You'll know the products at Old Town Oil are fresh - because you'll watch it being bottled.
So, it's your turn to host the big holiday meal. You think you're prepared: you've taken the cooking classes, even gotten your karma in order by volunteering in a soup kitchen. But there's one more thing you need to do to ensure a successful celebration: shop!
"Any chef will tell you that to make the best food, you must start with the freshest, highest quality ingredients," says Tracy Kellner, of Provenance Food & Wine. "I'm a firm believer that you can taste the difference, and although you can sometimes make substitutions for ingredients, the end result is better when you go for quality."
But what are these magic ingredients and where can you get them? We asked the folks at some of Chicago's most respected specialty shops for their guidance.
Tracy Kellner, Provenance Food & Wine
Kellner's store is full of delicious, hard to find, fine ingredients. Her pick for the must-have ingredient to create that perfect holiday spread? BLiS Bourbon-Barrel Aged Syrup and BLiS 9-year Double Solera Maple Sherry Vinegar for sides like brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes and gravy.
"BLiS is a handcrafted line of syrups, vinegars and salts using the best ingredients available; only 'real' ingredients go into these items. They are produced in small batches and unlike any other maple syrup or sherry vinegar you'll ever try," she says. "The syrup is aged for one year in used bourbon barrels, which imparts a lot of brown spice and a wonderful fragrance; the sherry vinegar is aged in maple-cured bourbon barrels utilizing the time-consuming and labor-intensive solera method."
John Dine, Old Town Oil
"The single most important aspect to successful cooking and baking is the ingredients," Dine says. "If you cheat on ingredients, the food will always suffer."
For your baking, try using extra virgin olive oil as a substitute for other oils or even butter. Its health benefits outweigh most competitors and it provides moistness. Other suggestions include 18-year-old aged balsamic vinegar, Tuscan herb oil for bread dipping, red apple balsamic and walnut oil. While you'd likely get tossed out of a traditional grocery store for "tasting" an olive oil, at Old Town Oil you are encouraged to give your palate a delightful tour.
Patty Erd, Spice House
Fresh spices might not seem important, but one whiff of the interior of the Spice House will change your mind. Take cinnamon, for example - a necessity for all holiday cooks. The Spice House grinds its cinnamon weekly, sometimes as often as three times weekly, so it's always as fresh as possible. There's no end to the culinary inspiration you'll find once you enter its doors.
"When you are cooking your holiday meals for the people you love most in the whole world, don't you want to make only the best tasting dishes?" Erd asks. "The quality of your ingredients directly impacts the quality of the finished meal." Erd's top recommendations include the Madagascar Double Strength Bourbon Islands Vanilla, mulled wine spice, poultry stuffing seasoning, nutmeg and pumpkin pie spice.
Didem Tapban, Ta-Ze
Tapban recommends approaching your shopping with an open mind and letting the ingredients speak to you.
"In fact the finest and highest quality ingredients should be the inspiration behind your cooking," she says. "I suggest simply going to the market and find the best that it offers, be guided by your senses - most importantly, try to taste before you purchase, and ask questions - and let the ingredients become the base for your cooking adventures."
Her recommendations include a good sea salt, distinct spices like cumin, ginger and coriander and a great olive oil.
Pamela Fitzpatrick, executive baker, Fox & Obel
While Fox & Obel doesn't specialize in one type of ingredient, it's an excellent place to shop for a little of everything. And, if you get overwhelmed by all the choices and have a culinary breakdown, you can just pick up anything pre-made here and pass it off as your own.
"Ingredients make the difference in baking; not just by using fresh market fruits, but by using quality chocolates, vanilla and high-fat butter," Fitzpatrick says. "It's important to realize, though, that quality ingredients must be handled with respect; they will absolutely make any bread or pastry better, but fundamental baking skills are also required to allow their exceptional qualities to sing."