Sunday, October 28, 2012

Whiskey for Everyone and a Make-Your-Own Burger Smack Down

I notice a slight touch of perspiration on my brow as I hop from my taxi in downtown Chicago.   Is it the unusually warm autumn temperatures in the Windy City?  I think not.   Is it the suitcase I’m lugging packed with my business clothes?  Negative.  It is nerves - flat out culinary pressure.   I’m dining with my old pal Mad Me-Shell, and she’s already transformed the meal into Iron Chef style event.  
It’s no secret that Mad Me-Shell is a fierce competitor.   She’s famous for challenging complete strangers to street food duels on Twitter.   This time, she’s got me on her radar.    I’ve been invited to meet her at 25 Degrees at 736 N. Clark Street, which is described as “Bordello meets Burger Bar.”   Sweet!   “And,” adds Mad Me-Shell,  “They have a build your own burger option, so we can have a little competition.”  

Why do I feel like I’m being set up? 

Zany has decided to sit this event out.  She’s roughly seven months pregnant and the little bundle of joy is just wearing her down.  Personally I think it’s kind of a lame excuse.  What unborn child wouldn’t enjoy a healthy shot of all-beef protein?   We’ll have to check back in a couple of years and see what impact this decision to deprive the youngster of 10 essential nutrients has had.  Oh well.  I’ll just have to eat her share. 

I take a seat in a banquette surrounded by red velvet wallpaper.   Already I’m feeling a little frisky.   Mad Me-Shell breezes into the room, and lays down the gauntlet.  Or maybe that’s her credit card.  We consult the cocktail menu.   “Whiskey for everyone!” Mad proclaims.   I order a “Mayday,” which consists of Maker’s Mark, Domain de Canton ginger, oranges and soda.   Mad has a “Whiskey Smash” made of Bulleit Bourbon and lemon mint.    My guard is up.  This woman is no novice when it comes to whisky.  She can drink the WWF under the table.   
Mad has just returned from a whirlwind culinary tour of London and Paris with her mother.  “My mom was such a good sport,” she explains.  “I dragged her down a dark alley near Covent Garden in search of an elusive European food truck.  We had the most amazing Neapolitan pizza!  Mom said, What ever you want, dear.”

Mad also discovered English pub food.  “Runny eggs have changed my life!” she says, gleefully.  

On the home front, she’s faced a few kitchen nightmares.   The other night, she threw a baby shower for Zany and the oven crapped, out forcing her to pan fry the pork tenderloin roast as kabobs on the stovetop.   For Mad Me-Shell, necessity is always the motherhood of invention.  
Despite the bacon wrapped dates and potato and 3 cheese fritters, Mad’s eyes keep drifting towards the football game on TV.   It turns out she’s enrolled in a suicide football pool, and she’s destroying the competition.  

After another round of cocktails (“You know I’m a whiskey girl,” Mad reminds me.) it’s time for the moment of truth.  It’s time to build that burger.  

Mad gives me the stink eye and scrutinizes her menu.  I carefully consider my flavor strategy, and decide to go for a healthy dose of umami.  My signature burger is composed of ground sirloin, caramelized onion, portabella mushrooms, Applewood smoked bacon, fried egg and grand cru gruyere surchoix. Mad decides to go a bit old school and selects ground sirloin, roasted tomato, jalapeno bacon, fried egg, and smoked mozzarella.   The twin peaks are towering burger creations, and we divvy up the goods, so we can each sample.  
Without Zany as referee, we are each forced to play the dual role of competitor and judge.   Mad, dabs her mouth with a napkin, looks up from her plate and says slowly, “It pains me to admit it, T.W., but I think you may have built the better burger.”
Score one for 20 weeks of culinary school.   But it’s kind of like having Julia Child surrender to Jacques Pepin, or Bobby Flay turning the keys to the restaurant over to Giada.  It just doesn’t feel quite right.    So, rather than me take a victory lap, we decide to jointly toast ourselves with some spiked milk shakes.   

Mine is called “Salty Caramel” consisting of Maker’s Mark, butterscotch vanilla ice cream and Hawaiian red sea salt.  Commensurate with her new fondness for the cuisine of Great Britain, Mad orders a Guinness Milk Shake which features Guinness, House Made Chocolate Sauce and Vanilla Ice Cream.  
I take a sip of my milkshake and gasp a little screech of sheer delight.

“You’re welcome!” says Mad brightly.

At the risk of being uncouth, I slurp the bottom of the glass with my straw.  Several times.  Some folks at the bar turn their heads, thinking the L train is rambling by.  
As I leave Mad Me-Shell for my final destination of the evening, she is enjoying the last few drops of her Guinness Milk Shake, checking her status in the suicide football pool, and already plotting how she’ll corrupt the diet of Zany’s little one during her first gig as baby sitter.  
©2012 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Ferocious Weeds, Wandering Bovine and Healing at Apple Trace

Michael Phillips is an orchardist and author of the book “The Apple Grower:  A Guide for the Organic Orchardist,” first published in 1998.  In the introduction to the book, he writes about a low point in his life when a cider mill operation he’d been running had closed and the most of the apple trees cut down:

“Needless to say, I felt like I had lost part of my family.  And yet, it was an apple tree that eventually “spoke” to me at an herbal workshop I attended in Vermont.  Herbalists say every plant being has a spirit, of sorts, and so it is with trees.  My meditations that day focused in part on what to do next with my life.  I sat beneath a garden apple tree I had pruned for a friend earlier that spring.  Deep within a voice stirred.  You, too are pruned, apple grower, in order to become stronger.  Now this cut is open, dripping the sap of your visions and hopes.  It will heal, as all things do in time.  Afterward, you will be stronger to carry the harvest to come.”

The planting of Apple Trace at Restoration Farm – in memory of my father James M. Barritt Jr. – has been a source of healing for me.  The memorial took shape throughout the spring and summer, with a special plaque of living memory installed just before the Autumn Pot Luck.  Perhaps after loss, we do become stronger with a focus and a purpose.
Nurturing the eight heritage apple trees has helped move me from sadness to a place of happier memories and optimism for the growth of these trees at the farm.   “You, too are pruned, apple grower, in order to become stronger…It will heal, as all things do in time.  Afterward, you will be stronger to carry the harvest to come.” 
Throughout the summer, the weeds were often ferocious.   At one point, I returned from holiday to find the weeds so overgrown that I could barely find the saplings among the tangled growth.  
Bent on my knees weeding, I would think of my Dad, and how so often he had to weed, cultivate and nurture the little patch that was me.  He, too, probably had frustrations as he tugged at those weeds over the years, but I’m hopeful he was pleased with the end result.   
There have been bumps along the way as this fledging orchard has taken root.  Early in July, two of the cows from the historic village escaped from their pasture, and wandered all the way up to Apple Trace damaging two of the trees.   I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.   Of the problems I’d anticipated, cow thrashing was not one of them.  The upper third of the Winesap was cut off and the more slender Prairie Spy was nearly toppled.    But, one of the volunteers, Jen Wang trimmed back the Winesap and my friend George Garbarani staked up the Praire Spy.   Then we waited.   The trees have shown amazing resiliency – much like my Dad always did during more than eight decades of his life.   The Winesap has now filled out nicely, and although once almost bare, the Prairie Spy has now sprouted many fresh new leaves at its base.  This little tree is clearly a survivor.  
As autumn arrived, it was time to mulch around the base of the trees.  Mulching protects the roots and deters the growth of weeds.   The gentleman who provides the farm with wood chips left mountains of mulch in between the trees.   It seemed like an insurmountable task. 
Still, I kept pushing ahead, one scoop of mulch at a time.   And, one afternoon when I had almost given up for the day, Glenn, George, Jen and Jay arrived in the truck with shovels and support.   Within no time, the trees were well-blanketed with mulch.   A job is always easier, and more fun, when the community pitches in. 
I’m a bit concerned about the Honeycrisp, which looks quite bare, but Caroline wonders if perhaps it just concluded its growth season a little earlier than the other trees.   The remaining trees are thriving, and the Newtown Pippin and Ashmead’s Kernel are at least as tall as I am. 
My Mom and I had a chance to walk along Apple Trace as the sun was setting during the Autumn Pot Luck.   The trees were bathed in a golden light and I was encouraged that the harvest to come will be fruitful.  It made me smile, and I think Dad is smiling, too.  
©2012 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, October 14, 2012

When There’s No Time For Pie – Maple Baked Apple

Apples are the rubies of the autumn season, and I carried home a tote brimming with juicy locally-grown Gala, Macintosh and Cortland apples from the Long Island Fair.  
With a bowl-full of such magnificent specimens glistening on the kitchen counter– and a crisp note in the air – it is natural that the imagination turns to apple pie.   But, a good pie takes time and must be gently nurtured through crust and filling.  Alas, my October schedule is anything but pie-friendly.
Maple Baked Apple is a fine alternative for the time-starved chef, infusing the kitchen with the tempting aroma of maple, cinnamon, butter and walnuts.   I use a baking dish from my friend Joan, especially designed for baked apple.  The center cylinder warms the apple from within, cooking it to creamy perfection.  
And, no rolling pin or flour smudges required. 
Maple Baked Apple - adapted from 

2 teaspoons maple syrup
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon chopped walnuts
1 teaspoon dried cranberries
1/8 teaspoon ground roasted cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon butter
Additional melted butter for basting
1 medium apple

Preheat oven to 375° F.  Combine the first seven ingredients in a small bowl.  Wash and core apple, and peel the skin from the top third.  Place apple in an oven-safe baking dish and fill the apple cavity with the maple walnut mixture.   Bake for 45 minutes until tender.   Baste apple with additional melted butter halfway through baking. 

©2012 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Bored with Hot Dogs? Try a Durger!

Once in a while, lunch is a matter of divine intervention.   It is a rainy Thursday, and I am wandering the streets in search of a bite to eat.   Suddenly, the clouds and fog part, and I spy a vision of an azure blue truck decorated with the image of a smartly dressed chef beckoning me closer.  It is the Trusty Truck, and it’s been on the streets for a mere two weeks.  
I approach the window and gaze at the menu.   At the top, is the word “Durgers.”   “What’s a Durger?”  I ask the woman at the counter.
“It’s a burger in the shape of a hot dog,” she says quite matter-of-factly.  Not just “a burger,” street food fans, but 100 percent All-Natural Black Angus Beef on a roll with a choice of toppings.  Carolyn at the window suggests Shroom n’ Onion – melted Swiss cheese, sautéed Portabella mushrooms, haystack Videlia onions with chipotle mayo.    I can see the flames dancing at the grill, and I inhale a smoky, savory aroma.   "What country do Durgers come from?"  I ask.  "Greece?" says Carolyn tentatively.  

"I'll take one,"  I say with hungry conviction.  The great tradition of Dawging has just gone up a notch. 

But why hold back?  I throw in a side order of Mac n’ Cheese Bites, balls of macaroni pasta and cheese coated with Panko Bread crumbs and deep-fried.   With ranch on the side.  Yikes!
Hot, beefy, smoky, and juicy – a Durger leaves your average dog in the dust.  And those crispy balls of macaroni are diet-busting rapture. 
It’s a celestial meal.   Or, as it says on the side of the Trusty Truck, “Five Stars on Four Wheels.”  
Life will never be the same.  Trust me.  The hot dog stand is as relic.  You’ve got to try a Durger. Don’t let the Trusty Truck pass you by.

©2012 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved