Cooking the Books with Christina Bello
As tax season fades from our memories for another 360 days, it was perhaps apt that I had a chance to speak with the founder of the Cooking the Books book club, Christina Bello about the good things in life. By day, she works in Communications at Northwestern University but by night (and weekend) she is a gardener, cook, volunteer and food blogger extraordinaire, sharing her vision of a world that is more connected because of the magical power of food to bring people together. But Christina is not a trained chef or a farmer, in fact, she’s not even sure if she is a foodie. She is just a Chicagoan who found her city ‘family’ through the mutual interest of being involved with food production, preparation and consumption. As a result, Christina’s life is fuller, she’s made good friends and she has a deep freezer and pantry full of homegrown goods should the zombie apocalypse ever reach the shores of Lake Michigan.
We sat down over the best kimchee fries I’ve had yet at Big & Little’s last weekend to talk about Christina’s food history and her food philosophy.
When and why did you start your blog My Homespun Home? I’ve been blogging since 2012. I was looking for something creative to do outside of my day job, and I loved food and farmers markets, and I wanted a record of what I was cooking.
Do you have a food philosophy? The tagline that I came up with for my blog was ‘Home, Made with Love’. It’s kind of cheesy due to the punctuation, but I think there is an interesting relationship between people and food and sharing food with friends and family. That’s what I want to get people to do. I don’t think it necessarily matters what you are making. When you make the simplest salad and share it with people, there’s kind of a bond that’s created and I think that’s the most important thing and that’s what I got growing up. Family dinners are very important events and though my parents were divorced, they both valued us sitting down together for a meal and talking about our day. It’s about taking a few minutes to sit down and break bread with someone and ask ‘How are you?’ I don’t know why, but I think it’s a very different thing doing that over food than in any other setting.
On your blog you mention seasonal food, farmer’s markets, and localvores. Is this something you learned or were you raised to grow your own, shop and cook that way? I talked to my dad about this recently. When he was a kid growing up on a farm that’s just what you did because you didn’t have any other option. Dad grew up in Ohio. He is the Italian half of my family— and grandma had a huge veggie garden and canned her own food. When I was a kid growing up, we had a big garden in our back yard. As a kid you don’t really know what that means until you look back and realize that not everyone went out in to their backyard to pick lettuce and tomatoes for their BLT. It’s finally coming back around to that as people are learning to think about where their food comes from, not to mention that it can be more financially viable than going to the grocery store. Plus, the stuff you get at the grocery store isn’t great quality. So, the localvore trend hits the foodie target audience but it also makes food more accessible to a lot of income ranges.
Both my parents taught me how to cook. My mom taught me how to try new things, experiment with recipes and invite people into your home. From my dad, I got the importance of cooking for your family and the appreciation of a good tomato. Which is funny because as a kid I hated tomatoes.
What type of cooking do you enjoy most? I love cooking seasonally. I get so excited this time of year. I went to the Green City Market last week and it’s still inside, but it was just nice enough that they had a few tables outside and I’m starting to see the lettuces and it’s like, finally! I only get through the winter because I can some food, and I have a chest freezer that I thought I’d never fill and then 2 days later it was full. I also love to grill all summer.
Favorite Chicago restaurant? I love Mexique. Its Mexican food prepared with French techniques and the guy who runs it was on Top Chef. I really like the Northman. It’s a new cider bar in Lincoln Square. For divey food there is Patio Beef in Edgewater run by a little old Greek couple.
Favorite cooking utensil? Lately it has been a pressure cooker which my mom got me. I had used a slow cooker but I work during the day and the timing is always weird—like cook for 6 hours, well I’m not home yet when it is ready! I also have a knock-off of the Big Green Egg charcoal grill. You can smoke food on it or grill, and it’ll maintain between 200 and 900 degrees. I love that thing so much.
How did you get the idea to start the cookbook club Cooking the Books and how does it work? Last fall, I saw an article on Serious Eats about a cookbook club and why this was sort of the future of dinner parties. At the same time, I had read an article in the New York Times about the death of the dinner party and why no one does them anymore. One of the reasons was because no one thinks their home is Pinterest worthy—as if the food and the home need to be perfect—and I thought that was kind of silly. Going back to my food philosophy—a meal should be comfortable and with friends or family because it’s in a home. In Chicago a lot of the food people I follow on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter post a lot about going out to restaurants, which I like doing, but there is something different about making meals at home and cooking. So, once a month we pick a book and a date and everyone makes something from the cookbook and brings it. This month is Deborah Madison’s “The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone” We’re going kind of old school. We’ve done Dorie Greenspan’s “Around My French Table”, “the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook”, and “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan”.
We started with 6 people at the first one. There were a couple of people from food blogging who came and a couple of people from the food swap I go to and a couple of friends. It striking how quickly we all bonded. The interesting thing about that first meeting was that I had picked a French cookbook because I had been to Paris and I absolutely loved it. It also happened to be French Restaurant week in Chicago for the first time. One of the women who emailed saying she’d like to join was from France. The day before the first meeting was when the attacks in Paris happened. So Sarah, the French person who attended, had spent the last 24 hours talking to her family and trying to figure out what was going on and she said that she was so glad it wasn’t cancelled because spending time with friends talking, drinking wine and eating would have been exactly what she would have been doing in France while trying to process all that had happened.
What has been so great coming out of this cookbook club is that I don’t think we would have formed the kinds of friendships we formed so quickly if we had done it in any other setting than in someone’s home over food. Definitely not if we had just met in a restaurant to have dinner.
Any advice for people who might want to start their own cookbook club? Now we have about 12 people, which is the perfect amount. We didn’t cap the size of the group, but we did cap the amount of people who can attend each month to 12. After the first meeting, everyone wanted to make 2 things or double the recipe and we had way too much food. So now we say you can only bring one dish. A lot of the people who are involved are really in to food and love to cook but there are also people who want to learn more about cooking so it’s like, try one recipe, and then come to dinner and try 11 other things. That way it’s not intimidating to beginning cooks. I think that’s important.
Do you think Chicago has a healthy relationship with food? I do and I think it’s an interesting relationship. Chicago has a big food culture and it ranges from the best divey taco place with grandma in the back using the recipes she has from home to the most fantastic high-end restaurants and I love that range and it’s a necessary range.
What is your reaction to the word foodie? I don’t have any objections to it. The only thing I don’t like is that it feels exclusionary. I mean, if you aren’t obsessed with where your chicken came from than you’re not a foodie or food is not important to you. I don’t think that’s the case. I don’t like when the term is applied to make it seem like its only for a small core of people. But I also don’t want it to be applied in a derogatory way towards people who do care about where their food comes from. That’s also a very valid and important thing to do, to help raise concern for how our food is produced. The food resources in Chicago are an incredible study of who has access to what and why. It’s so interesting to me that there are these food deserts and who gets to have access to fresh food. Peterson Garden Project is helping with that as they partner with local food pantries and they have dedicated beds called Grow to Give.
Tell us about the work you’ve done with the Peterson Garden Project? The Peterson Garden Project is an incredible organization. They have a community garden and a community cooking school at the Broadway Armory. They also have cool and warm weather crop sales and bake sales which I volunteer at. The community garden I’m at is in Edgewater, but they have 7 community gardens in the city where you can have a city plot (4×8 bed) to grown your own vegetables. I also taught a cooking class there because last spring I went to Barcelona and while I was there I took a paella class from this woman in her home. I had taken a few cooking classes from Peterson Garden Project before and the woman who runs the kitchen suggested I teach a class. So I taught a paella class and got 24 people signed up. I was so nervous but as soon as I got in there and started talking and figured out how to make cooking this dish approachable for people, I relaxed. One woman came up to me after class and said she had a paella pan that had been sitting in her cupboard for 3 years and now she could use it. That is exactly what I want to say with blogging and this club. I want to tell people, ‘You can do this. Everyone can do this!’
A recipe from Christina’s blog:
Smoked Salmon with Honey and Peppercorns
I used to love my mom’s summer parties because it meant she’d make this salmon, and it’s become my own favorite dish to serve friends in summer—I always double it so I have plenty of leftovers. If you don’t have a smoker, don’t worry—this can be made with a gas or charcoal grill, or even cooked inside on a little stovetop smoker.
1 1/2 pound skin-on salmon filet, about 1 inch thick, pinbones removed (ask the person at the fish counter to do this for you)
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
3 tablespoons kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon crushed allspice
1 dried bay leaf
3/4 cup water
1-2 small handfuls of apple wood chips for smoking (cherry or other sweet fruit woods also work)
3 tablespoons mixed peppercorns (ideally green, white, and pink; regular black peppercorns are too harsh)
2 teaspoons honey
In a small saucepan, combine brown sugar, salt, ginger, allspice, bay leaf, and water. Cook over medium heat just until sugar and salt dissolve, set brine aside to cool. Check salmon for any remaining bones. Place salmon and brine in a plastic zip-top bag and seal the bag tightly. Place the bag in a dish to catch any leaks, and refrigerate at least 4 hours or up to 24 hours, during which you can flip the bag a few times so the fish soaks up the brine evenly.
Set your grill up for low indirect cooking; the inside temperature of the grill should be around 180-190 F before you add the fish, or follow the instructions for your stovetop smoker. Wrap wood chips loosely in foil and punch a few holes in the top of the packet for smoke to escape.
Soak peppercorns in 1/2 cup hot tap water for 15 minutes.
Remove salmon from brine and rinse very well; discard brine. Pat the salmon dry and place, skin-side down, on a piece of foil. Drizzle honey over salmon and rub it evenly over the fish (it will want to stick more to your fingers than the fish, but do your best). Drain peppercorns and sprinkle them evenly over the salmon, pressing lightly so they stick. Roll up the edges of the foil, keeping as much of the fish exposed as possible.
At the grill, place the packet of wood chips over the smoldering charcoal (or low flame on a gas grill). Place salmon on the side of the grill opposite the charcoal, and close the lid. After a few minutes, you should start seeing a thin wisp of smoke coming from the top grill vent.
Maintain the grill temperature around 170 degrees. Smoke salmon for about 30 minutes, then check the temperature of the fish at its thickest point. Continue smoking until the salmon is 145 degrees, about 20 to 30 more minutes.
Salmon can be served warm (honestly, it’s hard not to eat it immediately) or refrigerated for up to 2 days. Serve with bread and crackers, cream cheese, and red onions as an appetizer.
Joan, it’s funny you mention your Sicilian grandfather. My dad’s from-Italy Italian grandfather had a huge garden with everything you mentioned, but wine grapes instead of figs–a bit of a novelty (and I’m sure requiring a good amount of fussing) for the Ohio climate! Though our plot sizes have shrunk over the generations, it’s cool to think I’m the fourth generation (at least) in my family to grow a vegetable garden 🙂
And if you have any questions about starting a cookbook club, send me an email! Happy to help anyone get started, it’s been so much fun.
I enjoyed reading this article so much that I want to start a club like this! We do have a garden and a share in a community garden in Ogden Dunes. I always loved working in the garden next to my Sicilian-born father while growing up in northwest Indiana. Not only did he have tomatoes, peppers, zucchini and eggplant, but a fig tree that produced many figs. He had to fight with the birds when the figs ripened and go through a lot of work to protect it from winter temperatures! Thanks for telling me about this online magazine. Joan Meister
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