A Love Letter to Chicago, Signed in Hot Sauce

Kitchen designers talk about the work triangle -- the, indeed, triangular space you move in as you cook, from refrigerator to stove to sink. This space should be small, but not too small. It should support and ease your cooking.

It's been seven months since I left Chicago, but during the five years I lived there, the city itself built my work triangle. Its food sellers, food makers, and me in my kitchen. We worked together, and I learned how to cook. But more than that, I learned about food, and Chicago was my teacher. With one of the country's most iconic CSAs less than 100 miles away, I had access to abundant, local produce. And not just any produce. Each vegetable I ate from Angelic Organics was the most delicious instance of that vegetable I had ever eaten. I owed it to those vegetables to understand them and do them up good.

Chicago's restaurants and food producers gave me the guidance I needed to do that. From tiny hot dog stands to fine dining, Chicago's got one of the most varied, and variously outstanding, restaurant scenes this side of anywhere (I've rounded up some of my favorites here). By example, these restaurants showed me how to put food and flavors together, how to craft a dish and a meal. And beyond the restaurants are hundreds of small producers, making food the right way, for the right reasons. Fill in the blanks with what you deem as rightness. Chicago will offer up. It's right. In all the right ways.

For now, I'll fill in the blanks with Co-op Sauce. Operating out of Humboldt Park, Co-op Image makes these hot sauces with peppers grown in their community garden and donates half the sauces' profits to support their free youth art center and other arts initiatives in Chicago. See? Right/right. It would almost be beside the point that their hot sauces are among the best I've ever tasted. Except that it's not at all. These hot sauces live up to their production's promise. They are something special.

If, like me, you don't live in Chicago, Co-op hot sauces can be purchased from their online store. They have a number of varieties, each terrific and distinct from the others in form and function. And if, like me, you want to involve this small producer in your own Chicago-derived work triangle (or nostalgia triangle, as it were), you might take inspiration from the good folks at Co-op Image and try your hand at making your own hot sauce.

This is not their recipe, but an approximation of one of their sauces that I worked out some months ago, homesick for Chicago and its flavors. The combination of carrots and spicy habaneros is genius. The carrots ground and sweeten the sauce, but take nothing from the habanero's characteristic kick.

This makes a fairly spicy sauce, enough to fill an average-sized mason jar. You are encouraged to add more peppers if you like it spicier, but taste it first. Keep in mind that what you taste just after you've blended will be spicier than what you taste a day or two later. I'd recommend wearing gloves when working with habaneros or other hot peppers.

Recipe: Carrot Habanero Hot Sauce
4 habanero peppers, stems removed and roughly chopped, while wearing gloves
3 small carrots, peeled and pretty well chopped
1 red or orange bell pepper, cored and roughly chopped
1/2 medium onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1/4 cup white vinegar
1/4 cup water

Put these things in a blender. Blend until a smooth sauce forms. Add salt to taste.