Hungry for Harbor Country: Food, Friendship, and Fun in Southwest Michigan

Lindsay Navama

         Growing up in Tahoe City, a one stoplight town in California’s High Sierra Mountains, Lindsay Navama yearned for the big city life. Los Angeles offered just that, and she was happy there in her career as a recipe developer, personal chef, and  owner of Cookie Culture, a boutique bakery.  

Lake Life Cranberry Limeade Cosmo

         But when she and her husband, David, moved to Chicago for work, Navama felt unmoored and wondered what to do next in her life.

         Lured by articles about the wonders of Harbor Country, the swath of countryside starting at the state line and curving north along Lake Michigan to Sawyer, Michigan, the couple decided to check it out.

         Unfortunately, upon arrival the two were totally underwhelmed.

“We heard people call it the ‘Hamptons of the Midwest but we thought is this it?” says Navama.

Whistle Stop Asian Noodle Salad

         The two didn’t return for several years,  but when they did—they both experienced what she describes as the region’s magic.  It was more than just the beautiful beaches, the eight quaint small towns each unique in its own way, lush farmlands, orchards, rivers, and woods, there was also an appealing vibe. Each visit brought new discoveries– an estate winery, a fun delicatessen that became like a second home, a Swedish bakery that first opened for business in 1912–and new friends.

         Wanting to spend more time there, the couple moved into a small place in New Buffalo and dubbed it “Camp Navama.” There Navama cooked and entertained, developing her own recipes and tweaking them when needed to feed friends on gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, keto, paleo, and other diets. She learned the rhythms of the land and seasons such as when deep blue Concord grapes were  peaking at Dinges’ Farm in Three Oaks or when an order of fresh caught sturgeon arrived at Rachel Collins’ Flagship Specialty Foods and Fish Market in Lakeside.

Buffalo Cauliflower

         In ways it was a convergence of Navama’s experiences growing up in the High Sierras and adulthood in the ever-so-hip L.A. food and cultural scene. Navama identified with many Harbor Country residents who moved to or had second homes in the area and brought that big city sensibility with them when it came to art, food, entertaining but appreciated a more rural way of living and a lot less concrete.

         Navama no longer felt lost and instead saw the direction her life should take.

 “I wanted to preserve those memories, great meals, and good times in Mason jars,” she says.     

Of course, jars can’t hold memories, but paper does and so Navama  wrote “Hungry for Harbor Country: Recipes and Stories From the Coast of Southwest Michigan,” (Midway 2020; $34.95).

A great cookbook with 50 recipes and photos by Gabrielle Sukich of Benton Harbor, it’s also a travel guide with small maps, listings of restaurants, wineries, intriguing hideaways, and everything else the area has to offer.

“I never saw myself as living any other place than California and here I am in a tiny town in the Midwest,” she says. “And I’m beyond grateful it happened.”

Whistle Stop Asian Noodle Salad

4–6 servings 

Contributed by Whistle Stop Grocery and Chef Eva Frahm

1 pound angel hair or capellini pasta

5 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and thinly sliced

¼ cup plus ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil, divided

¾ teaspoon kosher salt, divided

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided

¾ cup hoisin sauce, divided

1 medium red bell pepper

1 medium yellow bell pepper 

¼ cup seasoned rice wine vinegar

1 tablespoon garlic chili sauce

Sriracha, to taste (optional)

4 scallions, thinly sliced

1 cup lightly packed cilantro leaves, chopped

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt the pasta water, if desired. Add the angel hair and cook 7 to 8 minutes until just al dente, so the noodles are still slightly firm and not overcooked. Drain into a colander, rinse gently with cold water, let drain again, then place in a large bowl. Set aside.

In a skillet over medium heat, sauté the mushrooms in ¼ cup of the olive oil for about 7 minutes, or until lightly browned. Season with ⅛ teaspoon of the salt and ⅛ teaspoon of the pepper. Remove from the heat and add 2 tablespoons of the hoisin sauce. Stir to coat and set aside.

Julienne the bell peppers by cutting them into ⅛-inch-thick strips. Set aside.

In a small mixing bowl, whisk together the remaining 10 tablespoons hoisin sauce, the remaining ⅓ cup olive oil, the rice vinegar, the garlic chili sauce, and the Sriracha (if using). Set aside.

Add the mushrooms, peppers, scallions, cilantro, and sauce mixture to the noodles. Toss gently to incorporate. Season to taste with the remaining salt and the remaining pepper and transfer to a serving bowl or store covered in the refrigerator for 5 to 7 days.

Lake Life Cranberry Limeade Cosmo

1 serving 

3 ounces favorite vodka

1 ounce triple sec

2 ounces cranberry juice cocktail

3 tablespoons limeade concentrate, thawed

a cocktail shaker and martini glass in the freezer for about 20 minutes.

Add the vodka, triple sec, cranberry juice, and limeade concentrate to the chilled cocktail shaker. Shake your booty while you shake your Cosmo for about 10 seconds, because why not?!

Reprinted with permission from Hungry For Harbor Country by Lindsay Navama, Agate Publishing, Photos © Gabrielle Sukich.

Abra Berens of Granor Farms in Southwest Michigan Nominated for a James Beard Award.

              For all those who have been opining that Southwest Michigan is indeed become a food-centric destination thanks to our great farmers and the crops they grow in fields and orchards, multiple wineries, breweries, distilleries, chefs and food producers, the biggest proof came last week when Abra Berens, chef in residence for Granor Farm in Three Oaks was nominated for the Best Chef award in the Great Lakes Region by the James Beard Foundation. This coveted honor came about for multifold reasons including her best selling cookbook Ruffage: A Practical Guide of Vegetables (Chronicle Books 2019: $35). The book make veggies easily accessible and tasty. Containing 300 recipes based upon 29 vegetables, the cookbook was on numerous top ten cookbooks for 2019. Then there is also Granor’s Farmhouse Dinners, often featuring celebrity chefs, she prepares. These dinners, based on what’s grown on the farm as well as locally sourced foods, attract people locally but also from Chicago, Detroit and even Indianapolis. For the last two years, each dinner has sold out and has had a waiting list.

“I never thought it would happen to me,” says Abra when I called to congratulate her. “I think the term was gob smacked when I found out. A long time ago I figured it was not my wheelhouse because my food is not fancy food.”

It turns out that Abra heard about the honor from a friend who lives in Pennsylvania and saw the press release from the James Beard Foundation and immediately pulled it up on her phone. It was hard to read but there it was.

Abra Berens’s Vinegar Braised Onions with Seared Whitefish and Arugula

She grew up cooking and has worked in restaurants since she was 16 including Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor and then at Ballymaloe Cookery School and Farm, a 100-acre organic farm in Shanagarry, County Cork, Ireland. In ways Ballymaloe was similar to Granor in that what they grew on the farm was served at its restaurant and guest house.

“It was an education for me—that connection with what a farm is growing and the meals you eat,” she says.

Abra Berens’s Roasted Parsnips w/Fresh Goat Cheese, Pecans and Pickled Apricots

Next stop was Neal’s Yard Dairy, a serious cheese shop where staff people like her worked with some 40 cheesemakers, in selecting, maturing and selling farmhouse cheese made in the United Kingdom and Ireland.  From there, she headed to Chicago where became the executive chef at Stock Café at Local Foods, Vie and the Floriole Cafe & Bakery. As if that wasn’t hectic enough, Abra also co-founded Bare Knuckle Farm in Northport in Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula. That meant a round trip commute of 700 milers on a regular basis for six years

It was worth it, says Abra about those six years, because she wanted to do dinners based on what she grew.

It worked well in Chicago and definitely does in Three Oaks as well.

              Granor Farm is expanding too.

              “We’re adding new space to the kitchen and we’re working to grow vegetables year round by building indoor growing space,” she says. “We’re putting in refrigeration to add dairy such as artisan cheeses from Windshadow Farm in Hartford, Evergreen Lane Cheese and Creamery in Fennville and Capriole Goat Cheese in Greenville, Indiana.”

              They’re also growing heritage varieties of wheat, rye and corn. Their Bloody Butcher corn, a variety grown by Daniel Boone’s brother Squire almost 250 years ago, is used by Molino Tortilleria in Sawyer to make their corn tortillas.  Abra also plans on making and selling bread from these heirloom grains using a wood burning oven.

Tortillas from Molino Tortilleria

              All in all, though she didn’t ever expect it, Abra definitely deserves the James Beard nod. It’s a first for Southwest Michigan and shows all the great things—foodwise—to come.

The following recipes are reprinted from Ruffage by Abra Berens with permission by Chronicle Books, 2019.

“Parsnips are perfect for roasting because they are naturally a bit drier than carrots or sweet potatoes,” she writes at the beginning of this recipe. “I like to roast them pretty hard so that their little chips burn, foiling the natural sweetness of the root. As with all oven roasted things, allow enough space between the pieces on the baking sheet; A convection oven will help develop that crispy exoskeleton on the veggie comma and cook until the roots are tender when pierced with a knife. “

Roasted Parsnips w/Fresh Goat Cheese, Pecans and Pickled Apricots

“Pickling dried fruit heightens its flavor by introducing a serious tang and a touch of salt,” she writes explaining the reasoning behind pickling. “It breathes new life into a pretty standard pantry staple. It works with all dried fruit though Apple chips get weird and soggy. You can also pickle fresh fruit, though this was sometimes soften the flesh to mush so be gentle with the heat. I love this with basil, which is increasingly available from year-round growers. If you can find good looking basil, either drizzle with basil oil or use parsley or mixture of parsley, tarragon, and or mint. “

10 parsnips or about 2 pounds, ends cut off, peeled and cut into obliques1/4 Cup olive oil, plus more for cooking the parsnips

Freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon salt, plus more for seasoning

1/4 cup Apple cider vinegar

1 half cup dried apricots cut into 1/4 inch strips

4 ounces fresh goat cheese

1 cup pecans, toasted

6 leaves basil, torn

Heat the oven to 400° F. Toss the parsnips with a big glug (about two tablespoons) of olive oil, 2 pinches of salt, and 2 grinds of black pepper. Transfer to a baking sheet and roast until the parsnips are tender and golden brown, 35 to 40 minutes.

Heat the vinegar, salt and brown sugar to boiling. Pour this over the apricots and let them sit for 10 minutes. These will keep for weeks so feel free to scale up and have some on hand.

Drain the apricots reserving the liquid for dressing or making a spritzer with soda water. Remove the parsnips from the oven, toss with the ¼ cup olive oil and let it absorb for a couple of minutes.

Place on a serving platter, dot with the goat cheese, scattered the pecans and apricots over them, garnish with torn pieces of basil and serve.

Variations

w/currants, walnuts, blue cheese + burnt honey

10 parsnips (about 2 pounds)

1/2 cup honey

2 tablespoons water

1/2 cup currents

1/2 cup walnuts

4 ounces blue cheese

One sprig rosemary, stripped and minced

After roasting the parsnips, removed them in the oven and turn on the broiler. Combined the honey and water to thin. Drizzle the roasted parsnips with the honey mixture and slide under the broiler to char like a toasted marshmallow. Removed from the oven and transfer to a serving platter. Garnish with the currents pickled (same as for the apricots, if you like), walnuts, blue cheese and rosemary.

w/other roots, garlic mayo + sage

5 parsnips (1 pound)

5 carrots (1 pound)

1 celery root (1/2 pound)

2 sweet potatoes (1 pound)

5 sunchokes (1/2 pound)

½ cup garlic mayo

3 sprigs sage, cut into thin slices or fried in oil until golden and crispy

Roast the roots drizzle with the garlic mayo and garnish with the sage.

Garlic Mayo

For the mayo, combine two crushed cloves of garlic, the juice and a half cup of mayonnaise. 

Vinegar Braised Onions with Seared Whitefish and Arugula

8 shallots or cippolini

Neutral oil salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup red or white wine vinegar

1- 6-ounce filet of white fish per person

4 ounces arugula

1/4 cup olive oil

Heat the oven to 325°F.

Clean the shallots. Cut them in half from top to bottom.

Heat a glug (about two tablespoons) of neutral oil in a medium of improved frying pan until just above smoking.

Sear the onions, cut side down until well charred. Flipping season with a hefty sprinkle of salt and pepper. Char the other, grounded side as best as you can. As long as there is a good char on the cut side, you’ll be good.

Remove from the heat and pour the vinegar over the onions, getting it into the petals of the onion. Be aware it will spit as the vinegar hits the hot pan and will probably make you cough. Cover with foil or parchment paper and place in the oven. Bake until the onions are tender, about 25 minutes. In a large frying pan heat a glug (about two tablespoons) of neutral oil until smoking hot. Blot the whitefish skin dry, sprinkle with salt and sear, skin side down, about 5 minutes.

When the skin releases from the pan, place the whole pan in the already hot oven to cook through, about 4 minutes.

In a medium bowl, dress the arugula with olive oil in a sprinkle of salt and pepper.

Serve the fish, skin side up, top with arugula and onions, spooning the onion liquid over the whole thing period.