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July 31, 2006

The Tru Crew vs. Mario Batali

As predicted, fennel turned out to be a fantastic ingredient. We'll save the spoilers for after the jump, but first, a couple of general observations.

Screw the frozen peas and hamburger... this is the kind of ingredient we should be seeing on Iron Chef. Fennel is bold, distinctive, flexible and multifaceted, and I think this was plainly evidenced by what looked like not only one of the tastiest menus we've seen on ICA, but also one of the most interesting. Admittedly, I'm not exactly coming from a place of objectivity. I've been an unabashed champion of the vegetable for a long time, and it's at or near the top of my personal wish list for Iron Chef Chicago. But I can't think of a time when I've been more envious of the panel.

Second, where have I been? Watermelon radish? Where the heck did that come from? I make it a personal mission to say informed about these things. Clearly, I'm slipping. A subsequent web search has revealed that it's evidently a mild heirloom Chinese radish that, aside from its color, is fairly typical. But man, is that color stunning.

But onto the food!

Continue reading "The Tru Crew vs. Mario Batali" »

July 27, 2006

The Beef-Off - Chapter V - Mr. Beef

Dominic Armato
Well, the 2006 Beef-Off is running a little behind schedule, but not without reason. May's post (which never happened) was to be about Mr. Beef, the old family favorite and landslide winner of the Great VinCenzo Beef-Off back in 2002. It was, in fact, the narrow scope of the 2002 Beef-Off that was the inspiration for the 2006 Beef-Off. Though Al's and Mr. Beef are probably the most famous Chicago beef sandwiches, I assumed that there must be other worthy contenders out there and resolved to broaden my horizons. As it turned out, my assumptions were correct. A little too correct. The leader going into May, Chickie's, was good... really good. So in preparing for my Mr. Beef post, I felt I had to give both establishments at least two visits before going to the scorecard. As much as I loved the idea of pounding four Italian beef sandwiches over the course of one week, I figured I'd better spread them out a little bit. So we lost a couple of months in the process, but rest assured, we'll be back on track shortly.

Dominic Armato
Getting back to the beef stand at hand, Mr. Beef is the undisputed winner in the charm category. It's a Chicago institution. It has the requisite greasy/skeezy factor without crossing the line into creepy. The staff is quick, efficient and juuuust surly enough to be amusing without being rude. It houses the self-proclaimed "Elegant Dining Room", so identified by the plaque above the entryway. It's one long table with benches on either side, adorned with a horde of Rat Pack movie posters and LP sleeves. It was made famous outside the city limits largely due to the efforts of Jay Leno, who is a vocal Mr. Beef devotee and who has provided multiple signed photographs for the wall o' celebrities, sitting alongside more traditional Chicago folks. As greasy joints go it's a fun one, and its character is the antithesis of the Portillo's down the street.

Dominic Armato
Of course, while character is always appreciated, it doesn't affect the standings where the Beef-Off is concerned. I know Mr. Beef well enough to write it up without a recent visit, but I... uh... went back for a refresher anyway. As always, we'll get the fries out of the way first... and this has always been a weakness of Mr. Beef's. They're cookie-cutter thinly cut frozen spuds. Crispy, competent, and uninteresting. The sandwich, however, is fantastic. Mr. Beef exudes quiet strength, fairly traditional in all aspects. The meat itself is always tender, intensely flavored and never overcooked. The juice is fairly potent with a nice dried herb flavor, but not so overpowering as Al's, and has a none-too-subtle naturally sweet component to round out the flavor. The giardiniera is as standard as they come, with pickled peppers, chunks of celery and bits of carrot. The sweet peppers are no-frills, barely seasoned if at all, and served in big chunks. One element that sets it slightly apart is that it has a bit of a dark, almost caramel flavor, as though the juice is perhaps reduced a little more intensely than at your average beef joint. But this small difference aside, the beauty of Mr. Beef isn't in the composition, but in the quality. It isn't unusual, but it's unusually good, and it doesn't try too hard to show this because it's a sandwich that knows it's good. It's a strong, well-balanced, confident beef sandwich with just enough character, like the surrounding establishment, to help it stand out from the pack.

But it's no longer my favorite.

Dominic Armato
I'm going to take some serious abuse for this one. Really, you have no idea. But I've taken all of the necessary steps to confirm my findings and I am resolute in my judgment. Mr. Beef is a great beef, firmly ensconced in second place, but I can no longer put it at the top of my list. When I first ate at Chickie's, I thought there could be trouble. I then went to Mr. Beef with Chickie's on the brain and knew there was trouble. I returned to Chickie's a second time and had, without exaggeration, the best Italian beef sandwich of my life, which made the final return to Mr. Beef merely a formality. I've already swooned over Chickie's, but my second visit has only deepened my appreciation. In addition to everything I've already articulated, there's a life to Chickie's beef that I can't quite describe, but which haunts me. We're not quite halfway through the year's planned stops, but already my beefy world has been rocked. As such, the revised standings:
Mr. Beef
666 N. Orleans St.
Chicago, IL 60610
1) Chickie's
2) Mr. Beef
3) Portillo's
4) Roma's
5) Al's

Addendum: The final Beef-Off results and wrapup can be found in The Year In Beef.

Jerry's Sandwiches

Dominic Armato
A great sandwich is a thing of beauty.

You get some meat, some vegetables, maybe some cheese or a sauce, slap it all between a couple pieces of bread, and there's your meal. It's a formula that's simple, satisfying and infinitely flexible. I believe it was Heinz who said that to do a common thing uncommonly well brings success. Or at least the back of my ketchup bottle would have me believe so. But in any case, Jerry's Sandwiches understands this formula well, and they've used it to build what is, by a longshot, my favorite Chicago sandwich shop.

Dominic Armato
Jerry's was opened in the west loop about four years ago by a husband and wife team, Mindy and Mark, as a front for their catering business. Though they describe the move as having occurred "mostly on a whim", from the very start their whim turned out better sandwiches than most deliberate enterprises I've encountered. At some point along the line, they seemed to catch on that they had a really good thing going, and they've continually expanded and improved both the space and the menu to make it what it is today... an independent, casual 30-40 seat counter service sandwich shop with a massive menu and a delicious product.

Dominic Armato
The secret to their success, in my estimation, is twofold. First, variety. The daily menu boasts 100 specialty sandwiches, as well as build-your-own options that include no fewer than eight breads, 26 primary fillings, 11 cheeses, 25 condiments and all of the usual suspects when it comes to vegetable accompaniments. This is, of course, to say nothing of the daily specials that rotate constantly and are seemingly endless. Even more importantly, however, is the second half of the secret, which is the quality. Mindy and Mark have brought their chefly instincts to bear on the humble sandwich, and there isn't a meat, vegetable or condiment that goes into their sandwiches that isn't delicious, and many of them are flat-out fantastic. They shoot the gap, making their food exceptional but accessible. When they compose a sandwich, every ingredient sings, and it's almost impossible to go wrong.

Dominic Armato
For seven bucks, you get any sandwich on the menu, including a small cup of one of the day's sides... usually a choice between some kind of potato salad, pasta salad and a mixed fruit cup. There are always other accompaniments, which phase in and out at the chefs' whims. Though they're all tasty, the seasoned grilled corn on the cob is one I have a really hard time passing up. They also offer soups, and though I don't have much experience with them, I'd be shocked if they weren't tasty. All of the menu sandwiches I've tried are delicious, but the daily specials are where they really shine. Sadly, in a rare misstep, they recently removed the counter cooler that allowed them to put the day's specials on full display. I loved walking in and seeing a pile of jerk chicken breasts, a juicy pot roast, a giant whole grilled fish, or a platter of assorted grilled vegetables, and knowing that I could pick one of them out and build a sandwich around it. It was one of the features that made the place special, and I'm sad they removed it. But even though the visual is missing, the flavor hasn't gone anywhere. The specials are sometimes unusual, but usually delicious.

Dominic Armato
When it comes to the regular menu, my old standby is the Uriah H, which includes roast salmon, avocado, cheddar and chipotle chutney. It's the one I have a hard time getting away from, but if you want it, be sure they have the roast salmon. It's flaky and moist, and one of my favorite sandwich bases. But on a couple of occasions when they were out of the roast salmon I ended up with the smoked salmon instead, and while their smoked salmon is quite delicious, it just doesn't work within the context of this sandwich. Other old faves include the Marky B, with skirt steak, grilled onions and blue cheese dressing, and the Gerry F, with blackened chicken, bacon, portabellas and southwest mayo. On last weekend's visit, however, I managed to resist the standards and, with the help of my compatriots, tried a few new sandwiches, pictured here, that were all fabulous.

Dominic Armato
The first was the Diego A, with marinated and grilled skirt steak, avocado, cilantro, cheddar, chipotle chutney and adobo sauce. It wasn't the most unusual combination, but everything was fresh and bold and deliciously aggressive. The steak, in particular, was right on, heavily marinated, spicy and tart, with a fair dose of fat that had started to break down and melted in your mouth. It gave just a bit of fatty richness that was the perfect base for the other more aggressive flavors. Next up was a gentle, sweet and creamy little concoction, the Miles S, which was made with turkey, cranberry sauce, fresh mozzarella and basil. It was a funny combination, one I never would have thought of, and it worked beautifully. My ladylove, looking for pure comfort food, custom ordered a simple chicken salad sandwich, and the first thing that sprang to mind was that Jerry's chicken salad absolutely schooled the chicken salad we had at Southport Grocery & Cafe back in June. Where Southport's chicken salad was one-dimensional and uninteresting, Jerry's was full, nuanced, perfectly balanced and utterly comforting. So now I have to add three more sandwiches to the list of favorites. The problem is that my list of favorites is almost as long as the list of sandwiches I've tried. It's an unbridled bounty for the taste buds, but the decision is always torturous. I'll endure, I suppose. But I'll always curse the fact that my office is tantalizingly close to the edge of their delivery range.

Jerry's Sandwiches
1045 W. Madison St.
Chicago, IL 60607

July 25, 2006

Tartare Trio

After bringing my piscine bounty home from Mitsuwa on Sunday, I wanted to have a little fun. So I finally got around to trying out a recipe that had been rattling around in my skull for a while. The hamachi is inspired by Nobu, the tuna is inspired by Sea Saw, and the salmon is a little something I threw together for Iron Chef Peach. It's a lot of work, but it isn't difficult. I've broken down the ingredients by tartare so it's easy to do just one if you like. In truth, this recipe could probably still use a little fine tuning. But knowing myself the way I do, if I don't post it tonight, it'll probably be six months before I get around to it again. So here it is... taste and adjust, taste and adjust! As a final note that hopefully goes without saying, when dealing with raw fish be absolutely certain you're getting it from a really good source that specializes in sashimi-grade product, or you're asking for a world of hurt. Don't let it sit. Keep it cold, even sticking it in a cooler with ice on your trip home if need be. I'm fairly cavalier when it comes to food safety (a fact that I'm sure comes as a great comfort to all of my past and future dinner guests), but this is one area where I don't screw around.

Dominic Armato
4 oz. sashimi grade tuna
1 small beet
1 C. red wine
1 tsp. sugar
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2 tsp. finely minced fresh ginger
2 tsp. tamari soy sauce
1 tsp. rice vinegar
1 tsp. mirin
1 Tbsp. chopped chives
4 oz. sashimi grade hamachi
1 avocado
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 jalapeño
2 tsp. tamari soy sauce
1 tsp. sesame oil
1 tsp. fresh lime juice
1/4 C. shiso chiffonade
4 oz. sashimi grade salmon
1 white peach
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 Tbsp. thinly sliced green onion
1 Tbsp. finely minced fresh ginger
1 tsp. tamari soy sauce
1 tsp. fresh lime juice
1 tsp. rice vinegar
2 tsp. minced fresh cilantro

Tartare Trio
Tuna with Beets and Wine Reduction
Hamachi with Avocado and Jalapeño
Salmon with Peach and Ginger
Serves 8-10 as an appetizer

The beet takes the longest to prepare, so get that going first. Preheat your oven to 350º. While it's heating, clean and scrub the beet, leaving the skin intact. While it's still wet, wrap it in aluminum foil and toss it in the oven. Roast it for 60-90 minutes, until it's easy to poke a fork through the foil and right into the tender beet. Once the beet is done, remove it from the foil and, once it's cool enough to handle, peel it and chop it into small cubes about 7-8mm on a side. Save about 6 Tbsp. of the chopped beets, and chow on the rest. While the chopped beet is still warm, toss it with 6 tsp. of the beet dressing. Of course, to do this, you need to make the dressings.

For all of the dressings, this recipe makes more than you'll need, but they're easier to make in slightly larger batches. To make the dressing for the tuna and beets, put the red wine and sugar in a small saucepan over medium-high heat and reduce down to about 2 Tbsp. Transfer the wine reduction to a mixing bowl and allow to cool slightly. Add the vegetable oil, ginger, soy sauce, rice vinegar and mirin, then give the whole mixture a good whisk and combine with the beets as detailed above. Move the beets to the fridge so they get nice and cold. To make the dressing for the hamachi and avocado, stem, seed and quarter the jalapeño lengthwise. The heat is in the white ribbing, so if you want the flavor without the heat, remove the ribbing, and if you want the abuse, leave the ribbing intact. Either way, slice the jalapeño quarters the short way, paper thin, so that you end up with a tablespoon or two of very thin jalapeño quarter circles. Whisk the jalapeño together with the vegetable oil, soy sauce, sesame oil and lime juice, and toss them in the fridge to chill. As for the peach dressing, whisk together the vegetable oil, green onion, ginger, soy sauce, lime juice and rice vinegar and... you know the drill.

While the beets and dressings are chilling, chop up the fish and other ingredients. The degree to which you want to chop the fish is purely a matter of personal preference. Some like a heavily chopped almost pasty tartare, but I like more of a fine dice, which leaves some of the original fish texture intact. I slice it into small cubes, about 7-8mm on a side, and do the same for the accompanying avocado and peach. You'll want about 6 Tbsp. of the peach and about 1/4 C. of the avocado. Also, now's a good time to chop your chives, mince your cilantro and slice up your shiso chiffonade. For the chives, I like to use little bits about 1cm long. To get a nice shiso chiffonade, wash and dry the shiso leaves, stack them on top of each other, roll them into a fairly tight tube and then thinly slice the tube.

So at this point, your beets are dressed and chilled, your other dressings are chilled, your fish is chopped, your avocado and peach are chopped, and your fresh herbs are all ready. Time to throw everything together. Add the tuna and chives to the dressed beets and toss. Combine the hamachi, avocado, 4 tsp. of the jalapeño dressing and shiso, and toss gently to combine so that the avocado doesn't turn to green mush. Toss the salmon together with the peach, cilantro and 5 tsp. of the green onion and ginger dressing. And here's the most important part... taste and adjust. Tartares like this are all about balance, and even if this recipe were perfectly balanced (which it isn't), your ingredients are slightly different than mine, and will require a little adjustment. If you're feeling a little intimidated, don't be. Trust your instincts. And if you don't, set a little spoonful aside to test any adjustments before you add something to the whole batch. Plate the tartares in some fun fashion, and serve 'em up.

July 24, 2006

Mitsuwa Marketplace

Dominic Armato
Ethnic markets, especially those limited to a particular country's grub, are usually little mom and pop affairs. It's an immigrant neighborhood, and some enterprising soul opens up a little storefront and starts bringing in the specialty ingredients you can't get elsewhere, creating a tiny little ode to the entrepreneurial spirit. Half of the time, the size and lack of upscale refinement is part of their charm. Narrow aisles, scrawled signage, dim lighting obscuring unidentifiable delicacies -- they're the antithesis of the American supermarket chain.

And then there's Mitsuwa Marketplace.

Dominic Armato
I've been meaning to get there for years, and finally got around to it this past weekend. But despite hearing multiple reports of the incredible Japanese superstore hanging out in Arlington Heights, I still wasn't quite prepared. Most impressive, perhaps, is the full scope of the place. There's a big food market, to be sure, but it only occupies about half of the building. The rest contains a sizeable food court with five or six stalls, a liquor store, a bookstore, a travel agent, a video rental shop, a cellular phone store, a bakery, a specialty confectionery store and a cosmetics counter... all featuring Japanese products and services. The food court alone could probably support a few posts, posts that I suspect I'll have all too much fun researching, but on this particular day I made the mistake of having lunch before heading out there, so we'll save that for another time.

Dominic Armato
For a supermarket, Mitsuwa's grocery is perhaps a bit on the smallish size, but for an ethnic market it's enormous. Not only does it cover every base I could think of, but the selections contained within each section are extremely comprehensive. There's a near supermarket-sized produce section, containing all kinds of Japanese vegetables, fruits and herbs, many of them carefully and individually packaged, just as you'd find them in high-end food markets in Japan. Though I was disappointed to find that fresh yuzu wasn't available, I was quite tickled to find fresh wasabi root, which I've been grating and enjoying since. There are two fish cases, one filled with fresh and frozen varieties for cooking, and a huge cooler full of cleaned and trimmed fillets ready to be used as sashimi. We were there late on a Sunday, and as such I think the selection was fairly well picked over, and it was still the best I've seen Stateside. I brought home some maguro, salmon and even a little kampachi, all of which were quite good. There was even some chutoro (though no otoro), along with a slew of other tasty-looking numbers that I'd love to try.

Dominic Armato
Other sections are equally impressive. There's a cooler with an assortment of 30-40 pickled vegetables, at least 60 varieties of miso, hordes of soy sauces and Japanese salad dressings, a full aisle of instant ramen, housewares, pottery, frozen dumplings, rice cookers, rice crackers, rice flour, sacks of rice, candies and cookies, and a nice meat case that includes a fair amount of Wagyu, much of it sliced and ready for sukiyaki or shabu shabu. I didn't go over everything in excruciating detail, but that's mostly because I got the impression that it's all there, including a huge refrigerator case full of enough unidentifiable Japanese drinks to keep me busy for months.

Dominic Armato
It started as a joke, but has now become something of a tradition. Of course, I'm always looking to try new foods, but on every business trip to Japan I make it a rule to try a few mystery beverages. Any drink with packaging that clearly discloses the nature of the flavor is immediately disqualified. It's all about the surprise. So, figuring that Mitsuwa was as good a place as any to continue the tradition, I grabbed a can of Ramune Yasan. Sadly, Ramune Yasan, whatever that means, was indicative of a recent Japanese beverage trend. I've noted over the past couple of years that there seems to have been a remarkable increase in the number of bubble gum sodas available on the Japanese market. Who drinks bubble gum soda?!? Apparently I have my answer. Over the years, the mystery beverage tradition has yielded such gems as Aquarius, Qoo and Gokuri Squeeze, but recently it mostly seems to provide an abundance of nasty, artificial tasting overly sweet bubble gum soda. Eeeuuughhhgh.

Mitsuwa Marketplace
100 E. Algonquin Rd.
Arlington Heights, IL 60005
Open 365 days a year(!), 9am-8pm

July 22, 2006

Katy's Dumpling House

Dominic Armato
As usual, I'm way behind the curve on this one, but this afternoon I finally made the trek out to Katy's Dumpling House. Katy's has been one of LTH's darlings as of late, and these folks have once again shown their remarkable collective talent for sniffing out little culinary gems. This place is as about as low-profile as they come. They haven't even settled on a name, it seems, as the permanent lit sign above the storefront reads "K's Dumpling", while the large paper sign in the window reads "Katy's Dumpling House". It's a tiny hole-in-the-wall joint housed in a strip mall space in Westmont that can't be more than 12' wide, about half an hour west of the city if traffic cooperates, which it rarely does. It's more of a carry-out spot than a restaurant, though the front quarter of the storefront has seven or eight small tables and a tiny counter that are overseen in an attentive, if stern, manner by the owner. The space is incredibly sparse, the yellow walls decorated only by the handwritten menu. It's mostly in Chinese, though one of Katy's champions was kind enough to compile a translated menu. Sadly, I'd forgotten this list, but we did just fine ordering off the portion that was translated.

Dominic Armato
Though dumplings are the restaurant's namesake foodstuff, they're mostly sold frozen in bulk as a carry-out item. We did, however, start off with some potstickers. They were fairly crisp on the crispy side, nice and doughy elsewhere, filled with a lightly seasoned pork and greens mixture. What took them from good to great, however, was the fact that they were exceptionally juicy, with a full teaspoon of liquid deliciousness spilling out of each. I heartily recommend having them with a little bit of the house chili sauce. As good as the dumplings were, however, the noodles were the star, and we had them in four separate iterations. Katy's noodles are made in-house, and they're really wonderful. They're thick and moist, with a flavor that's great and a texture that's fantastic. They're fairly dense, they have a great bite, they're pleasantly chewy, and though it may seem like a small detail, their somewhat nubby shape is really enjoyable.

Dominic Armato
The first noodle dish we tried was the Niu Rou Mian, translated as Beef Noodle Soup. It was an exceptionally generous bowl of seasoned beef broth with some sliced beef, a bit of what seemed to be some kind of cabbage, and a large pile of noodles lurking below. The deep color was somewhat misleading. The broth was plenty beefy, but it was surprisingly light and the accompanying fresh cilantro was quite potent and a great complement. The beef was quite tender, and a tasty cut to boot. It had a lightly sweet soy flavor with a very strong star anise component. I'm a sucker for star anise. It seemed that the greens might've been lightly pickled, and were just a touch spicy, though the rest of the dish was fairly mild. I might've enjoyed it more if the soup's flavor had been a little more intense, but the balance was right on and it was a great dish just as it was.

Dominic Armato
Next up were the Stir-Fried Noodles with Dried Chili. Though billed as "hot", I didn't think they were especially so. They were, as noted, stir-fried in a slightly sweet soy-based sauce with a handful of dried chiles, along with a mix of vegetables and a number of meats, including chicken, beef, shrimp and... somewhat unexpectedly... imitation crab. I thought the krab was totally unnecessary and somewhat distracting, but otherwise the dish was simple and delicious. For all of the Americanized Chinese joints that serve limp, lousy, oversauced lo mein, it was nice to find a place where I can get the real deal. While this type of dish is all too often a flat, tasteless afterthought, here the noodles had body and life.

Dominic Armato
As good as the first two noodles dishes were, these next two were even better. The Szechwan Cold Noodle was the perfect sort of dish for a hot summer day. The noodles had a significant kick, dressed in a sauce that contained chiles, sesame oil and vinegar, though it focused primarily on the chiles and exercised remarkable restraint with the latter two. The noodles were accompanied by a generous pile of some wonderfully fresh, cool, slivered cucumber and some sort of ground pork concoction that was both potent and complex. But despite the bold accoutrements, the focus was Katy's delightful noodles. It was a great dish, and doubly nice to get a cold Chinese noodle dish that wasn't dominated by an overly sweet sesame sauce.

Dominic Armato
The big, big winner for the day, however, was the Dan-Dan Noodle. Another soup concoction, this one was fairly fiery, but it wasn't all about spice at the expense of depth. It was an extremely complex and powerful soup, and I can only take a vague stab at the contents. The underlying broth was quite bold and rich, and put down a nice baseline for the sharp and pungent aromatics. It was very garlicky, a little tart, a little sweet and had a the kind of fullness that's usually only achieved with coconut milk or dairy, though I'm certain neither of those were present. The chiles were the central focus, with a nice, citrusy huajiao accent. The noodles, greens and pork mixture (I believe the same as the cold noodle dish) were all delicious, but while I'm sure the soup appreciated the help, there was plenty of goodness for it to stand on its own. This and the cold Sichuan noodle are the dishes that will put miles on my car. With a bustling Chinatown just a few minutes away, it's a little frustrating to have to truck out to the 'burbs for superlative noodles, but Katy's is well worth the trip.

Katy's Dumpling House
(K's Dumpling)

665 N. Cass Ave.
Westmont, IL 60559

July 20, 2006

Soft Shell Crabs

Dominic Armato
Blue crabs are such gracious little fellows.

They're the very definition of a high maintenance food. What with the tiny limbs and hard shells, the work to yield ratio is frustratingly high. But every so often, a crab will generously offer to do the work for us, molting his hard shell and leaving himself almost completely edible for a few days. So, for a couple of months every year, crabby nirvana is almost too easy. It seems that a great number of folks are intimidated by soft shell crabs, which is really too bad. I understand it, I suppose. We're not generally conditioned to consume whole beasts here in the States. But while there's a part of me that wants to grab the squeamish by the shoulders, shake them and make them understand what they're missing, there's another part of me that's happy to let the demand -- and the prices -- stay as low as possible. In any case, I came to the realization this past week that soft shell season was rapidly slipping by, so today I decided to get some while the getting was good. I was craving a nice, crispy soft shell po' boy, but I wanted to have a little fun with it. Tomatoes seem to be a little ahead of the game this year, and I found some fennel that was looking mighty nice, so this recipe was the result.

Dominic Armato
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1/2 C. finely chopped fennel
1/4 C. minced yellow onion
2 tsp. balsamic vinegar
1 1/4 C. chopped tomato
1/2 tsp. coarse salt
1 egg yolk
1 tsp. white wine vinegar
1 C. vegetable oil
1 lemon
salt, to taste
2 tsp. minced garlic
1/4 C. chopped fennel fronds
4 soft shell crabs
1/3 C. flour
2 tsp. paprika
vegetable oil
French baguette

Soft Shell Crab Po' Boy with Tomato-Fennel Relish and Fennel Frond Mayo
Makes 2 sandwiches

The relish is best at room temperature, so you want to make it first and give it time to cool. Stem and seed the tomatoes before chopping them. For the fennel, use only the white bulb portion, but hang onto the fronds so you can use them for the mayo. Once your vegetables are all set, heat the olive oil in a small saucepan over medium-high. Once the oil is hot, toss in the fennel and onion, and saute for about one minute, stirring constantly. Add the balsamic vinegar, and continue cooking for about another minute. Add the tomatoes and salt and continue cooking, stirring frequently so the mixture doesn't scorch, until most of the liquid has cooked off and it has taken on a nice relishey consistency. It should take about 5-7 minutes. Transfer the relish to a bowl, adjust the salt and vinegar if you like, and let it cool to room temperature.

Meanwhile, you can make the mayo. If you're feeling particularly lazy, you could use store-bought mayo and mix in the garlic and fennel, but making it fresh isn't hard, and the crabs have done their part to make your sandwich as tasty as possible... don't they deserve better? To make the mayo, combine the egg yolk and white wine vinegar in a mixing bowl, and whisk until the mixture gets a little frothy. Then, start dribbling in the oil a drop at a time, whisking away the whole time. As more of the oil is incorporated, you can start adding it in a thin stream, but don't add it too quickly. If the emulsion starts to separate, stop adding the oil and whip the thing like crazy until it comes back together, then continue. Once you've added all of the oil, you should have a nice, creamy, fresh mayo. 3/4 of the way through, you might be thinking that it looks more like a sauce than mayo, but keep adding the oil... it'll suddenly thicken up and get all fluffy right at the end. Add a little salt and fresh lemon juice to taste, and then mix in the garlic and fennel fronds. For the fronds, you don't want the light green stems... just the thin, dark green, wispy bits. Toss the mayo in the fridge until you're ready to use it. This makes way, way, way more mayo than any sane individual should use on two sandwiches (this coming from a mayo lover), but it keeps for a couple of days, so you can put it to good use later on.

Finally, the crabs. If your crabs weren't cleaned by your fishmonger, no biggie. It's easy, and instructions are everywhere on the net. Frankly, it's better to clean them yourself and keep them as fresh as possible, and it just takes a moment. Once clean, give them a light rinse and pat them mostly dry. Toss together the flour and paprika, and dredge the crabs to coat them all over, shaking off any excess. Put a large skillet over high heat and fill with enough vegetable oil to generously coat the bottom. When hot, drop in the crabs and fry until they're browned and crispy, about 2-3 minutes per side. Pull 'em out and let them drain over paper towels for a couple of minutes while you build the sandwiches.

Cut the bread to whatever length you deem appropriate, then slice in half and scoop out a little bit of the inner bread so your bread to filling ratio isn't way off. Slather with the fennel frond mayo, add two crabs side-by-side, top them with the relish and finish with a little bit of fresh arugula. Dig in and lament the fact that these little fellows are only available for a few months out of the year.

July 19, 2006

Deconstructing Garlic

Dominic Armato
The garlic press has always been a forbidden item in my kitchen.

It's a prejudice I've held for a long, long time. I've always believed that whether garlic is minced or crushed has a significant effect on the dish the garlic flavors. While I've always felt that minced or sliced garlic is far, far superior to its crushed counterpart when it comes to pasta sauces, I've also wondered in the back of my head if this preference was purely a figment of my imagination. Then, way back in January, a thread popped up on LTH Forum wherein there was a lively discussion regarding whether alternate means of breaking down garlic affected the character of the flavor, or merely its strength. The suggestion was also made that microplaning garlic, which I had never tried, might achieve a minced garlic flavor with a crushed garlic potency. At that time, I resolved to approach this question in a semi-scientific manner. It... uh... took a little while, but I finally got around to it this evening. As such, without further ado, I present my semi-scientific findings.

Question, Purpose, Hypothesis
The subject of this experiment is the effect that various methods of breaking down garlic have on its flavor when used to prepare a dish. The hypothesis is that not only does mincing garlic create a different flavor than crushing it, but also that mincing is the preferred method for pasta sauces. Furthermore, the experiment is intended to determine if microplaning garlic achieves a character different from mincing or crushing.

Dominic Armato
Materials and Method
The following items were used to perform this experiment:

• 1 8" Le Creuset cast iron skillet
• 1 wooden spatula
• 1 chef's knife
• mortar & pestle
• 1 microplane
• 1 measuring cup
• 1 measuring spoon
• Raineri silver extra virgin olive oil
• Carmelina San Marzano tomato puree
• 12 garlic cloves
• coarse sea salt

To simulate a real-world application, three quick tomato sauces were prepared, each utilizing a different preparation of garlic. The garlic used for each version of the sauce was made from four cloves of approximately equal size. The first sauce was made with garlic that was finely minced using a chef's knife. The second sauce was made with garlic that was very finely shredded using a microplane grater. The third sauce was made with garlic that was crushed using a mortar and pestle. Other than the garlic preparation, every effort was made to ensure that the sauces were prepared in exactly the same manner. A test batch of tomato sauce was first made and discarded so that all three sauces would be prepared with a warm skillet. The following steps were common to all three sauces. First, the pan was washed, dried and set over medium-low heat. 1 Tbsp. of the olive oil was added to the pan, and allowed to heat for one minute. The garlic was added to the pan and sauteed while being mixed with the wooden spatula. After 30 seconds, 1/2 C. tomato puree and 1/2 tsp. salt were added to the pan, the sauce was stirred, and the heat increased to medium. As soon as the sauce showed signs of bubbling, the heat was turned to low, and the sauce was allowed to simmer, undisturbed, for exactly five minutes. The sauce was transferred to a small prep bowl, the skillet was washed and dried, and the entire process was repeated for the other two garlic preparations.

Dominic Armato

When all three sauces were prepared, they were allowed to sit at room temperature for ten minutes. After this time, they were placed atop ramekins containing a scrap of paper identifying the garlic preparation used for that sauce. They were then covered with plastic wrap and allowed to sit at room temperature for approximately one hour, to lessen the chance of the order of preparation affecting the flavor at the time of tasting. After sitting for an hour, the finished sauces were microwaved for ten seconds. This was to achieve two purposes, first to heat them slightly, and second so that the microwave turntable could randomize their placement, making it impossible for the taster to identify which sauce was which. The sauces were then tasted in sequence twice, to lessen the variation caused by tasting one sauce cleanly while tasting the others having come off another sauce. They were tasted in very low light conditions, to make it impossible for the taster to identify the sauces by the very slight variations in appearance. A small piece of plain bread was eaten in between each tasting to act as a palate cleanser. After the tasting was completed, the prep bowls were removed from the ramekins so that tasting notes could be matched up with the appropriate garlic preparations.

Dominic Armato
The minced garlic sauce had a fairly strong garlic flavor, which was described by the taster as sweet, mellow and slightly tart and spicy. The crushed garlic sauce had a garlic flavor that was similar to the minced garlic sauce in terms of potency, but different in terms of character. The taster described the crushed garlic sauce as fairly sour up front, with a slightly spicy but mostly bitter tail and an almost metallic aftertaste. The microplaned garlic sauce was by far the strongest of the three, characterized as extremely potent. The taster described it as having a very spicy and peppery flavor, with a little bitterness and no detectable sweetness. In terms of preference, the taster expressed a very strong preference for the minced garlic sauce, which was described as delicious. The crushed garlic sauce was described as edible, but not very good. The microplaned garlic sauce was described as very bad, and not at all pleasant.

This experiment has helped to erase any lingering doubts I had about my convictions when it comes to sliced or minced versus crushed garlic. In fact, I was surprised to discover that the difference between the minced and crushed garlic sauces was even more significant than I had previously thought. The crushed garlic wasn't bad, but it was an obvious difference and far less desirable for any pasta sauce application that I can think of offhand. However, I think it's important to note that the crushed garlic flavor wasn't necessarily bad in general, it was simply inappropriate in this context. The microplaned garlic, however, was an entirely different matter. It was considerably stronger, to be sure, but it was also a very different character. It was not at all pleasant. While there are clearly applications for crushed garlic, I have a much harder time imagining a a recipe for which I'd use the microplaned garlic.

I await peer review.

July 17, 2006

Chicago Represents

The recent hamburger / frozen peas ingredient lameness and the two ties with no overtime have forced me to back off my earlier support of Iron Chef America a little bit, but a couple of hometown chefs are challenging shortly and the ingredients are among my absolute favorites. If you're somebody who likes for the secret ingredient to remain a secret, stop reading now.

First up is the Tru crew, the Earl of Amuse and defender of foie gras, Rick Tramonto, along with his dessert-oriented partner in crime, Gale Gand. My ladylove and I have dined at Tru twice in the past few years, and really enjoyed ourselves on both occasions. Of course, they had to make it as difficult as possible for me to pick sides by pairing them up against Batali, one of the few remaining FoodTV chefs I respect. The ingredient is fennel. I couldn't be more thrilled with the selection, though it hardly seems fair. That's squarely in Mario's wheelhouse. In any case, it should be an awesome battle that first airs on July 30th.

The second is slated for sometime in September, with the exact date TBD. I'm not quite as jazzed about it, but it'll probably be more interesting. Half of Chicago's vaunted molecular gastronomy duo will be challenging. Homaro Cantu of Moto will be bringing the weirdness. Though I was far more impressed by the other half of the duo, Grant Achatz, and was somewhat disappointed by my singular visit to Moto, I'm still anxious to see Cantu work. He'll be using another of my favorites, the noble beet, to challenge Morimoto. Though I want to root for the hometown guy, they could have made it a lot easier for me by putting him up against Flay (stupid Flay). In any case, I'm sure Cantu will have the lab equipment in tow, so it should be another fun one.

In-depth analysis to follow the events. Hopefully no annoyance, but I make no promises.

Superdawg Drive-In

Dominic Armato
The marriage of genuine kitsch and tasty grub is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

Superdawg is one of those places, like Stan Mikita's Donut Shop or Jack Rabbit Slim's, that is believable only as fiction. The difference with Superdawg, however, is that it does actually exist, and serves an impressive dog to boot. In a town where hot dog stands dominate the fast food landscape, it takes a lot to stand out... a lot, in this case, meaning a giant Tarzan-outfitted fiberglass sausage with blinking eyes, towering over the drive-in's lot, flexing and posing while his similarly-sized frankfurter femme swoons at his side. Though Superdawg has undergone a number of renovations over the years, the look is remarkably similar and the spirit identical to the Superdawg of the '50s, when the previous two generations of Armato men were regulars.

Dominic Armato
I am, in fact, a third generation Superdawg aficionado. My father fondly recalls summer evenings with his father, sneaking out to the drive-in late at night for a "second dinner". It was opened in 1947 by Maurie and Flaurie (no joke) to provide a little summertime income while Maurie wasn't studying to be a CPA and Flaurie wasn't busy with the young'uns of the Chicago public school system. Thankfully, the pair recognized that they had a good thing going, and eventually opted to keep the place open year 'round. Situated way out in the northwest corner of the city, it's a little distant to satisfy my late-night whims. Last week, however, a late morning appointment took me within a couple of blocks, which was more than close enough for Superdawg's magnetic personality to drag me in.

Dominic Armato
Though the giant fiberglass dawgs are what's visible from a distance, it's a funky place top to bottom. Decked out in blue and white diamond trim and endless neon, the building has a certain mothership quality after dark. As previously mentioned, Superdawg is also a drive-in, and the bridge of the starship Superdawg contains the nerve center of the operation, a mammoth switchboard that runs the "Suddenserv" network, communicating with diners via the colorfully decorated menus. As hot dog joints go, it's a fairly extensive (and amusing) menu, containing signature items like the Superdawg, Whoopskidawg (Polish sausage) and Whoopercheesie (double cheeseburger), as well as all of the typical accompaniments and a few less common items. Though most everything is tasty, it's hard to get away from the signature item. My usual is a Superdawg, everything with hot peppers, and an order of onion chips. A few minutes after ordering, the tray lands on your window, and it's time to dig in.

Dominic Armato
Pictured on the outside of the box is our super pal, happily lounging and thanking you for stopping by. Upon opening the box, the Superdawg isn't lounging so much as he is contentedly nestled in a pile of Superfries. It's a dense package, steaming hot and exploding with aroma. A meal at Superdawg will keep your car smelling beefy for a week. This is a good thing. Tightly packed with the fries, extracting the dog is more akin to surgical procedure or a mining expedition. Yes, the dog is in there, and keeping the whole thing contained within the box whilst searching for it can be a challenge. The Superdawg is essentially a Chicago-style dog, with two minor variations. The requisite all-beef dog, steamed poppyseed bun, chopped onions, yellow mustard, Chernobyl green sweet relish, dill pickle spear and optional sport peppers are all present. But the Superdawg is missing fresh tomatoes, and it also includes a megatart pickled green tomato wedge, which I personally think works much better as a side and I believe is intended as such. Though any good Chicagoan knows that ketchup has no place on a Chicago-style dog, Maurie's exact words on the subject have earned him my undying respect:

"We, standing true not only to tradition but to what we feel is an abomination, we will not put ketchup on a sandwich. We will serve it, and if somebody wants to mess it up with ketchup, we will serve it to them."

Dominic Armato
The Superdawg is fantastic. It's a really, really good dog. Maurie and Flaurie refer to their secret recipe on the website, and I have no idea what it is, but it works. The Superdawg isn't a thin hot dog with snap. Rather, it's a thick, beefy, exceptionally juicy sausage that, due to whatever magic they work behind closed doors, tastes much, much better than your average dog. It's skinless, which is blasphemy among many Chicago dog aficionados and I understand the reasons for their disdain, but the flavor is so nice that I'm inclined to judge it for what it is and overlook the missing snap.  The condiments are spot on, with the mustard the right level of pungency, the relish as sweet as it should be without going overboard, and the onions ever so lightly steamed to just barely mute the harsh edge without killing the raw flavor. Some dislike the fact that the bun gets a little smooshed in delivery, but I can't say that bothers me. It's moist and steamy and hot and far more enjoyable than many other buns I've encountered.

Dominic Armato
What's more, the Superdawg has some fantastic supporting characters. The Superfries deserve just as much praise as the dog, fresh crinkle-cut potatoes that are crispy and brown on the outside, soft and potatoey on the inside, and perfectly pleasing in every way. As mentioned, I'm also a big fan of the onion chips. It's true, they're essentially a slight twist on onion rings, but it's a twist that works. They're battered and fried, hot and crispy with big chunks of onion in the middle. The chip form means that the batter to onion ratio is a little higher than it would be with your average ring. I'd ordinarily consider this a downside, but it just works for me here. While this may just be a function of nostalgia, either way it's a great fried treat, and a great accompaniment to a superlative hot dog.

I'd like to think that even if I didn't have a lifetime of experience and the love of two generations guiding my feelings on the subject, I'd adore Superdawg just as much. The crowd in the lot on any summer evening indicates that I'm by no means alone. The place is chock full of character, and it's always refreshing to hit a spot where the character is the result of decades of love rather than a market study. But even with character and history aside, it's a fantastic dog. The bottom line is that while I frequently have a Chicago-style dog craving, a craving that I can satisfy at any number of stands citywide, the Chicago-style dog craving isn't the same as the Superdawg craving, which can only be satisfied in one place.