Sky Full of Bacon

The new Key Ingredient stars Stephanie Izard, who really is just as adorable as she seems on TV. And it’s one of my favorite challenges so far, because she gets thrown a personal curveball and really takes it and makes something out of it that was totally a Girl & the Goat dish:

Nothing else happening this week though I did get a passing mention in Whet Moser’s interesting take on the whole molecular Myrhvold thing, which is well worth checking out. (And apparently the big dogs are still fighting over how to list Key Ingredient here while making sure to leave off my name. Get a life, or a room! Just don’t list it at all, I’m sure the Reader will be fine without the three reader/viewers coming from this source. UPDATE: My wife says it and I am listed now. I can’t work up the energy to go check.)

UPDATE: Kind words from my Key Ingredient teammate Julia Thiel here, as well. Who knew what life my two cents on the B.R. Myers thing would have when I dashed it off one Sunday?

After Swine Management 101, our next pig-season adventure also began with a long drive into farm country, but this time south to Buckingham, Illinois, and in the bright daylight of Sunday morning. It was a sudden, wrenching shift from the broad expressway to the perfectly straight and narrow country road that took us ten miles on a grid of farmland to, suddenly, J Farm. Our purpose: Meet Your Pig.

Or at least, play with the piglets, one of whom might be our pig. We will buy a pig at auction, sometime in April, but for now it’s just a matter of the kids getting familiar with the kind of animal they’ll be responsible for.

There were two kinds here; the pink or pink and black ones are cross-breeds, while there were also reddish-brown ones that were Durocs. As a foodie, I’d go Duroc, but then we won’t be eating our pig anyway, so my desires for that kind of meat (assuming I’d still want it by the end of the process, and wouldn’t have gotten too sentimental to eat it myself, which I’d say there’s only about a 98% chance of) don’t really matter. Our program leader, Julie, made a couple of strong pitches for the cross-breeds as being a sounder choice for 4-H competition, so I expect that’s what we’ll go for. (At other county fairs, there are separate categories for purebreds and cross-breeds, so it’s worth raising the former and showing and auctioning them; but there’s not enough pig production in Lake County to justify that.)

The kids had an hour or so of sheer kid-piglet delight. The pigs, though skittish about the large humans moving about their pens, were insatiably curious, and took to chewing at shoelaces. What in a pig’s diet resembles a shoelace, I wonder? The farmer’s wife had a new baby in her arms and a toddler girl, who moved among these animals only slightly smaller than herself as if every human naturally grows up among a herd of little pink piggies. Which, not that long ago, they pretty much did. When she was done with pigs, she turned to the first adult she saw, and asked me to be airlifted out of the pen.

Then we drove about a mile to another farm in the Foltz family— to see the adults from whom these piglets issued. It’s not like I haven’t seen pigs before, but it was kind of a shock after our piglet interlude to be reminded just how massive and alien fully grown pigs can be. Weighing six or seven hundred pounds each, huge, brute and powerful, going from the piglets to these pigs was like going from a hamster to a hippo.

And where the only danger the piglets posed was to shoelaces, here we were reminded that fingers were best kept well out of snacking range. There was nothing hostile about these pigs, but just their size sent a signal of menace to the deepest parts of the brain. Now I’m curious, when will the moment come when my sons’ attitude toward their pig shifts from the adorable playfulness of this day with the piglets to the determined control a farmer needs to have to manage an animal of this size? When will the idea of selling this creature for meat seem natural, as it certainly didn’t as we played with the pigs today?

Here’s a video of the kids, including Liam, playing with the piglets. It’s not edited and nothing really happens in it. It’s just kids and piglets. Enjoy.

This week’s Key Ingredient is the most prosaic yet… bananas. But there’s a twist to why that’s our challenging ingredient this week, so watch it above and read it here.

Meanwhile, even I’m sick of reading about me by now, but I should say thanks to Mike Sula for this nice announcement of the Beard award nomination at the Reader, and I turn up quoted extensively in Julia Kramer’s rant on shared plates at Time Out, so check that out too.

I wrote about Old Town Social and its made-in-house charcuterie a year ago, so I was excited to have a chance to shoot a Key Ingredient there and finally see its fully certified, HACCP-compliant, all-T’s-crossed-with-the-health-department curing room. You can see it at the start of the video:

Okay, so it just looks like any other walk-in fridge, not the gleaming glass Bond-villain vault of meat I imagined. But if there was nothing extraordinary in how it looked, how it smelled was another matter entirely, and those deep, dripping-fat, curing-meat, phantasmagorically primal smells had me convinced that I needed to get back to the restaurant, soon.

Jared explained to us that he had made a number of improvements to the way he was making his charcuterie and that he felt it had come a lot closer to his mostly Italian ideal in the past year. The first issue, he said, is that he feels American charcuterie is too tart, has too much of a lactic acid bite to it; this, he believes, is because of the most commonly used bacterial cultures in the curing process. It’s a bit like how so many American craft beers taste heavily of the same few commercial hop varieties and thus tend to taste a bit alike. So he switched to a different strain of bacteria to use in the curing process and felt like it had produced a mellower, subtler meat flavor in the end result.

Another change he had made had to do with the culture on the outside of the meat— the one that produces the snow-white mold on the skin of certain sausages. This too has a subtle but definite effect on flavor that is responsible, in some mysterious way, for the authentic Italian taste. After a trip to Italy last year he placed an imported sausage in the curing room and its white mold seemed to spread quickly throughout the sausages hanging in there. This, too, he believes has contributed to a flavor improvement closer to his Italian ideal.

My friend Michael Morowitz and I volunteered to help test these theories by eating mass quantities of Jared’s charcuterie last week:

Although my memories of what I ate a year ago are only so clear, I did feel like compared to the general run of in-house charcuterie in Chicago, Jared’s seemed more authentically Italian overall, subtler and more about meat than about the funk of salt and curing. Several were especially outstanding, such as the pressed sopressata above at right, and the toscano with big cubes of fat next to it; we also very much liked the mortadella, which Michael said reminded him of what he and his wife ate on a train-compartment picnic leaving Bologna, and a smoked sopressata, which was an off-menu mistake— a batch of sopressata was made with the wrong curing powder (No. 1 instead of No. 2, which has both nitrates and nitrites for a more effective longer cure). Frankly, it probably would have been fine, but to ensure its safety, they smoked it a bit. Not heavy with smoke, it nevertheless gained a lot of character from the light kiss of smoky flavor.

He’s also just started work on his second restaurant in Chicago (his company has another in San Diego) which will be in the former Marché space on Randolph. Although Old Town Social’s meats will doubtless make an appearance over there, this time the emphasis will be on a broader range of Italian food, with a similarly artisanal approach taken to pasta. He spoke about how flour is one of the stumbling blocks for locavore cooking— you can make all the stuff that goes on the pizza or pasta locally, but there’s no local mill for locally-grown wheat at the specifications a restaurant requires for its range of dishes; you have to buy the same national or imported products as everyone else. So they’re working on building an in-house mill which will allow them to make everything down to “00” pizza flour in house. It sounds as if it could be a big step up for the local Italian food scene; watch for it somewhere around fall to the holidays.

Saying Jared is enthusiastic about his charcuterie hardly covers it; his enthusiasm spreads as quickly as his authentic Italian white mold, and if you’re an amateur charcuterist yourself, it is well worth not only trying his exceptional stuff but finding the opportunity to talk about it with him. (I suggest quieter nights early in the week at this popular Friday/Saturday night drinking spot.) He’s happy to talk shop and share what he knows (we saw a prosciutto ham in his walk-in that he’s hanging for Chris Pandel of The Bristol) and even to share some of the secrets of his products— he’s making enough of the small sopressata to be selling it from the restaurant on the side, and will happily encourage you to buy one and hang it with your own cured meats to catch his Italian mold. Good guy, good meats.

Exciting news, that Julia Thiel and I have been nominated for a James Beard Memorial Foundation Award in the multimedia category for the Key Ingredient series, which she writes and I do the videos for. Thanks to Julia, tireless food editor Kate Schmidt, Kiki Yablon, Whet Moser, Mike Sula, Geoff Dougherty, John Dunleavy, and Alex Parker, who are the other Readerites past and present I can remember who contributed to getting the series launched, and to all the chefs (19 so far) who have participated. (Sorry if I forgot somebody else.) Congrats also to Monica Eng for her nomination for her terrific work on school lunches at the Chi-Trib.

If you’d like to see the nominated articles/videos for yourself, they are the first three: Grant Achatz with Kluwak Kupas, Curtis Duffy with Chinese black beans, and John DesRosiers with geraniums. If you come here just because you want to find out what Sky Full of Bacon is, click on the “Video Podcasts” category at right to see examples of the main video podcast series here.

The Family Farmed Expo is a kind of trade show for better farming and eating. I came mainly for this panel discussion, which was like a Sky Full of Bacon reunion— since it starred Paul Kahan of Blackbird et al. (There Will Be Pork), Herb Eckhouse of La Quercia (Prosciutto di Iowa), Rob Levitt of The Butcher & Larder (A Head’s Tale) and Bartlett Durand of Black Earth Meats in Wisconsin (see this post), moderated by Ellen Malloy (see here). They had a lot of interesting things to say about the meat system and how and why they’re doing things to encourage better meat production and filling in the distribution gap to make things available to the consumer. One point they all seemed to agree on: eat less of chewier, but more flavorful, cuts of meat and you’ll not only have better tasting meat and be healthier, but be more respectful toward the animal and the environment.

“I was hoping I could get through this whole thing without having to speak,” Paul Kahan began his first comment. (He’s no fan of public appearances; when I shot the video three years ago, he talked about how he’d turned Iron Chef down, and later he told me that he also turned down being on Key Ingredient. We’ve arrived!) Anyway, what he did have to say was one of the most interesting bits of new news for me, which is, that the new butcher shop they’re opening next to the Publican is really designed to increase the number of new farmers selling naturally-raised meat in the city to the restaurant trade, by creating a channel of distribution to the public that also will showcase them for the restaurant community and help them grow a customer base among chefs quickly, making it more obviously attractive for them to target this market. Durand said that one problem for farmers is that restaurants will like their stuff so much they’ll overwhelm a single farmer (as was talked about in my video with Mark Mendez and Dave Cleverdon), and this is Kahan’s solution to broaden the pool of farmers selling quality meats beyond the few names like Dietzler or Slagel every restaurant-goer in Chicago has come to know.

Afterwards several of us (if I may use “us” presumptuously) went to the Publican for a party-slash-video shoot. Gastrotommy, a site which seeks out high quality food and wine deals and offers them to its members, and features video interviews about both the products and the world of food and wine more generally, was shooting Herb Eckhouse and Paul Kahan carving a bone-in La Quercia ham in an authentic Spanish-style ham torture device thing:

Kathy Eckhouse with ham.

What the heck do I do with this?

That is Gastrotommy at far right.

This Kahan kid has promise!

They cut little flakes of ham for something like two hours for a couple of dozen people, and only really cut off a chunk the size of a piece of pie. Is there anything on earth that packs so much meaty satisfaction into so little meat as La Quercia prosciutto? It was a great illustration of the earlier session’s point.

After a fine afternoon tasting wine, noshing prosciutto and a pork pie from The Publican, and chatting about ham production with the Eckhouses and video production with the Gastrotommy folks, I tagged along as the Eckhouses got VIP treatment at Big Star. We all felt very, very old there, but at least you can say if the kids of today are eating Paul Kahan’s idea of good meat on Saturday night at hipster taco and beer joints, there’s hope for the future.

Kathy texting their son, who was denied entrance to Big Star the last time he came to Chicago with them because he was underage.

Mindy Segal makes stuff with sorghum syrup in the new Key Ingredient, and as Julia says in the print piece, this could be the first one to actually go on the menu… at least it was on there last week and probably still is.

In other news… I’m quoted on the weighty issue of whether the Paris Club stinks (literally) here. And hey… what’s that smell?

Is there a Chicago school of haute cuisine? You could make a case for at least two— the Alinea molecular gastronomy one, and (moving down from the hautest hautes) the porky-whole animal one. Neither originated here (the first descends from El Bulli and French Laundry, the second from Fergus Henderson et al.) but they’ve both been taken to here with enough enthusiasm to seem ours.

So for someone like me, who’s been chasing the latter quite enthusiastically for a couple of years now, and come to half-identify it as what fine dining is in 2011, it’s a bit of a shock whenever you find yourself back in the real haute cuisine, the one truly global one— the food of Finedininglandia, taught in the same schools and served to the same international travelers regardless of whether the hotel you’re in happens to be in Orlando or Singapore. Where both of the other styles radiate personal expression and philosophy from the menu, doing for food the Romantic things that Berlioz did for orchestra conducting, Finedininglandia seems to float above any considerations of place or nationality. Its stock in trade, like that of the fast food franchise on the cross-country highway, has been assurance that what you expect to get is exactly what you will get, no matter where you are in the world.

As you may recall, I shot a Key Ingredient video at the Elysian Hotel in between two fairly momentous moments in the history of its two restaurants, Ria and Balsan, which share a kitchen and head chef. The first one was that Ria had been awarded two Michelin stars, putting it in the top ranks of Chicago restaurants. The second was that, just a few weeks later, chef Jason McLeod “left.” The initial rumor about that was that the Elysian was in trouble and had to cut costs in many areas; the second was that sous chef Danny Grant had been the real star all along (if the hotel was spreading that one to combat the first, it was rather graceless of them). I know exactly what you do about what really happened, which is… nothing.

What was more interesting to me as a question was, was Ria really one of the five best restaurants in Chicago as Michelin would have it? Had it transcended the hotel genre as spectacularly as one of the only other ones at that level, Avenues, with its Alinea-like tasting menus? Or were two Michelin stars in fact the ultimate validation of it as the technically excellent, identity-free restaurant for the traveler who doesn’t want to feel like he’s somewhere?

I couldn’t help suspect, looking at the clubby, sedate dining room in Ria, that it was exactly the sort of internationally anonymous temple of stuffy dining that Michelin would love— and would politely bore me over a very expensive evening. Much more appealing was Balsan, the peppier and more stylish lounge— and part of Ria’s problem drawing crowds may have been that people had discovered that because the same top-drawer kitchen was cooking for both, Balsan was a great value— Ria’s two Michelin stars at a discount.

So I gave Balsan a try with my 12-year-old, who was very excited to get to go out for something so grownup. And you know what? It’s a great restaurant for a hotel. Despite being shoehorned into a weird space with quirks like bathrooms being an elevator ride away— par for the course for hotel dining— it’s a chic, intimately comfortable little room full of energy (even when it’s not full of people). And the food, as much as the menu seemed driven by Finedininglandia’s something-for-everyone ethos (there’s housemade charcuterie and a wood-burning oven for pizzas and a raw bar and small plates and entrees and a hamburger if all else fails), was always expert, and once or twice even personable.

My son was out to try things he’d only heard of before, so we started with a torchon of foie gras, served with housemade grainy mustard (which I thought fell a nudge shy of full flavor) and a chunk of local honeycomb. Next we had what, in retrospect, could easily make a meal of budget chic for someone on a date— the tarte flambee from the wood-burning oven. With housemade bacon, a great nutty gruyere from Uplands in Wisconsin (points for buying regional) and the kiss of wood smoke, this was one of the best “pizzas” I’ve had in years, a welcome sight the next day in the fridge:

Two small plate choices— not that small in either case— followed, both more like doubles than home runs, and just enough shy of perfection to make one wonder if the kitchen was too big for one chef to oversee at a truly exceptional, multiple-Michelin-star level. Gnocchi with Asian mushrooms was the better one, but the gnocchi, aiming for soft and velvety, came perilously close to mushy:

I loved the octopus in an octopus salad— almost as much as I loved the fact that my son wanted to try octopus— and it was prepared beautifully, with a hint of char, but the salad around it was a bit overdressed with its tart dressing. I was happier eating the octopus out of it, and not letting the salad sting my tongue.

We finished with the hanger steak off the large plates, a somewhat hidebound old classic but beautifully done, mineral-tangy beef with a nice char, parsley butter and a heaping pile of fresh-cut fries (slightly dried out, it seemed, to the texture of steak fries; not sure if that was just life under a heat lamp or a deliberate effect to distinguish their fries from a hot dog joint’s).

So a very creditable meal, certainly, if one whose personality had only poked through once or twice. Would I rank it in the top 5 restaurant experiences to be had in town? No, because I’m looking for personality and daring and this meal had only flirted with such things. Grant’s background includes a stint at North Pond, and he professes (see this interview) a farm-to-table philosophy which I can believe based on certain things (such as the hanger steak), but which I nevertheless came to feel is somewhat hidden from the average patron.

But would I recommend it for someone looking for a swank night out? Without hesitation; its best was very good indeed, its low points were only the most modest of dips, its atmosphere felt very big city, its bill didn’t leave me feeling like I’d paid the Hotel Dining Sucker Tax. And then…

I knew nothing— still don’t— about the pastry chef at Ria/Balsan. (No, wait, I know her name, Stephanie; Jason McLeod said it toward the end of the Key Ingredient video.) But Stephanie, whoever you are, you’re like animal acts in vaudeville— no act is good enough to be on the same bill with you and not be at least a little bit overshadowed. We had two of Stephanie’s desserts and they were both eyes-wide-open, oh-my-god good. One was that wonder-turned-cliché of 20 years ago, the molten-center chocolate cake. I would have called it a sign of desperation on the menu if I hadn’t tasted it, because what made this one was the ice cream that went with it, a little football of milk stout ice cream. The beer funk balanced the dark chocolate beautifully, jolting new life into 1992’s favorite dessert.

The other was what’s apparently their signature, the Paris Brest. I have no idea what the name means (wouldn’t that be a train, Paris to Brest on the coast of Brittany?) but the dessert is an eclair shaped sort of like a bagel and filled with a toffee-ish cream with little crunchy bits of something. And it’s wonderful, just wonderful, like biting into a toffee cloud.

Okay, I just Googled it and it’s a fin-de-siecle dessert whose wheel-like shape commemorated a Paris-Brest bicycle race. A praline-flavored bicycle tire. God, no wonder Michelin loved this kitchen’s food.

I was excited about a barbecue place opening a walkable distance (not the most pleasant walk in the city of Chicago, perhaps, but technically possible) from my house. But before I could act on my excitement, the reviews for Pork Shoppe started pouring in. LTHers struggled to be kind; Heather Shouse in Time Out felt no such need. I passed it often, and passed on it, regretfully, last fall.

But I didn’t do so because I believed that the last word had been spoken. The one thing that everybody had praised guardedly— a pork belly pastrami, inexplicably served cold— was different enough to make me think that there could be potential in this place down the line; if any food has a learning curve, it’s slow-smoked barbecue. Finally the day to check in at Pork Shoppe arrived at the beginning of February.

I’ve been back twice since.

Is this the greatest barbecue place in Chicago? No, but it’s significantly better and more consistent than the place described last fall must have been, with enough unique things about it that it’s well worth giving another chance (the last LTH post was in December; only three out of more than 100 have been since August). The kitchen seems to have gained in skill, and they also seem to have listened to the criticism— since for one thing, you’re now asked if you’d like the pork belly pastrami warm or cold. (I still don’t understand why it’s even a question with a meat this fatty.) Such determination to learn and improve deserves reward in the form of a second chance.

The most interesting thing is definitely the pork belly pastrami, though I have to admit, having tried and liked it once, I also kind of felt like I never needed it again; it’s just so fatty and salty that one blast of its voluptuous excess will last a long time in the memory. There’s also beef pastrami, which is to say more conventional pastrami; since pastrami is usually steamed, this has to be smoked long enough to be soft enough to eat, so some may object to the brittle, falling-apart chunks this turns into, which again yield a pretty serious saltiness. On its own terms, I thought this was first-rate, and both of the pastramis show where Pork Shoppe’s commitment to better and more sustainable meats yields a cleaner, meatier taste even under lots of smoke and salt.

A complaint about the regular brisket and pulled pork was that it was soft, a likely consequence of being held after smoking in warming bins (where barbecue kind of steams itself soft). That’s almost inevitable in restaurants— one time at Smoque, Barry Sorkin advised me to wait for a batch coming fresh from the smoker, and that showed what a difference that made even for Smoque’s very good restaurant barbecue, which squares the circle of restaurant practicality with barbecue better than almost anybody’s. When the descriptor “pot roast” is used somewhere in a review, that steaming effect is why. But even the great places in Texas that have ferocious lunchtime turnover sometimes call pot roast to mind (City Market in Luling did, for instance, and so did Black’s in Llano on one of my two visits), and unless you’re absolutely fetishizing ripping meat with your teeth, it’s just not something to get crazy over. The brisket had a rich beefiness that was quite satisfying; I didn’t get a comparable porky bliss out of the pulled pork the one time I tried it, but it was decent, and I’d try it again to see if it was better another day. There’s also a lunchtime special of Texas brisket tacos which I’m going to try one of these days, probably before I get around to trying any more Korean tacos.

Fries are fresh-cut; the cole slaw was described by Kennyz as being like a housewife’s potluck dish, with sweet dressing and fruit in it, which he seems to think is a bad thing, but which I like just fine, as long as you’re not really trying to think of it as cole slaw. There are three sauces, all better and more complex than supermarket sauces; even the medium, let alone the “tangy,” has a fair amount of heat. Service is friendly and welcoming; the location is easily reached once you’ve driven by the line at either Hot Doug’s or Kuma’s and decided there’s no way you’re standing in that. There haven’t been many alternatives in the vicinity before (Burger King doesn’t count), but there is one now.

Pork Shoppe
2755 West Belmont Avenue
Chicago, IL 60618
(773) 961-7654

In what I can comfortably say is the grossest Key Ingredient yet, Cary Taylor of The Southern uses fish eyeballs in a recipe for an oyster stew, and demonstrates a few finer points of butchering your own fish.

Cary had a lot of interesting things to say, not all of which could go into the video, so be sure to read the article which fills in a lot of details as well. (See, there are two parts to these, made by two different people in collaboration. Freaky, I know. Anyway, if you’re wondering WTF this recurring part of these announcements is about, and you won’t be the first by any means, email me for details.)