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A few of food writer Mike Sula's favorites

From royal pies to end-of-the-world banana jerky, 2011 has been good so far

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I'm getting to an age where my metabolism can't keep up with everything I need to eat, and as time goes on I get crankier and crankier at wasted calories ingested in the line of duty. But for the most part I have little to complain about at the midpoint of this year. Between the raw milk I wrote about two weeks ago and the Butcher & Larder pork collars I wrote about in February, there have been lots of individual tastes to celebrate, and plenty more I haven't had the time or space to prove my love to. This week's column is dedicated to those.

Art Jackson could stuff his savory English-style royal pies with victims of the Demon Barber of 31st Street and I wouldn't care. That's because the buttery crusts have a flaky, shattery exterior that yields to a thin, delicate doughy chew. Housed in the formerly forbidding Carlito's Way pizza joint, Pleasant House Bakery (964 W. 31st, 773-523-7437), the long-awaited pie shop from the former Bijan's Bistro chef, his wife, Chelsea, and brother-in-law Morgan, kills all the cliches of this humble British grub, from the chicken balti, its surface dusted with black nigella seeds and its interior braised in light curry and wine, to the almost meaty kale and mushroom pie loaded with creamy, cheesy greens and assorted fungi. Apart from these exclusively butter-based crusts Jackson plans to incorporate duck, goose, and pork fat into crusts for occasional specials. Friday-night fish fries, chips (the British kind), house-made sodas, and desserts from Chelsea fill out the relatively limited menu, all supplied by the bakery's own city garden plots. And don't skip the Scotch egg, a miraculously fluffy hard-boiled yolk and tender white enrobed in a batter-fried pork sausage jacket.

I'm constantly seeking out durable goods for the impending world economic collapse, and with kluay tak I believe I've found my banana jerky for the end times. According to Leela Punyaratabandhu, proprietor of the excellent SheSimmers.com, these sun-dried, pressed, and salted burro bananas (the minis) get their red color from interaction between the fruit's natural sugar and tannins. Of the vast family of Thai banana preparations, they are only mildly sweet, meaty, and surprisingly filling. You can often find them near the register at Edgewater's Golden Pacific Market (5353 N. Broadway, 773-334-6688).

Speaking of Thai food, I'd long ago written off Aroy Thai (4656 N. Damen, 773-275-8360) as just another boring, treacly sweet AmeriThai noodle slinger, but thanks to the persistent endorsement of our pals at LTHForum, I've become obsessed with its Thai Classics menu, which puts it on equal footing with Spoon, TAC Quick, and Sticky Rice in the city's pantheon of great Thai restaurants. Compared to the lighter, sweeter fare at TAC, chef-owner Sudjai Nakyaem has a richer, funkier style all her own with dishes like the sour, rich, blistering tom yam beef ball and tendon soup, a thick omelet topped with a Bolognese-like mountain of coconut milk-braised ground pig (chou-chi ground pork), or a bracing stir-fried Chinese broccoli with salty preserved fish. Best of all, with enough advance notice Nakyaem's son, Tee Kowcharoen, is often willing to take orders for off-menu dishes such as a spicy but refreshingly cool roasted eggplant and shrimp salad that lowered the mercury on last week's 97-degree night.

At this April's Whiskeyfest I approached the Jim Beam table and asked the rep what the deal was with the Kirkland brand bourbon at Costco. Was it really Jim Beam Black? Yes, he somewhat warily admitted, Costco is indeed buying up and rebranding slightly younger, higher proof Jim Beam Black and selling it for an astonishing $19.99 a liter. Would I rather sip High West 21-Year-Old Rye? Absolutely. Would I rather drink the regular eight-year-old Jim Beam Black? I'm not so sure. For a high-value, high-volume mixer or party swigger you could do a lot worse.

Wisconsin mushroom farm River Valley Ranch & Kitchens (rivervalleykitchens.com) is a stalwart at city farmers' markets, with somewhat limited offerings compared to the retail outlet in Burlington, a wonderland of fungus-based sauces, pickles, soup, salsas, and grow-your-own mushroom kits. Earlier this spring I picked up a cremini kit—a cardboard box containing a big stump of compost threaded with latent mycelia. All you do is add some casing soil, stash it in a cool, dark place, mist it moist, and over three months you'll be blessed with periodic flushes of fungus totaling up to 25 pounds. Let the creminis go a little longer and soon you'll be growing portobellas. Unfortunately, they're currently sold out, but the cremini and button mushroom kits will available again this fall, and shiitake and oyster kits will be ready in the spring.

I miss Narzarlik, the little Lakeview Turkish joint that specialized in the spicy raw meatballs known as cig kofte. What I don't miss is isot, the special dried red chile flakes they used to season or "cook" the meat. That's because there's a plentiful supply to be had at HarvesTime Foods (2632 W. Lawrence, 773-989-4400). Also known as urfa biber, for the region it hails from, the fine, dark, sun-dried flakes are almost soft and have a raisiny, chocolatey flavor I've been deploying in salad dressings, eggs, soup, and pretty much anything else I can think of. You can find it in the spice aisle alongside its brighter, spicier cousin marash.

I'm not much of a beer guy, and I realize I'm late to the party, but I can't drink enough of the oak-aged sour Flemish and Flemish-style brown ales that are gaining on the hop death ride craft brewers have been driving the past few years. I can't get behind some of the more widely available and syrupy brews like Duchesse de Bourgogne or Monk Cafe's; for me, the tarter are the better, like the standard-bearer Rodenbach Grand Cru, or Ommegang Zuur, a collaborative blend between the Cooperstown brewery and Belgium's Brouwerij Liefmans. Still, I think I found my favorite right here at home in Goose Island's Madame Rose. Tart and refreshing, with a lighter body than the aforementioned, it's aged for about nine months on top of cherries in wine barrels and fermented with wild yeast. Like Goose Island's other vintage reserve ales, it's already becoming an expensive rarity. There's no prayer of finding it retail—it was snatched up and hoarded by fans upon its release last year. But you can still find it in some bars and restaurants, and certainly in the brewpub. And according to brewer Tom Korder, there's another batch in barrels right now, due for release later this year. 

E-mail Mike Sula at msula@chicagoreader.com.

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