Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Wow Cheval

I'm briefly interrupting my little origin story to bring you... Au Cheval!!!

Considered one of the best burger places in the city [if not THE best], it's not hard to believe I would join in the chorus of its praise. But unlike other "great" establishments that pride themselves on their over-abundance of grain dishes, Au Cheval earns their distinction by being truly unique in their wheatless offerings (also dairy-free too for those who need that)!  And yes, they do have dedicated menus for both, but be sure to ask for one first at the door -- and if they don't have any, you can also find them online:

Take their traditional single burger... which seems like a misnomer since it actually holds TWO beef patties.... and consider how it would be handled in other restaurants regardless of price or reputation...

At the bottom of the scale you have restaurants or food chains that simply can't remove the bun, and basically are reliant on you to toss it yourself.  These are your White Castles, your Burger Kings, your Billy Goat Taverns, etc. If you're only intolerant to wheat bran [such as yours truly], this is an option (if a bit unsavory) though it does send the wrong marketing symbol as it creates additional demand for something I clearly don't want.  Additionally, it's also disheartening to see a place that PRIDES itself on its AMAZING burgers, when in fact they're really only talking about their "AMAZING" buns. Sans the embellished piece of mashed and toasted grass babies, the actual burger and toppings are surprisingly small and turn what is an otherwise decadent dish into a veritable "health food" by way portion control. Or the portion is fine, but the meat and topics are not of any exceptional quality, and you feel just a tiny bit swindled.

Next you have restaurants that will gladly remove the bun for you, but won't offer any replacement for it -- these are your Longhorn Steakhouses, your Applebee's, and quite a good number of fancy establishments such as Emerald Loop. This saves a step and could potentially be safe for people who could suffer with even the slightest bit of wheat exposure, but it still feels a little unfair given you're essentially paying full price for half the product in terms of volume. You want something resembling a burger and you get in return a hockey puck with cheese and a side of fries.

After that you have restaurants that will offer gluten-free bun options. Culver's is one of the few chains that I know does this, but specialty burger places such as The Bad Apple will do it too.  Bless them for offering this option and I know this is much appreciated by countless people who can't or choose not to eat wheat, yet still have an attachment to the foods they grew up with, so it certainly has its place!  However, I don't do this very often as I've grown used to not eating any grain enclosure with my burger -- I enjoy tasting the beef and its toppings, and not the wheat, rice, corn or the like.  On top of that, I do feel I get bloated when eating a bun burger... it's not the fullness you get from proper satiety, but rather that off-putting bellyache feel that you get when whatever you're eating is probably physically expanding your stomach.  Worse, you often have to pay extra for the privilege of eating gluten-free junk food.  Um... hurray...?

Then finally you come across my gold-standard for wheatless burger joints... restaurants that offer LETTUCE-WRAPPED BURGERS!  I have loved these even before I changed my diet... there's something literally cool and refreshing about biting into a nice juicy burger and its topics flanked on all sides by the exhilarating crunch of lettuce!  Well-wrapped, the lettuce holds the flavors while staying away from the flavor profile of the burger package, allowing you to better appreciate the essence of beef, cheese, egg, bacon, tomato, onion, etc. Moreover, you're improving the balance of acidic vs alkaline foods in this arrangement, since in your typical burger & fries combo the overall package leans a bit too heavily on the acidic side.  Red Robin is king when it comes to burger chains that proudly offer lettuce burgers, but props also go to Good Stuff Eatery and [Au Cheval's little spin-off] Small Cheval for their superb wrappings! Other places such as Epic Burger or Five Guys will only offer extra lettuce for your troubles... which is just a tad bit lazy, but at least they try.

Now you have a place like Au Cheval with a reputation for creativity and upholding French culinary traditions. They spit in the face of ill-founded concerns in using duck fat to make their fries, and all the power to them [because they are DELICIOUS]! They will serve liver dishes with pride and distinction.  They will shower their salads with something that strikes me as rather buttery. :)

But best of all... they won't just settle with the same old gluten-free offerings -- their goal is clearly to offer wheatless diners something special, and, dare I say, BETTER than your standard wheat bun burger!  For instead of having to peel off a dirty bun, or getting a cold hockey puck of a burger... Or pay extra for a nasty rice-based GF bun that disintegrates in mid-bite.... Or going the quick and easy route of just wrapping the darn thing in lettuce....

Instead of all that... they serve the burger on a GIANT CRISPY HASHBROWN!!!!!

And also cooked in duck fat... and also massive and crunchy, almost as big as the burger itself!  

I adore hash browns, but it never occurred to me to use them as a kind of bun... in hindsight it makes sense since they're stiff with a brilliant caramelized crunch. By itself this giant Au Cheval hash brown would taste absolutely amazing.... but in combination with everything I had on that burger, including egg and pork belly.....

The taste was legendary....

Clearly I had never eaten anything like it... and I probably would never eat it again outside of Au Cheval (or now my home now that I have the idea!).

Au Cheval succeeded in making me feel special as a customer in the process of valuing my needs, and it has truly brought a smile to my face and an undying desire to return for more!

So yes, I agree they ARE the best, and they've earned every bit of that reputation!

...Suddenly the lack of reservations and the atrocious waiting times make sense now.  :P

The Heavenly "Hash Brown" Burger

A refreshing Shallot Salad to pair with...

Friday, February 10, 2017

An Accidental Food Renaissance - Part 4

In later years I've noticed a very strong resistance from friends and acquaintances alike by the prospect of trying things like spelt. Yes, it's different. Yes, it sounds strange and foreign. Yes, it could be confused for a variant of "spelled". The fact that they might willingly try seemingly weirder-sounding things like quinoa and couscous, and yet scoff at the notion of trying out spelt, I feel can be chalked up to the wonders of marketing.

The irony, though, is that spelt IS wheat... specifically an older variant of wheat cross-bread with goat-grass. It's been around for a few millenia, and has been part of a rich, cultural heritage just like wheat-proper. It looks like wheat, walks like wheat, quacks like wheat. For those who swear by the Biblical significance of wheat, spelt was in there too (just look up the recipe for Ezekiel bread). However, it's far more nutrient dense, its gluten protein is fragile and more water-soluble, and I find it tastes better. Granted, most of this I didn't know [or appreciate] at the time; but what I did know made me rather excited to use it, and very forgiving of its shortcomings compared to wheat-proper. Because it's not as "stringy" as wheat, it was not easy to make the full range of baked products I was used to -- you can forget about flipping and spinning around a spelt pizza unless you want a messy kitchen. But it was possible to make Mexican conchas with spelt, since these were just big pudgy discs of bread topped with neat swirls of sugar... and I kid you not, these were the softest, tastiest conchas I have ever had in my life!

It's truly a missed opportunity to not give spelt a chance! And I still think so, even to to this day!

Understandably, spelt still contains gluten, and although it's not the same as that in modern wheat, it should still not be consumed by people who have Celiac Disease, a wheat allergy or a very severe gluten intolerance. But for those who enjoy their wheat, or are afraid of giving it up only to be accused of following a "gluten-free fad", I find spelt is a great compromise and deserves a resurgence.

But I'm getting ahead of myself....

Spelt made up a good bulk of my substitute "bready" products at the start of my experiment -- I wasn't overly demanding, so I mainly stuck with "artisanal" rolls and Mexican sweet breads baked with this stuff. The breads were a bit odd, almost-antiquated looking, but the taste was just like a nuttier, denser, richer version of regular whole wheat breads, so honestly I didn't feel like I was sacrificing a whole lot. As long as I could make sandwiches with the stuff, I was game!

But spelt was really more of a supporting character -- it was millet and sorghum that stole the show for me!

If you're a fan of couscous, then millet is essentially a more substantial version of it... and again, a lot better tasting and more nutrient-dense. I could cook it much like I did rice, and it pretty much was eaten like it too. I didn't believe in butter at the time, but millet and "low-fat" margarine tasted divine to me (and luckily it wasn't too long after I used a proper butter to compliment this grain). Do you like pork fried rice? Try pork fried millet and get blown away by a new dimension of flavor! Best of all, it felt like I could get fuller faster on the stuff than I ever did with rice, so without even realizing it I was instinctively eating slightly less. I enjoyed bringing a little bowl of millet for lunch at work, and having a nice heap of warm millet at dinner! Even to this day I still hold a good amount of reverence for millet, being among one of the most benign grains out there [blood sugar spike be damned].

Sorghum was more or less a bigger version of millet in appearance. But in taste I can definitely see why it's called "guinea corn" in some parts of Africa as it does have a slightly "corny" taste, albeit jam packed inside a ball almost a quarter of the size of your standard maize kernel. It is mealy and hearty, and it was quite easy to feel full off a cup or two of the stuff. By all accounts it seemed pretty redundant with millet... they were both tiny ball-shaped grains that cooked the same way, could be eaten the same way, and satisfied my hunger better than modern grains. However sorghum came with two amazing food properties unique too it (and not counting its benefits as a better biofuel, lol)....

First, although sorghum as a grain was only a modestly popular food crop (sadly, it's mostly used as animal feed in the US these days), the sap from the sweet sorghum plant was used as a replacement for honey and maple syrup, especially in regions where both were unavailable or too expensive. I ordered some sorghum syrup and gave it a try -- and I have to say it tasted like a hearty sugar syrup. It did have some bitter after-tones though, which is probably why it fell out of favor, but it's still enjoyed in some parts of the southern US!

Second, and probably the coolest... THE KERNELS COULD BE POPPED LIKE POPCORN!!!!

I couldn't believe it when I first read that, but I gave it a try and... yeah! You had miniature popcorn! Granted because it was so much smaller than corn, the sorghum seeds were harder to keep from burning, so a different technique such as an air popper might yield better results. Still, it was adorable, nutritious and tasty... VERY tasty! Like popcorn, but with an added sweet nuttiness to it that felt like I had added a hint of almond butter to some shrunken popcorn. It's a fun snack and highly recommended just for the sake of it! Try a popcorn/popsorghum combo for the best of both worlds! [And don't forget the butter and/or coconut oil!]

There's a lot more that I did with these grains, and I also took the opportunity to learn about other under-appreciated grains. I was interested in buckwheat which, despite the name, was not wheat at all (or even a true grain); and while I never ordered a pack of it, I did try some buckwheat noodles at a Japanese restaurant I used to go to in those days.

I discovered amaranth which is one of the most nutritious psuedo-grains in the world, and a proud traditional staple of Mexico similar to chia seed (but FAR less expensive)! It's flavor was stark and earthy, but gratifying in its own way -- it could also pop like sorghum, but as it was tinier the results of puffed amaranth were not nearly as dramatic.

I even tried small bags of mung bean and teff as exotic experiments... both of them had a bit of a learning curve, so they were pretty much left as experiments.

But all in all, I very quickly felt fully-vested in this approach, and event went so far as to order 25lb bags of spelt, millet and sorghum as I was committed to incorporating these into my diet even after my one month experiment was over!

And so the experiment continued, the enjoyment and experimentation ensued, the huge bags arrived and I had quite a bit of fun transferring them all into newly-purchased 5-gallon buckets! I had even forgotten why I started the experiment, as I wasn't as preoccupied with the cancer avoidance aspect anymore. Instead, I slowly became fascinated by the history and the reclamation of old, long-forgotten traditions, and that was what drove me to continue in full-force....

Until three weeks after the start of my experiment... when I discovered something terrifying....


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