Monthly Archives: January 2009

BYOL (Bring Your Own Levain)

On a recent Friday night, I sped my way to Cafe Levain with anticipation. I was looking forward to catching up with Jamie, my friend who recently moved to Brooklyn from Minneapolis, and I was late. levain menuThe 46th Street exit on 35W-S is closed (still) and I haven’t learned (still) to get off earlier. Thankfully, I was able to backtrack and steer myself to my destination, one of those south Minneapolis neighborhood strips with quite a few things going for it. I couldn’t find the restaurant as I drove by, but the address was right, so I parked my car and hoped to find it all the same. Around the corner from a wood-burning pizza place, Turtle Bread, a bar, a movie theatre, a Mexican restaurant, and various other amenities sits Cafe Levain, tucked away on a side street patiently waiting for you to arrive.

levain kitchen

It’s very welcoming to step inside this warm, Midwestern bistro, slightly French in spirit, with its large space, hardwood interior, yellow walls, and open kitchen. I just wish I new how to pronounce the restaurant’s name. “Levain” is a challenging French word, isn’t it? I would love to say it with all the guttural verve I know it deserves, but I cannot, so I settle for a flat American approximation thereof, plain old Leh-vahn, spoken like a tired breadmaker who ran out of yeast.

Jamie gave me a big hug and kiss, as this was one of the few nights we’d be able to spend together while she was in town. When we settled in and asked the server what people are ordering, she said “everything,” which makes me a little skeptical. Even if the menu is a masterpiece, every restaurant develops a reputation for a few items. I’m confident that Cafe Levain has a few such entrees on its menu, but unfortunately, I don’t think that we ordered them that evening.

I may not get all the details of these meals right because I am writing from memory. The restaurant posts its menu online, but it changes frequently, and those things we ate weren’t posted when I visited the site. levain salad

We started out with a memorable salad (simply called the Winter Salad), a long platter of Brussels sprouts, bacon, poached egg, frisée, and whole pistachio nuts. This was a fantastic blend of texture and flavor with something masterful about it. We shared our way through the salad with many rave reviews and gulps of wine.

I ordered ribeye steak with mushrooms with a side of potato puree, hearty and fulfilling comfort food made even more appealing with local meat and vegetables–something your grandma would make, but never quite this good.

ribeye

Jamie ordered chicken with beans (I think they were flagolet) and sausage and a side of pearl barley. The chicken was crispy and juicy at the same time, and probably as delicious as any chicken could be. In comparison, the beans were lacking personality, unless you ate them with a piece of sausage, and the pearl barley was suspiciously flavorless. Did something go wrong? Did the sous chef forget to add something to the barley that night? We each had one bite, but the rest of the side dish went completely uneaten, which is a shame, as that’s one of the big things Cafe Levain has going for it. The entrees are priced in the comfortable 16- to 20-dollar range, and on top of it, the portions are more than ample and you also get to choose a side to accompany your meal. I love how this generosity sets Cafe Levain apart as a true Midwestern bistro.

chicken

In addition, I also loved the double rows of two-person tables that graced the long wall opposite the kitchen, making this a flirtatious date option, and a lot of people are raving about the prix fixe Sunday Supper.

It’s ironic though, that even considering these obvious charms, the restaurant seems to be lacking that which I cannot pronounce. Levain, a leavening agent, something to infuse it with a little extra gusto and that mysterious spark that marks a restaurant’s sign of success. I’ll be rooting for this place, and hoping that those things Cafe Levain does well will be the leaven that helps it rise as well as it should.

Cafe Levain on Urbanspoon

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Yummy Yummy Citrus Boys

Five-year-old Julian Kruesser gets his own cooking show called Big Kitchen with Food. It’s a long video that’s worth every minute. Embedding doesn’t seem to work, so please go here and watch the cute boy teach us how to bake cookies.

http://www.boingboing.net/2009/01/06/big-kitchen-with-foo.html

Chef Julian says funny things like this:

“Be sure to use local stuff because that will make the cookies good for you. Nice and good cookies to eat.”

“I would mix this up because that’s how you make a batter. You can’t make a batter without mixing it up.”

This one he says with great precision and authority: “Now. Take your cookie cutter. Make some men.”

I hear ya, Julian!

Heavenly Onion Galette with Mustard Cream

In my early days of belonging to a co-op, C and I lived in Brooklyn and subscribed to Urban Organic, a home delivery service of organic vegetables and herbs. This was heaven, now that I look back on it. Imagine stepping into your lobby after work once every week to find a box full of organic vegetables, all of them a surprise. In all fairness, I suppose you could have just about anything delivered to your door in New York City (not that I know anything about that), but this took the cake as far as I was concerned. We learned to cook together based on whatever the farm happened to send our way.

Some of the vegetables delivered to us were a little exotic, of course. When faced with an mystery vegetable, we would consult Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. A common thing to hear us say went like this.

One of us: “What should I do with . . . dinosaur kale?”

The other: “I don’t know. What would Debbie do?”

As it turns out, Debbie would do just about anything with a vegetable. She subscribes to the nonpartisan “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” school of thought when it comes to the omnivore’s dilemma. (Are you a . . . vegetarian? Shh, it doesn’t matter!) Every dish in her book pairs effortlessly with a meat course or stands gracefully on its own. With her cooking, there’s no need to choose a side.

Here’s the recipe for her Onion Galette with Mustard Cream. I have made this mothership of a galette twice now. Both times, it was for a party, and both to great success. You know you made something delicious when partygoers find you to say good things about your food.

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Given how easy it was the first time I made it, perhaps I had a bit of overconfidence in my step. I went to the grocery store without a list. Of course, I forgot something, and it was the bread to make breadcrumbs. Given that I’m eating so well these days, I didn’t have any bread on hand. Without it, I feared the onions might be overpowering, wouldn’t stay bound together, or some other worse fate. So instead, I substituted rolled oats. Yep, that’s right. And guess what? Couldn’t even tell.

When making this, do yourself a favor and remember to schedule enough time to bring the milk and butter to room temperature before starting. DSC01423Also, lean in to check out the dough after it rises. At a close enough distance, the darn thing seems like it is breathing. Last but not least, be sure to save close to the higher end of the 2- to 3-inch border when piling the onions in the dough. In the galette pictured above, I didn’t save quite enough. It’s forgiving, though. (Of course, it is.)

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Yeasted Tart Dough with Butter

  • 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • ½ cup warm milk or water
  • 1 egg at room temperature
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups flour, approximately
  • 4 tablespoons soft butter

Dissolve the yeast and sugar in the milk in a mixing bowl and let stand until bubbly, about 10 minutes. Stir in the egg and salt, then begin adding the flour ½ cup at a time. After you’ve added a cup, beat in the butter, then continue adding flour until the dough pulls away from the edge of the bowl. Turn it out onto a counter and knead until shiny and smooth, after a few minutes. Add more flour as needed to prevent sticking.

Transfer the dough to a lightly buttered bowl, cover with a towel, and let rise until doubled in bulk, 45 minutes to an hour.

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Onion Galette with Mustard Cream

  • 3 tablespoons butter DSC01408
  • 6 cups thinly sliced yellow onion
  • 1 tablespoon chopped thyme or rosemary
  • ½ cup dry white wine
  • Salt and freshly milled pepper
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard mixed with ¼ cup cream
  • ¼ cup grated pecorino Romano or Parmesan

Make the dough and set it aside.

Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and thyme and cook, stirring occasionally, until they soften and turn golden, about 15 minutes. Add the wine, cook until it has reduced, then season with salt and pepper.

In a bowl, combine all but 2 tablespoons of the egg with mustard and cream. Stir in the onion, bread crumbs, and cheese.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Roll the dough in to a 14-inch circle. Put the onion on the dough, leaving a 2- to 3-inch edge. Fold the dough over the onion and brush with the reserved egg. Bake until shiny and golden, about 25 minutes.

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Cheeky Monkey Is Coming. Let’s Invite Cafe Boy.

I always like how looking at my own blog statistics can feel like a sneaky affair. It’s like finding a shopping list, reading PostSecret, or following your friend unbidden on Twitter. It’s a mundane, sometimes compelling look at what people are craving and hoping to accomplish. Blog stats are like brain snapshots. Little electronic Polaroids of your brainwaves.cheeky monkey

The terms that have led people here are telling me that someone is earnestly looking for “Cafe Boy,” and has reached out to Google him more than a few times. Believe me, I understand. I have been looking for Cafe Boy myself, and many times losing him in one place, find him in another (only to lose him yet again). He’s elusive, but you can be pretty sure he has scruffy brown hair, a book in one hand, and a slight air of poetic sophistication that might be easily confused with Library Boy. Cafe Boy is usually alone and looks as though he would like nothing other than to talk to me. (Yes, me.) Please let me know if you find him.

It’s also obvious that a lot of people are looking for information about the soon-to-be-open Cheeky Monkey Deli in St. Paul. When I first saw the signs on the windows of the old Zander’s space, I stopped by Solo Vino to ask for more information. Last time, it was planned to open by the end of October. This week, I was told it would open by the end of the month. Peering in the windows at the empty space made me wonder if there would be another four-month extension, but we can hope for the best. From what I’ve heard, it’s a truly independent affair owned by none other than the proprietor himself, and wine will flow freely from store to store. I’m thrilled that the neighborhood will have a casual place to grab a bite of good food to eat. As it is, we only have the co-op, which I frequent, but usually to eat the same few things each time.

In the meantime, let’s bide our time with more entertaining brain snapshots from my stats. Care to imagine what these other people are looking for?

“Take a girl out for New Years.” A girl was daydreaming about the perfect New Years celebration her lazy boyfriend might orchestrate for her because she didn’t want to do it herself. This is a little passive-agressive if you ask me.

“Bean French tete.” Tête-à-tête? This person would like to have an intimate conversation over French lentil soup, or maybe haricot verts. In either case, I could be enlisted for that one.

“Guess what edible item is in the brownie.” I don’t know, but it doesn’t sound like a game I want to play!

“Petite Lolita in gynecological visit.” Do I want to know what this one is about? I am hoping that a woman left her pocket edition of Lolita at the doctor’s office. Indeed.

Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24: "Minnesota Chic" New Year’s Eve

As a selected blogger for foodbuzz.com’s 24, 24, 24 event, I honored 2008 by throwing a unique party hosted by foodbuzz. Despite the fact that those of us in Minnesota live in an icebox this time of year, I decided that 1) all of the food and drink I served at this party would be a local product, and 2) the food experience would be classier because of it.

Between you and me, I went into this agreement wondering how I would create a party-worthy spread with local products in the middle of a snowy Minnesota winter. (Have you heard how much snow we’ve had?) I imagined hours of online research and driving from shop to shop and co-op to co-op to see what’s fresh, discover the good sources, and gather the information I needed to throw a fantastic party.

Au contraire. Sometimes when you think you have limitations, you actually have opportunities. With a trip to Golden Fig, Mississippi Market, and an afternoon of online sleuthing, I created a party spread involving numerous classy items and two custom-made cocktails. And here’s the winningest part: All of the food and drink was grown, raised, produced, or bottled in Minnesota or Wisconsin. In fact, I bought everything on Grand Avenue within 2 miles of my home.

Here is the menu for the evening, which involved 21 of my closest friends in my apartment in St. Paul. It turns out that the bigger challenge of throwing this party is that I live in a vintage outfitted with a pint-sized stove with just one oven rack. (Dear landlord, I will email this post to you when I ask for a better stove.)

Food

Roasted Root Vegetables with Maple Sage Glaze

Creamy Parsnip and Wild Rice Hotdish with General Mills Crunchy Topping (aka, Crispix)

Winter Squash Galette

Onion Galette with Mustard Cream

Wasabi-Miso Marinated Top Sirloin

Baguettes with Roasted Garlic Cheese Spread

Minnesota Fireside Apple Tarts

Drinks

Minnesota Nice: Honey-oat infused Shakers vodka with half and half and fresh nutmeg

Peace Coffee Minnetini: Peace Coffee-infused Shakers vodka with half and half, espresso, and Kahlua

And that, my friends, I find terribly Minnesota Chic!

Let me start by describing the drinks, both of which quickly worked their way into my heart (and taught me a few useful things about vodka). I wanted something homey but classy, which led me to this article at the Washington Post. To honor the winter season, the folks at Blue Hill Farm in New York infuse vodka with two pantry items: oats and honey. I was intrigued by this combination, and given that I wanted to serve a Peace Coffee drink, I decided to do two vodka infusions: one with Peace Coffee, and the other with extra virgin raw honey (from Wolf Honey Farm) and rolled oats (from the bulk section at the co-op).

Coffee-infused vodka

The instructions online for coffee-infused vodka are lacking, so I had to wing it with a little common sense. (There is this description, but it never mentions how much coffee to use.) The process for this infusion is still a little mysterious, but in my experience, you can infuse roughly two cups of coffee (broken to pieces under a towel), a liter of vodka, and a tablespoon of sugar. Put everything in a seal-tight jar and tuck it into the corner of your kitchen. For four to five days, shake it and have a taste each day to monitor its progress. You will know when it is done. Strain vodka from bean using a tea strainer and a funnel.

Before

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During

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After

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For the Peace Coffee Minnetini, I shook equal parts of coffee-infused vodka, Kahlua, chilled espresso, and half and half over ice and strained it into a glass. (Of course, martini glasses might be ideal, but I find them to be fussy party vessels.) The drink was creamy and sweet with a nice punch of coffee-alcohol happiness. It was a definite crowd (and hostess) pleaser.

Honey-oat infused vodka

Everything about the cocktail I called Minnesota Nice is like wrapping yourself in a big down blanket in the middle of winter. It’s warm, easy, comforting, and humble. And just when you get so proud of yourself for making such a nice cocktail, you remember, “Oh yeah, there’s oats in here” and it brings you back down to size.

I followed this recipe at Chow, and you should too. Infuse two cups of rolled oats, 3/4 cups raw honey, and 1 liter of vodka. Monitor your infusion patiently and taste it as you go. As with the coffee, the smile on your face will indicate when you are done. The recipe talks about straining it multiple times, but I found that just once was enough.

To make the cocktail, shake equal parts honey-oat vodka and half and half over ice. Strain into a glass and grate fresh nutmeg on the top. (Don’t skimp on this step!) I called it Minnesota Nice because it’s easy to love, but eventually knocks you off your feet. Everyone loved this cocktail and one friend likened it to a sunny cup of breakfast. I can’t say enough what a glorious concoction this was.

The food

Of course, we also needed some food to wash down our booze!

In my research trip to the co-op, I found good onions and squash, which led me to make Deborah Madison’s galettes as described in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, one of my most-loved cookbooks. Whenever I am faced with a vegetable I’m not sure what to do with, I simply say, “What would Debbie do” (WWDD?) and consult her book. She will not let you down, and I considered the galettes the star of the show.

The provisions

onions

garlic

squash1

squash2

Winter Squash Galette

The recipe has been described nicely at A Chow Life, so you can get it there if you’d like. It involves handmade yeasted tart dough (so easy), roasted squash, garlic, onion, sage, parmesan, and egg.

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Onion Galette with Mustard Cream

The onion galette involves six cups of yellow onion, thyme, white wine, Dijon mustard, cream, eggs, bread crumbs, and Parmesan.

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Making the squash galette was very straightforward, but I did wonder a bit about cooking 6 cups of onion in my saute pan for the onion galette. The onions were piled so high, I wondered if they’d be evenly and thoroughly cooked. There was no need to worry. I just added a little olive oil to the onions as they cooked if they got dry. The result was quite a tasty mess of onions.

DSC01303

galettes

Of course, both of these beauties were delicious, and you can never go wrong with serving a well-prepared squash. However, this onion galette (pictured in the forefront), with its heavenly mustard cream balanced out by sharp onions, cheese, and yeasty crust, almost had us dancing in the streets.

Harmony Valley Roasted Root Vegetables

I especially like Harmony Valley for the lovable bag of mixed root vegetables they offer throughout the fall and winter seasons. It’s a three-pound bag of rutabaga, parsnip, turnip, and orange and purple carrots. It’s so easy to make these things taste like candy (well, savory candy, of course).

RV1

Clean three pounds of root vegetables. Cut off all of the tops and bottoms and lightly peel the vegetables. Cut into coarse pieces. In a bowl, mix the vegetables with two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil (or just enough to lightly coat everything). Stir in salt, cracked pepper, and two tablespoons of fresh sage. Roast in a 400-degree oven for 20 minutes, then flip all of the vegetables (the undersides will be dark and glazed). Roast for 20 minutes more, then coat with 3 to 4 tablespoons of maple syrup and roast for approximately another 10 minutes.

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RV3

Creamy Parsnip, Pear, and Minnesota Wild Rice Hotdish (with General Mills Crunchy Topping, aka, Crispix)

Here is my nod to classic hotdish so known in the state of Minnesota. I thought it would only be wise to include a wild rice hotdish in our menu, and imagined it paired with seasonal parsnips. This logic led me to a recipe at recipetips.com.

As with these types of Grandma-friendly traditional recipes, you might want to take few liberties. Angela and I* added some extra nutmeg and a few cloves of crushed garlic. This is a tasty hotdish, but not quite a thing of beauty given that the wild rice makes for a dark brown casserole. S’ok, though, as we polished off the whole thing.

hotdish

Wasabi-Miso Marinated Thousand Hills Top Sirloin

When it came to serving the meat, I wanted to throw in an extra element of some kind. Given that I live close to University Avenue, I decided I would use my Asian fridge items to kick up the spice level of the Thousand Hills meat. I followed this recipe at myrecipes.com, which involves a marinade of yellow miso, mirin, rice vinegar, wasabi powder, and white wine. I adjusted the portions to match the extra servings and marinated everything for a full day in a ziplock bag.

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The results were acceptable, but were comprised by my aforementioned pint-sized stove. I couldn’t get the thick grill pan to sit close enough to the broiler flame, so I transferred it to the stovetop (eek). By the time the burner and pan were up to speed, I lost the momentum and didn’t have the wonderful seared meat I expected. Regardless, there were no complaints, and we polished off the whole plate.

Breadsmith Baguettes with Roasted Garlic Cheese Spread

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The organic garlic from Harmony Valley made for plump cloves of golden garlic, which I paired with a Wisconsin-made raw Cheddar Cheese spread.

Minnesota Fireside Apple Tarts with Sonny’s Vanilla Ice Cream

For dessert, I wanted a simple way to serve the bag of Fireside apples I got at the co-op, so I used this recipe for a thin French apple tart. We ate these with local Sonny’s vanilla ice cream, which is for the best, given that I was too busy shaking cocktails and being all Minnesota Nice Nice to remember to glaze the tarts with vanilla and honey before serving. What a shame!

tarts

Oh yeah. Given all the cooking I did, I all but forgot that we were also honoring the turn to 2009. A number friends brought champagne. We played some Tchaikovsky in the lead-up to midnight as we toasted, hugged, and sang Auld Lang Syne. I wish I could write more about everyone who came, but a Flickr photo montage will have to do. Thank you to all my friends who came to celebrate. No party would be Minnesota Chic without you!

photo(4)

PS: Every party has a few addendums, and these are the things I learned.

  • If ever in doubt, buy the better booze.

Truth be told, I infused one round of vodka with top-shelf Shakers and a second round with lower-shelf Philips. Although both local products, the results were very different. During the infusion process, I smiled after tasting the Shakers. When I tried the Philips vodka, I involuntary shook my head like my cat does when she gets something stuck in her mouth. It was rough around the edges, and of course, so were the cocktails.

  • $300 is not enough money to throw a party for 21 people.

By all accounts, the party was lovely. We all ate one serving of food, had a couple cocktails, and enjoyed the bottles of wine everyone contributed. But being a bit of a perfectionista, I would have loved more of the top-shelf cocktails, another three pounds of root vegetables, and about four (ok, five) more of the onion galettes. In other words, we partied well on a small budget. And get this. I had no leftovers!

  • Follow the Alton Brown school of kitchen gadgetry.

To grate the nutmeg, I bought a microplane with a slide-off top and underlying nutmeg container. Eh. I should have bought a straight-up baby microplane instead. Like Alton Brown says, keep it simple when it comes to kitchen equipment.

And with that, I think we should roll the credits!

Baguettes: Breadsmith

Top Sirloin Steak: Thousand Hills Cattle Company, Cannon Falls, MN

Fireside apples: LaCrescent, MN

Castle Rock Organic Farms cream line milk: Osseo, WI

Raw milk Brunkow cheddar cheese: Darlington, WI

Sartori Sarvecchio cheese: Antigo, WI

MinneSalsa: Hugo, MN

Organic Tortilla Chips: Whole Grain Milling Company, Welcome, MN

Garlic and root vegetables: Harmony Valley Farm, Viroqua, WI

Sugarloaf, Carnival, and Acorn Squash and organic half and half: Organic Valley, La Farge, WI

Minnesota Wild Rice: Clearbrook, MN

Koop’s Dijon Mustard: Pleasant Prairie, MN

Hope Creamery butter: Hope, MN

Transitional yellow onions, MN

Grenada nutmeg and Sumatra cinnamon: Penzey’s, Wauwatosa, WI

* Thank you to Aaron, for suggesting the party’s theme in the first place. (The New Year Sushi Dance Party wouldn’t have nearly the same charm.) To Angela, for coming early to be the trusted sous chef. And to Michael, for coming early to do the aesthetic thing he does so well (and for bringing the ice cream, too).