Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Friendship Pho

The gift-giving season is here. Hard to believe that we have barely eaten our turkey, and all the stores are already decorated with eye-catching tinsel, lights and wrapping.

I have my eye on a thing or two, I admit. Mostly frivolous stuff I don't need—another sweater, new boots, some cookware. But with our family's departure to Mali, West Africa nearing, the excess of gifts being advertised, given and received each holiday season really strikes me.

A West African friend noticed soon after he arrived in the US that many people dump old bikes on the curb, free for the taking. He told me in astonishment, “if you throw out your bike in Africa, you're walking.” Most of us could ride our second bike, skateboard, car, or scooter, I'll bet.

In the midst of the impending holiday frenzy, I had a chance to spend an evening with my friend Thuy, learning to make Pho. Pho, which simple means “noodle” in Vietnamese, is the country's national soup. It features a deliciously spiced broth, rice noodles, and a variety of meats, all garnished with a “salad” on the top. The salad might include romaine lettuce, limes, hot chiles and green onions—sweet, crunchy, hot, salty, sour and bitter intermingle in each flavor-packed bite. Thuy walked me through the Pho-making steps; we started by gathering ingredients at the neighborhood Vietnamese grocery store Viet Hoa, and then returning home to roast spices, chop garnishes and finally assemb the amazing soup.

As we cooked, we talked, laughed, drank wine, and played with my kids. She told me about her mother who had come from Vietnam when Thuy was just a baby, and the difference between Pho in the north and south of Vietnam. She helped us pronounce the words on the package of noodles “Bahn Pho Thui”, uttering strange gutteral sounds that just sounded funny when we tried to copy her.

After she left, I realized that I had just been given one of the best gifts I could ask for— friendship. Friendship has so many components. Learning to cook, sharing the flavors of your history, and the smells and tastes of your family is such a powerful and intimate way to nurture a friendship. That night, when Thuy taught me how to roast an onion over an open flame, she shared a part of herself, her family and culture with me that I will cherish each time I cook up a batch of Pho.

The gift of true friendship doesn't cost a dime. It can be easily re-gifted, and doesn't need fancy wrapping or packaging. When my friend Amy came over the recently, we spent a couple hours making Pho. I showed her what I had learned, and we talked and laughed. Spending time with friends cooking nourishing foods not only feeds our bodies, it also nourishes loving and lasting connections to our family and communities. Cooking together is the perfect holiday gift.

Thuy's Pho

For the Stock

2 chicken breast, bone-in, or one whole chicken.

About 20 whole star anise

5 whole cloves

¼-1/3 cup whole coriander seeds

2-3 T black pepper corns

2 whole cinnamon sticks

1 whole onion

about 2 Tbsp raw cane sugar (lump)


For the Soup

fresh or dried rice noodles

organic beef tenderloin, thinly sliced

5 scallions, finely sliced

1 bunch cilantro chopped(mix cilantro and scallions in one dish)

2 limes cut into wedges

hoisin sauce


basil or mint, leaves plucked

bean sprouts or romaine

Make Stock

Bring water to boil in a large stock pot. Boil chicken until tender.

Remove the chicken from the water. Set aside until cool enough to shred. Set aside meat.

Bring chicken broth back to a simmer.

Heat a cast iron skillet over medium heat. Put whole spices in pan and heat, turning frequently, until you smell their fragrances. About 5-7 minutes. Do not let them burn! Add the spices to the broth.

Heat a whole onion over gas flame or grill, turning frequently until outer skin peels off and some brown marks are on onion, about 4 minutes or so. Add to broth.

Boil/simmer the broth, slightly covered on medium until the brth takes on the fragrance of the spices, about 50 minutes – 1 hour.

Add sugar to taste—it should be somewhat sweet. I found that about 2 T works for a large stock pot.

Add salt, too, about 1-2 T.

Taste it and adjust salt and sugar until you love it. This can be frozen!

To Assemble

Place bowls of lime wedges, basil, bean sprouts, cilantro and scallion, and hoisin and shrichra on table.

Cook noodles according to directions.

Place some noodles in a bowl. Ladle hot stock over noodles through a strainer.

Place raw tenderloin slices into hot stock, along with some shredded chicken (or tofu if you like)

Top with generous portion of bean sprouts, cilantro/scallion, a wedge of lime, basil, and a hoisin and sriracha to taste.

Slurp and enjoy!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Dishing with David Tanis: The Heart of a Chef

What could I possibly have in common with David Tanis, co-chef at Chez Panisse? The chef that Michael Pollan so eloquently praises. “There are many chefs in America more famous than David Tanis,” Pollan says, “but there are few, if any, who are more gifted.”

Not much, I was certain. He's a “real” chef. I just cook for my blog, my family and a few cooking classes here and there. Chef Tanis spends half of each year in crunchy California whipping up dishes at Alice Waters' famous retaurant, and the other half in creamy-dreamy France throwing dinner parties, and tops it all with a healthy splash of traveling. I am a midwest girl; I grew up in Ohio, and now reside in Wisconsin. I spend time cleaning up after dinner for a family of four, and rack up most my travel miles driving to my kids' playdates and soccer games.

I had the great fortune of meeting David Tanis at Roots Restaurant and Cellar in Milwaukee, WI. Thanks to an invitation from Paul Fredrich of Burp!, I was among a few food bloggers who showed up to meet and talk to Chef Tanis at the blogger junket (or, as Chef Tanis said, the “jogger blunket.”), where he was promoting his new cookbook, Heart of the Artichoke. His cookbook features menus designed around each season, and are beautifully simple, while rich and elegant. The photography is stunning.

Our motley crew included Nicole from On My Table and Neil from Stream of Consciousness, Anna from Tallgrass Kitchen, as well as Paul, Chef Tanis and his publicist. We never did decide what a “junket” was, but had a great time chatting around Roots' large table and sampling food from their impromptu and glorious lunch menu. Many of us favored the delicious blue corn crusted perch sandwich with bacon relish. Both the maple-dressed frisee salad with cheddar dressing, and the breaded egg salad with greens and a biscuit were popular sides.

Chef Tanis acknowledged he has come along way since his meals of tater-tots and chicken nuggets as a youth in Ohio. Wait, did I say Ohio? Why, that's what we have in common!

When Chef Tanis mentioned that he grew up in Dayton, Ohio, I immediately wondered if he had spent time in my hometown, Yellow Springs, which is less than 30 minutes from Dayton. Indeed he had. Yellow Springs is known for many things, including hippies, vegans, artists, the Glen Helen, Antioch College, a sweater the townspeople knit for a tree, and it's liberal vibe—oh yeah, and another famous Dave(id), Dave Chappelle.

Within minutes we were fondly recalling nighttime tromps through the Glen, a small nature preserve, followed by midnight runs to Young's Dairy for 10-cent day-old donuts (yes, mom, it's time to confess that's what I did during my teen years). He remembered the Little Art Theater which shows wonderful foreign and art films, and the summer eco-camps at the Glen, where I had been a camp counselor, though not while he was there. It took me back to cherished days in a great town, and down the roads that led to the very table I shared with a great chef and other foodies and bloggers. Cool! It was inspiring to realize that Chef Tanis traveled some of those same roads.

During our casual conversation around the table, I had the opportunity to ask a few questions, and hear his words of wisdom as he casually, and with great humor, talked about cooking, the local food movement, traveling and life. Between the questions, the topic meandered from the importance of eating locally, to ways to get kids involved in healthy cooking and eating, to the food blogging craze—and whether Chef Tanis should start a food blog (yes! we all agreed).

Chef Tanis on France

He enjoys taking a breather from fast-paced restaurant cooking while away from Chez Panisse, but says he loves cooking for friends, family and the occasional dinner party at his private dining club, Aux Chiens Lunatiques, in France, cooking in his very small kitchen. “It would be sad to walk through the markets in Paris and not be able to buy or cook anything.” He admittedly enjoys the slower pace of life there. You mean the 2-hour lunch breaks? I might like that, too!

Chef Tanis on “fusion” food

He prefers to keep various culture's cuisine separate, and to exercise restraint in order to show off the distinct flavor of each cuisine. Drawing on his experience cooking around the world and in different regions of the U.S., his cookbook provides many wonderfully diverse recipes, while emphasizing seasonal menus, local ingredients and fresh flavors. Just to be sure, I made his Raviolone with Butternut Squash and Sage-Butter Sauce. Divine!

Chef Tanis on cookbooks and recipes

He says that recipes in his books are his “take on a traditional recipe. There's originality in the book. Dishes are public domain, but you extract from those recipes to make your own.” He wanted to write a cookbook that would inspire people to cook, rather than write a detailed how-to with specific step-by-step instructions. I'd say he succeeded. Very well.

Chef Tanis on cooking seasonally

It's natural, he says, 'We just forgot how.” He joined the bloggers in saying how glad he was that more stores were providing locally grown options. It just makes sense.

Chef Tanis' 5 essential ingredients

Salt, garlic, olive oil, chile and wine. I could live with that.

Chef Tanis on learning to cook

Everyone can cook, David says. “Except those people who don't have the gene.” Not to name names, Drummer Man, but I know a few of those!

Chef Tanis on food blogging

As each of us pulled out our cameras to snap a picture of our meal, he said, “Can't people just enjoy their meal? What happened to just eating without blogging and taking pictures?” Chef Tanis, you're so French!

His path and mine have crossed twice now (though I never met him in Ohio); what's to say I can't become a world renowned chef—if I want to? I guess we'll just have to see where this road takes me.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tatsoi, the Beautiful

I made a very superficial decision this past week: I bought something purely for its good looks.

No, it's not a new pair of shoes (but that's not a bad idea!). Thankfully, it was much cheaper than new shoes.

Despite what people say, I think that impulse decisions, if made from the heart, are usually spot on. Not that I condone wild purchasing frenzies, or recommend them. I have regretted a impulse buy a time or two. But when I plucked a gorgeous rosette of Tatsoi from the produce aisle at the Co-op, without having a clue what I would make with it, I couldn't have been happier.

I tenderly placed it on top of my grocery bags, giving it celebrity status. I took it home and stared at it. Wow. Perfect oval green leaves accented by cream-colored stems. It was larger than a dinner plate, opening fearlessly to the world.

I proceeded to wash it, sautee it and add it to a batch of coconut milk curry soup I had made the day before. It was tender and delicious, and I could feel its beauty and life force resonate through my body. Tatsoi, nice to meet you.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Happy Birthday Mad-town Meals

Happy Birthday to me,
I went out to eat times three,
Though I enjoyed the rest (from cooking),
I like eating at home best.

Thank you to my friends, children and husband for indulging me in some great eats this weekend. I can't believe that I celebrated another year. And no, I'm not 25...again. But I wouldn't want to be. I love my full and blessed life, and all the roads that have led to this place.

I explored some fun new places (to me) in Madison, including Marigold Kitchen, and the Underground Kitchen. I loved the pork loin sandwich and the simple red cabbage slaw at Marigold. And the company of a good friend. The grilled pork was topped with eggplant caponata, greens and mayo on a hearty roll, while the slivered red cabbage was tossed with a delicious anise seed-infused viniagrette.

At the Kitchen, as the Underground Catering's new restaurant is called, Drummer Man and I sampled a selection of their fresh and inspired recipes. We ordered a “deconstructed” sandwich, which featured chicken breast, gently tossed salad greens, goat cheese, a pesto, and thick slices of bread un-assembled on a large platter. The pancetta salad offered sweet roasted squash and crusty bread on a bed of market-fresh spinach. We topped off the meal with a delicious and moist almond and corn meal pound cake with mascarpone and apricot sauce.

Oh, that was not all. (Yes, I will never be able to afford to eat out again.) Sunday morning our family hit Sofia's, one of my favorite little brunch spots in Madison. Little is the key word, and family-style dining is the norm. The lines usually head out the door and seating for about 15 people is in high demand. Once we got our table, I devoured my breakfast tacos, and some of my husband's portabella omelet. Roasted sweet and red potatoes on the side added a nice touch of sweet and salt.

Despite all of the delicious food I managed to sample at restaurants around Mad-town, one of my favorite birthday meals was the delicious spread of Indian food that my neighbor piled on her table. Okay, so this was not exactly for my birthday, but I am lucky that Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, happened to coincide with my birthday. The vegetarian spread included about five chutneys (including my own green tomato-chutney), saffron rice, dal, homemade paneer, saag, and eggplant stew. We finished off the meal with a great cardamon-coconut layer cake.

While I enjoyed eating out, and lessening the kitchen mess, what I most treasured was sharing these meals with my family and friends. I think that is what I love about cooking at home—I cook from my heart and share my food with people I love. As David Tanis, co-chef at Chez Panisse so eloquently states in his book, A Platter of Figs, “...the overriding mood of friends at the table still trumps a bad—or just okay—restaurant meal. I'd rather go to a friend's house for dinner. But, really, I'd rather eat at home.”

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Restaurant Re-creation: Northeast Social's Brown-Butter Shallot Dressing

I've always thought I'd make a good detective. I remember quite a few yeears back when I tracked down an ex-boyfriend at a hotel in Oklahoma. We were living in Arizona, and he had gone on the road with a bike racing crew. He called me from Oklahoma one night, and left a message telling me simply that he had made it to that city (can't remember which city now). I wanted to call him back (not sure if that was mutual!) so I set to work finding him. Ten minutes later his hotel room phone was ringing. Poor guy. You know how I did it? I called the Chamber of Commerce, which eventually led me to his hotel.

I'm usually pretty good at figuring things out, though now my detective work is more likely to involve finding my husband's glasses or wallet, than finding my husband.

I felt pretty excited, and a bit sneaky, when by some stroke of luck I managed to overhear the chef at the Northeast Social, a great gastro pub in Minneapolis, MN, telling a neighboring table his ingredients for his salad dressing.

Let me preface this by saying that it was the most exquisitely dressed salad I had ever eaten. Each bite of roasted beet, candied pecan, goat cheese and greens offered a sublime creaminess, hint of sweet and subtle acidity. The dressing was solid, holding the tender leaves together in a tall pile. I tasted a morsel of dressing carefully, letting it dissolve on my tongue. I said to my husband, “I think this might be made with butter.” But what else was in it? I had to find out.

Well, it didn't take great detective skills to overhear the chef—that was pure luck. But to recreate the same flavor at home did take some investigative work—and a dash of mad scientist. I repeated the chef's words to myself, “butter, sugar, lemon juice and shallot.”

As soon as we arrived home I hauled out my food processor and minced a small section of shallot, then added about ½ stick of butter, a squeeze of lemon and a teaspoon of sugar. Pulse. Oops. The butter separated from the acidity of the lemon and the shallot gave a kick that overpowered the gentle butter flavor.

Then I remembered—he said browned butter! Determined to recreate this delicious dressing (I did call them for the recipe, assuring them I would post it on my world famous blog, to no avail), I tried again.

This time I melted four tablespoons of butter in a saucepan. I browned it slightly. Quick, the shallots. Oh, s*!t, don't let them burn. I rapidly poured it all into a Pyrex cup. The warm butter mellowed the shallots without burning them. Now add the sugar? Sure. One tsp. Stir. Let solidify. Stir again and add lemon. One squeeze. Not enough. Two squeezes? Perfect! It tasted exactly like the dressing I had at Northeast Social, with a delicated frosting-like quality. I gently mixed it in some greens, added some goat cheese and cranberries, and devoured.

I think there might be two futures for me—detective, and mad scientist.

Brown-Butter Shallot Dressing

1 small shallot (1-2 inch piece) finely diced

2 tbsp lemon (to taste

sugar (1 tsp, or to taste)

5 tbsp butter

Brown butter in saucepan watching carefully. Remove from heat and add in shallots and sugar. Stir and let cool. Add lemon. Stir, taste, adjust and use!


Originally I made candied pecans as they had at the restaurant, but they are not pictured. And I highly recommend the roasted beets, too.