Back for Seconds

Brunch, to me, is truly the most special form of weekend celebration. And like the best weekends, I prefer my brunches to be slow, luxurious, a little adventurous and for no special occasion.

When we decided to make the trek to Logan Square, I already knew what to expect. Lula Cafe stands like a beacon on an otherwise bleak square filled with tattooed parents and bespectacled twenty somethings that look like they've fallen out of a Ting Tings video. The atmosphere around here is shamefully honest and urban, yet the feeling is surprisingly homey. The real draw for most of these hipsters is the food, and while Lula is not new, it is a pioneer in some locavore circles (they pull much of their fresher than fresh produce from Chicago's charitable City Farm).

I've been to Lula Cafe before, and had possibly the most satisfying cafe food in the city. The menu pulls from all ends of the globe to create a fantastic fusion of tastes that are perfectly pitched without overwhelming the fresh local ingredients. I could have stopped with the perfectly grilled piece of Gunthrop Farms chicken breast, so tender and juicy. But then I nearly forgot it was a side- we added it to their Pasta Yia Yia, which, in a word, is comfort. Bucatini mixes with succulent browned butter sauce, garlic, feta cheese- and the kicker- Moroccan cinnamon. It's insanely addicting. So much so I nearly forgot I had my own dish to work on.

To accompany a bright blackberry Bellini, I selected the Tineka Sandwich, a vegetarian option on toasted multigrain bread. Like a club sandwich given an international passport, spicy peanut sauce, sambal and Indonesian sweet soy sauce mingled with a crisp collection of cucumber, red onions, sprouts and tomato.

But all this is simply meant to demonstrate how high my expectations were for the return to Lula for Sunday brunch. While the homemade sausage and organic sides followed the standard menu expectations, I was all about the specials. How better to find fresher than fresh, and with each weekend's update, I was sure to find something memorable.

While my other half ordered a savory slow roasted pork taco skillet nestled with tender scrambled eggs, pickled red onions, beans and crema in a saucy, cumin spiked gravy and corn tortillas to collect it all, I was all about tradition.

While the dining room showed a decided bent toward French Toast over pancakes, I couldn't resist. I'm not a pancake girl when we order brunch out, but the breakfast gods were smiling on me that day when my Oatmeal pancakes (not pictured here but similar in look) arrived, silver dollars overlapping like browned scales on a sea of perfectly thickened almond anglaise. Strewn across the pancakes was stewed rhubarb, which makes so much sense I cannot believe it's taken me this long to find it on a pancake. The sweet-tart rhubarb was the perfect bite against a smooth and silky almond creme. As for the pancakes themselves, the oats and streusel seems to blend to make a tender cake, chewy but largely moist. Sigh, I didn't even want to share.

Clearly, I'm not the only one who agrees this is a front runner for top brunch in the city. I'm not really sure why it took us so long to add this to our brunch rotation, and I promised myself after running my finger around the rim of my anglaise-covered plate, I wouldn't wait so long before I returned again.

Lula Cafe is located 2537 North Kedzie Blvd. Chicago, IL 773-489-9554


Punk Rock Pastry

I once heard that you can never have breakfast too many times in a day...and I would extend that to pastries. I can never, ever turn down a proper pastry, whether 6am or 6pm. That said, those little devils in disguise aren't the healthiest morsels in the marketplace, so the thought of a relatively conscious pastry is simply the best.

And so I would like to introduce my first pick for neighborhood- and farmer's market- gem. My attraction to Bleeding Heart Bakery perhaps began with my fascination with the people behind the business. Valentin and Michelle Garcia, and a large part of their staff, are not afraid to dig in, work hard and roll up their sleeves- revealing colorful tattoos and piercings. Amidst the preppy Green City Market, their tent used to remind me of a foodie infused indie rock show, and their Belmont and Damen home base is thumping alternative rhythms that underscore the fantastic individuality of this couple and their sweet vision.

While they call it punk rock, I have to call it progressive. The bakery is all organic and has a tremendous amount of vegan offerings. This naturally translates to some of the coolest, most unique wedding cake selections I've seen in Chicago. I can't help but linger a little too long, admiring the bakery like the kid that rushes to the front at a rock show, only to nose dive back onto the crowd's waiting arms. The atmosphere, served up with a side of skull and crossbones, is so screamingly comfortable in its identity- the Ramones meets Paula Deen.
While my better half prefers their savory items like the stuffed cheese and spinach croissants and mini-quiches, I cannot resist gazing longingly at the fantastical flavors of cupcakes. This month, salted caramel is the designated 'charity' cupcake, a gesture that shows both community influence and social awareness at this favorite shop. But this month, my heart has to go out to the Tandoori cupcake- a tropical East-meets-West combination of curry cake, cayenne, mustard seed, cardamon soaked green raisins, fresh mango, pineapple, curry frosting and topped with a cardamon pod and a strip of cayenne. If that's not a flavor trip, I don't know how to help you.
Since the folks have moved on from my backyard market this summer, I still bike down to the headquarters of "punk rock pastry" occasionally to stock up on my anytime staple- the infamous Take a Hike Scone. I like my scones on the dry side, happy fruit-flecked biscuits that provide a substantial partner to my latte. This one is a veritable trail mix of flavors packed into one brick (perhaps named for its staying power in your belly on long journeys? or for me to stop hovering in front of the pastry case and order already?!) Well, picture whole wheat flour and oats, peppered with a hearty handful of flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, dried cranberries, apricots and apple pieces. My devotion is bordering on the need for Birkenstocks soon.
And every time I lock my bike and walk through the flyer-strewn doorway to stand next to a neon orange table, I know exactly what I'll order. But just like the pink hair dye and tattoo sleeves of the visionary owners, hanging out in a bakery feels a little naughty and a little indulgent. So I smile and buy a little bit more than I came for.
Bleeding Heart Bakery is located on 1955 West Belmont Ave. in Chicago.
Starting this Saturday, I'll be stalking them at the SouthPort Farmers Market!

Local Flavor Launches!

NOTE: I've decided to start a new weekly highlight- Local Flavor Wednesdays.
I'll be sharing a neighborhood foodie gem that has surprised and delighted me. Hopefully through these posts I'll be able to share what I feel the universal attraction of food- discovering new tastes, new places and most importantly, chefs that inspire personal memories in us all.

* Stay tuned for this week's inaugural post! *


Fresh Catch, in a Bowl

There's something about salty sea air that stokes the appetite. Add a cool breeze and damp low-lying fog and you've got a recipe for hunger that only a large bowl of local seafood can satisfy.
I never counted myself among the consumers of large pots of 'a little of this, a little of that,' generally less adventurous than willing to dig into what's available yet...er...undefined. That was before I discovered how beautifully cioppino showcases the catch of the day.
An Italian fisherman's stew, cioppino has origins along the wharf towns in California but has been linked to San Francisco most frequently. Dating back 100 years, when Italian seamen flocked to the ethnic neighborhood of North Beach, they wandered amongst the docks looking for leftovers from the day's catch, or 'chopped' pieces, as the Genovese dialect roughly translates. A communal stew was procured from one man's dungeness crab, another's mussels, another's dash of herbs and veggies. Truly a rustic group effort, the fish somehow harmonize in a delicious fresh tomato and wine broth. Sourdough was a popular accessory for sopping up the remains.

While in Moss Landing, CA (near Monterrey) with my future in-laws, we made a beeline for Phil's Fish Market after an excursion out on the Elkhorn Slough (the largest salt marsh outside of San Francisco Bay, and a key ecological breeding ground). Despite the highlights of snugly sea lion pups, rafts of sea otters and a few bird nests, I was chilled to be the bone (May on the Peninsula is not quite summer like!). Time for a warm up, and we picked the local favorite.

Like San Francisco, Monterrey is home to another tourist's haven Fisherman's Wharf. But it's out to this landing that truly feels authentic. Seconds away from the sea, the fish is beyond fresh and Phil's famous cioppino is properly zesty and overflowing with sea legs and shells. Bib and shelling utensils are included, as they should be with a true rustic cioppino. Portions come for one, or the whole table, but always in one big pot. I didn't realize it at the time, but Bobby Flay had even paid Phil a visit for his throwdown challenge on the Food Network, an honor for one of the best versions of the fish stew on the coast. According to the tale, there's no less than seven different types of locally caught, fresh fish in the batch. From striped bass to scallops, it's an unforgettable combination.

Back here in Chicago, the lake can definitely cause some cool weather to come in, even during these early weeks of summer. While the West coast and sea air might be hard to match, I'd suggest paying a visit to Dirk's in Chicago, a local favorite that promotes fresh and sustainable fish.
I've included the Gourmet magazine recipe here, and suggest stealing a twist on the sourdough bowl that Bobby Flay used and making sourdough croutons to top your flavorful fish stew. Try making the broth a day in advance, then grab some friends and hit the market that day. Try having everyone pick a shellfish or whitefish to contribute to the pot- chip in! chip in-o!

Classic Cioppino:

4 large garlic cloves, minced
2 medium onions, finely chopped
1 Turkish bay leaf or 1/2 California bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
1 teaspoon dried hot red pepper flakes
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
1 green bell pepper, cut into 1/4-inch dice
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 1/2 cups dry red wine
1 (28- to 32-ounces) can whole plum tomatoes, drained, reserving juice, and chopped
1 cup bottled clam juice
1 cup chicken broth
1 (1-pound) king crab leg, thawed if frozen
18 small (2-inch) hard-shelled clams (1 1/2 pound) such as little necks, scrubbed
1 pound skinless red snapper or halibut fillets, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
1 pound large shrimp (16 to 20), shelled (tails and bottom segment of shells left intact) and deveined
3/4 pound sea scallops, tough muscle removed from side of each if necessary
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil

Cook garlic, onions, bay leaf, oregano, and red pepper flakes with salt and pepper in oil in an 8-quart heavy pot over moderate heat, stirring, until onions are softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in bell pepper and tomato paste and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add wine and boil until reduced by about half, 5 to 6 minutes. Add tomatoes with their juice, clam juice, and broth and simmer, covered, 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

While stew is simmering, hack crab leg through shell into 2- to 3-inch pieces with a large heavy knife. Add crab pieces and clams to stew and simmer, covered, until clams just open, 5 to 10 minutes, checking every minute after 5 minutes and transferring opened clams to a bowl with tongs or a slotted spoon.

Lightly salt and season season fish fillets, shrimp, and scallops with salt and add to stew, then simmer, covered, until just cooked through, about 5 minutes.

Discard bay leaf, then return clams to pot and gently stir in parsley and basil. Serve piping hot!