Saturday, November 22, 2008

Tru Photos

Posting my review of the Tru cookbook reminded me that I have some nice photos from when I worked there. Here's a sample:

Friday, November 21, 2008

Tru--The Cookbook

I'm not usually one for these kind of vanity tomes--you know, these $50 glossy chef-driven cookbooks that are basically just a big PR piece for the restaurant/chef and have super-complex recipes with 6-8 different days-long preparations that no one will ever make at home.

But I was with my kid at the library the other day and was casting about for something to read while he played at the train table, and this one caught my eye. Should be a fun diversion, I thought...especially since I used to work at Tru.


These type of cookbooks are often riddled with pompous arrogance, name-dropping, and narcissistic egotism, but I think Tru: A Cookbook from the Legendary Chicago Restaurant may have set a new standard for vanity.

More name dropping, I have never seen. Tramonto goes to great pains to inform us that he's eaten at all the great restaurants the world has ever known, and that the chef of every one of them is "his good friend". In fact, I'm thinking that he must've created a macro on his word processor for the phrase "my good friend, chef..." when he was writing this book. I counted 28 separate references to world-famous chefs before I even got to the 'entrees' section of the book (I got sick of counting). Barf!

And I guess Tramonto was so busy name-checking celebrity chefs that he forgot completely to give any credit for anything, ever, to any of the cooks or chefs who worked in his kitchen over the years. The closest he comes is referring to when he and "his sous chefs" worked on a fois gras dish together.

Truth is, though, that since I worked in this kitchen during the opening of this restaurant, I know firsthand that at least a dozen of the recipes that Tramonto takes credit for in his book were created by chefs and cooks in his employ. Which is fine, of course. Cooks and sous chefs expect this sort of thing, and anything they create while employed at a restaurant becomes the 'creation' of the guy whose name is on the door. But it would've been nice to at least mention one kitchen employee at least once in the book.

This jives with my personal experience at Tru. When I worked there, as a young cook not too far removed from culinary school, I was idealistic and *very* into learning more about this kind of high-end cooking. I would go to work a few hours early almost every day and sometimes would go to the Borders bookstore on Michigan avenue in order to read these chef-driven vanity cookbooks--as many as I could get my hands on. I didn't have fifty bucks to buy them as they were released, so I'd read them in the bookstore over a coffee before going into work.

Soon, I began to become a bit disenchanted with Tru and Tramonto. "Hey!", I'd think as I read through a cookbook by Jean-Louis Palladin or Jean-Georges Vongerichten, "that's our smoked salmon dish." Or "that's how we plate our beef tenderloin". The more I read, the more I realized that Tramonto didn't create. He copped from the best.

I distinctly remember reading a new cookbook released by Hawaii chef Alan Wong, in which he featured a drink that was served in a fancy "glass within a glass" that allowed the placement of a live beta fish that would swim around within the glass while the diner drank the cocktail. Pretty gimmicky, I thought.

Then, a few weeks later, Tramonto showed up with a few dozen of these gimmicky fancy glasses and--surprise!--beta fish. He did a raw fish dish he then called a 'poke' (a Hawaiian term that Wong referenced in another section of the same cookbook), and he told us--as well as a Tribune reporter--that he was "inspired to create this dish by a visit to the Shedd aquarium with his son, Gio". That dish is called "Live Japanese Fish and Chips" in the book.

Interestingly, in the intro to this recipe, Tramonto does give credit to Alan Wong, contradicting his previous story in which he described how the idea sprung from his forehead, fully realized. Maybe he was worried that his "good friend, chef Alan Wong" would read the book.

In the intro to a recipe in the 'amuse-bouche' section, Tramonto writes "When I was coming up with an idea for a wonderful amuse-bouche for a vegetable collection, I thought of a perfect organic carrot that morphs into this light, pretty parfait." Hmmm. Did you? Is that what you thought of? Were you floating down a consomme river while lying on a truffled brioche raft while you "thought of" that, chef?

Because, see, you must be blurring the line between fantasy and reality, since your sous chef, Cesar Ramirez, brought that recipe with him to Tru when he came over from the Ritz-Carlton, and I can even remember you telling him that the recipe was "money" and that you were "totally going to steal it from him".

That brings us, sadly, to the writing in this snooze-fest. New standards of bad-ness. Tramonto is assisted by his usual co-author, Jill Goodbody, a seasoned 'helper' of chefs for cookbooks, but it appears that Ms. Goodbody's advice was discarded or perhaps she also drank the Tramonto kool-aid, because she allowed this kind of groan-inducing prose to get through the filter;

"When I hear that age-old question, which came first, the chicken or the egg? I say, Who cares? Eggs are so good, what's the point debating the issue? Just enjoy."

"Until I ate at Jamin, chef Joel Robuchon's Michelin three-star Paris restaurant, in 1980, I had used truffles extremely sparingly, if lovingly. My life changed that day!"

"You might be surprised to find oxtail in a chapter on fish and seafood, but I find that full-flavored, meaty, fatty fish such as sturgeon taste fantastic with braised meats. I credit the idea for this dish to chef Jacques Le Divellec of Le Divellec, the famed Paris restaurant that concentrates on seafood, where I first tasted braised meat with fish. You won't be surprised to hear that I loved it!"

Gag me! Did they have a sale! on! exclamation! points!??! Tramonto uses multiple exclamation points in the intro to just about every dish! Way to make your fifty dollar vanity cookbook appear to have been written by a 14-year old girl!

To summarize; the Tru cookbook is laughably bad--an ego-fest with poor writing, a catalog of dishes the chef/author copped from others, an opportunity for him to list dozens of his famous "good friends" and basically sprain his elbow clapping himself on the back for his "creations".

The photography, by Tim Turner, is wonderful and amazing. Some of the best food photography out there. In short, a perfect book for wasting a half an hour at the library idly leafing through while watching your kid. But, good lord, don't pay for it. (oh, for the record, and it retails for $35, not $50!)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Barnaby's Family Inn

Multiple Disclaimers----

I'm born and raised in Chicago. I do enjoy "Chicago Style Pizza" (deep dish) and could (and probably will) do an entire blog entry micro-analyzing the differences between Chicago pan, stuffed, and regular thin-crust pizza.

But this entry isn't about Chicago pizza. I mean, I like the big, meaty slabs that places like Gino's East and Malnati's cook up. And I'm a big guy and do like my "sassich".

But my all-time favorite pizza is the wonderful, cracker-thin stuff served up at Barnaby's Family Inn. Specifically, the Barnaby's on Caldwell in Niles.

For me, pizza is all about the crust. And Barnaby's is hands-down the best crust EVER. It's wafer thin, incredibly crispy and crackly, has a light dusting of cornmeal on the bottom for texture, and outer rim has this kind of braided, crimped quality that you remember from your grandma's homemade apple pies. In fact, the crust on a Barnaby's pizza really does have kind of a buttery, pastry crust kind of feel to it.

Going to Barnaby's (or at least the one in Niles, which I frequent) is an *experience*. It's almost always crowded. Any night you go in the summer, there are almost surely going to be scads of kids in sports uniforms because everyone goes there after little league games. There's a system. A protocol. And if you don't know it, you'll feel like an outsider. Your order and pay for your pizza at the register up front. If you're lucky, the surly, tanned, muscular guy will take your order and your money. He'll grunt at you, shift his toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other, and look you up and down somewhat disdainfully. Don't take it personally--he's like that to everyone.

If you want something to drink, you'll need to make your way over to the bar area, where you'll order and pay separate from your pizza order. Everything's self-serve. Place your orders, haul your drinks back to your booth, and wait for your pizza number to be called. Or, if you're like me, you can order by phone when you leave your house and then your pizza is generally ready right when you get your drinks.

As you sit and watch the kids running around, comment on how this is probably one of the last restaurants in the Chicago area in which people are still allowed to smoke, and wonder aloud about the ancient, hobbled busboy who you almost feel compelled to jump up and help when you see him try to clear tables, you'll eventually start getting impatient as you see others chowing down on their pizzas. Finally, you'll hear the unmistakable sound--"Number 83, your pizza is ready! 83!"

Once you get it back to your table and stock up on paper napkins, little cups of parmesan cheese and crushed red chiles, and those lovely four-inch in diameter paper plates they furnish you with, you'll be tempted to just tear in to your wonderful Barnaby's pizza.


DO NOT EAT THE PIZZA. It is *insanely* hot. If you eat it right away you will sear multiple layers of skin off the top of your mouth which will hurt for days. And you won't even be able to taste the pizza. Force yourself to sit and wait for five minutes before you start eating. You can do it.

Barnaby's pizza always passes the 'crust test', where, when you hold just the edge of the crust, the whole piece stays sticking straight out. It's that crispy. Unless, of course, you load it down with too many ingredients. We always order one with pepperoni only and one with sausage and mushroom. They're both great, but very different. The pepperoni is the purist's Barnaby's pizza.

The other thing that's great about Barnaby's is that it has this weird kind of old-school pub-like atmosphere. Dark wood everywhere. A vague nautical theme. Some very strange stained glass and bottom-of-the-wine-bottle-type windows. And they keep it so dark in there. I've been there during the day sometimes and it's so dark inside that you kind of forget that it's daytime outside. Then, when you go out, the sun almost whacks you upside the head back to reality. It's surreal.

The best thing about Barnaby's is that, even in Chicago--a city known for its pizza--it's one of a kind. It's not Chicago-style--it's not any style. It's Barnaby's. It's been the same ever since I was a kid (although they got rid of the automated table signs where your number lights up when your pizza's ready), and it's just downright amazingly good pizza served in a wonderful, family-friendly setting.

Pumpkin Risotto

Always seasonal, I was inspired last night to prepare pumpkin risotto. Mostly due to the numerous small "candy" pumpkins that kept getting sent home with my three-year old son, Henry, when he returned from pre-school, prior to Halloween.

I used to work with a high-falutin Italian chef who would always insist that any risotto be cooked in a way that allowed the color of the finished product to reflect the ingredients. So, mushroom risotto was always brown, spinach risotto was green, our golden yellow risotto Milanese got its color from loads of saffron and golden chicken stock, and we even did a beet risotto that was a deep burgundy red. We did not do a risotto that was rice colored.

So since I was determined to prepare a nice pumpkin risotto for my family to eat, I was going for a nice strong squash-colored orange color from the rice.

First step--I split one of the pumpkins, removed the guts and seeds, and roasted it in a low oven until it was falling apart tender. After scooping out the flesh, I hit it with a stick blender and mixed it with a little chicken stock (out of a box) and pureed it until it was nice and smooth. Then I added the rest of the box of stock and let the stick blend it a while longer, essentially giving me pumpkin stock with which to cook the rice.

Next...bacon. I used about six slices of bacon (I buy Costco's Kirkland brand at four pounds for around eight bucks), cutting inch-long pieces across the slices and rendered them slowly in a nonstick pan over low heat.

Once the bacon was cooked, I drained it, reserving the grease. I took another pumpkin, split it, de-gutted it, and cooked it in the microwave in a dish with some water. I was par-cooking it, covered, just enough to peel it and get some nice half-inch dice out of it. This took about two and a half minutes in my microwave . Once it was par-cooked, I let it cool, and then got some nice dice that I added at the end of the risotto cooking process. now I needed some color to go against that strong orange field. Green. I had asparagus in the fridge, so I par-cooked that in the microwave as well, and then sliced off the tips and cut the stalks into about half-inch pieces.

Now for the rice. First, the stock must be *hot* when it goes into the rice. The key to cooking risotto properly is to add the liquid just a little bit at a time, forcing the starch out of the rice and giving you that creamy texture that risotto is known for. If the stock isn't hot when you add it, you'll slow the cooking process way way down and it'll take forever and also screw up the texture of the rice.

Risotto is one of those things that, to do it properly, you really have to stand over the pot, stir almost constantly, and baby. If you don't, it can get away from you.

So. I put the pot of stock on the back burner and got it going while I toasted the rice. I added the reserved bacon grease to a large pot and then added about a cup and a half of rice. Ah. The rice. For risotto, you cannot use just any type of rice. You have to use a short-grain starchy rice which lends itself to becoming risotto. Arborio is very good. Carnaroli is better (and more expensive). Add some salt and pepper now, but underseason it, since we'll adjust it at the end.

The rice goes into the hot oil (or, in this case, bacon grease) and it should toast a bit. Long enough that you can smell the toasty rice. Then you hit it with white wine. The wine should be allowed to boil long enough that it's almost all gone before you start adding the stock. Every time you add liquid, you should cook it, stirring, until almost all the liquid has absorbed into the rice. You should be able to see the bottom of the pan for a few seconds after you stir. Traditionally, a wooden spoon is used to stir, but I prefer one of those heat-proof rubber scrapers since they're gentler on the rice and better at scraping the sides and bottom of the pan.

Ratios? Who knows? I often run out of liquid before the rice is fully cooked and sometimes I'm left with extra. You have to watch, feel, and taste to know when it's done. Keep tasting the rice. When it's just slightly al dente, it's done. You can bite a grain of rice in half and look at it, and you should see a small dot of white inside of the rice which is the uncooked bit in the middle. This is also kind of cool, because you can see the color of the cooking liquid get absorbed into the rice grain. If you want measurements and cooking times, I'm probably not the chef to learn from.

Ok, so now the rice is almost where you want it. Now we're all about texture and consistency. Toss in your par-cooked veggies and then adjust the consistency. You want the risotto to be very loose at this point, as it will set up as it sits and once we add the cheese and butter. It should be almost soupy, but don't go nuts because if it's too loose, we'll have to cook it longer to tighten it up and you'll overcook your rice and veggies.

Once the veggies and rice are cooked, turn the heat off or to just barely on, and add about half a stick of butter, cut into pats, and a good amount of grated hard italian cheese. Most risottos call for Parmesan-style cheese (as opposed to Pecorino Romano, which is sharper). There are plenty of cheeses which will serve this purpose. I used Grana Padano in my pumpkin risotto, because I had a big chunk that I bought at Costco on hand. Parmeggiano-Reggiano is always a good choice, and there are plenty of other good "grana" style cheeses you could use. Don't use garbage cheese for this, as risotto is all about the rich, creamy texture of the rice, and the sweet, heady perfume that you get from a good Italian cheese melting into it really gives you what you're going for.

Ok, so butter, cheese...add the cripsy bacon, and chop some fresh sage--that goes in too. Give the whole thing a few stirs and taste it. Adjust your seasoning with salt and pepper. Maybe a bit more cheese, if it needs it, and then pour (yes, pour) the whole mess into a large shallow bowl. It should be pour-able. If it's not, you'll need to adjust the texture. It should be loose enough to pour when it goes into the bowl, otherwise, it'll set up and become a thick pasty mess once people start eating. Garnish it with some more cheese (use your potato peeler to get some nice big shards) and a few whole sage leaves.

We enjoyed ours with a Pinot Grigio, which is the same wine I used in the cooking process. My son Henry had soy milk with his. (He's three.)