Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Kitchen magic

This weekend there was magic in my kitchen. I didn't spend anytime bending over boiling pots or kneading countless loaves of dough. I didn't consult any cookbooks for measurements or cook times. I didn't light the oven or the grill.

Instead, I let the flavors of the season lead me. Carrots, radishes, herbs, spinach, arugula, onions, and mung beans fresh from the farmers market inspired the magic, and memories of my mom's summer suppers supplied the approach. I was grateful to their wizardry.

When I was a kid, I spent my summer days outside playing, swimming, cleaning up after my rabbits, and growing hungrier with each hour. The sun beat down on me, turning my skin brown and my hair blonder. When it was finally time to head into the house for dinner, I barely had strength enough to wash my face and hands before sitting down at the dining room table.

My favorite summer supper came on the hottest night of the year when Mom would place before us Jan Dourr's shrimp salad. Jan was one of mom's friends who supplied her with the recipe. I've since learned that similar recipes in church and community cookbooks throughout the Midwest and likely elsewhere, but to us then (and now) Jan's shrimp salad was special. In fact, we had shrimp so seldom that I came to associate the flavor and smell of shredded carrots with the sweet succulence of shrimp and shellfish in general. Alongside the salad were thick round slices of Colby cheese, biscuits hot from the oven and slathered with lots of melting butter, and baked beans. A meal of shrimp salad was incomplete without these accompaniments.

And so Saturday found me pushing carrots and radishes (pulled out of the ground a few hours prior) into the food processor. They came out in a rainbow of shreds that I added to a mayo-lemony herb dressing. I boiled plump Gulf shrimp in an intoxicating bath of Old Bay and lemons, and added cooled, large bites to the carrots and dressing. Mung beans simmered on the stove and when they were tender I simmered them still longer in a brew of rum, molasses, butter, and maple. We ate our feast in the cool dark with tumblers of white wine over ice. The ice clinked in our glasses, the fan hummed, and my tummy smiled.

I wonder if kitchen magic occurs when we invite the spirits of our past to join us. I do know you cannot always predict when magic will appear, which is probably why we are so appreciative when it does. Perhaps magic happens when the Universe is nodding in approval at the choices we are making.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Take the long way

Summer in Minnesota is all about sunshine and the outdoors. We face the sun and bathe in its warmth. We try to ignore the mosquito swarms and keep jugs of rubbing alcohol in the trunks of our cars in case we find ourselves hiking near poison ivy or oak. Nature cannot keep us from our resolve to commune with it.

T and I hike the trails across our state and Wisconsin. On weekends when time is short, we pretend we are tourists in our own backyard and explore the hundreds of Twin Cities parks. Last Sunday we wandered over to Hidden Falls Park along the Mississippi. Hidden Falls is one of those places you forget about until fate places you on the road that drops down into the park and you think, "Why don't we come here more often?"

Without a map or recent memory of the actual location of the falls, T and I walked past the beach and along the river beneath the high voltage power lines. "Listen to those bugs," T said. We heard the low hum of some unknown insect rise and fall as we walked. "Or maybe that buzzing is from the power lines," T mused.

We'd walked for half an hour along the tree lined path until the trees disappeared behind us and we could see Fort Snelling and hear the highway just ahead of us. "I don't think we are on the right path to the falls." We returned to the beach and searched for another path.

At the picnic area a young couple shouted to us, "Do you know where the falls are?"

"We think they might be this way!" we shouted back to them as we ducked beneath the bushy trees. "We saw a group of people enter this path earlier!"The couple trailed behind us, hopeful that we knew the way.

"I came here in the sixth grade," the boyfriend told us. "If you see a bench up ahead we are in the right place." He grinned and giggled, holding tight to his girlfriend's hand. His excitement was kind of neat and I wished it was contagious.

But mostly I just felt annoyed. I wasn't really in the mood for a hike and although the day was mild I could feel sweat dripping between my shoulders. A mob of mosquitoes dive bombed my head while their friends tore away at my bare legs. Deep into the forest (OK it was probably just a few city blocks worth of walking) the path became a deep muddy mess and a fence blocked our way.

"I feel like we are in one of those movies where the explorers go into the woods and are killed in a horrific manner," I said. The young couple looked slightly alarmed.

Again we turned back to where we began and in front of us the young couple quickly trotted out of the thicket.

One path remained untested. T convinced me to give it a try. After a short walk we arrived at the Hidden Falls. The boyfriend was giddy as he lead his girlfriend up the incline to the water.

The anticipation of something really spectacular and the work required to get there should have made the experience awesome. In the end the falls were lovely but I was still crabby. What is that saying? Something about life being about the journey, not the destination. I counter, occasionally (like when you get lost or mosquitoes are attacking you): If not for the destination, why take the path?

Summer in Minnesota is all about the path, the destination, and people who remind us to be excited about both.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Who says you can't go back? Taco Bell's Meximelt

Youth is easy to romanticize because so many of us spent it in an All You Can Drink Ladies Night 3.2 beer-induced haze. I retell the stories to young friends, instructing them about the changes that have occurred these past few years. I’ve become the old guy telling his grandkids that in his day they walked five miles to school, uphill both ways, but that somehow things were so much better back then.

“We didn’t have texting or sexting or Facebooking. The only thing we had to worry about was whether we had gas in the car to get us to Gabby’s, Aqua Net in the purple can to tease our mall bangs, and change for a post-dancing Run to The Border (a.k.a. Taco Bell).”

No retelling of my youth is complete without a description of my friend Krissy. Man, she could work it. She’d slither in close to some poor schmo and flirt, pretending not to believe he was telling her the truth about his name, age, or address. She spoke a sort of whiny stuck-up Minnesota variation of Valleyspeak, and her upper lip curled when she asked to see his wallet and with his permission (usually) snag a fiver. Sometimes she was desperate and less subtle. “Give me a smoke!” she’d demand. “What’s in your wallet? How much money do you have? Can I have your money?”

As obnoxious as she was, very few men said no to Krissy. Why would they? She was as beautiful as she was bossy and mean. Krissy never bought her own cigarettes and or paid for a Meximelt.

Ah the Meximelt. That sultry summer we danced and laughed and kissed cute boys, and watched in awe as Krissy finagled her way through a lineup of men willing to pay her way. The Taco Bell drive-thru crowned each Ladies Night and we scrambled for enough loose change to purchase warm tortillas rolled around cheese and salsa. Economical and filling, Meximelts were substantial enough to neutralize the cheap beer that rumbled in our tummies. The memory of those melty, cheesy, tomato-laced wraps lingers like smoke from Krissy’s Marlboro and a whiff of Aquanet.

A recent retelling of Krissy’s Legend reminded me that I haven’t had a Meximelt in years. The tradition was dropped around the same time I lost interest in nightclubs. Would the gooey treat hold the same appeal if I ate it for lunch rather than as a chaser to an endless keg stream of Bud Light in a red Solo cup?

I walked into Taco Bell and wove my way through the metal line dividers (something I probably couldn’t have accomplished after a night of debauchery). I ordered one Meximelt and loaded up on Fire Sauce (I used to douse my Meximelt with extra salsa, although extreme hot sauces were unknown to most of us in Minnesota, and superhot salsa still does not exist at Taco Bell.).

At home I sat on the couch and placed the Meximelt before me on the coffee table. I unwound the parchment that swaddled it. Inside the tortilla didn’t appear as ample as those I ate in my memories. Grease oozed out of each end of the edible tube and puddled the paper. I unrolled the tortilla just enough to make room for a few packets of Fire, then rewrapped it and took a bite.

Yup, just as I remembered. The cheese and tortilla were soft and warm, and as I pulled the wrap from my mouth a string of melted yellow goo dangled for just a moment between me and my food; a precarious and delicious cheese wire. Small bits of tomato burst forth and balanced the richness of the goo, like a sort of poor man’s caviar.

There is no shame in indulging in the occasional fast food repast, right? God, that Meximelt was good. I closed my eyes and heard Krissy’s laugh and smelled her Giorgio perfume. The car radio was on and we jammed with the windows open as Bobby Brown sang “My Prerogative” and Salt-N-Pepa told us to “Push It.” In my memory of that summer there is always room for another Meximelt. 

Taco Bell
Various locations
Price: $1.99 plus tax and worth every cent.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Beer Can Chicken and Hush Puppy Waffles

Beer can chicken always seemed like a gimmick to me. For years I've listened as my friends' husbands heralded the fad, and for years I've snubbed my nose at their enthusiasm. Then this weekend T rummaged through some storage spaces and found some random unused wedding presents (wasting away in storage for more than a dozen years), including a beer can chicken roasting tray (and thus the question "What do you buy the couple who has everything?" was thoroughly answered).

An online search came up with dozens of recipes for brining and dry rubs, advice for what kind of beer to use, and plenty of articles telling me why beer can chicken is a waste of good beer. I decided to dump our bird in a strange brew of pickle juice, beer, and buttermilk. After a quick 4-hour brine I air-dried the bird for a few more hours in the fridge, then added a dry rub before shoving a can of beer up the chicken's ample rump. The chicken grilled itself and it was up to me to come up with some sides.

When I was a kid my Grandpa Johnson loved taking me to eat at Red Lobster. I filled up on steamed lobster and fried hush puppies dipped in melted butter while Grandpa gorged on endless orders of popcorn shrimp (or shrimps as he called them). I never forgave Red Lobster for replacing hush puppies with cheddar biscuits. After Grandpa passed away I never returned to the RL, thus paving the way for my burgeoning food snobbery and hush puppy experiments in my kitchen. Hush puppies seemed the perfect companion for my beer drinking chicken, but I wasn't in the mood for fried food. Instead, I ladled hush puppy batter into a waffle iron and the results were pretty nice. A Maple Currant Hot Sauce sort of tied the meal together.

Hush Puppy Waffles with Maple Currant Hot Sauce
Makes 5 waffles

2 eggs, beaten
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1 1/4 cups corn meal
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
pinch cayenne
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted (plus more for waffle griddle)

Combine eggs and buttermilk; set aside. In large mixing bowl combine cheese, corn, flour, sugar, baking powder, onion powder, salt, baking soda, and cayenne. Whisk in egg-buttermilk until just combined. Stir in melted butter.

Ladle batter into hot waffle iron that is brushed with butter. Cook according to manufacturer's instructions. Serve hot with butter and Maple Currant Hot Sauce.

Maple Currant Hot Sauce
Makes 1 1/2 cups

1 1/2 cups fresh currants
1 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup of your favorite hot sauce
3 tablespoons cold butter

In saucepan bring currants and syrup to simmer and reduce to 1 1/4 cups (about 10 minutes). Remove from heat and stir in hot sauce and butter.


Thursday, July 9, 2015

Grilling halloumi

Our favorite co-op recently tweeted a message about grilling halloumi cheese and I soon found myself at their cheese counter listening to another shopper talking to the monger about the same tweet that lured me there. Heck of a tweet.

Halloumi is the Greek's answer to Wisconsin cheese curds. While curds will always trump every other squeaky cheese in the world, it is fun to fry up a slab of the good hardy Greek stuff especially during the cool winter months when we eat it with olives and bread. Halloumi is dense and has a high melting point which makes it perfect for the fryer, the oven, or (as I learned last week) the grill.

I sliced the halloumi into 1 1/2 inch thick squares and grilled over direct heat, turning for grill marks that never appeared, until a nice brown crust formed. We ate it with a sort of reinterpreted Salad Ni├žoise (a la Minnesota!); grilled green beans and mushrooms, and salmon topped with a homemade tartar sauce (mayo, Dijon, lemon juice, olive oil, and chopped dill pickles), boiled new potatoes tossed in vinegar and lots of dill from the garden, and good briny olives.  

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Cat Blogging: The 4th of July, a pictorial

What cats do on the 4th of July:

What T does on the 4th of July:

What I do on the 4th of July:

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Fenugreek greens

As an early adopter of any and all curries, I fell in love with the sweet fragrant, almost licorice (some describe it as maple), taste of fenugreek the first time I made an eggplant tomato curry recipe from an old Deborah Madison cookbook. While I've used the powdered seeds in the past, I didn't come across fenugreek greens until last week at the farmers market.

I asked the farmer how she uses fenurgreek greens and she told me just to use them as vegetables and add them to stir-fry. "Only use the leaves," she told me, and then mimicked the act of stripping leaves from the stems. Anju Kataria, who spoke about Indian and Scandinavian spices at ASI last week, recommended tossing cooked potatoes with the greens. Since we are in the middle of grilling season I took her advice and added the greens to boiled new potatoes to serve as a side with grilled chicken.

For a fenugreek lover like me, the potatoes were amazing. For T, on the other hand, not so much. The pungent greens are an acquired taste.

Fenugreek Greens and New Potatoes
2 pounds of new potatoes, cooked
1 cup fenugreek leaves, discard stems
1/4 cup green onions, diced
2 tablespoons garlic scapes, diced
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon turmeric

Toss all ingredients together in saucepan and heat over medium-low until butter melts and greens wilt. Flavor with salt and pepper and serve warm.