This is Our Tribe

It’s Gathering time. Every year at this time, we head sixteen hundred miles due east, to the shores of Squeedunk lake, in north central Minnesota. There, at the home of Grant and Christy, we meet with friends old and new to celebrate stringed instruments, and much more – This is our Tribe.

Our office for the week
Our office for the week

We own www.luthiercom.org, a site dedicated to the building of stringed instruments, and the sharing of that arcane knowledge with anyone and everyone who wants to take part. The Gathering is an unusual thing for a modern day social networking site – A dedicated time for friends from the ether to actually meet in the real world, at a truly magical place. There is much talk, much sharing of special skills, much music played and sang, and very, very much food and drink. Monica and I are Co-Hosts and designated event Chefs, and it couldn’t be more fun to do – The Gathering is a magical place to cook.

Shopping, Squeedunk style
Shopping, Squeedunk style

Grant and Christy grow much of what they eat, so virtually all the produce we use in 5 days of cooking comes from their gardens. So do the hops with which Grant brews gallons and gallons of beer for the event. Everything else we cook with is local – This year, Ron brought a gift from Winona LaDuke – some fresh buffalo meat for us to work with, as well as his family’s Georgia sourwood Honey, (He’s also brought some amazing moonshine back from there over the years, I can tell you!) We had 14 dozen of the most amazingly fresh, local eggs as well, with deep yellow-orange yolks and true substance to them. Grant’s son Jim and his partner Shel made incredible cheddar bratwurst from venison they’d harvested last year, right on the property.

Fresh walleye, cornmeal and tempura
Fresh walleye, cornmeal and tempura

A neighbor contributed a whole bunch of fresh walleye fillets – It being Friday night, they got fried two ways – in cornmeal and tempura. Donna did panfish ceviche that was to die for. Mitch brought his rightfully famous slow cooked, pulled pork with Carolina mustard sauce, and Lis brought amazing puerco pibil, cooked in banana leaves from the tree in Grandt and Christy’s living room. This is pretty typically how it goes.

Incredibly fresh, local eggs
Incredibly fresh, local eggs

In the last couple of years, we enjoyed a ridiculous excess of shiitake mushrooms, but the weather didn’t cooperate this year, (fear not – We had all the dried and roasted/frozen we needed, as well as some fresh chicken of the woods Bonnie foraged and brought along, which is good, ’cause we feed a healthy crop of vegetarians too!.

Freshly foraged Chicken of the Woods
Freshly foraged Chicken of the Woods

We did, however, have a bumper crop of beautiful poblano chiles, and lots of traditionally harvested wild rice, so we paired those with Winona’s buffalo – They were, of course, a big hit.

Fresh poblanos
Fresh poblanos

We cook three meals a day, but they’re timed and spaced specifically to accommodate the laid-back atmosphere of the gathering. Brunch gets eaten right around noon, the midday meal slides to somewhere around 4 PM, and dinner to between 8 and 9 PM.

The Round Heeled Woman Speakeasy - Its underground, folks!
The Round Heeled Woman Speakeasy – Its underground, folks!
The back door to the Speakeasy - Leads to our room, no less!
The back door to the Speakeasy – Leads to our room, no less!

After that, it’s music on the main stage, and maybe a trip down to the Round Heeled Woman, the underground speakeasy – Yes, there’s and underground speakeasy, and in fact, the back door that establishment is a ladder down from the room we stay in – I told you, this is truly magical – It’s not uncommon for music and even lutherie activities to go in well into the wee hours, (and that’s why brunch is at noon).

Friday Dinner - Fish, of course!
Friday Dinner – Fish, of course!
It's time for grub!
It’s time for grub!
The view from the main stage
The view from the main stage
Brunch time
Brunch time

Our work ranges from brunch for a dozen, to lunches and dinners for 50 or more. Folks volunteer to pitch in, and we cheerfully put them to work on prep and cooking as needed. Chris and M and I do some planning, and most years, we more or less follow the gist of that, but as the saying goes, no plan ever survives first contact with the enemy – We’ve planned to do a coffee roasting demo for 2 years now and have yet to get around to it, and we never did salt cure egg yolks, but hey, just wait until next year.

Salt potatoes were a big hit
Salt potatoes were a big hit

We did two batches of salt potatoes that the crowd went nuts over, paired with fresh chimichurri. And our Yakitori Sauce marinated a couple of wonderful pork tender loins – Hmmm, this was a very pork-centric year, huh? There was amazing fruit, so blueberry, raspberry, kiwi, and mango Pico de Gallo all made a showing, along with mango butter and granita. Biscuits and pie dough were about as deep as the baking got, ’cause it was kinda warm this year.

Blueberry, raspberry, kiwi, and mango Pico de Gallo
Blueberry, raspberry, kiwi, and mango Pico de Gallo
Mango butter is a special treat
Mango butter is a special treat

We didn’t take enough pictures, but, hey you get the idea, right? It was another fabulous time with friends old and new – The new ones are a gas to watch – John Joyce came up from the twin cities for the first time, arriving on Thursday evening into the middle of our chaos. At first, folks can be a bit intimidated with the craziness, intimate relations, and long running jokes and shtick, but those who get it are quickly drawn in. John brought some beautifully made instruments, number 13 being his newest – She’d only been strung up for 4 days before he arrived, but she sang like an angel. I’m glad to report that JJ is now hooked and is expected back next year.

And that’s how it goes. Interested? Wherever you are, you’re welcome to join us. I guarantee you’ll be blown away in the best sense of the words. Stay tuned for next year’s dates.

 

Cascade Hops, close to ready
Cascade Hops, close to ready
Crisp and tart pears at perfect ripeness
Crisp and tart pears at perfect ripeness
Chiles at the store
Chiles at the store
Gotta have tomatoes, right?
Gotta have tomatoes, right?

Almost there…

The older we get, the longer things take. And when for the last few years you’ve been squeezed into a tiny, disfunctional kitchen with shitty appliances and no room for more than one person to cook, getting an amazing, brand new kitchen is a little slice of heaven.


One week after the move, we’re not done in the kitchen, but we’re really close, and we’re really excited! This is where the magic happens, going forward, and as I alluded to, there’s a couple more changes here in the wind – More on that later.

M and I agreed that this is and will be a serious working kitchen, a production kitchen for things here at the website, so we took our time, discussed things in depth, and decided together how to to arrange everything. And in a word, it’s magnificent. Wanna talk storage? This alone is a 12 cabinet pantry, 24″ deep, with tons of space for stores. There are drawers and cabinets and display places everywhere – it is so cool.


The basic triangle is, in this iteration, a square, and it’s marvelously functional – defined by fridge, stove, sink, and island, there’s plenty of room for collaboration, and for guests to hang and watch.

And speaking of hanging and watching, the kitchen is open to the living room as well – I seriously dig this.


And naturally, if you’re here with any frequency, you know where my heart is – Testing, designing, refining – And here’s the new nerve center for that process.


So thanks for being here, thanks for your patience and kind words through the transition, and stay tuned – It’s about to get really, really good.

Cook with All Your Senses

Surely, you’ve heard the adage, ‘We eat with our eyes,’ yes? Truer words were never spoken. And there’s more to it than that, of course – We also eat with our noses, skin, imagination, and memory, and you certainly should cook with all your senses. All that stuff is every bit as important as taste, frankly, and a savvy home cook never forgets it. It’s kinda like Obi-Wan’s epic line – You gotta use the force and let go of rigid, recipe thinking.

Put fresh food out where it will inspire you!
Put fresh food out where it will inspire you!

First, sight, naturellement. Many assume that the feast with your eyes concept speaks to plating and presentation. Certainly those aspects have a bearing on things, but frankly, there’s much more to it then that. Often enough, we come home from a long day at work, only to realize we gotta make dinner. Here’s where sight should first be employed – What you see around you should be your inspiration. As such, whenever and wherever possible in your kitchen, leave the good stuff out where you can see it and be inspired. Bowls of fruit and veggies, glass jars of pasta, beans, and rice, home canned goodies in mason jars – If all this bounty is packed away neatly in pantry or shelf, it’s not revealing itself to you – Put the goods out center stage, and be inspired. Make part of this scheme a rotating canvas of sorts. Go through your pantry and spice cabinet and pick out half a dozen things you’ve not used since you can’t remember when, then pull those out and display them where they’ll make you think. Take a look at the stuff you’ve got on display and do some paring – Chances are good that when you come home tired and hungry, these little vignettes will not only spark inspiration, but lift your spirits a bit as well – There’s a reason art makes us feel good.

pair things you've not used in a while, (or ever), for inspiration.
pair things you’ve not used in a while, (or ever), for inspiration.

In our piece on Banh Mi, I wrote, “Vietnamese cooks strive to include fiver  essential nutrients in each meal – Powder (spice), water, minerals, protein, and fat. The visual element of cooking is also carefully considered; white, green, yellow, red, and black are presented in a well balanced Vietnamese dish.” Therein lies another clue to visual cooking – Use it when you compose a dish on the fly. If you’re here at all, you know we revere soups and stews, so here’s another tip – consider the over all pallet when you compose one. A great part of the joy of fresh veggies is the vibrant colors they add to what we eat – Balance those in a way that appeals to your eye and it’s guaranteed to make your belly happy as well.

Naturally, plating and presentation matters. Yeah, I know I’ve told y’all numerous times to not sweat it, and you shouldn’t – It should be a labor of love, not a chore. A little thing like a nice bottle of red opened, cork set on the foil round from the bottle, with a sparkling clean glass and maybe a flower in a bud vase. Set that out for your mate’s arrival home, and it can and will mean the world to a loved one. Presentation can be as simple as choosing the perfect bowl for that soup or stew – or offer some topping options in small ramekins – sour cream, freshly grated cheese. You’re offering not only dinner, but a delight for the eye, and of course, for the nose.

M's Heavenly Split Pea Soup
M’s Heavenly Split Pea Soup

Everyone has had a head cold, and when we do, what do you notice? For most of us, it’s the fact that almost nothing tastes that good, even our favorite comfort foods. That’s very likely the root of the old wive’s tale, ‘starve a cold and feed a flu,’ with the latter, you feel like shit, but at least you can taste. Smell is a huge part of taste – Without it, us human are limited to the most basic flavors – salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and umami, and those not all that well. Doubt it? Pinch your nose shut and eat something you know well, say, a strawberry – With your olfactory blocked, you’ll get some flavor, maybe hints of sweet and sour – unblock your nose half way through and suddenly, there it is, all the subtleties that make a strawberry what it is. Those nuances are critical in fact; lose your sense of smell, and the world of food turns black and white – A horrible affliction, to say the least. As a home cook, I live to hear M say from the other room, “That smells amazing!” That means I’m on the right track with whatever I’m doing, and it guides me more than anything else while composing a dish. Let your heart and your nose be your guides, and never forget that the real subtlety of a dish comes from scent, far more than any other sense.

Finger food needn't be fancy to be pretty
Finger food needn’t be fancy to be pretty

So, we eat with our skin? Sure we do – If you’re like me, having tactile interaction with my food is important. We spent millennia eating before cutlery came around. Literally in every part of the globe, there are myriad dishes meant to be eaten by hand, and that’s a critical consideration for a cook. There are tacos, sandwiches, sausages, tajines, samosas, and many, many more. Such dishes exist on every continent, and may the food gods bless ’em all. The ubiquity of vehicles such as unleavened flat breads, tortillas, and the like exist largely to act as a shovel for wonderful things. Great fried chicken is a delight, at least in part, because we can feel the crunch, salty, hot outside layer as we bite into it – If that’s not proof of concept, I don’t know what is. Consider a finger food for your next menu – That could be as simple as fresh bread to mop everything else up with, or maybe small dishes of olives, cornichons, or pearl onions. One of our favorite low pressure meals is a picnic of whatever is at hand – meat, cheese, veggies, fruit, nuts, and bread, cut up to bite sized pieces, with Dijon mustard and house made giardiniera, and a nice glass of wine.

Don’t forget imagination and memory. Any of all of your senses can and will trigger things – The smell of the Asian take out at the grocery, potatoes frying on a flat top, the scent of freshly baked bread – These might spawn fried rice, pommes Anna, or banh mi for dinner. If it’s a fleeting glimpses e of something, grab pen and paper, write it down and stuff it in your pocket as a reminder – If not tonight, then down the line, but don’t lose the inspiration. By the same token, food memories are some of the most vivid internal imagery we conjure for ourselves. When we were kids, making mac and cheese or pizza may have involved a box, (Kraft, and Apian Way, I freely admit), but the memories are of cooking comfort food in a warm, steamy kitchen, and that’s all you need to be inspired. When one of those memories hits, use the power of 21st century technology to unlock something new – Google whatever it is, find a take on it that’s outside your usual mold, and go from there – As every chef from Jacque Pepin to me tells y’all, a recipe is just a guide – Use it to springboard something of your own.

When you feed your senses, imagination, and memory that way, it’s a solid guarantee you’ll never leave the table unsatisfied.

Psychedelic!

Here’s a wow – Turns out Salvador Dali wanted to cook for a living, not paint. Way back in ’73, the iconic artist published Le Diners de Gala, a lavishly illustrated tome dedicated to the astounding meals he and his wife Gala produced for some epic parties, (as if a party thrown by Dali would be anything less). It’s not a surprise that we’d not heard of this gem before – There are reportedly 400 or less copies of the book still extant.

A Dali Cookbook? Yes, please!
A Dali Cookbook? Yes, please!

Now, all of that is about to change for the better – Taschen is about to republish this epic volume, filled with recipes, pictures, illustrations, and the ramblings of the maestro himself. Among the calorie laden cornucopia of truly bizarre dishes, there may be some real gems. And in any case, it’s guaranteed not to be boring.

Bacon, Fennel, and Onion Marmalade

I’ve got this young Manager, Taylor Beargeon, at the cafe. Turns out he and his mom are both followers here at UrbanMonique. Taylor has made a bunch of stuff we’ve posted, and we appreciate that more than we can say.

Skillet's Bacon Fennel Jam
Skillet’s Bacon Fennel Jam
The other day, Taylor brought in a jar of fennel, black pepper, and bacon spread from Skillet, the incredibly talented consortium of restaurants, catering, street food, and much more. Lead by Jon Severson, and packed full of an amazingly eclectic and talented mix of fellow Chefs, this Seattle mainstay is a happening thing. 

I tasted this stuff, and it was fabulous, indeed. Then the thing that always happens with me happened – I thought, ‘how would I do this?’ I trust that the folks at Skillet won’t begrudge that leap in the least – Sure, they’d love us to buy their stuff, but knowing all they do and how they do it, I believe that they’d be thrilled if what they did inspired a few home cooks.

I looked at the ingredients of their wonderful spread, and immediately saw some things that I’d change. That’s not a rip off, by the way, or a put down. It is, rather, the way things go in creative endeavors. The folks at Skillet didn’t invent the concept of bacon jams, this was just their swing at it. Tasting it, and wanting to do your own version is complimentary, not parasitic.

This is why I encourage y’all constantly to take your own swing at what we do here – It’s also why I regularly use guitar licks lifted from dozens of players who came before me – what it becomes is my own amalgamated style. And that’s also why I’m thrilled when somebody else cops something of mine.

Anyway, back to that Skillet Jam. Theirs contains bacon, onion, apple cider vinegar, brown sugar, lemon juice, black pepper, whole and ground fennel seed, granulated garlic, caramel color, and xanthan gum, (a pretty benign stabilizer). What I tasted was, appropriately, bacon first, then fennel, then sweet. Again, that stuff was really tasty, but it got me thinking about what I’d want to taste in such a thing, and so here we are. As such, let’s just take a little spin through the roughly six days between what Taylor started by sharing that taste, and what I came up with for y’all to try.

The origins of bacon jam are somewhat murky. Skillet’s received a lot of press as an original condiment, and their version certainly is that. Yet the real roots go back quite a bit farther than 2011 Seattle street food. Mincemeat recipes, (an amalgam of beef or mutton mixed with suet, fruit, nuts, liquor, vinegar, and citrus), are found as early as the 1400s in England. Mincemeat might be served as a main dish, (in a pie), or as a side for meat or poultry.

Chutney, an Indian condiment made from fruit and/or veggies, sugar or vinegar, and spices, hails back to several hundred years B.C.E.. 

Marmalade, fruit preserved in sugar and originally made with quince, harkens back to the ancient Greeks.

Pissaladière, the signature southern French pizza, is topped with what can easily be called an onion marmalade. 

And in Austria, a traditional dish, called verhackert, is a spread of minced bacon, garlic, and salt.

All of these things were made in order to preserve fruit, veggies, and meat for longer than their natural period of ripe and ready. Vinegar, salt, and sugar have all been used for just that purpose for thousands of years. Bacon jam, or marmalade, or chutney, are natural offshoots of these roots. As such, the sky is the limit for what you can and should try in your own kitchen.

Accordingly, I started thinking about what I had available and what I’d like to taste in such a thing. My first consideration was texture. That Skillet spread was just that – A processed blend of all that good stuff that you can scoop out with a knife and spread onto a sandwich or burger. What I wanted was something a bit more rustic, more of a marmalade feel.

Then came the taste palate I was after. What I wanted was big shots of savory and smoke, with sweet and heat as after notes. By that I mean literally, I wanted the savory and smoke to hit you front and center when you first taste the stuff, and the lingering notes to be sweet heat.

I had both fresh fennel and some super sweet little tomatoes in the garden, so those were definitely in. Sweet onion and shallot contribute savory, sweet, and heat notes, and would act as the anchor of the whole mix. Because fennel root is fairly delicate in and of itself, it wouldn’t stand up to the long, low and slow cooking a dish like this requires.

For the smoke, the bacon absolutely had to be the keynote. I used Hemplers, a stellar local bacon smoked in applewood. To really highlight the smokiness, I opted for Bourbon, (which also adds subtle sweetness), and a local Thai chile grown by a friend of my Sister that I’d smoked and ground this summer – That also brings the primary heat note to the mix. The final smoke note came from home roasted dark coffee. Touches of balsamic vinegar, maple syrup, salt and pepper round out the blend. Here’s how I did it.

NOTE: You may sub 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika and any hot chile flake if you don’t have a smoked chile as I did.

UrbanMonique’s Bacon, Fennel, Onion Marmalade

1/2 Pound Applewood Smoked Bacon
1 fresh Fennel Root, (About 1 1/2 Cups)
1 Cup Cherry Tomatoes
1/2 Cup Sweet Onion
1/2 Cup Shallot
2 cloves Garlic
1/2 Cup brewed Coffee
1/2 Cup Bourbon
2 Tablespoons Balsamic Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Maple Syrup
1/2 teaspoon Chile flake or powder
1/4 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/4 teaspoon ground Black Pepper

As with any dish that calls for a bunch of ingredients, you’ll want to do all your prep, and have your mise en place set out neatly and close at hand before you start cooking.

Always get your mis en place!
Always get your mis en place!
Rinse, peel and and dice the fennel root, onion, and shallot, (about 1/4″ dice).

Rinse, stem, and quarter cherry tomatoes.

Stem, peel and mince the garlic.

Cut bacon into a roughly 1/4″ dice.

Heat a deep skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat.

Add the chopped bacon and sauté until it browns and starts to turn crispy, about 3-5 minutes.

Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and transfer to clean paper toweling.

Toss the onion, shallot, and fennel into the hot bacon grease and sauté until the onion begins to turn translucent, about 2-3 minutes.

Transfer the veggies from the pan to clean paper toweling, with a slotted spoon.

Deglaze the pan with the bourbon, taking care to scrape loose all the little cooked bits from the bottom.

When the raw booze smell dissipates, return the bacon and salted veggies to the pan, add the tomatoes and the garlic, and stir to incorporate.

Add the coffee, vinegar, and maple syrup; stir gently to incorporate.

Season with chile powder, salt, and pepper and stir to incorporate.

Bacon, Fennel, and Onion Marmalade Cooking down - Low and slow is the key.
Bacon, Fennel, and Onion Marmalade Cooking down – Low and slow is the key.
Reduce heat to low and simmer for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has all been absorbed and the blend has a nice, marmalade like consistency. A little loose is fine – It will tighten up as it cools.

Bacon, Fennel, and Onion Marmalade Cooking down
Bacon, Fennel, and Onion Marmalade Cooking down

Transfer marmalade to a glass bowl to cool.

Bacon, Fennel, and Onion Marmalade
Bacon, Fennel, and Onion Marmalade

So, what’s it good on? Silly question! Damn near anything! Burgers, dogs, sandwiches, omelettes, chicken, pork – There’s a reason bacon is such a ubiquitous kitchen cheat.

Refrigerated in a clean, airtight container, the jam will last for 5-7 days.

Oh and hey – Thanks Tay Tay!