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Monthly Archives: June 2008

Bread on a Knead-to-Know Basis

Dough BallBaking bread is one of the few food preparations that I have long felt is best left up to the experts. That belief hasn’t changed; the best baguettes will still come from the wonderful yeasts and flours, the perfectly fashioned ovens and the master bakers of France. And there’s no way I could make a bagel in my home kitchen that rivals those of Brooklyn. But sometimes good bread just isn’t that readily available. I was surprised to find that was true when I moved to Chicago. In Portland, there are artisan bread makers in most neighborhoods, including Grand Central Bakery, Ken’s Artisan Bakery and Pearl Bakery, among others. Most supermarkets also sell wonderful loaves from these and other local bakeries. I was surprised when I moved to Chicago to find that things were not the same here. There are a couple of good local bakeries like Red Hen Bread and the one inside the gourmet market, Fox and Obel, but both are over-priced and far from my house. Supermarkets near me usually have meager selections, especially when it comes to firm, crusty breads to accompany salads or hearty stews. I have gotten by over the past few years by buying a decent sour batard at Trader Joe’s and occasionally visiting the other establishments. Still, the lack of good bread has been one of my favorite ongoing culinary bones to pick with Chicago.

Bread in PotIt may seem strange, then, that I didn’t jump at the chance to make my own bread when Mark Bittman published his now well-known article on “No-Knead Bread” in the Nov. 8, 2006 issue of The New York Times. Bittman adapted the recipe from Jim Lahey of New York’s Sullivan Street Bakery. The secret to this appropriately “minimalist” recipe— which really doesn’t require one iota of kneading— is that a tiny bit of yeast is allowed to ferment in wet dough for a long time, almost a full 24 hours. The recipe made a huge splash among foodies and bloggers when it first came out, starting a wave of home bakers. I guess I never tried it because I wasn’t convinced it could really be that good. Too many bad memories of bread-machine loaves flooded my mind every time I thought about it. The recipe also calls for a cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic Dutch oven, none of which I own. (There is a nice big enamel Le Crueset on my wedding registry list. Hint, hint…)

Finished BreadAfter a conversation last week with a friend who has been doing a lot of bread-baking experimentation, I decided to try it. After consulting some blogs, I used my stainless steel Dutch oven, which I knew had no melt-able parts. As it turned out, the recipe was incredibly simple, and the final product was phenomenal. The bread had great flavor, a delicious, light and chewy interior and a solid crust. I was rushing out of the house, but if I’d had more time, I would have browned the crust for another five minutes or so. Otherwise, the results were stellar. The best part is that all I needed was all-purpose flour, a tiny bit of yeast, salt and water. Empanada Boy and I had buffalo meat sliders on slices of the bread for lunch on Saturday and then brought the loaf to make caprese sandwiches at an outdoor concert that night. We ate the last of it today for lunch. While it might not bode well for our waistlines, I am now hooked on bread. I can’t wait to make my next loaf. Here’s the recipe, so you can make your own.

No-Knead Bread
As printed in The New York Times on Nov. 8, 2006
Adapted by Mark Bittman from Jim Lahey, Sullivan Street Bakery

Time: About 1½ hours plus 14 to 20 hours’ rising

3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting
¼ teaspoon instant yeast
1¼ teaspoons salt
Cornmeal or wheat bran as needed.

1. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 5/8 cups water, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees.

2. Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.

3. Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal; put dough seam side down on towel and dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise for about 2 hours. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.

4. At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic [or stainless steel!]) in oven as it heats. When dough is ready, carefully remove pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn dough over into pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that is O.K. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack.

Yield: One 1½-pound loaf.

Tampopo? Just So-So

MusselsI will admit, I haven’t seen the movie “Tampopo.” I know it’s one of those classic food-centered movies that all foodies should see. I also know the basic plot of this Japanese film revolves around two truck drivers who try to help a lady, Tampopo, build up her noodle shop to make it a paragon to “the art of noodle soup making.” Considering this rather loaded back story, it is a bold move indeed to give your own noodle and sushi shop the same name. That’s what the owner of Tampopo, in Chicago’s West Rogers Park neighborhood decided to do. Does this shop successfully elevate noodle soup to an art form? Empanada Boy and I were craving Japanese food and decided to find out.

Nigiri SushiA whole bowl of ramen wasn’t in the cards for Empanada Boy, considering his diet. He would order sushi, we decided, and try some of my ramen on the side. We started with a dish (pictured above) that was completely unique from anything I’ve tried. It was two large mussel halves topped with crabmeat and masago (smelt roe) and baked. The result was something like a Japanese version of escargot; beneath the lightly crisped, creamy, salty topping of crab and roe was the warm, juicy mussel. EB and I were impressed. We were also pleased with the quality of the nigiri sushi that EB ordered, including white tuna, red snapper, octopus, masago and scallop. These would have been better with more built-in seasoning from wasabi or vinegar, but the fish was firm, and the rice had a good freshly made texture. All fell into the reasonable $2 to $2.75 price range.

Crispy Unagi MakiEB also ordered a tasty crispy unagi maki, which was filled with thin, sweet strips of eel and got its crunchiness from a thin layer of panko around the exterior. It was another winning sushi dish for under $8. You may be wondering why I have yet to discuss or picture the ramen. That’s because the Gomoku ramen, which I ordered, was a big letdown. (The reason I don’t have a picture, though, is that my camera ran out of batteries during the meal.) The dish was a huge bowl of soup filled with noodles, napa cabbage, baby corn, bamboo shoots, onions, bean sprouts and carrots. It was also supposed to come with shumai shrimp and fish cake. What I got was a few thin pieces of fish cake, one tiny shrimp shumai dumpling and one shrimp. When I found the shrimp, I assumed that it was one of many in my bowl and offered it to EB. Little did I know it was the only shrimp to be found in my huge $10.50 bowl. To make matters worse, the broth was under-seasoned and severely lacking in that inexplicable flavor found in many Asian foods, known as ummami. Empanada Boy defended the soup, but I could not be convinced. Maybe I had built my hopes too high, eating flavor-packed pho at so many Vietnamese restaurants. Still, there was no excuse for the skimpy seafood and the broth did not quench my craving.

I would definitely go back to Tampopo to eat sushi again. Everything we tasted in that department was fresh and reasonably priced. We also enjoyed a delicious cold sake. I don’t know if I would ever risk ordering the noodles again. The menu descriptions are tempting, and other ramen dishes, udon or yakisoba may, in fact, be tasty. But it would be hard to endure another disappointment when the noodle soup fails to hit the spot.

5665 N. Lincoln Ave.
Chicago, IL 60659

Tampopo on Urbanspoon

The Bloody Battle of 2008

House Bloody MaryMy friend came up with an idea that amounts to genius. I wish I had thought of it myself. She is a big fan of bloody marys, and one day she decided it was time to find the best Chicago has to offer. This friend, let’s just call her Bloody Mary, decided to establish a Bloody Mary Bracket, culling recommendations from friends across the city and compiling them into a chart like the ones you see with sports tournaments. She divided the bracket into six different neighborhoods, with four spots to sample in each area. She even developed score cards for brunch attendees to evaluate the drinks on the basis of taste, texture, appearance, etc. Bloody Mary is a graduate student and an almost full-time employee at a law firm, so she wisely waited until the end of the school year to embark on her quest. Her first visit was to the Twisted Spoke, which specializes in rather elaborate versions of the drink. I couldn’t make it to that trial, but you can read her summation of the reviewers’ comments on her blog. This weekend’s trials were held at Stanley’s Kitchen & Tap in Lincoln Park. This time Empanada Boy and I joined Bloody Mary and eight others to sample and weigh in on the debate.

Stanley's Bloody BarStanley’s is a bar by night and a hugely popular brunch spot by (weekend) day. The brunch is a massive buffet filled with random offering everything from corned beef hash and biscuits and gravy to scrambled eggs to made-to-order waffles and omelets. There are also cookies and the makings for sandwiches, along with a fruit plate. Empanada Boy summed up the vibe very well when he suggested that the place reminded him of a college cafeteria. And the food quality wasn’t much better than that. EB and I were disappointed in almost everything we tried. Our favorite two dishes were the crispy corned beef hash with potato chunks and the juicy fried chicken. Neither of these items was particularly well-suited for EB’s diet, but he tried a few bites. Stanley’s Bloody Mary Bar falls into the same multiple choice formula: you get a jumbo paper cup with 3.5 shots of vodka and then go to the bar to add any sauces, spices and garnishes you choose. The offerings included pre-made mix, V8, celery salt, horseradish, steak sauce and much, much more. They took up about a third of the lengthy bar.

DIY Bloody MaryThe result, as EB and others who tried the DIY bar found, was about at good as you make it. His drink (pictured here) was tasty, but lacked the kick I require. It also didn’t have olives or pickles, the former because those weren’t provided and the latter because they ran out. EB makes a mean bloody mary at home, so I don’t blame him for any of the shortcomings of his drink. It’s hard to taste and experiment when you’re pushing through hungover ex-frat boys to get to the bar. Not wanting to chance it with my limited mixology skills, I ordered the smaller (pint-sized) version that the bartenders mix up for you. My drink (pictured on top) had good kick and decent texture once you stirred it, but was severely lacking in the garnish department. A measly celery stalk and a lemon wedge made for a pretty sad sight. Still, the drink turned out to be less than $7, making it a pretty decent value. Overall, I thought the balance of my drink was better than that of my compatriots, mostly because it’s too hard to assemble a great drink under pressure. I guess you could say I like my brunches and my bloody marys assembled and served by experts, two reasons that Stanley’s just isn’t my cup of tea.

Hahn’s Bloody Bracket

Stanley’s Kitchen & Tap
1970 N. Lincoln Ave.
Chicago, IL 60614

Stanley's Kitchen and Tap on Urbanspoon

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The Dog Days of Early Summer

Huey's signI got an assignment from a magazine that I write for to visit three classic Chicago hot dog stands and pick a winner for the “Best of Chicago” section. I was gearing up for a week of hot dog sampling when I heard that my niece-to-be, the Reading Corndog, would be visiting the neighborhood with her parents and brother. I had promised her months ago that I would take her on a restaurant review to Huey’s Hot Dogs, one of her favorites from her old stomping grounds. I couldn’t turn her down with the excuse of predicted hot dog overload, so yet another hot dog was added to my weekly diet. (Poor, good, Empanada Boy ordered a turkey sandwich and only ate half. He’s lost 14lbs now!)

Chicago dog closerHuey’s is a small storefront on a side street in Andersonville. The interior is brightly painted in mustard color with ketchup-colored trim. A big chalkboard displays the menu to customers who line up at the counter. Offerings range from basic dogs to chilidogs to burgers and a few sandwiches. All dogs come with fries. I ordered a charred hot dog, which means that it has been placed on the grill and blackened in addition to just being steamed. I am of the mind that the char can only add to the entire flavor combination. Sous Chef ordered a steamed dog, proving that there are some who prefer the purity of the original. Slim McDinner had a Polish sausage. Like any good Chicago dog, these had pickle spears, tomatoes, hot peppers, onions and mustard (no ketchup!). The franks were tasty, with good snap and an excellent poppy seed bun. Budacki’s may have been a little juicier, but there were no seeds on the buns. The fries were medium-thick and nicely crisped on the outside. The only thing I could have asked for was some mustard for dipping my fries. Ketchup is allowed for fries, but I take my mustard seriously.

Kid dogContrary to her name, the Reading Corndog, opted not to get a corndog. Instead, she went with a regular hot dog without toppings, to which she applied a generous slathering of ketchup. (Chicagoans under the age of 15 or so are exempted from the no ketchup rule.) She seemed to enjoy her meal, although she may have spent more time defending her fries from her brother than she did actually eating them. The foosball table, strategically placed next to the plastic kids table was also a distraction from the task at hand.

When it comes to Chicago hot dogs, there is little that can distract me from chowing down. Huey’s may not have the old-timey atmosphere of Budacki’s, but their hot dogs come out to be just as good. Three hot dog stands in one week sounded tough at first, but I think I’ll make it through four with no problem.

Huey’s Hot Dogs
1507 W. Balmoral Ave.
Chicago, IL 60640

Huey's Hot Dogs & More on Urbanspoon