You say its your birthday

Hello from the other side of winter.

It always amazes me how quickly spring tiptoes in. One day you have a sneaky April blizzard and the next things are impossibly green. Slow down lilacs-turning-brown, you don’t need to be in such a hurry. You may have noticed (or not) that I took a break from writing here. It wasn’t intentional— I’ve been busy with a new freelancing gig and chasing Half-moon around. I had a blog about my Iowa grandma,  Harriet, planned for February and meant to share my way of making black bean soup in March. But I’ve been in good company— it seems some of my favorite writers are taking breaks too.

Since we last spoke I celebrated a birthday and if you are into numbers, you could say it was kind of a significant one.

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I had big plans for this birthday— I wanted to do something adventurous like fly somewhere tropical for a yoga retreat or run wild with the wolves. But it turns out that being a stay-at-home parent isn’t all the financially lucrative so I stayed home and celebrated with family and friends. An extended cocktail hour with spicy cucumber drinks led to a hazy and delightful late-night dinner— complete with ginger cake and a candle— with my bocce team. Two nights later my parents hosted us for a birthday dinner that included a slide show and one of my favorite meals- Cold Szechuan Noodles. And of course, coconut cake with coconut frosting.

The recipe for Cold Szechuan Noodles comes for our dear family friend, Susan. When I was in high school we moved into a new house in August. It was hot and I was starting a new high school and unpacking is unfun and Susan showed up with a huge batch of these noodles with all of its components in neat containers. In my mind we ate it for a week, never tiring of the spicy, peanuty sauce and crunchy, cool cucumbers. My mom put this recipe in a book that she made for me in 1999 and the introduction for it goes as follows: “As you know there are many salads like tuna salad, chicken salad and egg salad. There’s bean salad and marinated vegetable salads, tossed salad, rice salads etc. Oh, and jello. I’m putting one of your favorite cold noodle recipes under salads.” Is it any wonder I like to write about food?

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Cold Noodles- Szechuan Style

From Susan Connors- originally from Jessie Ho

Ingredients

1 1/4 lbs. noodles- Chinese noodles or thin spaghetti
2 Tbs. cooking oil
1 Tbs. sesame oil
1 cup cooked chicken (when I was 15- yes- now we leave this out)
2 cups chopped cucumber
1 Tbs. chopped peanuts
THE SAUCE:
4 Tbs. sesame seed paste or peanut butter (we always use peanut butter)
1 Tbs. vinegar
1/2 Tbs. minced ginger
1 Tbs. chili oil or paste
Szechuan pepper
1 1/2 Tbs. water
6 Tbs. soy sauce
1 Tbs. sugar
2 Tbs. chopped green onions
1/2 Tbs. minced garlic
1 Tbs. sesame oil

Directions

Boil the noodles- remove, drain and mix with cooking oil and sesame oil. Stir separating the strands as they cool so they don’t stick together (I seem to remember my mom using a fan to cool them?) Shred the chicken (if you are into that kind of thing) and chop the cucumber. Place individual portions of the noodles- add cucumber. Toss with peanut sauce and sprinkle with chopped peanuts.

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If you want to know more about the coconut cake with coconut frosting click here. I made these as cupcakes for Half-moon’s birthday last year and realized that I love coconut frosting more than most things.

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Happy spring. May your lilacs stay lavender a little longer.

 

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Lettuce turn up the beet

Well look at that. I wrote my first ever Wisconsin fun next exit (b)log post seven years ago today. I was just going to start off by talking about how it takes Half-moon and me, on average, 4.62 hours to get ready to leave the house (just to make it into the backyard) but I guess I’ll keep my mouth quiet about time. Because it can fly and it can drag but either way we never seem satisfied with it. Let’s talk about roasted beets instead.

I recently decided that there is nothing better than slicing into a warm beet and eating it while standing at the kitchen counter. Beets taste like the earth; like dirt and minerals. Beets are the real deal. My current stash of beets were dug out of the ground just past Magnolia, Wis. at Raleigh’s Hillside Farm. Nice work, Lauren and Kyle. While I like beets raw and shredded into a salad with citrus and herbs, in the fall and winter beets demand to be roasted. Lately I’ve been following my mom’s method, which is to preheat the oven to 350 degrees, wrap indivdual beets in aluminum foil and bake until they are tender and the skin peels right off with a paper towel (depending on the size of the beets, this is usually 40-50 minutes.) If you are feeling industrious, save the dark pink liquid that pools in the foil and use it to dye some cloth or something, just like I’m sure they would do in the Little House on the Prairie. Or at some hipster mercantile general store in Portland or Brooklyn. Once cooled, if they make it that long, the beets can be sliced and added to a jar with vinegar and water and stuck in the fridge to snack on later. Or they can be added to a salad, like the one I made recently, with a dressing of maple syrup and cayenne pepper that was inspired by a Driftless Organics farm recipe for squash. A word of warning: beets are messy. Half-moon loves them, especially with his favorite lunch of a mustard sandwich, which has led to a number of his bibs turning a slight shade of pink. But you can be strategic with this- the red one with the white polka dots is a good bet. Cutting boards, counters and fingers might also get smudged but I think it’s worth it.

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Roasted Beet Salad with Greens and Spicy Maple Syrup Dressing

Ingredients:
2-3 roasted beets, sliced
A bunch of arugula, spinach, or a crunchy lettuce (or a mix)
Optional toppings: crunchy celery, sesame seeds, hard boiled egg

Dressing- 2-3 tablespoons olive oil, 1-2 tablespoons maple syrup, chili powder or cayenne pepper (or both), salt and pepper to taste, a squeeze of lemon works, too

Instructions:
Wash and dry greens and place in salad bowl with sliced beets. Combine dressing ingredients in a jar and shake well, toss with greens + beets. Top with something crunchy- seeds or celery (or both) and enjoy.

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Happy November.

Take your time

 

I love stories about food, but you probably know that by now. There’s a recipe at the end of this post, but if you’ve got a second, here is a story about fennel: Last December my sister and I went to a winter solstice fire and ran into our longtime family friend, Gillian. While we huddled near the low light of the dying bonfire, Gillian told us about the summer solstice party that she used to throw in June, complete with a bottle of Aquavit frozen in a block of ice with floating flowers. In the darkness, we dreamed of fresh dill, rye crackers, vinegary cucumbers, gravlax, and a long, drunken dusk under the willow tree of Gillian’s backyard. We hadn’t been at these parties, but we could picture ourselves there.

Several snow-less, gray months later, my friends and I started to make plans for a July weekend getaway to the Driftless area of Wisconsin. When we started to talk about menus, I thought back to Gillian’s summer solstice party spread. So for our Friday evening meal, my friend Morgan brought smoked salmon, crackers and cheese, and I decided to make a fennel salad. Gillian hadn’t mentioned fennel, but I could see the green, wispy-fronded vegetable fitting right into the mix. I had read about a salad with fennel and olives in Bon Appetit and wanted to recreate for our mid-summer meal.

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And now for a brief interlude- here is something that you need to know about my sister and me: while we love to think about, prepare and eat food, we are the world’s slowest cooks (just ask our mom.) Once when my sister was visiting my roommates and me in Wyoming, she decided to make us beef stroganoff for a Sunday meal. After an afternoon trip to the grocery store, I believe dinner was served just after midnight… But it was some of the best beef stroganoff you could ever have, as this was back in my meat-eating days.

Back to the old farmhouse in the middle of July and the fennel salad that I began preparing around 6 p.m. Several hours later, as more friends had arrived, I was still grating orange peel, chopping fennel fronds, sipping on gin and tonics, listening, talking, crushing an olive, laughing, slicing a fennel stem, and looking again at the recipe I had scribbled down in my notebook to loosely follow. When the salad was ready around 10 p.m., it was a hit.

Next in July came a vacation to a cabin on the Gunflint Trail in Minnesota (it was a good month.) Reunited at last, my sister and I decided to recreate Gillian’s menu for one of our nights at the cabin for a belated summer solstice party.

 

Again I decided to make the fennel salad to accompany smoked salmon from Grand Marais, boiled potatoes with dill, pickled beets, marinated cucumbers, and a bottle of Aquavit. I picked up the pace a bit this time as there was a hungry family to feed.

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Fennel Salad with Green Olives

Adapted from Bon Appetit

Ingredients

2 large fennel bulbs, tough outer leaves discarded, bulbs, stems, and fronds separated
1 cup Castelvetrano olives
¼ cup olive oil (lemon-infused olive oil is nice)
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
Kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper
Flaky sea salt

Preparation

Slice fennel stems crosswise (not too thin) and place in a medium bowl. Coarsely chop fennel fronds (you want about ⅓ cup) and add to bowl. Crush olives with a flat-bottomed cup or side of a chef’s knife and remove pit. Coarsely chop olives. Add olives, oil, vinegar, orange zest, and red pepper to bowl; season with kosher salt and black pepper, then toss to coat.

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I realize it is now October, but we often get a brief period in southern Wisconsin in the fall when fennel is being harvested on our farms again, so live it up! Get yourself some fennel and carve out a few hours to slowly make this salad for some people with whom it’s fun to take your time. Cheers.

When life hands you lemons make tabouli

I’ve just returned from a magical place called Minnesota. It was kind of the perfect family vacation- there was a lake, a sauna, and no phone service. Returning home from vacation is always hard; suddenly to-do lists swarm in your head as you no longer have nothing to do all day but read, wait for happy hour and kayak after loons. This re-entry was particularly unhappy, however, as we came home to some uninvited house guests who had taken up residence on our cats (yes, fleas.) So instead of unpacking the car, grocery shopping, missing the sauna and dealing with laundry, I have spent the last couple of days vacuuming and spraying every surface of the house (and the cats) with lemon water- the home remedy on all of the hippie websites for people like me who refuse to spray mass quantities of chemicals around her home. In good news, I also came home to some ripe cherry tomatoes in my garden, so when I realized the fridge was quite bare today and I was hungry after all of that vacuuming, I whipped up a quick batch of tabouli.

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Tabouli is nice because it is hearty and can make use of a variety of summer produce. Today I relied on a half of a cucumber I found in the vegetable drawer and some mint from my garden, along with the cherry tomatoes. I juiced a lemon and voila! I had something to eat for a late lunch.

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Tabouli with Cherry Tomatoes

Ingredients:
1 cup bulgur
A couple of handfuls of cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
1/2 cucumber, chopped
1 lemon
1-2 Tbs. olive oil
Parsley
Mint
Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:
Place one cup bulgur and two cups cold water in a pot and bring to boil. Cover and cook on low until water is absorbed, about 8-10 minutes. Once bulgur has cooled, combine with cucumber, cherry tomatoes, and chopped herbs. Squeeze the juice from one lemon and whisk in olive oil. Pour dressing over salad and season with salt and pepper to taste.

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Happy Monday, y’all.

In the thick of it

Hello there, my friends. I realize it’s been awhile- last time summer was still a promise, and now we are in the thick of it-  in all its thunderstorming, sunkissed, mosquito bitten, ripe raspberry glory. But a very good reason brings me back here today, and that reason is chocolate.

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I recently had the opportunity to collaborate with Wm. Chocolate to develop a recipe using a couple of their chocolate bars. Wm. Chocolate (which stands for owner and chocolate maker’s name, Will Marx) is a new company in Madison making chocolate from ethically traded single-origin cocoa and unrefined cane sugar, which is a fancy way of saying that now you can eat your chocolate and feel good about it, too.

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In addition to having a decent farmer’s tan and about 18,000 more mosquito bites since my last post, I also have a new part-time job making popsicles at Bloom Bake Shop. As a long-time popsicle lover (I used to live on Minute Maid Fruit Juicees in the summer- orange flavor, please-), this is sort of a dream come true. One of the flavors we have been making at Bloom is fudge, and I wanted to play around with that idea when experimenting with Wm.’s Belize and Ghana chocolate bars. I knew I wanted to make something cold that didn’t require the oven- and summer is all about frozen treats- so I originally intended this to be a recipe for popsicles, which it certainly still could be. But sometimes popsicles can be a big drippy mess, especially for a certain toddler, so I realized this recipe could also be used to make individual-sized chocolatey frozen dessert cups, like a frozen hot chocolate. I tested this recipe with both the Belize and Ghana bars, and honestly I can’t tell you which is my favorite. The Ghana bar is a classic chocolate bar and a tad bit darker while the Belize bar is sweeter and fruitier. Okay, if you made me choose, I would use the Ghana bar, but you can’t go wrong with either (to find Wm.’s Chocolate- around Madison or to buy online- click here.) You could use this recipe to make popsicles by pouring the hot chocolate (once it has cooled) into molds, but I opted for freezing it in ramekins and mugs. I also decided to top the frozen desserts with raspberries because picking these berries from the patch in between our cars and the neighbor’s fence is my favorite late June/ early July morning chore, but you could also top them with blueberries, blackberries or fresh whipped cream and shaved chocolate.

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Frozen Hot Chocolate with Raspberries

One batch of this recipe yields 16 ounces of hot chocolate before freezing, so plan accordingly if using popsicle molds or making individual-sized desserts.

Ingredients:
2 ounce Wm. Chocolate Ghana bar (or Belize bar)
1 can (full fat) unsweetened coconut milk (13.5 ounces)
2 tbs. unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 tbs. maple syrup
2 tsp. vanilla
1/2 tsp. salt
Raspberries and mint- for topping

Directions:
Pour coconut milk into a medium-sized saucepan. Add sugar, cocoa powder, maple syrup, vanilla and salt and whisk over low-medium heat until gently simmering (about 5-8 minutes.) Break the chocolate bar into pieces and place in a mixing bowl. Pour the liquid over the chocolate and stir until chocolate has melted and mixture is smooth. Taste for salt (if you are a salty chocolate person, add a little more!) Pour hot chocolate into ramekins/ mason jars/ mugs/ popsicle mold, and place in freezer. Depending on the container, freezing time will probably be about 2 1/2 -3 hours. Before serving, allow to sit at room temperature for a few minutes until it can be eaten with a spoon. Top with berries, fresh mint or whipped cream and chocolate.

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Enjoy these desserts with family and friends, hopefully on one of those Wisconsin summer evenings where you linger, linger over the late day sunlight and the first lightning bugs of dusk. Cheers.

This post was in partnership with Wm. Chocolate

 

There’s nothing wrong with Nashville

My recent decision to plan a trip to Nashville began as most good ideas do, with the feeling that my living room walls were closing in on me while a Todd Snider song played on the local community radio station. Within a couple of hours I had booked four nights at a cozy East Nashville airbnb with a huge backyard and a potbellied pig named Abby. I’ve never spent much time thinking about Nashville, but it’s only 9 hours away by car and I suddenly had the urge to hear a southern accent. It wasn’t long before my sister decided she needed to hear one too, so she booked a flight.

I fell fast for this city, and long to go back… Today. Nashville in April is warm and green. The city is laid-back and friendly. Every single person we passed on the street said hello, including a shirtless jogger who took out his headphones to take the time to say, “How y’all doing.” If you tell someone in Nashville that you like something of theirs, they give it to you! (I am now the proud owner of a button with a picture of Obama smoking a cigarette.) In Nashville, there is a hardware store where cats sleep in a basket of flowers in the window, and a taco joint where women share a pitcher of margaritas at 8 pm on a Sunday while their kids play with my little ponies. This is my kind of town.

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We spent most of our time in East Nashville, which was really easy to do. We ventured out a couple of times- including an unsuccessful attempt at getting into the Bluebird Cafe and a successful field trip to the Pinewood Social, a giant place with delicious greyhounds made with fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice, a bowling alley and $7 coozies- but we spent most of our time eating, drinking and walking around on the east side of town. Here are a few of our favorite things in East Nashville. Many of these recommendations came from Abby the pig’s family, our lovely hosts for the week.

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High Garden Woodland Tea House: At High Garden you can buy tinctures, eat miso soup, and order a kombucha flight. And the woman pouring the booch has a roommate from somewhere in Wisconsin, so she’s no stranger to Wisconsin cheese, one of our favorite topics.

Two Ten Jack: Sake and wine on tap, a forgiving waiter who may have gotten sprayed in the eye with water by a certain toddler, and the BEST vegetarian ramen I have ever had in my life.

IMG_3134Turnip Truck: A natural grocery store with a juice bar, lots of organic food, emergency drinking beer, and pimento cheese spread.

Ugly Mugs Coffee Shop: This unpretentious coffee shop was within walking distance of our place and had outdoor seating, hot coffee, granola with yogurt and breakfast sandwiches.

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Barista Parlor: This pretentious coffee shop had a record cabinet built out of wooden pallets, $5 cups of (really delicious) coffee, and the most tasty breakfast biscuits with an egg and cheese. Totally worth the denim-apron clad male baristas wearing girl power buttons.

Southern Grist Brewing Company: We had lots of fun sitting at a picnic table in the parking lot of this brewery. We made friends with the other parking lot dwellers, including some sweet dogs, and loved Southern Grist’s unique and tasty beers. And the pimento cheese snack, of course.

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The Treehouse: That photo is of The Treehouse’s grilled pineapple mule. They have grilled pineapple mules on their cocktail menu.

Sky Blue Cafe: A small, busy diner with lots of breakfast choices. My favorite is the homemade granola served with yogurt and berries. So delicious.

Jeni’s Ice Cream: This delightful ice cream shop smells like waffle cones and they make flavors like lemon buttermilk frozen yogurt and goat cheese with red cherries.

IMG_9644Mas Tacos: Pineapple cilantro aguas frescas, free pickled carrots and other veg at the counter, and tacos like fried avocado and sweet potato with quinoa. And there’s a patio out back with a hot pink-painted cement brick wall. Cash only.

You stole our hearts, Nashville. We hope to see you soon.

*Many of these photos belong to our travel partner, my sister Sena.

 

Farmer Brown’s garden

I love the progression of spring. The first brave plant to push through the sleeping earth is the purple crocus. Next come daffodils, tulips, irises and lilacs. One by one the birds start singing and bunnies are hopping around, waiting for the first green things to munch. In the vegetable garden, it’s the chives that signal warmer days are ahead and then everyone starts talking rhubarb.

Around this time rhubarb starts popping up everywhere. In your garden, at the farmer’s market, in a bag from a friend or neighbor. While most people think rhubarb was destined for pie, Madison darling Quince & Apple– maker of small batch syrups and preserves- has bottled this sour perennial, pairing it with bitter hops, turning it into a syrup perfect for a spring cocktail.

Just like the start of baseball season and playing in rain puddles, when I was growing up springtime also meant Easter and elaborate egg hunts with clues written by my dad, followed by a basket full of pastel-colored candy. This year I hope to host a spring-themed brunch party with radish sandwiches, deviled eggs, a delicious carrot ginger tea cake with lime glaze from the March 2016 Sunset magazine (it’s so good!) and beer cocktails made with Quince & Apple’s Rhubarb Hops syrup. This month I had so much fun experimenting with the rhubarb syrup- which can be mixed with anything from prosecco to vodka to club soda- but found that it tastes delicious with beer. Also, it’s nice to serve something at brunch that won’t get people feeling too bubbly so early in the day! My inspiration for this drink was the French Monaco, a beer cocktail either served to adults at children’s parties, or drank by French children at brunches (I still haven’t figured this out) but either way, it seems quite charming.

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Per the recommendation of the helpful people at Star Liquor on Willy St., I chose the new (and so tasty) spring farmhouse ale from Door County Brewing Company. As a nod to the smell that would permeate our house when we dyed Easter eggs, I rinsed the glass with a swirl of cider vinegar, which really brings out the tart flavor of the rhubarb. Add a green spring of thyme for some green herbaceous-ness and voila! Farmer Brown’s Garden- the perfect spring brunch beer cocktail.

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Farmer Brown’s Garden

Makes one cocktail

IMG_9130Ingredients:
1 ounce Quince & Apple Rhubarb Hops Syrup
1 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
6 ounces farmhouse ale or pilsner
Splash cider vinegar
Sprigs of fresh thyme

Instructions: Pour the syrup and fresh lemon juice into an ice-filled shaker (or a jar with a lid) and shake vigorously. Rinse a glass with a small splash of cider vinegar and strain the syrup and lemon juice into the glass. Top with beer and garnish with a fresh sprig of thyme.

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Happy spring.

This post was in partnership with Quince & Apple.