How Do You Like Them Apples?

A brief guide to celebrating the quintessential American fruit

For the next six weeks or so, we get to reap the many benefits of apple season. Even large grocery stores, which were long the bastion of red delicious and granny smiths routinely offer multiple other varieties. Galas, Fujis, Honeycrisps, Jonathans and Braeburns, long available imported from other parts of the country, are showing up in farmer’s markets and CSA boxes as the harvest progresses on regional farms.

As we enter Fall, how best to celebrate the simplicity and beauty of the apple? For starters you can go pick some at one of our local orchards. Most orchards double as family-friendly entertainment spots offering activities like hayrides and corn mazes along with the opportunity to go out and pick. Many apple orchards also grow pumpkins, making them ideal spots for picking a few up in time for Halloween. Louisburg Cider Mill is probably the best known place near Kansas City. They offer guided tours for groups of fifteen or more, where you can see how the entire cider-making process at work. If you show up early enough you can see the doughnuts being made. Louisburg and Alldredge Orchards are apple-picking options on the Missouri side.

If this kind of kiddie-stuff isn’t your cup of tea, how about a good, stiff drink? More than beer, hard cider was the drink of choice for working class Americans into the mid-19th century, and it is still found on tap at any respectable English pub. Most local bars have some variety in bottles—usually Woodchuck, but it has become far more prevalent than it was a decade ago.

Fermenting your own hard cider is also a great way have a little fun while acknowledging the greatness of the apple. Homebrewers tell me that cider is among the easier products to make, assuming you have the proper equipment. The fine folks at supply store Bacchus & Barleycorn in Shawnee should be able to set you up with anything you need, not to mention some expert advice. If you lack the attention to detail that homebrewing requires, head over to Charley Hooper’s who offer Woodchuck on tap.

Anyone interested in Kansas City food needs to try the apple fritter from John’s Space Age Donuts near downtown Overland Park. Established in 1967 next door to the even-more-venerable Tony’s Villa Capri Italian restaurant, John and family have been serving up freshly-made, delicious donuts that are among the best I have ever eaten. The space is no-frills but I think the apple fritter tastes better when you sit at the counter sipping a surprisingly decent cup of coffee from a styrofoam cup. As you might expect, John’s attracts its fair share of older Overland Parkers, but also a lot of younger folks on their way to the office, picking up a dozen to share. Get there early, because the pickings get slim come mid-morning and it is not worth missing that delicious apple fritter.

When is the last time you made apple pie? Classic as it is, I think apple tends to get overlooked in favor of berry and pumpkin pies. Don’t let the crust intimidate you; it is perfectly okay to use a store-bought crust and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Sure, making pie crust from scratch is not that hard, but something about it scares people. Overachievers should feel free to proceed with homemade dough, knowing that lard and/or shortening are the keys to flakiness. Making pie filling takes mere moments. Peel, core and slice 5-6 apples and mix them with about a tablespoon of flour, a cup of sugar, a little lemon juice, cinnamon and a pinch of salt. Mix it up and you have pie filling. Avoid red delicious and Macintosh apples as they tend to become mushy when cooked.

This only scratches the surface of what the mighty apple can accomplish. I didn’t even mention applesauce, which really shines when made from scratch. Apples also accompany pork particularly well. A grilled tenderloin or chop pairs very nicely with stewed apples. Certainly the best way to enjoy an apple, however, is the way nature intended: freshly picked and whole. Be sure to eat a few this Fall.

originally published on KCFreePress.com, 2010

Cantankerous Kansas Citian Spits Out Kosher BBQ

Gawker hosts a video today from the CBS Early Show in which reporter Dave Price at the American Royal cheerily serves up his Kosher barbecue brisket to two onlookers, one of whom summarily spits it out on to the ground.

Normally I’d suspect something like this of being staged but given Price’s reaction and the response of the hosts back at the studio, I think our idea of hospitality genuinely caught them off-guard.

I didn’t see the show, so I’m not sure of the context. Perhaps Mr. Crankypants just wanted to make a statement about New Yorkers attempting to make barbecue. Maybe he didn’t like the idea of “kosher” being a proper category, or maybe the guy’s brisket really did suck.

Big tip o’ the cap to Barry Bailey.

Where is Your Favorite Hot & Sour Soup?

I have a love/hate relationship with soups that are typically offered at inexpensive Chinese restaurants. Sometimes they are obvious afterthoughts to bulk up a lunch special and aren’t very good. But some of them are great. After years of ordering wonton by default I typically go for hot and sour soup. It is a hearty and complex concoction with peppery heat and sourness from rice vinegar added at the end. Ingredients include everything from tofu to roasted pork to re-hydrated Chinese mushrooms.

I have eaten some great versions recently, notably at Lenexa’s tiny Rice House.

Hot & sour soup

Sometimes I think that the vinegar flavor is too pronounced. The hot and sour at Rice House was exceedingly well-balanced, with a very rich chicken broth that included pieces of both chicken and pork.

Another good, homemade hot and sour soup is available at Iron Horse in Olathe, which I have written about before.

Hot & Sour soup

And at a newish joint near 87th and Quivira called Fortune Palace.

Hot & sour soup

Do we have any hot and sour soup enthusiasts out there? Where is your favorite in town?

–Dave LaCrone

OMG is Gordon Ramsay Responsible for a Man’s Death?!

No.

Last week restaurant owner Joseph Cerniglia, who had been featured on Ramsay’s program Kitchen Nightmares, jumped to his death from the George Washington bridge. Cerniglia’s suicide is the second associated with the abrasive British chef, coming after a former contestant of Hell’s Kitchen shot herself three years ago.

A lot of people hate Ramsay for the lack of respect he shows people, his foul language and his generally disagreeable manner. So, as we do with smug politicians and beautiful actresses when they become tainted, we revel in the suspicion that Ramsay is too hard on contestants.

But the fact is that many people are simply troubled enough to find suicide somehow desirable. The best analysis of the situation I have read is from Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon.com.

It is…entirely plausible that a person who gravitates toward being on TV and working in the intense, high-pressure world of restaurants is a person who is likelier than average to have those tendencies.

Bingo. The restaurant industry attracts some really intense people– people who can’t or won’t hold 9 to 5 jobs, people who like to party, people without the same support systems as many of us. And they work odd hours for little money and no health insurance. This amateurish profile is not airtight I realize, but it’s more compelling than the theory that Cerniglia killed himself because Gordon Ramsay yelled at him (saving his restaurant from collapse in the process).

Anyhow, if you are curious about all of this, check out the episode. It’s not posted on Hulu and can’t be embedded in the U.S. so you’ll have to click and watch it with Spanish subtitles.

P.S. For the record, I very much enjoy Ramsay’s show The F Word on BBC America. He comes across much more even-keeled, balanced and even happy. The persona he takes on in his American shows is just an exaggerated version of himself.

Greater Kansas City Japan Festival Coming This Saturday

Johnson County Community College is hosting the Greater Kansas City Japan Festival at the Carlsen Center for the seventh time this Saturday, Oct.2, 2010 from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

There will be all sorts of attractions and events, but I’m interested in the food. Four local restaurants will be on hand, dishing out traditional favorites: One-Bite Japanese Grill, Nara Sushi, Kaiyo Restaurant and Siki Japanese Steakhouse. Beyond food vendors, attendees can witness a traditional Japanese tea service or attend a Japanese beer and sake tasting. For those of you curious about making sushi or other Japanese favorites, stop by for cooking demonstrations from local sushi chefs.

One of the coolest attractions will be candy artist Miyuki Sugimori. Sugimori, who entertains at the Japan pavilion of Epcot Center, creates intricate little candy sculptures in mere moments during her performances.

Admission to the festival is $10 with students and children getting in for $5. Kids under five get in free.

KCPT’s Local Supper Overcomes the Elements

Last Thursday, local PBS affiliate KCPT hosted one of many food and drink-oriented benefit dinners. The action took place at the Roasterie plant, underneath a huge tent that protected diners from the steady drizzle that fell most of the evening. This was also my first visit to the Roasterie and I was duly impressed.

KCPT Local Supper

The big draw for me was the cooking of Michael Smith, Colby Garrelts and Megan Garrelts who teamed up to provide appetizers, dinner and dessert. While not much to look at, Smith’s Pan Con Tomate & Cured Ham starter was delicious. If I didn’t know better I’d call it bruschetta, which normally doesn’t float my boat, but the deep, rich tomato brought this to a new level.

Dinner was buffet fare with no real revelatory dishes, but it was well-prepared and tasty for the most part. Colby Garrelts’ hangar steak was perfectly cooked and served with sweated onions. His brussel sprouts were great too.

KCPT Local Supper

Representatives from Boulevard Brewing and the Missouri Wine & Grape Board were on hand, plying everyone with alcohol. I had a few glasses of wine and recall liking the Norton premium claret and Chardonel from Le Bourgeois winery in Rocheport quite well.

The Roasterie also had a mobile coffee service trailer set up in an Airstream in one corner of the tent. Diners could saunter up to the window as if they were on the street and order coffee. This was a cool touch.

This dinner was pretty much my introduction to the benefit dinner scene here in Kansas City. There are opportunities galore to attend events like these. The ticket prices vary but are fairly high; that’s the nature of the beast. But benefits do provide an opportunity to meet other food-minded people in town and to eat good food prepared by great chefs.

Meat and Bread: The Brisket Sandwich from D’Bronx

D’Bronx on Bell is a place that would be right at home in a college town. The menu is large, varied and affordable. The vibe is casual and even playful, and the food is good.

D'Bronx

If you dig deeper into the menu than their decent approximation of New York style pizza, you can find some very nice items. For instance the brisket sandwich which consists of chunks of tender braised beef, deli style mustard and nothing else.

Brisket sandwich

It takes some balls to put a sandwich like this on your menu. And I love it. Something about a sandwich comprised of just meat and bread allows the ingredients to speak for themselves. No cheese, no tomato, no lettuce, no cole slaw, no caramelized onions–just tender chopped beef and good mustard. Like the best corned beef sandwiches at a Jewish deli, you don’t need anything else.

Beer Kitchen Has the Hard Stuff Figured Out

After hearing that Westport fixture One80 pulled a U-turn and remade itself into a sort-of gastro-pub (sorry for using that word), I knew I had to try it soon. I had eaten a lot of meals at One80 and found it mostly good, if not exceptional. The nighttime crowd was a little douchetacular and the presence of a DJ most nights seemed like they were trying to be something they couldn’t quite achieve.

So I really respect the owners’ ability to wrap it up, shut it down and open a brand new concept in mere weeks. While the interior isn’t substantively different, it does feature some nice wood accents, particularly over the bar. A series of beer taps hang from the ceiling in the back of the dining room and weird little bottle sculptures adorn the window sills.

The menu has some items reminiscent of One80, like flatbread pizzas, but also a wide variety of burgers, sandwiches and a few breakfast offerings. A real selling point are their hand-cut french fries which are just about perfectly cooked and presented. They offer six kinds of dipping sauces: Roasted Garlic, Smoked Chipotle, Malt Vinegar, Horseradish, Cucumber-Dill and Sweet Thai Chili. I tried four of them and found them unremarkable. Their homemade “old school” ketchup, however, is some of the best I have ever had. So skip the fancy aiolis unless you can’t resist.

Fries

Homemade ketchups

My short rib sandwich was decent, if not great. The meat itself had virtually no flavor and the horseradish aioli was pretty much buried by the flavor of caramelized onions. The grilled sourdough was a nice touch but the bottom was soggy by the time it came out. The homemade bread and butter pickles had nice flavor but were shockingly made with regular cucumbers and not proper pickling cucumbers. As a result they were pretty mushy in the middle. It seemed like they were cut so thickly to compensate for this.

Short Rib sandwich

The high point of the evening was probably the service which was maybe a tad overbearing but the server was extremely thoughtful, quick and free of server BS-speak. Food came out quickly, we never had to wait for drinks or anything else we needed. Beer Kitchen is obviously running a good operation. But I think some aspects of the menu need a little more work.

As this is a new concept, you are asked to fill out a comment card after dining. This tells me they are serious about succeeding and open-minded about the direction they take. You can even fill out the comment card online.

How Do You Like Them Buns?

I have eaten burgers at the Westport Flea Market twice recently, and every time I go, I complain about two things: the condiment bar, and the bun.

Exterior

Basically this is a glorious hunk of freshly ground beef delivered on a glorified grocery store bun. Some places can get away with this, and even benefit from it. Would you want a little town topic patty on a hearty ciabatta bun? No. Thin, griddle-fried burgers go well with cheap buns. But even the mini-burger at Westport Flea Market over-matches its bun.

A thicker, larger burger such as the excellent offering at Cafe Europa can stand up to more bun.

Burger

But not everyone agrees with me. My patient and open-minded dining companion at The Flea insisted that an insubstantial bun makes the beef the star. Rather than simply encasing and delivering the meat, the bun simply acts as a vehicle to absorb delicious juices. This is an argument I find strangely compelling.

I still don’t care for the condiment bar, though.

Opening a Young Coconut

Well, it seems that coconut water is all the rage these days. It is becoming popular as a restorative, preventative or re-energizing drink, depending on what you read. Having drunk the milk of older coconuts in my youth and not particularly enjoying it, I haven’t paid much attention to the impending coconut water craze.

It turns out that coconut water is very different than milk from those older, hairy coconuts (hehe). It comes from young coconuts like these, and it is revelatory.

Young coconut

You can pick up plastic-wrapped young coconuts at most Asian Markets (this one was from 888 Market) for a couple bucks. But how to open this thing? You can find instructions and videos all over the Web, but somehow I didn’t believe it would be easy. In order to document what I felt would be utter and hilarious failure, I took photos of each step of the process.

First peel the outer layer of the conical end down to the shell using a chef’s knife.

Young coconut

Next, identify the largest area between “veins” visible on the shell. On this photo it’s at about 5 o’clock.

Young coconut

Use the knife to chop into the shell. I ended up employing a comically ineffective sawing motion. In retrospect I should have used the heel of the knife blade to similate a cleaver. Oh, I guess I could have used a cleaver too.

Young coconut

When you have made a small opening, shove the tip gently into the shell. You can tap gently on the knife handle to ease it through.

Young coconut

Then gently run the knife around the rim, employing a slight prying motion. With surprisingly little resistance, the lid will pop right off.

Young coconut

I got almost 2 cups of water out of this normal-sized young coconut. The water has a delicate, floral quality that is very difficult to put into words. And the flesh is divine. With a consistency somewhere between sushi and overcooked pasta, it has a natural, subdued sweetness and a flavor quite unlike those dried coconut flakes at the grocery store. You can scoop the flesh out pretty easily with a spoon.

Young coconut

While the water and the meat are good on their own, I’m now on the hunt for recipes using either.