TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. - Summer vacation season is at hand. With visitors from Detroit, Chicago, Indianapolis, Toledo, and points in between descending on Northern Michigan in the coming months, diners will get their fill of a tasty trio: morels (now likely to be frozen or dried), Great Lakes whitefish, and cherries prepared and preserved in every conceivable way.
Last year when I made my pilgrimage to the Petoskey region, I was awed by the quality of the dishes prepared in this food mecca.
This time, I explored the Traverse City area and the Leelanau Peninsula. The result is a collection of delectable recipes from the chefs and restaurateurs featured on last Sunday's Toledo Magazine Page: Philip Murray, chef-owner of Windows Restaurant, 7677 South West Bayshore St., Traverse City; Jim Milliman, chef-owner of Hattie's, 111 St. Joseph St., Suttons Bay, and Peachy and John Rentenbach, owners of La Becasse, 9001 West Dunn's Farm Rd., Burdickville.
The recipes show how the indigenous ingredients can be combined with many foods: a tart cherry barbecue sauce with grilled pork chop seasoned with a dry barbecue rub at Hattie's; a dried morel sauce for Morel Mushroom Ravioli, also at Hattie's; a Madeira mushroom sauce served with spinach timbales at La Becasse; fresh walleye paired with shrimp in sun-dried tomato garlic cream sauce at Windows, and hazelnut pudding served with cr me anglaise, a classic La Becasse dessert.
The genius is in the sauces. The variety reflects each restaurant's personality. In keeping with the influence of his years at Commander's Palace in New Orleans, Mr. Murray of Windows serves blue lump crab cakes with a French Creole sauce. Tournedo of beef tenderloin is pan-seared with morel mushrooms, Vidalia onions, and a brandy demi-glace. La Becasse's menu features French sauces such as truffle beurre blanc, as well as contemporary flavors of mango curry sauce in an appetizer.
The signature sauces of Mr. Milliman at Hattie's are based on the French techniques; his repertoire ranges from the vinegar-base barbecue Carolina-style of his Cherry Barbecue Sauce to veloute with Mushroom Cream Sauce. The latter is used with the signature appetizer Morel Mushroom Ravioli. Note that dried mushrooms are used in the sauce when fresh are not available.
Each restaurateur completes the entr es with an array of colorful and delicious fresh vegetables.
The quality in flavor and appearance has to be credited to fresh ingredients.
Cooks can't help but be inspired to take some of this flavor home and reproduce it in home kitchens. The problem is the short, fragile life of these products, especially when traveling.
Thus, consumers resort to buying cherry preserves, dried cherries, dried mushrooms, or ordering frozen sweet and tart cherries. Many make the springtime trek north for morel hunting and then hurry home with the treasures.
Awesome is the only word to describe the colander full of freshly picked plump morels that Mr. Milliman showed me when I visited Hattie's. Among the specials that night was a rainbow trout stuffed with fresh morels and finished with ginger beurre blanc.
“Rather than exotic or esoteric dishes, we might do steak with sauteed morel mushrooms. We don't do prime rib,” said Mr. Milliman. “We take good food and make it great by relying on proper cooking techniques. We try to bring a simplicity of flavors.”
Windows features morel mushrooms simmered in brandy cr me as an appetizer garnished with flaky puff pastry.
At La Becasse, Chef Greg Murphy makes a mushroom sauce with madeira wine that is a wonderful accompaniment for his signature vegetable timbales. Sometimes the timbale - a small, drum-shaped mold filled with cooked food - turns up as an appetizer. The night I visited, the spinach timbale was nestled in a mild leek sauce accented with a little red bell pepper sauce. A mushroom-potato-chestnut timbale was an architectural tower of flavor and an accompaniment to escalopes of veal.
Similar to a mini-souffle or vegetable custard, these timbales are easier to make than they seem. Having a timbale mold is helpful; an alternative is a small custard dish or ramekin.
Today Michigan cherries are turning up in more than pies. Mr. Milliman's signature Cherry Barbecue Sauce is used with a grilled pork chop seasoned with dry barbecue rub. Mine was perfectly cooked, succulent, and juicy. Garlic mashed potatoes, brussels sprouts, and summer squash completed the dish.
Living in Northern Michigan means “you escape the hustle and bustle, but you can be out of the loop of trends,” said Mr. Milliman, a Detroit-area native. “We don't have the competitive chaotic spin cycle.”
Rather than following trends, he's setting them. “Proper cooking techniques will set people competitively apart and cleanliness is important. Restaurants have to address proper sanitation in the kitchen.”
For La Becasse, seasonal foods dictate the menu. “We work with local farmers,” said Peachy Rentenbach. “We discuss specialty vegetables and use organic products when we can. In the summer it's wonderful here. We have strawberries, raspberries, cherries, blueberries, then the stone fruit season comes and finally apples and pears. It's a wonderful fruit-growing area. That's how my dessert scene goes.”
She makes a white chocolate mousse with fresh raspberry sauce and hazelnut pudding, a warm steamed pudding that “is very French and served with cr me anglaise.”
The secret to the success of these dishes and these restaurants is a focus on detail. “The attention to detail is amazing,” says Mr. Milliman as he explains to new employees what sets his restaurant apart from others.
It's a lesson not lost on home cooks, either.