Looking Deeper into the Local Pantry

February 24, 2009 at 8:25 am

Rob Gardner

On Sunday, we took advantage of the very good deal offered by Chicago’s Restaurant Week  to have the very non-local lunch special at Joe’s, in Chicago not just Stone Crab.   Briefly, I’d say this about the Chicago Joe’s.  Joe’s in Miami is about my favorite restaurant in the USA.  This aint no Miami Beach.  About perfect renditions of key lime pie and hash browns no way made up for the lack of savoir fare in hospitality, the cramped feeling in space and the shell or two in the crab.  On the other hand, I spent about a third less, at least.  Joe’s is on Grand, and being on Grand led us, one way to Fox & Obel and the other to Cassie’s Green Grocer.  At both shops we made purchases to supplement our local pantry, and it got me thinking that my previous pantry post hardly dented the nooks and crannies of the pantry.  Here, my friends, is another journey inside.

Whether the tomatoes are skinned first or run through the passato, it’s a lot of work to put up tomatoes.  Yet, one taste, one use of home canned tomatoes, lets you know you made the right call.  No San Marzano needed here.  In addition to the cans of whole, puree and sauce, we (meaning mostly my wife), made tomato concentrate that is frozen and also oven dried tomatoes.

My wife spent so much time on tomatoes, it’s amazing she found any time for chutney, but she spiced up a big bushel of Michigan peaches with mustard seeds and other ingredients to make a rich, dark brown sludge that goes very well with some local cheese or compliments a ham dinner.

If you remember back around September-October, I had my babies, bowls and bowls of hot peppers from the markets, especially from Farmer Vicki’s Genesis Growers.  She sells the bestest, hottest peppers imaginable.  Of course I could not eat those peppers fast enough, but luckily Mother Nature is on my side here.  I dried a good many of the peppers.  In turn, I make harissa from the dried peppers.  To make harissa, re-hydrate several peppers, then pureeing the mixture with garlic,  a bit of cumin and add olive oil to make a decent consistency.  Harissa stays for a while in the fridge.  I like to make a Tunisian style salad of harissa marinated grated turnips.

The Chicago area locavore is well stocked in mushrooms.  An outfit called River Valley Kitchen in Wisconsin supplies many area markets with cultivated mushrooms year-round.  These mushrooms hit the spot a lot of the time, but sometimes, we want the intensity and goofy flavors of wild mushrooms.  River Valley also sells some dried mushrooms.  On the road in Michigan last summer, we were lucky enough to pick up a big bag of dried morels.

I mentioned Tunisian turnip salad.  Well, the palate I most enjoy cooking is a broadly Mediterranean.  I like to think there’s some Sephardic blood in my line.  Although many local ingredients like hot peppers, pumpkins and turnips feature in Tunisia, there’s a few items that cannot be local.  Our kitchen is almost never without capers and olives.  I get all types of olives but stick always to capers packed in salt.

Do I always stick to anchovies packed in salt?  I vacillate.  There are many a-source that will tell you to only use salt-packed anchovies, but I see other authorities fine with tinned, oil packed.  Filleting anchovies is one of the pain-y in the ass-y things one has to do in the kitchen, but you get so much better texture.  Still, if it’s just the raw salty-unami funk you need, canned anchovies work.  I get my salt packed in Greektown or at Caputo’s; tinned, I liked the Roland resealable containers.  Note, you can freeze salt packed anchovies until needed.

I cannot leave the Mediterranean without mentioning canned tuna.  If our Bungalow budget were bigger, we’d get the Spanish stuff.  We do spend a bit more than average on the Italian packed in oil tuna.  I like my sardines from Portugal or California.

If you have nothing else in the pantry, have crackers, ’cause with crackers everything else becomes “meal-able”.  There are some very good local crackers including Potter’s from Madison and Nicole’s from right here in Chicago.

Bacon’s another product that can turn anything into a meal.  Kids balking at fried egg sandwiches?  Tell them they can have bacon too, and they calm down.  As with crackers, there’s no good reason to stray from the local with bacon.  Think first the farmer’s markets like the C&D Pastured pork.  In the stores, you can’t beat Nueskes. 

One more product that always adds pizzazz: nuts.  Pears, greens, blue cheese, you have a salad; nuts too and you have a dish.  I love the dental crunch of almonds, including and especially the Spanish Marcona, but we try to keep mostly to local nuts.  This is not very hard when you sample a black walnut.  At the Madison Farmer’s Market, one can also find hickory nuts and butternuts.  When we went south to the Urbana market, we found farmers in warm enough zones of Illinois to grow English walnuts.  We did not expect any part of Illinois to be warm enough to support pecans, but it turns out that 3 Sisters, not even that far away, grows pecans. 

What’s missing in our pantry?


One Comment

  1. The pecans are fantastic. One of the best salads that we have in our repertoire at Monogramme is frost-sweetened spinach, dried cranberries, toasted pecans dressed with cranberry honey vinaigrette.

    Cedar Valley makes some great bacon.

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