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PieLab Pilgrimmage

PieLab, Greensboro, Ala.

Today I drove three hours round-trip to a small town in the middle of nowhere just for some pie. But not just any pie.

Since it opened about a year ago, PieLab, in Greensboro, Ala., has been getting all kinds of national press, though not solely because of its delicious pie. It’s a combination pie shop, design studio, business incubator, and community center dedicated to helping the people of West Alabama. It was created by Project M, a group of designers and architects doing community-focused projects all over the world. PieLab was even nominated for a James Beard Award for Best Restaurant Design this year. (It didn’t win, but it certainly marked the first time a rural-Alabama restaurant was considered.)

So, socially-conscious creative types trying to improve life in a county where a quarter of the residents are below the poverty line; doesn’t sound like they’d be any good at making pie, right?

Wrong.

PieLab interior

Aside from its gorgeous interior, complete with long tables and huge rolling storage units made from reclaimed wood, vintage broken jukebox, and drinks served in Mason jars, PieLab honestly makes some completely awesome pie, from scratch, right there in the shop. (That little double oven behind the Kitchenaid in the photo above is where the pies come from.) The pies may not look pastry-school perfect, but the taste makes up for that.

PieLab's Chicken PieNadria and I sampled both sweet and savory pies, starting with this chicken pie. This was my favorite of the day: cheesy, creamy, oniony, and topped with a nice thick layer of browned and crisp breadcrumbs. Like all the pies, its crust was flaky, buttery, and perfect. And it was served still warm from the oven.

PieLab's Broccoli and Cheddar QuicheThe broccoli and cheddar quiche was not quite as excellent as the chicken pie, but it was a solid offering, with generous amounts of both broccoli and cheese, as you can see. This thing was baked in a deep-dish pie pan; it had to be a good two inches thick! But the crust was cooked through underneath and gave a nice crispy contrast to the tender quiche.

PieLab's Lemon Meringue PieOn the sweet side, the lemon meringue pie looked beautiful, with a fluffy layer of deeply browned meringue atop a thick and sweet filling that wasn’t quite as lemony as I would have liked. To be honest, though, the lemon meringue pie was only mediocre. Delicious, but not drive-three-hours delicious.

PieLab's Strawberry Cream PieHowever, that may just be in comparison to this incredible strawberry cream pie. Coming out of the pan, the thing was a mess; the filling didn’t hold together well, and was really more of a pudding. But it didn’t matter after I tasted it. It was a super-sweet, vanilla-y whipped cream with big slices of fresh strawberry mixed in, atop a perfect graham-cracker crust. (It held together despite the loose filling, which I find amazing considering I can’t get a cracker crust to hold together ever.) There was undissolved sugar mixed into the cream, which sounds like a bad thing, but in practice made it taste like every bite was full of crumbly graham-cracker bits.

So, four pieces of pie, $8, and not quite 200 miles later, I can tell you that PieLab is worth the trip. I’ll be back. Sadly, there’s not a heck of a lot else to do in Greensboro; a good 80 percent of the Greek-Revival storefronts along the three blocks of downtown are empty. But if you’re an architecture buff, you can check out the projects created by Auburn’s Rural Studio. And there’s the Indian burial mounds at Moundville Archaeological Park a few miles down the road.

First Taste: Urban Cookhouse

Today marked opening day for Urban Cookhouse, a sandwich-and-salad shop in the heart of downtown Homewood. These kinds of places are a dime a dozen in Birmingham (and everywhere else, for that matter), but this one has lots of foodie appeal: It’s one-of-a-kind, locally owned, and focuses on sustainable practices and local ingredients.

And their philosophy is more than just empty promises: Back in May they set up a weekly farmers’ market in downtown Homewood, and they actually sell local veggies in the shop—the same ones they use in the food. I saw squash, cucumbers, and tomatoes on display today.

Urban Cowboy sandwich from Urban CookhouseI ordered the Urban Cowboy, a steak sandwich with caramelized onions and peppers, pepper jack cheese, and aioli. The meat was cooked to a perfect medium, juicy and pink inside, and the veggies were tender and sweet. The cheese, though nice and gooey, was a bit tasteless. Perhaps a switch to a local cheese—Yellow Moon?—might be in order.

But the best part of my meal was the broccoli salad, one of six side choices (none of which is French fries—kudos on that). It’s a mix of broccoli, grapes, sunflower seeds, and bacon in a really tasty sweet-and-creamy dressing. The amount of dressing is just perfect, too: Its flavor is in the forefront of each bite, but the salad isn’t drowning.

I also had a strawberry lemonade, made with Owl’s Hollow Farm strawberries. Sweet and refreshing.

Grilled Pineapple Ham sandwich from Urban CookhouseNadria had the Grilled Pineapple Ham sandwich. Pineapple and ham are an excellent combination (there’s a chemical reason for that), and the ham is actually grilled, with a nice browning as you can see in the photo. With a thin pineapple slice and plenty of ham, it’s a filling sandwich, though it could use a bit more of the sweet-hot mustard on it.

Her side of roasted vegetables certainly delivered on the promise of vegetables that had been roasted, though there’s not much to it beyond that.

Next time, I’m trying the wood-fired shrimp, or a salad—they’ve got local greens with bacon, corn, and egg; peppers with beans, corn, and local tomatoes; and berries with tomatoes, pecans, and feta. The menu also includes a grilled fluffernutter sandwich (just $2.25!), and for dessert a brown sugar brownie or a “half baked cookie,” which takes 20 minutes (I assume it’s baked fresh) and comes with ice cream and chocolate syrup.

I was really impressed with the interior renovation to the space. Back when it used to be a Lenny’s Subs, the counter was at an awkward angle and there were about 6 tables in the whole place. Now, the counter has been moved back, with a partial wall separating the counter line from the “dining room,” which has lots of close-packed seating (plus there are a half-dozen or so tables outside). There’s some nice wood paneling behind the counter, and a color scheme that’s consistent throughout, like some actual thought was put into the design.

Of the few places I’ve been to on opening day, Urban Cookhouse also seemed to have service the most under control. At noon, it was a packed house as expected, but the line moved smoothly, and everyone’s orders seemed to be coming out free of mistakes. At the busiest time of the day, we had to wait maybe 10 minutes for our sandwiches.

They also know their audience real well. It’s a fast-and-cheap lunch menu for all the cubicle-dwellers in the area, plus takeout for busy families. Dinner for four, including a meat main, two sides, and four orange rolls, is just 20 bucks.

Definitely worth a few more trips.

Anybody else try Urban Cookhouse today? What did you think?

Urban Cookhouse on Urbanspoon

Broccoli + Cheese + Oven = Delicious

Broccoli and cheese has been a favorite combination of mine ever since my mom microwaved some frozen florets and topped them with aerosol cheese-in-a-can—something she did all the time when I was six or seven.

Serious Eats’ Roquefort Roasted Broccoli recipe caught my eye recently, and when I had it for lunch this afternoon, it really took me back. Only this time I was a much more gourmet six-year-old.

The pungency of blue cheese (I used Stilton instead of Roquefort) is a perfect contrast to broccoli’s sweetness, and the crispy breadcrumbs (not having old baguette lying around, I used panko) add crunch to the tender veg.

The key to this recipe is rubbing the cheese and breadcrumbs together like you would the butter and flour for biscuits or pie dough. So rather than having tasteless crunchy bits and oily melted good, you end up with wonderful cheese-crispies all tangled up in the broccoli. It’s supposed to be a side dish, but a plate of the stuff made an awesome lunch all by itself.

Roquefort Roasted Broccoli

Roquefort Roasted Broccoli recipe (Serious Eats)

Adventures in Birmingham

Having lived here for closing in on four years now, I feel like I’ve gotten a pretty good handle on the food scene in town. I’ve found a favorite Chinese delivery place, a favorite sushi bar, a favorite barbecue joint, even a favorite sweet tea. (Chen Express, Ginza, Miss Myra’s, and Chris Z’s, respectively, for those of you keeping score.)

But there are whole swaths of this city and surroundings I know nothing about. And (thanks, FUNemployment!) I now have time to work on correcting that. Starting next week, I’m making it my goal to try a new restaurant in an unfamiliar neighborhood or suburb once a week.

And Birmingham folks, that means I need your help. What do I need to try in North Birmingham? Ensley? Tarrant, Fultondale, and points north? Fairfield and the rest of western Jefferson County? Other places I don’t even know about?

The Thomas Keller Challenge: Roasted Beet and Potato Salad

Roasted Beet and Potato Salad

I love beets, but they’re a pain in the ass to work with. They take a long time to roast, they stain everything they touch, and I’ve never found a good way to peel them. And a painstaking ingredient calls for a painstaking recipe, so when this week’s CSA included beets and I decided to start my Thomas Keller Challenge, the Roasted Beet and Potato Salad seemed the perfect choice.

On the surface, the recipe sounds simple: roasted beets, boiled potatoes and eggs, smoked salmon, and greens with a mustard vinaigrette. But Chef Keller makes it more complicated by calling for three different kinds of beets and three different kinds of potatoes, all cooked separately and then chilled before salad assembly.

As my CSA only included one variety of beet and I wasn’t about to run out and buy all kinds of potatoes when I had russets on hand, I adapted the recipe a bit. But one bit of Chef Keller fussiness turned out to be a great idea: Boiling the potatoes with a sachet of garlic, bay leaf, peppercorns, and thyme perfumes them with flavor throughout. This one’s a keeper for sure.

(Recipe after the jump.) Continue reading

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