Category Archives: Cheap Eats

soup swap III: a porky good time

A couple weekends ago, the soup swap was brought back to life after a one-year hiatus. What were we thinking, skipping a year? I do not know. My only excuse is that we moved last January and at the time, I probably didn’t think the house was “ready” to have people over. I can’t say that it’s that much more ready now- we still have a long way to go and the list of home improvement projects is long- but fortunately I’ve forced myself to get over it and lower my standards; otherwise, I’d never have any guests!

It’s a well-known fact that a little pork can enhance just about any soup, and we found it amusing that everyone’s soups, without specifically planning it that way, had pork in them. Michelle’s was the meatiest, a pork and tomatillo stew with big chunks of tender, falling-apart meat. Kate brought a delicious split pea with bacon, perked up with the addition of fresh rosemary. Molly made a hearty chickpea and sausage soup with some Hungarian sausage she’d been gifted from a neighbor, and Sarah made a fantastic wonton soup with homemade, pork-filled dumplings.

I was torn on what to make and, as before, prepared two soups- one to eat for lunch that day and one to take home. I had found a borscht recipe in Molly O’Neill’s One Big Table* that used slab bacon as the meat rather than beef, and I just happened to have some homemade un-smoked bacon in my freezer, so I made that as the soup to swap. For lunch, I created a soup that brought together elements of Eastern European peasant food (or at least, what I imagine it to be): sautéed cabbage, leeks and mushrooms in a light chicken and mushroom broth, with kasha (buckwheat) for an earthy flavor, and venison & pork meatballs. The final touch was some homemade yogurt stirred into each bowl for a little tang. It went perfectly with the homemade crusty rye bread Molly had brought. For dessert, I made a rustic apple tart- no recipe, just thawed out some graham cracker dough from the freezer, made a sort of custard from eggs and yogurt, sugar and cinnamon and poured it over sliced apples. Because of the yogurt, the custard didn’t have a perfectly smooth texture (the ladies said it reminded them of bread pudding), but that didn’t bother anyone.

I kind of fell down on the job this year as compared to soup swaps past, where I photographed every soup and posted recipes for each one. I’m going with the excuse that I now live with a hungry male and the soups disappeared much faster than they did when it was just little ol’ me consuming them. Not only that, but ironically my schedule as a freelancer has, so far, left less time for blogging and photography than before! But as you can see, I did snap some photos of the borscht and will provide that recipe. I hadn’t made borscht in a few years but I had a pretty specific taste memory of what I wanted, so I used the recipe from One Big Table and tweaked it a bit, using the same ingredients but altering some quantities (more beets, less potato) and the cooking method (dirtying only one pot instead of two). I like my borscht to have a nice punchy sweet and sour flavor, so I added quite a bit more vinegar, and used my homemade red wine vinegar instead of the white vinegar called for. The only other change I’d suggest is cutting the carrots in something other than matchsticks, unless you have pro knife skills. It took me half an hour to cut 2 carrots! D’oh.

Anyway, borscht recipe below, and here are links to the previous two soup swaps if you want to check out those recipes. And of course, I highly recommend hosting a soup swap of your own: you get a fridge full of soups and only have to do the work of making one, and all that time you save can be spent in a pleasant afternoon eating, chatting and sipping wine with girlfriends. Total no-brainer.

*Incidentally, as of press time this great cookbook is on sale for 60% off- get it while you can!

Beet & Cabbage Borscht with Pork (adapted from One Big Table by Molly O’Neill)
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½ lb salt pork or slab bacon, preferably unsmoked
2 quarts beef broth or bouillon
2 small or medium onions, roughly chopped, ok to leave skins on
2 bay leaves
1 Tbs neutral vegetable oil or olive oil
1 lb beets (about 3 medium), peeled and shredded
2 medium carrots, cut into matchsticks (or small coins)
4 garlic cloves, minced
½ small head green cabbage, cored and shredded
1 cup crushed tomatoes
2 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, scrubbed and cut into ½-inch dice
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
sour cream for garnish
chopped fresh parsley, dill or chives for garnish

In a Dutch oven or other large, heavy pot, cover the pork with water by 2 inches, bring to a simmer, and cook for 20 minutes. Remove the pork and pour out the water. Return the pork to the pot with the beef broth, onion and bay leaves. Bring to a simmer and cook about 2 hours, until tender.

Transfer the meat to a cutting board. When cool enough to handle separate the meat from the skin and fat, and chop into bite-sized pieces. Strain the cooking liquid and discard the solids; reserve the liquid.

Heat the oil in the pot over medium heat. Sauté the beets and carrots until they begin to soften, about 10 minutes, adding the garlic after about 5 minutes. Raise the heat slightly and add the cabbage; cook, stirring frequently, until slightly wilted. Add the tomatoes, potatoes and reserved cooking liquid; bring to a simmer and cook until the potatoes are done to your liking.

Add the meat, sugar and vinegar to the pot. Stir well and taste for salt and pepper, adding as needed, and add vinegar to taste– you’re aiming for a nice balance of sweetness and acidity. Beets and carrots are quite sweet, so I added much more vinegar than the original recipe called for (I used ¼ cup as opposed to 1 tablespoon), but taste and adjust based on your own preferences.

Serve with a spoonful of sour cream stirred in, and garnish with chopped herbs of your choice.

venison root vegetable stew (the venison diaries, part V)

I started writing this post and realized- for once, I don’t have a lot to say. But that’s OK; the following is all you need to know: A small venison roast, some local root vegetables from the farmers’ market, some homemade stock, and a weekend day with enough time for a long braise can yield the following:

I don’t often get roasts from my dad, usually his venison is in burger form, so this was a first. I just treated it like I would any other tough cut of meat, braising it for a while in the stock at a low temp and then adding the vegetables later so they didn’t cook to mush. The result wasn’t earth-shattering. but it was homey, comforting and hearty, which was just what I was going for.

Venison Stew with Root Vegetables
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1 small venison roast (about 1.5 to 2 lbs)
a few Tbs bacon fat
2 cups stock, preferably homemade: beef, lamb or chicken will work (mine was actually turkey, leftover from Thanksgiving)
aromatics: a couple of bay leaves, some peppercorns, juniper berries, or a couple sprigs of rosemary or thyme would all work
2 large carrots, peeled and cut into large chunks
1 large or 2 small parsnips, peeled & cut into chunks
5-6 small shallots, peeled & trimmed
4 small potatoes, scrubbed and cut in halves or quarters
1 celery stalk, trimmed & cut into ½-inch pieces
salt to taste

Preheat oven to 225°. Warm the stock on the stove in a heavy lidded pot large enough to accommodate the meat. Rinse the venison and pat dry; lightly salt the meat and rub all over with the bacon fat. Add venison to pot, cover, and braise in the oven for 2 hours. You can turn the meat halfway through, but it’s not strictly necessary. Meanwhile, prep the vegetables. After the initial 2 hours, lightly salt the vegetables, add to the pot, cover, and cook for another hour or until vegetables are tender.

If the meat comes easily off the bone, feel free to serve your roast as-is; if meat is a little tough, you can either braise a bit longer, or do what I did: Remove meat from pot until it cools enough to handle, remove from the bone and cut into bite-sized pieces; return to pot to warm through. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper if needed. If desired, serve with chopped parsley as a garnish.

youn’s crêpes with ham, egg and cheese (crêpes complètes)

When my friend Youn from Toulouse called me on the eve of an out of town trip asking if he and a friend could come stay for a few days, I said yes even though it was inconvenient, because in my mind I want to be That Kind Of Person- the kind who has an open door policy for weary travelers, who can handle surprise visitors with aplomb, and (most importantly), someone who always has food and drink on hand to whip up an impromptu meal or refreshment for said visitors.

Mind you, this is what I strive for- the reality is somewhat different!  Unlike Marvin, who grew up in a household where people were constantly dropping by, we rarely if ever had unannounced visitors.  So although I wholeheartedly embrace the concept, I have to make a concerted effort to be prepared for this eventuality; it’s not something that comes naturally to me with my more Germanic upbringing.

As it happened, I had purposely NOT gone shopping that week in an effort to use things up before my trip, and the way things worked out, I had no opportunity to go to the store before picking up my guests. Luckily, Marvin came to the rescue in more ways than one- spending some time with them while I was at work, and taking them to the grocery store so that they could make dinner (Youn’s idea). We invited a couple more friends and Youn made traditional Breton buckwheat crêpes (although he has lived in Toulouse for over 20 years, Youn originally hails from Brittany).  My apologies for the somewhat haphazard photos, we were enjoying ourselves and I didn’t feel like stopping to bust out a tripod!  The two decent-looking pics are from breakfast the next day, when the light was much better.

Those of you who read this blog regularly may recall that, coincidentally, I just posted about buckwheat crêpes (galettes) a few weeks ago.  Curiously, the recipe I was using called for apple cider vinegar in the batter, saying it was authentically Breton, but Youn had never heard of it.  Just goes to show that “authentic” is a word that you should take with a grain of salt in the cooking world! He doesn’t even use a recipe, just does everything by feel, but he did give me some measurements so that I could share a recipe. Another interesting thing is that all the recipes I’ve seen call for half buckwheat and half white flour, but he uses all buckwheat which is a bit healthier.  I actually preferred the texture and will be making them this way from now on.  Last but not least, he uses beer in the crêpe batter instead of the usual milk, making the recipe friendly for the lactose-intolerant.  For the vegetarians, there are infinite possibilities for veggie fillings (ratatouille comes to mind).

I like to use up leftovers for crêpe fillings, but obviously there were none, so we made the classic complète– ham, cheese and egg.  The egg is fried right on top of the crêpe.  Add a little grated cheese and some torn-up pieces of ham and you have a meal.  Amanda, who up until this point had claimed a dislike of runny yolk, was converted by the oeuf miroir, so called because the yolk is shiny like a mirror.  In addition to the buckwheat crêpes, Youn also made dessert crêpes with finely-diced apple in the batter, which we spread with confiture de cidre (cider jam) and sprinkled with powdered sugar (check out this post for a dessert crêpe recipe).  We cooked up more crêpes the next morning for breakfast… miam miam!  Next time I hope I’ll be able to spoil my guests instead of the other way around, but I was certainly grateful for the help and the opportunity to get crêpe lessons from a seasoned pro.

Crêpes Complètes à la Youn (Buckwheat Crêpes with Ham, Egg & Cheese)
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Crêpes:
1 lb buckwheat flour
3 eggs
1 cup beer (a lighter lager-style beer is best)
water- about 2 cups or as needed
1-2 Tbs neutral oil or melted butter

Filling:
additional butter for spreading on crêpes (optional)
eggs- one for each crêpe you plan to make
thinly-sliced deli ham
Gruyère or Swiss-style cheese, grated

A couple notes: The directions for cooking up the crêpes may sound a bit fussy, but once you get the feel for it, crêpe-making is one of the easiest things in the world. You’ll learn by trial and error how to adjust things like the batter thickness and pan heat to get the results you want. Best of all, crêpe batter is a relatively inexpensive thing, so it’s not the end of the world to have a few failed attempts before hitting your stride. This recipe makes plenty of batter so you have room to screw up and still have enough for dinner!  Also bear in mind that this “recipe” is very loose.  Feel free to thin the batter with more beer instead of water, or only use 2 eggs, or whatever.  Youn says that in Brittany the crêpe shops make their batter using only flour and water, so obviously it’s very flexible!

Directions:

Place the flour in a bowl.  Make a well in the center of the flour and place the eggs and oil or butter in it.  Gently whisk the eggs with a fork.  Slowly pour the beer and 1 cup water into the well a little at a time as you stir, incorporating the flour, until the batter is fully mixed and has no lumps. (Alternately, whiz everything together in the blender.) Add more water a little at a time as needed until batter is the consistency of heavy cream.  Let batter rest at least an hour.

Get your eggs, ham and cheese at the ready.  Warm your crêpe pan or griddle over medium-high heat until very hot. Smear a bit of butter onto a paper towel and rub it on the pan. Test the heat with a few drops of batter; they should set immediately. Give the batter a couple stirs in case it has started to separate.  Wipe the pan clean with the paper towel wad, and then rub it again with butter. Ladle batter onto the center of the hot pan (quantity will depend on your pan’s size) and quickly rotate the pan so it is thinly and completely covered.  If there is excess batter (i.e. batter that does not instantly set), pour it back into the bowl. Cook until golden brown on the bottom- a minute or so.  You want it to color, but not cook so much that it becomes crispy (although Youn says a little crispiness is OK).  At this point, flip it over.

As soon as you flip the crêpe, you can smear it with butter if desired, then crack an egg onto the center.  With the back of a spoon or a spatula, gently spread the egg white around the crêpe so it can cook.  When the egg white begins to turn opaque, add pieces of the torn-up ham and sprinkle with some shredded cheese.  When the cheese has melted, fold in the sides of the crêpe towards the center so it forms a square, and serve. (With this kind of crêpe, there really isn’t a way to serve everyone at once, but from my experience making them to order creates a casual, convivial atmosphere that is fun in and of itself.)

taking a deep breath… tuscan beans with tomatoes & sage

Folks, I’m taking a deep breath.  This post is about one of the easiest, most laid-back dishes in my repertoire.  While I did snap a few photos, I didn’t stress about the lighting or try to style the food or plating.  I just wanted to do an easy-breezy blog post since it’s been a while.

Most everyone I know has a lot going on- everyone has periods where things get crazy, time is maxed out, and they feel completely spread thin.  So I try not to go on TOO much about how nuts everything feels, because it’s like “boo hoo, you’re not the only one who has a million things to do and no time to do them in”.  But the past couple weeks were frantic even by my standards.  Blogging, of course, didn’t even make the list of things to do during this time, but I hope to rectify that in the next week or two before things get busy again with my sister’s wedding.

The Friday morning of Memorial weekend, I left for my sister’s bachelorette party in Nashville.  I had worked all week and tried to get things ready bit by bit- shopping for gifts, laundry, making sure there was food for the cats, a trip to the library for books on tape and Nashville guides, and all the other little pre-trip things that needed attending to.  Packing and straightening the house, of course, always gets left until the last possible minute.  So, as I was trying to get things together at 10:30 Thursday night, I got an unexpected call from my friend Youn, an old acquaintance from my Toulouse days.  He and a friend were traveling around the U.S. and wanted to know, could they possibly come and stay for a few days?  Of course! I replied, while inwardly starting to panic.  The house was reasonably tidy- I don’t like to come home to a mess- but it was nowhere near “house-guest clean”.  I would have to drive 10 hours, then spend a few hours cleaning Monday night, because I had to work on Tuesday and they were arriving that evening. Also sandwiched into the week’s schedule were two Scarlet Oaks shows, one of which was in Cleveland.

Long story short, I pulled everything together the best I could and we had a nice time (more about their visit in a later post), but coming back from a trip and then entertaining for 5 days left me wiped out.  Sunday I wanted to cook, but I knew I needed to do something hyper-simple.  My mind jumped to this dish of white beans with tomato and sage (one I’ve made many times before) because of the abundance of sage in my herb garden right now.  This is one of the easiest dishes I know, and it goes great with some grilled Italian sausages.  Unfortunately the weather didn’t cooperate so our sausages were pan-grilled in the cast-iron skillet, but that actually made things even easier.  I threw together a green salad as well as some cucumbers with labneh (thick strained yogurt), scallion, lemon and parsley, we cracked open a bottle of red, and reveled in our simple feast as we breathed a sigh of relief at not having anywhere to be or anyone to entertain.  While I love having guests, a quiet evening with my sweetheart was just what I needed to get grounded and catch my breath.

If your sage is blowing up right now too, check out this post from Clotilde of Chocolate & Zucchini on 45 things to do with fresh sage!

Tuscan Beans with Tomatoes & Sage (adapted from Moosewood Low-Fat Favorites)
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This recipe is originally from a low-fat cookbook, and you can certainly choose to make it that way, but I of course like it with generous amounts of olive oil.  Obviously, you can cook the beans from dried, or use fresh tomatoes if in season, but the point is that you can open a few cans and have a pretty tasty and respectable side dish ready in about 15 minutes.  For the vegetarian folks out there, you could certainly serve this alongside veggie sausage or even some risotto to get the complete rice+beans protein combo.

2 15 or 19-oz cans cannellini beans*, rinsed and drained (I prefer the bigger cans if you can find them)
1 28-oz can good quality diced tomatoes, drained, juice reserved*
3-6 cloves garlic, depending on size, to yield about 2 Tbs minced
about 25-30 washed sage leaves, to yield 3-4 Tbs minced
olive oil
salt & pepper to taste

*Another type of white bean can be substituted if necessary.

**My version appears more “saucy” because I used whole canned plum tomatoes and just squished them up with my hands as I added them to the pot.  Remember, this dish is all about whatever’s easiest.

Put a few Tbs of olive oil in a medium-sized heavy saucepan over medium-low heat.  When warm, add the garlic, stirring frequently (you want it to soften but not brown).  After a couple minutes, increase the heat slightly and add the sage.  Cook for a couple more minutes, then add the drained tomatoes.  Cook for a few minutes to blend the flavors, then add the beans and cook until heated through.  If the dish seems too dry, add a bit of the reserved tomato juice.  Drizzle a little more olive oil on top if desired, and serve.

buckwheat galettes with leeks & ham, and a meeting

Just over a year ago, I was talking to Stéphane at Zen Can Cook via email apropos this post, in which he and fellow bloggers Claire (Colloquial Cooking) and Marc (No Recipes) smoked homemade knackwurst to make the Alsatian classic choucroute garnie from scratch.  In this email I lamented the fact that, although I know lots of folks who like to cook, I didn’t know anyone who was nearly as enthusiastic and dedicated as this, and expressed my envy that he had this crew of people with whom to embark upon these types of challenging cooking “projects”.

Fast-forward one year and I’m happy to report that through the miracle of Twitter, I have stumbled on a group of folks here in Detroit who may well be just as nutty (and I mean that in the best possible way) for DIY food as Stéphane’s  New York pals.  Detroit is really not that big a town, and these are all people who were only one degree of separation away from me in the first place, but Twitter facilitated the discovery that we had these common interests, and got us chatting on a regular basis.

We decided it would behoove our palates to take our Twitter friendships a step further, so this past Friday I got an invitation to attend a “meeting” that evening.  I knew there would be gustatory hedonism involved, but little did I know the extent to which these guys are committed to their food and drink- after getting the tour of our host James‘s house, I felt like a rank amateur!  This is a guy who, in addition to several casks of homemade wine in his basement, has a few choice hunks of pork casually hanging from the rafters to cure, no big deal.

As well as being hardcore food aficionados, these guys are also serious about their beverages:  Todd and Evan co-author the blog Swigs, and Todd brews his own beer and kombucha.  James, in addition to being an all-around connoisseur of wine and spirits, is the coffee roaster at Great Lakes CoffeeJarred is a wine buyer at Western Market in Ferndale (where, incidentally, he is pushing to get more local, healthy and affordable choices on the shelves).

Due to the last-minute nature of this meeting, I just ended up bringing what I’d planned to make for dinner that night: buckwheat galettes (i.e. savory crêpes) with a ham/leek/crème fraîche filling.  I had some extra Swiss chard to use up so I also made a little chard/shallot/ham filling.  I whizzed up the batter in the blender, brought it with the fillings and my crêpe pan, and cooked them sûr place.

I’m already planning ahead for the next get-together so that even if it’s a last-minute affair I can be prepared with something semi-impressive.  Not that anyone is competitive per se; it wasn’t that kind of vibe.  But I actually enjoy feeling an element of challenge and upping the ante- it’s an excuse to try something that goes above and beyond my usual repertoire.  In spite of their humble simplicity, I think my galettes were well-received though.  In fact, I already got a request for the recipe, so let me oblige:

For another take on galettes, see this post, in which my French friend Youn gives his recipe!

Buckwheat Galettes with Ham & Leeks (Galettes Bretonnes au Sarrasin, Jambon & Poireaux)
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For the galettes:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup buckwheat flour
3 eggs
2 cups milk
½ cup apple cider vinegar (see notes)
½ tsp salt
2 Tbs melted butter, cooled
additional butter to grease the pan

For the filling:
3 large leeks
6 oz good quality ham steak, diced small (feel free to substitute lardons or pancetta)
2-3 Tbs heavy cream or crème fraîche
a knob of butter (about 1 Tbs)
a few grinds of nutmeg
salt & pepper to taste

Notes:
If your buckwheat flour is very dark or if you prefer a milder taste, you can use a higher ratio of white flour, such as 1 1/3 cups white & 2/3 cup buckwheat.  Cider vinegar is a traditional Breton twist and will give your galettes a tangy flavor that nicely offsets the ham and cream.  Again, you can play with the proportions, using more or less vinegar (or none at all) according to your taste (if omitting, make up the difference with more milk or water).  For fillings, the sky’s the limit- I often use up whatever bits of meat or veg I have in the fridge to create different fillings (as you can see in the photos, I added some leftover asparagus to these).  Ham and eggs are probably the most popular filling for galettes in France (speaking of eggs, the leek & ham filling is delicious in an omelette if you happen to have any left over).  This is a great make-ahead dish because the batter actually improves as it sits; I love to keep it on hand for quick weeknight dinners.

Directions:
Make the batter: Put the flours and salt in a blender and pulse a few times to combine.  In a bowl, lightly beat the eggs with the milk and butter; with the blender running, pour this mixture into the flour.  Add the vinegar if using (putting the vinegar in separately will keep it from curdling the milk) and pulse until blended, scraping down the sides if necessary.  Check the batter and add more milk, water or vinegar until your batter reaches the consistency of light cream.  Transfer to a bowl and put in the refrigerator to rest, covered, for at least 2 hours.

Make the filling: Cut the leeks in half lengthwise and slice into thin half-circles.  Place in a bowl of cold water, swishing them around to free any dirt.  After the grit settles, lift the leeks gently out of the water and place in a colander to drain.  Melt the butter in a 10 or 12″ skillet over medium heat.  If using lardons or pancetta, fry them for a couple of minutes (use less butter or even skip it) until they render a bit of their fat, then add the leeks.  If using ham, cook the leeks in the butter until soft, then add the ham to warm it through.  When the leeks are cooked, add the cream, nutmeg, and salt and pepper to taste (I like to use white pepper for this).

Make the galettes:  Warm your crêpe pan or griddle over medium heat until very hot. Smear a bit of butter onto a paper towel and rub it on the pan. Test the heat with a few drops of batter; they should set immediately. Give the batter a couple stirs in case it has started to separate.  Wipe the pan clean with the paper towel wad, and then rub it again with butter. Ladle batter onto the center of the hot pan (quantity will depend on your pan’s size), lifting the pan off the heat a few inches and quickly rotating the pan so it is thinly and completely covered.  If there is excess batter (i.e. batter that does not instantly set), pour it back into the bowl. Cook the galette until lightly browned on the bottom- about 30 to 60 seconds. Peel it off the griddle and flip it to color the other side.  You want it to color, but not cook so much that it becomes crispy. If making several at a time, transfer it to a plate and cover loosely with a tea towel.

If the first galette seems heavy, thin the batter with a little milk or water. Continue to cook the galettes, re-greasing the pan if needed to prevent sticking.  Pile the finished galettes on the plate to keep warm.  When ready to assemble, spread a few generous spoonfuls of hot filling in the center of each galette and fold each side in towards the middle to form a square or rectangular packet (in the photos I did them in omelette shapes to accommodate the asparagus; you can also fold it in quarters for a triangular “cone” shape).  Serve immediately with a simple green salad.

thang long’s duck & cabbage salad

Although I’m an adventurous eater and love all kinds of Asian foods, it hasn’t been until relatively recently (the last 5 years or so) that I discovered how much I love Vietnamese food.  Sad, because out of all the types of Asian cuisines I’ve tried, Vietnamese cooking calls out to me the most, with its pungent flavors of fish sauce, chilies, lime and fresh herbs.  It’s ironic because although I lived in France, where there is a large Vietnamese population, my experience was limited to snacking on the occasional nem (fresh roll), which you could buy at the counter in many Vietnamese-owned groceries.

Here in Metro Detroit, there is also a significant Vietnamese population in the Madison Heights area (see this post about some of the Asian specialty stores in that area).  A couple years ago Marvin turned me on to a restaurant on John R just north of 11 Mile Rd. called Thang Long *insert immature jokes here… you know you want to* and I’ve been hooked ever since.  It’s not much to look at when you walk in- the decor is all rose-colored and clearly hasn’t been updated since the early ’80s; the vinyl seats are torn in places.  There’s a long table in the middle of the restaurant where the family congregates to do food prep, wrap silverware, etc.  But none of that matters because when you go to Thang Long, you go for the food.

I’ve tried several dishes at Thang Long, but my favorite is the Duck & Cabbage salad.  Cabbage is shredded and doused with a dressing of vinegar, fish sauce, chilies and garlic; there are slices of red bell pepper, mint and basil leaves, a sprinkling of peanuts, and best of all, pieces of shredded duck breast. Last year I acquired Andrea Nguyen’s book Into the Vietnamese Kitchen (check out this post for a great stuffed tofu recipe from that book), and happily it contained a recipe for a very similar salad that used poached chicken breast in place of the duck.  I made a batch and was delighted to find that, with just a little tweaking, I could now make my beloved duck salad at home.  Best of all, it’s an incredibly easy recipe AND super healthy- there’s not even any oil in the salad dressing.  The salad is great when it’s first made, but I also like it after it “marinates” in the dressing and the cabbage softens a bit.  Either way, you’ll be glad it makes a big batch because it’s addictive and easy to eat huge portions!

Photo notes: The first photo is of the salad I made at home with chicken, following the original recipe without any modifications.  The photo of the salad with the herbs and red pepper is the actual duck salad at Thang Long (hence the crappy lighting). The things on the side of the plate are delicious fried shrimp chips.

Vietnamese Duck & Cabbage Salad (adapted from Into the Vietnamese Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen)
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Notes:
If you’re looking for a more weekday version of this dish, this salad works just as well with chicken rather than duck.  I’m not usually a fan of the rather flavorless white chicken breast meat available in most stores (use Amish or organic if possible!), but the salad has so much flavor of its own that it works out.   For the chilies, in a pinch you can do what I did and use dried bird’s eye chilies; just pour a small amount of very hot water over them and let them soak a bit before using.  The items marked “optional” are ingredients that Thang Long uses in their salad that were not included in Ms. Nguyen’s recipe.

For the salad:
1 Tbs fish sauce
1 bone-in duck or chicken breast (both sides)
1 small red onion or two shallots, thinly sliced
½ to ¾ cup distilled white vinegar
1 small head green cabbage, about 1 lb, quartered through the stem end, cored, and cut crosswise into ¼-inch-wide ribbons
1 large carrot, peeled and shredded (I use the large holes of a box grater)
a good handful of cilantro, finely chopped (about 2-3 Tbs)
¼ of a red bell pepper, thinly sliced (optional)
2-3 sprigs mint leaves (optional)
2-3 sprigs basil (optional)
2-3 Tbs finely chopped unsalted peanuts (optional)

For the dressing:
1-2 Thai or serrano (red) chilies, chopped (see notes)
1 clove garlic, chopped
½ tsp sugar
pinch of salt
3 Tbs fish sauce
6 Tbs unseasoned Japanese rice vinegar

Directions:
Choose a lidded saucepan just large enough to hold the meat.  Fill half-full with water and the 1 Tbs fish sauce, and bring to a rolling boil.  Drop in the duck or chicken breasts.  When the water starts bubbling at the edges of the pan, remove the pan from the heat and cover tightly; let sit undisturbed for 30-40 minutes.  If you’re at all nervous about undercooked meat, use a meat thermometer to ensure the meat has reached 160°.  (Alternately, if time is not an issue, you can cook the meat in a slow cooker on low for a couple hours; folks on Serious Eats claim they get a moister result this way.)

Meanwhile, place the cabbage, carrot, cilantro and red bell pepper (if using) in a large bowl.  Put the onion or shallots in a small bowl and add the white vinegar just to cover (the vinegar tames the onion’s bite).  Let sit for 15 minutes.  Drain well and add to the cabbage.   When the meat is cool enough to handle, remove the skin and shred the meat by hand along the grain; when cool, add to the bowl of cabbage.

Using a mortar and pestle, mash the garlic, chilies, sugar and salt until they form a fragrant orange-red paste.  Scrape the paste into a small bowl and add the rice vinegar and fish sauce, stirring to dissolve and combine.

Just before serving, pour the dressing over the salad and toss well to combine.  Taste and adjust the flavors as needed, balancing the sour, salty, sweet and spicy.  Transfer to a serving plate, leaving behind any unabsorbed dressing.  Garnish with the herb sprigs and the peanuts, if using (or leave on the side for your guests to add as desired).

bento, beer, & bands in a barn (just another saturday in ann arbor)

There’s a bumper sticker that reads “Ann Arbor: 25 square miles surrounded by reality”.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with that fair city, allow me to explain the joke.  Ann Arbor (or A2 as it’s known in shorthand), home to the University of Michigan, is a liberal enclave where people are SO like-minded that after spending some time there, you’re apt to be lulled into forgetting that other places aren’t as progressive.  For someone coming from another city (especially Detroit), going to Ann Arbor is akin to going to Disneyland’s Epcot Center; like visiting a staged example of what a mid-sized Midwestern city could be if everyone shopped at a food co-op, recycled, volunteered, or was otherwise groovy.  Everywhere you go, there is evidence of A2’s crunchy leanings: a yoga studio every other block; houses painted various shades of the rainbow; people biking and walking more than they drive.  The city hosts an annual Hash Bash (they’re known for their lax marijuana laws), has a high school where kids aren’t given grades, and allows people to keep chickens in their backyards.

Saturday Scarlet Oaks had a show in A2: a fundraiser, held in an urban barn (see photos above & below), in which people were asked to donate art supplies as part of their admission.  It was a gorgeous day out, so my friend Melissa and I decided to head out there early so we could wander around, get some food, and basically be tourists.  Lest you get the impression by my comments above that I’m somehow hating on Ann Arbor, let me assure you that’s not the case- there are few better places a drive’s distance from my house to spend a sunny afternoon. The downtown area is eminently walkable, and features scads of cute shops, restaurants, cafes etc.

The city is as close as one can get to a food-lover’s paradise in the Midwest.  In addition to many great restaurants (several in the budget category- this is a college town after all), A2 boasts a lovely farmers’ market and several gourmet shops.  Most notably, it’s home to the nationally-known Zingerman’s mini-empire (deli, restaurant, dairy, and bakery), whose philosophy leads them to source and serve only the best quality slow and sustainable foods. Folks here are very active in the local and organic food movements- a blogging friend runs a business called Locavorious, selling local foods frozen at harvest to be eaten through the winter months; another blogger runs Preserving Traditions, a group that hosts workshops on canning and such. Not surprisingly, the largest concentration of Michigan Lady Food Bloggers is in Ann Arbor and its environs.

Our singer Steve grew up around Ann Arbor and knows all the good spots, so at his suggestion we had lunch at a Japanese restaurant called Sadako.  He and his wife had  raved about how good it was, and how cheap (for sushi)- a rarity.  (I realize “cheap” is not necessarily a word you want to associate with sushi, but trust me, the quality was not proportional to the low prices!)  We ordered off the lunch specials menu, opting for bento rather than sushi rolls.  For a mere $7.45, I got an incredible amount of food: miso soup, a small side salad, 2 gyoza, an assortment of tempura (including 2 shrimp), teriyaki-glazed salmon with vegetables, and 4 pieces of California roll.  I was pretty much in awe of what a great deal this was, and felt a little guilty that I couldn’t finish everything. I made a valiant effort though, and finished most of my bento.  Note to self: in the future, only eat half the miso; it’s good but fills valuable stomach space that could be better spent on tempura!

Happily sated, we continued across town to Kerrytown, the neighborhood which houses the farmers’ market, Zingerman’s deli, and some other shops.  Melissa wanted to visit Hollander’s, a huge shop specializing in paper goods.  (As I left, I happened to see that the entire upper level is devoted to kitchen/ housewares… a good thing I didn’t notice sooner, as I probably would have spent an entire paycheck and/ or browsed so long that I would’ve been late for our set!) I bought a set of postcards with illustrations of vegetables from old seed packets, which I’ll frame and use as kitchen decor.

After Hollander’s, we headed up the block to Zingerman’s where I was hoping to find verjus.  The place was ridiculously packed; the line winding through the shop and several feet out onto the sidewalk.  The helpful employee I asked told me that they didn’t currently carry verjus, because they hadn’t yet found a brand up to their standards!  We geeked out on vinegars, and he gave me a few outstanding samples, but in the end I couldn’t bring myself to part with $20 for a bottle.  Next visit I’ll save my pennies in anticipation of dropping some serious cash there. (Ahem, if you ever need a gift idea for me, they have gift cards!)

Our show was a lot of fun; it’s always a nice change of pace to play during the daytime and not in some smoky bar (19 more days!!!).  Unfortunately for the fundraising effort there weren’t a ton of people there, but the sound was good and we got an enthusiastic reception.  After our set, we grabbed some carry-out and beer and headed to a friend’s house to sit on the porch and enjoy the last few rays of sun before heading back to the reality of Detroit.

As you might expect, living in such an idyllic town does not come cheap.  Although property values have taken a hit as they have everywhere, they are much higher in A2 than most MI cities, and ironically, economic and ethnic diversity is the casualty of this gentrification (lower-income folks who work in Ann Arbor mostly live in neighboring Ypsilanti).