Sunday, August 30, 2009

Are You There God? It's Me, Dana.

Are you there God? It's me, Dana. Listen, I know I really let you down when I got kicked out of Hebrew School for putting that tack on the Rabbi's chair. And I'm sure you were disappointed that I never became a Bat Mitzvah. I'd also bet you weren't so thrilled when I denounced all formal religion and became a pagan and haven't really dated a Jewish man since high school. Yeah, I'm sure those were all big bummers for you.

And then there's that joke I keep telling over and over. You know the one.

Q: What's the ultimate Jewish dilemma?

A: Free ham.

I mean, come on, God, it gets 'em every time! How can I not tell it? Politically incorrect jokes are my thing! Hey, I gotta be me, right, God?

And I know - I do eat an awful lot of pork. But I'm buying sustainably raised pork - does that count?

God, I've got to come clean about something. You know that regardless of my faults, I am a very proud cultural Jew, right? I keep The Joys of Yiddishon my nightstand, I've seen Jackie Mason live on stage and no one loves the great Jewish foodstuffs more than me; the salami, the herring, the corned beef and pastrami, the chopped liver, the kishke, the smoked fish, mandel bread and bagels with a shmear? I'm completely devoted to it all.

And I'm also proud to say I've never polluted any of my food with even a dab of mayonnaise save for some tuna salad on occasion. I know there's no law against it but no upstanding Jew would have a big old jar of Hellmann's or Miracle Whip in their fridge. No way! I know that!

But God, here's my confession; I just made mayonnaise from scratch for the first time this week because I really wanted a BLT (I know, again with the pork) and it was amazing! I mean a REAL revelation. Truly life changing! I'm afraid there's no going back now. Is there any way you can forgive me?

Making REAL Mayonnaise

OK, now that I'm back from the Catskills, let's have a chat about mayonnaise. I actually did make it myself this week for the first time - it was garlic aioli to accompany my BLT. It was life-changing.

Mayonnaise is simply oil suspended in a mixture of egg, lemon juice, mustard, and salt.

Aioli (pronounced ay-OH-lee) is a garlic mayonnaise, same ingredients as above sans mustard but often with herbs and lots of garlic pulsed in. It often accompanies grilled fish, meats, vegetables and is great on a sandwich.

Rouille (pronounced roo-EEE) is a spicy red mayonnaise with saffron, garlic and cayenne and typically used in fish stews such as bouillabaisse. In fact, one of my favorite food writers, Melissa Clark, just published this story about making mayonnaise - particularly Rouille - and you should definitely check it out. Her method is old school style, with a mortar and pestle, which I'm going to gather the courage to try next time.

Mine was made with a food processor. I've heard horror stories from friends about making it - that if you don't drizzle the oil into the egg very slowly and whip it just so, it will separate and you'll have to start over. I had no such problem. At first I didn't think it was getting thick, it looked too thin, but just as I was almost out of oil, it magically firmed up right before my very eyes. It was perfect.

I looked for the easiest recipe I could find and surprisingly it was from Emeril at the Food Network. I advocate using a good olive oil and farm fresh eggs from your farmers' market - I believe it will make all the difference.

A lovely way to use garlic aioli for guests, especially right now, would be as a dip with a platter of blanched and raw seasonal vegetables like green beans, cauliflower, radishes, baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, fingerlings and some seafood like cold, steamed shrimp and crab claws. Add some hard-boiled eggs, a loaf of bread and get the white wine flowing. That sounds beautiful to me.

This recipe would also be great on any sandwich and it'll make your canned tuna sing to high heaven. Perfect, now we're right back where we started....

Garlic Aioli


3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 large egg
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 turns freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup olive oil


Combine the garlic, egg, lemon juice, parsley, salt and pepper in a food processor or blender and puree. Add the oil in a slow stream and continue to process until the mixture has formed a thick emulsion.

If you'd like your aioli less full court press and more mildly flirtatious, use one less clove of garlic.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Sensualists' Superfood

Figs are so misunderstood. Since we tend to stick with what we know, we often skip over the fig and go for bananas, apples or oranges because figs seem so, well, foreign.

To me, a ripe fig is as alluring and seductive as a woman in her pleasure: sweet, yielding, sensual, mysterious and a gift to all she encounters. The fig was Cleopatra’s favorite fruit and also highly prized by the Sumerians, Greeks and Romans, not to mention the founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha, who sat under the Bodhi Tree (a species of fig) to gain enlightenment.

Figs are truly the original superfood. I say screw the $3 bottle of vitamin water or the $15 a pound goji berries and get yourself some figs – they taste so much better.

While I encourage eating for pleasure and satisfaction first, here are some hard facts on figs that might serve as your tipping point to trying them:

•Figs contain very high levels of B6 (seratonin boosting and water retention-helping), calcium (good for bone density) and potassium (stress soother, energy & sugar metabolizing).

They contain more soluble fiber than any other fruit – these suckers will keep you regular and help control your blood sugar.

Fresh figs are in season through the fall and it’s the perfect time to give them a whirl. The two we encounter most are the dark purple ones, which are Mission figs and the pale green ones, which are Calimyrna. They should feel heavy for their size and have a slight give to the touch. If ripe, they'll last three days (MAX) in the fridge. If left on the counter, they'll get wrinkly and concentrated in sugar, which isn't a bad thing at all.

Ways To Eat Fresh Figs

At my fave brunch spot in Chicago – The Publican, they serve a plate of fresh ricotta with sliced figs and toasted hazelnuts drizzled with chestnut honey. Freaking phenomenal. You can also do Greek yogurt, figs, walnuts and honey.

Snicky Snack
Cut open the top of a fig and stuff with a touch of gorgonzola cheese and a walnut. Meat eaters, take it a step further and wrap with prosciutto. Drizzle with balsamic.

Lunch & Dinner

Make a salad or a pizza with a mix of one or more of the following ingredients that go great with figs:

arugula, red leaf lettuce, walnuts, pine nuts, sheep feta, Manchego, goat cheese, melon, prosciutto, bacon, mint, rosemary, red onions, caramelized onions, walnut oil, extra virgin olive oil, real, aged, balsamic vinegar

There's also a recipe from The Zuni Cafe Cookbookby Judy Rodgers, that I have yet to make but will be soon: Chicken Braised with Figs, Honey & Vinegar. The recipe was published in the New York Times a few years back and it looks like an easy and delicious one pot meal.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Bringing Back The Cocktail Hour at Home

This cart is a gift from Lynn who's moving to Berlin. She said, "It fits with your decor..." and I couldn't agree with her more! It's fantastically sublime, and that's why I'm rhyming overtime...

I couldn't help but notice as I was watching Julie & Julia recently that there was an awful lot of cocktail drinking going on in that movie. It wasn't just the food that was making my mouth water. I do believe there's a certain civility to occasionally unwinding and sharing your day over a cocktail or being able to offer one to a guest when they visit your home. What a lovely thing to do.

Having this glam bar cart has inspired me to re-stock my own home bar with some different options besides the standard vodkas and gins. While I was researching my dream bar, I learned that our words for cocktail and nightcap are variations on the European words apertif and digestif. Apertifs are supposed to stimulate your appetite and digestifs, to help with digestion. Most apertifs are slightly dry or bitter with just a hint of sweetness while most digestifs are sweeter and higher in alcohol. Many classic cocktails, sweet vermouths, sherries, Campari, Pastis, Lillet and also dry white wines and champagnes are all considered apertifs.

Some digestifs you might recognize are cognac, brandy, port, whiskey, grappa, amaro and liquers such as Sambuca, Drambuie or Grand Marnier.

My drink is a very dry vodka martini.
I've always preferred Ketel One although I recently tasted a couple new vodkas I really like. One is Tito's - a very smooth, handmade vodka made from corn in Austin, Texas, and North Shore Vodka - small batch, family owned and made just outside of Chicago from Midwestern grain.

I'm not a fruity drink woman. I don't see any Apple Pucker or Midori darkening my door any time in the near future. I also don't like corn-syrup laden mixes - I appreciate scratch drinks made from quality ingredients. Quelle surprise, eh?

In the spirit of cocktail drinking and to salute the near-end of summer, I want to share with you my Margarita recipe. I am incredibly proud to say that over the years I have single-handedly turned many people around from drinking crappy margaritas made from bad tequila and syrupy mixes. The taste of these is far superior and the effects less severe because you're ingesting QUALITY and far less sugar.

You want to buy real tequila - that means it has to say 100% agave on the label - accept nothing less. Tequila has become incredibly expensive in the last few years and you can spend anywhere from $28 to practically gazillions for a good bottle. One of least expensive options and one that's very good is a brand called Cazadores Blanco Tequila which is about $30 at Sam's Wine and Spirits. Other great tequilas that are a bit more expensive are Chinaco Blanco Tequila and El Tesoro Silver. Silver and Blanco mean the same thing -it's tequila that's not been aged, and perfect for mixing.

The other key element is orange liqueur. If you can, use Cointreau - that's ideal but a less expensive and perfectly fine substitute is one made by Patron called Citronge Orange - it's about half the price of Cointreau.

You'll also need a ton of limes. One small lime only yields between one and two tablespoons of juice. Buy many more than you think you'll need and if you can hit a Mexican grocery store or an inexpensive greenmarket like Garden Fresh - that's the ideal place to purchase them cheaply.

Here goes: About 30 minutes before, take martini glasses (I'm not a big fan of the specialty margarita glass, I think they're unnecessary, stick with the basics.) and run them under cold water, shake off most of their moisture and place in the freezer until icy. Make sure you also have lots of ice on hand, kosher salt on a plate and a cocktail shaker.

The recipe is quite simple: mix equal parts fresh squeezed lime juice, tequila and orange liqueur in a pitcher and stir, pour some in a shaker with lots of ice and shake until the shaker becomes frosty in your hands. Take the glasses out of the freezer and for those who want salt, wet the rim with a lime and dip it in the kosher salt, then strain the margarita into the glasses.

One day, I want a baby grand in my living room so I can host piano sing-a-longs. That's what we really need to bring back. Some cocktails, a steady supply of fabulous finger foods such as gougères (french cheese puffs) and canapés and a stockpile of popular sheet music from the last 50 years. I do happen to keep a jazzy vocal repertoire handy in my back pocket for such occasions. Fly me to the moon, let me play among the stars...

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Meet Marjoram, Oregano's Lusty Sister

I'll never forget the first time I met Marjoram, it was just about a year ago - I leaned in, caught a whiff of her gorgeous perfume and I could almost feel my dopamine drop, my pheromones release; there was no mistaking it - it was love or maybe it was simply lust.

I believe it was Mario Batali who once said that marjoram smells like a lusty woman. And who isn't captivated by a lusty woman? They're the best kind.

I don't know why but all this talk of lusty women suddenly makes me want to break into the song Brandy (You're a Fine Girl) by the Looking anyone else out there getting that vibe?

Anyway, since then, I've been using every opportunity to use marjoram any way I can. She's a sweeter, sexier version of oregano and can be used in its place in just about everything.

Here's some simple uses for fresh marjoram to get you going:

Mince a tablespoon and toss on top of your pizza in place of oregano. Beautiful on top of a frittata or baked, poached and scrambled eggs. Season any tomato-based sauce with it or finish off a platter of grilled sausages with sauteed peppers and onions with a garnish of marjoram.

Switch up your rosemary and thyme and try roasting a chicken with marjoram:

Gently loosen the skin of a 3 1/2 to 4 lb. bird. Take some peeled garlic cloves and fresh marjoram and work them underneath the skin making sure to place over the breast and thigh areas. Season with lots of salt and pepper both inside and out. Set the oven to 400 degrees, place the bird in a snug roasting pan and follow these simple instructions: roast 20 minutes breast side up, 20 minutes breast side down, 20 more minutes breast side up.* Eat.

Marjoram's great tossed in fresh summer salads - particularly a good match with fresh tomatoes, beets and corn which are at their seasonal peaks right now.

Here's a simple salad to throw together after your visit to the farmers'market from Epicurious. Perfect for a quick lunch:

toss together in large bowl:

4 ears sweet corn cut off the cobb
3 medium tomatoes, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh marjoram, chopped
4 ounces crumbled sheep feta

whisk together and toss with salad:

1-2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

* rule of thumb instruction by Alice Waters from The Art of Simple Food

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Confessions of a Ham Smuggler

Did I ever tell you about the time my former Italian boyfriend and I were chased through JFK airport by beagles because we had packed a whole leg of Prosciutto di Parma in our suitcase? We were so busted. We had to be sequestered in a room and interviewed for hours and they took away the ham (ugh!) and made us pay a huge fine. This was back before proscuitto was legally imported here in the late eighties. Since then, I've made a proud point to include the title "Ham Smuggler" on both my resume and Linkedin profile.

For newcomers, Prosciutto is the word for ham in Italian. Prosciutto crudo is raw, dry-cured ham . The finest prosciutto crudos from Italy are Prosciutto di Parma (seen above) and Prosciutto di San Daniele. And now there's an American prosciutto being made by a husband and wife in Iowa that's besting the Italians - it's called La Quercia - it's made from pasture raised pigs and completely nitrate free! It's some of the most beautiful meat I've ever consumed and that is the truth.

The prosciutto and melon you see above was my lunch yesterday. I sat on my deck in the 90 degree heat and those flavors just hit the spot. It's a classic salty and sweet combo but with the added bonus of the melt-in-your-mouth texture of the ham and the sweet, dripping juices from the melon. It's a must-try combination. By the way, all varieties of melon are in season right now at your local farmers' market and just get a load of their smell. It's like an extraordinary perfume wafting in the air. You can't get those smells in the ice cold produce section of your grocery store - no sir, nope, no you can't.

If you're having people over and you want to throw together something that's simple, delicious and plenty sophisticated, get out a couple of platters and throw down slices of prosciutto and melon, good bread, a few beautiful cheeses, olives, some cut up summer tomatoes sprinkled with chunky sea salt and a shallow bowl of good extra virgin olive oil. Pair with a nice Rose or Frascati and you're golden, baby.

Buying Prosciutto:

Prosciutto should be sliced very thin so you can almost see through it. I happen to think it tastes best at room temperature. Replace your standard lunch meat with it on a sandwich and tell me your not happy. I dare you.

Prosciutto di Parma is available at Bari Foods, Marcey Street Market at Sam's Wine and Liquors, Fox & Obel, and Piatto Pronto in Andersonville just to name a few.

La Quercia Prosciutto is available online, at Provenance in both Logan and Lincoln Square, Zier's Prime Meats in Wilmette, And Panozzo's Italian Deli in the South Loop.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Cheese: It's Music to My Ears

I grew up eating bad cheese. It wasn't cheese, actually, it was "processed cheese food." And then there were those bland, rubbery, generic blocks of unnaturally colored mild cheddar. When you think about it, they're kind of like the England Dan and John Ford Coley of cheese. Or better yet, the Air Supply of cheese.

Then there's the Maroon 5 of cheese - the ones who try to pass themselves off as the real thing by using made up French names and fancy packaging or disguising their poor quality and questionable provenance in the shape of a cow or maybe a heart with dried cranberries on top? Do yourself a favor and run the other way.

It wasn't until I moved to Italy in my twenties that I finally understood how excruciatingly beautiful good cheese can be. How sad is that? That's like twenty years of cheese-eating I'll never get back. It would be so easy to be bitter about that but instead, I'm choosing to flip it in gratitude because I live in a city that's drooling distance to a whole lot of artisanal cheese production. Between Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, there's close to one hundred small, hand-crafted cheeses being produced on gorgeous lands where cows and goats and sheep roam free.

Hmm, maybe somebody should write a musical about it! Like a Midwest farm version of Brigadoon but all about cheese and the hard-working craftspeople who make it. And there's a love story about two teenagers from feuding cheese-making families who struggle to be together and some of the farm animals could talk and of course, sing and they could sell cheese flights in the lobby during intermission and also big foam fingers with iconic images of cheese on them that audience members could wave in unison during the really moving, climactic songs. Right? See you at the Tony's!

But I digress.

Here's just a few of my favorite cheeses. I urge you to go out and find them or others like them that first and foremost - taste amazing - and are also made with great care, quality and integrity. I truly believe they will make your life better. There are plenty of cheeses from other parts of the country and the world that I adore as well, but I try to spread the love around as much as I can. So just go out there and get stupid, as the kids say - with cheese.

Capriole Mont St. Francis Goat Cheese, Greenville, Indiana

This is The Black Keys of cheese. The makers of this cheese describe it as intense, beefy and earthy. As far as I'm concerned, they are spot on. This is a raw milk, semi-hard goat cheese that's going to rock your world...

Available at Pastoral, Green City Market and Whole Foods Market.

Crave Brothers
Petite Frère, Waterloo, Wisconsin

This, to me, is the Radiohead of cheese, it's not for everybody, but those who get it, are obsessed with it. It's similar to a Camembert in style - runny and stinky and multi-layered in flavor. Made with farm fresh cow's milk. A connoisseur's cheese if there ever was one.

Available at my favorite local wine and cheese shop, Provenance. Owners Tracy and Joe specialize in lots of local cheeses and offer great service.

Mt. Sterling Raw Goat Cheddar, Mt. Sterling, Wisconsin

The Herbie Hancock of Cheese. Mr. Versatility. Genius at simply snacking, glorious when melted, makes any sandwich better and plays well with others - loves a good collaboration.

Available at Whole Foods Market.

I sure would LOVE to hear from you about your favorite cheeses and any musical metaphors that describe them.

So enough of these one-note, one-hit wonders. I'm bringing quality back. (one cheese at a time.)

On Buying Cheese:

Know that it's always OK to ask for a taste before you purchase anything. Most cheese mongers are happy to oblige.

If you want a great experience tasting small batch cheeses from all over the country, there's a gentleman named Giles Schnierle who runs a company called The Great American Cheese Collection on the south side of Chicago. He has tastings in his warehouse every Saturday.

Lastly, your trusty neighborhood farmers' market sells cheeses I'll bet, just like mine do. Green City Market supports many local cheese makers such as Brunkow, Capriole, Nordic Creamery, Prairie Fruits Farm, Saxon Homestead Creamery and Prairie Pure Cheese. We are talking many award-winning cheese-makers all in one place. A local cheese lover's paradise.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Panzanella Salad With Bacon & Eggs

Now that tomatoes are truly in season and I happened to have a few overripe ones begging to burst on the counter and a day old loaf of bread to boot - I intuitively knew it was time for Panzanella.

Panzanella is an Italian bread salad with cucumbers, onions and tomatoes tossed with red wine vinaigrette and chunky, buttery, garlicky croutons.

I made the croutons early this morning and I'll be frank; it was nearly impossible for me to stop nibbling on them warm from the oven.

Then it hit me.

Soft boiled eggs and bacon!
I was imagining the eggs melding with the vinaigrette and tomato juices - and then the salty, crispy bacon folded in.

I was salivating.

So, I made it for breakfast and have enough croutons to make it again for dinner. I am downright giddy.

Panzanella would be great as a side or a main dish for any meal. I think the one thing that might take it over the edge would be to serve it with a plate of some exquisite goat cheese like Capriole's* Piper's Pyramid.

This salad is truly a seasonal delight - don't let summer get away without it.

Panzanella Salad with Bacon and Eggs


1 rustic country loaf cut up into chunky 1 inch cubes
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 small cloves garlic, minced

Eggs & Bacon:
2 large eggs either boiled or poached to your preference
3 to 4 thick slices of bacon fried until crisp

2 medium tomatoes and all their glorious juices roughly chopped
1 large cucumber peeled, seeded and chopped
1 half large red onion sliced into half moons
handful torn basil leaves

good red wine vinegar & extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Make croutons by gently heating butter, olive oil, garlic and some salt in a sauce pan. Heat for just a few minutes until you can smell the garlic permeate the fat. Do not let garlic brown at all. Remove from heat and allow to cool for a few minutes. Toss in a mixing bowl with bread and use your hands to evenly coat all the croutons. Lick your fingers dry and bow your head in gratitude. Place croutons in the oven on baking sheets at 350 for 7 to 10 minutes until golden brown and slightly crunchy. They will harden more as they come to room temperature. You will have extra so keep them in a sealed container for later use. You can then re-warm them in the oven for a few minutes if they've gotten any humidity in them.

Cut up tomatoes, cucumbers and onions in a bowl, season with salt and pepper.

Toss the tomatoes, cucs, onions and croutons together and add the vinegar and olive oil to taste. I would add a little more vinegar than you think you'll need because it's tang will get absorbed by the bread. Let sit for 30 minutes at room temperature so flavors can meld. Tear basil and toss in. Slice eggs and crumble bacon and place on top or serve on the side.

*Capriole Goat Cheeses are locally produced in Southern Indiana and sold at Green City Market, Whole Foods and Pastoral in Lakeview and in the Loop on Lake Street.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Killing Me Softly With Salmon

True Story: I received this side of salmon as a random gift from my landlady, Marlene, exactly two days after I posted my Huffington Post column, entitled, Real Food Rehab: The Recession Issue. In it, I confessed my recent poverty due to the recession and how it'd affected my eating habits. She gave it to me without any hint she'd read my column, but I knew better. Giving me that salmon was a gesture I'll never forget; it mentally snapped me out of a place of lack and into a place of abundance; I suddenly felt rich and in a way, I was.

This pristine side of wild sockeye salmon was caught by Marlene's husband Bob, on a fishing trip to Alaska's Kenai River. It was boned, flash frozen, shipped back and resided in my freezer until last week when I finally decided how I wanted to prepare it and also, to give it the honor it was due.

As is my way, I'm constantly going to the library and checking out cookbooks - I enjoy experiencing the books before I choose to buy them. I've been reading and loving Martha Stewart's Cooking School, which is her version of Larousse Gastronomique or La Varenne Pratique, both classic cooking volumes with well-documented photos of technique which, I would guess, might be a little intimidating to a new cook. I highly recommend Martha's book to anyone - especially a newbie - who wants to learn techniques such as braising, sauteing and frying; who wants to know the proper way to make all the basic essentials from scratch such as mayonnaise, tomato sauce, pasta, biscuits, pie crusts, etc.

Anyway, on page 175 is a recipe for Grilled Side of Salmon. It's salmon sitting on a bed of citrus slices and herbs directly over the grill. You don't get crispy skin this way, (which I love) but you do get subtlety and depth from the aromatics.

In the event you haven't been gifted a large side of salmon, I implore you to go to a proper fish-monger (I love Dirk's Fish in Chicago) and purchase wild, not farm-raised salmon. The taste is superior, and again - here comes my mantra - it's better for you and the environment. I also understand that a piece of seafood such as this is a dear and precious commodity in today's world and you should not expect to come by it cheaply, but if you love salmon, it is a worthwhile splurge.

I served this with many bottles of Rose wine, a simple salad and plums poached in red wine, cinnamon and star anise for dessert. In hindsight, I think a big fat loaf of crusty bread with olive oil would've been great, too.

Grilled Side of Salmon
Adapted from Martha Stewart's Cooking School: Lessons and Recipes For the Home Cook

grapeseed or canola oil to coat grill grate
4 lemons & 2 oranges sliced into 1/4 inch rounds
1 bunch basil & 1/2 bunch oregano or marjoram*
1 piece wild salmon - 2.5 to 3 pounds
coarse sea salt (I love Maldon) and fresh ground black pepper

Prepare the grill by using a chimney starter and hardwood charcoal to prepare a medium hot fire. To gauge a medium fire, hold your hand 4 inches from the heat and you should be able to hold it there for 4 to 5 seconds. Scrub grate with a grill brush and quickly wipe down with olive oil using paper towel, a pastry brush or sauce mop.

Lay the citrus slices on the grill followed by the herbs. Make sure it's big enough to comfortably and evenly bed the fish. Lay the salmon, skin side down over the herbs and season with sea salt and fresh pepper. Cover with the lid holes open and cook for 20 minutes (check the salmon at 15 minutes to make sure it doesn't over-cook.)

Using two large spatulas, carefully transfer the fish to a serving platter - garnish with citrus and toss some fresh herbs to make it gorgeous. Serve hot, room temp or cold. You can also prepare it up to 24 hours in advance and cover with plastic wrap in the fridge.

*If you're in Chicago, Smit's Farm sells herbs inexpensively for $2 a bunch at farmers' markets all over the city, four days a week, so be sure to check them out.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Vacation Vérité

I just returned from a vacation at the behest of good friends who rented two separate cottages by the lake in Michigan. Visually speaking, aside from the endless stretches of pristine beach and lush, bucolic landscapes - this was my favorite image from the entire trip.

This was the breakfast plate of my friend Mhairi's child, created by Mhairi, herself. I woke up to the smells of bacon and batter coming from an adjacent room (not a bad way to start the day, btw) and arrived only to find this little fella staring me down at the table. With his blueberry bindi, bloody nose and shifty-eyed resemblance to Fozzie Bear - he totally won me over.

It occurred to me instead to upload a photo of a vintage steamer trunk with this post because that's exactly what I'm going to look like after all the sun exposure I got on this trip. But then I thought better than to ruin your good appetites. This is a food blog after all.

My last night was a summer dream: I took an outdoor shower at our cabin in the woods after a long day at the beach, drank a rum and Mexican Coke and watched as our friend Miklos prepared a traditional Hungarian rabbit stew and pan fried pork chops along with local potatoes, vegetables and bread. I heard the Talking Heads song, This Must Be the Place playing on the iPod during dinner and was moved to hear my friend Brian tell me he chose that song as my ring tone - the song that plays whenever I call his phone. Considering how much importance I place on home - both literally and metaphorically, I consider it a beautiful compliment.

And now I'm back. And while there's no place like home, this trip was definitely one for the books.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Dana Joy on Summer Grilling: Size Matters

I love meat. And whoever told you that size doesn't matter was lying. Because, honey child, it does.

My friends Geno & Paula came over the other night and brought with them this gorgeous, two pound, grass-fed, bone-in, three inch thick, New York strip steak from Schmeisser's Butcher Shop in Chicago. This was a real gift. This, from the same people who once bought me a 3 lb. fat-wrapped beef tenderloin for my birthday. Cause that's what you give the girl who has everything; you give her meat.

I used to eat meat 3-4-5 times a week. But not anymore. Now, it's a real celebration when I do and my meat rituals are special and sacred.

A few months ago, I saw a screening of the movie Food, Inc. and it changed me forever. I can no longer eat meat, mindlessly; I need to know it was raised naturally and humanely. My current budget doesn't allow for the meat sprees I used to afford so now I'm careful to parse out a small amount each week for some beautiful, preferably local, pasture raised beef, lamb, pork or chicken. So many farmers' markets are now selling locally raised meats and be sure to also ask your butcher where they get their meats from. The more you request meats that are grass-fed, pasture-raised and locally-raised, the more they will become available to you. (Remember, it's your birthright.)

My favorite way to prepare meat is to grill it using real, hardwood charcoal. Both Whole Foods and Trader Joe's sell hardwood charcoal and in my opinion, you should never grill with anything but. The flavor says it all. Use a chimney starter which is more economical and keeps the chemicals away from you and your precious meat.

So, back to this gorgeously large piece of meat - we seasoned it simply with sea salt, fresh ground pepper and fresh thyme and cooked it over a medium-hot grill for 6 minutes a side to medium-rare. It's so big, we had to cook it on all four sides! Is that crazy talk or what? I love it! After taking it off the heat, we tented it loosely in foil and let it sit for 5 minutes before cutting it in into thick slices - it was the perfect amount for three ravenous adults.

I also made a completely un-summery potato preparation - twice baked potatoes. My friend Geno is very fond of copious amounts of butter, garlic, bacon, cream, cheese and salt. He's one of my oldest friends and I love to make him happy. So, I turned my oven on in the middle of summer and made them for him.

Other than that there was a salad with a lemon vinaigrette that contained pretty much the entire contents of my vegetable drawer: chard, cucumbers, fresh peas, carrots, red onions, breakfast radishes and basil.

And lastly, I macerated peaches in sugar and fresh mint and served them over the vanilla ice cream I made earlier in the week.

It really doesn't get any better than this. So here's to summer. And big meat.

Chinese Greens in Oyster Sauce

So far, for me, it's been an all-raw vegetable summer. I haven't craved my veggies sauteed or stir-fried - not once - until I made eyes with the Chinese broccoli, also known as gai lan, at the Green Acres farm stand at Green City Market. It's run by farmers Beth Sakaguchi Eccles and her husband Brett, who specialize in Asian and heirloom vegetables. Beth's grandfather was a Japanese immigrant who farmed in Indiana and trucked his veggies in to sell at Chicago's Chinatown back in the Thirties. Now she and her family have carried on the tradition and are adored by restaurant chefs and home cooks alike.

This is a dish I almost always order whenever I visit Chinatown or Little Vietnam and I have to say, I re-created it perfectly at home. The smell was pure heaven and it was shocking how good and how easy it was.

Oyster sauce, however, is a curious thing and often loaded with "ingredients of questionable integrity." I chose KAME brand because it seemed the cleanest out of all of them to me. No chemicals to speak of and lower in sodium. Oyster sauce is easy to find at mainstream grocery stores in the Asian/ethnic aisles and also at Asian markets.

If you're not interested in eating this in a Jethro-style cereal bowl, all by it's lonesome like I did, it would go beautifully over jasmine rice and paired with grilled flank steak rubbed with say, Chinese five spice powder, brown sugar, cayenne, fresh garlic and salt? Braised pork might be nice too.

Chinese Greens in Oyster Sauce

This recipe is adapted ever-so-slightly from Food & Wine magazine by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid who wrote the exquisite cookbook, Hot Sour Salty Sweet:


1/2 cup chicken or vegetable broth (I used water)
1 1/2 tablespoon oyster sauce
1 tablespoon Chinese cooking wine, dry white wine or dry sherry
1 tablespoon soy sauce ( I used wheat-free Tamari)
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon peanut oil or vegetable oil
3 scallions, cut into 1-inch lengths
1 1/2 tablespoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
1 pound gai lan*, sliced crosswise at 3-inch intervals, thickest stalks halved lengthwise
1 teaspoon cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon cold water


Before you begin, make sure you set up and prep all your ingredients and have them handy by the flame - the cooking process happens very quickly and there's no time to chop or prep between steps.

In a small bowl, combine the broth with the oyster sauce, wine, soy sauce, sugar and salt.

Set a large wok (I used a large straight sided All-Clad pan because I don't have a wok, so no worries, just use your heaviest saute pan) over high heat. When it's hot, add the oil and swirl to coat. After 20 seconds, add the scallions, garlic and ginger and stir-fry for 30 seconds.

Add the gai lan and stir-fry for 2 minutes; stir and press a few times against the pan. Add the sauce in the bowl and bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for 3 minutes. Add the cornstarch mixture and continue stir-frying until the sauce thickens, about 15 seconds. Transfer the greens to a small platter and serve hot.

* If you can't find gai lan, substitute broccoli rabe, mustard greens or spinach.