As I write this, it’s 10am and temperatures are already in the mid-80s. I’m sitting outside and there’s a pleasant breeze, but I know I only have about an hour (if I’m lucky) before things become unbearable and I have to take shelter. It’s expected to hit 95° today, and we haven’t yet put our lone window A/C unit in, so I may be spending the remainder of the day in the basement. If things get really bad, I might have to resort to turning into one of those people who write in coffee shops for the day.
These unusual-for-Michigan high temperatures have thrown everything off kilter for produce. Most notably, the fruit trees all blossomed prematurely and the blossoms then got killed off by a frost. For a state with a major fruit-growing industry, things are not looking good: we’ll see little if any apples, cherries, peaches, pears, plums or anything else that grows on a tree.
Despite this setback- one that affects me personally as a small business owner trying to use local produce- there are still several fruits that should still thrive this year, like raspberries, blueberries, currants, gooseberries and of course, strawberries. Strawberry season, which usually starts around this time, has already been going strong for a few weeks, and probably won’t be around much longer. As soon as we were able, in late May, my partner Molly and I went to a U-Pick farm on a beautiful spring morning and picked 60 pounds of the most gorgeous berries I’ve seen in years (see below). Last year’s strawberries were somewhat watery due to a lot of rain, but these were deep red with concentrated, complex flavor.
In addition to making jam for our business, we each took a few pints for our own personal use. While not much can beat the simplicity of a bowl of sliced berries with a small sprinkling of sugar and maybe a touch of lemon, my favorite thing to do with them other than that is to make ice cream. I had recently checked out Jeni Britton Bauer’s book Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home from the library, and as someone who makes lots of ice cream, was intrigued by her no-egg method. Rather than make a custard base, she uses a combination of cornstarch, cream cheese and corn syrup to give the proper consistency and scoopability to her creations. I was a bit skeptical at first- I’m trying to limit consumption of GMO corn products- but decided to go ahead with a couple substitutions, using tapioca for the starch and an organic corn syrup. Incidentally, Jeni’s is a cool regional (Columbus, OH) company who generously sent several pints for us to sample at the first annual Gourmet Underground Detroit potluck picnic, which is happening again this Saturday! Everyone loved the Bangkok Peanut, Wild Berry Lavender and other creative flavors. Continue reading
When traveling, I always have mixed feelings about relying on guidebooks for restaurant and bar suggestions. On the one hand, when you’re in a strange city and have no idea where to go, you might not want to spend limited funds taking a chance on a place that could be a dud. On the other hand, you might miss out on the opportunity to discover something wonderful that you wouldn’t have come upon if you were blindly following a book’s suggestions. Not to mention that guidebook-endorsed restaurants are often full of all the other tourists who bought the same book!
In Seville, as it happens, we came upon a microscopic bar (you can see pretty much the whole place in the top photo!) that we later learned was listed in our Lonely Planet. Happily, its charm was in no way diminished as a result of its having been recognized in print, and it ended up being one of our favorite bars of the entire trip. Bar Àlvaro, in the Calle Mateos Gago, is a quirky family-owned bar open since 1904 (as was conveyed to us in chalk; see photo). Its current owner is Àlvaro Peregil (translation: Oliver Parsley, hehe), who is hands down the most enthusiastic bartender I have ever seen on either side of the Atlantic. He presides over his domain with an infectious energy that makes you feel as if you’re privy to an impromptu celebration for no other reason than that it’s great to be alive. Tall for a Spaniard, he dominates the postage-stamp-sized space with his booming voice and animated gestures, taking orders one minute and grabbing a rhythm stick the next to demonstrate his percussive prowess. We knew instantly that this was our kind of place, and settled in for some drinks and tapas. Continue reading
For the last 4 years, I’ve been in a book club with about 5 friends. The members have shifted slightly, with a couple people leaving and returning because of school or other commitments, but the core group has been meeting every few months since spring of 2008. We’ve focused on classic literature for the most part, but have also sprinkled in some sci-fi, current fiction, children’s literature, and will soon add a graphic novel to our list.
I always look forward to our meetings, which combine spirited and sharp but unpretentious discussion of the books with wine, friendly company, and typically some good snacks! Sometimes we meet at a restaurant or café, but more often we meet at someone’s house. The last meeting was at Ian & Michelle’s, and Ian had made profiteroles with caramel sauce; the one before that was at Sarah’s and we had smoky, marinated grilled shrimp and other goodies. See what I mean?
Last weekend it was my turn to host. I wasn’t sure what to make because the meeting was at an odd time of day (1pm); I didn’t know if people would have just eaten lunch, or if I should plan to serve a light lunch. A serendipitous combination of eggs on sale plus a small piece of smoked salmon led me to this combination, a variation on some tuna-stuffed deviled eggs I did last year (those were good, but I have to say these were way better). The eggs were on sale because they were a little older- i.e., perfect for hard-boiling (less fresh eggs are much easier to peel). The salmon was too small a piece to serve on its own, but a perfect size to lend its flavor to the egg filling. Add some crème fraîche, capers and shallot or red onion and you’re in business.
I also put out a salad of equal parts roasted squash and beets dressed with lemon juice, shallots, feta and parsley. Super simple but beautiful to look at, and a great flavor combination, the sharpness of the shallot and lemon balancing the sugar-sweet beets and squash. With a couple other contributions from my guests, it ended up being a nice little spread. Food was noshed, wine and tea were sipped, and art history books were consulted as we tried to find images that corresponded to the culture the book was about (we had read Things Fall Apart, about the Igbo people in Nigeria at the start of colonialism). Continue reading
I started writing this post and realized- for once, I don’t have a lot to say. But that’s OK; the following is all you need to know: A small venison roast, some local root vegetables from the farmers’ market, some homemade stock, and a weekend day with enough time for a long braise can yield the following:
I don’t often get roasts from my dad, usually his venison is in burger form, so this was a first. I just treated it like I would any other tough cut of meat, braising it for a while in the stock at a low temp and then adding the vegetables later so they didn’t cook to mush. The result wasn’t earth-shattering. but it was homey, comforting and hearty, which was just what I was going for.
Venison Stew with Root Vegetables
1 small venison roast (about 1.5 to 2 lbs)
a few Tbs bacon fat
2 cups stock, preferably homemade: beef, lamb or chicken will work (mine was actually turkey, leftover from Thanksgiving)
aromatics: a couple of bay leaves, some peppercorns, juniper berries, or a couple sprigs of rosemary or thyme would all work
2 large carrots, peeled and cut into large chunks
1 large or 2 small parsnips, peeled & cut into chunks
5-6 small shallots, peeled & trimmed
4 small potatoes, scrubbed and cut in halves or quarters
1 celery stalk, trimmed & cut into ½-inch pieces
salt to taste
Preheat oven to 225°. Warm the stock on the stove in a heavy lidded pot large enough to accommodate the meat. Rinse the venison and pat dry; lightly salt the meat and rub all over with the bacon fat. Add venison to pot, cover, and braise in the oven for 2 hours. You can turn the meat halfway through, but it’s not strictly necessary. Meanwhile, prep the vegetables. After the initial 2 hours, lightly salt the vegetables, add to the pot, cover, and cook for another hour or until vegetables are tender.
If the meat comes easily off the bone, feel free to serve your roast as-is; if meat is a little tough, you can either braise a bit longer, or do what I did: Remove meat from pot until it cools enough to handle, remove from the bone and cut into bite-sized pieces; return to pot to warm through. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper if needed. If desired, serve with chopped parsley as a garnish.
I’m sitting in the guest room where Robespierre and Farrow are sequestered, trying to milk the last moments with them before we give them up this week to their new “parents” (due to Marvin’s severe allergies). The house– my new home– is filled with the aroma of chicken roasting on a bed of shallots, herbs and garlic, courtesy of Marvin, who decided to take a turn in the kitchen tonight. Although we signed the paperwork over a month ago, the moving process has been slow, and I was still at the old house this weekend trying to take care of odds and ends and consolidate things to one side in the basement. As of this weekend I’ll have tenants in both flats, and even though I’ve been sleeping here for a couple weeks, that somehow seems to make it official.
Surprisingly, I have been managing to cook a fair amount since the move, I just haven’t had time to photograph or blog about it. We’ve had venison and pork meatballs with pasta sauce from last summer’s tomatoes, a chicken in mustard sauce with goat cheese and leek-stuffed apples, and these Provençale-style mussels that I actually did photograph because it was a paying gig for a recipe column I’ve been writing.
That day we also had our first dinner guest, our friend Jon, who had been helping Marvin move that day. I love all the “firsts” that come not just with moving, but with moving in together- our first night in the new house, first meal cooked on the new stove, first guests, etc. One first that I am particularly eagerly anticipating is the first fire in the fireplace (right now, there are boxes piled in front of it, but I hope to rectify that this weekend). Unlike the vast majority of my peers, I have never shacked up with a significant other, so I was a little anxious about the adjustment, but it seems to be going fairly smoothly so far. (One night at dinner when we did get into a bit of a spat, he gave me a hug afterward and said something like “It’s OK, it wouldn’t be normal if we didn’t have some growing pains”. That’s why I love this man!)
As soon as things are more settled, I really hope to get back into my blogging routine. Going from posting a few times a week to only once or twice a month is seriously bumming me out! Part of it is due to time taken up with some paid writing gigs I’ve gotten lately, which is a good thing, but I miss writing here just for me (and the few of you who visit). But instead of dwelling on that, can we talk about mussels? I can’t believe I’ve never posted about mussels before, seeing as how they’re one of my favorite quick-but-fancy meals (fancy in terms of being a bit more exotic than my usual weeknight fare, not in terms of difficulty).
This recipe will be old hat for experienced mussel-makers, but I’m hoping to convert a few of you who may have the mistaken assumption that mussels are tricky to make. Au contraire, mon frère- if you can mince shallots and open a bottle of wine, you’re more than halfway there. This article on CHOW is the best one I found to describe the selection, cleaning and storage of mussels for the uninitiated. Personally, I just buy them the day I’m going to use them; the store I buy from (Holiday Market) sells them already cleaned and debearded, so all I have to do is check for any open ones (if they close when you tap them, they’re still alive and you can safely use them). Add a green salad and some bread to soak up the juices and you have a pretty freaking fantastic meal in about 10-15 minutes. Perfect if you’re busy doing other things like, say, unpacking 30 boxes of cookbooks…
Moules à la Provençale (Mussels with Tomatoes and Garlic)
The following recipe makes enough for two main-dish portions or four appetizer portions. If you want to double the recipe, double the quantity of mussels but only increase the other ingredients by half.
2 lbs. mussels
2-3 large shallots, roughly chopped (about 2/3 c.)
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped (about 2 tbs.)
1 bay leaf
4 tbs. chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 14-oz. can diced tomatoes, drained
1 c. dry white wine (I used an inexpensive Vinho Verde, but a Sauvignon Blanc would also work well)
A couple of glugs of olive oil (about 2 tbs.)
Pinch of salt, as needed
Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a wide, lidded skillet (alternatively, a Dutch oven or stock pot may be used). Add the shallot and garlic and cook until they just begin to soften. Add the wine and bay leaf and simmer for a couple of minutes to blend the flavors. Add the tomatoes and 3 tablespoons of the parsley. Taste the mixture for salt, adding a pinch or two if needed (may not be necessary if your tomatoes are salted).
When the mixture begins to simmer again, add the cleaned mussels and cover the pan or pot with a lid. You will want to have the rest of your meal ready to go, because the mussels are best eaten as soon as they are cooked. Steam the mussels for about 4 minutes, shaking the pot occasionally (especially important if your pot is deeper than it is wide and the mussels are stacked on top of each other). Do not overcook or the mussels will become tough.
Spoon the mussels into shallow bowls with some of the cooking liquid and vegetables, then garnish with the reserved parsley. Any mussels that have not opened should be avoided (usually there are only a couple per batch). Serve immediately with crusty bread, a salad and the leftover wine you used for cooking.