Friday, October 31, 2014

Katic Breads at Our Local Farmer's Market

Last month, we visited our local farmer’s market for the first time in a while.  I’m not quite sure why we forgot that we were within 5 minutes walking distance of our really quite decent market (more on that in another post), but alas we did forget.  And that’s really too bad.  For we discovered—apparently new for this year?—a new stand that we love so much that we’ve been kicking ourselves for not having enjoyed it the rest of the market season!

Katic Breads has some of the most wonderful croissants and breads that I’ve had in the United States.  Yes, I know, that is pretty serious praise.  I will be clearer about this.  We like Katic Breads’ croissants better than any croissants we’ve had with the exception of a place in the north Marais neighborhood of Paris which received the first place prize for croissants in the Paris croissant competition.  (You should know that we visited MANY boulangeries and patisseries during our 4 weeks in France the last two summers.) 

We also like Baker and Nosh which has very buttery and caramelized croissants, but they tend to be on the small side, and are more expensive to boot.  Katic’s croissants (pictured above), while not quite as caramelized on the bottom, still have beautiful crusts on top and bottom and have the MOST lovely layers and are large and flaky and an absolute bargain at $2. 

Their chocolate croissants (at $2.50) have some seriously good dark chocolate, and it’s best served slightly warmed so that the chocolate could melt a bit and expand into more crevices. 

Their almond croissant ($3) is reminiscent of the first really good almond croissant we had when we visited a boulangerie near Rue Cler in the 7th arrondissement in Paris in 2003.  Katic’s almond croissant (pictured below) has sweet almond filling in the middle as well as covered over the top and crusted over and then sprinkled with toasted almond slices.  Heavenly!  They also offer an almond-chocolate croissant for the same price as the almond croissant, but really that’s almost too much.  We like enjoying each flavor separately—for maximum effect.

And, my goodness, the raisin walnut bread!  When I overheard the lady at the stall talking about a Winter Share program, I signed up right away.  I sent in my order form with a check and will be waiting with bated breath for my first pick-up of Katic Breads in mid-November!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Wasabi: A Review

That would be Wasabi, the restaurant on 2115 N. Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago (click here for their website)—not “wasabi” the green horseradish paste dabbed on sushi.

Will and I were a bit apprehensive about whether we should try this restaurant since it seemed so “hip.”  We are getting to that age where we are either annoyed by the super-hip young people, or—more usually—we are annoying to them.  We were made both more hesitant and more emboldened by a review of the restaurant on Yelp that included this description: “the crowd can be kinda hipster-ish.  Feel a little uncomfortable without facial hair, flannel shirt, or visible tattoos.  but I forgot about it after the first slurp of the ramen.”

We thought that we would not be able to get in without a long wait since we didn’t get an early start after our Friday workday was over.  However, we seemed to time the highway and lights ok—and even found a parking space opening up right in front of the restaurant as we were pulling into that block.  (Sure, we had to pay a lot for parking, but that’s a reality of living in Chicago these days.) 

Once we got to the restaurant, we put our name down on a clipboard, where we were also asked if we would be willing to be seated at the bar.  Seeing a crowd formed already, we agreed to do so.  Only about 15 minutes later, they called my name and asked if we wanted to sit outside.  It being what we thought might be the last pleasant weekend in Chicago, we heartily agreed.  It was a little chilly, but we enjoyed sitting outside.  The el screeching to a stop every few minutes was something of a distraction, yes, but it was fun to people watch in an area we don’t normally frequent. 

Even before we got our food, we were feeling positive about the hordes of twenty-something Asians milling outside with their non-Asian partners and friends.  (And since when was it so cool to be a young Asian?  Clearly I was in my twenties at the wrong time!)  The Asian presence boded well for the authenticity of the flavor, and the mix of crowd also suggested that this was a new, young, bold kind of pan-Asian flavor.

We ordered a variety of grilled skewers since Will was feeling reminiscent about all the yakitorias he visited during the years he taught English in a little Japanese village.  Pork belly was his favorite, but the chicken skin was not nearly cooked as crisp as it should have been.  The fried chicken lollipops were fun, and the pork belly and kimchi spring roll (pictured below) was another fried bit of yummy.  We were glad to have gotten both recommendations from all the yelp reviews (click here for reviews.).

The other item that reviewers raved about was the Spicy Garlic Miso Ramen (pictured at the top of post)—with the obligatory Berkshire pork belly.  (Notice a theme here?)  That dish was hands down our favorite.  The broth was amazingly flavorful, the egg just perfectly soft-boiled (where you can see the glistening center of uncooked yolk), and the generous pork slices just melting in your mouth.

I asked Will whether this ramen reminded him of his years in Japan.  He quickly replied that this ramen was far better than any ramen he had in Japan.  There you have it.  That's as hearty a recommendation as one could get.  

Friday, October 17, 2014

Wherefore Kimchi Chigae?

After Thanksgiving one year, I celebrated the original part of my heritage by making some kimchi chigae.  (You can read the post here.)  But while that post has step-by-step photos about how to make this quintessential Korean “stew”—there really isn’t an equivalent word in English language for this type of food—I didn’t really explain why such a dish is so popular and so entrenched in Korean cooking.

The other members of my family are almost strictly Korean-food consumers.  The men—my father and brother—are particularly so, and cannot conceive of going two meals without kimchi.  I’m not even sure that they actually EAT a lot of kimchi when they finally get it, but it almost seems as if the term “kimchi” is a short cut representing “comfort food.”  Sort of like the way the word “rice”(bop) is synonymous with “food.”  In case you’ve never heard this, it might interest you to know that many Asian cultures greet people by asking: “Have you eaten (rice)?”

This being the case, I did sort of feel I was letting down my heritage when I recently looked in the fridge and saw two jars of kimchi sitting in the back corner.  It appears that I got a bit over-zealous in my estimation that we’d be able to finish our first jar and then purchased a second when I was last at H-Mart.  Since that shopping trip was over a month ago, that meant that the older jar was much older than a month.  (Unlike the rest of my family, Will and I don't go through jars of kimchi that quickly...) Hooray for fermented foods that don’t really “spoil” quickly!  But upon opening the jar, I realized that the older jar was at a fermentation stage even most die-hard kimchi eaters would look askance at.  Hooray for kimchi chigae!

I sometimes have to explain why many Korean food items tend to be so heavily spiced and salty.  For those who know Korean food only via vast quantities of grill-it-yourself-bbq restaurants (featuring bul-go-gi and kal-bi), it comes as something of a surprise that most traditional Korean food is not terribly meat-centric.  After all, for so many decades (centuries…millennia) Koreans were a poor culture.  They had to stretch any bit of expensive protein by putting them in soups, as side dishes, and as chigae. 

While I am not an expert on comparative food histories, I would venture to guess that most nations with a history of depressed economies, war, and occupation would have cuisine that would similarly attempt to make a little bit of meat or fish go a long way.  Certainly, I’m sure many in these cultures wouldn’t have said “no” to sushi and steaks—and many are now consuming those very items in a gluttonous fashion—but most people didn’t really have those options.

That explains the popularity and prevalence of something like kimchi chigae.  “Chigae” (or “jjigae”) would be analogous to something like any Thai curries or Indian stew-y dishes like dal mahkani or chicken tikka masala or lamb vindaloo.  You do not eat any of those dishes—or kimchi chigae—like you would American beef stew or French boeuf bourguignon.  These Asian stews are much more heavily seasoned, and a little bit of it is supposed to accompany a lot of rice.  In fact, it would likely cause some gastrointestinal discomfort should you attempt to consume a whole bowl of any of the above by itself.

For instance, kimchi chigae’s main ingredient is (ta-da!) lots of kimchi—usually fermented to the point where your family members wouldn’t want to eat it fresh, without some tampering (or tempering).  But why dump it when you can still whip up a family favorite out of otherwise “spoiled” food?  You simply need to add—for flavoring, just in case it’s not spicy enough as it is!—staples of Korean cooking like Asian red pepper flakes (much like Turkish Aleppo recently popularized in cooking magazines) and brick red Korean chili paste called gochujang. 

Then you top up with water and—if you have it—pork belly (picture above).  If not, then you can still make the dish with an item from your pantry, a can of tuna broken up into chunks (picture below).  Boil, boil, simmer, simmer.

Then you add some cheaper protein by slicing up some tofu.  I like to use either soft or medium firm.  I find “silky” tofu breaks up too easily (and you can save that for when you make another spicy stew called soon-dubu (“soft tofu”), and I’m not usually a fan of “firm” tofu unless I’m frying it up.

Now you know how and why a jar of pickled cabbage otherwise consigned to a kitchen disposal or a garbage dump becomes another variation of a national dish! 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Nueske's Ham, Kale, and Gruyere Cassrole

Since we seem to be on the topic of ham-and-cheese bakes, here's another one that might be an appealing early fall dish...

In September, we like to go apple picking in Wisconsin orchards (click here for a related post) and then buying up goodies in their “country” stores.  Smoked sausages (check), smoked Mozzarella (check), Nueske’s bacon (check), etc.   When we find ourselves struggling to go through all our excellent ham—having sort of gone off eating meat…—we turn to an old stand-by recipe from our Food&Wine Quick from Scratch One-Dish Meals Cookbook.

While we enjoy the “Canadian Bacon, Potato, and Swiss-Chard Gratin,” you might notice (if you click for the recipe here) that it is not rated terribly highly.  And I agree that the dish is a bit salty.  But there are other elements that I think can improve this recipe—elements I essentially stumbled upon while improvising with ingredients I had available to me at the time.

Try it my way and see if you like the dish any better.  I’m providing step-by-step photos for best visual guides, along with what I did differently—and why:

1) Turn oven on to preheat to 425 degrees.  Sauté torn leaves from 1 pound bunch of Kale along with 1 minced garlic and ¼ cup thinly sliced onion or 1 julienned leek (only the white part) in 2 T extra-virgin olive oil until wilted.  Lightly salt and pepper.

Note: The original recipe called for ½ pound Swiss chard with the addition of only garlic.  I switched to kale mostly because I had it around, but I also liked the fact that kale is a bit hardier and therefore stood up to the long cooking time better than chard.  I went to a full pound because ½ pound of greens didn’t seem to go very far (especially once you remove the kale stems).  The addition of leek was purely by chance since my CSA box had it that week and I hadn’t another chance to go through it.  However, I liked the way the leek/onion added another dimension and took away from the overall impression of saltiness as the main flavor profile of this dish.

2) After using your mandoline (or thinly slicing by hand) 2 pounds of peeled baking potatoes and grating 6 ounces of Gruyère cheese, grease an 8x10 or a deep 8x8 casserole dish.

Note: I use Comté for the cheese (since it’s my favorite, nutty, Gruyère), and I increase the quantity of potato and use a slightly larger dish to accommodate the greater amount of potato and kale.

3) Have ½ pound lightly smoked ham slices ready to go, and you can now compile the layers.  Place 1/3 of potato slices on the bottom of the pan, lightly salt and pepper, and then top with 1/3 of cheese, and then about ¼  pound of lightly smoked ham slices.  Then spread the kale mixture all across the top.  Then top with another 1/3 potato slices, some more salt and pepper to taste, 1/3 more cheese, and ¼ pound ham slices.  Then top with the rest of the potatoes, more salt and pepper (only to taste!), and then the rest of the cheese.  Pour ¾ cup chicken broth over the casserole.

Note: To my knowledge, we’ve never used Canadian Bacon for this recipe.  It seems to me that the texture of Canadian Bacon, especially if used with the less hardy Swiss chard, would be too tough.  And while I understand wanting to season each element, I would also go very lightly with the salting and peppering between each layer of potatoes since you will have salted and peppered quite a few times by the end of the layers.  And, yes, I would use low-sodium chicken broth.

4) The rest is just cooking and following the original recipe instructions.  You should cover the casserole dish with aluminum foil to let potatoes steam bake for 15 minutes before removing the foil and letting the cheese melt and brown for the next 30 minutes. 

Note: As with most casseroles—especially those with buttered bread crumbs or cheese—feel free to run the top under a broiler if the potatoes are done and the top is not browned to your liking.

After you let it settle for a couple of minutes, carefully cut into big lasagna squares so that you can see the layers of potatoes, greens, ham, and the crusty cheese!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Leftover Special: Cheddar, Ham and Pasta Bake

From one of our favorite cookbooks, Hay Day Country Market Cookbook, we make the Vermont Cheddar Chowder at least once a year.  It always seems to be just when the weather gets a little chillier—and when the Fall semester is fully on its way, with lots of grading ahead.  Perhaps there is something very comforting about this soup or perhaps it’s just become a tradition, but we can rely on a late September or early October week bringing with it a large pot of white cheddar soup with potatoes and carrots and chives.

But it’s just the two of us in our household, and a big pot of soup can get a little tiresome.  Boring.  So we appreciate the fact that our cookbook suggests other ways to use the soup left over after the first day of enjoying it.  They call it a “Creamy Cheddar Pasta Bake.”  I call it a life-saver when I’m trying to find an easy weeknight solution between grading.  Here are my steps:

1) Have ready 2-3 cups of a cheddar cheese soup of your choice, depending on how creamy you like pasta casseroles.  Soup does not need to be warmed up.

2) Cook ½ lb of dried pasta of your choice, and turn oven on to 350 degrees.

3) In the meantime, add ½ cup grated extra sharp cheddar cheese.  (Because Vermont Cheddar Chowder is a white cheese soup, I actually like to grate orange cheddar at this step so that I could get some interesting contrast in color, but you can stick to additional white cheddar if you’d like.)  Chop up or cut ham into chunks to equal ½ cup.  Add cheese and ham to the soup along with ¼ teaspoon each of salt and pepper. 

4) Mix pasta into the soup mixture and combine.

5) Stir 1 tablespoon melted butter into ½ cup panko bread crumbs, and then grind fresh salt and pepper into the crumb mixture.

6) Lightly grease (oil spray) a medium casserole dish, spread pasta mix in the dish, and then sprinkle bread crumbs evenly over the pasta. 

7) Bake for 30 minutes.  If the pasta mixture is bubbly but the top is not browned, turn the broiler on and brown the top for 3 minutes.  The casserole should end up looking like the picture above.

We actually go out of our way to find recipes that transform themselves into other main dish courses later in the week.  I suspect this is the way most people survive the hectic workweek, right?