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October 2, 2007

The Weary Epicurean—October 2, 2007

Better Grocery Options

Hyde Park grocery options, it is often lamented, are limited. The Co-op sells an extensive variety of foods, but quality is often poor and selection small—it doesn’t make much sense to stock Cornish game hens and Alaskan wild salmon, but only one variety of bratwurst. Then there’s Hyde Park Produce, which carries high-quality goods at reasonable prices, but in a very limited range. The adventurous chef must look elsewhere.

And why not? Good food at reasonable prices is really just a short distance away. Twenty minutes north on the Kennedy Expressway, at the Randolph Street exit (Green Line to Clinton for the carless), there are a variety of wholesale and import shops open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. The experience of market-buying, while less user-friendly than the supermarket, is extremely rewarding, both for your stomach and your budget. Once you’ve made the trip, you’ll be hooked.

My typical weekly trip always starts at J. P. Graziano Grocery Co., an Italian import store on the corner of Randolph and Peoria. Here you’ll find giant bins of imported spices, mountains of imported pastaciutta (i.e., De Cecco–style dried pasta), tubs of brined black olives and fresh mozzarella, dried porcini mushrooms at market prices, and a good selection of parmigiano and prosciutto, at the lowest prices I’ve ever seen. They have also recently begun selling delicious submarine sandwiches for $3 or $4 a pop.

Across the street at Columbus Meats, you can buy everything from pork chops to chicken feet to bull penis. Short ribs are $2 a pound, T-bones fresh from Omaha just $5 some days. George, the kind, helpful proprietor, will gladly accommodate any reasonable trimming request. Develop a relationship here, and you can be privy to the meat market information, which makes all the difference in a roast-oriented meal plan: when the prime cuts are coming in and how to secure them, or the origin of your meat and how this might affect its taste or quality.

Like a good Jersey boy, I’m fond of shellfish, but I had assumed it was impossible to obtain at a reasonable quality and price in the Midwest. I was very pleasantly surprised to learn of Rubino’s Seafood Inc. at Halsted and Lake, just three blocks away from Columbus Meats, where live oysters, shark steaks, and Chilean sea bass are flown in fresh every day. By East Coast standards, the prices are “only” reasonable—say, $4 a pound for shark and 50 cents an oyster. The quality, however, is outstanding. Don’t be deterred by the hole-in-the-wall exterior and near-absence of proprietors: The cold room is self-service. Just bring your purchases up to the window to pay, and please, use the complimentary sanitary gloves!

It’s always nice to finish up a good walk-and-shop with something sweet, and there’s nowhere better to do so, to my mind, then Blommer’s Chocolate Factory Store at 600 West Kinzie Street, just a few blocks from Rubino’s. My favorite are the chocolate-covered espresso beans—eat six before that econ final, and you just might pass.

This week’s menu: braised short Ribs with polenta

Beef short ribs are the universal restaurant dish. The input is an extremely cheap, tough cut of meat; the process is long, not labor intensive, and can be accomplished up to a week in advance; and the output is tender and delicious, with a lingering, complex flavor. I like something cold and raw as an appetizer—say, shucked oysters, a melon gazpacho, or a simple fresh fruit salad. The polenta is a sweet, cheap, effective counterpoint to the ribs. If you serve four or more people, the whole dinner should be $7 a portion or less, including wine.

The short ribs (30 minutes prep.; 3 1/2 hours to cook):

1 pound beef short ribs per person, i.e. 1 rib per person – Columbus Meats

NOTE: You definitely want them whole, not cut up

1 can tomatoes, preferably whole – J.P. Graziano Grocery Co.

1/2 cup olive oil – J.P. Graziano Grocery Co.

1/2 pound each chopped carrots, celery, and onions – Hyde Park Produce

1 large can chicken stock – The Co-op or, preferably, make your own

1 liter red wine; Carlo Rossi is fine – Kimbark Liquors

2 Tablespoons ground marjoram – J.P. Graziano Grocery Co.

salt, pepper

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Separate the ribs by cutting between the bone—starting in the middle and working to each end—with a large, sharp, unserrated knife. Season very aggressively with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil in a sturdy pan—preferably a large cast-iron Dutch oven—until it smokes. Sear the living crap out of each side of the ribs for a minute or so. Extract them with tongs; let them rest a minute or two. Meanwhile, stir the roughly-chopped carrots, celery, and onions into the oil and beef fat remaining in the pan, and sauté for a couple of minutes. Tip this mixture into a deep brownie pan. Nestle in the ribs, and pour in the wine, chicken stock, and tomatoes. Cover it tightly, and pop it in the oven for three hours. (This would be a good time to put on the polenta, by the way.) When you remove it from the oven, the bones should literally slide out, without any cutting or twisting. Discard them and trim the yucky, yellow-gray, tendon-like part off the rib meat. (The difference should be obvious.) Strain the juice from the pan into a pot, and reduce it until it’s the consistency of molasses, skimming off the fat as it bubbles up. Plop each rib meat section onto a couple scoops of polenta, pour a dollop of sauce on top, and sprinkle on the marjoram.

Polenta (minimum one hour to cook)

3 1/3 cups coarsely ground corn meal – J.P.Graziano Grocery Co.

1 handful chopped thyme – J.P. Graziano Grocery Co.

7 1/2 cups salted water

Keep some extra water simmering in a kettle on a back burner. Boil the 7 1/2 cups salted water, and sprinkle in the corn meal as slowly as you can. It should thicken almost immediately; when it does, reduce the heat. Stir it with a wooden spoon from time to time, adding a drop of boiling water from the kettle occasionally to minimize lumpiness. The longer you cook it, the sweeter it tastes, the more attractive it appears, and the easier it is to digest. I recommend at least one hour of cooking time, but if I ever served anyone polenta cooked for less than two hours, I would be deeply ashamed of myself.

This week’s $10-or-less bottle of wine:

“Bistro Wine” Pinot Noir by Barton & Gustier – Kimbark Liquors