The one area in which I’ve always considered myself to be a bad Chicagoan is brunch. People are always writing articles about what a great brunch city we live in, and I often get asked where to go to get the best brunch. Frankly, I’d rather spend my Saturday morning on the couch with a cup of coffee and homemade egg sandwich, watching the Premier League with Penny and the Mr. But when forced to suggest a place, nine times out of ten I recommend SmallBar on Division.
Yes, it’s a bar. And yes, the main Saturday morning crowd consists of dudes watching soccer and drinking pints. But the food is wonderful. The menu was redone two years ago by Justin White, a chef who’s worked at the Bristol (my favorite Chicago spot), Green Zebra and Custom House. He brings an elevated, gastropub sensibility to the food, but you don’t feel like you have to dress up to come eat it.
Corned beef is cured for 21 days in house for a rustic, filling corned beef hash that’s topped with a perfectly poached egg. Quiche gets spruced up with grated nutmeg, roasted cauliflower and a crunchy, prickly little side salad. And the farmer’s cheese and tomato jam sandwich is just that: housemade, sticky-sweet tomato jam and smoky farmer’s cheese smeared on hearty, thick country bread.
The menu changes fairly often, in tune with whatever strange garbage the Midwestern skies are hurtling down on us. Take last week for example. Icy rain, then snow, then brilliant sunshine accompanied by single-digit temperatures. On Sunday morning, Sean and I left the comfort of the couch to catch the last half of the Liverpool vs. Swansea game there.
It took me about 8 seconds to decide that I was going to order the rice porridge. Rice slowly cooked with smoky bacon lardons and dinosaur kale, streaked with smoky-sweet chile sauce and topped with a poached egg–it was like they knew just what I needed. I was so tired of being cold, of bundling and unbundling and of having chapped lips all the time. I just wanted a meal that would hug back.
So below is my lazy attempt at recreating SmallBar’s heavenly rice porridge. I didn’t feel like frying, soaking and pureeing chiles, so I used store-bought mole sauce instead. I didn’t feel like poaching an egg, so I fried it instead. But I don’t really want my version to be exactly like SmallBar’s. I’d rather go there and have them make it for me again before the winter’s gone.
Lazy rice porridge with fried egg
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more as needed
5-6 bacon slices, cut in lardons
1 large leek (white and light green parts only), rinsed and cut into 1/4-inch rounds
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 cups arborio rice
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
5 cups chicken stock, plus 1 cup water
1 bunch lacinato (dinosaur) kale, sliced in thin ribbons
Mole or other non-vinegary chile sauce, for drizzling
Method: Add the olive oil and bacon pieces to a large Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot. Heat to medium, and cook until the fat is rendered and the bacon just starts to caramelize, 5 to 7 minutes.
Add the leeks, along with a sprinkling of salt and pepper, and cook until softened, another 5 minutes. Add the rice and toast for 2 or 3 minutes, until all the kernels are coated in the oil and slightly translucent.
Pour in the red wine vinegar, stirring constantly until it has completely reduced. Then add the chicken stock, turn the heat up to high and bring the mixture to a boil. Cover, and reduce the heat to medium low. Cook the rice on a low simmer for about an hour, stirring occasionally. After the first 30 minutes, stir in the kale. Fifteen minutes after that, add the remaining cup of water.
Once the rice is done, check the seasoning and adjust as needed.
In a nonstick skillet, heat the olive oil over medium high and add the eggs one or two at a time, depending on the size of your skillet. Season with salt and pepper, and fry for about 2 minutes per side, until the whites are set but the yolks are still runny.
To serve, divide the rice porridge equally among 4 bowls. Top each with a fried egg and drizzle with 1 or 2 teaspoons of mole.