Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Media pass for Chicago Gourmet

Woah two posts in one week?! I rarely get to that many in a month. So what's all the flurry over there you may be wondering? This little badge here is by far the coolest thing I've done all year:

Media. Me? Really? I've been writing for Gapers Block for just over a year now and my oh my how we've grown! This year, I got a media pass to cover Chicago Gourmet-- a two day extravaganza of food, wine, spirits and celebrities in Millennium Park last weekend. And, as I'm learning that writing well and writing more often means I have to be shamelessly self-promoting (so as to increase readership and therefore accountability), these are the two pieces up on GB.

Andie, my colleague sketched up "Things we saw and ate at Chicago Gourmet" including a bunch of my photos...

and I wrote up "Shaking and Stirring at Chicago Gourmet."

There you have it. That's what all the flurry is about in these parts. It's exciting!!!!!!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Think like a chef, with leftovers

Let's first off clear up any misconceptions. I am not a chef. Yes I went to culinary school and yes I graduated, but that does not qualify me to be called chef. A chef is one who has earned the title by working in a kitchen and was hired to the job. A chef is affirmed by his/her community. Sous chefs, line chefs, prep chefs, dishwashers, managers, servers call the chef, "Chef." It's those people who actually decide who is deserving of that name. And as it happens, I am not one of them. I may make good food, and can probably chop an onion faster and more neatly than you can, without crying, but trust me on this one, I am no chef.

One of the best cookbooks I own is this one. My sister Katherine gave it to me in 2004, before I knew anything about Top Chef, or celebrity chefs, food writing or even had a glimmer of hope that I would go to culinary school. I was a junior in college with one foot of counter space in my tiny Albany Park-college provided apartment who was sick of Thai, burritos and pizza. Confession: I've never cooked any recipes from this cookbook. But I've thought about the techniques, studies and triads for years.

What is it that makes a good chef, or a good home cook for that matter? To me, one of the most important things is being able to work well with ingredients that are given to you. That's the challenge with cooking seasonally, or the challenge of cooking well with the ingredients that are in your fridge. That's why we are fascinated with shows like Iron Chef. It's the whole, "but how did he just know what to do with that???" I promise you, most chefs don't have a catalog of recipes in their head. And if you really want to be able to do what chefs do, Colicchio's book is a great place to start.

Last weekend, I made some a really killer ribs recipe.* A small note at the bottom read, "to allow for further flavor development, cook the ribs 2 days in advance and reheat for service." Tell you what-- something in these chiles and coffee completely mellowed out and seeped into the meat to hit all of the good fibers of muscle. They were GOOD. After devouring all 6 pounds of ribs, I still had about 2 pounds of bones left over. What to do with bones, neatly seasoned with chipotle, adobo, ancho and coffee? Colicchio (and Chef Pierre from Kendall) would say, make soup!

Into the pot went 1 onion largely chopped, a handful of baby carrots chopped, a handful of celery chopped (this proportion should be 2:1:1 for onion:carrot:celery) and my bones. I sauteed them all together until the onions softened, and then squirted in about 2 T tomato paste. Then added enough water to cover the bones, and plus a little extra to get the most out of my bones and lightly simmered my stock for an hour. Add in a bay leaf and any fresh herbs you have on hand that you like (thyme or oregano) You want a foam to form atop the stock that you can scoop enough, so don't boil so hard that you break up that foam, but simmer enough that small bubbles do rise to the top of your pan. After an hour taste your stock, decide if you want to keep going, or turn it off. Once I made a beef stock but left it on during a football game for three hours and I ended up with the most acidic, tart weird stock that I ended up throwing the whole thing out. But other than doing that, you really can't screw up stock. Typically for brown stocks (lamb, beef) you should roast the bones to add a brown color to your stock, but since my bones were already roasted as full ribs, I skipped that step. Remove your stock from the heat, allow it to cool a bit and then pour it through a colander, into a big bowl with a pour spout. Then pour your stock into 1 quart or smaller freezable containers. Voila. You've done it. You've taken your first step to becoming a chef-quality cook. You can do this with chicken bones, beef bones, fish bones ANYTHING!

I plan to make some kind of mexican flavored soup with my stock, sometime mid-winter and I may even tell you about it. Until then, try it out, and after a time or two, you'll be surprised how your thinking patterns change and how chef-like you're becoming. Step by step.

*Seriously if you're looking for gameday fare (it is autumn after all) and wanted a step up from brats on the grill these ribs are SUPER easy with little upfront prep and great results.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Herbs in the Apartment

I'm not one to think that I've truly grown up quite yet. It's not that I don't like where I am or where my life has lead me, but most often, I feel like I still am just playing at this grown up thing. I feel as if I have flung myself in a zillion different directions and haven't decided to commit just to one. My identity, is more a sum of all these things I have running, rather than a solid character base, which interests spring from. Am I getting too philosophic? Probably.

Much of the time, I feel like a mash up of identities: am I a working professional or a farmer? Am I athletic or horridly clumsy? Am I a city girl or do I need the slow pace of the country? I have all of these far flung, often conflicting interests. Is there any unison in them? And then one day, something inconsequential happens and everything seems to come together and make perfect sense.

The other day I was let out of work early, which is a nice treat after working on a holiday, dealing with the repercussions for these guys and otherwise spending my day calming down stressed out folks. I biked out of the loop with bright sunshine over my head and energy pulsing through me. What to do with the extra 2 free hours? Pick herbs and preserve of course; we only have a few more days before the frost hits.

So I popped by the garden and grabbed handfuls of green that has been left wanting. I piled them neatly on my kitchen table: parsley, sage, thyme, oregano with peperoncini and kale awaiting their fate as well.

And then looked up:

On the left is a tea towel, purchased from my favorite heritage shop on the north side. You may not be able to read it from where you are sitting but these are little colorful pots, full of herbs with their names neatly written in Swedish on each jar. On the left is a poster collected from my neighborhood print/civility shop. I popped in two years ago, looking for funny birthday cards and walked out with my favorite piece of home. So you can see these two visuals, but all I could see that afternoon was cohesion. A certain togetherness of who I am. That sum of me isn't just my parts but the ways that they work together and all of the bits in between. Months ago I had decorated my apartment and here I am, living out my decorations. And so I sighed and laughed a little to myself and kept chopping.

Herbs and urban farming. I decorate my house with it and live it. Maybe I've grown up more than I give myself credit for. This winter as I reach into my freezer and pull out little ziplock bags with PARSLEY scratched big with a thick point Sharpe, I'll remember that afternoon and smile.

How to: don't know about you but I NEVER use the entire plastic box or bundle of herbs when I buy them from the store. You can always freeze them and then use the same measurements for frozen herbs as you do for fresh. It's a great way to save money and get the most out of your $4 box of herbs!

- Wash your herbs and spin dry in a salad spinner, or pat between two clean cloth towels.
- If you are preserving finer-leafed herbs like oregano, chives, basil, mint, parsley, cilantro, dill, thyme you can chop your herbs really really really finely and freeze them either in zip lock bags, or make herb ice cubes by cramming your herbs into little compartments and filling your cube tray with water. These days, post culinary school, I like to just use ziplocks since then I don't have added liquid in my cooking and can more accurately measure my frozen herbs for use.
- For larger, thick-leafed herbs like sage, some thyme, bay leaves, rosemary you can freeze them in the same manner but they may turn brown. I still do this for leftover 'boxed' herbs that I buy in the store and use them, even if they're brown. The flavor is the same, but the herb has lost its chlorophyll. If I'm preserving large amounts of there herbs, I bundle up the stems, as shown above with sage and dry them for at least a week in a cool, dry, non-sunny spot. Then crush lightly with your fingers and store in an old jar.