Last Salad of Summer

Though the days remain muggy and blistering, the nights are cooling off and the sun is setting earlier – we are in the twilight of summer. Soon the city will be a crisp swirl of colored leaves and we’ll be making up for the lack of warmth with fires and hot drinks – but until then, I’ll be making this salad multiple times a week, a salad I call the last salad of summer.

Summer Salad

I’ve written before about my obsession with local, in-season tomatoes, and you can bet that I’ll be buying them from the farmer’s markets up until the very end of their all-too-short season. This salad recipe is simple – when you have flavors this good, there’s not much need for anything flashy.

This salad is raw, vegetarian, and vegan if you don’t include the cheese. Give it some variety by throwing in other vegetables you have on hand – half of a shredded carrot, small cubes of summer squash varieties, and bit of cubed onion, for example, would all be great additions.

Continue reading

Summertime Guacamole and an Ode to Local Tomatoes

TIMG_0001omatoes have finally arrived at the markets, marking a period of time that I’ll spend plotting my week around visiting Chicago’s markets and co-ops on various days of the week, knowing that each tomato purchase is only going to last me a day or two. Tomatoes – especially those mixtures of summer sungolds, purple zebras, and baby romas – may just be my all-time favorite local food.

I went my whole childhood adamantly hating tomatoes, picking them off of sandwiches and ignoring them in salads, only to realize, my sophomore year of college, how much I had been missing out. The problem was that I had been eating pale, flavorless, ghosts of real tomatoes my whole life. I was an active Slow Food UW member during my time in at UW-Madison, and was there that, finally, not willing to be called out my cool local food-obsessed friends, I had my first in-season, locally-grown tomato. It was like a warm little piece of sunshine that exploded its flavor in my mouth – it was the ghost of tomatoes past reincarnated into a living, breathing, incredibly flavorful, naturally sweet little piece of happiness.

Ever since then, I’ve been obsessed with tomatoes, and look forward to them arriving at the markets and dread their inevitable disappearance. While they’re here, I find ways to work them into almost everything I make. In my opinion, tomatoes are among a small number of foods that easily illustrate the difference between local and non-local food. Potatoes or broccoli seem roughly the same regardless of how far away they came from or when they were grown, but tomatoes are different.

Guacamole, of course, begs to have tomatoes included, but this brief period of the summer is the only time I actually include them. Few things are better on a hot Chicago summer day than some fresh chips and guacamole with a refreshing beer – except, of course, that same guacamole with some locally-grown tomatoes thrown in.

Summertime Guacamole with Local Tomatoes


3 avocados

1/2 of a purple onion, diced into small pieces

10 small tomatoes of any variety (such as sungolds, purple zebras or baby romas), halved or quartered depending on size

2 tablespoons ground Cumin Powder

2 teaspoons salt

3 – 5 sprigs of cilantro (to taste), chopped

1/2 of a lime (for juice)

3 tablespoons sour cream or plain yogurt (optional)


Slice open the avocados and remove the pits (an easy way to do this is to use a heavy knife to strike the middle of the pit, hard, so that the knife gets stuck in it, then pull the knife away pit and all. Scoop the flesh out and put it into a large bowl, then mash with a fork. Mix in the salt, cumin and lime juice. If you’re going to add sour cream or yogurt (which give the guacamole a wonderful creaminess), stir it in at this point. Finally, gently stir in the onions, tomatoes and cilantro. Taste by trying on a chip. Enjoy on a patio or deck with a refreshing summer beer.

Bacon. Just Bacon.

BaconI’m not going to wax poetic about bacon. That’s been done by better poets than I.

I’m also not going to go on and on about how bacon makes everything better, even though there’s math to prove it. (Okay, so the results are a little overstated.)

I will even ignore the idea of bacon as the gateway meat for ex-vegetarians, even though there’s a possible evolutionary reason.

The simple fact of the matter is that bacon is delicious and at the end of the day, that’s all that really matters. Just ask these guys.

The toughest part of curing bacon at home is finding pink curing salt #1. Pink curing salt #1, formerly known as Prague Powder #1, is table salt mixed with a bit of sodium nitrite to help inhibit bacterial growth. Coincidentally, the Spice House carries pink curing salt #1. This should not be confused with pink curing salt #2, which also has the addition of sodium nitrate and is used for long cures. (Think dried sausages like Spanish chorizo.) Pink curing salt #1 is for shorter curing times for foods meant to be eaten relatively quickly. Both are colored pink to avoid confusion with table salt, and should not be confused with pink Himalayan salt.

The recipe below is for what’s known as green bacon. After roasting, it is ready to eat. Just cook it normally. It can also be hung to dry or smoked after roasting, both of which will help preserve it longer. Or, cut it into one pound pieces, wrap well in plastic, put it into a freezer storage bag and freeze.

Bacon cureHome Cured Bacon

Mix dry ingredients well. Rub thoroughly into pork belly. Put the pork into a resealable two gallon plastic bag along with any leftover rub. Lay flat the refrigerator and turn over daily. Liquid will begin to accumulate in the bag as it gets drawn out of the meat. When the meat feels firm remove from the refrigerator. (7 days for thinner pieces, 10 days for thicker.)  Rinse and pat dry.

Roast at 200° until the internal temperature reaches 150°, about 90 minutes.

Let cool and wrap in plastic. It will keep in the refrigerator for about a week, or in the freezer for about two months.

Wildwood Flower


We’ve recently added a powdered version of everybody’s rooster hot sauce, Sriracha. (Well, “everyone,” except for that neighborhood in California.) After many, many requests we also put an Ethiopian blend, Berbere into the lineup. But, the newcomer I’m most excited about is hibiscus. I’ve mentioned before that I had a career in beverage once upon a time. Given the way my mind still works, I know more intuitively how to work with hibiscus than I do with the Sriracha or Berbere. (Let’s be honest, I’m being lazy, the hibiscus was just way easier for me to work with.)

Hibiscus tea, common in West Africa, the Caribbean and Central America, is most commonly seen here in Chicago in Mexican restaurants as agua de Jamaica. (pronounced: hah-MY-kah) Steeping hibiscus in hot water imparts a brilliant red color shockingly fast and has a surprisingly tart flavor.

I recently wrote about grenadine and that got me thinking about using hibiscus in a similar manner. Where the grenadine has some darker flavors, a hibiscus syrup is going to be at the other end of the spectrum with flavors that are wonderfully bright. Substituting hibiscus syrup for grenadine isn’t a huge leap. While the profiles are different, the flavors hit a lot of the same notes. A cocktail made with hibiscus instead of grenadine will be different, but far from unpleasant. (It’s got the added bonus of being more kid-friendly. I’d use this in a Shirley Temple over the grenadine.)

In the grenadine post I mentioned a handful of cocktails: the Clover Club, Jack Rose and Ward 8. Try hibiscus instead.

Or try some in your coffee. Trust me. I used to be a professional.

Hibiscus Syrup
(yield approximately 3 ½ cups)

Tie hibiscus in a double layer of cheesecloth. Add sugar, water, hibiscus and salt to a medium sauce pan over high heat. Stir to dissolve sugar. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Discard hibiscus. Stir in citric acid.

Made in Wisconsin: Black Garlic

In the world of spices, brand new products don’t come along very often. That’s why we at The Spice House were so excited when black garlic started gaining popularity around 2010.

Black Garlic BulbThough there are some conflicting stories, most people agree that black garlic was invented between 2004 and 2009, based on a Korean technique for preserving garlic. Though it was originally billed as a health supplement, the delicious flavor of black garlic has made it popular as a gourmet ingredient around the world. Continue reading

Beyond Tea


I don’t drink tea. I’ve never really liked it. I drink coffee. Black. I also tend to be a little contrarian by nature and generally appreciate a good challenge. Because of all of this, I’m not terribly inclined to immediately think of using our Chai Spice blend in tea. I am, however, inclined to look for other uses of it.

With the cardamom, ginger, cinnamon and vanilla, it’s pretty much a slam dunk in sweet applications. Try throwing it into oatmeal cookies, apple sauce or butter or banana bread. My wife loves it in oatmeal.

As a challenge, though, I like to find savory uses for it. The key to using this with savory foods is to add salt and a touch more pepper. They will make the sweeter flavors a little more grounded.

It’s got a lot of flexibility, and as a result, is an easy ingredient to play around with. Dice some pineapple, sauté it in coconut oil, add some chai and serve it with tilapia. Or, make a compound butter and use it with fresh corn. One of my favorite ways to use it is with sweet potatoes.

Roasted Chai Sweet Potatoes

Combine all ingredients and mix to coat sweet potatoes. Roast at 450° for 45 minutes or until tender.

My absolute favorite way to use the chai, is in corn bread. This recipe, which makes me want to bake everything in cast iron, is adapted from the 1964 edition of Joy of Cooking. The ’64 Rombauer is, hands down, the best cookbook ever. If you find a copy, buy it.  (Or, swipe it from your mom like I did.)

Skillet Corn Bread with Chai

    • ½ c. sifted all-purpose flour
    • 2 ½ tsp. baking powder
    • 3 tbsp. Chai Spice
    • ¾ tsp. Kosher salt
    • 1 ½ c. finely ground corn meal
    • 1 egg beaten
    • 2-3 tbsp. melted butter
    • ¾ c. milk
    • ½ c. cooked, diced bacon

Preheat oven to 425°. Grease a 10-inch cast iron skillet and place in the oven until sizzling hot.

Sift flour, baking powder, sugar and salt. Mix in corn meal. Add egg, milk, butter and bacon. Combine with a few rapid strokes. Pour batter into hot pan and bake until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Approximately 30 minutes.

Cinnamon And Spice In Vienna

When thinking about Austrian cuisine, spice is not the first thought that comes to mind. While it is not one of the world’s spice capitols, my trip to Vienna did allow me to see first-hand the spices that are regularly used. One Viennese merchant at a specialty spice shop explained that the use of spices, including ethnic blends, are peaking the interests of the local inhabitants at an ever increasing rate, perhaps due to the increase in international travel and migration.  I was pleasantly surprised when visiting the Naschmarket (a market in the city center teeming with restaurants, specialty food stores and a plethora of food stalls all lined up waiting for the hungry) had row after row of spice stands stocked with blends and pure spices of all sorts. This certainly supported my Viennese spice merchant’s claim!

Spices and herbs at the Naschmarket in Vienna

Spices and herbs at the Naschmarket in Vienna

In addition to the ubiquitous black peppercorn, caraway is a classic element in sauerkraut and cinnamon, nutmeg and mace are no strangers to traditional Austrian baked goods. Let’s focus on one of my favorite spice, cinnamon. Now, as a dutiful Spice Houser, I would usually be very particular in clarifying whether I am referring to Ceylon cinnamon (true cinnamon) or cassia cinnamon, and if cassia, which variety thereof (due to differences in flavor and strength.)  While Ceylon cinnamon is common in European cuisine (in America we typically use the word “cinnamon” liberally and are accustomed to cassia cinnamon), I noted that Indonesian Korintje cassia cinnamon (the variety most commonly used in the U.S.) was the variety sold most frequently at the Naschmarket.  So, please pardon my lack of cinnamon specificity in this blog (although as a cinnamon enthusiast, I believe there is usually room for personal preference as long as the cinnamon is fresh!)

In Austrian baking, cinnamon is a favorite spice used to help sweeten treats. Many desserts (or snacks) can be found at kaffeehauses (Viennese coffee houses) all throughout Vienna. Cinnamon is used in abundance in Christmas cookies, as well as in some of Austria’s classics including Linzer Torte, apfelstrudle (apple strudel) and zimtschnecken (cinnamon rolls). As it was not Christmas time when I was in Vienna, Christmas cookies were not available. But for the sake of this blog, I made sure that I sampled the apple strudel and cinnamon rolls.

Apple strudel at a coffee house in Vienna

Apple strudel at a coffee house in Vienna

Apple strudel was available at every coffee house and bakery that I visited. This was of no surprise as it is considered the national dish of Austria. It was advertised at many restaurants and sold at street stands, tempting those who passed. One of my coffee house samplings was topped with a dusting of powdered sugar. It was flaky, fresh and the cinnamon, while present, was a fairly delicate note (I suspect Ceylon cinnamon was employed).

The cinnamon rolls were not as easy to find as the apple strudel, but I did not leave Vienna empty handed. My cinnamon rolls were wonderfully soft and gooey (not like a Pilsbury or Cinnabon roll, but still gooey). While it did have a sugary glaze, it was not frosted with icing. As you would expect, the cinnamon was much more prominent than in the strudel. While I am not sure which variety of cinnamon was used for the rolls I ate, at the Spice House we advise the use of the sweet and spicy Saigon cassia cinnamon (of which I am particularly fond since it has a high volatile oil content, meaning lots of flavor and aroma) for cinnamon rolls.

Needless to say, as a cinnamon lover, I was not disappointed in the baked goods available in Vienna and was pleased to learn about the increasing use of a broader range of spices in Austrian cooking.



Grenadine for Grownups


In my former life I was a bartender. That’s where I developed an understanding of flavor, the way flavors work together, how to balance them. When I started tending bar, longer ago than I care to admit, drinks generally ran sweet. It’s what people knew. It’s what they expected. That changed over time and people came to expect a balanced cocktail, one that balances sweet, sour and bitter.

The two worst perpetrators of overly sweet cocktails are sour mix and grenadine.

Never—I repeat NEVER—buy sour mix. All you need is lemon juice, water and sugar. Make it yourself. Or better yet, make simple syrup of equal parts sugar and water and use that and lemon juice. It’s easy, will taste better and isn’t full of unnecessary ingredients. (A quick internet search reveals that one of the most common brands contains only 3% juice, preservatives, artificial color, and oddly, milk solids.)

Most store bought grenadine is the same as sour mix in that they contain very little actual juice, just a ton of corn syrup and food coloring. The Spanish word for pomegranate is granada and grenade in French. Any guesses the etymology of grenadine?

Actual, for real grenadine has levels of flavor and a brightness missing in the store bought stuff. It’s for grown-up cocktails.

I spent a few years mixing drinks at a place that made grenadine with pomegranate molasses. Pomegranate molasses is by slightly sweetening pomegranate juice and then reducing it. The cooking process brings out darker, more complex flavors than straight pomegranate juice would yield.

Use this in cocktails like a Clover Club, a Jack Rose or a Ward 8.

(Makes 1 pint)

In a medium sauce pan combine pomegranate molasses, sugar and water. Heat over medium heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Remove from heat. Add orange flower water. Refrigerate.

Thanks to my friend, and former co-worker, Cristi DeLucca for helping me to confirm the ratios for the recipe. If you’re in Chicago go see her behind the bar at Bangers and Lace. Ask her to make you a Ward 8.

Just Do It

mustardSome things aren’t nearly as hard as we think they’re going to be. Cooking the Thanksgiving turkey, for instance. Or programming the VCR. Or particle physics. Or making mustard.

Mustard is crazy easy to make. It’s so easy we don’t buy mustard in our house anymore. We just make it. It takes few days, so a little planning is needed, but not a whole lot of attention or active time is called for.

(Tangent: According to Wikipedia, mustard is “commonly paired with,” among other things, pizza and sushi. That’s wrong on so many levels…)

The recipe below is a very basic recipe. It works fine on its own, but use it as a starting point for experimentation. Play around with the ratios of mustard seed (the brown is spicier than the regular yellow), add some dried tarragon, throw in some honey or brown sugar, or try red wine or a splash of bourbon. The only thing I would caution against experimenting with is the ratio of liquid. Nobody likes runny mustard.

The finished mustard will be bitter, but let it sit for a day or two and that will dissipate.

Coarse Mustard

Combine all ingredients and let sit for two days. Blend to desired consistency. Refrigerate for a day or two before using to allow bitterness to dissipate.

Yes. Another pickle related post.

cranberry-sauceLike the vast majority of people these days (or least of Americans), I grew up on cranberry sauce that came out of a can. We had certain, unspoken rules about it in our house. It needed to maintain the shape of the can when put on the serving dish; it needed to be sliced with a knife and not scooped with a spoon; and the kind with whole cranberries was certainly NOT allowed. But, sometime in my early-20’s, I saw an actual, for real recipe for cranberry sauce and was absolutely astonished by how easy it was. It’s ridiculously easy. Like, I-can-make-it-in-the-time-it-would-take-me-to-find-a-can-of-it-in-the-supermarket easy.

We’ve got a few good, simple cranberry sauce variations in our archives, but there’s always room for one more, right?

I came up with this recipe last year at my wife’s behest. It’s slightly more complicated than the above recipes, but is still pretty simple and doesn’t involve a whole lot of active prep time.

pickledcranPickled Cranberries

Place spices in a muslin bag, or tie in cheese cloth. Add vinegar, spices and sugar to a sauce pan and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Add cranberries and cook until berries just begin to burst. About 15 minutes.

Remove from heat and transfer to a nonreactive bowl. Cover and let sit overnight. Remove spice bag and refrigerate. As with so many other recipes, after a couple of days the flavors will become really good friends.

Post Script: I just showed my kid a picture of sliced, canned cranberry sauce.  She thought it looked ridiculous.