I'd then serve a flight of grape juice and a deconstructed bologna sandwich to make the meal my own, and follow it with le sundae. I would tell the in-law's that this meal is what everyone who is anyone is eating, which is why Sam Kass, the White House chef, is making it for the Obama's. I might add that Graham Elliott, and his bistronomic Chicago restaurant, is charging $275 for a trumped up version (truffle oil is used liberally, I hear), and people are actually paying.

I would wear my chef's coat and black kitchen shoes for credibility. I think they might just buy it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

If it ain't broke

When it comes to cooking, I have a severe case of ADHD. I bounce around from recipe to recipe and rarely make the same one twice, with the exception of this one. It doesn't require any hard-to-find ingredients, except maybe the apple brandy which, if you ask me, provides the perfect Julia Child sip-of-the-cooking-sherry opportunity.

In any event, here it is, the holy grail of turkey recipes.

Cider-Basted Turkey with Roasted Apple Gravy

1 cup apple cider
1/4 cup Calvados or other apple brandy (or more cider if you're in recovery)
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 Tbs. apple cider vinegar
2 tsp. dried rubbed sage
3/4 tsp. cinnamon

10 Golden Delicious apples, peeled, cored, 2 cut into quarters, 8 cut into 8 slices each
1 large onion, sliced
6 fresh thyme sprigs
8 large sage leaves

1 15 - 16 pound turkey (I usually buy a 12 pounder and the recipe works fine)
1/2 stick butter, room temperature

1 cup (or more) water

2 cups chicken broth (if using canned, use the reduced salt variety)
1/4 cup apple cider
2 Tbs. cornstarch

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and position rack in the bottom third of the oven. Haul out the roasting pan.

For the turkey, combine the 1 cup apple cider, Calvados, soy sauce, apple cider vinegar, and sage in a small saucepan. Add 1/2 tsp. cinnamon. Bring liquid to a boil and set aside.

Mix 2 quartered apples, onion, thyme, sage leaves and 1/4 tsp. cinnamon in a large bowl.

Rinse the turkey inside and out, and pat dry. Salt and pepper the main cavity and then spoon the apple mixture inside. Tuck wing tips under turkey and tie the legs together. Rub turkey breast and legs with butter. Pour half of the now cool basting liquid over the turkey. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Roast turkey for 30 minutes. Pour remaining basting liquid over turkey. Roast 2 hours, basting frequently with pan juices. Add 1 cup or more of water to pan if the juices evaporate. Add all the apple slices to pan juices around turkey. Cover turkey loosely with foil to keep it from browning too quickly.

Continue to roast until apples are tender, turkey is deep brown and thermometer inserted into the thigh registers 175 degrees, about 1 hour 30 minutes longer.

An important note - at this point, use your good judgment, a turkey thermometer - and not the clock - as to the doneness of the turkey. A turkey is like a child - it's done when it's done, and not a minute sooner.

Transfer the turkey to a platter or cutting board and tent it with foil. Let rest for 25 - 30 minutes.

The Gravy
Using a slotted spoon, transfer the apples to a bowl. Pour the pan juices into a 4 cup measuring cup. Spoon off the fat and discard. Add enough chicken broth to pan juices to to measure 4 cups. Transfer broth mixture to a large saucepan and simmer for 5 minutes. Optionally, add the reserved apples and simmer for 2 minutes more (I usually leave the apples out, but some might like the addition to the gravy). Mix apple cider and cornstarch in a small bowl. Whisk into the gravy. Boil until gravy thickens, about 2 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and voila!

An addendum: Just read about a cool addition to this: drape bacon slices on top of the turkey breast and then wrap it in cider-soaked cheesecloth before you through it in the oven. Continue basting as directed.

Monday, November 16, 2009

No apologies

As I sit here on the eve of Thanksgiving week, I think back fondly to the bountiful Thanksgiving dinners of my childhood. The Stove Top stuffing, the cranberry sauce out of a can, and the many Butterball turkeys, the highlight of which was the popping of the celebratory "ready" cork indicating that yes, this turkey will indeed be as dry and awful as the rest of them.

My mother was not a cook. As luck would have it, my step-father was not an eater. Stove Top stuffing was the culinary highlight of his year, and he would sandwich it between two slices of heavily buttered Wonder bread for a delightfully squishy bread-on-bread experience.

On a good Thanksgiving, the most we could expect was good timing. The beans and the stuffing and the turkey would all arrive more or less at the same time. On a bad Thanksgiving, it was an hours long affair as we waited for the beans (which had the misfortune of looking not just limp but actually dead), followed by the mashed potatoes ten minutes later. The turkey would make an entrance fifteen minutes after that, and the gravy not long after. All other edibles, or inedibles, as it were - parker house rolls from a bag, something mushy and orange with blackened marshmallows, an odd bowl of canned Mexicali corn - trickled out of the kitchen, sometimes accompanied by smoke, or a loud exclamation of disappointment (e.g. "Shit!!") from my mother. All this was followed by the grand finale - a cold pumpkin pie in a foil pie pan with a tub of Cool Whip and instructions to "help yourself."

I always thought everyone else ate like we did, but as it turns out, other mothers cooked. People ate real food. Vegetables even. I was the Twinkie girl whose mom handed her a $5 bill and said, "Go grab some dinner at Wendy's."

Now, I make my own. Thanksgiving dinner is the one meal I cook in its entirety each year, from appetizers and turkey with gravy to many side dishes and multiple desserts. I change it up every year, never serve anything with marshmallows, and always use the same holy grail turkey recipe. I'll pass it on tomorrow. It's time tested, and makes such delicious gravy, I might put it in a demitasse and sip it whilst gazing at a crackling fire with a purring cat at my feet.

As for thanksgivings past, my stepfather always had a peanut butter sandwich right after the meal, and then some cold KFC and a butter and Stove Top sandwich a few hours later. It was a day with no apologies.

Monday, November 9, 2009

My final resting place

I can't quite decide if I want my ashes scattered in the produce section at the Super H Mart, right next to the galangal, or in the meat department, between the black chicken and the lamb livers. They could also sprinkle me next to the wall of kimchi. Either way, this is where I want to spend eternity. In an Asian grocery store.

It's no secret that I like grocery shopping better than any other kind of shopping - shoe included. I can vividly remember specific grocery stores in my life, how they were laid out, what the donuts from their in-house bakery tasted like, whether they had frozen green apple juice, where the bathrooms were. It's a quirk.

But Super H Mart isn't a mere grocery store. It's mecca. An Asian food superstore the size of one of those megachurches with 80,000 members and seats for every single one of them. I was going to list all the sections, tell you about the strange and unappealing meats section and the section devoted entirely to housemade kimchi, and the frozen seafood section which could easily take on the Shedd Aquarium in the number of species represented. But then I realized that would require chapters. Volumes even. Super H Mart is spectacular in its spectacularness. Here's a taste.

The massive produce department has not one kind of hairy fruit, but several. What does that tell you?

Galangal, a citrus-y, earthy tasting root that looks like a gigantic prehistoric earthworm.

Banana flowers (the brown, bulbous pods) and something else, I can't remember.

The Wall of Kimchi (spicy pickled cabbage).

Shrimp with the heads on. Anyone up for a little tempura?

Bins of slimy fish and squid.

Really cheap blue crabs looking for a chance to escape.

Black chicken. No, it's not rotted. It comes from a species of chicken called a Silkie. The flesh and bones are dark blue, and they're known for their calm, friendly temperament, which probably comes in handy at slaughter time.

The food court! With Korea, China, and Japan represented, do I really need to ever go anywhere else?

The alphabetized snack aisle - here, we have the P's.

Super H Mart is located off Oakton, near Waukegan in Niles. If you're going, call me. I'll meet you there for lunch.

Friday, November 6, 2009

189 cookbooks

Heidi Swanson's Broccoli Soup from 101 Cookbooks.

I hate it when someone else comes up with the brilliant idea that you were supposed to come up with, but didn't. And you know it when you hear it. You think to yourself, that's totally my idea. Only, it's not your idea, it's their idea, and they're running with it.

101 Cookbooks. That's the brilliant idea I was supposed to have, but didn't. A woman named Heidi Swanson (she's cute and blond and interesting and a food photographer and a world traveler) was on her way out to buy yet another cookbook 6 years ago when she realized she had way too many cookbooks to be buying yet another one (me, totally). So she started poring through all her old cookbooks (me, totally) and decided to start a blog, her own personal recipe file that she would share with the world (could have been me, totally).

I have 189 cookbooks. And that was at last count, which I'm sure has grown because I, too, have a "problem" when it comes to buying cookbooks. Just ask my husband. I read them like novels, particularly at the dinner table when I'm supposed to be having meaningful conversation with my family.

The irony of all this is, the recipes aren't technically Heidi's, at least according to her. She's hawking someone else's ideas, and getting the ad dollars for them. Maybe I should start 189 Cookbooks, and just hawk Heidi's recipes, which are really other people's recipes, and get my own ad dollars. Hey, we're all trying to make a buck.

Just so you don't think I'm full of sour grapes today, I recommend you stop by 101 Cookbooks and have a look see. I already found a recipe I'm going to try: spinach rice gratin, which sounds like the perfect side dish for Thanksgiving. Even though Heidi calls it a gratin, we all know it's really just a casserole. Whatever.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Men in hats

My father didn't have nearly this much gravitas when he wore his Greek fisherman's cap back in the 70's. Probably because he also carried a man purse and wore bell bottoms. He looked like a tiny Eurometrosexual Jew with a big black moustache, headed to a Mykonos disco.

Say hello to the seventh member of the Village People.

I blame The Parthenon for his Greek transformation. We ate there almost weekly, and as a result, my father became bff's with the owners. That's when he started wearing the cap. It was as if he'd finally met his people.

We went there last night, the whole family, for the man's 77th birthday. I hadn't been there in a while. They've repainted the walls with murals of the Greek countryside, and added a few decorative columns. Doric? Ionic? Corinthian? We obviously learned nothing in 5th grade social studies.

Much like 40 years ago, we ate touristy Greek salads, dolmades and the insides of the seeded loaves of bread. We shielded our hair from the flames of the saganaki. And we ate lamb. Wait a minute. No, we didn't. 40 years of clogged arteries and heart attacks meant that everybody ordered fish instead. Except my 9 year old son, who could be seen gnawing on a Fred Flintstone lamb chop in the corner. He was the only one truly enjoying himself.

The meal ended with the longest speech in history, made by my father, who gave up his fisherman's cap years ago. We left before it was over because the aforementioned 9 year old had school the next day. But it would not surprise me a bit if the old man was still standing there tonight, glass of roditys in hand, waiting for a whole new audience. When you're the kind of guy who wears a Greek fisherman's cap and carries a man purse, you have a lot of stories to tell.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Number Nine Burgers: I really wanted to like it

For days, I've been putting off writing this post because it pains me to say bad things about people who try really hard, and the guys at Number Nine Burgers are trying really hard.

As far as I can tell, it's one lone guy, with help from his sons, slinging burgers outside Michigan Stadium on game days. He sets up his stand, complete with griddle, condiment table, and chalkboard menu, and the peeps line up. They do. I did.

He has his social media all lined up. Twitter page, blog with catchy slogan ("flippin' good burgers"), a personal story. He's even savvy enough to post on some of the Michigan football blogs, thanking people for their patronage and telling the story about how he and his son made it into Michigan Stadium for the first time on Saturday but were almost kicked out of the student section (presumably because his tickets were in another section). Two selfless students gave him their tickets, and they were able to stay. That kind of heartfelt sucking up drives business.

What we're looking at is a potential burger goldmine. A captive audience of 100,000 hungry fans. A cool logo. A college town where a good third of all retail space is vacant, and probably deeply discounted, thanks to the economy.

But then there's the burgers. I had my first one on Saturday.

Dude. Mr. Nineburger, reach out to me. We need to talk. First, using frozen, pre-formed patties does not the best burger make. The patty was thin and had fillers. The cheese was not melted. The bun was really average. You can do better.

I love your idea, but the execution just isn't there. You know the picture of the burger on your website, the one where the cheese is dripping down the side of the patty, and the bacon looks like it's on steroids? That's what each and every burger should look like. I am losing saliva over the thought of that burger. I would stand in line over and over again for that burger, but not for the one I had on Saturday.

So get your burgers in order. Add fries to the menu, preferably the skin-on kind. Get a soda fountain featuring Coke products. Find some investors (and not by asking for donations on your website - you need some deep pockets) and a good location. And then I think you got yourself a business.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Join the club

I was perusing Facebook yesterday when I noticed a friend of mine had joined the group "Cilantro Sucks." A lot of people feel this way about cilantro. Another friend of mine had this to say about the greenery several years ago.

"It tastes like ass."

He would know better than I, given his sexual proclivities. I happen to love cilantro in a big, wet, sloppy kiss kind of way, ass or no ass.

I voiced my opposition to the "Cilantro Sucks" group in the comment box, hoping that my moral outrage (and love of skirt steak wrapped in a corn tortilla, slathered with cilantro pesto) would sway public opinion. It did not. Several other people then commented on how they couldn't wait to join the group.

I've joined a lot of Facebook food groups during my short tenure there. To name a few: the I Love Chicken Potpie! club, the Put Potatoes On My Breakfast Taco and I'll Stab You In The Fucking Eye group (this will undoubtedly come back to haunt me when some guy gets stabbed in the eye over potatoes in a breakfast taco and I become a person of interest in the case because of my affiliation with the group), Del Taco, and Cape Cod Potato Chips.

I even started a group, Whatever Happened to Shanghai Minnie's?, which was a Chinese fast food restaurant in Chicago that mysteriously closed sometime in the 90's. The group now has 8 members.

So why do we join these groups? Connectivity? Camaraderie? Narcissism? Exhibitionism? And then it came to me.

We have an inherent, regressive need to define ourselves to the world - to be known - although if we're honest, it's probably more for ourselves than it is for anyone else. Remember when you were a kid and some other kid blurted out, "My favorite flavor of ice cream is chocolate!" You weren't just going to sit there and let his favorite be known, but not yours. You and every other kid in the room would start yelling out your own favorite flavor. "Mine's chocolate chip!" "Mine's blue moon!" And then there was the one kid who would go off on a tangent: "My aunt made an ice cream cake at my cousin, Max's, birthday party but it had grape jelly in it, so I didn't eat it!"

So just to let you know, my favorite soup is tomato. My favorite oil is olive. My favoite cheese is pepper jack. My favorite cookie is almond biscotti. My favorite dessert is tiramisu. And I would not eat an ice cream cake with grape jelly in it, either.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The queen of tartar sauce

When I was a sophomore in high school, I lived in a Howard Johnson's for three months. It was a hugely weird existence, but ultimately fortuitous for me since we ate out every night, mostly at the HoJo's in the lobby. And if you know anything about HoJo's, you know that they have arguably the best fried clams on the planet (even at the one on Central Expressway in Dallas, Texas).

I think I ate fried clams every day for those three months, along with fries and their perky tartar sauce. Tartar sauce is always perky, and always white trashy, and usually delicious in that puckery kind of way. You either like it or you don't, kind of like mayonnaise. I once worked with a woman who hated mayonnaise so much, she turned down a sandwich when she was pregnant - and starving and about to faint - because there was mayo on it. I also know people who eat it out of the jar with a spoon and spread it on their ham sandwiches inches thick.

But tartar sauce holds a special place in the wide world of condiments because of what usually comes with it: fried seafood. Along with spreadable cheese and Cantonese egg rolls, fried seafood is perhaps the greatest invention of the culinary world. I include in this illustrious list clams, shrimp, fish filets (which would include fish sticks, fish fingers, fish bites and any other cute bite-size names, like nibblers, fish and chips, and fish sandwiches), and crabcakes, but definitely not whitebait (young herring fried and eaten whole, head, guts and all) or smelts.

Tartar sauce is good with other fried items, too, like onion rings and fried cauliflower, presumably because the tartness of the capers and lemon juice cuts the richness of the fried parts, but it is best with fried seafood. To have one without the other would be like having Newman without Redford. Lemmon without Matthau. Richie Cunningham without the Fonz. If there is a more inspired pairing, I, for one, would like to know about it.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Stickin' it to the man

I haven't committed any crimes in my life, if you don't count the shoplifting incident in 9th grade when I lifted a deliciously slutty shade of frosty teal eyeshadow from a Korvette's in the Bronx. I paid my debt to society by getting caught, and then getting grounded for two weeks. No social life in 9th grade = solitary confinement.

So when I went to Xoco the other day - Rick Bayless' new quick service restaurant that I swore I wouldn't patron until the lines died down - I certainly wasn't expecting to be felonious or misdemeanorious or anything except law-abiding. That was before I had to find parking.

I drove around the block six times, looking for a Paybox spot. Good luck with that at high noon, so I decided to park in one of those lots where parking costs more than lunch itself. I cursed the city of Chicago and pulled in.

Normally, there's an attendant who gives you a ticket, takes your keys, and then laughs his ass off at your gullibility, since you just promised him $25 for an hour's worth of parking. But I didn't see any attendant. I waited the requisite 45 seconds, and even added 15 seconds to the 45, and still no attendant. So I pulled into a space, locked my car and went to lunch, figuring I would just pay him when I returned.

I met my friend, Bob, there. Bob and I only go to places where you have to stand in line for interminable amounts of time. We've spent more time standing in line, waiting, than we have sitting down, eating.

My thoughts on Xoco: lunch was a 15 - 20 minute wait. No diet coke. Diet pepsi. And the seating made me want to call up the architect who designed the place and say, Are you spatially retarded? The table we landed at was a communal table for six. There were two people on one end, so we sat at the other end, but before our food came, the hostess asked us to move to the middle, leaving an open space on the end for some annoying party of two to sandwich us in, which never happened, so we cozied up to our neighbors for nothing.

At that point, anything less than the best food in the world would have been disappointing. And so it went. I had a woodland mushroom torta. The bread was too crusty, the filling was a tad too salty, and the act of having to deconstruct it because the bread was too crusty was too much to ask. Bob had soup (winter squash - it was fine) and a salad, which I would imagine was also fine. But still - no diet coke and a communal table designed to completely ignore my need for just a scoche of personal space? The only reason I'll go back is for the churros, which looked twisty and delicious.

So, disappointed with lunch, I decided that maybe I shouldn't have to pay for parking. Maybe I shouldn't have to give the man $25 after a lunch that was no better than middling. Rick Bayless just stuck it to me with a long wait and a disappointing finish. I was going to stick it to System Parking, Inc.

I went over to my car, unlocked it and got in. The attendant was standing there, half-awake. I expected him to flag me down, demand $25 plus some penalty for not following protocol. But he didn't. With my friend, Bob, watching in stupefied awe, I drove away, with $25 in my pocket to buy something worthwhile, like 25 Bee Gees songs.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Three moms and a heavy metal burger bar

When the tattooed waitress at Kuma's Corner asks if you want fries with your burger, don't say, "Yes, please." Shout, "Hell, yeah, motherfucker!" like you're some kind of biker chick with a pierced nipple and a graveyard tattooed on your back. Rock your head up and down - maybe even bang it on the table - and tell her this is the best fucking tune you've ever heard in your entire life. Then finish placing your order.

I went to Kuma's today with two other moms. We did not refer to anyone as motherfucker. We entered quietly, ate quietly, and then left quietly, although our normally sedate mom jeans made quite possibly the loudest statement in the room (not counting the ambient thrashing death metal that was destroying the speakers).

Kuma's is a heavy metal burger bar, where just about every burger is named after a metal band. I did pretty well ID'ing most of them until I got to YOB, which is either a doom metal band from Eugene, Oregon or the opposite of what a good boy should be: crude, obnoxious, and violent. Needless to say, this mom did not order that burger.

The burgers here are fairly spectacular in a hard core kind of way. They're massive and meaty, and the toppings are grossly excessive: layer upon layer of different forms of saturated fat, all heaped on a pretzel roll, an interesting choice that tells me someone in the kitchen gives a rat's ass about the food. The cooks may be scary - they may be shooting heroin after their shifts. But they know how to make a burger.

I had a tough time making my final selection, with choices like the Goblin Cock (essentially a 1/4 lb. all-beef hot dog and all the Chicago fixin's on top of a 10 ounce burger), but I ended up getting the 1990's Texas metal band, Pantera (poblano peppers, jack cheese, tortilla strips). Mom #2 got a Neurosis (cheddar, swiss, caramelized onions, mushrooms and horseradish mayo), and mom #3 got a Mayhem (sliced jalapenos, pancetta, pepper jack and giardinera mayo). Every burger begins with 10 ounces of beef and from what I can tell, there's very little shrinkage. It's a massive piece of meat, and it comes with massive toppings. The namesake Kuma's burger sports bacon, cheddar and a fried egg, while the absurd Bongzilla carries a 1/4 lb. Sheboygan bratwurst, smoked gouda, caramelized onion, dusseldorf mustard, and jalapeno apple chutney, all on top of the standard 10 ounces of meat. Crazy.

As for the service, I'd call it knowledgeable, attentive, and not overly solicitous. Just how I like it. But if you had a heart attack here and dropped to the floor, I'm pretty sure the waitress would stand over you and say, "Too fucking bad," and tell the next patron to come on down and grab your chair. That's just the kind of place it is. As you might expect, it's very popular. Expect a wait.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Kangaroo burgers, anyone?

I heart Hop Haus. I went there last night for the first time, and realized that it and I were meant to be together. First, let's talk about the TV's. There's one in every booth. If you're not lucky enough to get a booth, there are 15 others scattered around the room. They're all flat screens. I thought my kids were going to wet their pants. I almost wet my pants. I also heart TV.

Although this is called a "sports pub," the food is far beyond that. All the burgers are "hand-crafted," which is kind of a silly, made-up advertising word, so let's just say this: they're the kind of burgers that are 1 1/2" thick, cooked as requested, and meaty as all get out (My 6th grade teacher, Mr. Finney, used to use that phrase - "as all get out" - so here's to you, Mr. Finney). There are 24 different permutations, including a "build your own" option, so here's your chance to put grilled pineapple and spinach and artichoke dip on your burger at the same time.

They also have wild mini burgers, which are game burgers - ostrich, kangaroo, buffalo, beefalo (??), and lamb. The burgers are dressed appropriately - the lamb burger had just the right amount of feta, cucumber salad, and slivers of red onion. They come in three's (pick your mix), or you can order them a la carte, which is what I did. The lamb burger was so delightfully juicy, it left a pool of juice on the plate, and it was a perfect example of why less is more when it comes to strongly flavored toppings.

They also have salads and sandwiches and veggie burgers and a really delicious, ambitiously garnished bowl of chicken soup. Just make sure you have at least one mini burger. You can have any of the 24 permutations as minis, too. Variety the spice of life.

Burgers and sandwiches come with fries (last night, it was the waffle variety, but on the menu, they're described as crinkle cut potato wedges with the skin on) or confetti slaw, which includes the entire produce section from Jewel, shredded and julienned. I brought home a tub of the stuff.

The desserts are the weak link. We ordered the mini cheesecake, and it came scooped like ice cream, which frankly looked like they had scraped an old piece of cheesecake out of the garbage and needed to come up with some creative way to disguise it's destruction. The brownie sundae was disappointingly average, too. But honestly, after a meal like this, do you really need dessert?

Hop Haus Rogers Park - 7545 N. Clark. Love it!

Monday, October 5, 2009

The end

I just found out that Gourmet magazine is closing. The publisher, Conde Nast, is apparently responding to the lousy economy by closing several of its lifestyle magazines, including Modern Bride and Elegant Bride. I would have to agree with those two - how many magazines dedicated to seating charts and bridal shower do's and don'ts do we really need?

But Gourmet? I immediately thought of Ruth Reichl, whom I vilified here back in July. She was the bon vivant editor who twittered incessantly about her envious, never-to-be-attained-by-anyone-else life. Maybe she should have taken Albert Brooks' advice from the scene in Broadcast News, when Holly Hunter asked, "What do you do when your life exceeds your wildest dreams?" Brooks replied, "You keep it to yourself."

Her last tweet was Saturday:

Foggy fall afternoon. Cup of lemon tea. Outside the window a deer is munching on the lawn. About to start the Saturday puzzle. Happy.

Even the mundaneness of her everyday life is magical. Here's my Saturday tweet:

Seven loads of laundry. Cat box needs to be cleaned. Sloppy Joe's for dinner. Again. My ass is flabby.

I'm sure Ruth will be just fine - I think she has a TV show in the works. Of course.

But the rest of us will miss a venue for great food writing, interesting recipes and beautiful food photography. I, for one, am really sad to see this one go.

Thursday, October 1, 2009


I'm just now coming out of the coma brought on by the cheeseburger I had at Five Guys today. Cheeseburgers do that to me - propel me into a state of profound happiness, sickening fullness, and lingering guilt that usually lasts for 36 - 48 hours.

Five Guys is like our In-and-Out Burger, and what Wendy's aspired to be 30 years ago: the fresh fast food burger chain. The meat isn't frozen, there are no fillers, and real people cook them. The patties aren't pre-formed, which reminds me of one of my favorite burger places of all time, Krazy Jim's Blimpyburgers, in Ann Arbor. There, they take golf ball shaped nuggets of meat and flatten them on the grill with a giant offset spatula (and then they yell at you, but that's another story). The edges of the meat are irregular, and they're never evenly cooked - moist here, crisp there. If you're lucky, little rogue pieces of meat break off and fall onto your deli paper, like a little gift. If you're into anal retentive patty making, this ain't your place.

In my burger world, burgers are lumped into two piles: those where the meat is seasoned and those that aren't. Fortunately, Five Guys is the former. I think the test of a great burger is the taste of the meat, plain. Too many places rely on the toppings to give the burger flavor. These are places that don't understand the soul of the burger eater.

Five Guys has good meat. It's juicy and crumbly and carnivorously meaty. My burger had cheese, lettuce, ketchup, sauteed mushrooms, and grilled onions. The topping options are plentiful, and claim to be free, even though we all know there is no such thing, except for what you pull out of a dumpster after a night of binge drinking. My husband got a plain double with a bunch of stuff on it. I didn't pay attention to his toppings because I was fixated on the fact that he didn't order cheese. Who orders a burger without cheese? Whatever.

We shared a small fries, and that was plenty. They were the skin on kind, another head nod to freshness that I appreciated, and nicely salted. And, for the crowning touch, I had a perfectly calibrated diet coke, half caf, half decaf. When a place has both caffeinated and decaffeinated diet coke in the self-serve, I'm pretty much in coca heaven. I mix and match depending on my state of wakefulness. Today was half and half.

Next time, I'll say hello to the jalapenos, and try the Cajun fries. But for now, since this meal should be with me for another 12 hours, I can think of nothing else but my cheeseburger with mushrooms.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

So long, Pita Pete's

It's a sad day when you see one of your favorite restaurants papered up and empty, like I saw Pita Pete's the other day. Not that Pita Pete's was one of my favorite restaurants. It wasn't. The service was disinterested, the pitas were dry and crumbly, and some of the fillings came out of a can. But the owner was there every day, sloggin' away at the cash register, and you gotta respect that. Trying to resuscitate a dying restaurant is a shitty job.

Pita Pete's had pitas the size of an NFL football, filled with lots of stuff. First, you'd pick your protein (anything from roast beef to tuna to gyros) and then you'd point to all the additions you wanted the surly teenager behind the counter to add (anything from shredded lettuce to giardiniera to eight kinds of cheese). I normally had the chicken gyros (maximally processed) with the typical Greek accompaniments: tzatiki sauce, cucumbers, tomatoes, and olives. It was nothing to write home about, especially if your home is Athens.

But mediocre restaurants do serve a purpose: they remind us just how good other restaurants - restaurants that we might ordinarily write off - really are. One of the things that irked me about Pete's was that their pitas weren't well thought out. They were too big, you never got to taste everything in one bite thanks to the haphazard architecture, and by the time you were three quarters of the way through, the whole thing fell apart in your lap because the pita was too thin to hold 7 pounds of canned peas, iceberg lettuce, crumbled feta and a big, wet squirt of barbecue sauce. So when I went to Cosi to get a sandwich the other day, I fell in love with the flatbread, and thanked the management, and anyone else in close proximity, for giving me a sandwich where every bite included a bite of everything. Would I have felt this way had I not grappled my way through one of Pete's pitas?

So, Pete, thanks for giving me an alternative to Potbelly's (right next door), and for being lousy enough to make me appreciate Potbelly (even when I was really sick of it). So long, my pita-making friend.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Next time, I'm going to Penang

I may have had the worst meal of my life last weekend. We went to one of those pan-Asian places, the kind that serves sushi and pad thai and sometimes, in the spirit of inventiveness, sushi pad thai. Inventiveness is something chefs should keep to themselves, in the wee hours, when no one else is looking. It almost never ends well.

But I didn't go for inventiveness; I went for laksa. I don't know much about laksa, except that it's a Malaysian bowl of noodles and the subject of an entire chapter in The Sugar Club Cookbook, which is a toney London restaurant that serves multi-cultural exotica (spicy kangaroo salad with mint). The Sugar Club makes laksas that are thrillingly full of ingredients, some good (shrimp, coconut, vermicelli noodles, mint, ginger), some not so good (oyster, squid, quail egg, pumpkin). Regardless, give me a big bowl of broth with a bunch of stuff in it, and I'm happy.

My laksa arrived, a large, dry bowl full of noodles and vegetables. The iceberg lettuce was somewhat alarming, but I'm surprisingly open-minded at the beginning of a meal. A smaller bowl containing a chunky curry liquid was set down next. I dispensed the chunky liquid into the noodle bowl and stirred it around with my chopsticks. Then I began to eat.

Immediately I noticed the threads. Tiny, coarse, hair-like threads coated everything - the shrimp, the iceberg lettuce, soon enough my tongue and throat and likely my intestines. I identified them as ginger fibers (or was it the cilia from the cook's nose?), and tried to eat through it. When that didn't work, I tried to eat around it. When that didn't work, I picked up the large lettuce leaf used as garnish, and covered what was left, a funeral shroud on a dead body.

I'm not very assertive in restaurants. Barring a bloody thumb sitting in my kung pao chicken, I usually don't alert the staff to my disappointments. This likely came from dining with my grandmother one too many times. She felt the staff of every restaurant should know exactly how she felt about the food, the service, the light fixtures, and the waitress' cavernous and exposed cleavage. I have never recovered.

So I'm crossing laksa off my list, unless I find myself in Malaysia, and in that case, I will specify, no squid, no pumpkin, and no hair, ginger or otherwise, in my bowl of noodles.

Monday, September 21, 2009

5 o'clock fries

It takes a lot of chutzpah to say, "I've had the best french fries on the planet." But I'm going to say it. Oh, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, how can you compare the duck fat fries at Hot Doug's (pretty dang good) to the spectacularly greasy ones at the now-defunct Tony's Pump Room, my favorite childhood burger joint? How can you compare the simultaneously soft and crisp cottage fries at the former Melvin's, on Rush Street, to the au naturel, skin-on beauties at Uberburger in Evanston?

But the truth is, none of them compare to 5 o'clock fries.

Because here's the thing: 5 o'clock fries are the most golden, the most perfect, the most ethereal, perfectly salted french fries on the planet. And you can only find them at one place: the McDonald's "shooting store" at 5 o'clock in the afternoon. The shooting store is a real, functioning McDonald's that has been built for the sole purpose of providing advertising agencies with an exact replica of a quintessential white-glove McDonald's in which to shoot their commercials. It's located in a crappy, broken down little town outside of Los Angeles, and most creatives I know do their damnedest to avoid writing spots that need to be shot there.

The shooting store is managed by a couple of people who have a disturbing encyclopedic knowledge of McDonald's. Not only do they know what the current crew uniforms look like down to the thread color, but they can also tell you exactly how happy the crew people should appear when greeting a customer (pleasant and happy to see them, but not effusive and gushy), and at what angle the square fish patty should sit on the round filet o'fish bun. It's a weird job.

But these McDonald's curators are also the ones who make the 5 o'clock fries, which are doled out to the agency at around 5 o'clock on a tray. They're the best McDonald's fries you've ever had because the cooking conditions are optimal: fresh oil, perfect timing, immediate service. There's a lull on the set when they're passed around and for a minute you feel ok about being in advertising and selling people stuff they don't need because you're selling these.

The makers of the fries - these McDonald's darlings - don't think they have a crappy job. They're not waiting for the end of their shift so they can go smoke some weed. They're true believers. It takes a true believer to make the most perfect french fries on the planet.

So whenever I have regular McDonald's fries, the kind you get at the McDonald's on Western near Touhy, I know they're good. But I also know what they could be. And it makes me sad for a moment when I think that I may never have 5 o'clock fries again.

Friday, September 18, 2009


You will not see me standing in line at Xoco anytime soon. Rick Bayless' notch-above-Chipotle take-out place will have to wait. Sure, I'd love to try the churros and the caldos and the chocolate caliente. But his enviable Mexican food conglomerate has turned into a megalomaniacal empire, and becoming one of his swoony subjects is not my thing.

It's not that I won't stand in lines. I'm the Michael Phelps of line standers. There was the pizza place in Scottsdale and the sausage emporium here in Chicago, and my beloved Zingerman's in Ann Arbor. I sort of think the trek to the south side for a burrito falls in the standing-in-line-for-hours category, too. Remember the two Deliverance look-alikes at the auto repair shop who almost patched my tire?

But all those places had one thing in common: they've been open for years, and people still stand in line. They've paid their dues, and so I'm willing to pay mine. Not that Rick Bayless hasn't given his pound of flesh, but his flashy newbie hasn't.

The notion of standing in line at a celebrity chef's newest restaurant to maybe catch a glimpse of the man himself saucing a plate, or to be able to say that I was one of the first 1000 people in, makes me feel like a groupie. It's icky. I'm sure the place is fabulous. Rick Bayless is my favorite Chicago chef, but I don't need to stare at him in his chef's whites while he works. I once saw him at California Pizza Kitchen with his family and that was way more interesting.

Besides, you can get Rick Bayless food with no wait at all at the Frontera Fresco at Macy's Old Orchard. The service is always painfully slow, but the menu is expanding and they now have tacos (try the shrimp and chipotle).

I'll definitely go to Xoco, but not for a while. If you want a review of the place, check out the usual suspects: Yelp, Metromix, Gourmet magazine, etc, etc. I'm sure they'll all say the same thing: Hope you like waiting.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Soup love

If you don't count the iceberg lettuce on my bologna sandwiches, I didn't eat vegetables until I was 23. I'm convinced I was supposed to be 5' 7", but the lack of essential vitamins in my diet kept me just a hair above 5' 4". Even though I never ate anything with color (blue moon ice cream being the exception), my mother never insisted I take a multi vitamin. I think the ever-present cigarette smoke swirling around her head may have clouded her judgment.

Fortunately, I now love vegetables and would happily become a vegetarian if it weren't for the giving up meat part. I might as well tell you now that vegetable soup is like a religion to me. I love it almost more than life itself, a love that started with Campbell's Vegetarian Vegetable. Thankfully, I have graduated from the can.

Early on in my culinary adventures, I was turned on to Soupe au Pistou, a rustic French vegetable soup that approximates minestrone (or is it the other way around? I'll let those hot-headed, romance language speakers duke this one out). Pistou is named after the basil paste that's swirled in at the end of the cooking process. It's kind of like pesto, except that it has tomato paste worked in. I'm not going to comment on which is better, pesto or pistou. That's just asking for someone to scream loudly in my face in a language that I do not understand.

The recipe I use (The Barefoot Contessa's, with many liberties taken) incorporates saffron, the comically expensive red threads that come from the crocus plant. The distinctive flavor of bouillabaisse comes from saffron. Too much if it isn't a good thing, and makes whatever you're eating taste like the medicinal solvent doctors used in the wild west to cure shingles.

I think you should use homemade chicken stock in this recipe. It's just better. But if you're giving me the finger right now, then use Campbell's Natural Goodness Chicken Broth. It tastes more chickeny than the rest.

Soupe au Pistou

1 large onion, chopped
4 small carrots, peeled and chopped into bite-sized pieces
1 leek, white part and a bit of the green chopped
6 small boiling potatoes, peeled and chopped
2 quarts chicken stock
a small pinch of saffron threads
a handful of haricots verts or green beans, cut into bite-sized pieces
1/2 cup spaghetti, broken into pieces (you can use other shapes, too)
1/2 zucchini

Add several Tbs. olive oil to a soup pot (Le Creuset rules!). Add the onion and saute for about ten minutes, until they're are translucent. Add the carrots, potatoes and leeks and saute for about five minutes more. Salt and pepper well to taste. Always make sure to taste your stock or broth before you start adding salt. Sometimes the canned stuff is really salty, so adding salt on top of that makes it almost inedible.

Add the stock and the saffron and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 20 minutes. Add the green beans and pasta and simmer for 15 minutes more.

In the meantime, make the pistou:

24 basil leaves (this is approximate. I used 30 one time)
1 - 2 cloves of garlic, depending on how much you like garlic
2 Tbs. tomato paste
1/4 cup of parmagiano reggiano, grated
olive oil

In a food processor, combine the basil leaves, garlic, parmagiano and tomato paste. Process to a paste, scraping the sides with a spatula if necessary. Then add enough oil to loosen the whole thing up, about 1/4 cup.

Stir the pistou into the soup. As for the zucchini, I hate it mushy. And if you put it into the soup and let it sit there, it will get mushy (and slimy). So my solution is this: right before serving the soup, cut up the zucchini in bite-sized chunks, and briefly saute it in olive oil til tender crisp.

Spoon the zucchini into the soup bowls, and then ladle the soup on top.

This is the kind of recipe that welcomes other vegetables. Omit the carrots and make it all green by adding kale and peas. Add butternut squash in the fall, along with some chopped parsley before serving. And if you really want something grand, make some croutons by cutting up some good bread in chunks and tossing them with olive oil and a little salt and pepper Put the bread in a 400 degree oven for 10 or so minutes until they just start to turn golden. Then toss in the soup. Pretty darn great.