Tuesday, January 31, 2012

On the Road 2: Bon-Ton Mini Mart

BACV050C1V0 fig. a: my kind of UFC

I haven't had a chance to test out Bon Appétit's "ultimate fried chicken" yet, but that damn cover image has had the appropriate Pavlovian effect on me. I need ultimate fried chicken now.

Thing is, good fried chicken takes a while. There's definitely a bit of commitment involved. So, I'm pretty sure I won't be frying up a batch of UFC tonight. And true fried chicken--the real deal--can be exceedingly difficult to find.

But that cover does have me thinking about fried chicken (obviously). And, these days, when I think about fried chicken, my thoughts tend to take me to Henderson, KY, sometime last August.

Nearby Owensboro, KY, is one of a number of American towns and cities that proudly proclaims itself the "BBQ Capital of the World." And they've certainly got a claim to that title. That town runs on hickory smoke (and bluegrass).

Henderson, too, is home to a number of reputable BBQ establishments, most of them specializing in the same mix of pork, beef, and mutton that has made Owensboro famous. But as soon as you get to Henderson, what really stands out is the unusual number of fried chicken joints they've got there. None of them major chains (at least, not that I saw). I mean, this town is swimming in Kentucky fried chicken.

Is Henderson the Fried Chicken Capital of the World? I can't rightly say. For one thing, I didn't get a chance to conduct a survey of Henderson's fried chicken scene.  For another, I haven't had the pleasure of visiting any of the Fried Chicken Capitals of the World (Barberton, OH? Gordonsville, VA?) yet. But Henderson certainly looks like it could be a Fried Chicken Capital of the World.

And I can tell you that there's at least one championship fried chicken joint there: Bon-Ton Mini Mart.

Great name. Bold, even. But it's a little hard to find, and it's the most nondescript place imaginable. Just look at it:

Bon-Ton 2 fig. b: Bon-Ton Mini Mart

Is there any indication whatsoever that this is a premium fried chicken joint?

I was going on good authority (Jane & Michael Stern), it certainly seemed legit, and it was pretty busy for 2:45 in the afternoon. But you never know.

I had a pretty good feeling when I entered the Mini Mart, though. It smelled good in there, and the set-up was home-style.

I had an even better feeling when I placed my order, however. I was told, "Go ahead and grab a seat. It's going to take about 25 minutes." In other words, real fried chicken, skillet-fried and made to order.

And I had the best feeling of all when those 25 minutes were up. I mean, just look at that crust.

bon-ton 1 fig. c: Bon-Ton's UFC

Those ladies know their fried chicken.

Oops. I did it again. I'm driving myself crazy. Kentucky Fried Crazy.

Bon-Ton Mini Mart, 2036 Madison Street, Henderson, KY, (270) 826-1207


Sunday, January 29, 2012

Take a Vow

taking a vow fig. a: taking a vow

While others were still trying to get over their New Year's Eve hangovers, I spent New Year's Day trying to get over my New Year's Eve hangover and taking a solemn vow.

It went something like this:

My Beautiful Dry-Aged Steak

I make this vow to you.

I will do almost nothing to you. I will not get fancy. You are not the canvas for my ideas about how Cambodian and Croatian cuisines relate to one another. You, like very few ingredients in the world--gray pearls of beluga caviar, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Oreos--do not need my help to be delicious. I will do everything in my power to avoid fucking you up. I will not get in the way of your magnificence. I shall season you well. I will brown you deeply. I will cook you rare, and let you rest as long as you need. When I slice you, I will slice against your grain, and season you again. I will adorn you only in pan drippings, and perhaps a simple compound butter. I will consume all that you are, and leave nothing uneaten.

"My Beautiful Dry-Aged Steak" appeared in Issue #2 of Lucky Peach, of course, and it followed up "another transmission from Harold McGee's Orbital Desk in Outré Space" about enzymes and their role in the dry-aging process. As McGee explains, by harnessing the powers of enzymes, "we can get our food to make itself more delicious," which is why he refers to them as "nanocooks--the true molecular cooks." Examples of this enzymatic process in action? Ripening, fermentation, and, yes, dry-aging.

For those who haven't had the pleasure of experiencing the joy of dry-aging, it involves keeping parts of the carcass in a carefully controlled environment (one with cool temperatures, and fairly high humidity) for a period of several weeks. Doing so allows enzymes to work their magic--"[breaking] down the meat's proteins, fats, and glycogen... into amino acids [including glutamate], fatty acids, and sugars," as well as causing the meat to lose some of its moisture (hence the name) and thereby concentrating its flavours--and the result is beef that has an extraordinary complexity and depth to it.

Sounds great, right? It is. Astounding, actually. The problem is, dry-aging is a costly, time-consuming process, one that doesn't jibe with the economic logic of our supermarket culture. Consequently, it's hard to find dry-aged beef. It's also a process that's hard to duplicate at home because of the smells and flavours that occupy your basic household refrigerator, but also because your basic household refrigerator isn't particularly well temperature-controlled (think of how many times per day your refrigerator door gets opened and closed). As McGee puts it: "Dry-aging is very difficult to do well at home."

What's the answer? Get more butchers to take their beef more seriously.

Start by frequenting a local butcher shop. Ask if their beef is dry-aged. If it is, great--consider yourself lucky. If it isn't, ask them to consider doing so. Then, while you're at it, ask them where their beef comes from. Are they able to give you a straight answer?  If not, move on to another butcher, one who's more willing to make an effort, or just keep asking.  The more people ask, the greater the likelihood that things might improve.*

As it turns out, we'd just paid another pilgrimage to our friends at Fleisher's. Not only do they dry-age their steaks at Fleisher's, but their beef is local, grass-fed, organic, and sustainably raised. The combination is pretty much impossible to beat.

dry aged beauty fig. b: our beautiful dry-aged steak

Our beautiful dry-aged steak was pricey (understandably), but it was one-and-a-half inches thick, and it wasn't just beautiful, it was gorgeous. It was also a hell of a lot cheaper than a comparable steak from a reputable steak house.

We took the vow seriously. We kept things very simple and we didn't fuck it up. Just the steak, the jus, some sautéed mushrooms, a Caesar salad, and a killer bottle of wine. We browned the steak deeply, finished it in the oven, and gave it plenty of time to rest.**  We did those enzymes proud. It was a glorious affair.

Taking a vow, committing to dry-aged beef may sound silly, but it's actually a pretty great idea. It'll probably mean that you eat a lot less beef, but it'll definitely mean that you enjoy it a lot more when you do.***


* In Montreal, things are a little difficult when it comes to sourcing high-quality beef, a fact made all too clear in the pages of The Art of Living According to Joe Beef.  There are a few establishments that dry-age their meat (Boucherie de Tours and Queue de Cheval come to mind), but locating beef that's dry-aged, locally and sustainably raised, grass-fed, and organic is another matter.  Customers need to be more demanding.  Restaurants need to be more demanding.

** Not sure how to prepare your beautiful dry-aged steak? We've been following the Fleisher's Method for the last couple of years. You can find directions here. Given the size and thickness of the steak, our oven time was about 14 minutes.

*** Those familiar with the work of Michael Pollan will recognize this basic argument.  Pollan has argued time and time again that we, as a culture (North American culture), should be eating a lot less meat, but he's not vegetarian.

This is the way he responded to the vegetarian question in an interview with Democracy Now!:

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Are you vegetarian?

MICHAEL POLLAN: No, I’m not. I eat meat. I eat much less meat than I used to. And I don’t think the answer is necessarily, you know, giving up meat. There are kinds of meat that have much less of a carbon footprint. I mean, we’ve been describing grain-fed beef. But what if you feed cattle on grass? When you feed cattle on grass, they’re not competing with humans for food, because we can’t digest grass. They’re geniuses; they can digest grass, because they have a rumen. And that — and well run, rotationally grazed cattle, on grass, actually build carbon in the soil. They can be used to sequester carbon. So there is a way to organize meat production that would reduce its carbon footprint dramatically. Now, it must be said, that meat is much more expensive and harder to find, with the result that I eat very little of it. But that’s the kind of meat I eat.

What he leaves out here, but discusses elsewhere, is the all-important taste factor.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Bon Hiver

winter in alsace fig. a: winter in Alsace

Talk about a supergroup! The good people at FoodLab have teamed up with the good people at Oenopole and the result is an inspired combination of wine & warmth that they're calling French Winter.

On the food tip:

French onion soup - 6$
Roasted Cornish game hen with embeurré de choux and apple stuffing - 12$
Salad with apples and walnuts - 6$
Potatoes boulangère - 7$
Marinated housemade goat's cheese - 8$
and for dessert
Far breton - 7$

On the wine tip:

Crémant du Jura 2008, Julien Labet 2009 - 6$
Bourgogne rouge, Hautes-Côtes de Beaune, Naudin-Ferrand 2009 - 10,50$
Gewürztraminer sec, Schueller 2007 - 7,50$
Sauternes, Roumieu-Lacoste 2009 - 11,50$

And on the tasting menu tip:

Cornish game hen, salad, cheese, and Far breton
all four wines (yes, all four, including the Sauternes)

(Mon dieu! Just writing about this menu has made me so hungry and so incredibly thirsty...)

French Winter begins tomorrow, Wednesday, January 25th, and it lasts through Saturday, February 4.

Société des arts technologiques
1201, Boulevard St-Laurent
Montreal, QC

For more information, write to foodlab@sat.qc.ca


Thursday, January 19, 2012


strudel fig. a: apfelstrudel

Remember this beauty?

Ever wanted to learn how to make your own authentic Viennese-style strudel?

Well, Michelle is initiating the FoodLab's instructional division (!) with a special strudel-making class on Sunday, February 5. The action takes place from 1:00 PM to 5:00 PM, during which time the group will produce two strudels: one apple strudel, like the one you see above, and one savoury strudel, with homemade cheese and greens. The class costs $60 and it includes instruction, recipes, plenty of hands-on experience, and coffee, and then you get to devour your delicious strudels. Michelle says, "It should be super fun and delicious," and, personally, I don't doubt it.

To sign up (spaces are limited!), write to Michelle at this address: foodlab@sat.qc.ca


p.s. If you've never experienced a real, honest-to-goodness Ghent-style seafood Waterzooi, one of our very favourite AEB New Year's dishes, be sure to drop by the FoodLab this week for Week 2 of their "Clean Slate" menu.