Sky Full of Bacon

L, duck, R, chef.

It may seem strange or even hypocritical to say so, but I’m not a fan of chefs roaming the room chatting up each table. I mean, I think it’s a smart practice, management-wise, but for me personally it’s an awkward moment if I don’t know the chef already; he’s asking how everything was and I’m incapable of stammering out any better answer than “Uh, great, everything was great. Really great. I thought the fish was great. And the vegetables next to it. Really great.”

But Mike, you say, you’re making videos with chefs and talking about how you talked to the chef about old recipes in Charleston Receipts or whatever. You’re like, the dude who talks to chefs all the time! Well, yeah, but if I interview a chef, I have questions, I’ve done research, I have a topic to explore. And even if I’m just dining at the restaurant of someone who I’ve interviewed, at least we have that history of conversation behind us. Where if I talk to someone cold straight after eating their food… it’s full awkward dorkiness time. “And the yellow stuff on the plate, what was that, powdered essence of poached pheasant pancreas— oh, parmesan cheese, huh? Well, it was great too.”

Black garlic.

But people seem to want to talk to the chef, beats me why, so various events have started springing up to make it a more interesting encounter than simply chefs putting diners on the spot at the end of a meal, and vice versa. You can go watch Rob Levitt of Mado cut up a pig, say. Or, like I did last week, you can go (as a guest of the Park Hyatt hotel, I should point out) to a presentation on the classic French dish canard apicius, featuring NoMI sous chef Christian Ragano and Judy Shertzer of Terra Spice, an Indiana-based spice vendor who supplies NoMI (among others).

Canard apicius— basically, in both name and recipe, simply “spiced duck”— is a dish that’s supposed to go back to Roman times, but what it really goes back to for NoMI chef Christophe David is his time at Lucas Carton, which was for many years one of the top Paris restaurants.  (It was renamed for owner Alain Senderens for a while, and made more casual, but it appears to be back to the old name— and prices.)  I don’t know what he did there, but then again, I guess I do— he was one of many young cooks cranking out the place’s signature dish.  As David explained to us at the table, it’s a dish that doesn’t really work in a hotel— it requires prep a few days in advance, then about 45 minutes to roast and serve— so he was clearly glad to have an event which would allow him to serve a dish with personal meaning to an entire table at his restaurant, and perhaps, to stretch the muscles of a staff used to working within the hotel-food genre with some old French restaurant discipline.

Sous chef Christian Ragano did the actual presentation; partway through he confessed that this was his first time doing a presentation like this, but he seemed a natural for it, witty and well-organized and making the somewhat daunting process sound like something a regular person could actually do.  He talked us through blanching the duck (which you may recall from Sky Full of Bacon #2), which is done in a flavorful stock, followed, ideally, by overnight air-drying; then the duck is trussed and roasted partway, the spices are toasted in a pan, and duck meets spices for finishing in the oven.

As our small salon filled with the smell of toasted coriander and other spices, we also sniffed and tasted a number of spices laid out in bowls.  Any idea what this is?

No particular flavor, the only clue is the yellowish cast— it’s whole turmeric, which grows in a ginger-like root.

After the presentation we enjoyed a three-course meal in a dining room with the Park Hyatt’s most obvious advantage— a spectacular view looking up Michigan Avenue with the old Water Tower front and center.  Banyuls, a sweet fortified wine, is the traditional accompaniment for canard apicius, but in this case for the first course, the duck leg, we were served a Riesling Kabinett, which has some of the sweetness but presumably less than the banyuls.  Instead, banyuls figured in the salad’s vinaigrette (and this superbly composed salad nearly stole the show from the duck leg).

The second course was the duck breast, served with an apple compote (not that exciting) and a Medjool date puree (brightly flavorful).  In both duck courses, the subtle perfuming of the half-roasted bird with the spices kept the strong spices from becoming overbearing, though I did crack off some of the spice coating at times, so as not to chomp whole coriander seeds and the like.  We finished with a very pretty dessert served in a kind of snifter, in which raspberry gelatin at the bottom was set off with a slight note of heat and spice from a pink peppercorn cream, the work of dessert chef Frederic Moreau, who calibrated its ratio of comfort to provocation (about 6 to 1, I’d say) ingeniously.

Hotel restaurants are their own genre, serving a different client base and worrying about things (like breakfast and room service) that other restaurants don’t have to deal with; and it’s easy to think of them as kind of impersonally professional compared to chef-driven restaurants— serving equally anonymous travelers who will almost never become regulars or gain a sense of the chef’s strengths and point of view.  A program and meal like this gives both chefs and diners a chance to break out of that way of looking at things and to relate as people cooking something that has personal meaning for them for a small group who will be receptive to it.  At $125 a person, it’s definitely downtown-hotel-priced, but I’m glad that my first exposure to NoMI was in a way that made it more accessibly human-scaled for me— and meant that I could be more sincerely and intelligently appreciative to the chefs than simply stammering, “It’s great, everything’s great.”

Yes, that’s right, I’m guest waffle-blogger at the justly lauded Waffleizer this week. Check out my creation— waffle iron-fried chicken and waffles, a dish so powerful it cures vegetarianism— and my never-before-told tale of Waffle Day at my dot-com job in the late 90s by going here. (He has some awfully nice things to say about the new video, too.)

Tomorrow, I go to a major business publication to talk blogs and the restaurant scene, or some such thing. Watch for the guy with the extremely square haircut (maybe it will grow out in the next 24 hours). Anyway, more on that coming soon.

Also with awfully nice words: Helen at Grub Street.

I’ve pretty much made my peace with Thomas Keller since starting to regularly make his vegetable stock (as described here). I accept that he is the world’s worst home economist, always urging you to toss away things that frugal housewives would carefully hoard and use to their last bit of life. I accept that he is more particular than I will ever be about straining and clarifying, and that he will always add a step of work if there is the teeniest bit of value to be gained from it. So I make his vegetable stock the way he makes it, and strain out my pricey leeks and fennel after 45 minutes like he says to, and then when he’s left the room, I simmer the vegetables some more and get from them the flavor he would have left behind, because it wasn’t quite pristine and clear enough for him, and then I have two vegetable stocks— a beautiful clear-tasting Keller one for delicate soups, and a slightly down-and-dirtier one for not so delicate ones, and each jar of vegetable stock cost me a buck or two, not three bucks or four. Everybody’s happy.

Well, until Keller came out with what was supposed to be his casual home cooking cookbook, Ad Hoc at Home. Somehow, not remembering my failed attempts to cook out of The French Laundry Cookbook, I convinced myself that it was not only a cookbook I wanted to have, but it would be a worthy Christmas gift for my sister, who’s a fine cook but let’s just say about 10,000 times less hyper about food than I am.

I snapped back to reality when Aschie30 wrote this LTHForum post about how difficult Keller makes the act of making something as simple and homey as chicken and dumplings. True, she finally decides that all the extra work was worth it, but in the process she certainly puts the lie to Keller’s opening claims that this is the casual food “I love to sit down to with my family and friends.” Charlie Trotter successfully put away the chive shears and managed to produce a book of modestly-scaled recipes which achieve his cuisine’s baseline virtues without a staff of 20, but Keller has not. I mean, this is a book which devotes an entire oversized spread to making your own soup crackers. Keller writes a book for casual home cooking like Wagner would have written one on musical entertaining at home.

At the risk of discovering that the main thing I’d strained was my family’s patience, I decided to have an all-Thomas Keller Valentine’s Day dinner, and thus settle the question in my mind: does Keller’s perfectionist approach to casual cuisine yield benefits worth sweating for, or is he freakin’ nuts? (It would have been an all-Ad Hoc at Home dinner, but I finally decided I liked the sound of a dessert from The French Laundry Cookbook better.)  But in any case it involved four main recipes from Ad Hoc, plus two additional recipes which produced something to be used in one of the main recipes; plus four separate recipes to produce the parts which would come together to make the dessert.

Braised Beef Short Ribs (p. 41-2)

I settled on short ribs because I figured a braise would give me some leeway to handle the extra steps in whatever other dishes I made— and because it seemed like something I could buy happily from the grassfed beef guy selling at the Logan Square Farmer’s Market.  I know all the reasons why I’m supposed to eat grassfed beef, but it’s just too harsh for my taste eaten in straightforward form (like a steak).  A nice braise though, lots of wine and aromatic vegetables, that’s where the stronger flavor of grassfed beef would work for me, I figured; and so I was eager to experiment with something like short ribs.  The pieces I got were certainly gorgeous looking:

Meanwhile, I spent about an hour making a wine glaze using Keller’s usual assortment of vegetables (onion, carrots, leeks, no celery) plus thyme.  Heedless of cost as usual, he says to use an entire bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon or other red wine; I finished off three leftover opened bottles of random red (two shiraz, one merlot), saving at least $10 right there:

And in typical Keller fashion, given his belief that vegetables have given up most of their flavor by the 45-minute mark, this is just the first of two sets of nearly identical vegetables and spices that you add to the braising liquid— throwing both away at the end.  Nonsense, said I, and so I rescued the second set of carrots at the end and served them alongside the meat.  They were fine, you should try them sometime, Tom!

Meanwhile, I browned the short ribs, and then, because Keller is so horrified by the prospect that meat might wind up with a little piece of limp parsley adhering to it, you’re supposed to wrap the meat in a shroud of cheesecloth and bury it in the liquid.   I did that, then cut out the little parchment paper doily that is another of Keller’s signatures, and put this in the oven to braise for a couple of hours.

As it did I prepared:

Puree of Garlic Potatoes, p. 223

I wondered how much Keller would gild the lily of something as straightforward as garlic mashed potatoes, a dish whose entire recipe is basically in its name.  He did so in two ways.  First, his method of adding garlic flavor was to make:

Garlic Confit and Oil, p. 266

Put some garlic cloves in a pan, cover with half a bottle of canola oil, poach in the oil until they’re soft and gooey.  The two bucks’ worth of canola oil seemed profligate— though I suppose it could be used later in something— but the resulting garlic was really nice and mellow, subtle once it was mixed into the potatoes.  And not much work, really, for a Keller extra step.  I would do this again, certainly.

The other was to have me cook the potatoes by dropping them, whole, into cold, heavily salted water, then bringing them to a simmer, then peeling them hot.  What does this add compared to peeling them with a peeler and cooking them skinless?  Not much that I could tell.  (I guess you could argue that it’s actually less work to peel them this way, but only if you have titanium fingers and don’t mind peeling something boiling hot.)

Brioche, p. 272

I hadn’t planned on making anything from his book breadwise, but then I spotted the brioche recipe, which is actually rather easy (if you have a Kitchenaid mixer) and though the quantity it makes is fairly huge, I knew there would be another use I could make of much of it, which I’ll post about separately.  So I used some of it to bake round brioches in a muffin tin.  The kids loved the buttery bread.

Little Gem Lettuce Salad, p. 142-3
with Honey Vinaigrette, p. 143

One of the things that I came to find frustrating about looking through the book was that Keller would often be quite specific about the fruits or vegetables he wanted you to use— for instance, this salad requires Little Gem lettuce, Ruby Red grapefruit, blood oranges (at least he didn’t specify Sanguinellos over Moros), Satsuma oranges and a pomegranate.  Well, that’s fine and dandy if you’re Thomas Keller and can basically get your hands on anything with a phone call, but here I am in a major city and the closest I came at my local Whole Foods was a Rio Star grapefruit (at least I knew that would be similarly sweet), blood oranges, no pomegranates (but I finally found a lone box of pomegranate pips), and some tangerines (actually, I later realized that WF had a small bunch of Satsumas, when I remembered what they were— the little oranges with dark green leaves— but the sign for them was missing).  As for the lettuce, only because of a passing reference to Little Gem being like butter lettuce was I able to find something that would substitute reasonably well— I assume.

This is annoying not only because it’s unrealistic, to think that the shopper even in a major city will be able to find all of these things at once, but because you can’t believe it’s how Keller would really assemble a dish— he’d see what was available and adjust accordingly, making things a little more sweet or tart based on what he could find.  And even the slightest clues as to how to do that myself would be of far more use than telling me that I have to find some specific lettuce variety that may be easy to have trucked over to your restaurant in Napa, but which I’ve never seen in my life.

That complaint registered… this is a fantastic salad.  Maybe I just lucked out and despite having the wrong grapefruit, the wrong tangerine, etc., the balance was pretty much perfect anyway, but the sunny juiciness of the fruit and the tart note of the vinaigrette and the tenderness of the lettuce— just wonderful, especially at this time of year.  Even my sons, whose ideas about salad are pretty much that they like ranch dressing and NOTHING ELSE, gobbled it up.  This will undoubtedly be a keeper… and I will undoubtedly evolve its mix of flavors depending on what I find in the store from one time to the next.

Meanwhile the meat seemed tender— well, the middle parts seemed tender; the upper stripe of meat was either over or undercooked, I frankly couldn’t tell with this grassfed meat— and so it went into a pan in the oven while I reduced much of the sauce to a glaze.

So the grass-fed beef: good rich flavor, I need more experience braising it to really know how to do it right, but on the whole I was happy with it this way. That said, I can’t say that I particularly thought all the little Keller touches— making the wine glaze first, then the braising liquid with stock, putting the doily on top, etc.— added up to much, I made just as nice a short ribs braise from The Balthazar Cookbook with less fuss.  So final score for dinner from Ad Hoc at Home: salad great, brioche fine, potatoes worth the effort of making the garlic confit if not the pain of peeling unskinned, boiled potatoes, braised shortribs fine but no great difference from anybody else’s recipe for a dish like that.

Then came dessert from The French Laundry Cookbook:

Velouté of Bittersweet Chocolate with Cinnamon Stick Ice Cream (p. 286-7)
with Chocolate Sauce (p.280)

This was a satisfying recipe first of all because you could methodically prepare its parts over the preceding week without the stress of a last minute rush to get it made.  The velouté is sort of somewhere between a mousse and a meringue, and you make it in plastic wrap inside a ramekin or other round object and freeze it.  The ice cream you see underneath it below is cinnamon ice cream, made by steeping a stick in your custard; it’s subtle, almost ethereally cinnamony.  The flat disc is a cinnamon cookie, which you par-bake a day or two before.  At the bottom is a basic chocolate sauce.  When the time comes you bake the veloute on top of the cookie until it’s got an outer skin and a gooey inside, then assemble it quickly.

This is another great recipe, an easy way to wow your crowd; it looks complex but really it’s no harder to put together than a cheeseburger.  Ironically, I don’t think a recipe like this would have made it into Ad Hoc at Home, it’s too restaurant-showy, yet designed as it is for efficient production in a busy kitchen, it’s actually easier, and even more practical perhaps, for the home cook than many of the recipes in Ad Hoc at Home which take something simple and then fuss and fret it into a lot of extra work.

So where did I come out of all this on the subject of Thomas Keller?  I think there’s a lot of value in going through his overelaborated ways of making things, because it forces you to think about what goes into your dish, where extra efforts are worth it and where shortcuts are shortchanging you.  I think you will often decide that Keller is overdoing it for not enough return— but not always; here and there his way of doing it really is a better way, a way that takes an old familiar dish to the next level.  In a world where most cookbooks promise ease, there’s something to said for the master who challenges you to try harder and do more.  You may not always like his book, but you will learn a lot from it— including what matters more to you in the kitchen, time or perfection.

A jibarita at La Bombonera.

I haven’t posted one of my 50 Places Not Talked About on LTHForum for a while, because most of my new places in the last few months were those 14 supermercado taquerias I posted about the other day. And while there were probably enough new places on that list to get me to 50, it would have been boring to finish off the list in one post.

But that doesn’t mean I had my eyes shut all that time.  In fact, I noted a number of places as I was scouting out the supermercados, including several new Cuban or South American places on the northwest side.  One of them, I found interesting enough that it turned into a blog post at the Reader, so go read it there.

In the meantime, a quick followup to my Bolzano Meats post: take some thin slices of guanciale.  Heat in microwave for about a minute, to sweat some fat out.  Dice and place on pizza:

I don’t know if there was such a thing as guanciale pizza before, surely there was, but I was very happy with my possibly-not-original invention.  P.S. Just did a search, should have guessed.  Mozza, whose menu is visible in the entrance at La Quercia, has a LaQuercia guanciale pizza.

Our conversation (see parts one, two, three and four) concludes:

MICHAEL GEBERT: One of the things that was interesting to me back when I ran LTHForum was that people, given a chance to talk about whatever they wanted to talk about, tended not to want to talk about the things that were hot in food media.  Sure, there was some degree of interest in the hot new restaurants, and TV shows, and so on, but there was twice as much interest in how to make good fried chicken, or some old place that everybody loves, or whatever.  And we too have mostly ignored the obvious year-end subjects in favor of more personal reflections on the state of food-dom in 2009 and beyond.

Well, enough of that!  Let’s conclude with a bout of sheer hackdom, talking about the same things everybody else is talking about in year-end pieces.  I’ll throw out three (one of which is clearly more interesting to me than the others), and through the magic of cut-and-paste, juxtapose your takes after mine. Batter up:

Gourmet Magazine Closing. My feeling is it’s a mistake to view Gourmet as the business.  The business is Conde Nast’s food magazine business, and Gourmet was one tactic for capturing a chunk of the available dollars in that space, Bon Appetit is another.  And as soon as any tactic stops paying out, you kill it, unsentimentally.  Personally, I will be amazed if Gourmet is not revived at some future date in some form, because I strongly suspect that killing it was a way of getting rid of a bloated, boom-year-sized payroll, but they’ll find a use for the brand after a suitable interval.  In any case, although I’m certainly sorry to see a good-paying outlet vanish, it wasn’t a magazine that meant that much to me today, or seemed that different from all the other food magazines all offering the same tips over and over (10 Aussie wines to pair with quick and easy frazzablazzit) in a way that, frankly, makes it hard for me to read anything in any of them without feeling I must have read it before.  If Saveur closed, then I’d cry a little.

MICHAEL NAGRANT: I agree with you regarding the reasons why Gourmet closed.  It was a pure Bob’s from Office Space consultant killing of a redundancy.  Or if you want to be really nefarious, I suspect that maybe there was some serious entitled bloat going on at high editorial levels that pissed someone off.  Then again, as long as Ann Wintour reigns supreme at Vogue and Graydon Carter at Vanity Fair, Conde Nast seems to love paying for spendthrift behavior.

I don’t agree however about the magazine degenerating to a retail pamphlet edited by starfucking editors who dream about designer cupcakes and spritzers while subsisting on a starvation diet 90 percent of the year.  I think Gourmet was one of the last bastions (Saveur of course still lives) of good storytelling in food writing.  Francis Lam’s stories where he’d go hang out with some old school Chinese chef for a few weeks were some of my favorite pieces published anywhere in the last few years.  Interestingly his tenure shepherding the new Salon, save for a piece here and there has not featured his strength, but rather focused on more newsy short bloggy stuff.  I’m guessing that’s a function of resources as much as anything, i.e. he doesn’t have the budget or the luxury to go disappear wherever he wants for weeks at a time to get a story, rather he needs to stay behind and feed the daily internet monster, lest Salon disappear like the old Victorian and French intellectual gathering spots for which the site is named.

GEBERT: Top Chef. Okay, it’s television and therefore hypey and hokey.  We concede that point, your honor.  But you know, the world has a lot of astrophysicists who got interested in space because of Star Wars, and to me it’s pretty amazing that there’s a pop culture phenomenon bringing the most avant-garde cooking of our time into a lot of homes.  I made the comparison with music earlier and said that people who think everyone should know Barenboim should know Achatz, too; but classical music would kill to be getting that kind of exposure right now, and I have to think that’s going to produce some long-running effects, that kids in a small town where the best restaurant is a Village Inn are seeing Thomas Keller on TV and thinking, I could be him when I grow up!

NAGRANT: As is already the case now, those kids are more likely getting hoodwinked in to spending $30,000 for a generally worthless vocational education at culinary school all in the pursuit of rare and elusive celebrity. That being said, Top Chef is good. Tom Colicchio protects the integrity of the culinary profession as much as he can and Gail Simmons completes me. So that’s good enough for me. However, what I find is that the last five weeks are always the most compelling part of the show. The first 10 weeks are so are always populated with a bunch of vaudevillian jokers and racial stereotypes who don’t know how to salt properly. I know casting is tough, but the show would be that much better if they insisted on only casting say 10 really talented folks.

GEBERT: Twitter. Both bigger and smaller than the hype machine has portrayed it this year.  Smaller in itself, but as one popular tool, it’s one very good example of where I think the media as a whole have to go.

There was a telling moment in one of those back-and-forths on Twitter this year where people (I name no names) were ragging on Phil Vettel, why doesn’t he get with it, tune in turn on and tweet out, and Kevin Pang said “Phil’s plenty big without Twitter.”  Which, despite its vague echo of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (“I am big, it’s the tweets that got cut to 140 characters!”), is surely true— but only a tiny handful of people at any given paper have that level of brand identity.  And if you’re at all smart and have initiative— like Mr. Pang— you’re looking for ways to extend your brand beyond the corners of your newspaper, which for all you know may not be here tomorrow (or at least you may not be at it tomorrow).

And Twitter is one way you can do that, though far, far from the only one (you might, for instance, do a show about cheeseburgers), or even maybe a typical one.  But the fundamental change in how we should view media is that we’re no longer pretending that a million people read every single word in the paper every day.  We now have clicks and meters to tell us that the numbers for any given piece are far smaller— but they’re the ones who are hyper-interested, who take the paper or seek you out online precisely because they really are interested.  And your future lies in, on some level, engaging those people, the ones who really care.  Cluing them into the process, into what you just ate, making your life a bit of a public spectacle, is a natural way to inculcate their loyalty, make them feel a little bit like insiders which is always seductive.  And Twitter has proven to be a great tool for that.  (If you’re in the media and you feel like you’re clueless about how to do this, here’s simple advice: do whatever Roger Ebert does.  Nobody has been savvier, by like a factor of 10, about building a personal brand over the last 40 years, to the point where I’m convinced his brand is worth substantially more than his paper’s is.)

Now Twitter’s weird status between two worlds— it’s not quite media, but it’s a lot more public than instant messaging your actual, real-world friends— has been a source of controversy.  You went after Steve Dolinsky for tweeting opening night impressions of Big Star, in violation of the reviewer’s gentleman’s agreement not to review until a month has passed.  I mostly came down on the side that an opening tweet is not a review, but that’s not because I don’t think that Dolinsky was breaking that agreement by sending out an opinion, however brief, to basically the whole world.  I think he was, and I think he was perfectly fine to do so, because it’s passe.  The food media world is now about ongoing impressions, not one impressively final review, for all those reasons I talked about the other day.  But I understand that not everyone agrees that they got that memo.

Even more interesting to ponder is the recent dustup where the publicist Ellen Malloy sent out a tweet about one of the restaurants she reps (The Bristol) being named a top restaurant of the year by GQ magazine.  The only thing was, a bunch of places promptly announced that The Bristol had won this honor… without realizing that The Bristol wasn’t the only one in Chicago honored in that issue.  It was merely the only one that was a client of Ellen’s.  And some people suggested she had violated journalistic ethics in omitting the others— as if Ellen Malloy’s Twitter account, with a couple of thousand followers, was now a fully accredited media news source alongside the Tribune and CBS and obligated to follow certain rules (which, needless to say, conflict flagrantly with her intended career).  That would come as news to a lot of teenagers using Twitter to moon over the guy who plays Edward in Twilight, I suspect.  So it’s dubious to go that far, but can you absolutely say that someone sending out news to four digits of people clearly is not a news source?  She is… just a new kind, who cut out the press middleman, which is something people aren’t entirely used to, yet.

So there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on, and Twitter was at the heart of a good amount of it.  Something else may be next year, and Twitter may soon be as dead as the big media food blogs which now frequently go silent for a week at a time.  But it’s this year’s example of a phenomenon that’s far-reaching and transformative.

NAGRANT: I didn’t take issue with Dolinsky for reviewing on opening day. In fact, at one point, I expressed my admiration that he was using the medium so well. What I took issue with was how he pretended like he was surprised that what he Tweeted would have any influence. He knew full well that it would, and that’s why he was doing it in the first place. I just wanted him to own it.

As for branding, etc. I can appreciate business people like Ellen who make it it an important part of what they do. She’s in it to grow her business, and that’s what she’s doing. But, she’s not a journalist. She’s a promoter of the people who pay her to promote. She happens to be paid by some of the most interesting, talented, and high quality people around, and thus you won’t go terribly wrong by following her lead, nor does she need to be Don King and fluff up the facts as some PR folks do. However, you should understand you also won’t always get the full picture.

As for journalists focused on “branding”, I’m a little more suspect. I’m not sure Ebert was focused on branding as much as he organically grew his reputation based on the quality of his work. As his following grew in relation to his talent, he took advantage of the opportunities that afforded, i.e. a broader television platform and a branded website, and was savvy enough to explore those opportunities. My sense is that he came to Twitter because he is first and foremost a rabid writer. It’s his drug, and Twitter is just one more fix, especially for the short form thought, which he has no lack of.

I know I came to Twitter not as a means of branding as much as another place to share and explore my passions and also for the community. As a freelancer whose only daily colleague is my blue couch, I appreciate the ability to talk to my fellow writers and food enthusiasts as if I were at the water cooler, albiet a much more engaging one where I can drink the occasional whiskey if I choose. I don’t discount the value of being able to send a link out to followers and have a way of sharing my work. I appreciate and use that. However I’m not sitting around tracking Twitter keyword searches for my name, or “chicago food” or whatever and engaging people to build my follower base as I’m sure many are and as I would if I was really worried about branding.

Furthermore, once you start worrying about branding too much, I think you’re tempted once again to compromise your integrity. I mean if I was really interested in my brand, I wouldn’t have spent three or four days tracking what I was interested and inspired by i.e. following Rob and Allison Levitt as they opened Mado or dining at the tiny Senegalese joint on the north side that maybe two people will eat at when they read my piece. I’d be focused on only covering guys like Bayless, Kahan, and Izard more often because they have the ability to move eyeballs.

That being said if I worked for an organization like the Trib and I thought my valuable institution as well as my health care and living wage and those of my friends around me were in jeopardy, I would like Ebert has with the Sun Times try to lift all ships, even if that meant being agressive about branding. If I were an editor or manager I’d compel competition and creative social media approaches like using Twitter as a measurement of the quality of job you were doing no matter who you were.

GEBERT: Well, like a lot of things it comes down to a matter of taste; Ebert knows the value of having his name and mugshot big and bold on his book covers, but he also knows the value of not diluting the brand by taking easy money and doing commercials for microwave popcorn or whatever.  It takes vigilance to become a pop culture figure without becoming a walking joke, and some cartoonization of yourself is probably inevitable.  But more to the point, given that he’s been interactive with his readers online since the world was connected by Compuserve, that’s why I see him as a model for engagement with your core audience.  (I once made an offhand crack about his readers writing one of his books— the movie cliches one— for him, in a freakin’ Usenet group, about as obscure a spot as you could get, and within three days he was in my email inbox, letting me know in no uncertain terms that he was the hardest workin’ man in show business.  Impressive, in a mildly alarming way.)

As for the thing about publicists, I still feel you’re talking like there was something mildly shifty going on there.  I guess the way I see it, ultimately, is— there’s news and there are journalists.  Journalists used to be where news mainly came from (although there’s always been a category of news that everyone knew despite no journalist ever reporting it).  Now news can come from people who aren’t journalists.  It can come from people connected to the biz professionally.  It can come from protesters in the streets of Tehran.  It can come from somebody who served a famous food critic and can’t believe what a douchebag he was.  And none of those people have a responsibility for meeting the ethical rules of a profession they never joined; we have that responsibility if we turn news into journalism, and readers, all readers, have the responsibility of evaluating what they read for themselves.  But more news, from all directions, is a great thing.

NAGRANT: I don’t think anything shifty is going on.  I trust Ellen Malloy.  That being said, maybe it’s semantical or whatever, but I would call what she does information sharing or news sharing, but not necessarily journalism.  Also, I totally agree, folks can operate on any level they want in terms of ethics and they’re not bound by some institutional rules.  However, what I do believe is there are basic laws, unwritten, of course, about how we act as humans, the social contract if you will.  Certainly that contract is fluid, however, I think when we’re brutally honest with ourselves and think about what really feels right and how we should be operating, we generally all come to very similar conclusions about what that contract looks like.

Mostly I’m arguing that instead of throwing out red herrings or constructing exceptions that justify behaviors as is the current state of affairs, I would wish for people to think more about how they really should act as journalists, citizen or otherwise, when they’re sharing news or gathering it.  At the end of the day, if you operate under that level of thinking and are dilligent about your actions and you still say: I need to take that trip to Italy paid for by the Reggiano Parmagiano distributors Association and I know I can tell a good story and it’s a worthwhile story, then I can respect that.

GEBERT: All right, since we got off on media again, let’s end on a food note.  Tell me something I should go out and eat right now.

NAGRANT: Despite my earlier suspicion about Dale Levitski not getting his stuff together for three years, I had a chance to try Sprout this week, and while it wasn’t perfect, that dude has some serious chops. Don’t know if you can score his “grilled cheese” which is basicaly a frico kinda thing stuffed with granny smith apples, caramelized onion, and served with a side of mustard, a la carte, but if so, you should. I gotta say after my meal, it’s too bad Henry Adaniya (former owner Trio) fled to Hawaii, because that dude had the golden palate having picked Tramonto/Gand, Shawn McClain, Grant Achatz, and Levitski to head up his kitchens back in the day.

Also, because I can never just say one thing, the carbonara at Kith and Kin made with housemade spaghetti a la chittara, house cured guanciale, and parsley topped with a raw (or very slightly cooked – no fact check on this) yolk will have you yellin’ bada bing faster than a mob hit.

GEBERT: Well, for me there’s no better response to the cold and snow than some hearty Mexican soul food.  Go have a big bowl of consomme de chivo, goat consomme, weekends only, at the taqueria inside the Los Potrillos grocery, 3624 W. Belmont.

With that, we’ll call it a week.  Thank you, Michael N., for joining me all week, and thanks to everyone who found our bloviating worth a visit.  Eat early and often, it’s Chicago.

I seem to go back and forth on what kind of thing makes my top 10 (restricted to things I had for the first time during this year); some years I’m down on fine dining and all my pleasures were down-homey, other years I have good luck and encounter some great chefs working in ways I really like. This year tended toward the latter; I really, really like what Allie Levitt of Mado called “The Green Market bunch,” chefs who are interested in finding the best ingredients at local markets or from regional producers and bringing out their flavors to the fullest. Nearly all of my best fine dining experiences— and even some a few rungs down from that— fell into that category, the master manipulators and molecular gastroenterologists did not do nearly as much for me this year (not that they got as many chances, since I tended to go to the locavorish places in the first place).

As for down-home dining, it wasn’t a year of many great new discoveries, though old favorites continued to please (and Sun Wah in particular has really blossomed in so many ways this year).  But as I went through the year, I found more than I expected.  So here’s a top ten:

10. Grilled sable liver at Taxim, with a nod to its melitzanosalata, duck gyros, some dish or other with lentils and Greek yogurt, etc. I’ve always liked the comfiness of Turkish food, which is really a closer description for what this Greek restaurant serves than anything that suggests the party food of Greektown. Others have my same level of enthusiasm (e.g., Mike Sula) while many, including a lot of LTHers, seemed underwhelmed by the relatively restrained approach of Chef David Schneider. I might agree that Taxim still lands slightly more on the potential than the achievement side as yet, but still, I liked the best of what I ate there an awful lot.

9. Cucumber cocktail at Graham Elliot. Though I had some very good dishes on two visits to Graham Elliot, the best thing I had there was a terrific summer cocktail from mixologist Lynn House, using her housemade cucumber soda, vodka and a little egg froth on top. It’s called Almost Paradise, and it’s too modestly titled.

8. Fried bologna at Taste of Melrose Park. Okay, this one was a total package deal from a pretty magical night, but really, it’s surprising how good that fried bologna was. With a nod to Pierogi Fest in Whiting, for also helping redeem my faith in street fests.

7. Steak tacos at Las Asadas and Tacos el Jaliciense, and pastor at Tierra y Caliente: Two of these are sort of ringers, since I ate at the old Las Asadas on Western and elsewhere before they opened a new one on Western, and Tierra y Caliente is the former, and widely praised, Carniceria Leon on Ashland north of Division.  So I’d been to both in previous incarnations, but both hit new peaks— I ate at both the old and the new Las Asadas within a short time, and the latter blew the former away for sheer juicy beeferifficness.  And maybe I just timed Tierra y Caliente perfectly one Saturday afternoon, but it was pretty much the pastor poster child that day, crispy and tart.  As for Jaliciense, that’s a nice little stand on a triangle of land near Grand and California that also can turn out a heck of a nice steak taco.  I have more Mexican delights coming in a longterm project I’ve been working on, but those should do for now.

6. Edzo’s. Oh yeah, baby:

5. Black-eyed pea cassoulet at Chaise Lounge. Cary Taylor and this glitzy-rowdy Wicker Park spot were in my sustainable fish video, and seafood is the focus there, but I have to say, as terrific as some other things were— lobster pot pie, scallops in beet schmear, an unexpectedly good almond cake at dessert— it was this amazing blend of Franco-Southern comfort food that I could just curl up with right now. If there’s a relatively undiscovered front-rank chef in town, Cary has quickly become it.

4. Hoosier Mama. Too many contenders for the best thing I had from there— could it be the savory pork, apple and sage pie, the best bang for your pork buck in town at $4 a slice? The Southern-sweet simplicity of discoveries like Hoosier Sugar Cream pie or oatmeal pie? Apple quince, cranberry chess (okay, not as wild about that one, but it looks nice below), maple pecan? Luckily, one doesn’t have to choose— even if Hoosier Mama is pricier than supermarket pie, it’s still luxury on a budget compared to ordering dessert out, and a much surer bet.

3. Mado. What do I look back and think of first from several meals at Mado?  Rabbit agnolotti, I guess— because they’ve completely turned me around on their spare approach to pasta (partly, I hasten to add, because they’re better at it now).  But austerity has rarely had so much flavor as when Mado tosses housemade pasta with the bare minimum of stuff.  Unless, of course, it’s when Mado simply dresses a few vegetables, or simply roasts a fish in their woodburning oven, or simply does any number of things so perfectly.

2. My country ham, tied with green label organic prosciutto and speck from La Quercia. Read all about the former here; as for the latter, I’ve never even gotten to try the creme de la ham at La Quercia, the acorn-fed Berkshire, but noshing on a variety of hams at the Eckhouse’s home during the shoot for Sky Full of Bacon #10, the green label organic clearly seemed a level or two above their already excellent product, and as good as anything I ate in Spain (not that it’s the same style, exactly, but close enough). Meanwhile, the hint of smoke applied to the speck, light as it is, lifts this German style into its own special dimension.

1. Vie. As I wrote then: “As much as I admire what’s happening at the very high end, my soul likes a little funk in the mix, and I find the precious arrangement of things into little cubes to get sterile sometimes, however exquisite it may be. For me, then, in my experience there’s no Chicago restaurant at work right now better than the meal I had last Saturday night, for its dedication to getting the best, richest, most purely satisfying flavor out of the best ingredients. And if you can think of other things a restaurant should be doing first, well, we just have different priorities, I guess.”

Since everybody’s writing insanely long lists these days, here are some more from the short list I kept through the year: the sublimely weird, weirdly sublime pad thai using jellyfish for noodles at Schwa; Thai beef jerky at Spoon Thai; pork shu mai at Shui Wah; chicken soup at Belly Shack, and my own hummus soup for Soup and Bread at the Hideout; classic American breakfast at Nancy’s in Columbus OH, which is no more, and a best-in-ten-years Denver omelet at the unjustly underappreciated Palace Grill; pork shoulder at Avec, Paul Kahan’s blood sausage corn dog at the Green City Market BBQ, and pork belly tacos, if nothing else yet, at Big Star; more pork belly, with quince, at Boka; consomme chivo at the Los Potrillos grocery on Belmont, and shrimp ceviche at El Abuelo y Yo; duck egg in an orange-scented pesto at The Bristol; the velvety pasta at Fianco, and the pork orrechiete, which is NOT the one from John Coletta’s book, at Quartino; my own strawberry mint sorbet; Lithuanian bread from Ideal Pastry on Milwaukee Avenue; juicy grilled kebaps from Coach’s Corner in Whiting or Hammond, I forget which; brats and other sausages from Ream’s Market in Elburn, Ilinois; bacon-gorgonzola-venison sausage at Brand BBQ; cured, lox-like trout at Browntrout; Saxon Creamery’s Green Field cheese; Elizabeth Dahl’s concord grape sorbet at Landmark; raccoon; and our honey.

And as always, I end the year grateful for you, dear reader-viewer, whoever you are who finds charm in these random dispatches and, hopefully, something a little closer to art in the videos by which I chronicle my love for those who make beautiful food.  Happy New Year!

Ten best for: 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003

So I decided to sample the saucisson sec at long last.  I selected one that looked and felt done— and by the way, one can’t help marveling that one’s own handiwork has produced something that looks so textbook-perfect, sausage like it looks hanging at a meat market, created by your own hands and a fair quantity of nature’s activity and time.

I cut myself a slice and ate it.  Then I waited about 36 hours for the symptoms of botulism to appear.  As you may have guessed from the fact that the headline is not “Notice To Readers of The Late Mr. Gebert’s Blog,” nothing bad resulted.

So how was it?  How is it?  It’s delightful!  Full of fresh garlic and spice flavors, yet also a clean porky flavor that bespeaks the excellent pork I started with.  I went to a party on Sunday where there were all kinds of different sausages to try— everything from Polish grocery sausages to sopressata from Riviera to something or other from Armandino Batali’s Salumi in Seattle— and it absolutely would have belonged right alongside them, better than a few, as good as many, no disgrace to any.

I still have to test some of the others which didn’t dry as picture-perfectly— I have no idea, for instance, if the one that’s sort of J-shaped will be any good in that curved part, or any part; and then there’s the one that grew a little turquoise-colored mold, carefully marked on the skin.  If that one has to go goodbye, then it does, c’est la salami. Plus, after about 60 days (somewhere around January 7th) the test sausage of the other style I made, sopressata, will be ready as well, so I can see how that compares. But for now— sausage, it worked! It’s good!

Here’s a complete set of links to past chapters in my sausagemaking saga:
Misadventures in Sausage-Making
Feeling Better About My Sausage
More About My Meat
How My Meat’s Hangin’
Meat on the Move

In the ongoing adventures of my sausages and coppa, temperatures finally dropped enough to make the unheated parts of my basement a consistent 50 to 60 degrees and 70% humidity, so I removed the rack with everything tied to it from my wine fridge (which has never held a bottle of wine) and rigged a way to support it in my wine cellar/pantry (which has).  We’ll see how it does, but hopefully even if the coppa gives off a lot of moisture, now things can be at their optimum humidity.

I’m deep in editing, Christmas shopping, and general confusion, so here are some quick notes about stuff that might interest somebody.

1) I tried the Piccalilli (see here and here) at Thanksgiving dinner (we went to a friend’s house and I made the country ham in crust that I made some months back).  Verdict: pretty close, but a little more red pepper taste than my grandmother would have put in it; I suspect she used especially flavorless 1960s/1970s green bell peppers.  And frankly, even though I felt like I dumped in enough sugar to float Shirley Temple, maybe it could use a little more sugar to match hers perfectly.  Still, it’s both good, and 87% close to my memories, and every ham sandwich I’ve made with it has satisfied me immensely.

2) The coppa, after absorbing its various salts and spices for three weeks, is now hanging at a weight of 1105 grams.  And speaking of home charcuterie…

3) Some of the home charcuterie makers I mentioned in this 7 Links of Terror are featured at greater length in Mike Sula’s Reader piece on illicit charcuterie, which you should definitely read. Note the comments— one from Chef John Bubala and another from Laurence Mate, one of the people I linked to (who also commented here).  Also note that we both saw it in terms of “Vive la resistance!”

4) So Helen Rosner of MenuGrubPagesStreet made macarons in the process of reviewing a macaron book. I said they looked like hamburgers and the folks at A Hamburger Today should make a macaronburger.  Helen got right on it… and it looks great! And will probably turn up at some bakery almost instantaneously!

Larbo’s comment on my last charcuterie report scared me a little, so I’ve been working really hard at controlling humidity related problems inside my wine fridge.  At this point, I really have to say, I can’t recommend the wine fridge route for something like this that needs to lose a lot of water over time— they’re designed to maintain whatever humidity’s inside them, and that’s going to keep the humidity too high.  Lardo or guanciale were fine because they’re mostly fat and don’t lose much liquid.  But sausage has left a puddle on the bottom every day.  And given Larbo’s comment about the possibility of nasty mold growing, I took everything out on Saturday and inspected it.  Sure enough, I was getting a little white activity on the outside of the casing, which is not unexpected, but on one sausage, I also had a turquoise green growth where I think it was pressed up against another sausage and not drying out.

I washed everything down with a vinegar solution and then I circled the area that had the turquoise green with a marker, just to see what it does in the future.  I also weighed everything, and after 12 days, all of the saucisson secs had lost between 25 and 38% of their weight to date.  The test sopressata, which came from drier leg meat, was behind all of them, at 22%.

Despite some scariness, I have to say that it’s smelling good and starting to gnarl up nicely into sausage.  If it gets cold enough, maybe I’ll hang it out of the wine fridge in my basement; otherwise I’ll just keep monitoring the humidity and soaking up what’s on the bottom.  Maybe now, the rate of loss will slow and it will start to become possible to keep the humidity range I really want.

As for the rest of the meat, coppa is getting another week in the fridge to soak up salt and flavor, bacon is smoking as I write (Sunday afternoon)…

…and the hambone has a rendezvous with a pot of beans later today.

(Meanwhile, I also taught myself how to make croissants on Sunday (first batch came out all right), and started soaking a country ham to take to a Thanksgiving dinner.  I was like a 60s housewife on amphetamines.  19th nervous breakdown undoubtedly impending.)