March 2012


Living in Chicago in the midst of groups of friends working in the theater and restaurant industries, I’ve been fortunate to come across many opportunities over the years that have enabled me to enjoy some of the best nights out I could hope for. Keeping abreast of the trends in both is not an easy task, nor is it something that I can always indulge in, as a good meal or night at the theater is difficult to indulge in on a regular basis without breaking the bank of this working stiff.

It’s more of a special occasion thing- something to savor. When we go out to dinner, actually go OUT, I want to make sure it’s something that is meaningful and fulfilling, and that the experience is something that justifies making the effort to provide maximum enjoyment and value. If we’re out to dinner or at a show, the last thing I want to do is spend the money that I earn on an event  that I leave feeling unsatiated.

There are hosts of dinners and dates over the past few years that have been recalled as successes. Since I’ve returned to Chicago, the game has been stepped up. We’ve enjoyed our fair share of meals cooked together with friends, had evenings where we made homemade pasta as an activity, and explored Farmer’s Markets with family, making a summertime feast. The dinners out that we have shared have been documented and memorable, and we’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy evenings at Steppenwolf and Lookingglass thanks to our connection to those in the business of theater.

This past weekend was the opening night for Lookingglass’ show “Cascabel” at the Water Tower Works in downtown Chicago. I had been hearing about it for months, and was more than excited to go. A collaboration between Lookingglass and James Beard Award winning celebrity chef Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill,  the show was billed as an ‘unforgettable theatrical adventure [including a] sumptuous gourmet Mexican feast, world-class circus acts, and a tantalizing love story.’ 

I’ve been to Frontera, and I’ve done his other upscale restaurant, Topolobampo, and while I have enjoyed them, selling Mexican food as fine dining has always been a head scratcher to me. Comfort food? Yes. Fine dining? It remains to be seen. Much of the Mexican food I’ve eaten has been more about flavors that blend with the help of time, rather than your typical French-influenced fare that is finished a la minute. It is within the structure of what we have been fed as diners that we expect quick-fired service and five minute flavors that pop when they hit your palate.

From conception to execution, Rick Bayless made it implicitly clear that it didn’t have to be that way.

***

We arrived at the theater and milled about in the lobby. As we met with other excited theatergoers, we were greeted by costumed servers offering margaritas. As expected, the margaritas that we received were not your garden variety TGI Friday’s blender drinks. These were Rick Bayless margaritas. Uniformed waitstaff circled through the crowd holding trays of tiny spoonfuls of green chili guacamole with king crab, and a liquified queso fundido looking like a poached egg atop a sauce spiced with the flavors of chorizo.

When it was time, we made our way to the seats in the balcony, giving us a view of the stage and main floor. The central action of the play took place in the kitchen and dining room of a  Mexican boarding house. Bayless was there, back to the audience and moving deliberately between his prep table and stove, preparing dishes that would become themselves sensory plot driving characters in the story. At our tiny two person table, we had a bamboo plate with a green leaf package with popcorn spilling out the sides and a note that instructed us to be patient and wait until instructed to open.

Hm. Okay. Surely nobody minded if we nibbled a bit at the popcorn.

The set-up for the show seemed simple enough, and left all the performers to do what they did best. It was light on acting, heavy on performance, specifically that of the circus-arts variety. Tony Hernandez, an Artistic Associate with Lookingglass and Las Vegas based performer, conceptualized an evening of individual acts of daring acrobatics, contortionism, and quick change artistry interspersed with a show that awakened the senses and passions of performers and audiences alike.

As the house lights dimmed and the show began, Bayless was hard at work as the new cook in the kitchen, plating a dish that looked similar to what we had been poking and sniffing for the better part of 30 minutes before the show began.  We enjoyed appetizers of pork belly, grilled zucchini and huitlacoche on burnt toast, along with small wafers with jellied stars made from beets with whipped cream cheese and mushroom, explained to us as “from the cook, and he apologizes for burning the toast. The red item in front of you is not cherry jello, but it’s really good. You’ll like it. ”

The characters began to filter onto the set, and took their places at the table. Like any other family or close knit group of people, there was the usual bickering.  As the food was served, the maitre’d and de facto emcee for the evening introduced himself to the audience with a bit of banter, and invited us to open the presents in front of us, but not to taste immediately. He gave us an embellishedthree count, upon which we were instructed to deeply inhale the aroma of a pristine tuna ceviche. It was unique and a way to get us more in tune with all of our senses as the show went on. We were then instructed to take a bite.

As his overt silliness and the action of what was happening onstage faded into the background, there was a break in the action as everyone both onstage and off enjoyed the first course. I noticed that it possessed more balance than a homemade ceviche, and was much more delicate than the shrimp ceviche I had made two days previous in a bout of inspiration upon securing the tickets. There was sweetness from the passionfruit, and the flavors on the plate had been inactively blending and cooking in front of us the entire time we were sitting there engrossed in the show.

Over glasses of wine that we sipped as the action resumed, we saw two characters overcome with the flavors and passion of the dish itself, and the scene took flight as the tiny actress playing the daughter grabbed ahold of the chandelier and was lofted to the ceiling of the theater where she and her partner performed a trapeze act both impressive and unmistakeably seductive. I don’t know how I came to this conclusion, but it might have been when her flowing dress was ripped off to reveal a pair of polka dotted bloomers, much better suited for a high-flying act.

As the show continued, the wine and beer flowed, and a few more circus acts followed. Hernandez, a high wire performer, utilized a clothesline hanging in the corner of the theater as a tightrope, removing his sweaty clothing from a night in the kitchen and changing into a new outfit, one hanging on the line, complete with suspenders and a button-up shirt. A tiny young woman just passing through the boarding house for the night, after eating the food, took to the bath, wherein she performed a balancing act of contortion and hand-standery. An act like this defies description, but in awe of both her physical strength and how sensual she was able to make her performance, the audience was left with their mouths agape, salivating for what came next.

It was at this point in the show where we got the backstory that we were looking for. The proprietress of the boarding house, having mourned over a romance lost many years ago of a cook whose food instilled in her the sustaining passion of life, had not eaten a bite since. It showed. The actress who played her was a Spanish Olive Oyl who was nothing more than a string bean, lithe and limber. As the everpresent classical Spanish guitarist on stage strummed, she sang a mournful song from a second story balcony. Downstairs in the kitchen, the cook was preparing a dish that brought back a feeling in her soul long since forgotten. As she sang and mourned, the smell of chiles and searing meat permeated the air that was already thick with lingering aromas and pheromones.

It’s to the credit of Bayless that he plays off of the senses of the audience while they sit, eat, and watch the show. He’s not onstage to wax poetic in a monologue, but in the conception of the show, he is always onstage and comfortable in his movements, and he is as equal a player in the show as those who flip and fly through the scenery. He knows where to add the right ingredient to the mix to evoke reminiscences of memorable meals or feelings, and as a natural in the kitchen, going about his business with such precision, he does not draw too much focus away from the spectacle of the evening’s events. It’s a truly rare glimpse that you get as a viewer, seeing someone so skilled at work, yet with all else going on, you’d almost never know he was there.

As Bayless cooks, the you get a real-time update of how things come together. You may think you smell the sesame seeds toasting, and get a whiff of that sauce coming together. As you smell it, so does the proprietress, who recognizes the smell as the mole poblano that her long lost love made so many years before. In addition to the audience participation as goaded by the maitre’d and the actors playing the gardener and his wife whose talents can best be described as “Mouth-Banana juggling”, the line between viewer and active storyline participant is all but erased thanks to the sense of smell.

When the dish came to the table, we inhaled again as Bayless, the cook, begged and pleaded with the Señora to take a bite. Although we were engrossed in what was happening onstage, it didn’t look like many people wanted to wait for her. We took our first bites, and it was revelatory. Everything that we had smelled was there. Sesame seeds, tomatoes, tomatillos, the beef, the chiles, all of the spices, and the smooth chocolate that gave the sauce a satin texture. A few minutes before, we watched him chop a bunch of black kale, and tucked underneath our beef tenderloin was a little pile of braised black kale. We all knew and could clearly see that he wasn’t cooking our food directly. We might have just forgotten that there was a kitchen in the back making all of our food. If we can see it, we know it’s happening.

As we ate, we saw yet another amazing duo of gymnasts, who performed a routine of flips, handstands, drops, and the female standing on her partner’s head. Yep. Right on that dude’s head. Yow. This reminds me of another great thing about this show-the pacing and plot points are spread out so you rarely have food in your mouth when it falls open in utter disbelief. Which it does. Quite often.

As the story progressed, the proprietress finally ate something and got a torrid case of happy feet, leaping to the center of the stage and giving a feverish flamenco dance atop the table. Flourishes and Dervishes never had it so good. Let it be known that if you want to convey passion with a distinctive Spanish/Mexican influence, get someone who’s really good at Flamenco. That’ll do.

The story was resolved! She ate! Her passion for food, life, and love, it was rekindled! As the theater celebrated with Oaxacan chocolate cake with a blood orange espuma and giant pastel communion wafers, we were entertained once again by the gardener and his wife, who in addition to juggling bananas with their mouths were also quick change artists, yet another unexpected and unique talent to add to the ever-growing list of new experiences for most of the audience. The gardener’s wife went through about three different changes, and the gentleman even got one stunning reveal of his own.

The show wrapped up quickly, with the cast dancing their way into the night and the audience left to finish their drinks and enjoy the tipsy company of a hundred other satisfied diners and theater patrons. Normally, a banner event like this wouldn’t be my scene, but for those who dine out and enjoy the theater on a regular basis, the ticket price, that of a hearty night out at any number of Chicago’s finer restaurants, is not overvalued. For a night of first class food and entertainment, it proves like the silken molé that blanketed my steak that a slow-cooked mixture of ingredients yields the most flavorful of results.

With Lookingglass Marketing Director Erik Schroeder and Chef Rick Bayless

Today, I’m making a St. Patrick’s day feast.

We’ve got some cabbage that we’re going to add to potatoes and make a delicious colcannon. I bought a good loaf of rye from the store and two of three Irish cheddar cheeses from work, some brown mustard, and a good chunk of corned beef.

We’ve been brining corned beef at work for the last two weeks, so it’s good and ready to cook by now. We’ve had some people come by the store, looking for brisket to make their own, and until last week, I had to tell them that they were a little too late to start brining their own. Fortunately, we have it all taken care of at the store, with a ton, (yes, 2000 lbs.) of corned beef to go through within the next couple days. Will we make it? Only time will tell.

Anyway, here’s a good recipe for corned beef:

1 corned beef

Water

Simmer corned beef until tender.

Done.

Serve with mustard, a good brown one.

So, the beef, the bread, the colcannon, some cheese, some Guinness, and some carrots. Lots of that stuff.

If you have the time and the inclination, and at least four hours before you eat, go buy a corned beef and boil it.

With the recent spike in warm weather, I’m sitting here writing with the breeze from outside flitting through my house. At a restaurant, with a seasonal change typically comes a recalibration of the menu, and a whole different set of inspirations from which to work. I’ve got a couple of ideas up my sleeve.

At work, when I’m selling someone a cut of meat, the weather plays a huge part in what I choose to sell them. There are the customers who have the idea that only a boneless skinless chicken breast will do, and I can see them coming a mile away. I don’t bother with them, as I’ve dressed down that topic many posts ago. However, if I look out the front windows to the store, a football field away, and see that the skies are overcast and full of rain, I’m going to lean toward the chuck roasts and lamb shanks. When the weather is cold outside, food cooked low and slow serves to comfort you when you can’t make it out to brush the grilltop off with your windshield scraper.

However, it’s 70 degrees outside. It’s still March. Global consequences notwithstanding, it’s excellent outside. Last night, we had a dinner with new friends that was a lightly cured gravlax with asparagus, potatoes, tiny pickled mushrooms, and cupcakes. We ate with the doors open. We laughed and shared bottles of wine, and even caught a whiff of a neighbor opening up their grill for the first time that year. It did feel like spring.

When we were in Seattle and it was nice out, we had a patio on the roof. We’d take our food upstairs, look out over the bay, and enjoy something from the grill, or just have a simple salad and some mussels. It didn’t matter what the food was, as eating outside gave an added dimension to the overall enjoyment of the meal that we were sharing. Nice weather puts a smile on your face.

Over the last couple of months, since our dinner at CRUX in the middle of a snowstorm, we’ve thought of ways to enjoy our dinners with friends. What would be the total experience?

People don’t have potlucks in the city. We know one couple who does, and it’s always great. They bring out the long table, usually have a crockpot, a big pot on the stove and some chicken or a pan of italian beef warming in the oven. When they have guests over, there’s anywhere from ten to thirty people, centered around the table, some off watching football or hanging out at the picnic table at the backyard, but everyone’s talking.

I get frustrated when I think that in the outer reaches of climate difference, (Upper Midwest for cold, Southwest for hot), people open their garage door, drive their cars in, and you don’t see them until the weather reaches a more manageable point. You miss an entire season. We’ve had our neighbors over during the winter, and enjoyed intimate indoor dinners, but I want to think bigger.

***

Our home has a strange set-up. We have a shared patio with three other neighbors on the second floor of a building. Essentially, it’s a converted warehouse where you walk across the roof to get to your front door. While strange, it’s also sheltered from most of the elements by two stories of brick on three sides, and a view of our downstairs cobbled courtyard on the fourth. This is the perfect place for setting up a community table.

We’ve wanted to get together with friends and have a large scale dinner for a while. The idea sprang from CRUX, where you sit down with ten people you may or may not know, share food, wine, ideas, etc. over the course of an evening. This doesn’t happen anymore. I want to bring it back.

With our set up, this would make it extremely convenient. Access to the seating area is given by our front doors, and we can move out of the elements if it begins to rain. Our doors will be open to friends, as each one of our apartments is filled with wild and esoteric works of art.

Art in Our House

Moreover, with the collective agreement of those who choose to participate, this also gives us access to multiple kitchens, ranges, ovens,  prep surfaces, and different methods of cooking. Each invited party would be responsible for a dish, perhaps centered around a theme, and it would be a great topic of conversation, in addition to the setting. Most of the people I work with have some background in cooking, or at least like to cook, and would bring something new to the table.

I don’t just want to do it for my own personal benefit. The idea itself is not new,  but the concept has so many possibilities. You get to know your neighbors, and know their friends. You open up your homes to one another, and get to see how they live. We are in the “Pilsen Arts Corridor”, set among galleries and independent shops, where color and invention merge. Who would think that tucked back in a corner of a nondescript brick building, you could find an event like this, with such limitless potential?

In the Neighbor's House

I envision a bounty of food with the sonic overload of knives on plates and the white noise of chatter through forkfuls of food. I think of a lively cocktail hour, and an evening discussing the artwork that appears on the plates and walls of our homes.
***

As a sidenote, I’m also inspired to do this because of my dad. One of his pet projects of installing Little Free Libraries in the community recently received major exposure on both All Things Considered and the NBC Nightly News. All the feedback I’ve read about this has been effusive, and I think that it can only serve as a positive thing for your neighbors to engage them with a small gesture of sharing something that you love.

I want to engage. I want to feel as though I belong to a collective of people who care about their food, and show interest in their neighbors and friends. I want to charge others with doing that as well.

If you read this, and you feel inspired to share it, go ahead. Take the idea of a community potluck and go with it. Have a backyard barbecue. Find a central location where you can enjoy a meal with many of your friends, and try something new. Open up your kitchen, your dining table, and put the shared fate of the dinner in the hands of your guests. Everyone brings something. You make the experience your own over the conversations you have and the connections you make over the food that you create together. You leave with the satisfaction of an evening well spent with new friends and faces, and return home with new ideas for your kitchen.

A Toast to Art and Food

It’s been two weeks since the last post, and I’ve been working every day but one of them, so there really hasn’t been a lot of downtime to sit, write, contemplate, etc. Still, I make time to cook. Since the Valentine’s Day post, I’ve had a birthday, and one of my gifts from my lady was a present from Turntable Kitchen.

It’s a gift basket, if you will. In it, there are three recipe cards, a themed ingredient, and a 45 record of music that corresponds to the theme of the dinner itself. This concept has been explored earlier with our dining, as in the CRUX undersea themed dinner set to the music of Isis.  For this box, the themed ingredient was a small sachet of smoked paprika, and the record was a 45 from the band Thousand. Included were recipes for roasted young carrots dusted with smoked paprika, a honey greek yogurt sauce and fresh chopped mint, white wine mussels with white beans and fresh parsley, and a pear and rosemary galette. Also included were small invitations to dinner for friends, if you so chose, and a heart shaped tool that you could snap in two with prongs at the end for scooping out the mussels from the shell.

Feeling a wave of hope for trying new recipes, I scoped the fridge to see what we had available. The recipes themselves seemed fairly simple. We had some dried zolfini beans that my mom left at our house from her most recent trip to Italy, and aside from picking up some basic staples, we had plenty of items there for a great start to the dinner.

About a week after my birthday, I was at the store, and I saw that the mussels were on sale. Perfect. The next day, I brought my recipe cards in, and it said for two, 1 pound of mussels would be sufficient. That’s never the case. I bought two pounds, knowing that 50% of the weight was left for shells. I bought a bunch of young carrots with greens that I’m planning on using in the next few days for another project, and a few different herbs, along with a nice bottle of table white.

At this point, I should note that the postcards themselves have highly styled and presented yet not entirely unattainable platings of their corresponding dishes. Although slightly intimidating, it gave me something to shoot for.

There’s something to be said for presentation. As I’m currently 85 posts deep into this blogging thing, I never know if I’m repeating myself, but presentation is a key component of the appetizing factor of a meal. Unless your meal is sloppy joes, where the smell and intoxicating hunger pangs take over anything that you could visualize, how your food looks on your plate often has as much to do with your enjoyment as how it tastes. If it comes to you looking like a hastily assembled mess with no eye catching contrasts between the color of the food and the plate, you’ve already started on the wrong foot. If it looks nice, and this goes for dinners out, at home, and especially served to kids, you’ve already passed the first round. Looks great. Then, smells great? Yes? Great.

The first dish was rather easy to assemble. Toss some young carrots in olive oil, salt, pepper, and smoked paprika, and roast them at 400 degrees for 20 minutes, turning once. While they’re in the oven, take 1/3 cup of greek yogurt and whisk it together with honey. That’s your sauce. Chop fresh mint for garnish, and serve on a bed of wilted spinach. Fast and easy. Boom. Roasted.

My big problem in cooking these days is beans. Dry beans. They never cook how I want them to. I’ve soaked them, quickboiled them, boiled them long, slow cooked them (that takes two days from dry. I don’t advise it), and everything else that you can imagine. Fortunately, the recipe told me to soak them overnight, then boil for one hour in two inches of water, uncovered, adding more water if it looked like they were running dry. In addition, it told me to salt the beans at the end, not the beginning, and that they should taste creamy after about an hour. They tasted good, but not creamy. I let them go for a little while longer, and then drained them, setting them aside for the mussel cooking part of the evening.

I sweat some minced garlic, as they recommended, in butter. I added a few sprigs of parsley and the now cooked beans, sauteed for a bit, and added two cups of my dry white wine. At this point, for my binder of a themed ingredient, I would have chosen to add another pinch of smoked paprika to tie one dish to the next, but it didn’t say that on the card. No paprika added.

Put the mussels in, covered them, let them cook for a few minutes until I could hear the click-clack of opening shells. Giving them a shake, I turned off the heat and let them rest for a minute or two.

When the time came to assemble the dishes (I didn’t make the pear and rosemary galette because as you may know, baking is the bane of my existence), I grabbed a bowl for the mussels, scooped them out, and threw a generous handful of parsley over the top. After that, I poured the liquid into the bowls, bringing out the green in the parsley with just a little bit of heat.

When all was said and done, I had two dishes per person. On the first, in the foreground, is the roasted carrots. We reacted similarly to the flavor- it was delicious. The smoked paprika complemented the sweetness of the carrots. I only want to buy those carrots from now on. The mint was fresh and crisp, the sauce was light and not overbearing, not to mention exceedingly simple, and the spinach, which they told me to wilt in a dry pan with nothing else? Well, it was just spinach, but it was good.

The mussels were alright. I’ve made them many times before, and for the novices out there, this may have seemed like a good recipe to start with, but the wine never fully cooked off. When I do mussels, I use vegetable broth and maybe a splash or two of white wine, but never two cups. Making it, or a similar recipe, in the future, I would substitute with 2 cups of broth rather than wine, so as not to feel so lightheaded after eating.

And as for the music? It’s difficult to put music to something that you hope people will enjoy eating. We put the little 45 on our record player and plopped the needle on side one. Not terribly thrilled.

“Does the singer have a speech impediment?” my lady asked.

I was too busy eating to ever really notice, but what I did take from it was that the music itself wasn’t really my cup of tea. Ah, well. It’s novel of the Turntable Kitchen to use this opportunity to expose people to new music, but somewhere in there, they had to know they’d meet a guy like me. However, it’s interesting to note that they have a broad target audience- those who love music, those who love food, and those who have a collective love of both. My position is somewhere in the mire of the last descriptor, but they put forth a valiant attempt to get me to enjoy my dinner.

Did I? Yes. Did my lady? Yes. Once again, dinner is about the total experience, and having a tiny turntable spinning a record while you eat simply yields yet another topic of conversation over which you can enjoy the company of your fellow diners. For the next experience with these recipes, I’m going to amend them to suit my tastes, along with the music. In that they are in the business of influencing the musical and culinary palates of those who choose to dine with them, Turntable Kitchen’s Musical Pairing was a success, and the same goes for the gift itself. Through introduction to new avenues for cooking and overall enjoyment of a meal, I’ve broadened my horizons, and have taken what I’ve learned to further shape my endeavors in the kitchen the next time I attempt a new recipe that we can savor together.