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Monthly Archives: June 2007

Saying Goodbye to Spring

farmers-market-asparagus-mo.jpgIt’s hard to believe that summer has already begun. That’s not to say it hasn’t been feeling pretty summer-ish with the hot, muggy days we’ve been having here in Chicago. But perhaps it’s just that fleeting nature of spring that makes me regard the first, fresh, local produce it yields as bordering on sacred.

I wasn’t expecting to find those spring delicacies when Empanada Boy and I finally managed to get ourselves out to the farmer’s market yesterday. We went to the Evanston Farmer’s Market because I’ve regularly been disappointed by the representation and prices at the Green City Market, which is Chicago’s primary location. There is also free parking in Evanston, which is a definite plus.

To put it bluntly, we spent a lot of money. We started with croissants for breakfast and then bought a loaf of bread. Our other purchases included succulent Michigan strawberries, a raw milk aged cheddar, beets, rhubarb, organic ground lamb, a basil plant, asparagus and morel mushrooms. Of all the items we purchased, it was these last two that represented the last vestiges of spring. I decided to highlight them in a delicious risotto from the April, 2006 issue of Gourmet . It’s a perfect way to bid farewell to the last season and usher in the new.

risotto

Risotto with Asparagus and Morel Ragout

Ingredients

3/4 oz dried morel mushrooms (1 cup) or 1/4 lb fresh
6 1/2 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth
2 cups water
1 lb medium asparagus, trimmed and cut diagonally into 1-inch-long pieces (about 3 cups)
1/2 small onion, finely chopped (1/3 cup)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
2/3 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (1 1/4 oz) plus additional for serving
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon pieces
1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
1/2 cup frozen baby peas
1 teaspoon finely grated fresh lemon zest
2 teaspoons chopped fresh chives

Preparation

If using dried morels, soak in warm water to cover 30 minutes. Agitate dried morels in soaking water or fresh morels in cold water to dislodge grit, then lift from water, squeezing out excess. Pat dry with paper towels. Cut morels (fresh or dried) crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick slices.

Bring broth and water to a boil in a 4-quart pot. Add asparagus and cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until crisp-tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer asparagus with a slotted spoon to a large bowl of ice and cold water to stop cooking, then drain and pat dry. Reserve 1 cup broth mixture for ragout and keep remaining broth at a bare simmer.

Cook onion in oil in a 5- to 6-quart heavy pot over moderate heat, stirring, until softened, about 3 minutes. Add rice and cook, stirring constantly, 1 minute. Add wine and simmer briskly, stirring constantly, until absorbed, about 1 minute. Add 1/2 cup hot broth mixture and simmer briskly, stirring constantly, until broth is absorbed. Continue simmering and adding hot broth mixture, about 1/2 cup at a time, stirring constantly and letting each addition be absorbed before adding the next, until rice is just tender and creamy-looking, 18 to 22 minutes. (There will be leftover broth mixture. Reserve for thinning risotto.)

Stir cheese, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper into risotto, then remove from heat and let stand, covered, while making ragout.

Heat 2 tablespoons butter in a 10-inch heavy skillet over moderately high heat until foam subsides, then sauté morels and garlic, stirring occasionally, until garlic is pale golden, about 4 minutes. Pour in 1 cup reserved broth and bring to a boil. Stir in peas, asparagus, zest, and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper and simmer, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are heated through, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and add remaining 2 tablespoons butter, swirling skillet until butter is incorporated, then season ragout with salt and pepper.

Thin risotto to desired consistency with some of leftover broth and season with salt and pepper. Divide risotto among 4 shallow bowls. Spoon asparagus and morel ragout (with liquid) on top and sprinkle with chives.

Cooks’ note:
Dried morels can be soaked and patted dry 1 day ahead and chilled, covered.

Something’s Brewing Here

Beer at Chicago Ale HouseThe early signs of a new restaurant opening the neighborhood are always enough to fill me with curiosity and excitement. But when Empanada Boy and I learned that a new restaurant moving in down the street from us would have over 50 beers on tap, we were itching for it to open. Finally we would have a nearby pub— besides the overly crowded, but wonderful, Hopleaf— that offered better beer than the domestic giants that so often fill the lists in this region of the country. We waited for weeks as the place gradually opened, peering in each time we passed by to see whether it looked any closer to readiness.

Finally, last week I heard from a friend that it was open, so EB and I promptly walked over for dinner after work. The place is called Chicago Ale House. The dark wood paneled dining room and bar area is large, with pool tables in the back and with seemed like twenty TVs playing different sporting events scattered around the room. The draft beer menu is indeed lengthy. It includes everything from local microbrews like Three Floyds to Belgian wheat beers. The menu seems to place a specific emphasis on German brews. EB and I ordered Franziskaner Weissbier and Wurzberger Hofbrau, respectively. Both came in the specified glass and are just as fun to drink as they are to pronounce (which is to say, very fun).

Steak Sandwich at Chicago Ale HouseThe beer lived up to our self-created hype, but the food could still use some work. I requested my strip steak sandwich medium rare, but it arrived much closer to well done. The meat tasted too dried out, and the flavored mayonnaise spread on the bun didn’t make up for that. Roasted vegetables improved things a bit, but the bun itself was also too dry. The accompanying French fries brought back memories of the deli at Portland’s Jewish Community Center, which is not necessarily a good thing. These were too limp and bland. Thick cut steak fries can be good— they just need to be cooked more crisply!

Burger at Chicago Ale HouseEB took it upon himself to test the burger. It looked nice and juicy and came with a choice of cheese and grilled onions. The burger was closer to medium than medium-rare, but more significantly, the quality of the meat just didn’t seem up to snuff. A more fatty and juicy selection would have made all the difference. But even if better meat weren’t available, a little garlic and some salt and pepper would have gone a long way toward helping this rather bland sandwich along. As with the steak sandwich, a fresher bun would have also been nice.

Despite the disappointments of the food, EB and I will be coming back to Chicago Ale House soon, if for no better reason than the fact that we can walk there in about five minutes. The food may well improve, seeing as the place is only a few weeks old at this point. And even if the food never gets any better, it will be worth coming back here for a nice, cool glass of beer.

Chicago Ale House

2200 W. Lawrence
Chicago, IL 60625
773.285.2020

Fusion Profusion

07-06chino-latino-menu.jpgCousin Ketchup graduated from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota on Saturday. Mango Mama, Trader Joanna and I flew into Minneapolis from our respective homes for the event. We all found the stark ugly buildings of downtown Minneapolis to be bland, boring and positively depressing. But on the Friday night before the big day, we went with Ketchup, the rest of his family and his girlfriend and her family to the hip Uptown neighborhood. We had a reservation at the very happening Chino Latino.

The two-story restaurant was packed with scantily-clad women sipping mojitos and men looking to pick them up. Music and clothes were as loud as the restaurant’s flashy spangled decor. Chino Latino’s management labels the cuisine “Street Food from the Hot Zones.” This means a smattering of food from equatorial countries around the globe. Tacos from Mexico, curries from Thailand, sushi from Japan and chicken from the Caribbean. In other words, the fusion occurs on the menu, not in each individual dish.

We started with mojitos, which at $10 a piece should have been three times stronger. They tasted like sweetened lime juice and seemed to contain next to no rum. Things got better when the food arrived. We started with a sampling of tacos, including barbacoa, chicken tinga, el chingon (shredded chicken in tequila, chipotle salsa and al carbon. These were definitely good and fairly authentic in fresh corn tortillas and without American ingredients like cheddar cheese. Still, they can’t quite match up to the small shops in Chicago like Empanada Boy’s favorite Erick’s Tacos.

Lo MeinAfter that we went Asian, trying a tasty shrimp and coconut curry and two noodle dishes. One was the lo mein, pictured here. It was decent, with fresh vegetables and pretty little mushrooms. The Phuket fried noodles were basically pad Thai, which we ordered with shrimp as well. These were more flavorful than the lo mein. The bottom line is that all of these dishes would have been better in a good restaurant specializing in the given cuisine. But none of those restaurants would have the youthful, chic ambiance of Chino Latino. The latter is what attracts so many people.

Banana BoatOur order left Asia for a brief moment with the banana boat chicken. It was a boneless chicken breast coated in a plantain crust and served with jasmine rice. A sweet, but slightly tart passion fruit sauce came on the side with sauteed peppers and onions. The boat effect was achieved with a skewer stuck into the meat, bearing banana leaves like the sails on a boat. This dish was tasty, but it would have been better with more flavorful meat and a stronger sauce. Still, I thought this dish was original and distinctive, standing out amidst what seemed to be mostly Asian and Latin American entrees.

Menu2Finally, Ketchup’s sister, Leftovers, decided we needed something lighter, so she ordered some sushi. The platter had two kinds with raw fish— a chipotle salmon roll and a tuna ball with rice inside. The other rolls and nigiri were made with shrimp and mangoes.

And so it was that what began as Latino, became Chino, then became Latino and then became Chino once again. Perhaps there’s some deeper meaning to the concept of this restaurant. Or perhaps it’s just a slightly gimmicky excuse for eating a lot and having a great time. Congratulations on your graduation, Ketchup!

Chino Latino
2916 Hennepin Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55408
612.824.PUPU

Chino Latino in Minneapolis

Rainy Night Respite

Crab CakeThe first of Chicago’s many neighborhood festivals began with Mayfest this weekend in Lincoln Square. Nearly every neighborhood in Chicago has at least one festival during the summer and fall months, celebrating the area’s ethnic roots (eg “German Fest”) or a particular food (eg “Ribfest”).

t was unclear to us what Mayfest was supposed to be celebrating, (for one thing, it was no longer May) but Empanada Boy and I decided to head over to party it up with our neighbors. We planned to meet Sir Cheesealot and Butternut Squash for some outdoor eating and revelry. As we walked to the square, large droplets started to fall. We opened our umbrellas, but by the time we got there, the drops had turned to torrential downpour with lightning and thunder. Instead of trying to squeeze ourselves under the tent filled with drunk, sweaty people, we waded through the sodden streets to Café Selmarie, a pretty little bakery and restaurant in the heart of the square. Sir Cheesalot and Butternut Squash met us shortly thereafter.

Not everything on the dinner menu at Café Selmarie fits my budget, but about half of the entrees, including everything we ordered, are less than $12. We started with a beautiful bottle of Spanish white wine and an order of two crab cakes (see photo above), which we split between the four of us. These crab cakes were written up in the Tribune a few months back, so we felt obliged to give them a try. These were indeed exceptional— soft, tender crab meat pack loosely into a cake and barely seared on either side. These were not crispy like many others I’ve had, but their texture assured that the meat wasn’t overdone and that its flavor came through. A creamy garlic mayonnaise, fingerling potatoes and a relish of tomatoes and piquillo peppers formed an equally flavorful backdrop.

Chicken Pot PieEmpananda Boy and Butternut Squash both ordered the chicken pot pie. This had a nice, flaky, buttery crust, but the inside was a bit of a disappointment. Personally, I have never met a chicken pot pie I really liked, and this was no different. The filling was creamy and rich cream with chunks of chicken, peas and carrots mixed in. It was certainly better than past examples I’ve tried— more fresh tasting, less lumpy and less like a can of cream of mushroom soup— but still not my thing.

Duck Egg SaladThere are also a number of daily specials on the menu. Sir Cheesalot opted for the wrap of the day, which contained a firm white fish that I can’t recall. It looked delicious, and I can vouch for the tastiness of the thick-cut sweet potato fries that accompanied it. I picked the duck egg salad, which had a large, deeply flavorful fried duck egg on top and thin slices of smoky Spanish chorizo scattered through the vinaigrette-coated mache.

Café Selmarie is perhaps best known for its desserts and breakfast pastries (a brunch review may be in order). Empanada Boy pushed us to try something from the dessert case. He selected a slice of raspberry marzipan cake, and we each got a spoon to taste it. This wouldn’t have been my first choice, but it turned out to be quite delicious. In many ways, the experience with the cake is emblematic of the entire night. The visit to Café Selmarie wasn’t what I’d planned, but it turned out to be just as good anyway.

Café Selmarie
4729 N. Lincoln Avenue
Chicago, IL 60625
773.989.5595

Cafe Selmarie in Chicago