While surfing the web I discovered Kitchen Arts and Letters. This bookstore seems like it could be a food lover’s idea of literary heaven. If the website is to be believed there are over 13,000 titles in stock in every area of food writing; cookbooks, histories, cultural studies and more. I have a feeling I could get lost for days in this place.
As fall approaches and the nights get longer and the days become cooler, nothing is quite as soul-satisfying as a steaming bowl of home-made soup. And one of the least expensive, easiest to prepare, and most flavorful of soups is French Onion. When prepared slowly this perennial favorite develops a rich, deep satisfying flavor that belies the simplicity of the recipe. All that is needed to transform onions into a sweet, complexly flavored soup is patience and long slow cooking.
- 2lbs of white, yellow or sweet onions, finely sliced.
- 5 cloves of garlic, finely chopped.
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp sugar (if using sweet onions like Vidalia, omit the sugar).
- 3 tbsp of butter
- 5 cups of beef broth.
- 2 tbsp of dried onions
- a pinch of thyme
- 1 bay leaf.
- In a large dutch oven heat butter over medium low heat until melted.
- Add the onions and the garlic to the butter and stir until the vegetables are coated with butter. Turn the heat down to the lowest setting, add salt and sugar, and place a lid on the dutch oven.
- Cook onions for 45 minutes stirring once or twice to help the vegetables cook evenly. At the end of the 45 minutes the onions should be translucent and very soft and sweet with quite a bit of liquid being released.
- Remove lid from pan and turn heat up to medium low and allow most of the liquid to gently simmer away. Do not boil the mixture.
- Once most of the liquid has evaporated add 1 tablespoons of butter, turn heat to low and cook onions slowly stirring occasionally. After 20 minutes of slow cooking the onions should begin to take on a nice brown hue. Don’t be tempted to turn the heat up to speed up the process as it is very easy to burn the sugars and ruin the dish. The longer this process takes, the deeper and more complex the final flavor of the soup.
- Stir the onions more often as they get deeper in color, making sure to scrape off the fond that sticks to the bottom of the pan. Once the caramelization process begins it doesn’t take long for the onions to fully caramelize and turn a deep mahogany color.
- De-glaze the pan by adding 1/2 cup of beef broth (or a good red wine if you have one handy).
- Add the remaining beef broth, dried onion flakes, and herbs to the pot and simmer very slowly over low heat for 1 hour or until ready to serve.
- Adjust seasoning to taste before serving.
- Serve with a crusty, lightly toasted baguette (with or without cheese) and a crisp, cool salad.
Bortell’s specializes in fresh and smoked fish and on any given day has a variety of local fresh whitefish, walleye, lake perch, smelt, fresh and smoked trout, and smoked salmon that can be ordered to eat under the shade of the trees (there is no indoor seating) or to go.
The deep-fried whitefish was very fresh and succulent, the flaky white flesh covered in a light and savory batter. The lake perch was cooked to perfection, the breading crisp and the fish itself obviously very fresh, and the sweet and tender fried scallops bursting with juice. Unfortunately, the sides that came with the fish were not of the same standard. The coleslaw, although fresh, was too liquidy and lacking in the tang that one expects of a good home-made slaw. The fries were cooked from frozen and while tasty enough, were nothing special, especially given the freshness and quality of the fish.
Bortell’s is definitely worth the drive if you are in Northern Michigan in the summer months; just stick with the fish and forgo the sides. Also, don’t forget your cash, Bortell’s does not take plastic.
August finds Mindelei and I in a new house in a new city in a new state, so it seems the perfect time to begin a new project: brewing ginger beer.
This new adventure is inspired by a super-simple and cost-effective recipe in Sandor Katz’s “Wild Fermentation” for a wild-fermented ginger beer. While I’ve not made ginger beer before, I remember my dad and brother making a few batches about 30 years ago; finding this recipe brought back memories.
Unlike other recipes that use a “ginger beer plant,” Katz’s recipe harvests the wild yeast in the environment to produce what Katz’s calls a “bug.” It is this basic recipe that I am using as the basis for my first adventure into brewing ginger beer.
Where Katz’s original recipe for the bug calls for 2 teaspoons of sugar, I have substituted 5g (1/6oz) of golden raisins for 1 teaspoon of the sugar to innoculate the bug with yeast. Given that I used city water for the process, I boiled the water for about 5 minutes then allowed it to cool to help get rid of the chlorine, other volatile nasties, and unwelcome micro-organisms.
Ginger Beer “Bug” Recipe.
2 teaspoons of freshly grated ginger root.
1 teaspoon of sugar.
1/6 oz of golden raisins (1 heaping teaspoon)
1 cup of water, boiled for 5 minutes then cooled.
– Once the water had cooled to about body temperature, add all of the ingredients to a large glass or mason jar and cover the container with a piece of cheesecloth or paper towel.
– Place the jar in a warm spot to start the fermentation.
– For the next few days, the bug will need to be fed 1 teaspoon each of freshly grated ginger and sugar every day or two until the fermentation process is well underway.
Check back in the next couple of days as I blog about the “bug” as it develops.
There were no obvious signs of fermentation when I fed the bug its dose of fresh ginger and sugar at 8:00am this morning.
There are still no obvious signs of fermentation in the bug but the supernatant liquor is becoming the typical “ginger beer brown” color.
Still no fermentation in the bug but a quite beautiful strain of white fluffy mold has found a new home. Oh well, I guess I’ll start again and hope for better results.
In 2002/2003, Mindelei and I lived in Houston, Texas. While neither of us miss the heat, humidity or traffic, we both miss the excellent and often inexpensive Mexican food that the city has to offer. Countless taquerias, cantinas, taco trucks, and restaurants dot the landscape turning the Houston metro area into a Mexican food-lover’s paradise.
One of our favorite places to eat was a small Mexican hole-in-the-wall just up the road from our apartment where upbeat Mexican pop and traditional music rang out from the jukebox, bright and colorful throw rugs decorated the walls, and the enticing aromas coming from the kitchen all but guaranteed a good meal was in the offing. Just as in many Mexican restaurants across the country, a large bowl of freshly-cooked tortilla chips and two (sometimes three) salsas were brought to the table at the beginning of the meal. However, unlike many other restaurants, a bowl of jalapeno escabeche was also served. It was here that I fell in love with this simple but delicious dish of pickled jalapenos with vegetables. The acidic tang of the pickling brine combined with the crisp bite of the peppers was a superb way to begin a meal, while the heat of the peppers was perfect excuse for an ice-cold margarita or a malty Dos Equis. Depending on the season, the ingredients of the pickle changed; it wasn’t uncommon to find small but crunchy florets of cauliflower, cubes of tender-crisp chayote, or even a few serrano peppers added to the mix.
The following recipe is our basic version of this delicious pickle:
~20-25 jalapenos (1lb -1.5lbs) sliced in halves lengthwise. I prefer to leave the seeds in the pepper but they can be removed if you wish.
1 large white or yellow onion, cut in 8 wedges.
3 carrots, thinly sliced into rounds.
1 cup of cauliflower florets broken into small pieces (optional).
1 head of garlic, cloves separated, crushed and peeled.
3 cups water
1 and 3/4 cups of vinegar. We mainly use distilled white vinegar as it has a neutral flavor but a good apple cider vinegar (or mix of the two) could also be used.
1 Tbs of kosher or pickling salt. Iodized table salt is NOT recommended for this recipe.
2 Tbs white sugar.
1 Tbs of extra-virgin olive oil
2 bay leaves
1/4 tsp of dried oregano or two 2 inch sprigs of the fresh herb.
– In a medium sauce pan made out of non-reactive materials, add the olive oil, a pinch of the salt, carrots, onion, and garlic. Saute on low heat until the onion and carrot just starts to soften and the onion begins to become translucent ~ 3-4 minutes.
– To the carrots and onion, add water, vinegar, the remaining salt, sugar, bay leaves and oregano to the pot and turn the heat up to medium-high. Continue heating the pickling liquid until it just begins to bubble slowly at the sides of the pot, then taste the brine for seasoning. Adjust the seasoning as necessary. There should be a good balance of flavors in the pickling brine; adding more sugar helps mellow the harsh acidity of the vinegar, while the salt helps ensure the pickling brine does not become too sweet.
– Turn the heat under the brine to low and then add jalapenos (and cauliflower if you are using it) to the pot. You don’t want to boil the brine as this will affect the texture of the vegetables. Part of what makes these pickles so delicious is the toothsome crunch of the vegetables.
– Cook the jalapenos, stirring frequently, until they take on an olive-drab color (~ 5-7 minutes). At this point remove the pot from the heat and allow to cool. I like to speed up the cooling process to help preserve the pickles crunchiness by placing the entire covered pot directly into a sink filled with ice and water.
– Once cool, transfer the pickles and pickling brine to a clean, dry vessel and place in the fridge. A large (80 oz) pickle jar works perfectly for storing the escabeche.
– Although it is tempting to dig in and savour the results immediately, allow the jalapenos to sit in the fridge for at least 24 hours to finish the pickling process.
Mindelei and I like to eat these as a healthy and flavorful snack while watching TV or surfing the web. The jalapenos are excellent on nachos or in tacos when sliced thinly, and although I have not yet tried this yet, it would be easy to turn the peppers into home-made jalapeno poppers.
Note: This escabeche must be kept in a refrigerator where it will last for about a week to ten days (if you can resist the temptation that is) and the pickling liquid makes a tasty hot sauce . This is NOT a suitable recipe for the long-term preservation of peppers.
Just because you lack a serious dining budget, doesn’t mean that you have to eat like you barely have two pennies to rub together. Sure we’d all like to be able to eat out at the latest exotic restaurant any -or even every- night of the week, but that’s not really an option for all of us. Even if it isn’t a monetary thing, you may not have the access to restaurants that serve some of the foods that you’ve been craving. Regardless of the reasoning, I’m here to tell you how you can make the pricing more palatable to your budget.
GET TO KNOW YOUR LOCAL FARMERS’ MARKET(S)
It surprises me that there is a myth circulating that produce and other goods at the farmers’ markets are so expensive. Honestly, in all the different places I’ve lived around the country, I have yet to find one that is priced far above and beyond that of the local grocer. Sometimes the prices are comparable, but more often than not they are less expensive at the farmers’ markets. For me, spotting heirloom tomatoes at the local farmers market is such a thrill! Not just because the prices are lower, but because these fruits have just been plucked from the vine. If that alone doesn’t impress you then think about this: if you buy seasonal veggies in bulk then you can freeze or possibly even can them for use in the off season. This will save you from buying imported veggies during the winter months.
FIND THE ETHNIC MARKETS IN YOUR AREA
Granted, there aren’t any ethnic markets in my area… but I still have a secret: when Nigel and I drive down to Holland, MI we are always sure to stop at the Vietnamese grocer, Huynh Plaza. We can buy all the ingredients that we need for Thai and Vietnamese dishes (plus Chinese, Korean, etc.) while we are there. More amazingly, it’s at a fraction of the cost of the ingredients that we can find locally. We often purchase canned coconut milk for 69 cents or cans of single-use pre-mixed curry powders for 59-89 cents each. This is a great savings when you consider that the “cheap” (and lesser quality) coconut milk at the big box stores ranges from $1.29-2.99 per can and that the jars of curry powder (only red or green and not as flavorful) are at least $2.50 and then have to hang around in the fridge for awhile. Not to mention that we also have the option of picking out new ingredients that we haven’t used or maybe even seen before and don’t have to feel so guilty for experimenting because the price is so much less.
KNOW WHEN TO GO GENERIC
I have to admit there have been several times that I’ve been pleasantly surprised when using a no-name ingredient. As you might imagine, there have also been plenty of other times when you couldn’t have paid me to try it twice. Experimenting is good. It might just save you some dough like it has me. Of course you may not be able to find a generic version of Red Leicester cheese, but you can certainly find Extra Sharp Cheddar in the Great Value Brand at Walmart. Yes, I know it was near sacrilege that I just typed that, but it’s true. The Walmart generic does taste better than either Kraft or Sargento. Who knew? I tried it in desperation once and I haven’t looked back.
It’s also not a bad idea to ask yourself why you use a particularly high-priced ingredient. Believe it or not, there was a time when we used to buy some rather expensive extra virgin olive oil (or EVOO as Rachel Ray prefers to call it). After years of throwing money at the first pressing, we thought about what we actually did with it. Often it was simply used as an ingredient or as an addition to the pasta water to keep it from boiling over. Now we purchase plain old olive oil (yes, even generic) in a small bottle to have on hand when we need it.
CHECK OUT THE DISCOUNT/SCRATCH & DENT STORES
I know this may sound a bit odd, but don’t be afraid to check out the foods at Big Lots!, TJ Maxx, or your local scratch and dent food store. I like to head over to a Big Lots! because they tend to get foods in from all over the country and international items that I might not be able to buy from the other stores nearby me. You can find some nice imported oils, pastas, chocolates, etc. in these types of stores. Just keep an eye out for the expiration dates (if that’s a concern for you).
I’m also lucky to have two scratch and dent food stores within a 25-45 minute drive from where I live. I don’t shop at either store regularly, but when I do: look out! Not every item is dented, nor are most out of date. It’s ridiculous the amount of money you can save at these stores if you look (usually 50-70% below retail). Another amazing benefit that you might find if you look: one of our local scratch & dents also sells bulk spices! They come in several sizes prepackaged by the store owners at a fraction of the price that I find them at other grocers in the area. I just save my spice containers, clean them, and reuse them. This also saves me from having to recycle or toss out packaging. That’s a big bonus for mother earth too!
MAKE YOUR PROTEINS MORE COST EFFECTIVE
One of the biggest expenses at the store is meat. If you can’t afford to go-in with a friend on a quarter of a cow or half of a pig, watch for those great sales! There’s no shame in purchasing family sized packs to get the sale price and then package them up for the freezer once you get home.
Feel free to shop around too. You shouldn’t feel the need to remain faithful to a single store. Keep in mind that there are plenty of sale papers available for perusal online. If you prefer the physical hunt, you can still find several that come through snail mail or others that can even be found in the weekend paper. If you’re really good, you will even manage to “double dip” by hitting a sale and using store or manufacture’s coupons as well. Heck, if you can “triple dip” and use all three – more power to you! Also, don’t be afraid to look at the smaller stores in your area. I recently noticed that a small grocer called Best Choice Market (which carries many upscale and specialty foods) has the best price in the area on ground beef (sometimes up to a $1.00/lb. cheaper).
Keep in mind that protein doesn’t always mean meat. Don’t be afraid to add tofu (be sure not to use silken unless you’re making a dessert) to your meal. It’s more cost effective than other proteins and can really soak up the flavor. Another good idea is to use your protein as an ingredient in a larger dish. In our house, rather than serve everyone (Nigel, my mother, and me) our own breast halves, we can slice up a single breast half and make a stir-fry or a pasta dish that will feed the three of us. You may remember that back-in-the-day they used to call this stretching.
SEARCH OUT A REAL DEAL
If you’re looking for beautiful baked goods and don’t have the time or the talent to make your own, you can often get some excellent deals at the end of the work day. Many bakeries will discount their goods or outright give them away. If you’re really adventurous, you could save even more money by going to a local farm and partaking in the U-Pick programs that so many offer when seasonal fruits and vegetables are available. In addition, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA’s) and Local Food Cooperatives (Co-ops) may wave fees or reduce the prices that you pay for volunteering to help out at the store or farm. Of course you can also take part in a community garden, but if that’s not available or would be too much of a time commitment, find out where there are public fruit trees in your area ripe for the picking! Free is definitely the best four letter word out there.
So there you have it! Just a few ideas to make a positive impact on your pocketbook and still enjoy fantastic foods at home. If you have additional ideas or would like to share an experience that has worked for you, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below.
Few foods are as polarizing as Vegemite; you either love the stuff or detest it: there is no middle ground. For those in the “love it” camp, the glossy brown-black spread is ambrosia-in-a-bottle; a super-food handed down from Ninsaki herself that possesses the magical ability to transform a boring slice of white toast or cheese sandwich into an epicurean delight of the highest order. For those that detest vegemite, it is a nose-turning, lip-burning, gag-inducing hyper-saline sludge arising from the darkest recesses of some demented evil-genius’s mind, designed as a cruel and unusual punishment to be inflicted upon innocent taste buds everywhere. Me. . . well, I unapologetically fall into the “love it” camp, while those whom I have convinced to try it since I moved to the States 10 years ago almost universally do not; the one exception was Max, a shelter cat that Mindelei and I adopted in 2002, who lapped it up with zeal.
In America my friends and family are part of the vast majority. While almost everyone I have met has heard of the mythic black spread, most have no idea what it is. All they know is that much like molten lava, the contents of a well-used litter box or lutefisk, it is not something that they want in their mouths. Most, when they finally bow to pressure and cautiously agree to a little taste, invariably make the same contorted facial expressions normally associated with stubbing a toe or smashing a thumb with a hammer. While I would love for at least one person to express pleasure or at least a “hmm… that was ok,” I must admit seeing people pull these faces always makes me chuckle silently.
To a vegemite lover such as myself this kind of aversion is mind-boggling. Growing up there was hardly a day that I did not eat vegemite in or on something. Vegemite, cheese and lettuce sandwiches, vegemite and butter on crackers, vegemite on toast, and crunchy celery sticks schmeared thinly with the salty spread were staples of my childhood. Later as I started cooking for myself, all of my soups, stews and gravies incorporated a touch of vegemite to provide color and seasoning. Vegetarian friends of mine would use vegemite to make a faux beef broth to use in various recipes, and I learnt from a friend of mine that worked at a bakery that vegemite was an irreplaceable ingredient in that other iconic Aussie food: the meat pie.
For me, like most Australians, vegemite was, and is, everywhere. The savory black goo is not just a foodstuff but a cultural icon. The yellow and red label is as instantly recognizable in Australia as Ronald McDonald is in the US, while its jingle, dating back to 1954, could probably replace the current national anthem with nary a word of protest. It is so loved that there is currently an exhibition celebrating vegemite at the National Museum of Australia. Given its place in Australian culture it is hard to understand why vegemite is so reviled in much of the rest of the world.
Having said that, if you grow up with something as ubiquitous and as ingrained into the national psyche as vegemite, you learn to repect the food; treat it right and it will do the same. When it comes to vegemite, “less is more” is not just an empty platitude, but a philosophy to be taken to heart. This is not the type of food that should be slathered on toast like grape jelly, although I have seen tourists do exactly that in diners and breakfast nooks in and around Sydney. If this is one’s introduction to the spread then an adverse association with the stuff is (sort of) understandable.
If you ever get the chance to sample some of the savory spread, keep an open mind, approach it with respect and you may just discover your inner Aussie; but remember you will either love it or hate it: neutrality is not an option.
While I wouldn’t say that our closets are full of skeletons, I can say that there are plenty of family secrets to go around. A big one is that my maternal grandfather’s side of the family is actually Russian. While this may not be a surprise to you, there are many members of our family who are still not aware of this fact. For whatever political reason at the time, when our family first came over in the early part of the 20th century they pretended to be Polish. I’m not sure if this ruse was underway when they first lived in Pennsylvania or if they waited until they arrived just south of Manistee in Michigan. To this day Manistee has a solid population with Polish heritage. My only question: where are all the Polish restaurants to go with these people?
In an effort to fit into the area, my grandfather’s family not only learned to speak the language, but they also learned how to prepare many spectacular dishes as well. Today I’d like to share a few of our family secrets (be they ours or borrowed as the case may be) as well as some improvements that we’ve made along the way. Ever since I can remember, I helped my mother and grandmother make the perogies that we’ve grown to love. What most of the family doesn’t know is that after I was about eight years old, nearly every time platters (or crockpots as the case may be) of perogies were brought to a family event, I was the one who was making them – not my grandmother. Shhh…this family secret is definitely out of the bag. Not only did I have a knack for it, but it was one less thing she had to worry about making for the meal.
The recipe for the filling goes back to my grandfather’s mother (if not further back in our family tree), the original dough recipe (which I would love to relocate) was changed in the 1980s, and my husband Nigel began making the cheese when we were living in Houston because we couldn’t find the right kind of farmer’s cheese down there. Who knew that farmer’s cheese varied across the U.S.?
Although many of you have probably only seen the potato-cheese fillings available at your local freezer, I actually don’t believe I’ve ever had one. I’m not saying it’s not authentic in some way, I’m just saying that it isn’t popular in my neck of the woods. The farmer’s cheese that can be found in Northern Michigan is similar to a very dry cottage cheese, but it can be rather pricey! While it is available to purchase locally, a package generally ranges from $6.99-$10.99 per pound. You can purchase Andrulis Farmer’s Cheese directly from the company in Fountain for around $5.80 per pound. However, this is still a bit much for my frugal nature. Fortunately, when we were living in Houston and this type of farmer’s cheese wasn’t available, Nigel came across a recipe and altered to serve our purposes. So it will merely cost you a bit more than the price of a gallon of milk to make the cheese (oh, and a little time as well).
For those of you who aren’t quite adventurous enough to attempt cheese making (trust me, this will probably be one of the easiest cheeses that doesn’t give off a stench that you’ll ever make), or if you’re not sure that you really want to see what this farmer’s cheese is all about (it’s very mild in flavor), there are a few other fillings that are more mainstream which you might enjoy: shredded ham and cheddar cheese, pizza sauce with mozzarella and mini pepperoni or ham, or even sauerkraut. In fact, I think the sauerkraut filling might just be Nigel’s favorite (of course, that could be because he developed the recipe himself). Regardless, you should find them pretty tasty and easier on the wallet than buying several boxes in your freezer department or heading out to a restaurant that makes them.
Below are the ingredients that you will need for to make the cheese, the filling, and the dough.
1 gallon of fresh whole milk
¼ cup of vinegar or lemon juice
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 bricks of Farmer’s Cheese (or the curd from the cheese you’ve made)
salt to taste
chives to taste
2 1/2 cups flour
1/4 cup melted butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sour cream
bowl to cover
4″ round cookie cutter OR coffee can
Cup of water
Pot of boiling water
Frying pan (preferably cast iron with butter or margarine)
Making the Cheese:
1. Put cold milk into a non-reactive pot (enamel, stainless steel, etc.) and heat to 180F over medium-low heat while stirring constantly.
2. Once milk is at temperature remove from heat and slowly add vinegar or lemon juice while stirring.
3. Continue to stir for a few minutes until the first curds form.
4. Allow the curds and whey to sit for about half an hour, stirring every few minutes to break up the curd.
5. Strain through a cheesecloth.
6. Add salt and mix through the curds.
7. Tighten cheesecloth to remove excess whey.
8. Place in fridge suspended over a bowl. Allow to sit overnight.
9. More whey will drop into bowl overnight. Discard the whey.
Making the Filling:
1. Crumble farmer’s cheese.
2. Add chives & salt to cheese.
3. In a small bowl, beat the eggs.
4. Mix beaten eggs with cheese.
Making the Dough:
1. Sift the flour
2. Add the salt to the flour and sift again.
3. Make a hill with the flour and make a crater in the center.
4. Beat the egg in a bowl.
5. Fold the sour cream and melted butter into the beaten eggs.
6. Dump the egg mixture into the crater.
7. Work the flour/egg mixture with fingers until smooth.
8. Roll into a ball and set on a platter.
9. Cover the ball with an inverted bowl and let sit for ten minutes.
Oh…if it’s not very humid, you may need to add more wetness to the dough. Just take 1 tablespoon of milk & 1 tablespoon of sour cream, mix it together until smooth and gradually add to the dough until it’s a good consistency. On the other hand, if your dough is too wet then add a little flour a couple of tablespoons at a time.
Making the Perogies:
1. Roll out 1/3 of the dough to about 1/16″ (leaving the unused portion under the bowl).
2. Cut out as many circles as possible using the ring.
3. Put a good amount of filling into the middle of the circle (1-2 tablespoons-ish). Be sure to leave at least 1/4″ of dough around the filling.
4. Using your finger, wet the edge of the dough with water.
5. Fold closed into a half-circle and pinch the edges tight to close.
6. Place finished perogie in boiling water, it will float once it’s cooked through.
7. Once cooked through you can either fry immediately, refrigerate and fry later, or you could freeze them for later (they’ll be better if you don’t fry them prior to freezing).
*Note that you will probably need to make two batches of dough for the amount of filling that you’ll have.
Feeling hungry and a little flush on a recent trip into Ludington, MI, Mindelei and I decided to delve into our non-existent budget and try one of the local restaurants. After weighing our options we decided on The Blu Moon Cafe, a relatively new establishment on James Street that we had heard good things about from a few friends.
The first thing I noticed upon entering the dining room of The Blu Moon Cafe was not the smell of freshly roasted coffee nor the aroma of delectables cooking in the kitchen but the chaotic aesthetic that lets loose with an all-out assault on the eyes. Bad eighties black-and-white “art” photographs in cheap black plastic frames, pressed stainless steel panelling, B-movie posters,
a bicycle, mismatched furniture, a lime-green wall, dark 1930’s style booths inset with 50’s grey glitter plastic upholstery and other bits of bric-a-brac that adorn the walls and counter-spaces of the cafe combine to create an incoherent aesthetic that goes beyond being eclectic and vibrant and is more than a little disarming. While the aesthetic of a space is only a small part of the dining experience, it often does set the tone for the restaurant, and here was no exception; this mis-matched mash-up style of decorating unfortunately translates over to the menu.
The menus (there are 4: brunch, lunch, dinner and cocktails) are by no means large but each is just as varied as decor of the physical space. Running the gamut from Italian-inspired pasta dishes to Kansas City style ribs to perogies to asian-fusion and deli-style sandwiches the menu seems to offer something for everyone yet runs the risk of being overly ambitious, and in my experience very few restaurants can successfully “pull-off” such a varied menu. Having said that several dishes on the varying menus have piqued my interest.
On a recent visit Mindelei and I arrived just before the lunch hour and before the space started to fill, yet still found the service to be a little slow, albeit friendly and courteous. I ordered the pierogies while Mindelei ordered the Ultimate Grilled Cheese sandwich with a cup of Tomato Basil soup. The pierogies, small pockets of pasta filled with a potato and cheddar filling, were lightly sautéed in butter, topped with grilled onion, crispy-fried bacon, green onions and sour cream and served on a rectangular platter.
The pierogi dough was well prepared; not too delicate nor too tough as some pierogies I have tried have been, but flavorful and toothsome, although an extra few seconds in the fry-pan to develop some caramelization would have added depth of flavor. The potato and cheddar filling was very smooth, homogenous, and not too heavy yet sadly lacked enough seasoning to really bring out the full flavor of the filling. The onions also would have benefited with a little more time in the frying pan to develop the vegetable’s natural sweetness and complexity, while the salty, meaty and crispy bacon was perfectly cooked. Along with the scallions, the bacon added a nice textural contrast to the dish. This was an enjoyable and tasty dish but could easily have gone from good to great.
The Ultimate Grilled Cheese sandwich though did not live up to its name; the cheeses were rather mild and the tomato in the sandwich was under-ripened, flavorless, and only slightly warmed through, it seemed that the tomato was added to the sandwich after the sandwich had been grilled. The bread was crusted in parmesan cheese giving the sandwich an appealing golden hue and an enticing aroma. The creamed Tomato and Basil soup had a good deep tomato flavor and a nice mouth-feel but it was very sweet and rich.
The sweetness was not balanced by any acid or salt which made the dish seem very one-dimensional; I could not imagine eating any more than a cup. Mindelei thought that it was very reminiscent of a vodka pasta sauce and I think that it probably would have made a better sauce than it did a soup. A few shavings of Parmesan cheese would have been welcome.
This will probably be a place that we try at least once more, maybe for a dinner service to get a better feel for the food. The limited selection of foods that we tried were very hit-and-miss but all had the capacity to be very good, and should have been given the price-point of this restaurant.
As we grow up and begin to form ideas about who we are as individuals, many of those ideas are initially presented to us by our immediate family members. A big part of our lives and immediate culture are the foods we share with one another around the family dinner table.
Although I grew-up in a single-parent home, I had the pleasure of having an extended family who only lived a few hundred yards away. I can still remember pedaling my rainbow colored bike through the woods to my grandparents’ house while balancing the two-speaker, silver “ghetto blaster” on my handle bars. At times I had the Annie soundtrack blasting away, other times you might hear a Strawberry Shortcake book on tape, or possibly even the musical ravings of Ms. Tina Turner herself. Regardless, I was probably singing at the top of my lungs to the plants in the garden as I biked through the area.
Thinking back on my childhood and contemplating the lives of those I have had the pleasure of rubbing shoulders with over the years, I can’t help but wonder what exactly comfort food means to each of us. Of course, there is the quintessential comfort food that most people probably think of when the phrase is uttered (macaroni and cheese, grandma’s meatloaf, mashed potatoes, etc.). It makes me wonder what comes to mind for the people I’ve met from other parts of the world over the years. Did the foreign exchange student from Ecuador miss her grandmother’s famous patacones? Or what about the lawyer that I worked with from Nigeria? Does she miss the rice water drink that her aunt used to make them as an after dinner treat? Are these the comfort foods of their cultures?
As I further reflected upon the idea of comfort foods, I came to realize that they are not simply something that gives a hug to our taste buds. Comfort foods are something that we hunger for on an emotional level. Somehow they manage to give us peace of mind when the world has crashed at our feet, somehow they manage to make us feel better about whatever has us in a tizzy that day, but most importantly they provide us with a connection to all that has ever been wonderful in our lives. Comfort foods bring us back to a time that we felt safe, a time where we could tell that everything was just as it should be, a time that requires no questioning, a time that lacks the insanity that sometimes jumps-up in front of us. Comfort food has the ability to clarify the craziness, to help us find direction, and push us towards our passions. Or is that just me? Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t.
Regardless, I wanted to take a minute to share with you a recipe from my childhood that you’ve probably never heard of, let alone laid eyes on. It might even frighten you. Okay…it probably won’t frighten you, but it might sound a little strange. Close your eyes and… okay, keep them open (otherwise you won’t be able to continue reading this) and take a moment to let these words settle in your mind: Tuna Muffins. I know. It sounds strange, but they are oooooohhhhh so good! This is one of the comfort foods of my childhood. My grandmother found the recipe in a magazine years ago (like in the 1950s). She made it hers and we have been eating them fairly regularly ever since. In fact, I have to share the original recipe with you! But don’t worry, I’ll include “our” version as well.
The greatest thing that my grandmother ever did to this recipe was to leave the olives in the can at the store. The second greatest thing? Trade the butter sauce in for creamed peas and mashed potatoes. Like many comfort foods, this dish is not pretty on the plate, but it is tasty in the mouth. Be sure to ladle the peas over the muffin and your mashed potatoes. You’ll be glad you did. So what other changes have we made? To keep with the “healthy” aspect of comfort foods, we’ve nearly doubled the cheese (although that is totally at your discretion). I also like to add a few shakes of Mrs. Dash or Spike to the mix. I’m sure you already have a favorite mashed potato recipe (whether you add garlic or onion or even make it ahead with sour cream), so I won’t bother with giving you ours. Although I will give you the creamed pea recipe and let you know how we altered it more recently as well.
Just to give you an idea of what you can expect to see as you’re working along. Here’s what the mixture should look like when you’re ready to put it into the muffin tin. Note that you can use an 8×8″ pan or even a loaf pan rather than the traditional muffin tin, but you will need to increase the cooking time to about 30-35 minutes or so. I’ve also used the mini-muffin tins (remember to reduce the cooking time to about 8-12 minutes) when creating more of an appetizer for a larger group of people (that was a great potluck we had when I was living in Houston, Texas). At this point, it merely looks like your average rice and cheese casserole dish, but trust me: there is something special about it.
It really isn’t that difficult to put together the creamed peas. Keep in mind that they should be the consistency of a gravy. Remember that they will also thicken as they cool, so if they’re just a little on the thin side they will turn out okay. Trust me.
Creamed Pea Ingredients:
- 1 regular can of peas
- 1 small can of Peas (optional)
- Milk (you’re going to have to “eye” how much of this to use)
- 2 T Flour
- 2 T of Butter or Oil (note that the you have to be more careful with the butter as it burns more easily)
- Pepper to taste
Once you’ve got your tuna muffins in the oven. the first thing that you need to do is begin making a roux in a sauce pan. Add the two tablespoons of flour and two tablespoons of oil (remember, you can use butter if you prefer) to your sauce pan. It should be on a low heat. Combine these ingredients until they are smooth. Now, add the juice from the can of peas. This will ensure that the “cream” portion of your peas has better flavor. If you are so inclined, you can mush up a small can of peas (in a blender, with a mortar & pestle, or by hand using a fork) and add that in to give the “cream” portion additional flavor and more green color. This is how Nigel has made this recipe his, but I still like it the “old fashioned” way. Once that is well mixed, see what the consistency is. This is when you should add your milk. Remember that you don’t want to make the mixture too thin. Add the peas and keep it stirring. It should thicken as it cooks (and will definitely thicken as it cools). If you feel it is too thin, you can always make a slurry of cornstarch and water to add into the mix to help thicken it up (although be sure your slurry is smooth, otherwise it will make your “gravy” lumpy). Add black pepper to taste (preferably freshly ground). I will warn you, we probably use 10 grinds or so to make it a nice peppery taste. If you know me, you’d find that extremely surprising as I don’t really like a lot of pepper in anything else (but that’s the way grandma always made it).
It’s pretty easy to get everything done about the same time with this recipe. Remember, you can always turn the oven off and let the top brown a little while your potatoes are finishing on the stove if you need. Plus, if you’re really a fan of cheese, then you can sprinkle a bit on top and let that create a lovely brown crust. Add a side salad and you can easily feed a small army. So next time you sit-down to dinner with your family and feel you need a little comfort food, try the Tuna Muffins and think of my family. You can thank me later.
Last Minute Tips for Bringing Down the Cost:
- Don’t be afraid to go generic or buy the store brand. We were surprised to discover that the Great Value brand of cheese at Walmart is far better tasting than either Kraft or Sargento. Who knew? The flavors are much more intense.
- Shred your own cheese. You’ll be surprised at how much farther the 8 oz. brick will go over the 8 oz. bag.
- Shop at your local farmer’s market or seasonal produce market. I discovered that a 10 pound bag of potatoes ranged from $1.49 to $1.89 at the Orchard Market only minutes from my house rather than $2-$5 for a 10 pound bag at our regional and national chains in the area.
- Buy your rice in bulk. It keeps and it’s cheap.
- Buy your tuna on sale. If you normally only eat the Solid White Albacore, then save that for your sandwiches. You can use chunk white or even chunk light in recipes like this.