Autobahn Mi

Inspiration can come from anywhere, including a recent trip to the Vietnamese sandwich shop near by to have a fairly lackluster Special Banh Mi. Banh Mi simply translates as “bread”, but has come to mean the sandwich served on a specific type of crispy, French-inspired, demi-baguette. The classic is known as the “special” and comes with liver pâté, cold cuts of Vietnamese pork sausage and barbecued pork, daikon and carrot pickles, and house made mayo. A pretty rockin’ combo, but the one I got…not so good.

But it got the creative juices flowing. Liver pâté, pork sausage, barbecued pork – perhaps a world away geographically, but culinarily not that far from traditional German. Why not smoked liverwurst in place of pâté? How about slow roasted bratwurst as the pork sausage and a six-hour, applewood-smoked pork shoulder? Quick-pickled radishes and carrots and a seasoned mayo finish it off. The roll is a Mexican bolillo-style available from a local bakery – thin, light crust with a airy interior.

Autobahn mi

The roll was buttered and then tossed on the grill to get the shattering crispiness characteristic of great Banh Mi. The smoked liver sausage adds a deep meaty richness to the layers of porcine delight. The brat was a house-made variety from a local grocer, roasted over hardwood grill at about 400 degrees, off to the side slightly from the main coals in order to slow-cook it without splitting and losing all those incredible pork fat juices. The pulled pork was a pork shoulder seasoned with salt, garlic, oregano, and paprika then slow smoked with apple wood at 275 degrees for over six hours. Not quite roast suckling pig, but it’ll do in a pinch.

So all the ingredients were firmly in the tradition of German-American cuisine from the Great Lakes region. How they came together was an entirely modern inspiration, born of our ever-broadening exposure to cuisines and traditions from around the world.Even a not-so-good sandwich can send us off in new and exciting directions. A little bit like racing through the German country-side where “Limits no longer apply”.

You say Porchetta, I say Porketta…Let’s Have a Sandwich

Across the regional cuisines of the Americas are dishes which reflect both a point of origin and the place of creation. The unique hybrid of Japanese approaches with Peruvian ingredients as showcased by Nobu in New York is one of the more surprising combinations, and demonstrates this interplay of “point of origin” with “place of creation”.

Many hallmark dishes of Great Lakes Cuisine clearly express their “point of origin” in Germanic, Norwegian, or Polish traditions, yet they have been adapted not only to local ingredients, but also to local tastes, many times over several generations. Porchetta/Porketta is another great example of the process. Porchetta originates in Italy as a tradition of stuffing an entire pig with herbs and roasting until fall-apart tender. The current keeper of all that is good and sacred about Italian food in America, the prophet Mario Batali, recently shared his version of his Dad’s version in the December 2014 Food & Wine magazine. Iron Range Porketta is another “version”, handed down through generations of Italian immigrants coming to work in the Iron Range, which stretches across the northern sections of Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Iron Range Porketta caught our interest when an America’s Test Kitchen article ran a few years ago detailing a trip to Hibbing, MN, in pursuit of the fabled regional roast. Mario’s version gave us the inspiration to try something new with something traditionally Great Lakes. Instead of the lean roast with added fat from a sausage stuffing in Mario’s version, we stuck with the pork butt approach used by Fraboni’s in Hibbing, MN. But the addition of the fennel bulb in Mario’s version made sense, rather than simply the fronds and fennel seed. We also used fresh garlic rather than powder. Finally, many versions suggest the addition of vegetables under the roast while it cooks. Mario suggests red onion, his father uses carrots, onions and fennel bulb, a comment on the Hibbing article contends carrots, onions and potatoes are the right addition. We elected to add another staple of the Iron Range, rutabaga, along with red onion and fennel bulb. We served this as a Sunday dinner one night, but the real fun was adapting this into our version of a Porketta Sandwich.  The end result is neither traditional Iron Range, nor traditional Italian. It is Great Lakes Cuisine.

Porketta Sandwich

1 4 lb pork butt roast
1 bulb fennel, cored and sliced thin, 2 Tbs. fronds chopped
6 cloves garlic, sliced thin
1 Tbs. fennel seed
2 Tbs. coarse salt
½ Tbs. cracked black pepper

1 medium rutabaga, peeled, cut into 2 in. pieces
2 medium red onions, peeled and quartered

For red onion/fennel “ketchup”
¼ cup cider vinegar
1 ancho chile, rehydrated
Salt and sugar to taste

For rutabaga herb “butter”
1 Tbs. dried Italian herbs
Salt to taste

Hard rolls, such as a ciabatta

Pickled sweet peppers (optional)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Pork butt will contain a bone in approximately the center of the roast. Place the roast on a cutting board with the fat side up, cut from one side to the bone, and cut around the bone to remove without cutting all the way through the roast. The result will be a boneless, butterflied roast. Evenly spread half the fennel bulb, all the garlic, fennel fronds, fennel seed, and 1 tbs.salt and pepper across the opened roast. The result should look something like this:

Porketta

Then carefully fold the roast back to the original shape and tie the roast in several places with butcher twine to hold together for roasting. Place red onion, rutabaga, and fennel bulb in a large roasting pan. Set the roast on top, and sprinkle with remaining 1 tbs. salt. Roast for 4 hours, tented with foil for the first three hours, until the pork reaches 150 degrees or is fall-apart tender. This is a fatty roast, it is hard to over-cook it, so if in doubt, go longer.

At this point, the roast can be placed on a platter, tented and allowed to rest while the vegetables are pulled from the pan. If having this as a dinner, the vegetables ran be served alongside a sliced roast and enjoyed. We enjoyed it. But…we had leftovers and that is when the fun really begins.

The fat left in the pan after removing the vegetables was saved and refrigerated. The next day we had this:

Porketta Fat

The top layer is pork fat with just a hint of fennel bulb flavor. The bottom is the gelatinous, concentrated essence of pork. We wanted to do a version of the Hibbing Porketta Sanwich, but with a Mario-flair. Mario suggested slices of his lean pork roast with a bit of home-made hot sauce, and that served as a jumping off point.

The rutabaga was golden, soft, with a texture similar to a beet, but with flavors hinting toward cooked cabbage or turnip. We pureed the rutabaga with just the top layer of pork fat until smooth, then added salt and dried herbs to taste and created an herb “butter” to smear on our toasted hard roll.

The fennel and red onion were also pureed, this time with the bottom layer of pork essence, cider vinegar, and salt, to creating a bit of sauce for our sandwich. The result needed depth, so a re-hydrated ancho chile added just the right color and depth, and just a pinch of sugar, to create a very nice “ketchup”.

The pork roast was shredded by hand, removing any difficult sinews and excessive fat, then reheated. We added home-pickled sweet peppers instead of the hot sauce Mario had in mind. The result:

Porketta Sandwich

The pork was rich with overtones of fennel, which echoes the flavors of great pork sausage, but with the texture of pulled pork. The “ketchup” added a contrasting zing, added by the pickled sweet peppers. The herb “butter” brought all the flavors together, with a texture not unlike hummus, but a flavor closer to well-roasted cauliflower.

The result of this little flavor experiment wanders far from our Italian point of origin, but it certainly explores our sense of place. No self-respecting bar in Hibbing is likely to serve a rutabaga puree on a Porketta sandwich, but we’re playing around with culinary ideas that share the same geography. Much of regional cuisine does this and Great Lakes Cuisine is no different. And definitely worth the effort.

New Restaurants Added – Grand Rapids, MI

IMG_0143Let me tell you this – the Backwoods Bastard is definitely one of the finest brews I have ever had. Complex, lingering, hauntingly good.

It just may be the best brew in Grand Rapids, MI, and given that Grand Rapids has been named Beer City USA in a poll run by the guru of home brew Charlie Papazian, that is saying something.

As I’m sitting in Founder’s Brewing Company Taproom, enjoying this masterpiece of brewing craft, I’m thinking this Curmudgeon sandwich might have been the best sandwich in Grand Rapids, but I’d already had the best sandwich in Grand Rapids the night before at Brewery Vivant and it came with what might have been the best French fries in Grand Rapids, but I’d already had the best fries at Hop Cat earlier in the day. It was a flurry of really good food and really great beer.

None of this should be surprising considering Grand Rapids is home to one of the world’s best breweries according to Ratebeer.com and one of the best beer bars in the world according to Beer Advocate. Allow me to walk you through my amazing two days, a true Great Lakes Cuisine experience.

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Upon checking into a downtown hotel, the front desk recommended Hop Cat for a quick lunch.  Beer Advocate and Ratebeer.com both recognize Hop Cat as one of the best brew pubs in the nation.  The menu is two pages with a dizzying array of local craft beers, national micro-brews, and international specialties. They also brew a number of house specialties and are affiliated with the Grand Rapids Brewing Company just down the block (home of the Beer and Sausage Fest each weekday from 4-6 PM) .

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The Oaked-aged Hatter from New Holland Brewing was an excellent IPA mellowed out in bourbon barrels. My preference was Hop Cat’s own Bourbon Barrel Fornicator.

IMG_0122The name alone makes it one of my all time favorites, and the flavors of a maple dopple-bock style beer were heightened by the beautiful oaky/alcohol notes of bourbon. Sweet, deep, and full. And all this beer wonder was complimented beautifully by the Crack Fries with Hot Cheese Sauce. Yes, Crack Fries…perfectly crispy, thin cut fries with a healthy seasoning of herbs and cracked black pepper.

IMG_0123Dynamite.

That evening, a friend and I journeyed out to Brewery Vivant, a micro-brew operation in a converted funeral home – not nearly as creepy as it sounds. In fact, the location feels like a chapel dedicated to the craft of brewing in the Trappist tradition.  Packed wall to wall with dedicated patrons, we eased up to the bar on the far side of the hall, in the glow of the stain-glassed window, and ordered a sampler of the four darkest beers.

Here is the brewery’s description of each:

Solitude – Abbey Style Ale – 6.5% ABV

“A deep mahogany colored beer that is made in the tradition of the famous brewing monks of the Abbeys of Belgium. It is malt forward with hints of caramel, pear & raisin.”

Over The Line – Smokey Ale – 7.15% ABV

“This dark ale is brewed with Heidelberg smoked malt, South American chocolate, and a kiss of ancho chiles.”

Plowhorse – Imperial Stout – 9.5% ABV

“The famous Belgian heavy plow horse descends from the medieval war horses that carried armored nights into battle. This seems like a fitting name for one of the biggest beers we make, as the recipe pushes the limits of our mash tun. Each batch is so packed with dark roasted grains that they literally spill out of the top of the tank on brew day.”

Love Shadow – Imperial Stout – 10% ABV  (as described by Mitten Brew)

“Vivant’s delicious version of an Imperial Stout aged in charred oak bourbon barrels. This brew’s aroma is dense with coffee and chocolate. The sip starts tart for a stout and moves into bitter coffee, then a third sweeter phase similar to chocolate and ginger.”

The wood-aged Love Shadow was delicious, complex, and mysterious. And a perfect accompaniment to the finest sandwich I have enjoyed in sometime – a house smoked pastrami sliced thin and topped with bacon kraut, Love Shadow mustard, on a dark rye bread. Absolute smokey, beefy heaven. The side of fries was drizzled with truffle oil and would have been the best I had, but for the Crack Fries I’d had earlier.

Executive Chef Christopher Weimer is creating some of the best dishes in the Midwest to compliment their wonderful assortment of brews. The cheese selection often features area cheeses like Pleasant Ridge Reserve and Blue Paradise from WI or offerings from EverGreen Lane in MI. Maybe you just want a bar snack, try the Crock O’ Pickles, an assortment of house pickled vegetables. The seasonal appetizers have included house prepared charcuterie, smoked whitefish cakes, and Solitude cheddar sauerkraut. Past specialties have included Duroc pork with spaetzel gruyere gratin, beer braised kale, with a maple rhubarb reduction; a Knackwurst platter with white bean and bacon hash, with beer braised red cabbage; and a duck confit with roasted barley cakes, a drizzle of Michigan cherry gastrique, topped with a duck skin cracklin’. This is creative, well-prepared food dovetailing beautifully with the house brews.

The next day I walked from the hotel over to Founder’s Brewery Taproom, which was also filled wall to window with patrons, overflowing outside onto a chilly, snow-laden patio with heaters blazing. It also featured their own stained glass homage to brewing.

IMG_0140 I squeezed into the sole unoccupied chair on the far end of the bar next to a gentleman who is clearly a regular.  I ask what he would suggest and without hesitation he offered the Dirty Bastard as his favorite.  Bar keep – one Dirty Bastard, please!

Here is the brewery’s description:

Dirty Bastard – Scotch Style Ale – 8.5% ABV

“So good it’s almost wrong. Dark ruby in color and brewed with seven varieties of imported malts. Complex in finish, with hints of smoke and peat, paired with a malty richness and a right hook of hop power to give it the bad attitude that a beer named Dirty Bastard has to live up to. Ain’t for the wee lads.”

IMG_0139It is a lovely version of a scotch ale, incredibly drinkable with a fairly high alcohol content. As I sipped this beautiful brew, I enjoyed a Curmudgeon sandwich. Roasted turkey, red onion, Colby Jack cheese, baby spinach, Dirty Bastard sauerkraut, house-made horseradish sauce, all served on grilled Polish rye bread. And that is just one of 26 different sandwiches they offer. This one was exceptional, but the house-smoked pastrami from the night before retained the sandwich crown.

As I enjoyed my sandwich, I asked about the limited release – Backwoods Bastard.  The regular next to me slipped into almost reverential tones as he explained the limited availability and the dangerously drinkable 10.2% alcohol content.  I had by this time tried three different brews wood-aged to enhance the flavor. In the Hatter it subdued the IPA bitterness, the Fornicator fronted with bourbon brashness on the nose and in the first sip.  Love Shadow was lovely and the wood-aging more integral to the brew.  But here, now in this brew, oh my…

Here is the brewery description:

Backwoods Bastard – Scotch Style Ale – 10.2%

“Expect lovely, warm smells of single malt scotch, oaky bourbon barrels, smoke, sweet caramel and roasted malts, a bit of earthy spice, and a scintilla of dark fruit. It’s a kick-back sipper made to excite the palate.”

Ah, yes.  That is it – a scintilla of dark fruit. Like Michigan cherries macerated in a vanilla-bourbon syrup. So good, so smooth. Enticing you to have another, to explore further into this wonderful bounty of flavors and aromas. This, my friends, is good beer.

And this, my friends, is Great Lakes Cuisine. Grand Rapids has taken the tradition of beer and a sandwich and elevated it to another level of creativity and delicious exploration. We are adding each of these locations to our list of Restaurants and highly recommend each of them. I left Grand Rapids impressed, inspired, and already planning a return trip.

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