Thursday, January 28, 2010

Eating Detroit (by way of Windsor) - Tunnel BBQ

Going to Windsor, Ontario was always a lot of fun. I remember way back, when my friend Clay and I used to take a bus into downtown Detroit (we were 12 or 13) and then get on the Tunnel Bus that went under the Detroit River and came up into downtown Windsor. It still hard to believe that a couple of kids, with no ID other than maybe our parks & recreation card, could just cross an international boarder and have ourselves a ball. On top of it, we would go and by Pop Rocks candy in Windsor, because it wasn't being sold in the US at that time. We went to the Woolworth store on Windsor's Oullette Avenue and bought them out! What adventures I had then - and now!

Crossing the boarder now is very different, which is why I don't go to Canada very often. It was always so much fun to go there, shop, eat and walk around. You understand the moment you arrive there that you're in a different country. It's still a great place to visit, but getting there is a hassle. You need to have your passport, the lines are long, long, long. I don't fault any of the border guards, they're doing their jobs - trying to keep everyone safe and secure. Just the same, it's a hassle to cross over these days, but that's the world we live in.

So, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, when I was fortunate enough to have the day off, Ralph and I decided to go to Windsor to do a little shopping and a little eating (the two always seem to go together whenever we go anywhere). Our eating destination was the Kildare House, a home in the University/Walkerville district that was transformed into a Scottish pub and served the most delicious fish and chips. We hadn't been there for a few years, but were looking forward to tasting that fried goodness! Imagine our disappointment when we got there and they were closed - not just on that day - but for good. We had to come up with "Plan B."
Instead of going back to the States and eating at one of our regular favorites, we decided to give Tunnel BBQ a try. The place has been there for decades - maybe 50 years. I've noticed it every time I'd come to Canada via the tunnel, as it sits across the street from the boarder crossing/customs station.

It was a little before the dinner rush (about 4:30pm), but there were a few people there. We were seated at a booth. You could tell the place had a history and it looked like it moved many, many people in and out during the years.
On each table is an assortment of homemade BBQ sauces (pictured) - their traditional, which has a little heat to it; a sweet, which has honey in it; and a spicy, which has a bigger bite to it. Ralph ordered a beef brisket sandwich and I had a combo plate (ribs and chicken). We both got crinkle cut french fries and cole slaw. The slaw is worth noting - I think it was the best dish on the table. Fresh and crisp, the cabbage was dressed with a tangy vinaigrette (rather than mayo) and it had a pickle on top. It was really good and an excellent compliment to the spicy BBQ.
My platter (last picture) was good. Basically, they put the meat on a rotisserie and it sort of broils. There's no sauce - no rub - no anything. It's just cooked with low, steady heat. You sauce it up yourself when it comes to the table. It was good - not the best BBQ I ever ate - but it was good.
Ralph's brisket sandwich was yummy, I thought (we always try what the other person ordered). The meat was tender and it did have some sauce on it - just a little for moisture. We also ordered a side of the vegetable of the day - garlic sauteed green beans - those were dee-lish!
While we were there, who walks in but some friends from St. Josaphat, so it was a nice surprise. Our MLK Day adventure didn't go as planned, but it turned out great anyways because we had the chance to be together and share the experience of exploring a new menu in a foreign land.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Baking Fun

Anyone who knows me knows that I take great pleasure (and therapeutic relaxation) in cooking and baking - but I have to say, baking brings a greater sense of calm than does cooking.

My greatest asset, the thing that makes me feel like a very rich man, is my fortune of wonderful friends. Spending time with people you love is one of the greatest gifts I've been given. Time is the one thing I have the least of, but when I can spend it with friends, as I did last night, it's always a treat.

Invitations to people's homes don't always include requests for something baked - but who wants to show up at the door empty-handed? When Gerald and Liz invited Ralph and I over for a casual evening of pizza and Monopoly, I wanted to contribute something (Ralph brought a bottle of this off-the-hook "un-oaked" Chardonnay).

Since our host and hostess have some allergies, I generally like to whip up some sort of sweet that is built around fruit flavors. And, for reasons I can't explain, I have had pineapple on my mind for the past couple of weeks. I can't seem to get enough of it!

I wanted to make a variation a pineapple upside down cake that was a double-layer cake. I made the pineapple cake using pineapple juice instead of water (gives more flavor and moisture, I think) and baked the batter in two 8 inch rounds. People don't make a lot of 8 inch layer cakes anymore. Fifty years ago this size was pretty standard, but now it's even getting hard to find 8 inch pans (I pick them up in thrift stores and garage sales).

For the frosting I whipped up some whipping cream with sugar and vanilla until it was nice and stiff. Then I folded in crushed pineapple (I drained a 20 oz. can for the juice and then put the fruit in the fridge until frosting time) along with eight finely diced maraschino cherries. What resulted was this dreamy pineapple-cherry fluff that spread easy on the cooled cake and made for a beautiful frosting.

So, while I didn't rule the Monopoly board (Collette dominated by sending the rest of us into bankruptcy - where was our bail-out package?!?) - the light pineapple cake with the fruity whipped cream frosting was enjoyed by all!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Feeding Detroit - St. Josaphat Oplatek Dinner

Coming into the office on Monday morning typically prompts the following question: "How was the weekend?"

And, on one, or even sometimes, two Mondays a month, my answer is usually, "I had a church dinner."

Yesterday was the first church dinner of the year. My family has been cooking dinners at St. Josaphat Church for years. It's something that started a long time ago when the parish was trying to come up with some fundraising ideas and decided to have regular dinners in the church hall, which was once the parish convent. (pictured left: folks making their way through the buffet line)

When asked if my family would consider sponsoring a dinner (that means that we buy all the food, paper goods, raffle prizes, etc. so that the money from all the tickets sold goes 100% to the church) I went home and talked it over with my mom. "Maybe people would like to have a city chicken dinner," she suggested. She was right. They went crazy for that dinner, and all these years later, it's still the biggest dinner we do all year (it's every September). We lost mom in 2007, and how appropriate that the lunch following her funeral was in that hall - where she had spent so much time cooking and feeding family, friends and guests. I feel her presence every time I step into that kitchen, and always think about how she would do something - from chopping an onion to peppering the kapusta, I still take all my cues from mom and the precious memories I have of being at her side in the kitchen. She is, and will always be, with us. (pictured left: the potatoes and peas & carrots)

So yesterday's dinner was the "Oplatek" dinner, which we have in January. It's a hybrid of Polish and parish tradition. Before the meal begins, Fr. Mark Borkowski says a prayer, talks about the birth of Christ, and shares the rules of ritual when it comes to the oplatek, which is a thin rectangular wafer, made in the same manner as a Communion host, but much larger. These oplatek are blessed, and then each person has one and shares it with someone else by breaking off a small piece of the other person's, and letting them break off a small piece of theirs. Then it is eaten and wishes of good health, prosperity, love or anything else are exchanged. It's really a beautiful thing. (pictured left: preparing the meatballs and smoked and fresh kielbasa for the buffet)

So, we had about 120 people in attendance, which is about as much as the first floor will seat (we can squeeze another 20 in, but it's too much togetherness!). We can get another 100 downstairs in the basement, which we open up for big dinners like the city chicken event.

The first few courses of the Oplatek dinner are served at the table. We had 15 tables to serve and the first course of rye bread and butter and herring and cream went out. The herring you either love or hate. For the record, most of the bowls came back empty - so there were plenty of takers!

(pictured left: pots of beet soup, potatoes and peas & carrots to feed 120 people help make the kitchen the hot spot!)

After the bread and herring, beet soup was served with ushki ("ears") noodles. On such a cold day, the hot soup was a welcome addition to the table. There are two first-floor dining rooms in the hall, so cauldrons of soup go on carts and we serve it table by table.
The soup is then followed by pierogi. For each table, a platter of potato & cheese pierogi was delivered along with a bowl of sour cream (to me, pierogi are just a "sour cream delivery system"). Now there are countless variety of pierogi, but with a dinner like this, it works best when everyone gets the same thing. The pierogi were made at our sister parish, Sweetest Heart of Mary, which is on Russell and Canfield, just three blocks east of St. Josaphat. (pictured left: the dessert platter that went to each table)

There's a long, interesting history about the Polish Catholic churches on Canfield Avenue (the other being St. Albertus). I'll have to talk more about that later, but for now, our sister church (we share the same priest) Sweetest Heart of Mary, has a dedicated corps of folks who make pierogi every week. They sell them after Mass and by the thousands during their annual Pierogi Festival in August! We got 20 dozen from them for this dinner. These are fairly large, as pierogi go, and a couple of these will go a long way to filling you up! (pictured left: my wonderful dad, Walt- 82 years young, who helps with every dinner in so many ways - at the grill frying up 20 dozen pierogi - what a job!)

After the pierogi are eaten and the plates are cleared off the table, then people get up and get more food from the buffet! Here's what the spread consisted of: polish meatballs in mushroom gravy, fresh and smoked kielbasa, kapusta (sauerkraut cooked for 10+ hours with onions, seasoning, pork neck bones), boiled potatoes with fried onions, butter and dill, peas and carrots, pickled beets, olives, dill pickles and tossed salad. This buffet represents a "typical" St. Josaphat parish dinner - if anyone leaves hungry it's their own fault! (pictured left: I have the best kitchen helpers - among them are Ken and "Busia" who are cutting up 50 lbs of potatoes)

While everyone filled their plates and returned to their tables, Ed the accordionist serenaded us with traditional English and Polish Christmas carols. Good food and music are just a natural fit - I can't think of two better things to share and celebrate with others. The whole eating process at this dinner takes at least an hour and a half. But who's in a hurry? The monthly fundraising dinners at St. Josaphat make a big difference in the parish being able to continue the great amount of maintenance and restoration work needed for our 110 year old church building. Not to mention the winter heating bills! (pictured left: bowls of herring and cream are ready to take out to the tables for the first course)

Generally, dinner tickets are $10 and include a full meal, with coffee and dessert. Each dinner is sponsored, so there is no expense on the church's part. This dinner was sponsored by our own Fr. Mark. This dinner, because of the multiple courses, was $25. Even with the price, we managed to sell all the tickets. Beyond the food, each dinner has a great prize raffle with lots of wonderful gifts and 50/50 drawings. It is a fundraiser, after all, and it helps keep an icon of Detroit faith going strong. When people ask me about St. Josaphat, they often don't know where it is. When I tell them it's right on the corner of Canfield and I-75, they often realize it is a building they have passed many times. Going south on I-75, the three steeples of St. Josaphat come into direct alignment with the towers of the Renaissance Center when you get to about Ferry St. It always reminds me that Detroit is a great city founded by great people of faith - many different faiths - and the steeples mixed with the smoke stacks symbolized much of 20th century Detroit. (pictured left: Ed at the accordion)

So, another dinner down, nine more to go for 2010 (we take July and August off!). The next dinner is the Golabki (stuffed cabbage) and Paczki dinner, which is Feb. 14, right before the start of Lent. In March we'll have Corned Beef and Cabbage (not every meal is Polish!) - not sure the menu yet for April, May brings Polish Pork Chops, June is steak. September is the City Chicken Spectacular, October hasn't been decided. November is a big dinner - we serve turkey with all the trimmings and celebrate the Feast Day of our patron, St. Josaphat. Then we have a dinner in December a couple weeks before Christmas.
There's a lot of work putting these dinners on, but it's good work. Between my dad, sister Marianne, helpers Ken, Shirley, Busia and Delphine, we get the job done and have a lot of fun in the process. I wouldn't want it any other way. (pictured left: kapusta, cooked for 10+ hours, is ready for the buffet)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Eating Detroit - Angelina's Italian Bistro

Prior to taking in the Detroit production of "Jersey Boys" (I was lucky to get tickets - the entire engagement was almost completely sold out, and having seen the show, I know why. In short, it was an incredible evening of entertainment), at the Fisher Theatre, Ralph and I stopped by Angelina's Italian Bistro for an early pre-show supper.

The restaurant, which has been open about a year, sits on the corner of Witherell and Broadway on the southeast corner of Grand Circus Park in downtown Detroit. You enter the place under the old Madison Theatre marquee. The theatre, which was demolished a few years ago, was one of the older of Detroit's movie palaces and was done up in sort of a Colonial style. I remember being in the place when it was still operating and maybe about 10 years ago when it was abandoned and in deplorable condition. A shame that another great landmark fell to the wrecking ball, but that's a fairly common occurrence here in Detroit.

In spite of the loss of the theatre, the office building that fronted it is alive and kicking, and hosts this splendid new eatery, Angelina's Italian Bistro. This was our second time there. The first was for a private party honoring Detroit music legend Marcus Belgrave back in December. Being impressed with the food, service and feel of the place, we vowed to go back for dinner sometime.

We arrived there Wednesday night at about 6pm. There wasn't much happening downtown, and things were pretty quiet. Although Angelina's does offer valet service ($5 on weekdays/$10 weekends) we found a spot on Madison across from the Opera House box office and parked there. We entered and were seated immediately. In fact, there was only one other occupied table and a couple folks at the bar.

A basket of warm bread came to the table right away along with a tray of "bread friends" (pictured left) that included homemade honey-butter, extra virgin olive oil and an "Italian hummus" made from white beans and other good things. Always a sucker for fresh bread of any kind, we hadn't ordered our drinks before the first basket of bread was devoured.

Looking at the wine list, I saw an "un-oaked" Chardonnay and ordered a bottle. We first tried this wine (although it was from another vineyard) at a dinner party over the holidays, and love the fresh, clean and crisp taste of the wine. This particular bottle was from "A to Z" vineyards, and it was the perfect compliment to the bread-fest I was having, not to mention the delights to come.

I ordered the "Primavera" appetizer, (pictured left) which was house pickled vegetables (what Polish boy isn't a sucker for anything pickled?). The plate included pickled fennel, pickled spicy red onions, pickled radishes, homemade course-ground mustard, some crustini, a little watercress (I think that's what it was - drizzled with balsamic vinegar) and shaved Pecorino cheese. Wow - what a flavor. I was told they use a red wine vinegar, sugar, some spices and water to pickle the veggies. They were crunchy and filled with that acid-sweet pickled flavor. Of course, this gave me reason to eat yet more bread, loading each slice with an assortment of these perfectly pickled prizes!

Since I had already eaten two loaves of breads, I figured it was just going to be a night for carbs. I ordered the Baked Mac and Cheese, which they make with Cavatappi (sort of a corkscrew shaped pasta), grilled oyster mushrooms and fresh herbs. Ralph ordered the Seafood Risotto that included a medley of seafood (shrimp, small scallops, crab), house made bacon, roasted fennel, tomato and red pepper flakes. Outstanding! These dishes (pictured left) were both melt-in-your-mouth, full bodied (without being overly rich), soul-warming meals. Ralph's risotto (we shared) was smooth, well-cooked and had a subtle heat that was a nice balance to the creaminess of the overall dish. The mac and cheese was off the hook. I loved everything about it - the pasta wasn't mushy, the cheese was a great blend of sharp and soft and I loved the crunch bread crumb topping.

We had salads, too. Stephanie, our server, was wonderful. Very knowledgeable on all the food, attentive but not bothersome, charming and helpful. By the time we were eating our entrees there were another 10 or 12 people dining with us in the restaurant.

Unbelievably, we couldn't finish all the food (what did I expect after eating all that bread?) but we managed to save just enough room for dessert! Something light was just in order, and we got a strawberry sorbetto with two spoons. Packed with berry goodness, this sweet and light ending (pictured left) was homemade and as good as I've had

There were so many things that I liked about my experience at Angelina's. What impressed me the most is how much of the food is really and truly homemade - the pickled vegetables, the pasta, the bread, the desserts. The service was excellent and it's a beautiful dining room. I love that they are using a built space in Detroit that was vacant for decades, and have brought it to life once again with new purpose and bright light. These are the kinds of special dinners one remembers fondly for a long, long time.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Eating Detroit - Polish Village Cafe

When you eat Polish food, you know you've eaten!

On a cold and grey January morning here in Detroit, a decision was made early on in the work day that the warming comfort of a Hamtramck lunch was just the ticket.

And from where we sit in the middle of Wayne State's campus, a trip to Hamtramck is no more fuss than taking a ride up the block. The question always is, "Which place are we going to?"

The "Big Three" are Polish Village Cafe, Polonia and Under The Eagle. Each one has their loyalists, and for my money there's plenty to like about each one of these places. For instance, I like the golabki (stuffed cabbage) at Polish Village the best, but Polonia makes it's own kielbasa that's out of this world (it's "fresh" as opposed to "smoked"). So at one place I like to order this, and at one of the other places I prefer to order's all good! During this trip to PVC, I ordered the pork chops (pictured above) and they didn't disappoint.

One of my dear co-workers, Katie, who happens to be married to a nice Polish boy, ordered up the Polish Platter (pictured left) as well as some "to-go" goodies for her hubby. Her Polish Platter came with a stuffed cabbage, piece of kielbasa, a couple pierogi, kapusta (sauerkraut) and mashed potatoes (these are the real deal - lumps and all!) and gravy.

Not only did these delicious home-cooked meals warm our hearts and bellies, the restaurant itself provided a cozy and festive backdrop for our "feel-good" lunch. The Christmas decorations were still up in full force - garland, tinsel, lights, everywhere! When we got there, the place was about one third full. By the time we left, people were waiting in line for a table! It's no coincidence that so many of us find comfort in food like this, and let's hope we will always be able to find refuge in places like this.

Craig, another co-worker of mine and no stranger to all things culinary, took delight in putting away two stuffed cabbage rolls, mashed potatoes and green beans. These stuffed cabbages, topped with a tomato soup style gravy, were tender and filled with ground meat (not sure what combination they use of pork, veal and/or beef) a little rice and seasoning. It's the cabbage that really provides the flavor. I think we should all be eating a lot more cabbage, don't you?

Craig also had a good-looking cup of beet soup that came with his meal. See the pattern here? Cabbage, beets, potatoes...sure it's not low-cal, but we got our daily allowance of vegetables, that's for certain. Pass the sour cream, please!

I don't have a photo of it, not that it would have done it justice, but the other Kevin Gerard in our office (can you believe there are two in the same place?) ordered the roast pork. It looked so succulent, just falling a part like when you can cut the meat with your fork. I said nothing to him at the table, but I had a case of "plate envy" - do you ever get that? It's when you want to eat what somebody else ordered.

We cleaned our plates, filled our tummys and enjoyed the communal pleasure of spoiling ourselves with such a treat at lunchtime.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Eating Detroit - Loui's Pizza

This has been a long time coming. For the most part, food has been an essential part of my life. Not in the way that food needs to be, serving to keep us sustained, but in a way that all food should inspire to be - a celebration that reflects culture, tradition and love.

So, while much of what I eat is that of mere convenience, I resolved that 2010 would be different. Anyone still living in the Detroit area doesn't need me to tell them how bad things are right now. We're all witnesses - most of us are living it. So, all the more reason to celebrate the simple pleasures in one's life like going places and eating things!

Last night was such an occasion. I've been a part of many conversations about "Detroit-style" pizza. All variations on the square, thick-crusted, sauce on top of cheese pizza. The most famous is probably Buddy's, with so many stores around the area (although I contend the best Buddy's pizza still comes out of the ovens at the Conant/McNichols location). Then you have Cloverleaf on the east side, Shield's, and the legendary Loui's Pizza in Hazel Park.

Ralph (pictured) and I ended up at Loui's Pizza last night in an attempt to compare and contrast their pies with others we've enjoyed. It was a cold Sunday night, and the place was packed. I had not been to Loui's since 1982, and my most vivid recollection (other than the delicious pizza) was a lot of empty Chianti bottles hanging from the ceiling. Walking into the dining room, there were hundreds of bottles still on display, and more had been added to the walls. Each bottle was signed by it's consumer(s) and I can't imagine how many wonderful stories must be attached to those bottles.

Our waitress was Dianne - a real hoot! We got Happy New Year hugs from her as she asked what we wanted to drink. She returned with our waters saying, "I fancied them up with TWO lemons" and then seemed to instinctively know what we wanted to order.

"So you boys want a small antipasto salad and what do you want on your pizza pie?" We ordered a large pizza (8 slices) with pepperoni and mushroom to follow our salad. The salad was out in no-time, and Ralph commented on the smoothness of the dressing. It was really good - old school Italian dressing on iceberg lettuce with chopped up ham, salami and mozzarella cheese. Ralph and I thought it was one of the best we've had anywhere.

The pizza took a while. When it came, the sight and smell made my mouth water in anticipation. We dug right in and were so involved in eating that we didn't realize we didn't get the pizza we ordered! Dianne came over to the table and asked if we got the pepperoni and mushroom pizza. Looking down at it is was clear that it had the pepperoni but no mushroom. "I screwed up, sorry!" Dianne said as she carried the pizza we should have gotten over to another table. The other party didn't seem to disappointed and neither were we. With or without the 'shrooms, it was good eatin'!

Loui's has a different sauce than Buddy's (seemed to have a more herbal taste - maybe more oregano), and the pizza was a bit cheesier, too. Ralph didn't think the crust was as "buttery" as Buddy's, but it had a good texture and a nice crunch at the edges.

Enjoying this great Detroit tradition was one of the best parts of the day.