Music Legend Steve Albini Wants to Know Why His Carrots Look So Freaky

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“When the garden is in full flight, nothing gives me more pleasure than walking through it and picking out stuff to eat.” Photo: Brittany Sowacke

Steve Albini has been one of the underground rock world’s most influential figures since the ’80s. His fiercely independent (and controversial) post-hard-core band Big Black, whose guitar riffs were as sharp as knives, was featured in the classic Our Band Could Be Your Life. Since 1992, he’s played with Shellac. But he became most famous for his prolific work as a recording engineer, mainly at his Electrical Audio studio in Chicago (where he lives), including with seminal artists such as Nirvana, PJ Harvey, and Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. Then a few years back, Albini delighted the internet with a food blog about what he cooks for his wife, Heather Whinna. An avid cook, his interest in food is very interesting to others: His blog made the Saveur ‘100’ list, he appeared on Parts Unknown, and his obsession with a particular spice rub merited a whole write-up. Albini hasn’t updated his cooking blog since 2013, so Grub wanted to know, What’s he cooking for Heather these days? Find out in this week’s Grub Street Diet.

Thursday, June 28
At work, I had a fluffy coffee; it’s a cinnamon-maple-syrup latte. I drink at least one fluffy every day that I’m in the studio. It’s a kind of house specialty here and I’m fond of them. I don’t drink coffee away from work, not sure why. I’ve always had a nice espresso setup at the studio, never at home.

Also, an A&W root beer. All root beer is delicious. I mean, Barq’s sucks; it’s awful, so I prefer not to think of it as root beer, but literally any other root beer is delicious. I have my favorites, of course, but A&W is root beer, so it’s delicious.

Normally, I don’t eat during the day while I’m working. It makes me sluggish and lazy, so I wait until I’m done, sometimes late at night, and cook a big meal, and that’s what I eat for the day. This habit has become so routine that I now only eat one meal a day, in the evening, then I go to bed. I’m sure it’s bad for me in a health-type way, but I’m so used to it now that I don’t think I could change if I wanted to.

My wife, Heather, is on a short trip to Michigan with her friends Emily and Susan, so I’m on my own and I can make what I want. Normally, I ask H-Bomb — I call her that sometimes. She hates it — what she’s hungry for and I make that. I’m not picky, and I like making food for other people.

Have lately been making puréed greens: whatever looks good from the garden, sautéed with some onions, celery, and a little handful of almonds, then puréed in the blender with a little yogurt or sour cream. We have three kinds of kale, and today it was in great shape, so I used about half kale, the rest being a smattering of different herbs (basil, parsley, celeriac leaf, horseradish leaf, and mint) and a few chard stems. I cooked all of it in olive oil, added a splash each of soy sauce, vinegar, sriracha, water, and maple syrup. Cooked the whole deal for about 30 minutes to hydrate and soften the almonds, then blended it with some Bulgarian yogurt. I don’t know what’s up with Bulgarian yogurt, it’s quite like labneh or Greek yogurt, but I feel sorry for Bulgaria, so I buy theirs. Their roads are real fucked up.

For the big part of the meal, I took some leftover chicken thighs and simmered them in white wine with celery, apple, onion, and a diced-up perversely contorted carrot that I pulled out of the bed on a whim. Don’t know what’s up with our carrots, but they’re real freaks this year; every one so far has been gnarled and spiraled around itself like we got the seeds from Chernobyl. Tasty, though. The stock was a little weak, so I added some Vegeta, a dehydrated vegetable blend very popular in Eastern European home-cooking. It’s available in the Serbian neighborhood stores around here, and I love it for enriching stocks. There’s a fruit market called Andy’s Fruit Ranch that caters to all the ethnic identities in the neighborhood, that’s usually where I get my Vegeta.

I needed some bread for dunking, so I buttered and grilled a couple of hamburger buns. Waste not, want not.

To drink, I had some Jamaican mint tea over ice.

Friday, June 29
Went to Horseshoe Casino. I got a text from the sheriff of the poker contingent that the mixed game would be running at the Horseshoe in Hammond, Indiana, about 30 minutes away. I finished up at the studio early enough to make it down there. The Horseshoe is the best poker room in the area, and there is a $50 to $100 mixed game that runs there a couple of times a week, sometimes with battleship-class donators, but always with an agreeable mix of amateurs and professionals. When I have time to play, that’s my bread-and-butter game. I ended up having to wait over an hour to get a seat because a couple of guys were dusting-off their retirement funds and nobody wanted to get up. When I finally got in the game, I got stuck over $2,000, like it was automatic.

Four or five hours later, the game broke and somehow I finished up a couple hundred. Before heading home, I decided to eat at the delicious Foo Noodle Bar sequestered behind the high-limit Baccarat and Pai Gow tables inside the casino. The noodles at the bar are great, but I particularly like their roast duck, done in quite typical style, but exceedingly delicious. It comes with rice. Their barbecue pork bao are also delicious, but they need a little drizzle of chili sauce to really come to life. The duck needs nothing but the rice to be extremely satisfying.

Saturday, June 30
Dinner was a kielbasa potato stew with the leftover green purée. When I’m eating stag like this without Heather, I usually just grab some stuff from the garden and try to use up what’s left in the fridge and pantry. This night, that meant a Spanish onion, half a stick of kielbasa, some potatoes and celery past their prime, and a can of black beans. Made a kind of budget cassoulet — or more correctly, an absolutely typical pasta fagioli — out of all that, with some pasta shells and garnished with sour cream, chives, and herbs from the garden. It was delicious.

Walking in from the garden, I noticed the Juneberry tree was heavy with dark-purple fruit, meaning we were in Berry Week and I had better get on it. Juneberry trees display a kind of hair-trigger horniness the last week of June. The berries are pale, red, and unripe for the whole of spring, then all at once they go purple and delicious overnight, and you have to jump on it or they go to waste. I picked a heavy pint, intending to eat some over ice cream, but in the end, I wasn’t that hungry and just put them in the fridge. Juneberries (sarvisberries) aren’t the sweetest berry, but when peak ripe like this, they have a winey, mineral flavor that I really like.

Sunday, July 1
Got another text from the mixed-game wrangler and made the trek to Horseshoe Casino in Hammond. Same story. Great game. Got stuck a ton instantly, played out of it for hours, and when the game broke, I was up a couple hundred once again. Hit the noodle bar at 4 a.m., got my order of roast duck with rice and BBQ pork bao. Still delicious. Heather came home from her trip and ate a nice green salad and the leftover kielbasa stew.

I eat at restaurants once in a while with friends or while traveling, but I much prefer cooking at home or eating with friends in their homes. Certain things, like red meat for example, are routinely awful at restaurants and routinely delicious at Tim Midyett’s place. I’ve had some incredible aged steaks that set me back $100 or more at restaurants, and they’re just about as good as a typical weekend grill at Tim’s place. There’s something about making food for someone else that can’t be replaced, like having a conversation is better than listening to a lecture. I appreciate restaurant cooking, but I prefer cooking myself to ordering off of a menu, and I prefer eating with friends in any case.

Monday, July 2
At my home, I had leftover pad Thai with cauliflower. Harvested three heads of cauliflower and traded a bunch of greens for some big German white radishes from Neighbor Tina. Man, these radishes are spicy. I’m not the biggest radish consumer, but they add a bitter spiciness to salads that I like and can be a nice garnish.

Heather had gotten some Thai food delivered while I was at work, so I made a plan to augment her leftovers with the cauliflower. I have no clue where she got it from. I chopped and cleaned the cauliflower, then sautéed it with some red onion and caramelized it with a splash of maple syrup. On top of the leftover pad Thai, it was fantastic.

I love maple syrup. I use it in everything. I appreciate that it was the preferred sweetener of abolitionists, not requiring slaves like cane sugar, but I don’t favor it for political reasons, just being delicious. I use maple syrup even in savory dishes, as other people might use demi-glace or bay leaf to make something richer or more complex. I’ve had the pleasure, thanks to my Montreal concierge Howard Bilerman (of the Hotel2Tango studio there), of eating at the Au Pied du Cochon cabane à sucre, where every part of every dish on the menu is cooked with maple syrup, and it was astounding.

I left home in 1980 and started living on my own. I quickly realized I was either going to have to learn to cook or eat awful food, so I learned to cook. I think starting small out of necessity is great; learn to do one thing well, then learn another, and so on. Over time, you eventually learn techniques to deal with just about anything.

Tuesday, July 3
My meal for the day was pork stewed in wine with kale and carrots. Made the stew out of some pork chunks I got from the Harvestime Foods on Lawrence, this market near our house. They were probably the loose parts trimmed from the shoulder after removing the bone and were very cheap. Pork is great braised, so I rubbed them with Midyett Premium Rub (absolutely essential for a kitchen that cooks meat) and browned them in some rendered lard.

This is the only rub I buy. I tend to make my own rubs and such, apart from Midyett. It’s perfect. I’ve recently been on a kick of adding fenugreek to things at random, just to see, but I don’t use a lot of prepared mixes (pace Vegeta). If I need barbecue sauce, I have a big jug of Lem’s, from the eponymous temple of Chicago barbecue on 75th Street (RIP James Lemons), and I love sriracha and a few other prepared sauces, but I tend to just use individual spices and seasonings. My herbs are 100 percent from the garden until the end of the summer, then I’ll use store-bought. It’s supremely delicious and versatile. It was made for meat, but does wonders to vegetables as well. I introduced it to Brooks Headley, ex–Del Posto, currently Superiority Burger, and he’s now Tim’s biggest customer, despite running a meatless restaurant. I will happily make my own compound seasonings for other purposes, masalas for curry for example, but Midyett is a fundamental thing for me at this point, like salt and pepper.

I made a sofrito of onion, celery, and some more of our perverse carrots, sweated all that and deglazed the pan with a few glugs of white wine. Don’t remember what kind of wine, but it was the Costco house label, Kirkland. Kirkland is to the kitchen what the Acme Corporation was to Wile E. Coyote’s desert. When the pork was tender, I removed it and puréed the vegetables and pot the liquor into a nice sauce.

For sides, I braised some kale from the garden with celery, apples, and Marcona almonds, then puréed it and used that alongside the pork chunks. Cooked the carrots as I typically do — salty water to cover, splash of hot sauce, splash of maple syrup, then boil the water away until the remaining ingredients form a kind of glaze on the carrots. Very tasty. To drink, more Jamaican mint.

When the garden is in full flight, nothing gives me more pleasure than walking through it and picking out stuff to eat, so that’s my biggest influence. Most of my cooking comes from my family’s Italian tradition, and then what I’ve learned from watching better chefs on television, or talking with them in person.

Steve Albini’s Grub Street Diet