Monday, October 22, 2012

Support Your Local Merchants and Farmer’s Markets

When I was younger my job involved a lot of traveling and staying in chain hotels. Often I would wake up in the morning having no idea where I was. The ride to and from the airport also made it difficult to realize exactly where I was. That's because within several miles of the airport the streets are lined with the same fast food restaurants, motels, hotels, mega-stores of anywhere USA.
I distinctly remember staying in a luxury chain hotel in New Orleans and opening the room service menu, only to find the exact menu that was in every one of their other hotels across the country. I was in New Orleans for God’s sake! No gumbo, jambalaya, étouffée, po boy, muffuletta, not even beignets. How could this be?
Confused, I asked the room service manager this very question. “Because we’re right down the street from Bourbon Street and that’s where everyone staying in the hotel goes for authentic Cajun, or Creole cuisine.” He replied. “For beignets, you’ll want to go to Café Dumonde, stop by the concierge for directions.” He added. 
Chicken Fried Steak (CFS)
When I was a younger man, I remember traveling throughout America, driving through small towns along the way and stopping to eat at local mom and pop diners. The food was generally specific to the area. In the south it was biscuits and gravy, or grits. In Texas it was the best Chicken Fried Steak you ever tasted. Up and down the coast of California it was seafood. I had my first taste of a fish & chips at a stand in San Francisco, so many years ago. Today many of the small independents have been replaced by many of the fast food corporate giants and their very own formula food. 
The same is true for the vanishing independently owned specialty food stores. When I was young, my mother shopped at a grocery store that was no more than 1000 sq. ft. in size. At the back of the store there was a meat counter and a real live butcher, who actually cut fresh meat on a daily basis. He knew his customers, their families, what they liked, and more importantly didn’t like. 
Mock Chicken Legs
I distinctly remember the butcher making mock chicken legs, a combination of beef and veal wrapped around a stick to resemble a chicken leg. They were delicious. As I get older, I realize that I miss that kind of familiarity with the local merchants. 
Egg & Spinach Fettucini
The small town of Highwood, Illinois located about 25 miles north of Chicago is the home to some of those independently-owned stores today. Pastificio is one of them. Pastificio is a small store specializing in “Gourmet Northern Italian Take-Home Cuisine.” Homemade pasta is why I came here today. If you’re looking for tortellacci, tortelloni, tortellini, fresh lasagna, cappellacci, ravioli, manicotti, potato gnocchi, the list is almost endless.
Dinner is Served
They also have catering, a small deli, a frozen food case and sell some Italian specialty items like Italian olive oils and vinegars. Generally, if you visit them on a Saturday, they have a small buffet, so that you can sample some of their salads, frozen food, or catering specialties. The last time I visited I tried the veal meatballs. They were delicious. The day I visited Patricia, the owner, was preparing some spectacular Antipasto Trays. They were beautiful, and as she said, made to order. 
Antipasto Trays
I hate to say it but these small, rapidly vanishing and often hidden independent specialty stores give us a snapshot into the past of how things used to be. Times not too long ago, when people, not big corporations crafted food items by hand and were proud of it. I can’t stress enough that we should all support our local merchants and farmer’s markets. For more information about Pastificio visit their website at
While you're visiting Highwood, why not pick up some fresh homemade Italian sausage, scamorza cheese, and fresh baked Italian bread at Poeta's Food Mart.  or
If it's independent restaurants or other shops you're looking for, then Highwood is a place to consider. For more information check out this link
PS. If you know of a great independent store or restaurant, please leave a comment or send me an email.

© TMelle 2012

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

German Mac & Cheese (Kaesespaetzle)

Several years ago my cousin Ro came to visit us all the way from Germany. Having never met before I was very interested in learning about other family members in Germany, their life and the foods that they ate. I told him all about family dinners at my grandmothers house and the foods that I love. I asked him what his favorite German meal was so that we could make it for him. "Kaespaetzle," he replied.Kaespaetzle is a German version of Mac and Cheese with some wonderful additions.
1-1/2 cups flour
2 large eggs, beaten
1/4 cup water
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon salt
teaspoon white pepper
teaspoon nutmeg, ground
as needed, breadcrumbs (semmelbrösel), for casserole dish
Spaetzle ingredients
To make Kaespaetzle, you're going to need to go shopping. The first thing that you will need is spaetzle. For many years we made store bought spaetzle (Maggi brand) from Germany, which is available at most grocery stores. Later in life we heard about and bought a spaetzle maker. Today I prefer homemade spaetzle over store bought, the first time that you make it start out with the store bought product. Normally I'm not a big fan of nutmeg, but it works well in spaetzle. 
DIRECTIONS (spaetzle)
In a large bowl or mixer, combine the flour, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. In another bowl, beat the eggs and milk together. Slowly mix the egg mixture into the flour mixture. The dough should be smooth and slightly thicker than pancake batter but not stiff. Let the dough rest for 10 to 15 minutes. 
Bring a  large pot of salted water to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and add a couple of drops of olive oil to the water to keep the spaetzle from sticking together.   
Pouring spaetzle batter into spaetzle maker
Spaetzle floating in water
Press the spaetzle through a slotted spoon, potato ricer, or spaetzle maker. The spaetzel will sink to the bottom and then float, remove with a slotted sppon, drain and put into a bowl until needed. Add a little butter or oil to keep them from sticking together.    
Now that the spaetzle is covered you're going to need some cheese. Remember that we're talking about German food here, so you're not going to use cheese traditionally found in American Mac and  Cheese. Kaesespaetzle is traditionally made with Gruyère, Emmentaler, or Raclette cheese. As with any Mac and Cheese recipe the cheese choice requires a cheese that melts smoothly. 

Grated Gruyère and Emmentaler
The thing that really separates American from German Mac and Cheese is the cheese choices and the addition of soft and buttery caramelized onions. Yummy!
Saute onions in butter and olive oil
2 medium onions, sliced

2 tsp. extra virgin olive oil

2 tsp. real butter

This will take some time, so let the onions caramelize slowly while you are making the spaetzle. 
Onions beginning to caramelize
DIRECTIONS (assemble)
Preheat oven to 350ºF. Prepare a 8”x 8” oven safe casserole dish by greasing the bottom and sides with butter until needed. Sprinkle the buttered dish evenly on the bottom and sides with breadcrumbs. Set this prepared dish to the side. 
Drain the cooked späetzle and pour one layer into the bottom of the casserole dish. Spread a layer of grated cheese over the späetzle layer. Repeat this process to make a 2nd and third layer of the späetzle and the cheese.  
Finish off with a top layer of cheese, some chives if you like, and some pepper. Spread the sauteed onions on the top of the casserole. Bake approximately 30 minutes, or until bubbly and golden.
NOTE: For you non-vegetarians out there, try sprinking a layer of crumbled crispy bacon over the top before serving. Enjoy! My wife prefers that I leave off the onions. This is optional if you like.   
© TMelle 2012