Monday, April 20, 2015

Who says you can't go back? Rocky Rococo's Pizza

Youthful memories are heavy with the flavors of indiscretion. Gen Xers didn't worry about fat and carbs, sugar and corn syrup. Orange-dusted Cheetos-fingers were a badge of honor and dipping into the donut box for a second custard-filled was considered good form.

T and I often wonder if those flavors of youth hold up a decade or two (or three) later. Our discussions get pretty intense. Would an Orange Julius taste as fruity and foamy today as it did back then? What about a Chilito from Zantigo or a Meximelt snagged from the Taco Bell drive-thru after a night of dancing? Or does time (and taste buds no longer coated from last night’s kegger) change our perception of favorite foods of yore?

Some chains (remember Rax?) no longer operate in the Twin Cities and others have downsized to just a few local joints (A&W, Rocky Rococo's, Zantigo). Dairy Queen now owns Orange Julius. But a lot of stuff we used to eat is still around in some form or another.

And so begins our quest. Will a taste of youthful favorites bring us back to that time, if only for a few bites? Will today's reality hold up to yesterday's recollection? T and I are going to spend our summer facing the past and tasting a few of our favorite fast foods from the 1980s. Yup, we are reaching into the way way way back drawer and pulling out some awesome tube socks.

First up: Rocky Rococo’s
I've always had a rags to riches back to rags love of pizza. It is no secret, and I harbor no shame in admitting, that I love pizza cheap, expensive, frozen, fresh, and grilled. I love them with plenty of toppings or few. I love them fat or skinny, chewy or crisp. I love them in every style, size, and shape from Neapolitan to Chicago, New York to Detroit. Rocky Rococo's was my first taste of Detroit-style.

Memories: There was a time when pizza delivery hadn't quite found its way into the Twin Cities' northern suburbs. Frozen varieties were more likely to land on our weekend tables than fancy takeout pies. Rocky Rococo's caught my attention somewhere during junior or senior high school when the Wisconsin-based pan-style (eh hem, you say "pan," I say "Detroit") chain opened at the mall near our house.

Some friends wanted an after school snack so we headed into the store to grab a cup of bread sticks (cheap) and water (free). We walked into the store and I was hit with a smell I've come to know as Rocky's: air thick with an unidentifiable oil, oregano-spiced tomato sauce, and an oddly comforting combination of damp dough steaming in coated cardboard.

Pizza-by-the-slice was the main attraction, as were the aforementioned bread sticks which now come with a choice of dipping sauces, including the original marinara and nacho "cheese." Slices came with traditional toppings such as pepperoni, sausage, the vegetable show stopper "Garden of Eatin,'" and a Super Slice of the Day which boasted a giant slice of pizza with toppings specific to a particular day of the week. As the single slice box opened, steamed essence of tomato and mozzarella escaped and tiny effervescent droplets dangled from the lid's underside. Steamed pizza beads were part of the experience. While I was creeped out by Rocky's spokesmodel who bore a strong resemblance to Father Guido Sarducci (a recurring character on Saturday Night Live), that never stopped me from ordering Uncle Sal's Spectacular: sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, onions, tomatoes and oregano (pictured above).

Flash forward to 2015: T and I head out to my old stomping grounds for a visit to the only Rocky Rococo's that remains in Minnesota. The Brooklyn Park location is slightly faded and sometimes the floors are sticky, but the staff is friendly and the pizza is as good as we remember. The store still has that oil-oregano-damp-dough aroma, and single slices still come in coated cardboard boxes misty with steamed pizza beads.

For those of us with glad memories of Rocky's pies, happily not much has changed. The pizza is thick and square with fat almost gooey crust, oozy mozzarella, spicy tomato chunks and sauce. The beauty of a thick crust is that it can stand up to loads of toppings and Rocky's offers hardy cuts of meats and vegetables. Each bite of Rocky's sausage is the size of a meatball and full-flavored with fennel. Onions, peppers, and mushrooms are cut big enough to see and to taste. This isn't dainty fare, but it is savory and rich and tastes exactly as we remember.

Today we are more likely to order an entire pie rather than the slices of our youth. While we wait T and I gorge on bread sticks. Gnawing on a hot hunk of dough (sprinkled with Parmesan cheese that comes out of a packet) dunked in marinara reminds me of where I came from: no frills or pretenses, nothing fancy or snobby, and flavors that prod me to appreciate the plate (er... box) placed in front of me. One bite of Uncle Sal's heavily doused with red pepper flakes and I return to the 80's when my needs and tastes were as simple as a single-serve slice of steamed pizza.

Brooklyn Park Rocky Rococo's
7540 Brooklyn Blvd.
Brooklyn Park, MN 55443
(763) 560-5451
Prices: Slices are $3.49, Super Slices $4.49. Small whole pies start at $9.99 while large pies will set you back a little more than $20, depending on the toppings. Six bread sticks with marinara will run you $2.99.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

So, good news. I saw a dog today.

Those of you who know me believe I am a cat person. I am.

I am also a dog person. I love dogs whether it is my mom's dog Mattie, or the Standard Poodles who do tricks for me outside of the laundromat, or the Irish Wolfhounds who walk campus each day, or our neighbor's three bouncy Boston Terriers who taunt our cats. I even adore the naughty little dachshund who runs away (and through our yard) at least once a week.

On those happy lucky days when I hang out with a dog or pet one on the sidewalk everything feels a little brighter. Have you hugged a dog today?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

On barley

I'll fess up. We don't eat a lot of grains in our house. T loves his rice maker and once or twice a month loads up on the white stuff. He likes it a la Chipotle: flavored with lots of lime and cilantro. Sure I love an occasional salad made with quinoa or a cup of hot oatmeal on a cold winter morning, and I add whole wheat and rye to just about every loaf of bread, pizza crust, and pancake that comes out of my kitchen. But daily meals? Not so much.

When I do reach for the grains, barley is my kernel of choice. It is versatile enough to stand in for all of the other grains, and as with any whole grain barley is crammed with health benefits.View some of my favorite barley recipes, including arancini and risotto, at the Star Tribune today.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Easter tales

I've posted stories about the epic Easter meal my family enjoys each year. Mom serves thick slices of ham, scalloped potatoes, corn casserole, fruit salad, and warm buttery rolls. We pass trays of relish and pickles, share a few bottles of wine, and are usually too full to indulge in Mom's special banana pudding dessert. The endless feast stands out against every holiday table, and what makes it really extraordinary is the platter of peas and cheese.

Peas and cheese salad is my family's Easter meal oddity, and we observe the tradition with reverence. At Called to the Table this week I recall the Easter dinner of 2013 when my mom prepared only one bowl of peas and cheese and by the time the dish reached me, it was empty.

Over the years I've attempted to elevate Mom's peas and cheese by recreating it as a pasta salad and as ham and pea croquettes. Both recipes are lovely, but don't even come close to the original dish. Easter is here, and I am anticipating a large helping of peas and cheese.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Cake with coffee, or coffee cake?

When I began entering the Minnesota State Fair baking contests a few years ago I came to the realization that I don't know the definition of coffee cake. Is it any cake served with coffee or does it require coffee as an ingredient? A simple smallish cake as opposed to a massive stack of frosted multi-tiers? Does shape matter?

I searched my stash of cookbooks determined to find an answer. Instead, I came across hundreds of recipes with a variety of ingredients, technical know-how, shapes and sizes, and not nearly enough time to bake (or eat) them all.

Ask google to define coffee cake and you'll receive a limited answer: "a cake, often cinnamon-flavored, with a drizzled white icing or crumb topping, and usually eaten with coffee." Only a handful of recipes I've got for coffee cake call for cinnamon, and even fewer have icing or crumbed topping.

Wiki was slightly more helpful:
Coffee cake is a common cake or sweet bread available in many countries. The term "coffee cake" can refer to any of the following:
A class of cakes intended to be eaten alongside coffee (for example, as part of a breakfast meal) or that may be eaten during a "coffee break" or offered to guests as a gesture of hospitality on or around a coffee table. Under this definition, a coffee cake does not necessarily contain coffee. They are typically single layer cakes that may be square or rectangular like a Stollen or loaf-shaped rectangular cakes, or they may be ring shaped, as a bundt. Coffee cakes may be flavored with cinnamon or other spices, seeds, nuts and fruits. These cakes sometimes have a crumbly or crumb topping called streusel and/or a light glaze drizzle. Some similarity to teacakes may be found, though teacakes can be individually sized baked items served with tea.
Using Wiki's interpretation, I've decided to define coffee cake as pretty much anything goes. That doesn't help much when it comes to narrowing the field as I prepare for the coming State Fair competition. When the field is wide open, who knows what flavors and textures will capture the judges' approval?

This was a clean-the-cupboards kind of baking weekend. I reached for some stray leftovers taking up room in the fridge and found a way to drop them into cake... er, I mean, coffee cake. If you aren't lucky enough to have a fresh supply of quark, substitute cream cheese (or make your own!).

Almond Lingonberry-Quark Coffee Cake 
9 servings
3/4 cup butter or margarine, softened 
1 cup sugar
3 1/2 ounces almond paste (half of a 7 ounce tube)
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup lingonberry preserves
1/3 cup quark or cream cheese
Heat oven to 350. Line 8-inch square pan with foil, leaving 1 inch of foil overhanging at 2 opposite sides of pan; spray foil with cooking spray.
In large bowl beat butter, sugar, and almond paste with electric mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy. Beat in almond extract and eggs until well blended. On low speed beat in flour, baking powder, and salt just until blended. 
Spread batter in pan. Divide lingonberries and quark equally across cake, pushing a few teaspoons of each into nine sections of the cake so that when cut into 9 squares each piece will have a bite of berries and cheese. 

Bake 45 minutes or until tooth-pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool completely in pan on cooling rack, about 1 hour. Use foil to lift cake out of pan; cut into squares. Sprinkle with powdered sugar if desired.
Adapted from Betty Crocker's Almond Coffee Cake recipe.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Glad Våffeldag!

The best holidays and recipes are all about adaptation. Våffeldagen (The Waffle Day in Sweden) occurs on Annunciation Day, but why? It is all about adaptation and bastardization (bastardization of words, people! Get your minds out of the gutter!). My description from an earlier posting:
March 25 is Waffle Day in Sweden, celebrated nine months before the birth of Christ.  What does Mary's conception have in common with waffles?  Yet another holiday left over from Catholic rule, this day used to be called Vårfrudagen (our lady day), in honor of the Virgin Mary.  Dialect corruption beget the name Våfferdagen, then the modern Våffeldagen, meaning Waffle day. Now, Swedes eat waffles on Lady Day.
Additionally, migratory birds begin to return home, and the crane became associated with the day. There was a saying, "On Annunciation Day the crane carries light into bed," which meant that it was now light enough to no longer require a candle to light one's way to bed. Cranes apparently carried the light in their beaks. The crane also brought treats and gifts to children (such as dried fruits and oranges) from southern countries.
What does this mean for us? Well, for my family it means we adopt Sweden's love of the waffle. This past year I've dabbled quite a bit in waffle love. Here are some greatest hits; click on the titles to link to recipes. And Glad Våffeldag!

ChickIN Waffle (see image above)

Semla Waffle

State Fair Hotdish Waffle: Asian Style (my favorite!)

State Fair Chicken-fried SPAM-n-Waffle (another of my favorites!)

Zucchini-Parmesan Waffle

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Chow mein goes hotdish

As a kid I assumed that the foods my family enjoyed were authentic interpretations of how the rest of the world ate. When my mom made chow mein, I speckled the top of my supper with lots of salty cashews and imagined kids in China eating the same dish for their dinners. I had no clue that in Minnesota our chow mein is more hotdish than "fried noodles" (the translation of chow mein). In fact, even the idea of hotdish is a Midwest spin on casserole. Although many will argue with me, I define hotdish as a casserole to which condensed soup is usually added.

Minnesota chow mein is a stew of celery, peppers, mushrooms, ground beef and chopped pork or chicken, bound together with a corn starch-thickened stock. We generally agree that white rice is the correct starch to eat with our chow mein, and most of us top the plate with cashews and crunchy rice noodles. Recipes I've found in old church and community cookbooks haven't changed much over the decades.

My great-great uncle was a pastor at the Swedish Tabernacle in Minneapolis (the building situated across the street from the nurse dormitory at HCMC, formerly the Swedish Hospital) and I've got a copy of a cookbook that came from the parish in 1936, "Friendship League's Book of Tested Recipes." In the cookbook are three recipes for chop suey and one for Merriam Park Chow Mein. As far as I can tell these recipes are pretty much interchangeable, although one of the chop suey recipes calls for an entire bottle of soy sauce.

My "Tested Recipes" cookbook belonged to my Great Aunt Hazel, who told me stories about spending Christmas Eve at her uncle's church and dancing around a giant Christmas tree while singing Swedish hymns. When Aunt Hazel's heart was failing she was ordered to begin a low salt diet. "No more chow mein," she lamented. I drummed up a lowered-sodium chicken chow mein for her and stocked her freezer with individual servings.

At Called to the Table this week is my riff on Minnesota chow mein hotdish. Below is Betty Jane Anderson's version from "Tested Recipes." 

Merriam Park Chow Mein
1 chicken, or left over meat
1 large stalk of celery
1 can of bean sprouts
1 can  of sub gum or 1 can of Chinese vegetables
1 can of mushrooms

Cut the celery into fine cross strips and place in a frying pan with plenty of butter. When half done, add the meat which has been cut into small pieces. Fry the meat and celery together until done. Then put them in a kettle and add all of the other ingredients and cook until well done. Season with Chinese molasses, choy sauce (walnut sauce), and salt and pepper. If too thin, thicken with corn starch or flour.                                        -Betty Jane Anderson