February, 2012 Archive
I LOVE WEST VIRGINIA, it’s the most beautiful state in the lower 48. And professionally, because of the state’s topography, makes it the most obvious example of Darwin’s Island Theory. Tiny little hamlets and towns comprise West Virginia and the pockets of culture preserved by its steep hillsides are legendary, especially when it comes to music, but also when it comes to food.
The story below I wrote originally for a friend’s anthology called Chewed. I was sent a half-eaten squirrel chew toy, purportedly mangled by someone’s dog, and was told to give them 700 words of backstory. I did, and inspired by my many trips to WV, it feels right to share with you in this format. Best of all, it has a great squirrel recipe included, enjoy.
Squirrel: A Cautionary Tale
I knew I wanted to eat it. Why wouldn’t I? I had joyfully devoured this primeval delicacy years before, in the hollers of West Virginia and yeah, it was really good. Never shy away from a plump squirrel, that’s my motto.
I know what you’re thinking. And to answer your question, this squirrel has nothing in common with a NYC Central Park squirrel. Those little bastards are vicious and Lord only knows what they are eating, or what squirrel-borne pathogens they could pass my way. This squirrel was different. This squirrel was local… born, raised, fed and eventually taking the long dirt nap, all in the backyard of my house in Minnesota. He ate apples I tossed him in the winter, berries from my garden in summer. Diet dictates flavor!
So one day in late October, small game license in hand, when preparation met with opportunity, I culled the herd and dispatched the biggest fattest sweetest, fruit-and-nut fed squirrel of them all. This was locavorism of the highest order. Zero mile dieting more or less. I skinned and butchered him, roasted the head in the fireplace, engaging the most far reaching places of my lizardy consciousness as I cracked the skull and prized out the brain, splashed it with sea salt and a squeeze of lemon and enjoyed every blissfully creamy, meat buttery moment. The rest of him? Well, fried squirrel is something my friends at the Snowshoe Lodge and Adventures at The Gorge gave me a lust for, so lunch was a no-brainer. Pun intended. Weeks later a treat arrived in the mail from the local taxidermist, so up on the shelf went my little squirrel. In full view through the glass enclosed porch of all the other critters in the woods. Top of the food chain baby! But my delightfully articulated symbolic gesture was short lived. The pooch, drawn to the latest incarnation as much as I was to the first, somehow got him down. And yes, the dog clearly enjoyed his chew toy as much as I enjoyed his warm blooded doppelganger.
Take your squirrel and skin it, clean it, rinse it in several changes of cold water and pat it dry. Cut it into fifths (two front quarters, two rear quarters and one central piece of the saddle).
Let it soak in a cup or more of buttermilk for as little as 2 hours or as much as 24.
Remove the squirrel from the buttermilk and let it drip dry for a moment, then season well with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Dredge it in flour lightly seasoned with salt and pepper and place pieces on a piece of wax paper.
Place a large cast iron skillet over medium heat and add rendered fresh lard (vegetable oil will do in a pinch), to fill to a depth of about a half inch.
Heat the fat to 375 degrees, or until a piece of squirrel sizzles well when it’s slipped into the pan.
Fry pieces for 5-6 minutes, until walnut brown, drain on paper towel, season, allow fried squirrel to rest a few minutes and enjoy.
A lot of what has defined our country was born in Detroit. The auto industry, assembly lines, The Temptations, Aretha, Kid Rock and Eminem (even if he’s not your bag, he is one of the most influential musicians in the last 15 years). These days, the news out of Detroit isn’t about new wheels and music. It’s about destruction, ruin and the mass exodus from a city once dubbed “the Paris of the Midwest.” Much of the mainstream news out of Detroit reeks of failure.
Here’s the thing: yes, the Motor City has taken a beating in recent years. Yes, it has a lot to do with the fall of the auto industry. Yes, much of the city is desolate and abandoned (check out this eerie slideshow from Time.com. And yes, all in all, things have been looking bad for D-Town for quite some time. When we decided to bring Bizarre Foods America there last summer, I expected some squalor. What I found amazed me.
Detroit is one of the most culturally diverse cities I’ve visited in a long time. In between those great urban expanses of bleakness, there are inspirational pockets of urban vitality. It’s home to the largest Arab-American population in the country, not to mention its thriving Polish, Mexican and Bengali communities. What’s more, people from all over the United States have relocated to Detroit. I’ve eaten some of the best soul food in the country here. Oh, and did you know that Detroit is home to the largest farmer’s market in the US? Eastern Market is simply amazing, and peppered mostly with entrepreneurs who are bringing this city back in a big way.
Historically, the city of Detroit depended heavily on a single industry. For a long time, it thrived, but when it crashed, it crashed hard. I don’t think turning around big industry is the key to rebuilding Detroit. It’s about a lot of individuals making a difference on a micro level. From farmers to rock stars and everyone in between, this impassioned community is committed to hanging on. Instead of saying “not my problem,” citizens are doing what’s right for the community. I met guys who literally spend their weekends mowing the grass at their local parks because the city doesn’t have the budget for it (of course, this motley group is having a fun while they’re at it. C’mon, who wouldn’t want to drive a souped-up tractor?) There are kitchen guys who ditched restaurant jobs in order to introduce local, artisanal meats to the city. There’s the folks at Amar Pizza who’ve taken an American staple and put a traditional Bengali spin on it. I’d argue that this kind of cultural cross pollination defines America, and it’s the kind of thing Detroit is doing well, maybe even doing it better than any other city in the country. Out of an absurd challenge, has come a renaissance.
If I was a betting man I would be taking Detroit and giving the points, even doubling down. Plenty of people gave Detroit up for dead, and maybe it was already dead and no one knew it, but this city is gaining traction in its neighborhoods and small enclaves of commitment and its thrilling to see. I can’t wait to get back there.
Catch Bizarre Foods America: Detroit Mon, Feb. 20 at 9|8C on Travel Channel.
I’m a both a seafood lover and a history fanatic—two big reasons why I can’t resist Boston’s siren song. I lived there at several points in my life, worked there, attended school there and some of my best friends live there (huge ups to Norm and Mike who have turned me on to many of the best places in my show and on this list). My dad lives in Portland, Maine, so I fly through Beantown several times a year.
Some of my all-time favorite restaurants are there, check out: o ya, Clio, Uni, Daily Catch, Neptune Oyster, Island Creek, Santarpios, No9Park, Rialto, Oleana, Sichuan Gourmet, Meyers and Chang, Radius, Menton … shall I keep going?
You’ll see what I’m talking about on the Bizarre Foods America Boston episode. I could elaborate on why I love these places and what happened behind the scenes, but I think I’ll just let the footage speak for itself. Instead, let’s focus on what got left on the cutting room floor and what we couldn’t even fit into our filming schedule this time around. Here are a few of my other favorite Beantown spots.
New Jumbo Seafood
I love Boston’s Chinatown, and I can’t get enough of the food at Jumbo Seafood. I love the steamed whole shrimp, the lobster with ginger and scallion, the raw shaved geoduck and plenty of other Cantonese seafood favorites. It’s an iconic Boston place; people have been talking about it ad nauseum for years and it still lives up to the hype.
My friend Chef Ken Oringer and his restaurant Clio did make it into the show. But let’s talk about Coppa where he and Jamie Bissonette take on housemade salumi, pizzas, pastas and heartier entrees (here’s to the crispy chicken with lemon). I love it here. Super simple plates that deliver every time.
If I could, I’d kick-off every night out in Beantown at B&G Oysters. The raw bar is unparalleled (I’m a sucker for oysters), and their wine list pairs perfectly with seafood. Don’t skip the fried clams if they’re on the menu.
Hamersley’s cassoulet easily claims a spot in my top five winter eats. It’s the perfect dish to tuck into on a cold night. Pork, duck confit and garlic sausage. Fantastic.
Craigie on Main
If the idea of trying something a little of the ordinary (cock’s combs, crispy pig tails, braised oxtail pastrami) sits fine with you, celebrate a special occasion here. Go for a prix fixe menu and let Chef Tony Maws wow you with his ever-evolving arsenal of seasonally-driven menu. Great brunch too, by the way.
Ken and Jamie do it again. Do these guys ever sleep? What can I say, when Ken picks a concept, he nails it. A meal at Toro is like stepping into a chic Barcelona tapas bar. Try the Jamon de La Quercia, Iowa’s take on acorn-raised ham and the tuna conserva—Spanish tuna belly with tomato tapanade and celery leaves. Then again when I am there I always get seconds of the uni sandwich.
This old-school butchery (they’ve been around since 1939) is still very relevant today. I love the staff at Savenor’s—they really know their stuff. From helping you make the perfect meaty selection, to advice on how to best cook a leg of lamb, aged beef, or maybe even frog legs (you never know what might be in stock), Savenor’s does it for me.
Of course traveling doesn’t always lend itself to well to cooking at home. Satisfy your meat craving at the super hip Butcher Shop. Charcuterie, steak tartar, beet salad, hot dog a la Maison—basically all the stuff that’s trending right now. Who cares when it all tastes great.
Mike’s City Diner
For a meal like mom used to make, head to Mike’s City Diner on Washington Street. This local favorite is known for their hearty breakfasts and home-cooked dinners—Mike’s turkey dinner with all the fixin’s hits the spot.
A super casual Japanese hot pot pig out in Chinatown. Get there!
For more insight on my favorite Boston eats (plus a fascinating segment on how some folks at Harvard are shaking up the food world), tune in to Bizarre Foods America: Boston @ 9|8C on Monday, Feb 13. High-five.
Seattle is one of the great food towns on the planet, and visiting in the summertime is something that food lovers should check out for themselves. In our show we covered a lot of familiar territory, but there are a few things to clarify, on screen, and off.
First…yes, the cow placenta was real. It tasted like liver. I have wanted to try this for a decade, but with placenta, freshness counts. This was the first birthing in a clean enough environment at the right farm (thanks George!) and I was thrilled.
Like the colostrum, this is a traditional superfood that is part of our ethnographic history. Cheers! George and Kristin saw me sending pictures in real time of the birth to my family back home and they generously offered to allow my son Noah to name her. He picked Jessie. Seabreeze Farm continues to update us on the calf’s progress and I consider the farm to be one of the best places I have ever visited in the history of the show.
Speaking of which, I leave on Wednesday to shoot our 100th episode. Thanks to all who made it possible. It’s an amazing milestone and one which everyone associated with the making of the program should be very proud.
Our 100th episode will take place in Las Vegas and seeing as how that is the city where all things are possible, I am very excited to finally shoot there after five years of trying.
Second…I am hearing from a lot of folks on social media ask me what’s bizarre about geoduck, a Slayer coffee machine or salmon collar soup? I would remind everyone that our show is about exploring culture through food. If edible oddities are your thing, then just focus on the sight of me peeling a fresh 10-pound slab of cow placenta, still warm, off the field just feet from where we birthed the calf. For those that want to see what the Seattle food scene is all about, look for Marination, Taylor Shellfish, Maneki, Pike Place Market, Seabreeze Farm, Slayer, Intellectual Ventures and Nathan Myhrvold and his whole team, and all the other amazing spots we featured…
Third…Canlis. I have been a broken record for six months, but staying relevant as a restaurant for almost 70 years is amazing in and of itself. For the brothers who run the namesake restaurant, it’s a stroke of managerial genius to hire a chef of Jason Franey’s talent and then work together to produce some of the country’s most food-forward cuisine (while still keeping a classic steak and baked potato for the long-time regulars). As I sat there one night watching the sky turn black over the harbor, I wondered how many restaurants looked as good in day or night time, empty or full? I was one of the first customers of the night and the last to leave and I still remember that meal and the way the room made me feel. What an amazing place.
Fourth…pizza. Say what you want, tell me I am drinking the kool-aid but if you eat the pizza at Serious Pie you will keep going back, it’s that good. Tom Douglas is a masterful restaurateur and tireless promoter of the city. Applewood, a proprietary dough recipe, and a 600-degree oven is something more pizza chef should consider.
Fifth…to all the insanely smoking-hot tattooed twenty-something babes in motorcycle boots and vintage sleeveless dresses who flirted with me the whole week I was running around your city, I say thank you. You made me feel like a 16-year-old boy again.
Sixth…the local cherry and berry season was in peak of season when we were there. Holy crap. End of story.
Thanks Seattle, see you soon.