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Tasty morsels about Chicago's food scene

February 2010 Archives

Lots to set your TiVos for.

On March 9, the Travel Channel premieres the series "Food Wars," pitting two purveyors of a city's signature food against each other. The Chicago episode, at 9:30 p.m., is all about Da Beef Sandwich, as done by Al's Beef and Mr. Beef. Host Camille Ford will lead a blind taste-test of each restaurant's sandwich and proclaim a winner. If this preview clip is any indication, you can expect lots of beefy dudes professing their [bleeping] love for their favorite [bleeping] beef sammie.

And at 9 p.m. March 30, moto chef Homaro Cantu's much-anticipated "Future Food" series on Planet Green has its debut.

Cantu has been sharing snippets of the action via his Twitter account and his Disruptive Food site; there's more on Planet Green's site. Episodes look promising and clever: In the premiere, Cantu and his team create a seafood menu without any seafood and test it out on customers at Mitsuwa, the suburban Japanese food emporium. In another episode, the chefs riddle a bunch of bratwurst with paint gun pellets, then take a flamethrower to them, ultimately creating sausages that they hawk outside of Hot Doug's.

All this culinary mayhem sounds deliciously juvenile, but Cantu has a much larger, heavier goal in mind: to change how we think about food so that ultimately, we can end world hunger. If Cantu has his way, those edible packing peanuts and edible menus that he's made a signature at his restaurant will someday feed people in Third World countries.

Like we said, set your TiVos.

It must have felt like the longest winter for the folks over at the Chicago French Market in the Ogilvie train center.

The market opened in December, not exactly prime time for locally grown produce, which is purportedly a big focus of the year-round operation.

It drew big crowds during opening week. Traffic has been somewhat steady or downright sloooow since, according to vendors I've talked to. One told me she has been disappointed thus far in what she sees as a lack of marketing on the part of the market's managers, the Bensidouns.

But things are looking up. For one, a couple new vendors have signed on, including Zullo's, which hawks its melt-in-your-mouth zeppole at Green City Market and is supposed to open any day now. And on Tuesday, the market is launching a weekly demo and tasting, as well a month-long partnership with the Gene Siskel Film Center for discounts on movies when you show a food receipt from the market, and vice versa. The tasting will be every Tuesday; Zullo's chef Greg Christian is first up at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. He'll make a pasta with seasonal veggies.

Consider this the first in an occasional feature on Digging In that we'll call Edible Mailbox Swag: a quick review of a new food product that's found its way into our inbox and just begs for a bite.

Just arrived: Doritos Late Night All-Nighter Cheeseburger.

That's right. A Dorito that's supposed to taste "just like an authentic cheeseburger you'd get from your favorite after-hours drive-thru."

It tastes, amazingly, just like the onion bits, pickle slices, ketchup and soft bun of a certain cheeseburger from a certain leading burger chain that may or may not start with an 'M', all mish-mashed together. And crunchy.

There are no pickles in the ingredient list (or perhaps, they are in there, under "natural flavors" -- but we'll never know for sure). Ingredients do include, however, modified corn starch, Cheddar and Swiss cheese, MSG and mustard seed powder and "artificial flavors." Naturally.

Eat a bag of these and you bet you'll be up all night.

Mmmm. Mindy, Martha and monkey bread.

That's HotChocolate owner and chef Mindy Segal, on the Martha Stewart Show today (11 a.m.), making monkey bread - banana brioche monkey bread with butterscotch and almond brittle, to be exact. Mindy_.jpg

Segal was on the show with fellow female chefs Missy Robbins (formerly of Spiaggia, now of NYC's A Voce), and Maria Hines of Seattle's Tilth.

Just got off the phone with Segal, who's in Florida for the South Beach Food and Wine Festival -- and is refusing to watch the episode.

"I don't like to see myself on TV. It's like when you hear yourself on an answering machine, you shudder. Oddly enough, my parents are in South Beach with me and they are going back to the hotel room to watch it," Segal quipped.

Segal didn't let nerves get the best of her; her good friend Robbins was sort of like her security blanket. But because we're talking Martha, it was "kind of surreal... It happened very quickly. She has a phenomenal staff and we ran through things a couple times."

Segal doesn't even remember the moment when Stewart jokingly admonishes Segal for crumbling up a piece of plastic wrap, just minutes after Segal said her philosophy at her Bucktown restaurant was not to waste anything.

Another behind the scenes gem: a bottle of Moloko Stout by Indiana's Three Floyds Brewery, which Segal uses in her recipe, was on set. "And [Stewart] starts swigging it on camera," Segal says.

As for silky, buttery monkey bread, a savory version of which Segal features on her menu (she made the dessert just for the show): "I'm thoroughly convinced that if I try hard enough, I can make monkey bread the next hottest thing."

Mmmm....

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If you haven't yet read Louisa Chu's fantastic profile of chef Art Smith, get going. Smith is in his prime -- he's got Oprah/Obama cred, Top Chef cred, a book and TLC show in the works and on top of all that, he's lost nearly 100 pounds and looks amazing.

Now... if you haven't checked out the recipe for Iris Davis' fried chicken (that's her in the photo above), do that now, too -- but for those of you who also have the print version, I'm sorry to say there was a goof in the directions.

If you're wondering what to do with the 6 beaten eggs, you dip the chicken pieces first in the eggs, and then in the flour mixture. (Those of you who've done this before no doubt knew that, and I eagerly await an invitation to sample your fried chicken because I'm guessing it's some good eating.) The recipe on our Web site is the correct version.

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As the child of parents firmly in the 'just-because-everyone-else-has-one-doesn't-mean-you-have-to-have-one-too," I never had an Easy-Bake Oven.

As the parent of a 5-year-old (read: pushover), you bet your powdered cake mix there's one in our house -- and it's been used exactly once thus far. Sigh.

Time to pull out your Easy-Bake Oven stories (everyone of a certain age has one, it seems). Its inventor, Ronald Howes Sr., died last week, and we're embarrassed to say we missed that news.

Who knew that, aside from having that spectacular beard and eyebrows, Mr. Howes also had something to do with arguably the coolest toy from our childhood, the one we forever coveted from our older sister's collection -- the Spirograph?!

RIP, Mr. Howes.

What color is your CSA?

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It is, believe it or not, time to start thinking about sugar snap peas and rhubarb and all sorts of lovely things that sprout from the soil and herald, "SPRING!"

Which is to say, if you subscribe to a Community Supported Agriculture program, or are kicking around the idea of a spring or summer produce/meat share, it's time to stop kicking and sign up.

There's no better place to do your research than the Local Beet. Those savvy locabloggers have put together this nifty guide to choosing the CSA that's right for you. Are you an omnivore? Do you knit? Are you a farmer wannabe? They can suggest which CSA will suit your needs. Check it out.

Oh boy, oh boy. The list of 2010 James Beard award semifinalists is out this morning, and Chicago, as usual, represents.

(Note the word "semifinalists." You might remember that the Beard Foundation started announcing the semifinalists last year to head off any leaks; the previous year, a blogger got hold of the list of potential finalists and put it out for the world to see. The finalists won't be announced until March 22.)

Anyway, here are the Chicago contenders:

Rich Melman and Donnie Madia for Outstanding Restaurateur
Jean Joho and Paul Kahan for Outstanding Chef Restaurateur
Les Nomades and Spiaggia for Outstanding Restaurant
Josh Adams for Rising Star Chef (Adams, you might recall, recently cooked at the Beard House; that has to be a good sign, right?)
Cibo Matto and Pelago - two hotel restaurants - really! -- for Best New Restaurant
Mindy Segal for Outstanding Pastry Chef
Alinea, NoMI for Oustanding Wine Service
Brian Duncan of BIN36 and Alpana Singh of Lettuce for Oustanding Wine and Spirits Professional
Alinea, Carlos' and Spiaggia for Outstanding Service
AND
For Best Chef: Great Lakes - Michael Carslon, Curtis Duffy, Koren Grieveson, Bill Kim, Chris Nugent, Arun Sampanthavivat, Bruce Sherman, Giuseppe Tentori and Paul Virant

Whew. The awards are in May in New York City.

For those of you who just can't get enough of dining deals, there's yet another restaurant week to look forward to: Chicago Chef Week, March 22 through 28.

This is not to be confused with Chicago Restaurant Week, which starts Friday and runs through Feb. 28 and is organized by the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau.

This is the second year for Chicago Chef Week, the brainchild of the BOKA restaurant group. The idea last year was to involve restaurants who weren't CCTB members and thus couldn't participate in Restaurant Week.

But it's all about inclusion (and, for restaurants using their noggin, another opportunity to draw in business). This year, whoever wants to do it can do it.

Bonus: At the more than 20 participating restaurants (spokeswoman Elizabeth Hamel anticipates "20 to 25 more restaurants signing on" by March), the three-course featured menus are $20 at lunch and $30 at dinner. During Chicago Restaurant Week, the prix-fixe menus are $22 and $32, respectively.

Any way you cut it, it's good for diners -- and, we hope, good for the restaurants.

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I became slightly obsessed with fondant while reporting today's story on wedding cakes, because fondant continues to be the look couples want for their cake, and because fondant is what you see all those reality TV cake designers handling.

"Handling" seems to be the right word, doesn't it? Fondant has to be kneaded, stretched, pulled, tugged, crimped and primped into submission. Granted, it affords cake designers the ability to create some pretty amazing cakes that look like something out of a Peter Jackson film. (The cake below, it should be said, was a Cakegirls creation, done for their fourth Food Network Challenge, which they won - ka-ching!)

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But I know I'm not the only one who gets a little skeezed watching Duff Goldman "handle" fondant a million times over. Not one of the pastry chefs I talked to said they liked fondant; it seemed more like a necessary evil they all understand they must work with, though they also promised that the fancy imported stuff they use really does taste good -- or at least less bad than other versions.

Goldman, it appears, shares their sentiment. In a bit from Food Network Magazine, Goldman says he and his crew don't make their own fondant as it's too hard on the mixer, and fondant is "basically pure sugar."

"We tend to think of fondant as the canvas that we decorate, but it also acts as an airtight seal that keeps the cake inside fresh and moist. When it comes time to eat the cake, you can peel the fondant off like you would an orange peel."

Right -- just don't let the happy couple see you doing that. And don't ask them how much that cake costs.

Hello, bombshell: So sayeth the renowned chef to the New York Times. Adria wants to turn the pioneering restaurant in the remote Catalonian town of Roses into a culinary academy. Chew on that.

This seems as good a time as any for Rick Bayless to officially announce his next project, which he did today (confirming what West Coast bloggers have been all atizzy about for a while now): a restaurant in Los Angeles. Red O By Rick Bayless (channeling the Queen of Talk, we wonder?) will open on Melrose Avenue in April, according to a press release. Bayless "will be creating and updating the menu seasonally, training kitchen staff, and overseeing the beverage program," the release says.

Los Angelenos can expect the authentic Mexican food we Chicagoans have come to know and love, as well as "lighter California-style dishes," because, well, they're wussies. We're under a foot and a half of snow -- we can say that.

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By guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes:

NEW YORK -- February? In the Beard House kitchen, it was June.

Josh Adams' crew left Chicago before he did; they packed a truck with equipment and local ingredients, and took a road trip to Manhattan. Adams (above, left), chef-owner of June, 4450 N. Prospect Rd., Peoria Heights, flew from Chicago to New York. By the high road or the higher road, the kitchen staff of the prime Peoria Heights restaurant had one goal.

Destination: Beard House, 167 W. 12th, New York.

For any chef, being asked to cook at the Beard House is a distant prize. Many work for decades without receiving an invitation. For the chef of a restaurant almost three hours' drive from Chicago - a restaurant that's existed for just over a year - to get this honor ... It's little short of remarkable. As anybody who ate at the Beard House last Monday night would tell you, "remarkable" is an apt adjective for June and its 29-year-old chef.

At one o'clock, six hours before the first guest would appear, the Beard House kitchen was a packed, buzzing hive. People were setting up equipment, sorting food, stacking papers, checking notes, moving boxes, emptying containers and proofreading menus. More than a few were clutching telephones, exchanging telephone numbers and trying to get greens - "micro tatsoi or micro watercress," Adams said - that hadn't been in the delivery.

Moving upstairs, to the still-dim dining room, the chef chose paper for the menu. Beige or yellow? Beige. It looked earthier, he said, closer to the soil.

Adams was pretty far from his native ground, sitting one story above Manhattan's concrete pavement.

The past 18 months were busy ones for the young chef: become a father, open a restaurant, get fantastic reviews, receive an invitation to cook at the Beard House. What next? "We're going to build a greenhouse." There will be farming, too. As he spoke, Adams shifted a stack of menus and started signing them. "We have 80 acres of organic land," he said. May as well use it. That way, June will have year-round supplies - and be able to start a CSA. The community, he observed, needs good food.

Let other chefs seek the spotlight. Josh Adams wants to feed his community. In Adams Land, everybody is one of "us" and all of us deserve to eat good food: fresh, organic, produced with intelligence and awareness, and prepared with skill.

I wanted to live in his world.

In April, Bravo will be back with another installment of "Top Chef Masters," and Chicago has three more chances to take it home again (Rick Bayless was crowned the first Top Chef Master last year, remember?): Graham Elliot Bowles, Tony Mantuano (below) and Rick Tramonto.

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This is familiar territory for Bowles, who competed and charmed us in the debut series (remember the vending machine food challenge?). "The chance to go back into the lion's den and cook alongside chefs that I have long looked up to, and at the same time be competing for the American Heart Association, was a no-brainer," says Bowles, who added it wasn't any easier this time around.

Viewers also will recognize Wylie Dufresne, Mark Peel, Ludo Lefebvre and Rick Moonen from the first season.

Mantuano didn't watch any of the first season ("It's like our whole life. When you live that all day, you just want to go home and watch 'The Simpsons,' " he admits) but says the pull of the competition was just too strong.

"The list of chefs, it's just awesome to be included in that. And to be able to represent Chicago and Spiaggia. You're not competing against slouches," he says.

Mantuano prepared by watching back episodes of the first season, though he didn't comiserate with Bayless on how physically challenging the whole thing was -- Bayless dropped a good 10 pounds during filming -- until after shooting had wrapped.

With a heavy-hitting field that includes New York's Marcus Samuelsson (also of Chicago's C-House in the Affinia Hotel), L.A.'s Govind Armstrong and Susan Feniger, Toronto's Susur Lee, this should be good.

Reporter Mary Houlihan, who profiled Hagen's Fish Market on the Northwest Side a few weeks back, has the scoop in today's paper on another local gem for fresh and fried fish of all stripes.

Calumet Fisheries, 3259 E. 95th, is one of the five winners of the James Beard Foundation's American Classics Awards, to be doled out at a fancy schmancy ceremony in New York in May.

Calumet Fisheries isn't anywhere near fancy schmancy, and that's the point. Congratulations to them.

In other award news: Jennifer Petrusky, a 23-year-old sous chef at Charlie Trotter's, didn't take home the top prize at this past weekend's prestigious Bocuse d'Or national competition. She did, however, snag the prize for best fish dish -- salmon done four ways, though that description really doesn't do it justice. Petrusky used every bit and bone of the salmon for her platter, which included a roulade, tartar, confit and cured preparation. Congratulations to her.

Cheers to Sal Bednarz, the owner of a cafe in North Oakland, California. I hope what he has done at his cafe catches on.

It's amazing, in a way, that what Bednarz has done has gotten so much attention, but maybe the more attention he gets, the more widespread the practice will become. Quite simply, he has asked the patrons of his cafe to unplug the laptops -- or better yet, leave them at home, at least just for one day. He's asked that patrons of his cafe go "unplugged" from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. today, in hopes that people may actually interact with one another, instead of hiding behind their laptops and other such devices.

Why is he doing it? Well, as he told a San Francisco paper, "When we opened this place we wanted to create a community. Instead it's just been a room full of laptops."

Even worse, for someone trying to earn a living by operating a cafe, the story points out, is to discourage the practice by patrons of "buying a $2 cup of coffee and spending all day using a table that could be taken by a customer purchasing lunch, visiting with friends or otherwise spending money and then leaving." That's why even the cafes that haven't instituted "unplugged" days now charge for wireless access or give wireless passwords that expire after an hour.

Another North Oakland cafe -- which billed itself as an Internet cafe when it opened -- has reduced its electrical outlets to just one, and it's had a positive impact on the vibe of the place.

"Chatting is now starting to overcome the keystrokes," said Ricardo Moran, manager at the Nomad Cafe. "It's really changed the feeling of the place. It's really nice."

A 'Reuben-esque' quest

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Some people search a good part of their lives for a heavenly wine, an elusive truffle, a cassoulet that they once found by accident years ago in France, or the first time they enter a restaurant they may insist on trying the filet.

Me? I'll always look for the ultimate Reuben sandwich. I can't remember exactly where I first had a Reuben, though I'm guessing it might have been at someplace such as What's Cooking, on Lincoln, or Sally's, on Harlem and Higgins, both places that my parents and I would go to with some regularity when I was a kid. What I do know for sure is that it was love at first bite. Wherever it was, the combination of ingredients overwhelmed me -- the toasted rye bread, the warm corned beef, crunchy sauerkraut, melted Swiss cheese, and a layer of Thousand Island dressing, dripping over the edges. The thing I must have liked the most, besides the combination of tastes, was the fact that while the Reuben is called a "sandwich," there is so much going on inside those two slices of rye that it's a meal. Combine it with a bit of chopped liver on the side and maybe a bowl of kreplach soup, and well, if I had to die at a restaurant table, this would not be such a bad way to go.

Over my past few decades, then, I have looked for a Reuben that lived up to my first impressions of the sandwich and I've judged any place that dares call itself a deli or diner on how it makes a Reuben (yes, my Jewish friends, I know that this sandwich is remarkably non-Kosher, and I'd like to find out just how it was born and if there were any religious/dietary conflicts along the way, especially in the kitchens of ostensibly Jewish restaurants).

What I do know about the history of the Reuben is that there are a couple claims to its origin. One says that Reuben Kulakofsky, a grocer from Omaha, Nebraska (!) came up with it sometime in the 1920s, and the other says that Arnold Reuben, owner of Reuben's Delicatessen in New York, put together the first Reuben, around 1915.

I'll be sharing the results of my search for that ultimate Reuben here. I'll have my mental checklist of the required ingredients, how good the beef is and how the bread holds up, as well as the overall taste and just the impression, if I detect it, as to whether whomever put it together knows what a good Reuben is. I intend to check out the places you'd think you could get a good sandwich at, and I hope to uncover some surprises, as well. There won't be a trophy or prize to the best Reubens, other than the appreciation of someone who really enjoys a good one. I welcome your recommendations and impressions, too.

photo.jpg Do you remember how you celebrated your 23rd birthday? Did it involved beer, a beer-soaked bar, beer-soaked friends -- or perhaps, all of the above?

Go on and keep repressing that memory, if you even have one of that night. Jennifer Petrusky's 23rd birthday, on Friday, will be nothing like yours.

Petrusky is a sous chef at Charlie Trotter's -- so we could just end the story right there, because clearly her life is nothing like yours, or mine, or even that of other sous chefs in other restaurants around town.

But let's keep going: On her birthday, Petrusky will be competing in the Bocuse d'Or USA at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. Translation: she will be cooking her ass off.

The Bocuse d'Or is the closest thing to the Olympics in the culinary world. The winner of the national contest will represent the United States in the world competition next year in Lyon, France.

In Europe, the Bocuse is a huge deal. Huge. To place or win the Bocuse d'Or is a point of national pride. It's front page, above-the-fold news. But here in the States, outside of certain culinary circles, the competition registers but a blip. Perhaps not coincidentally, no American chef has never finished in the top three in the world contest.

Also: No female has won the Bocuse d'Or.

Petrusky's boss believes -- says -- she is the one to finally do it.

"It's a foregone conclusion," Trotter said Tuesday with his signature wry smile. "I told her she has a one-way ticket."

I think I know why I don't make pancit that often. I don't like, nor want, to compete with my mother.

I made pancit according to my mom's recipe in today's Food pages, and I must say, it tasted almost -- almost -- like hers. But I let the noodles soak too long in water before draining them (yes, I know the recipe says 5 minutes, and I went over 5 minutes), and when I added them to the wok, they just fell apart. Filipinos eat noodles for good luck, as the Chinese do. Long noodles signify a long, prosperous life -- get it? Lesson learned for next time.

Also, here's a short list of my go-to Filipino food stores around town:

Carl & Ching
3349 W. Irving Park
(773) 267-9007
A relatively new discovery for me, though I live mere blocks away, but a gem. The tiny store makes the most of its two narrow aisles.

Unimart
5845 N. Clark
(773) 271-8676
Everything you need, including some killer baked goods. There are locations in the burbs, too.

3R Oriental Food
A little grungy, but it stocks most everything, including some fresh produce and meat.
2712 W. Montrose
(773) 478-2599

About the blog

Janet Rausa Fuller

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

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