Last Sunday, December 2, the Chicago Food Swap marked its first anniversary by holding — what else? — its biggest ever food swap. Our host for the event was the Peterson Garden Project, a local community gardening organization dedicated to teaching Chicago residents how to grow their own food. Peterson Garden Project has multiples sites all over the north side of the city and welcomes new gardeners, so if you are interested in learning more about gardening or supporting the cause, definitely check it out. Chef Druck and I both felt that the mission of Peterson Garden Project dovetailed perfectly with the mission of the Chicago Food Swap. The folks at PGP want Chicagoans to grow their own food; we want them to make their own food and then trade it with other Chicagoans! The point is, it is all about building community around food. So, we are very grateful to Peterson Garden Project for opening their doors to us.
Thank heavens for global warming! By some miracle, it was in
the 60′s in Chicago in early December. That meant that we were able to use not only Peterson Garden project’s beautiful education space, located in Chicago’s Ravenswood Manor neighborhood, but also the space’s lovely backyard for Sunday’s swap. And we needed every inch of space! With 45 registered swappers, the tables were packed. One day, we will learn that however many tables we think we need, we actually need way more.
This was our biggest swap ever and such a terrific reminder of how far we have come in the past year. From our first Swap, which had maybe 10 people and was held in the basement of a local boutique, to Sunday’s three-room, 45-person extravaganza is quite a journey in one year. We have some swappers who have joined us four or five swaps and then there are always newcomers who are there for the first time. But, the newcomers quickly become veterans because it is just that much fun.I swear to you that everyone leaves vowing to come back next time.
Some of the beautiful offerings from Sunday’s swap. The packaging is only getting fancier!
Chef Druck and I are constantly amazed by the outpouring of creativity and inspiration from the swappers. The diversity of the offerings at these events astound me. Sure, there are always baked goods and jam, as you might expect. But there is also plenty of exciting things that are unfamiliar. For example, one swapper, Dora, brings a drink syrup that she makes from dried sorrel flowers that her Jamaican in-laws grow on their farm in rural Florida. I had never heard of sorrel flowers before, but once I tried Dora’s syrup, I knew I wanted some. I also love how swappers bring their cultures and backgrounds to their offerings. One of our swappers who is Irish brought the prettiest Irish brown bread I have ever seen and another swapper who is Polish brought homemade Polish farmers cheese. (I missed out on Anna’s bread but was able to score some of the cheese.) Of course, some of the items are so much unfamiliar as simply hard to find. One of the hottest items this time and last were fresh eggs from a swapper who has her own backyard chickens.
And as the swaps get bigger and bigger, there is truly something for everyone. I chatted with one first-time swapper at Sunday’s event who is gluten-free. She was able to find plenty of delicious items to swap for that met her restrictions, from drink syrups to jams to pickles and mustard. Many of the items I saw on Sunday were dairy-free and even vegan. But, don’t fret! If you are looking for decadent desserts, you will find
plenty of that too. I came home with some walnut chocolate toffee that is the stuff dreams are made of and I sadly missed out on the little chocolate cakes that were a hot item. Whether you want homemade vanilla extract or hot sauce to cook with for the coming weeks, or a decadent treat to eat that night, it is all at the Chicago Food Swap. My swap items will keep me eating and cooking for weeks.
The growing size of our events is definitely giving us some challenges. At Sunday’s Swap, for example, it was so big and spread out, that it was sometimes hard to find the person who had made an offer on your item, despite the ubiquitous name tags. One of our veteran swappers, Melisa, suggested numbering the tables to make it easier to find trading partners. When we only had 12 or even 20 people, that was not simply not an issue. But once you approach 50 swappers, which we did, we realize that we have to start changing how we do things.
But the important thing is, even as the swaps have grown in size, we have never lost the community spirit or the sense of fun. We trade so much more than food at these events. The real magic of these events is finding that community of like-minded people who care about delicious food and making it themselves as much as you do. The bigger we grow, the more inspiring it is to realize how big the community of food-lovers really is.
Will you join us at our next swap on February 3? Or, if you are not local to Chicago, have you looked into a food swap in your area?
Slow cooker beef stew with barley is classic, stick-to-your-ribs comfort food for cold nights.
I’m starting to wonder how I ever lived without my slow-cooker. I find myself using it once or twice a week. For example, it used to be that dinner on Wednesday nights was a haphazard affair because Wednesday is the night that Zuzu has Hebrew school from 7-8 pm. Honestly, could there be a worse time? It interferes with dinner and bedtime for younger siblings and by the time Zuzu gets home, instead of being ready for bed as she should be, she is wound up from candy and hijinks.
I always feed the kids before Zuzu leaves for the temple, but the double-whammy of having to drive back and forth and put JR to bed in between makes it hard for me to fix a nice meal for me and my husband. That is, it was hard before I had my Ninja slow cooker. Now, I can prepare a meal in the morning or early afternoon, while the kids are still at school, and time it to be ready once Zuzu is back home and the adults can finally sit down and eat.
This week, the combination of the first really cold weather and my recently acquired Umbrian pearl barley from Eataly inspired me to make a beef stew with barley in my slow cooker. My slow cooker cookbook had recipes for beef stew and for a chicken and barley soup, but not beef with barley, so I had to improvise. Slow cookers also have the advantage of being pretty forgiving. After 6 hours, it’s not as if the beef and barley would still be raw.
If you are not familiar with barley, you may want to take a look at this ancient grain. Pearl barley is barley that has been polished to remove its hull and bran. You do lose some of the nutrition through that process, but the result is a product that cooks faster than whole barley and is less like eating seeds. In fact, pearl barley cooks up fluffy and tender with a nutty flavor and still is quite nutritious. We usually see barley in soup but you can actually use it to make risotto, a pilaf or eat it as a salad with fresh vegetables. Like most grains, barley is cooked in liquid until it fluffs up and becomes tender — a process which usually about 40 minutes. But it also holds its shape nicely when simmered for hours in soups and stews, as is the case here.
My beef with barley stew is thick and hearty — perfect for a cold night. And it takes maybe 30 minutes of prep work — browning the meat, and chopping and sauteing the vegetables. The slow cooker does the rest. This
is the kind of recipe that can really simplify those crazy weeknights when everyone is pulled in a million directions. Your family will be amazed that in the midst of chaos, you still managed to come up with a dinner this tasty and satisfying.
Slow Cooker Beef Stew with Barley
1 lb. beef stew meat
2 TB olive oil
1/2 cup flour
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 leek, trimmed and sliced
1 tsp. dried thyme
4 carrots, peeled and cut into bite-size pieces
2 parsnips, peeled and cut into bite-size pieces
1 cup pearl barley
4 cups chicken broth*
1/2 cup brandy
2 bay leaves
1 28 oz. can whole tomatoes
Salt and pepper to taste
Spread flour on a plate and season it with salt and pepper. Dredge beef pieces in flour until coated and shake off the excess. If your slow cooker has a stove top setting, set it to high and add the olive oil. (If your slow cooker does not have a stove top setting, you can brown the meat in a saute pan on the stove or just skip this step. However, browning the beef does enhance the flavor, so I think it is worth the trouble.) Brown the beef stew meat on all sides, working in batches if necessary so as not to overcrowd the slow cooker. When the beef is browned, remove the pieces to a clean plate. Add the onion, garlic and leeks to the slow cooker and toss to coat with the fat in the pot. Sauté the aromatics until they are softened, but not browned, lowering the heat if necessary. Season well with salt, pepper and dried thyme. When
the aromatics are tender, return the beef (with any accumulated juices) to the slow cooker. Add the carrots and parsnips and stir to combine. Add the pearl barley, the bay leaves, the chicken broth and the brandy. Cover and set the slow cooker on low for 5-7 hours. One hour before you wish the serve the stew, add the can of whole tomatoes, drained and chopped. If the stew looks too thick at that time, you can add some of the juice from the tomatoes. Taste and adjust the seasonings before serving.
*You could use beef broth, but I find most commercial beef broth to be funny-tasting, especially in large amounts, which is why I prefer to use chicken broth here.
Do you have a trick for serving your family dinner on nights when the kids have after-school or evening activities?
The cheese and charcuterie counter at Eataly.
One of the highlights of my recent trip to New York was the chance to eat and shop at Eataly, Chef Mario Batali’s 13,000 square foot shrine to Italian food. Located right off of Madison Square Park and easily accessible by several subways lines — I took the 6 train downtown from my hotel at Lexington and 51rst and felt like quite the New Yorker for having done so — Eataly is a worthy tourist destination for anyone who loves food. Bloomingdale’s Saks Fifth Avenue, Barney’s — we have all these stores in Chicago. I don’t need to go to New York to find high fashion. But as of now, there is only Eataly in the United States and it’s in Manhattan. (Rumor has it, Chicago is getting one in 2013. I can only hope it’s true.) So that was where I spent my few free hours in the city.
Walking into Eataly is likely to give you sensory overload. The concept is even hard to describe in words. Imagine a huge market with hard-to-find, artisanal and imported products including sweets, coffee and tea, oils and vinegars, jams and preserves, fresh produce, aisles and aisles of pasta and sauces, spices, charcuterie and cheese, fresh seafood, and even kitchen and housewares. Then add in several spots to grab take-out or a quick bite, like a bakery, an espresso bar, a panini stand, a raw bar, a gelateria, and a stand-up wine bar with tastings of cheese and charcuterie. Add to that several sit-down restaurants including one focusing on vegetables and soups, another with pizza and pasta, two more formal restaurants, and on the roof, a beer garden. Plus a place for cooking classes naturally. That’s Eataly. If you have trouble making decisions, it’s probably best just to avoid the place; even the most decisive among us will find herself pulled in a million different directions.
Sadly for me, I knew that I would not have time to sit down and enjoy a meal at Eataly. I only had an hour or so to browse and shop before I needed to be back uptown at the Food Dialogues panel on antibiotics. Plus, I had to bring whatever I bought home on the plane, so that eliminated anything liquid that was larger than 3 oz. (As excited as I was to shop at Eataly, I was not prepared to check a bag as a result.) Had I not been limited in my ability to buy liquids, I definitely would have relaxed my policy against buying store-bought jam to buy some of the gorgeous imported jams and preserves I saw, including rose hip and elderberry. Also, I would have been sorely tempted by the fancy olive oils. But as it was, I stuck to dry goods.
The variety of fresh pasta at Eataly was impressive.
I couldn’t resist buying several bars of artisanal Italian chocolates, particularly those with nuts and dried fruits. I also indulged in some Italian nougat which I love, and which is nothing like the nougat in a Milky Way bar. I also wandered the pasta aisle looking for products that would be hard to find elsewhere. I ended up with some pearl barley from Umbria and a bag of toasted fregola, a cylindrical kind of couscous from Sardinia that is toasted after it’s made. I am excited to experiment with both of these
new-to-me products. I also treated myself to some orange and fennel-scented salt that will be heavenly sprinkled on something. Seafood perhaps?
The oddest thing I bought at Eataly — especially considering I had to fly home — was four quince from California. Quince is a funny round fruit that looks like a cross between an apple and a pear and is related to both. They are extremely astringent raw, but once cooked quince become sweet, fragrant and turn a rosy hue. Quince is the source of the pink fruit paste membrillo that is served with cheese in tapas restaurants. I will write more about what I did with my precious quince in anther post. The reason I bought them was simply because quince are very hard to find in stores and I was just so excited to see them. Remember, I am the person who brought butter home from Paris, so I am not deterred by the idea of traveling with perishable cargo.
Before I left Eataly, I made sure to protect myself against the possibility of having to eat bad airport food by buying two delicious panini — one
tuna with arugula and the other prosciutto with fresh mozzarella — and a hunk of freshly-baked focaccia. I had a long day ahead of me, and all that food definitely came in handy. In the late afternoon, when interviewing the Faces of Farming finalists, my fellow judge, Chef Danny Boome was extremely impressed when I pulled the Eataly focaccia out of my bag and passed it around.
So, if you have a trip to New York in your future, definitely find some time to visit Eataly. To see so many gorgeous and high-quality products in one place will warm your soul. Plus, you will eat very, very well.
Today we have a guest post from my 9 year old daughter, Zuzu. Like many kids her age, Zuzu is a devoted fan of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. She has read every installment in the best-selling series multiple times and eagerly looks forward to the release of each new volume. Imagine her delight when I told her last week that she was going to have the opportunity to meet the author of the series, Jeff Kinney, and ask him a few of her most burning questions as well as
receive a copy of Kinney’s latest oeuvre, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Third Wheel. The price for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? A review of the book suitable for publication on West of the Loop. Zuzu took the deal and here she upholds her end of the bargain.
If you have an elementary or middle-school aged kid in your life, you may want to check out Zuzu’s review. This book is going to be a hot item this holiday season — if your kid can wait that long! The Wimpy Kid books may not be anyone’s idea of great literature, but there is no denying their popularity among the Tween set and any book that has kids waiting in line for a signed copy is a good thing in my opinion. Plus, through its outlandish humor, the Wimpy Kid series teaches kids subtle lessons about responsibility and empathy – mostly by exposing the main character’s own selfishness and unwillingness to admit when things are his fault. As Zuzu says: “Don’t be like Greg!”
The following are Zuzu’s own words with very minimal editing from me.
Last week I was lucky enough to meet video game-maker and author of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, Jeff Kinney. I went to Magic Tree bookstore in Oak Park where he was signing books and I got my copy of Cabin Fever signed. [Our review copy of The Third Wheel did not arrive until after the book-signing took place.] Shortly thereafter me and a few other bloggers’ kids went on a bus. I daresay that I will never forget that bus as long as I live! It was painted with scenes from the newest book The Third Wheel (that I will tell you about). On the inside was two laid-back leather chairs, two flatscreen TVs and a comfy leather couch. We each got to ask Jeff Kinney two questions. The questions I chose to ask him were: “do you like sports,” and “are the girls in the book modeled after girls you’ve met?” To the first question he answered, “yes, I like to watch sports.” To the second one he said: “Sometimes Greg [the protagonist in the Wimpy Kid books] doesn’t understand girls so he draws them all the same.”
Now I’m going to backtrack a little and tell you about the story [of The Third Wheel]. The main character Greg’s problem is that he wants to find a date for the Valentine’s Day dance. That’s when things go wrong. It’s a laugh-out-loud story that kids
will enjoy. If you are wondering how The Third Wheel compares to other Wimpy Kid books, the book is the same format as the others; it’s just told in different words. Fans like me are used to the things that Greg thinks. This book is no different, just a tad sillier. Throughout the series, Greg is still the same lazy middle-schooler who got beaten by a girl in wrestling (the first book) and brothers Manny and Rodrick still get into trouble.
I hope you’ve learned a bit about Jeff Kinney, The Third Wheel and my great experience.
Full disclosure time: I received a review copy of The Third Wheel at no charge and was invited to meet with Jeff Kinney during his appearance at the Magic Tree bookstore. I was not asked to write about my experience nor was I compensated in any way. All opinions expressed herein are my own, or Zuzu’s own.
Zuzu was thrilled to meet author Jeff Kinney.
For most of us, Thanksgiving is the beginning of a season of indulgence that lasts right through New Year’s. In my family at least, the holiday season is a time of parties, giving and receiving edible gifts and festive multi-course meals. All year long I look forward to those traditional family dishes that are too much work — or too many calories — for any other time of year. My mother and I insist on hosting Thanksgiving ourselves because we know exactly the menu we want to make: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, Balsamic-glazed pearl onions, and sauteed haricots verts followed by pumpkin and apple pie. Never mind the fact that the mashed potatoes are full of enough cream and butter to make your heart stop and the glazed pearl onions are so much work that every year we swear we will never do it again!
Sweet potato puree is a flavorful and healthy Thanksgiving side dish.
Sometimes, we come to realize that our traditional holiday recipes just aren’t consistent with how we live our lives today. I remember that when I was a little girl, my father made oyster stew for a first course on Christmas Day. The dish was little more than warm
cream with oysters floating in it. Sure, it was insanely good. But one year, my dad decided to retire the dish. He was a health nut who spent most of the year eating chicken Caesar salad with no dressing for lunch and running four miles several times a day. Oysters floating in a pool of cream was not a dish that was a part of that healthy lifestyle.
I was recently given a challenge by the makers of Country Crock, America’s favorite spread, to lighten up two of my Thanksgiving dishes by using Country Crock in lieu of butter. For those who are watching their fat and cholesterol intake, Country Crock offers great taste with less fat and fewer calories than butter plus no cholesterol. As long as I was going cut fat and cholesterol by using Country Crock, I decided to develop some Thanksgiving dishes that were both traditional and exceptionally nutritious.
My first thought was to replace traditional mashed potatoes with puréed sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes are certainly seasonal and traditional for the holidays. They also are loaded with nutrition and flavor. Sweet potatoes have vitamins A and C and plenty of fiber and complex carbohydrates which help fill you up. Plus, they are so sweet and flavorful that you don’t need to add all that cream and butter. A few tablespoons of Country Crock, a splash of maple syrup and some warm spices are all you need. This purée will win over all your Thanksgiving guests, even the kids!
Maple Sweet Potato Purée
Serves 6 as a side dish
3 lbs. sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
1 TB. Olive oil
3 tsp. maple syrup
3 TB Country Crock
1 tsp. ground ginger
1/4 tsp. each ground cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg
Salt and pepper to taste.
Preheat oven to 400. Toss cubed sweet potatoes with olive oil and 1 teaspoon of the maple syrup. Line a baking sheet with foil. Spread the sweet potato in a single layer on the baking sheet and roast for 30 minutes or until tender. Place roasted sweet potatoes in a food processor with 3 TB of Country Crock, 2 tsp. maple syrup and the spices. Puree until smooth. Season well with salt and pepper. This dish can be made ahead of time and reheated over low heat.
Braised leeks are an elegant and low-calorie addition to your holiday table.
For my second healthy side dish using Country Crock, I decided to take a vegetable that is traditionally cooked in butter and see how it fared using Country Crock instead. One of my favorite late fall vegetables is the leek — cousin to onions and garlic both with such a sweeter, milder flavor. Leeks can be a pain to work with because they are woody and hard to clean. I’m not sure I would prepare a dish of leeks on a typical weeknight, but for your holiday table, leeks make for an elegant presentation and a change from everyday vegetables.
We didn’t miss the butter in this dish one bit. Because the leeks are braised in chicken broth and then splashed with puckery lemon juice, this dish is both very lean and very flavorful. When cooked, leeks are extremely mild so even members of the “no-onion club,” to which many of my family members
belong, can enjoy this one. Although your children may look askance, if you can get them to give leeks a try, they might be converted. On my honor, my nine year old loved this dish so much that she asked for a second helping.
2 TB Country Crock
1 cup chicken broth
2-3 sage leaves
Juice of half a lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
Trim off the tops and the woody outer layers of the leeks and wash them well. Cut the trimmed leeks into three-inch pieces and then cut them in half lengthwise. Melt 2 TB Country Crock in a large deep skillet. Arrange the leeks in a single layer and saute over medium heat for five minutes, turning once. Add the chicken broth and bring to a boil. Lay the sage leaves over the leeks, reduce heat to low and cover. Simmer leeks until tender, about 20 minutes. Remove cover and turn heat to high. Boil until remaining liquid is syrupy. Discard sage leaves. Place leeks in a shallow serving dish. Spritz with lemon juice and season well with salt and pepper.
I hope that you and your family have a very safe and healthy Thanksgiving full of favorite dishes, old and new.
Full disclosure time: Thank you to Good to Know & Unilever Spreads for being a sponsor. I was selected for this opportunity as a member of Clever Girls Collective. All opinions expressed herein are entirely my own.