Friday, December 26, 2008

Soup’s On

After the holidays, I crave food not so fuzzy but it’s still winter and I want something hearty … preferably something that will perk up my jaded palate. ‘Tis the season for soup. Lots of places make a good soup of the day to be sure—both Café Soleil and Marigold Kitchen immediately come to mine—but sometime I’m not in the mood to take potluck … certainly not up for a bowl of cream of tomato. Fortunately, there are restaurants in Madison that have soup specialties of the house—so good they’re on the menu every day or at least on a regular basis. Here are my top 10, Best of Madison Soups.

Africana Restaurant: Egusi
This is about as exotic as it gets. Egusi are fat- and protein-rich seeds used to thicken soup in Africa. Africana’s recipe comes from Nigeria and is a pleasantly hot beef and tomato stock with spinach, smoked fish and all kinds of mysterious seasonings. It’s served with a choice of meat and rice or fufu (pounded yams or plantain).

Bandung: Sayur Lodeh
My vegetarian friends—especially those new to town—are always asking me where they should eat. Bandung is definitely at the top of my list. Sayur Lodeh is an improbable combination of ingredients—tempe, tofu, napa cabbage, baby corn, bamboo shoots and jalapeno—all successfully coming together in coconut milk broth. It’s so sublime that even carnivores (like me) will be contemplating seconds. Fortunately, it’s available in dinner-size portion.

Capitol Chophouse: Brown Ale Onion Soup
Nothing is more enticing than a bowl of French onion soup with its raft of melting Swiss cheese floating in a bowl of robust beef stock and aromatic onions. At the Chophouse, the marriage of brown ale with an excellent onion soup is a match made in heaven.

Eldorado Grill: KW’s Texas Chile
Not to be confused with its wimpy Midwestern cousin, this is the real deal made with chunks of beef rather than hamburger. It packs a punch, zipped up with a happy consortium of New Mexican, ancho, pasilla and Oaxacan chile peppers. Chili (the soup) actually originated more than 100 years ago in San Antonio (not Mexico) where women known as Chili Queens sold the spicy stew from carts on the street.

Lombardino’s: Ribollita (Winter menu)
Ribollita means “twice cooked” in Italian and this bean soup is a traditional Tuscan dish. When I had the pleasure of discovering this soup at Lombardino’s, it was so wonderful that I begged co-owner Marcia O’Halloran for the recipe. (Okay, I didn’t have to beg but would have gladly done so and more.) White beans are slowly cooked with smoked pork and bacon. Then chicken stock, onions, lacinato kale, Roma tomatoes, carrots, zucchini and fresh herbs go in the pot. The end result is slightly thickened bean soup with a rich smoky flavor which is served over crisp crotons and finished with a drizzle of fine olive oil.

Restaurant Magnus: Butternut Squash and Sweet Potato Soup
This soup, like its setting is sophisticated, stylish and smooth. The stick-to-your-ribs qualities of butternut squash and sweet potatoes are pure comfort food, but the addition of a fennel apple relish and pasilla pepper oil is what gives it personality. The soup is available on the restaurant’s Tapas Menu.

La Mestiza: Sopa Azteca
Tortilla soup includes just about everything I like about Mexican food. La Mestiza’s version is a rich chicken broth spiced with smoky pasilla chile and comes with all the prerequisite garnishes: crunchy tortilla strips, crumbled queso fresco, chopped avocado and cream aria. ¡Muy bueno!

The Old Fashioned: Green Bay Chili
This beloved Wisconsin specialty is actually a thick sauce made from beef and beans, distinctively spiced and served over spaghetti on a plate rather than in a bowl. You then add your choice of toppings—grated cheese, chopped onions and/or sour cream. The concept came to Green Bay from Cincinnati where chili parlors that specialize in this peculiar product proliferate. The photo is of a “Four-Way”—chili with the works—at Cincy’s Skyline Chili.

Sa-Bai Thong Thai Cuisine: Tom Ka (Gai)
I fell in love with Thai food in Los Angeles and immediately fell in love with this wonderfully complex concoction. For the first time, I could really appreciate tofu. With a base of coconut milk, Tom Ka Gai is seasoned with chili paste, lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, galanga (blue ginger) and other herbs and spices. You add your choice of chicken, shrimp, squid or tofu.

Wah Kee Chinese Noodle Restaurant: Hot and Sour Tong Mein
This first time I tasted this classic Chinese potage was the first time I had a kind of soup not made by Campbell. Forget chicken soup, this is the perfect remedy to cure a cold and literally sensational. Like most of their noodle dishes, Wah Kee’s Hot and Sour Tong Mein is exemplarily.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

2008 Restaurant Obits

Cleveland’s Diner
Café Zoma

Caspian Cafe
Fork & Spoon Café
James Street Dining Co

Mad Dog's Chicago-style Eatery
Mystic Grill
Papa Phil’s
Peppermill Grill
State Bar & Grill

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The View from My Window

July ...

... December

Sunday, December 14, 2008

All I Want (and Don’t Want) for Christmas

I feel a little bit like Maria Von Trapp because I’m going to write about a few of my favorite (and least favorite) things. That is, what I like and I don’t like to eat and drink around the Christmas holiday. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and any similarity to conventional wisdom is purely coincidental.


1. Standing Rib Roast. I can’t imagine having anything else for Christmas dinner; nothing is more magnificent or delicious. I know a lot of people like to have the ribs removed from their roast but don’t. Sure, it will make it easier to carve but the ribs form a natural cooking rack, lend flavor to the meat and make for a spectacular presentation. The only downside is expense, and because of the waste (bone and fat), you’ll need to figure about a pound per person. Personally, I like my rib roast sliced into neat, relatively thin slices—sometime called an English cut—rather than big slabs as it’s most often served in American restaurants. Everything you need to know about cooking perfect roast beef the first time and every time can be found in Julia Child & Company (Alfred A. Knopf, 1978). The only other thing you’ll need is a good instant-read or digital meat thermometer.

2. Yorkshire Pudding. It’s the perfect side with roast beef since it soaks up all the juices. This beloved English specialty is similar to an American popover but flavored with the drippings from the beef. Traditionally it’s baked in the roasting pan but some prefer using individual round molds. It couldn’t be easier to whip up ahead of time and bakes while the roast sits. The secret is to blend the batter in a blender or food processor, let it stand for 30 minutes or so, and then pour the batter into a hot pan: it will rise dramatically, be crispy brown on the outside and moist on the inside with a hollow center. A contemporary variation of sorts is a savory bread pudding like Emeril Lagasse’s Exotic Mushroom Bread Pudding, a personal favorite.

3. Country Ham. If you don’t already know what it is, forget all your preconceived notions about ham. Country ham’s only similarity to that wet, pink stuff they sell at the grocery store is both start out as a hog. These hams are dry cured, sometime smoked and then hung to age for one to two years. The end product is akin to prosciutto. A difference is that prosciutto is served raw. Country ham is soaked, then boiled and/or baked, trimmed of skin and fat and finally glazed or covered in bread crumbs. Like prosciutto, country ham is served sliced paper thin, either chilled or at room temperature. These types of hams are made throughout the southern states with various nuances in taste depending on the breed of the pig, what it is fed and how it is cured. Virginia and Kentucky are probably best known for their country hams. By the 1960s the making of this American specialty had become almost a lost art because of the time, labor and expertise involved. Discovered by some of the country’s best chefs, there is now a renaissance of production. Whole ham’s are expensive and a lot of work to prepare. If you do decide to try your hand, they nearly always come with good directions for preparation. If you’ve never tried country ham before, I would suggest you start by ordering some already cooked and sliced ham. My favorite country ham comes from Finchville Farms in Finchville, Kentucky. They offer an extensive selection of quality country ham and ham products for sale on their website and shipped to your door.

4. Roast Goose. I know … you’re expecting a Christmas goose joke … but seriously, it’s delicious and something different. It’s the Christmas dinner entrée of choice among Europeans and they’re no slackers when it comes to appreciating good food. If you’ve never cooked a goose before and try to cook it as you would a turkey or roasting chicken, the end result will be tough and greasy. The secret is to add liquid, or in other words, technically braise the goose rather than roast it. The result will be an attractive crispy skin with juicy and succulent dark meat. Julia Childs outlines the basic technique in The Way to Cook (Alfred A. Knopf, 1989). Almost as good as the goose is potatoes cooked in its fat.

5. Plum Pudding. Today this dessert conjures up images of Ye Olde England and Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Plum pudding was once popular in this country, before the advent of reliable ovens and home baking since it was steamed on top of the stove. Actually, in England it’s usually called “Christmas pudding” and is an indispensable part of celebrating the holiday. It’s easy to make but takes a long time to cook—about 8 hours—and really needs to be made months in advance so it can mellow, regularly doused with a heavy pour of good spirits. Brought to the table flamed with cognac or rum, all round and rolly-poly and topped with its traditional decoration of a sprig of holly, it epitomizes everything that is magic about Christmas. “God bless us everyone!”

6. Scottish Smoked Salmon. Forget about lox and that stuff they sell at the supermarket, this is the real deal. The secret is cold smoking at about 80 degrees which does not cook the fish, resulting in a delicate texture and buttery taste. (In Great Britain, salmon and other fish that are smoked by the more conventional hot fire method are referred to as “kippered”). In all fairness, similar excellent smoked salmon is also produced by the same technique in Ireland and Norway. It can be difficult to find authentic Scottish smoked salmon but you can order it, shipped by air.

7. Champagne. It’s not just for New Years any more. Besides, I’m just looking for an excuse to bring out the bubbly. Cheers!

8. Rosettes. Think Norwegian food and I think lutefisk and lefsa and I say ‘No thanks.’ But rosettes are dispensation for any of the country’s culinary sins. More a pastry than a cookie this fried and sugared confection is ethereally intoxicating. They do require some special equipment to make: a rosette iron (available at Orange Tree Imports on Monroe Street) and a deep fryer. A fall back is Schubert's Cafe Bakery, 128 E. Main Street in Mount Horeb.

9. Tamales. My first encounter with this Mexican Christmas Eve tradition was in San Diego. I love homemade tamales and good ones can be hard to come by in this neck of the woods. They are easy to make and my favorite filling is a combination of pork and potatoes served with salsa verde.
10. Artillery Punch. I’ve made it but never tasted it; therein is the attraction ... and it’s such a wonderfully bizarre potion. It comes to mind each holiday season because in the 1950s when I was in the 3rd grade my parents mixed up a big batch in a wash tub in the basement—and I helped. (It would be the highlight of their Pink and Chartreuse Christmas Party that year.) Unfortunately, I went to school and during show and tell shared both the recipe and how I got to stir in the gin—unfortunately, since my teacher was a teetotaler and henceforth branded me a delinquent and my parents degenerate. Fortunately, we moved out of state shortly thereafter. Recipe follows.


1. Eggnog. If the raw eggs won’t kill you, the fat and cholesterol will. I’d rather eat my dessert than drink it any day. Most of all, eggnog is a waste of good liquor—leave it out and it’s insipid … and, all that nutmeg? Nutmeg poisoning can cause disorientation, a sense of impending doom and hyperactivity.

2. Candy Canes. They're okay as Christmas decorations but lousy candy. For anyone beyond the age of 10, peppermint is only suited as a flavor for toothpaste or mouthwash. Not to mention, after a kid has sucked on one of these things all day, it’s got a point sharp enough to poke your eye out.

3. Pumpkin Pie. I love pumpkin pie … at Thanksgiving. Less homespun and more bling is the order of the day for Christmas.

4. Buffets. Contrary to popular belief the word is not French for “all you can eat”. In France a buffet a can be a place where you purchase food of dubious quality. The difference between a buffet and a potluck is you not only have to serve yourself but furnish some of the food as well. I have to be honest: I never liked either but least of all at this time of year. I cannot pinpoint exactly when this hatred began. For some reason they always take me back to grade school, standing in line in front of a dour faced woman wearing a hairnet who is about to slop a large dollop of cream-style corn into my compartmentalized plate. A cocktail party is just dandy for grazing … picking and choosing tidbits from a big spread. Dinner, however, should have a coordinated menu; be served in courses; eaten seated in a chair at a table.

5. Fruit Cake. I actually like real fruit cake but it has to be homemade from quality ingredients and allowed to mellow for many months, regularly slathered with lots of top shelf booze. What you’re more likely to get is the deserved brunt of so many jokes: dried out pound cake full of colorful candied fruit that tastes like a cut-up garden hose. I have a friend who has been using a fruit cake as a doorstop ever since I can remember.

6. Christmas Cookies. As good as they can be in their own right, so many of so many different kinds arriving a time of year already saturated with glut is overkill. You can’t avoid them. They show up at work, at parties and as gifts from well-intentioned neighbors and friends. Plain or fancy, cut out in cute shapes or dropped as mysterious blobs, drenched in powdered sugar or sprinkled with dragees (those little silver and gold balls that break your teeth), the worse are those that have been stored together in the same container so that they all taste like tutti frutti.

7. Disposable Tableware. Granted you can’t eat them but a lot of stuff you do this time of year is served on or in disposables. Why not just dispose of them all together? Even before it was environmentally responsible, I have always loathed paper plates, plastic cutlery and acrylic “glassware.” Not only are they aesthetically insulting—even mores so adorned with snowmen and reindeers—they make everything taste worse. Furthermore, it’s a sure bet that anyone who cuts corners in the dining room will do the same in the kitchen. I don’t expect my argument to gain much traction, but my hat goes off to Al Gore!

8. White Zinfandel. Driving or not, friends don’t let friends drink this plonk. It’s been my experience, that those that fancy it would just as soon have pink lemonade anyway. For some reason this wine shows up a lot around the holidays, perhaps because of its merry rose hue but I think more likely the consequence of a re-gift.

9. Christmas Tree Peeps. Okay, the silly little yellow marshmallow chickens that have been around at Easter since who knows when are kind of cool just because they are so tacky. Capitalizing on their kitschy popularity by concocting a version for Christmas (and Halloween and every other holiday) is blatant commercialism at it crassest. Besides, what are you suppose to do with them? Put them in your Christmas basket?

10. Green Bean Casserole. Comfort food? Nursery food? I don’t think so. From the start this recipe was a devious conspiracy by corporate food giant Campbell’s to sell more of their products. I mean, really, who ever bought those canned French fried onion rings before? With no apologies to Paula Dean, any recipe that begins with “add a couple of cans of condensed soup,” is not for me, least of all to celebrate a special occasion.

1954 Artillery Punch

6 cups strong black tea
1 liter bourbon
1 750-ml bottle cabernet sauvignon
3 cups dark Jamaican rum
1½ cups gin
1½ cups brandy
3 ounces Benedictine
3 cups freshly squeezed orange juice
1½ cups freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ cup grenadine

Mix all the ingredients and let stand 2 hours or more to mellow. Pour over a block of ice in a large punch bowl.

Serves 12.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Nice Holiday Tradition

The Madison Concourse Hotel Holds 9th Annual Children's Holiday Party

Along with the NFL Alumi Madison Chapter they will hold their annual Children's Holiday Party on December 18 from 4:30 p.m. - 6:30 p.m. at the hotel, 1 W. Dayton Street in downtown Madison.

The hotel will invite over 300 Madison area children from the Boys and Girls Club, Bayview Neighborhood and other children's organizations to attend the private party.

Activities include cookie decorating, crafts, a visit from Bucky Badger, games, treats and a chance to have a photo taken with Santa and the Grinch. The Concourse hopes this is an opportunity for these children to experience traditional holiday activities that they would otherwise not be able to afford. For more information contact Anne Pond, Marketing Manger for The Madison Concourse Hotel, 608.294.3008 or

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Tomato Sandwiches and Fried Pies

THIS PAST WEEK WAS FILLED WITH LOSS, leaving me feeling empty. My only sibling and older sister passed away. People seem to always ask if it was an unexpected death. I’m not sure if it matters. When anyone you have known all your life leaves you it’s difficult to comprehend. Sorrow aside, it’s always an occasion for remembering.

Obviously food is a big part of my life and much of my adulthood shared with my sister involved eating or cooking. Until she left home, her favorite food was a tomato sandwich with Miracle Whip and Velveeta. Even at age 8 Miracle Whip and Velveeta weren’t in my food pyramid.

As a child my sister’s taste in food was predictable for her age. However, her interest in fashion and style was another matter. She taught me the meaning of the word flair if not flamboyant. I remember in sixth grade when she colored her hair chartreuse using Rit fabric dye.

Her given name, Betty Curd, was embarrassing to her—suitable for a cocker spaniel but not for her. After moving to Madison in the late 50s, she attended Edgewood High School. One day, our dad doing his duty transported a couple of the nuns who were Betty’s teachers to the dentist. In the car, they kept espousing how much they enjoyed having Penelope in their classes. Our father assumed they had the wrong parent confused with the wrong student. But, when her first report card arrived, it was for Penelope Curd. This would not be the last time she would change her name. Several years ago, she finally settled on Chyrelle Chasen, suggested by a shaman in Sedona, Arizona. To her eternal chagrin, I will always remember her as Betty.

Growing up, we seldom agreed upon anything. She liked vanilla Cokes (gross) and I liked Grapette. She wanted to watch Dobby Gillis (boring) and I loved Lucy. She swooned over Elvis (weird) and I memorized lyrics from show tunes. She was her father’s girl and I was my mother’s boy.

Married, she and her husband bought an old farm house in Stoughton which they renovated, doing all the work themselves. I’m sure the first arrival of her family, especially our mother and her white gloves, was a traumatic event. Our mother had low expectations since her daughter had never demonstrated—to her disapproval— any interest or skills related to homemaking. Unfortunately, lack of expectations never quelled our mother’s propensity for criticism.

Our mother’s taste ran to split-level ranch complete with wall-to-wall carpet even in the bathroom, but she could not deny her daughter’s spectacular success in transforming this once disheveled hovel. Nor, when Betty served the first dinner, fondue—cheese, beef and chocolate. This was our first encounter with this dip-into-the-pot meal; its unfamiliarity seemed to make it all the more enjoyable. Ironically, fondue would become one of our mother’s favorites, long after Betty and I had forsaken it as passé.

This was an era when my sister made bread and wine, butchered meat and canned everything; when most yearned for one of the new microwave ovens. That’s not to imply she wasn’t interested in different ways of doing things. Her large vegetable garden evolved into one of the area’s first commercial organic farms. She gave me my first Cuisnart and my favorite cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Childs.

In 1972, I moved to Madison to attend graduate school. For a year or so I lived with my sister in Stoughton. I had always liked to eat, but when I spent my junior year of college in Europe, it inspired me to learn how to cook. Betty was more than willing to let me to show off what I had learned. From the beginning I was determined to be the world’s best pie maker. In my family, pies were ever present and the ability to make pastry the hallmark of a good cook. My sister liked pie as much as I did and encouraged me.

Our Kentucky grandmother was a fabulous cook and famous for her pies, biscuits and fried chicken. She also made fried pies—biscuit dough filled with cooked and pureed dried apricots, then pan fried. It sounds simple enough but biscuit dough properly made is hard to handle and frying … if the temperature isn’t just right the pies will turn out greasy and inedible. Betty loved fried pies and craved them: She hadn’t savored one since our grandmother had died.

Biscuit making was a new experience and fried pies a challenge especially since our grandmother left no written recipes. I cannot begin to tell you how many batches of fried pies I made, none just quite right, before my sister later confessed that in fact they had all been delicious.

About this same time, we decided we wanted to open a restaurant in a large Victorian house then for sale. We both were enticed by the restaurant business… something about the sparkle of glassware … the clink of cutlery … a room full of ohhing and ahhing happy diners. We would be the hosts of a glorious dinner party every night of the week! Well. In a rare moment of judiciousness we agreed we would both attend restaurant management classes at MATC before taking the plunge.

Disillusionment quickly followed. Accepting that running a restaurant was hard work and that we lacked the motive to be successful—knowing how to run a business and make a profit—was our damnation (or salvation, depending upon your point of view). Nonetheless, we turned to Plan B: Catering. Betty was much impressed and influenced by James Beard who began his career in food as a caterer with virtually no professional training or experience.

We started hosting afternoon teas … making miniature cream puffs stuffed with crabmeat, frilly sandwiches filled with smoked salmon and pretty petit fours. Oh, how we both loved to make petit fours! My sister had a talent for confectionary that I couldn’t and still can’t master. She could throw the ingredients for batch of candy into a saucepan and leave it unattended on the stove overnight. Next morning: Voilà! She would have a batch of perfect fudge. She especially liked to make fondant, the finicky icing used to cover petit fours that I couldn’t make if my life depended upon it. But, since I got to make the cake and do the decorating we were both very happy. Unfortunately, the demand for teas in Stoughton was limited to say the least.

Though we both went our separate ways, when we would get together food always dominated the conversation: restaurants, recipes and reminiscence. Our last happy time together was when we went to lunch at The Old Fashioned, enjoying a double order of nostalgia. It will be impossible to go there ever again and not think of her. Nor eat barbecue, fried chicken or country ham. Though I haven’t done so in many years, I think it might be time to make some fried pies.

Missing in New Orleans

Another shock and another loss came later in the week. My friend Mary Erpenbach sent me an email to let me know the Maison de Ville and Audubon Cottages—a boutique hotel in New Orleans—had closed on Monday. This was the perfect place to stay in the French Quarter, an historic hostelry where fittingly Tennessee Williams once lived. It’s where he completed A Streetcar Named Desire. Dick Cavett interviewed him for his TV show in its dreamy courtyard complete with gurgling fountain, lush foliage and lazy banana trees. Originally the place was built as a residence in the late 18th Century. It was the home of Amedée Peychaud, the pharmacist who concocted the bitters named after him, an essential ingredient in the Sazerac cocktail.

The hotel also nurtured a wonderful little restaurant called the Bistro at the Maison de Ville. The ambiance of this cozy room was as much Left Bank Paris as French Quarter New Orleans. The late John Neal and Susan Spicer, both acclaimed chefs , got their start in the kitchen here. Its amiable maitre d’ Patrick Van Hoornebeek made all his guests feel welcome and is a local legend. On a good night, the food here was second to none and that’s saying a lot in this town with so many great restaurants.

Most of all I loved the Audubon Cottages located a couple of blocks away from the main hotel. Seven sequestered cottages, each with its own private courtyard, encircle a central patio and swimming pool. Every time I came here I always anticipated opening the gate … walking down the long passage with its canopy of jacaranda trees … entering this hidden bijou of a place. It never lost its magic.

Most of all I loved the Audubon Cottages because they were the venue for my 50th birthday party, a grand celebration with more than 50 of my friends the weekend before Mardi Gras. I stayed in Cottage Number 1 that year with my friend Mike Verveer. It was where John James Audubon had lived in 1821 and 1822 while he worked on his Birds of America series. The cottages and courtyards were the epicenter of that weekend culminating in a jazz funeral parade from there to breakfast at Brennans.

I returned year after year—usually for Mardi Gras—so many times that it felt like coming home. It was an oasis from the frenzy of Carnival that is enticing but sometime overwhelming. I liked it because very little ever changed, least of all the kind people who worked there. In the aftermath of Katrina I was gladdened to learn all the employees had weathered the storm and happier still when the hotel finally reopened. Yet, It now appears Katrina has claimed yet another victim.

Whenever I think of “The City That Care Forgot” I cannot forget the Maison de Ville.
“In New Orleans I have noticed that people are happiest when they are going to funerals, making money, taking care of the dead, or putting on masks at Mardi Gras so nobody knows who they are.” –Walker Percy, Lancelot