Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Friends Thanksgiving Year 20

We gather on the Saturday before Thanksgiving and recall the many years we've spent together as friends. We feast on mostly vegetarian fare in honor of those among us who don't eat turkey, and every year the wine gets a little better, the roaring fire a little more comforting, and our bonds a little stronger. Every year I am more and more grateful for those bonds of friendship.

This year our menu was slightly eclectic. My contribution was the wild rice blini (see photo). Get the recipe here.

2014 Friends Thanksgiving 
Tasty treats from Broders

First course
Caesar Salad with tofu dressing
  The most gorgeous delicious loaf of bread ever baked (contributed by 
my friend's accordion teacher's husband)

Main course
Curried vegetables
Roasted potatoes with caramel and prunes (from "Jerusalem: A Cookbook")
Wild rice blini with cranberry mostarda and crème fraîche

Pumpkin mousse
Salted caramel monkey bread
Espresso and mulled wine

Thursday, November 20, 2014

An ode to asian poutine

Yes, I went there. I went there deep. A weekday visit to a little diner billed as Korean fusion had us so excited about that we returned the next day to the Green Spoon near the University of Minnesota Campus in Minneapolis. Earlier in the week a colleague raved about the Kimchi Fries he enjoyed there, so on our second visit they graced the table.

Kimchi Fries are a revelation! A revolution! And delicious. They remind me of an Asian version of the Canadian dish poutine - crisp fries, gooey cheese, and a spicy gravy of aioli all heaped together with garlicky bites of kimchi. More please.

Inspired by those fries, I made them at home. My version isn't quite as tasty as Green Spoon's, but they do just fine on a cold winter's afternoon when I am tucked under quilts on the couch and feel a tad snacky. You can get the recipe at Called to the Table today.

Meanwhile, I am planning my next visit to the Green Spoon. Snowy evenings are the perfect time for enjoying another bowl of bibimbap (with an egg, please), soba noodles in hot broth, and bulgogi bento.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Cat Blogging: cats do the darndest things

Orson ate a light bulb.

Many nights T and I wake up to the sounds of Orson chewing on some found treat. He is partial to eye glasses, jump drives, and earbuds. But that night, in the wee hours following Halloween, our orange icicle lights were piled in a temptingly tasty fashion and Orson just couldn't help himself. He ate the light bulb and its plastic icicle covering.

For a week we kept watch over him, waiting for signs of distress. At night I'd wake up expecting to see him glowing in the dark. But nothing happened. He was his normal hungry self.

Then, as temps in Minnesota dipped last week T and I both powered through exceptionally hellish work schedules. Tuesday we came home to a chilly house. The thermostat read 55 degrees and I was convinced our elderly furnace finally died.

"Did you turn the heat down?" I asked T when he returned from a round of shoveling snow.

"No, why? It does seem cold in here," T went to inspect the thermostat while Oskar zigzagged between our legs and whined the way he does when he wants a little attention. He chased T and jumped up on to the shelf near the thermostat, using his little paws to bat at the controls. We found our temperature-regulating culprit.

Meanwhile, Olive just glares at her brothers, finding no humor in their shenanigans. She does occasionally accept the baths they lovingly bestow upon her. The two boys treat their crabby old sister with gentle kindness, and she reciprocates with annoyed growls. She also resents sharing any boxes that temporarily find there way to our kitchen from the grocery store, especially when Orson decides to take a nap. "We're going to need a bigger box," Olive says.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Great Pumpkin rises

One of the best things about living with someone who doesn't cook is the gratitude I receive for making anything edible. Occasionally, T's appreciation of my baking skills borders on blind faith as he momentarily suspends his belief in science and ponders the magic that is kitchen chemistry. 

"Where did you get this caramel sauce?" he asked this morning as he bit into a warm pumpkin roll.

"Butter and sugar," was my answer as I licked the good sticky stuff from my fingers.

Pumpkin caramel rolls are, indeed, magical.

Pumpkin Caramel Rolls
Makes 7 to 8 rolls

For the dough:
4 tablespoons butter, melted
1 cup prepared pumpkin
2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
Zest from one orange
1 cup sour cream or whole fat yoghurt
1 egg
4 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon yeast
1/4 cup warm water
1 teaspoon salt
3 1/2 to 4 cups bread flour
Olive oil

Combine butter, pumpkin, spice, zest, and sour cream in large mixing bowl.

In small bowl combine water, sugar, and yeast. Allow to foam, about 5 minutes. 

Add yeast to pumpkin mixture. Stir in salt and 3 cups of the flour all at once. If using stand up mixer, use dough hook attachment and knead dough on slow speed. Gradually add additional flour until very wet sticky dough forms. If kneading by hand, pour dough on to well floured board and knead in additional flour.

Shape dough into large ball and place in well oiled bowl. Turn dough so that it is completely covered in oil. Cover bowl with plastic wrap or towel. Set aside until doubled or overnight, at least 2 hours. 

For the rolls:
3 tablespoon butter, softened + 2 tablespoons for bottom of pan
1/3 cup brown sugar + 1/4 cup for pan
2 tablespoons white sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup pumpkin seeds roasted in olive oil and salt until plump and crunchy

On floured surface use your hands to gently shape dough into 10x12 inch rectangle (dough is very pliable, you will not need a rolling pin). Spread 3 tablespoons butter across dough, sprinkle surface evenly with 1/3 cup brown and 2 tablespoons white sugars, cinnamon, and salt. Beginning at long side, roll dough into tube an pinch ends together. Cut cut each roll into into 7 or 8 round pieces. 

Grease the bottom and sides of a round 8 or 9 inch cake pan with remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Evenly coat bottom of pan with 1/4 cup brown sugar. Nestle rolls in pan, cover with plastic wrap or towel and rise to double, about 1 hour.

Bake rolls in a preheated 350 degree oven for about 30 minutes (check after 20) until outside is crisp and golden. Cool on rack 5 minutes, then invert pan over plate and release rolls. Sprinkle tops with pumpkin seeds and serve warm.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Chef Marcus Samuelsson: lessons in food, culture, and charisma

Before everyone and their mother had a blog, before we all photographed every plate we encountered, before google and the Food Network guided every edible decision we made, I attended a cookbook signing at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis.

Our dinner included recipes from "Aquavit: and the New Scandinavian Cuisine" and I ate three servings of foie gras ganache. The author and chef was Marcus Samuelsson, who was a rising star in the food world and the guy every Scandinavian girl in Minnesota had a crush on.

When it was my turn for a signature, Chef Marcus asked for my name and commented, "Patrice? A French name."

I was pretty sure we'd shared a moment.

Now the once up-and-coming chef is a reigning rock star among food lovers and fifteen years later I'm still handing my cookbook over for a signature.

On Friday a lunchtime crowd of 300 gathered at ASI to see Chef Marcus who was in the Twin Cities to talk about his latest cookbook "Off Duty: The Recipes I Cook at Home." He reminded us that everywhere except for in America food choices are guided by spiritual compasses. The only time Americans fast is when we need to lose five pounds. He also reminded us that in America we are a nation of immigrants and food is the best way to share and celebrate our differences, "I'm from this culture and I want to preserve it."

Chef Marcus has an infectious enthusiasm that he shared with us disciples. "Food is in and of a place," he said. "The feeling of cooking is magical. It's not politics, it's not money, it's not religion. It is spiritual."

Later at Cooks of Crocus Hill in St. Paul at another sold-out signing, I dined with fifty other lucky ticket holders while Chef Marcus continued his homily. We sopped up his lessons with as much fervor as the meal placed before us: kebabs of spicy sausage and shrimp, extra dirty rice (that Chef Marcus insisted be made dirtier before our arrival), and buckwheat noodles with peanuts.

When asked about how to feed children who don't like what the family is eating, he stiffened at the idea that parents allow their children to dictate the direction of family meals. Parents' tastes should be guiding decisions about what a family eats, not their children's tastes. "When I was a kid I was asked once a year what I wanted for dinner. And that was on my birthday."

When discussion turned to the food American schools serve students, again Chef Marcus stiffened. "In America we have the best food, and the worst food." His message was clear: the 15 million American children who live in food insecure homes deserve better than that. In this richest of countries how do we justify that our neighbors, our children, go hungry?

On Friday night I listened as Chef Marcus spoke with fans and signed their books. A pretty young redhead handed him a book and post-it with her name on it. "Colette! A French name," Chef Marcus enthused. Colette grinned and swooned, and had her moment. And a new disciple was born.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Gravlax Project: Public Kitchen

GRAVLAX: a Scandinavian dish of dry-cured salmon marinated in herbs. The word gravlax comes from the term gravadlax or "buried salmon," which was the traditional way of fermenting the fish.

October gave me a few opportunities to speak with other food lovers about the history and popularity of Nordic cuisine, and how the Twin Cities became our nation's New Nordic epicenter. I credit Minnesota's history of Scandinavian immigration, an abundance of smart chefs and restaurateurs who embrace a farm-to-table and sustainability philosophy, and the short but dynamic presence of Aquavit Minneapolis and Chef Marcus Samuelsson

Aquavit is where I experienced my first taste of cured salmon and in the sixteen years since Aquavit's great rise to accolades (and then its sad crumbling demise), I've witnessed an emergence of gravlax on menus across the Twin Cities. Maybe gravlax was always around and it took a torrid affair with Aquavit's menu for me to notice the presence of Scandinavian ingredients on tables from downtown St. Paul to Dinkytown. I prefer to think of our gravlax renaissance as a permanent gift from a restaurant that was ahead of its time. 

Now, many of my dining adventures are all about finding places that serve gravlax, and I judge a restaurant by the quality of its cured salmon. Sure, I make gravlax at home. It isn't a difficult task. But I am inspired by the flavors and accouterments that local chefs put on the salmon plate.

Therefore, in an effort and as an excuse to eat our weight in good cured salmon, my enthusiastic assistant (and husband) T and I are engaged in what I like to call The Gravlax Project. Obligatory disclosure: I am not a restaurant critic. I am, however, a self-taught gravlax aficionado. We intend to eat all of the gravlax we can locate throughout Minneapolis, St. Paul, and their suburbs. I will document our gravlax grazing and report back to you on what we find. We will leave no salmon uneaten.

When I encounter a platter of gravlax there are a few must-haves. 
  • The fish itself must be silky and fresh, with a firm bite and a lush mouthfeel. I prefer dark salmon flesh that isn't layered with light pink fat. I find that the lighter colored and fattier salmons tend to carry a distinctively fishy taste that negates freshness.
  • Garnishments should be classic and/or seasonal. Creativity is great, as long as the garnish brings balance to the fish and doesn't take flavors down an uncomplimentary path. 
First up: Public Kitchen and Bar in Lowertown St. Paul.

I met Public's Chef Greg Johnson at New Nordic event last month. He told me about his efforts to make Public a sustainably- and locally-sourced dining destination. Then he mentioned his gravlax and I could think of little else until we finally made the trek to Lowertown for something other than our weekend trips to the Farmers Market. 

Public's space is stunning. We sat in the spacious upstairs dining room bar in brown cushy booths and high backed seats, surrounded by gorgeous dark wood and huge arched windows overlooking Mears Park. I ordered a Vikre juniper gin martini and asked for the gravlax which is normally served downstairs in the lounge.

Public's gravlax is billed as house cured salmon with toasted crostini and classic garnish. It is prepared with a traditional cure of sugar, salt, and dill. The generous portion of thinly sliced gravlax was succulent, almost sweet with richness. Each bite was exactly what I look for in an outstanding cured salmon: glossy and luxurious. Garnishments included crème fraîche, spicy mustard, diced soft boiled egg, red onion rounds, cornichons, and perfectly toasted crostini. My only complaint with the preparation is that I wanted more crostini, but to be fair my blasphemously anti-gravlax friend helped herself to a toast sans salmon. My pro-gravlax companion declared it to be the best gravlax he's ever eaten. 

T arrived long after the gravlax had been devoured and just as we were finishing our appetizers: warm jalapeno cheddar biscuits with jalapeno jam and honey butter; calamari tempura served with lime aioli, garlicky peanut sauce, and fresh bits of mango; and crab cakes with cilantro lime coleslaw. All were superb, as were the specialty cocktails we tried. It was decided that another plate of gravlax was needed, and T, as is his fashion when the gravlax is to his liking, shared none of it.

Conclusion: Public's Salmon Lox ($11) is well worth a trip to downtown St. Paul. I'm curious to see whether Chef Greg Johnson will update the presentation or keep it classic. Either way, we'll return for another plate. And another.

Public Kitchen and Bar
229 E 6th St, St Paul, MN 55101

Friday, October 31, 2014

Happy Hot Dog Halloween

Because nothing is cuter than cats dressed like dogs.