Archive for the ‘food’ Category

The Daily Meal’s 101 Best Restaurants – KC BBQ Carries the Local Load

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

The Daily Meal has come out with its list of the 101 Best Restaurants in America, and local greats such as Bluestem, Justus Drug Store and the American failed to make the grade. Instead, Kansas City cuisine is represented by Oklahoma Joe’s (#97) and Arthur Bryant’s (#18).

Is it coastal condescension that turns up its nose at Kansas City’s many fine dining restaurants while embracing our more rustic offerings? Or is it simply true that you can find better fine dining elsewhere, but Kansas City does barbecue better than anywhere else?

I don’t see any St. Louis restaurants on the list; has the Hill been flattened? Would the critics view Kansas City to be merely another fly-over city like our undistinguished cousin to the east if not for smoked meat?

Home Cooking – Polish Pizza (Pizza with Bacon, Onions and Cream)

Saturday, January 15th, 2011

Forgive me for naming this dish Polish Pizza, when, in fact, I happened upon the recipe under a much more elegant and descriptive name – Pizza with Bacon, Onion and Cream. But I made this last night, after a week of sub-freezing temperatures and gray skies, and it reminded me of the warm, rich foods I associate with the Eastern European side of myself.

For crust, I mixed together a cup and a half of flour, a half cup of warm water, around a tablespoon of olive oil, a little less than a teaspoon of yeast, and a little less than that of salt, and stirred it until it formed a ball and I could knead it in my hands. If the thought of kneading dough brings even a touch of technique-intimidation to you, all you need to know is that massaging moistened flour makes dough. I’ve seen cookbooks offer helpful diagrams with quarter-turns and arrows, but all you really need to do is to give it a deep massage. I roll it between my hands, fold it over on the cutting board, and just kind of free-form wrestle with it until it feels like a cohesive ball that wants to stay together. If I poke it with a finger and the dough pulls together to shrink the indentation, then it’s ready.

The sauce for this pizza is what made it seem Polish to me. It was a half cup of ricotta cheese, a half cup of sour cream, and a generous amount of fresh-ground black pepper – maybe a tablespoon? I know ricotta is not Polish, but that sauce tasted just like the filling of my mother’s pierogies – one of my favorite things in the whole world. On top of that I spread bits of crispy bacon, and onion caramelized by slow cooking in the bacon grease. Then I baked it on the bottom rack of a 450 degree oven until the crust was golden brown and super-crisp.

Technically, it was a pizza, but pizzas are sunshine, tomatoes, and snappy spice. This was solid, deep, and snowy-colored. It was pizza, but it had a Polish soul.

5 Honorary Meat Dishes

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

I’m a shameless carnivore, happy to be perched near the top of a providentially-designed food chain. I enjoy chunks of animal protein, I always have, and I always will. On this point, I share common ground with the Sage from Wasilla – “If God had not intended for us to eat animals, how come He made them out of meat?“.

But even I find myself having meatless meals from time to time. Sometimes, my appetite strays from its carnivorous tendencies, and I find myself realizing after a tasty meal that there wasn’t any meat involved in a perfectly satisfying entree. Those entrees never are fussy messes of too-sharp onion, mesclun that looks and tastes like lawn clippings, or tofu. Instead, they are classic meals that transcend the need for meat.

I propose that the following 5 entrees be considered honorary meat dishes, and henceforth be recognized as unifying meals that can cause vegetarians and meat-lovers to sit down together without compromising satisfaction or principle.

1. Pizza Margherita: Dough, tomatoes, cheese and basil baked together in a pie that satisfies. Inspired by royalty, the classic Pizza Margherita’s ingredients achieve a purity that can only be sullied by pepperoni or italian sausage.

2. Macaroni and Cheese: Many of us lived on boxed versions of this during college years of relative poverty, and sumptuous new takes on the recipe often include lobster or pancetta. They’re all good, but the good old classic, with bread crumbs on top, deserves a spot in the pantheon of great meals.

3. Falafel: I was in college when a friend introduced me to fried globs of ground up chickpeas in pita bread; he told me it was the “Big Mac” of Israel. Falafel has been among my favorite foods ever since – a great one has flavors and textures that can blow you away.

4. Welsh Rabbit (or rarebit): It seems too simple to be satisfying, and too small to be filling. But the toasted english muffin with a savory, rich cheddar sauce described in The Vegetarian Epicure cookbook caught our attention back during the Reagan administration, and its simple satisfaction has remained a favorite. Served with a hearty ale, it’s a warming meal.

5. Pierogies: I may be a bit ahead of the curve on this one, in that pierogies are not as universally known or appreciated as pizza or mac cheese, but, trust me, these over-sized mutant ravioli are Polish soul food. Locally, Pieroguys are soon to open a cafe in the River Market, and their frozen offerings are found in a few grocery stores. Closer to home, you can make my mother’s version by following my narrative recipe.
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What else belongs on this list? Eggplant parmesan, grilled cheese sandwiches, spaghetti with marinara sauce, portabella sandwiches?

Real Ragu Sauce Doesn’t Come in Jars

Thursday, March 11th, 2010

It’s ironic that if you mention ragu to most Americans, they think of the epitome of convenience – jarred spaghetti sauce. If you mention it to someone who has tasted the real thing, though, it conjures almost the opposite mental image – meat cooked for hours in sauteed vegetables and sauce until it falls apart into shreds, creating a luscious, rich sauce with incredible meatiness.

On Sunday, I prepared this masterpiece for friends with a couple culinary quirks. One does not eat ground meats, and one is allergic to onions. The proscription on ground beef was not a problem for ragu – only bastardized short-cut recipes employ ground beef, but the absence of onions called for a bit of adaptation. I increased the celery and garlic substantially – I would have happily substituted shallots, but I wasn’t sure if the onion allergy would extend to shallots. I’ll do a lot to increase depth of flavor, but putting a friend into anaphylactic shock seems extreme.

To make my version, I started with 4 pounds of boneless beef chuck short ribs. These have become my go-to meat for stews, chilis, and other recipes where “stew meat” might otherwise be called for. The meat is marbled, tender, tasty and easily available at Costco.

Most recipes call for the meat to be browned in oil, but I’m a Kansas Citian, and I love my grill, so I browned the meat close to charring and made the neighbors drool. I figure that by dripping the fat through the grill, I may be avoiding a little bit of fat in the sauce, and it adds a better flavor than I can ever achieve by browning in a saute pan. That’s just Kansas City Culinary Improv – if you prefer to brown the meat on a stove top, then do so.

After the meat was seared on the grill, I roughly chopped a few carrots and 6 stalks of celery, and minced around 12 cloves of garlic. That went into a big pot with some olive oil, and I sauteed them until they started to soften up. While that was going on, I added the meat after cutting it into chunks, and I added a few sprigs of fresh rosemary and a similar amount of fresh thyme. I rummaged through our dry spice jars and tossed other things in – I think some bay leaves, oregano, sage and basil made their way to the pan, along with salt and a generous grinding of pepper.

Let me tell you, meat, garlic, celery and herbs sauteing in olive oil makes wonderful kitchen perfume.

After the vegetables had started to soften, I added a bottle of red wine. Not great red wine, but not “cooking wine”, either. I used a cab/merlot blend, but a great dry Italian red would have been more authentic. I simmered that for about an hour, then added two 28 ounce cans of crushed Italian tomatoes, covered it, and put it in an oven at 275 for most of the afternoon.

Most recipes call for shredding the meat with a fork after letting it cool. My sauce was thick enough that I just went after it with a potato masher.

I wound up using the sauce in a rich lasagna, but it tastes great over plain pasta, too. It freezes well, which makes future meals almost as convenient as its jarred namesake.

Beer World – Good News and Bad News from Waldo Pizza

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

Waldo Pizza makes one of the best pies in the city, and I would go there if their best beer was Diet Coke. What makes the place incredible, though, is their beer selection. From the beginning, they have always had an intelligent and varied beer list, light-years ahead of most restaurants.

First, the good news – they are now offering beer flights.
For the ridiculously low price of $5, you can get 4 pours of 5 ounces each from their taps. When you consider that their taps include treasures like the fabled Bell’s Hopslam, Schlafly’s Barrel Aged Imperial Stout, Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout and Unibroue’s Trois Pistoles, that amounts to a tour of some of the world’s most amazing beers for $5. That’s an insanely wonderful bargain. The 5 ounce pours are enough to give you a legitimate taste of the beers, and you might still have room for a pint after tasting the 4. (I opted for a bottle of Founder’s Double Trouble IPA, which compares nicely with Hopslam.)

Now, the bad news.

Elliott Beier, Waldo’s Cicerone (think beer sommelier), my favorite beer adviser and all-around nice guy, is leaving our town for Chicago at the end of the month. He’ll be at the restaurant till the end of the month – I recommend swinging by and bidding your farewell, and if you haven’t met him yet, taking the time to ask his advice about the beers on his fabulous list.

(Those who may worry about Waldo sinking into beer mediocrity after his departure may rest assured that they had a great beer list before Elliott’s arrival, and I expect they will continue the tradition. But Elliott’s excellent taste will be missed, I am sure.)

Soup Dumplings

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

Imagine a fat, round, pale dumpling, glistening on a bamboo steamer amidst wilted greenery. You pick one up, bite it, and there is a meatball surrounded by lovely, salty broth. In one morsel, you have dough, meatballs, and soup. You’ve just had a soup dumpling.

My son introduced us to soup dumplings at a place called Joe’s Shanghai on a narrow street in New York’s Chinatown. They’ve become a key feature of any trip to New York now; I’ve never seen them anywhere else.

The trick to making them without having the broth melt out is gelatin. When chilled, the broth is gelatinized, only to become a rich, silky broth when gently steamed. That bit of ingenuity makes for a tricky-to-eat burst of oxymoronic exotic comfort food.

If you’re ever in New York, visit Joe’s Shanghai. Elsewhere, they may appear as “Xiao Long Bao”, though their quality may vary.

My Dinner at Per Se

Saturday, January 9th, 2010

In writing, as in many other aspects of life, it is unwise to leapfrog over your own abilities, even when offered the opportunity to do so. The hotshot high school quarterback dreams of a shot at the NFL, but would be crushed and demoralized if thrust into the situation. The funniest guy at the office bombs at an open-mike comedy show. The NASCAR fan winds up in a ditch when the speedometer hits triple digits.

Here I go, doing the same thing. An amateur foodwriter visits Per Se, and gets the VIP treatment, and tries to write about it.

Per Se is one of the world’s best restaurants. Those who decide such things have declared it to be the best restaurant in the United States (or anywhere in the Americas, for that matter), and the 6th best in the world. Personally, I’ve not been to any other the other top 100, so I can neither confirm nor deny that it deserves #6. I’ll let the experts defend their own rankings to those of who you swear by the French Laundry in Yountville, California (#12), Momofuku Ssäm Bar in New York (#31) or even the obviously crappy #97, Bo Innovation in Hong Kong.

Suffice it to say, the restaurant is well-regarded. I wore a suit to dinner on vacation.

First, even before the decor, you are struck by the people. Help is everywhere, from the team of people who greet you at the door and take your coat to the servers walking quickly but without seeming rushed. The staff is urgent in a manner that does not quicken your pulse; they are urgently working to help you feel relaxed and comfortable. It’s a nifty trick, and they pull it off.

Then, the view. A table next to the fireplace, with a view of Columbus Circle and a snowy Central Park. The space is elegant, but graceful instead of “fancy”.

But we were there for the dining. First, a flinty champagne with gruyere puffs and salmon cornets. The puffs (gougeres, actually) were at a perfect temperature, with the gruyere just warm enough to be sensous and flavorful. The cornets (Salmon tartare and Red onion Creme Fraiche in a Savory Cornet) were like tasty little cones of salty tart flavor to wake your palate from the cozy slumber brought on by the gougeres.

Hold it.

I could continue on like this, but I won’t. The reason is I haven’t even hit the menu yet. These were “amuse bouche” – little extras that just happen. Not that the term “menu” means what you think it means here, anyhow. You don’t really order at Per Se – you decide. And all you decide is whether you’re going to be a vegetarian for the evening or if you will have the chef’s menu. Either way, the chef is in control, not you. Which is okay, since either way, you’re down for $275 dollars, and I know my personal imagination cannot conjure a meal worth that much money, so it’s just as well an expert is there to do it for me.

(The $275 does not include the fabulous wines and one ethereal beer, by the way. And there were 4 of us. And we got the VIP treatment, which means that we got much more than the normal $275 meal. Incredible. My son underwrote the entire experience.)

Instead of going through each course, I’ll mention a few of my favorite moments out of the five and a half hour feast. There were 18 courses listed on the menu they gave us at the end of the evening, but it didn’t list a few of the various extras delivered.

“Surf and Turf” was a lobster mitten (just the most tender portion of the lobster’s claw), served with Boudin Noir, a luscious pork blood sausage, and heightened with a vigorous shaving of black truffle at the table.

The black truffles came out again with the “Salad of Young Beets”. I had not ever been a beet fan, but this was out of this world. But the highlight of the dish for me was the “pastrami”, which was shaved and dehydrated crispy foie gras, enhanced with pastrami spices. I never thought I would eat crispy foie gras and black truffles in one bite.

There were four items with foie gras. Three had black truffles. Can you believe that?

One of the most spectacular presentations was “Quail in a Jar”. While I haven’t seen the recipe, my son tells me that the first direction is “Debone a quail” – a ridiculous assignment for your average home cook! Anyhow, they brought a canning jar to the table, with a quail suspended in aspic. The brought it back to the kitchen for plating, and it returned as an amazingly rich quail stuffed with foie gras, and garnished with tiny lettuces and 100 year-old balsamic vinegar.

There were 6 salts at our table, ranging from a volcanic black salt to a pink salt from France.

Probably my favorite dish was the “Salvatore Brooklyn Ricotta ‘Agnolotti’”, which was like tiny ravioli filled with ricotta unlike any I have tasted before, and the whole dish was covered with white truffle shaved over it tableside. I’ve never seen white truffle before, much less tasted it, but it is pungent and earthy and mind-altering. The dish was heaven.

At one point during the meal, we were welcomed back into the kitchen. Everything sparkled, even a copper tube leading to a drain. There is no walk-in refrigerator; instead, refrigerators opened to reveal shelves of carefully organized ingredients in clearly-labeled tubs. The pace was urgent, but not frenetic. The person preparing desserts was a friendly young man from Barstow, here in Kansas City.

During the meal I learned that “Cervelle de Veau” is calf brain, and that I love calf brain. My daughter thought for a moment the server said it was “cat brain” . . .

I love food, but I never, ever, expected to have such a meal. I’m glad I did; it was the culinary equivalent of standing on Mount Everest. The fact that I have been there does not diminish my love of Pancho’s or Blue Stem. But, man, it was amazing.

The meal happened two weeks ago tonight, and this is the first time I’ve wanted to write about it. I want to remember it, and I can’t help but share the experience as best I can. I won’t tell you to rush out and visit the place; the tab was more than several cars I’ve purchased in my lifetime.

Chef Thomas Keller, the founder of Per Se, wrote, “When you acknowledge, as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving toward perfection becomes clear: to make people happy, that is what cooking is all about.” Lots of meals make me happy, but this one was special. Just like your happiest moment does not diminish the joy of other happy moments, my dinner at Per Se was a pinnacle of food appreciation, but it leaves room for plenty more.

Around the BLOCK Puts Food Review in Context

Thursday, December 31st, 2009

Not long ago, I stumbled upon Around the BLOCK, a nicely done local food blog. The author presents thoughtful reviews of well-chosen restaurants, and excels at providing vivid descriptions without lapsing into strident superlatives of praise or denunciation. Intelligence and grace abound.

In the temptingly positive review she posted yesterday about 1924 Main, one paragraph stands out as a must-read for those of us who believe that a thriving restaurant culture is an important and reliable sign of a city’s vibrancy:

At 2 courses for $20 or 3 for $25 (all dishes are also offered a la carte), it’s hard to beat the price for an upscale, quality experience. All restaurants are struggling to survive in the sluggish economy, and owner Rob Dalzell has responded by making dinner more affordable without taking away the glamour of dining out. And, he is one of Kansas City’s independent restaurateurs, all of whom should be supported. If we don’t patronize these local treasures, they will not survive and we will be forced to spend our money in chain operations, which typically are less creative, more cookie-cutter, and don’t utilize local farmers. And what fun would that be?

Where will you spend your restaurant dollars in 2010?

Where Have All the Pretzels Gone?

Monday, December 21st, 2009

We live in a golden age of beer, with hundreds of brands and varieties easily available at local stores at reasonable prices. No human population has ever, in the history of mankind, had a richer beer experience than American beer lovers today. It is a joyful time to be alive.

But where have all the pretzels gone?

What a painful irony it is that now that I am of age to match pretzels with their proper beverage, the honest pretzel is nearly extinct, preserved only in far-away gourmet sanctuaries beyond the reach of ordinary folk.

Today’s pretzels are a shadow of what pretzels should be. Pretzels should be twisted, but now they are pooped preformed from machined tools and baked to bland uniformity. When I was a child, even the mass market brands were twisted, with little extra-browned pretzel nipples to be snapped off the top arch, and a corrugated center where strands of dough did a joyful dance of crispness. Now, mass-market pretzels are flat and uniform, tanned and smooth.

And the snap! Back in the day, when you bit a pretzel, it snapped like a dried branch. The place where it broke would be jagged with striations and spikes. Crumbs were flakes or like tiny twigs of dough. Now, pretzels are like compressed powder. The texture when you break one is like crumbling a clump of laundry detergent.

Don’t get me wrong – I’ll eat a bag of the current version of mass-market pretzels without a shred of self-control. Even a bad pretzel is, after all, a pretzel, and proof that crispy and salty are two keys to the good life.

But every now and then, I’ll recall the pretzels of an earlier time. “Nibble with Gibble’s” brand came in plastic bags and a twist-tie, and brightened winters in Schenectady, New York. When my mother passed away a couple years ago, the only item my wise brother sought from the home was a large round Tupperware container that she used to store pretzels in the cabinet when we were kids, but, alas, it was gone like Rosebud.

Snyder’s sourdough pretzels are the closest you’ll find in our grocery stores to the great pretzels of my childhood, though they are expensive and taste of cardboard. I’ve heard rumors that there are still great pretzels being made out there, and I may someday resort to mail ordering some. I’ve even tried baking my own, but they came out stone-hard, and looked more scatological than appetizing.

Even if I mail-order or bake my own, though, it won’t be the same. Great pretzels are like a mother’s love. You shouldn’t need to seek it out, and scarcity reduces, rather than enhances, its value. They’re both at their best when they are a comfortable part of everyday life. This holiday season, I miss them both.

Easy Great Bread at Home in 5 Minutes

Saturday, December 12th, 2009

I’ve written about my sourdough baking, and I got comments and emails about people’s love of home-made fresh bread. But it’s an hours-long process, requiring attentive measuring and careful timing, with uncertain results, particularly for newbie bakers. With Farm-to-Market’s wonderful bread on supermarket shelves, and Fervere producing some of the best breads in the world, you can avoid the whole hassle for 4 or 5 bucks.

But you can make your whole house smell like baking bread for cents a loaf, and be rewarded with a truly top-notch bread, way up there with Farm-to-Market, without worry and without scheduling your day around it. I don’t mean to sound like a street corner evangelist, or a side-show barker, but, seriously, I mean YOU, you should have fresh bread this week.

The secret is cold, wet dough. You spend a few minutes mixing together 3 cups of water, a table spoon and a half of yeast, two teaspoons of salt (more or less, depending on your taste), and six and a half cups of flour in a bowl with a spoon (no kneading), let it sit, covered loosely, for a couple hours, then put it in your refrigerator. Over the next couple weeks (if it lasts that long), you put flour on your hands, grab a grapefruit sized chunk of it, shape it into a sticky ball, let it rest for 40 minutes, and then bake it in a 450 degree oven for half an hour or so. Your hands are dirty for under 5 minutes, and you’ll be pulling an awesome loaf of bread out of the oven in less time than it takes for 3 episodes of “Scrubs”.

I meant to post a picture of one of the loaves I made this week, but it fell victim to breakfast toast.

If you want to learn more, and make the bread even better, this article is what turned me on to this miracle method, and it has a few tips that are absolutely worth it, like using a pizza stone and putting a pan of water in when you bake the bread. The authors of the article also have a blog and a couple books (Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery That Revolutionizes Home Baking and Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day: 100 New Recipes Featuring Whole Grains, Fruits, Vegetables, and Gluten-Free Ingredients). I haven’t even read the books yet – the Kansas City Public Library (yea, Waldo Branch!) is working on it for me – but I’ve been wildly impressed with the breads I’ve made over the past couple weeks.