Category Archives: StreetEats

Chicago cuisine

Who says edibles aren’t beautiful?

Borage in bloom

 

I decided it was high time to post photos of my progress in my own back yard. This is my first year doing raised bed gardens, and just two months into the growing season, I’m continuously eyeballing my yard, deterining where I’ll build more next year. 

I’ve had some interesting discoveries. 

First, I think the vegetable gardens are gorgeous. I balked at planting vegetables in my back yard when we first bought our house, because I didn’t think they would be pretty. It’s incredibly ironic in retrospect. My back yard has never looked as good as it does now. 

We have a very small yard, typical of a Chicago Bungalow. My husband built two raised beds, one along our house, and one along our garage. There’s no doubt that the vegetables there are growing more quickly than those in the yard. They’re thriving. The only down side so far is the illustrious dog vomit slime mold (yes, that’s its real name) that the mulch around one of the beds created. But really, the beds shouldn’t be blamed for the mulch, should they? 

In the ground, I still love perennials.  I’m working on ways to weave in both edibles, like the borage in the top photo above, with monarda, coneflower, artichokes,  terragon (I have a monster-sized plant), chives and thyme. Next year, I’ll toss leeks and garlic in , too. I’m learning that when I add a few strategic zinnia, the whole bed lights up. I don’t have it perfected yet, but it is starting to look good. I can’ t wait until next year, when the monarda is tall, the iris I transplanted bloom again, and I have one full year of experimenting in that bed under my belt. I know it’s going to be gorgeous. 

The concrete patio we inherited from the previous owners still demands that I have lots of terra cotta pots to camoflauge the concrete. I used some of the large, two-foot-tall pots to plant full-sized carrots. That’s been a great success, and I really wish I’d planted more. I also have mint, rosemary, thyme and lemon verbena in pots. My logic is that they make the seating area smell great when we’re sitting out at night, and that’s absolutely proven true. I’ve also discovered that I love munching on the chocolate mint any time I’m within arm’s reach of the plant! Having spent hours considering where to add more pots, it finally occurred to me that I can plant a new raised bed on top of the patio itself. That’s the beauty of raised beds: you can put them on top of just about everything. They cover a multitude of landscaping sins–like gratuitous amounts of concrete! 

With this success comes an unquenched desire for more. I still want to find a way to make the conduit trellis more aesthetically pleasing. Of course it looks great once covered in beans, cucumbers and tomatillos, but when it’s exposed? It’s just ugly. 

Raised bed along my house

I’m also searching for more ways to plant vertically. I’m scoping out some iron terra cotta plant holders, so that I can have potted herbs hanging outside my back door. I’d also like to add window boxes for more herbs and lettuces. My logic is that it will keep them away from any potential rabbits, and they’d be easy to grab from the windows outside my kitchen. 

Gardening is an addiction. Once you’re in, you can never get enough. 

  

My oh-so-pruned tomatoes. They're flamingo-esque.

 

My sweet millions... so close!

 

Chocolate mint, spearmint, coleus

 

Carrots undercover

 

It’s not a garden. It’s a revolution.

Big picture, little plant

 

I was sitting at The Peterson Garden Project one day with my friend, Xan. We were tired, understandably. It was June 6th, a month ago. We were thick in the midst of dealing with logistic challenges to getting the garden going–compost for our beds was repeatedly delayed. The fence was repeatedly broken, then repaired, then broken, then repaired. We weren’t sure how long it would take to build the 140 raised beds that we needed to create gardens for our initial gardeners.     

So we sat, tired, under a beat-up tent that had been partially destroyed by the latest compost delivery. LaManda, the garden’s founder, had been teaching classes on planting earlier in the day. Because it was raining, she’d used a pan, some dirt, and miscellaneous seeds and seedlings to demonstrate basic planting techniques to a dozen or so new gardeners–we like to call them “grewbies”–underneath the dilapidated tent.  

So Xan and I sat, talking, about what we were doing with the garden, and in a flash, she said the words that encapsulated all our efforts, intentions, and wishes. She said, “It’s not a garden. It’s a revolution.” And in true Xan style, she followed that up with, “We’ve got to find a pen and write that down! That’s it, but my memory is crap. I’ll forget it. Where’s a pen?”     

I found a pen. She wrote it down. And we may as well have chiseled it in stone: The Peterson Garden Project IS a revolution. It’s a revolution in gardening, in community, in food and hopefully soon, in eating, too.     

140 boxes awaiting compost

 

Two months in, we are well on our way. We’ve broken ground, built the garden, built 140 raised beds. Then, we built 17 more because we had room and there was demand. We’ve held a fabulous Re-Dedication Party; I’ll write about that soon. It’s all been part of making a community garden, which is simple enough. But I do think we’re part of a much larger movement, and I couldn’t be happier to be a part of it.     

I’ve always been looking for a great revolution. Finally, I’ve found it. 

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Before the Planting Begins

    

The Peterson Garden Project has rapidly come to  life. The interesting thing is: we haven’t even planted yet. So what’s going on?        

I joined the project for a few reasons. I love fresh food, and want to learn to grow my own. Plus the benefits of growing food locally have a significant impact on a city’s sustainable development, and that’s important to me. I also love gardening—it’s swiftly becoming my favorite hobby.        

What I didn’t see coming was the incredible community impact of the garden.     
While helping to plan and promote the project, I’ve met an amazing group of people, all drawn to the community garden project for different reasons. From LaManda, the project’s founder, I’ve learned about Chicago’s Victory Garden legacy. But more importantly: I’ve seen the catalytic affect her inspiration and leadership have on a project. This isn’t just a garden for LaManda: it’s a life mission. And she’s looking for accomplices.        

From there, the cast of gardeners grows. From the young dancer who has a passion for baking pastries, to the ice-skating grant-writer looking to share her incredible knowledge of growing and cooking food, this garden is bringing people together.        

Entrepreneurs. Artists. People looking for a new career path—they’re all here. And: they’re mainly my neighbors. I had the pleasure of meeting John and Eileen, who have lived in my neighborhood—Arcadia Terrace, for the record—for 50 years. They’ve never grown vegetables before, but when they got the flyer for the Peterson Garden Project, they figured: why not?     
It’s never too late to learn to grow your own vegetables. And it’s not too late to plant them this year, either. Come on over and join in on the fun; volunteers are always welcome at The Peterson Garden Project.  

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine  

My 10 favorite Chicago restaurants now

Eating is one of the best things that you can do in Chicago. From Alinea to Wolfy’s, there is fantastic food at every price point in this city. Here are my favorites today, in no particular order. (All restaurant names are hyperlinks that connect to full location details)

SCHWA
Schwa is Chicago eating personified: daring, avant-garde, gritty, delicious, urban. There is no front-of-house staff here; the chefs serve every dish themselves. It’s a tiny restaurant in a nondescript location. And yet, Chef Michael Carlson’s food has been well-documented. My favorite article is one that appeared in GQ, that chronicles his struggle with the stress of becoming a truly great chef. Many have photographed their meals at Schwa; my friend Anthony has some of the best photos here. I’ve eaten here many times, and my favorite dish among mighty contenders is a simple quail’s egg ravioli in brown butter. The food ranges from the unexpected (road kill—you have to see it to get it) to the sublime (Hendrick’s Gin deconstructed, one of my favorite appetizers). Reservations are nearly impossible to get, but well worth the effort, and this is a BYO restaurant. Call to inquire about the menu & match your wines to your meal.

HEMAS KITCHEN
Guess what? Hema’s Kitchen really is Hema’s kitchen. Hema is a delightful woman who serves delicious food. She has two locations now: one on Devon, the heart of the Indian community in Chicago, and one in Lincoln Park. There are moments when nothing but Hema’s Sag Paneer will satisfy my cravings for spicy food. My personal favorites on the menu are the Sag Paneer, Chicken Tikka Masala, and Bindhi Masala. I think this is one of the best take-out spots around, although you can eat there, too.

SMOQUE
This is hands-down the best barbeque in Chicago. It is to die for. It’s southeastern barbeque, vinegar-based, and true to its name it is indeed quite smoky. I can’t bring myself to order anything but the pulled pork because I just love it that much. All the side dishes here are scrumptious, too; I particularly like their cole slaw. It’s a crowded, busy place, but worth the wait in line.

DOUBLE LI
(see full details on earlier blog post below)
Since I recently wrote about this restaurant at length, I won’t say more. This is the best Chinese restaurant in Chicago, and it’s sited in the heart of Chicago’s Chinatown on Cermak. Simply great food, at great prices. This is another BYO restaurant.

MOTO
I am a self-professed foodie who grew up loving the Jetsons, so I was destined to adore Moto. Your dishes here may be freeze-dried, or dehydrated, or smoking because they’ve been freeze-dried and then dropped into hot liquid. You will eat things that don’t seem to make any sense. And you will reel from how delicious each and every bite is. Chef Homaru Cantu’s experiments in molecular gastronomy are sure to delight any foodie, and may put off people who are not interested in taking a few risks. The cocktails here equal the menu in their innovative nature and delicious flavor. And as an added bonus: chef Cantu is a genuinely nice guy, who loves food, and thrives on taking risks. What’s not to love?

KATSU
I am a sushi lover, and have eaten at all the hot sushi restaurants in the city. Katsu is not trendy, nor particularly hot. It’s just the best sushi in Chicago. The fish is delicious, and the chef is outstanding. My son nearly bankrupts me each time we eat here; he cannot get enough of their nigiri. If you too love sushi, you should make the trek to Katsu. You’ll be delighted.

SOL DE MEXICO
I am a big fan of Rick Bayless, and am enormously grateful to him for educating a cadre of Mexican-born chefs in the art of running a restaurant. While I love Chef Bayless’ food, I hate how trendy and popular his restaurants have become. I seek out the restaurants that his colleagues open, and I’ve found them unfailingly delicious. Sol de Mexico is one such restaurant, and chef Clementina Flores (Bayless’ one-time nanny, believe it or not) serves some of the best Mexican food in the city. All the dishes here are exquisite, and once again, make it worth the trek to the far west side of the city.

PUBLICAN
My husband proposed to me at one of Paul Kahan’s restaurants, Blackbird, so his restaurant ventures always have special significance for us. When we ran into Paul a few years ago, he told us he was about to open a new place, which he described as “a shrine to the trifecta of beer, oysters and pork.” He had us at “pork.” The restaurant became Publican, and we do indeed love it. We particularly love sitting in the section of Michael, their beer sommelier, who has introduced us to some particularly divine food and beer pairings. This is not light food, but it is indeed delicious food. If you love the trifecta, you should go.

GREAT LAKE
The only bad thing about Great Lake is that the food critic for Esquire Magazine recently named it the best pizza in the country. Combine that with the fact that it’s a pizza joint that probably seats 20, and you have a traffic problem. The thing is: the critic was right. Our favorite was the Taleggio mushroom, but a close second (with mouth-watering ingredients) was the smoked bacon, crème fraiche, onion & chive. The owners are a husband-and-wife team, one of whom was an architect who worked with our good friend, Joe. So we found the service absolutely delightful—how could we not? Others complain that it isn’t attentive. I think they’re missing the point. This place is all about one thing: damn fine pizza. Go there if that’s what you desire.

UNCOMMON GROUND

My reason for loving Uncommon Ground right now is not their delicious food. Don’t get me wrong: the food is indeed delicious. But the reason it’s one of my favorites now is that they are on the cutting-edge of urban farming. At their Devon location, they grow their own produce on the roof of the restaurant. And on weekends, they host a farmer’s market. That’s the kind of food culture I’d like to see fostered in this city, and my hat is off to Uncommon Ground for getting it going. As an added bonus, it’s one of my very favorite breakfast/brunch/lunch spots in the city. Their stout potato soup is just spectacular, too.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Tastes like Shanghai

A year ago, I travelled to Shanghai. I was blown away by the food that I found there; it is inexplicably different from any Chinese food I’d ever had in Chicago. Until I discovered Double Li. One of my dear friends, Steffi, hails from China. And her husband, Anthony, is a foodie extraordinaire. So when they told me they’d found a restaurant in Chinatown that I had to try, well… they didn’t have to ask twice. This is how I was lucky enough to discover Double Li. Steffi clearly speaks Mandarin, and her ability to negotiate our dishes with the waitress made the meal more special. The dishes we shared were:

Dry Chili Chicken This dish is crispy, light, moist and fiery, on a good night. It was simply scrumptious.

Pocket Tofu The first time I ever had a really great veggie burger, I accused the chef of rubbing it with steak. This tofu will make you wonder if it’s somehow related to the finest buffalo mozzarella. The texture is light, and so, so close to cheese. The mushrooms in the dish were particularly scrumptious.

Black Pepper Garlic Beef Oh, this beef. It is tender, buttery, peppery, and let me tell you: it packs a whollop in terms of its garlic content. I just loved it.

Peapod Leaves I first had this vegetable in Shangahai, and loved it. At the time, I asked my host what the vegetable was, and she didn’t think there was a word for it in English. Now: I finally have my answer. Peapod leaves. They’re super-tasty. House Made Bacon If you know my husband, you know he loves few things more than he loves bacon. So of course, we had to try this dish. It’s tasty, but only for true bacon lovers.

Salt and Pepper Soft Shell Crab I thought this dish was delightful, but Anthony and Steffi say it’s better prepared with chilis. They’d never had it this way, so we went for it. It was delicious, but when I order it the next time, I’ll go for the chilis. I’m not about to argue with Steffi and Anthony after following their advice on the rest of this meal. I am nobody’s fool when it comes to taking good food advice.

If you’re looking for photos of these dishes and more opinions of Double Li, it’s discussed here in detail.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Eating Chicago

There’s a fairly awful festival in Chicago each summer called “Taste of Chicago.” It’s not good for a number of reasons (crowds, port-o-potties… need I go on?). The truth is: you’ve got to loosen your belt to get to know this city. There’s no wading, tasting, nibbling, or pussy-footing around. You’ve got to eat your way through.

This is nearly a religious topic for me. From Wolfy’s to Alinea, there is delight in culinary Chicago. And with that, I’ll start at the beginning. The Chicago Hot Dog.

First, a confession. I hate hot dogs. They don’t taste good most ways. And that is the beginning of the beauty of the Chicago Hot Dog.

Properly served, here’s what it is: a hot dog topped with mustard (duh–can you eat them without it?), raw onions (diced), cucumbers (sliced, halved), pickle spear, pickle relish, tomatoes (sliced, halved), optional sport peppers, and celery salt. All of this comes cuddled up in a poppy seed bun. It is glorious.

And yes: clearly one of the appeals for me is that it is very difficult to taste the actual hot dog.

So: where to get one? Wiener Circle. Wolfy’s. Hot Doug’s. Superdawg. Gold Coast Dogs. This is our native food, people. You will be blessed if you have the honor of eating one.

Image credit: Vienna Beef

Image credit: Vienna Beef

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine