Report from the 4th Annual Pastoral Artisan Producer Fest

Wherein the Fearless and Intrepid Lindsay and Matt Consume Much Free Meats and Cheeses Before Purchasing Even More.

The Pastoral Artisan Producer Fest, an annual April tradition held in the Chicago French Market, serves up a crowd-pleasing recipe for disaster: free samples of meat, cheese, and alcohol to any hungry Chicagoan who wanders in the door. With nearly one-hundred locally-sourced, artisanal, and talented vendors, the Fest may be one of the city’s best opportunities to eat well at zero cost. When we arrived at 11am, no wonder the place was already packed to the gills.

Crowded.

Crowded. But worth it.

One can easily get overwhelmed in the crowds, and the many patrons cutting in line to get samples. Here’s the thing, though: there is enough for everybody. Really. As such we tried, as best we could, to take our time: wait in lines, sample everything we could, talk closely with the vendors and makers about their products, snap photos when we had the chance, and save our favorite selections for purchase at the Pastoral counter at the back of the market. So, we meandered amongst the fifty tables, each showcasing two of the nearly one hundred producers of fine meats, cheeses, wines, spirits, and other accompaniments from around the country. With this slow-going method, we sampled the offerings at about half the tables (snaking through the lines at all of them would have taken all day) and took special attention to spend time at the section devoted entirely to Wisconsin cheese makers.

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Prosciutto, salame, mortadella, etc. from Smoking Goose Meatery.

Matt quickly made a bee-line for the charcuterie purveyors. Deservedly, much praise has been heaped upon West Loop Salumi right here in Chicago, and we did love their selections. At the end of the day, though, we could not escape the draw of the Stagberry Salame (pictured at center in the above photo) made by Smoking Goose Meatery in Indianapolis. Stagberry features ground elk – a meat neither of us had tried before – studded with blueberries and soaked in honey wine. A brilliant balance of bold flavors, this hiking-trip in a sausage was worth every penny of its $36.99/lb price. At the end of the day we purchased half a stick for a very reasonable eight dollars.

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Little Napoleon (left) and Manchester (right) from Zingerman’s Creamery.

Cheese was everywhere at the fest, with over one third of the vendors dedicated specifically to cheese. Wisconsin, as we mentioned before, boasted its own section – including the amazing offering of a free map of Wisconsin cheesemakers, which now sits in our glove compartment in case of emergencies. We made a point, however, to venture outside the Dairy State this day: Zingerman’s Creamery in Ann Arbor, Michigan (above) served up samples of its aged, soft Manchester and Little Napoleon cheeses. We were also big fans of their burrata, a creamy mozzarella mixture, and went back for seconds. Our were won, however, by the Bijou produced by Vermont Creamery: a simple, French-inspirted, aged goat’s milk cheese that was perfect for spreading and reminded us of similar table offerings we often encountered in Portugal. At $10.99 for two, we took one and ate it for lunch (in addition to all the other samples we had).

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Helpful assistance with choosing at Pear Tree Preserves.

Finally, while meat and cheese ruled the day, we can’t overlook the other offerings. Patrons had a seemingly endless choice of wine and spirits, dessert items, as well as other accompaniments. A great match for many of the cheese would have been one of the local, organic fruit spreads orpreserves from Pear Tree Preserves, based right here in Chicago. We had a cherry preserve that was delectable, great for pairing, eating alone, or thickening into a pie filling. You can check out their current flavors list.

While we were forced to make purchases – and we hope others did as well, as it seems sinful to wade through all these free samples of skilled labor and not buy anything - honestly, we didn’t dislike a single thing we tried. As such, don’t consider our list exhaustive or best-of-the-best by any means. Take a look at the Fest’s vendor list, and support these local makers even if you did not have a chance to attend!

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Kosher Lebanese for Passover in NYC

lebanonToday is the first day of Passover, and to celebrate we are bringing you a story about Lebanese food specially made for Passover in New York City. The story centers on chef Souad Nigri, and her 30-plus year tradition of making catered meals for Passover. Typical dishes include tabbouleh and other mezes, but made Kosher for Passover with no wheat or bulgur. The story is a few years old, but now you can find Nigri’s dished at Prime Butcher in New York.

 

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Reporting from the World-Wide Mustard Competition

Lindsay and I were thrilled to receive an invitation to be judges at the Grand Champion round of the 2014 World-Wide Mustard Competition, held this year on the campus of Kendall College in Chicago. The competition is run by the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, Wisconsin, and directed by amiable museum curator Barry Levenson (a.k.a. Mr. Mustard) and his wife, Patti Levenson (Mrs. Mustard). You can read all about Barry and Patti’s background, as well as everything else you ever wanted to know about mustard and the museum, on the NMM’s fantastic blog and website.

Mr. and Mrs. Mustard

Mr. and Mrs. Mustard rocking mustard-themed apparel.

Due to a work conflict, Lindsay couldn’t go, so I represented the ETW team. As I quickly realized upon entering, mustard judging is serious business (especially obvious when Barry led us in singing the Poupon U fight song – Wisconsin version, of course). While the first two rounds of judging (held last month in Middleton) sorted through the winners in each of sixteen different mustard categories, our task was much more difficult: rank each of the sixteen category champions from best to worst, thereby establishing the overall winner. Barry described this as akin to judging the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show: comparing a garlic mustard and mustard barbecue sauce is as tough as comparing a poodle to a greyhound. Yet we must do it! Barry and Patti encouraged me to conduct multiple rounds of tasting each of the sixteen entrants, ranking them by how well they exemplified each category (read the full list and descriptions here), as well as basic questions we always ask ourselves: would we use this on our food? Does it make our food better? Does it showcase the mustard well?

The official entry platter, with sixteen categories identified by number.

The official entry platter, with sixteen categories identified by number. One will emerge as Grand Champion!

I was presented with a plate of each of the sixteen mustards, identified only by their entry number and their category (no other labels, manufacturers, or information provided). I opted for a three-tier judging system. First, I took a sample of each for initial impressions and thoughts. They ranged from mild and incredibly hot, from mustard-centric to more balanced flavors, from grainy to silky smooth. I then went through a second round, separating them into categories: top, middle, and bottom. Finally, I went through them again to separate out the rankings, coming up with a final mustard ranking, from grand champion (1) to bottom (16). Just to confirm my choices, I then opted for another round of tasting in order to be sure I made no mistakes.

I took spoon-size samples of each entry to facilitate my judging. Here I've already finished tasting #1, "Sweet-Hot."

I took spoon-size samples of each entry to facilitate my judging. Here I’ve already finished tasting #1, “Sweet-Hot.”

While I can’t reveal my final rankings, I can provide some of my general thoughts on how I proceeded. Many of the mustards were fiery hot, and I while I always appreciate the boldness of heat in condiments, one must balance that heat against showcasing the flavor. This is true for even milder mustards: if I felt it was bland, or lacked real mustard flavor, I ranked these lower than mustards that utilized their flavors in complex and satisfying ways. Finally, many readers will be familiar with our love of Category 16: “Mustard-Based BBQ Sauces.” Our original BBQ love will always be South Carolina mustard sauce, so I knew beforehand it would take a lot to impress me in this category!

The three judges seated at my table took the opportunity to compare our rankings once we were finished, and occasionally there was significant divergence, but four or five of the mustard were near the top in all our sheets. Perhaps these mustards are in the running for the top awards! We won’t know until May, when the winners of the Grand Championship will be for available for tasting and sale at the NMM’s “Salute! to the Winners” event on May 3 and 4 from 10am to 5pm. Come by and see if you agree with the judges, and if the other judges agreed with me!

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Judging the World-Wide Mustard Competition 2014

Mustard MuseumOur friends at Eating Madison A to Z recently clued us into an awesome competition, the World-Wide Mustard Competition, run by the National Mustard Museum. Yes – this a world championship for mustard! We paid a visit to the museum many moons ago when it was located in Mt. Horeb (it is now located in Middleton, WI), and it is truly a mecca for all things mustard. M is going to be one of the judges at the competition today (this round of judging is being held at Kendall College in Chicago), so look for some photos and tweets in the future.

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Pastry Post-Doc visits Ladurée in NYC

LadureeWindow

franceWe have a major obsession with macarons, and we ranked the macarons at Ladurée in Paris as our favorite. So how excited were we two weeks ago to be visiting friends in New York, home of a North American outpost of our favorite macaron purveyor. The Ladurée in NYC is on the upper east side (864 Madison Ave, New York, NY 10021), within a stone’s throw of the Whitney Museum. We went on Saturday afternoon expecting a line… and we got one. However, the crowd control was a bit more organized than the Paris location. Here in NYC, there was a bouncer to let only 20 people into the shop itself at a time. It took us about 20 minutes to get to the counter to order, and once we were there, it was only minutes until we were reunited with our macarons.Laduree macarons

The store was just as picturesque as the original French outpost, all done up in pastels, with mirrored cabinets and little towers of macarons perched on ornate boxes. In addition to macarons, the store was jam packed with chocolates, jam, ice cream and even coffee. Of course, there was also a huge selection of food and trinkets emblazoned with the Ladurée logo. Yet as always, we were single minded in our mission.Laduree macarons

After the bouncer let us pass, we swarmed the macaron counter, which boasted over a dozen varieties, including our perennial favorites chocolate and salted caramel. As in Paris, the flavors are displayed on a little graphic menu, as displayed at the bottom of the post. There were other classic flavors including pistachio, coffee, lemon, raspberry and strawberry, as well as some more esoteric varieties including orange blossom, black forest and the quixotically-named Marie Antoinette (Earl Grey tea, though the macaron itself is blue).Laduree MacaronsIt was a steep $21 for six, but we felt it was worth every penny, as we indulged in our macarons on a bench in Central Park. The salted caramel and chocolate were also a big hit with our friends, and we are happy we brought over some new macaron addicts to the fold. Word on the streets is that there is now a Ladurée in Soho (398 W Broadway, New York, NY 10012) with a tea room. Maybe that will be our next macaron mission (if we can get past the bouncer).

laduree macarons

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Greenbush Bar: An Italian Speakeasy in Madison

Greenbush Bar
914 Regent St
Madison, WI

ItalySicilySpeakeasy. Tiny. Crowded. Delicious. That’s Greenbush Bar in a nutshell. One of our go-to places in Madison, we have been there countless times since Matt started graduate school in 2006. Serving Italian-American fare (though the website says “Sicilian“) with Midwestern charm, we have been so often, until two days ago we were not even sure if we had taken photos there or not, or even gotten started on a review. Perhaps that’s fitting for a place that is difficult to find for the uninitiated. Greenbush boasts no oversize, catchy sign advertising its existence; no large windows to let jealous passers-by gaze inside. Instead, Greenbush thrives on being a bit of a hidden gem, yet seemingly everybody knows about it.

Madison's Italian Workmen's Club (via Madison Trust for Historic Preservation)

Madison’s Italian Workmen’s Club (via Madison Trust for Historic Preservation)

More than any place else we have ever been, Greenbush feels like a speakeasy. You enter the front door of the old Italian Workmen’s Club, and descend down a small flight of stares to a wooden door that says simply, “Please wait to be seated.” Every time we open that door, without fail, we are shocked to find people on the other side. Yet we always do, and it is always full. Greenbush does not take reservations, and going after 6:30pm or so, especially on Friday or Saturday, virtually guarantees a long wait. We’ve learned to go around 5pm for the best shot at a table underneath Greenbush’s signature kitschy, yet surprisingly charming, year-round Christmas light ceiling display.

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Every time we go to Greenbush, we order the same things. An order of the #1 crostini, topped with prosciutto, goat cheese, and tomatoes ($6.75). These are big pieces of bread, so do not expect small portions for an appetizer that could easily be an entree for some people. Savoring these, our entrees invariably arrive together, at the exact moment we finish our appetizer. Lindsay has ordered an 8-inch thick pizza, topped with nothing but mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce. Cut into four pieces, the constant assumption (but only occasional reality) is that we will split it equally. One of the best pizzas in Madison, this simple yet perfect preparation never disappoints for those seeking a high-quality version of the pizza we all known and love.

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At the same time, Matt has ordered his go-to, the “Gorgonzola Cream Sauce,” a fettucine dish with smoked chicken, toasted walnuts, scallions, lemon, and mushrooms mixed its eponymous sauce. Again, like all good Italian cuisine, nothing sophisticated about this preparation: well-sourced ingredients (many from Wisconsin), balanced together. The heavy cream works wonderfully with the lemon and scallions, and the mushrooms add a distinct texture while absorbing the rest of the flavors from in the dish. Again, we are never disappointed – and we have never ordered anything else. We then spend the next hour or more eating back and forth off each others’ plates, switching when need be, until we slowly work our way through the pizza and pasta. Typically, if we still have room, we finish with one of Greenbush’s rotating dessert options. Frequently this is a cannoli – a real cannoli, filled with real ricotta, and real pistachios on the sides (not some other nut with green food coloring).
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Greenbush may not be fancy, it may not be trendy, but remains romantic and comforting, just like the food it serves. We will be going back forever, ordering the same dishes every time, and always getting the same Italian Midwestern speakeasy experience. And we would not have it any other way.

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Las Americas, Bolivian in Miami

Las Americas Bolivian Restaurante
700 South Royal Poinciana Boulevard, #120
Miami Springs, FL

BoliviaFlagTo say we had some difficulty in finding Las Americas would be something of an understatement. Yelp, you lie to us. The address you have on file is for their previous location, but Las Americas moved out from a busy, restaurant-filled strip of NW 7th Stret in Miami to the (correct) addressed listed above sometime last year. But their new location is definitely not where one would expect to find a restaurant: on a diagonal street in an office park, located on the ground floor of a nondescript mid-rise office building. If not for the Bolivian flag peeking out, we may never have found it. But we are glad we did.

See the Bolivian flag on the left? That's how you know!

See the Bolivian flag on the left? That’s how you know!

Las Americas is set up in a rather unusual way. It seems to serve partly as the go-to cafeteria for the office building, so there is a smaller interior space attached to a larger, partially open-air area with outdoor seating and a roof. It was a nice day (it’s Miami, after all), so we decided to sit out there, surrounded by a sprinkling of Bolivian artifacts and clothing on the walls. After a few minutes, the friendly owner came out and helpfully explained the menu to us. We were intrigued by a drink called mok’ochinchi, which we have never seen anywhere else, but the restaurant was out of it that day. Peruvian aficionados will also be familiar with chicha morada, and they make a good one at Las Americas.???????????????????????????????

On a recommendation both from the owner and from reviews, we started with a Bolivian-style empanada called a salteña (pictured above). Fantastic! Perfectly baked, its savory filling crossed with a sweet touch and a generous helping of olives. Pair with Las Americas’ signature spicy salsa (not for the faint of heart), and a few of these (only $2.50 each) are a meal in and of themselves.

The main entrees at Las Americas will remind patrons of Peruvian cuisine with less of a coastal influence: lots of starches, grilled meats, accented with vegetables, with a heavy emphasis on clean, simple flavors. We opted to split an order of grilled steak (bistec), which was served with the typical Andean starch accompaniments, potato and large-kernel corn. This was the first time we had ever actually seen the large kernels attached to the corn, so this was cool to see! The steak also came with a refreshing side salad of tomatoes, red onions, and a creamy cheese similar to feta.  At $12.50, this was plenty for two people. Overall, Las Americas helped us check a new country off the list while satisfying our Andean food cravings. It’s definitely worth a try, and the office employees are lucky to have it for their lunch break!

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