Chicago Rarities Orchard Project Preserves American Fruit History

“The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add an useful plant to its culture,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1821. When Europeans first came to the new world, there were no cultivated fruit trees, and no apples of any kind. For the next 300 years, Americans worked to fix that. Colonists brought over seedlings and cuttings, planting apple, peach and other orchards to grow fruit for alcoholic beverages, livestock feed, and for eating. Continue reading

Winter Food Festivals

Spice House managers Paige and Tracy recently traveled to the Icewine Festival in Ontario, an annual celebration of a rare vintage. This wine, produced exclusively in cold wine-growing regions, is made from grapes that are left on the vine past the

usual harvest time. They have plenty of time to dry and shrivel slightly, concentrating the juice, before winter freezes them. Picked only at night when the temperature drops below -10C, each grape produces one drop of thick, intensely flavored juice. This is fermented into a marvelously sweet and complex wine worth celebrating. The Niagara region, which is covered in small, often German-style vineyards, goes all-out for three weeks in January, with a street fair of food and wine, ice sculptures, and a cocktail competition. Many of the 60+ vineyards in the area participate in the fun, with tastings and food pairings of their own vintages of icewine (including an icewine paired with homemade marshmallows and another served with spit-roasted pig and icewine applesauce). Despite being outdoors in Canada in January, it’s a cheerful if well-coated and -scarfed crowd that moseys from vineyard to vineyard in the fresh frigid air.

Manager Tracy at the Icewine Festival

This is by no means the only winter-specific culinary fun. Most food festivals are held in more clement weather, and correspond with more conventional harvest times, but there are plenty of activities for those who don’t mind a little chill. With the Chicago blizzard behind us and a tang of spring at least temporarily in the air, let’s not write off the last few weeks of winter delicacies.

For those who can travel, there are dozens of festivals held in the winter, usually to showcase foods or beverages that are pushed to the background during the produce-laden summer and fall. The International Pizza Expo will be in Las Vegas March 1-3, while the 23rd Annual Fiery Foods and BBQ Show will be in Albuquerque from March 4-6. Wine and beer are often celebrated in the winter. Cities from Charleston to Portland have Food and Wine Festivals in late February and March; San Francisco is in the midst of its annual Beer Week, running through February 20, in which the San Francisco Brewer’s Guild shows off the incredible variety of beer made in and around the Bay Area; Michigan and Minnesota also hold winter beer fests. In many areas shellfish are at their peak at the end of winter. Fulton Texas has it’s 32nd Annual Oysterfest in March, and Penn Cove Washington will be munching though their 25th Annual Musselfest.

More locally to us, the 17th Annual Twin Cities Food and Wine Festival is held from March 5-6 in Minneapolis, and the 21st Annual Cincinnatti Wine Festival on March 10-12. In our hometown Chicago, Restaurant Week starts today (Feb 18), when 200 of the city’s best restaurants will offer special prix-fixed menus.

Here in the Great Lakes, and across the Northern US, late winter is also Maple Sugar Season. When the first hints of warmth draw the maples out of hibernation, it’s time to tap the trees. In Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana small local festivals spring up, where the public can help out with the sugaring, taste the sap and the fresh-made syrup, and enjoy a range of maple-flavored delights. Medora Indiana hosts the National Maple Syrup Festival on the first and second weekends or March, while smaller events like the Parke County Indiana Maple Syrup Fair run nearly every weekend between now and April all over the region.

Of course, if you’d rather stay snugly at home and hold your own celebration of food, we fully support that. A nice cozy kitchen full of wafting aromas and warming dishes is often the very best way to appreciate the flavors of winter: preserved, slow roasted, long-simmered, seasoned to perfection.Rich Text AreaToolbarBold (Ctrl + B)Italic (Ctrl + I)Strikethrough (Alt + Shift + D)Unordered list (Alt + Shift + U)Ordered list (Alt + Shift + O)Blockquote (Alt + Shift + Q)Align Left (Alt + Shift + L)Align Center (Alt + Shift + C)Align Right (Alt + Shift + R)Insert/edit link (Alt + Shift + A)Unlink (Alt + Shift + S)Insert More Tag (Alt + Shift + T)Toggle spellchecker (Alt + Shift + N)▼
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Spice House managers Paige and Tracy recently traveled to the Icewine Festival in Ontario, an annual celebration of a rare vintage. This wine, produced exclusively in cold wine-growing regions, is made from grapes that are left on the vine past the usual harvest time. They have plenty of time to dry and shrivel slightly, concentrating the juice, before winter freezes them. Picked only at night when the temperature drops below -10C, each grape produces one drop of thick, intensely flavored juice. This is fermented into a marvelously sweet and complex wine worth celebrating. The Niagara region, which is covered in small, often German-style vineyards, goes all-out for three weeks in January, with a street fair of food and wine, ice sculptures, and a cocktail competition. Many of the 60+ vineyards in the area participate in the fun, with tastings and food pairings of their own vintages of icewine (including an icewine paired with homemade marshmallows and another served with spit-roasted pig and icewine applesauce). Despite being outdoors in Canada in January, it’s a cheerful if well-coated and -scarfed crowd that moseys from vineyard to vineyard in the fresh frigid air.

This is by no means the only winter-specific culinary fun. Most food festivals are held in more clement weather, and correspond with more conventional harvest times, but there are plenty of activities for those who don’t mind a little chill. With the Chicago blizzard behind us and a tang of spring at least temporarily in the air, let’s not write off the last few weeks of winter delicacies.
For those who can travel, there are dozens of festivals held in the winter, usually to showcase foods or beverages that are pushed to the background during the produce-laden summer and fall. The International Pizza Expo will be in Las Vegas March 1-3, while the 23rd Annual Fiery Foods and BBQ Show will be in Albuquerque from March 4-6. Wine and beer are often celebrated in the winter. Cities from Charleston to Portland have Food and Wine Festivals in late February and March; San Francisco is in the midst of its annual Beer Week, running through February 20, in which the San Francisco Brewer’s Guild shows off the incredible variety of beer made in and around the Bay Area; Michigan and Minnesota also hold winter beer fests. In many areas shellfish are at their peak at the end of winter. Fulton Texas has it’s 32nd Annual Oysterfest in March, and Penn Cove Washington will be munching though their 25th Annual Musselfest.
More locally to us, the 17th Annual Twin Cities Food and Wine Festival is held from March 5-6 in Minneapolis, and the 21st Annual Cincinnatti Wine Festival on March 10-12. In our hometown Chicago, Restaurant Week starts today (Feb 18), when 200 of the city’s best restaurants will offer special prix-fixed menus.
Here in the Great Lakes, and across the Northern US, late winter is also Maple Sugar Season. When the first hints of warmth draw the maples out of hibernation, it’s time to tap the trees. In Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana small local festivals spring up, where the public can help out with the sugaring, taste the sap and the fresh-made syrup, and enjoy a range of maple-flavored delights. Medora Indiana hosts the National Maple Syrup Festival on the first and second weekends or March, while smaller events like the Parke County Indiana Maple Syrup Fair run nearly every weekend between now and April all over the region.
Of course, if you’d rather stay snugly at home and hold your own celebration of food, we fully support that. A nice cozy kitchen full of wafting aromas and warming dishes is often the very best way to appreciate the flavors of winter: preserved, slow roasted, long-simmered, seasoned to perfection.
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Football and Cheese

With the Green Bay Packers headed to the Super Bowl (sorry, Chicago, we love you but we’re Wisconsin born and bred), we thought we’d take a moment to celebrate two of Wisconsin’s favorite industries: football and cheese. (Spices are a tad further down the line.) The Green Bay Packers were formed in 1919, and by 1923 were a franchise of the NFL. Today they remain the only team still associated with the small town of its founding. With strong ties to the local community and a rabidly devoted fan base (every home game has been sold out since 1960), the Packers are a publicly owned team. Many Wisconsinites have a share framed and hanging on their walls. (Check our Evanston location for one of these.)

The name “Packers” come from their original sponsors the Indian Packing Company. Despite this initial association with a meat packing company, Packers fans are commonly known as Cheeseheads after the most prominent local industry. European immigrants, largely from Germany and its neighbors, brought dairy farming traditions with them to Wisconsin in the 19th century, and Wisconsin’s first commercial cheese factory started operations in 1841. Today Wisconsin ranks behind only much larger California in milk production, and leads the nation in cheese production (and, I would guess, consumption).  With 600 varieties being commercially produced, Wisconsin cheese accounts for about 25% of all domestic cheese. This includes conventional, mass-produced cheeses, but also covers a wide array of artisan cheeses. Wisconsin has the highest number of licensed cheesemakers and is the only state to offer a European-style Master Cheesemaker program. And unlike most US dairy states, Wisconsin has a high proportion of small, grazing-based dairies (as opposed to the more common industrialized types), so the quality of milk and cream for cheese making is high. In short, this is a state that takes its cheese seriously. So it’s an indication of how much we love our football team that we wear cheese on our heads to show our support.

Patty and Tom will be heading to Dallas to cheer on their local team, but for those of us staying here, cheese based snacks are on the menu.  Sure, there’s always classic nacho dip cheese and crackers, but how about cheese-filled puff pastry shaped into the Pack’s oval “G”?  Or cheese fondue?  Or classic Wisconsin cheese soup?  There’s only a week of planning before the big game, so get creative, get cheesy, and GO PACKERS!

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Return of the Farmers' Markets

The Evanston Farmers’ Market opened this Saturday, and the Green City Market will have it’s fist day Wednesday.  All over the region farmers’ markets are starting up for the season.  This is exciting to those of us who love cooking with fresh, local ingredients; who look forward to the one (or more if you’re lucky) morning a week of prowling through stalls filled with just-picked fruits, dirt-streaked vegetables, and radiant greens, who know our favorite farmers by name and have a preferred vendor for different each type of produce.

Wholemarket_brockman

I find that no matter how much of the summer’s fruit I freeze, can, or preserve, by February I’m out of last summer’s produce.  By March, when the weather starts hinting at spring, I start perusing harvest schedules, dreaming of ripe strawberries and pea shoots.  By April, when morels are sprouting in the woods and good asparagus is available even at chain supermarkets, I’m writing down recipes and getting my reusable bags ready.  So when the Evanston market opened for the first time on Saturday, I was there early (before the some of the vendors were even finished setting up), ready to stock up on whatever produce was ripe and ready so early in the spring.

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Chicago's culinary past, present, and future

We're always interested in the next generation of chefs at The Spice House, and not just because they'll hopefully be our customers.  We're proud to sponsor a variety of events and fundraisers for local culinary schools.  Friday, we had the opportunity to attend an event to which we'd contributed: the annual culinary symposium at Robert Morris College.

The theme for this year's event was Culinary Chicago: Past Present and Future, and it included lectures on topics from beer to candy to politics.  Speakers included an impressive array of Chicago culinary and industry professionals – keynote speaker Carrie Nahabedian of Naha, Hopleaf owner Mike Roper, Two Brothers Brewery founder Jim Ebel, author Marilyn Pocius, Chef Magazine editor Lacey Griebeler, and many others.

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We all need some home cooking

Michael Pollan, one of the best food writers in America today, just published an article in the New York Times Magazine bemoaning the fate of modern cooking. He points out that despite the increasing popularity of the Food Network, people are spending less and less time actually turning fresh ingredients into meals. This, he argues, is bad for both individual and societal health.

I?ve read the statistics and I don?t doubt them, but here at The Spice House, it can be hard to remember how little interest most Americans have in the act of cooking. The staff here are excellent cooks, passionate and adventurous about food. Many of them have culinary degrees and extensive kitchen experience. Our customers are eager to share their favorite recipes and ideas, and will often spend half an hour debating the best spices to use with the latest ripe produce from the local farmers market. Those of us who work here spend our days in a rarified bubble of culinary experience, often forgetting about the apparently vast numbers of people who wouldn?t know how to use paprika or have never heard of Chinese 5 spice powder. We just don?t encounter them very often.

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Cherry Picking

Cherry-pailsThree Spice House staffers (myself, Desi, and Roxanne) took last Sunday off to drive up to Door Couny for a day of cherry picking.  This is an annual trip for me, to stock my freezer for winter pie making, but it was fun to have company this year.  We left right after work Saturday, still smelling of spices, and spent the night in Manitowoc before driving into Door County to look for orchards.  I’ve gone to Choice Orchards in Sturgeon Bay before, so we headed in that direction, but we found Cherry Lane Orchard just over the Door County line and went there instead.  It’s a gorgeous little orchard run by a friendly, helpful gentleman who set us up with pails and belt clips and sent us out into the trees.

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Pumpkins!

There?s finally a chill in the air in Chicago, and fall means the start of the busy season here at The Spice House. I?m not talking about the obvious holiday shopping season (although that?s certainly the height of our busy season!). I don?t know whether it?s some age-old instinct to put on fat for the winter or whether it?s just more pleasant to spend time in a warm kitchen when it?s cold out, but something about that first frost, that slight but pervasive scent of leaves and woodsmoke, makes people?s minds turn to apple pie, baked squash, roasted meat, stews, and other cold weather culinary delights.

Pumpkin
Fall cooking is my favorite, and I can tell by the sudden increase in customers looking for cinnamon, chili powder, and pumpkin pie spice that I?m in good company. Now that the summer BBQ season is over, it?s time to take advantage of the fall harvest. Farmer?s markets are full of exotically named apples (who can resist an apple called cox?s orange pippen or winesap?), fall greens, made tender by the first frost and heirloom varieties of pumpkins and squashes.
Although the image of a pumpkin is symbolic of the bounty of an American harvest, in American cooking pumpkins have been unfairly relegated to pie and jack-o-lanterns. Pie is, of course, a delicious use of pumpkin, but these versatile gourds are so much more than mere pie filling! Baked or stewed, pumpkin is an excellent savory side dish. Pureed into soups it can be either the featured flavor or merely a fat-free way to add a creamy texture. Add it to pancakes or muffins for the same reason.
I am always seduced by the stacks of softball-sized New England Sugar pumpkins, gleaming golden and perfect for individual serving. An easy but impressive main course is soup made in the pumpkin – just cut off the top, scrape out the inside, and layer in broth, cubes of stale bread, seasoned pumpkin puree, and gruyere cheese, and bake. Or for a more carnivorous crowd, try stuffing the pumpkins with seasoned meat, like a stuffed bell pepper.

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