WORDS BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
PHOTOS BY SUZETTE BROSS BULLEY
When Samantha Schwalm puts on her crisp white coat, the Reese Witherspoon look-alike and Rush volunteer takes on another popular persona: in-home chef.
Each Tuesday and Thursday Sam offers clients a medley in her menus, whether gourmet or gluten-free: for the meal she once prepared for the Obamas, she began with lobster bisque and ended with affogato and thin ginger cookies.
“I am all about getting out of the factory and back to the farm. We all can solve a lot of dietary problems by supporting local places. My family helped me get started 13 years ago, and it is still word of mouth, although I do use Instagram and Facebook for promotion.
“I send out an email blast for clients to choose weekly meals, and I always ask for feedback. My clients are usually two-career families. They don’t have time to cook every night but want to serve healthy foods.
“I love to try many different dishes but know that when I put chicken potpie on the menu, that will always be chosen.”
Part of Chicago’s most connected coterie of couples, Sam and her husband, Matson, love Saturday date nights for just themselves when they sample potential dishes she might add to her menus. GT Fish and Oyster is a favorite destination. They have a cocktail at the bar then share lobster and an oyster po’boy.
“Often we come home from a great meal and try to recreate something right away. Mat is a terrific cook and loves to experiment.
We asked about dining out trends in Chicago:
“People are trying to eat healthier at home so when they go out on weekends, often they look either for something of a very high quality or comfort food. Now you can find taco stands on almost every corner and specialized mac and cheeses on many menus.”
Samantha owns over 200 cookbooks, many purchased on her travels.
“I always tweak the recipes a little. My mother, Nancy Kabat, loves to cook, and she has given me her original Julia Child and Betty Crockers. Whenever I am in a new place, I want to learn the recipes and culture of the area, so I buy a cookbook.”
Sam’s most treasured book, compiled by her mother, reveals the recipes of her grandmother, some in longhand.
“I am a true American mutt with both English and Russian Jew roots. My grandmother was more British, so I have her wonderful recipes for bread pudding, Yule logs, and lamb toasts.
“Growing up in Toledo, my sister and I always helped cook Thanksgiving dinner and helped with the 300 spanakopitas my mother served at our Christmas Eve open house.”
Friday is cooking night at the Schwalm house with son Forrest, a third grader, and Addie, a first grader, joining in the fun.
We asked Samantha for cooking tips:
“When you are starting out, go for the simplest recipes. Remember: less is more. Stay on track, and follow the instructions to tee.
“I also advise shopping around for ingredients. I go everywhere for my groceries and love the Green City Market in the summer (where I shop each Wednesday and Saturday). I find my spices in a variety of places. The staff at the Spice House on Wells always talks you through how to use three or four different underutilized spices, such as dill, which is one of my favorites. Fried green tomatoes are on my go-to list, and they have helped me with different savories. Getting the homemade pita at the Middle East Bakery and Grocery at Foster and Clark is a delight.”
Sam credits the help of Mat and friends while maintaining the beautiful balance between family, career, and voluntarism.
“From the first time we met, Mat was there for me. He always shows that he wants to help me to try to do what I want. We all have to remember to ask for help from our friends when we might need someone to carpool to ballet or pick up a child from school, and then return the favor.”
Time spent at the Rush University Medical Center is at the heart of her community service. Sam will chair the second annual Rush Woman’s Board Gala to be held at the Art Institute October 19. The successor to the venerated Rush Fashion Show, part of the assignment is setting a new tradition as well as seeking sponsors.
“We are supporting REACH at Rush, a program that supplies 200 internships at the hospital for CPS students from schools in the area and focuses on both innovative education and workplace development.
“The internships range from medical to accounting to technology, emphasizing the importance of science, math, and technology education. We want to cultivate this love of STEM subjects throughout the high school years so that students can be better prepared to enter college.
“The program speaks as well to the importance of student networking and mentoring by adults, and we hope that our board can be involved in this process as volunteers as well.”
Where will Sam’s future take her?
“I love to write and someday would like to author a family cookbook with recipes for children to try as well. My son, Forrest, who’s a very good cook, and I might create a blog when he is in high school.”
In the meantime, Sam shares not only her recipes but also her blend of freshness, from the ingredients in her recipes to her fresh-faced beauty and warmth for all she serves.
Here’s one of Sam’s favorite recipes:
White Fish Papillote
½ yellow onion
1 zucchini sliced
1 summer squash sliced
2 cups of cherry tomatoes
1 cup of white wine
1/4 olive oil
Sprigs of thyme
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
In a bowl, mix together the vegetables. Add the oil, season with salt and pepper, to taste, and toss to combine. On a large square of parchment, arrange the all of the vegetables. Place the white fish of your choice and season with salt and pepper. Top the fish with 2 sprigs thyme, and 1 tablespoon white wine. Fold the parchment paper around the edges tightly in 1/4-inch folds to create a half moon shape. Make sure you press as you crimp and fold to seal the packets well, otherwise the steam will escape. Arrange the packets on a baking sheet. Bake until the fish is cooked through, about 12 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish. To serve, cut open the packets and serve directly in the parchment on a plate or remove the fish to the plate using a spatula, being sure you don’t leave the juices behind.