Sunday, September 25, 2016

Tweet a Treat

And just a quick FYI, Ciao Ciabatta now has it's own Twitter account as well!

I've never been big on micro-blogging since [obviously] I enjoy writing an awful lot.  But I intend to use this for what I call "#DailyCiao" posts which outline a daily accomplishment to be proud of.  Expect these to be mostly about food, but we'll see if I can throw a few surprises from time to time! ;)

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Troquet Trinket

Hey all,

I just came from Left Coast and have a few things to say about it, not all necessarily well (at least for me personally).  But given I just spent my first three reviews railing on Big Jones, I think I need a little taste of positivity first before I continue with another downer.  Nothing extreme, just a small pleasant experience at a completely random sit-down I wasn't intending to visit... 

I was on my way to a Chicago Lights meet one afternoon, was a bit hungry (having not had the chance to eat lunch), and was in the mood for something fast but light, preferably with a lot of vegetables in conjunction with a lot of fat and only modest protein.

Ideally I'd hit up my favorite Tre Soldi, but with only 50 minutes to spare that wasn't an option... you DON'T WANT TO RUSH A MEAL AT TRE SOLDI!!

Other similar locations along the way were also impacted by the time crunch, and I wasn't much in the mood for chain restaurants. Not that many of them were plentiful in the veggie arena, such as M Burger (although I WILL write about that place soon as it saved my life the other day!).

I flirted with The Kitchen, but the location was too far from the meet and I had no guarantee that the service would be fast (being the first time there)... plus adding up the menu items I was most interested in quickly priced that meal out of the "snack" range. Some other time, perhaps!

Finally I decided to just walk towards the meet and let the Food Gods determine my fate... essentially, I'd walk and browse window menus along the way until one just kind of hit me.  That's very easy (and fun) to do in Downtown Chicago, and a great place to find new hidden gems and wheatless challenges! If I could find a place that would meet ALL requirements, I would have a quick meal and hop on over to the meet; and if not, I'd just starve, or rely on whatever finger food might be available at the meet (but then I'd be repeating myself)

QUESTION: Did you starve?

I might have from a certain point of view... nevertheless, I did find a spot after all! Enter Troquet, a quaint little French-inspired bar snuggled besides the lobby of the Hotel Felix at the corner of Huron and Clark. I had seen it before on a prior walk, only I thought it was just a typical bar, same as all the other billions of bars in the city. Stopping to actually check out the menu (and admire the cool ambiance, and the refreshing lack of customers at the time), I noticed the food was French... or at least French-inspired (make note of the absence of snails, tsk).  Be that as it may, while it didn't seem like the bastion of wheatlessness (noting the plethora of bread dishes), it was, in typical French manner, rather proud of its fat offerings. As far as its menu was concerned, it wasn't going to be bullied into hiding its pork belly and duck confit due to bogus claims about ARTERYCLOGGINGSATURATEDFAT! French or not, I salute that bravery in defense of the venerable egg, sausage and butter, among other fatty staples. 

I gushed over half the menu, especially the Duck Confit Omelette, but there would be a time and place for that some day.  For now, I needed something small, cheap, light, and full of vegetables and fats!

I don't make it a point to order JUST salads at restaurants, they're always more like side dishes... but given the specifications of the meal and the time crunch, it was the most efficient consumable at the time.  There weren't that many salads on the menu, so the process of elimination was simple....

  • Spinach Salad: it contained walnuts, a potent IgG for me, so no thanks.
  • Couscous: for those of you not in the know, couscous is just miniature [wheat] pasta, so make a guess of how I feel about it? [also the dish contained olives, another IgG]. ;P
  • Kale Caesar: actually some good options here, including poached egg and white anchovy (my favorite!); but this was already very low on veggies, and a bit too high on protein for today's foray, plus it was already straddling the non-snack price. (and as a minor niggle, it had croutons by default).
  • Onion Soup Gratinée: with sourdough bread, nuff said.  ;)

So the winner ended up being:

mixed greens, cucumber, tomato, pickled onion, and sunflower seeds drizzled with house vinaigrette.

"One of these...", I chimed to the friendly bartender/waitress. "...Topped with pork belly", I further exclaimed with a delightful glint, knowing that with a small cultural adjustment I turned an otherwise boring and mundane side dish into what I would call "health food".  After all, not only is saturated fat NOT actually bad for you, it is in fact essential for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins in food (among other things).  Any vitamin A, D or K locked away in all those veggies would be useless without some proper fat to go with it... and notice I say PROPER fat (trans fatty sludge oils need not apply).

Sure enough the salad came (handed off by a cheery server!) with a remarkable mix of fresh greens (including dark-leaved lettuce and escarole), crunchy seeds (which beat out croutons any day!), and some wonderfully large and juicy cuts of pork belly! If you've never had pork belly before, imagine thick-cut bacon on steroids... bigger, wider, meatier, "deliciouser"!  For a modest price and above-average courtesy, I was treated to the best salad I had in years: highly nutrient dense, properly-satiating, respectably-portioned, and purely-divine to eat! I took a while savoring this French-inspired wonder-snack, and yet I still had time to spare to get to my meet!

QUESTION: Do you intend to return?

Heck yeah!  :D

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Welp, I'm on Facebook...

I know this is soooo 2008, but bear in mind that I've never been really fond of Facebook and it's been a few years since I've used it.  However, there's something refreshing about coming back here on a completely clean slate, so might as well!  Let's join the endless, suffocating barrage of Facebook posts, woo!!!

You can click on that fancy new Facebook Badge on the right of the screen, or click here if you're on mobile (or just prefer good ol' URL links):

Also, I will likely use the Facebook page to post any additional pictures that don't get posted here, so be sure to visit it for some additional content.  ;)

I guess I'll do Twitter next... heaven knows what I'll write on it since I hate text limitations...   

Maybe I'll use it for inspirational posts or something... 

That's a thought...


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Saturday, September 17, 2016

Big Jam for Big Jones - Part 3

Question: So despite everything in Part 2, was the food actually good?

The short is answer... yes.  It was good, certainly above-average compared to your standard restaurant, so I give them points for originality.  But I won't go so far as to say it was exceptional, even though I perhaps prematurely expected it to be.

Think of it this way... after our entrée embargo ended and I could finally order something other than mint tea (which was delicious), I ordered the "Corn Griddle Cakes" dish for myself, plus their "Blue & Raspberry Carolina Gold Rice Pancakes" dish for the group.  This sounds redundant, but my original goal was to order multiple dishes to review -- after all, this place was in Andersonville and it wasn't likely I would be back here any time soon. Heck, my first choice was the "Simple Cajun Breakfast" which promised a little bit of everything (including some crawdad boudin!).

But despite previous assurances from the manager that almost everything on the brunch menu that wasn't already naturally gluten-free could be made so, this apparently wasn't the case in reality.  The boudin was off-limits, the french toast was not hominy-based (as I had previously read), I could not get a straight answer on how they prepare food on their griddle, and no substitutions or omissions were offered for any dish with a sauce, gravy, piece of toast, etc.
We were corralled to omelets, the gold rice pancakes, some mushroom dish, and the corn griddle cakes, leaving around 85% of the brunch menu effectively inedible (or at least a waste of money).

There are worse places though so we soldiered on... and lo and behold, we got some amazing-looking dishes within reasonable wait-time.  The stack of golden-rice pancakes were tall, full of cream and topped with berries; and as far as taste is concerned, they are fluffier and more flavorful than conventional pancakes.  But this is not hard to do if you're familiar with proper gluten-free flours and binders, or appreciate the fat-embracing principles of your average Paleo-esque diet; nor can I claim these to be the best restaurant-made gluten-free pancakes.

As for the corncakes... yes, they were indeed hominy-based so I was quite happy to eat something with a familiar flavor of nixtamalized corn or masa.

If anything, perhaps it felt TOO familiar...

It was topped with a mild cheddar cheese, some savory black beans, two farm eggs, a tomatillo [green tomato] sauce, diced avocados and a bit of cream... I also requested chaurice as an add-on which, to my delight, reminded me a lot of chorizo.

A bit TOO much...

So I'm eating some corn thing that reminds me of tamales (or maybe sopes), the Creole version of chorizo, some avocados that were only a few mashes shy of a guacamole, eggs, beans and cream...


What they call heritage Southern cooking in need of preservation, I call my Tuesday breakfast!!

So yes it was delicious and amazing, and for palates not used to the flavor of hominy or spicy sausage it would be an out-of-this-world experience. But when these are your every-day staples, it's hard to call it impressive,... if anything, the flavors were a lot tamer than what I'm used to from our traditional Mexican dishes of comparable nature.  

Could my opinion have been different if I had gone with the crawdad dish?  WHY SURE IT COULD HAVE...!!!

...If we could resolve the little inconvenient problem that they couldn't give it to me.  ;)

Question: Is this entirely a lost cause then?

Now I don't want to completely rail on Big Jones since, by my own admission, the food is superb, they do select very high quality ingredients, and they do support local farmers.  If you're in the area, or want to patronize a place that at least tries to conserve some of this country's oft-overlooked culinary traditions, you can't go wrong here.  I won't say you'll be disappointed by their impressive menus and flavors.

But my only suggestions to improve your personal experiences here are...

a) don't make a reservation,


b) be VERY wary if you have Celiac's Disease, a gluten allergy or are hugely wheat-intolerant, since they don't seem as serious about taking care of you as they claim to be (or used to claim to be).

The last part is unfortunate since, seeing the connection to my own traditional foods, there are many missed opportunities for offering a wealth of naturally gluten-free dishes that could be just as historically-relevant to their mission. But it is what it is, so it will have to be a concern until it becomes prudent for them to make some improvements.

Although I won't be returning, I appreciate the lessons learned, the food, the history, the attempt to protect us from a large majority of their dishes, and the opportunity to appreciate our collective culinary heritages as we clearly have a lot in common!

Next time I need to patronize a restaurant that has a creative and diverse menu, uses high quality ingredients, supports local farmers, and seeks to preserve a bit of culinary tradition... while simultaneously offering superior customer service, a more practical reservation system, a more accessible location, and real gluten-free accommodations, and all at comparable prices... Tre Soldi will be there for me.

And when I'm just in the mood for some good heritage Southern cooking, I guess I'll just eat breakfast on Tuesdays. ^^

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Big Jam for Big Jones - Part 2

Question: Based on your reply in Part 1, is this why you wanted to try out Big Jones?

Yes, it can be said I was taken in by the restaurant's interest in preserving Southern heirloom cooking, it's embrace of heirloom grains, and its claim to adhere to traditional farming practices. The place had also received some fairly good reviews on, although that had to be taken with a grain of salt since the reviews were oldish, short, and specifically targeted only to naturally gluten-free items such as corn bread (which the restaurant DOES make with traditional hominy). As an extra bonus, there was an old 2013 article that espoused the virtues of the restaurant's brunch menu for those wishing or requiring to eat gluten-free, and it was honestly quite inspiring to read!

Even from the start, however, there were some warning signs.

First and foremost was an absence of a gluten-free menu or any indication on the standard menu that an item contained [or did not contain] wheat. While this is no requirement for a great dining experience (a dedicated and knowledgeable staff can compensate for this), more often than not the absence of such a menu (or menu markers) has lead to trouble for my group in the past, either due to ill-prepared servers or equally ill-prepared kitchen staff. Perhaps this was a decision to preserve the historical integrity of the menu since food allergies/sensitivities were hardly a consideration back then – or maybe they just hate the term “gluten-free” (in which case, I sympathize). But is it worth risking someone's health or even life for what amounts to historical roleplay if that were truly the case?

Secondly, the over-abundance of flour or bread-based dishes, paired with the often obfuscated descriptions of the dishes, made the menu a veritable minefield of wheat-exposure. How should I know the boudin had flour in it when, traditionally, I should be expecting it to have rice instead? For that matter, if these are heritage grains, is their flour milled from proper heritage wheat (I would respect a good spelt, or just heirloom Triticum aestivum), or do they use modern mutagenic wheat flour expecting it to be the same thing? If the latter, that could potentially [and unintentionally] damage the historical integrity of half their dishes!

Perhaps the biggest warning sign was that this restaurant was not in the “South” at all, so at best it could offer me its own interpretation of traditional American Southern food – and sadly, despite its efforts, this interpretation could be influenced as much by supply-and-demand and marketability as it might be to concerns for historical-accuracy, creativity, pragmatism, and hospitality.

Question: What do you mean about hospitality?

While Big Jones is not the only restaurant I've been to that has had a strict reservation policy (waiting for x number of attendees to arrive before seating), I have to say that Big Jones was perhaps the most inflexible and borderline unreasonable.  Even as a table for four people was left unused and empty, an attendee and I were still forced to sit in the bar area to wait for the other attendees, and this continued even as a third attendee arrived only to find us in a very uncomfortable and crowded spot, and the last had to call in late.  Prior to this I only had similar unpleasant reservation experiences at Little Goat Diner and Summer House Santa Monica, and even they were relatively quick to set up alternative arrangements that served as a good compromise. Many other restaurants were okay receiving half the attendees, or simply were more than happy to give us the table from the get-go, sans disruptions or mood-spoilers.

This continued for a while, more so due to the fact the receptionist was also the manager, and only ended as we were starting to discuss leaving, having grown tired of the crowded condition of the bar area.  The fact that one of my guests used a cane and had no place to sit might have also been a defining factor. Ultimately there was little point keeping us unseated if we would still have used up most of the four-person table; after all, it's not like it was being used by anyone in our absence.

We were seated only upon condition that we could not order entrees (another first for us at a restaurant), and if not for the need to evaluate this location's gluten-free offerings, this experience would have been grounds to truly find a more inviting place to eat.  Whether the food justified the hassle or not, I couldn't help but wonder if the notion of "southern hospitality" was also a stereotype, or just regrettably-absent in their recreation.

To be continued... 

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Friday, September 9, 2016

Big Jam for Big Jones - PART 1

Question: Do you miss Southern Food?

I'm guessing you mean Southern AMERICAN food... because if you meant southern Mexican food, I practically eat that every other week. I understand why the question is asked since, at least in the modern-day food scene, Southern food is a virtual assault of flour. Imagery of Popeye's fried chicken comes to mind, with their thick crunchy breaded coatings replacing their [far more nutritious] real chicken skins. Shrimp, catfish and crawdads aren't spared this deep-fried entombment either, with an additional insult to injury if they're sandwiched between two french rolls for a quick po' boy. Virtually all commercial corn bread is actually some mutant hybrid of wheat-based flour with perhaps a smattering of corn for the flavor (and usually a load of preservatives, additives, flavorings, sweeteners, etc). And my former IHOP breakfast staple of country fried steak drowning in country fried gravy flanked by two country fried biscuits [and maybe even some country fried orange juice] can basically be broken down as: flour, flour, flour, flour, flour, flour, sludge oil, flour, flour, flour, sugar, flour, flour, and something vaguely resembling ground meat, potentially possum.

Of course I'm being stereotypical... if that were my world view of American Southern food, I'd be no different from the millions of Americans who conceive of Mexican food as Taco Bell burritos and fajitas [flour-based, of course, loaded with ground beef and American cheese], with perhaps the most exotic of our native foods portrayed as the almighty churro. These are simply cheap, mass-market, imitations of Southern “comfort” food; and while this used to be “my” world view in the past, I was still aware that there existed non-wheat staples such as collard greens, black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes and okra. You know... the stuff on the fringes of the side menus that we'd almost never order – and when we did, surely the restaurant found some way to wreck it (country fried collard greens, anyone?).

Nowadays, though, it's the outliers that interest me – the medley of collard, mustard and turnip greens sauteed with butter, the succulent okra in a proper roux-less gumbo, the steamy butter beans, and the chicken, spared of de-skinning and appreciated for its dark meat, pan-fried in lard to a comforting but natural crisp. And there is historical context to this interest since flour wasn't as readily available in the Old South as it is today, or at least not inexpensive enough to use in virtually everything... corn bread WAS proper corn bread (hominy-based), gumbos weren't obligated to have a roux, and there was a much better appreciation for other grains besides wheat (including the hearty sorghum, whose sweet variant oozed out an amazing maple syrup substitute). The more I learn about how American Southern food used to be, the less I'm convinced I have any reason to miss it – quite the contrary, I feel compelled to learn more about it as surely it can offer a wealth of alternative traditional recipes nearly lost to time. There are still plenty of once-staple ingredients that are no longer commonly associated with our modern notions of Southern food, such as goat and filé powder, and I feel more compelled than ever to try them.

In short, I don't miss Southern food, since I've only just begun to truly discover it!

And somewhere in my search I came across Big Jones which offered the promise of helping me with that discovery...

To be continued...

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Saturday, September 3, 2016

Ground Rules,... er, Guidelines

Hey there,

This was a very busy and unusual week for me (for instance, I never expected that taking an electroencephalogram (EEG) mid-week would be so surreal), so while I rushed to get Ciao Ciabatta up and running, and gushed over the Under Construction page for days, I was predictably not sure what to write about.  Actually that's only a half-truth... I had a very unsavory visit to Big Jones in Andersonville last week that I absolutely MUST talk about at some point, but I didn't feel like making it my first post.  I needed something smaller, more transitory, neutral and pleasant.  Maybe something that could control the pace of this blog writing from here on out....

A few days of sleep deprivation and additional food topics (e.g., gluten-free Domino's Pizza) later, and I can say with certainty that I want my first official blog post to lay some quick ground rules.  I feel that's the best way to go rather than just jump right into the fray, as I rather work within a set of guidelines even if they'll end up being rather loose.  ;)

So then, here's rule #1:

RULE 1: There are no rules.

I will break rules anyway, so let's just call them guidelines,... this blog is more for pleasure, not work!  [I already have enough of that as it is!]

Let's try again...

GUIDELINE 1: Try to frame your writings around responses to questions.

I have a lot of trouble thinking about things to write with no context... unless these are responses to questions or are aligned to a specific context, in which case then I can write for eons.  Unless I am sufficiently inspired, a lot of these blog posts will be answers to questions... and if no questions are made available, I might come up with my own.  The short of it is, I ADORE answering questions, though of course I ask quite a bit of my own as well.  ;)

GUIDELINE 2: Limit your blog posts to 1000 words per article.

But all kidding aside, if left unchecked, I can write myself out of house and home.  This is more for your protection, as well as my own, as interest wanes fast (on both ends of the spectrum) when walls of text are ever-present.  1000 words is generally around 3-4 pages of regular 12pt font or less, so it's definitely reasonable, and chances are some blog posts may be significantly less than that.  If I wish to write more than 1000 words, I'll either specify the exception (as in the case of this first article which is going to be HUGE), or just do a multi-part post that can span two or more days. 

GUIDELINE 3: Post when inspired.
I could commit to a schedule (something like once a day/week/month, but historically I seem to rebel against my own goals.  So ironically, I'll probably commit to no commitment, as I much prefer to under-promise and over-commit rather than the latter. This also means that there may be some dry spells between articles, interspersed with blog dumps occurring one after the other if there's tons to write about! :D

GUIDELINE 4: Integrate social media modestly.
People who know me know that I DESPISE social media and have stayed out of that world (with some exceptions) for quite some time, not wanting to splurge every detail of my private life for the entire world to see.  But the equation changes if I'm not "me" but rather "Ciao Ciabatta", in which case I'll be amenable to returning to the social media landscape (including  in due time... look for some accounts set up on Twitter, Facebook, Instragram, Pinterest, etc in the near future.  That will also include G+ (for you detractors :P ), as well as Youtube if I make audio readings of these blog posts for the visually-impaired (or just for those who prefer audiobooks).

GUIDELINE 5: Focus mostly about food.
This seems self-evident, but I don't want to be a one-trick pony. Sometimes I'll have the urge to talk about something else... certainly everything written above is not food-related, for instance.  But I will keep at least a substantial portion of my writings here about food, food products, food restaurants, food articles, books, games or movies, food gurus, food healing, food philosophy, or just plain growing food. 

GUIDELINE 6: Be mindful of my food limitations.
Again, a little self-evident given the subtitle of this blog, but there's a little more to it than just avoiding wheat. At some point I'll write about the origin of my wheatless diet since it had a rather unconventional and accidental beginning. But just to clarify here and now, my medically-verified problem with what is not with the gluten protein (which only rates at a light-to-moderate sensitivity), but rather with wheat bran (which I'm HUGELY intolerant too)!  This is an important distinction since the industry loves to throw around the term "gluten-free" and everyone seems to just kind of eaten it up. However, I've always seen it as a strawman argument since there's plenty more that's wrong with modern wheat than just it's gluten... it's like saying the only problem with cigarettes is its nicotine, and thus all is well if you can make a nicotine-free smoking apparatus. Gluten is just one piece of a bigger problematic puzzle,... wheat germ agglutinin, Amylopectin A and glyphosate are a few others.

Another medically-verified food to avoid permanently is shrimp, which is [thankfully] the only food I have IgE antibodies to, and it's not life-threatening at least so long as I don't abuse.  And then it's not like I'd want to anyway... shrimping is hugely unsustainable, and shrimp coming from the BP-destroyed Gulf Coast or Fukushima-contaminated waters probably wouldn't be good eats anyway.

Then we have other major IgG intolerances that are nearly as bad as wheat bran, which include:
  • alfalfa
  • bean sprouts
  • black pepper
  • cinnamon
  • coffee
  • mushrooms
  • nutmeg
  • oats
  • olives
  • sage
  • sesame seeds
  • walnuts
Coincidentally, these are foods and spices I used to eat quite frequently during my pre-wheat days, so I can't help but notice a connection. There's a few more that also fit the pattern (such as peppermint and ginger), but these are very low on the scale... once my gut heals properly, I should be able to consume many of these foods safely again!  We'll see when I retake the test in December/January.  :)

Lastly, we have foods I avoid for dietary considerations.  Soy is medically-safe to eat from an allergen standpoint, but good luck trying to get me to willingly eat it... same goes for table sugar, artificial sweeteners and a whole host of unfermented grains.  I also despise fake, trans-fatty, hydrogenated, omega 6-heavy, rancid, oxidized, ironically-heart-harming vegetable oils which I affectionately call "sludge oils"; these include such gems as corn oil, canola/rapeseed oil, soybean oil, safflower oil, cottonseed oil, or a combination of them.  Bottom line is: if you need a mega-factory, industrial solvents and deodorants to produce these unnatural sludges to use as cooking fat, expect your insides to get unnaturally "sludgy" as well.   

That's not to say I won't ever eat these... I evaluate plenty of gluten-free junk food as a service or out of curiosity, and many contain a lot of very questionable ingredients in an effort to be "low-fat"... in doing so, they replace one kind of toxin for another.  But as long as this remains the occasional junk food and not a common dietary staple, I feel my gut's strong enough now to take it.  ;)

Now that I've splurged half this article on the food guide line (no surprise there!), let's end this with the final guideline...

GUIDELINE 7: Have fun!
How cliché! But it's important nonetheless because I can find ways to turn a fun hobby into a chore, and I want to avoid that with Ciao Ciabatta as much as possible.  I will keep this fairly open and free-spirited, and not be overly-mindful with trivial details or writing in any kind of professional manner... this is pure, unadulterated free-association writing [or at least as much as I'm comfortable divulging to the public anyway]!  I won't get too nuts on graphics either, at least for now... many of the illustrations posted here come from Pixabay and are royalty-free (thanks to those generous artists!), but I may be inspired to draw my own in time and host them on Pixabay to return the favor.  I was thinking even of getting a little photo tent so I can shoot proper product images as I can see myself writing about specific foods, plants or products in the near future.  And as I mentioned earlier, I still want to try and create "audiobook" style renditions of these articles just to make use of that Samson microphone I have just lying around.  XD

But I'll worry about that in due time, for now, I'll follow the KISS principle:

GUIDELINE 7b: Keep It Simple & Sane!

^ That works for me!

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