Sunday, December 17, 2006

Stay-at-Home Vacation

In late August, shortly after we returned from our vacation in France, Hambone and Spice took another little vacation—at home. Alpha and Beta were with Spice’s parents at their lake home in South Dakota, busy eating vegetables straight out of Grandma’s enormous garden and fish that Grandpa had reeled fresh out of the lake. Hambone and Spice made plans to enjoy the quiet and to eat in a restaurant each night, which was an especially attractive idea since we weren’t paying a babysitter for the privilege of fine dining without the children. Herewith, a round-up of our fabulous week on the town.

Sunday: La Cucaracha
It had been a long time since I had eaten Mexican food, and I had been craving it, completely unprompted, as we made our drive back from South Dakota. So Hambone and I drove directly to La Cucaracha in St. Paul, widely regarded as the best Mexican west of the West Side and east of Lake and Chicago (Minneapolis). To start, we enjoyed margaritas and a queso-chorizo dip, which arrived with corn tortillas instead of chips. My main course was a smothered burrito with beef and beans. The burrito was also had lettuce in the filling, which is wrong. It gets soggy and nasty from the heat of the filling. One other little quibble—the burrito wasn’t spicy. I’m just saying we needn’t return to La Cuc any time soon.

Monday: Grand Cafe
Last November (2005) Hambone and I had a fine meal of rustic French fare—country pate and cassoulet—at Bakery on Grand in Minneapolis. We ate here with friends and loved the snug dining room, established around a bakery. Our server wanted to know where we lived and where we liked to eat. At the end of our meal, the owner brought us a beautiful boule from the bakery as a gift. Everything about the evening was nice—the food, service, and dining room were unpretentious, but high quality, and I couldn’t wait to return.

As I tried to make a reservation for January, I reached a recording that stated the restaurant was closed for renovations and would open by the end of the month. I called for weeks only to get a new recording that said the restaurant was under new management and would reopen in the future.

Finally, in August I decided to try my luck and easily made a reservation at the new Grand Café (not to be confused with the Greek diner of the same name that was near Macalester College in the mid-1990s).

Hambone and I were leery of the short menu, but the deeply red heirloom tomato and fresh mozzarella salad we shared to start was incredibly flavorful and piqued our interest. And, we had an outstanding country pate with olives, pecorino, and Cedar Lake tomme. I had a chicken that was messy in its presentation but utterly delicious—juicy from its buttermilk bath, crunchy from a roll in flour then fried to perfection. The chicken was served with some garlicky potatoes and pickled onions, olives, and asparagus. With these courses, we drank an Henri de Lanzac Lirac (2003), a sirah and grenache Rhone red. For dessert I had the butterscotch pudding, which tasted sort of like an undercooked, sweetened roux.

Hambone had a beautiful salmon filet with heirloom tomatoes, shaved artichokes, and hominy gnocchi (which were notable). In the end, we were both disappointed by our meal. We had really high expectations that the new restaurant just didn’t live up to. But I liked that the kitchen was so close that you could hear dinner being made—very homey indeed.

Tuesday: Alma
Hands down, Alma is one of my favorite restaurants of all time. I’m always eager to see what is on the menu, and I have never been disappointed by the meals eaten there. Chefs Jim Reininger and Alex Roberts excel at showcasing fresh, seasonal ingredients, prepared innovatively. I love the mix-and-match three-course prix fixe menu, which has awesome pricing and flexibility. This meal was the high point of my week.

To start
Grass-fed bison tartare with shallot, capers, mustard, “egg yolk” mayo
Every time I eat tartare, I have to dump preconceived ideas about what I’m eating—don’t get me wrong, I love raw meat—and think only about flavors. There is something about tartare, which is so close to uncooked hamburger, that makes me squeamish. But, the bison had flavor in spades—here, a rich, iron tang brightened by vinegary capers and shallot—which helped to overcome any issues I take with its form.

Spaetzle with corn, hen of the woods mushroom, bacon
Stunning! Corn and bacon are my favorite late summer combination, especially when served with some sort of pasta. Now, add a meaty, earthy mushroom and I’m turned into a quivering bliss case. This dish reminded me so much of one I ate in Portland, OR, in 2002 and think about often.

Crisp rabbit confit and panzanella with capers, currants, tomato and garlic, and natural jus
I never refuse confit-ed anything, and this rabbit was nicely gamey and meltingly soft.

Wine: Cotes du rhone blanc reserve Perrin ‘04

Hambone had an amazing meal as well. To start: muskmelon and local prosciutto; pasta: spaghetti nero with seared calamari, tomato concasse, tarragon, and lobster fumet; and main: rainbow trout and prawns with “fried” green tomatoes, sweet peas, thyme, and creole sauce.

Thursday: Vincent
Vincent is one of the few fine French dining spots in the Twin Cities. Anthony Bourdain hailed Vincent as one of the great places in town to eat tail-to-snout cuisine, although it has never been our luck to see foie or sweetbreads or other parts on Vincent’s menu.

The dining room was absolutely empty on this night, except for the six-top of middle-age, middle-class suburban ladies, and it’s a large space with high ceilings–the sort of dining room where you can be seen if you’d like. The food was good, but not great. I devoured scallops, which my body rejected, like clockwork, around midnight.

To start
Pan-seared scallops, leeks, fingerling potatoes, orange sauce
Caramelizing scallops by pan-searing is always a revelation. These seafood slabs were crispy and chewy, sweet and salty. The orange sauce sang with citrus and was mellowed by butter, an ideal complement to the scallops and potatoes.

Thai snapper, flageolet beans, arugula, Spanish chorizo, almond-garlic froth
This entrée was a highlight of our gastronomic week. The snapper was flaky and moist and “of the sea,” while the arugula provided a fresh, green note to counter the spicy Spanish chorizo. The almond-garlic froth balanced the textures and grounded the flavors. In all, it was a really sensational dish.

Wine: S.Anderson, 2001 chardonnay from Stags Leap

A perfectly French trio: pot de crème, crème caramel, and crème brulee

Friday: Davanni’s recovery
We had reservations for Five, but I couldn’t bring myself to eat another rich meal without taking a break of some sort, so I cancelled our highly anticipated table. By the end of the workday, I was hungry and feeling marginally better. Since I still felt like I had a hangover, I naturally gravitated toward hangover fare. The hominess of a hot (and greasy) salami hoagie from Davanni’s was a perfect remedy.

Saturday: Nami
We have a few favorite sushi restaurants around town, and quite frankly—as with friends—we’re not looking for new ones. However, when we took a sushi course this summer, the instructor (who teaches cooking professionally) gave us a list of his favorite places, as well as the reasons why he like them. Nami was on the list for impeccably fresh fish so John and I prioritized it.

Occupying a former warehouse space in downtown Minneapolis, Nami has an enormous dining room. The post-and-beam construction features natural wood and beige paint for a New Age whitewash effect. It’s uberhip, and although we weren’t the oldest, we were the fattest, least blonde folks there.

We started with shumai. These steamed pork dumplings had a wrapper infused with wasabi, which gave their juicy, porkyness a kick and sinus-clearing goodness. Then, the sushi. We shared a hand roll with kaiware, gobo, cucumber, bonito flakes, and salmon skin. Then moved on to nigiri: Japanese tai, tuna, bincho, toro, hamachi (ethereal), anago (I love to get the sea eel whenever I can, no gloppy sweet sauce), hotatagi (scallop), saba, black tobiko (fun).

Round two, which we almost always regret ordering (because in the time it takes to arrive, digestion sets in and rice begins to fill us up), took forever to arrive. True to form, we were stuffed, but choked down California rolls and spicy salmon rolls, which were very good, but not worth the wait.

In all, it was a truly excellent food week. The weather was stunning, the days still long. And, once out of our usual routine, we were able to enjoy the city and each other's company. In the new year, I'd like to take more holidays at home.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Lunch Chronicles: Tanpopo

The first day of November bore a heavy, leaden sky and the attendant nip of cold temperatures, which means only one thing will do for lunch—soup. Despite bringing to work a thermos filled with homemade chicken-corn chowder, I thought I would treat myself to udon in a rich, nourishing broth at Tanpopo.

This Lowertown noodle shop is located in a warehouse cum artists' lofts. The space is beautiful, with the post-and-beam construction you find in Midwestern, brick warehouses from the 1880s, here whitewashed for a light, bright feel. The menu features noodles (soba or udon) in broth with a variety of toppings, including beef, tofu, tempura shrimp, tempura vegetables, and chicken. And, Tanpopo serves teishoku ("set meals") of a salad, miso soup, pickles, and an entree, some of which include broiled mackerel (saba), agedashi tofu, panko-breaded pork cutlet (tonkatsu), and a special featuring fresh, seasonal ingredients from the nearby St. Paul Farmers Market.

Hambone and I took a Japanese grilling class this past summer that was taught by Tanpopo's owner, Koshiki Yonemura, who had a remarkably calm demeanor in the kitchen. She showed us how to grill simple chicken skewers and a delectable salmon, as well as how to prepare a green salad with a miso dressing. All the food was very good.

I had hoped to walk away from the class with the formula for the restaurant's miso dressing. Yonemura gave us a recipe that was close but not quite the one that makes me want to drink what remains in bottom of the bowl when the lettuce, shaved red onion, cucumber slices, and shredded carrots have been slowly devoured. That stuff is magical and tugs at me every time I go to the restaurant.

So if I ever walk to Tanpopo, anticipating those restorative noodles, I can be sure that the special teishoku will win out. Today I took the sui gyoza, eight steamed dumplings filled with pork and napa cabbage, then doused with a chili sauce (also with miso and some brightness—I'm guessing it was ponzu) and sprinkled with scallions. The teishoku was really brilliant. Yonemura played with textures (crunchy and soft) and flavors (salty, sweet, sour, spicy), as well as temperatures (warm, hot, cold).

Still, those darling dumplings stole the show. Rather than the usual round wrapper folded over the filling and crimped to form half-moon shapes, the sui gyoza filling formed a small ball. The excess wrapper had couturier pleats that so that the filling appeared to be wearing a skirt.

I look forward to the treasure that my next lunch of noodles beholds!

Saturday, October 21, 2006

A Few (New to Me) Blogs

Earlier this week as I was catching up on reading food blogs, I noticed a few unfamiliar blogs on link lists. After doing a little clicking, I was again struck by the knowledge that the internet is enormous. Even within this one little area of the blogosphere—that is, people who love to cook and eat, and then photograph and write about cooking and eating—is vast. Unless I do a little publicity, there is no chance anyone is just going to stumble upon my blog.

Without further navel-gazing, here are a few sites I'd like to test-drive:

Travelers Lunchbox
First impressions: magazine-style layout, links with a note about where the blogger is located, beautiful photos, and concise writing

Cumin & Coriander
First impressions: approachable and lively; nifty links to recipes featured on site

Everybody Likes Sandwiches
First impressions: love what the blogger has done with the Blogger template; another approachable and lively-looking site

A Finger in Every Pie
First impressions: long entries; lots of food bloggers already read this blog so peer influence made me do it

I'm a huge fan of Michael Ruhlman. I love his narrative style, how he deftly married journalism and creative writing in The Soul of a Chef and The Reach of a Chef. And, I enjoyed his spirited opinion when he was the guest blogger at Megnut. So, I'm delighted that he's agreed to blog on his own site.

Which food blogs do you enjoy reading?

Sunday, October 15, 2006

A Few Reims Gems

While our fine dining experiences in Reims fell far short of those in Paris, Hambone and Spice did find pleasure in a few unexpected, and memorable, meals. One our first full day in Reims, we (our party included Hambone’s mother and her husband, as well as Hambone’s youngest brother, his wife, and their two young children) trekked a few miles across town to the Mumm (“moom”) champagne cellars. Upon arrival, we learned that the cellar was closed for lunch. As we were hungry and had an hour or so to fill before the next tour was given, we embarked upon finding food. We were within walking distance of the finest restaurant in Reims, but were told, in no uncertain terms, No children.

Since leaving the city center, we’d seen exactly one place to eat, just a block away—The Three Sisters, which didn’t look very promising from the exterior. Inside, our first impression was clouded by an unappetizing combination of fresh and stale cigarette smoke. Next, we observed that slightly grubby workers—likely Mumm’s truck drivers on their lunch break—occupied all the tables. Quickly, two tables were cleared for us. The bartender swept out from behind the bar and in halting English informed us that there was one thing on the lunch menu—chicken and mushrooms in a sauce over rice. All the adults agreed that they could eat this dish. The bartender offered to have sandwiches made for the children. And, we ordered up a bottle of table Bordeaux, which arrived at the table chilled. Our meal was very good, and the kids ate their enormous sandwiches without complaint.

A few days later, we found ourselves on Place d'Erlon, Reims’ main drag, which was lined with countless restaurants. Because of Reims' proximity to Belgium, many of these restaurants offered moules frites specials (steamed mussels and french fries). Since I adore mussels, I urged the group to try one of these places for lunch. And while I don’t recall the restaurant’s name, I do remember that you could order your moules in white wine and garlic or in cream or in a curry sauce.

Whenever we order mussels stateside, we are fairly accustomed to getting 10 or so mussels, about two inches in length, in a shallow bowl with a fair amount of sauce through which we drag crusty bread. But here we each received an enormous black pot. When the lid was removed, a savory, salty ocean scent wafted out. When the steam cleared, it revealed a pot with well over 50 tiny mussels, each containing a dime-size nugget of meat. A cold, smooth Duvel (a Belgian golden ale) was the perfect accompaniment to this outstanding lunch.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Living with Leftovers, part 1

I am reluctant to throw away any food from the fridge until it's ready to escort itself off the shelf and out the door, especially when there are starving children in the world. This morning I saw a container boasting roughly a half pound of grilled, spice-rubbed flank steak, cut in perfect, against-the-grain slices. With thrift sitting on one shoulder and a smattering of invention on the other, I was determined to turn the leftover meat into a tasty dinner for Hambone and Spice.

Ruling out fajitas (not quite sure how to effectively heat the meat without further cooking it) and quesadillas, both of which are great ways to use flank steak, and further rejecting risotto and pasta, which are no-brainer uses for leftovers, and knowing that H&S have both a chili festival at Alpha and Beta's elementary school and a birthday celebration meal in a restaurant in our near future, a salad was in order. Locally grown lettuce from the farmers market—studded with plump cherry tomatoes, carrot ribbons, red onion slivers, and thinly sliced flank steak—was anointed with Bittman's basic vinaigrette (red wine vinegar). I love a good chopped salad, and this one did not disappoint. Next time, I'd add blue cheese crumbles for a counterpoint of sharpness and a soft, creamy texture. For this time, though, there was virtue in cleaning out the crisper.

NOTE: Molly at Orangette recently made this salad, which I'd love to try the next time I have a chicken hogging prime refrigerator real estate.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Serious Paris Restaurant 4

L’Avant Gout

Without question, L’Avant-Gout (in the13th arr.) had the most innovative food I have eaten in a very long time—in fact, one could say that the meal was (almost) challenging. At least some portion of our first and main courses came with a shot glass that contained a puree that seemed to be a little gift from the chef. Mostly, the soups were cold, and I've got to say, in general, I'm not a fan of cold soups.

The physical space was small and cozy, adorned by the owner/chef’s own paintings and sculptures. As is common in many bistros, the menu was written on a chalkboard—which I love—in ubiquitous French/European script—which is not so lovable. Also, our server didn’t speak English so my mother-in-law and I did our very best to decipher the menu, leaving a just minor details to chance.

Initially, I found the food odd, and some of the evenings events conspired to set a mood (Winston fell asleep as soon as we arrived; Simon, who was disappointed not to find pommes frites on the menus, politely refused to order anything; I tripped walking out of the restaurant, seriously skinning a knee and instantly bruising the top of a foot). But I find that the further we get from the meal, the harder it is to forget the flavors, which were confident and unique.

The sardines in my starter were cured like herring, but with saffron and preserved lemon rather than dill and peppercorns. They were served with a savory cumin-spiked gaufrette (a thin, waffle-patterned wafer). The duck breast, which I have since learned was suffocated rather than bled to death, reposed in a puddle of the most intensely delicious sauce. And, my dessert was out-of-control unusual and incredibly delicious—what I wouldn’t give for a bowl of the very best, velvety soft vanilla ice cream with a thin, bright caramel sauce and black olives. Yes, you heard correctly, black olives. Little nicoise olives seemed to have been soaked in a liquid that removed a lot of the brininess. At first, they tasted bright and fruity, which was very intriguing; eventually, they tasted more like olives.

To start:
filets de sardines marines et courgette au citron confit et vinaigrette safranee (sardines and zucchini with a preserved lemon and saffron vinaigrette)

canard “sauvageon” roti, puree de pomme de terre et des legumes
(roasted duck breast and potato puree)

Crozes hermitage, Charles and Francois Tardy ‘04

glace de vanille, caramel d’olives noires

Rue Bobillot 26 (

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Welcome Fall

Last Saturday, Spice proclaimed a culinary salute to the end of summer. She and Hambone, with Alpha and Beta in tow, headed for the St. Paul Farmers' Market to scoop up corn, tomatoes, green beans, zucchini, and any other vegetable that symbolizes the summer bounty. Then, they went to the grocery store to buy nectarines, plums, and any other stone fruits still kicking around. She even had Hambone make a return trip to the grocery store to purchase ice cream.

Spice declared she was not ready to face the winter squashes, pears, and apples that have begun to insinuate themselves into the produce section. She even purchased more charcoal briquettes (yes, we use briquettes, and no one has grown horns yet) so the family could enjoy just a few more new grilling recipes that had been lovingly flagged in the pages of countless food magazines.

Spice has been cowering under the weight of leaden skies. She is conceding defeat as fall makes its debut this coming Saturday (the 23rd). Oh, the signs have been there all along. Over the past two weeks, Minnesota temperatures have been plummeting, and this week has been no exception.

Thoughts are turning very quickly to roasts, braised haunches of meat, chili, squash ravioli, butternut squash risotto, apple crisp, pumpkin-pecan muffins with a sweet drizzle of icing, hot chocolate, wake-up tea, oatmeal studded with raisins.

Oh do go on.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Serious Paris Restaurant 3

Rotisserie d’en Face

As I understand it, in the early 90s, many of the hottest restaurateurs in Paris opened satellite bistros. Often within close proximity of their mothership, these restaurants offer a more affordable but no less delicious opportunity to sample a chef’s wares. One such restaurant is Rotisserie d’en Face, located—as you might have guessed if you know French—across the ribbon-narrow street from Jacques Cagna’s eponymous restaurant.

The dining room is painted a warm, golden yellow and is decorated in a charming French country style. The servers were remarkably friendly and patient as we placed our orders, happy to answer any question we might have. The menu was solid with many interesting choices to make. Roasted and grilled meat is the house specialty. Occasional glimpses into the kitchen revealed gleaming cabinet-size rotisseries full of plump birds, slowly bronzing to roasted perfection. Other items veer toward the traditional, such as escargot and frogs’ legs, or toward new flavors, such as a cold asparagus soup with mizo. In addition to the printed menu, a board listed daily specials. Everything about the meal was pleasant, even as we noticed that the restaurant was full and that each party was large (eight or more people) and American. The less said the better. To the food:


kir royale

To Start
Green lentil salad, cold black sausage, horseradish seasoning

Simmered rabbit leg, small onions and new season’s turnip
Wine: Crozes Hermitage, cuvee alberic bouvet, 2004

Rice pudding, caramel sauce, apricot compote

La Rotisserie d'en Face
2 Rue Christine,

*After dinner, Hambone and Spice took Alpha and Beta, who were a little squirrelly following their glace chocolat, for a ride on the bateau mouche. The evening was cool (it was close to 11 p.m.) but clear, and the boys were able to see why Paris is called the City of Lights.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Serious Paris Restaurant 2

Brasserie Flo

On the second evening of our Parisian holiday, we traveled to the 10th arrondissement, alighting from the metro at Chateau d’Eau (named after a fountain erected in 1811) to find ourselves in a sketchy neighborhood. Most of the restaurants were of the ethnic, take-away variety, and it was a challenge to imagine how the oldest brasserie in Paris fit into this scene. However, not far down the blvd St. Denis, we spotted the small but distinctive Flo sign, which directed us through a passage. It felt a bit like we’d stepped through a portal into another world. The cour des Petites-Ecuries was surprisingly cheery, dotted on either side by charming bistros. Coolers just outside the door of Flo tempted with displays of plump oysters and other fruits de mer.

According to the (UK) Guardian, brasseries (brewery in French) originated as beer taverns at the end of the nineteenth century when residents of Alsace fled to Paris after their region was subsumed by Germany. Eventually, these restaurants evolved into grand dining rooms, many of which are still adorned in Art Nouveau finery, featuring Alsatian specialties, such as choucroute (mountains of sauerkraut festooned with sausage). Brasserie Flo isn't just one example of a classic brasserie. No, it's now a small empire with restaurants in other French towns (in fact, we have reservations at the Reims location) and in such far-flung outposts as Barcelona. Flo even has a "keeper of the temple"—an owner who holds the history of his restaurant and its neighborhood.

Flo's walls and ceiling have a golden patina from 120 years of tobacco smoke, punctuated by mirrors and pastoral murals. Dark-wood banquettes are laid with white table linens, fine china, and heavy silverware. The food is good, but not exceptional. The service is measured, but the servers are surly. In fact, the waitstaff changed with every course so we never knew who was able to help us if we needed something. We suspected that women could only take drinks and dessert orders, and I wouldn't be surprised if this some sort of time-honored practice. But, we thoroughly enjoyed our meal, especially after a heavy day of sightseeing that involved using a batobus as our main form of transportation.


To Start
Foie de canard "maison" compotee de fruits secs (house duck foie gras with dried fruit compote)

Filet de perche au coulis de crustaces, des courgettes meuniere (perch filet with a shellfish sauce and zucchini sauteed in butter)

Profiteroles avec vanille glace et sauce chocolat (profiteroles filled with vanilla ice cream, swimming in warm chocolate sauce)
(I wish I had a photo of this gloptuous sweet, but I was a little flustered after our server unexpectedly yelled at me because she'd brought the wrong dessert order. Yes, I know...)

Brasserie Flo
7, cour des Petites-Ecuries,

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Serious Paris Restaurant 1

Le Reminet

On our first evening in Paris, we were able to reserve a table at Le Reminet before they closed for the August vacation. I’d read many strong online reviews about this Left Bank bistro in the shade of Notre-Dame, which is almost always described as a family-run restaurant. But there’s nothing mom-and-pop about it.

Packaging is the first thing I noticed about the restaurant. A deep-purple sign with a very modern san serif font graced the façade. Inside, no more than 10 tables were squeezed between the cozy stone walls, yielding an intimate dining room. The refined menu featured seasonal and regional ingredients, cleverly prepared by Norman chef Hugues Gournay and graciously served by his wife.

Hambone ordered an amazing roasted chicken breast stuffed with blue cheese, while the little boys tucked into their first steak of the trip, chased with their first ice-cream scoops. Alpha requested chocolate ice cream, which the kitchen did not have. But before we even had a chance to suggest vanilla with chocolate sauce, usually a fine back-up, our server said, “Chocolate? It is possible.” Not knowing what that meant, we held tight until two balls of glace chocolat appeared. Unbeknownst to us at the time, someone had run to the corner ice-cream shop to buy chocolate scoops for the polite little boy who requested them. Considering that the restaurant was very busy and that it was their last night before vacation, this was a level of service that was pleasantly surprising (and more than made up for often rude service at other restaurants during our stay).

The restaurant was quite dim so I didn’t bother taking pictures, much to my regret. Hambone and I decided that if we lived in Paris, Le Reminet would be a place where we’d happily become regulars. Even though the high temperature on this early August day had been in the mid 90s, the menu’s flavors gave a nod to fall.

Cocktail and Amuse
kir royale, pate toasts, squares of cheese puff pastry

To Start
salade de caille des dombes, raisins marines au cognac et pignons de pin grilles (quail salad, grapes marinated with cognac and grilled pine nuts)

onlet de bouef, confit d’echalotes au poivre vert, gratin Normand aux oignons, poireaux et ementhal (hangar steak with preserved shallots and green peppercorns, Norman gratin with onions, leek and Emmenthal)

nougat glace aux vieux pommeau et calva, caramel d’abricots et de pommes au cidre Normand (cold nougat with pommeau and calvados, caramelized apricots and apples in Normandy cider)

Le Reminet
3, rue des Grands-Degrés

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Alpha and Beta's Adventures in Eating: Japanese

With apologies to Alpha, who is spending the week with his grandparents in South Dakota, this was Beta’s adventure—and I must say he was spectacularly adventurous. It also seems clear that Beta is highly impressionable. So, if Alpha screws up his nose at the meal before him, then Beta will too. But, we know that Beta likes sushi so Hambone had this bright idea to take him to our neighborhood sushi joint, Saji Ya.

Starting conservatively, we ordered shrimp tempura, thinking that if Beta balks at raw fish, he’ll at least have had a little something to eat. Needless to say, eating the tempura was not a hardship—what’s not to love about fried food? Well, that, and the dip. Beta really loves a good salty dip, and I think the broth accompanying the tempura gave it a certain credibility. Beta ate every shrimp on the plate, including mine.

Then, the sushi arrived on a large plate: tekka maki, hamachi (yellowtail), maguro (tuna), unagi (eel), ame ebi (sweet shrimp), spider roll (deep-fried crab, carrot, and daikon), sockeye roll (salmon and avocado), and tobiko (flying fish roe). We hook Beta up with a piece of tekka to play with while Hambone and Spice tuck into some seriously good sushi.

I start with the ame ebi—“fish” first, head next. As I addressed the head, Beta noticed that I was about the eat a deep-fried shrimp head and asked, “Could I eat an eye?” Um, sure. So, I pluck off a beady black eyeball and hand it over to the four-year-old, who pops the eyeball in his mouth and pronounces it delicious. Then, he asks if he can have a bite of the “other end”—the end with the creamy, crispy gray matter. I hesitate slightly, only because there isn’t a lot of the good stuff, and I’m afraid I may not get enough of it. Then I capitulate and learn that Beta likes the shrimp head—again, what’s not to like about fried food?

Beta eats more tekka and tobiko, one teeny orange egg at a time until a wreath of nori and a few scraps of rice remain. We order a second round: more hamachi (because one can never have too much hamachi), hamachi and scallion roll, and California rolls (what a difference lump crabmeat makes!).

It’s a good thing that Alpha won’t eat sushi, or we’d need to take out a second mortgage to keep the family in raw fish.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

We're Back!

Hambone and Spice have returned from a fantastic trip to France, where we ate absurdly well. I am pleased to report that Alpha and Beta traveled like pros with their own backpacks, loaded with Walkmans and music, books, “armies” (plastic knights), and Goldfish crackers. No self-respecting traveler under the age of seven leaves home without Goldfish crackers in a few flavors.

The dinner party we hosted the weekend before we left town was a success. Our guests contributed to the meal with nibbles (an assortment of cheese and crackers, olives, and teeny champagne grapes) and dessert (a fruit tart with sweet-tart apple slices and dried cranberries from A Piece of Cake). As for our part, Hambone and Spice trekked to Coastal Seafoods, which delivered with monkfish, halibut, shrimp, mussels, and small clams—all of which enlivened a fish soup. Initially, I wanted to recreate the fish soup I had eaten weeks earlier at Margaux—a red pepper flake and saffron-spiked broth with mussels, clams, and white fish. Truthfully, I could have skipped the fish, which, while perfectly cooked, did not hold a candle to the tender, sweet fennel.

So we scoured our cookbooks to find something approaching Margaux’s soup, but none of the fish soup recipes we own offered a version with fennel. I thought about thinly slicing a bulb and sautéing it with the aromatics, but Hambone objected on the grounds that fennel’s licorice taste was not to his liking.

The next criterion for the recipe had to be ease of preparation. We read through many bouillabaisse recipes, including one in the September/October 1996 Saveur, which was deemed too authentic and labor intensive. I liked the idea of serving the broth as a first course, followed by the fish and garlic toasts topped with rouille—a spicy condiment—but it didn’t feel right for this particular meal. Another recipe—this one from Julia Child and Jacques Pepin’s Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home—was served as a one-dish meal with rouille-style toasts. Close, but what we were really trying to achieve was a rustic meal that could be put together quickly while our guests were hanging out in the kitchen with us.

Finally, an opportunity to press into service Nigel Slater’s inspiring cookbook, Appetite, which offered a recipe for fish soup that was exactly what we wanted: sauté aromatics, add seasonings and liquid to make a broth, then cook fish in broth, and serve. Easy. Even though we added a quart of fish stock (found in the freezer case at Coastal Seafoods), I think the broth lacked a little depth that could have been improved by more stock or more salt. Our guests had no complaints, and we had no leftovers.

My favorite part of the meal though was serving a salad and cheese course before dessert. I love to load up a salad bowl with lettuce of some sort and accessories (a combination of nuts, fruit, hard-boiled eggs, cheese, or vegetables), tossed with Bittman’s basic vinaigrette (from How to Cook Everything: shallots, mustard, salt, pepper, vinegar, and oil). But, this evening we dressed the greens simply with a classic balsamic vinaigrette. The cheese plate featured a tomme and Cowgirl Creamery’s Red Hawk, both of which were outstanding.

an extremely versatile fish soup
Appetite, Nigel Slater (Clarkson Potter, 2002)

olive oil—just enough to cover the bottom of your pan
onions—1 or 2, small and sweet
garlic (one clove per person)
hot pepper flakes
to season—1 or 2 of the following: dried oregano, orange peel, white wine, bay leaves, flat-leaf parsley
saffron—a big pinch of threads
tomatoes—1-1/2 pounds, canned or skinned and seeded fresh ones
fish—2 pounds, an assortment of skinned and filleted white fish and some mussels, shrimps, and clams; ask your fishmonger (I used quite a bit more than 3 pounds to account for shells and for feeding six hungry adults. Also, adjusted liquid levels so as to leave plenty of broth.)

(I've interpreted Slater's loose instructions as follows:)

1. Warm the oil in a large, heavy pan; let the onions cook gently in the oil until they are soft and pale. It is best not to let them color. Stir garlic in with the onions and continue cooking for a minute or so before adding about a teaspoon of hot pepper flakes, any other seasonings you fancy, and a pinch or two of saffron stamens.

2. Introduce the tomatoes and let them cook slowly, bubbling gently, squashing them with a spoon. Once they have collapsed into a rough sauce, pour in enough water to make a loose, soupy stock—about 2 cups for 2 pounds of fish—and bring to a boil.

3. Add fish, cut in large, meaty chunks, to the stock. Add the firmest fish first (monkfish) and cook until it is firm but opaque—a matter of ten minutes or less—then add the shellfish and carry on cooking only until the mussels and clams open and the shrimp change color from gray to pink.

4. Serve steaming hot, with the garlic toasts.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Checking in

Posting regularly and often is nearly impossible when one is filling their time eating and cooking and planning the eating and cooking. I am remiss! But, this is what Hambone and Spice are up to at the moment:

1. Planning a dinner party to be held tomorrow evening. Despite wicked hot weather (90s-100 degrees F), we're making fish soup. I had a really great fish soup at Margaux, a St. Paul bistro, a couple weeks ago (look for it soon in an installment of Alpha and Beta's eating adventures), and I can't get the fennel and saffron out of my mind. We'll take a trip to Coastal Seafoods tomorrow morning to buy the freshest assorted white fish fillets and shellfish in stock. The uncertainty of what is available is only slightly nerve-wracking so I phoned today for a preview. The fishmongers are very nice, and even a little interested to hear what we're cooking, so I think we'll be in good hands.

2. Assembling clothes, books, and art supplies to be packed for a ten-day trip to France. Hambone, Spice, Alpha, and Beta are travelling to Reims by way of Paris (naturellement). Many reservations have been booked for bistros and many intentions have been set for lazy afternoons in cafes. And, in Reims, we will witness friends James and Ulrika as they tie the knot.

3. Spice is reading Michael Ruhlman's
The Reach of a Chef, and she knows already that she will re-read it. Go get your own copy!

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Alpha and Beta's Adventures in Eating: Greek

I may have mentioned in a previous post that my children can be picky eaters. However, comparing notes with other parents leads me to believe that they are no pickier than your average four- or six-year-old child. If we must (and we must), a more accurate assessment would be to call them cautious eaters, especially when encountering new food. Usually, we can make a curry or stir-fry or risotto for dinner and know that one of them will embrace the challenge of trying something new, while the other balks. If we serve the dish often enough, the protests will eventually end.

All bets are off, however, when we visit the grandparents or go to a restaurant. The unpredictability of the meal is usually a force too great for either of them to handle gracefully. Seeing as Hambone and I are hauling the wee ones to France this summer, and seeing as most of the vacation will be about food and most of the meals will be taken in restaurants that I wouldn’t categorize as family-friendly, we have begun restaurant boot camp. Once a month, we’ll take Alpha and Beta to a different ethnic restaurant where we’ve promised not to order anything outrageous and where the only rule is Try everything.

For the inaugural event, we crossed the mighty Mississippi River and ate Greek in Minneapolis. It’s Greek to Me is located at one of the Twin Cities’ intersections of diverse foodstuffs. For a few blocks in each direction, you’ll find falafel, Peruvian, Spanish tapas, sushi, and upscale American, to name a few.

At It’s Greek to Me, the food is reliable and delicious. Travel posters, Aegean landscapes, and colorful textiles adorn the interior.

The boys were into the field trip, and I noticed that they were very comfortable in the environment. Ah, taking them out to eat is paying off. And, they were sports about trying new food. I found that if I speared something with my fork and told Beta (the more adventurous eater of the two) that it was meat, he would pop the morsel in his mouth and, often, ask for more. Both jockeyed for the last few calamari pieces. Beta, rather than asking to have the platter of calamari passed to him, would hop out of his chair, circle the table to the platter, and help himself—all before anyone could ask him to use his manners.

For the record, H & S chased their food with retsina. We ordered the following:

In all of the orientation we gave the boys, we neglected to prepare them for the saganaki presentation. When the fumbling server ignited the brandy-soaked slab of fried kasseri cheese, which audibly went up in flames, I saw two sets of eyes bug out. Owing to shock and amazement, I don’t think either of them heard the celebratory cries of “Opa!”

Cold mezes
This assortment included briny taramasalata (a rosy-hued cod roe dip); warm, soft pita wedges; kalamata olives, peperoncini, and tomato slices; salty chunks of feta; vinegary, rice-stuffed grape leaves, and octopus that had been marinated in red wine and herbs, then grilled and chilled before serving.

Warm mezes
AKA, the heaping meat platter came loaded with perfectly seasoned pork souvlaki, strips of lamb for gyros, and garlicky loukaniko sausages.

Divine, thick squid rings and tentacles, shrouded in a light and crispy batter.

Neither Hambone nor I had room for dessert, but after some consultation, I found a small corner into which a gooey little wedge of baklava might fit. Alpha, however, kept his eye on the prize: the loaded bakery case that greeted us when we walked through the restaurant’s doors. While we were waiting for our meal to be delivered, with Beta in tow, son #1 would make a trip to the case to make sure that no other diner had ordered his slab of dense chocolate-chocolate cake. Having no further appetite for dinner, Alpha was miraculously hungry for the cake. He also graciously shared with Beta, who, on the side, nibbled my baklava. Since he was so busy stuffing his mouth, Beta didn’t even have time to learn what this honeyed treat was called, so he simply referred to it as “that golden dessert.” Poetic.

Tropical Gastronomy 101

One doesn’t visit Costa Rica for gastronomic fare. One goes for volcanoes, cloud forests, unrivaled wildlife, spa treatments, possibly even surfing. At least that’s what I’ve gleaned from the way Costa Rica is presented in glossy travel magazines (Costa Rica is almost certainly never profiled in glossy culinary magazines). Never having visited the country, I’m not even really sure what constitutes typical Costa Rican food. But, as is fitting for any travel that Hambone and Spice endeavor, I boosted my knowledge-base by looking through a few travel guides. We learned that rice and beans would be the central component of each meal.

So, forget about the food. We specifically chose lying on the beach in colorful Costa Rica as our destination over watching the spring cycling classics in cold, dreary Belgium. With
Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel magazine as our guide, we made reservations at the Ylang Ylang resort in Montezuma. Why? Fearing a weeklong diet of rice and beans, we were seduced by this resort, which promised a French-trained chef on site, as well as the requisite beach-side bungalow, crystal-clear swimming pool with waterfall, and jungle with howler monkeys—all that one needs for relaxation and rejuvenation when one is faced with a Minnesota March.

We were pleasantly surprised by the food we ate that week. One element stood out: fresh. Fresh fruit, vegetables, and fish were the staples of every meal at Ylang Ylang resort and its sister restaurant, El Sano Banano (the healthy banana).

Breakfast came with the price of our room. If you think we were noshing on the typical complimentary hotel breakfast—stale pastries, chased by weak juice from concentrate and bitter, lukewarm coffee—you would be wrong. First, Costa Rica is the coffee mother ship, and the coffee served by the hotel was top-notch. If we spent enough time hanging out in the restaurant, especially near the bar, we’d hear the juicer running. And each morning at breakfast, we were offered fresh-squeezed orange, passion fruit, or tamarind juice. Who would choose orange? The passion fruit was sweet and lively, but the tamarind was singular. Despite coming in a rather unappetizing brown-color, speckled with microscopic seeds, tamarind juice is slightly spicy and sweet.

We noticed that almost everyone ordered the yogurt-granola-fruit parfait, but not Hambone and Spice. We tried everything but that one thing we can eat anytime at home. Instead we ate our fill of huevos rancheros (fried egg perched atop black beans and a hearty corn tortilla, then smothered in a tangy, fresh salsa),
tipico (an egg made to order, rice and beans, cheese, and fried plantains), and French toast redolent with cinnamon and topped with a tropical fruit (papaya, mango, and pineapple) compote.

At lunch, one could from order a variety of sandwiches, enormous composed salads, and a few house specialties, such as rich mushroom crepes. The restaurant also had a carefully edited sushi menu, and Hambone diligently worked his way through it. Perhaps it’s most apt to say that sushi techniques had been applied to vegetables and fish. None of the sushi resembled what we were expecting. Needless to say, it was amazing.

The hamachi was prepared nigiri-style, but what we were served was something that looked like it had passed through a nuclear reactor. A generous slab of hamachi had been seared, then drapped over a large, dense pillow of seasoned rice. The fish was shellacked with a soy sauce-sesame oil concoction before it was sprinkled liberally with sesame seeds. In a few words, this sushi was amazing, succulent, unique. Hambone made a sport out of watching the moment when each hotel newcomer received their first sushi order. Many asked, “What is it?” Some appraised the morsel on steroids, trying to determine how best to eat it and concluding that knife and fork would keep their hands tidiest.

By dinner, the restaurant was bathed in torch- and candlelight, which made a romantic setting. The portions were enormous, and the food was served hot, which I found challenging to eat in weather well over 80 degrees. Truth be told, it was no hardship to tuck into the spectacular meals on the dinner menu, which was replete with shrimp, tuna, mahi mahi, and pasta. The mango-habenero-slicked mahi mahi was one stand-out. Kabobs (shrimp one night, chicken the next) arrived tableside arranged like a tepee. One end of the skewer was stuck into a pineapple slice, the rind of which had been peeled and unfurled to anchor the top of the skewers—an artful presentation of food that required a blueprint to disassemble.

If one were so inclined toward dessert, and we were, a short menu kept us amused. My favorites were the chocolate crepes (avocado played the supporting role in the chocolate filling) and the sundae (vanilla ice cream, bittersweet chocolate sauce, and granola).

As for the rice and beans—I couldn't get enough. In fact, back in Minnesota, I crave them as they were served Costa Rica-style: in a timbale and enlivened with chicken stock, green chiles, and cilantro.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

In like a lamb

March was ushered in on the back of a lamb today. Here in St. Paul, the day was warm and the sun made occasional appearances. The days are getting longer, and it's no longer pitch-dark when I leave the office at 5:30. Soon Hambone and I will make picnic dinners (cold cuts and cheese and salads) for Alpha and Beta so we can grab the last hours of daylight at the playground. But, until then, I'm still wearing a big wool sweater and sitting under a pile of blankets on the couch each evening as I read all the Nigel Slater I can get my hands on. I have just finished Toast, which is a memoir written in vignettes, each memory fueled by some item of food. The book starts with this exemplary piece about toast. Here's my favorite bit:
It is impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you. People's failings, even major ones such as when they make you wear short trousers to school, fall into insignificance as your teeth break through the rough, toasted crust and sink into the doughy cushion of white bread underneath. Once the warm, salty butter has hit your tongue, you are smitten. Putty in their hands.
Slater has a real economy of language, with a seemingly effortless way of conveying a lot using the fewest, but best, words possible. I could not put this book down, and I look forward to rereading it.

Now, on another note, Nigel and I are on the same wavelength about March. In his really amazing and absolutely unpretentious cookbook, Appetite, he writes that March is the "lowpoint of the cook's year." Tired of roots, citrus, and apples, Slater copes by eating "golden fruits from tropical climates" and seafood, such as mussels, to get through the end-of-winter doldrums.

I can't look at another clementine. We have eaten six boxes since November, and I've eaten at least three of those crates with no help. In an effort to add some variety to my citrus consumption, I have recently purchased minneolas (the rind is such a deep, rich orange color) and honey tangerines, and to my great disappointment the pulp has been shriveled and dry. Blessed relief: each of the three grocery stores I frequent has piles of luscious mangoes and the pineapple looks promising.

Slater also writes, "I might make the last truly winter casserole...Something light and stewy, like braised lamb with carrots." So, my March menu is shaping up. Every wintery meal that I've dreamed of making--stews, braises, cassoulets, another batch of chili, heavy pasta sauces--will make the A list over the next few weeks. March 31 marks the last day of winter for Hambone and Spice. That's the day we go tropical for a week in Costa Rica. Once we touch down on Minnesota soil, with visions of fruity drinks and fresh fish swimming in our heads, no one will be able to stop me from storing the stew pot and cleaning off the grill. Just you wait.

Chez Hambone and Spice: Week of February 26

Sunday: Chicken-corn-potato chowder and cornbread
Monday: Garlic shrimp, basmati, and chimichurri
Tuesday: Hamburgers, peas, onion rings
Wednesday: Ploughman's (Morbier, tomme de savoie, country pate, cornichons, bread)
Thursday: Spaghetti carbonara and green salad (w/oranges, avocado, Maytag blue)
Friday: Grocery store sushi
Saturday: Hambone and Spice have dinner out

A few notes about the posted menu:

One, Hambone and I are really making an effort to cook every weeknight. But, truth be told, we have crazy workloads and children so by Thursday all bets are off that either of us feel like cooking. I try to make a menu each Saturday for the next week, which helps me keep the grocery shopping focused and allows me to stay as organized as possible. I can plan a menu but I cannot, for the life of me, manage to fold the laundry or dust.

Two, we have small children who can be picky eaters, but they can also surprise us. For example, the six-year-old (Alpha) will devour a small package of lox, but he will not eat salmon sushi. The three-year-old (Beta) will eat sushi, but he will not touch any sort of fruit or drink fruit juice. And, on other fronts, they're like Jack Sprat and his wife. One will eat egg whites, the other egg yolks. One will eat pizza crust, while the other will only eat the cheese. They are in complete solidarity, however, about flecks of black pepper and herbs in their food (hate) and wasabi peas (love). I have declared 2006 to be the year that I stop making special meals for them when Hambone and I are eating something spicy or weird (please don't ask me what constitutes weird to a three-year-old). As a result, I find myself altering the menu to please the little ones, who are also asked, once or twice a week, to try something new, something challenging.

Three, Hambone makes the best hamburgers in the world. Remind me to post about them some day.

Four, Our grocery store makes respectable sushi, especially once it's allowed to come up to room temp.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Seven Layer Dip

In a few minutes it will be midnight. Hambone just left for the office where he is the overnight godhead, managing the official Winter Olympics website for a Major Network That Shall Remain Unnamed. He has been working the midnight to nine a.m. shift since the Games started last week. He eats dinner for breakfast. Pork chops were on the menu yesterday, teriyaki chicken earlier today. I get the sense that he's desperate for something lovingly homemade and fresh, such as the seven layer dip that I will assemble shortly. It's my contribution to the poorly organized potluck the 3rd floor is throwing tomorrow. Someone has volunteered to make tator tot casserole and another will bring a broccoli salad; otherwise, 28 people have signed up to bring bars or cookies. I have overheard more than one person say proudly that they'll buy their cookies or bars, of course. That it would be stupid to make cookies or bars from scratch or from a box. OMG. What madness is this that our time is too precious to even bother dumping a mix into a bowl and adding oil and an egg? For the full effect, make sure you bake your brownies in aIn a few minutes it will be midnight. Hambone just left for the office where he is the overnight godhead, managing the official Winter Olympics website for a Major Network That Shall Remain Unnamed. He has been working the midnight to nine a.m. shift since the Games started last week. He eats dinner for breakfast. Pork chops were on the menu yesterday, teriyaki chicken earlier today. I get the sense that he's desperate for something lovingly homemade and fresh, such as the seven layer dip that I will assemble shortly. It's my contribution to the poorly organized potluck the 3rd floor is throwing tomorrow. Someone has volunteered to make tator tot casserole and another will bring a broccoli salad; otherwise, 28 people have signed up to bring bars or cookies. I have overheard more than one person sayIn a few minutes it will be midnight. Hambone just left for the office where he is the overnight godhead, managing the official Winter Olympics website for a Major Network That Shall Remain Unnamed. He has been working the midnight to nine a.m. shift since the Games started last week. He eats dinner for breakfast. Pork chops were on the menu yesterday, teriyaki chicken earlier today. I get the sense that he's desperate for something lovingly homemade and fresh, such as the seven layer dip that I will assemble shortly. It's my contribution to the poorly organized potluck the 3rd floor is throwing tomorrow. Someone has volunteered to make tator tot casserole and another will bring a broccoli salad; otherwise, 28 people have signed up to bring bars or cookies. I have overheard more than one person say proudly that they'll buy their cookies or bars, of course. That it would be stupid to make cookies or bars from scratch or from a box. OMG. What madness is this that our time is too precious to even bother dumping a mix into a bowl and adding oil and an egg? For the full effect, make sure you bake your brownies in a Teflon-coated pan to save some wash-up time.