Category Archives: Restaurants

schnäck!

Menus for Schnack German pop-up restaurant

Sundays just don’t get much better than yesterday. I started off the day with a greasy-spoon breakfast at the Steak Hut on Lafayette, where my friends and former band-mates Steve and James were playing an acoustic set of country classics… I even got to sit in on vocals on a few tunes. After that, I sat outside reading books  in the record-breakingly warm sunshine. And to top it all off, I had dinner with the husband and friends at a pop-up German restaurant called Schnäck.

schnack window table menus

Our friends at Porktown Sausage set up Schnäck in Supino Pizza (temporarily closed while owner Dave Mancini takes a well-deserved vacation in Argentina), and it was just the right size for a first-time venture such as this. We got there shortly after it opened at 5pm and it was already over half full; it didn’t take long for a wait to form at the door. But the small number of seats (about 30) and limited menu allowed them to manage the flow and keep from getting too slammed.

diners at Schnack, a pop-up at Supino Detroit
Charcuterie plate by Porktown Sausage at Schnack German restaurant Detroit

Herring and Knackwurst at Schnack, Detroit

The menu offered two appetizers, two mains, a few sides and a dessert. Unlike some pop-ups, which favor the prix fixe model, this was à la carte, which we preferred. James and I shared a pickled herring appetizer, while Marvin went for the charcuterie plate. I ordered a knackwurst with two sides (braised sauerkraut and a homemade pretzel) and Marvin got some potato salad with bacon. Kitchen at Schnack, aka Supino PizzaAll of the meats were made/ cured by the Porktown boys and were out of this world… the liverwurst and knackwurst were especially impressive. I’ve shied away from making any emulsified sausages because the emulsification is tricky and if you get it wrong, it’s apparently inedible, but they nailed it. A spicy mustard (also house-made) tied it all together, and we washed it down with kölsch and riesling. Tables were communal, so we got to dine with some old friends and new acquaintances. After dinner, we abandoned our seats to allow room for newcomers, and congregated around the picnic tables outdoors to finish our drinks. Predictably, several of us decided to head over to the Sugar House for after-dinner cocktails… you know, just a little something to help digest all that meat.

schnack guest checks

I’ve often thought about doing a pop-up restaurant, and in addition to being great food and a fun time, this was instructive. There were a few things that needed tweaking (timing of food, portions, and a couple other small details) but overall, for a bunch of guys who don’t work in restaurants and were doing this for the first time, it was pretty impressive. I’m hoping that they make it a semi-regular thing, or else I just might have to try my hand at homemade pretzels and emulsified sausage, and I’m still not sure I’m ready for that. A pop-up of my own, though… who knows, maybe soon!

For more schnäcking, check out this post on Gourmet Underground Detroit.

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).

roadfood in savannah & beaufort

When traveling, it’s nice to afford yourself one or two “luxurious” meals at a high-end restaurant, to be sure.  But more and more, when I eat at those types of places, I find myself thinking how I could get the same kind of food in Detroit, and wishing I had opted instead for something more casual that offers the kind of experience unique to that city or area.

When visiting my mom in Bluffton, SC over the holidays, we spent a day walking around Savannah, just 30 minutes away.  I had wanted to eat at the famous Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room, but apparently you need to line up HOURS beforehand to get in, so that was scratched.  We wandered around near the market trying to find somewhere decent to eat and it seemed that there was a wait everywhere.  Then I spotted a little hole-in-the-wall diner serving burgers, hot dogs, and… beer!  Just the thing after a morning’s walking.  My mom looked a bit skeptical but everyone else was hungry enough to agree.

The diner, called Sweet Melissa’s, had a vibe that was sort of a cross between an arty dive bar and the Coneys in Detroit… maybe that’s what drew me in?  I ordered a hot dog with sauerkraut and tomato, and Marvin and I shared a cup of chili.  The dog was large and good-quality, but the chili was the real standout.  I didn’t ask, but it definitely tasted like it was made in-house rather than chili from a can like some diners.   Others ordered burgers and BBQ pork and everyone seemed pretty happy- especially Marvin, upon being told he could take his beer to go and drink it while walking.

My quest for regional food also led me to Sgt. White’s Diner in Beaufort (pronounced “Buford”, not “Bow-forr”, much to the chagrin of my French-speaking brain).  I read about this gem in Jane & Michael Stern’s book Roadfood, and I’m glad I did because it’s a mile or so outside the downtown area and I don’t think we would have run across it by chance alone. We got there late (they close at 3:00 and we arrived at about 2:45) so many of the side dishes were depleted, but we managed to do just fine.  For $7.99, you get a plate heaped with your choice of meat and two sides- I had BBQ pork with collards and okra gumbo (okra stewed with tomatoes and corn), and my mom had fried chicken with fried okra and huge, creamy butter beans.  The food was as good as barbecue gets, and I especially liked the condiments on each table- a spicy and slightly sweet hot sauce, and a bottle of white vinegar filled with peppers and other vegetables.

After we ate, I chatted with the Sarge (that’s him in my masthead photo) and snapped a few shots of the restaurant, which is decorated with lots of colorful pig paraphernalia as well as military memorabilia.  Sarge is obviously deeply patriotic and proud of his military service!  He and his cook were both very friendly and amenable to my picture-taking and questions.  I can’t wait to get back down South and try some more regional specialties, and will definitely head back to Sgt. White’s next time we’re in Beaufort.  Cheers, y’all!

café habana: breakfast overeasy

Arepas wholeIn Ferndale, my hands-down favorite breakfast place is the Fly Trap.  Problem is, it’s the favorite breakfast place of  many people, and on the weekends, the line usually spills out onto the sidewalk.  Unfortunately, there aren’t many other good breakfast options in Ferndale worth mentioning.  And please don’t say, “But what about Toast?”  Sure, they have cute décor, but mediocre food, abominable service and high prices, and after my last experience there (it was a Monday and the Fly Trap was closed), I don’t think I’ll ever go back.

So what’s a gal to do on a weekend morning when she doesn’t feel like cooking and is too hungry to wait in line?  Two words: Café Habana.

chimichurri breadCafé Habana is in downtown Royal Oak and is part of the Bastone/Vinotecca complex on the corner of 5th and Main.  It’s relatively small, yet is never full on weekends despite its tasty (and cheap!) brunch menu.  They score points over the Fly Trap and other breakfast places for ambiance- they have Cuban music on the stereo, and sitting amongst the exposed brick and wrought-iron chandeliers, it is a pretty pleasant place to relax and read the Sunday paper. The service is laid-back and friendly, not frantic, and you never get the impression they are trying to turn a table.

Flamenca horizontalIf you’re more the type to seek a “standard” breakfast menu with pancakes, eggs, bacon and the like, this probably isn’t the place for you. But for the more adventurous eater, Café Habana has some exciting offerings.  Marvin and I have eaten here several times and our favorite dish is the Huevos a la Flamenca.  The eggs are served in a tomato-based sauce that has little pieces of carrot and peas as well as ham and sausage.  It’s served with a potato croquette that is browned and crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside.  Another dish I like is the Huevos Habana, two eggs with a pork and plantain hash and poblano hollandaise.  If I’m not in an eggy mood, I go for the Arepas (cornmeal pancakes), Marvin eating crop 1which you can either get sweet, with cream cheese and fruit, or savory, with herbed goat cheese, sautéed spinach and pico de gallo.   Coffee is above average here, but if you’re not a coffee drinker, they have a good freshly-squeezed limeade, or you can order drinks from the bar at the adjacent restaurant, Bastone.

Café Habana can also be recommended for lunch and dinner- I’ve had the Flank Steak with Chimichurri and it was pretty darn good- but for some reason when we end up there, it’s usually for breakfast.  Fly Trap, we still love ya, but on the days we sleep too late to beat the crowds, you can find us in a booth at Café Habana, divvying up sections of the New York Times and enjoying a leisurely meal.

michael symon’s roast: a celebration of the flesh

Vegetarians, mosy along, nothing to see here…

Do you love meat?  I mean, do you really love meat?  Do you lay awake at night, thinking of what you could do to a side of wild boar or a tender baby lamb?  Michael Symon almost certainly does.  His newest restaurant, Roast, in downtown Detroit’s Book Cadillac Hotel, is a celebration of all things meat.  It’s a perfect example of taking an ingredient, treating it simply but respectfully, and thereby elevating the whole dish beyond the sum of its parts.  Symon’s farm-to-table philosophy ties in with the idea that quality ingredients don’t need a lot of embellishment or fuss to make a memorable meal.

I had heard good things about Roast, and had gotten a bit of a preview from Marvin, who photographed Symon and the restaurant for an article in Model D.  So when he suggested going there for a Mothers’ Day dinner, I was all for it.  (I apologize for the lack of photos, but I didn’t want to be interrupting his mom’s nice dinner with a photo shoot, so you’ll just have to check out some of the links I provided to see pics.)  My initial impression of the restaurant was that it looked impressive but was not at all my style décor-wise; the dining room is very modern-neutral; the music “urban contemporary”.  But as soon as I opened the menu, I was so giddy at the selection that it could have looked like a TGI Friday’s and had Kenny G on the speakers and I probably wouldn’t have cared.

Several of the appetizers caught my eye, but we settled on the Roasted Marrow and the Beef Cheek Pierogies.  (The Cripsy Chicken Livers is definitely on the list for next time, though.)  I had never had marrow except in osso buco, and it was not at all what I expected.  I thought it was going to be dark red and taste very earthy, like blood, but it was actually more like soft, gelatinous fat.  It was garnished with gremolata and lemon wedges, with toasts to spread it on.  I thought it was good, and was glad to have tried it, but it was too rich to eat very much of.  The pierogies, a signature dish, were very good; the beef cheek reminded me of oxtail in texture and flavor.  The horseradish and mushroom sauce made me want to lick the plate.  My only slight critique is that they were a tiny bit doughy.  Still delicious though!

For my entrée, it was a tough call.  I had almost decided on the Braised Lamb with Fennel and Tomato, but changed my mind upon learning that the Roast Beast of the day was suckling pig.  It was served simply, piled on the plate and topped with a small mound of colorful, vinegary chiles and onions and garnished with pieces of cracklins.  Many of the main dishes are sold à la carte, as was Marvin’s Rack of Wild Boar, so we also got sides of asparagus and polenta (flavored with garlic and honey, and the creamiest I have ever tasted).  As I sat there eating my pile of pork, I felt incredibly fortunate (and a little guilty) to be having such a decadent and amazing meal.  Even though I was just eating roast pork and not truffles or foie gras, part of the decadent/ pampered feeling was due to the fact that the service was so impeccable; our waiter was attentive to the slightest detail,  providing helpful wine pairing suggestions and happily answering all of our questions about the menu.

If you go to Roast, it’s fun to also take a peek at the hotel’s posh common areas.  Marvin’s mom used to work in one of the lounges at the Book Cadillac when he was a kid, so after dinner we took a short stroll through the lobby and lounge area of the hotel, which has been immaculately updated.  I had never been inside the building, but according to her it was hardly recognizable from its former incarnation.

I may not get a chance to get back to Roast for dinner any time soon, but I hope to check out their new Cocktail Hour, which features $3-$4 “bites” and would, I expect, be a great way to sample the restaurant’s treats on a budget.  Joe Posch, author of the aforementioned Model D article and blogger at Detroit Drink Tank, wrote about Roast’s cocktail hour here, and interviewed bar manager Frank Ritz here.  To read another blogger’s take on the Roast dinner experience, check out Amy of Runs With Spatula‘s review here.

P. S. Congratulations to Chef Symon for winning the James Beard award for best chef in the Great Lakes region, and for Roast being named 2009 Restaurant of the Year in the Detroit Free Press.

black-eyed pea & collard green soup à la Russell Street Deli (in case of a cold snap)

bep-in-dishIn Detroit’s Eastern Market, there is a restaurant called Russell Street Deli, a space twice as tall as it is wide, with about 8 tables where people sit communal-style, elbow to elbow.  They come faithfully for lunch to indulge in classic deli treats like corned beef on rye, or vegetarian delights such as the roasted vegetable sandwich.  On Saturdays, the line for breakfast (with specials culled from the market’s seasonal offerings) winds out the door and spills onto the sidewalk.  In addition to their above-par sandwiches and omelettes, Russell Street is particularly known for its wonderful soups.  I should know, because years ago I worked there for several months, first at the soup station, and later as a waitress.  Back then, a cup of soup often stood in for breakfast, and provided fuel for the frantic pace of busy lunch shifts.

bep-plated-11The soups are  typically made vegetarian or vegan, with the option of meat for those who want it, so they are appreciated by all.  One of the soups, Black-Eyed Pea with Collard Greens (with or without ham), was a combination that I had never tried before working there, but has since become a favorite and something I make at home fairly regularly.  I do make the non-veggie version more often at home, but I’ll give the recipe both ways.  (Recipe is my approximation and does not reflect the actual restaurant recipe, although to my taste buds I have come pretty darn close.)  Given the recent spate of warm weather here, I hesitated to post this, thinking no one would give a hoot about soup at this point (and apparently I’m not alone in thinking this could be the last soup of the season), but then I remembered that this is Michigan, and for all we know it could be snowing or sleeting tomorrow and a hot bowl of soup could be just the thing.

berries-plated2I served this with cornmeal drop biscuits from Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook, and they were wonderful for sopping up the broth.  I never thought I’d be the type to whip up biscuits for a weeknight supper, but these were super easy and fast (I cheated and used the processor instead of cutting in the butter by hand).  We also ate the biscuits as part of dessert, with fresh strawberries and whipped cream, as a rustic sort of substitute for shortcake.

Black-Eyed Pea & Collard Green Soup à la Russell Street Deli

(printer-friendly version)

1 lb dried black-eyed peas, rinsed and picked over
2 bunches collard greens, washed, stems removed and cut into 1-inch ribbons (you want about a pound after they’re all trimmed)
3 small or 2 medium cooking onions, diced
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 large celery stalk, diced small (not crucial, but I had some in the fridge)
3-4 quarts veggie stock, chicken stock or water+ ham hock (see notes)
bay leaf
salt & pepper to taste
optional: 2 cups diced ham

Notes:  I made this just after Easter to use up some leftover Easter ham, but again, the veggie version is a worthwhile (and of course healthier) alternative.  If you’re not vegetarian, but just don’t want to buy ham, I’d suggest using chicken stock for the cooking liquid.  If you’re using the ham, I suggest using water plus a ham hock as the cooking liquid, but the other stocks would work fine too.  The total amount of liquid you’ll need will depend on a couple factors, such as how dry your beans are and how low a simmer you can maintain.  As for seasonings, the amount of salt you add will depend on your choice of stock, so just start tasting towards the end of cooking and add as needed.

Directions: Heat the bay leaf and stock or water + ham hock in a saucepan and bring to a simmer.  Meanwhile, in a stockpot or Dutch oven, sweat the onions and celery in a little vegetable oil, adding the garlic a few minutes in.  When they begin to soften, add the beans and simmering liquid.  As the beans cook, if you are using the ham hock, you may need to skim the surface occasionally to remove any scum. (I know, at this point the vegetarians are either laughing at us or going “ewww, scum?”…) Cook uncovered at a gentle simmer, stirring from time to time, until the beans are nearly fully cooked. If the liquid gets too low at any point, top it off with a little water or stock- you want the beans to be covered at all times, and the end result should be brothy, not overly thick.

When the beans are almost done, remove the ham hock and bay leaf, then raise the heat slightly and add the diced ham and collard greens.  Simmer until greens are fully wilted and tender, about 10-15 minutes.  (Collards can take a longer cooking, if you prefer to put them in earlier; just make sure not to overcook your beans.) Check for salt and pepper, adding as needed, and serve. I love to season this soup with a dash of Frank’s Red Hot and/or a sprinkle of apple cider vinegar.

chicken enchiladas with chile verde & chile colorado, el azteco style

chix-ench-plate-2-crop

In college I worked at a restaurant in East Lansing called El Azteco (or simply “El Az”, for those in the know).  Anyone who ever went to MSU probably has fond memories of their 96-cent burrito and margarita specials, and if you’re old school you remember when it was underground in a tiny basement location.  I remember going there in high school with friends, ordering “friburs” (frijole burrito) and Mountain Dew, and leaving a pile of change for the waitress (cringe!).  I started working there the summer after freshman year of college.  There were many ups and downs to the job, but one thing that appealed to me was the management’s sense of equity.  It didn’t matter if you had 10 years experience or none as a server- everyone had to start off in the kitchen and work there for at least a few months before graduating to server (or “waitron”, as it was called).  Consequently, all of the servers including myself knew exactly what was in the food and how to make it.  Comes in handy for when I have a craving and don’t want to drive 80 miles!  (You’d think that eating the same food 4-5 times a week for 4 years would make you sick of it, but oddly, no.)

Last week my friends Ian and Michelle welcomed their son  Henry into the world.  I wanted to bring them some food so that they could take a night off from cooking and hopefully relax a bit.  I had eaten at El Azteco the week prior and it occured to me to make chicken enchiladas because I could make them in bulk and have enough to feed myself and Marvin as well.  I spent about 5 hours in the kitchen on Sunday and made the works: chicken enchiladas with two kinds of sauce (chile verde & chile colorado), Spanish rice, refried beans and pico de gallo, all from scratch.  Given how much food I ended up with, it was time well spent, I think.  And when I delivered the food to Ian and Michelle, I got to peek in on an adorable sleeping brand new baby boy!

Very soon I will be posting my recipes for refried beans and Spanish rice, as well as a couple other El Az-inspired recipes that incorporate leftovers from this recipe, so please check back.

Please note: the given recipes make a LOT of enchiladas and sauce, so if you’re not feeding a crowd and don’t want to freeze stuff, I would recommend cutting everything in half.   However, you can freeze the sauces and use extra leftover chicken in Chicken & Rice Soup (recipe coming soon).

Chicken Enchiladas, El Azteco Style printer-friendly version

enchiladas-with-towel

To cook the chicken:

6 chicken leg quarters (about 5 lbs), preferably organic or Amish
2 carrots
2 celery stalks
1 large onion
2 cloves garlic
2 tbs tomato paste
1 bay leaf
about 2 liters chicken broth (see notes)

To assemble the enchiladas:

8 oz finely shredded medium or mild cheddar
16 oz shredded cheddar or muenster, or a combination
about 60 corn tortillas (I bought 2 packages of 30)
Chopped scallions for garnish

Notes: For the poaching liquid for the chicken, feel free to use low-sodium canned chicken broth, or water plus bouillon.  I like this product called Better than Bouillon- they make an organic chicken bouillon that comes in a jar and has a paste-like consistency.  I like it because it’s easy to add as much or as little as you need and to taste for saltiness as you go.

Directions: Roughly chop the carrots, celery and onion and smash the garlic.  Put in a large stockpot with the chicken broth, bay leaf, and tomato paste (stir to dissolve) and bring to a simmer.

While the stock is simmering, rinse and pat the chicken dry and trim of all excess skin and fat.  I find a kitchen scissors the best tool for this.  Place the chicken quarters in the simmering stock, arranging them so that they are all covered by the liquid (if necessary, add more broth or water to cover- you want the liquid to just come to the top of the meat).  Return to a simmer and poach for 25 minutes, covered.  When done, remove lid and let the chicken cool in the poaching liquid while you get on with making the enchilada sauces (see recipes below).

When cool, remove the chicken from the liquid.  Strain the broth and reserve for making Spanish rice or Chicken & Rice Soup.  Skin and debone the chicken and chop into small pieces (you will want them pretty small so that your enchiladas aren’t too bulky).  Combine in a bowl with the 8 oz. shredded cheddar. (If you are going to use any of the chicken for Chicken & Rice soup, set some aside before adding the cheese, and adjust the amount of cheese accordingly.)

To assemble the enchiladas, take about 15 tortillas at a time, wrap them in a clean kitchen towel, and microwave for 3 minutes.  Take them out and divide and flip them, so that the ones on the outside are now on the inside, re-wrap in the towel and nuke for another few minutes.  You’re aiming for the tortillas to be completely steamed and pliable so they don’t crack when you roll them.

Take out 1 tortilla at a time, keeping the rest covered, and lay on a cutting board or your clean countertop.  Place a small amount of chicken filling down the center (see photo). If you use too much filling, your enchiladas will not stay rolled.  You want them about the thickness of a cigar.  Take the bottom third and fold it over, scrunching the edge towards you to get a nice tight roll.  (You can imagine the many references to illegal smokeables made at El Azteco when training new cooks on how to roll enchiladas :)) Roll it up away from you and place in a lasagna pan or other container, seam side down.  Because the tortillas have been steamed, they should be sticky enough so that your enchilada will stay rolled.  If your tortillas are not hot to the touch, you’ll have problems, so try to work quickly so they don’t get cold.

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You can roll as many or as few enchiladas as you like.  This recipe will make quite a lot, so you can either roll only as many as you want for a particular meal, or roll them all and refrigerate or freeze some for later (cover well so they don’t dry out).  Once they’ve been refrigerated, they’ll hold their shape well enough to be put in zip-lock bags for freezing, if you don’t have Tupperware.

When you’re ready to bake the enchiladas, preheat the oven to 350.  Place a cup or so of your sauce (Chile Colorado or Chile Verde, recipes to follow) in a shallow dish.  You can replenish this as need be, but it’s better to do it in a separate container so as not to get stray bits of chicken and cheese in your sauce.  Dip each enchilada in the sauce, making sure it is well-coated.  Lupe, the general manager, would always instruct us to unroll the enchilada just a little so that the sauce could get under the “flap”.  No one likes a dry enchilada!  Place the enchiladas in a glass baking dish, fitting them snugly up against each other.  Cover with shredded cheddar, muenster, or a mixture, and bake until the cheese is bubbling, about 30 minutes.  Garnish with chopped scallions, and serve with frijoles and rice.  The restaurant portion is three enchiladas, but I find I’m stuffed after eating two.

*Alternate cooking method:  If you only want to cook a plate or two of these, you can do it in the microwave.  I recommend a slow and low cooking, such as 8-10 minutes at 30% power.  It helps if you can cover the plate during the last few minutes to trap the steam so nothing dries out.

Chile Verde Sauce, El Azteco Style (aka “CV Sauce”) printer-friendly version

jalapenos-in-colander1 20-oz (“family size”) can condensed cream of mushroom soup
1 16-oz container sour cream (I use reduced fat)- see notes
10-12 jalapeño peppers
1 tbs cumin
1/2-3/4 cup water

Notes: This will probably be the one and only time you will see me call for canned soup in a recipe, but that’s what it’s made out of!   Go to Whole Foods; they probably have an organic version.  I have to ‘fess up to using Campbell’s, in spite of the third ingredient being vegetable oil… Good thing I only eat this stuff once in a while anymore. According to my friend & fellow former El Az cook Dave, the actual proportions are more like 3:1 or 4:1 soup to sour cream, so feel free to cut the sour cream to a cup or less if you like.

Directions: Optional- remove the seeds and pith from the jalapeños (leave in for a truly fiery sauce).  You may want to taste a tiny bite of one to see how hot they are, since it can vary greatly depending on the season and other factors, and use that to gauge how many peppers to use in your sauce.  (This is supposed to be the “spicy” sauce though.)  Finely chop the peppers by hand or in the food processor.  If you’re sensitive, you may want to use gloves but I did not find it necessary.

Combine condensed soup and sour cream in a large bowl.  Add jalapeños and cumin.  Stir to combine well. The sauce may be somewhat thick, but will thin out upon being heated. That’s it!

Chile Colorado Sauce, El Azteco Style (aka “CC Sauce”) printer-friendly version

1 28-oz can tomato sauce (unflavored)
1 medium onion, diced small
1 mild dried chile, such as Anaheim
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbs cumin
1 tsp sugar
salt to taste

Notes:  At El Azteco, the cook in the back kitchen made the CC sauce, so I don’t know what’s *actually* in it, I’m just going by taste.  It’s a fairly thin tomato-based sauce and the predominant flavor is cumin.  They probably use onion powder and garlic powder, but for my homemade version I decided to use the real thing. Please use salt and sugar to taste, as different tomato purées will have different flavor profiles. You don’t want it to be sweet, you just want to add enough sugar to take any bitter edge off. 

Directions:  Pour boiling water over the chile and cover; let sit until fully softened.  Sauté the onion in some vegetable oil until translucent, adding the garlic about halfway through.  Roughly chop the chile and add to the sauce, reserving the soaking liquid.  Add the cumin and a little salt and cook for a moment to release the cumin’s flavor.  Add the tomato sauce and thin with the reserved chile water  to reach your desired consistency.  Taste for sugar and salt.  Transfer to a blender or food processor and purée until smooth.

le petit zinc: a little taste of france in corktown

le-petit-zinc-rooster1As part of Marvin’s job as the managing photographer at Model D, he is responsible for illustrating their Development News section. It’s basically a round-up of short news stories on recently opened small businesses in Detroit, or anything else related to business growth in the city. The nice thing about this is that I’m always one of the first to know when a cool new restaurant opens its doors!

lpz-interior-mirrorCorktown has been buzzing lately with the addition of the Mercury Coffee Bar, Mudgie’s (a sandwich joint in the building that used to house Eph McNally’s), and now Le Petit Zinc, a tiny café/restaurant on Howard St. just west of Trumbull. Serving sweet and savory crêpes, sandwiches, salads and pastries, it’s perfect for a light (and inexpensive) breakfast or lunch. The space is small but the bright color scheme makes it seem open and inviting rather than cramped.

ham-cheese-crepe1We showed up for breakfast but too hungry to just have pastries, so Marvin had a ham and brie crêpe and I had the “Poulet-Ratatouille”, filled with ratatouille (eggplant, squash, tomato) and pieces of what tasted like rotisserie chicken. The savory crêpes come with a small side of organic green salad dressed with balsamic vinaigrette. Also on the menu are a variety of sandwiches and salads (and a charcuterie plate- yum) that all looked good- I will be returning soon to try these. Our coffee was excellent- Marvin got a big bowl of café au lait, and I got a black coffee that was made fresh to order (I believe it was made Americano-style, by adding hot water to espresso, which I do at home all the time).

cafe-au-lait2Overall, Le Petit Zinc has a lot to recommend itself- a cheerful atmosphere, a solid, inexpensive menu, and a friendly proprietor behind the zinc (bar). In warmer weather, patrons will be able to sit outside in an enclosed courtyard.  The restaurant does not yet have a liquor license, but you are welcome to bring your own wine or beer until they do. (Update: the patio is open, and looks fabulous!  Also, please note that there is a small “recycling fee” for those bringing their own alcohol.)

belated birthday lunch at mercury coffee bar

mercury-sign-upperThose of you in the Detroit area have probably already heard about Mercury Coffee Bar, the new coffee shop/ restaurant on Michigan Avenue at 14th Street.  Like its across-the-street neighbor, Slow’s (whose owner Phil Cooley is a co-owner), it has quickly garnered a ton of positive press, word-of-mouth buzz, and even controversy for being an oasis of quality food and drink in an area where many buildings are boarded up- like Detroit’s Central Station, which looms large as you look out Mercury’s west windows.  I used to live in this neighborhood several years ago, a block from the coffee shop, and back then there was next to nothing going on apart from the occasional prostitution mcb-dooractivity.  Ever since Slow’s opened, however, the blocks between Trumbull and 14th Street are a destination (thanks also to the recently spruced-up Lager House and to a certain extent, LJ’s Lounge) for people from all over the metro area. With the addition of MCB, this stretch of Michigan has cemented its status not just as a nighttime destination, but somewhere to hang out before the sun goes down as well.

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MCB has been open for a few months now, but I hadn’t had a chance to check it out yet … Usually if I venture in that direction, it’s not until after 10PM, when they’re already closed.  But my friend Jim had offered to take me out mini-quiche-cropfor a birthday lunch, so right away I thought it would be a good excuse to make the trip during daylight hours.  I headed down a bit early with my laptop to scope it out and have a chance to take a few photos prior to his arrival.  Right away, I was charmed by the über-friendly staff, the cool “electroclash” décor (echoing the mercury-board-signturquoise and magenta of their neon sign), and the bright, sunny interior.  The only drawback of the layout is that there aren’t many seats available upstairs- only three or four tables for two and then counter seating along another wall.  They have a basement with additional tables, but I wasn’t too into sitting down there when the day was so lovely.  Luckily I was able to nab a table upstairs about ten minutes after my arrival, although with the free WiFi, people with laptops tend to camp out and you may have to wait a while to get a good seat. 

coffee-menu-cropSo how was the coffee?  In addition to regular brewed coffee and the requisite espresso-based drinks, Mercury offers what they call “Slow Coffee”.  This is basically drip coffee that is prepared when you order it, by pouring hot water over the grounds and letting it drip through a filter into your cup.  I ordered the Ethiopian, and while it was very good, I’m not sure the extra expense ($3.25-$3.75 a mug) is justified taste-wise.  I think you would have to be a hardcore coffee connoisseur to notice an appreciable difference.  However, I suppose it’s nice to have that option, and there is evidence that coffee consumed within 20 minutes of brewing has higher levels of antioxidants.

What really impressed me at MCB was the food.  The menu is small but focused, and everyone but the pickiest eaters should be able to find something they’ll like.  The offerings include two types of soup, several sandwiches (including panini), a few salads and sides, some breakfast items, and a focaccia-cornervariety of sweet and savory pastry items.  The menu changes occasionally, so check the website.  I ordered a ham panino with cheddar and peach relish and an arugula salad that had bacon, parmesan and almonds with a lemon dressing.  The peach relish was delicious; it contained rosemary that is grown in-house in window boxes, and also had a licorice note that may have been fennel seed mercury-dessertsor star anise.  My salad was made with very fresh arugula (no wilty/slimy surprises like you get some places) and had the perfect balance of dressing to salad to toppings.  Jim had a turkey sandwich that I did not taste, but he seemed to be a satisfied customer. It’s worth noting that Mercury owner Todd Wickstrom (formerly a partner at Zingerman’s) is committed to using local ingredients whenever possible (read this article); that gives me even more reason to support them, and helps explain the food prices being on the high-ish end (some panini are priced over $9).

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I ended up lingering long after lunch drinking my refill, working on some photo editing for my previous blog post and just enjoying the sunshine streaming through the windows and the colorful view across the street (see below).  It was an indulgence to be able to spend the afternoon that way- alone but not alone; in a new yet already familiar and comfortable place.  I greatly look forward to the next time I’m able to return to try some more of the wonderful food and spend some quality time with myself or a friend.

Update:  I am sad to report that as of 2/9/09, after only a few months in business, Mercury has closed its doors.  I’m really surprised by this news, as I had heard almost exclusively positive feedback on it, and there were always customers in there when I drove past.  Apparently they’re going to regroup and reopen; let’s hope they don’t keep us waiting too long.

Update # 2:  I read yesterday that they are already reopening this Friday, 2/13/09.  That was fast!  I’m hoping they didn’t make too drastic a change to their menu, or decide to sacrifice their ideals of having fresh local ingredients.  We shall see. 

You can see additional photos on Flickr, some of which were taken with the new 50mm lens my sweetie gave me for my birthday… thanks hon!

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