Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Feb 18, 2014
11:09 AMSmall Dishes
My Top 50 Favorite Foods (Part II)
I pick up where I left off, enumerating the second half of my list of fifty favorite foods. (See Part I here.)
Asparagus. I’ve always gravitated toward seasonal specialties. I think asparagus has remained a favorite because I only prepare it in the spring. It’s available all year long now—that was inevitable because of its esteem, especially on restaurant menus—but I stick with the stuff grown close to home. The notion that the pencil-thin stalks are somehow sweeter or better than the big, fat ones is a myth. I hope that whoever first thought to grill asparagus was justly rewarded.
Bacon. It has never been more highly regarded, but that wasn’t always the case. In this country, bacon virtually always is smoked and cured pork belly. During Colonial times it was something you ate because you had nothing better. Only in the 1920s after Oscar Mayer introduced the first pre-sliced packaged bacon did it become the preferred American breakfast treat. Salty, smoky and crisp, I never tire of it! There are not many foods I’d consider eating for breakfast, lunch and dinner. People are constantly coming up with new ways to serve it. The revived Lanes Bakery features a bacon-topped sweet roll.
Baked beans. Jokes aside, I know for many people they’re just too homely. No doubt their popularity plummeted with the advent of canned pork and beans. However, slowly baked with molasses or brown sugar and salt pork or bacon, they can be nothing short of impressive. In the South and Midwest, tomatoes or ketchup are often added to the mix. Out West, pinto beans often replace the more traditional pea or navy beans. I’ve met few homemade baked beans that I didn’t like.
BLT. A bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich is so simple yet complex: a harmonious juxtaposition of contrasting flavors and textures. There is certainly no better way to enjoy a ripe, juice tomato in summer. Before hamburger joints toppled lunch counters, I use to often order them when out to lunch. Now its cousin, the club sandwich, is more likely to make the menu. I like club sandwiches but like BLTs better. Sometimes more is not better.
Clam chowder. For my taste, this is a dish too often ruined by good intentions. The best clam chowder is made from clams and their broth, salt pork, onions, potatoes, milk and little else. It should never contain tomatoes or other vegetables, too many herbs or other seasonings, or be so thick it could double for chip dip. New England is synonymous with clam chowder and rightly so. As far as I’m concerned, Julia Child’s recipe (below) is all one needs to make the perfect bowl of chowdah.
Coleslaw. For many it’s an afterthought on the plate. A little paper cup of soggy shredded cabbage with a few slivers of carrot; more a garnish than a side dish. Cabbage can be white, green or red. It makes a crunchy counterpoint for other raw ingredients such as peppers, carrots, pineapple and peanuts and will hold its own against almost any type of saucing or marinating. My repertoire of coleslaw recipes is long, but an all-time favorite is one with a blue cheese, mustard and brown sugar dressing.
Country ham. Prior to refrigeration, hams were cured, sometimes smoked, and hung to dry and age. They resembled prosciutto more than the kind sold at the grocery today. Obviously, this method of ham making at one time was a means of preservation. Over generations, especially in the South, it has become an art. Best known are the hams that come from Virginia and Kentucky, but everywhere they’re still produced has its own idea about what breed of hog to use, what to feed it, ingredients to use in the cure, whether to smoke or not and how long to age it. Unlike prosciutto that is consumed raw, American country ham is cooked—either slices cut off and fried, or the whole ham soaked and then cooked. Fortunately most of my Kentucky family have passed on since I would assuredly risk their wrath by admitting that I really don’t like fried country ham. It has the texture of shoe leather and is unforgivingly salty. Worst of all, it’s traditionally served with red eye gravy—little more than grease from the pan. Baked country ham, however, is peerless. Preparing one is a chore since the whole ham is soaked, baked (actually braised with liquid), skinned, trimmed and then glazed. The end result is always served at room temperature; never hot from the oven. It cannot be sliced thin enough. Despite all the drudgery and cost—I forgot to mention country hams are very expensive—its exceptionality rivals that of the finest aged wines and cheese. For me, Derby Day is just a horse race without country ham. Fan or novice, I highly recommend Finchville Farms as a purveyor (and they’ll do all the work if you so choose).
Donuts. My favorite are the glazed ones made from yeast dough, but I like all kinds of donuts—except for the so-called jelly ones. (What is that red stuff anyway?) I use to lust after Krispy Kreme but success seems to have stolen its soul. On an eternal quest to find the ultimate fried pastry, it’s hard to find a reason not to try yet another one. The best donuts locally come from Greenbush Bakery—I especially like the old-fashioned cake donuts. When will cronuts make it to Madison?
Door County cherries. To be precise, I mean sour cherries: The kind you put in a pie or use to make jam. If you don’t live in Wisconsin or (heaven forbid) Michigan, or grow them yourself, even in the height of summer it can be difficult to find fresh cherries. I look forward to their arrival each summer and a pie—frozen ones are okay, but friends don’t let friends use canned cherry pie filling! Brennan’s is always my first stop to find Door County cherries.
Fried chicken. Kentucky was famous for its fried chicken long before Colonel Sanders appeared on the scene and hijacked its good name. Growing up there, it was a meal we ate every day of the week, but also would serve company—and it never came from the Colonel! Like making biscuits, it takes much practice to achieve success. There are many methods and I’ve probably tried all of them at one time or another. The only thing I’ll state equivocally is that pan frying is best. Frying breaded chicken totally submerged in oil requires less skill and assures a lovely end result, but frying it in shallow fat is the only way to achieve the crunchy crust that defines real Southern fried chicken.
Jambalaya. I sing its praises as much as Hank Williams did in his little ditty. It combines so many things I like: andouille, shrimp, chicken, rice and spiciness. Like gumbo, it can be Cajun or Creole—the difference between the two styles can be slight, mostly choice of ingredients. For example a Cajun might include alligator, a Creole would not. Its roots are in Spanish paella. People usually associate the French with Louisiana, but Spain ruled there (1762-1800) as well, and left behind more than iron balconies and central courtyards. That said, I’m indifferent to paella but enraptured with jambalaya. It has so much bolder and soulful. Even its name is appealing.
Lasagna. I’m normally not a big fan of casseroles, but lasagna—and yes, it is a casserole—is an exception. The only way you can really screw it up is to include too much fatty ground beef, so that when it bakes, grease oozes over the sides of the pan. I like it plain or fancy. The options for sauces, cheeses and fillings are only limited by imagination. It’s a vegetarian dish that can even tempt hardcore carnivores. I’m not sure about a vegan version, however, since I’m much too in love with all that stringy mozzarella.
Leg of lamb. I grew up being told by my mother it was something that I wouldn’t like. That alone probably assured that I would. The first time I ever tasted leg of lamb was in grade school when a neighbor invited me over to dinner. It looked not that much different than my already beloved roast beef. All rosy and pink, it appeared with a dollop of odd green jelly. But the taste was differently delicious and I knew at first bite I’d found a new favorite food. If truth be told, I’ve concluded that mint jelly really doesn’t do much to enhance its flavor, but I still rarely serve leg of lamb without it. It always reminds me of the first time.
Maple syrup. I confess I grew up with Log Cabin and adored the little tin it came in. Unfortunately, as a young child I couldn’t or chose not to read the ingredients listed on the side of the can: high fructose corn syrup, water, salt, cellulose gum, potassium sorbate, sodium hexametaphosphate, citric acid, caramel color and artificial flavor. Regardless, one taste of the real thing and there was no turning back. One of the culinary joys of living in Wisconsin is its abundance of high-quality maple syrup.
Marinated herring in sour cream. This is another item I only came to appreciate after moving to America’s Dairyland and quite by accident. First came the discovery of the supper club which at that time usually featured a relish tray to start dinner. Essential items besides the obvious celery and carrot sticks included small dishes of cottage cheese, pickled beets, bean salad, liver pâté and creamed herring. I wasn’t a picky eater and tried them all. I was disappointed to discover the stuff that looked like a scoop of chocolate ice cream was not. But the herring was something new and I liked it, and even better yet, didn’t have to share it with anyone else in my family. I miss relish trays but fortunately marinated herring in sour cream is still available at the supermarket.
Muffaletta. Its most obvious difference from a sub or a hoagie is the round loaf. Filled with salami, ham and provolone, what really sets it apart is the condiment of chopped green and black olives, gardineria and lots of garlic. The sandwich originated at the Central Grocery in New Orleans’ French Quarter in the early part of the twentieth century, but its fame soon spread throughout the city. Many restaurants outside of New Orleans today make muffalettas, but their failing is usually the bread. Hard-crusted French bread is substituted for the softer and more amenable round loaf used there.
Oysters. I especially like them raw or fried. Oysters Rockefeller is a classic dish, but can be overbearing. Belons, Bluepoints, Wellfleets and those from the Gulf Coast are among my favorites. The only ones I ever pass up are the humongous Quilcines, a variety named after a bay in Washington State from where they come. To my taste, they have none.
Peaches. I like them much more than I once did when I lived where they grew in profusion. In Wisconsin, even in the peak of summer, it can be hard to find a decent peach. Unfortunately, ripe peaches have a very short shelf life and don’t travel well. When I’m in a locale where they’re grown and in season, I blatantly gorge on them. One of my most vivid dining memories is going to the legendary Harry’s Bar in Venice and for the first time savoring a Bellini cocktail, a euphoric mélange of white peach juice and Prosecco.
Potato salad. I suppose this is another remnant of my southern upbringing. Along with coleslaw and baked beans, potato salad is part of the holy trinity of side dishes served with barbecue. Like coleslaw, I believe the reason so many people don’t give it a second thought is they’ve had too much mediocre, or worse yet, bad potato salad. I have many tried-and-true recipes, but am always anxious to try something new.
Ribs. Meat on the bone. Why does it taste so much better? What fool would remove the bones from a standing rib roast? Pork, beef, lamb, spareribs, back ribs, short ribs. They all excite me. Even a strip steak attached to the bone is so much more appealing. When it comes to barbecued ribs, I’m very particular: I like mine with a rub, smoked over hardwood and served with sauce on the side.
Samosas. I’m fond of Indian food in general, but would never consider an Indian dinner that didn’t begin with these pyramid-shaped potato and pea pastries. True, they can be made with other fillings including meat, but I always return to the basic. I admit I’m addicted to dipping them in tamarind chutney just as much as those who must slather ketchup on their French fries.
Scottish smoked salmon. It’s not so much about where it comes from, but rather how it is made—quality smoked salmon also comes from Ireland and Scandinavia. The fish has to be cured with a dry rub and then gently cold smoked—without the heat cooking the fish. It’s a demanding technique but the result is an unequalled buttery richness. More often than not, what is marketed as smoked salmon here was smoked over a hot fire. Lox, on the other hand, isn’t smoked at all, but salmon cured in brine.
Shepherd’s Pie. Ground beef has to be one of the most overused ingredients in this country. Except for hamburgers, I rarely consume it. I even prefer my chili made with chopped beef. However, I have an inexplicable fondness for shepherd’s pie, one I acquired living in London. Perhaps encountering away from home this simple but familiar combo of meat, gravy and mashed potatoes was somehow comforting. It remains so, but I occasionally kick it up, making Paul Prudhomme’s spicy Cajun version.
Shrimp remoulade. If you’ve made it this far, surely you’ve gleaned my predilection for Louisiana’s cooking heritage. Creole remoulade sauce is much preferred there (and by me) over the red dredge that too often accompanies cold shrimp. Like its French counterpart, remoulade sauce is a mayonnaise-based dressing similar to tartar sauce, but in the Creole version ketchup, horseradish and cayenne are added. I always liked shrimp cocktail, but shrimp remoulade is an improvement.
Sushi. It’s always good to step outside my culinary comfort zone. When I first tried sushi, eating raw fish and seaweed (not to mention something that contained not so much as a smidgen of butter or splash of cream) was unthinkable. Sushi has come to symbolize the antithesis of food that is too fussy and too pretentious. With bright clean flavors and simply satisfying, oh, what a relief it is. I was so pleased when Muramoto came to town.
RECIPE: Julia Child’s New England Clam Chowder
Many New Englanders considered Pilot Crackers (a brand of hardtack) an essential chowder-making ingredient. Unfortunately, when Kraft took over Nabisco in the late 1990s, their production ceased, due to lack of sales. After an uproar by Pilot Crackers’ regional constituency, production briefly resumed but halted for good in 2008. The best substitute is the similar “common cracker” available at specialty food markets or by mail order here.
24 medium hard-shell chowder (quahog) clams, scrubbed and soaked
1 cup water
4 ounces salt pork, diced
1 tbsp butter
3 cups sliced onions
1 bay leaf
3/4 cup crumbled common crackers or oyster crackers
4 cups liquid: a combination of the reserved steaming liquid, bottled clam juice and water
3 to 3 1/2 cups boiling potatoes, peeled, cut in 1/2-inch cubes, and covered with cold water
2 cups whole milk or half-and-half (or a combination)
Salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste
Put the scrubbed and washed clams in a 3-quart stock pot with the water and bring to a boil over high heat. Cover the kettle and steam 3 to 4 minutes, or until most of the clam shells have opened. Remove the open clams and steam the rest for 2 minutes more. Then, discard any unopened clams. Transfer the meat from the clams into a bowl. Carefully strain the steaming liquid, avoiding any sand in the bottom of the kettle and set aside.
Discard the shells, necks and any coarse parts of the clams and coarsely chop the meat by hand, or grind in the food processor. Set aside. (You should have about 1 1/2 to 2 cups clam meat.)
Simmer the salt pork in 1 quart of water for 5 minutes, drain, and rinse under cold water. Drain again and pat dry. In a large kettle, cook the salt pork in the butter over medium heat, stirring, until the pork is crisp and it renders its fat—5 to 10 minutes. Add the sliced onions and bay leaf, cover and cook slowly for 8 to 10 minutes or until the onion is soft and transparent. Turn the mixture into a sieve to drain off any excess fat. Return it to the drained mixture to the pan and add the crumbled crackers. Add the 4 cups liquid and the drained potatoes. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes or until the potatoes are tender.
Stir in the milk and/or half-and-half and the reserved clam meat. Add salt and pepper to taste.
(The chowder can be made to this point a few hours in advance. Transfer to a saucepan, cool completely, then cover and refrigerate.)
Reheat the chowder over medium low heat, stirring occasionally, until it just reaches the boiling point (do not boil or it will curdle). Remove from heat and serve immediately in bowls with toasted and buttered common crackers or oyster crackers.