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Intense Flavors + Foraged Flowers: Elizabeth, Chicago

3 Sep

A phenomenal dinner, with about 15 small, interesting courses over the course of three hours. Tiny intense burst of flavor from small flowers, herbs, and berries (nightshade, queen anne’s lace, fennel pollen, and other flowers) on top of a range of creative and perfectly-seasoned dishes each highlighting a few beautiful ingredients (including malted barley, bear jerky, beets, a few kinds of mushrooms, tomatoes, and roe).

And by lucky chance they sat us right next to the kitchen. I do always enjoy that.


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My favorites were the greens and flowers on malted barley and hazelnuts, the tart sourdough, the smoked cabbage, the beet soup with a variety of accents (see the first photo), and the tomato sorbet with polenta and peaches and dried plums (one of the best desserts I’ve had in a long time), but I enjoyed pretty much everything. Very highly recommended if you’re in Chicago and it works with your budget.

I also liked the not-too-loud background music– mostly various good music from the 80s / early 90s, but I also noticed Parentheses by The Blow (2006’s Paper Television was one of my favorite albums).


Last visit to Hot Doug’s (wild game sausages in Chicago, closing forever)

1 Sep

Hot Doug’s, the encased meat emporium in Chicago, closes for good at the beginning of October, after 13 years.

I’d been there once about three years ago, but only to get a basic dog before heading to Alinea, so news of its impending closing was enough to motivate a labor day weekend vacation back to Chicago…

The line was several buildings long, down the street past some neighbor’s yard (maybe four times as long as shown in the photo here):


After an hour in line, a woman came out from inside and informed people in our part of the line that it was probably another three and a half to four hour wait. I’m not kidding. Yet, out of the entire line, only three groups gave up and left. The rest of us settled in (people with more forethought had brought chairs, but our group chatted, caught up on life developments since we’d last seen each other, and did three tricky NYtimes Thursday crosswords).

Finally, after almost exactly 5 hours in line (including the most amazingly patient 2-year old I’ve ever met), we were at the counter, and ordered seven different special sausages:

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And then there we were, in a brightly-lit, festive atmosphere, surrounded by tables of other people dedicated or crazy enough to have made that wait, eating ten different meats (elk, antelope, buffalo, venison, pork, beef, lamb, duck, steak, and chicken). Sausage after sausage was a tender, delicious combination of flavors.


Thanks, Doug.


SF Street Food Festival

16 Aug

I spent a few hours at the SF Street Food Festival, which is not just any collection of food carts but a fundraiser for La Cocina and showcase for its members (“The mission of La Cocina is to cultivate low income food entrepreneurs as they formalize and grow their businesses by providing affordable commercial kitchen space, industry-specific technical assistance and access to market opportunities.”)

This year I tried to eat at “La Cocina member” booths I hadn’t heard of and mostly skip the known-good usual suspects… and dish after dish was delicious. The nine things I put in my mouth are below (I got the “small plate” option at every booth to keep going as long as I could…):


From the top left: rose/basil/coconut water, a good chorizo / bacon / pepper taco from El Huarache Loco, an unassuming from the outside but deliciously moist beef and onion piroshki from Anda Piroshki, the Papdi Chaat from Rasoi (a small Indian street food snack– a few sauces and chutneys on crisp wafers, and my favorite of the day), amazing nopales from El Pipila, a mediocre thai iced tea, some pretty good sweet potato dumplings from Azalina’s Malaysian, a fresh summer vegetable tagine from Radio Africa Kitchen, and one of the best pork tamales I’ve had in a long time from Alicia’s Tamales Los Mayas.

Strong, Dark, Old Beer

13 Aug

A one-of-a-kind evening of strong, dark, and old beers with friends.

Some of us had been hanging on to some beers for years without quite the right excuse to crack them open… problem solved. Not a wedding, new year, baby shower, or birthday, just a casual evening hanging out with lentil soup and bread.


Goose Island Bourbon County Stout *2007*,  Westvleteren 12 and 8 eBayed from Belgium years ago, Half Acre’s special Sanguis beer brewed with oranges and beets for one specific dinner at Next, an excellent imperial porter from High Water, a 10.5% imperial stout in a can, homebrew, and more.

Flavored Cotton Candy

5 Jul

For a 4th of July BBQ, a successful experiment making cotton candy flavored with tarragon, peach, corn, and smoked tea:


For a while, hannah and I had been kicking around the idea of “savory cotton candy” (or at least, sweet but flavored with something beyond vanilla). What would that even be like? With a 4th of July BBQ approaching, this seemed like the now-or-never time to actually try it. Some searching found a few bulletin board discussions about how you might do it, but only one set of photographic evidence… and that came with no description of how.

Early on, we’d been thinking of everything from creating flavored powders from freeze-dried fruit, to infused sugar syrups, to flavored dry sugars, to dry powdered caramels created with maltodextrin molecular-gastronomy-style (we ruled out sprinkling powdered flavoring on the cotton candy after spinning it as not “elegant” enough). After some reading we understood how a cotton candy machine works: it melts sugar and spins it rapidly in a bowl with small slots around the perimeter, and the inertia (a.k.a. centrifugal force) drives tiny jets of liquid sugar into the surrounding air, where they near-instantly cool and recrystallize in long, wispy strands. To experiment, we rented a cotton candy machine from a party supply store:



This and other discussions online convinced us of something that seems obvious in retrospect: we needed to be spinning basically pure sugar, as any other starches or cellulose (fruit or vegetable matter) or significant amounts of fat wouldn’t melt at the same temperature and might burn on the heater. People also debated whether special “floss sugar” sold by cotton candy companies was necessary, or if you could use standard granulated cane sugar, with strong opinions in each direction. We tried both, and found granulated sugar worked quite well– which was fortunate as the only floss sugar we could find was already packed with artificial vanilla flavor and pink dye.

Finally, back to the question of how to flavor the sugar. Making vanilla sugar is a simple process– you just pack a vanilla bean in sugar and wait. But how to make this work for herbs, fruit, smoke? We tried packing fresh tarragon in sugar and it infused some flavor into the sugar… but it wasn’t as strong as we’d hoped. We also tried cooking peaches in sugar to make a syrup, then spreading it out on a dehydrator tray, but after a few days we still had a somewhat gummy sugar (presumably if we had enough time it would eventually dry out).

Finally, we tried soaking ingredients in alcohol– that works for infusing vodka with flavor, and we reasoned the alcohol would also be easier to evaporate out of sugar than water. Success! In particular, we soaked fresh tarragon, peaches we’d pre-dehyrdrated, fresh corn kernels, and lapsang souchong smoked black tea (trying to evoke something like “gunpowder” in honor of the 4th of July) in high-proof everclear for a few days:


Then we strained the alcohols into spray bottles and misted them over a thin layer of sugar spread out on a tray. This allowed us to have an intensely flavored yet very slightly moist sugar that we could bring back to dry overnight in the dehydrator, then grind up with a mortar and pestle:



At long last, our four flavored sugars, ready for their big day:


We rented the cotton candy machine again (this time, including the decorative cart) and spun about 40 cones of cotton candy for friends and kids. My personal favorite was the smoked tea– it was certainly the most unexpected.




Favorite sushi place: still amazing after 10 years.

21 Apr


Plate of sashimi. Friendly couple who greet me by name even if it’s been 6-12 months. No fuss, no elaborate rolls.

More Citrus Shrubs

8 Apr



After last year’s enjoyable experience making shrubs (a shelf-stable way to preserve fruit with vinegar and sugar, for mixing into soda water, cocktails, salad dressings, and so on), I’ve spent a few more weekends trying new citrus, new vinegars, and different ratios, as well as using oleo saccharums (citrus oils extracted from the peel with sugar: I posted some photos of the process yesterday).

Bergamot / Cider Vinegar Shrub

Since much of the unique flavor of bergamot is in the zest, an oleo saccharum is key. I combined the peel of four bergamots with 2/3 cups of white sugar (let sit and periodically kneaded for about 10 hours, see photos)– by the end of that time I could smell it even through the bag. I added that to the juice of 17 bergamots (about 2 cups), another 1 1/3 cups white sugar, and, by trial and error, 3/4 cups of my favorite cider vinegar (Bragg).

The vinegar flavor was a little overpowering, initially, but it’s supposed to mellow over time… and indeed, after sitting for a week it’s become one of my favorite shrubs– one spoonful livens up a glass of sparkling water.


Kaffir Lime Shrub

I’d been brought a gift of fresh kaffir limes (which I’d never seen before), just on the edge of turning brown, and knew immediately I wanted to preserve their flavor with a shrub. The peel has the same distinctive scent as kaffir lime leaves, a dry, spicy, and floral citrus.

Since they’re so knobby, they were a huge pain to peel– normal peelers or zesters were useless, so I used a small knife and painstakingly trimmed off rind and then removed pith… ending up with the peel of 15 kaffir limes packed in 1/2 cup sugar to make an oleo saccharum, plus the juice of the limes (only half a cup, quite dry), and almost 1/2 cup of a very mild neutral rice vinegar. This gave me a dry, perfume-like shrub that’s great to splash into water or champagne.

Calamansi Lemongrass Shrub


I don’t have the exact proportions written down, but this excellent shrub (probably my favorite basic citrus shrub) combined tiny calamansi (which I just sliced in half and packed in sugar, extracting both oleo saccharum and juice), additional lime juice, half a stalk of finely-sliced lemongrass, sugar, and champagne vinegar.

Meyer Lemon Peppercorn Shrub

The peel of 9 meyer lemons in ⅔ cup sugar, the juice of 18 (about 2 cups), another 1 ⅓ cups sugar, mint leaves, black peppercorns, and a mix of cider and white vinegars. Easy.

I’m looking forward to exploring further this summer once non-citrus fruits are in season…



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