Sky Full of Bacon

Eddie Lakin, a former fine dining chef turned burger guy, talks about how to make the perfect old school burger and fries a few weeks after the opening of his hotly anticipated Edzo’s Burger Shop in Evanston, in this 7-1/2 minute short produced for the Chicago Reader. Read more here.

Edzo’s Burger Shop from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

Like Super Dave Osborne, I throw myself into various culinary adventures heedless of the outcome, and so far I’ve usually succeeded well enough in the end— my first loaf of crusty bread was crusty in the same way a Sherman tank is, but within a few more tries, it was pretty delicious, and I’ve been making it ever since, happily.  Likewise, the first thing I tried out of Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie was bacon, and it went so well that, with a few refinements (such as buying better pork), I was soon renowned as a bacon maven.

This time, though, I may have been beaten.  Maybe I’m just tired after a long day, that’s what my partner in charcuterie Cathy2 suggested, but this one feels like it got away from me, I bit off more than I could chew, whatever.  Here’s my saga of an intense day of porkology, and hell if I know if it will prove successful in the end.

So it started with two large boxes of pork from my pork producer connection in Iowa.  In them were contained:

• Two full-length bellies (usually I just get the squarer rear half)
• One ham
• One shoulder
• Back fat
• Leaf lard

I would end up doing something with all of these except the last today.  First off, I cut the bellies in half and added the cure and maple syrup to three of the belly halves (the fourth went to Cathy).  That was old hat, and easy.

Next I cut out the coppa muscle.  You may recall my Coppablogging posts (here here and here), and how I said that it was fairly simple to find the round coppa muscle once someone like Rob Levitt at Mado had shown me where it was. Well, it was really simple to spot this time:

I sliced it out and trimmed it up, and Cathy got the pleasure this time of massaging the seasoning and cure into it.  That was easy too, and it went into the fridge for about two weeks of absorbing the cure.  Meanwhile, I set to dicing and cubing the meat and backfat for the next and most ambitious parts of today’s adventures in advanced porkitude.

My plan was to make two dry-cured sausages today.  The first was from Ruhlman’s book— a saucisson sec, a simple French country garlic and pork shoulder sausage.  The second, a bit more ambitious, was the sopressata from Paul Bertolli’s Cooking By Hand, a book widely used by professionals of my acquaintance (the Eckhouses taught themselves to make prosciutto out of it; Rob Levitt cited it as his main guide as he began making charcuterie at Mado).  That the latter is geared more toward professionals is evidenced by the fact that I had to cut the recipe by 2/3rds to equal the quantity produced by Ruhlman’s recipe, about 6 lbs.

Now, one thing I quickly learned is that sausagemaking is not a hobby you take up casually at no great expense.  I had the Kitchenaid with the grinder and sausage stuffer attachments, and some dextrose left over from the original coppadventure, but I still wound up having to buy 1) a smaller scale capable of measuring grams, 2) a better boning knife, 3) Instacure #2 and 4) Bactoferm starter culture (which promotes lactic acid formation, preventing nasty things like botulism) by mail from, and a container of salted pork intestines at Paulina Market— and that was only after I’d decided not to make big sopressata in 4″ wide cow intestines, because they only come in a $35 tub of 500 feet worth or some such.  You could spend a small fortune just getting ready for this, and as with the fortune of the late Mobuto Sese Seko promised you by a banker in Nigeria, it’s only the fact that you’ve already put so much money in that keeps you from stopping and saying the hell with it all at some point where doing so would be the only logical thing left to do, if you weren’t delusional by that point.

Anyway, I sliced and diced and cut into strips:

Into the freezer it all went.  First up to grind: pork shoulder and backfat for the saucisson sec.  And here we encountered one of the problems with the Kitchenaid as a sausagemaking tool: you can grind about half a pound before the silverskin and whatnot in the pork shoulder has wrapped itself around the blade and rendered it useless.  So I had to break the machine down and clean the blade and the thing with the holes it pushes the chopped meat through, every couple of minutes.  It made what should have been a few minutes of grinding into most of an hour; I was instantly envious of Eddie Lakin of Edzo’s, who told me when I interviewed him for a video that his grinder has a way of catching that stuff and wrapping it around the auger before it can choke off the blade.

Anyway, much later than I’d hoped, we finally had the meat for the first sausage all ground, and could add the seasonings in the mixer— Cathy having been hard at work getting them together and crushing them in the mortar where needed.  Then it was time to extrude the seasoned pork mix into the casings— and this too went much too slowly, with endless problems caused by the fairly gooey sausage mixture blocking air or creating air bubbles in the casings as we tried to stuff them.  I swear this was much easier the other time I did it, I’m not sure what the deal was today; but I have to think that part of it is simply that, while sausagemaking with a Kitchenaid mixer may be possible, it’s less than ideal and this is another case where having the right tools is the difference between a difficult and frustrating job and a relatively smooth one.  Another much longer-than-expected span of time went into this, with lots of frustration and some careful rereading of the books to see if we were missing something, but finally, we had about six good saucisson secs:

I tied them off and attached tags indicating which sausage they were and their weight in grams at the time of making.  At this point I realized something: my little wine fridge wasn’t big enough to hold these sausages, an equal quantity of another kind, and a coppa.  But the pork leg and backfat for the sopressata were already cut, so Cathy suggested that I make one or two sopressata as a test and freeze the rest of the meat for future use.  So we ground it all and I packed up most of it, measuring out one pound of the meat and then dividing Bertolli’s recipe by 15 to get the proper amounts.  Thankfully, at least the pork leg ground easily without the connective tissue problems the shoulder had had.

On the other hand, the thing that’s really a crapshoot is whether we did the Bactoferm starter culture right; by now we were working with such small quantities relative to Bertolli’s recipe that we could only guess how accurate we were.  At least two things I think should prevent any possible nastiness such as botulism: one, that it’s much smaller than the customary sopressata, so it should dry out more readily than a bigger sopressata and cure  more quickly, and two, when we fried up a little of each sausage and tasted them, they were both already quite salty.  So I would think that the salt should help prevent some of these problems, though I’m not sure if it will be too salty by the time it’s shrunk a bit and become more concentrated.

So anyway, here are the saucissons sec in the wine fridge, while the lone test sopressata sits out at room temperature for a day to activate the Bactoferm culture:

Even if the sausages are a total loss— and I don’t think they will be, but they may not be all that great, either— at least the coppa should work and I have, left over, a somewhat whittled-down but still decent size shoulder and about a half a ham, each of which should make for a nice, non-cured main dish at some point.  But I just don’t know about the sausages; stay tuned to see if it proved too much for me, or if I’m just selling the day’s effort short because it’s worn me down.  Maybe, with luck, the day will come that the pain and difficulties are forgotten but the taste makes it all worthwhile.

1. The most interesting, and comical, thing in this episode of Good Food is the story of a public radio journalist who went to Bhutan to help start a radio station… and discovered that the national dish of Bhutan is ema datshi, hot chili peppers with yak cheese. For breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s at about 26 minutes in.

2. I’ve already linked to PR maven/chicken-raiser Ellen Malloy’s RIA Unplugged blog, but this is a really good piece about how the media environment has changed for the restaurant industry.  (Or you can just read about her chickens… one of whom turned out to be a rooster, necessitating a moment of chicken truth.)
3. Saucisson MAC is a Chicagoan who posts about twice a month, but when he does, it’s epic.  Beautiful piece on bacon, great one about Thai sausage with some awesome pictures of trepanning a coconut, truly he is a comrade in arms to Sky Full of Bacon.
4. And on his site I found this one about a guy who not only makes cool charcuterie I never heard of like Nduja, but… don’t get overexcited now… he has a club for charcuterie lovers.  A charcuterie underground.  Vive la resistance! UPDATE: Reader/Twitter follower Jason Brechin points me to a couple of pieces he did on Laurence Mate, author and charcuterie-clubmaster of the above blog. Check ’em out, they’re good too!
5. I’ve wondered this too.  Orange chicken is not enough.
6. Thought-provoking piece on a guy who can identify the conditions under which beef was raised and slaughtered by eating it.  Evidently this would be less uncommon if we all just thought about the beef we were eating a little harder. (H/t to LTHForum poster Dansch)
7. Or we could just… grow our own food! Specifically… meat.

Okay, I don’t really think this is anything more than a concept piece for a competition…

I’ve never quite believed those claims that even wine experts, when blindfolded, can’t tell red wine from white. I’m a long ways from being an expert and yet I’m pretty sure that I could distinguish the tomatoeyness of red from the herbalness of white without any visual clues.

However, that the power of suggestion is a powerful factor in taste is undeniable.  We taste what we expect to taste, much of the time.

I went to a new Japanese restaurant in my neighborhood, Mio Bento, a few weeks back.  I liked it okay for what it seemed to be, basically mall Japanese in a new condo building, but the setting and the emphasis on takeout led me to put it in a certain class.  And so one assumption I made was that the udon started with a commercial stock or base product— it had the one-dimensionally meaty taste of beef bouillon.  Using a shortcut product like that seems like the kind of thing a place doing mainly takeout business in a condo building would do.  So I said so on this blog.

Except that udon isn’t made with beef.  It’s a seaweed-based stock, and the owners of Mio Bento replied here:

Thanks for stopping into Mio Bento & posting about us on your blog. There’s a bunch of other dishes that will be rolling out as we continue to grow. If you want to sample the goods earlier on (and maybe give us your input)let us know.

By the way, the udon broth is made from scratch daily :-)

So I went back to Mio Bento a couple of days ago, and had the udon again. Now that I was expecting to taste more than Insta-Beef, I did— the udon seemed richer, more complex, I picked out notes of star anise and cinnamon (whether they’re actually in it or not).

So which judgement is right? Who knows. But I appreciate the good humor that Julie, co-owner, showed when I identified myself after eating there. She explained that the udon is made every day by her mother, who has owned a string of Japanese restaurants in other cities; she and her husband opened this one in part to lure Mom to come live with them. They’re Korean (not uncommon in Japanese restaurants here), and the menu has a few Korean items, and will continue to grow as the restaurant evolves— better signage is on the way, for instance, which their almost-invisible restaurant needs.

We talked about other things, what Asian foods our kids will eat or not eat and so on, and then she pointed out a little glass container of Asian truffles— I mean the chocolate kind— which a friend is trying to start as a business. They had chocolate on the outside, like you’d expect, but the inside was a wheat paste soaked in cognac, and there was a walnut on top. Okay, not what you’d expect from a Belgian chocolate shop, say, but they were kind of good all the same, in a not so decadent kind of way.

It was a pleasant visit, and it’s a nice addition to the neighborhood. Give it a chance. Or in my case, two chances, and see what you missed the first time.

I have a cold and I have a bunch of shooting to do and Hammond and I are giving a presentation at Mensa’s confab this Thursday on sustainable fish and I have to carve pumpkins with the kids and oh, it’s a busy week and I have no inspiration to write something. So if anyone does happen to visit this week, I’m going to dig way back in the archives to find something for you, here’s something I posted at Chowhound many years ago when my tall, self-assured 8-year-old was a mere baby traveling the city with his food-obsessed dad. This place is still around but I have never been back, sad to say.

Entering the Pharoah’s Chamber

Someone posted on Luxor a few weeks ago and that sent me out to explore further reaches of Lawrence where I evidently hadn’t been for a while– long enough to allow a new middle Eastern restaurant to pop up, at least.

In fact, it seems to have been long enough for an entire Egyptian enclave to have popped up in Albany Park; just driving along Lawrence I counted no less than three places bearing three of the most stereotypically Egyptian names possible– no, nothing named King Tut, but Luxor, Nefertiti Cafe and, simply enough, The Pharoah’s.

Entering The Pharoah’s takes you back to the days when all Chinese restaurants were named The Great Wall. Not only is the name stereotypical, but the room has been done in the style of a pharoah’s tomb (at least a pharoah whose preparations for the afterlife included a big screen TV), with off-the-shelf bas relief tiles of the most cliched Egyptian scenes. Ten years from now, it will be that taqueria that mystifies everyone with its Egyptian motifs.

So am I mocking The Pharoah’s? On the contrary. I am saluting the entrepreneurial spirit of the immigrant, who seeks to offer the customers of the new country exactly the stereotypical experience of the owners’ native land they expect. In fact, The Pharoah’s proved to be a totally welcoming and friendly environment that checked off every single one of my signs of an authentic immigrant restaurant experience (see below). How welcoming was it? Well, one of my party not only got to dance with one of the female proprietors, he wound up being kissed by her– and then being fed by her by hand! Of course, he’s 17 months old, so that might have had something to do with his special treatment.

Having the baby along gave me the excuse to order way too much food so I could try several things. The baba ghanouj (which I noticed they pronounced with an actual j sound, ganoodge, not ganoosh) had a good smokey flavor. The baby and I both liked it a lot. The beans in the foul likewise seemed to have been hand-roasted over a flame and bore visible grill marks; I missed the little hint of a liquory flavor (presumably not actually alcohol) that these have at Tut Oasis, but the freshness was inarguable and I certainly liked them better than Al-Khaimyeh’s (or whatever the place is on the opposite side of Kedzie from Noon-O-Kebab). We had no problem finishing most of that, too, both of us. The chicken schwarma sandwich was a disappointment only in that at the low price of $2.95, it was pretty thin and thus the chicken tended to be a little lost amid other things; I would have paid a dollar or two more for a fatter sandwich (like Tutunji’s), not that I strictly needed more today, anyway the chicken eaten by itself was very flavorful and moist, I might well order a dinner choice instead of a sandwich next time and see how that comes out. (Though the front of the menu was pretty much the usual stuff, there were some more unusual items on the back worth future exploration.)

Last but not least, I think The Pharoah’s might well be an interim step, at least, in Vital Info’s search for the perfect middle eastern place, since they brought us a plate of pickled peppers and such, and also a plate of extra tomato and cucumber, alongside our meal. (She also got a yogurt from the fridge and fed it to my son while bouncing along to the Egyptian music videos, but you can’t expect the same treatment.)

Oh, and they also have hookahs, like Luxor. Though at lunch time they seemed to be just cleaning them, at least they didn’t offer either me or the baby one.
* * *

Mike G’s Signs of An Authentic Immigrant Restaurant Experience
with The Pharoah’s score

1. Large screen TV showing native programming [Y]
2. Male proprietor walks through non-smoking area with lit cigarette [Y]
3. Male proprietor walks through entire restaurant talking on cell phone (can be combined with #2) [Y]
4. Female proprietor fails to understand item you are pronouncing (“fool… fowl… fole?”) until you point to it, at which time she says “Ah, fool!” pronouncing it exactly the way you thought you said it the first time [Y]
5. Multiple family members at work, more than would be needed if employing the whole family was not the point of restaurant [Y]
6. Presence of older man, not an owner but with undefined other role in the running of the restaurant, with extravagant mustache in style of the village they came from [Y]
7. Everyone in extended family/staff comes out to at some point to say hi to the baby (optional if no baby available) [Y]

Pharaohs Cafe
(773) 478-8400
Albany Park/North Park
3949 W Lawrence Ave
Chicago, IL 60625

I feel like I’ve launched a food video renaissance here in Chicago! Okay, the availability of inexpensive Flip video cameras probably has far more to do with it than anything I did, but still, I take some pioneer pride when I see food video popping out all over like it is.

First, Seth Zurer— who I’ve known via LTHForum and Chowhound for a shockingly long time now, considering that he hasn’t gotten any older in all that time and I have— and the other chaps behind Baconfest have a bunch of short little videos with the chefs involved in the upcoming (and sold out) Baconfest cookoff competition at the Publican. Here are a couple I especially liked:

More videos here; more about Baconfestchi here.

Meanwhile, some folks have also launched a venture called ChicagoEatsTV, which consists mainly of little Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives-style portraits of food spots around town; I wouldn’t exactly say they’ve broken major new ground so far with Fredhots, the Wicker Park bar Cans and a piece on buffalo wings, but the pieces are slickly produced and I’ll be interested to see where they go from here. Here’s the Fredhots one: fRedhots & Fries in Glenview, IL from ChicagoEatsTV on Vimeo.

More here. And hey, if you know somebody making food videos in Chicago, let me know and I’ll post them here.

I could take this moment to salute the record time in which a restaurant went from being one of 50 Places Not Mentioned on LTHForum to an LTHForum Great Neighborhood Restaurant… but the work of a food adventurer is not to rest on laurels, but to press ever onward, ceaselessly expanding the world of food knowledge.

These are three neighborhood places (not necessarily in my neighborhood, but at least on routes I travel fairly frequently, so they feel like neighborhood places to me). How far should you travel to try them? Not very, I’d say. Find their equivalent in your neighborhood, I’d say. Still, I don’t dismiss them, either, and in fact I’ve already been back to one.

Paradise Sauna

I’m surprised that this place never got an LTH review, as its sushi-sauna combo is not only unique but has had its fans over the years, as I noted a couple of years back. Chefs are always being asked where they go to eat besides their own places, and being competitive, they rarely name a competitor. Typically, they either go regular-guy (Grant Achatz’s love for Potbelly), or… they say sushi. Sushi seems to be the neutral ground, the Switzerland cuisine for chefs.

And one place I noticed that they named often was Paradise Sauna; the sybaritic appeal for chefs of raw fish, sake and gettin’ nekkid and steamy (plus late, chef-friendly hours to facilitate the above) is obvious enough.

For that same reason, Michael Morowitz informed me that he had never been able to convince his wife of the virtues of fish being sliced a few feet from people getting rubdowns. So he and I went and sampled… only the restaurant side. What may be going on in the other part of the place, we have no idea, but what’s going on on the sushi side is an okay, fairly plain sushi restaurant. We had some sashimi which was pretty good, a nicely hot and somewhat too large spider roll and a pretty mediocre roll with drab, lifeless white fish draped across the top, which we didn’t finish. Prices were reasonable, the atmosphere was exactly what you’d expect. A neighborhood place, nothing more— at least on this side of the door.

Paradise Sauna
2910 W Montrose Ave
Chicago, IL 60618-1404
(773) 588-3304

Mio Bento

A tiny Japanese (or Korean-Japanese) cafe hidden in a generic-monster condo building on a strip of Irving Park near Western that no one walks… hard to imagine the commercial prospects for that, and it’s been pretty empty at lunch, so I’m hoping they do more takeout business in the evening from their deli cases. This is pretty standard stuff— udon with the taste of a commercial broth, small inexpensive sushi rolls with too much ponzu sauce squirted over them— but hey, if I was in Japan, there’d be 15 places like this on my block, no better* and no worse, so I’m happy to have one, get my healthy seaweed salad or my udon with some fresh tempura vegetables in it. Welcome to the neighborhood Mio Bento.

* Of course, objectively they’d be better because they’d be in Japan where they could get better stuff to start with, but relatively speaking, there’d be a pack they’d all be in the middle of, where Mio Bento is in the middle of a pack of one.

Mio Bento
2245 W Irving Park Rd
Chicago, IL 60618-3840
(773) 539-2500

La Cabana de Don Luis

Normally, this has the kind of Mexican compound name that says “stay away” to me, see my rules and “Los Dos Sombreros de Señor Guacamole,” and the window saying “Authentic Mexican Food” was another warning: authentic Mexican restaurants don’t say “Authentic Mexican Restaurant,” they say “Menudo Fines de Semana.”

But I gave it a shot. It’s a friendly family-run place. I wasn’t wild about the red and the lettuce-based green salsa, but you can at least say they were hot, and bringing out a plate of beans to dip in was a hit with the boys. One son had a steak burrito, and the steak seemed pretty decent. I had cochinita pibil, just because I was surprised to see it on the menu. I don’t think it was slow-roasted in banana leaves in the ground, but at least it was stewed in a pot with achiote paste and orange, and was plenty hot. It won’t give Xoco a run for its money, but it wasn’t a bad rendition. Maybe they make something else that’s not merely better than you expect, but better than you’ve had elsewhere.

I could wish the TV wasn’t blaring (and they changed it to English-language news for us, meaning my kids got a full dose of swine flu hysteria and Fenger High beating deaths), but all in all, a decent family run Mexican place. A neighborhood place.

La Cabana de Don Luis
5157 N Lincoln Ave
Chicago, IL 60625-2520
(773) 271-5176

I gave it away on LTHForum this weekend, so I might as well announce the subject of the next Sky Full of Bacon video podcast: pie, specifically as prepared by Paula Haney at her wildly popular Hoosier Mama pie shop. Paula and several of her bakers are interested in pie not just as a popular indulgence (see the cupcake craze) but as a food with deep historical roots in the midwest.  I’m pretty darn interested in that too (see this ancient and long-running LTHForum thread) so we’ve had some good discussions about, Why Pie?

If you haven’t been to Hoosier Mama, go there tomorrow (they’re closed Monday) and go have the oatmeal pie, a traditional pie they just added to the menu which is downright wonderful.

(So what was with my clue a week or so ago?  The old can of leaf lard is actually from Edzo’s, Eddie Lakin’s burger shop previously mentioned here, and I photographed it right after coming from Hoosier Mama and talking to Paula about leaf lard crusts.  She uses all-butter but is interested in trying leaf lard sometime, if she can find a reliable source— and customers who don’t freak out at the prospect; she has had people ask, clearly interested in trying pie with a leaf lard crust or, as I make it, about half and half with butter.)

The podcast will be ready sometime in November.  In the meantime, go have the pie now!

1. LTHForum poster Aschie30 contributes an account of dinner at Napa’s French Laundry that makes the forbiddingly hard-to-get-into restaurant seem… downright cuddly.
2. Crimes Against Food is a great name for a food podcast by two slightly dotty and giggly British women; this kind of unstructured, whatever-pops-into-our-heads podcast usually irritates me, but maybe it’s the accents that make it kind of like spending the afternoon with a couple of fun birds getting tipsy. The one on food in film is a good example.
3. A great story about the craziness of the restaurant-PR game in Hong Kong at a blog called Chef’s Tales.
4. Here’s a post to make you question why you live in Chicago in winter: serving up fresh clams on a beach in Greece, at a blog called Kalofagas.
5. There are so many baking blogs, and most of them are not that exciting— same old muffins and gooshy text. Here’s one called Kuidaore from a woman in Singapore where the stuff looks really beautiful and the writing, though a bit rich, is pretty engaging.
6. When I was in Spain two years ago, the second language seemed to have become Romanian (our hotelier in Catalonia was taking classes to be able to better communicate with the guys restoring his ancient buildings). Poppy Planet is a blog by a Romanian living and cooking in Sweden; if you’ve seen Bridgestone’s posts about cooking and eating in Sweden, this offers more of the same—very fresh, very white food, like Flying Jakob, a dish which somehow involves chicken, bananas and bacon.
7. Borderline stupid idea made borderline brilliant thanks to dead-on characterizations and straightfaced playing: John Candy as the owner of Roy’s Food Repair, from a post-SCTV show called The New Show:

Mike G’s Rules for Better Dining from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

Like many food explorers, I have certain rules or guidelines that I use to help steer toward the good stuff and avoid the lame. One or two of them have attained some currency on LTHForum, such as Mike G’s Rule (“If there’s a reason to eat somewhere besides the food, the food’s no good,” an iron law which is as true of corn dogs at amusement parks as it is of fine dining restaurants with spectacular views). After seeing Michael Pollan’s rules for solving the omnivore’s dilemma, I decided to borrow his format and offer up my own rules. They’re unlikely to save the planet, but they may save your lunch. It runs 1:43, enjoy!