Some time back we hosted at our Old Town store a book signing with New York Times Food Columnist, Melissa Clark, who had been making rounds to promote her then-new cookbook, “Cook This Now: 120 Easy and Delectable Dishes You Can’t Wait to Make.” We entertained a small crowd as attendees had the opportunity to meet the author, get her autograph, and pick her brain as she fielded questions about cooking and beyond. The book’s release, and subsequently the event, landed in mid-Fall, so it was no surprise that many of the questions and much of the advice she doled out, centered on, among other seasonal topics, brining, stuffing, or otherwise preparing turkey. Melissa Clark, I realized then, is uniquely talented. Besides being a good cook, she has a way of making some perennially nightmarish kitchen projects sound and look surprisingly manageable. Case in point: I’d been trying for a good while with limited success to concoct my own flavor-infused mayonnaise when I stumbled upon some classic Melissa Clark wisdom in the form of a recent column, “Mayonnaise: Oil, Egg, and a Drop of Magic.”
The art of brewing may be the oldest craft invented by humanity. In fact, many anthropologists believe that brewing predates agriculture, and may have been the original impetus for the development of permanent agrarian settlements.
Today, the standard formula for beer is malt, water, yeast and hops. In fact, the reinheitsgebot purity law of Germany forbids the use of any other ingredients in beer. However, this has not always been the case. Historically, brewers have utilized a variety of spices to enhance the flavor of their beers. Long before the use of hops became widespread, a blend of spices known as gruit was the primary means of flavoring beer. Often, the spices in gruit also acted as a preservative to protect the beer’s flavor. There are many versions of gruit, each using a variety of spices. Many include esoteric herbs such as sweet gale and mugwort, as well as some more familiar spices, such as juniper berries, ginger, caraway seed, anise seed, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Although the use of gruit largely fell out of favor when hops became the norm, many craft and home brewers, as well as some historic breweries, still use gruit to create unusual and flavorful beers. Continue reading
In the past couple of years, I have gotten the chance to work with some really wonderful spices. It’s always fun to rediscover old favorites in new and interesting ways, and play with delightful new spices. A few months ago we got in a spice that really wowed me: Ultra Blue Lavender. This gorgeous, deep violet lavender had incredibly strong color and fragrance, that made our normally wonderful lavender pale in comparison. Continue reading
There might be a reason you love a good curry and can’t stomach spinach. A group of European scientists have begun work on a project that could eventually explain everything from your insatiable sweet tooth to your superhuman tolerance for spicy foods. New research on the “genetics of food preferences” suggests our tastes and distastes for certain foods may have their origins in our evolutionary histories, and that our genetic makeup may actually dictate which foods we find attractive, and which ones we abhor. The project – officially called Marco Polo (after the explorer who famously travelled the trade route centuries ago) – examines DNA from a number of cultures and communities along Eurasia’s historic Silk Road in an effort to determine how genetic variation translates to palatal differences within and across cultures. And while Marco Polo’s orchestrators still have significant work to do before the project sees its conclusion, early research has already turned up some interesting results which could, given time, lead to advancements in food science and changes in the direction of food industry research.
The pungent mixture of curative spices, served as delectable fine dining.
Throughout history, many herbalists, doctors, and chefs have touted the health benefits of spices in the kitchen. Nearly every individual spice and herb we carry has at some point been used as a holistic remedy. Cultures the world over have long turned to the healing properties of spices to ease pains, fight deseases, and slow aging. Even now, every few months we hear about a new study proving the long known health benefits of a particular spice. Here, at the Spice House, we are far from doctors or herbalist healers, we are but humble spice merchants. It is from this perspective that I’ve noticed that there is one thing that isn’t always mentioned in these modern medical studies of spices or holistic herbalist books. Cooking with spices isn’t just healthy, it is also delicious. Continue reading
Pickles. Without a doubt my favorite food group. This briny treat is an excellent accent to sandwiches, salads, bloody mary’s and (in my house) midnight snacking. The perfect pickle balances sourness, sweetness and spice in a way that makes them a truly addictive snack sensation. Typically I get my pickle fix from fine vendors across Chicago. But this fall I decided to try my hand at homemade refrigerator pickles.
Cooking is one of my favorite hobbies, and great relaxers. At the end of a long day nothing feels better to me than getting in the kitchen and throwing together some food. However, after Chicago’s long stretch of hundred degree plus weather, I discovered a new favorite for summer: not cooking. Instead I turned to fresh and tasty summer staples that almost never required me to turn on the stove. These dishes are some of my summer favorites, that really pop with a couple of small additions. Continue reading
Make way for Wells Street’s newest culinary juggernaut. Some new neighbors moved in on our block, and we couldn’t be happier about it. La Fournette, Chicago’s newest French bakery, is a welcome addition to our already food-centric Old Town neighborhood. The bakery is owned by Pierre Zimmerman, master pastry chef and two-time World Baking Cup champion of the French team in 1996 and 2008, and his family. They are fourth generation bakers, and our friends Jacquy Pfeiffer and Sebastien Canonne, of the French Pastry School, are serving as advisers in this delicious project. La Fournette opened its doors last Monday, following a weekend-long, pre-opening event that saw a lot of the shop’s signature goodies exchanged for some last-minute feedback on their many offerings. And, believe me, they are many.
Shrimp are often treated as the frozen boneless chicken breast of the sea. The natural sweet flavor of these tasty crustaceans are often masked in complex sauces and over seasoned breading, or worse to be lost completely as an overcooked and flavorless seafood in a poorly made fried rice. When grilling with friends in the summer, I all to often see the sad offering of over seasoned grilled shrimp skewers, it is a sad fate for the lowly shrimp to be reserved as an appetizer. “Bland” needn’t be the last word on our lovely decapod friends, a simple marinade of Harissa and Preserved Lemons can change shrimp from the surf and turf sideline to an addicting grilled main coarse. Continue reading
There is a tasty tradition at the Spice House (at least in our Old Town store), which we typically celebrate with the return of a manager or another from vacation or travel. Many of us spend a good amount of time taking food very seriously, and our connections as spice retailers often bring about opportunities to sample a lot of seriously high quality food and treats from kitchens around the city. So, from time to time it is refreshing, as a change of pace, to lower our standards a bit and indulge in something that is not overtly culinary, but still very delicious: snack chips.