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  • Written by Madelaine Bullwinkel


I am always hungry to taste a fresh take on a classic recipe.  Too often we associate innovative cooking withchefs whose success depends on their preparation of the next awesome dish. But a new idea need not be time consuming work for a kitchen of  prep cooks.  I’ve made it a priority over the years to show home cooks how to get out of a recipe rut and have fun experimenting.   

An adventurous group of students gathered in the Chicago's Alliance Française kitchen on a recent Saturday with just this objective in mind.  Our goal was a makeover of three classic fruit desserts with the addition of a single bitter ingredient.  Which  would we add?  How would we choose to pair and add them to the recipes?  And would they improve on the flavors we already knew and loved? This kind of risk-taking is fun!




In our first experiment, we inserted a layer of burnt caramel between a pre-baked sweet pastry crust and a decorative layer of fresh strawberries and raspberries.   The caramel replaced a traditional vanilla custard filling.  Voila, we created an energized Berry Tart with Burnt Caramel.



To make comparisons easier, we used the same pastry shell recipe for a Lemon Tart.  The bitter element in this dessert was a thin layer of very dark chocolate smoothed between the pre-baked crust and curd.  Everything was going according to plan until the very last moment.  

As the lemon curd was spooned over the semi-set layer of chocolate, a thin swirl of dark liquid rose up to the surface.  On no! We'd created a spoiler alert.  The chocolate layer had been outed. Never mind.  The abstract pattern created by the drizzle became part of the experiment.  I rather liked it.

(How bitter was the chocolate?  The group tasted bars with 82% and 88% cocoa respectively and unanimously preferred the one with a higher level of cocoa solids. FYI: Most dark chocolate bars have 40-60% cocoa)



In the third dessert we replaced the time-honored orange butter sauce that accompanies Crêpe Suzette with a tangy Orange Marmalade. We first cooked a small batch of marmalade from Artisanal Preserves that includes the bitter peel.  We poured off some not-quite-set marmalade to coat the crêpes and proceeded to gel and jar the remaining marmalade, another five minutes of work.

We completed our three bittersweet fruit desserts with ample time to sit down together and enjoy them.  That's one of the pleasures of working together as a class.  But, a lunch composed of three stand-alone desserts?  Now that was challenging!  We managed with the help of a flute of Cremant d’Alsace.  

Before they left, I asked everyone to vote for their favorite.  The winner was.....(drum roll).... the crêpes flamed with bitter Orange Marmalade!!  My mouth is still smiling.



Links to recipes:

Strawberry, Raspberry Tart with Burnt Caramel 

Lemon and Bittersweet Chocolate Tart 

Crepes Suzette with Bitter Orange Marmalade 



























  • Written by Madelaine Bullwinkel



Wild salmon from the Copper River is as much a part of our culinary heritage as Thanksgiving turkey and a lot easier to prepare. Remains of grilled salmon were recently identified along the migratory landbridge from northeastern Asia.  Now, more than 11,000 years later, I wait for late May when robust young king, sockeye and coho begin their run from icy Alaskan streams to the ocean initiating a brief three months of salmon fishing in Pacific waters.  Why is cooking this fish so inspiring?

These salmon are lean, firm fleshed and a beautiful deep orange color from a diet of krill.  The meat roasts (as do all fish) in just 10 minutes per inch (measured at its thickest point) in a 425 F oven.  I remove it when white drops of collagen (fat) begin to dot the surface.  This fat contains the highly prized long-chain Omega-3 fatty acids.  It's a nutritional windfall.  (Forget outdated advice to cook fish until it flakes!)

The demand for salmon has exceeded supplies of wild stock for a generation, well before the American Heart Association issued its recommendation that we eat two servings of fish a week as a preventative measure.  Today farmed Atlantic salmon accounts for 70% of salmon in the marketplace.  It is raised in marine pen nets principally in Norway, Chile, Scotland, north Atlantic and Washington State.  



Look carefully, and you can distinguish the difference between farmed Atlantic and wild salmon when the two lie side-by-side on a seafood counter.  Farmed salmon appears paler in color, plump and soft-fleshed from its higher fat content.  The flavor of this salmon is mild with a richer mouth-feel and, occasionally, a musty aroma.  Two important selling points account for its popularity.  It offers consistently higher Omega- 3 levels and a price point considerably lower than its wild cousins. 

Aquaculture has been a big business since the 1980‘s but its risks to the environment have been slower to penetrate consumers’ consciousness.   Americans look for the lowest priced commodity rather than the highest quality when they shop for food.  Fortunately, the ecology of the world's oceans is an international priority.  In 1994 the World Wildlife Fund, USA initiated the first of eight Aquaculture Dialogues involving 2000 participants that over two decades has forged codes of standards for 12 species of seafood raised in confinement. Standards for salmon were concluded in 2012 .   




Enter the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, a non-profit international group formed in 2010 that offers certification to fisheries that meet the WWF Dialogues standards.  ASC has a sister certification Council with a similar looking label, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).  This consortium was formed in 1996 to certify wild fish stocks.  ASC and MSC are currently working together on certification standards for the next wave of aquaculture businesses: seaweed farms.

The ultimate way to shop for seafood is with the mobile app from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.  The MBA focuses at the granular level looking at each seafood purchase as it impacts the health of the ocean.  The Watch relies on science based peer reviewed methods to evaluate wild stocks and fisheries . It ranks choices in one of three categories:  Best Buy, Good Alternative and Avoid.  Each rating includes the variety of fish, (in the case of salmon, whether it is  Chinook, Sockeye, Coho or Atlantic), how it is raised or how it was caught if it is wild, and where it originates.  The MBA maintains ties with producers, retailers and chefs; it has resources in the medical and scientific communities, and updates its listing every six months.



I recently gave my Seafood Watch mobile app a test drive.  I looked for an ASC logo next to the display of plump, glistening farmed salmon at my local Jewel-Osco (owned by Albertsons).   When the Jewel employee couldn't tell me anything about its origin, I asked to see the label from its shipping container.  This paper had an unconvincing small, black and white ASC icon in one corner.  Perhaps it was a sign of pre-certification? The name of the Chilean fishery was not one of those listed in the Seafood Watch guide. I decided to shop elsewhere.

On to Whole Foods where the choice was between a fresh farmed salmon at $10 per pound and pale, previously frozen Chinook salmon steaks at $30 a pound. The salesman (who happened to be the department manager) proudly told me that the farmed salmon came from Blue Circle Fisheries in Chile which is listed as a 'Good Alternative' on the Seafood Watch list.  He then pointed to the large blue ASC plaque behind him on the wall.  I placed my order.





  • Written by Madelaine Bullwinkel



Suzanne Florek and her line cooks at Salty Fig

New acquaintances look at my business card and ask, “So, where’s your restaurant?”  I then explain that Chez Madelaine operates a school due to a ‘no restaurant’ clause in my marriage contract.  (A career in food service is a notorious marriage disruptor.)  What then is a married woman with children and the dream of opening a restaurant to do? 

The short answer is that she waits until the children are grown.  At this point the emotional and physical demands of a creating a food enterprise outside the home requires extra initiative. On the other hand, women who've spent two decades managing a household and weathering the demands of marriage have developed survival skills   The good news is that more mature women have been opening food enterprises.  Three recent start-ups exemplify the diversity among these women and their dreams. 


 Local high schoolers stop by for a snack at Salty Fig's communal table. 

During the decade that we owned an apartment in Paris several small food businesses sprouted along our street as the quarter became gentrified.  I watched a chic, single mother with four grown children turn a 500 sq.ft. minimally decorate space into a popular gathering place for young neighborhood families  She relies on her competence as a home cook to turn out a limited daily menu of soup, sandwiches, a quiche-of-the-day and several showy desserts . Her staff of one young woman has trouble keeping up during busy mealtimes.  The French don't mind; diners expect to wait, but it would drive an American nuts.  One key feature is a small nook set aside with books and toys for preschoolers.  This “tarterie” is a place for families to pause, get comfortable and connect.  

I experience a similar calm atmosphere when entering Steam Coffee, Inc. in nearby Oak Brook even though it’s tucked in among large franchise stores in a mall at a busy intersection.  Owner Joi Thompson is a Seattle native and also a mother of four.   Her training is in healthcare services but she knows coffee and the importance of connecting with customers.  This coffee shop thrives on its spacious layout and the warm, attentive service of an experienced barista who checks with customers at their tables as they work or dine.  Joi has made her food start-up a family project in fullest sense of the word.  Her husband helped design and build decorative elements, a college-age son handles the books and the two youngest children wait tables and wash dishes after high school.  


 Lentils/Kabocha/Cauliflower/Buratta/Parm.Croutons at Salty Fig

The most ambitious new food start-up that could become your home away from home, is Salty Fig located across from the train station in downtown Western Springs.  It's clear from the breadth of its offerings that chef/owner Suzanne Florek has spent a long time developing her dream.  She was chef at Chicago’s highly regarded Spiaggia restaurant B.C. (before children) and waited until her twin boys were in college to start work on her restaurant.  

Salty Fig straddles foodservice categories catering to commuters as early as 5:30 am and offering a wide variety of mediterranean-inspired salads, sandwiches, entrees and desserts to a sit-down clientele all day long.  Returning city workers as well as mothers-on-the-run will soon be able to purchase a freshly cooked evening meal until 7pm.  Wine, beer and cocktails are available after 11:30 am.  Did I miss anything?  Oh, yes, a purchase from the store’s pantry of high quality olives, oils and prize-winning Indiana goat cheese will pep up your leftovers at home. 

In addition to closing in the early evening, Salty Fig is not open on the weekends.  Why lose out on these high-volume days?Suzanne notes on the homepage of the restaurant’s website :”the chef wishes to remain married”.  I salute these women and those I have yet to meet.  They are living a dream that connects us all.

Salty Fig's mix of daily vegetable salads.