Monahan's Seafood Market celebrates 30 years

Borden - Mike Monahan in front of bday sign

Business Birthdays are celebrations of achievement, hard-work, innovation, and a dedicated and supportive clientele. This Saturday, Monahan’s Seafood Market celebrated 30 years of serving Ann Arbor fresh, unique, and unusual fish.

Jovial Mike Monahan’s dedication and excitement for his business is palpable. His eyes twinkled as he gesticulated to the fish cases and reminisced on the last 30 years. “We are really proud of what we’ve been doing and happy to still be here. It is a great seasonal business, there is always something new coming in. There is always something to look forward to and get excited about.”

“I have always loved fish, but we were just young kids that had a lot to learn. We’ve learned a lot, mainly from our customers asking for what they want or how to prepare this fish. We are still learning a lot from the customers. Everyday we learn something new. Somebody’s got some recipe that we have never heard of and they bring ideas for us.”

Monahan and Paul Saginaw started Monahan’s Seafood Market in December of 1979 when they purchased the store from Real Seafood Market. December is such a busy time for the mainstay fish purveyor in Kerrytown that Monahan “postponed the festivities until now.”

Borden - bday cake for Monahan

Birthday festivities there were - balloons, samples, special prices, eating happy people, contests with prizes, the smiling Monahan tribe helping behind and around the counter milling with people. I now know you can find balloons in the shape of a lobster. We sat and enjoyed lunch and watched the scene.

Monahan has offered catering for nearly 30 years and in 2004 expanded their expertise of ready-made items - chowders, pates, rubs, sauces, and grilling expertise - into a lunch counter. Their menu offers a wide variety including fried Narragansett squid (calamari), Prince Edward Island mussels steamed in white wine and garlic, and my personal favorite, hand shucked oysters (I love Menemsha oysters, which is listed as one of the featured fishes according to this past Friday’s Fish Report). You can also point to a cut of fish, recently filleted on the premises, and ask for it to be cooked for you.

Borden - sampling goodies at Monahan's Bday

I think that level of service is one of the reasons Monahan’s has been around for 30 years. Monahan is very attuned to the “many international groups in Ann Arbor. There are a lot of transplants from the east and west coast so we started trying to figure out what people wanted. We started tracking down anything that someone would come in looking for. If someone asked for something that we didn’t know about we would learn about it and bring it in.”

In addition to the diverse backgrounds and myriad culinary interests of his clientele, Monahan lauded the location of Ann Arbor itself as being part of his success. “We are right here in the middle of the country. We get all of the Great Lakes fish, all the New England stuff, Carolina Coast, Chesapeake Bay, Florida, all up and down the Pacific Coast, a lot of Alaskan fish, and we overnight in Hawaiian sashimi fish every week.” The crossroads of the fish channels and a customer base that is curious and discerning make fertile ground for Monahan’s Seafood Market to thrive.

Borden - Monahan fish display

And thrive they have. Though named in 2004 by Saveur Magazine as one of the top markets in their 100 Special Issue, they are not resting on their laurels. In the last three months, Monahan has started blogging about what is in season, recipes, and general fishy thoughts. In addition to the blog, Monahans posts specials on their Twitter account and Facebook page. The care and dedication it takes to remove individual bones from a salmon steak is what we celebrated on Saturday for their 30th birthday; the devotion to meet their customers where they are is what Monahan’s shows with the new foray into social networking.

Happy Happy Birthday!

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Chocolate percentage labeling

5 years ago I would have said that I only ate dark chocolate with a high percentage of cacao listed on the bar. Milk chocolate was for Snickers bars and gray Hershey's kisses - not for the ultimate after-dinner indulgence. I had bought into the fallacy that dark chocolate with a high percentage of cacao was for true chocolate lovers and milk chocolate (with the corresponding low percentage) was for Halloween. I was wrong.

I have recently learned - thanks to two chocolate classes courtesy of Duff at Zingermans Deli - that unctuous, toe-curling, spine tingling, mouth happy chocolate sparkles regardless of chocolate percentage or the presence of milk solids. I had always thought a higher percentage denoted a more intense chocolate flavor, which is not the case. In fact, the percentage listed on a bar of chocolate has little to do with the quality of the bar.

In order to explain what I mean, I will give a macro description of how a chocolate bar is made. Cacao trees are a short tropical tree. The small football shaped seedpods are harvested by a machete (or a lucky monkey). The delicate pulp is removed from the seeds. The seeds are covered and left to ferment. Fermentation kills the viability of the seeds and starts flavor development. The final step on the farm is the drying of the beans to prevent mold from developing during transportation. The choice to sun dry or to dry in an oven affects the final flavor of the chocolate as well.

Borden - Cocoa tree

Often at this point the beans take an ocean voyage to the factory (very few producers have chocolate factories in the country where the seeds are grown). Multiple machines turn the dry fermented beans into what we recognize as chocolate. The beans become cacao nibs when they are dehusked, roasted, and crumbled (nibs are delicious on top of yogurt or ice cream and are very popular in the food world at the moment). The nibs are crushed, milled, conched, and tempered (i.e. they are smashed and refined again and again and again to ensure a smooth, shiny, uniform final product).

Every step of this long and extensive process (both on the farm and in the factory) is an opportunity for flavor development or flavor denigration. Producers who oversee all steps of this process often have a more complex and nuanced final product.

Here is the key bit of information that blew me away - the percentage listed on the bars refers to the total amount of cacao regardless of the ration of butter to solids. The cacao nib contains about 50/50 cacao butter to cacao mass. Cacao mass (aka cocoa powder) holds the flavor and the color. Cacao butter is tasteless and melts at body temperature (i.e. the cosmetic industry loves cacao butter - making it financially attractive for a chocolatier to sell off the cacao butter and replace it with a cheaper fat).

You could taste three bars that all list advertise themselves as being 80% dark. But the 80% is misleading because each bar could have a different ratio of mass to butter, changing the flavor intensity of the bar. You may have thought you were purchasing the bite of the cacao solids and end up with a mild cacao flavor - melting beautifully because it has a high amount of cacao fat.

In other words, the race to label bars as a higher and higher percentage (as the health benefits of chocolate continue to be touted) is not an indication of a better chocolate. The key to a great bar is the care taken along every step of the extensive process from bean to bar not a label of milk or dark or 40% vs. 80%.

Fortunately, you won't know if the chocolate you choose makes you sing that until you taste it - and if it is not for you, you can share with a friend, just in time for Valentines Day.

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An ode to pot pie!

Borden - pot pie display at ZingermansAs far as I am concerned anything that surrounds warm hot food with a flaky crust deserves my full attention. My grandmother used to make pie crust cookies with the leftover pie crust dough, with a pot pie - you get the cookie and the main meal all at the same time. It is ingenious.

The pot pie is just one term to describe the phenomena of hot food enclosed in a crust. So when I say pot pie, I am addressing the full gambit of what that can mean all over the world:

- The Cornish pasty - an enclosed crust filled with steak, potato, and onion.

- The South American empanada - an enclosed crust filled with chicken, chorizo, raisins, and olives.

- The Arabian Sfeeha - an open pastry filled with lamb, tomato, cinnamon, and cardamom.

- The American pot pie - an open or enclosed crust filled with chicken, carrots, and peas.

For me, the Zingerman’s pot pie is a harbinger of the new year. Yet little did I know that there was so much history to this pinnacle of comfort food.

I will focus on the Cornish pasty as the origin of our American pot pie. You may not know this, but the Cornish Pasty Association (yes there is one) has applied to the United Kingdom government for protected status. If this is passed the Cornish Pasty will join the ranks of Champagne, Parma Ham, Stilton, Roquefort, etc as food items with protected names.

Cornish pasties were the traditional food fed to coal miners. The point of the crust was to keep dirty hands away from clean food. Some pasties would be filled with both sweet and savory items so that you could eat your chicken first and then have applesauce for dessert. Nowadays we eat the crust as the dessert and leave the bifurcated pie to history.

The Cornish people who immigrated to the Upper Peninsula in the middle of the 19th Century to work in the Michigan copper mines brought the pasty with them. If you are in the UP in late June, the Calumet PastyFest will be June 25 & June 26th. It looks like there are tons of options to choose from and enjoy.

One can find pot pie recipes ranging from “take frozen vegetables and condensed chicken soup” to “this is where the oysters are on your turkey.” Martha Stewart has one for Italian pot pie including biscuits and rosemary. I think that my favorite recipe is the same one I use for risotto, i.e. what do I have in my fridge?

Borden - homemade pasty

Last night I mixed leftover cream of broccoli soup with potatoes and chicken and put it into one bowl (for a pasty). Into another bowl I put leftover venison, sauteed onion, raisins, and blackcurrant vinegar (for a pseudo empanada). I made my mother-in-law's recipe for pie crust minus the sugar (which she can recite from memory) - 1 1/2 cup flour, 1/2 cup oil, 3 tablespoons milk, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon sugar.

I free formed the crust around the fillings and baked for 45 minutes at 350 degrees. The leftovers were transformed into 100% winter comfort food - pie crust cookies surrounding savory warmth.

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