Sunday, May 31, 2009

Mystery of the black sandwich, solved

So much for blood sausage. 

I wrote a post several weeks ago about a certain sandwich with a suspicious black filling. It belonged to one of my daughter's kindergarten classmates, "Esteban." At the time, I thought Esteban was Spanish (turns out he's Colombian), and thus suspected the ominous black goo in between the slices of white bread to be blood sausage, or blood something, given that Spain heartily embraces blood in many culinary forms. For all I know, the Spaniards embrace other bodily fluids, too, but to be honest, I'd rather not know about this. Eating blood is about all I can stomach on an early Sunday morning.  

Yesterday, I went to the source: Esteban's mother. Just as I suspected, she was more than happy to talk about her son's diet. If you're a mother, you understand this.  We mothers can converse for marathon amounts of time regarding what our children will and will not eat. We lament, but we also brag: Would you believe my daughter only eats four things, but one of them is calamari? Or: my son only eats food that's brown, but he will eat sushi rolls as long as I take out the fish, the avocado and scrape the rice off the outside because it reminds him of bugs. That sort of thing. 

She told me that beans are a big part of the Colombian diet, but that's not why she makes Esteban these frankly unappetizing black bean sandwiches. It turns out the filling, which is mashed, cooked black beans to which she adds a pinch of brown sugar and some chopped spinach, is like edible superglue. Esteban has a habit of deconstructing his sandwiches and throwing the filling in the garbage. But one would need a crowbar to pry apart a sandwich made with black bean mortar. Plus, Esteban likes the taste.  

So there you have it. A problem-solving mother with the creative genius to turn two pieces of white bread into a meal both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the International Federation of Bodybuilders would heartily endorse. Mothers do know best. 


Thursday, May 28, 2009

Iceland is for masochists

In case you're wondering, hakarl is putrefied shark. Pronounced how-kurl, it's an Icelandic delicacy that's served on toothpicks during the mid-winter festival, Thorrablot. What better way to celebrate the solstice than with a rotten cube of fish on a stick. 

I looked up "putrid" because it's one of those words that I use so infrequently, I wondered if it really meant what I thought it meant. Yep, it does: foul, rotten, morally corrupt, totally objectionable. Not exactly the kind of words you'd want to describe the hors d'oeuvre you're about to pop in your mouth. 

But I'm trying to keep an open mind.  

The state of putrefecation is achieved thusly: a shark is caught, and although this is an Icelandic dish, the species that's most often used is a Greenland shark. It's notoriously ugly, and poisonous if eaten fresh,

so the shark is gutted, and then buried for six weeks or so in a gravel pit, and then dug up and cured for another two months in the air, to rid it of its toxins. Did I mention that it is now putrid?  

A brown crust (scab unfortunately comes to mind here) that has developed during the putrefecation process is removed and the flesh is cut into cubes and eaten. The taste, according to one article I read, is like "solid urine." 

Let's get something straight right now: I am not trying this. I am not going the way of lutefisk, where I scouted out a Scandinavian delicatessen and purchased the lye-cured fish, only to have my house reek like a neglected fishery on the Northern Coast of Norway. I will not subject my family to the stink of four month old rotten shark meat just to prove I have havkarl cojones comparable to those of Anthony Bourdain, or any other culinary masochist. 

I happen to be deathly afraid of sharks - even when I'm swimming in a chlorinated pool. I think the fear stems from Largo's shark-infested death pool in the James Bond movie, "Thunderball." I have, at times, been jolted out of a routine lap swim at my health club pool by a shadow in the water, thinking in all seriousness that it was a shark. Eating rotten shark meat that tastes like solidified urine conjures up a different kind of fear and also an incredulousness because many countries have done national fish dishes very well. 

Take Great Britain. Fish and chips are delightful, particularly with a splash of malt vinegar and a pint. France has brandade de morue, or salt cod puree, which could have turned into a smelly national disgrace, except for the fact that the French are gastronomically brilliant at times, and know that when you add garlic, potatoes and cream to anything - even salted cod - you have yourself a winner. 

Then there's us. For our national fish dish, we have what? The Filet-o-Fish? Perhaps a national disgrace, but I'll take a slab of deep-fried fish - even of questionable origin - on a tartar sauce-soaked hamburger bun over putrid shark meat on a toothpick any day of the week. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Wearing a cup

I think it would be fun to dress up like a beverage and dance on the off ramp of Interstate 94.  I saw a guy doing that over Memorial Day weekend. He was wearing a Quizno's beverage cup, and having what looked to me like the best time of his life. Dancing uninhibitedly on a public roadway is more of a fantasy for me, a crazy, unbridled, adolescent lark that would probably only happen if I was falling down drunk. But I can dream. 

In a perfect world, I would be a sandwich. I like the things that go into sandwiches, and I like the idea that I could be a different sandwich everyday, with different breads and fillings. I could be a meatball sub one day and a turkey club the next. I could wear white bread or rye or a torpedo roll, which just might give me the few extra inches in height I've always wanted. Plus, sandwiches command respect, and when it comes to wearing a food suit, that's important to me. 

I wouldn't want to be a slice of pizza. The point on the slice naturally falls between your legs and there are all sorts of issues with that, pragmatic and otherwise, starting with walking. Also, felt pizza toppings are terrifically unappetizing. I wouldn't want to be a slice of cake, either, probably because cake isn't inherently funny. Wearing a cake suit is just plain humiliating, just like wearing a baked potato suit or a sauerkraut hat would be humiliating. Personified hot dogs aren't necessarily humiliating, but they are cliched, and so are dogified hot dogs - wiener dogs dressed up as hot dogs. Plus they're redundant.  

I wouldn't mind being a lobster. I'm not crazy about the antennae - they're akin to wearing an unflattering hat. But other than that, lobsters are delicious, they're red, which works well with my skin tone, and thanks to the pincers, I can pinch anyone who is annoying me. It's mostly win-win. Hey, as long as my dignity remains in tact, I'm pretty much up for anything.   

Monday, May 25, 2009

Mmm, Umami

Ever since I read this article by Malcolm Gladwell about ketchup, I've been sort of obsessed with umami. To oversimplify, a human being can taste five distinct flavors: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and the fifth, umami, which refers to the meatiness or savoriness of something. Foods like soy sauce, seaweed, mushrooms, and red meat fall under the umami umbrella. I think of it not as the meat itself, but as the craving or sensation that makes you want to eat something like meat. Those who study umami think it's primal, and has to do with our need for amino acids, which make up the protein in meat. 

I have a deep and primitive connection to umami. When I simply read about umami, my salivary glands go a little nuts. My favorite things are umami things: parmesan cheese, mushrooms, tomatoes, a good steak. So when I discovered the Umami burger, I almost wet my pants. 

It's on the menu at Umami Burger in Los Angeles. How is it that a town with so many weight-obsessed people has so many freakin' burger places? Fatburger, In-n-Out Burger, Tommy's Burger, plus all the one-off's. In a place where no one eats, who's eating at the burger places? This makes no sense to me.  

Umami Burger is geared toward the umamivore. Every burger on their menu is savory to the nth degree. The namesake burger has a roasted tomato, a shitake mushroom, a parmesan frico (a crisp parmesan wafer), and umami ketchup (with secret umami ingredients), all on top of a juicy burger, then served on a brioche bun (pictured above). Umami to the core. 

Other burgers include the Triple Pork burger, which is ground pork seasoned with chorizo and cob-smoked bacon, topped with a slice of manchego cheese and pimenton aioli (Spanish paprika mayo), as well as the Manly burger, which is dressed with beer-cheddar cheese, smoked salt onions, and bacon lardons. I could conceivably become a man if I ate that burger.

Deep down, we're all umami-loving cavemen. I know I am. That's why I like Benihana, a good portabello sandwich, and Heinz ketchup (the umamiest of them all). So next time I'm in LA, near LaBrea and 8th, I'm going to check out Umami Burger. I'll order the namesake, let all the savory juices drip down my chin in true caveman fashion, then maybe I'll do a little chest thumping. Could be interesting. 

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Godfather, part 4

The kitchen can be a gruesome place.  That's one of the reasons why I turned to pastry. The most violent thing you do in pastry is zest an orange. Pastry is powdered sugar and squiggly chocolate lines and cupcakes. Pastry chefs never have to face roasting a calf's head. 

At the beginning of my tenure at the restaurant, the pastry kitchen was under construction, so we all shared a kitchen. It was a great education for me, even if my savory comrades gave me unrelenting grief about my knife skills. One day, a very large box arrived with the shipment of meat. The sous chef, Jason, a big guy who was dog tired and unshowered most of the time, opened the box and inside was tete de veau. The head of a calf. 

I learned more about Jason at that moment than at any other. He recoiled (flash forward a couple of years: Jason ended up as the regional chef of the Whole Foods kitchens, which is pretty much granola prep and grain salads). The truth is, most of us recoiled, with the remaining few in awe - a sure sign of their homicidal tendencies.  

Jason had never taken on a head before, so he improvised. He lay the thing on a sheet pan and put it in a 400 degree oven, probably with a little salt and pepper, and a few sprigs of thyme. He then lay in wait.

There's something very unsettling about having a head in the oven. It isn't like a cake or a tart or a potato gratin. It has eyeballs that stare at you whenever you check for doneness. And enormous teeth. It was like Mr. Ed meets Ed Geen. 

We all shared in Jason's anxiety, every time he opened the oven to peer in. The head was enormous, not quite as statuesque as a horse's head, but it took up the entire interior of a very large oven. Then there was the question that was on everyone's mind: how do you know when a head is done?  

Jason pulled the huge thing out of the oven to get a better look. I was at the other end of the line, committing some unspeakably violent act on the Bing cherries. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jason bending over the head, poking and prodding. Just then, he let out a blood-curdling yet still somehow manly scream, and jumped away from the head. 

Several of the cooks ran over to him. Jason's glasses were glazed with some sort of slimy film, and he was wiping his face with a towel. 

"What the hell happened?" one of the cooks asked.
"The freaking eyeball exploded," Jason replied, pulling slime out of his hair. It's the old exploding eyeball trick. Good one. 

Lesson number one when cooking a head: score the eyeball with a knife. If you don't, you risk getting sprayed with searingly hot eyeball juice when the eyeball explodes from the pressure build-up. 

If you're wondering how tete de veau is served, I contend it doesn't really matter. Head meat is head meat, no matter how you disguise it.  


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

When Bruce Jenner comes a knockin'

I went to the first meeting of the Burger of the Month Club, Chicago chapter, completely confident that I would immerse myself in burger gestalt and nothing else. TopNotch Beefburgers seemed like just the place to do that. It's a dumpy restaurant on the South Side where you can wallow in the meatiness of the meat. The squishiness/toastiness of the bun. The hallowed deliciousness of the condiments. But there was another, more pressing issue. 

We had a visitation. Bruce Jenner appeared on a pickle slice. 

We all saw it. The weirdly empty button eyes. The shiny, taut post-op skin. The cutesy elfin nose that sadly cried out, "I just want to be a little girl!"

Perhaps it was a sign of the fall of modern civilization. Or maybe, Top Notch Beefburgers puts so many pickle slices on every plate, it's statistically likely you're going to spot a celeb. If it wasn't Bruce Jenner, it would have been Elton John or Larry King. Or Billie Jean King. Or Don King. There were a lot of pickles. 

I ordered a patty melt and would hold it up against any gold standard patty melt around. The rye bread which, to me, is the defining element of the patty melt, was toasted just right. Not too soft, not too crunchy. There were two slices of cheese - one on top of the patty and one on the bottom - and just the right proportion of grilled onions. The meat itself was more juicy than greasy, and sized just right to balance harmoniously with the rest of the elements, in a Zen kind of way. 

As for the burgers, several BOTM members got the double cheese and the rest got a single burger. The bun on the double was very impressive. I've never seen such evenly scattered sesame seeds, which I can only attribute to having an anal retentive seed scatterer on the job. There was no shortage of lettuce, sliced onion, and tomato for those who like a little vegetation with their burger. The general consensus: Top Notch produces Top Notch burgers, with one dissenter, who deemed it OK Notch.  

I'd also like to give a head nod to my Diet Coke. It was a lovely mix of syrup and carbonation. I'm a stickler for this. A fellow Coke drinker had the same bubbly good experience. 

I took possession of the Bruce Jenner pickle and what happened in the hours following was disturbing, to say the least. Let's just say the aging process was not kind to Mr. Jenner.  

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Running on donut love

If I ever go to The Doughnut Plant, I will starve myself for days prior, so that I can have seven or eight donuts. Or maybe even nine. Choosing at The Doughnut Plant isn't like choosing at Dunkin' Donuts, where you have the choice between the donut-flavored donut and the other donut-flavored donut. At The Doughnut Plant, you can have a tres leches donut or a hazelnut donut or a square yeast-raised donut with homemade strawberry jelly filling and a peanut butter glaze (I would not choose this, but I appreciate those who would).

There are also two chocolate donuts: the Valrhona glazed and the blackout (above), which is a chocolate cake donut with chocolate pudding in the middle, rolled in chocolate cake crumbs. I would choose both of those, along with the creme brulee donut (caramelized sugar on top, brulee custard inside), the coconut cream, the meyer lemon, the pistachio, and for my finale, the yeast-raised strawberry glazed, mostly because the glaze is made with fresh fruit and I don't even know what that tastes like anymore. Then I would wash it all down with a quart of milk, and prepare myself for a long turn in the bathroom. 

The guy who started The Doughnut Plant, Mark Israel, is one of those fanatical bakers who pulls all-nighters in the name of donut perfection. God love him. When he first started out, he worked in the basement of a lower east side tenement in New York, baking all night, then he'd hop on his bicycle and deliver his donuts first thing in the morning. People like this apparently don't need sleep. Ever. They run on sugar and caffeine and adrenalin and donut love. I could run on donut love, but only for a few days before collapsing in a sticky heap. 

Now, there are several Doughnut Plants in New York, as well as a bunch in Tokyo (which explains all the Japanese signage I found when I was looking for photos). You can also get them at Dean and DeLuca's and Zabar's, which is all well and good except for the fact that I live in Chicago. 

I know I'm going to get death threats for saying this but, I'm not crazy about Krispy Kreme. They always leave a filmy, chemically aftertaste that I find to be cloyingly annoying. Or is it annoyingly cloying? In any case, this may be due to the fact that I know I have options. I know that Mark Israel is pureeing strawberries as we speak, and roasting hazelnuts and working on all sorts of cool donut inventions (his square jelly filled donuts have holes in the middle and filling around the perimeter - love that!). 

So while I might eat the Krispy Kreme kruller, I'll be dreaming about tres leches and Italian plum jelly and roasted walnuts, and wondering, why doesn't The Doughnut Plant plant one in Chicago?

Friday, May 15, 2009

I want more salad in my salad

There comes a day in every copywriter's life when the devil pulls up in a powder blue Coupe de Ville with a contract to sign. It's tempting to sign that contract, because not only will the client shower your forehead with gold stars, but you will also reap the benefits of a production trip. Expensive hotels, 400 thread count sheets, elaborate dinners every night. In turn, your peers will revile you. But the real punishment is having to watch the monitor over and over again as you edit the thing you've created, seeing what you have wrought. 

The Coupe de Ville pulled up to my office door when I got the McDonald's Salad assignment. That's when I wrote a bonafide jingle. For a salad. A salad jingle. It was called "I Want More Salad in My Salad." I wasn't required to write a jingle; I chose to do it. I chose to write the lyrics, "I want a salad with lots of stuff, carrots, tomatoes I love so much." I think I even managed to get the word "crouton" in there somewhere, and then experienced one of the darkest days of my career when I had to listen to the singer try to sing it with conviction.  

But now, with the humiliation behind me, there's something to be said for wanting more salad in your salad. There seem to be two major schools of thought on the subject. There's the Alice Waters School (of Chez Panisse and now the White House), which advocates fancy lettuces. Sometimes, on her menus, it just reads "Garden Lettuces."  I imagine the cooks spend an inordinate amount of time in her kitchen, neurotically scrutinizing the leaves, holding them up to the light, comparing notes, and then making discrete piles of good, better, and best. People like Mikhail Baryshnikov probably get lettuce from the best pile, while I would get lettuce from the good pile. Either way, you're just getting a pile of lettuce. That's the Alice Waters School of Salad. 

Then there's the Nancy Silverton School (of Mozza and a personal hero of mine). She espouses the chopped salad, which is an amalgam of strong flavors plus lettuce and a vinegar-y dressing, all chopped and tossed together. It is a perfect example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Nancy's recipe has provolone, salami and garbanzo beans in it, in addition to lettuce, tomatoes, olives, and basil. The dressing is a garlicky red wine vinaigrette, and it's not for lovers of the bland.  

While I think Alice Waters' salad has a place at the table, we're essentially talking about a salad with balls vs. a salad without. A leafy green eunuch, if you will.  Suffice it to say, I'll take the former every time. 

Nancy's Chopped Salad (adapted from The Food of Campanile by Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton)


1/4 cup red wine vinegar
juice of one medium lemon
1 tsp. kosher salt (to taste)
1 tsp freshly cracked or ground black pepper (to taste)
1 tsp dried oregano
1 garlic clove, minced
3/4 cup olive oil

1/4 head iceberg lettuce, chopped in 1/2" pieces
1 medium tomato, cored, seeded, and cut into 1/4" dice
4 oz. provolone cheese, cut into 1/4" dice
4 oz. salami, cut into 1/4" julienne
1 cup cooked garbanzo beans
1/4 cup red onion, minced
1 bunch fresh basil, julienned
kosher salt and pepper
fresh lemon juice
About 20 Nicoise or other good olives

For the dressing, whisk together the vinegar, lemon juice, salt, pepper, oregano and garlic. Slowly whisk in the olive oil and set aside. 

For the salad, combine the lettuce, tomatoes, provolone, salami, garbanzo beans, and the minced onion. Now add some of the vinaigrette and toss. You want the dressing to coat everything, but not drown it, so you'll have to taste as you go. When you have the dressing/salad proportion to your liking, add salt, pepper and lemon juice to taste. The lemon juice should heighten the flavors of the salad, not overwhelm them or provide too lemony of a flavor. 

To serve, sprinkle the olives and julienned basil on top.

The great thing about chopped salad is that you can add, subtract or substitute as you wish. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Man, I hate tofu

I've been thinking about tofu a lot lately, and I have not been having nice thoughts. I'm feeling a little guilty about it; tofu never did anything to me. But the thing is, I just don't understand the stuff. No matter how cleverly you disguise it, it's still just a jiggly block of flavorless white stuff. Sure, it provides protein. But so does a triple with cheese from Blimpyburger.   

The things they do with tofu annoy me to no end. I like miso soup, but I hate those little wiggly cubes of tofu hiding at the bottom of the bowl, like unwelcome piranha ready to eat the flesh off my lips. I hate when perfectly good Chinese stir fry is ruined with conspicuous blocks of tofu. For God's sake, go the distance. Trade up for the chicken. 

But nothing irritates me more than tofu facsimiles. Tofu chicken nuggets, tofu smokey links, tofu "ground beef." All of it -  it all pisses me off. I just read a review of something called Tofu Pups, so-called imitation hot dogs. The reviewer warned, "Don't expect this to taste like a hot dog - it's much softer." How much softer? Pudding soft? Malt-o-Meal soft? Am I going to have to pour this pup into the bun? 

How could we have let this happen? Why hasn't the inventor of Tofu Pups been detained and his license revoked? Why hasn't he been made to suffer some public humiliation, like maybe a mass upchucking of his product on the ground, at his feet, while the retching sounds are amplified on the Millenium Park sound system? 

We need a group of people in badass uniforms, built like The Rock, with pepper spray and nunchucks, who aren't afraid to kick some ass when someone puts a tofurkey in the oven on Thanksgiving.  

We need the Tofu Police. Anyone with me on this?  


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Tweaking Martha

I really want to like Martha Stewart. She's smart, capable, has good hair, likes to eat, and is confident picking paint colors. I like that she did hard time. I like to imagine her in the Clink, teaching the sisters how to embroider their initials on to pillow cases. I'm convinced that her biggest obstacle to likability is using too much starch in her button down shirts. And I think she might even have a sense of humor, underneath all the shellac that prevents her from having real facial expressions. 

But I'm not that crazy about her banana bread recipe. I'm like everyone else in that I'm always looking for a better banana bread recipe. For a while, I used Gale Gand's recipe. She's a pastry chef here in Chicago, and besides being very talented, she's also very nice, which makes her banana bread taste even better. But her recipe uses two sticks of butter. That's a half a pound, which is like adding 20 cholesterol points to your next round of blood work. So unless she makes Lipitor part of the recipe (2 cups of flour, 2 sticks butter, 40 mg. Lipitor....), I need to find another option. 

I tried Martha's recipe, but it's pretty uninspired. With a little tweaking, I think I've made it into the recipe it was meant to be. It's not a complete makeover, just a little nip and tuck to make the original more palatable. Too bad I can't do this with Martha herself. 

Tweaked Banana Bread

1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup minus 1 Tbs. sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour (Whole Foods has this)
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp salt
3 very ripe bananas
1/2 cup lowfat sour cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 - 2 Tbs. ground flaxseed, optional
1/2 cup chopped nuts, optional

Preheat oven to 350. Spray a standard loaf pan with cooking spray. 
In a food processor, combine the bananas, sour cream and vanilla, and puree. It will be quite liquid (this helps the bread stay moist throughout). 
With an electric mixer, cream the butter and the sugar until well combined. Add the eggs, and beat until combined. 
Sift the dry ingredients (minus the flaxseed) together and add to the butter. Beat just until incorporated. Stir in the banana mixture, and then the optional flaxseed and nuts. You can use a spatula or wooden spoon to do this. 
Pour into the loaf pan. As always, place the loaf pan on a sheet pan and bake on the middle rack, turning once mid-bake, for about an hour. When it's done, the banana bread will feel lightly springy to the touch. This is the best way to check for doneness. Let cool.

The original recipe had 1 cup of sugar, and I thought it was far too sweet. If the above amount is still too sweet for your taste, reduce it by another tablespoon, and see how that works for you. If you can't find whole wheat pastry flour, use plain old whole wheat flour, which you can find at Jewel or Dominick's. The bread won't be as fine-textured. Not a big deal. 

Monday, May 11, 2009

Meet the Staff, Part 2: the Night Stalker

If you're going to equip an entire room full of people with a variety of sharp knives, it would be a good idea to know beforehand if any of them is the second coming of Richard Ramirez.

There were two morning bakers in my former pastry shop, Floresmilo and Julio. Floresmilo, Flores for short, was a small, Mexican version of Dick York, but without the perpetually flummoxed look on his face. He was an even-keeled workhorse, turning out hundreds of pounds of cookies, muffins and breakfast pastries every day. 

Julio was another story. He was the seasoned elder of the kitchen, probably in his early 50's. He never spoke. Ever. He was tiny, too - Michael J. Fox tiny - and he had a head of wild, gray Beethoven hair. He walked around the kitchen, sharpening his knife on his steel, grinding it down, while he stared at the other bakers. It was a little unnerving, but I didn't think much of it at the time; I had a thousand pounds of buttercream to make. 

Julio also used to pull hot sheet pans out of the oven with his bare hands. If you want to know whether someone is a sociopath, here's clue #1: They feel no pain. If your hands can serve as oven mitts, I'm willing to bet you're a sociopath. 

Clue #2: They stare everyone down, as if they're trying to imagine what each person might look like dead or decapitated. 

Clue #3: They corner you in the walk-in early one morning and profess their love for you. In an insistent way. And they won't take 'no' for an answer. 

And that's what happened to me, early one morning, in the refrigerated walk-in. I was looking for tart fillings, which is what I did every morning. At 5:30 AM, of the several million synapses that fire away information in my brain, only about 40 are actually working. It was just enough to get the various fillings straight. Brulee, lemon curd, milk chocolate mousse and white chocolate mousse.  

So I was hardly even aware when Julio came into the walk-in. I had a couple gallon containers in my arms and was on my way out when he stepped in my path. He looked straight at me and said, "I love you." 

My mouth was probably agape. Wha? I had never even spoken to this man. And then surprisingly quickly, honors Spanish kicked in. Or rather, it didn't kick in because only 40 synapses were firing. So here's what I managed to say: "Tengo un novio." I have a boyfriend. What I really wanted to say was "Get the fuck out of my way, you tiny little motherfucker, or I'll kill you," or something to that effect. Those are the kinds of things that come to mind when you're cornered in a virtually airtight, dimly lit walk-in at 5:30 in the morning. 

He was speaking English to me, and pretty well, I might add, so I'm not sure why I kept saying, "Tengo un novio, tengo un novio." Especially because I had more than a boyfriend, I had a husband who happened to be 6' 2", and that's what I should have said. "Get the fuck out of my way, you tiny little motherfucker, or my 6' 2" husband will kill you." 

Then he said it again, "I love you," along with, "I want to take you on a date." The more I shook my head and followed it with "No," the more he proclaimed his desire to date me. I finally pushed my way past him, and got out. 

Several things were going through my head: I could probably take him, he's pretty small; should I grab a knife and if so, which ones were most recently sharpened? I felt threatened by this tiny sociopathic Beethoven with asbestos hands. So I consulted Rafael, the head baker, who acted as language go-between in the kitchen. I told him what happened and asked him to explain to Julio that I was married, etc, etc...

There was definitely some awkwardness because of having to be in the same room with him for 12 hours a day, but I thought it was over. Then about a month later, it happened again. He cornered me in the walk-in and told me he loved me. Again, I consulted Rafael. 

Then I started carrying scissors around with me, not in the kitchen, but in the dark maze of hallways that led to the bathrooms and the adjacent supply room. I had my husband pay a few visits, just so Julio could feel his presence. And as luck would have it, I had given notice a month earlier, so my days there were numbered anyway. I kept the scissors close right up until my last day. 

Four years later, I was home one night with my husband and the phone rang (doesn't the phone always ring in stories like this?). I was six months pregnant with my first kid. My husband answered the phone and then said, "Just a minute, please." He handed the receiver to me. 

"Wendy, this is Julio. Do you remember me?" It only took me a split-second to remember everything. Now all million plus synapses were firing away. 

"No, I don't," I said, and I hung up. 

I still don't know how he found me. He left the pastry shop soon after I did four years earlier, and no one had seen him since. He's probably still out there today, the man with the oven mitt hands. I think I could probably take him. 

Sunday, May 10, 2009

My mother's cooking

I sometimes wonder how I ended up in a professional kitchen. So many chefs and cooks trace their love of food back to their grandparents' vegetable gardens or their aunt's spectacular apple kuchen, or their mother's elaborate and tasty Sunday night dinners complete with homemade scratch biscuits. 

My mother's domain was the can. She was - and still is - an Olympic-caliber opener of cans. She did it with dedication and commitment, but also with a certain youthful panache, which I attribute to her swingy Vidal Sassoon hairdo. She also excelled at reading the directions on packages and boiling cryovac'd bags. She and Stouffer's were the closest of friends.  

But that's not to say my mother never cooked. Every now and then, she would turn on the stove, which was an exciting and unpredictable event because there was always the threat of breaking a nail, which would then require an emergency follow-up trip to the manicurist. 

Her signature dish was Creamed Tuna Fish on Toast. It was my favorite thing in the whole world (for a very brief period in 1972) and it involved a can of tuna, a can of peas, and a white sauce made with Wondra flour, milk and no seasoning whatsoever. If the Bland and Mushy Food Gods were in especially good spirits that day, mashed potatoes would replace the toast.  Not to brag or anything but she used real potatoes. 

My mother had a second signature dish, this one more boldly avant garde than the first. The open-faced construction demonstrated her skill with color and architectural proportion. She started with a slice of white bread. On top of that was a slice of American cheese, then a raw hot dog, sliced lengthwise and placed face down on the cheese-topped bread. Then, in a style that can only be described as I-don't-belong-in-the-kitchen post-modern, she scattered pieces of green pepper and tomato on top of the dog. Add another slice of American cheese, torn into irregular strips and strewn haphazardly across the top, a quick trip to the broiler, and you've got a simultaneously hot and cold, cooked and uncooked, burnt and barely melted open-faced sandwich. You also have some pretty potent indigestion. 

My mother was also pretty good at driving us to White Castle. But I'll save that for another post. 

Friday, May 8, 2009

The few, the proud....

As of today, I'm officially in recruitment mode. I was inspired by my fellow burger eaters in New York who have plenty of good reasons to pursue the lofty dream of a monthly burger tasting. I'm hoping we in Chicago can live up to those tough Gotham standards with the newly minted Burger of the Month Club - the Chicago chapter. 

I've pulled in some pretty heavy hitters to accompany me on this monthly foray into the sometimes seedy but always sensorially rewarding world of burgers. So far, two Jews, an Italian, and maybe a German/Irish/Dutch guy have signed on. A little lady in Austin, Texas is so moved by the pursuit, she wants to start her own chapter there. We will help her find the way. 

Unlike the Army, I won't recruit just any guy who walks in off the street. Though I love those who love vegetables, there are no vegetarians allowed. I can just see it now: an insidious underground counter-blog, dissing us in all of our red meat glory. Likewise, no vegans, raw foodists, those with extreme food allergies (I'm having visions of requests for soy cheese), PETA members (I foresee another counter-blog, this one well-funded and written by supermodels), or those who ask for sauce on the side. As for those who keep kosher, you'll have to square it with your God. I'm not getting in the middle of that one. 

We will meet once a month on a day convenient for everyone. Each month, a different member will choose the venue. Our brothers in arms in New York are so prideful, they pre-test their burger of choice, lest they suffer humiliation should it not be up to snuff. In Chicago, we don't blame the taster for a lousy burger; we blame the cook.  

The scoring will be an uncomplicated point system. A burger can achieve a high score of 100. There's no need to define what makes a great burger here. Experienced burger eaters know it when they see it, smell it, taste it, and get it on their clothes.    

I will try to cobble together some sort of official Burger of the Month - Chicago chapter scorecard, complete with a section for personal comments. Writing implements will not be furnished, so please bring your own. 

Fries will not affect the scoring. Great fries do not a great burger make. And vice versa. 

Each month, a post will be dedicated to the outing. The reportage will be honest but fair, and uncompromising. Burgers are serious business. I will treat them as such. 

With that, I happily inaugurate the Burger of the Month Club - the Chicago chapter! Inquiries are welcome in the comment section. Current members, I'll be in touch....


Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The mystery of the black sandwich

Today I was on KP duty for my daughter's kindergarten class. It was the Teacher Appreciation Day luncheon, so I volunteered, along with two other mothers, to supervise lunch and recess while the teachers got a break from our lunatic kids. I want to confess here that the only reason I did it was to be able to write about it (I know; I'm a bad mom). I thought there might be some important sociological or anthropological learning to be gleaned from the experience. OK, fine. I was hoping for a funny story, like a kindergarten food fight or a dropped bologna sandwich that resulted in a bologna slip-and-fall. 

But there was nothing. No exploding ketchup packets or cheez doodles inserted in noses or even bad behavior. And let me tell you, I looked. I stared down those kids as they ate, looking for tics or nose-picking or anything that I could turn into a blog post. Nothing!   

Then I discovered "Esteban." Esteban is a dark, quiet Spanish boy who looks like a future soccer player, although right now he is the size of a thimble. He was holding what appeared to be a normal sandwich. But upon further examination, I realized that between the two slices of white bread was something black. Not dark purple, like grape jelly. Not brown like....well, I don't know what would be brown. It was black. 

I remembered a conversation I had with my friend, Michelle, who is currently living in Spain, about morcilla. Blood sausage. Its color ranges from dark brown to black.  Given that Esteban is Spanish, I was starting to feel relatively certain he was eating a blood sandwich. 

I personally don't eat blood. I once saw Pierre Franey, a French food personality, eat an omelette in which congealed chicken's blood had been chopped up and folded in, much like one might fold in chopped mushrooms or spinach. The chicken had been decapitated and hung upside down over a plate. The resulting substance looked like dark burgundy jello. No, thanks. 

To be fair, the sandwich filling could have been Marmite, which is a nasty, very dark brown British yeast spread. It's like the crotchety old crone version of deviled ham, with old man breath. Either way - blood sausage or Marmite - the mystery of the black sandwich and Esteban the blood eater lives on. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

All this for a burrito

It's impossible for me to embark on a road trip in search of food without some kind of chaos ensuing. Today, on my way to the only Del Taco in the entire state of Illinois, I found myself on S. Cicero Ave. with a flat tire. I felt it first. Then I heard it. Then a cabbie with a turban pulled up next to me and started pointing at my rear wheel with a disapproving look and a shake of the head, like it was my fault instead of the junkyard they call the Stevenson Expressway. 

Fortunately, S. Cicero has a gas station every 100 feet. But have you noticed that gas stations aren't gas stations anymore? They're convenience stores with gas pumps. So the woman in the sari behind the bullet-proof plexiglas was about as interested in changing my tire as I was. But she did point me to the auto repair shop next door where, according to the sign on the wall, customer service is their number one goal. Lucky for me. I talked to a guy who looked like Jon Favreau in the pudgy years. Thankfully, I didn't have to talk to the other two guys who looked like the banjo players in "Deliverance." 

Half an hour later, and $20 poorer, I was on the road again, with the offending shard of tire-piercing scrap metal on the dashboard. For those of you who don't live in Chicago, this part of town is not picturesque. It's a dirty, 7 mile long strip mall with a disproportionate number of Just Tires and White Castles.  The Motel D-Lux has free movies and mirrored water beds, and hopefully a hose down service. I will not be staying there any time soon. 

All this for a burrito. And it's not as if it's the best burrito in the world, if there even is such a thing. It's just that the Del Beef Burrito encapsulates my entire high school experience. I ate one at least three times a week during my junior and senior years. And while friends of mine used Del Taco as a late night, post-drinking food emporium, I actually ate there for dinner, and always in my car, which was a 1978 white Camaro Z-28 with light blue vinyl interior. It was the coolest fashion accessory I owned, and made me infinitely cooler than I really was. Which is why I never wanted to get out of it. 

As for the burrito, it hasn't changed a bit. It's the exact same flour tortilla wrapped around the exact same seasoned ground beef and shredded cheese. No lettuce, no tomato, no beans. It's neat and tidy and definitely not as big as my head, or anyone else's. Which is just how I like it. The Del Beef comes with little packets of hot sauce. The original Del hot sauce is now considered the mildest version of the expanded line of three. Inferno is the hottest, but definitely manageable. 

The drive-thru is open 24 hours a day, so if I ever find myself drivin' around in my station wagon at 2 AM, jonesin' for a Del Beef Burrito, I now know where to find one.  

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Come on baby light my fire

Whenever I encounter sterno, I'm reminded of the time my brother set fire to the curtains at Geja's. He was 11 at the time, and prone to such things. You'd think my parents would know better than to bring two kids to the restaurant voted "Most Romantic" ten years in a row by Chicago Magazine. It was a dark fondue lair, and some of the tables were surrounded by billowy curtains that concealed any fondue-induced groping. 

We were sitting at such a table when my brother held a candle up to the diaphanous fabric and whoosh! Flames. Fortunately, my parents were lightning fast and the damage didn't interrupt the couple making out in the next enclave. We were never taken there again. Which is a shame because I love cheese fondue. 

But there's a lesson to be learned here. Interactive dining - anything that involves sterno or cooking at the table -  is enthralling for kids. Maybe it's the inherent sense of danger, the idea that the table might ignite at any moment. Consider Benihana. The food's good but the highlight is definitely the onion ring volcano. The kids are just waiting for someone to scream, "Look out! She's gonna blow!" so that they can hit the deck. 

Last night, we went to Hai Yen, a Vietnamese place on Argyle, which I highly recommend. They have the best Pho in town which, incidentally, is pronounced "Fuh" -  like "duh" -  which is what I said to myself after the waiter corrected me the first time I ordered it.  They also have volcano-shaped griddles fueled by sterno for cooking thin slices of meat marinated in garlic and lime zest. And who doesn't love softening rice paper in bowls of warm water and then making roll-ups with them? It's like arts and crafts, eating, and fire play all rolled up into one exciting evening. Cirque du Soleil's got nothing on this. 

We also learned another valuable lesson: when the menu is in Vietnamese (or any foreign language for that matter), it's virtually impossible for the kids to complain that there's nothing here they can eat. 

God bless the short order cooks

Apparently, the Virgin Mary made an appearance on the griddle of a California restaurant this week. Of all the places that have claimed a heavenly sighting, this one I actually believe. If she's going to grace us with her presence, do you really think it's going to be on an underpass wall beneath the Kennedy Expressway?  

No, it's going to be where bacon sizzles and eggs scramble. Since it's in a border town, I'm guessing Las Palmas restaurant also has a breakfast burrito or two, and some frijoles. Even more reason to pop in and grab a bottle of hot sauce for the table while you wait for a sign from the man upstairs. 

I had my own run-in with the griddle today. We were having lunch at Pita Pete's in Evanston. I ordered a chicken gyros, which is sort of like a SteakUmmm (see previous post), but with chicken instead. At least I think it was chicken.

As I moved down the pita assembly line, from condiments to the cooking of the meat, I came face-to-face with a Latino version of "Moe" from The Three Stooges. He was griddling my chicken-like sandwich meat. His outfit was standard prison issue, his hair, the Moe Howard special. You have to admire a grown man with the cojones to wear bangs. 

As for the Virgin Mary, I'm looking for her to show up in a deep fryer some day soon. That's another place where miraculous things can happen. 

Friday, May 1, 2009

Bringing back the dead

It pains me in a small way to write about a place you'll never be able to visit. But maybe, just maybe, you can recreate what made the now-defunct Killer Shrimp so great in the first place. God knows, it wasn't the ambience or the room. Killer Shrimp was on the second floor of a strip mall in Venice, California. You sat on the "patio" inhaling exhaust fumes from cars passing by and wisps of gassy smoke from the tiki torches. 

The shrimp, however, was devastating. It was the peel-and-eat kind and it came in broth. Broth is such an inadequate word here because what we're really talking about is a seductive, hypnotic potion that flirted ever-so-slightly with evil. I'm losing focus just thinking about it. It was buttery with a hint of rosemary, garlic, and tomato, and had a bad boy heat that was more like a push and a shove than a gimpy kick. They also gave you a big bowl of sliced baguette to use as you saw fit. 

I won't even discuss the other two versions - rice and pasta - because the shrimp came peeled. The whole point of the seductive, hypnotic potion was to envelope you and osmose into your pores and affect the way you think and feel about the world as you peeled. At least that's what happened to me. 

I found this recipe among several others claiming to be the genuine article. I had a karmic Killer Shrimp connection to this one, so I will be making it this weekend. If you don't like shrimp, make the seductive, hypnotic potion anyway. Pour it into a couple of glasses, and drink it. You won't be sorry. 

Killer Shrimp

2 Tbs. rosemary
5 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tsp. ground black pepper
1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
1 tsp celery seed
1/2 tsp fennel seed
1 cup white wine
2 quarts chicken broth
8 oz. clam juice
3 oz. tomato paste
1/2 pound butter
2 lbs. shrimp, shells and tails on

Roughly chop the rosemary and fennel seed. Place all the ingredients except the wine and the shrimp in a large pot. Simmer for about an hour. Add wine and continue to simmer for about an hour more. Just before serving, add raw shrimp and cook for 2 to 3 minutes.  Serve a big ladleful of broth and a bunch of shrimp in each bowl, with sliced baguette (nothing too fancy here) on the side. 

This is enough for 4 or 5 or even 6 people, but I could eat the whole thing myself, with a large bowl of sliced Gonnella bread and a cold beer.