His foodie soul was raised on home cooking à la Clare, Michigan. His genius for flavor flourished at culinary school. We ask Alliance chef James Bloomfield to share recipes for an inventive Northern Michigan holiday feast.
This story is featured in the December 2017 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy.
Striated, textural and still smelling of earth, cellar vegetables familiar to every holiday table line up on Alliance’s shiny steel prep counter. Onions. Carrots. Acorn squash. Brussels sprouts. Beets. Sweet potatoes. Beside them a sheet tray piled with marbled racks of lamb ribs. This scene promises the roasted or mashed savory casseroles of our collective memory. Disruption, however, is in the details.
Reaching into the cooler, Chef James Bloomfield pulls out a bottle of pungent fish sauce and a cup of fresh lime juice. Bloomfield quickly redraws the countertop into a colorful atlas of flavors representing Bangkok, Marrakech, Athens and the Yucatan. Each vegetable draws to its orbit constellations of prep bowls and ramekins filled with tahini, pepitas, chipotle peppers, mint leaves or halved apricots. Flames lick through the grill grates to char sweet potato skins while puréed beets reduce to thick purple molasses. “This holiday meal,” Bloomfield promises, blending Lebanese Zaatar with lemon juice and tahini, “is going to be a little different.”
For James Bloomfield, different has been working. Launched in 2015, Alliance, Bloomfield’s 40-seat Warehouse District eatery, became an immediate jewel of the Traverse City food scene for its locally sourced, vegetable-driven menu stamped with Bloomfield’s deft alchemy of complex, colorful interplays of flavors and textures pulled from all over the culinary world.
Take a look inside Alliance …
Bloomfield’s résumé includes a formative role under Austin’s Top Chef winner and James Beard Award recipient Paul Qui, as well as stages in elite kitchens on both coasts, but Bloomfield, 28, credits his food roots to growing up in his home kitchen while learning from his father and grandmother. These memories resonate especially strong around the holidays. “It was an all-day affair,” Bloomfield recalls of family meals. “A turkey or lamb roast with tons of side dishes … my dad cooked simple, classic dishes, but they were always seasoned very well.”
While Bloomfield maintains that mashed potatoes are still one of his favorite foods “when they’re done right,” today’s menu harnesses similarly classic ingredients to seek exotic ends. “After eating [traditional] dishes for several decades, you might get a little bored with them and say, ‘Okay, I’m ready for new flavors,’ so we’re taking those essential, comfortable ingredients and giving them an edge, a little Alliance spin.”
Anyone who has sat down to a kaleidoscopic plate of kohlrabi salad or grilled octopus over lentils in Bloomfield’s dining room knows that this “spin” is about making each bite into a flavorful multiverse of sweetness, salt, spice and acid. To illustrate, the chef tossed roasted Brussels sprouts with fish sauce, lime juice, fresh herbs and crushed peanuts. “To make things more interesting we’re taking the central ingredient and finding ways to make it bright and fresh when balanced against other components,” he says.
Bloomfield demonstrates by spooning out sweet potatoes fresh from an hour-long skin-on char session over open flames, their insides a sweet and creamy ochre that gets folded with butter, sugar and pieces of the smoky black skin before getting dolloped on a bed of spicy chipotle crème fraîche and sprinkled with fresh cilantro leaves, cashews and lime zest. “You always want balance,” Bloomfield explains, studding the serving platter with fresh lime wedges, “not only in the context of each dish but on the whole table as the meal progresses. Traditional holiday side dishes rely on a lot of sugars and fats to go with their roasty, toasty flavors, and textures get homogeneous. If we add crunch from raw ingredients and acids from citrus and vinegar, it opens up the palate and allows us to taste more.”
As the pan of electric-purple beet molasses is pulled from the heat to cool, Bloomfield turns to this dinner’s main event, racks of lamb ribs. Checking the ribs for tenderness two hours into a slow roast, Chef Bloomfield takes a moment to reflect on the virtue of braised meats when cooking for a group. “Our impulse at the holidays is to gravitate toward big roasts but braised cuts are much easier to manage and often have better flavor. Lamb ribs, pork shoulder, beef cheeks or whole fish are some of my favorites to work with.”
James prefers to keep his braises simple, most often relying solely on water, salt, pepper and bay leaves. “Start with a high-quality piece of meat and let the flavor be what it is,” Bloomfield stresses, as he covers his lamb ribs and slides them into the oven for three hours. “These are more forgiving as you can leave them alone and use the cooking time to work on your side dishes.”
Time, Bloomfield concedes, is the biggest challenge when preparing a holiday feast. “Making sure everything is hot, seasoned and ready to go at the same time is a really hard thing to do, he says. He pauses to purée a concoction of apricots cooked with garlic, ginger and chilis for his Moroccan-style lamb preparation. “I like to write out a game plan and do as much prep and pre-cooking the night before as possible. Having a mix of hot and cold dishes on the table really helps with this.”
As James Bloomfield puts the finishing touches—the Alliance spin—on this evening’s feast, there is buzzy excitement in the marriage of familiar ingredients with foreign flavors. Fragrant gratinéed acorn squash emerge from the oven to be garnished with toasted pumpkin seeds and brown butter-dressed greens. Carrots, caramelized on a hot grill, are stacked next to a bowl of creamy Sikil Pak, a Yucatecan dip of toasted sunflower seeds, tahini, cumin and coriander. Meltingly tender lamb ribs, first braised then grilled, are glazed with apricot sauce and nested over grilled apricots atop fresh herbs and couscous. It’s a cold night in Northern Michigan, but a bowl of Brussels sprouts effusing umami-rich fish sauce, ginger and mint make for an ephemeral taste of a bustling Chang Mai food stall. The meal, as promised, is “a little bit different” and lot more delectable because of it.
Online-Exclusive Recipes from Chef James Bloomfield
We’re sharing three bonus recipes not seen in Traverse Magazine for your holiday feast.
Traverse food and drinks editor Tim Tebeau writes from Petoskey. [email protected] // Courtney Kent is one half of The Compass Points Here, a photography and videography company based in Traverse City.
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