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Saturday, 11 August 2012 19:24

Big Red for a Big Bear

By Dan Clarke

Though I didn’t get to Chicago until I was in my 40’s, I had looked forward to the visit for a long time.

My presumptions about the city came in part from grade school teachers. Most of these women in the bulky black habits were from the Chicago area. They did a fine job imparting the basics of our education, but they also told us about the Bears, the Cubs, Wrigley Field and El trains—all topics more interesting to most of us than the Beatitudes, Sorrowful Mysteries and diagramming of sentences.

I remember one spring day when Sister St. Arthur showed our catcher how to pick off a runner. From a crouch behind home plate she fired the ball out to our second baseman--flat, no arc. It made an audible pop when it hit his glove about a foot above the bag. She threw a football better than our quarterback, too. We assumed these nuns had God on their side, but we figured they didn’t need His help to deal with the likes of us. They were Chicago and they were tough.Bill George photoBears linebacker Bill George.

Growing up in Northern California, most of us were 49er fans, but we had to respect the Bears of the 1950’s when they were known as “The Monsters of the Midway.” Detroit and Cleveland may have been winning more games then, but Chicago’s irascible head coach and owner George Halas had guys like Ed Sprinkle, Rick Casares and Bill George. They were physically formidable and borderline scary. A few years later Chicago drafted an end from Pitt who also had that toughness. Mike Ditka played 12 years in the National Football League. Later he returned to coach the Bears. Along the way he got into the restaurant business and is now the proprietor of Mike Ditka’s Chicago on East Chestnut Street.

My first visit to the city was about 20 years ago. It was May, so catching a Bears game was out, of course. But I did see the Cubs beat the Dodgers at Wrigley Field and rode the El trains. Chicago seemed exciting then—vibrant. Several subsequent trips have only confirmed that first impression.

More than once I’ve heard people call Chicago “a great restaurant town.” I couldn’t disagree, as I’ve enjoyed many fine meals there. While I haven’t yet been in Ditka’s place, a visit to the restaurant’s website has led me to put it on my list for a future trip.

When I heard a few years ago that the Bear Hall-of-Famer had his name on a bottle of California wine I was mildly intrigued. Learning that it would be available in a limited national distribution and not just at his restaurant made the news more interesting. And discovering that the Mendocino County Zinfandel blend would retail for something approaching $50 really got our attention.

So we acquired a bottle of 2004 Kick Ass Red. But what to do with it? We assumed it would be on the brawny side and that it was intended to complement the robust cuisine at Ditka’s restaurant. These days so many “big” California wines—especially Zins—are way too alcoholic to enhance a meal. Would this be another of those misguided macho efforts? Tasting it with food seemed the only way to go. We thought it would be unfair--and unfun--just to try to copy entrees seen on the menu page of the restaurant’s website. Maybe barbecuing our own idea of Kick Ass food would be a better path.

Mike Petersen, who has written book reviews for this publication and for California Wine and Food, is a native Chicogoan. He’d have to be included in whatever analysis might ensue. A couple of days after Petersen bought into the idea, the two of us met for beers with our friend Mike Eady. Before we could announce our barbecue plans, Eady related a story about his driving a rental car out from Chicago to see a minor league baseball game somewhere in Northern Illinois just because he’d heard that the ballpark served great pork sandwiches. Clearly, he was the kind of guy who should be included in our project. It was agreed that we’d gather at my house to inaugurate the winter barbecue season, each of us preparing a dish he deemed a potential companion for a wine named Kick Ass Red.

Later, Brendan Cooke and Gary Young also volunteered to attend the tasting, though they opted to limit their participation to consuming, rather than preparing food.

Mike Ditka Kick Ass Red was primarily Zinfandel (56%), the balance comprised of Syrah (24%) and Petite Sirah (20%). The alcohol was 14.5%, which would have been high a decade or two ago, but is a point or point-and-a-half less than many of today’s offerings. As it is, the level was certainly sufficient and preferable to that of current “monsters” favored by the misguided.

Ditka as Coach PicmonkeyMike Ditka, "Da Coach"It turned out that the Kick Ass Red worked fine with all three of our dishes. Yes, it was a big wine but it was balanced. Predominant qualities were blackberry and a little black pepper. There were a couple of arched eyebrows when considering the 50 bucks we’d heard was to be the retail price, but all five on the evening’s tasting panel liked the wine. More to the point of the exercise, all agreed that the wine worked with each of the three dishes we’d cooked on the grill—the pork, the lamb and the beef.

Editor’s note: The Kick Ass Red was made by the Mendocino Wine Company in Ukiah, California (www.mendocinowineco.com). Readers who’d like to try it in it’s natural environment can find out more at www.mikeditkaschicago.com. Alternatively, they may check out three recipes we thought worked pretty well with this wine (and wouldn’t be bad with many other sturdy reds either).

 

IBVM Burgers

“I chose not to use the blue cheese or to do excessive spicing because I wanted to emphasize the flavor of the really good beef I was using (chopped sirloin, USDA Prime, about 12-15% fat content)” --Dan Clarke

1 ½ pounds ground beef2-4 strips thick bacon1 Tablespoon chopped fresh onion1 teaspoon minced fresh garlicKosher saltFreshly ground pepper1 Tablespoon crumbled blue cheese (optional)

Chop one or two thin slices of onion.Mince two or three garlic cloves.Mix one Tablespoon of the onion and one teaspoon of the garlic with the ground meat—distribute as evenly as possible.(optional) Place a little of the crumbled blue cheese in the center of each portion of meat to be made into a patty.Make two 12-ounce patties approx. 1 ½ inches thick.Wrap the perimeter of each patty with bacon, affixing the strips with toothpicksSeason each patty with salt and pepper.

Grill over a medium-hot fire ‘til medium rare. Searing each side of the patties is the goal, but the bacon fat can lead to flare ups. Move patties to indirect heat after searing to minimize this possibility.

Serve as you would any steak and without a bun.

 

Chicago Lamb

“When one thinks of a Chicago meal you picture big meat. Big, red meat. Throw in some creamed spinach and a baked potato the size of a canoe and you’re talkin' Chicago. So does lamb count as big red meat? Of course it does. Lamb is a fine accompaniment to creamed spinach and canoe potatoes. So when I fired up the grill for Chicago Night I had a beautiful boneless leg of lamb seasoned with herbs and ready to pay homage to the hearty appetites of the heartland” -–Mike Eady

1 leg of lamb, boneless and tied, about 3 ½ to 4 lbs.Olive oilRosemaryThymeCuminKosher salt

Mix together herbs and spread over the lamb after it has been given a coating of olive oil.

Cook over indirect heat in covered grill until internal temperature reaches 133 degrees for a perfect medium rare. Let rest for about 10 minutes before slicing.

 

Hog Butcher Pork Shoulder

“Although Chicago is no longer hog butcher to the world, the real Chicagoan still eats a lot of pork.” --Mike Petersen

Pork shoulder, approx. 4 poundsPolish sausage meat, approx. ½ poundRub composed of equal parts:

Sweet paprikaSpicy paprikaCayenne pepperSalt

Garlic flakes to taste

Add preferred amount of garlic flakes to rub, stir.Sauté the sausage meat. Drain and allow to cool.Rinse pork shoulder and pat dry, then cut in half.Slice a pocket into each of the pieces of pork and insert ¼ pound of Polish sausage meat into each.Rub meat with paprika/pepper/salt/garlic mixture.

Cook on covered grill over indirect heat ‘til medium.