Every now and then I come across a meal that is, to my palate, a masterpiece. There have been two recently.

Beer & Beast at the Acadia: smoke Scotch egg and Oskar Blues Reeb Rye'd ale

Beer & Beast at the Acadia: smoke Scotch egg and Oskar Blues Reeb Rye’d ale

The first was a smoked scotch egg at one of my neighborhood joints, Acadia. Once a month they have what they call “Beer & Beast” for which they make a special meal, which usually involves the smoker out back, that they pair with a special beer. I was a little skeptical about a smoked scotch egg because breaded, fried food isn’t my bag, but they have a few hotshot young cooks in the kitchen and one bite in, my fears were allayed. The egg was excellent, the Oskar Blues Reeb Rye’d beer was excellent, and the two together sent me into nirvana.

Not too long after that, another neighborhood establishment, Town Hall Brewery, had their annual Barrel Aged Beer Week. They made some crazy and delicious fancy beers, releasing one per day throughout the week. I went in right away on Monday and learned that they developed some special food items to pair with the beers. I chose the seared scallops because I have a soft spot for scallops.

photo of scallops dinner

This was one amazing plate!

I’ll admit that I gave the plate a quite the side-eye when it arrived. The scallops with bacon-onion jam, farro with fire-roasted tomatoes, and grilled zucchini floated on a pool of white sauce. Okay. Maybe they wanted to visually fill out the plate or something. I reread the menu card. “Beurre blanc,” it said. “French for white sauce makes it sound fancier,” I interpreted.

My white-sauce snobbery quickly melted away as I tasted what an excellent carrier it was, helping to blend all of the the flavors together in a most excellent way. The tastes and textures balanced each other nicely, from the salt and crisp of the scallops and the sweet and smoke of the bacon-onion jam to the savory and chewy of the farro. Once again I found myself in my happy food place.

I had already been thinking that I’d try to return later in the week once more of the beers had been released. After eating I knew I would return, if only to have that delicious plate again!

In the meantime, I encountered a chef friend to whom I raved about this meal, including recounting my attitude about the “white sauce, well, beurre blanc.” What comes around goes around. He gave the side-eye right back to me without further explanation. After we parted, I became curious about this unfamiliar cooking term and looked it up. I stood corrected and publicly apologized to beurre blanc on social media. It is not white sauce. It is white, that’s true, but it’s actually an emulsification of butter in white wine that results in a sauce-like entity that is particularly complimentary to fish and seafood.

photo of beer flight

Town Hall Barrel Aged Week, flight 1: Foolish Angel, Buffalo Bock (2015), Twisted Trace (2015)

I went back to Town Hall on Thursday. That evening, there were enough of the special beers available so I ordered a flight. In case you’re wondering, the Foolish Angel was my favorite of the beers I tried. The general manager, Scot, who I got to know last year in a bowling league at one of Town Hall’s other locations, was flitting around so I was able to compliment him on it. He was pleased because it was a new beer this year.

photo of beer flight

Town Hall Barrel Aged Week, flight 2: Project 3106 (2015), Czar Jack (2015), Duke of Wallonia (2015)

But more importantly, I had the scallops dish again! Somebody different must have been in the kitchen, though, because the plate came out with at least twice as much beurre blanc, which was twice too much, and maybe a third less farro, which was a third too little. It was still as delicious as I remembered from three days earlier, though I did not come close to finishing all of the sauce. Then I decided to take the rest of it home with me for use at a later date, an endeavor made much easier by having exactly the right sized plastic container in my bag from my breakfast. (I always pack my breakfast and eat at my desk. Saves me fifteen to thirty minutes in the morning. Fifteen to thirty more minutes of sleep. But I digress.) I long ago got over feeling embarrassed about pulling out my own container at a restaurant in order to stow leftovers. Reduce, reuse, recycle.

That night as I lay in bed I had the ultimate brain wave. Along with the leftover beurre blanc, I had half of the ingredients necessary to recreate this meal at home. I had a zucchini, onions, bacon pieces, brown sugar, and sun-dried tomatoes. My mission was clear!

I located a recipe for bacon-onion jam that used only basic ingredients, read about how to pan-sear scallops, learned some more about beurre blanc, and purchased scallops and farro. I was ready to begin. The jam recipe is not at all fussy, it just needs and hour and a half of prep and cook time to get the reduction. I got that going first and enhanced the recipe with some dried currants for good measure. The farro was next. It needed about thirty minutes, and I included chopped sun-dried tomatoes. When the farro was done cooking, I finished it by frying it for a few minutes to crisp it up a bit; there had been something a little crispy about the Town Hall plate. As the jam and farro were finishing, I heated the pan for the scallops, getting the butter and oil nice and hot. While the scallops were searing, I reheated the leftover beurre blanc in the microwave, stirring frequently. I know, I know, I can hear you laughing from here. It was a visual disaster. The fat from the butter immediately separated into yellow oiliness, and the remaining part turned into a gloppy, viscous mess. But it still tasted heavenly and it all gets re-blended in your mouth, right?

photo of scallops dinner and beer

It doesn’t look the same as the professional version, but it tasted just about as delicious.

It was only after I had carefully plated my homemade meal with the goal of downplaying the physical appearance of the beurre blanc that I realized I had completely forgotten to make the zucchini. Oh well. With six rather than four scallops, it was plenty to consume.

The meal was delicious! I paired it with Summit Great Northern Porter. The bacon and the beer really brought out the smoky characteristics of each other.

I was very pleased with the effort!

photo of scallops dinner and beer

No Town Hall brews at home, but Summit Great Northern Porter was a fine stand-in.

My cat picked out my sushi

August 21, 2014

Mackerel and sea bream cat food

Last Sunday, the Open Streets folks did one near my neighborhood. Open Streets is when a stretch of a road is closed to cars for a day and non-motorized folks get to go nuts on it. I’d been aware of previous events but hadn’t made it to one, so I was excited that I’d have to put forth minimum effort to attend this one.

But to be perfectly honest, the day was one of extreme relative humidity—something gross, like, the dew point was 69F and the air temperature was 71F (21C/22C). I had texted my bikey friend, Jon, at noon to inquire whether he would be toodling over, then stuck my big toe out the front door and immediately decided I wasn’t going out in that, and settled in to watch some Grand Hotel.* After the second episode I decided I at least needed to take a shower because, even inside in air conditioning, I was feeling sticky and yucky. I stood up, checked my phone, and realized that Jon had replied in the affirmative almost right away. I texted him, thinking I’d be lucky if he was still out. I was very lucky because not only was he still out but he was at my end of the two mile stretch of the open street.

Well, fine. I hated the thought of going out in that weather, yet knew I’d regret it if I didn’t finally check out such a convenient Open Streets, and knew I’d appreciate a shower more after I returned home. I met him in the beer garden in the parking lot of my local liquor store.

Dear Open Streets,
I ride my bike back and forth to work every day across two vectors of downtown, Victor. I thought suburban SUV-driving commuters who can’t think outside the car were the bane of my existence. Not so. In that one tiny ride during your event, one-half mile to a neighborhood business I often bike to anyway, I realized that, really, pedestrianing parents with cherubic children are far, far worse. No cars on the street? No motors to listen for to give us audio cues as to how to behave in common space? No problem. No trajectory is too weavy for us to wobble along. I’m riding a bicycle? I might as well be a semi-truck hurtling toward your Croc-shod toddler. You sneer in my general direction.

Ugh.

Beer and band gardenIn hindsight I’m very glad that, when I found Jon and said that I wouldn’t mind riding to the other end and back, he informed me that he had already done so twice and was just going to order another beer. Here’s to neighborhood brewery Harriet Brewing’s Woden Weizen!

Being the humid, unsettled weather it was, the sky soon unleashed another round of showers. Jon and I gamely stood in the rain because, let’s face it, neither of us is fancy, and it felt good. Unlike previous showers that day, though, this one lasted for more than three-and-a-half minutes. It wasn’t bad for us spectators but unfortunately for the band that was playing, the tent-shelter that was protecting them decided to let loose into the keyboard its load of water. That put a damper on the vibe.

But I digress.

I quipped to Jon that I’d still be willing to ride to the other end but he came up with a far better idea. I’m finally getting to the sushi portion of the story.

Across from the liquor store is a fairly new Thai restaurant which also has a sushi bar. It’s really like two restaurants in one. Jon said, nah, let’s just go to Sober Fish and engage in their happy hour. Okay, twist my arm, Croc-shod toddlers!

Lagunitas IPA and Sober Fish shot glassI was glad when he suggested ordering sushi items rather than Thai noodle stuff (which I do like but I was more in the mood for sushi). I was also glad when I saw Lagunitas IPA on the fairly short beer list. Lagunitas IPA goes well with raw fish things. Then I was horrified when he seemed eager to also order the house shot which consisted of cucumber vodka, ginger something, and something else. In the old days I did enjoy my vodka tonic, and in these new days I mix my Pimm’s with cucumber soda (during the two weeks of Wimbledon). Then I saw that you got to keep the shot glass.** I wasn’t too hard a sell on that, then, either.

The drinks were the easy part. It turned out that I like rolls and Jon likes sashimi. Also, we had never collaborated on a food order before so there was that awkwardness, “what do you like?” “Oh, no, what do YOU like?” I’m finally getting to the cat part of the story.

Jon made a hard sell for mackerel sashimi. I countered with advocating for spicy tuna roll. I like that a lot, and when I eat at a new sushi place it’s sort of my benchmark. Not too sophisticated in the big scheme of things but there you go. We decided we’d order both forms.

There were many sashimi choices. Tuna is my favorite raw fish in general, but I’ll always try anything once. Not that mackerel is so exotic. It’s not. Then I comprehended some of the other choices on the sashimi list and formed my opinion as to what else we should select.

As I said, Jon was a big fan of mackerel. I saw that sea bream was also on the list. So I said yes to the mackerel and suggested the sea bream as well.

Why? This is why.

A while ago I decided to bite the bullet on cost and serve my lovely cats wet food because it’s significantly better for their health than dry food. I like to get them the tuna-based kinds, and the tuna almost always includes some other seafood as an accent. The canned food ain’t cheap so I’ve been determining the best balance between ingredients and cost. Along the way I added a third cat, thereby half-againing the cat food budget, so I could no longer afford to buy the tiny cans of best-quality, tuna-based food and instead have had to figure out what’s next best.

I’ve settled on a couple of brands, one of which is pictured above. The store carries four varieties—shrimp (30¢ more per can), sardine, mackerel, and sea bream. Sea-what? Never heard of it.

Empty platesWe ordered my spicy tuna roll and also a caterpillar roll because Jon likes eel, and I like that sweet sauce that usually accompanies it. For sashimi we ordered the mackerel and, as our second sashimi selection at my behest, the sea bream. Do you see where I’m going with this?

My decision-making process: if it’s good enough for the cats, it’s good enough for me. Let’s go for it!

The mackerel was salty and firm and reminded me of smoked salmon or smoked trout. The sea bream was at the opposite end of the spectrum—tender, mild, and nutty. Jon hadn’t had it either and seemed pleasantly surprised by it.

I am embarrassed to admit that it was Jon and not I who said/thought, “This would make a good blog entry.” By that time, the sea bream and mackerel were long gone and we were down to one gyoza.

 

* If, by chance, you start watching Grand Hotel based on this brief mention, stick with it long enough to realize that Inspector Ayala reminds you exactly and completely of Hercule Poirot, which won’t actually take you that long. You will be richly rewarded in episode 23.

** Until that Sober Fish outing, I didn’t actually possess a shot glass. What I do have is a set of four antique aperitif, shot-sized glasses. But they’re delicate, textured glass. They were my grandparents’, and I’m always terrified that it will take only one gentle yet errant tap on the side of the Mason jar into which I mix my Wimbledon Pimm’s to shatter it to pieces. It was an easy sell to convince me order a shot that would resulting my owning a chunky, heavy-duty, actual shot glass. I guess the shot was okay. It was not much like cucumber or ginger, very sweet, and Ecto-Cooler green. One could get into trouble with them …

My history of beer

September 23, 2013

Kelly and Oberon

I’ve been asked by a couple people recently how I came to adore beer as I do. If those folks were curious, maybe you are, too.

I always liked beer well enough, I suppose. In my youth in the early 80s, I tended to favor Stroh’s and Michelob. You can’t judge me—craft beer as we think of it today didn’t exist. I probably favored mixed drinks at that point anyway; I remember being quite fond of brandy old fashioneds at one point. The college years saw me drinking whatever macro beer was in the house party keg. Even in my thirties, I liked vodka tonics best, but it is at that point that I had my first memorable beer experience.

Kelly and NewcastleIt was 1995 and I was spending a lot of time at Rosen’s, the bar next door to my office building. I had graduated to “dark beer” by that point which occasionally meant Guinness Draught, but Newcastle Brown Ale was far and away my favorite. My friends and I ordered some cheese sticks to accompany the beer. Rosen’s, like most places, served them with marinara sauce for dipping. I took a sip of my Newcastle to wash down the dressed cheese and was utterly gob smacked by the burst of cherry flavor that I suddenly detected in the beer. Where had that come from?! I tried the combination at other establishments, but nobody else’s marinara did that to the Newcastle. It was eye-opening in a way I didn’t yet have the knowledge to comprehend (I didn’t yet know of the concept of intentionally pairing drink flavors with food flavors beyond, you know, the basic red wine with meat, white wine with fish). But sitting here writing about it eighteen years later, I still remember the moment at the tall table in the front window like it was last week.

Kelly and Summit EPADuring the passing years I began to add Summit Extra Pale Ale to my “dark” beer repertoire, because that and Guinness were what my bowling alley had on offer. Because Summit was a nice caramelly, amber color as opposed to see-through yellow, it was considered ”dark.” This was still early craft days; I had no idea that Summit was a craft beer. This wasn’t one of my epiphanal beer moments but it bears mentioning, it think, because Summit EPA is the original craft beer in town and remains one of the best and one of my favorites, even with all the upstarts that have come onto the scene.

Fast forward to 2005. One of my bowling friends was well into wine, and invited me to a wine tasting on Nicollet Island. I dutifully tagged along, listening to him geek out on trying to learn things about wine. I enjoyed tasting different wines and gaining a little knowledge, and I really enjoyed the food samples from local restaurants and wished they served bigger bites. I eventually found myself wandering over to the side tent where there were a few brewery tables set up.

Thinking back, I suppose Summit had one of the tables, but it was the Bell’s Brewing beers that I was most interested in sampling. A coworker adored their Two Hearted Ale so I wanted to taste that one, though I hadn’t yet gone to the hop side (that could be a whole other post about me and beer!). I tried the three or four brews that they had there, and it was the Oberon wheat ale that tickled my fancy. I took my sample and went back into the main room.

The first food table I encountered was manned by the chef from Murray’s Steak House who was sautéing up some buttered steak and mushroom bites. I love steak. I love mushrooms. I love butter. I ate the sample. I washed it down with the last couple sips of Oberon. And that was when I had my beerpiphany.

Just as the Rosen’s marinara had done something to the Newcastle, so did the steak-mushroom-butter combination transform the Oberon into one of the most amazing taste moments I still have ever had. All the flavors complimented each other perfectly. That was when I realized that beer could be something special.

As I aged, I eased into hops, and focused my consumption on IPAs. The craft beer movement took off and there was more beer in more styles available. My same coworker who liked Bell’s Two Hearted also adored Chimay Rouge Belgian trippel. That was another style that I just didn’t like the taste of. Yet.

Three Philosophers ready to serveNow it’s 2009. Some friends of friends moved from California to Minneapolis and we became friends. They are foodies and drinkies. They invited me over for Thanksgiving dinner. They did the research and figured out that Ommegang Three Philosophers Belgian quad was just the right beer to serve with one of the courses. To me it didn’t taste as “Belgiany” as Chimay had when I had tried it. And again, it paired absolutely perfectly with the food. Are you noticing a trend yet? The Three Philosophers had a milder Belgian flavor along with prune and cherry (but there was no marinara in sight). I tried other Ommegang beers (which are mostly all Belgian-style of one sort or another) and found them all to be gentle versions of their styles. I decided maybe Belgian beers weren’t so bad after all.

By now, a couple of years ago in 2011, I had embraced the craft beer movement with full enthusiasm. I had beer geek friends and many acquaintances in the industry. I eagerly tried new, different beers whenever I could. I started attending beer classes. I was voluntarily ordering Belgian beers and liking them.

Except…

Within the Belgian genre live sour beers. And within sour are lambic and Flanders. I tried to wrap my taste buds around sours because many beer drinkers who knew far more than I really liked them and I wanted to be on par with my beer-smart friends. But I was struggling to get to a point where I could drink more than a sip or two.

Finally, one of the classes was about sour beers. We had samples of several of the major styles, including a Flanders. And then it happened again. As soon as the class leader described it as tasting like a barnyard or a horse blanket, I turned the corner. Now, those funky Flanders beers are my favorite of the sours. Horse blanket. HORSE BLANKET! What a fun way to think of a flavor! I’m glad I persisted in my effort.

I suppose the broad takeaway from this is that trying new things can lead to incredibly rewarding experiences. When you’re contemplating whether to go with something outside your comfort zone, remember, you’re not making a lifetime commitment and you might very well surprise yourself.

Horse blankets!

notes from the Belgian/sour beer class

CL_veggie_pie_origrecipe

This is one of those wonderful recipes that comes out fantastically no matter how hard you try to wreck it. If you broadly generalize, you only need three ingredients—2 cups cooked grain, 6 cups chopped/sliced vegetables, 3 ounces grated cheese—well, and seasoning. The beauty of it is you can use whatever you have lying around, as you will see below when you compare how I made it tonight with the original.

CL_veggie_pie_farmers_market

As are many of my favorite vegetables, tomatillos are currently in season and I wanted to get some at the farmer’s market this afternoon. I found an excellent tomatillo soup recipe (by the way, disregard the photo of the red soup that is the default and click through until you find the lovely photo of green soup in a square white bowl—that’s how it really is, and I pulled the chicken rather than diced it) but since we’ve been in the depths of the summer sauna for the last week, soup is kind of the last thing on my mind, delicious though that recipe is. Then I remembered the Cooking Light (magazine) roasted vegetable tart that I’ve been making for years and knew I could make a Southwestern version based around the tomatillos. I trotted over to the market and filled my bag up with the fixins, then quickly retreated back to the subpar air conditioning in the office.

Thursdays during the non-winter season (this is Minnesota, we were still having snow in April and May this year) the market happens downtown on Nicollet Mall. It’s an offshoot of the larger, daily market on the west edge of downtown. It’s pretty good, though I’d estimate that about half of the vendors don’t grow anything and peddle the B- or C-string commercial produce that stores and restaurants reject. I’m a little skeptical that those bananas were grown here in the northwoods.

CL_veggie_pie_prep

For actual farmer-grown stock, it is my impression that the best bet is the stalls on the north end between 5th and 6th Streets. And if they don’t grow what they sell themselves, at least they have the courtesy to hide the commercial waxed cardboard boxes and remove the stickers from the items. But I’m confident that their offerings are homegrown. I remembered from a couple years ago that the one family had tomatillos—big, giant, fresh tomatillos. Tomatillos are one of my favorite, newer ingredient discoveries. I gave them a shout-out three years ago. You should try them if you are unfamiliar with them. My favorite way to use them is in my “Mexican” pizza—you can get the scoop on that under the third photo in this post.

Anyway, I’ve kept you long enough. Here’s the original recipe, and below is how I made it tonight. For simplicity’s sake I copied and pasted some of the instructions but that doesn’t mean I’m a plagiarist (erm…). I’m just lazy. You don’t be lazy and make this!

CL_veggie_pie_out_of_the_oven

Southwestern Summer Vegetable Pie
(adapted from Cooking Light)

Ingredients:
1/4 cup regular quinoa, cooked
1/4 cup red quinoa, cooked
1/4 cup black rice, cooked
2 large egg whites, lightly beaten
1/4 cup Swiss cheese, grated
1-1/2 cups sliced red bell pepper
1 cup sliced onion
2 cloves garlic, crushed/minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cups sliced tomatillo
1 medium tomato, sliced
salt, pepper, oregano, crushed red peppers to taste
1/2 cup pepper Jack cheese, grated

Directions:
Cook the grains according to package directions. Combine in a medium bowl and let cool.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 450°F. Toss the bell pepper, onion, garlic, and olive oil together in a bowl. Place mixture in a baking dish coated with cooking spray. Bake at 450°F for 15 minutes.

Because the tomatillos and tomatoes cook down and get watery, I did the following. Place the tomatillos in a second baking dish coated with cooking spray. Bake at 450°F for 10 minutes. You can do this concurrently with the peppers and onions. At the same time, sauté the tomatoes until their liquid is reduced, about 7 or 8 minutes. Combine all cooked vegetables in a bowl. Stir in seasoning.

Reduce the oven temperature to 400°F.

Combine the egg white and Swiss cheese with the quinoa mixture. Press into a 9-inch pie plate coated with cooking spray. Bake at 400°F for 10 minutes. Remove from oven.

Reduce oven temperature to 375°F.

Sprinkle 1/4 cup pepper Jack cheese over quinoa crust. Top with vegetable mixture. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup pepper Jack cheese. Bake at 375° for 30 minutes or until cheese is golden brown.

CL_veggie_pie_serving