Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sunday links: the price of tomatoes…

During the course of my week, I read quite a bit of food-related literature, either in print or on-line. I thought it would be good to share one or two informative food related articles that I read each week with all of you on a regular basis and link you to that site...hence the name, Sunday links...

The week, I read an article in the new March 2009 Gourmet Magazine by Barry Estabrook that absolutely needed to be passed on the USA food-lovers that read my blog. The article is also available on-line, and it is linked below.

I seldom purchase tomatoes during the winter months, but there are those few times I wanted to add the color to food still life that I was photographing or to a holiday platter that I have put one or two tomatoes in my market basket.

After reading this article, I will be ever so much more thoughtful about where I shop and what I choose when I need to purchase off-season, non locally grown produce. Please take the time to click over to Gourmet Magazine on-line and read this article.

Thank you all very much in advance.

The articel begins, “If you have eaten a tomato this winter, chances are very good that it was picked by a person who lives in virtual slavery.”

Click to continue reading:
The Politics of the Plate: The Price of Tomatoes

Saturday, February 21, 2009

snowy day Madeleines…

All day I watched the snow falling.
It continued drifting and sifting outside my window, coating the trees and the nearly frozen creek with a perfect blanket of confectionery white. It was as though a deranged baker went happily mad with his stash of powdered sugar.

The powdery snow made me crave a sweet vanilla cake, covered with snow-like powdered sugar. My favorite tiny vanilla cake has always been the French Madeleine.

OK, I have a very active imagination and easily influenced, especially when it comes to sweets.

Madeleines are perhaps most famous outside France for their association with involuntary memory in the Marcel Proust novel, À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past), in which the narrator experiences an awakening upon tasting a madeleine dipped in tea:

“She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called petites madeleines, which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim's shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake.

No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place…at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory…”

But, I was not the large-near-natural seashell size Madeleine that I so often purchase from Fauchon when I am in Paris…


I wanted the tiny, pop-in-your-mouth instant gratification in-one-single-bite petit Madeleines covered with snowy confectioners’ sugar. So, I pulled out my new petit Madeleine pan and got to work.
I hope you enjoy this simple and elegant recipe for mouth-watering sweet, (but not too sweet) mini-cakes that are perfect with a cup of hot tea on snowy day.

Snowy Day Vanilla Bean Madeleines
(Adapted from a recipe in Ina Garten’s, Barefoot in Paris )

1 1/2 tablespoons melted Butter, to grease the pans

1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted Butter, melted and cooled

3 extra-large Eggs, room temperature

2/3 cup Sugar

1 ½ teaspoon pure Vanilla Extract

the scrapings of one whole Vanilla Bean

1 cup all-purpose Flour

1/4 cup Cornstarch

1/2 teaspoon Baking Powder

1/4 teaspoon kosher Salt

Confectioners' Sugar


Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Thoroughly butter and flour the Madeleine pans.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the eggs, sugar, and vanilla on medium speed for 3 minutes, or until light yellow and fluffy.

Add 1/4 pound of butter and mix.

Sift together the flour, cornstarch, baking powder, and salt, and stir into the batter with a rubber spatula.

I found that refrigerating the batter for 20 minutes before filling the Madeliene pans (and between each batch) makes it much easier to portion the batter into the petite Madeline pans.

With a teaspoon, drop the refrigerated batter into the pans, filling each shell almost full.

Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until they spring back when pressed.

Tap the Madeleines out onto a baking pan lined with parchment paper and allow to cool.

Then dust them with Vanilla confectioners' sugar (see recipe below).

This recipe makes about 100 petit Madeleines (or about 45 of the larger size if you must).

vanilla confectioners sugar

In a sugar shaker combine powdered sugar with a vanilla bean pod that I had been previously scraped of the seeds for perhaps another recipe.

Dry the vanilla bean well so that it is brittle and break it into 1-inch pieces.

I let mine sit in a dry place in my kitchen (on top the stove) for a few days.
When it is brittle, add these vanilla bean pieces to the confectioners’ sugar.

Let this mixture sit for at least a week or longer and you will be rewarded with confectioners’ sugar that is deliciously perfumed with vanilla that has many uses.

Friday, February 20, 2009

buttery greens…

In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.
~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery

In an effort to find the freshest ingredients for my salads that I crave this time of year, I ran into a wonderful green-house grown Butter lettuce. I am usually very skeptical of greenhouse grown products, but I have tested Living Butter Lettuce over the past few weeks and it performs and tastes like a winner.

Butter lettuce originated in the Mediterranean basin. Other varieties of the Mediterranean lettuce have been developed in the United States. The best-known varieties in North America are Bibb and Boston lettuce. How do you tell them apart? Boston's leaves are wider and lighter green than Bibb lettuce.

Butter lettuce, as its name suggests, is so tender that it melts in the mouth like butter, particularly the heart, when the lettuce is picked at dawn. It forms a loose head of large leaves resembling an open rose. The flavor of butter lettuce is very subtle: it lends itself to countless creative pairings.

I usually find my favorite greens, butter lettuce at the farmers’ market in early spring it has recently become available year round. Live-Gourmet’s controlled harvesting environment with growing conditions for this product provide an environment that is free of pesticides and field debris.

Butter lettuce is a loose-leaf head with a mild, sweet flavor and a tender but crisp texture. This lettuce, as most deep greens contain large amounts of vitamin A and K as well as helping to cleanse and detoxify our systems.

Although this product comes to as alive with the root system intact, you need to choose it as you would just as any other lettuce. Make certain that the leaves are a rich green without discolorations or bruising.

I love this lettuce for this pre-spring season as I usually only cook for one to three people per meal, so it holds up very well because it is a living entity. Even in the dead of winter, feels like you are harvesting fresh lettuce from the garden.

I came across a bit of interesting culinary history and nutritional anthropology that I can across was that Butter lettuce contains lactucarium, which has effects similar to those of opium.
Because of these sedative properties, it was recommended for treating insomnia, intestinal spasms and palpitations.

History tells that the emperor Domitian "tortured" his guests at banquets by serving them a head of lettuce at the beginning of the meal. Not allowed to nod off in front of his imperial majesty, they were forced to fight off their sleepiness for hours.
In culinary classes, we are taught how to clean each variety of lettuce for the standard salade verte. It is acceptable to use a knife to chiffonade (cut into ribbons) Romaine lettuce. But all other lettuces had to be torn by hand so as not to bruise the leaves. I usually abide by these principles, but sometimes you have to take some chances and experiment.

butter lettuce-buttermilk chicken wraps


Butter Lettuce

Chicken Breasts (poached, oven roasted or grilled on the bone with the skin on, but any excess fat removed.)



low fat Buttermilk ¼ cup

low fat Mayonnaise ¼ cup

Blue Cheese crumbled 2 Tbsp
(I used Nordic Creamy Blue, but any quality Blue Cheese is fine.)

¼ tsp Cardamom

kosher Salt

freshly ground Black or White Pepper

fresh Parsley, chopped fine

fresh Chives, chopped fine


Cook and cool Chicken breasts.
Bone and dice into bite-sized cubes.

Mix mayo, buttermilk, crumbled blue cheese, cardamom, chives, parsley in a bowl and stir ingredients.

Add salt and pepper to taste.

Taste and adjust seasonings to your liking.

Add diced chicken and combine with dressing.

Refrigerate for at least ½ hour, this will give the flavors a chance to develop.

Rinse and pat dry butter lettuce leaves.

Fill one side of the butter lettuce leaf with a scoop of the Buttermilk Chicken Salad, being careful not to overfill and wrap as though the butter lettuce leaf was a tortilla.

Plate the wraps with colorful tomatoes and cucumbers, and any other veggies of your choice.

Garnish with minced chives and serve.

This recipe is a filling and delicious way to eat healthy and not sacrifice taste. The buttermilk tenderizes the already tender chicken, the cardamom and pepper gives it enough kick without being too spicy.

This is a perfect lunch to tote to work. I make this the night before and pack the clean butter lettuce leaves separate from the prepared salad.

I also make the buttermilk dressing, add a squirt of fresh lemon and add Albacore Tuna or diced cooked shrimp or lump crabmeat.

For a different way of plating the Buttermilk Chicken Salad, roll each leaf of Butter Lettuce and chiffonade in 1/8” ribbons.
Sprinkle with a bit of Diamond Crystal kosher salt to keep lettuce crisp.
I plated the chiffonaded Lettuce as a bed for the Chicken salad and added some spicy pickled tomatoes, cauliflower and olives.

I hope that you will try Living Butter Lettuce until the first tender Spring lettuces appear at your local farmer’s market.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait…!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

kitchen tip Tuesday...salad secrets…

”It takes four men to dress a salad:
a wise man for the salt,
a madman for the pepper,
a miser for the vinegar,
and a spendthrift for the oil.”
~ unknown

Because I was looking forward to warmer weather and daily meals of salads with local fresh ingredients, I started re-reading the salad recipe section ofthe book that I won back in December from Culinary Cory, Cooking School Secrets for the Real World by Linda Carucci. This book is filled with not only beautiful and delicious recipes, but the content that I enjoy the most are the secrets and special tips that can turn a simple recipe in to something fabulous.

I wanted to pass on to all of you some of the tips from this wonderful book, today we will talks salads. Here are some of Ms. Carucci’s "Secrets for successful salads”.

Peel the rounded side of the outer stalks of celery before slicing. Then slice the stalks on the diagonal. You will remove the strings that get caught in your teeth and the celery will have a more delicate flavor, but retains the sweet crunch.

The secret to keeping white cheese white in salads is to make a salad dressing with white wine, champagne, white balsamic vinegars or citrus juice. This dressing won’t stain the cheese brown the way red wine vinegars do, and your plating and presentation of your salad will be much
more appetizing and appealing.

red onions
Slice red onions very thin with a Mandoline or your sharpest and thinnest knife.
The soak the slices in ice cold water for 5-10 minutes. Drain and pat dry before adding to the salad. The cold water leaches out the harsh sulfur flavor and also crisps the onion.

Among another of its legendary attributes, the unique shape of Diamond Crystal Kosher salt crystals helps lettuce from wilting in a salad. Other Kosher salts cannot claim this virtue.

salad dressing
This tip was so utterly simple that solved a question that has haunted me for years…
How do you know how much salad dressing to use?
The secret:

clean hands…!

Toss the salad greens with just enough dressing to coat them lightly using your hands gives you the feel for how well the dressing coats the salad. This way there is no pool of dressing in the bottom of the bowl to wilt the salad and overwhelm the ingredients.
Once the greens are lightly coated, add the remaining ingredients.

To preserve the delicate texture of fresh tomatoes, store in a cool place in the kitchen...but never, ever in the refrigerator.

I hope that these simple tips will help you to prepare your salads in a way to help your wonderful, fresh ingredients sing in harmony.
In the next post, I will share my newest favorite ingredient in the salad world and a few healthful but tasty recipes for you to try while we are awaiting the first days of spring.

Friday, February 13, 2009

hearts on fire…

I recently was able to re-visit the Chicago Firehouse Restaurant with a group of wonderful friends for a singles pre-Valentine’s day lunch. The structure that houses the Chicago Firehouse Restaurant had previously served the Prairie Avenue community as their neighborhood firehouse.

The Chicago Firehouse Restaurant is located at 1401 South Michigan Avenue.
The building was erected in 1905, designed by the then famous architect Charles Harmann. The firehouse was built to serve the Prairie Avenue Community and its surroundings.

The residents of Prairie Avenue consisted of many of the first families of Chicago at that time, such as the Marshall Fields, the McCormicks, the Palmers and the Glessners. Prairie Avenue from 17th to 20th Street was filled with many socialites of the day who had built homes following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. It is believed that this unique firehouse, which is constructed of yellow brick and limestone (different from the standard red brick), had special attention placed on it in order to stay in keeping with the neighborhood and especially its residents.

The building stands in much of its same splendor today. However, some interesting changes have occurred. The stables, which used to house the horses for the fire wagons, has been replaced with a courtyard. The entire upstairs floor had been hay and grain storage for the fire horses was divided and transformed to a handball court and living quarters for the firefighters.

This is one of the space used in to film one of my favorite Ron Howard movies, “Backdraft”. Today this space houses the banquet space and banquet kitchen.

The spiral staircase that was access to the area, which in the wintertime prevented horses from climbing upstairs to the feed area, is now been relocated to the courtyard.

I saw that great efforts to preserve as much of the interior as possible, but still allow the operation to be functional as a restaurant. The tin ceiling, the glazed tile walls, the two fire poles located in the bar, and the Fire chief's wall that you pass when entering the bar, are all the original interior elements.

The Chicago Firehouse Engine Company #104 opened in 2000 and still serves the neighborhood today, but in a very different capacity.

My friends and I ordered our drinks while we perused the menu and enjoyed the ambiance of the vintage firehouse interior elements.

With our beverages, we were served fresh handmade creamery butter, herbs, and toasted stone ground wheat flatbread with black and white sesame seeds. The homemade butter was rival to the richness of any I have had in France...
I hope they decide to market this butter...or...maybe not...
However, it was a wonderful, rich decadent aperitif slathered on a warm just made flat-bread cracker with a bit of fresh herb.

Some of out appetizers included a seasonal field green salad the dressed with olive oil and lemon vinaigrette and a vegetable phyllo roll.

The vegetable phyllo roll contained asparagus, cremini mushrooms, red peppers, wrapped in Phyllo dough with a Balsamic reduction

Several of us opted for the fragrant and delicious onion soup gratinée that I am certain would rival any Parisian bistro’s offering of a French onion soup.
it was that good…

The flavor of the soup was rich, brothy, and unctuous. The still crunchy croutons were topped with just enough brown bubbly melted Gruyère and Fontina cheeses to make for a beautiful presentation and a decadent dish.

For my entrée, I ordered grilled Hawaiian wild-caught shrimp, with blood orange segments, grilled tomatillos, organic baby spinach with a delicate fennel-seed-citrus-vinaigrette on the side. It was light, yet satisfying and filling. Chef Caesar Reyes tossed the shrimp in olive oil, lemon juice and garlic before grilling the prawns to perfection. The result was a rich and meaty taste of the sea with a hint of Mediterranean flavors.

Those of us that opted for some sweetness to end our meal chose to share the air-light tart Key Lime Custard cradled in a delicate orange graham cracker crust topped with whipped cream and plated with a swash of berry coulis.
It was rich and light at the same time…and I desperately wanted a bottle of the berry coulis for my very own…lol…
This dessert was the perfect sweet finish to this delightful and filling meal…

After a perfectly brewed cup of Intelligentsia Kurimi coffee, we felt satiated and glad to have had this warm and loving time to come together to celebrate this day of hearts afire. We felt warmed and embraced by this lovely welcoming place, the delicious food and each other’s love and laughter.

Happy St-Valentine's Day to all my wonderful readers...! ! !

Monday, February 9, 2009

the marriage of the strawberry and the fig...

Early last week, a California friend sent me several pounds of bright red fragrant fresh organic Strawberries.
I had sliced up many for my morning cereal or yogurt during the week.
But there were still so many pounds remaining…

I made a dozen jars of strawberry preserves for gifts and for my use.
I froze several pounds.
I dehydrated many more pounds and turned some into “strawberry powder” in the same way I made “tomato powder” in the autumn.
(For directions, please see my blog post on tomato powder).

I wanted to find a way to extend the fresh life of these gorgeous berries in a way that they would be available for me to use each day.
Strawberries are high in vitamin C, manganese and dietary fiber.
There also have a high rate of antioxidant power.

This morning, I sliced a few ripe strawberries to top my toasted bread that I first smeared with a bit of my favorite Orange-Fig Preserves from Croatia. This was such a surprisingly delicious combination, I thought about how I could use this preserve-fresh strawberry marriage to extend the life of the remaining fresh strawberries.

I experimented a little and came upon this simple method.

the marriage of the strawberry and the fig


1 lb fresh Strawberries cleaned and sliced

¼ cup Dalmatia Brand Orange-Fig Preserves

¼ cup Confiture Figure (French Fig Preserves)
(For the above, you can substitute ½ cup of any good quality
Fig Preserves with ½ teaspoon of fresh Orange zest)

½ Teaspoon fresh Lemon Juice


Rinse the berries and pat dry immediately.

Remove stems and leaves and cut in ½” slices.

Sprinkle with a small but of lemon juice over the cut berries.

Put the Fig Preserves (and the Orange Zest if using Fig Preserves without oranges) in a microwave-proof bowl.

Microwave the preserves for 20 seconds, stir and repeat.

Then zap and stir at 20-second intervals until the preserves just barely bubbles a bit on the edges.

Carefully remove from the microwave and stir the melted preserves for 1or 2 minutes to cool.
(You don’t want to cook the berries…!)

Add the sliced berries a handful at a time and stir to coat.

When cool, store in a airtight container in the chill chest.
They will last at least a week. (Mine have retained a lovely fresh texture for 5 days so far.)

This mixture retains the fresh mouth feel of the strawberry, the hint of acidity from the orange bring a brightness, the fig preserves add a lovely crunchy mouth-feel and the finish has an undercurrent of toasted caramel.
Figs and strawberries are the perfect pair…a marriage made in culinary heaven.

This concoction is wonderful on cereal, in yogurt, on toast or waffles or pancakes. It adds a new dimension when served with cheese (I especially enjoyed it with a slice of the Normandie Camembert that I had in hand).
It is also lovely drizzled over Vanilla ice cream, elevating a simple everyday dessert to the level of a special occasion dessert.

When you have strawberries in season in your neck of the woods.
I hope you will think about trying this method of extending the freshness of your treasure trove of strawberries.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

a garden still blooms in winter...

I have always thought that the Garden Restaurant was a gem, and rather a somewhat hidden gem at that, nestled in the center courtyard of the Art Institute of Chicago.

During the summer months, it becomes a cool secret oasis from city heat. You can dine alfresco next to the cool blue "Fountain of the Tritons" by Carl Miller.
In the shade of cool aqua umbrellas in McKinlock Court, your spirits are refreshed as you sip a bubbly prosecco and listen to the gentle gurgling of the water while the city heat and noises recede.

But on this grey and cold winter day, I was wondering how the Garden Restaurant would provide a similar form of comfort. My dining companion and I were not disappointed in either the ambiance or the food.

Although the outdoor courtyard is now covered with its protective winter tent, the indoor restaurant was warm and inviting. We were seated on curvaceous Weng wood chairs with comfortable cream-colored velvet cushions amidst sparkling glass and silverware and a sea of pristine white linens tablecloths.

The room had an elegant, feel but not stuffy nor intimidating.
There were splashes of rich russet and crimson flowers in jadeite vases at each table and there was a calming gurgle of an indoor fountain. I felt as though I was in the Victorian era that was known for indoor gardens, but with a contemporary spin.

I had previously reviewed this restaurant and the food for The Travel Channel, iExplore and IgoUgo, but that was before Chef Brian Williams came from New York’s Tribeca Grill to become the Executive Chef at the Garden Restaurant. Chef Williams worked to restructure the culinary point of view of the offerings and present a seasonal menu of globally influenced contemporary American food.

Prior to Chef Williams, the food took second place to the venue and I had eaten here often since 1999. Now the menu lives up to the world-class status of the Art Institute of Chicago.
In simpler terms...
the food went from ”not bad” to OMG I can’t believe this is so good…!

These were our choices from the winter menu :

My companion ordered a Cauliflower Bisque drizzled with Thyme Oil as her entrée, which she pronounced as out of this world. I asked one of the servers for a spoon so I could taste the dish. The server said that she would be more than happy to bring me a tasting portion of the soup. Now that is what I call obliging service.

Her choice for the main course was a creamy Organic Carnaroli Rice Risotto with Butternut Squash, Roasted Pear, Pecans and Parmesan Cheese.

Carnaroli rice is a type of short-grain Italian rice sometimes used in risotto dishes.
While Arborio rice is the best-known type of rice used in risotto, particularly in the United States, many cooks prefer Carnaroli. Carnaroli rice, like Arborio, contains more starch than other rice varieties. It retains liquids, holds its shape better than Arborio rice.
Having a larger grain, the Carnaroli rice makes for a more textured dish.

Since I already had my tasting portion of the Cauliflower bisque as my entrée, my main course was Shredded Duck Confit on Chestnut Purée with a winter salad of julienned Pears, Celery, dried Cranberries, candied Walnuts and a perfect supreme wedge of an orange.
The duck was succulent and delicious and captured that fifth taste called Umami that is often described as savory, brothy or unctuous. The richness of the duck was offset by the sweet-tart of the ingredients of the salad. This was a filling, yet light meal that was a combination of the long, slow cooked meats of winter and the delightful promise of Farmer’s Markets spring salads.

Over our northern versions of Southern Sweet peach tea, we debated about a dessert course. Rationalizing that we would spend the next few hours walking and window shopping along Michigan Avenue from La Perla to Chanel, we decided to allow ourselves to be seduced.

My companion ordered a Caramel Apple Crumble with Vanilla bean Créme.
It was warm and spicy, with the perfect balance of crunchy and soft, healthy spicy warm apples and decadent cool vanilla bean crème. This is not your grandmother’s apple crisp...think apple crisp on the runway during Fashion Week in Milan or Paris.

My weakness for the vanilla-chocolate combination as these two flavors enhance each other, prompted me to order the Chocolate Cream Tart with Vanilla bean Créme and Chocolate Straws.
I am very particular about tartes having had consumed so many perfect tarts from so many superb patisseries in Paris over the years.

But, this dessert tarte lived up to all my expectations.
The tarte shell was crunchy perfection, still warm and toasty making the rich chocolate filling warm and almost pudding-like on the exterior and cold and dense in the middle.
I am also a skeptic when it comes to a crème topping on any dessert.
Yet again, this one did not disappoint. It was a real whipped cream dream peppered with enough vanilla bean to add a pleasing crunch to the perfectly piped peaks of pleasure.
The curls of dark chocolate and chocolate tuile straw were just additional perfect bites to add to the overall enjoyment of this perfect dessert.

After our lovely late lunch, we were fueled for shopping on Michigan Avenue and brave the winter weather, but not weighted down.
I highly recommend the Garden Restaurant.
It is a classic gem made a contemporary classic gem by Chef Brian Williams’ culinary magic.

The Garden Restaurant at the Art Institute of Chicago
111 S. Michigan Ave.
Chicago, IL 60603-6110