Sunday, May 31, 2009

Chicago, the eating part

Our recent trip to Chicago was rich in many ways. Looking over our more than 800 photos (digital, fortunately, otherwise we'd need to rent storage for all the developed pix), it's difficult to figure out which ones to share. We all KNOW how much fun it is when someone wants to show us every freakin' photo they took on vacation, complete with running commentary, right?! So these are just a very few highlights.

Vosges: If God eats chocolate, this must be what they stock in Heaven's commissary. Chicago is the home of this most amazing confectionary. We stopped in one of their stores for a couple of hot chocolates, served up in what essentially looked like bud vases. Andy's was a sassy, Mexican-inspired drink, the Aztec Elixir, while mine was a smoother, European concoction called La Parisienne. Ooh-la-la!

Two foods typically spring to mind when most people think of Chicago: hot dogs and deep-dish pizza. We didn't have deep-dish, because, well, none of us--not our hosts and not Andy and me--actually LIKE deep-dish pizza. Seemed like it would have been a waste of a good meal opportunity. We did, however, have lovely thin-crust, Neapolitan-styled pizza at Spacca Napoli.

This tomatoey (not tomato saucy), garlicy pizza didn't have a bit of cheese on it...oh, but the others had enough to make up for it!

While America long ago hijacked pizza and made it its own, Naples is where pizza was actually born, so theirs is the most authentic pizza you can find it. So with its thriving Italian community, Chicago seemed like a good place to enjoy it, Neapolitan style (and no, Neapolitan pizza doesn't have layers of chocolate, vanilla and strawberry ice cream on it, although it sounds like a winning idea to me ...)

As for hot dogs, we didn't go just anywhere for just some generic Chicago dog, but to one of the most extraordinary places in town. We walked from our friends' house to Hot Doug's, which brands itself as "the sausage superstore." As usual, their dawgs were imaginative, well wrought and sublimely yummy. I ordered a pheasant sausage hot dog with garlic aioli and white truffle cheese. Andy got the Salcisson Alsacienne, a bacon sausage dog with grilled onions, crème fraîche and triple-creme brie. Too bad the sauternes duck sausage dog topped with foie gras wasn't on the menu that day. That would have been a great--if deadly--double header. Since we were there on the weekend, we were able to get our fries cooked in duck fat, which is better than it has any right to be. Definitely worth the hour-and-a-half wait to place our order.

Hmm, decisions, decisions...Yes it DOES say curry lamb sausage!

Those duck fat fries in the background are possessed of a crispitude all their own.

It took a good half hour to walk to Hot Doug's, so an hour of walking and an hour and a half of hanging out in line more than justified our indulging in those duck fat fries. But let's face it, even if we'd driven, we still could have found a justification. After all, we're talking about duck fat! One of life's finer indulgences that not enough Americans know about.

While the trip was rich in food experiences, we didn't make the pilgrimage to Charlie Trotter's or Rick Bayless' or to any of those other gotta-eat-there places. You don't have to hit every high-end restaurant in a city to become acquainted with what it does best. In fact, the notion that we DO have to tick off the to-do list of restaurants often distances us from experiencing those truly enjoyable, truly memorable food moments.

Note the hogshead in between the hogs' heads...nyuk, nyuk...

Instead, we went to Publican, not because it was Beard Award-nominated, but because our friends said, "Hey, sounds great!" and we looked at Publican's menu online and said, "Hey, sounds delicious." Situated in Chicago's historic meat-packing district (remember your Carl Sandberg from high school?), Publican is in a big cheery room with long, communal tables and a few booths enclosed not unlike livestock pens around the periphery.

While Publican does some fine things with seafood, we were most wowed by the more fleshy offerings, so that's what I'll share with you. After all, they don't carry that pork theme through the signage and throughout the restaurant for nothing. And most of the meat is sourced locally--our carbon footprint getting to Chicago was significantly larger than that of the critters we enjoyed.

Potted rillettes with rhubarb compote & sourdough:
Essentially melted pig you schmear on your toast. I could live on this stuff!

Potee: Toulouse sausage, pork tenderloin and veal breast, with baby brussels sprouts and cornichons.
Two days after we were there, the
New York Times did a big splash on Publican and singled out this dish for special praise. Little wonder--it's a seriously tasty and satisfying array of meat.

After wandering all over downtown, one evening we discovered lovely and inviting Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread and Wine (no secret about what they sell!) on the way back to the El. We picked up a couple of cheeses, one blue and one sublimely stinky and runny, along with some olives, pickled garlic cloves and a loaf of rustic bread. That night we had an indoor picnic, with our fav picnic foods. A few strawberries, a bottle of wine, some good chocolate and even better conversation capped our evening nicely.

There was no shortage of good food during our visit: Turkish, Thai, gelato, (my previous visit to Chicago included Chinese, Italian, Thai and Polish food, along with Swedish pastries, and at this point I fall apart in the remembering...). I may need fizzy water just to aid in the digestion after simply mulling over these pictures and words.

I'm ready to go back now!

Note: If you want to go to Hot Doug's, get there by 11 a.m., bring cash and be prepared to wait. It's worth it. If you want to go to Publican, be sure to make reservations. And ask to be seated at the long communal tables. They're more fun.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

I Got Tivo'd!

I heard from a friend this week that one of her friends saw me on television and Tivo'd my presentation. Me? Tivo'd?!

I've done radio interviews a number of times in Los Angeles, but this is my first television appearance here, and I didn't even know about it. In fact, it was only when she told me what I was talking about that I remembered, oh yes, there WAS a video camera going that day. I was speaking to the Culinary Historians of Southern California on the (incomplete) history of Irish food. It as a blast, sharing what I know and am passionate about--and fielding questions for a good half hour after I'd finished. I just figured the videotaping was for archival purposes. It never occurred to me that someone beyond the auditorium at the Los Angeles Library would ever see this.

It's admittedly strange to hear that I've been Tivo'd, an activity I only connect with Jon Stewart or 30 Rock. But these days, I suppose everyone is fair game.

Don't worry, I won't get a big head and start charging for my autograph. Or WILL I...? I don't accept checks, so please bring cash or livestock to any signings.

Okay, you twisted my arm: If you're awake at 2 a.m. with a toothache and would like to see my presentation, just click on "The Incomplete History of Irish Cookery."

There, that should be enough self promotion for one day.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Iced Coffee and the Dilution Solution

mmmmm, iced coffee...

Seems that most people make iced coffee by, well, brewing a pot of coffee and pouring it over ice in a glass. But this dilutes the brew and does nothing to give you a really good, smooth coffee experience.

I prefer the way it's done in New Orleans (thanks, Chuck!), where they know a thing or two about beating the heat.

Take a jug of cool water, 5 cups is good, and pour in a half pound of ground coffee (of course, they use chickory in New Orleans, but I find this method works well with most any coffee). After 12 hours, strain out the grounds (a regular old strainer works just fine). What remains is about a quart of lovely coffee extract. It's strong--you only need a bit--but it has none of the bitterness you get with a heat brew. Pour in a smidge of vanilla extract if you like--the real stuff, please!--to balance out the flavor. Then do with it what you will. It's good in a tall glass of ice, about one part coffee to three parts milk (depending on your personal taste). Or get really decadent and use creme (or even Baileys). Sweeten to your liking.

Lest you think you have to sit around staring at it for 12 hours while it works its magic, the coffee extract keeps for a couple of weeks in the fridge (if it lasts that long), so it's ready when you need it.

As when you make sun tea--which involves putting a jug of water with a handful of teabags in it (or lots of loose tea) out on the patio for the day--you let time, rather than heat, do all the work. The result is a nice, smooth cuppa. Or glassa.

My coffeemaker, espresso maker and French press may sue me for neglect
this summer. I don't care. Cool is cool!

(Check out the chick magnet on the fridge, nyuk nyuk!)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Kola Tonic, which I see in the fine print on the label is produced in Salt River, South Africa. So much for reducing the carbon footprint. Doesn't anybody make this stuff around here?

I experienced an ah-hah! moment recently, while telling our cocktail-loving friend, Wes, about picking up a bottle of kola tonic in an Indian market. Andy and I had been on the lookout for it to make the Filmographer cocktail. Wes said yeah, you can get it at the drug store in tiny bottles (this one is much larger) and told us that when he was a young sprout his mum doled it out as a remedy for tummy troubles, poured over ice chips.

When I was a kid, carbonated drinks were not allowed in the house except when someone was sick, and then Coca-Cola was brought in for its tummy-easing, restorative powers. I loved the taste of it dearly, so much that it was worth being sick just to get to drink Coke.

While I don't drink it often now, I still crave the taste of this beverage in particular, for its aggressive, attitudinous flavor (to me its rival, which begins with P, tastes like another p-word!). At one point I was so passionate about its flavor that I kept one ice tray dedicated to cubes of frozen Coke. That way, when I poured myself a glass, I could use those instead of ice, so as not to dilute its flavor and potency.

That's a bit much, and I don't do it anymore. But there are times when it makes verrry good sense to me...

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Bacon-Laced Booze Bliss

Ever since my pal, Chuck (he's about to officially acquire the hyphenated name Chuck-of-Gumbo-Pages-Fame) introduced me to bacon-infused bourbon, I've been itching to give it a try. I'm not much of a bourbon drinker, but he recently made me an Old-Fashioned with his bacony bourbon, and I didn't execute the taste-and-give-it-away maneuver I typically do with drinks made of amber spirits. Its porky aura beguiled and seduced me and held my interest through to the bottom of the glass.

So of course I had to make my own. Being a true Southerner, I keep a coffee can of bacon drippings at the ready for frying and flavoring and for just this kind of adventure. Incidentally, these drippings come from the really good smoked bacon I spirit away from Tennessee in my luggage when I return from home. None of that dreary, mass-produced bacon for me or my coffee can!)

Mmmmmm, pure bacon drippings.
I wonder if you could read the porky dreck in bacon drippings
the way a fortune teller reads tea leaves? Sorry, I digress...

So last night I followed Chuck's advice and put about a tablespoon of bacon drippings (okay, okay, I used more) into a large jar with 750 ml. of Buffalo Trace, which he suggested as a great bourbon to pork up. Every hour for the next few hours I gave it a vigorous shake (I have a great action shot of Andy doing this, but he forbade me to include it... grrr...).

The bacon drippings work their magic. Just a few more hours to go...

Then I stashed the mixture in the fridge overnight so that the fat would harden for easy separation. At least the waiting isn't too long with this concoction, like it is when you're making most other infusions. Still, when it comes to smoky pork, any wait is a long one.

Chilling the combo allowed the bacon drippings to solidify, so I could easily
filter them out through a sieve lined with a couple of layers of cheesecloth.

This morning I strained the bourbon back into its original bottle and plastered onto said bottle a bacon strip bandaid (courtesy of Archie McPhee) to denote which has the essence de bacon.

Ta-dah! Bacon-infused bourbon.

Now the fun begins as Andy and I hit the lab, a.k.a. the kitchen, to see what sorts of cocktails we can dream up using our lovely new porky friend. First is the Old Fashioned. This should go great with my bacon walnut fudge.

Bacon-infused bourbon. It's not just for breakfast anymore!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Sinning With Your Clothes On

Andy and I went double dating recently with a pair of our favorite foodists (I hate the word "foodie"), Wes and Chuck of Gumbo Pages fame.

Wes & Chuck are the best ever to go trawling with for good food & drink.

We hit Animal, a happenin', fairly new meat-loving establishment in Hollywood. Among us we ordered and shared six starters, four entrees, three desserts and two bottles of wine (and a partridge in a pear tree...). It's a great way to sample a range flavors. We each got about two bites of every starter, so we were satisfied with our sampling and had a great meal without feeling too stuffed.

As the name of the restaurant suggests, this is NO place for vegetarians.

My favorite dish was the pork belly with kimchi. It's such a logical choice, pairing the tartness of the kimchi with the full-on richness of the pork belly, that I wonder why we haven't been eating it that way all along, that is, when you can actually find pork belly. After all, this IS image-conscious L.A. (Unfortunately, there's no photo of the pork belly. We tried to shoot as much as possible with existing light--and iPod-generated light--and those pix just didn't turn out!)

Animal certainly doesn't shy away from those dishes you seldom find on American tables:

Andy's entree: Foie gras, fried quail egg and spam (!) on a bed of gold rice--how's THIS for running the gamut in one dish, from low-rent to the la-di-da?! It was a surprisingly appealing combination.

My entree: Whole branzino, fennel, olives, tomato and ceci beans with green garlic. Whole fish! Dinner with eyes! C'mon, who doesn't want to have their dinner looking at them while they eat it? This meal comes with a convenient comb--you just have to eat your way to it. Okay, so I'm being a smart ass--the fish was lovely, as were its accompaniments. I especially appreciate the addition of fennel to the plate--I don't see it nearly often enough, unless I'm using it at home.

For dessert: a trio of Joe's doughnuts with caramel: These offered a great combo of soft and crunchy. Really good stuff, but I craved a glass of milk to go with.

Also for dessert: Bacon Chocolate Crunch Bar. While it was good, frankly, I prefer my own bacon walnut fudge. Perhaps it's all a matter of using the best, smokiest bacon you can find. Also, with something this rich, you don't want a serving this large. A bite every so often is much more manageable--a serving this large at the end of a rich meal is not. Still, I wouldn't turn it down...

By the time you go to Animal, chances are none of these items will be on the menu, for they specialize in not specializing (except for the animal part). The menu changes weekly, with a few holdovers. Regardless of what's on the menu, whatever you have will be good.

This isn't stuff you'd eat every day, as my pal Lisa reminds me. It's pretty decadent stuff. But for an occasional fun time when you want to do some sinning with your clothes on, this is a great way to do it.