While dining at Red Newt Bistro, my coworker D and I got to talking about what we look for in restaurants, and ye olde question of why there aren't any really good* restaurants in Ann Arbor. I noted that a restaurant changing its menu regularly is one of the first things I look for in deciding where to eat. Red Newt Bistro, where we were having our conversation, changes their menu dramatically every 3 weeks. Most of the best restaurants I've been to are constantly modifying their menus. We couldn't come up with a single restaurant in Ann Arbor that made more than token occasional changes, with most of the menu remaining static.

I think there's a definite relationship between restaurant quality and menu rotation. A constantly changing menu means that a) the chef is taking advantage of seasonal availablity of foods and b) they're creative and inspired and enjoy trying new ideas.

What do you think?

* Edited to add (at [livejournal.com profile] tlatoani's suggestion): Where "really good" means interesting high end/upscale dining. A^2 excels in good cheap and ethnic eats (although the loss of Bev's knocked the diversity of that category down a notch) but that's not what I'm talking about here.
Went to a Zing dinner tonight, with special guest Bill Niman from Niman Ranch. As you'd expect with a special guest like that, it was a LOT of meat. Many different kinds of meat, from all different parts of the animals. We were all so relieved to see the grits and asparagus served with the entree... I'll write up all the details later, when I'm less under the influence of the excellent selection of biodynamically grown wines. Yum. I will say that while I tried all of the different kinds of meat, I found the lamb liver acceptable in flavor but not particularly pleasant in texture, and the BBQ pig trotters largely inedible. They really did taste like feet. Eww. The pork belly was exceptional, however. There were two wine highlights - a delightful 1990 red Burgundy, and a lovely Riesling from Zind Humbrecht. Weirdest wine had to be an exceptionally odd 2003 Loire Chenin Blanc that had zero varietal character. That hot 2003 summer expressed itself in a shockingly alcoholic wine with ginger notes and a sherry finish - very odd, but it was nicely tamed by a couple of tasty blue cheeses. It wasn't a bad wine, just unexpected. Ric wrote up a veritable tome of notes about the wines, winemakers, and biodynamic practice, but I haven't done more than skim the notes yet. They're his usual collection of delightful but accurate descriptors. I doubt there are too many other wine tasting notes in the world that refer to "scorched earth" and "lemon scented bed linens."
Tonight I went to a Spring Picnic/ French Pantry Items tasting at Zingerman's. Part of their French month. Got to taste a bunch of yumminess, the most unexpected of which was the divine combination that is honey and olive oil.

First up we had a salad of cucumbers sprinkled with grey sea salt, then dressed with a viniagrette of Banyuls vinegar, hazelnut oil and dijon mustard, tossed with some nicoise olives (dressed with Alziari olive oil) and roquefort. Yum. I've been meaning to pick up some nut oil to experiment with, so this was a nice opportunity to try it without the considerable expense involved in buying a whole bottle of a very perishable oil. 50 lbs of shelled hazelnuts makes only 9 liters of oil, so it's understandable why the stuff is so darned expensive (50 lbs of walnuts will give you 12 liters of oil, and 50 lbs of almonds only gets you 7!).

Then we tasted mustards. Along with some baguette and rosette de Lyon salami. Due to importing restrictions, the rosette de Lyon is not actually imported from France, but made in California by a artisanal maker who attempts to follow the traditional French method. But the bread and salami were really just a forum for three mustards from Denoix (that's the producer, not the region). Violette is a deep purple - almost black - mustard that combines reduced grape juice, whole black mustard seeds and brown mustard flour. It's sweet with just a little mustardy pungency. The Piment d'espelette is bright orange and pungent, first with the mustard, then with heat from the pimento. It was my favorite of the mustards. The mustard blended with herbes de Provence was unpleasantly herb-y for my tastes.

Next up, the previously mentioned honey and olive oil. First a lavender honey with "Eric's Oil," then a fir tree honey with Gautiere olive oil. Both were excellent combinations and good contrasts. The Gautiere oil is unusual for a Provencal oil due to it's slightly peppery finish - the Eric's Oil was more typical of the rich smooth butteriness you usually find in oil from Provence. But the fir tree honey had an assertiveness of its own that let it stand up to to oil. While I'm sure there's an art to combining oil and honey to get the really stunning combos, it's pretty much a no-brainer. I liked the combination so much that I wanted to try it out on Eric when I got home, and just used what we had which was a Tupelo honey (from Florida) with the Zingerman's house olive oil, which I think is Italian. Also pretty darn tasty. So try it, and tell me what you think!

Next up, some cheeses. The Epoisses at Zingerman's is brought in at the youngest possible age (60 days) then aged in the Zingerman's cheese cave, complete with daily turning and washing with wine. Interesting Epoisses fact - the rennet used to curdle the milk is flavored with black pepper, cloves, fennel, salt and brandy, imparting a unique flavor to the cheese. The other cheese we tried was Saleres, which is similar to Cantal, which is basically the French analog of cheddar. The Saleres is only produced at the farmhouse level - it's not a cheese that's in mass production. We got a little bit of Fleur de Sel and were told to sprinkle it on the Saleres - it was interesting how the cheese brought out a certain sweetness in the salt - good combo. The Saleres was also tasty with the remnants of honey and mustard from earlier.

Solomon, our guide through the French pantry, nearly forgot the next item, and was so thrilled when he rememberd it. He'd mixed some Echire butter (84% butterfat, imported from France) with dried Pimente d'espelette to create a slightly spicy tasty butter.

And last but not least, the Echire butter was also featured in a grilled chocolate sandwich, which paired Michel Cluizel 72% chocolate with Zingerman's Pain de Montagne bread. This needed salt, either in the butter or sprinkled on the sandwich some how, but I didn't realize what was missing until someone else mentioned sprinkling it with some fleur de sel, and by then mine was all gone.

All in all quite a nice tasting. The organization was way haphazard. Having attended a number of these tastings now, it seems to me that Zing must put whoever steps up to run the tasting in charge of the whole show, so attention to detail will vary depending on who's at the front of the room. Our presenter was clearly nervous, but made up for his lack of public speaking polish with a cute, charming and obvious passion for the food (mustards excite him!). However, for a tasting of mostly condiments, he had a ridiculously small amount of bread sliced. We broke up baguettes as needed as went along (until we ran out of baguettte and we switched to Pain de Montagne), but this was a strange oversight - nearly every other Zing tasting I've attended had big baskets of bread on each table. And although we tasted over a dozen products, we weren't given a list until nearly the end, and only got a single product tasting sheet (usually you'd have one for every 2 products you're trying). But those were pretty minor complaints, and on the whole I had a good time.
The cake was good. Not quite as good as I'd hoped it would be, but darn good nonetheless. It's sweeter than I'd like, and it's primarily an egg-leavened cake (9 beaten egg whites!) so it kind of had a sponge cake texture. But still very good. I think it would be even better with the suggested roasted pears and caramel sauce, but that was too elaborate for a potluck.
Stopped on the way into work today and got a Tim Horton's donut. In Canada we'd call it a French Cruller, but here it was a Honey Cruller. Still tasted yummy regardless of the name.
On Christmas Eve we went to Sherri's daughter's house for a home-cooked Christmas dinner. At least, I'm sure most American families would consider the following to constitute a home-cooked meal:

Butterball Turkey, roasted without any seasoning
Instant Mashed Potatoes
Jarred Gravy
Stovetop Stuffing
Canned Corn
Brown and Serve Rolls
Marshmallow Salad
Cheese Ball

Only the marshmallow salad and the cheese ball actually required combining ingredients. The ingredients were also prepared and canned foods, but there was some mixing and seasoning involved. And these two items were actually Sherri's contributions, not cooked by the daughter we were visiting.

Here's the scariest thing about the meal. Nothing in it was actually bad. I had seconds, in fact. (Clearly instant mashed potato technology has come a long way, because I used to find them inedible.) But neither was anything especially good, or even especially memorable. It was all just sort of non-descriptly salty. Perfectly edible, and if you only think of food as fuel for the machine, why would you bother doing anything else? Especially since if you don't know how to cook, it's quite likely that whatever you made might actually taste worse. And if you've never tasted anything better than equally test-marketed for maximum inoffensibility chain restaurant food, why would it ever occur to you to bother learning to cook?

Oh, I almost forgot the "wine." Arbor Mist White Zinfandel with Strawberry, or Arbor Mist White Zinfandel with Exotic Fruits. For those unfamiliar with the concept, Arbor Mist "is a blend of varietal wines such as Merlot, White Merlot, Zinfandel, White Zinfandel, or Chardonnay that is combined with natural fruit flavors like Blackberry, Cranberry, Strawberry, Peach, Tropical Fruits, Sangria, Exotic Fruits or Melon. These lightly carbonated, slightly sweetened wine products are lower alcohol than many other wines and have a refreshing taste that is perfect for all social get-togethers, relaxing with friends, and as a personal indulgence at the end of a busy day." Basically wine flavored soda. With convenient fruit flavors, so you can ask someone if they want peach or blackberry, instead of scary words like Merlot or Chardonnay.

So much fun

Dec. 6th, 2005 10:29 pm
Went to a special dinner at Zingerman's Roadhouse tonight. Celebrating Zingerman's Creamery cheeses. Had the best wine pairings, bar none, of any dinner I've had. And I'd say that even if it had cost more $19 for, let's see... 8 different wines. Many of them produced or imported in quantities of only a few hundred or less cases. We got one more wine than everyone else, thanks to chatting up the sommelier, who brought us a 2003 Zin to compare against the 1997 Zin that came with the tasting, since we'd been talking about the difference that age makes to a wine. The sommelier, Rick, looked really familar, and eventually Eric figured out that he was our sommelier at Tribute when we went with the Village and sat at the kitchen table. His tasting notes on the wines we had tonight are over-the-top poetic and awesome, but I'll share selected bits from them tomorrow when I'm not feeling the effects of all that wine.

Food was good too - Zingerman's Creamery cheeses are quite tasty - but the wines totally pushed them over the edge.
We asked fellow food writers and editors for their favorites. And judging by their replies, it's clear many of them had been asked the same questions, such as, do you add eggshells along with the eggs to batters? Do you have to crack walnuts out of the shells first? Does the turkey need to be washed with soap and water? Is it OK to feed spoiled food to the dog? Could we rerun recipes from last week? (No need to call. The answers are: No, yes, no, no and no.)

But wait, there's more:

Unbelievable that people would be this clueless. But further gives weight to my thoughts that somewhere in my future food-related career I'd like to teach or organize cooking classes for absolute beginners and "how to boil water" types. There's obviously a real need for such a thing. Of course - how to target them to the audience that needs them is the real issue.
Bought The Pressure Cooker Gourmet yesterday. I have one cookbook for my pressure cooker, but it's not a very good one. Lots of recipes composed of three cans of things - you know the kind. I like starting with real food. This cookbook is GREAT! In addition to all of the pressure cooker recipes, she's got little garnishes and sauces and sides. Now I'm jonesing to have a dinner party - Thanksgiving just isn't cutting it, since it's a potluck and I'm only making a turkey and some brussel sprouts.

some recipes I'm swooning about )

Don't some of those sound great?

There's a very intriguing recipe for Plums Pickled in Port Wine and Balsamic Vinegar. She claims it's a "wonderful hostess gift." Personally, I have no idea what I'd do with a jar of Plums Pickled in Port Wine and Balsamic Vinegar if someone gave me one, so I'm not about to give them away myself. Anybody got any ideas?

On eating

Nov. 15th, 2005 03:08 pm
Honeycrisp apples are my new favorite. A couple years ago it was golden delicious, but honeycrisp have deseated them.

I've pretty proud of how well I've been doing at changing my diet. As you may recall, a couple weeks ago I said I was going to try to go off refined sugar due to some health issues. (My focus has mostly been sugar, but I've also tried to cut down on things like potato chips and other sources of simple carbs, since your body turns them into sugar pretty much instantly.) I've done pretty well at my goal. I've certainly had my lapses, but I haven't let them derail me from the effort - no "Well I ate four cookies tonight, so clearly I just can't do this and shouldn't bother trying."

I have learned, however, that eating just a little bit of something sweet is harder for me than not eating anything at all. If I have one cookie, I want to keep eating them, and it's harder to resist the second cookie than to resist them in the first place. I still want to be able to enjoy sweets in moderation, so this is something I need to work on. Willpower is hard!

The most important thing for me has been being sure to have enough healthy food available. My big problem previously was that I'd bring a frozen dinner for lunch, and no other food. Since a frozen dinner is about 300 calories, it's no wonder I was hungry and munching on office food. Now I make sure to keep a bag of unsalted nuts by my desk for a midmorning snack, and bring some cut up vegetables and/or fruit for the afternoon.

Boredom is also my other major obstacle. I'm not very engaged in my work today, so I've been more snacky. Give me a day with a nice meaty project to dig into, and I'll forget to come up for water, let alone food.

Oh well, at least I'm snacking on apples, and not them mini-chocolate bars in my coworkers office. Okay, I had ONE an hour ago, but I'm not going to have anymore.
So I've decided to give up eating refined sugar, to see if it will help address this lingering health issue I've been having. Giving up is probably too strong a phrase - I'm still going to have dessert when we eat out for my birthday this weekend, and my breakfast cereal is slightly sweetened and I probably won't change that, but I'm really going to try to cut down severely on my consumption of sugary snacks. This is a really hard thing for me, because I LOVE dessert. But I'm willing to give it a try.

Today went well, with no cheating. Had some very tasty apple slices after common meal, instead of the ice cream and mango sorbet. And I'm having unsweetened, natural peanut butter on my pre-bedtime snack toast, instead of the Nutella Eric bought a few days ago. I need to buy some fruits and veggies that I'll actually eat, since much of my sugar consumption is caused by not taking enough good food to work with me, and instead just snacking on junk food at the office.

Got milk?

Oct. 22nd, 2005 02:05 pm
I headed down to Kerrytown this morning to buy 12 lbs of beef from the butcher there for tomorrow night's common meal. As I was passing through the farmer's market, there was a dairy farmer giving away free samples of milk.

Oh my god.

I've never had milk so good. Organic, pasture-raised, non-homogonized whole milk from Jersey cows, pasteurized at the lowest allowable temperature. I'm usually a skim milk drinker, but this stuff is lovely. As I was leaving the market he offered me another sample, and I was helping him encourage some of the "I only drink skim" passerbys to actually try the stuff. Sadly, I said I'd have to wait for next time to take some home, as I didn't have any cash on me. So he gave me a half-gallon and told me to pay next time! That's so cool.

If I wanted to, I could let it stand, skim off the fat and turn it into butter. That'd be a cool thing to do sometime.

(Oh, and this is a perfect post to premiere my new food icon.)


Sep. 28th, 2005 10:19 pm
Went to a tapas tasting at Zingerman's tonight. Definitely great value for the money - we got to taste 22 different things! Marcona almonds, Spanish olive oil, five different kinds of olives (Gordal, Arbequina, Manzanilla, Picual, and Zingerman's house-marinated olives), five different cheeses (Manchego, Idiazabal, Mahon, Garroxta, Queso de la Serena), quince paste and fig cake, anchovies, 3 different cured meat preparations (chorizo, lomo embuchabo, jamon serrano) and four prepared dishes - roasted eggplant with spanish honey, tortilla with romesco sauce, mussels in a spicy sauce, and grapes rolled in Picon cheese and walnuts.

I'm not on olive fan, but I dutifully tried all five kinds, and I didn't have to spit any out. In fact, the marinated olives were decidedly tasty - but they didn't really taste like olives at all, just the marinade. I did kind of like the Picual olives however - they were sharp and citrusy and kind of tasty. But still olive-y. Of the cheeses, the Manchego was probably my favorite. But the Mahon was really interesting - much more assertive than I expected it to be. And the Queso de la Serena was interesting, if not really to my preference. It's apparently one of Spain's most expensive and valued cheeses. The Jamon Serrano was the best tasting thing of the night, but it had a lot of great competition - the anchovies and tortilla and mussels were all wonderful.

[livejournal.com profile] tlatoani and [livejournal.com profile] shekkara were also there and we sat together - it was nice to have people to chat with (although I've certainly been known to chat with strangers at these things in the past). There was a fun trio of enthusiastic college girls sitting behind us. I liked that they weren't afraid to ask for seconds!
This Saturday is the fundraising brunch at Great Oak that I wrote about in my journal a while back. Some of you had expressed possible interest, so this is just a reminder and request for confirmation on attendance. RSVPs needed by Thursday afternoon.


Jul. 25th, 2005 10:23 am
Last Thursday I picked the first tomato from our little container plants in the front yard. Despite wanting to eat it right away, I thought it only fair that I should wait and share it with Eric. We picked up some fresh mozzarella at the West Side Farmer's Market on Thursday evening, and had a little caprese salad with dinner on Friday. Mmm... tomatoey goodness. Although the Zing fresh mozzarella has so much flavor it almost overwhelmed our little tomato.

Yesterday I picked two more ruby red beauties. This time I had them on a toasted tomato sandwich with mayo, butter, salt and pepper. An excellent foil by which to appreciate their sweet-tart yummyness.

We've not been the best about watering them regularly, so unfortunately the skins have bee splitting. But fortunately, they're not splitting until they're already ripe, so as long as we catch them the day they turn fully red, all is well. There are two, currently wearing shades of reddish orange, that will probably be ready tomorrow.
We're holding a fundraising brunch at Great Oak to collect money for the purchase of a restaurant size and quality food processor for the common kitchen, and you're invited!

Saturday, July 30th, 2005
11 am - 1 pm
Great Oak Common House

$12 for adults, kid price TBA (no more than $6, probably less)

The menu:
Omelettes, made to order with your choice of fillings (prepared by yours truly)
Crepes with a variety of sweet and savory fillings
Assorted pastries (muffins, breads, bagels) and things to put on them
Scrambled eggs
Veggie Sausage
Breakfast potatoes
Beautiful berries and other fruits
An assortment of lovely cheeses
And a few surprises...

To drink we'll have various juices, mimosas for those who like a champagne brunch, coffee, and cappucinos and espressos served up by our own barista, [livejournal.com profile] eviljohn.

Please let me know if you're interested in attending! It should be a tasty and convivial event.
In case you missed my last announcement,here's a reminder. This weekend I'm hosting a gathering of food lovers from the eGullet website. Tomorrow we'll be touring Zingerman's Bakehouse and Creamery (and maybe coffee roaster), shopping at at the Farmer's Market and cooking a multi-course dinner for 25 or 30. Tonight we'll be having dinner at Jefferson Market and coming back to my house for drinks and conversation afterwards. Sunday there will likely be some sort of brunch. If this sounds like your idea of a good time, comment and I'll get you the details.



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