Excitement


The last post I wrote had me zipping about town on my handsome new bike. Every one of my days off, I want to explore a new neighborhood. Today, what started as a light drizzle turned to a rain wet enough to thoroughly soak my jacket and pants. Why would I go out on a day like today? The only reason anyone else would go out: To return my library books.
Already taking a detour here. Folks, visit your local library. There are literally dozens of books to read, and if you’re like me, you can choose a good one based on title and book jacket color alone. Just get a library card. Read a book.

I had originally planned to visit Publican Quality Meats again, because I really enjoyed that sandwich. It came with a cute plastic ramekin of coleslaw and a pickle spear in a tiny ziploc bag that made me want to rinse and reuse it for more pickle spears. I’ve discovered that the fifth pocket in a pair of jeans is the perfect size for holding one emergency pickle spear.

Still, with the rain, my bike trip up north was not to be. I spent the morning indoors, making mustard and chocolates, just biding my time until the conditions were perfect. Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen. With my books stowed away in my backpack, I made an early afternoon mad dash on the 3/4 mile sprint down 18th street to the library.
Keep the butt on the seat so it doesn’t get wet. That was my mantra.

Surprisingly, all the bike racks were full. My bike got parked on the street, leaning up against a stopsign. I ran in, passed my books off, and went back outside again. Of course, in the 30 seconds it took me to return my books, the seat was soaked.
The ride back down 18th was ridiculous. When it rains in Chicago, everyone forgets how to drive. People parked in the bike lane (don’t do that, jerks), a woman turned her car around mid-block, cutting off traffic in two directions (don’t do that either, jerks), and horns were blaring. I didn’t want to be part of this any more than they did, and I was getting hungry and cranky from the moisture.
About two thirds of the way home, after passing Don Pedro’s, Honky Tonk BBQ, Simone’s, and countless Taquerias, I remembered the new place, the one right by the tracks. We had seen it on our walk to the Pub Quiz the week before, just a tiny little storefront with a big picture window. Tamales.
Dia De Los Tamales just opened up what looks to be a couple of weeks ago. I’ve seen them at the Pilsen Community Market, but now that they’re so close and available at any given time, it spells trouble.

I walked in, and three smiling, eager faces greeted me. Two large screens with the day’s offerings shone brightly above their steam tables and drink coolers. They had about a dozen or so different kinds of tamales, most of which I’ve forgotten, but that included Cuban Pork, Buffalo Chicken, and a couple of sweet dessert tamales.
I went adventurous. I ordered an Atomic Pork (with spicy club sauce), an Italian beef tamale (with housemade giardiniera), and a Bacon and Goat Cheese tamale (with Bacon Leek jam). Really? COME ON! I love tamales, and I’ll eat them at any time, but most of the time, they simply offer the description of filling, either pork, chicken or beef. Here, I had many different options, and in fact too many to try on my first trip in. (Yes, there will be more.)
In the couple of minutes I was waiting, the man behind the counter explained a little bit about the menu, and gave me a sample of the house made garbanzo bean side option they had available. “From a family recipe,” he said. “It’s really good.”

He proffered a spoonful with a big piece of pork in it. I tried it. It WAS really good. I packed up my backpack with my tamales and rode the last three blocks home, ready to enjoy my lunch.
There are no pictures of this meal, because to properly capture a tamale in its deliciousness is impossible. They look the same, from the wrapper down to the filling, always that same shade of brown. I don’t care. From a picture, you can’t tell if it’s dry, or if the filling is savory or sweet. I’ll tell you- it’s fantastic. All of the tamales were toothsome and light, without being oversteamed. The giardiniera was pickled and crisp, and the bacon leek jam, it should go without saying, was a bacon leek jam.

I want to take people there, namely the lady in my life. I asked if the vegetarian tamales used vegetable shortening in the mix. Indeed, they were fully vegetarian. This spells trouble. I could end up eating here twice a week for the foreseeable future.
I’ve made a huge mistake.
A huge, delicious mistake.

***
Addendum: Next Friday, during Pilsen’s monthly 2nd Friday Artwalk, Dia De Los Tamales is having their Grand Opening. To see some artwork while you eat some delicious tamales, spend your time wisely on the beautiful and culture filled Near South Side!

The day before, I’d started a no knead bread recipe, as it’s the easiest bread that I can make that doesn’t test my patience. I’d gotten some sunflower seeds from work, and added a little bit of pumpkinseed oil to the mix. The bit of sugar from the oil and seeds, in addition to the perfect bread rising temperature inside the apartment, leavened the bread to more than double size faster than anticipated. Into the oven on the hot day it went, as did a flatbread with caramelized onions and chickpea flour. A little tomato sauce topped the flatbread, and it was set aside for cutting into wedges after cooling.

***

Another thing I’d started the night before was the dessert. A big hit with everyone, and one again something that requires surprisingly little technical effort, is a profiterole. I made a choux pastry with eggs, flour, water, and butter. Half of it was given the sweet treatment, to be served with cherries reduced in a bottle of Coca Cola. To the other half, I added grated cheddar for savory gougeres. As the time ticked closer to service, I realized that cherries and cream puffs wouldn’t be enough, so I set out with a recipe for a simple semifreddo, semifrozen ice cream. No churning needed.

I didn’t want anything too complex. All I wanted was something that would be light and complimentary. The recipe was simple enough. Whipped Cream, Whipped egg yolks with sugar and vanilla, and whipped egg whites. Fold them together, and freeze in a mold. Slice and serve when set, after about three hours.

Let me pause for a moment to let you in on a couple of key points. I have a hand blender, which works well for 95 percent of the things for which I use it. It purees my sauces, makes smoothies, and whips cream exquisitely. What it positively does not do well is whip egg whites. This is due to a couple factors: 1) Human Error. PROTIP- When you are whipping egg whites, you cannot stop. You cannot add sugar at the wrong moment, or they won’t set. You shouldn’t use a glass bowl, for they don’t have sides that promote the egg whites creeping up the sides as you whip, falling into soft or stiff peaks. You can’t have even a tiny hint of egg yolk in there, or they won’t whip. Did I know any of this before I began?

No. This is why my first attempt failed. This is why I don’t enjoy patisserie. Try again? Okay. This time, (Ugh) by hand.

After looking up the best way to whip egg whites, (use a wire bulb whisk), I cleaned and dried my bowl, and separated five more egg whites into my bowl. I added a splash of white vinegar as recommended, as I didn’t have any cream of tartar lying around. I whipped. Slowly at first, and then gradually with more speed until my arm was about to fall off.

In the kitchen, this is when having a mom around comes in handy.

“Mom, my arm is about to fall off!” I yelped from the kitchen.

“Okay, just let me know when you want to switch,” she replied calmly from the couch, not missing a word in the book.

At this point, about five minutes in, my forearms felt like, to use a comparison of Olympic size, the arms of a tired kayaker. It was starting to be downright unpleasant.

In comes mom to bat cleanup. Why is it that moms can accomplish things with far more accuracy and precision than we can? The difficult things. Like whipping egg whites. Two minutes, and she had it to stiff peaks. We folded in the remainder of the sugar, and then incorporated all our parts together for the resulting semifreddo, which was then put into the freezer.

When the last of our party finally arrived after delays at the airport, my lady, her mom, her aunt, and our traveling companion from Martha’s Vineyard, we were ready with dinner. The bread was still fresh from the oven, the chickpea flatbread had cooled and was dressed with the tomato sauce, the caprese salad was attractively arranged on the service platter, and the soup, finally chilled, was ladled into tiny espresso cups and garnished with sungold tomatoes and a parsley oil float ringing a single leaf of Italian parsley procured from the neighbor’s plant.

Bottles of wine were opened, hugs exchanged, and we were able to finally relax in each other’s company, ready for a fulfilling week of excursions, museums, food, family, and friendships both old and new.

With bellies full, we went back home that evening. Nothing much made our nights more fulfilling than a meal shared by friends and family followed by relaxing on a calm back porch overlooking the water. As the sun set along with the food in our stomachs, we made our way to bed.

The next morning, we went off to Menemsha to make good on our promise of oysters for dinner and/or daily snacks. As the Island has only a few ways to navigate around, we took the wrong road to get there. After driving for fifteen minutes, we made it across the marina from the town, just a short swim, with no way to get the car across. It was literally a stone’s throw away, and we found out upon our return home that there was a sporadic bike ferry across the water, but it was not to be that day.

Instead, we made our way over to the beach, where we kayaked to our hearts’ content, picking up sand dollars and shells on the gigantic sandbar north of the house. Our vessels gently rocked back and forth over the tiny breakers on the bay, and we made our way back to shore in time to leave for lunch at the wharf.

Lobster Traps

We made our way to Menemsha via the correct route, around the pond, up the road, and down the way to the port. Dozens of fishing vessels dotted the piers, lashed to the bulkheads with barrels of Lobster and Jonahs aboard. As we walked the line from one market (Larsen’s) to the other (Menemsha Fish Market), our stomachs began to rumble as we recalled all of our tasty options for lunch. Walking in to MFM, we saw our grail, what we had been hoping for.

We ordered at the window, grabbed the last two ice cold cokes from the fridge, and a few minutes later, five lobster rolls were up in the window. It was a hot day if you weren’t in the water, and we all got the lobster salad rolls, cold, a little bit of mayonnaise, and chopped celery. Taking our catch around to the back of the store, we sat on crates and newly furnished benches over the piers as we watched a fisherman sort the day’s catch.

In one bin, Chicks. In the other, Rocks. (Lobster and Crab)

When we were through, and our appetites were sated, we moseyed over to Larsen’s to view their fish selection. The case was empty, but the woman in charge was busy bringing out pans of seafood for our perusal. The first pan in was two glistening Monkfish tails. I didn’t need to see any more.

“Can I get those two tails?”

“Both of them?”

“Yep.”

In my previous fishmongering incarnation, the monkfish tails I saw were typically around 1/2 to 3/4 pound each. While this is good for portion size, seeing these larger fillets made me realize that flying through the smaller catch was far from sustainable. Currently, at work, they’ve made a push not to sell unsustainable fish, including Monk.

Although on principle I tend to agree with the promotion of sustainable fisheries, purchasing thousands of pounds of undersized fish for retail sale is much different than purchasing something directly off a boat that is fully mature and with minimal amount of bycatch.  Monkfish for dinner it would be.

On top of that, I made good on my promise of oysters, purchasing a dozen and a half of local Katamas for anytime eating. I had brought my oyster knife cross country along with my pin boning tweezers, just in case we came a cross any seafood that needed a quick fabricating. Lastly, we got three pounds of scallops to round out the haul, just because we could.

We got back to the house close to dinner time to find two more guests had arrived for the weekend, but it had been a long day of exertion and high temperature for those of us who had already been hanging around. My lady’s mom, ever the intrepid explorer and activity planner, was felled with a bout of exhaustion from all the activity, and as we were prepping the menu for dinner, she retired to the bed for some much needed rest, leaving me and a crew of  hungry vacationers with a kitchen full of food, a range full of burners, and a collective of rapidly growing appetites.

The kitchen instantly transformed into a brigade: Two on the salad, One firing up the grill, and me on the range. We still had two bags of salad greens from the Connecticut homestead, which were thoroughly washed and dried, and incorporated with fresh tomatoes and some pickled red onions from a meal a few days prior. The grill was set up, and after tossing some scapes and rapini in olive oil, salt and pepper, we threw those on to get a quick cook.

Moving them over to the hot zone, the Monkfish was next. I haven’t been known to cook Monkfish often, as it hasn’t appeared in stores when I’ve been looking, but I had marinated it with cumin, chili powder, coriander, salt, pepper, and oil when we got back, and after about an hour, it was ready to throw on the grill.

Inside, we put a bit of pasta on the stove for the vegetarians in the group. I say a bit, but it was about two pounds of penne. In a separate pan, I put chopped tomatoes, onion, garlic, and let it cook down for a fresh, quick tomato sauce. When the monkfish was getting close to done outside, I hit the sauce with a quick whizz with the burr mixer, and returned it to the pan. We had a container of fresh pesto in the fridge as well, so into the pot it went.

I recalled something about a simple recipe for scallops that we had wanted to try from earlier. With dozens of pans at our disposal, I picked a huge sturdy one and began searing the scallops off in batches. Ten to a pan, three minutes a side, pulled them out, next batch in. After the last batch, I deglazed the pan with an open bottle of white wine from the night before, chopped some parsley, threw it in with some capers, and added a few pats of butter, swirling it until it melted. I let it simmer for a minute, then returned all the scallops to the pan for a quick toss. Back out of the pan, onto one of our rapidly dwindling supply of platters.

The monkfish was ready. I let it rest for a few minutes, and then sliced into it. I tried it. So spicy. No worries. Along with the pickled onions, we had a chipotle salsa that I had made a few days before, and with a bit of sour cream, it turned into an accompanying sauce that was still a bit spicy, but just cooling enough to control the heat.

The table was set, and as I shucked oysters, everyone else was busy loading up the serving dishes.  As I was running around overseeing a lot of the action while trying to control the fate of two or three pans at once, I quickly tired of shucking. After a dozen, I threw the rest on the grill where they quickly opened.

Finally, we could sit down. Along with some crusty bread that we picked up earlier in the day, the table was packed with all sorts of delicious things to eat. We were tired, hot, sweaty, and didn’t even know where to begin.

Another summer, another vacation in the books. This year, we headed back to the East coast for a tour of Connecticut and Martha’s Vineyard. When we head out there, it’s relaxing, and we get to sit on the patio, pick from the garden, and when we’re on the Vineyard, head to the beach for some sunbasking and baypaddling.

This year on the Vineyard, we were in the same place, up island, away from the tourist crowds. We were travelling with the lady’s parents, were meeting more family at the house, and this year, in addition to the pup they had in tow, we met a family friend at the ferry terminal for the boat ride over. One of the things the boat had going for it, in addition to a great viewing deck up top, was the addition of clam chowder on board. Back in the Midwest, far away from the ocean and any kind of seafood that rivals the freshness of either coast, a good seafood chowder is hard to come by. This one hit the spot, and with the meerschaum spitting over the observation deck and a tallship on the horizon, I got the feeling that it would be a good week.

On the other side of the water, we drove off the ferry through the town of Oak Bluffs, down through the middle of the island, past farms, shops, ponds and town halls, until we hit the far edge of the island. Without the tourist traffic, and with a breeze swirling around the lighthouse tipped point, it was about ten degrees cooler than where we got off the ferry. The car crawled up the dirt driveway to our house, and as we offloaded our gear, we were greeted by a second car with an uncle and aunt.

We spent our time that evening sitting on the deck, watching the sailboats cruise by the beach. We ate some Long Island pizza, trucked up by the doting uncle, and relaxed with a nice walk along the beach as the low slung sun beamed onto the red clay cliffs abutting the shoreline.

Even though it was technically vacation, I’d wake up early with the coffee, and make something for breakfast. The first morning, I decided to use some fresh eggs we had purchased at the general store back in Connecticut the previous day. They had just come in from Ashley’s happy hens down the road, and along with some cheese, fresh tomatoes, and scapes, they turned into a beautiful frittata. Paired with some quick biscuits, fresh fruit and blueberry corn muffins, it was most definitely a good way to start the day.

We spent our first full day on the North Shore of the island, just a few minutes away by car. Tucked away just up the road from where they filmed Jaws, is a secluded beach with a tiny house big enough for two, and under the floorboards of the deck lay three kayaks in waiting. While a few of our party sunned themselves on the beach and patio, an intrepid three, including me, took the kayaks out to the massive sandbar just offshore, where we parked and scavenged for sand dollars.

That night, we motored over to Oak Bluffs, where we enjoyed a dinner at the Red Cat Kitchen, where several of the evening’s menu items are described as “chef’s imaginations of…” It was a new concept in Island dining, but one I’ve seen before, where a talented chef gives you the base of what they’re offering, and utilizes what they have in the kitchen to create a unique plate for a one-off run. This has both its positives and negatives, but especially when tables are filled to capacity every night, it makes perfect sense.

We had a table of seven with two vegetarians. For our non meat eating diners, there was an option on the menu that was described as “Ben’s Vegetarian Showdown”. When I looked up their menu on Facebook, which changes weekly, sometimes close to daily, I mentioned that we’d be bringing in a couple of vegetarian diners. “What can you throw down for a showdown for two hungry vegetarians?” I asked.

The response? “Plenty!”

Fair enough. We sat in a living room with a bar on the ground floor of a two story house in the middle of town, looking out at the bustle through a window filled with glass apothecary bottles. Around the table, we ordered starters of fried local oysters with  banana peppers, a roasted beet salad with goat cheese and celery hearts,  Yukon potato gnocchi with Sun-dried tomatoes and pecorino romano, a tuna tartare, and the signature dish, an Island Fresca-Fresh tomatoes, sweet kernel corn and basil in a corncob broth with shaved parmigiano reggiano and dotted with basil oil.

As the plates made their way around the table, everyone taking a bite, it became clear that there was a comfortable medium between a high class restaurant in, say, Chicago or New York, and a place such as this where the chef has unlimited creative license as well as a built in time cushion where diners, most of them on vacation, are just there to relax. I looked around the table. Everyone was smiling. Over at the bar, the bartender was tapping an unruly glass and shaker against the bar to get it unstuck, but maintained friendly eye contact and a jovial banter with the patrons while not missing a beat. The waiter was hasty, a bit surly, but also good natured on this busy night, and everyone was having a good time. The food, while not earth-shatteringly inventive, was the creation of one kitchen, and it was simple and satisfying.

The entrees came out next. There was a buttermilk fried chicken with Braised Carrots and a Vanilla Jus (weird, but it worked)with wilted spinach, Sea Scallops with sweet corn risotto, a bluefish poached in more of the sweet corn broth, and a giant plate of breaded pork chops for me.

The kicker, though, was the Vegetarian showdown. Normally, I don’t care for vegetarian options at restaurants, but this seemed like a logical solution to everything. Each person who ordered it received a small side salad, a dish of sweet corn risotto, some tempura green beans, and a few other roasted vegetables. Four or five tiny plates came out, all offering a variety of differently prepared vegetarian offerings, leaving everyone full, happy, and satisfied that what they received wasn’t a tired old piece of quiche that was kept in the freezer for the lone person who didn’t eat meat.

For dessert, even after our gigantic portions, we figured we could split a few between our table. The offerings, while standard, were done well. We had a molten chocolate mug cake and a bananas foster dish, but the hit was a panna cotta with basil oil and a fresh huckleberry compote on top. It’s the little surprises that make these dinners such pleasant experiences. I’d love to go back.

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

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

Continuation of earlier posts:

Part 1

Part 2

***

So, where were we? We had just finished the Pretzel/Crab, and we were moving on to the next course.

COURSE 3: STEELHEAD- roe/beet/kefir/chrysanthemum

I’ve gone through a tumultuous relationship with beets, and I don’t know where I turned the corner. In school, I prepped 30 gallons of borscht, peeling each beet, leaving me with blood-stained hands. After that, I swore off beets for a long while. After about ten years, though, I came back around. I don’t know what it was. Maybe it was how they laid them out at the market in rainbow colored stacks of edible excitement. Maybe I saw a recipe somewhere, and I just had to have them. I remember bringing a bunch home, roasting them, sauteeing the tops, and falling for them all over again.

A lot of people dismiss them as muddy, and I can see that. However, with the right additions of flavor and a cooking method that leaves them with a pleasing texture, they can be enjoyed in any number of ways. We enjoy the root on salads or roasted alongside squash and other vegetables, and the greens are always great quick seared in a pan with the most minimal of seasonings, quite similar to all the other variegated greens.

Back to the third course, though. I figured that the preparation would be more than the borscht I had made 15 years ago, with equal or greater depth of flavor. The course proved my hypothesis correct both in preparation and presentation.

Here’s a closeup of the dish. What the chef presented us with was a smoked steelhead roe atop pickled beet with dried beet leaves dusted with malt powder and a light yogurt/kefir sauce.

When we were out in Seattle, I became acquainted with the men who ran the Bacon Salt/Baconnaise empire, and they passed me off a bottle of a malt vinegar flavored salt. We’ve only used it for seasoning potatoes so far, but with this dish, the lightness and pucker of malt vinegar dissolved into the crisp nothingness of the beet leaves.

The smoked roe, local-ish from Michigan, was a great centerpiece to the dish. Bright orange eggs with a light smokiness and pop seasoned the accompanying beet, and although I’ve smoked many meats and fish in the past, I still don’t know how the smoked roe was achieved. That’s another nod to the chef for putting the quizzical nature of the origin of flavor in my mind to ponder. The kefir and light chrysanthemum balanced the boldness of smoke, steelhead, and pickled beet in a sea of competing flavor strengths. Overall, the dish was one of our favorites.

COURSE 4: BLACK URCHIN- lime/cocoa/cauliflower

I’ve had great experiences with urchin before. Similar to an oyster, if you get a fresh urchin, tasting the fresh roe is reminiscent of the ocean; It’s briny, smooth, and lives up to its billing as the nautical cousin to foie gras. Conversely, bad urchin can be horrible. It’s so delicate that if it is frozen, which it very well might be, and thawed, it loses its potency and takes on a terrible after taste and texture. Recently, I went to a sushi counter at Mitsuwa in the suburbs of Chicago, and in my sampler, found some pieces with urchin roe. As I brought the piece close to my mouth, I inhaled the smell that I dreaded. It wasn’t fresh. Surprisingly, I didn’t immediately turn up my nose, as I was to give it a good try. When I put it in my mouth, I realized I had made a mistake. The urchin was amoebic and texturally unsound, filling my senses with dread and coating my tongue with an old fishy toothpaste. My experience with urchin was not to be repeated unless it was forced.

***

So far, at the table at Crux, we were three for three. First Course- simple. Second Course- Inventive. Third Course- Rock solid. Please, oh, please don’t make me regret trying the urchin again.

From the other room came the plates. They set them down in front of us, one at a time. Since there were two or three people serving ten, we had a little bit of time to stare at our plates and make sense of what was going on.

Everything’s there. There was a floret of charred cauliflower, and resting on top of that, largely untouched, lounged a lobe from the urchin shells that were hanging out on the tabletop, smoldering with a bit of vanilla pod. To complement the urchin, we had a supreme of lime, a bit of zest, cacao nibs as a second sweet/bitter combination, and, in the foreground, a swatch of  savory sea urchin whipped cream.

It’s always interesting, as I eat something new, to think about how the combinations of flavors came to be. Coming from the Midwest, where fish is flavored with either tartar sauce or lemon, I’ve come to understand that the combination of citrus and seafood works together. However, in addition to the sharp flavor influence of citrus on seafood, the astringency of a bitter cacao nib can also serve a similar purpose.

As I ate, my mind searched for answers to this dish, how it came to be, how the flavors played off of one another, and how it all fit together. It went something like this:

“Okay. Sea Urchin. Briny, yes. Seafood? Definitely. Add citrus. Citrus is bitter. Cacao nibs are bitter. Ah, yes, but cacao nibs are also toasted. Toasted. What else can be toasted? Hey, look at that. The cauliflower. It’s charred, so those things go together, but cauliflower’s real flavor is fairly mild. Oh, look. There’s the urchin whipped cream. Wow. It’s also really light.”

And there we are back at the lobe of fresh urchin. It looked fresh. It didn’t look or feel like its cellular structure had collapsed. It tasted like a fresh West Coast Oyster, which is to say, exactly like the sea. The flavor was both dialed up and brought down in waves by the contrasting accoutrements of the plating. The flavors came in waves, which for a meal celebrating bodies of water was appropriate.

COURSE 5: OYSTER- apple/hay/mustard

This was our extra course for the evening. No pictures exist of it, because it is an oyster, and we had reached a point where we were not only talking about how great the food was, but other things that peppered our lives with meaning. We were all at least a few glasses of wine into the night, and there was much crosstalk happening at the table. I heard “Gulf Oyster”, “Pickled Apple”, and looked down at my plate. Nestled on a bed of grassy stalks, there was one oyster, which I believed to be lightly smoked, on the half shell. tucked underneath the muscle meat was a tiny spoonful of diced apple and a bit of mustard seed. I do love the oysters, so I sent it straight down the hatch without thinking to take a picture.

To my knowledge, I haven’t had a gulf oyster before. I’m so used to the West Coast varieties that I didn’t know what to look for as I ate it, and didn’t have time to adequately reflect on the flavors. My recollection was that 1) I ate it too fast, 2)The gulf oyster is mild and earthy, and 3) the apples and mustard made it the dish that felt like it could be placed on a Midwestern Meat and Potatoes menu without too much quarrel.

COURSE 6: WALLEYE- grapefruit/vanilla/potato/brulee

Remember the post I made a couple weeks ago about how to fillet a walleye? This is why you follow the rules of properly cleaning and gutting a fish. It’s so you can have a finished product like this:

“What we have here is a Sous vide fillet of walleye with a crisp skin, tiny potatoes, fennel dusted with sumac powder, grapefruit, and balsamic vinegar.”

Sous vide. What a relationship I have with you. Mostly, I don’t understand it, but I get the basic idea of it. Long, low and slow cooking of meats that don’t necessarily need to be further tenderized- that’s how it goes. It goes by the principles of aquariums, wherein you place a sealed object in a water bath and warm water is circulated around your sealed protein to gently bring it up to an acceptable service temperature. When it is ready, all that needs to be done, if anything, is cut open the bag, perhaps finish it off in a pan or with a blowtorch to add a bit of caramelization, and put it on a plate. What you’re left with is a piece of protein that is tender, moist, as it has reserved all its own juices from cooking in a closed receptacle, and flavorful.

The walleye was no exception. Once again, subscribing to the fact that fish goes well with citrus, grapefruit, the entirely underutilized citrus, was paired with it for flavor. The crispy skin was added for texture, the potatoes for a fish fry complement, and the tart, woodsy sumac sprinkle on the fennel added another dimension of simple seasoning to a dish that was not in need of much to make it as comfort food.

As we ate, the most common exclamation was that people couldn’t believe how well the grapefruit went with the walleye. The conversation bounced back to the lime from the urchin course, and tangentially to how well the fruit went with any fish or flavor. Personally, I’ve prepared it with fluke and miso, and in a strange turn based on what i had in the fridge, with avocado, bacon, and monkfish. Both turned out exceptional. The walleye was lovely, but the standout was the versatile grapefruit.

COURSE 7: SHORT RIB- seaweed/egg/roots

OR

MONKFISH- seaweed/egg/roots

For the only meat course of the evening, we were offered Short Ribs. One of the great things about Crux was how they were able to accommodate diners with discriminating palates not only on short notice, but by adapting menu items to suit flavors that were well-tested enough to stand up to different proteins. My menu said “Short Rib”. The lady’s menu said “Monkfish”. As they came out, it was apparent that the base of the dish was the same, but the simple prep of the meat was the only difference.

My dish was Short Ribs with Sea Beans, a pressed pear with pepper with a cured egg yolk on top, fennel fronds, and a carrot top pesto.

Sea Beans, going with the theme of the meal, gave the course a dose of salinity. They don’t have a particularly descriptive flavor on their own, but they can be served fresh or lightly steamed, and have the texture of fiddleheads or very young asparagus.

The pesto also utilized an underused edible: The carrot top. As with beet greens, a lot of times, carrot tops are discarded. However, being that they’re the part of the carrot that gets the sunlight, the greens themselves have a great grassy taste to them that complements a pesto quite well.

I wish more people would give chlorophyll a chance.

Alongside the braised short rib, there was a pear. I understand just how hard it is to find an excellent pear, and this was a pretty good one. There was a little bit of black pepper on it, and a lightly cured egg yolk, done just long enough so that it was a bit salty, but still runny. Overall, it was a fancy steak and egg plate with a lot of added dimension. If anyone thinks that steak and eggs is primarily for greasy spoons, there is much to be learned about how to utilize your steak and/or eggs.

Here’s the monkfish version of the dish. Two diners got this one, a double tail of monkfish roasted on the bone. I loved the short rib, but once again, another great mark of a restaurant is if they make you want to try everyone else’s food. Since my lady couldn’t try the short ribs, I was content to leave her to the full enjoyment of her monkfish.

COURSE 8: CARROT- broken

I didn’t know what this was going to be. It’s a carrot. And the description? It’s broken. Interesting and curious.

It was a sorbet. The palate cleanser of the meal before the final course. It was served, mine in a tiny dish the size of a coaster, and hers in a giant bowl. I dig the individuality of the vessels as we enjoy our meals. It adds a uniqueness to each person’s experience. Even though we are all receiving the same courses, how we see them plated in front of us is what really makes it special.

We were given a quenelle of carrot cardamom sorbet that was bright and refreshing. The top, in this picture seen dangling over the edge of my plate, was candied, and the root was pickled. Once again, a mix of sweet, light, savory, and the bite of vinegar made an appearance, and once again, it hit the mark. As with most sorbet courses, the bites were the perfect size, and at this point in the meal, one bite of each (maybe two for the sorbet, because it was quite good) was all I needed .

COURSE 9: Sponge- orange/carob/buttermilk/darjeeling

The night was cold and we were about three hours into a meal tucked away in the back room of a gallery where there might as well have been a fireplace going. We were all feeling filled with conversation, wine, food, and little side conversations on how we’d stay in touch sprung up on different sides of the table.

Last course coming. Out from the kitchen came our hosts with our desserts.

“Thank you all for coming tonight. For our last course, we have a carob sponge cake with a buttermilk darjeeling gelato and an orange cream.”

The cake wasn’t a slice, but in fact a tiny sponge that was moist and had absorbed a lot of the lighter carob flavor. Alongside that was a quenelle of a buttermilk darjeeling gelato, as promised, and the spoonful of orange curd. The sharpness of the orange (was it a whole orange curd?) really woke me up from the thousand flavor evening that I’d just experienced, and the gelato was mellow and soothing. I’ve done custards flavored with black tea, and this was another variation on a theme, one that I continue to enjoy to this day.

***

The plates went back to the dishroom licked clean, and we were all invited to mill about as a gallery reception was taking place directly afterward. We chatted with our fellow diners for a bit, and I got to speak with those responsible for the dinner. The source of the phantom meowing, we had discovered, was a tiny serval kitten about two weeks old, and as the dinner hour waned, he was passed around from person to person, enjoying all the attention and smells of seafood that permeated the warm, inviting atmosphere.

Between the room, the diners, and the imagination and creativity of the chef, the dinner will never be the same twice. In talking with the chef, I realized that it’s a 72 hour marathon of menu planning, product acquisition, prepping, and service that make an event like this come together, and each experience, each weekend dinner is different. They may share some similarities from week to week, but it gives the chef the impulse to create and adjust from service to service. As with all those who have a passion for things that come out of a kitchen, the ideal situation is to cook your food, and cook it your way to those who can appreciate it. If it is a success, it rests on your shoulders as a work of art that you can be proud of. If it misses the mark, there’s always room for improvement. It is the constant pursuit of innovation and invention that drives those who cook to create flavors and menus that challenge diners’ palates, and it is the willingness of those who dine to entrust those palates to the chef that enables the creativity to flourish.

If I cook for you, all I ask is that you eat and enjoy yourselves. That’s what the Crux really is. The thought that goes into each successful dinner service yields a deconstructed idea of what the chef really wants to put out there. There is the idea of a finished product. Strip it down. Build it back up. Adapt. Taste. Adjust. Try it once. Try it twice. Retool it. It’s a constant state of recreation. The menu will never be finished. It might be similar to something you’ve tried in the past, but it will never be the same. Isn’t that fascinating? Isn’t that the way you’d always want to eat?

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