Friday, June 29, 2012

[Up North] 4th of July Weekend: Elephant Ears and Everything Else

Our Up North series will highlight good eats to seek out on your weekend roadtrips as you head Up North – that ambiguous, nebulous region in Michigan where everyone has, or has a friend that has, a cottage on a lake somewhere.  

tough choice
I went the first 25 years or so of my life thinking that all of my friends that I'd met along the way had grown up with summers full of elephant ears and blue moon ice cream. I had one west coast friend ask me "are you getting an actual elephant ear or is that a term for something else?" after I had informed her I was munching on an elephant ear. Blue moon was an equally foreign concept to my non-Midwest friends.

Land of the free, home of the blue moon
Elephant ears are pretty wildly available so unless you lived a deprived childhood void of any carnies or fairs, chances are you have some iteration of an elephant ear.

On the other hand, Blue Moon ice cream, and its multi-colored cousin Superman, do trace their origins to the upper Midwest region. Who knew? All these years I thought I was eating Blue Moon because it was delicious, not because I was preordained to like it due to geography.

The flavors of Blue Moon and Superman (Blue Moon is one of the three flavors of Superman - it's the Inception of ice cream flavors) are a subject of much debate. Wikipedia lists a wide range of potential flavors for Blue Moon from Fruit Loops or cardamom to cake frosting or bubble gum. Gun to my head, I'm going with almond as my best guess.

Superman 'dat cone!
So whether you're heading up to the Dells in Wisconsin, cruising along the Blue Star Highway along Lake Michigan, or headed to Sleeping Bear Dunes this weekend, keep an eye out for these summertime treats. Suggested pairings include demolition derbies, fireworks, and s'mores.

Got a favorite spot where you get your Blue Moon on? or your favorite local ice cream spot? Tell us about it in the comments.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Keepin' it Real: Peruvian Pollo a la Brasa

If cuisines could have IPOs, Peruvian food would be the bizarro-Facebook. It's only a matter of time before Peruvian food is the new it cuisine and lomo saltado and aji de gallina are as ubiquitous as pad thai and bulgogi.

The real deal - pollo a la brasa from Norky's in Lima's Centro Historico
Peruvian pollo a la brasa is Peru's take on rotisserie chicken. They may not have been the first people to grill chicken rotisserie-style, but they have perfected it. Simple in its preparation - a whole bird rub down with a mildly spicy, herby paste and grilled on a rotisserie over live hardwood coals - yet so intoxicating after you've had your first bite of the flame-kissed skin.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Friday Night Bites: Soul Food at the Elks Lodge

Looking for something to do this weekend? Friday Night Bites has you covered.

A couple Sundays ago while munching on a sweet cream biscuit from Zingerman's Bakehouse, I was going through the never-ending pile of mail at our house and decided to flip through the Ann Arbor Observer. I came across an article about a night of soul food and jazz at the James L. Crawford Elk Lodge on the northside of town. Fried chicken, catfish, smoked ribs, po' boys, awesome patio, live jazz - how had I not heard of this place? There were a few moments where I was convinced that I was reading a travel article about some place in Nashville to put on my bucket list or an Ann Arbor institution that is no longer around. I needed to investigate further.

a picture I took or one I dug up from the Bentley Historical Library?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

[Up North] Great Lakes Seafood Boil & Fish Fry

Our Up North series will highlight good eats to seek out on your weekend roadtrips as you head Up North – that ambiguous, nebulous region in Michigan where everyone has, or has a friend that has, a cottage on a lake somewhere.

As Gordon Lightfoot would tell you, the waters of Lake Michigan are for sportsmen. Not being much of a fisherman myself, I was oblivious to fact that Lake Michigan was stocked with salmon that has been shipped in from the Pacific Ocean for the past 40 years. This has led to disastrous results in Lake Huron and the stocking of Lake Michigan is now being reassessed due to concerns surrounding the population of native species like trout and walleye.

Now that we have our history and environmental lesson of the day out of the way, let’s get on to the good eats.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Meat Candy

True story: At a big get together at my family's cottage with our neighbors, the youngest of the neighbor crew - a 4 year-old with wisdom beyond his years - was seen walking around with a slab of bacon about half the size of his arm. His uncle stopped and ask him what he was eating. His response: "Meat candy."

I have had a few foods ruined for me so far in my life. I'll never find carne asada tacos as good as the grilled-over-open flame goodness at Taqueria el Asadero in Chicago or roasted chicken quite like hardwood rotisserie chicken at the pollerias in Lima and Cusco. But by far the most devastating of these moments was a trip to Mario Batali's parents' salami shop in Seattle - Salumi. It has effectively ruined an entire food group for me as every slice of cured meat I've had since has paled in comparison to the expertly cured meats at Salumi.

But like the saying goes, when life deals you lemons, toss the lemons with a bunch of salt and make some preserved lemons. And so began my foray into charcuterie - the craft of preserved and cured meats.

Broadly speaking, charcuterie can be thought of as any meat that has been cured or preserved in some way, typically through the use of salt and drying the meat in a cool, dry place for anywhere from a week to a year or more. Initially invented as a way of preserving protein sources prior to the invention of refrigeration, it is now mainly found in artisinal meat shops or your local hipster-infested farmer's market. Unfortunately, most of our exposure to charcuterie is limited to hot dogs and bacon, or maybe some salami or capicola from the local deli. But the world of cured meats extends far beyond these grocery store classics to things like duck confit (preserved duck leg cooked in its rendered fat) and smoked sausages.

* * * * * 
Salumi had been on my radar for a while but I wasn't sure when I'd ever make it to Seattle. On one visit out to Portland to visit Mrs. T's family, I had the idea of flying into Seattle and then driving to Portland, for the sole purpose of grabbing at sandwich at Salumi. Mrs T., being the good sport that she is, only gave a slight roll of the eyes before going along with the plan. 

After my first bite of my finocchiona sandwich at Salumi, I knew I had crossed a Rubicon of sorts, I would never be satisfied by a generic Italian deli sub again. The thin slices of finocchiona - a salami spiced with whole fennel seeds - bursted with porky, salty goodness, topped with a fresh baked airy ciabatta. I was in pork nirvana and didn't want to leave. 

Later that week, while in Portland's famed Powell's bookstore, I came across Charcturie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing, written by Mark Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn, the Godfathers of charcuterie in America.

A few weeks later, I had hunks of raw meat hanging in our spare closet.

* * * * * 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Get Your (Kati) Roll on at Eastern Flame

While enroute to Mark's Carts for a quick pre-trivia bite to eat, Mrs. T & I called and audible and dove into Eastern Flame on Ashley, right next to Fleetwood Diner. I had always been curious about this place, I had no idea what cuisine it was other than something that was probably vaguely middle-eastern, but was always thrown off by the giant Coke poster with a burger and fries on it. Nevertheless, we thought we'd give it a shot. We were glad we did.

The menu at Eastern Flame is ambitious - everything from bacon & cheese burgers, middle eastern classics like falafel and grape leaves, and finally popular Indian things like chicken tikka and a variety of curries. I was confused, so I did what I always do when I don't know what to get at these hole in the wall spots - ask the guy at the counter. He told me that the proprietor of the place is actually Pakistani and steered me towards the kati roll with lamb seekh.

The kati roll is a wrap made with a paratha, which I can only describe as a mashup of naan and a fresh made flour tortilla, slightly crispy on the outside and just a little bit doughy. The lamb seekh was a kebab made with ground lamb, lots of herbs (cilantro & parsley?), and just a little hit of spice. Some grilled onions and a little sauce round on the kati roll. After talking to the guy at the counter, it turns out that the parathas are made onsite, I'm a sucker for anywhere that does it's own baking work. That's streetfood I can get down with. Open 'til 4am Thurs-Sunday, it's also a great night option when you're too far from Mr. Spots and the line at the Fleetwood (located next door) is too long. 

I do have to mention that it doesn't look like Eastern Flame has a strong following yet, I've walked past many times and never seen it very crowded. I think this could be a bit of a lack of identity issue. It's hard to figure out what Eastern Flame is - they have three distinct cuisines on the menu and they have street food type of stuff along with full entrees. Although I haven't had much of the menu, I can guess that your best bet is to stick to the Indian food and leave the middle eastern food to Zamaan Cafe. Mrs. T scoffed at my suggestion that they should go full on Indian/Pakistani and dump the middle eastern and burgers from the menu - she said that did not work out so well Jerry recommended the same to Babu Bhatt. Whether or not they heed my advice, I will be back for another kati roll.

304 S Ashley
Ann Arbor, MI

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Under the Radar: Monahan's Seafood

Maybe it's because it sits in the shadow of Zingerman's, but Monahan's Seafood in the Kerrytown Market does not seem to get the hype it deserves. Monahan's is a throwback fish counter stuffed everything from whole trout to lake perch to all the accoutrements for a cajun seafood boil. If you're looking to load up on seafood before the oceans run empty, you won't find a better stocked or more knowledgeable staff than Monahan's.

In addition to the fresh seafood counter, they also have a fairly expansive menu for one of the best lunch options in town. Mrs. T and I headed down there this weekend as we were both craving some solid seafood. Deciding what to get at Monahan's is never easy. On our previous we split the cajun shrimp salad sandwich and the bulgogi hoagie from Kosmo Korean deli located nextdoor - a good candidate for another Under the Radar profile.

Mrs. T ordered up the fried oyster po' boy with spicy remoulade served on a baguette baked by nearby Cafe Japon. Monahan's always has a few specials not listed on their menu online, they usually post them to their twitter feed so you can keep an eye out for seasonal specials like this po' boy or soft-shell crab. Back to the po' boy - the battered oysters were fried to a perfectly crisp crunch. The baguette, while not the same doughy French bread you'll find an a NOLA po' boy, got the job done - I enjoyed the moderately chewy crust and interior (it almost reminded me of a fairly mild sourdough moreso than a soft, doughy baguette).

 I went with the Great Lakes walleye with remoulade on the Cafe Japon baguette. The walleye was lightly panfried to a perfect flaky texture. It was delicious in its simplicity - a well cooked piece of good fish on a tasty baguette with a little spicy kick from the remoulade to finish it off.

And don't sleep on the fresh-cut fries, we went with the cajun variety this time.

It really is criminal that I've only been here a couple times. My only complaint is that the grill is only open during lunch, this would make a perfect quick dinner stop where I could eat dinner one night and pick up dinner out of the counter for the next night.

Monahan's Seafood

407 North 5th Avenue
Ann Arbor, MI

Friday, June 1, 2012

A Hamburger a Day

A hamburger a day keeps the doctor away. Or something like that.

Somewhere along the way, the hamburger got a bad rap. I suspect this was somewhere around the time those McDonald's burger counters got to 99 billion and stopped counting. But before we became accustomed to overcooked patties and preformed bricks of ground beef, fast food joints were serving up burgers made of fresh ground greasy goodness. If you've been to Redamak's in New Buffalo or Blimpy Burger in Ann Arbor, you've seen a great example of these old-fashioned style burgers.

The universe of burgers can be separated into two styles, what I loosely refer to as pub/steakhouse-style burgers and old-fashioned griddled burgers. Pub-style burgers are what typically pops into one's mind when they are asked about their ideal burger style - a 1/2-inch, 1/2 pound grilled over an open flame to a juicy pink medium rare. Old-fashioned griddled burgers are thin, loosely packed patties cooked over high heat on a griddle to get that delicious crust on the patty. I'm not here to convince you that one is better than the other. I've waited for over an hour to get a seat at Kuma's in Chicago and it's phenomenal (pro-tip: scope out the seats at the end of the bar and snag one when they open up), one day I'll make a trip to NYC specifically for the Black Label Burger at Minetta Tavern. I love a well-prepared pub-style burger as much as anyone - and we'll cover these later - but for my money, it doesn't get better than an old-fashioned cheeseburger on a squishy white bun that'll leave cheesy, greasy dribbles running down your arm.

I reached this burger epiphany a couple years ago after watching an episode of America's Test Kitchen on PBS on how to make old fashioned burgers and giving them a shot at home. Simply put, they were the best burgers I've ever had and still are to this day. Like all good things that come from the kitchen, there are no shortcuts and there is a little bit of work. Specifically, you have to grind your own meat - this is not negotiable, it is the key to the entire operation. If you have a Kitchenaid mixer, you can pick up the meat grinder attachment for about $50. Grinding your own meat can seem like a cumbersome undertaking initially, but keep in mind a few things:

1. Pink slime - By grinding your own meat, you'll know exactly what's in your ground beef (actual beef, for starters).
2. Cost - Contrary to what you  might be thinking, grinding your own meat is not cost prohibitive. You can usually get away with grinding fairly cheap cuts and you don't have to buy the pre-packaged packs of ground beef, which are often much more than you'll need if you're only making a couple burgers.
3. Texture - Ever notice how pre-packaged ground beef doesn't really crumble apart and tends to stick together in a big mushy blob? You will never get a juicy tender burger with that stuff. By coarsely grinding your own beef and making the burgers soon after, your final product will have a significantly better texture regardless of what type of burger you're making. There is some food science at play here - think of ground beef as a ton of small little balls of beef. Over time, the proteins in these balls will begin to stick together, become a more cohesive pile of meat - that is bad. By grinding meat fresh, you don't give these proteins enough time to bind to one another. Ergo, tender juicy burgers.

Now that I've got you on the hook, here's how you can make the best burgers you've ever had:

1. Get your beef on - what cut to get? The options are endless and the internets are full of varying opinions. I try to keep it simple. You want something with a fair amount of fat; specifically, marbled fat, not the hard chunks of fat - you can't grind that stuff. A good fatty hunk of chuck usually works pretty well. If you want to get a little more advanced, look for some sirloin (usually leaner than chuck) and mix it with short rib (very fatty).

2. Make sure everything is cold. Fat melts and Fat is Flavor, so we need to keep as much of it in a solid state so that it stays in our burger and not in the meat grinder tube. Before I start cutting the meat, I place the entire meat grinder contraption into the freezer. Then, cut up the meat into about 1 inch chunks, trimming off any big hunks of fat as you come across them. Throw the chunks of meat into the freezer for about 15-20 minutes, you want the meat to just be firming up a bit. This will ensure that it stays cold throughout the grinding process.

3. Grind the meat by dropping the cubes into the hopper and pushing them down with the plunger. Use the coarser (wider holes) grinder plate for burgers - I'd reserve the finer grinder plate for certain kinds of sausage. If you notice that the meat isn't coming out very well, take the cover off and clean out the blade a bit - sometimes fat can gum up the blade if the meat isn't cold enough.

4. Once you've ground the meat, loosely form the meat into patties. Do not pick up the patty. In fact, the patty should be formed loose enough such that it would literally be impossible to pick up with your hands. You just want to loosely form it into a small-ish patty so you can scoop it up with a big spatula. After you've formed your patties (I use a cookie sheet to hold them all), slide them into the fridge for about 20 minutes.

The mini patty is for our black lab, Lucy
5. Cooking surface - the key to the old fashioned burger is that delicious brown crust. This is no place for your non-stick stuff. If you don't have a cast iron skillet, go snake one from your grandma's kitchen or go pick one up for $25. A stainless steel saute pan would also work well. Put a little bit of peanut/canola/vegetable/safflower oil (not olive oil - it will burn) in the pan and crank it up all the way. Sprinkle the burgers with a good pinch of kosher salt. Once the pan is ripping hot - just before the oil starts to smoke - flip your burgers salt side down onto the pan. I say salt side down b/c salt facilitates the Maillard reaction - the scientific term to describing the browning effect on meat. Now sprinkle the side that is facing up with salt and press down with the flat side of the spatula on the burgers - you want to make sure the burgers are making good contact with the pan. After about a minute, flip the burgers - but DON'T push down on them now, you don't want to squeeze all those fatty juices out (we can squeeze down initially b/c the fat hasn't had a chance to render yet). Hit them with cheese if you so desire, I'm a fan of plain ol' American cheese, there is not a better choice of cheese for a griddled burger. After another minute or so, take them off and slide them onto your bun of choice.

The best bun for these burgers is the Martin's Potato Roll, but unfortunately, they aren't very widely distributed. A cheap grocery store bun is okay as a substitute. I like to throw on a sunnyside up egg just for good measure. Serve with fresh cut fries & garlic aioli.