Thursday, January 29, 2009

Cheap Stuff that Works Vol.3--Kyocera Ceramic Peeler

I had reservations about including this awesome new gizmo (I got one for Christmas) in my "Cheap Stuff" series, because with its nearly eighteen-dollar price tag it's really not cheap at all.

But it works. Holy smokes, does this thing work.

It's as if, before you picked it up, you had never actually used a peeler. Never even heard of one. It's like all the other so-called peelers you've been using were constructed out of old Diet Coke cans or rusty license plates.

I've been reading and wondering about ceramic blades for a long time, but I've never tried one. Basically, they're made out of a special type of ceramic which is like the hardest surface known to man, second only to diamonds. The upside of this is that they become and remain really sharp. The downside is that they're nearly impossible to sharpen yourself (you have to send them in to the company to sharpen), and they can shatter if dropped or used for more challenging tasks like cutting through bones or smashing garlic cloves.

Due to the negatives, the fact that I love my carbon steel Sabatiers, and the fairly prohibitive price tag on some of the more decent brands of ceramic knives, I'd never gotten one. But someone laid this sweet little Kyocera ceramic peeler on me for Christmas (thanks, Mom--sorry about how I ripped into the mango splitter you gave me a few Christmases ago!) and it's really a perfect way to kind of try out the whole ceramic blade thing without having to spend eighty or a hundred bucks on a new knife (which I don't even need--I have too many knives already).

(Wow! Just now while I was googling 'Kyocera' so I could provide the link above, I discovered that they make a ceramic-bladed mandoline that looks to be almost as affordable as the trusty old Benriner. I so don't need to buy that. But I want it. And it's available in my choice of four high-fashion colors....and I have a responsibility to the readers of this blog. Must. Stay. Strong. Must. Not. Shop. Online....)

Anyway, it's probably pretty clear by now that I love this new handy-dandy peeler. The blade is freakishly sharp. It glides effortlessly across the surface of normal stuff like carrots, parsnips, and potatoes, but it also does a pretty damn good job peeling thick, tough stuff like butternut squash that you'd normally resort to using a knife on. And due to the fact that the blade is so mind-blowingly sharp, it really shines when peeling delicate stuff like tomatoes, ripe pears, and grapes.

Ok, that was just a test to see if you're paying attention. I didn't use my new best friend the cool red peeler to peel a grape. But this thing could probably do it if you really decided you wanted to. In fact, if I had any grapes in my fridge, I'd go peel one right now, just to say I did. But I don't.

The coolest thing about this peeler, though, is that the blade rotates 180 degrees. So righties and lefties can use it the normal, vertically-oriented way, and you can also rotate it only 90 degrees and use it like a Y-peeler. It slices! It peels grapes! It can remove unsightly body hair! It's three, three, three peelers in one!

(As a ridiculously off-topic aside, has anyone besides me laughed their ass off at those Sham-Wow commercials that have been airing recently? The guy who does those commercials has this hilarious, strangely dark, self-parodic way of delivering the classic Ron Popeil-style, in-your-face, as-seen-on-tv ad schtick. Seriously, mark this guy down. He's one to watch.)

Oh, one caveat. This peeler has a single-sided blade, meaning that it can only cut in one direction. Most peelers, since they lack the rotating head, have a double-sided blade allowing for either right-handed or left-handed use. An added benefit of the double-sided blade is that you can peel in both directions--ie, on the downstroke and then back on the upstroke. I don't peel this way, but for those of you who this is important, this may not be the peeler for you.

Anyway, since it really is like three tools in one, due to the rotating head, and since good quality peelers already go for eleven or twelve bucks these days, I'm urging everyone to ditch the habit of buying that ubiquitous metal piece-o'-crap that you buy in the grocery store that gets dull so fast that you probably have three of them rattling around your utensil drawer. Just stop.

Cheap tools end up costing more in money and headaches over the long run. Spend the extra eight or ten bucks, emerge from the Stone Age, and step into the high-tech, 21st century world of vegetable preparation.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Classic Cookbook Review--French Country Cooking

Elizabeth David emerged as a writer of articles about cooking in post-war England in the late 1940's. Her first full-length book, Mediterranean Food was released in 1950, and followed up almost immediately with French Country Cooking in 1951.

It's hard to imagine in today's 3G-fiber-optic-paced world, but if you really think about what life was like in early 1950's post-war England, David's books must have seemed like a welcome breath of warm, sunny, Mediterranean air. Food was still being rationed then, and a huge number of what we now consider to be staples (eggplant and olive oil, for instance) were either unobtainable or unfamiliar to the average British cook. English cooking was largely very drab and bland, with a lot of roasts, flour-thickened sauces, and overcooked mushy vegetables.

David's food writing was borne out of her travels, both before and during the war. She studied at the Sorbonne in Paris as a young woman and left England in 1939 to become an actress. When WWII started in Europe, she ended up fleeing from one exotic locale to the next, spending time in Antibes, Corsica, Italy, the Greek island of Syros, Egypt, and India.

By the time the war ended and she returned to England, she had seen (and eaten) all over the world. She had cultivated a strong appreciation for the food of the Mediterranean, and this is what she chose to write about. In a time where staples like milk, butter, and beef were in short supply, David was writing about exotics like saffron, eel, capers, and fennel; ingredients that most Brits had never even heard of. For many, cooped up for years due to the war, these books must've read like escapist fantasy.

The books, of course, were hugely successful, and David went on to write ten or so, mostly focused on the food of provincial France and Italy (although her book English Bread and Yeast Cookery is also a classic).

I found this book for three bucks at a used bookstore when I was a budding young cook attending culinary school, thrilled at the prospect of steeping myself in classics like daube de boeuf and truite meunière. It appealed to me as a nice introduction to French country cooking, and I had heard of David and knew that she was considered a legendary cookbook author. This was an ambitious time for me and I had visions of attempting to cook my way through this book in my spare time.

I don't think I quite managed it. When I took the book down off of my bookshelf, a blue fingertip band-aid fell out from where it had been serving as a page-marker for the last 15 years or so. That should tell you something about my knife-skills at the time, and, since it was wedged in only about a third of the way through the fish chapter, you can also figure out about how successful I was at cooking my way through the book.

The recipes here are solid, and do manage to give a pretty comprehensive assortment of "country" or "peasant-style" dishes from the varied regions of France. But what makes this book really wonderful is what it represents, and that's a cultural shift that was, at the time, on the horizon in post-war England. I'm going to quote extensively here from David's introduction, because I really think it manages to capture and convey the ideas that are at the very heart of this classic.

Although there is not such a profusion of raw materials in England, we still have much greater gastronomic resources than the national cookery would lead one to suppose.

Rationing, the disappearance of servants, and the bad and expensive meals served at restaurants, have led Englishwomen to take a far greater interest in food than was formerly considered polite; and large numbers of people with small farms in the country produce their own home-cured bacon, ham and sausages; personal supervision of the kitchen garden induces a less indifferent attitude to the fate of spring vegetables; those who have churned their own butter, fed their chickens and geese, cherished their fruit trees, skinned and cleaned their own hares, are in no mood to see their effort wasted. Town dwellers, who take trouble over their marketing, chose their meat and fish carefully and keep a good store cupboard, are equally interested in seeing that their care is repaid in good and interesting meals.

It is for such people that I have collected the recipes in this book, most of which derive from French regional and peasant cookery, which, at its best, is the most delicious in the world; cookery which uses raw materials to the greatest advantage without going to the absurd lengths of the complicated and so-called Haute Cuisine.... Good cooking is honest, sincere and simple, and by this I do not mean to imply that you will find in this, or indeed any other book, the secret of turning out first-class food in a few minutes with no trouble. Good food is always a trouble and its preparation should be regarded as a labour of love, and this book is intended for those who actually and positively enjoy the labour involved in entertaining their friends and providing their families with first-class food.

There's so much here to take in. David touches on almost every one of today's major food trends, fads, and cultural shifts--organics, local eating, head-to-tail eating, the emergence of 'foodie' culture, garden-to-table eating, the increase in popularity of urban farmer's markets, seasonality. Somehow I'm surprised there's not a chapter on savory cupcakes or any mention of espuma.

David somehow had the prescience to begin constructing a school of thought that was rejecting the concepts of processed, factory-produced, value-added, canned, frozen, and artificially-preserved food just as this nascent industry was emerging. The post WWII era was typified by a massive industrial change-over. Factories that had geared up to produce goods for the war effort were forced to reconfigure, and began to make cans and canned goods, frozen and processed foods, and nitrogen fertilizers for agriculture. Simultaneously, the exploding advertising industry was employed to create newer and ever-increasing markets for these new products.

This, in large part, is how we got where we are today, with a huge portion of our society not knowing how to cook or even take apart raw ingredients--think about it, how many people do you know that are comfortable cutting up a chicken? Ads convinced cooks that canned or frozen vegetables were superior to fresh ones, that eating any fruit at any time of year is a God-given right, and that cooking was a "chore" or "drudgery"--something to be avoided at all costs, or, at least, something to try and spend as little time and energy as possible doing.

Subsequent food industry "innovations" along with PR and ad campaigns have brought about the boneless/skinless phenomenon, the hormoneing and antibiotic-ization of all meat-providing animals, the de-fatting of industrially-raised pork and eggs, the ubiquitous use of high-fructose corn syrup, and scores of other Really Bad Ideas that were driven by the food and agriculture industries' desire to make more and more money without any concern for the quality of the products, the effects their actions would have on the health of the people eating the products or the environment in which they were produced, or for the implicit and explicit messages being sent to our society about the value and importance we place on feeding our stomachs and our souls day in and day out, throughout the lives of multiple generations of people.

We're learning now, of course. Many of the ideas David espoused back in the early 50's are now becoming fashionable among foodies and then beginning to wind their way into the popular culture. But we still have a ways to go, and it's an uphill climb because these concepts are working against food-industry ideals that have been firmly entrenched for the last 40+ years and that have huge money and lobbying power with which to push back.

All this could've been avoided if we'd have all read our Elizabeth David, and tried to emulate her and her wonderful celebratory attitude towards food and cooking. David, of course, was mostly unaware of all the political stuff, and was just concerned with eating and living well. Which is, if you think about it, the very heart of the matter, from a personal, political, and societal standpoint. Cooking and eating (along with writing about it) is a political act--regardless of whether one is aware of it.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Finishing with Butter

Butter is the perennial MVP of food and cooking. One mention of it and everyone rolls their eyes skyward and makes their best food orgasm face. But how do most home cooks use butter?

Restaurants use butter in a lot of ways where it's not all that evident. Fish and meats are basted in sizzling butter while they're cooking, delicate proteins like lobster are poached in it, compound butters are allowed to melt over meat while it rests, and beurre monté is used all over the place.

In Thomas Keller's 1999 classic, The French Laundry Cookbook, there's a piece about beurre monté:
At the French Laundry, we use an awful lot of butter without actually serving a lot of butter, because of our reliance on the substance called beurre monté. We cook in it, rest meats in it, make sauces with it. It's an extraordinary vehicle for both heat and flavor. Butter in its solid state is an emulsification of butter fat, milk solids, and water. If you melt butter, these three components separate, but beurre monté--a few drops of water and chunks of butter whisked over moderate heat--is a method of melting butter while maintaining the emulsification.
That's the trick. Melting the butter without allowing it to separate.

And that's why most home cooks don't make butter sauces or use butter to it's full effect.

Which is a shame. Because it's not difficult to do what Keller talks about on a much smaller, much simpler scale.

But why? Is getting more butter or fat into what we cook some kind of lofty goal? No, of course not. But making the food that we cook taste better is. And that's what butter--when used properly--does.

"Fat equals flavor" is an often-uttered foodie catchphrase, but it's inaccurate. Fat, on its own, has very little flavor at all. Taste a neutral oil like canola or safflower and see for yourself--it's all fat, but there's no flavor there at all.

A more precise turn of phrase would be "fat carries flavor". Sure, it adds it's own qualities--the flavor notes present in the type of fat you choose, the richness that the fat brings to the equation--but what it mostly does is allow whatever flavors are already present in the dish to linger longer on the tongue and the taste buds. The fat coats the tongue and the interior of the mouth, causing the food being eaten to be tasted longer, which results in a perception of more flavor.

So, fat carries flavor, amplifies it. And butter does so even more than just about any type of fat due to the fact that it's already in a state of emulsification, as Keller explains in the quote above. Butter, in its emulsified liquid state, has a lush, creamy mouth feel that serves to call attention to everything else in its presence, beyond adding the actual flavor of the butter itself. Melted or clarified butter, by contrast, carries the flavor of butter, but it doesn't bring that creamy, unctuous texture to the party.

So that's the justification for using butter in certain situations where you might not otherwise think to use it. Now, I'm not saying that you should drown whatever you're cooking in butter; it's not necessary to do so to take advantage of butter's unique flavor-enhancing qualities. A little goes a long way.

And it's also not necessary to learn how to make butter sauces, although it's not like they're all that difficult to make. But they can be finicky and a bit tricky to hold--too much heat and they separate, if they get too cold, they'll coagulate and then separate. Using a coffee thermos to hold them is an easy work-around, but the famously delicate nature of butter sauces is why most people are intimidated and therefore don't bother to try making a butter sauce at home.

I make'em once in a while, but what I do more often is finish with butter. It's basically the same thing as making a butter sauce, but you're just utilizing whatever liquid happens to be in the dish rather than using a separate pan to make your sauce. And all that's required is to simply leave whatever you're cooking a little looser or more saucy than you normally would, and then toss in a few pieces of cut-up whole butter after you pull the pan off the heat.

Now, to be clear, this is not the same as using beurre monté, referenced above. Finishing with butter is referred to in French as monter au beurre--mounting with butter--something I've found to be much more useful and accessible to do on a regular basis in my home kitchen.

Try it the next time you make a pasta dish. I almost never make a "sauce" when we eat pasta at our house. I just make the sauce in the pan as I'm tossing everything together. Once you've cooked your veggies--say mushrooms, peppers, onion, and garlic--just deglaze the pan with white wine, reduce the wine by about half, add a bit of the pasta-cooking water, and your cooked pasta. Toss everything together, get it nice and hot, pull the pan off the heat, and then add your cut-up butter and some grated cheese.

This sounds easy enough, but as you toss the ingredients around and the butter pats melt into the mix, you are, in fact, making a beurre blanc. It's just that you're not even conscious of it. But as you toss, the whole butter is transforming itself into that warm, liquidy-yet-emulsified substance that merited an entire page of the FLC. It's combining with the liquids already present in the dish and causing the sauce to tighten. This is exactly the same as making a separate sauce in another pan and then adding it to the pasta dish, except way easier.

You can do this with just about every dish where there's liquid present. It's easier to manage when there's some wine or citrus juice in your liquid, since slightly acidic liquids assist in keeping the butter in a state of emulsion. The acidity also serves as a flavor-enhancer and a nice foil for the richness of the butter. Butter and lemon have a natural affinity. They perfectly compliment each other in a Zen-like yin/yang kind of way.

As an example, last night I made some pork loin chops. I seared the chops in a saute pan and then finished them in the oven. After I removed the pork from the pan I browned them in, I deglazed with white wine, added a bit of mustard, a touch of apple cider vinegar, some chopped fresh sage leaves,and a little water. After allowing that to cook together for a bit, I tossed in some cut-up butter, off the heat. Just a few jiggles of the pan so as to prevent the butter from melting and separating yielded a gorgeous pale brown pan sauce that took less time than it took the pork chops to finish cooking in the oven.

This is the same way that pan sauces for dishes like veal or chicken alla Piccata or Marsala are made. They're classics, not because restaurants perfected them, but because they are quick and easy, make use of the flavorful bits stuck onto the pan after cooking the meat, and don't involve dirtying another pan to make. Many restaurants kind of reverse-engineer the process, in fact, so as not to require making pan sauce over and over again all night long. They'll make one large batch prior to service, and then simply cook the meat, plate and sauce it, which is easier when you're making thirty-five orders over a span of three hours, but much more difficult when you're making dinner for your family or guests. And, to be honest, the restaurant versions are a bit lacking, since the sauce doesn't incorporate the cooking juices or fond from the pan. The end result is sauce over meat, rather than the more unified dish that comes from the one-pan approach.

So, sure....we love butter. Hooray for butter! But it's helpful to understand why butter is so universally revered and how to more easily and more effectively make use of it on a day-to-day basis.

(And don't even get me started talking about brown butter. That's a whole 'nother entry.)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Pizza at Burt's Place

So I finally made the 15 minute drive over to Burt's Place to try the much-talked about pizza.

This place is quite the experience. It's been written up in Saveur and TimeOut Chicago, but both of those articles are really more about the pizza, and Burt's personal landmark status in the Chicago pan pizza universe (he founded Inferno in Evanston, Gulliver's in Rogers Park, and Pequods in Morton Grove). These pieces don't go into much detail, however, about the overall experience, so I'm glad I read the thread (linked above) on LTH Forum and was prepared for all the "quirks" of this place.

Some have commented that Burt's is the pizza equivalent to Seinfeld's "soup nazi". I'm not sure I'd go that far, but it might be fair to compare Burt's recommended protocols to those of Kenny Shopsin. The main thing is that you need to call and order your pizza ahead of time. Which, if you know about it, isn't really anything all that difficult. But Burt can complicate things--he's known to take the phone off the hook when things get hectic, there's no website to consult before ordering, and during busier times, he'll invoke the "nothing but pizza" rule.

This kind of thing can be off-putting to those who are caught off guard, especially in our current "customer is always right" universe, but I've been reading about this place for years so I thoroughly briefed the longtime friend I went with and ordered our large sausage, mushroom, and fresh garlic pizza well ahead of time.

I ordered our pizza to be ready at 7pm and, when I walked through the door at the stroke of seven, the small dining room--which resembles kind of a run-down northwoods lodge (or maybe your crazy old uncle's basement decorated in the 60's to look like a run-down northwoods lodge)--was nearly empty. "What's the big deal," I wondered, "guess I didn't need to order ahead of time after all." There weren't any employees in sight and I wondered if I should go ahead and seat myself while I waited for my friend to arrive.

But, like a flash, the host/waiter/busboy (fellow LTH'er Buddy Roadhouse) greeted me, asked me if I'd ordered ahead (gave a look of relief when I said 'yes'), and asked if I was eating in or taking it to go. When I said we were eating in, he recognized my order and name, and quickly guided me to a pre-set corner booth all set up with water and menus.

I called my friend to see where he was, and he was just turning down Ferris, so he would just need to park the car. Buddy emerged and asked if we were ready for the pizza. (They do not play around at this place. If you order your pizza for seven, it's ready precisely at seven.) I indicated that my friend was just parking the car, so, sure, go ahead and bring it out. My friend arrived, we ordered a pitcher of beer, and the pizza was served up promptly and courteously.

As we were eating, the place filled up some (but not totally--they use the large center table as kind of a serving area, where Buddy keeps the pizza pans, water pitchers, and such) and we watched as group after group coming through the front door were told either that they'd have to wait one and a half to two hours, or that it wasn't possible for them to get pizza tonight at all.

My friend was simultaneously incredulous and thrilled by this. He couldn't believe it. "What kind of place is this? Who does that?", he asked. "I tried to tell you," I replied. But we both enjoyed the feeling of being 'in the know' and eating this pizza that was apparently so in demand that others were not able to purchase it--at any price.

We chatted a bit with Buddy about the whole calling in ahead thing and he came across as pretty defensive, which, if you read the thread on LTH, is pretty understandable. Much has been made of this policy and there are about as many critics and annoyed would-be customers as there are fans. "We heard about the rules, so we knew to call in the order," I said.

"They're not rules," Buddy replied, a bit of exasperation becoming evident, "we're just trying to make sure that you have the best experience possible. There's just only so much pizza we can make--Burt only makes so much dough every night, the kitchen is tiny. So this is the only way we can make sure that the customers are happy. We're doing this for you!"

I didn't press it with him. It seemed a touchy subject and I was just happy to be eating the fine pizza and drinking cold beer that came complete with frosted glasses.

Don't get me wrong. Buddy wasn't gruff or inhospitable. Not at all. In fact, I found him to be extremely welcoming and pleasant. His service came with a bit of a flourish, in fact; the kind that often comes at fine dining establishments, only his was done in kind of a tongue-in-cheek way that I found simultaneously charming, funny, and real. This guy has worked for Burt at various places for some thirty years, and it's clear that he understands the pitfalls that lay between (increasingly entitled and demanding) customers and Burt's stringent pan pizza wizardry. how was the pizza?

Very good. Excellent, even. My expectations were very high. I was expecting to pronounce this the best pan pizza in the Chicago area, and I've been eating the landmark pizzas at Malnati's, Gino's East, and Uno/Due for my entire life.

Burt's is a similar, but different pizza than those. It's noticeably lighter and easier to eat than those aforementioned gut-bombs. I'm a big eater, but I have trouble eating more than two large slices from the epic Chicago pizza institutions. At Burt's, though , I was easily able to eat half a large pizza (four slices) and would've had more, if my friend and I hadn't polished off the whole thing.

The standout elements, for me, at least in this initial visit, were the sauce and the sausage. I'm not one that usually even notices the sauce on a pizza, but this sauce was truly excellent. Very sweet, with great fresh tomato flavor, and a vivid bright red color. It was less pasty than most pizza sauces as well, resulting in a more well-lubricated finished product.

The sausage, also, stood out, more for what it wasn't than for what it was. It was a truly tasty, high-quality sausage with lots of great garlic and fennel flavor, but what struck me about it was the restraint in its application. It was applied with a light hand. The standard-bearers of Chicago pan use what I call the "manhole cover" method of sausage application. By that, I mean that the entire pizza is completely covered with sausage. This is sometimes referred to as "the sausage patty". It's good, but I only really enjoy it for about five bites, then it becomes overwhelming, heavy and leaden. By the end of your second slice, you're thinking "ugh...get this pizza away from me". In my family, a work-around we've come up with for this is to order one sausage and one only cheese (or cheese and veggies) pizza, and then kind of alternate eating them, to achieve a better balance.

Burt's solves this problem by giving large (2-3 bites) chunks of sausage, but spacing them out pretty well so that they don't overwhelm. I found it to be the perfect amount of sausage. Less is sometimes more.

Now. I'm a crust guy. I'm usually not all about the toppings. Honestly, unless they're offensively bad or stand-out good, I don't really notice them all that much. I go back to places for their particular style of crust.

Burt's reputation focuses on the crust, which is why my expectations were so high. Burt is known for pioneering the "caramelized cheese" crust technique, where a liberal amount of cheese is applied under the pizza, along the outer rim of the pan, resulting in a crunchy burnt cheese layer that kind of bonds with the crust.

On this front, I was disappointed. Our pizza was almost devoid of the burnt cheese endcap, and the dough was just ok. It was fluffier and lighter than the usual pan pizza crust, and had a much more bread-like feel to it, almost like a focaccia dough. I was expecting something much closer to the flatter, crunchier 'short-dough' consistency found on most pan pizza. Also, the crust on our pizza wasn't particularly crunchy. It wasn't soggy or anything, but I like a good strong crunch and crispness to my pizza.

But, I'm willing to go back and try again. I have read that the larger sizes (we ordered a 14") don't get as crunchy so they should be ordered well done. I'll probably just order two smaller pizzas next time, as that will give us more of an opportunity to try the great toppings. And, as with any craft-produced product, each one is a bit different, the maker sometimes has an off night, ovens run funny sometimes, etc, etc. The toppings were so exceptional that I will gladly make a bit of an effort to figure out how to get the crust the way I like it.

Leeway extended.

As far as some of the more extraneous details, I feel compelled to address the overall look and feel of the place. Some have commented that the place is "dirty" and my famously finicky mom, who my dad dragged there a few months ago, has, with a wrinkle of her nose, pronounced Burt's to be "filthy". When pressed about what, specifically, is so dirty, she cites dust on the antique radios and assorted tschochkes scattered around the room. Hmmm.... As far as I'm concerned, since I'm not eating off the dusty old radios, who cares? How's the pizza?

But to address these points, I didn't find it to appear dirty, but Burt's dining room does have an older, "well worn" feel to it. It's homey. The decor looks to be based around mid-century Stuff Burt Likes. There's an ancient stereo over in one corner occupying space where a table could be, and it's playing old jazz or classical music. The lighting is very dim (and, honestly, the radios are all kept way up on high shelves, so I have no idea how my mom could've even seen if they were dusty) and there's a kind of feeling that this is a restaurant that time forgot. It feels like it's been there forever.

I can see how people might interpret that as "dirty" or whatever, especially given the current corporate standardized restaurant decor model that we all have become so familiar with, but all that's required is a bit of a paradigm shift to overcome this. Think of it not as a restaurant, but as an extension of Burt and (his wife) Sharon's home. Hence the name.

Burt is 71 years old and has pledged to keep making pizzas until he's dead. He's been doing this forever and has done it in larger and more profit-minded restaurants, and now he's doing it in a tiny little place on a strangely deserted-feeling little side street off Dempster in Morton Grove. I get the feeling that he's not doing it for the money, the reputation, or the word of mouth. I think he's doing it because he likes making great pizza. So he's doing it his way. My sense is that he's of the mind that if you don't like how he does it, he'd be happy to have you go to Malnatis, Giordano's, or wherever, and would direct you there without hesitation.

I happen to like how Burt does it, and am kicking myself for not having tried this little gem of a place years ago. It's close to where I live so I feel lucky to be able to avail myself of Burt's pan pizza for takeout orders on the nights that we don't feel like enjoying the quirky yet welcoming service in their small homey dining room.

Especially since I now understand "the rules".

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Bacon List--Andy's Deli Smoked Slab

My latest entry in the epic porcine voyage that I'm calling The Bacon List was purchased from the deli counter at Lincolnwood Produce, which is a great alternative to the ultra-lame (and ridiculously expensive) Jewel and Dominick's. It's a great mid-sized grocery store with a really excellent produce section, a huge deli, and a pretty good assortment of dairy and fresh bread products, as well as some very interesting pantry items that lean towards Eastern European and Middle Eastern clienteles. I started out going there just for the really well-priced, fresh, high quality produce, but I find myself gravitating more and more to their other items, including a great bulk foods section, and wonderful ethnic breads like an authentic Armenian lavosh and the highly-touted Italian bread from D'Amato's bakery on Grand, which is delivered daily.

Andy's Deli is a Chicago-based retailer, meat market, and sausage-maker that has been serving primarily the Polish market since 1918. The deli case had this item marked "smoked slab bacon", so it was sliced to my specifications. I instructed the guy to do it on the thick side. I paid $4.99/lb.

I wasn't really sure what to expect from this stuff. I'm not familiar with Polish bacon, so I wasn't sure if it's made in a style that differs from the American product that I'm more familiar with, but I figured I'd give it a go. (Judging by Andy's website, they're not really all that familiar or concerned with the American market either--they list "Pork Lion" as one of their products) Anyway, it certainly looked good in the case, with it's dark, smoky-looking outside and bright pink and white fat streaked interior.

Worlds away from the FreshLock container detailed in my last post, this bacon came in a no-frills plastic deli sack, secured with a computer-printed price label. Which suited me fine. This is about the product, not the package.

I had high hopes. Given the small-scale production, the non-uniform appearance, an expectation of ethnic authenticity, and the strong smoke smell emanating from the pack, I figured I might be onto something good with this stuff.

I was wrong.

Despite the fact that this appears to be an artisanally-produced bacon, made with an authentic dry cure and smoked with real hardwood, it's just lacking. On multiple levels.

I'm going to go ahead and assume some cultural differences here--maybe Poles enjoy a milder, more chewy bacon than us USA'ans have come to expect from a high-quality bacon--so it's not like I can fault this product too much. For all I know, Andy's Deli has made the exact bacon it intended to make.

It does not, however, suit my tastes.

The main fault with this bacon is that it's chewy. Despite cooking it up with the rack-over-a-sheetpan method (I did remember to spray my rack this time, thankyouverymuch), and achieving a crispy-seeming dry finished product, the bacon does not snap and crumble when you bit into it. You have to work on it. Gnaw, even. I don't think I'd be out of line by describing it as jerky-like. Jerky-esque. Not good.

The flavor is just so-so. Not much there there. It's not at all sweet, so I'm guessing the cure didn't include sugar. It's lacking in salt and smoke as well, so the prominent flavor is straightforward pork. Which isn't's a nice fresh pork flavor with a sweetness to it, even, but bacon, done right, is an ethereal combination of sweet, salt, smoke, and pork. This was a one-dimensional bacon. With the chew of leather.

My guess is that this bacon was not left to cure long enough. That would account for the almost fresh-pork-belly flavor and lack of tenderness. And, again, I'm wondering if that's a conscious choice based on Andy's attempting to appeal to Polish and/or Eastern European tastes.

So this review is a mixed bag. I certainly didn't like this bacon very much and I'm not going to give it high marks, but I'm not going to rip in to it too much, since doing so might reveal my admitted cultural ignorance.

Anyway...on to the rundown:

Designation--Fancy or Grocery Store? Special designation--Ethnic. Purchased in a grocery store (although not a big, mainstream chain store), but apparently produced using fancy artisanal production methods.

Price--How much did I pay per pound for the bacon? $4.99/lb. sliced to order per my specifications.

Uncooked appearance--Color, texture, wet- or dry-ness, mushy or firm, etc... The slices are dry and firm. The shape is irregular and uneven, indicating a belly that has not been compressed or trimmed to achieve a uniform shape. Some slices had a nice mix of lean and fat, others were overly lean. Colors are on the pale side.

How it cooks--Tendency to curl, how much it shrinks, tendency to spatter... Not too much shrinkage. No curling. I should just get rid of this specific criteria, since the way I cook the bacon pretty much gives me a uniform result regardless of the product. Nothing significant to note here.
Cooked appearance--Color, shape, texture. Strangely-shaped slices. Some streaky, some (the straighter ones pictured on the right) very lean with almost no fat at all. Lean meat is a deep, dark red, fat is an orangey-red. Texture is somewhat rubbery or tough-seeming.

How does it taste--Sweetness, saltiness, smokiness, texture (melting, chewy, flabby, spongy), "porkiness". Very chewy with a near-exclusive pork flavor. Bordering on tasting like fresh pork. Lacking in sweet, smoke, and salt. Fat doesn't 'melt' in the mouth at all. I had to chew hard and vigorously to eat this bacon. Not pleasant.

Overall rating--All bacons reviewed will be given an overall rating from 1-10, with 1 being practically inedible (I say "practically" since, you know, it's bacon--how bad can it be?), 5 being a perfectly serviceable bacon for use in cooking or on a sandwich, and 10 being....well, let's be honest; there won't be a 10. Overall rating: 4.0 As I explained above, I'm reluctant to give this bacon a really low number, despite the fact that I didn't really enjoy it. I'm willing to extend the benefit of the doubt due to the fact that it's produced by a Polish company and, presumably, marketed to a Polish/Eastern European clientele which has, perhaps different tastes and expectations of what bacon should taste like.

It's too bad, because ethnic markets/products can sometimes be a very economical option for high-end products. Since they're often produced locally for a relatively small customer base, you're likely to get a more artisanally-produced product that can arrive at the retailer more quickly and therefore, fresher, than an equivalent mass-produced mega-mart item.

I wanted to like it. I really did. If I'm ever interested in stocking up on pork jerky, this will be my go-to bacon.

But, in the meantime, the quest continues.....

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Potato Galette

This is one of those things that most people wouldn't make, just because they've never done it before and they're not sure how. But it's super-easy and it's one of those 'wow'-inducing dishes that people just ooh and aah over when you bring it to the table.

It also tastes great.

I made one the other night as a side dish with dinner, just for the heck of it. Took some pictures to show just how easy it is. It takes a bit of time, but most of the time is spent just browning and baking the gallette, so it's not like you're spending a ton of time with hands-on preparation.

First, you must have a mandoline. I have given high praise to the Benriner Japanese Mandoline, and that is indeed what I used for this dish.

You'll also need a non-stick pan. Other than that, pretty simple--potatoes (russet), melted butter, cheese (I used a Gruyere and Parmano), salt and pepper, and minced herbs (optional).

This is an assembly dish. The only hard, time-consuming part is putting it together. What I do with preparations like this is lay everything out, so that once you get rolling, it goes quick. Once your mise is en place, it's much easier.

So...slice the potatoes thin on the mandoline (don't soak or rinse them at all--the potato starch is what binds the galette) then you just start layering. Make the first layer you put down really pretty, because that's going to be your presentation side, once you flip the galette. First step is to butter the pan. Use a pastry brush and put a nice thick layer of melted butter on the bottom of your non-stick pan. Then do your first layer in a nice pretty pattern.

Between each layer of potatoes, you'll want to sprinkle a little salt, grind a little pepper, lay in a little shredded cheese, sprinkle a little of the grated cheese, and drizzle a little melted butter. Pile it up, pressing down every now and again to kind of compress the whole thing. Keep going until the layers reach almost up to the upper rim of the pan. It's going to compress more and flatten as it cooks, so don't get lazy and give in to the urge to just be done. Keep piling it up until you get almost all the way up to the top.

Then, you just put the whole thing onto the fire. Put your flame at about medium. What you're trying to do here is brown the potatoes and develop a nice crust on that bottom layer, which will end up being the top layer. The actual cooking of the potatoes will happen in the oven, so you just want a nice, even browning.

Ok, so once you've got it on the heat, the trick is to just leave the damn thing alone. Don't touch it, don't be tempted to stick a spatula down the side and try to peek. Don't shake the pan. You've got it on a nice, moderate heat so there's minimal risk of burning, so just walk away and leave it alone. Go make a marinade for your steaks or something. Make a phone call. Whatever.

Before it's even close to being ready to flip, you'll get some signs that you're getting there; you'll smell that nice toasty brown smell of potatoes frying in butter. The sides of the galette will begin to pull away from the sides of the pan and, eventually, you'll be able to see some browning on the sides.

Until those things happen, though, you will need to resist the urge to touch. Once you see those signs--all three of them--then wait five more minutes. Then, you can go ahead and run a spatula all the way around the edge to loosen it from the pan, and then carefully slide it under the galette to ensure that it's loose. Shake the pan while you're doing this. You shouldn't need to work the spatula. If it's brown and crusty like it should be, it should release fairly easily from the pan. A few good shakes and a few good prods with a spatula and it should start to wiggle back and forth as one solid piece as you shake the pan.

Once it's doing that, take a peek underneath and make sure it's as brown as you want it to be. If it's not, let it fry some more. Once you've got it nice and crusty brown, go ahead and flip it.

Don't use a pancake flip or an egg flip, though. This thing is too big, dense, and weighty to flip like that. For this beast, we'll use a platter. Pretty simple--put a big platter over the pan, place your whole hand on the platter, holding it tightly against the pan, and just rotate the whole thing as one until the platter's on the bottom.

Take the pan away, stop and marvel at how nicely browned your potatoes are, and then just slide the galette back into the pan to brown the other side. Once you've got some browning on the other side (don't worry too much about it, since no one will see it), throw the pan into a 350 degree oven to cook all the potatoes through. Stick a thin knife into the center to gauge whether the potatoes are fully cooked.

Once it's done, pull it out and let it rest for about 10 minutes, then slide it onto a platter and slice it like a pie. You'll get these great clean slices that will show off all the layers of potato and the gooey melty cheese in between and your guests (or family) will all give you lots of great feedback and praise. And no one needs to know how easy it really is.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Chicago Food Blogs Reach Critically Redundant Mass

Perhaps I read way too many Chicago-based blogs about food, cooking, and eating. No, not perhaps. I do.

But, have you noticed how, once a story gets picked up by the bloggers, it seems like everyone feels the need to blog about that specific story? Not to mention the blogs that just blog about what they read in someone else's blog. Enough, already, people. I feel like I'm reading the same blog over and over again.

Here are some examples of what I will not be writing about here:

What Barack Obama likes to eat

What was served at the Barack Obama inauguration parties

My opinion about Barack Obama's appearance on Check, Please

Who Barack Obama will/should choose to be the White House chef

Where in Chicago I should go to watch the inauguration

What Chicago bakeries make cute Barack Obama-themed cupcakes or cookies

(Don't get me wrong, here. I like Obama. I supported Obama and worked for his campaign. It's just not a food-related event, no matter how badly everyone wants it to be.)

Here are a few more:

Why Top Chef sucks this season

That new friggin' place that makes meatloaf cupcakes

Food or drink products that people attempt to market by linking them to our corrupt governor

I will not be doing a best-of 2008 piece or re-cap

I will not be doing any New Year's resolution entries

I will not declare that something is "the new" something else. ie, "tripe is the new foie gras".

and, coming soon (you can count on it)....

Where to watch the Super Bowl

What to eat during the Super Bowl

Regional food specialties of Super Bowl teams Arizona and Pittsburgh

Where to eat for Valentine's Day

Super-expensive fancy chocolates to buy your sweetie for Valentine's Day

Gaaaahhhh. Make it stop!

</curmudgeonly rant>

Want to read a great blog that gets updated all the time, that's all about food?

Check out King T's blog.

Thanks, Titus. Thanks for just being you.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Casteel Coffee in Evanston

I had grand plans of plumbing in a professional espresso machine while I was remodeling the kitchen in our new home. I had been pricing refurbished machines, spoken to the plumbers about running water supply and drains to the buffet area we were building off our eating area, and was all set to go, justifying the indulgence within the larger expense of the entire project.

Then, the espresso machine that we had at the restaurant where I was working failed; water leaked everywhere and when it was opened up for servicing, I saw what a big mess of lime scale and mold it was inside, and had visions of what a similar water leak would do to my new cabinets and wood floors, and decided that a "pro-style" residential unit with a water reservoir instead of direct plumbing would be ok after all.

Framing it in that context allowed me to more easily justify the purchase to my wife (who is the practical one in our family and is forever reining me in) as a net savings of a couple thousand bucks. Pretty slick, eh? It was via this process that I came to be the proud owner of a Rancilio Silvia espresso machine and a Rancilio Rocky grinder.

I'll save my treatise on making coffee with the Silvia for another entry, though. That's a whole long thing in and of itself; suffice to say that people have devoted thousands of pages to discussing

This post is about the coffee I feed my Silvia.

Of course, part of the fun of making espresso at home is trying all sorts of different coffees. I tried all the big commercial brands--Starbucks, Lavazza, and illy, for instance--and then quickly moved on to the smaller, more artisanally-minded roasters.

The Silvia is famously wonky and sensitive, according to the experts over at CoffeeGeek and their discussion boards, so the consensus over there is that the freshness of the beans is of capital importance. The beans must not, I'm told, be more than 10-14 days old (post roasting) or the finished product will suffer.

Someone in one of the discussion threads advised me to find a local small-batch roaster and get to know them...ask them questions, talk about what machine I'm using and what I'm looking for, and learn a bit about the process. A quick web search clued me in to Casteel Coffee in Evanston, which, despite my having lived pretty close by for years, I had never heard of.

What a find they are. It's a small, funky little double storefront on Central right where Evanston turns into Skokie, not too far from Old Orchard mall. They do the retail and cafe out of one side and the roasting is done on the other side. You can look in the window from the sidewalk and see all the roasting equipment, and, if you catch them at the right time, watch the coffee being roasted.

The key is that they roast every day, meaning that regardless of when you go, you'll get beans that are about 5-10 days out. This is worlds away from the big industrially-roasted and packaged brands mentioned above which, who knows when they were roasted and, more importantly, how long they've sat in a warehouse somewhere?

Casteel's employees will tell you when each type of coffee was roasted, so you can choose for yourself, and they write it right on the bag, so you know what your window of opportunity is. I usually buy a few pounds at at time of Lee's Espresso Roast, have them split them up into half-pound bags, pack them into a ziploc, and freeze them until I'm ready to load them into the hopper of my Rocky.

They have a nice little cafe set-up there, and do sell food, although I've never eaten there so I can't vouch for it, and they have a pretty huge assortment of coffee and espresso equipment and accessories. They also have a good selection of organic and fair trade coffees and do a nice cardless coffee club thing where you get a free pound for every nine pounds you buy.

In short, it's a nice little independently-owned place that has been a part of the local community for the past 15 years or so, and it's a pleasure to support places like this.

Oh, and the espresso absolutely rocks. It dribbles out of my Sylvia with a nicely fruity flavor, strong coffee aroma and taste, with great undertones of chocolate and hazelnut. It's never bitter (well, not more than it's supposed to be, anyway) and it's got a wonderful thick, creamy texture and a great rusty red/brown color. It's simply fantastic coffee.

We have a few other well-known roasters in the Chicago area. Intelligentsia is probably the most-often cited by coffee aficionados, and their black cat espresso is a great tasting blend, but Intelligentsia has grown quickly, moving from their original storefront on Broadway to a Bucktown location and then to their current 25,000 square foot facility on Fulton street. They offer tours and barista training classes there, which is very cool, but they're no longer considered a small-batch roaster, and although their coffee is very good, I prefer the personalized service and overall "small"ness that Casteel offers.

I've also tried Metropolis, a Chicago roaster, and Alterra, which is up in Milwaukee, with excellent results. But Casteel is a good fit for me. They're conveniently located, the espresso suits my personal taste, and I get a feeling of satisfaction from supporting a small, independent place where you know that they care about doing things right and you can develop a personal relationship with the owner, the roaster, and the people who work there.

In a world filled with huge, industrialized manufacturers of any foodstuff or comestible you can think of, I try to support little guys who are doing it the old fashioned, artisanal way, and employing local people. Casteel is a fine example of that and so, besides getting very good espresso beans at a fair price, I get to feel like I'm doing something worthwhile and socially redeemable while I'm feeding the caffeine monkey jonesing on my back. Go check them out.

It's a win-win. Yay, coffee!

Friday, January 16, 2009

How I Cook Mushrooms

Mushrooms are one of the most common badly-prepared foods. Most people (and restaurants) just do not cook them well. You're more likely to get a poorly-cooked mushroom at most restaurants than you are to get a correctly cooked one.

I cannot tell you how many times I've been served bloated, watery, flavorless mushrooms as a side or over a steak or in a pasta. Or (even worse) those canned button mushrooms. And how about when places put thick slices of raw mushrooms on a pizza and you end up with a watery mess all over the top of your pizza because the mushrooms sogged out the whole thing? Blech!

Mushrooms are not something that are difficult to cook! What is the problem here?

Well, I think it goes back to two things; patience and ignorance.

In order to cook mushrooms well, one must know that mushrooms are 90-94% water. And water is the enemy of flavor. So dispensing with the ignorance is step one. Once you know that mushrooms are mostly water (and water has no flavor), anyone can arrive at the logical conclusion that cooking mushrooms correctly involves getting rid of all that water.

The second part--patience--is related to the first. Getting all the water out and cooking mushrooms well involves a little time. Really, not all that much, though. Again, this is a technique that's not difficult, but so few people manage to do it right. So, although I've said often enough that this blog isn't about recipes, I'm going to post a step-by-step walk-through of how I cook mushrooms.

First, the product. What kind of mushrooms? I use crimini, which are sometimes called 'brown' mushrooms. They look just like button mushrooms, but the caps are brown instead of white. I don't buy button mushrooms because I feel they lack flavor. Incidentally, crimini mushrooms are the same as portabellos, it's just that portabellos have been allowed to grow more mature and larger. That's why you'll sometimes see mushrooms labeled "baby portabellos". This is just marketing, though, so don't be fooled into paying more for them. They're still just your basic crimini or 'brown'.

I do sometimes get fancier types of mushrooms like chanterelles (when I can find them), shiitake, oyster, or morels (around April or May, when my father-in-law in Iowa starts bringing me five pound bags of them he buys at his local pub!), but for this post, I'm going to stick to talking about the basic everyday crimini.

Ok...pre-cooking. I wash my mushrooms by submerging them in a large container of water, swishing them around, and then pulling them out of the water, leaving the dirt and grit behind. This runs counter to everything you always read about how you're supposed to just wipe the dirt off with a paper towel or use some sort of vegetable brush or something so that the mushrooms don't soak up all the water when you wash them. I figure, if they're already 90+% water, how much more can they soak up? And it doesn't matter, because I'm just going to cook all the water out of them anyway.

Next, slice them. Don't worry too much about trying to cut them evenly or so the slices look nice. They're going to shrink down so much when they cook that it hides sloppy knifework.

While you're slicing them, put a saute pan on the heat. You want the pan to start getting hot, but you don't want it screaming hot when the mushrooms go in. Start the dry pan on a lower flame, and then put a decent amount of olive oil on the bottom of the pan right before you add your mushrooms. Add them all at the same time. You'll feel like you're overloading the pan, but pile'em in there. Crank the heat to high or medium high, grind some pepper over them, throw some kosher salt on the top, drizzle a little more olive oil on the pile, and then wait a little while.

You'll hear a bit of sizzling at first, but as soon as the mushrooms start to get hot and actually cook, the water will start coming out of them, and then you won't hear any sizzling. Instead, you'll hear the sound of water boiling, which is what you want. The water is coming out of the mushrooms and cooking away.

This takes a while, so you can go tend to other things in the kitchen, or get your aromatics together. I use whole herbs and whole garlic cloves to flavor my mushrooms. I almost always use whole sprigs of thyme and rosemary, and garlic. These flavors work really well with mushrooms and, unless I'm cooking a dish that those flavors would really clash with, that's what I use.

At this point, lots of water is coming out of the mushrooms and the big pile is starting to shrink a bit. If you click on the picture to the right, you can see that there's a lot of water around the sides of the pan and in the center. That water needs to completely cook away before the mushrooms actually begin to saute, and therefore, start browning (and developing flavor). Getting rid of the mushroom water also serves to concentrate the flavor, since that water does actually have some mushroom flavor in it. By reducing that water down until it disappears, you're leaving all the flavor components behind in the pan, where they'll adhere to the mushrooms. This is why pouring off the water (as some recommend) is ill-advised. Pouring off all that water amounts to pouring off a lot of flavor as well. We want mushrooms that have a really good, strong mushroomy flavor.

You'll be able to hear when all the water has cooked away. The sound will change from a boiling water sound to a frying mushroom sound. This is what you want. Moderate your heat a bit here and add your garlic cloves and herb springs. Just lay them on the top and don't move the pan around too much. Allow the mushrooms that are in contact with the pan to develop a nice brown crust. You may need to add a bit more oil here, depending on how much the mushrooms have soaked up. If it starts to smell like the mushrooms are burning, add more oil or lower your heat. Or both. But don't obsess too much about the color. You'll see why in a bit. Once they've had a few minutes to start browning, you can move them around a bit. Use a heatproof rubber spatula to loosen them from the bottom of the pan, then flip them in the pan or stir them with the spatula. Try and keep moving them around so they all have a chance to get some time on the bottom of the pan. The browning really develops the flavor we're going for.

Once you get a nice amount of browing, it's time to deglaze the pan. I use white wine most of the time, but sometimes I use red, if that makes more sense in the context of the dish in which they're going to be used. For instance, if I'm going to use the mushrooms in a beef stew that utilizes red wine in the cooking, I'll use red to deglaze. Most of the time, though, I stick with white because it allows me to use the mushrooms more flexibly. If you wanted to really get fancy, you could use Marsala or Madeira, both of which will add a really nice nutty caramelized note to the finished product.

The wine serves a few purposes; it stops the sauteing process, it picks up all the little brown bits (fond) that are stuck to the pan and puts them back onto the mushrooms, and it adds some sweetness and some acidity to the flavor of the finished product. I like to deglaze twice with mushrooms. I'll deglaze once, allow the liquid to cook all the way down until the pan is dry and the mushrooms begin to saute again, and then I deglaze a second time and, again, bring the liquid all the way down until it's dry. What this does is it ensures that all the fond comes off the bottom of the pan and onto the mushrooms, and it allows the sugars from the wine to caramelize, contributing to the browning.

Once you deglaze, you'll be able to see the color difference almost immediately. Rather than having some mushrooms that are pretty brown and some that are still very pale, it will begin to look more homogenous, taking on a more even brown color after deglazing, and this will happen again after the second deglazing.

This why you don't really need to worry too much about the color while you're sauteing, since most of the color comes during the deglazing, where it gets pulled off the bottom of the pan and spread around throughout the mixture.

Note; I use my French carbon steel pans for cooking mushrooms. You could use a good stainless/aluminum pan, or cast iron is always good, but do not use a non-stick pan, since the pan won't develop the brown fond on the bottom and this will change the finished product.

Once you've deglazed twice, cook the liquid down until the pan is dry and the mushrooms begin to saute again. Move them onto a tray or shallow pan to stop the cooking process, and then taste and adjust the seasonings, if necessary. You can discard the garlic and herb sprigs at this point--their flavor has been infused into the mushrooms--and it's also good to add a couple pats of butter to the mushrooms while they're still warm.

Another note; if you're doing multiple types of mushrooms (crimini and, say, oyster), you need to go through this process separately for each type of mushroom, and then mix them together at the end. Different mushrooms cook at different rates.

I like to buy big packs of criminis from Costco and do this in really big batches. That way, I've got cooked mushrooms ready to add to any dish that I might be cooking. They go great in pastas, on top of pizzas, over soft polenta, in a quiche or scrambled eggs, fried into a hash with diced potatoes, as part of a stir-fry, or just on their own, served over a steak or as a side dish.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Beef--Dipped, Hot

(photo copped from Gary Wiviott's great neighborhood restaurants page--thanks, GWiv!)

I grew up in the Chicago area and can remember eating Italian Beef sandwiches with my dad on the weekends. We made a lot of ritual pilgrimages to various temples of Chicago food excellence--Jim's Original for Maxwell Street style Polish, Kaufman's on Dempster for bagels, Big Herm's for hot dogs, and Walker Brother's for apple pancakes and Dutch babies, for instance. But my all-time favorite was the trip to Luke's on Rand Rd. for beef sandwiches and those enormous grease-stained bags of their skinny, crispy, slightly-too-salty fries.

I'm not sure that I've got anything to say about the classic Chicago Italian beef sandwich that hasn't already been written. Quite a few food writers have waxed rhapsodic about how eating a beef at a dive like Al's or Johnny's represents the quentissential "big shoulders", greasy-fingers, blue-collar Chicago experience. But watch out for the out-of-towners (they're usually big-shot magazine writers from New York) that get it wrong. One guy talked about how the beef on the Al's sandwich was "chopped". Another described giardiniera as a "fermented vegetable relish". (I am not kidding--read the links)

Anyway, I'm not going to let the fact that I've got nothing new to add to the dialog stop me from popping off.

First off, here's what a beef sandwich should not be; it should not have cheese on it, in any form. Sorry, but no. It should not have red sauce (marinara). The beef should be sliced, but the slices should not be readily identifiable as slices. Instead, it should be sliced thin enough that when it's heated up in the gravy, it should disintegrate into a kind of clumpy, shreddy mass. Never order an Italian beef that has to be brought to you by a waiter. (credit to eatchicago, over at LTH forum for that last one)

Oh, and forget looking up recipes and trying to make it at your house. You can't. Doing it right involves a professional deli slicer and a steam table. You don't have those at your house, so just forget about it, ok? There are some things that are not meant to be made in your home kitchen. Fried calamari is one. Beef sandwiches are another.

I've eaten a lot of bad beef sandwiches in my day. It's counter-intuitive to think that something that's soaking in brothy juice could be dry, right? Nope. Wrong. Don't make the mistake of ordering a beef from a hot dog place or a sandwich shop that also sells beef sandwiches. If you're going to eat a beef in this city, where we're blessed enough to have so many wonderful beef stands, then do yourself a favor and go to a beef stand that may or may not also sell hot dogs and sandwiches.

More stuff to avoid; a beef sandwich should be served on Italian bread. Not a hoagie or a torpedo roll. The bread should have blunt sides, indicating that it was sliced off of a long loaf. It shouldn't be glossy or shiny. Watch out for places that wrap your beef sandwich in foil or (god forbid) put it in some kind of plastic baggie (yes, I swear that I've seen this). A properly prepared beef sandwich is wrapped in paper, which allows some of the steam and heat to escape and helps prevent the sandwich from getting overly soggy.

I know, I's a bit of a contradiction since what is a beef sandwich, after all, but a big soggy gravy-soaked bread bomb? But that's why the wrap is important. There's a fine line between a perfect dipped beef sandwich and an inedible sogged-out mess.

Have I mentioned the "Chicago lean" yet?

This goes back to the places like the original Al's on Taylor, which offered no seating, but do thoughtfully provide a thin ledge of a shelf that goes around the outer edge of the restaurant so you can cram your juicy sweet down while you stand there watching the shady Taylor St. goings-on and wonder whether you'll have room for an Italian ice at Mario's after you're done (you will). Don't forget to pick up some lupini or monkey nuts while you're there.

Anyway, the "Chicago lean" refers to the technique that Chicago's true beef connoisseurs employ so as to avoid getting any beef or grease on their clothes while they're partaking. It's a lost art, since most places have opted to provide seating and tables for their customers, although it does work equally well while eating your beef sandwich off the hood of your car--you just kind of have to lower your stance some.

As for my favorite beef stand, well, what happens is that the ones I go to regularly tend to shift, depending on where I live or work. I love beef sandwiches, but I'm not going to drive way far out of my way to get one. I did that once, after reading on LTH forum over and over again about how great Johnny's in Elmwood Park was. Drove like an hour down there just to try it and I got a combo with a burnt piece of sausage, some pretty good beef, fries that I watched the guy take out of the freezer and open the bag, and a lot of attitude. Not worth the hassle.

So I stay close to home. Back when I lived on Taylor and Racine, I went to Al's and sometimes Patio. When I lived in Jeff Park, my go-to beef stand was Roma's on Cicero, which has acceptable beef, but their sausage and fries (ask for them well done) are the real stand outs. I would also utilize Duke's on Central as an acceptable backup (good beef, mediocre sausage, avoid the meatball sandwich).

Nowadays, I'm up in Park Ridge, and I've got an Al's right down the street from my house. Walking distance. Very dangerous. But it's one of those franchised Al's, so it's hard to know where you stand. Some of those are just downright bad. Al's has done their brand a significant disservice by not maintaining standards among their franchisees.

Luckily, my local outpost of Al's is really excellent. In fact, it's one of the better beefs I've eaten consistently in the Chicago area. They offer three sizes (4", 6", or 8"), which is kind of a nice option, and they do everything correctly. The beef is always shredded right, flavorful, and juicy, the bread is right, and the giardiniera is one of the best I've had. When done correctly, a beef--dipped, hot gives you this incredible study in textures, with the chew of the beef, the soft juicy collapse of the bread, and the crunch of the giardiniera, as well as this complex warm mix of flavors--spicy, sweet, savory with oregano, garlic, and hot peppers, a warm backnote (is that a bit of nutmeg or clove I detect?), and this great overarching flavor of concentrated beef that you can only get from cooking one ingredient multiple ways (braised, roasted, broth) and then combining them all in the same bite.

Their fries are also really excellent; a great example of a fresh-cut, double-fried fry. How did I ever get so lucky?

I haven't been to Luke's in a few years, and I must admit that I'm a bit confused by the split that resulted in Tore & Luke's vs. just plain Luke's. And is this the same family that's also involved with the whole Portillo's/Brown's Chicken feud? I'm not sure, but I'd just as soon stay out of it and not take sides. I've got enough headaches dealing with my own family, thankyouverymuch.

Besides, I've had beef sandwiches from Portillo's quite a few times (they're consistently ranked as the best in Chicago) and they're just average. Possibly below average. The Portillo's beef sandwich hype is simply due to the fact that they're everywhere. It's exposure. Nothing more.

I did have a beef from the Luke's on Rand a few years back and found it to be just ok. Not as good as Al's or even Roma's. "They've gone downhill," I thought to myself. It's funny how we always remember things we ate as a kid as being the greatest, the most perfect shining example of what that item could possibly be, and then, after we've ventured out into the world, when we re-visit these places and they're not as good as remembered, we blame the establishment rather than our own over-idealized memories and relative inexperience, which conspired to build the whole thing up into something that couldn't possibly ever be replicated. These sort of food taste memories are way more about the specific time, place, and how we're feeling than they are about the actual food we're eating.

It's really only kids that can experience things in such a pure, non-jaded, raw-enthusiasm sort of way. Of course, my kid will only eat a grilled cheese sandwich at Al's, so this might not be the best tangent to explore. He does get really excited about that grilled cheese, though.

Nonetheless, I'm sticking with my inaccurate idealized memory of those Sunday-afternoon beef sandwiches with my Dad and brother at Luke's as being the best ever.

But their order of fries has definitely gotten smaller....

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Cooking with Kids

David Hammond's recent LTH forum piece about taking kids to restaurants got me thinking about kids and cooking. I try and include my son Henry in the cooking process whenever possible. Besides being something I'm actively engaged in for a decent chunk of time each week, it's something for him to get interested in and excited about. Plus, he's learning about food.

The theory is, I guess, that kids who start cooking early with their parents and become a part of the process will begin to embrace a larger awareness of how food arrives at their plate or what things look like before they're packaged into cardboard and plastic wrap in the grocery store. I could probably launch into a whole dissertation about foods and foodways, how today's consumers lack knowledge about the "farm-to-table" process, and, specifically, all the heavy industry and processing that lays between.

But I won't. Because that's not why I cook with my kid. Mainly I do it because it's fun and it's a good opportunity for us to do stuff together, especially in the winter when going outside and doing stuff is more difficult.

And while I don't actively push the whole "slow food" mindset when I cook with Henry, who's pictured above (that's a chef dress up costume--I don't make him dress like that when we cook), it seeps in, I think. This morning we finished up the granola for breakfast, and he said "granola's all gone...I guess we need to make some more."

Get that? Make some more. Not buy. Make. I like that he assumes that the stuff we eat in a bowl with milk in the morning is something we make. That's big, I think.

He's pretty curious about why we put various ingredients into what we're cooking. He knows what sugar's all about by now, and he likes to crack the eggs and mix. Half of any chocolate, nuts, or cheese that we might be using go straight into his mouth, of course, and sometimes it seems like he's not really paying attention. But I'm amazed at how much information creeps in. Today, apropos of nothing, he says "Corn starch. Daddy, we use corn starch to make things thick."

Uh...yeah. We do. You nailed it, kid. And, to be honest, I'm wondering how many adults with basic cooking skills could enunciate the purpose of corn starch as clearly.

There are negatives, of course. It's much slower going with the kid asking questions constantly and wanting to do everything himself. You'll have to deal with the inevitable battle over washing hands before you start. Thomas trains will be required to occupy their rightful place of honor on the counter. Because "Percy wants to see".

But these are very small concessions to make in exchange for having a kid who's engaged and interested in learning about where food comes from and how it's prepared.

And today's a shut-in day for us here in the Chicago area. The forecast calls for "blizzard-like conditions" and the temperature is supposed to drop sharply, with single digit temps and double digit negative windchills. So as I sit and write this entry, I'm trying to figure out how to keep Henry from going stir crazy and what we should cook.

Any suggestions?