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Archive for January, 2008

Some Winter Reflections

Times are a little quiet over here at the Gastronomical Three. Post New Year, work reared its ugly head and gave all three of us a bite in the butt, but I think there’s also been a bit of winter hibernation going on. I’ve been cooking: a bit of braised chicken and parsnips here, some espresso–rubbed pork chops there, a little tomato sauce put up this summer with a couple of Appleschram Italian sausages . . . but it’s felt pretty quiet and mostly functional. Tasty. But functional.

So, in the best winter tradition, instead of doing, I’ve been reading. And because all my books on hold at the Ann Arbor District Library came in at once, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about local eating. A couple of months back there was Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (hey, I know I am like so late to that party — but I couldn’t afford the hardcover, dammit), followed by his In Defense of Food (which, while not an argument for local eating per se, points us inevitably in that direction). Then there was Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegatable, Miracle, disarmingly homey, laugh-out-loud funny on the subject of turkey sex (while paradoxically bringing me also to tears on the same subject, as I read about how agribusiness has all but eradicated the breeding instinct in domestic turkeys), and, to my tastes, sanely moderate. Kingsolver won me over when she declared that any belief system that did not include coffee also did not include her.

There’s been more. A little Wendell Berry profile in this month’s Gourmet Magazine. Our own Arbor Brewing Company pledging a grown-local menu (and oh, how I’m hoping the kitchen does it justice), and of course a lot out there in the blog world. Sticking close to home, we have The Farmer’s Marketer keeping a close eye on the the people and businesses contributing to the local Ann Arbor food scene. Recently I ran across Eat Close To Home, an Ann Arbor blogger working hard to find sources for locally grown and produced food and generously sharing them with rest of us. Diane Dyer, Ann Arbor nutritionist and multiple- time cancer surviver, has been chronicling her explorations of eating local. And up in Lansing, Caroline’s mom has been writing about her attempts to fill her daughter’s lunch box with organic, preferably locally produced, meals that align with the more standard offerings at her daycare center.

Me? I’ve been trying. I haven’t made any pledges or started measuring my food miles. But increasingly over the past year, I’ve been looking at where things are grown and under what conditions and trying to keep my appetites and my food dollars close to home, even when it means spending a few more of those food dollars. These days, when I go shopping, I think about how I would have fed my family this week if I could only buy local products. Last week? Apples, cider and milk are easy. So are eggs, butter, cheese and meat (chicken, pork, beef and lamb, all grass fed, free range or pasture raised, as appropriate). With a little scrounging, I found some Michigan turnips and some mustard greens. The slow roasted tomatoes in my freezer would have helped (and if I was really making a commitment to eating locally, there’d be a lot more of those). Michigan dried cherries perk up a lot different dishes. My family would not have gone hungry. Not this week.

But we probably would have been grouchy from headaches induced by caffeine deprivation. The elders could have eased the pain with Michigan wine, but the younger set would have been jonesing for orange juice, and no one would have been happy without carbohydrates. (There’s lots of locally produced bread and some locally produced pasta, but I’m betting the wheat has a few hundred miles on it).

I absolutely believe in all the good reasons for eating local. It supports friends and neighbors. It improves food security in a number of ways. It promotes biodiversity. Animals raised outside of industrial farms are more likely to have a pleasant life and a painless death. It tastes better. But I’m still not sure how much of this koolaid local organic apple cider I can drink.

Some sharp-tongued writer I came across recently (and whose name I forgot to note), says “my Irish ancestors had a name for eating locally. They called it famine.” A rhetorical flourish, perhaps, but this weekend when I looked at the meager offerings at the Farmer’s Market (and I know that’s not the only place to get local produce) the word “scurvy” did float through my head. Food trade and food travel evolved for many different reasons and only some of them were because of an appetite for exotic luxury goods (an appetite which has its merits at any rate). A lot of that trade was about new ways to keep people healthy and alive. But, of course, it’s a long way from low level trade dependent on things like wind driven ships and camels’ backs to the petroleum-fueled excesses of today.

I am wary of dogmatism in all forms, and so am on the alert for dogmatism in the guise of local-and-sustainable language. I am relieved to say that I have actually found very little. Most of the writers, professional and amateur, who are promoting this kind of eating are folks a lot like me who just seem to want us to try a little harder, think a little more, spend a little more when it’s appropriate. I’m also, frankly, wary of belief systems that are intent on interfering with pleasure. So far, most advocates of local eating actually argue for its pleasures. They point out the epicurean surprises and delights of a diet focussed on the foods close at hand.

But last winter, my mother sent us a pineapple from Hawaii that she saw harvested from the tree. John, Naomi and I spent an all too brief half hour slicing it, smelling it and devouring it. A distinctly exotic pleasure, and one I would be loathe to give up.

Then again, I’m willing to have that pleasure only once every couple of years, when Mom goes to Hawaii. And I’m willing to slowly and steadily shift the majority of my diet away from the coasts and the tropics and the Mediterranean and toward the Great Lakes. I’d like to say that moderation is the key, but I’m also suspicious that advocating moderation is just another form of rationalization. Few of us deliberately live in excess of any kind.

I’m motivated to make these kinds of changes because I believe there are both ethical and pragmatic reasons to do so. But what will keep me going (you know, it’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle . . . midwestern women don’t get . . . oh, never mind) is if the food keeps tasting good. Almost all the proponents of local eating say “you’ll be eating better than you ever have in your life.” I believe that, and I believe it because I think you’ll be paying a lot closer attention to your food. Most of us are, for at least large portions of the week, mindless eaters. Local eating, at least in this climate and in this era, is, perforce, mindful eating. And when you start paying attention to where your food comes from, how its prepared and what it’s possibilities are, you immediately start eating better. The constraints imposed by climate and geography are also great opportunities for creativity and innovation. I never had a turnip in my life before this summer. They’re good.

Ann Arbor Turnip Gratin

A couple of pounds of pink Tantre Farms turnips (get them at The People’s Food Co-op)

2 T Calder Dairy butter (available at Arbor Farms)

Some thyme that you dug up out of your garden this summer

1 cup of Calder Dairy heavy cream (also at Arbor Farms)

1 cup of cheese. You want Parmesan. Struggle with your conscience and buy a Wisconsin variety. Or let your conscience win and experiment with some Michigan cheese (a Rosewood cheddar? Something from Zingerman’s? Grassfield’s raw milk gouda?) .

Salt and pepper. Of course these are on the exempt list. Remind yourself that it’s much more efficient to transport dry goods such as spices (and coffee!) than, say, watermelon.

Preheat oven to 450.

Slice the turnips paper-thin, preferably with the mandoline that you got for Christmas and of which you are no longer afraid. Melt the butter in a cast iron skillet and then let cool. Spread out a layer of turnips, then some salt, pepper and thyme. Repeat twice more. Put the skillet over medium heat and cook, covered, for about ten minutes. Peek under the bottom layer to make sure you’ve got a little browning going on. When you do, pour the cup of cream over the turnips, put the cover back on and continue to cook over medium heat for another twenty minutes or so until the turnips seem fairly tender. Sprinkle the cheese on top and pop it, uncovered, in the oven until it’s brown and bubbly. Very nice with (free range) pork or grilled (grass-fed) flank steak.

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IMG_4728.JPG Michael and I showed up for the first time at La Zamaan the day after the glowing Bix Engels review appeared in the Ann Arbor Observer in early December. Upon reading Bix’s tales of the freshest, most authentic Middle Eastern food around, we knew there was only one thing we could do: head to La Zamaan and stuff ourselves. While I’ve found that some reviews in the Observer are a bit more charitable than are warranted, I am here to confirm that the La Zamaan review is well-deserved; Ann Arborites, you no longer need to schlep to Dearborn for your Middle Eastern fix.

For the sake of contrast, let me tell you what La Zamaan is not. There is a Middle Eastern restaurant on South University, just a three minute walk from my office, whose spinach-halloumi salad I fell in love with a while ago. Really fresh, really delicious, and topped with a house-made vinaigrette of lemon juice, oregano, sumac and olive oil. I was a regular for a few months, until one day I went in and ordered the spinach-halloumi salad and they quietly substituted feta for halloumi. An honest mistake, I thought. The next time I went, my spinach-halloumi salad appeared with feta again. When I asked the cook about it, instead of giving me what I ordered, asked, “What’s wrong, you don’t like feta?” When I tried to explain that my relative affection for feta was beside the point, he scoffed, and said that most people like feta better than halloumi.

I can’t imagine this scene repeating itself at La Zamaan, on South State Street, in the space formerly occupied by Pilar’s Cafe. It’s halfway between the Produce Station and Howard Cooper. Its culinary location, however, is closer to Beirut. Ali Hijazi, the restaurant’s owner, tells us that he is eager to create an authentic experience for his customers — providing a robust menu of standard Middle Eastern fare, supplemented with fresh, seasonal delicacies that will be available on a limited basis. It’s a recipe that seems to be proving successful so far.

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Front to back: hummus, grape leaves, karnabeet, fattoush

IMG_4733.JPGOn that first visit, we were greeted by a buzzing crowd of curious lunchtime customers, a harried chef, an even more harried waiter, phones ringing with take-out orders, and heavenly aromas from the kitchen. There are only about 8 tables in the place, and we were lucky to grab a small table for two. Our first two choices for appetizers, spinach pies and kibbeh, were sold out — the kitchen couldn’t keep up with demand, spurred by the Observer review. They had just hired two more employees to help out in the kitchen, one of whom was happy to pose for us when we came back on a quieter night (right).

Admittedly, the decor isn’t much to look at, and every time the doors open — which is quite frequent — the cold Michigan air disrupts any Mediterranean reveries you may indulge in. Nonetheless, this restaurant is warm and inviting — it’s the kind of place you want to tell your friends about, your neighbors, your co-workers. The kind of place that is inspiring a bit of cult-ish loyalty — maybe even a bit of an addiction. Witness G3 guest-blogger Eric’s account of a recent visit:

On my way there, the two cars driving in front of me, turned into the parking lot. I looked in the rear view mirror to see if the cars behind me were going there too. I got out of my car, and there was a guy getting into his car and he said to me, are you going in there to eat? And I responded, yeah, why? Did you eat all the food? And he said, no, just be careful, the food’s so good you might not want to leave. Ever. And then he laughed a crazed and diabolical laugh. Thanks for the invite to dinner, but I’m not going to be able to make it. The bottom line is I can’t wait until tomorrow or Wednesday to go back.

It’s hard to pin down exactly what accounts for such devotion among the customers, but I’m happy to keep pursuing the elusive formula. I’ve tasted pretty widely during my visits and takeout adventures: hummus, falafel, baba ghannouj, fattoush salad, grape leaves, stuffed cabbage stuffed baby squash (special dishes, not on the menu), chicken tawook, kibbeh, and my hands-down favorite, karnabeet. The house specialty, karnabeet is the most transcendent cauliflower dish I’ve ever tasted. Lightly fried till golden brown, drizzled with tahini sauce, and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds . . . I want some now.

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Simply put, the food is done really well, the portions are generous, and the dishes are reasonably priced. We really love the combo for two — which includes 2 tawook, 1 kefta, 6 falafels, hummus, roasted red peppers, fattoush, and rice — for about 23 dollars. IMG_4723.JPG I’m not sure what they’re doing to their rice, besides adding vermicelli and butter, but it is fluffy and light and surprisingly standout. The portions are generous enough that two people will likely take home some of this platter in to-go boxes. I ordered the “Pita Combo” for delivery at lunch one day — (pita bread with falafel, hummus, baba, and mujuddarah, along with garlic sauce and tahini sauce), which was so abundant that I got 2.5 lunches out of it. Despite the glut, save room for dessert — baklava from Shatila bakery.
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Finally, two caveats: The first two times we had the tawook, it was accompanied by grilled tomatoes and onions. The most recent time, the tomatoes were not grilled, which was a shame, considering they are so out of season right now. I would heartily recommend that the restaurant put off serving anemic tomatoes altogether. The pita bread is also a disappointment — the standard fare that is typically sourced from New Yasmeen bakery in Dearborn. Though Ali mentioned the other night that they’re interested in trying to make their own bread in-house. I’m looking forward to that and other innovations coming out of the kitchen at La Zamaan; although I’d be perfectly happy if things there don’t change much at all.

La Zamaan
2285 S. State St.
734-761-5800
Mon-Sat 10:30am – 9:00pm
Sun 12:00pm – 4:00pm
Dine-in, carry-out, delivery (limited area/$20 minimum)

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Amy Ginn, we’re waiting to hear from you. And  I notice that one of the G3 won a prize. And the mother of the other one of us won a prize too. I am the official big loser. I’ll have to go home and console myself with some good wine and reading one of the four, um five, cookbooks I got for Christmas.

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Back on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, Shana and Michael showed up at the house bearing the Tantre Farms “Thanksgiving” share that we had ordered at the end of the season. The share came in one really big box and one smaller one (I enjoyed Deb and Richard’s email warning prior to pick-up saying that we would need a wagon, dolly or reasonably hefty type to get the share home. Michael managed in the last category). We laid it out across all of my counters and stood contemplating the haul, in equal parts overwhelmed and exhilarated. Even after dividing the share, there were going to be enough vegetables to keep us on our toes for many weeks to come.

There were a lot of leaves of various types, both tender (spinach and mustard greens) and robust (four, count them, four, varieties of Kale including cavola de nero that I still daydream about). There was broccoli and four colors of cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and potatoes, breakfast radishes and carrots, heaps of winter squash and the most daunting assortment of root vegetables that I have ever confronted.

I have to say, those root vegetables were not what you would call lovely, at least not on first impression. The beets, kohlrabi, turnips, celeriac and, my goodness, Spanish radishes, were, well, gnarly. A few years ago, I would have viewed these all with both dismay and disdain. Clearly they are vegetables from another planet. But I’ve become a much more eclectic vegetable eater lately, and I viewed this rather bizarre looking harvest as both challenge and opportunity.

I resolved that I would not let rot win and that I would make good use of every last vegetable. Even with Thanksgiving coming up, this was going to require some serious attention. I strategically stowed the loot in the fridge, the dry drawer and the cellar (I didn’t bury anything in sand as recommended by Tantre Farm. Maybe next year) and got down to work. I can’t remember where it all went (except into our bellies), although I did try to keep track. Here’s some of the uses to which I put all that food. Not a loser in the bunch:

  • Broccoli with olive oil, garlic, crushed red pepper and pine nuts (good by itself; good on pasta)
  • Beet salad with feta and mint
  • Chestnut soup with apples and celeriac (slightly sweet, creamy, and perfect for Thanksgiving, although it does somewhat resemble dirty dishwater)
  • Broth with udon and spinach (perfect for recovering from Thanksgiving)
  • Roasted cauliflower with olive oil and sea salt and a mustard vinaigrette
  • Brussel sprouts braised with chestnuts, bacon and shallots
  • Pasta with braised cauliflower, capers and bread crumbs
  • Winter squash by itself, with butter and salt; winter squash in soup; winter squash some other ways I’ve forgotten
  • Mustard greens in bread salad
  • French breakfast radishes on buttered baguette, sprinkled with sea salt
  • Two composted pumpkins (I had plans for those pumpkins, really I did. But so did the cycle of life).
  • Roasted kohlrabi with olive oil and coarse salt. A personal triumph as more than one kohlrabi had been lobbed into the compost this past summer. And, you know, it’s not bad.
  • Parsley on everything
  • And, Saturday night, the last of the turnips in a gratin, creamy and rosy and the perfect accompaniment to some espresso-rubbed free range pork chops grilled in the snow by my enterprising husband.

It was all fun and mostly virtuous, but the taste memory that’s stayed with me was an adaptation of a recipe from Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries for cheesy pie for a cold evening.

Slater makes his with just potatoes, but there were an awful lot of turnips to get through, so my version used half turnips and half Yukon Golds. This is more of a concept than a recipe, but the idea is to take a few onions and saute them in quite a bit of butter (about 4 tablespoons) on long, slow heat so that they start to melt and turn golden brown. At the same time, boil about 3 pounds of potatoes (or, like me, a combination of turnips and potatoes) until they are tender enough to mash with some warm milk and another 3 tablespoons of butter. While this is going on, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. When the roots are mashed and the onions are done, butter a ten inch cast iron skillet. Spoon in about half of the mash, smooth it out and layer on the onions. Then take about half a pound of Stilton cheese and sprinkle it on top of the onions, along with a generous amount of black pepper. Smooth the rest of the potato-turnip mix on top and finish with a light blanket of Parmesan cheese. Pop the whole thing in the oven for 20-25 minutes until its slightly crusty and an appealing golden brown. We sauteed up some of that Cavolo de Nero with garlic and had it on the side — it provided a nice contrast to the creamy richness of the pie. We ate this on a night when the rain was drumming down outside and we were still getting used to the idea that it was dark at 5:30. It soothed and satisfied. (Note, also, that this is a pretty good dish for those of you trying to eat local as we head into the lean months. I don’t know any sources for Michigan stilton, but a Maytag Blue from Wisconsin doesn’t have too many miles on it, or if you really want to stick close to home, you could swap in some of the Rosewood raw milk cheddar that’s being sold over at Whole Foods. It won’t have quite the same tang, but it has a bit of a bite.)

So, I won, mostly. It’s seven weeks since the deluge and in the crisper drawer are three small radishes, two carrots and those intimidating Spanish radishes. I think we all have a date with Shana’s pickle recipe this week. The farm share monkey will be off my back, and although I worked so hard to get rid of it, I’ll be downright sad it’s gone.

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The G3 have been AWOL over the holidays. I’m not sure about the others, but I have no excuse other than there’s been more cooking and eating than writing about eating and cooking going on. Starting on the 15th, when the three of us got together on a snowy night to recreate a Del Posto menu, it’s been non-stop simmering, roasting, braising and even a little baking around here. There’s been butter and cream and red meat and burrata and toasted coconut ice cream with chocolate sauce and a significant narrowing of the arteries and a few extra pounds on everyone in the family except for maybe Nick who never seems to grow.

But now the year has turned and it’s another snowy day. Ann Arbor is under the loveliest blanket of white I’ve seen in several years. Walking in the woods this morning reminded me of all the snow-filled children’s books we’ve been reading lately; the bushes and young trees so laden by snow that they bent into arches over the paths forming a long tunnel of glittering white. Zack-the-dog ran around in great looping circles and buried his nose in drifts and put his rump up in the air and seemed to be under the impression he was a puppy and not a sedate seven year old. Even the girl who had stayed up until 2:30 with her friends, putting in curlers and making music videos, came out of her pre-adolescent sulk to make snow angels and slide down a hill on her snow-panted butt. Then we came home for hot chocolate and macaroni and cheese and scrambled eggs.

It seems like a day for a few recollections and resolutions.

Since the Del Posto dinner (and a word here to anyone who tries the braised beef recipe; we can’t figure out how a six quart pan is supposed to hold seven pounds of meat, a mess of vegetables and three bottles of wine — while we can hardly bear to say it, we think Lidia screwed up. Go for a bigger pan), there was a work dinner with two soups (butternut squash and wild mushroom) and fancy charcuterie. And there was dinner at my mother’s house where I found myself in a slightly bewildered state — and not entirely of my own volition — turning out roast beef, mashed potatoes and creamed onions (Mom’s 1946 edition of the Joy of Cooking, a wedding present in 1950 came in very handy).

Then we came home to the Christmas-birthday fete of scallops with wild mushrooms and polenta (accompanied by a half-bottle of real champagne), duck breast with roasted grapes and creme fraiche, a potato and bacon gratin (with a knock-out bottle of Bordeaux we had been given for Christmas) and that coconut ice cream. Nick was allowed to stay up for the first course. He had already eaten his scrambled eggs and green beans, but I made him a token plate for the ritual of the thing. He squinted at the scallop and declared “I am going to eat that” and popped it into his mouth. Then he stole several more from the rest of us and ate a bunch of polenta. The mushroom however, he immediately disdained, acting upon some atavistic child’s aversion to fungi. One look at it and he shoved it aside. “Don’t want that.” Naomi seconded his opinion, although she good-humoredly obeyed my injunction to “try a bite of everything.” While Nick was carried, protesting, to bed, I cooked the duck breasts to a just-right medium rare that was immensely satisfying to me-who-had-never-cooked-duck before.

There was a lot more, of course. A Molly Steven’s braise of lamb shoulder with fennel and orange and ginger that is worth recommending for the smells that filled the house, but tasted just okay (I suspect if I had marinated it the recommended overnight rather than five hours it would have been more flavorful). There was the discovery that The Produce Station is smoking fish now (and, for that matter, selling a small but interesting selection of mid-priced wine). We sampled an absolut citron smoked whitefish that was very tasty (although cut a little thickly for my tastes). All in all, I have to say, the house has smelled really good the past week.

But this madness must end. It’s time to get simple for a while. In pursuit of that simplicity, I’m trying to restrain my tendency to a long list of difficult to achieve New Year’s resolutions. Culinary-wise, I have pared the list down to four, published here with the idea of generating accountability — and perhaps future posts:

  1. Finally learn to poach that egg (I know, you’ve heard this before)
  2. Learn to make a pie/tart crust
  3. Do more cooking with fish
  4. Learn about yeast baking

I’m easing into that last (and most terrifying) resolution by returning to the famous no-knead bread. I made this a few times in its blog hay-day when just about everyone was doing it, and it was good, especially warm with butter, but never quite as good as I wanted it to be. The last time, something went terribly, demoralizingly, awry, so much so that I ended up with a great slurp of saturated dough that I had to scrape out of the pan and into the garbage. I put my Dutch oven away in shame. But among the many cooking-related presents that turned up under the tree (and there were many; my loved ones were very kind to me) was a subscription to Cooks’ Illustrated and the first one came this week with a recipe for almost no knead bread and so out came the dutch oven and the parchment paper and it turns out that if you add a little beer and a little vinegar and about 15 gentle kneads after the dough has rested for 18 hours, you get something pretty damn spectacular. The new year is off to a good start.

A special thanks to all who took a chance on our Menu for Hope prize and contributed to raising more than 90,000 dollars to support the school lunch program in Lesotho, Africa. Make sure to check back on January 9th to see if you won. And Happy New Year from the G3 to all our readers — it’s been wonderfully exciting to watch your numbers grow this past year. We look forward to sharing many more culinary adventures in 2008.

And tonight it’s soup. There’s probably a lot of soup in store for January. And no, we will NOT put any of the leftover creme fraiche on it. Well, maybe a dollop.

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