Sunday, April 29, 2007

From field to table: feasting at Hogs Back

The delicate, gauzy green of springtime Minneapolis is reaching its annual pubescence. Seemingly overnight, millions of tiny buds have exploded into miniature leafy tufts, the pearlescent violet bunches in my backyard promise a lush (albeit fleeting) abundance of lilacs at any moment, spring-fevered folks of all ages are venturing out clad in shorts and tank tops, and though most home gardens have yet to flourish, our dandelion-ridden front lawn has already bloomed into opulent yellow splendor. With a record number of barbecues at the house (are we up to 6?), perhaps we have been egging summer on more persuasively than we had realized.

Meanwhile, lacking the heat and barbecue quota of a population-dense city, rural western Wisconsin is lagging slightly behind. The grass on gently rolling hills is still subdued from its winter dormancy and not yet spiky and unruly. The forests lining the St. Croix shimmer a sea of speckled green over a profusion of stark, spare trunks and branches. Cows laze about at every other turn, practicing for the summer heat yet to come. All in all, the farms appear calm, just beginning to come back to life after the cold. But at Hog's Back Farm in Arkansaw, WI, the greenhouse reveals the true anticipation of growing season: trays upon trays sprout everything from feathery fennel, delicate tiny field greens, beet leaves appearing to be veined with real blood, and dozens of other still wispy, fluttery herbs and vegetables. It is a fascinating snapshot for a city girl like me, to see the precipitation of what I think of as raw product... this is it, it's more than raw, it's barely nascent. Appropriately, the occasion for this visit was a birthday. Dinner naturally centered around the few yet precious goods that may be culled this early from the farm (nettles, ramps, chives), the farms of nearby neighbors (lamb, raw milk and cream, spinach), and, in the case of my desserts, the fruits typical of spring (rhubarb and strawberry) which had to be "faked" by using stuff from California since the local crops just aren't ready. Perhaps I redeemed myself slightly from this treason by using chives from my much-neglected garden for the bread. You can see all 30 photos here (and note my woeful ignorance to look up from the damn food long enough to take some pictures of the beautiful surroundings!! Next time. Promise.).

Potato and egg yolk ravioli, parmesan broth,
seared lamb liver with chives and white truffle oil

Chickpea and nettle soup

Family style: grilled lamb, risotto, sautéed spinach,
and a relish of grilled ramps, pine nuts and bitter honey

Artisan cheeses with potato-chive rolls

Intermezzo: rhubarb, granité and poached

Raw milk panna cotta with almond praline,
strawberries and strawberry syrup

Assorted macarons

Saturday, April 21, 2007


By the way, when in SF, do drop in to check out the teeny Burmese place Yamo on 18th between Mission and Valencia. This counter service hole-in-the-wall is dirt cheap, and utterly fresh-- seeing as how there would be absolutely no place to keep much of anything prepared in advance. I had the potstickers and the tea salad. The potstickers were decent and pure in their pork and vegetable simplicity, and came with the delicately crisp bottoms so prized in a pan-fried dumpling. I prefer a more tricked-out kind with lots of ginger and chives and stuff, but that's ok. The real winner of my meal was the salad: a small heap of finely shredded cabbage is tossed with tea leaves, green onions, fried garlic, lentils, peanuts, sesame, sprouts, dried shrimp and I don't even know what else. The result is an intriguing mix of crunchy, salty, herby and spicy. It's not dissimilar to Thai salads, I would say. This presentation differs from what I understand to be the more traditional little-piles-of-stuff approach, but I have no complaints. I wonder if I can search out some Burmese in this town..?

Home on the range

Once again here I am in Minneapolis, where the as-of-yet lack of lack of leafy greeness has been compensated for by warm temperatures and lots of sunshine. My appreciation is renewed for how much space this city affords its residents for a fraction of the price of Paris or San Francisco, allowing for such luxuries as multiple bathrooms, sunrooms, covered porches (think bicycle storage), and backyards. Taking advantage of the latter, last night we fired up what was my first bbq in well over a year [edit: actually no-- there was the wildly good June '06 bbq at Mario's!]. We started out with eggplant, zucchini and asparagus all brushed with chile-garlic oil, and quickly moved on to Ryan's killer burger concoction: good-quality beef mixed with salt, plenty of diced red onion, local amablu cheese, a bit of garlic, and lots of fresh ground pepper. On grilled homemade sesame buns, much else in the way of condiments would have detracted from the burger's inherent charred, juicy and salty glory. I'm not positive that other burgers can live up to those standards-- the bar has been raised, and raised high. Finally, we made the practically foolproof Cook's Illustrated grilled pizza, topped simply with garlic oil, San Marzano tomatoes, pretty good brick mozzarella (alas, why is fresh mozz so damn expensive??) and extras like fresh basil, grilled veggies and italian sausage. Awesome. To flaunt my overblown patriotism (ahem), an apple pie was clearly in order (props again to Cook's for their insight). And although the folks at Sonny's down the street were inexplicably out of vanilla, their dense, crunchy almond ice cream stood in just fine (ok, wonderfully).

Beer, burgers, pie... come on, bring on summertime already!

Saturday, April 14, 2007

I'm tasteless-- literally

Besieged by a lingering cold, my sense of taste has been rendered null and void. At times like these, I feel like time slows to a crawl and I pass my colorless days in shadow, a meager shell of a woman. Alright, perhaps I hyperbolize, but when I lose my god-given right to enjoy eating it can seem pretty grim.

I only have a few days left in SF, which leaves me with maybe only a dozen or so meal opportunities... will I be up to the task??

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Hedonism chez Tartine

This past weekend I went on a brief bender at Bar Tartine, dining solo on Saturday night and returning Sunday morning for brunch. I can consequently report that all the good things I had heard about Bar Tartine are true-- the food was honest, simple yet refined and, most importantly of course, very, very tasty. Prices are understandably moderate yet far from prohibitive. Here's the rundown...

Saturday dinner
Walking in at about 7:00, I was seated immediately at the classy marble bar, in front of the garde manger/dessert station. I ordered a glass of Spanish tempranillo rosé from the adorable and friendly bartender/ server, and was soon after brought a sliced hunk of Tartine's signature bread (chewy and almost eggy interior with a fantastic balance of creaminess/acidity surrounded by a dark, crunchy crust) with a small slab of butter. Partly with a mind to cost but mainly because they were more intriguing to me, I ordered two starters as my meal. My server reassured me that the amount of food would be sufficient given its richness, and she was absolutely right. I started with a chilled white asparagus soup with pickled ramps, sautéed local prawns and piment d'espelette. This was hands-down the best asparagus soup I've ever had, period. The soup itself was slightly nutty with real white asparagus character, creamy without being at all heavy, and properly salted. Striped with bright green oil made from the ramp tops, in the center of the bowl were three rosy shrimp, a hidden tangle of ramps and one fried prawn's head. Without hesitation, I investigated the head-- it was shatteringly crisp throughout and utterly shrimpy, in roasty-sweet way. I devoured it. The prawns themselves were tender, almost to the point of melting, and fantastically sweet-- these two presentations of the prawn seemed to be a sly nod to ama ebi. The ramps added a pleasing textural contrast, a bit like enokis, their acidity brightening the other flavors. The piment, dusted over all, united everything with its earthiness and subtle spice. Excellent! Next came a dish whose singular weirdness I simply could not resist: braised pork belly, egg salad, fried potato and baby squid. Yes, on the same plate. Such a combination references nothing that I know of (any insight out there?), but I sensed that it would all come together in the end. And it did: the egg salad mimicked the fatty softness of the belly, the tiny sautéed squids were like the egg yet more toothsome, the diced fried potato lent textural interest and were a logical counterpart to the pork, and then just when you thought this was all sounding morbidly rich... a generous drizzle of salsa verde cut through like a laser with its herbal lemony-ness. Without its acidic punch, the whole would have seemed greasy and leaden-- in fact there was a decent slick of oil on the plate, ironically from the salsa. But it all balanced out enough for my taste, and I even mopped up that oil slick with the last of the wonderful bread. Observing my gluttony, my thoughtful server splashed a bit more wine into my by-now empty glass to wash down my last few bites. At this point I could have stopped eating as it was plenty of food. However, in fulfilling my "professional obligation" to try dessert (ha- but no, it really is partly true), I went ahead and ordered a rose geranium panna cotta with crumbled coconut macaroon, rhubarb confit and rhubarb consommé. Desserts at Bar Tartine seem to take after the bakery: simple, pretty and enormous. The panna cotta itself was perfectly wobbly and voluptuous, although the delicate scent of rose geranium became lost behind the tang of the accompanying big pile of meltingly tender shredded rhubarb. The little pile of toasty macaroon crumbs kept their integrity even after having sat in the consommé, which was poured from a silver creamer into the bowl tableside. The glowing pinkness of the lightly syrupy liquid made the presentation very lovely, along with a pretty pink rosebud and a few petals scattered on top. It was a nice spring dessert, it's just too bad I didn't have someone to share it with since it was huge.

Sunday brunch
I found brunch to not be at quite as high a caliber as dinner. I went for the Leb Lebi, a Tunisian chickpea stew with olive oil tuna, toasted hunks of bread, capers, harissa and poached eggs. It was not bad, but not outstanding. The tuna in particular wasn't as good as I expect from oil-packed varieties. My friends got scrambled eggs with gravlax, green garlic and asparagus, french toast with carmelized fruit, and a Portuguese cilantro soup with a poached egg (possibly the best thing I tried, which incidentally is also on the dinner menu). I envied a woman at a neighboring table with good-looking poached eggs on toast with thin shavings of country ham. Lastly, we shared a Meyer lemon Napoleon: small palmiers layered with lemon cream, flanked by lavender caramel (alas, recrystallized) and a large heap (indeed too large) of seductively tart lemon confit. Nice flavors, but the balance of elements was off. In the end, I've had better or as-good brunch for cheaper in the city, so I think I'll stick to Bar Tartine for dinner.