Chicago Sun-Times
Tasty morsels about Chicago's food scene

June 2010 Archives

by guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes

Junior Merino trains bartenders and mixologists all over the world, but he still has an ability to make bartending accessible to the rest of us.

Merino can take it to extremes. He serves powdered margaritas in capsules. He'll spend weeks making a tincture of Buddha's hand citron. He dehydrates rum. When Merino travels - which he does a lot - he does so with culinary oils, herbs and spices, all of which he's used.

"As long as it's edible," he says, "we have it in a tincture."

He makes bitters from scratch. "Bitters are really just a concentration of herbs, spices, roots," he says. To make them, put your chosen mixture in spirits; high-proof spirit works the best, he says. The higher the proof, the more quickly flavors will be extracted.

For bitters, you use -- of course -- bitter herbs. Merino likes wormwood. "It doesn't really make you hallucinate," he says. Apparently, you'd have to ingest a great deal of the stuff to have that happen -- and nobody drinks bitters in volume.

For his mole bitters, Merino uses four kinds of chile pepper, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg -- more than 40 ingredients are put into high-proof spirits. Pungent spices go into the mix, and the lot is macerated and strained. Then, "we freeze the fat and it leaves the nice flavor," he says. No fat, all flavor. Sounds good, tastes better.

If you're new to tinctures and extractions, then start simply and make herb-infused vodka. According to Merino, you don't need wait-for-weeks patience. Take one bunch of fresh herbs, pick the leaves and discard the stems. Add the herbs to a bottle of vodka. Set it in a cool, dark place for six hours. Strain. Add a touch of citrus -- lemon, lime or orange -- to bring up the aromatics. Sniff. Pour. Sip. It's that simple.

You don't have to use expensive vodka, so there's freedom to play around. As to herbs, try working with whatever's fresh at the Green City Market. Use herbs left over from making dinner. The market's the limit -- just be sure to use things that are fresh and food-grade. (Rose petals from a florist don't count.)

Speaking of roses, Merino's rimming salts -- which include a hibiscus-rose -- are available online at Dainzu Gourmet. The salts are versatile; the saffron blend does nice things on shrimp. Grilled shrimp and homemade basil-infused vodka on the rocks ... there's a meal to bring a smile to any summer's night.

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(photo courtesy 'Fiesta at Rick's')

In today's story on Rick Bayless new cookbook, Fiesta at Rick's (due out next week), I write that Bayless "unleashes his inner Martha." But I mean that in the best way.

He offers this genius tip for serving guacamole, salsas and salads: Buy terracotta pots (make sure they fit your bowls -- metal bowls work best), soak the pots for a few minutes in water, then refrigerate for about an hour. Pop your guacamole-filled bowl on top, and the pots will stay cool for a good hour or two.

Even better: Set the guacamole pot in the middle of a much larger terracotta saucer, cooled the same way, and pile your chips or veggies around.

See -- easy peasy. If it'd been Martha, you would've had to fire up a kiln first.

And another take-away tip from the book: How to reheat store-bought corn tortillas.

In the microwave: Wrap tortillas by the dozen in a square of damp paper towels. Place in a plastic bag large enough so that tortillas lay flat, but don't seal. Microwave for 1 minute per dozen, up to 3 dozen. Remove from bag and store in a Styrofoam tortilla warmer (which you may not have) OR a small thermal chest (which you probably do have). They should stay hot for 1 hour.

In the oven: Preheat oven to 300. Place a cooling rack in a roasting pan and pour in Πinch of water. Spread a clean kitchen towel on the rack, making sure it doesn't touch the water. Lay tortillas in stacks of 1 or 2 dozen on towl and cover with second towel. Cover the pan with aluminum foil or a lid, crimping the edges to seal. Heat in oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Turn oven off. Tortillas should stay warm for 1 hour.

Correction: Today's print edition lists Bayless' recipe as "Creamy Chicken and Beans with Roasted Poblano and Caramelized Onion." We meant greens, not beans.

Rick Tramonto has seen the devastation from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill firsthand. His job now, he says, is to convince other chefs to see it for themselves.

Tramonto was one of a contingent of well-known chefs who traveled to the Grand Isle area Sunday to throw their support to the state's fishing and shrimping industry and ease consumer uncertainty about the safety of Gulf seafood. The chefs held a press conference Monday to launch the Friends of the Fishermen Foundation with the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board.

"It's about bringing awareness to the situation immediately, and opening a discussion of what does this really look like, to get the chefs to see it up close and personal," Tramonto said today, en route to yet another (unrelated) event in Minneapolis. "Yes, families are devastated, yes, areas are devastated. But yes, there is still great, live fish coming out of the Gulf."

The catalyst for the event was Tramonto's friend, Louisiana chef John Folse, who had just come back from promoting Gulf seafood in Helsinki, Finland, on behalf of the Louisiana seafood board. Folse got Tramonto on board, who then rounded up a dozen of his buddies for the weekend, including Tom Colicchio, he of Bravo's "Top Chef" series, and Rick Moonen and Susur Lee, Tramonto's fellow competitors on this season's "Top Chef Masters."

The chefs took a boat tour in Grand Isle and met with fisherman and crabbers whose livelihood has been threatened by the spill. And they ate plenty of oysters, crab, shrimp and redfish, too.

This was Tramonto's third such trip to the region. The chef, who announced this month he is leaving Tru to open a new project, said it's not his last.

As for the chatter that New Orleans just might be the site of that next project, Tramonto said ever so gamely, "I really want to be in Napa Valley, if everybody really wants to know where I want to be."

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If you're like me and you don't happen to read or subscribe to Playboy, you might have missed this tidbit in the July issue, on stands now: The magazine has hopped aboard the local honey movement as the proud owner of its own beehive.

Playboy is one of more than 20 area businesses (the others mostly restaurants) that are part of Heritage Prairie Farm's new adopt-a-hive program. The farm, about an hour west of Chicago in La Fox, will deliver the honey, upward of 150 pounds per customer, later this summer.

Though Playboy won't be selling its honey -- they'll use it instead as a "fun leave behind/gift for special friends of Playboy," says spokeswoman Abigail O'Donnell -- it has come up with its own nifty name and label for it (and you could see this coming a mile away, couldn't you): Bunny Honey.

"I'm convinced they had some huge story that dropped out," marvels Heritage Prairie's owner Bronwyn Weaver (below) at the page 18-placement of her honey.

You can read more about Weaver's honey and chef apiary program in next week's Food pages. And you can, um, see more honey pictures here.

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Remember that chef's challenge I wrote about recently, put on by Supreme Lobster and involving the decidedly unsexy rainbow trout?

Well, the results are in and ... it's a tie between Sepia's Andrew Zimmerman and Curtis Duffy of Avenues.

The prize: $500 or a trip to the Idaho farm of Clear Springs Foods, which sponsored this particular contest. Duffy is taking the cash (the thought of leaving the restaurant on a workday doesn't sit well with him); haven't heard from Zimmerman but Supreme's Carl Galvan, who orchestrates these contests, was pretty sure he was taking the trip.

Both chefs will get to judge the next chef challenge featuring a different fish so look for those details on Supreme Lobster's site.

And look for the Duffy's dish on the menu in some form when the days start to cool down. "I have already started to infuse 20 liters of olive oil with spruce branches and needles to slow poach the trout," he says.

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photo courtesy Louisa Chu

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"All I know is, Stephanie better not beat me to it."

That was pastry chef and gelato impresario Jessie Oloroso (above) speaking yesterday in her still bare-as-bones shop, Black Dog Gelato, 859 N. Damen, in reference to her former Scylla boss, Stephanie Izard, whose been thisclose to opening her Girl and the Goat for a zillion weeks.

Olorose need not worry. Though Izard has been in the kitchen and is days away from her opening, Oloroso will indeed beat her to it with a Friday opening.

We're excited at the prospect of being able to buy gelato pies, we repeat, gelato pies -- first up, a meringue-topped, lemon gelato-filled number in a gingersnap crust. And we like these little buttons Oloroso will have up at her register (which are not unlike Izard's little goat buttons).

And while we're at it, make sure you check out next week's Food pages, as Oloroso has graciously shared a home version of her roasted red pepper gelato.

Hurray for buttons, and gelato, and summer.

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Chicagoans are dining out less and keeping more of an eye on how much they're spending in restaurants, the new Zagat survey of Chicago restaurants says.

Forty-one percent of diners say they are eating out less -- 2.8 meals a week on average -- and a third say they're going to less expensive restaurants, according to the survey of 5,701 diners, released today. One in five diners is passing up appetizers or dessert to keep their tab down.

Prices at those expensive restaurants, meanwhile, just keep going up. The average meal price at Chicago's 20 most expensive restaurants -- $104.95 -- ranks just behind those of New York, San Francisco and Las Vegas.

And here's something restaurants can learn from the survey, which is updated every two years: The Internet counts. The majority of eaters (83 percent) check out a restaurant's website and try to find out more about the menu before heading out for the evening. As for making reservations, just under half of diners do that on the Internet; 44 percent use that phone thingamabob.

On the restaurant rankings side, most of the names are familiar. Surveyors ranked the accolade-laden Alinea top for service, though Les Nomades, the tres Francais restaurant in Streeterville, was voted No. 1 for food. Xoco, Rick Bayless' torta-and-churro outpost with its everpresent lunch line, was the top newcomer; casual neighborhood joints Browntrout, Belly Shack and Nightwood also were recognized in that category.

The most popular restaurant in Chicago? Bayless' Frontera Grill.

by guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes

Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA, points out that Maker's Mark is good about buying local grain and refusing to purchase genetically modified grain.

There's a strong ethic behind that decision. Knowing it (being aware that buying Maker's Mark means buying into a network of local support and sustainability) makes the drink taste all the better.

When a Maker's Mark master distiller strikes out on his own, there's reason to hope that something even more remarkable coming to the shelf. WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey.jpeg

Dave Pickerell has packed his experience, talent and vision, and started producing something named for a groundhog - but Chicagoan rye lovers don't need to see their shadows to try WhistlePig. They do need to wait - just a week or so. It's coming our way. (Apart from Chicago, only New York and LA will be seeing WhistlePig this year. There simply isn't enough to go around the nation.)

Made from 100 percent rye, WhistlePig spends 10 years in brand-new, charred oak barrels. The aim, Pickerell says, is to "showcase the full-bodied spiciness of the rye" - and the trick is in the aging, so that you balance wood and grain. "Too young," he says, "and it comes across as green and spicy, on the finish there's too much of a kick, too much wood, and it comes across as bitter."

Pickerell gives his whiskey time to mellow out, to age gracefully. "Being in the 9- to 11-year range . . . it gives us a finish that, instead of being a kick, it's a nice butterscotch, vanilla, long warm finish - smoky, woody but not too woody."

As to using local grain, "We are heading toward having our own farm organically certified," Pickerell says. "We will eventually be making an estate rye there."

The first certified rye planting will take place this year, but you won't have to wait 11 years to taste the organic whiskey. "We may produce some small-barrel maturation, so that we can bring some out a little earlier," Pickerell says. He pauses for a second and adds, "'Cause I'd like it to come out while I'm still around."

The greening of Chicago's restaurant scene hasn't happened overnight -- it's been more like a slow-growing (but far friendlier) Audrey II -- but restaurants and diners now have something concrete to look to that makes it official.

The Green Chicago Restaurant Co-Op on Tuesday will announce 15 restaurants that have earned "Guaranteed Green" status and the corresponding label they can, and most certainly will, display in their businesses, Zagat sticker-style. GCRC Guaranteed Green Logo.jpg

The restaurants are: Avec, Big Jones, Blackbird, Bleeding Heart Bakery, Blind Faith Café in Evanston, the Dining Room at Kendall College, Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, Keefer's, Poag Mahone's, Roti Mediterranean Grill, Simone's Bar, Sopraffina Marketcaffe, Trattoria No. 10 and Uncommon Ground.

The Chicago Diner, Hamburger Mary's and Jacky's on Prairie are currently pursuing certification, says Andrew Weithe, the co-op's assistant director of environmental affairs.

The co-op, founded by Trattoria No. 10's Dan Rosenthal and Ina Pinkney of Ina's, launched the Guaranteed Green program last August.

The little label signifies a great deal of effort. It means the restaurants have earned certification (some as recently as last week) from Green Seal or the Green Restaurant Association, two independent, national organizations; thus far, all the certification has gone through the latter group.

This process can take months and cost thousands of dollars, and it doesn't just mean the napkins and plates are recyclable. Nor does it mean restaurants can coast after year one; certification must be renewed annually.

Diners also will soon be able to spot the labels for green-designated eateries in the dining guides of several publications, including Chicago magazine. The city's tourism website will post the list this week; the environment department and Chicago Climate Action Plan link to it as well.

Lollapalooza food boss Graham Elliot Bowles has put together quite the culinary cast for this year's music fest. Bleeding Heart Bakery and Kuma's Corner, with their pierced-and-inked crews, will be on-site, which is hardly a shocker; Trotter's To Go, a little more so. Big Star, Paul Kahan's taqueria, is a get (though considering Kahan's musical provenance, makes sense). Other local darlings who've so far signed on for the three-day fest include Sunda, the Southern, Hoosier Mama Pie Co., newcomer Franks 'n' Dawgs and Seedling Orchard.

Lollapalooza runs from Aug. 6 through 8 in Grant Park.

Rain on your wedding day (let's just say weekend) is supposedly good luck, so while the skies open up on this formerly gorgeous Friday afternoon, it's probably a good time to offer congratulations to Charlie Trotter and Rochelle Smith, who are getting married -- again -- Saturday morning.

The couple wed in the Maldives in February. Tomorrow's brunchtime ceremony is at Trotter's mother's house in Wilmette, where Bill Zwecker reports the chef will cook all the food. pp-trotter-111909-p9.jpg

In fact, this will be the third time the couple is marking their union. Back in March, Smith told me they were heading down to the One & Only Palmilla Resort in Los Cabos, Mexico, where Trotter had a five-year consulting gig, for a "commitment ceremony."

"He just wants to keep getting married," Smith said. "He's an incurable romantic."

For a taste of their home life, Smith, a restaurant consultant, offers this. On Sunday evenings, she is often the one cooking -- simple stuff like stir-fries. "So I'm doing portobellos, red onions, asparagus, hoisin, and I'm read to throw away the asparagus ends. And he gets them and slices them really fine, mixes them with some goat cheese, shavings from the portobellos. And he'll take ground turkey that he's seasoned up - we use very little salt, some basil, sage and rosemary -- and make patties and put them under the broiler.

"That's the way Charles is. He doesn't like to waste anything. He can look at something and where I garbage, he sees gourmet."

How do you make rainbow trout sexy?

One idea: Give it to Curtis Duffy at Avenues, who'll have a go not once, but twice -- poached in olive oil until it's buttah, and whipped into brandade -- then plated with fennel in every possible form, dabs of a fennel-y mustard and an absinthe foam.

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This was what Duffy plied us with earlier this week (in addition to fennel chips, king crab by the spoonful and other delights). "Us": Lockwood's blogging chef Phillip Foss, writer/chef/expert palate Louisa Chu and moi. We'd been solicited as judges for a contest put on by Villa Park-based Supreme Lobster, whose main monger Carl Galvan you might recognize from his funny, sometimes vulgar Twitter feed.

Our task (that's stretching it) was to judge a dish at each of the three chef-finalist's restaurants featuring trout from Clear Springs Farm in Idaho. We were driven from Point A (Pops for Champagne and chef Chris Walker's trout with a deconstructed meuniere) to Point B (Sepia and chef Andrew Zimmerman's pave of trout with an almond and Iberico ham picada) to Point C, the aforementioned Avenues.

While it was a lovely evening of exquisite food and conversation (about food trucks, Twitter, Chicago Gourmet, maltodextrin, food trucks, Foss' burning desire to write a memoir and food trucks), it all went back to making trout -- fish, period -- sexy. Galvan knows a fine fish when he sees it, and the sustainably raised trout from Clear Springs is about as pure as it gets. There is method to Galvan's madness, after all. photo[1].jpg

He tweets to sell more fish (he also tweets while driving, but that's another story; and while we're at it, that's Foss tweeting at right). He holds these contests so that Jennifer Mulhern, regional sales manager for Clear Springs and our tablemate for the evening, can sell more fish.

"Rainbow trout is your grandmother's fish," said Mulhern (in between wide-eyed bites of trout and genuinely amazed outbursts of, "I never knew trout could taste like that!") "We're trying to figure out how to get people to think differently about it."

This was the third such chef's challenge Galvan has organized (Foss won the previous scallop contest). The prize is $500 or a trip to the Idaho farm.

Galvan will announce the winner next week.

photo by Louisa Chu

The kickass produce and breadth of offerings at the Nichols Farm and Orchard stand at the Daley Plaza farmers market is to be expected. Their jaunty sense of humor isn't half-bad, either.

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by guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes

If Lyle Allen, executive director of the Green City Market is on an asparagus binge, then you can't blame him. Allen knows that fresh asparagus will be in the market "maybe two weeks if we're lucky." The time to enjoy it is now.

The question of what to enjoy it with is rather more complex.

New York City's Eleven Madison Park has garnered a few awards, one of them a James Beard Foundation Award for outstanding wine service. Before New York gets too cocky about that, it should be noted that wine director John Ragan grew up in Kansas City and Chicago. ("Everybody's from Chicago," he says.)

Eleven Madison's chef, Daniel Humm - another Beard winner - creates a seasonally driven menu. For the average wine lover, that might create occasional problems. Consider asparagus and wine. As Ragan observes, "Everybody says it just doesn't work."

Most of us could simply opt out - not Ragan. He can't say, "Well, chef, you know, they say . . . the wine thing . . . Do you think it's possible that maybe we just don't use that?"

As Ragan's figured out how to pair the impossible vegetable with more than passable wine, it seems only sensible to take his advice and run to Binny's, Fine Wine Brokers, Just Grapes or wherever pleasure or pattern takes you.

What should you buy once you're there?

It depends on how you're preparing the asparagus. Are you serving asparagus alongside a slab of grass-fed beef? Is it chilling with a few curls of Parmigiano-Reggiano? These things make a difference. mayasparagus.jpg

Forget the myth. "Asparagus itself does go with certain wines," Ragan says. "It does have a smaller window of what it likes. It's not roast chicken. It's not a steak. So what do you do?"

While you're forgetting the myth, you should also set aside some habits. If you like Cabernet with your steak, and you pile asparagus on the dish, then your beautiful Cabernet may not taste so lovely any more. "The things that asparagus isn't so friendly with are things that a lot of people are comfortable with," Ragan says. "Asparagus and woody Chardonnay: no good. Asparagus and tannic reds: no good. Asparagus and reds that have a lot of wood on them: no good."

You can't think of wine first and then add the asparagus. Start with the food. Ragan dislikes the dictatorial "You should drink this." What could you drink with asparagus? "Crisp, minerally, very aromatic whites . . . A dry, sherry-type wine - asparagus with butter and a glass of Fino or Manzanilla Sherry is fantastic."

For simplicity's sake, Ragan offers three green possibilities to consider: rich and earthy (say, with an egg and morels), salad (perhaps tossed with grapefruit segments) and herbal (with peas and a fresh, minty dressing).

With an earthy dish, consider a Grüner Veltiner. Grüner's oily texture works with richer dishes, but it also has notes of white pepper and dried herbs that mirror asparagus. "That's one of those pairings where you say, 'Ah, these two similar things work well together.'"

For salads, think about a Sylvaner from Alsace, with its honeyed nature and distinct fruit "A dry wine," Ragan says, "but pushing toward that off-dry edge . . . That Sylvaner, Muscat, Alsatian thing is so good and so classic with asparagus. That would be a whole other camp of wines that people should think of when they think 'asparagus and wine don't go together.'"

Herbal dishes. "It's important not to do Sauvignon Blanc that's got a bunch of oak on it, but a really classic, clean, crisp, transparent style of Sauvignon Blanc - Sancerre, Pouilly Fume, something like that. Sancerre has that herbaceous, grassy thing going on." A fresh salad with asparagus will bring out the best in the wine - a winning partnership.

At Green City Market, Mick Klug Farm, Ellis Family Farm, Nichols Farm and 1st Orchard have asparagus. Get it while it's fresh, choose your flavor profile, buy a bottle of wine and raise a glass to springtime.

First Art Smith was going to host his own show on TLC, and all about comfort food, no less.

Then we learned that the show wasn't going to happen after all -- though a spokesman for the network promised that Smith's talents wouldn't be wasted.

So here's the consolation: the man formerly known as Oprah's chef is one of the three judges for the competition-style TLC series, "BBQ Pitmasters," now in its second season. He joins Myron Mixon, a real live pitmaster from Georgia, and ex-NFLer Warren Sapp, who knows something about being under heat.

Filming begins shortly; the show premieres Aug. 12.

Edna Stewart, 1938-2010

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Edna Stewart, Chicago's soul food queen, has died.

Mrs. Stewart, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer last November, passed away this morning at Rush Oak Park Hospital, her brother, Sam Mitchell Jr., said. She had celebrated her 72nd birthday Sunday.

"She wanted to make her birthday," Mitchell Jr. said.

Mrs. Stewart's restaurant, Edna's Restaurant at 3175 W. Madison, has been churning out flaky biscuits, delectable fried chicken and other soul food delights since 1966.

The West Side eatery is a favorite among politicians and foodies alike. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. ate there. Mayor Daley eats there.

"I was working one night, filling in, and some people from New Zealand came in," Mitchell Jr. said. "We had people from Germany, London. And then all the presidents, and all the politicians, and Mayor Daley, all through the years."

Mrs. Stewart was born in Chicago and learned to cook, literally, at her mother's knee.

"She stayed in the kitchen, holding on to my mother's apron, trying to peek at what my mother was doing," Mitchell Jr. said.

Mrs. Stewart opened the restaurant with her father, Sam Mitchell Sr., and then-husband Johnny Stewart, her brother said. She cooked using some of her mother's recipes, and many of her own. She served all of the staples -- those famous biscuits, sweet potatoes, ham hocks and greens-- and more old-school fare, such as brains and eggs.

The restaurant started out inside a bowling alley and moved a few times, all within the same block, until it landed in its permanent home on West Madison.

"My mother fed so many people," her son, Melvin Mitchell, said. "And she was always one to help the next person. People coming home from the penitentiary, on work release, she hired them. And the civil rights stuff."

When King brought his activism to Chicago, renting a slum apartment to shed light on the miserable living conditions of many low-income blacks, he was a regular at Edna's.

When the late soul singer Tyrone Davis came to the restaurant -- he was battling prostate cancer at the time -- "My mom told him his money was counterfeit until he gained some weight," Melvin Mitchell said.

This year, Gov. Quinn declared Feb. 19 to be Edna Stewart Day.

In addition to her son and brother, Mrs. Stewart is survived by her daughter, Marguerite Banks, and sisters Alice McCommon and Judy Mitchell-Davis.

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Sun-Times political columnist Lynn Sweet offers food-tinged coverage yet again, with her story today on Chicago hot dog stand owner Mike Payne's role in getting Chicago-style hot dogs served at the White House congressional picnic Tuesday.

Sweet says Payne, owner of Byron's Hot Dogs, was enlisted by Sen. Dick Durbin, who had gotten a call from the White House asking for help.

White House chef Cristeta Comerford worked off a grocery list Payne sent her of all the required ingredients.

The story, thank goodness, isn't nearly as controversial as Sweet's last foodie go-round. But it still raises a few questions:

Items on Payne's grocery list included "yellow mustard, shredded lettuce, diced onions, sliced cucumbers, green peppers, tomatoes, peppers, celery salt and dill pickles." If we may: Sliced cucumbers are a stretch, but since when has shredded lettuce belonged on a Chicago-style dog?

Also, Comferford couldn't get her hands on the bright green relish, but "she found something close." And what would that be? Inquiring minds want to know!

by guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes

Even while packing for her trip to Peru, where she'll be learning about pisco, Southern Wine & Spirit's Bridget Albert can get excited about farmers markets.

Albert's big on the seasonal. A taste of her cocktails or a browse through the pages of her book, Market-Fresh Mixology , reveals that. When she talks, it's apparent that her enthusiasm is genuine and not just a marketing ploy. If Bridget Albert's sending you anywhere, then it's to the Green City Market.

Now is prime time for shopping at the market. "Living in the Midwest," Albert observes, "our market season is short - it's very different than living in San Francisco, where their markets are open just about all year-round - and so we need to gravitate to them as soon as they open and see what the farmers have to offer, the best of the season."

If you want each farmer's best, then Albert recommends engaging in conversations. "Talk to the farmers," she says. "Talk to the people that run the stand. Get to know what's available and what they'll be bringing out in the following weeks. Become friends with them - and you'll be surprised, once you form those relationships, the types of fruits that they'll either hold for you, or they'll be excited to see you and show you what's new. Build on that and you'll always get the best of the season."

What's drawing Albert to the market? Strawberries, which are "really the most friendly flavor there is." Right now, Albert says, the berries are very sweet, with an enticing color. Mick Klug Farm and Ellis Farms have gorgeous strawberries.

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When you bring those beauties home, Albert says you should put them in a daiquiri. Keep it simple: "a nice silver rum, some fresh lime juice, simple syrup, throw in a couple of strawberries. . . dump it in a glass and mush it up."

Asked about proportions, Albert admits that she likes her daiquiris "a little boozy." To follow her lead, take 2 ounces of silver rum, add equal parts fresh lime juice and simple syrup, chop up 1 or 2 berries and "shake that cocktail to death and strain it." How much lime and syrup you should use is a matter of taste - but finding the perfect balance should be no hardship.

Simple syrup is easy to make -- melt a 50-50 blend of sugar and water. Albert has an even more market-friendly option: honey. There are health advantages to using local honey, but the mixologist notes an economically comforting point: Honey is shelf-stable. Before using honey in cocktails, loosen it up with hot water. ("You don't want to have it be like you're working with Crazy Glue," she says.)

To find honey at the market, look for Heritage Prairie Farm or go urban with Chicago Honey Co-op.

According to Albert, honey is adaptable stuff. It plays well with bourbon, rum . . . everything. She likes it in margaritas. If you're having a party, then tell your guests that you're using local honey and fruit in your drinks. It's a great talking point. And that's a perfect concoction: conversation, a long summer evening and a fresh strawberry daiquiri - just what the mixologist ordered.

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(photos courtesy Kate Gross Photography)

In an attempt to sate your desire for even more sandwich-related tidbits (of the salmonella-free kind) after today's story on sandwiches, I turned to Harry Balzer of the market research firm NPD Group, the go-to person when it comes to what we, as a nation, eat.

The sandwich, Balzer says, has, for decades, been the No. 1 thing Americans eat. In a way, it's the last of its kind. "The sandwich requires your labor and assembly. And it in effect celebrates freshness and diversity," he says. "It's the No. 1 homemade dish in America."

Of course, that's changing. "At one point, 98 percent of all sandwiches eaten in our homes were prepared by someone in the home. Now that's about 90 percent," Balzer says. "Jimmy John's delivers."

And: Breakfast sandwiches have seen a sharp increase, too, he says.

Here's more, by the numbers.

Top 5 dinnertime entrees eaten at home:
1. Sandwich
2. Chicken
3. Beef
4. Italian
5. Homemade variety dish (casserole, etc.)

Top 5 most popular sandwiches at lunch:
1. Ham
2. PB&J
3. Turkey
4. Cheese
5. Hot dog

And the fastest declining sandwich in terms of consumption? The tuna sandwich -- for which Graham Elliot Bowles has graciously offered his recipe for the beaut below. If there's anyone who can bring the tuna sandwich back, it's this guy.

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Besides that it's all about burgers and milkshakes, there is much more to like about Spike Mendelsohn's "The Good Stuff Cookbook," named after his D.C. eatery (which might make its way to Chicago one of these days.) Recipes are simple and produce fun, boldly flavored, gorgeous food. There's an entire chapter on the retro wedge salad, for crying out loud.

But since burgers and shakes are the main attractions, I asked Mendelsohn for his top tips when making these classics. We didn't have space to run these in today's Food pages, so take note now: spikeburg[1].jpg

For burgers:
1. Toast the buns on both sides.

2. When you're doing building the burger, bun and all, wrap it in a big square of wax paper and let it sit for a minute or two. Mendelsohn learned this tip from his grandfather. "It literally steams it for a little but, keeps the burger hot and just gives it a great texture," he says. And nope, it won't get soggy.

For shakes:
1. Use a custard -- or the best premium ice cream you can find -- as the base for your shake. Mendelsohn uses a custard made fresh daily at his restaurant.

2. Use a handheld immersion blender, not a blender; if you don't have an immersion blender, they're not that big of an investment, and they're also genius for soups and sauces. "A blender creates friction; you'll end up with a watery shake," he says.

Here, too, Mendelsohn's recipe for basic mayonnaise, which we didn't have room for in print:

Homemade Basic Mayonnaise
Makes about 2 cups

2 large eggs
4 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 cups grapeseed oil

Add eggs, mustard, vinegar and salt to a food processor or blender. Process for 30 seconds in food processor, or 10 seconds in blender. With motor running, drizzle in oil slowly at first, then add in a thin, steady stream until all the oil is added and the mixture is smooth. Stop the motor and taste. If sauce is too thick, thin it with a little hot water. If too thin, process a little longer. The mayo can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

Foie Gras Ban.jpg

Didier Durand promised Chicago a foie gras museum, and now he's making good on his word.

"Museum" might be a stretch, but that's what Durand is calling the collection of posters, photos and memorabilia adorning a portion of his restaurant, Cyrano's, 546 N. Wells.

The irrepressible Frenchman was one of the faces of a chef-led campaign to overturn the city's short-lived ban on foie gras a few years back. Indeed, the ban was repealed in 2008, and damned if Durand is going to let anyone forget.

"The ban was repealed May 14, but June 11 was the actual date when we could serve foie gras again," says Durand (who, along with a handful of chefs, never really stopped serving the French delicacy -- he just cleverly called it something else on the menu).

Last year, he created Foie Gras Week to coincide with that date. Several restaurants offered $10 foie gras specials.

This year, Foie Gras Week runs from Friday through June 19. Participating restaurants include Oceanique in Evanston and Hemmingway's Bistro in Oak Park. In addition, Durand will offer renditions of some of his chef friends' foie recipes, including a terrine with strawberry-rhubarb jam from Michael Tsonton, another force to be reckoned with back in the ban's heyday.

The only other foie gras museum Durand is aware of is in Frespech, France. He's knows this because he was there on a fact-finding (and memorabilia-buying) mission in February.

His museum "is kind of closure for me," Durand says. "Now, there's more and more demand for foie gras. I'm not a Musketeer, but I achieved what I wanted to."

Yesterday's word that Rick Tramonto is leaving Tru (and likely Chicago) trumped some other big Chicago chef-related news: a contingent that includes Gale Gand, Perennial's Ryan Poli, Della Gossett of Charlie Trotter's and Paul Kahan and Koren Grieveson of Blackbird/Avec is at the White House now to kick off First Lady Michelle Obama's Chefs Move Into Schools campaign.

The program, run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture with the help of Share Our Strength, will pair chefs nationwide with schools in their area to help educate kids about healthy food. More than 1,000 chefs already are locked in. Gand, talking yesterday by cell phone on the Metro, said she's signed up with Deerfield High School, where her son, Gio, will be a freshman in the fall. "The lunch lady and I will be close friends," she said.

And for the voyeuristic among us, check out Kahan's Twitter feed for a few good photos from this morning's breakfast.

Here's a big one: Rick Tramonto is stepping away from Tru "to follow other culinary pursuits," an e-mailed statement from the Tru flak reads.

The celebrated chef, who just penned his seventh cookbook, will announce his next project "after July 4," the statement says. Tramonto has alluded to something big in the works on Twitter.

Update: Just got off the phone with Tramonto, and that something sure sounds like it's not in Chicago. "It's been an honor to be written about by [the Sun-Times], over the 23 years I've been in Chicago," he said. You sound like you're saying goodbye, I told him. "OK, well, [laugh] yeah, kind of," he replied. "I love you guys, though. We'll hopefully make a circle back, but it's been awesome. It's time to go to the next plapce and move on."

Anthony Martin, who has been in the Tru kitchen for two years, steps into the executive chef and partner role alongside pastry chef Gale Gand. rick & gale 2.jpg

"I'm feeling sad because I'm used to doing things with him all the time," said Gand, who was en route Thursday to Washington D.C. for a gathering of chefs participating in Michelle Obama's Chefs Move into Schools campaign. "We have a long history of cooking together, almost 30 years now. So for him to make a formal declaration that he's not gonna come home anymore is sad for me. We had a great run."

Tramonto has been cooking in Chicago since 1987. He and Gand opened the acclaimed Trio restaurant in 1993, then Brasserie T, and then Tru in 1999. The pair opened four dining concepts in the Westin Chicago North Shore in Wheeling in 2006, but two years later, their development group that operated the restaurants dissolved.

The last few times I talked to Tramonto, 47, he gave no hints as to leaving Tru, though he sounded particularly reflective (his eighth book, due out next year, is his memoir). Explaining his very tattooed forearms, which make it into just about every photo of him in his newest book, he said, "I really wanted to bring Rick Tramonto out of the whole fine dining restaurant environment, because people don't know what I'm really about. They just know me from the restaurant," he said. "My life over the last 14 years is in a very different place."

In another conversation last spring, he said, "I'm definitely tinkering with some burger stuff, sandwiches. But it's location, it's timing, it's who would like to do it with me," he said. "I would love to do another concept. Do I need to do five more restaurants? No, not really. I admire the guys who have 15 restaurants. But everything has a cost, everything takes its toll on you.

"I still have some concepts inside of me to get out, if the locations and time are right."

Hmm... The time, it appears, is right.

by guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes

If bringing home a bottle of Goose Island feels like turning your kitchen into a friendly local bar, then there's good reason. Brewmaster Greg Hall honed his craft at the Siebel Institute, but Goose Island started small. His father founded it in 1988, as a brewpub.

"Brewpubs are great," Hall says, "because you control the process, all the way to the pint." Brewpubs also don't need to register new beers, so brewers are free experiment. Hall cites another asset: getting direct guidance and feedback. Do customers like something? Want something? The brewer can try making it. "A brewpub's a great way to start, as a brewer," he says.

In 1995, Goose Island started its second pub and began packaging. Now, the Chicago beer is in 20 states, and it's expanding . . . in more than one way.

"There's a new drinker - a whole bunch of new drinkers - out there," Social drinkers are out having fun. "When you're out having fun, you're probably drinking beer, too," Hall remarks.

About the new drinkers, he says, "They didn't used to drink craft beer, but they drink craft beers now." Goose Island makes craft and traditional brews. There's also something for "reserve beer drinkers, who are getting out of cocktails or wine, and into beer." They're not giving up wine and cocktails; they're just drinking beer, too. For them, there are Belgian style ales. (Kids don't need to feel left out. Goose Island has sodas, too.)

Drinkers aren't the only ones who are changing. Producers see the world differently. "For a long time," Hall notes, "we thought that there were beer occasions and there were wine occasions, and they were different occasions." Now, he happily sells beer at what were once seen as "wine occasions."

With summer looming, many of us are breaking out the grills. What does Hall recommend drinking with grilled foods?

Who doesn't love a deal? Correction: who doesn't love free or close to free stuff?

Because it's Wednesday - just because - here are three dining deals worth noting:

1. Free whiskey shots at Longman & Eagle, 2657 N. Kedzie, this Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. That's right - 11 a.m. If you need a reason to imbibe at 11 a.m. on a Friday, it's the tavern/inn's way of announcing they're now open for lunch.

2. The $3 happy hour (4:30 to 6:30 p.m.) menu at Elate, 111 W. Huron. Yes, there is a "with-purchase-of-a-drink" clause. But we're not talking quaint bar bites - we're talking full-size menu items, including the burger, which is normally $12.

3. Free cupcakes, every Monday in June, at more, 1 E. Delaware (below). Free. Cupcakes. No purchase necessary.

9-11 white cupcakes 10.JPG

About the blog

Janet Rausa Fuller

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

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