pop! goes the biergarten

A few months ago, my friend Suzanne started talking about how she wanted to open a biergarten in Detroit. Little did I know that what I thought at the time was small talk, in the same way you’d casually say “I want to learn how to hang glide” or “I want to visit Turkmenistan”, would turn into the coolest place to spend an autumn Sunday afternoon.  Keep in mind, I didn’t realize at first that she was talking about  a temporary pop-up operation. But had I known she was serious, I never would have doubted for a moment- when Suzanne wants to make something happen, it happens!

She and her partner Aaron assembled a crack team of friends and colleagues to work on the project, each contributing of their talents pro bono (photography, graphic design, marketing, build-out, etc).  I was in the thick of wedding planning and wasn’t able to lend any assistance until the day before opening, but Marvin was on board from day one. Even hearing tidbits from him about the development of the project, though, it was still surprising and impressive to see it come so successfully to fruition.

The biergarten was dubbed “Tashmoo“, a name that may sound strange given that they’re going for a traditional European-style vibe, but which carries a lot of local significance. It was the name of a steamboat that operated in the Detroit River from 1900 to 1936 between Detroit and Port Huron (thus the anchor in the Tashmoo logo), and supposedly means “meeting place” in some Native American language (a curious language nerd, I searched to see which one and came up empty-handed, other than a reference to an Algonquin word for a lake in Massachusetts).  Regardless of nomenclature, though, I think most people were just interested in having an excuse to drink good beer and socialize outdoors on a beautiful 70° day. And let’s admit, much as we all love Roosevelt Park and Eastern Market, it was a welcome change of scenery to hang out in a different neighborhood.

Many of the GUDetroit crew had planned to go right when they opened, at noon. I was initially shooting to be there early as well, but ended up missing all of them so I just waited until late afternoon. The second I stepped outside, I was kicking myself for not having been outdoors sooner- it was a gorgeous warm fall day the likes of which we may not see again until next year. I got down to the West Village around 5:45, just in time to beat the rush of people coming after the Lions game (and, I suspect, some who had only recently woken up from the previous night’s debauchery… or their afternoon nap?).

B

Beer in hand, I made the rounds chatting with friends while Marvin did what he does best. The crowd was a nice mix of people I knew from different circles- singles, couples, families all enjoying the great weather and cornhole (slightly monopolized by the kids, but the grownups will get their turn this Saturday). In addition to 5 Michigan beers on tap, there were two local food vendors (who will rotate in the coming weeks), Porktown Sausage and People’s Pierogi. As a meat-eater I went for the brat, beer’s natural partner, at least according to most Midwesterners. I even got the pierogi folks to spot me a bit of their sauerkraut. These are no factory-stuffed sausages- the Porktown guys make their brats by hand and perfectly season them with a nice hit of juniper and garlic.

A

Around 8pm the crowd was treated to a screening of “People Mover”, a short film featuring several musicians, poets and chefs of my acquaintance (and many others I’d heard of but not yet seen). The crowd watched with hushed attention, erupting into spontaneous cheers a few times as various familiar faces came on screen.

After the flick, we said our goodbyes and headed out to catch a short set at the Lager House by our talented friends (and fellow newlyweds) James & Melissa Rae… my final bit of vacation before starting back to work. On the bright side, at least there are four more Sundays of Tashmoo to look forward to! And they’re bringing in different beers each week, so what better excuse for return visits?

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first dinner married

Ok, so technically our first dinner married (not counting the actual reception) was some carryout from Thang Long. But our first home-cooked meal- cooked as a joint effort, no less- was a simple but satisfying meal of grilled rib-eye steak, a green salad, some sliced heirloom tomatoes (left over from the wedding), and roasted cauliflower with garlic, parsley and lemon. (Oh, and a bottle of Zinfandel, also left over from the wedding, if you can believe it.)

It’s an understatement to say I’ve never been drawn to cauliflower. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I hate it, but it’s certainly not a favorite, especially when steamed or raw (allow me to insert an immature “blech“). So it was pretty uncharacteristic of me to pick up a head of it while we were shopping for dinner. But leave it to New York Times food writer and cookbook author Melissa Clark to make something as unsexy as cauliflower sound appealing. I’ve been making my way through her book In the Kitchen with A Good Appetite as bedtime reading, and came across a section where she talks about roasting vegetables- when in doubt, crank the oven to 425°, give the vegetable(s) a sheen of olive oil and a generous sprinkling of salt, and in 40 minutes or so, you’ll have roasty caramelized goodness. I’m no novice when it comes to roasted vegetables, but sometimes it takes someone else’s enthusiasm to reignite interest in a tried-and-true method.

Coincidentally, that morning I had come across an article in this month’s issue of Saveur by Lesley Porcelli entitled “The Soft Approach”, about cooking vegetables past what common kitchen wisdom would deem done. As someone who has never appreciated, say, the overly vegetal, grassy taste of a near-raw green bean, I recognized a kindred spirit. Porcelli talks about cooking vegetables as her Italian grandmother did, to the point where their sweetness develops; a stage many would call overcooked. This is exactly what I planned to do with my cauliflower: heat-blast it into submission.

I preheated my oven and cut my cauliflower into bite-sized florets. Into a large bowl it went, tossed with olive oil and salt, and then dumped on a baking sheet. If I’d been at home, I might have sprinkled on some additional seasonings at this point as Clark does in her recipe, like smoked paprika or even curry powder, depending on what I was serving it with. I put the cauliflower in the oven for 10 minutes before adding whole peeled cloves of garlic and chunks of red onion (also tossed in oil and salt). In retrospect I probably could have added the garlic from the beginning, but I wasn’t sure what the timing would be and didn’t want to risk it burning. When the onion and cauliflower were done, the garlic was soft and cooked through but not browned at all. Still, smashed and smeared on a piece of rare rib-eye and dragged through the tomato juices on our plates, neither of us was complaining.

To finish the dish, I sprinkled on some fresh chopped parsley and squeezed a bit of lemon juice over everything to brighten the flavors. Next time I might follow my friend Evan‘s lead and add capers and a dash of good-quality vinegar (a combination which I raved about in this post). For someone whose attitude toward cauliflower has been ambivalent at best, I was more than pleased at my results and would definitely repeat the experiment. In fact, if I’d had enough left over, I would have played around with a roasted cauliflower & garlic soup. Note to self: next time put an additional tray of veg in the oven to be used for this purpose!

All photos this post courtesy of the hubs. Check out his sweet new website.

Roasted Cauliflower with Garlic, Parsley & Lemon
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You can change this recipe up in a dozen different ways- substitute a sweet onion for the red, or leave it out altogether; ditto for the garlic (although… roasted garlic!). Add spices as you see fit, or finish the dish with the simple parsley/lemon combination I used. In her version, Melissa Clark uses whole spices cumin, coriander and mustard seed for an Indian-influenced dish, adding sliced almonds in the final 5 minutes of cooking. I was away from home and didn’t have my spices, so I settled on this simpler version.

1 head cauliflower
1 large red or sweet onion (optional)
cloves from one head garlic, peeled (see note)
about 3 Tablespoons olive oil (less if not using onion)
salt
1 handful fresh parsley, chopped
juice of half a lemon, or to taste

Note: If garlic cloves are on the small side, add them with the onions after the initial 10 minutes of cooking so they do not burn.

Preheat oven to 425°. Rinse cauliflower and trim away any brown spots. Cut into small bite-sized florets, about 3/4″ to 1″. Place cauliflower in a large bowl with the garlic cloves and toss with just enough olive oil to coat. Toss with sea salt to taste, about 1 teaspoon, and pepper or other spices if desired.

Spread cauliflower and garlic on a baking sheet large enough to hold it all without crowding; ideally, there should be a little space between all the pieces so they roast and don’t steam. Place in the oven for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, cut the onion into 1″ pieces; toss with olive oil and salt. When the 10 minutes is up, give the cauliflower a stir and add the onion. Cook for another 10 minutes and stir again. Continue cooking for a final 10-15 minutes or until cauliflower has plenty of browned spots (see photo). Transfer to a bowl and finish with the lemon juice and parsley to taste. Sample and adjust any seasonings as needed.

summer tomatoes and a savory zucchini bread {les culinettes}

Summer tomatoes may seem like an odd thing to post about right now, as most other North American food bloggers are fully in fall’s sway. But now that I have this silly wedding business behind me, I’m catching up with a few odds and ends- blog posts I’ve been sitting on; photos I’ve been meaning to edit; recipes I wanted to share. Besides, the particular recipe I have for you today- a savory zucchini-tomato bread- is actually more suited to this time of year, because who wants to turn up the oven on a sweltering August day? (Oh, that’s right, I did.) This bread, though- if you still have a glut of zucchini but are tired of sweet zucchini bread, this is the ticket. It’s rich, eggy, cheesy and perfect for a cool fall day, and it keeps for a few days because of how moist it is. Also, if you’re grabbing bushels of Roma tomatoes to make these roasted Romas, this is a great use for them. Mine were from last year (roasted and frozen in olive oil) but they held up beautifully. If you don’t have tomatoes you can throw in a handful of black olives, or even a little diced ham.

The last meeting of our cooking club took place on August 12 and as we have a seasonal bent, we celebrated the tomato. Once again, I wondered how we would pull off 8 or so dishes with the same ingredient in common and not have it be “too much”, and once again, I needn’t have worried. From just-picked to barely cooked to long-simmered to roasted, the permutations were as creative as they were delicious. Sarah skewered fresh tomatoes with melons, basil and mozzarella for a salad on a stick. Molly puréed tomatoes from her garden with peaches and a little yogurt and garnished it with tarragon for a chilled summer soup, a riff on a Mark Bittman recipe. Amy, ever the fancy-pants (I say this with the utmost admiration!), stuffed squash blossoms with seasoned diced eggplant, fried them and set them on a bed of barely-cooked tomato sauce. Heavenly.

Speaking of heavenly, I want to digress just for a moment here to talk about our hostess Abigail and her stunning Ann Arbor home, which you can see a tiny glimpse of in a couple of these photos. I hope it doesn’t embarrass her if I say that I was absolutely enamored with her house and its decor, a perfect blend of old world/antique and whimsical modern. The house itself is in amazing condition, with original woodwork throughout, a gorgeous fireplace and many other cool details. And the landscaping- let’s just say gardening is Abigail’s labor of love, and it shows. Much of Abigail’s decor, including the “most beautiful chandelier in the world” (as she told her husband to convince him they needed to buy it and ship it back) was purchased during their time living in Italy. I’m guessing the heavy linens on the dining table were of European provenance as well- you just can’t buy stuff like that at a department store.

Of course it’s no surprise that such impeccable taste would carry over to the kitchen. Our hostess made two knockout dishes, one an appetizer with multiple components, the other a homey potato gratin (in a vintage enameled casserole, no less). The appetizer was composed of a whipped chive goat cheese and a deeply savory tomato-shallot-vinegar compote topped with a basil leaf, on little almond biscuits. The sweet cookie-like biscuits were unexpected but totally worked. It was a struggle not to devour too many, as we all wanted to save room for dinner.

It’s been well over a month since this dinner and I’m struggling to remember what Emily and Meghan brought- please forgive me, ladies! I believe the roasted tomatoes with capers and mozzarella were Meghan’s contribution, and Emily brought a simple salad of tomatoes from her garden. She was understandably much too busy to prepare anything more complex (not that she needed to anyway), as she was getting married the following weekend. Congratulations Emily! I don’t think I would have even been able to attend any social events the week before our wedding, as I was so busy taking care of last minute details, but she seemed much more organized than I.

As usual, we had a grand old time eating, drinking and making merry. We were privileged to have been joined by Abigail’s old school friend Chiara, who was visiting from Brooklyn on her first weekend away from her kids. I hope we showed her a proper good time. Kids, if you’re reading, she was fighting back the tears pining for you the whole time. Really!

Some say a bride experiences a let-down after the wedding, when there is no longer a big event to focus on, and the attention dwindles. I don’t feel this way in the slightest, at least not yet- on the contrary, I’m really excited to have time once again to cook and have dinner parties. I will of course post about the wedding very soon, once I get our photos and have some time to digest everything, so to speak. The ultra-short summary is that we had the time of our lives and the food was to die for. But I can’t wait to get back in the kitchen, so here’s hoping we’ll plan another Culinettes party ASAP!

Savory Zucchini Bread with Roasted Tomatoes and Parmesan
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The inspiration for this recipe is the savory “cakes” served in France as part of the apéro (pre-dinner drinks and snacks). The first time I made it, I used roasted tomatoes and black olives, but wanted to adapt it to make use of the overabundance of zucchini in gardens and markets at the end of summer. The results are a delicious departure from sweet, muffin-like zucchini breads.

Prep: 20 minutes
Yield: 2 large loaves or 4 small loaves

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
5 ounces Parmesan or other hard cheese, grated
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
5 large eggs
1 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup olive oil
2 cups shredded zucchini
1 cup roasted Roma tomatoes, cut into bite-sized pieces
1/4 cup grated shallot or onion
2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary (or other fresh herbs of your choice)

Preheat oven to 400°. Grease 2 loaf pans or four mini loaf pans.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, cheese, salt and pepper. In another medium bowl, lightly beat the eggs with the wine and olive oil. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour the egg/wine mixture in. Slowly mix the dry ingredients into the wet until fully incorporated; do not over-mix. Lumps are fine. Fold in the vegetables and rosemary. Divide the batter evenly among the pans and bake until the top is golden and crusty and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 45-50 minutes for small loaves and an hour for large loaves (please note that I didn’t make large loaves so I can’t vouch for the timing- keep an eye on them and test to be sure).

dîner en blanc, detroit style

It began with a mysterious email from James last week titled “secret dinner”. Someone in Detroit was throwing a dîner en blancdid we know about it? Were we going?  Not yet, and absolutely. James’s invite had come in the mail* from an unknown source, instructing him to invite 10 people who could also each invite 10 people. White linens, real tableware and formal all-white dress were specified. We were instructed to arrive on Belle Isle at 5pm; a Champagne toast would be provided at 6:30. We were not to discuss the event with anyone other than invited guests.

*Update 8/22/11: I picked up mail from my old house today, and can you guess what was in the pile? My very own printed invitation to the event. Still no clue who sent it, but that eliminates any close friends/ acquaintances since whomever sent it didn’t know I moved 6 months ago!

We began organizing in earnest, coordinating who would bring what food, chairs, tables, etc. Due to the last minute nature of the invitation, many of our friends were out of town or otherwise engaged. However, when our contingent assembled at Supino in the Eastern Market to make our way toward Belle Isle, we were a respectable 15 strong. The earliest to arrive sipped Jolly Pumpkin Oro de Calabaza and Domaine de la Pepière Muscadet from paper cups while we awaited the other guests. The anticipation mounted as the pizzeria became a hive of activity- James slicing up his home-cured coppa; Christina baking bread and grabbing jars of Detroit Zymology Guild’s pickled asparagus from the basement. We chatted and checked out each other’s all-white outfits, a rather strange sight in this group. We weren’t all in formal wear by a long shot (the guys actually outdid the women in this department, with three or four natty suits in the group), but our ensembles respected the spirit if not the letter of the invitation. We gazed upward at the drizzling sky, hoping the rain would abate but thankful for no thunderstorms and determined to have a party regardless.

Once all were present, our merry caravan made its way east with tables, chairs, linens and what seemed like several metric tons of food and wine. As we approached the western tip of the island, we were surprised to find that we were forced to park a good quarter mile from the site, and marveled over the number of other white-garbed picnickers (none of whom we knew) heading in the same direction. Upon arrival, a festive tableau awaited- rows of tables outfitted with white tablecloths, floral arrangements and fine china, with diners of all (adult) ages decked out in pale finery.

We began to set up our tables only to quickly discover that we had brought far too much food to be able to actually sit down and eat at the table, let alone have proper place settings. I felt a bit let down at having failed at this part of the instructions, but the feeling quickly subsided as I surveyed our generous spread. I remarked to the others that our group might be the scrappiest, eating standing up, several of us in thrift store attire, but there was no question we had the best food. It didn’t hurt that we had two of the city’s top chefs, a restaurant owner and several small food biz entrepreneurs in our gang.

As we settled in, a large man in a red shirt walked up to address the party at large, announcing himself as the head park ranger of Belle Isle. A ripple of anxiety passed through the crowd, but we needn’t have worried. He said he had been tipped off via email about the event, and wasn’t sure whether to call the cops or welcome us… so he opted for the latter. This brought a hearty round of applause. With a few words about the uniqueness of Belle Isle, he told us to enjoy our meals and was off.

With that, we were free to dig in. But where to start? A charcuterie platter with six kinds of meats, all homemade, would certainly work. Or perhaps one of the dozen or so cheeses? A trio of pâtés, so perfectly unblemished in their white ramekins, provided too much temptation to resist. And it went on- smoky grilled shrimp with fat chunks of lemon. Two colorful garden tomato salads. A bitter spoonful of radicchio sautéed with homemade guanciale. Luscious cured salmon salad with crème fraîche. Collards and artichokes in red Thai curry with a side of quinoa. A taste of my own offerings- savory zucchini bread and roasted garlic herb custards with tomato coulis (recipes to be posted soon). And despite sampling all of that and more, you best believe I left room for Christina’s rustic peach tartlets. My apologies to my friends for my temporary utter loss of vocabulary- all I could manage in between bites was “oh my God” and “this is ridiculous”, repeated like a bum vinyl record. The sky pissed weakly for almost the entire dinner, but other than a little frizzy-haired vanity it mattered little.

The toast came and went but no Champagne materialized, at least not where we were sitting. This was more than fine though, as we had our hands full with Oregon pinots and gamays and James’s homemade orange wine (not made from oranges, but with a slight orange hue due to being left on the skins). Somewhere in the midst of the feeding frenzy, Marvin showed up with his camera, and before long we were assembled at the island’s prow with the city skyline as our backdrop. I took the break from the table as an opportunity to say hello to some other friends who had been invited independently of our contingent- like us, they had no idea who had planned the event, or at least that’s what they claimed.

We ate and drank and laughed as the sun set, my cue to pack up. (I heard from those who stayed longer that they were “escorted” off the island by the park rangers, whose leader may have regretted his magnanimity.) In the end, it didn’t really matter who organized the dinner, or if we followed the rules to a tee (although I admit I am a person who appreciates the beauty of rules and order as well, and was slightly jealous of the folks with the flower-bedecked tables and fancy dress). We enjoyed one of the few remaining summer Sundays in lively company, and with some of the best food and drink to be had in the city. It may not have been as grand as Paris or New York’s, but I tip my hat to the anonymous planner of Detroit’s first dîner en blanc and hope it may be the first of many such happenings, secret or not. I won’t say I don’t appreciate a little mystery and drama, but for me, it’s all about the food and friends.

All photos © Noelle Lothamer 2011.

book review & book signing: “a tiger in the kitchen” by cheryl lu-lien tan

I’ve been remiss lately about updating my “books” section of the blog, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading! Despite the busy schedule, I usually read at least a few pages at lunchtime and then again at night before bed. I recently devoured Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton (it took me all of 2 days to plow through that) and was wondering what to start next, when I got an email from Cheryl Tan, author of the cooking memoir A Tiger in the Kitchen. She’s going to be doing a book event at Leopold’s in Detroit this Saturday, August 13th at 7pm and wondered if I might be able to help spread the word. Consider it spread!

After reading Cheryl Tan’s memoir A Tiger in the Kitchen, I would venture to say that no one would be more surprised at the turn of events in the author’s life as Tan’s own girlhood or teenage self, if such a thing were possible. Born under the fierce and headstrong sign of the Tiger, she grew up in Singapore, moving to the States after high school to attend college and build a career as a journalist. As a child, she was pushed to achieve academically, but was never expected to learn “womanly” tasks such a cleaning and cooking- there were maids for that. Her paternal grandmother, however, was a powerhouse in the kitchen, not only doing the family’s daily cooking while she was alive, but churning out tarts and dumplings by the hundreds during holidays and festivals. The family recognized that Tanglin ah-ma (Tan’s nickname for her grandmother) was a great cook, but it was also taken for granted, and Tan simply didn’t possess any curiosity at the time for anything taking place in the kitchen.

Tan makes sure to emphasize the difference between an interest in cooking (or lack thereof) and an interest in food. Somewhat ironically, she echoes Calvin Trillin’s characterization of Singapore as “the most food-obsessed nation on earth”- in one passage, she tells how she’d visit the computer lab late at night in college to go online just to look at photographs of Singaporean food (surely one of the earliest instances of online food porn!) because she missed it so much. But it didn’t occur to her for several more years that she might actually be able to learn to create the food she so desperately craved.

Tan’s culinary exploits started slowly and humbly, with meatloaf and other dishes “built on the salty shoulders of a can of Campbell’s soup”, and evolving through her twenties as she met her husband-to-be and they began cooking together. She developed a fondness for baking, which she found calmed her after particularly harried days at work. 2008 brought about a turning point- her job was becoming increasingly unbearable, and stress-related health issues were signaling to her that she needed a change. She decided that she would spend a year traveling back and forth between the US and Singapore, spending time with her Aunties and learning to make her grandmother’s recipes. Her grandmother had passed away when Tan was a child, but fortunately, her father’s sister-in-law had spent years cooking with Tanglin ah-ma and knew how to produce all of the key dishes the family had grown up with.

Tan’s journey is an enjoyable one to tag along with, as we follow her from tentative observer to capable cook able to serve her family a multi-course meal (the ambitiousness of which would have sent even the most experienced cooks into a panic). In the beginning, she insists on measurements for everything, which her aunts laugh off: “Just agak-agak“, they insist, a phrase that roughly translates as “guesstimate” or “adjust as you go”. As someone who has observed and taken notes of my future mother-in-law making her Puerto Rican rice without measuring anything, this scene made me chuckle with recognition.

Although Tan displays the characteristic cockiness of an oldest child at times (and a Tiger at that), she also doesn’t hesitate to portray herself in a sometimes unflattering light. She admits that anything still resembling the animal it came from makes her squeamish, and confesses that she messed up a batch of dumplings for being too stingy with the filling. The pressure she felt as a child to achieve is ever-present, as her family are all harsh judges of food and don’t hesitate to let her know when her efforts are “sub-par”. Still, she is willing to put herself on the line by exposing herself to their critiques for the sake of learning.

The book is a great read not only for food lovers, but for anyone interested in Singaporean and Chinese culture. Through Tan’s stories of her childhood and her interactions with her parents and older family members, we glimpse the chasm between the older generation and the new, the cultural gap between Singapore and mainland China, and the struggles of being a modern, Westernized woman in a culture that has contradictory expectations for women (Tan’s parents push her to succeed in her career, while her aunts all nag her about having babies!).

One of the things that struck me most about the book is exactly how much it can take to overcome the notion that one “can’t” cook, or the fact that it never occurs to many people to even try to learn. If it takes a major cathartic event for someone who grew up eating amazing home cooked food to want to learn, what will it take for the average American? How do we get the average person back in the kitchen, so that narratives like Cheryl Tan’s are the norm rather than the exception? I hope to be able to get her thoughts on this and other questions at her book event this weekend- hope you in the Detroit area can make it!

Disclosure: I received a copy of A Tiger in the Kitchen from the publisher for review purposes.

snippets

For those of you who are married, this wins the Obvious Statement of the Year award, and for those of you who are unmarried, take heed: planning a wedding is a LOT of work. Like, feels-like-a-second-job amounts of work. And for someone like me who basically does have a second job (or two or three, depending on how you count freelance work, being a landlady and running a micro-food-business), I barely have time to breathe let alone blog. For those who opt for a “regular” wedding at a place where it’s X amount per head all-inclusive, there’s still plenty to keep you busy (my sister went this route last year and still, a few months out, found herself wishing she had planned a small destination wedding instead). But when you capriciously decide that you want to have your reception at an old Model T museum, with no kitchen or staff, that doesn’t regularly host large events, you’re dealing with a whole new level of coordination.  My chest gets tight just thinking about it.

Somehow in the midst of all this, I’m managing to squeeze in little snippets of normal life here and there- a Sunday supper of grilled salmon with scape pesto; a weekend visit with my mom and sister; a restaurant meal with my old high school friend Kathy and her husband Garrett (longtime readers may remember my posts about my stay with her in Portland, and making her family’s Chinese dumplings).

When Kathy announced a couple months ago that they’d be in Ann Arbor for a couple days and wanted to meet for dinner, I didn’t have to think too hard about where to go. Grange is a restaurant which friends have raved about for its commitment to only serving local, seasonal food and its excellent cocktail menu. We were particularly wowed by the house-made charcuterie platter (trend trifecta- there were even pickled scapes! but who cares because it was REALLY GOOD), which included whipped lardo among its decadent treats. For dinner, I had pork loin on a bed of greens with pickled strawberries. The dish had minor flaws, but the pork itself was juicy and had a nice fatty layer indicating its non-industrial “other white meat” origins. After dinner we went next door and had a couple un-fancy drinks with Fred, another old friend from college. It was an evening that made me happy and wistful at the same time- I’ve met so many great people at different times in my life but despite the brave new world of online social networking, it’s nearly impossible to keep up with them all in any meaningful way. I’m just thankful for times when I do see old friends and we’re able to pick up without awkwardness,  as if no time had passed.

Speaking of things to be grateful for, my family has been so supportive and helpful during this busy time! My mom and sister were in town visiting a couple weeks ago and I was glad I was able to find time to cook them a meal. I deep-fried some stuffed squash blossoms from the farmers’ market, grilled a grass-fed flank steak, roasted some beets and dressed them with a scape & pistachio pesto, and heated up some pasta with fresh tomato sauce I’d made a few days prior. We had a nice leisurely summer supper, nibbling on cheese and salami and white bean dip, then moving outside for a glass of L. Mawby (a sparkling wine from the Leelanau) and the squash blossoms (I took Melissa Clark’s excellent advice about moving the deep fryer outdoors). As dusk settled in, we  migrated back to the dinner table afterward for the rest of our feast.  The roasted beets were so sweet they tasted like strawberry candy, and despite her aversion to the garish magenta roots, my mom consented to trying a bite. Their green tops were chopped and sautéed with some kale for a slightly bitter counterpoint to the beets’ intense sugar. We lingered over these and a few bottles of wine, and after dinner (partially thanks to said wine), Amanda coerced me into getting out an old photo album and reminiscing about a trip we took to New York almost exactly a decade ago, just two weeks before 9/11.

Even on weeknights, every once in a blue moon we have an evening where we’re both home at dinnertime (no small feat with two freelancers in the house) and we take time to make a “nice dinner”. Now, don’t get me wrong- by “nice” I don’t mean complicated- we’re still far off from having that kind of time. I just mean a meal that we wouldn’t hesitate to serve to company, once we can actually have people over again. For example- a beautiful piece of wild salmon, smeared with the aforementioned scape pesto and grilled. If memory serves (yes, it was that long ago! sigh…), we had kale and grilled cabbage on the side, two of our current favorite vegetable sides. The cabbage was simply shredded, tossed with salt, olive oil and smoked paprika, and the kale was bolstered with a paste of anchovies and preserved lemons, with some red pepper flakes for good measure. Incidentally, my dangerously crowded pantry may look like overkill to some, but it’s a saving grace when it comes to cooking anything worth mentioning on a tight time budget.

Tonight I will be working, testing and developing waffle and popover recipes for a client in my 90+-degree kitchen and wishing I was grilling or eating a nice cool salad or chilled soup. But such is life right now. We’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming after September 17th, and meanwhile, eat lots of wonderful summer meals for me!

it’s so easy eating green {les culinettes}

In June, I had the honor of hosting les culinettes, the cooking club I’ve been participating in for the past few months. Back then- a whole month ago!- my schedule was just free enough to accommodate a dinner party, but as the weeks fly by and freelance work* and wedding planning have been ratcheting up, blogging has sadly been relegated to the back burner (non-intended food pun, I swear).
*I’ve been developing and testing recipes for holiday food the last several weeks… strange but fun!

But rather than lament my absence here, I’d prefer to reflect on what was a beautiful balmy spring eve with good friends and great food. Our theme was “green”, in honor of fresh green vegetables finally being in the markets. Seems funny to think of it now, with temps in the 90s all week, but in mid-June we were just starting to see peas, asparagus and the like. Several people did use spring vegetables in their dishes, but the menu was surprisingly diverse, with others interpreting the “green” theme more loosely.

I had gotten up at 7am that day to get the house in order; in addition to cleaning, I wanted to hang a few pictures and curtains (nothing like company to get you motivated to do things around the house… I should entertain every weekend, I’d be so productive!). I was a machine all day, with just enough time to start getting my dishes ready as the dinner hour approached. Fortunately the theme wasn’t the only thing that was loosely interpreted, as most of the ladies arrived about 45 minutes after the appointed time, giving me a welcome opportunity to chill in the kitchen with a glass of wine and prep my food a bit more leisurely.

We decided to break up the meal into courses and eat the first round outdoors- it was one of those warm evenings with the barest of breezes, that elusive weather we long for in the depths of winter’s chill and summer’s scorch. The food was sublime, in every way a worthy match for the splendid weather. For appetizers, we had pea pesto and pea hummus on crostini made by Meghan, and a gorgeous grass-green fava purée topped with feta and kalamata olives that Abigail made with favas from her garden. The favas, which we spread on Zingerman’s baguette (only the best!), had the most amazing velvety texture that I was obsessed with, and a little spicy kick.

Also served in the first half of dinner were pieces of flank steak with an uber-garlicky, emerald green chimichurri that Sarah made, and a shrimp dish in a light citrus sauce with basil and capers brought by Amy that I had to force myself to stop eating so I’d have room for the remaining two courses. She had gotten the shrimp at an Asian grocer and they were huge and tasty; their heads lent flavor to the sauce, as well as providing some mid-meal entertainment.

As it got dark, we headed inside as the mosquitoes started to make themselves known and spoil an otherwise lovely setting. Marvin had cleared off our little patio (the previous owners had seen fit to use it as storage for a large pile of logs for the fireplace), and set up a table for us as well as some string lights to lend a bit of ambiance. Thanks hon!

There was a short respite from eating while the ladies chatted in the kitchen and I prepared my dish, mussels in a simplified coconut green curry sauce. We ate those with gusto while waiting for the pasta water to boil for the final course of the evening, Molly’s homemade spinach pasta with peas and asparagus. The pasta had a wonderful chewy al dente texture and Molly shared that she uses a bit of spelt flour in her recipe (note to self for future pasta making endeavors). A salad of cucumber and avocado with lemon, probably the easiest salad in my repertoire and so refreshing in hot weather, accompanied. I put cucumber slices in our ice water, too- a nice change from the usual citrus. (And what can I say, I’m a sucker for a theme!)

Our designated dessert-maker Jess was out sick so we missed out on her green tea desserts (those in Detroit can sample her wares here though), but we were all plenty sated by the end of the meal. It being Friday, some of the ladies had worked that day and we petered out a bit earlier than our usual midnight-ish, but between the food, the company and the perfect temperatures I wouldn’t have changed a thing. Greatly anticipating our next gathering chez Abigail to fête the venerable summer tomato!

Mussels in a Quick Green Curry
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I threw this together on the fly because I had some kaffir lime leaves to use up. Technically the summer months are not supposed to be a good time for mussels, but the ones I purchased were fine. If you’re unfamiliar with purchasing, storing or cleaning mussels, this article is very helpful. This sauce could be used to simmer a pound of shrimp or scallops as well if you don’t want to wait for mussel season again. To make it a meal, just add some rice and a grated carrot or cucumber salad.

2 lbs mussels, washed and debearded
1 large shallot lobe, minced
1 medium garlic clove, minced
6-8 fresh kaffir lime leaves
½ tsp brown sugar
1 cup coconut milk
2-3 serrano peppers or similar green chiles, de-seeded and minced (more if you want it spicy)
a dash or two of fish sauce
about 1 Tbs neutral vegetable oil
a couple Tbs each chopped cilantro, basil and/or mint for garnish (cilantro is essential; the basil and mint are nice touches if you have them. If not using one of the herbs, increase the others proportionately.)

Heat the oil (enough to thinly coat the pan) in the widest and shallowest pan you have that has a lid. Add the shallot, garlic and all but 1 Tbs of the peppers and sauté over medium heat until the shallot becomes translucent. Add the coconut milk, sugar  and lime leaves. Cook at a very gentle simmer for about 20-30 minutes to infuse the flavors, stirring occasionally. If the sauce gets too thick, add a splash of water, or cover the pan to prevent further evaporation. After the sauce has cooked down, season with fish sauce to desired level of saltiness.

Raise the heat to medium high and add the cleaned mussels to the pan. Cover the pan and cook, shaking the pan a few times to allow more even cooking. The mussels are done as soon as they have all opened. (There may be a few stragglers that don’t open; these should be discarded.) Sprinkle the fresh herbs and remaining chiles on top of the dish and serve immediately in shallow bowls with some of the sauce spooned over.

Serves 4-6 as an appetizer or 2-4 as a main course.