Monday, December 31, 2012
The small Illinois-side St. Louis suburb of Edwardsville has seen incredible growth over the last few decades. It now features everything a person could want in a bedroom community – a quaint downtown, plenty of grocery stores, your basic box stores, parks and trails and lots of dining options. For a family dinner Friday night we checked out one of the newer options, Cleveland Heath. We walked in shortly after 5pm, and it was already mobbed. Getting to our table proved challenging, as the bar and waiting area, really one in the same, is right next to the door; I suppose this makes it look busy and happening from the street. The reality is that it was busy and happening. So busy, in fact, that hearing people at our table of eight was challenging without yelling. The atmosphere is very casual, decorated in earth tones and natural woods with some food-oriented art. It would be a good date spot.
Our server dropped by to see what we would like to drink. The beer selection was good, featuring many local options and quality larger offerings. They did have Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout, so why go further? The wine selection was comparable. We ordered a few appetizers also. The deviled eggs were great with a touch of spicy heat. The shrimp and grits were good, but could have been a bit firmer. My favorite was the boquerones, or white anchovies. They were wonderful. Five little fishies served on a single slab of toast with roasted tomatoes…a taste of heaven.
Moving on to main dishes, Cleveland Heath shined. Cauliflower bisque was large enough to swim in, looked rich enough to clog arteries, but tasted light and delicious for a cool winter evening. The pozole was served in the same size bowl and was full of quality ingredients. The pork cheeks with lentils were wonderful, rich and soothing, defining umami flavor. The mac and cheese was creamy but stood up over time, not becoming a gooey mess. Burgers were all cooked just right. They came with a side of mixed French fries and sweet potato fries and these were addictively delicious, however, the quantity was obscenely huge. We passed around a plate of beignets for dessert. They were light and airy, warm and sweet. The pulled pork was tender and juicy, and the chop salad was bountiful and delicious.
Cleveland Heath was a mixed bag. Food quality and variety was excellent and well worth the trip. They say that simplicity represents their ideals, and I would say they have done this element well. However the noise in the front room was deafening, making a social meal with a big group near impossible. In back noise levels were likely lower. In warm weather they use a patio in back. Quality for your money was excellent and most dishes were served in a reasonable quantity, though the soups and fries were over the top. I look forward to going back; Cleveland Heath would be a great date spot. Those pork cheeks are calling me!
Saturday, December 29, 2012
Over Christmas we visited with family in the St. Louis area. This meant lots of eating and a chance to show my wife my old stomping grounds. I am pleased to report that some things that should never change haven’t and some things that perhaps needed to change have. My next few entries will be about the eating portions of our trip, minus a few events reserved for the book.
First up…Rigazzi's on the Hill
I am no fan of Italian-American restaurants. Over-sweetened, thick tomato sauce, garlic bread, cheap wine, cheaper beer, wilted salads, rubbery bread, over-sauced pastas – you know the stereotype and there are plenty of places that fulfill it. On the other hand, some of these places really aren’t too bad. Rigazzi’s is one.
Open since 1957 in the Hill neighborhood of St. Louis, Rigazzi’s looks like a movie set, replete with red and white checkered tablecloths, hanging stained glass and globe chandeliers over each table, and every square inch of wall space covered in newspaper articles, sports memorabilia and celebrity pictures. I even sat next to a giant, fiberglass Al Capone.
We ate lunch here one day before Christmas and found it extremely quiet, though I know it is bustling in the evening. Service was lightning fast, so fast in fact that I am sure much was prepared and waiting for us. The first dish was a St. Louis standard – toasted ravioli. Rigazzi’s version of this local classic is one of the better. The breading was minimal and most of the flavor came from the actual ravioli. They were relatively small and completely full with a meat mixture. The marinara sauce it was served with was pretty good, not too sweet and with a little meat. This was accompanied by a salad that was predominately white with iceberg lettuce. Nuff said.
Our entrees were simple - spaghetti and meatballs and a deep fried piece of catfish with a side of another St. Louis standard – mostaccioli. The catfish was the size of a plate, battered with cornmeal and was quite good. The spaghetti and meatballs were completely over-sauced (see stereotype) but delicious. The meatballs were smooth, soft and fine with the mildest of herbs and spices. The great quantity of sauce was mild, containing small pieces of meat, and not at all overly sweet. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by the sauce. I just wish there weren’t so much of it. Though it did give me an excuse to consume most of the rather weak baguette we were served. Now the mostaccioli… to most of the world mostaccioli is a pasta shape – tubular, smooth and about 2 inches long. In St. Louis it is a specific dish – mostaccioli sauced by a heavy, tomato paste-dominated sauce and baked. It is the butt of jokes by non-St. Louisans and more than one person has commented that you know you are from St. Louis if your wedding featured the dish (along with toasted ravioli). Rigazzi’s version was a pleasant surprise. The sauce appeared to be the same meat sauce as the spaghetti and meatballs and the toasted ravioli’s dipping sauce. It was not a goopy, sweat mess, but a respectable sauce resembling a simple bolognese. Nor was Rigazzi’s version baked. Most interesting, it didn’t even feature mostaccioli, but instead used penne rigate, mostaccioli’s ridged cousin. This shape held the sauce much better than the traditional version would.
For dessert we shared a Black and White – vanilla and chocolate hazelnut gelatos. The serving was just right to share. While the vanilla was lacking, the baccio, chocolate hazelnut was flavorful, but light as chocolates go.
Rigazzi’s proved a casual, quiet lunch spot with dependable if not spectacular food. And their versions of St. Louis standards are actually better than most I have had. Service was kind, helpful but rushed, but prices were excellent, as lunch barely topped $30. If you are new to St. Louis or just visiting, Rigazzi’s will be a good introduction to a few required local favorites.
Monday, December 24, 2012
This Christmas virtually all the family that lives near us is going elsewhere, so we all celebrated together a week early. I am going to save much of the holidays for the book I am working on, but for now need to share the main dish of the California Christmas dinner. First, we don’t have a firmly established traditional meal for the occasion, as it has never been the occasion for us to celebrate a week early. So we needed to create it. My wife asked for something wintery and warm, something rich and soulful. I had something in mind already. She said, “Something like braised short ribs.” I love this woman – that’s exactly what I had in mind!
You’ll have to excuse me for sharing just what we did without a real recipe. We didn’t use a recipe. To me cooking is like art…painting on a canvas, not paint by numbers. I will come up with recipes when the book is put together, but in the meantime… here’s what we created.
We seared for just a few moments nine pounds of short ribs. In a large roasting pan I mixed two brown ales, a stick of melting butter, about a quarter cup of olive oil, and the same of molasses, and a generous sprinkling of pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and chocolate – and just a dash of sage. Then we placed all the short ribs in this mixture and covered them with chopped turnips, parsnips, potatoes, carrots, celery and leeks – lots of leeks. We then covered this with tin foil tucked into the edges of the roasting pan. The key here is to make sure all moisture stays inside the pan. You don’t want steam escaping. This was cooked in the oven at 325 for 5 hours.
When it came out at dinner time it filled the house with amazing smells. Dark, rich and warm, it was exactly what we were looking for. The leeks and celery virtually disintegrated while the potatoes, carrots, turnips and parsnips were done just right. The meat lifted off the bone and could be cut with a spoon. As we dug in the table was surrounded by “mmmm,” and “wow.” Somebody commented on the layers of flavor. Someone else said that something tasted familiar but they couldn’t quite put a finger on it. Somebody else asked if maybe I hadn’t put some chocolate in there. That was enough to get our part-time vegetarian daughter to try a bite.
Smiles and warmed souls all around, we toasted to all who came before and wish were still with us, to all elsewhere who we hoped to see soon and too all in need.
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and happy eating.
Friday, December 7, 2012
I have had the good fortune, the absolute delight to share my love of food with so many people over the years. This blog really is at heart about the power that food wields in helping us form bonds with each other. I have been a history teacher for 20 years and shared my love of food in class often – by describing food in history, talking about changes in the food supply or pointing out directions to a great ice cream spot not far from Notre Dame de Paris as every bit as important as understanding the Gothic architecture we are supposed to be looking at on a slide. For a number of years I mustered the courage, energy and insanity to actually take students to Europe and share history and food with them. There are enough memorable stories from these trips to fill a book. But in light of the subject here – food – and the tragic passing of one of these students I would like to share one foodie story here.
In 2004 I had a group of upperclassmen ready to go for a trip from London to Rome in 17 days. It featured lots of down time and demanded lots of responsibility on the part of students. Two spots opened and the two best candidates were actually sophomores – best friends, joined at the hip – Andrea and Michelle. I thought the world of them but wondered how they might deal with being the youngest in a senior-laden crowd. They did great, formed many new friendships and grew up A LOT in a little over two weeks. They wasted no time in trying to convince me to take them again after their senior year. Nor did they shy away from injecting their two cents into the route selection. Needless to say, they came along again a couple years later. This time we went from Paris to Barcelona, across the south of France and down to Pisa, Florence and Rome.
Kids on these sorts of trips have to know that food won’t be like at home. We aren’t stopping at McDonalds or Applebees and some of the food may not be to their liking. They have to be able to just eat what they get. For my nerves, they have to eat without complaining... we’re guests in another culture. I, after all, want my students challenged. I want some authentic food, but meals more often tended to the bland, boring and teenage-American-friendly. Andrea and Michelle were picky eaters, but never complained once on either trip. They were awesome travelers.
On their second trip we had one of those foodie experiences that could only thrill and horrify. We arrived on the outskirts of Cannes, France just before dinner. The bus unloaded and many of the kids headed straight for the beach. A number of them had never been in the ocean before so they got a little Mediterranean baptism. I am not sure that there can be bigger smiles than those of Midwestern teens’ with their feet in cobalt seas. After some play we regrouped and headed into the restaurant across the street. They had us seated upstairs in a huge room with a sea view. It certainly seemed as though we’d have a good experience.
Then the first dishes came out. I saw a few eyes get big. I didn’t know if I should get excited or concerned. Then I saw the plates. My mind spun…
“Great! Finally something real. Finally something they haven’t tried, something truly from here.”
“Oh, no! Nobody will eat but me. I can’t have 20 kids heading into the evening starving.”
“Oh, no! God help the first kid who rolls their eyes or complains. Oh, no…please let them handle this well!”
In front of every one of us was placed a simple, beautiful plate of six grilled, whole sardines and a small salad. It was pretty, authentically Mediterranean, hot and fresh. It was the sort of meal I wished my students would see every night of this trip. But it was also well outside my students’ comfort zone. This would be a test.
I started in on one fish, carefully slipping a fork between flesh and spine, lifting a beautiful filet right off the skeleton. A few students watched and tried to imitate, doing a pretty good job. Before long I saw almost every student doing the same…not an eye roll, not a sneer, not a ”yuck” in the room. They handled this like champs. A few remarked how much they liked it. A few quietly mentioned later they didn’t like it, but figured they might as well eat. And one just secretly shared all her six sardines with others who liked them. They handled the meal like true travelers, and I could not have been more proud. And Andrea and Michelle were the leaders of the pack.
During these two trips I watched Andrea and Michelle mature, broaden their horizons, and become mostly-fearless adventurers. They stayed in touch through college, often dropping by for dinner. While best friends, they went their own paths in life, supporting one another in being their own people. When I am asked what’s fun or gratifying about being a teacher, I think about the honor of being a part of lives like theirs.
I can end a work week content knowing that I make a difference. But this work week I end with a heavy heart. Michelle died from injuries suffered in a car accident late last night. The world will be different without her. Andrea has lost an amazing friend, as have so many other people. Parents have lost a daughter and her brother has lost his role model. Her laughter, smile, and love of life will be sorely missed. But many of us are better people for having known her. Thanks, Michelle. Thank you for what you brought to my life and so many others’.