Saturday, July 30, 2011


Today I learned from a childhood friend from the old neighborhood that the house I grew up in burned down. She sent me a note on Facebook and included a memory of eating my mother's home made rosettes - a traditional Scandinavian holiday cookie - in our kitchen with my youngest sister. Indeed many of my own best memories of that house are in the kitchen. While I jokingly say now that in the battlefield of my parents' marriage, my mother's weapon of choice was often dinner, I still have many recollections of her doing wonderful things in the kitchen.

When I was a young child, my mother was at home with me and my two younger sisters while my other brother and sister were in school all day and my father worked. During those early years, she made a lot of things from scratch. I remember picking fruit that grew wild in the back yard for jams and jellies and being allowed to eat the foam she skimmed from the top of the large simmering pot. She made egg noodles that she hung around the kitchen to dry. She also baked her own bread and let me and my sisters take turns punching down the dough after it had been allowed to rise. The smell of baking bread still reminds me of this time and I always find time to bake when I miss my mother.

Even thought she gained a reputation for culinary atrocities like oatmeal tomato and cheese casserole (this was the  thermo-nuclear bomb in her arsenal), she was especially good on special occasions. There was one birthday when, at my request, she produced battered fried chicken and baked Alaska. She could also make custard-filled cream puffs that melted in my mouth and the best Door County cherry pie ever - despite the pits that my father invariably bit into with the stubborn hope that this time the pie would be pitless.

My mother really shone at Christmas. To to express her appreciation of friends and neighbors, she gave them cookies. She made refrigerator pinwheels, traditional cut sugar cookies, and a variety of treats from our Scandinavian heritage, including the aforementioned rosettes, krumkake, lefse, and a holiday braided bread of sweet dough and dried fruit. All this, she packaged carefully in aluminum pie plates wrapped with saran wrap that she hand-delivered in those last weeks of December.

Mostly when I think about the old house on Quincy Street, I remember the 1980's that had a lot of hollering and ruined dinner as my mother served meals of resentment and despair that my father washed down with frustration and incomprehension. Even though this rough patch in their marriage remains prominent, it is tempered with other better times. I also remember bringing friends home after school and getting home made cookies. I remember birthday parties with whatever I wanted being magically created by my mother. I remember the German apple pancake she used to cook on Sundays in a large cast-iron skillet on the stovetop. I remember good smells of home made pickles and tomatoes being canned and me sitting under the kitchen table while she used her considerable (if under appreciated) skills to make sure we had good food in the house.

Now the house is gone. Fire seems an appropriate end. With the passing of my father a few years ago and now the destruction of my childhood home, it feels like the early chapters of my life are now closed.

327 South Quincy Street, Green Bay WI 54301

Saturday, July 23, 2011


So I've tried gourmet grilled cheese, gourmet cupcakes and a variety of gourmet food truck lunches over the past month and it's left me wondering what we actually mean when we say something is gourmet. It used to conjure up images of rare and exotic ingredients combined with some sort of alchemy to create something truly extraordinary. Now you can get your gourmet ingredients at the grocery store. (Tomatoes being the one truly gourmet item if you find any that actually taste like tomatoes and not like cardboard.)

With an increased availability of a wider variety of raw ingredients from other countries and cultures, what makes something gourmet? Is it still reserved for those items that are truly rare and exotic, like truffles? Can it really be applied to a grilled cheese sandwich if it's made from brie if you can now buy brie at the Wal-Mart? Or has it simply become another marketing term that really no longer has any meaning?

The standard dictionary definition still alludes to exotic ingredients and skillful preparation. That being said, here is this week's gourmet cupcake from IcedGems - made from scratch with real sugar, real butter and real vanilla. Don't get me wrong - it's a damn good cupcake and I throw dietary caution to the wind every Friday for one of these. I can't help but get the feeling that what makes these gourmet is the fact that they are skillfully  made from scratch with real raw ingredients. As Americans in general (if not me in particular) are willing to get more and more of their meals out of boxes, cans and drive-through windows and accept food that has been reheated in a microwave as part of a sit-down restaurant experience, maybe actual cooking is becoming a lost and rare art, exotic, alchemic, and gourmet.

This week's gourmet experience

Friday, July 15, 2011

Liberte! Fraternite! Egalite!

As Thursday was Bastille Day, I felt obliged to visit my local wine bar and raise a toast to Liberte. A small gathering of co-workers assembled at Vino Rosina for wine and light fare. We sampled two varieties of white wine listed on the Happy Hour menu.

Now here is where I am supposed to provide the details of the wines, but at this point all I know for certain is the first one had too much bite and the second one, while sweeter, was the overall winner. The aroma was light and fruity, and the top note was similar to a good Pinot Grigio. There were very few other undertones, and the finish was clean and final with no lingering after taste. This was a very simple wine, and after a fairly gruelling week, none of us seemed up for any additional complexity.

An off-hand reference to how my Libertarianism is perceived led to an enthusiastic toast of "Let them eat cake", and our Bastille Day observance was officially in full swing.

The best commemoration of Bastille Day was observed by a former classmate in Madison of French decent, and someone I knew through an on-campus job we both worked at before he left to study abroad. He spent a year in France and when he returned, he had lost 30 pounds, gained some cultural awareness, and launched the first Bastille Day Bad Wine and Cheese Party.

Located at the top of the hill on East Gorham (Madison alum know the hill I mean), he and his friends had rented a house with a large front porch and an almost perfect view of Lake Mendota. I arrived with a mutual friend shortly after sun set before things got into full swing. Like all house parties, invitation was word of mouth. Admittance, however, was another thing altogether. To get in, you had to present an acceptable item of bad wine or cheese. And by acceptable, it was meant completely unacceptable - Night Train, Ripple, Mad Dog in the full rainbow of flavors - all set out on a folding table for partiers to consume at their own risk. A bottle of NyQuil was accepted. And Velveeta, CheezWhiz, EasyCheese in the aerosol dispenser. Any presented items considered too high brow - like a gallon of Ernest and Julio Gallo's Best - meant admission denied.

Truly this was the best concept party ever. We got silly. We drank the Night Train. We mixed the Ripple with shitty champagne. We sprayed the EasyCheese at each other. We danced and sang and embraced each other without care or concern as if we would all be friends for the rest of our lives. And when it was time to go home, our host cut the music and replaced it with a scratchy rendition of the French National Anthem. We all sang along for the first several playings, but he continued to play it repeatedly until the novelty wore off and we all cleared out.

On a campus know for its parties, that one - held over the summer when the population of Madison drops by several thousand - was the best party I attended, and one of the few I can remember. I don't know how many more Bad Wine and Cheese parties there were after that. I lost my connection to the host through a falling out with our mutual friend that now seems childish and wasteful in retrospect. I started focusing on finishing college and trying to figure out what would come next. We all still ran into each other on campus, separated by the inevitable pre-graduation drift.

But every Bastille Day, I remember that night and how perfect it was. The summer seemed the only moment in time, and graduation a lifetime away. But I also remember the people and what a wonderful crowd I was running with that summer.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Friday Night at Wok To Go

It's Friday night at Wok To Go and the drizzle outside is pulling a light but steady stream of customers over to the take out counter. One of the tables is occupied by two elementary school children who mind their business as we wander to our usual spot. The sushi chef greets us, and an unfamiliar white boy is behind the counter.

There was some discussion about dinner on the drive over, and after a cursory glance at the menu we are ready to order. The sushi chef speaks to one of the children in his staccato dialect and she runs back to the counter, returning with the white boy. He dutifully takes our order, tells the sushi chef to put on the kettle for our tea (which we find somewhat shocking) and then disappears. We begin to suspect that he is actually a delivery driver and that he may not be a permanent employee.

A familiar voice is raised in the kitchen, audible to us and a small family who have joined us in the dining room. We recognize it as belonging to one of our usual waitresses. We imagine she is keeping everyone in line. As our food begins to emerge from the back - one item at a time but delivered by one of the other regular waitresses - the children continue in their activities and the hollering continues.

As we eat, we see her charge out of the kitchen, her decisive and deliberate stride bring her toward us. The sushi chef says something to her that we do not understand, but it stops her cold, turning her around and moving her back to the kitchen where her displeasure continues.

She does eventually make it into the small dining room to help deliver food, frighteningly efficient tonight and sincerely apologetic. We are amused as any issues she is seeing in the kitchen have been barely noticed by us beyond the sporadic delivery of our dinner. She is our favorite server. We smile and tell her that everything is wonderful. Which it is.

The food is very good as always. Gareth has the shredded chicken in chili sauce and has to wipe his forehead and nose. It is in an aromatic brown sauce with peppers and onions and I can smell it from across the table but do not try it for myself. I get the clear broth with mushrooms - a sweet onion soup that is lighter than my usual miso. I also order the shomai but no entree as I overindulged on ribs for lunch. Even Gareth's order of Crab Rangoon does not tempt me. He tries it with the plum sauce and agrees that it is a definite enhancement.

We linger over dinner and discuss our plans for the weekend that stretches in front of us like an empty beach in the sun. I look at the bare feet of the baby at the next table over and wonder at how all baby feet look so similar before they are misshapen by shoes, a stray thought that Gareth finds completely random.

Even though we did not get anything from the sushi bar this time, I drop a tip in the sushi chef's fish bowl as I know he has been taking care of us this evening. The flow of take out has not abated as I read my fortune: A new friend helps you break out of an old routine.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Sometimes It's the Simple Things

Today I had the cupcake that was just plain over the top. I ate it before my 1:00 meeting and was still a little jittery 90 minutes later when I started this posting. It was The Cookie Monster, a vanilla cupcake filled with chocolate chip cookie dough and topped with blue icing and a couple of mini cookies (see photo below). It sounded ingenious. It was sweet. It was too sweet. I ate the whole thing anyway. It was sweet to the point of no longer being enjoyable by the time I got to the last bite. I regretted it immediately. I am still buzzed. I am impressed. At this  point, I am dreading the inevitable crash. If there is no crash, Iced Gems will have truly achieved confection perfection, and they will become a permanent fixture in my Friday routine.

Oh, and there was also lunch before that.

We who work in the city have been blessed with an increasing number of mobile food vendors. This is especially nice in the Harbor East district. Sandwiched between Baltimore's two prime tourist spots - historic Fells Point and the re-gentrified Inner Harbor (courtesy of William Donald Schaefer RIP)- we are faced with an over saturated restaurant market that provides very few places that you actually want to eat. I've heard rumors that the Baltimore City government recently made it easier to get a license for a mobile food truck but have been unable to confirm. Regardless of the reason, more of them are appearing thoughout the city. I am grateful as every Friday finds a new food cart within a few blocks of my office.

Today I found GrrChe the gourmet grilled cheese truck. The menu features standard grilled cheese - American, cheddar, Monterrey Jack and brie (no kidding - brie) on your choice of white or wheat. They also serve the best side dish ever to go with the grilled cheese - tomato soup. They wisely make this their lunch special.

In addition, they offer some high-end variations on the grilled cheese, including The Lobster Grille - lobster, brie and  cheddar served open face, The Middle Eastern - Armenian cheese, olive oil and mint (of all things) on a pita, and one who has already earned a reputation in my office, The Grilled Mac and Cheese. Here's the link to their full menu. It's also posted on the side of the truck.

Feeling a bit worn out from a week punctuated with rapid-fire bursts of stress, I went for classic comfort and got the special with cheddar and a tomato. Each sandwich is made to order and cooked on a grill inside the truck in about the same amount of time you would take to cook it yourself - about 7 minutes. This is reassuring in a time when so much food tastes like it was prepared in advance and simply reheated in a microwave. The sandwich is cut in half on the diagonal and wrapped neatly in foil like your mother would do. It also comes with one of those food service pickles that I always find a little sad and immediately cast aside.

The bread was grilled to a light golden brown and was lightly buttered but not greasy. The cheddar was melted thoroughly and evenly, and the tomato was warm but not wilted. In other words - it was perfect. The bread had a good texture similar to Texas toast and supported the sandwich well. This is an important factor given the double-whammy of oil from melted cheese and butter. The bread held up and retained its flavor. Though billed as sharp cheddar, the cheese was not what I would call sharp. This only means that it was not Wisconsin aged-for-seven-years sharp. It was still far from bland and was complemented by the subtle fruity sweetness of the tomato slice just the way it is supposed to be.

The soup was like tomato plus. The broth was smooth and creamy with chunks of several varieties of tomatoes (some that appeared to be heirlooms), plus what looked to be tiny pieces of carrot and zucchini. It had a rich, earthy, herby flavor more reminiscent of mushroom soup that tomato soup, and I wondered if it was actually in a meat stock. Definitely more robust than most tomato soups, it accented the simple perfection of the grilled cheese when I dunked my sandwich in.

This was without a doubt the best version of grilled cheese and tomato soup I have ever had. Coming in at $7.50, it was also the deal of the day.

It is now approaching 5:00 - a full four hours later - and the sugar buzz has receded with no signs of a crash. Proving that made from scratch really is better for you, Iced Gems now has a customer for life.

Cupcake Overload
Grilled Cheese Perfection