Of Birthdays, Fine Dining, and Onions.

Yesterday, I gained a year. As a child, I couldn't wait for my birthday. The weather was usually just about to turn into the coolness I preferred, the new school year seemed exciting and full of fresh pencils and Trapper Keeper folders, and there was always a big family celebration to look forward to. My Mom's youngest brother is just 10 years older than me, and his birthday is at the tail end of August, so typically, we used the dual birthday excuse to have an enormous picnic. Most of my maternal side extended family all lived within a few miles of each other, and in the Great Northwoods of Wisconsin, there were plenty of lakes and picnic areas to choose from.

Earlier in the summer, my Mom would suspiciously take out the Wilton Cake Yearbooks (years 1977 and 1980) for my younger brother and I to look through and pick out which cake we would want for our birthdays, both upcoming in September. We would carefully pour over the pages, dreaming of moat surrounded castle cakes, giant robot cakes with pink and grey frostings, igloo cakes with penguins fishing in an icy blue pools of gel color. It took us quite a few years to determine that my Mom was really only going to make us one of three types of cake from the limited cake mold supply she had: a dome that became the dress of a doll when a clean and naked Barbie was standing in the center and frosted over with icing, a train painstakingly decorated with our pictures cut out in the windows, or a bear with his hand in mouth - the cake that all three of us had for our first birthdays. Now I know, that Mom was keeping us happily occupied for hours with those cake books, stimulating our imaginations and helping us dream of our birthdays, the most special day of the year.

I have the Wilton Yearbooks in my kitchen library, and nothing could convince me to get rid of them. I've sat with my Boy-O and carefully paged through them, helping him to be careful with the pages, since with every year, they get a little more fragile. Now, I tend not to get as excited about my birthday, not for any particular reason. I'm not all that afraid of aging, but I do feel a tinge of sadness thinking that no matter how much I wish as I blow out a candle, I can never return to my Mom's kitchen and those days of childish imagination.

Because I love to cook, I spend a good 90% of my weekly stipend on ingredients and sometimes frivolous (see: culinary torch) implements to expand my amateur abilities. I'm sure if I wanted, I could make all the excuses in the world to go out to eat, especially since my Husband loves dining out, but almost all of the time, I'd rather concoct things myself. We eat out on occasion, but rarely go to eat at fine dining establishments, saving it for such special occasions as our anniversary and my birthday.

For the past couple of years, my birthday has become a food event that I look forward to for weeks in advance. I can pick wherever I want to go, our budget is gloriously lifted for one precious evening, and I feel, at least for a few moments, like I'm a Rockefeller. Normally, I keep budget in mind, as a loose way to keep myself from being frivolous and free with cash. But because our fine dining experience is truly limited to a couple of times a year, the splurge always pays off in so many ways.

In When Harry Met Sally, (the late) Bruno Kirby was a columnist for New York Magazine who said "Restaurants are to people of the '80's what theater was to people of the '60's." I often think of this when I eat at a restaurant, especially a fine dining restaurant. Since I was just a kid in the '80's, and I lived in the rural Northwoods, I didn't do a whole lot of eating out. We ate very well, but not outside the home too often and just homemade, homegrown, home preserved and generally wholesome foods that weren't too fancy. My limited experience in the restaurant scene of the 21st century leads me to believe that it is like theater and art and gastronomy all rolled up into one.

This year, I chose Harbor House for my birthday splurge. Recently opened in July, I read this review by Carol Deptolla and tucked it away back in my mind. I sometimes enjoy reading restaurant critique, but not always so often, since I really believe that so much of an experience is relative. I mean, I know how to poach an egg for example, but the experience of ordering the egg, being served the egg, noting the placement of the egg on the plate, and eating the egg in an exceptional environment changes that lowly egg considerably. Where am I going with this? Deptolla is curious of the New England decor of the Harbor House, but I thought it was so gorgeous and well designed that it only added exponentially to my dining experience. Our food was amazing, perfectly prepared and gorgeous on the plate. Service was exceptional, as always at Bartolotta restaurants (not that I have been to them all).

I could go on and explain our meals, the way our raw oysters sat in the ice and challenged me (I ate three of them, and was not allergic, so that was a plus), that our supremely nice waitress brought me a sample of both pinot noirs by the glass, since I told her I never had tried one from France (Oregon won out - even at twice the price), and that watercress served as a condiment with beef and scallops is delicious and palate cleansing between bites. But I'll bet your experience would be different so I won't elaborate too much. I'll just say that when I get done eating and I'm so supremely happy, it's the best gift that anyone could ever give me - whether I've just sat in a window seat overlooking Lake Michigan, or at an enameled thrift store table in my best friend's kitchen.

While yesterday seemed to be full of spluge and excess, I remembered as we picked up our CSA box on the way home about the frugality that is usually my credo. In our weekly newsletter last week, our CSA mentioned that they had "grade B" onions to give away to anyone who desired. I emailed that I'd be interested after texting my Mom. Our exchange:

me: 20lb boxes of grade b onions (organic) free for the asking?!
Mom: Sure, for free you take, for pay you ask questions :)

That is the resolve with which I was raised. For free you take, and you make wonderful with. I didn't know exactly what I would get when I cut into the first onion today. They were soft, even mushy in parts. Each one was different and I found myself thinking about human nature once again as I cut into each one. Some had good centers, but layers of rot and decay surrounding them. Others had a few layers of superficial goodness, and rotting hearts. It was impossible to tell from the exteriors. Each one had a good and salvageable part, even if it took streams of tears down my cheeks as I sliced my way to the end of the box. I thought of the salad I ate at dinner last night, perfect specimens of tomatoes and red onions, thinly sliced and without blemish. How wrongly we think that to be edible, food has to be blemish free and gorgeous not steadfast and workhorse-y, with just a bit of extra work to be done to make them extraordinary.

I really had no idea what amount I would end up with! It was a fun and free adventure that reminded me that "peeling an onion, you find a lot of layers". The onions were soft, but not awful, their smells a clue that the rot was not malicious, just due to too much moisture or something. I weighed my final amount, and got 3 lbs, 10 oz of sliced, clean, organic onions, from what otherwise would have been garbage. I composted the rest, so that really nothing is wasted. I decided that I wanted to make caramelized onions.

By 9:30 this morning, all the onions went into the slow cooker with just a little olive oil. I'll add some black pepper and maybe a drizzle of balsamic vinegar or a pinch of brown sugar, maybe some thyme after they cook down a bit more. It's been about 5 hours at this writing, and they smell amazing and sweet and are filled with soft, oniony liquid that is quietly bubbling away. I check in and stir it every so often, and this cool front that has finally graced us allows open window and a sweater to be the perfect accompaniments to the syrupy onion smell that is intensifying as each hour passes today.

Nothing could be more comforting as I peel another year off of myself and go forward. Onions smell like home, that's for sure. It's good to be reminded that there is usually more to a person than meets the eye. I'm sure it is true for the baby-faced line cook I was observing from my seat in the dining theater last night. I wished that I knew I loved to cook so much when I was his age, and to be in kitchen whites in full sight of such a gorgeous view of the city and lake so early in my career.

It still seems funny to think that I can now clearly remember 20 years ago, and while I wish I could have figured out what I wanted to do about 10 ago when I was flailing my way around the college system, I have no regrets. I can peel an onion with the best of them, and I'm happy doing it. And I can do what I like with the good and scraps alike: hopefully turn it all into something good.

Away From Home, and Back Again... and Smashed Banana Muffins

You may or may not remember that the first real trip I took without the Boy-O since his birth (now 4 years ago) was in January. This weekend I was able to go for another weekend alone, and went to see E in Boston, where she has lived for about the last 13 years. I used to visit her more frequently, but due to motherhood, have left the bulk of visitation up to her. I had yet to see her new home, and a experience a whole new view of Boston, a city that changes my perception of it each and every time I visit.

Most of this city-changing phenomenon is due to E's amazing ability to be the best hostess and tour guide imaginable. In my wildest dreams could I rival her for providing comforts and conversation... and she is one of the people that I love most in life. She exudes calmness, when I sat at her dining room table after my arrival and felt twitchy that I wasn't moving around, and somehow it can spread to everyone who knows her. I never go to visit her with any set expectations or sights to see, and yet every time I have, every imagined notion has been smashed to bits, and I get inspired to pieces. She's lived in a few different neighborhoods as well, and neighborhoods on the East Coast actually are different worlds compared to the roughly drawn areas we call neighborhoods in Milwaukee.

Larger cities have amenities that my own little old town could only dream of. Corner restaurants instead of corner bars, and hugely diverse ethnic populations bringing with them every conceivable ethnic grocery store. I'm not slighting my city mind you... I love nothing more than coming back home after all. But three days in another world is sometimes really just plain wonderful.

Some highlights:

A little cheese shop in the South End, where I didn't even need to eat (but did have a few cheese samples). I was visually gluttonous, and I was graciously cleared to take photos by the nice man stocking sparkling water, even though I totally interrupted his work day seeing the store was barely big enough to turn around in. Maybe unfortunately, this was the least of my eating.

I am not a habitual over eater. I actually hate being so full that I'm uncomfortable, no matter how delicious the dinner is at the time. The funny thing is, I totally overate every single day of this trip. E is the same way. She is a healthy eater and a great cook, but somehow the combination of joint visitation and too many good Groupons led to too much indulgence on more than one occasion. I didn't take photos of the amazing dinner we ate late Friday night at Shanti, an Indian restaurant where I tried a naan with coconut and chopped nuts. I've looked up a (similar) recipe, and I have to try making it as soon as I get a little free time. I'm still daydreaming about some onion type chutney I ate there as well. I need to eat more Indian food, this much is clear.

On a tip from some women I sat near on the plane on the way over (foodies and organizers for FarmAid, no less, which is going to be held at Miller Park this October), we ate lunch on Saturday at Meyers and Chang. E had heard of it, but never ventured there. I was so excited! First off, it was gorgeous. Asian and pink, modern and glossy, tiny postage stamp tiles around the floors that graduated in colors. It felt bright and delicious, and that was before we ordered. Second, they only were serving dim sum due to the time we got there. I've never had dim sum (a great related post by Glutster, on his birthday dim sum experience here...), but always wanted to try it. I'm a fan of small plates and sharing food, and while this was a bit more modern and not as traditional, it was delicious and very well prepared.

Pork and Lamb Bao-type buns.

Align Center

We got the pickled veg plate to start... which was so delicious. Pickled jalapenos, mysteriously missing their brutally hot center seeds and membranes (I should have thought to do that before I canned mine), kimchi, pickled celery, carrots and underneath a beautiful bed of bright pink pickled daikon radish which was my favorite. Now I want to lacto-ferment all kinds of things, and figure out where to find daikon radish around here since it in particular was so good.

...and I also got to be envious of E's new Canon. I got to take pics with it to try it out. Suddenly, I want a new camera...

If Meyer's & Chang is billed as a "funky indie diner", then the Agawam Diner is the quintessential American diner experience. Sunday morning, we went to the flea market at Todd Farm, close to this diner that E remembered years before I had wanted to visit. It was due in part to this article in Saveur I had read, and due to Barry Levsnson's film (which admittedly doesn't really revolve all too much around the eatery, but is more of a love letter to East Coast culture in the '50's).

The Agawam was everything I thought it would be:

A classic car diner, still serving original homemade food after all these years. We were hot and hungry and over ordered. We both had the Chicken Pie special, which came with coffee and soup (for $8.95), then augmented with a chocolate frappe, which we split, just in case we thought we would still be hungry, two pieces of pie. If you think I was full, it would be an understatement. I was *so* full, I actually took an hour and a half nap when we got back to E's house. Ahhh, vacation.

fish chowder, saltine crackers.


Chicken Pie. And cranberry sauce from a can! No where else would I have been so excited! (I also remembered that Marisa at FoodinJars canned up a version sans corn syrup... hmmmm - I may now know what my next canning project will be, and maybe even in the beautiful Weck jelly jars that E gave me for my birthday!) I couldn't finish, however, since while at a diner, I had to save some room for pie:

I ordered blueberry, and E had the coconut cream. Both were delicious. I don't think I've eaten a piece of blueberry pie since I worked for the GOP, and hers was delicious. Our waitress called E "honey bunny", and was everything you would want in a waitress in a real diner. She brewed a new pot of decaf for E, since the old one didn't look so hot, and you can just know that she is that friendly and genuine with everyone - it's not some kind of "diner waitress behavior" that you would expect after pining for years over such movies as (Diner), Back to the Future and Waitress.

Part of the reason I had such a great time, is that my friend E is the best. She loves food and hates being caught in situations where travel and wander to lead to eminent starvation, and worse, to the purchase of less than worthy food. She always packs a snack, this time it was smashed banana muffins and a few dates. The muffins aren't actually smashed, nor do they make you smashed, but they contain bananas that are smashed and are themselves just plain smashing.

It was so hot outside that when I really needed one (or maybe I just really wanted one...), it felt like it was just pulled out of the oven. Sometimes, muffins just taste better when someone else makes them for you, and then packs them up tenderly, just so that you feel special when you tuck in to eat it. I ate one in the sun on Saturday, and another on the plane yesterday: a blurry eyed early Monday morning, when it tasted even better and was the best reason to not even think twice about ditching the packaged "biscotti" that was the bitter reminder of the demise of the airline industry.

E emailed me a few of the recipes I ate at her place (when we weren't (over)eating out...), and she included this one for banana muffins. I know everyone has at least three muffins that they like to make when the black blotchiness overtakes their fruit on the counter, and I usually never make the same version twice. In classic rcakewalk fashion, I've already altered her recipe, but I'll include her original. I need to find out if she intentionally leaves out the egg, or if she forgot to type it in, but I added one - just because I wasn't feeling particularly vegan today.

E's (Smashed) Banana Muffins
  • 1 cup flour (I used 3/4 c. whole wheat and 1/4 c. AP flour)
  • 1/2 cup rolled oats or quick oats (I used rolled oats)
  • 1/3 cup sugar (I used raw sugar)
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1/3 cup canola oil (I used coconut oil, melted)
  • 2 smashed bananas
  • walnuts or pecans for the top
  • (I added one egg)
Preheat oven to 350 and prepare muffin tin for 10 muffins (I got 9 muffins, with my handy scoop). Combine wet and dry ingredients in separate bowls, then mix together. Fill 10 muffin papers and sprinkle tops with nuts. Bake 25-30 minutes.

Enjoy! ~e.

Enjoy I will, and Boy-O ate 2 straight out of the oven this afternoon! This from a kid who actually gagged the last time I firmly suggested he eat at least one bite of banana...

Being away from home always makes me so happy to be back. I love having a little time to myself, but since my life has changed so much in the past 5 years, I love more the feeling of inclusion in my own family. I may stress out over the day-to-day food consumption of my son, or over the societal detriments of the quickly upon us football season, but I do love my family, I do love my home, and I love spending most of my time in my kitchen. Self imposed work? Yes, but the best and most rewarding kind for me.

Maybe when he grows up, my Boy-O will learn to cook, so that he can impress someone or that he won't starve when I can't take care of him. He starts school the day after tomorrow, my birthday - a cruel reminder that I cannot stay young, no matter how young I feel. I clearly remember going to school for the first time, and I remember all the lunches my Mom packed for me when I didn't stand in line to have my little yellow lunch card punched to eat in the lunchroom. How did it happen so quickly that I'm in her position? It really is just a vapor.

I know it would drive me crazy to think about time too much, how it flies and how there is never enough of it. How it seems somehow that the past is still happening, the best times I can remember are still just at hand and not so far behind. A series of phases that continually follow me around, from what to eat for dinner, to where to go on vacation. I am fortunate to have a few close friends like E, people that seem constant and unchanging, even though I know everyone is actually changing all the time. People you know you can count on no matter what, and through whatever life can throw at you. I'm so lucky for my family, but lucky also for great friends.

Glimpses of Greatness and Grilled Cheeses

The last two evenings were spent completely (or maybe just somewhat completely) outside of my comfort zone. Wednesday, Sasa and I went to a Farm to Table dinner at La Merenda, in support of the movie Fresh which is screening here next week (4/19-21, 2010 at the Downer Landmark Theater). La Merenda is in the industrial Walker's Point neighborhood, just north of the Allen Bradley clock, as you can see:

We arrived just before our 7 o'clock dinner reservation, unsure of what to expect. It is a very intimate and somewhat dark space, with poured concrete counters and floors, but tastefully lightened by brightly painted cinder block walls. A smiling bartender when we walked through the front door was my first impression, and a lasting one as he recommended a great Spanish Tempranillo that Sasa enjoyed.

Our dinner was four courses, with a focus on local and sustainably farmed meats and produce. Photography skill is put to the test in a room like this, and I think I failed to capture the ambiance, which really was quite lovely. Chef Peter Sandroni talked briefly on the restaurants commitment to local food, and thanked us for supporting the local restaurant scene.

This may be where it gets a bit tricky... since parts of each course were truly great. Amazing even. But as a whole, each dish left just a little something that I wanted to love and just didn't. One thing I did love was this amazing cheese on the first course: a Montchevre Honey Goat Cheese from Belmont, Wisconsin. It was lightly breaded and pan fried, and was really outstanding.

As the evening progressed, I have more and more dimly lit pictures. I actually liked the sodium light colored hue the orange walls added to the atmosphere, although it really does nothing to accentuate my food photography! I have a slew of pictures over at flickr that I will annotate with other happy moments in this dinner. I am also planning to check out La Merenda again, and try some additional small plates.

Last night, my Husband and I carpooled with Peef and Lo, and Sonja - another blogger from Milwaukee by way of Boston. We had full circle discussions about food on our ride out to Madison for the celebration of the new website Grilled Cheese Academy. This site, produced by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing board is drop dead gorgeous - full of inspirational cheese sandwiches of the grilled variety. You may not think twice about a grilled cheese, but it is indeed inspired eating, especially when prepared by L'Etoile's Chef Tory Miller.

The small Cafe Soleil rests beneath its parent restaurant, where unfortunately, I have never eaten. I was a little wrapped up in chatting (further reading will have to be done here after meeting another Milwaukee food blogger - Mel!), and not as conscious of my surroundings as I am when I'm alone... but when my Husband noted that Chef Miller looks really excited about what he's doing, I had to pay attention and agree. This is the type of passion that makes everyone as excited about a grilled cheese sandwich as he is - and not to mention that the sandwich combinations that the Grilled Cheese Academy showcases on their site are solid recipes. Epicurean grilled cheese sandwiches for people who love to cook, and some that are easy enough for a quick throw together. There is also a section for recipe submissions, so if you feel that you have a worthy contender, you can submit!

The above specimen was one of my favorites: The Monroe. Bacon, Limberger cheese, spinach, onions and fig jam happily playing together in one sandwich. I have never eaten Limberger before, and I have to say it was much different that I was expecting. It was delicious! Another of my favorites was this one:

The Biloxi. Pulled pork, coleslaw and bread and butter pickles. I actually ate two samples of this one, even though I ran out of room and it meant I didn't get to try each variety. Next to each plate of grilled cheese samples, were a couple of different varieties of Wisconsin beer, and I have to say I was more than a bit surprised how expertly paired up they were. Granted, I could have been more scholarly and written everything down, but that would have deterred me from my gusto in sampling. I forgot to mention the rocky piles of cheese cubes, little bites of Wisconsin cheese in a nice range of every flavor imaginable: blues, fontina and even a raspberry one that was particularly good. I have also downloaded a set of photos to flickr, and will try to annotate later today as I remember...but do remember that the Grilled Cheese Academy website has a recipe for each and every mouthwatering photo on their site! Way to go, Wisconsin Milk Board! Also be sure to check out other Wisconsin blog and food blog pages over the next few days to read more on their takes of this event as well.

When it comes down to it, I think the past couple of days have taught me a few things. I love to eat, I can have a critical palate, and I definitely know what I like and why, but what I really love is being enslaved to my kitchen, concocting and tweaking and testing - and then writing about it. I have a deep sense of appreciation for professionals that are able to make food and serve others, and it is fun to go and see what is out there, especially when the whole food experience is akin to live theater. But to have the pleasure to cook and bake in my own home is much more rewarding to me than reviewing.

I recall writing some paper in college in which I used this quote, and I believe that it was to the same effect: that I would rather "stoke the star maker machinery behind the popular song" (that was Joni Mitchell, by the way). I am not introverted, but do walk that fine line. While attempting more events is no doubt in my future, I am absolutely content to keep my "day job", blissful as it is, and immerse myself fully in the wonders of flours and other such things.

On leftovers, and dining alone...

Tuesday evening before the concert, we ate dinner at Carnevor, the downtown "Steakhouse Moderne". It really is visually, in all its acidic 70's yellow, moderne: a rack of curved logs hanging above the narrow space like a rib cage, and a classy black-dressed staff and clientele that more than a little intimidates me. I have eaten there before, but not for some time - and I credit them for my full return to red meat.

When I ate a steak there about 3 years ago, it was a near epiphany for my reformed vegetarian self. That meat was so GOOD, and properly cooked that it was an event. I've looked forward to going back ever since, though it just didn't happen until this week. My Husband had the surf and turf: an enormous lobster tail and 8 oz. steak, which he precluded with a lobster bisque. I opted for amazing pea soup with Nueske's bacon and scallops and the Strauss veal, a whopping 9 oz. that I knew before I began would be at least partially coming home with me. It was served on a bed of rainbow chard, had some baby potatoes with mushrooms on the side, and had a really nice reduced wine sauce. I ordered it done however they recommended, and it did turn out a bit on the rare side. But I knew that the leftovers could be seared to perfection, and I was right.

I had one small slice atop the sandwich I made for lunch yesterday out of the few leftover greens, potatoes and mushrooms. Probably one of the best leftover lunches I've had in quite awhile.

For supper last night, I made my Husband the remainder sliced and served with eggs. He topped it with an appropriate amount of hot sauce.

Tonight, I was dining alone, since we are in the throes of the NCAA tournament. I actually like eating alone once in a while, and I especially like cooking for myself. It's a liberating thing to not worry about anyone but myself. My Boy-O only wanted a couple of graham crackers with peanut butter and a pickle for supper, so I was truly on my own. After he ate, I decided I would actually cook for myself instead of picking at whatever is around - it is easy enough for me to do that and be satisfied. I had a little container of leftover creamed spinach from the Carnevor dinner, and figured I could doctor it into a pasta worthy of a dinner to myself.

A month ago, I started a jar of preserved lemons. Preserved lemons are lemons and salt, that remain tasty and perfect for cooking with for about 6 months. Every week or so, I take off the lid and smell them, completely astounded that they are floral and deliciously lemony smelling. They are probably one of the easiest things to make, and have the biggest payoff reward. I have to thank innBrooklyn again, for making them look so delicious that I had to try them for the first time.

In tagines, which I have a particular affinity for, I always substituted regular lemons. Never again. These have such an amazing flavor and texture that they are like a exotic relative of a common lemon. My first batch was made with organic, regular lemons, but I started another batch this morning with organic, Meyer lemons which I scored from the co-op yesterday. If you are interested in making a quart jar, pick up about 10 of the nicest organic lemons you can find, a box of kosher salt, and arm yourself with a method such as this, and in a month's time you too will be swooning over lemons of all things.

I sauteed a quarter of a Spanish onion in some olive oil while some pasta cooked, and then added a quarter of a diced preserved lemon (first rinsed well to rid of extra salt). There was enough garlic in the leftover creamed spinach to ward off a trove of vampires, so I only seasoned with salt and pepper. I tossed the warmed mixture with hot pasta, grated some Parmesan over the top and in ten minutes time, dinner was served.

I used to eat alone often when I worked and lived the life of a blue collar person. I'd get home from a first or second shift life and usually make something for myself, eating in the quiet calm of my kitchen alone, in front of the window usually. Now that I've 5 years of marriage under my belt, it seems hard to remember those days, and the ones where occasionally I was so tired that I decided to sleep instead of eat. Anything after enough time can be romanticized, I guess, and now I almost relish a night to myself of concocted dinner - no one to please but myself. The only downside could be that instead of good conversation, my dining companions were Brian Setzer, a bit of Curtis Mayfield, and a side of Miles Davis, but even that one way conversation isn't so bad once in a while.

I know that March Madness will soon subside, Wrestlemania will be over, and life around Casa Rcakewalk will return to normal until closer to my birthday when the inevitable football begins again. Meanwhile, baseball is in there, but blessedly it is the one sport (kind of like boxing) constant enough that the DVR can be relied upon. Admittedly, I kind of like baseball once in a while, too.

It's easy to eat too much in restaurants, the portions are usually always larger than you would eat at home. I think I may be onto something ordering red meat a little more rare than I normally prefer. It caused me to eat only the more well-done edges (though who am I kidding, I did eat more than half of it), and save the very rare amount to remake. Three whole meals, and another lunch of leftover pasta tomorrow, is not bad from a small box of takeout leftovers. Just think what I could have done if I saved a bit more to take home. Maybe I'll remember that next time.

Theories of Relativity

On January 1, though I was looking forward to it, I was nervous about leaving home and spending three days in NYC. I've always loved travel, and would consider myself somewhat adventurous. But when it comes down to it, I get nervous.

I know I'm a bit food-snobbish when these lobby apples looked too artificially green and waxed for my liking... as if the W manufactured them just for me!

I almost went to New York last year when I was invited, and did consider going. I just couldn't leave then, due to my self-affliction of dutiful homemaker. After my friends met there and called me, I ruefully discovered that it was Restaurant Week - I guess that may have changed my mind had I known beforehand. I did feel a little bad for not going, but the Boy-O was only 2 then, and this Mother does have a hard time letting go a little.

When I was single, I
tried to travel as much as my pocketbook would allow. I'd visit E a couple times a year in Boston, and certainly knew my own state like the back of my hand. I was never quite as adventurous as some of my other friends who have spent many portions of time abroad in many corners of the globe, but I was always the one who had a job or 3 at a time. Now that I'm getting older, I fully understand the term "mis-spent youth".

When plans were made this year, I thought it is indeed time I let myself go a little. I know that the Boy-O would be in good hands, (and requires
only cold cereal for sustenance), and the prospects of going and doing whatever I feel like was too tempting to resist. Not to mention, that everything seems better in NYC - at least in the 24 hours I had spent there before this was the case.

I was only in New York one other time at the tail end of one of the Boston visits with E, and only spent a whirlwind
few hours in Le Grande Pomme. As suspected, this trip did not disappoint. Food and drink seems better, even the tap water colder and more delicious than dismal old Milwaukee... but strange things abound in my brain when things abroad seem too good to be true: I so truly am glad I am from and can go back to the Midwest.

New York is a spectacle, no matter that it was freezing, I had blisters from wearing worn out Dansko's, and was so tired I actually was at a loss for words on our flight back (which was, of course, 2 hours delayed).
I'll be posting a slew of the 500+ photographic documents over at flickr when I have some downloading chance, but I'll include a few highlights here as they relate to the foods seen and consumed.

In my opinion, everything is relative. While 3 days doing and eating whatever you wish and seeing throngs of bystanders, walkers, joggers, museum goers (or Humans, as they are also known), is liberating both visually and mentally, there is something comforting and quite happy about boring, day to day life in Wisconsin. I have always boasted of my Wisconsin upbringing, and though I have a smattering of ethnicity pulsating lightly beneath my skin, I am first and foremost a 3 generation Wisconsinite (through my Dad's side - Mom's side hailed from Chicagoland). I can honestly say I daydream of East Coast life, have California envy and sometimes wonder if I ever make it to Texas if I'd ever want to return to the snowy north - but I think our state has so much to offer (and so much to eat) that I'd really rather be nowhere else on earth.

On New Year's Day, everyone slept in. I know this because after a long wait at the check-in at the W, we thought our room was ready. We were in the elevator and approaching our room when a sincere apology in the guise of a dark grey suit greeted us. Sincere apology resulted in free drinks for us while we continued to wait for our room. Only with E can such fortuitous happenstance occur. Once I was with her in Milwaukee, and we were in the right place at the right time and got 2 entire meals (5 courses! With wine parings! Thanks, Shaker's!) for free since they had 2 pre-payed no shows... if that seems fantastic, at the same meal we won drawings for another free course meal for 2. I took Sasa to that one since E wasn't going to be in town again. This was a good omen right off the bat!

As soon as we checked in, we hit the trail in the late afternoon - pavement happily licking the bottoms of our heals as we rushed down 5th Avenue. Destination: Bergdorf Goodman shop windows. The Fantastic Mr. Fox window displays were impeccable, as if Wes Anderson personally directed each scene as a still-life, and as soon as the streets cleared you would suspect animal creatures to go on eating that roast duck you see above. It was difficult to tear yourself away, since it seemed you would miss something in the scene.

A bit further down were these shellacked pastries, in the most incredible Alice in Wonderland displays. I wonder if they were edible at one time, they still looked good enough to eat.

Our meal that evening certainly was. E had these miraculous things called Groupon's, so we checked out some places that we otherwise would never have happened upon. (On research of the link I see they have this here in Milwaukee! Signing up as we speak...) Now this is one thing that I would never understand about living in New York City: How in the world do you ever know where to go to eat? When I asked Google, according to NYC & Company, New York's tourism board, there are 18,696 restaurants in New York City (the five boroughs). You can probably find food just about every five feet, and I'm willing to wager that a high percentage of it is stuff you'd actually want to eat.

We were fortuitous to find Maya, a modern Mexican restaurant that (sorry, Milwaukee) puts our Americanized Mexican restaurants to shame.

The next morning, we had requisite bagels from just around the corner. There was nowhere to sit in the establishment, so we used the hotel lounge. Really good bagels. Really good full-fat jalapeno cream cheese on mine... I think they each weighed a full pound, and we all saved half for lunch. If you are going to have a NY bagel, get the full-fat cream cheese, that's all I'm going to say. In normal life, the only time I eat full fat cream cheese is in the occaisional Philadelphia Roll at a sushi place. I don't know what I'm missing! Well, maybe I do (fat and cholesterol is such a downer).

The visual feasting that can be had at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is truly staggering. We only spent about 2 hours, I think, and were hung up for at least 15 minutes on this one painting (A Mosque - 1872, Alberto Pasini). This one corner can make the cut for a food blog due to the melons littering the ground. It reminded me of GOP, since she had lived in Mississippi, and said that down south melons were routinely dropped on the ground to open them just prior to consumption.

The next day, we ate accidentally at CraftBar - one of Tom Colicchio's restaurants. I was not able to remember his name until I looked it up for the link, but I knew that I had read about him, and swear I checked out one of his (non-Top Chef) cookbooks from my library but did not see it on Amazon. This butter was mixed with maple syrup. No normal butter in Wisconsin has ever tasted like this, and why has it not when we are the dairy state? The closest butter in Wisconsin epiphany I've had was with Red Rose butter I found in pound blocks, but I do confess that outside of baking, I rarely slather butter on anything unless I'm in a restaurant. Above is also my amazing Eggs Benedict with Roasted Potatoes and Cippolini Onions. I can poach a pretty mean egg, but never have I made one as beautiful as this one.

Earlier in the day, I found this 1941 copy of The American Woman's Cook Book. It was in such good condition that it was worth lugging it's 3 pound weight around for the rest of the day. I'm enjoying it's "color plates", brought to me by "The Carnation Company, the producer of Irradiated Carnation Milk". I'm going to have to research exactly how much a "yeast cake" was, since there are many interesting bread recipes calling for them.

I think New York restores youth. It is bigger and more bragadocious than any other city I've ever visited. It decides that it is the greatest place in the world, and it's residents full-heartedly agree. It has culture and art and both excesses and want. But like any culture or place, people are people and generally are happy to talk to you. And in the case of New York, recommend other places to see and other things to do. One gallery owner chatted with us for 15 minutes and told us what exhibits were on at which museums and what she would avoid (Art of the Samurai - "too educational", I think was what she said).

On New Year's Day when the lyrics to U2's song typically overwhelm my head - and they usually can be overheard somewhere on popular radio -

"And so we're told this is the golden age

And gold is the reason for the wars we wage"

I went to the Golden City and could imagine swinging from the stars in Grand Central Station like Peter Lake did in my favorite novel ever. Two days later, I snuck back into my house, late at night and kissed my sleeping boys on their heads before trying to grasp all that I saw and did that was so outside of the pattern of my normal life. The next day, I woke up and started to make some bread.