Thursday, April 30, 2009

Cheap Stuff That Works Vol. 4--The Best Sauté Pan

Ok, I'm not going to mince words here. I've done the work. I've tried everything. And I can say, without a doubt in my mind that these French carbon steel pans from de Buyer are the best you can get, even if you spend twice what they cost.

Calling them "cheap" might be a bit of a stretch, but considering how they compare to the really pricey stuff that's comparable in quality, they're a great value and well deserving of being tagged as part of my Cheap Stuff That Works series.

I got a big load of All-Clad LTD pans for my first wedding. They're extremely high-quality pans and I still have them, some fifteen years later. They look great and function well. But the French carbon steel pans leave them in the dust, and the All-Clads are roughly double the price.

Check it out. This 12" pan is going for just shy of a hundred bucks (marked down from the ludicrous $155 list price) over at That's a good price that you'd have to shop around for. But the same size on the French steel can be had for $69.95 from the Chef's Catalog website.

And it's a superior pan!

Ok, some things to know: first, the French carbon steel pans require, like cast iron, seasoning. That means they arrive clean and you have to dirty them up before you can use them. It's a really easy process that I've touched on before. There are tutorials all over the internet on how to do it, so I'm not going to get into it in much depth here. Basically, what I do is wipe the inside of the pan down with an oil-soaked paper towel, and then throw the pan in a 400° oven for a few hours. I try to do it when I'm using the oven for something, so I'm not wasting too much energy. You can do it over a burner as well, which is what the picture above shows.

The main way to season your pans is to cook with them. There's really no way to quickly get the seasoning that repeated usage over time produces.

Second, you shouldn't use soap to clean the pan. But if it's well-seasoned, you won't need to. A rinse with hot water and a good wipe with a wet scrubbie (or, alternately, salt) will do the job.

In order to allow the seasoning to set, you should avoid cooking food with a high acid content or deglazing with wine for the first few months. This is all part of the normal seasoning process, though, and once you've got a nice well-set crust on the pan, you can do anything you want (even use soap) and the seasoning won't go anywhere. It just takes a while for it to build up.

But once it's there, it's a thing of beauty. A well-seasoned pan is more non-stick than the best Teflon pan, and without the dubious chemicals found in the non-sticks. Pictured to the right is my big, honkin' 14-incher that I've had for about four years. The patina on there is so solid that I can use soap, scrape it with metal tongs, deglaze, whatever, and the seasoning isn't going anywhere. They're not pretty, these pans, but they work. If you want pans to hang on your pot rack and look shiny, these aren't the best choice. They're for cooks that use their gear for cooking.

The thick, heavy construction of these pans is wonderful for heat conductivity, comparable to cast iron, but they have the traditional shape that cast iron lacks, and can be manipulated a lot more easily. They also have just the most perfect slope to the sides, which causes a quick back-and-forth shake of the pan to flip the food nicely without having to actually pick the pan up off the burner.

There are quite a few products out there that are labelled "French steel" or "blue steel", and they're all pretty good, but I've had the best experience with these de Buyer brand pans which are part of a line this company is calling "Carbone Plus". They have a few lines, but this is the heaviest of the bunch, which, for the purposes for which this pan is suited, is what you want.

Eight to ten years ago, it was almost impossible to find these pans in the US. I worked in a restaurant back then which had them shipped in from France at great expense. Now, they're everywhere. I see them at Williams-Sonoma, Sur la Table, Chef's Catalog, and lots of the online shops. Shop around, though, because some of the fancier places are charging 25% or more over what discount outlets charge. The deal at this link, where you get an 8", a 10" and a 12" inch for $140, seems pretty good, considering that's still less than the list price of ONE 12" All-Clad.

Check them out. You'll thank me later.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Makin' Bacon

In my recent entry about Peoria Packing Butcher Shop, I talked about how I bought a pork belly to experiment with making my own bacon. Well, the process has come to its logical conclusion and I thought I'd share the results.

Bottom line; the bacon I made was good, but not great. I do, however, have a pretty good handle on what can be improved upon, so I believe that the next batch will be better.

Lacking the seminal Michael Ruhlman book, I turned, of course, to the internet for information on what, exactly I needed to do to turn my pork belly into everyone's favorite cured, smoky treat. There's precious little credible information out there, in fact, but I did stumble onto this thread on LTH forum by my idol, and virtual mentor in so many endeavors, Mike Gebert. The thread served as a perfect primer, especially because Gebert used the Weber Smokey Mountain smoker and went into some detail about how to keep the smoker running cool enough to simulate the cold smoking that is typical of bacon production.

It's really a very easy process that's worth taking on, if only for the sake of going through the motions and learning how it's done. Here's a step-by-step walkthrough of what I did.

Step One: The Belly

As already noted, my belly was purchased at Peoria Packing, and I really didn't consider the choice very carefully--I just grabbed one randomly off the pile. The belly comes as one large floppy piece. I had trouble at first figuring out how this thing would end up resembling a slab of bacon, but after I cut it into three more or less equal pieces, it started to take shape. I got two good-sized blocks that I planned on using for my homemade bacon and one piece, from the scrawny end, that I figured I could use for braising or something.

In retrospect, the belly that I got at Peoria Packing wasn't all that great. It was pretty thin, resulting perhaps from sloppy trimming when the ribs were removed from the belly section. PP offers bellies with ribs on as well, so next time I may buy that cut and remove the ribs myself, leaving as much meat on the belly as I can. Or I may check Chicago Food Corp on Pulaski. There are also some other, more expensive options for getting high-quality bellies that I might pursue.

Step Two: The Cure

I recalled, vaguely, from somewhere, that the basic ratio for curing meats is 10:5:1, meaning 10 parts salt to five parts sugar to one part pink salt (sodium nitrate, aka Prague powder). Pink salt is optional, but it helps preserve the color, adds flavor, and makes the curing process safer, inhibiting stuff like botulism, so I made a quick trip over to The Spice House in Evanston and picked some up. It's also available over the internet through websites like

So, using that ratio, I mixed 500 grams of kosher salt, 250 grams brown sugar, and 50 grams of the pink salt. I decided to keep this cure really simple and just add black pepper for flavor, so I coarsely ground some peppercorns (about 75 grams) in my old coffee grinder, and threw them in as well.

Then I liberally applied the cure to the belly pieces, put each one into a ziplock bag and tossed them in my old basement fridge on a sheetpan (in case the bags leaked). I turned the bags over every other day to make sure the cure soaked in evenly, and after a week in the bags, I took the bellies out, rinsed them, dried them well with paper towels, and put them in the fridge on a rack set over a sheetpan so they could dry off and form a pellicle. The pellicle is kind of a skin that forms that allows the smoke to 'stick' to the meat and also prevents too much moisture from being lost during the smoking process.

Step Three: The Smoke

The big challenge here was getting my Weber smoker, which is designed to 'hot' smoke at temps between 200° and 275° to run colder, so the pork bellies would cook as little as possible. The right way to smoke pork bellies for bacon is in a smokehouse or with an offset smoker, which allows for cold smoking.

But I don't have either of those, so I was determined to get my WSM to run at about 150° for the 3-4 hours I figured I'd need to impart a whole lot of hickory smoke flavor before the bellies would have a chance to cook much. Besides one pretty funny MacGyver-esque set-up, which some guy constructs using dryer exhaust venting, foil pie plates, cardboard boxes, and duct tape, what I found was that building a very small fire and keeping it just barely going was the way to go. That's what I did and I ran a pretty solid 150° for four hours.

Step Four: Slicing

Slicing bacon by hand is hard!

After my bacon came off the smoker, I let it cool on a rack, then wrapped it in plastic and allowed it to firm up overnight in the fridge. The next day, I put the pieces in the freezer for a few hours and then took them out to slice them, which, I found, is no easy task.

I ended up with kind of a variety of thicknesses, basically due to my inability to consistently slice evenly, but that ended up being fine, since it allowed me to see how the various thicknesses cooked up. Cutting thicker slices is easier, and the thick slices cooked up nicer anyway, so that's what I'll go with next time around.

Step Five: Cook (and eat)

So? How'd it turn out?

Well, like I said, pretty good, but not great. I'd leave it in the cure for a few days longer next time. The thinner parts of the belly had good salt and sweetness, but the thicker sections lacked flavor and tasted more like fresh pork. So 10 days of curing next time around, rather than the seven I did this time.

The smokiness was excellent. You can see by the black outer edges that the smoke really penetrated and flavored the bacon. It's got that really incredibly strong smokiness that you can smell as soon as you open the door of the fridge. I used hickory chunks and I'll do it the same exact way next time around.

The texture was varied. The thinner pieces, while crispier, also had kind of a chewy, jerky-like quality to them, while the slices that were cut thicker ended up being more tender, with that melting quality where the fat just kind of disintegrates in your mouth. Thick slices are better.

All in all, while I'm not going to subject my first run-through to the stringent review process of The Bacon List, I'm deeming this experiment a rousing success. The end result was certainly edible, and better than most grocery store bacon I've had. And while it falls short of something like a Niman Ranch or a Broadbent, I think the potential is there to approach that level of quality.

All in all, a fine diversion resulting in some pretty good breakfast meat. I'll certainly do it again and I'll keep you posted how things progress.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

My New Favorite Restaurant

A recent search for a cheap, serviceable pickup truck led me up to Waukegan for the Waukegan Auto Auction, and while I didn't buy a truck, I ate a dinner that was so good, I'm proclaiming the place that served it to me to be my New Favorite Restaurant.

The place is Captain Porky's, and it's situated right on the border of Zion and Beach Park, Illinois, just across the street from Illinois Beach State Park.

Moments like this generate a strange simultaneous mix of emotions. I'm literally thrilled to have discovered this place. At this very moment, as I type, I'm coming up with various excuses that will justify driving the 45 minutes each way. Oh, the thrill of anticipation...the feeling of future promise. And, yet, while I'm exhilarated at the notion of having a New Favorite, I'm also angry, frustrated, and left with a feeling of being somewhat cheated.

How could this place have been in existence for all this time and I've only now found out about it? Think of all the shrimp, crab, and lobster I could've been eating! Think of the rib tips and hot links that are gone....forever...long ago resigned to the compost heaps of history, and the many inferior meals that I wasted the time, effort, and calories on when I could've been eating at Captain Porky's.

But (sigh) all I can do, really, is look forward, towards the future.

Summer is coming. 45 minutes isn't really all that far to drive to go to the beach. And what better way to augment a trip to the beach than with wonderfully fresh fried seafood and good barbecue?

I have a feeling I'm going to be very tan this summer.

Okay, so what's so great about Captain Porky's?

Well, it's one of those places like Calumet Fisheries or Hagan's Fish Market where you pick the type of seafood you want and they sell it by the pound and cook it up for you on the spot. Which is cool. These places are kind of a dying breed in Chicago and they usually feature some pretty darn fresh seafood prepared by people that really appreciate fish and, therefore, respect it and know the best ways to cook it.

But Porky's goes way beyond that. I ordered a half pound of fried fresh jumbo gulf shrimp, which were hand-breaded in front of me while I watched.

These shrimp were things of beauty. Sweetness for days, a great, almost lobster-like texture, with a super-light, flavorful and greaseless batter that just barely clung to the shrimp, but still provided great crunch and a perfect toasty, slightly salty counterpoint to the succulent meat. A really nice, zippy cocktail sauce as well. It might sound like I'm exaggerating if I called these shrimp "transcendent", but I assure you, I am not exaggerating.

Have you ever tried fresh gulf shrimp? If you're not sure, then you probably haven't. 95% or more of the shrimp found in restaurants is farmed stuff from Vietnam, which starts out bland and kind of poopy-smelling from eating homogeneous feed and being raised in crowded vats or ponds with eighty bazillion of its brothers, and it doesn't get any better once it's frozen into a block, shipped halfway across the world, and defrosted under running water in one of hundreds of Chicago restaurant basement prep kitchens that don't want to deal with the added effort or expense of sourcing fresh gulf shrimp.

People don't know any better. They think shrimp is shrimp. But, oh, that is just not so. And the irony of it is that you don't know what you're missing until you travel, maybe down to New Orleans or somewhere along the gulf coast, and someone happens to toss some fresh gulf shrimp your way. There's a world of difference. Fresh gulf shrimp have FLAVOR. They are caught from the wild, in the ocean, where their diet is varied, and this provides a rich, concentrated shrimp flavor that you just don't get from the farmed stuff. The texture is far superior as well. There's this wonderful, meatiness that's firm but yielding, a pleasant 'snap' when you bite through it, and an almost buttery richness.

I'm going on and on for a number of reasons; it's been years since I had a fresh gulf shrimp, I've never had them prepared as perfectly as the ones Dino, the owner of Captain Porky's served me tonight, and, honestly, the last thing I expected when I started trolling around the fairly depressed-looking area north of Waukegan was that I'd be eating the best shrimp ever from a styrofoam container while standing under the open hatch of the back of my car. Plus, I paid $7.50 for a half pound which was generously comprised of six or seven big shrimp.

Ok. Are you getting it now? It gets better.

They've also got an aquarium style smoker over at Porky's, which they're firing with apple wood and lump charcoal, and they're using it to turn out ribs, chicken, pulled pork, rib tips, hot links, and whatever kinds of fish Dino feels like tossing on the smoker that day (you can see the fish at the very top of the picture to the right). When I asked for a small order of the pulled pork, he pulled out a shoulder and started working it over with a cleaver on a large butcher block, so it's not sitting in a steam table all day getting mushy.

The menu is enormous. There are thirty different options listed under "Seafood Dinner" (comes with choice of garlic potatoes or french fries, coleslaw or greens, and dinner roll or cornbread), among them crabmeat-stuffed gulf shrimp, smelt, frog legs, oysters, alligator tail, and four different kinds of crab. You can get most of those as a po' boy sandwich as well, or just order whichever type seafood you're interested in to be fried by the pound.

They had some great-looking pre-packaged items, like shrimp, crab, lobster, and conch salad, there's gumbo and clam chowder, 14 different side dishes, and they're baking their own cornbread, dinner rolls, and kaiser rolls for sandwiches. Plus the barbecue, which is authentic, legit, real-deal stuff. The hot links are made on site.

This place is like some kind of dream--or nightmare, possibly--come true. How can I possibly ever try everything? I could go there twenty times and not even scratch the surface, especially because I wouldn't be able to avoid getting the hand-breaded jumbo gulf shrimp every. single. damn. time.

But here's the real kicker; Dino, the owner, is a bigtime foodie from Greece whose family still owns and maintains an olive grove there. Once I expressed an interest and started taking pictures, he really warmed up, pulling out a giant demijohn of green-gold olive oil from under a table for me to sample. He poured a little cupful, broke off a chunk of dinner roll and dunked it in, soaking it, and then brought it up toward my mouth, motioning for me to taste his family's oil.

Not surprisingly, it was fantastic.

Then he pulled a plastic-wrapped lump from a display cooler cluttered with chunks of vacuum-packed smoked fish, duck eggs, and other, less recognizable stuff and started unwrapping it, describing it as "homemade parmesan". It was grainy, aged maybe a year, quite salty with a little gaminess, more like a pecorino than a parmesan, so I asked if it was sheep's milk. "No," he replied, smiling proudly, "goats' milk. From my herd."

If this guy was anywhere near the city, he'd be heralded as a genius and the place would be mobbed every day, even if he charged double his current prices. How 'bout a lobster roll for seven bucks? Or a softshell crab po' boy for eight?

Here's the rub; the place, I fear, is about to get very, very busy. Dino told me that he's going to be on the Food Network show Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, which is going to be filming this weekend at The Shanty, the nearby restaurant he helps his son run. He said that the Food Network wanted to feature both restaurants, but that he was concerned about the crush that might cause. He seemed well aware of what's been called the "Check, Please" effect--the phenomenon of very good restaurants suddenly getting much worse as a result of being featured on some prominent show and the subesequent flood of people that kind of publicity causes.

If anyone can manage to avoid that particular pitfall, it's Dino.

I was so enthralled with Captain Porky's that I talked it up to my buddy Mitch, and we made the trip up a mere two days after my maiden voyage. We set out fairly early with a cooler full of beers icing in the back of the car, figuring that this time we'd do it up right and take advantage of the nice weather and the nearby picnic tables.

Dino remembered me from earlier in the week, and after I introduced Mitch, he motioned for me to come in the back so he could show me his smoker. He was working on some kind of new project involving oak, salmon sides, and rib tips. He excitedly told me his plan, smiling madly, as if describing some sort of world domination plot; "You see the fat on this?", he asked, shoving a chunk of rib tip an inch from my face, "I'm gonna put the salmon on the bottom rack, and the rib tips above it, so the grease from the pork drips down, flavoring the salmon."

As I munched on the rib tip ("Try it--it's not done yet, but it's still good--you can taste the oak"), he gestured wildly, eyes bulging with intensity, as he described the evil, pork-fat-flavored smoked salmon plot he was hatching. I nodded my approval and rolled my eyes skyward, acknowledging his mad genius.

As Mitch and I ordered way too much food, the incredibly friendly and accommodating staff handed us samples of practically every item we pointed at or inquired about. I gobbled down a couple crawfish tails, a souffle cup of gumbo with rice, a chunk of smoked chicken, and some cheese that Dino quickly battered and fried as an experiment that he deemed "too salty".

After our order was placed, we made our way out to the picnic table, strategically situated near the dumpsters, and settled in. It wasn't long after we revealed the bounty within the styrofoam clamshells that Dino came out, bearing chunks of pork-fat-drizzled salmon hot from the smoker, imploring us to try it. Of course, like everything this crazy, deep-fried, wood-smoke scented Midas touches, it was fantastic.

Dino ranted a while longer about his lambs, why "all meat you buy in this country is crap", and his organic gardens, which supply 75% of the vegetables for the restaurants, while we proceeded to eat like kings, lazily taking in the sunset and the cool lake breezes. We washed down our hot links (amazingly tender, smoky, with great seasoning), St. Louis style ribs (perfect--among the best I've ever eaten), shrimp, crawfish tails, and tartar sauce-dunked fried walleye pike fillets with plastic cups of cold Leinenkugel's, slowly scarfing more than we thought we were capable of, and exchanged looks of appreciation and satiety as we wiped the grease from our lips, confident in the knowledge that we were fully immersed in the moment, enjoying some of the best food in the world.

Dumpster-side dining at it's finest. It doesn't get any better than this.

It's tempting to try and frame my Captain Porky's experience within the larger context of food politics, weaving Dino's passion for provenance into a meaningful diatribe about the evils of factory farms and industrialized produce. The amazing scope of his vision--growing his own vegetables, harvesting wild mushrooms, raising his own chickens, lambs, goats, and pigs, dry-aging his own beef, making everything from wine to cheese--lends itself to the type of back-to-basics discussions of food and foodways that seem to be nearly ubiquitous lately, including right here on this blog.

But I'd rather just show up at Porky's and enjoy. It's a simple place that lends itself to simple pleasures. Perfect fried jumbo shrimp and cold beer. Really well-executed barbecue and sticky, greasy fingers. It's nice to know that Dino is behind the scenes, micro-analyzing each tiny detail in his crazy-man quest to control every aspect of the food production process and ensure that the end result is the best it can possibly be. Don't get me wrong; I do applaud this kind of thing as representative of an alternative to the mass-produced, soulless food that dominates American dining--especially at this price point.

The beauty of Porky's, though, is in its simplicity and accessibility. Those so inclined can make the pilgrimage and pick Dino's brain about seasonality and organic mulch--I guarantee he'll talk you under the table. But folks who don't know the difference between a smelt and a fish stick will appreciate this place just as much. Maybe more.

Which is, if you think about it, maybe the best possible way to change the way regular people think about food. 98% of Americans would never in a million years dream of attending a $125 per person farm-to-table dinner in a fancy downtown restaurant, but even those who don't know or care about terms like organic, sustainable, heritage, or heirloom can wander in and appreciate the difference between a six-dollar order of Dino's rib tips or clam strips and what they're getting just about everywhere else.

Sometimes, those of us who are food-obsessed or in the industry can forget that "good" food--from a qualitative and socio-political viewpoint--doesn't have to be expensive or fancy.

Thankfully, Dino is up in there Zion, quietly (or, more likely, not-so-quietly) doing it the way he's been doing it for the last 25 years, and helping us remember that.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Easter with da Frittats

People all over Italy have widely varied accents and often speak regional dialect from back in the days before Italy was a unified country (which didn't happen until about 1870 or so). So when you travel around, not only will you hear unrecognizable dialect in places like San Gimignano and Siracusa, but you'll also hear Italian spoken with vastly different pronunciations.

Sicily is a prime example. They often change the 'o' sound on the end of a word to a 'u' sound--so lo Siciliano, which is the proper Italian for "the Sicilian language" becomes lu Sicilianu. To make it even harder on those of us with a passing knowledge of guidebook Italian, locals will often switch back and forth mid-sentence between dialect and "proper" (read; Florentine) Italian.

Local dialects are an incredibly insightful window into the history of a region. Siclian dialect is peppered with words derived from Arabic, Greek, Spanish, French, and even a little German thrown in, reflecting the many inhabitants the island has known over the years. Up north, in Trentino-Alto Adige, for instance, the influences are primarily from Austria, and along the northeastern border of Italy, in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, you start hearing Eastern European and Slavic influences in the dialect.

Here in Chicago, however, we have an Italian dialect all our own, which I sometimes refer to as Caputiano, in reference to Caputo's, the well-known Italian produce market and deli on Harlem Ave. in Elmwood Park where any real Chicago Italian worth their salt goes to do their shopping.

An informational aside: There are now many grocery establishments calling themselves Caputo's. The original Caputo's are now known as Angelo Caputo's Fresh Markets. The other chain--Joe Caputo and Sons--is decent, but it's not as good as the original, and then there's Caputo Cheese Market in Melrose Park, which is noted to be "Owned & Operated by Wiscon Corporation. Not affiliated with any other Caputo".

Anyway, Caputiano is a unique dialect of Chicago area American-Italians in which the last letter of words (and it's usually limited to names of foodstuffs) is dropped entirely. O's also change to U's, reflective of the Sicilian heritage of many Chicago-area Italians.

So mozzarella becomes mootzarel, scamorza become scamorz sometimes even smooshed down into skmorz, and sopressata, puzzlingly, becomes supersott.

The more you listen, the stranger it gets. Hard 'C' sounds are softened, to the point that they start to sound more like a 'G'. So capicolla sounds like gavigool. Throw in all the nicknames, hand gestures, and typical Italian non-verbal sign language, and you've got something really fun to be a part of.

Which brings us (finally) to the topic of this post. My family is blessed enough to know an Italian-American family who generously includes us in the annual Easter blowout they hold at their home. In typical fashion, they go all out for this party; bunny and chick-shaped candies are everywhere, there's a lamb-shaped cake, big Easter baskets and stuffed animals for the kids, a mad-dash Easter egg hunt out back promises plastic eggs filled with half-dollar and dollar coins (along with the occasional one filled with dirt!), and, of course, a massive spread of great food.

The main event and centerpiece of the Easter blowout, though, is Big Mikey's frittat.

A frittat is, basically, a frittata, of course. But it's oh so much more than that. It's the frittata to end all frittate. It's the frittata that ate Melrose Park.

Big Mikey (in typical Italian-American fashion, "Mikey" is about 6'7" and 280 lbs.) is a pro at this by now. He's got a special pan he uses just for the frittats, which is the biggest, deepest sauté pan I've ever seen in my life. The day before, he loads up on imported salseech and salumi--soopersatt, gavigool, mortadell--cheeses like fontina, scamorza, and ricotta, which gets drained through cheesecloth, and a case of eggs, and then on Easter morning, he gets down to work.

Big Mikey occupies his corner of the kitchen all morning, cranking out one frittat after another while talking, greeting guests, playing with the kids, eating, and yanking people's chains a little. He likes to play up the fact that I'm a chef and ask me if he's "doing it right", confident that he's in his element and, in his kitchen, I'm the novice. Of course, I give him his respect and bow down to his frittat skills.

This shows just how big the frittat pan is. Look how it dwarfs the burner.

It's a great, raucous affair. There are always tons of kids running around stuffing themselves on candy, there's a really interesting mix of old-school Chicago Italian-Americans, Polish and other more newly-arrived Eastern European immigrants, and a Jewish contingent as well, so the buffet runs the gamut from lox and bagels to cannoli to hot, garlicky borscht. The guys usually have a few TV's on, tuned to the Hawks game or the Masters, talk business, and will step out side to smoke cigars at some point. The women dote over the kids, catch up on gossip and push everyone to eat more, and a good time is generally had by all.

Our family is truly honored to be included every year, and it's really great to see how thrilled our hosts are with our kids. They shower them with gifts and Easter candy, but, even more meaningfully, with attention and genuine affection. Italians, in general, have a really deep appreciation for young children. As a parent who sometimes gets fed up with the day-to-day drudgery of raising two kids, it's a refreshing reminder of where my priorities and focus should be.

It's one thing to prowl the neighborhoods of the Chicago area, eating in restaurants, shopping in ethnic markets, and doing the legwork to discover unknown delicacies and food traditions, but it's another thing entirely to be invited into someone's home to share in their family's personal culinary culture. Every family, regardless of region and cultural history, is different, and does things their specific way; a substitution grandma made along the way due to her personal preference, or adjustments made due to limitations of a specific kitchen, equipment, or what's available at the time often become codified and manage to stick for generations.

So it's a rare honor to be included in a family's Easter feast. It's become a tradition for us; we go every year now and, although we don't usually see Big Mikey, Grace, and their family much during the rest of the year, they treat us as if we'd just seen them yesterday and there's never a hint of that awkwardness that sometimes goes along with seeing people only occasionally, for the big holidays.

Once the kids' faces start showing a flush from running around after having eaten too many Peeps, we know it's time to head home. We say our goodbyes, give and receive kissses on the cheek and hugs, and Mikey packs three or four massive slabs of frittat onto a foil-covered paper plate for us to take home. Usually we're so loaded down with gifts, Easter loot, and leftovers, have to make two trips to the car, and then the hugs and goodbyes start all over again.

So, humorous Italo-American Chicago-style slang (aka paisanics) aside, Easter, for us, is wonderful opportunity to be a part of another family's traditions and enjoy friends, family, and Big Mikey's frittat!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Burger Research

As some of you may already have read, I'm actively working on a project for which I'm researching burgers. Everything about them; the best way to cook a burger, whether it should be made thick or thin, which cuts of beef to use in the grind, the ratio of fat to lean, the perfect bun, etc, etc....

I've been running around town trying lots of different burger spots, and have been doing tons of reading on the web as well.

This post is going to serve as sort of a compendium for the information I've amassed thus far.

On the local front, The Chicago Burger Project is a promising blog that began as a quest to eat through Time Out Chicago's 55 Best Burgers article. Two years later, the guys who started this blog have managed to choke down 41 of them, and written some decent reviews, but their pace has slowed down considerably--lately they put up a new post only every other month or so.

As usual, LTH forum is a wealth of information. One can, if time allows, do a search and wade through the literally dozens of topics about various types, styles, toppings, and specific restaurants. And then there are topics like this one, from which one man's nostalgic meanderings about the burger of his childhood (Mike Gebert of Sky Full of Bacon again) a near-scholarly discussion emerges and touches on the burger's provenance, the etymology of the term, and it's history in various regions. Deep.

Expanding my scope outside Chicago is fruitful. People take burgers a lot more seriously in places like New York, New Jersey, and L.A., I'm afraid. Chicago has it share of food specialties and does a lot of things well, but it's not a burger town.

George Motz may be the foremost expert on burgers in the country (and, therefore, the world). His Hamburger America empire includes a Beard Award-nominated film, a book, and a blog, all bearing his HA brand. He's taught a course on burgers at NYU, has consulted for Wendy's and has had a burger named after him by esteemed burgermeister Harry Hawk.

A Hamburger Today, the burger blog maintained by Serious Eats is a logical command center for such an endeavor. It's one of those blogs that's maintained by multiple editors and bloggers, takes itself pretty seriously, and does a really excellent job of reporting just about every burger-related story on the web, along with generating some of its own original material.

I found this piece, which reviews 12 of NYC's best burgers using a numerical ratings system similar to the one I employ for my Bacon List to be really informative and helpful. Sometimes simply identifying and figuring out the right words to use to describe the concepts being discussed can be really difficult, and this piece goes a long way towards establishing a workable lexicon with which to discuss, evaluate, and reverse-engineer burgers.

In this piece, Chef Tony Maws of Craigie on Main in Cambridge, MA uses three different cuts of beef, two types of fat, and dehydrated miso powder in his fancy-schmancy burger mix, before cooking it up in a hi-tech C-Vap oven and browning it on a 900° plancha. That's a bit outside the scope of my project, but there's still some useful insight there.

Along those same lines, here's a rundown of how to make the Blumenburger, Heston Blumenthal's 32-ingredient, 30 hour prep-time burger that he worked up for the BBC's series In Search of Perfection, which seeks to re-work classic dishes so as to arrive at the benchmark version.

And then there's this hilarious nugget that someone dug up and put on YouTube. It's a Wendy's training video from the 80's, which, yes, does contain some interesting info about the technique the fast food chain employs to cook their patties (they keep the griddle at a very low 250°) But the appeal is more in the dated look and feel, along with the bust-a-gut-funny rap-song dream sequence. This one is not to be missed. Make sure to watch both parts.

There's much more, of course. Burger blogs are freakin' everywhere. There's The Burger Beast, HoosierBurger Boy, Portland Hamburgers, and Texas Burger Guy. And then there's Cincinnatti Burger Guys, Burgatory, a guy who just reviews fast food burgers, LA-based BurgerTour, Waunaburger out of Wisconsin, and, of course, twelve bazillion blogs and articles about people eating sixteen-pound manhole-cover sized burgers, and burgers that are so over-the-top decadent that they render themselves completely disgusting.

And then there's this:

God, the internet is just so weird.

Oh, and out of what I've tried so far, I liked the burger at Five Guys on Clybourn the best. Very juicy. Enjoy!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Tooting My Own Horn

Today, I received a phone call from one of the organizers of The Symposium for Professional Food Writers at The Greenbrier in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia, informing me that I've won a scholarship which will enable me to attend this prestigious week-long conference.

I'm thrilled!

This is an elite industry event that limits attendance to fewer than 100 food writers, editors, publishers, and agents, so it's a huge opportunity for me to network with people that are normally very difficult to access.

It's also a great way for me to become a better writer. The symposium consists of all sorts of workshops and coaching sessions that are geared towards helping the attendees improve their writing, tailor their writing style for specific publications, and think outside the box with regard to subject matter, style, and medium.

I was awarded the James Peterson Food Writing Passion Scholarship, which the website says "will be awarded to a food writer whose writing ties food with life and with a certain passion in being alive. The main criterion for this award is written excellence and "just good fun" in writing about food and drink."

Let's just let that sink in for a minute. They thought my piece displayed "written excellence"! I know, can you believe it? "Just good fun," sure, I can buy that. But "written excellence"? I may just re-write the blog description in my header to include that phrase. I mean, if the people reading this blog are being graced with written excellence, they ought to know.

The piece that won was my review of Broadbent's Original Hickory Smoked Bacon, and the director of the event, who called to tell me the news, was literally gushing about my writing. She said that there were hundreds of submissions for the scholarships, but that my entry was the unanimous winner, and that the judges said it wasn't even close. (!) She was probably stroking my ego, but I really don't care. I'm basking in it--at least for a few days.

Anyway, as you might've surmised, I'm really pleased by this development. When I found out about this event and their scholarship program, I figured, sure, what the heck...why not enter? So I selected a few pieces to submit, went over to Kinko's to get five copies of each piece printed off, and crammed the whole bundle into mailers, figuring that I'd at least be able to say that I gave it a shot. I did not expect to win, or even figure I had much of a chance.

It's really nice to get the validation that comes from having industry professionals tell me that my writing is good ("written excellence", even) . It feels great. This blog is mostly intended to be an outlet to for me to vent out all this stuff that I would otherwise just bore my wife, my friends, and random pizza delivery guys with. I've taken it fairly seriously, but that's because I enjoy writing and want to get better at it. But I've really just looked at is as an exercise, an outlet, and a fun pastime. Now I feel like I might be actually Doing Something.

The symposium is in early May, and I'll blog about it once I get back. Industry heavyweights like 12-time Beard Award winner Steve Dolinsky and French Laundry Cookbook co-author Michael Ruhlman will be there, and if I can manage to get some pictures of myself with them without coming off like some star-struck, wide-eyed food writer groupie, I'll share them here on the site. It should be fun.

I'll try not to let my head get too big, but don't be surprised if you're asked for your credit card number the next time you try and pull me up on your blog reader. After all, "written excellence" isn't something that people just give away for free.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Ditch the Recipe and Just Cook!

I've written quite a few times about my disdain for recipes. I believe that recipes are a crutch that prevent people from learning how to actually cook.

For the most part, they're unnecessary. There are some exceptions, of course, but the overwhelming majority of recipes are simple techniques embellished with multiple flavor variations.

Case in point--my mother in law. She's a damn good cook who stows a file folder full of clipped recipes in her giant suitcase every time she comes for a visit. I snuck a look at it a few weeks ago, and, among other things, there were eight separate recipes for bread pudding and baked french toast. Eight different recipes for her to keep track of, all variations on exactly the same theme; some type of bread soaked with custard, with some sort of flavor and/or add-ins like fruit or nuts, which is then baked in a shallow dish.

She clearly likes this concept; she's making eight different versions of it. Think of the possibilities that might open up to her if she were to ditch the recipes and embrace the (really, very simple) techniques that these recipes are built around.

Most cooking simply involves hanging various ingredients on a template or skeleton. All the recipe does is name the specific ingredients involved, rather than leave that choice up to you. The great, gaping knowledge gap, which is what distinguishes cooks from recipe-followers, is an understanding of the template and how it works, and the realization that the options of what kind of bread to use, which flavors to add, and whether to use dried cranberries or raisins are infinitely malleable and really, rather arbitrary.

So let's take a look at one of my mother in law's bread pudding recipes--Cranberry Orange Bread Pudding--as an example. The template for this recipe is simple:

Bread + Custard + Flavorings + Other stuff + Bake it.

The only real knowledge one needs is what a custard is and how to work with it. Everything else is completely variable.

Here are the ingredients from this recipe, and, in paranthesis, the role they play in the template:

King's Hawaiian Bread (Bread)
Whole Eggs (Custard)
Additional Egg Yolks (Custard)
Milk (Custard)
Sugar (Flavorings)
Orange Juice (Flavorings)
Orange Zest (Flavorings)
Grand Marnier (Flavorings)
Vanilla Extract (Flavorings)
Dried Cranberries (Other Stuff)

So, by simply pulling back, understanding the role each ingredient plays in the dish, and then considering all the other various ingredients that can play the same role, you can write forty bread pudding recipes in about five minutes. Think about it:

Bread--how many different types of bread could you use? Brioche, wheat bread, challah, crusty baguettes, cinnamon-raisin bread, focaccia, cinnamon rolls, doughnuts, banana bread, sourdough...the list is endless. How about a savory bread pudding with rye bread, caraway, crispy bacon, apples, and sauerkraut? Sounds weird, but that might be a pretty cool little side dish for grilled pork chops, no?

Flavorings--Again, the list is endless. Orange, lemon, lime, vanilla, chocolate, maple, honey, every extract you can think of, every liqueur you can think of, coconut milk instead of regular milk, savory, sweet, sweet and savory, etc, etc. Think of flavors that go together and reconfigure them into the familiar framework of the bread pudding. How about a key lime bread pudding with key lime juice, lime zest, and a rich bread like brioche with bits of broken graham crackers mixed in? Peanut Butter and Jelly Bread Pudding. Bananas Foster Bread Pudding. It's literally endless.

Add-ins--Nuts, chocolate chips, dried fruit, fresh fruit, cooked fruit, crunchy toffee bits, candy, vegetables for savory (or sweet, I suppose) bread puddings....

The only thing that might be even slightly unfamiliar here is the custard. But making custard is just a question of knowing the correct ratio of eggs/yolks to liquid.

That concept--of using ratios in cooking--is the subject of a new book about cooking (I'm not calling it a cookbook) by Michael Ruhlman. I'm a big fan of Ruhlman for both his excellent writing and the way he attempts to de-mystify cooking in his books. I haven't read or even checked out this book yet, but based on his other books (The Elements of Cooking is a really great resource for budding cooks), and the concept, I think it's bound to be good.

The book is called Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking and the concept is similar to what I've described above. Ditch the recipes and begin understanding the simple underlying principles on which recipes are based. Then just mix and match the ingredients of your choice based on what you have on hand or what you feel like eating.

Ruhlman's book furnishes some of the basic ratios for various types of breads, quick breads, stocks, sauces, and, yes...custards, and allows readers begin to understand the basic principles of cooking in the same way that chefs approach the process. Alton Brown says that "having a ratio in hand is like having a secret decoder ring that frees you from the tyranny of recipes", and he's right, despite employing his typical science-geek frame of reference. It's a book I plan on reading because I enjoy Ruhlman's writing and the fresh approach he brings to the subject matter, but I'm even more interested in recommending it to novice cooks.

Ruhlman's blog has a post up about the book, and he's doing a giveaway promotion, in conjuction with Share Our Strength, which is a wonderful organization. Anyone who donates--regardless of the amount--by clicking through to Ruhlman's page on SOS will be eligible for the giveaway. You can win signed copies of the book, a fancy scale, and some other cool stuff, so I encourage everyone to check it out.

Charities like SOS typically see a big decline in donations during trying economic times like this, so it's important to keep them in mind while we're all figuring out ways of cutting back and being more frugal. Think of it this way; learning to cook will actually save you money by allowing you to more easily utilize what's in your pantry or is on sale, and you can use some of the money you save with your newfound culinary skills to help feed hungry kids. Plus, you might even win a cool prize.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Peoria Packing Butcher Shop

I referred briefly to my recent visit to Peoria Packing in my review of the bacon I bought there, but didn't really get into the whole experience of the place itself, which is a real trip and very thought provoking.

Most Americans are pretty squeamish about meat, despite the fact that we eat more of it than any other country in the world. At this point, we are really insulated from the process. Meat is fully broken down into only the most desirable parts, fully trimmed, and ready to go from the shrink-wrapped styrofoam tray right into the pan. Or fully cooked on the plate, if consumed in a restaurant. It's been like that forever, for most of us, and we really don't think about it too much.

Until we're confronted with something different, like a European market where piles of offal or whole animals are just out in the open, for all to see. Even for someone like me, a chef who's been dealing with larger primal cuts of meat for years, these cruder, more "real" displays represent an off-putting paradox, because I find myself curiously attracted and also, at the same time, repulsed.

I think this is true for most Americans, with varying degrees of attraction/revulsion, of course, and most simply avoid the revulsion side of the equation, which results in a sad state of affairs. We've managed, as a society, to hide and sanitize the reality of meat. Perhaps that's why we eat so much of it.

A visit to Peoria Packing will cause one to ponder these things, because once you enter the butcher shop wing of this small grocery store across the street from their commercial packing house, you will be confronted with MEAT in a way that not too many Americans are accustomed to.

PP's meat section is a large refrigerated room with big long tables running the length of it. The various cuts of meat are just piled onto the tables and customers (wearing the required latex gloves) just kind of rummage through the piles until they find what they're looking for. The meat is very fresh, very inexpensive, and they carry cuts that are difficult to find elsewhere. I went specifically to get "packer cut" brisket for smoking. I also picked up some pork bellies (to make homemade bacon) and a few other things.

A lot of people have trouble handling this set-up. The online reviews of PP are mixed, with quite a few folks stating they'll never go back due to the way the meat is just right out in the open for anyone to sneeze or cough on. This is true, of course, but I didn't see this happening and I like to believe that people have enough sense not to do that. Most people do a pretty decent job of covering their mouths and not coughing or sneezing directly on me, so I'm not sure why expecting them to do the same in a roomful of meat is any more of a leap.

I think this sort of revulsion is how people deal with the fact that they are just not used to seeing meat displayed this way. It is jarring, I will admit, and seeing whole cow's feet, pig's heads, and other less common animal parts is definitely a bit of a shock as well. I think a lot of people are simply put off by the sheer real-ness of it, and so they use the "unsanitary" claim as a rationale for their revulsion, and as a justifiable reason to avoid that experience in the future.

Revulsion, however, is natural when confronted with meat. Revulsion is normal. Meat is a dead, decaying animal. It's bloody, gruesome, and serves as a reminder of our own mortality. Yet most people eat it every day. I'll go out on a limb and say that NOT feeling revulsion at the sight or thought of meat is what's, in fact, abnormal.

We're so unaccustomed, though, to this feeling, because the meat industry has done it's level best to eliminate any and all reminders of death, blood, and the idea that these are animals we're eating. And they've been very successful, with the full compliance of a willing populace, who values avoiding the cognitive dissonance of feeling both hunger and revulsion far more than it values coming to terms with our carnivorous impulses.

Up until recently, the luxury of not getting to know one's meat up close and personal just wasn't a real possibility for most people. It's only in the last hundred years or so that we've acquired this new found squeamishness, which has gotten to the ridiculous point where some people act all grossed out even by chicken served on-the-bone, or with skin. Grow up, folks.

The conflict intrinsic to eating meat has long attracted deeper thinkers. Cultural anthropologists and sociologists like Mary Douglass and Claude Levi-Strauss have written reams on this fascinating subject. It's human nature to be both repulsed and attracted by meat, and people have been dealing with it since back in the hunter-gatherer days. It's just that here in modern-day America, we've made a new art form out of figuring out ways to avoid dealing with it.

The flip side of this is the head-to-tail movement that's been steadily gaining momentum among chefs. In Chicago, chefs like Paul Kahan, Jason Hammel and Amalea Tshilds, and Paul Virant have been sourcing whole animals direct from the farmers who raise them and utilizing all of the various cuts, including the organs. There is no better way to pay tribute to an animal that has been slaughtered for food, these chefs say, than to ensure that nothing goes to waste.

These chefs feel it's their responsibility to close the awareness gap created by the commercial meat industry, and they're bypassing it entirely by going direct to farmers, buying whole animals, and doing the butchering themselves in their subterranean restaurant prep kitchens.

So the head is used to make pâté, the cheeks to make guanciale or braised for ravioli filling, the neck for coppa, the bellies are cured for bacon, and the feet used for cotecchino or for their natural gelatin. Blood sausage, tripe, and kidneys are making a comeback among foodies.

Before you wince and get all squeamish, stop and think for a moment that the bacon you enjoy is also attached to lungs, a heart, a head, and feet, and ask yourself what happens to all that stuff once you've eaten your ribs and bacon. If you're not a vegetarian, animals are being killed to support your meat habit, and if you're not eating anything but the prime cuts, you're wasting big chunks of the animals that were killed to feed you.

The Reader's Mike Sula did an extensive piece called The Whole Hog Project (scroll to the bottom and check out the reader comments to get a taste of how strongly people feel about the subject) which documents the paper's purchase of a rare mulefoot pig, and follows Dee Dee's (yes, they named it) life over the course of a year and a half, culminating in its slaughter. It was a fascinating and courageous exercise in journalism which cut right to the heart of America's schizophrenic relationship with meat, and it was recently nominated (along with Mike Gebert's Sky Full of Bacon video podcast that accompanied the Sula piece) for a prestigious James Beard Award.

It's extremely thought-provoking stuff, and it's a subject that most people would prefer to avoid thinking about. But it's also perhaps a subject that we must consider more often, considering our love/hate relationship with food, the growing national obesity issue, the extent to which we consume highly processed foods and fast foods, and the myriad other ways in which we're all dysfunctional in our relationships to what we eat. Myself included--I'm certainly no exception.

I'm not claiming, mind you, that I have the answers here, or that a visit to Peoria Packing will solve all your problems. But I do think that burying our collective heads in the sand and continuing to buy grocery store trays with shrink-wrapped beef tenderloin and BSCB is the exact wrong thing to do.

So, instead of mindlessly purchasing your animal proteins from the grocery store, take a trip over to PP and check the place out. Bring your kids and do your part to kind of de-mythologize the process for them, and start closing, if only by small increments, the awareness gap that the meat industry has spent decades building in their attempt to try and insulate us from the inner conflicts that are inherent in being carnivorous.

I was actually somewhat concerned that it might bother Henry, my four year old son, who made the trip with me, given that, in many of the books we read him, piggies and cows are cute barnyard animals that talk, sing, or drive the school bus. But it didn't. After we got back, my wife asked him what he liked best about the place and he said, enthusiastically, "the pig heads!"

Henry, 4, surveys the carnage

So there you go. This little field trip can be an opportunity to start grappling with these deeper issues of morality, mortality, and animal rights, or you could just look at it as a good, cheap option for bulk burgers, hot links, and ribs. Either way, Peoria Packing is worth a visit. Don't forget to bring a cooler.

Thursday, April 2, 2009


First off, let me just say that I will admit to having huge blind spots. I tend to get intimidated by big-deal "things"--subjects or areas that are just massive and deep, or require a decent amount of expertise that others possess, but I don't. And what happens, as a result of this, is that I avoid diving in, or even dipping my toe, into that particular arena, due to my reluctance to play the role of novice.

Such is the case with Chinatown.

Until recently, my only experience in Chinatown was as a kid, going to Phoenix for dim sum with my parents a few times, and, as an adult, driving through the area, lost, on my way to or from McCormick Place.

Thankfully, I found a mentor; someone even more food-obsessed than I, someone with extensive Chinatown experience, into whose hands I could place myself for, at least, my initial experience. An acid-trip "spirit guide" of sorts, only instead of metaphysical hallucinations, we'd be dealing with live turtles, sharkfin, and spicy tofu.

I met Mhays (a fellow denizen of LTH forum) at the mac and cheese sMACkdown, and immediately connected with her and her family, so we made tentative plans for a dual family outing, which happened last weekend. With the logistical barriers of where to park, explore, and eat taken out of my decision-making equation, the novice factor was effectively addressed, and my sense of being completely intimidated by the sheer scope of Chinatown became much less of a consideration.

I realize that this is a silly reason to avoid exploring culturally rich areas, but it is what it is. I have this somewhat obsessive need to thoroughly research and investigate EVERY little aspect of something in order to feel that I've experienced it as fully as I'd like to--I'm the guy who reads five guidebooks cover to cover before going on vacation, if that helps you to understand the mindset. So sometimes it's easiest to simply limit my horizon, rather than attempting to take on an entirely new genre.

By putting myself entirely in the hands of someone else, however, someone who's already done the work, conducted the research and fieldwork, I can sidestep my (admittedly unhealthy) maximization tendencies, and become a mere follower who's simply about just enjoying whatever happens to float across his field of vision.

So, that's what I did, and my Chinatown spirit guide did not steer me wrong.

We essentially skipped the main drag along Wentworth that I was expecting would be our focus, in favor of the more easily-accessible Chinatown Square, which is essentially a closed-off open air mall, which kind of turns its back to Archer Avenue. We found plenty of gift shops loaded down with swords, fake fountains, and lucky buddhas, quite a few medicinal herb shops in which we stared at one glass jar after another wondering what the hell you're supposed to do with THAT, and food markets like Mayflower market where we bought bagfuls of weird-sounding candy, frozen barbecued pork buns, and checked out tanks of live fish and reptiles.

We did quite a bit of wandering, so we worked up a pretty good appetite for lunch, and after checking in at Phoenix and finding a half hour wait for their dim sum, we took Michelle's advice and headed over to Lao Sze Chuan.

We were seated immediately at a large corner table, and promptly given hot tea (which was very welcome on this snowy late March day) and a plate of spicy pickled cabbage on which to munch while the kids played around with chopsticks and bugged us to open the candy we'd just bought.

The food was, as expected, very good, with the specialties of Dry Chile Chicken, Dry Chile Beef, and the Szechuan Green Beans being the standout dishes. We also had Salt and Pepper Small Fish (essentially deep fried whole smelt), Pot Herb with Pork, a soup with clams and tofu, a tripe dish which wasn't what we ordered, and some steamed buns and crab rangoon for the kids.

And while the food was worth returning for, what I really enjoyed was the place itself. It was bustling on a Sunday afternoon, jammed with people, all of whom seemed to be celebrating something--if nothing else, the fact that they were in a great restaurant feasting on well-prepared spicy dishes instead of out in the snowy cold. But, beyond that, I found the service to be just excellent. We had at least four different people at our table refilling water and teacups, whisking away empty plates, bringing more chopsticks to replace the ones the kids kept dropping, and just generally making sure that we were well cared for.

At one point, I managed to extract my nose from my plate of spicy chicken long enough to notice that one of the servers had commandeered our seven-month old, Nora, and was standing next to the table, rocking and holding her, grinning from ear to ear and showing her off to the other servers, who had all gathered around. And Nora, who can be skittish with strangers, was loving it. (Yes, the server did ask my wife if it was ok before snatching up my kid.). It's this kind of personal attention--genuine, caring interest in people--that really underscores what hospitality is all about. These women really enjoyed having us as guests in their restaurant, and they made it clear in no uncertain terms.

So, yeah, the food was good. But what stood out more was the actual experience. It's that kind of stuff that transforms restaurants with good food into Great Restaurants.

More importantly, what I got from the trip was some level of knowledge, so that I no longer feel intimidated to tackle this kind of outing all on my own. The easy in and out logistics of the Chinatown Square section make it seem much easier to just zip in there for a quick lunch and an afternoon of browsing, and I'm looking forward to checking out some of the other places, like Spring World, BBQ King House (which is where the first picture of this piece was taken), or (Little) Three Happiness (the namesake of LTH forum).

So, thanks, Michelle. It was great to get our families together and I hope this will be the first of many of these kind of outings (stay tuned--we discussed a Maxwell Street Market outing once the weather gets nicer).