Roasted Chicken

The first time I roasted a whole chicken, it felt like I was diffusing a bomb. I cannot completely relate to the person I was before I knew how to really cook. Working with food and becoming a chef requires the thoughtful exercising of repetitive activities. We make mayonnaise over an over, along the way learning subtleties and nuance of emulsification. We learn how to wash and dry salad greens, ever striving to be more gentle and cleaner. I have now butchered and roasted (and fried) more chickens than I could ever count. I've finished endless bowls of pasta with a ladle of pasta water and a drizzle of olive oil or a pat of butter. I've seared countless burgers over charcoal, and hand-stretched pizza dough in my dreams.  While all of this has become for the most part second nature, I am still learning and tweaking and hopefully improving. 

So back to that first chicken. I really could not conceive how to get from raw whole chicken to Martha Stewart golden crispy bird. After much research, I set up  a cheesecloth draped over the chicken. I procured a paintbrush and swiped a mop of white wine and butter at regular intervals during a roasting process that involved flipping the chicken and rotating it and changing the temperature of the oven, and lord knows what else. By the time I was done, the chicken skin was still soggy, the meat was raw where the thigh meets the backbone and I had under seasoned the poor bird to a degree that flavor was not something to associate with this chicken. I clearly had overthought this chicken.

It turns out roasting a chicken is ridiculously simple. A handful of salt, several turns of pepper, a hot oven, a great quality chicken (preferably raised by someone you know), a nose, a touch, and a good thermometer are all you really need. Yes, you can do more: herbs or citrus in the cavity; butter and garlic under the skin; the possibilities are endless. But for me, simple is almost always where I go these days. 

Simplicity is the benchmark. As cooks and learners, our instincts can easily veer towards complexity: a dash of this, or a sprig of that, an espuma here, or an emulsified essence there. Experience has taught me that if less can work, if less produces cleaner, more straightforward food, then less is where I go. 

How I take a break: cookbooks

I've tried it all: meditation, yoga, do not disturb mode on my iPhone, deep breathing, jogging, pushups. As a chef and small business owner, the day never ends. The week never pauses, and the responsibilities never take a break. 

My dirty little secret? I love it! I enjoy all the ups and downs, the anxieties, the delicious dishes, late deliveries, new menu testing, menu planning, broken pipes and robot coupes, daily human resource frustrations. I love the people I work with. The cooks, the dishwashers, the chefs, the servers, the bartenders, the cashiers and my partners - they all uniquely drive me crazy and make me happy. This life is fuller and richer than I ever imagined when I dreamed all those dreams in block one of culinary school.


But I still need a break sometimes. As I've gotten older - my knees creakier and my tolerance for the spiciest dish on the Thai menu waning - I've realized that moments of escape and relaxation are essential to maintaining my health, both physically and mentally. 

When I think of escapes, few things in this world fill me with more wonder, joy, and peace than cookbooks. My favorite thing about being a chef is the total awareness that I will never know it all. I will die with dishes uncooked, ingredients never tasted, and techniques never tested. In my career I have learned so much, and yet, when I open a cookbook, I feel as though I am peaking into an alternate food life that reveals how much left there is to know. 

To sit with a pile of cookbooks and a couple of hours to spare is a chance to learn, dream, and challenge my assumptions. Flipping through a cookbook is a break that returns me to the reasons I started this journey. 


Octopus: Don't be afraid

Cooking from afar can at times seem like overhearing an unknown language or watching an advanced martial art or accidentally walking into a calculus class. Enter the octopus. The lurking deep sea creature whose key to deliciousness and tenderness requires a copper penny, a wine cork, or a beating against rocks while standing in shallow water.

It turns out, octopus is really quite simple. It requires two steps: 1. simmering the octopus with tasty aromatics for a couple of hours and then 2. searing or grilling to crisp and serve.

When it comes to step one, the world is your oyster (or octopus). Start by adding a bit of olive oil to a large pot, then sweat some delicious flavoring agents in that oil. Onions, shallots, garlic, carrots, celery, leeks, chiles, orange slices, herbs, peppercorns - the possibilities are endless.  I like onion, garlic, celery, and orange peel. Then pour over a cup or two of dry white wine simmer for a minute and add enough water to the pot so that when you add octopus they will be covered. Bring that mixture to a simmer and add a hefty handful of salt. 

Bring on the octopus. This technique will work for any size octopus, but a 3-5 pound octopus is what I prefer. If the octopus you are using is bigger or smaller, adjust the simmering time longer or shorter. I remove the head from the octopus for this preparation, it's the tentacles that we are after. You can ask your lovely fishmonger to handle this step if you are squeamish. Drop the tentacles into the simmering water and check back in an hour or two. Stick a pointed knife into the thickest tentacle you can find and if it doesn't fight back, you are good to go.

All that's left is the crisping. Heat up a cast iron pan (or a grill) and add some oil and open the windows.  A little salt and pepper is all you need. Sear until crispy and golden. Enjoy with beans, salad greens, or a vinaigrette or garlic mayo. 

See? Nothing to be afraid of here. 

Crispy Octopus

Crispy octopus

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 onion, rough chopped
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 2 celery stalks, rough chopped
  • the peel and juice of one orange
  • 2 cups dry white wine
  • 1 3-5 pound octopus, head and beak removed and tentacles separated
  • Salt and Pepper

Preheat a pot large enough to fit the octopus over medium heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the onions, garlic, and celery. Sweat the vegetables until they are softened (about 10 minutes). Add the orange peel and juice along with the wine. Bring the mixture to a simmer and add enough water to cover the octopus tentacles. When simmering, add a handful of salt and the octopus. Simmer for an hour and fifteen minutes and then check the octopus with a sharp knife. You should feel almost no resistance.

Carefully pull the tentacles out of the pot and let drain and with paper towels, wipe away any "skin" or bits from the octopus. Heat a cast iron or heavy bottomed pan over medium-high heat. Add the remaining oil and when it is nearly smoking, season the tentacles with salt and pepper and add to the hot pan. Let the tentacles sear on all sides, about 10 minutes total. Adjust the heat to keep the sear at a nice even tempo. Use tongs to flip and move the tentacles as each side becomes crispy. Remove from the pan and enjoy hot or cool and slice for a salad.



Pizza links For Your Reading and Viewing Pleasure

My testing thin and crispy pizza made with locally milled flour and a rye starter.

When I was in college, I read about the political economy of race, existentialism, and American Literature. My days were filled with Camus and Baldwin, William Julius Wilson and Kozol, Faulkner and Cather. I don't know what happened, but now I read up on thin crust and pizza al taglio and fineness of the stone ground and bran cutting gluten. I love a lot of things (burgers, in season tomatoes, steak tacos, broccoli slow cooked, my wife, etc.) but I am a little crazy for pizza. Here is all the pizza that I've been reading, watching, and staring at:

Almost Spring Fusilli

creamy fusilli with bacon, peas and lemon   

I'm on vacation!

Some people call two days off a weekend, but in this business two days is damn near a sabbatical. When I'm on vacation, I like to cook and eat. So my wife Rachel and I invited my sister-in-law Jenny over for dinner and we cooked up some smoky, "almost spring" pasta. Dinner with Rachel and Jenny usually involves dancing, squealing, wine, and cursing - it's pretty much my favorite thing to do. 

Like all great pastas, buy the best ingredients and don't add too much. At it's core, this dish is bacon, bacon  fat, cream, peas, and pasta. You can veer a bit from there if you wish. In this case, I wanted bright and hopeful and for me, that's lemon and tons of black pepper. Tip for Chicago life: when in need of spring eat lemon and black pepper. 

Creamy Fusilli with Bacon, Peas and Lemon

Serves 4-6

  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 1/2 pound thick cut bacon, diced
  • 1/3 cup shallots, minced
  • 4 cloves garlic, mashed
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1 pint heavy cream
  • 1 pound fusilli pasta
  • 10 ounces frozen peas
  • 1 lemon, juice and zest
  • 1/3 cup parmigiano reggiano, freshly grated
  • salt and fresh cracked black pepper

Bring a large pot of water to a boil for the pasta. While the pasta water is heating up, preheat a large sauce pan over medium heat. When hot, add the olive oil and the diced bacon. Render the bacon until crisp and remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and let drain on paper towel. Pour off all of the remaining fat from the pan except for about 2 tablespoons (reserve the extra bacon fat for your eggs tomorrow). 

Return the sauce pan to medium heat and add the shallots and sweat for about 2 minutes, until just softened. Then add the garlic and stir until you can really smell the garlicky aroma, about 1 minute. Carefully add the wine and scrape the bottom of the pan to incorporate the bacon fond (caramelized bacon bits stuck to the pan) into the sauce. Simmer the wine for about 1 minute. Then add the cream and bring the whole mixture to a gentle simmer. 

Your pasta water should be boiling. Add salt to the water (it should taste almost like the sea). Add the fusilli to the boiling, salted water and stir. While the pasta is cooking, add the frozen peas to a fine mesh strainer and dip into the boiling pasta water to defrost. This should take about 1 minute.

Lift the strainer from the pasta water and drain well. Then add the peas to the simmering cream sauce and stir in.

Cook the pasta until al dente, about 10 minutes. Reserve a cup or so of the pasta cooking water and then drain the pasta, pouring off all the water. Return the empty pasta cooking pot to the stove over medium heat and add the drained hot pasta to the pot. Then pour the cream sauce mixture over the pasta. If necessary, add some of the reserved pasta cooking liquid to thin the sauce. Stir the pasta over medium heat for a minute or two to combine.

Reduce the heat to low and add the cheese and mix well. Then add the zest and juice of one lemon to the pasta and stir in. Then add half the rendered bacon and plenty of fresh cracked black pepper. Taste the pasta for seasoning and if necessary add a little salt. Again, adjust the sauce with some pasta cooking liquid if the sauce has become too thick. the sauce should coat the pasta but it should not be stiff.

Plate the pasta in bowls and top with the remains crispy bacon and drink with wine and the Brown sisters. 


Fried Zucchini and Sausages for Breakfast?

Is it wrong to eat sausage and fried food for breakfast?  The batter had some rye flour in it.  And vodka.  And the aioli had garlic, raw garlic - that's good for your immune system. Right?

Pan Fried Zucchini and Red Onion with Garlic Mayonnaise

  • 2 small zucchinis, organic, cut on a bias in to 1/4 inch slice
  • 1/2 small red onion, 1/4 inch slices
  • 1/3 cup rye flour
  • 1/3 cup semolina flour
  • 1/3 cup cornstarch
  • 1 tbsp. Baking Powder
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp. black pepper
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/4 cup vodka
  • 1/2 cup water
  • Olive oil or grape seed or canola or rice bran oil for pan frying
  • Salt and pepper
  • Aleppo pepper (optional)

Quick Garlic Mayonnaise

  • 1/2 cup good mayo
  • 1 firm garlic clove mashed or passed through a press
  • Juice from 1/2 a lemon
  • Salt and pepper

To assemble the mayonnaise, combine the mayo, garlic and lemon.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

For the zucchini and onion, combine the rye flour, semolina flour, cornstarch, baking powder, salt and pepper.  Stir together egg, vodka and water.  Add the liquid ingredients to the dry and blend well.  Batter should be thick but still pourable, almost like a pancake batter. If it seems to tin, add a little more of the flours.  If it seems to thin, add a little more water.  Let batter rest for 10 minutes before using.

Heat a 1/4 inch of the oil in a sturdy frying pan or cast iron pan over medium heat.  When oil is hot and shimmering, dunk the zucchini and onion pieces into the batter and coat well.  With a fork, lift vegetables from the batter and carefully place into the hot oil.  You will likely need to or three batches - don't overcrowd the pan - leave about 1/2 inch between pieces.  

Adjust heat as necessary, you should hear an even sizzle, nothing too crazy and also not too quiet.  After about a minute and a half, carefully flip the vegetables (always flip away from yourself so the oil doesn't splash on you) and fry the other side for about a minute and a half.  Use your judgment, the vegetables are done when the batter is golden brown.

Remove from the oil and place on a rack or paper towels to drain.  Season with a little salt and pepper and Aleppo pepper if using.

Eat them immediately or keep warm in a low oven.  Serve with garlic mayonnaise.

Be sure to eat these for breakfast :)

How The Menus Get Made - A Podcast

From upper left: Ian, Steve, Josh, Amy (Christine is taking the pic)

From upper left: Ian, Steve, Josh, Amy (Christine is taking the pic)

So a couple of week's ago, Sunday Dinner Club sat down with Ian and Steve from Vinejoy and drank a bunch of wine out of paper bags.  We were menu planning of course.  Specifically, we were dreaming up our Valentine's Day 2013 menu.  We recorded this meeting.  There is quite a bit of slurring, background music, rickies, drinking, occasional vulgarities, religious exploration and wasted time.

We are sharing this recording with you.  We feel vulnerable.  You will hear myself (Josh Kulp), my co-chef Christine Cikowski, our sous-chef Amy Hoover, along with our wine friends Ian and Steve.

You gotta eat salty tasty food when wine pairing - just got to.

You gotta eat salty tasty food when wine pairing - just got to.

Just a heads up on what you might hear if you listen.  We tasted wines out of paper bags - it was a blind tasting so we would not be influenced by labels or grapes.  If you are interested in how we chefs spend our time and also how we navigate the process of collaborative menu planning, you might enjoy listening.

SDC Vinejoy Valentine's Day Menu Planning Podcast (NSFW!!)  

right click to download or just click to listen

And the menu we created with the wines:

Cool Ranch Crackers

Illinois Sparkling Bubbly

Green Curry Lobster and Corn Soup, Bay Scallops, Thai Basil and Cilantro

Force of Nature Pinot Gris

Bo Ssam Pork, Smoked Paprika and Spaghetti Squash Salad

Force of Nature Tempranillo

Cashew Sesame Noodles, Charred Sirloin and Garlicky Summer Beans

Force of Nature Cabernet Sauvignon

Salted Shortbread Cookies with Chili and Caramelia Chocolate Ganache

Force of Nature Zinfandel

I bought Ian's Glasses!

I bought Ian's Glasses!

Please Lord, I Really Want a New Co-op

Today I discovered that the wheels are in motion to drum up support for a new food co-op in Chicago - specifically up in the Lincoln Square/North Center area. Check out this damn exciting vision from the Chicago Cooperative website:
The vision for the food co-op is that it will be a big, bright, beautiful store featuring organic, local, and natural produce, organic meat and dairy products, seafood, prepared foods, fresh baked goods, canned, dried, and frozen foods, bulk foods, local beer, wine and liquor products, dry goods and groceries. It will also have other services including true butcher service, a salad bar, juice and coffee bar, community workshops, and classes. Members will shape and further define this vision and the future of the co-op.
Yes please!  As a long time member of the incredible Madison, Wisconsin Williamson Street Coop, I have long pined for an excellent, full service co-op here in Chicago.  As a college student in Madison in the mid 90s, I belonged to the Willy Street Coop when it was in a small space.  It was great, but magic happened when a group of visionaries there decided to push for and build a full service grocery using the co-op model.  Willy Street has became integral to the community that surrounds it, it has benefited small artisans and farmers across the local region, it has nourished families and provided many important, sustainable jobs to it workers.  The possibility of this happening here is daunting but I encourage anyone interested to please sign up on the website - attend an informational session.  A co-op truly is owned by the community and it's only as limited or limitless as it's base of support.  

Family Meal: Summer Sausage Fried Rice

Summer Sausage Fried Rice: SDC Family Meal

Summer Sausage Fried Rice: SDC Family Meal

 So at Sunday Dinner Club, we have a little secret - we don't always eat the same meal that our guests eat.  Sometimes we make something called "family meal."  This meal is intended to boost the spirits and feed the bellies of the hard working team at SDC.  The meal is usually humble, but often is used to test out some ideas for future menus.  We try and use what we have around and we try to get the most bang for our time - quick meals are preferred when we have hours of prep to tackle.  So, I present a favorite: Fried Rice.

Before I loved food, I loved fried rice. Before that, as a little kid I would cry unless I was eating pizza, burgers, or macaroni and cheese.  My parents and brother often wanted Chinese, and I would cry.  Somehow, I was ususally able to cry enough so my parents would drive through Wendy's and pick me up a burger on our way to Szechuan Garden.  I would happily eat a burger at the table while my family enjoyed tasty and scary Szechuan food.

One day, my parents must have toughened up.  No drive-thru on the way.  I cried the whole way, and sat defiantly in the green Szechuan Garden booth, arms folded.  I was a jerky kid.  My dad made a deal with me - if I tried a bite of the fried rice, we could get Wendy's after we left.  I pouted, but always amenable to a good deal, I took one bite.  I convulsed, thrashed, made like I was going to puke and choked it down.  

I got my Wendy's after the meal, but guess what - I was too big of a little bastard to admit it then and there, but I fucking loved the fried rice!

And still do.  Here is a version that we made this week at the dinner club.  We added some summer sausage, sweetened and funked a bit by sugar and fish sauce, along with our daily ration of green veggies.  Fried rice is perfect for experimenting with - the possible condiments are endless.  

Mise en Place!

Watch the video below to see how easy it is to make and you can catch some of our deep thoughts about fried rice along the way.

Summer Sausage Fried Rice 

(serves 3-4)

* The ingredients below list the preparations for each component of the fried rice. Read through and prepare each part before following the final assembly instructions below.

  • 3 tbsp. or so of oil or fat, grapeseed, canola, peanut or lard
  • 1/2 cup diced and sweated onions, cook for a 3 minutes over medium low heat with 1 tbsp. oil until just softened
  • 4 cups cold, cooked jasmine rice
  • 1/4 cup chinese rice wine
  • 1/4 cup mirin
  • 1 bunch of black kale (cavolo nero) shredded and sauteed for 1 min over high heat with 1 tbsp. oil
  • 1 cup sliced summer sausage, tossed with 1 tsp. good fish sauce and 1 tbsp brown sugar, roast in oven at 400 for 7 minutes and cool
  • 2 bunches scallions, sliced thin
  • 2 eggs, whisked together and cooked quickly in a medium high heat non stick pan with 1 tsp. oil, cool and chop.
  • Salt

Final Assembly: Heat a large saute pan or rondeau over medium high heat.  Add oil or fat and heat until shimmering, about 1 minute.  Add onions and sweat for a minute or so, then add rice and break up clumps.  Move the rice quickly through the oil, trying to coat each grain with a little hot oil.  Add rice wine and mirin and continue to move rice rapidly until any liquid is mostly absorbed or cooked off, about 1 minute.  You should be hearing a good sizzle, but not a crazy train.  

One note, too quiet in a saute pan means two things: not hot enough or already burnt!

Add the kale, sausage, scallions and eggs and toss together with rice until everything is hot, about 1 or 2 minutes.  Cut the heat off, and season with salt to taste.  Or try some MSG!

City Provisions Deli Closing

Cleetus Friedman - one the good guys - a truly loyal and supportive friend whose optimism and commitment to doing what is right in business has announced that his deli, City Provisions, is closed.  The closing of CP is not just sad for those of us that seek responsible and delicious food options, but I feel for his awesome staff, as their commitment to Cleetus and his food philosophy was palpable - all the best to them.

Cleetus mentioned in his newsletter announcing the closing, that his farm direct ingredients and business philosophy of sustainability were costly, saying:
I could have bought different milk. Different eggs. I could have used non eco-friendly parchment paper. I could sent everything to landfill. I could have used an inferior product. I could have had a Sysco truck deliver my food and have one person work a deep fryer and microwave. I consciously chose to do things one way. Maybe I was stubborn. I was committed to doing what I believed to be the right thing.
Having cooked many times with Cleetus, including a couple of dinners at the deli and at one time having been a vendor with our now retired Eat Green Foods Granola Bars, I know that what he was doing at CP was not smoke and mirrors.

Cleetus is the real deal when it is comes to putting his money where his mouth is.   The conversation about food costs and the "price of sustainability" has been debated before and will continue (you can read some of my thoughts on the topic here, in a discussion about tamales from a couple of years back).  But what I do know for sure, is that whether it was Illinois Sparkling wines or Gunthorp ducks or Pinn Oak Lamb or responsibly sourced shrimp in his awesome salad, the ingredients and products that Cleetus sought were thoughtful and generous.  Cleetus used City Provisions to support many small business, seeking to showcase products from area farmers and artisans.

At a time when many of us in the food business crave an opportunity to provide not only great, responsibly sourced food, but also a respectful and fruitful workplace, this closing is a tough pill to swallow.