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    Benton's Country Hams-photo
    by Helen Rosner
    I've eaten Allan Benton's extraordinary pork products before-it's hard to eat dinner at a certain type of restaurant in New York (not to mention Chicago, San Francisco, Charleston, or New Orleans) without ordering something deepened by his smoky, silky, funky bacon. Nevertheless, it wasn't until I paid a visit to Benton's smokehouse, aging facility, and storefront in Madisonville, Tennessee-not too far of a drive from Knoxville, southwest on Highway 411-that the character of this meat really worked its way under my skin. I mean that figuratively as well as literally: for days afterward, my skin and hair bore the lingering aroma of the rich, beautifully greasy smoke that permeates this small operation.

    The experience was overwhelmingly olfactory, but the visual compoment of a visit to Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams is no less remarkable: I'd never seen so much pork in one place. But what seemed to my eyes to be an endless array of hams and bellies dry-aging and maturing (the hams age for twelve or twenty-four months; the bacon for three) is, by meat-processing standards, quite small. These are exceptional pieces of meat, salty and unctuous, made great both through Benton's exacting curing and aging, and by virtue of their provenance: Benton is so particular about the quality of the pork he buys that the scope of the operation is contained simply by the limits of his supply.


    These are exceptional pieces of meat, salty and unctuous, made great both through Benton's exacting curing and aging, and by virtue of their provenance.
    Demand, on the other hand, is seemingly without end: Benton, a man so utterly nice that it is not inaccurate to describe him as the Mother Teresa of meat, is genuinely delighted when recounting how his business has grown in the decade or so since his country ham was first embraced by chefs like David Chang and Damon Wise. Virtually every leg and belly in the place is promised to one chef or another; home cooks who'd like to incorporate a few pounds of bacon into their pantry frequently face down a weeks-long wait, and those who want a whole country ham of their own have to plan months ahead of time.

    Of course, you can skip the line-for bacon, at least-if you make the trek down to Madisonville yourself: At the tiny storefront that heads the aging rooms, a freezer bin of vacuum-packed cured belly beckons to all comers for just $6 a package (that's the wholesale rate; at specialty grocers, a pound of Benton's can go for fifteen dollars or more). And so it was that I found myself, eight pounds and a few hours later, dumping cookbooks from my luggage to make room for all my newly-acquired, dry-cured treasure. It's been more than a month since then, the bacon's long been doled out to worthy friends and eaten, but my suitcase still smells sweet and smoky, and I couldn't be happier with that.

    Take a tour of Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams in the gallery »

    Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams
    2603 Highway 411
    Madisonville, Tennessee 37354
    423/442-5003
        



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  • 07/09/13--06:25: Double Dutch
  • Suzanne Ma-photo
    by Suzanne Ma
    For years the conductor of Rotterdam's Tram No. 7 would make an extra long stop at Vlietlaan Street where-for nearly two decades-my in-laws' take-out restaurant, Wha Kong 2, has served up the beloved Dutch staple known as Indo-Chinese food.

    I remember how the conductor would call the restaurant five minutes before he arrived; and how my father-in-law, Tuful Kuo, and his staff would immediately fire up the woks. Succulent Indonesian-style grilled pork was doused in a crimson Chinese-style sweet and sour sauce to make the dish called babi pangang. Spring rolls, or loempias, were stuffed with leeks, cabbage, celery, pork, and shrimp just before they hit the deep fryer. Moments later, my father-in-law would dart across the street to hand the containers to the stalling conductor, just as the riders started to grow restless.

    I realize these dishes might seem exotic in the land of Dutch pancakes and pickled herring. But, in fact, it's part of a beloved cuisine that's been here for about a century. Chinese immigrants, many of them working as stokers and sailors for Dutch shipping companies, were already running restaurants in port cities like Rotterdam and Amsterdam in the early 1900s. But the term, "Chinese Food" took on a whole new meaning when, in 1945-following more than three centuries of Dutch rule-Indonesia secured its independence.

    Chinese restaurateurs saw an opportunity, tweaking their menus to appeal to returning Dutch expats who had developed an appetite for Indonesian food abroad. To their Cantonese menus, they added Indonesian specialties: crispy prawn crackers and attar, a pickled cabbage dish; chunky chicken skewers called kip saté dunked in a simmering peanut sauce; poising goreng, batter-fried banana sprinkled with powdered sugar, undoubtedly a Dutch touch. In essence, they were birthing a new style of cooking, one that combined the sugar and spice of Indonesian fare with their traditional Chinese recipes-fried rice called nasi goreng, red-hot sambal sauce, fragrant curries, loempias and other delicious fusions.

    To the people of Rotterdam Wha Kong 2 and the cuisine it serves are now indispensable, a lesson I learned last summer when Tuful Kuo announced a week-long vacation.

    "What will I eat while you're gone?" one patron wailed.

    "I consider this takeaway my best friend," said another.

    Clearly, the food has proven addictive to the Dutch. But it turns out they're not the only ones. When you visit Wha Kong 2 ("Wha Kong" is the Dutch pronunciation of two Chinese words that mean "Chinese garden."), you might wonder where Wha Kong 1 is. That restaurant opened in Madrid 20 years ago, when my husband's uncle traveled to Southern Europe to capitalize on the growing popularity of Indo-Chinese cuisine among the Spaniards. -Suzanne Ma

        

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  • 07/09/13--06:52: Gold Standard
  • kolsch beer in Cologne, Germany-photo
    by Stephen Beaumont
    Like many tourists, on my initial visit to Cologne in the summer of 1998, I made my first stop at the Cologne Cathedral, the Gothic-style masterpiece that towers over the city. My second stop was right next door: Früh am Dom, a cavernous beer hall that pours the town's signature style of ale, kölsch.

    I remember how the server arrived at my table and, in the highly ritualized fashion that is customary in Cologne, pulled a small, narrow glass called a stange filled with pale, foamy brew from his circular, handled tray and placed it atop a coaster, which he marked with a tick of his pencil. I sipped: Crisp, mild, subtly fruity, that refreshing kölsch took the edge right off the hot July day.

    As soon as I finished, my stange was wordlessly replaced with a fresh one, and another pencil tick was added to the coaster. Since the typical stange, a slender cylinder whose name means "rod" in German, holds a mere 200 milliliters, about 6.75 ounces, of beer, I could drink quite a few, so this ceremony went on for some time. Finally, taking a cue from the locals surrounding me, I put a stop to the proceedings by placing the coaster on top of my glass. The server then added up the pencil marks, multiplied them by the price of a stange, and scrawled the total on the coaster, transforming it into a beer-stained tab.

    As I found out, the trappings surrounding kölsch reflect its esteem here as well as its uniqueness, for kölsch, an ale that goes down like a summer lager, is a beer unlike all others. Most of Germany is known for its golden lagers-pilsner, helles, märzen, and the like-which are fermented slowly at lower temperatures using cold-loving lager yeasts. Lagers, particularly suited to chilly northern climes like Germany's where they can be aged in caverns and frigid cellars, rose to prominence in the 16th century, joining the ales that preceded them. But lagers back then weren't so light. Germany's blonde lagers date to the mid-1800s, when advances in kilning technology made the production of pale malts possible.

    Combining lager yeasts and the newer, lighter malts, brewers created a crisp, golden beer style that became the talk of Europe-except in Cologne, a city whose conservative traditionalism has long been one of its trademarks. There, brewers stood resolute in defense of old-style ales-heavier, darker, more dimensional beers that fermented more quickly at warmer temperatures.

    A beer as thirst-quenching as a lager, with a milder flavor than other ales but nearly as much complexity
    But progress was not on traditional German ale's side. By the late 19th century, given lager's popularity, Cologne brewers figured it was time to meet the competition head on. So they kept their ale yeasts but adopted the paler malts that had become so fashionable in lagers, as well as lager's longer, cooler conditioning. What resulted was a beer as thirst-quenching as a lager, with a milder flavor than other ales but nearly as much complexity. In Cologne, the style proved a hit, and breweries, from the brightly lit, rambling Brauhaus Sion-one of the city's oldest, founded in 1318-to the homey, fourth-generation Brauerei Pfaffen and others, now serve none but kölsch.

    It's great stuff. Technically an ale that's made like a lager, Cologne's native beer finesses the divide between the two, borrowing from each to become something more balanced and delicate altogether. Most kölsches have a light fruitiness up front-soft peach or apricot or a hint of something lemony but nowhere near the big berry or citrus flavors you might find in other ales. The hoppiness, too, is nuanced, rarely approaching the bitterness of even a mild pale ale, while the body of a kölsch is crisp on the palate but without the dry austerity of a lager like pilsner.

    Wonderfully thirst-quenching and approachable, the style is great for pairing with sausages and other hearty foods served in Cologne beer halls. Those halls are the only places to experience some of my favorite kölsches, not to mention the ritual of drinking them. In 1985, recognizing the singularity of its beer, the Cologne Brewers Association campaigned successfully for some of the strictest regulations governing beer production anywhere. These days, when even the size and shape of the stange is legislated, breweries must be located in and around Cologne to call their beer kölsch. Many of these don't send their beer abroad.

    But some imports are available here at home, along with American beers made in the kölsch style-Saint Arnold Brewing Company's zesty Fancy Lawnmower beer, New Holland's more austere Full Circle, Four Peaks' bracing Sunbru. Drinking these, I've found that the style also goes great with milder summer foods. Salads, grilled fish, steamed seafood-kölsch never overpowers these dishes, but rather enhances the meal with a sly complexity that sneaks up and hooks you.

    See tasting notes for 7 great kölsch-style beers »
        

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  • 07/09/13--07:41: Glory Road
  • Rock Cafe in Stroud, OK-photo
    by Jane and Michael Stern
    The pop culture personality of Route 66 never had much to do with food. The Joad family in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, traveling down the "road of flight," barely could sustain themselves; in the song "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66," songwriter Bobby Troup moves too fast to stop for a meal; and do you remember what, if anything, anybody ate in the TV show Route 66?

    It was a main road west for generations of Americans, and even now, decades after it was decommissioned as a federal highway (replaced by four-lane arteries that barrel across the country where Route 66 meandered), it remains a bonanza of colorful eateries that sprang up over the years to serve hungry wayfarers.

    Chicken-fried steak, smokehouse beef jerky, and burgers at joints with carhops make Oklahoma especially memorable
    Our Route 66 must-eat itinerary from Chicago to Los Angeles ranges from prototypical corn dogs at Cozy Dog in Springfield, Illinois, to Mitla Café in San Bernardino for "Real Mexican Food," as the sign boasts, since the late 1930s. But with more miles of the original highway than any other state, Oklahoma is especially endowed with memorable meals-wacky or delicious and sometimes both. As we have followed the Sooner State Glory Road from the Kansas border to the Texas panhandle, we've found the sort of dining experiences that make Oklahoma especially roadfood-rich: superlative chicken-fried steak, smokehouse beef jerky, and burger joints with automated carhop service.

    Heading southwest on what is now known as the Will Rogers Turnpike, for Oklahoma's favorite son, our first stop is at Clanton's Café in the tiny town of Vinita. Dating back to the highway's dirt road origins (when, it is said, the café's namesake, Sweet Tater Clanton, used to stand outside and bang a pot with a wooden spoon to attract passing motorists), this 86-year-old gathering place is a reminder of just how good a chicken-fried steak can be. Tender, lightly battered, griddle-cooked, and followed by a slice of fragile-crusted banana cream pie made by Sweet Tater's granddaughter, Melissa Patrick, it just doesn't get much better.

    James Roper
    About 70 miles on, Tulsa, the hometown of Cyrus Avery, the highways commissioner who championed the creation of Route 66 (and who made sure it went by the place where he lived), is a treasure trove. The riches include White River Fish Market, where you pick fresh catfish, trout, or flounder from a glass case and get it fried or broiled to order; Mahogany, where top-dollar steaks are preceded by an iceberg salad dressed with blue cheese; and Wilson's Bar-B-Que, whose tagline "You Don't Have to Have Teeth to Enjoy Our Meat" applies to the moist, velvety soft brisket. But we love Tulsa most for hamburgers. There's the Big Okie at Hank's Hamburgers, four juice-oozing patties and four slices of cheese; the Westsider at Linda-Mar Drive-In, two seared patties, each topped with cheese, between slabs of buttered and grilled-crisp Texas toast; and the Double Deluxe at Freddie's Hamburgers, two quarter-pounders dripping American cheese and garlanded with a bouquet of lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, fresh onions, fried onions, and mustard (plus mayonnaise if you want), all stacked in an oversized bun. When you pick up a Double Deluxe, you instantly note how pliable the bun is. No matter how tender, it can't cling to its ample contents: The glistening patties want to slide out whichever side of the bun fingers aren't gripping, lettuce shreds tumble, pickles slip, onions squiggle, mayo oozes. It is a burger-eating adventure.

    No restaurant exudes Route 66 charisma more than the Rock Cafe, built in Stroud, midway between Tulsa and Oklahoma City, in 1937 from boulders excavated to pave the highway. Talk about homestyle cooking! The kitchen's recipes are scribbled on 3" x 5" cards, wrinkled restaurant receipts, backs of envelopes, and yellowing paper scraps. ;
    The glistening patties slide out of the bun, lettuce shreds tumble, pickles slip, onions squiggle, mayo oozes
    But boss Dawn Welch says the recipes are no big deal. What matters is her 70-year-old grill, one of the original Wolfs. She explains: "It has a thin groove at the back that somehow holds the flavors right on top. This is a grill that was designed to make food taste amazing." Everything possible spends some time on the old iron flattop. That includes burgers, of course, but also ham for ham and beans, chili, sauerkraut, and even spätzle (a legacy of Dawn's Swiss-German ex-husband), which take the place of hash browns in a stupendous kitchen-sink side that includes peppers, onions, and two kinds of cheese.

    The worthy splurge in Oklahoma City is prime beef at Cattlemen's Steakhouse in the stockyards. The rib eye into which we glide a knife is so intensely marbled that fat and muscle are inseparable. In an entirely different class-but equally delicious, and even more fat-rich-is barbecue at Leo's. Located in a dilapidated former gas station, this soulful outpost is so well-seasoned that a sign on the door reads "Due to high humidity, please watch your step." Yes, the floors are slick from air that is humid, but not humid with plain, boring H2O. The moisture comes from unctuous smoke wafting out of a pit that produces unbelievably succulent ribs, hot links, and brisket.

    James Roper
    Just west of Oklahoma City, El Reno is home to the onion-fried burger-a sphere of beef slapped onto the grill along with a fistful of thinly sliced onions. Originally created during the Depression, when beef was dear, the two are brutally mashed together as they sizzle, creating a package that is as much about the vegetal goodness of sweet caramelized onion as it is about beef. No need to specify onions when you order one at either of the following spots; they're included unless you expressly delete them. We love Sid's Diner, not only for its hamburger (better yet, double-meat burger), but also for its sociable waitresses, including Trista, who, thankfully, coaxed us to order the banana cherry milk shake. For the full flavor of the highway when it used to be America's Main Street, check out Jobe's Drive-In, which still sports Touch-O-Matic carhop service, a setup that allows you to order from the parking lot. Robert Sanders, who has been at the grill for 43 years, serves mostly locals now but says, "We used to get a lot more tourists back when the road went through."

    When we pull into the gravel lot outside of Jigg's Smokehouse in Clinton, we count 12 pickup trucks, one SUV with Oklahoma Highway Patrol markings, and a single sedan-our Mazda rental. Inside, when customers see us taking pictures, they merrily offer to let us photograph their Pig Sickle and Wooly Burger sandwiches-outlandishly large piles of aromatic smoked meats-and want to know if we've yet had a chaw of the intensely flavorful beef jerky the proprietor's wife, Becky Klassen, makes. In dining rooms decorated with thousands of business cards, portraits of John Wayne and Marty Robbins, and a Christmas wreath made of green and red shotgun shells, these people are country-proud.

    Farther west, in Elk City, the Country Dove Tea Room is a lunch-only eatery attached to a Christian bookstore and country furnishings emporium. The ladies here are every bit as solicitous as the gents at Jigg's, but in this case they implore us to sample their heart-shaped muffins and little squares of lemon pear Jell-O salad, both of which are part of what the menu calls a Delite Plate, built around a sandwich. We went for the signature sandwich, chicken avocado. It is ladies' lunch supreme: chicken and avocado pulverized into a mild mash, served on your choice of a whole wheat roll or flakey croissant, with a few frilly leaves of lettuce. There is nothing demure, though, about Country Dove's French silk pie, which is lasciviously chocolaty, smooth, and dense, perched on a crust that is little more than ground nuts and butter, and topped with a ribbon of sweet whipped cream. Proprietors Glenna Hollis and Kay Farmer blush when they recall the author who tried the pie and later wrote that he wasn't sure if he should eat it or smear it all over his body. Sensual, salacious dessert in a Christian tearoom: There are all kinds of kicks on Route 66.
        

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  • 07/09/13--08:28: Golden Days
  • lobster Americaine-photo
    by Gael Greene
    In my neurotic need not to be late, my partner Steven and I arrived at the Bordeaux train station hours early. We were on our way to nearby Eugénie-les-Bains to splurge on the cooking of the great French chef Michel Guérard. I settled in a seat looking directly at a PAUL bakery kiosk selling our favorite baguettes. "Shall we get one for the train?" Steven asked.

    "We just had breakfast," I said. "It would be insane. At 1:30 we'll be eating lunch. And then comes dinner."

    I watched the sign board. Hours passed. Our train to Mont-de-Marsan arrived. "Quick," I suddenly decided. "Let's get a baguette." I grabbed a salami sandwich. "This too." He gave me that look. I was going to take only one bite of the salami, but damn, it was so good, salty, greasy, spicy. I ate my half, the humble preamble to a day and night of three-star dining that would double as a trip down memory lane.

    Before there were thousands of restaurant critics in the blogosphere, there were only three or four who mattered. And the blonde one was me. Starting in late 1968, bankrolled by my expense account at New York magazine, I had the first and last word about New York's most rarified restaurants. But for serious culinary ecstasy in those days, I needed to take my mouth to France. Happily, the magazine agreed. I ate seafood at Le Duc, duck at La Tour d'Argent, the pastry-wrapped bass at Paul Bocuse. And I marked a path to a working class suburb outside Paris where the young chef Michel Guérard was wowing seasoned gourmands.

    Of all the practitioners of nouvelle cuisine, Guérard was, for me, the most brilliant. But I suppose he will be best remembered-celebrated and, by some, snorted over with derision-as the creator of the cuisine minceur, "slimming cuisine," which slashed the fats but, through clever use of vegetable purées and other low-cal ingredients, kept the flavor. A committed gourmand, Guérard needed thinning himself. With marriage to Christine Barthélémy, daughter of a thermal-spa dynasty, he moved from Paris to Eugénie-les-Bains in the southwest of France. There in 1974, he invented zero-calorie fromage blanc sauce for veal and the much-imitated plate-size glazed apple tart on one thin tissue of pastry. He lost five kilos.

    Given my job, it was no surprise that I would be invited to be one of the first guests-shall I say victimes?-when the newlyweds opened a country hotel steps from the family spa. I lost five kilos too.

    I was looking forward to recapturing the decade when I was exercising my power to inspire a fuss, traveling haute on the hog on someone else's dime
    In the years after my article on slimming Michel and Christine's way came out, they expanded their empire, with costly suites and a luxury private spa, and I went often. "The First Slimming Village of France," the sign warned at the entrance to sleepy Eugénie. In truth, there was indulging too. I might lunch on an exquisitely sauced smidgen of lobster and an orb of sorbet to oblige his diet-cooking obsession. But at night, I reveled in the three-star Michelin chef's carte gourmande, filled with many fantastically caloric offerings for guests who were not watching their waistlines, devouring such decadence as a foie gras pot-au-feu with truffle sauce.

    Decades later the memories were still vivid. So when I realized that a lecture gig would take me and my guy to nearby Bordeaux, I decided we must get to Eugénie. I would spring for the splurge. I'd not been back since 1998; I rarely get to France these days. No longer on the masthead with a pampering expense account, I now review restaurants on my own website, and I pinch pennies and make my guests share because the bill is on me. The world has shifted.

    But I was still hearing raves about Guérard. Of all the rock stars who had championed nouvelle cuisine, he was perhaps the only one of his generation still actively inventing, and I was eager to measure his success once more. I suppose I was also looking forward to recapturing the decade when culinary thrills were new and I was exercising my power to inspire a fuss, traveling haute on the hog on someone else's dime. Unlike in the old days, our stay would be brief-I was not about to toss in another $1,500 plus tips for a second night in Eugénie. But I made sure that we would make the most of our 26 hours and arranged for us to eat four meals. In my youth, such an intense dining marathon would have been a typical lark.

    The Guérards sent a taxi to take us to Eugénie. Our timing was perfect for lunch at La Ferme aux Grives, the couple's inexpensive restaurant, where hams hang from the ceiling and pork roasts turn on a spit in the giant maw of the fireplace. It was a holiday Monday in France, the house was packed, and the two of them flew through the room, air kissing friends, neighbors, and me. Mindful of my budget, Steven and I ordered the $60 lunch, burning our tongues on wonderfully moist gougères that were rushed to the table too hot to eat. Steven's snails arrived in seven lilliputian cups oozing garlicky butter, each topped with a toast chapeau. Seven. I like that touch. Better than six. While he shared with me, he dismissed my tête de veau, calf's head in thin anatomical slices with a tangy sauce gribiche. I was in heaven.

    Disappointed, but trying not to be, I wondered: Would it help if I were tipsy? Or 30 years younger?
    His rich lamb shoulder was deliciously caramelized from the fire. My chicken-a farm bird with gorgeous flavor-had come with buttery potato purée in one dish and in another, crusty penne, drowning in cream. The warm rhubarb tart was wondrously acidic. Afterward, we walked through the flower garden, photographing the irises, exciting the bees. I consciously willed myself to remember it. Spring.

    I had prebooked the cheapest room in the Guérards' most modest hotel. But now that we were there, they insisted we stay in their new addition, L'Impératrice. I yielded without protest. Our vast imperial suite overlooked the garden. Everything was tied with bows.

    Michel and Christine met us for champagne and canapés below in the lounge, glamorous with its tufted leather sofas, zebra upholstery, and Empire portraits. Michel was excited about his new work with professors of medicine, devising cuisines for victims of various ailments-diabetes, obesity, heart disease, afflictions of the liver. The French are much ado with their livers. I found it hard to concentrate while nibbling charcuterie, caviar on teeny crêpes, and mini foie gras puffs, all while speaking bits of Franglais.

    I want to say dinner was a miracle more wonderful by far than the thrilling lunch. Except it wasn't. The room at the Guérards' grandest restaurant, Les Prés d'Eugénie, was serene, the table poshly swathed in heavy linen, with herbs and two-tone purple pansies from the garden in water glasses, the captain in tailcoat, the service proper and not too stuffy.
    Disappointed, but trying not to be, I wondered: Did I order wrong?
    But Michel wanted me to have his Zéphyr de Truffe "Surprise Exquise" en Nuage, a truffled floating island on a delicate creamy soup. It was much too much fluff for me. Too many dishes riffed on tempura. Fried leaves fluttered everywhere. Disappointed, but trying not to be, I wondered: Did I order wrong? Why was the kitchen so hooked on frying as if tempura had just been invented? Should I have ordered a bottle of wine, not a glass, or even a bottle of white and another of red as I did in my expense account days? Would it help if I were tipsy? Or 30 years younger?

    The next morning we had to have breakfast in time to have lunch in time to catch the train back to Bordeaux, so after a room service meal (wonderful), we packed and headed to the main dining room. I was game to tackle a gourmand lunch but in this quiet season with just a few cure-seekers in residence, the kitchen was only doing la grande cuisine minceur. And anyway, what would a visit to Eugénie have been without one last "slimming" meal? We settled into yet another exquisite alcove. Five small curls of perfectly cooked shrimp pierced by a green stem lined up on a puddle of sauce. A finger bowl followed. And then slices of veal in a foamy emulsion with mushrooms, haricots verts, a single miniature squash split in half, and lentils. The presentation was as beautiful as always. But something was off. It was, I realized with a start, me. I could feel my own appetite for drama, for excess, fighting against the sanity and restraint of this meal.

    Then our car arrived. As we drove toward the station, I contemplated our visit. I loved the adventure. I was pleased that we did it. The luxury of our suite would be a story to wow rich friends. Michel seemed very jaunty. Still, in spite of everything we'd eaten in 26 hours, I was, I realized, still hungry. But, then, we were running for the train. No time to pause for a salami sandwich.
        

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  • 07/09/13--08:48: Bountiful Prairie
  • wheat harvest-photo
    by Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl
    The united states could be said to have a heart of flatness. What else is there in the southern Great Plains of Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma besides a flatness bigger than France, bigger than Spain, nearly as big as two Germanys-almost a quarter million square miles of big, flat stability?

    Actually, if you know how to look at it, there's a lot here besides the flatness. For one thing, there's plenty to eat. Ask knowledgeable chefs in the southern Great Plains, and they'll tell you about ramps growing wild; porcinis and meaty oyster mushrooms sprouting on logs; quail nesting in sand plum thickets heavy with sweet-tart fruit; wild peaches, passion fruit, and puckery aronia berries that get dried and ground for seasoning meat. Even the cattails conceal treasures; some Choctaw Indians have taught chefs how to knock the tiny seeds from ripe cattail heads to use for flour.

    All of this abundance comes from a place that looks empty because it is one of the flattest places on earth. Geologically speaking, all of North America is built upon a base called the North American craton, a massive, ancient super-plate that the other tectonic plates of our continent bump and grind around. The Rocky Mountains, for instance, is the place at which the flibbertigibbet California-containing land mass of the west bumped into the central craton; so unyielding is this core of North America that not a single volcano (usually typical on such occasions) emerged from this smashup, creating what geologists call a magmatic null, a noteworthy geologic event. Where else but pancake-like Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma could such a profound null be created?

    Credit: Shannon Sturgis

    The very steadiness of the North American craton is responsible for the region's majestic flatness, because this immovable land mass has been polished down by hundreds of millions of years of erosion by wind, by glaciers, by seas moving in and out, by rain and rivers. You read stories about Oklahomans who can't dig storm cellars because their ground is, in fact, rock; the land sits upon shale, sandstone, and clay. Many residents in the south central Great Plains are living on the stubby bases of mountains, ground down after half a billion years.

    The flatness is not just a neutral thing, it is generative: It makes the prairie. Moisture, most often, comes from the sea; it rises, rolls in clouds and fog over the land, and turns to rain when it comes in contact with something that cools it-a mountain, a cold front, a low-pressure system. Washington and Oregon are wet from the moisture created by the Pacific; Vermont and Georgia are green with the evaporation from the Atlantic. But by the time clouds make it all the way across the thousands of miles of land which guard Kansas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska from the sea, the water is mostly gone.
    The flatness is not just a neutral thing, it is generative: It makes the prairie.
    In the days before irrigation, the old tallgrass prairie was tall because it got some water (though not enough to support many trees); the short-grass prairie was short because it got barely any water at all. The rain that does fall onto the great flatness filters down through the ground into an aquifer called the Ogallala, or High Plains aquifer system, an underground reservoir stretching from Texas to South Dakota. Agriculture and hydrofracking are in some places emptying out this aquifer, which took eons to fill. Many worry that in some parts, the prairie is going to slip from a fertile flatness to something worse, something dry, empty, and full of nothing.

    If that happens, the wind will assist. The wind, regularly whirled into tornadoes, is the other signature of the southern plains, and that flatness encourages it. Cold air floods down from Canada, with nothing to block its path; hot air floods up unhindered from the Gulf of Mexico. Then, from the west, both the polar jet stream and the subtropical jet stream stir by, like fingers flicking the edges of a pinwheel, kicking off the rotation. Solid, stable, whipped by winds-the heart of flatness. But the prairie is as diverse as a rain forest, and just as beautiful.

    Credit: James Oseland

    "Oklahoma is the number-two state in the country for plant diversity. We follow only Oregon," explains Jackie Dill, who lives in Oklahoma and teaches wildcrafting, the art of turning wild plants into food, medicine, chicken feed, soap, and other things useful to people. "We have so many different eco-regions-wetlands and hardwood forests and prairie-and then the land rush brought European and other plants in. After the Dust Bowl era, desert plants moved in, too. I live on Iowa tribal land. I forage with a Lakota; my grandmother was Cherokee. What people forget is that for centuries this was the supermarket." Buffalo berries are one of Dill's favorite things to forage. They're spicy and go beautifully with Iowa wild sage on one of the wild bison steaks that the chefs of the southern Great Plains prize so highly.

    That steak might come from Dave Hutchinson's Perfect 10 Buffalo Ranch in Rose, Nebraska, located in the Sandhills, an area of low, rolling dunes held in place by grasses covering nearly 20,000 square miles in the north-central part of the state. There the bison, who are never fed grain, spend their lives roaming free over wild pasture. Then one day Hutchinson makes a call to Rapid City, South Dakota, and a USDA-certified processing facility on wheels arrives. The rancher shoots a target animal with a thirty-aught-six rifle, and the 1,200-pound bison falls in its field, where it is winched up and butchered into more manageable chunks.

    "They never know stress," Hutchinson says. "They eat native grass, what they were meant to eat. Big bluestem, little bluestem, prairie sandreed, switchgrass, meadow grass, prairie cordgrass. A lot of people look at a prairie and they see grass. But this is not grass like on a golf course. This is a whole other thing. Different clovers, bittersweet; in the fall it turns orange. Yucca. Cactuses. I guess you could say I'm a grass-type person; I like to look at it. It's beautiful stuff. And it makes a good steak."

    It's a steak that comes from a big, flat place that is so big, so flat, and so stable it's easier to fly over, or drive straight through, than to consider in its vast majesty.
        

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  • 07/09/13--08:54: Kansas
  • farmer's market carrots in Lawrence, Kansas-photo
    by Judith M. Fertig
    When I first arrived in Kansas, stepped off the plane, and saw the big blue sky open up over the prairie, I knew I was home. This is a place that can free you in unexpected ways, a place where the Beat writer William Burroughs was as much a part of the local fabric as our church ladies with their chili suppers and homemade cinnamon rolls; where 60 different immigrant groups settled after the Civil War, each one seasoning the melting pot. Today you can taste their influence throughout the state: Mennonite beef and cabbage pies called bierocks, Volga German green bean dumpling soup, plenty of bison burgers, smoky chili, heirloom tomatoes, and iced sugar cookies. In a place where the weather is a cocktail of thunder, snow, blizzards, droughts, ice storms, and 100 degree days, it's no wonder we veer toward comfort when we eat. If we could click our ruby slippers three times, we'd be at the farm, where fried chicken comes to the table golden and crispy, the side dishes are all homemade, and a hefty slice of cake means that all is well.

    See more articles and recipes from our special Heartland feature on Kansas »

        

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  • 07/17/13--04:13: Mom and Populist
  • extra crispy fried chicken-photo
    by Kerri Conan
    Give the people what they want, thought Colby and Megan Garrelts when they opened Rye KC last winter in Leawood, Kansas. Being native Midwesterners themselves, the couple knew exactly what that meant: familiar, hearty fare in comfortable surroundings; a restaurant where friends, family, and co-workers could gather on school nights and break pork rinds together. But as award-winning chefs who also run the upscale Bluestem in Kansas City, the Garrelts had a reputation to uphold. So the food at Rye-jewel-box deviled eggs with a horseradish bite, ethereal potato dumplings, and Megan's banana cream pie-must be worthy of cloth napkins. It is. The Garrelts source ingredients largely from nearby, and hiring a huge staff that produces everything from the Parker House rolls to the quick pickles and beer-based vinegars in-house ensures that the food Midwesterners love is better than what mother makes. The caramel corn takes you back to the state fair, even if you've never been to one; and the chicken livers taste like the finest foie gras wrapped in a crackling crust. If you never make it past the fried chicken section of the menu-a detour paved with country ham gravy-that's fine, though it's a shame to skip a side of creamy navy beans or perfectly roasted vegetables. And just like at home, no matter how much you put away, there's always space for a slice of lemon layer cake.

    Rye KC
    10551 Mission Road
    Leawood, KS
    Tel: 913/642-5800

        

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  • 07/17/13--04:18: Sacred Ground
  • Heartland Farm in Pawnee Rock, Kansas-photo
    by Sarah Green
    I drove nine miles past Heartland Farm before I realized I'd missed the place, as usual. The tiny (at least by Kansas standards) 80-acre farmstead is located, improbably, near Pawnee Rock-the exact epicenter of the heartland-in the middle of thousands upon thousands of acres of wheat, corn, soybeans, and cattle. Easy enough to miss, I suppose, in this vast sea of massive mono-cropped grids.

    Retracing my path, I arrived just as the farm's owners, five Dominican nuns in their 60s, dressed in garden clogs and T-shirts, were finishing preparations for lunch. On the front lawn of their farmhouse, a large table was set. Platters of smoked sausage and caraway-flecked sauerkraut sat beside a tomato-cheddar tart. Wooden bowls held salads of tender greens and baby spinach from the garden. There were jars of bread-and-butter pickles and pickled okra from last year's harvest, and fresh-baked rye bread smeared with butter.

    James Roper
    The sisters laughed as they filled their plates. Their food is unassuming but prepared with practiced hands, made almost exclusively from family recipes. "It comes down to what my grandmother made," says Sister Jane Belanger, a smiling woman with cropped silver hair. The nuns have been here since the 1980s, when they started the farmstead as a community that would steward the land. Over lunch, I learned that several of them descended from Volga Germans, who landed in Kansas after fleeing religious persecution in the 19th century. They brought with them Turkey Red wheat, a grain ideally suited to cultivation on the Plains.

    I come here whenever I want to see the past, present, and future of agriculture all at once. The past is evident in how the nuns spend their days, growing, cooking, and preserving whatever they have, and trading with neighbors for what they don't: a grass-fed steer from up the road, hay-baling services, honey. "We see these things as a gift," says Sister Jane.

    The present is manifested in the center-pivot irrigation systems that surround the farm. And, as far as the future goes, while a sustainable farm run by a small group of nuns isn't competing with the huge agribusinesses out here, the sisters are, as the saying goes, being the change they wish to see in the world. Seated at the table, they pray for abundance-then, after washing the dishes, they get back to work.

    Heartland Farm
    1049 CR 390
    Pawnee Rock, Kansas
    Tel: 620/923-4585
        

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  • 07/17/13--04:53: Riding High
  • Kansas cowboys-photo
    by Jim Hoy

    Back in the 1860s, out of the rising dust of the Old Chisholm Trail, rode America's great folk hero, the cowboy. Popular culture turned him into a paragon of deeply held American values-rugged individualism, fierce independence, and a code of rough justice. We often, however, overlook the cowboy's chief purpose, which is to herd the creatures that provide beef for our tables (though they are known to participate in the occasional rodeo too). While trucks have replaced the need for cross-country cattle drives, cowboys at our Kansas ranches still ensure that those animals make it the ten or so miles from one pasture to the next. Though they also perform less glamorous tasks, like fixing fences and baling hay, the beef still reaches us through the efforts of a cowboy. "Sell the sizzle, not the steak," goes the adage. It's the cowboy-still riding high, though at shorter distances, and with a cellphone instead of a six-gun on his hip-who makes that happen.

        

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  • 07/17/13--04:59: Wild at Heart
  • braised rabbit with mushrooms and celery root-photo
    by James Roper
    Even die-hard Kansans can lament a journey by car across the western part of the state. Endlessly flat, dry, and mostly treeless, this stretch of Interstate 70 can make drivers feel as if they're standing still, no matter how hard they're pressing the gas. Although I was born and raised in Kansas, the western parts-where the Great Plains become the High Plains, and the rolling landscape flatlines-were as unknown to me as China. The handful of times I did cross through that spectacular lapse was to get to what was on the other side: Colorado.

    It remained a mystery even after I moved there. Shortly after college I landed my first real job, as a staff photographer at the Hays Daily News. Hays is the population hub of northwest Kansas, with about 20,000 residents, a small college, grain elevators, a Walmart, and-at least as far as I could tell at first-not much else. In the beginning I struggled to make a life outside the newspaper. It was Steven Hausler, then the photo editor, who opened my eyes to the soul of an area that I'd long dismissed. Steve was also a transplant from the other side of Kansas. One day when I was feeling particularly down, he invited me out to grill with his buddies.

    This was, I learned, no ordinary cookout. Steven wrote, photographed, and edited the Outdoors section of the paper, devoted to local hunting and fishing news. At the end of his first year of covering those beats in Hays, he and his new hunting buddies organized a wild game potluck to empty their freezers of what they'd bagged that season and make room for fresh kill. That meal became an annual tradition, and 20 years later, the guys and their families-now fast friends-still gather in a small cabin every autumn to cook.

    As I pulled up to the cabin on Cedar Bluff Reservoir, about 40 miles west of Hays, a few guys in boots and ball caps hovered over bacon-wrapped kebabs of pheasant, goose, and duck on portable charcoal and gas grills set up around the patio's periphery, while another deep-fried crappie, walleye, and catfish, pulled from nearby lakes and creeks, in a pan set over a gas range. On a picnic table out on the lawn were braised rabbit and venison sausage-along with sauces made from foraged tart red currants, tannic chokecherries, and morel and oyster mushrooms.

    Here, as Steven's friends cooked what they'd caught with one another, I could see their mutual appreciation for the creatures out in western Kansas
    When it was time to eat, I found myself remembering a story Steven had told when I'd first joined the paper. A reader caught up with him at an event and asked how he could stomach hunting the animals he photographed and clearly admired. The dude had a hamburger in his hand at the time. His question was directed at a guy for whom a single unclean kill could haunt him into setting down his bow for an entire season. He answered: "I cherish the animals I harvest. They help sustain me and my family." (And Steven, ever the polite Midwesterner, never brought up the burger.) Here, as Steven's friends cooked what they'd caught with one another, I could see their mutual appreciation for the creatures out in western Kansas. The place that had looked so vacant to me before was now full of meaning.

    My drive home was through a changed landscape. Now I knew that the fields that flanked my drive were in fact perfect cover for quail. Ducks and geese would be nesting around the reservoirs. It all held more life than I could have imagined.

    See the recipe for Braised Rabbit with Mushrooms and Celery Root »
        

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  • 07/20/13--04:39: Melon Man
  • Sickles, OK watermelon harvest-photo
    by Shannon Sturgis
    My grandfather, Howard Hitt, has a farm in Sickles, Oklahoma, west of Oklahoma City. While it's primarily a peanut farm, come summertime it transitions over to cantaloupe and watermelons, which grow beautifully in Oklahoma's sandy loam soil. When I was a kid, my family would visit for a week each summer from where we lived in Fayetteville, Arkansas. My two brothers and I spent the days running around the farm. At the end of each hot afternoon, we'd help ourselves to watermelon: enormous Jubilees; crisp, sweet Starbrites; deep teal Black Diamonds; yellow-fleshed Desert Kings; you name it.

    Though my grandfather would slip me a twenty sometimes, and we exchanged a few words here and there, I never got to know him very well back then. So last August I decided to go to Sickles and photograph my grandfather, now 86 years old, during his watermelon harvest.

    As a professional photographer, I've shot all kinds of subjects, but this experience was personal-and eye-opening. Over the course of four days studying Grandpa through the lens of my camera, I saw a side of him that I'd never noticed as a kid. Starting at six every morning, his days were full: He'd help load hundreds of melons for customers even if they were half his age; he'd go into the field himself and pick melons if someone needed a few more to make their orders, carefully checking each fruit to make sure it was perfectly ripe. The chores never ended, but he didn't seem to mind. And I noticed that whenever this characteristically quiet man spoke, people listened-so I listened, too. I started to understand what it meant to be a farmer, and what kind of man my grandfather was.

    After I left, I called and asked him how he knows when each melon is ripe for picking. He told me, "You'll have to come back and learn where you can." I smiled. I know now I'll be going back next year, and the year after that, as long as there are watermelons and Grandpa is harvesting them.

        

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  • 07/20/13--06:13: Nebraska
  • Anthony's steakhouse, Omaha-photo
    by Roger Welsch
    We don't have cuisine in Nebraska, we have food. When you take on the meat loaf special at the tavern in my central Nebraska town, Dannebrog, you're served not a slice but a whole loaf, as if they're provisioning you for a trek on the Oregon Trail, along which wagon trains once traversed the Cornhusker State. It's not just that we love to eat plenty of our Nebraska beef, it's also because of our farmstead legacy. The days of threshing crews may be over, but small town meals are still put together like we're girding for the harvest. What's on the plate here in the Middle of Everywhere reflects our diverse settler history. Danes came to Dannebrog in the 1870s, so you occasionally find ebelskivers, those potbellied pancakes, at local places like Kay's Korner and the rolled beef flank called rullepølse at Kerry's Grocery. The German-run bakery sells pizza like the Italians in Omaha do, only with sauerkraut on it. (It's better than it sounds.) Just west of us in Farwell is a Czech cemetery full of pioneers who brought goulash to Omaha, while the nearest town of any size, Grand Island (population 49,000), was German. Now it's Thai, Honduran, Bosnian, and Somali. Yes, in cattle-heavy Nebraska the main course is still beef, but the rest of it? That depends on what town you're in and what street you're on.

    See more articles and recipes from our special Heartland feature on Nebraska »

        

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  • 07/20/13--06:23: Here's the Beef
  • Cascio's Steakhouse, Omaha-photo
    by Betsy Andrews
    It's 6:30 on a Saturday night in Omaha, and I'm standing in the kitchen at Cascio's Steakhouse staring at a flattop grill. It's a sea of steaks, the grill guys flipping 70 house-cut New York strips in waves. Beside me, a young food runner named John Davis, sweaty bangs flopping over heavy-framed eyeglasses, fits a dozen plates of steak and foil-wrapped baked potatoes onto a tray like puzzle pieces. He heaves the burden onto his shoulder, groaning "aw, f*@k," then pushes through the kitchen door, calling out as he turns corners, "Hot food comin' round!" I scurry after him to one of the 2,200-seat restaurant's basement party rooms, where members of the Cornhusker Corvette Club await their meals.

    By now most of the hundreds of diners Cascio's will serve tonight have been seated. And in two hours, the house will be empty.

    I stocked up on cowgirl shirts, snapped one on, and drove to Omaha to tour its steakhouses
    That's how dinner happens in Nebraska's largest city: on the early side. Good thing, too, since it leaves more time to digest everything before hitting the sack. This is a town surrounded by grazing lands, so meals here almost always feature a big slab of beef-particularly at classic restaurants like Cascio's, founded in 1946 by owner Alfie Cascio's grandfather, Joe, and Joe's brother Al, a former bootlegger.

    It's places like this that keep me pining for Omaha, a city I first visited in 2008 after completing a writing residency in Nebraska City, an hour south of here. Before heading back to New York, I thought, Nebraska has two more things to offer me right now: Western wear and steak. So I stocked up on cowgirl shirts, snapped one on, and drove to Omaha to tour its steakhouses. I ogled the neon globe sign and swooping mid-century roofline of the 70-year-old Gorat's. I popped in for a gander at Brother Sebastian's monk-robed servers, monastery-themed rooms, and throwback menu featuring dishes like chicken cordon bleu and filet Oskar, steak topped with hollandaise and crabmeat. And I settled in at Johnny's Cafe, a chophouse I knew from its cameo in the movie About Schmidt by Omaha-born filmmaker Alexander Payne. There, I sat in a rolling Naugahyde swivel chair before a backlit photographic mural depicting a cattle run, ate a juicy T-bone with a delicate, nearly sweet flavor, and thought, I'll return some day. Omaha's cow palaces, with their vintage décors and red-blooded meals, had me in their thrall.
    Ariana Lindquist
    Five years later, I've come back, as promised, to find out more about the history and cuisine of a city whose name is nearly synonymous with steak. The first thing I discover is that I'm not the only one who's so enamored. At the Drover, a fireplace-warmed, wood-paneled bar and grill in south central Omaha, I meet diners who've driven from as far away as Kansas City and eastern Iowa just to eat here. I meet waitstaff who have held their jobs for 20 years and managers who started out when it was still known as the Cork and Cleaver, a franchise that introduced the salad bar-Omaha's first-that the folks here remain proud of.

    That was four decades ago, "or 75 pounds ago for me," says Spike Sabine, the Drover's bearded and bullish restaurant manager. He's consumed enough of his own food to understand its appeal: "The whole deal is, 'I'm coming to Omaha and I want the biggest, baddest good steak you can put in front of me.'" He serves me exactly that-the whiskey strip, a 14-ounce New York strip steak that's marinated in bourbon, soy sauce, and garlic before it's seared on the grill to brand it with grate marks-"that's your presentation side"-then cooked over open flame. It's winey and briny, with a yielding texture, a slightly sweet finish, and no trace of the minerality or pronounced chew of the steaks I am used to eating back home. The reason, Sabine explains, is that "this is wet-aged beef," shipped and rested in its own juices in Cryovac packaging. Compared with the dry-aged beef common in New York, which hangs for several weeks, or even months, in chophouse meat lockers before serving, wet-aged steak doesn't taste better to me-just different. But Sabine is clear in his preference. "It's more tender, it holds its juices better; it doesn't even look like dry-aged." He likes Nebraska beef but not just because it's local. After the first six months of pasturing, "it's corn-fed, not grass-fed," he says. "It has better marbling." Whatever its appeal, Nebraska beef is a $12 billion industry. At the Drover, I heard a saying repeated to me often during my visit: "When the manure hits your nose, that's the smell of money."

    The mention of money calls to mind the most famous Omaha steakhouse fan, Warren Buffet. The billionaire has the massive shareholders' meeting for his company, Berkshire Hathaway, in his hometown each May, hosting parties at his favorite haunts. I go next to one of these places, Piccolo Pete's. An Italian steakhouse, it's one of a genre started in Omaha by the five Caniglia brothers, who opened several restaurants here starting in the 1940s, including one remaining location, Caniglia's Venice Inn. The brothers' sister, Grace, married another steakhouse scion, Tony Piccolo Sr. Today Piccolo Pete's neon icon, a musician piping on his tiny flute, glows over a sleepy street. But in 1922, when Tony's father Joe bought the building and turned it into a dance hall where revelers hoofed it to big bands, it was in the center of south Omaha's bustle.

    Credit: Ariana Lindquist

    "The neighborhood was a melting pot: Polish, Italian, Bohemian," says Grace's daughter Donna Sheehan, who runs Piccolo's now with her sister Dee Graves. "The Metropolitan Utilities was next door. The stockyards were open. It was a madhouse every night here until 1 a.m." The dance floor eventually gave way to a dining room serving dishes prepared by Frank Skryja, who's manned the burners for 36 years now. He plates me his hashbrowns, shredded potatoes fried in butter in a small steel pan until they fuse into a golden disk with a crunchy exterior encasing a creamy, fluffy center. He ladles a thick, smoky white bean and ham soup into a bowl and portions out a slab of prime rib, its moist pink flesh hugging ribbons of fat. The meat has been seasoned with garlic, dried basil and oregano, celery salt, and loads of black pepper, blasted with heat for a couple of hours, and then held at a low temperature overnight until its fragrant jus pools in the roasting pan. At lunchtime he slices it thinly onto thick slices of local Rotella's Italian sandwich bread and douses it in gravy for a knockout version of a French dip. For Warren Buffet, Sheehan tells me, the order of choice is the chicken Parmesan. Tasting it now, I understand why. Skryja simmers his tomato sauce with steak trimmings and beef and pork bones, the breaded chicken cutlet serving as a tender canvas for the meaty-tasting red gravy.

    Ariana Lindquist
    A similar sauce is served at Anthony's Steakhouse, which was opened by owner Tony Fucinaro's father in 1967. Back then, the Italian specialties were prepared by Tony's mother, Josephine. The restaurant still uses her sauce recipe for the sides of spaghetti and penne-like mostaccioli. At this sprawling place off the interstate in south Omaha, a humongous fiberglass steer smiles down from the rooftop, and families sit at big tables, the fidgety kids eating meatballs and the grown-ups tucking into steaks, which I'm surprised to discover have a darkly rich, dry-aged flavor. Fucinaro tells me that the beef here is pulled from the Cryovac it's shipped in and dry-aged for two weeks. Each of the steakhouses, as it turns out, deals with its beef in a slightly different way. Some buy precut meat from the custom processor Omaha Steaks, but most get packaged short loins, comprising the top loin and tenderloin, which they cut in-house into T-bones, porterhouses, and strip steaks and age wet or sometimes dry for a matter of days.

    "It's all boxed beef now. But restaurants used to hang whole carcasses," a knowledgeable fellow named Harold Norman tells me when I meet him at Anthony's. Previous executive director of the Omaha Restaurant Association and former secretary-treasurer of the Omaha Stockyards, where he worked for 46 years, the 91-year-old Norman shows up to dinner in a three-piece suit with a watch fob and declares, "I'm from the old school. The way people are today, they're too damned casual." His elegance befits his stature: Each year the Harold Norman Excellence Award is handed out at the Omaha Hospitality Hall of Fame celebration. He's treated like a star at places like Anthony's, where we share a loaded bacon-Swiss burger. It's full of moisture and flavor from a sear on the flattop in rendered steak trimmings, and comes with a crunchy pile of cornmeal-battered onion rings.

    I order a few more sides-Brussels sprouts hash dotted with pancetta and an iceberg wedge salad latticed with red onions and dripping with both Italian and blue cheese dressings-as Norman shares his stories.
    I raise a glass to one last filet, the delicious legacy of a town built on beef
    He tells me that the Omaha Stockyards were founded in 1883 to provide a location closer than Chicago to sell and process cattle and other animals from points west. By the 1950s, they were the largest in the world, a buzzing place where cattle, pigs, and sheep were shipped from ranches and sold to the slaughterhouses. At the 250-acre crazy quilt of pens, 40 commission firms representing ranchers sold upward of 7 million head yearly to 19 different packing houses. The stockyards went strong until the late 1960s. Then the packers figured out they didn't need the middlemen and started dealing directly with ranchers, setting up shop out on the prairie and shipping packaged beef to Omaha and beyond. By 1999 the city stockyards had closed.

    "Everything is gone now except the Livestock Exchange Building," Norman sighs. That ten-story Art Deco edifice, today housing condos, still towers over south Omaha a few blocks from Johnny's Cafe, 91 years ago one of the first restaurants that sprung up at the yards' edges to feed the hundreds who worked there. Norman remembers all the old places: Ross's Steak House, opened on a dirt road; Sam Nisi's Spare Time Café, with its cooler full of steaks at the entrance; Al Caniglia's Top of the World, in an office building penthouse. They're gone now, the casualties of time and a changing Omaha, whose current economy is driven by telecommunications not cattle. But Johnny's, where I had my first Nebraska steak, and where Harold Norman has eaten at least once a month since 1966, survives. So I return to it. Displayed in the foyer, a "Good Morning Menu" from the 1940s when the place was open until the wee hours reads: "A pick me up? Why, yes. How about a whiskey sour." I order one. Sitting on a saddle-topped stool in the barroom amid photographs of the old stockyards, I raise a glass to one last filet, the delicious legacy of a town built on beef.

    Credit: Ariana Lindquist


    Great Steakhouses in Nebraska:


    Cascio's
    1620 S. 10th Street
    Omaha, Nebraska
    402/345-8313

    Gorat's
    4917 Center Street
    Omaha, Nebraska
    402/551-3733

    Brother Sebastian's
    1350 S. 119th Street
    Omaha, Nebraska
    402/330-0300

    Johnny's Cafe
    4702 S. 27th Street
    Omaha, Nebraska
    402/731-4774

    The Drover
    2121 S. 73rd Street
    Omaha, Nebraska
    402/391-7440

    Piccolo Pete's
    2202 S. 20th Street
    Omaha, Nebraska
    402/342-9038

    Caniglia's Venice Inn
    6920 Pacific Street
    Omaha, Nebraska
    402/556-3111

    Anthony's
    7220 F Street
    Omaha, Nebraska
    402/331-7575
        

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  • 07/20/13--06:26: Local Boy Makes Good
  • Chef Clayton Chapman at the Grey Plume, Omaha-photo
    by Betsy Andrews
    This past December at the Grey Plume in Omaha, chef-owner Clayton Chapman set his mise en place in front of me. It was a thing to behold. Diverse and vibrant with all sorts of Midwest fruits and vegetables, it contained the building blocks for the dishes I would eat for dinner: delicate buttermilk gnocchi topped with caramelized Bartlett pears, preserved lemon peel, micro basil, and tart tomato powder; a pizzette chockablock with shiitake mushrooms, cold-smoked cauliflower, pickled ramps, persimmons, and local honey; and a colorful salad of finely shaved beets, watermelon radishes, turnips, and carrot and celery curls. Fantastic. The best part? The Grey Plume, elegantly dressed in recycled barn wood and wine bottles, is ardently sustainable and locavore through and through, with 90 percent of its ingredients hailing from nearby. How, then, did the chef procure such lustrous produce in midwinter, I wondered. Imbued with a Nebraskan's work ethic and aversion to waste, Chapman, 27, preserves some 3,000 jars of peak produce in his tiny kitchen each year. He and his staff raise microgreens under grow lamps, churn butter, and whip ricotta with the buttermilk, and they make the most of each season. In summer, meaty steelhead trout from an aqua farm housed in former hog barns is lacquered with a fish jus glaze and served with tangy cherry tomatoes, barely cooked carrots, and compressed cucumber; come cooler weather, those tomatoes are oven-dried, the carrots puréed, and foraged oyster mushrooms and winter spinach swapped in for the cukes. Both versions are wonderful. In 2010, the Green Restaurant Association named the Grey Plume the greenest dining establishment in the country. That may be true, but it's also just damned good.

    The Grey Plume
    220 S. 31st Avenue, Suite 3101
    Omaha, Nebraska
    402/763-4447

        

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  • 07/20/13--06:35: Bohemian Rhapsody
  • Bohemian Cafe in Omaha, Nebraska-photo
    by Mila Saskova-Pierce
    When I came to Nebraska 25 years ago to teach at the university in Lincoln, I visited Omaha, an hour away, and discovered the Bohemian Cafe, founded there in 1924. With its folkloric décor and waitresses in lace-edged kroje, it reminded me of the old country. Its foods-rich duck liver dumpling soup; svickova, sauerbraten enriched with sour cream; sweet and sour cabbage; kolaches, pastries with poppyseed, Bavarian cream, prune, cherry, and other fruit centers-were like the dishes my grandmothers prepared for Sunday family gatherings in Prague, where I grew up. I left there in 1968 when I was 20. But at the Bohemian Cafe, I felt right back at home.

    I was fleeing Communism. But thousands of Czechs had already settled in Nebraska, as well as Kansas and Oklahoma, in the late 1800s, lured by offers of free land under the Homestead Act. Their cuisine was based on the seasonal products that farmers could raise in the climate they came from. Barley and rye, cabbage, dairy: These were used in the recipes they brought with them.

    Today I buy Czech hard cheeses at the farmers' market in Lincoln to bread and fry, just as I remember from when I was young. I drive 40 miles north to the village of Prague, named after my hometown, for the fried carp, a Friday night Catholic Czech tradition. In Wilber, I can find slivovice, a plum brandy that we Czechs believe has medicinal properties. And I gladly go to 20 or so ethnic festivals in Nebraska, Kansas, or Oklahoma each year, where I share the taste of Czechness with friends and relatives. By eating the food of our mothers, we return, at least in spirit, to the comforting fold of our families. I think this is why cuisine is the part of Czech life that is so well-preserved here. At the beginning of the 20th century, Nebraska's Czech-language newspapers were filled with letters from readers who shared experiences of substituting Nebraska produce-peppers, tomatoes, corn-in old family recipes to approximate the flavors of home.

    Those recipes endure at places like the Bohemian Cafe. Waitresses like Jerry Cousal [pictured], who has worked there since 1966, still deliver paprika-laden goulash and bread dumplings blanketed in dill gravy to Nebraskans, including those of us of Czech heritage who understand that, though the knowledge of our language in the U.S. is disappearing, in our traditional cuisine transplanted to the southern Great Plains, the culture of our homeland continues.

    Bohemian Cafe
    1406 S. 13th Street
    Omaha, Nebraska
    402/342-9838

        

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    A Guide to Spanish Cured Meats-photo
    by Helen Rosner
    The Spanish charcuterie board is a thing of porky magnificence: from the omnipresent chorizo, to the sweet and soft butifarra, to that king of hams, the rare and pricey jamón ibérico de bellota, the sausages and cured meats that the country produces are a testament to the edible magic that results when a pig meets spices and a little bit of curing time. Piled on bread with piquillos and a drizzle of olive oil, skewered with toothpicks as an accompaniment to a caña (a small glass of beer), or eaten out of hand right off the cutting board, there's no way to do it wrong.

    Learn all about the best Spanish cured meats in our slideshow »


        

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    Kansas cowboys-photoWheat and corn and incomparable beef, wild berries baked into the most luscious desserts, crisp summer salads, and the best fried chicken and chili imaginable-the southern Great Plains is a fantastic place to eat. Here, on flatlands teeming with life, farmers and ranchers, foragers and chefs pass down cherished recipes and share new additions to the region's rich culinary heritage. Join us as we visit Kansas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska, three states at the center of America's delicious heartland.

    Credit: James Oseland

    When I first arrived in Kansas, stepped off the plane, and saw the big blue sky open up over the prairie, I knew I was home. This is a place that can free you in unexpected ways, a place where the Beat writer William Burroughs was as much a part of the local fabric as our church ladies with their chili suppers and homemade cinnamon rolls; where 60 different immigrant groups settled after the Civil War, each one seasoning the melting pot. Today you can taste their influence throughout the state: Mennonite beef and cabbage pies called bierocks, Volga German green bean dumpling soup, plenty of bison burgers, smoky chili, heirloom tomatoes, and iced sugar cookies. In a place where the weather is a cocktail of thunder, snow, blizzards, droughts, ice storms, and 100 degree days, it's no wonder we veer toward comfort when we eat. If we could click our ruby slippers three times, we'd be at the farm, where fried chicken comes to the table golden and crispy, the side dishes are all homemade, and a hefty slice of cake means that all is well. -Judith Fertig, author of Heartland: The Cookbook (Andrews McMeel, 2011)

    See more articles and recipes from Kansas »

    Credit: James Roper

    We Oklahomans are not minimalists. Our battle cry could be "Shoot when you see the whites of their plates." I grew up here, on huge pots of pinto beans, mounds of sweet squash and crispy okra, hunks of watermelon, and platters of cornmeal-fried catfish. The land is swept by tornadoes and steeped in borrowed traditions. We are a crazy quilt of people-we take food from elsewhere and make it our own. Settlers of all stripes sprinted across the state border in land runs to build homes out of prairie sod. Coal lured miners from Italy to the hills in the southeast; their old mining towns still serve fried chicken with a side of spaghetti, while in the west, Germans sowed hard wheat and endured drought. Cowboys drove cattle from Texas to Kansas through Oklahoma, and the Trail of Tears brought all the tribes of the Southeast to Oklahoma, along with their farming and foraging. In the century since statehood, the cow towns of Tulsa and Oklahoma City have struck oil and sprouted skyscrapers and fancy restaurants. But underneath it all, Oklahoma is still an agricultural center, staggering in its diversity and plenty. -Mark Brown, author of My Mother is a Chicken (This Land Press, 2012)

    See more articles and recipes from Oklahoma »

    Credit: Ariana Lindquist

    We don't have cuisine in Nebraska, we have food. When you take on the meat loaf special at the tavern in my central Nebraska town, Dannebrog, you're served not a slice but a whole loaf, as if they're provisioning you for a trek on the Oregon Trail, along which wagon trains once traversed the Cornhusker State. It's not just that we love to eat plenty of our Nebraska beef, it's also because of our farmstead legacy. The days of threshing crews may be over, but small town meals are still put together like we're girding for the harvest. What's on the plate here in the Middle of Everywhere reflects our diverse settler history. Danes came to Dannebrog in the 1870s, so you occasionally find ebelskivers, those potbellied pancakes, at local places like Kay's Korner and the rolled beef flank called rullepølse at Kerry's Grocery. The German-run bakery sells pizza like the Italians in Omaha do, only with sauerkraut on it. (It's better than it sounds.) Just west of us in Farwell is a Czech cemetery full of pioneers who brought goulash to Omaha, while the nearest town of any size, Grand Island (population 49,000), was German. Now it's Thai, Honduran, Bosnian, and Somali. Yes, in cattle-heavy Nebraska the main course is still beef, but the rest of it? That depends on what town you're in and what street you're on. -Roger Welsch, author of Cather's Kitchens (Bison Books, 2002)

    See more articles and recipes from Nebraska »


    Read the full story Bountiful Prairie by Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl »
        



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  • 07/20/13--18:13: Nebraska
  • <!--smart_paging_filter--><small><b>From SAVEUR Issue #158</b></small><br>We don't have cuisine in Nebraska, we have food. When you take on the meat loaf special at the tavern in my central Nebraska town, Dannebrog, you're served not a slice but a whole loaf, as if they're provisioning you for a trek on the Oregon Trail, along which wagon trains once traversed the Cornhusker State. <em><a href="http://www.saveur.com/article/kitchen/nebraska">Keep reading &raquo;</a></em>

        

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  • 07/20/13--18:23: Here's the Beef
  • <!--smart_paging_filter--><small><b>From SAVEUR Issue #158</b></small><br>It's 6:30 on a Saturday night in Omaha, and I'm standing in the kitchen at Cascio's Steakhouse staring at a flattop grill. It's a sea of steaks, the grill guys flipping 70 house-cut New York strips in waves. Beside me, a young food runner named John Davis, sweaty bangs flopping over heavy-framed eyeglasses, fits a dozen plates of steak and foil-wrapped baked potatoes onto a tray like puzzle pieces. He heaves the burden onto his shoulder, groaning "aw, f*@k," then pushes through the kitchen door, calling out as he turns corners, "Hot food comin' round!" I scurry after him to one of the 2,200-seat restaurant's basement party rooms, where members of the Cornhusker Corvette Club await their meals. <em><a href="http://www.saveur.com/article/travels/omaha-steakhouses">Keep reading &raquo;</a></em>

        

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