Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Spring in Chicago

I am speaking of both the weather and the restaurant -- one was cold and the other was warm and attentive.

The $55 per person menu at Spring in the Buckhorn district– four savory dishes and a dessert – offers an imaginative twist. It is not pre-set but rather selected and composed by the chef on an individual basis and based on items from the regular menu. If more than one guest of a party orders the chef’s tasting menu, all receive different items allowing everyone the opportunity to sample a vast variety of dishes.

There we were, 4 wonderful culinary women, sharing fantastic food, prepared by Chef Shawn McClain, a James Beard award-winning chef, and treated like queens by our wonderfully entertaining waiter, Jeff, and drinking sparkling Spanish cava in honor of my birthday (what an excuse) and just being alive.

We started with an amuse bouche, which was different for the fish eaters versus the vegetarians. The veg version -- a bite to be chewed and then sipped finished with a burst of flavor that was a sure sign of the delight to follow.

I wish that I could recall all that we ate but we had 16 different dishes and I was so focused on our conversation and the laughter that ensued, that I can only recall bits and pieces. Two standout dishes were the Spring Garlic and Potato Soup with pickled veggies hiding in the bottom of the bowl, and the smooth and silky vinegared barley underneath a dish made with octopus. I must get that barley recipe. Every dish was packed with flavor, some more exciting than others. The restaurant is known for its fish dishes but my friend Fran and I were served wonderfully imaginative vegetarian fare.

Desserts were delicious but a bit of overkill, as we were all quite sated. I ate just a bite of dessert. The small shots of hot chocolate were the perfect end to the meal.

When we were done, and said hello to Chef "McDreamy", as Jeff called him, he suggested that we eat at Green Zebra, the chef's vegetarian restaurant. I wish that we had had the time to do that.

Another trip to Chicago is in order but it will not be in the Spring -- it's just too cold for me there. And I guess that leaves out the latter Fall and all of Winter. But I do see Green Zebra on the horizon -- and another peek at Chef McClain would be pretty good, too.

Monday, April 16, 2007

The State of Food -- Chicago IACP Conference

The opening session at the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference was a discussion about the state of organic food. On the panel were Sam Fromartz, author of Organics, Inc., Michael Abelman, former farmer in Santa Barbara, and author of a couple of books, Jim, the marketing guy, from Chipotle Grill and Howard, the guy from Kraft.

Sam introduced the guys and talked about how to keep ideals in a capitalist system. Everyone else gave their view of it and what they do in this regard.

Jim from Chipotle had visuals of pigs in CAFO which are confined animal feeding operations. Those poor pigs were stuck in their own little prison cells, next to other inmates, for their whole lives. Steve Els, the driving force behind Chipotle Grill, figured that there was a better way and found Niman Ranch and their small farms. Jim showed photos of the happy hogs out on the farm -- a much better image to keep in mind, if one is going to eat pork (and that is truly a much bigger topic). He also mentioned that when they raised the price of their carnitas by a dollar that they sold 4 times as much. That is amazing. I guess that people really are willing to pay for better food. Good stories.

Then we went on to Howard from Kraft who unfortunately seemed out of place. He was dressed in jacket, tie and white shirt. He was the Kraft spokesperson and this is what he said. "It's all about the consumer. We are helping people around the world to live and eat better." Yes, that's just how I think of Kraft. He went on to talk about their Back to Nature brand, and Boca, how they have organic salad dressing and the best one yet -- Kraft Organic Macaroni and Cheese. I can't say much about that, other than wow.

Michael Abelman said that organic is only the 1st and most basic step. He used the term "organicrats" for what has happened in and to the organic industry. He told us that we must consider the ecological, spiritual and social values and learn to know the people that grow your food. The industrial food system is broken. He suggested that we make pure food available to all. And to that, I say, "Amen".

Chicago Eats

Traveling is hard on me. It's not just the time or temperature change, but having to go through security at the airport where you just about have to get undressed and redressed before you gather yourself together to sit at the gate and wait for the plane, all while feeling thirsty or plunking down $2 to $3 for a bottle of water. I opt for the water, at almost any cost, although I don't care for drinking out of plastic bottles. I guess that I could choose beer but it doesn't truly quench thirst -- at least not while traveling. But on to my travels to Chicago.

My first day there I had the chance to take a tour with about 45 other food professionals. It was fascinating despite the snow, rain, slush and overall cold weather.

Our first stop was at Bleeding Heart Bakery, the first certified organic bakery in the country. Run by a young, tattooed woman with talent, they offer many baked products from scones to Mexican brownies. Many are vegan and those that I tasted were pretty darn good. The place was not big enough for our crowd but we did get a brief kitchen tour in small groups. The baking staff is going to be helping a new pizza place get off the ground and that will provide them with more baking space. Well, worth the visit when you are in the area (I couldn't tell you where I was.)

Our next stop was to an ice carving plant. In my mind I kind of dismissed this part of the tour as boring. Well, I was wrong. I had no idea how interesting ice could be. From making it to designing it and then actually carving it -- it's all an art. And a fascinating one to observe. Later that evening we got to see an "ice bar" in action.

Then it was on to lunch. We were treated incredibly well by the staff at Quartino, an Italian place done up just right. The very un-Chicago thin crust pizza was tasty, as were all the small dishes, although there was far too much white bread for my liking. They did provide us with lots of food, in a wonderful atmosphere.

Vosges chocolate was the perfect after lunch stop. We were met there by Katrina Markoff, the young woman in charge of Vosges, who shared her story of her chocolate empire. The unusually flavored truffles are divine but expensive which seems just right. Most interestingly, my purple and black clothes matched the store's interior. I looked like a Vosges spokesperson.

Finishing our tour we stopped at Goose Island Brewing which was in a nondescript industrial part of the city which is perfect for this type of business. I mean, you really don't want people knowing where you make the hooch, do you? This was the largest regional brewery that I'd even seen in action, and I have been to a few. The range of beer was amazing, from a silky Belgian style to a hearty IPA, and many types in between. As at most breweries, there were lots of high energy young guys working there and handing out sample tastes and larger as if there were no tomorrow. For us, there was still the conference opening night reception.

That was held at the Merchandise Mart and it was wonderfully interesting -- from molded jello body to the mannequin designed from greens and so much more. After all that food and drink, I needed a good night's sleep. But that took days to arrive.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

"Crap" Carbs not Good or Bad Carbs

This past weekend was the busiest farmer's market of the season. I am sure that spring has hit and people have taken notice as I arrived at the market just after 9:30 a.m. and the asparagus was all gone, even the stuff for the ridiculous price of $10 a pound. I needed it for a class but...

I ran into Brad Larsen who was one of the instigators of the Healthy Cafeteria project at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Rosa. He was speaking to me when up walked another person into health, Steve of Santa Rosa Strength http://www.santarosastrength.com. Brad mentioned a clip from NPR about someone comparing diets and saying that the message that people got from the Atkins' diet was to cut out bad carbs such as white flour and white sugar. The part that they didn't get was to skip the beef and brie as good food. The part that they didn't get was to skip the beef and brie as good food. In any case, Brad mentioned "crap carbs" and I much prefer that to good and bad.

People have a lot of issues surrounding what's good and what's bad. And some like to eat what's labeled "bad" just because it's verboten. So, "crap" carb seems more appropriate since I said, "I don't really know anyone who wants more crap, do you?"

It's the same white flour and white sugar, pasta and such that needs to be eliminated.

Brad told me about how he went and cooked for his brother for a week and helped him clean out his kitchen and institute whole, healthy eating, that his brother said that the food tasted better than worms. Now, that is no compliment.

And if you are used to eating pasty white food most of the time that's filled with sugar, salt and fat, then perhaps "real" food tastes like worms. But I will take the "real" food any day for it makes me feel nourished, and it's good fuel for my body. I can't imagine my body wanting to perform on a diet of "crap" carbs all day long. Can you?

Organic French Fries and Weight Loss

This morning while flipping through the coupons in the Sunday paper I saw an ad for organic frozen French Fries. The worst part about it was that they were touting the fact that they provide more in their bag than other leading frozen brands. I certainly encourage people to eat organic foods, and, yes, even with French Fries it would be better but they are not on my list of recommended foods. If you've got to eat them, do oven fries and make them yourself. They'll likely taste better and be better for you. Ugh. What will they come up with next in the organic department? It's getting insane.

Related to this reversely is that I saw someone at the first Sebastopol farmer's market of the season. I hadn't seen her in a number of months. I said hello and realized that this woman (who shall remain nameless so we'll use the letter A. unless she chooses to be known) had lost weight. I asked her if she'd lost some weight and she said, "Yes. I lost 68 pounds."

"How did you do it? " I asked. She told me that she cut out white flour and white sugar. This goes back to the blog in which I wrote about "crap carbs". A. got it. Good for her. She said that she'd like to lose more and I suspect that she will now that she's understood the concept: processed white flour and sugar products are not good for you. It doesn't matter if it's sourdough bread or pasta. None of them are good as part of your regular meals.

But enough ranting...I just want to say that it was a joy to go to the first Sunday market. And since last year was such a vegetable bust due to heavy rains deep into the spring, this year was a joy -- asparagus, lettuce, greens, onions, garlic. Oh, I am getting hungry. Time to develop some new recipes.