Monday, August 24, 2009

City Girl Down on the Farm

Last year my friend Kate shared some phenomenal photos of a dining experience she had in Portland, OR. She had visited a local farm and had a gourmet dinner out in the middle of the farm's field. Just looking at the pictures I was overwhelmed with a sense of calm at the beauty of the natural setting. I was delighted when I read about a local Chicago caterer, City Provisions that creates these same sort of farm dinners in the Midwest. This community-minded caterer sets its mission at educating customers about where their food comes from and prides itself on local, sustainable food. I'm glad I registered for the farm dinner as soon as I heard about it, because a story ran about City Provisions that same week in the Chicago Tribune and the dinners for the remainder of the season were quickly sold out.
I convinced my younger brother that he had to join me for this adventure and I think he's happy he did. It was a bit pricey at $125 a person, but it really was a full day experience. We left the north-side of Chicago from the caterers' storefront and boarded a biodiesel bus (because really on a farm dinner tour how else are you getting to the far burbs of Chicago?) with 40 of our closest friends. The time on the bus passed quickly even though the drive was close to an hour and a half. This is probably because we were eating and even drinking during the trek to our Elburn, Illinois farm. Drinking you say? Robyn? Yes folks its true. How could I be rude and refuse a cold Great Lakes is Cleveland's finest after all and I like to support my hometown. So a cold brew, a tasty BLT on brioche and a cool shot of a zesty gazpacho later this little lady was a wee bit tipsy and ready for a tour of the farm.

Heritage Prairie Farm prides itself on being a four-season farm producing not just one produce (corn or soy beans) as many farmers do, but creating a variety of items that can be harvested almost year round. The family was warm and inviting and it was a beautiful sunny day. This being a tour bus full of foodies everyone was snapping away with the cameras and I'm sure a couple of people were taking copious notes too.

A large table for all 40 dinner attendees was set on the lawn near the farm house. The head chef and owner of the catering company, Cleetus Friedman, had selected beers from Cleveland's own Great Lakes Brewery to compliment each of the courses. Little did I know that Great Lakes prides itself on environmental respectfulness. Owner Patrick Conway passionately explained each beers flavor profile and gave a brief history of how each was created. Very interesting, but I'm not really a beer person. I have a few sips and like I said above, I'm a tipsy girl. Tasty, but I need to be eating to support this drinking!

Lucky for me we had a 5-course dinner in store for us. Not so lucky was great food but small portions. I know you're all dying to read what we ate right? Well, you'll be happy to know that my camera is FINALLY working again and I was able to take my beloved food pictures ;)

1st Course: Green salad with sun gold tomatoes (these tomatoes are AMAZING - I have been buying them recently at the Green City Market and they are like candy)

2nd Course: Rainbow chard, baby leeks, currants and pine nuts over brown rice with crispy pancetta (this was far and away my favorite course of the evening and I scaped my plate clean -- no the presentation did not look particularly appetizing maybe that's why they put the pretty flower on the plate!)
3rd Course: Zucchini cake with micro greens and roasted baby carrots (micro greens seem to have burst onto the food scene recently -- basically they are baby plants that have all the nutrients that the adult plants do, but they're not as big and look more like sprouts).

4th Course: Delicious locally made brat with grain mustard, potato salad and green beans (this was probably the heartiest of all the courses -- the brat wasn't chewy like a Johnsville store bought one but was surprisingly tender)

5th Course: Pavlova with honey cream and peaches (the perfect culmination of the meal! I think I can make this at home as the base is just a meringue)

After dinner I was pretty much ready to call it a night. I had run 16 miles that morning, had eaten a delicious dinner plus beer and was ready for sleepy time. We stayed a bit longer though for people to drink more beer, stand by an evening fire and yes, roast some marshmallows. Truly a great experience and I highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for something different. If they've got this in Portland, OR and in Chicago, I'm sure they've got one in your city too.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Top Chef - Season 6

As I was sitting on the couch comfortably watching "Top Chef Masters" Wednesday night my heart raced when I saw previews for the final challenge. Yes folks, I am a Top Chef dork.

I know that a good percentage of the viewing population are Top Chef newbies. You started watching the show when the Masters came on, or maybe you even started watching the show back in Season 4 when the chefs were here in Chicago. But lil' old Robyn? I was glued to the TV when the show first started...Season 1 in San Francisco. Billie Joel's now ex-wife Katie Lee Joel was the host. She was awful. I still watched it. In the very first episode Hubert Keller threw out one of the contestants for giving him attitude. I was hooked. Dave told Tiffani "I'm not your Bitch Bitch". Oh yes the drama. I was twitterpated when Harold won the title of "Top Chef". I knew that I was in love with this TV show. People said I was crazy. How can you watch something about food when you can't taste it? You just know ok? You can tell that people have a talent, the skill and the passion. That makes good TV. know I love this show. I haven't missed an episode. If you quiz me about something I may even remember the specifics of the dish (that's a stretch but I did watch every show). Watching the finale for next week though I was in awe that yes, they were able to get each of the Top Chef winners to judge the Top Chef Masters finale - there was Harold (Season 1), Ilan (Season 2), Hung (Season 3), Stephanie (Chicago's own, Season 4) and Hosea (Season 5). I am so excited I can hardly wait until next week.

What's on tap for Season 6 which also premieres next week?? Vegas! I don't think a lot of people know that some of the top chefs in the world have a second outpost of their eponymous restaurants there - Wolfgang Puck (the original chef to bring culinary greatness to sin city) Emeril, Daniel Bouloud and Todd English to name a few. I don't think there is a better location for complete gluttony that Vegas and I'm sure that after people spend money gambling, another $200 per person for a tasting menu is nothing right?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Traveling....and of course eating too!

I have been a very busy lady recently with two back to back weekend trips. As always, I do love to travel but after an exhausting stint in the LaGuardia Airport last night, I am happy to be back in Chicago!

Two weekends ago I traveled with two of my closest college friends for a girls weekend in Door County, Wisconsin (a peninsula just West of Green Bay in Lake Michigan). It was a bit of a drive but luckily I have a fabulous driver friend and I really enjoyed being passenger. I had plenty of opportunities to soak in the Door County culture on the drive and gazed longingly at all the farm stands and multitude of markets along the way. The sun was shining, the corn and soybean fields were gently blowing in the wind and it was the sort of scene that you would imagine typifies rural Wisconsin.

Door County is known for their cherries, though not the sweet kind as you might expect. These are tart cherries that are best used for baking. Anytime I saw that there was something cherry on a menu I had to order it -- cherry vinaigrette dressing, cherry jam on my cherry filled pancakes, a wrap with dried cherries and of course cherry pie. I had phenomenal cherry pie at the Greenwood Supper Club in Fish Creek and I brought home a mini pie made by Sweetie Pie which coincidentally ships their 30 different varieties across the country. If you're in the Midwest and don't mind a drive I recommend a relaxing weekend in Door County. There are some shops and some activities, but mainly you relax and plan what foods you'll be enjoying in the day ahead!

I had a very different vacation last weekend when I visited my sister, brother-in-law and adorable 3-year old nephew in New York. I went from one extreme to another not just in terms of scenery (I am a city girl and do love exploring parks, shopping and restaurants by foot) but also in the types of food I was enjoying. We had brunch at a Cuban restaurant called Cafe Con Leche, traditional Jewish deli food at the 100 year old Barney Greengrass, and gourmet cupcakes from Crumbs Bake Shop (oh yes, their cupcakes are not only beautiful to look at but also very tasty!) There were a plethora of dining options for every palate and as in only NY everything seems to be open well past my bedtime.

I did bring back some of my favorite H &H Bagels, because really I can't leave NY without bagels, but I had plenty of time to ponder a few monumental food differences between the Big Apple and the Second City while I waited in the LGA Airport:

1 - In NY there seem to be long stretches of streets (like Amersterdam, Broadway & Columbus to name a few) that have restaurant after restaurant -- we just don't seem to have the population density that allows this in Chicago even though we are a foodie city

2 - Street Vendors. Why oh why can't Mayor Daley allow street vendors in Chicago? The food is oh so delicious and typically less expensive. I was especially impressed by the number of vendors selling fresh produce from their carts and my sister says they have a push for more of these carts in neighborhoods that might not have the produce options on every corner.

3 - Fresh fruit, veggies and flowers seem to be everywhere on every corner of a neighborhood! In Chicago we just don't have those corner markets displaying the seasonal fare out on the sidewalk.

Definitely some things to think about and I'd love for you all to weigh in on what you think and if you notice any other differences. Chicago is my city and my home. I love our food culture and the burgeoning passion that Chicagoans have for our food, but there are still so many opportunities for us. One place I know that Chicago outranks NY? Our airport dining! At both Midway and O'Hare Airports we have a variety of dining options that are sure to entice any stranded passenger!