2/28: Reggae Brunch at Roots & Culture


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Original photo by Vincent Dermody for Vice Magazine’s Do’s/Don’t’s section. Fenchel here made it into the Do’s column!

Sunday, February 28th, 11 AM- 2 PM

At Roots & Culture 1034 N Milwaukee Ave.

Join the Piranha Club for a reggae brunch celebrating Roots & Culture’s 10th Anniversary. Featuring the Jamaican rhythms of Black Dog Sound with special guest DJ History. Hopping island flavors will include curry goat Royal Pies by our buds at Pleasant House Bakery as well as spicy Ital vegan food and other creole dishes. Dank coffee selections by Kindred Coffee Roasters and classic boozy brunch cocktails too!

Served to order on a first come, first served basis. Proceeds benefitting Roots & Culture. Food $10- $12, drinks $5.

So what’s up with Roots & Culture? Is it a reggae themed gallery? If you’ve got a minute, here’s the scoop:

Back in 2006 I, unfortunately, didn’t see anything wrong with naming my business after a movement in Jamaican music, a name representing the core principles of reggae– spirituality, social equality, and African/black pride.  Roots music signaled a shift in lyrical subject matter from common tropes of popular music such as romance and machismo toward social issues. I ~idealistically~ hoped that my nonprofit art center might have a similar effect on the art world in Chicago. The two words themselves, in many ways, earnestly represent values of the space– roots in the community, roots in the precedent of DIY arts organizing in Chicago, and culture is just the name of the game.

Though I have since realized the irresponsibility of this move. We can blame my less culturally sensitive attitude ten years ago– I was heavily into DJing at the time, which has always been a business of appropriation. But silly, misguided, white privileged me– an affinity for a culture that is not one’s own does not give permission to borrow its identity. This has lingered heavy over my head, embarrassed me, for quite some time. I’ve seriously considered changing the name. A few years ago I consulted a Jamaican pal, an exhibiting artist at the gallery, on the matter but they talked me out of it. It was too late. So here I am, owning up to it– I’m guilty of cultural appropriation.

This party will probably only further dig that hole, attended by whom I’m guessing will be 0% Jamaican. Can we call it one last send off, a catharsis? Can we, can you, find another definition for these two words? A meaning that represents the work the gallery does, which I am very much proud of.

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Top 10 2105

Grillin out at Jessica's family ranch in Utah

Grillin out at Jessica’s family ranch in Utah

I considered skipping the old Top 10 post this year, in its 8th edition. Year end lists seem to be cliché, passé, blasé, blasé at this point– folks are sick of em! There’s a lot to be sick of on the internet these days. I don’t know what your Facebook feed has looked like in 2015, but I saw a lot of soapboxing, grandstanding, mansplaining, bristle, bile, panic, hysteria, and general cultural malaise. They say that people turn to entertainment in times of tribulation, so here we are.

 

Food is much more than a diversion for me. It’s a language, a means of understanding culture. We were in Detroit the weekend of the Paris shootings. A highlight of the trip was a feast at Al Ameer restaurant in neighboring Dearborn, a city that ranks with one of the top 5 Muslim populations in America. The clientele in the restaurant that day reflected the melting pot of the area and I felt comfortable as can be, downright at home, breaking bread next to my brothers and sisters of all race, class, and creed– seriously all sorts of folks were in there. I felt no side eyed- suspicion in that restaurant, no hate. Everybody enjoying warm, soft bread straight from the hearth and succulent, perfectly spiced kabobs grilled over live charcoal. I’ve said it before, but food connects us, people!

 

I wasn’t going to entirely forgo a reflection on my year in food, just maybe change up the format. (You might notice that I ditched the annual food porn dump that I’ve done in years past, if you want it, it’s all on Instagram @mrezlivin) I just wasn’t sure I had ten things to write about. I made huge changes to my lifestyle this year, major moves to settle down. We bought a house in the suburbs! Out here there are fewer options to try that new $15 designer Italian beef or discover the Serbian banh mi. Though as you’ll read below, the cultural diversity of the outer regions has proven to be a welcome surprise. And dang, owning a house is expensive! More budgeting, more grocery shopping, more cooking at home. Less carry out, less splurgy weekend dining, less travel. But all of this has proved to be a heck of a lot healthier and I find the pace and setting more conducive to spending time in the kitchen. I will blab about it all shortly! As we settle, as our family grows, the thrill seeking, the indulgences, the list checking might all quiet down. So, in the end, I found 10 good things to talk about from 2015, next year it might be nothing but baby food recipes!

10. Gỏi Gà & Cháo

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So yeah, it’s been a year heavy in home cooking and this is my new favorite weeknight meal. Jessica and I eat a lot of salad during the week, a food group that can leave something to be desired, namely stomach-filling carbs. This one-two punch of a meal resolves that issue. Gỏi gà is a texturally complex and brightly flavored Vietnamese chicken salad built with crunchy cabbage, tarted up with a spicy, fishy, sour dressing, and gilded with aromatic and crunchy garnishes ~the bold and complex salads of Southeast Asian cuisines are entirely necessary to sustain my interest in the salad diet. Next to your plate of gỏi gà, you’ve got your filler, a bowl of cháo, a comforting rice porridge made with chicken broth and studded with bursts of ginger, Cháo is a member of the congee family, dishes with comforting, restorative properties, ideal for bitter winter days. And herein lies the genius of aligning these two dishes, they’re appealing for all seasons. The refreshing gỏi gà tempers the hot porridge in the warm months and in the cold season, the warming power of cháo is brightened up with alternating bites of the salad.

 

Prior to discovering Andrea Nguyen’s very approachable cookbook “Into the Vietnamese Kitchen”, I had no idea that cháo and gỏi gà were not only traditionally served together, but integrally sequential in their preparation. I poach chicken for Asian dishes all the time and in the past would always have a freezer stacked with quart containers of light chicken stock perfumed by scallion and ginger. This simple broth is the base for cháo. Poach the chicken for the salad, remove the meat, then simmer rice in the broth, smart, economical, and satisfying. Below is my adapted recipe.

 

Gỏi Gà

 

Makes 2-3 servings (double recipe if using a whole chicken)

 

For poaching the chicken/ stock:

2 bone in, skin on chicken breasts (or two leg quarters, though I actually prefer the cleaner taste of the white meat for this)

3 scallions, rough chopped

½” coin of ginger

A tsp. or so, salt

 

For the cháo:

7 cups reserved chicken stock

½ cup jasmine rice

1 tbsp. diced ginger (call it a rough mince)

1 tbsp. scallion for garnish

1 tbsp. cilantro for garnish

1 tbsp. crispy shallots for garnish (optional)

Lemon or lime wedges for serving

 

For the salad:

2 cups cabbage, cut like a thick-ish slaw into ribbons about ¼” wide

½ cup finely sliced red onion

1 carrot peeled and finely shredded

¼ cup of Vietnamese cilantro (aka culantro, regular cilantro is also totally acceptable)

¼ cup crushed roasted peanuts

2 tbsp. crispy shallots (optional, available at SE Asian markets)

 

For the dressing:

1 bird’s eye chile (or half a serrano, or less if you’re a spice wuss), minced

1 clove of garlic, minced

A pinch of sugar

2 tbsp. fish sauce

3 tbsp. rice vinegar

1 tbsp. lemon or lime juice

 

Add 2 quarts of cold water, chicken, ginger and scallions to a medium saucepan. Bring to a simmer, skimming any foam or particulate off the surface. Simmer low for 20 minutes. Remove chicken and let cool. Strain the stock, rinse the saucepan clean. Bring the stock to a boil, adding the rice. Vigorously simmer the rice for 5 minutes, then reduce to a low simmer and add the ginger. Stir the rice, making sure it is not sticking to the bottom of the pot. Simmer for 40 minutes, up to an hour, stirring gently every 10 minutes or so. The rice will break down and thicken the stock. It should have the consistency of runny cream of wheat, with the rice suspended in the thick liquid.

 

Meanwhile, shred the chicken off the bone once cooled. If there are little bits stuck to the bones, you can pick them and throw them in the cháo for texture. Make the dressing: if you’ve got one, use a mortar and pestle to pound the garlic, chile, and sugar into a paste, if not macerate by vigorously stirring with a spoon in a shallow bowl. Add fish sauce, citrus juice, and vinegar, combine. Toss the chicken, cabbage, carrot, onion, and herbs with the dressing. Garnish with peanuts and crispy shallots. Garnish the cháo with scallions, cilantro, and crispy shallots with lime or lemon wedges on the side.

9. Beyond Devon

This place looks cool, but the food a'int so great

This place looks cool, but the food a’int so great

Devon Avenue in Chicago, the main artery of the area’s Desi community, provides an intoxicating world of sights, smells, and tastes. However, I have always lamented that I can’t find good versions of the first Indian food I fell in love with as a foreign exchange student in the UK: Anglicized Northern Indian food, vindaloo, rogan josh, saag. The kitschy buffet temples on Devon are the closest you’ll find to that stuff, but I’ve always found them to be dumbed down, even by British standards. The Southern Indian vegetarian food at mainstays like Udupi Palace is pretty good, though there’s a focus on fried things and pancake-y stuff that is not usually what I am craving. Pakistani is what I make the trip up to Devon for, particularly the tandoor charred goodies at Khan BBQ. Its fun to grocery shop up there too, though easy enough to skip a congested ride up Western by doing without the curry leaves or use French instead of black lentils.

 

In both my new suburban ‘hood and back in Wicker Park, I discovered some new Desi and Desi-ish options. One of my favorite new city restaurants of 2015 is Pub Royale, which has a concept pretty close to my early love of that Anglo- Indian persuasion. It’s easy to dismiss at first– a hipster gastro-pub with questionably colonialistic décor, that gets overly crowded, and is in the heart Douche-vision. The menu is fantastic though, offering full-flavored drinking food from a variety of colonial cuisines, where else can you enjoy samosas with a great burger and a side of coconut curry mussels? Their Indian stuff is the best I’ve had south of Devon and certain dishes are even better, particularly the saag paneer, an old favorite. House made paneer manages to be both rich and texturally light. The curry is developed and complex, dosed with house made garam masala that has a coarse texture allowing you to taste its individual spices.

 

Huge swaths of the Western and Northwestern suburbs are home to Desi communities, I knew this. Discovering an entire Indian aisle at my on-the-regular grocery store brought this into my reality. Caputo’s in Carol Stream always conveniently has fresh curry leaves, not to mention bitter melon and eggplant varieties and weird beans and a bunch of other exotic produce I have yet to acquaint myself with. With this one-stop-shop (they also have a great Italian deli and Mexican, Arabic, and Eastern European aisles!) I haven’t even had to check out the Patel Brothers just up County Farm Road from us. There’s restaurants too: I’ve jotted down lists on cruises back and forth on North, Roosevelt, and Ogden with Yelp research to back them up. I’ve been on a few recon missions and unfortunately there have been quite a few duds–cheap Pakistani junk food and cold and empty dining rooms with incongruously expensive menus. The best spot so far happens to be right down the street from us. Masala in Warrenville is another one that does not quite add up on paper; it’s right off the highway surrounded by the mono-cultural sprawl of strip malls and mega-chains. Another eyebrow raiser is their pan-Desi menu with everything from thali to biryani to dosai to curries to Pakistani kebabs. Despite this wildly sprawling menu, we’ve never had a bad dish. Hyderabadi biryani is served with appropriate condiments including the richly layered spice of peanut-based sauce, mirch ka salan. Kebabs are charred fresh from the tandoor. My favorite dish, which I’d never had before, is gongura mutton masala, a potently complex curry rich with lamb meat served on marrow-filled bones made slightly sour by gongura leaves. Next stops: Pakistani in Downer’s Grove at Food Street and Hyderabadi in Naperville at Deccan Spice.

8. Burmese

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Summertime entertaining, Burmese style

Burmese food is somewhat hard to come by in the states with a handful of popular restaurants in San Francisco (where I was first blown away by it eight or so years ago) and small concentrations of Burmese refugee communities in far flung hamlets, like Fort Wayne, Indiana. This summer some buddies and I finally took the three hour drive east. We were only able to find one restaurant open on that Tuesday afternoon, Au Kang Zarr, a Thai-owned place with a modest selection of Burmese dishes. Fortunately, they turned out some lovely plates– crisp, curried samusas (related in more than name to their cousins samosas); lahpet thoke, the famous fermented tea leaf salad with a sour funk and a scattering of crunchy fried bean-y things; the fishy, creamy, and aromatic noodle soup, mohinga; and finally khauk swe thoke, a refreshing, tangy rice noodle salad dressed with a sauce made creamy by the addition of gram, chick pea flour. Fortunately, we found many more Burmese grocery options that were open that day. I scored the fixins for laphet thoke and an amazing homemade balachaung– super fiery fried garlic & shallot and dried shrimp paste– from a pile of unrefrigerated packaged goods on the counter at one market. It wasn’t until I brought these ingredients home that I unlocked a secret of this humble cuisine: the intensely flavored, preserved accoutrements are meant to dress up modest, on-hand ingredients like raw veggies ~preferably grown in your garden. This healthful, yet eye-opening approach to eating became the centerpiece of both summertime entertaining and afternoon snacking.

7. Wisconsin Hospitality

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Relish tray at Silver Lake Inn, Prairie du Chien, WI

Wisconsin is exotic land for this summertime-Michigan kid. Until the past few years, I had not ventured up that way as an adult, largely because I’ve always been pulled to the other side of the lake. This summer I broke my 30 odd year summertime migration to Michigan, which opened up the calendar for trips to our northern neighboring state. What is it about the culture up there? There’s a statewide consistency– the quaint Germanic vibes, the cheese, the sausage, the beer. And there seems to be an economy of independently owned bars and restaurants that still do things right by making stuff in house like salad dressings and soups and hand battered cheese curds. But there’s something more essential than that, it’s the welcoming hospitality that you’ll find in any little dive bar in every town from Milwaukee to Steuben (pop. 129). Unlike certain establishments in Chicago or small town Michigan or Indiana, you don’t get stared down when you enter unfamiliar turf. That’s not to say you might not get a good-natured ribbing for your choice of whiskey “you want Jim Beam? Here you go Sally!”. Not to be simplistic or stereotype, I’m sure there are plenty of pricks in Wisconsin, but I’ve had a lot of great experiences with warm, friendly service in places like the Hobnob, a stuck-in-the Sinatra era supper club in Racine, to Baumgartner’s in Monroe a cheese shop with one of my favorite bars in the back, to The Silver Lake Inn, a backwoods hunting lodge in Prairie du Chien, to Majerle’s Black River Grill, another, yup, backwoods hunting lodge in Sheboygan.

6. The Year in Dumplings

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Pel’meni at Paul’s Pel’meni, Madison, WI

It was a good year for dumplings! Now that we live within striking distance to Chicagoland’s Mecca for handmade dumplings and handpulled noodles, Katy’s Dumpling House in Westmont, I’ve been able to work my way through their menu. They still make my favorite pot stickers in the land, but their most elegant works of art are their boiled fish and chive dumplings. Satisfyingly just-chewy skins yield to a pleasant gush of juicy broth followed by a mouthful of silky, luscious fish in a perfect stasis with abundant, aromatic chives. No need to sully these nuanced dumplings with the typical aggressive accoutrements of black vinegar and chile oil, they are perfect on their own. Favorite dumpling number two can be found at a spot that was mentioned back in post number 9, Pub Royale in Wicker Park. I might describe these as Himalayan in their flavor profile, a cousin of Nepalese momo– delicately thin, yet tensile skins enrobe a little nugget of rich, slightly gamy lamb. The riot of garnishes really propels this dish– lip coating hot chile oil, a little vinegar tang, plenty of cilantro, and perfectly fried golden coins of garlic as crispy as potato chips. And finally dumpling number 3, as seen above, a favorite of my dumpling-loving pal, Titus Ruscitti, is found on the collegiate streets of Madison, Wisconsin in a tiny storefront specializing in one item only, pel’meni. My hunch is that Paul’s take on these diminutive Russian dumplings is spiced up and mongrelized, while still firmly planted within the spectrum of Silk Road flavors. Pillow-y potato and/or beef nuggets are dressed up with curry powder, a thinner vinegar-y cousin of Sriracha, cilantro and sour cream. Eminently scarfable with a haunting crave that might just lead to an impulsive 3 hour drive…

5. West of the (county) border

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Pambazo at La Cocina de Maria, West Chicago

On a sunny, late summer day last year, I finally stopped at Bien Trucha, the modern Mexican dining spot in Geneva, Illinois. I was cruising around trying to get a feel for the area. Jessica was starting her full time position at NIU in Dekalb that fall and we were contemplating the idea of moving out of the city and further west, closer to work. Having grown up in the burbs, I never imagined that I would end up back there, but on my drive that day I found that Geneva had a bit more of a laid back, small town feel with its cute tree lined streets set on the majestic Fox River. Probably more of an exurb, the area felt miles away from the strip malls and McMansions bemoaned by a now-city boy like myself. Those tacos though: high end ingredients employed by a kitchen with a clearly finessed hand, not shying away from traditional spice levels. Beyond the top notch food, the sunny space offered great drinks, polished service, and just-loud-enough contemporary electronic Mexican music. It felt like a hip cantina in Mexico City, more so than anywhere I’d been in Chicago. Small town feel with cosmopolitan cuisine, I could live like that and I would.

 

We inevitably landed 9 miles east in Winfield, a sleepy village with no Mexican food, though pretty close to Geneva with a whole world of Mexican food in between, in the Latino majority town of West Chicago. The first joint I tried, recommended by and enjoyed with my native bud, Ryan Hammer, was El Ñero, a hole in the wall storefront in downtown West Chicago. There is one clear choice on the menu, corundas, which are unfilled pyramid-shaped tamales that are rendered ethereally light and fluffy with an appropriately masa-forward flavor and just a slight herbaceous note from the banana leaves they’re steamed in. And they’re served with a rich guisado de puerco in a fiery salsa de chile de árbol. I have never seen this dish on a menu in Chicago or even in my travels in its native Michoacán.

 

I haven’t tackled every taqueria and supermercado café in the area, but much of what I’ve sampled has not been particularly noteworthy, ranging from standard issue cheap stuff to clumsy Bien Trucha wanna be’s. Then I discovered a real gem hiding in plain sight: a cute, though demure storefront just off Main Street around the corner from downtown West Chicago, La Cocina de Maria. The food here is at the Bien Trucha level, though in a spiffy mom-and-pop atmosphere with only four tables. I always say that you have to judge any Mexican restaurant worth its salt on the quality of their salsa– like Bien Trucha they serve a trio of excellent sauces: smoky morita, roasty tomatilla, and creamy, peanut fortified salsa de cacahuete. The chef has chops that seem rooted in pretty serious technique, with a flare for presentation that is built on huge flavors. He serves up pan-Mexican street food made in their native DF style: pambazo sandwiches decadently stuffed with potato and chorizo, soaked in a piquant hot salsa, then griddled crisp; dinner plate sized huaraches served decoratively drizzled in both a red and a green salsa, divorciada style; and gargantuan empanada-like quesadillas, which are pinched shut and deep fried oozing with Chihuahua cheese and meaty and tender beef birria. Not a single one of these gut busters costs over $7. Come west, amigos.

4. Tavern Thin Pizza

Al's Pizza in Warrenville

Al’s Pizza in Warrenville

Is any one else sick of all the deep dish pizza banter? For the record, I like the thick stuff and I grew up eating it. My family’s regular pizza place, Louisa’s in Crestwood, turns out what I believe to be the best pan pizza in Chicagoland. The ironic thing is that as a kid, I didn’t really like it all that much and in fact had the same knee jerk reaction that east coasters like Jon Stewart and J. Kenji Lopez Alt of Serious Eats constantly remind us of– its not pizza. Louisa’s was actually too sophisticated for my immature palate, with its chunky tomato sauce on top of a light layer of cheese and that pastry-like flaky thick crust.

 

Steve Dolinsky, the Hungry Hound set to a herculean task this year to rank some 70+ pizza establishments in Chicago, really splitting hairs and subdividing styles into like half a dozen categories ~for the record he ranked Louisa’s #2 in the top five Chicago deep dish (suburbs). One category that I think is useful to designate is tavern-style pizza, which my mates over at LTHForum.com have been heralding for years. The thinnest crust possible, sometimes rolled out by a dough sheeting machine; cooked ideally to a crispy, cracker-like finish; cut into squares; a bright flavored sauce usually with a pronounced sweetness; often a pretty liberal layer of cheese; and if you know how to order, these pies are best topped with home made (or locally made) sausage popping with garlic, black pepper, and/ or fennel, the best damn sausage you can get on a pizza anywhere in the world. It’s not a style exclusive to Chicago, but perhaps the upper Midwest. I’ve had good versions in places as far afield as Grand Haven, Michigan at Fricano’s (though not square cut). The Milwaukee area is famous for old school joints like Zafiro’s (the thinnest I’ve had) and Maria’s. And perhaps the best of all is found in Racine Wisconsin at Well’s Brothers, with its super crisp crust scattered in pleasantly burnt cornmeal, one of the best pizzas I ate this year.

 

But for many Chicago-land natives, this was the style of pizza we grew up with, every bit as Chicago-style as the lamented casserole for tourists. It’s actually pretty hard to find a good one centrally located in the city, which is why this style is off the radar for many transplants. But listen up Chicago pizza haters– Pat’s in Lincoln Park makes a text book tavern thin and has a pretty good delivery radius. But to not sample these pies in their native environments would miss the whole “tavern” aspect of of the experience. The old school watering hole ambiance of these spots, many dating back to the 50’s and 60’s is part of the charm, where pronouns are pronounced “dese, dem, and dose” and baseball allegiances are a fighting matter. My favorite on the far south side of the city is the legendary Vito & Nick’s on Kedzie, where the Old Style is cheap and the pizza has an outer rim of cheese that forms a caramelized corona around its perimeter. Most of these spots are dotted around the city’s outskirts and suburbs, the likes of Barnaby’s, Villa Nova, Q’s, Chesdan’s, and Fox’s. Before “pizza pizza” became the utility go-to for thrifty moms hosting adolescent sleepovers, Pizza Pete’s on LaGrange was the one I remember from my youth as well as the cheese-bombs from Beggar’s across the street from my high school.

 

Fortunately Jessica and I found a platonic example of the form in our new neck of the woods– Al’s in Warrenville. It plays its part well, opened in 1959– a split business with a more family oriented pizza parlor on the left where you order at the counter. On the right side of the building you’ve got the quintessential dive bar warmth of Towne Tap, where you can get your pizza delivered by one of the no bullshit pizza cooks who seem to take their craft very seriously. I would call it a cleaner style, which I imagine results from a fastidious cleanliness of their hearth, no cornmeal or burnt cheese rims, but rather a uniformly browned undercarriage of crust with a yeasty cracker flavor. The rest is exactly what you’re looking for– peppery sausage, check, tangy sauce and judicious cheese, check. The best Chicago style pizza, check!

3. Return to New Orleans

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I had not been back to New Orleans since the spring of 2005. And I’m not here to construct a before-and-after the storm think piece. Although I had a handful of friends living down there, I mostly agonizingly experienced the narrative through the media. On this trip, we did not visit the 9th Ward, though an artist friend recently bought a house there, which must mean something. There was a whole lot of building happening all over the place. It was a little weird seeing a giant shiny condo development in the Bywater, though much of that neighborhood had the same funky, slightly festering, but colorfully vibrant vibe as it did when I used to stay there last decade. Mostly the city felt bustling, tourist money greasing the wheels of one of the most service-based economies I’ve encountered anywhere.

New Orleans is part of my food DNA and this recent trip was a great reminder of that. Although we didn’t partake, we found ourselves strolling past the Victorian turquoise of Commander’s Palace and I reflected that the chef who trained me worked there, so it’s likely that some of my technique is indebted to that famous kitchen. Chef and another co-worker native to New Orleans, were early mentors to me at Ox-Bow and however complicated those relationships have played out in my life, I am indebted to their influence, whether that be the way I make a roux, my love of reggae music (more on the New Orleans/ Jamaica connection another time), or a sense of waste-not in my cooking practice.

Fried chicken & gumbo, Lil' Dizzy's

Fried chicken & gumbo, Lil’ Dizzy’s

New Orleans cooking for me is one of the truest expressions of an American cuisine, one of my very favorites. And we did it right on this three day jaunt. Armed with a recommendation list from my NO native bud, Fredo Noguiera, chef at Chicago’s Analogue, we made no haste on our ravenous path. The new school spots provided some good bites– grilled oysters and fried boudin at Cochon and an Asian leaning spicy catfish dish at Peche, but the sweetest eats were found at the down home neighborhood spots. Within an hour of landing we found our way to Fredo’s favorite, Lil’ Dizzy’s in the Treme. A perfect intro– they were hosting a packed-to-the-rafters graduation party, so we had to take an al fresco seat on the sidewalk, on a 75 degree, sunny day in December, poor us. We giddily dispatched of plates of crispy fried chicken and bowls of deep creole gumbo, rich with filé and a seafood-based stock, chock full of all sorts of meaty bits like shrimp, tasso ham, andouille, and was that a second type of sausage? Lunch was digested over an eye-opening trip to the homespun, psychedelic temple to the Mardi Gras Indians at the Backstreet Cultural museum. It was everything, New Orleans culture in a two block radius. A sandwich 1-2 the next day found us across town on Magazine street. A roast beef po boy at Guy’s was a kissing cousin to the Italian beef, subbing peppers for the “dressed” style of lettuce, tomato, mayo, as unmannered of a messy of a sandwich as I’ve met. Gut buster sandwich #2 arrived at Casamento’s, a beautifully tiled, 98 year old canteen, specializing in local seafood, particularly oysters. The banter is as thick as the lines are long, but it’s worth it. The signature oyster loaf is a two handed beast of a sandwich seemingly built on half a loaf of bread stuffed with brittly corn-breaded oysters that are sweet as can be.

 

I’ve gotta say though, my other favorite meal was back in the Treme at the institution that is Dooky Chase. I knew about its famous guests, its importance to the neighborhood, the Chase family’s philanthropy, and their commitment to local art. I was not prepared for how damn good the food was. Chicken creole with jambalaya was even more complex than that gumbo down the street– its like the best sauces down there just sit on the stove for weeks on end, with new bits and seasonings thrown in the pot each morning. As good as that was I couldn’t keep my hands off of Jessica’s perfectly fried chicken that was surely brined, so juicy with a hit of garlic. And you have to talk about hospitality in New Orleans. We had a couple of snags in our service at Dooky Chase, which the floor manager, making rounds of the dining room, was quick to realize. To make it up to us, she invited us back into the kitchen to meet head chef and matriarch, Leah Chase, who well into her 90’s, was still donning an apron. Like Ms. Chase in her kitchen, New Orleans perseveres, as does my love for the place.

2. Piranha Club: Xaymaca/ Queens

XQ2

Paul Smith at the control

 

2015 was an awesome year for the Piranha Club, I might say our best season ever. Surely I worked with some of my most kindred collaborators– most recently reviving the irreverent sense of humor and thick chops of my 5 year relationship with Chef Jonathan Zaragoza and before that a months-in-the-making epic foraging project with artist and Nature High Priestess, Jenny Kendler. Not to play favorites though, but Xaymaca/Queens back in March was tops; perhaps it had something to do with leaving my comfort zone, but it also had a lot to do with the chemistry I found working with Paul Anthony Smith.

 

I’m kinda over New York, definitely it’s perceived status as the cultural center of the universe. Cool shit happens everywhere, bro. Beyond that, it’s just too fast paced for me, I always joke that I need a shower by lunchtime. The romance of an older, funkier, New York seems to be fading as diverse culture is priced out from central areas of the city. Chicago is certainly also gentrifying, but when you’re off your home turf, sometimes you’re more perceptive to your surroundings. All my friends have lived in Bushwick for the past decade and while you still have to dodge literal piles of shit on the side walk and can still find dubiously scrumptious cuchifritos spots open at all hours, there’s a recent plague of Portlandia-esque, taxidermied, reclaimed wooded, vested, waxed mustachioed, man-bunned rubbish invading the neighborhood.

 

So I jumped at the chance to do a project in next door-to-Bushwick Maspeth Queens. And maybe the dinner should have been force-feeding hipsters $2 morcilla, but it had to get more complicated than that. The pivot of the concept was to examine the etymology of the word Jamaica, a significant name in the borough of Queens. In that neck of the woods, the name was a bastardization of a Lenape Indian word for beaver, so I felt compelled to pay respect the Native peoples of the area (speaking of gen- trification/ocide). I asked Paul to school me about island cooking and throw Caribbean spice into the pot. I’m a bit of a Jamaican fanboy, but spending the weekend with Paul brought new insight into the cultural politics of a place that is so easily romanticized by northern tourists, complicating my own connection to a culture I really only understood through its exported textures. For me, the real content of these meals arrives through the dialogue during the preparation of the meal. Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” was on repeat that day, providing the perfect soundtrack to ruminate over the problematic ways people relate in America. And I gotta say, Paul was a true joy to cook with, although he’s never been a professional cook, he’s got the dance and flow around the kitchen of a veteran with an innate sense of how to cook a whole bunch of food for a whole bunch of people. And we cooked a beaver (shot outs to Baron Ambrosia, again, for the game connect) and we made a fucked up, delicious, mongrel cuisine dinner.

1. Country Life

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Well I like to call it the country, anyway. It sounds a bit less tame than the suburbs. Heck, there’s horses out here! One of the big selling points of the move was an exponential gain in green space. Living at Noble and Milwaukee in the city provided zero contact with outdoor flora, though I had my summers in the woods of Southwest Michigan to temper my concrete winters.

 

Much like where I grew up in the southwest suburbs, we live in the heart of the county forest preserves. Just two blocks from the house we’ve got gorgeous woods that I run through every morning, prairies erupting in a brilliant display of wildflower color which yield to dramatic wooded terrain sloping its way down to the lazy, meandering DuPage River. In the fall, the woods were chock full of wild mushrooms– this year I found just about every edible species that I’ve ever gathered in our corner of the Midwest: morels, chicken-of-the-woods, oysters, hen-of-the-woods, honeys, giant puffballs. Even our brambly back property, about an acre, full of old oak and black walnut trees, turned up one lonely morel, gem-like blewits, and huge flushes of honey mushrooms.

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Speaking of black walnuts, we’ve got three more towering trees that August through October rain down their armored shells filled with hard-to-get, but perfume-y sweet nutmeats. We don’t have a huge chunk of land, but it is ours, and it has potential. I get to compost now! I’ve got room to BBQ– I’ve got a grill collection going! And I am finally the proud owner of a Weber Smokey Mountain smoker, which has dispatched rounds of whole smoked chickens, mojo pork shoulder, and brisket, amongst other goodies. My gardening game still needs some work. Next year we’ll put that compost to use to enrich the rocky clay soil and with all the damn shade, I’ve had to learn to sacrifice a sapling here or there. And damnit, those squirrels and chipmunks! That plump brandy wine tomato that we’d been eyeballing for three weeks somehow had a little chomp taken out of it the morning that it was perfectly ripe to pick. At least I was able to keep our kitchen self sufficient with kale and bird’s eye chiles all season.

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The greatest increase to the quality of life is being more in tune with the seasons. In the city it’s mostly the change in temperature and precipitation that denotes the cycles of the year. In my previous migratory lifestyle I only got to witness summer in full bloom during my three month sojourns. Now I get to see it all. Even winter is a lot more tolerable out here, its much more pleasant to wake up to the gorgeous white lace of snow clinging to the branches rather than grey frozen slush piles studded with doggie do. Spring comes a lot earlier than I remembered when the first jewels of crocuses pop out of the ground in early March. May is the mad hunt for morels and the azalea bushes doing their hot pink strut. Cut flowers? Who needs them when you’ve got a whole front lawn full of zinnias and dahlias. And then come the edibles– what our dinky garden can’t cough up, I’ve got three farmer’s markets to hit within a ten minute drive. Not a market day? There’s an awesome farm stand just south of us that every day of the week come August has candy sweet corn and risqué peaches and tomatoes. And fall, oh fall, you really exist. ~We already talked about those shrooms.~ Every day the seasons’ mini dramas unfold and we’re able to watch every minute of it, right out our window.

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Piranha Club: E 2 tha Z: Noche de Krampus

"Make it look like the shrimp scene in Beetlejuice" Michelada Tower "Cabrón Gigante"

“Make it look like the shrimp scene in Beetlejuice” Michelada Tower “Cabrón Gigante”

Somewhere along the line my typical Grinch-ishness opened up to the idea of the holiday party. I dig how X-mas is celebrated in other cultures, sidestepping the American consumerist frenzy in lieu of feasting with loved ones. So its become an annual tradition, the Piranha Club holiday party. Good timing that the Goat Boy was ready to throw down E to tha Z style, my German + his goat +  X-mas= Krampus time.

The Germans and the Mexicans both do X-mas right, so we co-mingled our respective cuisines and came up with some surprisingly copacetic flavor combos like spaetzle + molé and kuchen + cajeta. Above all it was a thrill to work with Jon again– he doesn’t smell that bad, lands at least 50% of his one liners, and it helps that I always have a clear view of what’s happening over his head. I kid, I kid, boy is one of my favorite chefs. I took one bite of his albóndigas and declared “this tastes so much like you” (no not those meatballs).  There’s a quality in JZ’s cooking that I, fumbling for words, described as nuanced, but his approach is more upfront than that. Not precious, not fussy, but reverent to the deep flavors of home cooking. Plus dude’s also got the chops, the techniques, of his years in fine dining kitchens. Jonathan Zaragoza is a baller, literally 😉

Homage to St. Rick

Homage to St. Rick

The always photogenic, pulpo

The always photogenic, pulpo

CONFIT

CONFIT

Sloppin the spaetzle

Sloppin the spaetzle

Mexican much?

Smoke maintenance. Mexican much?

Liver spaetzle brownin, goose breast searin

Liver spaetzle brownin, goose breast searin

Not bad for a vato

Not bad for a vato

Tender guys showed up

Tender guys showed up

Even a birthday guy (shout out to Jessica for the stunning table design)

Even a birthday guy (shout out to Jessica for the stunning table design)

Flautas de confitas y chayote kraut

Flautas de confitas y chayote kraut

Albóndigas

Goat & pork skin albóndigas

The main event: seared goose breast with molé Poblano, liver spaetzle, braised red cabbage

The main event: seared goose breast with molé Poblano, liver spaetzle, braised red cabbage

Mugshot

Muggin

Post-party Krampus shrine (style by J. Labatte)

Post-party Krampus shrine (style by J. Labatte)

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Piranha Club presents: E 2 tha Z: Noche de Krampus

KrampusWeb

Piranha Club Presents:

E to tha Z: Noche de Krampus

 

Wednesday, December 16th, 7:00 PM

1034 N Milwaukee Ave.

 

SOLD OUT

Limit 20 seats

(Menu after poem)

 

 

This Krampus dude is having a moment,

 

Sounds like trouble for bad kids, doesn’t it?

 

To spare our hides we must offer a feast,

 

A fucked up spread fit for a beast,

 

Who better to call than the goat boy himself?

 

Hooves and guts and spice will surely be dealt.

 

But German and Mexican, how do they relate?

 

Both love their X-mas and you don’t want to hate.

 

An emperor named Max who ruled by fear,

 

Gunned down by Juárez but left his polka and beer,

 

Like those pasty Germans, Krampus needs a vacay,

 

We’ll toast to the wicked and send him on his way,

 

E to tha Z at it again,

 

You knew they’d be back but you didn’t know when,

 

On the 16th they’ll throw down for Krampus,

 

Now buy a ticket or have a bad Christmas!

 

MENU:

 

Goose confit flautas with chayote kraut and salsa macha

 

Michelada tower “Cabrón Gigante”

 

Goat albondigas in consommé

 

Roast goose with molé Pobano with braised red cabbage and liver spaetzle

 

Apple kuchen with cajeta

 

Gluhwein y muchas cervezas!

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11/7: SUPER SUB X R&C @ Threewalls ~The Great Good Place~

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Saturday, November 7th, 9:00- 11:30 PM

 

SUPER SUB

 

Roots & Culture for Brandon Alvendia’s The Great Good Place

 

@ Threewalls 119 N Peoria

 

Featuring: DJ Mr. E, liquor, wings, “Super 3X” Jim Shoo, & introducing “The Ace”

Super Sub at 1050 N Ashland has weathered the changing tides of its neighborhood, serving fresh, hot, greasy food until 4 AM to just about everybody for more than 20 years. Their fried chicken wing trays, in 30, 50, and 100 piece sizes are a staple of Roots & Culture’s after parties. Don’t let the bullet proof glass fool you, these guys do it right– Asad and the crew hand bread each and every wing, frying them fresh. Dipped in styrofoam cups of Cajun Chef hot sauce with rounds of cheapo fries and variably tasty garlic bread and chased with shots of Jim Beam, this has been the spread you’ll find on R&C’s trippy aqua blue- tiled counter after 10 PM since the unkempt early days of the “suburban basement of the Chicago art scene”. In 2013, Super Sub added the fabled Southside delicacy, the Jim Shoo sub sandwich, to its menu, which is a subject of research for R&C Director, Eric May and his omnivorous practices.

 

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Piranha Club X Jenny Kendler: Fall Foraged Feast

Clockwise from top: 3 varieties of feral apples, sumac, grape leaves, false Solomon's seal berries, goldenrod (decorative), high bush cranberries, dandelion greens

Clockwise from top: 3 varieties of feral apples, sumac, grape leaves, false Solomon’s seal berries, goldenrod (decorative), high bush cranberries, crabapples, dandelion greens

This may have been the most elaborate Piranha Club yet, I mean we did gather 75% of the ingredients ourselves! Jenny Kendler and I had been mutual admirers of each other’s work, but it was pics of her foraging adventures on Instagram ~that social media thing once again~ that led me to finally approach her about working together. The collaborative foraging began in early August at ACRE residency in Western Wisconsin where Jenny and I both served as visiting artists (she is also a board member). I joined her for a group foraging walk around ACRE’s campus and I was pretty damned impressed by her knowledge of nearly every plant we encountered, latin names and all! I am no expert, I would call myself an enthusiast– with a covetous drive to collect exotic ingredients, primarily mushrooms. My approach begins from a culinary perspective– I’ve learned how to identify mushrooms that I like to eat first and foremost and then I brush up on the taxonomy of different species. Jenny takes a more empirical approach, though is also more pragmatic in what she collects. She sees the value in weeds, stuff like lamb’s quarters or oxalis that grow in “disturbed” areas (developed land), but equally knows her way around the deep dank corners of the woods where I usually like to hang out. So she’s helped me pay a little bit more attention to little humble side-of-the-road stuff that I might otherwise just trample right over in pursuit of the big score.

 

Watercress from the bracing stream at ACRE. Steuben, WI. 8/7 (photo c/o Jenny Kendler)

Watercress from the bracing stream at ACRE. Steuben, WI. 8/7 (photo c/o Jenny Kendler)

Nature can be unpredictable, of course. And also fickle in terms of timing. So it was good we got an early start to find a breadth of ingredients as they made their appearances throughout the season. And this meant that we had to find creative ways to preserve certain ingredients. The remarkably spicy watercress above was pureed with olive oil and a bit of oxalis for acidity, yielding a chimichurri of sorts, that maintained its emerald glow for two months. This worked its way into an aioli for dipping puffball mushroom fries and a drizzle garnishing the bisque. Delicate oyster mushrooms gathered in mid-August were both pickled and sautéed, then frozen and employed in a crostini appetizer. The gorgeous young chicken-of-the-woods below were also frozen, which altered the texture of the flesh making it more tender, ideal for the bisque they produced. In one instance preserving methods failed– an attempt at lacto-fermenting grape leaves destined for dolma came out just slightly alcoholic and prickly on the tongue. Later consulting edible plants guidebooks, we realized that the leaves were too old on the vine to be suitably edible at that point in the season. We should have known by how tough they were.

Chicken-of-the-woods, 8/26

Chicken-of-the-woods (Laetiporus sulphureus), 8/26

Oyster mushrooms, 9/14

Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus), 9/14

Hen-of-the-woods (maitake) 9/26

Hen-of-the-woods (Grifola Frondosa) 9/14

Giant puffball (Calvatia gigantea), 9/28

Giant puffball (Calvatia gigantea), 9/28, which clearly grew under the light of the super moon.

Honey mushroom (Armillaria mellea)

Honey mushroom (Armillaria mellea) 9/28

The bulk of the mushrooms for the dinner were found in the woods around my home in western DuPage county, where I am enjoying my first foraging season (we moved here in Feb). The area is remarkably bountiful– we came across almost all of the major suspects in terms of late summer/ autumn edible mushrooms. Even the wooded back end of our property turned up honey mushrooms and a few succulent wood blewits (both of these mushrooms did not make it to the dining table that evening, I cooked them up with pasta them up for our “staff meal”).

Three towering black walnut trees have been thunderously bombarding the house with their lime-looking fruit since late August. Despite their abundance, they’re a huge pain in the ass to harvest– after torturing my hands first with their tobacco-colored staining pigment, then their arthritis-inducing armor-like shells, 80 fruits only yielded about a cup and a half of fragments of nut meat. Heavily perfumed, gorgeously rich nut meat. This made its way into a decadent paté and as a lily-gilding garnish for the dessert.

Speaking of trees and dessert, we stumbled across a feral apple orchard in the middle of the woods. For a few weeks, I’d been trying to scale this tall gnarly old tree just off the main road to pluck its apples. After a few aborted climbing attempts with scraped up forearms and a head full of falling fears, I resorted to gleaning around on the ground with the chipmunks, sorting out fruit not too badly ridden with worms. On our second walk through those woods Jenny spotted, hiding in plain sight (from me), three more manageable trees chock full of apples, the fruit from each tasting differently than the next from bright and crisp to deeply sweet. We found plenty of untouched fruit in the soft grass and shook some pristine specimens from the trees. We stuffed our tote with over 40 apples and left behind so many more. I see a cider project in the cards for fall ’16.

Black walnuts from our property, hen, oysters

Black walnuts from our property, hen, oysters

Puffball, wood blewits, & honey mushrooms.

Puffball, wood blewits, & honey mushrooms.

Yes even the flowers were foraged- Jenny's gorgeous fall bouquets for the tables. (photo c/o Jenny Kendler)

Yes even the flowers were foraged- Jenny’s gorgeous fall bouquets for the tables. (photo c/o Jenny Kendler)

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This was the first Piranha Club for which the procuring of the ingredients, both timewise and experientially, eclipsed the cooking and the meal itself. It was freaking delicious, of course, but by the time we got to the day of, it felt like the bulk of the labor was behind us. Some of the ingredients had been gathered way before the dinner was even planned– Jenny was generous enough to open up her larder of wild goodies collected throughout her travels, which provided the aromatic flavors for her wildly delicious cocktails. I pinched a bit of wild white sage (the stuff you typically smudge with) for the crostini and pleasantly astringent spicebush berries added a new world sweet spice note to the crisp.

The eye-opening show stopper of the meal was the candy cap mushroom gelato that Jenny made for the dessert. I knew these shrooms supposedly tasted of maple syrup, but even I couldn’t believe that their serious French toast-y whallop was fungal in origin. The interplay of the sweet and sour from the wild apple varietals married with the rich maple-y sumptuousness of the gelato made for a quintessentially comforting fall dessert.

Washing and sorting dandelion greens and liberating castaway leafhoppers

Washing and sorting dandelion greens and liberating castaway leafhoppers

Lobotomizing the puffball

Lobotomizing the puffball

Watercress gnocchi madness

Watercress gnocchi madness from this poetic, yet amorphous recipe.

The Blood Moon– frozen mulberry puree, Letherbee gin, champagne, garnish of ground cherry (photo c/o Jenny Kendler)

The Blood Moon– frozen mulberry puree, Letherbee gin, champagne, garnish of ground cherry (photo c/o Jenny Kendler)

Puffball fries with watercress aioli

Puffball fries with watercress aioli

Crostini with black walnut/ oyster mushroom paté and pickled oyster mushroom

Crostini with black walnut/ oyster mushroom paté and pickled oyster mushroom

Watercress gnocchi with roasted hen-of-the-woods with a side of dandelion greens

Watercress gnocchi with roasted hen-of-the-woods with a side of dandelion greens

Feral apple crisp with candy cap mushroom gelato (photo c/o Jenny Kendler)

Feral apple crisp with candy cap mushroom gelato (photo c/o Jenny Kendler)

Kindred spirits in the woods, kitchen, and for a crowd! (photo c/o Dana Bassett)

We forage, we cook, we look good in front of a crowd! (photo c/o Dana Bassett)

In many ways this could have been the essential Piranha Club. Foraged ingredients have crept their way into past meals– this was the third time I’ve served that chicken-of-the-woods bisque. My very first grad school project was an all foraged mushroom dinner (tasty was the food, definitely not was the critique). Jenny and I talked at length about our relationships to foraging and we both agreed that while the activity informs the parts of our art that speak to relationships with the land and its ecologies, this really is more of an everyday practice for us. After two months of this, I thought I’d need a break, but I’m still finding myself collecting those laborious walnuts and can’t help myself but peer around the stumps of old oak trees on my morning jog hoping to score another hen-of-the-woods. This is certainly about connecting to that basic hunter-gatherer instinct of understanding how to fend for oneself off the land, though it doesn’t have to be that romantic nor zealous. Notice we used convenient pantry staples like flour, butter, and sugar for this meal. We mean to suggest a common sense approach to learning about and incorporating wild foods into one’s life. We hope that by serving delicious, unfussy dishes prepared with foraged ingredients that it might demystify the idea that there is delicious food to be found all around us. Just remember kids, get the book, read it, and don’t go sticking random berries and toadstools into your mouth!

 

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10/1: Piranha Club X Jenny Kendler present: Fall Foraged Feast

Foraged Feast Image

The Piranha Club X Jenny Kendler present:

Fall Foraged Feast

Thursday October 1st, 7 PM

1034 N Milwaukee Ave.

$40 for 5 courses + drinks

SOLD OUT!

Foraging is a lifestyle, once you realize that there is free food lurking around the corner on your morning walk, it’s hard not to notice little gems of oxalis sprouting up around that park bench. It is a way of seeing– it’s about perceiving the totality of your surroundings, noticing tiny details and patterns in the way nature unfolds.

 

Foraging is also hot! From tables in Copenhagen to San Francisco to here in Chicago, the world’s most esteemed chefs are including foraging programs on their menus.  What is more seasonal and local than being immediately beholden to the whims of mother nature? The spontaneity of the search is the novelty and the challenge.

 

Join two of the Chicago art world’s preeminent foragers, Jenny Kendler & Eric May, for a five course meal of delights made almost entirely with ingredients scooped from the ankle numbing streams of Western Wisconsin, plucked from branches 15 feet from the forest floor, and found on other countless wanderings!

 

Menu ~which may be subject to change according to those whims of nature we just mentioned~

 

Grape leaf kimchi dolma

 

Chicken-of-the-woods bisque

 

Green weeds with pickled oyster mushrooms

 

ACRE watercress gnocchi with roasted hen-of-the-woods mushrooms

 

Baked wild apples with candy cap mushroom gelato

 

$40 includes cocktails made from Jenny’s cabinet of syrups, tinctures, and bitters and wild brews made by friends of the Piranha Club.

 

100% vegetarian.

 

Limit 20 seats.

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Piranha Club: Advantages in Electronic Cooking

AEC1

More like Adventures in Electronic Cooking. Personally, I swore off the microwave right after the instant ramen years of early college (1998). I honestly never touched one of the things until Jessica moved in with hers four years ago. It certainly was an indispensable member of our kitchen appliance team in my household growing up, which was just about right on the microwave popularity timeline (got big in the mid to late 70s). Reheating leftovers, of course (and my primary use for the one we’ve got at the house); after school nachos, you bet; I even cooked my first dish ever in the micro… dandelion soup (the unsuspecting neighbor girl got to enjoy that one). And at some point mom started to nuke all of our veggies, which it turns out actually does preserve their nutrients better than other methods of cooking.

But you see, as soon as I fancied myself a serious cook, who prepared everything from scratch– no shortcuts for me– I denounced cooking with electromagnetic radiation as amateurish and too easy. So when my bud and prior PClub collaborator, Matt Zatkoff pitched the idea to prepare a several course meal ~actual gastronomy~ using nothing but the microwave, it sounded absurd enough to be worth a shot. Plus he had all these groovy old school cookbooks with soft lit 1970’s food porn and destined-to-become-hip-again retro recipes like Turkey Divan and Noodles Romanoff. Turns out it was not such a convenient and time efficient method to cook complicated recipes for a crowd, but challenging is the Piranha Club trip, so let’s have at it…

AEC2

.gif c/o Melissa Mcewen

 

Photo c/o Melissa Mcewen

Photo c/o Melissa Mcewen

We sautéed, simmered, deep fried, roasted, and baked using three microwaves for each and every element of the meal (except for one emergency assist from the micro’s older cousin, the toaster oven (leaving it up to you to figure out how we used it)). For one of the apps, curried meatballs, we followed a recipe verbatim from the cookbook at the top of this post. The second course, $5000 Fiesta Chicken Kiev was interpreted from an “award winning” recipe in this lovely volume above, the Hotpoint Countertop Microwave Oven Cookbook. We kept the cheese cracker crust (Cheezits, of course), but subbed in real minced onions rather than dehydrated and (microwave) roasted poblanos, subbing for canned green chiles. Matt applied expert techniques from this tome written by the foremost authority on the subject to his favorite recipes for stuffed mushroom caps (with a Thanksgiving stuffing profile) and Fettucine Gamberetti, for which he hand made pasta and tossed it in vodka cream sauce with gulf shrimp and his homemade guanciale. A side of Tomatoes au Gratin and the dessert, Pineapple Upside Down Cake were made following recipes from, again, the Hotpoint cookbook.

Curried Meatballs

Curried Meatballs

Stuffed Mushrooms

Stuffed Mushrooms

As I’ve alluded to, cooking this many complex dishes was not a breeze. Some reflections on cooking (pretty much) only using the microwave oven:

* Nuking vegetables, until just cooked, not only preserves nutrients, but also flavor. Our in-season corn that we zapped for about 2 minutes for a salsa cruda we served with the 5K chicken was perfectly crisp and as sweet as can be. The mushrooms and in-season tomatoes also sang true to their inherent savorinesses.

* While its hard to get any caramelized color on meat, if you cook it, again, for the right length of time, it retains moisture and has a great texture. Worth noting: Matt has a small collection of old fangled microwave cooking supplies like Mirocrisp brand browning wrap, which didn’t prove to be very effective. A browning pan with a built in heating coil, really did heat up faster and retained heat. We used this to sauté veggies and deep fry the chicken.

* Somehow, the roux in a flour thickened sauce binds to the liquid with barely any babysitting. For the curry sauce, I merely stirred the sauce with a spoon once in the middle of its cooking time. It came out velvety smooth.

* When cooking in liquids, its tricky to get the water or oil back up to temp as fast as you can with a screaming hot burner, after you’ve submerged the ingredients. This is what fucked us the most, particularly since at this volume, we were adding too much cold chicken to the oil. So, if you’re going to deep fry (and we suggest the browning pan for this) use the oil with the highest smoke point possible and monitor its temp. 350 degree oil will drop considerably when you add 40 degree chicken and the micro takes a few minutes to regain the heat. We also lost a batch of pasta to water that had not reached a boil, waterlogging the noodles. Also, we really crowded our pans, this is a simple lesson in cooking, give your ingredients space to be enveloped in heat. Maybe we should have used 5 micros.

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Check them temps, especially if you have a fancy gadget.

 

* A 9″ X 9″ pan of cake cooked unevenly, pretty classic– cooked edges, gooey center.

* Finally, and this may have been a thread amongst all our woes juggling 3 different microwave ovens– not all microwaves are built the same, they range in power from 700 to 1600 watts and older models, like the ones used in our fancy old cookbooks could have been as low as 600 watts. Learn your power settings (I let Matt do this), you can adjust them at several levels on most microwaves.

Sweating

Sweating, photo c/o Melissa Mcewen

Fettucine Gamberetti

Fettucine Gamberetti

5K Fiesta Chicken Kiev, Tomato Au Gratin, Sweet Corn Salsa Cruda

5K Fiesta Chicken Kiev, Tomato Au Gratin, Sweet Corn Salsa Cruda

Despite a harried service, everyone seemed stoked on the meal. Basically 100% clean plates. I even received the highest compliment a chef can receive these days, Amazeballs.

Just like mom used to make

Just like mom used to make

Lovely crowd (and Scott)

Lovely crowd (and ~ruggedly handsome~ Scott)

Boyz 'n their toyz

Boyz ‘n their toyz

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8/23: Piranha Club: Advantages of Electronic Cooking

AECweb

Sunday, August 23rd, 7PM

 

The Piranha Club Presents: Advantages of Electronic Cooking

 

1034 N Milwaukee Ave.

 

$30 for 5 courses with drinks
Buy tickets HERE

 

Microwave cooking is speedy!

 

Easy to operate!

 

Microwave ovens can save you energy!

 

And will not heat up the house!

 

Microwave cooking preserves the nutrients in your food!

 

The microwave oven delivered on the promise of post-war technological advancement to lighten domestic labor for working families. Though commercially available since the late 1940’s, the microwave would not be popularized until the mid-1970’s when the technology became affordable to middle class consumers (the original 750 lb. microwave cost $5K in 1947!). Forty years later and the microwave is still here, in over 90% of American homes. But has the microwave fallen out of fashion? Are we taking it for granted? We’re all hip to slow food now– for many middle class Americans, cooking is no longer a wearying chore, but an obsessed-over past time. How are you supposed to caramelize those brussel sprouts?! You can’t get a good sear on your ahi tuna! Re-heat a cup of tea, maybe.

 

 

On Sunday, August 23rd, the Piranha Club (with Chef Matt Zatkoff) will harness the electromagnetic radiation and reassess the value of the once celebrated, now humble microwave. With a wink towards the retro, we are reviving some campy old school recipes, though ditching the Campbell’s soup cans for scratch made dishes prepared with premium ingredients.

 

$30 with sangria and Brewery Zatkoff beer.

Limit 20 seats.

 

Hors d’oeuvres:

 

Curried Meatballs

Stuffed Mushroom Caps

 

Main:

 

$5000 Fiesta Chicken Kiev

Linguine Gamberetti

Tomatoes au Gratin

 

Dessert:

Pineapple Upside Down Cake

 

Video by Matt Zatkoff

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Eric’s Germany Kitchen presents: Gestanken Lunchen

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I was graciously invited to ACRE artist residency in Steuben, Wisconsin as a visiting artist this summer. I was asked to run some sort of programming and they offered me use of their amazing kitchen. Having grown up and identifying as a (summertime) Michigan boy, the state of Wisconsin has always held somewhat of an exotic mystique for me. I have found that this wonderful state has a certain established culture that can be found statewide– the Pack; bratwurst; cheese and more cheese; beer; beer served at one of the thousands of small roadside taverns found in even the tiniest of small towns; bars where even in these tiniest of small towns you’re never greeted with a glaring look of “who-the-hell-is-this-tourist”, maybe a good-spirited ribbing about your whiskey preference, but always a smiling greeting and a chat about what you’re doing up ‘dere. Wisconsin is one of the friendliest states I can think of. And where does this convivial, beer swilling, encased sausage scarfing culture originate? From the old country, traditions that have survived generations brought to the fecund lands of the upper midwest by peasant northern Europeans, including one of the larger populations, the Germans (30% of the population by 1900 after three cycles of immigration since the mid-1800s).

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My ~somewhat tongue-in-cheek~ project, Eric’s Germany Kitchen explores the unfashionable culture and cuisine of my 68% German heritage. Growing up, I understood limburger cheese as the punchline of schoolyard jokes about foot odor. I never knew anyone that actually ate the stuff nor had ever seen it at any grocery store. A few years ago, we stopped in the kitschy Swiss fairy tale town of Monroe on the ride home from a camping trip. Right in the downtown square, I fell in love with one of my favorite Wisconsin watering holes, Baumgartner’s, which is actually Wisconsin’s oldest cheese store, with the bar and sandwich shop in the back. The limburger lore ran deep at this spot, which I recalled as I was researching German cuisine in southwest Wisconsin for my ACRE project.
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It turns out that Monroe is home to the oldest and one of two limburger producers in the country, Chalet cheese, which under their Country Castle label, has been producing the stinky stuff since 1885. A stop in Monroe would begin our foot-odored journey (it turns out that, in fact, limburger’s signature aroma is caused by Brevibacterium linens, which also causes body odors including the ones emanating from our sneakers).

 

What’s the difference between limburger cheese and my friend Ted? 

 

One is white & stinks, the other is cheese.

 

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Limburger garnished with the Andie’s mint; the other, salami (summer sausage) and (brick) cheese

I ordered a limburger sandwich with onions at Baumgartner’s. The incredibly hospitable barkeep double checked with me to make sure that I knew what I was getting into. I ordered a summer sausage and brick cheese sandwich as a chaser. So how did I do? It was definitely one of the stankiest things I have ever put in my mouth and I have a high tolerance for funky cheeses like morbier. This sandwich contained like half inch thick slabs of the stuff and though I choked the whole thing down, draining a pitcher of Spotted Cow in the process, it was tough for me. The nostril cavity- filling, ammonia-ish pungency kind of obliterates any nuance and in such dense volume on this sandwich, it was just too much. I can see dabbing this on a cracker, maybe with some fruit preserves, but I’ll pass on 4 oz. of the stuff all at once.
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For my lunch at ACRE, Caitlin and the crew were kind enough to source both the Chalet product and a German variety, which was surprisingly, much, much easier going. Apparently limburger is sold according to its age and at one month of aging it has a mild, nutty brie- like characteristic, whereas just a month later it takes on its more unwashed temperament. We served open-faced limburger sandwiches alongside another popular Sconnie sandwich filling and less-than-hip offering, braunschweiger, aka liverwurst, which also has a bit of an olfactory reputation.
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Rounding things out, I made a couple of other EGK’s mainstay dishes, my Aunt Helen’s favorite lentil soup with frankfurters and a bacon-y German potato salad.
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I had an absolute blast working with Brian, Billy, Virginia, and co. Despite a woozy hangover from the dance party the night before, we trooped through a rather odiferous prep session. I know some of the bleary-eyed campers may have had a hard time facing these old timey treats first thing, but no one went hungry. Thanks Acre, let’s do it again sometime!!!
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