Lula Cafe's Chef–On Asparagus

April 30 2012 - 12:52 PM

We interviewed Chef Michael Simmons of Lula Café to learn more about asparagus and how he incorporates this delectable little vegetable into his cooking. Chef Simmons is an expert when it comes to cooking with seasonal and local ingredients. (CF = Chicago Foodies, MS = Michael Simmons)

  • CF: When do you typically start incorporating asparagus on your menu?
  • MS: Late winter/early spring-spring proper.
  • CF: Why?
  • MS: It’s delicious, beautiful, and multi-dimensional. That is to say you can eat it raw, pickled, grilled, poached, shaved and as a soup – with breakfast, lunch and dinner.  It’s a fantastic little pointy veggie.
  • CF: Is there is a varietal that you like to use over another? In your ‘6 minute duck egg’ dish I noticed that you used sprue, why?
  • MS: I like them all, the big purple, green and white. We used the sprue because it is exactly the time for sprue. Sprue refers to the first shoots, or the very first asparagus of the season. This is thrilling because it sort of heralds the coming of all things spring in terms of veggies. This is the most exciting time for cooks because everything is fresh and green and bright.
  • CF: Was there white asparagus in the pheasant and stinging nettle dish?
  • MS: Yes, sir.
  • CF: How did you think to include it in the dish?
  • MS: White asparagus ties the wintry elements of game bird, hedgehog mushrooms, and stuffed pasta to the springy elements of ricotta, nettles and, well, asparagus.
  • CF: What flavors of the asparagus are you typically looking to incorporate?
  • MS: The sweetness, the nuttiness, and the unctuousness.
  • CF: I notice when people cook with asparagus they tend to use rich sauces or meats, why is that?
  • MS: They hold up to these rich flavors well, but we like to explore the lighter side as well, raw marinated and shaved is my favorite way.
  • CF: Anything you want to add?
  • MS: A little asparagus to my eggs perhaps…?

Featured Dishes
This month Chef Simmons is featuring a number of dishes that use asparagus as a key component:

The first dish is the “6 minute duck egg,’ which consists of first shoot sprue asparagus and local fiddleheads, wrapped and grilled in rhubarb with nasturtium vinaigrette.

The second dish is pheasant with stinging nettle cannelloni, grilled hedgehog mushrooms, slivered dates, olives and Avalon goat’s milk cheese.

Lula Cafe
2537 N. Kedzie
Chicago, IL

–Andrew Zapotosky


Home Cooking

Asparagus 101

April 30 2012 - 11:15 AM

Shutterstock_100654192The asparagus is a vegetable and flowering perennial plant species that is a close cousin to garlic and onions. It is native to Europe, Northern Africa and Asia but can be found just about anywhere in the world.

While available year-round, spring is the best season for fresh asparagus, crops are harvested from late February to June but April is the best month for fresh or wild asparagus. The shoots are the early stalks of a plant that will eventually grow bigger and fern-like. The edible stalks are picked by hand before the stems are allowed to develop into the larger plant.

Growing and Foraging
When it comes to growing asparagus it is important to understand that there are male and female versions of the plant. The Mary Washington is the female version, which are set berries that are planted all over the garden. This method produces seedlings and lower quality shoots, it is not the most desirable for growers. The “Jersey night” is the male version that grows up to 20% more shoots per crown and typically has better taste and brighter colors. This is the version most growers are using today.

If you’re looking to find wild asparagus, you’re in luck, it grows just about anywhere in the United States and can typically be found along-side highways or railroads. When searching for wild asparagus forgers try to spot the dead over-grown plants from the year before then scavenge the grass around them in order to spot newer shoots. Some forgers go as far as marking the plants that bore asparagus the year before in order to easily find them the following season.

Asparagus comes in two different varietals; green (or purple) and white.  Green asparagus is the most commonly eaten asparagus and can easily be found at restaurants and grocery stores. White asparagus is more unique and not as popular in the United States but is considered a delicacy in Europe. It is white in color because it does the bulk of its growing under ground with limited exposure to the sun.

The varietals are very similar in taste fresh and nutty but can be prepared using four different methods:

  1. The first and easiest way to cook asparagus is to simply drop a handful in a pot of salted, boiling water and let cook for about a minute and a half.
  2. The second is grilled, which is my favorite way to cook it because it brings out the true nutty flavor of the vegetable. Place the asparagus on a hot grill without anything on them and cook until golden. (Using olive oil will cause the asparagus to over-caramelize and become bitter.)
  3. The third method is mainly used for cooking white asparagus and that is placing a bundle of white asparagus in salted, boiling water standing up right so the tips are not submerged. This allows the tips of the asparagus to get steamed and stay crunchy while thoroughly cooking the bottoms. Cook for 5 minutes in the water then take off the heat and let them stand for another 5 minutes.
  4. Finally baking is a fast and easy way to cook asparagus, place the shoots along the bottom of a baking sheet with a bit of salt and pepper and cook at 425 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes.

Whether it’s boiled, baked or grilled, do yourself a favor and celebrate the resurrection of the asparagus andthe coming of spring with this delicious “pointy vegetable.”

Asparagus on wooden table via Shutterstock.

–Andrew Zapotosky

Home Cooking

Asparagus & The Resurrection of Spring

April 30 2012 - 11:10 AM

Egg_1lo As the cold months of winter dissipate, and the warm breezes of spring emerge, so does a popular pointy-green vegetable, the asparagus. A versatile plant that signifies the beginning of spring and all the wonderful fresh vegetables that come with it.

Each year my family celebrates the Christian holiday of Eas
ter with a large Sunday brunch of honey glazed ham, farmers cheese, potato salad, deviled eggs, and of course asparagus. Before we indulge in our meal we quickly and uncomfortably say grace then dig in. This year, as I reached for the plate of asparagus, I couldn’t help but laugh at the parallels between it and the holiday we were celebrating. Easter is the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus-Christ and here on the plate in front of me is the vegetable that represents the resurrection of spring.

Now I’m certainly not equating asparagus to the Christian Son of God but let’s face it, if the Egyptians were eating asparagus over 20,000 years ago you have to wonder if it was served at the Last Super and if Jesus looked at the vegetable and thought the same thing I did. After all, he could see into the future.

This is how I imagine it at the Last Supper:

  • Jesus: Hey Judas, could you please pass me the asparagus? Oh and by the way, one of you will betray me but don’t worry about it because I will rise again and fulfill the scriptures.
  • Judas: That’s weird, here you go Jesus. Judas passes the plate of asparagus to Jesus.
  • Jesus: This asparagus is good, you know what would go good with the nutty taste of the vegetable? Something smooth and rich like egg yolk.

Okay, I got a little sidetracked and let my imagination run away with me, but I was raised Catholic and when I’m at church it ‘s difficult to not let your mind wander in between hymns. The point is that asparagus represents the resurrection of spring since it is one of the first vegetables to sprout. And now is the time to eat it.

Learn everything you need to know about asparagus in ‘Asparagus 101‘ and see how one of Chicago’s top chefs, Michael Simmons of Lula Cafe, incorporates the vegetable in unique and delicious ways.

–Andrew Zapotosky

News & Features

Has "Artisanal" Gone the Way of "Green" and "Natural"?

April 30 2012 - 10:40 AM

Tostitos-artisan-baked-three-cheese-quesoThe terms “green” and “natural” have failed to mean much to me for some time now, especially in terms of packaging and advertising. If I’m in the aisles of a grocery store or market, I know to look for words that are actually regulated; terms like “USDA-certified organic” or “vegetarian-fed.” Of course, even these terms are slippery (see the USDA’s website for a brief explanation of how they’re used), but at least they have some set of criteria that should ideally regulate their usage.

Just when I thought I had that problem solved, a recent post by GOOD’s assistant editor Zak Stone gave me another term to fret about: artisanal. A word that once meant hand-made, or, as Stone defines it— “thoughtfully crafted”—is now slapped on Tostitos’ bags and Domino’s pizza boxes. As Stone sees it, consumers seek out artisanal products for two main reasons: out of a moral/ethical/political conviction that small producers matter, or out of conspicuous consumption, the desire to have the trendiest products available. To that I would add a third category: People who care about quality and craftmanship, and believe that hand-crafted, small-batch goods are inherently better made than mass manufactured counterparts. So if “artisanal” as a term has been rendered meaningless, what’s the solution?

As a result of the corporate co-opting of “green” and “natural,” consumers had to learn to seek out labels with actual definitions and regulations (however imperfect). In the search for authentically artisanal products, this means doing some detective work. It means finding out where foods and goods are produced and where their raw ingredients come from, either by reading labels very carefully or by doing a little Internet research. Hopefully, new terms come to fill the gap left by the now relative insignificance of “artisan.” Maybe “locally-sourced” can be defined and monitored. Maybe “small batch” and “hand-crafted” will retain their meaning.

And more likely, I fear, we all just need to resign ourselves to more investigative work. To truly find artisanal goods, we may need to give up Saturday mornings to attend local markets, to spend time researching vendors online and learning about their practices, to actually speaking with the farmers and cheesemongers and candle-makers who sell their goods at local shops. Unfortunately, this places additional burden on conscious consumers. We’re all busy people, and thanks to the corporate appropriation of a once-meaningful word, the onus is now on us to seek out products we care about. Conspicuous consumers can tote around their “artisanal” Tostitos fire-roasted chipotle tortilla chips. The rest of us have some homework to do.

–Kate Bernot

News & Features

Flamin' Hot Cheetos Banned? Oh Those Crazy Kids...

April 27 2012 - 10:40 AM

bag of cheetosSo when my grade school teacher-sister in law said she was surprised that we didn’t have an opinion on the whole Flamin’ Hot Cheeto thing I was prompted to take my head out of this hole in the ground. While I didn’t know about this epidemic, I can’t say I’m surprised. I mean what’s the news? Cheetos are really good? Realllllly good? I have a similar illicit fascination, bordering on fetish, with the little crunchy orange extruded doodles. I can eat a whole bag too! Sometimes unintentionally. What surprises me is that I’m not as keen on the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. I guess I’ll be getting me a bag of Grade-School-Crack this weekend.

NPR had a 4 minute piece on how the bags are being banned in schools across America. I guess when a 3rd grader shows up on the playground with a family-sized bag of meth… um. I mean Flamin’ Hot Cheetos all hell ensues. My favorite quote from that piece was “It’s a janitorial nightmare”. When the other money quotes about eating a large bag of cra… uh Cheetos are “Your booty would be burning” and “You might have the runs”. Kids know the side effects of the dru… uh doodles.


News & Features

Food Blogger Charity Bake Sale Returns This Saturday

April 26 2012 - 10:21 AM

Photo(26)Shameless plug here, folks: This Saturday, I will be participating in the third annual Food Blogger Bake Sale, a series of national bake sales that benefit Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign. In Chicago, the bake sale will take place again at The Poison Cup, a bright and cozy wine shop on Armitage.

If last year is any indication, there will be an abundance of incredible goodies baked by recipe bloggers like Maris Callahan and Kelly D’Alesso, plus a few cranberry-lemon scones (pictured at left) whipped up by yours truly. These recipe bloggers mean business, and every year, the offerings get even more mouth-watering. Of course, there’s the added satisfaction of contributing to a worthwhile cause. Last year, the Chicago sale raised $1,000 toward the national total of $26,000 raised by the Food Blogger Bake Sale. Late spring is an especially important time for No Kid Hungry, as only 1 in 6 eligible American children actually receive free summer meals. 19 million children take advantage of free or reduced-price cafeteria lunches during the school year, but the vast majority of those children are left hungry during the summer months.

So swing by The Poison Cup between 10 AM and 3 PM on Saturday (after Green City Market, perhaps?) to peruse the goodies. And if you’re there before 11 AM, be sure to say hi, as I’ll be manning the tables.

–Kate Bernot

Home Cooking

Sauteed Spinach with Roasted Garlic and Parmesan

April 24 2012 - 1:33 PM

SpinachSide dishes often get neglected by the main attraction. You spend the time to roast chicken, grill steak or toss the perfect pasta, and the vegetable becomes more of an obligation than a necessary addition to the meal. I’ve eaten my share of overcooked, bland broccoli or soggy asparagus, and it isn’t pretty. I’m always amazed when I eat out by how effortlessly the chefs transform an unpalatable Brussels sprout or cauliflower into the star of the meal.

I decided with a little effort, I could do the same thing. Spinach is an easy dish to overcook and over season. This recipe, however, is just right. The creamy garlic and parmesan perfectly complement the acidity of the lemon. The spinach is buttery, rich and and incredible accompaniment for any meal.


Kitchen & Gadgets

The 20 Most-Important Kitchen Gadgets

April 23 2012 - 4:13 PM


Today I was posed with the question, out of all of my kitchen gadgets, which are the most important ones and what could I do without. This was just on the heels of some sous vide scrambled eggs with the interviewer which she admitted were the best scrambled eggs she can remember. The interview was all about kitchen stuff and how much money it all costs. After the hour and a half it left me thinking. Do I need that Sous Vide Supreme? The air-drying dish rack? My wine decanters? My Le Creuset terrine? In a nutshell, I need probably none of it. It doesn’t mean I’m getting rid of all of it but in the grand scheme, a cluttered kitchen is a less useful kitchen and given all the products I’m playing with, from the Sodastream to the Cuisinart Soup Blender, how do I manage? Where do I draw the line?

As I’m unlikely to solve this problem this moment, I will start simply with what I do need. Things I will find in my kitchen no matter where I move or how much or little space I have. So in the order of importance, here is the list of the top 20 most important kitchen tools. Feel free to disagree!

1 – 8″ Chefs knife. This is your food processor. There’s actually very little you can’t do with a good knife (sous vide scrambled eggs aside).


Farm & Garden

Angelic Organics

April 23 2012 - 9:23 AM

Enjoy a weekly delivery of fresh Biodynamic vegetables and herbs from Angelic Organics! Receive a weekly 3/4 bushel box of fresh vegetables and herbs delivered to over 25 Chicago and Rockford area sites for 20 weeks from–mid-June to late October– or 12 weeks–from mid-August to late October. Angelic Organics is a 1200 member Biodynamic Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) vegetable and herb farm located in north-central Illinois, just minutes from Rockford and 1.5 hours from Chicago, at 1547 Rockton Rd., Caledonia, IL 61011. Growing biodynamic vegetables since 1993. We generally sell out of 12-week shares in early summer. Click below to see: Our Farm Fresh ProduceFrequently Asked QuestionsFruit ProgramComments from ShareholdersPress About Our FarmOur Newsletter Archive


The Three Stand-Out Pours of Milwaukee Beer Week

April 23 2012 - 9:16 AM

Mke_beer_week-1I'd had a Milwaukee weekend trip planned for months, but it wasn't until a few days before I left that I realized my timing coincided with the kick-off to Milwaukee Beer Week. I also wasn't aware that Milwaukee needed a designated week to celebrate its love affair with fermented beverages—I've never seen a city with so many bars—but it struck me as more than a happy coincidence.

Besides all the general firkin tapping, beer-and-sausage-pairing, and special releases that go along with any good beer week, the kick-off Taste of Great Brewers event at the Harley Davidson Museum on Friday was the highlight. More than 50 brewers were there, representing brewing at every level, from its most commercial (Anheuser-Busch) to its smallest start-ups (3 Sheeps out of Sheboygan, WI).

Rather than try to share complex notes about every beer I sampled (and let's face it, my notes get a little um, disorganized, towards the end of the weekend…), let's keep it to the three pours that made me take notice: Milwaukee Brewing Vanilla Bean Stout, Capital Brewery's Blonde Doppelbock, and 3 Sheeps' Really Cool Waterslides IPA.