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November 2009 Archives

The frugal wine drinkers

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So how do you cope with an economy that is still quite a ways away from a real rebound and a job market that's also in the toilet? Well, you certainly don't stop drinking; you just drink cheaper booze.

That's what's happening with wine, at least, according to an AP story that was in Friday's Sun-Times.

"More wine could be consumed globally this year, thanks to crisis-fueled demand for cheaper or discounted tipples, particularly in the United States," the story said. ("Tipples" is late 15-century in origin, and is another word for a drink, in case you are unfamiliar with it, as I was.). The U.S., in fact, is second only to France in total consumption of wine.

Federico Castellucci, of the International Organization of Vine and Wine, told the AP that "people who want to keep drinking are buying cheaper wines," such as Charles Shaw, aka "Two-Buck Chuck." But today's cheap wines aren't your father's or grandfather's cheap wines. Because of improved technology, today's cheaper wines are much more palatable than they were 20 years ago, Castellucci said.

And while he warns of the harm winemakers could do to their marketplace if they discount too much, Castellucci ardently believes that the industry should nurture novice wine drinkers and those who have not grown up with a wine culture, because soon enough they'll be looking to spend more than $3 on a bottle of wine.

"In classical music, you don't start with Wagner, you start with Boccherini," he said, referring to the 18th-century Italian composer and cellist. "It's the same with wine. We start with very simple, gentle wines, after they go up in scale."

That's a fine was of expressing the challenge that's in front of winemakers and the evolution of a wine drinker, but could anyone really look forward to drinking the equivalent of a five-hour opera?

Out of the Wild(e)

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Andersonville has restaurants whose cuisines range from Italian to Korean to Middle Eastern; could an Irish-themed place be joining them? We may soon see.

According to a report from Crain's Chicago Business, the owners of Lakeview's Wilde Bar & Restaurant are planning to set up shop a few miles north of the place named in honor of the great Irish poet/playwright, across from the Swedish Museum, and Reza's and Andie's.

Crain's says "a venture co-owned by Martin Cournane and Denis Paul Sheahan filed for zoning approval for a roughly 9,000-square-foot restaurant and bar at 5252-5260 N. Clark St." The spot had previously been an auto parts store. "The building's second-floor tenant, Joel Hall's dance studio, vacated its 11,000-square-foot space in February."

The duo's new venture will not be far from Uptown's Wild Pug, which, until it opened earlier this year had been dubbed the Wilde Pug, until representatives of Lakeview's Wilde Bar requested that they drop that "e" lest two bars in the same city with Wilde in their name confuse anyone. (Oh, we all remember the mass confusion a few years back when all those nightclubbers, pacifiers hanging from their necks, glo-sticks in hand, lined up outside the Far South Side's Crowbar lounge...) By the way, speaking of the Wildes, if you are ever in Minneapolis, treat yourself to some great coffee and delightful breakfast or lunch at the Wilde Roast, a place I wish I could bring to Chicago.

With this new spot, whatever the theme and cuisine may be, in addition to the new restaurant being planned by the owners of Hopleaf, in the former La Donna space, just south of Foster Avenue, Clark Street in Andersonville is really becoming quite the restaurant row.

From the Italian Anteprima to the Korean Jin Ju, to the Kitschy Hamburger Mary's, to uber fashionable pizza place Great Lake, to classic Chicago Italian Calo, as well as the aforementioned Hopleaf, and Andie's, Reza's and a few spots that still carry the banner of the neighborhood's Swedish heritage, as well as a great ice cream spot, George's, a wonderful Sicilian pastry shop, Natalina's, a cool independently-owned coffee shop, The Coffee Studio, and a nifty wine shop/wine bar, In Fine Spirits, Andersonville has become one of the city's most diverse, eclectic and interesting dining areas. And with the exception of a couple dishes here and a dish or two there, all the neighborhood's dining options are moderately priced.

Exciting? Andersonville? A neighborhood that still, most days, rolls up the sidewalks at 10 p.m.? Yep.

Took a tour today of the highly anticipated Chicago French Market opening next Thursday in the Ogilvie Metra station. There still wasn't much to see beyond empty display cases, but there is much to look forward to.

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My guide was market operator Sebastien Bensidoun (below, with his father Rolland), an enthusiastic 35-year-old Frenchman whose family name is synonymous with markets in France, New York, Connecticut, Michigan and, by and large, suburban Chicago. The Bensidouns run 13 open-air French markets in the Chicago area, including the 12-year-old Wheaton market.

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Foodies in Chicago have long pined for a permanent, year-round market featuring fresh produce, meats, baked goods and more under one roof. The efforts of the late Abby Mandel, founder of the 10-year-old Green City Market, to achieve that end should not be ignored.

This particular project was first announced in 2001. It's taken this long to come to fruition simply because there are so many moving parts, among them 25 individual businesses, Bensidoun says.

And the vendor list is far from static; the 26th vendor, the nuns of Fraternite Notre Dame, who were to offer their scrumptious baked goods, just dropped out, choosing to focus on their presence at the seasonal farmers markets.

Meanwhile, the Spice House is said to be on a short list of additions; owner Patty Erd was so jazzed after visiting the raw space two weeks ago, she sent out a Tweet saying, "Exciting things seem to be happening there."

After chatting with Bensidoun, what I found most encouraging was his (and his 74-year-old father Rolland's) genuine concern for how this market should function and for whom. Sure, it's going to have some fantastic eats (bahn mi and pho, crepes, Belgian frites) that will no doubt draw the lunchtime worker bees and first-on-the-scene Twittering crowd. But Bensidoun, who checks out various Chicago blogs to stay on top of the food scene, cringes at the word "gourmet." And "food court"? Forget it.

"This is a fresh market, first of all," says Bensidoun, who says his priority when seeking out vendors was securing the local (and mostly organic) produce. There also will be meat, seafood and cheese purveyors.

Bensidoun has been, and continues to be, choosy about the mix of vendors going in -- and he promises there won't be Whole Paycheck sticker shock.

"We don't want to target a certain elite," he says. "We want anybody to be able to come here and shop."

Heading into winter, it seems a delicious prospect.

More photos after the jump.

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In his turn on Bravo's Top Chef Masters, Art Smith proved he's more than comfortable in front of the camera. He emerged the darling of the set, never afraid to shed a few tears or share a few hugs.

Now comes word the effusive chef and owner of Table Fifty-Two in the Gold Coast is getting his own show on TLC -- and the topic is one that seems to fit Smith like a glove.

"Craving Comfort" will explore the "obsessions, triumphs and secrets behind some of America's favorite comfort foods," according to a release. The show, slated to debut late next year, has Smith traveling across the country seeking out renditions, and stories, of apple pie, fried chicken and more.

TLC couldn't have picked a better host. Smith, who's on the road now who just returned from a week of shooting, tells us the show came about exactly because of his Top Chef Masters performance. "Honey, it wasn't about winning, it was about being memorable," he says.

And now we have an excuse to run one of our favorite recipes in recent memory: Smith's goat cheese biscuits. These are a snap to put together, and they're homey, crusty and delicious. Comfort, indeed.

Update: A TLC rep tells us the foods to be covered in the series are apple pie, donuts, chocolate, burgers, fried chicken, mac 'n' cheese and breakfast grub. And the crew is planning a Chicago stop. Mmmm.

A bit more:
"I said I wouldn't be able to go back home if we didn't have [a Chicago stop]," Smith says.

"It all happened so strangely," Smith says. In July, he was in Los Angeles to see his newborn godson and got a call from TLC, asking if he could drop by their offices to say hello. "It was literally 'We just wanted to meet you, we liked you on 'Top Chef Masters.' "

A month passed, and then Smith got another call from TLC, this time with a formal offer for a show.

Smith hopes to develop the show so that it features not only mom-and-pop restaurants dishing up comfort food classics, but also home cooks. "To me, food without a story is not that interesting," he says. "I wanted to search out stuff that wasn't overly produced but also that, when I taste it, it's like, 'Wow.' "

Ironically, though the show is all about grub that can do damage to the waistline, Smith says he's shed nearly 70 pounds in about three months -- doing sensible things like taking a walk after a big meal -- due to concerns about his elevated blood sugar level.

"Chefs are notorious for not taking care of themselves and eating properly," he says."The secret to a healthier life is taking care of yourself. You've got responsible drinking. Well, honey, you've got responsible eating."

Restaurant resolutions

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Holiday shopping season is upon us once again, and with it come the magazine stories, window signs, Facebook buttons and individual resolutions carrying the "shop local," banner. It's a noble idea -- to support our local merchants, the ones who give us nice Christmas decorations and put a festive feeling in the air, as well as contribute to the local economy -- instead of doing all our shopping online.

It's certainly something that I am going to try to do as much as I can in the next month or so, but similarly, I have made resolved to "go local" when it comes to food, making the effort when I can to patronize locally-owned restaurants or food stores.

This goes hand-in-hand with another resolution to break out of my "restaurant rut," and try to dine somewhere new more often, as opposed to falling back onto the same two or three restaurants that I regularly visit.

What got me to making this resolution was the untimely demise of one restaurant and the opening of a new cafe, separated by only a few blocks in the Edgewater/Uptown neighborhood. When I noticed a pizza place/bar named Monticchio on Clark Street just north of Lawrence, next to Lincoln Towing, I was surprised that a restaurant would open in such a seemingly inhospitable location -- that stretch of Clark is most notable for the aforementioned towing pirates, a couple garages and a cemetery across the street -- and I made a mental note of the place. I walked or drove past it many times after that, thought it looked cheery and as if time and attention to deal had been paid to the interior and the menu and thought, "I'll have to go there sometime."

"Sometime" never came. Monticchio closed not long ago.

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Bummer for Nestle, which produces the iconic Libby's canned pumpkin, the go-to squash for millions of pie makers this time of year.

The company says heavy rains have forced it to cease harvesting its crop in Downstate Morton -- which may lead to a shortage during the holiday season of those recognizable orange cans.

But relax, people. You can still bake your pumpkin pie and eat it, too. A pumpkin is a gourd -- as are those oodles of beautiful winter squash with the poetic names (Kabocha, Hubbard, Delicata) crowding the store bins these days.

In my freezer, I have a Ziploc bag full of the cooked flesh of a red Kabocha squash. I bought the squash in early October from farmer Vicki Westerhoff (below) at Green City Market, for our story on farmers' favorite Thanksgiving recipes. Westerhoff is a something of a squash expert -- she grows between 11 and 18 varieties of winter squash on her St. Anne farm -- and her recipe for custard-filled squash is delightful. 10-24_white_farmer_1.jpg

In my first attempt at Westerhoff's recipe, however, forces out of my control prevented me from keeping a close eye on the squash -- or, more accurately, the clock -- as it baked (long story; just know it involved my two daughters). The beautiful, majestic squash collapsed on me in the heat, the filling spilling out across the baking sheet. Dang.

But it still tasted delicious, so I scooped all the flesh from the skin anyway, collecting it in a bag and popping it into the freezer. And next week, I'll be making pie with it.

Westerhoff says the three best substitutes for the canned stuff are the Blue Hubbard, Long Island Cheese and Butternut squash (though she assures me my red Kabocha also will work well).

"I would dare say other than a super pumpkin connoisseur, no one would know the difference," she says. "In fact, I think they work better than pumpkin in a lot of ways. The texture is smoother and the flavor is just really good."

So wherever you would have used canned pumpkin, try substituting a squash of a different stripe. It won't be the same old pie you're used to, but I don't think you'll be disappointed, either.

By guest blogger and local freelancer Leah A. Zeldes

Our condolences go out to the family of Josephine Minelli and to generations of Chicago-area Italian-food lovers. The matriarch of the Minelli Meat and Deli family, fondly known as "Mama Minelli," died Tuesday at age 99. By all accounts, she lived a life as robust as her marinara.

Until an ambulance took her away from the stove two years ago, Mrs. Minelli was still making meatballs at the family store -- up to 200 pounds at a time, all by hand. The shop, at 7900 N. Milwaukee, Niles, is the third in a series of food stores she and her late husband, Philip, first opened in 1957.

The first Minelli store stood on the corner of Western Avenue and Lexington Street in the Little Italy neighborhood on Chicago's West Side, dispensing Italian groceries, 10-cent beers and shots. In 1970, Mrs. Minelli and her three sons -- Lenny, John and Alfred -- expanded to a full-service Centrella grocery and Italian specialty market in Niles, and began making prepared foods, beginning with Mrs. Minelli's meatballs, which she insisted should be made by hand.

Thirty-seven years later, Mrs. Minelli presided over the grand opening of the newest location, a deli and butcher shop in Oak Mill Mall, where her grandsons Mario Minelli, Lenny Minnelli Jr. and Ozzie Caccavella continue to offer the locally celebrated meatballs as well as house-made Italian beef, sausage, salads and other foods prepared from Mama Minelli's recipes.

Born in Montefalco, Italy, near Naples, Mrs. Minelli immigrated to Chicago in the 1920s, where she met her husband and reared her family on Taylor Street. Before opening the grocery store, she worked at the Ferrara Pan Candy Co. and the National Biscuit Co.

Though she spent the last two years in a nursing home, St. Matthew Center for Health in Park Ridge, Mrs. Minelli daily entertained large groups of visitors and continued to take a lively interest in the family store.

Visitation for Mrs. Minelli will be held from 2 to 9 p.m. Sunday at Skaja Funeral Home, 7812 N. Milwaukee, Niles. Funeral services begin at 9 a.m. Monday at Skaja, followed by Mass at St. Isaac Jogues, 8149 W. Golf , Niles, and interment at Queen of Heaven Catholic Cemetery & Mausoleums, 1400 S. Wolf, Hillside.

It's almost Thanksgiving. For us, that means once again drawing on the expertise of the Chopping Block's Shelley Young.

This is the third year Young has graciously agreed to be the subject of our Thanksgiving video how-tos. The first year, we asked her to show us how to carve a turkey. Last year, it was how to make gravy. And this year, she whizzes us through pie crust. You can check out all the videos here. 10-31 podgo turkey 4.jpg

There are two reasons why Young's business -- which started in a charming cottage on Webster Avenue in Lincoln Park and has since mushroomed into a grand space in the Merchandise Mart and a Lincoln Square location -- has been around for 12 years. She knows her stuff. And her stuff works.

Sun-Times editor in chief Don Hayner told me he watched and learned from the turkey carving video; he and I both carve our turkeys this way, now.

Young's gravy relies on a simple, easy-to-remember ratio. And her pie crust recipe, she says, is foolproof. Foolproof is a tall order. But watch the video, and then try it yourself - especially if you have a food processor, you're going to be giddy at how ridiculously easy it really is, this crust thing.

So for next Thanksgiving... Shelley, you know the drill.

(And for another take on Thanksgiving duties, here's Anthony Bourdain, another person we love, but for different reasons.)

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A chat with my best friend in Kansas happened to coincide with a doctor's revelation that my husband's cholesterol needs to be nudged back into a safe place. Naturally, I headed to the store.

Enough with the bacon and the Sunday steak, I thought. Except that the husband would sooner starve than eat something as mockable as, say, chicken chili, no matter who made it.

That brought me back to thinking about a visit to my Kansas friend's home last year. Ruhe had made a simple dinner in her slow cooker for us -- a chili-baked beans hybrid made with ground bison, homemade biscuits on the side. It was so tasty. It was so Kansas.

Bison, she told me, is the meat of choice in her home. It's markedly lower in fat and cholesterol than beef, chicken or pork. And of course, this being Kansas, bison is widely available in most grocery stores there. Where was I this whole time?

Bison has everything going for it. Why isn't it easier to come by in Chicago? At Whole Foods, fresh ground bison is $7.99 a pound.

Fortunately, Ruhe's recipe is hard to mess up and open to all sorts of interpretation. And the husband? He ate it up.

Roughly:
Brown 1 pound of ground bison (with 1 chopped onion, if you like). Add 1 can each drained black beans, butter beans, kidney beans and lima beans (or any combination thereof). Stir in 1 cup ketchup, 1/2 to 1 cup brown sugar (1 cup verges on one-dimensionally sweet) and a pinch of salt. If you have a slow cooker, let it do its thing; if not, cook in a Dutch oven in a 225-degree oven, stirring occasionally, for a few hours until it smells and tastes good.

Note: Ruhe sometimes subs KC Masterpiece barbecue sauce for the ketchup and brown sugar; other times, she adds curry and peas, a nod to her British-Pakistani heritage.

Putting together this week's story on four Illinois farmers and their favorite Thanksgiving recipes ranks up there as one of my favorites. Vicki Westerhoff, David Cleverdon, Tracey Vowell and Marty Travis -- they are some good eggs, and with fascinating back stories to boot.

They were all gracious enough to share their recipes during what is typically for them a busy, busy time -- and if you don't try Travis' cornbread recipe, you're missing out.

Speaking of, I missed a few resources for local food during the winter months in our listing, but the Local Beet, of course, has me covered.

Here, after the jump, are two more recipes from Cleverdon we didn't have space for in the section that make clever use of squash and greens. The rolls, his great-grandmother's recipe, have been in Cleverdon's family since the late 19th-century.

By guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes

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On Friday, Rodelio Aglibot abandoned Sunda, 110 W. Illinois Street (leaving it in the hands of a more than able crew) and took over the kitchen of the James Beard House, 167 W. 12th in New York City.

Aglibot's fantastic, the menu looked phenomenal, and I wanted in - not in the dining room, but the kitchen.

As is his way, Aglibot did the unexpected: He said yes.

That was Wednesday. This is three o'clock on Friday afternoon, and I find myself in a compact kitchen with an impressive array of chefs: Aglbot; James Gottwald, executive chef of Rockit Bar & Grill and corporate chef of Rockit Ranch Productions; Jesse Deguzman, Sunda's sushi chef, and chef Frank Fronda (below, right). Volunteers from the French Culinary Institute are putting in hours, as well.

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Gottwald and Deguzman look like undergraduate students, but the kitchen buzzes with professionalism - and camaraderie. Aglibot, Gottwald and Deguzman are a three-man Chicago team. Fronda and Aglibot travelled around Asia together, and they co-own Baba's Pasta, an artisanal pasta company.

This isn't a tight-knit group; it's a strong, effective sailor's knot - one flexible enough to add a writer to its curves.

It'll end in tears

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Last week I read, in the Sun-Times Showcase section, that celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, star of the shows, "Hell's Kitchen," "The f Word," and "Kitchen Nightmares," has signed a deal for a new show on Fox, tentatively titled "Master Chef."

In it, Ramsay will attempt to take people who have no experience in the food industry into expert cooks. The contestants will whip up dishes that will then be judged by a panel of expert chefs. Are they kidding? Really? I'm sure that Fox will have no trouble finding people to take part in this because people will do anything to get on TV, but what sort of masochistic person, with no professional kitchen experience, would ever subject themselves to the foul-mouthed, short-tempered Ramsay? It's one thing for Ramsay to shout and swear at professionals who can't run a restaurant or cook food worth putting in front of a paying guest but I don't see how his act will work on those who haven't worked in kitchens before. Restaurants, like bars, are among the best places in the world to work, but much like newsrooms, the folks who work in these places are quite a different breed. Everyday behavior in working restaurants (like newsrooms) might get you fired from just about any other workplace, with the exception of perhaps a pirate ship.

I predict lots of tears, some people storming out of the kitchen, some on-camera asides from the contestants remarking about how mean Ramsay is, and maybe a few people who will swear and scream back at him. Fox may as well call it, "So You Think You Can Cook?" The carnage could be horrible. And I can't wait to tune in.


The news was announced via email this afternoon: After 40 years, Don Roth's Blackhawk in Wheeling, is closing.

The surf-and-turf restaurant of Spinning Salad Bowl fame will serve its last meal on New Year's Eve.

"With my 90th birthday on the horizon and none of my children in a position to assume responsibility for the family business, it will be better to close Don's last restaurant while it still is a going concern," said Ann Roth, Don Roth's widow, in a statement.

Could you eat sausage pizza -- and only sausage pizza -- for an entire month?

Craig "Pizza Boy" Scharoff (pictured) could -- or rather, did.

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Scharoff entered into a bet with his co-worker, Ron Kaplan, back in September, that he would eat sausage pizza for every meal during the month of October. It was one of those "If you could eat one thing for the rest of your life... " discussions that just took on a life of its own, Kaplan says. "After talking about it for so long, I decided to challenge Craig and everyone here egged him on ... At first, I never thought he could do it but when he ordered that Dominos very early on, I knew I was in trouble."

Kaplan laid out the specifics: sauce and other fillings optional; no pizza variations (e.g. French bread pizza, pizza-flavored Hot Pockets); no salads, side dishes or dessert, and so forth.

Kaplan, conveniently, is one of the moderators of the food chat site, LTHForum, where this whole thing has played out for the past several weeks, with photographic evidence posted by Kaplan of much of Scharoff's intake.

The payoff for all of Scharoff's effort? $2,000.

The twist: Around lunchtime today, Kaplan announced that he and Scharoff have donated the cash to the Northern Illinois Food Bank. And Kaplan is now dusting off an old treadmill to give to Scharoff.

About the blog

Janet Rausa Fuller

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

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