Monday, December 29, 2008

Slurping Noodles at the Belly

A few months back, I wrote a guest post for Caitlin Giles' blog, Being Saavy, called "Why Feed Your Kids Local Food?" Since then I have another rationale: sharing an evening with the farmer's daughter. Early in December, we all had a wonderful evening at Bill Kim's Urban Belly arranged for by Beth Ecles of Green Acres. The food was amazing, the drinks (thanks to Greg Hall of Goose Island) delicious and plentiful and the company entertaining - Thor was certainly not bored with his time wtih Ava, Beth's youngest daughter, who's just a month older than he. Both of them enjoyed the noodle slurping.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Call Me Betty Botter

Always seeking better butter to make my batter less bitter. See my feature on the Local Beet.

Japan Pottery

I love dishware. Whether it be fine French porcelain or diner china, I am fascinated with dishware and ways that it complements my food. One of the things that I think is most special about my little catering company is that we serve on my personal collection - gathered from high end boutiques and yard sales. Imagine my delight when I stumbled upon a blog dedicated to Japanese pottery (or more accurately the blogger stumbled upon me). Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Maiden You Tube Voyage

So, I'm on You Tube for the first time. Associated with my involvement with the Crave Party on December 9, Jackie Cuyers took videos of several of the vendors, include me. In it, I talk about our seasonal philosophy.

The Compost Chronicles: Compost is Ready for Its Close-Up

Compost hits prime time in an episode of Law & Order. A body is found in the community compost and Detective Bernard gets the quip: the crime violates the first rule of compost - no meat.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Compost Chronicles: Compostables - Friend or Foe?

This entry of the Compost Chronicles was originally posted on The Local Beet.

The first time that I bought disposable dishware in any sizable quantity was for Purple Asparagus. Last February, we signed up with the City to take part in their Winter Events where each weekend we led kids in a different food-centric project. Given the volume (500 kids a weekend) and the messiness of the projects (consider popcorn ball snowmen decorated with dried fruit and honey), we needed an abundance of the stuff. Compostable dishware, which was relatively new to Chicago, seemed to be the right choice for a business seeking to be sustainable. We ordered a case of bowls, a case of spoons and a case of bags for the kiddies to transport their projects with minimal fuss.

On the first day of the festival, I watched our volunteers help the children decorate their snowmen with locally grown, dried fruits “glued” on with locally produced honey. Feeling oh so virtuous, I began to clean up the abandoned bowls and spoons. I certainly didn’t need to worry about wasting, they were compostable! So with a large pile of stickiness, I walked to the garbage bin. Just as I reached my hand to release the first bowl, I looked to the bottom, past all of the discarded soda cups and candy wrappers, and saw the shiny black plastic of the garbage bag. Oh shit, I said to myself. Because at that moment, I realized that compostables won’t compost in a garbage bag destined for a landfill.

In fact, compostables, at least utensils and cups made from corn starch, won’t even compost, at least in a home composter. Built to be sturdy, they break down only in high-heat composting facilities, which are not publicly available to Chicagoans. Moreover, it’s seems troubling, at least to me, that in the face of a global food crisis, we divert potential food supplies, i.e. corn, to create products of convenience for Western society. Another disconcerting fact is that the corn used to create these disposable compostables is in all likelihood genetically engineered. Consider that when you purchase an expensive, organic salad in a compostable container. Finally, should PLA (corn plastics) get mistakenly mixed in with ordinary plastics in the recycling stream, the whole batch is ruined.

And yet, with all of these problems, many well-meaning businesses continue to switch to compostables. To justify this decision, I’ve heard several interesting explanations.

At a street festival, a Kashi representative was passing out samples in PLA cups, which were discarded in plastic lined garbage containers. His justification was that the PLA cups would ultimately require less space in landfills because the corn cups degrade faster than plastic. True. PLA reacts in a landfill just like other organic matter. In plastic bags, without access to light, moisture or oxygen, it degrades anaerobically in a process that creates methane a much more powerful and therefore environmentally destructive green house gas than carbon dioxide. Until society routinely harnesses landfill-generated methane to power our energy-hungry society, this explanation provides cold comfort.

In a recent email, a food service business explained its decision to continue to use its PLA products. It conceded the problems with compostables, but expressed its desire to move America away from our dependence on foreign oil (oil for those of you who don’t know is what regular plastics are made from). But isn’t this a false choice? Not too long ago, the standard post-purchase retail question was ‘paper or plastic.’ Today, we know that the conscientious answer to this question is neither. We need to urge a similar rethinking of our dependence upon convenience in the food world. Whenever possible, we need to decline single use utensils and instead select reusable ones. These days, for when I’m out and about, I’ve got a SIGG for my water, a stainless steel mug for my coffee and bamboo flatware for my meals. When I’m home, I use china, flatware and cloth napkins. Even when you have a party, there’s no need to rely upon disposables. If you’re having a crowd, renting is a cost effective alternative. But for a little fun, you could designate your parties BYOP – bring your own plate – a potentially great ice breaker if you ask your guest to bring their favorite, ugliest or most interesting. At the office, stash away a plate and silverware in your desk. It only takes a minute to wash.

The last justification for the continued use of compostable was put forth at a meeting for sustainably- minded restaurateurs. The speaker, as in my previous example, conceded the limitations of compostables, but urged their continued use to “create awareness.” Now, this was a head scratcher for me. Initially, I thought that there were only two awareness-building possibilities. First, people would have their Eureka moment realizing that their cup made of corn would never compost under the current conditions of disposal. Second, they would believe that their compostables would somehow magically compost under mounds of garbage in the landfill. I realized later that there was a third possibility, one that could create some good. Discarding valuable compostables exposes the great need that we have in this city for a comprehensive composting program. Most of the forward-thinking green cities have in place or are working towards creating a green bin program with curbside/alley pick up of compostable waste. Even Boston, a city older than Chicago, has in the works a state-of-the-art composting facility that would not merely process the city’s organic waste, but seek to capture the escaping gases to power 1,500 Boston residences. If Chicago truly wants to become a green city, it needs to not merely create an effective recycling system, but also a comprehensive program for the reclamation of organic matter through composting.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Compost Chronicles: My Evening as a Garbage Picker

This post is the first in a new series documenting my quest to bring awareness to composting in Chicago.

I certainly knew that when I left my job as a big firm tax partner to start a catering company, my job description would change dramatically. At no point did this point become more apparent as I was picking through garbage at the Cultural Center last Friday evening.

My company was hired to be the main caterer for Seven Generations Ahead’s annual fundraiser, Taste of the Seasons, our first full zero waste event. As a general rule, we try hard to incorporate zero waste principles in our day-to-day business. Our mantra is to “think before you toss”. Accordingly, we have a recycling plan in place. We use almost no disposable product. We try to reuse our “waste” whenever possible (making crumbs from leftover bread and crackers, juicing trimmings from cucumber rounds, making stock from everything from chicken bones to shrimp shells to mushroom stems). Composting, however, has been our weakness.

Monogramme is the epitome of a boutique business. Because I have to balance our event schedule between Purple Asparagus, my class/ speaking schedule, and spending time with my family; we limit the events that we take on each month. One of the consequences of this choice is that the waste that we generate each month can be measured by the pound not the ton. Keeping this in mind, up until this point, we’ve tried to dispose of our compostable waste through my home composter: a challenge
that I will discuss in more detail in later posts.

Back to the SGA event, working with their “waste expert” Michelle Hickey, we established several waste stations throughout the room with recycling, composting and garbage bins. We gave our general instructions to the staff of 15 (most of whom had never even heard of zero waste) and we were on our way.

The most interesting questions arose at the bar. Are corks trash or compost? Compostable if natural cork, disposable if plastic. How about the foil that wraps the cork: recyclable. Plastic soda rings: recyclable.

Of course, the fun began when the event was over and we had to “audit” the garbage. Unfortunately, a few of the staff were operating under the common misperception that all plastic is recyclable so we had to fish out all of the plastic bags from the recyclable bins. We also had to extract the recycled paper napkins that many of our guests misjudged as garbage, not compost.

All in all, we did pretty well. We used china and flatware, so we avoided any waste in serving. Also, because it was a tasting event, there was little food waste. In fact, at the end of the event, this waste made its way to the composting facility in the car of Ken Dunn instead of the Resource Center’s truck.

For future events, Michelle Hickey will be putting together a chart that explicitly describes what goes into what bin that I’ve offered to review. My main suggestion is to allow the participating chefs who are not currently composting their food waste to bring it to the waste for disposal. It would then give a better picture of how much of that which goes into the event can be redirected from the landfill.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Family Farmed Expo

Come join Purple Asparagus at the Organic Kids Activity Corner for Family Farmed Expo this weekend at the Chicago Cultural Center. For more information and to buy tickets, please visit

Monday, November 17, 2008

A Toast to the President-Elect

So, I know I wasn't a particularly active blogger for a while there. I wasn't away from my computer, however. I was right there in front of it too often obsessively following this year's very exciting election. To celebrate its happy conclusion, I posted the following on Just Grapes, a wine blog run by the wine shop, Just Grapes, at 560 West Washington here in Chicago.

My love of champagne began, believe it or not, when I was three years old. As the story goes, on a flight to Florida, my parents gave me a tiny plastic cup filled with the golden bubbles. Whether out of curiosity or for their own amusement, they fully expected me to wrinkle up my tiny nose and push it away. Little did they know that it would flow easily down my young throat, leading me to ask for more.

My love of champagne grew only stronger when it helped me through a dark time in my life: the death of my first marriage. I lived with a good friend during these difficult days who opportunely owned a large and varied collection of champagne. His earnest belief was that one could not be truly unhappy while drinking champagne.

It was with this theory in mind that I chilled two bottles of wine prior to leaving for the election rally in Grant Park on Tuesday. The first was a sparkling wine from Oregon – simple, clean and from a blue state. My hope was that if the evening did not go well, we couldn’t feel too hopeless while drinking something related to champagne. The second, the wine that ultimately was drunk, was the Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill 1995, a wine whose taste lived up to its prodigious name. Rich and nutty, with big golden bubbles, full bodied – it flowed down as easily as that the first sip in the airline seat between my bemused parents. A perfect way to toast a new President and a new day in America.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Cooking at the Green City Market

Thanks to all of those who joined me at Saturday's Green City Market on a a gray and chilly day. As promised, I'm posting the recipe that I prepared, Butternut Squash and Apple Soup Garnished with Sour Cream and Bacon.

A small cup of this rich soup would be a good start to a holiday meal. I also like to serve it as a one-dish supper - the bacon fat used to caramelize the squash adds a meaty flavor to the dish. If you're a vegetarian or even a vegan, you can still make the recipe, simply use canola or grapeseed oil in cooking the vegetables and substitute vegetable stock for the chicken stock. Garnish, if desired, with the toasted seeds.

Winter Squash and Apple Soup
Serves 8

2 slices bacon, cut into ¼-inch slices
1 small butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 carrot, peeled and cut into ½-inch slices
½ stalk celery, cut into ½-inch slices
1 bay leaf
4 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
1 tart apple, peeled and cut into ¼-inch dice
1 tablespoon finely chopped sage
½ cup sour cream

METHODS: Cook the bacon in a dutch oven over medium heat until crisp. Remove bacon and reserve for garnish. Pour the fat off into a small bowl. Return 1 tablespoon of fat to the pot and increase the heat to medium-high. Put half of the butternut squash into the pan and cook until lightly browned on all sides. When caramelized on all sides, remove the squash to a bowl. Add an additional 1 tablespoon of fat. Brown the remaining squash in the same manner. Remove the caramelized squash to the bowl with the earlier batch. Put an additional 1 tablespoon of fat in the pan, supplementing with canola oil if necessary. Add onion, carrot, celery and cook until slightly golden. Return the squash to the pan with the bay leaf and cover with stock. Bring to a simmer and cook until the squash is almost tender, approximately 20 minutes. Add the diced apple and cook for an additional 10 minutes or until tender. Let cool slightly and then puree in a food processor or a blender. If a completely smooth texture is desired, put through a fine mesh sieve. Return to pan to heat. Add sage and cook for 5 minutes. Garnish with sour cream and bacon.

DO-AHEAD NOTES: The soup can be made up to two days ahead and refrigerated or up to two months ahead and frozen.

Squash Seeds with Za’atar
Za'atar is a Middle Eastern spice mixture that has some combination of oregano, thyme, sesame seeds and salt. Some varieties use sumac, fennel or cumin. The Spice House sells their own blend and you can use in on chicken, to garnish hummus or even simply sprinkled on pita bread dipped in olive oil.

Seeds from 1 butternut squash, rinsed and removed from flesh
1 tablespoon extra virgin-olive oil
1 teaspoon Za’atar

METHODS: Spread the squash seeds on a parchment or silpat lined baking pan and cook in a 200° F oven until dry approximately a ½ hour. In a sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the squash seeds and cook until browned. Drain on a paper towel and sprinkle Za’atar and salt on top. Let cool.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Why Feed Your Kids Local Foods?

This post was originally published on Being Savvy, Caitlin Giles excellent blog for Chicago parents.

My proudest moment as a chef/mom/food educator was relayed to me second hand. While perusing the produce aisles of the supermarket in late February, my mother asked my 4-year old son if he wanted strawberries. Declining, he said to my mother quizzically and yet emphatically, “Grandma, we can’t buy strawberries now, they’re not in season.”

When too many kids are eating far less than the recommended daily allotment of fruits or vegetables, why worry about whether the fruits and vegetables that they do eat are in season or worse locally grown? If you’re living or working in one the country’s food deserts, where the closest thing that you’ve got to a grocery store is a bodega that stocks more varieties of Cheetos than fruits, this is not likely to be your main concern.

How about the rest of us? Is it really that much of a struggle to pass by the California-grown strawberries in June or the Mexican-raised tomatoes in August? Locally grown, seasonal produce is all around us. Even Wal-Mart has even begun to source locally or at least regionally. But before I get into the where, I want to talk about the why. Here are my top three reasons for introducing locally-grown, seasonal foods into your child’s diet.

It tastes better. I started eating locally not for ideological reasons, but because it tastes better. If you’ve ever eaten a pea off of the vine or sweet baby greens picked in the morning and served on the table in the evening, you know what I mean. And strawberries, sweet Illinois strawberries. The white-hearted California berries bred for shipping have nothing on our tiny, ruby-like orbs that soar with flavor. If you want your child to have a lasting love for fruits and vegetables, give him ones that are full of flavor. Seriously, who could love starchy peas or wilted salad greens?

It’s better for the environment. A small caveat on this statement, even taking into account food miles (i.e. the distance your food travels from farm to fork), just because food is grown within a certain distance from your home does not intrinsically make it better for the environment. However, most local farmers who sell to consumers are small family farmers who tend their soil in a responsible manner often using organic methods even when they are not USDA certified as such (the little “o” versus the big “O”). How do you know the difference? The best way is to talk with the farmer and ask about their pest management systems and how they fertilize their soil. If, however, you don’t have the time or the inclination to do so, at the end of this post, I list markets and retailers that focus on locally grown, seasonal and sustainable produce that do the vetting for you.

It can forge a lasting connection between your child and the earth. I believe that connecting your child with the people who grow the food and the growing cycle creates a deeper respect for the food that they eat and for the earth. It was recently reported that America throws out 30% of the food raised in this country, a despicable fact given the rise in malnutrition and hunger on the planet. I have found that children who understand where their food comes from are less likely to waste it. My son knows that his apples come from Farmer Pete and his carrots from Miss Beth. He says “cheese please” to the cheese guys and knows that the good milk comes from the market in glass bottles. And the growing cycle, well, suffice to say, he’s pretty excited when June’s strawberries arrive.

Locally-grown, seasonal and sustainable produce is available from May through October at the City of Chicago’s farmers markets and year round at Green City Market (check the website for days and times), Green Grocer Chicago and Irv & Shelly’s Fresh Picks. Many of the Whole Foods in Chicago carry locally-produced items as well.

A final note, I’m actually not throwing my mother under the bus. My son and she were in Florida at the time of their conversation in the produce section where the strawberries in question were in fact in season.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Capturing the Harvest, the Print Version

If you can't make my Green Grocer class, you can still learn a little about pickling in Summer Captured, which features my recipe for Spicy Pickles.

UPDATE: Some of you may have seen that I co-wrote an article on this topic with Rob Gardner that appeared on The Local Beet.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Capturing the Harvest at Green Grocer Chicago

Next Wednesday, September 17, I'll be teaching a class on food preservation called Capturing the Harvest:

Eating locally is easy in August. But when Chicago's cold winds begin to blow in October, does being a locavore relegate one to a diet of potatoes? A little foresight and effort during the harvest will bring some sunshine to those cold Winter days. In this class, you'll learn the basics of food preservation, including freezing, drying, pickling and jamming. As a take-away, you'll receive a recipe booklet with additional resources on this subject.

Visit to sign up.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Remembering Abby

Abby Mandel Meyer 1932-2008

"Grieve not ... nor speak of me with tears ...
but laugh and talk of me ...
as though I were beside you.
I love you so ...
'twas heaven here with you"

Ilsa Pachal Richardson, Program at Service

Judging from the number of market bags that I own, I’d been going to Green City Market for several years before I met Abby Mandel Meyer in person. In 2005, my non-profit, Purple Asparagus, had agreed to organize the Market’s Saturday kids programming. We’d worked out most of the details of our involvement with her then-assistant, Jeanne Pinsof. Nevertheless, the final okay had to come from Abby herself. I’d been primed for my conversation with her by a board member of ours was also on the Market’s board so I knew that she had a reputation of being imperious. And while this personality was one that I’d become used to in my career in Big Law, as this was my first contact with someone of this stature in my new profession, I was nervous. I remember precisely where the conversation took place. It was late May and she was weaving in and out of the rows of Nichol’s vegetable plants. Trim and well-dressed with her notable Chanel sunglasses, we had our first of many conversations while walking through the Market. She was direct, but gracious, clear with her goals and appreciative of our efforts. Nothing like I had anticipated.

I’ve heard the complaint that Abby was “divisive”. Not surprising as she was a driven woman with big goals and a personality to match. She expected a great deal from those around her, but she demanded a lot from herself as well. And if you did a job well, she was quick to praise and her praise meant a lot because you knew it was honest and well-deserved. I always believed that this was the secret to working with Abby, which was difficult for some because it was a true test of your mettle. You could never phone it in with Abby – she always challenged you to do your best.

I’ll miss many things about Abby, her candor, her directness, even her characteristic shorthand in responding to emails. Only the week before she passed away, I had received an email response to a question I had asked: “lets talk mon.” Sadly, I know now why we never did. But most importantly, I will miss the opportunity of not getting to know her even better. She was a great woman who challenged and inspired and I personally am grateful to have known her.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Cheese, Glorious Cheese

I love cheese, all kinds of cheese - stinky cheese, hard cheese, soft cheeses, stringy cheese - I love cheese so much, I was probably a mouse in a former life. And I'm no cheese snob. While I don't have much positive to say about a plastic wrapped American cheese slice, I do have a certain nostalgia for spreadable cheeses in plastic tubs as they remind me of the processed-food heaven of cocktail hour on my parents' sailboat.

For our annual summer vacation, my parents charted a route from the south shore of Long Island around Montauk Point and up to Connecticut and Rhode Island. We took this cruise with several families from the yacht club and at the end of many a long days travel, we would all "raft" up - anchor one boat and tie the others to it. The anchored vessel would then be both the tether and the host of the cocktail "hour" that lasted several. Beers, blush wines, martinis and manhattans all served in double walled plastic cups decorated with nautical flags. But I remember the food, boat food, as my mother called it. Pringles potato chips (the can prevented crushing in those narrow shelves lining the narrow galley), Planter's cocktail nuts, Goldfish, and as a special treat cheeses, almost inevitably being one of the Wispread varieties - my favorite being the Port Wine cheddar with that unnatural hibiscus color.

So, yes, even though my tastes have improved, I'm a sucker for cheese in a tub. The best commercially made version that I've had is from Wisconsin cheese-maker, Brunkow, and it's the aged spreadable cheddar. I don't much like the ones with add-ins, like the horseradish, but man, the plain one. Suffice to say, I can't buy it often or I'd be 200 pounds.

But my favorite spreadable cheese is one that also elicits great nostalgia, just not among my people nor of the people of the person who introduced me to it. I first tried pimento cheese at the home of a former upper east side finishing school girl. She went to college at William & Mary, where she met her husband, Andrew Sugerman. In spite of her uptown provenance, Sarah had adopted the cooking of the upper south with alacrity. In their first large Chicago apartment, they hosted a party that highlighted the culinary specialties of the region - my favorite discovery being the mound of orange, slightly spicy, smooth spreadable cheese.

It was several years later when I bought Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock's wonderful cookbook, The Gift of Southern Cooking, that I made pimento cheese the first time. It was as good as I remembered and finer than any Wispread port wine cheddar. Here is my version of the recipe:

Pimento Cheese

1 small red pepper
10 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1/4 cup cream cheese softened
1/2 cup mayonnaise, either homemade or best quality commercial
1 pinch of cayenne
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

METHODS: Roast the pepper by charring it over an open flame or by broiling it. When the skin is blackened, remove the pepper and put in a bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside until cool enough to handle. When cooled, remove the skin, stem and seeds. Roughly chop. In a food processor, add the cheese, cream cheese, mayonnaise, cayenne, and salt and pepper to taste. Process until smooth. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight to develop the flavors.

Friday, August 8, 2008

"Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants"

In my sustainable cooking classes, I always advise people to follow this haiku-like admonition of Michael Pollan. While no one would ever confuse me with a vegetarian (my tag line is "I've never met a pork product that I didn't like."), I do try to incorporate some vegetarian dishes into my cooking repertoire, which is why I get so excited when I find a straight vegetarian dish that is satisfying and "meaty" in flavor.

From Deborah Madison's wonderful book, Vegetarian Suppers, comes Chickpea and Chard with Cilantro & Cumin. Here is the recipe with my personal adaptations.

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, diced
pinch or 2 saffron threads
2 garlic cloves
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 cup cilantro leaves
1/4 cup parsley leaves
3 basil leaves
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons tomato paste or 1 plum tomato, finely diced
2 medium bunches Swiss chard
2 15 ounce cans chick peas with liquid
1 tablespoon white wine

METHODS: Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and saffron and saute until the onions are lightly browned, approximately 15 minutes. In the meantime, coarsely grind the parsley, cilantro, basil garlic, smoked paprika, cumin, salt and pepper to taste in a food processor or mortar and pestle. Wash the swiss chard, remove the stems and slice into 1 1/2 inch ribbons. Put them in a large pot with 2 cups of water and a pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove the leaves from the water and drain. Finely chop the stems and add to the water. Cook for 10 minutes. Add the herb mixture and tomato paste or tomatoes to the onions, cook for 5 minutes. Add chickpeas with their liquid, the swiss chard leaves and white wine and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the stems and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serves 4.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Cooking That's Kind to the Earth and Your Wallet

I did a segment on the above-titled subject over at ABC7Chicago yesterday. Take a look.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Sweetest Vegetable

Me with two of my favorite things!

A great pleasure of Spring is the ruby red, celery-like, stalks of rhubarb gracing many a table at the Green City Market. A bridge between Winter’s scarcity and the full bloom of the growing season, rhubarb is a reintroduction of local sweetness, readying us for the flavor explosion that is strawberry season.

I am a late comer to the pleasures of rhubarb. It was never really part of my mom’s repertoire and so I’m pretty certain that I had never tried it prior to law school when I began to expand my culinary horizons by cooking through The New Basics, recipe by recipe. I quickly became a convert appreciating its vivid color and its versatility.

Although usually associated with desserts, rhubarb is actually a vegetable, one related to sorrel. Rhubarb is a perennial plant with rhizomes, leaves and most importantly, the edible petioles or stalks. I love to cook with rhubarb, watching it go from hard, green cored stalks into a velvety, pink-tinged mush. I also love its ability to be used in both sweet and savory dishes and I’ve used it as an agrodolce accompaniment to rich, full flavored meats, like pork and duck, as a tangy accompaniment to its fairer and fruitier partner, the strawberry, as well as the star of the show, especially when partnered with rich dairy as in crème brulees and cheesecakes. My two favorite recipes for rhubarb these days are Strawberry-Rhubarb Ripple Ice Cream and Rye Crackers Topped with Smoked Duck and Rhubarb-Grapefruit Marmalade.

Thankfully, my son won’t have to wait twenty-plus years to enjoy the pleasures of rhubarb. Thanks to Farmer Pete of Seedling, yesterday morning, he enjoyed a seasonal smoothie at Green City Market of rhubarb, peach puree and mint, just one of the wonderful treats at the Market this year.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Ripple Ice Cream
For 6 servings

1 ½ cups whole milk
½ cup granulated sugar
6 large egg yolks
½ cup heavy cream
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch kosher salt
1 quart strawberries, hulled
3 stalks of rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup water

EQUIPMENT SUGGESTED: 2-quart saucepan, fine-mesh strainer, two medium-size bowls, potato masher or food processor, ice cream maker, shallow quart-size container with a lid.

Combine the milk and ¼ cup of sugar in the saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. In the meantime, whisk together egg yolks and remaining ¼ cup of sugar. Remove the milk mixture from the heat and add about a half a cup to the egg yolk mixture while whisking constantly – this raises the temperature of the egg yolks, decreasing the likelihood that they will coagulate when heated. Add the yolk mixture to the hot milk while whisking constantly. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture coats the back of a spoon distinctly. You’ll notice a slight increase in resistance of the liquid against the spoon while stirring. This could take between 7 and 12 minutes. Once thickened, pour the custard through a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl to remove any coagulated egg bits, which would make the ice cream grainy. Mix in heavy cream, vanilla extract and a pinch of kosher salt. Cover with plastic wrap and let the custard cool to room temperature. Refrigerate the custard until cold (approximately 4 hours). In the meantime, crush the strawberries with a potato masher or purée them in a food processor. Push through a fine mesh strainer. Add the purée to the custard base. Freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s directions. While freezing, in a small saucepan, combine rhubarb, sugar and water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 to 12 minutes. Let cool. When the ice cream is frozen, gently fold the rhubarb mixture to create a ribbon. Scrape the ice cream into a shallow container and freeze until firm.

Rye Crackers Topped with Smoked Duck, Rhubarb and Grapefruit Marmalade

I created this recipe for a party that I catered for WGN at the Chicagoland Flower and Garden Show. It was in March and I wanted to feature recipes that felt like Spring even while it was still Winter. I used last year's Rhubarb-Grapefruit Marmalade, which is always the first preserve I make during the growing season.

Rye Crackers, I use hand made, but Nicole's Risky Rye is an excellent substitute
Smoked Duck Breast, thinly sliced Paulina Meat Market has excellent smoked duck
Rhubarb and Grapefruit Marmalade
Fresh thyme

METHODS: Top a cracker with a slice of duck breast. Garnish with a dab of marmalade and a sprig of thyme.

Rhubarb and Grapefruit Marmalade
Makes 8 + half-pint jars

Adaped from The Hay Day Cookbook.

1 1/2 pounds rhubarb, rinsed and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 large pink grapefruits
3 cups granulated sugar

SPECIAL INGREDIENTS: non-reactive bowl; zester; medium saucepan; candy or laser thermometer; 6 half-pint canning jars.

METHODS: Put the rhubarb in a non-reactive bowl. Zest the grapefruit over the bowl. Halve them and squeeze the juice. Strain the juice and pour over the rhubarb. Add sugar and leave at room temperature overnight. Transfer the mixture to a medium size saucepan and bring it to a boil. While waiting for the mixture to come to a boil, sterilize the canning jars. Cook the rhubarb mixture, stirring often, until the sugar has dissolved. Turn the heat to high and cook until the temperature of the mixture reaches 224 degrees. Pour the marmalade into the hot, sterilized jars. Seal and let cool without letting the jars touch.

A Tale of Two Cities

In April, my husband and I travelled to New Orleans for the first time since Katrina for the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Anyone who read my post detailing our trip to Newport, RI for the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs conference may sense a trend in our vacation travels (busman’s holiday, maybe?).

We weren’t certain what to expect, at least in regards to the condition of the city. One of our closest friends had lived in New Orleans prior to Katrina as did his entire family. Their Lakeview neighborhood home was completely destroyed and they relocated to Lake Charles, Louisiana. As a result, I hadn’t talked to anyone who lived there to know what things really looked like.

Initially, we were pleasantly surprised. The tourist-friendly areas of the French Quarter, Uptown and the Warehouse District never looked better. The streets were cleaner than I had recalled, new businesses had opened and the bars were full with visitors. If you remained in these neighborhoods, you might actually believe President Bush’s celebration of New Orleans’ “comeback” in his visit shortly after our stay.

If, however, you ventured outside of these areas, a different tale emerged, one of two cities. On our third day there, we booked a van tour through the Katrina-ravaged neighborhoods. In far too many areas, it seemed from our eyes that the storm could have happened months if not weeks before. Houses ripped off of their foundations pushed into fences or even rolling over other houses. Overgrown weeds provided the only cover for debris. And worst of all, many of the homes, if we can call them that nowadays, still bore the spray-painted markers of the rescue workers to inventorying the contents (i.e. dead or not dead). Of course, there were some bright spots: Musician’s Village with its brightly-colored bungalows most bearing Obama 2008 signs on their front lawns. But those signs of progress were few and far between.

Now, I admit that I’m the most consummate of travelers. Nevertheless, the only other place in the world that I’ve seen such a contrast was in South Africa a few years after apartheid ended. It had a similar disparity of beautiful, well-maintained tourist areas full of world class restaurants and luxury hotels with the shanty towns next to the highway. I certainly understand the need of a city so dependent upon the hospitality industry to put on a good face for the world. Once tourists return, the rebuilding can commence with greater speed. Nevertheless, it was a very sad day for me to see so vividly the failings of our own government. Let’s certainly hope that whomever becomes our next president (perhaps one whose name rhymes with yo’ mama), will make New Orleans a greater priority than the current administration.

On to the positives, the City has thankfully retained its wonderful quirky character so visibly demonstrated by the pirate convention, which was going on at the same time as IACP. We stayed largely in the French Quarter, being in walking distance from our lovely hotel, the Lowes across from the Windsor Court. However, some of our best meals were had in the Warehouse District, including our first Crescent City meal at Couchon. If I ate nothing more than the butter-dripped dinner rolls, I could have been happy. Ah but there was so much more. Barbecued oysters, veal cheeks and beef brisket. Absolutely wonderful. In the evening, we had a disappointingly uneven meal at August. Although my shrimp bisque was silken and rich, my entrée was unmemorable evidenced by the fact that I can’t recall what I ate. My dessert, a trio of strawberries, was disappointing in its execution given the high quality of the ingredients. Across the table, my husband’s lamb was outstanding and his cheese plate well-chosen. My second favorite meal was at the old French Quarter stand-by, Mr. B’s Bistro. My catfish paired with unctuously rich black-eyed peas was by far one of the best things I’ve eaten thus far this year.

Obviously, the New Orleans’ experience cannot only be summed up by food – drinks play a big part of it as well, whether Pimm’s Cups at Napoleon House or a Hurricane at Pat O’Brien’s. Our two best drinking experiences this trip were at W.I.N.O. (Wine Institute New Orleans) in the Warehouse District and a Sazerac at Arnaud’s. Pictured above, WINO, a self-serve wine bar, with a hundred or so bottles of fine wine was a New Orleans original, especially because many cities, Chicago included, would not allow its existence because of dramshop laws. The Sazerac was my first and, while I’m not much of a cocktail drinker, it was wonderful, slightly reminiscent of my grandmother’s Manhattans.

And on to the third of New Orleans’ great pleasures, in my view: music. We had the wonderful opportunity to pick up two CDs from street musicians who were playing outside of Brennan’s. I was able to pick up one of the two bands on tape, enhanced only by the very talented jitterbugging groupies. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Pollen Not Pesticide

It all started with a plastic bear, one almost identical to those at which honey aficionados scoff. This bear, however, did not reside on a shelf in some American grocery store, but instead in a quintessential Parisian shop, pristine and stylish.

Until this time, honey never did much for me – I had only tried the clover varietal, which was okay, certainly nothing to go all Pooh-bear about. Nevertheless, the shop was on my to-try list because my guidebook listed it as one of the Paris food institutions one had to go. And I, a dutiful foodie, did my part and purchased one small bear to try later.

When I returned to Chicago and unloaded all of my goodies, the bear was set aside. Sea salts, vinegars and mustards were far more interesting to me. But then one morning, I opened a jar of moldy jam. Having already toasted and buttered my bread, I reached for that little bear. Squeezing it onto the bread, I immediately noticed something different. The plastic had made the liquid seem darker, but in actuality it was flaxen colored, like liquid sunshine. Its aroma was floral, redolent of stone fruits, peaches in particular. How did it taste? Suffice to say, I have since become one of those honey aficionados who would scoff at plastic bears.

Not to be indelicate, but it could be said that honey is bee barf. To produce honey, honey bees travel flower to flower gathering the sweet nectar in their mouths, which is then saved in a special stomach called the “honey sac”. After the bees have filled these honey sacs, which may take visits to hundreds of flowers, they return to hive and transfer the nectar through their mouths, changing it from nectar into honey. The honey is stored in hexagonal wax cells, i.e. honey comb. Once stored, it is ready to eat for bees, for bears and yes for humans.

The first honey eaten was foraged from wild bees. The earliest recorded evidence of beekeeping is found in ancient Egyptian paintings dating from about 2500 B.C. The oldest form of beekeeping involved baiting bees by putting a bit of honey in the bottom of a pot or into a hollow log. Once captured, the bees would remain to produce honey. In 1852, Reverend L.L. Langstroth (hero to honey lovers across the globe) revolutionized beekeeping by creating movable frames with a “bee space” that discouraged the bees from gluing the comb solidly to the walls allowing multiple racks of bees working to make honey simultaneously.

The majority of beekeepers are amateurs who manage less than 25 colonies. There are an estimated 1,600 commercial beekeepers that manage more than 300 bee colonies each. Honey is harvested in late Spring to early Fall. To remove the honey, beekeepers will anaesthetize the bees often by smoke and remove the comb. They then scrape off the wax caps and often centrifugal force is used spin the comb to remove the honey. The honey may then be filtered and transferred to jars, ready for consumption.

Back to the bear, most of the honey that fills these plastic animals is commercially produced, heat processed and blended to create a consistent product year in and year out. Varietal honey, on the other hand, is a natural product with natural variations. Good varietal honey has been handled as little as possible to preserve the flavors. On the subject of flavors, these can vary depending upon the harvest date. When a honey specifies a particular flower (lavender, rosemary, chestnut, acacia), the bees have been given access to a particular nectar source. While there is no guarantee that the honey will have been produced from only a single nectar source, the bees do tend to exhaust a single source before moving on to another. The texture of varietal honey varies with the different levels of dextrose and fructose, honey’s dominant ingredients. Dextrose crystallizes more rapidly than fructose and thus honey with more dextrose will be more granular.

When honey bees collect the nectar from the flowers, pollen sticks to their legs. When landing on new flowers to get additional nectar, they transfer this pollen. Pollination fertilizes the plants enabling them to bear fruit. The USDA estimates that at least one-third of our diets are derived from insect-pollinated plants, for which bees are responsible for at least eighty percent. So we humans need bees. As anyone who has seen Bee Movie knows what would happen if the bees stopped working. While I don’t think that we need to worry about litigious bees, we should be concerned about the phenomenon called colony collapse disorder. Since 2006, hundreds of thousands of honeybee colonies in the U.S. have died out. The value of pollination is valued at $14.6 billion dollars a year, so we clearly need to be worried about the new trend in bee-world. It’s not clear what’s causing this dire circumstance, whether new pesticides, disease or predators, but it definitely merits additional investigation as bees are not just crucial to honey lovers, but to our agricultural future. Two non-profits that are working with state and federal agencies to create agricultural policies that will protect our honeybees are Xerces Society and the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign. For a more delicious way to support the honeybees, buy some Vanilla Honey Bee ice cream from Haagen Daaz who donates a portion of the proceeds to research on how to combat colony collapse disorder.

As a honey lover, I’ve accumulated quite a collection of honeys over the years. Whenever I travel, I return with honey from that locale. I’ve also spent a small fortune over the years on Zingerman’s excellent varietal honeys. This collection was the inspiration for this post as I knew that with all of these different varietals, I should probably categorize them to determine how best they would be used. For all the other honey lovers out there, here are my tasting notes and some recipes and ideas of what to do with your honey collection.

Top 5 Honeys

Farmstead Honey, Prairie Fruits Farm, Champaign, IL: Floral, herbaceous, delicate in flavor and color, well-balanced. It crystallized within the year.

Wickham’s Honey, Wickham’s Fruit Farm, Cutchogue, NY: Well-rounded with a full mouth feel. There are hints of apple, pear and pumpkin, which would make sense given that I bought this in November as I watched the beekeepers smoke out the bees. Free flowing.

Beeline, Chicago, IL: Peach and vanilla notes. Deeply fragrant. Fairly dark in color. I really wish that Beeline would mark the date of its honey production on the jars as this honey was so different from the other that I tasted (see the mild honeys). This was less crystallized than the other Beeline honey. Beeline is such a cool company as it trains and employs people that face significant barriers to employment, often due to former incarceration.

Coffee Blossom Honey, Big Tree Farms, Java: Crystallized on top with an appearance and texture of brown sugar, which craters into liquid amber. Less sweet at the top of the mouth. This is a very interesting honey that would be better enjoyed alone, with cheese, than with cooking or on toast.

Zambezi Organic Forest Honey, Africa: This is one of the most interesting honeys that I’ve ever tried. After learning of my honey tasting, my assistant David gave me a small sample of his supply. It’s actually smoky. Granular, sweet and smoky with the color of caramel. An outstanding honey.

White Gold, Canada: Thick but slightly pourable. White and fluffy with the texture of Marshmallow Fluff. Berry-like flavor. Excellent on toast.

The Rest:


Acacia, Langalese, Germany: Clean, sweet, slightly single note – free flowing.

Acacia, Peck, Italy: Similarly clean as the Langalese, but with a greater depth. It has a bit of spiciness that lingers on the back of the tongue. Also, free flowing.

Beeline, Chicago, IL: Spice on top of the mouth with nectarine flavors with well-rounded notes of nutmeg. Highly crystallized.

Wildflower, Ellis Farms, Benton Harbor, MI: Soapy aroma, which carries through a bit to the flavor. Hints of lavender. Good for cooking. Slightly crystallized.


Lavender, Portugal: Lovely texture almost an acidic touch on the tongue. Nice flavor. Free flowing.

Burgundy honey, Fauchon, France: Cheese like aroma with a little oaky-ness. Spun gold in color. Caramel hints in flavor. Strong, masculine seeming whereas other honeys seem feminine. Slightly granular.

Blackberry, Branches, Napa Valley, CA: Amber in color, nice texture with crystallized chunks. Definite blackberry in the flavor.

Cranberry, Some Honey, New Lisbon, WI: Tartness on the tongue, good texture, amber in color. A bit of spice that tastes like Autumn. Free flowing.

White Tupelo, Gourmet Honey, Florida: Extremely well-balanced. Not too sweet. No huge flavors, but this would pair well with many things. Free flowing.

Fireweed, Gourmet Honey: Similar to the White Tupelo but with a bit of added oomph.
Chestnut, Hillside Farms, Berrien Springs, MI: Light in color, with no distinctive flavor. Very different from the Italian chestnut honey.

Finest Scottish Heather Honey with Glendronach Malt: Grainy on the tongue, mild sweetness. A little oaky.


Umbrian Chestnut, Italy. Acquired taste, barnyard aroma and flavor. This could be paired with unctuous, stinky cheese.

Provencal Forest Honey, France: Hauntingly good. Thick viscosity with the appearance of golden syrup. It gave me a sense of Christmas. Woody aroma.

Mango Blossom, Big Tree Farms, Java: Very viscous, deep dark in color, fruity, mild in flavor, but with interest.

Buckwheat, Some Honey, New Lisbon, WI: Looks like molasses, smells like dirt. Good rich caramel flavor. Slight barnyard taste on the front that yields into warmth and herbaciousness.

Tulip Poplar, Coco Rouge: Caramel in color and flavor. Grainy on the tongue. Would be a good cooking honey.

I love to cook with honey and do so in two ways and here are a few recipes that highlight the beauty of varietal honeys as well as those that complement the other flavors in a recipe.

Tartlets of Brie & Pear Drizzled with Honey
Makes 15

I like this best with a delicate honey such as Prairie Fruits Farmstead Honey, Wickham’s Honey or one of the milder honeys.

1 package filo tartlets, baked according to the manufacturer’s directions
8 ounces brie or other triple crème cheese at room temperature, sliced into bite-size pieces
½ pear, sliced ¼-inch thick, each slice cut into bite-size pieces
2 tablespoons honey, preferably a mild yet flavorful honey such as the Prairie Fruits Farmstead Honey or Wickham Honey

METHODS: Put one piece of cheese and one piece of pear in each tart shell. Drizzle with honey.

Honey Roasted Carrots & Parsnips
For 4 servings

This recipe is best made with one of the milder honeys.

2 carrots
2 parsnips
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 teaspoons honey
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste

METHODS: Preheat oven to 350 F. Peel and cut the carrots and parsnips into 2-inch sticks. Put the vegetables into a small ceramic or glass baking dish. Cut the butter into small pieces and drizzle with honey. Bake for 45 minutes or until tender.

DO-AHEAD NOTES: You can cut the carrots and parsnips earlier in the day, mix them in the baking dish with the remaining ingredients and refrigerate.

Blueberry Buckwheat Pancakes
Makes approximately 25 silver dollar pancakes

When I first created this recipe, I had used a clover honey – I had originally just wanted to eliminate the white sugar. When I purchased the buckwheat honey, I realized that this would be a great complement to the buckwheat flour. The batter is very dark.

½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
¼ cup buckwheat flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup buttermilk, well shaken
2 tablespoons buckwheat honey
1 egg
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
½ cup blueberries
1 tablespoon unsalted butter

METHODS: Combine flours, baking powder and kosher salt in a medium size bowl. In another bowl, mix the buttermilk, honey, egg and butter and whisk to combine. Add the liquid ingredients to the dry ingredients and mix until thoroughly combined. Gently fold in the blueberries. Heat the remaining butter in a skillet or on a griddle over medium heat. Drop approximately two tablespoons of batter for each pancake. Cook until golden brown.

Honey Ice Cream
Serves 6

This is a wonderful way to highlight a varietal honey, just use your favorite. It’s a great alternative to vanilla. I’ve adapted it from a recipe from Le Cordon Bleu at Home.

1 cup whole milk
½ cup heavy cream
3 large egg yolks
¼ cup granulated sugar plus 2 tablespoons
2 tablespoons honey
Pinch kosher salt

METHODS: Combine the milk and cream bring to a simmer over medium heat. In the meantime, whisk together egg yolks and sugar and honey. Remove the milk/cream mixture from the heat and add a little to the egg yolk mixture while whisking constantly to temper it. Add the tempered yolk mix to the hot milk mixture while whisking constantly. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture coats the back of a spoon distinctly (approximately 5 minutes). Once thickened, immediately pour throw a fine mesh strainer into a bowl. Cover with plastic wrap touching it to the surface of the custard to prevent a skin from forming. Let it cool to room temperature and then chill until thoroughly cold (approximately 4 hours). Freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s directions. Put the completed ice cream in a shallow container and freeze until firm.


Christopher, Tom, “Busy Bees,” Martha Stewart Living (June 2008).

Davidson, Alan, The Oxford Companion to Food (1999).

National Honey Board, “A Sweet Story: The Making of Honey” (02/07).

Weinzweig, Ari, Zingerman’s Guide to Good Eating (2003).

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Anyone Can Cook

So I just couldn’t do it. The party venue du jour of the preschool set is Pump It Up. The place is a well-oiled machine – they get the kids in and out on well-timed increments and the kids do love it. However, the thought of spending my son’s birthday in a warehouse filled with house-size inflatable slides without a stiff Bloody Mary was not one that I could bear.

How glad am I to be friends with Elena Marre, owner of The Kids Table. Not only did I know we’d be treated well when I booked a cooking class for Thor’s birthday party, but alcohol (for the larger set) would be welcome.

When you do what I do for a living, food is a part of every celebration, particularly birthdays. But how do you incorporate something more than pizza and macaroni and cheese into a 4-year old’s birthday. Thus, thankful was I when Ratatouille was the Pixar movie of the year. I was even more thankful when Thor took to it (he knows what a toque is and who wears it). A French bistro themed birthday party for a 4-year old! Hoo-ray!

Like a busman’s holiday, I actually enjoy planning the minutia of a personal event. Once I have the theme, ideas flow from there: invitations, décor, menu and music. With the theme set, I needed to find the image for his invitation. No cheesy paper cartoons for us. I loved the bistro sign at the end of the movie, but was unable to find any sign of the image even on Al Gore's Internet. I used my art class skills, thought to be lost forgotten, bought a linoleum stamp carving set and created it myself. With the exception of the slightly wider, squirrel-like tail, I think it turned out quite well.

My husband and I have quite a few single friends and friends without children so Thor gets two birthday parties: an adult and a kid party. We like to keep the two consistent in theme if possible. This year, given our Francophile-kid party, we had a bistro party. The invitation for adults was the Eiffel Tower. We began with the kid-friendly frites with aioli and gougeres, supplementing with pate of duck livers from the whole ducks that were cut up for the meal’s centerpiece: cassoulet. We partnered it with a salad of butter lettuce, candied walnuts and Roqufort. Dessert was handmade Parisian macaroons and chocolate mousse cake.

For the kids’ party, we were unfortunately unable to get Thor to cook anything more exotic than pizza, but at least it was made with whole wheat crust and topped with lots of vegetables. The kids started out by making their own chef’s toques, moved onto homemade lemonade, squeezing the lemons on individuals, and then rolled their pizzas crusts and topped them. While the pizzas baked, they made and enjoyed fruit kabobs.

While the pizza-making portion of the event was particularly French inspired, we carried our theme to the adult refreshments: a beautiful platter of French cheeses paired with a French wine, two excellently valued wines the Da Estate Vin de Pays Chardonnay 2006 at $7.99 and the La Forge Vin de Pays Pinot Noir 2006, which was $9.99 when we bought it in February, but has increased to $12.99 since then (worth the increase).

But the piece de resistance (to continue the French theme) was the beautiful “Rat” cake prepared by my good friend Naomi Levine of Tipsy Cake. It was an absolute masterpiece in fondant down to the chervil in Remy’s hand. The kid’s loved it and the parents (including us) were amazed.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

A Rite of Spring

It’s official. Despite my Winter attire for this weekend’s baseball games (Go Sox!), Spring has finally arrived. How can I tell? The first local asparagus have arrived.

Before I became aware of the concept of sustainability in eating, I ate seasonally for reasons of taste. Like other really great foods, tomatoes, strawberries and peaches, pristinely fresh asparagus in season is a taste worth waiting for. Having just been down below the Mason-Dixon line, I had some of the first “fruits” of the season and they were heavenly. While it was initially hard to shake Winter’s mentality of scarceness, like a teenager first feeling the heady exhilaration of love, I couldn’t get enough. Crisp, grassy local asparagus, luscious, juicy strawberries red to their core and super sweet soft shell crabs – my return to Chicago was a sad one when I remembered that it was nearly another month before the farmers markets opened.

And then, like a crocus peeking its head out from under the dead leaf cover, an email from Fresh Picks promised Spring’s triumphant return.

Here is my favorite way to prepare asparagus, which is incredibly easy and enhances its wonderful flavor.

Sautéed Asparagus
For 6 servings

2 pounds asparagus, trimmed and rinsed
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
Kosher salt

EQUIPMENT SUGGESTED: 9-inch sauté pan with lid.

METHOD: Heat the butter in the pan over medium heat. When the foam subsides, add the asparagus and toss to coat. Cook for 5 minutes. Turn the heat to low, cover the pan and cook for an additional 5 minutes. Add salt to taste.

A sauce that I love to prepare for asparagus is aioli, particularly made with Green Garlic – another special Spring treat. The aioli pairs very well with lamb, a meat often associated with Spring.

Green Garlic Aioli
Makes approximately 2 cups

1 large egg
2 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon lemon juice
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
¾ cup canola oil
1 garlic clove, mashed to a paste with a pinch of salt
1 tablespoon finely chopped green garlic
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Food Processor Method: Combine the whole egg, egg yolks, lemon juice and mustard in the bowl of a food processor. Through the feed tube, pour the olive and canola oils in a very slow stream while the machine is on. The aioli is done when it’s thick and emulsified. When fully emulsified, the mixture will make a distinctive slapping sound against the sides of the bowl. Add both garlics. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
By Hand: Combine the egg yolks and mustard in a medium size bowl. Wrap a kitchen towel around the base of the bowl to anchor it. Pour the oils into the egg mixture in a slow stream until the two are emulsified. Add the garlics and lemon juice. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
Fixing a broken mayonnaise: It is almost certain that if you make mayonnaise or aioli more than once, it will break. There’s no need to start over. Simply whisk 1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard in a mixing bowl, add 1 tablespoon of the broken mayonnaise (make sure that you stir it up first to ensure that you get oil and egg in the sample), whisk together until the mixture thickens. Slowly add the remaining broken mayonnaise, whisking constantly until emulsified.
Doctoring store bought mayonnaise: If you’re concerned about using raw eggs or pressed for time, you can easily doctor a commercially produced mayonnaise. Take 2 cups of store bought mayonnaise (I suggest Hellmann’s) and add the lemon juice, Dijon mustard, both garlics called for in this recipe. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
Do-ahead notes: The aioli can be made up to 5 days ahead and refrigerated.

Red Wine-Scented Leg of Lamb
For 6 generous servings

1 bone-in leg of lamb with the lower leg bone intact, but the aitchbone or hipbone removed for easier carving, approximately 8 pounds
1 cup assertive red wine, such as a Cabernet or Syrah
6 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
4 tablespoons rosemary leaves, coarsely chopped
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

EQUIPMENT SUGGESTED: A pan large enough to accommodate the lamb while marinating, a roasting pan, a roasting rack, meat thermometer.

Marinating: The night before serving, put the lamb into a large, shallow pan. Rub garlic cloves and rosemary into the meat to release their essential oils. Add the wine and turn to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
Roasting: Remove the lamb from the refrigerator about an hour prior to roasting to bring to room temperature. Preheat oven to 350°F. Add 2 tablespoons of oil to the pan. Remove the lamb from the marinade and put it onto a rack in the prepared roasting pan. Rub the lamb with the remaining tablespoon of oil. Season it with salt and pepper to taste. Roast for 1 hour and 15 minutes or until lamb reaches 125° F. Let rest for 15 minutes before carving to allow the juices to flow back into the meat.
Carving: Using a napkin to protect your hand from the heat of the bone, hold the end of the leg bone and lift it up to a 45° degree angle away from the cutting board. Carve the lamb into thin slices.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Sustainable Cooking 101

Just in time for Earth Day, I'll be teaching another Sustainable Cooking class, in which I'll explain how to cook sustainably without exhausting yourself or wallet. In this class, I'll demonstrate a few recipes that are healthy, tasty and good for the environment. The class will be held at the Whole Foods in Lincoln Park.

Date: Thursday, April 24, 2008
Location: Whole Foods, Lincoln Park, 1000 West North Avenue
Time: 7:00pm-9:00pm
Cost: Free
Reservations: 312-587-0648

Saturday, March 29, 2008

My family participated in this year's Earth Hour earlier this evening. We had a late dinner, lit some candles, poured some wine and enjoyed good conversation. Towards the latter part of the hour, Thor and I read my favorte Dr. Seuss book, The Lorax. I haven't read it since I was a child and it was amazing how moving it is for a kids' picture book. When the lights went back on, Thor asked to have Earth Hour every week.

Top 10 Sustainable Cooking Tips

1. Use your microwave
2. Preheat only when necessary
3. Don’t rinse your food under running water but instead in a bowl and re-use the water for watering your plants
4. Bring your food to room temperature before baking or roasting
5. Get rid of your disposal and compost instead
6. Be smart about your menus – cook things together, cook dishes with the same ingredients
7. When buying appliances, look for the Energy Star label
8. Use your convection oven
9. Use your dishwasher wisely – don’t rinse and wash only when full
10. Avoid disposables that can’t be recycled – ziplock bags, plastic wrap, paper towels and napkins

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Eco-Friendly Kids Bashes in Fresh Squeeze

A great article on ways to green up your kid's birthday party from our friends at A Fresh Squeeze! To sign up for A Fresh Squeeze, an on-line source on green living, visit

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Sustainable Cooking 101

It's been a good few weeks in the press for me. Time Out Chicago will be including a listing of a class that I'm teaching at the South Loop Whole Foods, "Sustainable Cooking 101." On March 27, from 7-8pm, I will be talking about how to incorporate sustainable habits into your cooking. The class is free, but registration is required. Call 312.435.4600 to sign up.

Mission Accomplished!

So while my son was in Florida with my parents a few weeks ago, he visited a grocery store with my mother who suggested that they buy strawberries. My son's response: "Grandma, we can't buy strawberries, they're not in season!"

In February, when he turned four, we began a tradition that was passed down to me from my parents. Once a week, he has to pick out and help prepare dinner. We've made pizza with whole wheat dough, quesadillas with hand made tortillas, and baked macaroni and cheese. But this week was the best. I had forgotten to buy the ingredients for what we originally picked out - lamb meatballs with yogurt sauce - and all I had in the fridge was really good cheese and eggs. What did we make? Souffle (with its own theme music)!

While he is a picky eater, he does have some odd food proclivities, particularly his love of fried calamari or "fishy o's", a love which was documented quite prominently on the front page of the Sun Times food section on March 12.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Recipes From Chicagoland Flower and Garden Show

Baked Eggs with Red Peppers, Swiss Chard & Goat Cheese
Serves 8

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more to grease the baking pan
2 red peppers, ribs and seeds removed
1 bunch Swiss chard, ribs removed
10 eggs
½ cup heavy cream
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
5 scallions, trimmed and finely chopped
4 ounces fresh goat cheese

EQUIPMENT SUGGESTED: A large non-stick sauté pan and a 9 by 13-inch baking pan.

METHODS: Grease the baking pan. Slice the red peppers ¼-inch thick. Coarsely chop the Swiss chard. In the sauté pan, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat until hot, but not smoking. Add the red pepper and sauté, stirring often until the peppers are softened and colored, but not blackened. Remove the peppers from the pan. Add remaining tablespoon of olive oil to the sauté pan, heat until hot, add Swiss chard and cook until wilted. Continue to cook until any water that the chard has released has evaporated. Add the chard to the peppers and let cool. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs and the cream. Add the scallions, peppers, and Swiss chard. Season with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Pour into the prepared baking pan. Coarsely crumble the fresh goat cheese and sprinkle over the egg mixture. Turn oven on to 350ºF. Bake for 45-50 minutes or until the center is almost completely set and the eggs are golden. Cut into squares.
DO-AHEAD NOTES: The eggs can be baked the day before and refrigerated. Serve at room temperature or reheat in a 400º F oven for 7-10 minutes.

Sugared Bacon

½ cup light brown sugar
pinch cayenne
16 slices bacon

EQUIPMENT SUGGESTED: 1 baking sheet with sides; silpat liners or aluminum foil.

METHODS: Line the baking sheet with silpat or aluminum foil. Mix together sugar and cayenne. Coat both sides of the bacon with the sugar mixture. Place on lined baking sheet. Turn oven on 400ºF and place the sheet in the oven. Bake for approximately 20 minutes or until brown. Drain and serve.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Eating Clams in Newport RI and the East End of Long Island

On my list of things-to-do, one of the oldest items is to write a post about a trip that my husband and I took to the north fork of Long Island and Newport, Rhode Island in early November. While I had the best of intentions of writing it while the trip was still fresh, you know what they say about those kinds of intentions. With the holidays, crunch time in the business and my husband’s surgery, this item kept falling to the bottom of the list. Having finally gotten my head above water again, I figured I could get this done and finally cross it off. (A to-do list is only as good as its cross-offs).

Last year I joined the Women Chefs & Restaurateurs. Glad was I when I got the invitation to their annual meeting, which was held in Newport, Rhode Island. My parents live on Long Island, fairly close to McArthur Airport. So it was there that we made an exchange: our son, Thor, for their car. We then drove to Greenport, a small town on the north fork of Long Island to stay at a lovely B&B, Bartlett House Inn. That evening, my parents had made reservations for us at the North Fork Table. The name may sound familiar to those who follow the New York restaurant scene. I forget who the chef is, but the pastry chef is one of my personal heroes, Claudia Fleming, formerly of Gramercy Tavern. The restaurant sources locally from the farms and vineyards surrounding it. The meal was really lovely – I had the Block Island fluke crudo with Hawaiian sea salt and grapefruit – fresh and fantastic. Mike had the Hudson Valley Foie Gras terrine. Also wonderful and especially unctuous. I ordered the monkfish as an entrée and Mike a lobster pasta dish. The flavors were really deeply layered and vibrant. The only small disappointment came with dessert, though not its execution, but instead the menu. The only locally sourced dessert was the apple tart, which I then ordered. Unbelievably rich, yet light as a feather puff pastry topped with perfectly cooked caramelized apples. Mike had some sort of chocolate dessert as he is apt to do. As a mignardise, we were given the tiny spice dougnuts, which are featured in Fleming’s wonderful book, The Last Course.

Next day, we drove out to the very deserted Montauk point to see the lighthouse and had lunch at a hole in a wall with fantastic fried bay scallops and clam chowder. We made our way back to the North Fork to visit the vineyards. Long Island wines, while better then when I lived there, are still no match for other winemaking regions. We did find some good sparkling wines from Lenz, a really great (but expensive) red from Wolffer and a very interesting blueberry port from Duck Walk. The most interesting and entertaining part of the day was when we were asked to appear on a television segment that they were filming on red wines and headaches. Somewhere in NY, they were watching my profile for a split second. That evening, we had dinner at the Frisky Oyster, Two chefs who were catering in Manhattan decided to make their way out to Greenport to open a very funky, little restaurant. While I don’t remember that much of the meal, I do know that I liked it, particularly their take on a caprese salad, which included a very tasty gougere. What I do remember was our dessert, which we did not partake of at the Frisky Oyster, but instead at my favorite Greenport establishment, Claudio’s. Claudio’s is the “oldest, same family run restaurant in the United States.” I myself have been going there since I was 6 months old when my parents and I would sail there on our annual family cruise. Dessert was not chocolate, nor apple this evening, but clams – baked clams to be exact. I certainly could not have left Greenport without a batch of those.

The next morning we woke up to the first Nor’easter of 2007, not a welcome sight given that we were taking the ferry to Connecticut and then driving to Newport. We moved up our reservation, skipped the complementary breakfast and instead had the remaining freshly-made doughnuts from Wickham’s Fruit Farm on the ferry with a cup of coffee on the trip over. We made our way through the torrential rain and wind and arrived in Newport. Our first stop after being told that we had to check-in later was to Banister’s Wharf and the Black Pearl. We started with the clams casino (I do love my clams) and then I had the grey sole and Mike the scallops. Both were very New England in their preparation, old-fashioned, yes, but also excellent. That evening, there were no official events for the conference, so we had dinner again on Bannister’s Wharf at Fluke Wine Bar. Having already had clams, scallops, and even fluke, we decided it was time for a good old lobster. We shared this and the paella – a good rendition, but not mind-blowing.

The conference theme was sustainability and the keynote speaker was Joan Dye Gussow. Her speech led into a panel discussion with the founder of Red Tomato in Boston, a company that markets products from family farms throughout New England, and Nora Pouillon. The discussion centered on local foods and why it’s important to support our family farms, which began a lively debate on bananas in the Dominican Republic and the living conditions of the farm workers. The woman who began the discussion worked for a frozen food company and she was really asking how far does the idea of “local” go. Odessa Piper, formerly of L’Etoile and a real pioneer of the local foods movement, stood up and said something extraordinary. She explained her position simply as “the distance your heart can travel” implying that it is as far as you continue to care about and seek to improve (whether by buying or not buying) the conditions of the people raising/producing/growing the product and the earth upon which it is raised. It was a personal eureka moment for me.

The next memorable event and meal was the gala dinner the next evening to which Mike accompanied me. We had a wonderful table: a Providence radio host, Ginny Lambrix, the very young director of winegrowing of De Loach and fellow Colgate alum, Lee Jones of the Chef’s Garden and Karen Waltuck of Manhattan’s Chanterelle. All of the meals were prepared by conference participants, so the food was not like that of other conferences. The evening was lovely, but there were two highlights. The first was the comic relief. During the cocktail hour, Mike was watching the Patriots’ game in the hotel bar. He met a bunch of guys who were guests at a wedding in the hotel. After halfway through the awards presentation, one of the guys pulls up a chair next to Mike. He introduces himself to the ladies around him and feigns interest in the speeches. A few minutes later, the restaurateur of the year award is given to Karen Waltuck. She walks to the stage at the front of the ballroom and our friend moves to the side of the room picks up a potted plant and carries it to the stage and presents it like one would give roses to the leading lady. He gets escorted out. While we all know about wedding crashers after the perfectly awful Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn movie, one does not often see conference crashers. The second highlight was much more inspirational and that was meeting Leah Chase of Dooky Chase who received the President’s award for a lifetime achievement. Suffice to say, she was definitely a presence and it was a moment I won’t soon forget.

Our final meal, the next day, was an oyster feast with oysterman shucking on site followed by a clambake made in the hotel’s pit overlooking the sunset. It was quite an evening.

The next day we returned to Long Island again traveling in the rain. Our last meal was at the Seafood Barge in Southhold. I shared oysters with Mike and then had a green salad – clearly the indication that it was time to go home. I had eaten so much seafood for the past 5 days that I felt like I should be taking someone’s temperature. I definitely exceeded my Mercury allotment for the month.

Chicagoland Flower and Garden Show

Celebrate Spring's impending arrival at the Chicagoland Flower and Garden Show from March 8-16 at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont. There will be beautiful theme gardens, a marketplace, seminars and best of all the Garden Gourmet, where you can attend demonstrations by chefs from Chicagoland and beyond, including our friend Alex Cheswick from May Street Market, the Hearty Boys and cookbook author Nathalie Dupree. I'll be doing demos on Sunday March 9 at 11:00am and on Wendesday March 12 at 11:00am.

March 8-16, 2008 Sat.-Wed., 9:30am-6:00pm; Thurs. & Fr. 9:30am-8:00pm Adults: Weekdays $12/Weekends $14; Children (Ages 4-12) $5.00 For more information or to order tickets: 773-435-1250 or

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Orange You Glad You Know How to Cook

We're quite proud to announce that Purple Asparagus has added a second Healthy Snacks Workshop to the Chicago Public Schools. Late in February, I met with 15 elementary school kids and their parents at Ogden Elementary School to explore the world of citrus. I started out with the lamest of knock knock jokes: Knock knock. Who's there? Banana. Knock knock. Who's there? Banana. Knock knock. Who's there? Orange you glad I didn't say banana? Stupid yes. Bungled by my inability to tell jokes, correct. Neverless, received well by a group of 6-9 year olds. We started by tasting a variety of citrus fruits, starting with the garden-variety navels, going to the spicy pink new navel varietal Cara Cara, blood oranges, pink grapefruits, pomelos, tangelos, clementines, Meyer lemons and, the unassociated kumquats. Given our ability to find the more common citrus fruits at all times, it was great to reiterate the seasonality of citrus. While I miss berries and stone fruits in the Winter months, I also look forward to the bright acid days of blood oranges and Meyer lemons. Our tasting portion of the program was a trip. I had two kids tell me that they had tried an orange, not even a navel, and another tell me that his favorite was kumquats. The dichotomy was amazing. But the best part was that by the end, the kids tried everyone (even the kumquats!)

After our tasting, we made the following recipes.

Rosy Sunrise

A recipe that I created when I was kid. I'm going to date myself, but I always wanted to submit it to the original Zoom series on PBS.

Serves 1

1 orange
¼ cup frozen strawberries

METHODS: Juice the orange over a blender with a hand juicer. Add frozen strawberries. Blend and serve.

Blood Orange Slushies
Serves 8

4 cups freshly squeezed blood orange juice

METHOD: In a small shallow pan, pour the blood orange juice. Put the pan in the freezer for 3 hours. Remove from the fridge and break up with fork. Return to the freezer and freeze for an additional 2 hours. Break it up again and serve in small bowls.

Tangerine-Mint Salad Over Vanilla Yogurt
Serves 1

Tangerine-Mint Salad1 tangerine, peeled and segmented
½ teaspoon honey
1 ½ teaspoons orange juice
½ teaspoon finely chopped mint
Vanilla Yogurt
2 tablespoons plain lowfat yogurt
½ teaspoon honey
1 drop vanilla extract

Tangerine-Mint Salad: Mix all ingredients in a small bowl.
Vanilla Yogurt: Mix all ingredients in a small bowl.
Serving: Top vanilla yogurt with tangerine-mint salad.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Celebrate Winter at the Museum of Modern Ice in Millenium Park

Purple Asparagus will be a part of the City of Chicago's Museum of Modern Ice, a Winter celebration in Millenium Park. The centerpiece of the event is a brilliantly colored ice wall that will be nearly 100 feet long and over 10 feet tall, a monumental exhibit by renowned artist Gordon Halloran, whose work has been showcased around the world most notably during the 2006 Turin Olympic Games. This is the first time that Halloran's work has been showcased in the U.S. and it promises to be the largest and most spectactular of his sculptures.
We will be in a heated tent adjacent to the artwork with several fun and fabulous family-friendly activities with a focus on a healthy lifestyle and good eating. On February 2 and 3 Chicagoans can enjoy building a snowman out of honey popcorn balls. Other activities include making maple taffy in the snow, growing a salad in a jar and sharing some good eats with our feathered friends making a pinecone birdfeeder.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Purple Asparagus' First Project Dine Out at May Street Market

To take your mind off this dismally depressing primary season, join Purple Asparagus for good food and family fun at May Street Market on Tsunami Tuesday. For our inaugural Project Dine Out, Chef/owner Alex Cheswick will prepare a 4-course dinner celebrating the flavors of the season. As an added treat, special guest Olivia Gerasole of Spatulatta makes a personal appearance to demonstrate a recipe from her new cookbook, co-authored with her sister, and sign books. Dishes for kids aged ten and under will be prepared using recipes from The Spatulatta Cookbook. Wines for this event are being donated by Stone Paddock.

Project Dine Out is a new initiative to help parents answer the recurring question of how to eat out with kids in a restaurant without chicken fingers. A portion of the proceeds from the event will go to Purple Asparagus’ partnership with the Greater Chicago Food Depository, in which Purple Asparagus members help teenagers cook dinners for their families at the Depository’s Kids Cafes.

The cost for the event is $25 kids ten and under and $65 for adults. For reservations, contact Melissa Graham at 773-991-1920 or email Tickets can also be purchased online
The folloing is the menu for adults and kids over 10:
First Course
baby spinach salad with smoked bacon and shallot dressing, truffle poached quail egg, and pretzel melba toast
lemon grass and sweet potato soup with peanut brittle croutons, and lime crème fraiche

Second Course
Sorbet intermezzo

Third Course
smoked roasted chicken with imported feta polenta, pickled red onion and seedling farms dried blueberry chutney
grilled arctic char with fennel confit, fennel pollen dusted doughnuts, fennel and apple salad and fennel frond froth
organic parsley risotto with vegetable capellinni, warmed tallegio, white truffle emulsion, and poached quail egg

bittersweet flourless chocolate cake, espresso cream, passion fruit sorbet, and crispy milk-chocolate
sorbet assortment, ruby red grape fruit, lemon, tangerine and candied kumquats

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Puff Pastry

During my Bloomie's demo, I used Du Four puff pastry, an all-butter puff pastry available for sale at Whole Foods, Provenance Food & Wine and at Fox & Obel. It's an excellent product and great when making appetizers for hundreds. However, when I cook for small groups or for my own family, I'll ordinarily make my own. Contrary to conventional thinking, making puff pastry from scratch is not inherently difficult - it just takes time, albeit mostly unattended time. There are a few secrets. First, use the best butter possible. At Thanksgiving, I made it with an uncultured butter from a Minnesota co-op available (occasionally) from Zingerman's. I used it to make apple tarte tatin - it was awesome. Second, you need to balance keeping the dough as cold as possible with retaining its pliable nature.
Puff Pastry
1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
¾ cup cake flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2/3-1 cup water
2 sticks unsalted butter

Combine the flours onto a clean surface in a mound and, with your fingers, make a well in the center. Cut 1 tablespoon from each stick of butter and melt. Put the salt, 2/3 cup water and melted butter into well. With the fingers of one hand, mix the liquid ingredients until the salt is dissolved. Mix in the flours slowly with a plastic pastry cutter – make sure that you don’t break the walls of the well. Mix until well-blended, adding more water as necessary. The dough will be slightly sticky. Cut an “x” ½-inch thick into the top of the dough. Wrap in plastic wrap, parchment paper or a lightly-floured towel and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Tap the 14 tablespoons between 2 sheets of parchment paper into a square ¾-inch thick. Wrap in the parchement until you're reading to move to the next step. Set the flour dough on a lightly floured surface and roll out four arms from the center outward. The final product should be mounded in the center. This is critical to make sure that there is enough of the flour dough to cover the butter without breaking through. Put the butter square on top of the mound. Cover with each of the arms and tap with a rolling pin to seal. Roll the dough into a rectangle approximately 7-inches wide and 21-inches long. Fold up the bottom third to the center and the top third to meet the bottom seam. Wrap in floured parchment and refrigerate for 30-minutes. Turn the dough a quarter turn to the left and roll out to a rectangle. Make another quarter turn and roll it out again. Refrigerate for a half hour. Give the dough another quarter turn. The dough can now be frozen for later use. Before using, give the dough two more quarter turns. The pastry is now ready to be rolled out and cut.