Thinking about the Passing of a Friend

A week and a half ago, I found out that my friend, Jason Osburn, passed away suddenly. While the unexpected death of any person is unsettling, Jason’s passing left me speechless and lost in thought about how fortunate I have been to have him be a part of my life.

I met Jason in 2015 at a workshop called the Charcuterie Jam. It was a great event at which Jason and I learned the differences in seam butchery between the French style (taught by Kate Hill and Dominique Chapolard) and the Spanish style (taught by Jeffrey Weiss). As I looked through my collection of photos from the event, I found several with Jason in the background, focusing on the particular technique being demonstrated.

The next time I recall doing something with Jason was an epic road trip including Jason, John Patterson and me driving to Flushing, New York, for the 2016 Charcuterie Masters competition. I learned how much of a novice I am regarding my knowledge of creating food and how simple my experiences are based on conversations I had with Jason or that I witnessed him having with some of the chefs we met there.

One of the highlights of that trip for me was walking through a grocery store with Jason there in Flushing. If you don’t know, Flushing, New York, has an enormous Asian population, and the grocery store we walked through was not your typical Safeway or Kroger. From the variety of seafood (including exotic crabs, geoduck clams and fresh frogs) to the plethora of produce I had only ever heard of (durian and dragonfruit), Jason described the flavors and textures before explaining how he would use them in a dish if they were available back home. It was like a culinary class on how to develop a menu.

Another highlight of that trip was listening to conversations Jason had with several of the chefs we met. He and Michael Pardus talked for a couple of hours about how fish sauce is fermented. He and Matt Fisher chatted about the pickles and collard greens that Matt served as sides to his BBQ and then spent the rest of the time we ate discussing the process Matt followed to make his Char Siu Pork. Jason and Michael Ruhlman conversed about charcuterie and bread making.

The ultimate exchange was between Jason and Will Horowitz. We stopped at Harry & Ida’s to meet Will and I overheard them riffing back and forth about the wonders of lactobacillus in pickling vegetables and making sourdough bread. Will took us to his fermentation room in the basement and showed us where he transformed the raw vegetables to the delectable additions to everything on the menu. He followed this up by inviting us into the kitchen to see the preparation of a shipment of eels that had just arrived. After watching one of Will’s kitchen staff prep a couple of the eels, Will asked if one of us would be interested in trying it. Without hesitation, Jason stepped right up, grabbed a live eel and went to work.

Over the years since the trip to Flushing, I kept in touch with Jason. I went to several of the pop-up dinners he did at the Canton Brew Works. I found my new favorite sandwich on his menu at Rappourt. I joined his team to compete in a BBQ competition. I even made it to his house for a holiday party.

In the time I have known Jason, there are a few things that I learned about him. His greatest love was for his family. You could see the parental pride he had for his daughters and the bond he shared with his parents.

Secondly, he loved to learn. As a fellow lover of knowledge, I appreciated that. What I can appreciate even more though is that Jason’s love of learning was always for the sake of applying that knowledge in making something or sharing the knowledge with others. While talking with some of Jason’s other friends at the luncheon after the funeral, one noted that Jason loved the talk to text feature on his mobile phone. The rest of us chuckled as she said that whenever you were with Jason he would pull out that phone and talk into it. Whether it was making a note about an order for a new menu item or reminding himself to tell someone something that he had figured out since they last spoke, you knew he was sharing his knowledge. It was difficult to feel like he was ignoring you when he did it too, because you knew that he did the same thing to someone else when he messaged you that he figured out the question you had posed to him.

Jason’s passing has hit me harder than those of others in my life. I think a lot of that comes from having seen him make his way through some very difficult times and be living his dream, happy in his family life, enjoying the partnership of someone he loved and making memories for friends and strangers alike with the food he created. Having seen the others at the funeral and luncheon, I know I am not alone.

I am glad to have known Jason, as he challenged me to think in different ways about the World and my place in it. He taught me about food and life. Through his friendship I have met and befriended others. Ultimately, like the song that was played at the funeral, I am proud to be included in his “Company of Friends.”

Rest In Peace

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My New Favorite Sandwich

When I go out for lunch, my typical choice is a sandwich of some sort. I am usually not overly picky if it is a deli sandwich, a gyro, a burger or something else. I thought I had settled on my favorite one being the Three Little Pigs at the Zingerman’s Bakehouse (not on the menu at the Deli, but it is worth the trip south of I-94 to try it), until I recently tried the Smoked Whitefish BLT at Rappourt Brew and Chew.

Simply put, it is a BLT on toasted sourdough bread with a smoked whitefish spread instead of mayo. What that simple description doesn’t tell is how the spread adds a subtle smokiness that complements the more intense smoke flavor of the thick-cut bacon. It also doesn’t do anything to describe the creamy texture that the generous layer of whitefish spread contributes to make this sandwich so special.

This BLT takes all the things that make a BLT an almost perfect sandwich and amplifies them with the bonus of the smoked whitefish spread. The slices of fresh tomato and leaves of mixed greens between the spread and the bacon provide just enough of a barrier to be able to taste the differing levels of smoke that the name of the sandwich promises.

If you like a good BLT and like the lightly smoked flavor of a Michigan whitefish, this may be the sandwich for you too. I know one thing for certain, I will be going back again soon so I can have another.

Posted in Ann Arbor food | 1 Comment

Baked Polenta With Crispy Leeks and Gorgonzola

As someone who is always looking for a new recipe to try, I get email newsletters from many publications. Last Friday I got my “What to Cook This Weekend” email from New York Times Cooking, and I found the perfect recipe to try. I texted my wife a link to the recipe and her response was, “OMG! My mouth is watering…”

We have been big fans of polenta for quite a while, so the opportunity to try a new recipe that requires less active time spent whisking the polenta would automatically be a win to me. What makes this recipe even better is the combination of textures and flavors in the dish.

I am a sucker for creamy polenta, but add in the sharp and earthy gorgonzola to double-down on the creaminess and the leeks that are all crispy and sweet from sauteeing them into golden-brown deliciousness on the top and you have an almost perfect meal. I added some sliced cremini mushrooms that I also sauteed until they were little umami-laden garnishes on top of the layer of leeks.

We each had about one third of the 9 x 9 baking dish of polenta for our meal, and I was able to see how the flavors and textures would do warmed up as leftovers. I noticed that the polenta was just as creamy the next day, but the earthiness of the gorgonzola was even more pronounced than it had been when the dish was fresh. This is definitely a recipe that I will make again. I would highly recommend doubling the ingredients to make more servings (leftovers) or to share with friends who appreciate a warm pile of polenta goodness. If people don’t like the funk of a good gorgonzola, I bet a dollop of mascarpone or even some goat cheese would make a decent alternative. Buon Appetito!

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The recipe (minus the mushrooms) is available at – https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1020104-baked-polenta-with-crispy-leeks-and-gorgonzola

 

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Pastrami Calzone

Sometimes you have great plans for making a meal, other times you have to forage through your refrigerator and be creative. This was definitely one of those other times.

A few weeks ago, I cured and smoked two beef tongues and made them into pastrami. I have been eating it and sharing with others, but I still have almost an entire one remaining. Tonight I planned to make a nice hot, pastrami sandwich, but when I opened the refrigerator door, I noticed that there was a pizza dough ball that needed to be baked. My on the fly decision was to make a pastrami calzone.

First I preheated the oven with our pizza stone in it to 475°. Then I stretched out the dough ball on the pizza peel.

I diced up about 2 cups of the pastrami, half of a red onion, and a quarter of a red bell pepper.

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I sauteed these ingredients with a 1/4 cup of whole grain brown mustard. While that was cooking, I shredded about a cup of aged Irish cheddar cheese.

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After I took the pan off the heat, I began assembling my calzone. I put half of the meat, onion, pepper and mustard mixture onto the crust, then sprinkled the cheese on top, before adding the other half of the pre-cooked mixture.

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I laid the other side of the pizza crust over the top, carefully folding the edges over one another to make a good seal. Then into the oven it went for about 18 minutes.

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Once I removed it from the oven, I cut it in half.

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The dominant aroma from the calzone was the vinegary mustard. My first taste combined the flavors of the mustard, the pastrami, and the onion. Those flavors completely over-powered the cheese and the red bell pepper, but sometimes that’s what happens when you challenge yourself with the contents of the refrigerator. It tasted pretty good, but perhaps a stronger flavored cheese and some roasted bell pepper would give it a little bit more. There is always the next time.

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My BBQ Tour of Asheville

I recently spent a week near Asheville with my family. As it was a vacation, I tried my hardest to relax and enjoy myself as much as possible. Being in North Carolina, I knew it would be an excellent opportunity to try some authentic BBQ.

We stayed in an amazing AirBnB cottage just outside the town of Swannanoa. It is the first town you come to if you go East out of Asheville on I-40. Our location made it easy for us to try restaurants in the city, as well as out in the neighboring towns.

The first BBQ restaurant that I tried was Phil’s Bar-B-Que Pit in Black Mountain. Phil’s describes itself as “Alabama BBQ,” and upon entering the restaurant it is easy to see they mean it. I’m not certain of the style of BBQ that comes from Alabama, but the larger than life sized poster of Nick Saban and a wall of other University of Alabama paraphernalia made it obvious that ‘Bama is certainly favored there.

As for the food, I chose a three meat combo plate. I had chopped pork, a red hot, and sliced brisket with sides of vinegar slaw, onion rings, and hush puppies. The chopped pork had good flavor and texture, and I could taste a hint of vinegar from the mop sauce they had applied during the smoking and chopping process. The red hot had a nice smokiness, but lacked any distinct flavor beyond that. The sliced brisket was a complete fail in my opinion. It was very dry and lacked any distinct flavor either.

The sauces helped each of the meats, but I am a firm believer that great BBQ needs no sauce. At least the meats each came without sauce, so I was able to sample each of the sauces with each of the meats. Their sauces included a Classic Red BBQ Sauce, an East Carolina BBQ Sauce, a White BBQ Sauce, a Mustard BBQ Sauce and a Hot BBQ Sauce. I did not try the White BBQ Sauce, but each of the other sauces seemed to have a single flavor note – Classic Red was mild and slightly sweet, East Carolina was heavy on vinegar with a hint of heat, the Mustard was tangy with a bit of sweetness and heat and the Hot was like the Classic Red with a slight hint of heat. The Mustard paired best with the red hot and the East Carolina was best with the chopped pork. Nothing could save the brisket.

The second BBQ restaurant that I tried was Buxton Hall, located on the South Slope in Asheville. Buxton Hall was the one place that I had heard from before going to Asheville, and I was certain that I wanted to sample what they had to offer. A visit like this means I had higher expectations regarding what I was going to eat, but I have to say I was not disappointed at all.

I ordered the BBQ & Hash Deluxe Plate. This included chopped pork that came from a whole hog, South Carolina hash, slaw, pickles, hushpuppies, rice & one side. I chose a side of the slaw after the waitress told me that the slaw that came with the plate was essentially a garnish.

The chopped pork was everything I hoped it would be. The fat that rendered during the time the hog spent in the pit made it moist and flavorful, and there was a nice hint of vinegar from what the pitmaster mopped on it while it smoked. That vinegar helped cut through the richness of the fat, making it unctuous but not greasy.

The South Carolina hash was something new to me. I had an idea what it was, but I’d never had a chance to try it. SC hash looks like a thick gravy that has bits of shredded meat in it. It is made of many parts of the hog, including offal. There was a noticeable taste of irony liver in this hash, but it didn’t overpower everything else. Mixed in with the cup of rice that came with it, it was perfect. The starch of the rice thickened the gravy even more and the taste of the rice blended with the minerally meat to temper the flavor and make it an excellent option for a side dish. The only things I added to it were some black pepper and a couple splashes of hot sauce.

My only regret regarding the food at Buxton Hall was my choice of side. That is not to say that the slaw was bad, but there was nothing special about it. While I was eating it, I noticed that one of the other sides available was Green Beans Cooked Under the Hog. Reading the name of that dish made me want to try it. Typing it now made me want to try it. One last thing to mention about Buxton Hall was the dessert that I shared with my family, the Peach Cobbler. If you ever get the opportunity to try it, take that opportunity. You won’t regret it.

After leaving Asheville and spending a relaxing week with my in-laws in Myrtle Beach, we returned to Asheville for an overnight stay on the way home. The social media person for another Asheville BBQ restaurant had engaged me via Twitter regarding a photo and tweet that I had posted while eating at Buxton Hall, so I decided I would give them a try. This took me to Luella’s Bar-B-Que.

I went to the South Asheville Luella’s location at Biltmore Park. I placed my order to go and talked with one of the employees while I waited. He was a bit cocky when I told him that I had eaten at Buxton Hall and filled me in on a bit of the history of Luella’s. It is a restaurant that has been around since 2007 and espouses a family atmosphere regarding its employees. Hearing the story of Luella’s made me glad that I took the chance to try it.

I chose the chopped pork and smoked andouille sausage. My wife had the BBQ Chicken Salad. The chopped pork was ok, but not as good as that from Buxton Hall. The andouille was advertised as medium spicy, but in addition to being bland in its spices, it was lacking any taste of smoke. With sauce they were ok, but I mentioned earlier my thoughts on the quality of BBQ that requires sauce. The best thing that I had was some of my wife’s salad. The smoked chicken was pulled and tossed with Romaine, Tomato, Cucumber, Lue’s Pickled Corn Relish and Fried Onions. The dressing was creamy buttermilk with basil. The flavors combined perfectly to meld the smoke of the chicken with the tanginess of the relish and the creamy, acidic buttermilk of the dressing. As I had my order to go, I knew it was possible that the quality might suffer. That may have affected my thoughts regarding the meat, but the taste was just not what I hoped it would be.

Overall, I would highly recommend that anyone eat at Buxton Hall. As for the other two, they are definitely better than no BBQ at all, but neither are in the same league as Buxton Hall.

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Ma Lou’s Fried Chicken

Frank Fejeran’s new joint has been open for just over a month now, and I have finally had a chance to check it out. I went in during the latter half of the dinner rush, because I had heard it is busy. That was no rumor. When I arrived, there were no open seats available in the dining room and there was a line of people ordering food about 10 deep.

I waited my turn and placed my order (3 piece dark, spicyAF, baked beans, potato salad and two Biscuit Donuts). I was told it would be 25 minutes, so I asked if I could step into the kitchen to say hi to Frank while I waited. I walked into the kitchen and was amazed at what I saw.

I have seen or worked in some pretty small kitchens in my day, but Ma Lou’s kitchen is about as small as they come. Considering there are six people working in the space, efficiency is the name of the game. I stood in the corner, by the back door, and watched the smooth choreography of a well oiled machine.

As the orders came in, one guy read the tickets and prepped (dipped in liquid and dredged in seasoned flour) each piece of chicken to get dropped in the fryer. Frank was working the fryers and dropped the chicken for each order before passing the ticket to the two guys working the finishing table. Depending on how the chicken was ordered: Southern, Medium, or SpicyAF (AsF**k), they prepared each order and bag it up. The person preparing sides was just inside the front door of the kitchen, managing a steam table for the baked beans, a refrigerator for the cold sides and another fryer for the fries and the Biscuit Donuts.

The cold storage for the chicken was behind the guys working the finishing table. The other side of the room had the sinks and drying space for the dishwasher. The entire prepping, cooking and cleaning space of the operation occupied a room of about 150 square feet.

I got my order and took it home, since I ordered the Biscuit Donuts to share with my family. The chicken smelled so good, it took everything I had to not dig in on the 20 minute drive home. My patience was definitely rewarded though.

As anyone who knows me understands, I like things spicy. I wasn’t taking Frank’s spicyAF as a challenge, but I was hoping it would worthy of its name. It was. The level of spicy was hot, but not so hot that all it did was burn. There was a good amount of flavor in the heat, and the meat was extremely juicy as well.

The sides provided a good balance to the spicyAF chicken. The baked beans had a thick, viscous sauce, and the beans themselves were cooked to perfection. The spices in the sauce complemented the spice on my chicken, just with less intensity. The potato salad had a creaminess from the potatoes (not a mayo-based dressing) with crunchy texture from bits of carrot and red onion. My favorite part of the potato salad was the delicate essence of dill. It is easy to do bad potato salad, but Frank has really brought his A game with this one. This was easily the best potato salad I have had at a restaurant.

Finally, I have to say something about the Biscuit Donut. Think the flaky layers of a biscuit encased in the texture of a donut that has been fried to golden perfection and lightly coated with a simple glaze. It is the marriage of two things you wouldn’t expect to go together, but they match one another to exceed expectations.

I have no doubt that I will go to Ma Lou’s again. Next time, I may take my family and try to brave the crowds and get my order to stay.

Posted in Ann Arbor food, Michigan Foods | 1 Comment

In Honor of National Pasta Day

After what has seemed like an extraordinarily busy 3/4 of a year, I have begun cooking on a more regular basis. I have been able to read some of the books that I got for my birthday way back in March. The one I’ve been reading the most of late is Cooking by Hand, by Paul Bertolli. Since today is National Pasta Day, I thought it appropriate to write a bit about the pasta dishes I have been making.

I have been making homemade pasta for many years, first using the recipe for egg noodles in the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook that my parents gave me when I first moved into an apartment while in college. More recently, I have been using the recipe for egg pasta from How to Cook Everything, by Mark Bittman. I have tried adding semolina flour in various ratios to the All Purpose flour that the recipe listed. All of these pastas were good, and if I hadn’t tried anything else I would have definitely been satisfied.

Bertolli’s Whole-Egg Pasta recipe calls for Artisan flour. I have opted to use high-gluten flour that I have found in the bulk section of one of the local grocery stores. The recipe also calls for two whole eggs (rather than the combination of whole eggs and egg yolks that the previous recipes did) and a small amount of water. What I have discovered is that the texture of the dough in this recipe is velvety smooth and the texture of cooked noodles is more tender, even when cooked to al dente.

What I’ve also determined is that the pasta from this recipe is extremely versatile in how it can be served. I’ve made it to go with a vegetable sauté, added it to a thick soup and also to pair with a hearty ragu. Ultimately, it is the new favorite in my house.

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Pasta w/ a vegetable sauté

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Pork, Veggie and Noodle Soup

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Pasta w/ Duck Gizzard Ragu

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