Category Archives: Culinary Tales

Food stories from my culinary adventures

Door County Fish Boil

The Door County Fish Boil Chronicles

P1020238 best fish plateI’d heard of a fish boil before – it’s hard not to if you’ve ever visited the Door County peninsula in northern Wisconsin. Yet, somehow the concept didn’t stick in my brain. Fish, after all, is a tender protein that would seemingly be the last thing you’d subject to rugged boil.

There must be some kind of glitch, I reasoned—some reason why people would flock to fish boils other than for the pure showmanship of the famed “boil over.” I poked around on the Internet, viewing picture after picture of flames leaping to sky as the water gurgled and spilled from the kettle.

We decided to try out our luck at Pelletier’s, one of the more well-known and long-standing of the fish boils. Turns out the Master Fish Boiler at this place, a lumberjack-looking man named Matthew Peterson, has been helming the kettle for 30 years, first under the tutelage of Mr. Pelletier himself and now as its owner for the past twelve.

“Oh, I never get sick of eating this fish,” he explained. “Some nights I have it as tacos, other times as part of a Cioppini fish stew – there are always plenty of leftovers.”

The Fish boil, Matthew explained, is a tradition originating in Door County itself and does not exist anywhere else in the world. Rumored as a way to have fed lumberjacks or any other large gatherings of people, this popular tradition now feeds flocks of curious tourists during the summer season–Pelletier’s alone does 1200.

Into the Brew went the Whitefish

Whitefish for Fish BoilMatthew walked me through the process. First into a giant caldron go red potatoes, ends sliced off to better allow the salt to penetrate. Ten minutes later in go the yellow sweet onions, also called Texas sweets, bred to taste like Vidalia’s, but in miniaturized form. Finally, large chunks of Lake Michigan whitefish descend into the brew, followed by the grand finale ten minutes later with the famed “boil over.” A common misperception is that kerosene is added to the water itself. Not true – the kerosene is doused on the fire, resulting in the shooting flames that cause the water to boil over.

Does a Fish Boil actually Boil?

One question in my mind was whether the fish actually boils, rather than simmer or poach before its fiery finish.  From my eyewitness account, the mixture mainly simmered and only started to roll into a rapid boil five minutes or so before the boil over. I noted the grayish murk floating on the surface, the same stuff you see when you make a stock of any kind before skimming it. Oh, I get it, I thought. The boil over effectively “skims” the fish stock by boiling it over with a last-minute and short-lived burst of flames, leaving in it’s a wake a clean tasting fish. Voila!

Another essential ingredient to the boil is salt – and lots of it. The salt not only flavors the fish boil ingredients but also increases the boiling temperature of the water, to encourage more oil to the top. Nothing actually tastes salty, just perfectly seasoned.

As for the verdict – the fish boil was delicious. The fish has a meaty texture, with the pillowy folds of a lobster tail, yet as tender and flakey as any perfectly cooked fish. There was absolutely no trace of toughness.

The Midwestern Version of a Lobster Boil

Kind of a Mid-west version of the boiled Lobster dinners of New England, the act of eating the fish itself involves a bit of ceremony. You’ll need to know how to get the fish off the bones without ending up with a mouthful of pin bones–there is a method. Ask your server to show you or come prepared.

 The Fish Boil is one Heck of a Deal

P1020246 best cherry pieTo top it off, the fish boil is one heck of a deal. At Pelletier’s, you get 2 large chunks of fish, red potatoes, sweet onions, coleslaw, rye bread and butter, cherry pie and the non-alcoholic beverage of your choice for $18. Add $1.50 extra if you want ice cream on the pie and trust me, you do. If you are further towards the tip of the peninsula, I noticed a similar menu and Master Boiler lineage (both boilers have the same last name and what appears to be a similar facial appearance) at the Viking Grill for just $15.95.

Fish Boil Recipe

If you’d like to try your luck at home, try the fish boil recipe on the Viking Grill site.

 

soy good P1020206

Terroir of Tofu

Known for its bland taste, the last thing I’d ever associate with tofu would be an aroma. Yet, that’s exactly what drew Jenny Yang into the storefront location of Phoenix Bean Tofu for the first time, a company she later bought and grew. You see, Jenny grew up in Taiwan, a place where tofu was common at all meals, especially at breakfast in the form of a tofu shake. Each morning, as she took her morning stroll, the aroma of tofu hung in the air, drifting from morning stalls in the manner that coffee does in America’s streets.

One morning, a few years back, the distinct taste memory of fresh tofu popped into her head as she pushed her stroller through a Chicago neighborhood, having long ago emigrated. Following her nose, she landed in the nondescript storefront of Phoenix Tofu, a place where she found a team of workers clustered behind a thick plastic curtain, hard at work producing the fresh tofu that was to be delivered to surrounding restaurants that day.

What led Jenny to buy the business, ultimately, was her belief in the craft of fresh tofu. Usually only available in restaurants, Jenny believes people will come to want the fresh stuff as soon as they taste the difference. What makes Phoenix tofu different from supermarket varieties is not just the flavor, but also the lack of preservatives and the quality of the beans, which are locally sourced and non-GMO.

I asked Jenny, who I met the Good Food festival in Chicago, why the previous owners of Phoenix tofu didn’t use preservatives. “They don’t even know what preservatives are,” she laughed. “They just deliver it fresh to the restaurants each day, which order more of it when they run out.” To that point, Jenny is hesitant to sell tofu to any retail grocer not able to sell its products fresh. She dreams of tofu bars in the not too distant future, akin to today’s mozzarella bars, where customers order fresh tofu in different formats and flavors.

In an effort to take tofu mainstream, Jenny’s team sets up shop at local farmers markets and food festivals, preaching the gospel of tofu through sampling and educational demos. Curious onlookers happily chow on the assortment of toothpick-spea

P1020174

Ropa Vieja – The Classic Cuban Dish

Ropa Vieja, the classic Cuban dish of shredded beef, peppers and tomatoes, is Spanish for “old clothes.” As legend goes, the dish got its name from an era when food was so scarce, women shredded clothes and turned them into stew.  A kind of Cuban pot roast, Ropa Vieja’s most distinguishing feature is the shredded nature of its beef, which could resemble braised rags, if you use your imagination.

I’ve loved this dish so long I don’t remember where I discovered it, but now its the dish I can’t not order on a Cuban menu. Having long dreamed of adding it to my cooking repertoire, I decided to make it the star of my Cuban-themed dinner party. As I put together a menu of traditional Cuban dishes, I did some cursory research, seeking to understand the origin, technique and variations of this dish. Opinions differed, but a consensus emerged that flank steak was the traditional cut of beef for the dish, and the most authentic versions entailed a two-part cooking process similar to the one used for a corned beef and cabbage or boiled New England dinner.

Seeking to validate this theory by a resident Cuban expert,  it occurred to me I  live within spitting distance of one, namely the chef from one of the best Cuban places in town. Tucked into the back room of a Cuban food market, La Unica Food Mart is a mecca for all things Cuban–restaurant, butcher and a grocery store featuring Cuban products.

After verifying that Ropa Vieja was on the menu , I proceeded to the butcher counter in the adjoining room,  theorizing that the meat must be sourced from it. Seeing no flank steak in the case, I asked the butcher which cut to use for the Ropa Vieja. “Flank steak,” he answered in a blink and asked “how much do you want?”

“Enough for six people,” I replied. With that, he smiled and scurried into the walk-in, emerging a few seconds later with two large cuts of beef amounting to three pounds.

“Do you know how to make it?” I asked.

“Oh, no, but the chef does,” he replied, gesturing towards the restaurant with a friendly smile. Luckily for me, he spoke English, since the chef did not, I was soon to discover.

The butcher followed me back there and introduced me to Chef Jose, who was only too happy to share his knowledge of the craft, pantomiming the makings of a dish that clearly made him proud. He gesticulated the long simmer in aromatics low and slow, the subsequent removal of the meat from the broth, the cooling and shredding, and finally the merge of the shredded meat with a sofrito of onions, tomatoes, and peppers. With my rudimentary knowledge of Spanish combined with snippets of translation from the butcher, the chef  confirmed the two-part cooking theory.

Afterwards, the chef noticed the fresh yucca in my basket, intended for a Yucca con mojo and shook his head with displeasure. He marched over to the frozen bin, pulled out a bag of the frozen variety, and replaced my fresh yucca,  murmuring something about the ease of plopping the frozen yucca into boiled water and serving it with a sauce of mojo on a platter.

We served both of these dishes as part of the Cuban dinner party menu below, which includes some links for recipes, and my own version of Ropa Vieja, adapted loosely from Island Bites, the closest thing I found to the two-part cooking approach I had in mind. My version replaces the round steak with flank steak, uses more vegetables and aromatics and incorporates pickled jalapenos and dry Sherry for some Spanish-inspired acidity. There’s also loads of recipes out there for using slow cookers, if that’s more your style.

Ropa Vieja is a great dish for dinner parties, Sunday suppers, and Latin-themed events. Leftovers also make for some fine tacos, very similar to the meltingly tender shredded beef tacos you’ll find at Mexican joints, driven into popularity in recent years by the emergence of Chipotle’s famed Beef Barbacoa.

The Ultimate Cuban Dinner Party

Mojito Cocktail Bar
Mojito Cocktail Bar

Cocktail Hour

 Dinner Menu

Dessert

Cuban Ropa Vieja with Flank Steak and Peppers

My take on this dish is cooked in the oven, instead of the stovetop, as many do, but it could also be cooked that way. I prefer to not worry about whether its simmering too low or high, so I just put it in the oven and forget about it.  Either way is fine.

Ingredients

  • Flank Steak, 3 pounds
  • Large onion, 1 each, cut in quarters
  • Large onions, 2 each, sliced
  • Red bell peppers, 2 each, sliced,  ends reserved
  • Green bell peppers, 2 each,  sliced, ends reserved
  • Cubanelle pepper, 1 each, sliced
  • Garlic cloves, 10 each, 6 whole, 4 minced
  • Peppercorns, 6 each
  • Bay Leaf, 1 each
  • Ground cumin, 2 tsp, divided
  • Dried oregano, 2 T, crumbled, divided
  • Kosher salt, 1 tsp for broth, more to taste
  • Goya (Spanish-Style) Tomato sauce, 1  8 oz can*
  • Dry Sherry, ½ cup
  • Pickled Jalapeno, chopped, ¼ cup
  • Olive oil, 2 T

Part 1 – Cooking the Meat, Making the Broth

  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F
  • Place meat in an 4-quart Dutch oven, add the quartered onion, reserved pepper ends, 6 cloves of garlic, 6 peppercorns, 1 tsp cumin, 1 T oregano, 1 bay leaf and 1 tsp salt
  • Add enough water to cover—there should be about 1 inch of water above the meat
  • Bring the mixture to boil on the stovetop, cover with a lid, and place in the oven
  • Cook until the meat is fork tender, about 2-3 hours
  • Remove from the oven,  and let it cool a few minutes
  • Remove the meat, strain, and reserve the broth
  • When the meat cools, tear it into shreds, discarding any fatty pieces or sinew
  • Meanwhile, proceed to Part 2, once the meat is out of the oven

Part 2 –Making the Sofrito and Final Dish

  • Heat oil in a large skillet
  • Add the onions and sliced peppers, add a pinch of Kosher salt, and sauté at medium heat until soft, about 15 minutes
  • Add minced garlic, 1 tsp. cumin, 1 tsp oregano and cook 2-3 minutes more
  • Add Sherry and cook until the pan is nearly dry, about 5 minutes
  • Add shredded meat, tomato sauce and pickled jalapenos
  • Stir and cook until all ingredients are mixed together
  • Add enough of the reserved broth to barely cover the ingredients, about 2 cups, and stir
  • Taste and add salt and pepper, if needed
  • Bring to boil, reduce to simmer, and cook until the oil begins to separate from the sauce, about 20-30 minutes, adding more broth if the mixture becomes too dry
Edible Alchemy Underground Dinner

A True Underground Dinner Experience

Underground dinners have always held a certain allure – that sense of mystery and exclusiveness that makes you feel lucky to get “in.” Unfortunately, most of the ones I’ve attended have not lived up the hype. I remember going to one a few years ago that sounded great on paper, but failed to deliver the great food, sense of community and just plain fun that I had imagined.

But I held out hope that the one I was planning to attend last weekend would fare better. I’d never heard of it before in the popular press, having  only found out about it after subscribing to the Edible Alchemy newsletter at the Good Food Festival in Chicago. It promised an “immersive vegetarian dinner experience focused on using local ingredients in traditional ways,” pretty much summing up my own philosophy of food. This particular monthly community gathering centered on the Persian New Year, or Nowruz. I was in.

The Altar of NowruzLocated in Pilsen, we arrived at a non-descript residential street and knew we’d found the right place when we spotted a few other curious-looking people hovering outside the building. We stepped inside and at once were immersed, as promised, in a Mid-Eastern feast. Friendly servers, chefs and hosts dressed in Mid-eastern garb swirled around us as we took seats at one of many long tables.  The menu explained the unusual décor we found at our tables, featuring the seven elements of the traditional table setting for the celebration, including fishbowls of live goldfish.

Edible Alchemy Mixologist
Pomegranate Rosewater Cocktail

The evening’s mixologist was hard at work with the first of the optional beverage pairings for the night, a vodka, pomegranate and rose water cocktail, garnished with drunken grapes. Mid-eastern music echoed through the lofted space, and we got to know our neighbors, friendly in the community way we’d always imagined.

Persian Appetizer Plate
Persian Appetizer Plate

Each course was introduced by the evening’s menu consultant, a Persian woman who shared the backstory on her mother’s recipes and the Nowruz traditions. The first course, a medley of salads and cold dishes, was akin to what you’d imagine Mid-Eastern food to be, but with interesting variations, such as the Koo Koo Sabzi, an insanely green quiche heavier on herbs and greens than eggs.

Vegan Kebab and Sweet Saffron Rice
Sweet Saffron Rice

One of the highlights of the evening was the Sweet Saffron rice, a sweet, chewy pilaf, highly aromatic from a long bath in Iranian-smuggled saffron, garnished with large bright strips of pickled carrots. It was served with a vegan kebab.

Date Nut Cake with Saffron Ice Cream
Date Nut Cake with Saffron Ice Cream

Finally, the night had to end, but not without a grand finale – dessert was the surprise hit of the evening. Described merely as “date nut cake + homemade saffron ice cream” it was way better than described.  More  fudge than cake, this utter slab of decadence was thick with dates and richly coated in pistachios. Cooling notes from the accompanying saffron ice cream  as dense as wet sand was the perfect complement.

At last, a true underground experience. But, shh! Don’t tell anyone. We’ll be back.