Greatness, Indianapolis 11/12/16

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I was invited by my dear friends Michael Milano & Elisabeth Smith to participate in their Syntax Season project, hosting language-based art exhibitions at the PRINTtEXT periodical shop in Indianapolis. My show aligned with election week (though a few days after the big day) so I thought it would be appropriate to address issues of the campaign.

Here’s the press release (written on 11/1):

The notion of greatness in America has been was hijacked as an empty campaign slogan in the 2016 election cycle. For me, one of our greatest strengths as a country is our openness to folks from beyond our borders. Though portrayed by a certain presidential candidate president elect as criminals, rapists, and terrorists, an overwhelming majority of immigrants seek the same opportunities that were afforded to other generations of once-outsiders—a chance to make a decent wage or run their own business; raise their children in a safe neighborhood with good schools. And in turn, what makes us even greater is the awesome blend and variety of cultures that has come to be the face of contemporary America.

As a food writer and chef, I believe that a good way to find understanding and appreciation for other cultures is by exploring their culinary traditions. And from big cities to not-as-big cities to small farming communities, the tastes of America are expanding. By seeking out different foods, we can connect with neighbors and folks living on roads-less-traveled (to us) alike. This is a simple step, but it could help us find some cultural unity and healing that, frankly, we need in light of the turmoil of this current political climate.

I am fortunate to have a network of like-minded foodies with a strong base in Indianapolis. These friends have introduced me to Asian Snack, Bombay Bazaar, and Jamaican Jerk: three remarkable eateries run by immigrants, new and not-so-new to the city, serving mind-expanding-ly delicious food to their communities with true hospitality towards newcomers.

Patties from Jamaican Jerk

Patties from Jamaican Jerk

For the Greatness project, I asked the owners of these businesses—Wen Hua, Ejaz Abidi, and Kahni Harris, respectively—what they thought was great about America, and their answers will be publically visible in the storefront windows of PRINTtEXT. I encourage all to go sample a plate of Gelashen-style chicken, Biryani, or Jerk ribs at their respective businesses, and taste the Greatness of the cultural mosaic that is America.

I had originally planned to host a dinner at Asian Snack after the opening, but as it turned out, a Trump Resistance Rally was being staged at the state capitol building that evening. It seemed appropriate to offer the opening as a space to gather and make protest signs before the demonstration, to which many of us headed afterwards.

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8 year old Elle WInship gets in on the action "Peace is my Protest"

8 year old Elle Winship gets in on the action “Peace is my Protest”

This sign is by Elle's sister Imzy.

My favorite sign by Elle’s sister Imzy.

Sorry to turn your friendly neighborhood food blog away from culinary conversation + I’m sure you’re all over-saturated in political think pieces, but a quick note on protesting/ refusal of Trump:

I was fairly committed to activism in my early 20s during the post- 9/11 Bush/Cheney hellscape. However on the night of March 20th, 2003, I was too depressed to march. The enormity of the invasion of Iraq weighed me down into a state of catatonia. A numbness for politics was my survival mechanism for the next six years. And then came the great “Hope”, followed by a veer towards political cynicism (though my life has certainly felt happy and on track for the past eight years.)

Are protests effective? The lesson I learned in the Bush years was not so much in their direct political influence. Optimistically, maybe by relentlessly banging down the doors of every elected official all the way up the gilded tower, the voice of the (disenfranchised) people will be heard. But at the very least, demonstrating gives people a moment of power, community, and catharsis. And it’s a right and tradition in this country protected by the first amendment.

And should I remind the right that their boy incited a reaction from the “2nd amendment people” if Clinton won and made a spectacle around his commitment to concede the election? I just can’t imagine the other side acting any more civil had the table been set the other way. And we all know how accepting much of the right was of the previous administration…

It felt good to be back in the streets. I’m charged up. Until the day Trump denounces, calls down, and enforces against the culture of hate that he has stirred up (I’m sorry, that 60 Minutes throne room spot wasn’t enough), which seems unlikely considering the swamp-dwelling bigots he’s surrounding himself with, I will not be silenced in my dissent.

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A Tribute to Sonny’s (revisited)

This is an article I wrote for Proximity Magazine in 2013 for their Food & Art issue. Its never been published online and I feel like its an important moment to look back at Sonny’s. I learned this morning that Sonny just retired from working at SAIC.

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Photos c/o Mary Jane Jacob

Sonny’s was a cafeteria owned and run by Rangsan “Sonny” Rattanavichit, which he opened on the second floor of the Columbus Drive building at the School of the Art Institute in 1989. Sonny’s prepared from-scratch, affordable, and diverse food– including on-the-go American grub like burgers, breakfast sandwiches, and cheap coffee as well as fresh and healthier options like vegetarian sandwiches. What set Sonny’s apart from your average college cafeteria, however, was his menu of made-to-order Thai food, which could be quite excellent on a good day. For the most part, Sonny’s maintained an endearing relationship with the community of SAIC. Sonny had a sort of paternal role around the Columbus Drive building, apt at remembering faces, names, and orders, though sometimes he had a reputation for being curt or stingy (but from personal experience, I can attest to the oftentimes impatient and finicky nature of art student clientele). In 2012, the School of the Art Institute expanded its dining facilities to include a higher volume cafeteria in the newly constructed Leroy Neiman student center and also revamped facilities in the Sonny’s space and the 12th floor of the MacLean Center. The School streamlined the operation of these facilities by contracting Food for Thought, a Chicago-based, high volume catering service. While the details remain elusive (Sonny and I spoke briefly, but out of respect, I did not press to get the whole story) Sonny inevitably closed his namesake café and donned the Food For Thought uniform.

My own relationship with Sonny’s could be described as formative. As a teenager from the suburbs in the mid-90’s I had yet to experience Thai cuisine. At Sonny’s I first ravenously scarfed down plates of pad thai and beef basil on bleary-eyed Saturdays as an Early College Program student. It was like the suburban Chinese food I grew up eating, but in Technicolor– greasy and starchy, yet more assertively spiced, salty and fishy and garnished with fresh and crunchy elements. An important breakthrough was that Sonny’s introduced me to Sriracha, that now ubiquitous ketchup-esque sweet, garlicky hot sauce that quickly became one of my favorite condiments. Back then, outside of Argyle Street, Sonny’s was the only place you could find “cock sauce”. I am ashamed to confess this, but when I lived in the dorms at SAIC, I once stole a bottle from Sonny’s and I started using it on everything. I still count the adulteration of a box of mac and cheese with the hot red stuff as a formative experiment in preparing my own food. On my shoestring budget, Thai food at Sonny’s became an occasional treat after an all nighter spent painting and/or partying. Sonny did provide thrifty staples as well: the two-dollars-and-some-change egg bagel before the tortuous 9 am class or an egg roll in the afternoon for a break in a heavy studio day.

After those early mac and cheese experiments, I delved deeper into my interest in cooking and by my senior year I was a budding foodie. I paid keener attention to Sonny’s Thai specials. The pad thai and fried rice seemed pedestrian to me at this point, having received a Thai cookbook for Christmas that year, I was more interested in the curries and more complex dishes. One particular dish on Sonny’s specials board was completely revelatory for me– a taste memory that I can always recall was his tom kha gai, hot and sour chicken soup with coconut milk. It enlivened every taste receptor at once– with its salty broth, sweet coconut milk, lime-y sourness, richly savory notes from chicken and mushrooms, and finally a pronounced funk from fish sauce. It had fiery scud chili peppers bobbing to the surface and a whole riotous tangle of not-quite-edible ingredients that I soon learned were in there for their aromatic perfumes that made this milky soup in a Styrofoam cup so extraordinary. This first experience of lemongrass, galangal, and kaffir lime– the trinity of Thai curries and soups– opened the door much wider to the complexity of Thai cooking for me and blazed a path to a rigorous pursuit of one of my very favorite cuisines.

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Aside from the occasional nostalgic tuck into a plate of red curry, my stops at Sonny’s dwindled after I completed my undergraduate studies. My most noteworthy experience at Sonny’s, however, would happen years later in 2008, when I was fortunate enough to work with one of my favorite artists, Rirkrit Tiravanija, who was in town for a visiting artist gig. SAIC Director of Exhibitions and Exhibition Studies, Mary Jane Jacob invited me to participate in the event, which was in part a workshop to optimize the social function of the Sonny’s space (hopefully this was not an omen of the eventual transformation that came four years later) and also a feel good, social practice-y free lunch. Serendipitously, SAIC had an in house Thai chef, Sonny, to assist in preparing Rirkrit’s menu of pad thai, red curry, green curry chicken, and basil shrimp.

When I was contacted to spend the day assisting Rirkrit, I imagined that I would be chopping veggies or even better, prepping a curry paste. This was not the case– Sonny and his crew had the cooking dutifully under control behind the scenes in the kitchen. Apparently, Sonny and Rirkrit had worked together closely prior to the event, strategizing and planning the menu. I can only hope that Sonny understood that his cooking would become part of an artwork itself, the focal point of a social experiment framed within a famous artist’s practice. Projects such as these seem to succeed best when collaborators outside of artistic discipline, such as Sonny, are engaged in their expertise and transparently participant in the work. This is what I took away from the project– the actual point of contact with everyday life and art was the dialogue between Rirkrit and Sonny (rather than the corralling of expectant MFA students into a blurry conversation about how to better socialize.) This very fond memory would be my last at Sonny’s.

Sonny’s is dearly missed by the SAIC community. When I posted a lament about the closing of Sonny’s on Facebook last year, I received an outpouring of over fifty comments from SAIC-related friends wistfully reminiscing about their $2 plate of white rice with an eggroll drowned in Sriracha, those egg bagels in the morning, avocado sandwiches, crisp cut fries, and the Thai specials… I teach a course to freshman at SAIC entitled “You Art What You Eat” and naturally we discuss issues about how the students eat around their downtown campus, which is devoid of basic grocery services and populated mostly by fast food joints with inconvenient daytime hours. A perennial conversation that arises is that of their attitudes towards the School’s food service. Since introducing the Neiman Center and Food for Thought, the School made mandatory a meal plan for students living on campus, so these kids are mandated to eat this corporate caterer’s food. Reports are mixed but mostly lean towards dissatisfied. From what I’ve witnessed the food is pre-prepared and pre-packaged with true fast food efficiency– fresh-made items wilting away in their sealed plastic clamshells and greyed out burgers looking more lifeless than those from Mickey D’s on the corner. I imagine that Sonny’s was just not scalable to serve the ever-growing campus of SAIC, but that is probably why it was so wonderful. It was human scaled– tasty food made from scratch by a face with a name, who, in turn, always remembered your name.

Thanks to Mary Jane Jacob, Bill Padnos, Tom Buechele, and Felice Dublon for their input on the facts in this article.

ALSO, check out a tribute Piranha Club we threw down in 2013 HERE

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“Cure, a proposal for healing”

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“Silkie”, black chicken

This summer, Roots & Culture hosted our first curatorial residency program, a three month stay for a jury- selected curator. We really lucked out with independent curator, Risa Puleo, who not only brought a thoughtful exhibition to Chicago, but also seemlessly embedded herself in our community, and happened to be quite an epicure.

Risa’s show was entitled “Cure (a rehearsal) for a Performance” and to quote her statement: “Carerehearsal for a performance suggests a choreography of disability as a remedy for maneuvering through institutions that are disabling.” A show mediating the experiences of artists with disabilities within institutions.

The idea to collaborate on a dinner came about intuitively, Risa hoped to host a dinner party for new and old friends in Chicago as a send off at the end of her stay. Finding her to be a kindred spirit in the kitchen, I had been secretly hoping I might rope her into a cooking project. Very much in the spirit of the Piranha Club, we arrived at a theme and menu for the meal through conversation, in this case our mutual interests in healing, holistic, or homeopathic foods, dovetailing nicely with the curatorial premise of her show.

Health food is obviously a big thing these days, a booming industry. Which is precisely why I don’t trust the fad diets like gluten free, etc. (no offense to folks with Celiac’s)– there just seems to be a lot of marketing at play. But much of that health food store culture seems to stem from holistic/homeopathy/new age practices, which I do find fascinating and in some cases orbit myself. I’m certainly a peripheral follower of the Sandor Katz ferment cult. Its all interesting stuff to unpack, many of the touted healing diets likely have undeniable health benefits– cleanses, wild foods, ancient grains, bone broth, paleo, macro, vegan…

 

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We mostly looked to time tested healing foods (or at least contemporary look-backs on older ways of eating): wild, foraged ingredients, fermented food, Pre-Columbian diet, and for one of my offerings, Chinese medicinal food.

Admittedly, my knowledge of Traditional Chinese Medicine is perfunctory. Mostly, I wander through the TCM shops in Chinatown wide-eyed, taking in the sights and smells of all the exotic dried flora and fauna. Some things I recognize from the Midwestern woods: reishi mushrooms, ginseng. And other stuff from culinary applications, like dried scallops. I delight in the jars of cordyceps fungus-infested caterpillars, but then get a bit queasy when I spy the deer tails. I am completely ignorant to the uses of any of these ingredients, but curious about their properties and sympathetic to their nature.

As someone who readily snarfs a veritable ark-ful of animal flesh, it may sound contrary of me to raise objection to some of the practices of obtaining ingredients for TCM, but draining the bile from living sun bears and slaughtering other endangered species to poach single body parts such as tiger penises, shark fins, and rhino horns is where I draw the line, millennia-old traditions or not. Are there calculable health benefits to the chemistry of these animal parts or is there a more animistic belief at play– consuming powerful animals will give power to the consumer. Certainly, men eat tiger penis so their member will be as virile as the tiger’s from which it was cut.

The black chicken, or silkie, certainly looks Satanic, all black-on-black, though it is a relatively common domestic breed of chicken, native to China. It’s meat is prized for its warming qualities in colder months and moreso for its beneficial properties for women’s reproductive health. I liked the poetry of flipping the oft-male-libido-fortifying focus (of meat) in TCM toward the feminine. Black chicken is typically made into a curative broth, often enhanced with other medicinal ingredients like ginseng or various funguses. A food consumed for healing rather than pleasure. I gathered up a variety of imported Chinese dried ingredients prized in TCM for my soup: white fungus (for liver protection and anti-inflammatory properties), goji berries (immune boosting, also good for liver function), and dried scallops (to tonify blood and add a fishy umami wallop to the broth). The soup was quite mild, slightly fishy, pleasant. I scooped a few forkfuls of my home made kimchi to perk mine up a bit.

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Dry and woody-ass burdock roots from my backyard

Risa suggested a salad of dandelion and burdock, a dish for promoting liver health. Bitterness has fallen out of favor in the sweet-obsessed Western diet. Looking back to Asia, bitter flavors play an essential role in any meal, with a focus on balance of the five flavors (I’d love to lecture you about umami, the fifth flavor identified in Asian cuisines, but that will have to wait until another post). Even in European dining customs, you might begin or end a meal with a bitter alcoholic tonic (which I love). Bitter foods help your liver produce bile, which is essential for good digestive health, emulsifying fats (hmm, coincidence that my favorite foods are fatty cuts of meat and leafy greens). Dandelion greens are the grand daddy of bitterness and are nutrient-dense like trendy kale. I was stoked that I could forage dandelion and burdock in my backyard. In mid-August, the greens were bright green, fresh, and mostly tender. Unfortunately the burdock was dry, tough, and woody, so we ditched them for a simple salad.

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Risa has been investigating the idea of a decolonized diet, meaning eating only pre-Columbian foods native to the Americas. This rules out such dominant ingredients as cow-based products, pork, wheat, and sugar. You can’t argue that most of the least healthy foods all contain some configuration of those ingredients. So a decolonized diet relies on new world vegetables: corn, squash, tomatoes, potatoes, beans with a light use of poultry (and I might argue insects). Dr. Luz Calvo and Dr. Catrióna Esquibel published a treatise/cookbook introducing this idea in 2015. To quote Dr. Calvo from an interview with Lucky Peach:

“We started researching Mexican ancestral foods, the foods that people in rural Mexico are eating, and finding that it’s really a plant-based diet. Meat is used only as a condiment. It’s not the cheese-laden food that you find at the typical Mexican restaurant here in the U.S.

We looked at particular foods that our grandparents talked about, nopales (prickly pear cacti), tlacoyos (corn cakes), and wild greens like verdolagas (purslane), and found that they all have anti-cancer properties. We came across studies that put indigenous groups on a standard American diet to see what happens to them, and then put people on an indigenous diet and see all their health measures improving.”

I cannot argue with these ideas. It reminds me a bit of Michael Pollan’s mantra “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”. I do wonder for a second if this is about the healthful-ness of the pre-Columbian diet or sticking with a diet native to one’s ancestral homeland. What would that say about my Anglo-Saxon ass– hmm, a beer and pork diet, that doesn’t sound too far off!

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So we rolled out chicken & bean tamales with a dash of molé. Risa found a recipe for pre-Columbian (no lard) tamales in my tattered old copy of Rick Bayless’ Mexican Kitchen. Remarkably, they cooked quickly in about 25 minutes (as opposed to 90+ minutes for fat and baking powder fortified masa). The results were surprising as well– supple, slightly dense masa, overall very satisfying. A classic three sisters rounded out the decolonized portion of our meal.

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Risa’s impressive platter of three sisters– corn, zucchini, and fava beans with some tomatoes for color.

The questions I keep coming back to about these various approaches to healing foods is how locality factors in to the (actual or perceived) nutritiousness of a foodstuff. The TCM approach seems to favor rarified ingredients deemed powerful by their special-ness with around-the-globe origins. The silkie soup was nice, but it was really just a good gelatin-rich broth, which to me, is where its beneficial properties lie. I appreciated the ironic tension of serving a dish made from far-flung ingredients alongside such hyper-local things like greens from my backyard and counter-top fermented kimchi. The latter dishes, raw, vitamin-rich, and in the case of the fermented stuff, probiotic, to me, were undeniably the winners for healthiest foods on the table. And the idea of a native diet, a locality to one’s ancestry further complicates a question about the link of where food comes from and individual well being.

So how did the meal make us feel? Speaking for myself, I wasn’t particularly ailing that day, but the meal left me feeling energized and not overly stuffed. It digested well too. There were clearly many healthful ingredients on the table and I believe that food truly can be a kind of preventive medicine. For me, the best way to navigate my dietary needs is to listen to my body. When I am feeling unwell or run down, I like to eat food that makes me feel invigorated: unprocessed whole foods like raw vegetables, fruits high in vitamin C, broths, chiles, ginger, garlic… But health is a personal thing, so do what’s best for you. My ideas are not meant to be a prescription.

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I did my best, but I have not entirely connected with eating chicken feet!

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Roots Legend

I was way overdue to throw down a reggae mix tape. The music of Jamaica has been on deck a lot this year with the 10 year celebration of my (not reggae-themed) gallery + the downbeat trot of the bass is perfect for bouncing my baby boy to rest + reggae’s themes of struggle and sufferation are very timely these days (despite the patriarchal bias). Mostly though, I’d been promising a new mix for 10 years to my old friend, Tony Amato, proprietor of my favorite waterfront hippie-shack/ rum drink destination/ home-away-from-home-away-from-home, The Red Dock, where I had a long standing Wednesday night DJ gig.

So just in time for summer BBQs and booming in ya jeep– my fourth roots rock reggae mix, Roots Legend. Forgive the rough-hewn blends (I hadn’t owned 2 working turntables and a mixer in many, many years until last week). I promise you though, the selection is FIRE.

DOWNLOAD HERE

Tracklist:

Bob Marley- Could You Be Loved?
Barrington Levy/ Gyptian- Day Vampire
Al Campbell- Turn Me Loose
Michael Prophet- Gunman
Johnny Clarke- Rebel Soldiering
Michigan & Smiley- Eye of Danger
The Hurricanes- You Can Run
Ras Michael & The Sons of Negus- Booma Yeah
Carlton Jackson- History
Tristan Palmer- Spliff Tail
Super Chick- Roach Killer
Clint Eastwood & General Saint- I Can’t Take Another World War
Peter Tosh- Must Get A Beating
Conquering Lion- Carnal Man
The Melodians- Rivers of Babylon
Astley Bennett- Leggo the Wrong
The Royals- Pick Up the Pieces
Horace Andy- Tribute to Bob Marley

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BUSY

Yeah, its been quiet around here. I’ve been busy cultivating this little creature:

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If you’re craving some food writing (and recipes) I wrote a story about regional Mexican food in Chicago for the May issue of Bon Appétit HERE.

I can’t promise there will be much content for the next few months. Maybe a baby food Piranha Club?! Stay tuned.

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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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