Saturday, March 21, 2015

Ramen Noodles in 10 Minutes! A Test for My Good Foods Festival Demo.

On March 21st (Yes I know today) I am doing a demo at the Good Food Festival at the UIC forum on how to make home made ramen noodles from scratch.  I only have 20 minutes to do the demo so I wanted to time myself.  I figured I might as well record the endeavor and put it up or others to learn from.  It's a rough video taken on my partner's phone, but I've received feedback that it's been useful for people none the less.  I hope by posting here that can continue.  Enjoy.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Restaurant Review: Uptown Inspiration Kitchen

So it's been a long time since I did a restaurant review, but then it's been a long time since I posted much of anything.  I've been eating my way around Uptown Chicago and decided that a couple of the places that I have completely fallen in love with need some more advertisement.  That seemed like as good a reason as any to dust off the old restaurant review format.

The first place I want to talk about is Inspiration Kitchen.  This is hands down the most amazing little hidden culinary gem I've come across in Chicago.  The reasons for it's excellence lie in it's mission.  It's not a for profit restaurant.  It is instead a small bistro/high end cuisine front end to a major social mission non profit.  The non profit that runs Inspiration Kitchen is named Inspiration Corporation and they do job training for people who are out of work.  I don't know exactly how the financing works, but I know that Chicago has work training financing available to people who are on unemployment, so I imagine Inspiration takes advantage of that program.  They also help their students navigate the food assistance infrastructure while they're in the program, and provide placement services to their students when they are done with training.

Here's what makes this so amazing.  They aren't training people to go work at a greasy spoon.  This is a 13 week intensive culinary program where they learn by making food at Inspiration Kitchen.  They get plating instruction, a broad array of preparation training, and real life experience with several different service models.  Brunch and Lunch are traditional restaurant menu models, while dinner is entirely Prix Fix.  The other nice thing is that because the restaurant is a non profit, and most of the people working the kitchen aren't employees the prices are amazingly low.  The average price on their menu runs between 9 and 10 dollars for a very high quality brunch or lunch service and a higher quality of ingredient than most restaurants can provide at that price point. The dinner Prix Fix is $22 for 3 courses or $36 for 5 courses.  That quality of service and food with that quantity at any other restaurant would be at least 40-60$ a person.

The other thing that makes Inspiration Kitchen a fantastic and unique experience is the wait staff.  At most restaurants at best waiting tables is a fun social job.  With very few exceptions your waiter isn't making a career out of what they're doing, and they certainly aren't "passionate" about it.  This is not true of Inspiration Kitchen at all.  The wait staff are either all or for the most part graduates of the program who have decided to stay on and continue to help with the restaurant (so explained my waitress on the first visit).  They are gregarious, fun, incredibly well informed about the food and the social programs the food facilitates and as a result the entire customer waiter/waitress experience is completely different from any other restaurant I've been to.  My servers have always been up beat, excited to see me, and quite honestly borderline flirty in some cases (in a very fun appropriate sort of way).  We have a standard brunch/lunch waitress, and she remembers everything we order, she knows James is vegetarian, and knows exactly which specials we will love and which ones we won't.  It brings all the friendliness I love about neighborhood greasy spoons together with high class cuisine.  To be honest I can't imagine any other establishment accomplishing that very difficult feat.

So now I've fawned all over Inspiration you're probably thinking "It's too good to be true this place sounds impossible".  Well . . . ok it is kind of impossibly awesome, but there are a couple downsides and I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about them a little bit.  The two big downsides to Inspiration are both tied to the fact that it's a training program.  The first and simplest one is just that the menu is fairly small.  the menu fits on a single sheet of white printer paper.  It's very attractive, and they update it every now and then as things come in and out of season but your options for any given service will be somewhat limited.  That said, given that it is a culinary training program at work this is hardly unreasonable, and I still guarantee you will find something you love on the menu.

The other downside is that the food preparation consistency isn't what it is at other restaurants.  Now when I say this I'm not necessarily talking about quality.  I've never gone in and gotten what I thought was an unacceptable meal for the price, ever.  That said the potatoes in the roasted potato hash at brunch are always cooked a little differently, the pancake thickness and texture will vary, as will the slaw on your fried chicken sandwich.  I've occasionally found chunks of sweet potato in the soup. etc. etc.  Aside from the very rare outright mistake like the hunks of sweet potato in the pureed soup a lot of these consistency things aren't really a problem.  It's more if you have a dish one day and it's absolutely how you like it and you always want it to be exactly like that. . . you may be a bit disappointed next time.  The trade off between consistency and quality is something that gets talked about quite a bit when you read articles about the business issues related to running a restaurant.  Customers will have something they like and they will never want it to change at all, ever.  When you're running a job training program that type of consistency is just not possible.

So the final note I want to make is about which services are the best at Inspiration.  I have a hard time choosing when service I prefer, but I honestly think my favorite is brunch.  Their lunch and dinner services are kind of a toss up for me.  I certainly go to lunch more often, but that has more to do with affordability than preference.  Much as their dinners are an absolute steal most nights I just don't need that much food.  Ultimately I'd say go in for brunch first, and then try their lunch services.  You'll end up doing dinner sooner or later just our of curiosity.  Once you've experienced the joy of their stuffed french toast you'll come back to a lunch or dinner service so you can taste the little bit of heaven that is deep fried brussel sprouts in herb aioli.  I've hated those little green beasties since I was a child.  Now I can't stop eating them.  Trust me, it's worth it.

Ambiance: 5 of 5
Service: 5 of 5
Food Quality: 4.5 of 5
Flavor Quality: 4.5 of 5
Cost/Value 5 of 5

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Countless Uses for Kefir Grains

A few months ago a friend of mine gave me just over a teaspoon of kefir grains.  I have practiced several different forms of fermentation over the past several years.  I've made home made sour cream, yogurt, kombucha, and kim chee.  I can honestly say that kefir is the easiest and most dynamically useful fermentation that I have played with.  It is also the easiest.  As I just gave some kefir grains to some other friends I thought it would be worth while to writeup my process for creating kefir, and the various ways that I process it.

First a teaspoon of kefir grains is enough to culture about a cup of milk over the course of a couple days.  If you use warm milk the process goes more quickly, but the kefir grains and milk can both be cold when you combine them, and everything will still culture correctly.  The culture needs to breath while it is cultivating.  To accomplish this I culture my kefir in a mason jar with a 2 layers of cheesecloth held in place by a mason jar ring.  However, the friend who first gave me his culture just left the lid loose on his kefir jars and never ran into any problems.  After a day you will want to taste your kefir to see if it is as sour as you would like it.  When the culture tastes how you would like it to taste then you strain out the grains.  I generally put the grains back into the mason jar that I did the culturing in, replace the cheesecloth with a normal lid and put the culture in the fridge till I am ready to use it again.  The culture is very hearty and I haven't had any problems leaving it for a week or longer between cultures.  Every few batches I rinse the grains off to avoid too much milky solid buildup.

If you let the culture go long enough it will become a full yogurt consistency at which point the curd will separate from the whey of the kefir.  This isn't necessarily a problem, and I often strain the whey for use in other products such as bread.  However, when you have a thick product it is difficult to get the kefir grains out without damaging them.  I take a fine mesh strainer and put the liquid in to it and then take a spoon or butter knife and run it sideways across the bottom of the strainer.  It's important to keep the side of the spoon vertical as opposed to angled so you don't push the grains down into the strainer making your product lumpy, and damaging the culture.  If you do this regularly it will breakup your grains, but as long as they aren't actually pushed through the strainer it won't cause any problems with future batches.

That is a basic rundown of how I make kefir.  It's nearly impossible to messup a batch.  The worst you can do is let it go "too long" and have it fully separate when you wanted a lightly sour smooth batch.  It's still a wonderful product, just a little different.  Kefir can stand in for buttermilk in all of it's uses.  I've used kefir to make buttermilk biscuits, pancakes, and even as a base culture for sour cream.  The sour cream turns out a bit less nutty and a bit more yogurt like than when you use buttermilk, but it still works in pretty much all the same ways. I've also strained the whey as a I said above and used it to make bread.  If you get a particularaly thick batch it eats almost exactly like yogurt.  We got through a ridiculous amount of kefir every week in my house, and I highly recommend this to anyone who's up for making some.  As I just gave out some culture it will be a little while before I have more to spare, but I'm sure I'll be able to give some away in a couple weeks.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Montezuma's Orange

So this is an absolutely brilliant drink my partner came up with last night on a whim.  I told him he had to send it to me so I could put it up in the hopes that someone else could experience it's wonder.  It's stupid simple, but wonderful in a way that I can't even express in words.

3 parts Godiva chocolate cream liqueur
1 part Cointreau
4-8 drops habaƱero tincture

Directions: pour, pour, drip, stir, drink

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Vegan Jambalaya

So I made this for a gaming get together with my friends the other night.  It was a throw things together kind of meal, but one of my friends asked for the recipe, so I tried to recreate what I did and figured I might as well post it here.  If anyone tries it let me know if any of it doesn't make sense or generally what you think.  I haven't really proofed the text, so it might be a bit rough.

2 cups brown long grain rice
1 cup lentils
6 cups water or salt free vegetable stock
1 onion
3 medium carrots
3 medium celery stalks
8 oz crimini mushrooms
1 bell pepper diced
1 zucchini diced
3 cloves garlic
2 cans of fire roasted tomatoes
a large pinch of oregano
a large pinch of thyme
hot sauce to taste
salt and pepper to taste
olive oil to just coat the bottom of pan

Saute your garlic and onion in a pan with the olive oil on high heat
until they start to brown and coat the bottom of the pan in a light
fond.  Then toss in the chopped carrots, and the herbs and continue to
toss until the fond develops into a medium dark color.  Deglaze the
pan with your water or salt free veg stock.  Rinse and go over your
lentils and add them to the simmer water and cook for 10 minutes.
Then add the rice and mushrooms and cook for 10 minutes or so.  Then
add the celery and cook for another 10 minutes.  Then add the
zucchini, bell peppers, canned tomatoes, salt and hot sauce to taste.
Simmer until the lentils and rice are tender.  If the mixture dries
out before the rice and lentils are as tender as you would like just
add additional water.  If you didn't have sodium free veg stock, but
want the veg flavor add veg bullion instead of salt in the final
stage, you just don't want to add salt until the lentils are done
cooking.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Infusions: Coffee

So somehow I missed doing a blog post on coffee flavored infusions back when that was my focus.  Someone asked me for the recipe for a coffee liqueur I did for a party a couple months ago and I figured I'd point them to my blog post . . . NO BLOG POST!!!  So here we go.

Coffee is a classic infusion flavor.  It is bright, brings some caffeine to the party, though in more natural quantities than those hopped up alcoholic energy drinks (shudder), and is among the most classic of flavors.  It's earthy, deep, slightly bitter, yet incredibly smooth when carefully balanced.  Unlike most other ingredients I've posted about there is quite a bit of complication in choosing your source ingredients.  Ginger is more or less ginger, blueberries are more or less blueberries and so on and so forth.  Certainly quality varies, but for the most part you either have "great fruit" or "mediocre fruit".  Coffee on the other hand comes in myriad varieties and beyond the basic quality concerns of freshness there is roast preference, the type of beans you prefer, how ground you want your beans to be, etc. etc.  Really it's all the same variables that go into a great cup of coffee, only applied to alcohol extraction instead of water extraction.  There is no "best bean" you will need to experiment a bit to find out what you like the most.  That said here are the things I recommend:

Go Dark: I like my coffee fairly nutty, but I like my coffee infusion to be fairly dark.  The alcohol doesn't take out much of the carbon bitterness of dark coffee, but it does take out the carmelization in the bean's sugars and the complex flavors that develop.  I've made some delicious liqueur from Turkish and espresso coffee.  That said a more moderate if still somewhat dark full city roast might bring a set of flavors to the party that you prefer.  As with all things, experiment.

Go Fresh: This I cannot emphasize enough.  Coffee gets stale over time, and depending on the nature of the coffee that time can be very brief indeed.  At one point, just to see if it would work I got the leftover espresso grounds from a local coffee shop and made liqueur out of them.  To explain what this is about, when you make a GOOD shot of espresso you overload your mechanism and then pack everything down.  This results in some of the grounds falling out.  It's just part of pulling a good shot.  Some techniques waste more or less coffee, but they all waste some grounds.  The liqueur I made tasted delicious, but for the first couple months of it's existence it smelled a bit like the garbage can.  I couldn't figure it out, but it was very disconcerting.  I do know that when coffee is ground that fine, and left out exposed to the air it goes stale very very quickly, and I've never had a similar effect with fresh coffee.  So go fresh, and avoid the smell of compost in your liqueur.

Ratios: I recommend about a cup of grounds to a 5th of liquor, though to be honest I rarely measure, so that is a very rough estimate.  You can't really let this infuse too long.  The joy of a cold alcohol infusion in coffee is it doesn't bring out all those unpleasant volatile bitter compounds that you find in a hot brew of the bean.

Flavor Profile: We've all had coffee.  This will be a somewhat less round version of the flavor, and much less bitter that a hot brew.  It can be slightly nutty, very deep, and excellent with all things cream, much like a normal cup of Joe.  The most traditional flavor to go with coffee liqueur is probably vanilla.  Kahlua is coffee and vanilla.  It's a sure fire hit.  Other good flavors are cacao, cinnamon, cardamom (hmmm Turkish Liqueur), and really any deep earthy spice.  As always experiment and see what strikes your fancy.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

One Does Not Simply REMOVE One's Self from the Supply Chain

As I wrote a couple posts ago about the choices we make and the supply chain I realized that I wouldn't really be able to complete my point.  I could talk about the importance of removing oneself from the supply chain, but I couldn't really talk about how to do it without being entirely too verbose for a single post.  So here is my followup.  This is where politics and Betty Home Maker, or Benjamin Home Maker merge in my mind.

First I just have to say that it's not practical to cut one's self off from our society or economy entirely.  It just can't be done in a way that most people can achieve.  Instead one can work bit by bit, piece by piece to minimize your dependency on the systems of the world we live in.

Being that this is a food blog and given that I said food is the part of our lives where this is most important I feel I must start there.  I believe that our dependency on the supply chain for food is more important than any other aspect of our lives because food is the one thing we get from the supply chain that is not ever an option.  We don't always need medical care, we can survive with a backpack's worth of clothing, we don't need cable, or internet, or gaming consoles.  They are all either luxuries, or only necessary at certain times of year or periodically.  Those needs can be anticipated and planned around.  So while the supply chain's control over those things is significant it's not like food.  A lack of food will kill, either slowly or in some cases quickly.  It will prevent brain development in children, it will cause disability in adults.  It makes us ravenous, and angry.  Hunger destroys reason, and stunts the development of children, including vital brain development.  It is for these reasons that I believe that food is the most important dependency we have on the supply chain, and the one which we must apply the most focus to breaking.

As I said above we must go about breaking that dependency a piece at a time.  A person cannot go from eating out almost every day to making all of their food from scratch.  Instead you can look at how you go about eating now and pick up one new food related hobby, or learn one new recipe that you never knew before.   The best thing about this process is that it lends itself to a social structure.  You can use sites like http://www.dabble.co to connect and find affordable educational opportunities.  You can cook with friends on a regular basis, or just bum around the internet looking for trouble to get into in your kitchen and it can all seem terribly entertaining, but over time it develops into something more substantial.

I will throw out a couple very simple things you can do to start off.  Learn to make krauts.  My local food coop uses the term Kim Chee, but Kraut is a bit more accurate.  You can easily make a home made condiment at home from raw vegetables by shredding them, salting them, spicing them and then pressing them into a large recently cleaned glass container to ferment.  The process is incredibly simple and there are several wonderful resources out there to learn more (here is a good example).  Add in almost any vegetable you can think of and replace the seasonings with whatever you like and you're in the fermented relish business.  My house recently went vegetarian and lunch is often cheese sandwiches with copious kraut thrown in for flavor, live enzymes and easy to access vegetable nutrients.

So with that small hobby that can allow for great creative expression via food you can allow yourself to stop buying most relishes, as you can make kraut style relishes easily.  You can cut out a decent amount of meat consumption even if you don't go entirely vegetarian, and you've just begun to crack the door on realizing how much you can do for yourself.

You can replace complex cleaners with vinegar, water and a dollar store spray bottle in the kitchen.

You can look for pasta sauces that are sold in mason jars (the safeway generics often are, just as an FYI) and re-use the jars instead of buying your own or using Tupperware.

The options go on and on.  One little thing at a time.  The best part is most of these techniques are beneficial to you.  They save you money and give you a little bit more control over your own life and fulfillment as you go.

Everything I've listed above are things I do in day to day life, and I certainly do other things to try and keep a level of independence from the corporate supply chain.

I read financial news on a fairly regular basis because I'm a strange breed of geek.  One thing I've seen consistently is that pay is starting to creep up again, but consumer spending is not.  The people at the top of the system are starting to take notice and they are worried that people aren't spending even though they are starting to make a little bit more money again.  Well for one thing the "more money" that is being made is crumbs at best.  The other thing that not enough people are talking about is that as a generation we have been profoundly impacted by this recession.  My grandparents survived the Great Depression and that experience informed every aspect of their lives and the way they chose to live it.  They were industrious and knew how to do for themselves in ways that our parents' generation did not.  Now though we are at another cross roads where we have to learn to take care of ourselves, and we may well have learned similar lessons. 

When you purchase everything pre made for you the money creeps to the companies that provide that service.  When things crash no one has the skills necessary to adjust, tighten the belt and start doing for themselves again.  It's critical we re-learn that lesson, and along the way we just might start to extract some of those resources from the top of our system again, simply by not feeding the money we have back into it.