Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Day tripping in Northfield: What book are you reading?

This year summer has been about finally reading those books that have spent too many months untouched on the shelf, evenings and weekends spent at the grill, and glorious warm, slow, sunny moments strung together with day trips to great places within a few hours drive of the Twin Cities. We hike for a few hours, grab a cone or a root beer float, and come home feeling like we've taken Thoreau's advice to live deliberately and deep, and to suck out all of the marrow (and ice cream) of life.

Last month T spent a week at Carleton College in Northfield. It was a good excuse for me grab one of those forgotten books on my dusty shelves and spend a day wandering the streets along the river of this southeastern Minnesota Town. Northfield is known for its private colleges, the Cannon River, Malt-O-Meal, and a botched Jesse James robbery (not necessarily in that order).

As I walked toward my breakfast destination, The Tavern on Division Street, folks along my path greeted one another with friendly waves and chitchat. "Julie! How are you today? Is Jim feeling better?" "Good morning, Tony! Ready for the weekend?" Apparently I'd landed in some weird utopian Mayberry, and I was happy to be there.

Inside The Tavern I sat at a booth surrounded by wood paneling and historic photos of college life. My coffee mug advertised local establishments, a cross-promotion that I also observed at another restaurant on their pint glasses. (I also observed cottage cheese on every menu, and decor displaying either collegiate activities or Jesse James. If you've got a winning theme, go with it.) One strawberry waffle and side of bacon later, I took the back exit and found myself on the Cannon River.

Under a sign asking visitors not to feed the wildlife, an older couple tossed breadcrumbs at the ducks. I found a bench, opened my book, and enjoyed the cool breeze coming from the river. It was a hot and humid day, and along the river temps were easily ten degrees cooler than along the main street of Northfield.

"What are you reading?" a friendly voice questioned me. Two young policemen approached me with smiles. I showed them the cover of the memoir in my lap, and we traded small talk for a bit.

(Obligatory confession regarding my summer reading: I am immersed in a heavy curriculum of trashy celebrity memoirs. From Rob Lowe to Mackenzie Phillips, Jason Priestly to Tina Faye, and a Katharine Graham chaser, I am frolicking on the wild side. However, on that particular day I forgot that I was visiting an academic capital and probably should have chosen a less pornographic text than Brandi Glanville's "Drinking and Tweeting." Had I known that every police officer, store clerk, and child I met that day would inquire about my book I would have, at the very least, hidden the cover beneath a generic wrapper.)

I walked into the Northfield Historical Society Museum just as a tour was beginning. Four bucks bought me entrance to the bank where the infamous thwarted robbery attempt by Jesse James and his gang took place. A teen actor recited the details of the robbery and escorted our group through the bank and museum. After the tour, I collected one of the free historical street maps that the museum distributes and spent an hour locating each building and site on the map.

I popped into the kitchen store and several antique shops, collecting souvenirs along the way, until I came to the end of Division Street at the pub where I decided to eat lunch. J. Grundy's Rueb 'N' Stein claims that their Reuben is one of the best around. The sandwich was generous and came with super salty fries that made my cold beer taste even better. Was it one of the best I've ever had? It was pretty good, but I could have eaten an entire bowl of just the sauerkraut. J. Grundy's doesn't advertise that their sauerkraut is made in-house, but they should.

The afternoon was heating up, so I headed back toward the river to cool off. With a full tummy and a comfortable bench, I kicked off my Chuckies and laid back for a nap.

"Excuse me. Excuse me!" A little voice woke me. A cute kid I'd spotted earlier skateboarding down Division Street stood over me. "Are you OK?" he asked.

Apparently it is uncommon for adults to nap barefoot on benches in Northfield, and the poor kid thought I was either a vagrant or in need of an ambulance.

"I'm fine," I assured him. "Just napping."

"Mind if I sit down next to you for awhile?" he asked. Being a city girl I became suspicious that this 10-year old was about to try and scam me.

I sat up and made room for the kid. We made our introductions and he asked me what book I was reading. I tried to hide the cover from him and changed the subject. "Um, just a memoir." Once he was satisfied that I wasn't a stroke victim (or a vagrant), he hopped on his bike and peddled away.

It was almost time to meet T back on campus. One of the clerks in town told me I had to try the wedding cake bakery Cakewalk before leaving Northfield. Cakewalk is a modern bakery with fun cupcake flavors and the most exquisite Rice Krispie Brownies a few dollars can buy. Thankfully, the servers were too busy with customers to ask what book I was reading.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Pea season

My favorite tomato farmer told me that by the second week in July she is usually picking 100 baskets of tomatoes each day. This week she had to make due with 30 or 40. A late spring, an even later summer, and cool wet weather has stunted her crop.

I am not sure how this weather translates to pea production. As soon as sweet plump English peas hit the market I spend an hour each weekend shelling them, and pop them like green candy. To shake up our menu just a bit I pureed peas with basil and mint, and spread the pesto over grilled bread with ricotta. These crostini might just hold their own next to a perfect tomato sandwich.

Recipes for pea-basil pesto (as well as for basil lemonade) can be had at Called to the Table today.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Consider the ape

As a kid, weekends meant hanging at my dad's apartment. Most Saturdays were spent watching old movies on TV. When "Planet of the Apes" or any of its manifestations played, I sidled up to the black and white set with a bowl of chips and a bottle of strawberry Pop Shoppe, happy to share the afternoon with Charlton and Roddy. I've always loved a good ape movie.

Once again I've got apes on the mind. A recent story on NPR retold the adventures of Fu Manchu, the orangutang who learned to pick locks with a piece of wire he kept hidden in his mouth. Then I heard about Julie, the chimp who adorned herself with grass earrings. Her friends imitated the grass blade ornamentation even after Julie's death.

Last week, just as the most recent "Planet of the Apes" installment was being released, three bachelor gorillas hatched a great Como Zoo escape and found their way into the toys and treats closet. I used to look for the treats closet when I was a teenager babysitting kids who finally went down for a nap. Oh Virgil, you are an ape after my own heart.

In honor of Virgil, Fu, Julie, and all of the apes that so delight us, T and I spent our weekend with them. Rather than mope about in the Saturday afternoon rain, we headed to the theater for a matinee showing of "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (It was fantastic, by the way. The perfect antidote for this summer's dull movie schedule.) Sunday, under warm sun and blue skies, we wandered through Como Park Zoo for a peek at Virgil and his buddies as they munched on romaine lettuce and ignored the crowds that beckoned to them.

Humans have always been fascinated with apes and monkeys. We cage them and observe their reactions to imprisonment, as if being caged is a natural state for any being. We experiment on them, hoping their similarities to us will enable us to cure and discover. We look to them for evidence that we are the smarter cousins, and find that evidence a lot less frequently than we believe. Although I do wonder if Virgil's lettuce would be tastier if he dipped it in a honey mustard vinaigrette.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Skillet biscuits and strawberry coconut ice cream

While Minnesotans, so far, are experiencing a mild summer, rising temps are sure to follow these perfect sunny days. When it is too hot to turn on the oven and too sticky to stand over the grill, I turn to the stove top and pull out a cast iron skillet. Things that I'd normally bake or grill are surprisingly easy to make in a pan. It is amazing what a little surface heat can do to everything from pizza and cobbler, to toast and biscuits.

We've adjusted quickly to our new ice cream machine and I've been cranking out the occasional quart of cool flavors. This weekend I bought a precious pint of fresh local strawberries and knew T would request strawberry ice cream, while I was in the mood for shortcake. Why not combine the two?

With no cream in the fridge I reached for a can of coconut cream for the ice cream, and rather than turn on the oven I made skillet biscuits. Half of the strawberries went into the cream, the other half I macerated in balsamic vinegar, vanilla extract, and maple syrup.

The recipe for Strawberry Coconut Ice Cream is at Called to the Table today. For the biscuits, use your favorite recipe and place biscuits in skillet over medium heat; cover. Check bottom of biscuits to make sure they don't burn. As bottoms begin to turn golden, flip and continue cooking. Adjust heat as needed.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The return of pasta salad

Not only did I witness the demise of pasta salad, I played a role in its death.

Sometime in the 1970's or 80's, pasta salad rose from underappreciated church basement gatherings to glorious food heights. By the early 90's pasta salad wiggled itself onto every potluck table and into every picnic spread. It was invited to family parties and work lunches. So fashionable, such variety, and simple to make.

We mixed fusilli with Italian dressing, black olives, and chicken. We whipped up elbows with Miracle Whip and raw vegetables, and stirred mayo, peas, and tuna into wagonwheels or rings. I spent the better part of my young adult life experimenting with rotini, pesto, and sun-dried tomatoes.

Yet as if boiling some macaroni and adding dressing and other tasty stuff was too difficult for homecooks, boxed pasta salad kits began appearing on grocery store shelves. I've always believed that once a trend hits the Targets and Walmarts of suburbia, the buzz is over. And who buys boxed pasta salad kits anyway? Isn't macaroni already a convenience food?

As pasta salad died on the shelf, the wildly popular carb-free Atkins Diet trudged into my kitchen. I bid a weepy farewell to pasta, bread, and all things white and gorged my way through the late 90's on almonds, cheese, and steak. I lost a lot of weight, but without The Bread (and pasta and rice and potatoes and sugar) of Life my soul felt empty.

Always a deli darling, perhaps pasta salad didn't die a total death; although many of the tasteless prefab processed versions resemble glue, likely another reason for the collapse. Lately I've been seeing my familiar old friend in some unusual places. Delis and cafeterias are upping the pasta salad game, while many hipster joints across the Twin Cities are featuring some sort of pasta salad on their menus. Risen from the grave like zombie Twinkies in the Apocalypse, pasta salad is again hitting the pavement and making friends.

I've written before about my mom's peas and cheese salad, served every Easter and fought over by hungry family members without regard for the ham and scalloped potatoes. I've always wondered how peas and cheese salad could possibly be better. This weekend I played with the recipe and added pasta, and together these ingredients are ushering the return of pasta salad to my kitchen.

Recipe note: I was tempted to add a number of servings suggestion. Perhaps 5? Maybe 10? But T and I managed to devour the entire bowl in two and a half meals so I'll leave counting the servings to you.

Peas and Cheese Pasta Salad
1/2 cup sour cream
1/4 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons each apple cider vinegar and sugar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons celery salt
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon fresh cracked black pepper
2 tablespoons garlic scapes, diced (optional substitute; 1 teaspoon garlic powder)
1 1/2 cups raw fresh or frozen (thawed) peas
7 - 9 ounces ready-cut spaghetti, cooked and drained
8 ounces sharp cheddar cut into small cubes (1/4 to 1/2 inches)
1 large spring onion including greens, diced
5 large radishes, chopped

In large mixing bowl combine sour cream, mayo, vinegar, sugar, mustard, and seasonings until smooth. Stir in remaining ingredients. Serve immediately or chill.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Foraged berries for the 4th of July

I can never sleep the night before a holiday. I wake every hour and start making lists in my head. What will we do? Who will be there? Am I responsible for bringing a dish to share? If, like the holiday weekend before us, all of my sisters are in town for a get-together, I will toss and turn with excitement contemplating the delicious events about to begin.

For the rest of the holiday I am an exhausted zombie, barely able to hold myself together. Anticipation is everything.

The 4th of July has always been a big deal in my family, probably because my sister Susan was born on this date. When we were kids we lived in a town that threw a party like the kind you see in Hallmark or Disney movies. There were parades, music, games of skill, food vendors, and real ponies with Western saddles that a kid could ride for just a few cents. After dusk there were fireworks, best viewed from the baseball field bleachers while holding your dad's hand. Of course, my sister convinced me that the celebration was on her behalf, and I never questioned her. Why wouldn't the entire town get together to honor my sister? She was pretty hot stuff.

These days our 4th of July events are calmer than the ones we enjoyed as kids. I don't have to worry about costume themes for the kiddie parade, or calculate how many times I can ride the ponies with $1.25. My most burdensome task is deciding on an appetizer everyone will enjoy and whether to grill ribs, brats, or fish.

If you are like me and still looking for a dish to share at your 4th of July weekend parties, this berry syrup recipe works with any fresh berries, and adding the berries to grilled bread and cheese is a nice appetizer.

Berries of all varieties are making their way to the head of the market. I'd never heard of serviceberries before this week. Apparently they've been growing all around me for years but I have not been observant enough to notice them. Our student farmers forage the berries from the shadbush that grow prolifically across the university campus where I work, and I was lucky enough to score a small batch at the student farmers market. The berries remind me of a mild sweet blueberry, and adding a bit of vinegar really perks them up.
Serviceberry Syrup
1 cup serviceberries
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon each water and balsamic vinegar
Small sprig rosemary
Zest from half a lemon
Fresh cracked pepper

Combine ingredients in small saucepan and simmer about 5 minutes.

Grill or toast thinly sliced baguette that is brushed with olive oil. Top bread with cheese (use your favorite or whatever you have available: brie, cheddar, mozzarella, ricotta, chèvre, etc.), berries, and a mint or basil leaf.

More 4th of July traditions and a recipe for Minnesota Crab Bake are over at Called to the Table.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Aebleskiver brunch

Brunch is meant to be a leisurely celebration with good friends and family. Add a pot of strong coffee, perhaps a flute of champagne, and, of course, amazing food and you've got the start to a perfect day.

I own three aebleskiver pans. The last one I purchased for a steal at the Cook's on Crocus Hill Garage Sale for $25. I had to rub my eyes a few times to make sure the price was correct. It is an electric model with a nonstick surface. The cast iron pan I own cost quite a bit more than this latest version, and the vintage stainless pan was a gift.

Yet, with three lovely pans I still was too nervous to venture into aebleskiver cooking on my own. Thankfully my friend N stepped up and offered a lesson. I brought the bacon, he brought the fillings, and our friends sat around the kitchen table alternately sipping sparkling wine and popping hot balls of dough fresh out of the pans into their mouths. Did I mention brunch is the start to a perfect day?

Aebleskiver are Danish pancakes, made in special pans indented with round wells. Traditionally the cakes are filled with sweet apples, but they can be sweet or savory and filled with fruit, cheese, or any other tasty variation. At first attempt, a cook quickly realizes how simple these cakes are to make. We made several batches including fresh herbs and Gouda, and a sweet version with cherries from N and M's sour cherry trees.