THE MAN WHO BRINGS CHICAGO PECULIAR PRODUCE: WHEN CHEFS WANT A TAMARILLO, THEY CALL TOM CORNILLE

Author: Margaret Sheridan

Date: Jan 28, 1988.

Section: FOOD GUIDE

Copyright Chicago Tribune Co. Jan 28, 1988

People's whims make Tom Cornille's day. When Mick Jagger came to Chicago last summer, the rocker with tastes for the exotic wanted a particular Japanese wild mushroom. One bewildered chef turned to Cornille, a produce wholesaler at the South Water Market, for help.

A recent visit by crooner Frank Sinatra sent a cry for fresh cherries throughout one hotel kitchen. The staff's SOS jangled Cornille's telephone. When a national food magazine phoned with a request for Asian corn (imagine corn-on-the-cob about the size of your little finger), Cornille asked "when and how many?"

The kind of fruits and vegetables the 33-year-old produce whiz sells to chefs are the ones that get arranged on plates, not spooned on. Chefs and restaurants such as Jackie's, the Everest Room, Carlos, Lawry's, Avanzare and Ambria comprise 90 percent of his business.

He works with his parents, Henry and Gertrude Cornille, in the family business, George J. Cornille and Sons Inc., 60 S. Water Market. Although they handle all types of produce from cucumbers and potatoes to dates and grapefruit, Tom specializes in the exotic ones such as pink daikon and sun- dried tangerines, bananas the color of blush, strawberry popcorn from Spain, and mushrooms that look like Ping-Pong balls covered with cream-colored angora (pom pon mushrooms from France). When the nose inhales the aroma of his green ginger, the mind is fooled by its lime perfume. What looks like super thin green onions are really Dutch leeks.

For Cornille, weird produce is more than his bread and butter. It is his passion. The excitement of discovering it, procuring it and sharing it with people who appreciate the unusual are some of the reasons why he makes two trips to the airport daily, why he can't remember his last vacation, why chefs have his home phone number and why he works ungodly hours, beginning at 1:30 a.m.

"I bet I'm the only dad who gets tucked in bed after dinner by his kids," he said. Cornille deals directly with 25 chefs and about 40 growers and foragers around the United States.

"That way, needs are better understood than if you worked through purveyors. The personal contact is satisfying. So is the education. Sometimes, the chef, grower and I will be baffled by a new seed or a variety. We'll just experiment. The grower learns what will flourish, the chef experiments in cooking, I try to discover better ways of handling and storing it. The produce business is an ongoing education."

"Tom teaches me about produce," said chef Jackie Shen, owner of Jackie's, 2478 N. Lincoln Ave. "I know the cooking side, Tom, the produce. We work together." Shen, who estimated that she's on the phone with Cornille at least four times a day, starting at 5:30 a.m., doesn't always agree with him. "Usually, it's a matter of personal taste, not information. Sometimes, he makes me so mad, I just tell him to go to hell. Then he laughs and I cool down."

"Tommy is a middleman between us (other chefs)," said Michael Carmel, executive chef of Lawry's The Prime Rib, 100 E. Ontario St. "He shares information. He keeps up with what we're doing. If I have a cooking question about some vegetable, for example, and he knows that Roland (Roland Liccioni, executive chef of Carlos in Highland Park), had the same problem but solved it, he'll put me in touch with him. "When he promises you an exclusive on something, you can count on him. He is fair. But tough. He won't sell to everyone. I have seen him cut people off, no matter how much they're willing to pay."

A small, trim man with a sturdy build, quick moves and a nervous laugh, he springs between crates and bags of onions, scooping up handfuls of herbs for his visitor to sniff. He traces the plant's name back to Latin, French and Italian, advises a cooking method and then whets your appetite with a description of his latest culinary coup with the herb.

He credits his parents with his knowledge of produce and the business. Tom is the third generation of his family in the South Water Market. Since grade school he has been hanging around the loading docks and peeking into barrels and storerooms. The business just "gets in your blood."

"Tom took to the business, the others didn't," said Henry Cornille, referring to his five children. At 76, Henry refuses to retire-"the boredom would kill me fast." The compact build of his son is mirrored by the father. Henry talks in a gruff tone. But the twinkle in his eye belies his protestation that today he is in a bad mood and his answers may be sharp.

The father, perched on a stool behind an order desk, rubs his hands in front of a space heater. To ward off temperatures in the mid-forties, his upper body is clothed in four layers plus cap and scarf. His son, at another desk, wears jeans, a shirt and V-neck sweater. He looks more ready for a day at an undergraduate library than 14 hours in a dimly-lit, drafty warehouse.

"I've been working in this business since 1926," explained the elder Cornille, who said he has never missed nine-to-five type jobs. He remembered the South Water Market when there were only 40 vendors (now there are more that 200), when pascal celery was considered exotic, the days before the media told you what you like to eat, the days when people had to learn how to cook out of economic necessity.

"Tom handles the fancy stuff. I'm the onions and potatoes guy," Henry said. "Just as long as the country stays out of a Depression, Tom's side of the business will flourish. Today's consumer can afford the exotic stuff. They have no time or desire to learn how to cook it. But they can afford to spend $100 for a restaurant dinner in order to eat it. The '80s generation is not frugal."

The family roots are in farming. When Tom's great-grandfather left his farm in Lille, France, in the late 1800s and came to Illinois to settle, he dropped the first "e" from the name which relates the family to the famous French playwright, Pierre Corneille, who wrote among many works, "Le Cid." When his grandfather settled in Chicago, the family farmed land around Lakeshore Drive and Hollywood Avenue.

"When I got out of school, I really tried to work in other areas," Tom explained. "Journalism and photography. But whatever I did was never as exciting as being here. I missed the market and the business. If you like to gamble, it beats Las Vegas."

The line between hobby and work is thin. "Cooking is my release. Most couples, when they are buying a house, want several bedrooms. My wife and I want kitchens. She's Italian. I'm French. The kitchen is crucial. It's where we have our fights. "I love to experiment in the kitchen. If the first question chefs ask is, 'will the color blanch out?' I have to know the answer."

For one of his daughter's birthday parties (he has three children), Cornille whipped up chicken with chanterelle mushrooms and a salad of edible flowers. Burgers and fries don't captivate the attention of his children. "The weirder the stuff is, the more my kids like it."

On the weekend, business turns into a family affair. His wife and children accompany him to the market. He makes desks out of onion crates for the youngsters. His wife tackles the books. After he oversees orders and completes his telephone rounds, the family heads for lunch at Lou Mitchell's, then home.

On those rare nights when he and his wife go out, it is usually to restaurants. Though he chooses not to take vacations because he doesn't want to miss out on anything at work, he does fantasize about where he would go. "I'd visit my growers. That would take me to both coasts and Hawaii. With all the invitations I get, it would be a very, very long trip."

Though Cornille believes good produce men are born, not made, he educates himself by reading nearly everything on the topic. The following are his favorite books: - "Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables" by Elizabeth Schneider (Harper & Row, $34.95). Schneider offers basic information on identification, storage and usage in recipes. Good illustrations. Common names as well as foreign names. - "Salad" by Amy Nathan (Chronicle Books, $14.95). Excellent color photos and food styling with a glossary of terms on greens and condiments. - Two other out-of-print books that he uses are the "Encyclopedia of Herbs, Spices and Flavorings" by Arabella Boxer and the "French Vegetable Cookbook" by Patricia Bourne.

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Following are recipes Cornille has perfected using some of the exotic produce he sells. When sautéing escarole, arugula and radicchio, The Tribune's test kitchen staff advises cooks to keep a careful eye on the skillet. When the vegetables reach their wilting point, remove quickly from the heat. Overcooking will soften the greens and detract from their slightly crisp texture.

WARM ESCAROLE, ARUGULA AND RADICCHIO SALAD

Four servings Preparation time: 15 minutes Cooking time: 5 minutes

3 tablespoons olive oil

3 cups each: torn escarole and arugula

1 small head radicchio, torn into bite-sized pieces

1/4 pound pancetta, diced, see note

1/4 pound enoki (or straw) mushrooms

1/2 cup dried zante currants or golden raisins or dark raisins

1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme or 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted

Optional garnish:

Hard-cooked quail eggs or edible flowers

1. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil to medium high in a 10-inch skillet. Add escarole, arugula and radicchio and toss lightly until slightly wilted, about 1 minute. You want leaves to be braised and root and stem to be crisp. Remove from skillet; set aside.

2. Add 1 more tablespoon olive oil to skillet, heat thoroughly. Add pancetta, toss until completely heated. Add mushrooms, currants and thyme. Toss lightly. Remove from heat. Sprinkle with vinegar.

3. Combine escarole and pancetta mixtures. Divide among four plates. Sprinkle with pine nuts. Garnish with quail eggs or flowers if desired.

Note: Pancetta is unsmoked Italian bacon available at Italian markets and some Treasure Island stores.

If you're out of prosciutto, cooked chicken can be substituted in the following dish. Stuffed pepper tomatoes Four servings Preparation time: 25 minutes Cooking time: 45 minutes

1 cup raw arborio rice

Pinch ground saffron

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 cup prosciutto, chopped, about 2 ounces

1/4 cup drained, chopped sun-dried tomatoes

12 jumbo unstuffed green olives, diced, about 1/2 cup

1 medium onion, peeled, cut into thin slices

1/2 teaspoon ground chili powder

Celery salt to taste

1 teaspoon each: fresh chopped sage, fresh chopped oregano

Rosemary vinegar to taste (or red wine vinegar)

4 pepper tomatoes, cored and seeded, see note

Garnish:

Flat leaf Italian parsley

Edible flowers

Red and green peppers cut into diamond shapes

1. Cook rice according to package directions except add saffron at the beginning of the cooking.

2. Heat olive oil in skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Add prosciutto and saute until thoroughly heated. Add sun-dried tomatoes, olives and onion. Season with chili powder, celery salt, sage, oregano and vinegar.

3. Mix cooked rice with prosciutto mixture. Toss lightly together.

4. Stuff pepper tomatoes with rice mixture. Place in lightly oiled glass pan. Bake at 300 degrees until thoroughly heated, about 20 minutes.

5. Garnish with parsley, edible flowers or peppers.

Note: Pepper tomatoes look like green peppers and usually are available during the summer. If you cannot find this tomato, use almost any pepper, especially cubanelle, a sweet light green pepper, but blanch first in boiling water to soften slightly. The ingredients of this entree salad can change according to whim or whatever is in the refrigerator. For more crunch add toasted, chopped nuts.

NOODLE SALAD WITH SPROUTS

Six to eight servings Preparation time: 25 minutes Cooking time: 15 minutes

1 pound raw vermicelli-type noodles or spinach egg noodles

2 tablespoons oil

1 pound carrots, peeled, sliced thin on diagonal

1 pound fresh snow peas (pea pods), stringed, cut into 1/4-inch diagonal slices

1 pound shiitake mushrooms, diced

2 cans (8 ounces each) water chestnuts, sliced

2 fresh long red hot peppers or jalapeno peppers, seeded, julienned

2 tablespoons oyster sauce

1/2 to 3/4 cup soy sauce, to taste

1/2 cup each: azuki sprouts, mung bean sprouts, radish sprouts, see note

1/2 cup toasted sesame seeds

Garnish:

Lotus root slices

Edible flowers

1. Cook noodles according to package directions. Drain, set aside.

2. Heat wok until hot. Add oil and heat until hot. Add carrots; stir-fry until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Add snow peas, mushrooms, water chestnuts and hot peppers. Stir-fry 2 minutes.

3. Add drained noodles. Season with oyster and soy sauce. Sprinkle with sprouts and sesame seeds and garnish with sliced lotus root and edible flowers.

GLOSSARY OF EXOTIC INGREDIENTS

What Tom Cornille considers standard issue, we call exotic. Here is a sampling of produce he deals with daily in the South Water Market:

Baby squash: yellow or green acorn squash with soft edible skin. Sweet taste; prepare steamed or stuffed and baked. Baby zucchini come with flowers attached.

Black chanterelles (also called trumpet of death): deep gray to black, paper-thin mushroom. Fragile, very versatile wild mushroom with a unique flavor that falls between woody and earthy; used in sauces, marinades.

Black currants: jet-black fruit with purple blush. Tart taste, used in sauces. Cassis, a liqueur, is made from black currants.

Borage flowers: star-shaped, cucumber like flowers usually blue with black center. Used as garnish in salads or floated as garnish in Pimms Cup, a popular British drink.

Cipollini onions: a mild-flavored golden onion with a round, slightly flat shape. Served stuffed and baked.

Chioggia beets: red and white striped vegetable named after a region in Italy. Very sweet taste; eaten raw or steamed.

Delicata squash: green and white-skinned squash with nutty flavor and oblong shape. Served baked.

Fiddlehead ferns: a dark green vegetable similar in looks to asparagus but in a spiral shape. Steamed and chilled, it is used in salads or as a garnish.

Flowering kale: a real showstopper; the chic caterer's dream. Subtle hues and fluffy forms are ideal for filling out table displays and formal cornucopias, holding a container of dip, or standing in for a fruit bowl.

French sea beans: has a long twisted shape, earthy flavor and crunchy texture; also called pouss pied. Served steamed or as a garnish for fish.

Fuschia: also called fancy ladies. Edible flowers used in salads or scattered in soups.

Golden beefsteak tomato: like a beefsteak tomato but bred to be golden. Used like a regular tomato.

Golden chanterelles: wild mushroom with a narrow stem ranges in color from yellow to orange to golden.

Golden Swiss chard: a spinach like leaf that ranges in color from bright yellow to gold. Steamed or braised, used as vegetable, often stuffed and rolled into logs.

Gooseberries: celery-green summer berry. Taut-skinned, tendril-tipped and exceptionally beautiful, they are versatile, suiting every part of the meal, but extreme sourness needs careful balancing. Used in chilled or hot soups, poached in simply syrup or served with fowl.

Hedgehog mushrooms: beige to tan wild mushroom, short narrow stem, wide flat cap, buttery flavor. Used for texture and some flavor in most any cooking method.

Horn of the bull pepper (corne di toro): red, yellow or marbled peppers; long, thin and curved to a point. Sweet taste; eaten roasted or stuffed.

Japanese stuffing tomatoes: red or yellow vegetable shaped similar to a bell pepper. Taste similar to a traditional tomato; served stuffed and baked.

Kiwano: fruit with inedible spiked golden exterior and green interior full of edible seeds. Taste is similar to a cucumber. Served raw or used to flavor sorbets, sherbets and mousses.

Le Mans beans (also called dragon's tongue bean): are yellow, long with diagonal purple stripes and very flat with no seed development. Eaten braised or marinated in salads.

Lemon grass: has a floral aroma like lime peel and fresh-cut hay. Tufts of long grass like leaves are found in Thai, Vietnamese and Laotian markets. Used in cavity of steamed fish for subtle flavor, in soups or in poaching liquids.

Lemon verbena: an herb with green, glossy leaves with a lemon flavor. Used in flavoring sorbets.

Lolla rossa lettuce: A leafy green lettuce with red curly edges. Used in salads or as garnish, especially in Italian cuisine.

Ogo: a sea vegetable from the Pacific Ocean; similar in looks to feather coral, grows in small clusters; ranges from purple, brown and deep green to yellow.

Pink daikon: an elongated radish with zesty flavor; ranges from light to deep pink. Braised, julienned or ringed. An ingredient in stir-fries.

Pom pon blanc mushrooms: cream-colored with a round shape and fibrous texture. Buttery flavor; can be breaded and sauteed.

Purple French bean (haricots rouge): similar in shape to the American snap bean; very sweet and juicy. Used in salads and marinated. When it is introduced to heat, the color bleaches to green.

Rosemary: evergreen shrub of the mint family with strong piney flavor. Considered by some to be ideal herb for roasts and barbecued meat. Italians use it liberally with roast lamb and suckling pig. Discretion, however, is the usual rule.

Tamarillo: oval-shaped fruit with elongated green stem and deep red color; has a tart flavor. Used as a condiment in relish, salsa or chutney.

White miniature asparagus: ivory-colored vegetable spears, so tender they require no peeling. Served cooked as a vegetable with spears bundled with chives or pimiento.

Yellow eggplant: petite as a plum and egg-shaped, these are firmer skinned, less moist, creamier and less bitter than the purple eggplant but are used for the same purposes.

Abstract (Document Summary)

He works with his parents, Henry and Gertrude Cornille, in the family business, George J. Cornille and Sons Inc., 60 S. Water Market. Although they handle all types of produce from cucumbers and potatoes to dates and grapefruit, Tom specializes in the exotic ones such as pink daikon and sun- dried tangerines, bananas the color of blush, strawberry popcorn from Spain, and mushrooms that look like Ping-Pong balls covered with cream-colored angora (pom pon mushrooms from France). When the nose inhales the aroma of his green ginger, the mind is fooled by its lime perfume. What looks like super thin green onions are really Dutch leeks.

Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

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DINER’S SPRING FLING: FIDDLEHEAD FERNS AND OTHER FANCY VEGGIES

[Chicago Final Edition] Chicago Tribune - Chicago, Ill.

Author: Emily Nunn, Tribune staff reporter

Date: Apr 25, 2003 Start Page: 1 Section: Friday

Copyright 2003 by the Chicago Tribune

It's a cliche to say that in the springtime a young man's fancy turns to love, and it's also usually a lie. As winter gives way to spring, most young men are thinking about baseball. But if the man in question is a chef, he is also probably spending a lot of time, along with his female colleagues, fantasizing about the arrival of the season's young vegetables. Maybe only a person passionate about, say, slender French breakfast radishes could understand how their appearance on menus can be just as thrilling as the prospect of a home run.

Take the morel mushroom. Its looks alone, with a strangely brainlike crenulated cap, are so exotic that it seems more suited to the Martian climate than to this planet's forest floor. Same goes for the spikey artichoke, which is actually the flowering portion of a thistle plant; the spiral-topped fiddlehead fern, which resembles a tiny roll-out party horn; the asparagus, whose edible spear can grow green or stark white (when guarded from the sun); the Dr. Seussean wild ramp, which would look at home at the bottom of the sea; and the homely, misshapen fava bean.

Rather than their features, it is their flavors, heightened by the briefness of their availability in peak form, that makes these vernal vegetables so desirable to their admirers--who, not that long ago, would have been considered willfully exotic. Today, though, with the proliferation of green market-driven cuisine, chefs are finding average diners more adventurous--willing and even eager to try a side of stinging nettles in place of sauteed spinach.

Tom Cornille, a leading local wholesaler of specialty produce, who has indeed sold stinging nettles for consumption, says that in the old days, springtime's popular seller was the venerable asparagus; on the more exotic end, tiny baby vegetables (zucchini or pattypan squash) and edible blossoms were about as "out there" as it got.

Now when spring rolls around, Chicago chefs clamor first for morels from Michigan, which they tend either to braise, incorporate into ragus and stews, or roast then stuff with a filling such as chevre; Vidalia onions, the lily bulb from Georgia that is so sweet it can be eaten raw; and, as before, artichokes, both big and baby ones, "because of the plethora of Italian restaurants," Cornille says.

Chefs will ask Cornille to let them know when he has wild ramps and fiddleheads (which are foraged rather than cultivated), and he has been seeing more demand for spring garlic, which is still green when picked and makes a delicious soup. Unusual greens, such as oriental tat soi (a member of the mustard family), miner's lettuce (purslane), baby lettuces and herbs, wild watercress, red dandelions, and rainbow chard (which may range in color from pink to gold to orange to crimson) are also increasing in popularity.

Jennifer Newbury, the chef and owner at Fortunato, which serves the kind of traditional, seasonal Italian cuisine that focuses on the ingredients, is thrilled that Chicagoans are becoming more and more sophisticated about experimenting with the market basket. "It keeps our lives interesting," she says.

She and her cooks will be using tiny Italian puntarella, a bitter chicory that is the basis for a traditional Roman salad with an anchovy-based dressing. "But we also want to do a new salad with tiny peas, endive, and mint, dressed simply in olive oil, salt and pepper," she adds.

When it comes to baby favas, Newbury agrees with Tom Cornille, who says that the earliest tiny beans are "to die for, so tender that they're almost like a butter bean." She's looking forward to making a salad that mixes them with "really thin asparagus, pecorino, olive oil and traditional combinations of mint and basil or mint and oregano."

Last year she fiddled with fiddleheads and ramps. "I did a light pasta with them, with olive oil and mushroom stock, and it was popular but it wasn't traditional, so I took it off the menu." This year, she's combining ramps with softshell crabs, in an aromatic crab broth seasoned with smoked paprika and tomato.

If you bring up spring vegetables at North Pond, chef Bruce Sherman, whose focus is also on seasonal ingredients, will begin waxing poetic on the unusual varieties of spring radishes-- including the Bleeding Heart, which is tennis-ball sized, white on the outside and fuchsia in the middle; and the Spanish Black, which he tends to serve sautéed or glazed. ("Radishes are not necessarily unusual, but they're coming out of hiding," notes Cornille.)

Sherman says that when it comes to spring vegetables, "there's not much I don't like," but he tends to ease his diners into enjoying the more unusual ones. "Things like fiddleheads and ramps and favas are the kinds of ingredients that some people are nuts about and others hate. So I put them in a supporting role."

Otherwise, he'll sauté baby artichokes with olive oil, garlic and tomatoes, or puree them and serve them as a side dish like mashed potatoes, or shave them and quickly sear them. He also likes tender spring lettuces, cresses and baby dandelion greens. One highlight from his spring menu: a morel mushroom tart with white and green asparagus; the honeycomb texture of the morels holds the custard, which is made from the cream in which the mushrooms have been cooked. "It's about taking the vegetables and highlighting them," he says.

Like Newbury, Sherman always anticipates the spring bounty, but then again, he says: "I look forward to every season because of the way I cook. It's like being in Chicago and looking forward to the first snowfall. When if finally comes, we're all very excited. Transfer that to baby leeks and carrots. After you finally get them, you start waiting for the first tomatoes."

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A JUGGLING ACT TOM CORNILLE FITS HIS PRODUCE TO THE PERSONALITY OF THE CHEF

Author: Bill Mahin. Special to the Tribune

Date: Oct 3, 1993

5 Section: DINING

Copyright Chicago Tribune Co. Oct 3, 1993

By 4 a.m. the four-lane expanse that separates the north and south sides of the South Water Market is already impenetrable, jammed with men with forklifts and handcarts battling to get their potatoes, bananas and onions-as well as arugula and Lasso Rosso-onto their trucks and on the road as quickly as they can.

It's somewhat less frenetic at No. 60, where, in 1925, George J. Cornille & Sons became one of the market's founding tenets. Rather than sell wholesale produce to any and all takers, Tom Cornille, the last of five Cornille children-provides roughly 1,000 top-of-the-line items of produce to a handful of the finest restaurants, a list that includes Carlos', Frontera Grill, Jackie's, Charlie Trotter's, Le Francais, Ambria, Arun's, and Everest. "What I do," Cornille says, "is service the personality of each chef." He likens his job to that of "a cobbler-making the shoe fit," keeping the chef happy and "in tune with what's available."

Part of that involves searching out the best suppliers, wherever they may be. Chanterelles, morels and matsutake mushrooms come from Vancouver, Alaska and Nova Scotia. Radicchio is imported from Italy, where Cornille says the soil and techniques of growing make it less bitter than varieties grown in this country. He gets asparagus from Peru and New Zealand during the fall and winter, since their growing seasons are the reverse of ours. Cape gooseberries come from Terra del Fuego and the Cape of Good Hope. A black radish, which chefs marinade or braise, comes from Spain.

On the other hand, one of the 11 varieties of basil he stocks is grown locally by a 70-year-old man who brought his seeds with him from Italy years ago. "That's all he grows," Cornille says, "but it's done with care."

Jackie Shen of Jackie's recently used Cornille's big rainbow-one of roughly two dozen varieties of tomato he'll stock over the course of a year-as a centerpiece for her mixed tomato plate. "It's multicolored, pretty, and real sweet," Cornille says. Mirador uses his white beauties; Tuttaposto grills golden beefstakes. Suzi Crofton of Montparnasse "loves" currant tomatoes, while Francois de Melogue, the chef at the recently opened le Margaux, uses red and yellow teardrops both for taste and as part of the presentation. In the spring, Gordon's uses red tomatoes for a coucasse. Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill uses organic red Romas and red San Marzanos, as well as purple tomatillos.

Cornille tries to apportion special delicacies to each of his chefs. Jackie Shen, for example, likes edible orchids. Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill uses male squash blossoms. If the blossoms are available and it's not raining or too hot or too cold ("things have to be just right"), the blossoms are harvested in San Marcos, Calif., early the morning after they're ordered, before the field heat sets in. The blossoms are then transferred to a cooler to remove any residual heat. In the evening, they're taken to the Los Angeles airport for shipment to Chicago. If the order is not bumped-mail, live animals and human remains have priority over even pre-booked air freight space-the blossoms will arrive the next day.

There is "all the difference in the world," Cornille says, between this produce, and what an individual can buy in a retail store. Economies of scale seem to be the principal reason. To keep prices down, a chain of grocery stores buys enormous quantities of individual items. Perishability then becomes a real problem. "Retailers want produce to last forever," Cornille says. To ensure the maximum shelf life of a tomato, for example, they order a "mature green" that has been subsequently gassed to enhance its coloration. That, he says, "allows them to fool the public by masking the product." Cornille's objection is the same one he uses against hydroponically grown produce (plants grown in nutrient solutions without sand, gravel or other inert media), and most cross-bred fruits and vegetables as well. Somewhere along the technological line, flavor is lost. "You can't substitute for flavor," he says. "The flavor is what the earth gives us."

His yellow ox heart tomatoes, for example, have a flavor like the promise of an ad jingle come true. A minuscule currant tomato seems to literally explode against your palate. At such moments everything he argues for, like freshness and produce from the land rather than from a chemist or bio-engineer, becomes almost a given.

The best restaurants are willing to pay a premium price for such quality. That's one of the reasons the meals they serve are so expensive. Still, "if the chef is an artist, then the items of produce are the different paints on his palette," he says. "And if you need a certain shade of blue, that's what you need."

Cornille's own farming heritage came to an end nearly 70 years ago, when his grandfather gave up his farm to open George J. Cornille & Sons "to give his brothers and other farmers a good representative at the market." He himself is old enough to remember when a pot-bellied stove was their sole source of heat, and his father used the telegraph to take and place orders. He points out a line on the wall about 10 feet above the floor that used to indicate how high the barrels of produce that came in by train could be stacked without the floor collapsing.

Sometimes when he's alone in the building, he says, "I can feel the presences."

Something of that underlies his daily juggling act of bringing together farmers throughout the country-for the most part small entities like himself-and the best chefs, and dealing with any number of impersonal shippers, vendors, and agents along the way. What it comes down to, though, seems to be tied to the adages of "doing good work" and "giving good weight." "I feel I do honor to the restaurants I work with," he says. "The chefs that I work with-they're friends, like family."

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GREENS TO ENVY: THE ASIAN VARIETIES GROW POPULAR BY LEAFS AND BOUNDS

Chicago Tribune - Chicago, Ill.

Author: William Rice

Date: Jul 21, 2002

(Copyright 2002 by the Chicago Tribune)

"It came from nowhere, and it was as foreign to us as the word. Now chefs can't buy enough of it for salads or to sauté and use as a bed for fish." The speaker is Tom Cornille, purveyor of fruits and vegetables to the city's most ambitious chefs. The subject is mizuna, one of the loosely defined but increasingly significant family of leaves, flowers, stalks, and roots known as "Asian greens."

For Lee Jones, whose family-owned Chef's Garden near Cleveland supplies produce to restaurants across the nation, "this is a very exciting time in the culinary industry. American chefs have open minds, they are traveling and eating outside their own regions and are thinking beyond the norm when they create dishes and menus. And consumers are very open to what they are doing."

Young and tender greens often are eaten raw. As they grow older, larger and tougher, they are often better cooked--usually by steaming or stir-frying. Try these in your summer recipes:

Amaranth: This is also called Chinese spinach; can be cooked briefly over high heat, stir-fried, or slowly in liquid.

Choy family: These leaves, stems, and blossoms of bok choy, or Chinese white cabbage, can be eaten after braising, boiling or stir- frying. Also includes crisp, mild purple bok choy; Shanghai bok choy, small and pale green with a hint of mustard; and tatsoi, Chinese flat cabbage, with paddle-shaped leaves and a buttery taste.

Garlic root: Has the unmistakable aroma of garlic; usually deep- fried very briefly and used as garnish.

Lemongrass: Intense flavor; may be minced or cooked whole in a braised dish and discarded.

Mizuna: Mild-flavored leaves are popular raw in salads when young or sauteed when older.

Mustard greens: The red type provides an explosive touch of heat to salads and cooked dishes; Savannah mustard is tamer.

Tokyo bekana: The leaves are light green, lettuce-like with a mild, minty aftertaste.

Yukina savoy: Surprisingly thick, glossy green leaves have a taste mildly reminiscent of cauliflower.

Chefs may be buying these greens for their novelty, beauty and flavor, but the customers who consume them are receiving an additional reward. Asian greens are "cruciferous" plants, and crucifers are nature's SWAT team. They are low in calories, high in fiber and well endowed with vitamins A and C, calcium, folic acid, beta-carotene plus those invaluable trace minerals.

A dusting of micro radish sprouts won't make much difference, but once you catch up with the Chinese, who consume on average a half- pound of crucifers daily, good things should follow.

BITTER GREENS WITH FIERY SEARED SQUID

Four to six servings

For the dressing:

1/4 cup sesame oil

1/3 cup fresh lime juice

1/4 cup Asian fish sauce or olive oil

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger

1 tablespoon minced fresh chile pepper of choice

2 tablespoons sugar

For the salad:

1 pound cleaned squid, bodies cut into thin circles

Salt and freshly ground white or black pepper

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon minced fresh chile pepper of choice

10 ounces mixed bitter greens such as mizuna, komatsu, tatsoi, baby mustard greens, watercress, trimmed, washed and dried

1 small carrot, peeled and cut into very thin strips

1 red bell pepper, peeled and cut into very thin strips

1/2 cup bean sprouts, optional

1/2 cup unsalted peanuts, toasted and roughly chopped

1. In a small bowl, combine all the dressing ingredients and whisk together well. Set aside.

2. Sprinkle the squid with salt and pepper. In a large saute pan, heat the olive oil over high heat until the oil just begins to smoke. Add the squid, stir like crazy for 90 seconds, add the chile. Stir for an additional 10 seconds, then remove from the heat.

3. In a large bowl, combine the squid with the greens, carrot, bell pepper and sprouts. Stir the dressing well, add just enough to moisten the ingredients (there will be some dressing left over) and toss to coat. Sprinkle the salad with the peanuts and serve at once.

--From "Lettuce in Your Kitchen" by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby (William Morrow)

Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

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A GOLDEN SALUTE

Contributing to this project were Andy Badeker, Kristin Eddy, Renee Enna, Carol Mighton Haddix, William Rice and Raeanne Sarazen Published October 17, 2001

Tom Cornille

Before the current vogue for buying fruits and vegetables from small-scale sustainable and organic farmers, there was Tom Cornille.

His family's firm, George J. Cornille & Sons, has been supplying Chicago chefs with produce from the South Water Market since 1925. But the firm took a step beyond its competitors when Tom, the youngest of five brothers, focused on specialty produce and formed alliances with a dozen or so of the city's most creative culinary talents.

His passion is to find produce at the peak of its season from across the country and the world and deliver it to his restaurant customers in pristine condition. He now offers roughly 1,200 products a year.

Not only did his efforts inspire his clients, but their customers began to demand similar selection and quality at retail markets. Slowly, the bar has been raised, and it keeps moving higher, with Cornille in the forefront of those who forage by phone.

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