It's not actual bacon that goes into bacon-infused bourbon, but bacon fat. The process is called fat-washing, which is slightly less unpleasant than it sounds—but only slightly. The recipe instructed me to mix the rendered fat from ten strips of bacon with a bottle of bourbon, shake it well, and let the whole thing sit in a dark cupboard for five days. I opted to test out the recipe with a much smaller batch, using about a cup of bourbon (I can't remember anymore what kind). I already had bacon fat on hand, so I just scooped out a couple spoonfuls from the container I keep in the fridge and melted it in the jar before adding the bourbon. I shook it well and then put it in a cupboard, taking it out every day to shake it.
At the end of the process, I put it into the freezer as the recipe instructed (since the fat was already solidified, though, I'm not sure it made much difference) and then strained it through a coffee filter. As soon as I opened the jar, I was overwhelmed by an awful, rancid stench. I'm not sure why I went through with filtering it—I think I had some vague hope that the bourbon left behind after I filtered out the fat wouldn't smell bad (it did). I'm even less sure why I decided that I still needed to taste it. But I did, and immediately gagged and spit it out into the sink. Then I poured the bourbon down the drain, threw away the fat, and immediately took out the trash. My place smelled like rancid fat for hours.
Mario Batali may be the most celebrated Italian restaurant chef in America at the moment. He's unquestionably the most recognizable—imposingly big, bookended by orange hair at one end and his trademark orange clogs at the other end, equally trademark vest in between. Having established his image visually, not to mention staring back at you from more than a few products around the store, he takes the Batali brand lightly in person, talking sincerely and approachably about what you discover in good Italian food—he calls it a "Holy Jeez" moment—and how the massive new Eataly Chicago is going to bring that into your life.
Though he's known for his restaurants in New York, including Babbo and Lupa, Batali also has given himself midwestern roots in Traverse City, Michigan. And talking to him, you find him earnest to convey that Eataly doesn't want to be an interloper, but a food vendor with its own sense of being grounded in the region—not one that wipes out what already exists here through its size and buying power.
In the second installment of my interviews with the three main partners of Chicago's Eataly, I talk to Lidia Bastianich, who with her son, Joe, and Mario Batali oversees the mega-food emporium which opened in Chicago yesterday.
Lidia, like Martha Stewart, built a business empire and celebrity status out of selling an old-fashioned vision of the good life. The difference, though, might be that a relaxed vision of good Italian food at home is a lot closer to being attainable for families today than Stewart's vision of artfully designed order—at least, that's what Eataly's entire success hinges on. In her four TV series and nearly a dozen books, as well as the restaurants she's involved with, she's worked to make Italian food accessible and aspirational at the same time, and a connection to family traditions (her 92-year-old mother often appears in her programs). I spoke with her last week about how Eataly fits into that life's work; tomorrow, I speak with Mario Batali, the third main partner in Eataly.
Sheerly in terms of size and ambition, Eataly Chicago—which opens today at 4 PM at 43 E. Ohio (no phone, no Chicago information on the website, eataly.com)—is the food story of the year. The massive store adds almost two dozen individual restaurants and food counters to the River North scene at once, and its huge distribution network will not only bring vast amounts of imported Italian goods into the city but foster the creation of new markets for locally grown midwestern produce of all kinds.
At last week's preview event I had the opportunity to speak with all three of Eataly's public faces—partners Mario Batali, Lidia Bastianich, and Joe Bastianich—each of whom has a different take on what Eataly is about and what it aims to accomplish (and be profitable at). Those interviews will appear here for the next three days; first up is Joe Bastianich. As a food celebrity he's best known as one of the judges of MasterChef, along with Chicago chef Graham Elliot and Gordon Ramsay. But talking to him it becomes clear that he's the one most focused on the business vision of Eataly and readiest to talk about why it makes sense to take a chance on a massive market devoted to fine Italian foodstuffs in Chicago. Tomorrow I speak with Joe's mother, Lidia, about Eataly's mission to improve Italian food, and on Wednesday, Mario Batali will share his chef's perspective.
I recently read an eye-opening Atlantic piece about the myriad ways retailers try to sucker you on Black Friday and the many shopping-focused pseudoevents thereafter. One of its central precepts was to beware of "free" (ever add a superfluous item to your Amazon order just to get the free shipping?). That warning out of the way, I bring you tidings of
a bona fide freebie an event with free admission if nothing else. Tomorrow night the partners behind the forthcoming Sportsman's Club will host a pop-up event at Trenchermen featuring stiff drinks and game.
That's "game" as in what a sportsman might land, here in the form of game-centered bites from Trenchermen executive chef/partner Pat Sheerin. They'll be designed for pairing with a couple of seasonal cocktails ($11) from Sportsman's managing partners, Wade McElroy (ditto Trenchermen) and Jeff Donahue (the Aviary, Barrelhouse Flat). The Sportsman is a stirred drink with bourbon, amaro, sherry, and absinthe, the Grizzly King a twist on the pisco sour. Amaro will also be available on draft in blended form from the Sportsman's amaro machine—maybe something like the Parson's negroni machine?*
Sala Bua, at the far-eastern reach of the Chinatown Mall in the space that housed the late Tao Ran Ju, has a menu of familiar Ameri-Thai standards (crab Rangoon, pad thai, etc), but it's also been getting some attention for being upfront about serving a lot of things non-Thais used to have to ferret out on so-called secret menus; things like Isan sausage, spicy raw shrimp with fish sauce (goong chae nam pla), and four varieties of papaya salad (with dried shrimp, raw blue crab, salted crab, or pickled fish).
The fare is typical brewpub grub, though Iron Horse Ale House absolutely does not brew its own beer (it's an ale house, mind you). The draft selection is relatively pedestrian, not for lack of solid options, just for lack of adventurous ones—Dogfish Head, Half Acre, Great Divide, and other trustworthy beers are all on tap, so you'll be pleased, but you'll probably have had it before. The food menu leans heavily on brick-oven pizzas and fancified bar cuisine. So, for example, there's the Bocconcini Fritto, which is a gussied-up way of saying fried cheese. And no two ways about it, fried cheese is fried cheese, and fried cheese is delicious, regardless of the shape into which it's molded and sauce it's paired with. This appetizer was followed by a promising bowl of spinach with goat cheese, beets, mandarin oranges . . . the works. But there was a catch: the shareable salad (which, for the love of God, needed serving tongs or something) was hosed down in a bland raspberry vinaigrette—there was a veritable pool of it sloshing around once we hit the bottom of the bowl. It was messy and oily and turned what had once seemed fresh, sharp spinach into a drowned mess.
When I came across a blog post about aged eggnog recently, though, I was intrigued. According to Michael Ruhlman, the eggnog should be aged for at least 30 days but you can keep it (refrigerated) for up to three years, and the taste will continue developing over time. The secret, apparently, is an insanely high alcohol content, which kills any salmonella that may be lurking in the raw eggs. Science Friday tested this theory several years ago and found it to be sound. As Flora Lichtman put it, "It's that perennial holiday question: Can I count on booze to kill the bugs in my homemade eggnog?" Their recipe was different from Ruhlman's, but contains approximately the same ratio of egg yolks to sugar to milk/cream to alcohol (and it's kind of fun to watch people use lab equipment to make eggnog and then spike it with salmonella).