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March 2009 Archives

Baconpalooza

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Something called BaconFest Chicago is brewing, the folks at MenuPages say. Conceived by a trio of bacon-obsessed guys, the all-pork fest may or may not take place sometime in the fall at a yet-to-be-determined site, according to the BaconFest Web site.

Of course, there already is a Facebook group (with 232 fans and counting!) and Twitter account set up for BaconFest. Because in this city, our love of pork knows no bounds.


Now on the menu at Green Zebra, the veggie-focused restaurant at 1460 W. Chicago: yoga classes.

The restaurant is bringing in a local yoga teacher for a five-class yoga series starting at 8 tonight. After each one-hour class, students get to eat treats from chef Molly Harrison. The final class on May 5 ends with dinner cooked by Harrison. It's $95 for the series.

And this is the perfect excuse for us to run the photo below. No, Rick Bayless has nothing to do with Green Zebra or this latest promotion. But clearly, the man can do yoga.

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Linguistic anthropology. That's what Rick Bayless was studying before he decided he to go the chef route. Bayless, one of the nation's foremost authorities on Mexican cuisine, will be profiled at 8 p.m. Thursday on CNBC's "The Entrepreneurs" hosted by the slick Donny Deutsch. Details are here.

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Bayless seems to be getting his share of the limelight lately and rightly so. Saveur heralds his Topolobampo, 445 N. Clark, as one of the nation's 12 "restaurants that matter." It also was where, earlier this month, the James Beard Foundation decided to announce the nominees for its 2009 awards (first time the foundation took the announcements on the road). Bayless and his wife were gracious hosts that morning, offering flaky guava empanadas, conchas and soothing Mexican hot chocolate.

All of it was a preview for Bayless' newest project he's calling Xoco, a casual spot opening this spring around the corner from Topolobampo/Frontera Grill, with a focus on chocolate, baked goods and Mexican tortas. With the addition of Xoco, Bayless will unofficially own the intersection of Clark and Illinois and to that we say, bueno!

Arab-Israeli Cookbook

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For five generations, Mohamad's family has been making sweets and pastries in Ramallah, in the Palestinian Territory, only about six miles from Jerusalem. His pride is his kanafeh, making it as his family has been for those five generations, and it is a tradition which he dreams of being able to pass down to his children, but as he sits in his empty cafe -- empty because customers have stopped coming to the cafe due to the Israeli military's checkpoints they'd have to go through, which can make a simple trip last hours -- it looks as though his family's tradition may soon end, its lifelines being cut off because of the conflict in that part of the world.

His is one of the storied told in Theatre Mir's production of "The Arab-Israeli Cookbook," playing through April 5 at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph St.

The stories told in this show are true, collected by British playwright Robin Soans and two directors, Rima Brihi and Tim Roseman, an Arab woman and a Jewish man, when they traveled to Israel
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and the West Bank in October 2003. They conducted interviews with ordinary people -- Jews, Muslims and Christians -- that formed the basis of the play. The political aspects of the show are unavoidable, of course, but that is not what drives the show. That distinction belongs to the food. As the show's director, Rob Chambers, said in an audience talkback after a show its first week, Soans and the others couldn't exactly just show up the Israel and the West Bank and say, "so, tell us about the conflict and what it's done to your lives" to strangers, but they could ask people to tell them about a particularly meaningful food or ask them to tell them about themselves while they prepared a meal.

Like Mohamad, who is played by Stephen Loch. In the scene, which consists of him in his cafe talking to the audience, he speaks with pride of his family's tradition and sadness about how the numerous checkpoints have pretty much killed his livelihood. The kanafeh, says Loch after a recent show, is "a very thin dough in strands, like vermicelli, worked with oil or butter, laid down in a pan with a special red dye then covered in goat cheese, cooked, inverted, drizzled with simple sugar syrup and ground pistachios."

You don't get to see it being made, but throughout the show, the characters prepare a number of dishes, as they talk both about the food and their everyday lives.

There is also Yaakov, an Israeli bus driver. Yaakov, played by Mark Richard, is not only a bus driver, but a driver on the route that is the most targeted by suicide bombers. He recounts his experience, including driving a bus that was right behind one that was blown up (he was instructed just to keep driving, right past it), as his wife prepares Shabbat. Their children are on their way to the home for the Friday evening meal, the nice wine is out, and Yaakov's wife is making three types of salad, including an aubergine (sesame eggplant) and kibbeh with hummus.

The Arab-Israeli conflict is the sidebar, unavoidable as it is, in this show, while the food (there is a working stove onstage which gets used throughout the show) is what brings everything together.

It's one thing to hear people in any part of the world, talk in public, in congressional chambers, battlefields, seats of government, but quite another to listen to them in their kitchens. Their defenses could be down or things could be boiled down (no pun intended) to what really matters. This show doesn't start to suggest anything like if the various people in Israel and the West Bank just got together for a big meal all the problems would be solved, but it does show us that they are people. And however difficult it is for any of us in the U.S. to comprehend just why this conflict goes on, we see that they are people, much like us. Says Loch, "for the Palestinians there is despair and frustration. For the Israelis, there is the constant fear of terrorism. These two conditions feed each other and that's the heart of the conflict. The people of the region are divided by politics, but they are united by food." Or they could be.

Fridge Follies

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I am a person of simple needs when it comes to the place at which I work. A comfortable yet supportive chair, a working computer, an HVAC system that cools me down in summer and keeps me warm in winter, and having a reasonable expectation that when I leave work on Monday the place will still be in business when I get there Tuesday are about all I need as far as the comforts go.

Sometimes, though, because I work at night, when the food court is locked up and the only places to get a hot meal are joints where I tend to be the only sober person in the place, I will bring something I've made or purchased earlier, which I can then heat up at 8 p.m. or 3 a.m., depending on the particular shift I'm working that night. All I need is a place where I can keep my Marie Callander's rigatoni or the Noodle Zone pad woon sen (and my accompanying diet soda or Arizona Iced Tea Arnold Palmer) cool until I take my break. So I turn to the employee fridge in the office, where I expect, especially on the weekends, since most of my colleagues are at home doing whatever it is people do on the weekends, that there should be ample room in said fridge, since the Caesar salad someone got for lunch last Tuesday was certainly either finished or thrown out before it went bad, as was the yogurt or juice someone didn't finish on Wednesday.

But nooooooo, because when I open said fridge I am greeted by a refrigerated Fibber McGee's closet of Lean Cuisines, yogurts, salad dressing, 2-liter bottles of Coke, 96 percent-empty containers of "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter," and unknown lunch leftovers, wrapped and then wrapped once again in plastic. I know I'm not much of a foodie, but do restaurant leftovers somehow improve with age? Is that why it seems someone's leftovers are always in the work fridge? And what type of mentality must one have to pack the fridge with frozen meals, as if it was their home refridgerator, then if they do not use those frozen meals during the week, just leave them there because, well, it's not as if anyone else would need the space they are taking up?

I've snapped a picture of the fridge at my workplace, which is included here. Fortunately the accompanying smell is not included. I have heard of offices where not only does the employer provide things like cream and sugar for employee coffee, but the fridge is clean, orderly and cleaned out regularly. I am sure the fridge pictured here isn't as bad as some, though. I'd like to hear some other workplace fridge tales. In the meantime, I know there may come a day, maybe not too far in the future, where I've forgotten to bring a lunch to work on the midnight shift, and if that Lean Cuisine pizza that has been on the middle shelf since late December is still there, well, I can't be held responsible for what may happen to it.
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It's that time of the year again, kids -- James Beard Award time! The field of nominees, announced this morning at Frontera Grill, is saturated with hometown names yet again. (Read the full list of nominees here.)

The Chicago nominees are:
Paul Kahan of Blackbird for Outstanding Chef
L20 for Best New Restaurant
Rich Melman for Outstanding Restaurateur
Spiaggia for Outstanding Service
Koren Grieveson of Avec; Arun Sampathavivat of Arun's; and Bruce Sherman of North Pond for Best Chef-Great Lakes
Mindy Segal of Hot Chocolate for Outstanding Pastry Chef
Bin 36 for Outstanding Wine Service
The Publican for Outstanding Restaurant Design and Graphics.
Alinea - the cookbook, not the restaurant -- for best cookbook on cooking from a professional point of view.

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In the media awards:
Steve Dolinsky of Channel 7 is up for his umpteenth award in a television category, the Trib is up for awards in three categories and the Reader's Mike Sula gets a nod in a multimedia category. His competition in that category is none other than Gourmet's Ruth Reichl -- twice.

This is the first year the awards were announced in Chicago. Beard Foundation president Susan Ungaro told me there were already a number of big-name chefs and foundation folks here for a Beard charity event in conjunction with the massive Housewares Show, so she figured, two birds, one stone.

Spiaggia's Tony Mantuano, who was at Monday's breakfast, admitted he's lost count of his nominations but is psyched nonetheless.

"We've served a lot of interesting people this year, including the Obamas. Hopefully, that gets you a nomination," said Mantuano, who says he knows to always "keep an extra table" in case his highest-profile customers decide to drop in. Because that's how it happens these days, Mantuano said. Someone calls him the day of and says, the President would like to dine there tonight.

The Beard awards ceremony will be held on May 3 and 4 in New York.


Chefs just keep extending themselves into the online ether and to that we say -- hooray.

Alinea's Grant Achatz, who already is on Twitter, is now blogging for the Atlantic magazine's amazing food blog, which launched today.

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First up: His take on the inherent pressures in participating in Madrid Fusion, one of those high-falutin' international culinary congresses where one might witness, as he says, "the transformation of a daikon radish into a wine cork, complete with an iron-branded label. Or taste a wafer that captures the essence of baby Christ as he lay in the manger."

Next up (according to an Achatz tweet from earlier today): "posting2-3 times a week. State of modern cooking IMO, then into inspiration from travels. Then 12-15 new ideas."

Harry Heftman of Harry's Hot Dogs, 300 W. Randolph, turns 100 Sunday. His hot dog stand, which he has run since 1954, closes in April. A skyscraper is moving in.

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What to do? Have a birthday party, of course. Da Mare is supposed to show up at 11:30 a.m. today to fete Harry with a cake decorated as a hot dog.

Our inimitable Neil Steinberg knows and loves Harry. He's written about him at least 15 times in the last eight years, including today. Steinberg will be there today, and he'll take ketchup on his dog, he says. Don't get all worked up -- Harry once told Steinberg ketchup is OK.

"Enjoy life," Harry said.

So we've been getting used to this Twitter thing and rather enjoying reading the sunny updates -- or rather, tweets -- from everyone's favorite purveyor of encased meats, Hot Doug's.

But now comes word that Hot Doug's affable owner Doug Sohn is not the author of any of those Tweets, and has no idea who is!

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That's wrong, people, just wrong. But guess what? The line at 3324 N. California just got longer.

A Steaming Cup of Nuthin'

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espress_1.jpgYou know what's a bigger scam than the Snuggie, the Ab-Rocker or any other product out there that seems like a good idea, until you actually get it in your home?

The espresso/cappuccino maker.

How many of you have one? Now, how many of you regularly use it?

That's what I thought.

In an article last summer in The Advocate, then presidential candidate Barack Obama's deputy national campaign manager Steve Hildebrand related a joke Obama made to him when the two were discussing the California Supreme Court's original ruling in favor of marriage equality: "He said that if my partner Mike and I went to California to get married, he and Michelle would give us a lovely espresso maker. One of the 14 extras that they got for their wedding."

I wonder how many of those espresso makers made it to the White House with the Obamas.

A couple years ago, after I had paid down most of the balance on my Bloomingdale's card, I decided to finally go for it and purchase a home espresso maker. "Why, I'm Italian," I thought, "I have to have one." Besides, the only coffe house in my new neighborhood closed its doors at the unheard of hour of 9 p.m. (I had previously lived in Lakeview, where even on weekenights the coffee places don't close until 10 or 11 p.m.)

And just think of how it would make my life more interesting and urbane.

"An espresso-based drink on a Sunday night would be the perfect compliment to my back porch cigar as I wound down the preceeding week and looked to the next," I told myself, as well as, "My dinner parties will be the hieght of La Dolce Vita as I make an array of espresso-based drinks for my guests to go along with my homemade biscotti and the staggeringly witty conversation that will ensue."

Not quite.

I then tried to justify the purchase on a more practical level. "Why, I work nights -- I can make myself a homemade Americano to have at my desk when I start my midnight shift." Yeah, that worked.

At this point, my sleek and powerful Krups espresso/cappuccino maker is about as useful as the vintage Underwood and Royal typewriters I have considered purchasing over the past few years. A nice visual accent to the home but otherwise useless.

Maybe for some of you the home espresso maker gets the workout it deserves. It's on your ample kitchen counterspace and you regularly use it to make espresso, cappuccino, lattes or more exotic drinks. Not me. Since my kitchen space is adequate but not abundant, it is relegated to the hutch, under constant threat of relegation to the pantry, next to the French press (which I do occasionally use on those aforementioned Sunday nights), the George Foreman grill and the pancake griddle.

It's remarkably labor-intensive, getting yourself a cup of espresso from a home machine: there's the grinding of the beans, the tamping of the grounds, the measuring of the water, the making sure the dining room lights are turned off so you don't blow a fuse (OK, maybe that's just in my apartment), then the waiting for the trickle of espresso, not to mention the accompanying work if you want to add steamed milk or froth. Then there's the cleanup of the grounds, the frothing nozzle, wrapping up the cord and putting the machine away, sheesh. It's much les stresful just to bring out the French Press.

I'm surprised that espresso makers haven't been aded to those signs you see on the doors of thrift shops that state what the shops will NOT take (such as computer monitors, dot-matrix printers, TVs, used underwear).

Festive Fava

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Mid-March is a time when the mainly Catholic inhabitants of a certain European country celebrate the feast day of perhaps their most renown saint, someone who i credited with delivering the country from a terrible famine and who is still looked to today with prayers and, of course, a culinary as well as religious, feast.

That's right, it's time to celebrate the Feast of St. Joseph, and to honor him, like they have done for centuries, Italians in Italy and all over the world will hold St. Joseph's Tables, where they share cakes, breads, cookies, other, traditionally meatless dishes, and fava beans. His feast day is celebrated on March 19, but the St. Joseph's Tables are held within a few days of that day, and in the instance of church St. Joseph's Tables, it would be held on a Sunday, typically after the last Mass of the day.

At The Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii at Lexington and Racine on the Near West Side, the hundreds who will take part in the meal on Sunday, March 22 will not only have a feast before them but they will also be given some fava beans. Why fava beans? Well, in the Middle Ages, there was a terrible famine in Sicily, and the people there prayed to St. Joseph, and their prayers were answered. To commemorate the intercession of St. Joseph in ending the famine, the Sicilians promised to make annual offerings of food in his honor.

Fava beans, which had been considered nothing more than food for cattle, was the food that saved the Sicilians from starvation. The reputation of this "lucky bean" extends into the kitchen and beyond. Some people believe you will never be broke as long as you carry one and if you keep one in the pantry, there will always be food in the kitchen.

Buona Festa di San Giuseppe!

My Kitchen Nightmares

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I'm not any type of expert when it comes to the dining experience or the origins of foods and I'm by no means a serious restaurant critic. I enjoy tasting, smelling, and cooking food, though sometimes the latter doesn't always go so well.

Stovetop overflows that left their marks for weeks after the meal I was trying to make, pastries that failed to rise to the occassion, and ingredient substitutions that just were no substitute for what the recipe called for all are among my kitchen disasters. Smoke-filled kitchens and cooking in mid-winter with the porch door open so as not to trigger the smoke detector are too numerous to recall, as was the three-step jump I perfected while living in a tiny studio apartment, that would take me from in front of the oven to my bed, whereupon I'd reach up to the smoke detector to disbale it before my neighbors called the fire department.

I'm a practicing cook. In spite of the occassional disasters, I keep practicing. One of my great culinary disappointments was the flaccid zabaglione that resulted even after a great deal of preparation, which I could not convine a friend to eat, even though I assured him a little raw egg wouldn't kill him (hey, it worked for Rocky!). More recently, a good half-pound of Israeli couscous found its way into the garbage after it turned into toast as I was expecting it to cook through with just a splash of olive oil.

So what are some of your kitchen disasters? Let's hear them!

Keeping Mr. Beef alive

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Mark DiPietro is a copywriter at a River North ad agency who adores Mr. Beef, 666 N. Orleans. He can see it from his office window. And he'll be damned if it goes away.

The Italian beef stand is in a bit of a financial pickle right now. It's the subject of a foreclosure lawsuit. And though the restaurant's attorney has said Mr. Beef is in no danger of shutting its doors, that was enough for DiPietro to launch a "Keep Mr. Beef Alive" campaign.

DiPietro set up a Facebook page and posted this video.

At 12:30 p.m. Thursday, DiPietro will give coupons for free beef sandwiches to the first 50 folks who line up. And at 10 p.m. Friday, the band Supra Genius will play a benefit concert at the Beat Kitchen, 2100 W. Belmont. All in the name of beef.

Stephanie Izard is a 21st century chef.

The "Top Chef Season 4" winner -- in addition to opening a restaurant the Drunken Goat, later this year -- just launched a weekly podcast series and blog chronicling all manner of adventures as a now-recognizable face. She's Twittering, of course. Oh, and writing a cookbook.

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It's easy to see why Izard was voted fan favorite on the show. She's just so freakin' likable. Though the first podcast has shades of hokeyness -- it opens with her voiceover as she writes in a journal a la Bridget Jones -- it gets better, thanks to a Yoda doll and some groovy tunes. She just looks like she's having fun.

And she gets points for loading her site with personal photos, recipes and other stuff that makes us feel like we're a part of her world.

Though "Top Chef" lost its edge a while back, at least this Top Chef hasn't.

About the blog

Janet Rausa Fuller

Sun-Times Food editor Janet Rausa Fuller is always thinking about her next meal.

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