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evil truffle genius

By on Aug 5, 2013 in dessert, process, sustainability | 4 comments

Candy. Who doesn’t like candy? We have a primeval urge to eat sugar. At its most base form, it brings us energy. At a more complex level, it can bring us joy. Remember being a kid? That moment when your tongue hit a sweet treat? A bite of melty chocolate? A hard sugary candy nubbin? Even bad candy was still pretty good. And as adults, we still love candy, but in some cases… the flatly sugary smack of an artificially flavored sugar eaten by dipping another hard sugary stick into it no longer holds any allure. The artificial flavors have become tinny to our palate, and I know I for one can no longer take the insane sugar hit of my youth. These days I tend to seek out more nuanced sweets, things that hit me in small, deeply complex little doses. Thank the gods for local confectioner, Katherine Anne Confections. I was in a local coffee shop recently and noticed they were selling some of Katherine Anne’s truffles.The young woman behind the cash register saw me ogling them and said “oh yes, those are amazing. That woman is an evil truffle genius.” Fig balsamic. Bourbon Cherry. Creme de Menthe. Java. Blueberry Gin. Raspberry St. Germain. Strawberry Earl Grey. Toasted Coconut Rum. Blackberry Fennel. Goat Cheese Walnut. Apricot Basil. Yes, these are all truffle flavors.  And that is just the truffles. There are also caramels, creamily succulent, causing uncontrollable eye rolls of joy as you slowly chew, rolling every last bit of flavor about your tongue. And the marshmallows. OH the marshmallows. For those of you who have only had marshmallows from the store, dry and shoved full of air, you have not lived until you have had a handmade marshmallow. The truffle genius extends to a world of marshmallows delicately flavored by cinnamon, rose water, and in a particularly inspired summer treat, a shandy marshmallow (using local Half Acre Daisy Cutter Pale Ale and lemon juice.) So I dare say that young woman and her declaration of Katherine Anne as “an evil truffle genius” was dead on. Except for the part where Katherine Anne herself does not actually appear to be evil. To begin with, she is a fellow Wisconsinite by birth, and a lover of Star Trek (except way more hardcore than I, having read all the books,) so of course I liked her immediately. Also, how many high end confectioners have you met that stroll in with a fresh green streak in their hair, and discussions in the shop involve shock that one of the women there has never seen “Raiders of the Lost Ark”? She has been in business for many a year now, and if you are a lucky, lucky person you have encountered her goods at many a local farmer’s market or coffee shop or cafe.  Or perhaps someone who loves you has sent you some from her online store (because obviously they love you if you get these delectable sweets.) And now, for those of us in Chicago, she has opened a small storefront, a charming little spot where curly glass jars and gilded plates proffer up a tantalizing array of the truffles and caramels of the season. I even spied a stack of s’mores, a pillowy homemade marshmallow betwixt graham crackers and cloaked in dark chocolate. A mere glimpse of it made me blush. They were kind enough to let me come in on a production day, where a small crew whirled around the small production kitchen (which you can totally see if you stop by their shop.) Ingredients were weighed, stirred, tempered, rolled, dipped, and sprinkled, all to a host of music which may or may not have been boy bands of the 80s. There was a never-ending succession of beeps coming from the myriad timers sticking to the refrigerator. I am still not sure how they managed to track which timer indicated what, as they all sounded exactly the same, and yet things whirred along. In the few hours I was there, I saw them whip up two large batches of marshmallows, dip hundreds of truffles, create another truffle filling, and then I was distracted by the seductive sight of a fresh round of caramel being poured out. Not just any caramel. This was caramel infused with orange and thyme. And if I was keeping track correctly, walnuts were added. For all the sugar rolling around, there was not a drop of corn syrup. Katherine Anne is dedicated to using all-natural ingredients, and locally sourced when she can. Obviously, no one is growing cacao beans in Illinois, but we do have cows who provide the cream, and bees who help out with all that honey. The cherry bourbon truffle uses bourbon whiskey from Few Distillery, who I visited earlier this month. If she can get something local, she will. This is something I am finding more and more as I meet more folks in the craft food industry in Chicago, be it chocolate or booze. Everyone seems to be very supportive of everyone else, and always willing to lend a hand, whether it be working with farmers to get local ingredients (hooray for keeping the local economy rolling!) or loaning a few bottlecaps (which is a story for another day, since this is ultimately about this candy store.) I am sure somewhere out there enmity exists, maybe two food...

live long and drink beer

By on Jul 25, 2013 in libations, process | 0 comments

Beer: a not so final frontier. This is the story of the Brewery Metropolitan. It’s five-year mission: to brew delicious beers, to seek out new varieties and flavors, to boldly brew what no one has brewed before. OK, perchance I am slapping some nerdy artistic license onto my interpretation of these fine folk. Perchance. But if you walk into Metropolitan Brewery, a small operation on Chicago’s north side, one of the first things you see is the bigger than life-size stick-on of Bones (Dr. McCoy, people, not the show on Fox, and to be clear… dammit, he is a doctor, not a brewer) adorning one of the giant fermentation tanks. If you take a stroll down the aisle of tanks, you will notice the tank names. If you are in the know, you will see that they are all named after minor Star Trek villains. One row for the original series, one for The Next Generation. Then you spot the robots that the owners Tracy and Doug Hurst made in the early days when they had a little more time, all sporting elements of the brewing craft. And if you keep looking, the signs of sci fi geekery are everywhere. And then there is the bit where all the beer names reflect Chicago’s industrial history. And one of their beer labels has a robot on it. And they have a sweet mascot dog named Phelps who oversees general morale. In short, I loved them immediately. A couple of weeks ago, Tracy, one of the co-founders of Metropolitan Brewery, let me come in and shoot. She was kind enough to make sure it was on a production day, so I got to see a little bit of it all, from pouring in the initial sacks of grain, to the mashing, peering into the tank as it brewed merrily (source of the happy baking bread smell, I think,) all the way down the line to the impressive sight of watching the small crew (five employees, including the two owners, and one intern) bottle case upon case, four bottles at a time. It is absolutely amazing to me how such a small operation can crank out so much glorious beer. I have known of them for several years (they started in 2008, so the five year mission thing totally works,) and have long been a fan of their Krankschaft Kolsch and Iron Works Alt. My corner liquor store actually introduced me to them, since they are very big proponents of supporting local businesses. Anyone who has seen their bottles knows they have an absolutely beautiful amalgam of design styles that work so well together I probably bought my first bottle just because I liked the label. And yes, you can judge this beer by its cover. When I walked in, the first thing that hit me was the smell. It was glorious, like bread baking in an oven. I grew up in La Crosse, Wisconsin, back in the days when Old Style was still brewed there. The giant brewery was downtown, and you always knew when it was a brewing day, because the smell… it was overwhelming. And, although this is likely heresy to say, it smelled BAD. You held your breath when driving through, and everyone sped up just a little until you were out of range. I mentioned this to Tracy, and it turns out she had a similar experience up in Milwaukee with the Miller brewery. Apparently it is because they use corn in the process somehow, or at least that is my understanding. Not so here. I watched as Doug, the master brewer and tamer of hops, and another gent (and I am sorry, my brain is forgetting your name, sir!) lined up 55 lb. sacks of malted grain from Germany, carefully open each one, then one by one empty them into a machine that then shot the grain up through a large tube and down into a tank where they began the first stage, the mash. In case you missed it… this was just two people. Two. If you walk in, you see the stacks of kegs, the innumerable cases, and they are constantly cranking out more and more. And the start of the beer assembly, as it were, is two people. Two other gents were filling keg upon keg from the tank known as Gary Seven. I am not sure of the actual number of kegs, but it must have been well over 20. I was too busy stalking the gents around the mash and brew kettles to keep count. Then they set up the bottling machine. If you have ever enjoyed a craft beer, have you ever considered the bottling? How many of you immediately envision the title sequence to “Laverne & Shirley”? Come on, admit it. You want it to be bottles flying down an assembly line, with a whimsical scene of a glove ferried along a single bottle stuck in for good measure. This is not that scene. There is one small machine, bristling with tubes both rubber and metal, that can fill four bottles at a time. Four. One person takes the plain brown bottles and puts them on a little machine that rolls on the label, one person takes the labeled bottles and carefully racks them up in the machine, constantly adjusting things on the input end (because there is definitely...

the angels are lucky

By on Jul 22, 2013 in libations, process | 2 comments

Long ago, when Middle Eastern alchemists worried over their medical elixirs (being apparently a little more noble than the European ones working on transmuting things into gold,) they noted the vapor given off during the distillation of alcohol. They collected it, and called it the spirit of the original material. Now we call the distilled liquid derived from fermented mash that ultimately creates some delicious cocktails… spirits. When these alcohols are aged in barrels, a portion of their liquid evaporates, which is known as the angel’s share. So we have spirits and angels, presumably representatives of the afterlife, coming back to have a nice little restorative tipple. Those lucky bastards. One of the places that offers up a bit of boozy afterlife delight is Few Distillery in Evanston, Illinois. This lovely little suburb of Chicago was actually dry until the 90s. The 1990s. No really. Enter master distiller Paul Hletko. A quiet man with roots going back to European distillers of old (I am going to bet not alchemists,) he was kind enough to let me come up an lurk for a bit at their wee distillery, the first to open in Evanston. And when I say wee… I mean wee. A generously sized garage, tucked into a back alley, barrels stacked to the ceiling, breathing silently up to the waiting angels. (for the record, the gent above is not Paul, that is Mark, another distiller) I found Paul, tucked back in a monastic cell of aging whiskey barrels and industrial metal shelves. He was fairly quiet, answering questions with a word or two, and as I had promised to stay out of the way and not interrupt production, I left him to his work. Mark, another distiller, was draining a freshly distilled batch of whiskey, and showed me the equipment, neat and compact, the tall multi-windowed copper stills with their myriad pipes bringing to mind a grown-up version of Willy Wonka. I shudder to think of the damage Veruca Salt would have done in here. There was a fresh round of rye becoming mash, a few steps and a fermenting tank away from becoming rye whiskey. It smelled like a bakery, and when I commented on it to Paul, he said “well, that’s the idea.” Mark dipped and dodged around the twisting maze of pipes, tweaking a valve here, swiping a finger under the draining whiskey to test the flavor, tapping away at some mysterious device I could not see, triumphant when it apparently whirred back into life. Standing in the hot confines of their small space, watching the few people working, you realize… these few people are making hundreds upon hundreds of bottles of booze, day in, day out. No assembly lines, no gigantic industrial machines. Three people were there on the morning I was. One of them was a young woman interning there who was transferring the freshly distilled whiskey into barrels to age. By hand. One jar at a time. An incredible amount of care goes into the making of these libations, and what would appear to be an incredible amount of tedium. But when you care about the end product, the tedium becomes a joy. Or at least so I would like to imagine. I was not the one with the jar. From what I understand, they have volunteer parties to help adhere the labels to all of the bottles, so it really becomes a community effort. Perhaps that I am just romanticizing the process, but can you even imagine that at, say, Wild Turkey’s distillery? There is also a challenge to being such a small distillery. Spirits need to age. So how do you start up a business if you need to wait for things to age? Mark gestured to the barrels surrounding us, stacked up to the ceiling, and how some were small, some were large. When they started, they had to use smaller barrels, which allowed them to get a product aged more quickly. Now that they are bigger, they can get bigger barrels and take the longer time to age the larger quantity. And I mean long. Two years, at least. They do a bourbon, and part of the definition of a bourbon is a whiskey that has been aged in a charred oak barrel for a certain quantity of time, a process that gives it that golden color and complexity of flavor that I do so adore. I should pause here to point out that they do distill gin and vodka, and occasionally a specialty spirit depending on what they have access to, but I am a little whiskey-centric. It is my favorite tipple to have, poured solo over a few choice ice cubes. But I digress. I did not actually ask about the origin of their name. Few Spirits. The least prosaic way of looking at it would be… they make a few spirits. But I am doubting they based the name on that. I would like to imagine that they are Few as in… there are few places like this, or at least there were when they started a few years ago. Few people were able to take that leap of faith it takes to start up a business that does not have an immediate product from the day they open. Few people would have the perseverance to stick through it. Few people would keep on paying...

(un)sexy soba

By on Jul 14, 2013 in dinner, experimenting, fail... or not, process, vegetarian | 0 comments

Soba is not inherently sexy, at least not at the home cook level. In the past, I have been accused of describing food in an overly salacious, borderline obscene manner. Who am I to deny the seductive quality of a plump, juicy peach as it explodes under the fervent explorations of eager teeth? But these are noodles. Made of buckwheat flour. Even the sound of it… the hard consonants dropping out of the mouth, clattering about the ear. Buckwheat. (crash) Not sexy. But you see, there is a hidden seductive joy in the noodle. Perhaps it was implanted in my brain by a certain old Disney movie, leaving my brain to still believe that somewhere out there I will meet a scruffy fellow who will give me the last meatball and share a long, slow slurp of a last noodle, ending in a kiss. Perhaps it is simply that fact that one uses the word “slurp” a lot with noodles, and that has a certain… quality… Perhaps not. Food ricochets about the world, each culture having its own iteration of bread, pickles, soup, and of course, noodles. I love noodles. Adore them. Pasta, egg noodle, rice noodle, udon noodle… I will eat them all. As a child my mother would occasionally bust out and make egg noodles from scratch for soup. I can still see the cookie racks, carefully tented into one another, egg noodles drying over them, while my impatient little self pouted that we had to wait so long to eat them (even though in the end I always loved them more than the ones out of a bag.) When it comes to pure ingredients, there is not much to most noodle making processes. Mostly, it is about technique and time. You can definitely mess them up, some more easily than others. When I first started messing with traditional egg pasta dough, there were a few batches that ended in cursing and tears. Enter the soba noodle. Soba noodles are made of buckwheat flour, which is a flour with zero gluten, which means it has zero power to create the traditional stretchy dough one usually associates with a flour product. In Japan there are chefs who can do it totally with just buckwheat flour, but I imagine them to be serious men who have spent years studying with a former soba noodle master, shoulder muscles huge and taut from years of muscling about dense, gluten-free dough. I am but a woman in Chicago, lacking in years of careful culinary tutelage. I have the internet. The internet told me to add some regular flour. One day I ran across this post at The Kitchn, which is a remarkable site and a minor obsession of mine. It is how to make your own soba noodles. I had never made soba noodles or any noodle outside of European heritage. So of course I had to. I found some buckwheat flour, read the recipe through a few times, and dove in. I frowned at it, because my noodles were significantly… well… greyer than hers. My dough did not look nearly so appealing. It looked vaguely like it was meant to fill in scratches on wood surfaces. But it smelled… it smelled amazing. Straight flour has a clean scent. Whole wheat adds a bit of nuttiness to the nasal palate. But buckwheat… smelled warm. Inviting. Like it would have wrapped little buckwheat arms around me, had it the gluten content to form dough that could stretch that far out. I nibbled a bit. Even in my brief foray into kneading it, there was no trace of the nasty grittiness I normally associate with whole wheat pasta. (And no, I really do not like whole wheat pasta. It is fine in certain applications, and only a few brands don’t taste like carefully crafted sandpaper noodles, but it is no direct substitute for a classic plate of spaghetti. Not in my world. Putting my white pasta soapbox away now…)   Nothing about my noodles looked like the beautiful post I had read. They were thicker, due to my rash method of cutting, which of course I had to improvise rather than being a good person and following their recipe. And of course, because I do not have a prop kitchen or fancy prop dishes for this endeavor, just my tiny kitchen so small I had to move the rolling to my dining room table, a 1950s formica number, they were really not that sexy looking at all when I pointed my camera lens at them. I should point out that I did not use one of the two flours she recommends, I used Arrowhead Mills because it is what I could get my hands on, so it is entirely possible that I am not getting the full effect of these noodles from scratch. And yet, boiled in salted water and rinsed in cold water, just as prescribed, they were still divine. Chewy, nutty, smooth, proving the age old adage that it’s what’s on the inside that counts. And it really does. I splashed in some sunflower oil, soy sauce, minced scallions, and red pepper flakes, almost entirely as described in the recipe (they call for dark sesame oil, which I did not have on hand.) Then I added on a bit fat chiffonade of shiso, a lively Japanese herb I found at the farmer’s...

of meaty matters

By on Jun 23, 2013 in process, sustainability | 0 comments

L et’s start at the beginning. I am not a vegetarian. To all of my friends who are vegetarians (and you vegans as well,) I will say… this entry is not for you. I absolutely respect your viewpoints, but still… I am not a vegetarian. I am also not an absolute carnivore as well, slavering at the altar of bacon (although I do like bacon.) I try very hard to be a conscious omnivore, trying to be aware of not only where my meat comes from, but also my consumption levels. I do not actually subscribe to the theory that a meal without meat is not a meal. I could keep rolling on in my reasoning about being an omnivore rather than a vegetarian, on the subject of elitism perceived and real in the organic food movement, but that, dear reader, would take a whole other entry. Possibly a book. And I’ve read a lot of books already out there about these very subjects. So today… this is not about me cooking meat. This is a new experiment. Photographing process. Knowing where my food is coming from. I was raised in Wisconsin, which means I grew up seeing farms where you actually saw cows grazing out in the fields. The smell of manure wafting off the fields was not that bad. This is what I thought was normal. Of course this is where our food comes from! Happy cows were not from California, they were from Wisconsin, dammit! It seemed so natural! In my 20s I started learning more about our industrial food complex, and the specter of the CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation.) Again, this could be another long entry, but suffice to say if you have ever driven by one of these, the stench is unbearable, the conditions horrific, and when I drove by several earlier this year on a road trip, I could not help but think of how far away the cows munching on green grass with the faint sweet tang of manure scenting the air were. And if I was going to eat a cow, I wanted the cow of my youth. Fortunately, I am far from the only person who thinks like this. Enter Rob Levitt. Rob Levitt is co-founder (along with his wife Allie) of the Butcher & Larder, an honest to god butcher shop here in Chicago that focuses on locally sourced, sustainably grown meat (theirs comes from only a few local farms that they have personal relationships with.) The initial slaughter and cleaning are done before the meat arrives at the shop; the final act of butchering is done here. Rob was kind enough to let me come in one day to hang out with my camera to photograph some of their process. If I was a better journalist, I would have pried far more and asked many more questions, but I’m not. I like to observe, just taking it all in. Rob and another new butcher to the shop, Jimmy, were more than happy to explain to me what they were doing and showing me the various cuts, explaining the various reasoning behind why they were cutting up the cow (and pig) just so, and they really do go from nose to tail. They truly value educating their customers beyond “hey, this is a steak.” And they truly respect the meat. I got there at 11 AM, just as the first delivery of the day was coming in. It was a cow, grass fed and grain finished, that had been dry-aging for 14 days, which apparently mellows the flavor of the meat and makes it more tender. The enormity of the animal, even in cut into sections, is apparent. At one point Rob flipped a part of the rib cage area, and I could not help but think of the ribs that get served to Fred in the opening titles to “The Flintstones”. Jimmy, who was newer to this, was carefully working on the shoulder area, explaining how there were so many more cuts of meat than people realized, particularly in this tricky area of the cow. He was carefully cutting out the neck area, exposing one a tender cut of beef on par with the more familiar tenderloin. If memory serves, it is the palerol. I bought the very cut I saw him take apart and grilled it hot and fast with a little salt. Not having a grill, I had to beg a friend for the use of theirs (with the promise of sharing the meat, of course,) and so we uncorked a good bottle of red wine, sat out in the glorious summer breeze, and were swiftly reduced to primal grunts of contentment while slowly savoring the tenderness speared on the ends of our forks. Jimmy pointed out that the cow as it was brought in probably weighed over 700 lbs., but by the time they were done cutting it up, it would yield 350 lbs. of meat. And trust me, these folks do not let a scrap that can be used go to waste. They even sell the coveted marrow. The trimmings that were edible but not salable as larger cuts were carefully stowed away so when someone walked in looking for hamburger, they could take the trimmings and grind them fresh, right there. When Rob was working on a pig, he pointed out the...