April 30, 2006

blackbird, out of focus but delicious as always

My friend the ELF was in town for a big, important, stressful work event, and we made plans to go out for dinner the night she wrapped it all up. She brought along her friend and colleague Tha Directah from Jersey, and we all had a hell of a time, drinking just a little too much and eating a lot too much. I love Blackbird. :-)

I haven't decided if Tha Directah needs to become an acronym or not (TDFJ?). However, she can eat with me anytime, because anyone who can do this in a public place is A-OK with me:

The girls were running a little late because of work, so I was lurking at the bar waiting for them, drinking a perfect vodka gimlet that fabulous bartender Paul made for me just the way I like it, with half Rose's and half fresh-squeezed lime juice. ELF joined me, and Tha Directah sweet-talked Paul into making his signature drink, which he refused to name but was his own variant on the French 75. Big points to the ELF for recognizing the resemblance on sight!

The amuse-bouche was a cup of sunchoke bisque with home-cured salmon belly. Not just salmon. Salmon belly. And it was a perfect little explosion of salty fattiness against the creamy nutty soup. It occurred to me that I like the bellies of lots of creatures: salmons, tunas, pigs, clams...

Then, inspired by tales of C the WineNerd, we ordered two rounds of appetizers. We were at least one sheet to the wind by this time, so it was all a little haphazard inasmuch as we could only agree on the contents of the course at hand at any given moment -- but that made it more fun. So we got a salmon tartare with blood oranges and avocado and arbol chilies, which was very nice and perfect for summer -- I liked it as a nice break from the meat-stravaganza that my dinners at Blackbird inevitably become, but the girls have had a few too many salmon tartare dishes in NYC, where they seem to be on every menu for all those skinny New York girls to order. And we got the succulent, i mean suckling, pig confit with blood oranges & balsamic, which was to die for as it always is, and the charcuterie plate, which is different every time and dreamy in all its guises. The crispy lamb's tongues were my favorite this time, which took some doing because the country pate was pretty spectactular on its little brioche triangles, and the pickles this time were adorable little enoki mushrooms.

For the second appetizer course we got the diver scallops, with peas and preserved lemon, which was as close to failure as I've seen Blackbird get, which is to say that it was utterly delicious but the flavors seemed to exist on their own rather than blending together harmoniously into something even greater than the sum of the parts. And we got a walleye pike with pickled vegetables that may have been ramps, I don't remember exactly, which was another light, fresh dish that wasn't particularly challenging but for that I am grateful, because I don't always want to work when I'm eating. And we got the green garlic soup topped with battered and fried frogs' legs, which was ELF's favorite. The soup was simple and fresh, and the little leggies were awfully nice, little salty crunchy mild meaty bites to contrast with the soft green soup. I don't think I'd ever had a frog's leg before, and it does taste a little bit like chicken, but somehow softer and more delicate.

A rose champagne materialized in there somewhere, courtesy of the ELF, which got the other two sheets flapping in the breeze. We didn't have enough gas for three entrees, and sadly the pork rib had run out, so we shared the sturgeon with peas, onions and sorrel, which was very good but sturgeon just always tends to taste like dirt to me, and veal flank steak with morels and ramps and a sweet-tart vinegar sauce, which was more the sort of springtime dish I prefer. Yum.

Tha Directah hit the wall somewhere between the second and third course, once the adrenaline of the week's work started to wane and the cocktails started to wax, so we skipped dessert entirely and took ourselves home to bed. There wasn't any Allman Brothers this time, but I think they still had a good time. They're coming back this week, and if schedules allow, we'll do some more high-quality eating real soon.

Posted by foodnerd at 01:00 PM | Comments (0)

April 29, 2006

persian market, middle east bakery

I was up visiting my friend H for a bit of rainy-day thrifting, during which neither of us was particularly thrifty (but we got some fabulous stuff -- big white '70s 'badass superphones' for H's husband, some 1960s french sunglasses for H, and for me the prettiest rhinestone necklace I have ever seen), and by the end of all that I was ravenous. There's a little pocket of Persian/Turkish cuisine up that way, and H highly recommended the Middle East Bakery on Foster between Clark & Ashland. I followed her suggestion and got a tasty spinach & cheese pie, and I followed my own gluttony and got a meat kibbe wrapped in a creamy starch (bulgur?) and deep fried to a greasy crunchy delight. They were both good, but that crunchy kibbe was really spectacular.

They have lots of greatlooking breads (it is a bakery after all) -- i got two long flat loaves of soft white bread with sesame seeds, and some 7-grain pitas -- and a cold case chockablock with homemade prepared foods. Their hummus is good, thin & nutty but a little too strong of tahini and not enough garlic & lemon for my taste. (Easily fixed at home, so no worries there.) The baba ganoush is super-smoky and really great, and the fool moudammas tastes strongly of green pepper, which is a little off-putting for me but the overall tangy & hot-peppery flavor won me over. There are two flavors of fresh labneh balls rolled with herbs and served in olive oil; i tried the mint-and-red-pepper version, which is addictively sheepy, creamy and spicy. There is something about middle-eastern dairy products that I just adore -- labneh is one of my most favorite things to spread on bread, and the salted yogurt drink ayran is astoundingly refreshing on a hot summer day, though everyone else seems to think it's weird. But then, I like drinking buttermilk too, so I guess it's a thing.

Anyway... they also have a wide selection of nice-looking and well-priced bulk-packaged nuts, seeds, grains, legumes, spices and other staples like sugar and tea and coffee. I got some date sugar for TNR, 2 pounds of raw organic sugar, and a packet of pine nuts, along with a nice small jar of tahini. I hate having to buy a huge tub of tahini, because I can never use it up fast enough.

I also got a jar of the electric-pink turnip pickles that I have enjoyed with my kebabs & pilafs at several middle-eastern restaurants. Unfortunately, the jarred version isn't that great -- the texture of many of the pickles is soft and rubbery, and they have that weird undertaste that turnips have when they're a bit too old, and the pickling brine is a little harsh. I think I might try making my own, since there's a recipe in the new issue of Saveur.

I might try the black bean hummus recipe in there too, while I'm at it, and I have an eggplant waiting in the fridge... mmmmmm.....

oh right, this post was supposed to be about the persian market too -- Pars Persian Market on Clark -- it's okay, but the bakery is better by a long shot, and friendlier as well. The Persian Market has more dishes and cookware, though, and you can get little wasp-waisted tea glasses and saucers, and several types of the long flat metal skewers for kebab kubideh, and tiny coffee cup sets, and hookahs, and it looks like the upstairs has belly dancing outfits. I did see some canned foods I'd never seen before, like a pomegranate soup made with split peas, and a huge selection of waters, like orange blossom water, but also cress water, borage water, peppermint water, dill water, and several with no english words on them at all.

Persian cookery, and Turkish and the other surrounding nations', is just so extraordinarily delicious and combines flavors in such interesting ways, and even beyond that it's very healthful in that mediterranean legumes-and-olive oil mode. It seems to me it should be taking off much more than it is, the way that Italian cooking did a while ago and Spanish cooking is now. Perhaps it's coming soon... in the meantime I am going to sit happily and stuff my face with smoky eggplant and sheep cheese, and start planning my kebab kubideh cookout party. Seriously. I just need to get a grill....

Posted by foodnerd at 11:40 AM | Comments (1)

April 28, 2006

chocolate & lilacs

Tonight I went to see V for Vendetta (woo!), and when I came home, the air in my neighborhood was scented with chocolate and lilacs, from the factory a mile or two east and the bush next door, respectively. It was lovely. What could be better, really? Yay, spring!

Posted by foodnerd at 01:53 AM | Comments (0)

April 27, 2006

slippery slope

Chicago has just approved a ban on foie gras.

Now, regardless of how you feel about foie gras personally, and I'm not going to get into the debate, this presents a very dangerous precedent. The arguments for this kind of ban are essentially identical to the arguments for banning abortion, and what it boils down to is imposing your own narrowly-defined morality onto the larger community. And once you go there, let's ban veal, let's ban commercially-raised meat in general, since all of it is produced by means of appalling cruelty. And then let's go ahead and ban alcohol, or sodomy, or interracial marriage, because some people believe those things are wrong.

As a society we can all agree that theft or murder are things we ought to officially prohibit. But when you move into areas where our moralities diverge, it is simply not appropriate to legislate behavior.

And even beyond all of this, it is ugly to think that our leaders can more effectively legislate policy on a morally-ambiguous luxury food than on something like, say, elementary education or affordable housing. I hope they dislocate something while they're patting themselves on the back.

(For something a bit more constructive, have a look here to see someone who's getting things done instead of arguing policy, and to see how you might be able to make a small difference in art education in Chicago.)

Posted by foodnerd at 01:13 PM | Comments (0)

April 21, 2006

more random thoughts, all-clad edition

things that i have been doing with my new skillet:

blanching snow peas

cooking white asparagus (damn pan is so big, it holds the spears real niiice)

braising pear slices in butter & maple syrup

cooking omelets

and sometime this weekend, i am going to pan fry some fish fillets. I can't wait!

Posted by foodnerd at 06:33 PM | Comments (1)

random thought

i have lots to post but no time to post it, so i will just share the random workings of my brain. Today i seem to be fixating on this one food I have been really liking lately: prunes.

A much maligned food, the butt (!) of jokes, but so fruity and sweet and delicious -- I just love them. Nummy.

Posted by foodnerd at 03:38 PM | Comments (0)

April 15, 2006

brunches past & present

tallasiandude is visiting this week, and this morning - er, this afternoon - we went out in search of pancakes or waffles. Since I am mildly obsessing about Humboldt Park these days, i thought we might try out Flying Saucer, particularly since we drove past it last night on our way home from my new favorite bar, the California Clipper. (well-worn seemingly-original vintage art-deco bar, rockabilly-ish live bands, relaxed atmosphere, linoleum floor, pinups on the wall of the back room -- the only flaw is not having good bourbons on the shelf)

Anyway, I digress. Flying Saucer is all hipster vintage low-rent coolness, and the food is pretty good. The mesclun salads that come with things are very fresh and good, and everything was quite tasty, including the coffee, thank god. I had a cracked-pepper crepe stuffed with remarkably light scrambled eggs, ham, ricotta & asparagus, and tallasiandude had a "what would cheeses do?" omelet in honor of easter, full of more asparagus, cream cheese, swiss and i think cheddar, with home fries spiced up with some sort of spice powder that was clearly commercial but still tasted good. For dessert we had a small plate of the ricotta-stuffed french toast with strawberries & whipped cream, which was a mite dry but that didn't matter once the ricotta and cream and syrup got into the mix.

The best part, though, is the slice of bacon matted on a quilted paper towel, framed, and propped up next to the cash register. I am convinced that a cooked slice of bacon would keep just fine in a frame, but tallasiandude is doubting. If I ever open a restaurant, I am totally framing the first piece of bacon fried in my kitchen. That is badass.

And all of this has reminded me that the last time tallasiandude was here, we had brunch at Lula Cafe but I never got around to blogging it. That was another hipster-infested spot with extremely good food and annoying teacups. (The teapot fits into the teacup, which is very clever but causes the cup's handle to be in an awkward position, so every sip is either an acrobatic maneuver or you burn your fingers.)

We had another stuffed french toast that day, this one insanely decadent in a pool of creme anglaise, and a delicate omelet of smoked salmon, cream cheese and dill. Very nice indeed, and the little flyer describing their valentine's day dinner offering sounded dreamier still, so i will try to go back for dinner sometime.

All of these things were very good, but I am still sad that the greasy spoon closest to my house, the one with the very good, very plain waffles and lovely thin strong diner coffee, has burned down and is no more. Sometimes you just want a nice, simple thing for brunch, without any foodieness and without any atmosphere.

Posted by foodnerd at 03:51 PM | Comments (0)

April 12, 2006

from C, aka WineNerd: I dare you not to smile when you read it

"Ate at Blackbird last night. Choose your superlative: it was that. The
amuse was a chilled asparagus soup with peekytoe crab and scallops that
was just amazing. My main was grilled or broiled veal flank steak with
boudin blanc, morels and bitty little potatoes. Everything was sauced by
an umami-laden, slightly acidic jus. Fucking outstanding. We ate at Custom
House again (it's so close to work!) on Monday, and it was really good.
But Blackbird kicks its ass, hard."

Posted by foodnerd at 10:22 PM | Comments (0)

April 10, 2006

how objects become treasures

This is my new skillet. I love my new skillet. My parents dragged it in their luggage (and i do mean DRAG, sorry mom & dad!) all the way from Massachusetts to surprise me with it, for no occasion at all. I am tearing up just writing about it, because there's a lot of meaning tied up in this particular object.

I have wanted -- well, really, lusted in my heart for -- a 12" All-Clad stainless steel skillet for years now, but they're expensive and I've simply done without. It's on my list of "gifts I want someone to give me" and when my parents asked me what I wanted for Christmas this year, I sent them my list -- but I annotated the skillet with the note that they were not supposed to get it for me because it's expensive, and I mostly left it on the list as a funny ha-ha.

No skillet arrived from Santa, and I thought nothing of it until I opened the box my parents brought to Chicago and completely freaked out. I was thrilled, obviously, because now i have the BEST SKILLET IN THE WORLD, but there's more to it than that. I know my parents want to give me things and help me do the things I want to do, but there's not enough money for them to do that the way they would like to -- but by god they could get me a skillet I wouldn't buy for myself. And so I know that this skillet means as much to my parents to give as it does to me to receive, and that makes me so happy I'm about to cry. I will think of them with love whenever I cook in it.

Which is going to be all the damn time, woo hoo!! :-)

Here is a photo of its maiden voyage last night, in which I made a spanish tortilla out of leftover french fries from Al's and some spicy jarred peppers:

Posted by foodnerd at 12:26 AM | Comments (5)

April 04, 2006

foodnerd family adventure, day 2

On day 2 of the FoodNerd Family run amok in Chicago, we had a hearty breakfast of all the loot from the Polish markets: kraut, beets, chicken loaf, smoked pork, and creamy cakes. Then *gasp* we did a little sightseeing. It was rainy so we drove around downtown gawking at landmarks -- Marina City, Wrigley Building, Harold Washington library with its awesome gargoyle-laden crown, Marshall Fields (RIP). And then we drove up Lake Shore Drive so my dad could see Lake Michigan.

Which of course brought us directly to Devon Street. *grin*

We pulled right into a sweet parking spot at the eastern end of the Indo-Pak stretch, and not a moment too soon either, since moments later cops barricaded the block, since there was a fire in a building up the street. Firetrucks and firemen all over the place, spectators rubbernecking, the works. We discreetly eyeballed the carnage from inside the Farm City Meat & Food Market, which caught my eye as we passed. It seems to be a Balkan-focused Muslim market, to judge by the number of Yugoslavian products on the shelves. They have some really pretty jars of honey and nuts, with the nuts arranged carefully in rows like a sand-painting, which would make excellent holiday or hostess gifts.

In the new sari shop right across the street, Mom tried on about 5 different beaded outfits -- not saris, but the pant-and-tunic sets that I cannot remember the proper word for. Nothing fit properly, much to the disappointment of the enthusiastic and persistent saleswoman -- maybe next time (Mommy loves bright colors and beading, and some of these outfits were really gorgeous, much nicer than a lot of the ones I saw with littlelee & spleen on my last trip to Devon St).

A little further down the street we ran into another police barricade, this one stopping traffic for the Assyrian New Year's parade running up Western Ave. There's plenty of Assyrian pride here in Chicago -- there were floats, and ranks of Assyrian-American cops in formation, and private cars leaning on their horn and flying flags. This was especially cool because Dad does a lot of reading about Middle Eastern cultures both present and ancient, and filled us in on the specifics.

We stopped at World Fresh Market and got some curry leaves, a lita squash, a handful of flat guvar beans, which turned out to be a bit bitter and quite stringy in texture; i think you are supposed to simmer them a long time, so i re-cooked them in coconut milk and curry paste, and fresh almonds in their furry little jackets, which turned out not to contain fully-formed nuts inside, but rather just soft little proto-nuts. I googled but couldn't find any info about immature almonds or what to do with them -- suggestions welcome.

By then we were pretty hungry, because somehow we got through several hours on Devon Street without having any snacks, so we drove way out west to Superdawg. Which is beyond adorable with its antic anthropomorphized sausages on the roof and all of its retro graphics and carhops and general aesthetic fabulousness, but the dogs are pretty substandard.

First of all, the relish: I know that neon green relish is big here, but it still just freaks me out. And there was way too much relish and mustard on the dogs, and no celery salt or fresh tomato at all, though the green tomato pickle is a nice touch. The fries are pretty lame, and you don't get the option to not order them, and Dad was endlessly irritated by the fact that the dogs are jammed into a tiny box with the pile of fries, so you have to excavate out all the fries to even lay a finger on your dog in the first place. And their lemonade sucks. The quest for the best Chicago dog continues unabated.

Then on the way down south to the Garfield Park Conservatory, I was unable to resist a quick side trip to the Chicago Food Corp to show off the massive availability of Korean goods in these parts. We found a truly astonishing sheet of beautiful, delicate dried-fish lace, and I acquired a bit of lotus root for kinpira and a new batch of pucks. Yum.

Dinner was at Lou Malnati's so we could try real Chicago style pizza, which continues to underwhelm. The dough is just too thick and doughy, though Malnati's is much crunchier than Giordano's. Daddy disapproves of the sauce, which was pretty much just cooked tomato chunks rather than rich savory sauce, and i tend to agree with him, though the lightness of flavor was admittedly pretty nice in contrast to the heaviness of dough and cheese.

And so concluded our whirlwind exploration of Chicago eating, at least until next time, when I want to take them for southside soul and bbq, and to Goose Island Shrimp House, and to a korean bbq, and Siam Rice & Noodle House, and...

Posted by foodnerd at 12:22 AM | Comments (4)

April 03, 2006

the parents come to chicago; or, apple, not far from tree

My parents came to visit this weekend. The night they arrived, I dragged them out into the monsoon winds to try out a Friday night fish fry. I made the error of trying to go to the Duke of Perth, which was full of yuppies drinking beer and had a 90 minute wait, so I fell back onto the known winner and found the nearest JJ Fish instead, for the true urban fish experience. JJ Fish fries some DAMN good fish, in a cornmeal crust that isn't greasy *at all*, and the fish is fresh, and it comes with tangy hot sauce, and sits on top of squishy white bread. So it wasn't an official fish fry as such, but who cares about technicalities when you're stuffing your face full of crunchy whitefish and perch?

Over the weekend was my father's birthday, and we spent the day doing NOTHING that was not related to food. It was awesome. We had breakfast at Perez -- we got some machacado con huevos, my favorite shredded beef with scrambled eggs and onions and tomatoes, and dad had ham and eggs (and the entire bowl of pico de gallo, out of which he carefully picked all the bits of jalapeno and devoured before breakfast even arrived -- daddy likes his salady vegetables). Mom tends to eat sweets for brekkies, so she got a little bitty chile relleno taco just for form's sake, plus a plate of sopaipillas and a big glass of orchata. The sopaipillas seemed to be a flour tortilla deep-fried (cheating a bit, but we didn't really care) dusted with cinnamon sugar and drizzled with honey, served with a bowl of cinnamon-drenched sour cream. Which we licked clean.

Then we checked out the food wholesalers on Randolph between Halsted & Racine -- you can get locanico at Columbus Meat Market, Nicholas Meat Market has some tasty looking stuff, and there are cheap thermometers and various gizmos to be had if you aren't intimidated by the wholesale ambiance. And then we went down the street a bit and checked out Peoria Packing Company: a porkstravaganza without equal. This place was a mob scene. The parking lot was full. The shop was packed to the rafters with folks packing their carts with large amounts of fresh meat, cut to order ribs, smoked hocks or turkey legs, fresh hams with skin still on, dark red rib eyes (for absurdly low prices). You need ribs for a party, you go to Peoria Packing.

By this time of course it was time for lunch, so we went to Al's #1 Italian Beef, which was a big hit. Even beyond the savory meaty goodness, which any sane person would love, Al's puts big slabs of cooked green pepper on their sandwiches, which puts my father into nirvana.

Then we drove out to Humboldt Park to check out some real estate, and then we went out to Avondale to the Polish markets. We went to Kurowski's which I'd been to before, a full-featured market with meat, fresh veg, prepared foods, and canned or jarred wares of all kinds. And this trip, also some pysanky eggs for easter, yay! (I used to make these when I was a kid; I still have the wax stylus somewhere or other.) On the recommendation of A Cook's Guide to Chicago, we tried Endy's Deli, aka Andy's, which assaults you upon entry with the glorious smell of sausages. Dear lord, it smells good in there. And they have a smorgasbord of delicious, dirt-cheap salads, kraut, beets, herring, and so forth, plus a hot case, plus a meat case full of smoked pork loin, fresh meats, sausages of all sorts, and unidentifiable things so tasty-looking I went ahead and bought 'em before I asked what they were. Turns out it's chicken meatloaf, and turns out it is fucking FANTASTIC.

We ate all this stuff for breakfast the next day. Along with the four kinds of cream-laden cake we got at Pasieka bakery across the street. When you step into a bakery and you can't see any of the product because of the line of polish-speaking grandmas in front of the glass cases, you know it's gonna be good. We had a poppy seed cake with chocolate frosting and raisins, a chocolate-rose cake with red jello topping, a pineapple-coconut cream cake, and a poppy seed/coconut/mocha cream fantasia that was my absolute favorite.

And then on the way home we stopped at one of the big Mexican supermarkets also on Milwaukee around Logan Square (Tianguis Supermercado) to eyeball all the goodies there, me yammering all the while about all the stuff I've learned to love while I've been living here.

By this time it was getting dark and we were tired, so we went home, collapsed onto the couch for an hour or so, and made reservations at Tre Kronor up north on Foster, to get my daddy some smoked herring (mmm, hewwing...) and whatever other scando-treats might be available here in the heart of the midwest. This is a tiny little place, homier than I was expecting, and boy does it have good food. The herrings are lovely, a pickled version and a mustard-sauce version, with hardboiled egg and salady bits to go with it. The Toast Skagen trumped even the hewwings, though, being a lavish mound of sweet chopped arctic shrimp in a dill mayo, accompanied by fresh tomato (decent even in winter) and a few slices of archetypal scandinavian cucumber salad, quick-pickled in vinegar and sugar. Mom wasn't terribly hungry (jeez, after a massive mexican breakfast and an italian beef and fries, I just don't see why) so she had a cup of onion soup and the crab cakes, both very tasty. I had swedish meatballs that were soft and tender and delicious in a light gravy with a pile of mashed potatoes and a ramekin of lingonberry sauce, and a whole DISHful of more cucumbers, be still my heart. Daddy had some of the best duck breast I've ever had, very simple but perfectly cooked and tender, with a lingonberry sauce.

And then we went home, gave daddy his birthday presents, and fell over into a dead sleep. Only to wake up and have at it again the next day, but I'll save that for the next post.

Posted by foodnerd at 11:35 PM | Comments (1)