Archive for October, 2007

Perfectly Imperfect

I am not the kind of woman who makes Pear Croustade with Lemon Pastry and Almonds. No way. That kind of woman, I’d venture, does not have a towering stack of tupperware lids ready to lurch out of the cupboard every time she opens it. She probably does not let a half-peck of pears from the market sit around in the fridge for a week before she realizes she really ought to get around to doing something with them. I’m certain she doesn’t leave her dirty dishes in the sink till morning. And I’d bet you a dozen Tahitian vanilla beans that she follows recipes exactly, especially when pastry is involved, which she would be keen to do.

Me? I’m the lady baker who will blithely substitute ingredients when I don’t have something on hand — cardamom for cinnamon, brown sugar for white, bittersweet chocolate for semisweet. Only one stick of butter left in the fridge rather than a stick and a half? That’s what oil (or some other fat) is for. Sometimes I use a food processor to cut butter into flour; other times I use my fingers. As you seasoned bakers could well predict, this sometimes results in less-than-desirable results: an oddly-spiced apple pie; flatter-than-desirable banana bread; under-sweetened cookies. This is because I try to bake like I cook–with improvisation, instinct, and–ok, I’ll admit it–a bit of laziness. Or, to put it a bit more charitably, a certain un-fussiness.

Sometimes, though, the lazy-lady-baker gods reward me for my modifications, like my use of sour cream and milk instead of buttermilk in pancake batter, which creates these tangy, rich, almost muffin-like, little cakes. Most recently, it resulted in a rustic pear tart with almonds–the less pretentious cousin of Pear Croustade with Lemon Pastry and Almonds.

pear-almond rustic tart

Why the Epicurious recipe uses “croustade” in the title–which, my handy food reference book describes as “an edible container used to hold a thick stew, creamed meat, vegetable mixture, and so on,” remains a bit opaque to me. I suppose a free-form tart shell is an “edible container” of sorts; I see where they’re coming from. But isn’t that sort of like calling a glove a hand-sock?

With that appetizing segue, let me offer my take on the recipe, which resembles the original but is a bit more relaxed about things.

Rustic Pear Tart with Almonds
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices
1/4 cup whipping cream
A few teaspoons of water (if needed)

2 pounds ripe pears, peeled, cored, thinly sliced (I used Bartlett, and I’d have liked them to be a bit more firm)
3 tablespoons sugar (depending on how ripe your pears are)
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons all purpose flour
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon (generous) ground nutmeg
heavy cream (for brushing)
a small handful of sliced almonds — though pine nuts could work here nicely as well

For pastry:
Whisk flour, sugar, and salt in medium bowl. Add butter; using fingertips, rub in butter until coarse meal forms. Incorporate 1/4 cup cream, and toss with fork until moist clumps form, adding some water by teaspoonfuls as needed if dry. Gather dough into ball; flatten into disk. Wrap in plastic and chill 1 hour. [You could also do this in the food processor if you’re so inclined.]

For filling:
Preheat oven to 400°F. Combine pears, sugar, flour, lemon juice, and nutmeg in large bowl to coat. Roll out pastry on floured surface to 14-inch round. Fold crust in half, and then half again, and transfer to rimmed baking sheet. (For some reason that I can’t recall, I like baking my free-form tarts on the back of the baking sheet, but this just might be me trying to be different.) Mound pears in center of pastry, leaving 2-inch border. Fold pastry border over pears. Brush pastry edges with cream; sprinkle with sliced almonds, pressing them ever-so-gently into the pastry.

Bake until filling bubbles and almonds are lightly toasted, about 1 hour. If you oven is crazily uneven like mine is, keep checking the temp and sniffing for signs of burned crust.

Cool slightly. Best served the next day to surprise guests, with modest pours of Woodford Reserve Bourbon or a mug of hot tea.

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I was surprised to hear that my fellow G3ers didn’t know about Tsai Grocery, located in that shopping center opposite the Target shopping center. Next to Godaiko. You know? Tsai Grocery rocks. It has an amazing supply of Asian ingredients, primarily Japanese but also Chinese, Thai, Korean, Indian and other areas of the far east. It always takes me a long time to shop there because a lot of times I have to hunt for the English name of a product I’m looking for, or ask one of the staff to help me (which they always do with both courtesy and efficiency). Also it takes me a long time because I always just end up wandering around looking at everything – the stuff in the coolers is especially intriguing: packaged jellyfish (whole, sliced, chopped); yam paste; frozen dumplings and buns; pickled everything (garlic, scallions, radish); many types of fish cakes; sushi grade pieces of tuna, salmon, and octopus; 23rd century fruit flavored bubble drinks in kid-friendly foil containers. Needless to say, its an adventure.

japanese drinks

Last weekend I cooked up some Udon in Dashi that I learned to make in the Asian cooking class I took last year at ICE. Sort of similar to Maria’s take on the Nigel Slater recipe from a couple posts back. The main difference is the broth, which is made by boiling strips of kombu (a type of sea kelp), then, in this version, adding bonito flakes and eventually straining. Dashi broth is delicate and clean – with a subtle hint of the sea – and the minute you taste it you feel a sense of purification and renewal.

Anyway, for the Udon soup, besides the kombu and bonito flakes, these were some of the items on my shopping list:

daikon (oh yeah I also made daikon marinated with ginger and rice vinegar)
lotus root (oh yeah I also made sauteed lotus root with sesame seeds)
chinese cabbage
shitake mushrooms
udon noodles
enoki mushrooms
togarashi (which is a dried chili pepper mix)
black gomasio (another mix of spices plus black sesame seeds)

Now, nothing makes me happier than not having to go to 20 stores in order to get ingredients for a meal. Tsai had just about everything I needed, with the exception of the scallions. Pretty amazing. They don’t have a ton of produce but they usually have a small selection of the basics – assorted Asian greens, lemongrass, ginger, and the items mentioned in my list. Plus they have all the staples (soy, tamari, rice vinegar, curry pastes) and more – you’ll be overwhelmed at the variety of products they carry.

So next time you are shopping for Asian ingredients, or you just want to escape Ann Arbor and imagine you’ve traveled to suburban Tokyo for an hour or so – check out Tsai Grocery. Either way, it is always a trip. (omg. I can’t believe I wrote that. I swear that just came out.)

Tsai Grocery
3115 Oak Valley Drive
Ann Arbor 48103
734 995 0422

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I was actually planning to write a post about making the most out of what’s left in season and in the market at October comes to a close, and we see November baring its teeth. I thought about this as a subject sometime on Friday. Saturday morning came around, cold, windy and rainy and only confirmed my inclinations. The usual parade of game-day types trudged by our house toward the stadium, looking embattled in their ponchos and plastic bags (and, despite the Wolverine’s forward momentum, an unusual number of them trudged back at half-time, clearly defeated by the weather if not the Golden Gophers). All that ridiculous lingering sunshine and warmth is done with; it’s high time to move on to a steady diet of root vegetables and assorted starches.

But the market took me by surprise. The less hardy members of the family opted to stay home and read books and take baths, while Nick and I (made of sterner stuff) put on our boots and rain slickers and headed out to see what we could see. Which, it turns out, was quite a lot. Yes, there were many squashes and the odd celery root and rather intimidating daikon radishes, but there was a whole lot that seemed more like summer than fall. TheTantre Farms stand alone went on-and-on and plumb in the middle, miraculously, were small baskets of fresh strawberries (cause for Nick to come close to hyperventilation — the next half hour was punctuated by insistent cries of “Mama — the berries! The berries, Mama!” — Mama didn’t have the cash on hand).

It turned out that the limits on what I brought home were imposed by my relatively small budget (end of the month and thus end of the pay period), by the number of days in the week and by my imagination, not what could be bought. I came home with spinach, arugula, lettuce, some rather medicinally named “vitamin greens,” apples, leeks, potatoes, and onions, and really, there could have been so much more. I’ve got an uneasy feeling that we have global warming to thank for all this abundance, but after so many winters of deprivation, it’s hard not to be enthused.

So there was nice fall cooking around here this weekend: some red cabbage cooked down with maple syrup and ginger and a lightly fried egg on top; a veal shoulder braised in sherry with figs served with butternut squash puree; grilled salmon on a bed of spinach wilted with warm balsamic vinaigrette and then tossed with pine nuts and golden raisins. Oh, and Sunday breakfast? Chocolate chunk sour-dough rolls have returned to Zingerman’s and, preferably toasted and smeared with butter, they are one of the best things in the world with a strong cup of coffee and the Sunday Times.

All that said, the swings in the weather and the continuing presence of things like good tomatoes and flavorful peppers have made me think a bit outside the usual fall cooking box. I keep wanting dishes that have some of the bright clear flavors of summer but that are hearty enough to fight off the night time chill. The pasta pepperonata that I made earlier this week meets both criteria. It’s easy enough for a weeknight, as long as you don’t mind hanging around the kitchen a bit, it takes advantage of the fact that the frost hasn’t gotten to the fresh herbs yet, and with a salad and some bread, it makes you feel like you’ve had some dinner. Still lots of peppers in the market. Get them while you can. It was twenty-six when I woke up this morning, so that may not be very much longer.

Pasta Pepperonata (feeds about four medium appetites)

3 T Olive oil

1 T butter

1 large onion, thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 large ripe tomatoes, seeded and coarsely chopped (peeled if you’re fussy)

A combination of 3 large red, yellow and green peppers, seeded and chopped into strips

2-3 T red wine vinegar

1 T honey

Some basil and oregano — fresh is better, but a teaspoon or so each of dried will do

Pepper and Parmesan cheese

Heat the olive oil and butter. Ann the onions and garlic and sauté briefly until the onions are soft (about five minutes). Add peppers and saute for another five minutes until peppers are softened. Add wine vinegar, honey, pepper and herbs. Cover and simmer over low heat for almost ten minutes. Add tomatoes, cover partially and cook another ten minutes until aromatic. If a good bit of liquid has accumulated, uncover and cook over medium high heat until some has evaporated. Serve over pasta. (First toss the noodles with butter and Parmesan cheese. I prefer penne with this, but then I prefer penne with most things.)

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Anne, Maria and Shana have all separately ended up at Logan within the past few months. Regular readers of this blog (hello you brave and few) have probably noticed that we tend not to be kind to Ann Arbor restaurants. I don’t think we’re cruel, but we are often, well, disappointed. Perhaps we’re practicing our guilt-inducing parenting skills. But the restaurants are like head-strong teenagers. They don’t seem to notice, or if they do, they don’t care.

We really do like to be nice, though. So it’s with great pleasure that I can report that all of us left Logan quite happy and determined to return.

My visit was to celebrate an anniversary. We had last been to Logan almost three years earlier when it first opened and were pleased and surprised that they remembered us (we’re also downtown on foot a whole lot, so we may just have been familiar faces). Due to a rare set of circumstances, John and I had also gone out the night before, and, giddy with our freedom, had eaten and drunk a little too much, so we were inclined toward eating light (just to keep in mind while reviewing our menu). (more…)

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In case you’ve been wondering where Jules from the Liberty Street Le Dog has been:

Until Wednesday, soup-lovers longing for some Le Dog goodness will need to hoof it to Main Street, because the owners of this venerable Ann Arbor institution have their priorities right.

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Like lots of other people around the blog world, I fell pretty hard for Nigel Slater‘s The Kitchen Diaries. It’s homey and elegant at the same time, full of appealing and fairly easy recipes and menu ideas and so wonderfully in tune with the seasons that you really do want to go back to it day after day as the weather shifts and get inspired about what to cook for dinner tonight. And the photos. Oh, the photos. Gorgeous in their own right and gorgeously printed on creamy matte paper.

But the thing is, I was always the girl that ended up going for the quieter, darker, under-appreciated room-mate/brother/best friend of the popular pretty-boy. In that vain, I’m championing Slater’s Appetite, an earlier book, more traditionally printed — but still a knock-out — and quite as compelling as The Kitchen Diaries. The writing is sensual, opinionated and wryly intelligent, punctuated with some endearing vulgarity (on selecting Brussels sprouts: “why are you even thinking of buying a bag of pungent, watery little balls, that give you wind?” — for the record, I disagree). And best of all, it’s full of really, really easy recipes. In fact, the book is designed to teach you basics and give you room to run so that you don’t need recipes.

The one I picked for dinner the other night was “deeply savory noodles as hot as you like.” It’s not really a recipe, just a guideline. Heat up some chicken stock (mine was actually a blend of lamb and chicken that had been hanging out in the freezer). While it’s getting (really) hot, put some greens in a steamer and cook them lightly — mine were the last of the tatsoi from the farm share. Meanwhile, get some Asian noodles going — either pour some boiling water over rice sticks or cook up some udon. While the greens and noodles are doing their thing, add fish sauce (1/2 T per cup of stock), soy sauce (1 t per cup ), some chili sauce (or you might leave this out and add it individually at the table if there are timid and/or eleven year old eaters present) and some lemon or lime juice. I had some shitake mushrooms around so I also saute-ed those up and threw them in the stock. When everything seems about right, drain the noodles, put some in individual bowls, lay a handful of greens on top and ladle the stock over it all.

I had some very long green beans from the farm share in the fridge, so I also flash-fried those and tossed them with a little chicken stock, cornstarch and oyster sauce (also inspired by Nigel) and put them out on a serving dish for everyone to reach over and help themselves.

It was all good. We felt virtuous but not at all deprived. Naomi (11) thought the broth was “good but not soothing, too sharp” (for the record, I also disagree with that — it was quite soothing, but not, I guess, in the traditional chicken noodle soup kind of way). Nick (2) used his budding chopstick skills to indignantly remove the tatsoi saying “get that OUT mama, get that OUT” but slurped the noodles with gusto. The adults contentedly stirred in chili sauce and swilled broth and felt justified in returning to the kitchen for Cherry Garcia (QUART size container, 3.99 at Trader Joe’s!) later that night.

Sadly, no pictures, but it was quite handsome in big, deep off-white soup bowls.

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Recently, I met a woman through work who is new to town. Our first conversation quickly turned to that sometimes engaging, sometimes agonizing topic: Ann Arbor restaurants. She was looking for recommendations for my favorite weekday dinner spots — places you can get a meal for under 15 dollars (not including wine or tip). I find that AA is particularly challenging in this range, but here are a few quick ideas along these lines.

  • Paradise Restaurant, in the Colonnade shopping center on Eisenhower, fits this bill perfectly. A bowl of pho (about 8 bucks), some spring rolls or potstickers, and you have yourself a delicious Vietnamese meal. The proprietors, Vicki and Allen, have been running this multi-asian (Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese dishes all on offer) for about 8 years, and from the way they are greeted by their customers — hugs, questions about their daughter, effusive compliments — they’ll be around quite a while longer.
  • I’m a fan of two Thai restaurants, Tuptim, on Washtenaw towards Ypsilanti, and a new place that just opened at the corner of Main and Williams next to the BP station, Marnee Thai. Tuptim is a bit of a haul for me, since I live on the West side of AA, but Marnee Thai is nearly as good. It’s a good sign that when I picked up a takeout order last Wednesday at Marnee Thai, there wasn’t an empty seat in the place. Their prices are roughly the same (around 10-12 bucks for coconut curry).
  • I like Kosmo’s in Kerrytown and University Café on Church St for bi bim bop and other Korean fare, though Kosmo’s is a funky diner/lunch counter that stays open till 9pm and has typical lunch counter offerings in addition to its Korean ones. Bi bim bop will set you back about 8 bucks at both places.
  • Burgers and fries at Café Zola. The absolute best in town; french fries are hand cut and served in a milkshake cup. Comes in at $14, easily enough for two to share.

What are your picks for weekday dinners out in Ann Arbor?

Paradise Restaurant
883 W. Eisenhower (Colonnade)
Mon.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–10 p.m.; Fri. 11 a.m.–11 p.m.; Sat. noon–11 p.m.

4896 Washtenaw
Mon.–Fri. 11 a.m.–2 p.m. & 5–9:30 p.m.
Sat. & Sun. noon–9:30 p.m.

Marnee Thai
414 S. Main
Mon.–Thurs. 11:15 a.m.–2:30 p.m. & 5:30–9:30 p.m.,
Fri. 11:15 a.m.–2:30 p.m. & 5:30–10 p.m., Sat. 11:15 a.m.–10 p.m., Sun. 5:30–9:30 p.m.

Kosmo’s Deli
407 N. Fifth Ave. (Kerrytown Shops)
Mon.–Fri. 10 a.m.–9 p.m., Sat. 7 a.m.–4 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.–4 p.m.

University Cafe
621 Church
Mon.–Fri. 11 a.m.–9:30 p.m., Sat. noon–9:30 p.m. Closed Sun.

Cafe Zola
112 W Washington St
Brunch Hours:
7:00am – 4:00pm daily
(omelettes and waffles not served after 3:00)

Dinner Hours:
5:00 – 10:00pm Sunday through Thursday
5:00 – 11:00pm Friday & Saturday

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In our day jobs, all three of the Gastronomical 3 spend an inordinate amount of time fretting about intellectual property. Given, the current political and legal climate and Big Money interests in squeezing every actual and potential penny out of intellectual property (but I’m not getting on that soapbox right now), we often find ourselves, as librarians and publishers, regretfully limiting access to ideas and texts just to be on the safe legal side, even when we are fairly certain that the original creators (if we could find them) would endorse the widest possible circulation of their works.

Appearances to the contrary, this actually has some connection to what this blog is about. I often think about there seem to be a different set of customs and practices — even if the laws are the same — surrounding the transmission of recipes. The essentially private space of the kitchen is its own kind of public domain. Recipes are copied down out of books by hand, photocopied in ones and twos, passed around on note cards, posted on blogs, read over the phone from one household to another and otherwise make their way into the world, leaving their copyright signs long behind them and often carrying with them no attribution or mention of origin. They are also, I suspect, inevitably tinkered with and modified along the way.

And so, we come to “my” Tortino di Melanzani. I’ve carried around this now very yellowed and stained piece of notebook paper for twenty three years now. I remember precisely writing it down. I was in Raleigh, North Carolina, living out the last days of my first live-in love affair and getting ready for graduate school. After several months hiking around France and the U.K., shopping at outdoor markets and eating street food, I was also developing a budding culinary curiosity. In Raleigh, jobless for two summer months, I would spend the morning on the love seat in our apartment reading Shakespeare, convinced that having read his entire work would somehow prepare me to be an English PhD. By noon the immense and stifling heat in our frugal (meaning no a.c.) apartment would drive me out to the public library and while I intended to study the classics of American modern literature, I more often ended up browsing cookbooks.

In a book that I think had new and vegetarian in the title, but perhaps in a foreign language (nouvelle vegetariana? Verdura nova?), I found this recipe and scribbled it on a page in the back of my binder. North Carolina and the boy who lived there (as well as the girl I was) have been left behind long ago, but the recipe has traveled around with me ever since, coming out every two or three years, a stand-by dish to impress new boys, thesis advisers and vegetarian friends in general.

It’s the perfect dish for this time of year, featuring the bright flavors of summer that are still to be had — the tomatoes, the eggplants — but mellowing them with the cooking and adding a dash of comfort for a chilly night with the egg and the cheese. With a salad, a loaf of bread and a hearty red, it’s a simple and elegant supper. As an accompaniment to grilled lamb loin chops on arugula with a bottle of valpolicella that cost in the double digits, the way we had it Saturday, it’s knock-out fancy.

Since I’m a librarian now and a bit of an obsessive always, I have over the years tried to find a copy of the book or at least a citation so I could give credit where credit’s due. But my research skills have come up lacking. I offer up the recipe with gratitude for its author and memories of many fine meals, and I hope that he or she will feel pleased that I pass it on and even more pleased if you do too. When I think about all the generous souls I’ve known who cook and share their skills and their knowledge, I can’t help but think this would be true.

Tortino di Melanzane

On my old piece of notebook paper, I jotted down Eggplant Pie in parentheses. I’m curious as to whether that was my own twenty-two year old translation or whether even a cosmopolitan cookbook circa early 1980’s felt that an Italian name might be too exotic and felt compelled to translate. These days, I’d far rather eat a Tortino di Melanzone than an Eggplant Pie.

Update: A bit of web searching this morning turned up several recipes for Tortino di Melanzane — all in Italian, except for one by Mario Batali over at the Food Network. He calls his recipe Tortino di Melanzane: Eggplant Cake.

1 medium eggplant, peeled and sliced ½ inch thick

3 T olive oil

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 medium onion, chopped

2 medium tomatoes, seed and chopped, peeled if you’re fussy

1-2 T red wine vinegar

1 t honey

1 T each parsley, oregano and thyme (or what you have in that family)

1 T capers

2 large eggs

3 egg whites

Tomato slices

Mozzarella cheese, sliced

Grated parmesan or Romano cheese

Black pepper

Preheat broiler.

Place eggplant slices on an oiled baking sheet. Brush with olive oil and sprinkle with black pepper. Broil on each side until lightly browned (the original recipe says 3-4 minutes a side; mine always seem to take longer). Remove from broiler and set aside.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Saute chopped onion in 1-2 T olive oil until soft, then add chopped tomatoes, garlic, herbs, capers, vinegar and honey. Cook briefly for 5-10 minutes, then remove from heat and allow to modestly cool.

Sprinkle a 10 inch quiche pan or pie plate with Parmesan or Romano cheese. Spread the eggplant slices in the dish, allowing slices to go up the side, effectively forming the crust of the pie. Next layer sliced mozzarella and then tomato slices. Sprinkle generously with more Parmesan or Romano and pepper.

Beat whole eggs and then them to the cooled tomato mixture. Beat egg whites until they hold soft peaks, then fold well into the tomato-egg mixture. Pour over the eggplant.

Bake at 400 degrees in the lower half of the oven for 15-20 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees, sprinkle with more cheese and bake an additional 10-15 minutes until top is well-browned.

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