A couple weeks back, Lauro and I went to a brunch hosted by the good people and great cooks behind Sunday Dinner Club in tandem with The Butcher & Larder. Meat was on the menu, for sure. Because Rob and Allie at The Butcher & Larder are known for making the finest house-created nose-to-tail cured meats and terrines and bacon, oh my. I felt lucky to be there.
And also lucky to check out the future home of Honey Butter Fried Chicken, the next adventure for chefs Christine Cikowski and Josh Kulp, who started Sunday Dinner Club while holding down full-time restaurant jobs.
The egg pictured here is from that special brunch, cooked sous-vide in a special machine that cooks at very low temperatures for a very long time. Not something to try at home without that special machine.
It reminded me how much I love poached eggs, where a rich viscous yolk undulates over the other food on the plate. Eggs are on everything these days, from burgers and curly-lettuce salads to my chickpea sweet potato tagine, even pizza, as my friend Domenica demonstrates so well. In Lauro’s native Uruguay, egg on a pizza is called pizza de caballo, or horse pizza. He has no idea why.
But back to eggs
We have only a few days until the Sunday brunch to end all Sunday brunches, Mother’s Day. This is when we pull out the stops, and poached eggs are a great way to celebrate Spring and Mom all at the same time. Eggs are a sign of spring because the advent of warmer weather is the sign for chickens to lay eggs more frequently, so they are more abundant.
If you’re hosting a Mothers Day brunch, check out these lovely table settings curated by House & Home magazine. And consider my jam-glazed yellow cake for dessert. It’s still Lauro’s favorite birthday cake, and perfect for this time of year when you want to use up any of last year’s jam before fruit season kicks in.
Perfect poached eggs
Start with the freshest you can get. In the UK, they label eggs on the date they were gathered rather than when they expire. If you buy your eggs at the grocery store, get them the day before your event, not a week in advance. Fresher eggs maintain their structure better.
Fill a shallow skillet with about three inches of water and heat over medium heat until bubbles form around the edge. Add a splash of white vinegar. If serving a number of eggs, line a platter or sheet pan with two layers of paper towels.
Crack each egg into a small bowl and slide it into the simmering water. I like to space the timing by about a minute or two to allow me time to take each egg out of the water when it’s exactly ready, as well as maintain an even cooking temperature in the pan. After you slide the egg into the water, gently spoon the hot water over it for a couple seconds, then move on to the next egg. Let them cook for a few minutes until the whites are firm. Do not overcook, because the yolks should stay runny. Three minutes or so should do the trick.
Remove the eggs with a slotted spoon and blot gently on the paper towel. Trim any excess white that went astray during cooking.
Place on top of just about any food you’ve chosen to serve.
With that important business taken care of, let’s move to the kitchen, shall we?
One of the most rewarding parts of road-tripping across the Midwest to research my book, was connecting chefs who share my dedication to farmers.
Like Julie Ridlon of St. Louis, who has Chanterelle Catering and also founded a farmers market in that fine city. She helped guide me to great growers and markets.
More important, Chef Julie converted me to eggplant.
I’ve never been much of a fan, and Julie told me getting fresh eggplant make all the difference. So here we are, almost greeting autumn, where eggplant and zucchini and tomatoes are groaning on the farm table, and I can’t get enough of it.
Thus it’s time to make caponata, a flavorful Italian salad that’s perfect for making after work because it’s SO easy, and also relaxing with all the chopping to do. And it’s easily adaptable to what you like and what’s in season. Julie likes it with goat cheese on a baguette. I like it straight from the jar.
So get out to your market and find a new food to convert to. Enjoy.
Caponata, Italian Eggplant Salad
Chef Julie Ridlon, Chanterelle Catering, St. Louis, Missouri
Makes about six cups
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 medium onion, peeled and chopped (red or yellow)
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 large eggplant or 4 smaller eggplants (peel half the skin with a potato peeler and leave the rest for texture), cut into ½-inch cubes
3 - 4 summer squash cut into ½-inch cubes (try any combination of zucchini, zephyr or crookneck)
1 - 2 red, yellow or orange peppers, seeded and cut into cubes
2 stalks of celery, cut into 1/2″ pieces
Salt and pepper to taste
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
1 - 2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
1 teaspoon chili flakes (optional)
3 large tomatoes, peeled and diced
½ cup raisins (use golden or dark raisins, or currants)
¼ cup capers drained, or 1/3 cup pitted calamata olives
8 large basil leaves, thinly sliced
Sauté the onion, garlic, eggplant, squash, peppers and celery for eight to 10 minutes, stirring to make sure it does not burn, until fork tender. Depending on ripeness, it may take an additional five to10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
As the vegetables cook, whisk together the cider vinegar, brown sugar, thyme and chili flakes, if using, in a small bowl. Toss together in a large bowl the tomatoes, raisins, capers or olives and basil. Stir in cooked eggplant mixture, and taste for balance, adding additional vinegar, salt or sugar. Store tightly covered in the refrigerator.
This year, I got a late start due to the raised beds going in, and the new soil going in. And I was late buying my plants.
And then there was the weather.
You’d have thought that the heat would have given me a bumper crop. But the drought nixed that and I ended up buying a bushel of “canning tomatoes” at the farmers market, saving my backyard tomatoes for noshing.
Buying “seconds,” the less-than-perfect but just-as-flavorful version, is one of my favorite tips for extending the harvest and getting a bargain all at the same time.
One of my fondest flavor memories of my tomato bumper crop a few years back is the oven-dried Sungolds that punctuated my salads, pastas and flatbreads long through the winter. These sliced ones will do nicely.
Here is this year’s version, stacked in freezer-friendly Ball jars and topped with fruity olive oil. I’ll keep them in the door of the freezer and scoop them out when I need a summer fix. And the infused oil will be great for salads.
Oven-dried tomatoes in olive oil
Slice tomatoes and assemble on a parchment-lined baking sheet and sprinkle with freshly-cracked black pepper. Turn oven on to lowest setting (in my case 170 degrees). Place in the oven for six to eight hours until they are dried yet still flexible. Cool, transfer to freezer-safe container, and top with olive oil. Store in the freezer for up to a year, if they last that long.
A short while ago, I spent a weekend at an annual fest hosted by my friends at Organic Valley in La Farge, nestled in the gorgeous Driftless region of Wisconsin. They’re a cooperative of almost 1,800 small farmers who place stewardship of creatures and soil as a priority, and each year they celebrate their community by hosting the Kickapoo Country Fair.
And wow, did I feel in with the in crowd. Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved, was there. And so was Michel Nischan, who made his name as a chef and then followed his passion to make good food available as founder of the Wholesome Wave Foundation, which I wrote about in Farmers’ Markets of the Heartland. I describe the organization’s efforts to connect local agriculture and underserved communities, in part with grants that help people double food stamp benefits spent at farmers’ markets. My early interview with Michel helped me bond with market organizers across the Midwest, because they all wanted to hear about how
I was in the food adventure tent to talk about how to optimize your farmers market experience. I joined Organic Valley chef Alex Brevik, who cooked up two recipes from my book and showed everyone how to elevate their kitchen skill. We made caponata, a robust eggplant and tomato relish, great on a crusty baguette with goat cheese, from Chef Julie Ridlon in St. Louis, as well as Zingerman’s Deli Chef Roger Bowzer’s “melon-dramatic” salad, an eye- and mouth-popping salad of two different color melons, cucumber, red onions and salty cheese. I’ll be posting those recipes soon.
In the meantime, I thought I’d share my tips for shopping your market. Check out more about the Kickapoo Country Fair over on their Facebook page.
How to rock your farmers market
Go early. Producers will have more time to answer your questions, and you’ll be able to linger without a crowd pressing in behind you. Fill your canvas bag, then relax with a crusty loaf and enjoy the people watching.
Research market regs. A producer-only market requires the farmer to be behind the table. Some emphasize organic growers. Understand market regulations and decide what’s important for you.
Embrace the season. Come with a plan, but be flexible. Know how many meals you’ll want to cook for, how much fruit for snacking, etc. But don’t insist on specific ingredients. An abundance of onions might inspire you to make a savory tart one week, and the next week the first broccoli rabe means a pasta dinner. Try a new food every week.
Strike up a chat. Ask the producer about growing practices. Some growers are also avid cooks and fellow shoppers will have plenty of tips about ingredient combinations.
Bring a cooler. If you want fragile greens or perishable dairy products, it’s a good idea to have a cooler in case you’re waylaid on your way home.
Shadow a chef. In a lot of urban areas the chefs will shop the markets, particularly those on Wednesday, where they can stock up for the busy weekend. Ask them who they like to buy from.
Ask for seconds. Most vendors only sell first quality food. The second quality offerings, those with little blemishes, are great for sauces and sorbets. When you know your farmer you can ask them to bring you their battered berries and tomatoes, and they’ll probably give you a deal.
Come home and prep. This will keep you from tossing great food at the end of the week. Sauté your kale with garlic once you get home and store it in fridge containers. Caramelize a batch of onions. Be mindful of what foods might be fragile and should only be washed right before cooking. Only rinse berries right before cooking or eating, for instance, because they have a natural barrier that protects them from deterioration.
I’ve gotten past a bit of a peach aversion. It’s not that I disliked peaches. I loved eating slurpy peaches over the sink with the juices dripping down my chin, or in the backyard with the garden hose nearby for freshening up sticky hands.
But peach pie, peach jam, peach whatever. No, thanks. They were just too sweet for me.
I find these pickled peach slices delicious with ice cream or yogurt. Or whirl them up in a blender with brown sugar to make a syrup for cake or glaze for chicken.
Simple peach pickles
1 cup white vinegar
2 cups sugar
2 cups sliced peaches
Bring the vinegar and sugar to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add the peaches and cook until barely tender. Spoon into to sterilized jars and cover with syrup. Cool on the counter. Store in the refrigerator for two weeks.
If you’d like to preserve them for later, Ball has a great guide to get you started.
What better time to share with you a peek at what’s coming up from the fabulous dairy folk behind Wisconsin Cheese? I was invited to a tasting of writers and cheesemongers, and it was old home week. I ran into specialty cheese experts Lisa from Pastoral and Dave and Sam from the Standard Market, as well as blogger friends Kathy from Stresscake, Rob from The Local Beet and Gemma the Pro Bono Baker.
And we feasted
I’d say my highlight was reconnecting with Bob Wills of Cedar Grove Cheese. I met him on a Wisconsin cheese tour a few years ago and was smitten with his collegial approach to his community of cheese makers. Whereas cheese makers from regions in other countries view the guys up the road as competition, Bob brings cheese makers together by opening his facility to folks getting started. Rock star cheese makers like Mike Gingrich of Uplands Cheese Company and Willi Lehner of Bleu Mont Dairy got their start there.
And now Bob has ventured to the city, opening the Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee as that city’s only urban cheese making facility. We tasted quark, a delicious spreadable that Bob describes as a cross between cream cheese and sour cream. it’s there in the picture with small batch tart cherry preserves from Quince & Apple. We predict great things ahead from Bob and his team, and I’m sure the beer makers must be delighted to have a local companion for their brews.
We also met the lovely Katie Hedrich from LaClare Farms, delicious introducing goat/cow blends.
And we tasted amazing butter from Nordic Creamery, where Al Bekkum tells us that his butter now outsells cheese.
The evening was a delight, with cheeses from smooth and fresh to aged and bold, created by a dozen cheese makers from across the rolling hills of Wisconsin. I’m sure you’ll join me in salivating until these great foods hit the stores and farmers markets.
Discussing delicious, locally-produced, hand-crafted foods is not as easy as you’d think.
It’s hard to wax poetic about how great these foods are without comparing them to the more common industrialized eats.
If you’re a regular reader here, you probably already know this: Negative food discussions get people riled up.
Some get downright angry. Some people put up their hands, turn their heads and cringe “I don’t want to know.”
It’s never pretty
But all is not lost. We live in a consumer-focused, market-driven society. When we demand better, we will receive better. Better quality food, better animal welfare, better respect for workers.
Ladies and gentlemen, better has arrived at the corner of Fulton Market and Green Streets in Chicago.
Publican Quality Meats is a return to the butcher shop of old. Paul Kahan and his partners at One Off Hospitality have created a white-tiled space with gorgeous meat, artisan cheese, deli items, plus a glass-fronted fridge cases filled with housemade stock and farm eggs.
The scent of cured meats like mortadella and sausages greeted me as I entered. The aroma guided me to stacked wheels of cheese, including Willi Lehner’s Bleu Mont bandaged cheddar from the rolling hills of Wisconsin and his neighbor Mike Gingrich’s Pleasant Ridge Reserve. Names of my friends grinned from the meat case: Faith’s Farm, Slagel Family Farm.
The attention to detail is what you’d expect from the forces behind Blackbird, Avec, Big Star and The Publican. Shelves have Morton Salt (”a Chicago company and good salt,” said Paul) and Heinz ketchup (”the best ketchup ever”) and also local finds like Milk and Honey Granola. American Spoon Wild Thimbleberry Jam, which I know started with hand-picked thimbleberries in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. A staffer was proud of her hand-written tags.
I could gush for days
Here’ why this shop is important (aside from giving me a great neighborhood spot to get a sandwich): it gives us a casual, approachable version of well-produced food that used to be only in fancy pants white tablecloth restaurants.
When I talk to people about remaking our food supply, I tell people they need to vote with their pocketbook and their feet. A trip to the farmers market or CSA pickup will be an extra effort, to be sure, compared to a weekly visit to the supermarket. And the cost for meat in particular will be higher, in many cases substantially higher.
But Publican Quality Meats, along with other shops like Butcher & Larder, are leading the charge in bringing quality foods to casual eaters. To paraphrase another visitor, I’d eat vegetarian for a week for another bite of the mortadella.
In other news, I’ve become addicted to the lattes at La Colombe, made with Kilgus milk. My neighborhood keeps getting better.
February is my month. It’s my wedding anniversary, my birthday, Valentine’s Day. This year we also have Leap Year, the birthday of my late cousin Bill, who left us way too soon.
So its a good time for indulging, if only to get us past the chill to welcome spring around the table with friends.
I love the idea of pairing comfort with elegance, and want to share with you my chicest comfort food dish, mac & cheese made with Pleasant Ridge Reserve, one of the most widely acclaimed cheeses in the country by rock star cheese maker Mike Gingrich of Uplands Cheese Company. To give you an idea of the famous-ness of Pleasant Ridge Reserve, it was named best of show by the American Cheese Society a mind-boggling three times. No other cheese has won more than once.
Such fame comes at a price, and often you’ll find Pleasant Ridge reserve approaching $30 a pound. Well worth it given the care given to the cows and to the cheese making process, and a delicious splurge for an elegant dinner party. The good news is that small-scale servings mean you use less than a half pound for a big impression. Serve this beside a farm-raised rib eye and roasted broccoli and your guests will remember you fondly.
In keeping with this upscale interpretation of comfort food, I serve it in individual dishes. Use ramekins if you like, but I find my little crème brulée dishes make a pretty presentation and give more surface area for that crunchy topping. If you have neither, use shallow coffee cups for a touch of whimsy.
So-chic Pleasant Ridge Reserve macaroni & cheese
Serves six as a side
2 cups penne, 6 ounces, slightly undercooked
2 tablespoons butter, plus more for buttering baking dishes
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups whole milk
½ teaspoon salt
6 ounces Pleasant Ridge Reserve, grated and divided (about 1 1/2 cups)
½ cup fresh bread crumbs, from about ½ dinner roll, crust on
2 tablespoons minced rosemary
Generously butter six half-cup ramekins or crème brulée dishes and set on a baking sheet. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Toss together bread crumbs, rosemary, and about ½ cup of cheese in small bowl and set aside.
Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium high heat. Once butter begins to bubble, add flour and stir to combine. Continue stirring for a minute until bubbly again, then add milk and salt. Stir until it thickens and bubbles form around the edge of the pan. Remove from heat and stir in remaining cheese. Mix in cooked pasta.
Divide among baking dishes and sprinkle with bread crumb and cheese mixture. Bake in the center of the oven until golden and bubbly, about 20 to 25 minutes.