Cooking the Books – Green City Market Cookbook

A quick note for Chicago folks: paella class is back! July 26 (next Tuesday) at the Peterson Garden Project, sign up here. It was great fun last summer, I hope you can join me!

Of the many (many, many) things I love about not-winter, aka May through October, in Chicago, finally getting fresh produce and kitchen inspiration from the farmers market is just about at the top of my list, not far behind dinner on my porch, lunch on the beach, snacks in the park….basically anything food+outdoors.

Pink drinks

That’s one of the reasons I was so excited to try the Green City Market Cookbook for June’s cookbook club meeting. I bought this book from one of Chicago’s most iconic farmers markets when it first came out, but honestly only made a dish or two before it fell off my radar and sat, sadly neglected, on my bookshelf. The other reason I was excited to pick this book? Perfect excuse for a field trip.

Green City Market Cookbook

I could write a whole post just about Chicago-area farmer’s markets, but I’ll (attempt to) summarize my two favorites:

Farmers market 3

Green City Market has some of the best of everything Chicago has to offer when it comes to food, from the produce (obviously) and the food vendors (yes always to Nomad Pizza, Cookies and Carnitas, Co-op Hot Sauce, and Italian cider doughnuts, please) to the location smack in the middle of Lincoln Park.

It’s my favorite market to take out-of-town guests and show off the food of my adopted city, or to bring friends for some shopping and brunch. Oh, and I go to Green City Market for the cheese (Prairie Fruits Farms is my favorite).

Farmers market 2
Radishes within reach

That said, nearly every Saturday morning from spring through fall, I head north to the downtown Evanston farmer’s market to stock my fridge.

Herbs

Not quite as picturesque as Green City, but it has everything I want: a favorite fruit stand (which I will forever be grateful to for introducing me to damson plums), a handful of go-to vegetable vendors (my 10-for-$1 zucchini/pepper/eggplant/cucumber guy in mid-summer, Theresa’s and Henry’s for some of the best vegetable plants–and best vegetables–anywhere); a honey guy, a favorite bread lady. amazing empanadas for when I need a shopping snack… It also feels less packed than the city market with fewer double-wide strollers and no dogs–and you can’t beat free parking.

Farmers market 1

So, a week before our dinner, a few of us got up bright and early for a trip to the Green City Market (and, a few weeks later, the Evanston market) for inspiration and…let’s call it “research.”

This is what a cookbook club does when they go to the farmers market

After wandering the market, picking up a few provisions, we all left sufficiently inspired (and stuffed). With the fifteen dishes that we made, we ended up with a nearly vegetarian (two dishes with fish and one killer brisket) feast:

The other half Continue reading

May (and a little of June) in the Garden

Somehow summer always sneaks up on me. Between a flurry of “oh hey spring!” weekend fun and busy-ness and my day job, I looked at the calendar and suddenly it was almost mid-June.

But with a mostly rainy May, I lucked into a few perfect weekends (and some extra helping hands, aka my own master gardener) to get everything planted between my garden plot and pots on my porch. The plants certainly enjoyed all the rain, and I appreciated not having to babysit them while they were getting established.

I think this year is off to a pretty good start, don’t you? (May 11 vs June 5)

5/11
6/5

So far I planted from seeds:

  • Beans–I’m trying two new-to-me yellow and green bush bean varieties this year. I want to make my dad’s three bean salad this summer!
  • Peas–I’m excited to try these Dwarf Grey Sugar Snap Peas since they supposedly don’t require trellising.
  • RadishesFrench Breakfast (my most successful from-seed vegetable for the past three years), Early Scarlet Globe (new to me this year), Cincinnati Market, Plum Purple, and hoping I can get a watermelon radish to take this year!
  • Cucumbers–I found a perfect recipe for cornichon pickles last year, and this year I want to attempt pickles from my own Parisian pickling cucumbers. They’ve sprouted, which is farther than I got with seeds last year. So far, so good!
  • Carrots–With Parisian Market carrots, there’s obviously a French theme in my garden this year. But I’m excited to try these since they don’t need much depth, and they’re just so stinking cute.
  • Nasturtium–I’ve never planted these before, but I like the idea of adding the flowers to salads and having a little color in my garden.

5/31
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For seedlings, I planted:

  • Broccoli–I love the swirls and spikes of Romanesco broccoli, so I figured I’d give it a shot in the garden. This is my first brassica-type plant, and while the bunnies took a nibble from some of the leaves, they don’t seem to have done too much damage.
  • Celery–Celery is actually among the few things I will pick out of a dish, but some good marketing sold me on trying Pink Plume celery. What can I say, I’m a sucker for a good sales pitch (which, incidentally, came down to “It doesn’t taste like regular celery!”).
  • Peppers–Oh boy. I may be getting nearly as bad with peppers as I am with tomatoes. I’ve got:
    • Maule’s Red Hot–I loved these for drying and using as crushed red pepper last year.
    • Corno di Toro Rossi–A bigger sweet/hot pepper.
    • Mellow Star Shisito–Just for something different.
    • Chile Pulla–I can’t find anything about growing these fresh, but the dried version is common in cochinita pibil, a Yucatan version of pulled pork, which has become my new grilling obsession.
    • Fireball–I loved these last year and they produced like crazy, even in a pot on my porch. They’re like a sweeter version of a jalapeno, and I’m excited to try pickling some this year.
    • Espelette–I told you there was a French theme this year. I got some of this special dried chile powder in France last year and am excited to try growing the peppers themselves.
    • Padron–I think I planted one of these, but I honestly can’t remember. I hope I did, they’d be so fun to have with my next batch of paella.

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5/21
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And then there are the tomatoes. I…might have a bit of an over-buying problem that will turn into an over-eating problem come July/August/September. But, tomatoes! I somehow lost a bunch of the plant labels, so I’m not 100% sure what all I planted, I just know I have 11 (or is it 12?) kinds. To the best of my recollection:

  • Cherry/grape tomatoes: Black cherry, Honeydew (yellow cherry), and an as-yet-to-be-determined variety of red cherry tomato
  • Small/medium tomatoes
    • Japanese Black Trifele–I grew this last year and liked it enough to try it again.
    • Another small red tomato, another one that I forgot the variety.
  • Slicing tomatoes
    • Pineapple–I only got a few of these last year, but they were so gorgeous and delicious that I wanted to try again (and be better about fertilizing them this time).
    • Wherokowhai–One of two dwarf tomatoes I’m trying out this year that are specifically bred to grow well in small spaces but produce full-sized tomatoes. So far they’re growing like crazy!!
    • Fred’s Tie Dyed Tomato–…And the other dwarf tomato.
    • Purple Cherokee–I traded sesame noodle salad for this beautiful homegrown tomato plant at the Chicago Food Swap!
    • Green Cherokee–I got this as a freebie from the Chicago Botanic Garden. How could I say no to a free tomato plant?!

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5/27
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As for herbs, I have: chives (I cut them back and took home two pounds of chive–and they grew 6 inches of new chives in five days), garlic chives, cilantro, lemon verbena, oregano, bay, parsley, basil, winter savory, nepitella, spearmint, tarragon, rosemary, and borage. And apparently some dill seed got into my garden, so I guess I’m growing dill, too. Maybe I’ll try some dill pickles (to give away–I am decidedly not a fan of dill).

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Cooking the Books – Ina Garten’s Make It Ahead

Want to read more about Cooking the Books and my thoughts on Chicago’s food scene? Check out this interview I did with Third Coast Review!

Oh, Ina, if there was a way to live your life.

Zucchini tart

For April, we picked the Barefoot Contessa Make It Ahead cookbook. Let me say first that there’s a reason Ina’s built the reputation she has–her recipes work, and they are delicious. They may not test the bounds of kitchen creativity, but there’s definitely value in a recipe for perfectly cooked beef tenderloin or a not-watery vegetable lasagna, especially if you’re looking for a centerpiece dish for a party. If you have a house in the Hamptons, friends coming over to play bridge, and just stepped out to get a bouquet of freshly cut flowers from your best friend the florist, so much the better.

Sangria is served

Jeffrey approves
Jeffrey’s going to love this!

That said, I–we–definitely had some gripes with this book. First, the majority of the recipes seem to have been repurposed from other Barefoot Contessa cookbooks. This wouldn’t a big issue except these recipes were so obviously shoehorned into the “make ahead” concept and not always in a way that made sense.

The one I kept shaking my head at was her version of bouillabaisse. The recipe instructs you to make stock (which can be refrigerated up to a day, though the recipe isn’t exactly clear at which step your stock is done) and then, 30 minutes before serving, reheating the stock and adding all of the other ingredients. That’s just…making soup.

When I’m looking for a “make ahead” recipe, I want one that can be made completely a day or more ahead (or only needs a simple garnish or a component like rice or noodles) and is either as good or better the next day. This book has those kind of recipes–the noodle pudding she describes as “a mash-up of kugel and spanikopita,” which I could have eaten a pan of by myself, chicken pot pies, even the herb-roasted fish that you can assemble completely in single-serving packets a day in advance.

Noodle pudding
Chicken liver mousse

But the oddest recipes were ones like the roasted cauliflower snowflakes where the make ahead component is just cutting up a head of cauliflower, or the cream of wheat that has you combine milk, sugar, and maple syrup, refrigerate it, then reheat it when you’re ready to actually make cream of wheat. It’s not that these recipes don’t sound good–I adore roasted cauliflower and cream of wheat is one of my favorite winter Sunday breakfasts–they just seem forced into the make ahead concept.

Someone's waiting for a treat
Lemon-ginger molasses cake

Several of the recipes also bordered on too salty. This is a difficult critique since I think most people (including me) under-season their food, but there is nothing more frustrating than spending an hour on a recipe, filling a sink full of dishes, taking a bite of your creation…and needing to follow it with a glass of water. Just watch the salt in her recipes.

Happy group

There are some great recipes, though, as long as you ignore that they’re supposed to be “make ahead.” And you’re not on a diet–more power to her, Ina does not cower in the face of butter, eggs, or cheese.

This is what we made:

Continue reading

April in the Garden

I’ve been spying on my garden through the fence for the past month or so, watching and waiting to spot the first green tops of my chives. Last weekend, the first really gorgeous, warm weekend of the year, Peterson Garden Project gardens opened for the season, and I was out cleaning my plot, buying seeds, and getting a few cool weather plants in the ground.

Chives need a haircut

My chives are already about a foot tall and in need of a haircut. My oregano came back as well, along with a few radishes and a mess of dandelions. The dandelions and a bunch of other weeds got pulled, I added a little compost, planted some herb babies (cilantro, marjoram, and thyme), two Romanesco broccolis (a first for me), and got some seeds in the ground: carrots, radishes (French breakfast, Early Scarlet Globe, and Cincinnati Market), peas (a new-to-me variety that doesn’t need a trellis), and nasturtium.

Happy garden

This is my first year planting carrots, so I’m particularly excited about them. I got wee little fat ones called Paris market carrots that should be perfect since they don’t need much soil depth. Though as much as I appreciate the weather taking over watering duty since last Sunday, I think everything is sufficiently well-watered by this point and the rain can let up any day now…

Second-year Oregano

Next weekend I’m looking forward to getting tomato plants and other warm weather (we can only hope) vegetables from the PGP plant sale (I’ll also be making something to sell at their bake sale, so if you’re in the area, stop by!). I don’t have much of a plan for the rest of my garden this year–basil of course, sorrel (I’m nixing lettuce and greens otherwise, but I fell in love with sorrel last year), a few beans, a pepper or two, tomatoes wherever I can, plus another attempt at cucumbers. I found an amazing recipe for cornichon pickles last year and would love to make a batch with my own cucumbers.

Who else is gardening this year and what are you planting?

Paella in Barcelona (and I’m teaching a class!)

Remember that Barcelona trip I took back in April? There were honestly so many amazing things about it that I’ve struggled to put them all into words, but considering I’m teaching a class about part of the trip in two weeks, I figured now was a good time to share at least one story!

Paella, ready for eatingNice view

For the first vacation I’ve taken completely on my own, I left most of my time open for wandering, but I wanted a few things planned to give me a little direction. That’s how I spent three hours learning to cook paella from an amazing teacher in her home with a dozen other eager (and hungry) fellow students from all over the world. It was by far one of the best parts of the trip and one I would do again in a heartbeat. (Update: Want to know how the class turned out or looking for a good paella recipe? Check it out!) Continue reading

Elderflower Obsessed

Of the many things I love about my weekly farmers market trips, discovering new ingredients to play with might be the best of them all. Those discoveries led to my not-so-slight obsession with damson plums; my incessant crunching on a vegetable that most resembles something from a 1950s outer space comic book, kohlrabi; and the displacement of arugula as my favorite not-lettuce salad green by the lemon-y, spinach-y flavor of sorrel (which now also tops my list to plant in my garden in spring). One of the best discoveries so far this year, though, was a basket of these beautiful, and beautifully fragrant, flowers. Forget damsons, this year’s obsession? Elderflowers.

Handful of flowers

Elderflowers are the flowers used to flavor one of my favorite liqueurs, St.Germain. (The guy selling them kept telling me and a fellow curious buyer that’s its most commonly used to make a delicious and healthy tea. Personally, I like the liquor idea better.) Five quarts of flowers and a few half-gallon jars later, I had myself some projects.

If you, like me, are unfamiliar with elderflowers…you’re actually probably more familiar than you think. At least around Chicago, elderberry bushes are surprisingly common decorative shrubs. They’re what end up staining the sidewalks (and, more often than not, my car) dark purple from dropped berries come mid-summer. But before the berries, flowers. Incredibly sweet-smelling, almost cloyingly so, delicate sprays of creamy white flowers.

Elderflowers
A little bit of Googling led me to two ideas that seemed like good places to start: elderflower simple syrup and elderflower-infused vodka (essentially the starting point for making my own elderflower liqueur). Some citrus in the form of lemon and grapefruit (and a little extra citric acid for good measure), a pretty pink variation with some extra juicy strawberries, and I’m pretty much set for all my homemade soda and fancy cocktail needs this summer (and fall, winter, and next spring).

Elderflower syrup

The syrup is dead simple and utterly delicious. The grapefruit and lemon add a little bit of tart to balance out the could-be-too-flowery flavor of the steeped blossoms, but the flavor is bright, sweet summer all the way. The booze is still brewing, but, after I strain the flowers and add a good amount of sugar this week, I anticipate lazily watching more than a few summer sunsets under its influence. (And if you have any flowers left that you simply can’t cram into any other projects, elderflowers make very pretty ice cubes to fancy up your porch drinking.)

Elderflower soda

Elderflower Syrup and Elderflower Liqueur Continue reading

Spice-Rubbed Beer-Steamed Wood-Smoked Chicken

Usually when I share a recipe, I try to photograph important steps along the way or some part of the process that strikes me as particularly pretty. Trust me when I say this is the only picture of this recipe you need:

Golden brown and delicious

If you’re looking for the summer equivalent of fall and winter’s roast chicken, like smoked things, and have some beer hanging around, make this. This was one of those random dinner experiments that turned out miles beyond what I had hoped for. I was trying to make beer-can chicken, but my grill lid isn’t high enough to have the chicken stand up, so…I took the beer out of the can and put it under the chicken instead. And figured, what the heck, soak some wood chips in the beer while I’m at it. It looked gorgeous and tasted even better. I may have snuck a wing off this guy while I waited for my asparagus to grill.

I’ve made this with two different spice mixtures (a BBQ rub and a jerk spice rub) and two different kinds of beer (honestly just ones that have been kicking around my kitchen for far long–yes, I’m also that mythical person who has leftover wine). I’m planning to try this with cider next time and a spice blend like baharat or zatar. There are pretty much infinite variations and it can be as simple or as adventurous as you like. For a simple summer dinner (and great leftovers) with minimal prep, though, this cannot be beat.

Spice-Rubbed Beer-Steamed Wood-Smoked Chicken Continue reading

June in the Garden

I’ve mentioned my garden a few times this spring, but I think it’s finally settled (and green) enough to share a few pictures and talk about my plans this year (which, if they’re anything like last year, lasted all of a month before I realized my garden had its own plan).

Happylettuce

Here’s what came back from last year:

  • Chives (obviously), plus a few lonely garlic chives
  • Borage (I’m kind of afraid of this plant right now. I think it might grow legs and prowl the streets at night looking for small animals to eat. But the flowers are pretty and it’s good in a Pimm’s Cup!)
  • A few lettuce that I neglected for so long last summer that they actually went to seed and grew new lettuces.
  • Two strawberry plants. I had five last year, everyone says they’re nearly impossible to kill, other gardeners’ plots are completely overtaken with them. I killed more than half of mine. At least my chives came back?

Here’s what I planted as baby plants, a mix of stuff from the Peterson Garden Project sale, some vendors at the farmers market, and a local garden center.

  • Tomatoes. Oh, do I have tomatoes. Let’s see:
  • Tomatillos, purple and yellow (so excited for both of these!!)
  • Ground cherries
  • Peppers: Carmen (sweet), Poblano (mild), Maule’s Red Hot (spicy)
  • Dinosaur kale
  • Strawberries. I give up on doing strawberries in my garden, but they’ll be nice as a hanging basket! I’ll stick with stocking up at the farmers market and just appreciate the novelty of plucking one or two while I’m enjoying the sunset view from my porch.
  • All the herbs. In addition to two kinds of chives, I have oregano, parsley, rosemary, basil (regular and Thai, if the Thai one survives falling over in the car and breaking off most of its stem), bay, thyme, cilantro, epazote, lemon verbena, pineapple mint, and strawberry mint. The mints, epazote, and bay are all in pots on my porch, and the rest were big enough that I split them and have some in my garden to get big and bushy and some on my porch for quick access.

May 24, post planting June 7, getting greener And this is what I’m planting from seed:

  • Snap peas
  • Mixed lettuce, half the amount I planted last year
  • Mixed chard
  • Mixed radishes, mostly French Breakfast, a few purple, and some others that looked interesting. Watermelon radishes are getting planted in fall, a mistake I realized too late last year.
  • Dragon Tongue beans, which I’m inordinately excited about. They grew so fast!
  • Green beans.
  • Cucumber…maybe. I might do this in a pot on my porch this year, since I only want little cucumbers and can let them vine up my porch railings.

All the herbs. And tomatoes.

Considering all the rain we’ve been getting, everything is growing along quite happily (except some things that are none too happy with all the water. Or the sudden cold snap. I’m looking at you, tomatillos, basil, and rosemary. And I think my rosemary has powdery mildew. Boo.).

Chive-Cheddar Biscuits

Now that the flowers of my chives are put to work, on to more immediate gratification–biscuits.

Cheesy, chive-y layers Chive bouquet

I will eat biscuits (really, bread in any form) with anything and love them flavored with everything. For my overload of chives, I finely chopped a good handful of the chives I cut back along with two big handfuls of grated cheddar cheese and a few of the chive flowers for good measure, the hard blossom end plucked off and the flower sprinkled in. They were spectacular, perfect under a layer of spinach and an over-easy egg.

Curlicue of cheese Chopped chivesand an errant blossom Layers of color Biscuitt dough

With all the herbs I’ve planted, herb biscuits are going to be a great option to stash in the freezer for any future biscuit emergencies (…don’t look at me like that, that’s a real thing). I plan on doing at least one sweet biscuit with the lemon verbena (doesn’t that sound good as the base for a strawberry shortcake?) and another cheesy variation with the thyme (gruyere, perhaps?). Rosemary and black pepper biscuits would be amazing along side lemon chicken.

Baked biscuitChive bouquet

Chive Biscuits Continue reading