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February 2011 Archives

Yes, we have no tomatoes

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Oh, the precious pomodori.

Maybe you've noticed the signs on the doors or the notes attached to the menus and ordering areas of your favorite eateries recently that say, in effect, "We have no tomatoes," or "We're low on tomatoes."

This past weekend I saw such a notice at the counter of a Subway shop. The note advised customers that there is a weather-related shortage of tomatoes and the restaurant might not be able to supply tomatoes for your sandwich. Despite the warning, though, the particular Subway I visited Sunday night had plenty of tomatoes on hand. Apparently Subway has changed the type of tomato they use and is also getting some from Mexico, instead of Florida, whose tomato growers were hit hard by bad weather this winter. But Mexico has also suffered from an unusual cold snap that has affected tomato-growing.

At Potbelly, I found a not affixed to a catering menu that explained "the recent cold weather across North America has had a severe impact on the availability, quality and cost of tomatoes. Due to these factors, we will temporarily cease to offer tomatoes on your sandwich. As soon as the tomato crop returns to normal we will add them back to your sandwiches."

From October to June, Florida produces about half the tomatoes consumed in the United States.

Of course, let's hope that for the sake of the people whose livelihoods depend upon growing and selling tomatoes the market returns to normal soon, but at the same time, is it really such a hardship if, not even a couple weeks after we were buried under a couple feet of snow and then suffered through below zero temperatures, we have to wait a little while longer or pay a bit more for a tomato?

[photo by Al Podgorski/Sun-Times]

Love to cook? Hugh Amano wants you. Haven't a clue how to cook? He wants you. Love to eat and talk? You're in, too.

Amano, a Chicago food blogger and cooking school instructor, is starting what he's calling a food-based "salon series" that he hopes will draw both novices and pros to the table to cook, eat and converse. 3-24-09_podgo_food_53.jpg

"It's a setting somewhere in between a class and say, an underground dinner, presenting simple food, instruction, then the sharing of the meal over conversation," Amano says.

His Lincoln Square apartment will be the salon, and he will provide the ingredients and equipment.

It's meant to be intimate -- roughly six at a time -- and "non-exclusive," and geared toward making you a better cook, he says.

"I want to connect those of you who are experts in, say, theater, with those of you who keep bees. Those of you who eat regularly at places like Alinea, and those of you who visit taquerias and hot dog stands on a daily basis," he wrote on his blog, Food on the Dole.

Amano started the blog in late 2008 after being laid off from his sous chef job. His theme, on the blog and in life, has been about eating well on limited means by cooking at home. To that end, he has organized occasional potlucks and "pie-offs."

He hopes to turn the salons into a weekly event, adding morning sessions and, come summer, trips to farmers markets to precede the cooking and eating.

The first Food on the Dole salon is March 10, and the cost is $50. Roast chicken will be the main course.

For location details and to sign up, e-mail hughamano@yahoo.com or go to foodonthedole.blogspot.com.

MIDWEST TO CHINA.jpg [AP photo]

Only in its second year, and Baconfest already feels so official.

The celebration of all things bacon, started by a trio of bacon-loving Chicago guys, will be held April 9 at the UIC Forum and has a chief sponsor this year -- the Illinois Pork Producers Association.

More than 50 chefs, double last year's number, have signed on to provide porcine treats; in addition, more than 20 vendors will be offering bacon-themed merchandise (bacon soap, bacon lip balm, bacon pillows and so on, Forrest). There will also be an amateur bacon cook-off.

And unlike the inaugural fest, where attendees had to make the painstaking decision of choosing between two tasting sessions (or going whole hog and buying their way into both halves), this year's is one big, fat, glorious tasting from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m.

Tickets are $65 and go on sale at noon Friday (there's a 4-ticket limit per transaction) on the Baconfest website. There are some 1,500 tickets available. You've been warned.

What price, Next?

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You may have heard that Grant Achatz, the accolade-laden chef at Alinea, is opening a restaurant called Next and a bar next door called Aviary on West Fulton in April.

And you may have heard that Next will serve food drawn from different eras and places for three months at a time, essentially metamorphosizing into an entirely new restaurant four times a year. And that Next won't take reservations but rather will sell tickets to diners that will vary in price based on the day and time. And that Aviary will serve boundary-pushing cocktails like none you've ever tippled before. (The bar has entire rooms dedicated to ice-making and glass-washing, people; as of Thursday, there were 19 different shapes of ice created, and counting.)

But what does this mean for your wallet, you may wonder?

Here's what Achatz and partner Nick Kokonas said yesterday:

The ticket price for the debut, eight-course Escoffier menu at Next will range from $65 to $105. (Thai street food will be the second menu, Achatz says; price range not determined but based on how they've explained their concept, I'm guessing lower).

The price of cocktails (25 on the menu) at Aviary will range from $12 to $20, and food prices will be comparable to "a nice sushi place."

And a little more about the food at Aviary, which hasn't been talked or written about much:

Achatz described the menu of 12 savory and 3 sweet items as "really progressive finger food" that will come three on a plate. "Like cantaloupe with champagne and prosciutto," Achatz said -- that is, a cube of "beautifully ripe cantaloupe" saturated and compressed with champagne, then rolled in dehydrated prosciutto powder. And: "Clam chowder" croquettes, Achatz said, his fingers making quotation marks in the air.

As of Thursday, the restaurant had logged 18,400 e-mail addresses from people who want to know when the ticket reservation system for Next opens. That, Achatz figured, represents about 3 3/4 years' worth of diners already.

(If you're already thinking, 'How in the hell will I ever get to eat at Next?!' know that in the basement of Aviary will be a tiny bar called the Office, behind a door marked "Office," with yet its own food and drink menu, and to which "we either invite you, or you book it," Kokonas says. So those chances are even slimmer...).

Aviary will be first come, first served.

The list of 2011 James Beard Foundation Award semifinalists was released today with a good number of Chicago chefs in the mix.

Paul Kahan of Blackbird and Spiaggia's Tony Mantuano are up in the Outstanding Chef category, and Spiaggia is in the Outstanding Restaurant field as well.

Blackbird's Patrick Fahy and Mindy Segal of Hot Chocolate are up for Outstanding Pastry Chef, while Girl & the Goat, the much-heralded restaurant on West Randolph from "Top Chef" winner Stephanie Izard, is up for Best New Restaurant.

Veterans Rich Melman of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises and Scott Harris, head of the successful Francesca's empire who has opened no fewer than six restaurants in the last year, are among those vying for Outstanding Restaurateur.

Les Nomades and Topolobampo are semifinalists for Outstanding Service. For Outstanding Wine Service, Michael Muser of Avenues in the Peninsula is the lone Chicago contender, as is Charles Joly of the Drawing Room in the Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional field.

Tru's Anthony Martin is up for the coveted Rising Star Chef award for chefs under 30.

Let's hope the Chicago entrants in the Best Chef:Great Lakes category don't cancel each other out -- Schwa's Michael Carlson, Curtis Duffy of Avenues, Dirk Flanigan of the Gage and Henri, Dale Levitski of Sprout, Chris Nugent of Les Nomades, Bruce Sherman of North Pond and Paul Virant of Vie.

Each field will be whittled down to five finalists, who will be announced on March 21. The awards, held in New York in May, are the equivalent of the Oscars for the culinary industry and are voted on by a panel of industry professionals and past winners.

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story and photo by guest blogger Lisa Shames

The way chef Evan Percoco of Cibo Matto sees it, dining in a restaurant is all about bringing people together. So he's always on the lookout for ways to keep the conversation flowing.

That goes for the Loop restaurant's post-dessert/check-accompanying freebie, too. No boring mints or chocolate bon-bons here. Rather, the new chef -- he replaced Todd Stein, now at the Florentine, a few months back -- taps into a childhood favorite to keep his guests smiling.

To wit: cotton candy.

"When we put it down on the table, people automatically start talking about old times," says Percoco, with the conversation becoming about memories, rather than, say, business.

Don't expect your typical cotton candy though. Percoco, who's been doing this for years at other restaurants, gets creative with the carnival staple, churning out flavors like cinnamon, vanilla, pineapple and lemon. "As long as you can spray it on the sugar, it can work," says Percoco. Be on the lookout for a Manhattan- and maybe a licorice-flavored one soon.

It's not just the guests who are having all the fun with the sticky-in-a-good-way treat. Since it has to be made fresh for each table, the entire staff lends a hand in manning the bright-pink sugar-spinning machine. And while the process takes less than a minute, that doesn't mean you can't get imaginative with it.

"It's funny that everyone has their own style in making it," says Percoco, who admits he prefers it fluffy and piled high in the bowl while one of the servers is known for his "Q-tip" shape. "It gets pretty competitive during service to see who can create the best."

Cibo Matto, 201 N. State, (312) 239-9500.

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[photo by Keith Hale~Sun-Times]

Didier Durand, the animated French chef perhaps best known for his opposition to the city's short-lived foie gras ban, is running for mayor.

Well, he wants to anyway. He was trying to. Sort of.

In a newsletter e-mailed over the weekend, Durand announced he was running as a write-in candidate. He described his platform ("Good food makes people happy") and that he'd set up a website, chefdidierformayor.com (half of which looks legit).

So I had to ask: Are you serious, Chef?

"If I was able to repeal the foie gras ban, then I can take care of the city," Durand told me by phone this morning. "I'm neither Democrat nor Republican. I'm from the foie gras party. I don't think I'll be elected, at least this time. But I really believe good food makes people happy."

Durand said that because all of his relatives are in France, "I won't put any of my family on the city payroll." Other pet projects: "School food, making sure we put tables all across the city in the parks for people to eat. Also, I will do something about the cigarette butts everywhere."

"The next mayor should be a foodie just like Mayor Daley."

There is but one snafu: Durand has missed the deadline for write-in candidates. "I'm not sure if there's more paperwork to be done," he acknowledged when I asked him if he was officially on the ballot.

Indeed, Dec. 23 was the deadline for write-in candidates to file their notice of intent, says Jim Allen, spokesman for the Chicago Board of Elections. (Candidates originally on the ballot who were kicked off have until tomorrow to file.) Allen had no such paperwork from Durand.

"This souffle is half-baked," Allen said, chuckling. "Or whatever euphemism you want to use."

And so: a call back to Durand, who was unperturbed and only slightly confused.

"Anybody who wants to write me in, they can do that at the bottom, I think," he said.

Don't be surprised then if, after your meal at Cyrano's Bistrot, Durand's River North restaurant, the chef asks you to do just that. While you're at it, ask him about the cookbook he's writing on the gastronomy of Bergerac, his hometown in France. He's working on it. Really, he is.

Marco Bahena had two hours to turn out the dish he'd been practicing for months.

And that the 21-year-old Kendall College senior did, winning the S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef north central regional competition held Wednesday at Kendall.

The contest is for culinary students. Two of the competitors attend Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago; two others flew in from the International Culinary School at the Art Institutes International Minnesota.

Bahena's dish -- lamb loin wrapped in chicken mousseline and served with an olive oil-poached potato and a bacon-studded Lyonnaise salad -- wasn't flawless, he admits.

"One of the loins was a little too rare. I pulled it a little too soon," he says, a point one of the judges, chef Joncarl Lachman of HB Home Bistro and Vincent, questioned him on.

But the sophistication of the dish still impressed the judges, who included David Posey of Blackbird and John State of Seasons 52. (I was one of the media judges, along with Don Newcomb of ChicaGourmets! and WMAQ-Channel 5's Christian Farr.)

Bahena employed caul fat, onto which he spread the mousseline, then wrapped up the lamb loin jelly roll-style. He says he was inspired by the late French master Auguste Escoffier's influential cookbook, which still serves as a Bible of sorts for chefs and culinary schools.

Bahena, a Vernon Hills native now living in Logan Square (no relation to the supremely talented, peripatetic chef Geno Bahena, though "I get asked that a lot"), heads to the finals in Napa Valley, a three-day event starting March 11, where he'll cook his dish for a judging panel that will include Spiaggia's Tony Mantuano, Rick Moonen of rm seafood in Las Vegas and Food & Wine editor-in-chief Dana Cowin. The winner gets $10,000 and a paid apprenticeship.

The contest is a huge door-opener for students. Last year's winner, Brian Schreiber, a Kendall graduate, is now working for Mantuano at Terzo Piano in the Art Institute of Chicago.

Lachman, the winner of the first Almost Famous competition in 2002, was so impressed by another student last year that he eventually hired him. "He's now my main sausage maker," Lachman says.

8:31 Frost Brownies.jpg

Why mess with a good thing? [Sun-Times file photo]

A bunch of students from Evanston Township High School got sick after eating pot-laced brownies. School officials say one kid baked them and brought them to school, according to a story on our website.

Sigh.

Not being versed in the culinary possibilities of marijuana (which exist, according to pot proponents), I can only urge the students next time to lay off the pot and just bake the brownies. It's proven that chocolate makes you happy. Happy is a high, isn't it?

My current favorite brownie recipe comes from Tcho. Bake these, kids, and you won't get sick. Fat, maybe, but not sick.

Recipe after the jump.

Speaking of weird food and flavor pairings, the prominent topic in today's Food pages . . .

Feast points us to a doozy -- a Vosges bacon-chocolate bar-topped hot dog at Hot Doug's, 3324 N. California.

The base of the $7.50 creation is a pork sausage with hints of dried cherry and apple. Pear mustard and chunks of the aforementioned Vosges Mo's Bacon Bar round out the dog.

As with many offerings at Hot Doug's, this chocolate-topped dog is fleeting, available only through Saturday, according to Feast. After which, the shop will close up shop for a brief break, until March 2.

"It has often been said that wives, girlfriends and significant others complain that affection and attention shouldn't be limited to one day: Valentine's Day," the Hot Doug's website reads. "Hot Doug's wholeheartedly agrees: It should be two and a half weeks."

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[photo by John J. Kim/Sun-Times]

Before she was infusing ganache with wasabi and coating marshmallows in pretzel-and-beer brittle, truffle truffle owner Nicole Greene made a living as a Defense Department analyst, briefing policy wonks on high-level security sort of stuff.

So that diagram you see above, that's a little of Nicole Greene the defense analyst coming out.

She was briefing me the hows and whys of tempering chocolate, as background to her guest column and accompanying video in today's Food pages. It was selfishness on my part to ask her to show me; I'd never tempered chocolate before. But I also was hesitant, because what's second nature to chefs is almost always not so much to the rest of us.

"Tempering is really intimidating. In some ways, it still is to me," Greene acknowledged before adding, "It's mostly intuitive."

When you temper, Greene explained, you move chocolate through a temperature range within a compressed time frame -- heat, cool, heat again -- to achieve a certain structure.

Why do it? If you're making candies or truffles, and you want that nice, shiny chocolate coating that, when set, has that certain "snap."

Again, Greene empasized, the process was mostly intuitive; no two pastry chefs temper the exact same way. But she quickly showed me and of course, she made it look easy. And then I went home and did it and ... success.

A few points: A thermometer is key (for me and you, at least; pros like Greene can do without). Keeping even the tiniest drop of water out of the chocolate is essential.

Here's Greene's method, which I hope works for you, too:

Start with high-quality chocolate in a dry bowl; set aside a small handful or chunk of chocolate for later. You'll see why.

Set the bowl over a pot of simmering water and heat until about 90 percent of the chocolate is melted and the temperature hits about 123 degrees for dark chocolate (118 or 119 degrees for white).

Remove the bowl from heat and stir gently to melt the rest of the chocolate.

Then take that unmelted chocolate you've set aside -- in pastry chef parlance, this is your "seed" -- and toss it into the bowl. This chocolate, which already is tempered, "is going to give the melted chocolate a way to behave," Greene said.

Stir until melted; check the temperature again. When the melted chocolate cools to around 90 or 91 degrees, you've reached the tempered state.

"Flash" the bowl over a burner just a few times to warm it a few degrees, and you're done.

The chocolate should look satiny and shiny and, when it sets, will have that snap.

IMG_1191.JPG Wow, that's a big cookie.

For Valentine's Day, Bittersweet Pastry Shop, 1114 W. Belmont, is baking up giant fortune cookies (above) for $6 a piece. How giant? "About the size of a small woman's fist," says publicist Jamie Hannah. You choose the words that go inside. Order 48 hours in advance by calling (773) 929-1100.

Blue Sky Inn Bakery and Cafe, 3720 N. Lincoln, also is offering personalized homemade fortune cookies by the dozen for $10. You can submit up to 10 different messages.

If you're more into heart-shaped edibles, TeddyFabz, 663 Lake Cook Rd. in Deerfield, is grilling heart-shaped burgers Friday through Monday for $4.69. They're served open-faced.

And then there's this combo, oozing with Chicago charm -- a heart-shaped Lou Malnati's pizza (cheese or sausage) and a heart-shaped Eli's cheesecake. Order the duo at tastesofchicago.com for $49.95.

Here's a deal for Sun-Times readers: mk restaurant, which has quietly been doing its elegant thing for more than a decade, is offering 25 percent off your dinner tab Sunday through Thursday, from now until May 1. To get the deal, simply say you're a "friend of the Sun-Times" when making the reservation (and if I may: you don't have to mean it, but it's nice if you do, so thank you in advance!).

That is all.

MK is at 868 N. Franklin. Call (312) 482-9197.

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The Southern Mac mac 'n' cheese truck makes its rolling debut on Monday (possibly not enough time for Streets and San to finish doing their thing, but that's just a projection), but the curious can ogle it on Sunday -- and get their mac 'n' cheese fix for the Super Bowl.

The truck will be parked in front of the Southern, 1840 W. North. Inside, chef Cary Taylor will be dishing up the four varieties of cheesy, carby goodness that will be featured on Monday's maiden run.

"We're sitting here debating how much to make" for Sunday, Taylor said.

The Southern opens at 4 p.m. Sunday; the buffet costs $10. "It'll be done when we run out," Taylor says.

Follow the truck on Twitter. "We're gonna have fun with it," says Taylor, chief driver as well as chef. "We've got 24 different varieties going in the back right now. It's gonna be pretty off-the-cuff."

05-08-10-kim-roti01.jpg [photo by John J. Kim/Sun-Times]

Itching to stretch those snowbound legs? Join a walking spice tour of Devon Avenue from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday.

The intrepid tour leader is Anupy Singla, a former reporter for Bloomberg and CLTV, contributor to our Food pages, cookbook author, mother of two and all-around life force.

Singla left the news business four years ago to shift her focus to her two young daughters. As she explained to me when we first met in 2009, her girls' eating habits had veered from the healthy, home-cooked lifestyle that was always Singla's goal but not always possible with her journalist's schedule. So, she got cooking to get them back on track.

At the time, she already was tossing around ideas for a couple of books, one of them a cookbook on using the Crock-Pot to make Indian food -- the secret weapon in every Indian home cook's kitchen. In no time, she snagged a publisher, collected her family's recipes, started testing them and plying her friends and neighbors with food (all hilariously detailed on her blog and Facebook page). Within a year, warp speed in the publishing biz, her book, The Indian Slow Cooker, was on bookshelves. I did say 'life force,' didn't I?

Singla's working on a second book, still blogging, teaching occasional cooking classes. And her family is eating better than ever. The other day, Singla wrote on Facebook how one of her girls wouldn't stop eating the raw okra Singla was prepping for dinner.

Join Singla, if you can keep up, tomorrow in front of Patel Bros., 2610 W. Devon.

The tour is $42. For more details and to sign up, go to indianasapplepie.com/tours.


Some people will do anything for a free lunch.

While the rest of you burrow into your Snuggies and fire up the DVR, about 35 brave (or is it crazy?) souls have decided to keep their lunch reservations -- for the outdoor patio at South Water Kitchen, 225 N. Wabash.

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Since 2005, the restaurant has offered this Groundhog Day deal: free lunch to anyone who eats on their outdoor patio.
There are three seatings today -- at 11:30 a.m., 12:30 and 1:30 p.m. Indeed, about 20 minutes ago, the first diners were seated, filling six tables, says employee Paul Bitters.

"They are sitting out there," Bitters said. "And the wind is blowing the snow."

Bitters said a few people did cancel their reservations, but 35 to 40 reservations still are expected.

The snow-crazed customers get to choose from a set menu that incudes chicken pot pie and grilled cheese with tomato bisque. "All lunches come with piping hot coffee or tea," a press release says.

About the blog

Janet Rausa Fuller

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

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