Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Dude abides

As we do every year, we welcomed summer with our annual viewing of "The Big Lebowski." In the past we invited friends to our fest, but over the years T and I realized that no one else truly appreciates our tradition. Now we keep the party intimate.

The uninitiated might think "The Big Lebowski" is an odd choice for Memorial Day, but it a perfect fit. America the beautiful, indeed: a conscientious objector, a reactionary veteran, a meek veteran, a fragile pacifist, a pederast, and a Yorkshire terrier posing as a Pomeranian go bowling. References to Vietnam and the first George Bush's war on Iraq, a bowling alley attendant Saddam Hussein doppelganger, German nihilists, a soiled rug, smut king Jackie Treehorn, Woo, the kidnapping of Bunny the nymphomaniac, a ringer full of Walter's dirty whites, and possibly the best soundtrack ever made tie the plot together. And then there's Maude.

Our Memorial Day Big Lebowski menu rarely wavers. This year, toes intact, we began the event with breakfast at our local Original Pancake House. At the Original Pancake House they serve pigs-in-blanket as well as oodles of lingonberries. (Obligatory Non-Lebowski Interjection: My beef with OPH is their resolute claim that the maple syrup they serve is real. "We make it ourselves!" the perky server boasted. OPH, you are doing a disservice to your customers by 1. instructing them that maple syrup is made by humans and not by trees, and 2. not providing an option for customers to purchase actual real - perhaps I should use the term pure - maple syrup. Only a nihilist would accept fake. But, hey that's just, like, my opinion, man.).

An ode to the In-N-Out burger in a city where the franchise does not exist demands grilled In-N-Out wanna-be's. This year we tried my friend Kelly's friend's mother's Red Wine Hamburgers topped with Gruyere and cheddar, arugula tossed in buttermilk-herb dressing, pickles, and Balsamic-Maple Caramelized Onions (take that, OPH!). We made ourselves comfy on the couch with burgers, fries, and a shared carafe of Caucasians (White Russians), and the Dude abides once again.

Red Wine Burgers with Balsamic-Maple Caramelized Onions
Makes 4 burgers

1 pound ground beef or bison
3/4 cup Panko breadcrumbs
1/4 cup red wine
2 to 4 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

Combine all ingredients; set aside for 30 minutes. Form into four patties. Grill, melt Gruyere and cheddar on top of each patty; serve with maple caramelized onions and grilled buns (spread thick with mayonnaise and grill until marks appear).

Balsamic-Maple Caramelized Onions
2 small yellow onions, sliced thin
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon olive oil
2 teaspoons each balsamic vinegar and maple syrup

In small saute pan melt butter in olive oil over very low heat. Add onions and stir to coat. As onions begin to slowly caramelize add vinegar and maple. Continue cooking over very low heat, stirring occasionally, until onions are sweet and caramelized, about 40 minutes.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Squirrel update

This morning we relocated Karl the Squirrel. He is now lounging at his lakeside home where we hope he reunited with his longtime companion Karin.

Two down, one to go. After Karin's departure we discovered a third marmot living in our rafters. We call her Kimmy Schmidt. And hey, Kimmy Schmidt, this is a private residence, man.

Those of you with a keen grasp of holidays may have felt a little shiver of anticipation when I mentioned the "marmot." Indeed, Memorial Day Weekend is nearly here, which means "Big Lebowski" festivities in our house (with or without marmot participation). Ah, Dude, how we love you. At Called to the Table today are two recipes for White Russian ice cream drinks. No Memorial Day Weekend is complete without a Caucasian or two.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Squirrel tails and tales

Meet Karin.

Hello, Karin!

Karin lived rent-free in the attic above our garage all winter. She and Karl moved in last fall and T and I, pacifists and catch-and-release enthusiasts that we are, couldn't bear the thought of making the happy couple homeless as temps dipped below zero. All of the good trees in our yard were already taken by other squirrel families, and Karin and Karl were so appreciative of our hospitality. We made plans to evict them as soon as the weather warmed.

Karin was the first to pack her things. We brought her to a beautiful lake front property about ten miles from our neighborhood and showed her around.

As T released the catch doors, Karin clung to the food dish like a baby ape clings to her mother. She wouldn't leave! We poked through the cage with sticks, we made loud noises, we jumped up and down. But nothing prodded Karin to leave the safety of her new metal condo.

Finally, she ran from the enclosure... and up underneath our car. Karin's little black claws gripped a back tire and she made a low growl. Again, we poked with sticks, made loud noises, jumped up and down. But again, nothing prodded Karin to leave the safety of our car. She ran back and forth on the underside of the vehicle, hanging from the tires and protesting with chirps.

A crowd gathered in the parking lot, watching our squirrel dance.

After fifteen minutes of ridiculousness, Karin scampered into the wilderness and we high-fived our success. It was like watching your child move into his freshman dorm. You might say you'll save his room for visits, but you're already making redecorating plans.

Back home in the garage Karl was confused. He glared at us with his beady little eyes and boldly jumped from beam to beam. 'You can't catch me!" he said. "You'll never take me alive."

"So be it," I replied to Karl as T reset the trap with cat food and stale peanuts. "So be it." Karl the bachelor will be moving out soon enough. With or without his consent.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Book review: Roseheart {a novel}

image courtesy of http://catherinedehdashti.com/

Imagine Bridget Jones hailed from Minnesota and her mother served red Jell-o salad rather than turkey curry. Imagine further that Bridget found love with a Persian Mark Darcy and moved in with him … and his mother.

Catherine Dehdashti’s "Roseheart {a novel}" is the story of irreverent and candid Valerie who summons us to the 1990s when black satin sheets adorned waterbeds, public smoking was legal, and Gen Xers struggled with post-college realities of grownup life. (I spent the better part of the last fifteen years carefully cultivating cynicism toward the decade that brought us bib overalls, grunge, and "Full House" and never thought I'd become nostalgic for it. Yet one page into "Roseheart" and I was reaching for my banana clips and Doc Martens.)

College is behind Valerie but she hasn't yet figured out adulthood. She's a bit of a pothead, waits tables at a local Iranian restaurant, endures an overbearing best friend/roommate, dates a wealthy but inattentive guy, and appeases her lovable but high-maintenance mom and sisters. She dreams of life as a writer. When she begins a romance with a regular from the restaurant Valerie's life changes dramatically, especially when boyfriend Naveed's mother comes to visit the new couple and never leaves. 

"Roseheart" is an exploration of relationships, none so defining as the one Valerie shares with her mother-in-law. Goli (Roseheart) and Valerie don't share a language, but they share a kitchen. Together they chop vegetables, simmer lentils into stew,  and learn to love one another.

Dedashti's wit allows sometimes painfully honest character development. Readers empathize with Valerie; we share her goof-ups, fears, secrets, and losses. We cheer for Valerie when she wins, and we cry with her when things don't go so well. Dehdashti creates a vivid regional background that will have locals nodding their heads with recognition and provide non-Minnesotans with clear details of life in the Twin Cities. Mouthwatering food descriptions will have you pulling your favorite Persian cookbook from the shelf, while reliving the 1990s will have you longing for a "Melrose Place" marathon.

"Roseheart {a novel}," 294 pages, is available for $14.99 at Common Good Books and other area bookstores, as well as online. Visit Catherine Dehdashti's homepage here: http://catherinedehdashti.com.

Obligatory friendship confession: Catherine Dehdashti is a friend and colleague. When she asked me to be a reader before "Roseheart" went to publication, I eagerly agreed. I had pretty high expectations of this book, because I've been reading Catherine's stuff for years and have always been a fan. I quickly realized this book is out of the park awesome. Nothing is better than having a friend who writes a novel you cannot put down, and nothing feels better than being able to tell your friend that her efforts rock!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Aquavit in a pretzel

Last week our Nordic Pub class took turns shaping caraway and orange pretzel bites while I barked orders, "Too small. Try to get twenty-four bites out of each batch of dough!" "Pull that boiling water off the heat. We aren't ready to boil the pretzels yet!" It is amazing what we are willing to endure when warm doughy pretzels are our reward.

One student bit into a pretzel hot from the oven and declared, "This tastes like aquavit!" That was one of the nicest things anyone has ever said about my recipes.

I've always had a thing for pretzels but my home versions were missing that little something, until Kim Ode from the Star Tribune provided this trick: 
Authentic pretzels poach briefly in a lye bath. You probably do not have this ingredient on hand. Baking soda is a good substitute, and you can boost the tang and deep color that it brings to the crust even more by first baking the baking soda for about 30 minutes. The oven’s heat causes the soda to give off water and carbon dioxide, turning the sodium bicarbonate into a bolder sodium carbonate. (Fortunately, you don’t need to understand why this works to have it work.)
Rye Pretzel Bites with Caraway
Makes 24

½ cup baking soda
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup rye flour
1 package instant yeast (about 2 ¼ teaspoons)
3 tablespoons brown sugar, plus 1 ½ tablespoons brown sugar for bath
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
½ teaspoon salt
Zest and juice from 1 orange, separated
2 tablespoons butter, room temp
1 cup warm water
1 egg yolk
2 to 3 teaspoons each caraway seeds and coarse salt, mixed together in small bowl

Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Pour baking soda on parchment lined baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and cool.

In large mixing bowl combine flour, rye, yeast, 3 tablespoons of the brown sugar, caraway, salt, and orange zest. Use hands to blend butter into flour as evenly as you can. Add water and stir until dough comes together. Remove from bowl and knead 10 to 15 minutes or until smooth. Shape into a ball and return to bowl; cover with plastic wrap or clean kitchen towel and let rise in warm place until double, 1 to 2 hours.

Gently remove dough from bowl and divide into 24 pieces. Shape into bite-sized twig or round. Place bites on well-oiled parchment lined baking sheets. Cover sheets with clean kitchen towel and let rest 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees; place racks on bottom and upper thirds of oven.

Bring 2 ½ quarts (10 cups) of water to boil and add baking soda and 1 ½ tablespoons brown sugar. Stir to dissolve and reduce heat to simmer.

Gently place a few pretzel bites at a time in simmering bath. Turn after 30 second and simmer additional 30 seconds. Remove bites with a slotted spoon or spider and return to prepared parchment. Continue simmering bites in batches.

In small mixing bowl whisk together egg yolk and 1 to 2 tablespoons orange juice. Brush tops of pretzel bites with yolk mixture. Sprinkle tops with caraway-salt mixture.

Bake 5 to 7 minutes, and then switch rack positions; bake additional 5 minutes or until pretzels are dark and crisp on the outside. Serve hot.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Yeastful experiments

Later this week I am teaching a Nordic Pub class which will include a few recipes I am really excited to share. We are welcoming sunny weather with a spring menu of caraway orange pretzel bites and Swedish-style beer cheese soup. We'll also experiment with some lefse re-dos which are, I hope, some of my best kitchen ideas yet. I'll post the recipes after class.

Meanwhile, T and I endured a short-lived but extreme weekend affliction. We are on the mend now that the work week is back. We'll nurse ourselves with mild but tasty onion cheese buns and grilled chicken burgers. The sun is shining and we deserve some warmth.

Onion Cheese Buns
Makes 8 buns

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ cups whole wheat flour
½ cup shredded white cheddar cheese
1 package yeast (about 2 ½ teaspoons)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon onion powder
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
1 large egg
2/3 cup warm water

Combine all ingredients in large mixing bowl for stand-up mixer with dough hook attachment and mix on medium for 5 minutes. Dough should pull away from the sides of the bowl and form a pliable ball. Please dough ball in clean bowl greased with a tablespoon of olive oil; turn ball in oil so that all sides are oiled. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and set in warm draft-free area until double; about 2 to 3 hours.

Gently deflate dough and divide into 8 pieces. Form pieces into balls by gathering dough and tucking it underneath the ball. Place balls on parchment lined baking sheet about an inch apart and gently flatten. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise 1 to 2 hours or until noticeably puffy.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

To top buns:
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water
3 tablespoon crushed French’s Fried Onions

Whisk together egg and water; brush tops of buns with egg wash. Sprinkle tops with crushed fried onions. Bake for 2o minutes or until buns are light golden brown; transfer to wire rack and cool.

* Adapted from HonestCooking.com "Cheesy Burger Buns"

Caraway Orange Pretzel Bites

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.