Daily Herald

Hearty food from the heartland satisfies him

Posted Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Is there a Midwestern cuisine? Some coastal types impugn this region's culinary style as bland, but those who know better point to the rich, intrinsic flavors of heartland foodstuffs.

Stephen Langlois was one of the pioneering chefs who brought local food to national attention during the height of the contemporary awakening to American cuisine when he opened the groundbreaking Prairie in Printers Row.

Under Langlois from 1986 to 1997, the restaurant in the Hyatt on Printers Row hotel showcased the best Midwestern ingredients with a menu of strictly regional fare - even steering clear of ocean fish - well before "eat local" became a culinary catchphrase.

The chef's techniques are so memorable that Cleveland Plain Dealer Food Editor Joe Crea was still writing about Prairie's signature duck dish last year. Langlois' 1990 cookbook, "Prairie: Cuisine from the Heartland" (Contemporary Books), is out of print but used copies can still be found through online booksellers.

Before Prairie, Langlois, a graduate of the hospitality program at Triton College in River Grove and the Culinary Institute of American in Hyde Park, N.Y., worked at the erstwhile Chicago restaurants Cafe D'Artagnan and Maxim's and the Pulitzer Hotel in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Since leaving Prairie, the Northbrook resident has been executive chef of the Hyatt Lodge in Oak Brook, where he oversees the casual American Water's Edge restaurant and the Mediterranean Piazza, as well as the banquet kitchens and catering for Hamburger University at the adjacent headquarters of McDonald's Corp.

How did you become interested in cooking? When I was a kid, we lived in Boston and had a summer home in Maine. We moved here when I was 12 years old, but we still went to Maine every summer, all the way till I was 18. All my friends had jobs in restaurants. I was kind of bored hanging out on the beach by myself, so I'd go and visit them. Eventually, one of the restaurant owners said, "Steve, as long as you're here...." The career kind of chooses you.

You started out in restaurants with a European focus, right? Cafe D'Artagnan was casual French in Lincoln Park. Maxim's (now a private meeting facility) was a replica of a place they had in Paris. I worked for Jean Joho there. It's funny. I got homesick in Amsterdam and came home and I wound up working in a completely European kitchen. I was the only American there.

So why the Midwestern focus at Prairie? I always had a keen interest in American regional cuisine. When we opened Prairie, California cuisine was really going. The Midwest was coming of age.

How do you define Midwestern cuisine? The short answer ... think of Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey and cranberry sauce and wild rice and apple pie. It's hearty American fare.

Tell us about your current job: I'm executive chef for the Hyatt Lodge out here at McDonald's headquarters. We have two restaurants and we cater over 100 weddings a year. The grounds are absolutely beautiful. Plus we do a lot of corporate events and provide all the food to Hamburger University. A lot of our business - 70 to 80 percent - is McDonald's, but we're open to the public, too. The hotel is owned by McDonald's. A lot of people don't know this, but Hyatt is strictly a management company.

Do you do much cooking? I do quite a bit, especially helping some of the cooks on the banquets. I try to cook as much as I can, especially when a VIP is here. I cook really a lot of everything. Today, I'm doing more Italian food, Mediterranean and trying out fresh new ideas for our banquets.

Tell us about this recipe: Prairie Corn Chowder with Andouille Sausage, Cheese and Popcorn. This was a recipe I used to do at Prairie, but now I do it with andouille sausage.

Try this at home or at the Hyatt Lodge, 2815 Jorie Blvd., Oak Brook, (630) 990-5800.

Prairie Corn Chowder with Andouille Sausage, Cheese and Popcorn

Posted Wednesday, January 17, 2007

1 bay leaf
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 sprigs fresh tarragon
2 sprigs fresh parsley
2 large russet potatoes, peeled
2 tablespoons bacon fat or cooking oil
3 1/2 cups corn kernels (fresh, frozen or canned and drained), divided
1 medium carrot, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 medium white onion, peeled and thinly sliced
3 cups chicken broth
1 cup whipping cream
Salt and black pepper to taste
1 roasted fresh red bell pepper or canned pimento, finely diced
1 large russet potato, peeled and cut in 1/4-inch cubes
1/4 pound andouille sausage, cut in 1/4-inch cubes

4 medium acorn squash or baby pumpkins
1 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella, provolone or white cheddar cheese
1/2 cup popped regular or cheese popcorn
2 tablespoons minced green onions

For the soup: Tie the bay leaf, thmye, tarragon and parsley loosely in cheesecloth to form a bouquet garni. Slice one of the potatoes thinly. Dice the other into 1/4-inch cubes.

Heat the bacon fat in a 6 to 8-quart heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the sliced potato, 2 cups corn, the carrot and the onion. Cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes. Do not let the vegetables brown — reduce the heat if necessary.

Add the chicken broth, cream, bouquet garni, salt and pepper. Bring the soup to a boil and reduce the heat to simmer. Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes over low to medium heat until all the vegetables are tender, cooked through and very soft. Remove and discard the bouquet garni.

Puree the soup using a food processor, blender or a hand blender. Return the soup to the pot and add the peppers, diced potato, the remaining corn and the andouille sausage. Simmer over medium heat, uncovered, for another 10-15 minutes, until the potato cubes are soft and tender. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

To serve: While the soup simmers, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare the squash or pumpkins by slicing off the tops and scraping out all the seeds and stringy membranes. Place the squash on a baking sheet and cook them for about 10 minutes until heated throughout (it is not necessary to cook the squash but they must be warmed throughout).

Ladle the soup into each squash. Add the cheese and return briefly to the oven to melt the cheese. Garnish with the popcorn and green onions. Serve immediately.

Serves four.

Chef Stephen Langlois, Hyatt Lodge, Oak Brook