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Comfort in the Kitchen

Whipping up a country meal involves a lot of potatoes.
Monday Feb 06, 2006.     By Jennifer Wennig
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

The extent of my work experience in or near a kitchen is limited to a couple of nights washing dishes at a bingo hall during summer between 10th and 11th grades. Two sink sessions were more than enough. Shocking.

One later summer, I promoted myself to diner hostess. This time I was fired. It was unsurprising, considering the amount I owed in broken dishes nearly exceeded my total wage.

Socially, I've been known to whip up a lovely and tasty spread of dip, olives, cheeses and all the frozen finger foods Costco offers. Last Thanksgiving John and I made a super-size festive meal that provided five evenings of leftovers. We earned a gold star (award by us) for preparing nearly every dish from scratch (we don't need to comment on timing and flavor).

Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy time in the kitchen. But I rarely make dinner for more than, well, the two of us. And even then my repertoire isn't that diverse.

With wifedom approaching, it was time I learned to make a traditional supper for my man after his long workday. Now that's funny.

But seriously, a little culinary guidance would help. A comfort food gal, I was hardly interested in fusion, tapas or food with foam. Trendy wasn't the flavor I was seeking.

And I found just the opposite at the Patchwork Quilt Country Inn, nestled in the heart of Indiana's Amish community. Before visiting I spoke with Carlene, the Inn's restaurant manager, about my country-cooking yearnings. "I'd really like to roll-up my sleeves and help. Put me to work," I recall saying. And, did I work.

Upon arrival, I was introduced to the kitchen staff, an ensemble of senior ladies who proved themselves to be a group of sweet, hardworking, no-nonsense ladies who could turn out a delicious meal with the best of them.

I donned an apron, washed my hands and, well, sat on stool. I think the sweet smell of baking bread briefly prompted a mental food coma, but I was here to do, not watch. I jumped up next to Susanna, who was making cinnamon rolls, gently took the rolling pin and said, "Let me help." Under Susanna's tutelage I rolled the dough to an even thickness.

Like any Chicago restaurant, Patchworks's kitchen was bustling. One minute rolling dough, the next making escalloped pineapple. Scalloped potatoes I know. Escalloped anything, I'm confused. And, pineapple? Barely a sous chef in this kitchen, I wasn't about to challenge the sensibility of such a concoction.

In a mixing bowl the size of a kiddie pool—we were cooking for 70—I mixed eggs, sugar, salt, milk, pineapple, bread and melted butter. Using a measuring cup you could bathe a baby in, I scooped even amounts into two baking dishes.

Declaring, "I'm done," there was no time for glory. Treva, the kitchen drill sergeant, handed me a fantastically stained, burned and weathered recipe card for sage dressing. Reading it, I realized that in this country kitchen, dressing is what gets stuffed in a bird, not drizzled on a salad. But here there was only time for cooking, not protesting.

Next up: the least pleasurable task of my spin in this kitchen. Not yet a master of the perfect mashed potatoes, I looked forward to making this country meal staple under Treva's guidance. But I wasn't anticipating peeling 50 potatoes. No less with a knife. Apparently, kitchen gadgets aren't so country.

My poor hand strained and looking a bit like a claw, I moved on to soup. Over the sweltering stove (hey, a facial steam), I whisked together the roux (a mixture of flour and butter) then added chicken stock, hot water and this odd chicken paste. But what do I know? My soup comes from cans. Stir, stir, stir. Voila, my first soup base from scratch was ready for hosting vegetables.

The hour was nearing 6 p.m. My feet and back were aching. What was I thinking when I chose to wear my Biviel shoes from City Soles instead of sneakers? Sneakers didn't go with my pants. Pathetic, pampered girl. I took off my apron and headed to the dining room. Already crowded with hungry patrons, I snaked my way around the buffet taking glee in knowing I actually made that pineapple thing folks were scooping up.

I followed suit, dining on mashed potatoes, escalloped pineapple (actually quite tasty), sage dressing, the Inn's famous buttermilk, pecan chicken and a warm, light and airy dinner roll.

Dee-lish. Damn, I'm good.

Traffic Jammed
Order The Patchwork Quilt Country Inn Cookbook (available on its website) and host a Sunday evening supper for your friends. The flavor of these dishes will delight. Just don't reveal how much butter, whole milk, real sour cream and white flour they'll be ingesting.

For an urban-based dose of country-style comfort food you can't go wrong with the macaroni & cheese, mashed potatoes and apple pie with cinnamon ice cream at Stanley's Kitchen & Tap.


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