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Hanging with the Chiliwoman is Hot Business!

by Christine Tully Aranza

IMG_1701More than two years ago when we were just starting to source plants for our greenhouse we found the seed suppliers ( Johnny’s & Seed Savers have become favorites) and greenhouses (Yay Richter’s) that would supply our starter plants. One of our true finds, was The Chiliwoman. One look at the list of peppers available on her site and we were truly hooked. A humble, diminutive women who shows her true passion as soon as you start talking Chilis with her, she has collected a catalogue of seeds that is anything but humble. Located in a college town (Bloomington, IN) she has enlisted professors, chefs and other adventurers to bring back a phenomenal variety of seeds from the four corners of the earth.

Beginning early in the season she plant what will be come a capsicum tour de force that soon springs forth a dizzying array of seedlings. We visited her in early may to pick up our order of two dozen Padron Peppers & two dozen Piri Piris. Once we entered her greenhouse however it became instantly clear we would be leaving with a lot more. The hubs did some quick math and he estimated she had about 16,000 seedlings happily growing in the Indiana sun.

The interesting thing about Chilis is that they all come from one wild species that is native to Central & South America and perhaps dating back as far as 7000 BCE, there is evidence of chilis in ancient Mexican and Aztec cultures. All coming from the same base plant leads to a certain uniformity in the look of the seedlings. They don’t reveal their true variety until mid to late season when the plants begin to show their personality and the most dramatic phase happening in the late season, when they fruit and show off with a brilliant array of shapes, colors & textures. Only then do they begin to hint at the wild variety of flavors they bring to cuisine around the globe. If you like the spicy stuff though chilis are a fascinating addition to any garden and relatively easy to grow. If you have a prolific source for seedlings you can tailor the plants you grow to your palate.

The name pepper is a bit of a misnomer thanks to Columbus who thought he had discovered black pepper a highly prized & expensive spice at the time. From there Spanish and Portuguese ships spread the cultivation of peppers throughout Europe. No doubt the heat known as Capsicum is what confused him.
Obviously, there is an expanse of chilis used in the cuisines of India and Asia as well although less is known about their evolution. In fact trying to research some of the varieties we grew this year for origin and culinary use, especially those from Asia & South America proved a challenge. The definitive chili resource book has yet to be written.

Getting back to our visit to Susan a.k.a. the Chiliwoman. As soon as we cast our eyes on her jewelbox of chilis, I asked her to put together two flats of her favorites for us to culitivate. She happily obliged and set about creating a fantastic set of flats. We divided the spoils which included varieties from the seven continents and grew some at home, some at the farm, gave a few to a fellow passionate gardening and restaurant guest (she reciprocates often). All of the plants were amazing healthy and prolific.

At the restaurant we are growning the Piri Piris (for hot sauce), Padrons(for tapas) and some Tomatillos (just cause we love them)! At home we have Korean variety such as Ku Chu, Chinese varieties; Kentang, Mongolian & Szechuan, Thai Yellow, mild Spanish Piment Mesa (yellow & red), Ferehozen Paprika and South American varieties Del Aqua, Chaco & Permavehla – cute little peppers that look like mini Butternut Squash and have a medium heat.

We have begun harvesting and added them to dishes at the restaurant, jarring, pickling, drying and grinding. How great to have our own paprika, fresh ground from our own plants! The Chiliwoman’s plants were all amazingly healthy and fared very well. Needless to say we are completely hooked and plan on expanding our chili program & research in the next growing season, our request list for 2014 is only growing now.

The great thing is you can access her plants too. If you like to road trip, it’s worth the trip. Call first or drop an email, she does a lot of local markets and events during the season. If you can’t make it she takes email orders & ships too. Hard to believe one gal can pull this off every year but she does. Susan you are one of our culinary heroes. Check out the site you won’t be sorry you did and come on in to sample some of what we have been doing with our spoils.

Chef Matt & The Kitchen Crew Visit Spence Farm

by Matt Saccaro

Feeding the heirloom pigs at Spence

As soon as we arrived at Spence farm, I was reminded of a farm described by Michael Pollan in his book ‘The Omnivores Dilemma.’ Pollan describes the ideal farm and a farmer primarily concerned with raising healthy animals, nutritious vegetables and sustainable practices to ensure that his farm would remain strong and viable for years to come just like generations before him; an alternative to the industrial feedlots and chemical laden produce that tend to fill grocery store shelves. Spence farm operates on these principles and we were fortunate enough to see it for ourselves.
After meeting Marty Travis, his son Will and wife Kris who now operate Spence Farm, I was struck by their passion for their work and the sense of responsibility to the fields, forests (they are foragers as well) and animals that that ultimately provide the food that lands on our plates. Like the farm Pollan writes about, Spence farm doesn’t rely on one item to sell every year, but constantly evolves to grow what works best on their land but also what their customers are asking for. “Diversify,” Marty will say again and again, driving the point that chefs and farmers should work together. If there is something you want them to grow, they plant it for you.
Our day began with some chores. The animals needed to be tended to, so we let the chickens and ducks out of their houses to roam around the farm (they were out and about the entire time we were there). Next we fed the pigs, an adorable breed called Guinea Hogs. This breed was originally from Guinea, Africa and was brought back from the brink of extinction in this country through the efforts of small farmers willing to raise heritage breeds of pig. We discussed the raising and breeding process as we moved the pens to different sections of the pasture so the pigs could graze on fresh vegetation.
The pasture is surrounded by four different varieties of cornfields. We tasted some of the baby corn right off the stalk. At that point, the corn is sweet and the inner leaves and ‘corn silk’ are all edible. When the plant matures, the kernels will be harvested and ground into cornmeal.
Adjacent to one of the cornfields is their wheat field. Spring wheat and Winter wheat are harvested to provide restaurants with whole wheat berries and wheat flour which they mill in one of their barns.
Our next move was into the woods. The farmers were very happy to have found some mushrooms growing on dead tree branches after a recent and very rare rain this summer. They had harvested several pounds of oyster and chicken of the woods mushrooms. We went back in for more and found some more oyster mushrooms, but also searched for a fruit called the ‘paw-paw’ indigenous to the Midwest and Northeast. Since it was such a hot dry summer, the trees suffered resulting in a low yield, but was still managed to shake about 10 lbs. of fruit off of the trees.
From there we walked through the fields where the farmers are growing several different vegetables this year, including kale, bok-choy, several varieties of potatoes and heirloom tomatoes, including one variety from the Galapagos Islands that can be traced back to Darwin’s expeditions to the area.
I am proud to work with these farmers. We are able to off our customers heritage breed meats and varieties of vegetable unavailable anywhere else. Passionate and thoughtful cooking will always come from our kitchen, but we must understand that it starts on the farm.

We’re Back….Greenhouse 2012 and more…..

So we have been out of the mix for a bit playing post holiday catch up and waiting out the winter, but Spring is upon us… least very soon so we are back and have our first full official season with the Greenhouse. We are very excited to share the full planning process. This year we are fortunate to have a few additional advisors that we have met since we opened who are helping us upgrade our soil mix and plant & propagate our seedlings. Our soil supplies were picked up from Brew N Grow (one in the city and one in Roselle) a great source for organic soils, vermiculite, kelp and other healthy additives at reasonable prices. Thanks to the mild winter we also had some herbs that survived in the greenhouse which we will be bringing back for a second season, wonderful to have this ability.

Our Soil Mix

To date we have cleared out the greenhouse and prepped some new hand made planter boxes, picked up the necessary ingredients for the recommended organic soil mix, designed for greenhouse gardening (thanks Barb & Stacy). We also have received our first two rounds of seeds for planting seedlings from our favs, Seed Savers and Johnny’s Seeds. We also have plans to order some additional herb seeds & plants from Richter’s and of course round out our selection from the Oak Park Conservatory Herb & Plant Sale in May. You can check past blog entries for more info on all of these. Some of the tomatoes and other seedlings we plant will be transferred to Cakeridge Farms (our chefs Ohio farm) for the season. We also have plans to increase our plantable space via more planter boxes inside & outside the patio.

We will also be making some visits to our farm partners in Illinois and John & I will be heading to Italy & Croatia at the end of the month for VinItaly and some other tasting and research as we move into the spring menu & wine list. We will share our experience in a special series of entries in April. We will also be sharing a lot of tips and updates from the greenhouse and more beginning in the next week or so. Glad to be back to the greenhouse and looking forward to sharing our first full season with you.

A Look Back at our Best Summer Cocktails

Med Mojito

As promised we are recapping our favorite summer cocktails inspired by the greenhouse, the Med Mojito, the Cucumber Fizz & the Berry Basil. These drinks were inspired by a combination of great herb varieties that flourished in the greenhouse and the fun products we discovered this past season. There is no doubt that muddling, infusions and hand crafted simple syrups were a big part of our summer bag of tricks. The most important thing to remember is to master the muddle. Don’t eviscerate your herbs, muddle them gently and they will yield the best flavor. Many of you will remember one or the other and we hope you will tuck these away for next year. Certainly, the leaves are falling but before we know it summer will be here again and these should provide some needed inspiration just in time to cool you off……tuck them away for a sunny day….cheers!

Med Mojito

Ingredients (makes one drink)

2.5 Oz Pyrat Rum
1 sprig Fresh Mint (we grew a special Mojito variety – lot’s of room to experiment here)
1.5 oz. Simple Syrup
Club soda


Gently muddle mint leaves with simple syrup, enough to break up leaves and release essential oils. Pour 1/2 of muddled mixture into bottom of collins glass, fill glass 1/2 way with ice. Pour in rest of mint/syrup mixture, fill to top with ice.
Add Pyrat rum, fill to top with club soda, serve!

Cucumber Fizz

This drink was inspired by the discovery of Crop Organic Cucumber Vodka & the cucumbers we grew in a hanging basket in the greenhouse. This is a sure fire summer refresher (we recommend it in a Pimm’s Cup as well).


Crop Organic Cucumber Vodka
1 sprig fresh Thyme
3 or 4 Lemon Verbena Leaves
Simple syrup
Club Soda or Ginger Beer
Persian cucumber slice (cut lenghtwise into thin strip)


Muddle lemon verbena & thyme just enough to release their essence and bring them together with the simple syrup. Pour 1/2 mixture in bottom of collins glass. Add cucumber vodka add ice to top of glass and add the rest of syrup mixture. Fill to top with your choice of club soda, ginger beer or a combination of the two. Garnish with slice of Persian Cucumber.

Berry Vodka Cooler

2 oz. House Infused Rasberry Vodka ( 1 pint OP Farmer’s Market Raspberries, vodka – infused in infusion bottle for a minimum of 72 hrs – flavor intensifies the longer you leave it in).
1 oz Jo Snow Strawberry Basil Syrup
3 leaves Fresh Basil (We used Genovese)
1 slice lime
4 oz Club soda

Berry Basil Cooler

Our next blog discussion will be all about wine and our upcoming wine dinner. After that look for a short series in November from Chef Dan Pancake sharing their culinary experiences living and working in Spain.


Gently muddle Basil leaves with Jo Snow Syrup. Just enough to bruise the leaves and release their essential oils). Place in martini shaker with ice, add house infused raspberry vodka & club soda. Stir to combine ingredients, pour into highball glass, garnish with lime and enjoy!

Readying the Greenhouse for Fall

So about a week ago we looked around and realized that it was fast becoming fall. Time to clear out the tomatoes and peppers and ready the greenhouse for fall. On a cooler night when the patio was not open I snuck out back to work on this project. In about 5 hrs or so we had cleared out about 15 tomato plants and many of the peppers. We left the Tom Thumbs and a few other tomato plants that were still producing fruit and replanted a number of the herbs. We also started some chard and winter greens and planted some mums. We are also planting some brussels sprouts outside the greenhouse in the planter that to now held basil.
Next week we will be installing a small ceramic heater and grow lights in the greenhouse to extend the season. We will see how long we can stretch things out, but are pretty sure we should be able to extend the growing season at least until December. We are also scheduling a big planning session in January to develop a grow list and design some new growing vessels for the patio. We hope to grow some flowers for a cutting garden as well as vastly increasing our grow space for herbs. We are also collaborating with a guest/local gardener who will be growing some vegetables and herbs for us in her organic garden. Her produce which we sampled this year is beautiful! We are also considering a rooftop garden or a plot at the Berwyn Community Gardens but have to see if we can take that on as well.
Overall we feel we have learned a lot from this first summer season and have had loads of fun with our first season in the greenhouse. One of the main learning lessons from this year is that it is important to tame the desire to grow everything possible in the greenhouse. Overloading it can cramp the plants and limit their production. We have also learned to deal with basic pests (the dreaded tomato worm and a few other little pests) . The easiest way to deal with them is to “squish” them either between your fingers or underfoot. You can also introduce beneficial bugs such as ladybugs but it is easiest and most efficient to do things the old fashioned way.
One of our other successes from the early season (after stutter stepping several times) is the green wall on the side of the building. We tried ivy at first but it burned. We then tried transplants of clematis from a friends garden but it failed to root. Finally we gave in and had a professional landscaper install clematis on little starter trellises and those finally took off. The key to clematis is to protect the roots with mulch and keep them moist…….the soaker hose is your friend. You also want to know what type of clematis (1, 2 or 3) you are planting as each has different pruning requirement. Some are less labor intensive than others. We plant to cover the planter boxes for the winter to protect the soil from salt and the elements and then apply some organic plant food in the spring. We have heard that if they take the first year they grow like crazy in subsequent years, time will tell but we hope that is the case.
The next blog post will include some of the cocktail recipes inspired by the greenhouse this summer. Stay tuned!

Lots of Good to Come from the Greenhouse

Cilantro & French Breakfast Radishes

Well, we just couldn’t be more pleased with our opening few weeks. It has been so nice to meet so many of our neighbors and to hear that many of you are as excited as we are that we are here, so a big thank you for all the support. With that said we have neglected our blog duties for last week but we are back with an update on everything we have growing in and around the greenhouse as well as an update on the mural and the patio ETA.
Also I know many of you have asked about signage and it should be installed by this Friday, until then, you know where we are!

It is exciting to see many of our plant begin to bear fruit. Lots of the tomatoes are flowering and/or fruiting and the peppers as well. We also have loads of herb and veg seedling that we plan to transplant to a friends beds to keep us supplied with additional herbs for the rest of the season. The greenhouse has proved to be invaluable in providing some climate stasis for our plants which have been trying to keep up with the crazy weather patterns of this season. To date our only major challenge was dealing with some aphids on a cucumber plant and some arugula. This is what we discovered was best, isolate the affected plant (ie: get it out of the greenhouse. Do not try soapy water on the leaves (it will burn them) introduce ladybugs (they can deal with the problem in a fashion that only mother nature can create) or use a mild organic pesticide and then allow the afflicted plant to rest and hopefully recover. Water and proper feeding will help.

We are really looking forward to using our tomatoes and peppers in the coming months. At present we have 18 varieties of heirlooms, 10 different varieties of peppers, a number of herbs, fennel, lettuces, caper bushes, a lemon tree, zucchini, cucumber and a Ponderosa lemon tree that is growing by leaps and bounds from the little seedling we purchased back in may. The pear mint & Kaliteri Oregano plants have begun to flourish and we look forward to using them in the second half of the season.

We also have a handmade pasta class coming up on July 16th at noon. Participants will learn how to make dough, use a pasta roller, cut noodles and fill a ravioli. All capped off with lunch and wine. Give us a call at 708-775-8122 if you would like to attend or email us at

Our patio is slated to open in a week or two and we hope to introduce weekend brunch in August. It’s shaping up to be a fun and busy summer! If you haven’t been in yet we hope to see you soon!

A Little Story About Collaboration

[dropcap1]S[/dropcap1]o we all know that no large project gets done without the generous help of lots of folks. We thought the story of how our bar and tabletops are being constructed was no exception and pretty interesting to boot. With that in mind and by way of letting you all know we really are getting close to opening (we have tables!) this post is devoted to that tale.
Throughout our construction phase on this project, we have tried to used sustainable and repurposed materials wherever possible. We have had pretty good success in finding some of our lighting, our tabletops and bases, other finishing items and design pieces and even some bar ware in this fashion. Most of the refinishing of smaller pieces we did ourselves, but when it came to the carpentry we knew to throw in the towel and seek help elsewhere. This is the story of those devoted souls that made our vision for the interior really come to life.

Unloading the Ash at the woodshop

The table tops and bar tops for the restaurant were crafted from wood graciously made available to us by our Chef’s family and hails from their farm in Ohio. The tables tops are constructed from vintage ash wood from fallen trees that had been collected from their property over the years. The bar (which is also almost finished) has been constructed from vintage poplar collected in the same fashion. The trees were rough cut and stored for future use in a big barn on their property. Lumber in this condition is not like the wood you see at Home Depot. It needs to be hand planed (evened out), custom cut piece by piece and biscuits (small joiners that fit between the wood) must be used to fuse the individual slabs of wood together. Mind you, we knew next to nothing about this process at the beginning of our project, w only knew we wanted to used reclaimed wood. Now, we speak carpenterease pretty well. Any of you who have done a big improvement project likely know what I am referring to, watching your crew work requires many of us urbanites to learn to speak “builder’s English” with all that entails.

One of the things that we definitely learned more about was the character and colors of these vintage woods. Ash for example, such as that used for our tabletops, is a very hard wood and has some lovely, blonde & honey toned color variations. We love the natural color and decided that we would have them finished with a natural clear coat, the craftsmanship and natural durability of the wood ensured that these tops will last a very long time. Poplar has deeper color changes, but again we loved the natural character and finished as is. It too will likely wear well gaining more character with age.

Mennonite Woodshop

The table tops were built by a group of Mennonites from the Ohio River Valley that have done work for many in the area for years. Their expert craftsmanship of the table tops cannot be understated, especially when you consider that all the work they do is by hand, with no help of modern power tools or electricity. Their wood shop is outfitted with all manner of vintage tools that allow them to get the job done. When the table tops arrived with Chef Dan from his weekend home at the farm, we were blown away by the simple beauty of what had been created. We will let you judge for yourself, but we just love them. This weekend we will be receiving the two remaining tables which are long communal tables that they are building for us as I write this post.

The Finished Product

The bar is another story. It has been designed and crafted all on site by our brother in law, who is a custom home builder. He has been tremendously generous to take on this project and has labored for the past few weeks, cutting, planing and biscuiting wood on site as he built out the bar to our exact dimensions. He is still working to finish it this week but you will all see it soon and again we think it is just delicious. We are heading into the last few weeks of pre-opening hoopla and can’t wait to show you all the finished product. We hope that when you dine with us these little stories of how it all comes together, enrich your experience. See you soon!

Spring Has Sprung….Local Community Gardens, Herb Sales & More….

This week we are focusing on the larger local food picture. Through our Greenhouse Project and the blog, we have connected with loads of locals who embody the urban farm spirit. It seems that Berwyn, Forest Park and Oak Park each have unique offerings to help fledgling urban gardeners get a leg up on the local movement. Both Berwyn and Forest Park are launching amped up Community Garden programs this year and Oak Park is already known for its Farmer’s Market. Also, what has become an annual annual tradition for our home garden, the Oak Park Conservatory’s Annual Herb & Plant sale. In this entry we get in depth with our local gardening brigade and bring you the highlights of the upcoming season and details on opportunities to participate in volunteer initiatives, claiming your own plot, classes, sales and more. Oh, and we are still working at breakneck speed to open our doors to you soon.

As a Berwyn business focused on such things, we were thrilled to here about the expanded community garden initiative headed by local businessman Jose Ramirez in conjunction with The Berwyn Park District. Their goal is simple, to create, support and promote community gardening within the City of Berwyn, IL. The partnership between the Park District and the Community Gardens Project is designed to help develop and maintain plots of land that will be made available to Berwyn residents. The residents will be able to rent out these plots seasonally for their gardening needs. Contact information and forms to acquire a plot are available via the organizations Facebook page which can be found here. The gardens are located at Serenity Park (26th and Wesley) and are about 1/2 rented for the season, so if you are interested act now!

We have also been fortunate enough to have met by Debbie Kong, a supporter of our greenhouse initiative, who is heading the St. John’s Community Garden in conjunction with the school, parish leadership and ideally the larger Forest Park Community. Debbie is wholly qualified to lead this initiative as she will complete the Master Gardener program at U of I Extension this May. She has also been traveling and training teachers and healthcare workers how to set up gardens, build, manage and sustain them and of course evangelizing the many benefits of urban gardening. She is passionate about her work and quite inspirational. (more…)

Plants for the Greenhouse – Round 1

Botanical Plate for Caper Bush

[dropcap1]W[/dropcap1]e are back. After a longer than anticipated hiatus that involved lots of drywall dust and late nights, getting to the home stretch with the restaurant. However, that doesn’t mean that we haven’t been on plant patrol! We have continued to order cool seeds and plant for the greenhouse and the patio. The greenhouse should be in place in the next week or so and then we can bring you some live shots of it coming together. In the meantime we thought we would share some of our cool finds arriving in a few days from Richter’s. They are another great online resource for herbs in particular, seeds & plants.

Richter’s is a nursery located in Canada, so you really want to plan ahead and ensure that you only need to place one order. This is our first time ordering from them as well so we will see what condition the plants are in when they arrive, but they have some great varieties we haven’t found elsewhere. They offer both organic and regular seeds and plants and have a really cool section called Seed Zoo, which showcases heirloom varieties of rare legumes, fruits and veggies from locales in Italy, Africa and other places. We are looking into the Italian legumes a little more to see how they might fare in Ohio River Valley soil at Cakeridge (our chefs farm). (more…)

Sustainable Seafood 101

Seafood Watch

[dropcap1]A[/dropcap1]s the hood is being hung and the drywall goes up on the walls, we wanted to take a moment out to discuss sustainable seafood. We all know the Midwest has plenty of freshwater fish but when it comes to what we consume much of that comes from the oceans. Place your average Midwesterner in front of the seafood counter or a restaurant menu and we are a lot less confident about which items might be sustainable. While we may not all seek the briny goodness of the sea, for those of you who do we hope you will find the following information helpful.

Before discussing the the informative sources available, we would like to address the question of which type of fish is “best”. There is a lot of discussion about farm raised vs. wild caught, etc. This is where, in our opinion, research & personal choice must come into play. To decide what your own criteria is, getting informed is key.

First, let’s take a gander at the word sustainable. Distilled to the simplest explanation, it refers to the ability of a species to endure and be productive. In other words, we can reasonably consume such species, without damaging their ability to reproduce and thrive or significantly damage their ecosystem (other creatures who may rely on them for food or vice versa, keeping populations in check). With that said, sustainability is an evolving thing, with the ebb and flow of nature and our impact on it. This ever changing set of circumstances warrants that we have some reliable sources to obtain such info easily . Fortunately, in a world of Apps your answers are only as far away as the nearest smartphone or iPad. If you want to explore the concept of seafood sustainability there are many options for help. (more…)