Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Ten Things I Learned Cooking for Nine Weekend Guests

Saturday dinner. Clockwise from upper left, cornbread with grilled onion, honey, cinnamon and cilantro. The peach salad discussed below. Christina's baby potatoes and red and purple carrots from the farmer's market. Grilled lamb with garlic and herbs over minted couscous.

If you leave the butter out, the butter will get soft and the butter will get eaten.

You will use all the knives. If a new knife set has arrived to replace the sword whose tip broke off on the Thanksgiving turkey breastbone, don't set aside the old ones. You will use all the knives.

Need to defrost puff pastry in a hurry? Place it in a cast iron skillet. (Actually, I didn't learn this last weekend, just used it. We first saw this tip years ago on Alton Brown's cooking-science show. Works great for frozen meat, too.) Takes out the cold faster than on a counter top or plate.

Mayonnaise from scratch is super easy! It's just whipped oil and egg yolk. And some lemon and salt. Virginia said she has made some delicious with horseradish. But if all you have is a blender instead of the food processor with its nice attachment in the top for adding the stream of oil into the whipping fluff and if you have to take off the blender lid to add the oil, get ready to used the lid as a kind of shield for the oily, yolky splatters. Don't worry; it's part of the fun.

The raw bite of onion for a crab salad (made with the homemade mayo, chopped celery and dill) can be made less harsh by chopping, then rinsing, then freezing. Who knew?

If you're debating whole trout in foil packets on the grill vs. whole trout tied in kitchen twine and fried in a cast iron pan on the grill: Cast iron, baby! The foil packet with its herbs and baby tomatoes and lemon slices will be fragrant and delicious, but the results were a little limp and wet for my taste. I loved the crispiness and shiny color from the cast iron pan! Just be careful when flipping - the flesh is delicate and Fishy's little head may fall off. Which, bright side, does open the door to certain guest's childhood memories of sibling fights over who got to eat the eyeballs.

Three ingredient salads, just cucumbers, pineapple and basil, or say, just peaches, red onion and basil again, can make beautiful music. Oh, but here's the rub - the little differences that make a big impact. Use the small pickling cukes (more flavor, less likely to be waxed) and slice them thin on the diagonal. And grill that pineapple to a smoky sweetness. And dress either salad in the best olive oil you've got, with some fresh cracked pepper. Fabulous, baby.

Don't believe Martha when she says bake the puff pastry for 30 minutes on the top rack. Check it every ten. Be grateful Dufour gives you a second chance slab in their 14 oz. package.

Marshmallows roasted over a fire, then dipped in a chocolate fondue and squished between graham crackers must be the most perfect way to make a s'more. No cold, waxy chunks of Hershey's. Use hot cream poured over chopped Icelandic bittersweet chocolate. Let sit for five minute, then whisk smooth. Vanilla or liquor optional.

Chinese five spice is a revelation. Spicy, sour, sweet, salty, amazing. Try it, as Martha suggests, in a blackberry-plum pie, with some cracked black pepper for good measure. Complex and luscious.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

More Classic Vacation Plans

So...Mackinac is spelled with an ending "c," but the final syllable is pronounced "naw."

As in, "Naw, we don't got no cabs." Not a car on the island, which means we'll be looking for rental three-wheelers since removing the girls' training wheels in May proved an overly hopeful and sadly premature idea.

Or taking the horsies. Or spending our time at the Esther Williams Swimming Pool and in the fudge shops.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Wisconsin Dells Old School

Our first trip to the fabled dells of Wisconsin! (Dell as in one of the lovely wooded and ferned little valleys than trickle into the Wisconsin River, cut through the soft sandstone that only appears here and in three other places on earth - Pottsdam, Germany; upper New York state; and Switzerland. But don't let that little factoid fool you into thinking that this was any kind of an educational trip, or even a recreational one, if you consider that kind of fun to involve physical exertion in a quiet place of natural beauty. This was a family vacation, which means it's really about the kids, which means there was some measure of the inevitable compromise and upset and disappointment and tantrumming and existential doubt -- why are we here? -- all the goodies that accompany any memorable and worthwhile venture when four divergent personalities, all of whom can have their immature moments, step out of their usual element.)

Anyway, the Dells! Good times!

Randy and I had a little Bingo competition going with invisible scorecards for every bit of fantastic people sighting - an "I Heart B00bies" t-shirt on a guy I doubt was promoting breast cancer awareness, wicked sunburns, the lady with the swim coverup that gave the cartoon illusion of a bikinied bathing beauty underneath, a Viking horn hat before 9am... "Bingo!"

Me: "Why does the Walgreens sign say 'don't forget the aloe?' If you use sunscreen in the first place, then you won't need aloe!"

Mia says, "This place is heaven! It's like a kid designed it!" as we passed the little pink shop candy shop called Goody Goody Gum Drop. Later, she cried, actual tears, "I don't want to go!" on the morning we left.

We stayed at one of the huge resorts on the strip, which was what it was. I fell for its mammoth Trojan Horse towering over the go-cart track and the hotel's ersatz-Collosseum facade with its cardboard archways displaying fake windows hung with fake curtains over a fake reading lamp next to a fake comfy chair. Did the actual rooms have any of those comforts? What do you think? But each guest did get to wear a green plastic water-park entry strip on her wrist during all three days of her stay! And the girls loved climbing into the bunk bed.

(Note for next time -- we might go with one of the cute mom and pop motels on the strip to keep up with the retro vibe of this special place in south central Wisconsin.)

Most of our trip felt like a journey back in time. The Duck boats have been around since WW II, and the rusty jokes of our young driver were straight out of the Borscht Belt. ("And to your left, you will see... a tree!" "And this gorge is named Blackhawk Canyon after the famous Native American leader, Chief Canyon!") (Next year, we'll take the upper dells boat tour - you don't get to ride in an amphibious piece of history, but you do see more of the dramatic river scenery upstream.)

Tommy Bartlett's waterski show is celebrating its 60th year in 2011 and its "iconic images of summer," as the baritone emcee called them, tapped in to some ancient and deep pleasure center of the brain, somewhere between memories of the The Go-Go's "Vacation" video and the first thrilling time at the circus.

A shaggy haired, scrawny-calved kid was sweeping up popcorn with a broom in front of our row before the show started. "It's our first time!" I told him, feeling kind of sorry for the guy. "Is it yours?" He didn't laugh, probably another one of those college kids bored with this tourist-city summer job, like the girl taking our names in line at Paul Bunyon's Cook Shanty who said, "You've never been here before? I wish I hadn't." The sweeper kid didn't laugh at my lame little joke, exactly, but he did help me find the public beach I was looking for on the map stretched out in my lap. Then he went on his way and I asked Randy to take a picture of the rows of lawnchair seating set up in the section next to us - so cute! The setting was so lovely, on the shore of a shady cove of the Wisconsin River.

Then there was some kind of disturbance, a guy yelling under a boat turned over at the shoreline; two audience members jumped up to offer assistance, then stopped -- it was my sweeping buddy, and another kid, making a joke about being trapped under the engine.

Oh. They're clowns. Classic. Turns out my buddy was part of the show, the director of the show, in fact, and a heck of a water-skier. Barefooter too, which made me think of my bloggy friend and barefoot skiing enthusiast, Karen Putz. Hey-hey, Karen!

Favorite tricks: The pyramid, of course. And two skiers doing a 360 around the towboat as it suddenly slows and turns. And another unplanned trick, when the middle skier of three fell and the boat made this pivoting maneuver and pulled him back upright while the other two skiers stayed in motion. "Dancing on a stage of water!" said the emcee.

There was more of the time machines sensation where we ate, and we ate good, baby. We got used to our restaurants' proud signs: In Business Since Before You Were Born! I had fabulous grilled walleye in the cosy and comfortable Del Bar ("This building designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright!" is something you hear a lot around here) and beautiful salmon at the Ishnala Supper Club, overlooking Mirror Lake. The Johnny Depp movie about John Dillinger shot scenes here. The sun was setting over the trees and reflected off the lake into the room in a kind of golden haze. Lovely.

Please note the "ALL YOU CAN EAT!" I did. Although I also had to ask, between bites of fried potato, "Isn't it all you MAY eat?"

I gained two pounds on all the indulgence, which is what you get when you "go for full immersion," as my Dear Good Sport of a Husband put it. Fresh donuts at the Cook Shack, licorice from the candy store, most of the virgin fruit daiquiri Randy brought to the side of the kiddie waterslide where I was watching Nora slide and run back to the top, slide and run, slide and run. Although that Marie Antoinette part of me, the part that complains about her uncomfortable green plastic wristpass and expects the lumberjack cook shack to have a fruit plate, probably kept me from overdoing it as much as Culver's wanted me to.

Oh you cursed little plastic green bracelet, unwelcome accessory, Dells necessity.

My kids crack me up.

Like I was saying.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Ah, July

Allium and spiderwort. Oh no, is that a noxious garlic mustard in the back? Bleh. We've got ripe serviceberries, too.

Monday, July 4, 2011

"You Cut Up The Clothes in The Closet of My Dreams"

Joshie Jo Armstead sings "You Cut Up the Clothes in the Closet of My Dreams" from the stage play Don't Play Us Cheap filmed by the great Melvin Van Peebles. His stage direction had earned the play a Tony nomination.

I first saw this performance in May, 2004 the night Adriana La Cerva was killed off The Sopranos. Still in shock from the brutal surprise of her death, too stunned and wound up to go to bed, I kept flipping through the channels after the credits until I found this strange film.

A crazy devil and Esther Rolle(!) were running around, the sound quality left something to be desired, but once Joshie Jo started wailing to the hummed accompaniment of the other party guests, I was caught on the piercing hook of her groove.

You cut up the clothes in the closet of my dreams
You pulled off the sleeves and ripped out the seams
Got me a needle, got me a thread,
Got me a thimble and I'm moving straight ahead

If the extended metaphor is entirely silly, if the performance has more enthusiasm than precision, if the yellow hat distracts, none of these could diffuse the perfect power of Joshie's song at that first moment to express exactly what I was feeling about poor doomed Ade.

We knew Adriana was dead the minute the feds had her in their interrogation room. She had been a dead woman walking for weeks. But we still held out hope, like she did, dreaming of escape on the open road, even as Silvio takes her on the final drive to the endless woods. Damn you, Silvio, you cold blooded killer. Damn you, Christopher, killer of innocents. And damn you to hell, Tony, for making it all happen.


So why am I bringing up this retro topic from way back when before my Nora or this blog were even born? Beats me. I'd offer the pop culture suggestiveness of Mob Wives or news bits about Matthew Weiner's Mad Men new season, but in truth, neither sent me to the Youtube.

Perhaps it was a certain poignant line (No remedy for time, only consolations or ...One might have said that she had learned to use the diminished nature of her voice to maximum effect, that is was a lesson in how to live with damage, how to make peace with it and use it for what it can do...) out of the legion in the sad old book I'm rereading this month. I don't know. All I know is I love the sound of a woman's voice redeeming her pain through the beauty of her song.