Monday, April 28, 2008

King Corn

It all started Sunday at noon, with this text to my friend Stef:

Im in over my head with this bbq. Can u come over around 3?

Actually, it all started last Fall, when I saw the trailer for the documentary King Corn. Two young filmmakers quit their jobs in Boston and move to Iowa for a year to plant, grow, and harvest a single acre of corn to find out how we as a species are now subsisting almost entirely on this one crop.

I knew imediately that I wanted to see it, but time got away from me, and I never saw it on the big screen.

Cut to April, 2008. I read the book The Omnivore's Dilemma, and the whole first third of the book goes into incredible detail about how virtually everything we put into our bodies is somehow derived from corn.

It seemed like this particular area of interest was trying to get my attention. So I set out to document a little experiment of my own: Create an entire Spring BBQ menu, using ONLY ingredients that contain no trace of corn, and serve it while we have a screening of the documentary.

Adam drizzles the finishing touches of EVOO on his hummus.

Lindsay gets the party started.

The corn-free menu turned out to be much, much harder than it sounds. When you consider that high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is in about 99% of processed food (things like buns and condiments included), not to mention that almost all meat we buy in America was fed on a diet of corn, grocery shopping for this endeavor was no small feat.

FEARLESS FACTOR: A billion. When you take into account the stringent menu guidelines, and the fact that my guest list started at 10 and grew like corn in June into about 20, it's easy to see why I sent Stef the frantic text (special thanks to her, my hard-working sous-chef).

I wanted to grill mini-burgers (sliders being a popular Chicago bar treat), so I headed to Whole Foods to find some grass-fed beef. Here's a re-creation of my conversation with the butcher:

ME: Hi, I'm trying to do this themed BBQ where everything has to be, er--anyway, do you have any grass-fed beef?

HIM: Actually, no, we don't have any.

ME: [Crestfallen] Oh.

HIM: But our bison is grass-fed.

ME: I'll take 4 pounds.

I also planned out a pasta salad and from-scratch crockpot baked beans, and Adam brought his world-famous hummus, which got demolished in literally under 5 minutes. (Special thanks, Adam, and also to Lindsay, who brought the most amazing Lemon Bars--note to self, Lemon Bars are not an acceptable breakfast food).

Making the baked beans was fully a two-day process: soaking the beans overnight, then letting them simmer all day in the crockpot takes some time. I also had to be careful to buy only organic ketchup, since most ketchup is packed with high-fructose corn syrup. (I'd like to take a moment to address any of you who are caught up in the ongoing Heinz vs. Hunt's ketchup debate. Organic ketchup tastes about 1000% better than either of those brands, so consider this my conscientitious objection to the condiment war.) I would've also liked to add some pork, but finding pork that hasn't been grain-fed (wild pigs, I found out, eat acorns) is impossible. So the beans became vegetarian.

The pasta salad was pretty easy to keep corn-free. Even the most processed pasta tends not to contain corn (but I bought organic just to be safe), and I added some veggies and goat cheese (admittedly, I cannot confirm that the goat who made our cheese was not fed corn, but I took some creative license).

I was careful to read the ingredient label on everything I bought, including the ciabatta rolls I used as hamburger buns. That's one great thing about living in a big city: Trader Joe's and Whole Foods are always there when you want to throw a party with a needlessly complicated menu.

Veggie Trays by Stef.


2 12-oz. bags tri-colored veggie pasta (rotini or other noodle)
12 oz. log goat cheese
1 English cucumber
1 pint grape tomatoes, halved and seeded
2 c. arugula leaves
juice of 1 Meyer lemon
1/4 c. EVOO
salt and pepper
red pepper flakes to taste
2 T. chopped fresh dill
2 T. chopped fresh basil
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. mustard

Cut the cucumber in half, then slice it into thin half-moons. Halve and seed the tomatoes. Place in a bowl and add some salt. Let sit in the fridge for about an hour, until the salt has drawn the water out. Drain in a colander, and rinse. Shake dry. Boil the pasta. While it's cooking, in a small bowl, combine the lemon juice, salt and pepper, dill, basil, red pepper flakes, sugar, and mustard. Whisk in the EVOO slowly. Set aside. Drain the pasta, and pour it back in its cooking pot. Add the cucumbers, tomoatoes, and arugula. Working quickly so that the pasta stays warm, stir in the dressing mixture and crumble in the goat cheese, and stir until the goat cheese is melted and evenly coats the pasta (it will look like a creamy mayo-based pasta salad). Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Kelly and Adam!


2 lbs. dried beans (I used 1 lb. small red beans and 1 lb. pinto beans, but navy beans are the ones most commonly used)
1 bottle organic ketchup
1 c. brown sugar
1/4 c. mustard
2 T. Worchestershire sauce
1 c. bean cooking liquid
salt and pepper

In a large pot, soak the beans in the fridge overnight with enough water to generously cover the beans. The next day, simmer the beans in the same water they soaked in for about 2 hours (do not salt the water), until they begin to get tender. Drain the beans, reserving the cooking liquid. Place the beans in the crockpot. Pour in the rest of the ingredients and stir until well-mixed. Put the crockpot on low and cook for about 4 hours, then turn the crockpot on high and cook for 2 more hours, stirring occasionally. The last 30 minutes and while serving, leave the lid of the crockpot off so the beans thicken.

If I were the type of woman who used the word "Tablescape," I'd use that word now.

BISON MINI-BURGERS ON CIABATTA ROLLS (I've cut the recipe I made down to 1/4 of what I made, so this is based on 1 lb. of meat)

1 lb. ground bison (buffalo) meat
generous drizzle olive oil
1 tsp. Worchestershire sauce
salt and pepper for grilling
sliced Cheddar cheese (optional)
6 bake-at-home Ciabatta rolls (or other bun)
Toppings like tomato, lettuce, ketchup, mayo, etc.

Get the charcoal grill ready about an hour before you want to start cooking. Add the olive oil and Worchestershire sauce to the meat and squish around until it's incorporated. Form into six mini-burgers. Salt and pepper both sides of each patty, and place on the grill. Cook about 3 minutes on each side, or until desired doneness. When you flip them, add the cheese to the top and let it melt while the other side cooks. Serve on the buns with desired toppings.

Portobello "burgers" for the veg-heads.

Always season your meat.


The film was pretty good. It wasn't an all-out gross-fest like Fast Food Nation, but it was just as eye-opening. It got a little shaky when they showed the cow with a hole in its side (caused by acidosis, a condition cows get when they're fed an unnatural diet of--you guessed it--corn), making the contents of its stomach available for all to see (and scoop out). (Thank you, grass-fed bison farmers of the world!)

Had I actually bothered watching the film that I dragged all my friends into BEFORE the much-ballyhooed screening, I might have thought twice about planning an entire party around it. It wasn't boring, but it wasn't exactly a barrel of laughs, either (truth be told, at times, it was kind of a downer). It lacked the caustic voiceover acrobatics and contrived mega-drama of a Michael Moore film, but was shocking in its own right. I think that a lifelong aversion to soda (basically HFCS and food coloring in a can, and the best possible way to cause obesity and diabetes) is the most lasting effect it will have on my consumption. (Interestingly, rendering irrelevant the Pepsi vs. Coca-Cola debate--peace at last, and all thanks to corn!).

So, since there were far too many judges to record their comments here (although feel free, Corn-Free guests, to comment here on the blog), I'll have to make my own decisions:

THE FILM: 7 stars.

THE FOOD: 8 stars.

Self-congratulatory? Perhaps. But I'd argue that without a good solid menu, I'd have been hard-pressed to get 20 people into my living room to watch a documentary about farming.

I proved to myself (once again), that try as I might, I simply do not like arugula. I want to SO BADLY! It's so...elegant! And delicate! Peppery! Trendy! But alas, if I could do it over again, I'd leave it out of my otherwise delicious pasta salad. The beans came out great, to my utter shock, and despite seeming highly time-consuming, they're actually very low-maintenance. I might have to make this a signature BBQ dish. As for the burgers, again, I was shocked to find them quite tasty. I was worried all along that bison, being a very lean meat, would dry out on the grill, which is why I preemptively added the olive oil. It seemed to work, and with all the great things bison has going for it nutritionally, I could be a full-on bison believer (I am, at the very least, a grass-fed believer, thanks to the open-wound-cow-stomach-thing).

THE BOTTOM LINE: Fast Food Nation didn't succeed in turning me off to (scrumptious) Egg McMuffins forever. And only time will tell if I will take the time to seek out grass-fed bison (or beef, if it's available) in the long run. But what the film did (and what I suspect was its intention) was to further make us all aware that what you see isn't always what you get, and that it does take a higher level of consciousness to eat truly healthfully (not just for the health of our bodies but the health of the bodies that end up inside ours, as well).

I'll end with a quote from Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and one of the interviewees on the film):
"Everything we eat is no more and no less than the body of the world."

Ross proudly showcases the contraband.

Thanks to guests and blans alike. More soon.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Milk (& Honey)

You could describe me as impulsive.

Which explains why, on an otherwise very focused trip to Whole Foods, my gaze settled on a carton of Hemp milk, with my hand not far behind it. It was only $3, and with all the recent fearmongering about processed soy, not mention actual actual dairy, I decided to try a different kind of milk. (When I brought it home to show Jess, she quipped that it must have been harvested from a "lactating hippie.") They're actually harvested from hemp nuts, the seed of the hemp plant (yes, THAT hemp plant).

So, over a cup of Guatemala with a few delicious vanilla hemp milk spoonfuls stirred in, I got to thinking...

I wanted to explore milk. Hemp milk, soy milk, almond milk, buttermilk, and plain old milk.


Hemp milk is an Omega-3 winner! So if you're not a big fish eater, this could be a great way to get those fatty acids.


Soy is a good source of protein, but can be high in sugar (although I'm sure that any flavors added to soy/hemp milk adds a fair amount of sugar, e.g., Vanilla).


Almond milk has been recommended to me by several trusted (read: hippie) sources as the optimal "milk" product, but I haven't tried it. The chart below shows that it has the least amount of fat and calories of any of the non-dairy milks, but has hardly any protein.


I remember as a little girl, my grandmother would make Southern biscuits from scratch, and dip chunks of them in a cold glass of buttermilk for breakfast. The only time I've interacted with buttermilk since then are in my various attempts at baking - so buttermilk and I don't have the best relationship. Obviously you wouldn't drink buttermilk, or pour it over your cereal (at least I wouldn't). But how it's made is interesting:


Researching milk is kind of like researching political candidates. It's hard to find unbiased information. The best source for it, I found, is simply the back of the milk carton. Whole milk is high in fat and saturated fat, which is why many of us have switched to lower-fat versions.

The most interesting thing about researching milk is the myriad of anti-milk websites you'll find. A few:

It's a little saddening that a food that has nourished humans for thousands of years is now facing such bitter opposition, but then again, artificial hormones and inhumane living circumstances for cows and other dairy animals is a very recent phenomemon. Good luck figuring out anything useful about dairy. In the midst of such confusion about what should be simple nutritional information, I always turn to the tried and true: everything in moderation. I assume that includes dairy.

Below, an interesting comparison of milk from different animals, including human animals!

So, after all this, what have I REALLY learned about milking it?

It's hard to say.

Like any other fevered foray into the world of nutritional comparison, you have a lot of people with a lot of different opinions (and most of them, not surprisingly, want you to buy THEIR superior product).

So I guess it comes down to this: if milk makes you feel icky, don't drink it. If drinking the "milk" of the same plant that's celebrated by High Times magazine gives you the willies, don't go there. If processed soy has you on edge, steer clear. The bottom line is (somebody dust off the old soapbox), being informed about what you put into your body - not to mention eating conscientiously, hard as it is - is, in my opinion, the best way to make healthful decisions.

Speaking of healthful decisions, I have discovered the best granola in the universe. Behold:

It's from the same folks that brought you Milk & Honey Cafe in Wicker Park:

Saturday, April 12, 2008


You know you've made it big in the blogosphere when you have friends are actually offended-offended!-that you haven't yet had them over for a blog dinner. Cynics would say they're just in it for the free meal, but I believe that they want me and my tiny little blog to succeed (whatever that means).

So when my pal Matt (who was thisclose to becoming my art director, his plans foiled by the Big Agency beauracracy) wanted to come over and bring a lady friend (nay, DEMANDED that he come over as soon as possible), I was happy to put the plans in motion.

As a matter of course, I ask all my blog dinner guests if they have any food allergies or special dietary needs. And it turned out that Britte (the lady friend) is a vegetarian, which gave me a great reason to do a vegetarian post. Matt specifically requested that include guacamole in the meal if at all possible, and I was also recently inspired by a delicious brunch of Chilaquiles, a dish that I had never experienced prior to moving to Chicago, but is completely amazing.

It's fair to say I strayed significantly from the original recipe, but I went with the basic idea: layered tortillas with classic Mexican flavors.

FEARLESS FACTOR: 4. Not very fearless, as lasagna and Mexican are two of my most attempted dish categories. My only concern was that the lasagna would be soggy and have too much sauce/filling.

So, without further ado, my Layered Mexican Casserole with Fried Eggs and Guacamole.


7-8 flour tortillas (or you could use corn tortillas, which I would have preferred, but couldn't find that day)
1 can green enchilada sauce
1 jar or can red enchilada sauce
1 small can diced green chiles
1 can refried vegetarian black beans
1 red bell pepper
1/2 large red onion
1 T. olive oil
1 bunch fresh cilantro
Eggs (2 per person or however many you want)
1 T. butter
2-3 oz. crumbled queso fresco
sour cream


2 whole ripe avocados
1/2 fresh jalapeno, seeded and finely minced
1/4 red onion, finely minced
2-3 T. chopped cilantro
1/2 c. grape tomatoes, quartered
juice of 1 lime
(you're technically supposed to use 1-2 cloves of fresh minced garlic, but I forgot, and it was still good)
salt and pepper


Preheat the oven to 375. In a 9 X 13" glass casserole dish, begin to layer the flour tortillas. I did this by tearing the tortillas into half-moons (placing 4 half-moons for each layer), alternating with keeping the tortillas whole (2 whole tortillas per layer). Sounds confusing, but the pictures will clear it up. Bottom line, it really doesn't matter how you do it. Chilaquiles are supposed to be rustic and imperfect. On top of the first layer, spread a few spoonfuls of the refried black beans. Top with about 1/2 c. red enchilada sauce and the entire can of green chiles.


In a medium pan, heat the olive oil over medium high. Cut the bell pepper and onion into small pieces and saute them until they're lightly caramelized and tender. Place another layer of tortillas in the dish, and spread the onion/pepper mixture evenly over the top. Pour about 1/2 c. green enchilada sauce on top.


Add another layer of tortillas, and spread more refried beans on top. Top with more red enchilada sauce, and the crumbled queso fresco. Bake at 375 for about 30 minutes, until the cheese is mostly melted and the edges are bubbly.


Melt the butter (one small chunk at a time) in a pan over medium heat. Break the eggs into the pan, cooking them "to order," i.e., cooking them for each person then serving them immediately. I fried them on both sides, so that the edges were a little brown but the yolk was still runny. Of course you could scramble them, poach them, or cook them any way you like.


Halve the avocados and scoop out the green part, discarding the skin and pit. Add the minced jalapeno, onion, salt, pepper, tomatoes, and cilantro. Mash with a fork until desired consistency (I like it a little chunky). Squeeze in the lime juice and stir (this adds flavor as well as prevents the avocado from turing brown).


I served this with Spanish rice from a box, so if you want to do that, cook the rice according to the package and put a scoop on each plate. Cut the casserole into 8 pieces, and place a piece on each place. Top with the fried eggs, some salsa, a spoonful of the guac, and a dollop of sour cream. Garnish with some cilantro if you want.


MATT: I thought it was really good. Except that I feel like I had to scoop my fork around to get one bite that contained everything. [I edited this quote for length, but it relied on Matt's elaborately illustrative fork-bulldozing around his plate. Point well made. As Jess says, "If it ain't mixed, it ain't fixed."]

BRITTE: I thought it was great. But I think could be even better if you added a crunchy element. [I agree...any thoughts on what I could add? My first thought was tortilla chips but my second was jicama.]

ROSS: I will answer this question as Padma Lakshmi. [He begins to speak in Padma's signature sedated drawl.] I thought it had a greeaat balaaance of flaaaavor. I loooove the Mexicaaaan influuuuence.

PHOTO NOTE: Ross came in from surfing as I was halfway through cooking. I posted this to prove to skeptics that Great Lake surfing is real.

JESS: I'm sick and tired of you telling me how to eat my food. [I told her to stop mixing her dish, which I thoughtfully and artfully arranged on her plate, into a mushy trashpile.] But other than that it was great. I loved it. If it ain't mixed it ain't fixed. It's...MIX-ican!

MY VOTE ON MY DISH: I give it a 9. I think that people would definitely pay $10 for this at a brunch restaurant. I'm proud of myself. And I'm shocked that I didn't ruin the guac.

Thanks for reading! More soon...
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