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.