Fine Dining Begins at Home

photo-35I’m officially announcing the end of an age. The age of fine dining. It went out with a bang, namely a trip to Restaurant Alma. I’ve been wanting to eat at this restaurant ever since I saw the film Dirty Work: The Story of Elsie’s Farm by Deb Wallwork. (This is the same filmmaker who made Grow, a short film mentioned a few posts back.  Dirty Work tells the story of a small CSA farm run by a couple, Don Roberts and Joni Cash, that struggles and eventually downsizes. Don’s son is Alex Roberts, the chef at Restaurant Alma, which is consistently on “best of” lists of restaurants in the Twin Cities.

For my 50th birthday last year, we ate at a wonderful farm-to-table restaurant in Chicago, The Bristol. It was a fun time of small plates and sharing and at the end they treated us to every dessert on the menu! (I was a very special guest.) For my birthday, my parents gave me a gift certificate to Restaurant Alma, which is what put it in reach for us.

Of course, the height of the fine dining era was going with my brother to Next, Grant Achatz’s restaurant, when he had invitations to a preview. Not only that, my review of that preview is still my most popular post on this blog. That was an experience I’ll never forget and my brother was the absolute best companion.

However, I realize my thoughts about food and going out to eat have really changed. I have always enjoyed cooking, but I have also always really enjoyed going out to eat. And I’m not saying we will stop going out to eat. Oh no. But no more bills over $150 for two people. I’ll save the fine dining for home.

Before the meal, we went to “Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art” at the Weisman Museum. The image at the top of this post is by Laura Letinsky (“Untitled #6 from the series Rome 2009) and from the exhibit. It was a fine show, but most of the art was performance art, which means most of the exhibits were records of performances, so there was a lot of reading. I have some thoughts on politics and art and the politics of art and food, but that’s for another post (and in large part the exhibit, supposedly about radical politics, reeked of privilege, as did the dinner of course).

My favorite piece in the exhibit was a display related to food from Iraq by Michael Rakowicz. It included datesRobbinsIceCreamSocial-166x250 mislabeled as to country of origin in order to circumvent the embargo as well as replicas and images of plates from one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces that the artist bought on eBay and used to serve “performance art” meals until Iraq insisted on their return– as well as pictures of the “Enemy Kitchen,” a food truck flying an Iraqi flag and serving Iraqi food served by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. My second favorite piece was a collection of items from a series of parties where the color scheme was entirely the pinks and browns of Baskin Robbins. (One summer I worked at a Baskin Robbins and felt like a kids’  party clown getting out of my car in my uniform to pump gas.) Or maybe the video of working class men breaking the Ramadan feast that had strong echoes of Leonardo DaVinci’s Last Supper

And afterwards, Restaurant Alma. The food was delicious. And one of my favorite things about the night was how good I felt when I got home. It was healthy food, flavorful, and the portions were right (though, sure, one more scallop would have been nice as Steve almost cried handing over half a scallop to me from his perfectly cooked pair).

I didn’t take any photos of the food. My favorite dish was the farro with white beans and squid, and Steve likewise enjoyed his first course the best, endive and smoked potatoes. But it was all good, perfectly cooked and perfectly paced and gorgeously plated.

photo-37And I want to keep eating that way… on occasion. I just want to see if I can come close at home. So this morning, when it was time for brunch and Steve was still talking about the smoky potatoes, I gave it a whirl. We’d had a nice dinner with friends on Friday that consisted of salmon with red pepper sauce, asparagus, and some of the last of the garden potatoes. We still had some of everything, so I made a breakfast version. Starting, of course, with “presentation” in the form of badly drizzled red pepper mayonnaise (mayo, garden red pepper sauce and fresh lemon juice)

I boiled the potatoes a few minutes before roasting them. Not smoky, but well-seasoned and roasted. Could have used more time for char, but hey, it’s just brunch. Along with roasted asparagus and some onions, garlic, and rosemary.

A fried egg topped with salmon and fresh sprouts. More red pepper sauce served alongside (actually, the red pepper mayo did add a bit of smoky flavor).

I mean, really, why go out?

photo-36

 

 

 

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Prom

If you click on the link, you’ll see what is inside this box.

You’re going to want to see what is in this box, and what happens next.

http://cowbird.com/story/109654/Prom/

 

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Thanks to Sarah, Tom, and Hannibal Scott and Emily Steere for letting me share this story with others.

 

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New Plant Room

potting bench and storage lightedThe plant room, formerly known as the basement, is up and running! I love it from the ice cold floor and new storage boxes along the western wall to the super-bright shop lights hanging over the planting bench.

A word about those lights. It is seriously as if we have a spaceship in the basement. You could safely land a plane in the backyard thanks to the light it casts out the window over the snow. We close the blinds at night to reduce the light pollution for the neighbors, but there is still a bright white glow coming from our house until I shut it down about 10 p.m.

seed bench in februaryThe first little blades of grass that will be leeks in six months are just emerging, and I went ahead and started a few basil plants, kale, broccoli, cauliflower and a window box of spinach, lettuces and scallions.

The cold storage boxes are particularly fantastic. This is an experiment to see if we can get a better space for storing squash, potatoes, carrots, beets– the root crops. Anything will be better than what we have now, which is just putting the squash and potatoes in laundry baskets covered with burlap and pushing them under the planting benccold storage thermometer 1h.

I put a thermometer on the tile floor in the bottom of the box and so far so good– 42-45 degrees. There’s a little ventilation carved into the front of the boxes, and they’re not exactly airtight along the hinges. I’ll be interested to see what happens next fall in terms of humidity and temp when it is not -5 outside. September/October when the squash and potatoes first come inside will be the real test. The beets and carrots will be in damp sand inside the boxes, providing some of the needed humidity.

kale seedlings feb 15Right now I’m still in the wipe-up-every-droplet-of-water stage and trying to keep the bamboo veneer clean. Doing the actual planting in the garage so no soil gets on the new carpet. It will also be interesting to see how this shiny new workspace ages…

For now, it’s happy planting!

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Farming

sfa-logoYesterday I attended the Minnesota Sustainable Farming Association’s (SFA) annual conference at the College of Saint Benedict. It is only a mile from me and brings together small farmers from all over the state. Last year it was at this conference’s seed swap I picked up a few seeds for Cool Old Squash, a big winner in last year’s garden.

I’m happy to report there were a lot, maybe even a preponderance, of people under 40 attending this conference. Lots of young farmers with dreams of running CSAs and selling wholesale and living off the land. I met one young man who has 15 acres out near Alexandra where he, his wife, and one of their high school friends, are farming. His friend is into horses and does some plowing and cultivating with teams of horses.

Last year's conference

Last year’s conference

Everyone had on farm-related t-shirts and Carhart knit caps. There were babies and small children. But these weren’t hippies. Oh no. Closer to hipsters, but not even really that. Well, yes, there was a couple with a large green thermos passing a cup of hot Mate back and forth in its gourd-like cup with a bombilla (straw). (Don’t worry if you don’t recognize this– it’s an Argentinian thing. Without a friend from Argentina, I would have been clueless.)

10689912_893840830633765_1222017589933732777_nOver the lunch hour we watched a short film, “Grow,” that followed young people who came to the Fergus Falls community college for a short-lived program in sustainable agriculture (2010-2013). The goal of the program was to teach skills to young people who wanted to move back to rural areas and work in sustainable farming to some degree. They ended up in various professions: CSA farms, a mobile chicken processing operation, food preparation and production. The program succeeded very well, but also didn’t fit into a proper academic setting– being mostly hands-on and project-oriented. The SFA has taken over some of the workshops.

foodhubsfinal3I learned about food hubs. I’ve heard a lot of buzz about these but didn’t really understand them before. Basically, they’re part of a movement being encouraged by the USDA to get small and medium-sized vegetable producers to come together in order to distribute to bigger markets. Think schools, hospitals and nursing homes getting organic, local food on a regular basis.  Think local warehouses with tons of professional equipment for processing 100-200 lbs of lettuce and greens an hour, packaging and storing large quantities of food and delivering it fresh to large grocery stores and other clients. A food hub in Mankato has received $100,000 in grants and you should see the facility they’ve designed! (In addition to farmers, the other major participants were young people in all sorts of cool nonprofits related to alternative energy, sustainable food production, etc. These folks were in general better dressed and more urban looking.)

One thing I had been concerned about in moving (maybe– baby steps!!) toward growing enough produce to sell was market saturation. I don’t want to step on other farmer’s toes. Well, I learned yesterday there is absolutely no need to worry about that. Not even a fraction of the market is being reached.

But partly this is because of all the hard work it takes. That same farmer with the friend who plows with horses? Well, he seemed kind of discouraged. They are not loving doing a CSA. After attending the “post-harvest food handling and packaging” workshop, I can totally see why. You have to grow a huge variety of produce, all of which needs to be cleaned and stored differently, packaged differently, some cooled some left outside the cooler but not too long, etc. All of it degrades (respirates) at different rates. You need to get it into a beautiful box that will make your customer gasp with delight every week– and do that for 30, 50, 80, 200 people a week!

How much better would it be for the farmers of 3-15 acres to grow one thing at a time, maybe 5 crops a season (greens, broccoli, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes) and deliver a lot of it as it is harvested to a food hub, where other farmers are bringing something different (say beets, green beans, basil, zucchini, winter squash) and the CSA is there with giant coolers and bagging operations for packing the boxes. Or better yet, people can order what they want and come in and pick up their order each week.

Because, as with any farming, the investment seems intense to me. Food washing stations, packing stations, packing materials of many types, hand washing stations in the field and near the packing area, different things for hauling in the produce, cold storage and that equipment, etc. I came home and immediately shopped online for a 5-gallon salad spinner. They generally run from $125–$300! No wonder so many small farmers just wrap their greens in mesh bags and spin it around by hand.

When I came home, I couldn’t really think. But today I felt sort of inspired. It is unclear whether anyone can make even a meager living doing this. Maybe the best you can do is a kind of homesteading where you provide for your own food with minimal investment each year.

But things are happening. I see two major areas of development: community-building and market development.

On the one hand, you have to rebuild farmer communities that support small- and medium-scale farming:

  • teach the skills to a generation who left rural areas (or whose parents did)
  • provide land, equipment, and expertise to help them succeed
  • encourage cooperation over competition to make it work

And on the other hand, you have to educate and develop consumer communities (markets) to support the farmers:

  • continue to educate consumers about local and organic
  • encourage grocers to display and offer local and organic
  • encourage communities to develop food hubs for distribution to larger clients

For example, there are no regulations on selling fresh produce (not processed) to institutions. There are a lot of regulations on selling meat, dairy, and processed foods. But nursing homes and hospitals and schools are free to buy fresh produce directly from farmers, and farmers just need to use best practices around harvesting, cleaning and storage to ensure food safety. Did you know that? I didn’t.

These two areas were reflected most clearly in the final session I attended, an attempt to begin a network of people who want to build and operate deep passive solar winter greenhouses. We broke into two discussion groups: “finances”– can this be viable? with one group of mostly farmers; and “markets” with another large group, a combination of farmers and nonprofit types who wanted to talk about getting the produce into the communities.

collage from last year's sfa festival of farms

collage from last year’s sfa festival of farms

 

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Potting Room

basement beforeI know. I’ve been gone. Not actually, but from the blog. This is, I believe, the longest I’ve gone without posting since I started in 2008. It feels like a really long time. And I have no excuse except, well, it’s winter. Not a very cold or very warm winter. Just winter. And over the past five years I’ve pretty much shared with you everything I cook and do in winter. I tried writing a few essays for you, but I was sick of my own opinions.

But I do have something to show you, Dear Readers! It might not look like much yet, but it will look so much better tomorrow! As you know, winter is also renovation season. steve ceiling2

Here is a photo of poor Steve the first year we were married, when he renovated the living room and scraped the “popcorn” off the vaulted ceiling. Every time he has to do another popcorn ceiling, I tell him that if anyone said I had to do that I would cry and it would be the end of the project. Fortunately, the only room left with popcorn is the master bedroom. And that’s not going to be renovated any time soon.

 

stairs going in

stairs going in

 

 

This year Steve decided to tackle a smallish project, (i.e., not one of the two bathrooms), the basement. It started when he pulled up the carpet before Christmas and put in gorgeous red oak stairs. They are incredibly beautiful. And that carpet just had to go.

 

 

 

my own pantry in September, now much depleted after holiday gift giving.

my pantry in September

As for the basement itself, it has become in time my space. It is my workout room, and it is where I store my canned goods (on built-in shelves with sliding doors that are not part of the renovation). It is also where I pot my plants, and the wide windowsill and some makeshift counters and tables along the southern wall have been prime surfaces for starting plants.

The one thing we do not have at all in this house is cold storage. I’ve imagined large-scale projects involving cinderblocks and insulation in the basement of the barn, but they are beyond me (see popcorn ceiling above). And who wants to walk out to the barn to get some potatoes for dinner in the middle of winter?

In the house, there are no hidden internal closets or rooms. The basement also includes a studio apartment, and that is where a proper cold room would go. There is a closet under the stairway, but it is in the apartment and prime storage space for the tenant. I don’t think she’d appreciate me filling it with squash, carrots, onions and potatoes. I’ve made do by keeping things in buckets and burlap-covered laundry baskets under the makeshift counter.

But my dream potting room would have cold storage. And grow lights. And a nice long counter for the seed starting. And I’m getting it all!

We replaced the 28-year-old carpet down there with carpet squares. It cost a bit more and will be “colder” than the former plush carpet with a pad. Maybe not as good for the workouts. But I’m going for a cooler space in general.

Steve has made a gorgeous long bench with hinged seats that will be installed on the tile floor along the eastern wall, which borders a carport. A thermometer in that corner has read 50 degrees for the past few weeks. Right now the benches are raw wood on the inside, but we will add styrofoam insulation if they aren’t cool enough in the fall and spring. I’m not sure what I’ll do about humidity– probably just store root veggies in damp sand in trays inside the boxes.

The countertop is made of pine and sheets of plywood with bamboo veneer tops. They are so fresh and cute!

leek seedsI was gifted two 4-foot fluorescent lights last summer. This afternoon we adapted them from hard-wired to using plugs and they’ll be hung over the planting bench on chains to raise and lower them. How professional is that?!

It is officially the year of “taking it up a notch.” To celebrate, I planted my first seeds, the leeks, 48 of them, and put them on their heat mat to germinate. As soon as the operation is up and running, I’ll post an “after” photo.

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Bay Catfish Stew

catfish stewBack in the 1990s, one of my go-to winter recipes was “Cantonese Fish and Vegetable Soup” from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home. It was my favorite way to eat catfish, which back then was a cheap fish. When I made it last year, however, I was really underwhelmed. Had I outgrown my Moosewood Cooks at Home? Was it going to take more than cornstarch dissolved in soy sauce and sesame oil to make me happy?

Today I was lured back to catfish with a deal at the local grocery store. I had no idea what I was going to do with it, but I knew it wouldn’t be Asian.

I have become a big skeptic, though, about “traditional” (i.e., European) spices. The recipes for Southern Catfish stews (and they were all Southern– in fact, I’ve encountered a huge bias against catfish here in the far North) called for corn and lima beans seasoned with mostly thyme and oregano. There wasn’t even garlic in these recipes. But I have to get over myself, because this was delicious!  I did a little adapting, exchanging roasted red pepper for green pepper, adding garlic and  potatoes and swapping Old Bay seasoning for ground mustard.

I am also grateful for the garden produce I still have: potatoes, canned tomatoes, a jar of roasted red peppers, and frozen corn. This stew turned out to be delightful. Fresh and flavorful– sending us both back to the stove for seconds.

Old Bay Catfish Stew

2 Tbs olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 ribs celery, diced (you can use big pieces, but I’m not big on chunks of celery)
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped fine
2 Tbs roasted red pepper, chopped
1 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp Old Bay seasoning
1/2 tsp hot sauce (to taste– this was sinus clearing but actually not too hot)
1 tsp salt and pepper
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 quart tomatoes, crushed
1 can chicken broth (or veggie if you’re keeping it closer to vegetarian)
2 cups sliced fingerling potatoes (you could substitute lima beans or other beans)
2 cups corn (frozen or sliced from the cob)
1.5-2 lbs catfish, cut into 1.5 inch pieces
parsley for garnish (optional)

In a dutch oven or large pot, heat the oil. Add the onion and celery and sauté 5 minutes until translucent. Add the garlic and sauté 2 minutes. Stir in the thyme, oregano, Old Bay, hot sauce, salt and pepper and deglaze with the wine. When nearly evaporated, add the tomatoes, broth and potatoes and simmer for 8-10 minutes. Add the corn and catfish and simmer 2-4 minutes, until the catfish is cooked through.

Serve plain or over rice.

Serves 4-6

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Driving around North Dakota



prairie NDI’ve been spending many hours writing a story set in northeastern North Dakota. I was here in late August at the height of the agricultural season, just as the harvest was beginning. I did the drives and learned the landscape– straight roads running alongside railroad tracks and a grain elevator and cluster of homes every eight miles or so.

But I wanted to see it in winter.

stop sign NDNot dangerous winter, but a little January “thaw” where it would be safe to drive for hours and still see the snowy plains. What I didn’t expect was the depth and beauty of the hoarfrost.

hoar frost

On the electric lines and on the metal gate at one of the small cemeteries and on the east side of every tree.

hoar crary gate nd

I saw many beautiful things. I saw churches. Oddly, there was this blue door on a Lutheran Church in Michigan, ND…

blue church door nd

and then, one town west, this blue garage door on the Lutheran church in Lakota.

church blue garage door nd

It is cold. The first day it was 8 degrees, but really it felt below zero with the wind. A woman I sat with at lunch (grilled cheese at a bar and grill in Lakota, ND) said, “You can take a lot without the wind. But all we have been getting lately is wind.”

Truth is, it’s been a mild winter by any standard. Almost no snow. No weeks of extreme weather.

hoary elec lineBut today, when it was in the 20s “with 25 mph breezes from the southwest,” it felt every bit as cold as that 8-degree day. I didn’t think about going out into the little cemeteries without my hat.

cemetery NDToday I had lunch with a father and son who farm 3,000 acres. Just four men, two brothers and their sons, for all that acreage. They had the special, meatballs and potatoes– everyone had the special except me. I had grilled cheese. We were at a clean and friendly bar and grill in Climax, Minnesota, just across the Red River.

And in Reynolds, ND, they were still loading truck after truck with grain.

grain truck loading reynoldsloading grain ndI’ve transcribed my notes and downloaded my photos and even written a few new scenes.

Greetings from North Dakota!

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