Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Devon Avenue, Chicago

Last weekend the boyfriend and I went to Chicago, ostensibly to hang around downtown and Navy Pier. What I really wanted to do was to check out the ethnic grocery stores on Devon Avenue. I got a quick glimpse of Devon a couple of years ago when I was in Chicago with my parents and they had taken a wrong turn while looking for the freeway entrance. The street was teeming with ethnic groceries--Russian, Indian, Turkish--and I've been intrigued ever since.

When you first turn onto Devon, Russian-Jewish businesses abound. I spotted a Jewish community center, an Israeli restaurant and Russian grocery stores, bookstores and video stores. Several blocks later, stores with names like Tbilisi and Balalaika give way to blocks and blocks of Indian and Pakistani businesses, with the occasional Chinese restaurant thrown in.

I did a quick Google search the night before our trip and unearthed Argo, a Georgian cafe/bakery/grocery where we stopped for lunch. A small fence separates the tiny two-table cafe from the actual bakery, where two employees were busy rolling out dough when we came in. I asked the friendly owner if they had hachepuri, Georgian cheese bread, and, of course, they did. We were served hot, flaky puff pastry stuffed with feta cheese on paper plates. Then we sampled meat, potato and sauerkraut pirozhki, all made with the same flaky dough. The potato pastry was the best of those three, but hachepuri was my favorite.

We took home a pound of pelmeni--Argo sells all sorts of frozen doughy goodies--two more hachepuris and five loaves of bread, still warm from the oven. One of the breads was a long, baguette-like loaf and the other four were lavash. Lavash, a round, puffy bread that looks like a baked pizza shell, was fantastic. I wish I had taken a picture of it but we ate one loaf in the car on the way home, another loaf after we got home, and the rest we gave to our respective parents.

Argo also sells Georgian and Russian specialties like sour plum sauce, adjika (a spicy relish), suluguni cheese (used as filling in hachepuri), kefir, sour cream, caviar, etc. (See this for another review of Argo, plus pictures. I think the owner is in the first photo.)

After lunch we walked down Devon, past the Indian restaurants and the women in saris, past the mosques and Pakistani groceries smelling of exotic spices and the video stores displaying posters of Bollywood hotties. We were too full to eat anything else. I'd love to come back and explore this part of the street, and I'm especially intrigued by the very reasonably priced lamb and mangos in the ethnic groceries.

* Argo Georgian Bakery
2812 W. Devon Ave.
Chicago, IL 60659-1502
(773) 764-6322

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Meme: Five Things to Eat Before You Die

I'm terribly excited to finally get tagged with a meme. (Thanks, Rebecca!) I love memes and always read them when I'm skimming through a blog that's new to me. I can do without memes that ask for five things you keep in your purse, or whatever, but food-related memes give a glimpse of the blogger's personal history, and that's always a plus.

Rebecca, of Eat, originally originally wrote about five things she's never had and wants to try. I would have liked that kind of meme more. I'm new to cooking and foodie-dom, so there's quite a lot I'd like to try. I just haven't been around long enough to have an intimidatingly exotic list of foods.

But, for now, here's my list of five:

1. Blini, my sentimental favorite. Half a dozen of warm blini with butter, jam, honey and sour cream, washed down with a big pot of tea, is one of the most delicious meals you can ever eat.

2. Manti, steamed Uzbek lamb dumplings. These are oversize pockets of dough with a filling of lamb, onions, coriander, cumin, and, sometimes, pumpkin, stuffed in the middle. They're always steamed in a special dumpling steamer. My boyfriend's mom makes pretty great manti, and she once taught me to make them from start to finish. We used ground lamb, but to make the authentic version you have to chop boneless lamb by hand. Hot, juicy manti must be eaten with your hands, I'm told, never with a knife and fork. Too bad I wasn't blogging when I got my manti lesson, but I'll make them myself one of these days.

3. Fresh fruit in season. I eat lots of fruit but so much of it is disappointing. Really good fresh fruit is one of the great pleasures in life. This is my fruit and berry hierarchy: A-list fruit-- peaches, mangos, nectarines, apples, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries. B-list--melons, pears, grapes, oranges, grapefruit. C-list--Plums, watermelon.

4. My mom's Napoleon cake. Once year, usually around Christmas or New Year's, my mom bakes a Napoleon. You can buy mille feuille pastry ready-made, of course, but my mom makes her own. It's tricky and time-consuming, but worth it, we all agree, when we bite into layers flaky pastry and cream made of butter and sweet condensed milk.

5. Chocolate frozen custard from Kopp's. The creamiest, smoothest, richest ice cream I've ever had.

I'm tagging Jeff of Eat Wisconsin, Helen of Beyond Salmon, Betty of Cuisine Quotidienne, Lindy of Toast and Katherine of ToastPoint.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Making Pickles

What you see above is pickle-making in progress. I'm using a family recipe that my mom dug out of my grandmother's hand-written recipe notebook. I'm not canning, mind you, just making pickles that'll keep in the fridge for about a month.

Here's how: I scrubbled clean about 25 farmer's market cucumbers and cut off the ends. Then I pricked them all over with a fork and put them in a bowl with layers of dill seed heads, black currant leaves (optional) and half a dozen garlic cloves. (If I had horseradish root, I'd use it.)

I brought a liter of water to a boil, added a tablespoon of sugar and two tablespoons of kosher salt, and poured the hot water over the pickles. Then I added about two tablespoons of vinegar to the bowl. I put a plate with a weight (a bottle of vegetable oil) over the bowl. The brine is working its magic as I write this, but we'll see how the pickles turn out in two days.

Update: The pickles are pretty good: nice and crunchy, if a bit too salty. They need another day in the fridge after their two-day brine bath for the best taste.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Kvass Update

Well, my kvass was interesting. Drinkable? Not really. But interesting. Let's write kvass-making off as a learning experience.

I filled two bottles with kvass last Monday morning and left them on a kitchen counter to start fermenting. When I got home I found one of the corks lying in a puddle of kvass next to the bottle. I stuffed the cork back in and let the kvass ferment for a few more days, but not surprisingly the kvass in that bottle was completely flat and tasted terrible. The second bottle, which remained corked the whole time, was closer to the real thing. The kvass was carbonated, smelled right but tasted oddly sour.

I'm not up on my food chemistry, so I'm not sure what happened. Did the recipe call for too little sugar? Was the bread at fault? Someone notes in the comments that you can't make kvass out of borodinsky rye bread, which is what I used.

For the sake of comparison, I made another batch out of kvass starter (photo above), one of the weirder things you can buy at the Russian store. Kvass starter is a thick, molasses-like liquid to which you add sugar, yeast and water. This fake kvass is sugary sweet, but more palatable than the sour batch.

My enthusiasm for making kvass has dimmed a little, although I may try again, using better bread.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

On Farmer's Markets and Corn Chowder

I take back everything I said about how expensive eating local is. For the past month and a half I've been buying almost all my produce at one of the local farmer's markets and most of the the vegetables there are cheap. You can get eight zucchinis for a dollar. A whole basket of excellent, firm cucumbers for two bucks. Three pounds of excellent tomatoes for $5.

But does locally grown food taste better than supermarket produce? Some snap judgments of veggies I buy almost every week:

Tomatoes: Incomparably better than store tomatoes, of course. Still, I've had more than a couple of starchy farmer's market tomatoes.
Corn: So sweet that I wouldn't mind having it for dessert, with butter.
Zucchini and yellow squash: Unlike pallid supermarket squash, farmer's market squash is a deep, golden yellow. I also like round squash, which I've never even seen at the supermarket. I can't tell much of a difference in taste between farmer's market squash and store squash, though. Maybe I should taste test raw zucchini.
Potatoes: I've only tried the fingerling potatoes so far, but they just might be the best potatoes I've ever had. I can eat them like candy with a little salt and sour cream.
Cucumbers: I love tiny, super-firm, super-crunchy farmer's market cukes. I often eat them as a pre-dinner snack while cooking.
Carrots: Pretty good, but not as flavorful as I would like them to be. I've had sweeter bagged baby carrots.
Radishes: Farmer's market radishes used to be almost too spicy for me. Then I had a couple of store radishes, and they tasted so bland and blah in comparison.
Green beans, broccoli and eggplant: Damned if I can tell the difference between farmer's market versions and the stuff I buy at the grocery store in January.

There's something very pleasurable and even sensual about shopping at the farmer's market. Ripe tomatoes glisten in the sun like odalisques in an Ingres painting. You can smell fresh dill, basil and cilantro from afar. If you go to a big and crowded farmer's market, like I do, you will feel a kind of happy mood, an overall sense of well-being in the air.

That said, I'm not a total convert to the Eat Local movement. There's something a little facetious about giving up spices, coffee, tea and non-local fruits and vegetables. Foodies in the '60s and '70s fought and died so we could have Middle Eastern couscous, olive oil from Italy, and cheese from France. Why you'd want to give that stuff up as a matter of principle, I have no idea. So I will shop at the farmer's market while I can, just because most of their produce tastes better and is cheaper. Come November, I'll be back at the soulless big mart, stocking up on vegetables from God knows where.

Corn Chowder--I bought far too much corn on the cob last week so I made corn and roasted poblano chowder. This recipe is adapted from the Williams Sonoma Everyday Roasting cookbook.

You toast a tablespoon of cumin seeds in a frying pan until they become aromatic. Add the cumin seeds, along with a couple of chipotle chilies (I used jalapeno), a bay leaf and 1/4 teaspoon of rosemary (I used thyme) to four cups of milk. Bring the milk to a simmer, but don't boil. Take off the heat, cover, and let stand for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, broil a couple of poblano chilies (the recipe called for 3; I only had 1 on hand) until their skin is black. Let cool; then peel and remove stems, seeds, etc. Dice and set aside. In a heavy stockpot, sauté a chopped onion in olive oil and butter. Salt to taste. Add a crushed garlic clove, a teaspoon of ground cumin, and cook for 5 minutes. Then add kernels from 4 ears of farmer's market corn and the poblano chilies. Cook for 5 more minutes. At this point I added a couple of cooked, diced potatoes. The recipe didn't call for them, but they weren't amiss.

Strain the milk through a sieve into the corn and onion mixture. Simmer for 15 minutes. Puree 1/3 of the soup in a blender or food processor, and add it back to the stockpot. The suggested garnish is chopped scallions, but I used a little chopped parsley and crumpled feta.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Kvass--Rye Bread Beer

As I write this, a batch of kvass is fermenting in my basement. Kvass is a mildly alcoholic Russian bread beer, usually made out of stale rye bread and yeast, and flavored with fruit juices or mint. You drink it cold as a summer beverage or use it as a base for okroshka, a chilled summer soup.

You can buy kvass or kvass starter at some Russian stores, but I wanted to make my own. There's no reason or rhyme for this. I don't have any nostalgic childhood memories of kvass. In fact, I remember tasting kvass only once. The most memorable part of this experience was buying it from a street vendor who was manning a beer barrel-like contraption (see the Wikipedia photo). I don't know what kvass tastes like, but I have a pretty good idea of what I want it to taste like. It should be yeasty, carbonated and sweet and sour, with a hint of lemon and mint.

While making kvass at home is not unheard of, it's not something people in Russia do everyday. When I told my parents that I'm making kvass, they smiled indulgently and wished me luck. Making kvass isn't hard but it does stretch over a couple of days and involved soaking dried rye bread in hot water and a lot of straining liquids through a sieve. I used two recipes, one here, and the other from a hilarious, out-of-print cookbook called Perestroika: The Dinner Party. (The theme of this book is a multi-course, perestroika celebration dinner, complete with a kulebyaka--cabbage pie--in the shape of a hammer and sickle and tablecloths made of Pravda newspaper.)

I'm holding off on praising homemade kvass for now. It takes a couple of days to ferment in a cool place, so I haven't tasted it yet. I don't know if the final result will be blog-worthy--I suspect my kvass will taste a bit flat. However, I can tell you that my kvass smells exactly how I think it should taste, and that my kitchen now has a not at all unpleasant aroma of a beer brewery.

I wish I could quote you Pushkin or some such on the greatness of kvass, but for now I can only offer these tidbits, mined from the Web:

*"Kvass is considered a tonic for digestion, an excellent thirst quencher and, consumed after vodka, an antidote to a hangover."

*Coke is ruining local kvass production by dominating the market with quasi-kvass. Kvass is hardly a "Soviet-era" beverage, by the way; Kvass production goes back centuries.

*Kvass has an alcohol content of anywhere from .7 to 4 percent.

*The recipe I'm using has the potential to taste terrible.

*You can make kvass out of apples, huckleberries or beets.

*Okroshka is low-carb. I can't wait to make orkoshka if my kvass turns out. This soup is basically a Russian version of gazpacho--you chop up cucumbers, scallions, ham, potatoes, eggs, radishes and dill, add kvass as stock, chill and eat with sour cream or spicy mustard.

*Americans are not so keen on kvass.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Weekend Cooking Notes

*I survived the heat wave by eating salads and steamed corn-on-the-cob. Now that the weather has mercifully cooled down, I'm back in the kitchen. Today I made an unexpectedly wonderful dinner. Nothing new, nothing unusual, just pretty great late summer food.

Once again I made hachepouri, Georgian cheese bread. Last time I ended up with one big cheese pie. This time I halved this recipe and made six small pies. Three of them looked a lot like calzones--oval and puffy. The other three turned out like stuffed pita bread, and were much better. I think the trick to this recipe is flattening out the cheese-filled dough pocket until it's at least 1/2-inch thick. I bet hachepouri would be wonderful filled with caramelized onions and tomatoes along with the cheese, but then you'd have calzones. We ate warm hachepouri with Julia Child's ratatouille.

*Inspired by a Moroccan veggie stew with couscous at Casablanca, a local Middle-Eastern restaurant, I made a pretty good chicken version last week. I don't think I got the spices quite right, but I was pretty close. I sliced a boneless, skinless chicken breast into strips and sautéed it until it was almost done. Then I removed it from the skillet and added a bunch of carrots, zucchini and yellow squash, cut into ¼-inch ovals. Cooked them until they started getting soft and golden, then added garlic and spices--cumin, coriander, cinnamon (key spice), a teaspoon of sugar and a little cayenne.

Fresh tomatoes would work very well in this, but I was saving mine for salad. So I added about 1/2-3/4 a can of whole, peeled Muir Glen tomatoes and a splash of water. Brought the whole thing to a boil, simmered until the veggies were soft, then added the chicken and a couple of tablespoons of plain, full-fat yogurt, and simmered a little more. Casablanca doesn't use yogurt, but I think it really made this dish. The chicken breast did manage to dry out even though I didn't cook it very long, but I used it because I wanted to make a 30-minute weekday dinner. Next time I'd use a whole chicken, cut into parts. Chickpeas and eggplant would be very nice this kind of stew, too. Eat with couscous or rice.
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