If ever there was a city on the radar for exceptional dining, Chicago is it right now. It’s home to some of the most innovative and award winning restaurants around (think Alinea, NoMi Kitchen, Next, The Girl and the Goat…) as well as a wealth of traditional eats, such as pizza and hot dogs.
My birthday week featured dining galore in this fun city with expert steerage from long time friends Diane and Will. We chowed down on the quintessential loaded Chicago dog, shared a great deep dish pizza and shopped a uber liquor warehouse, returning home with a cache of interesting finds. Beyond that, yes, way beyond, were the cutting edge and rather retro cocktails at numerous hot spots after an evening at Steppenwolf Theatre.
I must note a fantastical evening spent at restaurant Elizabeth, on my official birthday. A hand full of very game diners, filled the place, seated family style at three tables. A full dining room seats 24 or so guests with an option of three menus, all with a foraging theme. Owner Iliana Regan, a self taught chef,calls her cuisine “New Gatherer” and offers three menus, the Owl, the Deer and the Diamond. Diane and I choose the middle option, the Deer menu. We strapped in for a four hour, fifteen course crazy ride. The meal was so unusual, so regional and locally sourced ( for instance,one course was named for the coordinates where the food was foraged) that my description will not do it justice. I recommend learning more about this unique dining experience from their site. www.elizabeth-restaurant.com
One of the things that I most like about a the slow season in Maine is the opportunity to stretch out a little and consider learning something new. So, with a bit of time on my hands this winter I spoke with Allison Lakin of Lakin’s Gorges Cheese. She’s the creator of cheeses that I know and learned to love at many of the finer dining establishments around the area. Working presently out of a leased space in the State of Maine Cheese building on Route 1 in Rockport, she turns out lovely fresh basket molded ricotta as well as some aged beauties such as Opus 42, Morgan, Medallion, a smaller aged cheese with a bloomy rind, and my personal favorite, Prix De Diane.
Explaining that I had little experience cheese making, I asked whether she’d like an occasional helper. She said yes and what fun it was! I have made plenty of tofu in times past, and turns out that it’s not so different. Especially from Ricotta cheese making, only I never used molding baskets “back in the day.”
Cleanliness is of the utmost importance in this process. You want to cultivate certain cultures, but not others. There are shoe dips, hand washing and hairnets involved. No fuzzy sweaters allowed either I learned.
It all begins with organic Jersey milk from Tide Mill Farm in Edmunds. Jersey milk is noted for its high butterfat content. For ricotta cheese this high quality milk is warmed in a special jacketed piece of equipment then vinegar is added to create the curds and whey. Lots of whey is a by product of cheese and forethought must be given to it’s disposal. When the curds form, it’s like magic. Warm, sweet, steamy milky magic. It reminded me of Junket rennet custard, which those of us “of a certain age” got fed as children. Initially the curds are silky, then tighten up to very cohesive curds, which mold quickly to the basket, then are turned out after draining.
The aged cheeses are a little more mysterious. The curds have a different quality and are ladled carefully, by hand into their distinctive draining molds.The largest wheels, the 6 pound Opus 42 and the half pound Morgan , both mold ripened cheeses, age for up to three months. The smaller softer bloomy rind cheeses require 4-6 weeks.
All these aged cheeses rest comfortably in their temperature controlled vaults doing what beautiful handmade cheeses do….ripen to perfection under the watchful eye of Ms. Lakin, a master cheese maker.
Let’s begin by defining “foodways”. Wikipedia defines this term as “the cultural, social and economic practices relating to the production and consumption of food tied to larger social and economic factors.
Immediately noted by me, an enthusiastic eater of regular meals, Argentina is a night culture and a cafe culture.Meals do not occur on an American schedule. The Argentine people eat four meals a day, which must be necessary for staying up half the night.
Their breakfast or desayuno is a light meal of coffee or mate, medialunas ( pastry) and jam or dulce de leche, sometimes bread and cold cuts. Mate is worth a discussion. While everyone drinks it and it is traditional to do so,it seems to be considered a bit of a vice. Probably much like drinking coffee is here in the US. Less fortunate folk drink it to excess to stave off hunger, I was told and it’s not uncommon to see working class people carting around their thermos of hot water along with their mate gourd or calabazo and straw or bombilla. While it contains caffeine and is stimulating, it is also relaxing with a deeply vegetal flavor which is quite enjoyable.
Lunch, or almuerzo, features meat and vegetables or salad. In the larger cities I noted several vegetarian buffets, popular as lunch spots and incredibly good values. Perhaps a rebuttal to the famous Argentine beef, which is heavily favored in most meals, sometimes prepared in the Milanese style, or pounded and breaded.
After work its “tea time”, which means time to linger forever in one of the ubiquitous street side cafes, over either tea or a “cafe solo” and lots of conversation. Maybe you prefer yours “con leche?” At this time tapas- like snacks or little pannini are consumed with gusto. This is a good thing since dinner won’t be until 10 p.m. or later. My traveling companion and I got called “grandmothers” for wanting to eat by 8 or 9 pm. Hey, we’re not even mothers, just can’t sleep on a full stomach. Returning to the cafes …many are associated with particular artistic or literary, political or student groups and are important within the social context of the city. It’s nice to see people giving themselves permission to converse passionately and spend time together with nothing seeming to pressure them. I feel it’s time well spent.
The people in Buenos Aires love their snacks. I noticed the bakeries doing a booming business at all times of day selling delicious varieties of empanadas (think beef, chicken, seafood,Caprise, mushroom, pork….) and other savory snacks or cookies galore. Like the Alfajore sandwich cookie. They ought to be illegal and are so good with their filling of dulce de leche or jam and chocolate coat. I saw more carbonated water being consumed that sodas, but the show stopper of any drink I had in the country was a fabulous “slushy” of heavily gingered lemonade. Completely refreshing , you can bet I will be making this at home this summer.
Cena, or dinner, is unfathomably late in the evening and is the largest meal of the day. Since Italians settled this place, it’s all reminding me of Rome. You can get Italian bitters like Frenet Branca anywhere after a meal. Even on your mini bar . Oh joy! I ate at some great steak joints and I can tell you that the beef is amazing, thick, juicy, delicious and all grass fed. usually, a steak dinner is offered with salad choices, side vegetables and lots of good red wine. I didn’t notice many desserts eaten in the evening.
If you want a traditional “asado” , or barbeque, you must go into the country where the cattlemen are……. or befriend a traditionalist and hope for an invitation to a family affair. The religion is to cook over wood coals, never flame. A full compliment of meats (beef, lamb, sometimes goat, always sausage) will be roasting , often flayed open and whole. Grilled vegetables and many side salads will be offered up as well a Chimichurri sauce.Everything is mopped up with crusty bread, washed down with good red wine and eaten off wooden plates.
Back in the city, those out for the evening will continue drinking and dancing…tango is huge, tho sadly not with the youth so much. But you’d better pace yourselves. Oh, and bring your sunglasses. The younger set strike out after 1am. Things heat up by 3 am and, to our surprise, they’re still at it Sunday morning at 10 am, sunglasses on and piling out of the clubs and onto the sidewalks. Suddenly eating dinner late is making all the sense in the world!
I noticed salmon on most restaurant menus in Buenos Aires and , while on a side trip to Chile, I remembered why. we saw salmon and mussel farms everywhere while traveling thru the fiords of Chile. They look innocent enough but the waters, once pristine, are suffering and the eco systems are dying. Most of the world’s salmon is now coming from Chile and while tasty, is it good to remember the cost of farmed fish. I am happy to report that the wild trout are still plentiful and were biting for me! I caught an 18 inch beautiful brown trout, with sweet pink salmon-like flesh.
Did I mention ice cream? It is done in the Italian gelato style and called helado. The ice cream of Argentina is very rich and wonderful and comes in very exotic flavors, Andean chocolate became my favorite ( a mix of bitter chocolate, dulce de leche and Patagonian walnuts), but you can get rosehip too and a variety of other inventive flavors!
About visiting Argentina in December……..it’s early summer there, the lupines , wild orchids and Scotch broom are in full bloom, kids are getting out of school for summer vacation and it’s Christmas! The farms are also producing wonderful vegetables, nuts and fruits, honey, hops and berries of all varieties, cherries, strawberries, gooseberries and calafate, the mystery berry of Argentina. It’s a type of dark berry from a barberry bush. It’s said if you eat these berries, you’ll return for another stay. I bought some jam which I’ve not tasted yet, but I will keep you posted! I fully intend to return to this beautiful place for further adventure in the Patagonia.
Can’t go tropical this year due to personal budget cuts? Me either. But I am revisiting one of my favorite recent vacations, Puerto Rico, from a culinary point of view. We’ll just have to imagine the sea and sand and tropical breezes……
Sofrito, Adobo and Annato were terms much bandied about in Latin cooking, but that didn’t mean that i really understood what they were. That is until I visited the magical island of Puerto Rico. I soon decided that “getting into one’s bathing suit” and Mofongo, their national dish of plantains with pork cracklings and pork stew didn’t really go together.
I came to love the island cooks delicious and deeply orange-y take on Arroz con Pollo, colored with Achiote oil or Annato seeds, Adobo,the richly flavored rub for meats or poultry and the basic seasoning behind so many traditional island foods we call Sofrito.
Here are recipes for preparing each
and a recipe to practice your “Latin’ on……
ANNATO OR ACHIOTE is the seed of a tropical tree. If you can’t find them in a speciality market, i sometimes use a good paprika to achieve the rich reddish color that predominates in much Latin cooking.
FOR ANNATO OIL…..All you do is cook the ANNATO seeds, good paprika or saffron (if you are feeling flush and can’t find annato) until sizzling in lard or oil until you get that nice red-orange color. Do not overheat the oil or it will turn an off color. Cool a bit then strain out the seeds. Keep this oil in the refrigerator and use by the spoonful for recipes like Chicken with Rice.
ADOBO is a blend of ingredients used to rub a unique flavor into meat or poultry. This recipe is appropriate for one pound of meat or chicken.
1 tsp black peppercorns, whizzed in a coffee blender (I keep one in my kitchen for nothing but pepper)
1 clove of garlic, peeled and minced
1/4 tsp. of fresh or dried oregano, minced or crumbled.
1tsp. sea salt
1/2 tsp olive oil
1/2 tsp. fresh lime juice
Mix all ingredients together and rub into your meat or chicken throughly, let marinate for several hours for the best taste.
SOFRITO the seasoning behind so many native dishes
1 oz salt pork
2 oz. lean cured ham these are optional, you can make a great vegetarian version. You may want to add some salt to this recipe if salt pork is not used.
1/4 cup vegetable oil or lard
1/2 lb green pepper
1/2 lb. white onion, peeled
1/4 lb sweet red peppers
1 small head of garlic peeled
a small bunch of cilantro
1 TB dried oregano
Wash all ingredients, seed them and cut into small pieces
Additional 1/4 cup of vegetable oil
Pour the first 1/4 cup of veg oil into a blender and gradually add all the pork, vegetables and oregano and grind them up.
In a heavy kettle, pour the second 1/4 cup of oil into the pot. Bring to a medium heat and add the ground mixture. Bring up to a boil over high heat, then reduce to a simmer and let it cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Allow to cool, season with Tabasco to taste.
A great way to use and keep Sofrito is to make ice cubes with it and keep them handy in the freezer, pulling out a few at a time to make a dish. They don’t stick together.Two to three cubes will suffice for a dish that feeds 6-8 people.
ARROZ CON POLLO serves six people
1/4 cup of annato oil
1- 4 pound chicken, cut into ten pieces
kosher salt and ground pepper
1/2 cup sofrito
1/4 cup coarsely chopped green pimento stuffed olives(alacaparrado)
1 tsp. cumin
pinch of ground cloves
4 cups of long grain brown rice
5 cups of homemade chicken stock
11/2 cups of roasted red peppers, cut into strips
Choose an attractive Paella pan or something that you can bring to the table for serving.It must have a tight fitting lid. In this large shallow pan , heat the Annato oil until it ripples. Add the salt and pepper seasoned chicken to the pan, only as many as you can without crowding them, so you’ll be working in batches browning the chicken and cooking it almost through. Set it aside.
When the chicken has been cooked, add the sofrito and alaacaparrado, season to taste with more S&P and the cumin and clove. Raise the heat and simmer off some of the water from the sofrito.
Stir in the rice and coat with the seasonings. Return the chicken to the pan and add enough broth to cover the rice by a width of two fingers (an inch ,basically). Bring the rice to a boil and cook until the broth reaches the level of the rice. Stir and cover the pot tightly, reducing the heat to low. Let it cook until the rice is tender but firm, about 20 more minutes. Fluff the rice with a fork, garnish with the red pepper strips and bring the whole pot of chicken and rice to the table. If you don’t have a great looking pan, you may arrange the contents attractively on a large platter and dig in while hot.
Absolutely delicious and cheaper than air fare! Laura
When you sign on for an exotic trip, one has a good idea that there will be a deviation from the norm. Some of these detours may take you out of your comfort zone and that’s when the fun begins. Call me an optimist, but when the going gets tough, that’s when I hope to learn something about myself.
New sights and smells abound in a new country, new attitudes about all facets of life emerge….. usually different and interesting foods …..and protocol to go with them. Then there is the organic element, microbes, sun and heat, unfamiliar farm animals and fry oil. Add to that a noisy crowd, neon and raging bulls, stifling heat and unfamiliar snack foods. That’s a costa Rican rodeo or “fiesta” and EVERYONE from miles around is there. Happening but once a year,it’s a long awaited chance for cowboys to show their “stuff”…..bulls, horses, western wear and skill. I soon realized that it’s a rare chance to “see and be seen”, a happy hunting ground for both sexes.
That’s where I found myself on one tropical night last February ,flanked on either side by my knowledgeable and excellent hosts, both veterans of these things.Wisely, we’d had several cocktails at home to bolster us before the grueling and bumpy ride to the fair grounds. Seems it is OK to drive under the influence in Costa Rica. They have bigger problems. Like fixing the roads.
The “feel’ of the place when we arrived was like a Dead concert, swarming with young people. But these kids were high on warm beer and chicharrones. That’s fried pork rinds for the uninitiated. The dust is thick, the place swelteringly hot, the smell is unabashedly of horse ,sweat and manure.
So what does one wear to these things? Why, six inch heels, skin tight jeans and a peek-a-boo top. Silly me , I’d chosen flats, linen and “not your mothers jeans”…….hmm, maybe that’s why I wasn’t getting noticed. Until I stepped up to the snack bar. THAT’S where I can strut my stuff. I’ve been told “for a lady, you sure can chow”, not the best thing to hear on date night. But amongst Central American farmers and teenagers I gleaned a bit of respect for my adventuresome spirit and awe inspiring capacity ,if nothing else. Yup, that was me, sampling the empanadas with spicy pork, chicken tamales in banana leaves, the fried rinds, fried rice and fried egg rolls (don’t ask me why, but there is a lot of Chinese food around) AND more of the local beer over ice cubes. Oh yeah. It’s a boiler maker of food.
Time for the action to begin and we enter the bull riding arena. We try to find a spot away from the loud speakers and the dust. Not too high up on the bleachers, please. I am feeling queasy even before the deafening music begins and the riders and cowboys are introduced. Folks are guzzling warm beer and munching banana chips, the smell of greasy pulled pork is wafting my way. I begin to sweat in ernest. The locals are watching with interest as their homeboys are announced. Two handsome cowboys and their shiny Pasofino horses enter the ring done up to the nines in show tack. They prance in showing off their unusual gait. The cowboys’ entertain us with their roping skills using the lariat. They’ll be the ones controlling the bull for safety when he throws the rider off.
Of course their are clowns, some really scary clowns. They help too. It’s quickly becoming like a Fellini film and the arena is beginning to spin, the crowd tilting sideways. Did I mention the very drunk college kids on spring break jockeying for position in the ring while taunting the bull? Try texting while you cheat death. They were. I learned that there is some kind of warped honor in touching the bull without getting killed. Drunk American kids! At least I know MY limits
Suddenly, it was me wishing for death as all the foreign elements of my snacky meal began to do combat. Just in time for the first bull out and the immediate and highly unfortunate goring which quickly followed. They took him out on a stretcher, not to return and I ran out right after him to wait in the car.
Not sure I ever need to view another “fiesta”, but if I do, it will surely be on an empty stomach.