Saturday, May 17, 2008

An adventure which will someday be culinary.

It's good to come home dirty, I believe.
I've spent the last two days in the frog island community gardens, building raised beds out of old logs and concrete and then filling them with dirt. (I'm sure I will sleep well tonight). I figure this is relevant, seeing as how one day, it will produce food, which, I'm sure, I'll tell you all about.
Not to mention this sort of thing is why I love Ypsi. Its a good place, despite it's ugly stepsister reputation. I never much liked Cinderella anyhow. So with out further ado, a photo essay.

This is where we started Friday afternoon.

Kyle and Chris diligently drilled holes with a chainsaw and pounded
rebar in to the ground to make walls.

I stacked the cracked cement. We made progress.

Saturday, the dirt needed moving. And, boy, was there a lot of it.

ready to plant!

And, now, I am so damn sore that all I want to do is sit on the couch. Its a nice sore, though, reminiscent of accomplishment and sunshine. Which is just fine for a gray Sunday afternoon.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Today was a culinary adventure.

It started with a necessary trip to Meijer to deposit a check. I'm not going to lie, I have a secret love of Meijer, similar to how everyone slows down to look at a car accident. You just can't help it. Theres such an amazing amount of crap in there, stuff that I generally forget exist in my sheltered Trader Joe's world. Anyhow, I needed popping corn and have been a search for plums for about a week now (apparently it is not plum season anywhere in the western hemisphere). So, in my trolling of the produce tables, a certain sign caught my eye- Quince. Now, I've never seen a quince, and I hadn't a clue they existed until I was reading a Australian cooking magazine my mom found somewhere (because she's like that, she just finds cooking magazines from other continents) and a recipe in it called for quince paste. And now I'm standing in Meijer, of all places, holding my very first quince. I had to buy them, of course, even though I had nary a clue what to do with them.

Epicurious has some good ideas, however, the most attractive of them calls for $40 a bottle apple brandy. hrrumph.
So, then I got the idea that I would like to make fish soup. I've never had fish soup, and certainly have never made it. This idea was put in my head by the movie we started watching at my parents last night; Marcel Pagnol's Fanny Trilogy. Its a French movie from 1931 that Alice Waters credits with inspiring her to name her daughter Fanny and her restaurant Chez Panisse. (See, the movie takes place is Marseilles; Fanny and her mother sell seafood-- there is talk of fish soup. obviously.) The movie is incredibly dry; my dad excused himself an hour in to the movie to go "remove his eyes with a melon baller". It definitely is dry verging on boring, but I found that sort of comforting in a way, like hearing your favorite story read to you. Theres no real need to pay attention, but you do, anyhow.
Oh geez this post is a rambler. I hope you don't mind.
So fish soup. The place to start, whenever you want to make something right-- not the fresh, new, updated version with avocado spears and and arugula-- but the dish, as it was intended, as the archetypal grandmother made it with an apron on and her hair in a loose gray bun, the place you go is The Joy of Cooking. if you don't own The Joy of Cooking, you really really must. It contains a recipe for everything. I can't recall a single instance in my whole life that I went to The Joy of Cooking and was disappointed.
Back to the soup. To do this, you need fish stock. To make fish stock, you need fish trimmings. where does one find fish trimmings?
So I called my mother. She was stirring risotto, and banging pans around one handed in order to talk to me. The answer, obviously, was the seafood market, which, she also informed me, had closed twenty minutes ago. The fish soup was out. I told her about my quinces. She told me that we once had a Quince tree, at an old house, that produced bushels and bushels of fruit-- that she had not idea what to do with because they're so bitter and tannic when raw. Which was perfect, really, as I had painted them to be rare, and exotic (they were stocked with the pineapples and coconuts for petes sake) and therefore exciting, when really, they were in my own backyard-- and a nuisance, at that.

At this point it's getting late- and I'm getting hungry. The fridge is sort of a mess, so I decide that its time for refrigerator soup. I discover ginger scallion stir-fry sauce that has likely been sitting there for a month, and thus should be used soon, and a starting-to-turn bunch of beautiful arugula ( I can't resist inserting here that this bunch was organic, and I paid $1.69 for it at Meijer-- however, if you were to walk around to the other side of the produce table, you would find, with the little plastic snap cases of fresh herbs, a little plastic snap case of arugula for a $1.99. I don't know if there's a difference between herb arugula and bunch arugula, but I find it entertaining none the less). At any rate, I decide that the stir fry sauce might make a nice broth, and indeed, it did.

I feel like this is the sort of meal that would make the 1950's food industry proud--"homemade" with all store-bought ingredients. Regardless, it was delicious.

Monday Night Refrigerator Soup

4-6 cups of water ( or chicken broth if you wanna do this up right; I'm horrible at remembering to buy and use chicken broth, so I just use Trader Joe's concentrate packets)
2 packets Tj's Chicken broth concentrate
1/4-1/3 cup Tj's Ginger scallion stir fry sauce

handful of potsickers/gyoza/dumplings
coarsely chopped arugula

Bring the water to a boil. Add the broth concentrate (if you need) and stir-fry sauce. Continue to boil and stir, so that the pastes dissolve adequately. Add the potstickers, and boil covered for a couple minutes. When the potstickers are about cooked, add the arugula. And voila, very tasty soup.
As a note, I might add a little fresh ginger or garlic next time, it was lacking the strong kick I was looking for.

Next there were cookies. Not just any cookies. Light, fluffy, Ms. Edna Lewis inspired cookies-- raved about with care and delicacy by the best food blog in town, Orangette. If you don't already know about orangette, you should stop reading this and go read orangette; shes far more eloquent and dreamy, and just well, wonderful all around.
So, this a direct copy paste from Ms. Molly, in case you don't want to click over there to find the recipe. I highly suggest you do, however, as her story about them is far more exciting than mine.
Also, after reading a series of ranting responses to another one of orangette's posts, I decided to mix the dough by hand, with a wooden spoon nonetheless. It was supremely enjoyable, sore wrist and all.

Buttermilk cookies from Gourmet via Orangette, inspired by Ms. Edna Lewis.

For the cookies
1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp. grated lemon zest
¼ tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. salt
6 Tbsp. (3 oz.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
½ tsp. vanilla extract
1/3 cup well-shaken buttermilk

For the glaze:
¾ cup confectioners sugar, sifted
1 ½ Tbsp. well-shaken buttermilk
¼ tsp. vanilla extract

Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners. Preheat the oven to 350°F.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, zest, baking soda, and salt.

In the bowl of a stand mixer (or a large mixing bowl, if you’re going to use a handheld mixer), beat the butter briefly, until creamy. Add the sugar, and beat until pale and fluffy. Add the egg, and beat well to mix. Add the vanilla, and beat briefly again. Mix in the flour mixture and the buttermilk in batches at low speed, beginning and ending with the flour. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. The finished dough should be smooth and pale yellow.

Drop the dough by level tablespoons onto the prepared baking sheets, leaving about 1 ½ inches between each cookie. (If you have a very small ice cream scoop, one with a capacity of about 1 tablespoon, it’s perfect for this job.) Bake, 1 sheet at a time, until the cookies are puffed and their edges are golden, about 11 to 15 minutes per batch. Cool the cookies on the baking sheet for 1 minute; then transfer them to a wire rack.

To prepare the glaze, whisk together the sifted confectioners sugar, buttermilk, and vanilla. The mixture should be very smooth, with no lumps of sugar visible. Brush or spoon the glaze onto the warm cookies. (I wound up with leftover glaze, so don’t be surprised if you don’t use it all.) Allow cookies to sit on the rack until they are fully cooled and the glaze is set.

Note: These cookies are most tender and delicate on the day they’re made, but they’re not bad after a day or so. They just get more dense and chewy - a little different, that’s all. And for longer storage, they can be stashed in the freezer in an airtight container.

Also, the lighting in my house is always terrible and I've finally cleaned the pictures off my camera-- so if you go rifling back through old posts you just may find new pictures.

Also, Cj has informed me that the pizza in the food court of the Chicago airport tastes like the pizza they served in Belleville high school-- aka poopy. Avoid at all costs.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

How to know about wine

People often ask me how I know so much about wine. The easiest answer to that is that I don't know very much about wine, I just like it. However, I do realize that I've become one of the "go-to" people at work when a wine question arises for a reason. To get circular on you, that reason is simply because I like it, and like talking about it.
So, how does one get to that comfort level of being able to talk about wine with out a whole bunch of disclaimers? Where do you start? I've been mulling over a post like this for a while, and these are the suggestions I've come up with.

1. For starters, you already DO know a lot about wine.
I firmly believe that wine is not a mythical unicorn that absolutely requires a special set of rules and vocabulary to understand. Wine is a taste-based beast. Taste is a sense, just like sight and hearing. Most everyone would eagerly agree that other things that rely on the senses, say, music and paintings, are subjective, and indeed that art in general is subjective. I'm not quite sure how wine has escaped this classification, but its always seemed to me that wine, seeing as how it relies on an individuals taste buds to be processed and judged, is a form of art like any other, and thus should be judged on the same basic criteria: good art is subjective, and the real test is weather or not you personally like it. People have different tastes, and here it applies rather literally. So this is lesson number one: no wine (as with music or paintings) is inherently and universally good. It is only good if you like it. You're the one who's drinking it; if you think it tastes horrid, what does it matter what Wine Spectator had to say about it?
Of course, as with music and paintings, there are things that a vast majority of people consider to be great, the Beatles for instance, or Van Gogh's Starry Night. Wine, too, has these anomalies. Even so, there are people out there who will readily tell you that the Beatles are rubbish and starry night is ugly. So it goes in a subjective world.

2. Give constructive criticism.
If you've ever been in an English class, art critique, writing workshop, film class, band, or any other guided situation in which you were expected to critique something, chances are, one of the parties involved declared said poem/song/painting/film/ceramic pot to be "bad" and stated that they "don't like it". And, chances are, that whoever was in charge at that moment implored them to give a detailed explanation as to why. Theres a moral to this story: just because you're opinion is the only one that counts doesn't mean that you don't have to back it up. Granted, when you're having a glass of red at the kitchen table and announce that you don't like it, Mrs. Tank will not be there starting over her glasses with a death stare asking for an explanation. I would suggest, however, that you imagine her there, and this is why:
Since we've established that wine tasting is highly subjective, in order to communicate effectively about wine (and, indeed, to know your own tastes) you need to be able to tell me what exactly it is you don't like about it. For instance, I may not like that a given bottle of sauvignon blanc tastes like I got hit in the face with a peach. I would describe this bottle as not very good. You, however, love fruit forward wines and consider this one of your favorite bottles. Both of us are correct, you see, and it even makes perfect sense.
So, a hypothetical: Our friend John walks up, carrying aforementioned Sav blanc. He asks how this bottle is. Now, its choose your own adventure time.
you can:

A. Tell John its the worst bottle of wine you've ever had in your life, while talking over your friend who is simultaneously telling john that its their favorite bottle of wine.

B. You can both tell John in unison that it tastes like biting in to a ripe peach, and let John decide if that sounds appealing or not.

...if you chose 'A' John's head exploded and no one involved drank any wine because they were otherwise occupied attending a certain John's funeral.
If you chose 'B', you (I hope) now understand the importance of constructive criticism.
Obviously, this lesson applies to bottles of wine you like is well: identify the specific qualities that are leading you to judgmental conclusions.

This is the exact point where the wine-fear-ers (you know who you are) shout "BUT WAIT! I don't know anything about wine!! How am I supposed to know what to say it tastes like? No one ever taught me those fancy wine words!" *wail* *dramatic faint*
I'm here to tell you theres no need to be ashamed, and no need to shut down. In fact, I do believe this has got to be one on the best kept secrets about wine: the Is NO fancy unique vocabulary that is necessary to adequately taste wine. Right now, I can think of exactly two words used to describe how wine taste that are not apart of the average English speakers vocabulary: Tannin and Cassis. Tannins are a chemical compound found in the stems and skins of grapes, and produce that feeling that all the moisture is being sucked out of your tongue (tannins are also found in tea leaves and unripe fruit). And cassis is a fancy way of saying Currant, as in the berry.
Other than that (and don't worry about tannins right away, you'll understand them in time) all your doing is looking to recognize flavors (and scents) your already familiar with. What do you taste? chocolate? smoke? wood? dirt? raspberries? vanilla? bubble gum? Also, bear in mind that you don't have to be nice. Nail polish remover and wet dog are fine answers too.
Two technical side notes:
1. No need to make obnoxious noises or fish faces, but do try and make sure you get the wine in contact with all of your mouth: a quick, quiet, swish will do. Different parts of your mouth/tongue taste different things... make sure you give all the flavors a fair shot to be heard.
2. Most wine, particularly red, will "open up" when you let it sit open. This means, that as the wine interacts with the air more subtle flavors will appear, making the wine generally more pleasant to drink. Don't judge on the first sip. Let it sit in your glass a absolute minimum for 5 minutes, often up to 20. You'll notice flavor changes from the first sip to the last. And also, the next day you may find a totally different bottle.

Last but not least: Get a wine journal. It doesn't have to be a $20 book that came pre-labeled "wine journal"; a 50¢ spiral bugger with "wine journal" scrawled across the front in sharpie will do. Do everything in your power to write down every bottle and any flavor notes. Writing it down will "cement" it more than just thinking it, and, its rather handy to ensure you don't keep re-buying bottles you don't like.
If keeping a journal is just too structured for you, talk to someone about it. Tell them what you think, have them share their opinion. The moral here is to get out of your own head in to a more concrete form.

3. Now that your constructively criticizing wine, I will admit that although you don't need outside resources, there are a few that are extremely helpful.

The book you need: The (new) Wine Lover's Companion
This isn't a textbook, nor a guide to tasting. Its more like the best one-subject dictionary you've ever picked up. I use it at least once a week. Make a habit out of looking up words on the label you don't recognize. Its a good way to build knowledge slowly and in digestible chunks.
And, as a side note, there is also The New Food Lover's Companion that I also recommend highly. If you consider yourself a food/wine nerd, or aspiring nerd, or just like to eat or drink, these are necessary additions to your library. I know there are a lot of food and wine "dictionaries" and"guides" out there, but these are by far the best I've run across.

Particularly if you're worried about vocabulary, but even if your a registered sommelier, you need to watch:
Gary Vaynerchuk.
This guy is revolutionizing the wine world. Hes young, he's out of his goddamn mind, and he knows his stuff. He owns a wine store in New Jersey with his dad, and films this "video blog"/ internet TV show every week day. Insightful and goofy, he's not to be missed. Check out his episodes on your own at, or start with one of my favorites.

If you really really want some structure:
Both of these tasting guides have come highly recommended form various wine gurus in my life, and, though I don't own either of them (yet), I feel extremely confident in recommending them.

Windows On The World by Kevin Zraly.
The famous and multi-talented Mr.Tuna swears this is the book to have. And I believe him. Tuna is a wine knowledge machine, in addition to having been a marine and Trader Joe's manager, he once tried to extract DNA from oat bran (it doesn't work, apparently. Stick with the wheat germ). The book is written by the former sommelier of the Windows On The World restaurant, which was in the World Trade Center. It was a big deal restaurant. I'm ordering it from amazon today, book review to come.

How to Taste By Jancis Robinson

Another recommendation from a manager, Kerrie, who also knows her stuff (she opened some restaurants, not sure about her experiences with wheat germ). As I recall, she noted that while the book seems sort of cheesy, it's extremely informative, easy to follow and genuinely helpful. As I understand it, this book will outline tasting exercises and is more step by step. Jancis Robinson is a BIG deal-- she generally held to be one of the top wine writers and scholars, if you will, in the world.

Monday, May 5, 2008

In which Brian and Alli adventure to plum market for shrimp.

So, I promised Brian that I would blog about the shrimp we made for dinner the other night. Thing is, they looked nice, and the glaze was delicious- but I was just not happy with them. I have three theories as to why:

1. A classic case of Alli-is-trying-to prepgrillwatchmarinade skewershrimpdirectbriannotforgetanything. Meaning, I love the whole organized chaos in the kitchen thing. Per
haps I took my pot-slamming and spoon twirling too far, and lost the organized bit all together.

2. I (am nearly positive) over-grilled the shrimp. I have the tiniest grill in the world, and didn't adequately spread my coals before starting-- so i had to keep flipping them and offsetting them to get the shrimps on the ends of the skwers. And i just wouldn't believe they were done. And so they were very... rubbery.

3. Poor quality shrimp.
Which leads nicely in to the second topic of this post....

Their logo is simple and beautiful. The store is simple and beautiful. Craigslist would have you know their employees are beautiful(and, perhaps, simple). The billboard I passed everyday on my way home from school was simple and beautiful. So perhaps you can understand my expectations for this place-- simple, fresh, real.

Some background: Plum is the brain child of Matt and Mark Jonna. Their daddy Edward started/ran/owned Merchant of Vino, which I have many fond childhood memories of. Merchant of Vino was bought out by Whole Foods about 8 years ago. Anyhow, as I understand it (comment corrections if I've got my facts wrong) the Jonna boys worked for the big WF during this time period, and, in addition, signed a 5-year non-competition contract: ie, we won't open a new store for five years.
Five years later, out pops Plum, the boys very own store with out daddy.

So: simple, clean, beautiful and a second generation Merchant. What more could a girl want?
Sadly, I was particularly disappointed.

Here lie my beefs:

1. With only two locations, I expected everything within to be local, local, local. I wanted chips from the ann arbor tortilla factory, spices from Detroit spice Co., and pictures of Michigan farmers hanging over the produce. I wanted the name the cow and the farm it came from. Are these expectations may seem a bit over the top. However, I think that what I have described above is the only niche really missing in the ann arbor food market: you can get that local quality and attention in lots of places around town-- but thats just the point. If you want all these things, you have to drive to at least 3 or 4 different places. I'm pretty sure the only cranny left to wiggle in to (at least, successfully) around here is local, fresh and high end all under one roof. The only local I saw at plum was Zingermans. I'm sure someone out there would tell me "but it is there. They really do have these xx local products". And I'm sure thats true. However, if you're going to tell the Ann Arbor News that your focus is "natural, organic and local food" by damn, you had better hit me over the head with it. Sadly, my head made it out of there scott-free. Even whole Foods, a huge chain, can tell me, plainly posted above them, that my beets came from western Michigan. And I like that. Which leads nicely to point number two...

2. Roulette grocery.
Meaning, as I walked through the store, I was struck by this overwhelming feeling of inconsistency and incoherence. I had no idea as to how these foods ended up on the shelf together. I'm not talking about placement on the shelf, but rather the overall contents of the store: why carry Pepperidge farms cookies (which are not natural, organic or local) but not Keebler crackers? It gave off the impression that the contents had been squares on a roulette wheel, and chosen by luck, not by any particular overarching vision. And, indeed this just may be the problem: the about our store page states their vision as"Mixing the very best in natural, organic, specialty and local products".... So...They want to be whole foods, trader joes and kerrytown under one roof? I think its just too broad. Not to mention that the store is far too small.

3. Which leads me to the conclusion that the Jonna brothers are only theoretical grocery jedi's. I feel like they've read every how-to book but never talked to Yoda. They just don't get what people want out the the sort of grocery store they set out to create: intellect. The stuff between the lines, behind the scenes. They can pay someone to decorate the place well. They realized in their stint with whole foods that people will pay a silly amount for food products. What they didn't get was what those food products have in common: integrity-- of growing practices, of ingredients, of production. THAT is what people are willing to pay for.

so... I wouldn't be shocked if the shrimp I bought weren't exactly the best.

Anyhow, the moment you've all been waiting for:

Citrus-rum Shrimp Glaze

¼ cup honey
½ tsp lime peel, set aside
3 tbsp lime juice
3 tbsp dark rum
½ tsp orange peel set aside
1 tbsp orange juice
1 ½ tsp cornstarch
1 tsp grated fresh ginger
1 tbsp snipped fresh cilantro
20 fresh extra jumbo shrimps peeled in cleaned
1/4tsp salt and pepper each

for the glaze: in a small sauce pan, combine honey, juice, cornstarch rum and ginger. Cook and stir over medium heat until think and bubbly. cook 2 minutes longer. Cool to room temp. Stir in peels and cilantro.

step two: rinse shrimp. pat dry. skewer shrimp, leaving a ¼ inch between shrimp reserve half glaze. Brush shrimps w. other half.

step three: grill over medium. uncovered 2-3 minutes. Brush shrimp w. reserved glaze before serving.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Quick, delicious pasta-- and good for ya

Once again, this recipe was a fortunate top hit form epicurious. I had goat cheese left over form the beet salad, and Arugula left over from a red-sauce adventure. I searched "cremini", which were getting old, and in the fridge because, well, I like them. Lo and behold, the first hit:

Cremini Mushroom pasta with
arugula and Goat cheese
1 lb spaghetti
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/4 lb cremini mushrooms, sliced
1/2 tsp salt
4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
4 cups arugula, coarsely chopped
6 oz goat cheese, crumbled
1/3 cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped

(Amounts included are a direct copy-paste from epicurious. I didn't measure anything--I boiled what I thought looked like pasta for two, used half a Tj's container of pre-sliced creminis, chopped a good handful of arugula, and crumbled about half a squat log of goat cheese. Also didn't have parsley. Again, with my disdain for measuring.) (OH! and I used whole wheat rotelli not spaghetti)

Start the pasta boiling right a way. While its doin' its thing, sautee the mushrooms in olive oil, add the garlic when they're about half done.
Before you drain the pasta, reserve about 1/2 of cooking water. After draining, return to pot.
Add arugula, and the contents of the sautee pan, and your crumbly cheese. (i apparently really want 'cheese' to have two 's' and not two 'e' today. geez.) Pour in about half of your reserved water and toss. The goal here is to make a cream sauce out of the goat cheese: add more water if you have to.
I see this quickly becoming an after-work favorite. So good, so simple.

If you want heartier, and some cubed chicken, or even chicken strips on top. Do not add Trader Joe's pre-cooked "just white meat chicken" because its dry as hell and you'll just end up picking around it anyway, or at least, I did ( had this for lunch at work its second go round, and thus had limited protein-addition options)