Saturday, April 28, 2012

babo: a market by sava

You know you've made it when you can open a market with your name in it and people come. This is the case with Sava Lelcaj, owner of Sava's State Street Cafet in Ann Arbor, and now babo: a market by sava just down the street at Division and Washington. I visited babo on the weekend they received their liquor license to sell wine and beer, and it was a flurry of activity. The staff was busy, but remained warm and friendly.

 First, a little about Sava for those outside the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area. While I was unable to meet the woman herself, she has a reputation in the area thanks to the appeal of Sava's State Street Cafe. She worked her way up in the restaurant business from busing tables in high school to managing in college. After college, she used her experience and expertise to help other restaurateurs get up and running until she opened Sava's State Street Cafe, which later moved across the street into an expanded space.

Her latest venture is babo, a specialty market and cafe. While there are several differences between a restaurant and a market, there are also a couple of key ingredients that Sava brings to her projects: fresh, local, hand-crafted food. In addition to a nice selection of imported gourmet items, babo carries local produce, as well as cheeses and preserves made in Michigan. There is no frozen food section full of pre-packaged, bulk-made, reheatable meals. Instead, she offers a deli counter where patrons can purchase sandwiches, sides, and entrees made by her kitchen staff. There is a small seating area to eat in. 

In another nod to a time of more civilized eating, babo breaks out the white linens and fine china every Saturday for Tea at 3. For $12, patrons get a pot of the tea of their choice and a plate of treats, either sweets from the bakery or savory sandwiches from the kitchen.

Creative Director Dave La Fave ensures that babo has a distinctive look, using anything and everything to create visually appealing displays, including a ladder and vintage kitchen appliances the weekend I was there. Photos from babo's opening include a window display that included a floating bicycle and baguettes and is the most unique and captivating display I've ever seen.

Sava Lelcaj has something truly wonderful to offer the Ann Arbor area - an approach to food as more than just sustenance but as a full sensory experience, a community activity, a social experience. As so much of America willingly accepts the marketing myth that we no longer have time to seek out local food, prepare our own meals, or even put down the smart phones to eat as a family, babo is a refreshing reminder that there is more to food than the act of eating.


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Mary Cooks: Tempura

Tempura is deceptively simple. The batter consists of just a few ingredients, and you don't even have to mix it thoroughly. It's one of my favorite foods, so, armed with explicit instructions from the Japanese Food section of, I embarked on another cooking adventure.

Mis en place

Veggies prepped
As always, first I prepped my veg. I selected carrot, zucchini, and red bell pepper. I cut them into sticks as the restaurant tempura I've found easiest to eat has been in this shape. According to, all you need is 1 egg, 1 cup ice water, and 1 cup flour. Beat the egg and then gently mix in the water and flour.

I think this looks about right

Once I had my batter, I heated a inch or two of oil in a heavy skillet. I used small kitchen tongs to dredge my veg through the batter and place in the hot oil and then placed the cooked tempura on a plate lined with paper towel.

Carrot tempura cooling while zucchini cooks in the background

And I learned the complexities of tempura that reflect its true nature. My tempura was soggy. Not greasy, but.....soggy. This can result from several factors, including over-mixing the batter, not using cold enough water, too much excess moisture in the veg, and not laying the cooked tempura in a single layer to cool. This can also be prevented by paying closer attention to all of those things, and by adding a little potato starch to the batter.  Even so, I was pleased enough with the results to pack up the left overs for lunch tomorrow.

I also prepared a little meat to accompany my tempura. Last year, I went to the Towson location of Pho Dat Thanh and had caramel fish for the first time. I've been fascinated with it ever since. I attempted to recreate the flavor of that dish this evening. I used chicken instead of fish and set bite-sized pieces to marinade in soy sauce liberally seasoned with ginger and pepper while I cooked my tempura.

Chicken in ginger soy sauce marinade

To get the caramel flavor, I preheated my pan but I let it get really hot. I then added the chicken and all of the marinade, followed quickly with about half a cup of water. I reduced the heat and let it come up to a boil, then added some sugar. When the liquid was reduced by half, I added some of Sunday's left over rice and let it simmer until the rice was sufficiently reheated. The sauce thickened as it cooked down.

The sauce thickening as it cooks down

The result was a very gingery brown sauce with a slight hint of caramel. Unlike the soggy tempura, the caramel chicken was a definite success.

Dinner for one

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Mary Cooks: The Easiest Fish Ever

There's been surprisingly little cooking going on at my house. It all started last Sunday. My counterpart and I were feeling industrious after taking down the shed the previous weekend and set about clearing the yard. We sprung for a professional one-handed chain saw (which I have dubbed Bruce) to help remove creeper and dead tree limbs that would otherwise be out of reach with a heavier, two-handed saw. Things overhead. One such dead limb came crashing down, bounced off the ground, and hit my beloved right in the kisser.  I did what any good wife would do. I put a bag of frozen peas on his face and drove him to the ER.  Luckily, there was no concussion, no infection, no lost teeth. Just teeth that were very very loose. Seven stitches, two Percacets, and a tetanus shot later, he was ready to go home. But not ready to eat anything

This past week, he's been on an antibiotic and a pain killer while he heels. And it wasn't so bad food-wise, really. Monday I had left overs. The rest of the week I had something or other going on after work, and didn't really miss dinner. Then the weekend rolled around. We're getting by on ham and cheese sandwiches on squishy white bread which Gareth cuts into bite-sized pieces for himself. But by this afternoon, I wanted an actual meal and decided to fend for myself.

Without Gareth's tastes to consider, I was free to cook whatever I wanted. And what I wanted was fish. We usually have a big bag of tilapia from Walmart in the freezer. That, some rice, a vegetable medley, and a little sauce sounded like dinner to me.

First I prepped my veg as this always takes the longest. I used leek, kohlrabi, and zucchini. After I cut the veg, I put my skillet on to preheat.

Veggies prepped

Then I started the rice.The very best way to cook rice is in a Korean rice cooker. If you cook a lot of rice and you do not have one of these, get to the nearest Asian grocery and buy one. One cup water + one cup rice + a splash of oil, a splash of half and half, a little salt and pepper = perfect rice in 20 minutes.

My Korean rice cooker - the best kitchen appliance ever

OK, so here's the easiest fish ever. Place a wire rack inside a heavy skillet (not a non-stick skillet). Pat the fish fillets and place on the rack. Drizzle a little oil over them, and dust them with salt and pepper. Place them in the broiler and check on them every so often until they are done. Cooking times will vary by the variety of fish. When they comes out of the over, squeeze a little fresh citrus juice on them - lemon or lime, or even orange if you're feeling daring. You really can't mess this up unless you get clever or creative. Don't. Just keep it simple and it will work.

Fish on a rack, lightly seasoned and ready for the broiler

And this is what it looks like when it's done

While my fish was in the broiler, I sauteed my vegetables in olive oil with a little salt and pepper and a squeeze of lime juice. I waited until they were nearly cooked before attacking the most challenging part of the meal - the sauce. And tonight I was determined to move beyond the unremarkable pasty sauce I usually create into something creamy and flavorful. To achieve this feat, I did everything wrong.

Veg almost done - time to start the sauce

The defining feature of my Unremarkable Sauce is its paste-like quality. Gluten being the main ingredient in paste, I reasoned that omitting the flour would remove this attribute. I started with half a cup of stock which I heated slowly on the stove top. I then added potato starch to thicken it. A little half and half, a little butter, some pepper, some paprika, and I almost had something. I heated up some wine in a separate pan to cook the alcohol off and added that at the end.

This sauce was truly remarkable - remarkably lucky

What I got was certainly remarkable. The remark I made about it was it didn't taste like paste. Unfortunately, it didn't taste particularly good. Not until I put it on the vegetable medley. Then it tasted like part of the meal, something deliberate, and not like the happy accident it actually was.

Fish with some rice, a vegetable medley, and a little non-pasty sauce

As I was cleaning up, I thought that really that was no way to make a sauce, that I should be able to do a decent job at that part of the meal at this point. And then I thought of the proper solution to my sauce issues - emulsification. If I can't work with flour, there's always egg yolk. And there's always tomorrow.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Old Habits Die Hard

I'm one of those kids who got branded with their parents' faith through the name they gave me. I am named after my mother's two favorite saints - Saint Mary and Saint Teresa. While not Catholic, my religious upbringing in a very formal Episcopal church was not too far away. I grew up with confession on Saturdays, incense and sermons on Sundays, potlucks on Wednesdays, and all the religious holy days and observances. And, of course, the privations and purification of Lent, including meatless Fridays.

I left the Episcopal church, and eventually Christianity altogether, some 20 years ago in favor of a faith that felt closer to my northern European heritage than that desert faith. And, I take an almost perverse pleasure in marking Good Friday with a cheeseburger. While in my current life it is no longer taboo, there is a lingering memory of my childhood religious experience that still makes it feel daring and forbidden.

I was perusing the online menu for TenTen Bistro, trying to decide between the Bistro Burger (a grilled Angus burger with white cheddar, applewood bacon, and crispy onions on a brioche roll) and the Lamb Patty Melt (a grilled Creekstone Farms lamb burger and otherwise identical to the Bistro Burger) when I saw the Vegetarian Powerhouse Wrap. The disobedient thrill of my Good Friday cheeseburger is petty and immature next to the genuine enjoyment I get from a good Powerhouse. After the disappointment of the Harbor East Deli Powerhouse (how can you omit the hummus?), I was thrilled to find another option available. And, because TenTen changes their menu regularly, I figured I had to act now.

A traditional Powerhouse consists of hummus, avocado, tomato, sprouts, spinach, onions, and (if you're very lucky) cucumber and grated carrots, with Muenster cheese on sunflower bread. While the sunflower bread is a highly pleasing feature of the classic Powerhouse, I'm hard pressed to find it in Baltimore. I'm not a stickler on this point and will gladly take it on just about any other type of bread. The endurance of the wrap trend in sandwich-making presents a nice alternative that has the added benefit of being easy to handle. And a good Powerhouse can sometimes be a messy affair.

Aside from the wrap, TenTen follows the classic formula fairly closely. I got a soft wrap filled with a hummus that was thick and creamy and very lightly seasoned, allowing the flavor of the chickpeas and tahini to dominate.  The sprouts were not the usual grassy alfalfa kind. They had the look and taste of the more exotic (and more satisfying) broccoli sprouts that tasted good with the baby spinach. The tomato was fairly sparse and unremarkable, but it is just barely spring, and I'd rather have a scant serving of the things this time of year than have my sandwich be overpowered by the pathetic, cardboard-y flavor and texture of tomatoes picked before they are ripe. Besides, they found a perfectly ripe avocado in Baltimore in April. Which means the TenTen kitchen crew know a thing or two about produce.

They used a very nice white cheddar in place of the Muenster, and grated it rather than trying to use a slice in a wrap. This almost never works as the cheese is less flexible than the flour wrap, and disaster almost always ensues. Regular wrap consumers know this, and so does the staff at TenTen.

A light pesto completed the Powerhouse and was a welcome replacement for the usual red onion I get most of the time. The earthiness of the basil worked well with the rest of the vegetables while the garlic gave the sandwich a nice zip that was more subtle that the aforementioned onion.

TenTen is still my favorite lunch spot, and their Powerhouse is one of the nicest I've had in Baltimore City. They deviate in the right places and in the right direction. Served with their signature Old Bay potato chips that are made on site, this was one of the best take out lunches I've had in some time.

The TenTen Powerhouse Wrap, in a
photo that doesn't nearly do it justice

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A Truly Reluctant Cook

A few weeks back, during my brief re-engagement with cooking, my counterpart asked me why I wanted to cook anyway. I'm not particularly good at it, I don't make a full effort at it, so why do I bother? I spoke a bit about how good it feels at the end of a long, hard day to come home and smell dinner in progress. I love that he consistently prepares dinner for me. It makes me feel valued and loved. So, when his workload increased, I wanted to give some of that back to him.

He explained that I was looking at the thing all wrong, seeing it as a duty I could relieve him from - a chore. He cooks because he truly enjoys the act itself, from seeking out new ingredients to mastering new cuisines, his cooking is about the process, while mine is about the result. Or, more often, appreciation for the result. Until I find enjoyment in the process, my cooking will always come up short.

This certainly gave me something to think about. I still venture into the kitchen to cook. I still feel as if I should be able to put a passable meal together when asked. But none of that has to do with actually learning how to cook.

Then I picked up a copy of chef Gabrielle Hamilton's memoir Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef. I picked it up for the subtitle, hoping it would be just that. It isn't. She isn't reluctant at all. And her education only appears to be inadvertent on the surface. From her childhood with a French mother to her travels across Europe to the opening of her own restaurant and her recognition as one of the best chefs in New York, Hamilton embraces food and cooking all along the way.

Starting in her mother's kitchen, she is exposed to the French way of cooking and learns to use everything - the entire animal, the entire vegetable - everything. She also learns that food is the universal language of comfort and currency of employment. She cooks her way through Europe after her money runs out, and, while surviving for days at a time without eating, acquires a great appreciation for the simplest of meals. Even the assembly-line cooking of the New York catering scene doesn't diminish her underlying belief that good food is the foundation of a good life. At one point, when she is short on food and sleep, and her blood sugar is crashing, she refuses to stop for a meal at a place that offers free mimosas, certain that this gimmick is a reflection of the quality of food they serve.

The passages about her vacations in Italy are the strongest passages in the book. She and her in-laws use food preparation to bridge the language barriers and form their relationship along this activity - feeling each other out, learning basic personality traits by working together to feed the rest of the family.

In reading the book, Hamilton's feigned reluctance provided a new perspective on my genuine reluctance. Through her eyes and her writing, I felt a desire to do what she was doing with her mother-in-law during her summers in Italy - finding new, fresh foods to try and devoting the whole of the day to preparing food.

Gareth is right - for most of my life, I have had no real desire to learn how to cook. It was a chore for my mother, and, I suspect (despite her reputation but because of her liberal use of pre-packaged conveniences like canned and frozen food) a chore for her mother also. But that's not really what it's about at all. And the best food comes from people who love to cook, and people who love to cook intrinsically understand that meals aren't just to feed the body, they are also too feed the spirit and the soul. The loss of family dinners and the replacement of sit-down meals with restaurant take-out or frozen, pre-made dinners is the loss of something more valuable than good nutrition and our national health. It's the loss of our connection to each other - as a family eating dinner, as a community providing meat and produce, and as a country with our own distinctive cuisine as a mark of our culture and character.

I want to embrace these things. I want to hold on to them and share them with those I love. I think they are important. And now I think I am ready to learn how to cook.