Thursday, March 4, 2010

Batter up

We are big fans of non-traditional pancakes around here. These savory, Indian-spiced little numbers had a few sources of inspiration: mainly a fondly remembered brunch at Treat, but also the cachapas venezolanas at Maria's Café in Minneapolis, the pan-fried smoked pork cakes at Ed's Potsticker House, and Kenny Shopsin's macaroni & cheese pancakes. I'm officially calling this another home-run improvisation by Melvin; make these and I guarantee you'll forgive us for being such sporadic bloggers.

Mel's Corn Pancakes

1 white onion
1 tbsp. olive oil
1/2 tsp. anchovy paste
pinch red pepper flakes
salt and pepper

3/4 c. white flour
2 tsp. baking powder
2 tbsp. sugar
pinch salt
1/2 tsp. cardamom
1/4 tsp. coriander
pinch cumin
1 egg, beaten
3 tbsp butter, melted
1 c. milk
3/4 c. roasted corn kernels (Trader Joe's frozen is what we used)
1/3 c. finely grated sharp cheddar cheese

First, caramelize the onion: slice thinly, then chop the slices into thirds, more or less. Heat the oil to medium-high, then add the anchovy paste and red pepper flakes. Let them sizzle for a minute before adding the onions, salt, and pepper. Cover, reduce the heat to medium-low, and stir intermittently until nicely caramelized. You can mix the batter while they cook. When they're done, scrape them into a bowl and return the pan to the stove.

For the batter: Combine the dry ingredients (flour through cumin) then stir in the wet ones (egg, butter and milk). Don't overmix, but make sure everything's incorporated. Stir in the corn.

Heat the oven to low, so you can keep your finished cakes warm.

Increase the heat under the former onion pan to medium. Add small pats of cold butter and, as they sizzle, pour about 1/4 cup of batter onto each of them. (Our pan holds two cakes.) As they set up, sprinkle some of the onions over the batter, followed by some of the cheese. As the cakes get dry around the edges and large bubbles appear in the surface, flip them and let the onions and cheese sear a bit.

Serve with Nueske's bacon and, if you like, maple syrup.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

More than a vealin'

I ate veal heart last week. And, like Carrie White's mother remembering Carrie's father, I liked it. I liked it!

Mind you, I didn't know I was going to eat veal heart. The Schwa menu promised this darling vegetarian combo

cauliflower, coco [sic] nibs, curry

for the pasta course, but when mad genius Michael Carlson delivered the dish to our table, he charmingly blurted, "Yeah, I fucked up the menu. Pardon my French." (I am not being sarcastic. There aren't that many people whose profane blurts I find charming, but he is one of them.) What we got instead was

veal heart, huckleberries, taleggio, yuzu

Merely typing the word "veal" gives me a frisson. It's an old taboo for me; all I can think of when I contemplate the word is a bleating, liquid-eyed calf crammed into a minuscule pen, unable to move and thereby unable to develop muscle, so its flesh stays pale and pink and tender. I wouldn't buy veal, wouldn't cook veal heart on a dare; I lack the nerve to confront the more outré organs of even fully grown animals in the sanctity of my own kitchen. But, dammit, if Michael Carlson puts it in front of me, I am going to eat it. He says that his food costs hover around 60 percent (restaurants run by actual businesspeople aim for about half that), so I'm confident that he is not going to buy sad veal. I decided that the veal calf whose heart lay precisely diced in front of me had lived a full springtime life gamboling about in green fields, having its fuzzy forelock combed by some descendant of Fern Arable who simply couldn't find the right arachnid in time.

The veal heart was, of course, delicious. Tiny cubes of slightly chewy dark-red meat and wee, so-purple-they're-black huckleberries were strewn over a perfect coil of house-made pasta—it might have been a single yard-long noodle, actually—nestled into a golden pool of honey-yuzu gelée and stinkily molten Taleggio, all sprinkled with greens so small they might have been tenderly snipped from the head of a Chia Pet. And did I mention the VEAL HEART?

“We take what’s intimidating and make it palatable,” Michael Carlson told an interviewer. “We like to educate, to challenge. We want nervousness, anticipation, but most of all we want conversation, because that’s what makes a meal great.”

Melvin and I have been to Schwa twice now, and we're still talking about it.

The other courses last week:

[no menu description: Kumamoto oyster shooter, oatmeal, almond milk]

pine, mushroom, plantain

apple pie soup
cheddar, savory, chestnut

green curry, rootbeer

tiger fish
watermelon, red pepper

extra nom[no menu description: quail-egg ravioli]
corn, patron, cilantro

zucchini, garlic, borage

[no menu description: a hot little pretzel encasing molten salty cheese]

[no menu description: concord grape soup, black pepper ice cream, microbasil]

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Shack-a-Lacka TWO

There are charlatans, there are frauds, and then there are people who simply want you think that they might be one or the other but are actually fantastically self-aware, knowing, and far more sly than I can ever hope to be. One of these people is Ricky Jay. Another, maybe, is Bill Kim, guiding spirit of the Urban Belly and Belly Shack, where we went this weekend for a late lunch.

But first Ricky Jay. Jay is one of those people who is extremely well known in the circles that he is extremely well known in. He's on the cultural fringe in only the way that a man who has been in dozens of movies, has been profiled at length in The New Yorker, and has had a long-running Off-Broadway show can be. His primary shtick is legerdemain and the history thereof—he doesn't just show you a good card trick, he gives you the pedigree. What makes him more alluring than the Amazing Historical Mumford is his air of menace and the way he systematically knocks away the seeming supports of his tricks, only to pull them off all the same. There's a description of this in the New Yorker profile that Watson and I reference now and again: Jay slowly gives more and more control of the trick to his mark, asking each time, "Is that fair?" In the end, the mark has been allowed to open the pack of cards, cut them, and shuffle them, only to hand them to Jay who deals out four aces off the top, answering his own question as he does so, "I. Don't. Think. So." (If this were not a food blog, I would go into detail about his subtle "rotten dice" ruse, in which he professes that celluloid dice decay in the same way that old film stock does; to those who believe this, I say only: consider the source, not to mention the venue.)

Anyway, Jay was in town for a few days last week, doing a new one-man show that may or may not be heading to New York. It's a loose affair and, as with all of Jay's endeavors, it afforded the audience the illusion of free will. (The one truly inspired moment came when an audience member, instructed by Jay to cut a deck of cards in preparation for another bout of wizardry, asked, "Why?" Even Jay couldn't keep a straight face at that.) His piece of resistance was a memory feat in which he alternately recited a Knight's Tour of the chessboard, quoted Shakespeare, solved cube roots, and sang field hollers. You heard me, field hollers. For the Knight's Tour, he used a chess grid on a blackboard with all the spaces numbered. So the audio track to the feat went something like "Three hundred and eighty nine [a cube root]; five, sixteen [Knight's Tour moves]; I gotta woman who move too slow [field holler]; this goodly frame, the earth seems to me a sterile promontory [Shakespeare, like I have to tell you]," repeated until the Tour was complete. All of which led up to his concluding shout, "BOOM-SHACK-A-LACKA; two!"

And with that thin thread finally established, here we are chatting about Belly Shack, which was our return visit to the empire of Bill Kim. As with second marriages, this was a triumph of hope over experience. Underwhelmed the last time around at the fancier of his operations, we went to Kim's "sammich" joint with considerable reservations. And let me just say that, as a "sangy" guy, the affectation of "sammich" has never sat well with me. But you can't tell people what to say, any more than you can tell them what to eat. Oh, wait, Kim basically does the latter, with his minimal menu—five sandwiches, two salads, a few sides, a case of drinks, and some soft-serve ice cream. Yeah, soft-serve ice cream—another instance of a big-deal cook doing something "fun" (foie gras Pop Rocks, anyone?) to show that he's not all hi-falutin' or nuthin.

The space is weirdly shaped and jammed underneath the Blue Line tracks at Western and Milwaukee, but the vibe was much less stressful than Urban Belly's. Watson went for the Korean barbecue sandwich, which she liked, while I—a veritable portrait of ignorance as usual—opted for the boricua sandwich. This turned out to be primarily tofu and greens smushed between a couple of fried plantain slices, not at all unlike a jibarito. It was a somewhat oily mess but vastly more delicious than anything we'd had at Urban Belly. The accompanying peanut sauce was a sticky delight, too. We also went for two sides: the bland kimchi (which also came as a side with the barbecue—thanks for the heads-up, staff!) and the star of the meal, roasted squash with "pho spices," which we're pretty sure is just five-spice powder. Now that was delicious, if seemingly crazy-easy. We sat in the sun, ate contentedly, and then shared a cinnamon-caramel soft-serve that Kim dished up himself.

So yes, Bill Kim's redeemed himself in our eyes, somewhat. And if at heart he's a guy whose main interest is soft-serve ice cream, that's OK with me. But he's managed to convince some people that he's a culinary prestidigitator of Achatzian proportions (albeit one working more at the low end of the hi-lo game). He's that about as much as Ricky Jay is an up-and-coming Olympic gymnast. The difference is, Jay might yet convince me.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Smoke It If You Got It

Me, I love the controlled chaos of making a slightly too elaborate Thanksgiving dinner. Watson finds it a little nerve-wracking, though more in concept than in execution, so we tussle over how much to make, when, and in what. We wind up with less than what I want (no soup this year!) and more than what she finds necessary. (I prevailed on making rolls.)

Here's what we whipped up this year for us and her parents:
Caveny Farm Smoked Turkey
Brown Bread Stuffing with Chestnuts, Apples, and Sausage (Aida Mollenkamp)
Garlic Mashed Potatoes (Cooks Illustrated)
Roasted Mushroom and Barley Gravy (Gourmet)
Brussels Sprouts with Maple Butter (Annie Sommerville)
Butternut Squash Gratin (Lee Bros.)
Boiled Corn
Wild Rice Rolls (Beth Hensperger)
Spiced Cranberry Sauce with Zinfandel (
Sweet Potato Buttermilk Pie (Lee Bros.)
Redemption Hazelnut Pie (Patty Pinner)
Swiss Gourmet Egg Nog Ice Cream

There are a few keys to having a pleasantly busy Thanksgiving Day: (1) Make the pies ahead. This is so obvious I shouldn't have to mention it. (2) Buy a smoked turkey. It's delicious, and there's nothing to do but let it come to room temperature. It slices more easily, too. (3) Back out a schedule: start with your desired dinner time, then sit down with each recipe and work backward, leaving generous amounts of time for chopping, blanching, etc. This will never turn out perfectly in its first draft, mainly because you need to adjust for the limitations of space—in our case, one oven and four burners. And that oven, of course, can only be at one temperature at a time. Still, take the time to refine it, and you might be amazed at how much easier the day gets: chop this now; sauté that next, then punch down the rolls, etc. We aimed for 4:00 and with the exception of the squash gratin, which could have used at least a few more minutes than the recipe indicated, everything was on the table at 4:01.

Now, of course, we have far more leftovers than any two people can happily account for; so if you need some pie, come on over.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Apple Crush

Yes, OK, fine, we went to the Publican again, this time for a cider dinner and sat in our favorite seats. And while there were some fantastic dishes—like the Fingerling Potato, Artichoke, and Celery Salad with Chorizo Vinaigrette and Remoulade, which built strong flavor atop strong flavor atop strong flavor—it wasn't a TKO like the last two times. The risotto seemed bland to me—basically just butter with occasional other textures—and the Roasted Guinea Hen with Root Vegetables and Wild Mushrooms would have been much stronger with only dark meat. Then again, I don't care much for poultry, so what do I know? The Sweet Potato Tart was a winner, though, redeemed from its potential blandness by the surprising saltiness of its graham-cracker crust.

The ciders were of a broad range—I preferred the very dry and less overtly apple-y ones, though there were two darker, vinous ones that were well matched with the food as well. I especially dug the Sarasola Basque Cider, which to my palate had a sharp minerality not common to apples. Our man Paulie tended to us more than nicely again—this time plying us with pear cognac and introducing us to some of his other regulars and some of the staffers. We learned that Paulie has done time in the wine biz, that he recently chased down a mugger, and that his 90-day TV fast is almost over. We chatted briefly, too, with the chef de cuisine. These are all perks, in their way, and they're a big part of why we'll be back again soon—cry though our bank balances do. Urban Belly, take a note: we're charitable to the Big P because even when it isn't at the top of its game, it still feels like a great place to be.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Bloated Belly

We've been a hot streak lately, restaurant-wise, and exulting about our good fortune to live in this city. We knew it had to come to an end somewhere, sometime. We didn't figure it would be at the Urban Belly.

Everything—everything—about the Belly was calling out in goodness to us. (Wow, what's with the Palin-esque syntax?) For starters, it's in a neighborhood strip mall, not far from Kuma's Corner and next to a Laundromat that commandeers most of the parking. It doesn't take reservations, it has communal seating, it's quite wee, and its focus is exactly the sort of food we miss most from St. Paul: Asian soups and noodles.

(A brief aside here to underline for those unaware that University Avenue in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood is dense with cheap, intense Southeast Asian restaurants. There's Cheng Heng, which features soups thick with quail eggs and jalapenos; Little Szechuan, where we can't stop eating the Kung Pao Chili Shrimp, the Dan Dan Noodles, and the Eggplant with Garlic; Saigon Restaurant and Bakery and its crunchy banh mi stuffed with fragrant, mysterious pork pastes; and even Ngon, which is to some of the other places as Noodles & Company is to Otto but is nevertheless a festival of cilantro-y goodness.)

Actually, the aside perhaps tells the tale: we have had fantastic urban Asian soups and dumplings, and Urban Belly, you just don't measure up.

Let's start with truth in advertising. If you're not going to take reservations, you're going to be crowded, and the line forms principally down a narrow hallway from the dining room to the kitchen and bathroom. That's fine. While you're there, you need to peruse the menu, because you place your order and pay for it before sitting down. That's fine, too. What is not fine is describing dishes in the de rigueur minimalist fashion but then delivering things dominated by other, nonlisted ingredients. Thus, "lamb & brandy dumplings" were four admittedly quite tasty little dough packets nestled amid a monstrous fuzzy raft of edamame (which to me taste like socks). Similarly, the squash/bacon ones had a palatable texture yet were drenched in what Watson said was ponzu, yuzu, or one of the other -zu flavors but to me tasted distinctly of Lemon Pledge.

This might be a quibble. After all, if one can actually stomach edamame (or if one's intestinal tract needs a good buffing and polishing), then there's no problem with either dish. What's not a quibble is the poor quality of the noodle soups. The Soba Noodles with Bay Scallops, Oyster Mushrooms, and Thai Basil Broth were a grayish swampy mess of indistinguishable flavors. The scallops had that off flavor from one too many defrosting/refrosting cycles, and the "fish dumplings" that floated alongside them tasted like congealed glue. It was only slightly better than what I imagine poking around in a week-old bowl of pureed hippopotamus would be like.

Watson went for the Udon Noodles with Shrimp, Coriander, and Sweet Chili Lime Broth. It is very hard to seriously screw up udon, and indeed the noodles themselves were fine—chewy but not too chewy, gummy but not too gummy. But the shrimp had that same gummy texture—and the same off flavor that ruined the scallops. The broth was thin and uninspired, more reminiscent of dishwater than of sweetness, chilis, or limes. Perhaps the best part of the meal was the chewy ginger candies that we were given on our way out—ginger candies countenance a lot of culinary shortcomings.

One other thing about the ambiance: when is the communal seating trend going to be over? It makes brilliant sense for the restaurateur—it's easier to clear tables, and it reduces expectations for service. And yes, occasionally you do have a nice chat with a stranger who likes (or, in the event, hates) the same kind of food you do. But equally often you get crammed next to a foursome of sorority sisters with the collective IQ of a bottle of Noxzema, and you have, like, to hear all about how, like, uh-mazing New Moon is or like whatever. It's like being back in a school cafeteria, proving that expeditiousness is not an unmitigated good.

Next time, we're heading to some of the Argyle Street options—where, to judge from the local chatter, we might have better started out in the first place.

(Special hat-tip to our blogosphere—and real life—pal, the Bloated Belly.)

Fear and Loathing in the Produce Aisle, Part I

I was a bok choy virgin until my 30s.

I can practically hear what you're thinking: "What, in
this day and age? With frank, illustrated educational materials widely available, and all the teevee cooking shows with the sizzles and the knife sounds lovingly miked, and ethnic markets where you can purchase all manner of exotic produce without eliciting a second glance from the gum-snapping cashier?"

But, yes, it's true. I was never sure what the heck to do with bok choy. It was lovely-looking, with creamy white stems and full, deep-green leaves, so I'd caress a bunch now and then at the Asian supermarket in my old neighborhood. But, as with so many of the unlabeled items in its produce department, I was afraid of it. Even the adorable little baby bok choys (boks choy?) nestled six to a plastic bag stymied me. Crazy, right? It's just a vegetable, and a cheap one at that. I wasn't much of a kitchen experimenter at the time, though, so I always set the bok choy back down and headed for my familiar old garlic, ginger and basil.

As with so many things, it took a new love interest to make me brave. I was pitching woo at Melvin and wanted to impress him with my devil-may-care fancy cooking skills, so I decided an experiment was in order. I found a recipe (now lost to the mists of time and my disorganized storage system) for fish and halved baby bok choy that were glazed and cooked together in a bamboo steamer. The fish turned to rubber, but the bok choy saved the day. We devoured the whole batch. They were cooked but still crunchy, with a sheen of sesame oil and (I think) a bit of honey. My fear was banished, Melvin liked me even though our entrée was inedible, and bok choy entered my kitchen repertoire.

Baby bok choy would work for this Mollie Katzen recipe, which has been a tonic in our household during many a gloomy cold snap. You can use the grownup kind, too—just separate the ribs and wash everything well, because bok choy can be sandy. For easy handling, cut the green leaves off the white stems and chop them separately; the stems handle like celery, the leaves, like chard.

This is a virtuous soup (for extra virtuousness, I use whole-wheat noodles) that's exceedingly tasty with the addition of condiments like sesame oil, chili-garlic sauce, cilantro and soy sauce. Mollie says they are optional, but I disagree.

Big, Bold Noodle Soup
from Vegetable Heaven, Mollie Katzen

6 or 7 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 1/2 cups boiling water
8 cups strong vegetable bouillon
6 star anise
4 or 5 large slices ginger
4 cups (packed) stemmed, chopped mustard greens (about half a large bunch)
4 cups chopped bok choy, stems included (2–3 small heads)
10 scallions, thinly sliced on the diagonal
1 pound fresh egg noodles, or 1/2 pound dried (about 3–4 cups cooked)

Soy sauce
Chile garlic paste, chile oil or red pepper flakes
Chinese sesame oil
Torn cilantro leaves

Rinse the mushrooms and place them in a small bowl. Pour in 1 1/2 cups boiling water and cover with a plate. Let stand at least 30 minutes. (This can be done several days ahead, and the mushrooms can just stay in the water until use.)

Combine the bouillon, star anise and ginger in a soup pot and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down, cover and simmer for about 20–30 minutes. At this point, the broth can sit for up to several hours–or even overnight–before you proceed.

Remove the ginger and star anise with a slotted spoon. Strain the mushrooms over the soup, squeezing them firmly, so all of their soaking liquid goes in. Then slice the mushrooms thinly and add them to the soup as well.

Heat the soup to the boiling point, and add the mustard greens, bok choy, and scallions. Turn the heat down and simmer for about 2 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook the noodles in boiling water till just tender. Drain them in a colander, rinse, and drain again, so they won't clump. Divide the cooked noodles among the largest soup bowls you can find, and ladle the soup on top. Pass around the optional toppings on a small tray, so each person can customize his or her portion.

Yield: 6 to 8 soul-soothing servings