writing about reading about eating

Some people are up in arms about the way young hipster creative types use their food stamps to buy foodie luxuries like organic produce.  I don't really give a shit how you use your small government subsidy - you qualify based on need and there are rules to ensure you actually buy food, so go for it.  Loved this smarty-pants response to the hundreds of angry judgmental comments making the rounds online.  You're damned if you buy Fritos and Pepsi, You're damned if you buy baby bok choy and salmon.

Speaking of damned...prepare to be horrified by the journal of an anonymous Chicago Public School teacher who's been eating and chronicling school lunches daily.  I qualified for free school lunch and remember little smokies day fondly, but also the disgusting overcooked canned vegetables, cardboard pizza, and the ground meat that passed for nacho topping one day and spaghetti sauce the next.  Gross.  Have you joined Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution?

You should follow RuthBourdain on twitter.  You will laugh at this mashup of Ruth Reichl's poetic twitter posts as seen through the imagined drug haze fogged lens of Anthony Bourdain.  Ruth and Tony think it is hilarious.

Facebook connected me to another blast from my past - this time to Bobbi who I remember being the most friendly, smiley person at my school.  She was even nice to jaded angsty teenage me!  She's a ridiculously talented photographer, the spunky red-headed wife half of bobbi+mike, and blogger extraordinaire/ray of sunshine on the scary internet.  I walked her through making a German chocolate cake for her mother's birthday using twitter, facebook, and text messages only.  I should start a social media food emergency hotline!

If you, like me, missed the Family Farmed Expo, you should check out Martha Bayne's coverage of the event for the Reader.  I enviously followed her live tweets while I was at work.

For some reason, eating while sick has been a popular topic recently: from The Stew What do you eat when you have a stormy stomach? and Epi-Log's What do you eat when your sick?  For the record, I prefer saltines and lemon-lime soda. 

I only share a few stories I find interesting here.  Follow my google profile, where I overshare recipes, food news items, music stuff and the other cultural ephemera that overload my rss feed.


Shop Here: Super H Mart

Browsing the Super H Mart involves a trek to Niles, Illinois.  You must first deal with epic traffic jams to reach the suburban Asian superstore, then face the anxiety-attack inducing parking lot, dodge shopping cart wielding maniacs and avoid the sad, longing gaze of many an unattended child.  Totally worth it and not that unlike a weekend trip to Costco.  Scott, my fellow KC native super-foodie Kendall grad friend, brought me to the jaw-dropping market on a weekday afternoon, but I think I'd avoid this place on the weekends.  It is overwhelmingly big - 19,000 square feet - yet still manages to get crowded.

It seems like every tiny family-owned grocer I've been to on Argyle or in Chinatown could fit into this mega-building.  We went for a lunch of way too much udon, to pick up a set of dishware, and to grab some groceries.  It is simultaneously a food court, housewares store, grocer, and mall with kiosks offering remote control toilets, underwear with matching handbags, and ginseng products from Wellbeing Town.  Wherever that is, I'd like to move there.

There's an entire aisle devoted to hot sauce.  Ditto for rice, noodles, and vinegar.  There are not just several won-ton wrapper brands, they fill an entire deli case.  Imagine you're in the refrigerated dairy section of your regular grocer: yogurt, butter, cheese, sour cream, milk.  Now picture an area that size filled with nothing but kimchi.  I'm not kidding.  The prepared food section is large and free samples are plentiful.

The produce department is insane - not full of pristine goods like a Whole Foods, but dazzling in its variety.  Giant pears, a dozen mushroom varieties, fresh turmeric root and water chestnuts, durian fruit, fresh chiles, a whole wall of green veg.  Not everything looked fresh, but even a choosy shopper could find something to take home and there were lots of organic options.  There were also several meat options that would usually require an extra trip to the butcher.  I got pork belly for less than $2 per pound.  Scott picked up some good looking short ribs which were cut "flanken" style across the bone for a great price too.

The whole fish and seafood is inexpensive.  Some of it, a little too inexpensive.  Be picky, use common sense and look for signs of freshness.  Their dried squid or frozen fish are probably safer choices than fresh shrimp from a giant metal bin with very little ice and a plastic scoop for patrons to serve themselves.  I saw a huge tuna unattended on a cutting table for several minutes and would have tried to steal the damn thing if I could have lifted it. 

Take a field trip and check it out for yourself:

Super H Mart
801 Civic Center Dr
Niles, IL 60714
Hours: 8 am - 11 pm 


black and fake tan corned beef

It is too late to brine your own brisket for a corned beef feast on St. Patrick's Day.  I failed too.  I didn't plan ahead and instead purchased a far inferior corned beef in a bag of salt and preservatives as a hangover cure this weekend.  Like me, you lost out on the opportunity to impart a ton of flavor and control what went into the brine.  Make up for your error by cooking the damn thing in something other than a vat of plain water. 

I was out of cheesecloth to contain the spices.  I used a tea ball infuser.  If you don't have either of these, you can just throw the spices into the pot - just be careful to remove anything that clings to the meat after cooking.  A sharp bay leaf or bite full of chile seeds would not be pleasant.

Some basic corned beef and cabbage tips:
  • Use some beer to cook the hunk of beef. Beer > Water.
  • Boil the potatoes in the corned beef liquid but roast all the other vegetables.  This will provide distinct textures in your final dish and lend a caramelized sideshow to the salty meat main attraction.  This will also prevent your house from smelling of boiled cabbage.
Into the pot...

2 12oz. bottles of Guinness Stout (or sub another beer worth drinking)
6-8 large cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
3 - 4 cinnamon sticks
1 teaspoon whole cloves
3 bay leaves
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon peppercorns
2 dried chile de árbol, broken in half (or sub 1 tsp. red pepper flakes)
water to cover the beef

Put your brisket in a heavy bottomed pot along with your spices, beer, and enough water to cover the meat.
Bring liquid to a boil, cover and reduce heat to low (maybe medium-low).  You want it to simmer - bubbles breaking the surface of the water every few seconds, not a rolling boil.  Let it cook this way for about two hours.  You can check it after 90 minutes or so, but cooking it for three hours wouldn't hurt it either.  When brisket is fork tender, remove from pot.

I also boiled in the beef/beer liquid for about 20 minutes:
3 lbs. unpeeled medium red-skinned potatoes, quartered
3 medium onions, peeled and quartered

And roasted with olive oil, salt and pepper at 375 degrees for 40 minutes:
10 shallots, peeled and quartered
2 lbs. carrots peeled

And roasted with 4 strips of bacon at 450 degrees a la the Kitchn:
1 medium head of cabbage, stem removed, cut into 8 wedges

To make up my lapse in meat judgment to my also hungover guests, I whipped up some Irish Soda Bread* inspired by a nerdy 80s actor and a Blood Orange Polenta Upside-Down Cake.  Both were hits.

*The soda bread recipe in the magazine has been amended by bon appetit online.  My suggestion: watch the timing.  My bread was done in 45 minutes (recipe calls for 55 - 60). Also - slather with butter (see picture above) and eat it fast, it doesn't keep well for more than two days.


Restaurant Week: Naha

The top of the menu read: NAHA celebrates Restaurant Week 2010.  And it did feel as if they were glad to be participating.  Despite a strange interaction with the restaurant's hostess, I felt welcome at Naha and they seemed prepared for a restaurant week crowd.  Every table in our section ordered from the special menu excepting a couple with a sleeping infant who wolfed down a shared appetizer and ran for it.  

Jessica, my fashion design student friend and favorite shopping/gossiping partner, accompanied me to lunch.  I am sometimes uncomfortable eating in fancy settings, but I knew she would put me at ease.  I love trying new food and appreciate excellent service, but I sometimes can't get over feeling anxious and out of place in fine dining.  It is usually caused by my perception of snooty front of the house staff and pretentious customers.  Jessica shares my judgmental streak and once we turned the dining room into an episode of What Not to Wear, I was laughing.  Especially about the guy at the bar who thought he was a character in a Bret Easton Ellis novel. 

Once seated, the service was stellar and the food, interesting.  I woke up with a scratchy throat, so I inquired about hot tea.  The list was a bit intimidating, featuring many vintage options and prices similar to a wine list.  I opted for a $6 chamomile, and was delighted when the pot of tea yielded three solid cups of warm tea - not too expensive after all.  The bread service was delicious - especially the raisin bread with fennel seeds - and I was pleased with the generous portion of butter.

I started with: Cannelloni of Butternut and Acorn Squash, Caramelized Winter Root Vegetables of Homegrown Wisconsin Organic Parsnip, Celery Root and Rutabaga with Spaghetti Squash, Apple Cider and Chervil.  I love squash, and here the preparation really honored the naturally sweet flavors of the root vegetables without tipping the scales toward sickly sweet.  I only wished there was more - I actually contemplated ordering another portion to take home.

Jessica ordered the Mediterranean Fattoush “Greek Salad” of Mt. Vikos Feta, Cucumbers, Roma Tomatoes, Chickpeas, Italian Farro, Kalamata Olives and Oregano.  It was crisp and light with the olives and feta adding some salt to punch up the dish.  Then we both ordered the quail.  Usually I like to get something different from my dining partner, to explore as many flavors and options as possible, but it just sounded too good.

A Farm Plate of Roasted Quail, La Quercia Proscuitto and Confit Cockscombs with Lacinato Kale, Carolina Polenta, Glazed Shallot and Thyme. 

The quail was stuffed, and cooked nicely with crisp skin and moist, tender meat.  Though I love the earthy flavor of a small game bird, I almost always regret ordering it because it can be such a pain to eat.  When you're in casual company it doesn't seem to matter though, and I tore into it.  The polenta was loose and creamy.  The cockscombs were new to me: delicious with a dense, chewy texture similar to a lobster mushroom.  Both of our plates were emptied, leaving only a pile of tiny bird bones.

After stalking several plates floating around the dining room, we settled on dessert.  I chose a mountain of stacked items culminating in a peak of spun sugar.  The “Open-Faced” Banana Tartlette, Spiced Rum, Toasted Cashews, Vanilla Chiboust “Custard” and Salted Caramel had texture and flavor, and wore its neutral color scheme well.  Jessica's Dark Chocolate and Hazelnut Cake, “Cara Cara” Oranges and Milk Chocolate Crème was reported to be delicious, but we mutually decided not to share any of our last course.

All of these items are not on the regular lunch menu, but given the prices of similar plates, we each spent $22 for meals that would normally have been priced at approximately $43 per person.  It was a nice treat for a mid-week lunch, and I think I'll keep Naha in mind for a special dinner in the future.

The fun and savings were actually extended into Restaurant Weeks, as many restaurants chose to keep their discounted menus available through March 6.  If you missed out, take advantage of Chicago Chef Week instead, March 22 - 28, for similarly priced three-course menus at a smaller list of chef-driven restaurants.


happy birthday, dear Chicago

I don't like cake.  I avoided birthday parties growing up because I dreaded the inevitably tense discussion with a perky mom who just couldn't wrap her head around a weirdo kid who didn't want any cake.  After politely declining several times, I usually ended up caving and pushing around a dry square coated in a cloying layer of icing with a plastic fork for a few minutes.  Then I pawned it off on another party guest, scraped it into the trash cleverly disguised in a napkin, or hid the plate behind a plant on the kitchen counter.     

For my own birthdays, I preferred to wolf down cheesecake - not really cake - after eating an adult portion of lasagna at Papa Frank's, a neighborhood favorite that was forced to relocate by the massive flood in 1993.  I got older and started celebrating birthdays with friends at pizza places with animatronic bands.  The masses were appeased with fancy (notable themes included NKOTB, 90210, Chicago Bulls) concoctions purchased from a decorator friend, but I did not partake.  For my family celebration, at a restaurant of my choosing, I preferred to order pie or ice cream.  Anything but cake.

                               chubby Allison, age 3, eye on the prize

It took awhile to realize that I only hated bad cake, of which, there seems to be an abundance in the world.  Cake can be good: moist, flavorful, filled, covered with good buttercream, layered to the ceiling.  Strawberry cake my Grandma Georgia makes with the Summer garden's bounty.  Chocolate cake smothered with ganache eaten with my fingers while watching cartoons in bed.  Pineapple upside-down cake to serve 300 people - the first cake I made all by myself as a grown-up.  If a cake has frosting leaping forth like flames from the sides and top, I'll probably like that cake.  If a picture can be scanned onto the perfectly smooth top, I probably don't like that cake.

Last Cinco de Mayo, err dos de Mayo, I made my first tres leches cake.  The architecture of the cake I planned with two thick layers, heavy with milk syrup, covered with fresh whipped cream was not suitable for travel across the city.  Not on a bus or in a taxi, where I probably shouldn't trust the driver with my life and definitely not a cake.  I packed up some springform pans, bags full of dairy ingredients, and fresh strawberries, lugging them to the party to make a mess in someone else's kitchen for a change.  That cake was so damn good.  The hauling of the hand mixer to Kris and Frankie's apartment was definitely worth it, but I immediately began hatching a plan for a commute-friendly version for the future.  Cupcakes, if a little cute and over done, are pretty great travelers.  And they eliminate the need for plates and forks.  They are perfect for tres leches, I figured.

                                tres leches cake, dos de Mayo 2009

Last weekend I confirmed my gut feeling. Successful, wet cupcakes were had by many a tipsy reveler at Jonathan's impromptu birthday party.  One attendee refused, saying he had given up sweets for Lent, but a nearby party-goer branded them "epic" and had another one on his behalf.  You should make these to celebrate Chicago's Birthday.  Or just Thursday.  I have some leftovers and I think tonight I'll celebrate having driven home from the suburbs, during rush hour, without killing anyone.  Provided I accomplish that.

Tres Leches Cupcakes
cake and syrup recipes adapted from Michael Lomonaco,
Epicurious 2002

Spicy Sponge Cake (makes 16 - 20 cupcakes)
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 1/2  teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon ground ginger
4 eggs, separated
1 1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup whole milk
pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a muffin tin with foil cupcake liners and spray inside each liner lightly with canola oil baking spray.  Whisk flour with baking powder and cinnamon, cardamom, and ginger in a medium bowl.  Separate egg yolks from whites.  Using a standing mixer with the whisk attachment, beat egg whites until frothy, then slowly add sugar to tighten whites to semi stiff peaks. Add yolks one at a time. Alternate adding the flour mixture and the milk until well mixed.  Using 1/3 cup measuring cup, pour batter into cupcake liners, filling 2/3 way up side of liner. Bake for about 20 - 22 minutes or until the middle springs back when touched and tops are slightly brown, turning once halfway through baking to ensure even cooking. Cool thoroughly on a wire rack.

Rum Milk Syrup
1 can evaporated milk (12 oz.)
1 can sweetened condensed milk (14 oz.)
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 tablespoons dark spiced rum (optional)