Saturday, August 30, 2008

In a Blue State

Blueberries as big as the end of your thumb,
Real sky-blue, and heavy, and ready to drum
In the cavernous pail of the first one to come!
All ripe together, none of them green.
Robert Frost

I love blueberries. Use to be they were only available fresh in the summer. That’s no longer true – they now ship them in from New Zealand during the winter, but summer is still the best time to enjoy them. Blueberries grow all over their native North America. There are basically two varieties: the lowbush or wild blueberries and the highbush or cultivated blueberries. Some species of huckleberries, especially in the South, are incorrectly called blueberries. Maine and Canada produce most of the wild variety and you can frequently find them frozen at the grocery (Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Woodman’s). Wild blueberries are smaller and intensely flavored and rarely sold fresh around here. (They can be ordered in season from G. M. Allen & Sons, Blue Hill, Maine.) Fortunately for us, our neighbor Michigan leads the country in the production of the cultivated variety and you can easily find them here, fresh and excellent. Blueberries grow in Wisconsin and start appearing around the middle of July (later in the month the farther north you go). You probably won’t see them at the supermarket, but they are available at Farmers’ Markets.

One of the things I like about blueberries is their versatility. Unlike strawberries and raspberries which I prefer raw, blueberries are just as good if not better cooked. They also freeze suitably and frozen blueberries work well in many baked goods and fillings. There is a difference of opinion about whether to defrost or not to defrost frozen blueberries before using. Defrosted berries tend to bleed and discolor cake and muffin batters but frozen berries may substantially increase the cooking time for a pie. Dried blueberries are very sweet and nice in scones and salads. Canned blueberries, however, are best left alone.

Blueberry pie is truly more All American than apple. (The English were making apple pies long before they step foot in North American and nary saw a blueberry till they did). The trouble with blueberry pie is it can be runny. Adding enough thickening – flour, cornstarch or tapioca – can make it plastic. Not too many summers ago I encountered at Connie’s Bakery in Provincetown what was for me the perfect solution: peach blueberry pie. The addition of peaches makes for a firmer filling as well as a novel change. It’s a winning combination of two fruits at the peak of their season that compliment each other like strawberry and rhubarb. Speaking of rhubarb … try adding it to blueberries for “blubarb” pie – quickly becoming one of my favorite summer treats.

Admittedly, making successful pies take some effort and practice ... and I abhor pies made with refrigerated or frozen ready made crusts! If you’re just not up to making a pie for whatever reason, try something more rustic. Blueberry buckle, crumble or crisp are easy to make, just as satisfying and equally delicious warm from the oven.

And … who would have thought something that tastes so good could be good for you? The U.S. Department of Agriculture determined that the antioxidant, pterostilbene, found in blueberries, plays an important role in reducing cholesterol. Antioxidants supposedly also help keep us young and healthy, fight cell-damaging free radicals and prevent various diseases. Regardless, I’d eat them any way.

Peach Blueberry Pie

Pie pastry for a double crust pie, chilled at least 1 hour

5 ripe medium-size peaches, peeled, pitted and sliced
1 pint blueberries
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
3 to 4 tablespoons instant tapioca, pulverized in a food processor or spice grinder
¼ teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon cold butter, cut into bits
1 egg, beaten to combine

Vanilla ice cream (optional)

Roll out half the pie pastry and use it to line a 9-inch pie plate. Trim the edge to about a ½-inch overhang and chill while preparing the filling.
Put the peaches and blueberries in a large mixing bowl and add the lemon zest and juice. Combine ¾ cup sugar, tapioca and salt and add to the fruit. Gently toss to combine and let stand while rolling out the pastry for the top crust.
Roll out the remaining pastry to a 10-inch round. Fill the chilled pastry-lined pie plate with the fruit mixture and dot the surface with butter bits. Lay the rolled-out pastry over the fruit filling. Trim, crimp the edges and make 4 holes in the top crust toward the center of the pie. Chill the pie for 1 hour, then place in the freezer for exactly 20 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Move the oven racks to the bottom third of the oven.
Place a baking sheet on the lower rack.

Brush the surface of the pie (not the crimped edge) with the beaten egg and sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon sugar. Place in the oven and bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees and continue to bake another 30 minutes or until the crust is golden brown and the juices are bubbling up through the vents. Cool on a rack at least 2 hours before serving. Serve with vanilla ice cream if desired.

6 to 8 Servings.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Muramoto III

Kushi Bar Muramoto will open soon at 106 King Street (the former location of Restaurant Muramoto which moved down the street into bigger digs). If you're not hip to kushi it's a Japanese style of cooking where various kinds of meat and seafood are grilled or fried on skewers.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Simply Delicious

I love to cook but in summer the less time spent in the kitchen the better. I look forward to the abundance of fresh produce and grilling outdoors. So much of what we eat this time of year actually benefits from less preparation. Here are a few of my favorite summer dishes.

Appetizers. Fresh figs wrapped with prosciutto. Blend together cream cheese and lox, spread on crackers and top with avocado. Cut leftover cold cheese pizza into bite size squares and serve with a squeeze of lemon juice. Chill very large boiled and shelled shrimp; serve cold with fresh lemon. Sprinkle large flour tortillas with grated pepper jack cheese and toast on the grill … serve in wedges with guacamole and salsa. Puree a handful of fresh raspberries with sugar to taste in a blender … strain into a pitcher, add raspberry vodka and lemonade.

Tomato Salads. The season is brief so now is the time to enjoy tomatoes that taste like tomatoes. Most people are familiar with the Italian classic Caprese salad – fresh mozzarella, sliced tomatoes and basil. Try substituting paper-thin slices of lemons for the mozzarella. For an American version switch blue cheese for the mozzarella and add sliced red onions. Stuff whole tomatoes with a mixture of tuna (preferably packed in olive oil), lemon juice, chopped parsley and capers. Or, substitute stale bread crumbs for the tuna and add some chopped basil and garlic. And -- as weird as is sounds -- toss seeded tomato wedges with peeled and sliced peaches, sweet onion rings and cilantro.

Other Salads. Combine cubes of feta cheese and seeded watermelon with mint, a little chopped Serrano chile, olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Grill a steak, slice thinly and serve over chopped romaine with crumbled blue cheese, a drizzle of olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon. Taco salad: chopped greens, tomatoes, onions, avocados, cilantro and drained canned black beans tossed with tortilla chips, grated cheese, lime juice and topped with sour cream. Barely cook green beans, blanch and chill …at serving time toss with ripe tomato wedges and a vinaigrette made with lots of basil and garlic. Grill zucchini and summer squash; toss with minced garlic, olive oil, lemon juice and a little red wine vinegar and serve at room temperature.

Chicken. Marinate cubes of boneless chicken in Patak’s tandoori paste, yogurt and lemon juice …thread on skewers and grill. Make a paste in the food processor using a bunch of cilantro (stems and all), a couple of cloves of garlic, black pepper and some fish sauce … spread on boneless thighs and marinate for a couple of hours then grill and serve with Thai sweet and sour chili sauce.

Meat. Rub a flank steak with chili powder, grill until medium rare and serve sliced with chili pepper jelly. Grill a 2-inch thick t-bone streak, sprinkle with coarse sea salt and drizzle with the best extra virgin olive oil (serves 2 to 3 fabulously). Marinate flatiron steaks in Tabasco sauce over night … drain, pat dry with paper towels and grill. Rub lamb cubes in cinnamon, coriander, cumin, nutmeg, salt and black pepper … skewer and grill; serve with yogurt flavored with mint and garlic.

Fish. Make tacos with grilled and chopped mahi mahi seasoned with chili powder and cumin. Stuff pita bread with crabmeat mixed with mayo, chopped chives and fresh tarragon. Make ceviche from fresh sea scallops, minced red bell pepper, lime zest and lime juice. Tahitian-style poisson cru: cubed ahi tuna, 2 parts lime juice to 1 part coconut milk with chopped tomato, cucumbers and scallions.

Pasta. The all-time summer favorite …pasta and pesto: in the blender puree basil leaves, a little garlic, walnuts, parmesan and olive oil. Chop fresh tomatoes and sauté in butter, adding shredded basil right before serving over spaghetti. Sauté garlic, broccoli and shelled shrimp in olive oil and serve over linguine with shaved parmesan.

Desserts. Peel and slice fresh peaches or apricots, sauté in honey and serve over coffee ice cream. Sweetened to taste a pint of sour cream with brown sugar and flavor with a little vanilla and/or bourbon … use as a dip for fresh strawberries. Make peach shortcake using store-bought pound cake and whipped cream. Cut off the top of a milk carton, put in a bottle of lemoncello, fill with water and place in the freezer over night.

Or really simple, Fresco, L’Etoile, Harvest and Lombardino’s all have great summer menus featuring local farm products.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

More Dogs on State Street

Another restaurant specializing in Chicago-style hot dogs will open soon at 505 State Street (the space formerly occupied by Pelmeni, the Russian dumpling shop) will soon open: The Dawg House.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Key Lime Pie

No doubt the simplicity of key lime pie contributed to its popularity. There is something inherently appealing about it, probably the contrast in texture between crumb crust and smooth filling; the juxtaposed flavors of sweet custard and tart lime juice. It’s become a restaurant cliché but more often than not what will be set before you came frozen from a wholesale food purveyor. Go figure since traditional key lime pie couldn’t be easier to concoct: a graham cracker crust with a filling made from eggs, sweetened condensed milk and lime juice and zest. (The Continental in Fitchburg serves a traditional key lime pie and Restaurant Magnus an exotic modern rendition, both homemade.)

Gale Borden, founder of the soon-to-be-famous Borden Milk Company developed sweetened condensed milk in 1856. Prior to the advent of refrigeration, milk was a difficult staple to have on hand, especially during warm weather. Borden figured out a process where he could take fresh milk, heat it, remove the water and sweetened it with sugar (to improve the taste). The end result was thick, sweet and when canned keep unrefrigerated for years. Originally, the product—marketed as Eagle Brand Milk—was diluted with water to make a palatable drink but also was used straight from the can as a coffee creamer.

Sweetened condensed milk became popular during the American Civil War when the government bought huge quantities and included it as part of the field rations. After iceboxes and then refrigerators became ubiquitous, the sales of condensed milk declined. In 1931, the Borden Company started offering $25 (a heap of money during the Depression) for original recipes that they would print on the label. Considering the nature of the product, many of these recipes were for desserts. One of these recipes, lemon icebox pie, became all the rage. Simple to make, it was also a novelty at the time since it wasn’t baked but instead the filling miraculously thickened in the icebox.
Today sweetened condensed milk and condensed milk are one and the same. The unsweetened version is now marketed as evaporated milk.

Nobody knows who made the first key lime pie but it’s definitely a Florida variation of lemon icebox pie, using the tart limes that use to grow in abundance in the Keys. Key limes (also called West Indian or Mexican limes) are small, seedy and yellowish when ripe. More common is the larger, seedless, dark green Persian lime (also called Tahitian or Bearss lime).

Today, even in Florida most key lime pies are made using Persian limes. In 1926 a hurricane wiped out most of the key lime trees in Southern Florida. When commercial growers replanted they opted for the heartier Persian variety. Ironically now you will find nary a key lime even in Key West unless it came from Texas or Mexico.

My first key lime pie experience was in 1957 at a famous deli in Sunny Isles Beach called Wolfie Cohen’s Rascal House. Sadly this Miami institution closed this past March. The Rascal House served all the classics that you’d expect to find at a Jewish delicatessen; all in copious portions. Most notable, though, was the key lime pie topped with a foot of meringue.

Originally, key lime pie was always crowned with meringue which today is usually replaced with whipped cream. Meringue after all takes some finesse by the cook to make and doesn’t hold up well – it’s prone to shrink and weep. I actually think whipped cream is an improvement on the original recipe since meringue tends to make this pie cloyingly sweet.

Rather than offer a recipe for traditional key lime pie since you can find them everywhere, here is my recipe for (uff da!) Wisconsin Lime Pie. We may not grow any limes but, we got dairy, you betcha!

Wisconsin Lime Pie

1 9-inch crumb crust, made from graham crackers or Nikki’s Key Lime Shortbread Cookies

1 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon finely grated lime zest
1/3 cup fresh lime juice
1 cup light cream (half-n-half)
1 cup sour cream
Combine the sugar, cornstarch, butter, lime zest and juice, and light cream in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. Cook until thickened and smooth. Remove from the heat and let the mixture cool completely.

Fold in the sour cream. Pour the mixture into the crumb crust, cover with plastic wrap and chill while making the Whipped Cream Topping.

Spread the Whipped Cream Topping over the pie and chill for 2 hours or until serving time. (It’s best if made the day it is to be served.)

Serves 6 to 8.

Whipped Cream Topping:
2 cups heavy cream
2 tablespoons cold water
2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin
1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Put the cold water in a small glass measuring cup and sprinkle with gelatin. Let the mixture soften for about 5 minutes.

In a chilled bowl beat the cream, confectioner's sugar and vanilla until it just holds its shape.

Melt the softened gelatin in the measuring cup in the microwave for 15 seconds and let cool slightly. Beating constantly, add the liquid gelatin to the whipped cream. Continue beating just until the gelatin is well combined.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Italian Dinner

When something is enjoyable it becomes meaningful and is repeated. We all have dining rituals like Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner or annual events marked with families, friends and food. I seem to have a lot more than most people I know. There use to be the Guy Fawkes Day Dinner, Bastille Day Picnic and the Keep Labor Day Boring Potluck There is the sometime Mardi Gras Breakfast at Brennan’s and Derby Day Party. Recently, Rib-o-rama has made the repertoire. One celebration, however, I have observed for two decades, nonstop without interruption: The Italian Dinner.

The date for this repast is not set. It occurs sometime in July or August and commemorates nothing. It came to pass in 1970 as I lusted for la dolce vita, something I’d discovered on my first trip to Italy the year before. Dinner was at 10 with course after course of exquisite food, fine wines and service as attentive as a doting aunt without her obtrusiveness. What’s more it all took place outside, on an enchanting piazza under a pizza pie moon.

So now each summer I mount the annual Italian Dinner. It’s been happening for so long that the dinner is older than many of the guests who have changed over the years as have the venues. In recent years it has taken place on Dick Wagner’s deck, overlooking his romantic gardens and Lake Monona. The menu is always different and Pan Italian (I love the food from all the regions of Italy). But one constant is the feast always begins with Bellini, a heavenly cocktail of white peach juice and prosecco – sparkling wine from the Veneto – first concocted by Harry’s Bar in Venice. It may be dining al fresco but there are no paper plates or plastic forks, but in the best Italian tradition, crisp starched linen, sparkling crystal and an abundance of cutlery. Antipasiti, pasta, pesche, i primi, i secondi, la verdure, insalata, il fromaggio, dolci e la frutta . . . the meal marches and the vino bottles pile up like lasagna. Yet, there’s always still room for a little glass of Amaro Averna or limoncello frozen in a block of ice and lots of sighs.

A cookout with bratwurst is nice but The Italian Dinner is amore.

So if your invitation to my 39th Italian Dinner got lost in the mail, I suggest you head over to Lombardino’s. The menu is seasonal, the food movingly Italian and the décor opera buffa.

Bellini Cocktail

Ripe white peaches
Peach schnapps
Chilled prosecco

Skin the peaches by dipping in simmering water for a few seconds and then placing under cold running water. Put the flesh in an electric juicer,

Put 2 tablespoons of peach juice and 2 tablespoons of peach schnapps in a tall glass and add prosecco. Stir and serve.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Out on the Street

When it comes to eating outdoors, American habits are closely tied to technology. It was the invention of the automobile that popularized leisure travel. The romance of camping and cooking over an open fire became all the rage. Ironically, it was car man Henry Ford, an avid camper, who invented the charcoal briquette which in turn literally fired backyard barbecues.

For many years, the options in this country for eating outside at a restaurant were very limited to say the least. Communities with large German populations often had beer gardens for summer drinking prior to the invention of air conditioning. New Orleans has a distinguished history of courtyard restaurants. In mild climates such as California and Florida there is a tradition of patio restaurants. There was even a long-running French restaurant in Chicago, Jacque’s, probably best known for its open air dining.

But the European concept of the sidewalk café – actually eating out on the pavement in an urban area – has only taken hold here during the past couple of decades. Madison with its lakes has always had a love affair with summer. If you ever want to take out-of-town guests to one place where they can instantly savor what life here is all about, take them to the Memorial Union Terrace. Not surprisingly, once all the barriers to restaurants setting up tables on the sidewalk were eliminated – concerns about public health, sanitation, accessibility and liability – sidewalk cafés here as elsewhere were an instant hit.

Today, sidewalk cafes are so popular that there is a website exclusively devoted to rating them in various cities. As of yet, they haven’t included Madison on their list, so here are my suggestions of where to go when and for what:

Best Sidewalk Café for Upscale Dining: Harvest, 21 N. Pinckney Street. The view of the capitol is as spectacular as the cooking. This is prime real estate for Concerts on the Square.

Best Sidewalk Café for Casual Dining: Brocach, 7 W. Main Street. Its authentic Irish façade add real European flavor to the Concourse.

Best Sidewalk Café for Brunch: Café Continental, 108 King Street. On a sunny Saturday or Sunday a stop here is reason enough to get up and get out, not to mention the Farmers’ Market.

Best Sidewalk Café for Fish Fry: Orpheum, 216 State Street. All-you-can-eat bluegill and all State Street has to offer at for one price.

Best Sidewalk Café for Drinking (Booze): Genna’s, 105 W. Main Street. Yuppies and Xsters yuck it up as they watch the world go by.

Best Sidewalk Café for Coffee: Steep n’ Brew, 544 State Street.
There’s usually an interesting and eclectic clientele here and a busker or two nearby to entertain you.

Best Sidewalk Café for People Watching: Hawk’s, 425 State Street. The largest of the State Street sidewalk cafes, it’s always got a buzz on.

Best Lakeside Dining and Drinking, Mendota: Nau-ti-gal, 5360 Westport Road. Whether you come by boat, SUV or on a tandem bike, the party atmosphere can’t be beat.

Best Lakeside Dining and Drinking, Monona: Paisan’s, 131 W. Wilson Street. A big terrace with a big view and “when the moon hits your eye …”

Best Suburban Restaurant Patio: The Continental, 2784 S. Fish Hatchery Road, Fitchburg. Sidewalks can be in short supply in the suburbs but The Continental’s commodious piazza has well-spaced dining tables plus a cozy area for drinks with comfortable seating surrounding a fire pit.