Sky Full of Bacon

To be entirely repetitive of my 2016 list, I wrote a book of what restaurants to go eat at in Chicago, so I don’t want to repeat all that here. Instead this is a more intimate list of ten things I ate for the first time in 2017, that I’m sitting here thinking about, wishing I had, right now. Sorry to places where I had very good overall meals but not one specific standout thing, but those are in the book and other places I’ve made recommendations. Note: Photos are often the thing talked about, but sometimes just the best picture I had to show.

10. Southside Johnny, St. Gennaro, Tempesta Market
These people who make ten best lists in early December—to me it’s giving up on the hope that something else fantastic might be out there. This year’s mid-December find was this new market/sub shop front for the ‘Nduja Artisans business, which is less Italian subs than composed dishes on bread, using their own fantastic cured meats (read more here).

9. O-toro, Raisu Japanese Cuisine
After our 2016 trip to Japan, my younger son eats exactly one kind of sushi— salmon. And so I took him to Raisu on my second visit and he had a bowl of udon soup, and some salmon nigiri. On the way out he said, “That’s the best sushi I’ve had— in Chicago.” That’s my boy.

Liam repping Birrieria Zaragoza at the Centre Pompidou

8. Picnic in the Centre Pompidou plaza, Paris
So we went to France, and food-wise, it was kind of a disappointment. Well, restaurant-wise, that is—compared to Chicago’s diversity of flavors, France seemed bland, underseasoned (that, admittedly, could be me more than it), a bit stuck in the past. Clown Bar was the best meal we had but I don’t think it would make my top ten overall; I wish I had eaten less French and more north African, as it was certainly more fun exploring and discovering the little street stands than sitting in often stuffy restaurants, especially in 90 degree heat in Lyon.

Sidewalk dining at Urfa Durum, Paris

The best eating in France remained simply buying things at local shops and eating in the open air; some funky charcuterie, some crusty bread, some cheese (when I failed to find a cheese shop open, I simply went to Miniprix, think 7-11, and bought their house brand camembert—and it was glorious); or in Lyons a bit of pate en croute from the Paul Bocuse market. That’s the best, and cheapest, of France.

7. Bell dumplings, thick noodles, A Place by Damao
“A tiny storefront seating about 20 people, specializing in the foods that people buy and gobble down on the street in Chengdu—simple and nearly all dunked in chili oil, for more of a deep, warming heat than the quick burn of fresh peppers, and often mixed with the metallic tang of Sichuan peppercorn. Some of it’s meaty things—braised duck necks, duck feet, chicken gizzards, fried pig ears, rabbit. Others are simple, carb-heavy dishes—pork dumplings, a bowl of fat handcut noodles, wontons in a volcanic-looking broth.” Read more here.

6. Coffee with egg custard, noodles with grilled beef, Cà Phê Dá
I like HaiSous just fine, but maybe because I’ve been eating at its preview dinners for two years (see this story), when I finally ate there I enjoyed it, I love the clean simplicity of Vietnamese food, but I didn’t think “wow, that’s new.”

Then I just popped into HaiSous’ attached cafe… and the movie-set version of 50s Vietnam, the banh mi (a step above what you find at Argyle banh mi shops) and the lushly sweet coffees, a healthy-tasting bowl of noodles and grilled beef… it was restaurant discovery magic for me.

5. Hamachi aguachile, pork collar, Quiote
Two outstanding Mexican restaurants opened just a couple of blocks from each other, and either could have made this list (and did make The Fooditor 99), but I give an edge to Quiote over Mi Tocaya Antojeria for food that just seems deeper, more satisfying, making a stronger case for Mexican (especially Oaxacan) as a great world cuisine capable of doing everything from lighting your mouth up with spice to warming you from the inside out with deep peasanty flavors.

4. Tajarin, beet agnolotti, Daisies
I eat at too many places to have a favorite restaurant, but I had an all-purpose answer at one time, for a neighborhood place of exceptional skill and care with local farm to table ingredients— at very affordable prices. It was called Mado, and Daisies’ handcrafted pastas are the closest thing to at least part of that menu— and very close overall in spirit.

3. Fried chicken, Husk (Charleston)
You don’t have to do much to get me to like Southern food, and visiting Hominy Grill twice in five days seems like it might be enough to land a good comfy place on the list. But then Husk topped it with sheer fried chicken perfection (making up, by the way, for the disappointment of another Sean Brock restaurant, McCrady’s Tavern).

2. Olive Oil Poached Tuna, Sungold tomato, conserve vinaigrette, Nico Osteria
Farewell Snaggletooth. Long live Nico Osteria under chef Bill Montagne; this dish, suggestive of Spanish canned fish (in all the best ways), was the one that convinced me it wasn’t a bad trade.

1. Fish collar with nam prik, Proxi
I’m not the one who ordered this twice at the same meal. That was Anthony Todd. But I’m not going to say I objected in any way, either. I’ve loved every meal at Proxi, mostly because I love seeing mostly Asian flavors treated with such care, and served at such reasonable prices amid downtown glitz and glamor.

* * *

So I’ve been making ten best lists forever at different places; here’s the whole list of them:
2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003

I have a bunch of projects happening— announcement of at least one will happen very soon, I promise— and I haven’t been anywhere or done anything except those projects, or meeting about those projects, so going into the holiday seems like a good time to put up something I never got around to posting when it happened, which was August. I made jam, for the first time.

My friend Cathy Lambrecht has been giving canning seminars of late, but as with my piccalilli canning session last year, I succeeded in luring her over to my house to help me can something (and teach me how to do so without creating deadly toxins) by posing a challenge that would pique her curiosity. In this case, it was… peach fennel jam.

There’s this woman on the west coast named June Taylor who makes jams. No, not this June Taylor:

This one:

She does very high quality, very expensive little jars of preserves, you can find them at places like Fox & Obel or order online. Their secret is no secret: really great in season fruit, and as little sugar as you can get away with, so the fruit flavor really comes through. They may be runny compared to Smuckers, but they’re excellent. She also does some interesting combination flavors, and one that sounded intriguing to me was peach fennel. So that was my challenge: add fennel to peach jam, and see if it would be any good.

I had a half bushel of peaches I bought at a farmstand in Libertyville, and some great in-season raspberries (which were so good this summer!) in the freezer, and one head of fennel. Cathy brought some likewise in-season blueberries, and she also brought this:

Nduja, the spreadable cured Calabrian sausage which everybody suddenly was talking about and making. This was from Boccalone in San Francisco (brought to Cathy by Charlotte Tan, aka LTHer Crazy C). The flavor was good but the Underwood Deviled Ham texture is kind of offputting; I like my cured meats to have some chew, frankly. Still, I meant to go try Mado’s for comparison, but… guess now I’ll be trying The Butcher and Larder’s for comparison!

So while I diced fennel and skinned peaches, Cathy prepared two pots, one for peach and fennel, one for peach and raspberry, which is a classic enough combination that it has its own name: peach blush.

Five jars of peach fennel were done first. (I put a bit of the fronds in each jar for an arty touch.) And what we learned was… far from being overpoweringly vegetal (I had feared something like peach-celery or peach-garlic), the fennel apparently volatilized so much during cooking that it was barely detectable at all, just the slightest hint of licorice in the peach. So basically it’s peach jam, nothing wrong with that, but if you want peach-fennel, you need more fennel, at least another head for this ratio.

Peach blush was up next, lots of it. It is a great combination, at first you think you’re just tasting the brassy raspberries but then the cello notes of peach develop underneath. It’s my favorite of the bunch, again, because raspberries were just so good this year.

Getting those two done felt like a day’s work, but there were peaches left and we had the blueberries and… well, we knew we’d be glad we did. So we cleaned the pot and tossed in the blueberries (at least they didn’t have to be peeled):

This came out really well, too, though I’d still say the peach blush was my favorite. And it was the one that really drove home the point, the miracle of canning: here’s something that was so evanescent, 6 or 8 weeks of amazing raspberries, I set them down in my kitchen after one farmer’s market trip and by the time I was back from walking the dog, the whole kitchen smelled like raspberry. And Cathy and I took that fleeting moment… and gave it immortality. Or at least another year. That’s a pretty wonderful thing, and if I haven’t put the photos up till now, believe me, as winter has come I’ve enjoyed our efforts from that day on plenty of mornings.

1. Chicago charcuterie blogging! Jared van Camp of Old Town Social is the latest chef to pick up the blogging toque; this is a cool post about making boudin after a visit to New Orleans.
2. And more Chicago charcuterie blogging! Low on the Hog is a blog currently making nduja (part 1, part 2
). (h/t Art at Pleasant House)
3. Interesting piece on Good Food about whether Los Angelenos appreciate their eclectic and rich culinary bounty, or if they’re too afraid to go east of downtown to check it out, and go to bed too early to have a genuinely lively scene. I’ve wondered that too, or whether it’s just the nature of big cities that people mark off big chunks of territory as no-go (you could certainly make the same claim about Chicago and the south and west sides, for instance— or about the hours at which we roll up downtown’s sidewalks). Anyway, it’s at about 30 minutes in; there’s also rather ironic contrast with the piece right before it, about an oh-so-hiply-green restaurant where they accept your vegetables in trade (but turned up their nose at Jonathan Gold’s kumquats the first time he tried it).

Macarons being the hot pastry of the moment (I’m writing something about them for publication right now), here’s an account from a couple of years ago of the new line from, and working in the kitchen of, the golden rock god of Paris macaron-makers, Pierre Herme.
5. How do you pair beer with Vietnamese food? Hell if I know, but I’d love to hang with the guy in
these photos for a couple of hours and find out. (h/t Jeff Pikus)
6. A Chinese food blogger
talks about how China’s internet censorship affects food blogging, complete with a recipe for cornmeal cakes which played a role in the Boxer Rebellion.
7. Cool video made for the 50th anniversary of the Annecy (France) animated film festival— featuring, naturally, a cake:

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

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

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