There’s something to be said about traditions. Whether it be a religious rite, a certain food made every year without fail for a holiday, or some corny family ritual that has you groaning inwardly each time it’s performed, traditions bind us and make us feel a sense of community between ourselves and those who share them. Most traditions revolve around church or family, but just as meaningful are the ones we create or choose purposefully, rather than the ones we inherit.
My favorite tradition which falls in the latter category is the annual Gourmet Underground Detroit potluck picnic on Belle Isle. Every year for the last three years (and hopefully many more to come), we gather under the willow trees on the north side of the island to eat, drink, socialize and bask in the beautiful views. Anyone is welcome to attend, but there is a core group that shows up each year. You can be relatively assured of a delicious and potent punch or shrub made by Evan or Dave, creative DIY eats and coffee drinks from James, elote from Amber and Nate, homemade sausage from the Porktown Sausage boys, and a host of other treats that go above and beyond the standard picnic fare. And of course there’s Todd, who (along with Evan) organizes the picnic, comes early to set up, and stays until everything is returned to the condition it was in when they arrived. Continue reading
It began with a mysterious email from James last week titled “secret dinner”. Someone in Detroit was throwing a dîner en blanc- did we know about it? Were we going? Not yet, and absolutely. James’s invite had come in the mail* from an unknown source, instructing him to invite 10 people who could also each invite 10 people. White linens, real tableware and formal all-white dress were specified. We were instructed to arrive on Belle Isle at 5pm; a Champagne toast would be provided at 6:30. We were not to discuss the event with anyone other than invited guests.
*Update 8/22/11: I picked up mail from my old house today, and can you guess what was in the pile? My very own printed invitation to the event. Still no clue who sent it, but that eliminates any close friends/ acquaintances since whomever sent it didn’t know I moved 6 months ago!
We began organizing in earnest, coordinating who would bring what food, chairs, tables, etc. Due to the last minute nature of the invitation, many of our friends were out of town or otherwise engaged. However, when our contingent assembled at Supino in the Eastern Market to make our way toward Belle Isle, we were a respectable 15 strong. The earliest to arrive sipped Jolly Pumpkin Oro de Calabaza and Domaine de la Pepière Muscadet from paper cups while we awaited the other guests. The anticipation mounted as the pizzeria became a hive of activity- James slicing up his home-cured coppa; Christina baking bread and grabbing jars of Detroit Zymology Guild’s pickled asparagus from the basement. We chatted and checked out each other’s all-white outfits, a rather strange sight in this group. We weren’t all in formal wear by a long shot (the guys actually outdid the women in this department, with three or four natty suits in the group), but our ensembles respected the spirit if not the letter of the invitation. We gazed upward at the drizzling sky, hoping the rain would abate but thankful for no thunderstorms and determined to have a party regardless.
Once all were present, our merry caravan made its way east with tables, chairs, linens and what seemed like several metric tons of food and wine. As we approached the western tip of the island, we were surprised to find that we were forced to park a good quarter mile from the site, and marveled over the number of other white-garbed picnickers (none of whom we knew) heading in the same direction. Upon arrival, a festive tableau awaited- rows of tables outfitted with white tablecloths, floral arrangements and fine china, with diners of all (adult) ages decked out in pale finery.
We began to set up our tables only to quickly discover that we had brought far too much food to be able to actually sit down and eat at the table, let alone have proper place settings. I felt a bit let down at having failed at this part of the instructions, but the feeling quickly subsided as I surveyed our generous spread. I remarked to the others that our group might be the scrappiest, eating standing up, several of us in thrift store attire, but there was no question we had the best food. It didn’t hurt that we had two of the city’s top chefs, a restaurant owner and several small food biz entrepreneurs in our gang. Continue reading
June 11 (only 10 days ago… it seems like months already!) was the second Gourmet Underground Detroit potluck picnic on Belle Isle. I won’t call it the second annual picnic, because I’m secretly hoping we’ll have another one before the year is out. Nomenclature aside, it was a grand old time- you can read my post about it and see some of Marvin’s photos on the GUDetroit website. Some of the highlights were: tree climbing, willow swinging, mint spanking, cornholing (ahem), hula hooping, river gazing, and getting to finally meet Warda (who I wrote about here) and her beautiful family.
My contribution to the gluttony was a platter of kebabs and kefta, with some raita and a sort of tomato-cucumber-herb relish/chutney on the side. I’ve been eating a fair amount of goat meat lately, for a few reasons: first, I just wanted something other than the “big three” of chicken, beef and pork (we’ve run out of venison); second, because goats aren’t a large scale factory farmed animal; and third, because they have a flavor similar to lamb (which I love) but are milder and less fatty (not to mention cheaper). I will say that goat leg meat is a huge pain in the ass to cut up, unless you’re ok with a lot of sinew; I tend to get obsessive and remove as much of it as I possibly can, which explains why my prep time was three times as long as it should have been. But while goat can sometimes be a little tough, mine was pretty tender as a result of the extra trimming. If you’re using it in a long-cooked dish, you wouldn’t need to go to that trouble.
I also made kebabs from ground lamb with a little beef mixed in, and tons of spices and vegetables blended in for flavor. I’m used to anything with ground meat being called kefta rather than kebab, but the name of the recipe was “chapli kebab” or “slipper kebab”, because the patties are in the shape of a chappal, or sandal. The recipe originates from Peshawar in India, not the Middle East or North Africa, but you’d never know it from eating it- the flavors are quite similar to kefta I’ve had in Middle Eastern restaurants but with a little less onion/garlic flavor and more herbs and spices.
In my last post I alluded to a picnic with some fellow Detroit gourmands, some of whom I introduced to you in this post. We’re a growing group, and we decided to have a potluck picnic on Belle Isle as an excuse to eat, drink and get to know each other a little better. Molly and Todd scoped out the perfect spot under some willow trees, on the banks of the Detroit river with a view of the city.
Knowing this group, I had high expectations, but wow… I have to say I was pretty blown away by how much everyone put into it. Dave (aka Captain McBoozy), James and Evan ruled the drinks department- Dave made a Rhubarb Rum Punch and some Prescription Juleps, Evan brought a chartreuse-and-pineapple juice concoction, and James (our resident coffee-roaster and token Romanian-American) made a fabulous cocktail with cold-brewed coffee, vodka, passionfruit syrup and Romanian mountain mint.
The food was no less spectacular… I displayed an incredible amount of willpower and paced myself perfectly so that I was able to nibble and sip on and off all day while never feeling uncomfortably full or overly tipsy. This was no small feat, since it was pretty much a spread to end all spreads. My contributions were a big bowl of chlodnik and a mess of honey, cumin & lime-marinated grilled chicken (grilling courtesy of Todd, thanks dude!). The rest of the food I almost hesitate to list for fear of inadvertently leaving someone out, but there were homemade sausages, pizza on the grill (organic dough courtesy of Strawberry Moon in Ferndale), Vietnamese fresh rolls, an Israeli couscous salad with shrimp (don’t tell the rabbi!), bruschetta, gazpacho, Korean beef tartare lettuce wraps, grilled steak with arugula, a huge bowl of guac, and an assortment of gourmet ice cream courtesy of Jeni’s Ice Creams in Columbus. Jarred also brought an assortment of wines provided by Western Market- score!
We whiled away the afternoon until it slipped into evening, and somehow managed to dispatch almost all of the food. We were even making ham sandwiches towards the end of the day, with leftover marble rye, mustard, and some J&M German bacon (not really “bacon”; more like the best ham you’ve ever had). As the sun set over the city, we packed up our belongings and mused about how perfect the day had been, and wondered aloud how soon we could do another picnic.
Back to the chicken- this isn’t the first time I’ve made this chicken, but I usually make it with wings for a better meat-to-marinade ratio. The drumsticks weren’t bad, but I think I’ll revert to using wings from now on. It was hard to “name” this recipe because all of the marinade ingredients are bold and prominent- the sweet-tart punch of honey and lime, the toasty warmth of the cumin and cayenne, and the savory hit of garlic all contribute to a sauce that sings with flavor. The elements are inspired by Middle Eastern cuisine, but I’ve never had anything like it in a restaurant or come across any similar recipes in any cookbooks or blogs, so for now I’ll claim it as my own. We couldn’t do this at the picnic, but if you’re near a stove, the leftover marinade (boiled and reduced) makes a killer dipping sauce.
To see the full set of photos from the picnic, check out my flickr set.
Honey, Cumin & Lime Grilled Chicken
4-5 lbs chicken wings (or drumsticks), preferably free-range or organic
1 cup freshly squeezed lime juice (4 large limes should yield this, unless they are particularly dry)
2 Tbs honey
1 Tbs ground cumin (seeds toasted & freshly ground if possible)
½ tsp cayenne or 1 tsp Harissa paste (or more if you like it spicy)
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
1 packed Tbs minced garlic (a couple cloves depending on size)
1 tsp kosher salt
2 Tbs olive oil
Combine marinade ingredients in a small bowl or glass measuring cup, stirring to dissolve the honey. Taste to see that the sweet/sour flavors are balanced. It should taste pretty pucker-inducing, but the heat will tame some of the acidity. Taste for spiciness as well, adding cayenne as you see fit.
Wash and pat the chicken dry. Place in a sturdy Ziploc-type bag with the marinade and seal, expelling as much air as possible. Marinate for at least an hour, longer if possible.
Grill the chicken over medium heat, turning frequently and basting often with the marinade (this should take about 15-20 minutes for wings; slightly longer for drumsticks. If unsure, use a meat thermometer and cook to 160°). If you like, boil down any remaining marinade on the stove until slightly thickened and use as a dipping sauce.
We had been planning an oxtail dinner for Valentine’s Day all week- bought the ingredients days before, had the meat marinating in a whole bottle of wine- so why are you looking at a photo of a sandwich? This is an object lesson for all you other cooks out there to READ YOUR RECIPE ahead of time!
Saturday I got home a little later than expected from a baby shower and dropping off some of my Valentine goodie bags and was feeling a tiny bit stressed about the time, but we were planning to eat late anyway because Marvin had a quick job to do at 8pm, so I wasn’t too concerned about the fact that I wasn’t getting started until 5pm. After all, the meat was already marinating, and all I really had to do was chop some carrots and celery, right? Until I looked at the recipe and panic set in because I failed to notice the 4 hour cooking time required for this dish. Mind you, that’s not even counting the pre-braise browning time, or the time required to reduce the braising liquid before the dish goes in the oven. Factor into the equation that I am one of the world’s pokiest cooks, and you can understand my anxiety levels rising. A second wave of panic set in when I went into my cupboards and realized I had no tomato paste or canned tomatoes (I could have SWORN I did). I had just been at the grocery store picking up a few last-minute items, but I decided to head back out and just quickly grab the tomatoes. I was in the automatic checkout lane at Kroger and the machine asked me to scan my shopper card, so I started fishing around for my keys, when I came to the horrible realization that they were in the ignition of my car. I had been in such a hurry and so distracted that I had just rushed into the store, locking them in. At this point I was completely distraught. I called Marvin and had to tell him that the oxtails were not happening- we would have been eating at 11pm or later at that point. To add to the overall mood, the Hazel Park police officer who unlocked my car for me made a point of saying “Eww, gross!” multiple times when I answered his question about our supposed menu. (Like I care if he likes what we have for dinner, but I thought it was pretty insensitive!)
Fortunately, I was able to cobble together a respectable supper for us in spite of adversity. It involved a THIRD trip to the store, but at that point I didn’t care. I had already bought a good loaf of bread and a couple of nice cheeses at Holiday Market (a Zingerman’s fresh cow’s milk cheese with Tellicherry pepper, and a Point Reyes farmstead blue) and had happened to pick up a couple of red bell peppers since they were on sale for an unheard-of $1.67/lb. So I formed a plan: go retro-’90s and roast the peppers along with a couple heads of garlic, and serve that with the bread, cheeses, and a salad. The final trip to the store was to pick up some prosciutto and another bottle of wine (the bottle I had bought had been chosen specifically to go with the oxtails, and I wanted to save it for that).
Once I got over beating myself up over being so ill-organized, I was able to relax and enjoy the evening. It definitely made me question the wisdom of planning such an involved, lengthy dish on a special occasion (at least not when you have other obligations the same day). Of course, I could have been better prepared, but I also think that sometimes I sacrifice my own enjoyment for the sake of trying too hard to do something complicated for a dinner party, holiday or other occasion. My other problem is that I always use a special occasion as an excuse to try something I’ve never made before, which can lead to complications. We enjoyed our “picnic supper” every bit as much as a meal that would have taken hours longer, and it gave us more time to sit across the table enjoying each other’s company. An added bonus was that we ate the oxtails the next day, so it was almost like having a whole Valentine weekend rather than just the one day. Not bad. And I will be posting the oxtail recipe soon.
(Incidentally, the photo is of a sandwich I made the next day with the leftovers. I wasn’t about to try to take photos that night after all the hassles; I just wanted to eat and relax!)