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December 2009 Archives

A simple secret to great pasta

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This sounds like a great idea at any time of the year, but especially so these days, when many people have leftover holiday ham and other forms of pork in their fridge.

Ari Weinzweig (he of Ann Arbor, Michigan's Zingerman's deli, bakery, restaurant, cheese emporium, etc.), writing in the Atlantic's food blog, recalls a centuries old trick for making pasta better.

"All you have to do is stick a piece of pork rind or pancetta into your pasta cooking water," he says. "It really does give the pasta a nice bit of added flavor, and it as it did five hundred years ago and still today, can be done for very little cost. It's great way to use up ham bones or prosciutto rinds."

Do that, drain the pasta, then just finish it of with a bit of olive oil and some grated cheese, such as Parmigiano or Pecorino, and you've got a simple yet tasty dish that is elevated by the inclusion of the pork.

I'm looking forward to trying this out, as well as asking the butcher for some pork rind.

First came the news that the folks behind Lakeview's Wilde Bar were setting up shop in Andersonville, in a space on Clark Street, a couple blocks north of Foster. Now comes word via the Edgewater Community Buzz, that after the end of the year, on the 5400 block of North Clark, the lesbian bar Stargaze will be out, and a new restaurant/sports bar will be in.

The Edgewater Development Corp. and Edgewater Community Council will hold a meeting on Jan. 7 where the community will be able to hear presentations on the proposed development at 5419 N. Clark St. According to the agenda, Candy Bar Entertainment, LLC and affiliates are seeking to acquire the Stargaze space and put in "a restaurant specializing in desserts and BB-Q, a small bar, a live entertainment venue featuring cabaret style shows ... and private party entertainment packages for the Chicagoland areas during off peak business hours."

The group that wants to open the new spot (as I go into my lawyer in a cheap suit voice) "featuring cabaret style shows" also operates the Four Shadows Tavern & Grill, at Ashland and Diversey.

I'm not about to cry NIMBY, but a look at some of the offerings at Four Shadows may give residents in the once sleepy Andersonville neighborhood reason to shudder: Game Day (and that means Bears, Iowa, Marquette, UFC, etc.) specials of $5 Jager Bombs, $4 22 oz. Miller Lites, and $8 dollar Miller Lite pitchers. But maybe they are planning to branch out into something different, and this group could bring an interesting new dynamic to the neighborhood.

It wasn't that long ago, though, that the only places in that area where anyone could go to have a drink and watch a game were Charlie's Ale House and the bar at Calo restaurant, and the "strip," as it was, closed down soon after dark. Soon, though, there could be a handful of such places within a few blocks of each other. Such is the nature of an ever-changing city, I suppose.

After writing about holiday beer, and booze-soaked truffles in recent weeks, I offer this storied nightcap that tells a story not only about mulled wine -- known as glogg -- but about Swedish culture and how it echoes in one North Side community.

Travel Trip Kentucky Bourbo.jpg I don't know what delights me more: putting boozy balls in the hands of a mixologist (see post below), or in the hands of boozy journalists.

Now before I get in hot water, let me clarify: not all journalists are boozy. Some are. Not all. But there is that reputation.

Anyhow, bourbon balls made were The Hit at the office potluck last week. Potent would be a fair description; so would aromatic. I smelled the thing from a few feet away as a co-worker walked by with one of the moist, walnut-size treats on his plate.

The man responsible: Thomas Conner, our Web guru in Features (and not, I might add, a boozy fellow. He's a tea guy.)

"Wow, had no inkling they'd be such a hit. Pour a little bourbon in anything and it'll be a hit in a newsroom ... ;-)" Thomas e-mailed me in reply to my gushing e-mail along the lines of, "OMG." (See, there again with the Alcoholics-R-Us stereotype.)

Here, then, is Thomas' recipe. If you can, let these sit so the flavors get all happy:

Crush a box of Nilla wafers, add 3 tablespoons cocoa, pinch or two cinnamon, handful of crushed nuts, 3 tablespoons Karo syrup, 8 tablespoons (OK, maybe 12) bourbon. Stir. Form balls and roll 'em in powdered sugar. Fridge.

By guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes:

Food Deadline Rum Balls.jpg When a top-shelf mixologist moves from the cocktail shaker to the mixing bowl, she brings the bar with her.

The proof isn't in the bottle; it's in the balls. (You know these: traditional rum balls made with crushed cookies and booze.)

The rest of us may be brave enough to change liquors or liqueurs, switching rum for whisky or grabbing that almost-empty bottle of coffee or hazelnut liqueur. That's not enough of a change for Bridget Albert.

Albert is the director of mixology for Southern Wine and Spirits of Illinois and the author of Market Fresh Mixology. She makes candies the way she does cocktails. "It's the way I do everything," Albert says, interrupting herself with laughter.

When creating a new drink, she starts with the base spirit "and then builds the flavors on top of that." She crafts what she terms "spirited balls" the same way: from the bottle out.

There are similarities between the glass and the ball. "It's kind of like a little shot," she notes, "because you're not cooking this, so you do get a little kick from these cookies."

Albert has been making spirited balls, every winter, for years. Not surprisingly, given her creativity in life and behind the bar, she wasn't satisfied with making the same thing every time.

She wanted to have fun and play with flavors, but keep it simple. "I started making variations on a holiday classic, keeping the flavors I would incorporate into a cocktail when making these spirited balls. For instance, Grand Marnier - orange - goes wonderfully with ginger." Out went the vanilla wafers and in came gingersnap crumbs.

What else? "I think chocolate and peanut butter could very well be a divine marriage," Albert says, her eyes bright and her voice happy. She makes dessert cocktails with chocolate and peanut butter liqueurs, and Nutter Butters meet chocolate liqueur in her spirit balls.

Does she have a favorite? "I do," Albert says happily. "My favorite is the rum. It's super easy to make and I love coconut - and I have to tell you, living in the Midwest in December, it is cold and miserable, so any time you can mix rum with coconut, whether you're eating it or drinking it, it takes you back to the islands for just a minute." A mouthful of the tropics. "Absolutely."

What do her friends ask her to make? She gets a lot of requests for the original, because it's familiar -- but, Albert adds, "it's fun to surprise your friends. A big favorite is the Grand Marnier and ginger, because ginger is hot right now to drink, and it's seen as something healthy, so when you can throw it in a cookie - boy, it's a natural hit."

Feel free to be playful when you make these. Albert is. She uses bar tools in the kitchen: a big plastic (easy to clean) muddler for mashing the mixture and a bar spoon for measuring. Don't have a bar spoon? Not a problem. Use a tablespoon instead. Albert's balls aren't only spirited. They're adaptable. Proof -- of a different kind -- is in the recipes that follow.

After 8 p.m., it's all decaf

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Don't expect regular-strength coffee near closing time and if you're the least bit concerned about where your food has been and who's been touching it, steer clear of lemon slices or wedges in your drinks when you dine out.

That's the word from a survey of wait staff published in the December '09/January 10 issue of Reader's Digest.

The magazine asked two dozen waiters and waitresses what really goes on behind the kitchen door and what they really think of your unusual requests and questions.

What they were told included:

• "In most restaurants, after 8 p.m. or so, all the coffee is decaf because no one wants to clean two different coffeepots. I'll bring out a tray with 12 coffees on it and give some to the customers who ordered regular, others to the ones who ordered decaf. But they're all decaf."

• "Skim milk is almost never skim milk. Very few restaurants outside Starbucks carry whole milk, 2 percent milk, skim milk, and half-and-half; it's just not practical."

• "I never ask for lemon in a drink. Everybody touches them. Nobody washes them. We just peel the stickers off, cut them up, and throw them in your iced tea."

• "The single greatest way to get your waiter to hate you? Ask for hot tea. For some reason, an industry that's managed to streamline everything else hasn't been able to streamline that. You've got to get a pot, boil the water, get the lemons, get the honey, bring a cup and spoon. It's a lot of work for little reward."

Think you got bad service and feel like leaving a tiny tip to teach the waiter a lesson? Think twice, and maybe say something to the restaurant manager instead. Because wait staff want you to know that, "in many restaurants, the tips are pooled, so if you have a bad experience with the server, you're stiffing the bartender who made your drinks, the water boy who poured your water, sometimes the hostess, the food runners, and maybe the other waiters."

But it's not all bad news. If you like a restaurant and would like to get the special treatment reserved for regulars, make a habit of dining there on Mondays, Tuesdays, or Wednesdays. It's easier for staff, as well as chefs and owners, to recognize you on these days. And "once you're recognized as a regular, good things start to happen. You'll find your wineglass gets filled without being put on your bill, or the chef might bring you a sample."

Are some of these revelations shocking? A little. But can you really blame the wait staff and restaurant operators for not using vegetable stock in their "vegetarian" dishes or sometimes not being fully stocked in skim milk? Such things won't kill you. Nothing that these waiters have said is truly awful -- with the exception of the national pizza chains that add sugar to their kids' meals and kids' pizzas so the youngsters will like them more -- (evil!) While foodies might romanticize restaurants, the real work is tough and the kitchens are often hot and loud, the staff are on their feet for hours on end and very often their restaurant or bar is everything to their owners and managers. So forgive them if they tell you hear them groan the next time you order hot tea and inquire whether your vegetarian dish had any exposure to meat or meat byproducts.

And be nice to the waitstaff. Because while they really don't spit in your food, if you treat them badly in front of others, they just may walk back to your table with your credit card and tell you it was declined -- even though it really wasn't. Doesn't matter though, because that will be what your tablemates talk about after the meal.

As done by Andersonville's Swedish Bakery.

3-8 Lachat yoga 11.jpg Before you dig in to that short rib ravioli, how about a downward facing dog pose or two to work up the appetite?

That's the idea behind Jam Sessions: Yoga for Foodies, a traveling dinner series created by California-based yoga enthusiast David Romanelli.

Each Jam Session event begins with a flowing yoga class conducted by Romanelli. Senses properly heightened, you move on to a sit-down dinner that should be the best damn meal you'll ever have.

Romanelli is the guy who partnered with college buddy and Vosges Haut-Chocolat founder Katrina Markoff for a series of yoga and chocolate seminars.

As it happens, Romanelli also is good friends with the business partner of chef Randy Zweiban of Province -- the uber-green West Loop restaurant that will host the March 8 Chicago stop on the Jam Sessions tour.

"The whole concept of taking cuisine and pairing it or making it an integral part of something else has always appealed to me," Zweiban says. "And what we do, being farm-to-table, fits the mindset of someone who does yoga and wants to dine." (Zweiban doesn't do yoga unlike that other Chicago chef, but adds wistfully, "I wish I had the time. It would probably make me feel a lot better.")

Because the yoga portion will be held in Province's private dining room, the Chicago event will be limited to 12 people. Zweiban says the cost of the yoga-and-dinner will be $95, which will include pre-dinner nibbles and paired cocktails, and organic wine pairings with dinner.

For reservations, call the restaurant at (312) 669-9900. Oh, and... namaste.

Art on a bottle

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We're getting down to crunch time as far as Christmas gift giving goes, and Hanukkah is already well underway, then there are assorted holiday and New Year's parties where host/hostess gifts will be in order, so what can you get for that one couple, that Secret Santa person, those nice neighbors, your old pal and anyone else that won't seem as though you just popped into a liquor or food store and just picked up whatever the first thing you saw that happened to fit in your gift budget?

Tequila might not be your first thought, but gifts this time of year can be as much style as substance, and a collection of bottles of 1800 Tequila, designed by 11 up-and-coming artists -- and one "celebrity artist" -- from around the country, are quite stylish.

This is the second annual collection of limited-edition Essential Artists bottles from 1800 Tequila. The 11 winning designs were gathered from more than 15,000 online submissions, selected by 1800 Tequila. In addition to the eclectic variety of 11 user-generated designs, 1800 Tequila also is featuring a special-edition bottle by Studio Number One, a group of rising star designers founded by artist Shepard Fairey (who you might recognize from his Obama "Hope" design).

The bottles are under $25 and available in a wide range of stores in the Chicago area. It's been years since I've dared to drink tequila straight, and I usually leave the mixing of drinks containing tequila to professionals, but these bottles not only caught my eye, but I thought they were all quite stunning. Imagine, at that holiday party in the next couple weeks, walking in, giving a bottle to your host, having them put it on the liquor cart with all the other bottles of wine other guests have brought, then it's unwrapped, and people can't stop talking about it, looking at it, holding the bottle up to better look at it. It'll be a sure hit. tequila_bottles.jpg

Two great pieces worth a listen on WBEZ today (91.5 FM). The first, by WBEZ's Dave Hammond, on the disappearing Jewish deli, a topic covered in our Food pages by reporter Mike Thomas, who never met a pastrami sandwich he didn't like.

The second, on the grand rebirth of Delicatessen Meyer in Lincoln Square. We first reported on the closing of Deli Meyer in March 2007. Several months after that, we met the dynamic sister-brother duo, Yolanda and Derek Luszcz, whose family owns Gene's Sausage Shop, at the boarded up Meyer site.

6-13 hale deli 0181.jpg

They had big plans for the deli back then, and it's heartening to see now they weren't just pipe dreams. Whetting our appetite: the butter from a Wisconsin dairy "that they portion out to customers by hand," WBEZ reports.

Gene's Sausage Shop at Deli Meyer -- the Web site is a work-in-progress, as we imagine the Luszczes are quite busy (though, naturally, there is a Facebook page) -- is at 4750 N. Lincoln.

The psychology of menus

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Via New York magazine, there's a whole lot more going on on your restaurant menu than a mere listing of the kitchen's offerings. That $70 dinner plate doesn't seem so unreasonable when it's next to the $115.00 (note the unnecessary ".00") dish, now does it? The info comes from William Poundstone's new book, "The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It)."

According to Poundstone, menus are comprised of stars, puzzles and plowhorses. "A star is a popular, high-profit item--in other words, an item for which customers are willing to pay a good deal more than it costs to make. A puzzle is high-profit but unpopular; a plowhorse is the opposite, popular yet unprofitable. Consultants try to turn puzzles into stars, nudge customers away from plowhorses, and convince everyone that the prices on the menu are more reasonable than they look."

If you look carefully at your menu, you can safely negotiate the minefields. And who knew that the "Specials of the Day" area were actually favorites of a restaurant's regulars, as well as the spot where you could find some good deals? I didn't.

Enterprising, that Jimmy Bannos. The Purple Pig, Bannos' latest project, hasn't even swung open its doors at 500 N. Michigan, but it wants you to know you too can dress like the honorary ragin' Cajun himself -- or the restaurant's line cooks. The restaurant will offer Purple Pig bandannas (a la the bandanna-wearing Bannos), t-shirts, water bottles and shirts worn by the kitchen staff.

While I wait to get our pig-emblazoned t-shirt, I should probably snap up one of those snazzy "ge" belt buckles worn by servers at graham elliot, 217 W. Huron. I eyed them on our first visit to the restaurant and asked about them but were told then that the buckles were not for sale.

Not so anymore, says the restaurant. The belt buckle can be yours (mine) for $40! Aapparently, the staff get comments "all the time" about them, a hostess says.

So there you go: another stocking stuffer down.

Just in time for this week's snowstorms, the takeout window at Big Star, the much-hyped Wicker Park taqueria by the Blackbird/Avec/Publican masterminds, has opened.

Window hours are made for nightcrawlers/late-risers: 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. weekdays, 11:30 a.m. to 3 a.m. Saturdays and 11:30 to 2 a.m. Sundays.

Now if only we could satisfy our takeout lunch cravings at that other Mexican joint in River North....

A postcard we've been expecting -- not necessarily looking forward to -- arrived in our mailbox at home today, two months and two days after the announcement that had foodies crying into their oven mitts.

"With regret, we have decided that we will no longer be publishing Gourmet. In its place, we will be sending you Bon Appetit for the duration of your remaining Gourmet subscription term. If you have given the gift of Gourmet, please note that your recipients will also receive Bon Appetit. We think you'll love Bon Appetit.... ."

"If you any reason you choose not to receive Bon Appetit, please contact us at 1-800-234-2046 for a full refund of the remaining issues still due on your subscription."


Hugh Amano, the Food on the Dole blogging chef, is no longer on the dole, as it were.

You may remember Amano from our story on how to throw a dinner party for six with $18, or you may know him via the thoughtful prose on his blog.

Amano got to blogging after being laid off as sous chef at Uncommon Ground. Well, since about May -- and unbeknownst to me and followers of his blog -- he's been working as a chef-instructor at the Chopping Block.

It never occurred to the supremely mellow Amano to make some big announcement on his blog, like, 'Hey, guess what, I got a job!" because, as he says, it "just never seemed to matter too much." Really, it would've been out of character.

The Chopping Block gig has worked out beyond his expectations. He'd initially interviewed for an event coordinator position. The school didn't end up filling that job, but a week after meeting him, asked if he wanted to come aboard to teach.

Amano teaches 4 to 5 classes a week. The chefs rotate so everyone gets a chance to teach a variety of classes. One day it could be pasta making, his favorite; another day it could be the intense Culinary Boot Camp.

Amano is taking it all in with a keen, honest and slightly irreverent eye.

"There hasn't been one class where I don't feel like I haven't reached at least one person," he says. "We do private parties with instruction, too, and those are more difficult. Most people are just there to get drunk. But there's always someone that gets something about what I'm saying.

"And that was always my m.o. With Food on the Dole, to demystify food. And now I get to do that in person. Engaging people on this romantic level with food, to show them this is why you don't go to McDonald's."

His schedule affords him time on the side to cook for private dinners, something he happily reports the school encourages. And it hasn't pulled him away from his blogging mission, either.

Tomorrow, Amano is hosting about a dozen people at his Edgewater apartment for a lamb dinner, along the lines of his earlier potluck and pie-off. Most of his guests tomorrow were, early in the year, perfect strangers who took him up on his potluck offer. Now -- not surprisingly -- they're his friends.

(A housekeeping note: Amano had to limit the number of guests for tomorrow's dinner because it's at his apartment and, well, it's a small apartment. Suffice it to say, it's closed to the public now. But there will be others. Check back on his blog.)

Some of the vendors at the Chicago French Market , opening tomorrow, are very familiar. Others -- Saigon Sisters, Chicago Organics -- may not be, probably because they're start-ups.

Jim Slama should ring a bell to foodies, though. He's one of the names behind Chicago Organics, the only vendor offering entirely certified organic produce and dairy.

Slama, the founder of and one of the area's most ardent champions of local agriculture, started Chicago Organics with a small group of investors expressly for the market.

"We just thought it would be a great opportunity to do this, having a 100 percent organic vendor there, with a strong focus on local products," Slama says. "And we're going to be very competitive."

Eggs and milk will be from all Midwest growers. But don't be shocked to see bananas and Washington apples there, either. That's the downside of opening a fresh and, ideally, local produce operation in December in Chicago. There's just not enough local produce to fill what they need to fill, Slama says. (But just wait until summer, he says.)

As for prices -- which market operator Sebastien Bensidoun has pledged will allow anyone to shop there, not just the Whole Foods crowd -- at Chicago Organics, a half-gallon of Farmers' Creamery whole milk (from Iowa) will be $3.98. Organic apples will be $1.99 a pound.

To your health, Italian style

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After riding the train in today with the two people in the world who haven't learned how to cover their mouths when they sneeze and cough, it's time to fortify my immune system to fight through the winter cold and flu season. In today's Food Section, we talk about the very trendy blood orange juice. High in Vitamin C and antioxidants, the blood orange juice is slightly thicker with a flavor that blends the nice dry citrus of the grapefruit with only the slightest hints of sweetness in an orange. At Ina's, 1235 W. Randolph, the restaurant serves the Sicilian brand juice Aliseo. Word is that the best blood oranges come from Sicily. The story goes that volcano ash from Mt. Etna has made the soil a perfect spot for growing the lushest blood orange trees, says Sal Russo, owner of Amici Italian Deli, 1149 Fairview in Westmont. While the oranges are in season in December and January, Russo says he sells the juice year-round: "A lot of it."

And the food TV shows just keep on coming.

TLC, which is on the road filming Art Smith's new series on comfort food, debuts yet another food-obsessed show at 9 tonight: "BBQ Pitmasters," an eight-episode "docu-series" that delves into the competitive barbecue circuit.

The show follows pitmasters from Texas, Georgia, Virginia and California as they tackle six competitions, including the Murphysboro Barbecue Cook-Off in Downstate Murphysboro. (But what? No Gary Wiviott? Something's not right.)

TLC is really getting into this food game. Their Discovery Channel's Planet Green is responsible for Homaro Cantu's Future Food series, also filming now, in which the moto chef applies his culinary derring-do to environmental issues.

Meanwhile, for lighter (for lack of a better word) fare, head over to the Food Network for the new series, "Worst Cooks in America." Yup, it's just as it sounds -- 12 hapless, hopeless souls (and two hosts you've never heard of) vying for their time in the spotlight. It premieres Jan. 3.

About the blog

Janet Rausa Fuller

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



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This page is an archive of entries from December 2009 listed from newest to oldest.

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