Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Very Special Pig

LinkReally big pig image courtesy of Jonny Hunter of UFC.

All across America the ding of the microwave has just sounded the completion of a Lean Cuisine. We scarf it right out of the plastic tray in front of our computers, barely tasting the flash-frozen peas and dry chicken. But that’s OK, because in this fast-paced, pre-packaged world, food is just fuel to keep the machine running.

Eating is a solitary, harried event; it is seldom the basis for a leisurely expanse of time with friends and loved ones. It’s the rare family that eats a home-cooked meal together every night at the kitchen table with the television turned off. And it’s even less common for a group of families and friends to cook and eat together, turning a meal into an evening-long event for which good food is integral to the enjoyment of good company.

The Underground Food Collective (UFC) does this every night. Composed of a group of friends and families (including little ones and babes-in-arms), the UFC cooks and eats every meal together on a farm in Madison, Wisconsin. This group—composed of professional chefs, experienced home cooks, and farmers—has started a catering company featuring Pre-Industrial Pig Dinners throughout the country, bringing people together under one roof to enjoy a full meal composed of one very special pig.

So on the very day the swine flu was announced F and I braved death and attended Chicago’s first Pre-Industrial Pig Dinner.

We drove through a torrential downpour to West Town and found the nondescript apartment building belonging to a certain James. As we sloshed up the steps bearing wine and umbrellas, I noted the drab hallway and the worn carpet, leery of what we would find beyond the battered front door. But I needn’t have worried. Upon entering, I beheld the most gorgeous apartment I have ever seen in Chicago—including some of the half-million-dollar brownstones that F and I have toured as “Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Smith, attorneys and prospective home-owners.”

We found ourselves in the midst of a bustling throng of chefs, farmers, and waiters, whirling through a professional kitchen with an island that stretched as far as the eye could see. The kitchen was every home-cook’s dream: stainless steel shelving, hanging pot racks, acres of cabinets, and gleaming pots and pans.

Awe-struck and awkward, F and I dodged chefs carrying chopping boards and pig parts, and shuffled to the side of the room. A waiter greeted us, “Two this evening?” and led us to the back of the spacious brick front room to a table set for six. We were among the first to arrive, and by the number of tables scattered through the room, James looked to be expecting around 60 people.

We took our seats against the far wall in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows lined with flower boxes and surveyed the room. Long pine tables were set with mismatched china and flickering candles. There was a stone fireplace to the left, and a canoe hung from the ceiling to the right. The bookcase behind me held Ulysses, a Spanish dictionary, and a smattering of philosophers. Carved wooden ducks perched on various ledges and rested on shelves that held more candles, pieces of driftwood and a set of antlers. A colonial iron chandelier with still more flickering candles hung above the next table. As the thunderstorm raged outside, F and I relaxed in James’s warm, rustic apartment, anticipating our pig.

The meal was very good. Not extraordinary, but definitely very good. I’m sure that you could find a gourmet porcine meal of finer quality at one of the many lauded restaurants throughout the Windy City, but F and I had not signed up for a restaurant experience. What made this evening special was the expectation of a long, leisurely meal among new friends. The family-style courses were paced throughout three and a half hours, so we had plenty of time to digest and get to know our dining companions.

Lisa and Chuck were a few years older than us and at first I found them aloof and a little intimidating. She wore a gray turtleneck sweater and pearl earrings and was well put-together with a sophisticated style that I have never quite been able to master. He was a little rumpled with square-framed glasses and wayward hair. But as the night progressed and we shared plate after plate of pig and glass after glass of wine, we found that Lisa was endearingly silly and Chuck was a rumpled intellect. The other places at our table were occupied in time by Kurt and Rory, both startlingly beautiful college students from Madison. He wore stonewashed jeans and a cowboy-chic button-down shirt; his blond hair fell to his shoulders over the starched collar. She dressed simply in a black tee-shirt, her only adornment a small silver cross. She had a perfect, tiny face with big, earnest eyes. They looked like they had just arrived from a JCrew photo shoot set in Wyoming. As with Chuck and Lisa, my first impressions faded as the evening progressed and Kurt and Rory stepped off the JCrew page. Kurt had a disarming, puppy-like tendency toward long-windedness unhampered by a lisp, and Rory was quick with a shy smile revealing petite, childlike teeth. Kurt was the beer distributor for the event and described in lengthy detail the process of brewing mead on his tiny stove top.

The six of us ate a lot of pig—the seven-course dinner included bacon, pork belly, pulled pork, pork fat, pork broth, pork sausages, and other bits and pieces of swine (plus dessert, which was not pig). Among our favorites: pulled pork with golden raisins and white radishes, pork sausage and micro-greens, white beans in pork broth, and my new weakness—fried pork fat with toasted black walnuts. This dish was crispy and strangely sweet, almost like candied orange peel. It was utterly surprising and delicious, and I could have eaten a heaping plate of fat, against my better judgment. Luckily, the family-style plate was small and I limited myself to a sensible portion. The dishes were augmented with products from local suppliers: Red Hen baguettes, fresh Wisconsin goat cheese, and Kurt's lemongrass beer. Unfortunately, the menu was taped to the far wall and written on brown paper, so without my glasses, I couldn’t decipher the finer points of what I was eating. I will be sure to print the menu below, if the UFC posts it online. In the meantime, here are some visual highlights:

Those are all of my photos. I’m getting braver, but I’m still a little shy about taking pictures—especially when it means making my dining companions wait while I snap photos of the food. But when the UFC posts their pictures online, I’ll add more below.

After three and a half hours of pig plates and scintillating conversation with our new friends, F and I were reluctant to leave James’s beautiful apartment. As we gathered our coats and opened our umbrellas, I wondered why we considered getting together with nice people to eat good food a “Special Event.” The concept is pretty simple, really, and it would be simple to put into practice in our every-day lives, if we were so inclined. But are we inclined?

When I posed these questions to F on the way home, he replied with a pithy flash of wisdom,

“Eating is private.”

And it’s true. In many European countries, mealtime is a celebration of togetherness, of letting go of the day’s frustrations, and of enjoying the company of friends and neighbors over food and wine. But here in America, creating and eating a meal is often just another task to cross off our busy schedules. We eat in private—at our desks, on the couch, at the counter—without real enjoyment. Without company.

I will admit that I am a private person. When reading about the UFC’s collective meals, my first thought was that you’d have to really love these people to eat your every meal with them. While I long for more dinners with my friends and family, I wouldn’t want to make them nightly events. I would miss my dinners alone on the couch with F. It’s difficult, but it must be possible to find a fulfilling balance between privacy and community.

The UFC has a good thing going here and, while I definitely think the evening was worth the price, I can recreate the same experience in my own apartment for free. I may not have access to a fresh hog, but I do have my own collective of friends and family to celebrate with from time to time.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Our Saturday Plans Include Red Wattles

F and I will be venturing out on the town once again this Saturday night. Stay tuned for a post featuring Red Wattles!

For more info about the Underground Food Collective, CLICK HERE.

Check out reviews of pig dinners served earlier this winter in Madison, WI and New York, NY. The NY Times Bittman Blog, Slow Food USA, and Gourmet Magazine covered the delicious -- and sold-out -- UFC dinners served last month in New York. For links to articles and photos: CLICK HERE

The Onion covered the Nov. 14 dinner in Madison, WI: CLICK HERE

Monday, April 13, 2009

Passeaster Challah French Toast

Photo courtesy of http://winsomeaunt.blogspot.com/

As a non-religious Jew, I celebrate the fun holidays of every faith. Passover is lovely because there’s a plate of tasty symbolic foods like shankbone, and we get drink a lot of wine while reciting the plagues in a booming voice (“BOILS! FROGS! PESTILENCE!”). Then an angel visits our dining room late at night to drink the leftover wine. And Easter is joyous because we color eggs and wait for a giant bunny to hide things in the house while we’re asleep. I wonder why so many holidays feature nocturnal visitors?

Last week featured both Easter and Passover and, while I didn’t celebrate either one, I felt I ought to do something colorful and Jewish. Judging from the crowds that swarm our local breakfast nooks after the church bells ring, eating a delectable brunch seems to be the highlight of the Easter holiday. So I baked some challah for Passover and used the leftovers to make French toast for an Easter Sunday brunch.

Later that day, I made Scottish shortbread for a friend’s Easter party at which, like a bad Easter Jew, I ate a ham.For my Passeaster Challah French Toast, I adapted Smitten Kitchen's award-winning recipe for Boozy Baked French Toast.I didn't have the right type of booze to follow the recipe (I didn't think red wine French toast would really taste that great), so I used SK's vanilla extract suggestion instead. I chose to sprinkle my toast with hazelnuts, so I gave them a good toasting first. And I attempted to make the recipe slightly healthier by using skim milk in place of whole. And the finished (slightly blurry) product: This was very, very nice and custardy. I'll definitely make Passeaster Challah French Toast again soon. But next time, I think I'll use pecans—and booze.

The original recipe:
(Disclaimer: Smitten's photos put mine to shame. If you must compare, please do not judge High Heels too harshly!)

Boozy Baked French Toast
From Smitten Kitchen

1 loaf supermarket Challah bread in 1-inch slices, no need for the super-fancy stuff here
3 cups whole milk
3 eggs
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt

Your choice of flavorings: I use 3 tablespoons Bailey’s and 3 tablespoons Cointreau, but Frangelico (hazelnut), Chambord (raspberry), Creme de Cassis (black currant) Grand Marnier or just a teaspoon or two of vanilla or almond extract can do the trick. You can bump up a citrus flavor with a teaspoon of zest, add a half-cup of chopped nuts such as almond slivers or pecans between layers or on top or a similar amount of raisins or other dried fruits.

1. Generously grease a 9×13-inch baking dish with salted (my choice) or unsalted butter.
2. Arrange bread in two tightly-packed layers in the pan. I always cut one slice into smaller pieces to fill in gaps, especially when using braided Challah. If using a thinner-sliced bread, you might wish for more layers, though I find that over three, even baking can be difficult. If you are using any fillings of fruit or nuts, this is the time to get them between the layers or sprinkled atop.
3. Whisk milk, eggs, sugar, salt and booze or flavorings of your choice and pour over the bread. Sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar.
4. Wrap tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. The bread will absorb all of the milk custard while you sleep.
5. Bake at 425 for 30 minutes, or until puffed and golden. This will take longer if you have additional layers.
6. Cut into generous squares and serve with maple syrup, fresh fruit, powdered sugar or all of the above.

Serves 6 as main course.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter Recipe Found

The more I thought about it, the more intrigued I became with Saveur's exquisitely messy Pavlova, and I very nearly created one to bring to the Easter party I attended this afternoon. But I ran out of time. Good thing, too, since I discovered just how easy it is to make delicious shortbread.

Scotch Shortbread
From Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker

Preheat oven to 325 degrees

1 cup butter

Sift together:
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sifted confectioners' sugar
1/4 tsp salt

Blend the dry ingredients into the butter. Pat the stiff dough into an ungreased 9 x 9-inch pan and press edges down. Pierce with a fork through the dough every half-inch. Bake 25 to 30 minutes. Cut into squares while warm.

Makes about 20 squares

Inspired by the shortbread cake at Bistro 110, I sprinkled Morton Sea Salt over the top, which counterbalanced the full cup of butter in this recipe. These cookies were warm, crumbly, sweet, and slightly salty. I will be making them again
—and not just for parties.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Easter Recipe Hunt

I'm looking for the perfect dish to bring to a friend's Easter party on Sunday. Today's newsletter from Saveur is entitled "Exquisite Easter Brunch," so I was certain it would contain the perfect recipe. I clicked on the link for Pavlova, and this popped up.I don't know anything about Pavlova, but this is an exquisite mess.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

High-Priced Food on Trial

This is a fun article from the Chicago Tribune:

High-Priced Food on Trial

We have placed a handful of local dishes on trial for crimes of excess
and we asked their chefs to act as their defense. Court is in session! (And by the wayyes, we are acting as prosecution, and judge. But we are fairno, seriously, we are.)
Christopher Borrelli and Phil Vettel

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Chocolate! Chocolate! Chocolate! Aack!

In an episode of my new favorite show 30Rock, Tracy Jordan compares Liz Lemon to the Cathy cartoon above. This reference might not mean anything to you, but Cathy’s exclamation “Chocolate! Chocolate! Chocolate! Aack!” is probably universally understood by all women. And my sister B and I shouted the line all weekend in anticipation of our chocolate-making course at Delightful Pastries bakery in Jefferson Park’s Polish neighborhood. For two relatively health-conscious girls who are unable to resist sweets, a chocolate-making course is an occasion met with mingled excitement and apprehension. But on Sunday, we did not plan to resist the chocolate or to feel remorse for eating it.

In the midst of a snow storm, B and I entered the warm bakery that smelled of rising dough, sugar cookies and chocolate. On our way back to the kitchen, we stopped to admire rows upon rows of colorful pastries and truffles and fresh breads, feeling the snow melt away and the cold leaving our limbs. I am convinced that baking is one of the noblest professions there is. Nothing imparts as immediate a sense of well-being as a warm loaf of bread or cookies with bunny faces.

The kitchen was taken up by a long, wide table flanked by glass-fronted refrigerators filled with stacks of chilled dough. Utensils and cutting boards dangled from the walls and bowls and baking sheets and pots and pans were jammed this way and that into high shelves. Sixteen people crowded around the table and each of us had a baking sheet with two pastry shells and a sheaf of recipes. B and I took our places at the end of the table to watch our instructor Dobra plop truffles from a pastry bag onto a baking sheet with an expert flick of the wrist.

Dobra opened Delightful Pastries in 1998 with her mother Stasia. Dressed in a white chef’s apron with her hair pulled back into a messy ponytail, Dobra is a tough-looking woman in her late 30s with large hands rough from mixing and lifting and kneading. She speaks with a gruff Polish accent, inflected with a dry sense of humor. Dobra led us into the back of the kitchen, past a giant mixer with giant attachments that put F’s pink mixer to shame and made me weak in the knees.

We crowded around a little furnace to watch Dobra mix chocolate into a battered pot. B and I stood on our tiptoes to see into the pot as she described the desired temperature and consistency of the chocolate-caramel sauce sputtering over the stove. The scent of hot caramel filled the back room and made me very hungry, even though we had just eaten lunch at the Irish pub down the street.

All memory of lunch evaporated as B and I were caught up in the flurry of tastings that followed. Caramel sauce, truffles, ganache, whipped cream, chocolate mousse, cream cookies, chocolates, caramels and pie crust—we tasted everything without a trace of guilt.

We also learned things. We didn’t so much create chocolate desserts as assemble them from the ingredients that Dobra had already prepared. This was fine with us. It was warm in the kitchen and snowing outside and B and I were content to whisper to each other and do anything that Dobra told us to do.

Dobra gave each pupil five chocolate truffles and we cheerfully dipped them in melted chocolate.

When they had dried, we coated them with cocoa powder and nuts. B and I split a nut-covered truffle, expecting the plastic spoon to bend as it cracked through the lump of chocolate. But the spoon crushed smoothly through the truffle, and we each took half. It was sweet but not too sweet, soft but not mushy. “Chocolate should be bitter,” Dobra said. “And chocolate should not be hard. You know chocolates that are tough when you bite them? That’s no good. Chocolate should be soft when you bite into it. It should be soft trickling down your throat so you think, Aaah, that’s a good truffle.”

Next, we assembled chocolate mousse pies. Dobra passed around a bowl of mousse and we scooped generous portions into our pie shells.

Then she passed out a bowl of heavy whipped cream to top the mousse. “Fancy people buy cakes,” she said. “Cakes can be fancy, but pies should not be fancy. A pie should be a mess. In the pie shell, you put good, simple fillings. Chocolate, apples, anything you want. Then whipped cream. You just put it all together and then it’s done. It goes out on the shelf just like this,” she held up a pie shell filled with a mound of mousse and cream, “And it’s just perfect.”

You can tell a lot about people from the way they decorate desserts. Once we had covered our mousse with cream, we decorated the tops of our pies. The woman next to me carefully painted chocolate into a tribal pattern of thick stripes along the rim and spread a dollop of chocolate in the center. The organizer of the event—K—sprinkled cocoa powder over his, then added nuts, then drizzled chocolate, then a dollop of mousse, followed by a chunk of bitter chocolate. His young daughter carefully arranged nuts over the top of her pie, piece by piece.

I drizzled chocolate over the top of mine, while K watched in amazement. “Look what you’re doing!” he crowed. “That’s great!” He whipped out his camera and snapped photos while I flicked chocolate across the top of the pie. He made me clear my baking sheet so the pie stood out against the white parchment paper, and took another photo. Everyone watched as my face turned red. My fussy nature was clearly written in my chocolate drizzle.

Next, we poured ganache into the smaller of the pie shells and learned how to cut caramel into squares (run the knife under hot water and dry off before cutting).

I could have stayed at Delightful Pastries all day. The kitchen was comfortable. The equipment was well-worn and well-loved, the counters cluttered with recipes and bits of chocolate, the refrigerators filled with cookies and dough and sheets of colored sugar. B and I lingered in the front of the bakery, reluctant to leave behind the warmth and the scent of sugar that clung to our clothes and hair.

Whether it was the sugar, the time with B, or the fact that the blizzard had finally stopped, I left Delightful Pastries feeling delighted. B took her truffles home to NYC and I sent most of the pies and chocolates to work with F on Monday. But we kept half of a chocolate cream pie for ourselves.