Sky Full of Bacon

The great thing about food versus something like music is that if you imitate something great in music for a cheaper price, you wind up with a cheesy musical like Beatlemania for the bused-in matinee crowd (“Mash Hit— the incredible true story of Bobby ‘Boris’ Pickett and the making of an American Halloween classic!  Tickets now on sale at the Cadillac Theater box office!”)  But if you imitate a meal by Thomas Keller and Grant Achatz for a cheaper price, you get publicity like this and this.

When I read these pieces, though, I thought— $300 may be a big markdown from $1500, but that’s still putting Achatz and Keller’s cuisine way out of the average American.  And is that kind of elitism what the Age of Obama is about?  Hell no.  If I’m going to feed my family a fancy dinner, I don’t want to have to get a government bailout to make it happen, I want to be able to get everything at my local Aldi, and still have enough change from my $20 to buy a pack of unfiltered Luckies, or some crack.

I knew there was only one American who had the culinary skills, the day and a half of training at Cordon Bleu, the dysfunctional childhood spent binging and purging to share my vision and make the Achatz-Keller meal happen at a price that’s truly family-friendly.  Yes, it’s none other than Sandra Lee, of Semi-Homemade With Sandra Lee.  Luckily, because of the global reach and reputation of Sky Full of Bacon, I was able to contact her and get her exclusive advice on how to make a meal every bit as beautiful as the one Keller and Achatz made with a fraction of the effort, expense, or knowledge of food.  Here are some of her suggestions, which are sure to delight the whole family.  To see the original dishes, go here.

Cornet of Salmon: “This is basically an ice cream cone with fish in it.  Well, who has time to fish for salmon?  Fish sticks are a family favorite, just put them on a vanilla wafer with a dash of onion powder.  I call it Jaws On a Surfboard.  Doesn’t that sound like more fun to eat?”

Prawn with yuba, miso and orange peel: “It’s too hard threading shrimp onto one of Alinea’s fancy little pieces of metal, and then wrapping orange peel around it.  I just take an Orange Dreamsicle and then stick shrimp onto it with frosting from a tube.  Sprinkle with seasoned salt and your family will love the presentation and the taste!”

Caviar on lemon gelee with califlower: “Caviar!  Who has time for that?  Just wet some instant mashed potato flakes and roll Lemonheads in them.  Everybody will get a big kick out of discovering what’s inside.”

Black Truffle Explosion: “My chocolate truffles work great in this.  Just stick in the microwave and boom!”

Hot Potato/Cold Potato: “This is where smart shopping can save you money and time.  You’ve already got the instant mashed potato flakes, so follow the instructions on the box to prepare a cup’s worth.  Then just stir in some T.G.I.Friday’s Potato Skins– they’re from the freezer section so they’re already cold!  That’s precious time you can spend with your family instead of slaving in the kitchen all day, cooling things.”

Hen Egg Custard With Ragout Of Black Winter Truffles: “I have news for those fancypants chefs— eggs only come from hens!  So if you paid extra for that, you got gypped!  (No offense to Gyp-Americans.)  A Jell-O pudding cup with one of my truffles in it works just fine.  I loved those pudding commercials with Bill Cosby, didn’t you?”

Wild Striped Bass with camomile, shellfish, ginger: “Kids love fish sticks— and they’ll double-love them when they’re striped with peanut butter and jelly.  To save time, buy the kind that has the peanut butter and the jelly in the same jar!  That’s how you let your family know you really care about their happiness.”

Read the beginning of this lardoblogging saga here.

After three months I started to get pretty curious about my lardo.  I mentioned it to Rob Levitt at Mado, saying I wasn’t sure how to tell when it was done, and he had a really novel suggestion: “Taste it and if it’s good, it’s done.”  (It was very kind of him not to end this sentence with “ya moron ya.”)

David Hammond was stopping by the other day so I took the opportunity to break the lardo out and try it, slicing it as thin as I could:

I toasted some bread and we both had a piece:

This is definitely the best thing to do with lardo, it softens up as it half-melts on the bread, though it never melts like butter, retaining a chewy, almost meat-like texture.

We both agreed that it was pretty nice as it was— supple, tasting of the salt, garlic and herbs. That it was hard to imagine what more it might pick up from another three months of laying in the salt mixture.  Somewhat impulsively, I decided it was done.  (I must admit I kind of regret this now, not sticking out the full six months, although I really do doubt it would have made a real difference.  Maybe packed into a true conca full of brine expressed by the fat, but this was just sitting on dry salt by now.)

I divided the lardo into two groups.  One I went ahead and vacuum-sealed into small bags, for presents or door prizes or whatever.  But the three largest pieces I took and wrapped in cheesecloth:

and hung from an old roasting pan rack in my wine cellar which, at least this time of year, should be as reliably cool as any Italian root cellar.  I may pick up a wine fridge sometime so I can ensure more precise control of more sensitive cured meats like the coppa I plan to make, but for this, which basically doesn’t have any meat, just fat, it’ll be fine (though humidity probably won’t be high enough, in the long term).

By the way, one of the problems serving lardo is that it can be tough to slice it thin enough to do the melting on bread thing.  But I discovered a cheap and perfect solution: use one of those new peelers that everybody has that you hold like a Gillette razor.  You get perfect thin slices.

I was starting to feel like my quest to try 50 unwritten-about restaurants was turning into Mike’s list of mediocre bummers.  A lot of places that just didn’t measure up to what small promise they offered from the outside. (Especially since I was sitting on the whole stash of mostly good Bridgeview middle-eastern places till the piece appeared in Time Out.)  Which is the reality of doing this, of course; you try a lot of places and if you’re lucky, once every three or four times they’re good enough to want to go back, once every 50 or 100 times you find a true gem.

You can try to improve your odds in some ways.  First, of course, there’s location; your odds of finding a good restaurant of a particular type go way up if you’re in a neighborhood where those people actually live.  Another is by looking for certain indicators.  For Mexican, menudo and pozole are a good sign— it means they serve a lot of locals on the weekends— while anything that reeks of crude stereotyping and travel brochure cliches is a bad sign, since it means they’re aiming mainly at gringos.  (I call this The Sombrero Rule, as in, never eat at a Mexican place with a sombrero on its sign.)

I tried a place a couple of weeks back that passed the first test but not the second.  It’s called Sol Del Sur (which maybe suggests another rule about avoiding places with Spanish names that English speakers can readily decipher).  The location, Logan Square on Fullerton, could have been promising, there are some authentic places not far away (Gloria’s, Rinconcito Cubano).  But it turned out to be pretty much Mexican-American, aimed at a margarita-swilling crowd and, if I had looked more closely, giving off a number of sombreroesque clues as I walked in (travel brochure-esque decor, chimichangas as a main attraction on the menu).  Actually it was probably above average for that, if I lived in some distant suburb I would be glad to have a place that could make a decent salsa nearby, but in Chicago, it’s nothing special.  (I didn’t count it as one of my 50 places because it had been mentioned, briefly once, on LTHForum.)

Yet another place a few days later proved that the rules are only guidelines.  I spotted this sign:

!Muy sabroso, Senor Pan! Much of it seemed to be on a similar level of not-as-slick-as-it-thinks corporate inauthenticity— or at least suggested that someone involved had had a past career in fast food.  The menu was in the same font as Chipotle’s; a large banner inside offered a dollar menu.  It felt very much like the imitation-American chains you see in Europe, half Mickey D, half Cafe des Poseurs.

But I ordered a Cuban sandwich…

It was shockingly… pretty good.  Quality ham and cheese, house-roasted pork with some crispy crackling flavor around the edges, same Gonnella (I suspect) bread as all the other Cuban places in town, which isn’t Miami-authentic but is what we settle for here.  A side of plantains was just fine, too.  So, you never know.  Judge a place by its sign, you gotta, but accept that sometimes, a better place may lie inside.

Sol del Sur
3268 Fullerton Ave.
Chicago IL
(773) 384-8869

Senor Pan
4612 W Fullerton Ave
Chicago, IL 60639
(773) 227-1020

For the first time I’m stumped for a catchy name for my next podcast.  It’s about Oriana Kruszewski, the Asian pear lady at Green City Market, one of those bundle-of-energy people who loves telling you about what she grows even more than selling it.  So anybody have an idea for a name, in the same not-too-punny but interestingly allusive vein as The Last Brisket Show or There Will Be Pork or Duck School?  (Doesn’t have to be a movie reference…)  If I use yours, I’ll come up with some kind of appropriate prize.  If you want to know more about Oriana, read Mike Sula’s piece from a couple of years ago.

Kaze file photo.

Some factoids:

• I live a couple of blocks from Kaze, the sushi and Japanese joint in Roscoe Village.

• Kaze has been around about 4 years.

• Until tonight, I averaged .25 visits to Kaze per annum.

I went once, almost exactly three years ago, and, well, that held me till tonight. Kaze’s claim to fame is sort of creative fusion sushi, that is, sushi gussied up with diced banana peppers or truffle oil or who knows what. And I had a very mixed reaction to that overall, three years ago. One thing I had was really good— mackerel in kimchi juice, the tart spicy kimchi juice setting off the oily mackerel nicely. I can still remember how it tasted; and judging by my post, I seemed to have liked a couple of other things pretty well. But some of the ones with a big glob of stuff on top:

One of the problems with the multitude of toppings placed on the fish was that there were far too many for me to keep track of with photos alone. Banana peppers, garlic, enoki, tuna penuche (okay, I’m joking), I just couldn’t keep track of all the flavors being thrown at me. Here is, yes, tuna, with yellowtail which is a TUNA, and salmon, each topped with some damn thing, and slathered with the soy sauce and truffle oil, to the point of practically seeming like dessert sushi (how far were we, really, from tuna with whipped cream and a cherry on top?). Looking back on the meal at this point, where the most satisfactory dish had been the one with the strongest fish, I began to feel that the sauces were doing pretty good fish a disservice, making it seem bland by globbing it up and covering it up with too-strong alternative flavors instead of enhancing and sharpening it with something simple and clean.

But tonight I was craving sushi, and my garage door had broken earlier in the day, making the logical thing a walk to the nearest sushi place, however deep my philosophical differences with it.  So I decided to see if I would feel now the same way I felt then.

I plopped myself at the bar— almost empty when I got there, full within a few minutes on this Friday night— and ordered a saketini (name aside, the least absurd of the absurd fusion drinks on offer) and listened to the specials.  Two really appealed to me— a braised oxtail/coconut curry soup poured over some kind of Japanese custard, and some little river crabs deep-fried with some kind of dipping sauce (you eat them like soft-shell crabs).  But I decided I couldn’t finish the whole order of the crabs myself, and stuck to the soup, as well as a plate of sashimi and sushi, chef’s choice.

The soup— well, it was quite good.  Would have been better if strands of oxtail meat didn’t seem to be as precious as saffron threads in it, but it was plenty spicy and appealingly coconutty.  A very nice soup… although I couldn’t help but think that I had just paid $8 or $9, probably, for a cup of something that (mostly tasting of coconut milk and spicy heat) was functionally identical to the soup going for $2.95 a quart at the Thai place in the next block.

My plate of sashimi/nigiri—virtually identical to what I had three years ago, I believe, everything I mentioned above (banana peppers, garlic, enoki, mushrooms, truffle oil) turned up on it.  And like I thought three years ago… it was, basically, a disservice to the fish, which is of pretty high quality, not mindblowing, but certainly above bargain sushi lunch spots like Umaiya.  By far the best part of the plate was among the simplest— there were some really nice slices of amberjack, fatty and very clean-flavored.  Dipped in a light ponzu sauce, they were first-rate.  But at least half of the gussied-up sushi pieces were, to me, botches, muddying fish flavor with something not only heavy-handed in itself but persistent enough (e.g., truffle oil) to hang over onto the next piece.  Not good.

After this, my preconceptions largely reaffirmed, I felt like ordering one cooked dish.  My waiter suggested a flounder in a parsley-butter sauce; he was high on this, it sounded like boring banquet food to me, so I pushed him for another suggestion.  Somehow that led to tuna tartare, the official dish of California in 1996, which I’d gotten stuck with three years ago after explicitly saying I didn’t want that kind of obvious thing.  Hurriedly backtracking to the cooked kind of cooked dishes, I said oh fine, give me the flounder, without much enthusiasm.

To his credit, he didn’t steer me wrong.  It was small but terrific.  Lightly, almost fluffily fried, floating in the middle of a vast green sea of parsley-butter sauce, it was a sunburst of happy fried and herbal flavor on the plate.  Now, I have two cavils about the way it arrived— one, it seemed like a spoon might have been more appropriate for eating it and enjoying the sauce (and not the teeny-bowled parfait spoon that came with the soup earlier), and two, as if to mock the crack I made three years ago, there actually was whipped cream on top of it.  I thought I must be crazy, it had to be creme fraiche or something, but no, it was honest to God sweet whipped cream.  But easily shoved aside to melt at the far edge of the parsley sea, I ate the fish without it, and I loved it.

Kaze seems to be popular as heck with my fellow Roscoevilleins, everyone else at the bar seemed to know the sushi chefs already, so there must be an audience for fusion sushi banana splits.  But having given it two shots, I have to say I remain convinced that that’s a sure way to ruin good fish with a lot of flash and filigree it doesn’t need.  So the thing Kaze is famous for, I would say beware to.  Yet around the edges of all that there seems to be quite a good Japanese fusion restaurant turning out interesting dishes of high quality.  So I may be back sooner than 2012, but if I do, it will be while ordering carefully to avoid the main attraction.

Kaze Sushi
2032 W Roscoe
Chicago, IL 60618
(773) 327-4860

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The foraging podcast has passed 5000 views at Vimeo, mostly thanks to BoingBoing.

See it here.

A layer of fat in a Kobe beef brisket.

1. Please remove your “1.20.09” bumpersticker now. You don’t want to be as bad as the car I saw on election day 2008 bearing a (weirdly pristine) Kerry/Edwards bumpersticker.

2. Just saw that Michael Nagrant kindly posted this in a year-end roundup type thing at New City:

Top 5 Culinary Things to be Thankful For
Any dessert Elizabeth Dahl makes at Boka
Green City Market and the late Abby Mandel
Mike Gebert’s culinary videos at Sky Full of Bacon
Mike Sula’s thoughtful food writing—especially the Mulefoot project at the Chicago Reader
Ryan Poli is back in town at Perennial

3. The ChiTrib has a great story on Jennifer McLagan (of Fat fame, no not her personally, her book of that title which I talked about here.) A sample quote:

McLagan further believes that including good-quality animal fat in that meal will start us down the road to wellness. “Because fat is digested slowly,” she writes, “eating it leaves us feeling sated, and we’re less likely to snack between meals. Eat the right fats and you’ll probably lose weight.”

Take that, prosciutto-avoiders.

4. Kinda random masthead tagline at LTHForum right now:

So, from the ‘better late than never’ files, here is a photo recap of our meal . . .

Except it isn’t “here.” You have to dig through the site to find what it’s referring to.  Anyway, it’s far from the pithiest, cleverest thing I can remember being said there lately… not that I can remember any of them offhand, of course.

5. My friend Wyatt Mitchell (thanked at the end of several podcasts for various technical reasons) passed along this fun story under the heading “Sky Full of Bacon Goes To Tokyo.” I wish…

The delightful Josephine, LTHForum poster currently on a year’s something-or-other in New England, has a great post about the moral fiber-building aspects of jonnycakes.

The Kansas City Star reports on people who eat raccoon. This will prove to be significant later.

Meanwhile, never hurts to have a link to the latest podcast.

I suddenly had a craving for Indian food, and not for Khan BBQ, which was the last Indian Indo-Pakistani place I went to… maybe the last two or three Indian South Asian places I went to. So my friend Wyatt and I went to Udupi Palace for first-rate vegetarian, fresh and brightly flavored. (They don’t have a buffet, so it helps to go with someone else so you can order at least two or three things. Not having a buffet is, otherwise, a benefit— things taste fresher and brighter.)

Two days later I still had a craving for Indian food food prepared in a style indigenous to or at least reflective of the Asian subcontinent, and had no one in tow to help me order, so I decided to fall back on a buffet. There’s a newish one… maybe… at 2525 W. Devon.

I say maybe because although the name is new— Punjabi Dhaba— the same location has been Sher-A-Punjab and Moti Mahal. And since the website says they’ve been serving for 15 years… well, they may be new, but you know that old joke about how all the moussaka in Greektown or won ton soup in Chinatown is cooked in one underground kitchen and trucked/piped/whatever to the various restaurants? It starts to look like less of a joke when the same restaurant has borne half the names you see on Devon, dishing up a more or less identical buffet of saag paneer and curry made from leftover tandoori chicken each time.

And that’s how things tasted— like something they’d made and I’d tasted too many times before. The dishes were okay— it was a cold day, they hit the spot, they assuaged my craving a little more— but the colors that had been bright at Udupi Palace were stewed to a muted pastel by comparison. LTHForum poster Zim, who is Indian (and deserves eternal thanks for being the one who kicked off the community’s exploration of Khan BBQ), once advanced the theory that you should only eat at an Indian buffet in its first six months, that’s when they’re likely to have new offerings you haven’t seen a million times and to be trying hardest to make flavors sparkle. Punjabi Dhaba, alas, manages the neat trick of being a new restaurant… whose first six months appear to have been many years ago.

Punjabi Dhaba
2525 W.Devon Avenue
Chicago, IL 60659
(773) 262 – 2080

Udupi Palace
2543W,Devon Avenue
Chicago,IL 60618

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Elastomoule financiers.