(Ed.'s Note- Every Monday, Chicago's Jason Hissong writes Windy City Cooking, a column whose title says it all. Enjoy! -Max)
Culinary Surprises, Culinary Simplicity
by Jason Hissong
11 January 2010
I purchased Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck Cookbook via a giftcard over the holiday season. While I haven't read it, and I probably won't ever cook from it, I have looked through it. It's fascinating. It's part autobiography, part modern art book, part scientific journal. The tome's opening pages feature stunning artwork by Dave McKean. One of the pages has an image of Blumenthal himself through McKean's mixed media lens, and the double page spread the words: Something interesting happens every time I put food or drink in my mouth.
While I don't have Blumenthal's culinary skill or knowledge, and I don't yet take the time to really ascertain what happens in my mouth every time I feed it, I do think this statement is accurate. And what I find fascinating time and time again is how often I am surprised by food, and how often simple food brings such enjoyment.
Example one: on Tuesday of this past week a group of my friends- Jonathan, Jason, and Elizabeth- journeyed to Navy Pier after work to see for ourselves the spectacle that is Avatar on an IMAX screen, in 3-D. We had about an hour and a half to kill before the film started and we planned to eat at Navy Pier. So we settled on Bubba Gump's Shrimp Company.
There's no question that I pre-judged this place. A dining experience based on a movie? Which has the movie on a monitor, constantly running? With decor that can be qualified as southern scrap yard in an attempt to be clever? At Navy Pier? My friends, one cannot get more touristy cliched than this here in the Windy City.
And yet, all four of us walked away with the same conclusion: better than expected. I had the Po Boy Sandwich, which featured shrimp on a hoagie style roll. And it was really good. Fresh shrimp. Nice flavors in the cole slaw. French fries not too salty or greasy. Jason had the Bucket of Trash, which features crab legs, shrimp, and fries. Jonathan had a fish and chips and Elizabeth had the Ying Yang Shrimp Salad in which she substituted salmon for the shrimp. I think all of us were satisfied. Was it mind blowingly good? No. Will I ever return? Probably not? Did it surprise me? Yes. It surprised me because of its simplicity and its clear flavors, well executed.
Example #2: Saturday afternoon I was tired. I had a pretty packed morning, combined with a somewhat late Friday night and lack of good sleep as I awaited the phone call telling me my maternal grandmother had passed. I wanted something simple and comforting. Something that hit the spot on a cold winter day in January in which, after arriving at my home after my morning errands, I had no desire to step back outside until I had to.
So, I made one of the most comforting dishes from my childhood: grilled cheese and tomato soup. I love this dish because it is so simple and satisfying. Because it's canned tomato soup (yes, canned, I usually add half a can of milk to the soup, and then some crushed black pepper and red pepper flakes) and bread with butter, and cheddar cheese between.
And there's nothing better, nothing more satisfying. The temperatures are warm and the flavors go well together. I love dipping the sandwich into the soup, to soften the bread even more and then everything mixes together on the tongue. It's comforting to me, and it's good, and I am not ashamed to love something so simple.
What I Cooked, What Others Cooked For Me, Where I Ate
I cooked some beef stew in my new cast iron Dutch Oven on Sunday. It's very similar to the chili recipe I used on New Year's Day. It was hearty and satisfying and the perfect note for a cold winter's night in January, with football on the television.
On Friday I took the leftover chili from the New Year's Day celebration and added some shredded cheese during the re-heat process for Jonathan and myself before we went to Guthrie's Tavern for some pints and board games with coworkers. The dish turned out well, landing somewhere between the heartiness of the chili itself and the savoriness of a risotto style dish.
I had many meals out of my home again this week, which is a testament to the many friends I have here in Chicago. Monday I had a burrito caliente at Cafe Laguardia. My friends Tim, Mark, and David joined me. On Tuesday I ate at the aforementioned Bubba Gump Shrimp Company with Jonathan, Jason and Elizabeth. I skipped dinner on Wednesday. On Thursday I joined my friend Andy at Garcia's in Lincoln Square. Garcia's is one of my favorite places in all of Chicago, and their remodel job is incredible. The food is still excellent, and nothing is better than their chips and salsa with the three tacos dinner. I always get one steak, one chicken, and one chorizo. I am always satisfied. Friday I modified the chili for Jonathan and myself. Saturday Tracy and I dined at Orange Garden, where I had the Szechwan chicken and she had the General Tso chicken.