Thursday, August 27, 2009

You're a shining star

I had lunch at Hot Doug's today, and boy, was my sausage motherfucking hot. It had that cumulative kind of heat that follows you out of the restaurant and then clings to you like a cranky, overheated child all the way home. And I mean that in the best possible sense.

I've eaten at Hot Doug's once before, and much preferred the Celebrity Sausage this time around: the Verdine White. I'm obviously not up on my obscure celebrities because I had to google this one. Verdine is the bassist for Earth, Wind & Fire, known for his high-energy dancing, and judging from the pictures, his beadazzled bellbottomed jumpsuits. What Verdine has in common with spicy Thai chicken sausage with garlic chili mustard and sesame seaweed salad is beyond me, but you gotta love a place that names a quasi-Asian sausage after a black guy named Verdine. I believe this particular taste sensation has had other celebrity names, but I'm glad it was Verdine today. Earth, Wind & Fire is in my top ten secret favorite groups, along with The Babys and Pablo Cruise. The other seven are super duper top secret and none of your business.

The wait this time was less than 10 minutes, likely because of the crappy weather and the fact that it's Thursday, and not Duck Fat Fries Friday or Saturday. My dining companion (my husband) had two dogs: a regular char dog with everything and a Keira Knightley char dog (mighty hot!) with everything. Doug offers free refills on small sodas, so I ended up downing a good 64 ounces of pop just to keep my mouth from going up in flames.

There seems to be an arbitrary pricing policy, with Doug himself deciding if you deserve a price cut. On my last visit, I reminded Doug that we had once known each other in grade school, and I think he lopped off 25%. Today, I remained a stranger and paid regular price. But now I have an excuse to go for a third time: the Dave Kingman (a chicken Italian sausage with everything!) and another chance to play my I-used-to-know-you-in-grade-school card. We'll see what happens.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The empire, part 2

I was in Ann Arbor this past weekend and made another pilgrimage to Zingerman's, this time for a georgia reuben (my actual sandwich, above). They have two sandwich sizes: nosher (Yiddish for "small eater") and fresser (Yiddish for "big eater"). I ordered the former, knowing that the latter is reserved for linebackers and those questionably sane people who compete in food eating contests. It came with two feisty pickles. My son got the #90, reina's on a roll (meatball sub) sans the provolone.

He deemed it "as good as Subway," which is pretty high praise coming from a 9 year-old. We shared an order of Lina's latke fingers, which are twice fried potato pancake strips. They were dangerously crunchy, and may have been laced with opiates.

Lunch for 2 was $1000.00. No, wait, it only seemed like $1000.00. It was really about $35. It amazes me that people will stand in line for 30 minutes (which we did), and then pay $13 for a sandwich - a nosher, no less - in this economy, and then wait another 20 minutes until it's ready. Our first table was on a 45 degree incline, so we moved to a different one. The sandwiches are the best I've ever had, but sliding down a concrete incline into the street while I'm eating one might just ruin the experience.

Next time I'm at Zingerman's, I'm going to do the unthinkable. I'm going to order something besides the georgia reuben. After much contemplation, I think I'm finally ready to move into the pork portion of the menu. I've semi-committed to a jimmy wants rosemary's baby: rosemary-crusted baked Italian ham, Zingerman's handmade fresh mozzarella, tomato, olive oil & red wine vinegar on Sicilian sesame semolina bread. But with 10 other porkalicious options - 3 with Nueske's applewood-smoked bacon - I might have to pull an 11th hour de-commit.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Apples, and why I still like them

I've probably peeled over 5000 apples in my life, and that might be a conservative estimate. Many of those were for other people's desserts. In advertising, when you're writing or art directing someone else's idea, you're a "wrist"; that is to say, the big thinking has already been done, and all that's needed is your hand to write a script or layout a print ad. The kitchen equivalent is the prep cook - a major league chopper and weigher. That's how I started - peeling other people's apples and weighing out the ingredients for the cool stuff they - not me - would be making.

Eventually, I moved up from weighing to actually making. At the pastry shop, I was given the task of making the crumble filling that went out to restaurants all over Chicago. The great thing about the filling was that it was a shoot-from-the-hip endeavor. You peeled some apples, added some sugar and brown sugar, juiced a few oranges and lemons and tossed the juice in, along with a few splashes of Myer's Rum. Then you tossed the whole of it together with your hands. It was my decision how much rum to put in, how much sugar, and how much citrus. It was my crumble filling. Chances are, you ate my crumble filling at some Chicago restaurant back in 1995. That was the first taste I would have of someone actually eating my food.

I have had a good feeling about apples ever since. I particularly like Honeycrisp, which a friend/pastry colleague of mine discovered in a farmer's market 10 years ago. Now you can get them at Jewel starting in September. They're the best eating apple out there; they drip juice, and are perfectly tart, crisp, and sweet. For baking, Granny Smith's are the bomb, as it were. Their tartness mellows a little, and works against the sugar in the recipe. You need that contrast. The exception is the Golden Delicious, which I use when I'm making a Tarte Tatin, the upside down caramelized French apple tart. I served individual tarte tatins during my restaurant years. I peeled at least 25 apples a day for those tatins, and up to 50 on weekend days. Unlike Granny's, Golden Delicious will not fall apart during cooking, and you need that in a Tarte Tatin.

Mutsu and Crispin, my other two favorites, are similar to Honeycrisp but a little more tart. Winesaps are actually spicy; I had one in Seattle years ago and have lusted after them ever since.

I once ignited a batch of liquored up apples in my apartment, nearly set the place on fire, left the apples on the back stairs, then got robbed the next day because I forgot to lock the back door. I had to replace all my stereo equipment, and the cops ruined my antique quilt with oily, black fingerprint powder. I haven't attempted that since. But, boy, do I still love apples.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Sweet Cheesus

There's a fine line between delicious and disgusting, and the Cheesus burger from The Grilled Cheese Grill is a definite straddler. It features a thick burger between two old school grilled cheese sandwiches, one with american cheese and sliced pickles, the other with colby and grilled onions. Delicious, disgusting......could go either way, could be a little of both.

The Grilled Cheese Grill is one of those Portland food carts I have vivid dreams about. It's a mobile grilled cheese emporium that's technically stationary, although if motivated enough, the owners could pull up stakes and set up camp somewhere else (like my neighborhood). A smallish airstream trailer functions as the kitchen, a funky school bus has been fashioned into the cafe, complete with booths and a counter, and there's also an outdoor seating area with picnic tables. It's a compound devoted to the almighty grilled cheese sandwich, and it's about as novel a place as you'll find.

The menu reads like a K - 12 curriculum for grilled cheese sandwiches. The Pre-Schooler is a plain old grilled cheese with the crusts cut off. The Kindergartner has matured a little; the crusts are left on. The First Grader is one slice of white, one slice of wheat, American and cheddar. You then graduate to the upperclassmen, with The Pops (tomato, havarti, and honey mustard on Dave's Killer Cracked Wheat), the Morton (meatball marinara, ricotta, mozzarella on grilled italian sourdough) and ten other intriguingly cheesy options. GCG also offers three grilled sweet sandwiches, one of which, the Elvis, has no cheese, just peanut butter and bananas (and bacon, if you want to fork over another $1.75). If you're wondering where the tomato soup is, it's in a cup, for $2.50.

There's a laundry list of add-on's, too: potato chips, roasted jalapenos, sauerkraut, and a fried egg, to name a few of the embellishments. I like places where you can phone it in on one visit and order one of their concoctions, and then assert your personality on another visit by coming up with your own quirky creation and no one gripes about it.

I keep wondering why there aren't more places like this in Evanston, or Chicago for that matter. Where are the cool, cheap, novel destination places with fanciful food and dirt cheap prices (Prices start at $4 at GCG and don't go above $6 for a meat-laden grilled cheese. The Cheesus Burger is a pretty reasonable $8)? Obviously, someone needs to step up and take their rightful place at the stove. Any takers?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The way back machine

It may be 2009 where you live, but in Kalamazoo, Michigan, it's still 1983. I know this because I stopped, along with my willing family, at The Ground Round on Stadium Drive this past Sunday. Kalamazoo's Ground Round was not offering "Great Oral;" instead, they had the more family-friendly, but certainly less titillating, all-you-can-eat fajita Tuesdays.

I can't recall ever going to The Ground Round, which is surprising because I grew up in a family that worshipped chain restaurants. We were regulars at Bennigan's, Friday's, Houlihan's, and Chili's. We ate loaded potato skins, fried mushrooms and bacon swiss burgers, and though we may not be able to boast taut upper arms, not one of us is obese. This is one of my life's greatest accomplishments.

The Ground Round's marketing niche is apparently "the family-oriented restaurant where the adults can enjoy full liquor service," also known as the place where drunk and abusive parents can wallop their kids after having seven martinis. To be fair, I didn't see any walloping, just an older couple and a family who appeared to be sober, although the toddler was a little surly.

As for the menu, it isn't all about ground round anymore, although those choices are still to be had. The burgers are numerous, with the Haystack Burger standing out for its creative use of "onion tanglers," which are fried onion strips (resembling hay, hence the name?) that top the burger, along with chipotle ranch and cheddar cheese. You can also get a chopped steak, which is just a more mundane name for Salisbury steak.

The appetizer menu is plentiful, beginning with the Asian Platter, which claims to be a "Taste of the Orient." I haven't heard the term "Orient" since 1974, when it was in a La Choy commercial. If you're wary of pork egg rolls like I am, they also offer sampler platters out the wazoo. A caloric trio of potato skins, fried mozzarella sticks, and boneless buffalo wings is one appealing option.

As for dessert, the fried cheesecake was a disgusting novelty that appealed to my 9 year-old. The Choc'late Lovin' Spoon Cake offered an abundance of chocolate pudding in between two chocolate cake layers, and a glimpse into an off day for the copywriter. And finally, there were cinnamon dippers. No chain restaurant menu would be complete without some kind of dippers with zippy dipping sauces. I think dipping sauces might be the most influential restaurant invention of the 21st century.

And there you have it. Burgers, liquor, and desserts that have essentially created the health crisis in this country. How much more American can you get?

Monday, August 17, 2009

The empire

I would like to have incontrovertible proof that there is a God. I'm not sure what that proof would be. A thunderbolt maybe, or the parting of Lake Michigan, with God leading us all across the silty lake bed to Gary. But in the absence of a personal appearance, I look for Him in other places. Some say God is in the details. I think He might be in sandwiches.

And I'm not talking about the peanut butter sandwich I made last week. I'm referring to the Georgia Reuben, arguably the most popular sandwich at Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It's a turkey, swiss cheese, coleslaw, and russian dressing bonanza, all on grilled Jewish rye. I married the Georgia Reuben back in 1986, and haven't strayed since, even though Tarb's Tenacious Tenure (turkey, avocado spread, Wisconsin muenster, tomato, and Zingerman's russian dressing, on grilled farm bread) could warrant a traitorous one-night stand.

Back in 1982, Zingerman's was just a tiny deli with fabulously creative sandwiches. With its distinctive font, quirky art direction and curious names, the menu was a funny, cheeky ode to sliced meats on great bread. Sandwiches like Pat & Dick's Honeymooner (smoked turkey breast, Wisconsin muenster, and sweet-hot honeycup mustard, all grilled on challah), and over 50 more like it, took on a halo'ed glow, and Zingerman's became a phenomenon.

Then the expansion began. The Bakehouse was born, along with the Creamery and the Coffee company and Zingermans' Roadhouse, the "restaurant," where Zingerman's could fulfill its destiny of becoming the Empire of high-quality, locally sourced American cuisine with midwestern roots.

Zingerman's even started selling itself with Zing Train, which provides a variety of training seminars so others can learn how to build their companies and organizations into empires the Zingerman's way.

I have taken all three meals in a day at Zingerman's. I have gone to the Bakehouse in the morning for an almond croissant, then returned to the deli at lunch for a Georgia Reuben, a bag of Zapp's potato chips and a black magic brownie (deep, dark chocolate, no nuts). Then, for dinner, I've hopped in my car to drive the ten minutes to the Roadhouse, where I've had the buttermilk fried chicken with skin-on mashed potatoes and gravy, and mustard coleslaw. For dessert, the peach pie is made with Michigan Red Haven peaches, and is pretty darn good.

But strip away the cute illustrations and genius marketing and cheese seminars and you still have the best sandwich ever. All hail the Georgia Reuben! All hail Zingerman's!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

It's people!

I was in Whole Foods the other day and I'm pretty sure I saw soylent green in the nutrition bar aisle. It was behind the lemon zest green tea Relax Bars, but in front of the Bonk Peanut Explosion Hi-Energy Bars. In case you're wondering what soylent green is, it's people. Or as Charlton Heston decried in that very underplayed way of his, "IT'S PEOPLE!"

In the movie Soylent Green, Heston plays a cop in 2022 who discovers that the evil Soylent Corporation is turning corpses into nutritional wafers. It was a cheesy yet intoxicating futuristic flick made in the 70's with a cheesy yet intoxicating cast: Edward G. Robinson, Brock Peters, Chuck Connors, and Dick Van Patten. In it, the world runs out of food, so the Soylent Corporation has the visionary idea of offering people a kind and gentle euthanasia so that their dead bodies could be turned into power bars for the rest of the pathetic population.

So there I was, perusing the shelves for my own personal soylent. I was hoping to find one that would make me younger and taller. As I looked at the labels, I realized I had no idea what all the ingredients were, which led me to conclude they might be people. I think it's a logical jump. I saw fractionated palm oil, soy lecithin (whatever that is), evaporated cane juice, chocolatey coating.....why not a guy's knuckles? Was it so far-fetched to think that the FDA and the CIA haven't kept up with the whole nutrition bar obsession, and that people and their parts have been secretly slipped in?

After much hemming and hawing, and avoidance of anything even remotely green on the label, I picked the KIND bar. It has nuts and fruit, and that's pretty much it, except for glycerol, which gave me pause, but they claim it's plant-based so I guess I'll believe them. I opened the bar and checked for fingernail fragments. In the absence of visual evidence, I ate it.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The elixir

It's 94 degrees so, of course, I'm thinking hot soup. Not just any hot soup, mind you. Today happens to be the perfect day for a big, steaming bowl of Tom Yum. Just thinking about it brings a film of perspiration to my upper lip. Tom Yum is one of those soups with flaming balls of steel. It goes down like shrapnel with a lime juice chaser, and makes you sweat like Albert Brooks in Broadcast News.

I suppose on a day like this I should be thinking about Thai spring rolls - the rice paper kind that are served chilled - or Thai iced coffee. But Tom Yum is the elixir. It's the kind of soup that burns your gullet and siphons out your nasal passages, a lethal cocktail of thai chilies, stinky fish sauce and lime juice that could probably level a building if you added a detonator. But sometimes you need that - a little something to get your head straight. I eat it when I feel a cold coming on, or the bubonic plague, or paranoid schizophrenia. It's an aromatic tongue-lashing and then some, and it cures what ails you.

I had a copycat soup the other night at P.F. Chang's. It was basically Hot and Sour without the cornstarch thickener. It had zing, but it didn't make me sweat, or smell like tube socks, which Tom Yum has a habit of doing. Those Thai really know how to fend off the jungle-like heat. They fight fire with fire, and fight humidity with straw mushrooms and shrimp. Make perfect sense to me.

Another soup that kicks me in the ass hard is Mexican Chicken Soup, which is a kindlier version of its incendiary Thai cousin. Strewn with jalapenos that creep up on you, MCS has a big squeeze of puckery lime juice in case you were disengaged enough to not notice the jalapenos in the first place. Any mamacita restaurant worth its margarita salt should have a good version. This stuff is Mexican penicillin and cipro and thorazine all rolled into one.

So I'm off now to sweat profusely over a plastic carryout container of the elixir. I'm planning to sweat out some toxins, rid myself of some bad feelings, and an annoying facial tic that I've picked up in the last few weeks. Hope it works.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Secret ingredients

I hate finding weird things in my food. Just last night, I found a bug in my salad. I had gotten it from a reputable place (I refuse to name names), and just as I was about to take a big bite, I saw it - a flying ant cloaked in Caesar dressing and a little grated Parmagiano, dead to the world on a lettuce leaf.

I happen to have a long and illustrious history of finding bugs in my food. When my husband and I were test-driving caterers for our wedding, we sat through a series of tastings by each prospective candidate. The initial favorite presented us with a beautiful pork loin, lovingly plated, except for the dead fly that lay limply on the side of the plate. A costly oversight. Another time, we were at the now-defunct Whole Foods restaurant on North Avenue and I found a live beetle crawling playfully over my salad. The server defended it by saying the lettuce was organic and free of pesticides, hence the live bug. Dude, pesticide or no pesticide, you're supposed to wash the leaves before you put them in the bowl.

But what about things like hairs and pencil shavings and tips of fingers? My stepsister once ordered an Italian ice from a street vendor in New York only to find a hard yellow toenail after several bites. At first, she thought it was a piece of ice, so she tried in vain to melt it down by sucking on it. When she realized it was not melting, and therefore was not ice, she pulled the offending object out of her mouth and upon further examination, realized it was someone's toenail, probably that of the hairy Italian vendor, whose name just might have been Sal. Although this isn't a huge consolation, she found no hairs.

I once found a black hair in my BiBimBop at a Korean diner. I was about two-thirds of the way through when I spotted it, curled up in the kim chi. Probably a chest hair. It was a tragic, premature end to the first BiBimBop I had had in years. Even though it's on my Ten Favorite Dishes of All Time List, I haven't had one since.

So now I'm waiting for my first finger. That will be a fun post to write.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The hyperbole of cheez

The writer Michael Pollan would never eat these cheese fries. Michael Pollan is a whole food eating man. A smart man, a serious man, a man who's been thinking about the downfall of civilization and how it relates to food - and cheez fries - for a while.

He's a writer of some stature, the former executive editor of Harper's, a journalism professor at Berkeley, and a man who uses science to prove his well-made point. If I had to sum up in one sentence what I have taken from the writing of Michael Pollan, it would be this: Don't eat anything that your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.

If I followed Pollan's prescription, these cheez fries would make that list. As would the Pop Tart I had this morning, and the myriad breakfast cereals that sit in my cabinet, and the various sun dried tomato pastes and spicy jalapeno ketchups and roasted garlic mustard jars that line my refrigerator door. And I can pretty much say goodbye to diet coke.

If I followed Michael Pollan's prescription, I would plunge head first into a deep and long-lasting depression. My great grandmother came from Russia. She ate blintzes and knishes and boiled beets and pickled herring. She wouldn't know what to make of tortillas or spaghetti or salsa or hot dogs, even if they are free of nitrates and nitrites.

I'm hyperbolizing here. Pollan's point is that everything we eat is too processed. And I agree. For a while, the only processed food in my house was Newman's Own spaghetti sauce. Then, when I had kids, macaroni and cheese in a box found its way into the cabinet, and before I knew it, I was saying 'yes' to Nacho Cheese Doritos.

And then yesterday, I found myself eating cheez fries at Redamak's. I spell it with a 'z' because it clearly wasn't real cheese; it was cheez whiz or some variation thereof, so I want to be very clear - FDA clear - that what I was eating was fake.

How did this happen? How did I, a former kitchen professional who made her own creme fraiche and churned her own ice cream, turn to the dark side, which is now exemplified by Tacos at Midnight flavored Doritos in the black bag?

I'm going to try to change back. No more Scrabble Cheez It's. No more Cheeseburger Macaroni, even if it is organic. No more steak umm's. Today, I start anew. I'll just have one more Pop Tart and another diet coke, and then I'm ready to go.