The True Olive Oil Experience!

16 01 2012

Yesterday was an incredibly special “Culinary Gathering” co-hosted by my wonderful Italian friend Cristiana.  We met last year in San Casciano, her home town in Chianti, Italy.  She opened the doors of her life to me as we ate wonderful meals at her family’s home, toured her famous Tuscan farm and nursery, wine-tasted all over the region, met local pasta makers and olive oil producers and traveled to different regions of Italy together.

Yesterday Cristiana was in my home. It was quite an honor to share my life, my home and and especially my passion for food with her. We hosted an “Italian Culinary Gathering” to share the unique recipes from her Grandmother’s kitchen, “La Bruna”, with some of my most loyal clients.  The food was unlike any Italian food I have tasted in the US.  It was full of bursting flavors and unusual techniques that I have never considered in my approach to cooking.  Most importantly, this “Culinary Gathering” was full of love, warmth and appreciation for a fantastic culture.

I’d like to share with you a small clip of Cristiana teaching the class how to taste the olive oil from her farm.  It’s a tradition in Italy called “Fettunta”: The only way to celebrate the new olive oil of the year.

To purchase Maldon Salt check out The Spice House in Chicago or Evanston

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Urban Farming

19 08 2011

Have any of you have heard of the term “farm to table” eating?  Born and raised in Chicago, I had no idea what that term meant.  When I moved to San Francisco and worked at a restaurant where the farmers literally knocked on our door to sell us the freshest ingredients they picked that morning, I finally understood.  I was shocked by the honest taste of a fresh fig, a juicy peach, romaine lettuce or a clove of garlic.  The apples weren’t shiny from supermarket wax and the lettuce wasn’t shimmering from the supermarkets sprinklers, but let me tell you, the flavors of the farmers products were unbelievably delicious.

All summer I have yearned to find that special connection with food in Chicago.  Yes, I go the local farmers markets and I have tried great produce,  but something has been lacking for me.  First of all, the markets are always swarmed with so many people, it seems like the food runs out before 11am (the time I usually wake up on Saturday).  Most importantly, I never  get the chance to talk to the farmers.  In San Francisco, the farmers would hang out at their stands and proudly tell you stories about their week of harvest, what foods were coming up in the next few weeks and secret tricks about how they cook their vegetables.  I never realized how important connecting with farmers became to me.  I realize now, I am a sucker for stories.  I actually care about why the tomatoes are not here until August and why specific farms choose to grow certain vegetables.   I realize this information gives my cooking meaning.

This week I found what I have been looking for in Chicago.  I was riding my bike from the lakefront to Wicker Park and I saw this big plot of land, surrounded by fencing with a colorful signs advertising vegetables and farming.  Right on Division and Clybourn street, an area I drive by almost every day, I found “City Farm”…..my new obsession in the city.

City Farm is a functional and high-producing farm smacked right in the middle of the old Cabrini-Green and the Gold Coast.  Professional farmers and volunteers come together to plant, harvest and sell incredible vegetables, herbs, and even chicken eggs to restaurants and locals.  I was amazed by the variety of produce the farmers were growing on their simple plot of land.  They had everything from kale, collard greens, exotic lettuces, micro-greens, beets, carrots, over 15 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, to chives, Thai basil, opal basil, parsley, garlic, cippolini onions melons and scallions.  They even have a whole tented garden devoted to peppers: poblano, jalapeno and habanero peppers, grown specifically for Rick Bayless.

The best part of my experience at City Farm were the farmers, who couldn’t be more down-to-earth and helpful.   Nathan, the chef/farmer that helped me, actually took me on a tour of the farm with a crate and pocket knife and literally cut the vegetables from the ground that looked good to me.  He answered all of my questions like, “why don’t you have cucumbers”.  I found out when cucumbers grow they sprawl and take up too much space.  Also, “why was the romaine so wilted”….because its too hot to grow in the summer with Chicago heat.  They decided romaine was better suited to be grown in the winter.    

The whole idea of City Farm is inspiring.  They take advantage of vacant urban land and make it a resource for anyone in the city.  The farm is open to the public Tuesday-Friday from 1:30-5:00PM and on Saturday’s from 10:00-2:00PM.  If your interested in volunteering, you can show up on Wednesday’s or Saturday’s during working hours and lend a hand.   I invite you all to check out this Chicago treasure!