0813 Sidetrack

Photo by Michael Greenlee

We found ourselves in an embarrassing spot tonight. Not literally – there’s nothing embarrassing about Sidetrack except perhaps the size of their burgers – but then I suppose you already assumed that. What is, however, embarrassing is running into your neighbors when out to eat and having to face the fact that after a year, you still don’t know their names. And we couldn’t even blame the ludicrously large beers that Sidetrack has on offer.

25 ounce ciders at happy hour, Sidetrack Bar and Grill
Photo by John Kannenberg

See, people in Ann Arbor are friendly. And this is a good thing! But it also means that a couple of our neighbors introduced themselves within moments of us arriving in town last August. We were in the driveway, it was raining, we had frantic cats in the car, and we just wanted to get inside. Introductions were appreciated, but the timing ensured that we forgot their names almost immediately – and have felt too awkward to ask since.

Regardless, we said hello to MIKE and SHAWNA, whose names were revealed when we got home and Shane peeked at the label on their mailbox, and went about our dinner – fried zucchini, an excellent pair of grilled portabella mushrooms topped with gorgonzola, and some sort of delicious fish dish with red beans and rice.  I had a martini, which felt like the only possible drink that could be consumed while wearing a full-skirted and strappy sundress that belonged to my grandma.

We were reminded again why we kind of really want to move to Ypsi – no trouble getting a table at a restaurant with reasonably priced drinks, easy parking, and friendly people.  After dinner we wandered over to the Ypsi coop, which looked and smelled like coops should – a little earthy, a little like produce, and a little like patchouli.  I know I often say that things are just right, but this evening – the dress, the dinner, the coop – was just right.

0728 Polenta with a Bunch of Veg

Polenta with Green Beans, Mushrooms, Peas, and Leeks

I think there are only two things I would change about this dinner.  First, in an attempt to save some calories and fat, I made the polenta with our normal recipe (instead of with whole milk and vegetable broth), and I swapped out the heavy cream in the sauce.  The polenta was as good as ever, but I would use the heavy cream, as the sauce really could’ve used the richness to complement the vermouth and leeks.

Second, there’s basically no seasoning in this recipe at all.  I can understand that as it is prepared in a number of separate steps – blanch the beans and peas and set aside, prepare the polenta and set aside, make the leek-vermouth sauce and set aside, saute the mushrooms – and so the potential for over seasoning is significant.  I skipped the seasoning of the leek-vermouth sauce, as it was flavorful enough on its own, but would generously season the mushrooms, adding more salt and pepper to taste when the beans and peas go into the pan.I might also saute some garlic with the mushrooms, as that might give a bit of oomph to the final flavor.

A bonus addition, if I’m allowed it, would be to skip the shallots and instead add some crispy fried onions when plating.  The flavor is all but lost, and I think this would give a nice bit of extra texture.

Despite all of that, I’m pretty damned pleased with a flavorful and filling vegetarian that looks as good as the magazine photo.

Polenta with Green Beans, Mushrooms, Peas, and Leeks from Bon Appetit
Basic Polenta from Giada De Laurentiis (for two portions, we’ll cut this recipe down to 1/3)

0726 Mushroom Tart, Sautéed Kale

I’ve always thought that the concept behind  Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee was a strange idea.  It feels like a throw-back to an era when processed food was glamorous – you don’t need to roast your own chicken or make your own gravy or biscuits or even chop your own vegetables to make chicken and dumplings! Just open a couple of packages!

On the other hand, I suppose this sort of show does make cooking more accessible for those who are intimidated by glossy food magazines and too-perfect tv chefs – and that’s a step in the right direction.  I’ve read in a couple of places – and now can’t recall any of them specifically – our culture now fetishizes the chef (or the eater) while at the same time abandoning cooking ourselves.  This NYT article from Michael Pollan is problematic but gets the point across – as a country, we are becoming morbidly obese on processed food while drooling over ridiculously complicated foods prepared on Top Chef or disgustingly huge portions on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.  And I quote: “What can possibly be the appeal of watching Guy Fieri bite, masticate and swallow all this chow?”

In this context, anything that will get the average person cooking is a step in the right direction.

I mention all of this because tonight’s dinner would qualify as semi-homemade – an entree from the freezer with a side dish from the garden.  While the Tarte aux Champignons (um, fancy thin-crust mushroom tart with Emmentaler and other cheeses) from Trader Joe’s heated up in the toaster oven, I washed, chopped, boiled, and sauteed a bunch of kale with onions and smoked paprika.  While the kale could’ve used more paprika and/or garlic, it made an earthy counterpoint to the rich cheeses of the tart.  I enjoyed it, but it was all a bit rich for Shane.  A worthwhile experiment, though, and one that somewhat vindicates the semi-homemade style of cooking.  Somewhat.

Sautéed Kale with Smoked Paprika from Bon Appetit

0725 A Day of Improv Meals

Breakfast: sausages, an asiago bagel sliced into four pieces of toast, fried eggs for Shane and slices of tomato for me.  Weekend Edition Sunday and the puzzle.  Coffee.  A late morning attempt at geocaching turned into half an hour of wandering in the woods.  Who knew that we could wander in the woods without leaving our neighborhood?

Lunch: I had intended to riff on this recipe for dinner last night, but we ate at weird hours, and so pushed this back to today.  While I prepped and grilled mushrooms, zucchini, and a purple pepper on our grill pan, Shane picked basil and whipped up a quick batch of pesto.  We spread ricotta on toast, then topped it with pesto or fresh basil, piles of vegetables, and a drizzle of balsamic crema.  Soo good, especially followed by a moped ride downtown, walking around in the sunshine, and froyo from Lab.

Dinner: We picked up more chickens from Back 40 yesterday, but neither of us felt like chicken.  We did, however, feel like end-of-the-fridge snacks: corn on the cob, edamame, asiago from last week’s snack dinner, an assortment of pickles, and homemade beet chips using wee beets from our garden and a recipe from the Spanish cookbook.  They started out as small colorful coins:

Beet Chips Before

And after a short swim in very hot oil, they ended up like this:

Beet Chips After

Not really big enough to dip in the salt-and-peppered ricotta, but totally delicious anyway.  A fine way to end a fine weekend – and also another recipe knocked off of the Spanish cookbook challenge.

0625 Dinner at Corner Brewery

Lacking dinner plans, we again found ourselves going out tonight – this time to Corner Brewery, in Ypsilanti.  Located near the Depot Town area of Ypsi, Corner is a fair drive for us, but on a beautiful night like tonight, it’s well worth it for the patio and the beer.

photo by ericarhiannon

Corner is the sibling brewery of Arbor Brewing Company, which we’ve been to a fair number of times. I don’t know what it is about ABC, but we just haven’t found much to love about it. I like their food, but they charge exceptional prices for only adequate beer, thus providing a strong disincentive for choosing ABC over, say, Jolly Pumpkin.  Corner, however, seems to charge pretty decent prices for pretty decent beer, which is good enough for me.  Shane has said a couple of times that he’d consider joining their mug club if we lived in Ypsi (which might happen next year depending on the housing market).

Mug club
photo by phil dokas

I was starving, so I had a portabella mushroom sandwich with a nicely savory tapenade and with quite well seasoned grilled vegetables on the side.  It’s not that I don’t love chips, but if grilled squash is an option, I’ll take that 9 times out of 10.  Shane was less hungry, so he snacked on chips and guacamole along with his Arborealis.  I ordered a Strawberry Blonde, but am pretty sure I got the Brasserie Blonde – nice and malty, but lacking the strawberry sweetness.  A nice night for sitting outside, and a nice dinner to go along with it.

0203 Barley Stew with Leeks, Mushrooms, and Greens

While we haven’t had anything quite like the snowpocalypses that our friends back in DC have experienced this winter, that doesn’t mean the cold isn’t wearing on us. I’ve basically decided it isn’t worth doing my hair until hat season is over, and can frequently be found under several layers of blankets and several layers of clothes complaining about how cold I am. Shane seems to be handling it a bit better – when the temps popped above freezing today, he commented that it would’ve been a good night to work on the moped.

This recipe, then, was just the thing for a cold night.  After about an hour of prep, simmering, and amazing smells, I ladled out big bowls of soft grains and cold weather veg – leeks, mushrooms, and kale, plus tomatoes canned last summer.  We both added salt at the table, which I think is probably the most appropriate point in this recipe – any earlier, and you’d risk over-salting in order to make the flavor pop.  The stew was warm and hearty, full of pleasing textures and varying veg flavors.   We made a full batch – about 6 generous servings at about 240 calories each – so a winner for calories, nutrition and enjoyment.

Barley Stew with Leeks, Mushrooms, and Greens from Bon Appetit