Monday, August 30, 2010

The Devil Is In The Details

As a longtime reader of this blog, you might have wondered why I write multiple posts about a single restaurant. Often times, it will simply be a matter of expounding on dishes from the menu that I hadn't had in previous visits. Sometimes it will be because a new menu or a new special has premiered. Every now and again it will be because something has changed, for the better or worse, and I think it prudent for me to tell you because it might affect whether or not you will choose to spend your hard-earned dollars at the dining establishment in question.

Another possibility is that many of the restaurants I consistently return to are chosen due to convenience. They are either close to where I live or a reasonable deviation from my driving route to and from work. This leaves other restaurants, ones that I've had positive meals at, to be relegated to the once or twice a year schedule. Such was my meal tonight when I returned to Prime at Anthe's on Manchester Road (Rt. 93) in Akron, Ohio. After discovering a completely revamped menu and much improved dining experience a little over a year ago, tonight the thought of returning for another great meal popped in my head as I headed home from work.

The last two times I wrote about Prime at Anthe's, I had praised the food I was served as being hot, tasty, and reasonably priced given the level of cuisine. I was definitely looking forward to a repeat experience. Before going into the review, I should warn you, gentle reader. I wanted to just say that my experience tonight was mostly in-line with previous visits. The food was hot and delicious. That being said, knowing how good past visits have been, I was a little more hypercritical than normal.

I gambled showing up on a Wednesday night at 7 pm without a reservation; fortunately, they weren't too busy. I was seated by the long window in the bar area, with just enough sunlight left outside to be able to go flash-free on my camera. After settling me at my table, my server filled me in on the daily specials and left me with the menu to decide what I wanted for dinner.

Soon she returned with the Prime at Anthe's signature side dishes, the bean salad:

And several of their homemade sourdough rolls:

I won't go into elaborate descriptions of either of these (because I've already done it) except to say that tonight's version was definitely on par with previous visits.

On tonight's specials menu, two appetizers were being offered. First were chicken wings, which, oddly seemed to be a little too low brow for a place like Prime at Anthe's. Second were fried oysters served over a bed of fried spinach and served with a chipotle aioli. Now that definitely sounded interesting.

Not exactly knowing what I wanted for my entrée, I went ahead and placed an order for the oysters while I finished making up my mind. Here was a shot of the oysters when they arrived at my table:

The oysters had been batter dipped and deep-fried. They outer coating was shatteringly crisp and they were not at all greasy. The seasoning was also spot on. My only real complaint was that because there was so much batter (and I do love fried batter), the flavor of the oyster got a little lost. Whereas the fried oysters worked well in the dish, the fried spinach didn't work as well for me. The spinach was definitely crispy, but compared to the expertly-fried oysters, it was a bit too greasy and underseasoned. It was a lovely color contrast to the oysters and aioli, but there was just too much of it. Perhaps doing a chiffonade of fried spinach and sprinkling it over the top of the oysters would've been a more effectual way to garnish the plate.

The chipotle aioli sat at the center of the plate:

Before tasting the oysters, I dipped the tines of my fork into the sauce and tasted it. I was quite surprised at what I tasted. While definitely creamy (and a nice foil for the crispy oysters), what I didn't taste was the smokiness from the chipotle peppers. Quick to check on my culinary knowledge, I looked up the Wikipedia page for chipotle chiles and confirmed that yes, a chipotle was a smoked, dried jalapeño chile. What I tasted in its place, and was certainly confirmed by the presence of bright red chili pieces in the sauce, was the presence of a sweet chili sauce, much like the kind I've used in the past in my own cooking. I tasted the dip several times to confirm my discovery and even asked my server a second time to confirm that the dip was supposed to be a chipotle aioli. Regardless of this nomenclature issue, the sauce was actually quite tasty and worked well with the fried oysters.

When my server had stopped at my table to drop off my appetizer, I had decided to order the Pan-Fried Walleye with a side of the creamy risotto. Knowing that I was already getting full from the pre-appetizer beans and roll and then most of my appetizer, I asked my server if she wouldn't mind boxing my salad to go so that I could eat it later. She agreed and later on that night I enjoyed a mixed green salad with their homemade red wine vinaigrette. Sadly, I forgot to take a picture before starting, but while the salad was tasty and fresh, there wasn't anything particularly unusual about it.

While waiting for the kitchen to prepare my entrée, I sat and listened to the piano player the restaurant had hired for the evening. Shortly thereafter, my entrée arrived:

Here was a close-up of the pan-seared walleye with a bacon, leek, and scallion cream sauce ladled over the fillet:

Since the sauce had only been ladled over the middle of the fillet, I was able to taste a bite of fish from each end of the fillet. I was happy to discover that on the thicker end of the walleye, it was cooked to perfection. Moist, juicy and just translucent, the fish melted in my mouth. Sadly, the fish at the thicker end wasn't seasoned enough. Conversely, the thinner end yielded a drier piece of fish, but more properly seasoned. Fortunately the sauce on top of the fish had enough salt that when combined with the thicker pieces, it lent enough salinity to correct the seasoning on the fish.

Next to the walleye was a large mound of creamy risotto:

While most risottos feature a signature flavor, Prime at Anthe's version lacked a distinctive flavor other than from the Parmesan cheese. The taste of the risotto was good, but the texture bordered on being a cheesy rice casserole instead of a risotto. Many people forget that most of the creaminess in a risotto comes from the starch in the rice released during the cooking process rather than the cheese added at the very end. As I lifted a forkful of risotto from the plate, cheese strands were short, but clearly visible. This told me that much of the creaminess that Prime at Anthe's was hoping to achieve was through the use of extra cheese and not from the starches that are naturally released during cooking.

Lastly, the only remaining items on the plate were the lemon wedge and the cup of homemade tartar sauce:

The lemon wedge was understandable as there was a lot of cream and cheese on my plate tonight and a little bit of acidity could bring balance if I chose to use it. The tartar sauce really threw me, however. Traditionally served with fried fish, it seemed superfluous with tonight's selection, especially given that the fish was served with a reduced cream sauce. While I have nothing against the tartar sauce, per se, and in fact I've had it with other meals here at Prime and it was quite good, it definitely felt oddly out of place on tonight's plate.

I know that picking on the choice of whether to include a cup of tartar sauce may sound hypercritical (and, hey, I did warn you up front, didn't I?). My explanation is that Prime at Anthe's is poised at a price and quality point where every single component on a plate needs to be evaluated. It isn't enough to just have the food taste good, but everything on the place must harmonize with each other and have a point in being there.

After asking for the remainder of my meal to be boxed up, I paid the check, left a business card with a short note to the chef on the back questioning the name "chipotle aioli" and walked back out into the now menacing skyline, threatening to unleash a torrent of rain that would come just a short time later.

While I enjoyed my meal tonight at Prime at Anthe's, there were a few things that I felt were off. Cleveland is blessed with a myriad of really great mid to high-end restaurants. In Akron, I feel we are not quite as blessed with the vast selection, so when I find the gems, I like to hang on to them. When people ask me for Akron-based selections, I have in the past and will continue to recommend Prime at Anthe's, despite the reaction I get from most people who thought that the restaurant had lost its sparkle many, many years ago. I want people to experience the same wonder and amazement I have enjoyed over the last year. My nitpicking, while admittedly a little annoying, is simply my way of pointing out to the kitchen staff that even though they are producing some solid dishes, with just a little bit more tweaking, the results could go from pretty darn good to fantastic.

Friday, August 27, 2010

A Return Visit To The Mad Greek

One of the first places I ever wrote about here on Exploring Food My Way was a stop for lunch at an old college haunt, the Mad Greek. Having moved out of Cleveland in 1997, I don't tend to get back for a meal very often. Historically, when I have come for a visit, there were other places I absolutely had to hit (like Grum's). Sadly, this meant that the Mad Greek was usually overlooked. From what I had heard from other Cleveland food friends, the quality of the food also suffered from too much fluctuation, teetering between great and horrible.

With my current client (my day job) being just outside of the Case Western Reserve campus, I suddenly had the opportunity to try this stalwart out once again. Seeing as it had been forever and a day since I had hooked up with a college mentor and friend, Paul, I suggested we head there for lunch. Paul agreed and before you knew it, we had pulled into the parking lot behind the set of storefront shops that housed the restaurant.

The Mad Greek was located at 2466 Fairmount Boulevard, Cleveland, OH 44106 and can be reached at 216-421-3333. Their website can be located here. There was streetside parking, but most every time I've come to eat here, I've utilized the previously mentioned lot that was behind the building.

Here was a shot of the entrance to the Mad Greek:

Once inside, we were shown to a small table near the rear of the restaurant. Our hostess handed us menus and left us to peruse them:

When our server stopped back to take our order, Paul asked her if they had a specialty. "Palak Tikka, " she responded quickly. Seeing Paul's confused look on his face, she continued, "It's a curried spinach and chicken dish that is served with Jasmine rice." Apparently satisfied with her description, Paul ordered that dish, spice level 4 (see photo above for explanation of spice levels).

I, on the other hand, already knew I was in the mood for Palak Paneer. Instead of spinach and chicken, mine was spinach and cheese. Originally turned on to this Indian specialty by my Scranton-based friend Chris, once I got over how it looked, I was once and forever hooked on how wonderful it tasted. The menu didn't list Palak Paneer, per se, but under the menu item "Paneer," it gave you the option of a spinach curry or a tomato-based treatment. Clearly I choose spinach and I ordered mine spice level 3.

Before our server left, I asked Paul if he wanted to split an appetizer and after agreeing, I completed our order with something from the Greek side of the menu, Saganaki. After our server retreated to the kitchen to place our order, Paul, looking a little confused, said, "I thought this was supposed to be the Mad GREEK. What's with all the Indian food?" I explained that the restaurant had always had this dual personality (at least as far back as I can remember) and besides, the Saganaki we were about to enjoy was from the Greek side of the menu.

Our server soon returned with a pile of the always awesome warmed and fresh pita wedges:

From what I've gathered through anecdotal evidence, the fresh pitas were first brushed with some type of oil before being lightly grilled on the flattop. These are so good that 9 times out of 10, we always have to ask for more to accompany our appetizers. Today's version was equally as delicious as those I remember from my college days. At least that hadn't changed.

After laying down the pita bread on our table, our server got busy doing the final presentation of the Saganaki. Saganaki is traditionally made from a Greek cheese called Kasseri. The cheese was first baked, brought to the table and then flamed tableside for maximum effect. Doused with a little bit of lemon juice, it was then cut up and eaten with the pita bread.

Here was a shot of the now doused Saganaki:

Kasseri was such an ideal cheese for this dish because it doesn't get all melty and gooey as something like Mozzarella would. The combination of the strong salty cheese with a bit of acidity from the lemon juice and the faint flavor of the rum / brandy combination used to flame the cheese all combined to make this dish quite delicious. Paul had never had anything like it before and asked if he could take the rest home for his wife to try. While it probably wouldn't be as good cold as it was piping hot out of the kitchen, I certainly wasn't going to be the one to deny him that pleasure.

Several minutes later, our lunches arrived at the table. Here was a shot of my Paneer dish:

Paul's dish was nearly identical except that in his, he had large chunks of chicken; mine were cubes of cheese. Upon closer inspection of the spinach and cheese portion of my entrée,

I noticed the presence of chickpeas as well. Now, the mere presence of chickpeas in Indian cuisine is not what surprised me. I have had plenty of tasty dishes containing this legume. What surprised me were their presence in THIS dish. Just like spinach and chicken and spinach and cheese, there was also another classic Indian dish, Palak Chana, that was essentially spinach and chickpeas. The Mad Greek's version had sort of combined Palak Paneer and Palak Chana into one hybrid dish. Alright, enough with the nitpicking ... how did it taste?

In a word, tasty. The spice level on mine, a 3 if you remember, was just perfect. I'd say for me it was right around a medium spice level (even though the scale indicated medium hot). Paul's, a 4, was pretty darn hot. With two additional levels of heat available, Paul confessed that he couldn't imagine what a 6 would be like. The curry flavor on my dish was nicely balanced with the other flavors on the dish. The spinach tasted fresh and the chickpeas added a nice crunchy element to each bite. The rice, fresh and studded with various spices and nuts, was also quite good.

Overall, I really enjoyed my lunch today at the Mad Greek. If they had suffered from quality issues before, today proved to dispel those rumors completely for me. Since they are so close to where I currently work, I suspect I will be going back for a few more meals over the next year, so any irregularities should present themselves by then. But as far as my experiences have been so far, I would suspect that you, too, will have a positive experience, whether you eat from the Greek menu, the Indian menu, or both.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Bistro On Main

Ever since I ate the pan seared scallop served over a roasted corn and avocado orzo at this year's Taste of Akron, I have been looking forward to trying a meal at Kent's very own Bistro on Main. Having gotten off work a little early today, I managed to slog my way through the afternoon rush hour traffic and pulled into the parking lot outside the restaurant right at around 5:30 PM. Like most places I visit for the first time, I didn't have a reservation, but figured since it was a normally slow day for the restaurant business and it was early enough in the evening, it wouldn't be a problem.

Bistro on Main was located at 1313 West Main Street, Kent, OH 44240 and can be reached at 330-673-9900. As I already mentioned, parking was available all around the restaurant.

Here was a shot of the front of the restaurant, visible from Main Street:

Once inside, the most difficult decision I had to make was whether I preferred a table in the dining room or the lounge. Figuring I'd have better light for photographs in the dining room, I chose the former. The lighting actually turned out to be dimmer than I had hoped, but fortuitously, the host sat me at the one table where the track lighting was the most focused on the table.

He left me with both the dinner menu and the wine list to study:

My server tonight, Christa, soon stopped by with a glass of water and told me about the specials for the evening. Not to tip my cards too early, in what would turn out to be a wonderful food experience tonight, Christa's efficient service and casual demeanor would make the entire dining experience delightful as well. Most times, I don't often mention the service I receive unless it was substandard. In this case, however, the opposite was true.

To start the meal off, some of Bistro's homemade focaccia and a roasted garlic dipping oil with grated cheese and freshly cracked pepper were brought to the table. Here was a shot of the dipping oil:

And here was a shot of the basket of focaccia:

Of course, me being the bread aficionado that I am, I wanted to smell and taste the bread by itself first. I picked up a piece and turned it over to discover a nicely fried crust:

The crumb of the bread was regular and had a lovely "pull" to it when I went to take a bite. The crumb didn't have a ton of flavor, but that was made up by the salt that had been applied to the top of the bread before baking and especially by the fried bottom crust. The crust came from the olive oil that had been generously added to the bottom of the baking sheet before placing in the fully fermented dough. I get a similar crust on my own focaccia, but since I use only enough oil to coat the bottom of the sheet pan, it is much more lightly fried.

I also tried the bread with the dipping oil and was rewarded by the complex sweetness from roasting garlic in extra virgin olive oil. I've had the oil - cheese - pepper dip before, but this was definitely a nice variation on the standard fare.

After hearing my server describe today's special appetizer, I knew I had to order it. Here was the smoked salmon and grilled corn guacamole with freshly fried corn chips:

I tried the chips by themselves. They were definitely fried, but they weren't greasy and even more importantly, they had clearly been seasoned right out of the fryer. I could have eaten the chips just by themselves. Fortunately, I had the guacamole to pair with them. I loaded up a chip with some of the dip, a small piece of the smoked salmon and several kernels of grilled corn and took a bite. The crispness from the chip contrasted wonderfully with the creaminess of the guacamole. The sweetness from the corn harmonized so well with the acidity from the lime juice, the herbaceousness from the cilantro, and the smokiness of the smoked salmon. This was a true party in my mouth.

I should mention the smoked salmon especially. I am usually wary about ordering smoked salmon because what I normally end up with is over-smoked, dried out fish that just flakes apart when you try and cut it. This smoked salmon was lightly smoked, cooked only on the outside, and was still medium-rare on the inside. I later learned that not only was the smoked salmon made in-house, but so was just about everything else on the menu, too.

Choosing an entrée was difficult because so many items on the menu looked good. After confirming that the "Adult Mac 'n Cheese" listed as a side dish was just a smaller dish of what was listed under the entrées, I decided to make the most out of my visit and order the Fire Roasted Pork Tenderloin as well as a side of the Adult Mac 'n Cheese.

Here was a shot of the Fire Roasted Pork Tenderloin:

I had asked for my pork to be cooked medium and sure enough, that's exactly how it came out of the kitchen:

The pork loin had been generously rubbed with a blackened seasoning and was just a little bit spicy. The meat itself was tender, juicy, and quite delicious. The ends of the roast were just a tad bit more done than the middle, but that was to be expected, so it wasn't a surprise. The chef had thoughtfully provided a grilled lime with my dinner and I used it to squeeze a bit of roasted citrus juice on top of my pork, which gave it a nice zing to the already spicy heat. It truly was a delicious treatment of pork.

Accompanying the pork on my dish were a sofrito rice (on the left) and a house smoked bacon and black bean salad (on the right):

Both dishes were good, and while I think the sofrito rice was a nice side, it didn't stand up to the bold flavors from both the pork and the black bean salad. I don't think that the flavor was off and it definitely looked like a sofrito (colored with oil steeped in annatto seeds), it just didn't command my taste buds attention like the rest of the dish. I think it was just a touch shy of the perfect amount of salt, but even perfectly seasoned, it would've need something else. The black bean salad, however, with the smoky bacon, lime juice, and shallots, was a delicious foil to the spicy pork loin.

Tagging along next to my entrée was my side of Adult Mac 'n Cheese:

What intrigued me about this dish when I first read the description was the obvious attempt at taking this American comfort food and transforming it into something that only an adult palate could understand. The dish was a combination of lobster, homemade chorizo, white cheddar cream, and strips of banana peppers and onions, cooked together and served with orecchiette (literally meaning "little ears"). When my server pointed out earlier that nearly everything on the menu was homemade, I figured that meant most of the flat pastas: fettuccine, linguine, tagliatelle. When she confirmed that the orecchiette was also homemade (unless they ran out, in which case dried was used), I was seriously impressed.

I loaded up my fork with the various components of this dish and took a bite. I was worried that the spice from the chorizo and banana peppers might overwhelm something so delicate as lobster meat. Fortunately, my fears were unfounded. The texture of the pasta was perfect and the flavor combination from the various elements combined in mouth and hit notes of salt, sweet, spice, and sour. What I came to realize as I continued to eat the dish was that there was far more sweet lobster than spicy chorizo. This kept the spice under control. The cheesiness of the dish, which I commented on ad nauseum during this year's Lenten Project, was perfect: enough sauce so that it was creamy, but not so much that it became soupy.

One final element I forgot to mention were the fried spinach leaves which lined the bowl. While a minor element in the flavor of this dish, they added a nice little crunch from time to time when my vigorous forking of ingredients happened to snag one.

I ate about half of my entrée and half of my side before asking for the remainder to be boxed up to go. While the side was a bit pricey at $13 (it was $21 for the entrée size), it was a decent size and paired with a salad or a cup of soup, might actually be large enough for an entire meal.

While I really was stuffed after my meal, my server dropped off the dessert menu for me consider. I figured, at the very least, even if I didn't order dessert, I could include the menu in this post for completeness:

One of the lovely discoveries I made was that desserts were available in full size for roughly $7 or miniature versions for roughly half the price. I typically avoid desserts on most menus because after a quite filling meal, I just can't eat an entire dessert by itself. Often times, if I'm still in the mood for something sweet, I'll ask my server if I can just get a single scoop of ice cream. With these mini desserts on the menu, I could now indulge in a sweet ending to my meal and not add too much to my gastrointestinal discomfort.

As with most desserts at a sit down restaurant, I paired it with a nice black cup of decaffeinated coffee:

I love how the bitter flavor from the coffee plays with the sweetness of the dessert. Speaking of which, here was my mini zabaglione served up in a martini glass:

The whipped cream that the menu mentioned had clearly been folded into the finished zabaglione as it was ethereal and light. It sat on top of macerated blueberries and raspberries. I tasted the zabaglione by itself and found it to be prepared perfectly, with Chambord being substituted for the more traditional Marsala wine. As I dug down into the glass through the multiple layers, I was rewarded with plump blueberries and raspberries. The sweetness of this dessert was definitely restrained, which I very much appreciated.

The only oddity in tonight's dessert was the blueberries. They were definitely fresh, but when I started chewing them, they felt overly "pulpy," for lack of a better word. I tried a berry naked (washed clean with some water from my glass), thinking that perhaps they were maybe under ripened. The berry had a balance between sour and sweet and other than the strange chewy texture, it tasted like an in-season blueberry. I consulted with a foodie friend of mine and he suggested that either it might just be the varietal of blueberry or that perhaps a light amount of rain during the growing season altered the texture slightly. Don't get me wrong, the dessert was still tasty, just a little weird texture-wise.

After paying my check, I asked my server one final question: "Who is running the pass tonight?"

Now, my reason for this very pointed restaurant-speak question was that I was curious if Chef Aaron Ruggles was managing the kitchen tonight. Being that it was a typically "off" day for the restaurant business, sometimes chefs will leave the sous chef or chef de cuisine in charge and take a day off. Figuring that this question, in combination with the fact that she caught me taking pictures of my food earlier in the evening, might tip her off that I was more than just a regular patron, she responded:

"It's the chef, Aaron Ruggles."

And then after a few seconds of reflection, she surprised me even more by adding:

"Oh, is this your first time visiting us?"

And she helpfully pulled out the customer survey form from the inside of the plastic book in which the had come. That was definitely not the question I thought she would be asking me. I thought about leaving my blogger business card at this point, but decided that since I had my answer, I thanked her, grabbed my leftovers and headed back out into the summer air.

Tonight's meal, with the exception of two minor blips, was excellent and I am looking forward to returning again soon to try even more of the menu that Chef Ruggles has put together. While I'm not sure how busy they get on the weekends, I don't think you would have any problem walking in off the street earlier in the week and getting a table in either the dining room or the lounge. While some of the entrées reach into the mid $20's, there were quite a few in the low to mid teens as well. Bistro on Main would make an excellent date night restaurant without breaking the bank. I highly recommend you check them out as soon as you can.

Bistro on Main on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 23, 2010

Kitchen Challenge: Bread Out Of A Campfire Oven?

I've come to discover over the years as a bread baker, good bread can come out of almost any oven. While most people assume that you need a top-of-the-line Viking or Wolf range costing in excess of $5,000 in order to get good results, it turns out that good technique almost always triumphs expensive hardware. While there are certainly kitchen tools that I use in my routine baking that I would be sad to see go (like my KitchenAid Pro 600 or my digital scale) since they make my job easier and more consistent, in the end, almost any oven will work and can be cajoled into sending out the wonderful aroma of baking bread.

To prove this point, I was recently contacted by Beth Knorr, manager of the Countryside Conservancy and more specifically, the Howe Meadow farmers market that I've written about several times before, and was asked if I'd like to do a cooking demonstration during one of the weekly Saturday markets. Intrigued (and honestly, quite flattered) by this notion, Beth and I compared datebooks until we agreed that my demo would take place from 9 am - noon on Saturday, August 21st. At the time Beth initially contacted me, I still had some time to plan what dishes I wanted to make and as my weekend got closer, I stopped by the market to see what types of products and produce I would be able to use.

Fortunately, one of the purveyors, Alex from Mud Run Farms, was still selling his two pound bags of freshly ground whole wheat flour. I had used this flour in a previous entry when I made whole wheat fettuccine (recipe is at the link) for a dinner I cooked for my grandmother and me. I decided that I should stick to what I know best and make my honey whole wheat bread while highlighting the flour that Alex was selling at his stand. I bought several bags of the flour from him a week prior to my demo anticipating that I might need some in doing my preparations the night before the big event.

The bread recipe I would be using today has gone through several iterations as I've added, removed, and changed ingredient amounts to make it taste better and better. For those who might feel challenged at making bread, I will give you the simpler "dump and stir" recipe. While it's still a tasty bread, the tweaks I will be presenting (and the extra time required) for the more complicated recipe are well worth your time and effort. Both recipes use the same amount of ingredients, it's just that my tweaked version has you using some of the ingredients the night before.

Here's the dump and stir recipe:

Honey Whole Wheat Bread
325 grams Bread flour
425 grams Whole Wheat flour
14 grams (1 tbsp) Canola oil or Light Olive oil
42 grams Honey
26 grams Wheat germ
50 grams Ground flax seeds
8 grams Instant yeast (use 10 grams of Active dried)
17 grams Sea salt
540 grams Water, room temperature

You will notice, gentle reader, that everything I measure is in grams or ounces. Weighing ingredients is FAR more accurate than measuring by volume (i.e., cups). It's worth your while to spend the $30 on a digital scale accurate to the gram. It's a shame that 99% of cookbooks out there don't measure by weight; I think people who are scared of baking because recipes don't turn out well would have much better results were they to measure by weight rather than volume.

Now that I've given you the basic recipe, let's proceed to my tweaked version. The night before you want to make the dough (or do this in the morning if you want to bake at night), you need to make two items, a soaker and a pre-ferment called a poolish. For these items you'll need both the bread flour and the whole wheat flour:

In a container big enough to hold both the whole wheat flour and the water, measure out:

200 grams Whole Wheat flour
250 grams Water, room temperature

Using a fork, gently stir the two together and make sure that all of the flour is hydrated. Cover the container and place it in the refrigerator. Congratulations, you've just made a soaker! A soaker is used to pre-hydrate some of the flour in order to not only give it a chance to fully hydrate before being used, but also to help start breaking down some of the more complex carbohydrates into simpler sugars that the yeast will use for food. The reason that you place the soaker into the refrigerator is that all flours contain naturally occurring wild yeasts in them and if you let it sit out overnight, those yeasts might actually start to grow.

Here is what the finished soaker should look like:

It doesn't look particularly appetizing to you or me, but trust me, the yeast will love it.

Next up we need to make the other pre-ferment, the poolish. A poolish almost always consists of equal weights of bread flour and water with just a tiny pinch of yeast. For the poolish, you will need:

250 grams Bread flour
250 grams Water, room temperature
2 grams Instant yeast

Place these ingredients into a large container and using a wooden spoon, vigorously stir the ingredients to combine. You are looking to not only hydrate the flour, but also start the activation of the gluten. It only takes about twenty seconds of vigorous stirring and what you end up with looks like a really thick pancake batter:

Again, cover the container and put it into the warmest part of your kitchen (I used the top of the refrigerator). After 8-10 hours, that little bit of starter will have transformed into this:

Note that when I first put the poolish into this container, it measured at less than 1 quart (I also made a double batch of poolish, so a 2 quart container will probably be big enough for a single batch). The finished poolish nearly tripled in volume. When you take the lid off, you will notice the delicate structure of the dough and all of the bubbles at the surface. Take a deep breath and smell decidedly alcoholic aroma which comes from the yeast's consumption of the sugars in the flour; this is a sign that it's ready to use.

Now that we've done our pre-dough work, let's take a look at the rest of the ingredients:

For today's bread, I ended up using grapeseed oil instead of Canola. You really can use any light tasting oil from your pantry. To add an extra layer of punch, you could also substitute pumpkin seed oil. Having finished my soaker and poolish, I went ahead and measured out the dry and wet ingredients for the following morning. This technique is called mise en place and is literally French for "everything in its place." It's a wonderful method for making sure you have all of the ingredients for your recipe by first measuring each out into its own container before combining to make the recipe.

First I measured out the remainder of my dry ingredients (minus the salt):

75 grams Bread flour
225 grams Whole Wheat flour
26 grams Wheat germ
50 grams Ground Flax seed (also called meal)
6 grams Instant yeast (or 1 packet of Active dried)

These I placed into a single container and mixed with a fork to combine:

I placed a lid on this and just left it on the counter for the next morning. Next, I measured out my wet ingredients and my salt:

14 grams Canola oil
42 grams Honey
17 grams Sea salt

Even though the salt is considered a dry ingredient, you don't want to mix it in with the yeast because it might kill it before you have a chance to activate it in your mixer. All my pre-baking work now done, I retired for the rest of the evening.

The following morning, I got up nice and early and pulled out my trusty KitchenAid mixer with dough hook attachment. In the large stainless steel bowl, I used a flexible scraper (you could also use a spatula) to add in all of the poolish and soaker into the bowl. I then dumped the contents of my pre-measured dry and wet ingredients into the bowl on top of them. I kept the salt aside for now.

At this point, I measured out:

40 grams Water, room temperature

You might need it, you might not. I attached both the bowl and dough hook to the mixer and turned it to the first position ("1") to begin mixing the ingredients. After about thirty seconds, I adjusted the mixer to the second position ("2") and gradually added the salt to the dough in a continuous stream. After adding the salt, I set my timer for six minutes and let the machine continue to knead the dough. Today I didn't need to add any additional water, but during those six minutes of kneading, use the extra water if the dough is looking dry and not coming together nicely. The dough should be fairly wet, which means it will be a little sticky to the touch.

After my six minutes of kneading, I turned the machine off, detached the bowl and walked it over to my large plastic proofing container:

It is important that you oil your container or the dough might stick very badly when it is time to turn it out onto your work surface. I used a pan release spray, but if you wanted to oil the container by hand, you could certainly do that, too. Use your flexible bowl scraper to transfer the dough from the bowl to the container and place the lid on.

The dough will now go through two rises. The first rise normally takes about 60-90 minutes, depending on the warmth of your kitchen. For me, I made my second dough, packed everything up into my car and headed to the market. Ninety minutes after making my first dough, it had grown quite a bit:

At this point, I used my flexible bowl scraper (it's quite the handy tool, no?) to "punch down" the dough by "grabbing" the dough at the edges of the container and folding the dough onto itself in the middle. I worked my way completely around the container. At this point, you re-cover the dough and let it go through a second rising. Folding the dough over onto itself allows you to redistribute both the yeast and the flour that feeds it. The second rising usually takes about 1/2-2/3 the amount of time as the first.

When the dough has risen for the second time, it is time to divide the dough evenly and create the final shapes. The recipe I've posted above makes roughly three (3) pounds of dough. When I bake on my pizza stone, I normally make three one pound balls, or boules. Because of the size of the camping stove I was using today, that wouldn't be possible. Instead, I brought out my loaf pans and made two 1 1/2 pound loaves instead.

Using my digital scale, I divided the dough evenly. I then prepped my loaf pans by spraying them with more of the pan release spray I had used earlier. To shape the loaves, take one of the halves and place it on your work surface. Flatten it out slightly and then grasp both the left and right ends and slightly pull them out before folding them back onto the dough. Then, using your thumbs and palm, start at the top and begin to fold the dough down towards the bottom, a little at a time, three to four tucks being plenty.

Then, using your palms, gently adjust the "log" so that it looks fairly even and place the formed loaf with the seem side down in your loaf pan:

Here were my two formed loaves:

Cover this with a tea towel and allow them to proof until the dough has mostly filled the pan. Depending on how warm it is (and it was pretty warm at the farmer's market), this could take 30-45 minutes.

When you've got about fifteen minutes left before the loaves are fully proofed, turn your oven on to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Unfortunately, today's oven,

was wildly inconsistent in the temperature gauge. When I first turned it on, I set the knob for the oven to "hi". This yielded me an internal temperature of 500+ degrees (according to the temperature gauge on the oven itself). Even with the knob turned all the way to "low", the gauge still read a balmy 425 degrees. At this point, the bread was fully proofed and I had no other option than to just give it the old college try.

Place the loaves on the same rack in the middle of your oven, giving them a little space between the actual pans. After ten minutes, lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees and continue to cook for another 20-25 minutes. Half way through the cooking time, you may also have to rotate the loaves from from to back and left to right if your oven has hot spots (and most ovens do). To check whether the bread is done, remove a loaf from the oven and flip it out of the loaf pan using hot pads or a tea towel. Plunge an instant read thermometer into the bottom of the loaf (where no one will see the hole) and make sure the probe goes into the center of the loaf:

The proper internal temperature needs to reach 190-195 degrees Fahrenheit. Remarkably, in my case at the market, it had actually reached the correct temperature, so I removed the other loaf from the oven, flipped it out of the loaf pan and placed both loaves onto a cooling rack:

Having successfully made the first batch of bread, I turned to pan up my second batch only to discover that the heating element of the campfire oven had turned off and nothing I tried would successfully re-light it. In the end, the above two loaves were actually enough to feed the hungry and intrigued crowds who stopped by my booth to try and discover where the wonderful bread smell had originated. When I pointed out that the bread had just come out of the camping stove, I got many wide-eyed stares and the occasional, "REALLY?"

While you will want to wait 45-60 minutes for your bread to fully cool before slicing into it (this allows the gelatinized starches to fully set and give the bread its final structure), I only managed to stave off the hungry onlookers for about ten minutes before I acquiesced and began to feed the gathering masses:

Fortunately, the two loaves that I did manage to bake came out nearly perfect and somewhat serendipitously were just the right amount of samples to feed anyone who wanted a taste. Almost everyone commented on how wonderful the bread tasted, which I took both as a compliment to the recipe I've developed over the years, but also the fantastic flour that I bought from Mud Run Farms. If you want the best results from your cooking and baking, always start with the best ingredients you can afford.

The demonstration now complete, I packed up all my gear and lugged it back to my car. Physically I was tired and sore from all of the standing, but emotionally I was totally thrilled that not only did I get to meet some great market attendees, but also got to feed them some tasty and healthy bread as well. I hope you do give this recipe a try; it might just make a whole wheat bread convert out of you if you already aren't a lover.

Friday, August 20, 2010

eGullet Heartland Gathering: Sunday Brunch

The last official event of this year's 2010 eGullet Heartland Gathering in Ann Arbor, Michigan was to be held at Zingerman's Roadhouse. The Zingerman's brand has many food-related establishments under its umbrella and the Roadhouse seems to be the one place to bring all of the other brands under one roof and serve them to the public in a restaurant setting. The last time the Gathering had been in Ann Arbor (which just so happened to be the first Gathering I had ever attended), the weekend had been finished off with a brunch at the Roadhouse. I was eager to return again and sample the food one more time.

Zingerman's Roadhouse was located at 2501 Jackson Avenue, Ann Arbor, MI 48103 and can be reached at 734-663-3663. Parking was available outside the restaurant in the lot surrounding the building.

Here was a shot of the front of the restaurant:

Once inside, I was shown to our table and when I sat down, I noticed the pre-printed menu sitting at each diner's location. The difference this time around versus the last was that today's brunch had a theme: Everything's Better with Bacon. Instead of just selecting dishes off the regular menu, co-founder Ari Weinzweig had put together a five course bacon tasting menu for our little intrepid band of foodies.

Here was a shot of the menu today (one of the courses was a surprise course and not listed on the menu):

Our server today, Shea, walked around and efficiently filled everyone's drink orders. Knowing that the Zingerman's brand also included a coffee roasting facility, I felt it would be more than acceptable to order a cup of decaffeinated coffee:

The coffee was bitter, rich, and complex all at the same time. It was the perfect accompaniment to the sweet components of this morning's brunch.

The first dish we would be served today was a simple plate with four strips of bacon on it:

It was at this point that Ari joined us at the table and began to explain the four pieces of meat currently in front of us.

* At the left was a piece of bacon from Sam Edwards. The pork used was of a Berkshire variety that was free range and dry cured in salt before being smoked using green hickory wood.

* Second from the left was a bacon from Allen Benton in eastern Tennessee. It was also a Berkshire variety pig and while the most meaty, it was also the most heavily smoked, spending several days in the smoker with hickory wood smoke after being dry cured.

* Second from the right was a bacon from Nueske's in Wisconsin. It was done using a wet cure made from water, salt, and sugar. Wet cures are traditionally done in cooler, wetter climates and dry cures are typically done in hotter, drier climates.

* At the right was a piece of Arkansas peppered bacon from the Schlosser family. It was also wet cured using brown sugar.

I tasted each as Ari went over a description of the curing and smoking process of each. As Ari pointed out, each was an excellent piece of bacon, but each had its own personality. Where one type might pair well with something delicate like fish (i.e., the first variety), others would definitely only stand up to something much heartier (i.e., the second variety). Just based on the boldness of the smoke flavor, I really liked the second sample, the Allen Benton bacon. Some people might think it was too smoky, but it really reminded me of camping out when I was a young child. The other bacons were good, but that one was superb.

After our bacon tasting, the next two courses appeared at our table on the same plate:

On the left was the "Grits and Bits Waffle" and to the right was the "Pimento Cheese & Peppered Bacon Scrambled Eggs." Let's take a closer look.

First, the Grits and Bits Waffle:

These were waffles that actually had bits of Anson Mill's organic grits in the waffle batter itself and was topped with Vermont white cheddar cheese and applewood smoked bacon. Accompanying the dish were small pitchers of Ralph Snow's Michigan maple syrup. I tried the dish sans syrup and while interesting, it didn't quite feel like a breakfast dish without the addition of a little maple syrup. Not so much syrup that the sweetness destroyed the delicate balance of flavors, but just enough to get that sweet / salty combination just right. I think what surprised me the most was that I could really taste the "corniness" from the grits inside the waffle batter. The bacon and cheese served as a source of saltiness, but amazingly, neither was too overpowering.

On the opposite side of the plate were the pimento cheese and peppered bacon scrambled eggs:

The pimento cheese was a homemade concoction consisting of Grafton two-year-old cheddar cheese, mayonnaise and pimentos and was scrambled into eggs with some of the Arkansas peppered bacon. Personally, I've never had pimento cheese before, but I have to say that I could taste each of the unique flavors that made up Zingerman's version, including the creaminess of the mayonnaise. Again, it was a very well balanced dish and the salt and pepperiness already present in the bacon meant that this needed no additional seasoning at all.

The next dish up on our tasting menu was the "Biscuits and Chocolate Bacon Gravy":

As Ari would tell us as this was being served, the tradition of using cocoa powder is quite old, about one hundred and twenty-five years, from the Appalachian region of the country. Since chocolate was too labor intensive to move into the mountains, it wasn't until cocoa powder became available that this incredibly regional dish became popular for family and special occasion dinners. Essentially a bacon gravy that had been studded with large amounts of cocoa powder, the resulting gravy was ladled over Zingerman's homemade buttermilk biscuits and topped off with just a few crumbled bits of the applewood smoked bacon.

How was this rather unique dish? It was actually pretty good. It wasn't particularly sweet, but at the same time I wouldn't call it entirely savory either. It had the consistency of a fudge sauce, but the smokiness from the bacon cut through to let you know that this wasn't exactly a topper for a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It's probably not something I would crave on a regular basis, but at the same time I found the flavor combination fascinating.

When we thought we had finished, Ari had one final dish for us to try:

This was a small dish of maple bacon gelato that they had whipped up just for the occasion. A small scoop, it was the perfect way to end our decidedly savory brunch today. The maple flavor was quite strong and balanced nicely with the saltiness and smokiness from the bacon pieces embedded in the gelato. I don't know that I would order this from a gelateria if I was just looking for something cold to cool me down on a hot day, but as a finisher to our bacon brunch, I think this did an admirable job.

While I decided not to include Zingerman's Roadhouse's regular brunch menu in this write-up because we didn't actually eat anything off of it, I will say that their commitment to quality ingredients does pay off with exceptional flavor on the plate. That being said, expect to pay a bit more for dishes here because of that fact. The prices aren't outrageous, but if the ultimate expression of a dish isn't your cup of tea, then the Roadhouse might not be for you. That being said, the place was packed from the moment we got there to the moment we left, so clearly they are doing something right.

From my two visits, I can definitely recommend that you give Zingerman's Roadhouse restaurant a try if you happen to live in or are driving through Ann Arbor, Michigan. The food might be a little on the pricey side, but you will be getting quality local ingredients and premier artisan products that are expertly prepared and quite delicious to eat. As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. [Ed. Note: Although my old English teacher might rephrase that as "For what you pay, you get." She hated dangling prepositions.]

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