Review of 2015

Well, 2015 has been quite a year. While I may not have been doing much writing, I have done a good bit of wandering. Travel has included a couple trips to Washington, D.C., a couple to Pittsburgh, a couple to Allegan, one to Cleveland, one to San Francisco and what has become the annual road trip to Myrtle Beach with stops in Cincinnati, Asheville, and Knoxville. Throw in a day-long visit to Charleston and I feel like I did my share of travel.

In the middle of the year of wandering, my family moved to a new (to us) house that we are settling into still.

Amid the chaos of moving and travel, I was also able to participate in some pretty amazing culinary activities. I worked with a good friend in the catering of the most interesting wedding reception I have ever seen. It included the roasting of a pig, complete with a “Pig Parade” from the cocktail party to the reception venue. What ultimately made it the most interesting reception was the bridal party’s performing as a band to entertain the attendees after dinner.

I joined a group of online friends from The Salt Cured Pig at a Cajun Boucherie. That is a whole day event that includes the dispatching, butchering and cooking of a pig. We cooked and ate two types of boudin (blanc and noir), head cheese, cracklins, and backbone stew. We also sampled the charcuterie that many of the attendees had prepared and brought to share.

Another event that The Salt Cured Pig hosted was a Charcuterie Jam. This offered me the opportunity to literally rub elbows with one of my  culinary heroes, Kate Hill. Kate brought together Dominque Chapolard, a French butcher whose family works with Kate in her cooking school in Camont, France, and Jeffrey Weiss, a chef and butcher trained in the Spanish style, to demonstrate the differences in preparation style of charcuterie from those two countries.

While I have been cooking throughout the year, I haven’t been writing about it very much. As I look forward to 2016, I hope to do more of that. While I know this isn’t the first time I’ve had a similar hiatus, I am looking to write and post more frequently and not look back on the failure to do so in the past.

Here’s to a happy and healthy 2016!!


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A Conversation with Frank Fejeran

I recently sat down to talk to Frank Fejeran, the owner and chef of Ricewood BBQ, to find out a bit about him and what led him to doing what he does. We chatted at one of the picnic tables, the al fresco seating area at Ricewood. The best part about this location was that we were able to appreciate the aromas coming from the wood smoker next to the food truck.

To say that Frank has been around is a bit of an understatement. He was born in California, but moved to Ann Arbor while in the early years of elementary school. He returned to California for high school and then went to culinary school at the Scottsdale Culinary Institute in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Frank began working in restaurants in California and met his mentor chef Riko Bartolome in Southern California. From there he moved back to Southeast Michigan to work at Tribute in Farmington Hills. Then it was to Chicago, where he cooked at Takashi and Hopleaf. Prior to opening Ricewood BBQ, Frank had been the executive chef at Raven’s Club, here in Ann Arbor.

It was the position at Hopleaf that Frank identified as career changing. He went from having the skillset of a chef to focusing on the food that he was preparing. Frank said that we live in a global economy and freshness is possible from many places, just the carbon footprint is different. Rather than solely focusing on extremely local food sources, the chef’s job is to entertain, to fill bellies and make people happy.

When I asked Frank why he chose to open a BBQ place, he replied because he loves BBQ. It is almost a hobby-like job. He said that once he figured out the core stuff, everything just falls into place. Furthermore, he stated that BBQ is not a flavor, not a meat, it’s a way of doing things. It is a tradition.

Frank did a good bit of research to determine how to make his BBQ the best it could be. He traveled to Texas to conduct this research. It was there that he determined that smoking the meat over a wood fire provided the best, most authentic flavor. As a result, you can see the offset firebox wood-fired smoker when you go to eat at Ricewood BBQ.

One of the big differences about Ricewood BBQ is the fact that your choice of meat is served over a bowl of rice with finàdene (pronounced finadini). I asked Frank why he chose to serve his BBQ over the rice bowl. He told me that it came from a family tradition. Part of his family is from Guam and their family dinners were bowls of rice with roasted meat and finàdene over the top. Leftover meat was kept in a bowl of finàdene in the refrigerator so it would marinate while being available for snacks or future meals.

I asked Frank about his plans for the future, since a food truck in Michigan is definitely a seasonal type of business. He told me that he is building a company with a goal of redefining a chef’s work/life balance. Frank said that food based businesses survive or fail due to labor and overhead. His plan is to create several micro-businesses focusing on small menus, low labor costs and small overhead.

Right now Ricewood BBQ is open Monday-Friday from 11am-3pm or until they sell out. They are also open for Nitewood, one Saturday night each month. Nitewood is only advertised via their social media accounts, so make sure to follow them on Twitter @ricewoodbbq or Facebook a2ricewood.

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Pasta with Peas and Prosciutto

Pasta with Peas & Prosciutto

Pasta with Peas & Prosciutto

Tonight I am essentially living the bachelor life. My wife is chaperoning a Girl Scout sleep-over with my older daughter and my younger daughter fell asleep early at the end of a busy week. Since I didn’t need to cook for anyone else, I chose to make one of my favorite springtime dinners, pasta with peas and prosciutto.

This is favorite of mine because it is fast to cook and offers a lot of flavor. I put a pot of water on to boil and got started with my toppings. I julienned a couple thin slices of prosciutto, then peeled and sliced two shallots. I had a small package of fresh peas that I had picked up at Trader Joe’s, so I was essentially ready.

For pasta, I had a one lb. package of casarecce (short lengths of pasta rolled into S shapes). Once the water was boiling, I added the pasta and started the fire under a saute pan with a splash of olive oil in it. While the pasta cooked, I sauteed the shallots and prosciutto. When the pasta had about three minutes left in its cooking time, I added the peas to the shallots and prosciutto.

After the pasta was done cooking, I drained it and scooped a serving into a large pasta bowl. By this time, the peas were done cooking so I poured the contents of the saute pan over the serving of pasta and grated a healthy handful of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese on the top. I seasoned it with a few grinds of black pepper and called it done.

What I enjoy the most about this meal is the combination of the fresh sweetness that the peas offer juxtaposed against the saltiness of both the prosciutto and the cheese. The shallots provide a hint of onion that is tempered into an additional faint sweet flavor. Ultimately, this is a true taste of Spring to me.

Now that I have eaten dinner and done the dishes, I think it’s time for dessert. Cheers!

Bulleit Bourbon, a bachelor's dessert

Bulleit Bourbon, a bachelor’s dessert

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Ricewood BBQ

Ricewood BBQ
Today I decided to try out Ann Arbor’s newest food truck, Ricewood BBQ. I read the press report about their successful opening day (completely sold out in an hour and 40 minutes), so I knew that if I wanted my choice of items from the menu I would need to arrive early.

Just before noon I pulled into the parking lot behind Morgan & York, 1928 Packard Road. The first thing I noticed was the large, black food truck with a few people milling about. Next thing I saw was the pile of wood and the shiny smoker, ejecting a billowing column of smoke from its chimney.

Promptly at noon, the truck’s window popped up and they were open for business. The line was just long enough that I could see the menu and decide what to order. I am a sucker for good beef brisket, so I opted for the Brisket Ricebowl. For my wife, I got the Pork Shoulder Ricebowl. Both came with a side of marinated cucumber and I asked for the Fina’dene sauce on the side (spicy for me and gringo for my wife). Since I was taking my order home I did not order a drink, though I was tempted by the Kool-Aid of the day.

When I got home and opened the containers, I noticed that the aroma was slightly smokey with a hint of sweet. I sampled a couple bites of the pork shoulder, but saved most of my appetite for the brisket. I am of the school of thought that good BBQ does not require sauce, so the fact that the pork shoulder came with sauce initially made me leery. The menu did reveal that the pork came served wet, so I wasn’t surprised by the sauce and I discovered that it was the source of the sweetness that I had smelled. The pork was very moist and had decent flavor that the sauce did not dominate.

Turning my attention to the brisket, I saw that had a prominent smoke ring and nice layer of bark on the edge of each piece. After tasting a bite on its own, I tried dipping a bite in the spicy Fina’dene sauce. The Fina’dene gave it a good bit of heat, with a nice combination of tart vinegar and tangy soy sauce. I thought that would be a good topping for the pile of rice and it was. The brisket had more smokiness than the pork and was nicely seasoned with salt and pepper. I did reserve a couple bites to try with my own homemade BBQ sauce and that worked well too. The marinated cucumbers were a great addition to the ricebowls, providing something nice and crunchy to go along with the tender meat and sticky rice.

I have never experienced Chomorro, Pacific Island-Style BBQ before today. The flavors of the Ricewood BBQ were different than what I have ever tried before, but I really enjoyed them. It is not your typical BBQ joint and that is a good thing. I look forward to going back again and trying the ribs.

Ricewood BBQ Menu

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Ron’s Roadside BBQ

In my off and on quest to find the best BBQ in the greater Ann Arbor area, I made a trip out to Ron’s Roadside BBQ today. It is located on Pontiac Trail, just east of the intersection with Dixboro Road.

Pulling into the parking lot, it looked as I would expect and the faint column of smoke rising from the smoker smelled promising. The restaurant is in an old building that looks like it has seen better days. Regardless of the aluminum siding on the outside of the building, it appears that it may be of the same vintage as the establishment date posted inside (1957). Speaking of the interior, it is as no frills as the outside-post and plank walls and a bare concrete floor.

The meats on the menu included ribs, chicken (whole, 1/2 or pulled), brisket, pulled beef, pulled pork and pulled lamb. Sides, or Fixin’s as Ron calls them, include several that you would expect like mac n cheese, baked beans, slaw, and American potato salad. Surprises include beet salad, cucumber salad, and German potato salad.

Since I was ordering food to go, I opted for sandwiches, a pulled pork for me and a pulled chicken for my wife. I added a small side of slaw to complete our sample. After waiting what seemed to be an extraordinarily long time (between 10 and 15 minutes), I got my order and left.

We ate our sandwiches and the slaw when we got home and I would have to say it got very mixed reviews in my household. The pulled pork was very juicy, but it didn’t really have any smoke flavor and I couldn’t taste even a hint of a spice rub. It had a decent porky taste, but that was about it. My wife’s pulled chicken was pretty dry and also didn’t have any smoke flavor. The worst part of the chicken sandwich though, was the splintered bone (three pieces) that my wife found in the middle of the chicken. The slaw was ok, but tasted like it might have come from a Gordon Food Service carton.

Overall, I think the best part of the entire meal was the sandwich rolls. They had a decent crust and were soft and buttery inside, kind of like a good brioche. Mine soaked up a lot of the juice from the pulled pork and didn’t just deteriorate like many sandwich rolls do.

My complete assessment of Ron’s Roadside BBQ is very mixed as well. I was slightly disappointed that they had no brisket, but that could happen to any BBQ restaurant. The wait seemed a bit long since there was only one other person in the restaurant. The sandwiches were served with sauce on them (I follow the mantra that good BBQ doesn’t need sauce), but I wasn’t offered the chance to ask for it on the side. The pork had a decent flavor, it just didn’t have the smokey flavor that I look for in BBQ. I would be interested in trying the brisket or pulled beef, but considering that Ron’s Roadside BBQ is off the beaten path and no where near I tend to go often, it isn’t likely to happen any time soon.


Ron's Roadside BBQ

Ron’s Roadside BBQ

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Homemade Baked Macaroni and Cheese

In my house, pasta is a true staple. My two daughters would each be willing to eat it at almost every meal. One way they are unwilling eat it is with powdered cheese and out of a box. This is because I have introduced them to homemade macaroni and cheese, though I should say pasta and cheese, because we aren’t picky when it comes to the shape of the pasta.

The sauce that I make for the pasta and cheese starts as a basic bechamel sauce. The first step in making it is melting butter. How much I melt depends on the total amount of sauce I am making. Once the butter is melted, I turn the heat under my pan down to medium and add an equal amount of all purpose flour to the butter (e.g., 3 Tbs of butter and 3 Tbs of flour).

This combination of butter and flour is a roux. I stir the roux for a few minutes, to cook the flour and get rid of any raw flour taste. At this point, I add milk. The amount of milk depends on how much butter and flour are in the roux. If I use 3 Tbs each of butter and flour, I will need about 1 1/2 cups of milk. Once I add the milk, I need to whisk the sauce constantly until it begins to thicken. This is when the hosts of cooking shows say to add a bit of nutmeg. It definitely adds a little something to the sauce.

Once the bechamel sauce has thickened, I add some cheese. This can be almost any cheese, but varieties that melt easily work best. Usually I add some shredded colby-jack because it has a mild flavor and even provides a bit of orange color (but not the unnatural orange that comes powdered in a packet). Given the amounts of butter, flour and milk I mentioned previously, I would add 3/4 of a cup or so of the cheese to this sauce. Technically, the addition of cheese to the bechamel makes this a mornay sauce.

Once combined with the pasta, this is a basic stove-top version of macaroni and cheese. If I have a bit more time, I like to introduce additional flavors and finish the dish in the oven. In terms of additional flavors, it is fun to be creative. Recently, I fried a single strip of bacon until it was fairly crispy and crumbled it into the mornay sauce. I then sauteed some finely minced red onion in the bacon drippings and added that to the sauce as well. Finally, I stirred in some smoked blue cheese nuggets before ladling the sauce and pasta into individual crocks. I top each crock with a little shredded parmesan cheese.

I put the crocks into a 450 degree oven and let them bake for about 15 minutes. Then I switch from the oven to the broiler, just long enough to get the parmesan cheese to become nice and golden.

Although it takes a bit longer to make this version of macaroni and cheese than something that comes from a box, it is so much better you will probably never go back.



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Comfort Food

Well, it finally happened. The cold that has gone through my house caught me. I felt its effects in the middle of last week and thought I had it beat. Then I overdid it a bit yesterday and was out for the count today.

Fortunately, my plan for today was to smoke a pork butt and have pulled pork for supper (and leftovers for lunch tomorrow). During the evening yesterday, I mixed up my standard BBQ rub and applied it liberally to the pork butt I had recently bought from a local farmer. The actual procurement of said pork butt is probably worthy of its own post, so I’ll leave the details for later.

When I finally succeeded in getting out of bed, I set the rubbed pork butt out to warm up a bit and got the fire started in my smoker. Once the smoker was up to my preferred smoking temperature (225 degrees) with several chunks of hickory added to the glowing coals, I put the pork butt on and began the waiting process. Many people would probably be wondering why I would want to do this while feeling under the weather, but having a thermometer with a remote, so I could monitor the temperature of both the fire and the food on the smoker allowed me to rest as much as I needed throughout the cooking time. The added bonus was the slight congestion that prevented the smoke from causing me grief when I did have to open the smoker to check on the progress.

Although it is not what I would typically regard as food to help cure a cold, to me, BBQ is the epitome of comfort food. Furthermore, with minimal intervention and physical activity, I succeeded in making a tasty meal for me and my wife. I guess BBQ is the perfect meal to help deal with a cold.

Freshly pulled pork on a Zingerman's Bakehouse roll with a few slices of red onion

Freshly pulled pork on a Zingerman’s Bakehouse roll with a few slices of red onion

Same sandwich, with homemade BBQ sauce

Same sandwich, with homemade BBQ sauce

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