Pork pies from Kieran's Kitchen Northeast
All of my lofty January cooking intentions seem to have quickly evaporated into a single lazy question: "What's in the freezer?"
Which is why I'm grateful to chef Aaron Uban for making last-minute dinner plans so convenient and delicious with this fantastic cousin to another favorite go-to of mine, the chicken pot pie.
Uban is a veteran of owner Kieran Folliard's first excursion into the restaurant business, Kieran's Irish Pub, and that kitchen featured a pork pie. Uban revived and updated that recipe, incorporating the premium products he has at his fingertips, thanks to his Food Building neighbors: Red Table Meat Co., Baker's Field Flour & Bread and Alemar Cheese Co.
"It's fun to have that nostalgic connection to the old spot, and to breathe new life into that old recipe," he said.
Beneath a golden, flaky crust (a beauty that's rendered in butter, salt and freshly milled Baker's Field flour) is ground pork and bits of smoky bacon, plus mushrooms, root vegetables (celery root, carrot, rutabaga, parsnip), a meticulously constructed beef bone broth and thyme and rosemary accents.
For those who hunger for pork, it's an ideal winter meal ($11). Uban also keeps his freezer case stocked with chicken breasts stuffed with Alemar-made cheese, meat balls, meatloaf, soups, bread pudding and other heat-and-serve delights. -Rick Nelson
117 14th Av. NE., Mpls., 612-354-5093. Open for takeout 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tue.-Sun.
Nem nuong from Pho Mai
I could list several things I loved from Pho Mai, a Vietnamese spot from restaurant veterans that opened in Dinkytown last spring. (Michael and Mai Bui's other place is MT Noodles in Brooklyn Park.) But I'll start here: grilled pork sausage, made by Mai according to Michael's mother's special recipe. It's a labor-intensive dish. Mai starts by grinding the meat, then adding a secret seasoning blend in large batches (like, 12 baking pans' worth) in a giant mixing bowl. Freeze, bake, slice, grill. It takes days.
In the mix, there's garlic, fish sauce, wine, a flour they can only get from another state, and more they won't tell me about.
"In Vietnamese traditional culture, if you have a big banquet or get-together, this is a common item, from back when a lot of families cooked and had time," Michael said. True to that, you can buy a 5-pound tray of it for $65. But if you're just one person, order off the main menu. I got the sausage, pleasingly grill-charred, over rice noodles (bun) with some pickled carrots and daikon and fresh crunchy cucumbers, scattered with scallions and peanuts ($12.50). I doused the whole thing in fish sauce for the win.
Another shout-out to Mai is her pandan cake. A gorgeously decorated buttercream-frosted cake, with a mint-green bottom layer that's been both colored and flavored with a liquid extract from the pandan leaf. It's a popular birthday cake for southeast Asian elders, Michael said, and requires advance ordering ($59). But if you happen to see a $7.50 slice in the restaurant (which took over a short-lived Tim Hortons), get it. Bonus: Mai can make it with a durian filling. Yes, that tropical fruit that shows up on cooking challenge shows all the time because of its strong, sulfurous scent.
"We grew up eating durian, so for us it smells great, it tastes great," Michael said. "For American people, the first time, it can be overwhelming. It takes a while to get used to."
Using the fruit as an ingredient in their cakes is key to Pho Mai's mission.
"Our goal was to be as traditional as possible," Michael said. "This is where owners of other Vietnamese restaurants come to eat." -Sharyn Jackson
319 14th Av. SE., Mpls., 612-236-4538. Open for takeout and dine-in, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun.-Thu., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
Prime rib from Pittsburgh Blue Steakhouse
I moved last week, and I was looking for special occasion takeout for the first Friday night dinner in my new home. Steak was calling to me, but I've had so-so experiences with takeout steak before. By putting it in a sweaty cardboard box, even the nicest cut loses its appeal when it finally arrives to your plate overcooked and room temperature.
Prime rib medium-rare seemed like a safer choice because of its heft. I chose right, according to Pittsburgh Blue Galleria executive chef Anthony Leonhardi.
"Every single steak I box up, I kind of cringe," he admitted. "Because it's going to be cold, are they going to be OK with this? I don't know what their mentality is. I'm sure most people are just grateful they don't have to cook. But we basically lose all control when it goes out of the building."
The 21-day-aged beef gets blasted in a hot oven for 25 minutes to develop a nice crust with flecks of Pittsburgh Blue's secret spice rub. Then it roasts on a low heat for somewhere around 4 hours.
Leonhardi says fattier steaks like this one keep their flavor as they cool. "Prime rib has always been a no-brainer to me," he said. "Even if it's lukewarm, it'll still eat pretty well."
And it reheats well. Just order it a lower temperature than you're used to, and pop it in the oven "low and slow" — 300 should be good — and be patient. Try putting a pan of chicken or beef stock in the oven with it to keep moisture in the air and speed things up. You could even try the French method, covering the meat with a cabbage leaf to keep that rosy hue in the middle.
Microwave? Don't even think about it. "I would rather eat cold steak than a microwave steak," Leonhardi said.
You can get a family-size dinner for four with a whopping 32-ounce piece of meat ($100). But steakhouses, with their typically large side dishes, make it easy to customize a family dinner of one's own. I chose the slightly less massive 24-ounce king's mother-in-law's cut ($46). A huge vat of family-style loaded mashed potatoes served us all week long. Green beans almandine, two dinner salads (seriously, how do steakhouses make such good ranch dressing?), and — why not? — shrimp cocktail rounded out our meal. It definitely met the moment. -S.J.
11900 Main St., Maple Grove, 763-416-2663 and 3220 W. 70th St. (Galleria), Edina, 952-567-2700. Open for dine-in and takeout daily from 4 p.m.
Rice and beans from Nighthawks Diner & Bar
Three nights a week, Scott Pampuch is a guest chef at this modern-day corner diner.
"It's basically, 'Think of me as the nightly specials guy,' " he said. "This is about getting a chance to cook again. Cooks thrive on camaraderie, we hang around with other cooks. That's why, when this opportunity came up, I said, 'Heck, yeah.' "
The plan is to offer a few ever-changing dishes. This week, Pampuch riffed on his most recent gig (the Southern-focused 4 Bells, which shut down in March) and turned out a fantastic rice-and-beans plate, which followed a basic blueprint.
"It's letting the ingredients speak for themselves and just getting out of the way," he said.
Prized South Carolina imports made for a lavishly flavorful meal ($19) that contradicted its modest appearance: Buttery, tender Carolina Gold rice. An earthy mix of creamy Sea Island red peas and toothy cowpeas, dabbled with a lively sofrito. A heaping helping of stewed collard greens, redolent of onions and vinegar. And for crunch, a garnish of tangy pickled celery.
Obviously, culinary skill played a significant role; those beans didn't cook themselves. Why is a guy from Winona immersing himself in the rich heritage of Southern foodways?
"I wrestle with that, because I think, 'What am I doing, telling this story?' " said Pampuch. "It's not my story. But it's such an interesting story, and it's a story that needs to be told."
The Nighthawks-Pampuch collaboration will last at least through the end of the month. (A tip: It's best to preorder, online).
"It's 2021, everyone is being extremely cautious," said Pampuch. "They don't know how soon they can get back to their full capacity, and I'm running my own side hustle out of their kitchen. We're looking at each other, and seeing if we want to continue to work together." -R.N.
3753 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., 612-248-8111. Open for takeout 4-8 p.m. Mon.-Sat. Chef Scott Pampuch cooks 4-8 p.m. Tue.-Thu.
Bake at home bittersweet chocolate cookies from Rustica
These crinkled, sugar-dappled cookies — intensely chocolaty and surprisingly tender, with a spellbinding bitter/sweet juxtaposition — have been a Rustica standard since the bakery's 2004 debut.
Like many other devoted fans, I've tried to replicate the recipe at home, an exercise that has always ended in failure. While I've never asked owner Greg Hoyt to share the recipe, others have.
"Oh my gosh, thousands of times," he said with a laugh.
To no avail; the formula has remained under wraps. The good news is that Hoyt recently performed a next-best-thing favor, selling bittersweet chocolate cookie dough that can be conveniently stashed in the freezer. Whenever the mood strikes, the delayed gratification is practically painless, just nine minutes in the oven.
Rustica's bittersweet chocolate cookies, whenever I crave them? Other than gluttony, I'm trying to come up with a downside. Here's another benefit: Value. A 12-pack of frozen cookies runs $15; Rustica's baked versions go for $2 a pop, or $9.75 for a half-dozen. (No, the bakery's other exceptional cookies — ginger, oatmeal raisin — have not gone the frozen-dough route. Yet.)
For those who want to continue tinkering with a make-them-yourself version, there's a promising development: the package contains a list of the cookie's ingredients. Think of it as a baking road map.
"If people are getting joy from reverse-engineering them, that's great," said Hoyt. "Maybe there can be a Facebook group for baking Rustica cookies at home."
3220 W. Lake St., Mpls., 612-822-1119 and 200 Southdale Center, Edina, 952-417-6199. Lake Street open 7 a.m.-4 p.m. daily and Southdale open 8 a.m.-4 p.m. daily. -R.N.