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Tasty morsels about Chicago's food scene

December 2010 Archives

Since this time is all about looking forward, I can give you a little spoiler alert into next week's cover story, right?
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In it, Big Jones chef Paul Fehribach, one of the more thoughtful, well-spoken chefs around town, shares his take on how and why certain foods come into and go out of fashion (we're talking to you, pork belly and cupcakes).

He also lists a few things he wishes were more popular in the food world but probably won't be. Among them: Southern food, his passion.

But Fehribach is apparently not one for wishful thinking, announcing today on Soapbox, Ellen Malloy's digital magazine for chefs, that he's working on another restaurant.

In an e-mail to me, he said the new place will "almost definitely" be Southern-focused. He has ideas for a "hole-in-the-wall carry-out spot" but also fine-dining -- the location and community will dictate which direction he takes, he said.

"We are wading into the real estate market," he wrote. ""It wouldn't be prudent to anticipate actually opening in 2011, more likely early 2012."

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When it comes to choosing the 10 best recipes for our year-end issue, I tend to make up my mind quickly.

It becomes apparent when you're standing over the stove, cooking, which recipes are good, better and best. (And which are just plain bad, for that matter.)

There were forgettable recipes I had to try this year. But there were plenty more that I am glad to have in my repertoire.

Like Kim Schwenke's ricotta. Over Christmas weekend, I made the 312 Chicago pastry chef's ricotta again. It was snowy outside and cozy inside, a lasagna sort of Sunday. Damn, that was some good lasagna.

I had some leftover ricotta, which I promptly put in the fridge and then couldn't stop thinking about all Monday. So Monday's dinner was an apple and celery salad and the rest of that ricotta mixed with a bunch of chopped chives, dill and parsley and spread over toast, an Ina Garten recipe. Damn, that was a good little dinner.

Of course, some of our contributing writers had their picks, too. Only a fraction made it in today's issue. But so you know, here's some of what they had to say:

Louisa Chu, who wrote about Art Smith in February, calls his 12-Layer Cake a "showstopper and unbelievably rich . . . For a couple of Chinese-American girls who grew up with a mom who's a gifted cook but not a baker, this cake made up for a lifetime of no home-baked goods -- make that two lifetimes."

Judith Dunbar Hines, the city's culinary arts director and our Low Mileage Kitchen columnist, swooned over Province chef Randy Zweiban's Lavender Honey Glazed Chicken (pictured above), in Brian Clark's July story on local honey. "Any time I'm tired or depressed," Hines said, "all I want is an old-fashioned baked chicken and the use of honey . . . and the lavender in this one is NOT old-fashioned but it made me especially happy."

Jennifer Olvera tested a recipe for Potato Pancakes with Maple-Horseradish Sauce and Smoked Whitefish for a March story about the maple syrup season in Illinois, and was struck - in a good way - by the "weird flavor pairings." "Crisp (latkes), bright (apples), smoky (fish) -- texturally triumphant."

David Hammond, our Food Detective, created Japanese-style Chicken and Waffles for his April story on, well, chicken and waffles and went so far as to call it his "best home-cooked meal of 2010."

Leah Zeldes' vote also was for one of her own dishes, bourboned-up Smo-o-oth Sweet Potatoes she shared for her portable Thanksgiving story. Seanan Forbes loved the pierogi that ran with her April profile of Rockit chef James Gottwald's grandmother; a New Yorker, Forbes swears these are better than any she's had, "and I lived in the East Village, where pierogi reign." And Tavaner Bushman chose Panzanella from Chicagoan LaManda Joy, creator of the Peterson Garden Project -- "pretty spectacular -- and so simple, which makes it all better."

I would link to all of the stories and recipes I just mentioned, but in case you haven't noticed, we have a new website that has inexplicably tucked away (for the time being, I'm told) our recipe archives into some deep, dark corner of the interwebz. My apologies.

But maybe some of these recipes ring a bell; maybe you even clipped these, or others, over the past year. Hang on to them. Keep cooking. Happy New Year.

Certain foods, depending on what your ethnic or family traditions are, have a strong association with the Christmas holiday. For some, it's a feast of fish on Christmas Eve, or turkey, ham, duck, or lasagna on Christmas Day.

For others, especially my Jewish friends, it means Chinese food. I've known for years that on occasions of major Christian holidays, when many restaurants are closed or feature a menu geared toward that specific holiday, the Chosen People chose Chinese food.

I was reminded of this over the past week, when I saw an article in the Jewish online magazine Tablet, on "Jewish Christmas."

The article notes that on Christmas Eve and Day a Jewish deli in Brooklyn will feature a "Traditional Jewish Christmas" $35 prix fixe menu, which will include egg drop soup, roast duck, smoked meat fried rice and Chinese broccoli, and end with fortune cookies.

The article points out that the Jewish love for Chinese food originated about a century ago, on the Lower East Side of New York. Marc Tracy writes that, "according to Matthew Goodman, author of Jewish Food: The World at Table, Italian cuisine and especially Italian restaurants, with their Christian iconography, held little appeal for Jews. But the Chinese restaurants had no Virgin Marys. And they prepared their food in the Cantonese culinary style, which utilized a sweet-and-sour flavor profile, overcooked vegetables, and heaps of garlic and onions. Sound familiar?"

Tracy also says that eating Chinese food on Christmas "reinforces their Jewishness" and while it may not be a demonstration of faith, necessarily, it is, well, as the song says, "tradition," and one that speaks to their hearts.

After Tracy's article I glanced at the "Community Calendar" of the Chicago Jewish News, and saw notices for not one, not two, but three, Shabbath services on Dec. 24 that include Chinese dinner. And I know there will be many, many gatherings throughout the area at Chinese restaurants or at homes where Chinese takeout will fill the tables.

So while some of us are hearing "We Three Kings," or "Little Drummer Boy," others will be singing the praises of General Tso. And as I bite into some Christmas biscotti, I'll be thinking of those who are opening their fortune cookies, and I'll wish us all a merry season and a happy, healthy, tasty new year.

Grahamwich opens: Bring cash

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The Grahamwich hysteria has crested.

Graham Elliot's much-anticipated sandwich shop at 615 N. State opened this morning, serving coffee and pastries from Fritz Pastry, 1408 W. Diversey. At 11 a.m., the sandwiches go live.

Most important thing to remember today (and for the forseeable future): It's cash only.

Frozen grapes, and then some

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At 689 pages, Bon Appetit Desserts is loaded with desserts of every stripe. And while I've put some of the showier ones on my to-make list - among them, a chilled lime-coconut pie and crème fraiche cheesecake with honey-rum-roasted pineapple - somehow, I'm drawn to the simpler ones.

Here's an idea from the book for styling up red and green grapes. These frozen numbers are served alongside grape granita, but why not just put out big clusters in a bowl by themselves?:

Dip red and green grape clusters in Muscat to moisten, then dip in sugar to coat. Place grapes on a tray and freeze until frozen, about 4 hours.

(And if you're just too cold to think about this, consider that come summer, roasted cherries are to be embraced. It all makes sense.)

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More extra's from today's cover story on bartenders' homemade holiday treats:

post and photo by guest blogger Seanan Forbes

Timothy Lacey, master bartender of the Drawing Room and his wife, Lisa, make plenty of holiday foods and gifts: jams, extracts, ice creams, pies and more.

"We cook way too much food," Lacey admits. "My mother, when I was a kid, would start making Christmas cookies in September, and freeze them. We'd be eating them until March. Going overboard is in our blood."

So is adapting to the needs of guests and friends. One of Lacey's desserts was apple cider ice cream. "My mother-in-law has lactose issues, so we had to do something without dairy," he says.

Thus was born a tradition. "I wanted to do this apple cider granita," Lacey recalls. "I was trying to figure out how to keep it from freezing solid."

Taking advantage of having tight connections with a few of Chicago's best pastry chefs, he sent out an e-mail: "Here's what I'm trying to do. How do I do it?"

Toni Roberts, pastry chef of C-House emailed back. "She suggested adding some vodka to it, to keep it from freezing." Lacey's bartending instincts kicked in. "I decided that applejack would complement the flavors better."

For the main ingredient, he looked to Seedling Fruit. "They've got some great varietal ciders." (You can find Seedling and their ciders at Green City Market.) Lacey was still thinking about cider ice cream. Then he tasted the granita, "and it was actually way better." Does he feel deprived? "No!" Lacey smiles. "In that one instance, no."

Recipe after the jump.

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The bartenders interviewed for today's cover story on their homemade holiday treats gave us way more material than we could use. Here's are some delicious extras:

Post and photo by guest blogger Seanan Forbes

Forget the jokes about hand-me-down fruitcakes. When it comes to making Christmas presents, Sepia's Joshua Pearson tweaks his father's cookie recipes. Pearson's dad, Stephen Pearson, is a professional pastry chef turned bakery manager, which promises something better than a mythical fruitcake doorstop.

A bite of revised heritage: Joshua Pearson's Grand Marnier sugar cookies. "He used to make something very similar," Pearson remembers, "without the glaze." Pearson the Elder's recipe was easy to make. Pearson the Younger's twist is, too. Unsurprisingly, it's also boozy, with liqueur in both dough and glaze.

"A couple of years ago, I was looking for a holiday cookie to make. I had some Grand Marnier, and I love cooking with Grand Marnier," he says. Chuckling, he confesses, "I boozed up his cookies a little bit."

This winter, Pearson's father is up from Australia, enjoying a chilly white Christmas in Chicago. The father's out and about, seeing the town. As to Pearson, he says, "My wife and I are staying in." He's in the kitchen, cooking and baking and keeping things warm.

Has his dad tasted the Grand Marnier version of his cookies? "He hasn't yet. I'm making them for Christmas." They'll appear after dinner. "I always cook a goose. I usually do a bourbon-glazed ham." Pearson's voice drifts off to meals past and dinners yet to come. Sugar cookies, too: spirited ones.

In Australia, the big holiday meal - lunch, there as in Britain - showcases shellfish. The orange cookies would be just as welcome after a hot-season feast.

In whatever weather they're made, the next batch of cookies may have just a little finely shaved dark chocolate in the batter, grated orange in the glaze or (who knows, with Joshua Pearson?) a different spirit altogether. Only three things are certain: The cookies will taste good; they'll pass any top-shelf bar exam, and they'll be shared with friends, family and an abundance of cheer.

Recipe after the jump.

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In keeping with the collaborative spirit of Chicago's chef community, Gilbert Langlois on Dec. 21 will lend his Chalkboard restaurant for the night to Blackbird's Mike Sheerin, who will cook a preview of his restaurant in the works, tentatively named the Trencherman.

"A trencherman is someon who enjoys eating and drinking in excess. That's kind of like me," says Sheerin, who now hopes to open next fall. "I want everyone to be a trencherman."

Sheerin says he's "partial" to the River North gallery district for his new venture. "I think Graham Elliot has a great thing going on down there, and there's some nice big spaces there," he says.

The pop-up dinner, which starts at 6:30 p.m. and costs $70, will offer a platform for Sheerin, who is slowly and surely embracing the public's fascination with chef as celebrity.

"It's funny, chefs have to be public figures," he says. "People want to know what we're up to, what the food is about."

And the food? Sheerin aims for inventiveness but in a casual atmosphere. On the proposed menu for the pop-up, for example: Pork belly braised in a broth made from sauerkraut with pumpernickel noodles, and a pumpkin churro with sake sorbet.

For his part, Langlois hosted his first pop-up, with chef Roxanne Spruance of New York's WD-50, in November.

Chalkboard is at 4343 N. Lincoln; for more details on the event, go to chalkboardrestaurant.com or call (773) 477-7144.

Here we go a gift basketing

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I remember the gift baskets my dad would bring home from his office from well-meaning souls.

They -- the baskets -- were usually wrapped in red cellophane and container one or more of the following:
Shelf-stable cheese (I think the technical term is "cheese food")
Red Delicious apples (softball-size)
Hard Anjou pears (rock hard)
Unshelled walnuts
Walkers shortbread

Foil-wrapped milk chocolate Santas (or other festively shaped chocolates).

The chocolate and shortbread were always the first to go. The rest ... eh.

That was what I thought of gift baskets then, but what did I know? It has since dawned on me that Chicago is one of the top cities for gift-basketing. The breadth of talented food and drink artisans in our fair city means there is potential for some pretty kickass gift baskets.

All of this is a long-winded way of pointing you toward a DIY gift basket day at Blue Sky Bakery and Cafe, 3720 N. Lincoln. From noon to 5 p.m. Saturday, the bakery -- which employs at-risk and homeless youth -- will provide the baskets, wrapping and shipping materials and let you have your pick of goodies from Rare Bird Preserves, Pasta Puttana, Jo Snow Syrups, Rich Chocolates, Tomato Mountain, the Coffee & Tea Exchange and Blue Sky's own baked lineup.

The event is free; prices for basket range from $15 to $100, depending on what you choose. Proceeds fund a good cause.

And there'll be nary a shelf-stable cheese stick in sight.

Because carb and sugar overload is inescapable right now, and because cupcake shops have been indestructible for years, and so that you can kiss goodbye to your New Year's resolution right now... Crumbs Bake Shop will open for business Jan. 7 at 303 W. Madison, a spokeswoman says. (There'll be a soft opening between Christmas and New Year's.)

And because giving away cupcakes is a given, the shop will give away 1,000 cupcakes on opening day.

And because cupcakes are indestructible, there are surely more cupcake shops to come.

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Big Star, 1531 N. Damen, purveyor of the hippest taco in town, this week started offering its DIY Taco Bar for very large taco and tostada orders, so you can replicate the Big Star experience in the less hip comfort of your own home.

Already, there's been one taker -- a 60-taco order yesterday for a Monday Night Football party.

"We're really hoping this is going to take off," says Big Star chef de cuisine Justin Large.

Ingredients are weighted and packaged separately to prevent soggy, sad food. Pricing is the same as the regular menu (tacos run $2 to $3 each), plus a 3 percent surcharge. Not included in the DIY options: the queso fundido, pozole and Sonoran hot dog. Orders need at least one hour of lead time.

One other thing -- the most important thing -- Large wants to clarify: The minimum order amount is 30 tacos or tostadas, not 50 as previously announced. (And so you know, the maximum order amount from the restaurant's walk-up window is 20.)

"When we first opened the to-go window, we had a guy order 70 tacos and that's great," Large says. "But what we're really trying to do is preserve the integrity of the food. When you're wrapping that 70th taco, those first 60 just aren't going to be as good. The spirit of tacos is it's something meant to be eaten fairly immediately and fresh and in-hand. It's the ultimate street food."

To order, call the Taco Hotline -- really, that's what they call it at Big Star, and it's a different number than the restaurant -- at (773) 680-7740.

The Top Chef juggernaut rolls on with the premiere of "Top Chef All-Stars" at 9 tonight on Bravo. And Dale Levitski promises not to disappoint.

I caught up recently with the 37-year-old Levitski, runner-up on Season Three, who, of course, could spill zero details about the show. This much he did say: "Top Chef Season Three was more about going to Cub Scout camp. All-Stars is a completely different animal in that we've all done it. There's more ego ... Honestly, it is the most difficult season yet. The [Top Chef] Masters had it easy." Pat07 color:b&w--cutout.jpg

Fighting words, young man. But then, he's a fighter.

Levitski's career was on an upswing when he was tapped to replace Grant Achatz as chef at Trio in 2004. But by the time Levitski made the cast of "Top Chef," Trio had closed and he was unemployed. He rode the inevitable post-show highs and then hit some low lows, among them, his mother's death and the disintegration of the yet-to-materialize restaurant of his dreams.

Last year, Levitski landed at Sprout, 1417 W. Fullerton. Last month, he celebrated the restaurant's first anniversary and inclusion in the first-ever Michelin Chicago guide.

After the holidays, Levitski is taking some time off, which may or may not include more filming, he says coyly.

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Judith Dunbar Hines makes an excellent point in today's Low Mileage Kitchen column: The holidays, and the floury treats that go with them, can be a bitch for the gluten-intolerant and those with celiac disease.

Hines, the city's director of culinary arts, also offers several resources for gluten-free cooking and an easy chocolate cookie recipe. But our goof: The nutritional facts are missing from the print version, so here you go.

Per cookie: 130 calories, 8 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 19 mg cholesterol, 13 g carbohydrates, 3 g sugars, 1 g protein, 31 mg sodium and 0 g fiber.

(Some readers had asked why we don't include total sugars in our nutritional data for recipes. I didn't have a good answer. But you'll now find the sugar content in our recipes.)

While we're on gluten-free -- because it seems inescapable these days -- Silvana Nardone, author of Cooking for Isaiah, is in town Friday and Saturday to demo recipes from her book, which she wrote for her gluten-intolerant son.

Nardone, the former editor-in-chief of Rachael Ray magazine, will be at Caputo's Fresh Markets, 2400 N. Harlem, in Elmwood Park from 1 to 3 p.m. Friday; and on Saturday at Dominick's 5201 N. Sheridan, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and Dominick's, 255 E. Grand, from 3 to 5 p.m.

Recipes she'll sample include Sugar-and-Spiced Dougnuts and Double-Chocolate Peanut Butter Pudding. Because gluten-free doesn't mean flavor-free.

About the blog

Janet Rausa Fuller

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

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This page is an archive of entries from December 2010 listed from newest to oldest.

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