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Loving: Kalamazoo

Rob is our younger brother (well, Scott’s brother) and a chef in Kalamazoo, Michigan. We crave his food (it’s the world’s greatest, FYI), so it’s only a bummer that he doesn’t live in Chicago with us – you know, to cook us dinner every night. Luckily, he’s sharing some of his top tips (using local ingredients) that’ll have you cooking yummy feasts in no time.

My name is Rob, and I live in Kalamazoo, Michigan with my lovely wife, Maurietta, and our wonderful 3-month-old boy, Max. We relocated here in late summer of 2012 and were immediately smitten with everything that the city has to offer. We’re surrounded by friendly people, a vibrant downtown, beautiful scenery, ski resorts, lakes, vineyards, farms, a great local music & art scene, and most importantly (to me anyway), a rather large number of craft breweries. So of course, we were thrilled by the chance to share our little town with all of the YBH readers out there.

We recently had some good friends come to visit for a weekend, and we took the opportunity to show them some of the local flavor: farmer’s market in the morning to buy ingredients for dinner, brewery for lunch, record store, dinner & drinks, in that order. Prior to our guests arriving in town, I stopped at my favorite bottle shop for a pick-six of Michigan beer. More on that later.

Kalamazoo Coffee Company’s dark roast, a Saturday morning necessity in our house, was the perfect starter before heading to the amazing Bank Street Farmer’s Market in downtown K-zoo. Going to a farmer’s market in early summer is just awesome. You’ve got a huge amount of options: spring produce that is still being harvested, early summer fruits & veggies that are just arriving, and a good lively atmosphere from all of the folks out just enjoying the weather. Upon arrival, we were greeted by live music, and a farmer right at the entrance selling some freshly picked strawberries that we couldn’t pass up.

Working our way through the aisles, we decided on some fantastic locally harvested ingredients: shiitake & oyster mushrooms, asparagus, fresh herbs, cippolini onions (that’s Italian for, um, small onion), baby eggplant, boneless-skinless chicken thigh, and an awesome loaf of parmesan-gruyere sourdough from a local bakery. I also used some pearl barley & cheap white wine that I had in the pantry. We stopped for lunch and a brew (or two, maybe) at Bell’s Eccentric Café, and then it was time to head home and turn all of these beautiful ingredients into dinner.

We turned all of this into a sort of stir-fried barley concoction that was not too rich, had nice crunch and texture from the barley and different vegetables, and featured a fine dose of bright, fresh herbs. It wasn’t weighed down with a heavy sauce – the wine just helped to bring all of the flavors together at the end.  Everyone seemed pretty pleased with how it turned out, although some would have preferred it without mushrooms…but the good thing about this kind of dish is that you can add or take away whatever you want! Tomatoes would have added some extra zip, if that’s what you’re after. Broccoli works with just about anything, so that would be fine as well. It could also be vegetarian- leave out the chicken and add more mushrooms, or some black beans. Use your imagination, and don’t be afraid to experiment.

THE BEER: For this meal, I decided to go with a few fine examples of Michigan-brewed Belgian-style ales (side note: Dark Horse Brewing Company’s summer brew is a Belgian Trippel that clocks in at 9.5% abv, so handle with care).

I’ve found when matching beers with food, it’s best to use flavors that complement each other. This is fairly easy with Belgian ales- most of them are quite complex, and have a wide array of flavors so that they match well with a lot of foods. The spicy/peppery/tart/fruity notes provide a balance for the earthy mushrooms & eggplant, and the sweet malt & mild, floral hops highlighted the fresh herbs. The barley tied the whole thing together, providing a good backdrop for both the vegetables and the beer.

I had planned to provide the recipe for the dish we whipped up, but then I got to thinking- it’s not about a recipe. The idea is to go out and choose what looks good to you at the time- use that to make something that you & your friends have never tried before. When you’ve got good friends, food, drink, and an open mind, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a good experience. So, instead of a recipe, here are a few tips & techniques that you can apply to any recipe, so that you can relax, worry less about measurements, and focus more on enjoying your company:

Some items can be cooked & chilled ahead of time. This is helpful for anything that takes more than a couple of minutes to cook, like chicken & barley. It will also speed up the final cooking process and prevent other ingredients from becoming overcooked.

Blanch & shock the asparagus. Cut it up and drop it into boiling water for 3 to 4 minutes, drain it, cool it fast by dunking it into some ice water, then drain again.  This step will help keep it bright green & tasty.  This also works with green beans & broccoli.

Heat control is one of the most important cooking skills to master. When you’re sautéing or stir-frying, keep the heat around medium-high, and give the pan plenty of time to get hot. If it’s too low, the water that is released from the vegetables won’t evaporate; it will just simmer, and steam everything which will make it mushy. If the heat is too high, things will burn. It’s also good to add ingredients to the pan gradually- each addition causes the cooking temperature to drop, and pausing in between gives the pan time to heat up again.

Add ingredients in order of cook time. Items that take longer to cook should be added earlier in the process. I added the onions first, because I wanted to get some good caramelization. Mushrooms came next, followed by eggplant, blanched asparagus, chicken, barley, and then the herbs.

It isn’t necessary to add a lot of salt, but it helps to add a tiny pinch each time you introduce a new ingredient to the pan. This will highlight the natural flavors of the ingredients, and build layers of flavor, without actually making the dish salty.

Add herbs last to keep the flavors bright and fresh. They don’t really need to be cooked, just warmed a bit.

Fresh herbs will take anything you make to the next level. Try some fresh cilantro on your curry, tarragon in your chicken salad. Add some sweet basil to an Asian stir-fry to give it a Thai twist. Go wild!

If you have a sweet tooth when the meal is over… Go ahead and drink your dessert (but only if you aren’t planning to drive anywhere)!

Hopefully, you can use some of the tips for your next kitchen adventure. Of course, you don’t have to be in Michigan to do any of this! There is at least one farmer’s market in every city these days, and new breweries are opening up as fast as the demand is rising. That’s pretty great in my book!

Thanks to Kim & Scott for the opportunity to share Kalamazoo with the Yellow Brick home crowd! Cheers!

Thank you, Rob, Maurietta and baby Max! Now, who’s hungry?

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  • Anne @ Planting Sequoias7.24.13 - 7:55 AM

    Michigan beer is the best (Grand Rapids local here–I’m a bit biased, I’ll admit). I just recently went to the Eccentric Cafe after a tour of Bell’s brewery and it was phenomenal.ReplyCancel

  • Jillian7.24.13 - 8:32 AM

    I grew up singing “We don’t give a damn about the whole state of Michigan cause we’re from Ohio”… what a horrible but funny song, Ohio State. Anyways, I need to visit that place for reals (only been once to visit Eric’s sis while she was in school at Kettering in Flint). p.s. I kept hearing Rob read me his own post. Scott, I love your family. ;)ReplyCancel

  • Emily R.7.24.13 - 11:45 AM

    I spent the first 24 years of my life in southeast Michigan, but didn’t see nearly as much of Kalamazoo or the west side of the state as I wish I had before I moved to Tennessee. I’ve got this post bookmarked for future travels, though – my husband spent most of his life near Memphis and I need to get him up there to see the sights!ReplyCancel

  • Cristina7.25.13 - 9:40 AM

    I live in Kalamazoo, and I so appreciate your support for our lovely town Yellow Brick Home!

    If he doesn’t mind sharing, where does Rob work? In addition to the art, music, and beer scene, we LOVE the food in Kalamazoo. I would love to make sure to provide him some community support (if we aren’t already!).

    Thanks again!ReplyCancel

  • Dave7.25.13 - 6:20 PM

    K-Zoo is one of the coolest small towns in America. Rob, nice job showcasing your wonderful city.ReplyCancel

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