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ruby Fragarian lust…

By on Jun 4, 2015 in fruit, love | 0 comments

This is a love letter to strawberries. Particularly, the ones that suddenly appeared on the farmer’s market table. Bright, juicy beacons of summer, blithely tumbled together in quaint little wood boxes, so different from their overgrown brethren, trapped in stifling plastic containers and shipped from California. Strawberries. Plump, juicy, tart and sweet strawberries. If asparagus is one of the first colorful foods we see here in the Midwest, those slender stalks of green leaping from the ground, the crimson glow of strawberries are a true herald of summer. Or, to be more fair, given the lust that ensues once these summery gems appear on market tables, they are basically their own Fragarian red light district, beckoning you to the delights of summer. (Yes, I had to look that up. They are of the Fragaria genus.) In case I hadn’t mentioned it before, strawberries are my favorite food of all time. When this time of year hits, I snap up quantities bordering on obscene. I fantasize about one day having a yard, which would just be a carpet of strawberry plants. Jam always must be made, jars filled with glowing red sunshine lining my shelves, every year tweaking and pushing just a bit farther as I discover more about my beloved crimson berry. This year is no different, but I decided to take it slow. I bought one pint. Just one, though it pained me. I rushed them home, plunked them down on the counter and gazed at them all moony-eyed. They do get their own Strawberry Moon , so I found it only appropriate. Even with imperfections here and there, a mild squish and bruise slightly marring the taught, luminous surface, they are still perfection. They cried out for a photo shoot, and so I obliged. No fanciness, no toppings, no seasonings, nothing but a pile and a carefully selected slice, carved with my finest paring knife. Nothing less would do. And then, they were eaten. There is no recipe here. I grew up with the grand treat of slicing them, sprinkling them with sugar and pouring milk over them, which is still wonderful. I have been learning more about things that pair beautifully with the sumptuous strawberry, such as red wine, basil, and the magic of a splash of balsamic vinegar that somehow deepens and intensifies the flavor of this sumptuous fruit. But for this first grand basket, this first dive into the magic pool of summery fruit, I went commando. With the fruit, of course. In the end, these are really early and they haven’t hit their full potential, which dampened my spirits ever so briefly. But they are hope. Hope of sunshine and fresh flavors and fruits and vegetables that actually have scent. Have you ever really smelled a strawberry? Find one at a local farmer’s market or farm stand. Stick it right up to your nose and breathe deeply, letting that sweet floral scent work all the way through your nasal passages. You will never get that from a cramped plastic box shipped from thousands of miles away. There will be more coming about strawberries. I have a few nefarious ideas. But for now, do yourself a favor. Hunt down a box of local, fresh strawberries. Don’t stick them in the fridge and wait to enjoy them, just rinse, pour into a bowl, and sit. Breathe deeply. And dive in. Sharing is...

spring is sproinging

By on May 24, 2015 in cooking, dinner, love, vegetarian | 0 comments

The winter was long and dreary. Yup, totally not an original statement. I am still not entirely sure if it is aging or actual changes in winter, but it feels like winters are getting harder in my beloved Midwest. Not necessarily in terms of snow, although Chicago did enjoy a 2′ in one day blizzard that buried my car so completely I could only see 1” of it after the snow plows came through, but in terms of the grey. The never… ending… grey… The cold that keeps a harsh snap way past any time that seems sane, though you know it happens every year. And for me, personally, in case the lack of writing wasn’t obvious, it was never… ending… work. Work is good, absolutely! I am lucky to have it. But being a studio of one, a freelancer, I piled on too much, deadlines slid around, and suddenly I found myself sitting in front of my computer for 14 hours a day, almost 7 days a week, cultivating that translucent pallor enjoyed by the most dedicated of gamers. And my nutritional intake… well it was beginning to be on par with those gamers. For all my wailing about ‘there is always time for food,’ I wasn’t making that time. I was eating crap. Constant takeout. Skipping meals, only to binge on some processed snack late in the night. And I am feeling it. Mind, body, and soul. Enter Wisconsin. Well not really. I entered Wisconsin. Wisconsin pretty much stays where it is. Every year my family does a giant gathering in southwest Wisconsin, which coincidentally happens to be the most fertile farmland in the country. I have no scientific basis for that, I just have the evidence of my own eyes as I drive through and raid every food coop I can get near. This is the part of the country I grew up in, where I thought all cows happily grazed on grass all over rolling hillsides. I had called my Mom the week before to ask if her lone asparagus plant was up already, and had she cooked any. She swiftly replied “oh you know that never makes it into the house.” You see, if you have never beheld an actual asparagus plant in spring, you are missing out. Asparagus is one of those magical vegetables that heralds the final arrival of spring in the Midwest. It’s the first really edible green thing we see, and after months of grey, we fall all over ourselves eating this marvelous chlorophyll-laced tribute to the lengthening, warming days. And if you have ever stood in front of an asparagus plant, snipped a stalk straight off, and ate it straight away, well… it would never make it into your kitchen, either. I couldn’t pilfer any of my mother’s asparagus, but I did manage to find fresh local bunches of it at the local food coop, glorious in their short trip from farm to store. Next up, the ramp. This is something I had never heard of growing up. They are purely wild, can’t really be cultivated. Ramps are a strange sort of wild onion, pungent and fragrant, appearing only for a few weeks and POOF! Gone. They smell marvelous, and need to be treated with some respect, as their flavor is ultimately quite delicate and can get lost. And finally… the mythical morel. Everyone at this point seems to know about morel mushrooms. Another one of those wild foods that simply can not be cultivated. People hunt them every year, and do not reveal the locations they find them in. Somewhere I imagine there are wills out there, revealing spots solely to the most trusted loved ones, but only after the original finder has passed. I have yet to ever find a morel, but I found the next best thing this year. Deep in the rolling hills of the Coulee Region live many, many Amish families. There is one in particular I visit every year to get maple syrup from. This year, the grandson had found morels, and they were selling them, for far less than a schmancy Whole Foods would. I can’t tell you my source, as it’s almost as valuable to me as if I had found them myself deep in the woods. And so I eagerly snatched up the last container, paid the nice woman, and ran. Once back in Chicago, it was time to assemble my tribute to spring. I had some heirloom flint cornmeal I had picked up the previous year from a farmer’s market, and decided to make polenta. I added no parmesan, no cheese of any sort, I wanted it to be as straight up as possible (but not without considerable quantities of butter.) While the polenta slowly burbled away (I use a brilliant method by Deborah Madison that takes a little longer, but does not require constant stirring,) I snapped the tough ends of the asparagus off, sniffing the juicy fresh green. The morels were soaked lightly to rid them of any hidden passengers, and simply sliced lengthwise. Their earthy pepperiness filled my small kitchen. A few ramps were minced, adding to the light scents floating about. A bit of butter and olive oil was heated in my ancient cast iron skillet, and first went in the morels. The butter and olive oil bubbled appreciatively at their arrival. A pinch of...

long and slow, slow and long

By on Nov 15, 2014 in baking, experimenting, love | 0 comments

It seems like ages ago, but it has really only been a few months. I am, of course, referring to that explosion of fresh vegetables that covers the Midwest in late summer. Zucchini run rampant, threatening to cover whole towns. Cucumbers come to fruition so fast and furious no mortal can keep up, and pickling begins in earnest. Rainbows of carrots appear, stacked in neatly wrapped bunches, still lightly grubby with fresh dirt. The days are longer and lazy, enticing you to take a moment and stand a moment, soaking in that blazing ray of sun that is trying to fry your skin a delicate shade of red. And now here we are, an early winter blast, and the urge to hibernate arises, to slow down and become blanket-covered lumps, to slowly braise meat and vegetables into stews that comfort and weigh down the body in the waning light of winter. Even though it is not technically winter yet.   Have you noticed how both seasons seem to call for things to slow down? And yet… that does not seem to be how we live. We are so busy, so crazed, everything presses in on us, telling us to speed up. I cruise through countless recipes on the internet, each one speaking of shortcuts, time-savers, using processed stuff in cans to speed things along. And I am not immune to it. Clearly, I have spent the last two and a half months so bulldozed by work I have had a few dinners that involved pouring a glass of wine and ripping open a sleeve of buttery processed crackers (that no longer taste good to me,) collapsing brain dead onto the couch to watch a TV show I have seen a hundred times before. So yes, despite my protests of “you have time, you can always make time to cook,” I clearly hit runs of being unable to do it myself.   But then… suddenly… a day appears. A weekend. Two whole days of no work needs. No emails to check, no checking in with editors, two whole days of time spooling out in front of me, and the sudden ironic urge to speed up and do all the fun stuff arises. Surely I can cook everything in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in one weekend.   Hold it. Wait. Slow down.   I work primarily from home, so there are times I am boiling a pot of beans in the background whilst I work away, which invariably leads to me forgetting about it and letting it go too far, ruining the batch. This time I can slow down and actually pay attention. And one of my favorite things to slow down is dough. Especially dough for pizza.   Dough is already a slow process. People try to speed it up, find shortcuts, buy premade stuff all ready to go, but to me… dough is meditation. The simple act of kneading, of losing track of all other things than the feel of the dough under your hands as it slowly transitions from soft mass to springy ball, that moment of knowing just from the feel of it under your fingers that the gluten has been pummeled into submission, and it is good to go. And then you wait. And wait. And wait. And there is no substitute for waiting, no substitute for the dough you make simply by hand.   One day I made a loaf of that no-knead bread that was making the rounds. An exceedingly simple loaf of water, yeast, a pinch of salt, and flour. And time. A great deal of time. Hours of rising in the fridge. And it is delicious. So I thought to myself… pizza can do this. Dough is dough is dough, and this is basically the same with a tweak of a ratio and adding some olive oil, right? I tried it a few times, whipping up a batch of soft dough and letting it rise for hours in the fridge, and it was fine, but it lacked oomph. I wanted depth. I wanted body. But… I did not want to use whole-wheat flour, the flavor being too strong and weighty. I rummaged around my cupboard and started throwing stuff in, and after several trial runs, I found the magic combination. The same base but with cornmeal and wheat bran added in, and suddenly, magically, it was a nubbly, light and tasty dough, good enough to be eaten on its own, but even more ridiculous as the base of a nice pizza. This takes hours of waiting, the dough hibernating much like we want to do in the increasing chill. But waiting, no short cuts, no pre-done ingredients, just simple time… well it is delicious. Sloooooooooooow Pizza Dough (makes enough for roughly 2 14” pizzas, depending on how thinly you roll the dough)   2 ½ cups unbleached all purpose flour ½ cup wheat bran (not the cereal type, the fluffy flakes) ½ cup medium or large grind cornmeal (I’ve done it both ways, and this sits so long it hydrates fairly well) ½ tsp. instant yeast 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil pinch salt generous pinch sugar 1 c warm water     Mix everything in a bowl with a big ol’ wooden spoon until it becomes a cohesive soft mass. If it feels like it needs more flour, add...

cabbage, my new love affair

By on Aug 6, 2014 in dinner, salad, vegetarian | 0 comments

Some day, if you are a fan of farmer’s markets, you will find yourself irresistibly drawn to a cabbage quite literally the size of your head. It may actually be larger than your head. The compacted center beckons from the center of the lush furled outer leaves, and before you know it, you are attempting to wedge it into your bag (which once seemed so voluminous,) hurriedly flinging a few dollars at the person who so carefully grew it. Then you get it home. You rearrange half of your small refrigerator in an almost vain effort to fit it in. And then reality sinks in. You just bought a cabbage bigger than your head. You are one person. What in god’s name are you going to do with that much cabbage? Coleslaw, while a venerated summer tradition, just doesn’t do it for you. While you do enjoy pickling and preserving things, sauerkraut is really not going to happen in your kitchen.   So now what?   You turn to someone who always knows better when it comes to vegetables. Deborah Madison, your favorite cookbook author. You skim through the four books you have from her and finally land upon a recipe that not only seems appealing, but makes some use of your small attempt at an apartment herb garden. A wilted red cabbage salad with mint, dill, parsley, and goat feta. Sure, you’re missing the lemon part, but you have white wine vinegar, and it appears to be there only for sharpness. You cut into the massive head of cabbage, the magnificent JT of cruciferous vegetables that is bringing sexy back to this much maligned member of the Brassicaceae family. You really do not like most of the other members, but somehow… the humble cabbage speaks to you. Usually. The oddly random yet mathematical swirls of the vibrant compacted leaves laid bare as you gaze upon the freshly cut vegetable is intriguing, yet you can’t quite be completely in love with the idea of eating it. The doubt is there. That faint odor you can’t quite place but makes your nose wrinkle wafts up with each sharp slice into the massive beast. Even as you wilt it in a large pan (noticing that clearly an 11” skillet is not big enough and you need an even bigger one,) you are suspicious. Will this become a nasty cooked cabbage nightmare, a thing of 50s dining past that made everyone hate cabbage for decades? You hold steady, keeping faith with the instructions of Ms. Madison. Your eyes flick back and forth between the pan and the clock, timing out the brief tosses of the brilliant purple shreds. You swear softly as you lose a few bits of cabbage to the gap between the stove and the wall. You really do need a bigger skillet to cook a pound of sliced cabbage.   After a few short minutes, it is done. You toss it with fresh herbs, plucked straight from your back deck, and wonder why you don’t use all the herbs five times a day. The lingering scent of mint mixed with dill on your fingertips is heavenly. A dash of vinegar, a generous grind of black pepper, a shower of piquant goat feta, and it is done. Somehow, magically, that off-putting scent has vanished. You spear a generous round of cabbage and somewhat hesitantly taste. You pause. You continue to chew, but more slowly, savoring every heady moment. You are now comforted in the knowledge that you know how you are going to deal with the remaining half of the giant head of cabbage. You are going to make this again. Tomorrow.   Wilted Red Cabbage Salad with Goat Feta   (This is not my recipe. This is from Deborah Madison’s latest work, Vegetable Literacy. I am more than a little in love with her books, ever since I bought my first copy of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone 15 years ago. You don’t have to be vegetarian to love her.)   4 cups packed red cabbage, sliced thinly (a scant pound) 1 medium red onion, sliced thinly 1 clove garlic, minced fine 2 tablespoons olive oil 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh dill 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh mint 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley juice of one lemon (or, if like me you have no fresh lemon, a generous splash of white wine vinegar) salt and pepper to taste goat feta to finish (I honestly don’t know why goat feta as opposed to normal, but I found some and it was deliciously mild.)   In a large skillet or wok, heat the olive oil until hot. Add onion and sauté for one minute, just until it starts to get soft. Add in the cabbage and garlic, and a generous pinch salt. Cook for about two minutes, tossing all the while. You just want it to get slightly wilted, not completely cooked. Remove from heat and toss into a large bowl. Add in lemon juice (or vinegar) and a generous grinding of black pepper. Taste, adjust salt and pepper as necessary. Add in the fresh herbs, reserving a pinch or two for serving. Toss together. Portion out onto serving dish and sprinkle with crumbled goat feta and the remaining herbs. Be alarmed at how much you suddenly like cabbage....

a most refreshing syndicate

By on Aug 2, 2014 in craft, libations | 0 comments

If you drive west on Diversey Avenue in Chicago, you might be looking for the on-ramp to the Kennedy. And as you madly look around trying to figure out where on earth the actual lanes are, you might clap your eyes upon a low brick building, nestled against the embankment shoring up the sides of an old train track that used to run at this same place. Once upon a time, it was a station for the trains that used to chug through. At one point, it was an auto parts store. And now it houses Ale Syndicate, a lovely little craft brewer here in Chicago, founded by brothers Jesse and Samuel Evans. I know, I know. You hear “syndicate” in association with Chicago, and your mind goes all Al Capone. Mine certainly did, and I blunderingly asked Samuel about the name. He looked a little pained at the question, and rightfully so. He began to explain that it had nothing to do with mafia stuff at all, and was in reference to a syndicate being a collection of people working together to create something, and then had to run off to chat with one of the collection of people he and his brother are working with. Which was likely the best definition of their name I could have gotten. I showed up late in the morning at their brand new space on Diversey. They have been brewing for a while, but always in other locations, using other people’s equipment, but as of June they now have their own space with shiny new fermenters (and a slightly older mash tun they used a lot of elbow grease on to get into shape for their brews.) They have been brewing for about a week in this new space, a space filled with air and light, which is something I have not experienced in a brewery yet. Samuel pointed out the walls of windows and how golden light would pour in both morning and evening, the best of both worlds. Jesse broadly swept an arm out to a bank of windows, showing me where they plan to put in a tap room. I imagined sipping their glorious Van de Velde beer in that golden evening light they spoke of. It seems blissful. But I digress. When I first arrived, before I even asked the question about the derivation of the name, Jesse and Samuel were meeting with a couple of restauranteurs, discussing future plans, I believe this was regarding the future tap room space and possible food options. Walking in the door, I was swiftly introduced to Bryan, the head brewer, who was working on a collaboration brew with a Welsh brewery, a double IPA to be dubbed Seven Flowers I greatly anticipate tasting. He then talked about another brew they were working on, a collaboration creating a Thai Belgian ale. You heard me. Thai Belgian. I think my eyes bulged a little, because he and Abigail (the marketing manager who was kindly letting me hang out with her for the day) started listing the ingredients. I think I drifted off dreaming about a mellow malty brew scented with kaffir lime leaves. So even before I saw any of their usual line of beers hanging about, there were collaborators, members of the syndicate, abounding, with delicious ideas being slung about. Bryan was even so kind as to pull me a small taste of the first beer they brewed here straight out of the fermenting tank (but pre-carbonation.) Even without the bubbles, it had a mellow malty quality that spoke to the soft beams of light permeating the space. Or maybe I’m just projecting. Either way, it was a tasty little sample. After tooling around their new space, Abigail took me with her to Lakeshore Beverage, one of the big beverage distributors in the Chicago area, and she talked about all the complexities of distributing craft beer when you are still on a small scale in this market. She had to grab a few cases of beer for a truffle tasting later that evening (and we will get to that part later.) Even something as simple as a couple of kegs involves a process of logging and paperwork. For any who think craft brewers have a rockin’ job just hanging out and brewing all day, let me disabuse you of this notion. These people work hard and non-stop. There is a mind-boggling array of paperwork and laws and licensing that they have to slog through on a daily basis. Enough that would bring me to my knees weeping in a matter of days. And they do it every day. It’s part of the syndicate. The folks at Lakeshore Beverage appear to deal with a ton of local craft brewers, or so it appeared as I peeked at a small section of their massive warehouse with over 200,000 cases of beer stacked high over my head. And for as huge as they are, there was personable chatter, they knew what was going on. And Abigail chatted with him about another bit of syndicate business, how to transport two kegs for yet another collaboration, this time with Bad Apple, a local gastro-pub that commissioned many local brewers to create a custom brew to celebrate their year anniversary next week. The caveat? All the beer had to be brewed using cardamom as an ingredient. I...

it’s not a spring renewal, it’s a summer one

By on Jun 23, 2014 in cooking, love, salad, vegetarian | 0 comments

It has been a while, has it not? Asparagus season is swiftly passing, and with it my urge to channel the Spargelfrau of Germany and prance merrily amongst the green stalks. Strawberries with all their intoxicating floral scent have arrived, leaving me with faintly stained fingertips and a culinary endorphin rush. Farmer’s market tables, being slightly delayed this year from the long winter, are suddenly exploding, tables heavily laden with a chorus of greens, oranges, and reds, every table calling out to the person hungry for fresh vegetables after the long winter. And where have I been, you might ask? Working. Working. And then working some more. But with this begins a renewed effort to maintain a regular round of postings, both of my own devising, and visiting folks who make such delicious things as, well, beer. Because beer is always in season.   I have been thinking of you, dear readers, these past mute months. I have made things, eaten them, consumed them. I have occasionally photographed them, and then more often than not, I have just plow through the cooking so I could get to the good stuff and be done with it so I could eat and get back to work, work, and more work. And so I present to you a recipe not of my own devising at all (but of course I modified it to my own tastes.) A recipe that transcends seasons, as it can be a comfort and remarkably hearty in the cold, as well as lighter and filling without weighing down the gut in the warmer months we are now so blissfully sailing through. And it is… lentil salad. I know, I know, the idea of lentil salad for some brings forth some horrific affair of muted brown colors and the bland vegetarian fare of the 70s-era variety. Or at least, it did for me. The last time I encountered a lentil salad it involved a well-meaning effort from an ex-boyfriend’s father who wanted to welcome me into their home and was accommodating his daughter’s vegetarian ways. Which to him meant lentils. And it was a pile of mushy brown lentils topped with some vinegar and oil. There might have been a scrap of carrot.   But did you know that there are many, many types of lentils? And they really don’t need to be mushy at all? Brown and green, the type we mostly know, the type I like to use in a nice pilaf. Red, which fall apart beautifully in soups. And the now more readily available ones with enticing, sexy sounding names like “French green” and “Beluga”, smaller, more saturated with color, glistening, more toothsome than the more standard fare. This recipe originated from one of my favorite sites, the Kitchn. I scanned the recipe, looking for something that I could make easily that I could then pack every day for lunch. And something vegetarian, as I have a weird tic and really do not, for the most part, enjoy meat reheated in a microwave, which is all I had available there. I knew I could get French Green lentils fairly easily, but then my eyes lit on the amount of sun-dried tomatoes, and I almost called the whole thing off. They seem to be one of those things you are supposed to like. People seem to ooh and ahh when something involves a scrap or two of these desiccated vermillion bites. Me? I will confess… I really do not like them. Something in the process of drying makes them so cloyingly sweet I think they overwhelm everything in their immediate vicinity. I am convinced that simply placing them next to my coffeepot would cause my delicious brew to be tainted with their syrupy sweet flavor. And in looking at this recipe, in looking at all the other lucscious things therein, I decided that I needed to come to the defense of the warm walnuts, the crisp sweet peppers, the showers of mint and parsley, and I had to chuck the tomatoes.   And it was delicious. There was a lovely balance of sweet and savory, none being too bold or meek, and it had the added lunchbox benefit of being a salad that improved with age. The week I ate it (because believe you me, this recipe made enough to last solo me for a week and not tire of it) the weather yo-yoed between chilly dank and perfect sunny breezes, and somehow this salad bolstered my spirits every single day. The rich earthiness of the lentils felt delightful on the grey days, and the bright tang of the peppers and onions, the fresh hit of mint and parsley spoke of the promise of the warmer days that inevitably really did come.   So try it. Try it using their original recipe, if you are a fan of sun-dried tomatoes, or try taking them out. They have optional cheese involved, and much as I love me some cheese, it didn’t seem right after the tomatoes were gone, and without it was flatout vegan.   And with that, I have a head of lettuce soaking in the sink right now, slowly releasing dirt as it is fresh from the ground. So I can eat the sunshine now here in leafy form. And photograph it. And write it. Because I am back, ready to eat! Colorful Lentil Salad with...