Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Cat Blogging: A whole lot of love

Orson is more than a month into his new diet and exercise plan and he's lost over a pound. We worried he was losing weight too fast, but the vet assured us things are progressing, for now, in the right direction. He's running the stairs six or more times each day, and engaging in raucous games of laser chase. All that blubber is turning into lean mean muscle (I hope.). Next weigh in: Saturday.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Breaking the rules: Pizza Nicoise

There are, in some regions, rules about what belongs on a pizza. Italian purists refuse to stray from thin tomato sauce and a scant dusting of cheese. Neapolitan pizza bakers must follow strict regulations about everything from the dough ingredients to the way the crust is formed, from the toppings to the baking temperature and the kind of wood burned in the stone oven.

Americans are known for their love of garbage pizza, an unappetizing word for pizza with every topping imaginable. If pizza alone isn't satisfying enough, we reach for side dishes. Chain delivery services offer a variety of side junk: chicken wings, bread sticks, and macaroni. It has been my experience that the more sides are offered, the less appealing the pizza. We love pizza so much that we've invented regional styles: Detroit-style, Chicago deep dish, New York, California.

Other countries have their own pizza traditions. When Shakey's Pizza was alive and well in Minnesota, we flocked there for the pepperoni, unique in that it was layered on top of the pies where it browned on the edges and curled into little bowls of piquant grease. Shakey's Pizza in Japan has plenty of familiar toppings, such as pepperoni, yet they can't keep the corn and eel slices coming out of the oven fast enough to satisfy the all-you-can-eat lunch crowds. Swedes are served "Pizza Salad" with their pies, which from what I can tell is simply cabbage coleslaw (although I've yet to meet a Swede who claims to enjoy Pizza Salad), while Pizza Hut's recent attempts at bringing odd toppings to lucky connoisseurs across Asia and the Middle East made me wonder if all the hoopla was an Internet hoax.

Which brings us to my kitchen. The only pizza rule in my house is that it must be delicious. Experimentation is encouraged. The weirder, the better. My epitaph will read "When in doubt, throw it on a pizza." See today's Called to the Table and view illustrations below for lessons in updating a classic salad. I present, for your tasting pleasure, Pizza Nicoise.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Hotdish Pizza

My mom's menu rotated according to days of the week and we knew which day of the week it was by the smells coming from the kitchen. Weekends were my favorite when tacos, burgers, and pizza took turns at our table. Sundays were Mom's night off and we kids served ourselves peanut butter toast and canned fruit cocktail before settling down with the Wonderful World of Disney.

During the rest of the week we dined on a steady wholesome diet of meat, vegetables, fat, and starch. Hotdish night brought all of those elements together in one baking dish. Wednesday nights my nostrils filled with the essence of SPAM and I could hardly wait to dip my fork into the scalloped potatoes (made with cream-of-something soup) that puckered all crispy and golden around the pink meat product.

Most of us who are born in the Midwest acquire a taste for hotdish. The taste, or at least the experience, defines us as natives. Never had hamburger macaroni tomato-soup hotdish? Oh you must not be from here. Not familiar with tuna peas cream-of-mushroom hotdish topped with potato chips? Your life hasn't yet begun! No hamburger wild-rice cream-of-celery hotdish in your past? I pity your ignorance.

Is our collective Midwestern reach for hotdish a gift from Scandinavian ancestors who enjoyed white unseasoned food? Or did hotdish reverence develop here because long winters necessitated preserved food? In Minnesota we are, after all, the center of canning and processing companies: General Mills, Pillsbury, Land O'Lakes, and SPAM.

The loose definition of hotdish is a casserole made with canned soup. I love hotdish, or perhaps I love the idea of hotdish. Yet, as an adult I harbor an aversion to recipes that include canned soup. Thankfully this distaste only gets in the way of my hotdish pleasure if I am making casseroles at home. To make due I've found ways around canned soup. White sauce made with roux heals a multitude of canned sins. However, if family or friends add soup to their hotdishes, who am I to judge? Pass the SPAM and potatoes, please!

Tater Tot Hotdish Pizza combines three of my favorite things in one dish: pizza, tater tot hotdish, and stroganoff. No canned soup was harmed in the making of this dish.

Tater Tot Hotdish Pizza
Serves 4 - 6

Dough for 10 to 12 inch pizza crust, uncooked
6 provolone cheese slices (about 1 ounce each)
25 tater tots, cooked according to manufacturer's instructions and halved
1/2 pound ground meat (chicken, beef, pork)
1 cup mushroom, chopped
1/2 cup red onion, diced
1/2 cup yellow or green pepper, diced
2 teaspoons thyme
2 teaspoons Worcestershire
1 cup green beans, chopped
1/4 cup sour cream
2 green onions, diced
1 1/2 cups shredded Italian cheeses
Olive oil, salt, and pepper

Roll dough to very thin round and place on parchment lined baking sheet. Place provolone slices evenly across dough and dot with tater tots. Bake in 425
degree oven until cheese is melted and crust begins to turn golden.

Cook ground meat in large saute pan and season with salt and pepper. Add mushrooms and cook until mushrooms just begin to release their liquid, about 5 minutes. Add onion, peppers, thyme, and Worcestershire and continue cooking until vegetables are tender, about 5 minutes more. Add green beans and cook 1 additional minute. Remove from heat and stir in sour cream and green onions.

Spread meat-veggie mixture across par-baked pizza and top with shredded cheese. Return pizza to oven and bake additional 15 minutes or until cheese is melted. Allow pizza to rest about 5 minutes before slicing.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Roasted PBLT Salad

I've been in training all week for tonight's fish fry. We'll be enjoying Cajun-style with catfish, hush puppies, coleslaw, and red beans and rice. I'd be satisfied with the hush puppies alone, but am willing to make the sacrifice and eat all that is placed before me.

Meanwhile, another salad sustains me. PBLT (potatoes, bacon, lettuce, and tomato) Salad is more of a meal replacement than a side dish.

PBLT Salad
Serves 4

For the dressing:
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon maple syrup or honey
2 teaspoons dried dill
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Olive oil

Whisk mayo, vinegar, maple, dill, and Dijon together in bottom of a large, wide salad bowl. Continue whisking and add about 1/4 olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

For the roasted salad:
2 cups fingerling potatoes, quartered lengthwise
1 cup mushrooms, quartered
A few tablespoons olive oil
A few teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
Salt and pepper

Toss potatoes and mushrooms with olive oil and Worcestershire and spread over parchment lined baking sheet. Season with salt and pepper and place in 375 degree oven. Stir every 10 minutes. Cook until the potatoes are crisp on the outside and the interior is tender, about 45 minutes. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature.

For the bacon:
1/2 pound slab bacon, cut into 3/4 inch cubes

Place in oven-safe saute pan and roast in 375 degree oven until fat is rendered and bacon is cooked through, about 20 minutes. Drain on paper towels. (Alternatively, if slab style is not available, chop thick cut bacon and roast until just crisp, about 10 minutes.)

For the cold salad:
3 - 4 cups Romaine lettuce, chopped
1/2 cup croutons
1 large tomato, diced
1/2 cup yellow pepper, diced
1/4 cup red onion, diced

To assemble:
Add tomato, pepper, and red onion to prepared dressing and set aside. Place lettuce and croutons on serving plates.

Just before serving toss potatoes, mushrooms, and bacon in dressing mixture. Pour over lettuce and serve immediately.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Rolling in verdancy

I am rolling in the green stuff. This week was all about organic asparagus which is so perfect when it is grilled, flavored with lemon, rolled inside of prosciutto, and garnished with a bit of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

In the salad bowl I keep recreating the Verde, a salad they serve at Pizza Nea in Northeast Minneapolis. I love their pizza, but it is this refreshing salad that pulls me in on warm spring afternoons and hot summer nights. I've imitated the Verde on many occasions in many forms although nothing beats having it fresh from the restaurant. 

When spring arrives I find myself humming a song we sang in high school choir, "The Earth Adorned." Translated from Swedish (Summerpsalm) to English the lyrics are simple but lovely poetry, something I recognized even as an ornery teenager who preferred the mall over nature. I know it is hokey but I always had to fight tears when we sang it. I'd blame my emotions on adolescent angst but today the message continues to move me:

The earth adorned in verdant robe
sends praises upward surging,
while soft winds breathe on fragrant flowers
from winter now emerging.
The sunshine bright gives warmth and light
to budding blossoms tender,
proclaiming summer splendor.
    From out the wood, the birds now sing
    and each its song now raises,
    to join with all the universe
    in voicing thankful praises.
    With hope and joy their songs employ
    a rapturous exultation
    in praise of God's creation.
O God, amid these joys of life,
creation's glory beaming,
grant us the grace to keep your word
and live in love redeeming.
All flesh is grass, the flowers fade,
and time is fleeting ever;
God's word remains forever.
Waldeman Ahlen (trans. Carolyn and Kenneth Jennings)

Some of us find spirituality in the seasons and in music. Others may seek it in nature or at the mall. I've found it many places, and can even claim to have had a spiritual moment or two (or more) while reflecting upon the plate in front of me. For more musings on green (both on the earth and in salad), head to Called to the Table this week. As the weekend begins I'll keeping greening it up and humming Sommarpsalm

Monday, April 7, 2014

Spring arrives with pretzels, apple-laced brats and relish

Minnesotans greeted spring's unofficial start on Saturday with smiles and hoots of wonder. T and I headed to Minneapolis for a visit to our favorite sausage purveyor. Kramarczuk's is one of those old butcher-bakery-delis that's been around since my family lived in the neighborhood 70 years ago. Did Swedes buy from Polish vendors back then? They did if they were smart.

I collected a few links of French chicken apple and apple Gouda brats, maple breakfast sausages, almost a pound of unsliced bacon, and a jar of lingonberries. At the check out I spied soft pretzels and tucked one into our bag as well, with a generous serving of coarse mustard to go.

We didn't wait for the ride back home to break out the pretzel. It was still warm and yeasty, flaked with just the right amount of salt. I dipped good chunks of the bread into the mustard and fed T while he drove. The sun was shining, the windows rolled down, and we had 80's music on the radio. The chewy pretzel was our shared and savored sacrament, and spring's arrival was not lost on us.

My only weekend regret was opting out of Kramarczuk's fat white brat rolls. Our feeble store-bought buns tasted as sickly as they looked. I found myself singing a baker's version of Sir Mix-a-Lot's classic, "I like big buns and I cannot lie. All other pastries I'll deny."

Grilled Bourbon Apples and Onions are just the right condiment for apple-laced brats. At dinner I couldn't decide between the French apple and the apple Gouda, so I split the sausages down the middle and ate them in tandem with a thick schmear of coarse mustard and a pile of Bourbon Apples and Onion Relish. The taste of spring is spiked with green blooms, smoky charcoal, and the first bite of brats fresh off the grill.

Grilled Bourbon Apples and Onions
1 tart apple, cored and sliced thin
1/2 sweet onion, sliced into rings
1/4 cup bourbon or whiskey
1/4 cup white wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon coarse mustard
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon cold butter

In mixing bowl whisk together bourbon, vinegar, sugar, and cinnamon. Pour over prepared apples in long shallow dish and coat each slice. Macerate 30 minutes or longer, turning often to coat evenly.

Shake off extra liquid from slices and grill over hot coals until grill marks appear; about 5 minutes each side.

Meanwhile, reduce remaining sauce about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and whisk in butter until melted.

To serve as relish, dice apples and onion and mix with reduction.

Add leftover relish to potatoes or sweet potatoes for an apple hash.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Pop culture, the 80s, and Shrimp Toast

I often refer to my three years living in Japan as my time in exile. It was 1985 when I arrived in Tokyo; a Madonna-wanna-be with a wardrobe of bustiers, black rubber bracelets, second-hand store mini skirts and go-go boots. We lived across from the Air Force Base where most of the military wives dressed conservatively and the female Airmen walked around in their uniforms.

Wandering the streets of Tokyo in a comatose state of culture shock, I couldn't figure out how I'd ever fit in. At the park in Harajuku I gawked at the Japanese kids who were tanning their skin dark and perming their hair so they would look like Michael Jackson. There were single-gloved break dancers as well as kids dressed like bikers from the 50s. There were Elvis impersonators and Marilyn Monroe girls with their straight black hair bleached platinum. At least I identified with their need to imitate cultural icons.

The clothes at stylish department stores were too small to fit even a size 6 American, so I bought a lot of shoes. I lost all sense of American pop culture and fashion. Music and the letters that came from friends and family were my only direct links to home. The letters reminded me that, shocking though it was, life in Minneapolis went on without me.

(This was pre-email, pre-Skype, pre-cell phones, and our only form of communication was through the Post Office. To this day I love my USPS. Where else can you get something awesome for a mere 49 cents?)

When I came back home to Minnesota one of the first things I ate was from Leeann Chin, the Minnesota Chinese food chain that my friends and family couldn't stop talking about. The appetizers, especially, were all the rage, and Shrimp Toast was everyone's favorite. I haven't seen a Leeann Chin buffet in years. Their sole gig now is fast food, take out, and catering. Shrimp Toast lives in my memories, and occasionally in my kitchen.

This week at Called to the Table is the Leeann Chin recipe for Shrimp Toast. Fry some up this weekend and return to 1988.