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Around The MSP :: Ramen

March 21, 2012

Masu Sushi and Robata :: Pork Belly Ramen

Tanpopo Noodle Shop :: Pork Ramen

Zen Box Izakaya :: Tonkotsu “Tonzen” Ramen

Midori’s Floating World Cafe :: Tokyo Ramen


In Defense of Nonstick

February 13, 2012

Nonstick pans will always be a topic of debate in the food world, especially among gear nerds.  Lots of home cooking “foodies” (a term that makes me cringe, but that’s another topic altogether) swear against them.  More than likely, they’re stuck with memories of teflon coated $8 grocery store specials that they owned in college, and are now confident that they can cook just as effortlessly without a nonstick pan.  While becoming an established adult, for some of us, may involve an opportunity to invest in nicer cookware, I just don’t think it’s necessary to fork out for an complete kit of expensive AllClad pots and pans.  For the sake of discussion, I’m excluding other brand options like Calphalon and Scanpan – those brand are overpriced poor performers for one reason or another.  Copper cookware, like Mauviel, is sexy but outrageously expensive and high maintenance.

The best performing pans are thick and heavy – there’s no economically viable way around it.  A thick pan holds heat evenly and doesn’t change temperature when food is placed in it.  In contrast, a bad pan doesn’t distribute heat evenly and thus creates hot spots on its cooking surface.  These hot spots cause food to burn and cling to the pan.  Cheap pan manufacturers know this, and so they coat their pans with a nonstick coating.  Regardless, we still end up burning our food because the pan is impossibly thin, ad infinitum.  And so, we throw the baby out with the bathwater and end up disregarding nonstick pans altogether.

There is a time and place for nonstick.  I like to keep one on hand, specifically for eggs, and so should you.  My ideal egg pan is made of heavy gauge aluminum with a thick nonstick coating and a flat handle (unlike the awkward concave handles on AllClads).  While some of you may have strong feelings in defense of vintage cast iron pans (I have a few myself), these beauties are a beastly challenge when making an omelette.  Making a proper omelette requires a balance of finesse and manhandling (watch Jacques Pepin here, fast forward to 4:00).  To quote Bourdain “I think that it should become sort of a right of passage that if you sleep with a virgin, whoever the most experienced person is should cook an omelette for the other. Wouldn’t that make the world a nicer place?” As if manhandling an omelette pan on the morning after isn’t violent enough, slamming a cast iron pan on your cooktop could send the wrong message to your new lover altogether.

For cookware like sauce pans, stock pots, and most sauté pans, AllClad is great and will last you a lifetime.  But nonstick pans are not made to last forever, so there’s no sense in investing at AllClad prices.  Vollrath Wearever nonstick pans are the perfect compromise, built of a heavy gauge aluminum alloy with a thick nonstick coating.  They’re sold with a bright blue heat proof handle condom, but that’s removable if you’re used to cooking with a side towel in hand.  But be careful, that handle will get really hot.  I picked up my Vollrath 10″ nonstick pan at a restaurant supply store for about $20, which is about 20% the cost of an AllClad equivalent.  When you’ve sufficiently worn out the nonstick coating, you can recycle your pan and pick up a new one.  Restaurant supply stores are a no-brainer when it comes to buying high performing affordable cookware, but somehow they’re also the kitchen supply industry’s best kept secret.

Navigating the Third Wave :: On Understanding the New Coffee

February 9, 2012

[A bag of Moonshine Coffee beans, small batch roasted in Minneapolis :: My current “weekend” coffee]

I call this my weekend coffee because beans of this caliber of craftsmanship require a certain amount of fetishistic preparation that’s so time consuming that it’s best suited for days when you don’t have to hurry off to work.  For gearheads like me, a well spent weekend morning now involves grinding my own beans in a Hario ceramic mill, temping water in my kettle to 185 degrees Farehnehit, and brewing my coffee using an inverted Aeropress method…this is what all of you are doing with your Saturday mornings, right?  But to be honest, I’m new to this madness.  And to be fair, this madness is relatively new. Any time I walk into a Third Wave Coffee bar, I feel like a fraud. I’ll stand in line looking at the menu at provenance specific names like “El Salvador, Finca Los Planes” and nod with confidence and familiarity, like the sort of guy who would wear a brand new CBGB shirt and a fedora to a show at the #@$%ing Fine Line.  That said, Band of Skulls is playing the Fine Line in April…wanna go?

For the sake of discussion, here’s a compendium on the “waves” of coffee in the US (you can talk about coffee like you can talk about the history of Ska…or Feminism):  The First Wave of coffee came somewhere in the earlier part of the 1900s with brands like Folgers and Maxwell House.  The marketing push of this wave centered around convincing people that drinking coffee is something that everyone just does, regardless of quality.  Obviously, they succeeded.  The Second Wave of coffee, pioneered by companies like Peet’s Coffee in the 1960s and financially helmed by later companies like Starbucks in the 1990s, introduced the American public to the idea of “specialty coffee.”  These Second Wavers accomplished this by making the most universally agreeable cups that they could, making coffee rich and sweet by adding milk and flavor shots.  Starbucks and Caribou managed to fill new franchises as fast as they could open them, first with the help of Friends fans and later laptop toting Carrie Bradshaw wannabees and bible study groups duking it out for the next open table.  True to human behavior, contrary to where the masses move, there’s always a few rebels. These are the misfits, the artists, the academics, and the heartbreakers. Just like physics, every action warrants an equal and opposite reaction. But where the reaction cannot be delivered with the support of numbers alone, it is compensated for with exclusivity and fussiness.  In a nutshell, Third Wave coffee is this…it’s coffee beans you’ve never heard of and local dairy, served in tiny tiny cups.  It’s undoubtedly delicious and worthwhile, but to start a dialogue on how it’s done correctly is to open a can of worms. Think of it this way: if the Second Wave of coffee is like Rihanna at the Grammys, then Third Wave coffee is like overhearing two CMJ reviewers comparing notes at SXSW.  There’s a time and place for each, but these days I still count on Ri-Ri to get me through a rough morning.

But I dabble.  On weekdays it’s pre-ground Dunn Brothers beans in a Bunn drip machine. But for the weekends, I have a wealth of coffee gadgets: pour overs, french presses, chemexes…  Why? If I’m not wholly invested in learning to taste the intricacies or the Costa Rican terroir?  Because it’s fun, dammit.  As with most things which which are meant to be appreciated, we often forget that at the root of pleasure is fun.  Music and movies should be fun.  Food should be fun, and so should coffee.

Cassoulet :: The Long Way Round

January 30, 2012

Wtf? Couldn’t you have put in the extra effort and put a [useless] sprig of parsley on top of that?  Something green?  This is a rule of food blogging.  THE RULES!?

Well, yes, I suppose I could have done that.  I also could have taken the shortest road possible to make the most visually appealing dish, like photographing a Caprese salad or an adorable post on how to host sushi date night at home.  But it’s just not like that.  Long form Cassoulet is a process of taking the longest road possible to make the simplest of dishes.  Keyword, again: process.

Through most of my 20’s, I drove an old school maroon 1990 Volvo 240DL with a bike rack on top.  It was affectionately referred to as the “Bear Cave” (on wheels) by my friends.  We spent countless summer nights driving around seemingly aimlessly with the windows down and the radio turned up.  While we had no where to go, the process of driving was a catalyst for thinking through whatever happened to be swimming through your head at the time.  Similarly, the process of making cassoulet has a similar function for those of us that find therapy in the kitchen.

Here’s a Gordon Ramsay’s “F-Word” -esque description of what went into making this cassoulet – and this isn’t even a full traditional version:  Dry cure duck legs overnight, slow cook in duck fat for confit, store duck legs in duck fat in fridge for a week, warm and remove duck legs from fat, set duck legs aside.  Hot dutch oven.  Cubed bacon. Water.  Make lardons.  Bacon out.  Add sausages. Brown.  Out.  Brown duck confit.  Out.  Mirepoix, sweat. Add par-cooked white beans, toh-mah-to paste and browned meat, stock.  350 oven, 30 minutes.  Hot pan: butter, minced garlic, panko breadcrums…toast.  Add chopped parsley and stir.  Add half of the breadcrumb mixture on top of bean mixture, back in oven, uncovered, 20 minutes.  Add other half of breadcrumbs, 375 oven, 10 minutes.  Store overnight.  Crack open breadcrumb crust.  Add 1/2″ cup of stock. Reseal cassoulet crust.  350 oven, uncovered, 45 minutes.  Serve.  Cassoulet of duck confit, sausages, lardons?  DONE.

But why? Why all that effort if its not even, like, pretty?  I mean, I’m a foodie!  With a foodie food blog!  So naturally I eat with my eyes too, you know…

For those of us that cook and eat with our hearts on our sleeves, Cassoulet is damn near the perfect comfort food.  There will be times in each of our lives when, for one reason or another, food just doesn’t taste as good as if you were more than numb.  Chances are that you could give a damn about how your food looks, and even at your best you’re wholly unable to appreciate the challenge of a well stacked flavor profile.  For times like these, Cassoulet just makes sense: it’s a no-nonsense flavor that speaks straight to your soul.  If someone makes you a cassoulet out of the kindness of their heart and you go all #?@%ing “foodie” on it, nitpicking and deconstructing flavor notes and whatnot, chances are you’re missing the point entirely, with food, and in your own life altogether.  Cassoulet is good, and that’s it.

Now, a cassoulet + a long drive?  My old buddies will be coming into town for a long overdue dude weekend, and a long drive with a stack of CD’s will likely be in order.  Here goes.

Smoke Breaks, Redux

January 27, 2012

In my invincible 20’s I was a smoker – about half a pack a day when I was well behaved, and a pack or more a day during challenging times.  My classmates in architecture school smoked, as did my girlfriend.  For us smokers, sharing a smoke break was like our version of the village well of antiquity, a place to take an extra few minutes to catch up and take inventory of our latest trials and endeavors.  If you were lucky enough to have a cup of coffee to add to the mix, you had entertainment for the afternoon – like Ethan Hawke turning to Winona Ryder’s character in Reality Bites and saying “You see, Lainie, this is all we need… a couple of smokes, a cup of coffee.”  Whether or not you hated that movie, this was the m.o. for those of us who grew up in the 90s.  Kuppernicus, anyone?

More than the social aspect of cigarettes, the thing that I miss about smoke breaks is the escape – particularly if you enjoyed the solo smoke break.  Regardless of the intensity of the project you were currently engaged in, a smoke break allowed you the opportunity to take a step away from your project for 5 minutes and, ironically, breathe.

Note: I’m now hating myself for trying to connect the significance of smoking cigarettes to smoking food on the grill.  This is a stretch, but hear me out…

When I went to bed this past New Years Eve, I had barely an inkling that 2012 would shape up to be what it has so far.  Life happened and I inadvertently hit the ground running.  Work has skyrocketed to new heights and my relationships have grown in unimaginable ways.  That said, I’ve barely had a moment to myself, until now, to just breathe, think, write, and well…cook.  And so, this is how a guy like me finds himself awake after midnight, outside in the Minnesota winter, carefully tending to a pile of charcoal and wood chips.  At the end of the day, I suppose it all comes down to a man and his grill.

I used to think that smoking meats was reserved only for those who dedicated their lives to this, having built dedicated sheds equipped with proper ventilation and smoking racks.  It’s been the best discovery of my 30’s to learn that this smoking food at home isn’t so exclusive.  You can smoke whatever you’d like on your grill by piling a small handful of hot coals on one side of the lower grate of your kettle grill, adding some soaked wood chips (so they won’t immediately go up in flames), and adding your food on the opposite end of the cooking grate.  In this case, I smoked some sausages for cassoulet, chicken legs to be stripped and used in salads, and onions for a duck pate that I’ve been dreaming of.  The trick to smoking on a kettle grill is controlling your temperature.  In this case, you don’t want to cook your meat – you only want it to take on a smoke flavor.  The cooking process will be finished at serving time.

It’s a stretch to say that the meditative process of cooking wholly replaces the therapy of smoking cigarettes for me.  But in times like these, I’ll gladly take it…

On Quinoa + Bullshit

November 23, 2011

With the snowy months just around the corner, I’ve been making preemptive strikes on my winter weight gain by, ehem, dieting for the past few weeks.  For me, “dieting” has never had a prefix (Atkins, South Beach, Paleo) – it only goes as far as being thoughtful about the foods I eat.  This season, I’m counting on piles of kale, chard, and quinoa.  Quinoa has been a dirty word in my book since I first tried it several years ago, in college, at a let’s-play-upscale fusion restaurant in Ames, IA called Cafe Shi (gross, I know) specializing in International Cuisine (ooh lar lar).  Their menu involved descriptions like “Quinoa: The Ancient Grain” and “served East Meets West style”.  The quinoa was served boiled to shit and more bland than any given Coldplay album.  I’ll admit, I fell for the Cafe Shi schtick at the time, such that I was convinced that the fault was not with the preparation, but with quinoa itself.  So, I shrugged my shoulders and thought hey, maybe it’s just not for me.  But, that’s not what turned me off on quinoa entirely for the next several years – rather it was the subtext “The Ancient Grain”.  This really bothered me, and I hope it bothers you too.  At least a little.  If not, it should.

Let us discuss, if only for a moment, the crimes of verbiage committed by hippie food industry and new age marketing cognoscenti.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I am a moderate who votes just to the left of center and I make financial contributions to NPR.  But, in these times where the fashion is shedding processed food and turning our backs on corporate farming, all of us are searching for something real that we can connect to on an emotional and intellectual level – something that grounds us in our food choices.  And I get that.  We absolutely should be more connected to our food, and there needs to be advocacy and education as to what this really means.  But, for the love of God, skip the catch phrases and skip the backstory.  Am I to believe that by consuming “The Ancient Grain” that Quetzalcoatl, a fine feathered serpent of a Mesoamerican deity, is squatting over me and shitting quinoa as I’m surrounded with the smiling approval of the souls of a thousand dead Aztecs?  Bullshit.  Again, skip the backstory.  The crime is just how much of a turnoff this can be.  Save it for your yoga class.  Let’s talk facts.

Quinoa is pretty damn healthy.  It has a lower glycemic index than white rice, meaning it won’t spike your blood sugar – this is important in avoiding Type II Diabeetus.  It’s high in protein, which is a good thing if you’re trying to cut back on your meat intake.  And, it’s high in fiber, which, you know…

And, better yet, Quinoa is actually delicious when properly prepared.  Here’s the rocket science how it’s properly prepared:  Rinse it a few times.  Boil it until it’s tender in something tasty like vegetable or chicken stock.  If it’s too wet when it’s done, drain it.  If it’s too dry before it’s done, add more liquid.  Make enough for leftovers.  Cold cooked Quinoa is delicious in a salad with some finely shredded kale and swiss chard.

Dad Food :: Pimento Cheese

November 7, 2011

Churchy Food Blogger / Stay-At-Home Momtographer: “Ack!  Ah. Mah. Gah. I mean…gosh.  Did he just take a picture of a cheese sandwich on a blue plastic Ziploc lid?”

Goddamn right I did.  And to be specific, it’s a Pimento Cheese sandwich.  I had long since forgotten about the Pimento Cheese of my youth until I saw The Gurgling Cod’s friendly reminder that November is Pimento Cheese Awareness Month.  If you’re new to Pimento Cheese, it’s an all purpose slathering spread made of cheese, pimentos, butter and/or mayonnaise.  The ingredients are mixed cold and stored in the fridge at the ready for a quick sandwich or spread.  In my opinion, Pimento Cheese is one of those odd exceptions to the rule that the higher the quality of ingredients, the better the dish.  In this case, a bag of shredded cheddar, a tiny jar of pimentos, and a dab of Hellman’s did the trick – all of these things generously tucked into the heel of Brownberry Oatnut bread.  And, the mixture tastes better when you store it in a plastic Ziploc.

“Paleo” Dieting OWS’er: “But… But… What about the starches used to keep the shredded cheese separate in the bag?  Or the flour used in the bread… was it milled by virginal Bon Iver fans?”

Okay, a quick word about the organic/local/humane food movement: This is a very good thing. I buy almost exclusively from local farmers when I can, but… some things are sacred and permissible when enjoyed in moderation.  When we discuss comfort food and family history, we place a lot of emphasis on Mom Food.  But, let us not forget the significance of Dad Food as well.  Dad Food!  When I was growing up, my dad made five things: chili, corned beef and cheese omelettes, lugaw, pot pies, and pimento cheese.  On warm spring days, my mom would season the barbecue and my dad would grill it to be served with spring Maryland blue crabs, pickled mustard greens, and hot white rice.  Our dinner table discussion usually began with a short argument between my parents. My mom would rip on my dad for burning the barbecue (I’ve since come to love the flavor of charred meat…with a little seasoned vinegar, please).  These Dad Foods and the details and stories that accompany them are part of my personal history, and I’ll be damned if I try to write them out.

Recipe Plagiarizing Blogger / Self Declared Restaurant Critic: “I’d be curious to try a decon(structed) version of this. Like a no-bake brioche, some aerated Epoisses cheese smuggled in from France, powdered Esplette peppers, and an Aioli Provençal foam.”