Monthly Archive for April 2009
Look, I’m not proud that I stuffed this crisp full of strawberries and rhubarb that I plucked from the supermarket bins. The strawberries, most larger than golf balls, were caged in a plastic box, rather than nestled in those cute little wooden boxes you might see at the farmers’ market. And the rhubarb stalks were stripped of their leaves and stuffed in the corner, looking so much more lifeless than the crimson beauties that shoot up in a corner of my grandfather’s garden. Still, I couldn’t help myself. At least I’m not the only one. (We Chicagoans, I think, have a hard road to hoe. We deserve some slack.)
And, really, can you blame me? I’m told that it’s spring and, even though the evidence of said spring is scanty (a windblown tulip here, a set of allergy-induced red-rimmed eyes there) I’m ready for it. Maybe in some small way, I hoped that this crisp would help nudge this elusive season along.
Well, well, well. I certainly didn’t expect this. The baked beans, that is. I’ve spent nearly three decades’ worth of summers doing my best to avoid them—crinkling my nose, no-thank-you-ing, rolling my eyes at those ridiculous talking dog commercials. And then I made them myself.
On Saturday afternoon, for a weather-be-damned barbecue, I gave a pound of dried white beans a quick simmer to tenderize and plump them. Meanwhile, I whisked together a thick sauce, sweetened lightly with molasses and brown sugar and flavored deeply with pure maple syrup. I tipped that into the pot of beans, along with hearty chunks of thick-cut bacon. Once stirred, all of this went into the oven—covered tightly—for the rest of the afternoon at 300 degrees. Slowly, surely, the beans drank up the sauce, becoming incredibly tender, but not at all mushy. The bacon cooked up into meaty bits and the whole pot became impossibly saucy.
Oh, Chicago. Forgive me. Just one post ago, I doubted you. I questioned why I put up with your snow, your rain, your biting wind. And, gently but surely, you showed me. You showed me that the sky that hangs over this skyscrapered city is not always low and surly and gray—that, instead, it can spread bright and high, like a brilliant blue canopy. You reminded me that the wind, once whipping, can mellow, becoming a gentle, warm breeze. After months of buttoning up, you got me to take off my coat. You let me eat dinner al fresco, wriggling my sandaled toes beneath the table. And you did all this in the span of one spring Friday by delivering sunshine and eighty degrees. Well played, Chicago.
You know what this means, though, right? I’m going to want more. I’m greedy that way.
Flying east from San Diego to Chicago on Sunday afternoon, it became clear that the brilliant blue skies and gentle breezes of southern California were not yet upon us back home in the midwest. I had a window seat, and as my little porthole window became crowded with angry streaks of rain and my view became marred by wet, cottony clouds, my lovely weekend in La Jolla came to a screaching halt. I tried to distract myself by diving into the stack of work reading I had tucked into my carry-on, but my mind kept wandering back to the same question: why, again, do I live in Chicago—a land devoid of palm trees and notorious for its howling wind? I’ve since reminded myself of the many good answers to this question (the recent warm-up has helped tremendously), but ensconsed in the slim cabin of that airplane, they were difficult to conjure up.
My return wasn’t made any easier by the fact that San Diego had experienced an unseasonably warm weekend—one that I spent with my closest childhood friend, Molly, and her soon-to-be-husband (only a few weeks!) and their ridiculously lovable dogs. Add to that the fact that they live in an idyllic little beach town (La Jolla) in a breezy bungalow mere blocks for the Pacific Ocean and that the weekend featured (a) dinner at a local restaurant that made liberal use of Chino Farms produce and served me a black pepper-spiked hibiscus margarita, (b) a backyard fiesta and (c) a trip to the farmers’ market, and you’ll have no trouble seeing why I was so smitten.
I had such high hopes for this salad. It promised color and crunch and punchy flavors—all the things I’m yearning for these days. And my sister, in town for a mere two weeks, had specially requested some type of salad featuring Asian flavors. I was aiming to please—both Ali, and her request, and myself, with my springish tastes. But, well, but.
I left the steak on the grill a minute or two too long (out of practice), the dressing was a bit sweet, the mint was overpowering. But as Kevin, Ali and I tucked into it last week, none of us complained. Not one little whine.
Thursday? Thursday?!? Are you sure? I mean, I love Thursday as much as the next guy (it’s Friday eve, afterall), but I am a little concerned that Tuesday and Wednesday got swallowed whole, sucked away by some very powerful vacuum cleaner (a Dyson, probably) that has trained its sights on my week. Between our quick trip to Milwaukee last weekend, our house guest for the week (my sister, which means Family Dinners all week long!) and another trip this weekend (San Diego, where I hear the temperature actually stays above 50 degrees for, like, more than an hour; I’ll believe it when I see it), this week has been a hectic one. Especially when you throw in the pesky day job.
But it’s a week of all good things (who can complain about weekend get-aways and sisters, really?) so I’m just trying to hang on for the ride. I think it helps that the week got off to a very good start on Sunday night (that’s when I consider “the week” to start—no longer weekend, but not yet work week) with the dish you see here and Sunday Night Baseball.
Over the weekend, my kitchen—usually a storm of activity—was, for the most part, quiet. Kevin and I celebrated his birthday by spending Saturday night in Milwaukee, where the Cubs were playing the Brewers. So, while we ate plenty of delicious things and drank our fair share of the beverage for which Milwaukee is known, we didn’t do much cooking. But I had grand plans for a Sunday birthday cake project once we got back to Chicago. We even had the perfect recipe picked out.
But, by the time we got home on Sunday, neither of us had the heart for making or eating a decadent birthday cake. The sun was shining and beckoning us out into the day, so we walked, we jogged and we even opened the windows while we unpacked. Time slipped away and with it went all hopes for the birthday cake.
In the kitchen (just like anywhere else), sometimes you’re on and sometimes you’re off. Ever since I pulled those glorious pizzas out of our oven on Saturday night, I’ve been off. Oh-eff-eff. In the five days since those pizzas, nothing I’ve made has come out quite right and much of what I’ve made has involved bodily injury. I added too much buttermilk to my almond poppy seed bread batter, which produced a cratered, u-shaped (but still entirely delicious) loaf. I nearly hacked off the top third of my thumb while I was slicing—get this—fingerling potatoes for a salad on Monday night. (It’s okay, you can laugh at the pun; I did.) My lentil soup the other day became runny and over-blended, so each day this week, I’ve slurped down what feels like baby food for lunch.
By Tuesday night, I’d had enough. Kevin, blissfully, said he’d make dinner: black bean-tomato soup. The soup turned out beautifully, but not before I couldn’t resist getting involved. I just had to move the pot to my “favorite” burner (does anyone else have one of those?), sans oven mitts, completely forgetting that the handles of our Dutch oven are not insulated. Burn. Ouch. Finger tips have lost all feeling (and thumb is still band-aided to the hilt; see first paragraph).
During our final year of college, Kevin and I both had some flexibility in our classloads and, that spring, we slipped off to Europe for three weeks, where we traced a path from Madrid to Rome, hugging the Mediterranean for much of the trip. Looking back, I am awestruck by three things: (1) just how incredibly lucky we were to do this; (2) the fact that it was six (!) years ago; and (3) the sheer number of pizzas we ate in Italy. I suppose I should also be shocked by the amount of gelato we consumed (sometimes, I’m not proud to admit, we ate it twice a day), but given my longstanding affection for all things frozen and creamy, the gelato consumption was something of a foregone conclusion.
The pizza, though, took me by surprise. I’d had good pizza—great, even—before that trip, but never the kind of pizzas I grew to adore in Italy. Those pizzas were broad and often misshapen, sauce barely painted on, splotched with wafer-thin rounds of fresh mozzarella. And the crust. Oh, the crust. Baked quickly in intensely hot ovens, the crust had chew and char and crisp and character.
A newish restaurant in our neighborhood offers a dessert that consists of a hefty helping of chocolate sabayon, topped with flaky salt, and a couple homemade nutter-butter cookies. It has single-handedly turned us into regulars. Okay, fine, the duck fat fries help too. But, in the end, it’s the nutter-butters that have me a little concerned Kevin might actually try to move into the restaurant. To avoid this fate, I set out to make my own peanut butter cookies. I was looking for an old-fashioned kind of recipe: a cookie with some chew, studded with finely chopped peanuts and cross-hatched.
In a happy turn of events, the recipe delivered on the old-fashioned front, but it was wholesome too. Coming from 101 Cookbooks, I expected no less. The recipe calls for a simple collection of natural ingredients: peanut butter, whole wheat pastry flour, sea salt, maple syrup, vanilla extract and olive oil (yes, you read that right—olive oil; more on the olive oil, later). These ingredients come to together in a matter of minutes (without a mixer, even!) and then the fun begins.