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Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Mixed Midwest real estate news. Home sale prices in Michigan increased significantly over the past three months, according to a new report from Clear Capitol. “Michigan overall is actually up even more so than the Midwest Region,” said Alex Villacorta, a Clear Capitol spokesperson. Villacorta tells Michigan Radio that prices are up 8.5 percent on a quarter-over-quarter basis, but cautions prices could decline by more than 3 percent in Michigan this winter. Elsewhere in the region, distressed sales in northeast Ohio pushed the decline in area home prices to almost double the national rate, according to Crain’s Cleveland. Prices in the Cleveland area fell 7.9 percent in August compared to a year earlier.

2. Milwaukee streetcar’s street fight continues. Two Milwaukee alderman asked Congress to kill a streetcar line in the city by giving its $54.9 million in federal funds to the cash-strapped city bus system. The alderman and opponents of the streetcar line, said Wednesday that the city could not afford to operate the streetcar. Their efforts face long odds, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. House rules may ban such a financial shift, and the city’s council has already voted to start final engineering on the $64.6 million streetcar project.

3. Closer confines in Chicago. The Chicago Sun-Times reports today the Chicago Police Department will have some company in its headquarters. The Chicago Fire Department is moving in late next month as part of cost cutting ordered by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a source tells the newspaper. Moving boxes have already arrived, and the fire department will abandon its lease on two floors at 10 W. 35th Street. “Everyone hopes everyone will get along,” the source tells The Sun-Times.

Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Milwaukee’s employee-benefit conundrum. Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett and the city’s Common Council are unsure whether the city is exempt from a new state law that requires public employees contribute more toward benefit costs. The city’s attorney says Milwaukee should not comply. The governor’s chief counsel says yes. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports the disagreement centers around the state constitution’s home-rule provisions and terms of a decade-old legal settlement. Following the new law could save the city $8.2 million annually, but risks a lawsuit.

2. Chicago schools’ financial trouble. An 82-page analysis of Chicago Public Schools’ 2012 budget says that a “fiscal calamity” lies in the district’s near future if cuts are not implemented, according to the Civic Federation, which released the report Monday. The organization endorsed decisions like denying teachers a 4 percent cost-of-living increase and raising property taxes, according to our partner station WBEZ. The Federation said those decisions will look small if other remedies are not implemented to the $5.9 billion annual budget by 2014.

3. Urban garden potential. Two Ohio State researchers say as much as $115 million in produce could be grown on vacant land in Cleveland, enough to meet 22 to 100 percent of the city’s fresh food demands. “We were definitely shocked it was really possible to be self-reliant,” Parwinder S. Grewal, co-author of the study, told the Columbus Dispatch. Cleveland holds 5.3 square miles of vacant lots, and the city has recently loosened regulations to make urban gardening more palatable.

It took more than a decade of political wrangling for the Milwaukee Common Council to craft and approve a plan for a $64.6 million downtown streetcar project that was finally green-lighted Monday.

Sort of.

Because of concerns aired during contentious debates about possible cost overruns, the council limited current spending to engineering expenses. No money for construction will be released until a comptroller reviews the project.

“I view this as a significant step, but by no means do I view this as the end of the road,” Mayor Tom Barrett told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Barrett noted that Milwaukee is one of few American cities that has no light-rail or streetcar public transportation in supporting the plan.

Officials say the project could create anywhere from 680 to 1,080 jobs in the city, depending on which particular routes are included in the plans. Approximately $55 million of the project will be covered by a federal transit grant the city received in 1991 and, to date, has left unused. The remaining $9 million will come from a local city tax and parking fees.

But others fear that moving utility lines for the project, among other items, could wind up costing Milwaukee millions more in unseen expenses.

The street car is an “absolutely horrible idea,” Alderman Joe Dudzik told Milwaukee Public Radio. “My true thoughts about this idea is that the first car that we put on the track should be named ‘Abyss’ because we could be building a hole in the late and throwing money into it for the rest of this city’s existence.”

Say the name Patricia Wells to a foodie, and they’ll immediately mention her guide to Paris and her French cookbooks. Say Patricia Wells to a Midwestern foodie, and you’ll get the response, “she’s from Milwaukee.”

Patricia Wells, by Micki Maynard

This week, Wells is on her home turf, visiting Chicago and Milwaukee in conjunction with her latest book, Salad As A Meal: Healthy Main Dish Salads For Every Season, just published by William Morrow.

Wells, a long-time journalist for the New York Times and International Herald Tribune as well as an author, is a perfect subject for Reinvention Recipes. Over the past decade, she’s reinvented herself and her approach to writing about and preparing food.

I bought my first Wells book, The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris, years ago, and used it to plan many trips to Paris. She followed it with books on bistro cooking, Provence, and another version of her food lover’s guide, this time for all of France. Those books were laden with rich recipes that reflected classic French cooking, even though many people did not cook that way on a regular basis.

But in the middle of the last decade, Wells made a dramatic change in her lifestyle. She lost 30 pounds by shifting away much of the butter and cream laden recipes that permeated her cookbooks, and placing more emphasis on olive oil, herbs, flavored salt and vegetables.

She began to go jogging in the Jardin du Luxembourg, the Paris park, and sought new approaches to healthier meals. When I attended her cooking school in 2007, we used butter just once in a week of lessons, but had vegetables at every meal, often drizzled with flavored oils. (But it wasn’t Spartan: we also drank a lot of wine.)

Wells’ previous book, Vegetable Harvest, was the first she wrote since adopting her new regime. Salad As A Meal is the next step her healthier approach. “It’s a continuation, without hitting people over the head about it,” Wells said at a book signing in Chicago this weekend. “I’m saying, ‘this is good food. Try it.’”

One of her goals is to change the perception of salad from a side dish to centerpiece. She also wants her readers to think of salads as an opportunity to be creative. “This is not a book about salad bars, where you just pile things on a plate,” Wells said.

Along with salads, the book has recipes for tarts, breads, and other accompaniments. But its centerpiece is the idea of salad as a main course, something many Americans have adopted anyway. “Half the time, when you go to a restaurant, that’s what you have,” Wells said.

Her timing is ideal for farmers’ market season, which is getting off to a bit of a late start this year around the region thanks to lingering snowstorms. But as soon as spring peas and asparagus arrive, recipes from the book await. “It’s spring, and people are thinking about” salads, Wells said (even if they’re also dusting off their cars and decks).

Wells’ approach also is in line with food trends in the United States, where restaurants like The Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland work closely with local farmers. Times readers will remember a wildly popular feature story by Mark Bittman, 101 Simple Salads for the Season, that ran in 2009.

Because she’s based abroad, however, Wells may not be as famous in America as our celebrity chefs and cookbook authors, like her friend Ina Garten, aka The Barefoot Contessa. But she has a firm following, through her website, her Facebook page, and her blog, which recently featured fellow Parisienne Olivia de Havilland. She also is now on Twitter, @patriciawellsfr.

This month, Wells’ hometown paper, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, profiled her in a piece called “Living the Foodie Dream.”

A busload of her fans from Lansing, Mich., drove three and a half hours to Chicago to see her this past Sunday, and a steady stream of autograph and photo seekers thronged her at Spice Market, a shop in Chicago’s Old Town.

Fans greet Wells

Wells returns the enthusiasm. Arriving in Chicago this weekend, she took a long walk up Michigan Avenue and enjoyed spotting new buildings and businesses that were not there on her last visit. “It’s so vibrant,” Wells said of the Windy City. “It looked so clean and lovely — and you have a new mayor!”

Wells will be in the States a little longer, and then it’s back to Paris to work on her next project. She’s updating The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris once more.

Here are two salad recipes from Patricia Wells, via The Today Show:
Chicken Salad with green beans
Crab Salad with lime zest

Have you tried a Patricia Wells recipe? Which of her cookbooks do you own?