Sunday, August 31, 2014

Minnesota nice!, pt. 1

We had a feeling Minnesota was going to be nice, but we weren't quite prepared for just how lovely it all was:  from the people, to the attractions, to the scenery.

MN sublime fig. a:  sublime

We touched down in Minneapolis and soon got ourselves acquainted with the "City of Lakes."  It really wasn't all that difficult to get our bearings, what with the River and the Grid there to help us.

minneapolis by faribault fig. b:  Mississippi by Faribault

Minneapolis is definitely a breakfast town, all four of our party of Montrealers are breakfast people, and we were only going to be in town for a very brief period of time, so we came roaring out of the gate and immediately hit one of the legends of the local scene:  Al's Breakfast.

Al's is situated in a structure that represents American diner vernacular at its finest.  The counter seats about 15 people, and the queue forms right behind them--until it spills out onto the street, of course. The structure is literally a converted alleyway:  a make-shift roof was assembled over an alley next to a hardware store to transform it into a shed to house additional goods; this space was then rented out and renovated; by the time Al Bergstrom took possession in 1950, it had been operating as a hamburger stand.  The rest is history, but one thing's for sure:  it's a setting befitting the Dinkytown address.

Al's Breakfastfig. c:  Al's Breakfast*

Al's serves an impressive number of breakfast combos, alongside some remarkably tasty diner coffee (served in "bottomless" cups, of course), but one of the things they're most famous for is a dish that's a local obsession:  hash browns.  I say a "dish" because although hash browns in Minneapolis are often served the standard way--as an accompaniment to eggs, or a side order--they're also served in a variety of other ways:  topped or mixed in all kinds of inventive ways.

Al's was friendly, and had character to spare--they also had a very unique way of getting parties of three or more to be seated together (by orchestrating an elaborate form of musical stools), and an unusual way to placing orders (they didn't call them out; the short-order cook would walk the line to eyeball the orders and commit them to memory).  But it wouldn't have meant quite as much if their breakfasts hadn't been outstanding--which they were.

I had my hash browns "straight up"--as an accompaniment to their summer scramble with tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella--but they were fantastic:  crispy, cooked through, and actually fully flavoured.  Definitely not the bland, undercooked dreck that passes for hash browns in so many breakfast joints across North America.

After breakfast, we took a stroll through the campus of the University of Minnesota to visit the University Archives with a friend of mine who's a curator there.  (She's also a long-time Al's aficionado, and was kind enough to curate our visit there, too.)  We visited their vaults deep underground, which contain the world's largest collection of Sherlockiana, among many other wondrous things.

sherlockiana fig. d:  Sherlockiana

And, afterwards, we made our way over to the University's Weisman Art Museum to inspect the mysteries of their permanent collection and generally take in the scene.

outside the pedicord apts.
living room fig. e:  lounging

While we were at the Weisman, we also caught a fantastic exhibit of O. Winston Link's photographs of trains, train stations, and train communities along the Norfolk & Western Railway, the last of the steam-engine lines in America.

trains, planes, and automobiles
General Store fig. e:  training days

That night, after a cycle tour of Minneapolis' impressive array of lakes (it is the "City of Lakes," after all), some shopping, some noshing (Midtown Global Market!), and some downtime at our B & B, we headed back across the mighty Mississippi and settled in at Nye's Polonaise Room for dinner and drinks.

1950 appears to have been a particularly momentous year in the history of Minneapolis:  not only was it the birth year of Al's Breakfast, it was also the year Nye's came into being.  But whereas Al's is the humblest of restaurants, more or less squatting a Dinkytown alleyway, Nye's occupies an entire city block, and it does so proudly.

nye's polonaise fig. f:  Nye's Polonaise

Once named The Best Bar in America by no less an authority than Esquire, Nye's actually consists of three connected establishments:  Nye's Bar (which features raucous musical acts nightly, including The World's Most Dangerous Polka Band), Nye's Chopin Dining Room (a banquet hall), and Nye's Polonaise, the heart and soul of the operation.

In spite of its name, the Polish fare at Nye's Polonaise isn't going to win any prizes for continental cuisine, but it is a throwback to a time when a night on the town might very well include a trip to an Eastern European "fine dining" establishment/Cocktail Lounge/Piano Bar, and when restaurants didn't have any qualms about encouraging each and every patron to "eat, drink, and loosen your belt!"

And the experience is priceless--from the old-school service and the Truman-era martinis (vodka, of course), to the gargantuan platters and the classic wedge salads, to the drunken sing-alongs at the piano bar and the portrait of Chopin (their patron saint) that proudly adorns the wall behind it, announcing to all who enter, "This place has class!"

None of us had the necessary credentials to weigh in on whether it's still the Best Bar in America (or ever was), but we loved Nye's Polonaise all the same.

When we looked back on it later that night, we were downright flattered that the songstress at the piano correctly identified us as out-of-towners within seconds of our stepping onto the premises, and promptly started heckling us. We were a little disappointed that she had us pegged for Americans--from Long Island, no less--but she was serenading five or six people at the bar at the time, so maybe we didn't have her full attention.

Then again, maybe she sensed something:  the plates on our rental car did read "New Jersey."

Minnesota addresses (part one):

Al's Breakfast, 413 14th Avenue SE, Minneapolis, MN, (612) 331-9991

Weisman Art Museum, 333 East River Road, Minneapolis, MN, (612) 625-9494

Midtown Global Market, 920 East Lake Street, Minneapolis, MN

Nye's Polonaise, 112 East Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, MN, (612) 379-2021


* photograph courtesy of Mark Slutsky Photography.

Monday, August 18, 2014

French Connection

While we're still on the topic of Provence and its cuisine...

So, as expected, this summer food magazines were filled with all kinds of tempting recipes for the 2014 barbecue season.  The July issue of Bon Appétit alone contained a full spread on DIY Korean barbecue; an Austin, TX spread featuring an outrageous-looking citrus-brined pork loin and a grilled rib eye recipe; a Middle Eastern/North African spread featuring mint and cumin-spiced lamb chops and Moroccan chicken brochettes; an article on cold smoking; and a guide to making and grilling your own sausages.  Just that single issue was enough to keep someone busy over their barbecue for months--and, trust me, it did.

But the recipe that turned out to be the single biggest revelation of the summer here at AEB--at least when it comes to the thrill of the grill--was a lonely little number accompanying a book review in the June/July 2014 edition of "Fare," the front section of Saveur.

Untitled fig. a:  in print

The book in question was a compendium of more than a century's worth of writing on grilling and grilled foods culled from the pages of The New York Times by Peter Kaminsky.  The Times has been on fire* with their food journalism of late, with a bolder, multimedia-savvy approach that's smart, informative, au courant, and well-designed, and this tome sounds like another play to further establish position within the lucrative food & wine media market.  It's called The Essential New York Times Grilling Cookbook, and it's as much of a legacy-builder as it is a collection of hits from the Times' recent generation of superstar food writers--it's clearly meant to prove that the Times has been writing about food with insight and passion all along, decades before the advent of modern-day foodie-ism.

Anyway, Betsy Andrews' review only features one recipe, but it was one that definitely caught my attention.  The recipe was for poulet grillé au gingembre--grilled chicken with ginger--it was co-authored by those old masters of the Times' '60s, '70s, and '80s heyday, Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey, and it first appeared in the May 25, 1980 edition.

Andrews was effusive in her praise, but what really caught my eye was that French connection to ginger.  Though it's had a presence in European cuisine since at least the days of the Roman Empire, ginger is a rarity in French cuisine.  Waverley Root, in spite of his name,** is utterly silent on the subject in his magisterial The Food of France.  Ginger is entirely absent from Richard Olney's Simple French Food and his The French Menu Cookbook.  And the rhizome appears only once in Julia Child's two-volume Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and then only in a beef recipe that already contains gingerbread as an ingredient.

The only place I'd actually ever noticed ginger in a French cookbook before was in yet another Richard Olney book:  A Provençal Table:  The Exuberant Food and Wine from the Domaine Tempier Vineyard, a.k.a, Lulu's Provençal Table.  There, Olney doesn't make a fuss about it at all, but the recipe in question always intrigued me because it just seemed so unlikely:  "Poulet Rôti au Gingembre, Coudes au Jus" (Roast Chicken with Ginger, Macaroni with Roasting Juices).  "Macaroni & chicken?"  I'd never ever tried it, but it has been near the top of my "to make" list for a long time.  When I spied Claiborne and Franey's recipe my decision was made:  there was no doubt about it, I was finally going to test this Provençal chicken & ginger combo.  I still wasn't sure about its origins (North African?  North African by way of Italy?  Was Lulu's preparation some kind of clue?), but its apparition in Andrews' book review was clearly a sign.

Plus, the recipe is dead simple.  Mysteriously so.  As Andrews puts it, "It worried me at first:  It called simply for grilling 'until the chicken is cooked,' with no specifics as to method or signs of doneness.  And it yielded so little marinade I felt it might starve the bird of flavor."  But, according to her, the results were a classic example of one of those recipes that defies logic, one of those recipes whose process is almost alchemical:  "[When] the chicken was indeed done (a condition I ascertained with the use of a modern-day digital thermometer), how exquisite it was.  Dried thyme and bay leaf and garlic added aromatic flourish.  An abundance of lemon mingled with bristling ginger to stroke the flesh with sweetness and tenderize it to a mouthwatering moistness, abetted by a final drizzle of butter" (!).

And you know what?  I couldn't have agreed more.  I, too, had the feeling that the recipe couldn't possibly work as I prepared it.  And I, too, experienced something magical instead when I cooked the chicken.  The final product looked great, but it tasted a hundred times better--it had a perfect skin, and was literally bursting with flavour.  The ginger was subtle, but present.  And that final blast of butter...  I couldn't believe what I was tasting, and neither could Michelle.

Untitled fig. b:  in real life

Without any further ado...
Poulet grillé au gingembre 
1 2.5-3-lb organic chicken, halved, backbone removed
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp dried thyme, or 1 sprig fresh thyme (with fresh thyme in our garden right now, this has been my preference)
1 bay leaf, crumbled
1 clove garlic, minced
1 1-inch piece ginger, peeled and minced
3 tbsp unsalted butter, melted 
Season the chicken generously with salt and pepper.  Stir lemon juice, oil, thyme, bay leaf, garlic, and ginger in a bowl.  Add chicken and toss to coat.  Cover with plastic wrap and chill for 2-4 hours. 
Heat a charcoal grill, making sure that your charcoals are evenly spread and of an even height.  Ideally, you want a fire that's medium-hot.  Be patient.  Grill a bunch of vegetables first, if you have to. 
Grill chicken, turning as needed, until slightly charred and cooked through, about 35 minutes, or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of a thigh reads 165º F.  Transfer to a serving platter and drizzle with melted butter.  Tent the chicken with aluminum foil and allow to rest for 10 minutes.  This will complete the cooking process and allow the chicken to release its delicious juices into your platter.  Serve and devour. 
Serves 2 to 4 people, depending on appetite and number of side dishes. 
[based very closely on a recipe that co-authored by Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey for The New York Times and then adapted slightly by Betsy Andrews for Saveur]
I still haven't tried Lulu's chicken, ginger, and elbow macaroni recipe yet, but I will.  Believe me, I will.  And I haven't fully figured out that French connection to ginger yet, but I like it--I really, really like it. In fact, there have been times recently when I've declared it the very best grilled chicken I've ever tasted.


* Sorry.

**Apologies, once again.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Ail, Ail, Ma'am!

aioli monstre fig. a:  petit aïoli monstre

Tomorrow, Thursday, August 14, 2014, le grand aïoli is back, and this time it's even grander than before.  In fact, it's going to be so huge, so extraordinary, that this time around they're billing it as un aïoli monstre (!).

Once again, this grand aïoli pools together the prodigious talents of the Foodlab, Oenopole, and the Birri Bros.

And once again, this aïoli monstre is inspired by and dedicated to our patron saints of Provençal cuisine:  Lulu Peyraud and Richard Olney.

If you're not exactly clear on the concept, the good folks at Oenopole have summarized it this way:  mange tes légumes et bois du rosé ("eat your vegetables and drink some rosé!").  In other words, all of Birri's most beautiful August vegetables, lovingly prepared by Michelle and Seth and served with generous amounts of Lulu's legendary aïoli, plus all of Oenopole's most delicious rosés.  But I have it on good authority that there will also be Provençal-style shrimp and Atlantic lobster on offer to sweeten the deal even further.

Aïoli Monstre
SAT Foodlab / Labo Culinaire
1201 boulevard St-Laurent
Montreal, QC
Thursday, August 14, 2014
5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
rain or shine! (but it's always sunny when a grand aïoli is being served)

Michelle's so excited about this grand aïoli that I heard her say, "You'd be a fool to miss it."  I'm not sure if she meant me personally, or whether she meant "you" more generally.  Either way, I'm not taking any chances.  I know where I'm going to be tomorrow night.