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October 3, 2003

Small Time Cooks

I kicked back in my office in Chicago, waiting for a case to find its way through my door. I'm a private eye, but I moonlight as a chef. The name on the door says Mark Wise, but at the restaurant I go by Mark Whisk. I wasn't so good with cases; I did better with cases of food. I wished I could go full time as a chef, but I couldn't get my big break.

That all changed when this dame stumbled through my door. Called herself Maria. It sounded like she had more looks than sense, because she started talking about food. But I soon saw she had more marbles in her bag than I did because she called me Mr. Whisk. She recognized me from my night gig. She told me she had tasted my food, and it tasted like success. She wanted to hire me to teach her how to cook, and her diamond necklace told me this was as big a break as I could get.

We took the train down to her place south of the Loop, and she filled me in on her scheme. She wanted to open her own little place some day, a restaurant with a simple menu and cheap prices. She hired me to teach her how to cook, and said she couldn't do as much as fry an egg. We were starting from scratch.

Turns out we had a lot in common. Maria lived in Hyde Park, and I knew it was notorious for its lack of grocery selection. Hyde Park Produce on 53rd was great for fresh fruits and veggies, which she certainly could afford. The Co-Op had most of the other foods she would need, but their fresh meat selection wasn't great. That was all right, though, because Maria was a vegetarian. And me, I thought raw meat was too messy. Maria's kitchen was bare, so we went to work right away.

First she needed the basics: A large pot, a pan, and a knife at least six inches long. Maria could get a good one for about 10 bucks at Freehling Pot & Pan Co. on 53rd. The pot and pan played by the same tune. Freehling Pot & Pan would have what she needed. I told her if she looked for sales, she could probably get a good set of pots and pans for just over 50 bucks. Maria could also get some of the other things she needed there, like some large cooking utensils, measuring cups, silverware, a baking sheet, and some dishes. She asked about a cutting board, and I told her that Saran Wrap makes disposable cutting sheets that make cleanup easy, or she could buy a small one at the pot and pan store.

The next stop was the grocery store. We bought some butter, olive oil, vegetable oil, red and white cooking wine, and spices for all her basic cooking. I told her spices were sold in bulk at the Co-Op and that they were much cheaper than buying the overpriced bottles. We got rosemary, oregano, fines herbs, thyme, and ginger, as well as salt and pepper. We also bought some walnut chips in the baking aisle for the food we were going to make that night.

We were going to make a main dish and a salad, both of which had walnuts, each dish accentuating the rich flavors inherent in toasted nuts. The tortellini was very rich and harmonious in its flavors, while the salad utilized the contrast between fruit and nuts. We started cooking.

These dishes serve two.

To toast the walnuts:

Spread out one two-ounce bag of walnut chips on a baking sheet, and preheat the oven to 300 degrees. When the oven is hot, put in the walnuts for five to seven minutes. If you can smell them from outside the oven, they're done. Turn off the oven, remove the baking sheet, and let cool.

Citrus Walnut Salad

Half a bag of mixed greens

1 orange

Half of the toasted walnuts

Raspberry vinaigrette dressing

Wash greens well, and peel the orange. Cut the orange into bite size pieces, and toss the greens with the walnuts and oranges. Serve with the raspberry vinaigrette dressing.

Portobello Walnut Tortellini

1 package cheese tortellini (about 9 oz.)

2 large or 3 smaller Portobello mushrooms

Half of the toasted walnuts

1/4 cup red cooking wine

2" section of fresh rosemary

Salt and pepper to taste

Parmesan cheese

Cook the tortellini by following the directions on the package. While the water is beginning to boil for the tortellini, wash the mushrooms, remove the stems, and cut into bite size pieces. Wash the rosemary, and remove the leaves from the stems, and chop the leaves into small pieces. Discard the stem. Melt a little butter in a pan on medium high heat. Once the butter is melted, add the wine followed by the mushrooms and rosemary. Stir the mushrooms until they are tender. After draining the tortellini, spoon the mushrooms out of the pan and onto the tortellini, leaving the liquid. Top with the walnuts. Serve, passing the parmesan.

For vegans: The salad is vegan. For the pasta, replace the cheese tortellini with a short pasta like rotini, ziti, or mini-shells, and cook with vegetable or olive oil instead of butter. Skip the parmesan.