Dining and food culture in Chicago

Clean Energy: Bean & Body Crafts a Healthier Coffee

Coffee & Tea, News etc. No Comments »

Erik Lucas

“This business would be a fairy-tale story if I said that I grew up on a Nicaraguan coffee farm and I always had this deep passion for it, but it just wouldn’t be true. We just don’t have that dream story, where I was a surfer and discovered a delicious new fruit that I could bottle. I kind of wish that was my lifestyle, but at the same time, it has been a really fantastic journey. It might not be as romantic, but certainly the integrity is there, you know?” Ben Heins, cofounder of Bean & Body, told me over the phone as he drove to Wisconsin.

“When I met Erik Lucas, we had both just been through all four years of college, and he was just one of those guys you meet through other people in your life, and you want to hang out. We had taken a class together. Usually when I had presented an idea in the past, it was to my dad, and the questions after I pitched always resulted in from him, ‘Well, where’s the business plan in this?’” Read the rest of this entry »

Frozen Out: When the State Went After Artisanal Ice-Cream Makers, Nice Cream Decided Not to Melt

Ice Cream, News etc. No Comments »

 By Giovanni Wrobel

Kris Swanberg began making ice cream immediately after getting laid off as a CPS teacher, calling her product Nice Cream. Her all-local organic model became popular in stores, gaining the attention of Whole Foods and eventually the Illinois Department of Public Health, who recently shut Swanberg down for not having a dairy license and not following the regulations. Swanberg’s business, however, is still at a point where the regulations are cost prohibitive to keep Nice Cream local and organic. Instead of rolling over, this time she’s drawing her line in the sand and sticking up for her beloved ice cream and that of other Illinois artisan creamers.

What originally intrigued you about making ice cream besides the ice cream maker you received for your wedding?
That’s it really! (Laughs.) I just started doing it at home and I couldn’t stop thinking about different flavors and different ideas.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Overnighters: Hyde Parkers are really excited to finally get an all-night diner

American, Hyde Park No Comments »

Clarke's in Lakeview

By Benjamin Rossi

Thanks to a well-orchestrated press release, the whole city knows about plans to bring a Whole Foods to the University of Chicago’s neighborhood, Hyde Park. But what really has some students excited is a recent university announcement that Clarke’s diner, a twenty-four-hour restaurant with locations in Lincoln Park, Wicker Park and Lakeview will open a branch in 53rd Street’s Harper Court, just blocks from campus.

Twenty-four-hour eateries are a staple of college towns and urban campuses: the University of Michigan has Fleetwood Diner, Yale claims Gourmet Heaven, NYU has the Ukrainian restaurant Veselka and Columbia University has Tom’s Restaurant, whose exterior stood in for the fictional Monk’s Cafe on “Seinfeld.” As any college student knows, these restaurants serve as crucial way stations for partygoers, meeting places for couples and coffee breaks for crammers.

But when it comes to getting greasy food quickly and cheaply any time of the day or night, the University of Chicago has fallen behind its peer institutions. The Medici, a veteran hangout on 57th Street, is only open until midnight—and that’s on Fridays and Saturdays. The campus dining halls close at 8pm, and even the campus convenience stores, Bart Mart and Midway Market, shut down at 3am. Some students opt for Taco Bell on 79th Street, the Maxwell Street Depot on 31st, White Palace on Roosevelt, or even Clarke’s on Belmont. But for those without a car or temporarily bereft of the ability to drive, commuting to these far-flung locations is quite a hassle. Read the rest of this entry »

Common Sense on Common Culinary Misconceptions

Trends & Essays 2 Comments »

By Michael Nagrantsushi000036

According to biographer Craig Nelson, in the last few weeks of his life, everything Thomas Paine ate triggered episodes of vomiting. In response, he allegedly gave food up entirely until he died. Maybe that’s the real story? We think maybe Paine just witnessed the bad behaviors and fibs of colonial celebrity chefs and restaurateurs and couldn’t take it anymore.

We know the feeling. As their modern counterparts have grown in stature and the PR machines have heated up, so has the mythology of dining out. Since the truth shall set you free, we bring a little common sense to bear on some common culinary-related misconceptions.

Untruth #1: High-end chefs only drink Miller High Life and eat burgers at Kuma’s Corner on their days off. Read the rest of this entry »

Food from the Family: Chicago Cultural Center knows how to eat

Events, News etc., Organics No Comments »

For the fourth year in a row, the Chicago Cultural Center hosts the Family Farmed Expo, and although just in time for Thanksgiving Day food shopping, this expo is far more than just a perfectly timed, glorified farmer’s market.

All kinds of major players in the Good Food movement are here to tell stories, learn from one another and revel in their shared passion—good eats. Read the rest of this entry »

Consider the Oyster: How to survive the economic crisis while indulging your gourmet sensibilities

Chinatown No Comments »

chow-pic2By Michael Nagrant

Much to my chagrin, the idea of the starving artist is not a mythology. I wish it were, but while there may be no better time in human history to be a writer, at least in terms of outlets for expression, it’s also one of the worst times to try to make a living at the form.

Unfortunately, another myth of artistry rings true, and that’s that I don’t have much choice in the matter. More than a couple of days without indulging in the act of writing may be like a day without heroin for a dependant junkie. When so many days pass without an act of creativity, I panic, a sense of worthlessness descends and the bile rises.
Read the rest of this entry »

Ramping Up: Inside an addiction to wild leeks

Produce, Recipes No Comments »

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