Chicago Italian Beef

The Chicago Italian Beef Sandwiches that I made for Mixed Signals this year were a rampaging success. Making allowances for differences in giardiniera and breads, this stuff tasted just the way it should, the way it tastes at Al’s or one of the other stands in Chicago. Beefy, salty, lightly fatty, fragrant with garlic and oregano, vinegary and spicy from the pickles, and just barely holding its structural integrity due to immersion in the delicious broth.

Nomming Chicago-Style

I used this recipe because there were lots of comments from born-and-raised South Siders who swore it was the genuine article. I followed it closely, though I did double it and make two 5+ pound rump roasts, I studded the roasts with garlic, and I doubled the gravy for each batch to end up with a quadruple recipe of juice.

That juice reeked in a terrifying manner of oregano, to the extent that I was worried I’d overdone it, but after an hour or less of simmering, I sieved out the oregano and the garlic, and added in 4 more bouillon cubes and 6 cups more water. I was worried that canned beef broth would taste of the can, so I used all bouillon cubes, and I’d do the same next time. This wound up just perfect, not too strong of oregano, not too spicy from the hot sauce, not too salty.

The roasts smelled absolutely dreamy, and honestly they would have been delicious just as they were, sliced and served. But I put them through the meat slicer — home meat slicer FTW, again! — and then into the cooled broth to soak. Due to logistical pressures, they were only in for a few hours the day of the party, but I think that was plenty. I didn’t notice any lack of flavor in the meat itself, and it didn’t overcook due to too long a stay in hot broth.

I put the broth and meat into the crockpot to serve it, which worked out well. A quick 4 minute trip in the microwave got it up to temp, and then I left it on low, which kept things hot without toughening the beef.

Giardiniera and hefty rolls were handcarried from Chicago last week, and we augmented with some other sub rolls from Costco that we left out for a day to stale up. Everyone seemed to like it, but the best compliment was from another former Chicago dweller who made a point to thank me for making something just like he used to eat when he lived there, something he missed pretty bad. I know the feeling.

food deserts

I was browsing around 5 Dollar Dinner (a worthwhile spot, btw, alternately inspiring and depressing) and found a link to this article about Walgreen’s efforts to bring fresh produce and other identifiable foods to neighborhoods in Chicago considered to be “food deserts.”

There’s a lot of debate about the causes and most effective cures for the obesity and poor nutrition that runs rampant in America at present. I think these are all worthy discussions to have, for certain, but I believe that setting all the other factors aside — single income folks with no time to cook, our taste for sugar, freedom of choice, all the hot button ideas — the first step for us is to at least make the choice available for consumers.

You want someone to buy a raw vegetable and take the risk and investment of time to cook it themselves? Then you damn well better put that raw vegetable within a mile of their home.

It is too easy to forget that food deserts are real, and many of the people living in them have no experience with anything else. For me, I grew up in the sticks, and though I didn’t know what hummus was until I went away to college, we grew our own vegetables in the summertime and the supermarkets near us had the basic meats and vegetables of mainstream America — and a few from the Polish and Puerto Rican immigrant communities. I went to college in an affluent part of Boston, and there we could buy just about anything. It wasn’t until I moved to Chicago that I encountered any real absence of basic food.

The first neighborhood where I camped out in an empty apartment owned by friends of friends had one brand-new Dominic’s supermarket, and I was terrified to discover that in its gleaming white expanses there was NO chicken of any kind and no vegetables that looked like anything you might even consider eating. The only thing that seemed edible in there was the Mexican foods, so I bought eggs and chorizo and tortillas and lived on chilaquiles for a month until I moved to a better neighborhood.

Then when I was considering buying a condo, everything in my price range was either in Humboldt Park or Garfield Park. Had I made the purchase, I am sure I would have chosen Humboldt Park, because there were restaurants and bodegas there on most blocks with actual food in them, while Garfield Park was a blank wasteland of boarded up storefronts, check cashers, liquor stores and fast food. Sure, I like J&J fried fish too, but you can’t really live on it. No supermarkets for several miles, and the public transit coverage was spotty to start with. There may have been some small groceries, but I didn’t run across them on my visits. Garfield Park has beautiful apartment stock and the park itself is fantastic, but to get food I would have needed a car and a whole lot of time.

For people who have neither, and who furthermore have very little time or cash to sink into meal prep, the first step we have to take is making it a little bit less monumental an undertaking in the first place. Kudos to Walgreen’s for at least trying, and I’d very much like to see some stats on how it’s working.

Frontera Grill – sparkling passion and chicken soup

We had the usual array of delightful things at Frontera Grill last night, but two things stood out clearly. One was a chicken soup appetizer that arrived glowing verdantly with bits of avocado and some leafy item. It tasted of rich, strong chicken broth and had bits of crisped chicken skin floating in there along with the vegetables. Spectacularly good.

The other was a cocktail made of Harpoon IPA, passionfruit juice, fresh lime, and hibiscus tea to tint it pink. Luscious, with a hint of bitter hops and bubbles cutting through the sweet passionfruit. Perfect for summertime.

just like old times: FoodNerd and WineNerd loose in Chicago, part 2 – Moto

I have been meaning to go to Moto for ages, since before I left Chicago.  I would bike past it every day on the way to work, and it was reputed to be a molecular gastronomy place as spectactular as Alinea.  So when C turned up in Chicago at the same time as me, it was really the perfect opportunity.  I hadn’t eaten at anyplace even remotely like Alinea, and I very much wanted to know if it was the style of food itself that was so amazing or if it was Grant Achatz’s particular genius.

When we walked in for our 7pm reservation on a Wednesday evening, there was one other table of 2, and that was it.  For the entire evening.  Not another soul.  Yikes.

We did the 20 course tasting, and shared one wine pairing.  This set us back an unholy sum, and though I don’t regret our meal, I have to say that it’s not worth the price.  Save your nickels and go to Alinea instead.

For one thing, it is downright inconsiderate to serve 20 courses when each of them is the size of a normal high-end appetizer portion.  We were 5 or 6 courses from the end when we started to dread them, and we were so uncomfortably full when we were done.  I woke up the next morning still full.  Compare this with the many 1- and 2-bite courses in Alinea’s 24 course barrage, which left us sated but not even a little bit uncomfortable.

The wines offered were all interesting, and several were very good, but we didn’t love all the pairings, and found all the whites to be served much too cold.  C can fill you in on the wine specifics in the comments.  🙂

Here’s the course by course rundown:

Moto - menu

First, your Edible Menu.  Actually rather tasty: a crispy toast with the menu pasted on, plus a roasted garlic clove, some salted butter and a balsamic drizzle.  The cheesy presentation started here, unfortunately, in the “here’s the dazzle you’ve come for, rubes” tone in which they let you know the menu is food.

Instant Risotto – freeze dried rice and peas, with a hot liquidy sauce poured over to rehydrate, plus a bit of fried fish.  Tasty enough, but I didn’t love the texture of the peas.

Moto - instant risotto

French Onion Soup – a broiled smear of pureed bread and cheese on the side of the dish, a tangle of braised onions, and a tableside pour of broth.  Plus a handmade “funyun,” and I can’t lie, I love that kind of high-low irreverence.  A little weird scraping gummy toast-cheese off the side of the bowl, but again, tasty and I did enjoy this one.  However, this is one place where they really suffered from a direct comparison to Alinea: the spoon had a spiraled metal handle, which held a few sprigs of fresh thyme, in order to provide the scent of thyme to the diner while eating, similar to the olfactory components Alinea adds to some dishes — but the metal coil was awkward to hold, and was thick enough to keep your hand far enough off the herb that it couldn’t warm the thyme to release the scent, so instead of being clever and pleasurable it was mostly just annoying.

Moto - french onion soup

Urban Garden – here’s where the trompe l’oeil really kicked in: a tiny clay flowerpot arrived, filled with a dirt made from crispy brown balsamic-flavored breadcrumbs and topped with a scrap of edible paper trash and a “packing peanut” amid the microgreens sprouting in the dirt.  There were bits of heirloom tomato and mozzarella under the crumbs.  I enjoyed the crispy crumbs, and the presentation was mildly amusing (if perhaps with a little too much “oh we are witty, see how we are slumming” about it for my taste), but overall a mostly ordinary dish.

Moto - urban garden

Deconstructed French Fries – This one was awesome.  Teeny brunoise of cheese, bacon, and jalapeno confettied over a smear of potato and butter and sour cream puree, with a drizzle of french fry oil.  Again you had to kind of scrape it off the side of the dish, but it tasted perfectly of french fries and all the toppings, with a smooth, unctuous mouthfeel.  Completely compelling and freaking delicious.

Moto - "french fries"

Red Bull Paella Shooter – Essentially all the flavors of a paella chucked into a blender and turned into a thick soup.  Delicious and deeply savory but I wanted it just a bit looser, so half of it didn’t stay stuck to the shotglass. It was served from a Red Bull can direct at table into the shotglass for the full faux impress-the-rubes effect. They drilled a hole into the back of the can to drain it then fill with the soup, so they could pull the pop-top and everything. (The craft-project nerd in me totally digs that, and I wonder if the server had been less of a hipster poseur — or more convincingly theatrical — if I might have appreciated this more.)

Moto - paella shooter

Cuban Cigar – A cheapo ashtray with an extremely convincing half-smoked cigar ashed out in it.  The cigar wrapper was braised collard greens, and the filling was a pulled pork barbecue, with a red pepper sauce at the tip for glowing ash.  I forget what the gray ash was, I think maybe some crushed sesame.  Rich flavors that all worked together, and a clever conceit.  A little awkward to eat, and again with the slumming — I think my issue with it was that it was pervasive rather than an accent.  This dish would have been fine if it was the only low-rent joke in the bunch, in the way that a crude joke is funny when an otherwise sophisticated person tells it, but cringe-inducing when your lecherous drunken uncle tells 20 of them in a single evening.

Moto - "cuban cigar"

Rabbit Maki – Looks like I forgot to photograph this one.  Oops.  A loose rice roll with tender rabbit meat inside; we liked it, as I recall, and it was a well-balanced blend of Japanese and French but it ate a little messier than I’d hoped.

Pork Belly – Absolutely perfect preparation on the square of pork belly.  Crispy skin, softly rendered fat, tender moist meat.  The equal of any pork belly I’ve had in the Chinese restaurants of LA.  This one came with Vietnamese flavors, which worked really well with the pork, and were nicely balanced by the bitter broccoli rabe.  The trompe l’oeil mushroom was made from mushrooms turned into powder and reformed with the magic powder they use to make cornstarch packing peanuts, and was mostly pointless in terms of flavor even with the maitake ragu underneath it.

Moto - pork belly viet style

Reuben – An unnecessarily huge schmear of Russian dressing (let’s be real, if it’s there I am totally going to eat it), plus a wedge of a Reuben sandwich with lasagne pasta sheets instead of bread, and a dusting of dried dill flowers.  If I am remembering properly, a pickle-flavored potato chip is what’s leaning up against the wedge.  Delicious and rich, and a much better deployment of the slumming aesthetic.

Moto - Reuben lasagne

Umami Cappuccino – By this time I was tired of the trompe l’oeil gag, so I lost patience with this dish, a savory broth with edamame and something else I’ve forgotten, plus a pitcher of mushroom foam “cream” and a square of truffle butter “sugar.”  Too salty and a little disjointed, though truffle butter does make just about anything taste better.

Moto - "cappuccino"

Duck Cannoli – Yet more trompe l’oeil, but this was freaking delicious.  If they were all this masterfully orchestrated, I might not have lost my patience at all.  A rich duck shredded into a mole sauce, stuffed into a crispy shell and topped with crema and crushed peanuts.

Moto - duck mole "cannoli"

Crepes that are cheese – Ew.  For real, I have never been served anything this bad ever.  We took one bite of each item and sent the plates back.  The two on top are big blobs of mostly-raw crepe dough formed and dyed to look like two different types of cheese.  The one at bottom is a fried piece of cheese stuffed with marmalade to look like a crepe.  I still can’t believe they fucked that last one up so bad — I actually clapped my hands in glee when they told me what it was as they set the plate down, but the fried cheese had the texture and taste of plastic.  They should be ashamed to have their heads so far up their conceptual asses as to let this anywhere near a paying customer.

Moto - crepes that are cheese

Cereal & Milk – At least they made it up to me with the next dish.  Freeze-dried strawberry slices full of berry flavor and fluffy crispy cereal flakes, with a dry ice vanilla soy milk poured over the top.  It exploded in your mouth, literally, setting off little sparkly barrages on your tongue.  We giggled like little girls and loved it unreservedly.

Moto - cereal & milk!

Foie Gras Cupcake – A little weird but it worked.  A glistening bit of pan-seared foie gras with a foie-gras flavored mini-cupcake, berry reduction, and truffled milk.

Moto - foie gras cupcake

Unknown – They told us they brought this dish to make up for the horrible crepes.  I remember really enjoying this, but I completely forget what it was.  Damn me for not writing this up sooner.  I think there was a grapefruit involved.

Moto - i forget, doh!

Snow Balls – I forget this one too.  Crap!  C, help me out here?

Moto - snow ball

Cheese Burger – Yet more trompe l’oeil.  This time it’s a tiny 3-bite burger built completely out of sweet dessert ingredients.  Not that good and a little too sweet for me. Adorable presentation on a flanged white dish.

Moto - "cheese burger"

Acme Bomb – Self-explanatory.  I don’t remember this one either.  We were so full by this point, and tending to obsess over the minutiae of the wines instead.  The dessert wines were so badly matched to the sweet dishes it was absurd.  They were all nice wines, though.

Moto - Acme bomb

Truffle – Hey, guess what?  A trompe l’oeil dish!  Sigh.  A “whole truffle” made from chocolate mousse and cocoa and so forth.  Pleasant to eat.

Moto - "truffle"

Root Beer Float – Another fun one.  Tasty, spicy homemade root beer, with dry ice doing something or other, and a homemade marshmallow.  Light and refreshing, the right thing to have at this point in a very long, heavy meal.

Moto - root beer float

And then we were done.

The restaurant was empty, we had a forest of wine glasses in front of us (we were definitely causing the waitstaff some grief keeping all those glasses going at once, but it’s not like they had anything ELSE to do so we didn’t feel too bad), and we were full past the eyeballs.  It was really nice to have a long, extravagant, absurdly foodie meal with C again — I miss him and it was awesome to be able to hang out and bullshit for a few hours.

just like old times: FoodNerd and WineNerd loose in Chicago, part 1 – Humboldt Park

Last week I went to Chicago for work, and FINALLY, after years of waiting, my trip coincided with one of C’s trips. WAHOO!

The first night, we went out with Bar to Borinquen, to introduce C to the glories of the jibarito. We started with a tamale (meh) and some “fried meat” (a little dry, but crispy and good in general), then each of us ordered a jibarito.  Bar & I both went with the chicken, and we pointed C toward the pork, so we could compare and contrast. C admitted later that he’d been skeptical of the raptures we described, since a) how good could it really be and b) he doesn’t actually like plantain that much. His first bite changed his mind, and because C has a truly enviable capacity to consume, he ORDERED A SECOND ONE when he finished the first. This one turned out even better than the first, crispier and saltier, probably because it came straight from the griddle instead of waiting for two other sandwiches to be ready.

Then, because we were so close by, I took them to the California Clipper for a drink or two. But since C had failed to bring his ID with him, the big dope, they wouldn’t let us past the door — even though it was dead as a doornail in there. (The complete emptiness of various venues on this trip was odd and scary… i should post about that later.) They pointed us down the block but that place was jammed, so we bailed out and walked down Augusta to Western, where we figured if we couldn’t find a bar we could at least find a cab.

We decided we’d try the first Old Style sign we saw once we got to the corner. So we did — but the door was locked. Oh shit. But they came right over and let us in, which turned out to be completely awesome, because it was a textbook example of the old fashioned Chicago neighborhood bar. Old wooden bar, crappy linoleum tile, beer signs, and middle aged Polish folks clustered at the far end of the bar playing the jukebox. Perfect. We sat there for over an hour, drinking Old Style, running the Polish pop songs through the iPhone (it did remarkably well IDing them) and watching men’s figure skating on TV. At one point C ordered “whiskey” and was given Jack Daniels in a shotglass. Around 10:30 we remembered we are theoretically responsible grown-up people and attempted to go home, but we couldn’t hail a taxi, so rather than freeze to death we went to the OTHER Old Style sign across the street to try and call the guy who dropped us off at Borinquen.

This turned out to be the cheesy modern Polish neighborhood bar, also with a locked door, this time with a homemade wooden bar, Christmas lights, a friendly Polish girl about our age tending bar, and one weird dude sitting at the bar. Also men’s figure skating. They didn’t have even crappy whiskey, so we drank the Polish vodka, also from shotglasses. We got points from the barmaid for wanting just plain vodka, no mix. The cab dude didn’t answer his phone nor did he show up, so after a half hour or so, despite a very good time being had by all (including the weird dude), we went back out to try and hail a cab and this time we managed it. Everybody got home in one piece, and no one’s hangover was too wretched. And that is the sort of evening that Chicago does better than anyplace, as far as I can tell.

Tune in next post for part 2 – Moto.