I never thought I’d say this, but two weeks away from home is actually a pretty long time! In that period, our tomato seedlings have grown by three inches, the dahlia and ranunculus bulbs have shot through the soil and we returned to find our roses in bloom. Considering that the MidWest was just entering spring as I left, it feels as if I’ve skipped a few weeks to head straight into summer back home.
What a whirlwind the past two weeks have been. First, there was news of this wonderful nomination (there’s still time to vote if you haven’t!!), tons of eating and skyscraper-gawking in Chicago, a little down time in Madison chilling with an old friend, then Chicago again for a last hurrah before finally, heading home! Throughout the whole time I was glued to Facebook, following the very exciting developments of the elections taking place in Singapore, while also taking stock of where I am – creatively and spiritually. Nothing quite like a long bus ride to provide just the right environment for pondering. There were many thoughts about the craft of photography, what it means to me and how my approach has evolved in the past five years. There has been some writing, and lots of reading – especially of this particular book, currently captivating the minds of Prune fans and food writing extraordinaires everywhere. Absolutely gripping in its raw poignancy, I was never given a moment to drift off and dream about opening a restaurant or spending summer holidays in Italy. Instead, it got me thinking about my own experiences with food and trying to understand what food really means to me, stripped of superlatives and food movement jargon. I’m still working through this one.
But first: the trip.
Chicago and Madison inspired and enriched in unexpected ways. It felt good to be back in a big city environment again. The sheer convenience of walking everywhere, of getting lost in the crowd, of not having to wait an hour for the next train left me giddy with delight. It brought out the urbanite in me, buried for the past three years in Silicon Valley suburbia, and sparked ‘What If’ thoughts of big city living. If it weren’t for their harsh, bone-cold winters, I’d be there in a heartbeat. Especially with the discovery of Intelligentsia coffee that, sadly, puts San Francisco’s Blue Bottle in second place. Sorry Blue Bottlers, but Intelligentsia doles out a mean cappuccino, an achievement made even more significant after almost a week of bad, milky, espresso pours.
We traipsed through rain puddles on a walking tour of the city’s skyscrapers, on the tails of a very knowledgeable docent who I suspect is a former speed-walking champion. Thanks to our hosts, we popped into the Chicago Board of Trade building for a glimpse of an actual trading floor, trying to decipher hand signals for the buying and selling of soy/corn/wheat options. And we spent ages at Millennium Park, a really lovely urban space thanks to its inventive art works, like the Cloud Gate.
As fun as it was interacting with the sculpture, my biggest satisfaction was in observing the human reaction to it, which turned this giant piece of stainless steel into an art form that was truly dynamic.
The sights were just the tip of the iceberg. What really completed the trip were of course, the meals. Thanks to your recommendations for both Chicago and Madison, we ate very well. Even without a pit-stop at Alinea.
There was simply no need to go to that expense for a multi-course meal – at least not this time – when there were dining options like Blackbird ($22 for a 3-course lunch), bakeries like Floriole (for canneles and a seductive passionfruit curd tart) and hearty Polish food at Podhalanka (for potato pancakes and an episode of Wheel of Fortune with your meal).
To balance out my grand urban ambitions and a heavily-carnivorous diet, Madison, in comparison, was a lot more about long conversations, serving as a 7-month-old’s trellis in his ambitions to stand, home-made chocolate chip cookies and strawberry rhubarb pie.
In a sure sign that I am most definitely getting used to eating with the seasons, I think it wouldn’t be an understatement to admit that I’m well and truly in the rhubarb phase right now. I cannot explain my fascination with this thick, fuschia stem that delivers a tartness all its own in a pink gooey mess when cooked, but, fascinated I am. Perhaps it’s got to do with the fact that we can’t grow rhubarb in our climate: the more I need to work to find it, the more precious each stem becomes.
I have Blackbird’s Fennel Seed croissants with Rhubarb and Fennel compote to thank for triggering the start of this year’s obsession. This crumble is an ode to that meal, to the onset of spring and for friends well worth the time and distance to travel for.
Rhubarb Fennel Crumble
- ¾ pound/338 grams chopped rhubarb
- 5 ounces/ 135 grams chopped fennel (about half a large bulb)
- 7 ounces/ 200 grams granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 7 ounces/ 188 grams all-purpose flour
- 3 ounces/ 85 grams rolled oats
- 3 teaspoons ground fennel seeds
- A pinch of salt
- 1 stick/ 113 grams unsalted butter at room temperature
- Pre-heat the oven to 375F/ 190C. Mix the rhubarb, fennel, sugar and 2 tablespoons flour in a bowl until each cube is completely coated with the flour-sugar mixture. Set aside for 20 to 30 minutes while you prepare the crumble topping.
- In a medium-bowl, stir together the rest of the flour (7 ounces), oatmeal, ground fennel seeds and salt. Chop the butter into cubes and add to the dry ingredients.
- Using a pastry cutter or the tips of your fingers, toss the butter in the flour and rub them into tiny morsels. Continue until the butter is completely mixed and the flour resembles coarse cornmeal.
- Grease your baking dish then distribute the fennel-rhubarb mixture as evenly as possible, leaving a ½-inch gap from the top, then spoon the crumble topping over the vegetables, completely covering the filling.
- Place the dish on a baking tray and bake for 45 minutes, or until slightly brown. Let cool for 5 minutes before serving – either on its own or with scoops of vanilla ice-cream.
Pssst….there’s still some time left to vote for Beyond the Plate in Saveur Magazine’s 2011 Food Blog Awards. We’re finalists for the Best Food Photography and Best Original Dessert Recipe categories – you know that I’d really appreciate your vote!!