June 2011


This weekend, with the 70 person family reunion in full swing, we had all the standards of picnic cooking in place. There were crockpots full of vegetables, coolers full of beer and iced tea, hot dogs,  a giant Nesco full of barbecued pork, and the staples of macaroni salad, coleslaw, and baked beans.

In addition to the standard baked bean recipe, Ben and Susan, the lone representatives from the Rhodes side of the family, brought Anita Rhodes’ baked bean recipe, and made it for the crowd. As far as picnic food went, it was a hit. As to why it was, my guess is a bit of nostalgia for ribsticking recipes of yore mixed with the fact that when you read a recipe from a grandparent, it’s going to be good. No low-fat, no fat, low-sodium or none of that. Here’s Anita Rhodes’ recipe for Baked Beans. Tell me you can’t spot the difference between this and the recipes of today.

Anita’s Baked Beans

1 lb. lean hamburger meat

1/2 lb. bacon, browned, drained, and crumbled

1 medium onion, chopped

1 lb. frozen ford hook lima beans, cooked and drained

2 16 oz. cans pork and beans (don’t drain)

1-1/2 C. brown sugar

2 T vinegar

1 T dry mustard

Salt and pepper to taste

 

Mix all of the above ingredients in a large, round casserole and bake at 350 degrees, uncovered, until hot and bubbly (approx. 45 minutes).

Recipe developed by Anita Margaret Reilly Rhodes (1912-2005), wife of Emery McKenzie Rhodes (1886-1957)

 

I’ve been remiss in updating the progress on the 50 state pizza project, as has my friend over at The Muffin Man. However, every couple of weeks, when I’m not sure what to do, or what to write, I look in the fridge to find what state I could represent with my next pizza endeavor.

I did it last week- I opened the fridge, and there was some celery, half a pepper, some olive tapenade, and some cold cuts and cheese. Ah, well. Maybe next week.

Then again, maybe not.

On my days off, I usually wander to the store, pick up a couple sundries, and head back home to make a sandwich or two, hence the cold cuts. For tomorrow’s outing, for example, I bought some edamame, some roasted peppers, and some sandwich vegetables. I also saw, in the frozen section, langostinos, those little half lobster/half prawn crawfish looking things. There, in the frozen aisle, was my inspiration. I’ve used crawfish many times before, and I love them, but their muddy flavor just wouldn’t go well on a pizza.

I gathered my purchases, went home, and began chopping with Gordon Ramsey’s MasterChef in the background. Into the bowl went Olive Tapenade, fresh basil, chopped celery, diced tomatoes, oregano, salt, pepper, and a couple good handfuls of langostino tailmeat. This was the base of my pizza. This was going to be the sauce.

In the fridge, I had provolone and genoa salami, alongside some emmentaler and sopressatta. Another quick shred of the cheese and rough chop through the salami, and my pizza was almost ready to be assembled. I was making a muffuletta pizza.

Muffuletta is one of the old staple foods of New Orleans. It traditionally consists of olive salad with giardinera, ham, provolone, capicolla, salami, mortadella and any other italian meat you can find, all on a giant loaf of focaccia-like bread. Its origins trace back to the early 1900s, most prominently attributed to the French Quarter’s Central Grocery. Sicilian workers would come in during their lunch break, order meats, olive salad, and slices of cheese to eat with their bread, eating them separately, perched rather precariously on produce crates and barrels. Lupo Salvatore, the owner of Central Grocery, saw this as an opportunity to take something from the old world and adapt it to a new, New Orleans clientele. (Did you read my last post? See what I did there?) He took all the ingredients, layered them, and put them on a round muffuletta loaf, selling them by the quarter or half.

Alright, who’s hungry from that little history lesson? Back to the pizza.

With all this delicious nonsense happening in my kitchen, I took a time out to realize a problem with the 50 state pizza project. Some states will not fit on my pizza pan. It’s a decent sized pan, too. 14 inch? I guess what I’m saying is that I had to make do with a lopsided version of Louisiana. That’s okay. I think it’s more about the flavor than the shape. Shape is approximate.

Louisiana Pizza- Not Actual Shape or Size

So it was good. With the olive salad, the dough would have benefitted from a solid parbake to avoid the absorption of moisture that made the pizza only knife and forkable rather than the glorious foldable slices of, say, a New York Pizza. Does that mean it was a failure? Absolutely not. It was a great idea, and I loved the flavor. Half the pizza had salami, half had langostinos, and the entire thing tasted great. I’ll definitely think about it a little more before I make another one, and address the problem of soggy crust head on.

What should the next pizza be? If you’re inquiring about your home state, let me know what ideas you have for ingredients indigenous to that state, and how you’d envision it all fitting together. I’ll get back to you when I have a few good ideas.

As we all know, 54 is the country code for Argentina, and 11 is the local telephone code for Buenos Aires. With that in mind, how could I resist the latest in a recommended list of food trucks that happens to do one thing and one thing only? The answer? I can’t. Mostly because on my days off, I waffle between being hungry and bored.

A while back, the lady friend recommended the 5411 Empanadas Truck for lunch as one of the many trucks that have been floating around downtown this spring. We used to have a taco truck that parked by a construction site close to our house in Seattle, but sadly, I never got a chance to go there. As it’s my duty to explore more of Chicago’s palatable options on this, my second time around in the city, today, I made it my mission to explore my neighborhood on my day-off meanderings about Streeterville.

I got a mid-morning start, and after my coffee, I checked out ye olde Twitter to see where my travels would take me. From the @5411empanadas Twitter feed, I got the following tweets:

Less than a mile away. The time was 11:30. “I’d better get a move on,” I thought.

So, a quick jaunt up the way, wandering around the shaded downtown streets of Chicago led me to the corner of Erie and Rush, and idling underneath a gnarled, Ivy-covered tree, was the sky blue 5411 Mobile.No place that I could find had a menu, but sure enough, they had a chalkboard out front advertising seven different kinds of Empanadas, each for $1.99.

The female customer at the window was speaking colloquially with the heavily accented cashier in Spanish, and from what I inferred from their tone, it was a pleasant conversation. The next woman in line, about thirty years older than the first, came up, ordered two empanadas, and then launched into a story with the cashier about how she had met his father at a party in a small town in Argentina held by one of her dear friends who happened to be the owner of a pharmaceutical company, and the father had mentioned how his son had started a business with empanadas sold in the style of a pizza delivery van in Chicago. How strange that their paths should cross in a manner such as this. In the true fashion of a different generation, she said that she had his father’s card on her desk in Montana, and she would either contact him via email or most likely see him on her next visit to Argentina.

As this conversation drew to a close, the line behind me began growing and pulsing impatiently. He smiled and thanked her, and beckoned me over. We talked for a second about how coincidental it was that she happened upon his father, but as she continued talking, it became clear that she was not in fact a strange character, but someone who interacted indirectly with the man at his summer home in Argentina. Small world indeed.

I realized that I didn’t know what to get. Everything on the menu looked intriguing. With reckless abandon, I threw down my money and ordered one of each, with two cups of the chimmichurri, most easily described as an Argentinian parsley pesto. Two minutes and a thank you later, I was walking down Rush Street with seven Empanadas in hand, blissfully happy, with a warm smell of comfort food hugging my nose.

I got home with my stash (downtown’s still not a place for parking a truck around easy seating/eating areas) and opened up the package. Seven individually wrapped empanadas with labels affixed in the same sky blue.

I put three on a plate- the ham and cheese, barbecue chicken, and beef. They had their own distinct shape and crimping style, and unlike other restaurant empanadas/dumplings, they were actually full of, well, filling.

What I noticed was that Argentinian empanadas differ from the Mexican variety because they are baked, not fried. One drawback, however, as of this writing, is that the dough, which the owners import from Argentina, is made with beef fat, according to an article in the Tribune from a while back. Since I had selected the meat varieties for my own consumption and left the vegetarian ones for my lady, I was sad to find out that she might not be able to enjoy them, so I wrote an email to the proprietors asking if the non meat-filled empanadas were made with the beef fat dough. We’ll see. I’ll keep you all posted.

Back to the hot pockets. The beef was flavorful with bits of cooked egg, and the ham and cheese was a firm blend of thin sliced ham and a decent, binding cheese. My favorite, though, was the barbecue chicken, with a sweet sauce which was speckled with raisins. A great empanada is made better with the addition of raisins. There are few things that are better. I’ve had some great ones at El Tapatio on North Ashland, but these were just great. Take a look at the Ham and Cheese.

Week four. The consensus is that as a total package, this place delivers on the same level that Tamalli Space Charros has, with traditionally prepared dishes that are modernized for an American public. I think we don’t notice it as much with Macaroni and Cheese because it’s everpresent on our dinner plates. We already put hotdogs and ketchup on our mac and cheese, along with peas, crab, potato chips, cheese crackers, and everything else we can wrap our minds around, so this trend isn’t too new. (Thanks, Hamburger Helper!)

With unfamiliar foods, we can challenge our palates to accept something new (Argentinian food) while embracing something familiar (BBQ chicken). It also gives entrepreneurs the opportunity to challenge their cultural culinary norms while addressing the needs and wants of their customer base. I see it as a good thing, and something that is stimulating to not only the food truck industry, but more importantly food culture as a whole.

If you’ve liked my page on Facebook, Mulligan Stew, you may have seen my two sentence attempt at going out in blistering 90 degree weather for a hot tray of Macaroni and cheese this past Tuesday. It wasn’t going to happen. (Also, if you haven’t liked the page already, what’s stopping you, Charlie?)

Yesterday, I was at work all day, inside a blissful air-conditioned store, while the weather outside was as hot as the day before. Today, however, was a different story. I knew the weather would break, and break it did. Currently, the temperature outside is 53 degrees. I figured it would be cooler than 90, but had no idea it would be so brisk. I went downstairs in my shorts and t-shirt for a walk, went out the front door, and turned right back around to put pants and a jacket on, and exchanged my sandals for shoes.

Last week was Tamalli Space Charros, the week before was the Meatyballs mobile, and today, I was finally going to try out the Southern Mac Truck.

The Southern Mac Truck, an idea of The Southern restaurant’s executive chef Cary Taylor, is typically found roaming the streets of downtown Chicago between the hours of 11:30AM-1:30PM, Monday through Friday, with a rotating cast of Macaroni and Cheese creations, ranging from a standard, “Good Old Fashioned American Mac and Cheese” to a more exotic Roasted Artichoke, Asparagus, and Smoked Gouda Mac. The prices for these, in hearty portions, usually set the customer back about 9 dollars.

When I go to restaurants and see vegetarian or simple items on the menu for prices higher than the average consumer is willing to pay, I usually scoff at them, and then proceed not to buy them. However, in this city alone, I’ve had excellent macaroni and cheese, forgoing the question of “How can you pay that much for an order?” based on prior recommendations of people who’ve tried it. The one that instantly comes to mind is Kuma’s Corner‘s Make Your Own Mac and Cheese. 2 Toppings, $12. You eat it, you understand how something so simple could be worth so much, and then in my case, you go home with a head filled of fancy trying to figure out how to duplicate their recipe.

With the Southern Mac, and with the other Food Trucks I’ve visited so far, there’s the added silliness of excitement attached to the walk from your present location to wherever the truck may be. It’s primitive, in that you have to scour an urban landscape for your food, armed only with a wallet and an appetite, but it’s also exciting in the way that little kids get when they find a treasure map or go on a scavenger hunt- The anticipation of treasure at the end of your adventure may far outweigh the deliciousness of your actual meal.

Today, the Twitter account read that the truck would be set up at the Wrigley Building/Tribune Tower at 12:30. I checked my phone. 11:37. Plenty of time to make it.

After the change of clothes, I set off at about 12:15 for a ten minute walk over to their stop, still vague, with my iPhone in hand. I stopped at the store and bought a lemon, getting change from the self-service checkout. (I wasn’t about to pay a $5 surcharge at the Chase Banks in between home and the stop for an order of Macaroni. That’s just absurd.) As I walked out, I checked my Twitter feed.

thesouthernmac Southern Mac Truck
Lower Hubbard and rush! Get there!

On my way. Walked under the Lower Michigan Overpass, made a left, and there, as unassuming as the previous trucks had been, was the Southern Mac Truck.

Once again, I’d looked at the menu before leaving the house to see what I wanted to get, and the Pulled Chicken, Buffalo Sauce and Blue Cheese Mac sounded like it was the one for me. I had my money, I had the hunger, and I was there.

The transaction went smooth enough. Two dudes, a truck, and a hotbox full of pans of mac and cheese each the size of an old VHS tape. $9. Paid, done. The only unfortunate thing about the transaction was that where they chose to park, there was no place nearby to sit.

It didn’t really matter. I took a quick walk home, and now, here I sit, eating my Pulled Chicken, Buffalo Sauce and Blue Cheese Mac while I type out my blog. How is it? It’s pretty good. It’s a nice idea, and the cheese sauce itself is alright. I’m a bit underwhelmed by the amount of pulled chicken and the flavor behind it, and everything seems fine. It’s well put together, and executed with typical restaurant precision. There’s your basic Mac and cheese on the bottom, mixed with a little chicken, and then it’s sprinkled with blue cheese and hot sauce. Pretty simple. Pretty standard. Even though my mom reads this blog, the dish itself is nothing to write home about. Sorry, Mom. HOWEVER, as I’ve said before, sometimes, it’s more about the journey to get your food than the food itself.

The Southern Mac Truck may have a great idea on their hands, as business seems to be doing pretty good.I don’t really know what to gauge this on, other than their 6,400 followers on Twitter, all of whom I’m sure eat at the truck on a daily basis, their messages letting their customers who may be en route that they’re sold out, and their strategic parking spots in front of places like the Groupon building, where they know they’ll draw a crowd full of Twitter-savvy twentysomethings.

Personally, I think the business, while sustaining, is not an everyday stop for me. I’ve had the great idea for something similar to this (Imagine a Food Cart that only sold cheap peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for $1.50 each. Who can turn that down?), but perhaps the model of doing only one thing but doing it well loses a little lustre if it’s something like Macaroni and Cheese. I can imagine eating Mac and Cheese every day for lunch until I actually do it every day for a week.

Would I go back? Sure. I think, unlike the poorly executed Pulled Pork balls off the Meatyballs truck, it’s a good dish. It has flavor, value, a creative new take on a classic dish, and shows potential for creativity with other new offerings that they’re most likely willing to try. After I make my way through all the trucks and carts that I want to sample, and I come back around to re-evaluate what made me try out the good trucks in the first place, I’m excited to see the evolution of the Southern Mac’s recipes and new offerings.

As promised from a post of late last night, today, I did indeed go to the Tamalli Space Charros food truck. I’d like to say that it was an experience, and (spoiler alert!) the food itself was good, but I think the theme of the day centered more around exploring the city and walking around with my iPod. In addition to listening to a great interview with Craig Ferguson that spanned 2 hours, ranging on topics from chance encounters with Billy Connolly and Peter Cook to every sober comedian’s worst fear that it was the booze that made them funny, it was a well-rounded piece of nerd-journalism that was a welcome addition to my morning/afternoon trip around the downtown.

Now, where were we? Ah, yes. The food truck. Tamalli Space Charros was founded this past January by a trio of former workers at Frontera Grill with an emphasis on El Movimiento Estridentismo, or the Movement of Stridentism. A close cousin to the European Surrealism of Dali, Freud, and Breton, the Mexican Stridentism of 1921-1927 was a multidisciplinary art movement where  “Latin American poets, writers, journalists, photographers and musicians (but not painters) adopted aesthetic attitudes similar to those of the Futurists: they proclaimed the power of the future and the death of all things academic.” (1)

Whoa. So how does this translate to a food truck?

“We’re taking tamales to a new level, and to new audiences,” says the sombrero-clad leader of the group, who has asked to go by his character’s name, Aztlan Cardinal. The photographer and performance artist is speaking on behalf of the entire TSC Collective, a clutch of seven international artists who’ve appended their names to the Propeller Fund grant supporting the project. Their proposal outlines a “long-term performance art project addressing the interaction among body, food, machines, wireless poetry and the city”(2)

Did I see any of that when I walked up to the truck for my lunch? Nope. Still in its infancy, the truck itself was not looking particularly like a spaceship today. There was a fin running along the top painted with primary colors, and the truck itself was plain, with the look of brushed steel. Two things about this- one from my own musings on life and the future, and one life lesson that everyone should know: First, it’s not about fancy packaging (although the afforementioned sombrero and Luchadores mask was a nice touch). It’s what’s inside that counts. Second, and this may prove to be more important than the first- If movies and art have shown us anything at all, it is that if it looks like a spaceship, it’s probably not a spaceship. It’s either a Delorean or some guy in a Bigfoot suit, or some creepy combination of both. Looks can be deceiving. If this truly was an intergalactic messenger vessel of delicious tamales, this would be the perfect foil, wouldn’t it?

*Shakes fist* Woooouldn't iiiiiit!? (Yes.)

This week, I made the effort to check on their Tamale Spaceship website to see if they had a menu, so I could know beforehand what I was getting into. They did not, so I went in blind, again. Fortunately, I made it to the truck, and they had a menu for perusing. Take note, Chicago Food Trucks: Word of mouth is great, but having menus? A Must.

This menu resembles, but is not, the menu that I saw.

I got up to the counter, and sure enough, there was a smiling man in a Mexican wrestling mask, cape, and sombrero, who greeted me with a friendly “Hello, amigo. What can I get you?” For his sake, I’m glad that Chicago food trucks have not yet embraced cooking on site, because with that cape, it would soon be curtains for his outfit of choice for the day.

I ordered the two flank steak tamales and black mole  with sesame seeds. In addition, they also had Mexican Coca Cola and Jarritos. In hindsight, I should have ordered one, because although there wasn’t too much heat to the dishes, a tamale with meat and a heavy sauce will stick to your ribs, and all you’ll ever want is a bit of refreshment. I know nothing on a day such as today that would be as refreshing as one of those drinks, but alas, I wasn’t thinking.

Today,  they were parked on Clinton and Lake Street underneath the Green Line El stop. This, my Chicago and non-Chicago friends, is where the French Market is. I’ve been wanting to check it out for a while, but it’s a little bit out of the way if I’m walking. Since, however, it was right there, I decided to take my tamales and go in search of a fresh fruit accompaniment to my meal.

The French Market itself is not unlike other markets such as the Reading Terminal or my beloved Pike Place Market, but with music blaring and $50,000 meat cases cranking out chill, it all felt a little sterile to me, almost too clean. With the markets in which I have worked, I love that people bring their own goods, and that they set up their wares on sawhorses with planks and plywood tabletoppers. This didn’t have the same feel to me, and for a French-style market, the meat and seafood selections, once again, were sorely lacking.

(They were selling Farm-Raised Vietnam Swai as Sole fillet. Gross.)

However, upon wandering past the fresh pasta dunk-tanks and soulless, everpresent Teriyaki stall, tucked in the back corner, I found Frietkoten.

It’s a Belgian-style fry shop. They serve them in cones. With sauces. Game on.

The cones themselves are huge, and it’s $4 for a petit and $5 for a grand cone. With it, you get a cup of mayo and a cup of ketchup, and for 75¢ extra, you get one of their many sauces. I chose a green tomato and chili mayonaise, which didn’t remind me of anything but a mayonaise with a slightly more acidic tang to it.

So the sauce wasn’t great, but the fries now had their choice of not three, but four dipping sauces thanks to the mole (By the way, not the best combination). With my petit cone of fries, my two cups of mayo, ketchup, mole, and tamales, I made my way over to a standing table in the corner, and snapped this shot.

Not too shabby. The fries, which on the sign the owners painstakingly reminded us from multiple angles that they were fried twice, were twice fried, and a bit of alright. Piping hot, just a little bit of salt, and much better than any other fries I’d randomly pick up on a day off, they hit the spot. The spot after that was hit with my two tamales, which were moist with that bitter chocolate sauce tinged with a hint of tahini.

At that point, I wished I had a beer. While at Frietkoten they do serve Belgian beers from a bottle as well as two taps from Two Brothers and a hard cider or two, as I looked up from my pile of starch and meat, the counter just seemed too far away.

Oh, that cider sounded good, though.

***

As I walked back through the downtown with a wrestling match of dueling cuisines in my belly, I thought what a great city this is to have little places like a Euro Fryshack and, improbably enough, a Lucha/Charro style tamale truck. I’m fortunate to live in a city where things like this pop up all the time, but more than that, I realized that the scope of your culinary creativity is only limited by how far you are willing to go to achieve it. How many sauces will it take before people start coming back for the fries? Is it the masks, the tamales, or a combination of both that is going to set this business afloat? It’s that kind of entrepreneurial spirit that makes me want to seek out and patronize places such as these, and if the idea and the food are both good, they’ll get me as a customer.

Check out the links below for more on Mexican Stridentism and the Mexican Food Truck experience. Also included is a fantastic slide show about the Tamalli Space Charros’ story. The pictures, while worth a look and a chuckle, prove that there is more to a tamale than meets the eye.

(1)  Mexican Stridentism- What Is It?

(2)Here’s Your Art. Now Eat It.

So you know how I was talking about food trucks the other day? I wasn’t terribly impressed with what I was served on my grease truck.

In tomorrow’s Chicago Tribune, there’s an article about food trucks (ahead of the curve much, me?). They talk about the medium, and how far Chicago’s zoning laws for mobile food operations have come, even in the last few years.

Please read the article. I did. Here’s what caught my eye: “(the Mexican-wrestler-mask-wearing guys behind Tamalli Space Charros)”.

Wait, what???

Oh, nothing. Just where I’m having lunch tomorrow. Jealous?

From a fantastic Luchadores blog

http://tamallispacecharros.blogspot.com/