Sunday, February 17, 2008

February 17: Chicago Dogs

I've never understood that person that wants nothing but ketchup and mustard on their hot dog. A hot dog, to me, is a perfect blank canvas, the best possible receptacle for almost any kind of savory thing you can think of.

Hot dogs are to Chicago what cheesesteaks are to Philadelphia. Ask a Chicagoan, and they'll probably tell you that there is exactly one way to eat a hot dog. Same thing in New York, Boston, Dallas, and Portland. I've been served something called an "Atlanta dog" smothered in creamy coleslaw. I've also heard of a "Memphis dog" with bacon, barbecue sauce, and grilled onions, and a San Antonio dog with taco meat, salsa, lettuce, and cheddar cheese. I'm not sure I approve, but it's like any regional specialty: everybody's sure that their variation is the best.

As a midwesterner by birth, I am a big fan of a true Chicago dog, and it is really rare to find one outside of Cook County, Illinois. Surprisingly enough, we encountered one today here in Virginia Beach, at a hot dog restaurant where the proprieter is serious enough about authenticity to have the traditional neon-green sweet cucumber relish flown in from Chicago, and I cannot fathom what goes into creating this not-found-in-nature shade of green. It was good enough that I am already thinking about getting another one before leaving town tomorrow.

A Chicago dog is a very specific thing; there is no chili, no cheese, no ketchup involved. It is both science and art. Let me emphasize the following: dill pickle spear, sweet pickle relish. Kosher beef dog, natural casing, steamed or boiled, not grilled or fried.

This is more construction blueprint than recipe; I could make a hot dog at the age of eight without any real trouble. But if you've never had a Chicago dog and you won't be in Chicago any time soon, then it's worth doing. Seek out great hot dogs, poppy-seeded rolls, and the small, pickled hot peppers called sport peppers. They are spicy, but not uncomfortably so. Maybe banana peppers would stand in in a pinch, but the real thing is worth finding.

If you are like us, plan on eating two hot dogs apiece. This will serve two.

Chicago Dogs

4 good-quality, natural casing all-beef hot dogs like Vienna Beef, Nathan's, or Hebrew National
4 poppy seeded hot dog buns
1/4 cup diced white onion
1/3 cup sweet pickle relish
2 small tomatoes, sliced into six wedges each
1 large kosher dill pickle, quartered lengthwise
Yellow mustard
12 small whole pickled sport peppers
Celery salt

In a medium skillet over high heat, boil the hot dogs in one cup of water until water has evaporated. Turn off heat.

Assemble dogs as follows:

Hot dog
Three tomato wedges on one side
One dill pickle wedge on opposite side
Sweet relish over everything
Three peppers on top of relish
Sprinkle of celery salt over top

Serve immediately.

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