Tuesday, July 18, 2006

A Salami to End All Salami.

Always on the look out for new food products, I had the pleasure this week to try some salami from Paul Bertolli's new company Fra'Mani out of Oakland, California. WOW...if you're a cured meat connoisseur read no further, log onto Fra'Mani's website (www.framani.com) and order some of their amazing sausage (do it quick because as a new company making a handcrafted product the availability fluctuates). For those of you who can wait until after lunch, here's a little more info. Bertolli is the former chef/owner of Oliveto Restaurant in Oakland and a longtime advocate for traditional Italian foods. His great cookbook "Cooking by Hand" documents his methods for making real balsamic vinegar, prosciutto, pastas and of course salumi. His new company, which released its first cured meat in March, is a labor-of-love for Bertolli and has been in the works for almost four-years. Coupling a state-of-the-art facility with traditional methodology, Fra'Mani if positioned to become the premier producer of world-class salami in this country. If their Salume Gentile is any indication, they may already be the premier producer. It is without a doubt the best of its kind I've ever had (that includes Salume I've eaten in Italy), meaty but subtle, with an almost buttery consistency, and not at all leathery or too salty. The purveyor I bought it from thanked me for taking some of it off his hands; not because he couldn't move it, but rather because he couldn't stop eating it. For those of you reading this in St. Louis who don't necessarily want to purchase a 3# stick of salame right from the source, check with Simon at the Wine Merchant in Clayton. I'm sure he's either carrying Fra'Mani sausage or will be happy to get some in for you. For those of you who think it's a little weird for someone to be this excited about a piece of meat, you need to know that years ago when I was a wayward vegetarian visiting France, my siren's song was a hunk of saucisson sec at a market in Aix-en-Provence. As a vegetarian I never had a chance, and it has been a meaty ride ever since.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

A Good Sign.

As a native of Southwestern Michigan, albeit one who hasn't lived there in over a decade, I've recently discovered something in the corner of my home state more rare than a patch of morels in August: a couple of really good restaurants. Now considering my mother owns and operates a wonderful restaurant in the area (Bistro 120 in Paw Paw), her establishment is excluded from my criticism, in fact for over a decade it has been one of the few eating places in hundreds of square miles worth paying to eat at. But like much of the rest of rural America, Western Michigan has been over-run by chain restaurants and, just as bad, independent restaurants serving chain restaurant food (everything out of a Sysco Foods box, into the deep-fat fryer). However, last week I came across a shimmer of hope for the residents of this area who are interested in food that is actually made by the people cooking it, rather than in a processing facility hundreds of miles away. The Journeyman Cafe and Su Casa Cantina in Fennville, Michigan are doing something special for an area of Michigan that desperately needs establishments cooking genuine food.

The Journeyman is a small cafe in the heart of this struggling town, just 15 minutes from the more vibrant Saugatuck-Douglas. It's not unlike the kind of place you'd expect to find in a recently gentrified area of a large city; the first enterprise of a risk-taker who by starting small and running it tight can create the kind of business they want. The really special thing about The Journeyman is that while the space is spartan and utilitarian, the ingredients they use are as special as they come. In fact, I first heard about it from a local organic farmer who sells The Journeyman's artisanal bread at the Saugatuck Farmer's Market (the seedy salt loaf is especially delicious). They've accepted the additional expense of using organic produce and naturally-raised meats while catering to an audience that largely doesn't appreciate them, or more importantly, want to pay for them. And they're doing it serving dishes like housemade braunschweiger and guanciale (cured pork jowl) from the salumeria of Armandino Batali (Mario's father), hard-core stuff for an urban audience let alone one in a town with a single traffic light (which only flashes yellow).

Just on the other side of that flashing yellow light, is the second-part of Fennville's restaurant row. A place more authentic than a lot of the restaurants in Mexico. The market in the front of Su Casa, an antique building that seemingly hasn't been worked on since they painted faux Aztec murals on the walls to cover the cracks, is packed full of Latin necessities like pickled jalepenos, fresh churros, and warm flour tortillas. If you navigate through the tiny store-front, past the coolers full of tripe and pig's feet, past the shelves of freshly baked Mexican pastries and crisp corn chips you come across a diamond in the rough, the restaurant at Su Casa. With a small, open kitchen serving authentic Mexican staples like cow's tongue and menudo, as well as delicious pork tacos with salsa cruda or huge chicken burritos with salsa verde. The last time I visited, Mexico was about to play Argentina in the World Cup, the staff was plating up their comida and preparing to feast and watch the game, the atmosphere was as authentic as the food. The most amazing thing about Su Casa, and almost every other underappreciated ethnic restaurant, is you can get an incredible meal for about the same price as a McDonald's Happy Meal. In a perfect world, Su Casa would be our fast-food option.

The Journeyman and Su Casa are restaurants that, if they were located in St. Louis, I could find myself happily eating at on a regular basis. But seeing as they're 400 miles from where I live, a long commute for even the most committed foodie, I'll simply have to enjoy them when I visit the restaurant mecca that is Fennville, Michigan.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Christmas Comes Early.

Every once in a while a food person gets the opportunity to work with some of the best kitchen ingredients out there. Whether it's from cooking at a foodie friend's house who stocked their pantry just for your cooking pleasure or working with a gourmet gift basket of culinary goodies presented to you as congratulatory gesture, when you get to cook with the GOOD stuff it's a real treat. I recently received a varied order of food exquisites (really amazing food) as part of my job up here in Michigan. This culinary teasure came from my friends at Great Ciao in Minneapolis, where they must take those long, cold winters to think hard about great food and what goes into it. This order had some really special items: Ames Farm Honey, Blu del Moncenisio cheese from Italy, Pastificio Marella pastas, Wild Tuscan Pine Nuts, Etc.. As a cook it's not every day you get to work with as varied and unique a pantry as this when cooking, so you appreciate it when the opportunity presents itself. The key is to not lose what makes these ingredients so special (and often-times expensive): the people who make these products are perfectionists about their craft. And their ingredients typically have a complexity and nuance that are best appreciated when they're used in dishes that allow them to shine. This is the perfect time of year to be working with these food jewels, when local produce is in full-swing and at its best. So for the time being I can do without the candycanes and chestnuts, but bring on the sea salt flavored with flecks of white truffle sprinkled over perfect creamer potatoes.

As a recipe for the season (when delicious berries and fruits are prevalent), and with an emphasis on simple recipes to accompany great ingredients, here's my Vanilla Bean Ice Cream recipe:

Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

Milk 1 1/2Cups
Vanilla Bean (split) 1
Sugar 1/2Cup + 1 Tablespoon

Egg Yolks 5
Heavy Cream 3/4Cup

Preparation: Scald milk, split/scraped vanilla bean and half of the sugar. Steep for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, cream remaining sugar and egg yolks. Boil milk and temper egg mixture, combine in double boiler while whisking steadily, cook for 10-20 minutes until thickens to custard-like consistency.

Refrigerate immediately with vanilla bean (preferably over night). Before mixing in ice cream maker, remove bean and add cream. Follow manufacturers instructions on churning. Makes approximately 4 cups.