A confession

I hate Trader Joe’s. That’s not the confession part, it’s out there for all to know, for anyone who will listen. I think they have contributed greatly to the fact that people don’t really cook anymore–they just warm stuff up and snack all day long. Their selection is limited to what can be sold cheaply and at super high volume. And, what, no butcher? Why is all the produce wrapped in plastic? Clearly, I’m in the minority on this.

But I really like their baguettes. It kills me to admit it, but after Bennison’s, I think they are the best in town. (sorry, Red Hen!) Anyone know who makes the bread for the Trader Joe’s in Chicago?

Soldier cookies

The other day on Dorie Greenspan’s blog I read about Operation Baking GALS. People, this is a beautiful thing: bakers across the U.S. are making cookies and sending them to soldiers stationed overseas. Presumably, Iraq. I’m a sucker for group heartfelt activities. And while I don’t support the war or our current administration, I do support our country’s troops. So today I baked off five pounds of peanut butter/salted peanut/chocolate chip cookies and shipped them to a soldier and his underlings from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. Ten-hut! Hope they like ’em.

Dining out

The husband and I have been going out a lot lately, which suits my current cooking slump. Recent meals include:

A killer breakfast at Flo. We used to live a couple of blocks away right when they opened as a coffee shop. The owner is somehow related to the people behind The Shed, one of our favorite places in Santa Fe…and I think that’s where Flo’s great fire-roasted chiles come from.

Dinner at the always delicious, always feel-good Lula Cafe in Logan Square. Every meal is inspiring and the people-watching can’t be beat.

A perfect octopus and arugula salad at Forno.

Inconsistent service and frat boys but yummy hangover sandwiches at Jerry’s on Division.

Good tapas on the patio at Azucar, also in Logan Square.

An absolutely stunning anniversary dinner at Aigre Doux.

And it kills me to admit it, but the foot-long Polish sausage I split with the husband on Saturday at Arlington Racetrack was well worth the grease stains each of us suffered on our laps. As with so many things in life, it’s all about context.

Farmer’s market

This week’s haul: Three kinds of pears. A pint of sweet cherry tomatoes. Six ears of corn. Spent $9.

Ate the pears with yogurt for breakfast. Smashed the tomatoes with garlic, basil, olive oil, and tossed with linguine and shaved asiago. Cut the corn off the cob and sauteed with brown butter and fleur de sel.

The corn won, hands down.

Minnesota nice & tasty

This week I was in Minneapolis/St Paul visiting a college friend, Molly. I haven’t been there in ages. Things I’d forgotten about the land of 10,000 lakes included all of the charming storefronts in the older parts of both cities and the viciousness of the mosquitoes.

On the drive up, I finally stopped at a restaurant that captured my imagination in 1986, when my mom and I drove up to visit what became my alma mater. Their signs along 94 have always been brutally tantalizing: blue ribbon pie! a pie hotline! home cooking! rated among the 10 best in the nation by Roadfood! Twenty-two years of sweet pastry dreaming were realized when I bellied up to the counter at the Norske Nook in Osseo, Wisconsin and ordered peach pie, a la mode, and a cup of coffee. Worthy of my longing, this was pie as it should be: perfectly flaky crust, firm, slightly tart fruit, sweet goo holding it all together. Total bill was $5. [Clearly from almost every post contained herein, I’m no photographer. Also, I lack balls. The swarm of impossibly blonde, attentive, nice waitresses prevented me from attempting anything more than a drive-by shot.]

Once in the Twin Cities, I continued to eat well. Molly and I stayed up late the second night, gabbing and drinking a bottle of wine (from a cute neighborhood shop) and inhaling a slab of darkly, sweetly smoked salmon made by some local guy whom I need to track down and beg him to ship to Chicago. One afternoon, after cleverly depositing her older kid at a friend’s house, we had a chill lunch at Everest on Grand, one of the only Nepali restaurants in the country. Here I was introduced to the momo, a Tibetan dumpling filled with (in our case) ground chicken and steamed. Momos are served with an intensely hot and smoky sauce, momo achar. They are insanely delicious, and fun as one gets to say “momo” repeatedly….A good time even if you don’t have a 15-month-old with you, but especially fun for those times when you do.

Another day, we feasted on the contents of Molly’s garden: a simple salad of sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, dressed in olive oil with a little feta on the side. Her boys chowed on steamed edamame, also fresh from the vine. And we picked tons of gorgeous Japanese purple beans, but for some reason forgot to eat them.

On the drive home, I stopped at the Carr Valley Cheese shoppe in Mauston, Wisconsin to stock up on some outstanding cheeses. Their snow white goat’s milk feta won a blue ribbon at the American Cheese Society‘s cheese-off, which I’d read about in the local paper whilst eating that pie at the beginning of my trip. Full circle, my friends.

Fried zucchini blossoms

The husband accompanied me to the farmer’s market this morning. Purchases included 2 cute little baby cabbages, several ears of sweet corn, heirloom tomatoes, and cipollina onions. Total spent: $12.

Speaking of, we also made a stop at a new-ish place just north of the park: Cipollina. From the good folks at Milk+Honey, this is now a deli offering great cured meats, cheeses, and sandwiches. And they have the husband’s favorite freak soda, chinotto. We picked up some hot copocolla, bread, and olives…to have with the heirloom tomatoes and fresh mozzarella that’s lounging in the fridge

But our biggest score at the market was a bunch of zucchini blossoms. I’ve been wanting to fry these babies for ages but can never find them. The cover of one of my favorite cookbooks, A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen, sports a gorgeous picture of them (yet upon inspection today, oddly contains but one recipe using the flowers).

Simply the flowers that form on a zucchini vine before the fruit does, zucchini blossoms are an Italian and Mexican delicacy. Usually only the male blossoms (thin stem) are picked. This allows the female (thicker stem) ones to turn into the long green vegetable that gardeners pawn off on their neighbors at the end of the summer. And today, there they were in a little bucket just waiting to come home with me. Felt like I’d won the lottery.

For an afternoon snack, I made a simple batter of beer and flour. Heated canola oil in a pan. Dipped the blossoms first in a beaten egg, then the batter, and delivered them to their deep-fried judgment. A sprinkling of kosher salt. A little sriracha (mixed with lemon juice and vinegar) on the side. A glass of rose to wash it all down. The husband agreed…these blossoms had been very very good. A faint celery stalkiness, earthy leafiness, and overall very very fresh tasting.

Good gravy, two posts in succession that contain the word “fried.” Did I mention that I’m joining my local gym tomorrow morning?

Ice cream and fried chicken (in that order)

The husband and I went to one of those new-fangled couples baby showers in Oak Park on Saturday.

In addition to champagne, crustless sandwiches, and beer there was a sundae bar featuring toppings and delicious ice cream from The Brown Cow in Forest Park. With five flavors and more than a dozen things to sprinkle or squirt on top, repeat visits were mandatory. Wisely, we were provided with small dishes.

After the party, a couple of husbands went for fried chicken from White Fence Farm (the carry-out location in Riverside). Here is the perfect chicken: juicy meat, crunchy skin, tasty straightforward batter. I think it’s the standard against which all other fried chicken should be measured. The guys brought home some sides but the only one I was interested in, pickled beets, were absent. People liked the sweet fritters. For me, it was all about the chicken.

Kitchen inferno

Last night the husband and I had another light dinner: a chilled bay scallops salad on a bed of greens with big ciabatta croutons. At least, that was the plan. Rather than turn on the oven to make the croutons, I popped 2 slices of bread brushed with olive oil into our ancient toaster oven. And walked away. To sit at my desk and write a blog entry. This blog. This blog about cooking.

Surely you can guess what happened next.

What to do with very ripe fruit

The red plums I picked up at the farmer’s market on Friday needed attention. The only logical solution was to make a trifle, a wonderful British invention to use up stale cake (what?) and very ripe fruit. Any summer fruit will work, as will a variety of cakes: genoise, pound, biscuit.

The trick is to get the cake to absorb the fruit, which is often laced with booze. I pureed half of the plums with a little sugar in the Cuisinart. We also had a couple of peaches that weren’t going to keep much longer, so I added those. A dash of Torres Grand Torres because that’s the only fruity liqueur we had on the shelf. It made a lot, so I stored the leftover puree in the freezer and will use for Bellinis or frozen whiskey sours or maybe you don’t drink as much as we do.

You don’t have to use pastry cream, but it’s a nice addition. Beat the whipped cream until pretty thick, adding a bit of sugar.

In a glass bowl with straight sides (or use a pyrex pan), assemble in the following order:


fruit puree

sliced fruit

pastry cream

whipped cream

Repeat until you’re at the top of the bowl. Finish with the whipped cream and one last layer of sliced fruit. Chill at least an hour before serving. Eat the leftovers for breakfast

I followed the instructions for making the fruit puree from a recipe in this cookbook, which is from the talented folks at Tartine in San Francisco. Wow, this place looks beautiful.

Chocolate Cake

Am headed to Oak Park (the OP) tomorrow to see a friend for gabbing and baby holding. Physically incapable of showing up at someone’s house empty-handed, this afternoon I turned on the oven and made a cake. There’s nothing like baking on a really hot day.

This recipe came to me from Bon Appetit, which used to have a section featuring reader’s recipes. Reading the October issue in 1995, I was captivated by the preamble to a recipe from Karin Korvin in Santa Monica. Her family had hosted a foreign exchange student from France who could cook but one thing: chocolate cake. Like Elodie the student, at the time I only knew how to make one thing well, also a cake. Turns out hers is an easy but elegant chocolate cake I’ve now been making for years.

Of course I’ve made a few tweaks: namely, adding salt and vanilla. Note on ingredients: use good chocolate. I’m a fan of Belcolade, as mentioned earlier, but any other premium brand will work well (Scharffen Berger, Lindt, Callebaut). And as for vanilla, use pure extract. Nielsen-Massey makes the best. Truly, the expense is worth it. With so few ingredients, it really makes a difference if you cheap out.

10 oz bittersweet (or unsweetened) chocolate, chopped

1/2 pound unsalted butter

5 large eggs

1 1/4 c. sugar (add another quarter cup if you’re using unsweetened chocolate)

2 t. vanilla extract

5 T. flour

1 1/2 t. baking powder

1/2 t. kosher salt

Heat oven to 325F. Butter and flour (I use Baker’s Joy) a 10″ springform pan. Or if you are baking for a smaller crowd, use two 6″ springforms. Keep one for yourself and pawn the other off on the neighbors.

Melt the butter and chocolate in a metal bowl over a pot of simmering water. Make sure no water can get into the bowl. Stir until smooth and remove bowl from the pot. Meanwhile, beat eggs and sugar until pale yellow and very thick. Beat in vanilla. Sift remaining dry ingredients over egg mixture and fold until combined. Gradually pour in the melted chocolate and butter, folding until combined. Pour into the pan(s) and bake on a cookie sheet for 20 minutes. Cover with foil and bake until a tester comes out crumbly (in between wet and dry). Cool on a rack, then remove sides and bottom of pan.

Once cooled, a little well will have formed where the cake has fallen. This means it turned out right! At this point, you can sift powdered sugar over it, pour on a thin layer of chocolate ganache (spiked with espresso or brandy), top it with fresh or even thawed frozen raspberries. Serve with softly whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. Or just eat it straight up. It’s quite rich, so cut slivers unless you’ve got a table full of gobblers. Stored at room temperature, it will keep for a couple of days.