Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A night in Edina and dreams of yakisoba

Our best food memories serve more than just the taste of a meal. They encompass place and time. For twenty-five years, more than half my lifetime, I've been searching for authentic yakisoba in Minnesota. I've been looking for a yakisoba that can bring me back to my youth and to the old Japanese man who fried noodles at his cart in the street. When I need comfort, I think of that vendor and his good soba.

I know I can ever relive that experience or those flavors... but that hasn't stopped me from trying. I've grazed my way through dozens of Twin Cities Japanese restaurants and enjoyed many delicious noodle dishes. Of course, none have had the grilled street food flavor of the yakisoba I ate on the outskirts of Tokyo.

It began with the smell. Like a pig searching for truffles I sniffed my way through our neighborhood. The aroma became a place where sesame oil met hot griddle, where strings of noodles were kissed by spicy threads of pickled ginger. In Tokyo yakisoba vendors were as common as hotdog stands in New York City. Yakisoba was the food of the people hustling through the streets with no time for a proper sit down meal.

The old man who ran the yakisoba stand near our house didn't speak English, and I only spoke enough Japanese to elicit a finger-pointing toward the closest subway station, but he knew I loved the ginger and always gave me extra. I could watch him for hours, frying noodles over the long hot griddle. He added bits of vegetables and pork and finished the fried soba with a flourish of sauce. With nimble skill he'd heap a generous portion on to a cardboard plate using chopsticks and a spatula, then hand the plate to outstretched hands. On a cold day, standing near the grill was a way to keep warm while you waited for you noodles.

The Edina location of Cooks of Crocus Hill, a local kitchen store and cooking school, recently hosted a Japanese Street Food class, and I felt like my search for authentic yakisoba in Minnesota was at long last over. We eager students (sort of) accomplished the correct folds on our gyoza, learned the secrets of a perfect takitori skewer and sauce, and made a delicious yakisoba. The noodles weren't fried outdoors over an open flame (although we did fry them over the flames of a good gas range), and there weren't the fine ribbons of ginger that I crave whenever their is a promise of Japanese food. In the end our yakisoba didn't completely end my longing for the dish I still dream about.

But oh, what a meal.

Am I ready to return to Tokyo and receive soba training from a master so that I can open my own yakisoba cart in the the Twin Cities? (Yes! Perhaps just a stand in my own backyard...) From the streets of Japan to a night in Edina, these dreams of yakisoba guide me.


Thursday, October 16, 2014

Land of the lost lip balms

Every year at the Minnesota State Fair the good folks from the StarTribune give away funny flavored lip balms. They've had bacon balm (tasted like Mrs. Butterworth syrup), brat balm (tasted like dill mustard), and buttered corn balm (simply delicious!).

This year I asked one of the balm distributors how many tubes they order each year and was told, "That is classified information."

Not satisfied with her answer, I pressed further, "So, you don't actually know the number, do you?"

My question only served to annoy lip balm lady. "I do know."

Summarily dismissed, I walked away with a tube of cut grass balm (tasted like a warm spring breeze) in my fanny pack and a curious head full of questions.

Where do these mysterious balms come from? Who thinks up these flavors? How many more flavors can they possibly create? How do I collect every odd flavor ever to fill a plastic cylinder?

A weekend visit to our handy Ax-Man Surplus store fulfilled my wildest heavenly lip balm fantasies. For $1.95 each I could fill a dozen fanny packs with flavors like mac and cheese, chocolate milkshake, and popcorn.

I feel like the secrets of the weirdly flavored lip balm world are suddenly open to me.

At Called to the Table today another secret is revealed: where did the lobster egg rolls stashed in my high school friend Sarah's freezer come from? Hmm... lobster egg roll lip balm, anyone?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Class of '85: pass me the Cheez Balls

     image from: http://www.collidetheatrical.org 

Collide Theatrical’s “Class of ‘85” is midway through its two week spot at the Southern Theater. We scooped up tickets because, as self-appointed Gen X media monitors, we have a duty to support all plays, movies, and TV shows about the 1980s. There was another draw for our visit to the historic theater on Minneapolis’s West Bank as a high school buddy of mine is the lead female vocalist. There is a surreal sort of comfort watching your high school friend from the 80s perform in a play about high school in the 80s thirty years after the original spectacle.

As “Class of ‘85” opens we are introduced to a mishmash of clichéd stereotypes: Princess, Cheerleader, Geek, Outcast, Jock, Rebel, Nerd, and Drama Queen. The angst filled teens jeté and pirouette between tales of unrequited love and misunderstood youth. Music meanders from wild-with-abandon hair rock to Whitney Houston pop slowed into sweet ballads, while classroom dramas lead to the eve of prom when the group of students is thrown together a la “The Breakfast Club.”

Dance performances are a jazz-fueled fusion of ballet and modern with some hip-hop and tap thrown in for good measure. Individual dancers flawlessly capture the aforementioned unrequited love, misunderstood youth, and general angst. High-energy ensemble routines tell the often manic-depressive stories that come with learning to navigate love and friendships, and a “Footloose” inspired finale provides the happy ending we all deserved.

While “Class of ’85” is billed as a dance production, music shares a starring role on the marquee. Deb Brown and Michael Hannah are backed by a band that packs in everything from synthesizers and organs to the poppy white hip-hop beat of New Kids on the Block.

We cheered the hokey plot, applauded the gloom, and sang along to remixes of “Tainted Love” and “Fame.” All of the misery and joy that we felt in adolescence came to life. I think John Hughes would approve.

Ticket bearers take note: beer and wine are complimentary. You can also reminisce with a can of saccharin and TaB for only $1. The only refreshments missing were a box of frozen Jell-O Pudding Pops and a canister of Cheez Balls.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Elvis has not left the building. He's eating breakfast.

OK. Here's the deal. Regarding breakfast. I am more of a whatever is leftover from dinner kind of fast breaker. I don't buy into the smoothie hype and I believe kale is a vile week. Eating Paleo will not bring me closer to God or to a perfect diet and body. I don't put a lot of energy into bloggers who claim eating 3-ingredient gluten-free high-energy pancakes or smoothies or cookies is the way to achieve a better life.

I like gluten and carbs, and yes I eat way too many of the two in combination. And my search for a perfect breakfast that is both filling and healthy has been a long and challenging ordeal.

Until now. Until my breakfast epiphany.

You see I have these two friends who convinced me to try banana peanut butter pancakes. These sassy cakes changed my life, or, at least, my morning noshing routine. I even convinced one of my sisters to give them a try, and she sent her husband off to work with a few pancakes rolled around sausage and he coined them "Elvis  in Blankets" (Or how about "Elviscakes"?).

Banana PB Pancakes
2 bananas
1 egg
½ teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons peanut butter

Mash the bananas with peanut butter; add egg and baking powder and stir until well combined. Fry in butter or coconut oil on medium-low heat 3 to 5 minutes or until cakes can be flipped and cook additional 2 to 3 minutes. Use about ¼ cup batter for each pancake.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Blogging birthday: Adventures in living

Last week T and I found ourselves reeling from news of a dear friend's death. We spent the weekend trying to adjust to the shock of our loss and the rest of the week mostly numb from the reality. 

Our friend was one of those guys who lived life to the fullest. Regardless of what illness or tragedy or mishap came his way, he looked bravely toward the future and ran forward. Nothing stopped him: not the Lyme disease that stole his beautiful voice, nor the Parkinson's that stole his mobility. 

Mark and his husband traveled and entertained, cooked and gardened, enjoyed happy hours and good meals out. Rare was the occasion that their home wasn't filled with friends and laughter. Mark taught me how to make pie crust. Mark taught me that camping didn't necessarily mean agony. Mark taught me that butter and chocolate are the two most important food groups. I have never seen anyone eat with such abandon and appreciation as he did: he relished every bite, every crumb. Mark didn't waste time and he didn't waste a good dessert.

Mark left us quite a legacy. As I was reflecting upon his life and our friendship, I realized that T and I are lucky to be surrounded by many friends who, like Mark, live their lives with passion and fullness. Their examples inspire us to do the same. 

I started writing this blog five years ago to document my involvement in the Solar House Decathlon as part of the University of Minnesota team. My team responsibilities were to create and cook iconic Minnesota food for our dinner parties during competition. It was a once in a lifetime experience to hang out in the little Icon House, erected with nineteen other module homes on the National Mall in D.C. It was also a once in a lifetime opportunity to sit at the lunch table with the cool kids. How many other people can claim they hosted two dinner parties on the National Mall? 

Since that time, this blog has evolved into hopefully more than just a diary online that nobody reads. I am now a contributing blogger at Twin Cities Daily Planet, have written for a variety of other online and printed resources including Chef Marcus Samuelsson's blog and the Minnesota History Center's "Toys of the 50's, 60's, and 70's," and have a weekly column in my hometown newspaper the Gaylord Hub.

I hope that those of you who stumble across my words will find humor, entertainment, a few decent recipes, and inspiration to live with passion. To live fully we have to face challenges that scare us and shake off the dust of laziness (for I am truly the laziest person you'll ever meet). Life is all about the stories we tell and we've got to keep churning out copy regardless of how many grammatical errors and misspells we make. 

On this occasion, this Fifth Birthday for Cultural Construct, I give thanks to those of you who come here. Tonight, eat your dessert with abandon in honor of the Mark's of the world who inspire us to keep reaching toward our passions. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Cinnamon buns and elephant earrings

Mark your calendars kids, October 4 is almost here. We are just hours away from one of the greatest celebrations the Swedes ever shared with the rest of the world: Kanelbullens Dag (a.k.a. Cinnamon Bun Day)!

It's only been around since 1999. Conceived by Sweden's Hembakningsrådet (the Home Baking Council) to commemorate their 40th anniversary, Cinnamon Bun Day is one of those made-up holidays, like Valentines and Mothers Day, that a cynical American might view as a way for some marketers to drum up enthusiasm among the masses to buy stuff we don't really need. However, as much as Swedes love their Cinnamon Buns they didn't necessarily need an official reason to celebrate the worthy pastry, and they certainly aren't snubbing their noses at a reason to scarf down a few tasty rolls.

When I was a kid my mom used to take leftover bread dough and make our family's version of Elephant Ears. She'd use the dough to roll standard cinnamon buns, then flatten each roll and bake them into crispy treats. At Called to the Table is my quick and lazy version of Elephant Ears. Using store-bought puff pastry, these ears are more like elephant earrings.

This weekend let's take a page (or a flaky layer of pastry) from our Scandinavian friends and enjoy the flavors of autumn in the form of sweet dough wrapped around cinnamon and cardamon.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Pizza Dough Revelation

If you've hung around me or my blog much you are likely aware that I am a total pizza fascist. It isn't a trait that I wear proudly (Obviously I have some deep inner pie issues. Perhaps I suffered pizza trauma in my youth. Perhaps I'm just really bossy in the kitchen.)

Last week a good friend of mine, with full knowledge of my rigid pizza politics, had the audacity to serve grilled pizza at her dinner party. "I have this new recipe that I'd really like to try out on you," she told us.

When we arrived at the party the first thing that hit me was the intoxicating smell of yeast and olive oil: a combination that always brings me back to the best job I've ever had, making pizza back in college. My dough rarely smells so warm and inviting.

Our host instructed each of us to shape our own pizza, grill it, and top it. The dough was pliable and dense, easy to form, and cooked up as bubbly as the stuff served at my favorite local Neapolitan place. I could hardly wait to bite into my pizza as it finally came off the grill. The chew was amazing: a snappy crisp outside and soft airy interior. It was a pizza dough revelation!

Kitchn.com calls their recipe "The Best Pizza Dough for Grilling" and I will not argue with their claim. I adapted the recipe by swapping out a few cups of all-purpose flour for whole wheat, and I also added a bit of sugar to the yeast. Pizza perfection!

Pizza Dough for the Grill
8 servings

1 2/3 cup warm water
1 to 2 teaspoons yeast (1 if you are making the

dough a day ahead of time, 2 if you plan on using it the same day)
2 teaspoons sugar
1/4 cup olive oil
3 cups bread or all-purpose flour
2 cups whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons salt

Combine water, yeast, and sugar in small bowl and set aside until foamy; about 5 minutes.

In large bowl of stand-up mixer combine flours and salt. Add wet ingredients and knead the dough on low speed with a dough hook for 5 to 7 minutes, or knead by hand on the counter for 6 to 8 minutes. When kneaded, the dough should form a smooth ball, feel smooth to the touch, and spring slowly back when poked.

Cut the dough into 8 pieces and form into balls. Grease a baking pan lightly with olive oil or baking spray. Place the dough balls in the pan and turn them over so they are coated with oil. Cover the pan with plastic wrap.

To make pizza the same day: Let dough rise at room temp 1 to 2 hours or until doubled. Use immediately or refrigerate for later use. Dough can be refrigerated up to three days.

To make pizza the next day: Place covered pan immediately in refrigerator and let rise overnight or up to 24 hours. To use, remove dough and let sit at room temp for at least 1 hour.