Hello, Gorgeous: #2

I just noticed that my last two posts were fried and brown. This tulip interior is intended as a visual antidote. 


Why Feel Awful When You Can Cook?

It's bound to happen to anyone who leaves New York. Wandering down Michigan Avenue here in Chicago, surrounded by Midwestern tourists (with a few Germans thrown in), I'll frequently feel a pang of longing that is so palpable and intimate it usually throws me for a loop. I won't go as far as saying that I reel, or anything like that. But it's like missing a long-gone person you're still in love with, somebody you always believed was just right for you, someone you couldn't get enough of, even though the relationship was a bit one-sided. 

I bring it up because if you live in Chicago you have to keep this kind of love a secret in sort of the same way you should hide carrying a flame. Never tell a Chicagoan you miss New York. For a more precise elucidation on my reasoning on this, one more eloquent than I could ever provide, read A.J. Leibling's "Chicago: The Second City," which seems mean but nonetheless evergreen in its incisiveness, though it was written half a century ago. 

I'll generalize wildly here and say that Chicagoans love to have friends in New York as long as the friends stay there. They'll tell you about visiting them, and how they go to NYC all the time and know it like the back of their hands. 

But if you move here you better never mention New York to any of them ever again. Especially if you work at a newspaper. Because Chicago is just as good as New York! You don't like it here, go back! Bleh! Take that!

But just as good is not the point, of course.  And, I understand the bad reception to such longing, because it is the equivalent of saying to a spouse: "Now that Bob, he was a fun guy. So well-adjusted. Such a charmer.  We had the best time when we were dating. And handsome? You never saw such a handsome man." 

However, if you really know the two cities (living in NYC for 6 months and then leaving does not count; nor does visiting Chicago for a Cubs game and having a hot dog), you know that they cannot be compared. And should not be. Each has a distinct personality; if you want one, the other just won't do. And it cuts both ways. 

Anyway, this is sort of sad, but one of the things that really makes me lonely for NYC is the fact that Chicago does not have street carts or corner deli/grocers on practically every block. In fact, there aren't really many street carts to speak of; they are not a part of the urban landscape.

I loved walking outside on a workday and buying a giant bag of cherries for lunch, or a pint of ridiculously delicious ripe figs, for what now seems like almost no money at all. I took it all for granted. I hardly see fresh figs at all in my life here, and when I do, they're a million dollars. I miss the Halal chicken and rice cart at 43rd and 6th. I miss the salad man, who was outside Grand Central, before he moved inside Grand Central. I miss the banged up taco truck in my old Upper West Side neighborhood. 

And whenever anyone says "I feel awful," I kind of do, too, because it makes me think of the falafel cart at 46th and 6th Avenue, Moishe's. You get a pita crammed to bulging with giant crunchy-fried balls, lettuce, tomato, tahini, hot sauce, and great pickles. Sometimes, the guys give you a pickle while you wait. They are ridiculous street food, because standing and eating them on the street is like eating the giant barbecued turkey let that Chicagoans consume at Taste of Chicago, a festival that happens only once a year, and inspires many restaurants to sell their food from stands in the park. It's very popular, and you'd think Mayor Daley would get the big idea; but he doesn't like the cart/stand thing. Such a prissy pot.  

I know that I will never be able to replicate Moishe's street falafel. So I don't try. Instead, recently, I made a version that a person could serve to man and child seated at the dinner table, as a casual supper. 

It's a combination of the old reliable Moosewood version, combined with the amazing Joyce Goldstein version, from her fantastic newish cookbook, Mediterranean Fresh. My own crazy thoughts: I will make it in patty form (Moosewood), serve it on an English muffin, and rather than tahini we'll have it with a yogurt sauce and some cukes

So that's what I did. I added an egg and some baking soda, as Goldstein does for her "chickpea croquettes," and we made Goldstein's unbelievably good yogurt dressing and a cucumber, red onion, tomato and avocado salad splashed with cider vinegar (I am a huge fan of plain cider vinegar), olive oil, salt and pepper. 

Falafel to Feel Better
Makes 6-8  patties

4 cups cooked or 2 15-ounce cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1/2 cup of flour, plus more for dredging
1  teaspoon baking soda
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 large egg, slightly beaten
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon turmeric
sea salt (I used about a teaspoon)
4-6 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced
1/4 cup water, more or less to bind mixture
canola oil, for frying
English muffins
Joyce Goldstein's yogurt dressing (see below)

  1. Mash the chickpeas with a potato masher. If you did not give away your food processor when you moved into an apartment with a smaller kitchen, use it, pulsing until coarsely ground. Add remaining ingredients, except the canola oil, and stir until you have an unlumpy doughy batter, thick enough to form into patties. If it is too thick, stir in a bit of water. 
  2. Form hamburger-thick patties with dough, a little larger in circumference than an English muffin, then dredge patties in flour and set aside on a cookie sheet or large plate. Heat 3-4 tablespoons canola oil in a large, heavy skillet, until a bit of the dough sizzles when dropped in. 
  3. Carefully place patties in skillet (they may break easily before cooking); fry 6-8 minutes per side, until they form a crunchy, dark golden exterior forms; you may need to add extra oil before cooking on second side. Drain briefly on paper towels. Keep warm in a 300 degree oven if necessary, before serving. 

You can eat these, as we did, on warm English muffins, topped with Goldstein's yogurt dressing. Maybe a little hot sauce. She suggests tahini sauce, and that of course is traditional. Lettuce tomato and thin slices of cucumber are good, too. Or served topped with a cucumber, onion, tomato, avocado salad dressed in olive oil and cider vinegar. Or serve in pita (warmed in the microwave still in the plastic bag; that's how Goldstein does it), topped with vegetables, drizzled with whatever sauces you like. You decide. 

Joyce Goldstein's Yogurt Dressing
Makes 2 1/2 cups

2 cups thick yogurt (I used Fage nonfat Greek; it's amazing)
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
sea salt
2-3 teaspoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint

Whisk together yogurt, oil, lemon juice and salt to taste (I used about 1/2 a teaspoon); fold in garlic and herbs. So so so so so good. 


Is Chicken the Devil?

Possibly. If you've ever been in a chicken coop (yes, I have), they can be rather unpleasant. 

But as my friend Mark Bittman, author of the excellent book "Food Matters," recently pointed out regarding the vilification of pork during the swine flue hysteria: it's not the animal, it's the industrial agriculture that is to blame for dangerous farmed meat. Same goes for chicken: they didn't do anything to humans. We did something to them. 

And yet, during the recent Oprah-KFC  debacle, which was sad to me but which a lot of people seemed to find amusing (click here), we loaded the poor little chickens down with too much of our own personal baggage.

Oh, how we attach our sensibilities, our politics, our opinions, our obsessions to our food. Never mind that it helps keeps people alive, or that some people can't afford much and will take what they can get. It's all about us, us, us. 

But how about this? How about we all use the KFC-Oprah thing to remind us to be more thoughtful next time anyone tries to give everyone in America a free chicken dinner, via coupons. 

I will,  however, allow myself a final word(s), because this is my blog. I tend to forgive anyone who offers free food, even if the giveaway is a marketing ploy. I'd rather it not be factory raised food that is destroying the planet, but I don't think truly hungry people are offended by that sort of thing. I have a lot of tangled thoughts on this, which I'll keep to myself until those thoughts get straightened out, which should be never. 

I will use this opportunity to say this one more time: learning to cook is becoming more and more essential to eating well in the world we live in. The more we cook at home, the less we end up to eating food that has an unseemly provenance. It's cheaper, in general, and it gives the power back to the consumer, if you shop wisely. 

And this: Some people don't have much access to fresh food (much less organic, local, non-factory farmed, etc.). Some people wouldn't know what to do with it if they did have easy access. Some people are too poor to buy food, be it fresh frozen fast factory farmed or fried. Some people have never eaten a fresh tomato. Some people are starving. Some people starve themselves because they want to be skinny. Some people eat too much because they want to be happier. Some people just really like to eat, and spend all their disposable income doing so. Some people don't, and use food only for fuel. Some people eat organic fudge but are mean to dogs. It's a crazy world, difficult to judge, but I'm glad that we're changing directions, away from fast food.

See, I can't keep my mouth shut. 

Back to the cooking part: here at my house, there's a person who really likes fried chicken--a lot. She likes fried chicken fingers, specifically, and I have seen her eat one of these contraptions (served at a now defunct, thank god, hot-dog stand, so it wasn't even their specialty) that looked like a deep fried, ossified dinosaur claw. The chicken inside was like rope. And three of these fingers together weighed about 5 pounds. 

There is absolutely no reason to ingest that sort of thing if you can avoid it. And, of course, making your own chicken fingers is easy, fun for the chicken-finger set, and you don't have to fry them. If you can get organic vegetarian fed minimally processed free range chicken that has not been tortured on the way to your table, of course, do that. Sorry to bring it up before merrily offering you this recipe, but if you're still averting your eyes to the harsh realities of factory farmed food: wake up. 

These are finger licking good, but I'd rather you use a napkin and finish all your broccoli.

Chicken Fingers You Can Live With

Serves 4-6 kids

2 cups panko (these Japanese bread crumbs are available in the grocery store, in the imported food section, but you can also use crushed saltines or crushed cornflakes)
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 teaspoon salt 
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
6 tablespoons butter, melted (you can also use canola or olive oil here)
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast halves

  1. Preheat oven to 425. Mix panko, Parmesan, salt and pepper together and spread on a plate or shallow bowl. Melt butter and pour into another.
  2. Place breasts between waxed paper or plastic wrap and pound with a rolling pin to about 1/2 inch thickness. Lay the breasts on a cutting board and cut into lengthwise strips, a half inch or so wide. You can cut them in half is they're too long. 
  3. Take each strip, coat in the butter, then roll over in the panko, pressing to make sure the crumbs adhere.
  4. Place strips on an ungreased baking sheet; bake in the middle rack for 15 minutes or so, until cooked through, moving the pan around occasionally to make sure they don't brown too fast.  Cool for a few minutes before serving.

At my house, these are eaten with ketchup, which is probably full of poison. But we rarely eat ketchup. Dijon mustard with a little honey mixed in is good, too.