Sunday, June 19, 2011

Donut anxiety

I've always considered donuts a laid back proposition. Not the case at the Donut Vault. The stakes are high, quantities are limited and timing is everything. And with the advent of real time social networking, you know exactly where you stand (in a really, really long line with your smart phone, obsessively checking Donut Vault status updates every two minutes) at all times.

We hit that line on Saturday at 10:00 AM. It was about 50 people long and it wound around the corner of Franklin on to Kinzie into the hot sun. I've stood in lines for food before, but this time, I felt sort of foolish, like a donut novice, which I'm not. I grew up on mother's milk and donuts. It's a genetic certainty, my love of donuts, that was passed down from my mother. Just recently she confessed that when she turned 16 and got her driver's license, she would lie to her parents and tell them she was going to a late mass on Sunday, but instead, she'd head to a bakery on the outskirts of town, where she'd get half dozen glazed donuts and eat them all, unrecognized. Now, she's probably going to hell.

But that sordid foray explains our outings at the grocery store when I was in high school. Before we started to shop, my mother and I would head over to the bakery section and buy a dozen sugared donuts in a white paper sack. By the time we finished our shopping, 4 or 5 would be gone. In the cart was another bag of mini powdered sugar donettes, which my stepfather would eat over the course of the next few days, two here, three there, the telltale white powder lingering on the counter at all times from the constant reaching in and pulling out of donuts. I lived in a donut crack house and we were all addicts.

I know my donuts. I don't like Krispy Kremes. Too sweet. Dunkin Donuts taste like the test tube they grew in. My favorite bakery donuts come from Dinkel's here in Chicago. They're dreamy, especially the apple cider donuts rolled in sugar and spice available in the fall. The best restaurant donuts I've ever had came from Campanile in Los Angeles. Nancy Silverton, my pastry idol, concocted a dream plate of two kinds of donuts - ricotta fritters and beignets - accompanied by homemade vanilla ice cream and warm huckleberries. I had that dessert twenty years ago and I'm still reeling.

So there I was, in line at the Donut Vault on Saturday, slightly scared. It takes balls, and a modicum of arrogance, for a restaurateur to expect people to wait in line for any extended period of time, especially for a $2.00 donut. For the first time during one of my many food pilgrimages (there have been many), I wondered if it was worth it. I considered going across the street to Dunkin and getting the test tube donut and calling it a day. Who wants to wait an hour in the hot sun for a freaking donut?

As I was standing there, getting angry, I was also following Facebook, and getting real time updates on which donuts were selling out, and which were getting low. As this was happening, I watched single people come out of the tiny shop carrying two boxes of donuts. And I was starting to get donut rage.

REALLY? You really need two dozen donuts? You know, there are people in line here who would be happy with just one. Asshole. Asshole with a little dog.

And then before I knew it, I was standing inside the vault. Only it wasn't really a vault, it was a hallway pulsating with hip hop music. My 8 year-old daughter was with me and when the singer sang, "Motherfucker motherfucker mother fucker bitch," she looked up at me, alarmed. I was alarmed. These better be great donuts. Motherfucking great donuts. Bitch.

And then it was our turn. I stepped up to the very hip hip hop counter and ordered one of each: old-fashioned buttermilk, chocolate glazed, vanilla glazed, and pistachio. Score. The only one that was sold out was the gingerbread stack and that didn't even sound like a donut, so who cares?

One hour and fifteen minutes after we first stepped in line, I had a Donut Vault bag in hand. We found a spot right in front of the Moody Bible Institute (I knew God would somehow find his way back into this), sat down on a bench and started eating (pictures below, beginning with pistachio, then chocolate, followed by vanilla glazed then buttermilk).

These are good donuts. Good, big, squishy, and very sweet donuts. The chocolate one needs more chocolate glaze. The pistachio wasn't pistachio enough. The vanilla glazed had little flecks of real vanilla bean - a nice touch on what was probably my favorite. And the old-fashioned buttermilk was delightful - I think. I don't remember it very well, but I'm pretty sure it was good.

I still prefer Dinkel's, where there might be one or two people in line in front of me. And where the donut anxiety is at a minimum.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Meat palace

"Too much of anything is too much for me." Pete Townshend

It's been two days since my unapologetic meatfest at Fogo de Chao and I'm still not right. We went to celebrate my son's entrance into manhood, otherwise known as his 11th birthday. He is a carnivore first class, the kind that would have meat (and by this, I mean beef, pork or lamb, or preferably all three) for dessert.

Fogo de Chao is a Brazilian churrascaria/circus that's more of an event than a restaurant. I hate these kind of places. They charge $8 for a bowl of ice cream. And that's not even what you come for.

You come for the meat. Fifteen different kinds, mostly beef, all brought to the table by swarthy Brazilians in white blousy pirate shirts, knickers, and the male equivalent of tough leather bitch boots. The meat is speared on a sword, and the aformentioned gauchos slice it off at your discretion with giant machetes. Sirloin, garlic sirloin, bacon-wrapped sirloin, pork ribs, leg of lamb, lamb chops - it's obscene.

The meal starts with a visit to a vast salad bar. The waiter tells you to save room for the meat, but it's nearly impossible to act with restraint. There are marinated vegetables like asparagus, artichokes and beets. Cheeses, salumi, roasted potatoes, Brazilian slaw, bread, Spanish olive oils, olives and roasted peppers. Who needs meat with all this?

Then the sides come. Cheese biscuits, garlic mashed potatoes, fried polenta dusted with grated cheese and fried bananas. I was already feeling somewhat sick at that point, so when the first cut of meat came (plain sirloin), I wasn't nearly as excited as I had hoped. I felt more obligated than anything. We're paying good money for all this flesh, so I had better eat a lot of it.

The sirloin was followed by garlic sirloin, then lamb, then I lost track. I know there were sausages, because I had one. They refilled our mashed potatoes and polenta several times, so we must have cleaned those plates, too.

It was Henry the VIII gluttony, and I didn't feel good about it. I'm trying to downsize across the board, you know, use less of everything, and this didn't fit into my plan at all. And so, when the kids wanted dessert, we said yes, have the $9 slab of cheesecake and the $8 bowl of chocolate ice cream that they probably picked up down the street at Walgreen's. A birthday is a birthday.

Post script: In the middle of the night, my 8 year old daughter appeared in our bedroom to inform us she was going to throw up. And she promptly did.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The simplest of potages

Try as I might, I could not find a gorgeous picture of Italian parsley, or of parsley soup, the recipe I'm offering up here. A friend of mine is embarking on a vegan adventure and she, and now I, feel compelled to make it exciting. Well, ok, when there's no braised short ribs or lobster tacos or marinated skirt steak, it's tough to be exciting. But this soup is hauntingly magical, and that has to count for something.

I found it in Jean-George Vongerichten's book, cleverly titled Jean-Georges. Like Shakira, he doesn't really need a last name. He's a preternaturally ambitious French superstar chef who initially made his name in New York, where they all do, but then unleashed a vast cooking empire across the globe. His restaurants, Vong, Jean-Georges, and Jojo, have been cloned and sent to Las Vegas and elsewhere, and he now has many others, too. His cuisine could be described as adventurous French with lots of southeast Asian influences.

From this very eclectic chef, I give you a really simple French potage. I normally only make it in the winter, but it's so freaking cold where I live, soup seems appropriate now. Plus, my friend loves soup, so this a great addition to her repertoire. Enjoy!

Parsley soup with mixed mushrooms
From Jean-Georges by Jean-Georges Vongerichten
4 - 5 servings

1 bunch of parsley (I use Italian)
3 Tbs. olive oil
1/4 cup minced onion
1 medium leek, trimmed of hard green parts, split in half, washed and roughly chopped
1 medium-to-large parsnip, chopped (you may substitute potato, but it's not as good)
2 1/2 cups vegetable stock or water (or chicken stock if you still welcome animals on your plate)
4 oz. mixed mushrooms, trimmed of tough stems and roughly chopped
1 Tbs. minced shallot

Wash the parsley in a bowl. Separate the leaves from the stems (yes, this is laborious but it must be done). Tie the stems in a bundle with kitchen twine.

In a large saucepan or soup pot, melt 1 1/2 Tbs. oil over medium heat. Stir in the onion, leek and parsnip. Add a healthy pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables become translucent. If they start to brown, lower the heat.

Add the parsley stems and a good grind of pepper, and stir again.

Add the 2 1/2 cups of water plus the vegetable stock (or use all water). Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to medium, and cook, stirring now and then, until the vegetables are very tender, 30 - 45 minutes.

When the vegetables are soft, remove the parsley stems, add the remaining parsley leaves, and cook for another minute. Let the soup cool slightly, and then place the soup, in batches to avoid a parsley explosion, in a blender or food processor, and blend as smooth as possible. Taste the soup and adjust the seasoning. If you're looking for a finely textured soup, pass it through a food mill. I have never bothered doing this.

As soon as the soup is done, heat a skillet with the remaining 1 1/2 Tbs. oil. Saute the shallots for a minute or two and then add the mushrooms. Season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally until the mushrooms are tender, about 10 minutes.

Divide the mushrooms between the soup bowls and ladle the soup over the mushrooms.

This makes an amazing start to a Thanksgiving meal. As long as you add the parsley leaves at the last minute, the soup stays bright green. Sometimes I'll make the base of it, through cooking the stems in the stock, and put that in the fridge overnight. Then I bring it back up to a simmer right before serving, and add the parsley leaves, then proceed with the rest of the recipe.

If you're looking for a more substantial soup, the addition of cooked white beans (yes, you can use the canned ones) is darn near magical.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Vegetable love

I don't know if you've heard but the government just came out with a brand new set of dietary guidelines. In a hideously art-directed graphic, the government has submitted My Plate for our perusal, a paint-by-numbers directive for the obvious impaired. Apparently, the Food Pyramid was confusing.

Whatever. I'm not going to make a judgment on the intelligence of our society as a whole. Rather, I'm going to pull out my well-worn copy of Vegetable Love by Barbara Kafka, and every other vegetable-loving cookbook I have, and get to work. Because vegetables are now getting top billing.

Surprisingly, I'm ok with this. I, like Barbara Kafka, love vegetables. It's surprising because I didn't eat a vegetable until I was safely into my 20's. When I questioned my mother about this recently, not only did she agree with the vegetable assertion, she also added that I probably didn't eat anything healthy - anything - until I was in my 20's. But, she added, you were happy.

My mother's idea of vegetables was canned peas. She put those army green pellets in everything, from creamed tuna fish on toast to my Stouffer's Chicken a la King, for some extra vegetable oomph. This was the same mother who regularly took us to White Castle for dinner, and gave me Wonder bread sandwiches filled with bologna and mayonnaise for lunch. And the same one who bought boxes of Hostess treats and counted them as more than adequate after-school snacks.

So here I am, pulling out my Greens cookbooks, from the eponymous restaurant in San Francisco, two tomes by Deborah Madison, the former Greens founding chef, and a delightful softback I found at the Ferry Building in San Francisco on market cooking. The one by Barbara Kafka, Vegetable Love, has a lot of recipes for stuff no one eats anymore (like carrot raisin salad from the 7th grade cafeteria), and soups made with three ingredients (celery, salt and water - from her lunch with Gandhi?). I like her because she bears a resemblance to Bea Arthur. Every time I open her cookbook, I imagine standing in Maude's Tuckahoe kitchen, making Feminist Salad with Adrienne Barbeau. The likeness, at least in my mind, is that striking.

Vegetable Love is encyclopedic in its breadth, with chapters on everything from broccoli to fennel to the wide world of lettuce. It even has an entire chapter devoted to Odd Roots, like scorzonera, which I've never heard of, and burdock root, which looks like a hairy stick. I'm not going to eat these things, but it's nice to know that if the world ends tomorrow and we all have to forage for our food, everyone will come to my mud hut for burdock tempura.