Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Melissa Doesn't Post Here Anymore

I've haven't checked out, just moved on. If you like what you've read here come over to Little Locavores where I explore family foods fresh from the farmers' market.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Local Lobster

Okay, maybe not. But with the exception of some lemon juice, all the ingredients that surrounded our East Coast crustacean were produced right here in the Midwest.

Needing to pick up some gift certificates for Purple Asparagus’ Corks & Crayons from Dirk of Dirk’s Fish, I knew that Sunday was going to be a fish night. Not until I saw the beautiful tangerine-colored chanterelles from River Valley, did I decide that my Piscean delight would come with claws and a tail.

Having grilled some delicious Black Earth bratwurst for lunch (paired with slaw made from Green Acres red cabbage and pickled Learning Shed’s green tomatoes), we used the last of the fire to give a smoky flavor to our chanterelles and 2 ears of Smit’s corn. We later steamed one lobster and browned the remaining chunk of my unlabeled Blue Marble Butter. While Mike pried apart our lobster, I sautéed a small shallot and 1 tablespoon of finely chopped green onion in a pan. As he sucked on the lobster legs, I chopped the meat and added it to the pan with the kernels of our smoky corn with about ¼ cup of the browned butter, the juice of one lemon and 1 tablespoon parsley.

So how was it? A revelation. Not because of the lobster, which was richly sweet and perfectly cooked. Nor because of the chanterelles, smoky and flavored with summer earth. But the corn. Oh the corn. The corn we wait a year for. This corn is a bare relation to the genetically engineered corn grown far and wide over the Midwest. The corn that reminds you why corn-fed is actually a compliment here in our Midwestern states. Paired with a rich, unoaked Russian River Valley chardonnay, it was the perfect way to end a weekend in mid August.

Photo Courtesy of Public Domains Pictures.net

The Local Beet Farm Dinner

I'm excited to be cooking at the first The Local Beet farm dinner, a multi-course, family-style dinner featuring locally-produced, seasonal ingredients. The event will be at Genesis Growers, a farm run by Vicki Westerhoff just 70 miles outside of Chicago. Vicki is intently focused on growing high quality produce and eggs without the use of pesticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilizers. Read more about Vicki and Genesis Growers here.

Currently, the menu is in the planning stages and will be determined based on what we expect to be available. Tickets to the dinner do not include alcohol, but the event is BYOB.

Click here to purchase a ticket.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Happy Birthday Edible Chicago

Thanks goes to Edible Chicago and Uncommon Ground for a wonderful evening. Many in the local foods communities came out to celebrate the first anniversary of Edible Chicago. All our wishes for many more (though I also wish to bite into that translucent looking raspberry).

Growing Home, Growing Community

Over at the The Local Beet, I describe the wonderful tour that I took of Growing Home's Wood Street Farm.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Micro Brew & Food Review to Support Seven Generations Ahead

Oak Park Microbrew Review

Event Date: Saturday, August 22, 2009
Time: 3-8 PM (note it's an hour longer this year) V.I.P. pre-event from 2-3 PM Event Location: Marion Street between South Blvd. and Lake St. / Downtown Oak Park

Seven Generations Ahead and the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild in collaboration with the Downtown Oak Park Association present the 2nd Annual Oak Park Microbrew Review. The event features tastings of 50 craft beers from 20 microbreweries from across Illinois.

Sample beer from the most skilled craft brewmasters; purchase food from the finest local restaurateurs; groove to the sounds of cutting- edge local bands; see sustainable best practices modeled through the event's zero waste component.

Admission is $35 in advance or $40 at the event. A V.I.P. pre-event celebration will be held at the new "green" Marion Street Cheese Market, 100 S. Marion St., Oak Park; tickets are $100 and limited to 50 people. V.I.P. tickets include admission to both the pre-event and Oak Park Microbrew Review, a deluxe limited edition tasting glass, and an event t-shirt.

All proceeds of the Oak Park Microbrew Review benefit Seven Generations Ahead, a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization whose mission is to promote the development of healthy, environmentally sustainable communities in the Midwest.

To buy tickets, visit Brown Paper Tickets

Friday, July 31, 2009

Healthy Home Tips from EWG

Lots of great things enter my inbox from people I don't know personally. New blog posts, funny articles, calls to action. The following tip sheet from the Environmental Working Group is too good not to share: Healthy Home Tips.

Enjoy and keep healthy!

Say No to Factory Farms

Food and Water Watch are continuing their quest to keep us safe. They're organizing a campaign to end factory farming, industrialized husbandry, a practice that is neither good for our bodies or our environments.

From a recent email:

"Factory farms have already forced out many small producers by lowering the price that farmers are paid for chickens and pigs. The tough economic times are hitting everyone hard and many farmers are losing their contracts. The USDA has bought up surplus pork, chicken and eggs for nutrition and school lunch programs to absorb some of the over-supply, but still, the agency continues to back loans for new factory farms."

Tell the USDA that we want to stop factory farming by clicking here

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Little Locavores

This post was originally published on Being Savvy, Caitlin Giles excellent blog for Chicago parents. I'm reposting it as part of Real Food Wednesday.

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 that 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.

School's In; rBGH is out

There's exciting news in Evanston for those who care about our childrens' health. Evanston School District 65 is exercising its right to buy rBGH-free milk.

Developed by Monsanto, rBGH or recombinant bovine growth hormone artificially increases milk production by 10-15%. Despite concerns over the risks to both humans and animals, the FDA continues to assert its safety. Many large corporations, including Wal-Mart, Starbucks and Chipotle refuse to purchase milk from cows given rBGH and the Chicago Public Schools has gone with a supplier whose milk is rBGH-free.

With the help of Food and Water Watch, Evanston has given rBGH milk the heave-ho announcing that it will serve rBGH-free milk in its cafeterias starting this autumn.

To learn more about the risks associated with rBGH milk, visit Sustainable Table or The Center for Food Safety's website. For more about the campaign, check out this Local Beet article by one othe Food & Water Watch's Field Organizer.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Corks & Crayons

Join us for Purple Asparagus' annual benefit Corks & Crayons, August 30, at Uncommon Ground on Devon.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Purple Asparagus at Evanston Farmers' Market

Come visit Purple Asparagus at the Evanston Farmers' Market from 8:30am-12:00pm where we'll be making Peach Salsa with Tortilla Spikes. Thanks to Nell Funk and Mary McMahon of Now We're Cookin', we'll be part of the Evanston Market's Kids Day.

Check out my recent blog post on The Local Beet about the Geneva Green Market.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Sustainable Cook

Looking at the date of my last post here, I'm quite embarrassed. Three months, no posts. Yikes.

For those of you who "follow" me in other contexts, you know that I've been actively blogging as The Sustainable Cook, on The Local Beet, a website dedicated to a practical approach to local eating. Others of you may have seen some of the great press we've gotten recently, particularly in Daily Candy and on NBC related to these columns. As a result, I've decided to change the title of this blog to The Sustainable Cook.

I can't think of a better post to commerorate this change than to detail the classes I'm going to be offering under my alter identity. You can book these classes in your home or at a common facility. For more information, just call 773-991-290 or email me at melissa@monogrammevents.com

A Sustainable Evening

Enjoy an evening with a few good friends over a spectacular multi-course meal of sustainably-sourced ingredients. Chef Melissa Graham will prepare an elegant, sustainable meal and show you and your guests how to green up your act in the kitchen and ultimately become a more sustainable consumer. With her emphasis of organic and local products grown by family farmers, you can trust the food will be as good for the earth as it is delicious. Wine pairing is available.
$100.00 per person (6 person minimum, 10 person maximum)

Sustainable Eating 101

Get a ‘green’ education right in the comfort of your own home. Chef Melissa Graham will help you understand the concept of sustainability and how that relates to you and your guests. This demonstration and discussion class will help you be a more sustainable cook and consumer. You will also learn how to make dishes that are as good for the earth as they are delicious.

$25.00 per person (10 person minimum)

Cooking That's Kind to the Earth and Kind to Your Wallet

In these challenging economic times, many people are left wondering whether they can eat in a way that’s good for the earth without breaking the bank. In this demonstration class, Chef Melissa Graham will explain how, with careful shopping, smart cooking and some good old fashioned frugality, environmental and fiscal sustainability can happily coexist in your kitchen.

Chef Melissa will explain where to find savings in the grocery aisles and demonstrate how to reduce waste through recycling, composting and a judicious use of leftovers. Finally, you'll learn how to make a dish that is as good for the earth as it is for your wallet.

$25.00 per person (10 person minimum)

A Well-Stocked Sustainable Kitchen

Learn how to make delicious and nutritious earth-friendly dishes on a moment's notice by creating a well-stocked kitchen of sustainable ingredients. Chef Melissa will offer specific tips and great short cuts to making a fabulous meal for your family and friends.

$25.00 per person (10 person minimum)

To Market, To Market

Learn how to navigate a farmers market in a visit to Chicago's only all-sustainable market, Green City Market with Chef Melissa Graham, the Market's membership chair. Learn what's in season and experience the bounty of some of the Midwest's greatest farmers while getting tips on how to be a more sustainable cook and consumer.

$20.00 per person (15 person maximum)

Sustainable Family Traditions

In this class, perfect for a mom's group or a parents association, you'll learn how eating sustainably will help get families back to the table, connecting with one another and the earth. Chef Melissa Graham, head spear of Purple Asparagus, will demonstrate how with projects, activities and trips to the farmers market you can help your children understand where their food comes from, get them in tune with the rhythm of the seasons and create a sense of community and respect for the farmer and producers who raise our food.

$15.00 per person (10 person minimum)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Damn you Zingerman's


As if I didn't spend enough on the Michigan retailer's website with its selection of varietal honeys, they go along and come up with this.

Strangely, even as a child, I've been able to resist the siren's call of candy. Give me the choice between a potato chip and a chocolate coated something-or-other, I'll take the former every day and three times on Sunday. This holds true with almost every variety, except one. For years, the Snicker's bar has some sort of svengali-like hold over my taste buds. Every Halloween, I routinely pilfer each and every one that my son receives in his goody bag.

So damn those Michiganders up in Ann Arbor. Zingerman's has begun offering the Zzang bar, a Snicker's bar on crack. Honey nougat made from natural peanut butter, rolled in a lusciously-smooth muscavado sugar caramel and topped with butter-toasted peanuts. All of this decadence is enrobed in bittersweet Equadorian chocolate. Thank goodness, it's exorbitantly expensive ($7.00 for 2.5 oz. and worth every penny) or I'd be buying it by the case.

Available online at Zingerman's or at Whole Foods.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Pictures From Cheese, Glorious Cheese

A special thanks goes out to Jennifer Khatchatrian, a.k.a. ecochicorganizer for snapping the following from my recent demo at Green City Market during cheese month.


Pimento Cheese

Makes a little over 2 cups

1 small red pepper
10 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated
2 ounces goat cheese softened
½ cup mayonnaise, either homemade or best quality commercial
1 pinch of cayenne
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
3 grinds of freshly ground pepper

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 and set aside until cool enough to handle. When cooled, remove the skin, stem and seeds. Roughly chop. Combine the pepper, cheeses, mayonnaise and seasonings in the bowl of a food processor. Mix until smooth. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight to develop the flavors. Serve with saltine-style crackers or brioche toasts.

Cheddar Popcorn

Cheddar-Bacon Popcorn

The bacon-cheddar popcorn is made simply by coating air-popped popcorn with strained bacon grease to taste. Sprinkle on Spice House cheddar powder and fine sea salt to taste.

Cheese Wafers

Cheese Wafers

Makes approximately 70

10 ounces hard cheese like cheddar or parmesan, grated

METHOD: Preheat oven to 350° F. On a silpat or parchment-lined baking sheet, scoop out teaspoons of grated cheese to make 15 circles. If you want your crackers to be neater, use a 1 ¾ -inch biscuit cutter. Set the cutter on the lined baking sheet and fill with a teaspoon of cheese. Repeat. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes or until crisp.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

What's this? Rutabaga


Root vegetables are some of the most maligned of ingredients known to humankind. And the most reviled of the maligned? The turnip. For centuries, spurned by the well-to-do, the bitter, round, hard root was the staple of many a poor European family. That sulfurous stink probably arouses a certain revulsion and shame in many of my generation and the one preceding it.

The turnip’s biggest problem is being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Alas, like Cinderella’s ugliest of step-sisters, the turnip is the last to be chosen. Because the turnip keeps well, we often turn to it only when the growing season is over. Unfortunately, by this time, it’s past its prime. Precisely at the moment we are enjoying the delicacies of Spring or finishing up the last of Autumn’s offerings is when we should try the turnip. The gentle temperatures of Spring and Autumn produces one that's sweet and tender far from the hardened Winter variety.

The turnip’s best chance to change its image is by association with its cousin the rutabaga. Unlike the turnip, the rutabaga, is at its best in early Winter after a period of cold weather has revealed its true sweetness. The rutabaga, or yellow turnip, is a cross between a cabbage and the homely turnip. It can range in size between that of a golf ball and a soft ball and is yellowish in hue shading into fuschia at the root end. While it does have the characteristically turnip-y aroma, it’s balanced by an earthy sweetness. One can only hope that more people will try the rutabaga for the Winter months leaving the turnip alone until its time to shine. Here's a recipe that should engender some love and respect for the rutabaga. Easier than cooking and mashing potatoes, this puree is sweet, mellow and earthy – a perfect counterpoint to pork or roast chicken.


Rutabaga Puree with Crème Fraiche & Horseradish
Serves 2

3 small rutabagas
1/3 cup crème fraiche
1 teaspoon drained, prepared horseradish
½ teaspoon sea salt

METHOD: Peel and quarter the rutabagas. Place them in a medium saucepan and cover with cold water. Toss in a firm pinch of kosher salt. Bring to a boil and simmer until tender when pierced with a knife, approximately 20 minutes. Remove the rutabagas from the water to the bowl of a food processor. Puree until smooth. Add crème fraiche, horseradish and salt.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

You say ketchup, I say catsup

Ketchup lovers take heed, there's a new player in the house.


To learn more visit, The Local Beet

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Flower & Garden Show

For those of you who want to brave the Navy Pier crowds on a nice day, I'll be at the Chicagoland Flower and Garden Show tomorrow demonstrating Carrot-Coconut Soup.

If you can't make it, please enjoy the recipe. Late March and early April are miserable months for those of us who try to eat locally. Spring is no where near the produce section or the farmers markets, but the thought of one more turnip or hard-skinned squash is too much to bear. This soup is a great transition recipe. It's got a sunshine-y color that warms the soul just to see it. It's also a great reminder of sunnier days ahead. While I wasn't able to find any of the freshly dug carrots, I've heard rumor that they're out there. Also, some localvores may still have their carrots in cold storage. With those, add local onions, stock, butter and even cilantro if you're good at growing herbs inside.

Carrot-Coconut Soup
Resist any urge to add more Serrano chile; the heat overwhelms the delicate sweetness of the carrots. I’ve garnished the soup with butter-poached shrimp, but it could easily be replaced with a dollop of sour cream or crème fraiche and is equally delicious (and beautiful) served without garnish. This soup is also very good when served cold.

For 6 servings

Carrot-Coconut Soup
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ cup chopped yellow onion
½ Serrano chili, seeded and minced
1 stalk lemongrass, thinly sliced
A 1-inch slice of ginger, peeled
2 large cloves garlic, minced
2 ½ cups sliced carrots, approximately 6 large carrots
3 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade (see recipe in Taking Stock)
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup light coconut milk
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Cilantro for garnish
12 large shrimp, peeled and deveined (optional)
½ pound unsalted butter (optional)

EQUIPMENT SUGGESTED: A heavy-bottomed 4-quart sauce pan, a food processor or a powerful hand blender, a fine mesh sieve, a 9-inch sauté pan.

The soup: Heat butter in a medium pot over medium heat until the foam has subsided. Sauté the onion, chili, lemongrass and ginger until softened – 4 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add carrots, chicken stock and cook until the carrots are tender – 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool slightly. Purée in a food processor or with a powerful hand blender and return to the cleaned pot. For a finer texture, you can force the soup through a fine mesh sieve.

Butter Poached Shrimp: Bring the butter to a bare simmer over low heat in a shallow sauté pan.

Add the shrimp and cook until just pink approximately 4 to 5 minutes.
Finishing the soup: Return the soup to a simmer. Remove from the heat, add the coconut milk and season with freshly ground white pepper.

Serving the soup: Ladle into shallow soup bowls. If desired, garnish each bowl with two butter-poached shrimp and a little cilantro.

Do-ahead notes: The soup can be made and puréed one day ahead and refrigerated or it can be made up to two weeks ahead and frozen.
Second Use: The butter from poaching the shrimp can be frozen and used later to make shrimp and grits.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Compost Chronicles: I Fought the Law, and the Law Won

Corporations, municipalities and organizations all over America are making zero-waste commitments, setting 5, 10 year goals to create programs that will ensure nothing that they buy or use will end up in a landfill, but will instead be reused, recycled or composted. Many experts, such as the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, consider zero-waste programs to be one of the quickest, cheapest and most effective ways to fight climate change. Given Chicago’s reputation as one of the greenest cities in America, it probably would surprise you to learn that it neither has made nor could make a zero-waste pledge at this time. What’s the hold-up? The law in Illinois as currently written effectively prohibits commercial composting of food scraps. In this feature, I’ll explain why and, more importantly, what you can do help get the offending and out-of-date provisions off the books.

Illinois requires commercial composting facilities accepting any material, other than landscape waste, to obtain a pollution control facility permit from the State Environmental Protection Agency. The Chicago Ordinance requires any composting operation to have a permit unless the waste, food or landscape, is created on-site, composted in-vessel (conducted in a fully enclosed container), and the resulting compost used on site. To explain, if a school were to compost its food scraps in full enclosed composting equipment, like an Earth Tub, it would have to use all of that compost on its property – it could not sell it or give it away to farmers, community gardeners or landscapers. Some may ask ‘what’s the big deal?’ A lot of businesses have to get permits or licenses to operate. Perhaps, the answer is found in the name of the permitting section, the Pollution Control at the State Public Nuisance Cessation and Abatement at the City. Composting, a life creating process, is considered a nuisance, a pollutant, by the government. And as a result, the permitting process is going to be an arduous and expensive one.

This has been the practical effect. According to Ken Dunne of the Resource Center, a municipality could charge up to $300,000 to site a composting facility within its limits. Consequently, as of today, there are no commercial composting facilities in Chicago that accept food scraps. In fact, according to findacomposter.com, a service of BioCycle Magazine, there is not a single composting operation in Illinois that accepts food scraps. The Resource Center’s composting site on 70th Street in Chicago was shut down by the City in 2003. A project that was to involve the Resource Center and the City of Chicago never materialized. The Resource Center is still operating, funding its operations through its recycling activities. The Center collects compostable food scraps from a limited number of restaurants and events, like Green Fest. It then brings these compostable materials to a composting facility in County Line, Indiana, where it is mixed in with other materials. Because of this mixing process, the resulting compost is used for landfill cover, not for farm purposes. Food waste represents 15-20% of residential garbage, without food scrap composting, we are squandering a valuable resource that could be used to enrich our soil.

So much for the bad news; the good news is that change may be on its way. Senator Heather Steans has introduced a bill, SB99, that would allow food waste to be commercially composted in Illinois. The bill seeks to amend the Illinois Environmental Protection Act to remove food scraps from the definition of garbage. It then defines “food scrap” to mean “compostable material that (i) results from the handling, processing, preparation, cooking consumption, or sale of food and (ii) is separate from either a household waste stream or a municipal waste stream.” It includes within this definition biodegradable food containers, i.e. compostables. The bill also goes on to exclude composting facilities that accept food scraps from the definition of pollution control facilities, thereby removing them from the arduous permitting process. The bill essentially treats food scrap composting in the same manner as landscape composting, allowed in Illinois for years.

The Fact Sheet, which accompanies the bill, focuses on the economic benefit of the amendments. It recognizes that the cost to process a food scrap composting site in Illinois is prohibitively expensive. It then asserts that “the bill will open up the ability for investors to form food waste composting facilities, creating jobs in Illinois and selling Illinois-made compost all over the country.” Only after the Fact Sheet concludes that the bill would prolong the life of Illinois’ landfills, does it note that it would reduce gases that contribute to climate change.

In the current financial and political climate in Illinois, starting with the economics of the situation is probably the best approach to take with the legislature. While it may seem that SB99 is a win-win piece of legislation that creates jobs, increases business opportunities and saves the environment, there are deeply held misconceptions about composting, which sank a similar piece of legislation in 2005 despite strong support by then Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn.

To pass, the bill needs your help. SB99 is before the Senate Environment Committee on Thursday February 26. Call or email your Senator and urge them to support this important legislation. Food scrap composting is critical to the fight against climate change. It would reduce the amount of waste brought to our landfills, thus decreasing methane emissions. It is also a valuable soil conditioner that reduces the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides. As Kay McKeen of SCARCE (School and Community Assistance for Recycling and Composting Education) put it, “our soil is a valuable resource, one that can be healed.” This cannot happen through chemical means, but instead by the nutrient-rich compost from our food scraps.

If you don't know your senator, search here

And then call or email to them the following.

Phone and Email Script for Support of Composting Legislation

Hello. My name is ________. I want to ask you to co-sponsor Senate Bill 99. SB99 is a bill that will allow commercial food waste composting in Illinois.

I support SB99 due to the following:
(Choose any of the following)

• Composting reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Properly aerated composting significantly reduces methane produced by decomposition. Methane has many more times the global warming impact of carbon dioxide.

• Composting reduces the amount of waste going to landfills. Currently, organic waste that could be composted makes up 1/3 of the waste in Illinois landfills.

• Creating commercial composting facilities separate from landfill facilities will create new jobs throughout Illinois. Currently, many organizations that wish to compost food waste export it for composting to surrounding Mid-western states. We should keep these jobs in Illinois.

• Using nutrient rich compost, the product of composting, instead of chemical fertilizers in crop cultivation and gardening will reduce the quantity of chemicals leached into our drinking water and food crops. Reducing dependence on chemical fertilizers is beneficial to ecological, animal, and human health.

• Illinois law should follow the example of states such as Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa, California, Pennsylvania, and New York that have well established composting regulations. Illinois law should not lag on this issue.

I strongly believe that Senate Bill 99 will provide significant environmental and economic benefits to the state of Illinois. I request that you co-sponsor Senate Bill 99. Thank you very much for your time.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Compost Chronicles: Composting Times

Great article about urban composting in the New York Times. It can be done!

Monday, February 16, 2009

What's This? Collard Greens


For those of us who try to eat locally year round, greens make up a big part of our Winter diet. Both light greens, like cabbage, and dark greens, kale, spinach and chards, are a savior when tomatoes, eggplants and summer squash are a distant memory. And the great thing about most of these greens is that the cold weather softens and sweetens many greens making them easier to eat and to cook.

The green pictured above is an ancient one, cultivated by the Greeks and Romans. They were brought to America by the British settlers and the name, collard, is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word for cabbage, colewort. Collards were rapidly adopted by the slaves as a substitute for the greens they knew in Africa. As a result, collards remain a staple of the cooking of the American South. They are also popular in Brazil, where according to an old folk tale, a woman isn't ready for marriage until she knows how to shred the green properly.

Like other dark leafy greens, collards are high in fiber and rich in Vitamin C. Collard greens can be long cooked as is common in Southern cooking or flash cooked, especially in the Winter. Here's my favorite recipe for kale, which is somewhere in between. I add a boost of flavor at the end with a bit of glace - highly reduced veal stock, but this isn't necessary especially when the greens are really fresh.


Quick Braised Collards
Serves 4

1 bunch collard greens
1 tablespoon bacon grease
1 tablespoon veal demi-glace
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

METHODS: Remove the hard stems by folding the leaves in half and cutting them away from the stem. Slice about 1/2-inch thick. Heat the bacon grease in a medium-large saucepan. Add the collard greens and cover with water by an inch. Bring to a simmer and cook until tender, approximately 1/2 hour. You may need to add more water. Drop the glace in and simmer for 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Compost Chronicles: Earl the Earthworm

My son, the budding environmentalist, was inspired by a book to ask for a very unusual birthday present. Last November, Tim Magner of Green Sugar Press contacted me about the possiblity of some sort of collaboration with Purple Asparagus. About a month later, I received a package with Magner's three books, "N is for Nature," "An Environmental Guide from A to Z" and "Earl the Earthworms Digs for His Life." Sundays and Mondays are my nights to take Thor to bed and rebuffing his request to read the Lorax for the twelfth day in a row, I grabbed "Earl." He was fascinated by the book. After I explained the idea of a worm bin, and a slight bit of encouragement, Thor decided he wanted one for his birthday.

So on its way from Montana is a Tumbleweed Worm Farm from Planet Natural along with a bunch of red wiggler worms. More to come after their arrival.

Tim Magner's books are available on his site and also at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.

Purple Asparagus Family Dinner at Tampopo

Join Purple Asparagus for a family dinner at Tampopo. Tampopo is a bright, friendly, family run Japanese restaurant named after the famous Japanese noodle western. Yes, that's right, a movie western about noodles. Chef Daniel Choe will treat us to a feast of home-style dishes, pristinely fresh sushi and of course noodles. In addition to a fabulous meal, we'll enjoy cultural activities both from Japan and Chef Choe's native Korea.

5664 North Lincoln
Chicago, IL

Sunday February 15, 2-4:30pm.

Space for this event is limited, so sign up now. Ticket prices for members are Adults and teens, $25.00; Big Kids (5-12), $10.00; and Little Kids (4 and under), free. Ticket prices for non-members are Adults and teens, $30.00; Big Kids (5-12), $12.00; and Little Kids (4 and under), free.

To purchase tickets, you can either send a check written to Purple Asparagus to

Purple Asparagus
c/o Melissa Graham
1824 W. Newport Ave.
Chicago, IL 60657

Or you can pay by credit card by visiting Brown Paper Tickets.

Friday, February 6, 2009

What's This? Burdock


I usually don’t like to include chef-y recipes on my blog. By this I mean, ones with a lot of steps or unusual ingredients. I make an exception when I make something so good out of an ingredient that is as ugly as it is difficult to tame. Even the word, burdock, conjures images of witches over a cauldron stirring potions that will turn their enemies into scaly, slimy beasts. It doesn’t help that it looks like a utensil to be used for this purpose.

Research on the root doesn’t present any more of an appealing image. Burdock is a biennial thistle whose dark green leaves can grow up to 18-inches in length. The edible portion, i.e. the roots, is food for the larva of the Ghost Moth and other Lepidoptera, such as The Gothic, Lime-speck Pug and Scalloped Hazel according to Wikipedia. Over at Botanical.com, Mrs. M. Grieve calls its taste “sweetish and mucilaginous.” Thus, there’s little surprise, that burdock, which was referred to in several of Shakespeare’s plays, has fallen out of fashion in European cultures in recent centuries.

Burdock does remain popular in Japan, where it is known as gobo, and has experienced a slight resurgence of popularity in western cuisine because of macrobiotics, which recommends its consumption. For the rest of us, burdock remains a relative unknown. It’s available at Whole Foods and occasionally through Fresh Picks from Harmony Valley in Wisconsin.

Raw, burdock has a slightly bitter taste, which can be softened by soaking in cold water for 5 to 10 minutes prior to cooking. It also is best thinly shaved either by an adjustable vegetable slicer or with a vegetable peeler. The appearance of shaved burdock, a little like linguine, was the inspiration for the following recipe:


Mushroom Braised Burdock with Soba Noodles, Mushrooms & Fresh Ricotta
Serves 2 as an entrée or 4 as an appetizer

This recipe has such an earthy quality to it because of the combination of the burdock, mushrooms & buckwheat of the noodles. It can easily be converted to a vegan recipe by substituting the butter for oil and omitting the ricotta cheese.

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 pound button mushrooms, sliced ¼-inch thick
4 burdock stalks
2 cups mushroom stock, recipe follows
2 shallots
¼ cup Madeira
2 tablespoons finely chopped Italian parsley
1 teaspoon finely chopped rosemary
¼ pound soba noodles
¼ fresh ricotta

METHOD: Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a sauté pan over medium heat until melted. Add ½ of the sliced mushrooms and increase the heat to medium-high. Cook until lightly browned and remove to a bowl. Repeat with remaining butter and mushrooms. Turn the heat under the mushrooms to medium heat, add previously cooked mushrooms, add Madeira, bring to a simmer and reduce slightly. Turn the heat off. Fill a medium shallow bowl with cold water. Scrub clean or peel the burdock root. Shave it with a vegetable peeler, dropping the shaved pieces into the cold water. There will be some waste. Bring a large stock pot full of water to a boil. In a medium saucepan, bring the mushroom stock to a vigorous simmer. Add burdock and cook until tender, approximately 10 minutes. Salt the boiling water and drop the soba noodles in; cook for 6-7 minutes. In the meantime, add the burdock and stock to the mushrooms and reduce the liquid until almost evaporated. Taste for seasoning and add kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Drain the noodles, add to the mushroom mixture and toss to coat. Serve in shallow bowls topped with clouds of ricotta.

Mushroom Stock

Stems from 2 pounds of mushrooms
¼ cup dried porcini mushrooms
1 sprig thyme

METHOD: Cover the ingredients with 2 inches water in a medium sauce pan. Bring the water to a simmer and cook for 1 hour.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Hope and Change at the Table

An account of the intimate dinner that I cooked for the new First Lady.

On Super Tuesday, we booked our hotel; the night of the election, our plane tickets. Perhaps we were optimistic, but if Barack won, I wanted to be there. I was in Washington for law school in 1993 and on that cold January evening, I saw all the frothy dresses and polished tuxes trotted out for President Clinton and so wished that I too could go to the ball.

There was, however, one small detail that I neglected to remember – I hate crowds. While watching political rallies on the small screen, they always so seem so inspiring – strangers rubbing shoulders for a common purpose. But in reality, they just make me itchy. As the crowd estimates continued to rise after the election, we began to rethink our travel plans. Cancelling the trip was not a possibility. Our itinerary included flying through Long Island to drop off our son, Thor, with my mom and dad. For months, he had been telling friends that he wanted Barack to win so that he could visit his grandparents. Plans had been made, play dates arranged –- it was set. At the very least, we were going to New York.

Taking the money we would have spent on ball tickets, peak hotel rates and all the rest, we booked a suite at the Sofitel and reserved tables at Gotham Bar & Grill, Blue Hill & Daniel. While Barack, in his polished tux, and Michelle, in her very frothy dress danced to “At Last” at one of the many inaugural balls on January 20, we lifted a glass of champagne at the uncrowded Restaurant Daniel on the Upper East Side.

In retrospect, this post hoc decision made perfect sense given that my support for Barack and his campaign were not born as the result of one of his soaring crowd-pleasing speeches, but instead at a similarly intimate dinner that I cooked for Michelle and four of her closest friends.

After the momentous announcement was made on another cold day in early 2007, a smattering of Obama signs began to appear in Chicago windows. It was around this time that I got the call. During the previous October, I had donated a package to Healthy Schools Campaign for their annual benefit. Called “A Sustainable Evening,” it was a multi-course dinner with pairings from Candid Wines. I often donate packages like these to charities with which I’m involved. They’re great PR and surprisingly, given the price they tend to fetch, about a third of a time the bidder doesn’t redeem. This time was different.

Cindy Moelis, a good friend of Michelle’s, had purchased the item. Originally, she’d planned to use it for her and her husband. But as the campaign began in earnest, she realized that over the next few months, and perhaps years, there would be few opportunities for Michelle to spend an intimate evening with her close female friends. Accordingly, the dinner was intended in some respects to be a last hurrah, though one without fanfare – just a simple evening of good friends enjoying good food and wine. Working with Cindy, we developed a menu that took into account Michelle’s taste, the guest’s dietary restrictions and our philosophy of sustainable sourcing. The event was challenging in many respects. Off-site catering has many difficulties, ones that are only compounded when a site visit or even communication with the host is not possible. We also had the time of year to contend with; April, the month of the event, is a sort of netherworld for local eating in the Midwest. The growing season hasn’t kicked in, but the thought of yet one more root vegetable is too much to bear.

Despite these challenges, the event went beautifully. We served a trio of snacks to start: crisp wafers of Wisconsin parmesan, salt-crusted almonds and local radish slices topped with herbed goat butter. The first course was a salad of local baby greens and herbs topped with seared Maine diver scallops and dressed with vinaigrette made from an artisanal California cider vinegar. We served a soup: rich chicken broth, cooked down twice, in it, a single ravioli filled with a mixture of sweet peas, Prairie Fruits Farm goat cheese and grey shallots. The ravioli was topped with a tussle of frizzled Wettstein’s ham and pea shoots. The entrée was seared King salmon filets set atop a potato puree surrounded by a moat of rich red wine sauce made from Lynfred’s Vin de City Red. The filets were garnished with a handful of asparagus tips. In the bread basket, there was rich foccacia, rosemary crackers and country bread — all house made. Our dessert was a rhubarb crème brulee partnered with Meyer lemon madeleines. We finished up with French-pressed Intelligentia coffee and truffles from Coco Rouge.


After the tumultuous primary and campaign, that night all seems so long ago, but I remember Michelle being down to earth and kind. Malia and Sascha were there with the children of the other guests (they all ate pizza and played games downstairs). Malia was thoughtful and composed; Sascha, a pistol. But I particularly recall our departure as I was the only member of our team to get a big hug and kiss on the cheek from Michelle – a moment that I treasure.

I’ve been thinking about this evening in light of the heated discussions in the food community about who should be the White House chef in President Obama’s administration. A “controversy” recently resolved by the retention of Chef Cristeta Comerford and the appointment of private chef Sam Kass to serve under her. Ordinarily, our Sustainable Evening package has a strong educational component. Both the folks at Candid Wines and I really enjoy talking with guests about sustainable methods of production, the farmers, producers and wineries from whom we source and generally about the philosophy of sustainability. In fact, in many instances, the guests sit in the kitchen with us and it becomes an interactive event. While it would have been wonderful to have the opportunity to do this with such a high profile individual as Michelle, when we learned what the intent of the dinner was, we limited the didactic element to a minimum – essentially a description of each dish and a short presentation on the philosophy of our companies. Based upon this experience, I’ve been both amused and troubled by the debate on the role of the White House chef.

Initially, I thought it interesting how so many high profile food writers could misunderstand the role of White House chef. As Walter Scheib, Executive Chef in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, has made clear in his interviews on the subject, the job is not to promote one’s own agenda, but to serve at the pleasure of the president and first lady. As Tony Mantuano told Phil Vettel when asked if he would want the job: "I don't think so," he said. "It'd be like being the chef of a giant hotel. You have to make peanut butter and jelly for the kids, plus private dinners, room service—unless you’re a big corporate hotel guy, I'm not sure you'd want it." Taking the job also means no book tours, no television shows. Imagine the absurdity of Rick Bayless or Art Smith severing ties with their successful restaurants and media enterprises to become a banquet chef.

But what really bothered me was how many titans of the food world were in effect calling upon the Obamas to fire the first female executive White House chef. These demands were particularly egregious when it turns out that she had been doing all along exactly what they were urging. Former White House Chef Scheib has made it clear that Chef Comerford sources locally, uses organic and sustainable products, including grass fed beef and sustainably caught fish. In fact, much of the produce used for the first family was grown in a small roof top garden at the White House. The problem seems not to be that she wasn’t doing the desired thing; instead, it was that she hadn’t become famous in doing so. Doing her job well, discretely and without fanfare was insufficient.

It seems that Sam Kass is the ideal candidate for his new job under Comerford. Obviously, he does his job well, but is also discrete. With the exception of Time Out Chicago, Kass’ name never came up in any of the articles speculating on the White House chef. He also clearly cares about the public good. While I never made it over to any of the Re-thinking Soup sessions at Hull House, several of my friends and colleagues have spoken at them and thought highly of the events. In fact, Kass’ “speech” reprinted in yesterday’s New York Times Well blog introduces two of them — Jean Saunders of Healthy Schools Campaign (the same organization to which I donated my Sustainable Evening package) and Josephine Lauer formerly of Organic School Project. However, in these events, he was bringing in the experts to speak, instead of pushing his own agenda. I think this experience too will serve him well. I would imagine that neither the President nor the First Lady will would want a lecture on sustainable fisheries or the benefits of grass-fed beef each time that they sit down to dinner. The table can be a place for discussion and learning, but for someone with stressful job, its restorative properties are more important. While it’s certainly positive that Kass is knowledgeable about sustainability issues, as Comerford I’m sure is as well, other qualities such as discretion and a sense of duty are equally important in such a sensitive assignment. The role of White House chef is not a bully pulpit. I wish the Kass the best of luck. I would assume that neither his employers nor his new boss will be much of a problem for him. Rather, his biggest critic may well be the public, which seems to prefer a “celebrity” face over a dutiful servant.

Two recipes from our dinner:

Radishes Topped with Goat Butter

4 ounces goat butter, softened
2 tablespoons mixed chopped herbs (such as basil or tarragon, chives, chervil or parsley)
1 bunch radishes, stemmed and cleaned
Coarse sea salt for garnish

METHOD: Mix together butter and chopped herbs. Slice radishes thinly and soak in cold water. Dry slices and top with goat butter. Garnish with coarse sea salt.

Cheese Wafers

½ pound parmesan cheese, grated (I use Stravecchio, a parmesan-style cheese produced in Wisconsin)

EQUIPMENT: Baking sheet, silpat or parchment

METHOD: Preheat oven to 350° F. On a parchment or silpat-lined baking sheets, scoop out teaspoon size rounds of grated parmesan cheese. Bake until crisp about 7-10 minutes.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

What's This?


The Jerusalem artichoke is a vegetable with an identity crisis. Neither an artichoke nor from Jerusalem, it is instead a native American member of the sunflower family that acquired its name when the French who discovered it in the 1600’s thought that it tasted like an artichoke. The modifier Jerusalem is a corruption of the Italian word for sunflower “Girasole.” Around the middle of the last century, retailers of the tuber, resolved the confusion by renaming it the Sunchoke. Sunchokes are generally light brown and knobby, looking like a cross between a piece of ginger and a Yukon gold potato. Some, like the ones pictured, have a reddish tinge. Taste-wise, they have mild, nutty flavor. Sunchokes are good mashed, steamed, deep fried and even raw in salads.


Sunchoke Chips
Serves 2

2 large sunchokes or 3 smaller ones
4 cups vegetable oil
Coarse sea salt

METHOD: Heat the oil in a large saucepan to 325° F. While waiting for the oil to come to temperature, thinly slice the sunchokes on a adjustable slicer between 1/8 and 1/16-inch thick. Essentially, slice it as thinly as possible while remaining in one piece. Drop the slices into the hot oil and cook until light brown approximately 3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on crumbled paper towels. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt and serve.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Going Against the Grain

Growing up in a German family, our daily bread was rarely white. Dark hued rye and pumpernickel were far more common. This was fine with me at least until I went to school. Seduced by the soft, squeezy texture of the white bread found in most of my friend’s lunch bags, I was done with whole grains. When I saw the bright colored, bubbly bag of the wonderful Wonder bread – Yowsa! “Air sots!” my mother would exclaim - not that I understood what those were, I assumed it was whatever gave it that beguiling texture and wan shade. Read more at the Local Beet.


Friday, January 9, 2009

What's This?

This post is the first in a series called “What’s This?” I know that many of my readers, clients and friends either frequent the farmers markets or are members of a CSA (community supported agriculture). In doing so, regardless of your level of cooking skill, you will inevitably come across a fruit or vegetable that’s completely unfamiliar to you. This series is intended to answer the question “what’s this?” and more importantly “what do I do with it?”

Dinosaur kale

At the Green City Market just before Christmas, I picked up some young dinosaur kale from Genesis Growers. Kale is a cold weather green, extreme cold. In fact, its flavor and color is at its best only after a frost. Considered a brassica, kale is related to cabbage, broccoli and Brussels sprouts. Many people will be most familiar with the flowering variety, which is seen in many a floral arrangement in October and November. While attractive, this is by far not the best use of the plant.

Kale is highly nutritious, with large amounts of beta carotene, vitamin K and vitamin C. It’s relatively high in calcium and is considered to be full of antioxidant properties. It’s also one of the few greens that we can find grown locally into the Winter months. Young kale can be used raw in a salad or sautéed in a little olive oil. Older kale benefits from a long cooking with aromatics such as onions or garlic.

I used my young kale to make a one dish supper with some Polish sausage that we received in our last Cedar Valley Sustainable Valley share. The kale was so tender that I was able to remove the stems as I would do with spinach, by pinching each leaf half together like a book and pulling the stem down and away from the veins.

Polish Sausage Cooked in Red Wine with Young Kale
Serves 3-4

4 polish sausages
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, sliced
1 bunch young kale, washed and harder stems removed
Pinch red pepper flakes
1 cup red wine
1 cup water

METHOD: In a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat, brown the sausages. Remove to a plate. Let the pan cool slightly and add olive oil. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add the garlic and cook until fragrant approximately 30 seconds. Add kale and stir to combine. Pour in wine and water and return sausages to the pan with any juices accumulated on the plate. Add a pinch of red pepper flakes and kosher salt and bring the liquid to a simmer and cook until the kale is wilted and most of the juices have evaporated.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

I've Got the Blues

At Monogramme, we own a beautiful cheese platter. Made from the top of a barrel that once aged Cabernet, it's quite dramatic and useful when serving a cheese course to many guests. Given our locavore tendencies, we prefer to stock it with locally produced cheeses. In the midwest, we've got such great aged cheddars, Wisconsin parmesans like Stravecchio, and a variety of goat cheeses ranging from fresh logs to aged boules with at least one Camembert-style one thrown into the mix. Up until recently, however, I've been stymied on blue cheeses. Yes, there's Maytag; but I'm just not a big fan - the samples that I've tried recently just haven't the depth of flavor that I prefer in my cheeses. My dilemma was recently solved when our friend, Tracy Kellner began stocking a lovely gorgonzola-style blue called Mindoro at Provenance Food & Wine.


Mindoro is made by Swiss Valley Farms, a cooperative of dairy farmers, in Mindoro, Wisconsin, which is located in the southwestern part of the state. According to their website, Swiss Valley specializes in blue-veined cheeses and the Mindoro plant manager is a certified Wisconsin master cheesemaker.

The Mindoro gorgonzola is a semi-soft cow's milk cheese with bluish-green veins. The taste on the tongue is creamy with crystalline bites. It's full flavored, but not overpowering, spicy at the back of the throat with just the right touch of saltiness. It's great for cooking, but stands well alone or with a few toasted pecans. The Mindoro has been a very popular cheese at our events. And if I these weren't enough reasons to like this cheese, there's always the price: about $12.00 a pound.

Using a little of what I left over from our last event, I made a compound butter to top a Cedar Valley ribeye.


Blue Cheese Butter

1 tablespoon blue cheese at room temperature
1 teaspoon butter, softened
1/4 teaspoon Madeira or Port


Mix together all ingredients and put a dab of it onto a just cooked steak.

The last of the few ounces, three to be exact, went into a souffle, an outstanding way to finish of almost any cheese.


Blue Cheese Souffle
Adapted from Ina Garten's recipe in Barefoot in Paris
Serves 3-4 depending on appetite and size


4 tablespoons unsalted butter plus 1 tablespoon for the dish
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese plus more for dusting
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup milk, heated to 110 degrees on the stove or in a microwave
pinch nutmeg, cayenne
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
freshly ground pepper to taste
5 large eggs, separated
3 ounces blue cheese, chopped
pinch of cream of tartar

METHODS: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Grease a 4-quart souffle dish with 1 tablespoon butter and dust with 1 tablespoons parmesan cheese. In a medium saucepan, heat the remaining butter over medium heat until the foam subsides. Add flour and cook for 2 minutes stirring. Whisk in hot milk until smooth and cook stirring for 1 minute. Remove the pan from the heat and add 4 egg yolks* one by one. Add salt, spices, remaining parmesan and blue cheeses and stir until relatively smooth (there will likely still be small chunks of blue cheese). Cool slightly while beating the egg whites. Put the whites in the bowl of a stand mixer, a beat on low speed until frothy, approximately one minute. Add cream of tartar and increase the speed to high and let it go until the whites hold a stiff peak when the beater is lifted. Incorporate a 1/3 of the egg whites into the sauce base by folding very gently. Add the remaining egg whites, combining quickly and softly. Scrape the batter into the prepared dish. Place in the center of the oven and immediately turn the temperature down to 375. Bake for approximately 45 minutes.

*SECOND USE: The remaining egg yolk can be frozen. Depending upon how you plan to use it, break it up with a 1/4 teaspoon sugar or salt to prevent it from getting gummy.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A Farmers Market Fix

On this cold and snowy day, it may seem like the last thing to contemplate would be the opening of the 2009 market season. Nevertheless, some of our farmers will be making the trip into the City this weekend for a market sponsored by CCLP (Churches Center for Land and People). The farmers donate 10% of what they earn at CCLP markets to Harvest for Hope Fund, which has been giving monetary assistance to farmers in crisis due to illness or other unforeseen issues. The market will be at St. Ben's parish at 2219 West Irving Park this Saturday from 9am to 1pm. Last month, the folks from Tomato Mountain and River Valley Ranch were there. Arnold's Farm will be offering beef, pork and poultry (pre-orders are recommended). In addition to the opportunity to buy local products directly from the farmer, the Parish will offer an a la carte cafe, including breakfast casserole, scones and fair-trade coffee.

For more information or for information about other Winter markets, visit Local Harvest.org

Monday, January 5, 2009

A Delivery Resolution: The Local Beet

Like many of us, I have several New Year’s resolutions. Some of which are pretty common – there’s always my promise to exercise more. Others a little less expected – since my holiday cards are STILL unmailed, I resolve to write them in July this year. Given that I’m marching towards a pretty significant milestone birthday, some are pretty personal – these I won’t be publicizing. There is one, however, that is particularly relevant to Local Beet Readers. To read more.

Organic Wine Match of the Day

Through one of my social networking sites, a Denver-based wine columnist, Randy Caparoso, found me and sent me his daily newsletter on organic wine and food pairings. Thorough and appetite-whetting, his writing is a real treat.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

A Chicken in Many Pots

About six months ago, our household signed up for a CSA (community supported agriculture) offered by Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, individuals and families buy a “share” in a local farm that entitles them to a box of products, most commonly produce, selected by the farmer on a periodic basis (weekly, bi-monthly or monthly). Some farmers only offer shares during the growing season, others provide them throughout the year supplementing the local product (at least in states with a limited growing season like in Illinois) with organic fruits and vegetables from California.

Signing up was a minor leap of faith given our previous, experience with CSAs. A few years back, we had ordered a weekly share from King’s Hill Farm. Foolishly, I started our deliveries in March, a few months before the growing season kicked in, so our box was full of California-grown products. This was tolerable until mid-June, at the height of strawberry season, when we were still receiving moldy mangoes as our fruit allocation.

The Cedar Valley CSA was offered through my friend Tracy Kellner’s excellent food and wine shop, Provenance Food & Wine. With her endorsement and the ability to participate for a limited time (3 months), we signed up. Each month, we would pick up a monthly allotment of meat. Since then, we’ve purchased a second six-month term – a testament to the high quality of their product.

Typically, our share includes approximately 12 to 15 pounds of meat and between a half dozen and two dozen eggs. We’ve seen hams, finely-spiced sausages, ground beef, chops of both pork and beef and lots of chicken, at least one whole chicken a month ranging from dainty poussins to 3 plus pound roasters.

Roast chicken, as we all know, is an ideal family dinner. For most of us, it feels like a well-worn pair of jeans that flatter. It’s simple to prepare and will satisfy even a picky five-year old. Finally, it’s the gift that keeps on giving as the carcass can and should be transformed into a quick stock (recipe follows).

Here are my secrets to a well-roasted chicken:

1. Slather with butter, it browns and crisps the skin.
2. Salt more than you think is necessary. It aids in the crisping of the skin and brings out the flavor.
3. Trussing is easy – simply take a 10-inch piece of twine. Place the midway point of the twine under the tail of the chicken. Curl it around the leg bones by twisting it around the side of the bone closest to the breast. Wrap it around each leg 360° degrees and pull them close to the body. Cross the breasts, bring the twine next to the sides of the body and tie at the top. Tuck the wings under the twine as best as possible. The picture above should aid in understanding these instructions.
4. Shift the position of the chicken approximately every 15 minutes to ensure even browning. This does violate my ordinary rule of thumb, which is to open the oven as little as possible while baking or roasting - it really does aid in the even browning of the bird.
5. I follow Nigella Lawson’s formula for time, which hasn’t failed me yet. Roast the chicken for 15 minutes a pound plus 10 minutes.

Roast Chicken

1 3 lb. chicken, preferably organic
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
¼ smoked paprika (optional)
kosher or coarse sea salt and pepper to taste
1 lemon

METHOD: If you have a convection oven, preheat it to 375º F; otherwise, preheat it to 425° F. Halve the lemon and put it in the cavity. Truss the chicken according the instructions above and put it in a small roasting pan. Combine the butter and paprika and massage the chicken with it. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for about 55 minutes, until a thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh reads 165° F.

You can always add garlic cloves, shallots or onions to the pan to serve the chicken. Peel them and add toss them alongside the chicken to roast with it.


If you’d like to serve the chicken with gravy, here’s my simply recipe for it.

1 tablespoon all purpose flour
¼ cup white wine
¼ cup chicken stock, canned is fine, homemade is better, or water

METHOD: Remove the chicken from the pan and place it on a cutting board. Cover with aluminum foil. Remove all but 1 tablespoon of fat from roasting pan. Put the pan on a burner on medium heat. Add flour and cook until lightly colored about 5 minutes. Slowly whisk in chicken stock or water and white wine, simmer until thickened. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Chicken Stock (from carcass)

1 chicken carcass from a roast chicken
½ carrot, peeled and sliced ½-inch thick
½ stalk celery, sliced ½-inch thick
½ onion, peeled
½ sprig thyme
½ sprig parsley
½ bay leaf

METHOD: In a large pot, cover the chicken carcass and remaining ingredients with cold water by two inches. Bring the water to a low simmer and cook for 1 hour. Let cool slightly. Strain into a large bowl and let cool, preferably over an ice bath. Refrigerate overnight to allow the fat to solidify. Remove fat and either use or apportion it into smaller containers.

For more information about Cedar Valley Farm, please visit Local Harvest

Friday, January 2, 2009

A Surreal Meal

Last night, my husband, son and I had a very strange meal at one of our new favorite restaurants, Anteprima. Anteprima is an artisanal Italian restaurant in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago. Naming the neighborhood is relevant is important in understanding the restaurant’s demographics. Not too long ago, the area received some national notoriety as a result of another restaurateur’s decision to post a sign, which stirred a fierce conflict between two of the neighborhood’s largest inhabitant groups: gay men and urban straight parents.

Back in 2005, the owner of Taste of Heaven, a coffee shop, tired of rowdy children and the parents who ignored them posted a kid-level sign, with child-like handprints stating that “children of all ages have to behave and use indoor voices.” Both the Chicago Tribune and Time Out Chicago wrote short pieces about the sign and the controversy it was generating. Then, it hit the New York Times – reported on no less than the front page. The Trib revived the story in columns by Eric Zorn and John Kass. Pages and pages of blog posts ensued on the Stew, the Trib’s blog, which gave voice to the back story only alluded to in the Times’s piece – the conflict between childless gay men and affluent moms. On other sites, I saw words like “breeder” and “fag” bandied about with abandon. Fortunately, however, there were reasonable people on either side of the issue who were willing to see each other’s side – i.e., kids shouldn’t be allowed to run around and scream in any restaurant setting, unless it has the word Play Place attached to it and that customers of a coffee shop with a huge picture of an ice cream cone on its front door shouldn’t expect total solitude while drinking their double soy cappucino.

Last night, we got sandwiched between these demographics making for an interesting evening. A couple with a son about Thor’s age (5) walked in shortly after us and were seated just west of us. After about a minute, the father pulled out a DVD player, popped some earphones on the kid (pronouncing that he looked like a rock star) and fired it up. Other than climbing his feet along the restaurant’s wall, the kid was pretty quiet. Certainly more quiet than the gay couple who walked in and sat to the east of us. I’m not sure how it started, but by the time our entrees arrived, we learned much about their relationship, which was crashing upon the rocks before our very eyes.

Now we out a lot and so while surreal, this wasn’t the weirdest restaurant moment we’ve had by a long shot. I think that would be between my buying a painting from a homeless man at El Tinajon or Thor cleaning baseboards at our friend Stephen Dunne’s restaurant in Roscoe Village. But it of course reminded me of how our dining experience can be impacted by the behavior of others, especially children. Because of Purple Asparagus and our family dining focus, I’ve been interviewed on the question of eating out with children several times. Thor has been going to restaurants since he was born and for the most part is a very good patron. He’s gotten gifts from our regular waitresses, been allowed to help process the credit card from others and has frequently gotten us special treats from the kitchen. Here are my top six tips.

Eat Early:

When we go out with Thor, we eat as early as possible. We really like to arrive between 5 and 6. Most people who don’t want to eat out with kids in a restaurant don’t go at that time, but instead later, like 8. In most restaurants, it’s either not very busy or full of other families making a perfect and relatively stress-free time to dine with a 5 year old.

Butt on Wood (or whatever the chair is made of):

The rule is, unless he’s going to the bathroom, arriving or departing, the butt must be in the chair. Waiters are busy and are focusing their attention at the adult level, not kid level. If your kid is running around, it’s not just rude, it’s

Sotto Voce (otherwise known as “Inside Voice”):

This is most often our biggest challenge especially with a boisterous 5 year old, one that requires constant reinforcement. We also find that the busier and noisier the restaurant, the better. We’ll actually try to sit near the kitchen or by a door. We find that the background noises will overtake even the pierce of a 5 year old’s occasional shriek. We did certainly find that an arguing set of gay men drowned him out. Unfortunately, I think they needed to follow this advice.

Bring the Carrot and the Stick:

I’m sure that many a child psychologist would scold me, but I’m not above bribery or threats. Dessert is a good carrot and the loss of TV time a fine stick.

Encourage Kids to Interact:

Thor orders for himself. He must say please and must say thank you. And if he’s rude, he must apologize. He won over one of his biggest fans when he apologized for being naughty. It was a new waiter at one of our favorite restaurants. He was being a pill and we could see how she was categorizing us in her mind as that type of parent with that type of kid. Under duress, he apologized and her mood just melted. She gave him hot chocolate sauce on his ice cream gratis and he started to understand the power of honey versus vinegar.

We also require him to interact with us. As I mentioned, the child in my story was generally quiet, but he was shut off from the waitstaff, other patrons and his parents. He might as well have been sitting in front of a TV at home. While we do allow Thor to bring quiet and unobtrusive toys to distract him (crayons, paper, a small car or train), we do not allow anything that isolates him – I’m not certain how bringing a DVD player to dinner is any different than an adult spending the meal on a cell phone or a blackberry.

Tip Well:

For the small spills on the floor, for the 4 top that must be set for what is essentially 2 diners and just for the general inconvenience, we tip well (20% and up). For me, it’s like a corkage fee. We pay a little extra for the ability to bring our son. Waiters remember that and will be happy to see you the next time. And remember, it’s still cheaper than a baby sitter.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Oldies, But Goodies

It never ceases to amaze me how often at parties the simplest and most homely of dishes prove most popular even when presented side by side with elegant extravagances. Last night, we hosted our yearly New Year's Eve Party. Among the hors d'oeuvres, I served Red Hen baguette toasts topped with thin, well-marbled slices of Dakota Ranch grass-fed rib eye topped with horseradish creme fraiche, thin wafers of Straveccio, a salty, win-y Wisconsin parmesan, and a luscious triple creme cheese slathered with cranberry-shallot compote and baked. The most popular offering? Onion dip and potato chips. The second most popular? "Lambs in a Tuxedo," a fancy name for pigs in a blanket made with merguez sausage and puff pastry. I'm not certain whether it was the crowd or the reemerging popularity of comfort foods in the wake of this wretched year. In either event, I think these recipes would be well-received in a variety of settings. Here are my caterer's take on each simple classic.

Caramelized Onion Dip
Makes about 2 cups

1 medium yellow onion
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 pound cream cheese, softened
1 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons good mayonnaise (I use Hellman's)
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Drop of Tabasco

METHODS: Very thinly slice the onion. Heat the butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Once the foam has subsided, add the onions and reduce the heat to low. Cook slowly, stirring often until the onions are a deep caramel color, approximately 1/2 hour. In a stand mixer, beat the cream cheese until smooth. Finely chop the onions and add to the cream cheese. Mix until well-combined. Add remaining ingredients and mix. Serve with good, thick cut potato chips.

"Lambs in a Tuxedo"

1 package puff pastry (I use either homemade or DuFour)
1 pound mergeuz sausage.

METHODS: Lay the pastry sheet on a lightly floured cutting board. Cut the sausage into 1 1/2-inch pieces. Cut the pastry into columns just slightly larger than 1-inch. Wrap each piece of sausage with puff pastry leaving just a slight overhang. Press to seal. Place seal side down on a baking sheet lined with either silpat or parchment. The lambies can be frozen at this point for up to 3 weeks. Bake in a preheated 400 degree oven for 10-15 minutes until puffed and golden. Serve with mustard-sherry sauce.

Mustard-Sherry Sauce

1/2 cup dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon sherry vinegar
1/4 teaspoon sambal olek

METHOD: Mix together all ingredients.