The Food Almanac: April 1, 2011
Dining Around America Today
This is the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Bunker Bistro in Curry, Idaho. The building, if you can call it that, since most of it is underground, was originally constructed in 1948 as a bomb shelter to which Idaho's political and business leaders could repair in the case of a nuclear attack. When such things became surplus in the 1960s, a restaurateur by the name of Hank Patout bought it and turned it into a luxurious, exclusive gourmet restaurant.
The menu takes full advantage of an underground river that meanders through a cave a few yards away from the Bunker's location. The river has a natural denizen found only there: blind albino trout. The fish is pulled out of the water when a customer orders it. It is alleged to be the most tender, whitest, most delicious fish on earth. They sell a whole grilled blind trout with mushrooms and giant escargots (both of which are also native to the cave) for a mere $11, on an all-you-can-eat basis. Indeed, if you really enjoy the fish, they'll grill a whole fish that you can take home for no extra charge.
Bunker Bistro also maintains a herd of underground pygmy cows. Looking from a distance like very fat Labrador Retrievers, these are the descendants of a population of what their DNA indicates were normal cattle that somehow wandered underground about 200,000 years ago. They began eating the lush stands of mushrooms in the cave, and evolved smaller to be able to swim across the underground river to graze on fields of ferns that grow under a natural opening in the roof of the cave. The restaurant serves a whole tenderloin of this cave beef (about the size of a zucchini) for $12.50, with "unblackened potatoes" (just what they sound like), golden broccoli, and a reduction of pygmy beef stock, and Diamond Creek Cabernet Sauvignon. The same all-you-can-eat program as with the fish goes on.
Reservations are hard to come by. The very existence of the restaurant is never admitted to by the owners. But people who live around Boise know all about it and can tell you how to get there. (The security aspect of the original structure makes it hard to find.) To keep things from getting gloomy in the bunker, all the walls are made of plasma screens that create the very convincing illusion that you're dining atop nearby Lunch Peak.
This is Sourdough Bread Day. Sourdough is to San Francisco what New Orleans-style French bread is to our town. It's served everywhere a local flavor is desired. It's an interesting product. The making of sourdough begins with a mixture of flour and water set out in the open to capture free-floating yeasts from the air. (San Francisco is supposed to have the best airborne yeast in the world, but that has never been proven.)
The yeasts begin leavening this starter dough and multiplying. More flour and water are added — as well as milk and sometimes sugar or potato starch. When enough active starter is made, some or all of it goes into a batch of bread flour, where over a period of hours it leavens the dough. Most of that gets baked into bread, but some of it is kept unbaked to continue feeding the yeasts. That's used to make the next day's bread, and the process is repeated.
Long-time San Francisco bakers claim that their sourdough starter has been developing this way for decades. All the above is the original, artisan's method of making sourdough. In actual practice, most bakers of sourdough also use a commercial baker's yeast to help the process. (They say it improves the taste, but purists call it a shortcut.) It's great bread, no matter how you slice it.
Baker is a cluster of farmhouses in the middle of endless cornfields in north central Illinois, 75 miles west of Chicago. Most bread (and other food) in Baker is made into meals right there, but it's only four miles to Earlville for some toast, scrambled eggs, and sausage at Sunshine Restaurant.
poolish, French, n. — A small amount of soft, fermenting dough used to begin a yeast culture to make a batch of bread dough. A poolish may contain some dough from a previous day's batch of dough, as in sourdough bread making. But that's not essential. A poolish is on the wet, warm side, and the yeasts in it are highly active, ready to leaven an amount of flour and water much larger than itself. Poolish doughs are most often found in rustic country breads and sourdoughs.
The Old Kitchen Sage Sez
If you make a good yeast sponge, you are evermore committed to taking care of it the rest of your life. Or you're not a true bread baker.