One’s work and one’s art

I definitely need art in my life to thrive. And I need non-art work, too. This is nothing new for anyone, I suspect. But I’m happy to be at the point where my weekend pursuits, in food, are both satisfying work and hella artful.

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Three Sisters Lentils, Mint Creek pork shoulder, Genesis squash and onions, Werp greens and edible flowers, at my restaurant, Cellar Door Provisions.

My weekday work too, in journalism and supporting whistleblowers, has both art and toil. But as yet, it’s decidedly less pretty to the eye.

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I’ve forgotten what this is exactly, but it seems like buckwheat fusilli, milk-poached garlic, a winter green pesto, root vegetables, pickled onion, raw chard, house paprika, and something shaved… Maybe the rare hard cheese?

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Genesis potatoes, shaved parsnip, parsnip butter (made in-house with Kilgus cream), fried Mint Creek egg, Werp greens

The past few months in photos, minus all the computers

Afraid to cook? You shouldn’t be.

Broccoli sautee

Broccoli in a wok. The key to the wok is crazy, crazy, jet-engine heat. But don’t worry about that for now. (Creative commons photo from Flickr’s anotherpintplease)

I recently heard someone say they did well following strict recipes—baking, for example—but that spontaneous cooking, without an exact recipe, frightened them. Maybe they tried it before and it didn’t work out so well, so they assumed it was some sort of magic they didn’t possess.

Couldn’t be further from the truth.

Last night, for fun, I typed up a response to that someone: a starter recipe for the recipe-less. You’re welcome. It’s three paragraphs. Because you’re trying to be a baller, read through it first. Then bring out to the counter all the stuff you’ll need. You don’t need to pre-measure; just get it in arm’s reach.

Bring some grapeseed (or canola or vegetable) oil to a shimmer at high heat in a shallow, heavy weight pan. I like cast iron, but use whatever. Sear some sliced extra firm tofu or chicken breast until it releases easily. Turn down the heat a bit if you’re getting much smoke from the fat. If you’re burning your food, add a tablespoon or two of liquid; it cools the pan. If you want, you can turn over the proteins and do the other side.. or don’t. Time is money.

Next, toss in some smallish green vegetables. Saute a minute or two to soften. Pump the heat back up to high for a few seconds to get the pan really sizzling again, then add stock: veg if you’re veg, chicken if you’re not. If you want to get fancy, add it slowly so you make sure you don’t cool the pan too much. You’re cooking off the stock’s water and leaving its flavor components behind, AKA “reducing.” Congrats. If your vegetables were leafy, cover the pan a couple minutes while reducing to let ’em wilt nicely.

To complete your five minute project, add the following rough measurements for every portion you think you’re making: 1-2 teaspoons of mustard and the same of white wine or vinegar—any vinegar but distilled white or balsamic.. Throw in a dash of salt and a pinch (teaspoon or less) of brown sugar or honey or real maple syrup.. unless you used honey mustard. Then don’t. Pepper just before serving; fresh ground is better but not necessary.

Of course, now that you have a recipe, it’s not a seat-of-your-pants experience.  But dissect its basic components and you can cook any number of proteins and vegetables. Mix it up. Vegetable is good. Vegetable + diced onion is better. Vegetable + onion + garlic is heavenly. That last combo works great with the white wine option, and you don’t even have to mince the garlic. Just crush up a clove or two with some sanitary, heavy thing, saute with everything else, and remove before serving because the flavor will come out in the pan.

Sooner or later you’ll be adding thyme sprigs (remove like the garlic), shitake mushrooms or fish sauce for umami, improvising sous vide with ziploc and a cooler, and picking fines herbs for the next day’s lunch after your wife goes to bed.

Leftovers brunch

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This was last week’s impromptu brunch for four at my house, when the roommate arrived with some farmer’s market goodies and I paired it with the junk collecting in our fridge.

My favorite dish? So simple: Scrambled eggs, green onions, chevre, and the Vietnamese chili oil naam prik pao.

But the mushroom sautee with wilted root veggie greens came in second. For it we scored some killer shiitake, maitake, bunashimeji, oyster.

Last but not least, that’s Arize Kombucha lightening up the meal. Thanks, Nathan!

Scandinavian music, riding in the rain, and restaurants

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While not much has happened here recently, the same can’t be said for my non-digital life. To wit, a list.

  • Been listening to more and more tunes from northwestern Europe. Soaring digitals and orchestration coupled with a hint of nihilism? Count me in.
  • Visited a couple times at FreeGeek Chicago. Getting to know some of the regulars. Good people; good organization. Oddly, its basement headquarters, with bare bulbs and chainlink fence for “walls,” feels like home. Maybe I should have been a hacker.
  • Riding often. Always, rather. Unofficial goal: 360 days this year. Above, my pants hang dry after a wet ride last night.
  • Learning more about restaurant work every day. So far I’ve kept mum about my part-time employer, a pretty big player in the local-sustainable food scene here. I’m either gonna remain silent or introduce it with a bang. Haven’t decided which yet.
  • Following Matter Magazine, a Kickstarter-funded online place for good long-form science journalism. Or, as they like to call it, “journalism about the future.”
  • Trying to please those editors who like my deep/long work while trying not to scare away those editors who only need me to churn out short ephemera.
  • Eating some really great food. In the past few months I’ve been to Yusho, Mana Food Bar, Au Cheval, San Soo Gab San, Trencherman, Sixteen, Avec, Tavernita. And Lula Cafe, my perennial favorite, more times than I can count. There’s a reason I live down the block from them.

Two nights ago, at 56 glorious degrees fahrenheit, I explored the Loop, Grant Park, and Streeterville by bicycle between midnight and 2 a.m. My new header image shows Streeterville in all its money-soaked sparkle.

New city, new (ad)ventures

It’s time I move this site into line with reality. I left Ohio journalism at the end of May, after exactly a year with the Springfield News-Sun and, sporadically, the Dayton Daily News.

Since I had accepted an offer to be Springfield’s permanent city hall reporter only a month earlier, my colleagues were surprised to hear my decision. When I told them where I was going — Chicago — they all smiled. (All but those tasked with ensuring the paper’s coverage.)

It would have been an honor to cover government in a city with such an important past. But after talking to several older friends whose bylines appear in places I covet, I found I had probably taken what I needed from the Ohio position. Anything else was just gravy. I needed to cast a wider net.

It helped that my wife got a job offer in Chicago at an exclusive hotel downtown, and that I scored part-time work in a kick-ass restaurant. More on that later.

But now, as dust settles in a one-bedroom in the Logan Square neighborhood, my desk is coming into shape. My magazine subscriptions will soon roll in. And I’ll be writing about what I want to write, in the timeframes I want to write.

It was scary to leave the pension, the 401(k). But if I was gonna do what would tickle my soul, I had to.

Below is the trailer for a forthcoming documentary produced by some good blokes from nearby Wilmington, Ohio. My sentiments exactly, boys. My sentiments exactly.