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
For the rice:
1 cup long-grain rice
1/2 a sweet yellow onion
3 tbs butter
Salt to taste
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.