Monday, May 25, 2009
No, we were not guests at a wedding, a gala, or an inauguration. We were on our way to something better: Cochon 555, a celebration of all things pig. Five chefs from among the finest restaurants in the city were selected to compete for the acclaimed title "Prince of Porc" on Sunday, May 24. Each chef would receive a ten-pound pig and create five unique dishes for a discriminating group of 200 guests and judges. The crowd would vote, and at the end of the evening, one chef would be crowned.
I was on my way to this glamorous event thanks to a contest hosted by Foodbuzz.com. Foodbuzz provided my ticket, and F bought another so we could to enjoy Cochon 555 the way any pork-centric evening is meant to be enjoyed: as a romantic night on the town.
Upon entering the elegant Drake Room at The Drake, F and I were greeted by this grotesque, smiling head right out of The Lord of the Flies.
[Caution: if graphic images of a deceased pig will bother you, please proceed no further.]
With a quiet, uncanny calm, this little cochon oversaw the competition, a corporeal reminder of where the chefs' fancy gastronomic delights had originated. He would soon help to demonstrate proper butchering technique. More on that later.
The crowd approached the cochon like a postmodern art exhibit. We circled him warily, intrigued despite ourselves. His skin was waxy and starting to cave where organs had been removed. The poor pig in his inelegant spread-eagled repose seemed all the more avant-garde when considered in the context of his surroundings:
Under the crystal chandeliers and gilt-paneled rafters, guests of all shapes, sizes, and manner of dress clustered around tiny tables scattered throughout the room. The chef tables were arranged around the room's perimeter and the idea was to buzz from table to table, sampling dishes from each chef, then cast your vote for the best chef in the ballot box in the center of the room. In the interest of space, only highlights ensue:
Stephen Dunne of Paramount Room/VOLO
Graham Elliot Bowles of Graham Elliot
Sam Burman of Bluprint
Chris Pandel of The Bristol
Patrick Sheerin of The Signature Room at the 95th.
Our favorite dishes, in no particular order:
Pork belly sandwich with mustard and pickle
Brain polenta with fried ramps (ramps! ramps!)
Bacon-infused Maker's Mark
And my favorite dish of the night: pork-belly sandwich on a PIE-CRUST bun!
Stephen Dunne of Paramount Room / VOLO offered pork-filled tamales and a savory pork broth:
F's favorite pork-belly sandwich was created by Sam Burman of Bluprint, who also offered a stick of bacon topped with a tuft of cotton candy standing upright in a box of brown sugar (see the bottom-left corner below).
We must also acknowledge Sam Burman for his bacon-infused Maker's Mark. F and I may have visited Chef Burman's booth more than once...
As the chefs cleared their tables and the judges deliberated, F and I wandered through the room, lost and bewildered now that the food was gone. But then, on Sam Burman's table, we spotted a row of tender, juicy ribs that we had not yet sampled. I hastened over, only to be informed by Chef Burman's assistants that the ribs were reserved for the judges. What could I do? I considered snatching a rib and running for it, but I was wearing high heels. So I smiled politely and turned away.
An aproned assistant trotted after me a mere moment later. "The chef wants to talk to you," he said. Confused, I returned to the table, where Chef Burman handed me a plate of ribs, grinned, and hurried off.
"Grrr," said F. "You're every chef's dream: you're pretty and you love pork." He glared in Mr. Burman's general direction. "I wish I hadn't voted for him," he grumbled.
But he ate the ribs anyway.
Despite the fact that Mr. Burman gave me a special pork rib, he was not my favorite chef of the evening. That hard-won title goes to Graham Elliot of Graham Elliot of the infamous pork-belly sandwich in a pie-crust bun.
As the judges conferred, Andy the Butcher of Lincoln Cafe in Mount Vernon, Iowa, demonstrated butchering techniques using our spread-eagled cochon, who had been waiting patiently at the front of the room all night. I will let these photos speak for themselves (now is the time to look away, if you're feeling queasy).
And voila! Within fifteen minutes, our sad-eyed cochon was reduced to a neat pile of pig parts, which were subsequently raffled off to the crowd.
We didn't win anything. At the time, in the throes of pig passion, intoxicated on bacon and pate, I was disappointed to have lost out on a piece of pig. But in the sober light of morning I have come to accept that my freezer is too small to hold even the smallest cut of a ten-pound porker.
When at last all of the cochon chunks had been raffled away, the chefs took the stage to discover who would be crowned the “Prince of Porc."
From left to right: Stephen Dunne of Paramount Room/VOLO, Graham Elliot Bowles of Graham Elliot, Sam Burman of Bluprint, Chris Pandel of The Bristol, and Patrick Sheerin of The Signature Room at the 95th.
And the winner is... Graham Elliot! Since my vote was instrumental in his victory, I think it's only fair that Graham Elliot should send me his recipe for pork-belly sandwich in a pie-crust bun. Chef Elliot, I will accept a blog comment, an e-mail, or a recipe card by mail.
While clicking through Graham Elliot's fabulous website, I discovered just one more reason to love the chef who introduced me to the pie-crust bun. His website features a risotto with red apple skin paint, aged cheddar, pabst glazed pearl onions, granny smith apples, crispy prosciutto AND CHEEZ-ITS! If the "prince of porc" can make an elegant dish with Cheez-Its, I am completely justified in my Cheez-It-crusted cod experiment. Thank you, Chef Elliot.
I will have to try and make this risotto at home, since we certainly could never eat at Graham Elliot. We picked up a menu, took one look, and set it back down with a sigh of regret. Ah well, I enjoyed my once-in-a-lifetime taste of pig perfection while it lasted.
And on that note, I would like to take a moment to formally thank Foodbuzz.com for giving me the opportunity to eat an entire pig at the Drake. This was an unforgettable night on the town.
Friday, May 15, 2009
COCHON 555 - Chicago
“5 Pigs, 5 Chefs, 5 Winemakers”
WHAT: A group of top Chicago chefs will each prepare a heritage breed hog from head to toe for this competition. Cochon 555 is the only national chef competition promoting heritage pigs and breed diversity. Guests and professional judges will determine a winner based on creative, classic preparation and overall best flavor. The winner will be crowned the “Prince of Porc”. In addition, five family-owned wineries will showcase their wines.
WHO: Taste Network presents
Patrick Sheerin, The Signature Room at the 95th
Chris Pandel, The Bristol
Graham Elliot Bowles, Graham Elliot Restaurant
Sam Burman, Bluprint
Stephen Dunne, VOLO / Paramount Room
Wineries: Chase Cellars, Vision Cellars, Van Duzer Vineyards, Patz & Hall and August West
WHEN: Sunday, May 24th, 5:00 p.m.
Chef & Judges VIP Reception 3:30 p.m. photo opportunity
WHERE: The Drake Hotel -140 East Walton Place, Chicago
WHY: To raise awareness for Farms for City Kids, a unique educational program combining classroom study with first-hand farming experience for urban kids.
Cochon 555 began in Atlanta and is national in scope. Other upcoming cities include Washington D.C. and San Francisco. Chefs and judges from each city are selected by Taste Network to participate in the event. www.amusecochon.comTaste Network is a Georgia-based company delivering experiential services to the artisan wine and cheese industries. The company’s mission is to provide cultured events and education focused around artisan wine, cheese and cuisine to its clients and the public at large. www.tastenetwork.org
Thursday, May 14, 2009
What was inside the belly of this particular crate? 1 green pepper, bunch of oregano, radish sprouts, 3 yellow onions, 2 zucchini, rhubarb, cherry tomatoes, 3 bananas, 2 lemons, AND MORE RAMPS!
What on earth will I do with more ramps? I still have three ramps left over from last week. I tried to use them, I really did. I made ramp biscuits and a ramp omelet. Both were perfectly lovely, but I'm afraid I have discovered that I'm not the biggest fan of ramps (except for their delightful name, which I have been startling F by randomly shouting in the voice of little Danny Torrance from The Shining: "Ramps! Ramps!")
For now, the ramps are banished to the freezer, where they will remain until I figure out what to do with them. Anyone want some ramps? If you provide postage and refrigerated crate, I'll send them to you.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
When faced with a truly ghastly dish like tuna casserole, I remember with an involuntary shudder a description of a meal so repulsive it scarred me as much as if I had eaten it myself. If you’ve read
…my toes curled into a tight ball as I found two huge slices of pure white fat lying on my plate…I knew beyond all doubt that there was no way I could eat what lay in front of me. Maybe I could have managed a tiny piece if it had been hot and fried crisp, but cold, boiled and clammy…never. And there was an enormous quantity; two slices about six inches by four and at least half an inch thick with the golden border of crumbs down one side. The thing was impossible.
Mrs. Horner sat down opposite me. She was wearing a flowered mob cap over her white hair and for a moment she reached out, bent her head to one side and turned the dish with the slab of bacon a little to the left to show it off better. Then she turned to me and smiled. It was a kind, proud smile.
…I took a deep breath, seized knife and fork and made a bold incision in one of the slices, but as I began to transport the greasy white segment to my mouth I began to shudder and my hand stayed frozen in space.
In spite of his roiling stomach, James ate every last lump of that bacon—and “never knowingly ate fat again.”
Adam was my Mrs. Horner, so to speak. I shared an apartment with Adam and our friends Mark and Felix during our senior year of college and after a few months of take-out pizza and mooching off of our friends’ dining hall cards, we figured it was about time we learned how to cook.
Felix was already an accomplished chef. I often awoke on Saturdays to find him in the kitchen in his pajamas making crepes. Mark and I had no cooking experience, so we stuck with variations on chicken. But Adam was adventurous. His shopping strategy was to buy whatever looked interesting—or was on sale—even if he didn’t know what it was.
“Hey LNE, should I get borscht?” he called me one afternoon. “I’m at the grocery store and there’s a big jar for 99 cents.”
“Um, sure Adam.” I said. If I had known what borscht was, I would have talked him out of it. For those of you who don’t know, borscht is a bright red Eastern European soup made primarily from pure, undiluted, dirt-flavored beetroot juice.
That evening, Adam set the table with a bowl for each of us. We watched with mounting apprehension as he poured borscht into our bowls straight from the jar. It streamed, pinkish-purple, into our green salad bowls and the color contrast turned the juice to a dull brown. As we stared down into the murky depths, Adam expounded with pride on our authentic Ashkenazi repast. But that wasn’t the worst meal of my life.
I discovered many years later that borscht can be quite nice with the addition of ingredients—like vegetables, sour cream, meat, salt, and pepper. It can be served cold or hot, and the hot-style Ukrainian and Russian borscht is a delicious hearty stew often served with thick brown bread. But Adam’s borscht had no such ingredients. It tasted like fresh, dark dirt. It was thin and watery and gritty all at the same time—and cold. And there was no bread.
To make kitchen clean-up more fun, Adam encouraged spontaneous rapping. On any given weeknight, you’d enter our apartment to find four dorky Jews in a tiny kitchen, rhyming in fits and starts about chicken or girls or Hegel.
Adam's penchant for improv carried into his cooking; he claimed that recipes were for the unimaginative. One night after dinner he collected the chicken bones from our plates, bits of skin and meat clinging between the ribs. Rapping to the tune of “Big Stompin’ in My Air Force Ones,” Adam filled a pot with water and threw in the bones.
But that wasn’t the worst meal of my life.
“Boilin’ some bones for some tasty stock,
This is one dinner you won’t want to hock.”
The bones floated grotesquely in the boiling water, bits of tattered gristle and fat swirling in their wake as they made their rounds in the churning water, bobbing, spinning, dunking in the current.
“Adding some kale,
’cuz it was on sale” he beat-boxed.
He tossed in whole leaves of kale, which spread over the water’s surface like the wings of a drowned bat. He dumped in rough-hewn chunks of onion, a palmful of salt, thick slabs of carrot and half a head of cabbage.
“This stock’s gonna simmer,
For tomorrow night’s dinna’.” He rapped, stirring blissfully.
Most people consider stock the basis for a soup. But to Adam, it was a complete meal. With glee, he checked on his simmering stock throughout the night and the next morning and afternoon, updating us on the progress of our impending supper.
I thought I could escape. I had an evening sculpture class and I planned to grab dinner at the dining hall during a break. But when I told Adam that I would be leaving for class soon, he insisted that I fill up on a good meal first.
“It’s ready just in time.” He exclaimed, and set a lone place at the head of the table with the biggest bowl we had—a giant mixing bowl—and filled it to the brim with stock. He sat down across from me with his economics book to keep me company—and hostage.
I stared into my mixing bowl with horror that I hoped didn’t show on my face. Adam had fished out the chicken breast carcasses, but the smaller rib bones had softened and detached and now swirled on the oily surface, butting up against my spoon. Bits of gristle and congealed chicken fat bobbed among the shreds of soggy kale in the broth beaded with grease. The carrot had all but disintegrated into sodden chunks, imbuing the mess with a delicate orange hue. It smelled like rotten cabbage.
Under Adam’s benevolent gaze, I lifted the spoon and held my breath, using every one of my facial muscles to keep my lips from twisting into a grimace of agony as I took the first bite. My throat closed with that rush of heat that starts behind the tongue signaling the first faint tug of nausea. I forced myself to swallow and scooped up another spoonful.
The broth was the easy part. I tipped the spoon straight down my throat so the oily water touched as little of my tongue as possible as it made its descent. But the leaves of kale and chunks of onion were too big. There was no way around it—I had to chew. The sharp, bitter onion had a grainy crunch and the greasy strips of kale stuck in my throat.
I ate the entire bowlful.
When all that remained were the bits of chicken bone and gristle, Adam saw me to the door. Full and queasy, I thanked him very much for dinner. He smiled, like Mrs. Horner, a kind, proud smile.
After six hours of sculpting scrawny naked men with yellow toenails—which did nothing to settle my stomach—I came home to find my three roommates clearing the table of Chinese take-out cartons and fortune cookie wrappers.
“Hey!” I cried, “What happened to the soup?” Mark and Felix exchanged a look and hurried to the kitchen. Adam handed me a fortune cookie and laughed sheepishly.
“It was disgusting.” He said, and put his arm around my shoulders, “I can’t believe you ate the whole bowl.”
It took me a few years to get over my fear of stock. I’ve considered making it a few times, but have been thwarted by the memory of what can go wrong. I finally mustered the courage last fall and attempted to make stock with the Thanksgiving turkey carcass, and ended up with a pot full of solidified fat. But at least I didn’t feed it to anyone.
I will admit, however, that there have been times when I have made disastrous meals, and my loved ones have eaten them anyway. That’s just what you do when a beloved friend—whether a little old farmer, a gentle roomie, or a newlywed new to cooking—cooks something special just for you.
30 cups water, divided
4 chicken breast carcasses
1 bunch of kale, un-chopped
1 onion, quartered
1 carrot, sliced
½ head cabbage
¼ cup salt
Bring 6 cups of water to boil
Add next 6 ingredients (through salt)
Boil for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to low simmer
Allow to simmer for at least 24 hours, adding water as necessary
Monday, May 11, 2009
Today is my birthday, and I know that there was a secret work party planned for 9:30. Since it's a breakfast party, I sacrificed my daily morning oatmeal in anticipation of a bagel or a donut.
It's now 9:50 and no one has come to get me. Do you think they forgot about me and are eating my donuts? Oh, the perils of birthdays at work.
F and the boys went to Star Trek Friday night, and I eagerly anticipated having the apartment all to myself. I love these infrequent nights alone because I can rent a movie F would have no interest in watching (recent picks: Shall We Dance?, The Jane Austen Book Club, and Monsoon Wedding) and make a dinner F would hate, using ingredients he despises, like mushrooms, cheese, and cauliflower (not necessarily together).
I did not have any of those ingredients, but I did have a bushel of ramps left over from our CSA box. Since I did not want to waste one moment of my glorious night at the grocery store with the produce guys, I decided to make myself dinner using ramps and anything else I already had at home.
A search for ramp recipes online led to the discovery that they are most often used in omelets and soups. Ramp soup did not appeal to me, but an omelet was the perfect dish. We had received a whole carton of farm-fresh eggs in our box, and I hadn' t used any of them yet. We also had a lot of grape tomatoes left over from last night's dinner. And so, I devised a Ramp and Roasted Grape Tomato Omelet. I was very proud to have come up with this recipe all by myself. I wonder if this is how Julia Child felt when she mastered Mousse de Foies de Volaille.
Ramp and Roasted Grape Tomato Omelet
1 tsp butter
1 egg, 2 egg whites (beaten together)
1/8 cup thinly sliced trimmed ramp bulbs and slender stems plus 1/2 cup thinly sliced green tops
½ cup grape tomatoes (roasted):
* Preheat oven to 425
* Place tomatoes in pan and season with salt and pepper
* Drizzle with olive oil and toss
* Roast until the smallest tomatoes begin to pop, about 15 minutes
Melt butter in cast iron skillet over medium heat. Add ramp bulbs and stems to skillet; sauté 3 minutes.
Add green tops and sauté until ramps are soft, about 9 minutes.
Transfer ramps to a bowl and mix in roasted tomatoes.
Add eggs to skillet over medium heat; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Heat until eggs are almost set (about 2 minutes). Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Fold in ramp and tomato mixture.
Saturday, May 9, 2009
Tents at the end of the street.Chef demonstration.
The asparagus man was very confused when he asked, "Do you like asparagus?" and I replied, "Oh yes, it's beautiful!" My purchases: a big basil plant and a tub of dried pears. Barry and the basil.
Thursday, May 7, 2009
Use dandelion greens, ramps, and grape tomatoes in one meal.Rinsing the dandelion greens, to be sauteed with olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes, and sea salt.
Ramps! Which turned into...Ramp-Buttermilk Biscuits with Cracked CorianderAnd the grape tomatoes for the sauce that accompanies the parmesan chicken paillards:A mere two hours later, and viola!Parmesan Chicken Paillards with Cherry Tomato Sauce
Sauteed Dandelion Greens
Ramp and Buttermilk Biscuits with Cracked Coriander
"Hello!" a frantically waving be-aproned man calls to me from across the piles of tomatoes in Aisle 6.
"Hello." I wave back, smiling in embarrassment as old women turn to look at me with disdain.
"There you are, my pretty friend." Alfredo says, tenderly scooping the bunch of bananas from my shopping basket. "We were wondering when you'd come. He was missing you." he gestures to Marcus, his fellow produce man, who winks at me.
"No, he was the one." Marcus points at Alfredo. "He was asking about you all day. And here you are! How is your boyfriend today?" he asks.
"Oh, just fine." I reply, not sure how to slip into the conversation that F is, in fact, my husband. F hates the produce guys.
"Where is your boyfriend?" Alfredo asks.
"He's at home."
"Sleeping?" Alfredo asks hopefully. He always asks if F is sleeping, or watching television, or playing video games, while I am diligently shopping for our dinner.
"No," I reply, "He's working."
"Oh, working." Alfredo is disappointed. "That's OK, then." He perks up, having thought of a new challenge, "He should make you dinner tonight."
"I agree! I'll tell him you said so." I reply, retrieving my forgotten bananas from the scale.
"I would cook for you." Marcus says, his eyes twinkling.
"You can't cook." Alfredo says.
"Neither can you."
"But I'd learn... for you." Alfredo gazes into my eyes.
"The produce guys were asking about you again." I tell F when I get home.
"Grrr... I hate the produce guys." F shouts, glaring at the grocery bags.
To save my marriage, I realized I must find a new way to obtain my produce. So I started looking into CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture). In my research, I discovered that most CSAs send a box of produce once a week at a fixed seasonal rate of approximately $500. If you'd like meat, you can sign up for a weekly meat box for an additional $400. If you're hankering for fruit, you can buy a fruit box. You get the idea. It's great for families who can use up all of the veggies, steaks, and apples, but not so convenient for young couples who don't eat for four, and haven't yet figured out a good system for canning and freezing leftovers.
Most of the friends I asked about their CSAs said that they found it difficult to use up their shipments. My friend M also warned that the contents of the boxes are limited to the crops grown on each farm. While this is a good thing because you are getting the freshest seasonal vegetables while helping to sustain local agriculture, there were times when M received a box full of potatoes and little else.
She eventually switched to Irv and Shelly's Fresh Picks which is different than most CSAs because it supplies products from a range of local farms, giving you a wider variety to choose from. And the payment system is flexible, so you can order shipments from week to week, instead of paying the fixed rate. That way, if you go on vacation for a week, you won't have a box of spoiled veggies waiting on your doorstep.
But what really appeals to me about Irv and Shelly's is that you can purchase a small produce box stuffed with seasonal surprises, and then supplement your box 'o' greens with other things, like baked goods, meat, and any other seasonal fruits or vegetables. You can, for instance, include a single apple, instead of purchasing a whole box of fruit.
So what did we get in our first "Fresh Picks" crate yesterday?
Our fridge is now stocked with eggs, asparagus, ramps, dandelion greens, broccoli, and grape tomatoes. I supplemented with strawberries, 2 navel oranges, and some tempeh, which I've never had but have been wanting to try. We grilled the asparagus last night to accompany some cornmeal-crusted catfish, and the broccoli and grape tomatoes will be easy enough to use up. But dandelion greens and ramps!? I didn't even know what these leafy wonders were until I looked at the list included in the box.
I'm delighted by this challenge. Even F is thrilled.
"This is the best thing we've done in a long time!" he exclaimed last night, holding aloft a fluffy bunch of dandelion leaves. "And you didn't get any of this from the produce guys. We need to do this every week." he smiled wickedly.
While eating one of my CSA navel oranges for breakfast, I have devised this evening's menu around ramps and dandelions.
Behold The Thursday Night Menu:
Parmesan Chicken Paillards with Cherry Tomato Sauce
Sauteed Dandelion Greens
Ramp and Buttermilk Biscuits with Cracked Coriander
Check back later for photos!
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
On Wednesdays and Saturdays until the end of October, the Green City Market takes up residence in the park next to the farm at the Lincoln Park Zoo. The city skyline rises majestically in the distance, while farm animals graze and cluck behind a white picket fence next door. It's a strange and wonderful mix of Midwestern charms.
Saturdays feature live music and chef demonstrations, and dogs and children scamper underfoot. Wednesday mornings are calmer, populated by retirees and young mothers with strollers. On these quiet mornings, I like to walk to work by way of the market, browsing the stalls and picking up cubicle snacks.
I was at the market promptly at 7am when it opened this morning. Even this early in the season, the stalls were full of flowers and fruits, vegetables and baked goods, salsa samples and crepes. I sampled all of my favorite salsas and crackers, petted a few puppies, greeted the farm chickens, tasted some Wisconsin cheese, and admired all of the flowers I cannot buy on account of a certain fat, greedy cat.
I bought a basket of Gala apples, feeling very country chic as I carried them around the market (the chicness vanished as soon as I squatted in the dirt to take photos of the produce).
More on Saturday!
Friday, May 1, 2009
Creamy Carrot Soup
From the March issue of Cooking Light
4 servings (serving size: 1 1/2 cups)
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 3/4 cups chopped Vidalia or other sweet onion
- 2 pounds carrots, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Dash of ground ginger
- 2 cups water
- 2 cups fat-free, less-sodium chicken broth
- 2 tablespoons heavy cream, divided
1. Heat oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion and carrots to pan; cook 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in salt, pepper, and ginger.
2. Add 2 cups water and broth to pan; bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 25 minutes or until carrots are tender. Remove from heat; cool. 3. Place half of carrot mixture and 1 tablespoon cream in a food processor or blender; process 20 seconds or until smooth. Pour pureed mixture into a large bowl. Repeat procedure with remaining carrot mixture and 1 tablespoon cream. Return mixture to pan; cook over medium heat until thoroughly heated.
And here it is! I wish I had a sprig of parsley or mint to finish it off, since the jaunty little herb really makes the photo on the Cooking Light website. I promise it tastes far better than it looks below! As we have already established, the whole point of having soup for lunch is for an excuse to eat a big chunk of bread. So I spent Sunday making Buttermilk-Oat Rolls. These taste strangely like croissants—a good thing.
All in all, a far more satisfying (and colorful) cubicle meal than a Lean Cuisine.