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Category Archives: Restaurants

Behind the Kitchen Door

Behind the Kitchen Door

Live in the moment.  Experience now.  Be fully present.

These are concepts that have received a ton of press recently but which I’ve struggled greatly with.

In my work as a lawyer I’m not exactly allowed to live in the moment.  It’s my job to look forward, to anticipate what can go wrong, to strategize how to get from Point A to Point B, to plan, and to predict arguments and defenses.  On the flip side, I’m also expected to look backward at what went wrong and analyze the relevant facts that are foundation of the strategy I must employ to fix an existing problem or resolve a dispute.  Occasionally I get a writing or research project that will pull me in to “The Zone” where I can focus and tune out the world, but for some reason those have been rare this year.  At the end of each day I feel tired and my mind goes blank, but rarely have I felt like I’ve accomplished anything productive or created any positive change in the world.

In a soulful conversation this summer with my good friend Stephanie, a chef and event coordinator at Black Star Farms, I had a difficult time articulating my lack of contentment with the Now.  Instead of wallowing or trying to “fix it,” though, she impulsively invited me to join the Black Star chefs in the kitchen for the September harvest dinner.  Stephanie is one of those people who has the gift of eminent Presence in the Now.  She focuses on nothing but you when she is with you.  She makes each person she encounters feel as though they are the most important person in her world.  She also has the gift of working very well under pressure and being a creative problem-solver.  There are no unforeseen difficulties that she can’t handle.  This is what makes her such a shining success as an event coordinator and such an asset to Black Star Farms:  she is a Present person.

Squash1That also makes her a gifted chef.  Anyone who loves to cook knows that being in the kitchen is a great way to be consumed in the moment.  I mean, one can never really think too far ahead when making poached eggs, right?  Mealtimes have been the one time and place I have been able to be fully present in my life this year.  And this last week’s Summer Squash-themed Harvest Dinner was the epitome of presence of mind.Squash3After Stephanie clothed me in her black chef’s jacket and left me in the kitchen, Executive Chef Jonathan Dayton looked at me and with his quietly intense, good-humored grin asked, “you ready for this?”  And I said, “All I want is to NOT be in your way, and to be useful.  Put me to work.”

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Ask and you shall receive.

I was given a box of about two hundred of the tiniest baby patty pan squashes you’ve ever seen.  Many were no bigger than a blueberry, with their tiny, delicate blossoms still attached.  It was my glamourous and enviable job to wash them all under cool running water.  And I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the water.  Fail.  So embarrassing.  Until one of the veteran staffers came over to help me and took three turns on three different handles before getting the water to run himself.  Not so embarrassing after all.

After surviving the new-kid hazing that was washing the baby squashes, Street asked me to chop some toasted pine nuts.  I poured about ten ounces of them onto the cutting board and immediately laughed and asked Street if he would be annoyed if I chopped them one at a time.  I got a look that said, “you haven’t been here long enough to be funny.”  I mean, there were only fourteen other things on the first plate besides those pine nuts.  Hurry the eff up, newbie.

Squash4So for the next four hours I was completely, 100% consumed with helping plate up the most incredible six-course wine-paired meal I’ve ever experienced.  The first plate was an absolute work of art.  I was fascinated by Chef Dayton’s simple method of separating and poaching egg yolks and arranging them with paper-thin slices of zucchini and summer squash to create a dish he called squash carpaccio (or, as I thought of it “squashpaccio”) dressed in a beautiful basil oil and decorated with a dozen delicate little flavor accents that I would never have thought would be so explosive together.  Purple basil, red wine salt, ricotta cheese (which almost did not end up on the plates because we all forgot about it until one of the guests asked where it was; oops!  You’ve never seen 24 cups of ricotta cheese miraculously appear on a dinner table as quickly as those did.  Way to work In the Moment, Cathy, Katie & Brad!).  Paired with Black Star’s famous “BeDazzled” bubbly dry white wine, it was clearly the favorite course of the night.

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Until the goat was served.

The goat.  My Lord.  The “main course,” it was roasted and shredded, stuffed with chevre (goat’s cheese) inside a large delicate squash blossom, coated in a light breading and baked until crispy on the outside, served over a pool of creamed corn sauce – it was a comforting combination of savory, sweet, rich and creamy that involuntarily made one’s eyes drift to a close in order to fully appreciate that first bite.  Served with Black Star’s dark red Arcturos merlot, it quietly said, “winter is coming…” and with that, the September harvest dinner was complete.

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(PS, even as I type this I’m falling back into the blissful centered zone I felt when I was there.)

There was also a smoked course with smoked zucchini “steaks,” duck ham, smoked tomato and smoked butter.  That was amazing.

But wake up!  Yes, there was a squash dessert.

Dessert.  Ahh, yes.  Everyone knows dessert is my thing.  And Stephanie is the resident pastry chef at Black Star, so it’s no wonder that we initially bonded over buttercream.  Much earlier in the night, before the dinner guests arrived, Steph and Jon were discussing the delicate timing and logistics of service and plating, including making chocolate ganache to serve with her citrusy zucchini cake with cocoa buttercream filling and Street’s zucchini ice cream.  During a silence in their discussion as they weighed the who’s-doing-what-when, I grabbed the bowl of fancy chocolate chips out of Stephanie’s hands, looked at her with all the confidence in the world and said, “ganache and I are great friends, I got this one.”  She shrugged, looked at Jon, and said, “Cool!”

(No joke, I babysat that chocolate ganache over a double-boiler all night long and was TERRIFIED I would ruin it.  I have accidentally ruined chocolate ganache once or twice.  It’s possible.)

Anyway, the dessert turned out just as good as it looked.  I will even boast that it was my idea to top it with a little flaky sea salt – which I think took it to the next level.

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I did not want that night to end.

Being the gracious and entertaining hostess, Stephanie pulled us kitchen staff out to the dining room for introductions after the dinner was complete, and gave me a second to say a few words.  I was almost in tears as I told the restaurant guests that I wasn’t really a chef, but I was a lawyer and was just playing one on tv.  I told them that Stephanie and I met and became instant friends five years ago as I planned my own wedding at Black Star.  And Stephanie knew this summer I needed to do something different, something positive and creative with a team of talented and fun artists, so she invited me to participate in this event.  I thanked Don Coe, Black Star’s managing partner who was attending the dinner, for giving his staff a license to create experiences and memories like this for their guests, and told him that the reason his business is so successful is because of the people they have taking care of it.  I thanked Stephanie (at least I hope I did) for having the vision and insight into my life to know how greatly a night in their kitchen would inspire me.  I felt like the luckiest person in the room.

2015 UpNorth-132Pulling off a successful, artful meal certainly takes planning and strategy, but more than anything it takes a willingness to be flexible to take advantage of whatever ingredients look perfect in the moment.  Steph and Street shopped the farmer’s market that same morning for many of the items that ended up on our plates that night.  And it takes preparation, training and education, but also instinct and raw talent that no one can teach you.  In the end, getting a perfect plate to the table takes attention to detail, choreography, timing, and service that is a sensual experience that must be lived 100% in the moment.  The food should be savored and appreciated with four of the five senses: sight, smell, touch and taste.  With a little good conversation and music, all five of our senses are nourished and we are made truly whole, if only for a moment.  That moment, created by the talented team at Black Star, is something I wish everyone could experience. 2015 UpNorth-119Being involved in assembling that meal was a joy I can hardly describe.  Somehow, like Stephanie, I need to find a way to be more mindful of the creative opportunities and positive moments my own work can present.  Because when we focus our energy and effort on the people and tasks immediately before us, I honestly believe the recipients of those efforts feel more aptly served and the tasks get done more effectively.  Being present now allows us to be flexible and avoid disappointment.  And sometimes, serendipity results from a lack of planning.  So I’m going to try to stop looking for the key to the door in front of me and just enjoy being in this room for a while.  Maybe what I’m looking for is right here.

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My Salad Muse ~ A Vinaigrette Experiment

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Last night was the fourth time in recent memory that I “WOW!!!”’d over a salad. 

Salad. 

I have no pictures.  Cuz, I mean, it’s salad. 

Oh wait, here’s one: 

That lovely soon-to-be clean plate was, just moments before, home to THE single most delectable combination of food stuffs I’ve eaten since…. um… probably February.  (You may notice a trend: when we go Up North, we eat extremely well.  When we eat extremely well, I blog about it, and then try to replicate what we ate Up North, then blog about that.) 

Anyway, that salad, the Muse, as I will now call it, was fed to us at the Boathouse on Old Mission. 

Its proper name on the menu was “apple beet salad,” which was deceptively misleading and caused me to blow past it without reading the description on first glance.  Upon further review, third trip down menu lane, I read all the way to the end of the description & ran smack into this:

“vanilla cinnamon vinaigrette.”

And I died a little. 

Nine dollars later, in the name of research and development, I declared the Boathouse apple beet salad to be the most wonderful salad I’ve ever, EVER had.  Possibly the best non-meat, non-dessert dish I’ve ever eaten. 

Envision the plate (cuz, as noted above, I was too preoccupied with eating the salad to photograph it – bad blogger):  Crispy white apple matchsticks on top of a fluffy mound of dark green ruffly spinach leaves, sparkly red beet pieces (ignore the beets if you don’t like them, I just pushed them off to Rick’s side), a perfect canel of creamy goat cheese on the edge of the plate, and a healthy scattering of toasted whole marcona almonds. 

Then inhale:  the scent of vanilla, apple & cinnamon hit me in the face with more force than I thought vanilla was capable of.  Savory, sweet, tangy, crispy, crunchy, cool, creamy, rich, and somehow umami, I swear.  Divine.  Perfect with the cold Bry’s estate dry reisling we ordered.  

(Yes, I was drinking two different glasses of wine – I ordered the veal as my entrée so I needed a red, too, sheesh.) 

Luckily that afternoon Rick & I ran 7 miles.  I call that 700 spare calories.  I saved up some of those for dessert on Sunday… this little beauty:  

Lemon tart with a sea salt crust & chocolate sauce at Riverside in Leland.  Again, a remarkably perfect flavor pairing.  I almost want to shed a tear just thinking about it.  And of course re-create it at home in cupcake form.  More on that later.

Anyway, so that apple-vanilla-cinnamon salad at the Boathouse changed my life. 

Yesterday, unable to shake the memory of it, I began experimenting with vinaigrette at home.  I downloaded a few recipes off the interwebs to get familiar with the oil-acid ratios.  I went to Meijers (yes, it is “MeijerZ”) & bought some fabulous produce (I’ve found that the boxed organic 50/50 spring mix/baby spinach is the best base for any salad and it makes a huge difference).  The grocery cart just about filled itself with berries, apples, cukes, radishes… 

I pulled out the blender when I got home and set my print-out references on the counter.  I followed one recipe for blueberry-balsamic vinaigrette to the “T” and wasn’t terribly happy with the result.  So I put it in a jar and started over. 

So in the blender went more blueberries, salt, pepper, Splenda, a little water, apple cider vinegar, and – wait for this – almond emulsion (extract).  Yes, almond flavoring, like you’d use in baking.  That was all blended till smooth, then drizzled with a bit of canola oil.  Here’s the recipe – make it if you get a chance:

Blueberry Vinaigrette with Almond Essence:

        1/4 cup fresh blueberries

        3 Tablespoons apple cider vinegar

        1/8 tsp almond emulsion or extract

        1 packet of Splenda or up to 1 teaspoon honey or sugar for desired sweetness

        1/4 – 1/2 tsp salt

        1/4 cup canola oil

Blend first 5 ingredients til smooth.  Then, with blender running, drizzle in the oil.  Refrigerate for 1/2 hour or more for best flavor distribution. 

I’m smacking myself in the face for not taking a picture of this salad. 

Not only was the dressing phenomenal, but so was the mix of fruits, veggies & nuts:  the aforementioned 50/50 greens mix, sliced cucumbers, radishes, celery, pink lady apples, black seedless grapes and toasted pecans.  If you have any kind of food-sensitive imagination you can know inherently how delectable, in flavor and texture, that combo was.  Together with my blueberry almond vinaigrette…  WOW. 

Next time I promise I’ll take a picture.  This time, I leave you with a cocktail inspiration.  Something Smith & Wollensky call The U.S. Mint – gin muddled with mint, cucumber & tonic.  THE BEST summer drink.  One of two reasons I grow mint (mojitos are the other). 

Thank you Chef Street for posing with my lovely drink.  Your freshly-pressed vintage shirt and dirty martini are definitely better than any backdrop I could design 😉 

PS ~ no matter how much I gush about the food, good friends are the best side dishes.   Okay, good wine is right up there, too. 

Hoarders: Bakery Edition

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 I’m panicking a little right now. 

Last weekend I used up all of my favorite shiny pastel sprinkle blend on T’s birthday cake.

And somehow I’m all out of white jimmies. 

This is tragic.  S’making me a little anxious.  I have two big baking projects coming up next week ~ will I have enough of the right sprinkles?!?! 

Well, sure, yah, I have a ton of sprinkles in the cupboard but you don’t understand.  I don’t have those sprinkles.  There’s a reason I have a full container of purple sanding sugar that came in the Easter assortment.  I don’t use purple sprinkles, regardless of whatever form they may be in.  I don’t like purple.  Unless specifically requested, you can bet I won’t use purple sprinkles of my own volition.  Except on Mardi Gras. 

Last year's Mardi Gras assortment: spumoni & bananas foster cupcakes. Mmm.

On the other hand, I also have four full containers of white edible glitter – for the opposite reason.  I use white glitter on almost everything I make – everything with white frosting, especially. 

And if I only have one or two containers of white glitter on hand I know I won’t be able to use it because I’m too afraid to run out and not have any.  This is why I have a whole organizer full of sprinkles:  When I only had a few containers of sprinkles I wouldn’t use them.  I hoarded them. 

I thought I was cured of my sprinkle hoarding habit.  I mean, I’ve actually been using a lot of sprinkles lately, even the special gold & silver stars Marcy gave me for my birthday.

So if I’m consuming my surplus of sprinkles that means no more hoarding.  Right? 

Not so sure.  I think I’m a hoarder.  An organized, selective hoarder, but still. 

I’m feeling majorly compelled to go to Zehnder’s this weekend to replenish my stash of shiny mixed-pastel sprinkles and see what else they have that I have to have.  Yes, I fully understand I can order sprinkles in every imaginable color and combination on the internet but there’s just something about shopping for baking supplies at retail that makes me giddy.  Like a kid in a candy store (or, well, like an adult in a candy store, since they sell candy at Zehnder’s too, but that’s beside the point).  It’s just fun. 

Plus, Zehnder’s is the bees knees.  If you’ve never been there, put it on your bucket list.  Frankenmuth, Michigan.  Google it.  Zehnder’s is most popular for its famous buttered egg noodles family-style chicken dinner.  They have this giant topiary chicken in the middle of their streetscape in front of the restaurant that is so well done you can’t even laugh at it.  Zehnder’s bakery is my Mecca.  Well, it’s a secondary Mecca, since Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor is my first.  Frankenmuth is just a heck of a lot closer to home.  The bakery is awesome.  Cases full of gorgeous candies & truffles, beautifully-decorated whole cakes & pies, giant slices of tall layer cakes, cheesecakes, cupcakes, delightful gourmet pastries, cream-filled profiteroles, éclairs, donuts, fruit-filled cookies, silly decorated cookies, breads, rolls, baklava…  seriously, any dessert, pastry or bread you can imagine – including gluten-free stuff! 

And they have a huge retail selection of wonderful & unique kitchen supplies, tools, specialty ingredients, cook books and must-have accessories. 

And most importantly:  sprinkles. 

Galore. 

I’m taking myself there this weekend I think.  Will report back on the loot.