Sunday, February 17, 2008

Cabin Fever Crescendo

Yesterday, Sharon, my dear friend, Bob, and I went out to dinner. We stopped at our usual haunt, what Bob refers to as "Cheers," because everyone knows our names. After a cocktail, a nosh of chicken nachos (when ordering I stated 'Enjoy these now, you'll regret this tomorrow!'), and some conversation, we were struck by the impulse for adventure! Let's face it, it's February and cabin fever has set in hard. More so for Bob, due to a recent medical set back that landed him in bed for the last three weeks! So, let's just say we were all itching to get outside. We started to craft our plan; we would bounce from 'Cheers' and head into the city.

We all love going into the city. This is a given, but last night was not just for a diversion, rather we went for a soul cleansing. We needed to remind ourselves we were adults, big people, not prisoners of our busy lives. We were on a quest for cocktails and a decent nosh!
We landed first at the 'W' Hotel on Adams Street. Bob hadn't been there yet and it's a fun place to stop for a quick toast. It's odd when a hotel lobby becomes a destination. Hotel lobbies are supposed to be that space you pass through to get to your room. But the W has presented a lounge, a dark moody chic space to sit and feel like one of the pretty people. The drinks are expensive and the noshes are okay at best. But, we were not there for dinner; we were there for the atmosphere. We stuck around for a couple of cocktails then bounced again.

In the car, the destination was set. We had to go to our favorite restaurant in the Loop; we had to see some great art, we had to take Bob someplace he hadn't been, I had to make a call and find out where the hell I was going.

We were heading to Frontera Grill.
Frontera Grill for those who don't know, it is the premier space in Chicago for authentic Mexican/Yucatan dishes and is owned by Chef Rick Bayless. Sharon and I love this place. The art work alone is reason to come again and again, but that fun loving Mr. Bayless even offers you food!

Not just any food but amazingly honest food. When I say honest, I mean food that speaks of itself, its heritage, and its history. Frontera Grill presents dishes of simple abundance. We had the combination plate, mainly because we couldn't decide. Although next time I'm asking for a huge order of guacamole. Frontera makes the best guacamole of any place. It's even better than mine! We stayed for a couple of hours talking and enjoying the space and the food. As we started to leave we walked around the restaurant to look at the art collection. I know this sounds odd, to be viewing art in a restaurant, but I actually recommend this. As we stood looking at some art in the hallway downstairs, an employee asked if we had seen the Morales Room. Morales Room? There's more? We of course said we hadn't and were led to a back hall to see some more art. Then it got wild. A host at the restaurant, asked if we would like to see the collection in the upstairs offices.

Now I ask you, if someone asks if you want to go to the secret stash of art, would you say 'no'?

I didn't think so, so a moment later we were standing in the back offices of Frontera. My head was swimming as we saw piece after piece of amazing artwork, my favorite being the sculpture of a skeleton being tormented by dragons representing the seven deadly sins. It was very colorful and poignant. A few steps down a hall and we saw the test kitchen. My foodie heart was bursting. It was a small galley kitchen, very nice to say the least. As we turned, we noticed a large conference room lined with books. It was explained that this was only 1/3rd of Mr. Bayless' collection. The titles were from all over the world and you could see how Frontera has stayed on the top of its game for the last twenty years. The knowledge in this room alone speaks of dedication. We left shortly thereafter, and giggled back to the car. The evening ended shortly after, as it was getting late and we were all tired after an evening's adventure.

Last night's memories will be the topic of many conversations. I'll have to get in touch with Rick Bayless for some help with some coming articles; maybe that molé article I have been working on.

So, today is the day after the adventure. Yes, we regret the chicken nachos (even the dog won't sit with me) and yes, our souls are cleansed. We are still adults, big people, with busy and amazing lives.
Hopefully Mr. Bayless won't be upset, but here's the guacamole recipe from his website.
Tangy Green Guacamole
Makes 3 generous cups, enough for 8 to 12 guests as a snack with chips or vegetable slices.
The avocados for this lusciously thick, tangy and satisfying variation on the old standard should be soft enough to give under firm pressure, but not be so soft (over-ripe) that they are easily dented or have a loose pit shaking around in them. The roasty flavors of the tomatillos, garlic and onions are the perfect way to underscore the naturally nutty flavors of avocados–especially Hass avocados, the pebbly dark-skin ones. Though this guacamole improves if made an hour or so ahead, it stays looking fresh and green for slightly longer than traditional guacamole (the acidity of the tomatillos helps here), but don't make it more than 3 or 4 hours in advance.



Remove the little nub of stem that is still usually lodged at the top of each avocado. Cut each avocado in half by slicing straight down through that spot where the stem was attached, until you reach the pit, then rotating the knife all the way around the pit. Twist the two halves apart, then scoop out the pits. With a spoon, scoop out the soft flesh from the skins, collecting it in a large bowl as you go. Coarsely mash with the spoon (or you can use an old-fashioned potato masher or large fork).

Gently stir the salsa into the avocado mixture, along with the cilantro. Taste and season with salt. Cover with plastic wrap directly on the surface and refrigerate until you're ready to serve. (Not only will the guacamole improve if made half an hour or so before serving, but also it will maintain its fresh look longer if served cold.) Scoop into a decorative bowl, garnish with cilantro sprigs and you're ready to set it out for your guests to enjoy.

Recipe from
Salsas That Cook by Rick Bayless with JeanMarie Brownson and Deann Groen Bayless.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Milk Shakes or Why You Should Never Buy an Immersion Blender

A couple of years ago, I decided it was time I had an immersion blender or what some Food TV Chefs call, 'A Boat Motor.' This is basically a hand held device with a motor at the top and a blender's blade on an extension at the base. There are God knows how many versions of the simple home version I had, in what amounts to a lawn motor engine connected to an outboard boat prop. So there I was, triumphant with my purchase. I had battled the retail stores and had come home with my new toy! I immediately started sorting out ways to use my new gadget; potato soups, sauces or gravies, no none of these. Then it hit me I knew the perfect first dish… I would make the kids a milkshake! Right about now is when I should have had someone tell me to step away from the shiny wrapping on the box, to go and wait for the adrenaline to ebb. But no, I was left on my own and I immediately started working out the milkshake, knowing that success would secure my place in the kid's hearts.

Let's see milkshake, milkshakes. When you look in history, they started as a restorative given to invalids and children and typically contained whiskey. Wait, a milkshake cocktail! I would have to try that next, but the kids would come first. A milkshake is rather easy; some milk, ice cream, and flavoring if necessary and blend. Ok, I can do that:

  1. Milk. Check. Got it in four kinds; skim, 2%, half and half, and whipping cream.
  2. Ice Cream. I had some homemade in the deep freeze from a couple of days before.

I had been working out different recipes when I finally settled on a French or custard style. This is an ice cream with an egg base. Turns out most high end ice creams are egg and cream based. The egg adds an extra creaminess and stabilizes the mixture. Handy for the home cook but a bit more labor intensive. This style of ice cream dates all the way back to the 17th century when those crazy French chefs started making ice cream with 20 egg yolks per pint called Glace au Barre, "Ice Butter!" Mine was a less egg intensive and I had made sure to use an ice cream machine that would allow for extremely small ice crystals or at least as small as I could manage. Big ice crystals mean grainy ice cream; little ice crystal results in creamy, dense ice cream. Why? Ever frozen cream by itself? Think ice cube of cream. Not good enough, than look here. I'll explain.

  1. Flavor. I was going for chocolate so I used instant chocolate milk powder and syrup. (I would later regret this as I pealed children off the ceiling from the sugar high.)

So I set to work. By now, I had a hanger on anticipating my end product and I am sure somewhat doubtful of my success. Into the mixing cup I dropped three scoops vanilla ice cream, some milk and a couple of scoops of instant chocolate milk and syrup. I plunged the immersion blender blade in and pressed the button. The motor whirred and did nothing. I had just learned my first lesson. This was a home model not the industrial lawn mower engine model. I had just seized the motor and was on my way to a replacement. I reset and started more cautiously. A few moments later I was whirring away and the milkshake was coming together. The look on the small face to my side said I had achieved mythic levels of ability and would forever known as a hero. My task completed, I finished of the drink with a straw and a bit of whipped cream from the can, after first initiating the child in the time honored practice of first squirting some in your mouth. (Don't tell me you've never!). I started to clean up when another child came to my side asking if I could make her one. I, of course, agreed and before long had made a couple more. When I decided since I had come this far, I would try my hand at the cocktail version for Sharon and myself. For this I went with Godiva Chocolate liqueur, a shot of vodka, some half and half, and the ice cream. Sharon was amazed and appreciative and I am sure I had taken on a new luster of manliness. (I can dream!). I cleaned up and set back to bask in my glory.

Had the story ended here all would be well, but the next day I was asked for a repeat performance. I was tired from work but agreed and repeated the whole process, happy to see everyone with their desserts, and again sure that I was winning my place in their hearts. By day five, I had come to hate my new blender. I secretly cursed the shiny packaging and the retailer. The phrase, "KC, can I please have a milkshake?", began to echo in my ears, and I could sense the coming of the request. My life had taken a turn; I was now the slave of the immersion blender and the milkshake. Thankfully, the motor would burn out after a few months (seems if you keep purposefully locking up the blade, the motor will eventually give up the ghost), and I would get the Cuisinart I have today. I then proceeded to let everyone know that this was not the same as the last one and it could not make milk shakes. Of course, this was a lie. This new machine was a definite upgrade, but I had made a lie of self preservation and, as such, it was a good, happy, white lie. Yes, this is a rationalization and an excuse but can you blame me?!? I still get the requests for a milk shake, but now I use the stand blender and make a big show of the work involved. Sharon rolls her eyes and just chuckles at my play acting.

So friends and neighbors, take my advice. The next time you're at the store and you spot that bright shiny wrapping on the immersion blender, stop and remember this simple phrase "KC, may I please have a milkshake?"

What's all this talk of Ice crystals!

All Ice cream consists of these basic parts; Ice Crystals, Concentrated Cream and Air. If you look at ice cream through a microscope you would see ice crystals and coating them would be a highly concentrated liquid of sugar and milk proteins (by the way this mixture of sugar and proteins won't freeze until 0o/-18oC. That's why your grandmother's ice cream maker had you add salt to the ice. The salt lowered the freezing temperature of the ice, that's also why you salt roads in the winter.) Next to this is an air bubble or pocket. So, if the ice crystals are big, the pockets of air are big and the whole thing is grainy. Think slush. But if you start churning the frozen mixture the ice crystals start to break up. The crystals get smaller the air pockets get tighter and everything starts looking and feeling creamier. The best ice creams have worked out a balance between these three parts typically water is 60%, sugar is 15% and milk protein is 10%-20%.

Friday, February 1, 2008

The Spice Rack and The Resume

Sharon, my lady love, and I were at dinner the other night talking, as we always do about our day and the coming weekend. So, this all makes sense. You need to know that Sharon is an executive recruiter. Before you start in with the jokes, yes, she's a head hunter and no, we don’t have any shrunken heads, although I'm willing to start a collection. Anyway, Sharon was talking about how, in her field, they look for the perfect resume for a client. Perfect resume? Like this actually exists! It seems what they should really be looking for is a resume with the perfect flaws.
We all have flaws on our resume; it’s like my spice cabinet. There are some great spices in there and when I open the door I am at once reminded of great memories of my grandmother. Her spice cabinet was the perfect balance of sweet and savory. Although I am sure she would have said it’s a balance of triumphs and tragedies. There are spices that you purchase that are like career moves that you make with the best intentions. For one reason or another things didn't work out with the job, or the dish fell in like a soufflĂ© that came out too early. After the dust settles and the dishes are cleaned, you’re left with this resume flub or a tin of spice you don’t know what to do with. So, you put it up in the cabinet and move on. But, like a bitter taste, it occasionally bites back. In the end, you balance out your cabinet of spices and the old familiar scent returns. You move forward, still the reminder of the error is always there. When someone looks in they see the odd ingredient and make note. Much like an interviewer makes note of your career stumble.
I say cherish those reminders. That spice or that position was an invaluable experience. You learned what didn't work and you moved on. That knowledge led to the ability to not make the same mistake again; the ability to lead the march in a better direction. Will you make mistakes? Yes, but you won’t make the same one.
So, the next time someone asks you why you have this odd spice or the odd entry on your resume, just tell them that what they’re looking at is the history of exploration, which includes triumph and tragedy. It’s not the history that’s important; it’s the culmination of the experiences and what you've done with it.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Is it Chili or Chilli?

It's cold outside. This may be obvious for some, but I mean its really cold, like arctic cold, as if you may freeze in place, cold. OK. I'm exaggerating but its darn cold and I'm not happy about it. Its this time of year I start flipping through my recipes trying to find some comfort. Something that will stick to your ribs and warm you up from the inside. A meal in a bowl if you will.

That's when I remembered I still had some 'Back Yard Chili' in the deep freeze. I had made this batch up after the neighborhood Chili Cook-off and had frozen some of the base. Pulling that frozen block out, I dropped it my pot and commenced to the thawing. Slow simmering a can of diced tomatoes (I didn't feel like doing the work), some stock and a few adjustments later and I was slurping up a flash of last summer. The cold could come now, I was insulated from the inside.

So, this got me thinking of where chili came from.
Who thought up the idea that we should make this stew of peppers, tomatoes and meats?
Why is chili different all over America?
And where are my notes from last summer?

It turns out Chili has a vague past, or at least vague before the Civil War. Damn near everyone claims to be the first to have made it. Even a Nun from the 16th Century stating she had an out of body experience, went to America to preach Christianity and was given a recipe from the local Indians. Interestingly in Mexico , which most people would think is chili's source, there is the Diccionario de Mejicanismos, published in 1959, that defines Chili as:
"A detestable dish sold from Texas to New York City and erroneously described as Mexican."

What we call Chili is actually Chili con Carne which originally means beans in a spicy tomato sauce with meat. Now spicy sauces can be found all over Central America and what we call Chili most assuredly would have been a derivative of these basic sauces. Think French cuisine here. There are five (5) "Mother Sauces" from which a myriad of dishes derive. If you have ever watched a person make a mole' sauce, actually Aztec in origin but that's another post, you have seen a Mexican base to chili. Mexico has several sauces that become suspect. There's Mexican Cadillos (thick stews), moles, and adabos (thick sauces), which all resemble our Chili of today. They even have similar ingredients: various chili peppers, meat, onions, cumin, garlic. But these are not the American Chili. For American Chili we have to come forward in time to San Antonio, Texas. In an area, called Military Square, from the 1880's to 1937, the 'Chili Queens" sold Chili to residents, soldiers, and tourists.

The Chili Queens were a peculiarity of San Antonio. It all started when the Spanish army was stationed in this area. Latino women would make a stew with chili peppers for the soldiers. Over time, the army left but the Chili Queens found a new audience, the locals, and tourists. They made their chili at home, loaded it onto colorful 'chili wagons', and transported the wagons and chili to the plaza. They built mesquite fires on the square to keep the chili warm, lit their wagons with colored lanterns, and squatted on the ground beside their carts, dishing out chili to customers who sat on wooden stools to eat their fiery stew. A night was not considered complete without a visit to one of these "chili queens." In 1937, they were put out of business due to their inability to conform to sanitary standards, enforced in the town's restaurants (public officials objected to flies and poorly washed dishes). They were restored by Mayor Maury Maverick in 1939, but their stands were closed again shortly after the start of World War II. Chili wouldn't stop there. By the 1920's 'Chili Parlors' were sprouting up all over America and with them came local variation.

In Texas, the apparent home of Chili, beef would be the star. Not surprising, really considering that cattle and the herding of cattle (which I am sure has something to do with manifest destiny and a poor sense of direction) has been a major industry for centuries. Texas Chili is defined in one place as "made with beef stewed in its own sauce with spices added." Note the lack of beans, real Texas Chili doesn't have beans! Thus the International Chili Society's Rules and Regulations strictly forbid the use of pasta or beans, the addition of which results in immediate disqualification (and possibly a lynchin'!).

Cincinnati has possibly the most convoluted concept for Chili with thanks to a Macedonian immigrant, Tom (Athanas) Kiradjieff. He settled in Cincinnati and opened a hot dog stand with Greek food. Sadly business was lousy as the idea of international cuisine wouldn't start until post WWII and this was 1929. But, being the smart business men they were, they called their spaghetti "Chili." His "Five-way Chili" was a concoction of a mound of spaghetti topped with chili, chopped onion, red kidney beans, shredded yellow cheese, and served with oyster crackers and a side order of hot dogs topped with shredded cheese.

In Springfield, the Chili Parlors would take a semantic turn, thanks to a painter named Shehan. Seems ole' Shehan was painting a window for the Dew Chilli Parlor but spelled Chili with two L's The name stuck and to this day in Springfield, Illinois, Chili is spelled "Chilli." A fun side note is that in 1993, almost 90 years after Shehan's flub, the Illinois State Senate passed a resolution proclaiming that Springfield, Illinois, was to be the "Chilli Capital of the Civilized World." Texas may never forgive them.

In Hollywood, California, Chasen's Restaurant may be the home of the most famous of Chili. The owner of the restaurant, Dave Chasen (1899-1973), ex-vaudeville performer, kept the recipe a secret, entrusting it to no one. For years, he came to the restaurant every Sunday to privately cook up a batch, which he would freeze for the week, believing that the chili was best when reheated. "It is a kind of bastard chili" was all that Dave Chasen would divulge. During the filming of the movie Cleopatra in Rome, Italy, famous movie star, Elizabeth Taylor, had Chasen's Restaurant in Hollywood, California send 10 quarts of their famous chili to her. She supposedly paid $200 to have it shipped to her in Rome. Sadly, Chasen's restaurant closed in April of 1995.

So, with all this information, I set out to make a Chili. Not just any Chili, but one that would speak of its history. Chili that payed homage to the Chili Queens, of the depth of flavor of the 'Mother Sauces' of Mexico, that said it had spent some time rattling around the kitchens of America, and would beat my neighbor's 'cause he said I couldn't do it.

With this in mind, I made 'Back Yard Chili.' For the Texans, I left out the beans, but on competition day, I threw in a can of Pintos, drained.

Back Yard Chili:

3 lb Pork Shoulder
1 1/2 lb Andouli Sausage
2-3 Dried Chipotle Peppers
2-3 Dried Ancho Peppers
1 Dried Habanero
3-4 Roma Tomatoes
5 Tomatillos
2 Beef Steak Tomatoes
2 Jalapenos
3-4 Cloves Garlic
Salt and Pepper
1 Teaspoon Cumin
3 Cups Beef Stock

Building the base:

Braise Pork shoulder in roasting pan ( place in roasting pan and fill pan with enough water to come up 1/2 the side of the meat. Cover with aluminum foil and put in 300-325 degree oven) or foil for 2-3 hours or until fork tender. When ready pork should shred easily with two forks. Cut all the tomatoes and the jalapeno peppers in half. Then Cut the onion in quarters and place both the onion and the tomatoes on a parchment line sheet pan along with the garlic cloves and jalapeno peppers. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste and roast at 400 degrees for 20-25 minutes. When done the tomatoes will have loose skins and garlic will be soft. Remove skins from tomatoes and place in bowl to cool. Reserve fluid from roasting pan. Slice dried chili's in half lengthwise. In a cast iron skillet on medium heat 'toast' the peppers by placing them under a weight on the heated pan for 30 seconds. Remove to a food processors and pulsate until peppers are chopped down (this takes some patience) add 1/2 of the tomatoes and pulsate until incorporated. In a stew pot on medium heat put in your andoulli sausage until browned slightly. Remove to bowl and add in chili/tomato mixture and roasted vegetables along with fluid from roasted vegetables and beef stock. Let stew for 30 minutes to combine flavors. Add in meats and continue to cook until flavors are combined approx 1-2 hours. Let cool and separate into containers. Can be frozen for several months.

On the big day:
In slow cooker add 1 cup stock, 1 cup water, along with 3 cups Chili Base and 3 Diced and seeded Roma Tomatoes. Let cook for several hours (I did mine 1 1/2 hours) serve with sides of your liking.

Roast Chicken

I'm not sure what can be more satisfying than a chicken slowly browning over a bed of coals. Saddly in todays high speed life we have resorted to bland, dry, rotisserie chickens under plastic domes. Thankfully at my house the roasted chicken is a staple and a regular player in our diet. Even in the dead of winter I can be found firing up the charcoal grill with a bird lubed and ready.
One note, the gravy at the end is a bit unconventional but it's a crowd pleaser.


Roasted Chicken

1 Whole Roasting Chicken (aprox 4lbs)
4 sprigs Tarragon
1/2 cup butter
2 Yukon Gold Potatoes
1/4 cup Marsala or broth
Salt and Pepper

Clean Rinse and pat dry the Chicken. Place 3 sprigs of the tarragon in the cavity of the bird. Spread butter liberally over the Chicken. Slip fingers under the skin along the breast separating the two and spread with butter. Salt and pepper the outside and cavity of the Chicken. Place in a foil pan along with Quartered potato and sprinkle remaining tarragon over the potatoes. Pour Wine in base of pan and place over wood fire in grill or in oven set to 350 degrees. Roast for 25-30 degrees or until liquid runs clear when cut into the thigh. Remove from heat and let rest 5-10 minutes. I recommend carving the bird so those great juices stay in the pan and can become another part of the drippings gravy.


Whisk together dripping in pan until fully incorporated and spoon over potatoes and chicken.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Hello my name is KC.

Hello, my name is KC and I am a cooking show junky.

I can't get enough of them, you name it I'm probably watching it or DVR'ing it so I can watch it later. (That is when the kids take a break from Hanna Montana and the like.) But recently I'm finding myself craving something different. It seems cooking shows have become venues for more schtick than substance. Online recipe sites have become overwhelming and tracks of duplication. Truely, how many variations of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich do we need?

How about a different concept?
How about recipes that have some history behind them?
How about somebody showing how and why they are making this food?
How about a recipe that shows where the concept came from?

So, I have been looking for answers to these question, and outside of Rick Bayless from Frontera Grill (like his show, love his restaurant) and maybe Alton Brown on occasion, my search has come up empty.

So, here we are.

Its time to start giving some history to our food, some story for you dinner, and less schtick and more substance.