Fin dining experience: Ash Wednesday and Lenten menus range from seafood staples to mushroom opportunities

2014-03-05T00:00:00Z 2014-03-06T21:08:12Z Fin dining experience: Ash Wednesday and Lenten menus range from seafood staples to mushroom opportunitiesBy Philip Potempa philip.potempa@nwi.com, (219) 852-4327 nwitimes.com

Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of the Lenten Season are always a busy time for Anthony "Tony" Basso, his wife, Geri, and son, Tony Jr., who own and operate Chuck & Irene's Bar, Restaurant, and Hotel, 6110 Kennedy Ave. in Hammond.

The family business, which started in June 1947, has been serving guests for nearly 67 years and ranks as the oldest established business in the Hessville neighborhood.

"Following the same menu and kitchen traditions my mom and dad started with, fish platters rank as the top-item this time of year," said Tony, 66. He depends on his wife of 14 years at his side to keep up during the busy dining rush, along with help from younger son Tony, 44, who also grew up around the family business just like his older brother Tim, who is 47.

"My parents, who married in 1939, opened their original location at 719 W. 151st St. in East Chicago and then opened this current location in 1959. For one year, they ran both places and then opted to sell the East Chicago business in 1960."

His parents' names are legendary in Hammond, and married for more than 65 years, their names remain forever linked together on the building's signage, still welcoming guests to the cozy dining room and drinking pub where they invested so many memories and worked hours together.

When Charles "Chuck" Basso decided to enter the bar and restaurant business, he had the help and guidance of new bride Irene, whose father owned and ran his own establishment in the Indiana Harbor neighborhood. The towering brick building anchored by Chuck & Irene's Bar, Restaurant and Hotel along Kennedy Avenue still has 24 lodging rooms located on the upper floors.

While Chuck helped tend to bar patrons, Irene ran the kitchen and helped oversee the hotel staff and needs. Chuck died at age 85 in August 2004. Irene followed at age 88 in July 2006.

Using his mom's recipes, Tony said for "meatless menus" during Lent, homemade soups, like their rich and creamy clam chowder and a hearty potato soup are favorites for many guests eager for a "simple yet satisfying meal." And for days during Lent when Catholics do not observe "fast and abstinence from meat," he sad his dad's recipe for a "sinfully delicious" chili, called "Chuck's Chili" on the menu, is a favorite pick.

For seafood platters, traditional fish fry offerings, includes creamy coleslaw and fries, always rank as the most-in-demand dining requests, including whole "on the bone" lake perch, boneless ocean perch, shrimp, walleye, whole catfish and frog legs, in addition to smelt, scallops and cod. And combining the family's Polish and Italian heritage, they also serve other delicious options like homemade pierogi and zesty tomato and cheese broiled garlic bread.

But the restaurant's historical claim-to-fame includes serving plenty of mushrooms during Lent, a meat-free and guilt-free menu specialty.

"On some weekends, we'd bag more than 100 pounds of meat after spending the weekend in the woods," avid mushroom hunter Chuck Basso told The Times in October 1997, while displaying two mighty mushrooms that tipped the scale as what he called "16-pound beauties."

"We'd bring home enough mushroom meat every fall to get us through the winter."

Of all of his edible fungi finds, Basso's favorite were the large, massive mushrooms called "sheepheads" or "hen of the woods." These large, coral-like mushrooms are technically called grifola frondosa, and are popular for their "earthy" flavor and ability to be featured in a variety of recipes which use fresh mushrooms.

For more information, complete menus and the history of Chuck & Irene's Bar, Restaurant and Hotel, visit chuckandirenes.com or call (219) 844-9812.

Here are two of the restaurant's favorite signature recipes.

Irene's Creamed Mushrooms

1 pound of mushrooms, rinsed and sliced

3 large onions, chopped

4 tablespoons butter or margarine

1 (14.5-ounce) can cream of mushroom soup

Salt and pepper to taste

DIRECTIONS: In a hot skillet, melt butter and add mushrooms and onions and mix to combine. Reduce heat and cook until soft and onions are golden. Add soup and salt and pepper and enough water to create a desired creamy consistency. (A little garlic powder can be added as well). Cook for 5 to 7 minutes longer and serve hot over toast or mashed potatoes. Makes 4 servings.

Chuck's "Sinfully Good" Chili

1 1/2 pounds ground beef

2 tablespoons chili powder, or to taste

2 teaspoons seasoning salt (like Lawry's)

2 teaspoons garlic salt

Ground black pepper to taste

4 (15.5-ounce) cans chili beans, undrained

1 large (32-ounce) can dark red kidney beans, undrained

1 large (32-ounce) can of tomato puree (or mashed tomatoes)

2 tablespoons cornstarch

DIRECTIONS: Brown ground beef, adding a little water and cook until evenly done, using a potato masher to break apart hamburger into crumbles while cooking. Add hamburger (do not drain) to a large soup pot, with chili powder, seasoning salt, black pepper and hot sauce (to taste). Cook over low heat for a few minutes so flavors blend. Add tomatoes and cans of beans. Bring chili to a boil and reduce heat to medium and simmer 30 to 45 minutes. During the last 10 minutes of cooking time, in a large measuring cup, add the cornstarch to 1/2 cup warm water, using a fork to blend to make a paste. Slowly add some of the ladled simmering chili liquid to the paste to create a smooth roux, free of any lumps, and add this mixture back into the chili to create a desired thickness. Makes 12 servings.

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