Sky Full of Bacon

Okay, so I merely hoisted it out of a styrofoam cooler. Anyway, it’s a Carolina wreckfish, and you can catch it at Blackbird and other Chicago restaurants on its other natural habitat, the plate.

I may not have caught big scary fish, but I have caught a lot of cool footage during three visits to Supreme Lobster and an assortment of other fish-related interviews and adventures. I’ve still got a couple of interviews to reel in (fish puns inevitable here) so the next Sky Full of Bacon won’t be done till the end of this month. But all this fishy business is going to result in two podcasts on different aspects of the fish trade, with the next one to follow about a month later. And if you’re a chef, there will (probably) be a special event held by Supreme Lobster in conjunction with a premiere screening of the second one.  So watch for details about that.

In the meantime, thanks to Serious Eats for linking the La Quercia podcast, which boosted it by almost 300 views to 4th most viewed to date.

1. Cookin’ Wit’ Tittle, a Chicago public access cooking show which is surely the most informative program about burnt toast you will ever see. From the way-personable hostess to the deck-of-an-aircraft-carrier cinematography to the ease with which she roots around up the business end of a turkey, this is simply perfection.

Cookin’ wit’ Tittle – Grilled Turkey from La Donna Tittle on Vimeo.

2. Australian political blogger Tim Blair demonstrates how to make one of Australia’s greatest achievements this side of Stobie Poles and Crocodile Dundee 2: the carpet bag sandwich, “so bewitchingly complex in flavour that you would surrender a limb just to watch someone feed it to a common cat.”
3. The 20 most terrifying pictures of Ronald McDonald ever, although…
4. …not as terrifying as the idea of Chicago Gluttons taking on the new Angus Deluxe (“Suggested pairing: I recommend enjoying this abomination with a fine single malt scotch. The oak flavor accentuates the 39 grams of fat and really helps you taste the 1700mg of sodium.”)
5. Seattle’s Rebekah Denn tries the Alinea cookbook on some learned friends. An art critic: “I call it meticulous high style for the moneyed classes, for the moneyed classes who want to feel bad, because they do not have what it takes to do justice to this oyster. They don’t. They’d probably find all that foam faintly repellent, reminding them of spit, and then they’re self-conscious, right?”
6. A touching remembrance of the grandmother who gave the very artistic Chicago food blog Lottie + Doof its name, complete with homemade graham cracker recipe.
7. Nudist farm workers in Wisconsin, at Minneapolis’ Heavy Table blog.

Pssst— I’m looking for sources.

Specifically, I’m looking for a Sky Full of Bacon-type subject or two to shoot in the next couple of months, while things are still green and growing.  Then I’ll have stuff to edit over the, well, less green months.  The many, many less green months in Chicago.

What kind of subject?  Well, what matters with Sky Full of Bacon is less the newsworthiness of something than the qualities that make it great video.  Seeing an interesting process— whether it’s making prosciutto or tromping around foraging in an urban setting— makes for great video.  But most of all what makes for great video is interesting people.  People who are committed to something to the point of being obsessive, like the indefatigable Oriana is about Asian pears.  If it’s a complex story (how fair are fair trade garbanzo beans?), it should be a print story, probably.  If it’s a fascinating person to hang out with for 15 minutes, that’s a Sky Full of Bacon subject.

It’s not that I don’t have some of these in the pipeline already— I do.  But I figure you, the reader, might know of something too.  If you’re a chef, maybe there’s a supplier who’s an interesting, deeply committed character.  Or whatever.  As past podcasts suggest, if you’re doing something interesting, invite me along and cool video may come of it.

If you have an idea, email me at mikegebert at gmail dot com.

So I was talking with a couple of friends about Great Lake, and though all admirers of the pizza, we agreed that it being named the best pizza in America by Alan Richman in GQ had more to do with a magazine’s need for the kind of buzz that you get from “owning” the discovery of a great new food spot that nobody else has found yet. Great Lake— artisanal pizza of very high quality from a hot food city, yet so new that it wasn’t really on the national radar yet— fit the bill perfectly; and so did Snow’s, the improbable Saturdays-only barbecue joint that Texas Monthly plucked from obscurity and anointed the best BBQ in Texas a couple of years ago, shaking up a competition whose top ten had been so fixed for so long it could be recited by most Texas schoolchildren.

So that was the mindset I was in when I read this in Time Out barely 12 hours later, about a hitherto unheralded Italian spot on the Sex and the City Southport strip:

Who the hell is Matt Troost, and why haven’t I heard his name before? More to the point, why hadn’t I eaten his food until a recent meal at Fianco?… It’s surprising, to say the least, that a chef with no reputation, in a restaurant on a notoriously generic strip, would be putting out such a dish. Yet with each subsequent plate, Troost proved this was no coincidence. This is a guy who clearly knows how to manipulate flavor….

Admittedly, David Tamarkin stopped short of any “best Italian restaurant in Chicago” hype. Still, he was doing a pretty good job of trying to elevate this neighborhood obscurity into the ranks of, at least, the top neighborhood Italian spots, with all the bragging rights that would accrue to the first guy to find a place. So I packed up the family and we set off to see if this really was the marvel he said— or if he’d been carried away by his excitement and wishful thinking.

It was still fairly empty at almost 6, though perhaps by 7:30 or 8 it isn’t. Later, I heard someone congratulate the chef (for reasons I didn’t catch); that was the only possible sign that Time Out’s praise was being felt here, there definitely weren’t hordes of trendy Time Out-clutching twentysomethings fresh from buying new shoes and artisanal absinthe on Southport.

We started with the chicken liver pate, creamy pate well paired with “strawberry preserves” (well, some preserved strawberries, anyway). It was every bit as nice and flavorful as you would hope it would be.

Two of us had pasta dishes. The winner of the night, pretty comfortably, was this ravioli with mint and peas in cream sauce. The ravioli were delicate and velvety, the sauce sang of bright spring flavors, cheerful and distinct; as good an Italian dish as I’ve had anywhere in recent memory.

More conventional was this bowl of canned tomatoes, some shaped pasta, and lamb sausage; what lifted it above the perfectly decent was the lamb sausage, zingy with the contrast of fennel.

The star among meat entrees was the (enormous) portion of braised and grilled pork with a salad of beans and greens. I liked my taste of this, but I felt like it was only 3/4ths of the way toward what it could be; it needed a sharper contrast from the grilling, some acidic bite in the comfy bean-salad atop it. I felt it was too understated, and only a couple of steps away from really popping.

Perfectly acceptable, but more ordinary, were some grilled scallops, again huge, in a nicely bright pea puree. This too seemed understated and would have benefited from something on the plate that offered some real contrast, like an onion marmalade or something.

Banana-chocolate bread pudding, shared four ways, made a nice conclusion, though overall I didn’t find the dessert list all that interesting.

So we were not quite as dazzled as Tamarkin. But still, take 20% off the top and his assessment was largely right— on a strip where Italian has meant suburbanite-safe places like Strega Nona, here was a neighborhood spot, of simple decor straight out of the exposed-brick-urban-restaurant kit, which at least was off to a start of making some things to rival the best neighborhood contemporary Italian spots in town, the Riccardo Trattorias and Merlos. Give the chef some time to push the envelope of a Southport restaurant located between a Potbelly’s and a Homemade Pizza, and everything he makes might be about as good as the best things we had. In the meantime, peas won’t be on the menu for very long, so go have those ravioli.

3440 N. Southport Ave.
(773) 327-6400

Like I said, hardly any blogging for the next week, so here’s my second post of the day. But hey, I’m doing a bunch of cooking and other tasks, so no time to sink deep into the editing headspace anyway.

Went to Green City this morning, Fruit Slinger had twittered about some gold cherries so I bought some of those from him and two other types; the gold are pretty but there’s not really that much flavor, by far the best were some Bing-like dark ones.  Then I spotted these:

The last carton of Fraises des Bois!  Actually they became the last when I took the next to last one.  Tiny, tart, prickly little wild strawberries.  Not the greatest strawberry I ever had, but at least interesting and different.  After so much blog trafficking about them, I had to buy a tiny, pricy carton.  Sucker.

I also picked up the first sour cherries of the season (and immediately put one son to work pitting them when we got home for future pie use), and some black raspberries— if you’ve never had black raspberries, they’re a definite thing to look out for, not really like red raspberries at all but a great blackberry-ish flavor eaten atop some Scooter’s vanilla custard or something creamy like that.  They grow wild around here too, if you want to look for them (I know a school garden where they grow, somewhat but not entirely deliberately).

Came home, made a tart crust and a creme patissiere, and…

Tart with fraises des bois and urban foraged juneberries.  I call it Tarte des blog.

(Earlier Juneberry post: I Found Juneberries!)

Back in the day, the cutting edge of foodiedom at Chowhound and, subsequently, LTHForum was the discovery and popularization of so-called secret menus at Asian, especially Thai, restaurants.

They weren’t so much secret in the sense of something exclusive, as they were menus of the foods the restaurants served their own countrymen, but felt us gringos would not be willing to accept, due to unusual ingredients and authentically strong and spicy flavors.  Slowly we were able to convince certain restaurants that non-Thais (or non-Chinese or whatever) would enjoy these foods and, even more importantly, not send them back without paying for them.

I say “we,” and that’s not entirely inaccurate since the numbers of folks who came into restaurants like Spoon Thai, TAC Quick and Sticky Rice ordering and enjoying these dishes was an important part of convincing these restaurateurs to serve their food the way they eat it, without fear of having to comp a lot of dinners to offended gringos.  But the heavy lifting was done by Erik M., who learned Thai to be able to translate Thai menus and provided these translations to a number of restaurants. His efforts paid off for dozens, maybe even hundreds of diners who took the download menus into restaurants and had food that completely turned their idea of Thai food around, offering at least a glimpse of the true depth and complexity of one of the world’s great cuisines, but one too often dumbed down and sugared up in America.

Erik has been in L.A. more than not lately, but recently he arranged a dinner at Spoon devoted to Thai drinking food, which like drinking food the world over fell into two main categories— salty spicy meats and nuts to get the palate ready for alcohol, and comfy carbs to soak up some of that alchohol.  Any resemblance to American drinking foods pretty much ends there, however, as you’ll see.  It was a fascinating introduction to a whole range of new dishes that took my appreciation of a favorite restaurant to a new level, and while a few were pretty much one-offs prepared as a courtesy for Erik, most are either available at the restaurant regularly or could be arranged with a few days’ notice.  So if you see something you like, try to order it, and help encourage one of Chicago’s best ethnic restaurants to add these outstanding and eye-opening flavors to the “secret” items which, in reality, need not be a secret to anyone who makes the effort to know about them.

Poo pia thawt—These are available if you make it clear you want the “little eggrolls”—filled with peppery ground meat, they were much more delectable and addictive than the usual big sloppy eggroll.

I thought this was garnishes at first, but it’s actually a tasty and charming salad— put a little of everything (including the dried shrimp in the back) in a carrot cup and munch away.

Hawy thawt—Fried mussels, “greasy on purpose” Erik says; I liked them this way a lot better than the big mussel pancake you can get here and at other Thai restaurants.

Naem sii-khrong muu—Fried ribs, first marinated in a sour (naem) powder.  You would be happy to see these at any bar on earth; we were very happy to see an extra plate arrive as an encore at the end of our meal.

Kung chae naam plaa—marinated (uncooked) shrimp.  I’ve had these before, either at Spoon or its downtown sibling Silver Spoon, and while the floppy uncooked shrimp is not my favorite texture, the garlicky, hot marinade is one of those perfect balances of pungent flavors that Thais seem to pull off better than anybody on earth.

Neua taet diaw—If I had to recommend one thing to go have right now, this Thai beef jerky would be it, hands down.  Beef, marinated in soy sauce and spices and both dried and deep fried, with the same tamarind-sweet/chile-hot dipping sauce (naam jiim jaew) as Thai fried chicken (which we also had, later, by the way, but no picture).  Every other beef jerky is this beef jerky’s bitch, it’s really a marvel (and it’s on the menu, so you could have it tonight!).

Kao-lao muu yaw—I seemed to be one of the few dissenters who wasn’t wild about this salad with enoki mushrooms and a Vietnamese-style pork loaf which was sort of mortadella-like.

Yam khaw muu yaang kap taeng kwaa—Grilled pork neck in a salad with cucumbers, but unlike the fresh grilled pork neck served at TAC Quick (which is a great dish), this was more like bacon, fried before grilling and unctuously fatty.  This was sort of engineered to Erik’s specs, as he says, “if you want the exact version, you should be clear about two things: a) request that the pork be “soft,” and b) request the addition of cucumber. It’s listed on the menu with cucumber, but most Thais order this without even looking at the menu, and they just ask for “yam khaw muu yaang,” which doesn’t have the cuke, tomato, etc.”

Miang plaa thuu—a one-bite salad with grilled mackerel and steamed rice noodles.  I might try a different version with a different meat, if there is such a thing.

Yam mama—Now here’s serious drunken-comfort food—supermarket ramen noodles (“Mama” brand) with minced pork.  Erik basically said this was like white trash Thai food, but it was aimed dead-on at the palate of people who’d been drinking for a few hours, and impossible not to like.

Naem khao tawt—this is an older Erik discovery that we’ve long had in our standard order at Spoon (although he says Thai Avenue’s is better), though I think it’s gotten hotter over the years and we need to start ordering it mild (at least for my wife to enjoy it).  The pink stuff is some pressed ham product, but what this dish is really about is crunchy bits of fried rice in lots of lime juice, a wonderful combination that makes this probably one of my last-meal dishes (hope the prison cooks include at least one Thai con).

Tom pret plaa lai—”Hungry ghost soup” (i.e., good enough to make even the dead hungry), with eel and a fearsome amount of chiles floating in it.  The eel was so-so, fishy in a not entirely pleasant way (and I, unlike a lot of people, have no weirdness about eating eel), but the broth—sour and pungent and subtly incandescent—was quite wonderful.

We ended with three variations on comfort foody fried rice dishes—khao phat kha-naa plaa khem (fried rice with Chinese broccoli and salty fish), khao phat plaa salid (fried rice with Gouramy fish), which was made by the great crispy and fishy fish, and best of all khao phat naam phrik kapi (fried rice with shrimp paste and Thai mackerel), given depth the others lacked by shrimp paste.  Also, someone had brought Erik a condiment for fried rice from Thailand, which was like sweet-salty dried shrimp crispies and definitely enhanced the milder versions.

Thanks to Erik and to Spoon Thai for revealing another fascinating side of this great cuisine.

Spoon Thai
4608 N. Western Ave.
Chicago, IL 60625
(773) 769 – 1173

So we were walking back to the house the other night, a group of 8 or 9 of us since my sister and family were visiting… and suddenly I yelled… JUNEBERRIES!

Several trees, probably planted as they’re in a sort of parkway near our house.  Yet the apple-red fruit was completely undisturbed; if someone who planted them once picked them, no one does now.  There were two younger trees, which were fairly full of Juneberries, and one older one which was absolutely abundant:

After ID’ing the oval, serrated leaves on the computer to make sure we had the right tree, I tried them.  The harder reddish fruit was sort of like a tiny plum with a couple of grape seeds in the middle.  It was all right, but nothing to get THAT excited about.

We went back today, though, and by now most of the fruit, especially on the older tree, was a rich grape-purple.  And those were much more complex and interesting— not only more depth to the plum flavor, but an orangey note that had been completely missing the other day.

The ripe purple fruit slid easily off the stalk without breaking, and my helpers and I soon filled a small bag.  I’ll make a custard tart with them this weekend, I think.

Here’s what the trees look like, at least the younger ones, to help you spot them around town:

Meanwhile, not that anybody will likely read a blog over a holiday weekend, but I’m deep into production on the next two podcasts, so blogging will likely be light.  If you have bored computer time, click on “7 Links of Terror” and there are plenty of cool things to visit there.  Meanwhile, I shot at the Shedd Aquarium and a restaurant yesterday as I tackle the subject of fish, and will be talking to a rep from a major green fish co. in a couple of weeks.  Not sure when the finish date will be, but I’m working, anyway.