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Monthly Archives: August 2012

My second and third Chicago apartments were on the near west side. First, I lived with three roommates in an apartment on the 1200 block of North Cleaver Street, near the triangle made by the intersection of Division Street and Ashland and Milwaukee Avenues. Then I moved one major street down, to a three-flat near the intersection of Chicago and Ashland Avenues. I lived in each place for two years. Now a resident of the north side and soon to be Brooklyn, I find myself missing some of my old neighborhood haunts.

One of those places is Stanley’s Produce. Mention this name to a Chicagoan and they will recognize it immediately. Stanley’s felt particularly special for that part of Chicago, which was long past “up-and-coming” and already outfitted with boutiques with names like “August: A Grocery Store.” Stanley’s was a produce-lovers grocery store with zero-percent frills. Located in a warehouse-like building on a street sandwiched between a large interstate highway and a particularly drab stretch of the Chicago River, just north of the Morton salt warehouse, we flocked through its doors and braved the abysmal parking lot because of the fruit and vegetables sold at close-out prices.

I didn’t even have to deal with the parking: I didn’t have a car and it was a mere four blocks away from my Cleaver Street apartment. I could walk there in ten minutes, and walk out with bags of vegetables and fruits for next to nothing. I could even pick up my weekly supply of milk, bread and eggs if I felt like it.

Now, we’re not talking about top-notch farmer’s market fare, mind you. One rule of Stanley’s was that the produce tended to be on its way out and needed to be used quickly. But, there were gems to be had if you learned to shop with the seasons and go with what looked good on that particular day.

Most of the year the tomatoes at Stanley’s were kind of awful: mealy, flavorless orbs that you ended up regretting having bought. But I remember one very hot August afternoon that I walked over to Stanley’s and bought the best tomato I can remember eating. That day there was a pyramid of what they called “Arkansas tomatoes” set up near the front of the store. I wasn’t aware that Arkansas was famous for its tomatoes, but these were a distinct orangey-red color and looked amazing. I put two in my bag because I was curious – and it probably cost me under a dollar.

I walked home, cut into one and tasted. Firm but juicy, tangy with a touch of sweetness. I’m telling you that it was a personal epiphany. I had never been a huge fan of raw tomatoes until this one, and I never looked back from there – I’m hooked for life. The next day I returned to Stanley’s and there were no more to be found. Such was the mystery of the place.

These days I buy half of my vegetables at farmers’ markets and the other half from a smattering of grocery stores that I choose because of convenience or trying to make well-informed purchasing decisions. To be honest, I haven’t found a foolproof solution to produce shopping yet – probably because I’ve had to relocate right in the middle of CSA season for several years in a row. I’m not saying that Stanley’s was the answer- God only knows how they got their prices so low and I’m sure the veg wasn’t all local, let alone organic. But, due to the sporadic nature of its stock, it was probably the first time I realized that being surprised and governed by what was fresh and in season could actually be fun if you just went with it. And all of this without a drop of pretentiousness.

In the spirit of that bite of Arkansas tomato of long ago (I still haven’t had one I enjoyed so much), I offer you another tomato-based recipe, although this one involves cooking them. Use this for ones that might be a bit past the firmness you’d want for eating raw and are still full of flavor and color. I was inspired to slow-roasting by Nigel Slater’s Tender – a book that has brought continual satisfaction since I bought it last December. He suggested slow-roasting a bunch of tomatoes and garnishing with thyme. I didn’t have thyme but found that salt and pepper worked just fine. I wanted to make a meal out of it, so I had them over a bed of hot, fragrant rice. It works very well.

Slow-roasted tomatoes over rice

Several large, very fresh and ripe red tomatoes

Salt and pepper to taste

Olive oil

For the rice:

1 cup long-grain rice

1/2 a sweet yellow onion

3 tbs butter

Salt to taste


Directions

Begin with the tomatoes. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Wash them, remove the green stems and half them. Arrange facing up in a pyrex or other oven-proof roasting pan. Cover liberally in olive oil, salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper.

Put the pyrex in the oven, and when it reaches 350, let them roast for at least an hour. You can easily leave them in for longer than this: they will only get better. You want them to be slightly blackened on the bottom but still have an intense red color and to keep their shape.

Once the tomatoes go in the oven, begin on the rice. If you are like me and deplore mushy rice, do the following: put the cup of rice in a shallow pan and cover with warm water for 15 minutes. Then rinse the rice in a fine strainer in cold water so that it runs clear. Shake the strainer dry.

Next, heat the butter over medium heat in a small pot. Add the chopped onion and fry until translucent. Add the washed and dried rice and fry over medium-high heat until fragrant and just slightly toasted. Add to this mixture 1 and 3/4 to 2 cups of water. Stir and bring to a boil.

When most of the water has evaporated and you can see holes on the surface of the rice, cover the pot with a paper towel and its lid, reduce heat to medium and cook covered for 5 minutes. Then turn off the heat and let steam for 20 minutes. Remove the lid, paper towel and fluff.

Serve 2-3 of the tomatoes over a bed of the hot rice. Nothing could taste better on a slightly cool August evening.

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This week the heat broke in Chicago. Heavy clouds rolled in and the temperature dropped nearly twenty degrees. These are the conditions that bikers dream of, except for the high speed cross-winds that made open stretches along the shore particularly difficult to move through. In exchange, Lake Michigan offered some of the most dramatic views I’ve seen all summer and my trips to and from Hyde Park were some of the most memorable.

I don’t have any pictures, so I will just have to describe it verbally: In the morning, the water was a translucent sea-foam green and choppy. On my return trip just before dusk, it was purplish-gray mixed with orange from the setting sun and the surface was churning angrily. A wave that broke over the wall almost knocked a commuter in front of me off his bike. This is why I love August in Chicago. It starts out very hot – truly the dog days – but offers a few snatches of things to come with its dramatic winds and rains. It isn’t fall yet (I’m not ready for that) but just a momentary relief from the oppressive heat.

I was reminded by this windy weather of my first August in Chicago, in 2003. I had finished my freshman year of college and stayed over for the summer. I had a summer job in the marketing department of an architecture firm and was living in a 1-bedroom apartment with a roommate in Hyde Park. I slept on an air mattress in the living room, where the extremely loud fan kept me awake but offered a welcome breeze since the apartment was on the third floor and wasn’t air conditioned. There were drunken escapades on 54th street and dramatized readings of the Hobbit. A friend and I created an imaginary cast of office characters based on our “corporate” jobs and devised episodes in which they all interacted. I wish we had written them down.

I remember well biking through Washington Park on a day in August much like these last few, where a storm had downed several large trees and scattered branches everywhere. It felt like I wasn’t even in an inhabited city, but in some post-apocalyptic ghost town.

That summer is also vivid because it was in some ways the last of an era. By the next August, I had come out of the closet and was headed to the U.K. for a year. Although I went back into hiding for the first few months I was abroad, my state of mind had changed and things would not be the same after that. That August, my mind was boiling over with a toxic combination of self-hatred, denial and uncertainty about the future, but now I look back on it with a sort of fondness, as it represents a moment of naïveté both childish and comforting, a last attempt at trying to play the role I thought I should but knew I wouldn’t.

I don’t remember much of what I was cooking for dinner those days. It probably involved a large amount of pasta and some of the old standbys I had inherited from childhood: a gumbo here, a stuffed grape-leaf there. Back then I wasn’t hip to the fact that vegetables were seasonal and that one can derive extraordinary pleasure from cooking based on what appears at a market stand. I’m still not totally seasonal but I have come to embrace a whole new array of vegetables since I started trying to be. Zucchini is one of those new-found delights. I mentioned before that I was on a zucchini kick recently and this recipe shows why.

I generally don’t like substitute-foods- I mean tofu or soy-based meat replacements, gluten-free this and that. I’d rather cook a vegetable like a vegetable or just avoid the thing I can’t or won’t have by eating something else entirely. This pseudo-pasta made of shaved zucchini won me over though. Since Cesar is living without wheat now, we’ve been experimenting and something about this just seems naturally good and right. The zucchini is almost meaty and when pan-seared, loses some of its water. The key is to fry until just crisp but not too crisp.

Since zucchini and tomato are best friends and since their seasons are currently overlapping, a savory, tomato-based pasta sauce is an obvious compliment for this summer squash. I used my favorite [Bolognese recipe] and it was perfect. I used tinned tomatoes since I didn’t have any fresh around that night, but you could easily substitute fresh ones. Choose large, red, sweet and juicy ones, pan sear them to brown the edges and release the juices, give them a good mash in the pan, add salt and let them stew in their juice for a few minutes until you add it to the other ingredients. The tomatoes have arrived and the zucchinis are still on the stands, it’s August and there’s a slight coolness in the air, and there is no dish more perfect than this one to celebrate that.

Zucchini “pasta”

Ingredients (for two):

4 medium to large green zucchinis

olive oil and salt to taste

Directions:

Wash the zucchini and trim off the flower buds at the ends if they have them. With a vegetable peeler, carefully shave off strands of the skin lengthwise – the longer the better. Save these – you want both the skin and the inner flesh for color and texture. We used a peeler with a serrated edge that gave thinner strips like spaghetti, but a regular one will give you fatter strips more like fettuccine – just as good.

Continue peeling, rotating the zucchini as you go along, until you reach the inner core with the seeds. At this point, you won’t be able to get very good strands since the flesh gets very soft, but you can chop this part up and eat it as an appetizer with oil and vinegar while the meal is getting ready.

Heat a tablespoon or two olive oil in a large shallow pan over medium heat. Add the shaved zucchini strands and pan fry with some salt until they release their water, the water evaporates and the strands are just beginning to brown. This should take no more than 7 to 8 minutes.

Serve this with hot bolognese or another tomato-based sauce and add plenty of parmesan for garnish- the parmesan makes the dish into a real meal.

A very quick post, dear friends, on the first day of August. We just got back from an extended weekend trip to New York, where many slices of pizza, soup dumplings and martinis were enjoyed. Also, there was jellyfish marinated in soy sauce, recommended by Andrew and perhaps a new sabasalads favorite. No oysters this time, unfortunately, but there’s always the next trip.

Apart from enjoying the delicacies of our favorite eastern-seaboard city, this trip was taken in preparation for a move to NYC in the fall. Many of you reading this talk to me regularly in person anyway so you probably know that Cesar and I are relocating to New York for at least a year, and hopefully longer, this September. I wanted to make some sort of announcement on the blog but I never did. Now feels like the right time.

To make a long story short, some opportunities came our way and we decided to take them. Mine is research related and Cesar’s is work related, but aside from that we had many reasons to want to make this happen. Last year, I had the chance to spend many months in two very interesting cities abroad, but I’m more excited about this next thing – Berlin and London felt like extended research trips, but I am hoping this move will trigger something further-reaching. I don’t know what exactly that might be, and it may or may not have to do with the dissertation.

Now back to the food talk. More specifically: zucchini. I never loved zucchini as a child and until recently it didn’t call my attention. For some reason I can’t get enough of it now. It’s ranking up there with kale and broccolini as one of my go-to’s, and I’d even say that I crave it on occasion. Entering August, we’re still in the heart of zucchini season and there are so many things to do with this vegetable that I could probably devote an entire summer’s worth of posts to it if I got my act together. Today I want to mention the zucchini flower though, since I’ve been seeing it at almost every farmer’s market I’ve been to lately, including one on Central Park West where I paid $19 for a bag of mixed greens. I’ll be back next time with another recipe involving the zucchini itself.

Zucchini blossoms are bright orange and usually come in small plastic tubs. They’re overpriced like many other speciality products that used to be thrown away in the United States, but they’re worth a try if you’re looking for something interesting and seasonal in the next couple of weeks. In Mexico, these flowers have always been utilized and one of the best ways that they are used is in quesadillas. One thing you need to know before you buy them though is that one package doesn’t go very far: these flowers wilt in the pan and reduce to a fraction of their bulk by the time you’re done. The taste is worth it though: while they don’t keep their brilliant orange color, combined with cheese and onions, they make a meaty filling (in the way that eggplant is meaty) without the trouble of cooking any meat at all.

Quesadillas with zucchini flowers (flor de calabaza)

1 pack of farmer’s market zucchini flowers (sometimes called “squash blossoms)

1/2 lb white Mexican-style melting cheese (e.g. queso Chihuahua or Oaxaca), shredded

1 small sweet onion, finely diced

8 corn tortillas

Directions

Prepare the flowers by washing lightly and removing the stamens and stems. Pat dry with a towel and then cut the flowers into strips. 

Heat olive oil in a pan. Add the onions and cook until fragrant and translucent. Add the flowers and reduce the heat to medium. Sauté these until they are wilted and have released much of their water. You want them to caramelize slightly in the pan. When they’re done, turn the heat off and set pan aside.

Between two tortillas, pile some shredded cheese and a bit of the onion-flower mixture (you should have 4 total). Heat these over medium heat until the cheese starts to melt and then flip them, browning on both sides. 

Serve immediately as an afternoon snack.