Friday, February 25, 2011

Sick bed cooking

I knew it was a bad idea to commit myself to a blog posting schedule. Today, I've got nothing. Well, almost nothing. As Marge Simpson and all other moms know, we never get a holiday, even when we're sick. So when I heard "Mom, what's for dinner?", I responded, "what are you making?" And then I went to the kitchen and cooked.

For tonight, I'll redefine "local" as locally-obtained. It's deep winter here in the north woods, and fresh produce is scarce. Two more heads of garlic are all that remain from my Meadowlark Farm summer CSA bounty. On Monday, friends Joe and Nancy gave me a huge butternut squash from their garden root cellar and a bag of Ware Farm potatoes. That will make likely make a nice soup this weekend.

Pasta with mushrooms and peas
Pumpkin cheesecake with caramel sauce
A bigger imperative tonight was to use some highly-perishable ingredients that were locally-obtained from my neighbor, Jill, who gifted me yesterday with the fixings for a monster-sized batch of guacamole. In the bag were 9 avocadoes, a bunch of carrots, a sack of cherry tomatoes, 2 lemons, 2 limes, a white onion and a bunch of cilantro. I used about half of that last night for the intended guacamole. Tonight, I tossed some of the remainder into a bowl of mixed greens, along with a little bacon and blue cheese, for a salad. I also made a quick pasta and mushroom dish that I saw on last week. Then I opened a bottle of chianti (that goes well with cold medicine, correct?), added some leftover pumpkin cheesecake for dessert, and no one needed to be deprived just because mom is sick.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Help Bay Bucks and I'll feed you

Pickled veggies

One of my long-time volunteer activities is serving on the board of our local currency initiative, Bay Bucks. I have no qualifications to be on this board other than an inability to say "no" when asked to help a good cause. I made a C in Economics in college and my understanding of this subject has not improved significantly in the intervening years. Even on a micro level, my relationship with money is not unlike my relationship with cars: modern culture forces me to use it, but I'd rather pretend it doesn't exist.

At some point, I will write a blog entry about the value of a local currency and why a tiny group of volunteers here in the Grand Traverse region are stubbornly plugging away to keep Bay Bucks circulating. This is not that post.

Carrot-raisin raita
Black-eyed peas & spinach

As I mentioned, I have limited skills to apply to the actual administration of a functional currency. My contributions are more of the "worker bee" variety. Today, for example, I hosted the board meeting and prepared lunch. Later, while washing dishes and contemplating my Bay Bucks "to do" list, an idea occurred to me. (Jump to the end for the pitch).

Except for dessert, every item on my lunch menu was a recipe from Madhur Jaffrey's From Curries to Kebabs: Recipes from the Indian Spice Trail. Most were described as originating from the Punjabi region. Each dish was simple to make and all but two could be prepared in advance. The overall effect was delicious, with the mint-walnut chutney being a particular hit.

Mint-walnut chutney
Pumpkin cheesecake

I had made the pumpkin cheesecake for Christmas dinner and loved it so much I was eager for an excuse to do it again. The recipe is available online. It is particularly delicious with caramel sauce and whipped cream.

Sadly, my photography skills are not on the same level as my cooking skills. You will have to take my word that lunch tasted much better than it looks here. Not pictured: jasmine rice infused with tomato paste and garlic and matĂ© iced tea. Also, thanks to Stephanie for contributing a delicious herbed gouda, mixed olives and a zatar bread.

At today's meeting, I committed to helping raise much-needed funds for Bay Bucks. Ever since we launched the currency in 2005, our all-volunteer organization has operated with almost no income. We've reached a point where we need to hire some professional services -- particularly an update for our website -- to keep this project viable.

Asking people for money may rank even lower on my skills list than does economics or photography. Even when my kids had school fund-raising projects, I was so intimidated by accompanying them to sell candy or wrapping paper that I would just write a check to the PTO, or buy the quota of Girl Scout cookies myself.

Since I can't buy myself out of this fund-raising obligation, I have hit upon an idea to trade one of my only skills for help for Bay Bucks. So here it is:

For anyone who will donate $100 to Bay Bucks, I will be so grateful that I will prepare a fabulous dinner for you and a guest at my home. Foodstuffs will be organic and accompanied by excellent local wine. Conversation will be pleasant and interesting. I should note that the IRS does not share my gratitude for a Bay Bucks donation; it is a non-profit, but not a 501c3, which means donations, while highly appreciated, are not tax-exempt.

We will also gladly accept donations in excess of $100, even large foundation grants.

Dinner anyone?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Paving Paradise

I've decided to commit to a writing schedule. Henceforth, I will update this blog on Mondays and Fridays. My plan is to write general interest essays for Mondays and something like a local news brief for Fridays.

Since it's Friday...

8th Street (semi-residential) sludge
I had occasion to do some errands around town the past two days, which put me into contact with asphalt in various locations. When snow is melting, asphalt surfaces and their borders are depressingly ugly. A winter thaw makes visible some of the usually-ignored dirtiness that accompanies our fossil-fueled transportation system.

Residential street
On days like these, one can gauge the volume of traffic on a road by the blackness of the snow on its edge. My residential street has a narrow band of dirty snow compared to the several feet of black sludge bordering busy South Airport Road. With evidence like this, it may not be hard to persuade people that motor vehicle traffic degrades our environment, but many will still call it a "necessary evil" and insist we have no real alternatives.

And so in Traverse City, we have a movement afoot to inflict one of these motorized rivers of horror alongside our lovely urban lake. Gary Howe provides details on the proposed Boardman Lake Avenue on his blog, so I won't repeat them here. My knee-jerk reaction to any new project involving asphalt is nearly always "NO", and so it is with this one. I do have tremendous sympathy for the residents of Cass and Union streets who want to reduce traffic in their neighborhood, but I'm not persuaded this plan will do it. I think it's far more likely this road will increase overall traffic in the city than that it will appreciably reduce traffic counts in Old Town. Won't giving motorists a faster route through town encourage more trips?

Neighbors unable to attend public input session
The assumption underlying most discussion about the Old Town bypass is that motor vehicle traffic cannot be reduced, only relocated.  But throughout the automotive age, traffic relocation attempts have invariably increased overall traffic levels and rarely resulted in anything more than a temporary alleviation in the traffic counts on the roads they were intended to help. I could break my link button with studies (here's one), so I'll simply suggest that those interested in learning more do a search on "induced traffic."

Where the new road might go. Rail remnants suggest alternative transport option.
Pre-automotive age transport arterial
Two forms of traffic will be negatively impacted by this road: pedestrians and cyclists. Two years ago, TART constructed a long-awaited footbridge across the Boardman River at its northern intersection with Boardman Lake, providing non-motorized traffic a safe and scenic route from the library and eastside neighborhoods to the Old Town area. I use this trail frequently to travel to Oryana for my groceries and know that it is hugely popular, particular with families. Even today, with hazardous ice patches on the trail and a stiff wind threatening to blow us into the lake, I encountered at least a dozen other trail users on my short walk from the depot to Oryana.

River of cars
The current plans for Boardman Lake Avenue provide a "refuge island" in the middle of the road so that pedestrians and cyclists only have to sprint across one lane of traffic at a time to cross. Perhaps we should be grateful to be considered at all, but I'm personally getting weary of having to jump in front of speeding cars to cross a street. Enough already!

We're intelligent creatures. Can't we do better than this?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Cooks' House

About 20 years ago, when John and I were a newly-married couple working in Washington, D.C., we made a fabulous two-week roadtrip vacation through New England and eastern Canada. Four days were spent hiking and canoeing at the Gaspé Provincial Park in Quebec. When we chose to visit this remote, northern rural area several hours drive from any city, our dining expectations were modest. But wow, were we surprised. Helming the park lodge dining hall, which looked like any other rustic dining hall except for the addition of white tablecloths, was a French-trained chef of excellent skill. For four nights, we feasted like jet-setters, but at an unbelievably low price.

Now we live in a remote, northern rural area far from any city, and we have dining on par with the finest in the nation (and at small town prices). The excellent chefs in northern Michigan have put this region on the national culinary map, and area restaurants, such as Trattoria Stella, have ensured that a visit or relocation here will not result in dining deprivation.

The unassuming exterior
Despite this culinary richness, when the special occasions pop up that get me out of my kitchen and into a chef's dining room, it is always the same room. Since the Cooks' House opened two years ago, it has been my only choice for a fine dinner. This is partly due to it being a five-minute walk from my house but mostly because the food is exactly what I would cook if I could cook that well. It is an exquisite blend of French style and  technique with that indescribable northern Michigan je ne sais quoi.

It is my opinion that an inverse relationship exists between the size of the restaurant and the quality of the food. Sure, this is a generalization, and I have had very good meals at large restaurants. But I can't recall any great meals I've had at a restaurant with more than one location. It's been my experience that even a small chain sacrifices quality.

From that perspective, the Cooks' House is the next best thing to dining in a chef's personal kitchen, especially if that chef is immensely talented and ethical.

List of local sources
Chefs Eric Patterson and Jennifer Blakeslee have an uncompromising commitment to quality and to showcasing the region's finest agricultural products. The menu is inspired by what is available seasonally and locally from small, mostly organic farmers and other food artisans. A chalkboard  lists about four dozen sources that "made our menu possible." Most of them I know, and I appreciate their own commitment to producing food sustainably, or even regeneratively.

The restaurant borders the eastern edge of the downtown district and my residential neighborhood. From the outside, it looks like another house. Inside, one small dining room accommodates about 26 seats (at its original location on the other side of Front Street, the dining room was even smaller). Eric's wife, Theresa, manages the dining room and sets a tone of friendly, casual ease. I feel like I'm almost going to a neighbor's house for dinner, and not just because it's in my neighborhood. The white tablecloths come out at night, but the motif is simple North Woods elegance, with just a small glass containing a votive candle on a bed of river stones as a table decoration.

Pumpkin risotto with quail legs
Like the setting, the food is without pretension. There is no effort to make a cabbage leaf look like a lemon wedge, or whatever certain famous chefs might be getting up to lately. The cooking is expert and straightforward and causes the diner to exclaim, "this is so delicious, I wish I could eat it every night" rather than, "What a stunning plate! I can't believe how creative the chef is. I almost don't want to eat it for fear of spoiling the artistry."

These talented chefs have rightly become superstars in the local foodie scene, but they try to redirect the spotlight to the people on that chalkboard. Eric's and Jen's philosophy is that exceptional ingredients speak for themselves and do not need egotistical chefly embellishments. However, I shop at the same farmer's market and co-op as Eric, and purchase many of the same ingredients, and I can attest that skillful preparation (which Eric and Jen possess in abundance) is also a huge part of the equation.

But it's not just the superb quality of the food that makes me value the Cooks' House. This restaurant is Traverse City in microcosm and not just due to that chalkboard. Its story is so typical of the people that make up this community, some who grew up here and have always known this as "home" and others who have come here seeking a slower pace and deeper connections. Eric was head chef at the Michelin-starred Andre's in Las Vegas, where Jen was his sous chef. Eric and Theresa had been investigating different regions of the country to open a restaurant that would focus on local produce. Jen was interested in partnering and suggested her hometown of Traverse City. Eric did some research and discovered the area matched his requirements.

Like other small, local businesses, the Cooks' House has to contend with the seasonal vagaries of a "tourist town". In the summer, dinner reservations are often filled days in advance and celebrities such as Mario Batali are occasionally spotted there. In winter, half the tables may be empty on a Saturday night.

There are also uniquely Traverse City annoyances, such as the wine policy. Being too small to qualify for a liquor license, the Cooks' House originally allowed diners to bring in their own bottle of wine, which was a wonderful option considering that one of the town's best wine shops was directly across the street. However, apparently BYOB at restaurants is illegal in Michigan, although enforcement is up to local authorities and is ignored in most places. Sadly, someone in Traverse City complained, and the police department decided to shut down this practice at the Cooks' House and the other establishments in the city that were allowing BYOB. Now there is no wine (or any alcohol) allowed, which is why Eric and Jen moved the restaurant to a larger space across the street in an effort to get a liquor license. They expect to have the situation resolved by spring.

In the meantime, I'll continue to do without wine and relish the incredible food.

To those of you outside of northern Michigan, you can enjoy the Cooks' House at a distance. Eric and Jen published an excellent cookbook last year. Some of the ingredients are local, but the spirit of their cooking is to use what is fresh and available, so substitute with things that are local to you.

And, since cooking seasonally and locally is kind of a big thing right now, it's not that hard to find restaurants similar to the Cooks' House all over the country. Thanks to my high school friend, Phil, I've had this place in Raleigh bookmarked since he mentioned on Facebook a few months ago that he was taking his wife there for her birthday. I definitely plan to check it out next month.