Sunday, March 1, 2015

Old Wheezie, Beloved Furnace and Servant, Dies at 55

Old Wheezie passed away Saturday, February 28th after falling ill that morning. In her final moments, Wheezie struggled against fate and managed to belch out a few brief surges of heat. She was pronounced dead four hours later when the furnace repairman snuffed out Wheezie’s dimming pilot light and cited the cause of death as complications related to old age. She was 55.

Wheezie spent a lifetime in service to the two families who inhabited the home where Wheezie was born. As a youth she established a reputation for efficiency and loyalty. She was known for loud bursts of joyful effort during winter, her favorite season. In her later years Wheezie could be heard groaning loudly and gasping prior to beginning her tasks, thus receiving the nickname “Wheezie” which came to be her permanent title.

Preceded in death by longtime companion The Stove, siblings May and Tag Washer-Dryer, her home’s previous tenants including Pat the Dog and Haley the Cat; survived by current tenants T, P, Olive, Oskar, and Orson. The home’s spokescat Orson offered this perspective, “While it may be cliché to say that Wheezie died doing what she loved, it is no less true. She lived her life to the fullest and, indeed, accomplished her duties to the very end.”

Final viewing scheduled for Monday, March 2nd at 7 AM. In lieu of flowers family members request that contributions memorials be sent to the Heating and Air Replacement and Installation Experts who will be handling Wheezie’s replacement.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The appeal of braised comfort

Braise enough roast, any roast, on Sunday and dinner is made ahead for at least a three weeknights. First night: sliced thin or pulled with reduced braising liquid served over pureed potatoes, parsnips, and apples. Second night: quick beef and barley soup made with a carton of stock and a handful of vegetables. Third night: the final bits of meat and reduction spiced up with cumin and chili powder tucked into taco shells with cheese, pickled vegetables, and avocado.

Short-ribs used to be an affordable cut, but as it goes with everything that speaks to our comfort-gauges, short-ribs became priced out of my budget. When I finally discovered the grass-fed short-ribs from Seward Co-op in Minneapolis a whole new world of fairly-priced and flavorful options helped ring the dinner bell.

At Called to the Table today is an easy recipe for stout-braised short ribs. The sauce marries sweet (stout, maple, and apple) and savory, and I'm anxious to try it with other inexpensive roasts.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Gravlax Project: Spoon and Stable

This is part 3 of our effort to eat all the good cured salmon that is available across the Twin Cities.

Spoon and Stable opened with much hoopla this fall, and marked the return of hometown hero Gavin Kaysen. Chef Kaysen's curriculum vitae includes extraordinary stints as executive chef at Café Boulud, American team member and coach at the Bocuse d'Or, Iron Chef competitor, and James Beard Award winner. Just this week Spoon and Stable was announced as a semifinalist for JBA Best New Restaurant.

I'd already planned to visit Spoon and Stable before perusing the menu and spotting cured salmon among the offerings, but it seemed sensible to wait for the excitement and crowds to tamper down before pushing my way into the packed restaurant. Three months after opening it is still difficult to get a reservation. My favorite partner-in-dining, K, joined me on a weeknight to try our luck at the bar where happy hour draws lines half an hour before the restaurant opens.

Stories circulated about a mix of botoxed cougars and beautiful hipsters inhabiting the Spoon and Stable bar each night. Either the reports were exaggerated or we hit upon a good night. Patrons were a nice blend of older folks out for an early dinner and Minneapolis office workers looking for cocktails in a gorgeous setting. Sure there were plenty of beautiful people, but the rest of us felt at home among them. The space and the food are well matched: open, clean, elegant, and sleek. There are cozy tables, comfortable chairs, valet parking and coat check; but nothing fussy or intimidating.

Grilled oysters on the bar menu were too tempting to pass. They came topped with an odd-colored foamy buttermilk mignonette. K made a face. "I always trust you when it comes to these matters," she said, "but..." I poo-pooed her hesitation and together we dove in. K nodded with approval. The oysters were lovely but I'd come for the cured salmon and it was time.

Chef Kaysen and his team use a straightforward cure of salt, sugar, and dill. After a 24-hour brine (give or take, the bartender told us) the gravlax is sweet and luscious, with a sheath of packed dill. The dill cured salmon is nestled with tiny fingerlings, bits of Quisp-shaped pickled onion, mustard so coarse that I mistook it for pickled seeds, dainty little swirls of preserved lemon, horseradish cream, heaps of salmon roe, and tendrils of dill and greens, all sitting atop a hill of pumpernickel croutons. 

We paused to appreciate our experience, and then braved the menu once more.

The sunchoke volueté was silky and plump with lardon and truffles. I dipped warm sour dough bites into the bowl (even after I'd spread the bread with butter) so that I could smear each bite with the flavor of the creamy soup. The Wisconsin dry-aged grass-fed beef duo included a beef cheek sausage and fat strip loins partnered with braised cabbage, potato puree, and a burnt orange jus (that reminded me of a BBQ jus I once enjoyed and have thought of many times since at the now defunct Goodfellow's). Dessert was pistachio cake with meyer lemon panne cotta, grapefruit curd, and crunch pistachio brittle, which was followed with Spoon and Stable's complimentary tin of petite cookies (a de-amuse bouche?). With our final nibbles K spotted Chef Kaysen across the bar and we tittered. "Now THAT is a fabulous dessert," I said, not sure myself if I meant the food or the chef sighting.

Conclusion: Spoon and Stable's Dill Cured Salmon ($14) is one of the best I've had (and I've had some pretty amazing gravlax in my life). Each bite is dreamy and sleek. Come for the salmon, stay through dessert.

Spoon and Stable
211 1st Street North
Minneapolis, MN 55401
(612) 224-9850

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Death by semlor

Semlor in Sweden used to be reserved for Shrove Tuesday (the day before Lent begins) as a final feast before fasting. Swedes loved their cardamom buns (served with almond paste and whipped cream, often in a dish with warm milk) so much that when Protestant Reform freed them from Lenten dietary restrictions, semlor became common fare for the entire Easter season. Now, hungry Swedes begin reaching for the pastry as soon as Christmas is over. (Note: semla is singular, semlor is plural.)

Legendary semlor have been known to kill. Yes, really! In 1771 Swedish King Adolf Fredrik consumed fourteen semlor, a rich dessert that followed an even richer meal of lobster, caviar, and sour kraut. Death by semlor. And what a way to go. 

This year enterprising baker Mattias Ljungberg of Tössebageriet started selling a sort of street version of the buns: semlor wraps. The wraps are a hit and have me rethinking the semla. My recipe for semlor is great, but there must be a way to make it even greater. Enter the Semlor a la Våfflor (Swedish Buns a la Waffles).

I felt like I understoond King Adolf Fredrik's glottony just a little bit better while baking my first batch of Semlor a la VåfflorI'd already pushed every warm bite of the first waffle into my greedy mouth before the second cardamom waffle finished cooking. (If you are doing the math, that is under 2 minutes.) I had to force myself into patience so that I could finish mixing the almond pudding and whipping the cream to top my second serving.   

Semla a la Våffel
Makes 7 waffles
2 eggs, separated
1/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup unsalted butter
1 1/4 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1 1/4 teaspoon yeast (half of a packet)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons cardamom
2 teaspoons baking powder

In large mixing bowl whisk together egg yolks and sugar until light and lemon colored.

In saucepan heat butter and milk until butter just melts. Remove from heat and cool to 110 degrees.

Add butter-milk mixture, vanilla, almond, yeast, flour, salt, and cardamom to yolk-sugar mixture. Whisk together until thick batter forms. Cover and set aside in warm draft-free area until doubled in bulk, about 2 hours.

Whisk baking powder into batter. Beat egg whites to stiff peaks and fold into batter.

Bake in preheated greased waffle iron according to manufacturer's instructions (about 2/3 cup of batter per waffle).

Reserve half of one waffle for the pudding. Top waffles with almond pudding and whipped cream (instructions follow).

For the pudding:
1/2 of one cooked waffle
8 ounces almond paste
1/2 cup whipping cream

Tear half of one waffle into small pieces. Add torn waffle, paste, and whipping cream to processor and process until grainy pudding forms.

For the whipped cream:
1/2 cup whipping cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1 tablespoon powdered sugar

Beat all ingredients until stiff peaks form.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

IMFC Honoring Legacy: Farmers Moving Forward

Two hundred and fifty farmers, educators, advocates, agency officials, and volunteers gathered this past weekend for the 10th Immigrant and Minority Farmers Conference on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul Campus. The two-day event is free to farmers and includes breakout sessions designed to address the needs of immigrant and minority farmers. Workshops are focused on helping farmers to improve and strengthen their farming practices and include topics such as organic farming, how to sell at markets, loans, and fair pricing.

This year’s theme, “Honoring Legacy: Farmers Moving Forward,” demonstrated how our farmers are progressing. With the popularity of urban farming and community gardens, our younger generation is starting to take an interest in the conference and there are young farmers-in-training on the planning committee. Volunteers and sisters, Dorothy and Dolly are great examples of youth taking leadership roles both in their communities and in the conference. They told me about the community garden they are planning in an effort to feed their neighbors, especially children and the elderly, who don’t always have access to fresh healthy produce. Their enthusiasm is contagious and their youthful influence was evident in the acts selected for conference lunch performances.

I usually attend a breakout session or two. Even as a non-farmer I learn a lot. But this year’s Immigrant and Minority Farmers Conference was most informative for me during lunch.

Our plates overflowed with good Thai noodles and curry from Sen Yai Sen Lek (the folks at this NE Minneapolis diner support our farmers with their local and sustainable sourcing) and we tapped our toes to bluegrass performers “The Moonlight Duo.” 

Then Hmong poet Kevin Yang took the stage. “Who is this guy?” I asked my dining companion as Yang began his piece “My name is Kevin.” Kevin speaks with the strength of a master slam poet, and his voice caught me off guard. His poetry embodies the pain of an immigrant experience, the humor behind our cultural differences, and the wisdom of a young man who understands that he is connected to the land he stands on regardless of which country he is standing in. Kevin Yang blew me away.

Lunch ended with a performance by half a dozen Hmong girl dancers. You have to have a heart of stone not to love cute little girls dancing. As the girls promenaded off stage and the farmers headed to their afternoon breakout sessions, I thought, "How can we top this? Tomorrow’s lunch will be dull and sad compared to this." I had no idea that Kabzuag Vaj was coming to town.

Over lunch on Sunday (curry, chicken skewers, and salads catered by Shirley Yang), Kabzuag Vaj told us the story of Freedom, Inc. She spoke about a group of teen Hmong who gathered in the parking lot after school to talk about their problems. Eventually the group began meeting indoors, and the black teens in the neighborhood joined them. From those informal meetings a grassroots community in Madison, Wisconsin grew. Freedom, Inc. promotes an end to violence through the empowerment of low- to no-income communities of color, women, and the gender non-conforming. They have created healthier living through joining forces, urban farming, and a commitment to one another. Watch members of the community tell their story here (they tell it much better than I can):

A community gets its strength from its diversity, and from the experiences and knowledge we share. Those of us far removed from an immigrant experience or a farming community have much to learn from our new immigrant neighbors. Something magical occurs when those exchanges take place in a vegetable garden, or in a freshly plowed field, or over lunch at a conference in St. Paul.




Wednesday, February 4, 2015

TV viewing: diversions and snacks

We didn't watch the Super Bowl this year, turning instead to a kinder gentler evening with the Dowager on "Downton Abbey." (I did sneak a peak at halftime. It is important to have, at least, a small bit of cultural reference to operate from on the morning after.)

Our football season ended when the Packers lost their playoff game two weeks ago. And honestly, I haven't enjoyed games with the same fervor of old. Last season began with an enlightening Frontline episode on the NFL and concussions. This season began with domestic violence and child abuse, and ended with a brawl on the end zone. You can't make this stuff up.

I need a viewing diversion. Usually the Oscars fit the bill, but the movies on this year's docket left me yawning. Thankfully, TV's winter hiatus is screeching to a close and already I am hooked into the new season of "The Americans" (who knew I could cheer for the Russians? Aren't they supposed to be the bad guys?), and I am looking toward the return of zombies ("Walking Dead"), advertising and cocktails ("Mad Men"), and nasty politicians ("House of Cards").

Winter TV equals snacking. I've pulled a few recipes from Called to the Table that will sustain us until winter viewing ends and grilling season begins. Settle in with a plate and the TV Guide, but don't ask me to share the remote control. Now, shhhhhh! My show is starting!
Carrot Slaw Wonton Cups
Dill Cheese Curds fried in Aquavit Tempura
Lobster Egg Rolls

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Birthdays, friendships, and funerals

             Celebrating my birthday with friends in 1974

"Will do anything to make a friend," Mom recorded this assessment pre-kindergarten in my babybook. It pretty much sums up who I was then and who I am know. Not much else stands out in that book other than weight/height charts and report cards that document a "social, friendly, and talkative" child who "clamors for attention." The report cards show that I had an early affinity for writing, and (eh-hem) talking, and collecting friends. 

Which brings us to birthdays. I live for my birthday, and for my friends' birthdays should they choose to share them with me. Birthdays bring parties and good food, maybe a present or two wrapped in glittery paper. I love birthday cards that express affection or humor. I learned early that the best birthday cards contains cash and a press-out paperdoll and are signed in familiar shaky cursive, "Love, Grandpa."

This year things were a little different. This was the year I attended a funeral on my birthday. I lost a friend on my birthday rather than gathering friends around me.

Usually I enjoy funerals in the same way I enjoy birthday parties. Just as with birthday parties, funerals are a celebration of a person, of their life, of who they were.

When a young person dies it isn't always easy to celebrate. We grievers are left feeling the loss not only of our loved one but of their potential and everything they would have experienced had they lived a week, a month, a year, a decade, a century longer. Reeling in pain we plead with God, fate, or the stars, "Give me just one more moment, let me look at her beautiful face just one more time." If we are lucky our begging is heard and those we lost appear to us in dreams.

My friend Cutrina lived a life that overflowed with faith and joy. She was electric. At her funeral I listened as others spoke about Cutrina's deep faith. She was the kind of woman who ran to the front of the church when a favorite song was sung. I heard about Cutrina's kindness and generosity like when she gave a bus pass to a stranger who later became her friend. We all knew Cutrina for her over-the-top celebration of life. She could kick above her head and do the splits without so much as a pre-dance stretch. Her smarts and hard work helped to conceive of and create the Immigrant and Minority Farmers Conference. We'll remember her for all of these things as well as her outlandish hairstyles and crazy designs polished on 1-inch fingernails.

Yes, Cutrina died young. Yet she lived past her potential. She crammed a heck of a lot into 41 years. I thank her for this gift received loud and clear on my birthday: Cutrina reminded me to live BIG every single day. Live loud. Sing loud. Find gratitude. Talk a lot. Make friends. Make some more friends. Be kind and generous. Work hard. Kick high. Wear sassy hair and paint your nails. When it is your time to go, be sure and leave your loved ones with plenty to smile about when they remember you. And never miss an opportunity to celebrate your birthday.