Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A little bit of Chicago: Italian Beef.

Italian beef could mean a lot of things, I suppose. But after traveling to Chicago last summer, Italian beef, to me can only mean one thing... tender beef roast on a hoagie roll topped with giardiniera and dipped in au jus.

Chicago is one of my favorite food cities. Of course, it's known for deep dish pizza, but that is only scratching the surface. Chicago food is food that you might be generally familiar with, but Chicagoians have a way of doing them with a twist that makes them unique. Take the pizza for example. If you're a pizza purist, deep dish pizza dough in Chicago is made with cornmeal. Also, the cheese and other toppings are put on the bottom, and topped with the sauce. Hot dogs are typically "drug through the garden" in Chicago, which means a red hot-style dog topped with tomato wedges, dill pickle spears, onions and celery salt. And, Chicago is home to the brewery of my all-time favorite beer, Goose Island 312.

photo credit: Bing Images

I got my Italian beef at Luke's Italian Beef on West Jackson Boulevard, near the Sears Tower. I was nervous when I got to the counter because I didn't want to order it wrong and offend the gruff-looking salty old dude behind the counter. He looked like he took serving these sandwiches seriously. You can order them with just beef, beef and giardiniera, dipped or not dipped. I went for the full Chicago experience, and got mine with the giardiniera and dipped. It was messy but delicious. You have to eat them quickly because once the beef and giardiniera are loaded on the sandwich, the whole sandwich is dipped in the au jus, and they will fall apart if left uneated for very long. The bread is chewy and almost crispy in the first couple bites, and almost mush at the very last few bites, but still delicious.

Having never had Italian beef before, I didn't have anything to compare it to. But now, having done a quick survey of Yelp and Frommer's, I realize the undisputed King of Italian Beef in Chicago is Al's Beef. I think Luke's runs a close second, though, so it wasn't like I missed the boat altogether. Next time I go to Chicago, I'm trying Al's Beef.

To satisfy a craving for Italian Beef in the meantime, I decided to make my own. It started with giardiniera. Giardiniera is basically pickled vegetables, typically celery, onions, carrots, and peppers. Having all these vegetables on hand, I made 4 pints a couple weeks ago when I was canning jam. It was super-easy. I used both a sweet bell pepper and a few banana peppers, so it wasn't too hot.

The next step is the beef. The recipe I used has several tips and some history of the sandwich, which is pretty neat. I used bottom round roast, since I knew I was going to make mine in the crockpot. Rather than putting a rub on the meat and searing the meat off before braising, I just added the spices for the rub in the crockpot and put the meat in raw. I might have gotten a better result if I'd followed those directions, but mine was still pretty darn good. Here's how I made it, adapted from the Amazing Ribs website.

Chicago-Style Italian Beef
(Makes 8 sandwiches)

1 2-lb. bottom round roast
1 cup of red wine
2 cups of beef stock
1 Tb. black pepper
2 tsp garlic powder
1 Tb. dried minced onions
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried basil
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
8 6-in. hoagie rolls

In a crockpot, add red wine, beef stock and all spices. Add beef roast and fill crockpot with water until beef is covered. Cook on high 4-5 hours or low 8-9 hours. When done, remove beef from juices onto a cutting board, let cool slightly and cut into chunks (I realize authentic Italian beefs have shaved meat, but you gotta work with what ya got... I don't have a deli slicer). Place hoagie rolls under broiler for a few minutes until the bread has a slight toast. Place each toasted roll on a piece of parchment paper big enough to wrap around the sandwich. Divide beef evenly between the rolls and top with giardiniera. Dip the entire sandwich in the juice and wrap with parchement paper. Serve immediately.

Friday, July 1, 2011

West Virginia's Slow Food Groud Zero

Ever hear of SLOW FOOD?

Slow food is a global grass roots movement that is the direct opposite of "fast food." It's all about eating locally, sustainably, and consequently, more healthily. Not just in restaurants, but at home, too. Slow Food USA is made up of chapters around the country that seek to promote farmers markets and local producers, and help consumers find locally sourced food.

The first chapter is currently being organized in West Virginia by Richwood Grill, in Morgantown. (Here's the link to their Yelp page. Their website is currently down, but they do have a Facebook page.) Richwood Grill is one of the rare jewels here in the Mountain State that is serving locally sustainably sourced food and proud of it!

I ate at Richwood Grill for the first time back in the winter. A couple weeks ago, I was back in Morgantown, and hankerin' to see what their offerings would be with lots of fresh food just coming in season. It did not dissapoint.

To sweeten the deal, Richwood Grill is on Restaurant.com. I had a $25 gift certificate to burn, so I didn't hold back when I saw the menu. Also, I was with my best friend and her husband, and we have an understanding to taste a little of what everyone orders to get a little more sampling of what is on the menu.

We started out with some appetizers. Erinn got the blue crab escobeche with grilled pineapple, red pepper, coconut milk and aji rocoto. It was delish. Very refreshing and light--which is what an appetizer should be. I got the grilled watermelon in a habanero brine. It was really good, but really unexpected.

I guess when I hear the word "watermelon" my mind associates that with an icy cold fruit for the height of summer. This was warm. Duh, Jennelle, it is GRILLED. But my mind just didn't want to make the connection. And it wasn't sweet, really, because of the habanero brine. It wasn't hot, either, just a very salty with a slightly sweet taste. I was drinking Great Lakes Holy Moses White Ale, which went with it perfectly--a happy accident.

Our entrees came out, and Erinn ordered the Mon Valley Farms Pasture Raised Steak-of-the-Day. It looked like a bone-in ribeye, and it was delicious. The reason she ordered it was because it came with red pepper butter, and I could see why, after I tried it. So, so good.

Mike ordered the fish. I'm not sure if it was the WV trout with wasabi remoulade, that is on the menu, but it was the best dish at the table. The last time we ate there, back in January, Mike ordered the tofu dish, which turned out to be the best dish at the table that night. I would have never ordered the tofu, myself, since I am at an establishment that serves locally and sustainably raised animal protein--I can indulge guiltlessly. But the tofu was pretty freakin' awesome. I might ask him to order for me next time we go since he seems to be hitting all winners on the menu...

I had the Gardener Farms Pork Loin with Red Miso Curry, which was also very good. I don't think there is anything on the menu that would dissapoint me, actually. I'm slowing coming around to liking curry. I think it was a bad experience with it when I was a freshman in college that led to my longstanding and adamant dislike of it, but I'm wading into the curry-eating pool slowly. This sauce was perfect, maybe because it wasn't all curry. The red miso certainly tempered the curry taste, which was a perfect compliment to the pork loin, which by the way, was HUGE.

If I'm eating somewhere that serves sustainable meat, I almost always go for the pork. It's not that I like pork better than say beef or chicken, but as far as industrial/conventional meat goes, it's probably the worst of the three. Do yourself a favor and don't (or do) Google images of CAFO (concentrated animal  feeding operation) pork. It's horrendous.

At any rate, the folks at Richwood Grill have been trying to start up a West Virginia chapter of Slow Food, because those principles are important to them as restaurant owners. "Slow food unites the pleasure of food with responsibility, sustainability and harmony with nature," was the attitude of the movement's founder, Carlo Petrini. And, after all, as most recently demonstrated by the Richwood Grill, slow food just tastes better. I just wish more farm to table restaurants would catch on here in West Virginia.

It was hard to beat the ambience of eating a fabulous meal on the patio at Richwood Grill with this sweeping view of South Park--at least until the rain forced us inside to finish our meal.

But while it lasted, it was such a nice evening of good food, good drinks and good company.