Friday, July 22, 2011

Sourcing Ingredients… Half The Fun of Cooking

Remarkable meals start with good ingredients and sourcing them for a recipe is half the fun of cooking. It has also taken me to some of the most fascinating neighborhoods in Chicago.

Many cooks I know go out of their way to find the best available food sources. It’s fairly easy in Chicago. I may have to go half way across town but I always find what I’m looking for…and it is constantly an adventure + 10. I am always up for an adventure and like I’ve said, I can have my stuff packed in 5 minutes.
Going into these neighborhoods, you can get lost in the ethnicity and easily forget that all you came for was one ingredient.
I ordered this dish at the Purple Pig a few weeks back and loved it so imagine my surprise when Jimmy Bannos, Jr. was featured in a recent issue of Time Out Chicago and posted the recipe. From the start, I was determined to make this dish with fresh calamari and not substitute any of the ingredients.

In the course of a lot of research, I came across Isaacson and Stein Fish Company at 800 West Fulton Market. This place was a 15 minute walk from the train station and has a tremendous variety of fresh fish and seafood. A lot of chefs and restaurants shop at the market.
Inside Isaacson & Steins, there are huge tables filled with ice and topped with fresh seafood so I grabbed a pair of gloves and dug in.

People warned me that it would smell fishy so I prepared myself but hardly noticed the smell at all. I was impressed with the fact that it was so clean and it was a lot smaller than I had imagined.

You can pick out a whole fish and have it filleted for free. The fishmongers, however, would not touch my squid. The first guy flat out said no and when I looked at the second guy in desperation, he shot me a look as if to say don’t even think about putting that disgusting squid on my table.

I asked a guy at the checkout how to clean them and rather than tell me, he showed me. Well, one of my squid was cleaned while a long line of people behind me were waiting to pay. He didn’t care. He was going to make sure that I knew the entire process before I left the store. Good thing because I didn’t have a clue. I have since discovered how by running a google search but that was not nearly as much fun.

I found a beautiful grouper fillet (which I grilled and smothered in Mango relish),

enormous shrimp (which I put on the grill and splashed with a little olive oil and cilantro) and squid…all for under $20…not to mention the free lesson.

My next stop was for the Fregola at Bari Foods at 1120 W Grand. This was the Italian market that Bannos referenced in his recipe. It was a really engaging market and the owner said that Bari Foods was the only place in Chicago to buy Fregola. I have been in a lot of other Italian markets and this was the first time I had seen Fregola.Honestly, I discover at least one new food every weekend and am fascinated by the fact that I am still learning. Remarkable things can happen when you wander outside of your box.
Fregola is pasta from Sardinia. It is similar to couscous. It was expensive – in fact, it was the only high cost pasta on the shelf - but I was really glad to find it.

Here is a recipe to make it from scratch if you can’t find it at your market or don’t want to wait and order it online.
Coarse Semolina - start with about a pound
Water, very lightly salted

Put some of the semolina in the bowl and dampen it, a few drops at a time, with the water, while rubbing your hand over the semolina with a circular motion so as to obtain many tiny balls of pasta. As you add more semolina and continue to move your hand in a circular pattern the balls will become rounder and grow slightly Continue adding semolina and water, and rotating your hand, until you have used up your semolina.

Now divide your fregola, setting the larger balls to one side and the smaller to the other; thus you'll have two grades, one that's finer and will be good in soup, and one that's coarser, and will be good served with a sauce.

Note: To prevent your fregola from spoiling spread it over a cookie sheet and toast it for a few minutes in a moderate (250-300 F) oven. Many cooks mix a half teaspoon of finely ground saffron into the semolina before they begin making their fregola.

While I was in the neighborhood, I hit Damatos Bakery at 1124 W Grand and got 2 small pizzas…my favorite being a crust that was topped with super, thin-cut roasted tomatoes.
Who would have ever imagined that a one ingredient pizza would be this good?

I loved this little corner of west Chicago. It has an interesting mix of residents and curious suburbanites like me and features some of the best Italian shopping in Chicago. It was also a quick 15 minute walk to Fulton Market.

It took all of 5 hours (following my AM trip to the Farmers Market) but was so worth it when I finally made this dish. The fresh ingredients made the difference between a good dish and a great one.

Sourcing ingredients will take you to so many places you haven’t been before. Try it on your next recipe and see what remarkable things you uncover about the food culture in your city.

Bon Appetit!

Jimmy Bannos Jr. infuses this antipasti with all of the essentials that have made the Purple Pig (500 N Michigan Ave, 312-464-1744) so popular.

Fresh herbs and squid, along with the texture of the Fregola makes this a stable in my long list of all time favorite appetizers.

Calamari with Basil and Fregola
2 cups water
2 cups white wine
10 cloves garlic, chopped
3 large sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
1¼ lbs calamari, sliced into ¼-inch thick rounds
1 cup fregola (a Sardinian pasta similar to couscous, available at Bari Foods, 1120 W Grand Ave)
¹/³ cup chopped toasted pistachios
½ cup breakfast radishes, thinly sliced and quartered
½ cup cucumbers, diced
¼ cup basil
½ cup olive oil
½ cup lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste

Fill a large pot with water and wine, and add the garlic, thyme and bay leaves. Bring to a boil and add one cup of salt. Add calamari and cook for approximately five minutes, or until it is tender and cooked all the way through. Drain calamari and set aside. (Discard the broth.)

Bring a separate pot of salted water to a boil and cook fregola for approximately five to seven minutes, or until al dente. Drain and add to serving bowl. Add the blanched calamari, toasted pistachios, radishes, cucumbers and basil. Drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice. Toss, and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Serves 4 as antipasti