Exploring


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!

As so many things do during the wintertime, this blog lay dormant, with not a word written. It wasn’t for the lack of ideas, but the lack of going outside, exploring around, seeing things related to food, and just making a big to-do about what I make and eat.
However, today happened. With my bright, shiny new bicycle, I took to the streets, inspired to see things, go to the market (as opposed to every other day of my life) and invest my thoughts in creating something new and different with the burgeoning bounty of the Spring Harvest soon to be upon us.
I stopped at Publican Quality Meats, scoping out their sausage and cured meats case. It was a recent decision to start curing my own meats. I’ve done fish many times, and have kept meat mostly separate from my main diet for the last couple of years, but as an activity that I want to pursue with other interested parties (fun summertime activities), making a super moldy piece of dried pork or beef is high up on my list.
They had the usual selection. I saw some boudin, some coppas and lonzas, and long links of ‘ndujas hanging in the case. In the back, by the lunch tables, they had some snack sticks, some smoked string cheese, a few bunches of ramps (we’ll get to those later), and tiny packages of caul fat for wrapping sausage crepinettes.
Although the ramps were tempting, I didn’t have any plans within the next few days, and admittedly, I was hoping that the price had dropped since my last visit. Still unjustifiable, I moved on to my next destination.
I peddled down Fulton Market, past the open doors of abbatoirs flushed out for the afternoon, past the city’s most expensive and fancy restaurants on the next block, and continued West. Today, my journey took me at a leisurely pace through the warehouse district, past the coffee roasters, craft breweries and artists’ lofts, to Ukranian Village, where I stopped at a place I hadn’t ever heard of before.
It was called Sprout Home, and it was a Garden Center full of flowering trees, tiny succulents and cacti. I spent a few minutes in there, scoping out their terrariums filled with ideas and whimsy. Over the Winter, I’ve taken a shine to smaller plants, ones that we keep around the house, and as succulents and cacti are the only ones that I know I don’t run the risk of failing with, they’ve become the most appealing to me. I’ve looked at the Green Wall concepts, self watering installations that are popping up all over the place. I even found a guy who made this his mission project, creating a Living Building in India.
My dreams aren’t that big. I just want to make a small terrarium with a few of those cool looking things.
As I peddled on, I stopped at another meat shop, The Butcher and Larder. I’ve been there a few times, and it has taken me a while to warm up to the place. They offer sausage making classes, and they do whole animal butchery, yet every time I go in, the case seems rocked. As opposed to my shop, with 60 feet of meat, their case offers about five feet of visuals, the rest cut to order from the back. One lone customer came in as I ate a house made salami sandwich washed down with a Sprecher root beer, and he ordered some pork to “rotisse”.
From the back, they brought out a massive untrimmed 15 pound pork shoulder with a two inch rim of fat. It had all the signs that it was in fact a shoulder, with the visible blade, but curiously, it offered two extra ribs on the end. From doing the butcher’s apprentice training this Winter, I learned how to break down whole animals for maximum utilization. When I saw the giant piece of pork, it kind of made me think that they were losing money where they could be selling two more expensive pork loin chops alongside their remaining ten pounds of pork shoulder.
They’ve got a giant chalkboard which, by 3 p.m. on a Friday was covered in red Xs denoting all the cuts of meat that they were out of. I feel fortunate and also slightly disheartened that we rarely run out of beef tenderloin at work. Out of a 1200 lb. animal, the tenderloin yields less than 8 lbs. As we don’t break down whole cows ourselves, we are not force to deal with the creative marketing it takes to push other cuts of meat to ensure proper utilization.
Left on the board were ‘Flatiron of beef’, ‘Top Round’, ‘Tri Tip’, and of the cuts that were out of stock, there were a few that I don’t hear very often, ‘Vacio’, ‘Bavette’, ‘Paleron’, ‘Baseball Steak’. Looking them up when I got home, I realized that Paleron is another cut of Flatiron, just a top blade roast, Vacio is from under the sirloin resembling a skirt steak, and Bavette is also of the skirt/flank variety. As for the baseball steak, the best answer I can glean from the internet is that it’s a thick piece of top sirloin steak that puffs up like a baseball when cooked. Curious.
I finished my sandwich and made my way back down south.

IMG_1613***
I’m going to get out more, riding my bike because it’s Spring. Fresh vegetables are coming soon, along with the Pilsen Community Farmer’s Market, meaning Sundays will be the day to stock up on things for culinary projects throughout the week. I’m pretty excited to start with the curing of meats, as well as pickling anything and everything I can get my hands on. Our neighbor gave us a bread starter the other day, so there will be fresh bread in our future, and that is something to be excited about.

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.

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.

Taking a little breather here between courses. A friend recently started a blog and website for his farm in Southern Indiana, Ghostwood Farm. 

In addition to being awesomely named, it’s a working chemical free farm that began running test crops in 2011, and will be up and running with laying and meat chickens for 2012, as well as set crops of asparagus, melons, corn, and a bunch of other excellent produce.

How do I know it will be excellent? In addition to being a no-nonsense place where barnyard animals can coexist in the acreage with crops and wildlife, it’s run by a couple of hard working environmental scientists who actually care about what they raise, how they raise it, and their relationship with nature and how it affects what they choose to share with the public and their own family in terms of food.

Over at the website, read Adam’s first blog post.  It’s contemplative, articulate, and thought provoking. A lot of questions have been asked of me to show where the food comes from, and how it gets the way it does. I can do it a little bit, but Adam is your guy for this. Study up. With blogging, he’s just starting out, but I see good things coming from both the blog and the farm.

Also, check out their page on Facebook. Become a fan, and keep abreast of everything happening down on the farm.

A Continuation of  Straight from the Vine(yard) pt. 1

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Where were we? Ah, yes. About to make a dinner. This was the bounty that we had to work with:

It was quite bounteous, the bounty

If I get stuff at the Farmer’s Market, as a general rule, I don’t mess with it too much. The salad that we made really didn’t need a whole lot of fancy bells, so we spun the greens, chopped up some snap peas, and incorporated some fresh herbs in there. We had picked up a Maple Balsamic Vinaigrette at the market, with which we lightly dressed the salad. We sliced a loaf of french bread, boiled the potatoes and tossed them with a chive compound butter, and grilled the scapes with a simple olive oil, salt and pepper coating.

With the fish, I really didn’t want to mess with it at all. I patted it dry and took it out of the fridge, salting and peppering the skin and the flesh. In one of the cupboards, we found some cedar planks, so those were soaked, and within an hour, we had loaded our simple fish, topped with fresh dill, and put them on the grill.

Over a lower flame, for about fifteen minutes, the fish cooked on the covered grill. By the time the smoke wafted in to the kitchen, everyone was ready to eat. Granted, we had been snacking on smoked bluefish spread the entire time, but we were ready to sit down and enjoy a great meal together.

The Madre had made a sangria with bits of rhubarb, which was chilly and refreshing, and with a toast to a wonderful day on the town and a surely lovely evening to come, we ate. As people who have had a delicious dinner are prone to do, we then played the hit game, Apples to Apples.

The next morning, we took a drive across the island to the scenic (aren’t they all scenic towns on MV? Here, I’ll answer for you. Yes. Yes, they are) Edgartown, one of the oldest whaling ports on the Eastern Seaboard. All of the houses lining the marina were glorious Captain’s residences appointed with picket fences, rose gardens and Widow’s Walks. We bought ice cream and cupcakes along the way, and as the sun slumped lower in the sky, we walked out to the lighthouse, one of a handful on the island, with a history that went back to the days of Mickey Rooney as Lampy in the wondrous tale of Pete’s Dragon. (That was a documentary, right?)

One of many shingled houses in Edgartown

Thankfully, no Whaling wives were walking on our self-guided tour.

Uncle Greg and the Lighthouse Attendant, looking at something important.

We came back to the house that evening, with boutique cupcakes in tow, and had some Grandma’s Pizza trucked in from Long Island. I’ve never had a pizza called that other than out on the East Coast, and it turns out to be a Long Island staple that over the last years, has made its way into and been co-opted by Brooklyn pizzerias. It’s a rustic, Sicilian style pizza, topped with olive oil, crushed tomatoes, chopped garlic, and a smattering of mozzarella cheese. So, yeah. Old style. Great for reheating, and gives the family from Long Island a little nostalgic flavor of home. Pretty good stuff.

The next day, we spent some time on the beach, far away from the prying eyes of high society, wherein we collected rocks and bits of shells, sunned ourselves (the setting of “roast” on the sun is a degree of doneness that my Midwestern Scandinavian skin will gladly accommodate), and schlepped back to the house for some salad, cheeses, iced tea, pasta, grilled leftover vegetables, and smoked fish. As Aunt Carol put it, “nobody on the island is eating like us right now”, and to be honest, I had to agree with her.

The next morning, we woke up and took ourselves for a day in Oak Bluffs. We walked among the shops, picking up a couple knickknacks and gewgaws along the way. as we were waiting for our dinner reservations at a local brewpub, Uncle Greg and I took a quick walking tour of the Methodist campgrounds, an early settlement of picturesque “gingerbread houses”. Originally, small lots were leased for Methodist retreats during the summertime, and over time, the empty lots were replaced by these tiny but intricately detailed summer homes of which over 300 exist today.

Also, while we were waiting, we made our way past the oldest operating carousel in the United States, complete with a Brass Ring. Granted, the horses looked like this:

and if that wasn’t enough, there was this other reminder of childhood ambition gone wrong:

but just as Something Wicked that way Came, something Big was around the corner.

It was a delicious dinner at the local brewpub. We had two woodfired pizzas, delicious fresh calamari with a spicy remoulade, and the best fish and chips either of us had ever eaten. I’ve eaten a lot of fish and chips in my day, and this was the freshest, simplest, lightest fried cod I’ve tasted. When you eat a steak, a lot of times, overall success of the steak eating experience is gauged on toughness, flavor, and degree of doneness, but rarely freshness. A sear on the outside and cooking anywhere over a medium will mask whatever freshness the steak is lacking fairly well. With fish, though, it’s easily identified, as for lack of a better term, the aroma will tell you straight away what’s fresh and what’s not. Most people, as smell is a huge part of sensing and enjoying a meal, never get past the initial whiff of a dish as it comes to the table, as fish is consistently served in landlocked areas at less than ideal freshness. For this reason, fish in the Midwest is ordered more seldom, mostly because of the smell. I wonder, then, knowing that fish can indeed arrive to the Midwest at almost optimal freshness, just how many pieces of prime seafood sit in someone’s walk-in cooler because people have been turned off by the smell.

The fish here smelled like nothing other than the waves lapping at the beach. Breaking into it to let out the steam, still, nothing was too overbearing. After that, the flavor of the fish, needing nothing so much as even a squeeze of lemon, left me feeling fully satisfied.

Our last day was spent at an Alpaca farm, where we walked through barns filled with animals that looked and smelled like both hipsters and how we’d imagine Falkor from the Neverending Story to present himself.

Hipster

Falkor

We petted them, picked up some hats and woolen items for friends and family, despite our judgment for winterwear being clouded by the 90 degree heat, and moved back to the house for a day at the beach.

That night, we went back to Vineyard Haven, home of the Ferry Terminal and Carly Simon’s Midnight Farm shoppe, for dinner. We walked around the town, saw the famous Black Dog tavern, and wound down the evening with burgers and a march along the side streets, pondering an idyllic life among the tourists and locals.

The next morning, I packed up my gear and went back to the airport for a flight back to Chicago in time for work the next morning at six A.M. The lady, staying with the family in Connecticut for another five days, dropped me off at the terminal on her way back to the ferry, and away I flew through the clouds.

Martha’s Vineyard is a delight. If you’re not in the thick of tourists wading around looking for Ice Creams and Island hot spots, you realize that time slows down, and you can actually relax under a sky of blue and a sea of green and also blue. If you ever go, take it slow. Enjoy your time away from the city, and go as far off the map as your vacation can take you. Sometimes staying at the far tip of an island can feel like you’re at the end of the world, ready to fall off into the ocean. Just remember that if you fall in, there’s still room to enjoy yourself. 

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.

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