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Tasty morsels about Chicago's food scene

September 2009 Archives

Lights, camera ... Cantu

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Some details about moto chef Homaro Cantu's not-merely-rumored-but-indeed-actually-happening TV show, as told to us by the kitchen renegade himself:

† Filming will start Oct. 15 and run through Dec. 15 at the restaurant at 945 W. Fulton.
† The downstairs private dining room is being turned into a lab -- "basically my dream kitchen," Cantu says -- that will serve as the set for the show.
† The show will air on a major cable network.
† Cantu has signed on for two seasons.

"Think 'American Chopper' goes into moto," Cantu says.

So here's your chance, dear diners: Get thee to moto between Oct. 15 and Dec. 15, and you might just find yourself an extra on the show.

Meantime, check out Cantu in Wednesday's Food section. He's our cover boy. Well, if you want to get technical, his iPhone is.

The story looks at how the Twitter/Facebook craze has infiltrated the food world and how the more media-savvy chefs use it to their advantage.

Cantu hardly needs help in this department. Check out his Web site. Oh, and good luck figuring it out.

Chicago Gourmet redux

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While we head out of town this weekend for a much-needed getaway, thousands are expected to head to Millenium Park Saturday and Sunday for the second annual Chicago Gourmet. The two-day event was hatched by the Illinois Restaurant Association as Chicago's premier food and wine festival, a see-and-be-seen sort of thing crawling with all the boldface-named chefs you could want. At $150 to get in the gate, it better be.

We missed last year's debut (baby business to attend to) but read it wasn't too pretty -- not enough food, too much wine, odd scheduling. We're curious to hear your impressions this time around.

What will President Obama and other leaders nosh on as they discuss the world's weightiest issues at the G20 Summit, opening today in Pittsburgh?

Well, that's top secret, silly. But what we do know is that there will be plenty of locally grown produce on the menu, about 5 percent of which was plucked right from the 600-square-foot rooftop garden (part of which is pictured below) at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center -- which no doubt should please the commander-in-chief and the missus, who've made it clear that local, sustainable agriculture is a priority.

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Chicago-based Levy Restaurants handles catering at the ultra-eco-friendly, LEED-certified convention center, which the center's executive chef Dominique Metcalfe says is one of the world's largest green buildings.

Metcalfe says she got word they would be hosting the summit about three months ago. For the past week, she, chef de cuisine Robin Rosenberg (who flew into Pittsburgh Wednesday from Levy's innovations kitchen in Chicago) and about 40 other chefs have been going "nonstop" to get the grub ready. They expect to feed 4,000 over the next two days.

They have to keep mum on the menus, per White House rules, but Rosenberg says the world will be covered, culinarily speaking.

"We have about four different dietary laws we have to follow -- kosher, vegan, Hindu, Muslim," he says. "We have products from all over the world coming in just to satisfy everybody here."

For lunch, the chefs will offer oh-so-trendy bento boxes with deconstructed salads and sandwiches.

White House staff members already have toured the rooftop garden and are "just crazy about it," he says.

The Levy staff also will be sourcing from about 20 farms in the region.

We have a cherry pitter. It was a wedding gift and why we even registered for one back then is befuddling now, but we were young and dumb and not very practical.

31M22ESKS6L._SL500_AA280_.jpg And yet ... it makes about dozen or so appearances every summer, when cherries are ripe for the eating. Our girls literally squeal at every punch of the handle. Whether it's the actual punch that delights them so or the knowledge that the slowly growing mound of seedless, juicy burgundy orbs will soon be theirs is beside the point. They love the cherry pitter. And we love the cherry pitter.

We had this in mind as we went about today's story on setting up your first kitchen. What do you need -- really need -- to be able to cook decently? You certainly don't need a cherry pitter. You don't need an ergonomic cake cutter, nor do you need about 80 percent of what's in the Williams-Sonoma catalog.

Chris Koetke (below), the dean of Kendall College and a great source for our story, told us he is a knife junkie, with a collection numbering in the hundreds. This was right after we admitted to him we have a drawer jam-packed with barely used gadgets (where the cherry pitter happily resides).

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We're conditioned to want more, more, more. In Koetke's view, you need three knives and a sharpening steel. We might even argue that you only need one knife, a pot, a spoon. The rest is icing on the cake.

That said, the cherry pitter isn't going anywhere.

Let's hear it -- what can't you live without in the kitchen, and what won't you ever give up?

Life is a Cabernet

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By guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes

For many of us, wine-tasting is an intimidating experience. There's terminology. There are subtle distinctions. It's a big, scary business. Does wine-tasting have to be frightening? Is there a safe place - a safe wine - to start?

This is a question for a wine director.

Belinda Chang doesn't look old enough to have the knowledge and experience that she does - but don't underestimate her. You don't work for people such as Charlie Trotter and Rick Tramonto without knowing more than the names of grape varietals.

Now the wine director of the Modern in New York City, Chang oversees a staggering variety of wines. She's happy to name Cabernet Franc as a friendly starting point for tasting.

First of all, the people who make Cabernet Franc tend to make it well. "I find that people who love this grape are a little obsessed with it - myself included," Chang confesses with a smile. Obsession is good. It means that when you buy a bottle of Cabernet Franc, you're not likely to buy something that will disappoint.

Could a neophyte taste the difference between one Cabernet Franc and another? "It would be very clear." Chang's tones inspire confidence. "Like Pinot Noir, it expresses the soils that it's been grown in."

She heartily admires Cab Franc's versatile expression of region. "It can go anywhere from lighter and brighter and higher-toned all the way through to richer, fuller-bodied, expressive Carneros in Napa."

As an example of the latter, Chang pours a glass of Cabernet Franc from Robert Siskey's Vandal Vineyard. One scarcely needs to sip it. Even to the eye, it's deep seduction. This is a poster glass for "deep red".

Congratulations to Graham Elliot Bowles. He got married on Sunday, and as announced on his Twitter feed, marked the happy occasion with pie from Paula Haney's Hoosier Mama Pie Co. 4-21-09 Hein pies 2.jpg

Good man! We were all over the idea of wedding pie a few months ago. It makes so much sense. Pie is safe, pie comforts and yet, there is so much possibility in pie -- kind of how you want to start off your marriage, isn't it? And really, when's the last time you had to have seconds of a wedding cake because it was just that delicious?

Dancing with the (tea) stars at the Drake

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The Drake Hotel is hosting another tea event this weekend -- with a distinguished guest.

It's an Afternoon Tea Dance & Tea Reading in the hotel's beautiful Palm Court, complete with afternoon tea, live jazz, dancing and, yes, the reading of tea leaves. (Don't know about you, but I could stand a little fortune-telling about now ...)

IMG_0653.jpgWhat makes this event intriguing is the presence of John D. Harney, the master tea blender at Harney & Sons. Harney's story is interesting, having waded into the tea business in his 50s and now offering some of the more interesting blends available (his English Breakfast is delish and will spoil you on all other poseurs).

He'll also be discusisng a new book, The Harney & Sons Guide to Tea, full of good information on how to develop one's palate for tasting the ever-widening offerings of tea the world over.

The event is this Sunday: reading from 3 to 5 p.m., dancing from 4 to 6 p.m., tea service throughout. Cost is $30 per adult.

Apple Fest

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Autumn is just around the corner, and the time could hardly be better for apples. This weekend (only a week after their German American Fest) the Lincoln Square Chamber of Commerce will hold its annual apple fest.

You may not find the latest ipod or vintage Beatles albums there (though there's an awesome record store on Lincoln where you just might) but what you will find are apples -- apples by the bushel and cider by the gallon. There will also be live music, games for the kids, cooking demos, tastings and other fruit and vegetable offerings from farmers and specialty vendors.

The apple fest will run from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, in the plaza on the 4700 block of North Lincoln Avenue. You gotta love seasonal celebrations of food, and what makes it even better is that apples are easier to carry than pumpkins.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn't just talk a big, local food game.

This morning, Lyle Allen, director of Chicago's Green City Market, got the call he's been hoping for months to get: The market has been awarded $76,300 as part of a sweeping federal initiative announced last week by the USDA to boost local, sustainable agriculture.

"It's a big day for the Green City Market," says Allen, who got the news via an early morning e-mail.

Ann Wright, the USDA's deputy undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, was just in Chicago last week for the Chefs Collaborative National Summit, where she detailed some of the "Know Your Food, Know Your Farmer" intiative, which includes these farmers market grants as well as a farm-to-school program.

Allen says a good portion of the money will go toward setting up a scholarship program for farmers who sell at Green City Market to attend seminars and conferences that will help them on their way to becoming certified organic or sustainable.

The market is requiring that all of their participating farmers and producers be third party-certified by 2012.

"For some of these small family farms, we know it's a big ask, and since I took on this position last May, I really wanted to find ways to provide outreach to help them," Allen says.

The USDA funds also will help the market promote its electronic benefits transfer program -- which was on hold this past year -- for customers on the federal food stamp program.

"We're hoping to encourage folks on limited incomes that Green City Market is a place where they can come and educate them about nutrition and eating better," Allen says. "I don't think eating better is a luxury that should be available to certain parties and not others."

In all, the USDA awarded 86 grants totaling $4.5 million to farmers markets in 37 states.

Other tidbits from the Chefs Collaborative national meeting, which ended today:

Paul Kahan and Twitter don't mix. "For me personally, I hate it. It's a waste of time," he said.

Kahan on chubs: "If you've never had a warm, smoked chub, it's probably the greatest thing you'll ever eat."

Neither Rick Bayless nor his spokeswoman, Jen Fite, have any tips for folks trying to figure out the best time of day to hit Xoco. "All I know is, it's always busy," Bayless nearly (but not quite) lamented. "We have no tips! We don't know!," Fite says.

Coming soon to a restaurant menu near you: sheepshead.

No, not a sheep's head. We're talking sheepshead -- a small fish with lots of bones and little teeth that come in handy for mashing its prey.

The odd-sounding fish is one of many lesser known fish that chefs including Chicago's Paul Kahan and Susan Spicer of New Orleans are confident will catch on among salmon- and tuna-centric American consumers -- if not because such fish are ecologically sound choices, then because they taste so good. 10-15 Davis whales 5.jpg

Kahan, Spicer and Mark Palicki of Chicago's Fortune Fish Co. were talking up croaker, Spanish mackerel and other overlooked species (that's capelin and herring to your right) at the Chefs Collaborative National Summit, a gathering this week in Chicago of chefs, farmers, purveyors, academics and other food industry types.

At the Publican, 837 W. Fulton, Kahan's paean to pork, seafood and beer, sardines and smelt are big sellers.

"For cost reasons and a lot of other reasons, we stay away from mainstream [fish]," he said. "I just don't think it's interesting."

Audience members later were treated to plates of sturgeon done Kahan's way -- lightly smoked, with a salad of edamame, bean sprout leaves, jalapeno and lime -- and cornmeal-crusted sheepshead a la Spicer, served over okra, blackeyed peas and tasso ham.

"How you serve it will make someone take a chance on it for the first time," Spicer said. (Of course, tasso ham makes anything taste better.) Kahan, who worked as a youth at his dad's smokehouse, favors smoking, pickling and potting fish.

Palicki, who sells to restaurants, offered up lists of under-utilized fish that included bycatch (fish unintentionally caught with other fish), such as amberjack and trigger fish, and invasive species, such as lionfish and Asian carp. He went so far as to float a rather creative idea for dealing with the invaders, which drew some chuckles.

"We're trying to figure out a way to get rid of them," Palicki said. "I say, let's eat 'em."

The Chefs Collaborative summit ended today.

By guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes

As temperatures drop, chilled white wines begin to lose their appeal. What's a good grape for the cool-shifting months? Belinda Chang, former Chicagoan and wine director of the Modern in New York City, remembers writing the wine notes for Charlie Trotter's Meat and Game. She liked Cabernet Franc then, and she likes it now.

Chang views Cabernet Franc as an exceptional red "for transition times."

She's not just talking seasons. It's an excellent wine, Chang says, "for transitioning in the meal. It's great when you're going from lighter wines in a meal to a heavier, richer red wines."

Another asset: "It's one of the few red wines that goes well with vegetables. If you have a lot of green in a dish that can pose a problem for a Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, for Syrah - but Cabernet Franc is pretty amazing."

Red wine with greens -- it makes sense, once Chang explains it. "If you look at the classic descriptors for Cabernet Franc, it's invariably described as being leafy, sappy or herbaceous ... green. With that, you find that it pairs with any dish that has a strong green component. That's part of its brilliance as a red wine grape varietal."

A farmers market just outside of the White House gates will welcome its first customers on Thursday and state-inspected meat processors this week can start shipping their meat across state lines.

Those two bits of welcome news are part of "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food," a federal intiative announced today in Chicago to promote local, sustainable agriculture.

Ann Wright, deputy undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, detailed some of the programs kicking in this week or very soon -- all approved under the 2008 Farm Bill -- at a national summit of chefs, purveyors and other food industry types at Kendall College. Those programs include farmers market promotion grants and a farm -to-school program.

The USDA will launch a Web site Friday that will serve as a sort of "one-stop shopping site" detailing the various USDA programs and grant money available. "Those eligible to compete for these grants are those working for local and regional food systems," Wright said.

"It's a USDA-wide effort to create new economic opportunities by better connecting consumers with local producers and starting a national conversation about the importance of understanding where your food comes from and how it gets on your plate," Wright said.

Wright could not put a dollar amount on how much will go toward the "Know Your Farm" program but said there are $65 million in grants being announced this week alone.

The weekly White House farmers market will run "well into fall" and will feature produce from local farms, but Wright did not know just how many vendors will call the market home.

Farm aid

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We first met Oak Parker Rob Gardner just two years ago.

At the time, he and his family were relatively new -- but very devoted -- to the locavore movement. They were regular farmers market customers, they were getting versed in freezing, preserving and other storage techniques, they'd even ordered half a cow. Gardner chronicled this on his blog, Vital Information, and on the chat site LTHForum.com, in between his day job as a business background investigator.

Last year, as Gardner felt the "eat local" momentum gaining steam, he and Michael Morowitz, a friend from LTHForum, started toying around with a site that could serve as a local food clearinghouse. They launched the Local Beet early this year.

In that time, the Local Beet has picked up quite a following as a go-to resource for when you want to find a farmers market or locavore events around town.

And on Sunday, the group will host a farm dinner -- The Thing To Do these days if you're into eating local -- at Vicki Westerhoff's farm in Downstate St. Anne (Gardner has been a CSA shareholder in Westerhoff's farm for several years now).

"It's great to get out of the city. How many people get a chance to spend some time on a farm?," Gardner says.

Gardner has become a sort of poster boy for eating local. He walks the walk but in a non-threatening, regular Joe sort of way, showing the rest of us that it can be done, but not berating us when we don't.

"It's not like a religion. It's not something where you have to do it this way and if you don't you're a sinner," Gardner says. "Today, for example, I bought some Italian cheese at Bari. My wife and I, if we buy some imported cheese once in a while, it's not going to infringe on our principles or make us less of an advocate."

Gardner will be at the dinner; see for yourself what we mean. The event is only 40 bucks and a scenic 90-minute drive from Chicago.

Go to thelocalbeet.com for more details on the dinner and to buy tickets.

Rolling in the dough

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Spent the Labor Day weekend being a tourist in our own city. Took the girls swimming, to Navy Pier and to dinner at Quartino.

Why Quartino? It's comfortably loud and thus, kid-friendly. The pomodoro sauce has been deemed by the 4-year-old to be the best in the city. The assortment of noshes (veal meatballs, broccoli rabe) always pleases her parents to no end. And -- the doughnuts.

We almost passed up dessert, thinking we'd grab ice cream elsewhere on our way back to the hotel, but the server eyed our two munchkins and offered up the magical word: "Zeppole?" TIN_opafest_P6.jpg

Airy and tender, they melted -- literally melted -- in the mouth. Heck, they nearly melted on our fingers as we gently pried them apart. As if eating them piecemeal was going to make them last longer. (Did we mention the ramekin of warm, dark chocolate dipping sauce?)

Enough with the cupcakes. Let's hear it for fried dough.

Luckily, Rick Bayless has thrown down the gauntlet in today's Food pages, promising his churros at Xoco, his new takeout shop -- perhaps you've heard of it? -- to be the best in the world.

We admit: Since we were stuck at the office, we Twitter-stalked Xoco for a good portion of its opening day yesterday. Thank goodness for WaitWatcher and the chef himself for letting us know just how quickly (or not) the line moved.

Anyway, we'll get there soon enough. We're just tickled that fried dough is getting Top Chef treatment. Churros and zeppole -- different animals. But as far as we're concerned, all part of one big, happy family.

A tastier 'Taste'

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sfingi_nuns.jpgEvery summer millions of people descend upon Grant Park for the Taste of Chicago. As for myself, I cannot get far enough away from it. It's wonderful that the city can attract so many people (and their disposable income) downtown, but I'd rather stay away.

I prefer to get in the car, take a little ride and share my meat on a stick with thousands, instead of millions. One local food fest that I do look forward to is the Taste of Melrose Park, which took place in that near west suburb over the Labor Day weekend. (My apologies to readers for not sharing this before last weekend, but I needed to conduct extensive firsthand research on this Taste before blogging about it.)

There are many reasons to love the Taste of Melrose Park, besides the fact that it's on a smaller scale than that other Taste. While they do have an impressive number of food vendors, few of them are from restaurants -- most are just families who have their own specialties they sell, such as Petruzzi's meatball sandwich, Louie Ariola's artichoke casserole, Tony and Aldo's pepperoni roll, Vinny and Nico's quesadillas, Siciliano's fried bologna and Meno's neckbones. Yeah, that's another thing I love about the Taste of Melrose Park -- you can have your frog legs and turtle on a stick at the Taste of Chicago, but you'll find things at the Taste of Melrose Park with a real heritage; the sort of food your grandparents made, like neckbones, or things you or your parents used to eat, like fried bologna, and old favorites, such as fried dough.

One of the more popular items year after year, with the longest lines, is the sfingi made by the Missionary Sisters of St. Charles. By the way, a long line at this food fest is one that you may have to wait at the most, five minutes in, and most vendors' booths do not have lines with more than a few customers.

The portions are not huge (which makes sampling a little of everything easier), but neither are the prices. Most items were $2, but none were more than $3.

This year I paced myself, sticking to things that really intrigued me or which I really wanted. My take included D&D's arancini, the pepperoni roll, the sisters' sfingi, Mama D's braciole sandwich and the fried bologna sandwich (with onions and mustard). Everything was good, the crowd was nice, and parking was free. I'll be back again, that's for sure, and next year I'll try the neckbones.

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Today's the first day of preschool for the 4-year-old, and all we can think about is lunch. Her lunch.

"Mommy, this is what you can put in my lunchbox," she advised us, a few days ago. "Rice. Tortilla chips. Peas. A fruit roll-up. A peach."

Thanks for the ideas, kid. Mommy's been obsessing for weeks about this, this being our first season on the lunch-from-home team. Talk about pressure. Pressure to hit all the food groups, to make it colorful and smiley-faced and fun for them eat, something like the photo above. Bonus points if it's organic and/or has 'farmers market' written all over it. It also has to be palatable after a couple hours of sitting around next to an icepack, and without any microwave intervention. And God forbid it contains peanut butter -- we've already been told no nuts this first week.

Get a grip, we finally said. Her stomach is the size of a tennis ball; we're not talking a degustation menu here. Give her at least one thing we know she'll eat, and at least one other thing she may or may not eat. Throw in a little treat (speaking of which, none are allowed in the classroom on birthdays. No cupcakes, no Rice Krispie Treats, nothing. I mean, what would Gale Gand do?). That element of surprise goes a long way.

We still remember the BLT our mom made for first day of third grade at a new school. It was like unwrapping the Holy Grail -- captivating, utterly unexpected and more gorgeous than anything in our dreams. We swear the bacon was still warm.

We thought about replicating that but then, we know our child. Not a big fan of the sandwich in its constructed form, only their components, and even then, mostly just the protein. She'd eat the bacon and gnaw a bit on the bread.

So, what ended up in her lunchbox? Tortilla chips, yes (her current obsession). A turkey and cream cheese wrap. Nectarine wedges and carrot slices. And a few chocolate-covered pretzels. (Compare this with what's in some chefs' kids' lunches and hey, we're feeling pretty good.)

In other words, the 4-year-old was right. Though we haven't ruled out the BLT.

Watch that cupcake bubble ...

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because it's about to burst, says Slate columnist Daniel Gross. In a piece last week in Slate, he compares the cupcake craze to recent rages such as real estate and dot.coms, and like those two wildly popular phenomena, the cupcake bubble, he believes, is bound to burst.

He says that the current economic recession, which got going in 2007, "laid the groundwork for the recent proliferation of cupcake stores in American cities."

Setting up a cupcakery doesn't require a large investment of capital, he explains, since costs of ingredients and labor are low for cupcake-making and, as he points out, " It takes about as much labor to produce three dozen cupcakes as it does to make one dozen."

While economic and culinary indicators would liken the prolonged popularity of cupcakes a slam dunk, Gross is not convinced this is a something that'll be around longterm. "Cupcakes are now showing every sign of going through the bubble cycle," he says.

His points include: The first wave of cupcake shops have ben joined by second and third waves, which can only differentiate themselves on how different they are from those first waves; the theory that in a depressed economy people buy affordable luxuries such as cupcakes doesn't fly with Gross, since he thinks it goes the other way -- that in times like these, people are more likely to go for the $1 donut than the $4 cupcake; cupcakes aren't that cheap for the consumer and the sugar or cuteness buzz you get last only as long as you're eating it; cupcakes are a reactionary food, something simple and understandable, compared to the complex foods many foodies rave about, but some cupcake makers are not satisfied with simple, and are going too far, essentially putting sugar atop sugar, rendering the treats too sweet.

"Cupcakes are having their moment, no question, and many could make sweet profits," Gross says. "But remember what always happens after a sugar rush: a crash."

Ice cream social? I'll say

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Back in our post-college days, the most appropriate way to kick off the Labor Day weekend always seemed to involved indulging in adult beverages.

These days, we find ourselves gravitating more toward childlike treats. Thank goodness for Jeff Reid.

Reid is the man behind the inaugural Chicago Luxury Ice Cream Festival, which opens at 7 tonight at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, 2430 N. Cannon Dr.

The setup sounds brain freeze-worthy -- more than 15 tasting stations offering up artisan ice cream and gelato for 25 bucks. Local "micro-creameries" include Indiana's Trader's Point Creamery, Sibby's Organic of Wisconsin, Chicago's Black Dog Gelato and Wilmette favorite Homer's.

And there's more: chocolate, cheese, beer, wine and coffee from a host of area vendors. (We said childlike, not childish.)

Reid promises this is just the beginning. Next summer, it'll be a three-day affair.

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Another cupcake shop? Really?

Indeed. This one, the tiny, three-week-old Cupcake Counter at 229 W. Madison, is a mother-daughter duo operation. Mother is the baker here; the daughter works the front of house.

As the mom, Holly Sjo, 56, tells it, the "stars aligned" for them in late 2008. Sjo and her husband had just moved back to Chicago (their hometown) from Florida to be closer to Sjo's ailing mother; their daughter, Samantha Wood, 32, did the same, giving up her gig working for the UN.

But aside from being there for Grandma, Sjo, who attended culinary school and has had some catering experience, said she and her daughter both wanted -- needed -- something more to do. When the 340-square-foot space became available, "I just popped up and said, 'I betcha we could do cupcakes,' " Sjo says.

They signed the lease in February and did their homework, checking out some of their competition around town. So how do they differ? "We are by scratch, small batches," Sjo says. "There are some people who say that's what they do, but they really don't. But if you came to my house, this is what you'd get. I bake every day."

It sounds so familiar, that tune, doesn't it?

Here's what's refreshing: They offer only four cupcake flavors daily -- carrot, butter, chocolate and red velvet -- with specials that come and go (the one pictured above is not one of theirs, but you get the idea). No basil-tomato, no bacon-lavender.

They also do cookies, brownies, macaroons and the utterly-unnecessary-but-who-cares ice cream cupcake sandwich. Intelligentsia coffee is on tap.

It's a work-in-progress, Sjo admits. Initially, they'd offered a fifth flavor, coconut, but "nobody wanted it" (people, what is wrong with you?). The butter cupcake recipe, which Sjo has to quadruple, is still "the bane of her existence," flawless one batch, flat the next.

And they hold no illusions. "In reality, in some places cupcakes are already over. Chicago was a little late to come to it. But that day will come," Sjo says.

For now, they're just hoping for more days like today. A trader (the shop is just a hop skip from the financial district) called about 3:30 p.m. to say he was buying up whatever cupcakes they had left. It was the third consecutive day he'd done so.

By guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes

NEW ORLEANS -- Some foodstuffs come with stories that are as nourishing as a meal. In this economy, tales of unanticipated success are particularly welcome.

Twenty years ago, Loretta Harrison was a medical librarian at Louisiana State University. Then, she learned that Jazzfest needed someone to make New Orleans' most famous candy, pralines. Harrison made a few batches from a family recipe -- and cooked a new life for herself.

In two days at the festival, Harrison and her pralines pulled far more than she was earning in the university library. She shelved the bookish life and opened Loretta's Authentic Pralines, 2101 N. Rampart. When the store's door opened, Harrison became the first black woman to have her own candy company in New Orleans. lorettaspralines_2056_0.gif

Harrison's a born sharer. Come into her store and choose your fill of pralines, cookies and cake, and she's likely to give you the one thing you missed ... just to try. That's kitchen wisdom for you: Sit, rest, eat. People do, and return to do so again and again.

You can get Harrison's well-gotten goods in NoLa or online. If she has her way, before much more time has passed, she'll be on TV and you'll be able to buy her food from a national network.

Harrison worked hard to make her pralines a success story, and she doesn't divulge her recipe. She is, however, happy to provide an insight into what makes a good praline: butter - real butter - and love.

By guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes

There's something intensely satisfying about flatbread. It's not just the snap between the teeth. Some of the satisfaction comes before the stuff hits the table.

It's a terrific base for kitchen play; toppings can make the flatbread as tart, sweet, salty or spicy as you like. It has much of the satisfaction of deep-dish pizza - but it's easier to take flatbread in fat- and calorie-sane portions.

Flatbread is something more readily associated with Europe than with the deep south, but chef Scott Maki of Rambla, 217 Camp St. in New Orleans, is happy to bring all traditions to the plate. One of his most popular flatbreads features homemade fig jam, flecks of Valdeon cheese and hand-torn Serrano ham. Crisp, soft, sweet, salt, fat ... these slim portions are anything but lean on taste and texture. 7:2 Frost  Fresh Figs.jpg

If you want to bypass the Valdeon buy local, the Green City Market has cheesy options that Lyle Allen, the market's executive director, recommends.

With more than 100 years in the cheese business, Brunkow Cheese of Wisconsin has a fine line of artisan cheeses and a deservedly loyal following.

Goat's milk cheese plays well with figs. On Saturdays at the market, look for Capriole Farmstead Goat Cheese. "Judith Schad is an icon in the cheese world," Allen says. "Her goat cheese is really special."

Saxon Homestead Creamery is new to the Market, and Allen says they use only artisan-crafting methods.

As to the fig jam, Maki has made it with fresh figs and with dried, so this flatbread is in season all year 'round.

Recipe after the jump.

By guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes

NEW ORLEANS -- From the outside, the famous New Orleans restaurant, Dooky Chase, looks to be an unemarkable residence.

Like a space in a science fiction film, the restaurant at 2301 Orleans Ave. is larger on the inside than the out. Expansive rooms have widely spaced, linen-clad tables. The walls are hung with large pieces of elegantly framed art - art that a Chase braved Katrina to save.

Dooky Chase is a true family business, headed by a small, energetic whirlwind of an octogenarian chef. At 86, Leah Chase runs her kitchen with talent, humor and frequent detours to the door, where patient customers wait to ask her to sign copies of The Dooky Chase Cookbook.

Leah Chase's daughter and her namesake, a Juilliard graduate, works the front of the house -- when she isn't singing at jazz club Snug Harbor. In the dining rooms, a nephew serves food and stories. And, in the kitchen, a young Dooky Chase - Edgar Chase IV, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Paris - cooks alongside his grandmother.

There's no doubt who's at the helm of the good ship Dooky Chase. As grandmother and grandson work, Leah Chase cheerfully thumps the young chef's arm, scolding and directing him. "Add garlic. The people want more garlic." (He adds more garlic.)

The dish of the moment is Shrimp Clemenceau, a bright, uncomplicated item that brings out the best of each ingredient without masking a thing.

Nothing needs to be hidden. The food at Dooky Chase is good ... good enough that Barack Obama made a point of eating there last year.

Obama 2008.jpg

Chase dispenses spice and advice with the aplomb of a woman who knows her place because she owns it. If you're allergic to shrimp, you can enjoy this dish: just use chicken. If you don't like chicken, substitute steak or lamb or whatever makes your plate and palate happy.

Versatility is key. New Orleans isn't about making do with what's at hand; it's about making the best with it.

What's the dishy best in Chicago right now? Lyle Allen, executive director of the Green City Market, is always ready to talk substitutes. He leads with Twin Oak Meats , which has fine pork - no steroids, no growth hormones.

If you want to go with steak, then Heartland Meats humanely raises Piedmontese cattle, producing beef that is tender and flavorful.

At Mint Creek Farm, a small family farm in Stelle, Ill., the lambs graze on alfalfa, grass and clover. Free-range living leads to better meat.

"It's amazing," Allen says. "I just love their sausage."

Sausage Clemenceau? Why not?

More than meats can be local. Allen says, "We have one of the best mushroom providers in the Midwest: Eric Rose, with River Valley Ranch. Unbelievable variety of mushrooms. He does a mixed bag for $10 - it's just my favorite thing."

A fast, adaptable, one-pot dish that comes with love, laughter and a serious heritage - That's a kitchen's favorite thing.

Recipe after the jump.

About the blog

Janet Rausa Fuller

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

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