Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Confluence

I love my home town and especially its rivers, despite the pollution.

The spit where the Missouri (right) flows into the Mississippi
There's no glossing over the sordid history and the general decline of the 58th most populated city in the country.  There's a lot of water in the valley and it's not enough to wash away the decay.  Across the river at Cahokia you can stand on a 1200 year old pile of earth amassed by people who seem to have had their own issues with civic improvement.  From there you can view a more recent attempt at urban renewal: the silver ribbon of the Gateway Arch gleams hopefully against the hollow warehouses and frumpy skyline of downtown St. Louis.

But let's not get too post-apocalyptic.  There are still embers glowing in the bowels of this once great city.  There are original gurgles, hisses and shouts of life beyond the cardboard riverboat casinos and the bargain floors at Costco.

One of many slithering signals of vibrancy occupies an abandoned discount store on Olive just east of 170.  Seafood City is Chinatown condensed into a building the size of a pre-Superstore Walmart.  Odiferous offal, whole pork bellies in butcher cases, an aisle and a half of dried noodles alone, a glut of soy sauces (light, sweet, superior dark), twenty brands of shaoxing wine, black vinegars, vats of pickled cabbage (help yourself), stinky tofu, heaps of healthy gai lan, and, last but not least, truckloads of fishy creatures, some dried, some frozen, and a many still breathing and flopping.  Such a place may not excite someone from the Bay Area or New York.  But I visited three times and sent a 30 pound package of supplies to myself in Montana.  We just can't get this kind of thing here. 

Whence came this mass of gilled beings?  I did not ask.  On beds of ice and crowded into tanks, some looked well (I bought a couple of pounds of firm shrimp for shrimp n' grits) and some looked rough.  This was my first attempt at the classic southern dish and the shrimp were quite tasty and sweet.  The pencil cobb grits proved a challenge.  They weren't quite sandy, but I couldn't get them as creamy as I would have liked. 


A pot of smothered collards didn't go over so well with the family.  I may have been too liberal with the cider vinegar.  I like my greens sour.  Collards aren't for everyone and I should have plated them separately.

For brunch one day, we whipped up a frittata with bacon, cheese and Chinese broccoli.

And when everyone was downing heavy toasts and hams and eggs for breakfast, I sought gastrointestinal refuge in congee made from Carolina Gold rice grits with a fried egg, scallions and a pile of crunchy radish kim cheeThanks Seafood City!

My brother and I took the family for late morning dim sum at Lu Lu Seafood just down the street from the City.  Particularly memorable were the fried pancakes, the pork dumplings and a shrimp dumpling crowded with scallions.  The meal was worthy and I can see a stop at Lu Lu becoming an integral part of all future St. Louis visits.

One evening, my pal Country Rib Jeff needed a lift to the local Shop n' Save for groceries and I was happy to oblige.  I killed time in the meat aisle while he grabbed his cereal, peanut butter and budget pork cuts.  I was intrigued by the ingredients in two processed meat products.  A beef chorizo listed salivary glands and lymph nodes as its foundational constituents.  Maybe every processed meat found on the refrigerated racks of America's supermarkets has similar ingredients, but how often do you see that advertised? 

Though I'm sure it's tasty, I did not have the guts to buy a pail of this locally made meat spread:

Instead, I brought home a hunk of smoked pig jowl which we happily sawed on all week.

I have always found it somewhat symbolic that, when I moved away from home almost 20 years ago, I moved way upriver.  There's some weird comfort knowing that I could paddle a canoe, laboriously, from the Missouri headwaters in Montana across the prairies to this old rivertown.  That didn't sound so absurd 10 years ago.  These days, I'd rather fly or, if it made more sense, take the train.  All so I can have more time to eat toasted ravioli with the family and walk in these rich valleys while the barges hum.       

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Noodle Throwdown

After a halting ski in the wet snow at 35 degrees we wanted something to warm us up fast.

Using a meal as an excuse to clean out the fridge is a special province of the scavenger and ''Use it or lose it'' is as close as the scavenger gets to having hard and fast food rules.  The race against shelf-life has produced many a meal and often inspires previously unimagined combinations. 

Sometimes meals comprised of leftover bits work remarkably well.  Other times, one might as well scrape the leavings from a pizza box found in the alley.  

We lucked-out yesterday and boiled up some cheap ramen and ladled over dried shitake broth from last week.  Topped with tender bamboo shoots preserved in oil from Taiwan (which are way better than canned shoots), a spoonful of fermented chilies, a forkful of pickled cabbage, a pinch of scallions and a few shreds of short rib that we braised in veg stock and Marsala the other night- this amalgam was just what the doctor ordered.  The richness of the short rib cut by the crunchy zing of the cabbage, the tart chew of the shoots and the savory punch of the green onions all tossed against the ropes of the earthy broth and the yielding bite of the ramen- it was a feisty little party in a bowl.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Fixing Leeks

Last night we had a small finger food party to help us feel cheerful about the cold and darkness.  I love leeks and it was a sad day when I discovered that we'd left our crop in the ground during a freeze and that they'd turned into fragrant piles of goo.  Yesterday, I found some especially grand specimens at the grocery and decided to poach them up as a contribution.  I happened upon the poaching approach while massacring a leek and onion terrine recipe from Stephane Reynaud's book a few months ago.  (I failed to use enough gelatin and ended up with a dingy and viscous puddle of allium and broth.)  Last night, I removed the green tops and rough chopped them, discarding the upper third.  Then I took the luscious, white bottoms and sliced them lengthwise to within a quarter inch of the root end.  I washed the tops and bottoms thoroughly in cold water.  I quartered an onion and fried it with the chopped leek tops in some oil until they began to soften.  I added the leek bottoms to the pot and covered all with water and tossed in a pinch or two of salt.  

I simmered the leeks for about 15 minutes and then drained them well in a colander.  I strained the sweet broth and reserved for a future project and retained the now tender green tops and the onion to snack on later.

Once the leek bottoms had drained and cooled, I halved them completely and cut each half into two inch boats.  I squeezed a half a lemon over them and drizzled them with flavorful olive oil from some garlicky confited garbanzo beans in the fridge.  A few grindings of pepper and salt and plated with a dollop of mayonnaise on the side, the leeks made a simple and succulent contribution to the table.  We also had olives, smoked fish, a delectable spread made from cannelinni beans, a wedge of Delice de Bourgogne with toasts and crusty baguette.  Before dinner, a brandy milk punch in each fist, we toasted the big northern night.  Then we tucked into the plates with our hands.       

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

St. Louis Eats: Sugarfire

While not necessarily a mecca for those who love chow, St. Louis makes Montana look like a rural food desert.  Good cooking actually takes place outside of the home here, and there is skillful barbecue plus the variety of cheap ethnic options sorely missing on the dry, big sky frontiers.  (To think: all of that grass fed beef and it takes work to get a decent steak or a burger that does not resemble a hockey puck)But, not to stray into thickets of deprivation-induced kvetching, there really is good food to be found at the confluence of the country's big rivers.

Take for instance the newish smoked meat phenom Sugarfire.  The constantly jammed joint squished into a strip mall on Olive near the Inner Belt churns out slabs of 5 star brisket with an obsidian bark and a fork ready tenderness.  Navigating the busy parking lot and standing in line for your food are the most challenging aspects of a visit to Sugarfire.    

I gave the hushpuppies a shot, what the hell.  Studded with pork belly and served with a Toxic Avenger-green jalapeno jelly, the pups were tasty, but slightly underdone at center.  In their favor, unlike so many attempts at the fritter which resemble billiard balls dense enough to slip into a sock and cudgel an enemy, the hushpuppies at Sugarfire are light.  

I also wrestled the Big Muddy, an offensive looking and heavenly tasting heap of heart-killing meat, sauce and bread.

It's not often that food makes me cry.  The last instance of tears at the supper table occurred at Husk in Charleston after a few sips of a smoked apple jack cocktail.  At Sugarfire, I felt on the verge of tears when confronted by the Muddy's heady bulk- compelled to devour each succulent morsel on the tray in full knowledge that I would pay the price later on.  And sure enough, that was a week ago and I haven't been able to eat much since.  Thanksgiving was a one-plate affair yesterday.  This sandwich is effectively a mound of mangled brisket ends and slabs of firm smoked sausage drenched in sauce and mayo with pickles and shreds of iceberg.  It is delicious, and too much for one person (unless you're a 15 year old boy in which case you could probably down two in a sitting). 

I went back the next day anyway and tried out one of the specials:  a crispy chicken club with slices of the house bacon. And then the family stopped by for takeout once our bird-day food coma wore off.  We brought home racks of baby backs that were pull apart tender with plenty of chewy pork bits on their edges, a pound of brisket and a heap of sausage links.  Sugarfire has daily specials and rotating sides (like loaded potato salad and black bean cassoulet), all scribbled on big flags of brown butcher paper and flown above the steamtable where guys covered in fat and sauce slice your meat and pack your platter with goodness.  It is good to know what you want before you arrive at the counter as the meat-managers look tired and don't seem the type to suffer fools.  This generally is not a problem as you have plenty of time to consider your options while standing in the line that frequently snakes out the door of this establishment.  

St. Louis is serious about barbecue and places like Pappy's Smokehouse and Bogarts tend to have a loyal following.  My guess is that Sugarfire  has been giving these places a run for their money since it arrived on the scene.  

Further dispatches on Gateway City vittles to come...