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Monday, October 28, 2013

Commerce Kitchen Huntsville Alabama

Commerce Kitchen in Huntsville, Alabama offers superb food, in a bistro setting.  That’s really all I need to say, but then what the hell, maybe I’m being a little hard on myself.  The first question, followed by a bunch more:  Why would you want to eat there?  Why would you want to drive eight hours to eat there? What kind of food?  What’s the atmosphere?

I’m so sorry I opened this up to questions.

I’ll fling a name out.  Jimmy Boyce.  Learned the restaurant business across the county.  Le Cirque in New Yoak.  Years in L.A. and that doesn’t mean Lower Alabama.  Opened Cotton Row in Huntsville in 2008 and has a pizza joint in the Huntsville Art Museum.  High end.  Low end.  Commerce Kitchen, which Boyce owns with his wife and a business partner, fits in the middle.  He said he wanted the feel of a 1950’s steak house.  I think he missed the mark there, but that’s a good thing.  I strolled through the doors, into a dimly lit tangle of patrons clustered at an intimate bar.  Crowded, but not noisy.  This was a 1950s steak house all right, but one designed by a French bistro chef. 

Into the small, but inviting bar

Even the floors sport a casual elegance

Just the time and place for a bit of Jameson

Living in Europe, as I do, I immediately felt at home.  Comfortable.  Ready for a pre-meal libation and a chat with folks who might have something to say.  Europeans are like that.  They have not lost the art of conversation, nor the ritual of easing into a slow evening of dining.

To Europeans, dining is a sacred respite from the cares of the day.  Relaxing.  Catching up with friends and family.  It doesn’t end there.  What’s different about bistro fare in France, Italy, Spain, or Germany?  Freshness of ingredients.  Care in preparation.  Attention to detail, whether it’s the placement of silverware and glasses, or the lighting, and the way the attentive staff is not only well dressed, but knowledgeable.
It's the small touches

Commerce Kitchen fits solidly in the bistro world.  You want to ease in.  You want to linger.  Also this is Alabama, the heart of Dixie.  Life slows down. Commerce Kitchen is not only bistro in ambiance, but southern in charm.

Boyce wanted it that way.  He got it.  As author Steve Doyle quoted Boyce in, "It's not going to be duck liver and caviar. "It's going to be very familiar foods with our twist on it."

Here you find shrimp and grits, grilled salmon, rib-eye steak, and grits with short ribs.  But, always with a twist.  Our waiter knew all about it.  He’d worked in the kitchen and could describe the recipes to a T.

At 7:30 p.m. the crowds had yet to arrive

Nice touch, that.  I’m a fan of everyone in a business knowing all about that business.  I asked him about the glassware and it wasn’t a test.  I liked the glassware.  He knew the style and the company name.

“Ok,” you’re thinking, “enough of the small talk.  Give me a few hints about the food.”

Shrimp and Grillades

Gladly.  I started with the grits and short ribs, or Grillades as they’re called on the menu.  The name comes from New Orleans and means meat, usually beef, slow cooked with stock and vegetables until the meat falls into shreds, resting in a dark, indescribably delicious sauce.  The waiter recommended the dish and as soon as I bit in, I wanted to kiss him.  This was stewed meat over creamy grits taken to the level of angels.  The sauce was so rich I still dream about it.

What followed was a medium rare, blackened steak, with tender-crisp vegetables and a stack of crisp onion rings.  The steak was so tender no knife needed.  Yes, you can get steak practically anywhere.  No, you cannot get it cooked to perfection everywhere.  This was special.  A steak worthy of the name.

Tender, tender Rib-eye

The Kitchen's take on Pork and Beans - Pork Belly and Blackeyed Peas!

Smooth and creamy shrimp and grits

Dessert?  Are you kidding?  Of course!  You’re only fat once!  Absolutely decadent.  Chocolate Pecan Pie. A dollop of luscious whipped cream on top.  I’m still ashamed of myself.

How long were the five of us there?  Beats the hell outta me!  We talked of food and family and the pleasures of life.  Our waiter had a sixth sense about appearing when we needed him.

People often talk about a ‘feeding frenzy.’  You don’t go to Commerce Kitchen for that.  You go to slow your life down, chat with friends, and ease your way through an evening meal you will never forget. If you wannta try and beat Commerce Kitchen, buy yourself a ticket to France.  This was the best meal I’ve had in the U.S.A.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

I'll see you in Helsinki!

Never had been to Finland, but over the years I’ve known some Finns.  Maybe that’s why I had a yen to stick my toe in the front door.  A Finnish wife lived near us in Madrid.  She spoke four or five languages and went from one to another as easily as you’d change the look on your face.  Her son, who was first or second grade, also maneuvered from language to language like a linguistic acrobat.  One day, in a room full of people, her son ran up to her and whispered something.  She told him in English,  “No need to whisper.  Nobody else here speaks Finnish.”  She could be pretty sure.  Only five million or so Finnish speakers in the world and few outside Finland.  

I did know a man who taught himself Finnish.  He also spoke English, German, Russian, and Spanish.  He worked for an agency of the U.S. Government.  When I asked him what he did, he was very tight lipped.  “I go places and talk to people.”

Also bought a Finnish fishing knife in the mid 70’s.  Still have it.  Still sharp as a razor, as many a fat, cold water perch has found out.

Finland, like the Scandinavian countries, is sparsely populated, so unless you’re prepared to stay awhile and wander from the Baltic to the Artic Circle, Helsinki really does only get your toe in the door.  But don’t let that put you off.  Go ahead! Take a peek at perhaps the only exotic country in the far north of Europe.

Why exotic?  The language, for one.  Danish?  Swedish?  Norwegian?  All related.  Finnish?  Very different, although it’s spoken by a few minorities in nearby lands, including Russia. Take the English name of the county:  Finland.  Same in the rest of Scandinavia.  In Finnish, it’s Suomi, pronounced as it’s spelled.

Other ways Finland is different from its Scandinavia neighbors:  Uses the Euro, has no monarchy.  Apparently, Finland (even more than Sweden) is a picker and chooser in its ties and cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).  It prides itself on remaining non-aligned.  Lots of reasons, many of them I suspect historical.  Finland has been a battleground for centuries.  For nearly all of the 19th Century, up until 1917, it was the Grand Duchy of Finland, ruled by the Russian Empire, the Russian Tsar as the Grand Duke.  Revolution in Russia and civil war at home, both of the bloody kind, separated the two.

Ok, enough blather.  Important stuff.  Finnish women are walking clichés:  tall, blond, and gorgeous, but a little more like ice sculptures.  How do I know?  Hummmm, well, I mean, uhhhh, I forget.  Must have heard it from friends. 

Moving on…What’s there to do in Helsinki?  In the winter, I haven’t a clue, but I suspect building fires and fighting frostbite would be at the top of the list.  Pin the tail on the reindeer?  Get red hot in the sauna, then run naked in the snow and flog yourself with birch branches?  I chose summer.  Greenery, outdoor parks, and markets, and cafés.  Cold beer. You know, the things that separate modern man from Big Foot.

Not all that much to see in Helsinki, or at least I didn’t find swarms of tourists, but you have to consider that I was on a cruise and had only a few sweet hours to do the daylight town.  Couple of churches, one of them unique.  Couple of tourist spots, a monument to the most famous of Finnish composers, Jean Sibelius.  Want to listen to a portion of his towering masterwork, Finlandia? 

A word about the churches.  First, Temppeliaukio Lutheran Church, dug into a block of granite.  Very modern.  Architectural firm?  Flintstone and Rubble.  Hahahaha, only kidding.  The architects were brothers, Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen.  Construction finished in 1969 and since then half a million visitors have flooded through.  Also a popular venue for concerts, to take advantage of the excellent acoustics.

Our thoroughly Nordic guide

Another church is the very traditional Helsinki Catherdral, or if you want to give Finnish a try, it’s called ‘Helsingin tuomiokirkko.’  Notice all the u’s and o’s and m’s in this language? The cathedral dates from the mid 19th Century and sits high in the middle of Senate Square.  In front of the cathedral is a statue of Tsar Alexander II.  Wait a sec!  Didn’t the Finns move heaven and earth to free themselves from their Russian masters?  Yeah, over the years, the statue has caused some controversy, with suggestions ranging from moving it into a less conspicuous locale, to recycling it into beach sand.  Ok, I made that last part up.  But, the statue has stayed for a couple of reasons.  Alex II reestablished the Diet of Finland in 1863, and introduced reforms that gave Finland more autonomy.

Changing the subject, have you heard of Marimekko, the Finnish design firm?  Known since 1951 for bold fabrics, including colorful floral patterns.  Once you see one, you’ll remember the style.  Pricy?  Oh, indeed, but also so beautiful they’re suitable for framing.  There’s a large area in Helsinki known as the Design Center, and it’s well worth a stroll.  Here’s a site that will introduce you to Finnish design:

A typical Marimekko flower design, a style called Unikko, designed by Maija Isola (1927-2001)

But, what do I like best about Helsinki?  The people and the genial atmosphere.  Grab a sidewalk café and order yourself an over-priced beer.  The beer is delicious, especially on a warm summer’s afternoon.  Wander through an open-air market.  Feast on sausage and fresh berries.  Or, stick with the beer and linger awhile.  Watch those tall, gorgeous, fabulously dressed ice statues slink by.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Enjoy a Slice of Germany - Flammkuchen!

Just one slice....well, maybe two...and another beer...

In Germany, Flammkuchen, or Flame Cake decorates nearly every restaurant menu.  When you’re at a fest, look for the long lines. But, among the hungry multitudes, you’ll need a plan.

Plan A:  Pick out a fest, any fest.  Elbow your way to the beer stand and while you slug down your first liter of malt and hops, waddle over to the stone ovens billowing out clouds of flavor.   Hey, it’s autumn, it’s fest time, it’s Flammkuchen time! Too many hungry swine ahead of you?

Plan B:  Grab another liter, link arms and join in a drinking song, and wait.

Can’t find a fest?  Go get your eyes checked!  But, don't’ despair.  Whether you call it Flammkuchen or as the French say, Tarte Flambé, you can be a culinary hero and amaze your lazy friends in your very own kitchen.  

Tarte is a good name for this dish.  Simple.  Hot.  Delicious!  Easier to make than any girl you dated in high school.  The perfect appetizer before, during, or after a football game, or as part of an inebriation ceremony.

Get started before the crowd in your kitchen gets restless and starts pawing through your liquor cabinet.

The crust is severely thin and crisp, almost like a cracker, but the savory taste is all there.  No, it’s not just a thin crust pizza.

Here’s how you do it…this rendition serves 3 men who don’t give a damn, or 14 ladies who are trying to persuade each other they really don’t eat that much.

First preheat the oven to 425ºF (220ºC), then make the crust:

1 1/2 Cups flour
1 Teaspoon salt
A sprinkle of pepper
A sprinkle of nutmeg
1/3 Cup water
2 Tablespoons olive oil

Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl.  Pour in the oil and water and stir with a fork.  Knead by hand until the dough no longer sticks to your fingers.  Provided you’ve used enough flour, this takes no time at all. If it’s still sticky, add a little more flour.

About the size of a man's fist.

Dust your counter well with flour.  Roll the dough out as thin as possible.  I’m talking Wheat Thins® Cracker thin. 

I'm talkin' thin!

Prepare the topping.

3/4 Cup crème frâiche (with herbs is best) If you can’t get crème frâiche, try sour cream, mixed with little bit of heavy cream.

I used traditional toppings, but any topping in any amount will do.  For those who are anal-retentive, or control freaks, I offer these measurements:

3 heaping Tablespoons chopped onions
3 heaping Tablespoons lean, diced bacon
3 heaping Tablespoons chopped pepperoni (the little green, pickled peppers, not the sausage)

Put the bacon and chopped onions in a frying pan and gently sauté until the onions are limp and the bacon nearly crisp.

Place the thinly rolled dough on a baking sheet, spread moderately with crème frâiche, then sprinkle on the toppings.  Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, until the edges are getting a tiny bit charred and the crème frâiche is bubbling….after all, this is Flame Cake!

Raw, naked, and ready for the oven.

There’s also a sweet version. Instead of the savory toppings, just sprinkle sugar over the crème frâiche and add your favorite dessert toppings.

Oh yeah!  You be da cook o da hour! 

Ladies, kiss the cook!  Guys, grab him another liter of beer!

For the neighbors who followed the aroma, get the dog to chase them out of the yard, unless of course they brought more beer.

Out of the oven!  Smell that aroma!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Zwiebelkuchen und Neuerwein

So many things happen in Germany in the autumn.  Weinfests. Oktoberfests.  Leaves molting from green to yellow, amber, brown, and red. A slight chill in the morning air. Best of all, it’s harvest time in the Vineyards.  Which means…

It’s Zwiebelkuchen and Neuerwein time!  Gets the heart pumping, doesn’t it!  Bet if you knew what the hell they are, your heart would pound a hole in your puny chest!  Just settle back and leave it to me to keep you informed and well fed.

Just to whet your appetite, sip some Neuerwein, or new wine.  It’s also called Federweißer, meaning feather white, from the bits of yeast still floating around.  Actually, it’s not new wine, its just headed in that direction.  Cloudy and generally 4% alcohol, it’s sweet and slightly bitter, with a hint of natural carbonation from the fermentation.  Matter of fact, the Germans only loosely cap it so the carbonation can escape.  At this point you’re having a conversation with yourself.  You’re not in Germany.  You’ve never heard of, let alone tasted Neuerwein, but by golly you’d like to try some!

Leave it to me to come up with a solution.  Let me amend that, to ‘leave it to my wife,’ who subs in the kitchen when she is not out working and slaving to support me.  Here’s the basic formula from La Cuisine de Chez Moi:

2 parts tonic water
1 part white grape juice
1 part dry white wine

Ok, it’s not exact, but it’s close.  Not satisfied?  Well, shell out some coin, you cheap bastard, and catch a flight to Germany!

On to the pièce de resistance, zwiebelkuchen, or onion cake.  Don’t know why they call it cake, since it’s more of an onion pie.   But, whatever you call it, grab a fork!  Don’t worry about a napkin; you won’t leave a crumb.

Before I start, here’s a disclaimer:  Every German grandmother makes a different version of zwiebelkuchen, so I took liberties, too.  In the first place, I prefer a lighter, flakier crust than you find on most commercial zwiebelkuchens, so I used a homemade pie crust. instead of the traditional yeast crust.  See video below.

Let’s have a drink and get started!

Preheat the oven to 430ºF (220ºC) ( after the crust comes out of the frig)

Favorite Pie Crust (this will chill for an hour)

2 1/2 Cups all purpose flour
1/2 Teaspoon salt
1 1/2 Cups butter
3-6 Tablespoons of ice water.

Rather than a lengthy explanation, just watch this short (less than 5 min), dynamite video and you’ll be an instant expert.

Pie Filling

Note:  Before you start on the filling, roll out the pie crust, put it in a pie pan and put it back in the frig while you make the filling.

3 Large onions, peeled, quartered, and thinly sliced
1 Cup raw bacon, diced
2 Cups Crème Frâiche
4 Eggs
Caraway seeds

Cook the onions on low heat, in a large skillet.  You want them translucent, not caramelized. About 15-20 minutes.  

When cooked the onions will reduce to about half this amount

Remove the onions and add the bacon to the skillet.  Cook until crispy.  Mix the onions and bacon in a bowl.  In another bowl, mix the crème frâiche, eggs, gratings of nutmeg and pepper.  When the onion mixture has cooled, mix it with the egg mixture.  Pour it into the prepared pie pan. Sprinkle on a few caraway seeds.

Slide the pie into the preheated oven and bake for 40-50 minutes.  Check it at the 30 minute point and if the crust is browning too rapidly, cover the pie with a sheet of aluminum foil.

You may have guessed that Zwiebelkuchen is very similar to Quiche.  No secret there.  Both come from roughly the same area.  Lorraine is now France, but has bounced back and forth, so a lot of recipes traveled.

Besides a flaky crust, another peeve of mine is an egg dish that tastes too eggy.  If I want scrambled eggs, I’ll make ‘em.  This recipe for Zwiebelkuchen is light and fluffy, without a hint of heavy egg flavor.

Now, quit dallying, pour yourself another Federweißer, and get to work!

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Potatoes and Chestnuts? Hey, a Fest is a Fest!


At the Potato Fest!
Lots of photos in this post.  Keep scrolling!

The Germans celebrate in the old style, harvests, new wine, beer, seasons.  Most of the fests are in small, picturesque villages whose histories run back centuries.  If it weren’t for the fests, you might forget they were there.  This weekend, with the promise of beer, wurst, and other amusements, we headed out to a Kartoffel (Potato) Fest in Wallhalben, and a Kastanie(chestnut) Fest in Annweiler.

You see, when you picture fests in Germany, expand your mind, learn to think outside the bottle.  Wine and beer, sure, but everything that comes out of the earth, including pumpkins, gets their festival days.  I like it.  Why limit yourself to drinking when there are so many things to do and to eat WHILE you’re drinking.  Listen to live music.  Watch cooks at work over blazing fires.  Gander at musicians and other entertainers in medieval costumes!  No matter the time of year, Germans practically beg you to join in the fun!

What do I mean by picturesque villages?  Small. Rural.  Ancient.  Wallhalben looks like a Disney set for Snow White.  Cobblestone streets.  Stone houses.  Window boxes bursting with colorful blooms.  Grapevines growing over doors and up the sides of buildings.  Then you get to the main square and wonder why you don’t even have to pay admission.  Food stands.  Beer stands. Open faced tents selling everything from stuffed animals to fragrant herbs, cheeses, stone oven breads, and bottles of some of the best wine in the world.  None of these are at rip-off prices, I hastily add.

Potato-Spinach dumplings

Gotta have some cake!

Who could ever forget the beer?

Crowds are smiling and friendly.  I know Germans must get drunk. It’s impossible to live on beer and not have those unfortunate occurrences.  BUT, I have yet to see a sloppy drunk, or an obnoxious drunk, or a combative drunk.  At a fest, everything is done in good fun.  All you have to do is loosen up.

Beauty in every little detail

Told you these are rural villages!

The village well with a crown of wheat

Try some honey wine

Cooking the wurst

Time to move down the road to one of my favorite villages, Annweiller.  Picturesque does not do the town justice.  If Wallhalben was a Disney set, Annweiller is a Disney movie!  A stream runs through a town lined with half-timbered houses, punctuated with old mill wheels that still turn after centuries of use.  The stone streets wind this way and that.  Flowers are on profuse display.  In some places the streets are so narrow, the Tent-shops almost meet in the middle.  Smell the chestnuts roasting, the wood fires, the perfume of grilled meats, and baking flammkucken.   Want a special treat?  Try one of the locally brewed chestnut beers.  Oh, the dark amber goodness that you can only savor once a year!

Annweiler is one of the prettiest villages anywhere!

A river runs down the middle

Local bread dumpling with chestnut dip

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire!

Charred, split, and delicious

Tending the spiesbraten grill 

Local produce

We found a seat among the multitudes and slugged down chestnut beers while munching on flammkuchen.  Know what that is?  It has flat crust, as thin and crispy as a cracker, and it’s topped with a thin cheese and bits of whatever you want.  We chose pepperoni, those hot little green Italian peppers.

As we sat, chewing away, a German couple from Stuttgart sat down in front of us.  Fests are like that.  Sit wherever there’s a seat.  The man sipped a beer and the wife (Frau) garrulously began chatting with the usual questions:  where are you from, are you on holiday in Germany, what kind of beer are you drinking, I don’t like beer, may I have a sip???? In this case, garrulous was not a pejorative term.  Utterly charming.  Germans have not lost the art of friendly conversation.  I tried out my German. She insisted on using English.  Her husband laughed at both of us.  Typical of a fest.  You go to meet people, chat, drink, and have a great time.  We did!

Don’t waste another moment!  Grab your significant other, whom in my case I swear is my wife, and get your thick-skinned rump to a fest!  Prost!