Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day on Lake Michigan

Memorial Day is the best time to take a run down the lakeside parks along Lake Michigan, just south of the Northwestern Campus. This holiday invites celebration. While we honor the men and women we have lost in combat, we also honor America... and what is more American than a BBQ picnic?

Families from all walks of life were out today, enjoying the sun and the company of loved ones around dozens of smoking grills. Of course, my attention was captured by the diversity of the food laying on the picnic tables. The hot dogs, bratwurst and hamburger were ubiquitous, but I couldn't help but notice that each family did "picnic" a little differently. I saw salsa being made fresh, everyone from aging grandmothers to teenage cousins participating in the slicing and dicing of vegetables; I saw a Tupperware filled with homemade noodles and a bottles of Kimchi sitting on top. Everywhere people were grilling corn, some in the husk, some without, one family added lime and chili, and another some butter and salt. There were avocado halves with spoons for easy snacking and fresh-tamales warm in their little pouches. I saw Cheese-its and Oreos, stake fajitas and mushroom kebabs, bags of fresh light-as-air puff pastry and lunch from Panera.

Though it may not seem note worthy to many, I am moved by the great American-ness of this day. There is no such thing as an All-American BBQ. Today, I saw at least 20 different kinds of the most American lunches around, everything from tofu sausages to sauerkraut to soy sauce.

Happy Memorial Day

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Date with the Farmer's Market

On Saturday morning, Spring officially arrived in Evanston, IL. At 7:30, the Russian Banana potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes slept quietly in their wooden crates. Twenty minutes later, I arrived to wake the vegetables, rouse the home-grown honey and whisper to the fresh goat cheese.

Starting with fresh pressed apple cider from Dowagiac, Michigan, I tasted my way through about twenty different stands. Standing upright next to the gallon jugs of juice, purple asparagus begged me to take a bite. Flesh was tender and sweeter than its green cousin, perfect for raw summer snacking. Later that day the asparagus went perfectly with fresh cottage cheese and basil for a mid afternoon snack. For only four dollars, the bunch contained no less than 20 stalks!

Placing my loot in my designated market bag, I moved on to Henry's Farm, specializing in Asian and Heirloom herbs and veggies. This seemed a strange specialization for a midwesterner but Henry's years in Asia and his Japanese wife provided him with inspiration. After raising his own food for 17 years, Henry told me he "expects everyone would want to be farmer if they could." Walking between lemony sorrel, thin Mongolian chives and breakfast radishes, I agreed with him.

Thats the great part of any Farmers Market, its about the locals. The Wisconsin based farm is already raking in the fungi from the community. I spoke with Carmine from River Valley Kitchens, who espouses the virtues of being a Locavore (one who eats locally of course!) Members of the community go mushroom hunting in their own backyard then bring the bounty to River Valley to sell. Even in early May, the farm had shitakes, portabellas, oyster and the ever illusive morel mushroom.

I finished my Saturday morning wanderings with a piece of baked Scandinavian cheese called Burn-uusto. Its always eaten grilled like this and never melts because its been cooked and pressed so all the liquid is leeched out. The soft gooey gourmet-cheese-curd was the perfect way to end the morning.

Its quite sad I have no kitchen of own, because the mounds of sculpture-like potatoes and delicate spring onions (to name few) called my name in sadness as I left. Never fear dear veggies, I will be back in one week's time....And as for you Evanston and market goers around the country, its time to get cooking! It only gets better from here, Zucchini, Tomatoes and Lettuces still to come!!

This is a great recipe that showcases the ingredients available in May at the market! Asparagus with Morels and Tarragon

Evanston Farmer's Market: Saturdays, May 17th- November 1st, 7:30-1:00pm. At the intersection of University Place and Oak Avenue.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

May 13th: Daggers and Diners and the birth of the Knife

May 13th, 1637, France:
The guests around the large stone table are dressed in the most elegant manner, members of the Académie Française expound the virtues of French speech and a few musketeers plan their next adventure in lawless debauchery. As the meat course arrives, a elegant man dressed in scarlet robes, stands, pounds upon the table and shouts "I've had enough!" Legs of turkey halt in their path toward open mouths; wine goblets drip red circles onto the ground. "I demand we show some manners!"

On this date so many years ago, a famed French clergy and nobleman named Cardinal Richelieu, introduced the Knife into our dining patterns. I imagine it must have gone something like the scene described above. Before the adoption of the knife, people used large hunting daggers to stab their food which they then shuttled to their mouths with a spoon. How uncivilized. The Cardinal thought so too. One day, tired of all the rudeness, Richelieu ordered his diners to grind down the edges of their daggers to make them suitable for table-side dwelling

Soon knives were all the rage in France. They were popping up everywhere, and once Louis XIV declared it "universal," the utensil found its place in the culinary "hall of fame".

So get out there and rejoice in your knife today. Slice a pear, fillet a fish, or mince some garlic. Whatever you do, remember to mind your manners!

Friday, May 9, 2008

History of the Margarita.....

I received a question about the legitimacy of the Mexican Margarita. Did this cool and refreshing drink really come from Mexico? Well the subject is contentious. The best tale I came across involves a showgirl named Marjorie Rita De La Rosa with an allergic reaction to all hard alcohol, except of course, tequila. The story goes that bartender Carlos "Danny" Herrera started mixing concoctions to please his beautiful patron at his bar, Rancho La Gloria outside Tijuana. His version of the drink involved three parts white tequila, two parts Cointreau and one part fresh lemon juice plus a little shaved ice.

This is but one theory. Others involve Dallas Socialites, wedding presents, or homages to Rita Hayworth.

I intend to venture to the library, for some true scholarly research and revisit this issue soon. There must be an one true answer, or perhaps the summer specialty will be shrouded in mystery forever.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Cinco de Mayo: Can I have another Corona please?

Pass the Pico de Gallo and cheers to the Mexican Army!

Most Americans believe May 5th is Mexican Independence Day, but it actually commemorates Mexico's improbably victory at the Battle of Puebla. In 1861, France invaded Mexico under the Napoleon's command, and with guns ablaze, demanded outstanding debts of the previous government be paid. Led by Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín, 2,000 Mexican soldiers, surprised and bested 6,500 French infantrymen in the south central region of Puebla, Mexico. Each year, the courage and fortitude of the Mexican soldiers puts a little "cha cha" of celebration in our step.

In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is only a regional celebration for Puebla, it has a much stronger following in the US than in Mexico. Similar to St. Patrick's Day for the Irish or the Chinese New Year, we use May 5th as a day to celebrate the entirety of Mexican culture. But if you happened to be traveling about 90 minutes south of Mexico City this week, here are some foodstuffs you might encounter.

Mole Poblano is the regional specialty of Puebla. The dish combines a seductive combination of chilies, spices, nuts and chocolate (plus almost 20 more ingredients) with fork tender turkey meat.

Chiles en Nogada is traditionally eaten around Independence day, September 16, when walnuts are in season. Large, green colored chilies, are stuffed with ground meats and dried fruits then on top, a rich walnut sauce studded with jewel like pomegranate seeds.

Black Sapote, is a regional fruit in the persimmon family. Its dark, sweet flesh earned in the nickname "chocolate pudding."

If you're thinking something more low key for this Monday's holiday, try some of theses quick and easy recipes straight from Puebla.
Jicama-Melon Salad
Soft Fried Tortillas with Tomatillo Salsa and Chicken

Whew! All that cooking, forget the Corona, I'll take a Margarita!