Friday, May 29, 2009

Sour, Stalky, Sublime - Rhubarb

One of the first signs of spring, for me, was the sight of the rhubarb plants in our garden, knobbing up out of the dirt.  Then, we only had to wait until enough long stalks supported elephantine leaves before we could harvest them.  

Rhubarb is one of those plants that one has to wonder why we ever started eating it.  I mean, the leaves are poisonous, the stalks are so sour that they leave your face puckered, and it's a bit tough and stringy, to boot.  To be fair, we didn't eat it for a long time.  Rhubarb was primarily used medicinally until the 17th century, which coincided with the advent of cheap sugar (and an increase in cavities).  It appears to have become an extremely popular form of dessert in England, where they appreciated tartness.  In fact, a popular method of eating rhubarb, from then through the present day, is simply to dip the stalks directly into granulated sugar for each bite.

Rhubarb's popularity continued in the U.S. when English settlers brought it with them.  Since it is a perennial plant, and requires little care, it tended to spread with the ever-westward moving Americans.  Rhubarb's popularity peaked in the WWII and postwar period, and it has declined ever since, especially as more and more Americans have flocked to cities and abandoned their gardens, forgetting about this once ubiquitous plant.  However, with the ever increasing popularity of farmers markets', people are re-discovering rhubarb in great numbers every year.  It has also become a popular featured item on seasonal restaurant menus across the nation.  

Rhubarb may be tough and stringy when raw, but cooked rhubarb becomes wonderfully tender.  With the right blend of sugar, it is imbued with the perfect balance of sour and sweet for a dessert or a savory sauce.  Many people like to pair it with other sweet fruits for a more balanced flavor profile, strawberry rhubarb pies and jams being one of the most popular combinations.  I, myself, am a rhubarb purist.  I consider the finest expression of rhubarb to be my mother's rhubarb custard pie, which I make faithfully every year.

Rhubarb-Custard Pie

1-1/2 c sugar
1/4 c flour
1/4 tsp nutmeg
dash of salt
3 eggs
4 c rhubarb
2 tbsp butter

Mix dry ingredients together.  Beat egg just until smooth & add to dry
ingredients.  Stir until smooth.  Stir in rhubarb until coated.  Line
pie pan with crust.  Pour in rhubarb mixture.  Dot with chunks of
butter.  Top with lattice crust & seal.  Bake at 400 F for 50 minutes.

Or, you could go with another dessert favorite, rhubarb crisp.

Rhubarb Crisp

4 c. rhubarb
1/2 tsp salt
1-1/3 to 2 c. sugar (to taste)
3/4 c. flour
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/3 c. butter
1/2 c. toasted almonds (optional)

Mix salt, sugar, flour, & cinnamon.  
Cut butter into mixture so it's crumbly.  Add almonds.  
Put Rhubarb in 8x8 pan.  Sprinkle topping over rhubarb.  
Bake at 350 for 40 to 50 minutes.

There are, of course, endless variations that you can do with either of these recipes (personally, I think that rhubarb and cardamom would pair well), and I like the idea of baking the crisp in individual ramekins and serving with a scoop of ice cream.

There are some savory applications as well - for instance, a fattier meat, such as pork or duck, would pair well with a rhubarb based sauce.  I have also seen several blog posts for making things such as rhubarb simple syrup.  The point is, there are endless variations that you can make, but you'd better do it soon, before the rhubarb season is over.  So whether you get it from the farmer's market, or Schnuck's, or wherever, enjoy it while it lasts.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Lots of spring things!

First off, I apologize for my absence.  Things have been busy.

Back to business...avocado season is in full swing in California right now, which means that here in the midwest, they are marginally cheaper, but much, much nicer. 

Rhubarb is in full stalk as well.  One of my favorite spring treats, rhubarb is tart and tangy, and makes a great pie, cake, or even savory compote to pair with pork.  

Look for strawberries to be coming to Metro Centre this Friday.  I have it on good authority that southern IL berries will be there and ready.

Finally, it is soft shell crab season.  They will probably be in and affordable for the next 3-4 weeks.  Make sure that they are alive before you purchase them.  Or, alternatively, you can come get them from my restaurant, which I should probably plug.  Chef John's Wine Bar and Grill in Dunlap, off of Rt. 40.  I have 6 crabs left, but I'll be getting in more next week.

I will be putting in full posts about several of these things, and I will be trying to bring you some of a planned series of great foodie businesses in Peoria very soon.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Sweeter Side of Spring - Vidalias

I want to start off by saying that I LOVE onions.  If you don't, you probably shouldn't waste your time reading this, but seriously, if you don't love onions, then what the heck is wrong with you?

Onions are one of those vegetables that you will find stretched across the globe, in one form or another.   This is partly because onions, properly dried and cellared, keep well, and thus made a useful long-storing crop for the parts of the globe with more temperate climates.  Equally important to the onion's success as a food crop, however, would be the strong yet pleasant flavor associated with onions.  Certainly, they are an important enough foodstuff that they have had religious symbolism painted on them since the time of the Egyptians.

Obviously, with so many varieties of onion in the world, there are many unique flavors and textures.  Certainly, no one would eagerly substitute a shallot for a scallion, or a leek for a Bermuda.  But what is it that makes the Vidalia different from all those other yellow onions, like Spanish or Walla Walla's?

Well, first of all, most standard "onions" (white, yellow, Bermuda), are actually quite high in sugar content.  This is easily demonstrated by making caramelized onions of any variety.  Cook them for long enough over gentle heat, stirring occasionally, and you will be rewarded with a wonderfully sweet and dissolving golden brown mass.  Of course, this takes a great deal of time and attention, and all the texture of the onion is lost, as well as most of the "onion-y-ness" inherent to the species.  

On the other hand, a raw, or quickly sauteed onion can be quite sharp and pungent.  Anyone who has ever taken their knife to one has experienced "onion tears".  This is due to the fact that the other thing onions are notably high in is sulfur, which it easily absorbs from the soil.  No matter what old wives' tale you try to combat onion tears, the fact is that once you cut an onion, sulfur released from it combines with oxygen to form Sulfur Dioxide, which irritates our mucous membranes, causing tears and sniffling.  

Enter the sweet yellow onion family, with several varieties grown in different regions of this country, the aforementioned Walla Walla being one.  These onions have been bred to be milder, or in other words, to absorb less sulfur from the soil.  This allows your palate to taste more of the sugar, making them appear "sweet".  

So why is the Vidalia superior to other types of sweet onion, you might ask?  Well, it's got a couple of things going for it that other onions don't.  The most important one is that the region of Georgia where Vidalia's are grown has a soil that is uniquely low in sulfur.  This means that you taste even more of the natural sugar in the onion than the regular sweets.  If an onion is called a Vidalia, it must come from a very specifically defined area that covers about 17 counties in Georgia.  Otherwise, it legally cannot be sold as a Vidalia.

Ironically, the other reason that Vidalias are higher quality is because of their name.  Let me clarify that statement.  Vidalias have been around since the 1930's at least, but it wasn't until 1976 or so that the general American public became aware of them.  This is due to the fact that a peanut farmer turned politician had recently won an election.  That man, of course, was Jimmy Carter, and he imported Vidalia onions to the White House, bringing them to the general public's attention for the first time.  This timing happened to coincide with the explosion of the Nouvelle American cuisine movement, and Vidalia onions became a poster ingredient for the new food movement.  Combine that with an extremely limited availability (Vidalias are only harvested between mid-April and June) and suddenly, you have a new gourmet product that the public demands quality from.  Since the farmers in the Vidalia region are able to charge a premium price for these onions, they are able to keep quality standards, such as hand harvesting, in place.  

All of this combines to continue to make the Vidalia one of the best quality ingredients that is produced for a large scale audience.  We are currently in the midst of the Vidalia season, so please, seek them out and enjoy them.  One of my favorite things to do with them is onion rings - soak them in buttermilk, then toss in seasoned flour and fry.  

As an alternative suggestion, saute the onions gently in olive oil until they begin to brown.  Add a few olives, capers, and some fresh lemon juice, pour over whole wheat pasta, and top with Parmesan reggiano and red pepper flakes for a quick, easy way to enjoy these onions at their finest. 

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Eggy goodness

Eggs are loved by nearly everyone.  We use them as a stand alone dish, to enrich or emulsify sauces, and as a major ingredient of most of our favorite desserts.  No matter what part of the world you're in, eggs find their way into the local cuisine.

Unfortunately, in recent years, eggs have gotten a bad rap.  Due to the fact that yolks have higher levels of cholesterol than many foods, doctors warned their patients not to eat eggs very often, for fear that their would raise already high cholesterol levels.  Of course, this science turned out to be alarmist and wrong, but the mindset stuck, and millions of Americans still think that eating too many eggs is a dangerous thing, health-wise.  So people stay away from eggs entirely, or eat egg whites to avoid the "bad" parts of the egg.

In actuality, the egg yolk is probably the healthiest part of the egg to imbibe.  Eggs are one of the highest quality sources of protein in existence.  It makes sense if you think about it - eggs contain the components necessary to create a fully living being.  The white is simply the food that being needs to eat while forming.  So please, don't be afraid of your egg yolk.  It's good for you!

Now, this is not to say that all eggs are created equal.  Nutrition and sustainability are still concerns for your eggs.  At the bottom of the totem pole, we have factory farmed eggs.  Yes, they're cheap, but at a cost.  The yolk has the lowest concentration of nutrients, due to the diet that the hens eat.  They're trucked  in from hundreds of miles away, which leads to pollution.  The factory farms on which they're raised also lead to massive levels of chicken waste, hence, more pollution.  The same farms often employ illegal immigrants or use other abusive labor practices, leading to exploitation of their workers just so that you can have a cheap egg.  And finally, the hens that lay the eggs have some of the most miserable lives you can possibly imagine for any animal, as they are kept in a tiny cage for their entire life, and we'll just say that they do some not very nice things to keep them that way.  So, if any of the above things concern you, you may want to consider avoiding conventional eggs.

Now, if you weed out these selections, you're left with a few other grocery choices - organic, omega, brown, cage free, and free range being the most common, and usually found in some combination.  A brief explanation of these terms: organic and omega eggs refer to the diet that the chicken was fed - organic grains, and in the case of omega, flaxseed and other things that will raise the proportion of Omega-3 oils found in the egg yolk.  Brown eggs are simply laid by a variety of chickens that fell out of favor for a while.  There is nothing particularly special about them otherwise.  

Cage-free and free range refer to the fact that the chickens are allowed to roam and peck their food.  Cage free chickens, as the name would imply, are not kept in cages.  However, they still may be kept in an enclosure with hundreds of other chickens, which is less inhumane than cages, but still only a minor improvement.  Free-range means that the chicken had access to the outside - however, this does not mean that the chicken actually gets to walk around looking for its food.  These terms once meant something, but due to corporate pressure on the government to define these terms, one must research the farm to find out exactly how the chickens are actually treated.  

So what's a consumer to do?  Well, due to the locavore food movement, farm fresh eggs are making a comeback.  Most of these farms raise true free-range chickens, which means that the chickens are allowed to roam for their food, which may or may not be supplemented with food by the farmer.  The advantages of buying farm fresh eggs are several.  The eggs are coming from only a few miles, the chickens are being raised in a sustainable (and often, from a pest control standpoint, ecologically friendly) method, the farm labor is usually paid fair wages, and the eggs have a higher nutrient density, as well as a flavor that will be unique to your local area.  

What this means to you as a consumer is that you will probably pay a couple of bucks more for a carton of eggs, but you are getting quality unseen in the grocery store, and you are supporting local agriculture, which is good for your community for the myriad of reasons listed above.  

But where do I find these farm-fresh eggs, you might ask?  Well, farmers' markets are an excellent place to start.  You will probably get the very freshest eggs by doing this.  Natural food stores are also a good place to look.  Here in Peoria, Greengold Acres (in Hannah City, near Wildlife Prairie Park), is one farm that supplies farm-fresh eggs.  Currently, I know that they sell eggs at the Pekin Farmer's Market on Rt. 9, but I swear I read somewhere that they also will be at the Peoria Heights Farmer's Market, which starts in June.  However, I discovered, to my delight that, you can purchase their eggs through Naturally Yours, the natural grocery in Metro Centre.  The eggs pictured above are all from the same carton.

Now, if you've gone through the trouble of getting farm-fresh eggs, you might ask yourself what to do with them.  I went for a preparation that would showcase them in their simplicity - shirred eggs.  They're quite simple to make, really - just preheat your oven to 375 degrees, and melt some butter in a ovenproof cup or ramekin.  Throw in a splash of cream, crack in the egg, and season them with salt and pepper, and maybe a little cheese. I used blue here, but I think that it was overpowering for the delicacy of the egg flavor.  Bake the eggs for 15 to 20 minutes, until is is almost set in the center.  Enjoy.

The flavor of these eggs was really incomparable, with a grassy, almost floral aroma that I've never noticed in an egg before.  I highly recommend seeking out some farm fresh eggs for yourself.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Asparagus is in!

Whilst on my shopping circuit today, I swung by the Metro Centre Market to see if any promising delectables had appeared.  I was nearly ready to drive past, when I spotted some asparagus spears lurking amongst the plants.  I immediately pulled into a parking space, and rushed over to the stall to see what was available.  Ugh.  The asparagus, up close, was clearly wilted and starting towards rot.  I inquired as to its origin, and was told it was from Southern Illinois.  If that's the case, it was picked last week.  I excused myself to peruse the remaining plants.  I reasoned that maybe there were at least some heirloom varieties hidden amongst the Better Boys.

A few feet further along, I discovered that what I had thought to be all one farmstand was in fact two.  And I noticed a large bus tub filled with water and absolutely beautiful asparagus spears, firm and fresh with purple tips.  I questioned the farmer - where was this asparagus from?  Carlock, IL, and picked this morning, was the response I got.  It shows too, looking at the beauty of the stuff.  I am embarrassed to admit that in my excitement, I forgot to get the name of the farm.  However, the gentleman running the stand informed me that his son had recently had him join some organization that was for locally grown produce, so I'm guessing this farm is sustainable or organic, or at the very least, part of the locavore movement.  

For those of you not familiar with the term, a locavore tries to eat food grown locally, usually within 100 miles.  As opposed to say, your average grocery store asparagus which is grown in California.  This is bad for a couple of reasons.  One, it has to be trucked in a refrigerated vehicle for a few thousand miles, using vast amounts of energy to get it to the store.  Two, the nutritional value, flavor, and shelf life tend to decrease with time.  Consider that from the time California asparagus is picked, it takes a week just to get it out of California and to the grocery store.  Then, it probably takes another couple of days to get the asparagus from the back storeroom to the produce section.  Then, a couple of days might go by before you purchase a bunch of asparagus.  A few more days get added on before you cook it, and suddenly, you're eating asparagus that is over two weeks old.  As opposed to the stuff at the farmers' market that was picked yesterday or today.

The quality was excellent and the price extremely reasonable, at $1.99/lb.  I find it ironic that it cost me less than the case of asparagus that I received from my food supplier last week for the restaurant, which was rotting upon delivery.  I fully intend to feature this asparagus on the menu for as long as it is coming in.  There's no comparison.

What is a food geek?

Perhaps I should have expounded upon this in my first post.  Nonetheless, I feel that it is important to define what this term means to me, and why I chose it for my blog title, especially since there are apparently a number of other Food Geek bloggers out there.

I defer to my husband on the definition of the word geek here.  He has a whole passionate spiel about what separates a nerd, dweeb, and geek.  And in his definition, a geek is someone who is extremely passionate about a specific subject, but in a literate, educated sort of way.  This leads to the expression "geeking out", which describes the action of getting extremely excited about something you really love or just learned, related to the subject in which you are a geek.  Therefore, as a food geek, most of my blog posts will be dedicated to geeking out about food specifics that I love. 

How did I become a food geek, you might ask?  Well, in my case, I don't think that I had much of a choice.  My father trained as a chef before I was even born, at The Bakery, a landmark Chicago bastion of classic cuisine.  He and my mother opened their first restaurant, The Strawberry Patch, in Princeton, Illinois, when I was only 2 months old.  Food has always been a central part of my life.  At a time when other children were eating McDonald's and Hamburger Helper, my family eschewed pre-prepared food in favor of whatever was seasonally at its peak.  It helped that my mother's parents still grew a great many fresh vegetables on their farm, and the bounty flowed on to us.  Additionally, my father frequently brought in diverse ingredients for their Peoria restaurant, Stephanie's, and many of these found their way into our regular meals.  

When I left for college, food shock was probably the most difficult thing for me to adjust to.  Dorm food, at best, left me bored, and at worst, drove me to seek out alternate food sources.  This is not to say that I was forgiving to establishments that had less than optimal food.  After all, there must be a reason that my friends put me on trial for being a food Nazi.  

Fortunately, I was in Chicago, which is an excellent location for a food geek to develop her sensibilities.  Once I was armed with my own kitchen and a couple of cookbooks, the floodgates opened.  In a city where obtaining just about any ingredient is possible, I was driven to seek out the new and interesting.  Fresh fish markets, produce stands, gourmet grocery stores, they all became the norm.  Realizing that I got more enjoyment out of my stove than my anthropology degree or the corporate world, I took the last step and attended Kendall College for formal culinary training.  I embraced my inner food geek.

Perhaps this explanation gives you an idea of what I want to do with this blog.  But if you're a fellow food geek, you will hopefully enjoy following along.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Cheesy goodness

For those of you who know me, you are aware that one of my great food passions is cheese.  I can think of no better "fast food" meal than to pick up a couple hunks of it, along with some crackers, a bottle of wine, and maybe a little fruit.  I have yet to meet a type of cheese that I don't care for - I revel in washed and bloom-rinded cheese, live for the crunch inside a good aged hard cheese, and positively salivate over the beautiful veins of a blue.

To me, cheese is the ultimate expression of dairy.  On the other hand, I am frequently horrified by what passes for cheese to most people.  I'm sorry, but a "cheese tray" that includes chunks of generic and bland cheddar, Colby-jack, mozzarella, Munster, and Swiss just doesn't pass muster for me.  Why, oh why, must most Americans relegate cheese to the vaguely rubberized versions that we are most often able to find at the grocery store.  I won't even start on Frankenstein's monsters like Velveeta, that don't even deserve the label of cheese.

Until a little over 30 years ago, the only way that one could find more interesting cheese fare was to locate a specialty food shop, where you could peruse a select variety of imported cheeses from far off locales such as France, Italy, and England.  Eventually, American cheesemakers caught on and started producing some fairly generic versions of things such as Gouda, Brie, and a few blue varieties.  But let's face it, if you wanted the good stuff, you were still going to have to look around for the imported varieties.  To compound matters, there were tantalizing tales of amazing cheeses made overseas but blocked from import due to agricultural concerns.  Smuggling cheese back to the US in a pair of old socks became an acceptable practice for cheese diehards.

Fortunately, about  20 years back, people in the US suddenly realized that we could make stuff the same way Europeans had been doing it for centuries, and the artisanal movement was born Ok, technically, it was born in the 70's, but the 90's is when it really took off.  Suddenly, there were Americans who were studying traditional techniques for making cheeses, and then trying it themselves!!!  At the same time, gourmet food became a bigger market than it ever had before.  I can still remember the first time I saw the cheese counter at Whole Foods in Chicago - I felt as Robin Williams must have shopping for coffee in Moscow on the Hudson.  

The US now has a cheese industry that actually makes some truly impressive artisanal cheeses.  Unfortunately, it's not very distributed, though it's growing all the time.  At trade shows, such as the Fancy Food Expo in Chicago (now tragically defunct), I have had the opportunity to sample from a number of these artisan producers, and each year, it seems to get better.  There are now truly original American style cheeses, unlike anything that Europe is producing, as well as numerous fantastic native versions of European classics.  At the last Fancy Food show, I tasted an aged Parmesan that was easily on par with a Parmesan Reggiano.

Good cheese is truly starting to become accepted by Americans.  Even the Northpoint Kroger put in a fair cheese case last year.  Unfortunately for Peorians, most of the great artisanal cheese in the midwest is produced in Wisconsin, unsurprising given its history of producing cheese in the US.  

Nonetheless, I did some poking around on the interwebz, and discovered this gem: Prairie Fruits Farm.  Located near Urbana, they have become a hot commodity amongst Chicago chefs who feature local products on their menus.  They have a fairly impressive website, and appear to be very involved in the local food scene, doing sustainable agriculture as well.  They also host dinners and brunches occasionally, bringing in top chefs from the area to cook for them, and are active in educating the public about eating locally.  It appears that they produce a number of goat's milk cheeses.  The only downside is that they sell to the public only at the Champaign-Urbana farmer's markets, and nowhere nearer to Peoria than that, as far as I can find.  Still, they do appear to have a pretty exciting operation.  I think a field trip is in order.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Musings and gripes

Just a few things for now:

Violets are up in full force.  I'm planning to pick some and make a batch of candied violets in the next day or two, so I will try to post details and pictures on how to attempt this very simple procedure.  Also, today I ran across this post on violet extract via  I will be attempting this as well, so we'll see how it turns out.

I went down to the Metro Centre farmer's market this weekend, on both Friday and Saturday.  I didn't stick around to investigate too much.  As I suspected, not much is coming to the market right now.  The stand on the far end is selling vegetables that could only have been trucked in, so no thank you.  However, if you are interested in looking for plants, several of the farms that will later be selling produce are selling a number of plant starts, especially tomatoes.  

This is one area where I recommend checking out what they have. Pretty much all of the tomatoes that you find sold at places like Home Depot etc., are going to be hybrids like Better Boy, which are great for producing lots of pretty, round, mealy, and flavorless tomatoes.  I figure if you want that, it's probably best to just go to the grocery store.  

I know I sound like a snob, but for tomatoes, heirloom varieties are really the only way to go.  They won't necessarily produce the perfect red globes that you're used to, or the abundance that some plants put out, but the different flavors and textures are incomparable, imho.  Some of the smaller garden shops around here carry a few varieties of heirloom tomatoes, like the pink brandywine, which is truly amazing, but you're going to pay a premium for getting those varieties.  Farmer's markets can usually offer you a better price for the same heirloom varieties, though they will of course be selling the more generic varieties as well.  But if you didn't start tomatoes in your garage a month ago, you would do well to check out the farmer's market for your starts.

Things to keep an eye out in the next couple of weeks will be fresh local asparagus and rhubarb, and possibly some salad greens.

Finally, as a local area gripe, why is it that no one goes out to eat on Sunday night?  The only places that you can go for dinner after 7 pm in Peoria are the chain restaurants out by the malls or downtown, and perhaps a bar or two.  The more interesting independent places all shut down by 7 pm because they just don't have enough business, if they open at all.  I suppose I gripe in part because as a chef working 7 days a week, Sunday is the only night I get done early enough to go out somewhere for dinner, since we shut down at 7 pm.  But every time some new restaurant opens, they try to be open on Sundays and then have to give up, it seems.  Why must everyone be homebodies on Sunday night?  Sigh.