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.

meyer lemon pound cake with lemon cream

My in-laws are serious eaters. At all the gatherings I’ve attended, the quantities of food would make the Two Fat Ladies blush, and we always come home with several containers of leftovers. This Christmas was no exception! My mother in law hosted Christmas Eve, as is getting to be the tradition. She veered away from the usual Puerto Rican fare this year (roast pork, arroz con gandules) and went Mexican, making posole, ceviche and nopales (cactus) salad. One of his cousins brought an interesting new (to me) PR dish of chicken gizzards cooked with green bananas and a few green olives (something like this except it was served warm instead of like a salad). The dish is an unglamorous greyish color, but the flavor was great and the gizzards were much more tender than when I’ve made them. It re-inspired me to try making gizzards again after an unsuccessful attempt last summer.

With all this great food in such abundance, it’s always hard to know what to bring. My MIL never wants to assign me a dish; she always demurs, saying that there will be enough food, or to just bring “whatever I want”.  I know this is because she doesn’t want to impose, but I have somewhat mixed feelings about it… she knows I like to cook; I’m part of the family now; shouldn’t that warrant a side dish assignment? To be fair, for all I know she does the same with all the other relatives and they just bring whatever they feel like. But a small part of me would be flattered to be entrusted with something specific.

In the end, I just decided to make a dessert… you can never have too many, especially with his family’s sweet tooth! I didn’t feel like leaving the house for groceries, so I “shopped my pantry” and made a Meyer lemon pound cake with a lemon cream (lemon curd + whipped cream) to go on top. Although I’m not the biggest dessert/ cake person, I do love citrus (see these posts) and almost always have lemons in the house! I wasn’t sure if its simplicity would be appreciated, but to my delight it was almost gone by the end of the night, when richer and sweeter offerings remained.

This recipe is from The Gourmet Cookbook, one I turn to often when I’m looking for a recipe that’s traditional yet updated. The method is simple, and you can certainly serve the cake as-is with the lemon glaze rather than making the lemon cream (although you need to zest all those lemons anyway, so you may as well use them). I did an easy curd where you mix everything and cook it together rather than tempering the eggs; it seemed to work about the same. You’ll want to strain it for textural reasons, but that’s about the fussiest part of the recipe. And I know a heavy cake recipe is probably the last thing you’re looking for right now, but you never know when you might decide to have people over for tea, or when you might need an easy recipe for your next get-together with your in-laws.

(Meyer) lemon pound cake (adapted from The Gourmet Cookbook by Ruth Reichl)
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I made this cake with fragrant Meyer lemons, but regular lemons will do just fine. However, you will likely need more lemons for the curd if you don’t use Meyers, which tend to be much juicier.

for the cake:
2 cups cake flour (not self-rising)
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
zest of 5 lemons (about ¼ cup)
2 sticks (½ lb) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
6 large eggs
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
¼ cup whole milk

for the glaze:
1 cup plus 1 Tbs powdered sugar
2 Tbs fresh lemon juice

Lightly grease and flour a 2-quart kugelhopf pan or bundt pan (a neutral-flavored cooking spray works well to get in the nooks & crannies). Knock out excess flour. Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat oven to 325°.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients and zest. Cream the butter and sugar in a stand mixer or with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy, 2-3 minutes. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition; then add vanilla. Reduce mix speed to low and beat in ⅓ of the flour, the milk, another ⅓ of the flour, the lemon juice, and the remaining flour, beating until just combined and scraping the sides of the bowl as needed. Pour the batter into the prepared pan (place on a baking sheet for easier transport in and out of the oven) and bake until top is browned and a skewer or knife inserted into the center comes out clean (original recipe specified 45-55 minutes but mine took about an hour and 10 minutes). Meanwhile, make glaze by combining powdered sugar and lemon juice until sugar is fully dissolved.

Cool cake in the pan for 15 minutes (see photo- a wine bottle works well for this). Invert on a rack and allow to cool completely before glazing. Put cake on a serving plate and pour glaze over top, allowing it to drip down the sides. If storing for later use, allow glaze to set before covering. This cake keeps well for several days if wrapped and refrigerated; allow to come to room temperature before serving.

Lemon Curd/ Lemon Cream (adapted from Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan)
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Note: in Dorie’s book, she uses the term “lemon cream” to refer to a variation on lemon curd containing a higher ratio of butter.

1 ¼ cups sugar
1 egg
6 egg yolks
6 Tbs butter, cut into 6 pieces
freshly squeezed juice of 4 lemons (use 5 or even 6 if lemons are dry)
optional: 1 pint heavy whipping cream

Whisk together all ingredients in a medium heavy saucepan. Place over medium low heat and cook, stirring vigorously and constantly, until butter melts and mixture starts to thicken (original recipe says 4-6 minutes but I’ve never had mine cook that fast). The curd is done when you can make a track with your finger on a spoon or spatula and the curd doesn’t run into the track. It will look thin, but thicken as it cools. If desired, for a smoother texture, strain curd while still warm through a fine mesh strainer into a bowl. Press plastic wrap over the top so a skin doesn’t form, and cool in the refrigerator.

To make lemon cream, whip cream with beaters or a stand mixer until it has body, but before it becomes firm. When curd has fully cooled, stir in whipped cream to taste- less for a more pronounced lemon flavor and more for a milder, creamier flavor.

a december to remember

(or, “how I attempt to fit a month’s worth of blogging into one post”…)

Vintage home goods by Hugh at the Detroit Holiday Food Bazaar

Did I really let the whole month of December go by without posting a single time? I guess that’s what will happen when you decide to plan a big event in early December AND take on a few freelance jobs in addition to attempting to supply the metro area with homemade jam for their gift-giving needs.

The main room at Food Bazaar- the Beau Bien table is at lower left

At the risk of sounding like one of those end-of-year holiday letters, allow me to recap for posterity. I brought the Detroit Holiday Food Bazaar back this year, dubbing it the “2nd annual”, so I guess I’m committed to making it a yearly event now! It was quite a bit bigger than last year’s, with 26 vendors (as opposed to 16) and a much larger venue, in an unfinished space above Cost Plus Wines in Eastern Market. The evening wasn’t without hitches (just ask my friend James), but considering my inexperience with event planning and the “rustic”, on-the-down-low nature of the event, I’d say it was a pretty slamming success. We added more prepared-food vendors as well as some tables (borrowed from Tashmoo– thanks Suzanne & Aaron!) where people could take in the city views from the large front windows. It will be an interesting challenge to see where things go next year- I think the Bazaar has already outgrown something that can be sustained as an underground endeavor, so I’ll likely have to figure out how to proceed “above board” (i.e. pulling permits, etc) while keeping the spirit and purpose of the original event.

A selection of chocolate truffles from Pete’s Chocolates

Naturally fermented pickles by Suddenly Sauer

Incidentally, thanks to my pal Evan over at Gourmet Underground Detroit for the food bazaar photos, since I was too busy running around to take any. If you check out this post, you can see a slideshow with more pics from the bazaar as well as the GUDetroit holiday party. The first image in the slideshow is from a fun little photo shoot we did at our house. Update: I just came across another Food Bazaar slideshow on the Drought Juice website here– nice pics, ladies!

A sampling of our jams

Seeing as how Beau Bien sold out of product at the Food Bazaar, the weeks between 12/9 and Christmas were kept busy scrambling to fill holiday orders. Big ups to my partner Molly who really kept the ship afloat while I was tied up at my desk job! We have big goals for 2012, so stay tuned on that.

A shopper browses Marvin‘s (mostly) food photos at the Bazaar

Speaking of desk jobs, as of right now I have 12 more weeks until I will officially be self-employed. Eek! I’ve always felt deep down that I’d be best suited to work for myself; I’m anxious to test that theory. I’ll continue to do freelance writing and recipe development as well as take Beau Bien to the next level… Scary but exciting!

After the blur of Food Bazaar and jam-making, the final days before Christmas were still full-steam-ahead as I got last-minute gifts and planned holiday food. Christmas Eve (or “Puerto Rican Christmas” as I call it) was spent at my mother in law’s and, like always, the food was spectacular (more about this in my next post). The next day we were off to Okemos to see my dad. We had a venison ham, which was new to me, and smoked turkey. Since we had to travel, I opted for simplicity and made a spinach salad and some brussels sprouts. I’ve been making b-sprouts this new way, in a skillet with bacon, mustard diluted with a little stock, and caraway seeds (shredded cabbage is also good with this combo). I like to think it pays homage to my German side, although I have no idea if Germans would put caraway seeds in a vegetable dish. Either way, the dish was well-received even by the brussels sprouts skeptics.

My birthday, 12/27, was 24 hours of fun (ahem… literally). I really am getting too old to celebrate like that anymore! It started off innocently enough, with a small brunch at our place with my siblings and a few friends. After a leisurely afternoon we hit Roast happy hour and didn’t look back… an obligatory trip to the Sugar House was next, followed by the Lager House to see some bands, and ending up at Northern Lights. The party carried on back at the house, where we finished up a previously started euchre game in true Lothamer style.

Gaylord, MI | photo by Marvin Shaouni

After all of that celebrating and running around, it was heavenly to spend a few relaxing days up north with friends for New Year’s (hey, at my age, partying is getting to be hard work!). It was the most down time I’ve had in ages- I actually got to read a fair bit (this and this), we cooked, made fires, went sledding, cuddled with canines, played cards, drank wine, saw a movie, and soaked in the fairy-tale atmosphere of a Michigan winter surrounded by snow-laden pine trees (pretty magical in a place with floor-to-ceiling windows).

Aaron & Riley

So now it’s back to the grind, at least until April, and then it’ll be a hustle instead of a grind. As one of my goals for 2012, I’m going to try my best to get back in the swing of regular blogging- as my friend MK likes to say, “It’s easy to start a blog; it’s hard to keep one going”. In fact, I’m working on a new layout and design and hope to launch the blog under my own URL in the next couple months (I’ve owned simmerdownfood.com for over a year but for the time being it just redirects here).  Lots of things in the works, people. I hope all of you have exciting plans and projects for this year as well, and I wish you all a happy New Year! More recipe posts coming very soon.

pumpkin chili with venison (the venison diaries, part IV)

Two winters ago, I wrote a series of blog posts all featuring ground venison, since I’d been given 6 pounds of it from my dad. According to my first post in the series, my plan was to write a different recipe for each of the 6 packages, but somehow I fell off after three. I can’t recall what I did with the other 3 pounds,  but I’m guessing it’s pretty likely there was at least one batch of chili in there.

Chili is probably the most common dish made with ground venison- I suspect some people turn to it because the powerful seasonings can mask the venison’s taste, but that hasn’t been a problem for us since my dad’s deer always taste great with no “off” or gamey flavors. We just make it because it’s easy and we tend to have most of the ingredients on hand. However, I never really considered my usual chili (which consists primarily of chopping onions and garlic and opening a bunch of cans) to be worthy of writing down a recipe.

Folks, this batch is a different story. I did rely on a couple canned ingredients, and this is still squarely in the camp of weeknight fare (even with the experimentation factor and my own slow-pokiness, it only took me an hour and a half from start to finish) but the flavors are richer, deeper and, dare I say, more sophisticated than your run-of-the-mill chili. Marvin may have to make good on his mention of taking up hunting himself in order to keep us stocked with sufficient quantities of venison, because rather than quell my cravings, this just made me hungry for more.

When my venison supply was replenished a couple weeks ago, I knew that this was the first dish I wanted to try. My dad’s wife Amy had told me about a pumpkin chili she had recently made for a cook-off (it took second place out of 20- not too shabby!) and I was intrigued. Amy hadn’t used a recipe, but she told me what ingredients she used and I tweaked it to my tastes. For example, her version used chili powder, pumpkin pie spice and a little brown sugar, and included lots of beans, corn and tomatoes. I omitted the sugar, added toasted and soaked guajillo chiles instead of chili powder, and used cumin, allspice and cinnamon for a vaguely Middle Eastern feel. In fact, I can easily see substituting lamb for the venison in this recipe (or grass-fed beef if you’re not a fan of lamb). I also left out the corn and cut back on the beans and tomatoes, wanting the pumpkin, chiles and meat to be the primary flavors.

For garnish, I stole Amy’s idea of reserving a little pumpkin to mix with sour cream, and added cilantro and scallions to brighten things up. Chopped jalapenos would be nice too if you wanted a little more kick. One authoritarian note, though- although I am generally very flexible with my recipes, I have to strongly advise against any temptations to use shredded cheese as a garnish- the flavors wouldn’t work with the cinnamon and allspice. I guarantee you won’t miss it, though.

Pumpkin Chili with Venison
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Prep time: 30 minutes active, 30 minutes inactive

Serves: 8

5-7 dried guajillo chiles (see note)
2 cups boiling water
2 Tbs olive oil or neutral vegetable oil
1 large or 2 small white onions, diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb ground venison, lamb, grass-fed beef, or a combination
1 Tbs unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tsp cumin
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1 large (29-oz) can 100% pumpkin puree (check to make sure it has no sugar or other spices added)
1 small (14-oz) can whole peeled tomatoes with their juice
1 roasted red bell pepper, peeled, seeded and cut into bite-sized pieces
1 small (15-oz) can black beans, rinsed and drained

optional but recommended garnishes:
sour cream
chopped scallions
chopped cilantro

Note: 5 guajillo chiles will yield a chili that is “warm” but not spicy-hot; feel free to add more, but I wouldn’t go too hot because you’ll overpower the other spices. You could also substitute dried ancho chiles if guajillos are not to be found.

Directions:

1. Heat a cast iron or other heavy skillet over medium heat. Toast the chiles in the dry skillet, turning frequently and taking care not to burn them. Remove the seeds and roughly tear the chiles into pieces; place in a blender. Pour over the 2 cups boiling water and replace the lid; allow to soak while you prep the vegetables.

2. Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or other heavy, lidded pot over medium heat.  Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until they soften, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook a minute more.

3. Increase the heat slightly and add the meat, salt, and all of the spices except the cocoa. Cook until the meat is browned- this will vary depending on your choice of meat; venison is very wet so it takes longer, but keep going until the liquid has evaporated. Meanwhile, process the chiles and water for 30 seconds in the blender.

4. Add the tomatoes, crushing them with your hands as you add them to the pot, and all but 1/3 cup of the pumpkin puree; add the cocoa powder and stir to incorporate. Strain the chile water into the pot with a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth, pressing to extract all the liquid (guajillo skins are very tough; if you use ancho chiles you don’t need to strain them). Add more water to reach your desired consistency, allowing for some evaporation (I added about a cup).

5. Cover and reduce heat to a very low simmer; cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding a splash of water if it looks too thick. About halfway through, add the black beans (canned beans often verge on overcooked, so I prefer to add them toward the end).

6. Taste the chili for salt and adjust as needed. Whisk the reserved pumpkin puree with a cup or so of sour cream. Serve the chili garnished with pumpkin sour cream, a generous sprinkling of cilantro and a few scallion slices.

chilindron (spanish stew) and a book event with hank shaw

This summer, Hank Shaw of the blog Hunter Angler Gardener Cook announced he was going on tour to support his new book Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast . Much like the tours organized by many of my friends in fledgling bands over the years, this was a DIY, couch-surfing, cross-country jaunt, with Hank scheduling the events himself sans (at least to my knowledge) the aid of his publisher. Curious to see if there was anything in the works for Detroit, I emailed him and offered to help out. We went back and forth a bit as far as what type of event it should be, and Hank suggested a potluck. Marvin generously offered up his studio in the Russell Industrial building as a gathering place. I had hoped Hank might be able to spend the afternoon prior to the event foraging around the area to bring in examples of things people could find locally, but it didn’t pan out that way- the weather was already getting a bit too cold to find many wild plants, and Hank had other plans for hunting woodcock up north.

I put the word out about the event, and was pretty pleased with the response, given that I’ve worked many, many book signings where only a small handful of people show up and even less actually purchase the book. We had about 20 in attendance and probably would’ve had more if not for the really nasty freezing rain that night. But despite the inclement weather, we had quite a spread: home-cured prosciutto, lardo and lonzino, a few kinds of homemade pickles, jams, and home-brewed spruce beer were some of the contributions, in keeping with the spirit of the evening (Hank covers many curing and preservation methods on his blog in addition to hunting and foraging). Not to mention this beautiful pie that my friend Abigail (one of les culinettes) brought!

I decided to make a recipe I’d recently seen on Hank’s blog- a Spanish stew called chilindron, which I could make ahead and warm in the slow cooker. For side dishes, I put together a garlicky raw kale salad with pecorino, and a plateful of the nuptial ham. Last but not least, I was able to make paw paw ice cream thanks to a gift of some foraged paw paws courtesy of my friend Ian. I was super excited about this since I had never tried paw paw before. I wanted to do a full post just about the ice cream, but I didn’t use a recipe and it turned out a little too icy and hard, although the flavor was good. If you ever get a chance to eat a paw paw, they’re wonderful- the texture is sort of like mango but with none of the stringiness, and the flavor is delicately tropical and custardy. Some people compare it to banana but I didn’t particularly get that. Paw paws do have large seeds that are somewhat obnoxious to work around to get all the fruit off, but the effort is well-rewarded. I can’t believe I’ve lived my whole life in Michigan without trying one until now, and I’m definitely going to seek them out next year.

As folks filtered in for the event, the table grew heavy with food; I think I sampled everything at least twice (you know, not wanting anyone to feel slighted!). We decided to eat first, and then Hank talked for a while about what hunting means to him, sharing some stories of hyper-local meals and other hunting-related experiences. Afterward, he stayed signing books and chatting with guests before heading off to Slows for a beer. I’m not sure how he felt about the event- it was a much more modest affair than many of the fine-dining events he’s been a part of- but the attendees were all thanking me profusely for putting it together, so I’m calling it a success. It was cool to be able to share something I’ve been a fan of for a while with a bunch of people who had never heard of it (I think maybe one or two people had been aware of Hank’s blog prior to that night), and have them react so positively.

Not only did I have a fun evening with great food and company, but I now have a new recipe in my repertoire to boot. The original recipe leaves a lot of leeway for different types of meats, but I just used bone-in chicken thighs, not having access to any game meats at the time. It calls for the meat “in serving pieces”, so I’m not sure if that means bone-in or boneless. Because it was a potluck, for ease of serving and eating I took the meat off the bone, but if serving at home you could leave it on. I also went against the “use white wine with chicken” suggestion and stuck with red, as I felt it would go better with the heartier flavors. Besides, I cook dark meat chicken with red wine all the time and it pairs just fine (hello, coq au vin?). I made a few other tweaks, prepping and adding ingredients where it made more sense to me, but the essence of the dish is the same. Hank’s feedback was that it was good, but “needed to be spicier”. I had followed his recipe measurements for the hot paprika, so maybe the brand he uses is just spicier; I would say, taste as you go and add more if you want a bit of a kick.  I had thought about doing rice or polenta as a starchy accompaniment, but due to time constraints wound up making couscous, which was just as suitable. Potatoes or crusty bread would, of course, be a couple more options.

Photos of stew and paw paws are mine; all other photos this post by Marvin Shaouni

Chilindron (Spanish Chicken & Pepper Stew) adapted from Hank Shaw’s blog Hunter Angler Gardener Cook
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3 ½ pounds chicken thighs (or a combination of thighs and drumsticks), trimmed of excess fat
salt and pepper
5 roasted red bell peppers (see note)
½ oz dried porcini mushrooms (feel free to use up to an ounce if you’re feeling flush)
1 cup boiling water
2 large onions
10 cloves garlic
¼ cup olive oil
2 slices bacon, cut into strips
2 cups red wine
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
a couple sprigs fresh thyme (optional- not in Hank’s recipe but I had some lying around and it’s a nice addition)
2 tablespoons sweet paprika
1 tablespoon hot paprika
4 bay leaves
1 cup crushed tomatoes
1 cup chicken stock
chopped fresh parsley to garnish

Note: To roast peppers, broil or put directly on a gas burner, turning until blackened and blistered all over. Place in a covered bowl or paper bag rolled shut to trap the steam. When cool enough to handle, remove skins, stems and seeds.

Directions:
Rinse the chicken and pat dry. Season with salt and pepper and set aside at room temperature for about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, prep the vegetables: Put dried mushrooms in a small bowl;  pour in 1 cup boiling water and cover. Roast the peppers as indicated above. Slice the onions in half-moons and mince the garlic.

Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven or other large, heavy pot with a lid over medium high heat. Brown the chicken in two batches, adjusting the heat as needed. Follow Hank’s advice: “Take your time and do this right”. You want the meat to be really nicely browned. As each piece is done, remove it from the pan to a plate covered loosely with foil.

Sometime during this process, you should have time to deal with the mushrooms and peppers. Lift the mushrooms from the liquid and roughly chop, reserving the soaking liquid. Peel the peppers and remove the stems and seeds; cut into strips.

Cook the bacon over medium heat until it begins to render some of its fat; if there is a lot of fat in the pan, you may want to pour a little off. Raise the heat slightly and add the onions and a pinch of salt. Cook until they begin to soften, stirring well to dislodge the browned bits. Add the garlic and cook for another minute or two.

Return the meat to the pan, along with any collected juices. You can either take the skin off first or leave it on, your preference- I don’t care for soggy chicken skin so I remove it and nibble on the crispy parts while I cook. Increase the heat to high and add the wine, bay leaves, rosemary, thyme sprigs (if using) and paprika; boil rapidly until the wine has reduced by half. Add the tomatoes, roasted peppers, stock and reserved mushroom liquid, pouring it slowly and carefully to leave any debris behind. The liquid should come about 2/3 of the way up the meat; if necessary, add more stock or a bit of water. Cover the pot and cook at a very low simmer for about an hour.

If desired, remove the chicken pieces from the pot and allow to cool enough to handle. Remove the meat from the bones, tearing into bite-sized pieces, and return to the pot. Alternately, you can leave it on the bone, your choice.

Just before serving, taste the stew and season with salt and pepper as needed- it will most likely need at least another 1/2 teaspoon salt. If you want it a little spicier, add more hot paprika to taste. Remove and discard the bay leaves and thyme sprigs. Chop the parsley and serve on the side to be sprinkled on top of each diner’s dish.

we got married

It’s been a month and a half since Marvin and I tied the knot on a beautiful September day in Detroit. I’ve been meaning to share, but it was such an overwhelming experience that I needed to process and digest the day first; to savor and keep it to myself for a little while. Besides, the hardest posts to write are the ones where I have the most to say… where to begin, where to end, what to edit in and out.

Challenging as it may be to distill the event into a handful of photos and words, this blog is about the role of food in all parts of my life, and there are few food-related occasions more important than a wedding feast! Sharing a meal, your first as husband and wife, with all of your closest friends and family members… quite a few of whom happen to be pretty particular in the food and drink department. Add to that our reputation as bon vivants and aficionados of good eats, and the bar was set pretty high.

I knew from the get-go that I didn’t want a standard catered meal with a choice of “chicken or beef”. Most of the reception venues around town had in-house caterers or required you to work with a certain caterer, so those were out. We wanted to do a pig roast, but where? The answer presented itself when we went to the Ford Piquette Plant (T-Plex), now a museum, to do a group photo for Gourmet Underground Detroit. I started chatting with Pat, a full-time volunteer, who told me about some of the other weddings and events they’d held. I knew right away from her attitude that this was the right place- she was pretty much willing to let us do whatever we wanted with the space, and the price was right.

We got the meat locked in- a pig roast by J&M, a farm out of Almont, MI (I’m heartbroken that no one to my knowledge took any photos of the pig- if you did, please send them my way!!), and mesquite-grilled chicken from Los Gallos in Southwest Detroit. But what to do for side dishes? I knew I didn’t want to go “barbecue” or picnic-style sides; not that I don’t like coleslaw and mac & cheese, but for this special an occasion, I wanted something a bit less ordinary. I checked with a couple caterers and the prices were ridiculous, so I approached my friend Will Branch, who owns Corridor Sausage Co. Although he doesn’t do catering on a regular basis, I knew that he had catered events here and there in the past and the food was always great. Plus, instead of picking from a set menu of items, we were able to totally customize things by meeting with him and his partner Tenley Lark a couple times to brainstorm and then refine the menu. It was really a collaborative effort, which worked out well- we wanted to contribute ideas, but trusted Will and Tenley to carry out their vision for the actual recipes. We ended up going with a slightly tropical/Latino theme, incorporating dishes like arroz con gandules (Puerto Rican rice made by Marvin’s family), black beans, chimichurri sauce, pineapple-jicama salad and corn on the cob with ancho-lime butter (which I was afraid to eat, not wanting to tempt fate with staining my dress!) along with a couple summery items like heirloom tomato salad and green bean salad, taking advantage of the local harvest.

Will and Tenley did a great job with the hors d’oeuvres as well as the side dishes- this is Will’s forte, as most of his catering gigs have been cocktail parties. They did mini Spanish tortillas de patatas which they cut into little circles and served with a dab of creme fraiche, dates stuffed with blue cheese and Corridor Sausage’s lamb merguez, and the classic combo of melon and prosciutto, using the ham that I cured earlier this year (which we affectionately began referring to as “the nuptial ham”).

If the bar was set high for food, it was even more of a challenge in the beverage department- how to do drinks on a budget for that many people without serving swill? Luckily, thanks to some friend connections, we were able to get the wine and booze at near-wholesale prices, which helped immensely. We also saved money by offering two signature cocktails (a Manhattan and a Rum Swizzle, created for us by Dave at the Sugar House) rather than a full bar with standard mixers. Jarred helped out with wine suggestions that would compliment the food and please a large cross-section of palates. For beer, we went local with Bell’s Lager of the Lakes and hard cider from Motor City Brewing Works.

The evening wasn’t without hitches- we ran out of cava (3 cases- damn, people!) in less than an hour; a couple friends (Hi Evan! Hi Dave!) had to pitch in with bartending; dinner was slightly earlier than Will had planned for because people were  wandering upstairs to their tables ahead of schedule (maybe something to do with the booze running out?); but the guests didn’t seem to notice anything amiss; luckily, the unique setting was enough to distract them from any small snags. I found it really hard to just step back and enjoy myself and not go into Hostess Mode (“We’re out of cava?!” “There’s no water on the tables!”), but once I sat down, I tried to relax, mostly successfully. Given the fact that our reception venue had no kitchen or catering facilities, I think everyone did a remarkably good job!

After we were announced, we decided to cut the cake and do the first dances right away to buy Will and Tenley a little more time to set up the buffet. Dick, a volunteer at the museum, had the cool idea to wheel our cake out on the back of an antique flatbed truck. It was positioned in the back of the room and as soon as we walked in, they brought it to the center of the dance floor for us to cut. My mom had decorated the truck with “Just Married” signs and streamers… very cute! Our cake was from Pinwheel Bakery in Ferndale and we did two flavors, coconut cake with lime cream (like a curd but not quite as intense), and pistachio with chocolate and dulce de leche. I told Ann, the baker, to do whatever she wanted with the design of the cake since I was suffering from decision fatigue at that point and didn’t really care what it looked like. I was pretty happy with the result- to go with our “vintage travel” theme, she created little postcards to decorate the cake- although it was kind of funny because all night I had people asking about our trip to Hawaii (we’re actually going to Spain, but Hawaii would have been nice too). I didn’t get a chance to have a piece of cake, but all of the guests were raving about it; based on our tastings prior to the wedding, I have no doubt it was fabulous.

As most married couples will probably tell you, the evening was a blur. By the time we made the rounds of all the tables, it was probably 10:00 or 10:30- time to finally let loose a bit! My sympathies go out to brides like my friend Diane, who said she was so busy talking to her guests during her reception that she never got to dance at all. I don’t think that would have even been an option for me, since people kept dragging me onto the dance floor. Even Marvin, who “doesn’t dance”, was out there most of the latter part of the evening. A couple of those Manhattans may have had something to do with it! I was happy to see our guests working up their appetites for the taco bar we put out as a snack, pairing the leftover roast pork with some salsa and guacamole from Mexicantown’s Honeybee Market.

I don’t think there’s any other event in life that you prepare for so much in proportion to its actual duration. I wish I could have slowed down time to be able to remember more details. Instead, I mostly remember a series of impressions rather than distinct moments. Luckily, the photographs (taken by our talented friend Elizabeth Conley) help to recall specific points in time. But even watching short video clips, it still seems dream-like, as if I’m watching someone else and not us.

Now that the wedding is over, I thought I would have so much more free time, but I’m just as busy as ever, mostly with planning this year’s Detroit Holiday Food Bazaar. Life marches on! I also have our honeymoon to plan, which I strategically booked for April so that I could have something else to look forward to after the wedding was over. Besides, I actually enjoy travel planning, and wanted to savor that experience without it being all mixed up with wedding stress and deadlines.

In addition to menu planning/ overseeing the food and drinks, I also designed my own dress, tea-stained the lace and my shoes, made about 100 jars of jam (with help from Molly) for the favors, made the place cards and table signs (names of French streets in Detroit), got old family wedding photos together for a display, and took care of several more details I can’t even remember anymore. Although going the DIY route was more work than I could ever have imagined, in retrospect I don’t think I could have done it any other way (ahem… control freak… ahem). I’m actually glad that I didn’t realize how much work it would be when I started, because I probably wouldn’t have gone through with it! In the end, though, it was worth it for all the people who told me it was one of the most memorable and unique weddings they had ever been to. Unless you’re a super-organized Type A person and you start way ahead of time, I wouldn’t recommend doing this type of wedding or event without at least some help- I hired MeMe Design & Events to assist with some of the design and decor elements. She was mainly in charge of the room layout/ draping and put the tables together, but did so much more, coordinating vendors and taking care of lots of little details I may not have thought of. I also had help from many family members and friends- you know who you are, and thank you all from the bottom of my heart! I very literally could not have pulled it off without you.

There’s so much more I could say about the day, the planning, what worked and what didn’t, but this post is already running long- if anyone has questions or wants advice on planning a wedding or event, though, please ask away in the comments, I’m more than happy to share my trial-and-error experiences!

All photographs in this post courtesy of EGC Photography.

bangladesh by way of hamtramck: aromatic fish curry

This summer, in between trips to the florist and the seamstress and the hairdresser, I was working on a feature article accompanied by some listings of  Hamtramck’s many ethnic grocery stores and markets. For readers who are unfamiliar with the Detroit area, Hamtramck (and no, I’m not missing a vowel, that is the correct spelling!) is a roughly 2-square-mile city, surrounded on all sides by Detroit and situated pretty much right in the middle of it. Originally settled by Polish immigrants, it is now home to a whole host of ethnic communities, Albanians, Bosnians, Yemenis and Bengalis being the most prevalent these days. Here’s a slideshow of images taken by Marvin on our excursions there:

Coincidentally, I also recently purchased the cookbook At Home with Madhur Jaffrey: Simple, Delectable Dishes from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.  Excited that I had finally obtained some ingredients I hadn’t previously been able to locate (amchoor, asafoetida, curry leaves and more), and in honor of the many Bengali stores I visited, I decided to make not just “Indian food” but a specifically Bengali/ Bangladeshi meal.*

*NB: Bengali is an ethnic designation and Bangladeshi is a regional designation. Some of the recipes were labeled “Bengali” in origin and some were labeled “Bangladeshi”. Bangladesh is made up of 98% Bengalis (so it’s fairly safe to assume a Bangladeshi is Bengali), but Bengalis are found in other regions besides Bangladesh. Got it?

According to Jaffrey, fish is the main animal protein consumed in Bangladesh, whose occupants are fond of eating the many freshwater river fish in the region. I figured this was as good a place as any to start, so I selected a fish curry recipe, and then a dal recipe since they’re so easy and I never feel an Indian meal is complete without one. I wanted one more vegetable dish, and would have chosen something green or crunchy or salad-y for more contrast, but I already had a butternut squash in the house and lo and behold there was a recipe for Bengali squash with mustard oil (another Hamtown purchase). The dal recipe did call for a handful of greens though, so I managed to use up some chard that was threatening to get wilty, and get a little more color in the meal.

I would make all three recipes again, especially in light of how easy they were, but the fish was far and away my favorite. The main flavoring came from curry leaves, which have a wonderful nutty, toasty aroma that you just have to taste or smell to understand how good it is. I don’t believe I’ve ever had a dish in a restaurant which used curry leaves, so it was exciting to be exposed to a totally new flavor. If you ever come across curry leaves, buy some and put them in the freezer in a zip-top bag with the air squeezed out like you would kaffir lime leaves. I lucked out and bought a bag at the Eastern Market this summer for a dollar. The flavor may have been diminished slightly from their time in the freezer (not sure since I’ve never used them fresh), but they were still plenty aromatic.

Can’t wait to delve a little deeper into Bengali cuisine- I still have a few more ingredients I have yet to try out, such as the amchoor (a sour powder made from dried green mangoes) and screw pine (pandan) essence. Let me know in the comments if you’ve tried or used either!

Bangladeshi Fish Curry (adapted from At Home with Madhur Jaffrey)
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According to Jaffrey, in Bangladesh this would be made with a freshwater river fish; she calls for flounder. Any mild-flavored fish will work. Jaffrey also calls for kaffir lime leaves as the “first choice” and curry leaves as a substitute, but the curry leaves are definitely worth trying if you can get your hands on some. As a last resort, use basil.

1-1¼ lbs fillets of mild fish such as flounder
½ teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1½ teaspoons crushed or very finely minced garlic
1½ teaspoons micro-planed ginger
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
3 tablespoons mustard oil (substitute 3 Tbs vegetable oil + ½ teaspoon dry mustard powder)
⅓ cup thinly sliced shallots
10 kaffir lime leaves or curry leaves, lightly crushed

Sprinkle the fish on both sides with the salt. Cut into 3-inch pieces and set aside.

In a small bowl, combine the garlic, ginger, paprika, cayenne, turmeric, and mustard powder (if using) with 3 tablespoons water; stir to form a paste.

Heat the oil in a 12″ skillet over medium heat. When hot, add the shallots and fry until lightly browned and softened. Add the spice paste and fry for 1 minute. Add 1 cup water and lime or curry leaves; bring to a simmer. Reduce heat and simmer for a few minutes. If other dishes are not yet ready, remove from heat.

When ready to serve, bring the sauce to a simmer over low heat. Place the fish pieces in the sauce. Cook 1 minute; turn the fish pieces over gently and cook an additional 2-3 minutes depending on thickness, spooning the sauce over the fish as it cooks. Serve immediately.