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.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Hell hath no fury like someone forced to listen to annoying jingle lyrics

Well, this is a first. As I was going through my reader stats - something I try to avoid, as I really dislike saying to my husband, "Look! One person visited today" - I came upon a new comment on an old post about a jingle I had written for McDonald's salads seven years ago.

The jingle was called "I Want More Salad in My Salad," and it was catchy. Very catchy. Annoyingly catchy, to the point of wanting to thrust a long metal rod through your brain in hopes of destroying the temporal lobe so you'd go instantly deaf. I know - I had to listen to it for 2 weeks straight as we edited the commercial, and then again another several hundred times once the client made changes and we had to re-edit.

Ironically, my husband came across the spot a week ago (I thought I had craftily hidden it in our computer's hard drive) and played it before I could yell, "STOP!" I hadn't seen it in six years. It was so freaking catchy, I started bopping up and down against my will, and then almost flung myself out the window.

The commenter revealed that she had googled the jingle, and came across my blog. Presumably she googled it because she wanted to find the perp and kill her (me) with a rusty spike and some hydrochloric acid. The jingle has apparently been playing in her head for some time now, and is showing no signs of slowing down.

To the person who made the comment: I'm sorry you wake up with this salad song playing in your head seven years later. I'm sorry the words "crispy chicken" keep you up at night. If you need something to glare at (as you indicated in your comment), feel free to glare at the picture of me in my unflattering student whites. I feel your wrath. I feel your pain. I will never write another jingle again.

Friday, September 11, 2009


I went to a place called Falafill the other day. It's a tiny, modern falafel joint with a name that's trying way too hard to be wink-wink clever. I should confess here that I'm particularly sensitive about names, thanks to all the naming sessions I had to endure in advertising. We creatives always got suckered into it by weaselly research people who spent weeks planning the event (if you looked at their day planner, it would read IDEATION SESSION IN SIX DAYS!!!!!! and count down from there). The winning name would always have "craves" in it (e.g. PuddinCraves) - an ass-smooching move if there ever was one. Clients love to think - and most of the time actually believe - that people crave their product, mostly because one lonely housewife in a Romeoville focus group said she did, therefore the entire population must. I love advertising.

But we're talking about Falafill, and the name is exactly what happens there: you get a falafel and then you fill it up with a variety of colorful condiments. And - here's the triple entendre - it consequently fills you up.

I checked it out on Yelp first. There were a lot of complaints about the incidentals: there were no trays, the place is too small, they wouldn't give one disgruntled guy extra condiments. It would take a lot - a curly hair in my baba ganoush, witnessing the cook in the bathroom using his bare hand to wipe - for me to focus on incidentals. I always focus on the food, especially in a place like this, which is just fast food when it comes down to it.

But it's good fast food, and different than any other fast food place I've been to in a while. The menu is small - falafels in pitas and in a salad, fries (both "potato" fries and sweet potato fries, or a mix), and a United Nations sampler of drinks. You can get add-ons like hummus and tahini, but this is unnecessary because after you get your falafel, the next stop is the condiment bar.

As far as condiment bars go, this may be the most exciting one ever, an exotic tapestry of well-executed middle eastern flavors. There, I said it. You can choose from 30 different salads, sauces and relishes, but because there isn't a ton of room in the pita, you have to choose wisely.

I did not choose wisely. I put 3 Tbs. of zhug on mine to start. Zhug is a jalapeno cilantro sauce, the ratio being 99.9% jalapeno to .01% cilantro. It's pretty freakin' hot. Then I added hot pink pickled turnips, Jerusalem salad (tomatoes, cucumber, and parsley), and a chopped red pepper relish. The good news is, I knocked off 6 servings of vegetables in one fell swoop. The bad news: I singed off my taste buds in the process. Not helping the heat index was the harissa ketchup I got for my fries. Every recipe for harissa I've ever seen has the word "fiery" preceding it. I'm much better today, thanks.

The place, itself, is eh. The ambience...there is no ambience. The service....eh. But the falafel is pretty great, and the fact that I can create different falafels every time is my kind of thing. A few Yelpers complained about the price (around $9 for a falafel pita, fries and a fountain drink); I say, welcome to 2009. Such is life.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Oy, it's a brisket

I used to feel a little inadequate as a Jew because I didn't know how to make a brisket. I'm actually half Jewish in the blood way, but still - a good brisket recipe should be floating around somewhere in my DNA. My Jewish grandmother, however, made matzo ball soup using a Manischewitz mix, so there you have it.

Fortunately, I met a guy named Warren Kushner. Warren is a commercial director who also happens to be a diminutive Jewish surfer dude from South Africa who also happens to look like Jackie Stewart, the race car driver, who also happens to be a Jewish brisket aficionado.

At this point, I want to be clear: I'm not talking about the smoked brisket you get at Sonny Bryan's in Dallas. Sonny Bryan's is arguably the quintessential BBQ joint in the Texas style. I'm talking the kind you get at your Aunt Ada's house on Hanukah. Aunt Ada, whose pumpkin-colored hair is a marvel of modern engineering and who always wears too much lipstick, has a secret recipe that involves coffee and brown sugar and sometimes prunes. But that's only a starting point for great brisket.

This kind of brisket is made in the oven. Warren Kushner leaves his in the oven for almost 6 hours. I just don't have that kind of patience. He also uses Lipton's Onion Soup Mix, but I will reveal no more.

I will reveal my recipe. I've worked on it for about three years. The great thing about brisket (or anything you braise in the oven) is that it's a shoot-from-the-hip endeavor. I'm providing measurements, but when I make it, I never measure anything. I guess I'm rebelling after my tight-ass years as a measure-happy pastry chef.

The photo above is a good representation of what a brisket for the oven should look like. You'll need a Dutch oven large enough to hold the brisket comfortably. My large Le Creuset works well.

My ingredients are as follows:

2 yellow onions, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbs. dark brown sugar
a good sprinkling of smoked paprika
a sprig of thyme
1 16 oz can of chopped tomatoes
salt and pepper
2 Tbs. worcestershire sauce
a 1 - 2 lb. brisket with visible fat, seasoned with salt and pepper on both sides

Preheat the oven to 275 degrees. Heat some oil in the Dutch oven (I use 1 - 2 Tbs). When it's hot, toss in the onions and saute them over medium heat until they're soft, about ten minutes. Add the garlic, paprika, brown sugar, and salt and pepper to taste. Saute that a few minutes more. Now add the tomatoes, worcestershire, and some water. You're going to need enough water to create a bath for the brisket, but you don't want to submerge it completely. I'm guessing 1 1/2 cups will do. Bring that to a boil and let it roll for about ten minutes. Turn off the heat, and put the brisket in the pot. Cover with the lid (it needs to be tightly covered), and put in the middle of the preheated oven.

I braise mine for at least three hours and up to four. When it's done, I remove the pot from the oven and let it cool, then I store it in the fridge in the Dutch oven. This is the kind of brisket that shreds easily, so while it's good for Hanukah, it's even better for the Michigan Notre Dame game, served on a crusty hoagie roll with caramelized onions and some provolone. Sometimes I puree the braising liquid in a blender and use it as a sauce.

A brisket that size costs about $12, and provides a lot of meals (besides sandwiches, you can add it to pasta, along with some of the sauce), and you know what that means: it keeps the Jewish guilt to a minimum.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Soup is good food

This is one of those times when I honestly wish I had thought of it first. By 'it,' I mean the genius business in Austin, Texas called The Soup Peddler. I first read about it three years ago in Food and Wine magazine. A guy named David Ansel had followed a girl to Austin, but that didn't work out, and neither did his day job, so he started to make soup in his apartment for friends. He'd then deliver it on his bicycle, the soup man peddling his wares.

It soon turned into a full-fledged soup subscription business, the kind that gets written up in Food and Wine and a million other food magazines (isn't that how these stories always go?). Customers order their soups online for the week, and then wait for them to be delivered. The empty containers are picked up the next week and reused, like old time milk delivery. I was immediately hooked. Enthralled. Completely obsessed.

That was three years ago, and the obsession lives on. I've come up with names for my business, designed logos, and tested recipes. But those productive periods are interspersed with periods of dispassion, when I indulge in a chopping reality check. Hundreds of pounds of carrots and onions a day, all chopped by me. Did I mention I suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands?

And the thing about soup - the fabulous and scary thing about soup - is that you have to be inspired to make it. You have to feel it in your loins. It has to ooze from your pores. You have to be one with the fennel bulb you are cutting, and feel love for the parsnips. If you don't, the soup will taste like it came from White Hen Pantry, where they robotically melt down huge frozen blocks of tomato florentine in time for the lunch rush.

So now I'm poring over my cookbooks (I have over 200 of them, so I've put parenting on the back burner for now - who has the time?). I've discovered Deborah Madison's new soup cookbook. She's a cookbook author, food personality, and the founding chef of the famous vegetarian restaurant Greens in San Francisco. I like her because she's a vegetarian who says sometimes you have to use chicken broth. Screw the meat-eating morality of it; it just tastes better.

I'm going on research and development field trips. The first one was to The SoupBox on Broadway. I really wanted to like it; afterall, they had lobster bisque, which reminded me of the revelatory lobster stew I had at Lochober's in Boston when I was 18. Even though it was just a bowl of thin creamy broth with a scattering of lobster meat, never have I had anything that tasted so much of pure lobster. Apparently, JFK used to order their lobster stew, too, but he gave his lobster meat to the waiters. He just wanted to sip the creamy broth.

The lobster bisque at The SoupBox tasted of cheese for some reason, and the vegetable soups - all three of them - tasted like tomato florentine to varying degrees.

So I, and my fledgling soup business, move forward. You'll probably have to hear a lot about soup in the upcoming days, week, months, and years, depending on if and when I ever pull the trigger. If you have any great recipes, throw them my way. I promise I'll give you credit on the menu.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The meat of it

I was eating at Joy Yee Noodle Shop the other night and had the good sense to ask the waiter what kind of beef was in the Special Korean Beef Noodle Soup. Lucky for me I asked. He paused, and then started to mimic heavy chewing with his mouth, cow-style. "Skin," he told me, amidst fake, theatrical gnawing. The soup was made with skin.

I generally steer clear of anything inordinately chewy, gamey, gristly, or out and out bleeding, and this is why. Because I could be eating skin. Or eyelids. Or, God forbid, bowels. And I think I speak for most people in this country when I say, without apology, I am thoroughly disgusted by parts. I enthusiastically draw the line at musculature. I don't want to put organs in my mouth that have been cleansing the renal system of a cow. I don't care if it's wasteful. I do not want to eat a liver.

And yet, I seek out the most authentic ethnic restaurants, which are usually the ones that serve the most parts. I love that my favorite Vietnamese place serves well-cooked pork blood, but you couldn't pay me enough to eat it. Joy Yee is that kind of place, which is probably why real Asians eat there. It's like being home.

There are four Joy Yee's throughout Chicago (I'm counting Evanston and Hyde Park as Chicago). The one in Evanston has a menu that's a spiral-bound Asian pictorial and from the looks of it, assembled at Kinko's. The pictures are so tiny, you can't really tell what anything looks like. Which is fine because the tables are so close together you can practically taste what the people sitting next to you are eating.

Normally, I wouldn't order chow mein at a place with 500 options on the menu, but Joy Yee has a way with chow mein. The sauce is addictive and actually tastes like something (I'm thinking sweet garlic, but it's way more intriguing than that), which is a feat for chow mein. I can also vouch for the red curry chicken, which is so good, I would throw it in a blender, stick an umbrella in it, and make a delicious blender drink out of it. Everything I've had there is good, abundant, and cheap.

They also have a separate drink menu that majors in bubble teas, and Joy Yee has 500 of those options as well. I'm square with the fruit bubble teas, although the black tapioca pearls remind me of eye of newt, or eye of something, and just might be, given the source. So I say hold the tapioca, hold the skin, hold the balls. Just bring me the chow mein with a strawberry smoothie and I'll be good.