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March 2010 Archives

Ham, ham, ham, ham, ham

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It's all about the ham this week, isn't it?

We purposely didn't overload today's Food pages with ham recipes, though, seeing as how not all of you celebrate Easter or eat ham (though the one we did include, Deviled Eggs with Ham, is good enough to get non-ham eaters to switch their allegiance).

In case some of you are miffed about the dearth of ham coverage, we're making up for it here, with some tips from chefs on what to do with leftover Easter ham.

Kristine Subido of Wave in the W-Lakeshore Hotel suggests braising then shredding ham and serving it with Swiss chard for a hearty side. Or, chop it up really finely and mix it into pate a choux dough for ham cream puffs.

Along those lines, Cary Taylor at the Southern suggests adding diced ham to hush puppy mix.

Paul Virant at Vie likes a "crispy warm ham salad with roasted mushrooms and croutons."

Last but certainly not least, Paul Fehribach of Big Jones gives us two appropriately downhome recipes: Potlikker Soup, so you can put that ham bone to work, and Ham and Scallion Cornbread.

Get the recipes after the jump. And tell us - how do you like your leftover ham?

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"Future Food," starring moto's Homaro Cantu and Ben Roche, debuts at 9 tonight on Planet Green, and damned if it doesn't feel like one big inside joke.

That's how I walked away feeling, anyway, after attending a last week's private screening of the much-anticipated series, which has been billed as "Mythbusters meets Willy Wonka."

In the premiere episode, we are introduced to the major (mostly bandanna-wearing) characters in the moto crew, including chefs Chris Jones and Darell Nemeth, and to the lab-like basement kitchen at 945 W. Fulton.

Cantu, in Wonka-like fashion, can't stop grinning as he and his crew figure out how to make tofu, chicken and other non-seafood foods taste like... seafood. The camera work is fast and furious and set to appropriately skittish music. The F-bombs come much later in the episode than I had expected, and, as also expected, are uttered all in good fun.

What gets lost a bit in the goofiness is the fact that save for the eight days the restaurant was closed so that the space could be physically transformed ("I lost half my hair during that period," Cantu told me), it was business as usual at moto during filming - meaning the kitchen crew took on whatever work was required for each episode's challenge in addition to serving 90 covers a night.

What also gets lost is Cantu's ambitious end goal in all this -- that if we are able to rethink the way we eat, we can resolve issues such as overfishing, fossil fuel depletion and world hunger. That's no punchline, and if you can look past the chef's parting words in the premiere episode ("Let's get s---faced!"), that's the underlying message of "Future Food." Or so I've been told.

Terrible way to start to the week.

Early-morning fires swept through the buildings that house the award-winning Cakegirls bakery (2207 W. Belmont) and foodie favorite Lao Sze Chuan in Chinatown Square (2172 S. Archer). In the Cakegirls case, the building was completely gutted (details on the damage at Lao Sze Chuan are sketchier.)

"We built this from nothing," Brenda Maher told the Tribune. She and sister Mary Maher are the faces behind the Cakegirls, considered one of the city's finest wedding cake specialists.

The Mahers have won four Food Network challenges with their fondant-covered, gravity-defying cakes, and star in WeTV's "Amazing Wedding Cakes." They just finished filming the third season in the fall.

Their wedding cakes start around $900 and can cost as much as $2,500.

"I think we come from that school of 'Never say no.' We work long hours because of it," Brendha Maher told me earlier this year for our cover story on custom wedding cakes, explaining their philosophy when a bride comes to them with a specific vision for her cake.

Lao Sze Chuan, which chef and owner Tony Hu opened in 1998, has spawned a mini-empire of eateries, including an outpost in Connecticut.

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Graham Elliot Bowles has yet another gig: sidekick to the notoriously salty chef Gordon Ramsay.

Bowles will join Ramsay as a judge on the Fox series "MasterChef," debuting in July, the network said Thursday. New York restaurateur Joe Bastianich will round out the judging panel.

The show is said to be a culinary version of "American Idol" -- only hobby cooks allowed. Ramsay, Bowles and Bastianich will put contestants through a series of challenges designed to whip them into professional shape.

Bowles, chef and owner of Graham Elliot in River North, is getting used to this thing called food television. He has competed on the Food Network's "Iron Chef America" and will take another stab at the "Top Chef Masters" title on Bravo; the second season of the show pitting the nation's preeminent chefs against each other premieres April 7.

Early this summer, Bowles will open Grahamwich, a sandwich shop, at 615 N. State. He also will head up food operations at Lollapalooza in Grant Park.

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Sunda chef Rodelio Aglibot, a k a the Food Buddha, has the East-West thing down.

There's his food at the year-old River North restaurant. And there's his ability to work his magic from coast to coast.

Aglibot, who moved not quite two years ago from L.A. to Chicago to helm Sunda, will be working with the New York-based BLT Restaurant Group to develop several "upscale casual" Asian restaurant concepts nationwide, the PR firm for the BLT group announced today. (The BLT Group has its first Chicago restaurant planned for the JW Marriott opening at 151 W. Adams.)

No need for fans of Aglibot to worry that this signals his departure from Chicago. Aglibot says he is still very much connected to Sunda and Chicago ("I've forged probably more long-term friendships in this city in the last year than I've had over the past 10 years anywhere, he says"). And, in fact, we'll be seeing even more of him in the coming months.

Aglibot, 42, has been developing a show for TLC called "The Food Buddha," which has him doing what he basically always does when he travels to another city -- sending out a flurry of messages to friends in that city to meet him at a string of restaurants, at which they proceed to order the entire menu. At the end of each episode, Aglibot heads back to the Sunda kitchen to create a dish inspired by his trip.

One of Aglibot's best-selling dishes at Sunda -- his Brussels sprouts salad - actually came about this way. He was in L.A. attending a friend's wedding. With a few hours to kill between the ceremony and the reception, he and his date decided to make a pit stop at Jitlada in Hollywood, what Aglibot calls "the best Thai restaurant in the U.S."

"I'm never happy with wedding food," he said. "So we order four or five things," including a crispy salad of water spinach leaves that had been dipped in a turmeric-rice flour batter and fried, served with a tangy pineapple-shrimp-shallot-lime sort of relish. Aglibot thought, "I'm gonna use Brussels sprouts," and called his sous chefs back in Chicago with the idea while still at the table.

Watch for "The Food Buddha" pilot to air in June on TLC.

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Story and photos by guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes:

Last Thursday, Sepia came to the James Beard House, 127 W. 12th, in New York. For the guests, it was an exceptional event. For the Beard House crew, it was love.

It's hard to know when the food world's most sophisticated staff fell for Andrew Zimmerman (at right), but they fell hard and wholly. Mark this, because they're a hard crew to impress. Food-defining multi-course meals, prepared by chefs who've flown in from across the planet? Every day, man. They do this every day.

Those who have been stoveside with Zimmerman will not be surprised. Whatever space Sepia's chef inhabits, it is intoxicating.

Being in the kitchen with Zimmerman is like taking a tour of Wonderland with Lewis Carroll. There's even a lexicon:

Charation: Is the char cooking?
Janky: Kind of, but not quite, like hinky (See also janked, as in "That [broken] scallop is janked.")
Glazation: The act of becoming glazed.

In the Beard House kitchen, words were cut from air, used to garnish sentences and either discarded or recycled, depending on context and need.

I arrived at 1 o'clock, in the full flush of prep time. Pots, pans and people were like atoms: jammed and moving. Zimmerman was cutting carrots into precise lozenges. A moment later, he was on the far side of the space, joining pastry chef Cindy Schuman for a measurement conference. Should the lemon shortbread biscuits be 2-by-4? 2-by-3-3/4? 2x3-9/16?

The pace picked up around snatched bites of pizza. Sous chef Miles Schaefer juggled ingredients and tasks. Mint was minced in one corner; fresh vegetables, pureed in another. Cook Shea Montanez appeared to be attached to the oven by invisible chains. There, he coaxed Three Sisters Garden's grits (soon to be united with shrimp) and English pea soup to perfection.

Taking me at my word that I had affinities for the minute and the detailed, Zimmerman assigned me a series of small, painstaking tasks - but "painstaking" was everywhere. One intern gave orbs of frozen liquid fois gras two layers of coating. Another composed a Bremen Town version of headcheese (below), each layer smaller than the one below, until it got to the stage of tweezers and embryonic leaves. Thin slices of avocado formed beds for house-cured sardines complemented by scallions and lemon. Schaefer decapitated Illy paper cups, making short towers to hold plastic wrap away from careful constructions of appetizers.

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Schuman set me to baking shortbread. Whatever their measurements, the sweet biscuits looked elegant. Once baked and glazed, they joined their cousins in the rack: swirls of lime, checkerboards of chocolate and vanilla rimmed with red, breath-delicate brown tuilles, infant Linzer tarts and thick pecan squares.

From the buzz, Zimmerman's voice emerged: "Thirteen of those and eight of these, for a grand total of not enough." Bustle converged on need.

Between discussions and instructions, time marked itself with scent:

1:49 p.m. smelled like Eden: fresh herbs, bright vegetables, pea soup reminiscent of a spring garden.
4:07 p.m., warm, buttery artichokes
4:12 p.m. was all mint, scythe-sharp and intense

Chicago has a virtual lock on the James Beard award for the best chef in the Great Lakes region. Four of the five nominees, announced this morning in New Orleans, are ours: Arun Sampanthavivat of Arun's , Bruce Sherman of North Pond, the enigmatic Michael Carlson of schwa and the lone female, Koren Grieveson of avec. The fifth, Alex Young, is from Zingerman's Roadhouse in Ann Arbor, Mich.

The rest of the field of nominees for the prestigious awards is rich with Chicago names. Spiaggia, the Obama date-night spot on the Magnificent Mile, is up for outstanding restaurant; Lettuce Entertain You's maestro Rich Melman, yet again, for outstanding restaurateur; Alinea for outstanding service, and Mindy Segal of Hot Chocolate for outstanding pastry chef.

Korn Design, a Boston firm, got the nod in the outstanding restaurant graphics category for their design of the lively Jose Garces spot, Mercat a la Planxa, 638 S. Michigan.

On the media side, Rick Bayless (remember him from that little show called Top Chef Masters?) is in the running for top TV food personality for his work on the PBS series, "Mexico One Plate at a Time." WBEZ's Eight Forty-Eight and ABC-Channel 7's Friday Night Special Hungry Hound programs are finalists in the audio webcast/radio show and TV segment categories, respectively.

The Tribune's Monica Eng and Kevin Pang and the Reader's Mike Sula and Cliff Doerksen snagged nominations in health/environment/nutrition reporting and feature writing categories. Chicagotribune.com is up for a multimedia food feature award for Pang's "The Cheeseburger Show."

Finally, the fabulous book, The Seasons on Henry's Farm by Terra Brockman of the Evanston-based Land Connection, about her family's Central Illinois Farm, is up for a writing and literature award.

Congratulations to all the nominees. The awards will be announced in May in New York.

Charlie Trotter is out in Vegas.

The uber-chef has closed his two-year-old, award-winning Restaurant Charlie in the Palazzo Las Vegas resort. Thursday was its final day of operation.

In this strained economy, the numbers just didn't work at the seafood-focused restaurant, which earned Trotter his first Michelin star. Bar Charlie, the sushi bar within the restaurant, was named one of the 10 best places in the nation for sushi by Bon Appetit last year.

"This was something we've been discussing and brainstorming and trying to find a solution for for quite a few months," Trotter's wife and spokeswoman, Rochelle Smith Trotter, said Friday.

Reworking the concept of the high-roller joint wasn't an option -- though it was bandied about, Smith Trotter said.

"We lowered prices three times... We added a three-course, get in-get out pre-theater type of menu," Smith Trotter said. "We realized it was still not enough to bear the level of clientele that seemed to be the frequent guest that Las Vegas is now seeing."

"We just didn't want to start to change the level of service and quality and ambiance and food offerings and staffing and things of that sort," she said. "It became a question of integrity. At the end of day, that was the bottom line."

Trotter's Restaurant C at the One and Only Palmilla Resort in Los Cabos, Mexico also is no more; the chef had a five-year deal with the property, which ended in November of 2008.

Trotter is said to still be planning a restaurant at One Madison Park in New York.

Trotter's plan to open a restaurant in New York, meanwhile, is still going forward -- though that may or may not happen at One Madison Park, where it was originally announced, Smith Trotter said. The property is rumored to be thisclose to foreclosure. "Charles is still very interested in a New York presence, and preferably to continue to go down that path at One Madison Park," she said.

This, of course, isn't the end of the story. Smith Trotter, herself a consultant to restaurants and developers, is in talks with three developers about three possible ventures for Trotter -- two in Asia, one in suburban Chicago and all "casual," as in "a 25 to 30 dollar lunch check and 50 to 65 dollar dinner check."

The chef was traveling and couldn't be reached for comment.

Feeding toddlers - make that, getting them to eat healthy, nutritious things -- is a tricky thing. I know - I have two of them. But I'm not sure disguising broccoli as something else or spending inordinate amounts of time shaping food into dinosaurs and stars and Mickey Mouse heads is the best way to go.

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That's why I love the two wonderful recipes from chefs Phillip Foss and Kristine Subido in today's Food cover story on helping kids develop an appreciation for other cultures' foods. Meatballs and noodles are both inherently kid-friendly, but these dishes aren't dumbed down either. Subido's rice noodles have an aggressive gingery bite, and Foss' turkey meatballs have a pleasant twist thanks to cinnamon and Coca-Cola.

A note on Subido's noodles: Indonesian sweet soy sauce, or as Subido calls it, 'ABC sauce,' is the key here. It has a can't-miss red label and is available in Asian grocery stores (I found it at Joong Boo Market, a Korean market at 3333 N. Kimball.) It comes in sweet, medium sweet and salty flavors; drizzle the sweet sauce over any stir-fried, or use it in marinades. You'll swear it tastes just like what you order from your neighborhood Thai joint.

The parades and public drunkeness have come and gone, but remnants of St. Patrick's Day remain. (Makes sense, doesn't it, given that today is the actual holiday?)

We happened upon one such item at the Artisan Cellar wine shop in the Merchandise Mart: these limited edition, bottle-shaped Miller Lites in aluminum cans, sporting the catchy "Chi-Rish" phrase and a Chicago flag. Because that's what non-Irish Chicagoans need: one more excuse to pretend they're Irish on St. Patrick's Day.

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The label, written by the witty Artisan Cellar staff, is all in good humor. Or so we thought. Until we wandered over to eBay and found this yahoo selling two empty bottles. Asking price for the set: $5.99.

Not enough room in today's Food pages to feature every product at the Housewares Show that prompted me to jot down a few notes. The trade-only show closed Tuesday at McCormick Place.

So, from the notebook:

The elves at Bodum and OXO elves are the James Pattersons of the kitchen industry. Bodum debuted an astounding 28 products, including a snazzy travel French press with a screw-top lid. I loved the look of the handheld blender and hand mixer, both part of the new small electrics line introduced at last year's show (the hand mixer, however, was way too bulky and heavy for my hand).

At OXO, well, I lost count, but there are something like 63 new products (not all for the kitchen), including a pretty fabulous and yet non-intimidating stainless steel mandoline. I was nearly sold on the OXO pepper mill, which has a clever drop-down opening for refilling. To its detriment, it's white plastic. I like the look and feel of my classic wood grinder too much.

Messermeister's take-apart kitchen shears have consistently been a top seller for years now, and now they come in the same bright red, orange and green colors that every other company seemed to be featuring. I'm of the mind that shears are indispensable in the kitchen; the Messermeister version has a built-in bottle opener, ice pick and screwdriver, and comes apart with the turn of a notch, so you can easily clean the blades AND keep them sharpened.

I'd wanted to write about Fred and Friends' M-Cups -- nesting measuring cups in the same spirit as those little Russian tchotchkes -- for our holiday gift guide in December, but they were sold out. Same story now, a representative at their booth said Sunday, but at least I got to see them up close (p.s. I still covet them). Fred and Friends does a fine job with quirky kitchenware that you don't need but your friends might. Anyone who wants to gift my toddlers with a set of these Lego-inspired Snack & Stack utensils, step right up!

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And finally, the faux vs. real cast iron catfight... or something like that. I was intrigued by the phrase "lightweight cast iron," so I headed over to the Starfrit booth. The company says its pans are made from forget metal molds as opposed to sand molds of traditional cast iron, which means nothing to me.

At the booth, I was told the pans have a "forged iron base with a ceramic coating" which makes them nonstick -- and made me all the more skeptical, even as the chef demonstrating the pans cooked me a sunny-side up egg. What's the point of adding a nonstick coating when properly seasoned cast iron is itself nonstick, I wondered? "It's so easy to pick up and clean. You can run this through the dishwasher," the chef enthused. More red flags.

So I wandered over to the Lodge booth. The Tennessee company has been making cast iron - the heavy stuff most of us are familiar with -- for more than a century. I described what I'd just seen at the Starfrit booth to a company rep. He already knew; Lodge has tested the Starfrit cookware. "We tried cooking a piece of bacon... it cooked in the middle, but not the edges," he said.

He told me Lodge has looked at "every possible way of lightening cast iron." No dice. "When you grind iron like that, it inhibits the seasoning," he said. "Putting nonstick on it -- it's not cast iron anymore."

A 12-inch Starfrit pan costs $49.99; a 12-inch Lodge pan costs $34. Starfrit pans carry a five-year warranty. Traditional cast iron will last literally a lifetime.

Reuben Rumble, Round I

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For my first formal foray into the search for a satisfying reuben sandwich, I didn't venture far from the Sun-Times River North offices. Just down the block from the Sun-Times is Steve's Deli Chicago, on Hubbard Street, between Orleans and Kingsbury. This is one of two Steve's Delis, the other in its native Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

Steve's is a clean, bright, sun-filled (when the sun is out) spot when you can dine in or get carry out from. The menu is pretty extensive, and all the stuff that you look for in a real deli -- knishes, kugel, kreplach, latkes, blintzes, lox and gefilte fish -- are there. But what I went there for was the reuben.

At $10, you think, this sandwich had better be good, and I can't say it's not. I realize that $10 isn't that much for a good deli sandwich -- but if you have any skepticism about the deal, you won't feel a whole lot better when the sandwich arrives, with a couple pickle slices, but that's it. You want fries? That's $3.79 extra. Want a latke? $3.29. Cole slaw? $2.79. No, I did not order the cole slaw, but has anyone ever had a side of slaw that was worth paying for, let alone $2.79? I did order a latke, which looked as disappointing when it arrived at the table as the sandwich did. There was little texture to it, no nooks and crannies, just a sort of uniform, not quite distinctive-looking latke. The taste was OK, but I really like a latke that has character, which this one did not.

But on to the sandwich. Despite looking rather ordinary at first, Steve's reuben was a solid hit on all counts. You can get "extra lean" corned beef for a dollar more, but I cannot see how that could be any leaner than the regular beef in this sandwich. The beef was sliced extra thin, like I like it, it was warm and there were layers upon layers of it inside the sandwich, which, though it was packed with melted Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Russian dressing, stayed together and did not fall apart in my hands as I ate it. (Of course, I began by opening up the sandwich and peeling away a few layers of the beef to eat by fork before grabbing the sandwich with my hands, which may have made it more manageable.)

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A little more Pi -- or pie -- talk:

Hoosier Mama Pie Co. owner Paula Haney is celebrating National Pi Day -- which was yesterday, and which also happened to be the one-year anniversary of the shop at 1618 1/2 W. Chicago -- this weekend (her shop is closed on Sundays and she was just coming back from judging a maple syrup baking contest in Indiana).

On Friday, Haney debuts Friday Night Flights. That's right, pie flights! Choose three of a rotating selection of five pie flavors; the trio of diminutive slices costs $7 (add a dollar for coffee).

And on Saturday, the shop will host a pie-themed scavenger hunt. It begins at noon 1 p.m. and ends in a storefront adjacent to the shop. Teams will be given three hours and a list of "tasks, riddles and questions" to check off. Details are still being hammered out -- you'd be best to contact Hoosier Mama for more -- but The only thing you really need to know is that the prize is a year's worth of pie. To sign up, call (312) 243-4846.

As easy as 3.14

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There are some people who look to a certain day in mid- to late-April to celebrate and commemorate because of its numerological and countercultural significance. I'm not one to judge, but I am just not one of those people -- what I can get behind though, is the commemoration of March 14, aka 3.14, as "Pi Day."

If you've forgotten your geometry lessons, Pi is the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. Pi is abbreviated to 3.14 but continues indefinitely. As the world's most famous mathematical constant, Pi is important to many formulas used in mathematics, science, engineering and statistics.

The Illinois Science Council, a nonprofit organization supporting appreciation of science, technology, engineering and math, asked Chicago-area bakeries and restaurants to offer specials on Sunday, March 14, to acknowledge the importance of pi in our lives by celebrating with pie specials. Cute, huh?

The participating establishments include:

• Sweet World Pastry, 5450 N. Milwaukee Ave.
($4.99 cherry pies and free Kolaczkis to anyone who arrives there at 3:14 p.m.)

• Cafe Selmarie, 4729 N. Lincoln Ave.
(specials on Apple, Turtle and Cherry Streusel pies)

• Bleeding Heart Bakery, 1955 W. Belmont Ave.
(specially created pie cupcakes as well as "pi" cookies)

• Molly's Cupcakes, 2536 N. Clark St.
(cupcakes decorated symbolically for Pi Day)

• John's Place, 2132 W. Roscoe
(will add a special Chicken Pot Pi to their dinner menu)

• Medici, 1327 E. 57th St.
(free a la mode on all dine-in desserts)

• Tank Sushi, 4514 N. Lincoln Ave.
(a special Asian-inspired pie on their dessert menu)

And, on a somewhat related note, Albert Einstein was born 131 years ago today in Germany.

The funkadelic Graham Elliot Bowles is returning to Lollapalooza, this time as director of all things culinary.

Last year, the chef cooked for Jane's Addiction and proffered lobster corn dogs, buffalo chicken, portobello satay and truffled popcorn in the fest's food court. This year, he's in charge of said food court -- and he's asking for your ideas of what to eat whilst banging your head.

Lollapalooza is August 6 to 8 in Grant Park.

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Irish soda bread bakers, bring it.

Saturday, as you know, is the South Side Irish Parade Day Family Fest. And with that, of course, will be an Irish soda bread contest.

Reilly's Daughter in Oak Lawn used to host a fierce soda bread contest that routinely drew upwards of 200 entries. Former owner Boz O'Brien started it in 1977 as a way to get rid of a gift certificate to an Irish imports store. One year, one of the more, ahem, mature competitors ("this little old lady," as O'Brien puts it) baked a pair of $5 bills into her bread hoping to influence the judges, some of whom were local politicos. Like we said, fierce.

Indeed, the Reilly's Daughter contest, which ran under O'Brien's watch until 2003, was one of the inspirations for family fest organizer Grace Kuikman, who's in charge of the contest at the Beverly Arts Center, 2407 W. 111th.

"It was huge," Kuikman says. "I talked to a friend of mine who used to work at Reilly's Daughter. I do have some of their traditions fueling my ideas."

The rules:
Entries are to be wrapped in plastic or foil, then put in a paper or plastic bag marked with your name, address and phone number. Breads are to be in by 2:30 p.m. Saturday. Each loaf will be assigned numbers and blind-tasted by judges.

Kuikman, who is Dutch but a self-proclaimed foodie, is one of the judges. The others are Tom Baffes, owner of the neighborhood market County Fair Foods, 10800 S. Western; Jean Marie Quigley, owner of the Beverly Bakery, 10528 S. Western; and Beverly Arts Center president Bill Siegel.

Breads will be judges on appearance, texture, feel and flavor, Kuikman says. There will be points for creativity, too, because "every family seems to have their own way of making it," she says.

Inside tip, or a way to win over at least one judge: Better-than-average soda breads "have to have a good consistency of raisins in there -- that's always a plus," says Baffes. "And I like a kind of free-form type of bread."

It costs $10 to enter the contest. The winner splits the pot with the fest, and will get their recipe printed in the community paper.

If you're feeling the competitive fires, here are two recipes worth a look. The first is from Sun-Times reporter Maureen O'Donnell's mother. The second, from one Beverly McFadden, ran in our Swap Shop column a few years back.

It's all in good fun. Though, if you know the South Side Irish and their soda bread ... not really.


Outrageous is but one of the words that can describe a bill before the New York state assembly, which would prohibit "the use of salt by restaurants in the preparation of food by restaurants."

Introduced last Friday, not only would it prohibit the use of salt by restaurants, but it would also impose a fine of $1,000 (One Thousand Dollars!) per offense. So a meal that starts with grilled eggplant with sea salt, followed by, say, some lemon-grilled salmon with a pinch of salt, and chocolate cake that was also made with a little salt, would cost the chef $3,000? Is Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, who sponsored the bill, serious?

Yes, salt is a problem. The overuse of salt can lead to health problems including and not limited to, heart disease, high blood pressure and obesity, and diners often have no idea just how much salt is loaded onto their food. But prohibiting all use of salt, and imposing ridiculous fines for offenders, is not the answer. What's next -- outlawing food that naturally has a high salt content? Limiting the amount of olive oil a chef can use?

And people thought the foie gras ban was silly?

For those who really want to address the health problems caused by misuse of products such as salt, the answer isn't to ban salt; it's the education of the public, and encouraging people to eat real food and pay attention to their food and the way it is produced and not to eat so much of it. But I suppose it's easier to make the grand gesture of trying to ban salt in restaurant kitchens. Public health may not be improved, but it gets an assemblyman's name in the papers.

Yes, yes, yes, so the whole gourmet, chef-y burger bandwagon is rolling happily along, so much so that you might be tempted to roll your eyes if you hear of yet another place offering yet more grass-fed, hormone-free, bacon-topped patties.

But here's why we're resisting that urge with M Burger, the latest in Rich Melman's empire that's opening tomorrow at 161 E. Huron just around the bend from (really, within) the uber-upscale Tru: the prices, people! Have you seen these prices? The menu offers but eight food items, the priciest being a $4.99 chopped chicken salad. A cheeseburger is $2.99; a double M Burger, with "bacon, cheese, secret sauce" will run you $4.49, before tax.

Yes, we realize these are burgers we're talking about -- fast food, by definition. But there's a vast difference, in our eyes, between chef-driven fast food -- the M Burgers and DMK Burger Bars of our world -- and the rest. Given the choice, the former is what we'd feed to our kids.

And speaking of chefs going downscale, the buzz is building about Aldino's, Dean Zanella's latest venture in Little Italy, also opening tomorrow.

The menu is all about Italian comfort food, with an antipasti section alone that's worth swooning over. But we can't for the adjoining market Zanella has planned at 624 S. Racine that's opening in a few more weeks.

It'll carry the sort of ingredients that are harder to find in regular grocery stores -- preserved lemons, say. Zanella also wants to offer meats by the pound that he's using in the restaurant, and fresh seafood (likely available via pre-order) simply because "it's a hard thing in the city to find good seafood." He'll also offer sandwiches (porchetta with pickled fennel and a roasted garlic spread, veal meatball and so on) and prepared salads, sides and meals that "people can take and finish up at home."

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Never say never, but I'm never buying commercial ricotta again.

What would be the point of buying something that you could quickly, easily and cheaply whip up -- make that stir and strain out -- at home; something that tastes nothing like the homemade stuff, which is to say velvety and lovely and simply delicious; something loaded with funky stabilizers like guar gum.

I've already decided to reserve a spot in our year-end 10 best recipes of the year feature for Sepia chef Andrew Zimmerman's pork sugo.

I can say the same for the ricotta (and ricotta cheesecake) from 312 Chicago pastry chef Kim Schwenke (pictured), in today's Food pages. And you can hold me to these words, dear readers. This is good stuff.

Ricotta from scratch, as Schwenke shows us, is all about little effort, big reward.

In her column today, Schwenke makes the larger point that taking such extra little steps -- whether it be making fresh ricotta or not rushing the browning of meat -- are "not only worth it, they are the point." Couldn't have said it better myself.

While breast milk cheese is still on everyone's mind, the inimitable Billy Dec will have you know he tasted the stuff. This morning. On the set of Today with Hoda and Kathie Lee. Not exactly knowingly.

Dec and Rodelio Aglibot, chef at Dec's Sunda restaurant in River North, were at the NBC studios in New York taping a cooking segment. Afterwards, "me and Rod were wandering into the Kathie Lee and Hoda set," Dec wrote on his blog earlier today, "and I heard 'Is someone hungry' so knowing me I raise my hand."

Hoda hands Dec what appears to be a schmear of white cheese on crostini. Only after he's taken a bit is he told it's mother's milk cheese.

Ever the sportsman, Dec later posted this on Twitter: "The cheese was sweaty, & ChefRod burped me after."

Aglibot, for his part, cooked corn fritters and creamy rock shrimp for the show.

Here's the clip.

Wings over America

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Does anyone remember the days when -- and it wasn't that long ago, really -- chicken wings were a bar food, something that would run you a dime or a quarter apiece with a pitcher of beer?

Well, not anymore. According to this story in the Sun-Times today, the price of chicken wings for restaurant and tavern owners is soaring, which means consumers are paying more, as well. Wings "used to be a throwaway item," Andy Howard, head of purchasing and product development for the Texas-based Wingstop chain, told Gannett News Service. "The poultry guys couldn't even give it away. Now prices have gone through the roof."

According to the US Agriculture Department, the average wholesale price of wings in 2009 was $1.47 a pound, up 39 percent from 2008.

According to the National Chicken Council, 12 billion chicken wings are consumed annually in the U.S. It's gotten so that the other, meaty parts of the chicken, like the breasts, are the throwaway parts. The vast majority of wings, according to the Chicken Council -- especially those destined for foodservice -- are disjointed, with the third joint (the thin part known as the flapper) being exported to Asian countries and the meatier first and second joints being sold domestically.

Prices fluctuate, too, and because of supply and demand, prices will peak around the time of the Super Bowl, the biggest wing-consuming time of the year.

With billions of wings being consumed every year (and more than 1 billion of them on Super Bowl Sunday alone!) this humble item has come quite a way from that day in 1964 when Teressa Bellissimo, co-owner of the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, NY, cooked leftover wings in hot sauce as a late-night snack for her son and his friends. The boys liked them so much that the Bellissimos put them on the menu the next day. Served with celery slices and bleu cheese sauce, "Buffalo Wings" were an instant hit, according to the NCC. Dick Winger (I kid you not -- that's the man's name), who sold hot sauce to the bar, went on the road with Dominic Bellissimo, the owners' son, to promote the item and sell hot sauce, and the item gradually caught on with restaurant operators around the country.

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We still have our doubts that spring is just around the bend (officially, in 17 days but having lived here for 19 years, we know better). But this announcement, just arrived via press release, makes us feel a smidge better:

The Original Rainbow Cone, 9233 S. Western, opens "for the summer season" on Friday.

A bonus: The first customer Friday gets a free large cone every day for the rest of the month.

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Seems like just yesterday BaconFest was but a gleam in a few pork-obsessed dudes' eyes. But it really, truly is happening.

Tickets for the April 10 event go on sale at noon tomorrow. Because the event is essentially split into two tastings or "shifts," each featuring 12 chefs, the organizers have very specific guidelines for purchasing tickets. For those ambitious enough to attempt to attend both shifts, a warning: "We won't call you an ambulance."

Tickets are $45. Check out the roster of chefs here.

Update: In case you're wondering why Paul Kahan, whose middle name might well be "pork," isn't on the roster, organizer Andre Pluess says he and his whole Blackbird/Avec/Publican crew are, appropriately, going wild boar hunting. Of course, Kahan did pull his weight at the BaconFest preview event in October, held at the Publican.

Pluess and his co-organizers, Seth Zurer and Michael Griggs, are so amped up about the event and its future possibilities, you'd think this was RedBullFest.

"We're hoping there will be a second annual. Though, our wives and girlfriends are probably hoping there won't be," Pluess says. "Our goal is eventually to move it to an outside model. But we want it to be a little more highbrown than the Iowa bacon fest, you know, with people walking around in pig suits. Ours is more chef-centered."

Pluess is hoping to have Rick Bayless make a special appearance either in the fest's opening or closing ceremonies to "do a reading of our Bacon Manifesto," he says.

Chefs' dishes are just now being hammered out and probably won't be finalized until the last minute, but you can at least count on a bacon sundae of sorts from Chalkboard's Gil Langlois.

Langlois made the concoction, which included bacon cotton candy and walnut and bacon crunchies on top, for the October event at the Publican. A Chalkboard manager says Langlois has refined it further; the bacon is now coming from a new local farmer who raises acorn-fed pigs.

The sky -- or at least, your stomach -- is the limit at two Chicago area restaurants.

SugarToad in Naperville's Hotel Arista has launched what it calls the Toad-All Experience -- a $100 unlimited tasting menu crafted by chef Geoff Rhyne in which you, dear diner, get to decide when enough's enough. It's offered Monday through Thursday.

Feel like 15 courses? 15 courses it is (the record to date, as it happens.) Feeling more Alinea-ish? Aim higher -- though Rhyne, who will visit your table every other course to gauge your fullness, says most diners start to wind it down after 8 courses.

"It's literally so spontaneous," Rhyne says. "I don't put a time limit on it. I rolled out fresh pasta for ravioli for just one table once." Last week, bone marrow, squab mousse and corned beef heart made it on one table's menu.

In a similar vein, Miramar Bistro in Highwood, which for the past year has been under the able hands of chef Roland Liccioni, is offering a degustation Sundays through Thursdays that's also basically up to you.

You tell the kitchen how many courses you want, what you like and don't like to eat, any allergies and, what would seem to be the delicate part, your budget. (Expect a four-course meal to run you about 60 bucks, says general manager Philip Shanks -- and don't expect to be able to get the same meal for $30).

Liccioni thrives on this kind of culinary freedom, having done similar cook-at-will degustations at his previous restaurants Les Nomades, Le Francais and Le Lan, Shanks says.

"He has legions of followers that swear by him. We have one gentleman who comes in from southern Indiana about once a month," Shanks says. Indeed, the gentleman was just in last weekend for a five-course menu that included black sea bass, duck breast and that hunk of foie gras you see pictured below.

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It is recommended to call ahead to both SugarToad and Miramar if you have allergies or specific requests, say, an obsession with lobster. After that, you're in the chef's hands. All you have to do is sit back, enjoy -- and know when to say when.

Slayer rocks!

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Some people go for monster trucks; others, their thing is how fast and powerful their computer is, or how much horsepower some sports car has.

Other people -- and you know who you are -- see a gleaming, muscular, espresso machine and say, "whoaaaa."

That was my reaction when I heard about the Slayer, the monster truck/Italian sports car of espresso machines. Made in Seattle (surprise!) the Slayer (yes, that's it's name) is an industrial strength espresso maker that, according to Gizmodo, has gotten coffee nerds all hyped up "because of the way it allows a barista to easily play with pressure to do some interesting things--like start with a low pressure extraction, ramp up to full pressure, then back it down to get different textures or flavors--using the wooden paddles on top of the groupheads that adjust the mechanical valves which control water flow, which is what's unique about the machine."

The Slayer weighs a couple hundred pounds and costs about $18,000. And not just anyone can buy one -- there are only 20 that have been built, so far. It's a machine for coffee shop proprietors who are really, really serious about the quality of the coffee experience.

In other news, the Bialetti stovetop espresso maker I got last week seems to be working pretty nicely, so far, producing something I wouldn't exactly call "espresso," but rather, some nice, quite concentrated, strong coffee.


About the blog

Janet Rausa Fuller

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

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