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Chicago Tribune

Glob L Picnics; A Taste Of Greece, Puerto Rico And Korea At Your Outdoor Spread

By Monica Eng and Charles LeRoux, Tribune staff reporters

July 4, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved. 

The smoking grill emits glorious smells as a big, boisterous group--infants to elders--emits good vibes that are enough to make you envious, as the smells make you hungry. These family picnics, often featuring traditional ethnic foods, dot parks and lawns all over the city and suburbs this time of year. With 4th of July being the epicenter of the picnic season, there's no need for your family to crash some other clan's party or wait for an open-to-the-public festival. There's not even a need to cook. The ingredients--prepared and ready to go--all are out there, if you know where to look.

Go Greek: Greek meals, whether indoors in Greektown or onscreen in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," must feature two essential "L" words: lots of lamb.

"Most of the lambs we sell are in the 25- to 45-pound range, about 3 to 6 months old," said Tony Drakontaidis, who, with brother Paul, runs the Columbus Food Market and Bakery (1651 E. Rand Rd., Des Plaines; 847-297-6600). The price for this succulent picnic centerpiece fluctuates with the market but lately has been running about $3 a pound. There's an additional $25 cooking charge that includes spicing (salt, pepper, oregano, garlic). Call a few days in advance to order precooked meat.

To calculate how much lamb you need, figure a pound of lamb per person for lambs 35 pounds and above. Lambs under 35 pounds have a higher ratio of bone to muscle, so you'll need more than a pound per person with those.

Columbus also sells chickens, pigs and goats. Roast piglet ranges from 25 to 30 pounds at about $2 a pound plus the roasting charge. The goats are 15 to 25 pounds. "Above that," Tony said, "they get stringy like a billy goat."

Another option is to buy uncooked meat and prepare it yourself. If you want, the market will put the pig or lamb on a spit and season it, so all you have to do is dig the pit, get the coals glowing and cook the thing.

The cooking process takes four to six hours, and requires plenty of charcoal on hand. Cooking the meat on your own does take patience--pigs and lambs cooked at the market take less time than at home, thanks to a rotating oven large enough to hold 56 lambs at a time. "Once," Tony said, "we did a whole calf in there."

To round out your picnic, serve jars of olives and tarama (a carp roe spread) as appetizers. The market also offers moussaka (eggplant and ground meat casserole), pasticcio (similar but with pasta and without eggplant) and spanokopita (spinach and filo pie which is particularly spinach-rich here).

Columbus also makes some pastries, but, to be authentically Greek, have relatives bring their specialties from home . . . which they will--especially if you say, "No, please don't bring anything."

Puerto Rican-style: Since much of it is served hot and deep fried, Puerto Rican food may not seem ideal for a picnic. But there are a few key dishes that can be served cold or at room temperature without a problem, the most traditional being roasted pig.

There are few better places to outfit your pig picnic than the 32-year-old T&C Meat Market (2812 W. North Ave.; 773-276-2220), which specializes in lechon, or roasted pig Puerto Rican style--the meat rubbed with a spice mixture of garlic, pepper and oregano and then roasted on a spit for hours. Some like to take the whole pig home intact with an apple in its mouth while others prefer to have theirs chopped up in advance (no extra charge). A sign in the store warns customers that those who choose chopped will lose their head--the pig head will not be included in the final product.

Whole roast pigs range from $100 to $175 for pigs that are 30 to 100 pounds before cooking, and according to owner Peter Kardaras, you should allow one pound per person.

"That may sound like a lot of meat, but keep in mind that pig loses between 30 to 45 percent of his weight in cooking."

Traditional side dishes include pickled green bananas with or without chicken gizzards and arroz con gandules, a less intimidating pan of Puerto Rican yellow rice with pigeon peas.

T&C also offers less traditional sides of green or Greek salads and potato and macaroni salads.

If you like the show-stopping effect of a whole pig presentation but are afraid to try to take a whack at the carving yourself, Karadaras says he can provide instructions, "and it is really not that difficult."

Those feeding smaller crowds can get half pigs, fresh hams, roasted chickens, roast beef, lamb in a hot sauce, smoked ham, barbecued ribs, roasted turkeys and fried pork marinated in orange juice.

Traditional drinks would be passion fruit juice called parcha, non-alcoholic sweet malt drinks and a super sweet coconut soda called Coco Rico. But if you really want to be authentic--and are not in a public park--tropical rum drinks fit the bill nicely.

Korean-style picnic: A lot of cultures do barbecue, but the Koreans, with their special blend of sweet, salty and spicy marinades, are at the top of our list when it comes to grilled meats. That's why Korean catering spots can be some of the best sources for a quick delicious picnic, whether it be for two or 200 people.

While most Korean groceries in Chicago usually will have all the picnic fixings on hand, we suggest ordering ahead from Lee Catering (5243 N. Kedzie Ave.; 773-478-9075).

Owner Son Hui Kim recommends about 1 pound of galbi (marinated beef short ribs) per person and about two-thirds of a pound of bulgogi (marinated sliced beef) per person. The galbi is $5.49 per pound, the bulgogi $4.19 a pound. These items come raw, but while the galbi grills up easily, the slices of bulgogi can fall through the grates, so we recommend skewering them, a family-friendly technique.

Everything else you need comes pre-cooked. We recommend Kim bap, finger friendly Korean maki rolls (10 pieces for $2.50) filled with not-so-perishable bits of pickle and vegetable along with a little scrambled egg and sometimes meat. Allow about one roll per person and you don't have to serve rice or kimchi.

Also, don't forget the Korean chicken wings (20 for $5). Unlike some places that use drumsticks only, thus creating a neat handle for messy picnic dining, Lee's uses both pieces of the wing. Still, they are delicious, deep-fried morsels bathed in a sweet, sesame-seed studded sauce and can be easily spiced up with a little Tabasco.

If you want to break out the plates and forks (or chopsticks), Lee's chap chae, cellophane noodles with meat and vegetables that are fine at room tempature, is a good bet ($20 for a pan that feeds 20 people).

Another picnic-friendly option is toasted dumplings (50 for $20), tasty crescents of browned noodle filled with ground beef and vegetables. The more adventurous can also pick up a jar of kimchi.

On Independence Day it might seem odd to stray so far from hamburgers and potato salad. But when you think about it, the most American specialties are the many immigrant dishes that reflect what this country is made of.

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