Are you guys still following Monsieur Bigoudis’ photos on flickr? Just because I fancy myself a decent photographer nowadays (snort) doesn’t mean that you still shouldn’t be looking at the real deal on a regular basis. In particular, I’m loving her work from a trip to Japan this past spring:
Sigh. I have such a totally rose-colored romance about Japan, likely the result of watching Sans Soleil a few too many times. It’s totally at the top of my travel wish list, no thanks to M’s gorgeous images of her trip.
My girl also recently clued me in to a little YouTube gem: Wim Wenders’ documentary about the people who make the wax food replicas that decorate many of the entrances of restaurants around Japan (and Japanese restaurants the world over). Too too cool.
Hope you are having a great weekend, sweet reader. Let’s hook up for ramen later, yes?
MC, a good friend from my time California, has relocated to Chicago for the past two years. Despite my best intentions, I hadn’t managed to spend any time with him despite our relative geographic proximity this year. This was remedied when he drove out to the lake during our stay, both to escape the city heat and for a long awaited catch-up. B had never met MC before, so I prefaced the visit with the two most important things I know about my friend: (1) He likes Steely Dan better than anybody has liked Steely Dan, like, ever, and (2) He judges the quality of SoCal Mexican places by the quality and quantity of the escabeche on their salsa bar. Jalapeño to carrot ratio, spiciness level, container quality — the guy can tell you everything you want to know about every taco bar in the greater LA area.
It’s a great thing when you can fall back into step with a friend after not having seen them for years. One of the things that bums me out the most about the current state of my life is the feeling that all the people I like best seem to be scattered to the four winds. MC and B got along famously, supporting yet another iteration of my fantasy where all of my friends move to the same city and we live a blissed-out life together. I’ve always been a “family that you choose” kind of gal, and wish that all the folks that my good fortune has brought into my life could all be together somehow. But until we all meet again in Valhalla, visits like last weekend will have to suffice.
A decidedly well-mannered houseguest, MC arrived bearing the perfect gifts for Clarence. A pack of Daisy Cutter Pale Ale from the Half Acre Beer Company in Chicago was a delightful surprise, as was the paper-wrapped submarine sandwich smuggled across state lines from Bari Italian Subs. But far and away, the best gift he brought (and a strong contender for the Best Hostess Gift Ever Award) was this:
Do you guys know about giardiniera? I sure didn’t until this year. It’s no surprise that my escabeche-loving friend is also an appreciator of this amazing stuff. The consummate condiment of the Italian population of the greater Chicago area (and everybody else with a brain), this combination of pickled hot peppers, olives, bell peppers, carrots, celery, cauliflower, garlic, and the occasional mushroom is the ultimate addition to virtually any sandwich. As MC so rightly put it, something totally alchemical happens when giardiniera meets mayonnaise.
I was introduced to the stuff immediately upon my arrival in the Windy City last fall. B talked dirty to me the entire flight back to the states from Paris about our first meal on our native soil: Portillo’s Italian Beef with giardiniera. Like the French dip sandwich of your childhood (but better), Chicago’s famous Italian beef sandwiches get their verve from the crunchy, spicy, tangy, salty taste of giardiniera. The stuff is fantastic on any kind of deli meat sandwich. MC recommended that we try putting it on a pizza with some Italian sausage, which sounds like a really excellent goal for the future.
Mezzetta (you know, ‘Don’t forgetta!) makes a kind of passable version of the stuff that I’ve seen in grocery stores outside of the Midwest. Here in Indiana, our fridge is never without a jar of the Dell’Alpe’s hot giardiniera relish, which I slather on grilled cheese sandwiches and mix with the yolks of my devilled eggs. You can also get a pretty fantastic giardiniera on your sandwich at the Potbelly chain, which sells a delicious, if overpriced, version in jars at some of their locations. But MC knows his stuff, and Bari’s giard’ is the best one around. He advises to give it a rough chop if you are putting it in a sandwich, and to go whole hog should you want to sprinkle it on a pizza. This jar is coming with us to California next week when we move as a memento of our year of giardiniera eating.
Get some if you can, dear reader. And whether your summer includes this Midwestern heat or not, hope you are staying cool. Sing us out, Steely:
Confronted with the possibility of another sweltering week without air conditioning in Bloomington, we gleefully packed up and headed north for a week to that hazy zone on the Indiana/Michigan border where B’s parents’ live. Ostensibly we were cat-sitting while they were out of town, but mainly we were taking advantage of their lovely lakeshore digs. There’s something about being alone in your parents’ house (or in this case, my boyfriend’s parents’ house) that always feels like playing grown-up. This was an especially pronounced feeling last week, as we channeled middle-aged retirees, cruising around the lake on the family pontoon boat with beer cozies in hand. We wore shorts and tucked our shirts in. We waved at the neighbors and gossiped under our breath. We crashed local potlucks bearing makeshift fruit salads. We yelled at tourists that rode their jetskis too close to shore, and muttered obscenities if other boats broke the ‘no-wake’ rules after dark. In short, we gave one possible version of our future selves a serious test drive, and I’ll admit it was pretty awesome.
The Michiana area is made up mostly of farms, so we took advantage of the bounty of local produce and stuffed ourselves stupid with sweet corn, Michigan blueberries, and some of the sweetest heirloom tomatoes I’ve eaten in years. The best local farm stand is Diamond Acres Farm (located on Kamp Kosy, south of Cassopolis, Michigan off the M-62 just past the high school, open 10-6 everyday) and we found ourselves there almost every day. The sweet corn is in full force already, and we happily grilled a few ears every night alongside venison steaks we lifted from B’s dad’s personal hunting cache. The peaches from Diamond Acres weren’t ready just yet, but I brought them home with me, hoping that they will soften up in a paper bag so that I can satisfy my seasonal jones for peach-cobbler.
On days when we didn’t want to fire up the grill, we ate enormous, delicious breakfasts at the local Amish-run bakery, Farm House Bakery and Restaurant (59573 White Temple Road, Vandalia, Michigan, 49095, 269.476.9668). Farm House Bakery makes of one of the fluffiest, yummiest cinnamon rolls I’ve had in a long time, and you can opt for one instead of toast with most of their breakfasts at no extra charge, making a believer out of even the most skeptical patron of this religiously-inflected restaurant.
We also frequented our beloved Vlasicak’s Meat Market & Smokehouse (63490 M 62 South, Cassopolis, Michigan 49031, 269.445.8763), home of the world’s best beef jerky. Seriously, dear reader, this is literally the most amazing beef jerky I’ve ever eaten, and this is coming from someone who probably knew the word pemmican before I knew the words Mama or Dada. We smuggled Vlasicak’s jerky to France, give it without a trace of irony as gifts, and keep an inordinately large hoard in our refrigerator at all times. Needless to say, jerky and Michigan IPA’s make for an excellent pontoon-boat cruising combination.
On our final day at the lake, a neighbor came over to deliver a bowl of chicken salad, “Just in case you kids were getting hungry.” Later that day as we drove by some family friends, they invited us to a hog roast at the local camp. Our friend M was visiting from Chicago, and he was incredibly charmed by all the rural hospitality. The three of us went to the roast, ate our fill and then some, and listened to oldies covers played by a local band, the adorable Misspent Youth of South Bend, Indiana. While I had hoped for a spit-shot, by the time we arrived everything had already been expertly butchered. You’ll just have to trust me that it was a pretty swell way to spend an evening.
You arrive at her house for a visit, and a “casual lunch on the patio” consists of red caviar and blinchiki (Russian crêpes), festooned with sour cream and fresh dill. Oh, and a perfect salad of fresh radishes, green onions, and cucumbers. Side effects of caviar-on-landing may include weakness in the knees, but Japanese beer is a good remedy for that.
What’s for dinner when a Soviet loves you? Homemade golubtsy (stuffed cabbage rolls) topped with more sour cream, of course. Sour cream is an important component of Soviet love. Side effects of golubtsy-love may include bloating and boasting.
Have you found the love of a Soviet Jew? Then lunch the following day will probably be shuba, that fuchsia salad of Eastern-European Jewish diaspora, made of salted herring, potatoes, carrots, beets, onion, hard-boiled eggs, mayonnaise, and dill. My Soviet is an expert at using the smallest amount of mayonnaise humanly possible, so her shuba never gloppy. Side effects of shuba-love may include eating beets for breakfast and excessive bragging on your blog.
Merci beaucoup, M!
When we weren’t eating the insects of the sea, we ate some other pretty terrific stuff during my brief sojourn in Boston. After a day of sightseeing and shopping on Newbury Street, M and I headed to Barbara Lynch’s The Butcher Shop (52 Tremont Street, Boston, MA 02118, 617.423.4800, www.thebutchershopboston.com). I’d been excited to try The Butcher Shop ever since my friend J purchased her Thanksgiving turkey there last year to rave reviews. It’s a real carnivore pleasure hanging out there, as they do much of the butchery right in the center of the dining area (vegetarians and the squeamish should probably eat somewhere else, if the name of the restaurant wasn’t clue enough). The refrigerated case would be the first thing I would rob given the opportunity and disposition for theft.
We ate lunch at the bar, drinking rosé and sharing a charcuterie plate of mortadella, prosciutto di Parma, salami Biellese, spicy sopressata, game bird en croûte, pâte de campagne, and a foie gras terrine, as well as a few cheeses from their excellent selection. Everything was lovely, though the portions are pretty miniscule. I did secretly long for the heavy, unfussy charcuterie plates at Le Baron Rouge, but as far as US charcuterie goes, The Butcher Shop is pretty great. For the Boston folks, it would also be an excellent resource if you were looking for an unusual cut of meat.
For my final evening in Cambridge, M had made reservations at the cozy local restaurant Bondir (279A Broadway, Cambridge, MA 02139, 617.661.0009, www.bondircambridge.com). Named for chef Jason Bond and presumably meant to evoke something like “to leap for joy” in French, it has a bit of a different connotation for French speakers (especially the filthy-minded ones like us). Let George Brassens explain:
Egregious sexual innuendos aside (and there were certainly a lot of them), Bondir is a truly gorgeous restaurant. It’s tiny — only 28 seats — meaning that reservations are a must, though I did see a few people loitering by the handsome fireplace hoping that a table would open up as the evening progressed. Bondir’s menu changes daily and focuses on sustainable New England produce and seafood. All the plates come in two sizes and sharing is encouraged – great news if your crew is like my crew and everything gets passed around anyway. On our night in April, we drank a ‘09 Francois Raquillet, ‘Les Naugues’ Mercury première Cru, and the three of us shared the following:
Scituate scallops with sorrel, yellowfoot mushrooms, Georgia sweet peas, pickled radish pod, and sage froth
French white asparagus salad with wild Westport watercress, lemon-chili vinaigrette, pickled rhubarb, lemon verbena, and olive oil-poached Day Boat halibut
Red wheat rigatoni with braised beef shank, shiitake mushroom, butternut squash, Pu-Erh celery baton, and Parmigiano Reggiano
Rouen duck breast with Rhode Island white flint cornmeal cake, young onion greens, collard greens, and red wine black lentils
Angus beef bavette with red wine braised root vegetables, rye berries with crème fraîche, and roasting jus
Westport spring-dug sunchokes with olive oil-caramel, gingerbread cake, lemon mousseline, and fruit leather
Sour cherry trifle with mocha chocolate financier, almond milk gelato, and meringue brulée
Those final two desserts were really something special – I had never imagined that a roasted sunchoke would make for such an utterly decadent dessert. I’ll ‘fess up now, I didn’t record the details of each dish with nearly the precision listed above (my real list was more like Scallops! White asparagus! Pasta thing! Duck! Beef! SUNCHOKE DESSERT! Sour cherry sundae!). I fleshed out the details two months later with the happy assistance of the Bondir website. If, like Clarence, your version of porn is restaurant menus, I’d highly encourage a visit, as an archive of past menus is available for your perusal. I’ve gotten some lovely ideas for my own cooking from the site since my visit. A pithy substitute for a lovely evening, but it will have to suffice until I find myself again in Cambridge.
Finally, I’d be totally remiss if I didn’t mention A&J King Artisan Bakers in Salem (48 Central Street, Salem, MA 01970, 978.744.4881, www.ajkingbakery.com), both for their g-g-g-gorgeous bread and free WiFi, which allowed A to study for his exams while M and I browsed the nearby Peabody Essex Museum. We devoured one of their boules and a rhubarb tart at the beach in Rockport, yelling at the seagulls to bake their own damn bread. I brought a bag of A&J’s coconut macaroons back home to Indiana for B, thereby extending my the yumminess of my trip into the following week at home.
Some dark clouds have gathered Chez Bear-Garden, as my amazing 95-year-old grandmother is in the process of passing away from this world to whatever lies on the other side. There aren’t really any wise or clever words to dose out in this situation. All I can say is that she has lived a long and interesting life and raised a great family in the process, and I am still sorting how much emptier the world will be for my family without her in it.
Juanita is the most fiercely independent person I’ve ever known, and if I had to describe her in two words or less I would say “elegant mettle.” Originally raised in a Southern Colorado/Northern New Mexico Hispanic farming community that can trace its roots there to the early 16th century, she married into a family of Sicilian immigrants who had settled into the San Francisco Bay area. The fusion of those two culinary traditions — roasted green chiles, queso blanco, and blue corn on the one hand, salted anchovies, Cioppino, and homemade raviolis on the other — is what my family considers comfort food of the first order. All of us cook the way we do because of the way my grandparents cooked, and one of the ways I will always remember Juanita is through the culinary traditions that she and my grandfather started and that I hope will be shared with the generations to come in our family.
As a small tribute to her, I wanted to share one of my favorite of her recipes. An inveterate sweet tooth, my grandmother would always have a cake, a pie, or a loaf of famous banana bread for her visitors. Her banana bread is perfect, simple solution to that bunch of rotten bananas that you might have hanging out in your kitchen right now. My mother would always bake some for parties or for a sick neighbor, and today I often make a loaf at the beginning of the week for easy, yummy breakfasts on the go.
Juanita’s Banana Bread
1 cup of sugar
1/2 cup of butter or vegetable shortening
3-4 very ripe bananas (we’re talking brown, shriveled, and fruit-fly ready)
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup walnuts or pecans
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease loaf pan well with butter and sprinkle with flour. Cream together sugar and butter. Add eggs and bananas to butter and sugar mixture and mix well. I find that a potato masher works excellently for smushing up the bananas. Add flour, baking soda, and walnuts or pecans. Mixture will be stiff. Pour into pan and bake for one hour or more until toothpick comes out clean from the center of loaf when inserted.
Second generation modification: My mother used to serve slices of banana bread topped with cream cheese and black olives at her wild parties of the 1970s and 1980s. It’s not my cup of tea, but a lot of people reading this blog might have fond memories of those days.
Third generation modification: To make this a bit healthier for weekday breakfasts, I like to substitute 1/4 cup of flour with 1/4 cup of ground flaxseed. I also omit one banana and add instead a cup of frozen blueberries when I add the nuts.
I went to Boston this past spring because I had been listening to a lot of Joan Baez and going to Boston in the springtime seemed like the thing to do. No, actually I went to Boston to visit M and her lovely husband A at their digs in Cambridge, where A was completing a fancy degree at that fancy college there. Now he can join the legions of people who, upon being queried where they went to graduate school, can say “A school outside of Boston?” The trick is raise your voice at the end, so it sound like a question. Nobody can be sour grapes about what a rock star you are if you make your answer sound like a question. That is my tip for you, dearest A.
M knew that one of my biggest gripes about my landlocked existence this year was the dearth of lovely seafood available in Indiana. So our first stop was Alive and Kicking Lobsters (269 Putnam Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02139, 617.876.0451, http://www.aliveandkickinglobsters.com), a no-frills seafood shop and lobster-sandwich purveyor that was dangerously close to M and A’s apartment. I say “dangerously close” because if someone with the non-existent willpower of yours truly lived nearby she would probably eat there every single day. I hate it when you order a lobster roll and they skimp on the lobster, or mix in Pollack, or give you a sandwich that is 90% mayonnaise or bread. I would say that Alive and Kicking makes a damn perfect lobster sandwich, with an unearthly amount of sweet fresh meat, a little herbal kick (tarragon?), locally-baked scali bread, and just enough mayo to keep the whole thing moist. Paired with some salty chips and lovely picnic table seating outside, and you’ve got yourself a pretty awesome local place, should you find yourself in “Cambridge?”
I was also starved for some good-old-fashioned unclean eatin’, so M took me out to get a bivalve fix at the Island Creek Oyster Bar (500 Commonweath Avenue, Boston, MA 02215, 617.532.5300, islandcreekoysterbar.com). One of what appears to be a growing trend of restaurants that own the farms where their oysters are grown, Island Creek is a serious destination for oyster-lovers (and is priced accordingly). I was able to sample a variety of lovely gems, including the namesake Island Creek oysters grown by Skip Bennett in Duxbury, MA and Stephen Wright’s babies from Chatham, MA. All of this was paired with a lovely bottle of Grüner Veltinger, which M and I had independently decided is the ultimate oyster-pairing wine. The climax of the evening, however, was sampling my first ever Belon oyster (grown in Maine). M described eating a Belon as “basically like taking a big bite out of a zinc countertop,” and I’d have to concur with her assessment. Oyster-lover I may be, but I don’t think I’ll be buying any more of those metallic little suckers anytime soon.
But we weren’t done! Oh no, we were definitely not done in Clarence’s crusade to eat every single crustacean and bivalve on the eastern seaboard. Graciously, A took a day off from work the week before finals (!) and the three of us drove up to Rockport, Massachusetts for ocean gazing, beach walking, and knickknack shopping. Scenery aside, our main objective was lunch at Roy Moore Lobster Co. (39 Bearskin Neck, Rockport, MA 01966, 978.546.6696). If you’ve ever watched a Red Lobster commercial late at night and felt an elemental pang of longing for the red flea (not from Red Lobster, obviously, but these commercials do seem to be my trigger), this is your Valhalla. Lunch was stuffed clams, smoked salmon with horseradish cream, freshly-shucked Wellfleet oysters, and the two most beautiful lobsters I’ve ever seen, all for a price that made me say “No seriously, how much did that actually cost?!”
Eaten outside while staring out over fishing boats and hundreds of lobster traps, it was the kind of Ur-experience of a lobster shack, and something I would happily cross off of my bucket list if I had such a thing. I don’t, but if you do, definitely add “Eat lobsters at an old-school New England lobster shack with your best friends.” It’s definitely worth the trip.