About Me

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Lansing, Michigan, United States
I am a Lansing townie, lawyer, and restaurant reviewer for the City Pulse. I love traveling, reading, yoga, and baking, but my favorite hobby is stuffing my face.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Best meal I had this year: The Publican

I've got a group of hungry friends for whom The Publican has changed the way we do Chicago. We always make a stop. We don't leave the Windy City without eating some of that bacon.
This is not Publican, this is from the Eating Lansing kitchen.
Sometimes, the nicest ones of us even bring some of that bacon across state lines to share, which reminds me that I have two more deliciously thick slices of bacon in the freezer, courtesy of the world's best bestie.

In August, we went to Chicago. We ate a lot, and as usual we ate at The Publican.
It was just as tantalizing as 2012. While The Root came close, so close, The Publican still won top honors.
I have got to spend more time in Chicago.

Best thing I made this year: slow-roasted filet of beef with basil parmesan mayonnaise

I'd like to be best friends with Ina Garten.
Here I am, offering my dream best friend a blueberry muffin.
I love her recipes, of course. I love that she used to work in the White House as a nuclear policy analyst, then she decided to buy a store (Barefoot Contessa) and break into the food biz. I love that she is unabashedly friends with Alec Baldwin, Mariska Hargitay,and a slew of middle-aged gay men who are constantly coming to her Hamptons home to arrange flowers, iron linens, and select the wine.

I love that she met her husband Jeffrey when she was 15 years old and is still so obviously head over heels for him. Also, read this, because it is hilarious.

I love that she is 65 years old. Have you seen her SKIN?! I'll have what she's having.

Finally, I love that Ina's book Foolproof gave me my best recipe of the year. It's a knock their socks off, bask in your glory, give me my own cooking show type of recipe, one that I made three times this year for three special occasions. I made it for the book club baby shower I threw for a great girlfriend of mine, mama to the world's most beautiful baby girl. 

I next made it for a party I threw in April, at which the boyfriend made his debut to 30 of my nearest and dearest. I wanted him to know what he was getting himself into right off the bat.

I brushed the recipe off again just a few days ago for a belated Christmas lunch. The original plan was to have a leisurely lunch at my father's house on Christmas Day. I would cook, we would all exchange gifts, my nephew would be given presents that he might be able to enjoy in six months or so.

Then, we lost power. Most people in Lansing did, and it stayed out for days. There was an uproar. We postponed Christmas lunch until the following Sunday and I put my beef tenderloin in the freezer.

Lo and behold, Christmas a few days late is just as sweet. It's even better when you have a juicy, tender, succulent filet on your plate, slathered with a salty, sharp, unexpectedly delicious sauce that resulted in my brother totally losing his mind ("put it on everything," he told his wife. "Put it on your face.") 

Christmas goes on. Families change, and they go on. Babies are born, relationships start and end, and, in my family, we eat. While we may not always be able to say how we're feeling, while we may not always know how we're feeling, we know that we will survive, we will adapt, and, above all, we're hungry.
slow-roasted filet of beef with basil parmesan mayonnaise, green beans gremolata, mashed potatoes

1 whole filet of beef tenderloin, trimmed and tied (4 1/2 pounds)
3 tablespoons good olive oil
4 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper
10 to 15 branches fresh tarragon
Basil Parmesan Mayonnaise, for serving, recipe follows


Preheat the oven to 275 degrees. Use an oven thermometer to be sure your oven temperature is accurate.

Place the filet on a sheet pan and pat it dry (all over) with paper towels. Brush the filet all over with the oil, reserving about half a tablespoon. Sprinkle it all over with the salt and pepper (it will seem like a lot but believe me, it makes a difference). Place the tarragon branches around the beef, tying them in 4 or 5 places with kitchen twine to keep them in place, and then brush the tarragon with the reserved oil.

Roast the filet of beef for 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours, until the temperature registers 125 degrees in the center for rare and 135 degrees for medium-rare. Cover the filet with aluminum foil and allow to rest for 20 minutes. Slice thickly and serve warm or at room temperature with Basil Parmesan Mayonnaise.
Basil Parmesan Mayonnaise:

2 extra-large egg yolks, at room temperature
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil leaves, lightly packed
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup vegetable oil, at room temperature
1/2 cup good olive oil, at room temperature

Place the egg yolks, lemon juice, Parmesan, mustard, basil, garlic, 1 tablespoon salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper in a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Process for 20 seconds, until smooth. Combine the vegetable oil and olive oil in a 2-cup liquid measuring cup. With the processor running, slowly pour the oil mixture through the feed tube to make a thick emulsion. Taste for seasonings -- the mayonnaise is a sauce so it should be highly seasoned. Store in the refrigerator until ready to use; it will keep for up to a week.

NOTES: this cut of meat is expensive- about $20 a pound. I get mine at Mert's in Okemos, where I ask for it trimmed and tied.
Do yourself a solid and use your meat thermometer. You don't want to overcook a $100 piece of meat.
The keys to mayonnaise are room temperature eggs, a food processor or a strong arm to whisk, and a sloooow addition of the oil.
This sauce is addicting. Make a lot and use it for crudites, on sandwiches, with your eggs in the morning.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Second best meal I had this year: The Root

This was a tough call.
Really, excruciatingly difficult. 
I knew that when I had to crown my best meal of 2013, I would have two strong contenders. I knew it in June, after I first went to The Root. I was blown away by the entire experience- the interior, with its tree branches and no-frills decor, the unparalleled training of the servers with their Vic Firth pepper mills, the proud Michigan-ness of everyone involved.

And the food. Of course, the food.
I've eaten at The Root four times since June, the last time being the Young Guns dinner, and every time I am blown away. It is an hour from where I live. I am being honest when I tell you that, if someone called right now and asked me to drive an hour to meet them there for lunch, I would drop this yoga mat right on the floor and get in the car. It is worth it.
If I haven't convinced you yet, I can't. If I have, take me with you.
Dig The Root, indeed.


Second best thing I made this year: wedding cake

In November, my girlfriend Kayla got married. I made her cake.
The cake, hydrangead.

The cake, pre-hydrangea.
It was a standard carrot cake, made with the tried and true recipe which I've shared with you before. This one, however, was made with Trader Joe's gluten-free flour. It made no discernible difference in the taste, the layers just baked a bit flatter. Which is preferable when you're frosting a massive cake.

The bottom tier was a 3-layer, 9-inch cake. The top tier was 3-layers, 5 inches. I transported the tiers separately to the hotel where the reception would be held, inching my way over every speedbump and lamenting the cobblestones that line Washington Square.

It was a beautiful, delicious success. I hope that Kayla and Pat's marriage will be the same.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Third best meal I had this year: Zazio's

Last spring I headed to Kalamazoo to visit my grandparents. I also informed my cousin Kevin, my main competitor in the quest for Grandma's love, that he would be taking me out to dinner that night. Kevin gamely agreed, and I spent the afternoon looking forward to dinner at Zazio's.

While I have been visiting Kalamazoo several times a year for my entire life, I'd never eaten at Zazio's. It had, of course, been on my Restaurant Wish List for years. As I waited for Kevin and his girlfriend Kimmie, I admired the colorful decor.
 When Kevin and Kim arrived, I learned that he is friends with the chef and several members of the staff. I couldn't believe my good fortune, and the fact that my own cousin had been sandbagging me for all these years.

After much deliberation and several rounds of making up my mind just to change it again, I placed my order. I had seared scallops- one of my favorite dishes, which I can rarely resist.
 For my entree I chose the duck- so juicy, so perfectly complimented with tart berries and a crispy, salty polenta cake. Heaven.
 We hadn't eaten enough. We were starving. Out rolled a platter of chocolate.
The meal was perfect. The restaurant is beautiful, the food is to die for and much of it is locally sourced. Zazio's offers Chef's Tables, tickets to which would make a wonderful gift for the serious eater. If you make the drive to Kalamazoo, the restaurant is conveniently located downtown in the Radisson- you can spend the night and have breakfast the next morning at Food Dance, one of my other Kalamazoo favorites, or get a coffee at Water Street Coffee Joint. My grandparents will likely be at mass at St. Augustine Cathedral, stop and give them a shout and you might find yourself in the next issue of the Johnson Jottings.
No, I'm not an agent of the Kalamazoo Chamber of Commerce, but maybe I should be.

Third best thing I made this year: supercorn

Food holds memories for me. When I eat sugary cereal, which is rare, I remember the camping trips that my family took when I was a little girl. My mother, who fed us only the healthiest of healthy cereals back at home, would loosen the reins a touch and give us a variety pack of tiny boxes of sugary cereal to fight over. I always wanted the Coco Krispies.

When I eat chocolate mousse I am transported to La Rotonde in St. Amand-Montrond, France, where I spent so many evenings in 2005 and 2006 with one of my very best girlfriends, learning to eat.

When I eat popcorn, which is at least twice a week, I think about my dad, who would always make it for me, no matter the hour, if I just raised my eyebrows and asked "PC?"

Last summer, the boyfriend and I unwittingly created another food memory. Day after day, I would come to his apartment with bags heaping with sweet corn. If the grocery special was 8 ears for $2, I would buy 8 ears of corn. For the two of us.

While he would gamely light the grill and never tell me to figure out how to do it myself, I shucked the corn, rubbed it with oil, and carefully arranged each ear over the grate, just so. He would hobble into his kitchen, frustrated with his broken leg, and start to make his bacon butter. I chopped cilantro, crumbled blue cheese onto a cookie sheet, and ran outside to turn the corn that I'd inevitably forgotten about.

In the summer of 2013 we ate ear after ear of corn. We told everyone about it, to the point that truly they must have wondered why we were so excited about a commonplace vegetable. We didn't care, and we kept eating and marveling at our self-described brilliance.

I told you about supercorn before, and I hope you make it next summer. Maybe with someone who is special to you, or, better yet, for someone who is special to you.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Fourth best meal I had this year: Asia's Finest

For why I loved Asia's Finest, on the south side of Lansing, read my article here.

And for an educational and entertaining article which started me on a pho crawl through metro Detroit, head over here.

Fourth best thing I made this year: cheesecake

It's no secret that my younger brother and I are very close. We are three years apart and grew up spending our time running around at the family cottage, laughing at my mother, and swimming for hours in our high school pool. When his wife gave birth to their little son two weeks ago I was sitting at the hospital, waiting for the news, with a tin overflowing with cookies.
My brother is a cop- the Thin Blue Line is an organization that provides assistance to the families of officers killed in the line of duty. And the hat that the hospital provided was too small for baby's head.
While I love the guy, it hurts me that he doesn't have much of a sweet tooth. I'm constantly bringing him cookies, cake, sweet rolls, like these ones from Christmas morning. Mom still didn't have power, but brother had a generator so we all convened at his house in the country.
He said the rolls were "ok." I stared daggers.

When he asked me last March to make him a cheesecake for his birthday, I was tickled that he requested a sweet. I got to work and started churning out New York-style cheesecakes, recipe from my trusty America's Test Kitchen Family cookbook. I eventually got the hang of it.
I do realize this is an awful photo. Please accept my apologies.
Cheesecake isn't incredibly difficult to make. You make the graham cracker crust first, baking it in your Springform pan, which is crucial to making a cheesecake. While you let that cool, you beat together five packages of cream cheese, some sour cream, sugar, lemon juice, and vanilla. You beat, scrape the bowl, beat, scrape the bowl. The last thing you want is to start to pour the filling onto the crust and find an unmixed wad of cream cheese.

You bake the cake at 500 degrees for the first 10 minutes, which darkens the top (and sets off your smoke alarm.) Then the temperature is reduced to 200, which makes the filling velvety and smooth.

I've made cheesecake several times since March. For Thanksgiving I did a plain cheesecake (my preference) with a bowl full of caramel sauce that I whipped up on the stove. For our powerless Christmas I had a cheesecake in the freezer, thankfully, because after several days of sitting around in the dark and cold we needed a treat. This one had an extra layer of holiday pizzazz- a few weeks ago one of my batches of peppermint sugar cookies ended up just a little too crispy, so I kept them in the freezer for a rainy day. When I started to make my cheesecake I forewent the plain graham cracker crumbs and instead ground up the cookies in my food processor for the crust. The result was a slightly pepperminty crust- not overtly flavorful but enough so that, when my sister-in-law took a bite of her cake, she turned to me with a quizzical look.
The Christmas Cheesecake warmed us up, mellowed us out after so many stressful days, and sweetened us up, just enough to play a few rounds of Taboo.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Fifth best meal I had this year: Custard Hut

Again, maybe not a meal. Or maybe one of the best meals ever. Several months ago I was in court near Toledo, Ohio, and on my way back to Oakland County I sought out the Custard Hut in Dearborn Heights. I wasn't sure what to expect.

What I found was a menu of different flavors of waffles and frozen custards.

I ordered cinnamon waffles with chocolate custard, I got into my car, and the entire thing was gone within four minutes.

Fifth best thing I made this year: venison chops

This year I got pretty deep into a relationship with venison. I feel good about eating something that is so organic, so wholesome, and knowing exactly where it came from and how it got to my table. It doesn't hurt that the chops are lean, cook in a flash, and can stand up to a flavorful sauce.

I did my venison chops in two primary ways. Both of them involve a chop quickly seared in a screaming-hot cast iron skillet, then finished with a pan sauce. The first one was a blueberry/white wine cream sauce.
 To make the sauce, you kind of just throw everything in the same cast iron skillet and let it all bubble away. Blueberries, wine, butter, cream, a little garlic- you could slather it on a piece of construction paper and the effect would be similar. Delicious, any way you cut it. 

The second way I did my chops was with a juniper berry/red wine sauce.

I crushed the berries beforehand to let out a little more of the flavor. Juniper berries aren't like blueberries, they are dried and quite hard. Crushing them with the side of a knife or a mortar and pestle is key.

Don't shy away from venison. If you eat other kinds of red meat, the taste won't be that much of a shock to you. If you'd like me to make it for you, you can woo me with Monica's Gourmet Cookies.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Top 5 local eats for City Pulse

Read it here.

PS- still no power! Ho ho ho.

Sixth best meal I had this year: Monica's Gourmet Cookies

Granted, these cookies are not a meal. But they could be. Several months ago I was at Horrock's, an awesome food store we have that is known for its fresh, inexpensive, and varied produce (and for its free coffee bar.) As I filled my cart with spinach, apples, Brussels sprouts and the like, I saw huge glass canisters stuffed with adorable cookies. Although they were $2 a piece, I bought two of them.

I lost my mind over these cookies. I even mentioned them in this article. I started researching them- where do they come from? who is Monica? why are these glorified balls of dough so addictive?

Here is everything you need to know. You should also take note that Monica has a "bakehouse" in Grand Rapids where you can go buy a zillion cookies.

In November I did a reading in a friend's wedding, and at the rehearsal she gave me a sweet gift bag. Inside was a bag of coffee beans, a beautiful red scarf, and half a dozen of Monica's cookies. The most perfect little gift bag I ever did see.

Sixth best thing I made this year: pumpkin doughnuts

Merry merry, everybody. Please enjoy my favorite Christmas song in this weird video.

Also, this song has an adorable and funny back story. Read it here.

Now, on to the food. For the last couple of years in the fall I've made pumpkin cupcakes. I top them with regular cream cheese frosting.

 I will also do the occasional apple cupcake with cinnamony, marshmallowy, meringue frosting.

This year, as I eyed the mini bundt pan the boyfriend bought me in July, I decided to put a little bit of the cupcake batter in and see what I came up with. What I came up with, and what I unbelievably forgot to photograph although I made them several times, were fat little doughnuts. Because I can't leave well enough alone, I melted some butter in a saucepan, threw each doughnut in for a quick dip, then rolled them in cinnamon sugar. They ended up almost crisp on the outside and completely tender and crumbly inside. They were to die for.

I could tell you that a baked doughnut is better for you than a deep fried one, and that's probably true. However, let's not forget that all this was was repurposed cupcake batter. But danged if they weren't good.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Seventh best meal I ate this year: St. Elmo's

For my seventh best meal of 2013, we are going back to Indy. To a flagship restaurant in Indy, to be exact. Remember when I ate at St. Elmo's?

I remember having to coordinate my breaths with my swallows so I wouldn't hurt myself on the deliciously horseradish-laden cocktail sauce.

I also remember a perfectly prepared filet.

I don't remember dessert, because we didn't eat dessert at St. Elmo's. Should we have? Has anyone had dessert there? Tell me your Indy secrets, eaters. 

Seventh best thing I made this year: Brussels sprout salad

I'm not going to let a power outage keep me from finishing my year-end countdown. A few nights ago we had a massive ice storm, and we lost power. It's been over 48 hours now, the house is an igloo, and as I type this I'm sitting at a coffee shop, drinking a gingerbread latte, wearing sweatpants. I'm not proud of it.

Anyway, the seventh best thing I made this year. The Brussels sprout "magic" salad, which the boyfriend and I eat with regularity. It is inspired by this, from the Pioneer Woman, but I couldn't stop throwing wintry ingredients into the mix. This is what I do:

I buy a pound of B sprouts. The plastic mesh bag of them at the grocery? That's a pound. I cut off the root end, peel off the top layer, and slice them in half. Maybe in quarters, depending on how big they are.

I put them on a sheet pan and toss them with oil, salt, pepper, and a touch of cayenne. I roast them at 400 or 450, tossing them every 10 minutes or so, until they are crispy and a little bit burnt-looking.

I throw them into a big bowl and start adding my flavor-boosters: pomegranate arils, torn mint leaves, crumbled feta, a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, chopped apple, and a big pinch of flaky Maldon salt.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Eighth best meal I ate this year: Sushi Zen

One of the things that I like so much about the boyfriend's family is that they like to eat the way that I do. That means in large quantities, frequently, and enthusiastically. When his aunt and uncle asked us if we wanted to go for sushi, I almost cried with excitement.

Good sushi in Brighton, Michigan? I mean it. Sushi Zen is where to find it.

Eighth best thing I made this year: meatball subs

I know, I just shoved these down your throat.

But they're just so worth it.

Especially for this guy, who asked so nicely and then slept so cutely with a little dog.

My recipe, from Smitten Kitchen (who apparently lifted from Ina Garten, my all-time favorite) is below.

Meatball Subs with Caramelized Onions and Gruyère
Meatball recipe adapted generously from Ina Garten
a.k.a. Meatball Hoagies, Grinders or Heroes
Yields about 24 to 28 2-inch meatballs or one colossal meatball sub. I’d estimate two meatballs per person, perhaps less if you’re putting out a lot of other food.
How much bread will you need? If you make 2-inch meatballs, as I suggest below, estimate 2 inches of length in your roll for each meatball, so you’ll want 48 inches of sandwich roll altogether. The “Italian seeded demi-baguette” (as Fresh Direct called it) I show above is 9 inches but tapers at the ends, so it fit 4 meatballs. I would have needed 8 of them for the whole batch of meatballs, and also a swarm of hungry folks.
The baguettes or seeded sandwich rolls you’ll use for your sandwiches (see Note above for how to estimate)
2 pound ground meat of your choice (I used pork but have in the past used beef, veal, chicken, turkey or a blend thereof)
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1/3 cup finely grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
3/4 teaspoon salt
Pinch of red pepper flakes
2 small garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 large egg
Olive oil
4 cups prepared tomato sauce (plus extra if you like a lot of extra sauce)
Caramelized onions
2 large yellow onions, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cups coarsely shredded Gruyère
Make the meatballs: Split your rolls almost the whole way through, leaving one side attached. Scoop out some of the roll to create a channel for the meatballs to rest in. Grind the bread you pulled out in a food processor or tear it into minuscule bits. You will need 1 1/3 cups or 2 3/4 ounces of fresh breadcrumbs for the meatballs. If you’re not making subs, you can get this same amount of breadcrumbs from 2 to 3 sandwich bread slices. Set rolls aside until later.
Place the fresh breadcrumbs in a large bowl with 3/4 cup warm water and all of the meatball ingredients except for the olive oil and tomato sauce. Combine with a fork, breaking up clumps of meat until the ingredients are evenly distributed. Form mixture into 2-inch meatballs are arrange on a tray. I find wet hands make it easier to form meatballs without them sticking too much.
Heat a generous slick of oil (few tablespoons) in a large saute pan with a lid. Brown meatballs in batches, being careful not to crowd the pan or nudge them before they are nicely browned or they will stick and you’ll leave delicious meatball bits in the pan. These meatballs are soft, so use a gentle hand. Transfer meatballs to a paper towel-lined tray and continue until they are all browned.
Discard the oil and heat your tomato sauce in the pan. Add the meatballs, cover the pan and simmer them on the lowest heat possible for 25 to 30 minutes, until the meatballs are cooked through.
Caramelize onions: While the meatballs are simmering, you can cook the onions. Heat the olive oil and butter in a heavy large skillet over medium-low heat. Add onion, sprinkle with salt and a little pepper and cook until they’re tender, sweet, and a deep golden brown, stirring occasionally. This takes me about 30 minutes.
Assemble subs: Arrange meatballs with sauce in the hollowed-out roll(s). Drape caramelized onions over the top and sprinkle with shredded cheese. Place subs under a broiler or in an oven at top heat to melt the cheese.

If you're interested in ground venison, let me know. I'm willing to make a trade for vanilla beans.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Ninth best meal I had this year: Vinsetta Garage

Vinsetta Garage is in Royal Oak, right on Woodward. It used to be an auto repair place (cool), and much of the original structure stands (too cool.) I had the 3am burger- Angus patty, Swiss, Woodshop MI maple bacon, topped with a fried egg & crispy fried onion strings, Sriracha mayo.

Eaters, I'm not a burger fanatic. But this was the best burger I ate all.dang.year.

The bathroom floor is covered in pennies.
I went back the next week and had the Vinsetta Burger. 3am is better. Get it. Go to Trader Joe's while you're there and then come back to Lansing and console yourself by staring at the Capitol building.

Ninth best thing I made this year: Brined, sage butter-rubbed roast chicken

That's a mouthful.

Until a week and a half ago, I had never brined. I know. I just thought that my roast chicken didn't need it, or something like that. I never said I knew what I was talking about.

Anyway, a week and a half ago my nephew was born, and three days after that my brother gave me the all-clear to bring dinner to him and his wife. Thanks, brother.

I consulted my America's Test Kitchen Family cookbook, which is the best, and decided to brine my 4.5 pound chicken. I put 8 cups of water, 1/2 cup of sugar, and 1/2 cup of salt in a stockpot. I let the sugar and salt dissolve. I unwrapped the chicken and stuck it in the pot. I left it there for one hour.

I took the chicken out of the pot, dumped out the brine, and rinsed off the chicken. I patted it dry with paper towels and set it on a plate. While the chicken was brining, I had put 3 tablespoons of butter in a bowl. I microwaved it for about 15 seconds, just to soften it a bit. I chopped up a TON of sage leaves, seriously about 15 of them, and put those in the butter with a little salt and pepper. I mixed it all up.

I loosened up the skin on the chicken breast and stuck the butter under there. I put most of the butter under the chicken skin and rubbed the remainder on the outside of the chicken. I roasted it for about 90 minutes.

Raw chicken, covered in sage and butter.
This chicken is moist like nobody's business. It doesn't take long to cook if you get a 4-5 pound little guy. Trust me on the brine.