Dining and food culture in Chicago

Grandbaby Cakes: Carrying on Kitchen Traditions from Blog to Book

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Jocelyn Adams/Photo: Chuck Olu-Alabi

Jocelyn Adams/Photo: Chuck Olu-Alabi

By Rebecca Holland

One look at the food and baking blog Grandbaby Cakes, and you get hungry, fast. A fluffy red velvet cake draped with blackberry cream cheese frosting slides across the screen, followed by cookie cheesecake swirl bars. A pink theme and friendly writing pulls you into the blog, and before long you’re reading tricks and family stories, reminiscing about your own grandmother’s recipes, which is exactly what Jocelyn Adams, the Chicago food blogger and more recently cookbook author behind the site, has in mind.

“What resonates with people is this love of family,” Adams says. “They find themselves thinking about their own families and their own memories. That’s what sets it apart from other recipe sites.”

Family is also what inspired Adams to start her blog. After spending years in the kitchen with her grandmother, mother, and aunts, she developed a love of baking and a library of family recipes. Adams started Grandbaby Cakes three years ago while working as an events producer; about eighteen months ago, she took the plunge into full-time blogging. “I started the blog to share recipes and inspiration from my family, then things kind of blew up,” she says. “I fell in love with it and started doing more recipe development and learning more about both baking and blogging, until I knew I wanted to do it full-time.” Read the rest of this entry »

Comfort Me: Scott Walton of Howells & Hood

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By David Hammond

“Most people associate chicken soup with illness,” says Scott Walton of Howells & Hood (435 North Michigan). “I associate chicken soup with happiness.”

Most do think of comfort food as something you eat when you need comforting. But why can’t it be something you eat when you’re, you know, comfortable?

“The whole thing about having comfort food when you’re sick,” Walton argues, “is misconceived. I’ve been sick with the flu enough to know that a good bowl of soup is very easy on the stomach, not a lot of acidity, I get it. But for me, chicken soup is a hearty meal, and that’s very comforting—and you don’t have to be sick to be comforted.

“My mom made the best chicken soup, often from scratch, and never from a recipe. I know she had some cookbooks, but I never saw her use any of them. It was all in her head. And she didn’t make chicken soup for me because I was sick. She just made it because I liked it.” Read the rest of this entry »

Comfort Me: Nicole Pederson of Found 

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Nicole Pederson

Nicole Pederson/Galdones photography

By David Hammond

We started the “Comfort Me” series in hopes of locating what might be the universal constants of comfort food, the characteristics shared by all consumables that we feel give us comfort. As we’ve talked to Chicago chefs, however, it became clear that, predictably, personal life experiences have a lot to do with our individual definitions of comfort foods, and comfort foods clearly vary by ethnicity.

Nonetheless, there are some recurring themes in comfort food. It seems, for many Westerners, comfort food is frequently characterized by high-fat/high-carb creations that are not aggressively spiced and are easy to eat: they’re soft, yield to an effortless bite, and don’t seem to require a lot of chewing. That’s certainly true for the primary comfort food of Nicole Pederson of Found (1631 Chicago Avenue, Evanston, foundkitchen.com).

“My comfort foods,” Pederson confesses, “are kind of strange. It’s not like I had a meal that was all comfort food. It was little things, like lefse, which is a thin, potato pancake thing. Norwegian. You eat it like a tortilla, except you put butter on it. We’re Norwegian, so we put butter on everything. We even eat raw butter. Lefse is like a big round circular pancake that you cook on a kind of crepe griddle. It’s made from potato and flour, almost like a gnocchi batter. You roll it out really thin with a textured rolling pin, and then you griddle it on both sides. It lasts a long time in the refrigerator, and then you eat it with butter, alongside dinner. As a snack, you can eat lefse with sugar…but my grandpa said only Swedes eat lefse with sugar.”

Our comfort foods seem, many times, to be linked to specific experiences we’ve had growing up. For Erick Williams of County Barbeque (1352 West Taylor), his comfort food memories revolve around sitting alone in the kitchen after high-school football practice eating his mom’s stew. For Mary Nguyen Aregoni of Saigon Sisters (multiple locations), she remembers eating pho, traditional Vietnamese soup, with her dad and other family members in Laos after they left their homeland following the Vietnam War. For Pederson, many of her comfort foods are linked to cooking and eating experiences with her grandparents. Read the rest of this entry »

DIY Summer: Merlot Chocolate-Chip Ice Cream

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Homemade ice cream takes happily to a few shots of liquor—my creamy bourbon caramel and vegan whiskey ginger soy ice cream are two perennial hits at summer barbeques—but making the leap to wine can be intimidating. I’ve been working on it since those teasing hot days we had in mid-April, and the magic formula turns out to be one-part wine, two-parts cream, one-part whole milk. If going vegan, substitute soy creamer/yogurt and soymilk or coconut cream and coconut milk (though I’d be wary of adding anything other than a very fruity white wine to the coconut combo; I have a hunch white zinfandel might be strangely good). I’ve tried champagne ice cream and regular cream/milk with great success; it works just fine with last night’s flat remains. But the big winner so far has been a merlot chocolate chip. As with cooking, the better the wine, the better the result, but merlot, or syrah/shiraz in a pinch, works best because of its lack of complexity—no big reds here.

For one quart of ice cream:
Heat one pint of heavy cream and one cup of milk over low heat and add one to one-and-a-half cups of sugar. Stir slowly until dissolved. Let cool, then add one cup of merlot and mix in a standard ice cream mixer. Add a cup of chocolate chips when just frozen and stir. (Monica Westin)

Books that Cook: Selections of the season

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By Michael Nagrant

April showers not only bring May flowers, but a flood of new cooking titles. While I’m usually psyched about all the new recipes, I also get overwhelmed to the point of a potential Xanax habit by the mountain of books to be read. Thankfully, there is a drinks portion of the cookbook market, and this year, inspired by Tony Abou-Ganim and Mary Elizabeth Faulkner’s “The Modern Mixologist,” it only took a few Negroni cocktails to calm me. Through the course of reading ten or so cookbooks, my recipe (and my liver) changed considerably. If you, like me, feel so inclined to lubricate your reading journey through the three tomes I recommend below, here’s my final Negroni recipe:

1) Make your own compound gin: Hit Binny’s for a 1.75-liter bottle of Smirnoff vodka ($16.99). Hit Spice House and procure 2.5 tbsp juniper berries, 1/8 tsp fennel seed, four black peppercorns, 1/4 tsp allspice, 3/4 tsp coriander. Hit up grocery store for 1 tsp fresh orange zest, 1/2 tsp lemon zest, and one sprig rosemary. Read the rest of this entry »

Snapper in the City: The Drake Hotel’s Bookbinder soup

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By Michael Nagrant

While I abhor Cosmopolitans, the one thing I do love about those ladies from “Sex and the City” is their camaraderie. I suspect their daily meetings, however, are nothing but TV mythology. There’s no way anyone with a real job and life has time to meet with their friends so often. Still, their gatherings duly represent my aspirations of whiling away endless afternoons over drinks, food and banter to celebrate life. And so I do. Since I moved to Chicago, my best friend Aamir and I have made it a pretty regular habit to decompress at various downtown establishments after work. Read the rest of this entry »

Crabbin’ in Chicago: Dirk’s Fish & Gourmet Shop lets us know it’s summer

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softshellpoboysBy Michael Nagrant

You’d think the revered concubine of the Scientology movement could afford a high-level food consigliere, someone to tell her where the truly best eats are. Instead, it turns out Mrs. Tom Cruise, nee Katie Holmes, probably listens to what some second-rate concierge at a high-priced Michigan Avenue hotel told her last time she was in Chicago. You see, according to last week’s People magazine, Holmes recently brought in frozen Gino’s East deep-dish pizza for the crew of her current film “Mad Money.”

You could do worse. She could’ve brought in Giordano’s. And, truth be told, I’m kind of enamored with Gino’s sausage patty (It’s as if the cabbies that opened Gino’s back in the day lost a poker bet to Bob Evans.) But, and I know this is a matter of taste, I believe if her folks had really done their homework, they would have imported Pizano’s (61 East Madison) or Pequod’s (2207 North Clybourn).

Either way, Holmes importation gesture reminded me of something I’ve been pondering a lot lately: Can you have a great regional delicacy outside of its region of origin? For example, can you get a good, or even better, Philly cheesesteak outside of Philly?

I know I’m whizzing in a tornado on this one. The smart folks will point out that despite the nutmeg-spiced Italian beef and superior giardinara, the taste of an Al’s sandwich is just as important as the fact that you’re knee-deep in gravy-soaked bread, standing on bare concrete, bellied up to waist-high stainless-steel counters and scanning the celebrity headshots and signed dollar bills at the store on Taylor Street. There’s a history and culture you won’t find at a beef stand in L.A.

Another practical reason you won’t find great examples of iconic foods outside their locale of origin is science. As the wisdom goes, the iconic bagels at H and H in New York begin at the local water supply.

And so, every May, when the sign goes up at Dirk’s Fish & Gourmet Shop (2070 North Clybourn) announcing the arrival of the first soft-shell crabs of the season, it’s a great moment of conflict for me. On one hand it’s a triumphant annual local tradition signaling the arrival of early summer. As I stand next to the glistening refrigerated case, Dirk’s prime-sized, freshly molted blue crabs straight from the Chesapeake clatter upon one another, occasionally frothing at the mouth in their icy nest. Next to the amiable wise-cracking Dirk, they’re the liveliest thing in the joint.

Softshells should be eaten within four days of molting, otherwise they begin to rebuild their shells. These crunchier crabs, often referred to as “papershells,” are what I first had in a second-rate Michigan restaurant. While it ruined my interest in softshells for years, Dirk’s fresh ones renewed my faith. Also, it’s not too often that you get asked if “you want to kill and clean” your dinner yourself. (Dirk’s will remove the gills and guts, and all you have to do is cook ‘em).

Regarding the conflict I feel, I know the first thing I’m going to do once I procure the crabs is make a po’ boy, which is an iconic regional delicacy of New Orleans, and therefore my attempt is bound to be an imitation. Regarding points already outlined, I’ve got a lot going against me.

Science wise, po’ boy bread is much denser and chewier than your Jewel French baguette, a fact generally attributed to the high ambient Louisiana humidity which is thought to cause a more active yeast at legendary New Orleans bakers such as Liedenheimers or Gendusa’s. I’ve solved this problem. Local baker Red Hen’s (1623 North Milwaukee) baguette has just the right density and flakiness.

On the historic side, I’ve got to face up to almost eighty years of invention and refinement. The po-boy was invented by Clovis and Benjamin Martin, brothers and former streetcar drivers who opened a restaurant on St. Claude Avenue in the 1920s. When streetcar drivers went on strike in 1929, the brothers created an inexpensive sandwich consisting of gravy and bits of roast beef (later known as “debris”) on French bread that they would serve the unemployed workers. When a worker came by for one, a cry would go up in the kitchen that “here comes another poor boy!”

While it’s true, my kitchen doesn’t quite have the ambience of legendary N’awlins po-boy shacks like Johnny’s, Mother’s, Casamento’s, Uglesich’s or Galley, I like to believe that after three years of making these sandwiches (see recipe at below), I can hold my own. On the other hand, I’m probably just as deluded as Katie Holmes.

“I did it my way” Soft Shell Crab Po Boy

1 Red Hen white French baguette
1 medium tomato sliced thinly (best if you can score heirlooms from a farmer’s market)
1?4 red onion sliced thinly
Mix 1?4 head of shredded iceberg lettuce with 1?4 cup of shredded arugula
1?4 cup Hellman’s mayo
3 tablespoons Crystal or Frank’s red hot sauce
4 softshell crabs from Dirk’s
1?4 teaspoon cayenne
1?4 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 cup panko bread crumbs
1 egg lightly beaten
1 cup flour
1?2 a lemon
2 liters canola oil
Salt and pepper

1) Place canola oil in heavy bottom pan or deep fryer and heat to 375.

2) Pat crabs dry and season with cayenne, paprika, and salt

3) Lightly coat crabs in flour, then dredge in egg, shake off excess, and dredge in bread crumbs, let sit on a plate for a few minutes.

4) In the meantime split baguette, and coat top portion of bread with mayo, and dab on hot sauce.

5) Drop crabs in deep fryer, fry until golden brown, drain on paper towel and season again with a dash of salt and a spritz of lemon

6) Place crabs on the other half of baguette, top with lettuce/arugula blend, tomatoes and onion and freshly cracked pepper, and form sandwich with mayo slathered portion of bread.

Ramping Up: Inside an addiction to wild leeks

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rampsBy Michael Nagrant

Wild leeks are kind of like the agricultural version of crystal meth. That’s not to say if you eat a handful of the green, leafy, white-bulbed veg that tastes like a cross between spring onion and garlic you’ll end up tweaked-out and toothless, selling your children in the Wal-Mart parking lot. But then again I’ve never smoked or snorted them. Maybe if you throw a couple of bulbs in some rolling papers and spark up, you’ll commune with the ghost of Julia Child and a Rockette-like dance troupe of truffle-stuffed chickens?

What I do know is that wild leeks, like meth dens, pop up unchecked, usually in late March and early April, carpeting forested rural landscapes, and as a culinary signpost of impending spring bounty, they’re often farmed with the vigor of a hovering drug user.

Like the meth labs that give off a stench from drug-conversion byproducts, rampant eaters of wild leeks have also been known to sport a hillbilly bouquet, a garlicky perfume that oozes from the pores.

Wild leeks even have their own street name—ramps. As one version has it, the English folk name “ramson” (son of Ram), referred to the plant’s appearance during the sign of Aries, March 20 to April 20, on the zodiac calendar.

Then there’s the addiction. Ramps are delicious. Sautéed, they are the perfect nest for a hunk of grilled meat. My first pusher, Chef Ryan Poli, formerly of Butter, served them up amidst a spring ragout of asparagus, fiddlehead ferns and morel mushrooms drizzled with warm veal broth.

Eating them in Chicago is appropriate, as the vegetable is our namesake. Chicago originates from the Potawatomi Indian word “Checagou,” which means “wild onions” or “skunk.” The area was so named because of the smell of rotting wild leeks that used to cover the marshland located at the confluence of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan.

Suppliers to local restaurants like Blackbird, Frontera Grill, Vie, 312 Chicago and Custom House are Marty and Kris Travis of Spence Farm, the local ramp kingpins. They began digging ramps in the twenty-six-acre woods behind their farm because they were choking out wildflowers. Only later did the Travises discover that the operation could be lucrative. Now they harvest more than 4,000 pounds, which garner about ten dollars per pound wholesale.

For the last three years, the Travises have hosted an annual spring ramp dig for local chefs and foodies at their farm in Livingston County, Illinois. In need of a fix, I accepted an invitation to join Paul Virant and his Vie restaurant crew on this year’s dig. The farm is located a couple hours out of Chicago, and my driving companions were Jimmy McFarland, a Vie server, and Dan Feldman, aka “Cheney” (as in Dick Cheney, because the Vie crew thought he looked like a young Republican), Vie’s assistant pastry chef.

While discussing a new dessert involving waffles and buttermilk ice cream, Feldman missed an exit, and we arrived a bit late to the farm, a collection of barns, vintage buildings, the family cemetery and a yellow-sided American four square-style farmhouse. As we hit the dig site, Vie chef Paul Virant, clad in a black baseball cap with the Gnarly Head wine logo, emerged from the mucky forest with a cardboard box full of ramps.

In Chicago, there are a lot of photo op chefs, guys who’ve won lots of awards, who are resting on those laurels, parading weekly in the press, clamoring about seasonality and locality, all the while buying their stuff from international conglomerates. In contrast, Virant, who was just named a 2007 “best new chef” by Food & Wine magazine, preserves seasonal fruits and vegetables, makes his own vinegar, house-cures meats, forages for mushrooms and makes sausage with his grandfather’s vintage sausage stuffer. Virant is the one-room schoolhouse of old-school chefs.

After a bustling Saturday night at Vie, he could be sleeping in or relaxing at home, but instead he’s out digging for ramps with his wife and two boys. This dedication makes Vie (4471 Lawn Avenue, Western Springs) the perfect local spot to try out wild leeks for the first time. Currently, Virant features them wood-grilled in a ragout of burgundy snails with fava beans and organic crème fraiche, or alongside wood-grilled domestic lamb loin chops. The menu is always evolving, and it’s likely the dishes won’t be the same if you go, but the ramps should be there.

If you want to try wild leeks at home, you can usually find them at Whole Foods or Fox and Obel, or order them online at earthy.com. Once you procure them, try making a hearty Potato Leek Stew (see recipe below). Slurp down a bowl and throw back a pint of Guinness—there’s no better way to honor the springtime.

Potato and Wild Leek Soup

6 slices bacon
4 cups chopped ramps (green and white parts)
4 cups diced yukon gold potatoes
3 tablespoons flour
4 cups chicken broth (Swanson is pretty good)
1 cup heavy cream
salt and pepper and lemon to taste

In a large skillet, fry bacon until crispy; set bacon aside. Add the ramps and potatoes to the skillet; fry on medium-low heat until ramps are tender. Sprinkle the mixture with flour; stir until flour is absorbed. Stir in chicken broth; simmer until potatoes are tender. Mash some, but not all of the potatoes with the back of a wooden spoon. This thickens the soup, but preserves the texture by keeping some of potatoes intact. Stir in the heavy cream, heat through, then add salt and pepper to taste. Finally dash with a spritz of fresh lemon before serving.

Enhancements: Grate a bit of Parmigiano Reggiano or add a few drops of white truffle oil to really kick things up